Everything’s coming up corpses.
Was I lost in a bad (digestive) dream, or was that actually the title of the first act-ending power ballad of Crime Does Not Pay, a smartly cynical, highly melodic, morality musical that had its world premiere Friday in Calgary?
If you are one of those people who consider David Lynch’s moody, violent Blue Velvet a masterpiece of American pop culture – I do! – then you will enjoy, possibly even adore, Crime Does Not Pay. It’s a small musical – the seven-person cast also doubles as the orchestra – created by Calgarians Kris Demeanor and David Rhymer, in a co-production between two of the city’s most resilient and ambitious independent theatre companies, Downstage and the Forte Musical Theatre Guild, (along with independent producer Hit & Myth Productions).
Five years in the making, Crime tells the story of the explosion in popularity of comic books in the United States in the late 1940s and how their often lurid, violent, sexualized content led to a moral majority-style blowback that resulted in the creation of the Comics Code.
That crusade is dramatized by telling the story of cartoonist Bob Wood (Devin MacKinnon) who grows up rough, neglected and emotionally abandoned, until one night at a bar, when he meets a comic-book man’s dream muse: Violet Page (Jamie Konchak), a dame who combines beauty, talent – she’s a torch singer with potential – who, thanks to a bitter ongoing divorce from her hedge-fund ex-husband, shares a bleak worldview that makes her sympatico enough with Bob to fall hard for him.
For a while, Bob ascends the ranks through the comic-book world, becoming its bestselling author, while Violet continues to chase her dream of becoming a singing star.
However, when a woman named Eleanor Flood (Lennette Randall) testifies at the trial of a young boy that his violent act was copycatted from a comic created by Bob Wood, you can cancel Christmas for Bob and Violet, because – to paraphrase Die Hard – the party’s over, pal.
Much of Crime Does Not Pay’s narrative is told through a suite of songs composed by Demeanor and Rhymer, with musical dramaturgy by Joe Slabe, that evoke a vivid, original period in American popular music.
There’s a generous dollop of the sort of noirish jazz you might expect such an urban nightmare to be underscored with, almost all of it modulated by the moody, atmospheric riffs of trumpeter Andre Wickenheiser.
Surprisingly, there’s also a generous sampling of old country riffs, à la Hank Williams or Johnny Cash, along with witty twists on American musical songbook material such as talented, tiny, former Stampede talent-show winner Selina Wong belting out There’s Nothing Nice (About a Nice Guy).
It doesn’t get much better however, than when Konchak’s Violet belts out The Chameleon, a Billie Holiday-esque ballad. “If you want to get away with something,” she sings, “make sure your crimes are big ones.”
It’s a gorgeous number that sounds, and looks – Konchak kills in this part – like the very best signature tunes that the very most expensive, megamillion dollar musicals hope and dream that they can come up with – and they outdo it at the close of the act, when the entire company breaks into “Coming Up Corpses,” which is what happens when musical-theatre sensibilities walk face first into the Trump Era.
Directed by Downstage’s Simon Mallett, Crime Does Not Pay is staged almost as a live comic book. The set, economically and elegantly designed by Anton de Groot, features a number of multimedia comic panels (with illustrated designed by Tyler Jenkins) on either side of a crowded bandstand, that frequently mimic the action unfolding onstage, as the characters spout tough-guy dialogue that feels ripped from the pages of a comic book.
It gives the whole storytelling an extra dimension of that dream-like quality that the entire show strives for, and Mallett does an exceptional job finding the right balance between the multimedia razzle dazzle and his powerhouse, multitalented cast.
(The two companies’ innovation doesn’t stop at the proscenium arch, either: For this production, they’re giving away 25 per cent of the tickets free in a Pay-It-Forward campaign and also staging a relaxed performance for mixed-abilities audiences).
Demeanor actually plays Crime (the band is Crime and the Crimettes), dressed in white, with a long fake nose and a mask – he’s the Joker, if his body was taken over by a melodious, millennial William S. Burroughs.
Toss Demeanor’s penchant for stripped-down country and folk sounds and Rhymer’s musical palette – which has always been more Central European than Western Canadian – together in a blender, stir in a stunning performance by Konchak, strong stuff from MacKinnon and Randall, and what do you get?
A smart, dark, violent, feel-bad musical that makes you think more than it makes you want to follow your American Dream.
The fact that a couple of small independent theatre companies can spend half a decade pursuing a single project, is the one counterargument to the one Bob Wood makes to morally upright Eleanor Flood. “Name one happy idea that was ever true,” he says.
How about this one, Bob: the idea that a bunch of underfunded Western Canadian musical theatre artists can take a shattered American dream and transform it into art.Report Typo/Error
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