THEATRE

St. Urbain’s hustler rides again

Mark Czarnecki April 9 1984
THEATRE

St. Urbain’s hustler rides again

Mark Czarnecki April 9 1984

St. Urbain’s hustler rides again

THEATRE

Mark Czarnecki

For the past month a highly disciplined army of show business professionals has laid siege to Edmonton’s opulent Citadel Theatre. Last week, signalling an increase in the tempo of operations, the theatre took the unusual step of hosting a press conference in its lobby to promote its latest and largest production.

While novelist Mordecai Richler and Montreal impresario Sam Gesser held forth, 29 singers and dancers rehearsed backstage for this week’s opening of Duddy, Richler’s new musical based on his best-selling novel,

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. With a promising newcomer (Lonny Price) as Duddy, a 15-piece orchestra and a budget pushing $1 million, Duddy represents the biggest one-shot gamble in the history of Canadian theatre.

The musical, which traces Duddy’s ambitious climb from the Jewish ghetto of Montreal’s St. Urbain Street to the affluent slopes of Westmount, will feature 19 songs by a legendary rock ’n’ roll team, lyricist Jerry Leiber and composer Mike Stoller. The American duo are the authors of more than 200 hits, from Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock to Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is? They hope to ensure that Richler’s gritty portrait of the engaging hustler whose ruthless pursuit of real estate disillusions his loving French-Canadian girlfriend, Yvette (Mariane O’Brien), remains as abrasive a story on stage. In one number, On Your Toes, Duddy’s idol, a crippled underworld boss known as the Boy Wonder, ends up dancing on his crutches.

Certainly, ambitions for Duddy the stage production are as great as those of its hero. After one month at the Citadel, the show will tour nine of the largest theatres across Canada. But Duddy’s coproducers—Gesser and his partner,

Douglas Cohen, in conjunction with the Citadel under executive producer Joe Shoctor—are aiming the 21/2-hour musical directly at Broadway. Undaunted by the dismal record of Canadian productions in New York, the producers are confident that Duddy will take Broadway by storm and pioneer a new era in Canadian theatre. Said Gesser:

“If Duddy is a success, it will prompt foreign producers to see Canada as a country with something to export.” Theatre producers from Sir Peter Hall of Britain’s National Theatre to a New York producer Richler calls “an offensive animal” had nibbled at the rights to Duddy for years. But Gesser, a longtime acquaintance of Richler who also grew up in a Montreal Jewish ghetto, won the author’s confidence and pursued the project for six tenacious years. At first, prospects were gloomy. Ottawa’s National Arts Centre and Toronto’s CentreStage Company both professed great interest but ultimately re-

jected the idea. Then, in 1982, Shoctor, the Edmonton lawyer who founded the successful Citadel, immediately embraced the project. “The other regionals saw Duddy as an invasion of their territory,” said Gesser, who geared the project for Broadway from the start. “They would rather burn the sets after six weeks than see a show tour.” Eighteen months ago everything fell into place for Gesser after a chance meeting at Montreal’s Mirabel airport with his friend, director and choreographer Brian Macdonald. Gesser was delighted to discover that Macdonald was interested in joining the project. “Brian became the linchpin,” said Richler. “He imposed some discipline, and we stopped floundering.” Macdonald, internationally recognized for his production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, realized that the project’s risks were immense. Like the character himself, Duddy’s creators had no qualms about venturing into what was, for them, virtually unknown territory. Although Gesser has promoted and toured shows, he has never produced theatre before. Richler has written film scripts—including the acclaimed The Apprenti ticeship of Duddy Kravö itz, starring Richard Dreyfuss—but he has not tackled a play, despite his superlative ear for dialogue. As for Leiber and Stoller, the one musical they wrote was never produced. But the talent is impressive, especially under Macdonald’s direction.

Once before an audience, the show’s heaviest burden will fall on 25-year-old New York actor Price. A tiny, wiry fireball, he is Duddy incarnate. Price has won accolades for his recent performance as Harold in Athol Fugard’s Master Harold . . . and the Boys, a hit on Broadway, and for his singing in the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along. Still, Duddy is his first major dancing role, and Macdonald’s demanding choreography is pushing him

to the limit. Price is onstage 90 per cent of the time and sings seven numbers, but he feels strongly motivated by awe of Richler. “I want to please him most,” said Price. “It is his vision, and I want to give it back to him.”

Along with the rest of the ebullient cast, Price sports a Duddy T-shirt with a logo designed by Montreal cartoonist Terry Mosher, better known as Aislin: the elongated tail of the “y” forms a staircase reflecting Duddy’s ambition and the characteristic walk-ups of St. Urbain Street. Building a musical around one dominant image with little attention to plot is common on Broadway today. But Duddy is more a throwback to the 1950s, when such musicals as Guys and Dolls and West Side Story wove together music and narrative. In Duddy the use of scores of backprojected slides will further heighten the drama by evoking the feel of the late 1940s, as the action shifts from the neighborhood deli to a Laurentian resort to Westmount.

Everyone involved in the production, from Richler on down, embraces the libretto’s darker aspects. The novel’s ending is bittersweet, but Richler hints that the musical’s ending might be “even more severe.” Dark or not, in Macdonald’s inventive hands Duddy is bound to be an eye-opening, controversial experience. Said Macdonald: “The story includes a cripple, an epileptic and a lot of prejudice. Mordecai really deals in myth—it’s a director’s dream.”

The irony of such a distinctive portrait of Montreal ghetto life opening on the Prairies is not lost on Shoctor. He is even considering including a Yiddish glossary in the program for the Edmonton audiences. But he is quick to point out that “there are just as many nonJewish Duddies out there. It is a universal story.” Simply producing Duddy, with its abundant North American talent, is a personal triumph for Shoctor. For years he has been struggling to mount world-class entertainment for export abroad, with mixed success. Now, in a unique partnership between a nonprofit theatre and private entrepreneurs, that ambition may be realized.

As for Richler, an intensely private individual, his first venture into the “group sport” of theatre has unexpectedly moved him. After one rehearsal Richler told the assembled cast how proud and grateful he was that they were treating his material with respect. Still, his sardonic one-liners never stop. Asked if he was exploiting his novel for all it was worth, Richler replied: “I am waiting for the ballet and opera. It would also make a nice line in men’s sweaters.” If the enthusiasm for Duddy T-shirts is any indication, those sweaters are not far behind,