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- Title: The Wild Rovers
- Written by: Steve Cochrane, inspired by the music of The Irish Rovers
- Director: Jason Byrne
- Actors: Julia Dunne, Philip Goodridge, Vicki Harnett, Liam Lynch, Steve Maloney, Powell Nobert, Melanie O’Brien, Sean Panting and Nicole Underhay
- Company: Terra Bruce Productions
- Venue: Winter Garden Theatre
- City: Toronto
- Year: Runs to Nov. 5
The Wild Rovers – inspired by the music of the group the Irish Rovers – is the third jukebox musical in as many years by the newish commercial theatre company Terra Bruce Productions. The first was 2021′s dramatically inclement No Change in the Weather and the second the summer’s hobbled Grease knockoff Let’s Dance.
Despite the Irish theme, it’s not third time lucky for this Newfoundland-Toronto company. Let’s hope they’re better at the theatre real-estate game. They’re currently renovating and restoring Toronto’s Regent Theatre on Mount Pleasant Road, which should be completed in 2025. After that it will stage shows, much like its previous iteration the Crest Theatre did in the 1950s and sixties.
For some reason, The Wild Rovers opens in 1989. The eponymous group of musicians is packed into a crowded van heading to a gig when they pick up a hitchhiker who’s carrying a leg (don’t ask). The extra baggage causes the vehicle to swerve off the road and into a portal that takes them somewhere else. At which point, most viewers will want a similar portal to escape book writer Steve Cochrane’s silly plot and corny jokes.
An example? When deciding to give a ride to the stranger, driver Sheila (Vicki Harnett) quotes Canadian rockers Trooper – hey, it’s the late eighties – by saying most hitchhikers “aren’t here for a good time, but a long time.” Elsewhere, someone puns on the group Honeymoon Suite by calling them Honeymoon Bitter. And the fact that one character is named Roguish Rick Castley (Liam Lynch) means at one point we’re gonna be Rickrolled.
Once through that portal, the Rovers and crew find themselves in a new land – not that we’d know from the non-existent set and lighting design – called Athunia. Their van has crushed and killed the Athunian king, but band member Billy (Steve Maloney) physically resembles the deceased royal. The king’s daughter, Princess Hiya (Melanie O’Brien), wasting no time in grieving, pretends Billy is her dad so the neighbouring Ethunians, led by Queen Keerthi (Nicole Underhay) and her creepily close son Farid (Powell Nobert), won’t realize she’s vulnerable and attack. Also, the king was rumoured to have owned a secret weapon, and the Ethunians want it.
Yes, Athunia sounds exactly like Ethunia, and yet they’re at war. That’s one of the unsubtle points made repeatedly by Cochrane. And yet it takes another 80 minutes, and lots of long-winded narration by a character named Maggie (Sean Panting), for the two factions to combine their voices in some soothing harmonies and end their roving.
Before that happens, Princess Hiya and Prince Farid, in search of a magical egg, encounter obstacles that show them how devastated their lands are. The best of these encounters includes one with a dragon (Underhay), who recalls, in a bittersweet version of the famous Shel Silverstein song The Unicorn, the magical creatures that once populated it.
It’s the quietest and most effective sequence in the show. The Shaw and Stratford veteran brings an understated grace to the song, and director Jason Byrne, who’s done much better work with Toronto’s Company Theatre, has the actors carry hollow discs behind Underhay to suggest the length of her dragon’s long scaly body. (Robin Follett is head of wardrobe and props.)
Apart from that, the only other moments that work also involve singing. Maloney employs his ethereally beautiful tenor voice to deliver a haunting version of The Rising of the Moon, while Harnett rescues a ridiculous scene involving pirates by belting out the traditional song Black Velvet Band.
Onstage the entire time, conductor Kelly-Ann Evans and the seven-piece band bring lively accompaniment to these songs.
Which makes you think how these 90 minutes could have been more effectively spent as a concert of Irish Rovers numbers, perhaps with some anecdotes and jokes between the songs. Discovering a secret portal to that – or, even better, a restaging of the Newfoundland-set musical Come From Away – would be much more magical.
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.)