Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Special to TorSun
31 OCT 2012
R: 3.5/5

Pictured: Melody A. Johnson

It was early in the last century when the great Irving Berlin penned the lines "A pretty girl is like a melody…" So while that means that there is no absolutely chance whatsoever that he was inspired either by the gentle comedic skills of Melody A. Johnson or by her one-woman show, titled MISS CALEDONIA, there exists, despite the years that separate them, a whimsical sort of link between the song, the show and the performer.  MISS CALEDONIA is currently running in the Tarragon's Extra Space.

MISS CALEDONIA, you see, is about a pretty girl in the very old-fashioned sense of the phrase — one Peggy Ann Douglas, to be specific — who would grow up to be the mother of the aforementioned Melody A. Johnson, although motherhood was far in the future of Ms. Douglas at the time in which this show is set. When we first meet Peggy Ann, she's a teenager — a rural child of the '50s, mired in a constant round of slopping, miking, mucking, gathering, butchering and marketing — and roundly sick of it all.

But while Peggy Ann's Scots' Presbyterian roots stretch deep into the rich soil of Southern Ontario's farmland, her dreams certainly soar far higher and she finds escape, not only in romantic books, but in those dreams as well. Problem is, for a pretty girl in the '50s, all roads lead to — well, pretty much nowhere, unless, of course, she happens to be pretty enough to be a be a beauty queen. That's what happened to Debbie Reynolds, after all, and Peggy Ann figures she just might have a chance at following in her heroine's footsteps. Even though her hide-bound father forbids it, she pursues just such a dream, aided by a loving mother and a few good friends.

But while Peggy Ann's pursuit of crown and sash forms the plot of this story, its charm is very much built from solid blocks of character development, as Johnson (who both wrote the script and stars under the direction of Rick Roberts and Aaron Willis) brings life to not just Peggy Ann and her parents, but to the community around them — bossy neighbours, shyly amorous milkmen, officious school marms and community minded auctioneers mix it up with a bevy of young beauties who represent Peggy Ann's principal competition.

The direction here is deft, if sometimes-overly-fussy and, while the show (reworked, apparently from its run in the 2010 Summerworks Festival) feels a trifle long at 75 minutes, it is nonetheless wonderfully entertaining, showcasing the trademark built-from-the-heart-out style we have grown to love in Johnson's earlier forays onto the stage. In fact, with a talent such as hers, one wonders why she has put herself in such strong competition with fiddler Alison Porter, whose sprightly musical contribution initially proves charming, but quickly becomes intrusive as an audience falls more and more under Johnson's spell.

Berlin, of course, got it right — a pretty girl is like a melody. And when the one calling the tune is this sweet and touching, nothing should be allowed to intrude on the Melody.

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