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Belles Soeurs: The Musical

Review by Sean McQuaid

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman,” sang Tammy Wynette in 1969. Michel Tremblay’s innovative 1968 theatrical black comedy Les Belles-soeurs expressed a similar sentiment more sweepingly and bitingly, arguing it’s pretty much always hard to be a woman—at least as embodied by the ladies of Tremblay’s 1960s working class Montreal. 

Tremblay’s first and most popular professionally produced play, Les Belles-soeurs was a controversial trailblazer in the ‘60s for its earthy French dialect, its sexual politics, its focus on mundane, lower class characters and its subversive scorn for targets ranging from materialism to religion to the whole darn male gender. 

Now a longstanding Canadian theatrical institution, Tremblay’s iconoclastic play has somehow morphed into a mainstream theatrical musical. First adapted into this form in French by René Richard Cyr and Daniel Bélanger in 2010, it was further modified and translated into English by Brian Hill and Neil Bartram in 2014. 

Recently directed by Cyr for the Segal Centre, Cyr’s current production of the English musical is now appearing at the Confederation Centre of the Arts, where it’s a cousin somewhat awkwardly thrice removed from Tremblay’s original tale. Most of the characters remain, as does much of Tremblay’s oft-withering take on their crushingly dull, empty workaday lives, but the musical tries to have its cake and eat it too by tacking some happy closing sentiments onto the show. 

The result feels off, not so much because of deviating from the darker original play—the current musical can and should be judged as its own entity—but more because of the cognitive dissonance within the musical itself. The show spends a lot of time telling us how empty and unhappy most of these women's lives are before it unconvincingly reassures us they'll be okay in the end, and it can't quite stick the landing. 

That being said, there’s still plenty of entertainment value in Tremblay's story, as skillfully executed by Cyr’s cast and crew. When 1960s Montreal housewife Germaine Lauzon (played by Lisa Horner) wins a million trading stamps in a contest, she invites female friends and relatives to her apartment to celebrate her good fortune and help her paste all the stamps into redemption books she can exchange for fabulously tacky luxury consumer goods. The gloating, gleeful Germaine, however, doesn't realize her jealous guests are stealing her stamps while they gossip, gripe and swap stories. 

The entertaining Horner heads an all-female cast of widely varying ages, showcasing fine and funny performances such as Valerie Boyle playing Yvette Longpré, whose seemingly endless wedding anecdote song is a little gem of understated comic timing; the honey-voiced Lili Connor as Des-Neiges Verrette, whose ode to her salesman paramour is equal parts sweet and sad; Geneviève St Louis, who makes a filling comedic meal out of a relatively one-note role as the relentlessly bitter Marie-Ange Brouillette; and the broad-yet-nuanced Marcia Tratt, who makes snooty Lisette De Courval’s operatic tribute to snobbery a rousing comic showcase. 

Like the original play, the musical doubles as an anthology of sorts by giving most of its characters a turn in the spotlight as they tell their various individual stories (though the best musical number is the ensemble’s hypnotic, hilarious and masterfully staged “Ode to Bingo”). The musical’s larger overall story may not bear close scrutiny, but its individual characters, songs and vignettes are often entertaining, insightful and compelling.

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