5 O’clock Bells, written and performed by Pierre Brault brings the artist back to the Gladstone theatre 12 years later in a show that has retained all its impeccable artistry since its world première in 2008, in the same theatre. Commissioned by the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) in 2006. This show is a powerful portrait of Canadian Jazz Guitarist Lenny Breau who grew up in Maine, with a family of country musicians, whose exceptional musical and guitar-playing talents lead him to search out new forms of contemporary music and spear-headed contemporary jazz in other parts of the continent. He was influenced especially by the work of Chet Atkins, who leads him to create a sound that brought him world recognition as a brilliant original guitarist.
In a captivating monologue, the show also confirms the international level of Pierre Brault’s talents as a respected solo performer. He captures and incarnates the whole microcosm of Breau’s world from his intimate family, to his professional mentors, and musical influences who played a part in his musical evolution.
On a near-empty stage, the stage is enhanced by sound and light: the recording clips of Breau’s hypnotically smooth musical style combined with designer David Magladry’s sculptural lighting sets the actor on the strings of a guitar stretching from downstage to upstage. It lights up when the body of the actor, as the musician, fingers the strings of the guitar and creates all the hypnotic magic on his instrument. The result is a mostly smooth, seamless, flowing sound that confirms the special quality of Breau’s touch.
The show’s result is a breathtaking performance that equates the actor’s physical performance with the delicately flowing guitar sounds and corporeal gestures, which highlight the sound and choreography of the event. It carries the performance forward without a rough moment, without a disjointed sound just as the music flows. The actor and the music fuse together in a similar feeling of perfection. It was uncanny!
The musician’s life is narrated by the different voices of those who influenced him. The kind, yet concerned high-pitched voice of his French-Canadian mother speaks of his youth. Breau’s father was rougher and unpredictable, even jealous of his young son’s talent. Eventually, the family’s musical group and the father-son relationship both crumbled. Pierre Brault transforms into this bitter father who drank too much and whose affairs disturbed Breau’s mother. Though unhappy, Breau’s mother recounted her discoveries of her husband’s affair through her own musical performances. Lenny, grew more and more popular, doing radio appearances, and attracting new musical mentors. He traveled on the road, between Canada and the United States in cities such as Toronto, New York, and LA. Big music producers sought to audition Lenny, and Brault (the actor) vocalizes these characters on stage, making each one very distinctive. Lenny showed he wasn’t interested in playing to make money, but wanted to create new music. But, In New York, he came into contact with soft drugs, then eventually hard drugs. The playwright describes his first encounter with heroin as a deeply poetic experience that turns his life into a nightmare when he believes he has plunged into a new sense of reality that would allow him to produce wondrous new music.
The structure of the play runs full circle and concludes at the beginning. Lenny Breau is on the phone with his mother saying he is trying to come home to Maine but can’t make it because he is not well. We hear his mother warn him about one of the women he’s seeing at the time, an enabler in his drug addiction. She urges him to trust in God above all. The most poignant moment of the performance, his personal life was destroyed and Lenny Breau never came home despite his mother’s voice over the phone begging him to return. He sinks into drug-induced comas and stumbles around in the loud blinking lights of the New York streets which confuse him, he turns in circles and looks everywhere for his musical “way”.
A tragic end to a most powerful representation of Lenny Breau’s life, Brault has the unlimited capacity and enormous gift of adapting himself on many levels to portray the musician and his life story.
Written and performed by Pierre Brault, February 11 -22. The Gladstone Theatre.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.