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Regional Reviews by Gavin Logan

The Boys in the Photograph
Manitoba Theatre Centre

The Boys in the Photograph
Mateo Gomez
Audiences often think they know what to expect from a Lloyd Webber musical: repetitive themes, huge sets, power ballads, anthropomorphism, a lobby filled with logo-emblazoned T-shirts and fridge magnets, and a two-hour escape from anything approaching serious. In many ways this is an obvious misconception (after all, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, and even Aspects of Love were serious attempts to tell stories deemed by many to be commercial impossibilities).

It was quite a shock, therefore, when in September of 2000, Lloyd Webber and leftist British comedian Ben Elton unveiled The Beautiful Game to West End audiences. Centering on the slow dissolution and breakdown of an Irish Catholic soccer team as the Catholic/ Protestant troubles grew in the late 1960s, The Beautiful Game was a major departure for Lloyd Webber, who shied away from the operatic tendencies of Phantom and Aspects of Love and instead produced a rock-influenced, dissonant, stark score - very much kin to the angular and jarring music of Evita. The show was by turns comical, dark, depressing and uncompromising in its attitudes towards sectarian violence. It garnered some of the best reviews of Lloyd Webber's career - and one of the shortest commercial runs of his career, as well.

When it was announced that Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton were re-envisioning the show and score, and had chosen the Manitoba Theatre Centre (situated in the downtown theatre district of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), I was intrigued and worried all at once. Elton's intent, stated in several interviews leading up to the premiere performance of the new version, was to leave the audience with less of a feeling of despair and loss. The original show ended bleakly, to say the least, with the young protagonist leaving his wife and child to fight for the IRA. Elton always felt that the implied message was that there is no possibility of hope in a society ravaged by wanton terrorism and sectarianism. The Boys in the Photograph is the result of Elton and Lloyd Webber's collective efforts to improve upon the original show's flaws.

Is The Boys in the Photograph any good? The answer is: certainly. It is a show with extreme heart, featuring one of Lloyd Webber's best scores, and lyrics that manage, in all of their simplicity, to convey true human passion, joy, regret, fear and humour. Lloyd Webber and Elton have contributed three brand-new songs to the score, removed a few and rearranged the order of others; the result is impressive, but not without some minor flaws. Elton himself has directed the show, and the production is smooth and polished.

The Boys in the Photograph begins with newsreel footage of the violence and rioting in Northern Ireland as offstage female voices sing a verse of the title song, a new one added during the rewrite. The ballad immediately prepares the audience to question which boys on the team will rise above and which will succumb to the violence and hatred all around them. This snippet of song, however, doesn't last long, and we are then plunged headlong into the dissonant and unsettling overture, complete with a turgid and unrelenting ostinato bass line reminiscent in tone of the relentless guitar riffs that symbolize Judas's strife in Lloyd Webber's score for Jesus Christ Superstar.

The story itself revolves around rising football (soccer) star John Kelly (Tony LePage) and his growing relationship with Mary Maguire (Erica Peck); John plans to be a famous football star, while Mary's focus is on the growing troubles in Ireland. The couple are inevitably attracted to one another. Also on the team is Protestant Del (Brandon McGibbon), who is really an atheist ("I'm an atheist and an internationalist," he tells the Catholic thugs who bully him off the team. "I recognize neither God nor country."). Del is dating Christine (Tracy Dawson), a fiery Catholic girl who couldn't care less what others think of her relationship with Del. Del is booted off the team by Thomas Malloy (Richard Harte), who grows increasingly convinced that violence is the only way to gain independence for the Catholics. The numerous exchanges between Thomas and Mary provide some of the show's most interesting counterpoints in opinion. Both characters are dedicated to improving the lot of the Catholics in Northern Ireland, but there the similarities end. Mary attends marches and peace protests, while Thomas finds the bombings and aggression of the IRA approach much more effective. The plot itself is fairly basic and predictable; it is in the handling of such grave material that the true interest lies.

The new songs in the production are uniformly excellent, and the reassignment of certain key numbers from the original serves to improve the dramatic tension significantly. However, there are a few flaws in the ways in which Elton and Lloyd Webber have integrated them into the scenes. To begin with, the title song, briefly sung before the overture and then again after the rollicking rock anthem "The Beautiful Game" (an excellent paean to football that was wisely retained from the original) seems out of place. I was left feeling that perhaps the entire number should be placed before the overture, as a prologue of sorts. As it stands now, it seems to disrupt the flow of the exposition just as it is gaining momentum.

