'Kelly v Kelly' Book by Sara Farb with Music & Lyrics by Britta Johnson
Now onstage at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre
Dahlia Katz. Centre: Eva Foote surrounded by members of the ensemble
A unique musical theatre spin on a courtroom drama that stirred the nation in the early twentieth century.
'Kelly v. Kelly' takes place in 1915. It is based on a true story that caused a stir in the United States. Helen Kelly (Jessica Sherman) has her daughter Eugenia (Eva Foote), a 19-year-old socialite, arrested and taken to court for incorrigibility. Eugenia engages in a romantic relationship with Al Davis (Jeremy Walmsley), an older professional dancer whom she meets at a tango tea. These dancers, also known as tango pirates, frequented high-end cabarets of the time, teaching young socialite girls how to tango. These men charged the women for dancing with them, and some of the girls would have lost a great deal of money if the men discovered they had a lot of it.
When Helen discovers what is going on, she demands her daughter end the affair with Al. When Eugenia refuses Helen takes her to court. The presiding Judge (Mike Jackson) oversees the case. Helen’s by-the-book lawyer (Joel Cumber) is out to embarrass and put Eugenia in her place.
Lorenzo Savoini's set design is visually captivating with its two-level construction. The lower level, featuring chairs, gives the audience a courtroom experience, while the upper level offers a unique perspective of others watching the proceedings. On stage left, Jonathan Corka-Astorga's band adds to the performance, and two staircases on either side allow the ensemble to move up and down effortlessly. The actors' ascent to the second level adds grandeur to the story, creating an impression of depth and space. The shadowy lighting in the cabaret scenes, where Eugenia dances with Al, is particularly appealing, enhancing the cigarette-smoky and alcohol-smelling atmosphere of the secret establishment.
Alex Amini's costume designs faithfully capture the essence of the early twentieth century. Joel Cumber's tailored coat and slacks radiate a strong sense of privilege, embodying his character as Helen's lawyer. The ladies' dresses feature chic fabrics and colours, while the men's clothing of the rest of the ensemble exudes a fashionable and polished look.
Sara Farb's engaging book arouses curiosity about Helen and Eugenia's actions and motives. Some moments, however, need to be fleshed out. For example, there are brief introductions to two influential individuals in Helen’s life – her husband and mother. I would have liked to see further development in how they strongly influenced the mother and daughter’s present situation ending up in the courtroom.
There are some strongly intense dramatic musical moments in Britta Johnson’s songs: ‘Helen Calls Detective Welsh’ introduces just how it is possible the New York Police Department employed shady men. ‘You Scare Me’ is especially poignant as I could see Eva Foote wipe a tear from her eye. ‘Love and Money’ is also visually striking as it offers some strong underlying reasons why men behaved the way they did as tango pirates.
However, several of the key company musical numbers suffer from a sound imbalance with the band, which makes it difficult to hear the lyrics. Unfortunately, I couldn't catch anything in the closing number, 'The Final Word,' and I fear that I may have missed out on some essential plot information. I hope this issue will be addressed promptly, as it detracts from the overall experience of the show.
Director Tracey Flye powerfully depicts the unyielding fortitude of women in the early 20th century through her artistic vision. Helen and Eugenia, despite their disparate upbringings, exhibit unwavering conviction and belief in what they feel and think. The male characters' contrasting personalities serve to emphasize the dominant nature of the female leads. Joel Cumber's fastidious demeanour as Helen's lawyer provides clever comedic moments while emphasizing how white privileged men view the role of women at the turn of the century.
The show’s pacing never feels rushed thanks to a solid ensemble of actors who keep it moving along briskly.
Jessica Sherman and Eva Foote remain convincingly believable as mother and daughter throughout. Sherman’s distress is palpable as a distraught mother who never veers into hysterics over her daughter's behaviour. Foote’s entrance at the top of the show reminds me of an Eva Peron type who confidently uses her fame to get noticed.
Jeremy Walmsley is a dashing Al Davis who credibly sweeps Eugenia off her feet. Tracey Flye’s choreography of the sultry tangos between Walmsley and Foote reveals a bubbling relationship of passion and romance. While not as prim and persnickety as Joel Cumber’s Lawyer, Mike Jackson and Peter Fernandes solidly reflect in their performances the white male patriarchal society that women hold a specific place and should never deviate from it.
The story is propelled forward by a devoted ensemble who embody significant individuals. Among them are Helen's friends who sneaked her out of her house and took her to the cabaret for the first time. Additionally, there are the reporters present during the courtroom proceedings, eager to find any sensational tidbit to sell their newspapers. Notably, Flye’s fine choreographed movements of the ensemble in some of the musical numbers are another highlight of the show.
Final Comments: ‘Kelly v. Kelly’ is a musical in development. There is a programme notation under the Musical Numbers that the songs listed are subject to change.
At this point, I am enjoying what I am seeing (although I understand that my perception of the show may change if presented again in the future). For one, the show’s messages are most timely. ‘Kelly v. Kelly’ focuses on what it means to be a woman in a time of societal change in the early twentieth century.
Sounds rather ironically familiar, doesn’t it, from a woke twenty-first-century perspective?
On Canadian Stage’s website, the Toronto Star bills Britta Johnson as Canada’s musical theatre’s next great hope. I certainly look forward to seeing what she has in store next.
In the meanwhile, go see ‘Kelly v. Kelly’ and the birth of a new musical.
Running time: approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
‘Kelly v. Kelly’ runs until June 18 at Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street. For tickets, visit canadianstage.com or call 1-416-368-3110. To learn more about Canadian Stage: www.canadianstage.com. To learn more about The Musical Stage Company: www.musicalstagecompany.com.
THE MUSICAL STAGE COMPANY in association with CANADIAN STAGE presents the World Premiere of
KELLY V. KELLY
Book by Sara Farb with Music and Lyrics by Britta Johnson
Director and Choreographer: Tracey Flye
Music Supervisor, Orchestrator & Arranger: Lynne Shankel
Music Director: Jonathan Corkal-Astorga
Set and Lighting Designer: Lorenzo Savoini
Costume Designer: Alex Amini
Sound Designer: Brian Kenney
Stage Manager: Lisa Humber
The Band: Jonathan Corkal-Astorga, Sasha Boychouk, Jessica Deutsch, Anna Atkinson, Erik Larson
The Performers: Dave Ball, Joel Cumber, Peter Fernandes, Eva Foote, Mike Jackson, Julia McLellan, Jessica Sherman, Margaret Thompson, Kelsey Verzotti, Jeremy Walmsley