I felt a new emotion while watching this: sympathy for Brian Mulroney. I didn't mind so much that Dan Redican's script treats our former prime minister as an egotistical clown - editorial cartoonists did as much, or worse - but for Alexina Louie to give so colourful a man nothing memorable or interesting to sing seems too cruel.
Mulroney: The Opera is really a musical with operatic in-jokes. There are bits written in a buoyant jazzy idiom, and a big pop waltz à la Carousel. A shopping trip by Mila Mulroney (sung by soprano Zorana Sadiq) is set to a grinding blues. All these capers are quite far from the kind of finely coloured, impressionistic music Louie usually writes. She's slumming, and you can feel it, especially when she drags in a drum kit. She has a ghastly knack for making backbeats sounds cheesy - I'm talking Sunday-dance-in-the-church-hall cheesy.
Most musicals live or die by good tunes, and there are a few in Mulroney. Unfortunately, they've all been repurposed from operas by the likes of Mozart, Bizet and Puccini. Mulroney (baritone Daniel Okulitch) gets bits with new words from The Flying Dutchman, Pierre Trudeau (tenor Lawrence Wiliford) bumps through a retexted number from Carmen, and former Tory cabinet minister Suzanne Blais-Grenier (soprano Shannon Mercer) sings of her shopping binges to a tune from La Bohème. A Gucci-mad minister copping music from people who burn their ragged clothes to stay warm is as witty as this show ever gets. Much of Mulroney is a very long exercise in forced humour.
Louie's own melodic resources are desperately thin in this piece, maybe because she's not working in her own voice. Think of Michael Ondaatje trying to write a book in the style of Dan Brown. The Da Vinci Code is bad enough, but Ondaatje trying to rip off The Da Vinci Code would be unspeakable. Redican doesn't help: Imagine trying to find compelling music for a line such as "I have the chin, I'm going to win!" Faced with such prose, Louie revs the accompaniment into hectic busywork, and gives Okulitch a hectoring dull melody.
Okulitch has a handsome big baritone, but he doesn't show much variety of tone, volume or expression. It's full-on most of the time, beating you about the ears the way Redican's PM goes on and on about his unimaginable greatness. But with no light or shade in the character, and not much subtlety in the music, the singer has nowhere to go. Louie had a great chance to give him a number with real dramatic substance, as Mulroney ponders his vanishing popularity. But after a weak introspective opening, the music segues abruptly into a perky Meech Lake chorus with leering saxophones.
The show ends as Mulroney, out of power, sings a travesty of Dido's lament, with the saddest backbeats of all, and takes final refuge in a last allusion to The Flying Dutchman. With any luck, this lavishly filmed farce with music will take another cue from Wagner's tormented sailor and disappear for a very long time.
Mulroney: The Opera will be shown in 72 cinemas across the country on Saturday at 1 p.m. (all times local) and on April 27 at 7 p.m. (mulroneytheopera.ca).
Mulroney: The Opera
- Libretto by Dan Redican
- Music by Alexina Louie
- Directed by Larry Weinstein
- Starring Rick Miller (sung by Daniel Okulitch) and Stephanie Anne Mills (Zorana Sadiq)
- Classification: PG
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