Aim for the Tangent’s Heart of Steel is a sort of Canadian fable. A young woman who has never seen anything that wasn’t Cape Breton; a destitute family; a war in Europe; and the world’s largest steel plant, suddenly desperate for women to fill a shortage of men. All song and dance and screwball comedy, Heart of Steel explores this unique period in Canadian history, and the experiences of the women who took to the mills.
First, the bad news: the first few musical numbers are inaudible, singers drowned out by the (acoustic) band and, occasionally, by the unseemly clunks and clangs of scenery being moved about. This project was ambitious (the cast is about twice the size of anything else you’ll see at Next Stage), and the shoestring budget is apparent.
But once it finally launches, moving beyond exposition and into the story itself, it goes to some very interesting places. I was especially taken with the manner in which playwright Wesley Colford draws his older characters: a lot of them would normally be painted as villains, as dupes, or as forces of nature beyond our understanding. He chooses to turn them into relatable human beings, giving his actors a tremendous gift in the process.
Sam White is having a whale of a time as a middle manager at the plant, all bluster and blarney; Jan Smith’s gossipy spitfire had the audience pissing themselves with laughter; and Eliza Jane Scott, as the family matriarch, embodies an entire generation of women who many of us have forgotten.
Not that the younger cast are slacking off. Rose Napoli’s Georgie is so fully-realized that you’ll swear she’s a real person; Mercedes Morris is the best little sister a director could hope for, especially in a scene involving Ukraine and a beard; and Nicole Power, at the centre of it all, plugs the audience into the heart of the show without becoming so accessible that her character’s identity disappears.
Maybe Colford occasionally takes us for an awful long walk to land a joke, and maybe the set could have used a few more inches of shoestring, and maybe the denouement is just a little Sing-As-We-Goish. There are technical faults and dramatic problems to mash out, and at times you can see the seams where the show was (presumably) cut from two hours to 90 minutes — but there’s also an optimism and an openness and an awful lot of let’s-put-on-a-show pluck here, and as someone who buys into the whole wartime-comedy aesthetic, these things can balm over a lot of sins.
- All Next Stage Theatre Festival performances are being held at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst St.)
- Tickets for Mainstage and Studio shows are $15 and Ante-chamber performances are $10
- Showtimes and ticket information are available at fringetoronto.com/next-stage-festival/
- This production plays in the Factory Mainspace, which is wheelchair-accessible. Persons with mobility issues are strongly advised to ensure they arrive early.
- Heart of Steel is suitable for all ages, but the subject matter may not be of interest to young children. Recommended for ages 6 and up.
Photograph of (in foreground) Hilary Scott and Richard Lam by Nicholas Porteous.