Following a half-dozen well-received workshop performances in Calgary and Edmonton in August last year, the Foreigner musical Jukebox Hero held its world premiere last night at Toronto’s historic Ed Mirvish Theatre.

While there's no word on whether the inspiration for the show’s titular song was in the house, the near-sellout audience was brought to its feet by the remarkably tight vocal and musical display from the talented cast and the backing musicians that betrayed no hints of opening-night jitters.

Foreigner’s classic crowd-pleasing anthems, laser-focused as they were on libidinal and romantic pursuits as well as the romance of rock 'n' roll, always seemed suited to the jukebox-musical treatment. Diana Ross told band leader Mick Jones this much more than three decades ago during a conversation struck up in an airport lounge.

That being said, building a two-hour musical around an artist’s hits is a lot harder than putting together a solid Spotify playlist, but Jukebox Hero’s award-winning writing duo of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (The Commitments, Across the Universe, Still Crazy) have succeeded by smartly choosing a narrative frame that's more than simply an excuse to get from one Foreigner hit to the next.

Set in a Rust Belt town faced with the closure of a steel mill, Jukebox Hero’s plot centers on the musical and personal falling out of brothers and bandmates Ryan and Mace Perry (played by Geordie Brown and David Michael Moote, respectively), as well as on an attempt to put together a benefit concert starring the struggling town’s favorite son.

Jukebox Hero does include an extended concert sequence that encourages audience participation — and Wednesday night’s crowd was more than happy to clap and sing along — but the show also featured compelling storylines for most of its large cast and never felt like, well, just a jukebox filled with a bunch of Foreigner songs.

Of course, those songs remain the central attraction, and Jukebox Hero had plenty of them: 22 in total, spanning Foreigner’s four decades — from the opening song on the band’s eponymous debut all the way to its most recent single, 2016’s “The Flame Still Burns," a song originally co-written by Jones for the 1998 movie Still Crazy.

The big hits were all accounted for and mostly stuck to classic arrangements that serve to showcase the cast’s impressive pipes and close harmonies (particularly on “I Want to Know What Love Is”), as well as the band’s superb chops. Bt there also were some unexpected surprises, including a successful countrified reworking of “Feels Like the First Time”, a poignant stripped-down version of “Save Me” and plenty of elaborate choreography on songs like “Night Life” and “Women."

Jukebox Hero’s limited engagement in Toronto includes six more shows that run until Feb. 24.

Cylla von Tiedemann
Cylla von Tiedemann

 

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