Book by Jonathan Christenson and Beth Graham
Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Christenson
A Catalyst Theatre Production, presented in association with the Citadel Theatre
At the Citadel Theatre’s Maclab Stage (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada)
January 17, 2017 to February 5, 2017
Review by GRAHAM HICKS, Hicksbiz.com
What, I wondered as the house lights came back up, was that all about?
How could the taut, focused scripts of the Jonathan Christenson we know and love have dissolved into the muddle that had unfolded before our eyes?
Christenson is an extraordinary story teller. In his best work, style, music, movement, sets, costumes and attitude relentlessly focus on telling that story.
Christenson’s best shows start with alienation, usually taking famous outliers of literature - Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe, the hunchback of Notre Dame, Vigilante’s Donnelly family - re-telling their stories through his creative process, turbo-powered by all the elements mentioned above, and, above all else, mood.
Christenson’s dramatic talent is all encompassing. He writes, composes, produces and directs. For sets, lighting and costumes, he had a soulmate in designer Bretta Gerecke. She took Christenson’s productions up and over the top to pure artistic victory.
The complete artistic package is why we stood and clapped and cheered and fist-pumped after his previous shows. The audience’s need to experience artistic excellence had been magnificently satisfied.
That is why we - tens of thousands of Christenson fans around the world - wait for his new shows (usually every second year) with hungry anticipation. He is Edmonton-based, but has a global following, enabling these Catalyst Theatre productions to tour for months and months.
So why is Fortune Falls such a disappointment?
Because the show wanders about, looking for a plot.
Something about a chocolate factory that’s a huge deal, the only employer in a one-horse town (loosely based on the 2008 closure of the Hershey chocolate plant in Smith Falls, Ontario); about the plant’s closure, about a kid who wants to work there, who gets hired but falls into some surreal dreamscape; who walks about the empty chocolate factory, feels betrayed and eventually exits the macabre building with an odd, unexplained, sense of renewal.
This show still has loads of Christenson style, but even at that misses Gerecke’s powerful visuals. (The designer now lives in London, England, and has moved onto the global stage designing West End productions and major UK television shows.)
This show lacks the defining architecture of past Christenson triumphs - there’s no great story to begin with, no relentless build to a stunning finale, no sense of every theatrical detail lending to, pushing forward and illuminating that story.
The actors - Daniel Fong in the lead role, Shannon Blanchet, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Graham Mothersill and Jamie Tognazzini as multiple characters - do an admirable job with what they’re given.
But Fortune Falls flails about, trying to find a story where none exists. It has a few Christenson signatures - the set itself is up to scratch, it is Christenson’s in mood and rhythm. But there’s no damn story! And if there is, it has no clear progression, no climax, no denouement.
In most Christenson productions, songs, choreography and costumes seamlessly advance the story line. Song lyrics were all important. This time around, the songs - maybe five or six - were add-ons. The choreography was odd, without intrinsic meaning. The costumes - without Gretta’s touch - were decorations.
It all comes down to Christenson’s choice of subject.
He must have thought a sociological story - the closure of a factory and the ensuing betrayal of a community - could resonate with the same artistic power as his interpretation of classic stories built on extraordinary characters and their tormented souls … of which there are none in Fortune Falls.
I do hope there’s a re-set button in Christenson’s complex creative personality. I hope his next show finds another misshapen magnificent character of history through which the playwright can explore the human condition, hopefully with Gerecke back to handle the design.
When all is said and done, Fortune Falls will go down as a very minor show within the Christenson canon.