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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Ford's Focus: Randy Davies

(photo credit: Shane Kelley,

Hoofer Extraordinaire
If you've seen musical theatre here in the last decades, you've probably seen Randy Davies' work
by Barbara Ford
When you interview someone like Randy Davies, who began his career at age 8 with tap classes from Mrs. Black and is still directing now as he approaches his 72nd birthday, you pray you’ll be able to squeeze everything into just the one article. Shy at first, (unless the spotlight’s on him) as Davies slowly warmed up about his true passion, musical theatre, the more animated he became, his love and respect for the art and its practitioners so sincere, not to mention contagious.  Refreshingly, whenever he referred to his own accomplishments, he spoke of them with true modesty, as team achievements, not solo limelight moments.  

Randy was the only child born to a Welsh father (from whom he inherited his lyric baritone) and a mother with mixed British/French-Canadian roots, orphaned as an infant and who grew up on a farm with an Irish family in Gaspé.  In those days all the Catholics named their daughters Marie, which she hated, so she referred to herself as Andrée.  As a young woman, she modelled for Holt Renfrew and though not involved in the performing arts, she had a definite dramatic flair, favouring all things Spanish (Randy’s middle name is Ricardo!), and is likely the wellspring of Randy’s theatrical gifts.  He inherited his love of animals (his house is never a pet-free zone) from his mom as well, recounting the most fantastic tale of her picking raspberries as a child and encountering a bear who followed her home and all the way up to the third floor of her house before huge, burly men were able to coax him down again. 

Davies in the Arcadians' Kismet
In addition to tap classes, his mother enrolled him in piano lessons, which he wasn’t keen on, and then ballet classes in his early teens at Elizabeth Leese’s studio in Westmount.   However it was in Roger Palmer’s Afro-Cuban jazz classes, where Davies was introduced to the musi-comedy style, that he discovered his true niche.  

At 14, Davies auditioned for the Verdun Operatic Society, then under the direction of the renowned Canadian choreographer, Brian Macdonald.  Davies got a small part in The Merry Widow and subsequently performed in an additional 4 shows with them, including the very popular Carousel.  In 1958, he worked with the Mountain Playhouse, located next to the chalet atop Mount Royal, where Norma Springford, who was instrumental in establishing the Loyola drama department, directed until the building was closed down in 1961. One of his highlights with that particular group was playing the lead of Alphonse in The Boyfriend.  

Davies started to make a name for himself around town, working as a CBC dancer on the live show Music-Hall, hosted by Michelle Tisseyre, which aired in the same time slot as Ed Sullivan Sunday evenings. He was also a regular with the Up-Tempo Revue at Café André, where they lampooned everyone and everything in the early 60’s. 

Davies as Petruchio, Kiss Me, Kate
At this point in his career, Davies felt it was time to hit that Mecca of musical theatre, New York.  He started out like a thousand other hopefuls, showing up for all the cattle calls, and finally landed a part as a replacement for one of the card sharks in the Broadway production of Fiorello!, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play starring Tom Bosley about Mayor LaGuardia and his defeat of Tammany Hall. Shortly after that he landed an off-Broadway part as one of the forest rangers in Little Mary Sunshine with Eileen Brennan in the title role … not bad for a Canadian boy!

Around this time, Davies’ mother fell ill so he came back to Montreal but once he was able to re-direct his energies into his career, he thought better of returning to NY to start from the bottom all over again, just another newbie with Broadway stars in his eyes. In Montreal at the time, Brian Macdonald was directing Little Mary Sunshine at La Comédie-Canadienne (founded in 1957 by Gratien Gélinas and now the home of Théâtre du Nouveau Monde).  Davies toured in the show throughout Canada into some of the grander theatres such as Toronto’s Royal Alexandra and the Manitoba Theatre Centre, for whom they opened the season that year.

Davies' Lyric Theatre production of Annie won rave reviews from Myron Galloway and Tommy Schnurmacher...

Nearing the end of the 60’s, professional musical theatre opportunities were waning so Randy turned his attention to amateur companies, supporting himself by working as a commercial artist. He hooked up with The Arcadians under Alex MacDougal, whose productions were backed by full orchestras and boasted casts nearing the three-digit mark, taking on the lead roles in such plays as Kismet and Hello, Dolly!  

At this time, Davies also began to direct and choreograph as well as perform, looking forward during his day job to the evening and weekend rehearsals, sometimes not getting home until the wee hours, surviving on pure adrenalin … it was heaven! His Lyric Theatre production of Annie won rave reviews from Myron Galloway and Tommy Schnurmacher, selling out and attracting busloads of Vermonters to John Rennie High School in Pointe-Claire.

Davies (without headdress in the Arcadians' Kismet)
Davies, along with David Mills, then created MusiCompany, with Mills writing the script and Davies directing and choreographing.  Getting the new company off the ground was a bit of a Judy Garland/ Mickey Rooney effort, with a paltry $300 budget however, as the company grew they were fortunate to attract some well-off business types eager to back them.  They had a good run for a number of years putting on original shows such as Cole and Company, a tribute to Cole Porter which ran at Centaur and sold out after receiving Galloway’s seal of approval saying it was the best thing to happen to Montreal in a decade. They also staged established favourites such as Dames at Sea and The Fantasticks. Davies recounted one memorable evening when the company was presenting a remount of Cole and Company in the Grand Ballroom of the Windsor Hotel in 1976 in what he termed “piss elegant” surroundings, when they were warned that the Secret Service were on their way, escorting Henry Kissinger to the show. It was a night to remember with the cast whooping it up with the diplomat post-show (several bottle of champagne were involved), a vision I find hard to imagine when I think of that ultra-serious persona and guttural monotone voice. Really … take a moment to picture it!

