Review: From London, Ont. COLOURS IN THE STORM

by Lynn on April 30, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Grand Theatre, London, Ont.

Book, music and lyrics by Jim Betts
Directed by Heather Davies
Musical direction by Marek Norman
Set by Shawn Kerwin
Costumes by Jessica Poirier-Chang
Lighting by Renée Brodie
Projection designer, Rory Leydier
Sound by Jim Neil
Cast: Binaeshee-Quae Couchie-Nabigon
Jay Davis
Gab Desmond
Ma-Anne Dionisio
Michael Dufays
Tim Funnell
J.D. Nicholsen
Seana-Lee Wood

A less than satisfying production of a less than satisfying musical about the life and work of artist Tom Thomson.

The Background and Story. From director Heather Davies’ program note: “Jim Betts’ Colours in the Storm us about the life and mysterious death of Tom Thomson. Through scenes and songs often inspired by the artist’s work, we follow Thomson from his arrival in Algonquin Park in 1912 to his death on Canoe Lake in 1917. And though his death was officially recorded as an accident, his demise has become one of Canada’s greatest mysteries.”

Tom Thomson worked as a commercial artist for various photo-engraving companies. It was at Grip Ltd. in 1917 that he began expanding his artistic development working under the tutelage of J.E.H. MacDonald. Fellow workers were Arthur Lismer, Fred Varley, Franklin Carmichael and Franz Johnson. After Thomson’s death these men and Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson would join together to form the Group of Seven. Tom Thomson was not a member of the group, but his paintings are displayed along with theirs—certainly at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, Ont.

Tom Thomson didn’t start painting in earnest until he was 35. He went to Algonquin Park in Northern Ontario to paint. There he discovered the raw beauty of the landscape and its lure to get the colours right. He was always in search of the perfect colour of grey and it always seemed to elude him. He would spend part of the year in Algonquin Park, painting and the rest of the year in Toronto, working.

He fell in love with Winnie Trainor who lived with her parents in Algonquin Park. It was believed they might marry. There were lots of rumours. Somehow Thomson rubbed some men up there the wrong way. One man was a rival for Winnie’s affections. In any case while Thomson’s death was ruled an accident, playwright Jim Betts make it clear that he thinks Thomson met with foul play.

The Production. Shawn Kerwin’s set is of a jagged wood platform that revolves and turns at various moments in the production. At one point it represents a canoe in which Tom and Winnie are shooting rapids. Director Heather Davies has created a driving scene that is very evocative of the dangerous waters in which they are paddling.

There is a cloud above the stage on which Rory Leydier, the projection designer, recreates some of Tom Thomson’s paintings–“The Jack Pine,” “The Northern River” etc.– with splashes of coloured light. Mighty impressive.

The full company sings “Algonquin” which beautifully establishes where we are and the place that so captivated Tom Thomson for his whole career.

As characters are introduced in the story, they step onto the platform and navigate over the space. Director Heather Davies always seems to have a character linger in the background, as if watching the proceedings, bearing witness. I wonder then, how is it possible that no one saw how Thomson died?

Too often it seems that characters move on that platform for the sake of movement, express a thought perhaps, then move off. This movement for movement’s sake gives the production an unnecessarily busy feel to it, certainly when so little seems to happen, aside from Tom painting and trying to find the perfect grey.

Both Jay Davis as Tom Thomson and Ma-Anne Dionisio as Winnie Trainor are commanding in their roles, Jay Davis is a strapping, handsome Thomson. He is so focused on what he is painting; compelled to get the light and the image down on his board—Thomson painted on rectangular boards and not on canvas for the most part during the time of the play. This is a convincing performance of a man driven to paint but thinking he’s just missed capturing what he is looking at. Davis also has a strong voice and sings his songs with passion and drive.

Ma-Anne Dionisio is a powerhouse singer/actress having starred in Miss Saigon, Les Misérables (in Toronto and internationally), Stratford etc. As Winnie she is an independent woman who obviously loves Tom but she is not going to bow down to him waiting for him to do the right thing by her. She is both loving but frustrated by his lack of commitment and she sings beautifully and instils all the emotion Winnie has in the words.

In spite of the positive aspects of the production and the musical I have real concerns. The Colours in the Storm was first produced in Muskoka, Ont. in 1990. There are problems with Jim Betts’ piece that should have been addressed but weren’t. Hmmmm? The songs seem almost haphazard in their placement in the show. The song “Colours in the Storm” comes in Act II when there is no storm and not in Act I when there is a storm. Odd. Thomson sings about “The Girl with Thunder in her Hair” referring to Winnie, but since it’s only the second song we know precious little about her to that point, and it takes a long time for Winnie to be really developed. Winnie has a solo (“Over the Dam”) and later a duet (“Wildflowers”), but again, since we know so little of Winnie even then, why does she earn these song?

The song “Opening & Algonquin Breakdown” opens Act II and is sung by Larry Dixon, an Algonquin guide. My concern is that Dixon is really peripheral for much of the story till then so why does he have a song? And the song details what has already been explained—the mosquitoes are terrible at that time of year. As Dixon, Michael Dufays plays that scene with eye-popping contortions, arms frantically batting flies away, and is so vigorous in his body language I thought he might be in peril of giving himself whiplash. Yet, also in the scene is Frances McGillvray (Seana-Lee Wood) from Toronto, dressed to the nines in a flowing long dress, a large hat and gloves, who is totally unbothered by the mosquitoes until the end of the song, when her delicate hand waves some flies away. The song and the contortions are mystifying. And can we please help Mr. Dufays and get him (as Dixon) out of those leather chaps! Dixon is a guide not a rodeo rider. If they are meant to be waders for fishing, it still makes no sense. And they don’t fit and the poor man too often hitches them up. Get rid of them.

Jim Betts certainly captures the drive and obsession of Tom Thomson in his quest to paint what he sees. Thomson often laments his inability to capture the perfect grey. Yet when he looks through some of his old painted boards that he accidentally finds, he realizes in one that he has captured the perfect grey. Here’s my concern with this point—if Thomson wasn’t able to realize he had captured the perfect grey until after the fact, then what’s all the fuss about with the search for the perfect grey, if he can’t recognize it when he does paint it? Odd.

Comment. Tom Thomson’s paintings are exquisite (I first saw them at the McMichael Gallery.) His use of colour is vibrant; what he paints puts you right in that landscape and makes you feel both the heat and the cold. His brush strokes are ridged and catch the light in the gallery like no other artist.

I’m grateful to Jim Betts for shining some light on Tom Thomson and his wonderful painting; for illuminating the drive of an artist to paint; for detailing the many clues that Tom Thomson was probably murdered. It’s just that I wish his Colours in the Storm and the production of it were better.

Produced by the Grand Theatre.

Opened: April 21, 2017.
Saw it: April 25, 2017.
Closes: May 6, 2017.
Cast: 8: 5 men, 3 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 min. approx.

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