Manitoba·Review

No need for musical theatre fans to riot: Strike! is a crowd-pleasing, if not subtle, look at 1919 strike

The latest production of Strike! The Musical at Rainbow Stage provides an engaging and satisfying take on a seminal moment in Winnipeg’s history.

Strike! isn’t nuanced theatre, but Rainbow Stage production is proof of compelling stories in our own history

The current production of Strike! The Musical combines elements of past versions of the show and of the upcoming feature film based on the script. It retains both some of the strengths and weaknesses of past versions, but largely provides a satisfying take on a seminal moment in Winnipeg's history. (Robert Tinker/Rainbow Stage)

Some of the images of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike are iconic: the tilted streetcar and the thousands of marchers down Main Street on Bloody Saturday, for example.

Perhaps less familiar is the chorus of immigrants, returned soldiers and business leaders who burst into song and dance in the streets of Winnipeg.

OK, that may not a thing that actually happened. But it is a thing that happens in Strike! The Musical, a tuner based on Canada's most famous labour action, by Winnipeggers Danny Schur (music, lyrics and co-writer) and Rick Chafe (co-writer).

The musical has a long history of its own — since premiering in 2004, it's been through a variety of rewrites and has even spawned a Winnipeg-shot feature film (retitled Stand! and set for release this fall). 

The current production — the first time Rainbow Stage has produced a Manitoba-made musical — is another revamp from Schur and Chafe, which combines elements of their film script and past theatrical scripts.

It retains both some of the strengths and weaknesses of past versions, but for the most part, provides an engaging take on a seminal moment in Winnipeg's history.

Strike! The Musical is not nuanced documentary theatre, but it is entertaining. (Robert Tinker/Rainbow Stage)

The musical's central character is Ukrainian immigrant Mike Sokolowski (Cory Wojcik), desperate to earn the money he needs to bring the rest of his family to Canada, where he lives with his eldest son, Stefan (Duncan Cox).

But life is hard for immigrants in 1919 Winnipeg — returned soldiers looking for work fan xenophobia, wages are low, and workers' rights are virtually nonexistent.

When a general strike is declared, Stefan sides with his activist Jewish neighbours, including his love interest Rebecca (Elena Howard-Scott), driving a wedge between him and his father.

Meanwhile, business leaders like A.J. Andrews (Kevin McIntyre) do their best to maintain profits and the status quo by using their wealth and powerful connections to crush dissent.

Kevin McIntyre, centre, plays business leader A.J. Andrews as a villainous character to gleeful effect. The characters in Strike! are broadly drawn, but its themes are resonant. (Robert Tinker/Rainbow Stage)

The root causes of the strike are complex, but Strike! is not. If you're looking for subtlety, look elsewhere.

It draws its characters broadly (Andrews, for example, is portrayed as a virtually moustache-twirling villain, played to gleeful effect by McIntrye) and draws its moral lines in absolutes, with characters firmly planted on one side or the other. Its themes of courage and fighting oppression are clear and resonant, if not terribly unique.

So no, it's not documentary theatre. But it is entertaining.

From its opener, the jazzy and brassy full-cast number Winnipeg's GiddyStrike! establishes itself as a big musical, played out on an impressive set by designer Douglas Paraschuk. 

WATCH: Renowned designer recreates 1919 Winnipeg on Rainbow Stage

Renowned designer recreates 1919 Winnipeg on Rainbow Stage

4 years ago
Duration 3:56
Strike the Musical will take audiences back 100 years into Vulcan Iron Works, known for deplorable working conditions during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Stratford Festival veteran Douglas Paraschuk designed the sets for Rainbow Stage.

It also establishes Schur's music as one of the piece's strengths. He crafts ear-catching melodies throughout. The ballads may be a bit too sweet for some, but there are enough rousing numbers here to engage.

Lyrically, though, Strike! is definitely on the nose and often a little too earnest (it's hard to make occasionally awkward lyrics like "cost of living has risen 80 per cent" really soar).

There are also points where its book shows signs of a musical that's seen a few revisions. Gabriel's Song, for example — performed by Nick Nahwegahbow as Gabriel Chartrand, an Indigenous soldier who's returned from the war to find he's still a second-class citizen in Canada — is a haunting tune that gives Nahwegahbow a chance to show off a clear, soaring voice. But it feels shoehorned into in the 2½-hour (with intermission) musical's second act, which doesn't sustain the energy of the first.

A more successful addition to this version of the musical is the expansion of the role of Andrews's maid, Emma (Maiko Munroe) — a black woman who has fled from lynch mobs in the U.S. and is determined to stand up for herself in Winnipeg.

Here, Schur and Chafe give a voice to a character who historically would have lacked one — she delivers the newly added song Stand!, performed by Munroe with soulful power.

A cast of 14 is universally strong and delivers spirited performances. Impressively, many also supplement the band by playing their own instruments. (Robert Tinker/Rainbow Stage)

Director Sharon Bajer's production capitalizes on the musical's strengths — terrific energy and the humour Schur and Chafe lace throughout. A trio of newsies who act almost like a Greek chorus — played by Malacai Hiebert, Jonah Hiebert and Shiloh Hiebert — provide a lot of laughs.

Her cast of 14 (with a four-member band under music director Jesse Grandmont) is universally strong and delivers spirited performances. Impressively, many also supplement the band by playing their own instruments (13-year-old Malacai Hiebert, as one of the newsies, stands out with a blistering violin duel with Grandmont in Nothing Radical, one of the musical's most dynamic songs).

There are some remarkable voices here, and the cast also handles Sam Manchulenko's sharp and lively choreography with aplomb.

Strike! is certainly not subtle, and it's not a nuanced exploration of historical fact. But it's a definite crowd-pleaser — and 100 years after the fact, proof that there are compelling stories in our own history.

Strike! The Musical runs at Rainbow Stage until July 5.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joff Schmidt

Copy editor

Joff Schmidt is a copy editor for CBC Manitoba. He joined CBC in 2004, working first as a radio producer with Definitely Not the Opera. From 2005 to 2020, he was also CBC Manitoba's theatre critic on radio and online.

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