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Oh What a Lovely War – Review of rousing production of unique musical at Shaw Festival

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Oh What a Lovely War is a unique musical entertainment that receives a stirring production at Shaw Festival’s Royal George Theatre. The musical deals with World War I from a particularly Canadian vantage point and it combines horrifying historical events accompanied by songs mostly from that era along with some dancing and comic business. Director Peter Hinton and a fine cast of ten establish a marvelous pace and manage to inform, shock and entertain us on a grand scale.
Who wrote Oh What a Lovely War? It was first staged in England and the published script states that it is “by Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton and the members of the original cast” meaning the actors of Theatre Workshop. The original production was “under the direction of Joan Littlewood” but she gets no further credit. The Shaw Festival gives the legendary Littlewood top billing and adds Gerry Raffles for his research and then Ted Allen and others for after treatments. And that is without giving credit to the composers and lyricists of some thirty songs that make up the bulk of the show. So much for provenance.
Ten actors take on numerous roles as they present a snappy history of World War I in dialogue, song, dance and generous use of photographs and videos from 1914 to 1918. Canada’s involvement is emphasized but the production goes further than that by relating what was happening in Niagara-on-the-Lake at the time and even more so what was happening at the Royal George Theatre. Fascinating and splendid work. Incidentally, this year is the 100th anniversary of the year in which the war ended.
The songs, mostly military tunes, done at a brisk pace and patriotic fervor, compare bleakly with the constant flow of information and statistics about battles, casualties and ground gained at the cost of tens and hundreds of thousands of lives. There were 300,000 casualties in the first 26 days of the war in August 1914. The figure is updated regularly and it goes into the millions.
From “When Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser” to “I’ll Make a Man of You” to “I Want to Go Home” to the title song, we are treated to boisterous performances of some familiar and some unfamiliar songs. “The Maple Leaf Forever” is included quite rightly.
There is an outstanding collection of photographs and videos showing all horrible aspects of the war and we have descriptions as well. Negroes were not allowed to enlist until they were permitted in as second class soldiers. Canadian natives were allowed to serve and they did with distinction. After the war, they were not entitled to pensions or medical benefits. The wounded are treated by rank and not by the severity of their wounds. Medical care for enlisted men is almost an afterthought while officers are placed at the front of the line.
We see martinets barking at soldiers and there is a memorable scene where the military brass of the day is satirized and indeed ridiculed. Sir John French, Sir William Robertson, Sir Henry Wilson, Sir Douglas Haig and other officers are shown dancing and backbiting each other as they jockey for position and display their incompetence. Haig lies to us and perhaps to himself as he plans an offensive against the German lines and treats soldiers as so many numbers on a page. The result of course was the slaughter of hundreds of thousands.
The musical at its core is music hall entertainment but its documentary aspect, the extensive use of video, and the superlative performances place it much above that genre of popular entertainment.
Paul Sportelli provided the musical direction for the numerous songs while Howard J. Davis was responsible for the extraordinary projections. The cast consisted of David ball, Ryan Cunningham, James Daly, Kristi Frank, Jeff Irving, Allan Louis, Marla McLean, Kiera Sangster, Jacqueline Thair, and Jenny L. Wright.
A major achievement for the Shaw Festival.
Oh What a Lovely War by Joan Littlewood, Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton and many others continues in repertory until October 13, 2018 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com