Mind the Wharf-Rats If You’re Rockbound

It has been said that the book musical is the epitome of the American art form and it has been hailed as America’s unique contribution to the evolution of theatre and modern storytelling. Dozens of the world’s most iconic musicals have followed the idyllic, nostalgic formula of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 musical Oklahoma! during which a pair (or pairs) of lovers are thwarted in their quest for true love against a backdrop of some specific shade of patriotic, iconic Americana. These book musicals were contemporary fairytales, often following the Cinderella formula, which reaffirmed American values, traditions and views on morality. In Nova Scotia, however, where one crow brings sorrow and the ocean continually provides a backdrop of heartache, loneliness and tragedy, the sweeping, epic depiction of heroes and ingénues tap dancing their way toward happily ever after would be utterly incongruous with the stories that typically come from the spray of the North Atlantic. One such tale is Rockbound, the 1928 novel by Frank Parker Day, which has been adapted into a musical by Allen Cole, and is produced by Two Planks and a Passion Theatre playing until August 9th at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts.
Rockbound has all the makings of a traditional Nova Scotian tale: fishing, shipwrecks, misery, ghosts, drinking, sea shanties, lonesome islands, and since the production is performed outside, authentic fog, and naturalistic rain. That being said, this story of young David on his quest to claim his right to 1/10th of the Island of Rockbound despite his cranky uncle’s determination to thwart his success, has its twists, turns and surprises while remaining as familiar and comforting as an old quilt. One of the most striking aspects of this show is its language. The characters all speak with a thick regional Nova Scotian accent and have a distinct Rockbound dialect which can be difficult to follow for audience members unaccustomed to this sort of speech, yet immensely affirming and heartwarming for those for whom this dialect is familiar. The actors are so proficient with the language that it ascends the kitchen sink toward poetic heights, while simultaneously enriching the audience’s understanding of the distinctive specifics of the unique world of Rockbound.
This production is blessed with the talents of some of Nova Scotia’s most talented and beloved theatre artists. Frank Moore is phenomenal as Uriah Jung, the proud, selfish, cunning King of Rockbound. While his characterization of old Uriah is pitch-perfect, he also has show-stopping musical moments which have the power to catapult the entire production into another realm. James Macdonald is tenaciously earnest as David and ensures that despite some morally ambiguous behavior at the onset of the story, David remains a charming and likeable protagonist. Amanda LeBlanc is delightful as Mary Dauphiny, although, despite Cole’s gorgeous music, the songs and the wide open space do not adequately do justice to her incredibly beautiful voice. This is also the case with Bridget Bezanson and Kyle Gillis, whose voices I wish were able to soar with all the rich, vibrant delicacy I know they are capable of, yet their characters are not given typical musical theatre ballads. At the same time, Burgandy Code shines as Anapest Kraus, a biting, sharp-as-nails aunt without enough stage time. It also pained my heart a bit to see Cliff LeJeune, one of this province’s most accomplished and poignant artists, who once made me cry during a play READING (coincidently for Cole’s musical Pélagie at the Atlantic Theatre Festival in 2003), having so few moments to awe and inspire. The star of Rockbound is undoubtedly Marty Burt’s portrayal of the jolly, uproarious, copiously charming and equally inebriated lighthouse keeper, Gershom Born. Burt creates a character that nestles into the entrails of your heart and takes the audience along with him effortlessly.
Allen Cole’s music is hauntingly beautiful. The harmonies that the cast sing, especially in the ensemble, are rich and textured with stunning results. The music is intrinsic to the world of Rockound, and it captures the flavor of the sea with perfection. Standout songs include one lamenting God’s Sunday of Rest, and another dramatizing the tale of the “Wery audacious Sanford Ghos.” The songs that I find work the best as musical theatre songs are strangely reminiscent of the score for Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, which seems an odd, but definitely interesting correlation.
Rockbound’s challenge is that Allen Cole is doing many unique things in this show and thus, the musical is saturated with its own innovation and therefore its audience may find themselves slightly overwhelmed. The story itself is fraught with complexities; including an intricate family tree, substantial emotional and time leaps and multiple storylines. The language is challenging, and many critical plot points are crammed into songs laden with lyrics with some crucial details mentioned only once (unlike in conventional book musicals where plot points are driven home repeatedly as to obliterate the potential for confusion). Ken Schwartz’s direction is largely fantastic, as he uses his space well and establishes beautifully specific locations. There is a particularly magnificent moment in which a yellow chair becomes a dory and the natural elements give the whole production a magical ambiance. One source of confusion, however, is that one of the death scenes is played naturalistically, while the other two are more symbolic which seems to be a needless inconsistency.
In all, I think Rockbound is a musical that Nova Scotians should make the trip to either Ross Creek or Chester to see. Allen Cole has created something with truly breathtaking moments and melodies that are indeed epically spectacular. I think Rockbound still holds much potential in every orifice to be continually honed and fleshed out. At the moment, the show seems to appeal to the region it plays homage to, and it does so with esteem, but I think if this show is given the opportunity to evolve further, Cole may create a newly perfected formula for musical theatre which does not seek the concrete isolation of corporate concept, but also refuses to bind itself to the stereotypes of the classic fairytale, in pursuit of something else.
Rockbound plays at Ross Creek Centre for the Arts until August 9th, 2009 Tuesday through Sunday at 6pm. There are PWYC performances at 1pm on Saturday August 1st and August 8th. To reserve tickets please call 902 582-3073 or Toll Free at 1-888-895-4545. Rockbound will also be at Chester Playhouse from August 13th-16th, 2009.

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