'Fisherman's Friends, The Musical'
Now onstage at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre
A story of real, humble, and hardworking people from Cornwall, England, ‘Fisherman’s Friends, The Musical’ is directed with a dedicated conviction of heart and told by an energetically enthusiastic and spirited company of performers. A tremendous joy in song emanates from the stage with blissful purity in sound.
Who would have thought a group of lifelong friends who started singing together at school would end up on the Glastonbury stage? For we North Americans, to be invited to sing there remains a prestigious honour as it is one of the most recognized worldwide music festivals.
What a sense of pride that must have been instilled not only in the artists but also in the town of Port Isaac, north of Cornwall, England. Its residents would have fondly recalled that time when these men, the ‘Fisherman’s Friends’, stepped out on The Platt to sing a few sea shanty songs to raise a few quid for the lifeboat.
That sense same of accomplishment and honour that must have been felt then was evident to me on the opening night of ‘Fisherman’s Fiends, The Musical’ at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre.
Directed with a dedicated conviction of tremendous heart by James Grieve, this uber-enthusiastic cast of energetically dynamic performers stole my heart with their clever witty repartee solidly bantered back and forth. It takes a few minutes to get used to hearing the dialect but that’s what makes ‘Fisherman’s Friends’ so uniquely worth the visit to learn more about this ‘buoy band’ and, what Director James Grieve writes in his Director’s Programme Note: “[to follow] a story about the universality of music and the power of singing to bring people together. To uplift and enthral…to link families and communities through history.”
Musical Directors James Findlay and James William-Pattison incorporate thrilling acapella songs that became euphoric to my ears. I love the sound of acapella music when it’s done right and well. It took all my effort not to close my eyes and simply listen to the beautiful harmonies momentarily since I want to remain as objective as I possibly can in letting readers know what I thought of the production.
The group is discovered by Danny (Jason Langley) a music manager on a trip from London. Once he hears this group sing, Danny is stoked to ensure their vocal sound is heard outside of this small port fishing village and manages with a bit of ‘fudging’ to get the boys to sing in London for his manager, Leah (Fia Houston-Hamilton) who doesn’t hold a lot of confidence in Danny. She has heard the group sing and respects them for it, but recognizes they are not for her. Danny also becomes interested in Alwyn (Parisa Shahmir) who works at the local pub where the Friends sing on the weekend.
There are amusing moments in Amanda Whittington’s book. The group ends up in London after Danny ‘fudges’ a bit on telling the truth to get the boys to come to London. The boys end up singing and mixing with the locals in a gay bar and not realizing that life outside Port Isaac is so different from what they know it to be.
Lucy Osborne’s set design is two levels and functions well on the Royal Alexandra stage. The friends sing in a bar owned by Rowan (Dan Buckley). The bar is losing money so the friends sing there on weekends to help raise some much-needed cash. The band plays on the second level with a lively percussionist at the drums. Set pieces roll in and out with much ease to mark them in place for various scenes. Osborne’s costume designs are also what one might expect from a sea shanty town – boots, overcoats, slickers, and turtlenecks. Johanna Town’s lighting design magically transports from scene to scene and nicely sets in underscoring the emotional mood. Matt Cole’s dynamic choreography reminds me of the same foot-stomping and boot-kicking work of Kelly Devine’s in ‘Come from Away’.
Some terrific song renditions along the way: ‘John Kanaka’ ‘(What Shall We Do With The) Drunken Sailor’ and ‘Blow the Man Down’.
There are some solid performances as well.
Parisa Shahmir’s Alwyn’s two solo numbers angelically explode from the roof of the Royal Alexandra. I can’t remember their titles and that’s where the programme comes in handy. However, when I looked at it, only the song titles are there and not the names of the character or the singers. I hope this can be rectified in future to include the names either of the artists or the characters.
Throughout the story, we learn Jason Langley’s Danny was let go from his job as a record producer because he has substance abuse issues. As Danny, Langley remains dynamically vigorous throughout. There are a couple of moments where I wondered if Langley purposefully played Danny as if he was high and then came to the bar.
What is redeeming about Danny is knowing he will overcome these substance abuse issues and make amends. I found the ending where he purchases the bar uplifting both in soul and spirit.
The death of one of the characters becomes a stark reminder of how precious life truly is and how important it is to leave a positive mark somewhere in our world first and foremost.
Final comments: Passionate storytelling in song, ‘Fisherman’s Friends, The Musical’ becomes a veritable feast for the ears. Many working-class themes are presented as part of the story and in song: debt, motherhood and friendship are only three. I felt as if I was transported to another world for a few hours and heartily enjoyed the sea-faring voyage.
I hope future audiences will also partake in the journey.
Running time: approximately two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
‘Fisherman’s Friends, The Musical’ runs until January 15 at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King Street West. For tickets call 1-800-461-3333 or visit mirvish.com.
FISHERMAN’S FRIENDS, THE MUSICAL
A David Mirvish, ROYO, Flying Fish Productions Island Records and Mighty Village Production
Book by Amanda Whittington
Music as Performed by Fisherman’s Friends
Based on a screenplay by Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard, Piers Ashworth
Choreography by Matt Cole
Musical Director: James Findlay & James William-Pattison
Musical Supervisor and Arrangements: David White
Directed by James Grieve
Artists: James Gaddas, Jason Langley, Parisa Shahmir, Robert Duncan, Susan Penhaligon, Anton Stephans, Dan Buckley (plus others listed in the programme.)