Stage Door Review 2019

Rose: A New Musical

Jan 25, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

music and book by Mike Ross, lyrics and book by Sarah Wilson, directed by Gregory Prest

Soulpepper Theatre Company, Young Centre, Toronto

January 23-February 24, 2019

“Once upon a time the world was round”

Rose, Soulpepper’s first-ever original musical proves to be thoroughly delightful. The show with music by Mike Ross, lyrics by Sarah Wilson and a book by both is based on the 1939 children’s novel The World Is Round by modernist author Gertrude Stein (1874-1946). This is the same Gertrude Stein famous for such tautological remarks as “A rose is a rose is a rose”, and Ross and Wilson make frequent use of Stein’s text and include much of the seemingly, though not actually, nonsensical wordplay found in almost every line of the book. The story is about a 9-year-old girl Rose, who is suffering an existential crisis. It’s doubtful whether children or even some adults will understand this, but Ross and Wilson make the show so full of music and fun that most people will enjoy it simply for the pleasure it brings.

Ross and Wilson introduce a narrator Frank (Frank Cox-O’Connell) playing guitar with a bluegrass backup of Raha Javanfar on fiddle and John Millard on banjo, who begin the show with a wild arrangement of the first line of Stein’s book, “Once upon a time the world was round and you could go on it around and around.” Speaking, Frank tells us about a town in the world called Somewhere, a place where everybody is happy and everybody is eager to tell you their name. This leads to an exuberant sequence where we meet everyone in the town. Each stands on a dais, tells us what they do and tells us their name. Ross has cleverly characterized each of the inhabitants musically using everything from a single violin to accompany the oldest woman in town to Hi-NRG disco to accompany the two gym instructors. 

The one exception to this trend toward self-denomination in the community is Rose (Hailey Gillis). She knows her name. Everybody else knows her name. The trouble is that she can’t say her name. The reason for this she admits is complicated, but it is basically because she does not know who she is and therefore can’t state the name of who she is. Those familiar with other works by Stein will know that one of her most notable quirks is to treat the name of a thing as the irreducible thing itself. That why “a rose is a rose is a rose”. 

To overcome this problem, Rose decides that if she discovers the what, when, which and why of herself she will also discover the who. Soulpepper claims the show is suitable for ages 5 to 105, but the way Stein expresses Rose’s problem and its solution, dutifully followed by Ross and Wilson, already raises the lower age range to at least 9 or 10. 

Although we were introduced to all the town’s inhabitants, it turns out that the one adult who is most important is Miss Crisp (Sabryn Rock), the schoolteacher. Indeed, the musical alternates between scenes in the classroom and those elsewhere so that the school routine grounds the show in its stability in contrast to Rose’s volatility. 

Miss Crisp has chosen this week of lessons to make up “World Week” in which the pupils will learn all about the world. Her first lesson using a film projected unseen by us into the wings shows that everything is round. The world is round. The moon is round The sun is round. The stars are round. Crisp has the pupils sing these statements with accompanying gestures and Ross, cleverly again, has the pupils sing the statements as a round rather like “Frère Jacques”.

Miss Crisp’s subsequent lessons teach that everyone on earth is moving even when we are stationary because the earth rotates at 1000 miles per hour and is simultaneously moving through space at 67,000 miles per hour around the sun, which is in a galaxy that is also rotating. She next teaches how big the earth is followed by another lesson on how small it is compared to other planets and the galaxy. Crisp’s lecture only causes Rose great distress. “Where is here?” she asks, leading Crisp to demonstrate comically but accurately that the terms are relative. “How can the earth be both big and small?” she asks, leading Crisp to make the key statement of the show that everything depends on perspective. 

Finally, tired of Rose’s unending stream of questions, Crisp tells Rose to do something rather than merely think – to do something she’s has never done before. So she and her best friend Willie (Peter Fernandes) and her dog Love (Jonathan Ellul), all leave in the opposite direction from the way they usually take after school. This leads them to the Lion Lady (Alana Bridgewater), who allows Rose to choose a lion to take with her. From this encounter Rose discovers that, meek as she seems to be, she is really “wild”. 

While this section may be amusing and the sight on the Soulpepper stage of a group who look like indignant refugees from Cats is very funny, the encounter with someone who deliberately helps Rose find out who she is seems out of character for the story. The reason for this is simply that there is no such scene in Stein’s book. Instead, Willie’s father buys him a lion that Willie gives to Rose. Since she can’t bring it to school, she gives it back to Willie and a linguistic debate ensues about what a lion actually is

Rose’s second adventure in the musical is truer to the novel where it is Rose’s only adventure. In the musical Rose gets the idea of climbing the mountain near Somewhere from Miss Crisp’s discussion of Sir Edmund Hillary’s climbing of Mount Everest. In the novel the idea occurs to Rose all on her own.

It is by climbing the mountain and realizing after many near-disasters that she can’t really reach the top that Rose discovers who she is. Her epiphany, which is what she literally calls it, comes down to Sartre’s summation of central tenet of existentialism – “existence precedes essence”. Rose has mistakenly been searching for the pure essence of her self, but she finally sees that she is a unique amalgam of everything she has done.

