Close to 200 people turned out for Thursday's premiere of a musical satire about Toronto's infamous mayor just hours after a cancer-stricken Rob Ford thanked well wishers from his hospital bed for their support.
Organizers made some minor changes to the ending, pulled a planned red carpet, and dimmed the marquee out of respect for Ford's situation but decided the show had to go on in light of contractual obligations to cast, crew and theatre staff.
Some patrons admitted to feeling a touch uncomfortable at watching a show based on the notorious foibles of a man whose substance abuse and often offensive conduct made him a celebrity, a laughing stock and object of scorn.
"It's bad timing that it's opening just as he became ill," said Patricia Ribbans-Hryciw, one of those in the near full house.
"[But] it made Rob Ford look even more likable than he is."
Her husband, Nicholas Hryciw, had no qualms about going to see a funny show about Ford.
"It's not about the illness, it's about the show," he said. "I loved every minute of it. Everybody was absolutely incredible. I laughed so hard."
In a nod to the mayor's situation, audience members were asked to donate money to cancer research – something they can do at each show.
Earlier Thursday, Ford issued a recorded statement in which he pledged to face his health challenge head on. He also urged voters to rally behind his brother Doug, who entered the mayoral race after the cancer forced him to withdraw.
Lead actor-singer Sheldon Bergstrom of Prince Albert, Sask., said word of the mayor's illness struck a personal chord – his mother died of cancer just six weeks ago.
Bergstrom, who seemed to channel Ford on stage, said he hoped the at-times raucous and raunchy romp through the mayor's recent past would do the family justice.
"We're having some fun, but we're also being respectful at the same time," Bergstrom said minutes after completing the premiere performance.
"We did not want a kick a man when he's down."
Jessica Herbert, an avid supporter of the mayor, admitted to some pangs about attending the show given the mayor's poor health but said he would see the humour in it.
"I don't think he'd have a problem with this," Herbert said. He'd probably laugh along if he was sitting in the audience." Dubbed as "gravy train meets the crazy train" in reference to Ford's campaign promise to cut waste at city hall, the "unabashed, take-no-prisoners comedy" traces Ford's rise to notoriety, starting with reports in May last year of a cellphone video apparently showing him smoking crack cocaine.
Brett McCaig, who co-wrote and produced Rob Ford the Musical: Birth of a Ford Nation slated to run through Sept. 28, said he wanted to bring a human quality to a man who had become a "two-dimensional cartoon character."
"Sometimes, I just can't help myself," the main character laments, while other characters remind the audience, "There's a little Rob Ford" in all of us.
While it's unlikely to happen now, Bergstrom said he had hoped Ford would have been in the audience at some point and leave "feeling that he was given a fair shot."
The show also features several characters who played roles in the mayor's scandal-plagued year, including Ford's brother played by Justin Bott.
Between them, Bergstrom and Bott create a convincing sense of the Fords' sibling dynamic, the rivalry and the mutual support.