Pictured is Tom Rooney (centre) as Robert Service with members of the company in Wanderlust. (Photo by David Hou)
Stratford Shakespeare Festival
Directed by Morris Panych
Book by Morris Panych
Music by Marek Norman
With additional lyrics by Morris Panych
Based on the poems of Robert Service
Written by Geoff Dale
Service magic lost in a tired Wanderlust
Have you gazed on naked grandeur where there's nothing else to gaze on,
Set pieces and drop-curtain scenes galore,
Big mountains heaved to heaven, which the blinding sunsets blazon,
Black canyons where the rapids rip and roar?
Have you swept the visioned valley with the green stream streaking through it,
Searched the Vastness for a something you have lost?
Have you strung your soul to silence? Then for God's sake go and do it;
Hear the challenge, learn the lesson, pay the cost.
- The Call of the Wild
It sounds inconceivable that a full-scale musical rendering of Robert Service’s wonderfully imaginative poetry could be lame, bland and quite tiresome – all at the same time.
But those are some of the words that come to mind when describing Morris Panych’s Wanderlust – a fictionalized account of the British born Service, who spent much of his life toiling in both English and Canadian banking institutions.
It was in his adopted homeland of Canada, where the beleaguered daily ledger clerk fantasized and scribbled poems – or as he called them verses – about the mysteries of the frigid North and its rugged inhabitants searching for gold and even the meaning of life.
The problem is not so much with Panych’s writing, which presents a rather enjoyable vision of the young Service as he labored in anonymity in tedious employment to earn a living but strove to explore his poetic soul in his off hours. Even though the characterization is somewhat at odds with historic depictions of the man, it’s a persona that audiences nonetheless gobble up gleefully.
In the titular role, Tom Rooney is accessible and charming, singing and dancing with both style and vigour while shooting off one-liners like a well-polished nightclub stand-up comic. He’s also believable as the man responsible for the above poem and classics like The Shooting of Dan McGrew.
Panych’s direction is solid with a couple of other cast members – Randy Hughson as Service’s amusingly gruffy, stuffy boss Mr. McGee and Lucy Peacock delightfully camping it up as the love-starved landlady/madame Mrs. Munsch – chewing up the scenery in fine fashion.
Where the production falls apart, descending into sheer tedium is when the musical numbers of Marek Norman take over centre stage. With the exception of the rousing The Cremation of Sam McGee, the tunes in this two-act offering are almost indistinguishable from one and other.
Whether melancholy and/or peppy, the musical interludes - instead of complementing the spoken words – offer up a kind of boring melodic sameness that has you wishing for the main characters to stop dancing about, cut the lyrics short and get back to the action at hand.
Usually the wonderfully intimate Tom Patterson Theatre is an ideal venue for Festival productions but here it appears to be inhibiting the dancers, making the choreography at times look clunky, with its principles searching in vain for more space to exhibit the quite unique dance numbers from choreographer Diana Coatsworth.
While the concept of a musical cabaret honouring Canada’s most popular and, for those times, most profitable poet may have appeared pure gold at the time, it’s that very element that holds the whole production back. It comes off almost as a work-in-progress – at the mercy of some very ordinary theatrical music that adds nothing to the mystique of the man that yearned to explore those places unseen.
The only failing in terms of plot is the love triangle played out between Service, his nemesis Dan McGree (Dan Chameroy) and the engaging, talented but here sadly wasted Robin Hutton as Louise Montgomery. It just doesn’t click on any level.
A remedy – try more workshops with the goal of upping the level of intrigue, drama and mystery while downgrading or dropping entirely the musical elements.
The production barely scrapes by with ** out of four stars.
You can also find this review online at: the beat magazine
Approximate running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
Tom Patterson Theatre
Runs until September 28