Saturday, May 2, 2015

For All That at Centerstage

Somme time
by Michael Dresdner

For All That, which debuted last night at Centerstage, is an epic musical as judged by a host of criteria. Written by the theatre’s artistic director Alan Bryce, it is big, bold, and evocative, with strong musical support, powerful technical backup, and a gripping subject.

Set during WWI, the story revolves around a small group of  Seaforth Highlanders from the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. Andrew (Joshua Williamson) has been away at school, a rarity, and returns to his homeland of simple farmers with eyes for Mairi (Katherine Jett) only to see her marry his brother, Donald (Cooper Harris-Turner.) The wedding celebration is cut short as all the men are called up to fight in the war. Only Andrew, as a conscientious objector, refuses to go, an act that earns him the distain of both is brother and Mairi.

We go with the men/boys as they head to basic training, then to the war. There’s bravery, comeraderie, desperation, breakdown, and ultimately, widespread death at the battle of the Somme. One by one they come to see something quite different than the superficial patriotism they reveled in at the outset. Ultimately there’s the realization that the other side is also human, that your own leaders lie, and that the war itself  brings little more than pain and destruction. Those still living, largely the women of the island, are left with the task of  picking up with life after such stunning futility and loss.

The production values, from the dramatic raked stage (Craig Wollam) and varied period costumes (Janessa Styck) through eye-popping lighting (Christina Barrigan) and copious choreography (Amy Johnson) are all outstanding. And though I mentioned only a few of them, the talented triple-threat (singing, dancing, acting) ensemble cast was more than worthy of this grand production, with almost all responsible for convincingly covering a range of varied characters. They, to a person, deserve kudos for a tough job well done.

This is a true musical in the sense that songs are varied, new, appropriate, and are demanded by the story, as opposed to being tacked on as an afterthought. From the upbeat folk songs danced to at the opening, through a range of patriotic, dark, heartfelt, and resolute offerings as the story progresses, the music is consistently excellent. Billed as by Many Hands, the program lists Joshua Zimmerman for musical direction and arrangements, and John Forster for additional music and lyrics, arrangements, and musical supervision. Live musicians are credited (Joshua Zimmerman, Ian Hughes, Andrew Pang, Matthew Goodin), paired with a complex, realistic, and varied sound track (Andy Swan.)  

By now you should have concluded that this is an excellent production that will drag you through mood changes and emotional responses, but not the sort of musical that ends with upbeat happiness. In fact, it rather leaves one with more questions than answers. Generally, with something so moving, one expects a message; some strong theme or statement that helps make sense of the experience. I’m at a loss as to exactly what Bryce means that to be.

Though billed as a love story, it is really not. Yes, there’s love, but is hardly the dominant theme, and is left largely undeveloped. So, too, is the brotherly love aspect; alluded to but again never really evolved. Sadly, the inner humanity of several key characters, the sort of thing that makes you really bond to and root for a person, is often left undeveloped and unrevealed until right before they die, or until the end of both the war and the play.

If anything, the strongest emotions one comes away with are cynicism about war itself and an overarching sadness over what we do in the name of honor and patriotism. Perhaps that’s the point.

At any rate, Bryce and company have given us a new musical that is both a moving experience and something truly worthy of  its existence. I hope it sticks around, and like most properties, goes through development and refinement as others pick it up and interpret it. At very least, it’s worth your time. Do go see it.  
For All That
May 1 to 24, 2015

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