Pier 21: The Musical sets sail on a journey of resilience and hope

October 13, 2023

In late summer 1939, refugees and immigrants flee Europe to land on Canada’s East Coast. Soon, Pier 21 will launch half a million soldiers on their way to fight Nazi Germany. After the war, the Pier receives war brides, wounded soldiers and a new generation of immigrants escaping devastation.

Pier 21: The Musical shares the poignant stories of refugees, soldiers and immigration staff navigating life and death choices. The Sid Williams Theatre Society is pleased to present this Canadiana Musical Theatre production on Sunday, October 29, as part of their Centre Stage Events Series.

Fueled by rich melodies, the show breathes life into soul-stirring narratives of an iconic immigration gateway.

Pier 21 is an original WWII-era musical,” said writer and producer Allen Desnoyers. “It’s a moving drama filled with heart, pathos and even comedy. Both Celtic and swing music are played by the three-person cast who portray 18 characters in quick succession.”

Desnoyers, a seasoned playwright who co-founded Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre then created Canadiana Musical Theatre Co., has been writing and producing plays about Canadian stories for four decades. He was inspired to create this latest production from personal experiences.

“When refugees began fleeing Syria, my family was involved helping some resettle in Ladner, BC... It was during the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in the US, and I wanted to create a show that might create empathy for refugees,” Desnoyers explained.

Then, on a summer trip, he stumbled onto Halifax’s Pier 21 museum. “[I] realized I could create a show around Celtic music and the WWII era that would resonate. The fact that most of Canada’s volunteer soldiers departed from Pier 21, some of whom sacrificed their lives for strangers abroad, struck me as particularly profound.”

It took 18 months to research and write, premiering in early 2019. However, shortly after its debut, the pandemic sidelined the show.

“We were scheduled for a five-province tour in 2020 that was to end in Ottawa on the 75th anniversary of VE Day, but Covid shut that down. For two years, live performances were cancelled,” said Desnoyers. “Our first show back was on February 12, 2022, for several descendants of Ukrainians twelve days before Putin invaded.”  

Since then, Pier 21 has toured across Canada, most recently in Winnipeg, and always to glowing reviews.

“The reaction is always intense for actors and audience. The events in the show are based on real experiences of people I’ve interviewed or researched, so it is often as moving for us as it is for audiences.   

“We perform for students all the way to seniors, and it reaches them in different ways. Emotionally, the whole show is like a trip on the Atlantic Ocean – filled with oncoming waves of anticipation, adventure, dread, fun, relief, loss and joy.”   
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