I Am Not Neil Young-The Musical

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The Black Swan
Toronto

While we all love Neil Young, it’ s safe to say he’s not the first artist that comes to mind when the idea of a musical based on his work is floated. Much better is the idea of a musical based on the life of someone who spent his life living the music of Neil.


A thing like that can make you rich, can steal your soul, can mess up your sense of identity, can get you a whole new one.


All that and more is covered like a Hudson’s Bay blanket in I Am Not Neil Young-The Musical, directed by Don Lamoreux and starring Frank Wilks.


Oh yeah, and there’s the music; 7 songs of Neil Young’s, 2 of Steven Stills’ and 6 originals from Wilks.


As he says in the intro,” This is a story about transformation. But who will be transformed? You and or me?” And yeah, if you close your eyes while he’s singing it’s hard to tell it’s not Neil on the wail.


Opening with ‘Mr. Soul”, Wilks lays out the road map of his 30 odd years wild ride which took him from the Toronto bar circuit to audiences of fifty thou plus in the US, from hard scrabble Bully Hill to the stratospheric heights of Buffalo Springfield Revisited, from Frank Wilks to ‘Neil Young’.


Wilks and his well-worn guitar perform to backing tracks accompanied by videos, the latter allowing for the neat trick of watching Frank doing a song backed by a video of a much younger Frank doing the same song back in the day. Apart from providing context, it reveals Wilks’ pipes haven’t lost much, considering the time and wear and tear they’ve been through.


The minimal staging is more roots than SoCal flash and in the intimate setting of the Swan, even the set pieces with the video band performing before throngs of thousands manage to come off as warm and approachable. This is no easy feat and very necessary in light of what is to come.


At the beginning, Frank and co-founder of ‘Buffalo Springfield Revisited’, Hall Of fame bassist Bruce Palmer are straight and sober. Frank delivers ‘The Needle and the Damage done’ as a cautionary tale of which he and Palmer take serious note.


Five years later, the walls came crumbling down and Steven Stills ‘4x20’ is used as mirror for Frank’s situations. Round about here is where the play shows its teeth, and Frank Wilks finds himself in a life or death struggle with drug and alcohol addictions. To his credit, while Wilks doesn’t shrink from laying out the gruesome details, this is no misery fest as the dude is now six years sober.


Instead, by the time he gets to the humorous and touching ‘No Drinking in NFLD’, the thing has become a sweet testament to one man’s triumph over the dark side. The whole thing is saved from going all preachy by the music and its place in the soundtrack of our lives. That, and the fact that Wilks never loses his innate likeability even when he’s talking about days into weeks in a crack house.


And that's a core part of the play’s appeal; that it goes from top to bottom in the key of bittersweet.


This brings it round full circle as we leave Frank as a clean and sober working musician once again, leading a group of friends through an after-show concert that’s worth waiting around for. At press time there were no firm dates but plans are afoot to put the show on the road this summer. If it comes by your town, check it out.


Lenny Stoute