Some outstanding performances, production can’t overcome material behind Theatre Calgary’s Mary and Max

Given my dual loves of musical theatre and new work, I was really hoping to be able to rave about Theatre Calgary’s world premiere musical, Mary and Max. I was looking forward to finally being able to let loose with some hyperbole and get blurbed in an ad for the show.

I was gravely disappointed.

Not that there aren’t things to rave about here. Some of the performances are outstanding, and Stafford Arima’s staging is ambitious and creative. But they are working with material that is weak at best. The story is based on the claymation film that opened the Sundance Festival in 2009, and has since become something of a cult hit. Ten-year-old Mary is living in Australia in 1970, bullied because of a birthmark on her forehead. She sends a letter to a random address in the New York City phone book, and ends up corresponding for years with Max, a forty-something man with Asperger syndrome.

It might simply be that clever animation (and a cast that included Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette) gave the story a charm it otherwise would not have had. After all, if this were happening today, it would involve the internet and a visit from law enforcement. But there may also be a great deal lost in translation. There is a notable absence of any song that stays with you past the polite applause, with the exception of the repetitive and relentlessly literal lyrics. “I need a friend that’s real” and “nothing is an accident” are examples of the banal phrases that are repeated endlessly, seemingly in an effort to render them profound. Characters earnestly shout out their thoughts and feelings with nary a metaphor in sight, leaving little to the imagination. The music has a decent dynamic arc, but falls frequently into musical theatre cliches.

In many respects, the performances are several leagues above the material. Anthony Galde (Max) and Katie McMillan (young Mary) in particular imbue their characters with more sophistication than is present in the text, and their voices are strong and engaging. McMillan, in fact, is the only one of the Australian characters whose accent remains fairly consistent throughout. Mary’s mother Vera, in contrast, ranges erratically from Cockney to Queens, making me wonder if this was meant to be read as a parody of musical theatre. It might have been more successful had that been the case.

Some of the most engaging talents and spectacular voices are in the ensemble, and they gamely commit to the material. The choreography by Jenn Rapp is clever, and helps to make the non-sequiturs in the plot seem whimsical rather than frustrating. Arima has also brought together some formidable talent to design the show. The relatively minimalist set by Bretta Gerecke and lighting by Kimberly Purtell combine to make the most of a stage that is large compared to most in the city, but positively diminutive in comparison to many Broadway stages. This is a director and a company that could do great things with better material someday. That day is unfortunately not today.

(Photo, from l to r, Katie McMillan, Chase Crandell, Anthony Galde in Mary and Max – A New Musical. Courtesy Trudie Lee.)

Mary and Max runs in the Max Bell Theatre until Nov. 11. For tickets and showtimes please go to

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