Still soaring after all these years: Ruminations on war & heroism in the entertaining, poignant Billy Bishop Goes to War

Eric Peterson in Billy Bishop Goes to War—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Still flying high 40 years after its creation, the award-winning Billy Bishop Goes to War returns to the Young Centre. Written and composed by John MacLachlan Gray with Eric Peterson, and directed by Ted Dykstra, Soulpepper brings Billy Bishop back to the stage in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday.

Pulling dusty sheets from the piano, an easy chair, and a series of foot lockers and trunks, Bishop (Peterson) appears in pajamas, dressing gown and slippers. Despite the sense that we are here with him out of time and space, it’s as if we’ve woken him from a snooze. The foot lockers are a treasure trove of memorabilia and props for his story, as he dusts off memories, producing props and gear; and the framed photographs he produces along the way serve as poignant snapshots of moments and lives lived.

Through anecdotes, songs, poetry and letters to Bishop’s sweetheart Margaret back home, Peterson and Gray weave a tale of a life that was part luck, part pluck and all present. Going from the worst student at the Royal Military College (RMC)—known as a liar, a cheat and general executer of shenanigans—to an officer in the cavalry, Bishop always had an eye out for opportunity and adventure. Growing tired of being stuck in the mud or covered in sand, he looked for a way out of the cavalry. In his case, up and out. Finding his way into the Royal Flying Corps, he was taken on as an observer—a good job for him, as he was also known for his hawk eye and being a good shot—later becoming a pilot with the assistance of Lady St. Helier, who he met and befriended while recuperating in a London hospital (his tendency toward being accident prone bringing him good luck on several occasions).

As a pilot, he found a particular sense of drive and ambition, developing a friendly rivalry with fellow pilot Captain Albert Ball, and becoming famous for flying solo missions, including an attack on a German aerodrome; endeavours that earned medals, including the Military Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and the Victoria Cross. Realizing the colonies were more apt to respond to a living hero than a dead one, his British superiors gave him a new assignment, to return home as a hero and public figure, boosting morale in Canada.

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Eric Peterson & John MacLachlan Gray—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Gray (on stage as the Piano Player) and Peterson are a perfect match for this journey of an unlikely hero. In addition to acting as accompanist and singer, his gentle, raspy vocals performing catchy, often moving songs, Gray takes on the roles of army buddy and audience for Bishop, as well as a number of brief moments as various other characters as needed. And Peterson juggles a number of characters in addition to Bishop, including particularly fun turns as a befuddled British officer, a drunken Scot, the imperious and proper Lady St. Helier, and the slinky chanteuse Hélène.

Foot lockers, a stand-up ash tray and a miniature of Bishop’s famous plane, as well as shadow play and projections on the upstage scrim, are used to great effect to re-enact observer flights, the first solo flight and dog fights. Peterson’s playful scallywag adventurer performance as Bishop is balanced by moments of profound poignancy: his recitation of a poem to Albert Ball, and memories of the dead and dying, in the trenches or in the sky. And when Bishop returns to us in the present, it’s like we’re spending time with a grandfather, a beloved rascal regaling us with tall tales of the war, at times appearing lost in thought or memory. For better or worse, these things happened—and they shaped a life and a career.

With big shouts to the design team—Camellia Koo (set and costumes), Steve Lucas (lighting) and director Ted Dykstra (sound)—for their work on bringing this adventure in storytelling to life.

Still soaring after all these years. Playful, irreverent and thoughtful ruminations on the nature of war and heroism in the entertaining, poignant Billy Bishop Goes to War.

Billy Bishop Goes to War continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Check out the 2017 trailer:

 

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A trip through time with family, country & loss of innocence in the charming, poignant Cavalcade

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Lillian Scriven & Michael Ricci as Jane & Robert Marryot in Cavalcade – photos by Andrew Oxenham

George Brown Theatre opened its 2016-17 season last night at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (located in Toronto’s Distillery District) with Nöel Coward’s Cavalcade, directed by A.D. James Simon, with musical direction by J. Rigzin Tute and choreography by Robert McCollum.

Cavalcade follows the lives of two intertwined families, the Marryots and their servants the Bridges, as they live through significant historical events, including the Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic and WWI. From New Year’s Eve 1899 to the same night in 1929 and into New Year’s day 1930, the story is told through scenes of daily life and musical numbers.

The Cavalcade ensemble is comprised of George Brown Theatre School’s third year graduating class of 2017 (in alphabetical order): Gabriella Albino, Caroline Bell, Michael Boyce, Justine Christensen, Emily Cully, Genevieve DeGraves, Seamus Dillon-Easton, Kayla Farris, Jocelyn Feltham, Kyrah Harder, Patrick Horan, Chase Jeffels, Evan MacKenzie, Cora Matheson, Tymika McKenzie-Clunis, Lucy Meanwell, Thomas Nyhuus, Lucas Penner, Michael Ricci, Jake Runeckles, Lillian Scriven, Morgan St. Onge and Parmida Vand.

