Off-Broadway Review: “True North: A Concert of Canada” at the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre

Off-Broadway Review: “True North: A Concert of Canada” at the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre (Closed Sunday July 2, 2017)
Co-Written by Mike Ross, Marni Jackson, and Albert Schultz
Directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Soulpepper on 42nd Street, the ambitious month-long presentation by Canada’s highly acclaimed Soulpepper Theatre Company, features original productions of “Spoon River,” “Kim’s Convenience,” “Of Human Bondage,” plus concerts and cabaret performances (and more). “True North: A Concert of Canada” opened the Festival with a diverse cast of performers and musicians that celebrated a distinguished collection of Canadian singers, songwriters, and poets. After a lengthy introduction by Soulpepper’s Artistic Director Albert Schultz, the concert began with a tap-dancing, fiddle-playing prelude segment that energized the audience and set the stage for the concert.

Sixteen songs, introduced by readings by narrators Diego Matamoros and Nancy Palk, lifted up the history and culture of Canada, the rich history and culture so closely tied to the United States. Often the readings and songs stood alone as testaments to the joys and the heartbreaks of the Canadian people. Sometimes, reading and song counterpointed one another in powerful expositions about mining (“Working Man” by Rita MacNeil, performed by Jackie Richardson), urban renewal (Spadina,” Mike Ross/Dennis Lee, performed by Mike Ross), and northern expansion (“Northwest Passage” by Stan Rogers, performed by Andrew Penner). Readings and performances were complemented by the overhead video projections designed by David Costello and Laura Warren.

The forward movement of energetic concert was hampered somewhat by an unexpected unevenness in both performances and narrations. The movement of the narrators on and off the stage was distracting and some of the songs just did not work on this opening night. What should have been a stunning pairing of Neil Young’s “After the Goldrush” and the “Ave Maria” (J.S. Bach/Charles Gounod) lost its footing after just a few measures: Mike Ross was not able to maintain the admittedly difficult pairing with “Ave Maria” which was performed flawlessly by Neema Bickersteth (unfortunately, not mentioned in the program). There were also off-putting difficulties with the sound mixing which sometimes left the singers struggling to be heard by the audience.

Overall, however, the Concert was a powerful tribute to all things Canada with the following outstanding performances. Jackie Richardson’s stunning vocal virtuosity and depth of interpretation was displayed in her renditions of Joe Sealy’s “Deep Down Inside” and Rita MacNeil’s “Working Man.” Hailey Gillis brought a brilliant rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “River” and one of Leonard Cohen’s “Songs of Love and Hate” – “Famous Blue Raincoat.” Miranda Mulholland’s pure vocals explored the range of emotions in Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.” And Alana Bridgewater found the psychological nuances in Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina.”

It was Hunter Cardinal’s interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” that was the concert’s highpoint. After his reminder of the history of the Lenape Nation, the original native New Yorkers, Mr. Cardinal brought a depth of understanding and interpretation to “Both Sides Now” that tore at the heart, mind, and spirit of the audience. Unfortunately, the creative team decided to follow the performance with an encore “The Weight.”