Whether much of the adult audience, let alone a young audience, will understand the deeper meaning of why Rose finally comes to be satisfied with who she is is quite doubtful since for many it will be too abstruse and since Ross and Wilson have Rose explain her revelation far too quickly. What most will see is that Rose strives against all odds to climb a mountain, stops when she can go no further and realizes that both her strength in climbing and knowing her limit in stopping are sufficient reasons to say she knows who she is. 

Ross and Wilson make Rose’s discovery of who she is and the ability to say her name the climax of the show and omit Stein’s ending. In Stein, Rose and Willie get married and have children. This completing of the cycle of life is one of the reasons the story is called The World Is Round. Feminists will be surprised that a feminist icon like Stein should end the original story in such a conventional way, but Stein is interested in the circularity of all things including life. One can see why Ross and Wilson would choose to omit Stein’s ending to make Rose a fable of female empowerment, but it does seem to go counter to all the imagery of roundness that imbues Stein’s language. After all, the ability to say her name, in fact, makes Rose just like all the other inhabitants of Somewhere. It was her questioning of everything that made her special. 

The World Is Round may be a philosophical meditation on identity, but Ross and Wilson’s adaptation strives to lend it as much verve and action as they can. First of all is Ross’s music which, while very at home with the bluegrass of Frank and crew, is extremely varied and inventive. Frank and company are not the only musicians on stage. Ross also has an ensemble of piano (James Smith), bass (Scott Hunter) and drums (Adam Warner) at his disposal rather incongruously dressed as a wedding band in white suits with 1970s style ruffled shirts. On occasion actor Michelle Bouey will also join in on the cello. There are many wonderful moments throughout, such as when Rose finally sings out her name. But the one song most will remember is sung by Rose’s dog Love, whose mistress has forgotten to let him outside to do his business. Ellul’s rendition of “Let Love Out” with its double meaning is the funniest song of the show.

Director Gregory Prest masterfully keep the action on stage constantly flowing and never allows the use of Lorenzo Savoini’s projections to overwhelm the show. Instead, Prest rises to the challenge of depicting Rose climb up the mountain using purely theatrical means. Cast members quickly move the school desks one in front of the other to create the path Rose follows and the peak she reaches in made of several desks piled on top of each other. Transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary is exactly the philosophy that theatre for children, or clever adults, should follow.

The musical itself is very well cast. Hailey Gillis beautifully conveys the mixture of frustration, determination, embarrassment, strength and longing that make Rose such a sympathetic character. Peter Fernandes’ Willie is an excellent foil for Gillis’s Rose, since he has blissfully never questioned who he is but is fascinated and protective of someone like Rose who does.

Sabryn Rock plays many roles just in the first 15 minutes of the show, but her main role is as the teacher Miss Crisp and this role gives her a chance to show off her abundant talent in comedy which I’ve not seen before. Her Miss Crisp is very funny in her attempt not to let Rose’s incessant questioning distract her from her lessons, but incrementally Rock demonstrates that this is exactly what happens until Miss Crisp actually has to talk to herself to keep herself under control.

Jonathan Ellul is very amusing as Rose’s very serious dog Love, who is so frustrated that humans don’t understand what he is saying. Alana Bridgewater is commanding and mysterious as the Lion Lady. Oliver Dennis is suitably supercilious as the lion Billie. And Frank Cox-O’Connell is ideal as Frank the Logger, the genial singer and narrator of the story who always seems to have a glint of mischief in his eye.

Much as I enjoyed the show, I always felt that it seemed like a musical for children that would better be appreciated by adults. On opening night there were hardly any children present so it was impossible to judge what children as young as five would make of it. Musicals at Young People’s Theatre, like last year’s Mary Poppins, are cut to 90 minutes without an interval even if the original were two hours or more and had an interval. Rose could stand to be cut to at most two hours including interval instead of its present two hours plus interval. Losing the Lion Lady scene would mean losing Alana Bridgewater’s big number, but an all-knowing character in a show about knowing limits and Rose’s learning she is “wild” don't fit with the lighter whimsical tone of the rest of the show.

Finding exactly the balance in humour and meaning in a show meant to be enjoyed by young and old, as in Matilda The Musical, is extremely difficult to achieve. Only its run before a series of very different audiences will tell Ross and Wilson how much children actually understand about what’s happening on stage and how and where to adjust the show accordingly. Adults, however, need not worry. They’ll have a great time simply enjoying Ross’s music and feeling like kids again.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Sabryn Rock as Miss Crisp, Hailey Gillis as Rose, Raquel Duffy and ensemble; (foreground) Hailey Gillis as Rose, Jonathan Ellul as Love, (background) John Millard on banjo; Raha Javanfar on fiddle, Frank Cox-O’Connell as Frank, Peter Fernades as Logger and ensemble. © 2019 Cylla von Tiedemann.

For tickets, visit soulpepper.ca.