My Gay Toronto - MGT Stage

Theatre review

Happiness returns

by Drew Rowsome

The Picture of Happiness is about to launch a "prairie home tour" and, luckily for us, there is a Toronto preview on Sat, June 1 before Brad Hampton and Patti Loach head westward. This show is a tour de force of intimate storytelling and musical magic. Having seen the last incarnation twice and being surprised and delighted both times, I can only anticipate what fine tuning these two consummate artists and their director Rae Ellen Bodie have done. This is my preview and review of the October 2012 version.

Confessions on a theatre floor

“It’s awesome in terms of romance,” says Brad Hampton of his autobiographical cabaret The Picture of Happiness. “The idea of a young soldier in 1941 — all the terror, waste and fear.” When he was 23, Hampton found a photo of two men in his grandmother’s basement. One was his grandfather, the other a mystery. Inquiries led nowhere, with his mother and grandmother repeating, “We don’t talk about it. We never talk about it.”
The secret is pretty obvious to a gay audience but still manages to shock in its telling. “Brad is the first male — well, kind of male — singer I’ve worked with,” says pianist/collaborator Patti Loach. “I have three sons, and a year into the process of The Picture of Happiness my youngest son came out. The process was easier because of Brad. My kids know a lot of gay men, but they love Brad. It made it as easy as it can be. And there are no secrets."
“Our goal was to honour the story and open up the secret,” Hampton says. “To tell it and how it was resolved. I don’t think my family were the only people who had secrets. It opens a door for people to tell their secrets.”

Cozy cabaret elicits big emotions

 The Picture of Happiness feels like spending an hour with an old friend who has a surprising story to relate. A very talented friend who revels in the act of telling and also just happens to sing like a dream. Brad Hampton’s tale of the consequences of keeping family secrets, and his eventual triumph over the aftermath, is tuneful, funny and ultimately heart-breaking. Hampton has a conversational voice that is free of the showy money notes except when the drama calls for them – it is all the more dramatic because of the restraint. Far better to be brought to tears by a casual coup de theatre or laughter by a buoyant bon mot, than be battered by jazz hands and notes sustained for effect.

Hampton’s understated delivery is undone when he morphs into his mother who quickly becomes a second character in the performance. The ease with which he compassionately channels a woman who could be a caricature is charming and it is only after that one notices there is only actor on stage. Pianist Patti Loach fills out the trio and, as well as creating music to illustrate any and all moods, joins in the action and makes an able foil for Hampton. The two have an almost empathic skill and obviously adore each other and believe utterly in the pathos and joy of the story.

The songs are drawn from sources familiar and obscure. “The Dieter’s Prayer” is a tour-de-force of hilarity and also displays just what Hampton’s voice can do. The rendition of the chestnut “Moon River” turns a piano bar staple into a gay anthem and reminds the audience that some melodies are beautifully matched to the lyrics, and even more so when thoughtfully and passionately performed. Seeing The Picture of Happiness in an intimate setting is a perfect conceptual underline to the telling of secrets but also a chance to get close before the show inevitably moves to larger venues.

The Picture of Happiness is on Sat, June 1 at Jazz in the Kitchen, 52 Pine Crescent.