By Liz Nicholls, .ca
You know you’re Canadian if …
You’re prepared to crank up the barbecue in December. You make your kids’ Halloween costumes roomy enough to fit over a snowsuit. You know that double-double doesn’t just mean toil and trouble. And you know you’re Canadian Indigenous, as we’re told by a smiling Indigenous artist (Sheldon Elter), if you know that an M&M is “moose meat and macaroni”!
Five years ago the Mayfield assembled a hit revue with a non-pushy (quintessentially Canadian?) name. Canada 151, by the team of Will Marks and Gerrad Everard, was designed to celebrate this big wide country’s music and musicians — along with its signature cultural motifs, its idioms, its jokes, its personality quirks. It’s not often that a choreographer (the ever-inventive Christine Bandelow) is tasked with devising moves for a cast decked out in parkas, toques, and snow boots for the opening production number.
There have been many tests before and since of the (sometimes elusive) concept of Canadianness in the big wide homogenizing world. Some we’ve passed; some we’ve squeaked through; some we’ve flunked. Canada Rocks: The Reboot (Canada 156 to do the math), directed again by Kate Ryan, sets about searching for the heart of gold, making some space for something it missed first time around in its spirited revue of all things Canadian. It’s the Indigenous voice and contribution to the arts, music, the Canuck sense of humour, our collective cultural rhythms….
The stellar Indigenous actor/playwright/musician Sheldon Elter (Métis Mutt, Bears), a triple-threat of maximum versatility, has not only joined the nine-actor ensemble of singer-dancers but has contributed some additional writing for this snow-booted Re-Boot. And there’s a moment, touching but light of touch, in which Elter and his Indigenous cast-mate Pamela Gordon step forward, to introduce themselves and pay tribute to seminal Indigenous artists like Graham Greene, Gordon Tootoosis, and historical groundbreakers like Edith Monture, the first Indigenous registered nurse in Canada. It’s not so much a land acknowledgment as a culture acknowledgment. Gordon Downie, who unfailingly lent his energy to the principle of reconciliation, gets his due as a settler ally.
None of this is without a quirky sense of humour attached to the moment, for example, where the sound of the Indigenous drum beaten by Elter changes to the ‘Let’s go Oilers!’ charge, accompanied by a mischievous grin from the actor.
This expansion of perspective, and five fractious years in the life of “Canada,” concept and country, change the way we look at the stage backdrop of T. Erin Gruber’s giant translucent, possibly frost-covered abstract map of Canada, from sea to (Great Big) Sea, with the Trans Canada Highway picked out in Life Is A Highway black dots. A collage of Gruber’s projections play non-stop across the surfaces of the map — faces that fade in and out of focus, signature glimpses of cities and towns, landmarks, Rockies, prairie vistas at harvest time, waves and shores. And Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting captures urban cores to ice floes.
Musically, the show is fulsome and wide-ranging. No one (sane) has ever accused the Mayfield of falling short in its top-flight musical values (musical director Van Wilmott) or being skimpy in its song lists. And in a two-hour-and-a-half evening the cast and an expert five-member band (whose ranks are amplified by such versatile actors from the cast as Larissa Poho on fiddle and Tyler Check on guitar) contribute to a cross-country range of musical offerings and styles that is, to understate the case, wide. Bublé to Bieber, Messer to Morissette, Lightfoot to Lavigne, Hank Snow to Céline, Leonard Cohen to Our Pet Juliette, Taking Care of Business to The Log Driver’s Waltz.
The Sarah McLachlan song, beautifully delivered by Devra Straker, nails it. “I will remember you; will you remember me?” The show is an aide de mémoire in that sense.
In Ryan’s production, this isn’t a matter of impersonation, per se. The performances nod to signature motifs — a hat here, a wig there, an accent from designer Leona Brausen’s hundreds of witty costumes, a tangible seminar in the sneaky uses of plaid. Or to the unerringly stylish musical arrangements themselves, the vocal inflections and allusions of the strong-voiced ensemble onstage. Yes, my friends, Paul Anka’s career-defining sing-hiccups are present and accounted for by Brad Wiebe, for example. Nick Sheculski is indeed wearing his sunglasses at night as Corey Hart. The close harmonies of the Rankin Family in Rise Again are precisely delivered by the women of the cast; The Trailer Park Boys rise to the jaunty rhythms of the Stan Rogers classic Barrett’s Privateers.
Which brings us to a Canadian through-line (or as we say in Canada, the blue line). Hockey isn’t so much a sport as a national mythology, possibly the sole motivating force that propels whole generations of Canadians onto winter streets to battle ridiculously minor temperatures and passing cars. Intriguingly, “hockey” is virtually impossible to rhyme, even by a notable national lyricist like Stompin’ Tom (Tyler Check).
It’s been pointed out more than once that only in hockey-struck Canada would a gab-meister stuffed like a turkey into a loud tight sports jacket become a star. I leave this thought with you for further reflection.
Anyhow, the comic muse moves through a show that has goofball fun with perusing the Canadian identity, from Tim Horton runs to taking anther shot at Nickelback (in an alternate universe, we’re told, they’re actually good). SCTV’s pair of vintage hoser sibs, Doug and Bob McKenzie, are present and accounted for, amusingly conjured by Elter and Sheculski. Gordon is the park ranger who presides over the funny Hinterland Who’s Who sequence that includes the Canadian Cougar (the dread hockey mom: “do not confront or make eye contact”), and the “batshit crazy” Canadian Teenager (who has red braids, attitude, and an uncanny resemblance to the orphan from Avonlea).
And, hey, it’s educational. We knew poutine and insulin to be a Canadian inventions. But the light bulb? And the green garbage bag?
The music keeps coming. The only pause, really, is waiting for the first ping of maple sap into a bucket in Quebec, in a scene presided over by Guy Lafleur (Elter) and including a Québecois folk song.
The Mayfield is the home of the giant playlist, the Big Finish, and the multiple ending (not to mention the hardest-working casts in showbiz). In the case of this entertaining evening devoted to “Canada,” this means a rockin’ medley, and stirring anthem to raise a little hell. Raising hell isn’t exactly built into the national psyche, you could argue. But in its Canadian application — in a world in which geniality, generosity, and breadth of vision are hard to come by, and culture tends to be something to be put on, like gloves — it’s a bracing add-on. “If you don’t like what you got, why don’t you change it?”
Canada Rocks: The Reboot
Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre, 16615 109 Ave.
Created by: Will Marks, Gerrad Everard, with script consultant and additional writing by Sheldon Elter
Directed by: Kate Ryan
Starring: Tyler Check, Sheldon Elter, Sam Jamieson, Seth Johnson, Pamela Gordon, Larissa Poho, Nick Sheculski, Devra Straker, Brad Wiebe
Running: through Jan. 28
Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca