Pride can feel a bit like a big, hot, sweaty, messy after-school special. While braving the constant crush of people, dodging the stupendously intoxicated, waiting in yet another line for another lost eon of your life, you are endlessly subjected to an onslaught of rainbows and platitudes about how “love is love” and “everyone is equal,” and so on and so forth.
Maybe you can tell I’m not a terribly sentimental person, which is why it is so singular that The Common Ground, a new musical premiering in the Toronto Fringe Festival, inspired some feelings in my icy, bitter heart.
The Common Ground is a musical dissertation in concept, the staging of a handful of personalities from writer/director/musical director/musician/performer Ken McNeilly’s doctorate work interviewing children of LGBT-identified parents. McNeilly’s work translates well into a number of poignant, didactic stories, in turns cheesy and funny.
From the get-go, the main characters, four teenagers, are aware of the cheesy elements of their musical, complete with box-steps and jazz hands. Some of the dancing and more tongue-in-cheek moments felt a little less punchy than they could have been — the show is self-aware, but the performers don’t consistently drop into the high-octane energy needed to sustain the essence and keep the audience there with them. The enjoyable moments are ones that are both playful and conscious of their artifice.
Which isn’t to say the performers aren’t up to the task. There are some very likable characters and solid performances from each of the cast members. Julia Gartha, in the role of Ellie — the daughter of a gay mom whose separation from her husband after coming out was less than smooth — has an especially beautiful voice and brings levity and gravity to her character. Guitarist and performer Suzanne McKenney takes on a couple of roles, as a mom and a homophobic teacher, and is a particular joy to watch when she takes the spotlight. Hilariously, the smiling, guitar-strumming, bigoted teacher probably gets the most laughs of the night.
The actors don’t always have enough to do with the material, as The Common Ground sometimes occupies that strange, standing-with-arms-at-their-sides-singing musical universe, but overall the musical is excellent, with especially beautiful harmonies from the four main cast members. My only other quibble is that despite invoking “LGBT,” the “T” remains absent.
Despite some minor stylistic and technical problems, and a few moments that work less well than others, I was surprised to find myself enjoying The Common Ground. The show has a certain infectiously positive wide-eyed earnestness, with words like “authentic self” — whatever that means — thrown in for good measure. At the beginning, I was worried it would be too after-school special to enjoy, like Degrassi meets Sesame Street, but with some fun and touching numbers, like “The Lit Review Smackdown” and “One Day,” and some great performances that ground the show in something cute, a little cheesy but digestible and not at all nauseating, I can see why The Common Ground awakened my heart. If there were any justice in the world, this show would refine itself a little more and go on a tour in schools and communities, spreading an important message. L, G, B — and even T — parents exist; their kids exist. They have struggles, but ultimately triumph.
How’s that for a Pride platitude?