Saturday, August 4, 2012


Tom Rooney (centre) as Robert Service with members of the company in Wanderlust. Photography by David Hou
Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has taken Canadian content seriously this year. Four out of fourteen plays can claim to be “made in Canada” and one of them, Wanderlust, goes one step further. It is a musical that was commissioned by the Festival from playwright Morris Panych and composer Marek Norman, both Canadians and it is about a “Canadian” poet.

They have taken the poetry of Robert Service (played by Tom Rooney) as their starting point and fashioned a pleasant musical around his verse and a fictionalized version of his life. Panych directs the production.

Panych sets the story in a bank (Service did work for the Canadian Bank of Commerce) where as a lowly bank employee he dreams of visiting strange places like the north and writes poetry. He often sleeps on the bank vault because he stays late versifying and he is also in love with Louise Montgomery (Robin Hutton) who happens to be engaged to Dan McGrew the Assistant Manager (Dan Chameroy).

The action does move to the Yukon for “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” two of Service’s most famous poems.

The plot will turn around the eternal triangle (which will not have the usual happy resolution) and the composition of verses by Service.

Panych manages to inject some light humour into the courtship of Louise and the activities of the tellers in the bank. Mr. McGee, the bank manager, is quite amusing in the hands of Randy Hughson as is Ken James Stewart as Noah the clerk. He is quite funny.

Lucy Peacock is the drunken landlady who is in love with our hero but she is almost wasted in the role.

Dan Chameroy is the straight-laced McGrew in contrasts to the dreamy and passionate Service.

The rather thin pot is augmented with a number of musical numbers. It is after all a musical. The music is pleasant enough though hardly memorable. It is partly controlled by the rhythm, of Service’s poetry. He wrote in simple language with the regular rhythm of rhyming couplets.

Norman’s music usually follows the poetry as if he were reciting it but he does manage some melodies. I cannot remember a single one of them but the performance was good,  especially during the second half which was reasonably enjoyable.

Rooney is good as Service – a dreamy, decent man in love with Louise who insists that she loves him. Unfortunately, she is a modern woman and is lying to both McGrew and to Service.

Service (1874-1958) led a full and very colourful life but I guess Panych and Norman could not condense it or pick a few incidents from it and at the  same time give us some of his poetry.

In the end you get some poetry, a few pleasant laughs, some forgettable songs around a fictionalized life.

Wanderlust by Morris Panych (book) and Marek Norman (music) opened on July 11 and will run until September 28, 2012 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

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