Hobson: Buy Me a Drink, Joe a touching, funny tale of an artist finding himself

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Forte Musical Theatre’s Buy Me a Drink, Joe is a love story about a man learning to love himself.

The man in question is Joe Slabe, the founder and artistic director of Forte Musical Theatre who wrote the book, music and lyrics for this autobiographical musical. Slabe also stars as the show’s narrator, its pianist,  and the older version of the title character.

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As we learn in the show’s third song, Anything, Joe’s parents told him he could be anything he wanted to be, as long as it was a doctor, lawyer, teacher or engineer. What Joe wanted to be was a composer of musicals, the art form he fell in love with at a very early age. They also told him him he should find the perfect girl to marry and start a family. Joe was a good listener. As we learn in the song Play My Part, he did all the things people said he should, or at least he did for the first 15 years of his adult life.

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It’s what happens six songs later in Face Your Dragons, that makes Buy Me a Drink, Joe a deeply personal story of having the courage to finally, as poet Robert Frost said, take the road less travelled  and make a difference.

Younger Joe is played by Stephen Ingram who looks nothing like Older Joe, an inspired piece of casting that makes for a great running joke. For most of the show, Ingram gives Joe a kind of wide-eyed innocence that really makes the central issue work. Joe is not sure if he’s straight or gay, and Ingram makes that dilemma seem so real and possible.

His courtship of his best friend Donna, played by a radiant Allison Lynch, shimmers with emotion especially in the song Donna Plays the Violin. Joe loves music. Donna is a great musician. He loves hearing her play the violin, and assumes that means he loves her as he tells us in I’m Gonna Make a Man Outta Me, a zippy little tune that doesn’t completely conceal the danger in this choice. Lynch is not just a dynamic singer, but has the acting chops to show Donna’s questioning of the changes in their relationship, so that Ingram and Lynch make the song Quittin’ Time achingly powerful.

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The fourth character in Joe’s story is David, Joe’s second best friend who is also his writing partner. In what is a slyly confident performance, Jason Lemmon helps the audience see what Joe does not. When Joe finally accepts his sexual orientation, it’s David who introduces him to the gay scene in the show’s most rousing number, I’ll Tap That, a witty tap number choreographed by Jocelyn Hoover Leiver.

Director Valerie Ann Pearson brings a respectful sincerity to her staging. She knows when to highlight the humor, but never at the expensive of the emotional arcs of the characters. She creates tableaus that say as much as the dialogue and songs.

For his part, sitting at the piano for most of the show, Slabe never steals focus, but his eyes tell you he is feeling the joy and pain his characters are experiencing.

At the top of the show Older Joe says West Side Story is the perfect musical because the songs serve the story and the storytelling. It’s what Slabe is aiming for, and often achieves, in Buy Me a Drink, Joe. His musical is not unlike Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick….Boom! which Forte produced two years ago. Like that musical, Buy Me a Drink, Joe demands three amazing triple-threat performers, which is what Slabe has in Ingram, Lemmon and Lynch.

The play’s hilarious epilogue explains what Slabe means when he says not everything in the show is 100 per cent accurate, but that all of it really did happen.

Join Slabe and his talented team at cSPACE King Edward until May 5, and let them touch your heart and tickle your funny bone for a memorable 90 minutes.

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