By Morris Panych and James Rolfe. A Vancouver Opera and Tapestry Opera production, as part of the Vancouver Opera Festival. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Saturday, April 28. Continues until May 12
The Overcoat is part of Vancouver theatre lore, a unique homegrown hit. And seeing some of its original team, like Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling, bow to a standing O at the end of this sung-through reworking at the Vancouver Opera Festival opening was a blast from the past.
But it's important to look at The Overcoat—A Musical Tailoring on its own terms. Drawing from the original, movement director Gorling turns opera into a highly choreographed, fast-moving tableau, pushing the physical bounds of her performers. And the new show takes the form out of the realm of traditional comedy or tragedy, Panych’s playful libretto embracing a dark mix of absurdism and allegory, with an acid-sharpened edge.
The original was a silent, movement-theatre piece based on a short story by Nicolai Gogol and set to Dmitri Shostakovich. The musical version now features singing and a score by Canadian composer James Rolfe, who lets loose with quirky yet tuneful orchestrations that suit the highly stylized subject matter.
The 12-member orchestra, under the baton of Leslie Dala, sounds bigger than its size, gamely mixing the comical and the lyrical. Cartoonish piano runs accompany a stoned tailor hauling on his snuff; a Mad Chorus trio of white-nightie-wearing women sing haunting melodies throughout; and there's even a nod to Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven near the end.
As a whole, the show defies traditional operatic structure at almost every turn, whipping through multiple scene changes, avoiding grand arias, and ending each of its two acts not on big group crescendos but on quiet, blackly humorous punch lines.
Baritone Geoffrey Sirett is simply perfect as the downtrodden bureaucrat Akakiy, whose favourite number is zero. He’s a nobody bullied relentlessly by his coworkers for his diligence, but he finally becomes a somebody when he saves his money for a fancy new coat—one that will eventually lead to his downfall.
Baritone Peter McGillivray shows incredible versatility, vocal range, and buffoonish slapstick humour multitasking as the drunk tailor Petrovich, the head of Akakiy’s department, and the blowhard Personage at the police station. And Erica Iris Huang is fierce as Mrs. Petrovich and a Mad Chorus member. Seemingly plucked out of theatre of the absurd, these are characters who are more distancing and exaggerated than sympathetically realistic.
Some of the highlights surround the cleverly crafted staging: the repeated clanging and flashing bright lights of Akakiy’s morning wakeup panic, and the way set designer Ken MacDonald’s stained-glass panels can turn into subway cars with clever lighting by Alan Brodie. As in the original play, the overcoat takes on a life of its own, helped by "movement actors" Colin Heath and Courtenay Stevens, who pepper artful physical clowning throughout the piece. And the white-clad Mad Chorus of three, who foreshadow the ending and haunt Akakiy throughout, offset the score’s occasional abrasive moments with eerily beautiful music.
If possible, the ending is more bleak and existential here than in the original theatre work—the blackly comic joke that finds the destroyed Akakiy in another kind of overcoat almost shocking in its pessimism.
Like the rest of this innovative and gleefully strange dark comedy, it provokes sensations you don't often get at a night at the opera. After a long and storied history, this musical adaptation feels like fresh new threads. Take a leap and try it on for size.