While Sea of Stories may be tailor-made for tourists with its quaint history lesson of White Rock, the city’s residents may also find the new musical of interest.
In Shawn Macdonald’s book, Sea of Stories centers on a mother and son who have moved to White Rock to help her aging parent move into a retirement home. On its surface this is pretty standard family fare, and comes with zero surprises: mom just wants to do the right thing, the teen is angry for having been moved across the country away from friends, and the irascible grandma eventually comes around to realize family can mean everything.
While the three attempt to bond in their new lives together, Macdonald provides each with an opportunity to help tell some of the history of the town in which they all now reside. Two of the devices Macdonald uses to bring the past to life are successful, the third felt messy and awkward.
The most successful of the history lessons comes from the young son Jeffery. Tasked with writing about his new home town in a school assignment, he eventually lands on the town’s Indigenous origins. Helped by the ghostly visit from X’ya:s, son of the Cowichan tribe’s Sea God, the tale of how the city got its name is revealed.
More than a simple retelling of the legend though, Jeffery’s school report also becomes political. The penultimate scene brings some focus to these issues as he reads his report aloud. Before this moment though this compelling storyline is largely lost among the other moments in White Rock’s history competing for our attention.
The second device Macdonald uses to conjure moments in White Rock’s history is akin to a memory play. As Grandma Ellen recalls events from her own life, they are replayed as she watches. There is a particularly touching scene when the older Ellen meets her younger self, but it is over too quickly, giving way to mundane trips to the beach and local soda shop.
In the final device, mom Anita has the daunting task of justifying the sudden appearance of the wife to one of White Rock’s modern-day founders in her dining room.
Where Jeffery comes about his visions by way of dreams, and the grandmother conjures hers through personal memories, Wilmot’s encounter with the past is never explained. It felt almost as if Macdonald simply gave up in trying to find a third justification for these history lessons to magically appear.
Unwelcome, but no doubt necessary, are how this production’s major sponsors are woven into the play. No mere product placements, these are overt commercials. While no doubt written into the script in exchange for sponsorship, it does serve to remind though who the target market is for this show.
There are also key moments in the town’s history which are also played for laughs. The modern development of White Rock is chronicled in a ridiculous duet in an extended commercial for a real-life real estate firm, and the details of how the Peace Arch Hospital finally came to town is chronicled in an equally silly number.
There are a few really nice performances here. Cathy Wilmot, who continues to prove she is a force, brings a nice balance to the role of Ellen, and Nancy Ebert is delightfully natural as her mother. As Jeffrey, Anthony Goncharov is a bit stiff at times, but there is little doubt with a few more years he is destined for greater things. Sam Bob remains grounded as X’ya:s, managing a nice balance between the funny and the serious.
Also a musical, composer Dominik Heins gives everything a jazzy feel, but most of the songs are immediately forgettable. A ballad sung by Wilmot, who has the best voice of the night, quickly morphs into a recognition of the show’s Canada 150 funding, and a song at a local dance in the 1950s feels very generic.
Costume designer Ines Ortner goes for a monochrome palette as if the Thrift family stepped out of a black and white photograph, and the colourful costumes of the 1950s are fun. Alan Brodie’s projections are at times both whimsical and practical.
For those with no connection to White Rock, Sea of Stories only partially succeeds. The Indigenous storyline is a fascinating fable and some of the politics raises it out of its predictability. But these moments are fleeting.
Sea of Stories with book and lyrics by Shawn Macdonald, and music by Domink Heins. Directed by Wendy Bollard. A Peninsula Productions presentation on stage at the Coast Capital Playhouse (1532 Johnston Rd, White Rock) until August 26. Visit https://peninsulaproductions.org for tickets and information.