Show Stopper: The Theatrical Life of Garth Drabinsky: Toronto Review

Barry Avrich's rags-to-riches-to-disgrace doc entertains consistently until it enters the courtroom.

The showbiz entrepreneur who built "two empires that turned to sand" draws much grudging respect in this career-spanning doc.

TORONTO — Turning the plot of The Producers on its head, the real-life felonies in Barry Avrich's Show Stopper: The Theatrical Life of Garth Drabinsky, though involving millions of dollars in accounting fraud, appear to have been motivated not by greed but artistic ambition: Drabinsky, who built two game-changing show-business empires in his day, was only trying to put on the best damned stage productions in the world. His story, tailored here for the small screen, will be relished by scandal-lovers from Broadway to Hollywood; felonies aside, it offers insight into some of the biggest changes the entertainment world has seen in recent decades.

Ambitious from the start, Toronto kid Drabinsky studied law but wanted to be a movie mogul. After getting a taste of the business publishing local movie magazines, he produced well received, locally-shot films including The Silent Partner and The Changeling.

Drabinsky credits himself with discovering Tom Cruise during this period, but his bigger legacy was not in the movies themselves but how they are shown: Starting with an 18-screen Toronto theater specializing in second-runs and arthouse fare, he built the mighty Cineplex chain, which later became Cineplex Odeon. Avrich paints a lively picture of the chain's evolution, marveling at the sums Drabinsky spent on marble floors and art-bedecked walls. But taking on powerful, savvy partners including the Bronfman family and Lew Wasserman meant a shrinking ownership stake for Drabinsky, whose brashness wound up getting him pushed out of the company. (Avrich offers a little more corporate detail here than most viewers will require.)

Wounded by the movies, he turned to the theater. With his production company Livent, Drabinsky spent remarkable sums on production and marketing, first helping make Toronto the third-largest English-language theater market, then tackling Broadway with Tony-winning shows including Kiss of the Spider Woman. He was mean to employees, we're told, and in Manhattan was the kind of boor who would actually ask a maître d' "do you know who I am?" But he believed in talented people and gave them room to create, and the stars of his shows appear onscreen here to give him due praise. (And to do some wry tut-tutting: Elaine Stritch, whose colorful presence makes you want to listen to her talk for hours, says his self-inflicted disgrace "breaks my heart.")

That disgrace makes for the doc's least compelling section. Though the suspicions that led investigators to Drabinsky are juicy -- veteran Broadway reporters crunch some ticket numbers and realize Livent's shows can't possibly be making enough to support themselves -- the details of his trial grow tedious, particularly since they're largely conveyed through close-ups of courtroom transcripts. Couldn't Stritch and former Cineplex partner Sid Sheinberg (the doc's other most enjoyable interviewee) have staged a dramatic reading of these transcripts?

Production Company: Melbar Entertainment Group
Director-screenwriter: Barry Avrich
Executive producers: Barry Avrich, Alex Olegnowicz
Director of photography: Ken Ng
Editor: George Raulston
No rating, 96 minutes