The Royal Alexandra Theatre on King Street is still painted a Come From Away shade of blue. It would take quite a performance for us not to feel that production’s absence while congregating in its former space.
Well, props to Jake Epstein: he’s done it.
Epstein’s musical about a life onstage is solo performance at its most satisfying — funny, fast-paced, and deeply personal. From its clever overture (musical theatre fans will spot the first of a great many earworms within seconds) to its final tableau, Epstein’s Boy Falls from the Sky is a charming descent into the inner journey of a working actor. Songs from Epstein’s increasingly big career breaks punctuate the show: Green Day meets Bono meets Hamlisch meets a slew of additional big-name musical theatre composers in this jukebox musical of musicals.
From the very first line (which Epstein flubbed on opening night — the grace with which he handled the mistake instantly got the audience firmly on his side), we know this will be a Broadway-soaked affair. Yes, Epstein was on Degrassi (he did indeed attend Drake’s bar mitzvah, so stop asking), and yes, you might know him from appearances on Suits or Murdoch Mysteries, but live theatre’s had his heart since he was a kid, screlting (scream-belting, for the uninitiated) The Lion King and Les Miserables on family road trips to New York City from Toronto.
As we follow Epstein through the ups and downs of his theatrical career, we’re treated to note-perfect renditions of trademark songs of characters past. Epstein’s voice shows only the smallest signs of fatigue by the end of his seventyish-minute performance, and the emotion with which he attacks songs like “Give Me Novacaine” from American Idiot and “Boy Falls from the Sky” (sound familiar?) from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark feels authentic and raw. Epstein’s career has brought joy and self-fulfillment as well as heartbreak — even original cast members of Broadway shows get fired sometimes, and even Spider-Man needs to go to physical therapy three times a week — but it’s also one which has brought love, both for other people and for the art itself, and on opening night, I don’t know if I stopped smiling the entire time.
Backed up by a wonderful band (which, composed of just three musicians, Lauren Falls, Justin Han, and David Atkinson, provides a lush underscore for this former Spider-Man’s story), Epstein offers us a selective peek into his world. A seemingly offhand story about an ex-girlfriend’s visit to New York seemed to soften an entire row of Toronto critics in the mezzanine on opening night — critics who stood in for those who, in the earlier days of Epstein’s career, called him the “weak link” and “vocally tentative” in a national tour of Spring Awakening. Ex-girlfriend-turned-not-ex-girlfriend tales elicit a sea of “aw”s, and comments from old reviews have lost their sting: Epstein’s no weak link here and his vocals are far from tentative. Set and lighting are similarly high-calibre: a multi-level playing space (by Brandon Kleiman) is particularly helpful for evoking the perils of playing Peter Parker, and lighting (by Amber Hood) is just the right shades of red and blue at just the right times. Director Robert McQueen has brought the whole thing together seamlessly — it takes real prowess to bring a solo show right to the edge of spontaneity and poise, and McQueen’s walked Epstein right up to that glorious precipice.
Opening night had some tech issues: line flubs aside, Epstein ran into some real trouble with sound, his microphones entering into feedback loops with each other and his body mic simply dropping out at times. It was at one point bad enough for Epstein himself to stop the show and ask us, “hey, I sound much better now than I did a second ago, right?” when the fuzziness of the sound was finally fixed.
Is that a lapse in sound design/execution? Sure.
But were those moments of imperfection also some of the most endearing, allowing the audience access to some of Epstein’s less rehearsed, on-the-spot charisma?
Epstein’s got a winner here — Boy Falls from the Sky, given its relatively small scale and geographical relevance in any city in which he’s already toured, seems ready to hit the North American road at a moment’s notice — and anyone with a soft spot for musical theatre will get a kick out of his stories and songs. For those who might not consider themselves “musical theatre people” or Degrassi fans, some jokes might be lost, some sentimental musical moments might hit less forcefully — but the show seems capable of standing on its own even for non-specialists, filling in any knowledge gaps with compelling, funny storytelling.
An Epstein original, “Apparently I’m Too Tall” (probably — the song’s not credited in the program and it can’t possibly be called anything else), stayed in my head on loop in the hours following the show — he’s got comedic songwriting chops, too, and part of me wishes they’d been further flexed for this project. Mirvish made a gutsy call here in moving Epstein’s solo show from the smaller CAA Theatre on Yonge to this one: the Royal Alex really does feel haunted so long as it remains that iconic bright blue. But Boy Falls from the Sky is the perfect new tenant for a site so storied with Canadian musical theatre lore. With joy, talent, and a knockout piece of writing, Epstein’s made the glorious Royal Alex feel new again, a feat even greater than surviving a run of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.
Boy Falls from the Sky runs until May 29, 2022. You can find out more here.