A Dive Back Down Memory Lane with “Sink or Swim”
The stressful and steely edge to modern living is enough to get to the best of us occasionally, but thankfully, writer and performer Beverly Elliott is here to remind us of a happier, simpler time in “Sink or Swim.” Through songs and endlessly amusing anecdotes Ms. Elliott paints the picture of her childhood in rural Perth County, Ontario, Canada back when she was five years old. These might be the “good ole days,” but Ms. Elliott’s early years weren’t exactly easy living. When an injury to her father forces the sale of the family farm, the youngest of the three Elliott sisters must learn to cope with a small rancher by the highway, a one‑room schoolhouse with a crotchety teacher, ruthless bullies, and perilous school bus rides. Spanning from summer to winter, Ms. Elliott narrates the whole affair, accompanied by simple piano arrangements (Bill Costin) as she sings wistfully about her carefree youth, and the many misadventures she endured. Music flows through “Sink or Swim,” forming the thread that bounds Ms. Elliott’s collection of memories together. The bulk of the material is incidental – punctuating scenes with glissandos or tensely jarring chords – but more substantial tunes bookend the smaller stories and add structure to the narrative. “Sink or Swim” is advertised as “’Little House on the Prairie’ meets ‘Lord of the Flies,’” and while the latter is somewhat lacking, the saccharine, white‑picket charm of the songs is enough to make Laura Ingalls homesick. Ms. Elliott’s singing is steeped in power and personality and functions as a nice change of pace from the stories that make up the bulk of the runtime. Although it is enjoyable, the spin around the Kodak Carousel proves more amusing than insightful. The relived memories of mean adults and schoolyard crushes are relatable enough to be sympathetic, but recapturing that whimsical nostalgia seems to be “Sink or Swim”’s exclusive focus. To their credit, most of the songs see Ms. Elliott connecting her past experiences to the woman she’s become, but the lyrics, often prosaic and predictable, don’t shine with the same unassuming charisma of our protagonist’s plights. “Sink or Swim” is at its best when it allows Ms. Elliott to simply reminisce over exhilarating triumphs and confess to past stumbles on her own. She has a sublime talent for turning even the most mundane black‑and‑white memories into vibrant technicolor. And while the soulful singing makes for a pleasant enough diversion, a more barebones approach to the narrative might have served the piece better. Nowhere is that felt more than in the projections. The inclusion occasionally provides a well‑earned laugh or two, but the stock photo slideshow format distracts slightly from the humble storytelling. With some minor tweaking, it’s easy to imagine “Sink or Swim” as a true powerhouse performance. The unpretentious and often unflattering images that Ms. Elliott conjures from her childhood are surprisingly engaging and only make the five‑year‑old hero even more likable. The more theatrical elements help round out some unevenness in the structure, but the projections especially risk detracting from the modest sincerity of it all. That said, it still swims a lot more than it sinks, and for those of us in need of the occasional nostalgic rewind, “Sink or Swim” a quaint gem of a show. “Sink or Swim” Written and Performed by Beverley Elliott Nov. 13 at 9pm, Nov. 17 at 2pm Director: Lynna Goldhar Smith Musical Director: Bill Costin Projection Design: Jordan Lloyd Watkins Sound & Lighting: Chris Nowland Show Image by Jordan Lloyd Watkins, courtesy of the production United Solo 2018 Theatre Row 410 West 42nd Street New York City
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.