Robert Service is Canada’s most famous poet and one of the most financially successful bards of all time. His tall tales and sentimental verse of the Yukon territory, penned at the turn of the last century, didn’t win many critical kudos from the literati, but regular folks were drawn to their steady rhythms and accessible messages and made Service very rich. In Wanderlust, Morris Panych (who also directs) has taken a few facts from Service’s life to present a rather inaccurate portrait of the man at a point in time before he became famous. With the help of Service’s verse and Marek Norman’s unexceptional score he makes a rather twee point about dreaming versus doing, all to little effect.
Panych’s Service is a mild mannered bank clerk who dreams of the frozen frontier, threatens constantly to set out for the North, but never manages to break the unseen shackles that bind him to his desk. All the while he writes poems and suffers from unrequited love. In fact, Service led a peripatetic and picaresque life both before and after his stint at the bank, but you’d never know it from watching Wanderlust.
Panych’s conceit is to use both Service’s crowd-pleasing poems like “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee” along with lesser known, more contemplative works to limn Service’s Walter Mittyish inner life and yearning for adventure. When Panych and choreographer Diana Coatsworth recreate the great story poems, Wanderlust springs to life. Coatsworth makes ingenious use of the Tom Patterson Theatre’s narrow stage with bank desks and clerks becoming a dog sled team racing through the night and bank secretaries with swirling skirts becoming the dancing flames of a funeral pyre.
Most of the time, alas, the story limps along making and remaking the point that Service has somehow already achieved his destiny because he is creating his poetry even while going precisely nowhere.
It’s too bad because Panych’s script has a healthy quota of genuinely funny lines and Tom Rooney as Service and Randy Hughson as bank manager Sam McGee (get it?) turn in engaging performances that soar above the material. Ken James Stewart scores in the small role of a gofer eager to ascend to the rank of drudge and Lucy Peacock struts her estimable stuff as an over the hill femme de la nuit (“A French insomniac?” guesses Rooney’s Service). But despite all this and Coatsworth’s not inconsiderable contribution Wanderlust is merely serviceable.
Wanderlust continues at the Tom Patterson Theatre through September 28, 2012.
For more information visit www.stratfordfestival.ca