Some of the more ‘mature’ readers may remember that in the 70’s, Gibby’s steakhouse in Old Montreal had an outdoor theatre in the back courtyard behind the gated entrance, where MusiCompany provided the entertainment for several summers running. Davies also directed 18 productions of the always hilarious and ever-popular Fossils Club shows at West Hill Academy. The all-male cast of lawyers, doctors and CEO’s, some of whom could barely differentiate between their left and right foot in a choreography, buffooned their way through original scripts by Tex Dawson and Jack Cobb among others.

After 7 shows under the MusiCompany masthead, the backers lost interest and the company died out but the intrepid Davies marched on as the invited director for Thé-Arts, a theatre company housed in the Loyola campus of Concordia University in the late 70’s.  Davies said the company “was a gold mine of talent” that won the 1977 Quebec Drama Festival competition at the D. B. Clarke Theatre the year the festival allowed musicals to compete. 

As both professional and amateur musical theatre struggled to stay alive, Davies drifted out of the scene for a while.  Besides his dancing, he had always kept in shape by working out with weights at Caruso’s Gym.  Now in his 50’s, Davies switched to the Trio Max Gym, where an in-house trainer told him that he should compete as a mature body-builder and for 3 years this was Davies’ theatre-replacement hobby, garnering him a 2nd place in the Montreal competition, 3rd in the provincials and won him the title of best poser (clearly a salute to his dance background) in the national competition. Eventually, the crazy diet and work-out routine drove him nuts and he let weight-training slide back to the status of fitness routine but you can still find him 3 times a week at World Class Fitness in Laval because as he says, “you gotta stay in shape.”

Despite a healthy lifestyle, last year Davies had a brush with prostate cancer. It was a bit of a scare for Davies, whose mother had contracted and died of cancer at the same age, but radiation therapy obliterated his and he’s got a clean bill of health now.

Six years ago Davies retired from Pegasus, where he had been a graphic designer for health care books for many years. Towards the end of his time there he started to work with the Hudson Music Club, which produces one blow-out musical a year in the early spring, donating the proceeds to a charitable organization, as well as an annual fundraiser in the fall. Since being invited to direct Hello, Dolly! for the group, he has continued to work with them ever since, raising the level of professionalism considerably since that first production. 

I challenge those still standing who were involved with or entertained by these organizations, to take up the torch and carry the legacy of these unsung heroes forward...

This March, the Club is celebrating its 50th Anniversary by presenting The Drowsy Chaperone, the Canadian musical that took Broadway by storm, winning 5 Tony Awards in 2006 (including Best Book and Best Score). For an amateur production, it is a challenging show to cast, with a female lead that must have not only the requisite singing, acting and varied dance styles, but must also possess a certain acrobatic prowess, while the male lead needs similar talents in addition to being a more-than-adequate roller-skater.  

Davies, who sees as many shows as he can gleaning artists from every possible source, miraculously found two actors who fit the challenging demands.  Verdun resident, Sophie Protopoulos, just happens to have the performing chops but also studies at a local circus school, enabling her to dish up the necessary aerial tricks. Calgary native, Jeremy Carver-James, a McGill University opera music student who Davies discovered last summer, had the trifecta-talents for his role and when asked if he could skate, admitted that he had done a little in the past. Davies said Carver-James strapped on the boots and was whirling around the rehearsal hall in no time, winning him the title male role hands down. The Man in Chair, who provides the structure of the show with reminiscences of musicals gone by, is played by James Milvain, also from Calgary.  

Davies says, “It’s a hot cast” what he calls small … only 23 people.  (I hear artistic directors hyper-ventilating as they imagine the extravagant costs of mounting a professional version that big!) But that’s the beauty of amateur theatre; if well-cast and directed with expertise, the audience can see a full-scale musical production without the outlandish Place des Arts/Bell Centre ticket prices. “These kids are so quick.  The first time we started to block, there were all off-book. They learn fast, memorize instantly, do their homework and come back ready to learn more", several of them carpooling from downtown to the Vaudreuil community centre every week for months of rehearsals. 

Fit as a fiddle, singing voice intact, there’s no telling how many more years Davies will be bringing musical comedy to Montreal audiences but it’s a safe bet that as long as he keeps it up, musical comedy will endure.  

On a more serious note, as I Googled around cyberspace researching various minutiae for this article, I was profoundly disheartened to discover that information about longstanding groups like The Arcadians, from which many a professional career was launched, was lamentably absent. I challenge those still standing who were involved with or entertained by these organizations, to take up the torch and carry the legacy of these unsung heroes forward, to acknowledge the dedication and the influence they had on our local theatre history.

The Drowsy Chaperone plays weekends only at Le Grand Théâtre, (400, av. St-Charles in Vaudreuil / Dorion) from March 11 to 26.  Don’t be frightened by the location, it’s a cinch to get to and faster than you think with these new-fangled things called highways!   For maps, directions and more information, refer to the Hudson / St-Lazare web site  Tickets range between $14 (for kids under 14 years) to $28, with special rates for seniors, students and groups.  For tickets call (514) 830-2131. Proceeds for this year’s show will go to La Passerelle, a shelter for women and children who have survived conjugal violence.

For a sneak peak of The Drowsy Chaperone and more, drop by the Rialto Theatre at 5723 Park Avenue (corner of Bernard) on Monday, March 7th when The Quebec Drama Federation will be launching the spring line-up of Montreal plays at 8pm (doors open at 6:30pm).  Admission is free and there will be a post-presentation reception and open bar.  Sounds like a good way to start the week off to me … see you there!

Next week Ford’s Focus is on hiatus, having fallen into that deep, cavern otherwise known as annual grant application vortex.  See you on the other side. 

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