In a couple of months, The Highland Arts Theatre will celebrate its first anniversary and can look back on a crowded calendar of innovative, much talked about, and well attended theatre. It’s nothing if not ambitious.
“HAT”’s latest production is Heart Of Steel, which bills itself as “A New Steel Plant Musical Comedy” with book, music, and lyrics by its director Wesley J. Colford. It opened Monday, March 23, and runs nightly at 7:30 pm to Friday, March 27.
Boasting a cast of over 40 with a pit band featuring some of the best local musicians led by Barb Stetter, the show looks at the Sydney Steel Plant during the Second World War when women were reluctantly allowed to work in the previously all-male domain.
Colford’s script centres on five women who become unexpected friends when they get hired on at the Plant, and more specifically two sisters, Amelia and Jenny, played respectively by Margaret MacPherson and Lesley McLean, who find work at looking for adventure and the bigger wages they can earn working behind a shop counter. For Amelia, working at the Steel Plant will pay for a one-way train ticket off of Cape Breton into the big world beyond. Their mother, Edie (Lisa Penny), objects because she sees the Plant as a dangerous and immodest place for young women.
Amelia makes fast friends with her former teacher, Ethel, the brassy Georgie (Maureen MacAdam), the sweet Dottie (Hilary Scott), and the shy Kay (Kristen Woodford). Lisa, after a pitiable attempt to pass herself as a male, finds an unexpected ally in crane operator Mackie (Carl Stapleton).
Besides the grimy work of steelmaking, the women also endure the grimier derision, and occasional sexual threat, from their male co-workers. They also find some romance: Dotty has the handsome Acadian Olivier (Ron Newcombe-who else?), Jenny has a schoolgirl crush on Walt (Kevin Munroe), and the sisters’ Aunt Edie has a ribald, double-ententre laced flirtation with office manager, Jinx O’Toole (Sam White-giving his usual much appreciated high energy, hilarious performance in his third play in less than a week).
As the women wait for whether all the men who went to fight the war will come home to reclaim their jobs, an accident at the Plant brings the conflict between Amelia and her mother to a head and a happy ending seems more than just a musical show number away.
I have to disclose I was briefly cast in this show (the read-through and one rehearsal) but had to withdraw for a health consideration, and I also had a featured role in HAT’s production of A Christmas Carol. I hope I can offer some reasonably objective comments.
This grand old style entertainment and both as writer and director, Colford has more than enough talent to bring it off in excellent form. His use of lighting and fog effects and moveable steel framed stairs (like the ones used in big-box stores to reach the top shelves) to create his sets was smart and visually exciting. He used his large, talented cast to immense effect and the crowd scenes were neither messy or too fussy. There is lot of heart in this production and a lot of it came from its creator and director.
The musical numbers offer a variety of musical influences from traditional roots to Broadway to Big Band to sultry torch songs. I liked the Buzzy Berkley inspired dance number and the audience especially applauded a slightly raspy Sam White’s (three shows in a week, remember?) spirited “By Jingle” and the sweet love ballad sung by Ron Newcombe and comically translated into Newfie-isms by Carl Stapleton’s Mackie.
Margaret MacPherson and Lesley McLean make a great sisterly team: MacPherson has a yearning in her voice (especially when singing) that suits Amelia, and McLean is a kinetic ball of joyous mischief, like Jenny should be. And the audience can believe they are sisters because they’re both a little bit bratty.
Lisa Penny had some beautifully sung numbers, but her character was constrained more by the script than her performance: Maureen was drawn a bit lacking depth, all angry brake on her daughters’ exuberance which undercut the sympathy gained in scenes with her younger daughters (the exceedingly cute Anika MacKenzie, Lily MacKenzie, and Zoe MacNeil).
Along with dynamic performances from Ameilia’s circle of girlfriends (especially a great comedic turn from Woodford’s Kay who only wants to learn to swear), the large cast also featured fine performances from Diana Furlong-MacKinnon as Amelia’s Aunt Edie, and Ross Hunter as LeMoine who has a confident, commanding baritone. And a special commendation to the large dance troupe choreographed with grace and energy by Cynthia Vokey and Jennifer McNeil and assisted by Andrea Vokey.
But there was a fuzziness in the script that made some of the dramatic scenes unsatisfying: Why did Amelia want so desperately leave Cape Breton? She seemed to have ambitions but to do what was never really clear and that undercut the urgency about why Amelia was so desperate to leave the island.
The relationships between Jenny and Walt and Mackie were also dimly defined and a second act revelation comes out of the blue. How did Amelia’s dad die? At the Plant? That would have been enough for any mother to forbid her child, male or female, from taking a job there. I didn’t find that clear.
There were a couple of other picky points a re-write might clear up. One for example, was a present day prologue set in the Open Hearth Park didn’t seem to have much point other than laude the Plant and provide a shaky premise for some hashtag one-liners. It would not be missed if omitted in future productions.
But overall, Heart of Steel is a rambunctious, scrappy, joyously fun musical that celebrates a rarely discussed part of Cape Breton history and, even with some flaws, it is not to be missed.