Can infection make great theatre? At first glance a musical about a woman who unwittingly spreads typhoid might seem like an unlikely winner. But Cambridge Youth Music Theatre (CYMT) proves that when brilliantly done, even the darkest of themes can light up a stage. The 9-strong ensemble of young performers simply oozed talent and joyous commitment in Geoff Page’s latest work performed at the Corpus Playroom.
Page, a local composer with a penchant for the macabre (his previous musicals have tackled foul murder and ghoulish goings on) wrote the book, music and lyrics (and provided piano accompaniment on the night). With a bow towards Sondheim and a nod in the direction of Kander and Ebb’s ‘Chicago’, he has created a compelling piece of theatre with fitting tunes and wonderfully deft and cheeky lyrics.
The story, a simple if shocking one, is based on the true case of Mary Mallon, the poor Irish cook who in early 1900s America became notorious as a carrier of the typhoid germ. Though she never suffered symptoms, her lax hygienic habits and proximity to food (she was employed as a cook in dozens of families) meant that many succumbed to typhoid as a consequence of her presence in the kitchen. Mary is pursued by a suspicious sanitary engineer, Dr George Soper and eventually finds herself on the wrong side of the legal authorities but not before being dubbed, ‘the most dangerous woman in America’.
What gives this rather grim tale a marvelously theatrical edge is a combination of fine playing and a suitably bizarre burlesque setting of early Vaudeville. We are in a Barnum and Bailey world of circus performers, illusionists and memory men. Mary’s sad story is told through a comical master of ceremonies (think of the MC in Kander and Ebb’s ‘Cabaret’) and a supporting chorus. Mostly sung through, the lyrics come at you thick and fast weaving outrageous rhymes and jolting themes: how many times have you heard the word ‘faecal matter’ in a song?
Charlie Weldon was outstanding as the eponymous Mary. She perfectly captured the heroine’s (or was she?) gritty and steely determination to overcome the poverty of her Irish background even if it meant risking a few lives with her gorgeous desserts. She was ably supported by a ensemble fizzing with energy and talent. Holly Masters was in suitably big voice as the MC and Adam Pennington completely hit the spot as the determined bug detective Soper.
It is actually rather unfair to single out individual actors in this piece as it was a truly joint effort with not a weak spot in sight. The young actors were completely at ease with Paige’s fearsomely loquacious lyrics and the choreography of the whole piece was razor sharp.
Though Mary’s fate is never in doubt and there are few moments of real dramatic tension, the piece completely works as a delightful example of music theatre. It was a joy to hear the people laughing out loud at the audacious lyrics and the thunderous applause at the end signaled that the only thing that was really infectious was the enjoyment of the cast in presenting to Cambridge this world premier. Typhoid Mary could easily spread!
Tyhoid Mary is on at the Corpus Playroom in Cambridge through Saturday 9 January.