Robert W. Service, the unpretentious poet of the Yukon, is off on another perilous Canadian adventure 55 years after his death – from the stuff of campfire storytelling sessions, he is now the subject of his very own Stratford stage musical.
Wanderlust, the brainchild of prolific playwright Morris Panych, depicts a fictionalized version of Service, the English-born, sometime-Canadian bard behind such enduring gold-rush ballads as The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee.
This Service, played with an avalanche of charm by Tom Rooney, is a ledger clerk at a bank in British Columbia – so far, so biographically accurate – populated by a stable of characters with some very familiar names.
His boss is a Mr. McGee (Randy Hughson), his nemesis a swaggering assistant manager named McGrew (Dan Chameroy), and his office crush a lady that's known as Lou (Robin Hutton).
Service toils all day inputting figures into books, then spends his nights writing rhymes about manly men who moil for gold and meaning in the North before falling asleep atop a bank vault.
Panych's script pitches a multitude of memorable one-liners, hit out of the park by this accomplished cast.
"Watch your back, Service," warns McGrew, who is officially engaged to Service's light-o'-love Lou.
"Well, I'm not a contortionist, but I'll try my best," the poet replies.
But Panych's biting sense of humour doesn't match up with the mushy tunes composed by Marek Norman to accompany the well-known verses. Rooney, in particular, ends up the Service of two masters – a wisecracking slacker in the scenes, a wimpy romantic in the songs.
Norman's songs are, for the most part, serviceable, but the usual problems that come from writing music to match the rhythm of pre-existing poems are not surmounted. The words either ride roughshod over the music, or the music muddles them.
The most enjoyable musical sequences in Wanderlust come when Service gets fully lost in his dream world of the North. Here, the compositions play second fiddle to the storytelling – and certain lines are simply spoken over background music. In one clever sequence, ledgers turn into swinging saloon doors and the bank is suddenly transformed into a Klondike bar.
This choreography from Diana Coatsworth – as well as reliably funny performances from a whimsical Hughson and a cock-a-doodling Chameroy – distract from the show's shortcomings for a while.
But those shortcomings are plentiful. Most damagingly, the love triangle between Service, Lou and McGrew simply doesn't add up. Lou's constantly shifting allegiances come across as artificial attempts by the playwright to keep some sort of drama going around what is otherwise a Service-inspired cabaret.
Panych's direction of his own play is more sure-footed, though he lets a couple of the actors veer too far into caricature. Lucy Peacock's prostitute-turned-landlady Mrs. Munsch, in particular, is out of control.
As Service constantly toys with packing his bags and heading to the Yukon, the play keeps hitting the same theme over and over – whether a man should dream or do.
Of course, that's the repeated theme of most of Service's poems – which don't easily string together into a narrative. Ultimately, trying to shoehorn his greatest hits into a small story about a dreary bank is a problem for which there is no solution. Panych has tried to dramatize Service's audience, rather than his subjects.
Wanderlust could be summarized much more succinctly in the words of a later people's poet, Joe Strummer: "Should I stay or should I go?" There's a difference between staying and not going anywhere, however, and this new musical – for all the pleasures its presentation provides – does the latter.
Wanderlust runs at Stratford's Tom Patterson Theatre until Sept. 28.