Theatre Calgary brings the dark humour with Sisters: The Belles Soeurs Musical

When Michel Tremblay, the grand-maître of French Canadian theatre, wrote Les Belles-soeurs in 1965, it was so revolutionary that he couldn’t get it produced. A story about working-class Quebec women and their hopeless sense of entrapment — written in the extremely local dialect of joual, no less — was considered an unflattering portrait of Quebec, unlikely to resonate with audiences. When it finally hit stages in 1968, however, it sold out almost immediately, and eventually became one of the most-produced and most-translated Quebec plays of all time.

When I heard that someone had made a musical out of it, I thought I remembered reading it a million years ago. “I must be thinking of the wrong play,” I thought to myself. “The one I remember would make for an awfully grim musical.” But no, it turns out that Sisters: The Belles Soeurs Musical is inspired by the original in much the same way that Les Miz is inspired by Victor Hugo. That may sound condescending, but let’s be real — I battled through a bit of Victor Hugo because it was required reading, and I’ve seen Les Miz 11 times.

As it turns out, the alternating monologues and Greek chorus-style responses in the play do lend themselves to an extraordinarily entertaining musical, and this one is flawlessly executed in this Theatre Calgary production. The book and lyrics don’t really try to mimic the roughness of the joual, but the songs paint an exquisite portrait of each character with a range of styles from folk melody to torch song to rock ballad.

Gabrielle Jones is a solid anchor for the large cast as Germaine, a wife and mother who dreams of “having it all” when she wins a million trading stamps. She invites her friends and family over for a party to paste her stamps into books so that she can redeem them for a catalogue full of household goods, but her “sisters” aren’t entirely pleased with her good fortune.

One by one, their musical monologues reveal a group of women who each feels jealous of the others, while trapped in her own “Dull Life” — illustrated in one of the show’s paradoxically most engaging songs. The dark themes of the original text are still there, and represent some of the most moving gems of the piece: Rose (Stephanie McNamara) doing her wifely duty for 20 years and wishing she had never said “yes” in the first place, noting that “If Life Was A Movie” it wouldn’t last a lifetime; Des-Neiges (Lili Connor) living for monthly visits from “My Travelling Salesman,” and dreaming of a fictional day when he might stay.

This incarnation of the classic play isn’t quite as fatalistic, though, and the focus is firmly on the sometimes black humour. The most disturbing details of the original are sanitized or eliminated entirely, which in some cases is welcome — jokes about sexual assault don’t play well in 2017, even if delivered ironically. If you have a sentimental attachment to the bleak ending of the original play, the rapidly-mended relationships and the rousing encore finale I Got It All For Free might represent a jarring left turn. But there are plenty of opportunities to see tortured souls on stage these days, and if that’s your bag, perhaps choose another show for your night out.

Someone once described Les Belles-soeurs as “a proletarian brick thrown through the stained glass window of Canadian theatre.” Sisters is most definitely not that. But then again, Canadian theatre isn’t exactly a stained glass window anymore, either.

Sisters: The Belles Soeurs Musical runs until Nov. 4 at the Max Bell Theatre, Arts Commons. Tickets and info available at

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.