Review by Sean McQuaid
Old musicals never die...they just get remounted; and in a sense, The Legend of the Dumbells is older even than most of its peers. The musical itself only dates back to the 1970s, but it is based on real-life entertainers whose act was forged under fire in World War One. The Dumbells were Canadian soldiers assigned to stage a musical comedy show for their comrades, a show which proved so popular that it outlasted the war and marched on to Broadway.
The Legend of the Dumbells was originally conceived, directed and choreographed by Alan Lund and written by George Salverson for The Charlottetown Festival in 1977, and has returned to the Festival this summer under the guidance of director Duncan McIntosh-once part of the original 1970s cast himself, now Artistic Director of the Charlottetown Festival.
There's something surreal about this show; the bulk of Legend is devoted to resurrecting the wacky comedy sketches and lively musical numbers that made the Dumbells famous-but at the same time, all of this is happening amidst an appallingly bloody and senseless war. McIntosh's adaptation of the Lund-Salverson musical (including newly added material) plays up this unsettling juxtaposition by reinforcing the grim realities of the conflict; for instance, the production begins with a harrowing battlefield scene and closes with a solemn tribute to the soldiers of World War One (the latter rooted in a recitation of the classic "In Flanders Fields" poem). These bits neatly bookend the show, placing all the madcap antics in perspective and helping audiences appreciate the tragic gravity of this moment in history.
As narrative, Legend is a bit flimsy and disjointed, rather episodic. It's essentially a bunch of songs and sketches strung together, though assorted highlights of the story of the Dumbells (their formation, a tragic wartime loss, their postwar renaissance) afford the script some sense of cohesion and continuity.
Anemic plot aside, Legend offers plenty of entertainment in addition to its historical value. McIntosh has assembled a spirited, nimble cast of singers, dancers and comedians as the Dumbells, and they do their material ample justice. Classic period songs featured in the show range from the touching ("Keep the Home Fires Burning") to the unapologetically silly ("Mademoiselle From Armentieres") and help foster a warmly nostalgic tone. This atmosphere is further bolstered by evocative lighting and sets, courtesy of Adrian Muir and Charlotte Dean.
Among the younger cast members, Darren Voros stands out as the cross-dressing Dumbell Ross Hamilton, who broke many a soldier's heart in his on-stage alter ego as "Marjorie"; but the sweetest scene-stealers are two of the older members of the cast: Jim White (another veteran of the 1970s Dumbells cast) is vividly memorable as the Dumbells' bullying supervisor, Sergeant Pound, leavening his shrieking, red-faced histrionics with moments of surprising tenderness; and Wade Lynch (featured in earlier Charlottetown Festival shows such as A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline) is delightfully funny as comedic Dumbell Jack McLaren. His "No Man Knoweth When Inspection Cometh" monologue is a masterpiece of comic delivery and timing, and he lends a sense of mischievous mirth to all his scenes.
While relatively short on story, The Legend of the Dumbells is long on nostalgia, comedy, music and historical consciousness-well worth catching before it fades away.