Esther Purves-Smith, left, as Francine, Elizabeth Stepkowski Tarhan as Louise and Katherine Fadum as Patty, in Lunchbox Theatre’s new musical Fascinating Ladies, offer an entertaining snapshot of a family. Photograph by: Chantelle Kolesnik , Calgary Herald
Grandma had a secret life.
But maybe secret is the wrong word. The grandma in question (whom we never meet), in Catherine O’Brien’s Fascinating Ladies, a sprightly musical revue with a big heart, isn’t so much secretive as she is so very well-lived.
About to turn 100, three of her granddaughters — Patty (Katherine Fadum), Francine (Esther Purves-Smith) and Louise (Elizabeth Stepkowski Tarhan) have gathered at grandma’s house to prepare it for a big 100th birthday celebration.
The house is a jumble of party props and the memorabilia accumulated from a century’s worth of living.
And what a life! There was eight years spent studying music and singing in Montreal; a stint in London during the Second World War and touring the English countryside with a travelling band, before a serendipitous reunion with a maritime childhood sweetheart produces a long, happy marriage, children and, ultimately, the grandchildren who have all grown up to have secret lives of their own, too.
Louise is a media type from Vancouver who’s been offered a big job promotion. Francine is a barren closet singer who got divorced and thinks of her life as over at 42; while Patty, the youngest of the trio, teaches piano and fends off the advances of admiring students.
It’s all a bit of an excuse for the three to burst into song at any given moment, which they do with regularity (assisted by musical director Joe Slabe), revisiting a whole grandma’s lifetime worth of classics: Alexander’s Ragtime Band, In the Mood, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, and all manner of Irving Berlin songs.
However, what makes Fascinating Ladies fly is that hidden among all of that rec-room randomness, and reminiscing and speculating about their sick old grandma, lies a story that shifts the way that each of the three grandchildren think about their grandmother.
Spearheading the search for grandma’s deep, dark secret is Louise, who won’t play nice and put down the journal the women discover, despite the best efforts of Francine to let sleeping dogs lie.
Stepkowski Tarhan’s Louise is a big personality with an endless fascination with the truth — in other words, a pain in the ass, but a loving pain in the ass to the two others, and Stepkowski Tarhan invests her with all manner of life.
Purves-Smith’s Francine is beaten down by life, right down to her limp, flat haircut — until a song comes along, and she transforms back into someone in love with life. Francine might suffer in the charisma department against the ebullient Louise and pretty Patty, but Purves-Smith has a nice way with a mousey character.
Katherine Fadum’s Patty is the youngest, and vaguest of the three, someone who doesn’t quite seem to know how to get her life on track, and Fadum plays her smartly, letting her flounder her way through to giving her life a sense of direction.
Fascinating Ladies might cause you take a second look at your grandma’s life — that’s the lesson the trio eventually discover, in a charmer of a show (well-directed by Jan Alexadra-Smith) that delivers its heartfelt wisdom with a song.
Review: Lunchbox Theatre presents Fascinating Ladies by Catherine O’Brien through March 25. Tickets and info: 403-265-4292 Ext. 0 or lunchboxtheatre.com.
Three and a half stars out of five
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