Denounced and celebrated in equal measure as the linguistic equivalent of a dirty bomb when it first exploded into polite theatrical society, Michel Tremblay’s Great Quebecois Play has inevitably shaken off whatever shock value remained with this makeover into front-runner for Great Quebecois Musical.
Yet enough remains of the comic grit, caustic grief and political clout of the fifty-year-old original to ensure not just an evening of thumping good entertainment, but a bracingly downbeat one as well. Lyricist-director René Richard Cyr and composer Daniel Bélanger have replaced the almost sacramental monologues that punctuated the rough-tongued banter and bitchy gossip of that famous Plateau hen house with beautifully realized musical numbers. Additional plaudits are due to music and lyric adapters Brian Hill and Neil Bartram for this English version of the original francophone production.
Belles Soeurs – The Musical begins with a Broadway-worthy bang, belted out by Astrid Van Wieren as ground-down housewife Germaine Lauzon, whose luck seems to have changed for the better after winning a million trading stamps. Reflecting the downward trajectory of Germaine and friends’ fortunes throughout the evening, the brassy pazzaz of that opener gives way to a more worldly-wise collection of musical numbers that are by turns laugh-aloud funny and punishingly heart-breaking.
Tremblay understood the comic potential of repetition, whether in the succession of women huffing and puffing their way up the three flights to Germaine’s apartment, or Yvette’s obsessively name-checking her daughter’s wedding guests – this latter is given a delightfully funny musical rendition by Valerie Boyle. But repetition of a more sombre kind is at the heart of the story, that of endless, soul-crushing drudgery against which the cold comforts of religious faith and consumerist tat don’t stand a chance.
Unusually for a musical, it all takes place in one location. There’s also a marked absence of romance, with men being absent from the stage, though their malignant influence hovers over all. Instead is a slender plot in which Germaine’s lucky windfall inspires her to throw a stamp-sticking party for her pals who, realizing there’s to be no trickle-down benefit, sullenly stage a lightly fingered revolt.
It’s this resolute narrowing of dramatic horizons that makes the show so affecting and so bitterly funny. Most of the twelve-strong cast get to shine in the spotlight, and do so with wonderful individuality, with everybody pulling off the intricate group dynamic so crucial to the play’s effect.
Tremblay’s joual masterpiece has undergone many transformations over the decades, including a Scottish version (The Guid Sisters) which played the Centaur, and a Yiddish translation at this theatre. Producer Allan Sandler and his Copa de Oro Productions have clearly succeeded in breathing new life into it. Whether Germaine Lauzon finally makes it to the moon or not, this hugely enjoyable show looks set to be going places.
Belles-Soeurs is currently playing at the Segal Centre, extended until November 16
Jim Burke is a playwright and arts journalist originally from England, now resident in Montreal. Amongst his plays are Cornered and an adaptation of Moby Dick. He has written plays for BBC radio. In England, he was Theatre Editor for the arts and lifestyle magazine City Life. Jim currently teaches creative writing at Dawson College’s Centre For Training and Development.