Combining the visual flair of film with the sultry seduction of dance, the March 12th premiere of The True Heroines webisode series at Vancouver’s Rio Theater brought the 1950’s back to life, replete with vests and bow-ties, red lipstick, and period music from the greatest the era had offer.
Immediately we’re introduced to Paradise Hills where we meet three seemingly normal housewives who each possess a super-human quality. Margie Hepburn with her super-speed (played by Jovanna Huguet), Pearl Andrews with her powers of invisibility (played by Fiona Vroom), and Dottie Rodriguez with superior strength (played by Paula Giroday) are identified as a special breed of Humans with Special Abilities who are the target of a mysterious Corporation. The plot thickens when the local Milk King company that employs their husbands is implicated as a Corporation front, and it’s up to the girls to investigate the tangled web of secret agents and foul play that follows.
The two part program began with an entourage of live cabaret vignettes on stage showcasing the histories of each protagonist, and featured the svelte singing voices and dance styles of the leading ladies under the masterful choreography of fellow dancer/actor Joel Sturrock (playing prodigy villain and neighbourhood milk man Gordon Fitzgerald). In the second half we saw what life was like in Paradise Hills, including a dance number by the milk men and a beach party, which was followed by an advanced screening of the six episode web series that comprises season one of The True Heroines.
On stage a narrator introduced each of the girls in turn, filling in important elements of the plot. At first this felt a little expository, but I had to remind myself that a.) it corresponded to the format of a cabaret performance, b.) the succinct nature of a webisode necessitates a degree of exposition, and c.) after my initial reservations, I realized it was deliberate. It had all the authenticity and layout of a 1950’s talkie or a live comic strip. And by golly, it worked well.
Taking on the additional role of producer was a big step for Fiona Vroom and her co-creators who met several years ago at a rendition of Candy Girls at the now closed cabaret venue Maxine’s Hideaway in Vancouver’s West End. Back stage Vroom is understandably excited about the release of the webisodes which have been two years in the making – “I was really surprised by the professionalism and how everyone came together”. The collaboration represented a unique opportunity for her fellow actors to pursue their shared passion of singing, dancing, superheroes, and the culture of the 1950s, but without the same restrictions to creative control that a full-blown television series would introduce.
“I have a tendency to stick my foot in my mouth a lot. So sometimes I wish I could just disappear when that happens,” she confesses with a laugh, explaining the inspiration behind her character’s super-power of invisibility.
Set in the “man’s world” of the 1950s, the cabaret and episodes also gave Vroom and her cohorts a chance to play with the juxtaposition of gender roles, and the entire presentation follows a refined feminist edge that sharply contrasts with other period shows like Mad Men. The heroines are, at face value, loving and devoted house-wives who frame all the expectations of domestic life. Underneath the layers of propriety and marital decorum they possess special abilities that set them apart – both from other women, and from their husbands. In keeping with convention, we get the dichotomy between super heroine and alter-ego, but distinction isn’t given to a black-and-white interpretation. The tension between the protagonists’ seeming conformity to norms and their attempts to subvert the shadowy plot of the Corporation (which seems emblematic of the prevailing patriarchy of the period) makes for an interesting chemistry, both on stage and on screen. We even get a lesbian slant between two of the characters.
However, I got the impression that the penultimate feminist push we were waiting for didn’t resolve itself firmly enough – we want to see a more active disruption of the systems oppressing them. We want to see a firmer refusal to supplicate, and if the house-wife persona is them “putting on their game face”, then we need a stronger sense of who they actually are underneath – especially if this means displaying their powers more often. That said, this is only season one. There’s plenty of time.
On the whole I was surprised and delighted by the combination of dance and film-making – the level of physical talent demonstrated by the cast (and most of them in heels) was exemplary, and the high-production quality of the webisodes was self-evident both in terms of directing and cinematography. If you haven’t caught one of their cabarets it’s the perfect excuse to pull that sleek vest, suspenders, and fedora out of the back of your closet.
Also be sure to check out The True Heroines online when the episodes debut March 27th.