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William Lincoln as Tommy, Aidan Burke as Wee Jimmy, Dharma Bizier as Maggie, Lawrence Libor as Shug in Maggie.Dahlia Katz/Handout

  • Title: Maggie: A New Musical
  • Music by: Johnny Reid, Matt Murray and Bob Foster
  • Book and lyrics by: Johnny Reid and Matt Murray
  • Director: Mary Francis Moore
  • Actors: Dharma Bizier, Lawrence Libor, William Lincoln, Aidan Burke
  • Company: Theatre Aquarius
  • City: Hamilton, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to May 7; then at the Charlottetown Festival from June 21 to Sept. 2, 2023

Maggie, a new musical currently having its world premiere at Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius with backing from producer Michael Rubinoff (Come from Away), is a splendid showcase of Scottish-Canadian country musician Johnny Reid’s songwriting skills.

Featuring a dozen original Reid songs (co-written with Bob Foster and Matt Murray), the show is a paean to his real-life Scottish grandmother, a cleaner who raised three boys alone after the death of her husband in his early 20s, in shrinking, hardscrabble Lanark, Scotland.

From the sole perspective of score, it doesn’t disappoint, with a mix of tart toe-tappers for the townspeople and emotional ballads for the luminous lead Dharma Bizier.

But Maggie – for which Reid also shares credit for script and lyrics with Murray (Grow) – has a number of problems in its decades-spanning plot that need to be solved if it hopes to spread far beyond Reid’s fanbase.

Some are wee and can be worked out ahead of a summer run at the Charlottetown Festival in PEI. Some are not.

After a brief introduction to a heavily pregnant Maggie (Bizier) and her husband, Jimmy, very much in love, Maggie gets the proper, rousing opening number it deserves: Friday Night in Lanark.

This sees the Lanarkshire ladies lined up outside of a pub, rocking prams and smoking cigarettes, preparing to stop their miner husbands on the way in. As one named Betty (the excellent Nicola-Dawn Brook) sings: “So he won’t spend his hard-earned pounds / inside that stinkin’ zoo / on liquor, ponies, buyin’ rounds / pissed right down the loo.”

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Michelle Bardach as Jean, Liam Crober-Best (ensemble), Jay Davis (ensemble, also plays Jimmy and Constable), Jeremy Legat as Uncle Charles, Alyssa LeClair (ensemble), Dharma Bizier as Maggie, Nicola-Dawn Brook as Betty, and Aaron Reid Ryder (ensemble) in Maggie.Dahlia Katz/Handout

The harsh realities of this community are immediately clear, as is the sharp sense of humour that helps the women endure. (It’s also clear that it’s 1954, because Betty also sings: “It’s 1954, I tell ya/ I am bloody through.”)

Maggie eventually arrives on the scene for a more romantic refrain about waiting – but as husband after husband appears, hers doesn’t.

The impact of this is diluted by the fact we barely knew Jimmy, by Maggie melodramatically going into labour, and by the strangeness of the staging in which none of the men who just passed by let on that they had lost a colleague.

Never mind: After a jump in time of 14 years, Maggie restarts, all that initial scene setting essentially scotched. Now, with the help of her female friends, the single mother is raising three teenagers: Shug (Lawrence Libor), 19, aiming for a musical career; Tommy (William Lincoln), 17. a soccer whiz; and “wee” Jimmy (Aidan Burke), 14, the brains of the bunch.

Uncle Charles (Jeremy Legat), the window-dresser brother to Maggie’s late husband, is part of the family too, his homosexuality over-signalled by having him sashay on stage in a stylish outfit with a bloody lip and tell Betty that she needs a new hairdo because: “Darling, it’s 1968.” (Another script/staging disconnect: Charles’s injury is ignored so long that I started to think it was makeup mishap.)

The remainder of Maggie’s first act, however, finds its groove amid the three sons trying to imagine a future in a town with limited options.

Those whose history of British mining is based entirely on Billy Elliot: The Musical, set in the 1980s, may be thrown off by hearing complaints about the closure of coal pits by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. But, indeed, his tenure saw more shuttered than Margaret Thatcher’s.

The attraction of blaming others for decline is strong – and Shug, in particular, is seduced by sectarian violence. (He and the other main characters are Protestant; the local Catholics are the scapegoats.)

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Dharma Bizier as Maggie and Jamie McRoberts as Sadie, in Maggie.Dahlia Katz/Handout

Maggie tries to warn him away from this path. “Walk away,” she advises in one song, but Shug tells her to “Look around … Yer country is dyin’ in front of yer eyes.”

This is a compelling confrontation but, unfortunately, one of only a few rare moments where we see the relationship between Maggie and her children properly dramatized.

Most of the time, Maggie is a busy but not active protagonist. She works non-stop scrubbing floors – getting on her hands and knees in the middle of her solos to do so, inadvertently showing the music’s disconnect from the story under Mary Francis Moore’s direction.

Time passes and things happen and Maggie’s songs vaguely express her emotional state rather than illuminate an inner life – telling us about her wants and needs. Her first big ballad, in which she declares she is “unbreakable,” doesn’t give much of a place for the character to go.

She, too, floats above the scenes at the “Steamie” – a communal laundry area – where the other under-drawn women talk about their frustrations, fears, ambitions and what year we are in now.

After a dramatic climax and revelation at the end of the first act, Reid and Murray don’t know where to take the story. There are more time jumps – and the rest plays out over a series of gatherings and parties that blend together.

Ultimately, Reid’s portrait of his grandmother is hagiography. The men in his musical are much more compelling than the women because they have, well, flaws.

I’d suggest the writers either pick one period and stick to it – or invent a narrator to suck up all the exposition and provide context to this flip through the family photo album. And if the current writers don’t have anything to say beyond the jokey and cliché about women’s history in the second half of the 20th century, bring in another.