By Joe Szekeres
There’s always anticipation to attend a premiere production of a new, live theatrical work. It is a huge undertaking (and sometimes a risk) for a professional theatre company to open its season with an unfamiliar story for local audiences. For director Carey Nicholson, she and ‘Willow Quartet’ are not unfamiliar as they go back several years to Aurora, Ontario and to the first staged workshop of the play which is now gaining popularity with Ontario theatre organizations.
In 2015, Ms. Nicholson heard from playwright Joan Burrows that the next phase of evolution was to find a theatre company to workshop the first staging of ‘Willow Quartet Musical’. Nicholson was happy to offer Theatre on the Ridge as she and Music Director, Carol Salamone state in the program it has “been a new experience and a joy to bring music and script together for the first time.”
Indeed, it was a wise choice. ‘Willow Quartet Musical’ is a poignantly moving story, beautifully sung and realistically performed by five solid actors who never venture into the sappy or melodrama. If anything, I left the performance feeling uplifted and confident that life can and does move forward amid turmoil and crisis.
A rural family of modest means, mother Kim (Ashlie White), father Ben (Lyle Corrigan), grandmother Marjorie (Roz McArthur-Keyes) and son Josh (Nathan Simpson), are recovering from a family tragedy and are trying their best to return to their strong roots of connection they have with each other and with their community. Musician Jim (Chris Daniel) enters this family’s life and, through his influence, shapes and molds the new identity of these people as they experience a new normal in their lives in moving forward.
Given that Theatre on the Ridge is a repertory company in the summer, Melanie Baker and Carey Nicholson’s set design fittingly works well on the Town Hall stage. It’s minimalist but we have been transported to a rural setting. Far stage right can be found garden tools. On stage right, there is an outdoor porch of two wicker chairs slightly angled with table in between. A laundry basket with clothes is at the foot of one of the chairs. Laundry hangs on a clothesline upstage. A wooden fence can be found upstage. An angled bench is found stage left. We also see a willow tree with branches bent and part of its trunk stage left. Victor Svenningson’s sound designs of motorcycles and tractors also add effectively to the creation of a country setting.
Kudos to Music Director Carol Salamone and her band members for the unobtrusive musical underscoring along with gorgeous sounding harmonies in several of the musical numbers. What worked well for me during this opening night production was the important fact that I could hear the lyrics of each song. The opening number “Roots Run Deep” is so powerfully sung that it still hauntingly remains with me as I write this article. In this production, important character development occurs in each song. If I can’t hear the lyrics at all, this frustrates me to no end, and I am always the first to point it out. Rest assured, that didn’t happen here once.
What a treat to have playwrights Joan Burrows, Ron Cameron-Lewis and Jason Saunders as opening night attendees. I had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Cameron-Lewis after for a few minutes and he appeared pleased the production was well received. The smiles I saw on many of the audience members’ faces as they were leaving was the first indication they too were pleased with what they had just seen.
Carey Nicholson’s compassionate direction made me feel sympathy and empathy for each of these individuals who are believable in their emotional responses. What makes this production work so well is the exhibition of true ensemble work. Each of them has a moment to shine in a humoristic and dramatic moment.
Ashlie White is a vulnerable, aching mother who is doing her best to move forward daily. Lyle Corrigan is also a vulnerable, aching father who in the second act reveals just how much he is hurting on the inside. Nathan Simpson as eighteen-year-old son Josh broke my heart as he tries his best to keep his emotions in check in dealing with his parents. His final scene with grandmother Marjorie is very touching. Roz McArthur Keyes is practical and down to earth as the grandmother who offers that bit of necessary advice when needed. Chris Daniel gives a charming performance as the handsome musician/stranger who becomes a touchstone of hope and encouragement in the face of adversity.
Final Comments: A most enjoyable production to open Theatre on the Ridge’s 2019 summer season. I’m hoping other groups may pick up ‘Willow Quartet Musical’ for their slates in the near future.
‘Willow Quartet Musical’ continues July 9, 10, 12 at 7:30 pm and July 13 at 2 pm at Town Hall, 1873, 302 Queen Street, Port Perry. For tickets, visit the website.