Review: BESIDE MYSELF (at the Foster Festival in St. Catharines.)

by Lynn on August 7, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines, Ont.

Book and lyrics by Norm Foster

Music and lyrics by Steve Thomas

Directed by Patricia Vanstone

Musical Director, Steve Thomas

Set and costumes by Peter Hartwell

Lighting by Chris Malkowski

Musicians, Ian Copeland and Michael Allen

Cast: Griffin Hewitt

Gabriel Jones

Breton Lalama

Jonathan Whittaker

The Story. Sam and Paula have been generally unhappily married for 35 years. They are calling it quits and dividing up their possessions. He gets the cutlery because he likes to cook. She gets the power tools. There is no real animosity because they both realize they aren’t happy but they don’t blame the other. They both carry their own disappointment so it’s time to move on and separately.

But as they divide up the stuff they reminisce about it. They met in university. He wanted to be a lawyer and she wanted to be a writer. It didn’t work out that way but they did think about that time wistfully. They ponder an old wedding present. What was it? It was a wishing stick. Sam just blurted out that wouldn’t it be great to go back in time and warn their younger selves about what to expect. And that’s what happens. This being a Norm Foster play there are a lot of laughs, funny situations and dialogue that floats a joke with ease. There is not a pat, expected ending. It’s earned.

 The Production.  Designer Peter Hartwell’s set is simple and effective. The small band is upstage centre and the action happens around it. There are entrances and exits on the stage left and right sides.  Patricia Vanstone directs with her usual economy and sensitivity to the material.

Sam (Jonathan Whittaker) wears a loose jersey and slim jeans. Paula (Gabrielle Jones) wears dark a leotard and a crisp, big button up shirt with the sleeves rolled up. (note: I might be wrong about her leotard I was so distracted by the shirt cause I wanted it. Sorry.) I found it interesting that both actors wear wedding rings even though the characters are breaking up. I don’t think it’s a mistake. I think it was a deliberate move. This couple isn’t angry with one another. They are just ending a bad situation that has kept them unhappy for a long time. Taking off the rings might prove too final at this point in the beginning of the play.

As their younger selves Griffin Hewitt is in slim pants and a preppy shirt and Breton Lalama wears typical student gear that is stylish and comfortable.

When the older Sam and Paula go back in time they pose as liaison guides for their younger selves, but the younger selves don’t know it. Sam and Paula fell in love that first day. They were besotted with each other. One of the songs perfectly expressed how the older Sam and Paula felt about each other—they couldn’t keep their hands off each other. It isn’t a groping salacious song. It’s one of wanting to be tactile; to touch, feel, hold and caress. It’s a lovely song as are they all.

The cast is beautifully balanced and meshed. As Sam, Jonathan Whittaker is laid-back and unsmiling, but he does have a sense of humour. Gloomy is not the appropriate word, but he is a man that might be consumed with unfulfilled dreams and so being inexpressive might be how he protects himself. Gabrielle Jones as Paula is a perfect foil for him. She is take-charge, energetic, expressive and sometimes even volatile. But she also can control her emotions. Both sing well and know how to convey the meaning of each song.

As young Sam, Griffin Hewitt is boyish, a touch uncertain about his course in life and sure of his attraction to Paula. He sings beautifully. Breton Lalama as young Paula is buoyant, lively and direct. You can see that she will grow into Paula. She too sings beautifully.

The information that has kept both Sam and Paula unhappy comes out gradually as the couple re-live their younger selves. A decision is made that seems true to the play and not just tacked on.

The music enhances the story-telling in a deeper way than just dialogue. The songs are jaunty, thoughtful and beautifully express the personalities of the characters singing them. Steve Thomas’ music is lovely, melodic and memorable. That both Norm Foster and Steve Thomas did the lyrics and are true to the characters without being glaringly unbalance is a masterstroke.

A terrific evening in the theatre.

Comment. People are never satisfied! After the opening night of Beside Myself the wonderfully insightful, funny musical at the Norm Foster Festival at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines, a forthright audience member went up to Norm Foster, the man at the centre of the Festival and wanted to know if there would be a CD of the music show. He wasn’t the only one. Alas no. I hope they correct this if they do another musical in the future.

The Foster Festival Presents:

Began:  July 31, 2019.

Closes: Aug. 17, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, approx.

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