COME FROM AWAY

By Irene Sankoff and David Hein
A David Mirvish Presentation at the Royal Alexandra Theatre
Opened November 23, 2016.

Ensemble of 'Come From Away' (photo: Matthew Murphy)

Ensemble of ‘Come From Away’ (photo: Matthew Murphy)

Canadians have reasons to celebrate. The new musical by Sankoff and Hein is a genuine Canadian heart-warmer that puts a spotlight on the amiable, goodhearted citizens of Gander, Newfoundland at a time when the U.S. in particular and the rest of the civilized world in general were wrenched with fear over the atrocious September 11 attacks in 2001. A toe-tapping musical about terrorism, you ask incredulously? Not really. Terrorism does rear its ugly head (or heads) in context, but this musical isn’t about catastrophe—not in any major sense. Rather, it is all about benevolence, good will, generosity, charity, compassion, kindness, understanding, and any number of other virtues you care to think up in connection with the people of Gander who overcame their shock, fear, and perplexity to give shelter and sustenance to 7,000 international travellers of 38 airplanes stranded by emergency necessity at the time of the terrorist attacks on U.S. airspace and soil. And this upbeat 100-minute musical (with no intermission) finds a very simple way of driving its narrative so that multiple characters (based on real-life counterparts) remain distinctive and their individual or group feelings are made palpable largely through sung narratives.

Come From Away (the title is a Newfie way of acknowledging people who are not from their home province) is a musical that does not pretend to be a mega musical or a diva musical or a trendy pop musical. It simply commemorates and honours some simple Newfoundland folk for their unforgettable goodness over five days in 2001 when the world reeled at the staggering evil of a handful of hate-driven Islamic extremists. There is no need of a massively ornate falling chandelier or a helicopter hovering above the stage; no need of national anthems or flamboyant arias. On Beowulf Boritt’s largely bare stage, marked by tree trunks (a few shattered and spikey) and a long rear wall of peeling wood, what unfolds is a thoroughly human comedy of survival and co-existence in The Rock, given illumination by Howard Binkley’s array of top lights or background colour washes. Backed up by an onstage band of strings, pipes, and percussions, under the supervision of keyboardist Ian Eisendrath, a dozen performers (most American) perform multiple roles apiece, ranging, for example, from a gay couple on the verge of fission, a black mother worrying about her son back home, a Muslim mid-easterner treated with malevolent distrust, an English oil-company unmarried executive and the American divorcee with whom he finds love, the first American female pilot who battles misogyny in the profession, to the Newfies who extend all the understanding and generosity they can muster without expectation of anything but decency in return.

Director Christopher Ashley ensures that the pace is never leisurely or laboured. The libretto drives the story forward largely through sung narratives and spoken commentary, and the book-scenes have a distinct documentary feel to them. The songs are infectious (especially those set in a pub), though largely not chart-busters, so, the musical never seeks to enlarge its story, never reach for anything approaching something mightily apocalyptic. Only Beverley’s “Me and the Sky” has the heartache of an individual (“the one thing I loved more than anything/was used as the bomb”), but there are other stirring pieces, such as “Prayer” and “Something’s Missing” (the penultimate number). Yet, there is considerable charm palpably felt in many of the performances, and even in Kelly Devine’s choreography that only lets loose in two or three ensemble numbers. A modest stage revolve is used pragmatically rather than to call attention to itself. And the refusal to over-sentimentalize moments breeds genuine life-size emotional effects. The wide distribution of roles means that no character really is developed in the tale. They all feel schematic. Because the ensemble is polished, this deficiency is not as obtrusive as it might have been. Jenn Colella’s female pilot allows us to feel the stress of misogyny, just as Caesar Samayoa’s Egyptian Muslim is a strong reproach to Western bigotry. And there is an effective representation of Newfie benevolence in the forms of Astrid Van Wieren’s Beulah, a big-bodied schoolteacher with a mighty Karoake voice and a heart to match that size, and Joel Hatch’s organizing Mayor. Rodney Hicks supplies some sexy sass in his role as a Caribbean pilot, just as Samayoa is comically sexy as one half of the troubled gay duo. Lee MacDougall and Sharon Wheatley supply some romantic middle-age moments, and comedy comes mainly from Petrina Bromley as a timid schoolteacher and later as an inveterate animal lover.

