Stage Door Review

The Tracks

Friday, July 9, 2021

✭✭

music & lyrics by Kale Penny, book by Mark Weatherley, directed by Monique Lund

Here For Now Theatre, The Bruce Hotel Back Lawn, 89 Parkview Drive, Stratford

July 8-25, 2021

“It’s hard to move forward when you keep lookin’ back” (“The Tracks”)

Last year theatre festivals in Ontario were blindsided by the Covid pandemic and had to cancel their seasons. This left Stratford’s Here For Now Theatre as the only company small and nimble enough to respond to new restrictions imposed upon live theatre. Thus, last year, Here For Now was the only theatre company in Ontario to hold a live theatre festival. This year it is first off the mark among Ontario theatres in holding its second live theatre festival.

Last year patrons sat unprotected facing the northwest corner of the ground of The Bruce Hotel. This year The Bruce Hotel has provided the company with a wedding reception sized marquee on the eastern side of the property, with tiered seating for 50 on three sides of a 16x24 foot raised platform. Sheltered from the sun, wind and rain, furnished with much more comfortable seats and offering four more productions than last year, the 2021 New Works Festival, as it is now called, has taken a major step forward. Luckily, it has not lost the feel of intimate storytelling that was such a delight last year. The tickets are only $30 per show – lower than the lowest tickets prices at the other theatre festival in town.

Here For Now opened its festival with its first-ever musical – The Tracks – with music and lyrics by Kale Penny and a book by Mark Weatherley. Readers may know BC-born Penny from his many appearances with Drayton Entertainment over the past few years. They may know Mark Weatherley from his solo show Infinite Possibilities with Here For Now last summer.

The show is set in our present Covid-ridden times with Penny as Kale, a guitar-playing busker, crooning the song “The Tracks” on his pitch in the empty financial district of big city. Along comes Lauren (Lauren Bowler), a young woman with a briefcase and dressed for success who has arrived early for an interview at the bank and throws Kale a toonie in appreciation. In technical language she compliments Kale on his unusual chord changes and Kale recognizes in Lauren a fellow musician and one who has had a more formal music education than he has.

As Kale and we discover over the next 60 minutes of the show, Lauren was once the second violin of a major symphony orchestra before the lockdown and was being considered as the next concertmaster. Because of some disaster that Kale only with difficulty wheedles out of her, Lauren has given up the violin and is now seeking to “pivot” to an entry-level job with a bank. Why she is doing this is the great mystery Kale wants to unravel and persuading Lauren not to do it is his increasingly more passionate goal.

Mark Weatherley’s book is so cleverly written that one would never know that Penny had independently written four of the show’s five songs and released them in 2017 as part of an EP. The Tracks is thus a small-scale version of such back catalogue musicals as 42nd Street (1980) based on the songs of Warren and Dubin or Mamma Mia! (1999) based on ABBA. In terms of plot The Tracks most resembles the musical Once (2011) by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Both musicals feature a melancholy folk pop score. But in The Tracks, instead of a young woman inspiring a busker not to give up writing music, a busker tries to inspire a young woman not to give up playing it.

The characters Kale and Lauren are played by real-life husband and wife Kale Penny and Lauren Bowler. Penny makes the character Kale an eminently believable busker/philosopher. His voice is both gentle and stirring with a strong falsetto. No wonder  Penny has been cast more than once as the famous Carl Perkins in the musical Million Dollar Quartet. For her part Bowler shows us right from her entrance that the character Lauren is a young woman on edge and at war with herself.

Under Monique Lund’s empathetic direction Penny and Bowler masterfully show how the busker’s genuine warmth and concern gradually melt the icy demeanour the would-be businesswoman has adopted. Bowler subtly depicts how her character loses the will to generate the energy needed to maintain her façade and finally admits to Kale that she welcomes his advice. Lauren’s well-sung song admitting her weakness, “Over the Limit”, with its refrain “Officer /  I’m in need of intervention / I can’t stand at attention anymore”, is the turning point of the drama and is so catchy it still rings in my ears.

Indeed, all five of Penny’s songs express complex emotions through intricate rhymes and rhythms. The one overt dance tune, “Not Bored Yet”, has such a groove it really deserves airplay.  Topping off the general pleasure of this small-scale musical is the fact that it is not amplified. We hear unmediated the fine voices of Penny and Bowler, and this is a major relief after so many Covid months of recorded music and so many years before that of amplified musicals.

Here For Now’s 2021 New Works Festival thus starts off with a bang. Anyone who enjoys musicals should not miss The Tracks. Glitz and glitter are meaningless. The Tracks proves that all you need for a good musical is well-crafted songs and fine acting to draw you in and lift your mood.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Kale Penny and Lauren Bowler, © 2021 York Lane Art Collective; Kale Penny and Lauren Bowler, © 2021 Here For Now Theatre.

For tickets visit www.herefornowtheatre.com.

To hear Kale Penny’s songs visit kalepenny.bandcamp.com.