The Bard of the Yukon comes to Stratford

I remember way back in elementary school, learning The Cremation of Sam McGee. I just found out that I can still recite the first few verses: “There are strange things in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold…” So it was great fun to go to the Tom Patterson Theatre in Stratford and see poet Robert W. Service and his words come to life.

The scriptwriter and also director, Morris Panych, admits the story he has written is nothing close to the truth. Yet from what I can learn and remember, it seems as if he has given us a very reasonable facsimile. His creative collaborator, Marek Norman who both wrote and directed the music, has produced some charming and captivating songs to enhance the story. Put together with a solid cast, this production of Wanderlust, commissioned by the Stratford Festival makes for a delightful evening of entertainment.

This much we know to be true – Robert Service was born in Scotland, the son of a banker. He comes to Canada, travels cross country, wanders around the west coast, and ends up working in a bank as a ledgerkeeper. In fact, he works for the Canadian Bank of Commerce. (How nice that CIBC sponsors this production!) He is bored with bank work, longs to travel more and becomes enthralled with the great north, particularly the Klondike gold rush. As a compromise, he continues to work at the bank, even spending his nights there writing poetry about life in the Yukon all night, and sleeping on top of the vault.

And this is where, fittingly, Wanderlust begins. Service, the bored banker, is a wordsmith with very witty comebacks. He is in love with Louise, who also works in the bank, but she is engaged to the rather nasty assistant manager, Dan McGrew, who bullies Robert. The bank manager, Sam McGee, is all about bank profits and can’t understand Robert’s wanderlust and desire to write poetry, but still seems to have a soft spot for Robert and his dreaming.

The bank employees become the characters in Robert’s poetry. Since he hasn’t yet been to the Yukon but is writing about it, he has to use the people he knows to tell his stories. The staid bank switches up to become a wild saloon, or the tellers become huskies hauling a dog sled. It’s very entertaining to see the variations presented, all on one set, as Service’s poems are presented.

There is also a neat little sub-plot surrounding bank fraud, and Louise’s intentions as she leads on Robert, but stays engaged to Dan. I can’t say any more for fear of spoiling that storyline.

Tom Rooney is perfect as Robert Service. He even has a physical resemblance to the old photos of the Yukon’s bard. Rooney handles Service’s quick witted responses: When told to watch his back, Robert cheerfully says he’ll try, but he’s not a contortionist.

The role of Louise, or the lady known as Lou, is flawlessly presented by Robin Hutton. We know all along that Louise has some conflicts (she kisses Robert passionately, then pushes him away yelling “Stop”), but Hutton keeps us guessing as to her intentions, right to end with her surprise revelation. Hutton also demonstrates her beautiful range of vocal skills.

Dan Chameroy is excellent as the swaggering bully, Dan McGrew, who makes Robert’s life miserable, and comes between Robert and Louise. He is also perfect in the imaginary sequence where he becomes the victim in the presentation of Service’s poem, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”.

Randy Hughson gives us an interesting Mr. McGee, the bank manager who obviously is not pleased with Robert’s day-dreaming, but still benevolent. Lucy Peacock is the loud and drunken landlady generating humour as a former lady of the night. Troy Adams, as one of the bank staff, sings the ballad of Dan McGrew wonderfully. Choreographer Diana Coatsworth gives us some imaginative dance numbers, presented by an enthusiastic ensemble.

As an opening night audience, we felt like we were in on the start of something special: A new Canadian show, with direction by the creators, and presented by some of the cast members who had workshopped it. Like Anne of Green Gables, this show will go to earn the tagline “a much beloved Canadian musical”.

Wanderlust continues at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in repertoire until September 28. Call 1-800-567-1600 or go to www.stratfordshakespearefestival.com for tickets.

Book and Direction by Morris Panych
Music and Musical Direction by Marek Norman
Based on the poetry of Robert Service
Dance Choreography by Diana Coatsworth
Performed by Tom Rooney, Robin Hutton, Dan Chameroy, Randy Hughson, Lucy Peacock et al.
Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford
June 20 to September 28, 2012
Reviewed by Mary Alderson


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