LITTLE MERCY'S FIRST MURDER by Morwyn Brebner, music by Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli, directed by Eda Holmes, with Neil Barclay, Jane Johanson, Melody Johnson, Jeff Lillico, Peter Millard and Tony Nappo. Presented by the Shaw Festival and Tarragon at the Tarragon Extra Space (30 Bridgman). Runs to February 23, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm, February 19 at 1:30 pm. $21-$26, Sunday pwyc-$15, stu/srs discount. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Audiences are never sure where they'll end up when playwright Morwyn Brebner takes them on a theatrical ride.You may think you know the noir genre, but the musical Little Mercy's First Murder zigs where you expect zags. In Brebner's hands the titular ingenue becomes a possible murderer hungry for life and knowledge (even a restaurant meal would be a new experience), the menacing flatfoot does a soft-shoe and an opera dowager is surrounded by the trappings of a Busby Berkeley number.
Fleeing from the apartment where her mother's been stabbed, Mercy (a tart Melody Johnson, doing some of her best work) and hardboiled crime photographer Weegee (Peter Millard) meet a vibrant cross-section of New Yorkers and embark on a strange affair.
The excellent company includes Neil Barclay's bloodhound cop, Jane Johanson's condescending matron, Jeff Lillico's drag performer Norma and Tony Nappo's bartender Sammy. The relationship between Norma and Sammy -- they keep their romance alive by mutually ignoring Norma's true gender and not getting too physical -- is striking, with Lillico playing a flirtatious, sensual dame and Nappo, who usually plays threatening figures, revealing a totally disarming, sweet charm.
Brebner's sharp script gets added zip from Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli's pastiche of a score, beginning with a company-sung overture that's part scat and part words. The tunes are perfectly suited to the edge in Brebner's rich lyrics, which point to a difficult past and a tragic future. Director and co-choreographer (with Johanson) Eda Holmes brings out the wry comedy as well as the toughness in this dark world.