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Singing life's twists and turns

Susan Gilmour debuts role of Dorrie in Larry's Party tonight

By Robert Crew
Toronto Star

Susan Gilmour She hasn't been divorced or had a child but Susan Gilmour can certainly relate to Dorrie, Larry Weller's first wife in the novel-turned-musical Larry's Party.

Both are from the Prairies - Gilmour was born and raised in Edmonton, Dorrie is from Winnipeg. And Gilmour is certain that she could have ended up leading Dorrie's kind of life instead of that of a high-profile, international musical performer.

"In the 1970's when I was growing up, I was in a big family with a mother who stayed home and a father who worked very hard - he was a dentist, who worked from 7 in the morning to 7 at night," she says.

"I grew up thinking that I would be like her, that I would have a family and a husband who provided for me, a house, a garage and a garden. These things stick in your head."

It didn't work out that way, Gilmour says. "But had I married the first man I was engaged to, I am sure it would have happened."

Directed by Robin Phillips and starring Brent Carver, Larry's Party has its world premiere tonight at the St. Lawrence Centre's Bluma Appel Theatre. The composer is Marek Norman while the book and lyrics are by Richard Ouzounian, who became The Star's theatre critic in June. The musical was announced as part of CanStage's 2000-2001 season back in February.

The musical which moves on to Ottawa in February and Winnipeg in April, is based on the acclaimed novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning Canadian Carol Shields.

A pregnant Dorrie marries Larry, who works in a flower shop, and while in England on their honeymoon, Larry becomes fascinated by mazes.

Much to Dorrie's bewilderment, he creates his first maze in their backyard. (He goes on to become a landscape gardener who is known for his mazes.)

They have a son, Ryan, but the marriage falls apart and a frustrated Dorrie has half of the maze in their backyard ripped up.

"I imagine that Dorrie is devastated by what she's done," Gilmour says. "We all know that when we have a big argument with somebody, you might do something that you are ashamed of and after it's over, you can't fix it, you've broken it.

"She is lost and ashamed but she also knows that they were not happy. She has got to pick up the pieces and she has a son to take care of.

"I was lucky enough in my life to meet certain people along the weay who guided away from that big crash. I didn't get caught in Dorrie's trap."

The musical follows the novel very closely, according to Gilmour.

"I hope audiences are going to read the book, which is fabulous. I love the way she writes," she says.

"I'd read it before I knew that there was going to be a musical. When I heard about it, I thought, 'Isn't that interesting?' and read the book again, trying to imagine how they would do it."

Like Dorrie who goes on to reinvent herself and to forge a successful carrer of her own, Gilmour has shown an ability to change and explore new fields.

As a teen in the late 1970's, she performed with club bands then did background vocals in styles ranging from jazz and r'n'b to country and pop.

Looking for a change of scene, she studied at Edmonton Musical Theatre and the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York.

Returning to Canada in 1988, she worked at the Charlottetown Festival and performed with Phillips at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton in The Beggar's Opera, Oliver!, and Man of La Mancha; the latter co-starred the man who is now her husband, Michael Burgess, and was also staged at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.

But Gilmour is best known as Fantine in Les Misérables, a role she's played in Toronto, New York and Los Angeles as well as on a long, prestigious international tour.

"I call it the Cadillac Les Miz tour," she says of the 11-month tour which took her to Sydney, Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul and Capetown.

"We stayed in five-star hotels and I was treated like a queen. It was wonderful."

For the high schooler who once wrote in her school yearbook that all she wanted to do was travel and be happy, it was a dream come true.

"It was great to work with all those different people. But I have hung up my Fantine boots, at least as far as I know."