Sea Of Stories – the new original historical White Rock musical from Peninsula Productions, running until Aug. 26 at Coast Capital Playhouse – could not be other than bright, colourful and entertaining (thanks to the theatre expertise of playwright Shawn Macdonald and the project’s guiding visionary, Peninsula artistic director Wendy Bollard).
It is well staged by Bollard, innovative in presentation (through the must-see set, lighting and projection design of Alan Brodie, assisted by Theo Bell) and musically sound (courtesy of the prodigious composing and performing skills of musical director and boogie woogie pianist Dominik Heins).
It is boosted by an attractive and buoyant cast of hard-working actors and singers, and what dance they do has been well-directed by seasoned choreographer-performer Keri Minty.
It has the powerhouse singing and acting of noted Lower Mainland musical theatre treasure Cathy Wilmot – a performer who lives and breathes the idiom.
It has the welcome gravitas and endearing humour of First Nations actor Sam Bob – as X’ya:s, the mythic immortal who hurled the white rock across the sea to the shores of Semiahmoo Bay – who seems, by his gentle and protective presence alone, to add form and dignity to the project.
And while I wasn’t scoring Friday night’s gala performance with the accuracy of a digital display counting game points, it was clear it dinged the bell of historical and community references with sufficient regularity to connect with both White Rock old-timers and relative newcomers in the audience.
Commendably – and somewhat surprisingly – Sea Of Stories also does not shy away from some of the more controversial points of White Rock’s past and present, and its sympathetic presentation of SFN history and culture has to rank as a long-overdue first in local theatre circles.
But musical theatre buffs – accustomed to a lot more emotional sturm und drang in more typical Broadway and West End-style entertainments – may leave the theatre feeling a bit empty.
Bollard and Macdonald have developed a slim framing narrative on which to hang anecdotes and memories gleaned from research and interviews in the community – the ‘sea of stories’ of the title.
Their solution – in connecting both the past and present of White Rock – is to offer a single mom, Anita (Wilmot) and her 15-year-old son Jeffrey (Anthony Goncharov) who have moved from Ontario to White Rock to help Anita’s no-nonsense mother (a strong contribution from Nancy Ebert) transition into a retirement residence.
Jeffrey, a typically disaffected youth (is there any other kind for playwrights?), misses his friends back East, and thinks White Rock is “lame” and “full of old people.”
A school project in which he must create a presentation on some historical aspect of White Rock provides the portal into the past, however.
Soon he and Anita are exploring, through fantasy sequences, the Indigenous culture of the Semiahmoo First Nation and the 1912 to 1957 period of town-building, while Jeffrey’s grandmother, a former White Rock Amateur Swim Association member, reconnects with memories of the town she left behind as a teenager.
Not the stuff of Les Miz, admittedly, but it’s unusual for a musical when the big emotional turning point – spoiler alert – is Jeffrey’s ultimate decision that White Rock is not so bad after all and that he wouldn’t mind taking beginners’ swim classes.
While this might have made more sense if Jeffrey was nine or 10 years old, it would still leave the plot minus any romantic passion or significant dramatic tension (I’d like to have seen much more about the relationship of pioneer Henry Thrift and his wife Mary – well played by Cory Haas and Paige Gibbs – and their blended family which seems, by itself, to have all the dynamics for a traditional musical).
Part of the problem with Sea Of Stories lies with the terms of the project, which was commissioned by the City of White Rock with money provided by Heritage Canada for Canada 150 celebrations. Reduced to its baldest terms, the premise calls for some species of pageant, while, clearly, the artistic impetus of Bollard, Macdonald and their collaborators, is to produce a piece of theatre meaningful on multiple levels.
One can picture them struggling at some point – as Jeffrey struggles with his class assignment – to find the right hook for the material at their disposal.
But there are points where the divergent aims do merge felicitously.
Sea Of Stories, sung by the cast, makes one of the strongest bids for memorable composition in the score, along with a truly moving highlight, Wilmot’s Anita’s Song. The latter, which relates Anita’s feelings of rootlessness to the situation of new immigrants arriving in Canada – well assisted by Brodie’s visuals – is a perfectly delivered ‘11 o’clock number,’ though oddly positioned at the end of the first act.
Also moving is Kirsten Kwong’s well-sung Train Song, nostalgically recalling the forgotten tradition of going down to the station to meet the train; and Silver Moon is an effective 1950s nostalgia piece highlighting the cast’s singing and dancing, the boogie piano of Heins (accompanied by Mireille Perez’ bass) and the sax playing of Adam Van Loo.
Henry’s Dream and Peace Arch Hospital Song (sparked by Haas), and Realtor Song (sold with energy by Tegan Verheul and Theo James Budd) are engaging, if somewhat surreal, patter pieces, while Andrew Wood and younger players Jessie Chan and Miranda Gilbert also make the most of their various turns in the spotlight.
Coast Capital Playhouse is located at 1532 Johnston Rd.
Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, with 2:30 p.m. matinees on the weekends.
Tickets ($27, $22 seniors and $13 students) are available from 604-536-7535 or www.peninsulaproductions.org