Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
We’re not going to bother reviewing Parfumerie, Soulpepper’s holiday show. Oh, we saw it, and were charmed by Ken MacDonald’s whimsical set design, the sweet and accessible script adapted by Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins from the original Hungarian play, not to mention the winning performances by Patricia Fagan and Oliver Dennis as the adorably mismatched leads. But it’s received enough positive attention elsewhere that tickets have already been selling like hotcakes. So instead, we’re going to focus on the underdog of Soulpepper’s winter season: Civil Elegies. Opening a couple of nights ago at the Young Centre, Elegies is a work based on the poetry of Toronto’s first poet laureate (not to mention co-creator of Labyrinth) Dennis Lee. Probably best known for his children’s writing—specifically, the much-celebrated Alligator Pie—Lee also wrote many beautiful poems all about our fair city, and it is from those pieces that Civil Elegies draws its material.
The show was created by Soulpepper Academy grads Mike Ross and Lorenzo Savoini, and directed by Albert Schultz. One tricky thing that needs to be said right off the bat: this isn’t a play. In fact, it’s not anything you would usually expect to see in a theatre company’s season. At a stretch, you could call it cabaret, but it’s really a concert. It happens to be a pretty great concert, but don’t go in there expecting a play about Dennis Lee, or stagings of his poems, because that’s not what you’re going to find. What you are going to find is Ross, at a piano, singing some fantastic songs he’s written that perfectly complement Lee’s deceptively simple words. Schultz and Savoini presumably helped orchestrate the A/V assistance, which includes projections and a live video feed that is used for a couple of really neat moments of staging. On opening night, we found Ross’s diction a little fuzzy on his first couple of songs, which is a real problem in a show so focused on poetry, but as the night went on, he seemed to have fixed this, and the problem disappeared. In between the songs, Ross delivers several of Lee’s poems as monologues—this is maybe the one mis-step of the night. We become so used to hearing the rhymes set to music that they somehow aren’t as compelling when spoken. Also, it seems like a trick to make the night seem more “theatre” and less “concert.” We wondered why he didn’t just talk to the audience between songs, like a musician usually does.
Quibbles aside, this is a pretty lovely show to watch, and last night’s performance ended in ovations and encores. And, with its references to Henry Moore’s archer, the defeat of the Spadina expressway, and William Lyon Mackenzie King, it’s probably the most Torontonian thing on stage right now. Which, you know, we kinda dig.
Civil Elegies plays until December 24.