Review: Dress Rehearsal at OSO Arts Centre

It’s an intriguing premise – a ‘play with opera’, following a group of performers both on and offstage, and giving us a glimpse at what goes on behind the scenes. And for the Overtones, it’s not a pretty sight; the air in their dressing room is heavy with bitterness, resentment and sadness over opportunities lost. As diva Bella (Amanda Wagg) and young newcomer Kit (Luke Farrugia) vie for the limelight, Steph (Alexandra Cowell) and Lionel (Tony Baker) are left to reflect on what might have been, and the group’s enthusiastic and talented pianist Phyllis (Karen Newby) – who’s secretly a bit of a rockstar – is completely overlooked by everyone.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Meanwhile, in the foreground, another story is unfolding – the story of a younger Steph (Chiara Vinci) and her romance with Micky (James Richards), a stand-up comedian on the verge of fame and fortune. As the truth about her past is gradually revealed, we begin to understand how Steph’s ended up as Bella’s backing singer, when she could have been so much more.

There’s a lot to like about the play, which is directed by Paola Cuffolo – not least the idea itself, which is original and full of comic potential. There are some lovely moments when, just like in an opera, the actors express a world of emotion without saying (or singing) a word, and it’s a nice touch to have AJ MacGillivray, who plays agent Zeno (agent as in talent, not secret, just to be clear), sitting in the audience to enjoy the show before suddenly making himself known to the performers.

Though the story is touching, and the characters are entertaining to watch, there are some frustrating plot holes which meant I found myself on the train home repeatedly thinking, ‘But what about…?’ There’s an allusion to a scandalous secret involving Kit’s mother, but we never get any further details; the same goes for Bella’s broken marriage, and Lionel’s story is summed up in just a couple of lines. Likewise we never really know what made young Steph decide to run out on her wedding, or how Micky declined in the intervening years to the shambling, broken figure we see in the second act (or even how many years it’s supposed to be). And then the play ends, with every character deep in thought but very little resolved.

Of course it’s not always necessary to wrap everything up, and the writer herself freely admits that it’s her goal to leave the audience with questions, but personally I would have enjoyed a little bit more background to help me really get invested in the characters, so I could share their triumphs and disappointments.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

The cast are talented and enthusiastic, especially in the musical numbers; Luke Farrugia is particularly memorable as the young, arrogant Kit, who likes to show off by spontaneously updating the lyrics to some of the most popular opera classics, and Chiara Vinci balances her primarily speaking role with two show-stopping performances of songs by Gilbert and Sullivan. When it comes to silent acting, though, it’s Alexandra Cowell who stands out as Steph; in one scene, she watches her younger self performing with an expression of such longing that it’s genuinely quite heartbreaking.

Dress Rehearsal is a clever and original concept, with some strong vocal performances and an enjoyable repertoire of opera favourites. With a bit more character and plot development, it has the potential to be something special.

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