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Mimi, or A Poisoner's Comedy

Music and lyrics by Allen Cole

Book and lyrics by Melody A. Johnson and Rick Roberts

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Directed by Alisa Palmer

Starring Trish Lindstrom, Martin Julien, Tamara Bernier Evans and Ron Pederson

At Tarragon Theatre in Toronto



Cross Sweeney Todd with Dangerous Liaisons and turn the nitrous oxide on full blast, and you might get a night at the theatre that looks a little like Mimi, or a Poisoner's Comedy.

Tarragon Theatre's season kicks off with this darkly comic musical about a self-confessed "bad marquise" named Mimi (Trish Lindstrom), who we first encounter having a spirited ménage à quatre with her dopey husband Brinny (Martin Julien), her maid Françoise (Tamara Bernier Evans) and a hot-blooded Gascon named Ste. Croix (Ron Pederson).

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"We have a most unusual arrangement," the four corners of this love rhombus sing in the opening number. Happily frozen in a perverse position, they seem to mean it both romantically and geometrically.

Unfortunately, their collective coitus is interruptused by Mimi's rich father, D'Aubrey (Victor A. Young), who is outraged and vows to put an end to his daughter's polyamory.

At first, Mimi stands up to his prudish 17th-century family values. "I won't be put out like a fire," she sings. "If preaching's what you want to do, go find a choir."

But Mimi cracks quickly when her papa threatens to cut off the flow of champagne and sends Ste. Croix packing to the Bastille for a three-month cooling-off period. Soon enough, she has settled, grudgingly, for a routine of charity work rather than become a charity case herself.

Of course, her dirty streak can't be kept down and she soon finds a new outlet. An encounter with an Italian poisoner (a hilarious Paul Braunstein) gets Mimi and Ste. Croix involved in a much more perverse pastime that combines murder with meat pies.

The pairing of torture and tourtière is a little too close for comfort to Sweeney Todd. Was there not some other French foodstuff - a poisoned Époisses, perhaps - they could have used?

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Regardless, the frivolous tone has nothing to do with Stephen Sondheim's moody masterpiece, even if composer Allen Cole's charming chamber-musical score occasionally shows his influence in its clever interplay of themes.

We're closer to Monty Python territory here, though the characters are slightly more grounded in something resembling reality. As the lead, Lindstrom may take a second or two to find her notes, but she hits her marquise's deviant desires on the head and shows an offbeat sense of comic timing. She is backed up by a solid cast, only Young does not seem entirely comfortable with the tenor of the quirky humour.

Melody A. Johnson and Rick Roberts provide finely tuned one-liners and the lyrics - written with Cole - are often, if not always, elegant. Occasionally they show a real macabre brilliance: "The many people who turn your head / will turn your stomach when they're dead."

Director Alisa Palmer keeps the show from derailing into silliness, but the action feels cramped. Camellia Koo's black-and-white set is lovely to look at, but its giant two-way mirror restricts the staging area space too much given how little it is used. It doesn't help that pianist Daniel Rutzen's 11/2-man band is crammed into one corner. (Braunstein joins him on drums here and there, while Lindstrom briefly contributes some vibraphone.)

As fun as Mimi is, all the joking eventually prevents the show from being entirely satisfying. The moments where we are supposed to care about these characters outnumber those where we actually do. And while the creators may be expressing something quite biting about the dangers of repressing female sexuality, it doesn't entirely connect.

The second half meanders as we are introduced to a detective (Young again) who works for Louis XIV. He doesn't solve the case of all the poisonings in Paris, so much as the playwright unravels it in front of him. That's a gag - but it doesn't serve the play dramatically to have it crumble to a climax rather than build to one.

Mimi, or A Poisoner's Comedy runs until Oct. 25.

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