As Jane Marryot, Scriven anchors the show with a lovely combination of game stiff upper lip and moving emotional response to events that impact her family and country. And we see the kids grow up and move through various life milestones: the Marryots’ sons Edward (the dutiful elder son, played with a twinkle in the eye by Nyhuus) and Joseph (the younger, impetuous son, played with Puckish charm by MacKenzie), and the Bridges’ daughter Fanny (DeGraves, who brings a lovely arc from the wide-eyed adorable child to the slinky nightclub performer).

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Jake Runeckles, Lucas Penner & Michael Boyce performing by the seaside

There are some great moments of comic relief, notably at a night at the theatre in a play within the play called Mirabelle, featuring some fine musical antics from Matheson, Penner, Albino and Jeffels (featuring stand-out vocals from Matheson and Albino); and some seaside entertainment from Boyce, Penner (who also plays a mean ukulele) and Runeckles (who also supplies piano accompaniment throughout and does a delightful tap dance break). Musical moments are capped off by a lovely rendition of Coward’s “Twentieth Century Blues” by DeGraves in a wistful and world-weary welcome to 1930, leading into a chaotic epilogue that fast-forwards through the remainder of an astoundingly volatile, wondrous and quixotic century.

As we travel through time in Britain’s history, from the Victorian to the Edwardian age – and a fast-forward Epilogue finale through the remainder 20th century – we see how the major events of the age test her people’s resilience and fortitude. Perhaps more importantly, there’s a loss of innocence; the sometimes violent changes that occur as the world grows into more of a global village, and the ever quickening pace of life changes people irrevocably. And one can’t help but look back with fondness on – what looks like from the present point of view – a simpler, gentler time.

With shouts to set and costume designer Brandon Kleiman, especially for the stunning bejeweled purple frocks are stunning; lighting designer Siobhan Sleath for some lovely atmospheric effects; and stage manager Debbie Read for holding it all together.

A trip through time with family, country and loss of innocence in the charming, poignant Cavalcade.

Cavalcade runs at the Young Centre in the Tank House Theatre space until Nov 19; get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666. It’s a great chance to see some exciting emerging talent before they head out into their careers.

You can also keep up with George Brown Theatre’s class of 2017 on Twitter.

Toronto Fringe: Out of the echoes of pain and loss comes a beautiful noise in the powerful, moving Echoes – A New Musical

nickeshia_garrick_and_kyle_holt_brown - echoesWriter/director Andrew Seok “wanted to write a musical about war and its effect on families and relationships” – and he’s done just that, to great effect with Chaos & Light’s production of Echoes – A New Musical, running at Toronto Fringe at Jeanne Lamon Hall in Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church, with music direction and accompaniment by Robert Graham.

Inspired by personal letters and journal entries, and taking us across decades and into a new century, Echoes is divided into three acts, starting with the American Civil War, where fugitive husband (Kyle Holt Brown) and wife (Nickeshia Garrick) slaves are separated when the wife and their daughter (Millie Davis) are captured; when he reaches the north, the husband joins the army to gain his freedom. Act II takes place during WWI, where we see the effects of war on the future of a young captain (Andrew Seok) and his fiancée (Marisa McIntyre). Act III finds us in WWII and a father (Micah Richardson) leaving his daughter (Millie Davis & Amaka Umeh) to serve in the army shortly after her mother has died; ashamed by what he’s doing in the name of duty, he constantly breaks his promise to return home to his daughter until years later. The common, running thread throughout all of these stories is the courier (beautifully performed by Jeff Madden), delivering and receiving letters for delivery – and wondering about the reasons for it all.

The score is filled with gorgeous, heart-wrenching ballads, with some dark comic relief (performed by a pair of scoundrels played by Hart Massey and Christopher Sawchyn – “The Treaty” and “We’ll Be Back”). Stand-outs include “Demons & Angels,” “Angels Won’t Sleep Tonight” and “All the Things that Life Used to Know.” And “Hymn,” the gospel-inspired finale lead by Nickeshia Garrick is a perfect way to end this piece in that it reminds us of the better angels within us all.

I’ve seen several standing ovations over the course of Fringe this year, but none so unanimous as the one the Echoes cast received last night.

Out of the echoes of pain and loss comes a beautiful noise that reminds us what we could be in the powerful, moving Echoes – A New Musical.

Echoes – A New Musical has one final performance at Jeanne Lamon Hall in Trinity St. Paul’s: tonight (Sat, July 9) at 8:00 p.m. They’re sold out, but there may be a few stray tickets at the door.