Trying on The Overcoat

New comic operas are rare.  New comic operas that are actually funny are vanishingly rare.  The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring is such a beast.  It’s a new piece with music by James Rolfe and a libretto by Morris Panych derived from his twenty year old stage adaptation of Gogol’s short story.  Originally commissioned by Tapestry Opera, the Toronto staging was under the joint auspices of that company and Canadian Stage with the work also to be staged by co-producer Vancouver Opera as part of their summer festival.

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The Overcoat embraces the absurdity and the dark humour of the Gogol story.  There’s no attempt at misplaced “naturalism”.  The libretto uses rhyme, repetition and word play to emphasise the sense of the ridiculous.  Costumes and make up are exaggerated and the staging, directed by Panych himself, is startlingly kinetic with certain striking repeated elements; especially the frazzled commuters who will evoke sympathy in anyone reliant on the TTC for their daily commute.  The acting too is broadly painted.  This is especially marked in the two movement performers; Colin Heath and Courtenay Stevens who are silent but incredibly expressive.  It’s true of the singers too, especially Peter McGillivray as the Head of Department.  In another context it might be over the top but here it’s apt.  The “kineticism” also means that moving props and scenery can be made to seem like part of the story and so the frequent rejigs never hold up the action.

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James Rolfe’s music is intriguing.  Most of the interest is in the orchestra.  The vocal line is mostly functional and supports the brisk nature of the action.  Only really in the final asylum scene do the singers get much to be lyrical with.  In itself this is effective as at this point the audience needs a little space to reflect on what the chaos they have just witnessed signifies.  The orchestral writing though is bold and effective.  It uses a range of compositional techniques mainly built around what almost amount to leitmotifs for certain characters and situations.  The pacing and energy of the music, as well as its quirkiness, are an excellent complement to the stage action.

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It’s a large cast and several are playing multiple roles.  There are more performers on stage than in the pit!  At the heart of the piece is Geoff Sirett as Akakiy; the number obsessed low grade bean counter who enjoys a brief moment of fame on account of his coat before descending into madness at its loss.  He’s on stage almost all the time and his lyrical baritone stays firm and musical through a whole lot of physical acting.  Peter McGillivray manages to portray two contrasting characters; the bumptious Head of Department and the drunken tailor, Petrovich, with equal facility.  Keith Klassen, Asitha Tennekoon, Giles Tomkins and Aaron Durand appear variously as Akakiy’s workmates, partygoers, thugs and lunatics as well as doing a lot of the madcap “commuting”.  Cait Wood, Magali Simard-Galdes and Erica Iris Huang make up the Mad Chorus; a female trio who foreshadow Akakiy’s fate.  There’s a lovely sexy cameo by Meher Pavri as the Secretary among other explicit and implicit roles and Andrea Ludwig flits in and out of the action as Akakiy’s landlady and cabbage soup trafficker.  There’s some fine singing from all, all the more impressive given the action, costume changes and general mayhem.  Les Dala conducted and managed the not inconsiderable feat of keeping everything in synch.  he was well supported by an excellent twelve piece band.

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The show runs a little over two hours including the interval which feels about right.  It’s very funny and quite touching and well worth seeing.  There are sixteen more chances to do so at the Bluma Appel Theatre between now and April 14th.  There will also be ten performances in Vancouver from April 28th to May 6th with the same cast.

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Photo credits: Dahlia Katz

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