‘Rob Ford the Musical’ Review: Sympathetic But Muddled Portrayal of Toronto Mayor
It was bad timing, to be sure.
Just one day after the world found out about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford‘s cancer diagnosis, Rob Ford the Musical held its opening night. Defying expectations that it would be a satirical takedown of Toronto’s embattled mayor, however, the show instead delivered a sympathetic portrayal of Ford — albeit one that was bogged down by cheap laughs and frenetic pacing.
“We were very concerned. We considered all of our options,” producer Brett McCaig told Mashable. “[But] we had no choice other than that the show must go on.”
McCaig came out on stage before Friday night’s show last week to extend his “sympathies and prayers,” and to tell the packed theater that staff would be collecting donations for the Canadian Cancer Society following curtain call. In addition, one cast member held a handwritten “Get well” sign at the musical’s conclusion. Other than that, though, Rob Ford the Musical remained completely unchanged. “Everything was intact,” McCaig said.
But perhaps it should not have been. McCaig and his team would’ve been wise to edit down the musical, which often felt like a nonsensical hodgepodge of pop-culture and local-news references that overwhelmed its few shining moments.
“Narrated” by a sardonic Margaret Atwood (Lisa Horner), Rob Ford the Musical follows Ford (Sheldon Bergstrom) as he embarks on a personal journey in the vein of It’s a Wonderful Life, after collapsing from a brain aneurysm. His spiritual guide is a black transgender angel named Transgression — appropriately ironic, given Ford’s contentious history with the LGBT community — who is a combination of all the worst stereotypes of gay and black culture (i.e. flamboyant, sassy and overtly sexual).
Transgression, frequently the source of groan-inducing, middle school-esque jokes about genitals and Ford’s girth, is helping the Toronto mayor in the hopes of scoring C-cup breasts. She leads Ford through the past four years of his tenure at City Hall, revisiting key moments, including the mayor’s refusal to attend Toronto’s annual pride parade, the revelation that he inappropriately sought donations to his football foundation under official city council letterhead, and of course, the crack scandal. (Confusingly, unlike It’s a Wonderful Life, Ford isn’t just a passive observer; he is actually able to interact with people from his past. But for some unexplainable reason, Ford acts like he is encountering these scenarios for the first time. Transgression, meanwhile, is invisible to everyone but Ford.)
Rob Ford (Sheldon Bergstrom) sits beside brother Doug Ford (Justin Bott) in ‘Rob Ford the Musical.’
Image: ‘Rob Ford the Musical’
Portrayed as wiser and more calculating, Doug Ford (Justin Bott) frequently gives advice to the mayor. It’s a representation, however, that doesn’t reflect reality, as the actual Doug is almost as gaffe-prone as his brother. To add to the discrepancy, Bott looks nothing like his real-life counterpart, who is at least 10 years older and 20 pounds heavier. Rob Ford the Musical also plays up the sibling rivalry between Rob and Doug, though both brothers are actually staunch supporters of each other. (McCaig said the musical is just his version of events. “It’s a musical comedy, and this was just our take on the whole thing,” he told Mashable.)
Other characters, including Toronto police chief Bill Blair (played by Sheldon Davis who is the real-life Blair’s physical opposite), Tennessee Williams-obsessed lawyer Ruby (Marisa McIntyre) and dimwitted journalist Eddie (Daniel Greenberg) are woefully underdeveloped, and spend the majority of the musical spewing asinine babble. Case in point: Eddie refers to his “winky” getting aroused multiple times, and randomly says “Nobody beats the brick! Nooobody!” at one point.
Rob Ford the Musical is somewhat self-aware, occasionally recognizing when jokes intentionally fall flat. However, the many references are heavy-handed, and it often felt like McCaig couldn’t decide which ones he wanted to include, and so unwisely added them all. As a result, the musical touches on many different topics, but fails to go beyond the superficial. There is never any genuinely biting satire.
In addition, a large screen shows clips of Ford’s comical blunders through the years, including his football fail and camera crash. The sparse stage in front the screen has five vertical banners, featuring landmarks from around downtown Toronto.
The cast of ‘Rob Ford the Musical.’
Image: ‘Rob Ford the Musical’
Rob Ford the Musical does not miss every mark, though. One memorable musical number is a duet called “F*ck You,” the highlight of which is a verse that the Ford brothers sing in Jamaican patois — naturally, referencing another infamous video of Rob.
Overall, however, the musical falls flat. Ford is portrayed as a misunderstood man who is ignorant and unconfident, but has good intentions. Meanwhile, the media and police are presented as one-dimensional villains, and at one point even conspire to take Ford down by giving him crack. This may be a sympathetic portrayal of the mayor, but it lacks a critical eye. In reality, Ford was largely the author of his own misfortune.
Despite these flaws, audience members that Mashable interviewed last week thoroughly enjoyed the musical. Here are some of their views:
“It really shows the vulnerability that you don’t necessarily see anywhere else.” – Jacob Gow
“I felt it was quite a sympathetic expression of it all.” – Susan Greenfield
“It really looked at his hardships that he’s been enduring in his life … The side that they looked at or depicted was more of a softer side than what the media was always setting out and what the media was always talking about.” – Jeannie Ueno
Interestingly, these comments are consistent with Ford’s public persona as a man of the people.
Rob Ford the Musical runs from Sept. 15 to 28.
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