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Title: No Change in the Weather
Written by: Bernardine Stapleton
Adapted by: Steve Cochrane
Music by: Various
Director: Brad Hodder
Actors: Kelly-Ann Evans, Steve Ross, Duff MacDonald, Vicki Harnett, Seana-Lee Wood, Melanie O’Brien, Steve Maloney
Company: Terra Bruce Productions
Venue: CAA Theatre
Year: Playing until November 27, 2021
Three songs into Saturday’s opening night of No Change in the Weather at Toronto’s CAA Theatre, the performance had to be put on pause for several minutes because of a technical difficulty with the sound. It was an unfortunate glitch, but also weirdly apt.
After all, this made-in-Newfoundland musical is partly about the apparent curse that hangs over that unlucky province, which seems forever destined to be culturally rich and fiscally poor.
The show also doesn’t stint in revealing Newfoundlanders at their worst: bitter, bickering, grudge-holding, scatological. Call it the dark, gritty flip side to that other set-in-Newfoundland musical, the uplifting Come From Away.
Just don’t call it ready-for-Broadway. Awkward, laboured and overlong, No Change in the Weather has more than technical difficulties. It aspires to be at once a jukebox musical stocked with Newfoundland folk classics, a serious airing of political grievances – especially over the legendary Churchill Falls hydro station debacle – and a zany supernatural farce. That last aspiration is its undoing.
The book, by Bernardine Stapleton, adapted by Steve Cochrane (more on that later), aims for salty, snappy repartee. Instead, it’s just one corny joke after another, most of them landing with the dull thud of a dead fish on a butcher’s block. You wince for the poor actors who have to utter them.
But then, when they open their mouths to sing, you settle back and smile. There’s some beautiful singing here and some lovely songs, from toe-tapping traditional numbers (I’se the B’y, Feller From Fortune) to the classic ballads of Ron Hynes and even a new one by former Great Big Sea frontman Alan Doyle, Heavy Nets, that already sounds like it belongs in the canon.
The songs are a blessed relief from the comedy, which begins with a bumbling gang stealing a body from a funeral parlour and taking it by boat to an island called God’s Back Pocket. The purloined corpse is Peggy O’Brien (Kelly-Ann Evans), who is chatting to us in the afterlife, while the gang turns out to be her family and friends. They’re obeying Peggy’s last wishes by holding a prefuneral wake in her old clapboard house.
There’s Peggy’s son Bill (Steve Ross), an ex-fisherman done in by the cod moratorium. (The time is the 1990s.) There’s Jade (Seana-Lee Wood) from Calgary and Jade’s daughter Liza (Melanie O’Brien), a wannabe investigative journalist writing a Churchill Falls exposé for her “web blog.” (Did I mention this was the 1990s?) Then there are Peggy’s friends, Johnny (Steve Maloney), a fisherman-turned-postman and recovering alcoholic, and Richard (Philip Goodridge), an American investment banker in search of his beloved late wife’s Newfoundland roots. He’s brought her along with him – in a cremation urn.
Not least, there is self-styled “witchy woman” Sally Brown (Vicki Harnett), whose occult dabblings have inadvertently conjured up a trio of other spirits (Julia Dunne, Erin Mackey and Liam Eric Dawson) to join the ghostly Peggy.
Missing from the party is Peggy’s other son, Sonny Boy (Duff MacDonald) – and you knew there had to be a Sonny just so they could sing Hynes’s biggest hit, Sonny’s Dream. This Sonny is a provincial politician who had a hand in turning Churchill Falls over to Hydro-Québec back in the 1960s. When he does eventually turn up, all the ill feelings over that infamous giveaway come boiling to the surface. It doesn’t help that he’s followed by another visitor, Banashee (Renée Strasfeld), an RCMP constable from, gulp, Quebec.
If the title No Change in the Weather sounds familiar – and not just because it’s a line from another Hynes song – that’s because the musical had an earlier version, which premiered in St. John’s in 2019 and toured across Canada. At the time, producer Bob Hallett (also of Great Big Sea and a music consultant on Come From Away) talked about wanting to take the show to Broadway. COVID-19, of course, intervened, which allowed for an overhaul, with television writer Cochrane brought in to rework playwright Stapleton’s original script. From the looks of it, it’s no great improvement. It still contains chunks of hard-to-digest political history and the sort of parochial in-jokes that hardly seem exportable, unless your only target audience is the Newfoundland diaspora.
This new production, too, isn’t up to scratch. Hallett has assembled some fine talent onstage, backstage and in the orchestra pit, but the staging by director Brad Hodder is stiff and unimaginative, while the timing is abysmal. Most of the comical numbers, choreographed by Victoria Wells-Smith, are hectic but unamusing. The one exception is a lively rendition of Charlie Payne’s That’s the Way She Goes, sung by a jaunty Harnett who had me thinking of Joan Baez at her most playful.
It’s the ballads that come across best. Evans, Ross and Wood do them justice, keeping the sentimental at bay with sincerity, and when Maloney’s chuckleheaded Johnny sings you can almost forgive his relentless gross-out routine involving a gigantic hairball.
At the end of the performance, the audience – disposed to be jubilant at what is the first fully staged live musical to play at a Mirvish theatre since the start of the pandemic – remained seated, offering a tepid round of applause. Unless there are more changes to No Change in the Weather, it likely won’t be sailing anywhere but back to its home port.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)