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Gilbert and Sullivan and Bennet – Sunday column, February 27, 2011

Posted on Feb 28, 2011

Sing this, really fast:

    We eat… cod cheeks, cod tongues
    Even though they’re odd tongues,
    Fish sticks ‘n’ Digby chicks
    As dainty as you wish!
    We eat flatfish like the flounder
    And some others that’re rounder,
    And you ain’t a Nova Scotian
    If you don’t like fish!

Among good friends, and after a sufficient quantity of rum, that’s a song I love to sing. You have to sing it at a dead gallop, mind. If you stop to think, or even to breathe, you’ll never get through it.

“Nova Scotia Diet” was written by Jim Bennet about 150 years ago – that is, back in the 1960s, when Bennet was co-host of Singalong Jubilee, the beloved CBC television program that ran from 1961 to 1974. The show was one of the first to give national exposure to east-coast music, incubating the careers of such notables as Anne Murray, Catherine MacKinnon and John Allan Cameron. Another musician, who drove in from Windsor to participate, became famous for quite another reason; he morphed into the internationally-celebrated businessman, Sir Graham Day.

Bennet was a pillar of the CBC for more than 30 years, producing innumerable documentaries and dramas. Retiring in 1986, he spent another 12 years working for the family public-relations firm, Bennet Communications. He has since written a couple of books, Jim Bennet’s Verse and  Jim Bennet Rhymes Again: Light-Hearted Verse from the Laureate of Atlantic Humour. His stage show, Back to Back Bennet, was presented at the Chester Playhouse in 2004, and included 30 of his songs. In all, he has written more than 90 songs, including such Nova Scotia classics as “Rum and Blueberry Pie.”

 And – at 80-plus — he’s now written a musical, Out of Lunenburg, which premieres this Thursday and Friday. The show inaugurates the Spatz Theatre at Citadel High School, built by the school board but finished and furnished by volunteers and donors.   Proceeds from the new show will go to the theatre itself.

 Set in 1925, when a whole fleet of wooden schooners set out every year for the Grand Banks, Out of Lunenburg is framed within a three month trip by the schooner Margaret B. Meisner,  or “Maggie B.” The ship has a young skipper named Avery Mossman, sailing on his first voyage as captain, while Ben Barkhouse, the ship’s 12-year-old “flunky,” is going to sea the very first time.

Meanwhile, back in Lunenburg, the friends, lovers and families of the crew suffer through a silent three-month wait, hoping that their loved ones are safe and that the fishing has been good.  So the characters in the show also include Sarah Mossman, Cap’n Avery’s wife; Ruby Barkhouse, Ben’s mother; Lily Fralick, the widow of Maggie B’s skipper, and others related to the crew. And then there are the town’s own characters, like Knock, the “honeyman” who empties the town’s outhouses, and what the program calls “the very beautiful and very available Reenie Rhodenizer, fancied by dory mates and best friends Norman Getson and Henry Oxner.”

It’s a huge cast, with no obvious stars – rather like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, by the sound of it. And that’s no accident. As the tongue-twisting patter of “Nova Scotia Diet” attests, Sir William Gilbert is among Jim Bennet’s inspirations — and the production is being mounted by the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Nova Scotia, who are also rehearsing a May production of The Yeomen of the Guard.

Out of Lunenburg is the society’s  first production of a show that was not written by Gilbert and Sullivan.  Producer Jacqui Good says she’s “amazed by this show,” and by the new songs it contains.

“Two women sing ‘widows walk the waterfronts of every fishing town,’ and break your heart,” she says. “The cook aboard the Maggie B sings a jaunty number, ‘Supper for Twenty Two‘, by his lonely wife singing ‘Supper for Only Me.And even aboard ship two love-struck young men have a haunting duet ‘As Much as She Loves Me.’”

The show, says Jim Bennet, is “a totally home-grown product, with every song and situation unique to Nova Scotia,”  offering “an even balance of humour, history, drama and love interest."

Sign me up. See you there!

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