Latest Reviews

Edmonton Journal review by Liz Nicholls:

 

Strike!, by Winnipeggers Danny Schur (music and lyrics) and co-writer Rick Chafe, sheds light on a violent historical event, the General Strike that shut down the city of Winnipeg for six weeks in 1919, and set off vibrations coast to coast. Not only that, it sets about dramatizing the repressive, incendiary, multi-limbed post-Great War social landscape that made it both wildly improbable and, perhaps, inevitable — this in a country better known by the world and by its own citizenry for placidity unto dullness than for its firebrands.

 

Thanks to Les Miz, the world is accustomed to French students manning the barricades and getting gunned down for their fervour (while singing). But mounted police opening fire on a crowd of 10,000 on Main Street in the ’Peg? A federal government in a country of immigrants that declares its own citizens “enemy aliens” subject to deportation if they were born outside the country? Less familiar, to say the least.

 Everything about Strike! The Musical is unusual for its time and place. Its run here is sponsored by the Alberta Federation of Labour, in honour of its 100th anniversary, assisted by a long list of unions and ethnic congresses. In an age where a sextet is considered a full-bodied, producer Schur and Workshop West have gathered a first-rate cast of 18 from Edmonton’s professional theatre community. The staging is old-fashioned opera, with a massive perspective-painted set, the grand municipal architecture of Winnipeg plus elaborate set pieces that roll on and offstage bearing whole workers’ shacks and upper-crust salons. Since Strike! is all about the unexpected coming-together of hostile groups, Ukrainians and Jews, in a dangerous common cause, there have to be big ensemble scenes. Arne McPherson directs them in a rhythm of tableaus and slo-motion group shots, and Daniela Maselis lights them like paintings.

 

At the centre is the ample figure of Mike Sokolowski (the excellent Frederick Zbryski). He’s the blustery Ukrainian immigrant, riddled with anti-Semitic prejudices at the outset, a slave-wage worker who’s opposed to the strike because his meagre salary goes to rescuing his family from the old country. Mike is also the opponent to young love; his godson Stefan (Scott Shpeley) has fallen for their Jewish neighbour Rebecca (Ellie Heath). Both actors bring real charm and vigorous stage presence to their roles, along with the engaging Ryan Parker as Rebecca’s intellectual bro Moishe, a radical who sings the show’s cleverest, and only quixotic, number Nothing Radical.

This fractious scene, exploited immigrant workers suspicious of each other in their new country, is counterpoised to a xenophobic ruling class that includes the out-and-out vicious (Stephen Sparks as a senator) and the progressive (Annette Loiselle as a suffragette-in-the-making). There are fretful soldiers back from Europe to discover immigrants have taken jobs; there’s a police force torn between enforcement and union sympathies. The landscape reminds you in its complexity of Ragtime, with characters that hint at a sequel to Fiddler on the Roof. The lyrics are burdened with a daunting amount of plot, which makes them rather a mouthful. But the cast goes for the gusto. Though flavoured with the distinctive melancholy/whimsy that produces both Slavic and klezmer riffs, plus the odd jig and patter song, the music leans very heavily toward the stirring and anthemic. It’s understandable, this, especially since the characters burst into song at moments of high passion. But it’s a little wearing over the course of the evening, exacerbated (at least on opening night) by a brash sound mix that favours the vocals rather aggressively. But then, in a musical that’s about giving a voice to the labour movement, you shouldn’t expect a whisper.

CBC Radio review by Joff Schmidt: 

Given that Winnipeg composer Danny Schur's "human rights epic" has had multiple productions since its 2005 premiere, I have a shocking and embarrassing admission to make: until last night, I was a Strike! virgin. 

I don't know why I'd never seen it - maybe I've been scared away from big musicals by substandard efforts like Boys In the Photograph, or bloated epics like Beauty and the Beast. (Two-and-a-half hours for a Disney musical? Seriously?) 

But when it comes to Strike!, I certainly did enjoy my first time. 

If you've never seen it, the basic plot's pretty straightforward: set in the lead-up to (and during) Winnipeg's historic 1919 general strike, Ukrainian immigrant Mike Sokolowski (Cory Wojcik), his godson Stefan (Jeremy Walmsley), and Stefan's paramour Rebecca (Erin McGrath) have their lives thrown into turmoil as they pick sides on the battle lines, and make difficult decisions about what they're willing to fight for. 

Of course, basing your musical on historical events can work out pretty well (see: Les Miserables) or become laughably bad (I'll never be convinced that Titanic: The Musical was a good idea). 

Happily, Strike! is one that works very well. Schur and co-writer Rick Chafe are remarkably successful at finding the human drama at the core of the historical event, and they strike (oooh, pardon that pun) an effective balance between history lesson and compelling story. At the same time, they don't varnish over the uglier side of social politics in 1919 Winnipeg: anti-immigrant sentiment, bigotry, sexism, and class division are all part of the story here. 

