Stage Door Review 2023

Kelly v. Kelly

Sunday, June 4, 2023


Music & lyrics by Britta Johnson, book by Sara Farb, directed by Tracey Flye

The Musical Stage Company with Canadian Stage Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto

May 31-June 18, 2023

Eugenia: “All I’m guilty of is dancing”

Britta Johnson’s latest musical Kelly v. Kelly is a marvel. Book writer Sara Farb has fashioned an intriguing story based on an historical event. In 1915, Mrs. Helen Kelly convinced a local magistrate to have her 19-year-old daughter Eugenia arrested for frequenting tango parlours, the tango then being all the rage. If Eugenia did not stop spending her nights dancing and drinking, Helen was going to have her “declared incorrigible and remanded to her care or jailed”. Flitting from the procedure of the trial itself, the musical explores the pasts of both mother and daughter to seek an explanation how relations between the two should come to such a pass. Johnson’s music and lyrics brilliantly bring Farb’s book alive and director/choreographer Tracey Flye has made dance an integral part of the action.

From the frequent flashbacks we find that Helen Kelly had a very strict upbringing. Her husband Edward Kelly was chosen for her by her family and his as a suitable match. Love was not involved. When Edward died, Helen inherited a fortune. At the time of the action Helen’s daughter is 19 and thus free to do what she likes. The musical only mentions she will inherit the family money. In reality, at age 21 she would inherit a fortune estimated at $1,000,000 (or about $30 million today).

As a child Eugenia was happy to stay home with her mother at night. But as she grew older and learned about the allure of what was called “White Light Broadway” from her friends, she longed to escape. Eugenia’s friends introduced her the popular “tango teas” where well-dressed young men would dance with young ladies for a fee. These stylish male taxi dancers would teach wealthy young women the tango and treat them to a good time, but the general fear of the older generation was that most of the dancers were con men, vilified as “tango pirates”, seeking to charm their clients out of their money.

As we see in the musical, Eugenia arrives at a tango tea knowing nothing about the nightlife on Broadway. At her first tango tea she is content to sit and watch, but one dancer Al Davis, said to be the best dancer at the establishment, takes a shine to Eugenia and teaches her to tango. Soon Eugenia is spending all her nights at the tango bar and she and Al are thought to be an item.

Helen notices the change in her daughter – the sleepiness and the reek of smoke and liquor – and suspects the worse. She has Eugenia trailed by a private detective who uncovers Eugenia’s growing relationship with Davis, whom Helen believes is only after Eugenia’s money.

From this odd incident, Farb draws much more meaning than one might expect. She sees a conflict of generations – Helen’s upholding of Victorian values versus the rise of the New Woman breaking free of convention as embodied in Eugenia. Part of Helen’s Victorian values are the upholding of a patriarchal system where children must obey parents, women obey men and men obey God. The martial-sounding song “The Final Word”, sung by the judge, prosecuting attorney and the men of the chorus makes exactly this point.

Yet, Farb’s look into Helen’s relationship to Edward and Eugenia’s to Davis finds uncomfortable parallels. One of the show’s main songs is “Chosen”, sung by Helen about the privilege of being chosen by such a great man, a song repeated much later by Eugenia about being chosen by Davis to dance with him. The question is “To what extent did both women confuse being ‘chosen’ with being loved?”

Johnson’s music is unfailingly elegant and rich. She draws on all the musical influences of the period from vaudeville and popular music to tango, of course, classical music, particularly Gabriel Fauré it seems, and workers’ anthems. She gives the piece an overall structure, working through individual songs and climaxing in the grand tango number at the centre of the show, where she suggests all the delight, seduction and danger of the tango all at once. The piece finishes again through individual songs, now reflecting on all that has gone before.

An unusual feature of the show is Johnson’s pervasive use of a chorus that makes the show quite unlike other musicals. We first see them as courtroom reporters, but they also double as Eugenia’s friends, tango dancers, Helen’s relatives and others. Johnson weaves their presence into nearly all the songs as they comment on or repeat the sentiments of the principal singer. The omnipresence of the chorus helps emphasize the notion that Kelly v. Kelly is not merely a conflict of mother and daughter but of two world views.

The casting is excellent. Eva Foote with her light, bright agile voice is able to show us the defiant Eugenia at the trial, as well as the awkward and innocent girl on her first visit to a tango club to the disillusioned young woman after the trial. Jessica Sherman, who has a stronger voice well suited to playing Eugenia’s indignant mother. It can become piercing when it reaches it highest notes, but that just enhances her anger. As the same time, Sherman is able to soften and diminutize her voice as well as completely alter her body language when she plays the teenaged Helen.

Jeremy Walmsley is a charismatic Al Davis and we have no difficulty understand how Davis could sweep Eugenia off her feet both literally and figuratively. As a tango pirate Walmsley is physically and vocally all elegance and suavity. When in private with Eugenia, Walmsley allows doubt, calculation and even desperation to enter his tone.

All the remaining cast members play two or more roles. Mike Jackson uses his strong, deep voice to make the Judge seem imposing as well as using a slightly lighter tone to make Edward, Helen’s suitor, equally imposing.

Joel Cumber is the only fully comic character in the musical. He makes Helen’s lawyer into an officious prig and toady to the Judge. He gives his tenor voice a sharp edge to emphasize the comic hyperbole of his sentiments.

Dave Ball, Peter Fernandes, Julia McLellan, Margaret Thompson and Kelsey Verzotti blend beautifully together as the chorus and seem to relish the modern harmonies that Johnson gives them. Jonathan Corkal-Astorga conducts a four-piece band from the piano who only occasionally threaten to overwhelm the singers. Orchestrator Lynne Shankel has violinist Jessica Deutsch double on mandolin and violist Anna Atkinson double on accordion which adds a delicious piquancy to Johnson’s music and especially enhances the tangos.

Lorenzo Savoini has designed a minimalist set for the courtroom that becomes a large number of other locations simply through his artful changes of lighting. Alex Amini’s studiously reproduced styles common in the 1910s for men’s and women’s clothing are key to locating the action in its period.

Farb’s book, Johnson’s music and lyrics and Flye’s choreography unite to tell a compelling story. There are predictable elements to the story, but Farb and Johnson give the tale a modern twist and the story’s commentary about changing social mores is not one bound by any period. There is such a high level of invention in what Farb, Johnson and Flye have created that their work really demands to be seen more than once. It is very easy to imagine Kelly v. Kelly finding success both across Canada and abroad. We in Toronto should realize how terribly spoiled we are to have an organization like The Musical Stage Theatre to bring us so consistently such work of the highest calibre.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Eva Foote as Eugenia Kelly, Jeremy Walmsley as Al Davis and the ensemble, © 2023 Dahlia Katz; Clipping from The New York Times, May 25, 1915; Eva Foote as Eugenia Kelly (far left) and Jessica Sherman as Helen Kelly (far right). © 2023 Dahlia Katz.

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