The story of Kelly v. Kelly, a new Canadian musical presented by The Musical Stage Company and Canadian Stage, revolves around an emotionally charged yet very silly court case from 1915. New York aristocrat, Helen Kelly (Jessica Sherman) has her 19-year-old daughter Eugenia Kelly (Eva Foote) charged with incorrigibility. Scandalized by her recent smoking, drinking and frequenting of a seedy club, it’s her last ditch effort to gain control of this young heiress about to embark on a flamboyant life of her own.
This mother seems, at first, to be the primary antagonist of the story, but Sara Farb’s book very quickly gives us insights into her plight. Her old fashioned, restrictive model of proper womanly behaviour comes from oppressive conditioning; this conflict with her daughter is rooted in a fear of losing her to an evolving world. Early on, it becomes clear that the real villain of this tale is patriarchy!
Representing this thorny, tyrannical force we have a chorus of quite hilariously patronizing men. Joel Cumber’s prissy prosecuting lawyer is a comedic highlight. As both the presiding judge and Helen Kelly’s former husband, Edward, Mike Jackson makes us chuckle even as our skin crawls at his transparent condescension. Even Eugenia’s love interest, the suave and attentive tango dancer, Al Davis (Jeremy Walmsley), turns out to be less of an ally than he charismatically promises.
With the courtroom antics providing a frame, the story is told through flashbacks. With clever, thematically potent transitions, we see Helen and Eugenia’s disintegrating relationship, Eugenia’s rebellion with a band of suffragettes and Helen’s backstory—the most truly heartbreaking element here—in which she finds herself married off to a man with a name, who wants nothing more than her money and family connections.
Britta Johnson’s songs are rich and compelling, full to bursting with either humour or poignancy. Director and choreographer Tracey Flye—with a formidable history of musical theatre credits under her belt—has a solid mastery of the form. The structure, style and aesthetic of her production is wholly conventional, but she doesn’t need to subvert expectations here; the familiar theatrical shape feels purposeful, urgent and exhilarating.
Alex Amini‘s costumes, particularly for the women, are gorgeous—elegantly juxtaposing the stuffy formality of Helen’s matronly persona and the gauzy, colourful sensuality of Eugenia and her band of “new women.” Lorenzo Savoini’s set and lighting make use of the exposed brick and iron catwalk of the Berkeley Street Theatre. The building itself—its physical stability and historical ambiance—help conjure this early twentieth century, urban environment.
At the centre of the spectacle, Foote and Sherman ground us with their nuanced and persuasive portrait of generational friction. We feel for both of them, understand their fraught position as women with conflicting ideals in a changing society. The bittersweet finale of Kelly v. Kelly, once mother and daughter acknowledge the real source of their rivalry, offers a subtle and stirring glimpse at mutual understanding.