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Theatre Reviews Review: First time’s not quite the charm for Rose, Soulpepper’s first musical

Rose in inspired by Gertrude Stein's 1939 children's book The World Is Round.

Cylla von Tiedemann

  • Title: Rose: A New Musical
  • Composed by: Mike Ross
  • Co-created by: Mike Ross and Sarah Wilson
  • Director: Gregory Prest
  • Actors: Hailey Gillis, Peter Fernandes, Jonathan Ellul, Frank Cox-O’Connell
  • Company: Soulpepper Theatre Company
  • Venue: Young Centre for the Performing Arts
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To February 24, 2019

rating

Rose is being billed as Soulpepper’s first original musical, and hopes for it have been running very high.

After all, first time has been the charm for the Toronto theatre company before: Seven years ago, Kim’s Convenience was billed as Soulpepper’s first original full-length play, and it went on to tour the country and become a CBC TV series.

Best to lower those expectations a sight if you want to enjoy Rose.

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Composer Mike Ross (Spoon River) and longtime ensemble member Sarah Wilson have imagined a vibrant, colourful world complete with singing loggers and a chorus line of lions for their family musical inspired by a 1939 children’s book by Gertrude Stein called The World is Round.

But while their ambition and desire to entertain are clear, Ross and Wilson ultimately still haven’t quite figured out how to marry musical theatre to their modernist source material in an emotionally satisfying way.

At its core, Rose is a very simple story of a nine-year-old girl’s journey of self-discovery.

In a town called Somewhere, in which everyone loves to introduce themselves, Rose (Hailey Gillis) is uncomfortable saying her name because she’s preoccupied by questions about who she is.

Following a pair of duelling opening numbers, she expresses her preteen anxieties in a beautiful tune called A Name Means a Lot, which draws its plaintive lyrics directly from the Stein source material: “Why am I little girl / and where am I little girl and when am I a little girl / and which little girl am I?”

Gillis, in a blue beret and uniform that gives her the appearance of a Wes Anderson character, quickly wins the audience over with her honest, heartfelt questioning.

Hailey Gillis plays the musical's titular character.

Cylla von Tiedemann

It proves difficult, however, for her or the show to sustain that single quizzical note over the course of two acts as Rose repeats the same questions to her delightfully self-assured best friend Willie (a warm and very funny Peter Fernandes), a dog named Love (Jonathan Ellul) and her schoolteacher, Miss Crisp (Sabryn Rock).

Filling out the world around Rose is a bluegrass-playing trio of lumberjacks fronted by Frank (Frank Cox-O’Connell) who narrates and sings Steinisms such as “Once upon a time the world was round, and you could go on it around and around.”

Rose’s first half certainly feels like it goes around and around, leading up to the girl’s realization that she must climb a mountain. (Just one mountain, not “ev’ry” mountain as Maria is implored to do in the act one finale of The Sound of Music.) The second act then follows Rose on that physical, mostly solo, journey. There’s not enough to carry an audience over two hours and 20 minutes.

Despite its smattering of plot, The World is Round has enticed others creators of music theatre, thanks to its famous author and music-less songs. An opera composed by James Sellars premiered in Hartford in 1993, while a more recent adaptation with music by Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner played in Baltimore in 2015.

Stein’s children’s book is written in stream of consciousness, full of wordplay and rhyme, with repetition, digressions and a reality that’s hard to pin down (such as a lion that may or may not exist, and may or may not be blue). It’s a reminder that the style of writing that we call modernism is in many ways a high-art corollary to how children experience and talk about the world.

As literary critic Steph Burt has written: “[W]hat adults find in the fractures and challenges of modernism is no stranger than what children get from talking, listening and seeing the world every day.”

In a way, the poetic material seems perfect for Ross to adapt. He’s proved himself skilled at composing emotional indie rock/folk/country song settings for poems by Dennis Lee, e.e. cummings and Edgar Lee Masters in the past, which have formed the basis of humble, honest song cycles on stage.

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But his and Wilson’s attempt to turn the experimental The World is Round into a traditional book musical falls short in terms of story, character and relationships. Too often, the two substitute fast-tempo patter songs overstuffed with hard-to-follow lyrics for drama.

That’s how we meet the townspeople of Somewhere, most of whom then disappear, and a mysterious lion lady (Alana Bridgewater), who introduces Rose to her pride and then disappears.

There’s a parade of costumes rather than characters, though Oliver Dennis makes a hilarious impression as a swaggering lion who comes and goes too soon.

In truth, it’s always difficult to adapt a quest for the stage, never mind for musical theatre. Remember Lord of the Rings: The Musical?

Director Gregory Prest and designer Lorenzo Savoini, at least, have come up with a more theatrical way for Rose to climb her mountain than the expensive morphing set that Frodo climbed in that famous flop – having her ascend a series of stackable desks.

Choreographer Monica Dottor and costume designer Alexandra Lord do a good job of filling the stage with motion and colour. Lord’s designs are very fun - from the 70s leotards worn by the couple who run the town’s local gym to the surprisingly sexy outfits worn by the lions.

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The latter seems a nod to Cats (hey, a hit musical adapted from a modernist’s writing for kids!), and there are others here to Into the Woods, The Wizard of Oz, Floyd Collins. But, as dramatic songwriters, Ross and Wilson still seem to be finding their own voice.

In the end, Rose feels like a potentially promising project programmed too soon. With little experience in musical theatre, old or new, Soulpepper might look outside of its own stable of artists for guidance going forward.

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