There’s a famous adage penned by American legend Mark Twain that goes, “Write what you know.”

Bryan Schwartz with his mother Sarah

University of Manitoba constitutional law professor, Dr. Bryan Schwartz, 61, did just that for notably his first stage musical, “Consoulation: A Musical Meditation,” mining his own Jewish familial roots for nuggets of gold, often evoking the spirit of Belgium songster Jacques Brel himself.  

The 100-minute production that ran April 23 – 27 at the Gas Station Arts Centre,  directed by Winnipeg theatre veteran Ross McMillan, featured an all-local cast including: Tom Anniko, Katy Hedalen, Kevin Klassen, and Simon Miron in the lead role. McMillan’s own minimal set design included four café chairs and an onstage “tent” doubling as a projection screen for Matt Gillies’s evocative video images that added further visual layering.

The loosely autobiographical story tells of Isaac Erevan, whose father has just died, and who once regaled his son with a story of a dying Rabbi’s cryptic benediction, “Life is like a river.” After Isaac’s young son Michael innocently asks, “Is Zaida in heaven?,” he is propelled into a reflective journey of soul-searching through his own valley of grief, discovering the consolation of art along the way.
It is indeed impressive how the internationally renowned lawyer, who still maintains a legal practice including appearances at the Supreme Court of Canada, has penned 31 original songs (24 for this production) ostensibly undercover over the last 20-plus years as a labour of love. He also owes a debt of gratitude to Winnipeg pianist/musical director Richard Boughton, whose tightly crafted band arrangements were performed by four of the city’s finest musicians, including himself (keyboard); Janice Finlay (winds); Rob Siwik (drums), and Nenad Zdjelar (bass).

Consoulation unfolds as a touching memory piece, as well as a loving tribute to Schwartz’s own late father, Charles Schwartz, whose death in 1997 first ignited his son’s passion to compose songs. It also speaks to the ties that bind between generations, and arguably becomes a “coming-of-age” story for its middle-aged protagonist. Schwartz proves himself a highly sensitive composer/lyricist, with the show’s gentle lullabies, such as Isaac’s song to his infant son, “Enough for a Lullaby,” and “Michael’s Lullaby”  – notably Schwartz’s first creation – particularly moving, sung superbly by Miron.

Hedalen, appearing in multiple roles also performed a gorgeous “Enough for a lullaby,” during one of the early flashback scenes as Isaac’s mother, her lyrical voice floating through its repeated refrain, “Lai lai la lailai” as sweet as iconic Yiddish lullaby “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen.”

Another lump-in-your-throat moment comes when Isaac recounts his father teaching him how to ride a bicycle in “Moving Forward,” performed with Anniko, who also morphed through various roles, with its final lines,” I’m behind you, and you know you’ll always be all right” bringing a tear to many an eye during opening night’s performance.

In the powerful “Scapegoat,” Schwartz literally gives voice to the hapless goat Azalel banished into the desert to absolve the Israelites from their sins on Yom Kippur, as chronicled in Leviticus. This piece, sung by Hedalen, could easily stand alone on any stage, with video images of a fleeing goat underscoring its message of sacrifice – and ultimately, forgiveness.

Love songs are notoriously tricky to write. Schwartz resists any temptation to fall into “moon, June, spoon” clichés, creating a poignant “Calm of Your Eyes” for Miron and Hedalen, with the latter now portraying Isaac’s future wife.
But he also writes a mean swing tune as well, with “Daniel in The Lion’s Den” belted out by Klassen, and a bluesy “It All Washes Out in the End,” (and my hat’s off to anyone able to pull off such lyrics as: “Eroded, corroded, and finally zeroeded”) energizing the entire show – more of these would be welcomed. His hard-driving rock numbers, including an ebullient “Aliyah” with the ensemble rising to the challenge during its rousing refrain “Aliyah yah yah yah yah yah yah,” and “Captain of My Soul,” proves still waters run deep for this seemingly mild-mannered law professor secretly writing tunes worthy of a David Lee Roth. Klassen’s spine-tingling wail during “Shehecheyanu,” sung a cappella and later joined by Miron gave this writer goose bumps.  

Another tenet in showbiz is to “show, not tell,” and at times the production laced with religious and spiritual reflections (and nothing wrong with that) risked becoming overly didactic (as fascinating as it is to hear Biblical stories brought to life and Talmudic musings that always feel so relevant to modern times). The lengthy show sans intermission could also easily be whittled to create a tighter, sharper focus. There were several “bumps” in the narrative likely owing to script cuts, although the fluidity of its “meditative” style mitigated this initially jarring effect.   

But Schwartz clearly writes from his heart – and soul – and his first musical venture not only reveals a budding Sondheim in our midst, but also serves as an ever-timely reminder of the profound comfort and healing power of art. Kudos to McMillan and his dedicated cast for its commitment to this world premiere, and especially to Schwartz for daring to take a creative and personal risk in his second Act of life, offering a front row seat to his own river of dreams.
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Holly Harris has been the classical music/opera/dance critic for the Winnipeg Free Press since 2004. She also holds a theatre degree in playwriting, and has reviewed shows at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival for many moons.

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Written by : Sacred Goof

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