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Stan Rogers—A Matter of Heart

by Fraser McCallum

Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers is remembered as one of this country’s best and brightest, a big man with a bigger voice. He was a fine poet and a man of great intellect who tragically left the world too young in 1983. After a seven-year absence from the Confed Centre, the Stan musical review, Stan Rogers—A Matter of Heart, returns this summer in a smaller, more intimate production at The Mack.

Covering 35 of Rogers’ best-known songs, Heart is directed by Scott Burke and features just four actors, all of whom are solo performers in their own right. Confed Centre vets Terry Hatty, Julain Molnair, John Connolly and Joey Kitson together tackle the Stan legacy. Along for the ride with them is an expert trio of musicians; guitarist MJ Mullin, violinist Christina Bouey and the show’s Music Director Konrad Pluta. The band is top-notch. For small numbers they create a grand and textured presence, and Mullin is a tour-de-force.

The structure is simple, rolling through two acts of Stan classics with light narration in between. This isn’t traditional theatre, but musical tribute with the performers playing themselves and dressed in period wardrobe to match each song’s theme. A simple set of wooden, vaguely wharf-like flats and masts complement a projector screen backdrop (all the rage these days, it seems!) that shift through land and seascapes. All the classics tunes are here, from “Northwest Passage” to “The Mary Ellen Carter.” Connolly undertakes the holy grail of Stan, “Barrett’s Privateers,” early in the night and nails it. With Kitson and Hatty backing him on the response, Connolly thunders through the tune, a verbal marathon, with sharp character and grit, delivering a show highlight for sure.

Molnair shines on “White Squall,” one of Rogers’ many songs of ships at sea. A hush swept over the crowd as she embodied a sailor’s lover crying out for his safety after taking him for granted for years. Molnair stands out with the most stirring voice of the cast, the kind that carries you somewhere else and leaves you with a lump in your throat. (“Ma’ gawd, she’s some good” I heard an elderly lady astonish behind me). Molnair also gets big laughs on “Working Joe,” a playful Rogers tune about the 9–5 grind. In a great gender-bending flip, Molnair plays the cocky office suit who comes home to the three guys who scurry about in matching aprons, frantically getting her drinks and excessive comforts. This simple scenario  showcased the cast’s solid comic chops.

The numbers range from solos like Hatty’s touching take on “House of Orange,” the story of pushy IRA reps at the door, to rousing songs like “Acadian night” with all four hands on deck locking harmonies splendidly and violinist Bouey taking to her feet as a furious fiddler with poise and color. Heart really shows off the diversity of Rogers’ songwriting with many classic tales of struggle and hardship but plenty of comedic gems, love ballads and, of course, sea songs.

The direction, costuming and lighting are all delivered admirably. The only crack in the show would seem to this writer to be the lack of storytelling about Stan. If you’re a Stan Rogers devotee you will no doubt love the show, however as someone whose Rogers knowledge is small, I felt like I learned very little about his actual life. The man stands shoulder to shoulder with so many other Canadian greats, like Stompin’ Tom and Gordon Lightfoot, yet most of my fellow 20-somethings wouldn’t know much of his life and the opportunity was missed to speak to this. That said Connolly, Hatty, Kitson and Molnair should be applauded for their inspiring performances. Although I longed a few times for Stan’s brassy baritone voice, they breathe new life into his old gems, from beginning to end.

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