How does one go about writing a jukebox musical focusing on the 80s?
For Oh Canada Eh? Artistic Director Lee Siegel, the process began with gathering up a collection of Best of the 80s compilations, and listening to about 600 songs from the era.
Once he decided on the 65 songs that made the cut for All Night Long – Hitz of the 80s, the trick for Siegel was to string them all together to tell a story without dialogue.
That’s right. Sixty-five songs and no dialogue constitute this high-energy jukebox musical on now at Oh Canada Eh? Dinner Theatre in Niagara Falls.
Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Anne Robinson, co-owner of Oh Canada Eh? says audiences loved the creativity of their 70s musical The Show Must Go On, from 2018. “They were fascinated by the way the story was told through the lyrics of classic 70s songs. People went to see it multiple times to catch the subtle genius of the writing of that show. All Night Long is the same, as we get to know these loveable 80s characters in the first act through the great music and lyrics.”
Robinson adds that the second act is a big party, as the show follows seven teenagers as they prepare for, then experience, that defining moment of teen culture in that decade — the high school prom. Think Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, or pretty much any John Hughes movie from that decade.
The seven actors dance and sing their way through hits by Whitney Houston, Foreigner, Bon Jovi, Cutting Crew, Madonna, Huey Lewis, Toni Basil and more, all while falling in and out of love amidst the drama inherent in the typical movie prom scene.
There may have been some difficult times in the 80s — Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars plan, the Cold War, interest rates in the teens, Chernobyl, AIDS — but you wouldn’t know it from this musical. The songs, the dancing and the wardrobe all focus on the good times.
Oh yes, the wardrobe. As one might imagine, it’s a key element in All Night Long. Louisa O’Keane, who plays Whitney, dons some of the most outrageous costumes, including bright-coloured tracksuits, leg warmers, headbands, and a prom dress just this side of Cyndi Lauper. The veteran of 15 years with the theatre says this musical has been the most taxing physically of her career, with non-stop dancing through its almost two-hour duration.
Sue Thibert describes her character, Gloria, as the science nerd, who has a crush on Axe, the bad boy at school, played by newcomer Fynn Cuthbert. “Our characters we get to play are just so incredible, and cliche, and fun. How can you not have fun doing an 80s show?”
One of the most elaborate and hilarious scenes in the musical takes place in the science lab, set to the Thomas Dolby song, She Blinded Me With Science. Here, amidst glass test tubes and beakers and a mad scientist teacher, Gloria tries desperately to get the attention of Axe, in an effort to be asked to the prom.
Another hilarious scene involves the love triangle between Krystal, Jessie and Blake (played by Alexandra Reed, Alex Titei and Andrew Goff, respectively), with Van Halen’s mid-80s hit Jump as the centrepiece. Titei and Goff amazed the audience of about 75 theatregoers with their ability to keep up with the lyrics, while holding an intense jump-rope competition to win Krystal’s affections. This, along with a cruise in a 1981 Trans Am, is one of Robinson’s favourite scenes in the play.
A musical about the 80s wouldn’t be complete without a look at the fitness craze of the decade. An aerobic workout is the centrepiece for the Bonnie Tyler hit Holding Out for a Hero, which was featured in the movie Footloose. Here, female cast members were decked out in brightly coloured leotards, while the males wore crop-top football jerseys, mesh shirts and tight short shorts.
Act Two takes the characters out of the classrooms and the fast food joint and into the high school gym, where the prom is being held. As the stage is set, the live band, who plays all 65 songs, segueing seamlessly from one to the next, is visible behind the cast. The band is a key element of this musical, playing with an energy that helps drive the actors to their best performance.
Since this is a dinner theatre, audience participation is a key factor. What better way to involve the audience than to pull them into the prom.
The cast jumped off the stage during the Arrow hit Hot! Hot! Hot! to entice about 20 people out of their seats for a very well-organized conga line. The smiles on the faces of the participants made it clear they were having a blast snaking through the dining area.
Some lucky theatregoers, this reviewer included, had a chance for a slow dance with some of the characters. While dancing to the Loverboy hit Almost Paradise, Gloria and the other cast members were able to hook their temporary dance partners even further into the developing storyline of the play.
Of course, no prom is complete without a king and queen. Despite the hopes of the seven characters on stage, two audience members were chosen to wear the crowns and sashes, and to take the spotlight for their coronation dance.
It all wrapped up with another song recognizable from the movies. (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life, from Dirty Dancing, saw the cast all come together, as the audience joined in on the song’s lyrics to sum up their feelings about the evening.
As Robinson says, Oh Canada Eh? is only a 20-minute drive from NOTL, and the show is over in time to be home by 10 p.m. And who doesn’t need a night of fun and nostalgia at this point in the winter?
All Night Long – Hitz of the 80s is well worth that 20-minute trip to Niagara Falls. It’s on at Oh Canada Eh? until April 11.