“JUKE BOX MUSICALS” are all the rage these days. You get the performance rights to the hit songs of a composer, add a thin plot, that may not even be related to the songs themselves, and “bob’s yer uncle”, it will sell piles of tickets and run for years. Broadway and London’s West End, are full of these confections, at the moment. After all the whole point of a musical, is to enjoy the music, and a collection of songs that everyone knows already, is a much easier sell, than a show full of songs that you have never heard before!
At first glance, I’ll Be Seeing You, a musical revue, compiled and directed by David Dayler, also seems to follow this same formula, except that the songs, tastefully presented on the stage of the Player’s Guild studio theatre on Queen Street, are not by a single composer. Rather, they are songs of a specific era, in this case the early 1940s, as they explore the wartime experiences, of those who were caught up in the great titanic struggle, against tyranny, facism and National Socialism.
There is even a historical precedent for this production. During the Second World War, soldiers, and sailors from the Canadian armed forces, mounted large musical productions called The Army Show, and Meet The Navy, allowing actors and musicians, the opportunity to tour large cities in Canada, and Britain, promoting recruitment and helping to sell war bonds. While doing this very important war service, they thus avoided combat. During the First World War, a group of Canadian soldiers managed to get themselves out of the trenches of the Western Front, by becoming “The Dumbells” — a cross-dressing drag troupe, that entertained the troops, and ended up playing in large theatres in London.
This Player’s Guild production, with tasteful musical direction by Brenda Uchimaru, is a slick, polished, and professional calibre evening of theatre. It makes its way, through a catalog of well known songs that are extremely well performed by the cast. The sold out audience, at the performance I attended, greatly appreciated the nine performers, four men and five women, who ran through a compilation of the “greatest hits” of 1940s songs, mostly done at speed, to a march like tempo.
There is no question that these songs have great emotional power. They are historical artifacts from an era eighty years ago, and some of them, like the plaintive “Keep the Home Fires Burning” are haunting. Don’t forget though, that it was the British Ministry of Propaganda, that commissioned the English lyrics to the song, “Lili Marlene”, as they feared the original German song, might generate sympathy for the Nazi cause.
The first song, “I’ll Remember You”, beautifully sung by Carolyn Campbell, sets up the production nicely, as a nostalgia piece. The numbers then alternate back and forth between the men and the women. In the second act, each performer gets a solo number of their own, to showcase their individual voices. Space prevents me from mentioning everyone by name, but the ensemble was very strong, with Lucy McGee’s turn as Dame Vera Lynn, being the most memorable of the evening.
The setting, by designer Trevor McAnuff, seems to suggest that we are in some kind of bombed out cellar, perhaps in East London, during the Blitz. There are a few chairs, two stairs leading to a top landing, and a few moveable boxes, to help change locations. Greg Kott’s lighting and Lawrence Hamilton’s projections, add a great deal to the show’s atmosphere.
Thirty years ago, I recall seeing David Dayler’s production of a very similar themed play, by Canadian playwright Peter Colley, called You’ll Get Used to It… The War Show. That production used many of the same songs in it. The difference of that earlier production, was that it was an actual play, with a story and characters in it.
In fact, the absence of any kind of story, is the main issue that I have with this show. Colley’s script, also focused specifically on the experiences of Canadians, while Dayler’s production seems to be set generically, somewhere in Great Britain. Lots of Union Jacks everywhere, but nary a Canadian red ensign flag to be seen anywhere.
The narrations that actors recite, to set up each number seem firmly rooted in 2019, and feel more like a wikipedia entry on the history, of a specific song, rather than a story told from the point of view of the 1940s. Barry Broadfoot’s book, The War Years, is full of the kind of specific oral histories, that would have added so much more to his production. There are very few survivors now, who participated in WW2, but their writings and stories survive, and deserve to be told.
Those men and women, who served in the Second World War, have been dubbed by historians, “the greatest generation”. They often paid the ultimate price for their service to Canada, and therefore, deserve to have their stories told with truth, candour and some passion. These soldiers gave their lives, on the beaches of Dieppe and Normandy, to prevent dictators and authoritarian regimes from literally, taking over the world. They protected the freedoms and liberties, that so many of us take for granted, by standing fast, and fighting for them, in hand to hand combat. The irony of the fact that there are literal Nazi’s, who idolize the words of Adolf Hitler, marching in the streets of our city, cannot be lost on an audience, coming to see this revue.
And that is my only real criticism of this otherwise very fine production. That it comes off as as a “BBC Night at the Proms”, rather than the stirring and passionate memorial, that I think it could have been. There is a 1945 poem by Randall Jarrell, about the death of an airman over Germany, that in only five lines, hits the exact emotional note, that this entire production should have lived in, for its two hours.
Hopefully, I’ll Be Seeing You, will live again in some form, allowing Dayler to revise his script, and to add more drama to it. This Player’s Guild production continues through this coming weekend, with four more performances remaining. The music and songs alone, are worth the price of admission. V
I’LL BE SEEING YOU
Directed and compiled by David Dayler
Player’s Guild of Hamilton
80 Queen Street South
November 7, 8, 9 at 8pm
November 9 at 2pm
Box office: 905-529-0284