Despite Timothy Williams' score, this epic musical fails to make the emperor a real tragic hero.

At the Elgin Theatre for an indefinite run
Rating: ***

It is probably inevitable that the brand-new, nearly all-Canadian musical epic Napoleon, which opened last night at the Elgin Theatre, will be compared to the other big musical-theatre productions playing in Toronto. That's a shame, because while Napoleon has a lot going in -starting with first-rate music and performances- it just isn't in the same league as Show Boat, Crazy For You, Miss Saigon and The Phantom of the Opera when it comes to staging pizazz or technological whizbangery.

No offence to Jérôme Pradon, who plays the title role, but the real star of this show is the music, by Timothy Williams. David Cullen's lush orchestrations are rendered by musical director/conductor Donald Chan and an on-the-mark, 25-piece orchestra.

If Andrew Sabiston's lyrics aren't quite up to the level of his partner's compositions - the ballads, in particular, are marred by grab-bag clichés of the "love you, hold you, miss you" variety - they generally serve well enough. And the lighter numbers - The Tale of the Sculptors, The Meeting - show a lot of internal rhyming and clever wordplay.

Napoleon & JosephineThe play, set mostly in the power centres and courtly homes of Revolutionary and Empire France, covers Napoleon's career from 1796, when a youthful general in the service of the Revolution he is earning his entirely justified reputation for military genius, up until 1815, when he is defeated at Waterloo by the combined forces of Europe. In that time, he marries Josephine (Aline Mowat), rises to Emperor, has his nose bloodied in Russia, divorces Josephine to marry Marie Louise of Austria, is forced off the throne and into exile on the island of Elba, escapes back to France, and is defeated at Waterloo. The plays spares us his six miserable years of exile on remote St. Helena, and his death.

The action moves along crisply - as it must, to cover two decades in this very eventful life in just under three hours - and the general thrust of the story is easy enough to follow. But there are annoying snags and hitches in the script, and a couple of serious structural problems. It also plays fast and loose with history, although it's probably close enough for musical theatre. The inclusion of a troupe of actors is no doubt meant to add theatrical depth, but seems more to clutter the narrative. We open, for instance, with a performance of Tartuffe by the Comédie Française in 1815, which is interrupted by the announcement that Napoleon has been defeated at Waterloo. Suddenly, we flash back to 1796, when Napoleon is just beginning his ascent; if Molière's comic tale of religious hypocrisy is relevant to Napoleon, it is not demonstrated.

Pradon's small, dark and handsome look is perfect for Napoleon in the first half of the play, and he brings entirely convincing emotion to his scenes of ambition and love; he is less credible as the older Napoleon, which he plays with sallow makeup, darkened eyes, a stoop and a scowl, suggesting a sickly youth than a stressed-out middled-aged emperor. Throughout, he show a light but strong tenor voice.

As Josephine, Aline Mowat's voice is a lovely match, and their duets (The Rest of My Life, That First Night, Forever Yours) are among the show's highlights. Her characterization of Josephine, however, seems too sweet and sincere to be believable, and it makes her infidelity - notorious in real life, dealt with in one scene here - ring false as well.

There are a number of good performances in the supporting cast, notably Gary Krawford as the sleazy bureaucratic survivor ("Loyalty to a government doesn't mean a thing / I welcome a revolutionary, I'm delighted by a king.") David Keely is a powerful presence as Napoleon's ally Anton, and Stéphanie Martin has two beautiful songs - A Soldier's Wife and the heart-breaking Waiting and Hoping - but no particular role. The venerable Eric Donkin leads the comic performers as the actor/manager Barriere. Karen K Edissi, as Josephine's friend Thérèse, has a nice duet with Mowat, but is onstage so little that it takes a moment to figure out who she is.

John Wood's direction is generally competent, in its foursquare, traffic-cop way - march'em on, line'em up, let'em sing, get'em off - but it is uninspired at its best, and some of it is confusing or downright puzzling (for instance, when a troup of actors arrives on Elba, they enter through a trap-door in the floor).

The sets, designed by Patrick Clark, are often attractive but always ordinary. Painted flats -stone walls for a prison scene, draped curtains for a palace- are flown in and out (rather like the actors, come to think of it), and furniture is carried on and off. The floor is hinged downstage so that it can be raised and lowered at the back, like a very broad drawbridge, which proves useful and effective once or twice, but generally seems cumbersome and contrived.

The problems in the play's structure rise partly from the simple historical fact that, in the end, the hero loses, and Sabiston and Williams haven't managed to elevate his defeat into great tragedy. (At the end of Man of La Mancha, the play's hero is defeated betrayed and dying, but there may not be a more powerfully uplifting finish in musical theatre.) Napoleon ends down, with the freshly defeated emperor/general on his knees, exchanging vows with the spirit of his departed ex-wife. It's a dramatic scene, but not the sort of ending that rings in the mind.

Theatre Critic, Toronto
The Globe and Mail