QUEEN FOR A Day had its world premiere Friday night at the gorgeous Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts, taking guests on a journey back to the fifties and to what was arguably the very first reality television program. QUEEN FOR A Day was hosted by Jack Bailey (Alan Thicke) and ran from 1944-1964. The show gave American women the chance to appear on national television and vie to have one wish granted as they were crowned ‘QUEEN FOR A Day’.
The new musical is the brainchild of Linda Barnett, who has producing credits (with Natalie Bartello and Jeffrey Latimer) and is also responsible for the music and lyrics. The show centers around one of QUEEN FOR A Day’s real life contestants, Claribel Anderson, and takes place through a series of flashbacks told through the eyes of the modern-day Claribel (Denise Fergusson). It begins with a rather flat opening number, in which Claribel is thrown together with a young woman doing community service (Camille Eanga-Selenge) who is assigned to help her clear out her collection of trinkets and treasures collected over the years. The two women form a bond, and modern-day Claribel begins to tell recall her ‘QUEEN FOR A Day’ story.
It is through the series of flashbacks that this musical begins to take flight. When set in the 1950s, the show has more energy and potential than in the more contrived modern-day scenes. Young Claribel is played by Blythe Wilson, whose kind disposition and natural grace shine through sometimes troublesome dialogue and clunky lyrics. She plays Claribel with a certain spunk that one would not necessarily expect from a woman in 1950s America.
Where the show could have taken a tongue and cheek look at reality TV in 1950s America, it instead focuses on Claribel’s personal trials and tribulations and a subplot involving rather predictable issues of race relations (an African American woman wants to be QUEEN FOR A Day to grant a wish for her infirm son). The subplot is clearly designed to tug at one’s emotional heartstrings, but instead comes off as predictable and somewhat forced.
The show shines when it embraces the humour behind the pop-culture of days gone by, and through its incredibly talented cast. There’s a particularly funny sequence that showcases commercials for cigarettes and toothpaste that had the audience in stitches, and one can’t help but wonder what this production could have been if it had further explored those moments instead of focusing so much of its energy on the hum drum personal battles between some of the main characters.
Then there’s Alan Thicke. America’s favourite Dad puts on his dancing shoes to play television host Jack Bailey. Thicke is the standout performance, perfectly embodying Bailey and playing him as slightly smarmy, slightly sweet, and one hundred percent satirical. Thicke seems to understand the need to have a certain amount of over the top fun with the role, coming across as slick and singing with an impressive voice to boot.
The supporting cast also turns in fantastic performances, with stand-outs being Lisa Horner’s over the top, raucously racy and meddlesome Birdie McBride and Cory O’Brien’s surprisingly kind and generous Dwight, who is Jack Bailey’s right hand man. While the cast works incredibly hard, they still aren’t able to overcome the lyrics, which are at times superfluous and overly clunky, making it virtually impossible to remember a single tune.
QUEEN FOR A Day is still in its infancy, and at its core it possesses great heart and a rather clever storyline. The examination of the life of Jack Bailey and of reality TV pre-Survivor and Dancing with the Stars was both fascinating and funny, and Claribel Anderson makes for one hell of a heroine. With some trimming (the show runs long at almost three hours) and more simplistic tunes, perhaps QUEEN FOR A Day could reign on Broadway in the near future.