Review: The Stratford Festival Explores WHY WE TELL THE STORY on its Instantly Classic Opening Night

Led by Marcus Nance, Stratford performers honour the works of Black artists and some of the greats from the African American Musical Theatre canon

By: Jul. 14, 2021
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Review: The Stratford Festival Explores WHY WE TELL THE STORY on its Instantly Classic Opening Night

The 2021 Season of the Stratford Festival opened last night to both thunderous applause and...well...actual thunder too! Due to COVID restrictions, the Stratford Festival has had to make modifications. This includes a later start to the season, fewer productions, smaller audience sizes, and of course returning to the Festival's roots and mounting productions under a tent. 68 years to the day of the first ever Opening Night at the Stratford Festival, this much anticipated season opened with a cabaret. WHY WE TELL THE STORY - curated and directed by Marcus Nance and starring Neema Bickersteth, Vanessa Sears, Robert Markus, and Nance himself, is a musical exploration of songs and poems by Black artists and allies that speak to the experience and tell the stories of Black people throughout history. The show delves deep into the catalogue of African American Musical Theatre and not only poses the titular question of WHY WE TELL THE STORY but also leaves audiences wondering why theatres haven't been telling these stories nearly enough.

Nance has selected musical numbers that range from mainstream familiarity to slightly more obscure. He marries songs with poems effortlessly, and uses them to explore universal themes such as Life, Pain, Family, Faith, Love, and Hope. Each performer brings a unique voice to this cabaret. What really brings the show to life is the clear camaraderie between all four of them as they feed off of one another throughout the entire cabaret. Whether they are harmonizing, or simply watching each other shine, everyone is visibly engaged with, and appreciating one another and this truly elevates every performance. Of the four featured performers, three of them were part of a one night only cabaret of the same name that Nance put on for the Festival back in 2019. That show was such a revelation that it made complete sense to see it become part of this unique season at the festival. Nance has cast this show with excellent performers, all with unique voices, allowing all styles of music to be showcased. Audiences can expect to hear songs from shows like DREAMGIRLS to RAGTIME, to THE LION KING. The combination of the beautiful material being performed and the fact that this was the first live performance this writer had taken in in 16 months, had me in tears almost immediately. Happy, joyful, tears. It's good to be back.

There is a cheeky 'Canada Heritage Moment' video from a few years ago detailing how there was heavy rain on Stratford's very first opening night and audience members used umbrellas and collected water in buckets as they watched a play from inside the tent. It is fun to wonder what that experience must have been like for early audiences and now, we don't really need to wonder. Shortly after the midway point of the cabaret, the performers, musicians, and audience alike were treated to what can only be described as a 'weather event.'

Let me paint the scene for you (because it is one that I will never forget). Festival newcomer Neema Bickersteth is midway through a beautiful performance of Dat's Love from CARMEN JONES. In the distance, you hear the wind pick up and trees start bristling. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the rain starts coming down hard and loud onto the tent. Next, it starts coming in sideways, misting everyone, including the performers. Occasionally a gust of wind will be so strong that it almost distracts from the rain. There is zero visibility within a metre of the tent in any direction. It's hard to tell if the outside world even still exists...But the band plays on, and Bickersteth does not miss a beat. If anything, the raging storm seems to embolden her as she sings about another raging storm (love). The audience tries to focus on her performance, but eventually it is impossible to ignore the natural disaster that is happening around us. Reading the room, Bickersteth reclaims her audience from the elements with a twinkle in her eye and a point to the sky as she sings the lyric "there ain't no door that you can close." The audience cheers and laughs at the absurdity of it all and the truth behind that statement. We are in a wide open space with only a canopy protecting us. The other performers cheer her on as she triumphantly finishes the song to even louder cheers. We then pause the show for a short while in hopes that the weather settles. No one leaves. Every audience member returns to their seats about 30 minutes later. The show goes on.

Perhaps, in other circumstances, this moment would not have felt so epic, but this unique shared experience between performers and audience is the exact feeling we all have been missing for the past year and a half. Never again will any of us take for granted the awe with which we watch singers rise to the occasion when something unexpected happens while performing live, or the ability to share a moment with another audience member, knowing that you both will one day be able to say "I was there when...", or the intimacy of locking eyes with a performer as they sing something powerful and meaningful. For that reason, that moment of Neema Bickersteth shining in the storm instantly became this writer's favourite Stratford Festival moment of all time. I will never not think of it when I hear Dat's Love or any other variation of Habanera.

Joining The Four Singers is an incredible band that proved to be equally unfazed by the elements. Franklin Brasz, Kevin Ramessar, Jon Maharaj, and Dale-Anne Brandon provide beautiful accompaniment. Their ability to adjust to the conditions demonstrates what consummate professionals they all are. Every singer has multiple moments to shine. Some highlights include Nance's captivating performance of Old Man River and the duet of Wheels of a Dream between him and the equally captivating Bickersteth. Vanessa Sears appeared to literally stop the rain as she hit the final notes of I'm Here from THE COLOR PURPLE. She and Markus re-opened the show (after our brief weather-related intermission) with a rendition of Elaborate Lives that is sure to give you chills. I'm not sure enough members of the audience fully appreciated the hilarity and absurdity of Robert Markus taking the lead in Mama Will Provide from ONCE ON THIS ISLAND but for those in the know, it was fun to see the grins on the faces of his fellow performers leading up to his opening notes. Also...he has the chops for it. It was a delight.

Even in the saddest songs, there was a sense of joy that radiated from the stage as these performers were finally able to return to what they love and spotlight some phenomenal theatre and poetry. I'm just so grateful I got to be there for it. I suspect there was not a dry eye under that tent...and not just because of the rain.

WHY WE TELL THE STORY continues under the Festival Theatre tent until July 21st.

Photo Credit: David Hou


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