Sweetheart leaves audience wanting more 0
Denise Norman acts and sings her way into the audience�s hearts as Mary Pickford at the Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion. /Photo submitted
The Highlands Summer Festival has a mid-season hit with Sweetheart, The Mary Pickford Story. You may think you know the story of silent film star Mary Pickford, the “girl with the curls,” but this one-woman musical presents a surprising portrait of the world’s first celebrity. She was born Gladys Marie Smith in Toronto, the daughter of a drunk who left his family in poverty. Her mother took in boarders to survive and Gladys started earning an income at the Princess Theatre when she was seven years old, eventually heading to Broadway as Mary Pickford. The 1920s were progressive years for women, with the end of corsets and the dawn of women’s rights. Little Mary from Toronto led the pack fearlessly, laying the foundation for the modern film industry with husband, Douglas Fairbanks.
Denise Norman, an actor and singer from Toronto, takes on the challenging interpretation of Mary (and all other roles). Pulling on Pickford’s curly wig at the beginning of the musical, Norman acts, sings and gestures the story of one of the most influential Canadians of the 20th century with tender intimacy. Her performance has audience members falling in love with America’s sweetheart all over again. No holidays for this actor, who just finished juggling two roles in performances for the Toronto Fringe Festival. Even so, she feels like she is on vacation and hopes to sit on a Haliburton dock before she goes back to the city.
Dean Burry, the writer of Sweetheart’s music, lyrics and script, was present for the opening performance on Sunday. “I wrote the musical 13 years ago,” he says. “It has been performed in workshop format, and on the tiny stage of Spadina House, but this production at the Northern Lights Pavilion is the musical’s biggest venue so far.” Burry was intrigued by Mary Pickford’s role in the founding of both United Artists and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “Growing up I had heard the barest information about the Canadian woman who became America’s sweetheart; a brief mention in a history book or a heritage moment on television. She certainly did not register as one of the most important figures in the creation of Hollywood and the cult of modern celebrity,” he says. Mary Pickford was ahead of her time, taking charge of the business side of her acting career. She was a pioneer for women actors that followed.
Dean Burry also wrote the musical’s ambitious score, telling much of Pickford’s story through lyrics. Reminiscent of the melodies associated with the “flickers,” the music communicates melodrama, fear and frivolity.
Highlands Summer Festival fans will remember director Mimi Mekler from her production of On Golden Pond a few years ago. Amazed at “what is going on with the arts in Haliburton,” she is glad to be back. Her sensitive interpretation of the script is subtle, building the audience’s relationship with Mary in a natural way, never forcefully. If audience members go home and Google Mary Pickford, give credit to Mekler, who makes sure that everyone leaves the theatre wanting the same thing that audiences wanted a hundred years ago. More Mary.
Sherry Squires accompanies Denise Norman at the grand piano, right on stage. Like the piano players in silent movie houses, she provides the audience with essential emotional cues. Squires, who has taught choir for the Haliburton School for the Arts, expertly anticipates and enhances the lyrics in a way that challenges the one-woman musical billing.
The set is deceptively simple. A grand piano, a chair, and a coat hook for costume changes provide the backdrop for a whole lot of talent. Actual footage of some of Mary Pickford’s films flicker across the back wall, heightening interest and illustrating historical aspects of the cinema. Thomas Edison’s invention of moving pictures, once considered a passing fad, has come a long way.
Congratulations to the creative team for a memorable production. And, while Mary Pickford is enjoying some renewed celebrity in movie heaven, Scot Denton, Highlands Summer Festival artistic producer, deserves credit for inviting this refreshing group of professionals to join the schedule. Well done.