Beside Myself at The Foster Festival – A Review

These days it seems the most “transgressive” thing a musical could possibly do is tell a tale of heterosexual love. And yet Norm Foster and his musical collaborator, Steve Thomas, have boldly gone where few have dared to tread recently. Foster provided the book, Thomas the music, and they shared lyric writing duties.

The world premiere Beside Myself is a vest-pocket musical with a cast of four, an orchestra of three, and a bare-bones, but surprisingly effective, unit set designed by Peter Hartwell. This is the fifth Foster-Thomas musical and the first I have seen, so I have little to which to compare it. It struck me as less a musical comedy than a Norm Foster comedy with music, which is by no means a bad thing.

As the show opens Paula and Sam are splitting up after 35 years of marriage. Not only do they loathe each other, they don’t have much good to say about their now-grown kids.  They are sorting through two boxes (“one and a half” Sam corrects) of marital “keepsakes” to see if either of them wants any of them. One item that emerges from the boxes is a “wishing stick,” a wedding gift from friends who are “cheap as bad wine.” While holding it, Sam idly wishes they could go back in time to warn their younger selves against getting together.

As they take the boxes to the curb for recycling they notice the bizarre number of “vintage” cars in the neighborhood. Then Paula realizes that the hideous drapes in their windows were those of the people from whom they bought their house. They have indeed gone back in time, to the early eighties. There’s nothing to be done but to rush to the nearby university in hopes of saving their younger selves from one another.

It’s a fun premise and Foster, with a few nods to Star Trek and Back To The Future, makes the most of it. When they accost their 19-year-old selves, the kids are puzzled that they know so much about them. After a brief moment of panic they explain it all away by announcing that they are the youngsters’ “campus liaisons” whose mission it is to advise them on their first days at school. It becomes a running gag that never seems to grow old.

Foster has great fun with the time travel aspects of the play. At one point the kids ask why their liaisons haven’t changed clothes in several days. Paula solves the problem by heading to the theatre arts building (“It’s the one shaped like a pipe dream”) because not only do they have costumes there, they have lousy security.

After succeeding remarkably well in their mission to prevent the kids getting together, Sam and Paula begin to have second thoughts. No spoilers here but I don’t think most folks will have trouble guessing where the show is headed.

Director Patricia Vanstone, the Foster Festival’s artistic director, has solved the biggest challenge of the piece — finding performers who actually look as if they could be younger and older versions of the same people. It’s an added bonus that they are all terrific actors and singers. Gabrielle Jones and Jonathan Whittaker are very funny as the disillusioned elders, while Breton Lalama and Griffin Hewitt score as the kids.

Another challenge Vanstone faced was what to do with the band. Ingeniously, she and Hartwell have placed them upstage center on a slightly raised platform. Thanks to Chris Malkowski’s lighting and the great performances, they are barely noticeable.

Vanstone called in choreographer Jane Johanson to add dance moves to the number “I Used To Rock” in which the two Paulas declare their rock bona fides (and in which Jones amusingly shows the ravages of time). I would have liked to see more movement during the songs that punctuate the action. As it is, the songs seem rather static. They recapitulate or extend what has just been said rather than move the plot forward; only rarely do they deepen our understanding of the characters.

Beside Myself — the title takes on several punny meanings as the show progresses — is light, frothy and filled with laughs; it offers everything a late summer trip to the theatre should.

Beside Myself continues at The Foster Festival through August 17, 2019

The Foster Festival
FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre
250 St. Paul Street
St. Catherines, ON L2R 3M2
(855) 515-0722
(905) 688-0722
www.fosterfestival.com/

Hilda’s Yard at The Foster Festival – A Review

Hilda’s Yard

After mounting The Writer, Norm Foster’s newest play and something of a departure for the prolific playwright, The Foster Festival returns to more familiar ground with its revival of his cockeyed comedy, Hilda’s Yard.

Set in 1956, in the backyard of the Hilda and Sam Fluck (Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone and Foster himself) the play opens on a hopeful note. Now that that their two adult children have finally moved out, Sam has decided to splurge on a 21-inch television set so that he and Hilda can enjoy their sunset years watching Gunsmoke. He rationalizes his decision because of all the money they’ll save by not having to feed the kids.

Alas, the dream is soon shattered. Son Gary (Daniel Briere) climbs over the back fence, hoping to elude the enforcers of a bookie to whom he owes $395. Oh yes, he has also been fired from his job delivering pizzas. He is followed close upon by daughter Janey (Erin MacKinnon) who has left her abusive husband of six months. Soon they are joined by Bobbi (Amaka Umeh), the girl Gary is smitten with and the proximate cause of his firing, and Beverly Woytowich, the charming bookie himself who blithely announces that he will collect the debt or “things will get broken.”

On this seemingly fragile premise, Foster builds a sturdy comedy that provides plenty of laughs en route to a happy ending. Gary blames his chronic unemployment on his odd name — Fluck.  His father points out that it’s a proud name, brought to Canada by his Swiss grandparents who were acrobats. “The Flying Flucks,” Gary deadpans. Foster has fun with Gary’s ideas for new products that will become hugely successful fads years later, like Baby on Board signs (he calls them Child Inside) and the hula hoop. When Beverly, smitten with Janey, compares her to the sexy women he has seen walking on the streets of Rome, she tries to mimic the effect, to hilarious results.

Director Jim Mezon, a terrific actor who, alas, hasn’t been at the Shaw Festival for the last two seasons, has elicited wonderful performances from his cast and designer Peter Hartwell has once again provided a simple but marvelously effective set. Erin MacKinnon is perfection as Janey, pert and pretty and none too bright. When Beverly says “Your brother’s debt has been expunged” and realizes me may have to explain to her what that means, she waves him away with an airy, “Oh, I know what a sponge does.” As the gentleman criminal Beverly, Darren Keay makes a rather unbelievable character perfectly believable and when he is welcomed into the family fold, we buy it. Daniel Briere and Amaka Umeh as the head-over-heels in love Gary and his wiser inamorata are also very good.

Vanstone and Foster make a devoted couple. Both their love for their kids and their despair over their manifest failings are palpable. Foster’s acting, like his writing, is sharp and to the point, with no unnecessary flourishes. He frequently appears in his own work and I was told that when he plays a role it’s a signal that the play is one of his favorites. It occurred to me that he could have a lucrative career acting in television, but let’s hope it doesn’t happen. It might take him away from his writing.

Foster has been called Canada’s Neil Simon and the comparison is apt up to a point. But whereas Simon’s characters tend to be cynical New York types who seem to take pride in their snarky repartee and snide comebacks, Foster’s folks are down to earth Canadian types, unselfconscious and, dare I say it, polite in their interactions, even when threatening to kill someone. Indeed, Canadian critics have pointed out that Foster’s success is largely due to his uncanny ability to reflect the national character.

The humor in Hilda’s Yard is the sort of thing that has largely been banished from American stages thanks to television and theatre critics who insist that theatre must be transgressive or transgender or preferably both. “Oh, this is just a sitcom,” they might say. Perhaps. Yet the most successful sitcoms on the air know the value of pointing out that they were “filmed before a live studio audience.” If you’re American, do yourself a favor and next time you’re in Canada seek out a Norm Foster play. You’ll be glad you did. (Canadians are already in on the secret.)

Hilda’s Yard continues at The Foster Festival through July 26, 2019

The Foster Festival
FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre
250 St. Paul Street
St. Catherines, ON L2R 3M2
(855) 515-0722
(905) 688-0722
www.fosterfestival.com