Sweet Soul Music

Supreme, Original, and Wonder(ful)

When Berry Gordy put “Hitsville USA” on the front of his first recording studio I wonder if it was wishful thinking or if he knew that Motown Records would become the most influential record label to ever come out of Detroit. Just one hour North of West Grand Boulevard, the greatest musical genre ever created is brought to life in another influential building, the Victoria Playhouse, Petrolia. Sweet Soul Music has opened and will be playing until July 28th, 2024.

Justin Bacchus is back and in a huge way. His powerful voice and ever bright charisma are on full display throughout this trip to the classic R&B clubs of the Motor City. This is the very first thing that you are struck by when you walk into the auditorium. The set is simple and absolutely perfect. Risers of different heights for each member of the Starlight Band, lined with lights, and three perfectly aligned chrome art pieces along the back of the stage set the scene and make you feel like you’re on West Grand Boulevard in the 1960s.

Mark Payne’s band is perfect, as usual. While channeling his inner Paul Schaffer, he leads the Starbright Band through his incredible arrangements of some of the greatest hits from R&B, Funk, Motown, and other traditional Soul artists. Bacchus takes us through each song with a clear love for the genre. He is joined by back-up vocalists Madeline Eddy, Imaari Marcellin, and Olivia Varma, who are each an absolute delight.

Each singer brings their own style and charisma to their performances. Eddy’s power and confidence is evident and absolutely on display as she performed “Respect” by the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Marcellin has everyone in the palm of her hand with her silky smooth voice and eventually is able to just let it rip during “Mama Said,” by the Shirelles. Olivia Varma, who just finished her first year at my alma mater, Sheridan Institute’s Music Theatre Program, performs with a maturity that belies her age. She has masterful control over her instrument, and I personally cannot wait to see where her career takes her.

The song that absolutely steals the show, however, is the vocal and piano duet between Bacchus and Payne. “Georgia On My Mind,” written by Hoagy Carmichael and made even more famous by the incomparable Ray Charles, is one of the most iconic and famous Soul songs ever written. Payne’s keyboard work was phenomenal and Bacchus’s balanced power and acrobatics elicits a huge response from the audience, even bringing people to their feet.

The audience often found themselves on their feet, whether dancing to “Shout,” cheering in applause, or even dancing with Bacchus himself. Bacchus knows how to engage with an audience and had no problems with crowd work at all. It was one of the more endearing parts of the entire production.

The prop microphones were the only thing that felt out of the era. All the performers had body mics, but the cordless microphones they used as props felt out of place with the rest of the scene. Also, “ABC,” by the Jackson 5 felt wrong coming from Bacchus’s rich baritone. I felt like it should have been handed to Varma, to give us the iconic high tenor of Michael Jackson.

Nitpicking aside, this show is the highlight of the VPP’s season thus far, both from an entertainment point of view and performance. The trip down the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers to the steps of the Motor City herself is a delight and a must-see for lovers of music. You will laugh, you will dance in the aisles, and you won’t have to read any more of my Motown puns. I mean I only know two or three decent ones. Four tops.

Sweet Soul Music continues at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia until July 28th, 2024. For tickets, call the box office at 1-800-717-7694 or https://thevpp.ca

Photo: (Left to Right) Imaari Marcellin, Justin Bacchus, Olivia Varma, Madeleine Eddy

Sweet Soul Music
Directed & Choreographed by David Hogan
Music Direction & Arrangement by Mark Payne
Performed by Justin Macchus, with Madeleine Eddy, Imaari Marcellin, Olivia Varma, and the Starbright Band
Victoria Playhouse Petrolia, 411 Greenfield St, Petrolia
July 2 to 28, 2024
Reviewed by Adam Hobbs


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