How is it possible to feel nostalgia for an era I never even experienced? That was the question I asked myself as Last Night at the Gayety’s opening number “This is before all that” unfolded in front of me. The song is a fun tribute to an era that (at least appears to be) considerably less complicated than ours today.
Set in the early 1950s, at the Gayety Theatre (once a landmark in Montreal’s Red Light District and now housing Théâtre Nouveau Monde) when the city was known to tourists as a destination for all things fun, and where “booze, burlesque, and bad guys were in abundance”, the Bowser and Blue-penned story (music and lyrics) is entertaining, quick-paced, and, yes… occasionally all over the place.
The story is ultimately about the clash between Montreal’s Morality Squad (headed by Police Chief, Pacifique ‘Pax’ Plante and Priest Marie-Joseph d’Anjou), played respectively (and very competently) by Daniel Brochu and Michel Perron, and celebrated burlesque dancer Lili St Cyr (Julia Juhas in an understated, classy, legs-for-miles performance).
Truths and tall tales come together to form an entertaining story. While Police Chief, Pax Plante did indeed write a series of articles about corruption in Le Devoir at the time, and Father Marie-Joseph D’Anjou, who was with the city’s Public Morality Squad did in fact lead a public campaign against her in 1951, writing that when she gyrates, “the theatre is made to stink with the foul odor of sexual frenzy,” (exaggerate much, Father?) Bowser and Blue took plenty of liberties with the story and the storyline for the sake of entertainment.
This is ultimately a story about the clash between Church-led traditional morality and the new modern ways that were sweeping Montreal at the time. It’s a clash between Duplessis’ puritanism and his crusade to eradicate anything that could “corrupt” by clamping down on gambling, raiding brothels and nightclubs, and the desire for many to live freely and enjoy what the world – and Montreal – had to offer. It’s also about breaking free of conventions and surroundings, religious moralizing, and reinventing oneself in this brand new world. After all, Lili St. Cyr had initially been born Marie Van Shaack in Minnesota, and if she had reinvented herself, why couldn’t we?
Lili St. Cyr, of course, represents all that is questionable and corrupting to the eyes of the Morality Squad, with Quebec’s Catholic clergy condemning her every step of the way. The fight between the two opposing forces makes for the central theme of the story, with a couple of back stories thrown in for added comedy.
The entire cast is very solid. So much exceptional singing, dancing, and storytelling (primarily local) talent on that stage! Holly Gauthier-Frankel plays Molly, the young, impressionable Irish girl from Griffintown who is dying to escape the drudgery and poverty of her world. St. Cyr is her northern star. The burlesque dancer embodies the freedom, glamour, and excitement of life she’s dying to sample. Having seen Gauthier-Frankel’s well-known burlesque alter-ego Ms. Sugarpuss around town for years, I had forgotten that she can sing – and quite beautifully at that. Her combination of sexy, but good ‘girl next door’ persona, wrapped in impeccable comedic timing, always manages to make Gauthier-Frankel’s performances endearing and immensely likeable.
Peek-a-Boo Girls – Tamara Brown, Rosie Callaghan and Shannon Tosic McNally, play a variety of roles that further along the story. Tamara Brown in particular, was all kinds of sassy as a Madame in a brothel, and as the judge in St. Cyr’s trial. It’s a testament, not only to the actors’ competency, but to stage manager Luciana Burcheri that everything seems to move along so seamlessly during the numerous character changes.
From Davide Chiazzese’s Jimmy, to Frayne McCarthy’s Tommy, to Jonah Carson’s Donald the dumb cop (did they really have to make him that dumb?), to the wonderful live band that accompanied the performances this was a really fun night out.
Sure, it’s not the most socially enlightened piece I’ve come across. A friend I discussed it with later quickly pointed out that it glosses over certain truths of that era and that the language used was often mildly to majorly sexist. There’s no denying it was occasionally painfully clear that two older men had written the dialogue (did I really need to hear a song about how we need to “grow a pair”, “rescue damsels” and have the men grabbing their crotches while doing so?)
I also wish a bit more focus have been placed on Lili St. Cyr being at the forefront of women’s new liberation. While she was the ultimate fantasy for men, she was also a woman ahead of her time. Married numerous times, she earned her own money (lots and lots of it), doing what she loved to do, and she was the one who decided on every aspect of her burlesque career.
A recent New York Post article pointed out that “While the median annual income in the U.S. at the time was around $3,000 per family, St. Cyr made $1,500 a week. By the early 1950s, offers had risen to $10,000 a week.” Her fierce independence was touched upon briefly in the piece, but not nearly enough in my opinion.
Of course Last Night at the Gayety isn’t a dissertation on sexism or inequality in the ‘50s and so it shouldn’t be judged along those lines. It’s a musical written about Montreal’s ‘Sin City’ heyday and as such the dialogue and lyrics accurately reflect the truth and reality of that era.
The show walks us through the fateful night when St. Cyr was arrested and charged with behavior that was “immoral, obscene and indecent.” She was eventually acquitted, but the incident frazzled her so much that she decided to leave the city. It is in a way the beginning of the end for that era, and the Gayety would eventually be closed down.
There are some glorious musical numbers, numerous laugh-out-loud moments (that ‘80s power ballad that comes out of nowhere was one of the highlights for me), and some numbers that sort of fizzle and feel aimless. There is also, of course, glorious and sexy burlesque, from Molly’s hesitant forays into that world, to Lily’s sophisticated acts (re-enacted accurately) which she was internationally famous for.
Make no mistake about it, despite my quibbles about musicals (I’m not a huge fan) and about how the writing could have been a little less predictable, this is a very solid piece of entertainment. The two+ hours flew by for both me and my date and that’s always a good sign for any theatre goer. Because of the local theme and the mainstream crowd-pleasing aspect of musicals, I expect that Last Night at the Gayety will play very well in Montreal and I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if its run is extended.
After all, despite Chief Pax’s Plante’s and Father Marie-Joseph d’Anjou’s best efforts Montreal’s reputation as a sexy city remains solid, and its burlesque scene has been experiencing a new resurgence in popularity, as performers and audience revel in the combination of sultry and smart sass that is as seductive as it is a joyous and confident celebration of female sexuality. Head over to The Wiggle Room for a taste of ol’ timey fun.
The Centre d’Histoire de Montreal currently has an exhibition: Scandal! Vice, Crime, and Morality in Montreal 1940-1960 that will certainly benefit from all this renewed attention on that era. I am sure many theatre goers will feel compelled to find out more about that time in Montreal’s history after seeing this production. The exhibition showcases actual photos of St. Cyr, popular Montreal nightclubs, the crime-busting that took place, and much more.
Last Night at the Gayety is at Centaur Theatre, 453 St-François-Xavier St., until May 15. For tickets and/or information: Call 514-288-3161 or visit centaurtheatre.com