History can be fun and entertaining
Book and Lyrics by Robert More
Music and Lyrics by Jacqueline Sadler
Performed by Sheldon Davis, Cathy Elliott, R.J. Peters & Company
Directed by Robert More
Victoria Playhouse, Petrolia
August 12 to 30, 2008
Live! On Stage!
Review by Mary Alderson
Those of us who grew up in Lambton County take our oil heritage for granted. So, there are oil wells around Petrolia and Oil Springs – so what? Well, enough of that attitude. Robert More and Jacqueline Sadler have brought oil heritage to life on stage at Victoria Playhouse in Petrolia and made it fascinating and funny in their new musical Oil Rush.
More has created an interesting mix of fact and fiction in this lively musical which celebrates 2008 – the 150th anniversary of the world’s first commercial oil well. That’s right – the first oil well in the world – a year ahead of Pennsylvania, and long before Texas, Alberta or the Persian Gulf. It’s a part of Canadian history in which all Canadians, not just those from Lambton County should take pride.
More and Sadler have captured that feeling of pride, using a mix of historical characters and some who are fictional representatives of “everyman”. The story opens in 2008 with two teenagers (Joseph O’Toole and Trisha Smith) visiting the Oil Museum of Canada in Oil Springs. Their search for the past takes us back to 1858, as the early prospectors arrive in Oil Springs to search for this new find called oil.
“Good Bless the Whale” is a clever tune, reminding us that before oil was supplied commercially, whale oil was an important source of light. But this new discovery, oil, could be refined as kerosene, for household lighting. “Possibilities” is a rousing anthem outlining all that can be done with this exciting new product, oil.
Act one takes place in Oil Springs as the village comes alive in the oil rush. Family man Norman C. Dodds arrives to try his luck at finding oil, bringing along his wife Beth. The couple are delightful – him with his idiomatic speech patterns and her with a charming French Canadian accent. Sheldon Davis is excellent as Norman. He’ll be remembered as the newspaper editor in Soup Du Jour at VPP and the klutzy golfer in The Foursome at Playhouse II in Grand Bend. Cathy Elliott plays Beth very well – furious at Norman for endangering himself in an oil well explosion, at the same time elated that he has survived intact. We enjoy watching Norman and Beth raise their family, through oil booms and busts, until their eldest son goes off to Borneo as a foreign driller. This is a factual part of the story – Petrolia’s “Hard Oilers” travelled to all parts of the world teaching others how to drill for black gold.
The history is told by R. J. Peters playing the role of a newspaper reporter from the Toronto Globe. The young reporter is sent out to write about the oil rush, and Peters does an excellent job as narrator.
In Act II, the action moves to Petrolia as it grows from a population of 200 to 2,000 in nine months, during the oil rush. With the boom comes bar room brawls and a lady of the night who earns her living keeping the prospectors happy.
The trio of Shawn Henry, Craig Maguire and Scott Pietrangelo provide harmony in many of the musical numbers, and comedy as they finish each other’s sentences playing Homer, Harry, and Hector. All three have beautiful voices. Shawn Henry also doubles as the real-life figure J. H. Fairbank, Lambton County’s first oil baron. It’s interesting to note that J. H. Fairbank’s 16-year-old great-great grandson, Charlie Fairbank, has a role as a teen boy in this production, and shows very promising talent. Another talented local teenager, Sabrina Redick, also appears.
Heather Lea Brown skilfully plays several female roles, including that of Edna Fairbank. Her disdain for the backwoods of Petrolia shows through when she sings, “The house could never be a home”.
Greg Campbell handles multiple roles well, making each character unique. He has a charming Irish lilt as Hugh Nixon Shaw and then shows his comedic skills as Shaky, the alcoholic who fractures the oil wells with nitro-glycerine.
Robert More has tied together a great deal of information in an interesting story line. A slideshow of old postcards provides a good view of the reality that was the oil rush. Crude derricks springing up, streets filled with mud and oil, and then the lavish Fairbank mansion.
The lighting for Oil Rush is possibly the best designed at VPP. Each explosion and fire is bathed in orange and red. Kerry Gage’s choreography is well suited to the show – from the influence of square dances and Irish jigs, through to energetic numbers to lift everyone’s spirits.
Oil Rush received an immediate standing ovation on opening night, and probably the loudest applause ever heard in VPP. Congratulations to Robert More and Jacqueline Sadler for putting together a show that educates, entertains and instils pride. This musical will not only make residents of Lambton County take interest in their oil heritage, but should arouse the curiosity of all Canadians. .
Oil Rush continues with eight shows a week at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia until August 30. Call the box office at 1-800-717-7694 or (519) 882-1221 for tickets.
Mary Alderson offers her view of area theatre in this column on a regular basis. As well as being a fan of live theatre, she is a former journalist who is currently employed with the Ontario Association of Community Futures Development Corporations.