Three Fascinating Stories plus Amazing Voices
There are three true stories being told on stage at Victoria Playhouse that we all need to hear. As well, there are amazing voices singing with such beauty that it will do your heart good to hear. The story of Canada’s first black singing star, Portia White, is truly amazing. Add her father’s remarkable family history and her vocal instructor’s guarded past, and you have the makings of an epic stage production.
Originally written as a play with four characters, Portia has been turned into a musical by David Hogan, with Mark Payne adding the musical arrangements. So this new iteration in Petrolia is a premiere, of sorts. The four main characters are there, along with a six person choir.
There are three amazing stories within this musical, all true. First there’s Portia’s story, a young African-Canadian woman who becomes a school teacher and also studies voice. She goes on to international acclaim as an opera star throughout the 1940s, a first for Canada, and a first for her race. She tours as a concert soloist, singing opera, classical music and gospel.
Her father also has an interesting story – he is the son of a slave in Virginia, whose master freed him and he walked north. Eventually Portia’s father settles in Nova Scotia, gets a University education and becomes a Baptist minister. He tells the fascinating story of his father’s journey to freedom and his own passage to Canada.
Then there’s the compelling story of Portia’s vocal instructor, Ernesto Vinci. To all who know him, he is an Italian opera singer, teacher and adjudicator. We learn he is also a medical doctor. Then it is revealed that he is a German-speaking Polish Jew. When World War II broke out, he was studying opera in Italy, so passed himself off as Italian and came to Canada. His family died in the holocaust.
The story on stage is framed by the mother and her memories of the interaction between Portia and her father, and Portia and her vocal teacher.
Amber Tomlin is magnificent as Portia. She grows from the child excited to win a festival singing competition, to the adult, ill and weary at the end of her demanding career. Tomlin’s voice is outstanding as she effortlessly sings spirituals, classics of Handel or Brahms, and the great Italian operas.
Robert Longo is excellent in the role of Ernesto. He has the perfect Italian accent and sings opera naturally. He also demonstrates the passion that Vinci must have felt for his prodigy, Portia.
Michelle E. White plays the mother perfectly, as an old lady lost in her memories, then flashing back to a younger woman, as mother to a daughter who is coming into her own.
Neville Edwards, familiar to VPP goers as Hoke in last year’s Driving Miss Daisy with Miss Michael Learned, is perfect as Portia’s preacher-father. His sermons, as he rehearses them for broadcast on radio, are so convincing.
In addition to the four main characters, a choir of six rich, full voices provides back up. The story covers two Christmases, with beautiful music such as “O Holy Night”, where all the voices are united in harmony.
While I find the main characters’ stories so interesting, I am concerned that some information was lost in the transfer from play to musical. In particular, the audience is forced to guess as to what Ernesto is talking about at times, and some of his actions are left unexplained. We miss why he did not attend Portia’s debut concert, as he had promised. Similarly, the father’s stories seem to be cut short. We have to pay close attention to grasp his brief explanations of his father’s journey from slavery to freedom. Because this is the premier of the musical version, I think the show would benefit greatly from more rewriting or workshopping (the term for working through the script with actors). It is such an important true story, involving remarkable people and it needs to be told well. I look forward to hearing of future productions of Portia.
Portia is a bold change from the usual fare at Victoria Playhouse. It remains to be seen whether this non-comedy, non-fiction opera will be accepted by the regular audience. We all love the musical revues that David Rogers and David Hogan put together, but something with more food for thought is a pleasant change. I hope this is a signal that there is more like this in the future, adding variety to their line-up.
Portia continues at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia until August 27. Call the box office at 1-800-717-7694 or 519-882-1221 for tickets or visit www.thevpp.ca
Photo: Amber Tomlin as Portia & Company. Photo by Diane O’Dell.
By Lance Woolaver
Musical Arrangements by Mark Payne
Directed by David Hogan
Musical Direction by Mark Payne
Performed by Amber Tomlin, Neville Edwards, Robert Longo, Michelle E. White, et al
Victoria Playhouse, Petrolia
August 19 to 27, 2017
Reviewed by Mary Alderson