Ah, Romance! welcome as spring breeze

Ah Romance Plain Janes GigCity Edmonton“In spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,” burbled Tennyson in 1835.

Apparently, so does the fancy of Edmonton’s accomplished Plain Jane Theatre Company, whose latest offering Ah, Romance! A Revue of Song, Dance and Other Passionate Musings, is on stage at the Varscona Theatre until Feb. 25.

The Plain Janes, under the inspired direction of Kate Ryan, have made their considerable reputation by mining mostly forgotten Broadway musicals, dusting them off and presenting them in spiffy new productions. One just has to mention their past hits – like It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman, The Bells Are Ringing and Mac and Mabel to remember funny, quirky and highly entertaining old gems polished up to a high luster by this small, spunky company. Last year they mounted a revue of the songs of Noel Coward in a tight tribute that reminded us just how “the Master” had such a “talent to amuse.”

This year they go back into the great American Broadway Song-book to embark on the bouncy, bubbly – and even stormy and murky sea of love. To do so they have picked the hits, and some forgotten minor ditties, from such shows as Anything Goes, On The Town, The King and I, The Music Man and many more.

Here I must admit to a bias. Back in 1955 I saw my first Broadway roadshow – it was The Pajama Game. Afterwards, I walked the streets of Toronto in awe and wonder that there existed such a world where real three-dimensional characters, who, when words failed them, would burst into glorious song or whirl in a dance. They made you laugh and cry. And when you left the theatre everything was just a little brighter.

And thus began a lifetime obsession with musical theatre.

But, then, you don’t have to be an obsessive to enjoy Ah, Romance! It is a show for anyone who can shuck off the cares of the day and enter a world where romance is all.

Ryan has gathered a bouquet of superb local performers. Each seems to have an inexhaustible access to all sorts of characters and talents from soaring soprano (Gianna Read with winning innocence sings My White Knight from The Music Man) to lust driven passion (Madelaine Knight with steamy lesbian love in Changing My Major). A high point of the evening is the gay anthem I Am What I Am (from La Cage…) performed by song and dance man Jason Hardwick – stopping the show. Jocelyn Ahlf imperiously spurns love in Never (from On the Twentieth Century) and later melts us with the Rogers and Hammerstein’s affecting song of nostalgia for a love now past, Hello Young Lovers. I particularly enjoyed her uncanny take on Gwen Verdon’s latin-from-Manhattan accent and carnal delivery as the satanic vamp in Whatever Lola Wants (from Damn Yankees). Gianna Read adds a sheen of melancholy to Unusual Way (from Nine). Ron Pederson is funny when he wants to be – romantic when called upon and marvellous in everything he touches. The cast sings solo, breaks off in groups and pursues some really close harmonies featuring the entire company.

Ryan’s direction is spare and subtle, moving her performers around the stage, keeping things interesting and, aided by her excellent selection of songs, never lets the evening become just a succession of melodies. There is no patter between the selections, the songs just keep coming and we are spared the deadly “… and then he wrote” narration that has killed many an enjoyable revue before. Cindy Kerr’s choreography is slick and easy to watch, particularly when danced by Hardwick and Read in an elegant pas de deux to Gershwin’s, S’Wonderful.

Note should be made of music director David Fraser, whose arrangements are complex but lyrical and who is a most sympathetic accompanist.

It’s all as welcome as a spring breeze, light as an apple blossom and delivered with affection.

Let the season of love begin right here.