Touted as Soulpepper’s first original musical, Rose boldly defies categorization. It’s based on a children’s book (avant-garde poet Gertrude Stein’s The World is Round) yet there are songs and gags that will fly right over the heads of many little ones. The narrative initially follows a familiar path, as a precocious child grapples with questions of identity and her place in the world, and yet the plot takes bizarre, but often entertaining, twists. Nine-year-old Rose’s journey of self-discovery brings her face-to-face with a pride of lions, her faithful canine companion Love laments his need to be let outside to pee in the soulful ballad “Let Love Out”, and Rose narrowly escapes from a terrifying group of… otters? While this new Canadian musical hasn’t quite reached the height of its potential yet, it’s still an immensely charming show that delivers big laughs with a lot of heart.
A revelation in Musical Stage Company’s Onegin a few years ago, Hailey Gillis is so genuine and endearing that I connected with the titular Rose immediately. I know this is an odd thing to say about an actress who has proven herself capable of playing different roles extremely well, but Gillis has this truthful, self-aware quality that makes it easy to get sucked into her performances. She brings a warmth and inner strength to Rose, a bright and inquisitive nine-year-old with one big problem – she can’t say her name out loud because she doesn’t yet know who she is.
Peter Fernandes has never been better suited for a role than he is here. I’ve often found Fernandes to be miscast or to have a tendency to be too much of a ham in his past roles, but he brings a boyish charm and humour to the role of Rose’s best friend Willy. Other standouts are Sabryn Rock, as the understandably exasperated schoolteacher who must contend with an unusually inquisitive student, and Jonathan Ellul as Love, Rose’s loyal doggo.
Adapted by Mike Ross and Sarah Wilson, Rose is a departure for Toronto’s largest not-for-profit theatre company, in that it’s not a musical cabaret but a fully-fledged musical complete with dancing. Although the three-piece on-stage folk band, which serve as the narrators of Rose’s story, are firmly rooted in Soulpepper’s musical traditions, additional songs have soul, bluegrass, and traditional musical theatre influences. The score isn’t particularly earwormy, yet the songs work extremely well in the context of the show. Monica Dotter’s choreography playfully draws upon children’s musicals of the past to feature obligatory classroom scenes complete with desks and simple, energetic motion. Rose even pokes gentle fun at the genre, but never in a way that feels mean-spirited.
Lorenzo Savoini’s design is simple yet effective, using a colour palate that reflects the iconic blue ink on pink page illustrations used in the original book. Alexandra Lord’s costumes are equally evocative, as she dresses the townspeople of Somewhere in colourful clothing and brings the animal characters (including Love the dog, the pride of lions, and a group of back-up singing bunnies) to life in style.
Full disclosure, I attended a preview performance of this new musical, so it’s entirely possible that some of the issues I had with Rose were already resolved by opening night. The performances I saw were strong and very polished for this early in the run, but the material could use some tightening up.
The biggest problem Rose has is that it’s unbalanced. While the first act is high energy and utilizes the show’s talented ensemble to the fullest, the second act drags. Let’s face it, there are only so many ways to make a character’s solitary climb up a mountain engaging! The loss of momentum is keenly felt in a musical that already runs long (the runtime is two-and-a-half hours) for a show that is ostensibly aimed at children. There are some high points after intermission, including the repetition of a song sung in a round, a lovely long-distance ‘thinking of you’ duet, and a finale that both touches and inspires, but other scenes – especially one involving spiders and a joke about sailors – should be trimmed or cut altogether.
Whether it’s in a book, a ballet, or a play, I value uniqueness and Rose certainly wracks up points for creativity. It’s a madcap musical romp that’s ultimately triumphant and hopeful – the sort of story that, like Matilda or Billy Elliot, encourages us to be who we are and proudly. Like it’s heroine, Rose may still have a way to go before it reaches maturity, but it’s an incredibly entertaining journey nonetheless. If you’re in the Toronto area, Rose is not to be missed.
Photo of Hailey Gillis and the Rose Ensemble by Cylla von Tiedemann.