Book and lyrics by Bob Sarti. Music by Bill Sample and Earle Peach. Directed by Jay Hamburger. A Theatre in the Raw production. At the Russian Hall on Saturday, November 8, as part of the Heart of the City Festival. Continues until November 16
When it's not boring, Bruce–The Musical is sometimes moving.
Bruce is retired Vancouver Sun reporter Bob Sarti's homage to Downtown Eastside activist Bruce Eriksen. There are plenty of events in Sarti's episodic script, which covers the years 1973 to 1976. Eriksen meets Libby Davies, who will become his partner and, from 1997 on, the NDP MP for Vancouver East. He also agitates to have sprinkler systems installed in neighbourhood hotels and to turn the vacant Carnegie Library into a community centre.
Still, I'd be hard-pressed to tell you what Bruce is about. Too often, things simply happen rather than being driven by the force of the characters' goals or desires. No central dramatic event or well-developed theme ties it all together. There's virtually no theatrical tension in Bruce, either. A couple of straw villains—a pub manager, a city councillor—briefly raise their heads, but the audience is denied the pleasure of a fully realized conflict.
Too often, songs are tangential to the sketchy plot and stall what little momentum the story manages to generate. And journalist turned playwright Sarti can't stop himself from editorializing, often through a character called the Reporter. More than once, the Reporter interrupts scenes, leaving other characters to silently mouth their dialogue while he explains what's really going on.
Fortunately, the music by Bill Sample and Earle Peach is excellent, and ranges all the way from a lovely spiritual, "The Tipping Point", to the Chinese-inflected "Gold Mountain".
Steve Maddock lends his powerful baritone and charm to the lead role. Mikal Grant is in fine voice as the Reporter. As activist Jean Swanson, Anna Kuman manages to tap-dance and yet be understated. Danielle St. Pierre lends Davies a surprising dose of Broadway pizzazz.
As flawed as Bruce is, its heart is in the right place, and there are times when you can't help but be affected by Eriksen's—and this musical's—demand that the poor be treated with respect.