Theatre Review – 4th Line Theatre/Bloom: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fable by Beau Dixon

Photo by Wayne Eardley

4th Line Theatre’s latest production, Bloom: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fable, is another entertaining evening from this most enterprising of summer festivals. The piece is filled with music and dance as it traces the journey of a small town rock band from nothingness to near greatness to oblivion again. Perhaps the story is a bit predictable, which always happens when a girl gets between two band guys and wrecks a friendship, but Bloom lopes along at a fast clip, thanks to director Kim Blackwell’s astute staging  and the raucous enthusiasm of her 30-member cast. While the story per se may be age-old, playwright and co-songwriter Beau Dixon throws in enough interesting plot twists to outbend a pretzel.

Dixon chose Peterborough as his forever home twenty years ago, and he dedicates Bloom to the talented musicians produced by the Kawartha region in the early days of Canadian rock ‘n’ roll. Apparently, rural Ontario was responsible for nurturing a great many band boys, in particular, the fictional Spruce Street Ramblers who are the central protagonists of Bloom. The action covers the period from 1956 to 1976, which were tumultuous years for the Ramblers, and begins and ends in the little town of Assumption at the Tanner farm. In the past, we watch the formation of the band and the rise to near greatness. In the present day, we wonder if the planned Ramblers’ reunion will actually take place. The band must perform the concert to pay off a debt.

There are five Rambler band members, with the main focus being on Eli Tanner (Griffin Clark) and Neph Burnstall (Owen Stahn). These boon companions are the band’s songwriters. The Ramblers swell to six when they add talented vocalist and songwriter Theresa “Tess” Wilson (Kate Suhr) who has star potential. Another major character is Neph’s Uncle Jack (JD Nicholsen) who had his glory days as a musician with country star Hank Snow, and is the band’s mentor. Eli’s single mother and hard-working farmer Rose Tanner (Shelley Simester) is the island of calm in the Ramblers’ sea of storms. Richard Brockton (Matt Gilbert) is the band’s devious manager whose underhanded tactics help tear the band apart. Nonetheless, though egos collide and jealousies are stirred, music reigns supreme.

Set designer Esther Vincent has covered the barn walls of the stage area with enlarged posters of period album covers bearing the likes of Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins and Joni Mitchell. The platform stage in the middle of the playing area that Vincent built works very well for the Ramblers’ concerts. The progress through the decades is marked by period music from Elvis Presley to Procol Harum, while choreographer Monica Dottor has shown the passing years through changing dance moves. Meredith Hubbard has clearly had fun designing costumes from the fifties, sixties and seventies, and her psychedelic hippie outfits are particularly hilarious. Interspersed with the known music are the impressive songs of Dixon and Dave Tough, including  “Groovy Day”, the Ramblers’ supposed first hit, and the utterly beautiful ballad “Your Love Will Carry Me”, with music and lyrics by the fictional Neph and Tess. Once again 4th Line’s music guru Justin Hiscox has done a brilliant job of weaving all the song elements together. He also does double duty playing Huff Wilson, the Ramblers’ keyboardist and Tess’ cousin.

The five young boys who begin the Ramblers as teenagers are delightful, but then 4th Line can always rustle up talented youngsters. Their adult counterparts are absolutely believable as a band hungry for fame. Dixon has not only given us a journey of a small town band, but a history of Canadian rock ‘n’ roll, weaving his fictional Ramblers with real life. We meet legendary Peterborough radio announcer Del Crary and listen to Toronto’s CHUM radio and its fabled DJs. We visit famous pubs like the Royal Tavern where bands on the rise toil away, as well as music festivals when they have garnered some fame. We gain insight into the complicated and often unsavoury relationships between record labels and their bands. Dixon certainly has a way with words and produces snappy dialogue that reflects the band’s ups and downs. There are also some genuinely funny lines such as this description of a neighbour: “It goes in one ear and over the back fence.”

Finding young singing/acting/playing actors could not have been easy, but the cast of Bloom is certainly more than able to carry off the sturm und drang of band life with a realistic edge. 4th Line always has a couple of equity actors in the company (Nicholsen and Simester), but basically draws on up and coming talent to fill out its ranks, and Clark, Stahn and Suhr do a great job with the characters and their conflicts. This play has plenty of tension and there is never a dull moment. Dixon’s only plot slip up is a death that seems gratuitous. That character needed a different, darker ending, but other than that, his story is anchored in solid ground. The rolling hills and fields that surround the open stage placed in a barnyard, is just one of the joys of 4th Line. That the company can mount huge casts is a tribute to the area’s thriving community theatre, and a host of willing volunteers of all ages. It is always delightful to watch the multi-generations play before our eyes.

Bloom: A Rock ‘N’ Roll Fable is another of the long line of enjoyable 4th Line productions set in Peterborough County and the Kawarthas, and while aimed primarily at local appeal, the musical is a theatre piece that resonates on a universal scale.

4th Line Theatre, Bloom: A Rock ‘N’ Roll Fable, written by Beau Dixon, songs by Beau Dixon and Dave Tough, directed by Kim Blackwell, Barnyard Theatre, Winslow Farm, Millbrook, Ontario, July 2 to July 27, 2019.