Schur and Chafe make this all palatable with a crackling stage-setting opening number ("Winnipeg's Giddy"), sprinkles of humour throughout (as in political Jewish writer Moishe's big number, "Nothing Radical," wonderfully performed by Simon Miron), and of course, the obligatory love story (Stefan and Rebecca's ballad, "Love In a Place Like This," is one of the few numbers that didn't quite "sing" for me). 

For the most part, though, Schur's soundtrack is a winner. His music thoughtfully draws from eastern European melodies, a bit of Celtic, and even some good old Anglo pomp to create a sense of a city built on the back of immigration. And it's irresistibly catchy, as well - from the strident, fist-pumping march of "Strike!" to the tragic and haunting tone of the working class lament "Fifty Dollars," Strike! offers plenty for musical theatre fans to sink their teeth into. 

I can't compare this to previous productions, but this one, directed by Winnipeg theatre vet Ann Hodges, works particularly well. She moves the action along at a smart pace (although the script bogs down a bit in the second act), and there's really not a weak link in the 18-person cast: while all do solid work, Wojcik stand out as Mike Sokolowski, finding all of the complexity and conflict in the well-drawn character. 

Composer/producer Schur says this is the "second annual" summer production of Strike! - it ran around this time last year to near-capacity houses, and his plan is to remount it every summer (with possible future connections with the Human Rights Museum). Will that work? It relies pretty heavily on tourism - although there seemed to be a lot of other "Strike! virgins" in the audience at opening, most of Winnipeg's musical theatre fans will eventually have seen it. But I don't think it's any crazier than, say, expecting people to come out to see a 35-year-old Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. And Strike! is enough of a smart crowd-pleaser that it has the potential to become a much-loved summer tradition in Winnipeg. 

Saskatoon Star Phoenix review by Cam Fuller 

Choosing to book-end its season with musicals, Persephone Theatre has exceeded expectations with an unlikely underdog. One can't help wonder if Evita will impress as much come April as Strike! The Musical did at Saturday's opening. 

The show, by Danny Schur and Rick Chafe and directed by Ann Hodges, gives you everything you want: a love story, a suspenseful plot, a collection of good songs and a history lesson that teaches you something about yourself. 

It's the turbulent summer of 1919 in Winnipeg. Soldiers are returning from war to find their jobs taken by recent immigrants, who are themselves suffering from low wages and skyrocketing inflation. 

Desperation widens the gap between cultures and classes, pitting Ukrainians against Jews against Irish against English. The ruling class observes the restive populace with chagrin and worries about protecting its own privileged position. 

The script is particularly successful at mixing fact and fiction. The events leading up to the Winnipeg General Strike are duly noted but dramatized by the unlikely romance between Jewish and Ukrainian immigrants Rebecca Almazoff (Leora Joy Godden) and Stefan Dudar (Mark Devigne). 

Society would have to change radically for these two to ever be allowed happiness, but change is in the wind and, along with it, hope. That feeling of what might be is captured in song with Better Days, enhanced by choreography that gives a flavour of the various cultures. 

A strong cast is led by Jeff Page in yet another memorable Persephone role as Mike Sokolowski, Stefan's uncle and guardian who's trying to save enough money to rescue his wife and children from the old country as the Russian army swaths ever closer. Mike's polar opposite is the villain of the piece, Senator Gideon Robertson, played with steely confidence by Bruce McKay who opines, in the song Plight of the Working Class, that poor people need to be put down to protect them from themselves. 

Unlike many musicals which use songs as time outs, the tunes in Strike! serve to advance the story; Fifty Dollars illustrates the plight of the working poor while Better Man develops Mike's character. The songs are sung in-accent, which is no small accomplishment, and they have an old-timey sound to them which fits the era. The sound, meanwhile, benefits from the theatre's good acoustics. The voices are not amplified and metallic as they are in big Broadway touring shows. Although you strain at times to get the words, the naturalism is worth it. The only glaring fault is the lack of a live orchestra, which would have been impossible to fit in physically and, no doubt, financially. 

Amazingly well polished despite its size and the time constraints of regional theatre, this show about working together has benefited from no small amount of organized labour. The result is a successful union of drama and music.

Praise

"One wonders if Evita will impress as much..."

- Saskatoon Star Phoenix

"An improbably compelling piece of musical theatre"

- The Globe & Mail

"There's nothing small in mind, body or heart about Strike!"

- Edmonton Journal

"Strike! Has Important Message for Humanity"

- Winnipeg Free Press

"Strike! makes haters of musicals and history see the error of their ways"

- University of Saskatchewan Sheaf

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