The overall feeling is that of a better humankind rather than the rancidity so revoltingly promulgated in the recent U.S. Presidential election where Hate and Pathological Lies Trumped Decency and Good Will. Perhaps Broadway (where this musical is now headed after its Toronto run) will benefit from its moral uplift that makes the human heart soar higher than any deplorable Trump tower.

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CHASSE-GALERIE

By Tyrone Savage
Music and Lyrics by James Smith
Produced by Kabin and The Storefront Theatre at Soulpepper
November 12-December 1, 2016

In semi-circular order, left to right: Shaina Silver-Baird (Toba), Kat Lewin (Michelle), Hunter Cardinal (Uriel), Michael Cox (Michel-Paul), Tess Benger (Alex), Alicia Toner (Jaune), Ghazal Azarbad (Lucy Ferr), Nicole Power (Lea), and in the center Tyrone Savage (Damien) (photo: John Gundy)

In semi-circular order, left to right: Shaina Silver-Baird (Toba), Kat Lewin (Michelle), Hunter Cardinal (Uriel), Michael Cox (Michel-Paul), Tess Benger (Alex), Alicia Toner (Jaune), Ghazal Azarbad (Lucy Ferr), Nicole Power (Lea), and in the center Tyrone Savage (Damien) (photo: John Gundy)

There is much to like and be amused by in this musical adaptation of an old French Canadian legend—a folktale that adds a twist to the Faust tale and a few more twists to French-Canadian history. Set in a rough-hewn tavern where drinks, music, and dancing are very much part of the fun, the tale is about four female lumberjacks and runners of the wood who are exhausted, starving, and lonely in their camp on New Year’s Eve, and wishing dearly to be reunited with their beloveds in Old Montreal, some seventy leagues away. When roguish Damien appears in their midst dressed as a monk and offers to use rough magic to transport them in a magical flying canoe (chasse-galerie), under three strict conditions, the women rush to accept. They do not know, of course, that he is a devil incarnate, and that his conditions are possibly too much for them to meet for they are required to refrain from searing or uttering the Lord’s name, and must not touch crosses or any objects connected to God. The four young women are roughly charming and roughly ignorant of the perverse ways of Damien (Tyrone Savage), a charming devil, and of Lucy Ferr (Ghazal Azarbad), his partner, a wicked parody of satanic evil. Alex (Tess Benger) is clearly the youngest and most innocent of the female quartet, her mind and heart bound to Baby Jesus, when they aren’t dwelling on her lesbian lover Jaune (Alicia Toner), while Michelle (Kat Lewin) is the least innocent, with her hard drinking, rowdy profane humour, and candid sexual yearning for her Michel-Paul (Michael Cox). In between them are bespectacled Lea (Nicole Power) and Toba (Shaina Silver-Baird), both yearning for love, though in quite different ways. The actresses who play them range from the most effective in characterization (Benger) to the least persuasive (Power), though Power has the finest singing voice of the female quartet.

I did not see the musical when it debuted a year ago, but the trouble is that this re-incarnation is a case of too much self-love—so much so that it doesn’t recognize its own limitations and self-indulgences. Whimsy can go far but even then, it has limits, no matter how charmingly whimsical the visual projections that accompany the fantasy of a flying canoe. Savage’s adaptation has teasing references to the Bible, Milton, and Shakespeare, but doesn’t make very much of them. Indeed, his libretto is a hectic of facile parody, no more so than in the case of Damien, played by Hunter Cardinal as an intriguing cowboy invert of the Archangel, though with an indecipherable accent.

