Rob Ford: The Musical
Book and lyrics by Brett McCaig
Music by Anthony Bastianon
Directed by Liz Gilroy
Starring Sheldon Bergstrom
At the Factory Theatre in Toronto
Written and directed by Adam Seelig
Starring Michael Dufays, Richard Harte and Astrid Van Wieren
At Wychwood Theatre in Toronto
Don't say I didn't warn you. Earlier this year, I wrote a column advising theatre companies to avoid producing plays about the moving target that is Toronto's celebrity mayor. Or, to be more specific, I wrote: "Please, don't write a show about Rob Ford. Please, please, please."
Over the past week, however, two musicals about the mayor have opened in Toronto – and the timing couldn't be worse. Last Friday, Ford dropped out of the coming civic election; then, on Wednesday, the full details of his considerable health challenges emerged.
The Rob Ford saga has taken a surprising, sad turn, but these ill-timed shows inspired by the song and dance must go on – one an honourable failure, the other a colossal, gravy-train wreck.
No one was expecting genius from Rob Ford: The Musical, currently playing at the Factory Theatre, but the total ineptitude of the enterprise is nevertheless surprising given that the cast includes such veteran talent as Lisa Horner (Les Misérables, the Shaw Festival).
Writer Brett McCaig does not seem to have a clue how to tell a story in the form of a musical, and it's difficult to pick out a single scene that hangs together from beginning to end. Here is the ultimate in empty-headed Fordsploitation, leeching off the mayor's limelight without having anything to say.
Indeed, Rob Ford: The Musical is merely a collection of nasty one-liners, most half-baked, many startlingly offensive.
They turn the terrible deaths of Sammy Yatim and Robert Dziekanski at the hands of police here and in Vancouver into shock punchlines, and describe the mayor as "the Auschwitz of burning bridges." Even though the real Ford is lying in bed with a life-threatening cancer of the fat cells, his girth is mocked non-stop, and he is called a turducken, a Teletubby and "the bearded lady who ate the twins." But don't worry: There are buckets out in the lobby so that the audience can contribute to the Canadian Cancer Society.
Rob Ford: The Musical, featuring not entirely tuneless music by Anthony Bastianon, begins with a series of competing framing devices. Margaret Atwood (Horner, poor thing) comes on stage as the narrator, before the show reboots with an opening number sung by the cast called This is the Opening Number. It's the thinnest of metatheatrical gruel.
The musical's main storytelling device is borrowed from It's a Wonderful Life – making this, believe it or not, the second musical about Ford to go in that direction. (The first, 2012's It's a Wonderful Toronto, was not much better.)
After Rob Ford (Sheldon Bergstrom) is struck in the head with a television camera, he goes to the afterlife, where he encounters an angel named Tranny (the silver-voiced Andrew Broderick), who will receive a pair of breasts from God if she helps the mayor… well, it's never quite clear what the goal is. What is clear is that McCaig, also the producer, does not seem to know the difference between a transgender woman and a transvestite. He might put collection boxes out in the lobby for Egale, Canada's leading anti-homophobia charity, as well.
Back on Earth, the gist of the plot is that police chief Bill Blair (Sheldon Davis, mugging desperately), worried about cuts to his force by Ford, enlists the help of a lawyer named Ruby (Marisa McIntyre, inexplicably doing an impression of Hildy from His Girl Friday) and a journalist named Eddie (Daniel Greenberg, who's actually funny!) to frame the mayor by filming him with a crack pipe.
The cast's voices are fine – notably Justin Bott as a brainy brother Doug Ford – but Liz Gilroy's direction and choreography is pure amateur hour, all jazz hands and box steps. It all goes on, leadenly, until we reach This is the Closing Number, which, sadly, isn't.
Up at the Wychwood Barns, there is much more intelligent Rob Ford musical on stage called Ubu Mayor, written and directed by the idiosyncratically avant-garde playwright Adam Seelig. Beyond its irreverent tone, the show has little in common with Ubu Roi, the scatological, proto-absurdist play by Alfred Jarry that famously caused a riot at its Paris premiere in 1896.
Ubu Mayor, which sees Seelig on piano leading a delightful jazz trio, begins with the title character (Richard Harte) coming home from a day at city council to find his brother Dudu (Michael Dufays) performing cunnilingus on his wife, Huhu (Astrid Van Wieren). Lest you believe that these characters are meant to be precisely ripped from the headlines, it should be noted that the Ford-esque Ubu, here, is an avid cyclist who enjoys reading Simone de Beauvoir and Nietzsche in his spare time. And he is bullied by his brother and bribed with cocaine by his wife into moving forward with his respect-for-taxpayers agenda, instead of installing bike lanes and working toward the greater good as he would prefer.
It's a disorienting reframing of the actual Ford situation. What Ubu Mayor has in common with Rob Ford: The Musical is a desire to recast the mayor as a victim in the name of dramatic license – here turning him into an absurdist figure.
But how can you come up with events more absurd than those of the last four years in Toronto? Despite rigorous performances and a wicked guitar solo from Harte during a song called Etobicocaine, Ubu Mayor seems pointless and loses all steam about halfway through.
Both musicals point to the crux of the problem with writing dramatically about Ford. Though the public loves him as a source of comedy, the mayor is ultimately a tragic figure. Like the heroes of ancient Greek tragedy, Ford has been brought down – stripped of his powers, his agenda is derailed, and his health is compromised – by his own flaws (addictions and pride) and his inability to see them and act in time.
A tragedy is not what people want to see, however, which is why even Ford's most furious opponents wish he had not become sick. I hate to say I told you so, but …