Talent, beauty, a girl who does her patriotic duty
Flashy, classy, and maybe just a little sassy
Steel mill sweethearts will steal your heart of steel
The heart beating at the core of Heart of Steel is not steel. It's golden nostalgia harking back to the days when heroines were plucky, men were men, and music was sing-along instead of . The kind of heart that is animated by 21 exuberant musical theatre artists determined to put on a show. The kind of heart that enabled the women who are the subject of Heart of Steel to gingerly defy their gender roles and societal constraints in order go to work in the steel mill.
It's also the kind of heart that - particularly with the addition of Celtic music stylings and a hefty dose of Canadiana - could easily veer into camp, or over-earnestness that is the equivalent of camp. It's a tricky line to walk but Heart of Steel sticks to the true and narrow, trusting that its heart will triumph. And surprisingly it, for the most part, does.
The book, score and lyrics by Wesley J Colford is a crowd-pleaser, a grab bag of clichés and reliable gags strung together for a history lesson. But the thing about clichés is that they exist because they are also truths and are ingrained to give a comforting familiarity. When the house the dead father built by hand is about to be lost to the evil bankers; and the proper church-going mother is convinced that her daughter is on the road to hell because of her job, some mild swearing and pernicious musical interests; but there is a talent contest where the prize money is just enough to pay off the mortage - well, as one of the characters says in one of many examples of World War II-era comedic Cape Breton colloquialisms, "The beanie's on, but the propeller ain't spinning."
But darn it if the "Steel Mill Sweethearts" number didn't set my toes to tapping and put a big grin on my face. Sometimes it just takes a dose of good ol' fashioned musical theatre to demonstrate just how jaded one has become. And the punchline of reconciliation that we all saw coming a mile away, brought the house down. The heart at the core of Heart of Steel beats solidly enough to evaporate cynicism.
Heart of Steel moves very quickly in a very tight 90 minutes. There just isn't enough time to give the characters enough depth to make them breathe in opposition to their necessity to the plot and history lesson. Fortunately the majority of the cast manage to add flesh using sheer charisma and grace notes. Rose Napoli smoulders with a tough vulnerability, and Richard Lam is a war-fodder stud with a seductive smile who fills out a kilt very appealingly. Greg Campbell (Firebrand) applies expert comic timing to a number filled with mistranslated malapropisms and transcends his chessboard fate. Mercedes Morris uses an arsenal of side-eye, gestures and double-takes, to turn the spunky kid sister into a rounded joy. Courtney Fiddis dances up a storm and Benjamin Camenzuli may be credited only as "ensemble" but steals focus in a sly chorus boy/rock star manner.
There are hints of ambitions beyond what the short running time allows. Occasionally the fourth wall is broken and the musicians and the characters interact in a way that deftly illustrates the sense of community. The simmering lesbian subtext(s) is blatant but never explored or allowed to challenge the normative structure, and David DiFrancesco makes a lot out of a counterpoint storyline that feels sadly truncated. Heart of Steel begins with the musicians gathered on stage, making music and having fun, inviting us to join and hear their tale. And when the entire cast floods the stage in song and dance, Heart of Steel is impossible to resist. Those Steel Mill Sweethearts may only be a "little sassy" but they are big time charming.
Heart of Steel - A Steel Plant Musical Comedy continues until Sun, Jan 17 at Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst St as part of the Next Stage Festival running Wed, Jan 6 to Sun, Jan 17. fringetoronto.com