BWW Review: ROSE is an Inspirational Look at the Self Despite its Struggle to Balance a Busy Story
ROSE follows the highs and lows of a nine-year-old on a journey to find herself, with a lively soundtrack and well-rounded cast pushing the plot through a busy storyline.
Soulpepper's 2019 season opened with the world premiere of ROSE, created by Sarah Wilson and Mike Ross and directed by Gregory Prest. The theatre company's first musical is an adaptation of avant-garde poet Gertrude Stein's The World is Round that leans heavily on its literary roots. The show's songs (composed by Ross), pay homage to Stein's signature repetitive and playful style - whether in the huge opening number dedicated to introducing The Town of Somewhere or in the more scaled back duet between Rose (Hailey Gillis) and her neighbour/best friend Willie (Peter Fernandes).
ROSE's story is fairly straightforward. Nine-year-old Rose is unable to say her name until she can answer the five W's about herself - Who is she? Why is she? Where is she? What is she? When is she? After a few disastrous attempts to ask her teacher Miss Crisp (Sabryn Rock) these heavily-existential questions, Rose decides to take the advice she's been given by both Willie - to follow through on something - and Miss. Crisp - to try something new - leading her to a random encounter with a Mysterious Woman (Alana Bridgewater). This brings Rose to owning a pet lion named Billie (Oliver Dennis) who steals the scene with his bored, too-cool-for-school attendance in Miss. Crisp's class, and the eventual decision to climb the mountain on the edge of town in a strong Act I closer.
The second act focuses largely on Rose's solo journey up the mountain, offering an intimate look into how a child would approach hazards, fatigue, wild animals, and injuries while alone. Her voice takes on a beautiful emotional tone when Rose becomes overwhelmed, and blasts through her ballads with incredible power. All in all, Gillis offers a highly convincing portrayal of a little girl in all aspects of her acting and her blue Girl Guides-reminiscent outfit (costumes by Alexandra Lord) only adds to the believability of her young character.
Contrasting Rose is Willie, portrayed by Fernandes with innocence and charm - while Rose is the introverted, constantly in (existential) crisis heroine, Willie is the honest, open, and charming sidekick who just happens to deliver lines with a speed that rivals songs from Hamilton - although at times the words seem a bit jumbled together because of how fast they're being dropped. Fernandes brings a much-needed comedy to the show and shines throughout the tonally-different acts.
The majority of Ross's soundtrack lies heavily in bluegrass, narrated by logger Frank (Frank Cox-O'Connell, who also performs guitar throughout the show) and logging colleagues and fellow musicians (Raha Javanfar and John Millard). Cox-O'Connell offers a nice reprieve from Rose's youthful thoughts, placing a bit of adult perspective on the show's plot while still fitting the zany tone of the story with some intense facial acting.
Rose delivers and leads some of the nights biggest and most impressive numbers, but holding his own against her is faithful dog Love (Jonathan Ellul), whose Act I "Let Love Out" is packed with double-meaning: one, that he's a dog and needs to go out to do his...business, with the second concept being a much sweeter look at the ebb and flow of love in relationships. Ellul is entertaining throughout the show, leading the audience in an Act II number meant to inspire Rose that's a cute way of getting the audience up and moving - something that was probably as appreciated by the adults as it was the kids to have a moment to stretch properly, given the show's long two-and-a-half hour runtime (including intermission).
Unfortunately, there's a bit of imbalance in the narrative that can't be completely ignored, regardless of the cast's success. The switch from the busy, populated Act I to the quieter and more subdued Act II where Rose undertakes her mountain climb is understandable given Rose's existential journey but leaves the second act feeling thematically different, although Gillis's strong delivery of both lines and lyrics makes the show's climactic ending that much more emotional. The bright costumes and set (Lorenzo Savoini) add to the whimsical nature of the show, and the placement of the band onstage, decked out in mod-inspired pink suits make the shifts from dialogue to song feel more natural.
ROSE is a highly-inspiring and affirming show about growing up and finding yourself. Regardless of the complex narrative, a highly talented ensemble, band, and creative team breathe new life into an 80-year-old story.
Soulpepper's ROSE runs through February 24 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://soulpepper.ca/performances/rose/6173