Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Debt: The Musical

My review of Debt: The Musical is online now at WestEnder.com

All due credit: The cast of

All due credit: The cast of "Debt: The Musical" busts a move for insolvency.

“Debt” goes for broke

With arts budgets slashed and burned, credit-card interest rates at an all-time high, and money increasingly elusive, has there ever been a more timely stage debut than Debt: The Musical?

Written by Leslie Mildiner, with songs by Todd Butler, Debt is a jubilant skewering of art and commerce, loosely structured around the stories of four people crippled by their finances. There’s the single mom/actress (Ellen Kennedy), the shopaholic (Tracey Power), the can’t-make-ends-meet dad (Tom Pickett), and the writer (Andy Toth), all of whom are tied together by a narrator, Spike (Simon Webb). Each attempts to cope in his or her own way with fiduciary tumult, with varying degrees of success — and plenty of singing and dancing.

The most interesting and fully realized stories belong to the single mom who dabbles in the phone-sex industry and also grapples with a bureaucratic welfare officer, and the writer, a daydreaming narcissist who thinks he’s too educated for menial labour.

The musical numbers negotiate the many aspects of falling into debt and climbing back out, from corporate to personal greed, kids, recessions, weak job markets, and the questionable economic value of being a college graduate. Butler’s songs cover a wide range of musical genres, but among the catchiest are the doo-wop-inspired “He’s Got a Degree,” lamenting the job situation for the higher-educated, and the reggae-influenced “Go Postal,” a tongue-in-cheek take on workplace violence. The sobering “Labour of Love” aims for the heart as an ode to struggling parents, but something about the harmony and the melancholy lyrics make it feel cheaply manipulative and out of place with the rest of the show’s well-crafted songs.

Mildiner’s script could still use a bit of tweaking, with perhaps more of a focus on the stronger characters to create a more tangible connective thread and narrative structure. Overall, this strong debut, with fine performances and a winning collection of musical numbers, makes Debt a worthy investment.

To Jan. 30 at Firehall Arts Centre (280 E. Cordova), 8 pm. Matinees Sat.-Sun., 2 pm. Tickets $16-$28 from FirehallArtsCentre.ca

—Andrea Warner

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