By Amos Crawley
I was trepidatious about Wesley J. Colford’s Heart Of Steel, now playing at the Next Stage Theatre Festival. It’s been billed as a “rambunctious, scrappy, joyously fun musical that celebrates a rarely discussed part of Cape Breton history…” Which is worrying to say the least. There’s an uncomfortably long list of shows that I’d call “Canadian Heritage Pieces”: pieces of theatre that claim to take inspiration from the type of work George Luscombe did decades ago, but really seem more tailor made for grant applications than for consumption by the general public. This story of women taking over in the steel mills of Sydney, Nova Scotia while the boys are off to fight the Hun in WWII seemed like it might well fall into that cynical dustbin of polite historical theatre. Happily, it’s not the case.
Colford has structured his piece as a classic musical, keeping the storytelling pace lively and resting on cliché in a way that actually allows us to see through to the centre of some well-rounded and strongly performed characters—the large cast sink their teeth in with gleeful abandon. To his great credit Director Luke Brown has staged the show with an eye not to the specific, but the universal—yes this is a story that takes place in Cape Breton 1943, but it could just as easily take place anywhere else—struggle, the feeling of being misunderstood and underappreciated, the danger of being on your own, unrequited (unspoken, forbidden) love, fear—none of these is the exclusive purview of any given time or place. It’s hard not to sympathize with a sentiment as clear as “Who needs a hand carved bannister when you can’t put food on the table.”
The undertaking of a new musical is a war unto itself and the Next Stage format may not be the best milieu for it, given the limited rehearsal and tech time, but there is enough pluck in this show, like the pluck of the characters whose story it tells that it will be exciting to see its life moving forward.