A New Look at Women in WWII
Reviewed by Eden Eidt
The creators of local favourite, Vigilante, present a new musical inspired by 53 real women across the world who were recruited as agents during WWII. London’s Grand Theatre draws upon the success of Vigilante, with this new work, The Invisible, which puts forth a fresh perspective on the so-called “ungentlemanly warfare” of World War II.
The Invisible presents a captivating new lens on 1940s Europe during the war, featuring the story of seven female SOEs (Special Operative Executives) that must risk it all to complete the most dangerous mission their agency has ever been presented with as the fate of their nation is placed in their hands. The musical combines a range of genres, from film-noir to historical (and always musical) fiction and illustrates the story of how these women eventually find themselves deceived by the cause they are fighting for—only to become “invisible” in our history books.
Sounds like a lot of ground to cover—and, understandably, this new musical could benefit from some cuts. The first act is initially confusing in its plot and tends to drag on. The second act, however, flew by and captured its audience with the tension built throughout the show.
Perhaps the most noteworthy highlight of The Invisible is a cast that is as relentless and energetic as the agents they play. Sarah Nairne as Maddy deserves a special mention for her vocal bravado during jazzy crowd-pleaser “La Popote,” as well as Tahirih Vejdani as Anna for her stunning soprano in emotionally charged ballad, “All I Believed.” All actors, however, delivered superior vocal performances and conveyed an astounding amount of individuality through song.
The choreography is part Bob Fosse, part Hamilton, with a dash of the “Vigilante Sh*t” chair dance from Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour—and the cast did not miss a beat. Somehow choreographers Laura Krewski and Courtney Arsenault manage to seamlessly incorporate these styles, creating a powerful and kinetic atmosphere on stage to match the intensity of the fierce women as they fight the war—and yes, sometimes through dance.
Many eye-catching elements of this production are thanks to Bretta Gerecke and her employment of set and lighting to create a distinct atmosphere not unlike the old graphic novels the show drew upon for its inspiration in design. Lightbulbs flashing above the stage, delivering the haunting visual of bombs in post-WWII European skies, was one of the most effective uses of lighting throughout the performance. I also appreciated the nod to the era’s pop-art—large dots on the floor and sometimes projected on the back screen of the set create a compelling comic-like setting for the story.
Despite enjoying several aspects of the production, there are a couple of elements of the show that distract me from the impressive performances by the cast. The lyrics and dialogue at times seem contrived and attempt the kind of feminism that has already been accomplished by third-wave feminists (or even those before them). I wondered why this diverted my attention and realized that the all-female and gender-nonconforming cast was performing material entirely written, composed, and directed by male counterpart, Jonathan Christenson. This struck a strange note, particularly in relation to the apparent message behind the story—that women’s stories should be amplified and are often misrepresented or overshadowed by men throughout history. This is not to say that men cannot write stories with compelling female characters, but that perhaps certain elements of this musical would feel less contrived if it had been written by a woman or femme-identifying person.
I also wonder if this musical reaches a bit too high, being comparable in concept to modern historical musical smash-hits like Six and Hamilton. Admittedly, this may be a stretch and I do applaud Christenson’s willingness to tell a story of a major historical moment from women’s perspectives.
Concerns about source material and the musical’s conception aside, this show boasts some show-stopping talent, impressive design elements, and is a captivating way to imagine the stories of female agents of WWII that often go untold.
The Invisible continues with seven shows a week at the Grand Theatre, 471 Richmond Street, London, Ontario until February 3. Call the box office at (519) 672-8800 or visit www.grandtheatre.com for tickets.
Photo: Sarah Nairne, Justine Westby, Tahirih Vejdani, Amanda Trapp, Kaylee Harwood. Photo by Dahlia Katz.
Written, Composed, and Directed by Jonathan Christenson
Musical Direction by Ruth Alexander
Original Choreography by Laura Krewski
Choreography by Courtney Arsenault
Performed by Kristi Hansen, Kaylee Harwood, Melissa MacPherson, Sarah Nairne, Amanda Trapp, Justine Westby, and Tahirih Vejdani
Grand Theatre, 471 Richmond Street, London, Ontario
January 16, 2024 to February 3, 2024
Reviewed by Eden Eidt