Review: Boblo (Kitchenband/The Theatre Centre)

Andrew Penner and Boblo band

Take a trip on a ferry at Toronto’s Great Hall Black Box Theatre for Boblo

Entering Toronto’s Great Hall Black Box Theatre for Boblo is a bit like entering the dock to a ferry. There are refreshments and souvenirs available. The fun begins immediately.

After grabbing popcorn and Faygo, we find our seats. The theatre that has been transformed into a ferry. Boblo is a trip to an amusement park as much as it is theatre. It is about memories and ghosts, too.

Boblo Island is located in the middle of The Detroit River, between Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan. Boblo Island Amusement Park operated there for almost a century, closing in 1993. People would ride a ferry from downtown Detroit or from Ontario to enjoy a day at Boblo.

The play recreates those ferry rides of yore and a noisy and wonderful day at the park. It conjures up memories and celebrates history. I think everyone lucky enough to see Boblo will reacquaint themselves with memories. They might be Coney Island memories or Crystal Beach or Fantasy Island memories. They will be just as valid, as real and as important.

The sets I’ve seen at this venue have always been creative. Boblo, really raised the bar. Shortly after the play begins, we are still physically in Toronto. In our minds and in our hearts though, we’re floating down The Detroit River. It feels good remembering that feeling. Check that, it feels great being young again and in The Motor Cities.

The projections, sounds and use of colour are really conducive to conjuring up old dreams and memories. It is part séance, part ghost ship, and all fun.

There are a lot of threads in Boblo. They all swim together, creating a compelling tapestry. One thread is a concert played on stage. Several genres of music representing popular music through the century are explored. It’s like attending everything from the Grande Ole Opry to an Iggy Pop concert in one evening.

The band and the sound provide the backbone of the narrative of Boblo. Every song, every genre works, too. That is no small task. It takes a great band to pull it off. The band is great. It includes guitars, drums, banjos and a cello. At times it is difficult to remain seated and not join the dancing on stage.

There’s an overlap of actors and musicians. Some do both, some do one or the other. It’s really incredible to see them all working together. It’s a cacophony at times, like all good carnivals or amusement parks. There’s always a new twist, a new spectacle. Your ears perk and your head pivots as you ride the ferry and watch the show.

An ongoing radio transmission is another thread in Boblo. Radio is generally regarded as a dying medium. Radio signals, like memories, are eternal once they are transmitted. This stirred up a lot of personal memories. I know a lot of people in Detroit. They can all be traced back to a night I went to a late night CBC radio program in Windsor. That was a long time ago. There’s virtually no physical record of that program. The radio signals are still floating around somewhere. So are our memories.

Boblo won’t restore the same memories for everyone. The ones that it restores for you are bound to be  just as vivid.

The play also reminded me of an old record by iconic Canadian band Rheostatics. It was comprised of instrumental songs inspired by Group of Seven paintings. When you listen to that record, you are transported back in time. You can also “feel” those wonderful paintings. Boblo is even more effective. The play is more nuts and bolts. It is more personal than mythical. It is made in Motown, not commissioned by Ottawa.

Boblo is bound to stir up personal memories and ghosts for anyone who sees it, whether they have visited the park or not.

Another great thread in Boblo is teaching. We learn of the island’s history. It’s the sort of history that people hunger for. It matters and it resonates. It’s fun because it is created with love by passionate artists. Art like this is the antidote to stuffy textbooks and lessons approved by expensive, distant and out of touch governments and unions. Becoming wiser while having fun, how great and rare is that?

My wife, Michelle, joined me for Boblo. She visited the park many times. Her cousin worked there. She loved that the play conjured up memories of The Island of Misfit Toys.

If there is anything we didn’t like about Boblo, it is that our friends and family living on either side of The Detroit River may not get to see it. In the same way, my friend Jerry from Detroit recalls grade school trips to Boblo being a big deal. The only sad part for him is that his kids won’t get to visit the park.

There’s a sing-along near the end that ties together the “ferry riders” sense of community. We sing it on the way home from Boblo, sad to be leaving but full of new memories and new friends.

I saw grown men crying near the end. They didn’t want to leave the play or the park. Boblo the play is like a great vacation in a great destination. Before it is over, you’ll be making plans to return.


  • Boblo is playing from November 22 – December 2, 2012 at The Great Hall Black Box Theatre 1087 Queen St. West (former venue of The Theatre Centre)
  • Shows run Wednesday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with Sunday matinées at 2:00 p.m.
  • Tickets are $25. Students and seniors $20.
  • Tickets are available online or by phone at 416-538-0988 Group rates for groups of 10+ are available

-Photo of Andrew Penner and Boblo band by Abhishek Chandra