After four months, 12 towns, and 98 productions, our most ambitious summer of theatre coverage came to an end in Gananoque. With good food, cute accommodation options, fun tourist activities, and one of the best single-production showings we saw from any company on the Ontario Theatre Tour, our last stop might be remembered as our favourite.
Known as the “Canadian Gateway to the Thousand Islands”, Gananoque is a picturesque town on the bank of the St Lawrence River. With fewer than 6000 year-round residents, the downtown has the same small town tone we found throughout Ontario. There’s a handful of local bars but only one still had the kitchen open after the theatre and by that time it was hosting a rowdy hockey crowd. Though not the most inviting atmosphere, Mavericks‘ menu far exceeds expectations by making a lot of things in-house when most places would just skate by on frozen. I was even more impressed the next day at Stonewater Pub, an adorable little place right near the theatre/water that had been packed with joyful karaoke-ers the night before (though again with the early kitchen closures; why don’t restaurants near theatres ever think to coordinate?!). Great service, fun decor, and old movies on the bar TV elevate a menu with so many good options that we ordered far too much (“we did say it was Ultimate” is the go-to response when customers’ eyes widen at the sight of the Ultimate Poutine).
The main attraction of the weekend was obviously the theatre part of the Ontario Theatre Tour. I’d been hearing about Thousand Islands Playhouse for years, mostly from Toronto artists who’d had a good experience on a contract with them. Having never heard a bad word, I was sure to put them on our tour list.
The final mainstage show of their season is Once, a much-loved adaptation with lots of potential that I was keen to revisit having never quite connected to it on previous viewings. Light on story and full of diegetic songs that are pretty but lyrically a little vapid, Once relies heavily on its ethereal vagueness. The book isn’t so much plot as it is fate, the characters not so much people as ideas. The idea of “Girl” has particularly always bothered me as the immigrant single mother seems perpetually reduced to a waifish deus ex pixie dream girl. She’s sassy, she’s kooky, and she’s here to change the life of this very basic albeit undeniable dreamy “Guy”.
So why did I choose this musical I don’t like as my one Thousand Islands Playhouse show this season? It’s a great choice for a company like TIP that, as the only theatrical game in town, has a duty to lure people in and deliver popular, recognizable work that will make enough money to keep the company afloat. Once has a reputation as a musical that’s liked even by people who don’t like musicals so, while that description annoys me, it’s going to draw in audiences and hit a slightly different note than a lot of other options in that commercial category. It’s also a musical that can be streamlined easily with the actors doubling as the band and not much needed in the way of fancy sets and costumes (though Joe Pagnan’s beautiful set flies far above base requirements). Once proved the perfect showcase for Thousand Islands Playhouse, showing off the company’s reputation for strong casting and clear-eyed approach to elevating work without reinventing the wheel.
It’s amazing what good casting can do for a show like Once. Melissa MacKenzie alone totally revitalizes the piece, grounding both her feet and her breath to give “Girl” far more depth and power than I’ve ever seen her have. She has very necessary strong chemistry with Tyler Check as “Guy” and together their incredible voices raise the songs to new heights. The whole cast shines in director Julie Tamaino’s simple but energetic and heartfelt production that’s been in the pipeline since 2019. Music director Chris Barillaro’s work is impeccable, most memorably in the gorgeous full cast rendition of “Gold” at the end of act one. As a single example of what they’re capable of, especially working with an imperfect text, Once marks TIP as one of the strongest regional theatres in Ontario.
The Thousand Islands Playhouse season features smaller scale dramas in their secondary space alongside their mainstage musicals. I was really impressed to see that Once‘s counter-programming was Hannah Moscovitch’s Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, a dense and challenging play that asks a lot of both its performers and the audience. It’s programming that shows the company’s willingness to push its patrons a little, something that’s proven frustratingly rare on this tour of small town theatres.
Of the many unique AirBnBs that hosted stops on the Ontario Theatre Tour, our stay at The Cedars was one of the most memorable. The Thousand Islands area is pricey so even our mild-roughing-it option was a little on the over-priced side but the hosts were great and bagels & coffee in the morning was a treat I’ve missed since the Air got added to BnB. We basically stayed in a cabin in the woods. It had a battery-powered lantern, an outhouse, and a large comfy bed that took up almost the entire cabin. Once my jumpy city girl brain stopped assuming every little sound was a coyote coming to eat me on my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, the accommodations were actually pretty fun and plenty comfortable and well-equipped.
We capped off our Gananoque weekend with a boat tour along the St. Lawrence, cruising through the Thousand Islands and across the American border with a stop off at Boldt Castle, a grand island home with a fascinating history and an even more interesting ongoing refurbishment project. It was the perfect cap to an incredible weekend seeing great theatre in one of the most beautiful places in Ontario.