By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
No wonder Byron Martin and Simon Abbott write musical comedies together.
It was a partnership meant to be. In a case of extreme showbiz (and seasonal) compatibility, their favourite Christmas movie of all time is … Die Hard. And so it comes to pass, in this the season of decking the halls … Die Harsh: A Christmas Musical, the latest from the Grindstone Theatre team of musical satirists that brought the world a couple of hits, Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer and thunderCATS.
Their motives weren’t exactly obscure. “Something fun for a Christmas show,” says Martin of the inspiration of a year ago, while they were working on Hot Boy Summer. “Something that would connect with our audiences.”
As an iconic action movie Die Hard was ripe for the plundering and mockery by ‘cheap theatre’ and a pair of artists whose muse leans into parody and black comedy. “We’re telling it from Hans Gruber’s perspective,” explains Martin of the sexy German villain role that rendered Alan Rickman free of any mortgage problems forever. Malachite Theatre’s Benjamin Blyth, an actor/director with blue-chip classical theatre cred, especially in the Shakespeare repertoire, takes on the anti-hero role, and plays Alan Rickman playing Hans Gruber. “He really understands the stakes,” says Martin, and laughs.
Any questions about the plot? Sound familiar? Alan Rickman cum Hans Gruber leads a gang of international terrorists who seize an office tower during a Christmas party, and take hostages. And oh yeah, there’s a cop. And everyone sings Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (just kidding).
Edmonton audiences haven’t seen Blyth before now in musical roles. “I do karaoke every week with him,” Martin says. “People don’t realize: that’s how you really get cast in shows!”
Blyth’s cast-mates include Evan Dowling and Sarah Dowling, a real-life married couple playing a married couple, “a reality TV move,” as Martin allows. Mark Sinongco (the singin’/dancin’ Tyler Shandro of Hot Boy Summer), and Paul-ford Manguelle (thunderCATS) are also in the show.
Martin and Abbott, who are in Grindstone’s weekly improvised musical The 11 O’Clock Number, create the book and the lyrics together in their collaborations. Abbott, who’s an expert keyboardist, is the composer; Martin directs. As in Hot Boy Summer, the music of Die Harsh deliberately isn’t confined to one certain style, as Martin describes. Hans’s intro song? Another Year Another Heist. The song list extends from vintage musical theatre rock in the vein of Sweet Transvestite from Rocky Horror to go-for-the-gusto German polka in Hans’s flashback to his first heist. There are “real heart-job rock ballads,” says Martin. “And the FBI does a cane dance.”
Martin is still amazed by the way Hot Boy Summer escalated, gathering sold-out audiences in venues that ranged from 240 seats at the Faculté St.-Jean to 350 at the Orange Hub, in runs that extended again and again. With Die Harsh his idea is to start small since he considers the show to be still in development. There’s no set, “so everything’s on the actors…. We’re improvising and seeing what sticks.” Beverly Gan of The House of Sew is designing costumes.
“It’s really silly; it’ll be interesting to see how the audience reacts,” says Martin mildly. He’s at the stage of rehearsing a comedy when directors tend to ask themselves “is this funny at all?” Of one thing he’s certain, though, and he takes it seriously. “It’s a ton of fun!”
Die Harsh: a Christmas musical opens Dec. 20 at Grindstone’s tiny bistro/ theatre home base in Old Strathcona. “A small stage, and a cast of five,” with Abbott playing keyboards live. So far it seems to be on a Hot Boy-ish roll. The opening run through Dec. 30 sold out immediately, “even before we finished writing it! Yes, it’s nerve-wracking!” Martin has already added 16 shows, including eight in the first week in January. And for some of the shows Grindstone is partnering with three local restaurants, including Biera, Boxer, and Greenhouse for an urban dinner and theatre experience.
Hey, a Christmas musical with a bona fide anti-hero. “We’ll be back, and bigger next year,” says Martin. As the Grinch and Ebenezer know, that’s how holiday traditions start.
Die Harsh: a Christmas Musical
Co-created by: Byron Martin and Simon Abbott
Directed by: Byron Martin
Starring: Benjamin Blyth, Evan Dowling, Sarah Dowling, Mark Sinongco, Paul-Ford Manguelle
Where: Grindstone Theatre and Bistro, 10019 81 Ave.
Running: Dec. 20 to 23, 27 to 30, and Jan. 4 to 8