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Photo by Andrée Lanthier. All photos courtesy of the National Arts Centre.

Belles Soeurs is an absolute home run

By Jennifer Cavanagh on May 2, 2016

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Les Belles Soeurs is Michel Tremblay’s most frequently produced and translated play.  Alive with caustic joual-speaking women its strong matriarchal themes fairly rocked Quebec society in the late 60’s. Tremblay ignited controversy with his use of low-brow dialect, mockery of the restrictive grip of the church and his straightforward presentation of disillusioned, pining working class women. Criticized and celebrated in equal measure the show has become a classic of Quebec and Canadian theatre taught in schools, translated for international audiences and still debated for its commentary on past and contemporary life.

In 2010 René Richard Cyr and singer-songwriter Daniel Bélanger created the musical version playing at the NAC until May 14th transforming monologues to confessional songs and lifting some, though by no stretch all, the darkness from the original play.

The simplicity of the story line and the universal narrative ensure themes of jealousy and fear stand the test of time. Germaine (Astrid Van Wieren) hits the jackpot winning a million gold stamps that once pasted into the accompanying booklets can be traded in for the contents of a catalogue previously beyond her, and her neighbours’, means. In order to quickly cash in on her windfall she invites friends and family to a “stickering” party where tensions emerge.  The women’s affections are tried and tested by not only by Germaine’s insensitively dangled win but also by the strains of a changing society.

The cleverly designed set complements the tone of the play.  A 60’s kitchen sits below a suspended balcony where actors await their queue. The orchestra and musicians are screened to either side of the set imprecisely visible employing kitchen utensils to complement the score and scenes. As the ladies fill the kitchen with laughter, gossip and judgement the stage fairly bursts with characters and the precarious emotions that shift and strain.

René Richard Cyr’s direction is masterful and the cast is an absolute home run. The fable-like story allows the personalities of the 12-strong female characters to shine. From van Wieren’s impervious self-assurance, to the conflicted emerging self-awareness of her daughter Linda (Élise Cormier), the wonderfully trashy, defiant and pained prodigal sister Pierrette (Geneviève Leclerc) through the tremendous green-eyed monster that is Mme Brouillette (Geneviève St Louis) and the vulnerable Des-Neiges Verrette (Lili O’Connor) the colours of each woman develop effortlessly to an almost dazzling intensity.  The casting is remarkable with both singing and acting talents firmly in the spotlight and consistently enthralling. The pace of the show is a non-stop roller coaster of tragedy and longing measured out with brilliant comic turns.

Daniel Bélanger’s music, as expected despite translation, is revelatory: from van Wieren’s opening number “Free”, a theme echoed throughout the play; the warmth of “Claudette’s Wedding”; the heart wrenching wounded pain of Pierrette’s “Johnny” through the beautifully comic slow-motion styled “Bingo”. The 50 year old content paired to this music merges easily to current dialogues of misogyny, consumerism and aspirational entitlement giving the production  a contemporary feel rather than that of a revival.

The musical climax though less devastating than that of the original play remains a respectful adaptation ensuring the integrity of Tremblay’s work while providing a truly outstanding theatrical experience. A thrilling and wholly successful production.

Belles Soeurs: The Musical is on until May 14, 2016 at the National Arts Centre. For more information and to buy tickets, click here