“Every generation has a story to tell.”
Full houses greeted the Colin Stewart/Chris McHarge working debut of a new show, Alice’s Restaurant: Hits from the 60s and 70s, at Upper Canada Playhouse, April 2 – May 1.
The show is an affectionate tribute to the story songs that were so much a part of those brief years from 1968 to the very early 70s.
Arlo Guthrie’s monologue/song, Alice’s Restaurant, was definitely the first significant story song of the era. With its satiric commentary on flower power and Viet Nam, it was a ground breaking performance at the time.
At 18 spoken minutes (and nearly 50 years later), this number may have seemed a little long, perhaps, (despite the incredible vocal abilities of Aaron Solomon), to kick off a show that was otherwise jam-packed with outstanding music.
And what a trio of exceptional musicians Stewart and McHarge brought to the stage for the debut of Alice’s Restaurant!
Aaron Solomon has starred in a number of hit musicals, and is undoubtedly a Playhouse audience favourite. Michelle Truman’s powerful voice, which thrilled crowds in last season’s Midnight Hour, makes hers a welcome return to Morrisburg. Debbie Bechamp, marking her debut at the Playhouse, was simply dynamite on stage.
“Deb (Bechamp) is my Country and Western girl, Michelle (Truman) is our Miss Rock and Roll, and Aaron, well he can do anything,” said Colin Stewart.
These were singers whose versatility was show-cased by the demands of the story songs chosen for this premier production.
Michelle Truman’s gut-wrenching rendition of the late Janis Joplin’s Me and Bobby McGee brought the house down.
Debbie Bechamp flouted tradition and stunned the audience with her delivery of Don McLean’s American Pie.
And the audience paid Aaron Solomon the compliment of listening in utter, moved silence to his delivery of Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
These three had the vocal range and the musical chops to do justice to the very wide range of songs chosen for the production.
The trio (pretty impressive instrumentalists themselves) was supported on stage by the outstanding backup musicians Dean Harrison, Colin Stewart himself and Mike Ray (whose virtuoso guitar numbers were incredible!)
From Ode to Billy Joe to Marty Robbins El Paso, from The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia to Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, the Alice’s Restaurant music knew no barriers. Country tales to rock and roll sagas, it was all there.
As in other McHarge/Stewart productions, the singers also incorporated anecdotes and vignettes into the music, explaining how the story songs developed.
The advent of long play albums by 1967, meant that there was now the means, and the demand, for artists to write and perform longer pieces of music.
Musicians could now employ the devices familiar to story telling – unusual, even tragic characters, metaphors, nuances – in their compositions. (Consider American Pie!)
Still, as the cast, tongue in cheek, did point out in Act II, story songs didn’t always have grand aspirations.
David Bowie’s Space Oddity (sung by the cast) had less to do with Apollo moon landings, and rather more to do with the composer’s watching Kubrick’s 2001 stoned!
The rendition of City of New Orleans brought back a lot of memories for me. And the really stunning arrangement, for the three vocalists, of the Eagles’ Hotel California was simply a production high light.
Needless to say, there were times when the audience joined in, enthusiastically singing along to their favourites, just as co-composer Colin Stewart had hoped.
“There is a special poignancy to some of these songs,” Stewart said, “and the references to the time periods are all true. I really love this music.”
During the debut of Alice’s Restaurant: Hits from the 60s and 70s, at UCP, often so did the audience.