Theatre Preview: Little Mercy excessively good

At first glance, the noir and the musical appear too disparate to successfully merge. After all, where noirs are all about heavy narration, metaphor and grisly themes, musicals boast flamboyant choreography, colourful sets and suspension of belief. Upon closer examination, however, the two genres aren’t so incompatible: in the end they both come down to excess. Little Mercy’s First Murder, the latest Ground Zero/Vertigo Mystery production successfully plays up this excess, resulting in a delightful fusion of the two forms of storytelling.

Little Mercy’s First Murder tells the story of Little Mercy, a bright but naive poor women accused of her mother’s murder and Weegee, the cynical, world-weary photographer she runs away with. In their efforts to escape the officer on their tail, Weegee gives Little Mercy a glimpse of a world she’s never known, while Little Mercy tries to persuade Weegee to adopt a more optimistic outlook on life. All of this is done in a world straight out of a classic film noir, except here people burst into spontaneous song and dance.

This world is the first standout in the play. Though every character is deftly crafted, in order to make Little Mercy work the setting had to be executed perfectly. Thankfully, playwright Morwyn Brebner pulls it off. In the world she has created, it doesn’t seem strange to see numerous deaths, alcoholism, a transvestite performer and silly songs from one scene to the next.

Though the world is strong, the characters inhabiting it are even stronger. Elinor Holt is marvelous as Little Mercy, nailing the complicated character and demonstrating a surprisingly powerful set of vocal chords in doing so. Doug McKeag gives Weegee, who could have easily been an annoying character, a certain charm, elevating him beyond a whiny fatalist. The rest of the cast performs admirably as well, particularly Hal Kerbes and Christian Goutsis, who play a comical police officer and a scene-stealing transvestite respectively.

Equally as impressive are the musical contributions from pianist/musical director Kevin McGugan and percussionist Jed Tomlinson. Though there are only two of them, they provide sufficient backdrop to the show’s ragtime influenced musical numbers and add to the noir feel through more subtle arrangements.

Little Mercy’s First Murder only falters once and quickly makes up for it. When Little Mercy and Weegee find themselves within a cabaret the story shifts, somewhat gratingly, from a typical cat-and-mouse game to a bizarre love story. In the end the two narratives are equally compelling and there is resolution to both but the shift between the two is unfortunately awkward, detracting from an otherwise pristine performance.

Even with this small misstep Little Mercy’s First Murder is a triumph. The noir and the musical might not be the most obvious genres to meld but when it’s pulled off as successfully as it is here, they feel like soul-mates finally together and able to relish in their mutual love of excess.

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