Last Night at the Gayety
Bowser and Blue revisit 1950s Montreal
By Byron Toben
Read to the end of this review to find out what I and Lili St. Cyr have shared together.
Lili, of course (born Marie Van Shaack in Minnesota) was the reigning striptease artiste in early 1950s Montreal. The town was wide open then and visitors flocked from uptight Eisenhower America to drink, smoke, gamble and, yes, find fleeting sex.
Westmount-based George Bowser and Rick Blue, authors of seven Centaur productions over the years, most notably Schwartz’s The Musical (2011), wrote the book, music and lyrics for Gayety. Their proven audience friendly verses, smacking a bit of Tom Lehrer, a smidgeon of Gilbert and Sullivan and lots of local content are matched with folk, cabaret, even jazzy and bluesy overtones.
And the whole somehow has a Broadway flavour to boot. I attribute that to the superb orchestration of Chris Barillaro. Bustling choreography by Jonathan Patterson further enhances the package. All this is right up Director Roy Surette’s alley, with clever touches and rapid fire stage business.
The cast is perfect… not a weak link anywhere.
Frayne McCarthy as Tommy, the manager of the Gayety theatre opens the show, ala the M.C. in Cabaret, with his deep voice, extolling how times were then in the song “This is before all that”. His star attraction, Lili, is well incarnated by tall, lithe and supple Julia Juhas. Two of Lili’s most famous acts are shown — the bath tub reverse strip on and Salome, which gives new meaning to the phrase talking head.
Our own local Miss Sugarpuss, Holly Gauthier-Frankel, portrays Molly O’Donnelly, a young impoverished gal in grim Griffintown, anxious for escape and glamour. As a novice dancer in the troupe, she performs an awkward, hesitant burlesque turn that is a classic in comic dancing. Davide Chiazzese renders the requisite gangster, Jimmy, with humour and menace.
Popular Michel Perron is Father D’Anjou, a priest spearheading citizens against the evils of nakedness, especially when Lili’s fame attracts young boys from Baron Bing High. Shades of the professor in “Blue Angel” checking out Marlena Dietrich’s Lola, he declaims, in song, that this promotes the “Pink Torpedo” and further prods police chief Pax Plante (Daniel Brochu) to increase raids and shut downs. Brochu is terrific in this role. I remember Patrick Goddard in a similar role in his play Johnny Canuck and the Last Burlesque, about the same era at the Mainline in 2006. Patricia Summersett I believe, was the Lili stand-in — or was it Catherine Bérubé?
Jonah Carson is Donald, a keystone cop who does his job while warbling “Don’t Think” and eventually discovering how to think and providing the romantic link to, good golly, Miss Molly-Holly.
In between, there are lots of hoofing by the scantily clad Peek-a-Boo Girls – Tamara Brown, Rosie Callaghan and Shannon Tosic McNally. Ms. Brown doubles as a deep-voiced judge in a trial scene and Ms. Callaghan as the clarinetist in the fine on-stage band. In fact all three other band members, drummer Parker Bert, bassist Mike De Masi and pianist Benjamin Kwong also fill in for crowd scenes
All this rapid movement must have kept stage manager Luciana Bucheri frantically busy.
Readers can see the site of the once famed Gayety Theatre, now at the Theâtre du Nouveau Monde on rue Ste-Catherine.
One member at the reception following the first night opening of the last night at the Gayety felt that, overall, the show was “too broad”. My retort was that maybe a shade, but sometimes broad is good and this was assuredly one of those times
Oh yes… almost forgot… my promised own shared connection with the languorous Lili St. Cyr. Never met her (I was too young). She died at 81 in 1999 in California, outlasting five husbands. What we shared is that we were both photographed by famed celebrity photographer Maurice Seymour — her, many times, me, but once.
Here are photos of the two of us:
OK, mine is a few years ago, but it’s how I still picture myself to myself.
Last Night at the Gayety (world premiere) continues at The Centaur Theatre until May 15
Tickets: 514 288-3161 or centaurtheatre.com
Images (unless otherwise specified): Andrée Lanthier
Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club.