Promising musical Napoleon needs heart massage

Yesterday's Lotto 649 was worth $12 million-plus.

Backers who made a reported $4.5 million investment in last night's eagery awaited official debut of the biggest homegrown musical Canada has spawned probably have better odds of getting it back than lottery punters -if improvements are made.

NapoleonNapoleon, playing at the Elgin Theatre, is full of potential. Twelve years in preparation and reportedly in its seventh draft, an enthusiastic 32-strong cast playing 88 roles and with a lively pit orchestra and powerful set-pieces, the musical conceived by Andrew and Tim -that's Canada's virtually unknown Sabiston and Williams, not Britain's over-lauded Lloyd Webber and Rice- is a grab-bag of grandiose ideas.

But the ideas don't get the execution they deserve on an ongoing basis, despite periodic flashes of dazzling execution.

While it scores high in clarity, musical themes and ambitious story-line, it doesn't do so well elsewhere. Almost unbelievably, it lacks a heart, the sort of connecting emotions that put the sigh in Miss Saigon, the zaniness in Crazy For You, the showbiz in Show Boat and even the wracking ranting in Phantom.

The few moments when a genuine shiver of emotional connection is made are not enough in this ambitious, detailed documentary of a soldier who was to change the face of Europe in the early 19th century, the callow Corsican who became a general, then an emperor, and who declared that "France has more need of me than I of France."

Its zeal for historical accuracy is undone by the parallel tale it tries to tell about Napoleon's infatuation with Josephine, the older women he married and then divorced for lack of an heir to pursue his imperial ambition. This is where a musical that for once doesn't feed vampire-like off the creations of others should have scored heavily.

The sung-through presentation relies on song and score rather than special effects, though there's some convincingly zippy stagecraft at work that uses hydraulic wizardry to suggest mountainous terrain when Napoleon's troops march across the Alps.

But 20 scenes is probably five too many, and 37 musical numbers are an excess too. Although those songs are for the most part briefer than expected, and scenes whistle past at almost unvarying pace, a festina lente (hasten slowly) approach would have helped emphasize climatic points.

There's too much to absorb, and despite the earnest singing and acting, this big production with its glossy textures seems to value efficiency and glamor and this has suborned the context.

The principals, Jerome Pradon as Napoleon and Aline Mowat as Josephine, don't generate a credible chemistry. Pradon, while exuding a romantic sweetness, didn't give the impression that his passion for the lady somehow mattered more than his lust for power. Indeed, what seems most improbable is that he and the philandering Josephine, who seemed much oler, would fall deeply in love at all.

Mowat has some fine moments singing with her friends and with Boney, but as on many other occasions in this show, they seem to be singing for themselves. Each scene seems isolated and the worlds put into the characters' mouths have a 1990s resonance, straightforward enough, at times charismatic enough, yet failing to persuade that they could come from the tormented souls populating early 19th century France.

The supporting cast, with lesser demands, were often effective, notably Gary Krawford as the cynical diplomt Talleyrand, Shawn Wright as brother Lucien, Stephanie Martin as Clarise and David Keeley as Anton.

And when the martial star was in the ascendant, with the soldiers rallying to patriotic calls or bemoaning their state when defeated by General Winter in Russia in 1812, the mood was heroic, the impact dramatic. And the coronation scene had awesome strength.

There wasn't enough of this though near the end the feeling index was cranked up a few satisfying notches and it must be said there's much to admire -the bright costumes, super-effective yet spartan sets, wry, clever humor in many of the songs ("the Tale Of The Sculptors" for example) and the sheer scope of what has been achieved so far. As well as some tunes that may demonstrate durability- like "The Dream Within", "That First Night" and "The Friend You Were To Me".

Napoleon failed at Waterloo in Belgium. By the time this show hits Waterloo Station in London preparatory to a fall West End run, it should be up to snuff. Just push the passion pedal harder and weed the script.

  by Geoff Chapman, Drama Critic
The Toronto Star
March 24, 19