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Billy wins twice at Geva

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Who'd want to go see a two-person show about a Canadian air ace in World War I, with songs? Well, if you like Billy Bishop Goes to War as much as I did, you'll try to see it twice at Geva Theatre to enjoy the cast-switch. Until the play closes December 8, the two leads will alternate between playing Billy Bishop and the Piano Player, creating two different, topnotch versions of the same show.

            Billy Bishop Goes to War is probably Canada's most popular play. John Grey and Eric Peterson wrote and performed it in 1978, then played it to acclaim across Canada and the United States, including Broadway. The show has been seen onstage by hundreds of thousands all over the world, in several languages, and by millions on television. Yet, when I saw it in a large-scale, 20th anniversary revival with its creators in their original roles --- Grey at the piano, Peterson acting and singing the role of Billy --- it struck me as a very special work best seen with those two.

            I was wrong. Ironically, I'd had exactly the same feeling about an even harder play to cast, 2 Pianos, 4 Hands, which requires talented actors who are also concert-level pianists. Last season, Geva produced a splendid version of that play with Richard Todd Adams and Tom Frey. Guess who are playing the two roles in Billy Bishop Goes to War.

            The actor playing Billy changes uniforms, pantomimes flying a plane, takes on the characters of many people that Billy meets, and dances and sings Grey's wry songs about the war. The Piano Player accompanies Billy's story, provides sound effects, sings his own songs, joins in on some of Billy's numbers, and plays a few characters himself. Adams and Frey are a beautifully matched team, playing together and alternating in those two assignments. This simple, intimate production in Geva's small, comfortable Nextstage is probably closer to the original production in 1978 than the big, nostalgic, 1998 revival in Toronto with the show's creators, who were still delightful, but really two decades too old for their roles.

            Director Christopher Gurr's smart production has all-American artists, but fairly bursts with Canadian pride. Billy Bishop may have started as a lower-class screw-up from rural Ontario, but he became the biggest Canadian hero of World War I, married his boyhood love, Margaret Eaton --- one of those Eatons, as in the department stores --- and did, after all, break all records for Allied air aces by shooting down 72 enemy planes.

            This work is far too ironic to be a flag-waving, pro-war play. Both hilarious and saddening, it includes horrifying views of battlefield slaughter, satiric examples of stupid men in authority, and rueful remembrances of English class snobbery and intolerant condescension toward "Colonials."

            But it is certainly not an anti-war play, either. Billy ends up as the proud father of a young man and woman who are going to fight in World War II. And his proudest moment is his recollection of the King of England pinning three medals on him at once and privately speaking admiringly to Billy for a quarter of an hour.

            We laugh and cry with Billy because we gain affection for him easily; he is not only modest, but amusingly self-deprecating. When this self-described "proven liar and cheat" and "worst student in the history of the Royal Military College" with "no talent for flying" becomes the top fighter pilot, it isn't difficult to rejoice with him.

            Adams is the more romantic Billy, with a more lyrical singing voice, and is physically more boyishly handsome. He also makes more realistic distinctions between his voices for the various other characters he plays, and is especially good as the haughty, old, British grande dame who befriends Billy. Frey has a more stentorian voice and stronger physical presence. As the Piano Player, he makes the old lady's butler a stronger, more imposing figure than Adams' more reserved one. As Billy, Frey is broader in his comedy, yet harrowing when his exuberant, virile fighter feels despair. They give two different accounts of Billy Bishop Goes to War, and you'd be surprised at how truly satisfying both are.

Billy Bishop Goes to War,by John Gray and Eric Peterson, directed by Christopher Gurr, plays at Geva Theatre's Nextstage, 75 Woodbury Blvd., through Sunday, December 8. Performances are Tues.-Fri. at 7:30 p.m., Sat. at 5 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., Sun. at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tix: $8. 232-GEVA (4382), www.gevatheatre.org.

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