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Jacob James as Billy  Photo: Kaufmann Photography
Jacob James as Billy Photo: Kaufmann Photography

Theatre Review: "Billy Bishop Goes to War" in the Firehall at the 1000 Islands Playhouse

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Billy Bishop Goes to War is running in the Firehall at the 1000 Islands Playhouse in Gananoque through September 3. Resident theatre critic Connie Meng was at the opening night and has our review.

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Connie Meng
Theatre Critic

BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR is the story of Billy Bishop, WWI Canadian flying ace.  Not as well known in the US as Eddie Rickenbacker, Bishop was credited with 72 victories, 51 more than Rickenbacker and only 8 fewer than von Richtofen.  This two-man musical tells the story of Billy’s transformation from a rebellious and brash young man into a great fighter pilot and a hero of his time.

For this production the Firehall has been set up as a lounge with tables and chairs, and the refreshment bar is available till just before curtain.  A T-shaped stage runs through the center.  Robin Fisher’s versatile set consists of the wooden stage platforms and several wooden boxes of various shapes, with the piano on the platform at the cross-piece of the T.  At one point the boxes even transform into an airplane that takes off in the fog.  There’s also a screen for projections including Billy himself and Margaret, his future wife.  Adair Redish’s atmospheric lighting contributes a great deal.

Jacob James is a powerful and versatile actor and singer who brings to life not only Billy Bishop, but a variety of other characters from his early life.  I chuckled at the poem about Canadians and was moved by his handling of the poem about Albert Ball.  Especially powerful is a quiet song sung by a veteran saying, “living shouldn’t make you feel ashamed.”

The production is a cooperative effort between Mr. James and Sandy Thorburn.  Mr. Thorburn wears a number of hats – director, musical director, pianist and narrator. He’s done a nice job of staging in the unusual space and the subtle piano background music is very good.  He sings well and even capably handles the acting required.  He and Mr. James have worked to bring out all the facets of Billy’s character, as well as create believable snapshots of the peripheral characters.

This is a difficult piece to describe.  There are many thoughtful musical high points throughout the complex narrative.  The Act II duet, “Empire Soiree” is terrific, as is the Act II opener that insists, “War is not a place for deep emotion.”  For Billy, his drive to get out of a “war in the mud” leads to something more like single combat where enemies, “dance together in the sky.”

To quote from Mr. Thorburn’s program notes, (which I recommend reading, by the way), “Billy Bishop. . . was a great fighter pilot who lived fast in the war, but when peacetime came was lost.  This production. . . is about the horror and the excitement of war, and the people who fight in it.”  This is a strong production filled with humor and powerful emotion.  Mr. James and Mr. Thorburn make a good team.

On a scale of one to five the 1000 Islands Playhouse production of BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR playing in the Firehall gets four and seven-eighths dalmations.  For North Country Public Radio I’m Connie Meng.

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