Remember Certs? Sporting dueling designations as a breath mint and a candy mint, their “two mints in one” slogan endured for decades. That old line comes to mind watching Old Stock: a Refugee Love Story (OSRLS), which is two theatrical mints in one – an understated historical romantic drama and an oft-raucous concert – though these flavours don’t always blend smoothly.
Credited as created by Hannah Moscovitch (playwright), Ben Caplan (the show’s lead as “The Wanderer”) and Christian Barry (director), with Barry & Caplan doubling as song composers and co-designers in various capacities, OSRLS has been an award-winning critical and commercial hit for Nova Scotia’s 2b theatre company since 2017, playing around the world.
Clad like an old-time medicine show huckster, Caplan’s earthily engaging Wanderer acts as host, narrator, guitarist, banjo player and lead singer. Backed by Eric Da Costa (clarinet & more), Jamie Kronick (drum set), Graham Scott (music director/keyboards/accordion) and Shaina Silver-Baird (violin), Caplan sings a series of largely Klezmer-infused songs, mostly originals.
Between musical numbers, he offers exposition and commentary for interlinked theatrical vignettes featuring Moscovitch’s real-life great-grandparents Chaim & Chaya (played by Da Costa & Silver-Baird), recounting how they came to Canada separately in 1908 as Jewish refugees fleeing violence in Romania, then met as immigrants, eventually got married and built a life in a new land.
In devising the concept for this show, Caplan and Barry recalled then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s contentious 2015 remarks drawing a distinction between newcomers and “old stock Canadians.” Ironically, OSRLS is a love story about people perhaps regarded by some as “old stock Canadians” now – early 20th Century European immigrants – but showing how they were strangers in a strange land a century ago. One era’s newcomers are the future’s old stock.
There’s a worthwhile message in there; and this concert/drama hybrid mostly works, thanks in part to an appealing, adroit cast, though it’s not all equally resonant. The concert half has plenty of flair with a band full of vitality and virtuosity, but its mixed bag of frequently loud, hyperactive songs isn’t as consistently entertaining or emotionally engaging as the quieter, simpler drama segments: Moscovitch’s wryly melancholy, deftly sketched romance with Da Costa’s haunted yet goofily optimistic Chaim and Silver-Baird’s dourly pragmatic Chaya. The musical content works best when it’s in harmony with these scenes, like the dreamy, stripped-down “Lullaby” number where Caplan’s Leonard Cohen-esque vocals enhance a lovely maternal moment.
The show’s “mature content” advisories fit due to profanity, sexual content and horrific refugee flashbacks. Some of it’s key to the story, some of it less so – the profanity feels gratuitously self-indulgent at times, and a seemingly interminable gag about carnal euphemisms overstays its welcome – but other aspects of the production’s irreverence are endearing, like the show’s meta self-mockery.
In a memorable image that starts the play, a shipping container opens to reveal actors and musicians packed inside, a visual echo of the Wanderer’s comment about hoping the audiences can see themselves in this story despite the specificity of the Romanian Jewish refugee experience, because we all come from the same box. OSRLS’s box is big enough for everyone, packing a darkly funny message of shared humanity for audiences past, present and future.