The Belfry Theatre closes out another fantastic season with the world premiere of a new musical Let Me Call You Sweetheart, with music and lyrics by Bill Henderson and book and lyrics by Bruce Ruddell.
Directed by Michael Shamata, Let Me Call You Sweetheart fuses nostalgia with the contemporary. It’s a fresh, modern day look at budding love through the eyes of senior citizens — two elderly patients at a retirement residence who find a mutual love of music, and of each other.
85-year-old Nora Chase (played by the charismatic Nicola Lipman) has made her home at Autumn Park, but when she finds out her son, Rupert (played by Vincent Gale) is making a surprise visit, she’s immediately skeptical of his motive — does he need money again, or is there something more to it?
Before Rupert even arrives, Nora has figured out the meaning of his visit — her health is quickly declining and she’s being forced to move to an extended care facility.
Rupert is the son no one ever wanted. He’s rude, he’s mean and he’s selfish. Gale portrays his character with ease. He succeeded at getting under under my skin. He did it so well that I didn’t know whether to boo or applaud at curtain call.
Lipman portrayed the fading mind and failing body of Nora so well that it’s hard to imaging that she, in her own life, hasn’t had to rely on others to help her out of a chair or put her shoes on. And although she was weak physically, Nora’s strength was in her ability to seize the day, admirably grasping on to every precious moment she could — while she could still enjoy them. And she does.
The cast as a whole is fantastic, but the stand out was Alec Willows as Nora’s love interest, Murray Sullivan. WIth a mischievous smile and huge musical chops, Willows carried more than just a tune in this production. He plays the ukulele and snare drums with panache (he’s the drummer in Vancouver band China Repair). The chemistry Lipman and Willows had on stage was contagious. The harmonies Henderson wrote for the love birds created some precious moments that had me teetering between tears of joy and sadness.
Another stand out is the young Elizabeth Duncan as The Girl. Her crystal clear voice shone with strength in “On my Own” and “Strangers to Me.”
The only place I felt this production fell down was the ending. I wanted more. Ruddell gave us a happy hollywood-type ending that left too many questions unanswered, too much contention unresolved.
The set, designed by Susan Benson, is simple — clean walls painted with fields of lavender, with a second floor hidden by scrim (this is where the story of The Girl unfolds, illuminated by lighting designer Ereca Hassell as if in a memory). The stage, using a revolve, doubles as Nora’s room at Autumn Park and as a hotel lounge. Pianist Karel Roessingh is a welcome permanent fixture.
Jessica Hickman’s simple choreography made use of the entire stage and took advantage of the revolve to get the slow-moving seniors from point A to B quickly.
Some might say this play is pandering to Victoria’s older audiences, and that may be true, but what I found really refreshing is that the entire story is told from the perspective of a senior — giving the audience a rare look at love, loss and heartbreak through older eyes. M
Let Me Call You Sweetheart runs at the Belfry until May 19.
Tickets at belfry.bc.ca