Sunshine Sketches in Moose Jaw
Another summer, another season of RuBarb’s Summer TheatreFest begins. And this years’ attractions kicked off with a special Festival of Words presentation of their first show, two weeks before its public première. That show, a musical adaptation of Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town written by Craig Cassils and Robin Richardson, is also debuting here in Moose Jaw. I’m not much familiar with Leacock’s 1912 series of stories, nor his work in general though, so how well does this new play convey his voice, themes, and characters?
Set in the fictional town of Mariposa, based on Orillia, Ontario, on Lake Wissanotti, the play concerns various denizens of the community, their lives and ambitions. The most extensive plot is the return of Zena Pepperleigh, a young suffragette, after a year of studying, and her relationship with the lovestruck Peter Pupkin. The other significant storyline concerns hotel proprietor Josh Smith’s campaign for Conservative MP and his complete ignorance of politics. Between them, the play checks in with characters like enthusiastic journalist Mallory Tomkins and the lethargic Reverend Drone.
The acting in this play is pretty exceptional. Though Marianne Woods and Stella Salido Porter aren’t given a ton to work with for their series of minor characters, largely due to the era of the original text, both perform aptly their parts. Ken Spencer seems to be RuBarb’s resident clergyman, having played Reverend Canon in The Importance of Being Earnest last year, but it really suits him and he seems to enjoy it. Felix LeBlanc is energetic and enthusiastic as Tomkins, and has an especially good rapport with Preston Vendramin’s Peter. Vendramin is definitely a show highlight, as is his stage partner Julia Dunne, playing Zena. Both are good singers, and their performances overcome how extremely conventional their characters’ relationship is. The comedic stand-out is Geoffrey Tyler as Smith, the most caricatured character in the story who delivers on the better jokes of the play.
But Sunshine Sketches isn’t terribly funny. At least, not anymore. Perhaps it’s the time period Leacock wrote in or the small town sensibilities, but the humour is by and large old-fashioned and unambitious. No doubt popular in his own day, but it doesn’t have the same lasting power or universality as the writings of Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde. The small town attitudes and character stereotypes are mostly clichés now too -the overzealous but uninformed politician for example being a trope far older than Leacock. On occasion there is some good election satire or a joke carried by the strength of its delivery; a moment of pure oddness like one character being accused of “horse stealing” or the actresses wearing Life of Brian beards at a barbershop that get a laugh. But for the most part the humour is stale, and not likely to charm non-fans of Leacock’s writing.There are some nice musical numbers though, such as “Have I Changed?” sung superbly by Dunne, “Joseph Smith Proprietor”, and “Wherever You…”, the last a duet between Dunne and Vendramin. “Will You Believe in Me”, the centrepiece of the shows’ best scene towards the end of the first act, even acts as a great demonstration of Smith’s empty grandiloquence, which the play, as current reality additionally shows, is astonishingly effective. Cassils and Richardson did a good job integrating the music, as well as condensing the sketches into a relatively consistent narrative.
It’s difficult to assess the second act of this play though, because the production did something very bizarre. Upon returning from the intermission, most of the set decoration and props were gone, a mere seven chairs were placed on the stage, and the actors performed the remainder of the play in nicely tailored suits and dresses not matching their earlier costumes (Dunne wasn’t even wearing her blonde wig), each with their script in hand. Essentially it turned into a choreographed dramatic reading in its latter half. Whether this was some form of experimental theatre, a statement on RuBarb’s recent eviction from the Arts and Culture Centre, simple unpreparedness two weeks in advance of the main shows, or some reference I’m unfamiliar with to Leacock or his style, I don’t know. The actors still gave it their all, but it was distracting and more than a little bewildering. However, the second act was short as usual, and this strange presentation may not be characteristic of subsequent performances.
Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town is clearly not a play meant for me, and its confusing choice of demonstration for the second act didn’t help endear it. The play wants Mariposa to feel like Avonlea, without quite having the personality of that latter environment and characters. But I feel like it will appeal to those with greater admiration for the hallmark of Canadian Literature that the book was. And it’s certainly worth going out and supporting professional theatre in Moose Jaw this summer. There’s plenty of entertainments RuBarb’s offering in the coming month.
Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town begins August 2nd and runs through the 18th.