By John Quinn
In the fall of 2005 a subversive little satire hit the boards of the Abreact Performance Space, stole our hearts and walked away with the Wilde Award for Favorite Local Professional Production-Musical. “Cancer! The Musical” is back with its dark comedy intact at the Park Bar Theater in Foxtown. “Cancer!” wields a wicked scalpel, dissecting the excesses and limitations of our health care system. The only disappointment is that it’s as relevant now as it was five years ago. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Our play opens in the research labs of a major pharmaceutical company, where everybody is on a mission to rid mankind of disease. The motivation, though, from the doctors down to the lab rats, is more for fame than philanthropy. When Dr. Bernard (the thoroughly madcap Dustin Gardner) discovers a cure for cancer, the forces of greed are awakened. The usual suspects, Big Pharma and Big Insurance, begin a chess game for the survival of both the cure and its creator. Theft, hot pursuit, murder – it’s just your typical day at the corporate office.
Meanwhile, Dr. Bernard’s medical school roomie, surgeon Dr. Harris (Pat Loos), has broken doctor/patient protocol and fallen in love with terminally ill Annie (the golden-voiced Dawn Bartley). Can Dr. Bernard and his cancer cure survive the menacing Pharma baron, Mr. Murphy (Mike Shreeman)? Can “the cure” save Annie? Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion of “As the Stomach Churns!”
So, do they think cancer is funny? Lord, no. They have proved, though, that humor is the best defense mechanism. “Cancer! The Musical” was co-authored by Tom Donnellon, a cancer survivor and surgeon at St. Joseph Mercy Livingston Hospital in Howell, and his brother, Second City Detroit alum Shawn Handlon. It is in-your-face silly, but is relentless in skewering the foibles of modern health care. The lively score is a collaborative effort: John Edwartowski’s music, and lyrics by Handlon, Donnellon and Edwartowski.
Giving credit where credit is due, let’s hear it for Shawn Handlon (Handlon? Where have I seen that name before?), the director who let six sketch comedians loose on his script and managed to get quality performances without letting them tear the house down. Credit, too, goes to musical director Chad Krueger for pulling decent vocals out of six sketch comedians. The balance between The Cancer Band off-stage and the singers onstage is good – the lyrics come through loud and clear. On the other hand, whole lines of spoken dialogue seem to get lost in the rafters – which is strange, because the Park Bar Theater doesn’t have rafters.
Just before the show started opening night, the arrival of The Chairs made me think there had been a change of bill and we were about to see Eugene Ionesco. But they were merely to accommodate the overflow crowd. That many Detroiters having a good time at the theater sets my old ticker a-thumpin’ better than a pacemaker!
‘Cancer! The Musical’
Park Bar, 2040 Park Ave., Detroit. Fri-day-Saturday through May 21, plus Sunday, May 15. $20 313-437-2040. http://www.parkbardetroit.com