Stage Door Review 2023

Vaches, the musical

Wednesday, May 17, 2023


music by Brian St-Pierre, book & lyrics by Stéphane Guertin and Olivier Nadon, directed by Dillon Orr

 • Créations In Vivo, Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, Toronto

May 11-13, 2023;

 • Capitol Centre, North Bay;

May 16, 2023;

 • Salle Jean-Depréz, Gatineau, QC

May 26, 2023

“Casselman, oh Casselman

Entre la forêt Larose et pis Moose Creek

C’est le bonheur géographique”

It’s impossible not to like Vaches, the musical. The Franco-Ontarian musical has been touring Ontario since October 2022 and has finally arrived in Toronto, its third last stop, hosted by the Théâtre français de Toronto. The show premiered by Ottawa-based Créations In Vivo in 2020, satirizes as well as celebrates small-town life just as it satirizes as well as celebrates musicals in general.

The setting is in the village of Casselman, Ontario, population 2,877 in 1997, located 34 miles southeast from Ottawa, before, during and after the great ice storm of 1998. The show intertwines several plots. The main plot involves the farmer Jean who is still suffering from the death of his wife several years earlier and is reaching burnout. To his dismay, his daughter Julie does not want to take on the farm which has been in the family for 200 years. Instead, she wants go to fashion school in Toronto and have Jean pay for a condo she has found there.

At the same time, Chris, a former biker who has a green thumb, is lying low at Jean’s farm and helping out while wondering if the biker gang he stole from will ever find him.

Jean realizes that he must sell the farm but in asking around in the community can find no buyers except the town mayor, Constant, who he knows will sell the land to developers. Meanwhile, Marijo, the owner of the local diner which specializes in grilled cheese sandwiches, wonders when Jean will ever notice that she is in love with him.

The ice storm only increases all these tensions. When Casselman loses power, everyone fears what will happen to the cows. If they are not milked regularly, they will develop mastitis, an infection of the udder, which can be fatal. Jean is the only resident with a gas-powered generator and he does heroic work saving as many cows as he can, including those of those who would not buy the farm.

The fundamental basis for the satiric humour in the show is the disparity between the rural subject matter and the pretensions of the show to emulate a Broadway musical. The last two English words of the title, Vaches, the musical, parody the large number of Broadway shows that feel the need to define themselves in their title in a way that the greatest American musicals did not.

The show opens with a grandiose Andrew Lloyd-Webber-like overture that immediately segues into jaunty, folksy opening number “Oh, Casselman!” This opening encapsulates everything that follows – the contrast between high style and low from number to number and especially the contrast between the style of a song and the sense of its lyrics. Despite its upbeat sound, “Casselman” does nothing but point out the villages disadvantages. It’s “Pour ceux et celles qui rêvent de vivre à trente-sept minutes d’Ottawa” and “C’qui manque c’est des postes de tv”.

Brian St-Pierre’s memorable music covers a wide range from the French chanson to rock, disco, tango, rap, country western and more. It’s too bad it is pre-recorded but that is probably necessary for so small a touring company. Stéphane Guertin and Olivier Nadon’s lyrics are unfailingly clever and are filled with surprising rhymes, especially between French and English words. You would think that a husband’s song about his wife’s death in a car crash would be too serious for satire, yet Jean’s ballad on the subject is probably the funniest in the show because of the contrast between the mournful ballad-like music delivered with complete earnestness by Constant Bernard as Jean and the ridiculous tale he tells that her death is all his fault for taking his wedding ring off to do the milking.

Nevertheless, the creative team and director Dillon Orr allow for enough non-satirical moments to resonate that we do actually care about the fate of the town and the central character Jean. Jean’s helping his neighbours during the ice storm is not depicted as funny, Jean’s having to put down his own livestock is deadly serious and Marijo’s longing for Jean is not ridiculed.

A show like this could easily get out of hand and stray into overkill. Accompanying the appearances of the Mayor Constant with a theme similar to the Darth Vader theme in Star Wars is too much and moved the object of satire away from Broadway to movies. Luckily, that is one of very few examples.

As for the acting, director Dillon Orr, who helmed a very different work, Le Club des éphémères, last year, encourages a broad acting style but prevents the cast from giving performances that go over the top. Constant Bernard draws our sympathy to the sad sack Jean, who is an innocent, blind to why Chris is hiding out on his farm, to his daughter’s true nature and to the machinations of the Mayor.

All of the actors have strong voices but that of Geneviève Roberge-Bouchard, who plays Julie, is the strongest and has the widest range. This being the self-reflexive show it is, when Roberge-Bouchard hits her highest note, a character points it out, and when she hits her lowest note, a character points that out, too. She infuses her great opening number with passion, “Dans le tramway”, about escaping to the big city. But as we see eventually, Julie’s demand that Jean pay for her condo is selfish and she herself feels superior to the other Casselmanois.

In contrast to Julie is Emma Ferrante as Marijo, owner of the town’s diner, who is proud to do everything herself and delivers her big number “Je suis mon patron” with panache.

Maxim David makes Chris rather a mystery man. Why is Chris helping out on a farm when his coat is lined with money? David turns out to be a very fine singer and comedian.

Stéphane Gertin, the co-lyricist, shows his versatility in playing the sleazy Mayor Constant among a large number of other roles including Jean’s favourite cow Caramel.

The cleverness of the music and lyrics is reflected in the staging. Andrée-Ève Archambault’s set features three empty door frames into which the cast fit different styles of door to represent various locations in the story. Three of the cast play Jean’s cows using a method that is both simple and ingenious. That itself is funny, once you realize what the actors are playing, but seeing Chris attach the “milking machine”, i.e., clear plastic tubes, to the cows is hilarious.

Franco-Ontarians are quite aware that they are a minority within a minority. One feature of the show is that the action is interrupted several times by broadcasts from Radio-Canada, with each cast member in turn donning a sparkly blue wig as the presenter. The Casselmanois want to hear news about the coming of the storm and its aftermath, but all they hear is news about Montreal, the critique being that Radio-Canada is so Montreal-centric. During one of the last of these newscasts, a character translates Radio-Canada terminology to suit Casselman. So when the presenter speaks of “public transport”, for Casselman it is Highway 417.

Vaches, the musical is a thoroughly delightful show that will lift any mood. Its satiric references come so thick and fast it’s hard to catch them all at one viewing. From all reports the Ontario tour of Vaches has been a great success. Let’s hope that means it might visit Toronto again.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Maxim David, Geneviève Roberge-Bouchard, Constant Bernard as Jean, Emma Ferrante and Stéphane Gertin; Constant Bernard as Jean and Emma Ferrante as Marijo© 2022 Marianne Duval.

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