The recent successful workshop productions of Canadian author Leslie Arden’s “The Boys Are Coming Home” in Chi and New York have brought this composer-lyricist back into the limelight after nearly a decade away. Coincidentally, a revival of her 20-year-old “Harvest Moon Rising,” at a small theater an hour north of Toronto, is serving notice that she’s been writing heartfelt musicals for a long time — even if sometimes under the radar.
Arden came to prominence in 1996, when her musical “The House of Martin Guerre” was presented to great acclaim and numerous Jefferson Awards at Chi’s Goodman Theater. A similarly successful production ran at CanStage in Toronto the following year, but the Boublil/Schonberg version of the same story claimed prominence and Arden’s has since vanished.
She spent a lot of the past decade writing two large-scale musicals, “The Boys Are Coming Home” (a 1940s retelling of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”) and “Moll” (her version of “Moll Flanders”), but neither has had a full production to date.
A simple piece about farmwomen in Canada, “Harvest Moon Rising” interweaves two stories: a contempo one about a wife whose husband is losing their farm and a 19th-century tale of a young Scottish girl coming to grips with Canada’s bucolic life.
The book by Peggy Sample has an arresting emotional honesty, even if at times it’s painfully obvious about how it shifts gears. But no such accusation can be laid at Arden’s feet.
She brings her women (and the one man in the story) to life with surprisingly complex music and lyrics that have the skill of poetry while seeking to capture the rhythms of simple speech.
She can write wonderfully effective ensemble numbers such as “The Sun Never Quite Makes It Through,” about facing the dark times in life, and “Monday Morn,” which is the flip side of the coin: an upbeat look at the world.
Arden is best, perhaps, at solo numbers that plumb a character’s inner life, most notably the song “Robert Dreams,” in which a farm wife slowly and powerfully reveals the saga of her husband’s alcoholism and spousal abuse.
Tim French’s direction has a no-frills briskness that matches well with the open feelings he encourages his actors to convey.
Talk Is Free Theater is a tiny, low-budget operation, but artistic director Arkady Spivak is devoted to producing Canadian musicals and usually finds first-rate casts willing to do them. “Harvest Moon Rising” has attracted a group of veterans with impressive credentials from the Shaw and Stratford festivals as well as the world of Toronto megamusicals.
Glynis Ranney and Mike Nadajewski are singularly moving as the couple whose farm is about to be taken from them, while Jennifer Stewart brings a fetching charm to the displaced Scottish girl and Charlotte Moore offer a down-home solidity as the older Canadian woman who takes her in. Diane Stapley is beautifully controlled as Lillian, the senior of the group, and Stephanie Roth makes the most of “Robert Dreams,” her big number.
With a cast of six, a band of two, simple physical demands and a touching story with wide appeal, this show could prove popular at regionals throughout the American heartland. And it sparks anticipation for the next work from Arden.