Book and lyrics by Morris Panych
Original music by Ken MacDonald
Quintessence Musical Theatre
Waterfront Theatre
Granville Island
July 7-23

Last Call was the play that blasted Morris Panych onto the map in 1982. With text and lyrics by Panych and music by Ken MacDonald, the “Post-Nuclear Cabaret” was a hit for the two of them in Vancouver, followed by a national tour and CBC television production.

Samuel Beckett meets Kurt Weill in this bleak comic satire of human folly and persistence, set amid the ruins of a Vancouver nightclub after a nuclear holocaust. Panych and MacDonald were Bart Gross and Eddie Morose, the one suffering from radiation poisoning, the other blinded by the blast. In Quintessence Musical Theatre’s current revival, David Adams plays Gross and Marguerite Witvoet is Morose.

They put on a cabaret in the hopes of attracting other survivors. Gross sings and dances, Morose sings and plays piano. All the world’s a stage and life is a cabaret. Gross directs the operation, not just because Morose is blind but because Gross has a gun. As one of his lyrics says, “the one with the gun calls the shot.”

Questions about whether humans naturally crave power and are inherently violent and destructive run through the play. So does the existential theme that characterizes all Panych’s work—the meaning of life in the face of death—played out, as so often in his drama, in the relationship between two people.

Like Beckett’s Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot or Hamm and Clov from Endgame, Gross and Morose are utterly interdependent yet can’t stand each other. One is cynical, the other hopeful. They change positions by the end of the play but nothing is resolved. Not even whether there will be a tomorrow.

Panych finds dark Beckettian humour in the absurdity of the human condition. His lyrics have the topical wit and clever rhymes of a Tom Lehrer and gain added edge from the cabaret quality of MacDonald’s Weillian score. Adams, an excellent actor with a rich, resonant voice, delivers Gross’s songs in energetic vaudevillian style to Witvoet’s fine piano accompaniment.

Some of the cleverest lyrics are found in a musical travelogue in which they imagine post-nuclear life elsewhere: “Throughout Spain radiation is in the air/And it’s plain all the Spanish will lose their hair/ If it rains/And rain it will/ So who the hell needs Barbers in Seville?” Their stop in England has a chilling topicality: “There goes Leicester/ And Manchester/ And a little bit of Wales./ Is that Hampshire?/ That’s for damn sure./ Goodness, how Britannia sails!”

The fear of atomic war nevertheless dates the play a little—how soon we forget. And the energy in Andy Toth’s production waxes and wanes, partly due to Marguerite Witvoet’s light voice and low-key presence. It’s hard not to be morose in the face of nuclear death, but it’s much more fun to sing our way to the apocalypse being gross.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Tuesday, July 12, 2005 4:30 PM
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