The Musical Stage Company and Outside the March/ Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life, book, music & lyrics by Anika and Britta Johnson, directed by Mitchell Cushman, music director Elizabeth Braid, Heliconian Hall, Sept. 13 to Oct. 14. Tickets available at 1-888-324-6282 or DrSilverTO.ca. Details HERE.
First, an important note to Toronto theatregoers. Whenever you see the name Outside the March, be aware that this means you will probably not be sitting in a darkened theatre watching the stage. Another key fact to know about OtM is the word “immersive”. Artistic director Mitchell Cushman believes in upending the usual theatre conventions and redefining both the space and the material into something new. The audience will be attending an encounter, and will be participating in some way. As for the co-producer of this show, the Musical Stage Company, it is a brand that means quality as well as the new and the different, whether mounting original Canadian music theatre, award-winning contemporary musicals, or concerts. Not surprisingly, the OtM and MSC co-pro of the new Canadian sung-through musical, Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life, is billed, not as a production, but as an “experience”.
As audiences arrive at the Heliconian Hall (1876), that darling little building and one-time Congregational Church that now sits on prime Yorkville real estate, they are greeted by cast members as welcome friends. To the sombre sounds of an organ, you are given a book of Dr. Silver’s writings and directed to your seat as if this were a real memorial service. We are there, in fact, to celebrate the life of the late spiritual leader Dr. Leonard Patrick Silver. Mingling with the guests are his wife, Caroline Silver (Donna Garner), his daughters Vera and Harmony (Kira Guloien and Rielle Braid), and his long-time assistant Timothy Sweetman (Bruce Dow). There are also the Silver Singers, ten young, suitably diverse acolytes who are from Wexford Collegiate’s Edge of the Sky Young Company. This may be a spoiler, but later we meet Dr. Silver’s runaway son Gordon (Peter Deiwick). Dr. Silver’s recorded voice is rendered by a dean of Canadian actors, David Fox.
The hall has been transformed by designers Nick Blais, Anahita Dehbonehie and Ken MacKenzie into a light show. Strips of reflective Mylar have been woven into banners that crisscross the ceiling, and the lighting effects are simply gorgeous. The front wall features a portrait of Dr. Silver that also transforms into various video projections, courtesy Nick Bottomley. The costumes for the women are modest but attractive pastel-hued dresses of an old-fashioned couture, while Timothy sports a long priest’s robe. The young people are in blue capriccio pants, loose tops and sandals. And so the stage is set for the main event — the celebration service itself.
Anika and Britta Johnson are the current darlings of Canadian musical theatre. Britta’s Life After, for which Anika functioned as dramaturge and appeared in the ensemble, rocked everyone’s socks off last year and won a slew of Dora Awards in the process. This show takes place in both the present and the past. The music for Dr. Silver swings between the celebratory oratorio of the service itself, and sung conversation between the family members and Timothy, but always tuneful and vibrant. One minute the score reaches the height of a full-blown Handel chorale, and the next, subsides into the most intimate dialogue. The rhyme scheme is subtle and clever, and the lyrics reflect real life. The Johnson women never just tell, they show. Things about the Silver family are revealed by implication. The audience is always gathering information. The integration of the chorus is masterful, both as part of the ritual, and as enhancement of the family discussions. For example, when Vera is contemplating running off with her brother, a trio of young chorines keep chiming in with “What are you afraid of?”
Conductor Adam Sakiyama slips between the organ and the piano, providing deft musical accompaniment, while choreographer Barbara Johnston has aided Cushman in moving bodies around the stage, sliding easily between ritual and realistic mode. The cast can both act and sing which is essential, but both Caroline (Garner) and Gordon (Deiwick) need to be louder and clearer. Dow, with his ringing tenor and years of experience, dominates the show, although the two daughters hold their own with strong performances.
What is fascinating about Dr. Silver is what we discover, via the music, during the performance. The good doctor was clearly a leader of a cult situated on a remote farm that was cut off from the rest of the world. City life was verboten. “Poison exists on the outside of the door,” we are told. In fact, we are led to believe that we are in a secret location for this service because there are enemies, and a terrifying police raid five years ago led to Dr. Silver’s weakened condition. The family relationships are dark. Caroline is completely dominated by her husband. Harmony is a weaker, and therefore, more dangerous vessel than her sister Vera. Timothy had a questionable relationship with Gordon. The family history is filled with lies and deceit. Perhaps the most interesting fact is that we don’t really learn many details about the doctor’s actual teachings. (If we had time to read the missive we were given when we entered, we could find out more.) We do know that his main principle was “in the key of being”, and through the “choice of song”, one could find “the beautiful part” which is the end game. In fact, the whole celebration ceremony is all about reaching “the beautiful part”.
The Johnson siblings write expressive, harmonic music with literate, engrossing lyrics. Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life is an absorbing theatrical experience from start to finish. Be warned, the production has already been extended once. The audience is small in number, and shows are selling out.