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Jane Enkin

 
Jane Enkin Reviews The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz: The Musical

by Jane Enkin, Dec 7, 2016 Jane Enkin Music and Story janeenkinmusic.com

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz: The Musical 

music Alan Menken

book and lyrics David Spencer

director Austin Pendleton

 

 

 

Director Austin Pendleton learned from the inspirational director Jerome Robbins, “Don’t tell a story unless the characters are fighting for their lives.”

 

The tenacious fighters in Mordecai Richler’s 1959 novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz have captivated generations of readers. After many years in development, a new musical version of Duddy Kravitz celebrates the launch of its cast album in Montreal on December 12, 2016.  Ghostlight Records announced the release of the original cast recording of The Apprentice of Duddy Kravitz: The Musical online and in stores on Friday, December 2, 2016, and it has already received critical acclaim.

 

 

I saw the show at the Segal Centre in Montreal in 2015 and found it moving, energetic and thought-provoking.  The play opened June 11, and the run had already been extended before opening night to meet audience demand.

 

The creative team of Pendleton, composer Alan Menken and book and lyrics writer David Spencer first began working with Richler on a musical version of the novel in the 1980s.  (The musical Duddy!, by a different team of artists, played Canadian theatres in 1984.) Richler died in 2001, and the development carried on without him.  It was wonderful to meet his widow Florence Richler and his son Daniel at the opening, especially because they were pleased with the show.  Although naturally there are ways the script diverges from the novel, they both felt confident the musical is true to Richler’s vision.

 

Duddy’s father Max, played with heimish warmth by George Masswohl, acts as narrator and quickly draws us in by filling in some early details.  A Greek chorus of neighbourhood types gathered for drinks and a nosh at Moe’s Diner responds to Duddy’s changing reputation. At first, Duddy is just a punk kid, with no status in the eyes of his father or his community. More than anything, he wants to be a somebody, a mentsh in the eyes of others by any means possible, including completely un-mentshlik behaviour..

 

The story opens in the very segregated Montreal of the 1950s -- the French lived in one part of town, the wealthy Anglos lived in another, and middle and lower class Jews like Duddy and his family had their own neighbourhoods and dreamed of escape.  For Duddy’s golden boy elder brother, crisply played by Adrian Marchuk, the way out is through professional education; he has the academic skills to become a doctor, and more importantly, he has the good looks (he doesn’t *look* Jewish) and social skills to assimilate into a higher class.

 

Duddy himself (perhaps a little “too Jewish”) turns to get-rich-quick schemes as his way to lift himself out of his neighbourhood and gain respect.  Actor Ken James Stewart looks like the proverbial “bar mitzvah bokher” in his first scenes. (It’s easy to picture him in his role as Charlie Brown at Stratford.)  On the one hand desperately eager to please, and on the other carrying a giant chip on his shoulder, Stewart is terrific at showing Duddy as a difficult person for the people around him to tolerate but easy for the audience to love.

 

Living with the father and his two sons is Duddy’s grandfather Simcha, played with rich and deep, painful tenderness by my dear friend Howard Jerome.   He has wistful ties to the old country and often tells Duddy, “A man without land is nothing.” He shows more overt love and acceptance of Duddy than anyone else. Jerome’s grounded performance brings a beautiful stillness and generosity to the family scenes.

 

An intriguing presence in the musical is the spirit of Duddy’s mother, exquisitely played by Julia Halfyard. Sensed rather than heard and seen by the family who are always aware of their loss, her absence and her watching presence shape the family gatherings around the kitchen table.  The show’s creators expanded the role as they worked with Halfyard, and developed a character who is firm, assertive, yet delicate, mostly helpless yet determined to reach through to her family and guide their decisions.  This is one of the play’s most memorable performances.

 

Duddy leaves home to work as a waiter at a mountain resort and he really knows how to work the crowd.  He makes a good impression on his young fellow worker, Yvette, played with fierce tenacity by Marie-Pierre de Brienne. A francophone, de Brienne brought special insights to the role. At the opening night gathering, she spoke with me about the changes for Quebecois women at the time of Richler’s novel.  Women had been meek and homebound, she told me, and they took on a new assertive outlook in those years.  In the musical, Yvette describes herself as a rebel.  De Brienne made it believable, with her subtle performance, that Yvette would stick with Duddy beyond their first romantic, playful attraction as they continue as partners, even as Yvette experiences disappointment and betrayal. She wants to learn from Duddy, to be like him in some ways, and to establish success on her own terms.

 

Working at the resort, Duddy conceives his grand scheme – he will own land, as his grandfather always dreamed, and develop it into valuable housing property.  Everything that follows – legal and illegal financial dealings, generous behaviours and devastatingly selfish actions – grows out of this passion to buy the land.

 

Along the way, Duddy draws the innocent, open-hearted Virgil into his circle.  David Coomber rises well to the task of playing this outsider, a non-Jewish rural American in Duddy’s very Jewish Canadian urban world. Coomber keeps the character, his motivations and relationships complex and intriguing, an embodiment of love.

 

The musical has a happy, exuberant first act filled with tender moments and exciting moments, leaving the audience exhilarated at intermission. But you know things will go wrong.  I was surprised, as the painful events of the second act arose, how much I identified with these complex characters, how much I brought my own experiences to the story. The fact that you are forgiven doesn’t mean you will stop feeling guilty.  The fact that you apologize doesn’t mean you’ll succeed in changing your ways.  The fact that you know someone will never change enough doesn’t mean you will stop loving them.

 

Besides Richler’s absorbing novel, many people know Duddy from the brilliant, often ugly performances in Ted Kotcheff's 1974 film version. A musical has to be different – with more appealing characters, a more intimate relationship with the audience, and many monologues and solo songs so the audience is privy to the character's anxieties and their dreams. 

 

“Duddy may be the 'realest' traditional musical anyone's ever seen. Even though it follows a larger-than-life main character on a grand quest, its urban universe and sensibility exist in what I'd call musical theatre verité. There isn't anything in the musical repertoire quite like it,” says librettist David Spencer.  

 

Menken’s music does not include big showstoppers.  The music is embedded in the narrative, carrying the show along.  Songs function as thoughtful interior monologues and as vehicles for Duddy to persuade, cajole and entice others to see the great advantages for themselves in catering to his whims and supporting his schemes.  Yvette and Duddy’s love songs are warm and sweet, and are there are some fun songs of celebration along the way.

 

Composer Alan Menken has won 11 Grammys, 8 Oscars, 7 Golden Globes and a Tony award, and his best-loved works include Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and Little Shop of Horrors. Duddy more closely resembles his 2011 musical Newsies. It lacks that show's spectacular dancing, but it does have the clear, distinct characters, most of them humble, living their lives as best they can. 

 

No choreographer is listed in the program; instead movement consultant Danya Tekatch creates wonderful visual moments in the play, including some quite adorable dancing of the kind you really do see from exuberant people when they’re carried away by excitement.

 

Movement, singing and acting in the production were uniformly excellent.  Ken James Stewart and Marie-Pierre de Brienne appear to grow and mature, transforming from dreamy kids to hardened operators and pain-informed lovers with grace.  As the older men in Duddy’s sphere, Kristian Truelsen is very funny as the film director, Victor A. Young is skillful at navigating family politics as Uncle Benjy, Sam Rosenthal is strong as world-weary Mr. Cohen and Michael Rudder is disturbing and effective as underworld boss Jerry Dingleman.  Albane Chateau, Gab Desmond, Julia Halfyard (in addition to her role as Duddy’s mother) and Michael Daniel Murphy bring energy to a variety of ensemble roles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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