Five O’Clock Bells reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, June 13, 2009,Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto.

5 O’clock Bells is about the life of Lennie Breau, a prodigy at 6, dead at 43. Guitar legend Chet Atkins said, when he discovered Lennie in a Winnipeg club, “You have replaced me as the greatest guitarist in the world.”

Written and performed as a one man show by Pierre Brault, 5 O’clock Bells (title of the first Lennie Breau tune Brault ever heard) epitomizes the drama of Lennie’s prodigious gift (that his ever loving mother worried he’d “opened too fast”), his two marriages turned disastrous by career conflicts and hard drugs, and Lennie’s ‘untimely’ death—an unsolved homicide (he was found strangled, without water in his lungs, at the bottom of his second wife’s L.A. rooftop swimming pool.)

Pierre Breault draws you into his intention and never lets you go, right from the opening scene (image of a spread-eagled silhouette of a body revolving face down in water, projected on a screen behind Breault crouching in a fluid spin that revolves into him as Lennie’s mother with the phone to her ear pleading with Lennie to come home).

Brault morphs successively into: Lennie’s father (who let his eight year old ‘progeny’ into the family country music act and kicked him out when teen aged Lennie discovered jazz); Lennie’s frustrated first wife (“Get off the toilet with that guitar”); Chet Atkins; Don Francks who got Lennie into New York and into drugs (“To help you feel the music”); and Lennie’s second wife, a gospel singer who was suspected of but never prosecuted for finally bringing Lennie to Jesus in her L.A.swimming pool.

Brault’s pallete of vocal intonations accented French-Canadian (mother), faux-Nashville (father), 70’s Toronto hip (Francks), makes engaging music in its own way, and helps him build a texture that maintains its freshness for 75 minutes, assisted by Brian Quirt’s  razor knife direction on Brian Smith’s fine stage, with the telling of Lennie’s story ingeniously cued by Martin Conboy’s lighting. Paul Boudreau, off stage, supplies just enough (never enough) guitar riffs to give us a sense of the kind of music making that this play is all about.

5 O’clock Bells, a Great Canadian Theater Company / Sleeping Dog Theater Company production premiered in Ottawa before coming to the Luminato Festival. A lot of what we know about Lennie Breau is due to the work of his friend and student, Randy Bachman, who nurtured Lennie in life and protects his legacy through the  Guitarchives project.

There is a lot of reverence in the world for the extraordinary life and art of Lennie Breau. No doubt, Pierre Breault will take his tribute on tour. If you have a chance, catch it.

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