Book by Tom Cone. Music by Skip Kennon. Lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh. Based on the play by Tom Cone. Directed by Kayla Dunbar. A Patrick Street production. At the Anvil Centre Theatre on Thursday, September 26. Continues until October 6
In modern theatre, stagecraft can make impossible things seem real in increasingly astonishing ways. With this in mind, it may be surprising to find that a whole musical can emerge from a sole performer, thriving on the possibilities of pure imagination. A darkly comic tale of possession, Herringbone is a one-person spectacle from which a dozen personalities collide in their quest for salvation, challenging the limits of theatrical performance.
Set in Depression-era Alabama, Herringbone tells the story of George, an eight-year-old boy whose talent for oration is noticed by Nathan Mosely, adjudicator for an annual speech contest and one half of an ex-vaudeville duo, the Chicken and the Frog.
On his suggestion, George is suited in herringbone and enrolled in private lessons to become a full-fledged actor, only to discover that his towering abilities come courtesy of Mosely’s late partner, Lou the Frog, whose spirit now struggles for control over the boy’s body. Impoverished and starstruck by Hollywood, George’s parents, Arthur and Louise, strike an uneasy truce with Lou as they dance their way across America, vacillating between fear and avarice.
Written by Canadian playwright Tom Cone, this musical is an adaptation of an earlier one-act play by the same name, whose light tone and sombre theme carry over to this full-length piece. In twisted fashion, Cone has created a work that functions as a coming-of-age story, but instead of traditional morals drawn from boyhood misadventures, the play juxtaposes innocence against a courage that precipitates pitch-black outcomes.
At the same time, it is also a jaunt of infectious musicality, a run of musical numbers that beguile viewers with their benign joviality.
On alternating nights, Luisa Jojic and Peter Jorgensen play all the characters on-stage. Jojic, whom I had the pleasure of seeing, is consummate in her transformations—so complete are her personae that you momentarily forget there is only one person on-stage at any time. Through shadow work and a monogrammed trunk, set and lighting designer Sophie Tang turns a bare stage into a string of locales, among them the interior of a car, a gnarled garden, a store’s counter, and a hotel bed.
Director Kayla Dunbar keeps actions dynamic by varying the playing space, through an interplay of direct addresses to the cabaret audience and exchanges with Thumbs Dubois (Sean Bayntun), who leads a three-piece band through vaudevillian sounds.
With ways to integrate ever-increasing complexities into theatrical productions, it is refreshing to see exemplary acting at the forefront of storytelling. Designed for a cast of one, Herringbone is a unique exploration of innocence, greed, vengeance, and love, all filtered through convivial song and dance.