When executed correctly, modern American musical theater has an uncanny knack for plucking obscure figures from history and crafting an enthralling stage show around their lives. From Eva Peron to Bonnie and Clyde to Alexander Hamilton, Broadway has breathed life into forgotten history on more than one occasion.
But a musical based on the life of a French-Canadian Catholic saint set in early Montreal of the 17th century?
Why, yes—and how!
In the middle of its world premiere run at Zeiders American Dream Theater, Second to Nun brings Marguerite Bourgeoys to life with a voice that’s as large as the time in which she lived.
That voice belongs to New York cabaret performer Molly Pope in an intimate one-woman tour de force that combines soaring song and snappy monologue.
Through the evocative lyrics and direction of Anton Dudley and the delicious music of Michael Cooper, Pope channels Marguerite’s spirit as she recounts her death-defying journey to bring liberated women to the New World and help build the city of Montreal.
The show rockets out of the gate with Pope appearing from a cloud of fog and launching into “My Prayer,” a rousing opening number that lets us know she’s committed to creating an uncloistered Catholic community for women in New France and devoting her life to God and the Virgin Mary.
From there, we follow her journey across the Atlantic and settlement in Ville Marie (the early name for Montreal). For the next 75 minutes, we learn of the mundanities of life in the wilderness (she curses the swarms of mosquitoes in “Bearable,”a jazzy piano-based number couched in an unforgettable musical vamp); the dysfunctional politics between the Catholic church, the Crown, and the people of Ville Marie; and her wide-eyed wonder at the fortitude of the women—and men—who painstakingly carve a life out of the wilderness.
The intimate thrust theater configuration gives Pope plenty of opportunity to lock eyes with her audience. And those eyes convey the wonder, humor, sadness, and anger of Marguerite’s challenging life.
Yet even in the face of tragedy, she finds strength in her mission and her faith in God.
Despite rampant child mortality, the Plague, and Indian attacks that decimate the town, Marguerite retains her optimistic outlook. “I take it as a good sign,” she utters even after the most devastating experience, and we can see in her eyes that she believes it.
This is truly a one-woman show. The staging is sparse with only two stools on stage at any given time. Pope is dressed in black and performs against a black backdrop. The lighting is minimal, punctuated by a single spot over center stage—and when Pope enters that spotlight, a halo shines around her head.
While props are minimal as well, the show’s most joyful treat is an ancient-looking book with which Pope enters labeled “L’Histoire du Ville Marie.” As she begins her tale, she slowly opens the volume and reveals pop-up pages. Created for the production by Virginia Stage Company props master Sam Flint, the book is a unique and evocative tool that subtly illustrates Margeurite’s tale.
Backed by piano and cello, Pope’s voice becomes the dominant third instrument. And what a powerhouse it is. Although Pope was amplified, she certainly did not need it. Her vocal intonation, projection, and range are obviously benefits of years on the New York cabaret circuit.
There is also plenty of breaking of the fourth wall during the monologue interludes. At one point, Pope refers to her musical accompanists as her angels. Later in the show, after a particularly demanding number, she looks towards pianist (and musical director) Bart Kuebler with a smile.
“That was wonderful. I can see why you ascended,” she says
She then casts a recriminating silent gaze over her shoulder at celloist Peter Greydanus, and says nothing.
The show is peppered throughout with similar sparks of humor. Expect to hear a few ribald but tasteful tales about beaver and crotch-grabbing, some nod-nod-wink-wink commentary on organized religion, and even an anecdote concerning Marguerite’s inopportune visit to the colony’s Governor while he was entertaining a male companion—who may or may not have been his lover.
At the end of the evening, we are left with a profound sense of Margeurite and her struggle to build a life without walls for women in the New World. We’re also left with a rousing musical theater experience that sticks.
As Margeurite notes in the closing moments of the show, “I can see why people like this. A little talking, a little singing, and booze. It’s just like church.”
WANT TO GO?
Performances through August 5, 2017
Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 7:00 PM
Zeiders American Dream Theater
Tickets available online or at the door.
Join Outwire757 and Zeiders for LGBT Night at The Z on July 28