Calgary Musicals

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Review: Oil and Water – A Warm-Hearted Play about a Cold-Water Tragedy

I’m just home from Robert Chafe’s Oil and Water, the opening night performance of the 2012 Magnetic North Theatre Festival, “Canada’s National Festival of Contemporary Canadian Theatre in English.” The after-show reception is still going on at Vertigo Theatre as I write this, but I’ve got a 6AM wake-up call so couldn’t stay too long to enjoy the festivities, nor stay up too late to write a long review.

Oil and Water is produced by Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland and is the heartwarming true story of Lanier Phillips, one of only 46 men, and the only black man, who survived when the USS Truxton ran aground near a Newfoundland outport in February 1942. This story is juxtaposed against an older Phillips trying to foster tolerance in his daughter Vonzia, during the Boston riots of 1974, when that city started busing black children to formerly white schools in order to integrate them. It is only when he explains the story of his rescue in Newfoundland by a family who’d never seen a black person before, that he is able to help her get past her hatred of white people and get back on the bus.

Although it took me a while to get into it (and it wasn’t really a musical in the conventional sense – having only periodic humming and a teeny bit of singing in the style of African-American gospel and Newfoundland folk music), this was ultimately a fine performance of a very moving show. It really came into its own in Act II when the ship went down. I loved the set by Shawn Kerwin, much of which was composed of buckets and boards, and yes, real water. The focal point was a large triangular structure which was cleverly used at various times to represent the rocking ship, the cliffs up which the sailors had to be carried by their Newfoundland rescuers, and the stairs to the upstairs bedroom in the house of Lanier’s hosts. The acting was top-notch. I particularly liked the portrayals of Lanier at 20 and at 50 by Anderson Ryan Allen and Jeremiah Sparks, respectively, and of his daughter Vonzia (Starr Domingue). The presentation was rounded out by a touching lobby display of photographs from the time of the accident and a 2008 reunion of Phillips and his rescuers in Newfoundland.

The Magnetic North Theatre Festival is usually held in Ottawa, but every other year it goes to another city in Canada. We are fortunate to host it here as part of our 2012 Cultural Capital celebrations. The festival runs until June 23 and includes a number of interesting-looking plays with high-caliber performers from across Canada, as well as opportunities to meet and interact with the artists, and a headline performance by comedian Rick Mercer on Friday June 22.  Oil and Water is the closest thing they have to a musical and it is only playing until Saturday June 16th. Shows are at 7PM (plus a Saturday matinée at 2PM) and tickets are $45.

For more information, go to: Magnetic North Festival

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