Hart House Theatre is at the end of their 2019-2020 season, and Torontonicity was invited to view the final production: Oh! What a Lovely War. This musical is based on the 1969 film of the same – a cinematic depiction of the events of World War I, with a focus on England. The film takes a comedic lens to the subject, and the Hart House Theatre production took that one step further by adding a video game element.
Director Autumn Smith introduces the audience to the various players of WWI, as if we’re selecting characters: we learn about the strength of their armies, the number of soldiers they have, and their general military status when compared to other European countries. The actors playing each military power are standing on platforms of various heights, with the actors that are the video game players sitting at the very edge of the stage holding controls.
This opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the show, as the audience learns of lost battles and astonishing death tolls, and the effect that this reality has on the “players.” The video game storyline is heavy throughout the production, and the most dominant character in the entire show is the omnipotent and ominous bald floating head that narrates all events.
Stage and set design is minimal, simply consisting of a large screen in the background with two long and narrow screens flanking the sides in the foreground. The omnipotent narrator appears on these screens throughout. The production team maintained the same minimalist approach to costume, as there are only a few changes: when actors play one of the military powers, soldiers, or their starting costumes of casual pants and t-shirt when they’re the physical video game players. The only way the audience can tell that other nations are being portrayed is when an actor changes the flag on their military uniform sleeve.
I like the minimalist approach to production, and I think it was a smart choice because the application of a video game format to the comedic-musical genre to WWI subject matter was very ambitious. Each element is so familiar to audience members, that not getting one aspect right can throw off the others. I think perhaps maintaining the comedic-musical genre to the production would have allowed the audience to focus on the satirical tone of the show, without distraction and confusion.
Oh! What a Lovely War is a historical film that deserves attention from a younger generation. Bringing this to the Hart House Theatre stage is important because it introduces people to a film with which they may not be familiar. I applaud Hart House Theatre for continuing to challenge viewers and selecting productions that aren’t as well known. This is just one of the reasons that we continue to attend Hart House Theatre shows, and excitedly anticipate their annual show calendar.
We attended Oh! What a Lovely War on opening night and I believe that the cast may have been a little nervous. There was difficulty with the accents, but so was there with the sound and lighting. It felt as though the entire team was working through nerves – as if an understanding of the challenging material and show they were about to perform. I commend them for the dedication, and fearlessly presenting such a combination of genre and subject matter.
Audience members that were unfamiliar with the source material may have been surprised to hear death tolls and war realities being sung with comedic tone, but I believe that that’s what made the original so successful. This same combination led to challenges on stage, as it did feel like a very ambitious production. It’s important to remember that advances in theatre and production are accomplished by challenging standards and pushing audiences to experience shows outside their comfort zone. I would say that Hart House Theatre’s seasonal closer did just that, and challenged the audience to view WWI material in a completely new light – and to also remember that military leaders treated the lives of real humans with the same indifference that a teenager would any character in a video game. Congratulations to Hart House Theatre on another great year, can’t wait to see what you bring to the stage for the 2020-2021 season!
Oh! What a Lovely War at Hart House Theatre runs until March 7, 2020. Tickets are Adults $28, Seniors $20 and Students $15. On Wednesdays, student admission is $12. Book online and pick up tickets at the Hart House Theatre Box Office before the show.
You might be interested in reading my review of Legally Blonde: The Musical at Hart House Theatre.