When it premiered in the 1980s, Fire, a “jukebox musical” set to the music of Jerry Lee Lewis and some Christian spirituals, was considered something of a sensation. Twenty years later, CanStage has decided to revive the show, bringing the multi-talented Ted Dykstra (pictured) back to the role of Cale Blackwell, a fictionalized stand-in for Lewis. While none of this sounds like a terrible idea, the current production of Fire which opened last night at the Bluma Appel Theatre, plays like the theatrical equivalent of a “you had to be there” joke. The story is inspired by the lives of rock-and-roller Jerry Lee Lewis and his televangelist cousin Jimmy Swaggart and their respectives rises and falls. The musical turns them into brothers named Cale and Hershel Blackwell, two men bonded by blood, sundered by religion and driven by a passion for Jesus, an eager audience and the just-post-pubescent temptress named Molly they both love.
The show is much more successful in the first act, thanks to an energetic cast, a fast-moving plot and some knock-out musical numbers courtesy of Mr. Dykstra. Things screech to a halt, however, in the show’s more depressing and less interesting second act, and the whole evening feels about an hour too long. The political commentary, which might have seemed topical amid the televangelist scandals of the 1980s, now seems obvious and doesn’t go nearly far enough. And Herschel Blackwell’s scandals, which include bending the truth and accidentally promoting a questionable leaflet, aren’t nearly as interesting as the actual hot water people like Swaggart got into.
The show also suffers from a lack of focus. Hot-tempered Cale, who seems like the protagonist in Fire‘s first half, drops way out of the picture in the second half, and by the end of the play, it is impossible to tell who main character was supposed to be. The tone of the play is equally all-over-the-place. At times, the broad characterization and corny jokes make Fire seem camp as a pantomime. During other more serious scenes, the actors still seem to be playing for laughs that the audience is willing to give them, as though they were all in on a joke that went over the heads of writers Paul Ledoux and David Young. A couple of late “comic relief” scenes where the jokes seem to come at the expense of homosexuals and the mentally ill aren’t just unnecessary, they feel entirely out of place in the narrative. A show like Fire clearly wants to get its audience hot and bothered. Unfortunately the latter seems much more likely than the former.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Fire runs until April 19.