JUNE 2024 | Volume 240


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When We Were Singing
by Dorothy Dittrich
United Players in assoc. w/ Touchstone Theatre
Jericho Arts Centre
May 31-June 23
$15-$39 or 604-224-8007 ext. 2

For his swan song as Artistic Director of Touchstone Theatre, Roy Surette has chosen to remount and direct a show he first did in 1995, Dorothy Dittrich’s pocket musical, When We Were Singing, which also serves as the final offering in United Players’ season. 

A cross between Friends and Sondheim’s Company, this is a fully sung musical—no dialogue—with four actors/singers on, and pianist Gordon Roberts behind, the multiple levels and small private spaces of Brian Ball’s handsome, largely bare but highly functional set.

Abby (Nevada Banks), Les (Michael Briganti), Jenny (Rachel Kent) and Belinda (Viviana Renteria) are four friends in an unnamed city trying to make it in various aspects of show biz. They have problems getting work, problems with getting and keeping lovers, problems with each other. Their songs are largely about their frustrations, secondarily about their ambitions, and finally about their enduring friendship despite everything.

In place of an overall plot the show is built around mini-dramas: Abby breaks up with her boyfriend, or vice versa; Abby and lesbian Jenny have an affair. Les is kind of the life coach/philosopher of the group, Belinda the alcoholic. Surette keeps the actors in almost constant motion, making good use of the set levels to mix up the constellations of twos, threes, fours and solos. Brad Trenaman’s unfussy lighting nicely shapes the scenes, and Sydney Cavanaugh and Rosie Aiken’s multiple costumes for each character add to the variety.

No one character really stands out in this ensemble show, although Briganti’s Les is probably the funniest. Ultimately, When We Were Singing is about the music and singing, and both are very good. As a lyricist, Dittrich is no Sondheim but her music is dynamic, energetic and often quick-paced, though tonally often downbeat as suits the characters’ struggles. Renteria has the strongest voice but all the singing is solid and the ensemble harmonies are especially effective. Some of the songs are tongue-twistingly quick but no one missed a beat on opening night keeping up with Roberts’ speedy piano work. Credit musical director Christopher King for keeping it all in sync.

I very much like the intimacy of a small-scale musical in a space like Jericho Arts Centre where you feel like you’re in the same room as the singers. But I would have preferred more plot and more depth to the story they’re singing.



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