Dinner, dessert and ABBA

Karl Wells
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Spirit of Newfoundland set for a busy summer

Spirit of Newfoundland
6 Cathedral St.
St. John’s
Phone: 579-3023

I defy anyone to attend a Spirit of Newfoundland show and not feel cheerful afterward.
Every time I walk down those steps outside the imposing, reddish-hued Masonic Temple, I’m either humming, whistling or singing a song that I heard during one of Spirit’s ace productions.

Last week I saw Spirit’s tried-and-true ABBA show. (They had me so revved up, I felt like I was channeling Meryl Streep in “Mamma Mia.”) From “Waterloo” to “Mamma Mia” and “Voulez-Vous,” it was a vibrant romp through the ABBA songbook, sometimes with a gut-busting Newfoundland twist thrown in.

As I recall, Shelley Neville got major belly laughs with substitute lyrics to “Fernando.”

You know the tune. She began with the line, “I met a man in Gam-bo.”

Imagine how it finished. Something like, “I had a son in Gam-bo.”

Neville was joined onstage by her performing partner Peter Halley, as well as Janet Cull and Keith Power.

Musical accompaniment was provided by Bill Brennan, Paul “Boomer” Stamp, Paddy Byrne and Brad Jefford. Adam Blackwood did sound and lights.

Solid performers all.

See ABBA, page C4

ABBA’s upbeat and eminently memorable music and lyrics are perfect for a Spirit of Newfoundland show.

Jovial Irishman, Sir Terry Wogan, proclaimed that the highlight of his more than 30 years hosting the Eurovision Song Contest for BBC was when ABBA, Sweden’s entry, won with their irrepressible song “Waterloo.”

It launched ABBA into worldwide fame and riches.

Spirit’s production is sewn together by dialogue written by Peter Halley and Deborah Wells-Smith. “ABBA: Gotta Get the Scoop,” the show’s title, references the big scoop sought by the desperate newspaper boss of four hapless reporters played by Halley and company. If they can get a scoop, they’ll be rewarded with an all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii. (Hmmm. Yep, sounds totally realistic to me.)

The four decide, because executives of a Swedish fish canning company called ABBA are visiting St. John’s, that they will investigate a link they’ve uncovered between the fish canners and the musical group, ABBA. Over the course of the evening, in addition to ABBA hits, audience members are treated to all manner of interesting, real facts about the musical group.

Smooth as silk

Of course, it’s what happens onstage that makes or breaks dinner theatre. We’ve all endured the painful, amateur kind. That is most definitely not Spirit of Newfoundland. Spirit’s professional musicians, actors and singers could make it anywhere.

Shelley Neville’s rich, classical pipes have given life to many styles of music. Her repertoire is extraordinary. You name it — Mozart, Handel, Hank Cochran, Willie Nelson, Rodgers and Hammerstein or Ulvaeus and Andersson — she can sing it. In this show, she and Janet Cull — speaking of great pipes — let loose with a full on version of ABBA’s “Super Trooper.” The musical back-up was just as affecting.

Peter Halley has a firm command of pop music and musical theatre repertoire. His insightful interpretation of lyrics, and smooth-as-silk delivery give special resonance to any number of songs. In addition to his work on group numbers like “S.O.S.” and “Voulez-Vous,” I appreciated his singing of “Fernando” (with vocal accompaniment by Keith Power.)

Keith Power’s strength is comedic acting. He knows how to use his face and his eyes to get laughs. It doesn’t hurt that he can carry a tune, but sometimes you don’t even notice he’s singing. Power made the audience dizzy with his performance of ABBA’s “Does Your Mother Know.” It was as if someone had pulled hard on the cord of a spin top.

Perhaps Peter Halley assigned Power the high octane dance number so he could work off some of his pent up energy. He was on the stage, off the stage, swinging his hips — back on and front on — and generally giving a good impression of someone whose legs were in overdrive, with a mind of their own.

Flirtatious

Keith Power also likes to flirt with his audience. He took to heart the song’s line, “I can chat with you baby, flirt a little maybe” when he made a couple of forays onto the floor to gyrate for several female audience members. Although slightly surprised, I think they loved the gesture.

You can’t have dinner theatre without dinner, so before the show we were served a salad and main, followed by cake during the intermission.

Spirit’s chef, Darrell Tulk, prepares meals that reflect what is often served in traditional Newfoundland home kitchens.

For example, turnip is never seen in restaurants, but it was next to my roasted chicken breast along with other root vegetables, namely carrot and potato. Naturally the potato was mashed and moistened with flavorful gravy.

Our salad was a combination of mixed greens, cucumber, tomato and candied pecans. In keeping with Spirit’s philosophy of promoting local, the salad was dressed in a vinaigrette made with Iceberg Vodka and citrus. It actually worked well.

Special mention must go to Spirit’s famous sourdough bread. Each table had a basket or two containing many slices. It’s made from a “quality fermente” that is 278 years old. The bread tastes delicious. Loaves can usually be found on sale at Spirit’s bar.

Screech Cake

Dessert was a piece of Spirit of Newfoundland’s Screech Cake with rum and caramel sauce. Golden brown on the outside and light in the centre, it was sort of a rum-flavoured pound cake. Screech is yet another Newfoundland product that Spirit of Newfoundland has chosen to promote in a big way.

Off the lobby, next to the well-lit bar, is Spirit of Newfoundland’s Screech Room (“pub and shoppe”). Every day between 2:30 and 4 p.m. friendly Screech-Ins are held in the room. I was told the wooden floor in the room was actually stained with Screech. It must be one happy floor. You can also purchase many edible products in the room, from Screech itself to numerous Screech flavoured items, and, of course, the iconic Purity Factories range.

Theatre goers will have plenty of Spirit shows to choose from this summer. New this year is “Skeets, Snobs and Peppermint Nobs” (I love the name). It will dip into Newfoundland’s culture of the ’20s through ’40s and the trove of songs between the covers of the Gerald S. Doyle Newfoundland songbooks. They’ll also be offering “Women Doin’ Men,” “The Beatles Back in the N.F.L.D.,” and “Viva Lost Elvis.”

For more show details, check their website, www.spiritofnewfoundland.com.

Peter Halley, CEO Kathie Hicks and the general management of Paul Bugge have made Spirit of Newfoundland Productions a model of a sound, consistently well-run theatrical business of which St. John’s can be proud.

They should also be heartily embraced by the local arts community as one of the biggest employers of talent in the province — for close to 20 years.

Good on them.

Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef, author of “Cooking with One Chef One Critic” and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of

Newfoundland and Labrador.

Contact him through his website,

www.karlwells.com.

Follow him on Twitter: @karl_wells

Organizations: Eurovision Song Contest for BBC, Canadian Culinary Federation, Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Gam, Sweden Hawaii

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