When’s the last time you saw a musical about a grandmother and her gay grandson? It’s uncharted terrain, and Rob Kempson is treading it with his new musical at Theatre Passe Muraille. Written by and starring Kempson, The Way Back to Thursday is the story of a young man returning to his grandmother’s house after an identity crisis fractured their once-close relationship. The show, co-starring musical veteran Astrid Van Wieren, is a song cycle, meaning that the story is told in a series of songs, with no scripted text in between. Orchestrated and accompanied by Scott Christian, along with cellist Samuel Bisson (who is unbearably cute), it’s an original, touching and funny night of musical storytelling.
Kempson’s performance is a believable mix of sweet and infuriating, as he grows before our eyes from a precocious kid with a thing for Rock Hudson to a self-absorbed 20-something in film school. His pop-musical voice fits the genre well, trilling skillfully through tons of tricky text. Van Wieren is also a treat to watch, reminding us of the lack of roles for the many well-seasoned musical-theatre actresses in the city. She’s much more than a sweet voice and ball of contagious energy, which she proves while navigating some dark places in the latter half of the show. Put simply, she made me miss my nana. So that’s something.
Another highlight is the lighting and set design, both by Beth Kates. The set is nearly epic in its simplicity, consisting of long, pleated curtains, behind which the faces of Hollywood starlets appear and vanish. The sense of space is amplified with vibrant, sharp lighting, textured by just enough haze. Supportive, rather than show-stealing, Kates’s design made space for the audience members’ imaginations and the actors’ voices.
There’s no doubt that Kempson is an artist to watch. His professional debut is successful in many regards and an entirely enjoyable evening. Moving forward, it’s the dramatic form, and not his ability, that could use closer examination. Put simply, it’s a damn hard genre! The thing about song cycles is, well, they could usually benefit from some text.
Where Kempson is most successful is when his songs are anchored in one particular story, image or memory, such as the number about moving to Vancouver, sung from under an umbrella. It is in these moments that the character is temporarily freed from the responsibility of moving the story forward, and the audience is treated to a full, realized moment in which the character shines through. These moments, though, shed light on the many other instances in which the characters sing their way through a completely honest, sometimes rhyming narrative to the audience. At first, you accept the complexly structured songalogues as a framing device, but after a while it seems that this style of songwriting is more the rule than the exception in the show, and you begin to crave a song with subtlety or a metaphor or even just a hook. Some of the best-known examples of the genre have been successful by capturing huge stories and ideas in a single image or story, such as "Climbing Uphill" from The Last Five Years. Also, Next to Normal, though more a rock opera than song cycle, offers several great examples of metaphors that encapsulate broad back-stories in a focused way, such as "Superboy and the Invisible Girl."
The second half of The Way Back To Thursday has more of these songs, as most of the set-up is done, but still doesn’t quite get away from the “regret is behind me as I look ahead”–type lyrics that tell the story but don’t entirely come off the page. Despite the challenge of the genre, however, the show is touching, funny and ultimately very successful in its parts. There’s no doubt that we will be seeing much more from Kempson.