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SCRUTINY | Newfoundland Music And Culture Take Centre Stage In New Production

By Paula Citron on November 24, 2021

Phil Goodridge, Melanie O’Brien, Steve Ross, Seana-Lee Wood, Renee Strasfeld, Erin Mackey, Liam Eric Dawson, Julia Dunne, Duff MacDonald, Steve Maloney in Terra Bruce Productions' No Change In The Weather at the CAA Theatre. (Photo: Ritche Perez)
Phil Goodridge, Melanie O’Brien, Steve Ross, Seana-Lee Wood, Renee Strasfeld, Erin Mackey, Liam Eric Dawson, Julia Dunne, Duff MacDonald, Steve Maloney in Terra Bruce Productions’ No Change In The Weather at the CAA Theatre. (Photo: Ritche Perez)

David Mirvish & Terra Bruce Productions/No Change in the Weather: A Newfoundland Musical, story by Bernadine Stapleton, adapted by Steve Cochrane, music curation by Walter Schroeder, directed by Brad Hodder, CAA Theatre, Nov. 19 to Nov. 27. Tickets available here.

Newfoundland is an island awash in music. For a number of years, I attended an annual dance festival in St. John’s and I always came home with CDs featuring tunes I encountered on my visit. I love Newfoundland folk music, and the songwriters of today carry on the tradition of penning beautiful melodies and heartfelt lyrics that tell stories of the island and its people. No Change in the Weather: A Newfoundland Musical is filled with those wonderful songs.

The idea for a musical built around both traditional and contemporary music is the brainchild of executive producer and music curator Walter Schroeder. No Change in the Weather: A Newfoundland Musical first saw the light of day in 2019, and seems to have been in development ever since. This current iteration features a huge cast of 12 singing actors, a musical ensemble of seven under the direction of Kelly-Ann Evans and Josh Ward, and a score comprised of four traditional and 17 contemporary songs. In other words, the show is an orgy of Newfoundland music.

That is the good news. Unfortunately, Bernadine Stapleton’s script is not sure what it wants to be. On one hand, we have a family saga. On the other, the show is a polemic that rails against the injustices done to Newfoundland and Labrador from both inside and outside political forces, in particular, the Churchill Falls debacle that literally sold the province down the river. In fact, the program notes contain a very long essay on the Churchill Falls sell-out. The musical also touches on the current Muskrat Falls fiasco, which sent me scurrying to the internet to read up on it.

The family in question is the O’Briens. Narrator Peggy O’Brien (Kelly-Ann Evans) has died, and tells the story of her friends and relations stealing her body from the funeral home, and taking her back to the abandoned island (God’s Back Pocket) that was her ancestral home, in order to celebrate her wake. There the characters assemble so that secrets can be revealed, and mysteries solved.

First we have her warring sons, Bill (Steve Ross), and James “Sonny Boy” (Duff MacDonald). There is also Jade (Seana-Lee Wood), who lives in Alberta, and whom Sonny left at the altar, and her justice warrior daughter Liza (Melanie O’Brien), who is the main haranguer against the wrongs of Churchill Falls.

Peggy’s friends include Sally Brown (Vicki Harnett), the resident spiritualist, former fisherman/now postal worker Johnny (Steve Maloney), and transplanted American investment banker Richard (Philip Goodridge), who is in search of his dead wife’s Newfoundland roots.

Interlopers include the three spirits (Julia Dunne, Erin Mackey and Liam Eric Dawson), who are there to carry Peggy’s spirit to another world. They are disguised as funeral ghouls, aka, people who attend wakes to gorge on the food. We also have Constable Banashee (Renée Strasfeld), a transplanted Mountie from Québec (where else?)

Thus, we have all the basics covered. Along with family secrets soon to be revealed, collectively the characters can talk (and sing) about the loss of the fishing industry, the abandoned outports, the incompetence of various Newfoundland governments, as well as various traditional superstitions and folklore. No Change in the Weather: A Newfoundland Musical is also about the resilience of the people in the face of the adversity which seems to mark so much of the province’s history.

The cast, a mix of equity and non-equity members, have credits that cover the country, with the best known being that wonderful singing actor Steve Ross, who has graced so many Stratford Festival musicals. Several are actually from Newfoundland, and all, happily, can sing up a storm. The harmonies are exquisite, while the jaunty band is a toe-tapping machine. Musically, the show is solid.

Director Brad Hodder has done a good job with manoeuvring 12 people over Gillian Gallow’s clever set, making sure that the characters who have focus are front and centre. The backdrop is a stylized wooden house, so typical of Newfoundland, while the interior is replete with suitable chairs and tables. Gallow has also cunningly included risers to get rid of the flatness. Sara Hodder’s costumes are perfectly character specific.

When the show was over, I said to my companion that this musical is not for the so-called Toronto sophisticates who would pooh, pooh the lame family storyline, and bristle at the Churchill Falls sermonizing. As a concert of Newfoundland music, however, both from today and yesteryear, No Change in the Weather: A Newfoundland Musical is sublime.

The title, incidentally, refers to the fact that, metaphorically, if there is no change in the weather, Newfoundland and Labrador will continue to struggle with financial hardships that include a crushing debt load, a declining economy, and high unemployment.

In other words, No Change in the Weather: A Newfoundland Musical is also a call to action.

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Paula Citron
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