There’s something about the setting of a train that is romantic, mysterious and a tad claustrophobic. It’s the prime location for an up-close character study.
In the fun, funny and thoughtful Norm Foster-Steve Thomas musical Jasper Station, currently being staged at Vernon’s Powerhouse Theatre, the setting evokes that romantic notion of riding the rails to pursue the unknown, that of a new life at the end of the line.
However, instead of the train, which hedges at the backdrop, whistle blowing (including the actual train that shook up the theatre just outside the stage doors), the action is set inside the historic Jasper Heritage Railway Station, where we meet six characters travelling to Vancouver.
Set and lighting designer Dave Brotsky has outdone himself in recreating the station interior, right down to its arts and craft style. The post and beam framework, circular chandeliers, pneumatic doors, and windows make it look as much as some luxurious mountain chalet as a train station, but for anyone who has ever been there, this is what Jasper station actually looks like.
And for those looking for a unique set of furniture, Powerhouse is auctioning off the replicas of the waiting room benches after the play’s run.
Things start rolling with the cast dressed in beige trenchcoats, suitcases at their side, perform the prologue There’s a Train. We are then thrust into the present, year 2000, where once cynical and rather naive newspaper reporter Rebecca Townshend (Powerhouse’s own powerhouse Katja Burnett) runs into the lovable stationmaster Bert Calivetti (the lovable Jackson Mace), a slightly sarcastic Mr. Rogers’ type with a British accent, as they await the arrival of the passengers Rebecca reported on at that very train station five years before.
We are then taken on a ride back to 1995 where we meet said characters, and each has his/her own story to tell, told through both sung and spoken dialogue, a task for both the actors and the incredible live band, directed by pianist Alex MacArthur, in the wings.
This is not easy music to perform. It has a lot of key changes and wordy lyrics, so kudos to all for pulling it off.
I could relate most to Rebecca, a cub reporter with the Spruce Grove Examiner who dreams of writing human interest, Pulitzer Prize winning stories instead of the “page 12” bonspiels and teas she is reporting on now, as told in the song I’m Better Than That (and hold on to your hats as Burnett has one heck of a set of pipes that reached to the back of the theatre).
Rebecca has gone against the wishes of her editor (the hardworking Mace, who appears in a number of cameos during the production) and is at the station to write a character study about those taking the train, a nice story-within-the story plot device.
She meets hockey player Henry Keegan (mighty Michael Gairns), whose baritone bravado as a goal lacking forward is contrasted with his sweet innocence and his overbearing father (Mace again). Despite this, he has been called up by the Canucks from where he has been playing in Spokane. Why he would be travelling from Spokane to Jasper and then to Vancouver is a mystery, but oh well, we’re glad he’s there as his performance of Frank Mahovlich reminds us that this is a comedy.
Next up is bumbling accountant Sterling Mimms (an awesome display of bundled-up nerves by Cliff Lattery) who only has 45 minutes to decide whether he will purchase a ticket to start his new career – as a country songwriter in Seattle of all places. His indecision lasts for most of the play as he counts down the minutes (in song!) til the train departs in some of the play’s funnier moments. Actually, the funniest moment is when he sings one of his songs (Bob’s Your Uncle) with the cast in the second act. Let’s just say it’s rather scandalous.
Then there’s Emeline White (golden voiced Roxanne Ricard) who has just left her husband with a 17-page goodbye letter citing inattention and lack of passion in her 19-year marriage, as heard in All I Want to Hear Him Say. She develops a lovely rapport with Bert who becomes a listening ear, and perhaps more (no spoilers here).
Finally, we meet the whirlwind that is tough-talking, world-weary and pregnant Nikki Dunn (the energetic Sandy Behan), who is running away to Kitimat to join some space-age cult to start life on another planet as sung in Millions of Light Years Away. Yes, it’s far-fetched, but the way Nikki tells it, you understand her intentions.
The heartstrings are pulled along with the twist at the end of the second act, back in the present, that wraps up the story in a nice package.
Director Bob Oldfield has brought out the best in his cast. You can bond with these characters and laugh along to their well-paced comedic timing. Then there’s all that singing. Even with some voices being stronger than others, it still fits and is a journey worth taking.
Jasper Station continues at Powerhouse until March 4. For tickets and times, visit the Ticket Seller at the Performing Arts Centre, call 250-549-7469 or go online to www.ticketseller.ca.
– Kristin Froneman is the arts-entertainment editor at the Vernon Morning Star