The advance buzz on London Road has been a little overwhelming. While the publicity about a whole new form of musical was intriguing, it was the astounded raves from those rehearsing, or who had seen previews, that are making London Road a major event. And London Road, for the most part, lives up to the hype.
Like a big splashy Broadway musical, London Road boasts a huge inventive set and a large extraordinarily talented cast; unlike a Broadway blockbuster London Road aims for intimacy and instead of an arcing plot-line, creates a powerful portrait of everyday people coping with unusual and dramatic circumstances: a mash up between a musical and a multi-voiced documentary like The Laramie Project or The Farm Show. Based on interviews with those affected by the murders of five prostitutes on a small British street, the result resembles Coronation Street: The Musical. This turns out to be a very compelling and absorbing hybrid.
The first half of London Road is utterly magical - the first set transformation is a stunner - and the characters introduce themselves fully formed as people we either seem to know or want to know. The music is clever but not self-consciously so. Written to conform to the speech patterns of the interviewees, the rhythms take advantage of pauses, stutters and vocal tics to create an utterly naturalistic and distinctive form of song. That there is still ear-catching melody is a credit to the composer Adam Cork - the final score resembles the power of operatic recitative but is seductive and honest.
The musical component flies into high gear with the number - though I hesitate to call it a "number," it is a dramatic musical duologue with a Greek chorus - "You Automatically Think It Could Be Him." A nervous laugh is used as musical punctuation and the melodic and lyrical threads weave in and out with the skill of Sondheim. This is followed by an echoing, highly comic, piece by a quartet of the men that reiterates and illuminates while still being utterly fresh.
The only quibble, and what makes the finale anti-climactic, is that we are so conditioned for a big showstopper that its absence is felt subconsciously. However, doing so would have betrayed London Road's roots and aims. Fiona Reid, who is spectacularly ordinary and fidgety as Julie, has the 11 o'clock number but instead of bombast, it is quiet, emotionally complex and devastating, indicting the entire audience while calling into question all that has come before. It is a brilliant moment, wonderfully played with incredible vulnerability, and breaks the heart instead of demanding toe-tapping.
Beyond song, dance and documentary: London Road
The entire ensemble is flawless, possessed of gorgeous voices, and slide in and out of characters with nimble ease. Director Jackie Maxwell, who handles big musicals with aplomb, keeps the action fluid and the focus always exactly where it should be. It seems unfair to single out any performer but Reid does deserve mention for being the emotional fragile core, and Damien Atkins makes a magnificent comically frustrated journalist as well as a wet dream of a bone-headed ex-boxer bloke. Daddy bear George Masswohl has the tricky business of setting the stage and introducing the audience to the conventions of this original musical style, before settling genially into a stolid voice of reason who anchors the emotional chaos to come. The audience meets the inhabitants of London Road - as well as ravenous journalists, sex workers who survived, the shattered couple next door, an imperious floral competition judge, etc - and each is delineated precisely and with heart.
The heightened realism and the cast's consummate skill makes one particular chilling lyric ring, "It could have been anywhere. It could have been next door to you." The real London Road has apparently become a tourist destination for serial killer groupies; if it is a quarter as captivating as this London Road, then it is worth visiting. Somewhere beyond song and dance lies a road leading directly to the heart.
London Road continues until Sun, Feb 9 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front St E. canadianstage.com