Song of Leaving Gala

By Gregory Hamara

2017 met 1976 on September 30 inside the St. Volodymyr Cultural Centre in Oakville, Ontario, when a capacity audience of 280 was left dazzled by a re-imagined staging of Song of Leaving … a suitcase full of dreams, the award-winning musical production that told the story of Ukrainian immigration to western Canada at the turn of the 20th century.

First performed by The Odessa Group at St. Vladimir Institute some 41 years ago as part of Metro International Caravan, Song of Leaving forever upended the stereotype of Ukrainian song-and-dance theatre by relying on modern stage movement, pop licks, edgy lyrics and a towering set, to recall the movement of emigrés from their traditional homeland in western Ukraine, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, to their arrival as homesteaders to Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Conceived, directed and produced by Taras Shipowick, then a 24-year old fine arts student at York University, in collaboration with lyricist Jars Balan, and translator-lyricist, Chrystya Hnatiw, the show, with a cast of 30 amateur performers in their late teens and early 20s, drew thousands to the theatre at St. Vladimir’s and captured a handful of awards afterwards. One Toronto newspaper critic at the time wrote, “Go to the best show I’ve seen this year. It’s a show of nearly Broadway calibre.”

“It was my tribute to our pioneers,” said Shipowick in an interview prior to this year’s re-staging of the production, remembering the immigrant stories of his great-grandparents from both sides of his family. They’d arrived to farm on lands east of Saskatoon, a decade before Saskatchewan became a province. “It was my nod to them.”

Shipowick was artistic director of this year’s version of Song of Leaving. He was joined by Glenn Morley, the acclaimed Canadian composer, musician and arranger who scored the original production, and Kvitka Kondracki, choral conductor of Vesnivka Choir and the Toronto Ukrainian Male Chamber Choir – which, together, performed the original musical soundtrack. 

They were joined onstage by a quartet of performers from Arkan Dance Company, and five guest soloists, including four from the original cast. The only filmed account of the 1976 show, shot at CBC TV studios in Sudbury in 1977, was integrated into this year’s production, prompting more than a few tears from many of the original Odessa Group performers in attendance as they looked back nostalgically on the show four decades later.

This year’s Song of Leaving was a presentation of the Ukrainian Museum of Canada, Ontario Branch, as part of its Canada 150 celebrations. The show dovetails with the museum’s year-long exhibit, titled, Trunk Tales: Leaving home … finding home, which features hundreds of artifacts from that generation of Ukrainian immigration. All proceeds from the September 30 gala dinner show will go to the museum, located at 620 Spadina Avenue in Toronto, and its mandate to acquire, preserve, research, study, document and display evidence of the Ukrainian presence in Canada.

Marianna Zaparayniuk, chair of the gala’s organizing committee, told the audience that the 2017 edition of Song of Leaving wouldn’t have been possible without the generous funding support provided by the evening’s major sponsors, including the Temerty Foundation, technology company FMAV, Ontario 150, BCU Foundation, Mrs. Rosalia Sametz, Shevchenko Foundation, SUS Foundation of Canada, Taras Shipowick ZAK Foundation, Jackson Triggs Estate Wines, Topper Linen and Zirkova One + Together. She warmly acknowledged the dozens of other businesses and individuals who purchased sponsorships in the commemorative program.

The gala event also served as a tribute to Shipowick and the impact his career has had on Ukrainian-Canadian theatre, and the considerable success he’s enjoyed in commercial Canadian theatrical production over the many years since he first broke out with the Odessa Group in 1974 and the four award-winning musicals he conceived and produced for the Odessa Group.

“Thank you for the gift of creativity which you have given and shared with our community, and with the broader Canadian community,” said Daria Olynyk, an original Odessa Group cast member, in her tribute to Shipowick at the gala.

“Thank you for opening the musical theatre door as a way of presenting and communicating our rich and beautiful Ukrainian heritage and stories in a way which appeals to any audience.”