Fiddleheads Musical Theatre’s Sparks Street Ballad blends theatre for young audiences with fiddle music, Canadian history, and the need to teach this history to young Canadians in a way that addresses the historical wrongs perpetrated against certain segments of the population. It’s an ambitious undertaking that they achieve with modest success.
The story concerns Mrs. Trotter’s boarding house on Sparks Street in 1868, where she holds a weekly fiddle circle for young people. When famous politician D’Arcy McGee moves in upstairs, his need for peace and quiet gradually breaks down into acceptance and friendship with the children – until the event for which he is mostly remembered today. This storyline is in place primarily to allow the dozen or so children to play classic Canadian fiddle tunes, backed by upright bass, guitar, mandolin, and keyboard. There is also a heavy dosage of poetry, mostly from the hand of D’Arcy McGee himself (a great political orator, McGee was also known for his poetry, particularly concerning his adopted homeland).
The children, who come from a variety of backgrounds, discuss their identities as minorities, members of social classes, but also as Canadians. The most notable instance of this comes from a Métis girl who is part of the group, who objects to one of D’Arcy McGee’s poems on the basis that it glorifies the Christianization of the Indigenous people at Hochelaga (modern-day Québec City). This is of course a perfectly valid and accurate criticism, but, against the rest of the stories, the tone feels a little more 2017 than 1868.
With the amount of children and families involved with/seeing this show however, the choice to alter the material to encourage young people to follow interpretations that will lead to a more balanced and fair society is completely understandable. Rewriting history in this way though is, in a sense, a way of pretending that centuries of oppression didn’t happen. It’s a difficult subject to broach with children, and while this production choice leaves me conflicted, I’m honestly not sure what approach would be preferable. On the flip side, D’Arcy McGee was known for standing up for minorities, so having a child correct him could also be a deconstruction of a historical figure whose political values have not all aged well.
The mostly school-aged cast handles their roles well: the story is mostly told through Norah, an illiterate kitchen maid of Irish origin who works in the boarding house. As Norah, Neve Sugars-Keen gives a performance that balances the toughness of a preteen working to support herself and her orphaned brother and the desire for something of a father figure in McGee. The arc that comes about as a result makes her mourning for McGee after the assassination the emotional highlight of this show.
Sparks Street Ballad is a colossal undertaking for a community group: a new script, 34 cast members spread across various performances, an exploration of Canadian identity at the time of Confederation, and dancing, acting, and some singing. It’s a wonderful concept, and though the script at times drags between the musical performances, this is a fun and informative show for families during a very special year for this country.
A Fiddleheads Musical Theatre production
Written and Directed by Cynthia Sugars
Musical Direction by Kyle Burghout and James Stephens
Pit Band: Kyle Burghout, Marek Przednowek, James Stephens
Performers: Cecily Adderley, Marieke Bakker Westeinde, Stella Bowstead-Crook, Aiden Busi, Madalena Busi, Rowan Caza, Rachel Claydon-Kaarsberg, Gwyneth Fantin, Allysan Foehring, Claudine Haddrell-Anning, Maisie Haddrell-Anning, Ross Henry, Lotte Kallio, Zoe Kallio, Dmitry Lewis, Evania Lovshin, Lila-Jean Picard, Oliver Picard, Ry Prior, Julia Przednowek, Paige Roy, Kai Samm, Mackenzie Samm, Skylar Samm, Lucy Sinclair, Abby Sugars-Keen, Morgan Sugars-Keen, Neve Sugars-Keen, Isabel Tabah, Madeline Thompson, Adam Waddington, Angus Winship
At Academic Hall (Venue 2)
Running Time: approx. 85 minutes
Saturday 17 June 1:30pm