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Regional Reviews by Gavin Logan

The Boys in the Photograph
Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto

The Boys in the Photograph
Ericka Peck
It may be an obscure reference (although I doubt it), but when I was exiting the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto this past Friday evening, there were two gentlemen in front of me commenting on the evening's proceedings, and I was instantly reminded of Jim Henson's grumpy critics on The Muppet Show. Their conversation went like this:

"It's a great score, isn't it?" "Well, it's a Lloyd Webber score, anyways ..."
"He sure can write a melody, though, if not much else ..."
"I suppose...."

I was intrigued by the exchange because, to me, the show has always been somewhat of a departure for Lloyd Webber, right from its early days as The Beautiful Game. To hear it referred to as a typical melodic Lloyd Webber score was jarring. I found myself wondering "I can't be that wrong, can?"

The Boys in the Photograph, adapted from Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton's earlier acclaimed work The Beautiful Game, is an excellent testament to the old adage about not succeeding and trying again. The Boys in the Photograph deals with sectarian violence that erupts in Ireland as tensions rise between the Protestants and the Catholics, tearing apart the lives and friendships of a small group of teenaged footballers and the girls who adore them. The score is one of Lloyd Webber's best—a blend of the Celtic influences of Ireland and yes, there are the aforementioned melodic tendencies that Lloyd Webber is most known for. But it boasts more than simply pretty songs. For every gorgeous and soaring melody, there is an equally jarring and angular tune: songs such as "I'd Rather Die On My Feet Than Live On My Knees" and "Dead Zone" are pulsing with anger, frustration, and the impotent rage of youths who are victims of their own circumstances. In many ways, this score is a throwback to earlier Lloyd Webber scores such as Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar, and yet it also displays a desire on the part of the composer to find a new and unique melodic and harmonic voice. The orchestrations are stark and unlike a typical Cullen/ Lloyd Webber collaboration. These are all reasons to see the show as something more than another batch of hummable, pretty, but theatrically inert songs from Lloyd Webber.

The score has improved since its run in Winnipeg#151;no new songs, but the songs that were added for the Winnipeg run ("The Boys in the Photograph," "Born in Belfast" and "It Will Never End") each feel much more "at home" now. Underscoring would more effectively introduce "It Will Never End" in the scene in which it appears, but, overall, Lloyd Webber's contributions to the score are unique, intriguing and entertaining.

Elton and Lloyd Webber, feeling slightly uncomfortable with the unhappy ending of their original work, have re-envisioned their tale with wonderful results. Rather than leaving his wife and child to join the IRA at the end of the show, John Kelly (played with gusto and truly believable teenaged bravado by Tony LePage) is redeemed by the power of love. In Winnipeg, this newly written ending seemed, if not sloppy, at least somewhat tacked on. Elton, wearing his director hat as well as being the show's lyricist/librettist, has re-ordered some of the final scenes, building a bit more tension in the minds of the audience before John reaches his cathartic decision. The effect is much more believable.

Other changes are less noticeable, but the small changes throughout the show have added up to a vastly improved final product. Elton's direction and staging have been tightened and re-imagined as well. In the previous incarnation, Elton employed a freeze every time the audience was informed of another unfortunate youth's demise, whilst the orchestra would play an instrumental reminder of the (quite lovely) title song. Again, the effect was cloying at times, and seemed to stop the action. Elton has eliminated these freezes and in many scenes the dialogue continues on, underscored by the tune rather than interrupting the flow of the action.

The set, designed by Brian Perchaluk, is effectively used. With brick facades and washed out colours, it reveals the impoverished lives the characters lead, while somehow also conveying a sense of familiarity, of home, of possession. The set adds to the believability of the story; this area of the city may be a dump, but it's the only dump these characters have, and they will fight to defend it. The technique of moving the set visibly is also an intriguing device; it is always moved in character by the actors, successfully preparing the audience for the tone of the scene to come, or allowing the emotions of the previous scene to linger where appropriate.

Only one staging element remains somewhat unsatisfactory. The projected images of the players that appear intermittently as they are disabled, killed, etc., still seem much too clean and "Photoshopped." I believe part of the problem is that the show opens with a black and white projection of the team onto the scrim, but throughout the rest of the show the images appear in colour, bright and vibrant, in a way that seems out of keeping with the gritty realities presented in the show, not to mention the time period.

I cannot praise the hard working and dedicated cast enough. Ericka Peck, famous in Toronto for her performance in Elton's other musical, We Will Rock You, rules the stage with her feisty attitude and powerful vocals. Her delivery of the anthem "If This Is What We Are Fighting For" deserves to be called an iconic performance; Peck nails its bittersweet reflective tone perfectly. Shawn Meunier (Gregory "Ginger" O'Shaughnessy) and Jacquelyn French (Bernadette) are pitch perfect as the innocent and hapless youths who share their first kiss only minutes before the show's first heartbreaking demise. Richard Harte is outstanding in his role as Thomas Malloy, who joins the IRA, betrays friends, makes pacts with enemies and finally accepts with resignation his own eventual betrayal. Harte's performance is the most interesting to watch, as his character undergoes a number of changes throughout the show. Each change is made completely believable by Harte.

Over all, Elton and Lloyd Webber seem to be on the right track with this show. The changes made, however slight they might seem, have improved what was already a very good show. It will be interesting to see what other improvements and additions the pair might make to the score in the event the show has another tryout on the long road to a re-mount in London or even a New York opening. For those who can't wait for the next North American destination, it is scheduled to open the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg next May.

The Boys in the Photograph runs until November first at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto. For tickets, call (416) 872-1212 or (800) 461-3333 or visit www.mirvish.com.


Photo: Bruce Monk

--Gavin Logan