A hit in Toronto when it opened at Theatre Passe Muraille in early 2014, The Way Back to Thursday is a sweet and sophisticated chamber musical that is currently running at the Arts Club's Revue Stage as part of Vancouver's In Tune Festival--a terrific biennial event devoted to new Canadian musical development curated by Touchstone Theatre's Katrina Dunn and the Arts Club's Rachel Ditor. The Way Back's book, music and lyrics are all by the multi-talented Rob Kempson, who also plays Cameron, a gay filmmaker. The piece opens with Cameron, living in Vancouver and coming to grips with the aftermath of a broken relationship, reflecting back on his relationship with his grandmother (a wonderful Valerie Hawkins), now in a care home in the Toronto area. Thereafter the musical unfolds as an extended flashback, over the course of which we learn that Cameron and Grandma used to be very close, bonding over their mutual love of movies, and in particular the manly charisma of Rock Hudson. When Cameron's parents split up, Grandma--who in a jazzy showstopper of a number for Hawkins tells us that her own late-in-life divorce was the best thing she ever did--becomes an even stronger presence in the boy's life.
But the relationship between the two starts to shift when young Cameron begins to discover his sexuality, a journey partly triggered--as we learn in an hilarious ode-turned-screed to/against his teacher--by a school assignment on Hudson. Cameron eventually comes out to his parents, a process painfully and poignantly described in a moving ballad about how this change in his life is really a change in the kind of life that his parents, separately, wanted and expected for him. However, fearing her potential disappointment the most, he can't bring himself to tell Grandma, and so absconds for film school in Vancouver. What Cameron doesn't know is that Grandma already knows and, what's more, also has her own secret, having told her grandson when he was a young boy a "little white lie"--namely, that she herself had been in the movies.
Kempson has written The Way Back as a song cycle, with he and Hawkins alternating in telling the story, and in the process exploring various musical idioms (jazz, torch, blues)--all expertly handled by pianist Chris Tsujiuchi (also the musical director) and cellist Samuel Bisson. But it is in the second half of the piece that Kempson really moves the narrative into new and refreshingly complex territory, avoiding (SPOILER ALERT!) the expected cliched reconciliation between the principals and instead showing how the physical distance between them, and the guilt each carries toward the other, actually deepens Cameron's and Grandma's emotional rift--beautifully handled in a rending duet about "running away" with their hearts and "staying away" from their minds. Kempson also dares to make the hapless, fish-out-of-water Cameron a "bad" West End gay (rewarding the local audience with some nice insider jokes) and, even more audaciously for mainstream musical theatre, to give us a portrait of a woman aging and descending into Alzheimer's on stage. When Cameron finally arrives at Grandma's bedside she no longer recognizes him and Kempson opts for an ending that resists the musical's traditional happy uplift in favour of an affective note far more complex: the spark of connection mined from an abyss of regret.
Tightly and economically directed on a mostly bare stage by Briana Brown, the musical strips things down to the essentials of instrumentation and voice. And on the latter front, Kempson and Hawkins are outstanding, with Kempson as vocally consistent as a precocious eight-year old as he is as an alternately depressed, harried and moonily in love adult. For Hawkins' part, her voice simply gets stronger and stronger as the piece progresses and her presence on stage is such that she is emotionally moving even when she is sitting immobile in a chair and staring vacantly into the distance.
A "gay" musical that eschews overt irony and camp, The Way Back is a rare work that manages to be sincere while avoiding cheap sentiment, that feels truthful instead of trite. It has one more performance this afternoon at 2 pm, and if you have the chance I urge you to see it.