Rainy Day People: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot

Kicking off the Summer Side of Life in Petrolia

Reviewed by Adam Hobbs

Lake Superior is no lake at all. It is an inland sea and it has seen wrecks of several ships throughout the centuries, including the Edmund Fitzgerald. The sea of sound and emotion took me through a journey of Canadian legend, Gordon Lightfoot’s music that left the audience clapping (on the wrong beat) and few dry eyes. Rainy Day People: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot has officially opened at the Victoria Playhouse Petrolia and runs through to June 23rd.

Sarah Smith returns to the VPP stage and she brings her stage presence, command, and signature driving voice to the great songsmith’s music. She leads the band well, but also knows how to give way to the rest of the cast, filled out with other returning artists like Paul Jerry Schwarz, Kate Suhr, and the incomparable Mark Payne. Joining the company for the first time are newcomers Scott Carmichael and Ryan Desaunier. I use the term cast very loosely here because this is not so much a musical as it is a true tribute concert to the Canadian icon.

Loving Gordon Lightfoot is not a prerequisite for seeing this show, though it certainly will help. The band will guide you through his work and play his greatest hits throughout. There is not a single lull in the music, as each song is performed with the heart and storytelling befitting such a show. But are there highlights? Oh, are there ever.

The highlight of the first act (or setlist, really) is absolutely “Pussywilldows, Cat-Tails,” which is brought to us by the absolutely magical voice of Kate Suhr. A love song to Lightfoot’s hometown of Orillia, Kate’s performance left me at the point of tears. The control of her voice is perfect and it’s apparent once again here. The second act felt more themed throughout and its definitive highlight was Paul Jerry Schwarz’s commanding performance of “Black Day in July,” a song that was banned in 30 American states about the 12th Street Riot in Detroit in 1967, which marred the Motor City with tanks and 43 civilian deaths including 4 year old Tanya Blanding who was killed when a tank fired into her 2nd story window.

Mark Payne again ran double duty performing keys and guitar through the show and also arranged the score, the tight harmonies, and the unblemished music. His brilliance gave us that which was probably the highlight of the entire show whose only disservice was that it wasn’t the finale, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The song itself is already such a moving piece of Canadiana, but Payne’s arrangement gave us the sea of sound that had the entire audience stunned. I’ve heard this song performed live more times than I can count, but this was the best I’ve heard it that didn’t come from Gordon himself.

The only real lull in the show I found was the dialogue between songs that I felt tried to be too clever and funny, and a painfully long “guess the album cover” segment. There were some sound issues with a cord connection issue that crackled at times through the show, but that was likely a one-production issue.

What made it feel like this was a live concert and not just a musical was a specific moment, right before “Black Day in July,” in which Schwarz’s capo on his guitar was placed on a fret and caused the guitar to go out of tune. He stopped the band a few bars into the song, corrected the issue, and then restarted.

The lighting in this show was incredibly done with the cunning use of white umbrellas, which covered almost the entirety of the backdrop. It gave a soft colouring that framed the face of Gordon Lightfoot which stood tall and proud back centre stage. Kudos to the design team for that interesting and creative lightning.

Gordon Lightfoot’s music and storytelling inspired generations of musicians and music lovers. That inspiration continues in Petrolia with the wonderful Sarah Smith leading a band of multi-talented musicians through his stories and warm melodies. He may have left us a year ago, but his music will live on forever and for the next few weeks in Petrolia.

Rainy Day People: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot continues at the VPP until June 23rd, 2024. For tickets, call the box office at 1-800-717-7694 or https://thevpp.ca

Photo: Kate Suhr and Sarah Smith. 

Rainy Day People: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot
Directed by David Rogers
Choreographed by David Hogan
Music Directed and Arranged by Mark Payne
Music and Lyrics by Gordon Lightfoot
Additional Music and Lyrics by Kris Kristofferson
Performed by Sarah Smith with Scott Carmichael, Ryan Desaulnier, Mark Payne, Paul Jerry Schwarz, and Kate Suhr
Victoria Playhouse Petrolia, 411 Greenfield St, Petrolia
June 4 to 23, 2024
Reviewed by Adam Hobbs



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