In film, there are countless examples of sequels that improved upon the original: The Dark Knight; The Empire Strikes Back; Hot Shots! Part Deux.
In theatre, however, it is harder to think of follow-ups that exceed. Only contrarians would argue the merits of Bring Back Birdie over Bye Bye Birdie, or Love Never Dies over The Phantom of the Opera.
Victoria-based playwright Jacob Richmond’s 2006 Legoland, then, is a rarity in the realm of live performance – a work that has been overshadowed by its superior sequel, the musical hit Ride the Cyclone, which is currently touring Western Canada (next stops: Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon, then Theatre One in Nanaimo, B.C.)
Legoland, not as polished, but still quite an original and entertaining show described as “a vaudeville routine in one act,” also concerns preternaturally precocious students from the St. Cassian Catholic School in the fictional Saskatchewan town of Uranium City.
Penny (Celine Stubel) and Ezra Lamb (Amitai Marmorstein) are outsiders in this town of outsiders – home-schooled by Nietzsche-loving hippies on a nearby commune/marijuana grow-op, until the RCMP busted the operation, arrested their parents and burnt the cannabis fields they played in.
We meet the Lambs as wards of the state in Catholic school straitjackets. Hyperactive Penny, 16, and her screwy younger sibling Ezra, 13, are delivering a presentation as part of a sentence of 200 hours of community service.
What was their crime? “I did sell and traffic drugs in two countries and horribly maim this man – this man I truly loved,” admits Penny, who has a habit of getting lost in rattled-off run-on sentences, then pausing in overwhelmed embarrassment, her eyes brimming with tears.
But she has an explanation: “Look, I was 15 then.” And thus begins a tale of a beloved boy-band idol who transformed into a gangsta rapper and the Lambs’ Ritalin and McDonald’s-fuelled trip through War on Terror-era United States of America.
In Ride the Cyclone’s latest incarnation – a revised, Broadway producer-backed revision I caught up with in Winnipeg at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre last week – Penny Lamb makes a surprise and significant appearance. And yet, Legoland really seems less of a prequel than a prototype – with a satirical edge that is less subtle than its musical successor, and a style that is more stilted.
According to the published script, Legoland’s actors must be both over-the-top and subtle – and deliver performances that are like “a clock with a soul.” Under Richmond and Britt Small’s direction, this production almost achieves that paradoxical playing style, with Marmorstein particularly impressive at being both believable and a cartoon as a boy fond of putting on Jeffrey Dahmer-inspired puppet shows. My main wish remains that there was a non-Lamb voice in the show, so we could grasp exactly how unreliable these narrators are.
Richmond’s fanciful script promiscuously mixes references high and low, appropriate to the age of his protagonists and not. He mocks both consumerism and anti-consumerists, and displays a love-hate relationship with North American culture, from hip-hop to fast food to the dead art of vaudeville, which is here less resurrected than presented in a zombified form. Beneath the hip anti-humour, however, there is a streak of sentimentality.
Legoland ultimately fit more snugly in Theatre Passe Muraille’s tiny backspace, where it was first presented in Toronto in 2008, than on its mainstage, where it is now being remounted. But some slack can be cut: This is a season replacement for Linda Griffiths’s Heaven Above, Heaven Below, pulled due to the author/performer’s treatment for breast cancer. Plus, Richmond has more fans now, so they need the seats.
Legoland runs until April 13.