by Marlene Smith & Ernie Rubenstein at the
Lyrics: Andrew Sabiston. Music: Timothy Williams. Text: Andrew Sabiston & Timothy Williams. Direction: John Wood. Sets & costumes: Patrick Clark. Lights: John Munro. Orchestration: David Cullen. Musical Direction: Donald Chan. Stg mgmt: Aileen Wilson. Cast: Doug Adler, Paul Aikens, Lisa Atkinson, Patric A. Creelman, John Devorski, Glen Dias, Eric Donkin, Kerry Dorey, Bruce Dow, Karen K. Eddissi, Lisa Forget, Allison Grant, David Keeley, Mary Kelly, Gary Krawford, Thea Mac Neil, Tim Magwood, Stephanie Martin, George Masswohl, Darren McCaffery, Frayne McCarthy, Aline Mowat, Paul Mulloy, Jeff Mulrooney, Mary Pitt, Jerome Pradon, Avery Salzman, Milo Shandel, Todd Stewart, Man Trainor, Geoffrey Tyler, Shawn Wright
It may not quite be the weight of the world, but there is a lot resting on the shoulders of Napoleon, the $4.5 million megamusical and largest original production in Canadian theatre history. Nationalist and economic concerns set aside (if such a thing is possible), the two Canadian writer/composers, Sabiston and Williams, have always protested that success or failure will finally be determined by the work and not its (unavoidable) hype.
Even acknowledging the manifest goodwill of the opening night crowd, it was clear throughout the first act that we were listening to and watching something of the very highest quality: the orchestra, under Chan's direction, was in excellent form; Munro's lighting was consistently expressive and inventive; Clark's costumes were sumptuous, his sets spare and sophisticated; and the large cast brought energy and commitment to the full company numbers.
Even though the canvas was large, there was still a satisfying amount of dramatic detail, especially in the conception of Talleyrand, the political arch-survivor, and in satirical numbers such as "The Victim's Ball" and "The Tale of the Sculptors," but also in the beginnings of Napoleon and Josephine's relationship. At the very end of their first ballad, the brash young soldier without warning blurts out "Marry me!" to which Josephine smiles generously and replies "Stay the night, and we'll see..." just the right comic mixture of his naïveté and her sexual confidence made the sequence sympathetically revealing of both characters.
The stunning climax of the first act -Napoleon's coronation- ended up being the climax of the entire piece, the driving high-church strains of the "Timor Mortis" giving way to the eerie detachment of Napoleon's inner voice in "Sweet Victory Divine" and ending in the coup de théâtre of Napoleon plucking the crown away from the Pope to cram it on his head himself.
But the confidence and sophistication and expert storytelling displayed here wasn't quite achieved again in the second half, and certain nagging questions remain. Why was it that Napoleon's takeover of the government on the "Eighteenth of Brumaire," which had been built up musically, only fizzled dramatically? And why was a pattern developing during the larger company numbers of singers simply lining up across the front of the stage, standing and delivering?
Sabiston and Williams' Napoleon, like Macbeth, is a man who diminishes in stature once he achieves the crown (Pradon displayed this physically, seeming to shrink with every passing year and each misguided decision); but that is no excuse for director Wood to let the pace and dramatic intensity sag as much as it did in the second half. And it is more the writers' and directors' than History's fault that Josephine, so well played by Mowat, is allowed to fade so thoroughly out of the drama. At Waterloo, it is not so much Napoleon's army as his ego that finally collapses. The ending is suitably low-key, which is fine -there is something of Macbeth's "I 'gin to be aweary of the sun" in Napoleon's defeat, a sense not of "high tragedy"," whatever that is, but of a waste on a human and emotional level, especially in his failed relationship with Josephine. But the ending as it is now staged is also undramatic, which is not so fine -a banal lighting effect is awkwardly left to cap the moment.
As it stands, the overall achievement is tremendous, but this Napoleon needs a change of direction -or perhaps a changing of its director- to guarantee the prolonged success it in so many ways proves that it deserves.
NB: Since the writing of this review, Napoleon has been given a new choreographer/director.