It’s hard to imagine a timelier and more appropriate “theatreumentary” than The Tale of a Town - St. Catharines, hitting the old boards (the venerable Odd Fellows Hall on James Street) even as the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre begins its brand-new artistic life.
Still feeling like a St. Kitts newbie (taking up residence here in 2001) as much of my time is spent elsewhere, this show proved to be as instructive as it was entertaining.
The conceit centres around The New Old Standard, with the unbounding enthusiasm of Henry Burgoyne III (Dan Watson emphatically driving his colleagues to meet their deadline), whose long-gone relative brought The Standard (“Just read it!”) to roaring life in 1891 (the old-time presses sounding more furious than The Falls), working against the proverbial clock to bring out a first edition worthy of present-day St. Catharines’ downtown renaissance.
To set the scene and create you-are-there atmosphere, patiently waiting patrons were first herded then ushered into the New Old newsroom and offered coffee and donuts (neither designer issue, in keeping with the “old”—apart from one clever sight gag, the cigarettes added little to the aura of authenticity) before the show began in earnest.
The five-member ensemble (Watson joined by Edwin Conroy Jr. as blinding photog, Skip; Dawn Crysler, resplendent in a nobody’s-fooled moustache playing Johnny Knickers; identity challenged Ron/Rob was brought to a fine buffoonery thanks to Robert Feetham’s unflinching portrayal and Deanna Jones playing the long-suffering writer-turned-secretary with copious amounts of disdain and wit) acquitted themselves quite well (and more than able to slip in and out of supporting roles as required) with a special shout out to Conroy for his manic acting, decent singing and just-right guitar stylings.
But it was the generous helping of videos and voiceovers that succinctly told the tale—effortlessly revealing history—fuelled by such topics as Art’s Diner, Diana Sweets and the evolution of The Pen Centre, a major contributor to the demise of the downtown core, which inevitably led to the related losses of architecturally important, historic sites (where would we be today if the wherewithal had been found to restore The Grand Opera House after fire shut its doors forever in 1998?).
(For me, once Beatties Basic Office Products and the UPS Store abandoned Queen Street, my only forays to the city core involved either paying taxes or savouring the marvellous work of the Carousel Players—cross-reference below.)
Lurking quietly in the background—of course—are the current possibilities and potential of both the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre and Brock University’s “invasion” of St. Paul Street to re-energize downtown back to the degree it used to enjoy decades ago.
Will this major infusion of capital, buildings and talent be enough for permanent rejuvenation? Or—50 years hence—will we be wondering why the central core, once again, went to seed?
As fun as director Lisa Marie DiLiberto’s pacing was and the writing team’s good intentions were, two quibbles remain: Is there no show song in the Canadian canon that could have replaced the reworking of “New York, New York”? And in 2015, surely the over-abundance of soon tiresome chauvinism could have been pared down and zingers found elsewhere?
‘Nough said: let’s get on with the main events! JWR