Brassy Brisket and Ham: Schwartz’s The Musical

By Alidor Aucoin on April 21, 2011


No matter how thin you slice it, Schwartz’s the Musical at  the  Centaur  Theatre  until April 24  is as appetizing  and as satisfying  as a smoked meat sandwich.  It is as effervescent as a   Cott’s black cherry coke chaser.  (Burp).   It’s a ludicrous treat, even though bits of it might be hard to digest.  The daffy  burlesque of a show  was  inspired by Bill Brownstein’s  history of the landmark Montreal deli on The Main published five years ago by Véhicule Press, but the script which went through dozens of rewrites,  alters some of the detail in the book,  and takes on a life of Its own.  

swartz_001.jpgIn spite of a listless  first act which is all boy-meets-girl  exposition,  the show is  spiced with some high-spirited tunes by  Bowser and  Blue,  flavoured with  some appallingly  low gags,  and  enhanced with rousing  production numbers .  The plot  centres  on the failed attempt about a dozen years ago to franchise Schwartz`s  and transplant it to Toronto.   It also involves  an  inevitable romance that develops when opposites attract   -   between Amber,  (Stephanie Martin)  the Toronto agent assigned to discover the secret recipe that makes Schwartz’s unique,  and Ben (Vito Defillipo) , the deli’s laid back managing  head waiter.   The love  interest  is driven by  two old-fashioned duets,  the tongue and cheek  You and I are so Much Like Smoked Meat  and  Rye, and a sweet,  romantic ballad, The Promise.  Martin is the perfect incarnation of a certain type of  stereotypical  Torontonian, vain but insecure. 

swartz_002.jpgRoy  Surrette’s  seamless direction  makes the most of the opportunities at hand.  From the  mood setting  Why do they Call it the Main, to the handclapping gospel  finale, One More Step, (its that kind of a musical mess)  he’s blessed with a versatile cast.   No matter how small a role, all the actors on stage shine, especially Gordon Masten, who completely and effortlessy  steals every scene when  he’s on. Chris Barillaro, Dominic  Lorange,  Masten and  Felicia Schulman  are all terrific in the  showstopping number,  Schmutz as a  a singing mustard squeeze bottle, a  french fry,  a barrel pickle and soft drink can.  The acting,  as you can well imagine,  is mostly broad.   Felica Shulman, with a painfully fake Quebecois accent is pure  ham  as  Madame Chartrand, who inherited the restaurant and wants to sell it. Holly Gauthier-Frankel  does a  strip-tease  that has to be seen to be imagined, and   Bruce Dinsmore is a bit of a stretch as the corporate  Bay Street  financeer  who bankrolls the sale.   

Shane Snow’s choreography shuffles  everyone  along nicely through dance routines  made even brighter  by  Jame’s   Lavoie’s  colourful  costumes.    Designer John C. Dinning has provided an evocative rendering of the down- at- the- heels  Charcutirie Hebraique de Montreal,   both  interior  and exterior.   The clever set even includes a wall of  photographs  that crack their  own jokes . 

The show is a novelty, and is in keeping with Surrette’s plan to turn the Centaur into a real community theatre.  Sophomoric  and low brow it may be,  but it’s fun,  the hottest ticket in town.  It is also a shameless two hour plug for  the deli.  Don’t be surprised if the Centaur follows it up with Ben’s and Moishe’s the musicals.  

The show’s popularity  simply  demonstrates  that like em or not, Bowser and Blue  are like Schwartz’s itself,  unique Montreal institutions that can exist only here.



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