Music ma’am

FIREWEEDS: WOMEN OF THE YUKON, by Cathy Elliott, directed by Laurel Smith, with Julain Molnar, Jill Hayman and Ann Bisch..

FIREWEEDS: WOMEN OF THE YUKON, by Cathy Elliott, directed by Laurel Smith, with Julain Molnar, Jill Hayman and Ann Bisch. Presented by Burning Passions Theatre at the Canadian Stage (upstairs). Previews Wednesday (September 13), opens September 14 and runs to October 7, Monday-Saturday at 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1 pm and Saturday 2 pm. $18-$23, stu/srs discounts, September 25 pwyc. 651-4514.

Rating: NNNNN

Julain Molnar needs some air. “Outside!” she shouts when I meet her in the musty church basement where she’s rehearsing. She bounds toward me, smiles, shakes my hand and motions for me to follow.

“I need to get outside. Quick.”

Yes, ma’am.

That cheery forthrightness — no hint of divadom — is a constant in Molnar’s life and work.

She’s breathed much-needed oxygen into wide-ranging musical roles, from her Dora-winning turn as Bertrand, the passionate French peasant who secretly takes a lover in The House Of Martin Guerre, to South Pacific’s perky Nellie Forbush, the woman who tried to wash that man right out of her hair.

Flawed musical

She’s devoted a big chunk of her career to working on new Canadian musicals — this in a country where it’s hard to name a single Canadian musical apart from Anne Of Green Gables, which she’s performed enough times, thank you very much.

And, like it or not, the Hamilton-born Molnar’s often better than the material she’s in.

Take Factory’s recent production of The Crimson Veil, a flawed musical by Allen Cole. Molnar’s rich mezzo and stage warmth made up for many gaps in the book and score. Or Anne Of Green Gables.

“Let’s face it, you’re not always going to be working on a show that’s successful,” she admits when I point out the dearth of good home-grown musical theatre.

“But the process itself is stimulating. It’s frustrating, obviously, when the material isn’t great. What I enjoy doing is creating characters, working with writers. That’s where the joy comes from.”

She’s at it again this month in Fireweeds: Women Of The Yukon, Cathy Elliott’s musical celebration of the Klondike’s women, famous and obscure, past and present. The show begins previews this Wednesday (September 13).

Along with co-stars Jill Hayman and Ann Bisch, Molnar portrays characters as diverse as the Yukon’s first female MP, dance-hall girls, a grieving widow and a contemporary trucker.

“I love doing historical pieces, playing these women who were out there busting butts.”

Molnar’s relationship with composer Elliott goes back years.

As a teenager, she starred with Elliott in the Cambridge Motor Hotel production of Annie Get Your Gun. At rehearsals, Elliott played folk music, and Molnar was so impressed that when they reconnected years later and Elliott asked her to do Fireweeds, Molnar agreed, sight unseen.

Working on a piece like Fireweeds, or on workshops of new works like Not Wanted On The Voyage or Pelagie, is creatively satisfying.

Which is more than you can say about some pieces. Like, for instance, Livent’s The Phantom Of The Opera, which she performed in for seven months.

“Seven months, six days, two hours and 37 seconds,” she deadpans, joking.

“It wasn’t a fun experience, but I don’t regret it. It opened lots of doors. But I came on-board seven years into the run. If you’re going to do a megamusical, it’s best to get in on the ground floor. Then you get to build a part. If you don’t, you’re stuck. You’re told how to say things, not why.”

Another big musical, Ragtime, hired her to work on three workshops, yet she didn’t get a call to audition for the final show.

“I was a little ticked off,” she says candidly. “Maybe it was because I didn’t have a Broadway credit or something. But the Ragtime people knew what I could do. Come on. You don’t have to be a big star to play the third ironworker from the left.”

And then there’s the director who drolly informed her, when she asked him about her character, that “It’s only musical theatre, dear.”

“I was trying to build a character, asking him to throw me a rope, and that’s all he could say. He focused more on the choreography. It’s disrespectful, to me and the art form. And it’s frustrating. After all, it’s my butt up there trying to tell a story. How can I do that if I’m not clear about what’s happening?”

Not bitter

But Molnar isn’t bitter. In fact, her sense of humour, intelligence and earthiness come across beautifully, onstage and off — just ask anyone who saw her in Martin Guerre.

“I’ve never had an experience before or since like that show,” she recalls. “It was an inspirational project for everyone who was in it, worked on it or even saw it.”

She also thinks the success of the show Leslie Arden And Friends — a co-production between Canadian Stage and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre — has inspired other Canadian composers to work on more mid-sized musicals.

In the past five years, Molnar’s worked on no fewer than 10 new Canadian musicals. After Fireweeds she goes into rehearsal for Richard Ouzounian and Marek Norman’s Larry’s Party, their musical adaptation of Carol Shields’s novel.

“I think Martin Guerre gave the community some confidence in terms of what was possible and what we could do,” she explains.

“Maybe it also has to do with a company like Livent stepping back and allowing other people to come forward. All I know is that the Canadian musical’s in its infancy. And that’s an exciting place to be.”

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