- Title: Strike!
- Written by: Danny Schur (music, lyrics and co-writer) and Rick Chafe (co-writer)
- Director: Sharon Bajer
- Music director: Jesse Grandmont
- Choreographer: Stephanie (Sam) Manchulenko
- Venue: Winnipeg’s Rainbow Stage
The musical Strike!, which just opened at Winnipeg’s Rainbow Stage, is about a lot of things – immigrants, power, love, hate, relationships, the “other," and is one of those rare works that helps us learn something about our shared past while keeping us entertained. The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, in which 30,000 union and non-union workers brought Canada’s at-the-time third largest city to a standstill, proved to be a pivotal moment for the country. Lasting for six weeks, during which the governments of the day spread lies and calumny about the protesters and passed unfair laws, the strike galvanized the working class across the country, and its aftermath helped contribute to social democratic politics in Canada (medicare, old-age pension, and so on).
Women are the protagonists here, and indeed are the work’s social conscience. With compassion, resoluteness and strength, they help the male characters develop and even transform. Male aggression and dominance, of woman but also of other, younger men, is initially tolerated by the female characters until the tide turned.
Duncan Cox, as Ukrainian immigrant son Stefan Sokolowski, combined powerful and heart-wrenching singing and acting with stellar guitar playing. As Mike Sokolowski (Stefan’s father), Cory Wojcik sings with honesty and emotional depth. His character provided some of the main tension in the piece as an immigrant who badly needs work but does not believe in the strike. Mike’s ignorance and despair were fully believable and fleshed out through his body language and tone of voice.
Elena Howard-Scott gave us a rich and complete embodiment of her character, moving seamlessly between acting, singing and violin playing as Rebecca Almazoff, a young Jewish woman with an overbearing brother (Josh Bellan, in fine voice and displaying a suitably huffy personality). As Emma Jones, housekeeper to one of the leaders of the “Citizens Committee” which opposed the strike, Maiko Munro’s soulful vocals and passionate delivery brought her character close to us emotionally, and indeed helped bring this piece to another level. It was also gratifying to find Gabriel Chartrand as a nuanced and important Indigenous character, acted with finesse and beautifully sung by Nick Nahwegahbow. The three young newsies (Malacai, Jonah and Shiloh Hiebert) were equal parts master string players, boisterous headline shouters and charming ragamuffins.
Composer Danny Schur knows how to pen a pop song that draws you in, but he’s not a one-trick pony either – jaunty klezmer-style music reflecting the piece’s Jewish characters was enhanced by a cast member playing clarinet. Another strong factor is how some of the musicians are in fact cast members embedded into the texture of the piece. The standout music director (Jesse Grandmont) was also part of the cast, morphing into different characters so discreetly that you could have easily missed how integral he was. Every instrument and voice could be heard distinctly, and the music well-balanced with pristine tuning – quite a challenge for instrumentalists in an outdoor venue.
Strike! is one of the best new musicals I have seen onstage. My deep engagement with this piece was the result of a well-constructed and compelling dramatic arc. I really cared about the people onstage, and was emotionally invested in seeing their outcomes. That, for me, is the essence of all forms of theatre.
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