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Members of the Arraymusic Ensemble, John Millard and Tamara Bernier. Photo: Andrée Lanthier
Members of the Arraymusic Ensemble, John Millard and Tamara Bernier. Photo: Andrée Lanthier

Theatre review: The Wrong Son at the NAC, Ottawa

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The NAC in Ottawa has opened its season with The Wrong Son, which runs through October 7. Resident theatre critic Connie Meng attended a recent performance and has our review.

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Connie Meng
Theatre Critic

My initial response to the world premiere of THE WRONG SON written and composed by Allen Cole was simply, "Wow!"  This is the third production I've seen directed by Peter Hinton, the NAC's new Artistic Director, and all three have been visually stunning and highly theatrical.  THE WRONG SON is a noir thriller with a score described by the writer/composer as, quote, ". . . a kind of jazz groove film noir recitative."

THE WRONG SON takes place in 1949 and concerns Ryle, a war-time pilot turned piano player.  He and his singer girlfriend Maggie have come up with a hit song, but then one night Ryle's drunken ex-wife Peg shows up.  A murder ensues and Ryle is on the run, beginning his typically noir struggle to escape the inescapable.  We learn what happens mostly from Ryle's point of view including his dreams and some of his thoughts articulated by the two-person chorus.

Dany Lyne's terrific set and costumes perfectly set up the noir world of grays and blacks with character accents in bright primary colors.  The musicians are in a stylized recording studio high in the back wall and visible through a wide window.  Set changes are accomplished with a few gauzy curtains and the use of a number of traps in the floor.  The costumes and hair styles are perfect late 40s, including those for the musicians.  I particularly liked Maggie's white boots and the distressing of the Father's gold pants and sweater.

John Monro's lighting is equally wonderful.  Deceptively simple, he often uses tightly focused shafts of light that produce giant shadows on the side wall.  At times the shiny grey floor bounces reflections of the characters onto the band window.  Mr. Munro is a master of atmospheric lighting.  I'll never look at a mirror ball the same way again.

Peter McBoyle's sound is also excellent, especially the passing cars and of course the perfect balance between the musicians and the singers.  Let me take a moment to congratulate Stage Manager Laurie Champagne.  This incredibly complex production moves smoothly and without a hitch.

The cast is uniformly superb.  They're without exception very good actors and great singers.  I'm not sure where they're finding some of their pitches in this difficult score.  I'd like to specifically mention Randi Helmers and John Millard who act as the chorus as well as playing police detectives.  Their performances are quite remarkable, particularly their laughing scene with Ryle.

The instrumental accompaniment is provided by the Arraymusic Ensemble of Toronto, a group of seven exceptional musicians led by Bob Stevenson.  Vocal Music Director Richard Evans has seen to it that every word of this complex score is understandable - quite an accomplishment.

Mr. Cole's music ranges from recitative to a really nice 40s style ballad, "Falling in Love with You."  The Act I song "Please Don't Speak" reappears in Act II as a powerful duet.  Mr. Cole has also done terrific orchestrations, even using the cop's typewriter as part of the percussion.

Director Peter Hinton has done a wonderful job with THE WRONG SON.  The attention to detail is faultless, right up to the glitter rain on the detective's fedora.  The characters all come to life on the stage and the level of creativity in the production sets a very high standard.  Mr. Hinton has certainly begun his first season at the NAC with a bang. 

I don't know if I would call THE WRONG SON a musical. It's not classifiable and is unique.  It may not be everyone's shot of whisky, but it's certainly mine. 

On a scale of one to five the NAC/Arraymusic co-production of THE WRONG SON gets five Royal Canadian Mounted Police, horses and all.  For North Country Public Radio I'm Connie Meng.  

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