Theatre (Vancouver Fringe) review: Riverview High puts a twist on the sweetly familiar

Look out Spidey, there’s another group of comic book denizens looking to take the stage by storm, but rather than relying on over-the-top theatrics, the original new musical Riverview High finds its strength in serving up a sweetly familiar story with a twist.

Despite a change in character names, forced by a lack of licensing rights to use the Archie franchise, there is little doubt we find ourselves inside the enduring comic that first published in 1939.  Fortunately, creators Stewart Yu and Angela Wong don’t simply change names, but instead wisely push these well-known characters into new territory.

At times more PG-13 than one might expect based on its lineage (I defy you to find any masturbation references in any double-digest), it is this edge that makes Riverview High as successful as it is.  With the addition of a few clever references for the musical theatre geeks in the audience, there is more than enough to keep our interest through its rather conventional Archie comic storyline.

Emily Canavan, Sayer Roberts and Stephanie Standerwick in River High.  Photo by Angela Wong.
Emily Canavan, Sayer Roberts and Stephanie Standerwick in River High.  Photo by Angela Wong.

Sayer Roberts, who most recently gave a stellar performance in Theatre Under The Stars’ Titanic, is perfectly cast in the role of the Archie Andrews inspired character.  Roberts gives Alex just enough boyish charm to make him likeable, despite his obsession and treatment of the girls in his life.  Cameron Dunster’s Jughead-inspired character is a suitable doofus, struggling with a secret, but while his voice is strong he misses the mark in the build to his character’s central revelation.

Stephanie Standerwick and Emily Canavan bring the requisite girl-next-door and bitchy spoiled brat to their Betty and Veronica inspired characters.  And while both have strong voices, it is Canavan who steals the show with a couple of amazing vocal performances including “Sixteen Carat Girl” with its rock vibe.

Michelle Bardach and Caleb Di Pomponio amp up the comedy as Ethel and Dexter and Lucas Blaney’s gradual thaw as the self-centered Randy is a treat.

Director Mike Mackenzie, who is also credited as co-lyricist, keeps the pace brisk and while choreographer Dawn Ewen attempts some ambitious dance sequences, it is evident the cast is not always up to the task.  Stewart Yu directs his small band with precision and is careful to not overpower the cast who perform without amplification.

With its clever twist on the familiar, the show itself is really only half the story; the other half comes in the triumphant knowledge that this is another of a growing list of home-grown musical.  Now with their feet wet from its first public performances, I look forward to seeing the inevitable tweaks that will take it to the next level.

3 1/2 of 5 StarsRiverview High: The Musical
Part of the 2012 Vancouver International Fringe Festival
6 – 16 September 2012
Firehall Arts Centre

Visit http://www.vancouverfringe.com for exact showtimes and tickets.

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