On April 12, 1980, as he was about to begin the trek that would captivate a country, Terry Fox took a moment to dip his artificial leg into the Atlantic Ocean. In Marathon of Hope, a new musical about the cancer activist’s famous fundraising journey from St. John’s to Thunder Bay, a CBC reporter is on hand to witness this occasion – and asks the 21-year-old why on Earth he is wearing shorts in Newfoundland in April.
“I want people to see the leg,” says Fox, played with congenial irritability by Nathan Carroll. “That’s the whole point.”
This line from Peter Colley’s script is a reflection of the real-life Fox’s feelings. “I had another dizzy spell during the Run,” Fox later wrote in his journal, while passing through Charlottetown. “Still freezing, but I wasn’t wearing sweats so people could see my leg.” Making visible what osteosarcoma had done to his body was at the heart of his quest.
There are many things wrong-headed about Marathon of Hope, which had its world premiere at the St. Jacobs Country Playhouse on Friday night. But the main one is that the director of the musical, Alex Mustakas, hasn’t listened closely enough to Fox in creating his production.
In Nathan Carroll, Mustakas – artistic director of Drayton Entertainment, the Southern Ontario theatre chain that is producing the musical and hopes to roll it out to more locations in future seasons – has cast a person who is a sweet singer, a fine actor and able-bodied in the lead role.
As part of his costume, the actor’s real right leg is covered in a black stocking – and a replica of Fox’s famous prosthetic is attached to the front of it. (It looks a little bit as if he’s doing a Bunraku puppet show below the waist until you get used to it.)
Carroll’s casting has angered some activists who feel that this is an example of “cripping up.” For me, the larger problem is that Mustakas’s production (which also features a pair of able-bodied child actors playing disabled characters) has not found room for disability anywhere in his aesthetic.
This is a musical whose main goal is to inspire – as unabashedly as Fox did. And instead, it sends a message that while a young man with one leg may be able to run 5,373 kilometres, there is no room for anyone with atypical abilities in musical theatre.
That’s not true, of course. Even on Broadway, Deaf West Theatre’s revival of the musical Spring Awakening recently played to great acclaim, while an upcoming revival of The Glass Menagerie will feature an actress who uses a wheelchair in the role of Laura Wingfield.
At the St. Jacobs Country Playhouse, however, everything down to David Connolly’s choreography is off-message. Told by Fox from his perspective, the musical is heavy on exposition at first – and only breaks out of its shell at a party in Newfoundland, where the performer Stephanie Cadman step-dances while playing the fiddle. A thrill – but what a failure that our first moment of wow in a show about a one-legged man who changed the world is a feat of able-bodied athleticism.
Meanwhile, in all the wrong ways, Mustakas’s production is obsessed with authenticity. The actual 1980 Ford E-250 Econoline van that Terry’s best friend, Doug Alward, drove behind him on the journey appears on stage, for instance. (Playing Doug, Alex Furber gives a depth to the character absent from the rest of the show.)
Surely, the point of retelling this iconic story is to let us see the inside of the van, as it were, not the outside.
Instead, Colley’s script tells the well-known parts of Fox’s story clearly and coherently, while assiduously avoiding areas that might make this project seem more like art than advocacy. Conflicts are hinted at – but quickly resolved, including Fox’s struggle with celebrity and insistence that the Marathon of Hope wasn’t about him. (Another message the creators of the musical, which is full of underdeveloped secondary characters, missed.)
What’s odd, given this project has been the 12-year passion project of composer John Connolly, is how beside-the-point any of the snippet-like songs feel. While the music hints at Gordon Lightfoot and the Littlest Hobo theme song, the lyrics are weighed down by cliché, awkward rhymes and words shoved in nonsensically for rhythm’s sake. “I am waiting for a miracle, baby,” Fox’s family sings, in a hospital waiting room – that “baby” sticking out like a sore thumb.
It’s not surprising the question of staging disability has been ignored in a production that can’t even avoid stereotypical portrayals of French Canadians or Newfoundlanders. But if Drayton Entertainment intends to go further with this project, figuring out a way to stage it that is as inspiring as Terry Fox’s story – or, at least, doesn’t undermine it – should be its first priority.
Marathon of Hope: The Musical continues until Oct. 30 (draytonentertainment.com).Report Typo/Error