United Players and Touchstone Theatre
When We Were Singing by Dorothy Dittrich

When and Where May 31 - June 23; Thurs. - Sat evenings at 8pm, Sun matinees at 2pm; Talk backs: Thursday 6th and Sunday 9th June Matinees all Sundays and Saturday 22 June | Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery St.

Director Roy Surette Music director Chris King Set Design Brian Ball, Costume Design Sydney Cavanagh, Rosie Aiken Lighting Design Brad Trenaman Stage Manager Emma Graveson

Cast: Abby Nevada Banks Jenny Rachel Kent Belinda Viviana Renteria Les Michael Briganti Pianist Gordon Roberts

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

Dorothy Dittrich is an award-winning musician – a Governor-General’s Literary Award, several Jessies, and many nominations - and her talents are on full display in this early work from 1995. A perfect marriage of words and music, the rhythms of everyday speech drive the phrases of the music which has its own momentum and purpose. Rhymes fall both unexpectedly and easily but not obviously. Never the mere servant of the words, the music is full of interest and variety as it tracks the emotional paths of four long-time friends.

Now thirty-something, the four have all reached that point in life when the early promise of youth has slid into the mundane and might slip further. Belinda (Viviana Renteria) is a successful commercial actor, but she envies Abby’s (Nevada Banks) stage career. Belinda has begun to notice how much she drinks but is in the denial stage. Les (Michael Briganti) is her prop and stay.

Les also drinks too much. Overwhelmed by loss, he has abandoned his career completely. It is here that the play loses some of its original impact. In 1996, the devastation of AIDS would have been palpable; for a thirty-something audience today, I suspect, Les’s grief feels no different than Abby’s or Jenny’s (Rachel Kent).

Jenny has lost interest in the topics of her documentary films, her long-time girlfriend has left her, and she has always been secretly in love with flamingly straight Abby. Jenny is the deepest character of the four and the toughest. She and Les have the most moving of the musical’s laments.

Abby appears glamorous, confident, popular and, hitherto, successful. Aware that the jobs might dry up in the near future, she is contemplating marrying her long-time boyfriend. What sets the play in action is a late-night phone call from this boyfriend, dumping her. Shocked, she has the only spoken lines in this otherwise entirely sung show. Her next thoughts turn to worrying how she will tell her friends and save face.

From there the play gently explores their friendship with its shifting dynamics, their lives, issues and tensions. Abby and Jenny spend an experimental night together and this provides the catalyst for a re-examination of everyone’s relationships.

This is not a play about gay and lesbian characters and their friends, these are just a part of everyday urban life. It is a play about love, disappointment and loneliness, connection and isolation, grief and loss, all treated with tenderness and sympathy. Ultimately it is about the staying power of friendships formed in youth.

If all this sounds as though When We Were Singing is gloomy, it is not. Fun and witty, the music has all the nervous excitement of Sondheim balanced with beautiful and jazzy slow numbers. Every word and every note must be placed exactly in this music and the singers all do an amazing job. Diction, and therefore the story, was clear. Gordon Roberts, hidden behind a black-covered piano, drove the action forward with crystalline brilliance and deserves accolades together with music director Chris King. Roy Surette’s stage direction has drawn sure-handed character studies from his actors.

The set by Brian Ball is elegantly spare: at the four outer corners of the stage, a stylish, white sofa for Abby, a back-lit glass booze cabinet for Belinda. Les’s hiding place is indicated simply by a pillow and Jenny has a no-nonsense desk. Various levels give plenty of playing space about a rectangular, central well where the four characters can meet together. Similar attention to detail in the costumes by Sydney Cavanagh and Rosie Aiken; Brad Trenaman’s lighting defined and supported characters and action neatly.

2024 Elizabeth Paterson