Debt—the Musical! has a fuzzy framework
Written by Leslie Mildiner. Songs by Todd Butler. Directed by Donna Spencer. A Firehall Arts Centre production. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Thursday, January 14. Continues until January 30
Theatregoers who decide to invest money and time in Debt—the Musical! won’t be paid back with sufficient interest.
Despite its title, this show is more of a revue than a musical; its numerous independent story lines are punctuated by stand-alone tunes.
Right off the top, we meet a character named Greg. He’s a wannabe writer who thinks the world owes him a living, so when his scribbling fails to bring in any loot, he runs up enormous debt. Leslie Mildiner, who wrote the musical, and Todd Butler, who penned the songs, send Greg up, especially in the tune “Money Lament”. Still, the character is such a financial fool that I felt dismissive of his indebtedness, rather than sympathetic to it, which is not a great place to start, given the show’s subject matter.
Other ongoing characters emerge, including Sam, a female shopaholic who makes 80 grand a year; Lori, an out-of-work actor and single mom who resorts to phone-sex work; and Murdoch, a desperate family man who takes a number of demeaning jobs until he finally crashes and burns as a day trader.
It’s hard to tell what the point of all of this is. The characters often present themselves as victims. Sam fantasizes about being denied a loan but the banks keep shovelling money at her. Unfortunately, Mildiner’s script doesn’t back up its claims of exploitation with an incisive analysis of the predatory nature of credit-card companies and other financial institutions. The show satirizes the lure of credit in “Plastic Love”, but never takes us beyond a rudimentary level of understanding. And as Lori’s story makes clear, poverty is not the same as indebtedness, so what exactly is the subject here?
Within this revue’s fuzzy framework, the scenes and songs repeat the basic idea that being financially strapped is a drag. Mildiner also goes on less-than-illuminating tangents about the nature of money—the invention of paper currency, for instance. And a lot of the narration is expository; we get told too much and shown too little.
Fortunately, Todd Butler’s songs—the score leans toward country, but doesn’t fully commit—are generally more successful than the script. “Labour of Love”, a western-tinged ballad about being poor with kids, sung by Tom Pickett (Murdoch) and Ellen Kennedy (Lori), is melancholically lovely. And Pickett has a great time with his wailing falsetto in some Temptations-inspired numbers.
Tracey Power (Sam) has developed a charismatic stage presence, and Ellen Kennedy exudes charm and confidence. Andy Toth (Greg) delivers a witty performance, and his sweet tenor is the strongest voice of the bunch.
Still, other theatrical institutions are offering more rewarding entertainment packages.