July 10, 2020

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Tribute to troupe born in First World War inspiring

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/9/2014 (2132 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Ghosts of wartime entertainers past rose from the trenches as Soldiers of Song: Canada's Famous Dumbells saluted this country's fabled "concert party" troupe, the Dumbells.

Sunday's matinee show supported by Rainbow Stage marked the first stop on the production's Canadian tour, which also includes whirlwind dates in Carman, Fort Frances, Beausejour and Virden later this week.

The original merry band of 10 players -- all Canadian soldiers -- born in the "muck and mire of the Western Front" in 1917 brightened dark days and even bleaker nights for troops with irreverent sketches, goofy humour and catchy songs la British music hall tradition. After a highly successful postwar run as a touring vaudeville show -- notably including being the first Canadian hit show performed on Broadway -- the Dumbells eventually folded as its aging members died.

Enter Juno-nominated reggae musician Jason Wilson, who discovered the Dumbells while a master's student at the University of Guelph. So entranced by this slice of Canadian lore, the multitalented artist/scholar ultimately penned this two-hour live theatre show (including intermission) as a labour of love, also becoming its musical director. Its company ranks include actors/singers Jim Armstrong and Andrew Knowlton, and onstage three-piece band: Marcus Ali (saxophone/clarinet), James Rhodes (trumpet), as well as Wilson (piano/vocals) dressed in an ancestral kilt that echoed the local Prairie Thistle Pipe Band's bonny opening act.

Veteran storyteller Lorne Brown provided the narrative thread laced with personal anecdotes, factoids and commentary that helped create context while also setting up each of the musical numbers. In one of his more poignant segments, in fact, he shared stories of his own field ambulance "stretcher bearer" father who once built a stage for the Dumbells during the war. Brown's gentle presence, often reclining in the modest set's easy chair, lent authenticity. He even played a mean ukulele on Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream, seeming to channel folksinger Pete Seeger himself.

What works best about this show is its desire to stay true to the past. Indeed, its songs including the The Dumbell Rag, And Her Mother Came Too, with the latter made even more colourful by a wigged Armstrong garishly dressed in drag appear to leap out of the past. A meta-tribute to Scottish entertainer Sir Harry Lauder came with Roamin' in the Gloamin' that original Dumbell member Jack McLaren cheekily interpolated with references to the dreaded Ross rifle. We also heard the latter's The Field Postcard that particularly rang true in today's bureaucratic jungles.

Comedy sketches, including the darkly humoured Real Estate in which a prospective buyer is being sold property in no man's land, remain intact. And after intermission, the company reappeared at ease, now wearing their civvies to regale the older crowd of 222 with more songs and banter, including stylized versions of Oh! What a Lovely War, Al Plunkett's Everybody Slips a Little and Irish protest song Mrs. McGraw with the crowd invited to warble along during the chorus -- which they did.

However, some unevenness persisted. More comedy sketches would have added greater levity, with the two gifted actors leaving the stage for an extended period midway through the show. Brown's chronicling the demise of the Dumbell members, underscored by Wilson's Abide With Me (albeit mitigated by his nifty jazz harmonies) risked becoming overly maudlin.

Still, as the world marks the solemn centenary of the "war to end all wars" this year, Soldiers of Song resonates not just as a timely nod to those unforgettable Canadian heroes who made so many laugh in the face of horror, but moreover to the profound value of humour in overcoming life's adversity. And that is a message that never grows old.

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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