Note: prairie dog was unable to see Cope in time to get a review up during the play’s run.
My wife doesn’t get musicals. I don’t mean that she dislikes them (although she does that too); it’s more that she refuses to accept the possibility of a world – even a fictional one – in which people periodically break from the action and burst into song. On more than one occasion she has turned to me and whispered, “Why didn’t they just say that?”
(For the record, I love musicals, in all their cheesy, campy glory. Except for Oklahoma. And Cop Rock.)
Composers and playwrights have felt that same sceptical pull. To get around the inherent weirdness of people singing for no particular reason, musicals are often set in the context of performance. Glee, to use the most popular example going, excuses its excesses by putting its characters in a glee club – of course they’re going to sing. The performance aspect is like a choke valve that occasionally allows the artificial to flow into the real, to lend melody and structure to emotions and to create enclosed spaces in which characters can unburden themselves in song.
Wisely, Cope adopts this strategy. Owin (Greg Ochitwa, who also wrote the play) is an aspiring rap artist suffering from debilitating pain and general spiritual inertia. Call it Portrait of The Rapper as a Young Man. He sits around his apartment, scribbling lyrics and battling pain (Ankylosing Spondylitis, which Ochitwa himself apparently suffered from). He hangs suspended between failure and success, with his drug-dealing pal Perk (Don Ready) gleefully dragging him down and his artist girlfriend Kay (Kaitlyn Semple) desperately trying to pull him up. The musical duties are shouldered by Owin and Kay, which makes the numbers seem more like extensions of their art and passion than something demanded of them by the plot. Backing them up is DJ Merky Waters, a veteran member of Regina’s hip-hop scene.
The music is the best part of Cope. Kaitlyn Semple has a rich, deep voice that works well as something in between a pop star and a theatrical singer. Ochitwa spills through his rhymes with a rolling, logorrheic urgency that puts the Drakes of this world to shame. Some of his lyrics feel a little earnest, but it’s in keeping with the character’s search for a more mature artistic persona . In a nice bit of meta-commentary, the play’s opening number, a heartfelt love song from Ochitwa, is dismissed with a single word from Perk: “Lame.” And then he goes back to rolling a joint at the table, because that’s the kind of friend Perk is.
As a coked-out Falstaff, Don Ready has a fantastic time with Perk, equally at home firing off lines of dialogue as snorting up rails of cocaine. His character verges on cartoonishly violent at moments, but Ready commits so fully to Perk’s recklessness that it’s gripping to watch. You’re never quite sure how far he’s going to go, and it introduces some legitimate suspense into a story whose plot is otherwise predictable (which is not a criticism – after all, Cope is a musical about a struggling artist, and there are only so many outcomes available to the genre).
Through no real fault of her own, Kaitlyn Semple doesn’t fare as well as Owin’s enthusiastic (“Best/worst night/week/year EVER/OF MY LIFE!” is Kay’s signature refrain) but long-suffering girlfriend. Her role consists of pushing Owin out of his current state and turning him into a functioning adult, with occasional breaks to apologize for her behaviour. This is a position in which no one, real of fictitious, should ever be stuck – particularly since much of the play involves Owin’s increasingly bad decisions and their predictable fallout. Semple has a great voice and a terrific stage presence. She deserves a more thoughtfully drawn character.
As the chief creative force behind the play, Greg Ochitwa has talent and charisma to spare. In the final number (quite literally the showstopper) Ochitwa and Semple come together for a blisteringly fast piece delivered with the confidence of a sold-out stadium show.
Cope is directed by Kenn McLeod. The stage manager is Carla Ritchie. For upcoming Shumiatcher Sandbox plays, visit the Globe Theatre’s web site.