In 1996, Theatre Columbus premiered playwright Michael O’Brien’s “freely adapted” take on the famous Beaumarchais play The Barber of Seville, which was written in 1775. O’Brien’s version mixed in music from the 1816 opera of the same name by Gioachino Rossini, as well as original tunes by composer John Millard. The adaptation also propelled the story forward a couple centuries, with pop culture references galore. With Theatre Columbus co-founder Leah Cherniak at the helm, the musical ended the season with six Dora Award nominations (it won three) and plenty of critical acclaim.
Seventeen years later, Soulpepper Theatre is remounting this zany reimagination of The Barber of Seville, updated once again by O’Brien, Millard, and Cherniak. But, for some reason—the change in decade, or company, or sense of humour—whatever had made the original so magical, has faded, save for a few key performances.
The comedic plot leaves plenty of room for quick gas, clownish physicality, and of-the-moment quips. Gregory Prest plays Spanish playboy Count Almaviva (recited with the giggle-inducing rhythm of Borat’s “Wa-wa-wee-wa”), who has followed his latest infatuation, Rosina (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), around the country as her guardian Don Bartolo (Oliver Dennis) attempts to hide her from all potential suitors, so he can marry her himself. Locating her at last, Almaviva comes across his former employee, the cunning Figaro (Dan Chameroy), now working as Don Bartolo’s barber. They hatch plan after plan to free Rosina from her elderly captor.
Usually, Soulpepper’s reputable and reliable ensemble of actors is one of its strengths—a failsafe element even if the script or direction strays off track. In this case, the company’s ensemble comes back to bite it. While familiar names like Prest, Dennis, William Webster, and Raquel Duffy deliver solid performances as usual, the vocals in Millard’s clever songs are disappointingly uneven. The one unusual face among Soulpepper’s cast is Chameroy, a Stratford Festival regular who confidently embodies Figaro’s wily archetype while belting his notes. Dennis, even though his singing is less than stellar, remains a highlight as the misguided and lovelorn Bartolo. And while at one point he yells to the audience, “Yes, I’m the villain!,” he manages to keep his character sympathetic and believable.
While the story itself is riddled with disguises, tricks, and over-the-top characters, layered on top of that is an onslaught of cheesy references to the modern day: Millard’s band has formed a union, Almaviva has “got the hots” for Rosina, and she sings “Call Me Maybe” out her window as a suggestion to her mysterious lover. O’Brien cleverly flips this around and gets self-referential late in the show, but it’s too bad the payoff comes after a tedious first act.
In Soulpepper’s production, there are elements of a quirky, jovial, and smart musical that apparently wowed audiences in the 1990s, but this Barber‘s edge has dulled.