Thursday, July 3, 2008

Back Kitchen Release Party

My review of The Back Kitchen Release Party came out in today's WestEnder. Pick up a copy of WE if you can!

The Back Kitchen Release Party
By Andrea Warner

Start with a Newfoundland pastime that brings together friends, family, and fiddles for rollicking jams stemmed in Irish and Celtic traditional music; then add a bittersweet back-story, a road trip across Canada, and a left turn in the last act, and you have the bones for the new Canadian classic, The Back Kitchen Release Party.

The premise reunites The Back Kitchen band following the death of their beloved founder, Kate. It’s been five years since Kate and Maggie left Memorial, but band leader Ned is convinced that this is the perfect opportunity to fulfill Kate’s dream of playing a cross-country tour, arriving in Vancouver just in time to play her wake. There’s just one problem: Maggie, Ned’s ex and Kate’s cousin, is now a violinist in the Toronto Symphony and is weary of getting caught up in the past.

It’s impossible to dwell on the storyline and characters without revealing some key plot points that are better left unspoiled. It’s better to focus on the great songs, good music, and the multi-talented actors who propel Party forward, taking a “real Newfie band from sunrise to sunset.” The cast proves themselves talented musicians whose voices blend into beautiful harmonies, but the male performers have better acting material to work with than their female counterparts.

Trevor Devall plays a classically charming no-hoper who gets by on the stubborn certainty of dreamers. He’s also Party’s playwright, and does a mean Captain Kirk impression. He hits all the right notes as an actor as well thanks largely to the lovely ballad “Maggie” that helps the whole band begin to heal. Jonathan Teague secures plenty of laughs, whether wielding a fishing net or a drum, and watching his character struggle to overcome his fears is funny and heartwarming.

Sarah Donald has been blessed with a unique voice and a wholesome appearance, but she’s mostly tasked with smiling beatifically throughout the first act, a supporting character if there ever was one. Sarah May Redmond seems born to help lead a Celtic band: her voice is big and clear, her accordion never looks unwieldy in her arms, and out of everyone, she appears to be having the most fun. It’s unfortunate that she’s saddled with the one character that is mostly just caricature and never quite feels real. Tracey Power, who wrote several of Party’s songs, brings her sizzling fiddle skills to the mix, but most of her scenes opposite Devall fall flat—the back-story between their characters lacks believability.

The musical standouts include the opener “Farewell to Betsy Mae”, a robust tune with plenty of tongue-in-cheek moments that captures the spirit of Newfoundland. “McCoy’s Privateers” is a hilarious ode to Star Trek. Donald and Redmond’s voices blend perfectly on “I Am a Sailor.” And, “Kate’s Song” could elicit tears from a statue.

When Party strays from the singing, the dialogue drifts between awesome and awful. Awesome: “Toronto is really rubbin’ off on you. You only been here a day and you’re already an arsehole.” Awful: “You have the right notes, Ned. You just have to know how to use them.” Thankfully this is mostly a live action concept album—that happens to be held on a stage.

Party got its start as a Fringe show, which is evident in its plucky and lively staging, the inventiveness of the songs, and the sparse set decoration. The cast does a brilliant job at bringing the band to life—the pent-up excitement of a five-year reunion is palpable, and the songs are good foot-stomping fun. This Back Kitchen is cookin’ with gas!

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