The gang of Riverview High returns to the Firehall Arts Centre this summer, but even after going back to class to tweak the material, this one needs to be marked as incomplete as its biggest strength still comes from serving up a sweetly familiar story with a twist.
A darling of the 2012 Vancouver Fringe Fest much of the Riverview High success last year can be attributed to the cleverly updated edge that it put on the Archie comic book franchise. Being a large scale production among the ubiquitous one-person fringe shows no doubt also helped to drive audiences, but that novelty can only get you so far. To ultimately be successful, you need to a match that cleverness with a compelling story. Despite a year of rewrites, Riverview High still hasn’t quite found that balance, with a story that is still predictable and repetitive with Angela Wong’s book spending far too much time in the central story about which girl Alex/Archie will choose rather than on more some of the more interesting characters and sub-plots.
Taking over the central role of the Archie Andrews inspired role, Erik Gow doesn’t quite have the same boyish charm and singing chops of his predecessor. With the cast without microphones again this year Gow struggles to be heard, especially as he is forced into his lower registers.
It is once again Michelle Bardach and Caleb Di Pomponio who amp up the comedy as Ethel and Dexter and when they join forces with Lucas Blaney in “I Could Be The One” this trio is simply inspired. Cameron Dunster brings his great voice to his role of Parker/Jughead, but he still hasn’t found the heart of his character’s central revelation.
Even in the relatively small Firehall space the cast isn’t always strong enough to be heard. Director Mike Mackenzie doesn’t help by placing the action too far upstage at times; in the intimate “Dear Diary” the distance is too much for Alex Gullason and Ranae Miller to overcome. As with last year’s production, Dawn Ewen’s ambitious choreography is at times too much for this cast. Lorra Bedard’s set design is mostly made up of simple projections against a cast-blown curtain.
In a recent Vancouver Sun article composer Stewart Yu compares Riverview High to the likes of Wicked and Avenue Q and while he accurately portrays it as putting a fresh spin on the familiar that is where the comparison stops. There is a terrific premise here and some fun moments, but Riverview High still hasn’t graduated to the big leagues. Let’s hope that if there is a next iteration this show will finally get the cap and gown it deserves.
Book by Angela Wong. Music by Stewart Yu. Lyrics by Mike Mckenzie and Stewart Yu. Directed by Mike Mckenzie. Musical direction by Stewart Yu. Choreography by Dawn Ewen. An Entrance Theatre presentation in association with the Firehall Arts Centre. On stage at the Firehall Arts Centre until August 24, 2013. Visit http://riverviewhigh.ca for tickets and information.