OCTOBER 2019 | Volume 184
Book by Tom Cone
Music by Skip Kennon, lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh
Patrick Street Productioins
Anvil Centre, New Westminster
Sept. 24-Oct. 6
www.patrickstreetproductions.com or 604-684-2787
Tom Cone was the star of Vancouver’s playwriting corps in the 1970s and continued writing successfully for the stage for 40 years. Herringbone was his premiere work. It was originally a one-act with a few songs about a 10-year-old Depression-era vaudevillian trying to pass himself off as a 35-year-old midget (starring the remarkable Eric Peterson, with John Gray on piano—before Billy Bishop Goes to War).
Rewritten as a full-length musical for one actor, with music and lyrics by Broadway veterans Skip Kennon and Ellen Fitzhugh, Herringbone had productions in Chicago and off-Broadway in 1982, later at the Hartford Stage starring Joel Grey, at the Vancouver Playhouse with Morris Panych in the title role, and currently, along with the Anvil Centre production, in Australia starring BD Wong. Cone died prematurely in 2012.
Patrick Street Productions has wrung a clever twist on this super-clever play, alternating shows with actors Peter Jorgensen and Luisa Jojic—the first woman to play George Herringbone and the 10 or so other characters. Kayla Dunbar directs and musical director Sean Bayntun provides accompaniment on piano along with bassist John Bews and Alicia Murray on drums.
The show I saw was opening night for Jorgensen, a musical theatre veteran and Patrick Street’s co-artistic director. It wasn’t as tight or as sharp as I’m sure it will be after a few additional performances, but it’s easy to see the shape of things.
The bizarre plot of Herringbone follows 8-year-old Georgein 1929, a kid in rural Alabama on the eve of the Depression. His parents Arthur and Louise pin their hopes on him when he wins a public speaking contest judged by a famous local character, Mr. Mosely, the chicken half of vaudeville duo The Chicken and the Frog. Mom and dad invest George’s $25 prize in song-and-dance lessons with Mosely, who buys him the herringbone suit that gives him his stage name.
But strange things happen to George. He can’t stop dancing and sometimes speaks with a voice not his own. At the end of the first act he attacks and strangles Mosely, and it comes out that his body has been taken over by the spirit of Mosely’s dead partner, Lou, the Frog, a midget. Lou reveals in a song that he was bullied by Mosely, whom he blames for his own not-so-accidental death. Hence, his revenge.
Subsequently, George/Lew goes to Hollywood, encouraged by Arthur who likes the money his son is making hoofing and singing in bars. Louise is appalled and demands that Lew let George return to a virtuous Christian life. But Lew takes off (in George’s body), and the play climaxes in a hotel room where Lew and his old flame Dot will have sex—in George’s body, to George’s horror. He freaks out and …
You can imagine the tour de force acting, singing, dance and movement required of the lone actor in often playing three parts simultaneously. Jorgensen is skillful, quick and funny but I never felt that his characterizations were as eccentric and grotesque as the writing suggests.
The music, too, seems all of a piece, vaudeville-style tunes without much contrast and no big number to bring the house down. Most modest of all is Sophie Tang’s set, a single wooden trunk that Jorgensen moves around the stage, opens and closes.It’s a treat to watch a skilled performer work with such absurdly witty material. But the show wants to be bigger, broader, with more colours than just herringbone plaid.
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