Duddy Kravitz is a Montreal classic

Mordecai Richler’s iconic coming-of-age novel comes to life with music by Alan Menken, the Oscar-winning composer who scored the soundtrack to our childhoods.

Ken James Stewart & Ensemble (Duddy Kravitz Musical) - Photo by Maxime Côté (640x427)

Ken James Stewart (right) and the ensemble Duddy Kravitz cast. Photos by Maxime Côté

“A man without land is nobody”—six words that spur a boy to scheme and swindle; a boy who grew up “dirty and sad, spiky also, like grass beside the railroad tracks.” As a maxim, the statement forms the backbone of one of Canada’s greatest coming-of-age novels, its movie spinoff and a handful of stage adaptations including a new production playing this month at the Segal Centre.

Young upstart Duddy Kravitz gets his life motto by way of his Zeyda (his grandfather Simcha, a Russian immigrant). Growing up hardscrabble and motherless on post-war St-Urbain Street, Duddy gloms onto this tenet as his one way to escape an ethnic ghetto and become a somebody. Fresh out of school, he plays fast and loose with friendships and loyalty in a venture to buy up land around a lake in the Laurentians.

Published in 1959 by a 28-year-old Mordecai Richler, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is a spunky get rich or die tryin’ tale inspired by the author’s own Jewish upbringing in Mile End. Both the book and Richler’s 1974 screen adaptation are considered part of the burgeoning Canadian lit and film canon. When it comes to the theatre, however, the path of bringing the story to the stage has been as long and winding as Duddy’s quest for success.

First there was the musical adaptation that premiered in Edmonton in 1984 with hopes of being destined for Broadway. Despite Richler’s collaboration, it closed early in Ottawa, losing a whopping $500,000 for producer (and fellow St-Urbain-ite) Sam Gesser. A few years later, an American pair — composer Alan Menken and lyricist David Spencer — produced a stage version in Philadelphia that got good reviews. Even so, and despite Menken’s still-fresh success with Little Shop of Horrors (1986), this Duddy also flubbed when the money dried up. Menken, who’s won more Oscars than any other person alive, would later go on to compose the music of your childhood, with Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.

Marie-Pierre de Brienne, Ken James Stewart (Photo by Maxime Côté) 3 (640x427)

Stewart and Marie-Pierre de Brienne

In 1997, there was even a Yiddish musical version, which was also performed at the Segal Centre in Montreal. Richler passed away in 2001, but Menken and Spencer never forgot about their project. Over the years, the duo reworked much of the original material and — helped by a lawyer with the Richler estate — approached many theatres but were turned down each time until the production finally found a home at the Segal Centre with the blessing of Lisa Rubin, the Centre’s artistic and executive director. Legendary director Austin Pendleton (who was fired from the original Philly production) is back at the helm. Now, more than 50 years since Duddy hit bookstore shelves, Richler’s anti-hero is getting a new chance to shine in his hometown.

We enter the world of St-Urbain Street through the eyes of Max (George Masswohl), Duddy’s scrappy taxi driver dad. Always the guy spinning local stories at the deli, Max is elevated to raconteur to give the show its narrative heft. Duddy is played by Kenneth James Stewart, a talented 29-year-old from the Prairies who is able to spin both the anti-hero’s joyful and cutthroat mannerisms.

The singing and acting is on point. Most of the 14-member cast is not from Montreal, with the exceptions of Michael Rudder (sleazy as heck as local gangster Jerry Dingleman) and Marie-Pierre de Brienne as Yvette, Duddy’s clever francophone girlfriend. Kristian Truelsen is sly and funny as the effete Peter John Friar, a blacklisted film director Duddy hires to make bar mitzvah movies. One of the strongest scenes is when Friar’s ‘avant-garde’ tribal-themed bar mitzvah movie is screened to a skeptical audience (Fun fact: the short film is taken from the 1974 movie adaptation).

Flipping between the story’s rural and urban settings presents a challenge. Designer Michael Egan visited St-Urbain, stealthily sketching the buildings that stood where Richler lived. The result is a blue and red-tipped street that feels like the real thing, while the painted drops that stand in for the Laurentians are lush and green.

Duddy is an ambitious and costly number to close out the season, but the Segal Centre has already extended the show by a week. Over 6,500 tickets have been sold, breaking a record for daily sales. On opening night, Richler’s widow Florence and one of his sons joined the cast and Menken, Spencer, Pendleton and Rubin onstage — proof that the musical has a nod of approval.

While a realistic comedy about the pitfalls of ambition and business may not sound like grade-A musical material, the story is lifted by melodious numbers and a slightly less cynical ending than what Richler originally penned. If anything, the show is handicapped by its length, which stands at three hours, including a 15-20 minute intermission.

In the sharing economy with a rising cost of living, today’s hustlers are not all seeking the same thing as Duddy Kravitz once did, but struggling to find your place in the world is timeless. ■

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz: The Musical is on at the Segal Centre (5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine) through July 5, various times, $69/$64 seniors/$45 under 30/$37 students. See the details & buy tickets here.