The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring is a testimony to the sheer power of art, and creativity. Who would have thought that a sad, satirical short story written in 19th century Russia could be made into a comic opera in the 21st century Canada, and be so relatable and delightfully entertaining?
The famous short story is about Akakyi Akakyevich Bashmachkin, a lowly impoverished office worker, who is relatively content with his meager pay and limited life, until his ancient, dirty, tattered overcoat is beyond repair, and he needs a new one for the freezing Russian winter. With great difficulty he scrounges up the money to have one made for him. The new overcoat raises his respect at the office and his esteem in his own eyes. But alas, he’s mugged and the overcoat is stolen. It’s a blow he has a hard time recovering from.
The opera is laugh out loud funny. Morris Panych’s libretto is ingenious in that in its brevity it transmits Nikolai Gogol’s short story’s descriptions and omniscient point of view into the part for a chorus sung by two or three women. The libretto also adds new tidbits that are not in the story –snuff inhaling alcoholic tailor –to the text, which enrich the story and make it funnier, and more accessible for a 21st century audience.
While Panych has obviously changed the story quite a bit in his libretto, he’s stayed true to Gogol’s created atmosphere. Ken Macdonald’s set design and Alan Brodie’s lighting design contribute greatly to enhancing this mood. The spartan bed and the lone light-bulb in Akakyi’s room, wheeled deftly on and off stage over and over again by actors, reflect the loneliness and alienation of the main character. The two-storey set, on which the Department Head and the tailor are upstairs and Akakyi downstairs, is a constant reminder of the social hierarchy in the society.
The added repetitious scenes of the morning rush, with Akakyi waking up to explosive music, and bursting out the door in his tattered overcoat, and the morning commute, with identically dark clad people in their sturdy overcoats hanging distractedly from handrails on the train, reflect the numbing existence of workers everywhere.
The department meetings are a hilarious carbon copy of department meetings anywhere, with the director talking ad-nauseam but not saying anything, and everyone else toeing the line. Petty office politics, bullying, lazy incompetent workers, flirty women, and everyone judging everyone else based on appearances are caricaturized.
The sad part is that even Akakyi, who was seemingly oblivious to all this shallow materialistic behavior, starts buying into it as soon as he gets his new overcoat. No one is immune to capitalism. Only poverty can protect you from it.
The opera is fast paced. Most actors have two or more parts. The sheer complexity of scene, costume and makeup changes is staggering. All is done with mathematical precision. Actors and their voices are all very good. Specifically outstanding are Peter McGillivray as both Head of Department and the tailor, and Meher Pavri as the secretary.
But the cherry on the cake goes to Courtenay Stevens, in one of the two “Movement Performer” non-singing roles. With his extensive physical theatre and clown performance background (including four years with Cirque du Soleil), his facial acrobatics and body undulations accentuate the music, intensify the mood, boost the hilarity and steal the show.
With only a couple of days left of its run, if you can’t make it this time, keep your eyes peeled for this show to come back. It’s definitely worth seeing.