Last Night at the Gayety, George Bowser and Rick Blue’s rousing musical at the Centaur is a full- throttled if somewhat aimless exercise in nostalgia about how television put an end to Vaudeville in the 1950s.
Through the “magic of dramatic license” the plot centres on burlesque queen Lily St. Cyr’s now legendary appearance at the Gayety playhouse and the attempts by the city’s morality squad, led by crime busting lawyer Pacifique “Pax” Plante, (Daniel Brochu) and the Roman Catholic church to rid Montreal of widespread vice and corruption. Inspired by William Weintraub’s classic, City Unique, the show is a return to the days when Montreal “came by its dishonesty honestly.” It is told in flashback, narrated by Tommy, (Trayne McCarthy) the Gayety’s master of ceremonies.
It begins on a high with a clever opening number This is Before all That, about a city which today exists in the imagination, - ( “When streetcars rolled down St. Kits and a twenty piece orchestra played all the hits.”) That’s followed by another number about municipal corruption and then by a lament to Griffintown, a neighbourhood that was once a city slum. (“In Montreal your social status you can tell, by how many feet above sea level that you dwell.”) The song is designed to advance the sub-plot beneath the vaudeville veener, the budding romance between an impoverished Irish girl, Molly O’Donnelley (Holly Gauthier-Frankel) who has dreams of escaping poverty by going into show biz, and Donald Paradis (Jonan Carson), an engaging cop on the morality squad who looks a lot like Harpo Marx.
The show doesn’t kick into high gear until the stunningly statuesque Julia Juhas appears as Lily St. Cyr 20 minutes into the first act and turns up the temperature. Once things get underway Daniel Brochu is ideal as her mousy thin-lipped nemesis Pax Plante; Davide Chiazzese is suitably feral and funny as the underworld figure, Jimmy Cocchi, and Tamara Brown is delightfully double cast as a brassy and self-assured Madame Biggs and as the trial judge in the second act.
If you can endure the series of vaudeville groaners (“I have to give him a lot of credit” – drumroll –dah duhm – “He has none,”) stale jokes and the often sophomoric approach, there are a few good things about Gayety. Holly Frankel does a truly funny Salome dance routine with a talking head of John the Baptist; the St. Cyr nude bathtub sequence is infused with revealing detail and the chorus of Peek-a-boo girls is captivating. Lily’s trial scene, too is filled with comic shenanigans. Jonan Carson has two of the memorable songs of the evening, Don’t Think, and his love duet with Frankel, When We Have Love.
The romance between Lily and Plante built into the script is unlikely and the second act veers into the surreal as a shoot-the-apple-off-the-head stunt goes awry and the dying Tommy breaks into the final climactic number, Stay Away Death in which he sees visions of the future of entertainment ( Netflix?) on a television screen.
Francis Farley has come up with a set that crowds the stage with theatre marquees above a small red-curtained sweatbox of the Gayety’s stage. Music director Chris Barillaro keeps the comic rhythms flowing and it’s all directed with frisky enthusiasm by Roy Surrette.
Michel Perron is a caricature as the cleric Father D’Anjou; no priest would wear a purple stole to a strip club or twirl its ends about like a pair of pasties. But Last Night at the Gayety is above all a Bowser and Blue fantasy. And in this town audiences will forgive them anything.