Well… at least they’re having fun.
You may find yourself muttering the above as you watch The Wild Rovers, the newest jukebox musical from Terra Bruce Productions, on the heels of Let’s Dance, which, in retrospect, wasn’t so bad.
The intermission-less, two-hour romp through Irish folk music has a few things going for it: enthusiasm, for sure, and some great singing and occasionally great puppets.
But unfortunately, those wins are weighed down by a book several years away from being ready for a commercial Toronto audience. Steve Cochrane’s “play” (as our narrator Maggie, portrayed by Sean Panting, calls it) follows two kingdoms, Athunia and Ethunia (they are pronounced the same and indistinguishable from each other), as they struggle to achieve peace in the run-up to a wedding between their prince and princess. We enter this clash of clans by way of The Irish Rovers (perhaps best known in this country for their eponymous CBC show), who find themselves time-travelling to A/Ethunia because they… sang a song? Picked up a hitchhiker? A little of both? It’s never really clear.
Combine a flimsy plot with a number of unfortunate jokes (including a reimagining of Kelis’ “Milkshake,” and a thinly veiled reference to the conflict in Gaza that I found to be in rather poor taste), and you get The Wild Rovers. It’s silly, it’s high-energy, and at least for the people onstage, it’s a blast.
As an audience member, your mileage may vary.
Director Jason Byrne has done what he can with the material, but there are issues that exacerbate the play’s flaws. The small cast of actors frequently stand in a straight line as they deliver their text, and puppets used to suggest a tour van and dragon often create significant sightline issues. There’s no specified costume designer (only production designer Graham McMonagle), and that gap in the show’s visual identity comes to a head when the members of The Irish Rovers and the fantastical royals of A/Ethunia come together – the two groups are nearly indistinguishable from one another at a distance. For a production that spared no expense for its opening night (including 1,400 free tote bags, each filled with merch, and a lavish post-show party), it seems reasonable to wonder how the show itself might have benefitted from reallocating those funds to a fuller design team.
Thankfully, the cast is musically excellent under the skillful leadership of music directors Kelly-Ann Evans and Josh Ward. The onstage band, too, makes the show nearly palatable as a vessel for spirited folk jigs and swoonful ballads. Nearly.
I want Terra Bruce to succeed. But as the company continues to establish itself in Toronto – it’s one of increasingly few theatre companies that will have the luxury of its own space – I have concerns. Terra Bruce is rife with musical talent, and it’s clear that founders Walter Schroeder and Bob Hallett have big dreams of revolutionizing musical theatre in this country. But the company’s insistence upon creating new jukebox musicals and tapping into generational nostalgia without the theatrical skills to back it up are only setting it up to fail in the long run. Bluntly, the company ought to explore producing established musicals – they could do a decent job at that before producing new work at such an immense cost.
With significant narrative tweaks, and a budget spent on theatre-making instead of TTC ads and branded tat, The Wild Rovers could have been an evening of light-hearted fun. But for now, it’s an overstuffed nostalgia romp with significant problems. I’ll hold the good thought for the next one.
The Wild Rovers runs at the Winter Garden Theatre until November 5. Tickets are available here.
Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.