The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was performed by Guildford School of Acting musical theatre third years at the Ivy Arts Centre, Guildford.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Here is a real curio – the European premiere of a show originally written and rejected by the public more than 30 years ago, savaged by the critics, never even getting to play Montreal (where it was set), never mind Broadway. Plus it cost its backers a cool $500,000.
Based on the novel of the same name by one of Canada’s most famous literary sons Mordecai Richler, a second version was given an airing in Philadelphia in 1987, but again got the thumbs-down from an audience which couldn’t get its head round the story’s dark tones as a musical.
Even the name of eight-time Oscar-winning Disney composer Alan Menken on the posters couldn’t save it, although this was early Menken, long before he achieved international success with Beauty and the Beast, Little Shop of Horrors, Aladdin and Sister Act.
Finally, after 20 years of refinement, mostly by lyricist David Spencer (who flew over to Guildford to lend his thoughts to the Shaun Kerrison-directed GSA production), the show floated two years ago in Montreal in a much revised form, changing around three-quarters of the score.
This time it did much better, getting mostly rave reviews, its run extended twice and an original cast album released at the end of last year.
Set in 1950s Montreal, it’s a very Jewish tale of how 19-year-old hustler Duddy Kravitz is told by his grandfather that “a man without land is nobody” and, despite early money problems, sets about making name and fortune by buying and developing a lakeside property.
But his overweening ambition has a negative effect on his large family and, particularly, his French-Canadian girlfriend Yvette and epileptic partner, the wheelchair-bound Virgil.
The title role is a tour de force by Frederic Brodard who is on stage for practically every scene of a show that runs not far short of three hours (but feels not a minute too long), yet this Swiss actor is not even speaking his first language, French.
Attacking the part taken by the great Richard Dreyfuss in the 1974 movie with great gusto, young Monsieur Brodard gives a high-octane performance that stamps him as a name to watch, hopefully up in West End lights.
There is also much to like about Jennifer Hague’s Yvette. From the moment she launches into ‘How Could I Not?’, the show’s best song, in a first act that lasts 85 minutes (but without a single look at my watch, always a good sign), she has the audience pulling for her.
A pure, sweet voice with excellent acting skills, she has the priceless gifts of stage presence, stillness and not trying too hard to impress. I look forward to seeing her again.
Standards at the GSA are incredibly high. Harry Jones, Matt Hayden, Brian Anthony and Sven Maertens play various members of the Kravitz clan with plenty of punch and attitude, while Tylor Anton’s scrap metal millionaire Mr Cohen makes the most of his two solos, especially the amusing ‘What a Liar’ in a strong characterisation.
There is some fine singing from the easy-to-listen-to Matthew McConnell as Virgil, Benjamin Braz makes the most of the rather sinister money man Jerry Dingleman, and Harry Powell’s fey Peter Friar is confidently achieved.
Duddy’s hilarious short film about bar mitzvahs has the men in the audience squirming in their seats –- a brilliant idea and perfect antidote to the serious morality tale being played out around it.
Tom Ling, Pascalle Bergmans and Olivia Kustermans complete a cast of eight different nationalities in an ensemble that springs exuberantly to life in the energetic ‘Welcome Home’ finale, while, way up above, MD Mary McAdam and her band of six are not short of decent numbers to play.
We arrived with little expectations and isn’t it often the way those turn out to be the most rewarding experieneces. GSA will be back on more familiar territory with the rest of their June programme, State Fair and Carrie The Musical.
Meanwhile Kerrison, who has directed a number of Menken productions, most recently an American touring version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, has put them ahead of the game with this obscure but never less than absorbing antique that’s been languishing in a drawer for far too long.
Duddy is no dud – he and it deserve to be seen by a wider audience.