By Chloe Shantz-Hilkes
Every year, near the beginning of second semester, the fourth-year acting majors at the Ryerson Theatre School give a last hurrah before they are initiated into the tumultuous world of “real acting.”
This year’s production is the theatre school’s first musical in several years. The Miracle Man, is set to premiere Feb. 4.
The musical tells the story of a gang of con-artists from Montreal whose latest scheme consists of scamming rich city dwellers by using an elderly small-town miracle worker as bait.
Gradually, however, the question arises of whether there may in fact be some real magic behind this supposedly phoney miracle man.
It is not the story though, that makes this musical special. A collaborative effort between award-winning composer Allen Cole and accomplished playwright Michael O’Brien, The Miracle Man is, for many of the students playing its lead roles, the first time they’ve been involved in a musical at Ryerson.
Although all acting majors receive some voice training as a routine part of their instruction, they are not students of musical theatre, and Cole’s score is ambitious to say the least.
Director Eda Holmes, however, believes they are up to the challenge. “[The students] are amazing,” she says. “They are instilled with such a good work ethic and love of the work.”
In fact, it was over two years ago when Cole himself first noticed this particular group of students and declared that they had all the voices and talent that he needed for his and O’Brien’s musical to work.
The students, meanwhile, are both thrilled and honoured to be involved in the premiere of The Miracle Man.
“I can see this getting picked up by something big some day,” says cast member Kate Corbette. “For us to have been the first ones to have touched it is so cool.”
Benjamin Sanders, the miracle man himself, recalls when he was first faced with the challenge of portraying an elderly man who is blind and deaf.
Unprompted by any of his teachers, Sanders spent time at a retirement home to get a sense of the physicality and speech of his character.
In rehearsal, his stoop and feebleness are indeed so convincing that it is disquieting when suddenly, he leaps out of his old-fashioned rocking chair to help rearrange some heavy props.
Similarly, when another cast member, who plays the role of a small child, is presented with a handsome toy train engine by a member of the props team, her delight seems oddly authentic.
Between scenes, she stands off to one side of the rehearsal studio, happily driving the engine up and down her left arm , making “toot-toot” noises.
Holmes, meanwhile, is thrilled to see the actors taking ownership of their roles. “Often you need a production before you even finish the writing,” she says, explaining the degree to which an actor’s understanding of his or her character can actually influence the script.
“This is a chance for [The Miracle Man] to have a life.”
For the cast, the writers and Holmes, the question remains of whether or not their gamble will pay off. Holmes is the first to admit that musicals are a risky genre at the best of times — always with an uncertain outcome.
“Musicals are notoriously expensive and unreliable box-office-wise,” she says, lines of worry creasing her brow.
The actors are similarly quick to concede that the singing components of their latest roles have been equal parts challenging and invigorating.
“We’re not trained in musical theatre,” Corbette says, gesturing vigorously in her attempt to illustrate the gravity of this point.
“[The Miracle Man] is a collective, integrating acting, song and dance,” she explains, adding that the challenge of combining these three mediums is only augmented by the fact that it is a brand new production.