BACK TO YOU: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF LUCILLE STARR
(This is Jerry's review of the same production in its run at the Firehall this fall.)
Tracey Powers’ new musical biography of Canadian country music pioneer Lucille Starr (nee Savoie) is about as conventional in its format and writing as the musical-biography-revue can get. But Barbara Tomasic’s Musical TheatreWorks production gives the story wings. A sparkling cast, delicious singing, and a tight band make this show a treat even for those of us allergic to country music.
Starr, from a French family in Coquitlam’s Maillardville, broke into the US and international markets first with her guitarist husband Bob Regan—the two of them billed as Canada’s Sweethearts—then as a solo recording artist, the first Canadian woman to sell a million records with her 1964 hit, “The French Song.” The play’s conceit is that we’re the audience for Starr’s comeback tour in 1981. Beverley Elliott plays Lucille in the present and narrates her story while Alison MacDonald as the younger Lucille and Jeff Gladstone as Bob chronologically act it out.
In a first act devoid of conflict we learn abou Lucille’s childhood, her meeting with local pretty boy guitarist Bob, their hooking up as a musical team, their romance and marriage. They’re a cute couple—he teaches her to play guitar and bass, sweet-talks and encourages her. They become a local hit, then have some national success, but realize they can never really make it in Canada.
What this part of the story lacks in drama it makes up in charm and some delightful music. Elliott, a country music pro, holds centre stage with authority. Gladstone’s Bob is a real charmer and MacDonald—a future star, for sure—has personality to burn as well as a beautiful voice. The singing is terrific throughout with a few special numbers, including the two Lucilles in a yodeling duet. Steve Charles’ excellent musical direction and playing, along with guitarist Jimmy Roy and Jeremy Holmes, all visible onstage, make it feel like a really good concert by people you can’t help but like.
Things get heavy in the second act where Gladstone gets to show off his acting chops. The Canadian Sweethearts go to LA and hit it big, and Lucille has a baby. But Bob becomes jealous of the professional attention she’s getting, and he turns into a nasty shit, a bad drunk, and an abusive husband. Think Ike and Tina Turner, country-style. Eventually he subverts her career and she loses her voice. After many years in that terrible marriage, Lucille makes her comeback and the play comes full circle. The act two story is a lot more compelling and the singing and music are no less so.
The first genuine hit of the season, Back to You is a musical treat and a thoroughly enjoyable show.