Stage Door Review

No Change in the Weather

Monday, November 22, 2021

✭✭

by Bernardine Stapleton, directed by Brad Hodder

Mirvish Productions, CAA Theatre, 651 Yonge Street, Toronto

November 20-29, 2021

“The past comes back and kicks you in the arse"

Mirvish is currently presenting the Terra Bruce production of No Change in the Weather, a musical with an entirely Newfoundlander cast and creative team. The piece is a jukebox musical made up of old and new Newfoundland songs strung together on a story by Bernardine Stapleton revised by Steve Cochrane. It was a big hit in St. John’s when it premiered there in 2019 and on its cross-Canada tour that year, including a stop in Toronto. Now it returns to Toronto direct from a hit revival in St. John’s.

After all this success it may seem surprising to some to say that the production I saw on opening night felt more like a workshop production of a new musical rather than the revival of an already finished work. The book itself noticeably needs more revision and the cast and direction are uneven.

The action of Stapleton’s book takes place in 1999 when family matriarch Peggy O-Brien (Kelly-Ann Evans) has died. A group of Peggy’s friends and family sneak Peggy’s corpse out of the funeral home to take it to an abandoned house on the fictional island of God’s Back Pocket to hold a wake for Peggy as per her last wishes. Once there, the wake commences with tales told, songs sung and old family wounds reopened. The novelty of the show is that it is introduced by the ghost of Peggy herself who is visible throughout the action and who occasionally comments on onstage events.

Problems with the book begin with its very premise. According to the Statutes on Newfoundland and Labrador 2009, there is no need for anyone to sneak a corpse out of a funeral home to fulfil the deceased’s final wishes if they are in possession of a “Burial Permit”, which “means a permit to bury, cremate, remove or otherwise dispose of a dead body”. This is issued five days after the death certificate. The family and friends are in violation of the law only because they could not wait the five days for the certificate.

From a structural point of view the musical has no narrative. As soon as the body-snatchers have set themselves up on the island, the “action” consists simply of the interactions of the various participants. Stapleton has tried to organize these episodes so that the family secrets revealed are of increasingly greater import, but revelations from one secret do not necessarily lead to revelations of another.

Though Steve Cochrane adapted Stapleton’s book, there are wholes scenes and sets of characters that could be omitted without affecting the story. Indeed, the show should be cut down since at its current running time of of 2 hours and 40 minutes it feels baggy and far from taut.

Three of the characters – Vi (Julia Dunne), Azzy (Erin Mackey) and Danny (Liam Eric Dawson) – should be immediately excised. They are introduced so poorly that at first we think they are young mainland fashionistas and have no clue why they are even in the show. Far too late in the action do we realize that the three are supposed to be spirits who will guide Peggy to the afterlife. The problems with this are 1) “Why does a dead person need three hipster spirits as guides at all?” and 2) “If they are spirits, why are they visible to the humans while ghost of Peggy is not?” In any case, their presence is a constant annoyance.

Not merely characters but whole episodes have no purpose and do nothing to move the story along. The most ludicrous of these is a scene where the character Johnny (Steve Maloney) drags an enormous hairball on stage supposedly disgorged from the toilet where he has just peed. If this were not gross enough, Johnny then rummages about in the hairball where he finds various lost objects. The entire hairball scene – the dragging on, rummaging inside it, dragging off and cleaning up afterwards – stops the show dead. Maybe some find this gross-out interlude hilarious. Here the audience responded with deepening silence and isolated titters as the scene lasted well byond its tepid welcome.

Similar to this, is the entire discussion of the Churchill Falls dispute. For Newfoundlanders the 1969 signing over of the power generating station of Churchill Falls in Labrador to Quebec was “the biggest giveaway in history”. By 2018 Quebec had profited by $28 billion from the deal while Newfoundland had profited by only $2 billion. The agreement does not lapse until 2041 and thus is still an open sore for Newfoundlanders. For a contemporary off-island audience, even the long article in the programme explaining the dispute show that it is far too complex to be covered by a shouting match between characters on stage. 

It turns out that two of Peggy’s sons – Bill (Steve Ross) and Sunny (Duff MacDonald) – were on opposite sides in the dispute. While Bill defended the values of a proud independent Newfoundland, Sunny is painted as a craven politician, actively encouraging the the deal to palliate Quebec which was then in one of its separation tantrums. Again the show stops dead as the once ribald interchanges of jokes and quips turns to ponderously serious debate and we wait for the point of the show, Peggy’s wake, to resume.

Stapleton tries to conjure up an atmosphere of danger as the members of the wake are in constant fear of being found out by the RCMP. At every knock at the door the characters rush about as if in a Benny Hill chase scene until they “hide”, most in plain sight, from new intruder. It spoils nothing for me to reveal that absolutely nothing comes of this. The point seems merely to be to introduce an unneeded character with a Québécois accent to make fun of.

With its sievelike plot the one thing that keeps No Change afloat are its songs. There are eighteen – a mixture of traditional ballads and newer songs – and for the most part they are so well performed and embody the combination of melancholy and resilience in Newfoundlanders so well that the show could simply have been a revue of music from Newfoundland and Labrador and been just as successful.

The twelve-member cast works as an ensemble but inevitably certain performers stand out. Prime among these is Steve Ross as Bill O’Brien. Stratford Festival audiences are so used to seeing him in secondary roles that it is a treat to see him in a major one that he invests with more breadth and depth than do the others. It is also a pleasure to hear him sing a wider range of songs than he usually is given. He proves in a song like “Heavy Nets” that he can just as well put across a serious, emotional song as the comic songs he is more often assigned.

Another standout is Kelly-Ann Evans as the deceased Peggy O’Brien. I will confess that her accent was so strong in her spoken intros to Act 1 and 2, that I didn’t quite catch all their wit. Others did however and it was clear that she was adept at well projecting Peggy’s personality as an ironist who does not suffer fools lightly. She also has a lovely singing voice best illustrated by the wistfulness of the song “By the Glow of the Kerosene Light”.

Seana-Lee Wood as Jade, the mother of Peggy’s granddaughter, and Steve Maloney as Johnny, an AA member sponsored by Peggy, also sang on voices that were a delight to hear. Unfortunately, this is not the case with everyone such as Philip Goodridge as Richard, an American friend of Peggy’s.

Brad Hodder, best known in Ontario as a leading man at the Stratford Festival, directs, but has oddly chosen to make the characters appear as cartoonish as possible. One would think that off-islanders already have a clichéd view of islanders so that the best course would be to counteract those clichés. Some like Vicki Harnett as the spiritualist Sally Brown fall in with modes of exaggerated expression all too easily, while other actors appear to alternate between overacting when in group scenes and more realistic acting when playing their individual scenes.

The idea of friends and relatives celebrating a wake for a materfamilias and of the humour, animosity and secrets issuing forth from such a gathering does make a good framework for a musical. The notion of the deceased as a commentator and active participant is especially imaginative and is put to good use at the conclusion. But the extraneous characters, the false set-up of danger and the allowing of the show’s momentum to grind to a halt more than once are all issues that the creators should really re-examine and eliminate.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Seana-Lee Wood, Philip Goodridge, Steve Ross, Steve Malone, Vicki Harnett and Melanie O’Brien; Julia Dunne, Vicki Harnett, Steve Malone, Duff MacDonald, Seana-Lee Wood, Steve Ross, Melanie O’Brien, Philip Goodridge, Erin Mackey and Liam Eric Dawson. © 2021 Ritchie Perez.

For tickets visit www.mirvish.com.