When it comes to live theatre, once in awhile, it can be magical. The play, the nuances, the actors, the music, and the audience, all come together.
‘The Night Guy Came to Town’ was one of those times as everything came together on September 14th.
The actors weren’t professionals, they were descendants of the characters they were playing, which lent an unusual air of authenticity and poignancy to the performances. A granddaughter who played her grandmother, a grand niece playing her great aunt, a nephew’s granddaughter’s husband playing a man with the same first name, a grandson playing his grandfather … it was unique to Southampton, where the familiar names are still heard today – Knowles, Calder, MacAulay, Greathead and many others.
The play centred around the year 1935 during the depression, but it was also a time of big band music and dance halls in communities along the shore of Lake Huron. It was a time when music and dancing was, perhaps, an escape during a difficult time.
The original concept and script was the brainchild of Stevie L. Vallance who recently retired to Southampton and now lives in the original Knowles home.
Vallance, a professional actor with many awards, worked with Music Director Charles Bell, Community Historian G. William Streeter, and the residents who became the cast, to make it a truly collaborative effort.
The evening began with dance lessons by ballroom dancers Brent and Rosie Rogers.
Vallance herself played the role of the 72-year-old Eliza Knowles, the matriarch of the Knowles family who, with her seven children, operated the Lakeside Park Hotel and Dance Pavilion in Southampton, following the death of her husband, William. In her role, valance captured the stalwartness that Eliza Knowles must have had to carry on, but with comedic flair, as did those playing her grown children. The dapper son, Bill ‘Biscuit’ Knowles (a.k.a. Matthew Evans) and his glamorous Irish Canadian wife Irene (a.k.a. Natalie Robataille) kept the comedy going both on and off the dance floor.
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The unusual play concept included the seating in Southampton’s Town Hall, that created an almost ‘theatre-in-the-round’ intimate effect where the audience became interactive with the music and the actors, who wore signs indicating their alter egos.
The audience was also invited to dress in the 1930s style and many did.
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The entire play set in 1935, as the title ‘The Night Guy Came to Town’ indicates, revolved around the famed orchestra leader Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, and the one night that they played in Southampton. Drew Jurecka who played Guy Lombardo, along with Dave Statham who played his brother, Carmen, were exceptional in their roles. While each brought their musical talents, they also brought the qualities of the two Italian brothers to life. ‘Guy’s’ movements as conductor were impeccable, while ‘Carmen’ smoothly performed the songs of the era including, Love Me or leave Me (Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn), Coquette (Carmen Lombardo, Johnny Green & Gus Kahn), and the hit of the day Charmaine.
The orchestra for the play was made up of professional, local musicians who created the distinctive sound of the Royal Canadians playing the songs of the era, the 1930s, that had the audience take to the dance floor.
‘The Night Guy Came to Town’ held on Thursday evening (Sept. 14) was the perfect lead-in to The Canadian Big Band Celebration weekend that begins tonight, Friday (Sept. 15) and runs through the entire weekend with live music performed at many venues throughout Southampton and Port Elgin.
Guy Lombardo played by Drew Jurecka
Carmen Lombardo played by Dave Statham
Eliza Knowles played by Stevie L. Vallance
Bill ‘Biscuit’ Knowles played by Matthew Evans
Irene Knowles played by Natalie Robataille
Lulu Knowles played by Marcia Cunningham
Almeda Greathead played by Elizabeth Greathead-Cambell
Orin Delong played by Art Knechtel
Normal Calder played by Michele Turcotte
Hectorene ‘LaLa’Robinson played by Jane Kramer
Eleanore Winchester played by Kathryn Forsyth
Brock MacAulay played by Brock Turcotte
Alice McLeod played by Ellie Lehman