Photos, Courtesy of the National Arts Centre and the Segal Centre.
Initially, it’s discomfiting. Here are Germaine Lauzon, her family and her pals, richly imagined characters we’ve long associated with a straight-ahead stage play, breaking into song about bingo and being free and no-good boyfriends.
But Belles Soeurs: The Musical, which is based on Michel Tremblay’s evergreen mid-1960s tragicomedy Les Belles-soeurs, soon feels as comfortable as Germaine’s weathered kitchen where all the action takes place. And for the most part those songs work splendidly, showcasing not just some fine voices but the surging loneliness, longing and occasional sisterhood that define the lives of these working class women.
Despite extensive cuts to the original play including the reduction of 15 characters to 12 plus the addition of 15 new songs, the musical cleaves to Tremblay’s original story. Germaine (Astrid Van Wieren), a mix of pride and aspiration and parochialism, wins a million trading stamps. The reward points of their day, they were pasted into books and exchanged for cheap household items like the set of placemats in “real imitation bamboo” that Germaine plans to acquire and which, as we learn in her rafter-raising opening number, she’s sure will set her “free” (the word recurs throughout the show) from her dreary life.
The stamps, of course, prove a revelatory curse. Germaine invites her friends over to help with the pasting, and mean-spiritedness soon spreads through the kitchen as jealousy, greed and fear emerge. The women steal stamps, tear into each others’ vulnerabilities and sing songs like It’s a Dull Life, a bittersweet number about daily life during which they wave about a toilet plunger, duster and the like while the percussionist, one of six on-stage musicians, plays a dangling set of pots and pans.
The women’s affection for each other is also captured in music. Her friends grow impatient when Yvette Longpré (Valerie Boyle) trots out in song the name of everyone who attended her daughter’s wedding, but there’s love here, too, a mutual understanding that the number of wedding guests represent not just your status but your intrinsic value to others.
So much of what goes on in Tremblay’s original work is double-edged like this, and the musical – an adaptation by Brian Hill and Neil Bartram of an earlier French musical adaptation — gets it wonderfully right.
The musical also gets right that all this is very much a picture of Quebec during the province’s cultural sea change in the 1960s. On one hand are Germaine and company, impoverished materially and spiritually by class, the church and outmoded morality.
On the other hand are Germaine’s nightclub-loving daughter Linda (Élise Cormier) and Germaine’s rule-busting sister Pierrette (Geneviève Leclerc). “God intended for girls to sit when they drink,” says Germaine to Linda when castigating her clubbing ways. It’s a ridiculous statement but no more absurd than so many of the other conventions and prejudices Germaine and her generation use as a crumbling shield against a changing world. The musical pulls off the trick of getting us to empathize with Germaine even as we laugh at her silly beliefs.
Directed by René Richard Cyr, who co-created the French musical in 2010, not everything works here. For instance, there’s a predictable and twee bit of business where the elderly, wheelchair-bound and out-of-it Olivine Dubuc (Mary Pitt) suddenly starts grooving to a song. And the musical, being a musical, misses some of the bite of Tremblay’s original.
But with gems like the tragic number My Travelling Salesman and the stop-action, slo-mo Ode to Bingo, Belles-Soeurs: The Musical is a winner.
Belles Soeurs the Musical is at the National Arts Centre. A LANTHIER
Published in the Citizen April 20, 2016
Belles Soeurs: The Musical
Copa de Oro Productions Ltd. (Montreal) and Segal Centre for Performing Arts (Montreal) production
In the NAC Theatre