Reviews - Fringe 2019

Diamond in the Rough

By Brian Morton
Published July 24, 2019


The original musical, "Diamond in the Rough" features fifteen brand new songs by local singer/songwriter Will Gillespie. It was the most Hamilton-specific of all of the productions that I have so far seen in the 2019 edition of the Fringe. Sky Gilbert and Charly Chairelli also have Hamilton-focused productions at this year's fringe, but this play too feels wonderfully authentic and deeply rooted in our city.

Gillespie's play is also a loving homage to the work of Neil Diamond, whose iconic songs like "Sweet Caroline", "Red, Red Wine", and "Cherry, Cherry" are mainstays on the iPod playlists of Baby Boomers.

"Diamond in the Rough" also plays tribute to the scores of working-class bars, such as the Balmoral Tavern, the Galley Pump, the Prince Edward, the Avon and others, many sadly now gone, that once were the public places where Hamiltonians gathered to hear music, pick up sexual partners, eat chicken wings and drink cheap draft beers.

Those local watering holes where regulars could run a tab until payday are now mostly long gone, as gentrification has made the real estate too expensive for them to operate. This gives this play a deeper message that I think is important beyond the entertainment value that it offers.

When the lights come up, we find ourselves at a local watering hole pub, called "Big Shotz", with Susan Robinson behind the bar and a few regulars drinking beer and watching the big hockey game on the TV. Enter Gillespie as "Neil", suffering from amnesia, with guitar case in tow, who has been bashed on the head. While he can recall that he has a gig, he cannot remember precisely where it is.

From clues such as using "Copp's Coliseum" to describe the stadium on Bay Street, I can infer that the play is set sometime in the 1990s. In fact, there is a tiny local bar on MacNab Street North, right around the corner from the library, that would be a perfect setting for this play.

When a creepy lawyer played by Len Cain arrives with papers transferring ownership of the bar, it seems that the local pub, which is at the centre of their lives, is now coming to an end. "Where will we get drunk for twenty bucks now?" one character asks sardonically?

Chris Cracknell, playing "Dennis", a washed up former NHL hockey player, and Michelle LaHaise's "Sally", carry much of the drama of this production. There is a powerful duet they sing, called "Take Your Shot", that gave me chills while watching it, so bittersweet were their sad endings in life.

Yet still, for as long as they can, they are tangibly connected to their local bar. It is their connection to the outside world, you see.

Being a musical, it is the songs themselves that attempt to answer these questions. Written in the style of Diamond's work, they reminded me of "the Rutles" - which was Neil Innes' take on the source material of the Beatles. They pay tribute, while still being original songs, mimicking and parodying, while not directly copying, the songs of Neil Diamond.

Trust me, this takes enormous skill as a songwriter to accomplish. Of all of the four musicals that I have seen so far in the Hamilton Fringe this year - "Diamonds in the Rough" was the only one where I left the theatre with the songs stuck in my head.

This production was on the whole very well staged with several "laugh out loud" moments, mostly due to the silly and deliberately cheesy choreography. This is a heartfelt and loving tribute to a great artist, translated through the experiences of working-class Hamiltonians. A combination that works well!

I am exactly the demographic for which this production was aimed, so I am pleased to report that I loved this show!

While it is still embryonic in this Hamilton Fringe version, "Diamond in the Rough" hits all of the right notes, and has a kick-ass cast of performers. For $12, what else could you want? Highly recommended from me, particularly for first-time attendees to the Hamilton Fringe who may be overwhelmed at the 58 productions to choose from.

Brian Morton is a director and playwright, and was the recipient of the 2013 Hamilton Arts Award for Theatre. In 1988, after two years training in Montreal at the National Theatre School of Canada, Morton was the founder and first artistic director of Theatre Terra Nova, which operated out of a 100 seat theatre on Dundurn Street. Three years after that, he was a partner with Guy Sprung in the Evelyn Group, which reopened the historic 750 seat Tivoli Theatre, as a venue for live performance with a production of Douglas Rodger’s play “How Could You, Mrs Dick?”, which dramatized the story of Hamilton’s notorious Evelyn Dick. With Theatre Erebus, he produced the UK premieres of four Canadian plays for the 1990 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. His stage adaptation of Sylvia Fraser’s “My Father’s House”, has had five productions, since it debuted in in 1992, at the Dundas Centre for the Arts. Morton’s “New Talent” was the highest grossing show in the 2008 Hamilton Fringe Festival, and in 2010, it toured to the London and Toronto Fringe Festivals. Brian’s original musical, “Under the Apple Tree”, about a shooting that happened backstage, at the Lyric theatre on Mary street in November 1921, debuted in the 2018 Hamilton Fringe Festival, and was presented at the 300-seat Zoetic Theatre; it got a second run at the Pearl Company, this past November. Brian was also the producer of the 2012 Hamilton Fringe Festival. He is currently a drama critic, and arts journalist for "VIEW Magazine", and has also published articles in the “Hamilton Spectator” and the “McMaster Silhouette”.

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