Russ Hunt's Reviews

Jasper Station
Book and Lyrics by Norm Foster, Music and Lyrics by Steve Thomas

Theatre New Brunswick
April 2003

Jasper Station, like so many of Norm Foster's plays, is one of the most frequently produced Canadian scripts around. It's clear why. Foster has a remarkable ability to produce scenes which actors will like to play and which audiences will find engaging and funny, and settings and overall conceptions which are within the range of most competent theatre companies. Jasper Station offers six quite satisfying roles, lots of interactions between them with great opportunities for actors to unleash their skills, and a fundamental situation which is straightforward, clever, and unambiguous. Further, it's elegantly structured to work with one set.

That basic situation is this: a writer arrives in an empty railroad station (in Jasper, though it could be anywhere) for an arranged reunion with the four other people with whom she'd waited for a train five years earlier, and who, on that occasion, had all passed through turning points in their lives. Most of the play focuses on those turning points. It's a clever and productive idea, and affords lots of opportunities for set pieces in which characters explain their lives to each other, make decisions, and sing songs about their lives and their decisions. Once you have the basic situation, it's not difficult to imagine the possibilities -- and in fact, at one point the stationmaster lists off a half dozen possibilities -- people he's seen pass through the station at turning points in their lives -- that didn't quite survive the editorial knife.

The ones that did survive include Rebecca Townshend, an almost self-appointed cub reporter for the local newspaper, who has decided to assign herself a story on everyone who gets on the westbound train on this occasion. As played by Shannon McCaig (TNB audiences might remember her valiant attempt to be shy in Ethan Claymore), she's wonderfully upbeat, naive, enthusiastic and energetic, and we actually believe that people might talk to her about their lives. Completely focused -- we can tell by the way she listens to others, engages in business when she's in the background and gets our attention when the action shifts to her -- and with a captivating smile and a strong singing voice, McCaig provides a clear focus for the other characters.

Matt Cassidy is equally strong as Henry, the 31-year old hockey player who's finally got a last chance to play in the NHL. He not only allows us to see both his desperate need to please his father and his own uncertain self-confidence, and to empathize with his increasing involvement with the other characters at the station; he can also sing to some effect -- particularly in the hockey song, with its rousing chorus, "the son of a bitch, Mahovlich, made me want to play the game," and in a touching duet with Martha Irving's Emeline, the runaway wife who, like him, pines for love and approval from someone who doesn't show much of it.

Irving, too, is charming, focused and convincing as the wife waiting for the train and hoping her husband will finally get it, and come to the station to plead with her not to leave. Marla McLean's Nikki, the pierced and pregnant lost child on her way to a rendevous with a flying saucer to take her and her unborn baby to a better life, has a convincing tough vulnerability and a wonderful sidelong look full of cynicism and hope, and if her singing voice was much the weakest of the cast, she still manages to make us care as she becomes aware of the fact that others -- especially Henry -- are coming to care about her.

In some ways the comic star of the evening is Sheldon Davis, who plays the runaway accountant with a diction problem, Sterling Mimms, who can't decide whether he really wants to throw over his secure, boring job and run off to Seattle to try to sell his briefcase full of country songs. TNB audiences haven't seen much better comic timing than his in a long time. The script provides him with lots of material and he doesn't miss a chance at a laugh, as he tries, shotgun-fashion, to narrow down on a word he can't think of ("you punch it, ride on the train, buy it here . . . " "ticket?" "Bingo!") or make up his mind about whether he's going or not, lurching back and forth across the stage with his bags in absolute certainty at having made up his mind, and hesitantly asking people to have a look at his songs ("There's a Door to My Heart, Take Hold of the Knob" is a fair example).

The play is constructed, however, around the central role of the station master, Bert Calivetti, who occupies a position rather like the Stage Manager in Our Town, not only providing the continuity and the avuncular commentary, but also stepping in to take a half-dozen roles as people narrate their own lives through short scenes -- Henry's ambitious and unfeeling father, Emeline's insensitive, self-absorbed husband, Rebecca's sarcastic editor, etc. Brian McKay (whose strong performances TNB audiences will remember in The Drawer Boy and The Prisoner of Second Avenue) takes on the role with charm, fine comic timing, and lots of comfortable stage presence. But he never quite achieves escape velocity: even as Bert, his delivery of the smart comebacks and cynical asides felt rather like a practiced comedian than a character, and as the half-dozen other characters he seemed very much the same. Much of the problem may have been a script which asks him to distinguish between a number of pretty similar characters, and gives him exit lines though the character has no reason to go offstage (other than that the playwright needs him to change his jacket and come back).

Indeed, given the talents of six fine actors, all remarkably charming in their roles, the evening seems oddly unfocused and unshaped. Regularly, people come on and off stage, or move about from place to place on stage, for no particular reason we could see; conventions about when people could hear others' conversations and songs seem inconsistent and unplanned; and regularly, ideas which people would not normally talk about, particularly with strangers, are made explicit and focal. Certainly, it's true that we as audience need to be told things, and -- perhaps especially in a musical, with its assumptions that the conventionos of naturalistic theatre are to be set aside -- characters need to do and say things simply because they need to be done. The more conscious of these external demands we become, though, the less engaged we are with the characters and their own goals and aspirations. Some of the problem here lies in the script; some, however, also lies in what felt like a general absence of overriding direction, of a shaping intelligence which might have taken all these skills and focused them.

That said, it's hard to imagine how any director could make the arbitrary and forced, crudely heartwarming ending seem anything other than a device forced on the characters by the necessity of getting everybody back to the station and pulling it all together.

More generally, the set is striking -- a geometric train station, stripped to its structure, with a looming back painting of the mountains behind it. But it isn't very clear -- since the play makes almost nothing of the station's location; it could have been pretty much anywhere -- why the mountains should be so important. The music is well handled (though I'm not a fan of recorded music, which makes musical theatre feel rather like elaborate karaoke), and, for a mercy, the singers aren't miked (this is a problem for Marla McLean, one that might have been lessened with some more direction about where she needed to face when singing, but one I'll eagerly put up with in order to escape the directionless, disembodied MTVism of miked shows) [apparently I was wrong about this; see below].

With a couple of exceptions, the songs themselves aren't very distinguished, though they are marked by lots of clever lines, and the second act opener, "That's How I Ended Up Here," along with Sterling's hysterical "Bob's Your Uncle," generate real fireworks -- if they don't quite stop the show, they do get us to sit right up and take notice.

On balance, then, this is a show worth seeing, primarily for the engaging, entertaining individual performances. It's too bad that -- perhaps because of TNB's enduring difficulties -- so few people were there for the opening. We can hope that a new artistic director will be able to achieve what, for whatever reasons, the departing David Sherren wasn't able to: that is, to make live theatre at the Playhouse something that Frederictonians who care about such things make a priority.

Perhaps one sign of that new direction is that there were no pre-curtain opening announcements -- either about corporate sponsors, upcoming productions, or even disembodied voices exhorting us to turn off our cell phones and pagers. Just that wonderful excitement of feeling the lights going down and the conversations dying away. Let's hope TNB, like all those folks at Jasper Station, is turning a corner.

Within minutes of my posting this review, both Ed Mullaly and Walter Learning wrote to say that the show had indeed been miked, and that musical director Jacqueline Sadler had played the music -- or most of it -- live from a synthesizer backstage. I guess it goes to show that -- at least for those who are sitting down front -- there are ways to mike a show that don't completely overwhelm the actor's own voice and presence.

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