Wednesday was not a great day for feminism, if feminism means getting upset when a prominent Canadian author and University of Toronto professor says he doesn’t care much for any literature written by women, or when an engagement ring must be “earned” by making a man 300 sandwiches. Needless to say, Louise Pitre’s one-woman autobiographical show, On The Rocks, couldn’t have opened on a day when audiences were more ready to hear the personal story of one of Canada’s biggest female theatrical role models—especially in a production created by an all-female crew lead by director Jen Shuber.
Louise Pitre, as one of Canada’s most successful musical-theatre names, known best for her roles as Fantine in Les Miserables and Donna in Mamma Mia (she got a Tony nomination for the latter), has earned the honour of writing and starring in On The Rocks, her own retrospective performance. It opens Theatre Passe Muraille’s 2013/2014 season.
In On The Rocks, Pitre embodies her role as a leader in the Canadian musical-theatre world right from the get-go, dressed in a crisp black-and-white three-piece tuxedo, complete with tails, and her signature flowing snow-white hair cropped short in a boyish cut. Instead of the prima donna, Pitre is the conductor and the driving force in the story of her life. She opens with a scene from her childhood in Montreal, in which she tries to strut shirtless down the street with her father and brother (this comes up again in a rousing closing moment). Now 56 years old, Pitre tells the audience, “I never liked to be told I couldn’t do something because I was a girl.” It’s a strong start that builds up expectations for the rest of the show.
Unfortunately, her story plateaus shortly afterwards. While the opening might give the impression that On The Rocks presents an inside look at the profession of musical theatre from a young woman’s perspective, Pitre instead focuses mostly on her personal life—her relationship with her emotionally withholding father, her long string of failed romances, her current marriage to her songwriting partner W. Joseph Matheson, and her decision not to have children. Her professional highlights and lowlights are interspersed within these personal events as anecdotes, but we end up leaving Theatre Passe Muraille without a greater understanding of Pitre’s role in the industry.
Of course, it’s not Pitre’s job to misrepresent her life in order to portray what we believe “a strong, independent woman” should be. The emphasis on her romantic relationships and maternal impulses doesn’t diminish the work she has done. But it would be refreshing, at the very least, to know that she doesn’t feel that her husband is the only thing she has to show for herself today.
Performance-wise, Pitre is still a gem. Accustomed to the world’s largest theatres, she does a remarkable job of connecting with a much more intimate house. She’s relaxed and relatable, yet retains that quintessential musical-theatre energy throughout the show. And though the original songs in On The Rocks, co-written with Matheson, aren’t anything that memorable, she does get to show off the voice that made her a legend of Canadian theatre. We might be a little disappointed with the message, but we’re still Pitre patriots.
This post originally misspelled Jen Shuber’s last name.