Timely and engaging Moll arrives on the Toronto stage
In this current world of #metoo, when it comes to sexual violence and predation, there are a few common themes. One, people in power tend to get away with things. Two, women who are victimized are often seen as tainted, and three, the onus appears to be on the woman to prove she is good enough, special enough, trustworthy enough not to have somehow deserved it. Cue the very timely Moll, a world-premiere musical being presented by the Randolph College for the Performing Arts at the Annex Theatre. A loosely-inspired, modern Canadian update of the 1722 novel Moll Flanders, it’s about a woman trying to become self-reliant with the deck stacked against her.
Written by Leslie Arden and the late Cathy Elliott, with Anna Theresa Cascio, Moll is a complex, catchy, and consummately professional show that I hope will have a life outside of Randolph. Even if not, like #metoo, it reminds us of the importance of listening to women’s voices in the here and now.
Fittingly, the first half of Moll has the woman in question’s story framed with a trial — or, at least, a lawyer’s questioning. Moll (formerly Sarah, played by Alexandra Grant) has been picked up for assaulting a man who tried to attack her; or, as the police assume, a John whose trick she turned against. Bright but embattled Sarah’s story is a sad one, as we see her shuttled from group home to foster home, helped by weary social workers and taken advantage of by foster families that know anything they accuse her of will be believed.
The 17-year-old Sarah finally finds kinship in a younger foster sibling, but her care for the naïve, Powerpuff Girls-loving Katie (Kessia Warren) pushes her toward running away and then finding independence by any means.
This is a great show for complex female roles, which makes it refreshing, and the women shine. The relationship between Sarah/Moll and Katie is really lovely and believable (the song where they meet, “Mine,” is a standout) and both women have wonderful voices. In particular, Grant’s ability to essentially hold centre stage for the show’s entire 2 hours and 45 minutes marks her as an actress to watch.
Maggie Trepanier is alluring as a sex worker who would rather dance and encourages Sarah to find other escapes from reality. Jocelyn LoSole as Dahlia excels at being the master manipulator who truly makes the world of the bawdy house seem appealing and empowering, particularly for a woman who has little other choice. She embodies the seductive and exhausting refrain these girls hear: they’re “special,” but to what end? It’s a turn worthy of a Disney villain like Ursula, which is captivating but turns a little cartoonish by the end.
Ironically, the one main male part was the weak link: Armando Biasi’s turn as lawyer James was believably earnest, but the character as a whole didn’t work for me, perhaps due to a lack of chemistry with Grant. The general unease the character caused could have been on purpose, though, given the point of the story was female independence, rather than to present a male saviour.
The music is impressive, memorable and appealing, and the lyrics are at best clever and moving, and at worst, unobtrusive. The dialogue is less successful (“you should be hitting the books, not the smack,” declares a character), but there’s not much of it, as the show is largely sung-through.
The pacing is extremely tight and polished, and the construction is solid, though the second half does lose some energy without the framing and with complication after complication piling up. It’s fine-tuned and hits all the right beats in the right order. This means the complications can be easy to anticipate, but they’re satisfying when they come, much like the cute design touches such as ghosts becoming Christmas trees to denote the passage of time, or a swaddled baby becoming a teddy bear. There are some unexpected twists, however, and every time I felt my heart sink, anticipating a tired trope or easy answer, the show wound up subverting it.
In that vein, Moll’s chorus reminds us that everyone has a story, and asks how we judge who deserves to be saved, and who doesn’t? Moll doesn’t slip down the road of easy answers, reminding us of the seeming impossibility for many to truly get help, even from the most well-meaning donor. There but for the grace of circumstances, Moll says: it could be #youtoo.
- Moll plays at the Annex Theatre (730 Bathurst St.) until December 2, 2017.
- Shows run Thursday-Saturday at 8PM with a Saturday matinee at 2PM.
- Tickets are $22 and can be purchased online, by calling 1-855-985-5000 or at the door.
- Warning: This show uses a haze machine and contains mature language and themes such as drug abuse, prostitution, and sexual violence.
Photo of Armando Biasi and Alexandra Grant by Raph Nogal