In The Beautiful Game, "Let Us Love In Peace" was sung by Del and Christine as they yearned for a better future; a ballad, it seemed out of place in the mouths of the hard-edged characters. For the new production, Lloyd Webber and Elton have written a hard-driving rock number of teenage angst and loathing for Del and Christine ("Born in Belfast"); they are resentful and cannot wait to leave. This new addition to the score is effective in its angry energy and it gives the authors an opportunity to show a third side to the conflict: those who chose neither side and simply wanted out. Dawson and McGibbon have raw, powerful voices, and the song suits them perfectly. "Let Us Love In Peace" is now sung by the characters of Bernadette (Jacqueline French) and Gregory "Ginger" O'Shaughnessy (Shawn Meunier). This shift is logical and increases the impact when sung again a few short scenes later at Ginger's funeral.

The third major song added to the production ("It Will Never End") is a confrontation between Thomas and John. The song is a dour and upsetting meditation on the impossibility of winning the war. It is in keeping with the dark undercurrents established in the overture and then heavily emphasized in the ideological numbers such as "Dead Zone." However, the number begins awkwardly in the scene; in truth, the entire scene would benefit from underscoring. The music Lloyd Webber has created for the moment is dour and unsettled, as is the speech Elton has written for the characters as they confront one another. Underscoring would serve to make the transition from speech to singing less jarring.

The power and innovative music from the original score are happily recreated in the MTC production. Only two numbers from the original are gone: the showcase ballad "Our Kind of Love" and the wedding song "To Have and To Hold" were absent. Neither is particularly missed. Numbers such as "The Final" and "The Craic" are exciting and energetic, staged with brilliant choreography by Tracey Flye, who creates entirely believable football sequences and drunken dance party moves, capturing the innocence, hormones, testosterone and swagger of a gang of teenaged footballers and their girlfriends. The audience also greatly appreciated the humour in the wedding night song "The First Time." The coupling of nervous virgin John singing "Hope there's lead in my pencil when/ I lose my cherry/ this very first time" to one of Lloyd Webber's more expansive and gorgeous melodies is a moment worth treasuring.

The cast is extremely well-suited to tackle Lloyd Webber's score; the powerhouse performance of the production belongs to Erica Peck when she sings the stand and deliver anthem "If This Is What We're Fighting For"; the song is a capella for well over a minute and a half (another rarity for Lloyd Webber is the stark orchestration).

Ben Elton's staging, too, is effective. The cast is clearly seen moving the set pieces on and off stage, as well as turning the two large set pieces in a variety of angles and directions to create an endless array of Belfast locations. In the evening's most effective sequence ("Dead Zone") John is thrown into an IRA internment camp and a chain link fence descends from the fly gallery; the lighting is intense and stark, creating ominous shadows on the faces of the inmates as they berate, belittle and then befriend John. Those naysayers who insist a Lloyd Webber show is dependent on extravagant sets would be suitably chastised. The only complaint I have with the staging is in Elton's use of projected photographs of individual players. They seemed too 'clean' and staged.

All in all, The Boys in the Photograph is an intense and eventually uplifting story about the power of love in overcoming hatred and despair. It will be interesting to see what additional changes, if any, the creators will add to the production in the event of a Toronto or New York transfer. Lloyd Webber and Elton have definitely succeeded in improving what was already a good piece, and the Manitoba Theatre Centre proved itself to be a wise choice for a trial run.

The Boys in the Photograph plays at the Manitoba Theatre Centre, 174 Market Ave, Winnipeg, MB, Canada through May 23rd. For tickets, visit the website at: www.mtc.mb.ca.

The Boys in the Photograph A New Musical based on The Beautiful Game. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by Ben Elton. Book by Ben Elton. Directed by Ben Elton. Set and Costume design by Brian Perchaluk. Sound design by John Bent Jr. Lighting design by Michael J. Whitfield. Musical supervision by Bob Foster. Fight direction by Rick Skene. Cast: Kathryn Ballantine, Matthew Bradley, Caleb Cosman, Tracy Dawson, Tom Delbello, Kelly Fletcher, Jacquelyn French, Jeff Giles, Richard Harte, Allie Hughes, David Hurwitz, Joanna Keats, Cody Scott Lancaster, Tony LePage, Brandon McGibbon, Richard McMillan, Adrienne Merrell, Shaun Meunier, Matt Murray, Carson Nattrass, Laura Olafson, Ange Pagano, Kristen Peace, Erica Peck, Justin Stadnyk.


Photo: Bruce Monk


-- Gavin Logan