At a sanatorium for the well-off, high in the German Alps, a quirky group of ailing aristocrats fluttered about in vain search for a cure.
This is not exactly a promising or groundbreaking premise for a musical, but the Shaw Festival's surprisingly lighthearted and humorous production of the original musical "Tristan" almost made it work.
At the center of the musical, based on Thomas Mann's story of the same name, is a love story that is based, in turn, on the legend of lovers Tristan and Isolde. At the center of the production is an incredibly talented cast whose forceful and charming performances move mountains to overshadow the shortcomings of the script.
As the lights go up in the Shaw's small Court House Theater, we see a set constructed of clear plastic columns and glass doors -- a mostly effective attempt to create a cold and sterile backdrop to the muted passion that will eventually transpire against it. A group of patients, all consummately attired in costume designer William Schmuck's early 20th century threads, sits at the breakfast table, impatiently awaiting service from the set-upon Frau Osterloh (Patty Jamieson).
There's the diabetic general (Neil Barclay), gastritis-stricken Frau Spatz (Donna Belleville), a pair of artsy Russians (Gabrielle Jones and Peter Millard) and the marginally necessary Dr. Leander (Graeme Somerville). They argue and poke fun at one another's illnesses and peccadilloes, and so goes much of the musical, which is concerned at least as much with the bickerings of minor characters as with its central love affair.
Among a series of ho-hum melodies and throwaway lyrics, co-writers Paul Sportelli and Jay Turvey have turned out one truly spectacular gem. The sad and soaring "One Face" is raised to life and gloriously sustained by Jeff Madden, who plays the painfully lovestruck writer Spinell. The source of Spinell's obsession is Gabrielle Kloterjahn (Glynis Ranney, also a lead in the Shaw's excellent "Mack and Mabel"), the sick and oppressed wife of an ambitious businessman.
As Spinell makes clear his undying love for Gabrielle, the play slowly sheds its schmaltzy nature and indulges in a couple of oversaturated emotional digressions set to music by Wagner and Chopin. But, sadly, this doesn't happen before the inexplicable community-theateresque rendition of a song called "Sleigh Ride" kicks off the second act.
Fortunately, to justify all the silliness going on in the play, there is great comic acting from Belleville as the hard-of-hearing blabbermouth Spatz, whose endless reminiscences and nosy inquiries manage to lend a great deal of laughter to what might otherwise have been an unbearably staid or heavy plot.
"Tristan," for all its two hours and 20 minutes, manages to revolve happily enough around one fantastic song and a universally talented cast.
Review: Three stars (out of four)
Runs through Oct. 6 at Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Call (800) 511-SHAW or visit www.shawfest.com.