By Alan Hustak on October 6, 2013

Montreal’s  English Language theatre season is off to a rousing start with two shows:  The premiere of local playwright  Steve Galluccio’s acerbic but stirring family drama,  St Leonard Chronicles at the Centaur and a wonderfully entertaining revival of the Fats Waller cabaret  musical revue,  Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the Segal Centre.   It takes a while for the jfoint to start jumping at the Segal, but when it really gets off the ground in the second act, it leaves you on a high wanting more.  In addition to the title tune, the revue includes favorites like  I’m Gonna  Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,  Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness if I Do, and lesser-known crowd pleasers like the silly but irresistible Your Feet’s  Too Big. 

aint_misbehaving.jpgDirector Roger  Peace  covered the same ground before when he staged a local production almost 20 years ago.  Peace makes the show all about the music  and  skips over much of the subtext in the script. Back in the 30’s when Waller’s act ran in Harlem it was billed as the Hot Chocolates.  Radically chic whites out slumming for a thrill would walk through the front doors of the club, while the Black entertainers still  had to enter through the back doors.  The tune, Black and Blue, for example, was originally an interracial lament.  And Lounging at the Waldorf has a bitter edge to it.  Still this is vibrant ensemble  delivers finger- snapping, toe- tapping standards with  panache. Chris Barillaro swings on the piano in authentic Wallerian style. The cast is terrific, especially  newcomer Aiza Ntibarikure, a diminutive fireball of talent who is all sass; she doesn’t need  a spotlight to illuminate a stage.  Jonathan Emile slithers with undulating charm through the Viper’s Drag, an anthem to “a reefer five feet long,” written in response to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics declaration of war on swing musicians who used marijuana.   Michael-Lamont Lytle does the carefree,  hand slapping rendition of Your Feet’s Too Big;  Kim Richardson is the red hot mamma who scores with Mean to Me and Toya Alexis  gives a sultry rendition of When The Nylons Bloom Again.  Individually each of them have their moment to shine, together, they glow. 

 The costumes are a garish grab bag of mismatched colours, the  dance routines somewhat predictable rely heavily on stilted two- step movement and hand-jive choreography.   And some of the better lines in the script are thrown away; in particular, a bigger broadcast voice is needed to sell the radio commercial  and the final punch line of the show was lost on opening night.

Set designer Jean Claude Olivier frames it all with an inviting arch of black and white piano keys which somehow manages to make the vast Segal stage appear a  bit more intimate.  Ain’t Misbehavin’ could be a bit naughtier,  a bit grittier, a bit more in your face,  but that is a matter of personal taste.  As it is, the production evokes the days when places in  Montreal  like Connie’s Inn, the Terminal Club and Rockhead’s Paradise Cafe offered what advertisements of the day called  “the highest caliber of coloured  divertisment….”  

st_leonard_chronicles.jpgThere is more than pasta and tomato sauce cooking at the Centaur where three generations of an Italian family get together for a birthday dinner in Galluccio’s runaway 90 minute hit,  The St. Leonard Chronicles.   Dinner,  in this case is a metaphor for the confessional  in which raw nerves  are exposed, the family secrets are laid bare and jealousies come to the fore.  The pot starts to boil when young newlyweds Robert (Guido Cocomello) and his wife Terry (Christins Broccolini) announce they are leaving the duplex in St. Leonard which their parents have bought them as a wedding present and are going upscale by moving to Beaconsfield.  What follows is a rousing, shamelessly sentimental  sit-com with some sharp edges.  The play is highly localized, topical, and sparked with in-jokes only Montrealers will appreciate. Or not.  Ville Emard is referred to as Ville le Merde, and  In one heated exchange it’s suggested  the only reason Arabs are moving in to the traditional  Italian neighbourhoods is because the Italians are moving out.  The show depends on a certain chemistry to be credible, and this stage family, which has worked together before in Gallucio’s In Piazza San Domenico,  is  seamless.

Jocelyne Zucco does a bravura turn as the absolving matriarch, one of those dotty, but delightfully domineering mothers who call the shots even from beyond the grave.  Vittorio Rossi is amusing as her single-minded  son-in-law,  Dante, who resents being outclassed by his own  son.  And Michel Perron as, Carmine, the father of the bride, is a master of the deadpan comic device.  Ellen David is beset with anxiety as Dante’s adulterous wife Elisa, and Dorothée Berryman simmers as the prudish Gina.  For their part, Cocomello and Broccolini are totally credible as the couple who keep secrets from each other as they get used to the idea of being married. 

Anne-Seguin Poirier’s two-tier setting, with a working kitchen above a spartan, if elegant dining room a few steps below, serves the production well.  Ana Cappeluto’s lighting design adds a measure of moody depth.  Director Roy Surrette  demonstrates  full control of the rhythms of the  play.

Although the sauce doled out in the theatrical postmortem is a little thick,  thick served properly as Zucco  dishes it out  can be deliciously heartwarming and disarmingly poignant. 

 The show is almost a total sell out, and in interviews, Galluccio modestly confesses he doesn’t know why.  Here’s why:  he is trilingual, he knows the territory, he’s cultivated a following in Italian, French, and English circles.  He relies on time-tested, proven formulas which deliver universal truths.   His characters are authentic.  He understands his limitations. Oh, and something else:  he’s good at what he does.

Both shows come in under two hours with intermission.  The run for the  St. Leonard Chronicles has been extended to November 3;  .Ain’t Misbehavin closes Oct. 20.


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