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Clockwise from left: Saccha Dennis, Kelsey Verzotti, Max Borowski, Kaden Forsberg, JacobMacInnis (centre) in DION: A ROCK OPERA .Dahlia Katz/Handout

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  • Title: Dion: A Rock Opera
  • Music by: Ted Dykstra
  • Libretto by: Steven Mayoff
  • Director: Peter Hinton-Davis
  • Musical Director: Bob Foster
  • Actors: Jacob MacInnis, Allister MacDonald, Allan Louis, SATE, Carly Street, Max Borowski, Saccha Dennis, Kaden Forsberg, Kelsey Verzotti
  • Company and Venue: Coal Mine Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To Sunday, March 3, 2024

If Jesus Christ can have a rock opera, why not Dionysus?

After all, the Greek god of wine, a.k.a. Bacchus, is the original rock star, known for whipping his intoxicated followers into a frenzy of singing, dancing and wild behaviour.

Surely Ted Dykstra and Steve Mayoff were thinking that when they dreamed up Dion: A Rock Opera, now making its debut at Toronto’s Coal Mine Theatre. Like Jesus Christ Superstar, their work takes a religious icon and an ancient text – in this case, Euripides’s 5th-century-BC tragedy The Bacchae – and gives it a contemporary spin.

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Allan Louis as Cadmus in DION: A ROCK OPERA .Dahlia Katz/Handout

While the Jesus of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1970s musical was a proto-hippie, Dykstra and Mayoff’s Dion is very much a radical deity for today. As deliciously embodied by non-binary singer-actor Jacob MacInnis, they’re a gender-fluid demigod whose disciples are society’s marginalized and whose polymorphous sexuality poses a threat to conservative values. In other words, they’re Ron DeSantis’s, or Danielle Smith’s, worst nightmare.

It’s a great concept and I wish I could say it makes for a great show. But it turns out this 70-minute “rock opera” is mostly soft rock, without an aria to be heard. Instead, composer Dykstra and lyricist Mayoff give us a lot of half-sung dialogue over a largely subdued score. By the time we finally get to a good, solid rock ballad, Dion’s Moment to Moment, the story is over.

It feels like a missed opportunity, especially given that the small-but-mighty Coal Mine – co-founded by Dykstra – has thrown a lot of top talent into what is its first world premiere. But after 10 years of building a reputation for first-rate productions of American and British plays, we’d expect no less of the company.

Here we have visionary director Peter Hinton-Davis at the helm, giving one of his endlessly imaginative stagings. Behind the keyboards of the three-piece band is veteran music director Bob Foster of Come From Away fame. On the stage, the performers include Juno-nominated blues-rock singer SATE, Broadway alum Carly Street and Shaw Festival favourite Allan Louis. It’s a shame they don’t have stronger material to work with.

At least it offers a breakout role for MacInnis – hitherto seen mostly in family musicals – who is riveting from the get-go. Their Dion strides into the Greek city of Thebes like a rock star on tour, wearing shades and thrusting a silver, phallic thyrsus (the Bacchic wand), surrounded by a Chorus of writhing devotees. They proclaim themself the child of Zeus and the mortal Semele, born of “piss and vinegar” – to quote poet Mayoff’s determinedly raw lyrics. However, Semele’s family – the royal house of Thebes – refuses to believe that, so Dion has arrived to prove their divine power and exact revenge.

First up is prissy aunt Agave (Street), whom Dion turns into one of their erotically uninhibited maenads.

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(L to R) SATE (foreground), Kelsey Verzotti, Saccha Dennis (BG), Allister MacDonald, Kaden Forsberg, and Max Borowski in DION: A ROCK OPERA .Dahlia Katz/Handout

Then comes her absent son, the hot-headed King Pentheus (Allister MacDonald), who returns to town bent on stopping Dion and their mad revels. But his voyeuristic tendencies and repressed sexuality get the better of him; Dion persuades him to disguise himself as a woman and spy on the Bacchic orgy. As those who know their Euripides will tell you, that foolish ruse ends in one of the more horrifying denouements in the canon of Greek tragedy.

While MacInnis’s Dion is an inspired conception – and the actor’s playful gender-shifting is abetted by Scott Penner’s witty costumes – MacDonald’s would-be-macho Pentheus is little more than a facile parody of a petty tyrant. His tough talk is risible (“No more nose-picking/Time for ass-kicking”) and a patter song where he wages war through social media à la Trump (Tweet, Tweet, Tweet) is the show’s low point.

It rebounds in the scenes with Louis as Pentheus’s grandfather Cadmus and SATE as the blind seer Tiresias. The pair share a heartfelt duet in which Tiresias tries to win Cadmus over to the Dionysian cult. SATE herself is entrancing in the show’s gospel-tinged opening number, which becomes a leitmotif running through Dykstra’s score, and again in a song about nature reclaiming the Earth. But she never really gets to cut loose. And Street’s Agave, who deserves some kind of cathartic solo after her discovery that she’s unwittingly committed filicide, is also let down by the music. The grand passion we expect from both rock and opera is missing throughout.

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Carly Street as Agave and Jacob MacInnis as Dion in DION: A ROCK OPERA .Dahlia Katz/Handout

Instead of becoming emotionally engaged, I spent most of my time admiring the direction and design. Penner, who also did the set, has bisected most of the tiny Coal Mine space with a blood-red alley stage, placing two classical statues, one male and one female, at either end. Hinton-Davis and choreographer Kiera Sangster transform that alley into a fashion catwalk when the voguing Chorus (Max Borowski, Saccha Dennis, Kaden Forzberg and Kelsey Verzotti) entice Pentheus into a dress. The director’s other clever touches include using punctured balloons as gunfire and, with the aid of Bonnie Beecher’s phantasmagoric lighting, turning the aftermath of the gory climax into a truly chilling tableau. What’s that old wisecrack about leaving a musical humming the scenery?

Dion: A Rock Opera has enough promise to invite further development, but as it stands it’s lacking the ecstasy and excess that both Dionysus and rock ’n’ roll demand.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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