What's startling about "Jeanne La Pucelle" (Joan the Maid) is how much of it actually works, given a relatively inexperienced songwriting team, small-time local producers and the casting of a lead actress unknown and untried in musical theater: This act of sheer chutzpah also includes a C$4.5 million ($3 million) budget, as well as the contributions of award-winning designer Ming Cho Lee, director Martin Charnin and choreographer Michele Assaf, all lured north to help get this Quebec-born musical about Joan of Arc off the ground. There is a lot still to do here, from new choreography and the reworking of some awkward scenes, to the elimination of at least one embarrassingly bad song ("Frenchie-Wenchie Poos," which is as nauseating as its title); and if the show goes on to New York as planned, there will also have to be some re-casting.
Composer Peter Sipos, an expatriate Hungarian with rock music roots, has put together a score which is at its worst palatable and at its best catchy and hummable. There have been stronger scores (Toronto’s failed “Napoleon” comes to mind), but on the whole it is smooth and varied enough to carry the show, with occasional numbers of real substance. And while there is no blockbuster in the first act, Sipos does build to three gorgeous ones in the second, culminating in “I Hear No Voices,” a heartfelt agony of frustration delivered by Rene Simard as the Dauphin.
Lyricist Vincent De Tourdonnet has been writing for the musical theater for about a dozen years, but this is his first stab at something major and it shows in some awkward dialogue and song lyrics. But here again, there is more good than bad in an impressive first attempt at a mostly sung-through musical.
What’s missing in this story is the sense of menace that Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg built into both “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon.” This flaw is particularly apparent in Joan’s famous trial scene, where direction, set design and choreography combine to create almost total disaster. Black-robed monks flit around like bats and Ming Cho Lee’s otherwise gorgeous set of bleak soaring walls (heightened at times with a huge, stained glass disc and a medieval tapestry) takes a misstep with a giant, overbearing, crucifix that descends over Joan’s head.
In fact, Assaf’s choreography is a major problem — her work is uninteresting, and intrusive rather than stimulating. What saves the trial scene is Judith Berard’s intensely focused and powerful performance as Joan and Marc Poulin’s meaty Bishop. Together they move beyond the limitations of their creative team to stir the pot of pathos and defiance, so much so that Joan’s burning (a bit too hastily dispatched for the crisis point of an entire musical) has the power to move. It helps that the fire is uncomfortably realistic.
Berard is not the strongest of singers, and her voice tends to strain toward the show’s final half hour, but her acting combines a vulnerability and innocence that transmits an utterly compelling sincerity. Rene Simard’s Charles is less convincing, but in their scenes alone together there is some lovely work and he has a good voice. De Tourdonnet also has written some gentle, affectionate ribbing between Joan and Charles that breaks through the symbolism of their roles to reveal two troubled and very human creatures.
There are other performances of note, including Patrick Olafson-Henault as Jeanne’s devoted brother, Richard Jutras as the army captain and Peter Zinko as Jeanne’s great warrior La Hire, although he is hampered by both a costume and hairdo that make him look like rock singer Meat Loaf, and stage business (biting off the head of a chicken) that places him more comfortably in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” than a serious musical.
What’s especially intriguing about “Jeanne La Pucelle” is how clearly it is fueled by a Quebecois vision of French/English relations; several speeches, about resolving conflict even as the English stand by ready to invade, seem eerily reflective of Canada’s continuing problems. Perhaps the inclusion of “Frenchie-Wenchie Poos,” which makes a laughingstock of the British court, is a direct result of provincial sensibilities.
Such elements might not translate to American audiences, but they do add a piquant air to the production. And even though the second act turns from politics toward Joan’s personal travails, the depiction of the Church, the determination of the English and the deep faith of the French in their unlikely heroine infuses “Jeanne La Pucelle” with a vigor and commitment that bodes well for its future development.