By James Stewart Reaney
That’s a really big show up at Blyth this summer.
That would be Jumbo by Sean Dixon.
Your part in the play? Get on up to Huron County and feel its big love.
Based on the tragic tale of the giant African elephant, Jumbo opened the Blyth Festival’s 45th Season on June 14. The only Souwesto summer theatre to matter — other than Stratford — is stepping out with a multi-media world premiere that turns the venerable Blyth Memorial Community Hall into a big top full of marvelous entertainment.
A night with Jumbo is as big as the doomed pachyderm in the title role. Big as the chances it takes — and makes work. Big as the sprawling sound and action all over the theatre.
Dixon’s script shifts our elephant-in-the-room view constantly.
He finds remarkable words and silences to suggest Jumbo’s thoughts as they are channelled through the humans around circus owner PT Barnum’s biggest draw.
In the first act, Jumbo stars puppet designer and constructor Gemma James-Smith’s creation of a mammoth, mobile elephant puppet and Blyth artistic director Gil Garratt as PT Barnum — the conniver who found a way to inveigle Jumbo into his circus.
The second act portrays the swirling sorrows of circus folks and followers after Jumbo’s death by railway train at St. Thomas in 1885. Among the memorable performances are those by Tiffany Claire Martin (as Henrietta Ward, a cold-blooded taxidermist out for Jumbo’s skin and bones), Lucy Meanwell (as Annie Jones, Barnum’s bearded lady and Jumbo’s brave champion) and actual aerialist Mark Segal (as Juan A Caicedo, who gets way up there on his rope in the first act and later turns Jumbo’s life and death into a ballet on stage).
Circus folk played by Michael McManus, Julie Tamiko Manning and Tony Munch also shine. Kurtis Leon Baker and Peter Bailey are excellent in playing characters whose everyday lives are shaken by Jumbo’s death and its aftermath.
As a director, Garratt has shaped the play with fun Fellinesque clowns, numerous audience invasions and skillful scene-setting exchanges.
For all its opening night verve, Jumbo will be a different beast when you see it — and you must — as it continues until Aug. 10.
Garratt took on the Barnum role just days before opening night, stepping in for St. Thomas actor Don Nicholson who became ill and could not perform. (Nicholson was able to be in the audience on opening night.) Garratt is fine as expected, but the late change in such a key role must have made for some opening night jitters. Certainly, there were moments on June 14 when Jumbo was on a high wire and pace and space were uncertain. Which isn’t the drama an elephant act needs.
Things should be nicely settled as the run continues with Canadian theatre ace and Blyth stalwart Layne Coleman playing Barnum.
So. Step right up to Jumbo and emote all night as the biggest name in show business lives and dies and breaks your heart right there at centre stage.
Jumbo background: In the early fall of 1885, P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth toured South Western Ontario, playing to sold out crowds. On the bill, among the snake charmer, the aerialists, the tightrope walkers, the contortionists, and the famous bearded lady, Annie Jones, were 28 elephants led by the world-renowned Jumbo.
Between their stops in Guelph and London, Barnum’s circus played the bustling railroad city of St. Thomas to standing ovations. But on that fateful night, when the circus cars were being packed back up, an unscheduled freight train, travelling fast through the railyard, ended the career, and the life, of the biggest superstar in the world. — blythfestival.com
London Calling: As the play opens, Barnum is getting his hair cut (in Toronto) by Shadrach Meshach and Abednego (Shack) Martin, an African American barber (played by Peter Bailey) who spent much of his life in London, Ontario. Garratt as Barnum is so amused by the idea of there being a “London, Ontario,” he will not settle down enough for Shack Martin to do much more than wave the scissors at him. Later in the play, Martin is aboard the train (as a rail jumping trespasser) that kills Jumbo and, in the aftermath, begins to rediscover and remember his remarkable life. For more on Shack Martin (1833-1917), read London historian Glen Curnoe’s entry on him in 100 Fascinating Londoners (James Lorimer & Company Ltd.)
More London and area on that stage: St. Thomas designer Eric Bunnell is Jumbo’s set and costume designer … ace work! Thanks, Eric, for this note: “Cast of Jumbo includes actor Michael McManus. Tho’ raised elsewhere, he was born in St. Thomas. His mother, Jean, is one of the Shaver sisters and acting obviously runs in the family – Helen Shaver is an aunt.” McManus plays Charles Tripp, the Woodstock-raised “Armless Wonder” who was a star Barnum attraction.
Among the London stars in the 2019 Blyth company are Boneyard Man luminary Rachel Jones (in the casts for Cakewalk and In The Wake Of Wettlaufer) and Brickenden winner Dariusz Korbeil (set and costume designer for In The Wake Of Wettlaufer). Glencoe-area playwright and actor Mark Crawford co-stars in the Blyth 2019 staging of his mega-hit Bed And Breakfast along with Sarnia-raised actor Paul Dunn, who originated the B&B role of Drew and has played it many times.
Jumbo Lives: Fuse will always bow to iconic NHLer Joe (Jumbo Joe) Thornton of the San Jose Sharks. Joe grew up in the Central Elgin community of Lynhurst and his Jumbo Joe nickname (and own bigness) plays off the Jumbo lore. There is a sign saluting Joe at Lynhurst and if you drive south on Wellington Road toward St. Thomas — where he played junior B hockey — there is an even bigger sign claiming Joe. Not far from that is the bigger than life statute of Jumbo, always worth visiting at 65 Talbot St., St. Thomas.
Brewed in Blyth: Recommended for pre-fest dining is the Cowbell Farm, 40035 Blyth Road, Blyth. It combines an ace restaurant and acclaimed craft brewery. Call 1-844-523-4724 for reservations.
The last words: It bears repeating after every Fuse visit to the wonder that is Blyth: Dozens of plays originating at the Blyth Festival are hits for theatres everywhere. Blyth is in a class of its own and the non-Stratford Souwesto summer fest that counts. Bravo.
Cutline: Jumbo, written by Sean Dixon, runs until Aug. 10. Pictured are: Tony Munch as Matthew Scott and Lucy Meanwell as Annie Jones. Creative team includes: Manon Beaudoin, circus master; Gil Garratt, director; Eric Bunnell, set and costume designer; Leigh Ann Vardy, lighting designer; Deanna H. Choi, sound designer and composer; and Gemma James-Smith, puppet designer and constructor. Stage management by Heather Thompson and Katerina Sokyrko. Photo by Terry Manzo