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Luck of the canallers
The canals of 1800s Fort Wayne provide the backdrop for Youtheatre’s rollicking musical Sugar Water Sunday
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Harvey Cocks, executive director of Fort Wayne Youtheatre, pauses for a moment and laughs before launching into a synopsis of Sugar Water Sunday, the musical which opens Youtheatre’s 73rd season on October 14th.
“It’s about a canal boat family, or canallers as they were called, in Fort Wayne in 1855, which is sort of the end of the canal era,” he begins. “There’s Katie Muldoon with her four kids, three boys and a girl…” and from there starts a fantastical, rollicking tale about the Muldoons and their circle of friends, plus a missing water sprite named Echo, and the trio of magical beings — two leprechauns named Pinch and Patch and a changeling named Tibs — sent over from Ireland by Queen Maeve to find her. “Their job is to find (Echo) and bring her back to Ireland before the Sugar Water Celebration,” Cocks says. “This is old Irish folklore: keep a bottle of water in your home for a year without losing any of it you’ll have good luck.”
But Echo is trapped in the bottle of water that Erin, the youngest Muldoon, has drawn from the well. When Erin takes a drink, Echo steals her voice and the luck of the canallers turns bad. Patch, Pinch, and Tibs have the spell which can release Echo from the bottle, save the Sugar Water Celebration and restore Erin’s voice (and the Muldoons’ luck). Now, if only the trio of rescuers could remember the spell…
Cocks laughs again. “You must have to be crazy to think of some of this stuff,” he says.
Well, whether “crazy” or just very, very imaginative is the right way to describe the creator of these characters and story, Cocks would know — he’s the author.
The genesis of Sugar Water Sunday is almost as colorful as the play itself. Back in 1980, Cocks was looking for a big show to cap off a Youtheatre summer series. The available plays were either too expensive or lacked the tone Cocks wanted: ebullient and fun, something suitable for a season finale. So Cocks decided to write the summer series’ swan song himself. “I’m fascinated by Fort Wayne history,” he says. “I was in the library and ran across some things about the canal. At about the same time, I started reading about Irish folklore and superstition.”
Cocks dug deep into the history of the canals, learning how the canals were used to transport goods as far south as Evansville, how cholera claimed many of the immigrant workers who first built the system, and how by the mid-1800s, the railroads rendered them obsolete. Of course, while the canals provide the rich backdrop of Sugar Water Sunday, the play is a musical co-starring a couple leprechauns and a water sprite; it’s as much about the hard-scrabble life of the canallers as Oklahoma! is about the struggle of farmers in the dustbowl years.
When Cocks realized Sugar Water Sunday was a musical, he called on three musically-inclined friends — Tom Felts, Martin Tierney, and Kathy Imler — to help him write the songs and music. “I’d write a scene and think ‘I need a song in here,’ and I’d call up one or the other according to the style of their writing,” Cocks says. “They would call back a few hours later and say I’ve got the song written! Here’s the title!’”
Imler, Tierney, and Felts had all had considerable experience in the theater before collaborating with Cocks on Sugar Water Sunday. Mark Tierney, who recently retired after teaching English and speech at Bishop Dwaenger, originally wrote one of the songs for Phil Donohue while they were at college. The song, “Coyote Yeller,” is a crazy piece of near nonsense that the leprechauns sing under their disguise as traveling cowboys. “(The song) has 7,000 inner rhymes and doesn’t require a singer,” Tierney told Fort Wayne newspapers back in 1980. “There’s about a half-an-octave range and Phil sang it while another guy danced.”
Tierney collaborated with Tom Felts (now a judge) on the play’s love ballads; one of the songs, “Our Love,” was played at Felts wedding. Kathy Imler, an English teacher, screenwriter, and illustrator, wrote many of the children’s songs.
When Sugar Water Sunday opens on October 14th, it will be the fourth time the play has been performed in all, and the first time in over 20 years. The play has gone through many changes and rewrites since then — a few characters, scenes and songs have been dropped for length — but it remains packed with colorful characters and a dozen catchy tunes. Cocks has written over 20 plays for Youtheatre and 12 historical plays for the History Museum, just to name a few, but doesn’t hesitate when I ask him where Sugar Water Sunday ranks in his catalog. “It’s my favorite,” he says. “I’ve done a kabuki version of Princess and the Pea which I liked, I’ve done Tom Sawyer, I wrote a play about James Dean that was attended by some old friends of the actor, but Sugar Water Sunday… there’s just so many things that audiences seem to enjoy about it.”
Fort Wayne Youtheatre presents Sugar Water Sunday
Saturday, October 14th and Sunday, October 15th
Call (260) 422-4226 for tickets.