Stage Door Review
Monday, August 5, 2019
music by Steve Thomas, book & lyrics by Norm Foster, directed by Patricia Vanstone
Norm Foster Theatre Festival, FirstOntario PAC, St. Catharines
August 2-17, 2019;
Theatre Collingwood, Georgian Bay Hotel, Collingwood
August 20-24, 2019
Young Sam: “I don’t know you but I want to spend my life with you”
The Norm Foster Theatre Festival concludes its fourth season with a production of its first musical – the world premiere of Beside Myself with music by Steve Thomas and book and lyrics by Norm Foster. The show deals with a fantasy we all have toyed with – “What if I could change one thing that happened in the past?” The result is an hilarious show filled with memorable songs that could not be better sung. The book by Foster ensures that this is not just a farcical romp but brings up the important question of whether we understand the past well enough to change it.
The show begins with Paula (Gabrielle Jones) and Sam (Jonathan Whittaker) sorting through their belongs since they have decided to split up after 35 years of unhappy marriage. They married when they were too young and when Paula gave birth to twins all hopes Sam had of studying law and Paula had of becoming a writer vanished. The jobs they took to make money for their new family became the jobs they had to tolerate from then on.
As they sort through their paltry collection of keepsakes, Sam finds a wishing stick he and Paula were given as a wedding present. Unaware that he is holding it, Sam wishes that he and Paula had never met when they were in first year university. Suddenly the two notice that everyone in the neighbourhood has vintage cars parked in their driveways. There’s even one in their own driveway. Gradually it dawns on the two that Sam’s wish has been granted and they have gone back in time by 35 years. This reminds Sam of episode 12 of Star Trek (actually, it’s episode 28) when Kirk and Spock go back in time to change history. Sam and Paula see their obvious mission is to find their younger selves and prevent them from meeting.
By the time they make their way to the university, they are already too late. Young Sam (Griffin Hewitt), excited about attending law school, has already met Young Paula (Breton Lalama), who has asked Young Sam how to find the English Department. After seeing her for the first time Young Sam sings to himself, “I don’t know you but I want to spend my life with you”.
When Paul and Sam turn up they introduce themselves as “campus liaisons” Juliet and Eduardo, who are there to help students with all the questions they may have in their first year. Young Sam and Young Paula grow suspicious of these would-be counsellors when they start trying to manipulate their personal lives more than their academic lives.
Confusion ensues when the campus liaisons begin to give out contradictory advice. For, as it happens, the more Sam and Paula become reacquainted with the real events of their youth the more they realize that for 35 years they may have falsely been blaming each other for their failure.
Steve Thomas and Norm Foster have collaborated before on the musicals Jasper Station (2001), Race Day (2002), Sitting Pretty (2005) and One Moment (2007). The two obviously completely understand each other with Thomas providing a string of varied, memorable tunes that exactly capture the sense of Foster’s lyrics and skilfully move the story along. Many of the numbers have such strong hooks and express such universal sentiments, such as the soaring “My Shot” for Young Sam or the meditative title song, that its not hard to imagine them becoming popular songs.
The Foster Festival has assembled an unbeatable cast. Gabrielle Jones, a veteran of both the Shaw and Stratford festivals and of tours of Les Misérables and Mamma Mia! is a joy to watch. We are so used to seeing her in the role of a sidekick that it’s great finally to see her in a starring role. She has a strong, rich voice and really knows how to put over a song. As an actor she has impeccable comic timing and generates the energy that drives the story along. Her standout number is the hard-driving “I Used to Rock” where Thomas and Foster have cleverly built in verbal and musical allusions to numerous hits of the early 1970s.
Jonathan Whittaker, seen most recently in a wide range of roles in The Big Sleep at Theatre Aquarius, plays Sam as the calming partner to Jones’s volatile Paula. He is equally adept at comedy and many of the show’s funniest moments involve Sam trying to extricate himself from a series of gaffes. Whittaker has a low, mellow voice that would be well suited to country music and it happens that many of the numbers Thomas gives him have a distinct country influence. Probably his most moving number is the brilliantly imagined duet that Thomas and Foster give Sam and Young Sam.
While veteran actors like Jones and Whittaker give us the dependably sterling performances we expect, what will really put audiences in awe is the immense talent of newcomers Griffin Hewitt and Breton Lalama as Young Sam and Young Paula. The high calibre of their acting and singing will make you feel the future of musical theatre in Canada is in good hands.
Hewitt has a gorgeous, highly expressive voice and brings both intelligence and emotion to every song. Lalama’s voice has strength and resilience that she unerring suits to the the style of each number. In their one duet together Hewitt and Lalama’s voices blend perfectly. Unlike many young singers, both have mastered the natural but absolutely clear diction that is especially necessary in a brand new work.
As a further bonus director Patricia Vanstone could not have chosen two young people who happen to look so much like younger versions of Whittaker and Jones. This makes the musical’s conceit of Sam and Paula visiting their younger selves uncannily believable.
There is no pit at the Recital Hall of the FirstOntario PAC so Vanstone has placed the three-member band (Thomas on keyboards with Mike Allen on guitar and Ian Copeland on percussion) on the stage. The group’s raised, roped-off performing area is in the centre and rather farther downstage than you might expect leaving only a narrow performing space for the actors between it and the stage edge.
Vanstone’s direction, however, makes such good use of the U-shaped acting area around the band that we almost forget it’s there. In this she is helped greatly by Chris Malkowski’s lighting that focusses our attention on the actors and only on the band when there is a clear interplay between the singers and musicians.
Foster keeps his story more in the realm of fantasy than science fiction so that we are free to view the beginning as a nightmare and the ending as a dream if we so wish. Still, like most stories featuring time travel, Beside Myself does leave open the question whether there are now two couple named Sam and Paula living in the present or just one. It doesn’t matter. Beside Myself is a tuneful, laugh-out-loud visualization of both the confusion and the wisdom that could be gained if your older self had been there to advise your younger self on what was to come. Is this really something you should wish for? See this bright gem of a show and decide. This is such an enjoyable, well-sung show if there were a cast album available, you’d buy it.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photo: (from top) Breton Lalama as Young Paula, Griffin Hewitt as Young Sam, Jonathan Whittaker as Sam and Gabrielle Jones as Paula; Gabrielle Jones as Paula and Jonathan Whittaker as Sam holding wishing stick; Breton Lalama as Young Paula and Griffin Hewitt as Young Sam. © 2019 Alex Heidbuechel.
For tickets, visit www.fosterfestival.com.