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REVIEW: The Golden Record at Soulpepper

Three musicians stand on stage, passionately performing a musical number. One holds a microphone, singing, another plucks a stand-up bass, and the third is leaning back, clutching his chest as he sings to the sky. Behind them is a projected backdrop of overlapping blue and purple circles, creating an ethereal effect. The image is set on top of a larger but fainter version of the same image, creating dynamic layers. iPhoto caption: (left to right) Divine Brown, Travis Knights and Beau Dixon perform as part of the new Slaight Music Associates.
/By / Nov 14, 2022

Get ready for an epic adventure, because Soulpepper Theatre and the Slaight Music Associates are ready to take you on a journey that transcends space and time.

It’s a lofty claim to make, for sure. But the effect the The Golden Record had on its opening night audience was undeniable. We laughed, we whooped, sang along, and on more than one occasion, fell into complete silence. The atmosphere in the theatre was unlike anything I’ve witnessed in years: we had raucous, dance-in-your-seat, FUN.

Conceived by Slaight Family director of music Mike Ross, The Golden Record goes beyond theatrical entertainment and becomes an educational experience. It certainly isn’t a simple concert: it’s stunning musical artistry melded with beautiful visual performances and a healthy dose of the most interesting and honest history lesson I’ve had in a theatre in a long time. 

The show revolves around the Voyager Golden Record, NASA’s ambitious attempt to communicate the story of planet Earth to other life forms that might exist within our universe.

Yes, you read that right. In 1977, NASA sent two vessels into space to carry gold-plated phonographic records containing the images and sounds they felt best represented our world into space. The two “golden records” contain encoded images (encoded in analog form), sounds, clips of humans speaking, and of course, music. And now, the new Slaight Music Associates and their band have taken that incredible soundscape and reinterpreted it for audiences. 

The Golden Record marks Soulpepper’s first staged concert since 2019’s The Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville Scene, and serves as the perfect introduction to the Slaight Family Music Foundation’s five new associates. Divine Brown, Beau Dixon, Travis Knights, Raha Javanfar, and Andrew Penner join Ross onstage to weave a tale through passionate history lessons and incredible music. There is no weakness within this ensemble, and despite each of them having a standout moment in the production, the true star of the show is their work as a company. Each of the five individuals has trod the Soulpepper boards on several occasions, and their familiarity with the space combined with their comfort with one another is evident from the second the first drum beat rings through the venue. 

Along with a three-piece string ensemble made up of Erin James, Erika Nielson, and Amanda Penner, the company tells the story of the conception and creation of the record, exploring a selection of the music chosen in 1977 and repackaging it in a thrillingly contemporary way. The pieces meld different eras and styles of music, weaving the songs from the album with those that a more modern, more diverse selection committee might have chosen.

Javanfar leads the company through a spirited, violin accompanied rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode;” Ross and Dixon’s piano duet of “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” a song not on the record, is both charming and impressive. Knights not only sings, but uses his incredible skills as a tap dancer to create new rhythms and beats accompanied by a lovely visual display. Jaws throughout the theatre dropped whenever Brown took the lead on vocals (at one point in “El Cascabel,” I looked behind me to find a sea of awe-struck faces), and Andrew Penner flexed and moulded his voice to create stylized reinterpretations of a myriad of songs.

It’s the sort of show that makes you want to lean back, close your eyes and just listen: but then you would miss out on the visual splendour of the piece.

The stagecraft throughout the piece is excellent, and the performers navigate the set teeming with instruments with ease. Director Frank Cox-O’Connell’s direction is simple yet wildly effective: the performers step to the edge of the stage to address the audience in their many succinct history lessons, seamlessly transitioning from song to historical narrative. Projection designer Frank Donato and associate projection designer Julia Howman’s peaceful projections create a perfect visual aid, displaying song titles and images from the Voyager Golden Record behind the ensemble, and Simon Rossiter and associate Noah Feaver’s lighting design keeps the performers perfectly balanced without interfering with the projections.

Despite my initial concern about being seated in the front row directly in front of the drum kit, I left the theatre with my eardrums intact. The music is loud and at times raucous, but the creative team has taken care to break up the more energetic songs with segments of storytelling and softer, more stylized pieces. In one particularly brilliant moment, an understated, jazz-inspired rendition of Dua Lipa’s hit “Levitating” allowed the audience to take a break from bopping along in their seats and to relax and enjoy the music. Clearly, the 2020 hit was not on the records launched into space in 1977, but if NASA ever decides to create another set of golden records, I would gladly start the petition to have this version included.

At a tight 90 minutes, the show is just long enough to transport audiences to another world without seeming overlong. It certainly helps that the performers encourage the audience to join in; clapping and singing along when prompted transformed the production from an impressive display of musical prowess to an exciting, truly fun experience for everyone in the theatre.
Whether you’re a history lover, a music enthusiast or a theatre nut, The Golden Record will transport you to another planet. It has a fairly short run, so do yourself a favour: run, skip, or dance to Soulpepper to experience the wonder of the sounds of our world for an evening.

The Golden Record runs at Soulpepper Theatre until November 20. Tickets are available here.

Jessica Watson

Jessica Watson

Jessica is a former associate editor at Intermission, as well as a writer, classically-trained actor, and plant enthusiast. Since graduating from LAMDA in the UK with her MA in acting, you can often find her writing screenplays and short plays in the park, writing extensive lists of plant care tips, or working on stage and screen (though she uses a stage name). Jessica freelances with various companies across Canada, but her passion lies in working with theatre artists and enthusiasts.



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