by Lynn on July 10, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Played at Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton, Ont.  June 21-23, 2024. Produced by Walter Schroeder and Terra Bruce Productions.

Book by Steve Cochrane

Based on an original concept by Walter Schroeder

Directed by Courtney Brown

Choreographed by Victoria Wells-Smith

Music direction arrangements, orchestrations and additional music by Bill Brennan

Set by Brian Dudkiewicz

Costumes by Sara Hodder

Lighting by Leigh Ann Vardy

Projections by Amelia Scott

Sound by Kate De Lorme

This show was so dire it does not deserve a review, but the producers want one, so here it is.

From the program note from the producer: Bob Hallett. “During those long and confusing months of the pandemic, prevented from playing and performing, we resolved to use our time wisely, by devoting the time instead to creation.

It was in those dreary weeks (note: officially the COVID-19 pandemic lasted from March 20, 2020-to Jan, 2023) that our founder Walter Schroeder conceived of a show build around the classic hymns of the 50s and 60s the golden age of music…

We conceived of a story build around an Irish priest (Father Paul Barry), a flawed but good man, wo came to the new world to escape his past, only to find both love and a crisis of conscience.

Playwright Steve Cochrane embraced the challenge, and over many drafts, and rewrites and workshops the show slowly became something more, the story of a young couple drawn together by love but pulled apart by the turmoil of the times. New musicals are complex and complicated creations, and this one spans countries and decades, following our lovers as their lives reflect the world changing around them…”

A further program note from Courtney Brown, the director: “In 2021 I was asked to direct a new show for Terra Bruce Productions. The show was still to be written, but the desire was that it contain a priest, a rock star, a love interest and that it was set in America. Oh! And that it must contain a list of songs, hymnals to gospel to rock and roll written between 1955 and 1984. Steve (Cochrane the playwright) took those puzzle pieces and over the past few years has woven them into this beautiful story you are here to see, the world premiere of An American Hymnal.

Somewhere early in my conversations with Steve we started circling around the notion of forgiveness—and how the world seems to have turned its back on the idea lately. What does it mean to forgive someone? How do you truly forgive yourself? When Beau (Dixon, listed as the dramaturge) came aboard this year another question began to emerge, how is forgiveness related to love?

So many folks along the way have brought forward the idea of second chances. When they happen, and they are a rare gift, how do you open your heart and embrace them? ….

I hope this production inspires you to examine those in your life who may need some forgiveness. I hope it helps you identify those rare second chances, should they come your way and that you have the courage to be open to them.”

Where to begin? With all the constant additions, changes, and other ideas surrounding An American Hymnal it’s obvious no one actually knew what they were doing in ‘creating’ this show. Is it about an Irish priest? A love story? Forgiveness? Second chances? All of these? You would hardly know from Steve Cochrane’s confusing, vague, badly written, deeply flawed book of the musical. Characters are rarely developed or relationships established. Information plops down into the plotline without support or reason. And why create yet another jukebox musical (a musical with the music that already exists elsewhere—think Mamma Mia!) based on classic hymns when they do so little for the plot, atmosphere, idea?  Did anyone tell anyone that these hymns are not mainly Catholic. Many are African-American spirituals.

Connor Lucas plays Father Paul Barry around whom this show is based. Connor Lucas has a strong voice but speaks in a monotoned mumble. But who really is Father Paul Barry?  He drinks a lot. Why? We have to guess. He was raised by the priests in his local parish church in Ireland but then sailed to New York and then moved to Chicago. We barely know why. His mother is a haunting presence and we find out late in the show, why. He looks wistfully at a young woman, Diana Sprewell (a power-house Ruth Acheampong), a terrific singer and we are supposed to assume a relationship because again, Steve Cochrane does not do the work to clearly, firmly establish that. Diana is a sweet woman until she is abused by a man and that turns her bitter instantly. She marries Floyd Landry (a fine performance by Matthew G. Brown), also initially a sweet man who on Diana’s urging without reason or subtext then says, “Burn this country down.” Really? None of this is supported? It’s basic playwrighting and that seems to be a mystery to Steve Cochrane.

Director Courtney Brown’s program note also betrays an ignorance of musicals, musical history etc. Second chances are rare? Really? Are you kidding? Second chances are the keynote of musicals: Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Carousel, My Fair Lady, Come from Away, South Pacific, The Sound of Music, Mamma Mia!, Priscilla Queen of the Desert. And on and on.

And Courtney Brown’s direction is no better. Underwhelming and unimaginative. She seems more concerned with having a dazzling backdrop (kudos to Amelia Scott for her projections) than showing an ability to establish a scene or relationships.

When one looks in the program for any hint that Steve Cochrane and Courtney Brown know anything about playwrighting/musicals (in Cochrane’s case) or directing musicals in Brown’s case, one finds precious little information by way of bone fide credits in these artforms. That should be a clue we are in trouble.

This country is loaded with artists who know the musical theatre form down to their toes. They know how to compose them, write them and direct them.  To continue to go unerringly to hire people who have no clue about the artform says everything about Terra Bruce Productions. And how telling that producer Walter Schroeder is listed last in the program in bold letters as “base on an original concept by Walter Schroeder.” An American Hymnal. The show is neither original not an original concept. It’s a juke-box musical, and a bad one at that.

The last three musicals that Terra Bruce Productions has brought to the Toronto area have been dire (Let’s Dance—The Musical; The Wild Rovers; An American Hymnal).  And that is unforgivable. Perhaps the company should change its name to Terra Bull Productions.

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