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Review in Toronto Star of James Reaney's Opera Adaption of Crazy to Kill

Crazy To Kill beats opera to pulp

GUELPH - First there was an isolated scream, then rapid footsteps, then the ominous slam of a creaking door - all before the first character so much as scuffed her feet on the stage of Ross Hall Thursday night.

Or should I say the parlor floor of Elmhurst, the vintage 1930s private asylum in which Crazy To Kill is actually set?

Readers of obscure southern Ontario detective fiction - an admittedly arcane species of the genus literature - may recall Crazy To Kill as the title of a mystery novel by Stratford's Ann Cardwell (real name: Jane Makins Pawley), published in New York in 1941 and about as easy to find nowadays as a Presbyterian in the Vatican.

As luck would have it, James Reaney did find it, adapt its yellowing pages as an opera libretto and turn the text over to John Beckwith for musical setting as the major production of this year's Guelph Spring Festival.

The result? An opera unlike any other, with 22 characters, a cast of only three singers and two actors, a tape-augmented orchestra of only two players (Marc Widner on piano and Mark Duggan on percussion), plus a collection of marionettes by Anna Wagner-Ott who come to life intermittently to thwart the objectives of Actor's Equity by impersonating several of the characters.

In classic whodunit style, Reaney and Beckwith keep us off balance, as they move forward and back in time, mix pretence and reality and invite the performers to change roles.

A physician in his medical cap and gown suddenly sits down at the piano and becomes part of the orchestra. Musicians of the orchestra just as suddenly start talking. Tape sounds interrupt live sounds and spoken drama alternates with sung drama.

The music itself is anything but operatic in the usual sense. Although Paul Massel strolled down the aisle of Ross Hall, applying his confident baritone to a ballad in the style of Rodgers and Hart and, although later musical reminiscences ranged from Brecht and Weill to the sort of background music associated with spooky radio programs of yore, Beckwith has deliberately eschewed the arias and kindred set pieces he gave us in his earlier Reaney-associated operas, Night Blooming Cereus and The Shivaree.

Frankly, I wish he had been less deferential to the "elusive, rangey" form Reaney has preserved from the novel. Much of the score has more in common with incidental music - a touch of unpitched percussion here, a few snatches of melody there - than with the through-composed kind of compositions for which he is widely known.

Since the program exhorted everyone to preserve the secrecy of the ending, not very much can be said about the story, save that it centres around a string of deaths in a southern Ontario nursing home and the efforts of the long arm of the law, in the person of Det. Fry, to solve the caper.

The most interesting of the inmates turns out to be Agatha, a patient suffering from dementia, who makes doll puppets in the image of the other characters as part of her therapy. A gift of a role for Jean Stilwell, it was unwrapped with the skill of one of our finest young mezzo-sopranos.

Sharon Crowther and Paul Massel, together with their acting colleagues Cheryl Swarts and Jay Bowen, rounded out a strong cast, steered by Jerry Franken through the atmospheric clutter of staircases and strangely shaped windows with which designer Sue LePage effectively transformed the recalcitrant stage of a high school auditorium into a theatrical setting.

If the members of the cast didn't always succeed in making sense of the strange goings-on at Elmhurst, that, surely, is par for the mystery genre course. Crazy To Kill calls itself "a detective opera" and it is up to each of us to approach it with pipe in mouth and tongue in cheek.

óWilliam Littler, The Toronto Star (ENTERTAINMENT Sunday, May 14, 1989 G2)