Friday, July 22, 2011

Vroom, vroom in Fredericton, New Brunswick

It's amazing sometimes how the universe majestically falls into alignment.

No sooner do I roll into Fredericton, the capital of New Brunswick, Canada, in a brand new milk-white General Motors Chevrolet Equinox SUV crossover, which I have owned less than 48 hours and which has super modern bells and whistles such as SM Sirius Satellite Radio and GM OnStar digital navigation ... than I find myself at the opening night of a musical about - a car!

The Fredericton Playhouse is across the street from my hotel, the historic Lord Beaverbrook, now the Crowne Plaza Lord Beaverbrook, so I wandered over to see what the show advertised outside, The Bricklin, An Automotive Fantasy was all about. During my two decades in Ontario, and 15 or 16 summer trips to PEI that took us through New Brunswick, I remember hearing vaguely of a 1970s gull-wing-door car that was built (shades of the later DeLorean car) in the province by an entrepreneur named Malcolm Bricklin.

The show poster

A 1975 Bricklin in front of the Fredericton Playhouse on opening night of The Bricklin, An Automotive Fantasy

My 2011 GM Chevy Equinox

The protagonists of the real story, and of the show, are Bricklin, a cowboy-hatted go-getter from Arizona, and Richard Hatfield, then the premier of the province. With such cyclical economic sectors as farming, fishing and tourism, Canada's Atlantic provinces perennially fall on hard times and the idea of building a unique product in his New Brunswick appealed to Hatfield.

Although the gull-wing door and plastic body were revolutionary, it was beset by engineering and manufacturing problems. Only about 2800 Bricklins were produced between 1974 and 1976 and the venture ended up $23 million in the red including millions in provincial taxpayers' money.

The show doesn't flinch from the project's failures, but characterizes it as an ambitious reach for a dream by two men who saw larger horizons than most. The musical itself represents a leap of faith, as it was commissioned by the Fredericton Playhouse in 2009 - ironically with financing from the city and from the federal government - and co-produced with Theatre New Brunswick, which is also in Fredericton.

With a four-piece band on stage and an orange-red patterned backdrop, the set resembles a 70s TV show, and the action plays out in front of the band. Allen Cole's vigorous score rhythmically refers to 70s songs, but doesn't really contain strong melodies, although my favorite song was "Driftin,'" in which Hatfield sings wistfully of the ordinary government tasks he does and his desire for a really big way to make his mark. The book was co-written by Cole and Paul Ledoux and the show's structure - desire, dream, failure and the importance of maintaining hope - is rock-solid. 

The characters are rounded out by a working-class couple, Gerrard and Michelle, who labor in different ways on the production of the Bricklin. The five-member cast are all very strong: Shawn Wright as the driven Hatfield, Jason Chesworth as glad-handing Bricklin, Tania Breen as Michelle, Cameron MacDuffee as Gerrard and Kevin Dennis. The last three also play various demonstrating workers, political party members, journalists, etc.

The real Malcolm Bricklin, a very handsome and dapper 72, was at the performance and was called up on stage. "It's exactly how I remember it," he said, to great applause. 

Well, tomorrow I will be getting on the road for a four-hour drive to Prince Edward Island. I'm glad it won't be in a Bricklin, no matter how much we may need dreamers. I believe I can depend on my Equinox to start, its doors to open, its body not to leak. But that Bricklin sure is one sexy beast.  

P.S. After writing this blog post, I attended a reception at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery - right next to my hotel - for the opening-night audience. I learned that Richard Hatfield was gay and used to travel regularly outside New Brunswick, obviously to lead a life he couldn't lead in the province. There's a brief, puzzling mention of Truman Capote in the show and I wish the writers could have referred to his double life a little more clearly because he obviously had a creative soul and it was that characteristic that caused him to link up with Malcolm Bricklin.

Loved the party and meeting Tim, Cameron, Dennis, etc. Thank you, forces of the universe.

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