Review: KELLY v. KELLY

by Lynn on June 9, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person, at the Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Produced by Musical Stage Company in association with Canadian Stage. Plays until June 18, 2023.

Book by Sara Farb

Music and lyrics by Britta Johnson

Directed and choreographed by Tracey Flye

Music supervisor, orchestrator & arranger, Lynne Shankel

Musical Director, Jonathan Corkal-Astorga

Set and lighting by Lorenzo Savoini

Costumes by Alex Amini

Sound by Brian Kenny

Cast: Dave Ball

Joel Cumber

Peter Fernandes

Eva Foote

Mike Jackson

Julia McLellan

Jessica Sherman

Margaret Thompson

Kelsey Verzotti

Jeremy Walmsley

The Band: Jonathan Corkal-Astorga

Sasha Boychouk

Jessica Deutsch

Anna Atkinson

Erik Larson

Kelly v. Kelly is a musical still listed as in development. While the story is intriguing and the performances are dandy, the book needs another pass to shore up the two large holes in the narrative. Both Sara Farb (book) and Britta Johnson (music and lyrics) are fine creators of new work, Kelly v. Kelly needs more attention to the story to make it fly.

The Story. I first saw a workshop of this musical when it was being developed at the Canadian Musical Theatre Project at Sheridan College in which Michael Rubinoff was the Producing Artistic Director. The germ of an idea was there as was the buoyancy of the music and lyrics.  The version produced by Musical Stage Company in association with Canadian Stage has developed it further.

The press information of the story seems almost breathless: Inspired by true events from 1915 in New York, KELLY v. KELLY reveals the story of a mother and daughter divided by passion, money and what it means to be a woman at a time of huge societal change. When a 19-year-old heiress becomes tangled in an affair with a seductive tango dancer, her distraught mother has her arrested and charged with incorrigibility, sparking a court case that scandalizes the nation.”

Eugenia Kelly was always a dutiful daughter to her mother, Helen Kelly. Eugenia’s father and Helen’s husband, Edward died years before and we don’t know about Eugenia’s relationship with her father. But when Eugenia turned 19-years-old, she was introduced to a more interesting world by her society friends, namely, tango clubs and the men who taught and danced there for a fee. Eugenia became more independent and curious about the world and wanted to get out of the restrained world of her mother. She began an affair with Al Davis, one of the dancers who took a fancy to her. That’s when Eugenia’s mother took drastic measure and had her daughter arrested and charged with “incorrigibility” resulting in the court case.

The Production and comment. Lorenzo Savoini’s set of the courtroom is spare and efficient: the judge’s chair is up center and the prosecutor’s desk and the chair for Helen Kelly is stage left. Everybody but the accused is in court. She’s late. The Judge (Mike Jackson) is impatient. Helen’s lawyer (Joel Cumber) is high-strung and anxious. He wears a bespoke morning suit for court. His hair is slicked back. Helen Kelly (Jessica Sherman) is prim, refined and wears a blouse buttoned up to her neck and a dark grey respectable dress. This is a woman in which decorum is paramount. Nothing flashy or gaudy for her. Her hair is piled high on her head and held tightly in place. Restrained and confined defines Helen Kelly.

Finally, Eugenia Kelly (Eva Foote) arrives, hurrying down the aisle from the theatre, followed by a phalanx of excited reporters wanting a quote etc. She is carefree, wears a flowing dress that could be described as ‘flapper’ and is confident. She says she will defend herself.

The combination of book by Sara Farb and music and lyrics by Britta Johnson is an inspired fit. Both women are literate, gifted, intelligent and know how to mine the heart and mind of their characters. We get a sense of Helen’s life and position as a woman who remains silent and does not question decisions made for her, in the first two songs.

First, “Eugenia’s Entrance.” It is full of activity as Eugenia rushes down the aisle. Her mother remains silent and shocked at the display of the carefree enthusiasm of her daughter. Then “Chosen,” sung by Helen’s mother when Helen was herself 19 years old. Her mother taught Helen to be proper and act with decorum. And what great luck, Helen has been chosen by Edward Kelly of the very influential Kelly family, to be courted for the purpose of marriage. Helen’s mother was socially conscious of how such a match would elevate her and the family’s stature, or that is the impression we get so far. Edward Kelly is 42 years old. Helen as I said is 19. In 1915 no one questioned why a man of 42 years old was still unmarried when marriage was still desirable, or looked askance when he courted/married a woman of 19. From the dialogue we sense that it is Edward’s mother who is pulling the strings and nudging him towards marriage.  

