An ordinary man’s life is turned upside down after he has a new overcoat made for him. You wouldn’t necessarily think much of this seed of a plot, but Gogol made immense satire of it in his 1842 short story, and over a hundred years later, Morris Panych devised a gleaming mime-and-movement piece that went on to win immense favour and critical awards. Being a clever artist, Panych has not left this critical and popular success go to waste. Two decades after the debut of his smash hit, Panych has re-tailored his wordless Overcoat into an opera, with the considerable help of James Rolfe’s music that uses and reshapes Shostakovich, with some quotation from Bach and Beethoven, and a witty nod to Gilbert and Sullivan. Panych’s long-time collaborator and real-life partner, Ken Macdonald puts his own creative resourcefulness to the test, re-painting and adapting his modular set from Sweet Charity a few seasons ago at the Shaw to the minimalist requirements of this musicalized fable.
The physical scale of the production is still large, but the lyrics and music ally with the ensemble’s movement (choreography by Wendy Gorling) to expand the core feelings behind the characters and themes. After all, musical theatre cannot have the same verbal dexterity of intricate thought that straight theatre can have, but Panych knows this already, and he also exploits the potential of physical theatre to express human emotion. After all, movement divorced from feeling is abstract to a fault, and Gogol’s fable is anything but abstract. It satirizes human need, urgency, and foibles. Akakiy (lanky baritone Geoffrey Sirett) is an accountant who rhapsodizes numbers in his head. “Is there anything that doesn’t count?” he wonders aloud, suggesting extra connotations for the question. Zero is his favourite numeral. However, though his mind expands with the ecstasy of enumeration, his image shrinks in the eyes of others because of his shabby government overcoat that provokes their disdain and distaste. When the snuff-addicted tailor Petrovich (a very fine Peter McGillivray who also doubles as the officious Head of Department) makes Akakiy an imposing, almost regal overcoat, Akakiy’s fortunes turn. Panych repeats the wonderful moment when the new overcoat takes on a headless life of its own, with Akakiy’s rapture clearly showing. But the accountant’s material fortune doesn’t take into account the vagaries of life, and Akakiy is eventually reduced to a frustrated madman, imprisoned in an asylum where other inmates serve as a chorus or corps to register his descent into lunacy, with the overcoat becoming Akakiy’s straitjacket.
Panych’s production is colourfully stylized, wonderfully lit by Alan Brodie, and cleverly costumed by Nancy Bryant in a manner that allows freedom of expressive movement, though the choreography of the commuters is sometimes overly repetitive with diminishing returns. However, the score (played by a 12-piece orchestra conducted masterfully by Leslie Dala), the ensemble sequences, and the singing work together to make the re-tailoring a major achievement, with especially fine work accomplished by Sirett (whose kinetic blissful quirkiness morphs into demented immobility), McGillivray (a double treat as tailor and head bureaucrat), Andrea Ludwig as a louche landlady who could have been generated by Brecht, and a superb mad chorus by Magali Simard-Galdes, Caitlin Wood, and Erica Iris Huang.
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