James Smith’s rollicking music is well presented by Justin Han on drums and Jason O’Brien on bass, assisted by Benger on cello, Power on piano, Toner on fiddle, and his lyrics are charmingly rhymed for the most part, but apart from a drinking song and the blasphemous audience-singalong “Esti tabernak, tabernak , esti, esti tabernak vierge!” too many of the numbers lack a distinct Quebecois sound and style, and, to be brutally honest, they don’t get the best vocalizations. Savage seems to be in love with his own suave performance as Uriel, but his singing voice is not of the finest quality; in fact, it is quite flat or pitchy at times. And the dance numbers, though infectiously energetic, don’t get far beyond a repetitiveness in Ashleigh Powell’s choreography. Moreover, the story goes on far too long and wouldn’t have lost very much if condensed to just over an hour’s playing time. Two and a half hours of stage musical time are far more than I could bear for a tavern musical, however admirable and ebullient the effort at an indigenous concoction.

CONSTELLATIONS

By Nick Payne
Directed by Peter Hinton
A Canadian Stage Company Production
At the Bluma Appel Theatre, November 10-27, 2016

Cara Ricketts (Marianne) and Graham Cuthbertson (Roland) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Cara Ricketts (Marianne) and Graham Cuthbertson (Roland) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Probably the most fascinating aspect of Nick Payne’s 75-minute two-hander is the manner in which the playwright shows how chance and free will influence our lives. Marianne specializes in quantum cosmology at Cambridge, and Roland is a professional beekeeper who has just come out unhappily of a serious relationship. The two meet at a barbecue party, and this sets in motion (literally in Peter Hinton’s emblematic production) their shifting interactions and relationship. The two move tentatively into romance, overcome versions of fidelity after versions of bitter anger, and face versions of tragedy. In a simple sense, it is a story of girl meeting boy, girl losing boy, girl regaining boy, folded over itself and repeated in a different way. But Payne ensures that his play is not so simple. Although Marianne struggles to articulate her intimate feelings, she does rehearse a rather corny ice-breaker multiple times that first makes for comic awkwardness that morphs into shy charm that melts away. The repetitions of phrase, with varying inflections, mirror Marianne’s driving belief that we could be part of a multiverse in which several different outcomes could exist simultaneously. An intriguing intellectual subject but not so easily dramatized as a romance or even a problem romance because just how many versions of entire stories unfold simultaneously or even successively within 75-minutes? It is similar to the problem that Brian Yorkey’s musical If/Then couldn’t satisfactorily resolve.

All we can get in a compressed state of time are snippets or vignettes, rendering the idea of multiplicity a theatrical illusion, and not very satisfying, at that. The problem is three-fold in a radical way: the first is in the very nature of the writing (as outlined above); the second is in the acting; and the third is in audience involvement. Peter Hinton’s production compounds the second and third aspects of the problem. It has a gleaming set (courtesy of Michael Gianfrancesco’s design and Andrea Lundy’s lighting), spherical but mainly metallic, with a wall of clear plastic set against black, a circle of stage lights suspended overhead and a revolve at the centre of the floor, with a single large white balloon to impart a sense of something buoyant yet accidental. And the two performers (Cara Ricketts and Graham Cuthbertson) literally spin slowly around on the revolve while scenes unfold and a solo cellist (Jane Chan) supplies musical accompaniment or counterpoint with gravitas. As in the Cabaret Hinton misdirected at the Shaw Festival, the set is put ahead of the story, with metaphor taking precedence over human interaction. Consequently, the performers do not easily achieve or retain any palpable sense of intimacy, especially as Hinton’s choreography keeps them at more than arms apart and spinning slowly as separate planets in the director’s idiosyncratic cosmology. Ricketts manages to be shy yet sexy, intellectual yet sensual, while Cuthbertson conveys a bearded earthiness that has its own charm at times. When the play’s subject becomes that of mortality, the dark mood is palpably human, yet Hinton’s direction retards an audience’s engagement by treating the characters like figures on a grid.

The recent Broadway production starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson had a lighter, airier set design, festooned by balloons that gave it a semblance of buoyancy, and director Michael Longhurst even choreographed a dance for the two characters that enhanced the mobility of the romance. But in Hinton’s production, the pair’s “dance” is reduced to their positions on the spinning revolve, without the characters’ hearts moving deeply and affectingly.