Play Something Scottish
My parents were big fans of Guy Lombardo. They lived in St. Thomas when they were dating in the 1930s and would go dancing at the Stork Club in Port Stanley to the Lombardo brothers’ sounds – “The Sweetest Music this Side of Heaven”. My mother even had a record album – which I still have – that she would play on her hi-fi.
Mr. New Year’s Eve: A Night with Guy Lombardo has just premiered at the Blyth Festival. In the show, as his popularity wanes, he admits that he was called names, such as the King of Schmaltz or Gooey Lumbago. I confess that I was that bratty teenager mocking Guy Lombardo whenever my parents were singing his praises. So imagine my surprise when I actually enjoyed this production.
This new musical is a fascinating history lesson about the four Lombardo brothers – Guy, Carmen, Lebert, and Victor – growing up in London, Ontario. Their father, an Italian immigrant, encouraged them to appreciate music and play instruments, but then tried to discourage them from making music a career. We hear about one of their early gigs in Grand Bend where they sleep in a tent on the beach. When the owner of the venue rushes them through dinner so they can get back to playing, their father takes them home in an attempt to end their ideas of making their living in music.
But there are also some things Guy should thank his father for. When Papa tells him to play Scottish music to please the audience in Southwestern Ontario, Robbie Burns’ “Comin’ thro the Rye” is added to their repertoire. And that, of course, led to “Auld Lang Syne”, which is the story behind why we sing it every New Year’s Eve. The show is full of various interesting anecdotes with Lombardo’s hit songs played by the band on stage.
In fact, it has the makings for a great show and it is almost there. Unfortunately, there are too many slowdowns in act one. It feels like Guy is simply narrating his life story, and we don’t get to know the other characters or see much interaction. On occasion, the focus is taken off the characters on stage, with the projections on the walls behind them taking all the attention. In particular, the World War II scene seems too long, when all the characters have their back to the audience watching the projections.
Fortunately, the pace picks up in act two, with more interaction between Guy and his wife, and an exciting boat race scene. Lombardo was well known for racing fast hydroplane boats.
We know we are supposed to feel sad with the death of his brother Carm, but not enough attention is paid to the relationship of the brothers prior to his death to build the audience’s empathy.
Ron Kennell is excellent as Guy Lombardo. He narrates well, but is even better when he has dialogue with other cast members. The rest of the cast does double duty playing characters and playing instruments. Nathan Howe is brother Carm, who plays sax, while Jason Chesworth is Lebe and plays guitar, and George Meanwell is both Papa and the piano player, as well as music director. J.D.Nicholsen shines as the band’s drummer and also as Al, the night club owner. Klaus Anselm is outstanding as the trumpet player. His solos are exceptional, with the trumpet giving the music an authentic sound.
Rebecca Auerbach is the featured singer – apparently a Sophie Tucker-like character. She is a delight to watch and has the best vocal performance.
This show needs to find itself – is it more of a musical revue, where the dance band music of Guy Lombardo is played, while he, as the lead character, narrates his life story? Or is it a musical that tells a story through the characters’ interactions, with Guy Lombardo’s songs strung throughout. I hope it will evolve into an exciting plot.
As well, we learn that above all, Guy loved to play for dancers. He would rather see a crowded dance floor than hear applause. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a musical about the Lombardo brothers complete with professional dancers filling the stage?
It’s an interesting story, one with which Canadians should be familiar. Sadly, the Guy Lombardo Museum in London closed, and its artifacts were auctioned off. This piece of theatre may be the only way that anyone still alive will be able to pay tribute to a Royal Canadian and the sweetest music this side of heaven.
Mr. New Year’s Eve continues at the Blyth Festival in repertoire until August 19. Call 519-523-9300 / 1-877-862-5984 or go to www.blythfestival.com for tickets.
Photo: Ron Kennell as Guy Lombardo.Photo by Terry Manzo. Right: Guy Lombardo racing the Tempo VI.
Mr. New Year’s Eve: A Night with Guy Lombardo
By David Scott
Directed by Gil Garratt
Performed by Klaus Anselm, Rebecca Auerbach, Jason Chesworth, Nathan Howe, Ron Kennell, George Meanwell, J.D. Nicholsen, Jim Shea, Birgitte Solem, James Thomson.
Blyth Festival, Blyth
June 28 to August 19, 2017
Reviewed by Mary Alderson