Oil Rush: The Big Discovery Musical

The Black and Gold Love Letter
to Lambton County

Reviewed by Adam Hobbs

The rousing revival of Robert More’s love letter to Oil Springs and Petrolia is all boom and very little bust! This fast-paced exploration of Lambton’s oil boom from 1858 to the 1880s delivers a careful balance of joy, sorrow, and hard work by those who would become the first Hard Oilers. Oil Rush: The Big Discovery Musical has opened on stage at Victoria Playhouse, Petrolia and runs until May 26.

We are guided through history by a young girl named Emily, played with bright joy and enthusiasm by Emily Masurkevitch, as she explores letters between her ancestors and brings to life the history of the Oil Rush. She echoes a reporter named Hamish 150+ years earlier and the two orbit each other’s narration beautifully to tell us the stories of the first Oilmen. We meet Norman C. Dodds, brought to us by Mark Payne (doing double duty as Music Director), and his wife Beth, played by the brilliant Kate Suhr, and follow their lives through the early days of Oil Springs right through to their son’s departure to Borneo to take the skills of the Hard Oilers internationally.

Hamish, brought to us by VPP newcomer Seth Zosky, and Emily take us through act one’s Oil Springs story and then sneak into the Fairbanks mansion in act two’s Petrolia history, visiting with interesting and important figures from Lambton’s past including John Shaw and, of course, John Henry Fairbanks.

The story is delivered in a series of vignettes in the comfortable and popular style of more recent shows such as Come From Away and The Band’s Visit. The harmonies are tight and gorgeous, the choreography simple and effective in David Hogan’s drive-by choreo style, and what’s more, just like Come From Away or Once, the music is played predominantly by the cast, with some backing tracks when necessary.

The show is absolutely stolen by the brilliant performance of Kevin Forster who plays two roles, the aptly named well shooter, Shaky, and one half of the troubadour brothers, Homer and Hector, alongside Paul Jerry Schwarz. Together they brought us through the history of oil with “God Bless The Whale” and returned several times to tell other stories of history they’ve picked up along their trails.

The accompaniment was played flawlessly and it is a testament to Mark Payne how incredible the music and vocals combined to deliver a performance that had even me clapping along. Fiddles, banjos, and washboard never fail to bring an audience out of their seats, and this production absolutely accomplishes that.

The show was only marred by some occasional upstaging and sightline issues and there was a torn costume after the hilariously choreographed bar room brawl that was never fixed and was a mild distraction, but that’s simply nitpicking an otherwise delightful production.

It is apt that the lead actor, if there really can be one in such an excellent ensemble production, was reading love letters of her ancestors, because as I’ve said, this show is a love letter all its own. The cast was genuine, the characters presented clearly, and Oil Rush itself is an absolute BOOM!

Oil Rush continues at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia until May 26th, 2024. For tickets, call the box office at 1-800-717-7694 or https://thevpp.ca

Photo: From left: Emily Masurkevitch as Emily, Paul Jerry Schwarz as Hector, Kevin Forster as Homer, and Seth Zosky as Hamish.

Oil Rush: The Big Discovery Musical
Book & Lyrics by Robert More
Music & Additional Lyrics by Jacqueline Sadler
Directed & Choreographed by David Hogan
Music Direction by Mark Payne
Performed by Mikayla Branco, Matt Chittick, Kevin Forster, Leah Grandmont, Claire Jones-Fright, Emily Masurkevitch, Mark Payne, Paul Jerry Schwarz, Kate Suhr, Curtis Sullivan, Seth Zosky
Victoria Playhouse Petrolia, 411 Greenfield St, Petrolia
May 11 to 26, 2024
Reviewed by Adam Hobbs

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