Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sister Act - a curmudgeonly review

Let me begin with my disclaimer: I can be an out-of-control curmudgeon when my mood dictates it. So if you read my review of Sister Act and are offended, tell yourself that you’ve been curmudgeoned . . . nothing more.

I tend to avoid high school and community drama, partly because I’ve been there and gradually tired of the tedium of it—the memorization of lines and blocking, entrances and exits, the building of sets, the painting, the sawing, the cajoling of hormone-laced actors, and the practicing, practicing for days and weeks for one or two nights of sheer terror. I’ve helped manage back stage for musicals like The Pirates of Penzance, been a Chinese passenger on HMS Pinafore, played Annas in Jesus Christ, Superstar and the uncle in Wizard of Oz, for instance. I’ve “taught” Hamlet about 15 times, The Crucible and Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet half a dozen times each. I even attempted Oedipus Rex with a Grade 12 class. Once.

I’ve seen Christopher Plummer and Cynthia Dale on the Stratford stage. Wow!

But hey, you say. That’s unfair. And you’re right. To sing and perform like the cast of RJC’s Sister Act did last night while you’re still just learning the rudiments of vocal music and dramatic performance is truly remarkable. Soloists were competent beyond their years, chorus numbers were musical and well-rehearsed, and if teenage actors tend to do a bit too much “standing around between lines,” that’s to be expected and is easily forgiven; physical awkwardness dominates in adolescence; hands never know what feet are doing. The confidence and energy overflowed.

My hat is unreservedly off to the RJC staff for motivating and preparing what had to be over half of the student body to pull this off, and to do it so well.

BUT! HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Grease have at least one thing in common (and that with opera, the original musical theatre genre); the plots tend to be drivel. Sister Act out-drivels most of them and for those of you who protest that these plays were never meant to be deep, that they are venues for catchy songs, farcical humour and copious laughter, I concede that you have a point. I like farce too, even John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks still breaks me up. But Sister Act is not quality farce; it sinks along with much of American sensibility to the tiresome “humour” of gag lines and double entendres. (Our Father, who art in heaven, Howard be thy name.” Rumour has it that so many corpses turned over in their graves at this gag line that the Eigenheim Church cemetery resembles a plowed field this morning.)

When the director felt it necessary before the performance began to warn the audience that they might be shocked by Act One, but that . . . wait for it, wait for it . . . there would be a 180º turn in Act Two, I knew that we were witnessing a classical error in dramatic performance, ie. telling the audience what the play means. Not good. Unfortunately, the 180º turn is . . . what? A timid policeman finds out that he can be “the guy,” a fame-seeking singer decides to give up her selfish dream for a nobler cause, a convent of nuns learns how to sing overnight and becomes a jiving, chorus-line “ACT?”

Did I just not get it?

OK. It’s really hard to find suitable material for a mandatory, year-end musical to accompany graduation celebrations in an Anabaptist Christian School in middle Saskatchewan in 2017. Granted. I may prove to be wrong, but by the audience’s “standing ovation” response (they always do this; our kids flat-out amaze us from time to time) Sister Act with all its flaws did what the school needs; endear itself again to its constituency as a Christian, junior, liberal arts school that knows how to do education in this era and is not afraid to take some risks, be innovative. It’s a cracking good school with, probably, more potential for greatness than we deserve.

And here’s a thing. Teach kids to throw mud on a potter’s wheel, help them train their hands to mold and shape with both gentleness and firmness, and so what if all that occurs to them at the moment is to fashion an ash tray? Perhaps, in another day and when they are all grown up, mastered skills will enable them to create a new, exciting, Grecian Urn.

. . . When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." - John Keats

Meanwhile, would someone out there start to work on a really good musical that can be performed at a school like RJC without the necessity of an apologetic disclaimer preceding it?? The world is full of amazing plots, magnificent harmonies, hilarity and joy. Surely we have a really good play in our collective consciousness.

The Midnight Trials of J.J. Thiessen, perhaps?

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