Duddy really needs to be somebody – at the expense of everybody

Ken James Stewart & Ensemble (Duddy Kravitz Musical) - Photo by Maxime Côté (2)

Full disclosure – I love theatre, but loathe musicals. I’ve never really understood the need to – just as the storyline is moving along – break into song and dance. More than anything, I find that musicals, because of how they revolve around flashy showmanship and musicality, always remain somewhere on the surface, never seriously delving into real existential questions about humanity and our need to truly examine and reassess our lives.

But I couldn’t possibly turn down attending the world premiere of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz: The Musical at the Segal Centre, which has been 30 long years in the making.

First of all, the production takes its cues from one of Canada’s most celebrated and iconic novels. And that novel was inspired by and written in 1959 right here in this city by Mordecai Richler who lived on St. Urbain Street. In other words, this novel is as Montreal as a Wilensky’s bologna sandwich. To miss seeing the musical adaptation by Oscar-winning Alan Menken and lyricist David Spencer would be simply silly, despite my aversion for all things musical.

So it was with high spirits, but mild trepidation that I sat down to the first few scenes of the production. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before everyone sitting around a lunch counter started singing a predictably up-beat song about something or another, and I started worrying whether this was how the rest of the story would go. Fluffy and fun, never reaching in and grabbing me by the feels…

Turns out, that’s not how the story goes.

Of course one musical number after another follows, but this coming of age story of an ambitious kid from the wrong side of the tracks reels you in. Very quickly I found myself immersed in the storyline and my affection for Duddy growing as I watched him navigate his way through his young life, trying to prove himself to his father, to his neighborhood, to the people he works with at the Laurentians resort, and ultimately to himself.

There are moments when he interacts with his frail grandfather or during a dinner scene where his deceased mom appears (to the audience) at the table to sing along with the three men in her life (father and two sons) who are clearly poorer for her absence, that moved me to tears. It is here that I suddenly saw how a masterful musical score and lyrics can move along a storyline, instead of hindering it. It was through the music that I saw how Duddy’s quest is fueled by an emotional void for validation and love denied. Want can never be satiated when your need for it is a bottomless pit. It’s what makes him so terribly flawed, yet so undeniably human.

His almost pathological need to obtain land and “be somebody” is adequately explained early on by his devotion to his grandfather, who has instilled in him the notion that you’re nobody without your own land. There isn’t a child born to immigrants who won’t understand the need for something to call your own.

It, of course, sets the stage for who Duddy ultimately becomes and the decisions that he makes as the storyline moves along. And it isn’t always pretty.

Despite Stratford Shakespeare Festival regular Ken James Stewart’s immense likeability as Duddy, this literary character isn’t really a likeable one. Like most people in life, Duddy is forced to make choices that define who he is as a human being. Despite the noble origins of his ambition, despite his incessant need to prove himself to his father, despite the absence of a mother, despite the commendable struggle of a Jewish immigrant to overcome the prejudice and antisemitism of that era, Duddy, as portrayed in Mordecai Richler’s book isn’t merely an overly ambitious and harmless scoundrel. He’s a bit of an asshole.

But you can’t base an entertaining, up-beat musical around an asshole.

So the trick in this stage adaptation is to offer redemption. Redemption in the form of Duddy ultimately acknowledging his sins and a promise to do better. To purists who have read the book, it may not be enough. To those of us who feel that liberties can be taken with literary characters, the musical ends on a satisfying note.

As mentioned previously, Ken James Stewart in the lead role is exactly who he needs to be to elicit the kind of support and empathy from his audience that will keep us rooting for Duddy way after he’s made a series of dubious decisions. Sparkly, energetic, likeable are adjectives that spring to mind.

Marie-Pierre de Brienne as Yvette is a pillar of strength and devotion, a woman Duddy hardly deserves by the end, but somehow still ends up with. Her crystal clear voice is a joy to listen to.

George Masswhohl is both Duddy’s father, Max, and the narrator of the story. While every single actor rises to the occasion and more than adequately fulfills their role, special mentions must go to David Coomber who plays dim-witted, yet kind-hearted Virgil Roseboro, Michael Rudder as sleazy Jerry Dingleman, and Kristian Truelsen as film director Peter John Friar offering much-needed comic relief.

The Segal Centre doesn’t need my review or anyone else’s to sell tickets. This production was already sold out before it had its world premiere early this month, based solely on its star power, musical pedigree, and proximity to the Montreal-based storyline. Last I heard, the production has sold over 6,500 tickets to date, and had broken the Segal Centre’s record for daily ticket sales. It has already been extended once, until July 5, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s extended again, if time commitments allow for it to be.

Whether this final version – decades in the works – makes it to Broadway, remains to be seen, although it has many elements that could predict and facilitate that outcome.

Regardless of what happens in the future, however, the present at the Segal Centre very much belongs to The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz: The Musical. Even if it’s the softened, more palatable version of a reprehensible-at-times man our own Mordecai fashioned at the tender age of 28.

Let’s face it, musicals weren’t meant to hand out harsh morality lessons. There’s too much singing and dancing going on to end a production by breaking the audience’s heart. It doesn’t matter, though. This is a thoroughly enjoyable production that’s absolutely worth seeing. I dare say even crotchety Mordecai would get a kick out of it.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz: The Musical continues until July 5.  For tickets (if any remain), call 514-739-7944 or visit the Segal Centre website.