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Fire

Review by Sean McQuaid

Mike Ross as Cale Blackwell in the 2002 Charlottetown Festival production of Fire

As the old rhetorical riddle asks, what does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul? The musical Fire more or less asks the same question...and while the answers aren't pretty, it makes for a powerfully memorable evening of theatre.

Written by Paul Ledoux & David Young and directed by Richard Rose with musical direction by Donald Fraser, Fire is set in the American south of the late 1950s and tells the story of brothers Cale & Herchel Blackwell (played by Mike Ross & Geoffrey Pounsett), the sons of preacher J.D. Blackwell (Terry Hatty). Struggling under the expectations of their stern father, the boys share both a desperate longing for greatness and an ardent attraction to sweet young thing Molly King (Allison Plamondon), whose father, Truman (Hank Stinson), makes his fortune by managing the brothers in their respective careers. As the years pass, Cale becomes an infamous rock star and Herchel becomes an influential televangelist, but neither fame nor money nor even the love of Molly brings the feuding brothers contentment as their lives are slowly poisoned by pride, envy and hate.

The Ledoux-Young script (inspired by the real-life relationship of rocker Jerry Lee Lewis and his televangelist cousin Jimmy Swaggart) is a winner, crafting a vivid and uncomfortably plausible collection of self-deluded characters on the road to moral ruin; the play also works as a social commentary of sorts, capturing some of the worst aspects of politics and fundamentalist religion. At the same time, the play functions as a rousing musical revue by incorporating a host of rock and gospel classics performed by the actors (supported, in this production, by Don Fraser's rock-solid house band).

Rose's presentation of the text is lively and engaging; performers work the floor as well as the stage of the theatre, drawing the audience further into the action, and multiple playing spaces are often active on and off stage at any given time (though on occasion, lights seem to linger overlong on inactive playing spaces and their frozen-in-place performers to no useful effect). Ken Garnhum's simple yet versatile set morphs into a slew of diverse locations with a little help from assorted set dressing and the evocative lighting design of Paul Mathiesen. It's a show full of clever and classy little touches, like the church scene where the cast members take up a collection from the audience for the local food bank.

Fire also boasts a crackling cast. Ross's violently passionate Cale exudes a lust for the spotlight, whether he's tackling a musical number with wild abandon or prowling the stage with the lean and hungry look of a hard-living Cassius, and he brings a believably haunted, pathetic quality to Cale's later, leaner years. Pounsett has a less flashy role as the pious brother but is every inch Ross's equal with a masterfully nuanced, far-ranging performance that chronicles Herchel's evolution from a humble, well-meaning innocent to a self-important, pitiless firebrand. Plamondon displays similarly solid range as Molly, shifting from bubbly schoolgirl to sadder-but-wiser woman over the course of the show while investing her character with an enduring sense of innocence. Stinson is appropriately unsavoury as the venal, glad-handing Truman, and Hatty fills a host of minor roles (often netting some major laughs) in addition to his well-played part as fire-and-brimstone preacher J.D. Blackwell. Throw in a lovely choral quartet and you have a cast that makes beautiful music together in every sense of the phrase.

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