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Songs underscore tragedy, comedy of Belles-Soeurs

3.5 out of 4 stars


  • Adapted from Les Belles-Soeurs by Michel Tremblay
  • Book and lyrics by René Richard Cyr
  • Music by Daniel Bélanger
  • Directed by René Richard Cyr
  • At the Théâtre d'Aujourd'hui in Montreal

Director René Richard Cyr and composer Daniel Bélanger have taken Michel Tremblay's groundbreaking 1968 play Les Belles-Soeurs, sliced out the "les" and about 60 per cent of the text, and added 15 songs. It works, surprisingly well. As one spectator remarked to me at intermission: "It's kind of hard to imagine it without the music now."

Here's how five songs fit into the musical version of Tremblay's internationally acclaimed tragicomedy about Germaine Lauzon, a working-class Montreal woman who wins a million "stamps" in a contest, but is betrayed by her female friends.

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Maudite vie platte

The opening number in Belles-Soeurs, Gratis, features Germaine (a strong Marie-Thérèse Fortin) singing gleefully and greedily about all the great household items - stove, chairs, cutlery - she will buy with her prize stamps (a 1960s version of the points so many of us collect on various cards today).

But the next song, Maudite vie platte, intoned by jealous Marie-Ange (Suzanne Lemoine), along with several of the other 14 women Germaine has invited over to paste the stamps into books, properly sets the scene for this story set in Tremblay's now-mythical Plateau Mont-Royal on the cusp of the Quiet Revolution.

The women's "stupid, rotten life" - as John Van Burek and Bill Glassco originally translated " maudite vie platte" - is composed of cooking, cleaning, laundry, prayers and fighting with family, followed by the one enjoyable activity of the day: watching TV.

This complaint is made catchy in Bélanger's Motown-inspired score, while Cyr brings out the dark comedy in the domestic misery by having the women execute wry, rudimentary choreography with spatulas, toilet brushes and plungers.

Mon vendeur de brosses

After a couple more comic songs - La Noce, in which a woman long-windedly lists off all the guests at a wedding; and the self-explanatory, slang-filled J'ai-tu l'air de que'qu'un qui a déja gagné que'qu'chose? (Do I look like someone who's ever won anything?) - comes this unexpectedly heartbreaking ballad.

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If life with husbands is a pain in the ass, the single life in this time and place is even more depressing. Lonely, kind-hearted Des-Neiges Verrette (Kathleen Fortin) sings about the travelling salesman who knocks on her door once a month, tells her jokes and tries to sell her brushes. "I don't want to lose him," she says in this soulful number, a highlight. "He's the first man who's ever been interested in me."

Crisse de Johnny

Germaine's unmarried sister Pierrette (Maude Guérin), outcast because she works as a club hostess on an unholy strip of St. Laurent, slinks on at the end of the first act, as in Tremblay's original. Much of the second half is concerned with how the older women are embarrassed and threatened by Pierrette's liberated ways, while Germaine's daughter Linda (Marie-Evelyne Baribeau) and her friends are fascinated by them.

But Tremblay depicts The Main as just another place a woman can be chewed up and spat out. After working in her lover Johnny's boîte for 15 years, Pierrette has been dumped. "You're too old and ugly; pack your bags and beat it," he tells her.

In Crisse de Johnny, Pierrette wails about having "wasted 15 years of my life." That's five more than it was in Les Belles-Soeurs, but perhaps being washed up at 30 is just too unbelievable.

Bélanger has composed a kind of overwrought French rock ballad that only does well on Quebec radio, but Guérin sells it, taking swigs out of a mickey of Johnnie Walker, adding another layer of meaning to the wounded lyrics.

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L'ode au bingo

This ode comes directly from the original, where it was recited rather than sung. In Belles-Soeurs, more Brechtian than Broadway as far as musicals go, this is as big a production number as we get. Fluorescent lights descend from the ceiling, the cigarettes and bingo stampers come out and Germaine's faux amis chant their hymn: " Moé, j'aime ça l'bingo!" Cyr's direction in this fantasy sequence is very detailed, from the stuffed animal Linda's panicked pregnant friend wins, to a final tableau inspired by Leonardo's Last Supper.

Les timbres

Tremblay's play originally ended with a song: O Canada, sung ironically as Germaine's friends ran off with purses stuffed with her winnings. Recent productions have dropped this heavy-handed conclusion, but Belles-Soeurs rightfully restores music to the ending. In Les Timbres, Germaine mourns the shattering of her network of sisters, all the while continuing to reject her actual sister, Pierrette. Linda comforts her mother, telling her not to cry, in a moving moment that, for me, sonically conjured Eponine's death scene in Les Misérables. For all their harmonizing here, real solidarity is still far off for these wretched, wonderful women.

Belles-Soeurs continues at Theatre d'Aujourd'hui in Montreal until May 1 and then resumes performances at the Centre Culturel de Joliette in Joliette, Que., from June 25 to Sept. 4.

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