A Voice from the past

Hey Viola!

Review | by Sean McQuaid

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The Mack – August 8, 2022

The Charlottetown Festival has a long history with jukebox musicals, plays that bundle preexisting popular songs together. Often these shows are tributes built around the music of specific artists like Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash or ABBA. 

No one source dominates the Festival’s latest jukebox offering, an eclectic mix of vintage pop, jazz, blues, traditional and spiritual tunes—though songs associated with jazz great Nina Simone are especially prominent in the set list, and a Simone sensibility is woven through the show’s music to great effect; but the actual subject of the play is Black civil rights icon Viola Desmond (1914-1965), hence the musical’s name: Hey Viola! 

Halifax hairdresser and beauty school founder Desmond made news in 1946 when she bought a movie ticket in a racially segregated New Glasgow theatre. Theatre policy required Black patrons to sit in the balcony. When Desmond refused to move there, she was roughly ejected from the premises, arrested, jailed, found guilty of a supposed sales tax infraction and given a choice of a hefty fine or more jail time. She paid the fine but appealed the verdict, ultimately losing in Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court on a technicality. 

Desmond’s heyday as both an entrepreneur and an anti-racism voice came and went in the 1940s, but her prominence and prestige in Canadian civil rights history eventually grew (thanks partly to the efforts of her sister Wanda Robson), such that Viola was posthumously pardoned in 2010 and had her face featured on the Canadian $10 bill starting in 2018. 

Hey Viola!, co-created in 2020 by Vancouver-based collaborators Krystle Dos Santos (who stars as Viola) and Tracey Power (the show’s director), and now touring Canada, offers a fuller picture of Viola’s life and personality through a series of anecdotes and stories told by Krystle-as-Viola, mixed with an array of songs popular during Desmond’s lifetime, as performed by vocalist Dos Santos and a superb three-piece band: music director Steve Charles (guitar/bass), Mary Ancheta (piano) and Chris Davis (drums/trumpet).

The Mack’s suboptimal sight lines and crowded cabaret-style seating aren’t ideal, but Dos Santos’ engaging presence and the quartet’s first-rate musicality are such that the 80-minute show glides by regardless. The script delves into Viola’s childhood, her family’s musical home life, her education, her early business success (inspired by African American beauty tycoon C. J. Walker), her ill-fated marriage and her starting over in New York City at the end of her life. 

The carefully curated songs often evoke or echo aspects of Desmond’s history and personality, but they’re also immensely satisfying as music—strip Dos Santos’ monologues away and you’d still have a first-rate concert featuring classics like “Dream a Little Dream,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” “Smile” and “Feeling Good.” 

The instrumental trio bring boisterous energy as needed but are most impressive in their restraint, often giving masterfully delicate support to Dos Santos’ vocals both spoken and sung—Davis’ trumpet, for instance, is a feather-light marvel of soft, jazzily understated eloquence in multiple numbers. But the linchpin of it all is Dos Santos, whose gorgeous voice shows remarkable stamina, raw power and versatility ranging from literal screams to silky crooning and back again, even simulating the Cookie Monster sound of the late, great Louis Armstrong at one point. In a show that commendably gives its long-dead heroine a voice, Dos Santos ensures that voice is both beautiful and mighty. 

Sean McQuaid
Sean McQuaid

Mild-mannered legislative researcher by day and oddball freelance writer by night, past Buzz editor Sean McQuaid has been a contributor since the '90s and a theatre enthusiast for longer than that. He lives in Charlottetown with his wife, daughter, cat and untold thousands of comic books.