Whether it’s along the Canadian Pacific Railway or the rail line that once traversed the Southern Interior’s Kettle Valley, there’s something about travelling by train that captures the landscape and diversity of a time gone past.
The student cast and crew from W.L. Seaton Secondary School’s drama department are about to capture those times when they present the musical Allaboard!, which is set when the train was essential for connecting Canada’s provinces from east to west.
“It’s a musical revue set when B.C. was in flux on whether it would become part of Canada or part of the U.S.,” said Seaton drama teacher Lana O’Brien, who serves as conductor for the production.
Because of that threat, Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, had a mission to bring the CPR to the Pacific Coast so it would link the nation.
Written by Bindon Kinghorn, theatre manager at the University of Victoria, with music by Dale McIntosh, then head of UVic’s music dept., Allaboard! holds a special seat for O’Brien, who appeared in the musical while a theatre student at UVic in 1992.
More than two decades later, she is finally bringing it to the local stage.
“I always wanted to stage it myself and finally the pieces fell into place. I had the right people,” she said.
Although the original play had a cast of 21 actors, O’Brien says she has doubled that number for this production, adding the students had to audition to be a part of the class.
“This was a talent audition. They had to show they could dance, sing and speak. It is very much an ensemble.”
Set from the early part of the 1800s to the end of the century, the play has nine scenes that are all thematically linked.
It goes from following a hobo hitching a ride as told in Woodie Guthrie lore to the Underground Railway, which in fact, was not a railway at all, but a link of secret escape routes for American slaves to get to the free states and Canada, said O’Brien.
A segment also shows the Chinese immigrants who were brought to Canada to build the rail line west.
“It shows how the land was untouched and then man came along and it all changed,” said O’Brien. “There’s a lot of talk about decommissioned rail lines and what to do with them… This show shows that without the train we wouldn’t have had a country.”
A musical revue in the true sense of the word, Allaboard! features 42 songs in all.
Some of the songs are more known such as Roger Miller’s King of the Road and Gordon Lightfoot’s Railroad Trilogy, to more obscure tunes like White Train by ‘80s pop band Bananarama. The music also dips south of the border to traditional fare such as Alabami Bound and Chatanooga Choo Choo, said O’Brien, adding students Sheldon Graham and Will Friesen serve as musical directors and will perform the songs live with the help of Shane Ranger.
“When you make history come to life through dance, music and performance, it resonates more than just reading it in a history book,” she said.
To help with the many dance numbers, including tap, Charleston, line dance, Highland and Irish dances, O’Brien has enlisted Grade 11 student Shelby Roehrig as chorographer.
“The hardest thing coming into this is some (of the cast) are the same age and some are younger than me, so it’s been hard, and teenagers talk a lot,” laughed Roehrig, who has been involved in dance for 14 years. “My dance teacher is strict. I sort of knew where she was coming from and now I really know.”
O’Brien and her stagecraft students have also been working hard building the set that replicates a railway, complete with tunnel and bridge.
“In the original program, we did it where you had access from the side stage and everything was symmetrical,” she said. “For this show, I wanted to do an asymmetrical set. It posed some challenges, but I fell in love with it. I tell people I live in a rock and I literally do.”
While props include old steamer trunks and luggage, some of which were obtained from a call out to the public, the costumes have all been handmade by the students and took up a chunk of the show’s budget, said O’Brien.
“The students came up with some great ideas to make the show feel as original as possible,” she said.
Allaboard! will also be the first play that utilizes the school theatre’s new sound system.
“The speakers from the ‘70s are gone and we have a new digital sound board, which matches the system at Powerhouse Theatre. Our students can learn on our system and then go to the community theatre and share their experience,” said O’Brien.
Allaboard! departs at Seaton’s 27th Street Theatre Tuesday, May 27 and runs nightly at 7:30 p.m. to Saturday, May 31. A matinee takes place May 31 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 (all seats) and are available at the school by calling 250-542-3361.