Director Tracey Flye has directed that first meeting of Edward and Helen with effective nuance. Helen wore a lovely flower in her hair. Edward was prim and proper in his suit and tie. He noticed the flower with a little smile? Smirk?  “Is that a flower in your hair” he said? Then carefully took it out of her hair and held the flower. He did not put it in his button hole, he held it, seemingly looking for a place to discard it. Helen was young and inexperienced with this and didn’t know what to make of it. When he delicately took the flower out of her hair on their wedding day, with the same smirk, she frowned as if she had displeased him. Hers would be a life of frowning at such slights.

Helen finally gets her song when she sings “It Used to be Better” in which she recalls how life with her young daughter was wonderful and comforting. They played cards each evening. Her husband was long dead. Helen longs for those days when it used to be better between her and Eugenia.

Eugenia, in the meantime, is a young woman bursting to get out. She runs with a group of women, all free, all with money who are anxious to live an independent life without societal constraints. Suffragettes are agitating for independence for women, and not constrained by their husbands. Eugenia gets so deep into this life of independence, determination and tango dancing that her mother has a song at the end called “You Scare Me.” In that song Helen sings to Eugenia how her pure sense of freedom without restraint scares her. And one assumes leaves her jealous that she, Helen, never had the courage to break away from the societal, social constraints that dictated her life. Helen is wise enough to know that the tango dancer, Al Davis (Jeremy Walmsley) is not a good match for her daughter. We find out how unsuitable he is in court.

Eva Foote as Eugenia and Jessica Sherman as Helen are two powerhouse actor/singers. Eva Foote illuminates all the promise, enthusiasm and pluck of Eugenia. She seems to gulp air she is so hungry for life’s experiences. As Helen, Jessica Sherman is constrained in that somber garb, as if tightened and buttoned into it. She has never allowed herself to loosen up, even after her husband died. Both women sing beautifully. Eva Foote sings with confidence, conviction and determination, as a woman on the brink of taking her life in her hands would do. Jessica Sherman as Helen sings with power and regret at a life slipping by her.  

But for all the positive comments about Eva Foote and Jessica Sherman and the rest of the cast and the writing of Sara Farb and music and lyrics of Britta Johnson, I do have concerns about the piece as a whole.

Are we supposed to actually hear Britta Johnson’s lyrics? I ask because the sound of the microphoned band and that of the microphoned cast are at odds with each other, almost drowning each other out—and there are no horns or percussion in the band. Is it really that impossible to balance the sound in that small theatre?

There are tender moments in Tracey Flye’s direction, but her choreography is so busy and overpowering it’s hard to find a focus for the story. Kelly v. Kelly is not a big Broadway musical but from all the distracting choreography of the chorus in the background, one does get that impression that is what Tracey Flye is going for.

My biggest concern is that I think there are two holes in the narrative. The first concerns Edward Kelly. His appearance in the story is so late in the production—around 50 minutes into this 90 minute show—that his absence seems conspicuous. I think his presence or at least some information about him should be introduced sooner. Why is there so little narrative between Edward and Helen, or at least some inkling that she was not happy in that marriage. Missing her daughter is one thing, we need more information filled in to explain things. Helen had a fear of being left alone. Can one assume she was alone in that marriage? Please tell us more. We also find out late that Helen came from a notable family too—her uncle was the governor and his presence was wanted by Edward. When he didn’t show up, Edward was upset and so was Helen tangentially. While “Chosen” suggests that Helen is fortunate to have caught the eye of Edward, she in fact also had a pedigree that should be established earlier in the narrative.

The second hole in the narrative exists between Eugenia and Helen. Eugenia sees the world in a way Helen does not. What is missing is any kind of conversation between the two of them when the daughter explains her motives to her mother or at least sounds out her mother about her own choices. If Eugenia is rebelling, we need to know from what or whom she is rebelling and why. There is an indication at the end (no worries, I won’t spoil it) that Helen might be knowing when she smiles at her daughter, but that knowing smile is not supported really by any conversation between them. It’s as if Helen read Eugenia’s mind. We need something more substantial.

Again, Sara Farb and Britta Johnson are gifted writers. They excavate into the human heart and mind. And I have faith they can fill in holes too when needed. I’m looking forward to seeing Kelly v. Kelly again, when it’s finished.

Produced by Musical Stage Company in association with Canadian Stage

Plays until June 18, 2023.

Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

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