The cast of Stonecliff, a musical about the life of White Pass builder Michael J. Heney, pose for a photo during the scene the death of Soapy Smith, while rehearsing at the Old Fire Hall. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

White Pass and Yukon Route musical chugs on without director

The cast and crew of Stonecliff are pushing forward without Conrad Boyce, who went on medical leave

At the 11th hour, the cast and crew of Stonecliff, an upcoming musical about railway builder Michael James Heney and the construction of the White Pass and Yukon Route, hit an unexpected obstacle that threatened to derail months of preparation and work.

With less than two weeks before Stonecliff was set to debut in Whitehorse, creator, director and producer Conrad Boyce told the company Nov. 5 he’d experienced a medical issue and needed to fly to Ontario for surgery the next day. He wouldn’t be able to return in time for the opening night Nov. 17, or for any other part of the musical’s tour.

“We were shocked. It’s not something you’d expect,” actor Doug Rutherford said in a phone interview Nov. 8.

But within hours, and over orders of pizza, the shock had given way to planning. The cast and crew decided against pulling the plug and instead, like Heney, chose to forge ahead, splitting up Boyce’s responsibilities among themselves to make sure Stonecliff would make it to the stage as planned.

“It’s really important for us, I think, to go ahead, and it’s an important story and it’s a local story that we can all feel passion for,” said actress Angela Drainville, who, on top of playing Harriet “Ma” Pullen, took over as producer for the Whitehorse run. “I think we were all committed to making sure that it was staged and (that we) really do justice to the presentation and we are confident that we will be able to do that, so here we are.”

Named after Heney’s hometown of Stonecliff, ON., the musical, which stars Shaw Festival actor Billy Lake, follows the struggles and triumphs of Henney and his crew as they build the White Pass and Yukon Route, taking the audience on a journey from from Skagway to Carcross to Whitehorse.

“It’s one of those perfect musicals where it has all of those experiences — it has some tragedy, certainly, you can’t build a railroad without tragedy, but there’s also a lot of great comedic and romantic moments where you’re released from that drama as well,” Drainville said.

Producing the Whitehorse leg felt like a natural fit, she added, since she’s familiar with the Yukon Arts Centre and has extensive experience with producing events, including the annual Atlin Arts and Music Festival.

Other cast members who stepped in include story narrator Bruce Barrett, who will be producing the shows in Skagway and Dawson, actor RP Singh, who will be doubling as technical director and playing character Reverend Sinclair actor James McCullough, who will be filling in as director as well as portraying John Hislop, and actor Brett Chandler, who’s taking over logistical and transportation coordination.

“It’s amazing, actually, how many hats Conrad was wearing, because there seems to be far more people wearing far more hats than they used to, than we were Sunday,” said Rutherford, who’s portraying Eratus Hawkins. Rutherford had originally stepped forward to produce the Anchorage portion of the tour, but the cast and crew ultimately decided, under the circumstances, to scrap it and focus on the Whitehorse, Skagway and Dawson stops instead.

Boyce had also left the cast and crew in as good of a position as he could have, Barrett said, which made continuing on without him easier.

“We more or less just looked at it and we decided it was doable because the actual show itself was kind of at, let’s say, the 95th percentile of completion. The hard work of actual production and direction and all the artistic components, all of these things were in place and the show was really looking pretty good, so I think that’s what made us decide that, yes, we can carry on,” he said.

“I think we’re getting pretty settled in at this point. I would definitely say we’re almost to where we would be comfortable in saying (it’s) business as usual.”

And in a poetic sort of way, Boyce’s departure and the cast and crew persevering through the challenge of filling in the gaps he left has brought everyone even closer to the story, Barrett said.

“It’s so interesting because it’s a show which is all about overcoming adversity,” he said. “The story’s (about) the unlikely success of, basically, a farm boy from the Ottawa Valley who wound up being renowned as the greatest railway man in North America and his passion and his dedication and his ingenuity and his inventiveness which allowed him to do the things he did. I would say, we’re all taking a bit of inspiration from that right now, so that makes the show very much in the spirit of the show’s hero far more so than anybody would have ever predicted.”

Drainville agreed.

“I think it’s really giving us an understanding, a little bit, of what Michael Henney went through in terms of building the railway, in terms of now staging, making sure this gets to the stage without Conrad,” she said, laughing. “There’s an allegory there.”

Stonecliff runs Nov. 17 to 19 at the Yukon Arts Centre.

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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