Belles Soeurs – Sisters-in-law – Just Friends

The distinct advantage of living in a big city like Montreal is the amount of Theatre one can choose – or not choose – to see.

I choose yes. I love to see ‘live’ theatre – give me some actors, a stage, and a story – I’m a happy camper.

So this week was pretty well amazing. 3 great pieces of theatre in 7 days. It just doesn’t get much better – well except that it’s going to be 4 in 8 days tonight. Again – advantages of living in a big city.

Belles Soeurs – that’s a french title – but what we saw was the English version – done as a musical. So it was actually a premiere – if you ignore the fact that the play itself is 50 years old.

First – a bit about the story line and history of the play. Written by Michel Tremblay when he was just 23, this play was quite the stunner in 1965. It portrays French Canadian Women of the lower class in a hyper realistic way – from their dress, to their language and their concerns about religion, family, friends, and their lives. To the staid society of 1965 Quebec, that these women had a voice was considered shocking. To say that it’s a great piece of theatre is an understatement. Belles Soeurs is the most frequently performed play in the French Canadian repertoire. So I suppose an English language Musical adaptation was just going to have to happen.

And I loved it! While no song is particularly memorable – you aren’t going to go around singing Somewhere over the Rainbow, although I love Bingo has a certain catchy lilt – the ensemble is stronger than the sum of the parts. I was particularly impressed with the gal that sings the role of Pierrette – the much maligned ‘bad’ sister who got sucked in and spat out of the ‘club’ scene on St. Laurent.

As a musical – the flow of the play starts and stops as the performers break apart or gather to sing. I rather enjoyed this ebb and flow – it made great use of the Segal Center stage – it’s very shallow and quite wide – and definitely kept my eyes moving. Nice use of the space, I’d say.

But back to the story line – in brief, Germaine has finally won something – a million trading stamps. For those of us of certain age – we remember these stamps. You got them for shopping in stores, pasted them into books – and then in the words of the play – traded them in for worthless junk. But nifty junk – like toasters, and dresses, and wooden carving boards. All the things that today you shop for on the net – in those days they were only available thru these catalogs – and because you didn’t pay for the stamps – they seemed ‘free’. An early loyalty program like Sky Miles, but without the electronic tracking!

To suddenly have a million stamps – or once pasted into books – over 800 books – would be a god-send. And that’s exactly what Germaine thinks it is – a gift from her favorite saint.

But the stamps have to be pasted into the books or they are worthless – so Germaine gets the brilliant idea of inviting her friends from her parish (hence the title – Belles Soeurs – officially Sisters in Law – but in this case – sisters as in unrelated female friends) to come and help her paste. Their reward will be a few cokes and the company. Germaine plans to keep her winnings to herself.

This party sets up the rest of the musical. The ladies gather, they paste stamps and they complain about their lives, tellingly miserable stories of bored husbands, ungrateful kids, or the loneliness of the single woman who sees in a traveling Fuller Brush salesman her one chance at happiness – once a month.

These are not witty women, these are women stuck with the fuzzy end of the lollipop – and they know it. But despite the challenges of their lives, the play and the musical keep you tuned in. All is not hopeless – as Germaine’s teen-aged daughter gets to remind us.

I left feeling that I’d had a chance to meet some people I wouldn’t normally get to know. The Walmart greeters, the cashiers, the cleaners – who want the best for themselves, but lack the education and finances to pull it off. So a million trading stamps looks like a good way out.

Great theatre if it makes you want to tell others – go. It’s worth it.

On until November 19th at the Segal Center in Montreal – but coming soon to a musical theatre house near you. And definitely worth it.

Mahalia Jackson Musical – Just Great – Seriously Great

Mahlia Jacson Musical – Segal Centre – Renee Lee Shines in this Gospel Feel good

I totally enjoy watching and listening to Renee Lee. There is something about her willingness to put it all out there that is completely appealing to me. She is a delight. We should be proud that she calls Montreal – home.

I’ve seen her several times over the years, although I did not have the luck to see her in Lady Day. So when I knew she was doing Mahlia Jackson – I was totally going to go. For the Segal Centre – the stage set was relatively bare. A ‘mock’ stained glass window in center stage, that became the statue of Abraham Lincoln for the March, some chairs and tables that stood in for her various homes. Even the supporting parts were minimized – one man to play all the men in her life, one woman to brilliantly play all the women in her life. The big spurge – and to my mind the least capable singers on the stage – were the Gospel Chorus.

My biggest negative about this otherwise top-notch production was the sound. A musical is all about sound – and because we were seated slightly to the left of center stage, the sound seemed to come from behind us when Renee used her microphone. This is quite disturbing, as you can well imagine. A bit like a badly synced movie – the mouth moves, but the sound is delayed. Since hearing Renee sing was probably the number one reason for us all to be in the audience – having sound this dis-jointed was a serious problem.

But Renee’s rendition of Summer Time convinced me that she can overcome anything.

A quick comment on the supporting performers – with the exception of the gospel choir (who really needed to have had more coffee before they walked on stage), they were quite good. The ‘male’ (the always great Tristin D. Lalla) gets to do Martin Luther King’s – “I have a dream” speech, while the scolding female parts were played with a great deal of conviction by a newcomer to me – Adrienne Mei Irving. Since her name is shared with that of my daughter – I’m sure I’m going to remember her in the future.

Bottom line – the Mahalia Jackson Musical is a great vehicle for Renee Lee. I’m really glad I got to see it – and when (not if) it returns – I hope you do too. And Segal – if you read this – FIX THE SOUND SYSTEM.