Toronto
2 min

Ghoulish fog

Neither soars to any heights nor plumbs any depths

LIMBO DOESN'T GET MUCH LOWER. Sandra Caldwell is one of the few lights in the endless haze. Credit: Xtra files

Purgatory is a place between heaven and hell where souls go because they have things they need to work out. It’s home not only to most of this musical’s characters, but also to its book: Despite some good music, The Dance Of The Dead neither soars to any heights nor plumbs any depths, instead floating aimlessly in a ghoulish fog.



The set-up sounds intriguing: Edward Sorrows (Kevin Dennis) has come to end it all in a graveyard when he meets the ghost of a gambling addict and loving mother named Meg Baler (Elizabeth Beeler), who introduces him to a gaggle of troubled specters. They jump when he offers his soul to the one who most needs to return to life and deal with unfinished business. The catch is that he has to listen to their life stories first.



There’s theatricality aplenty, with the chorus of 16 ghosts participating in deliberately silly choreographed numbers, then going up to sit amongst the audience, whence their voices whiz by unsuspecting ears as they sing, laugh and gasp.



Raising the level a couple of notches is the live jazz trio, with playwright and composer Scott White at the piano. Though the collection of 22 songs – jazz, pop, gospel, you name it – is inevitably uneven, there are some distinctly hummable tunes here, jazz being a particular forte.



But music alone does not a musical make. At the centre of all this, but doing little to hold it together, is the suicidal protagonist, who reminds me of Frodo in the Lord Of The Rings: He only makes things more interesting when he disappears. He happens to be gay and has an unhappy home life but this isn’t explored, one of many lost opportunities to delve into something that matters.



Captivating Sandra Caldwell makes the best of her role as a blues singer whose fate in purgatory is to speak only in hackneyed phrases. Referring to her fans, she laments “What they see on the stage ain’t real.” If only that weren’t uncomfortably clear already.



Jeff Madden has presence and panache as the ghost of a charming murderer. Donald Saunders plays a regretful closet case, providing more gay content if not exactly a gay theme.



Director and choreographer Vinetta Strombergs fills the stage with hubbub but does not overcome the lack of dramatic structure. With all these living, dead or undead characters getting shot, then stabbed, then shot – then once again bursting into song – you soon want to retreat to the land of the living.



* The Dance Of The Dead continues until Sat, Jan 26, upstairs at Canadian Stage (26 Berkeley St); call (416) 368-3110.