St. Thomas Aquinas takes us back to the 1980s

By Ian McKechnie

Aiden Shearer stars as Corey Palmer in Back to the 80s. Photo: St. Thomas Aquinas.

The decade spanning 1980 through 1990 was significant on multiple fronts.

The world watched as the Prince of Wales wed Lady Diana Spencer (1981) and as the Berlin Wall came tumbling down (1989). Canadians cheered on Terry Fox as he began his Marathon of Hope (1980); saw their Constitution repatriated (1982); and handled $1 coins for the first time (1987). Ontarians voted out the Progressive Conservative Party after over four decades in office (1985) and watched the SkyDome’s retractable roof open to a torrential downpour (1989).  Here in Victoria County, the Town of Lindsay celebrated its 125th anniversary by painting faces on fire hydrants (1982); the indefatigable Bill Scott represented his constituents in Ottawa; and Union Carbide announced that it would cease production of film, film packaging products, and industrial garbage bags at its Lindsay plant (1989).

The cast rehearses for the main event. Photo: St. Thomas Aquinas.

The 18-person cast of Back To The 80s…The Totally Awesome Musical! will no doubt recognize most of the events enumerated above – especially if they have paid close attention in their civics and history classes at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Secondary School here in Lindsay. “But what’s this Victoria County place?” they might ask.  Their puzzlement is perfectly understandable, considering that they are all children of the post-amalgamation era, coming of age during this municipality’s first decade as the City of Kawartha Lakes.

I digress. Clearly, not everything from 30 or more years ago is remembered and celebrated by the youth of today.  But many of the cultural touchstones from that era are, and continue to make their presence felt in the lives of 21st century teenagers – just ask anyone who tunes their radio each morning to 91.9 BOB FM, with its “80s, 90s, and Whatever” slogan. Indeed, audio relics of the 1980s are still found reverberating through movie soundtracks, YouTube videos, and…high school drama departments. 

Back To The 80s…The Totally Awesome Musical represents St. Thomas Aquinas’ first stab at musical theatre since its opening in 2000. It’s a classic coming-of-age story, standing broadly in the tradition of Howard Deutch’s 1986 cult classic, Pretty In Pink, and Cameron Crowe’s 1989 romantic comedy, Say Anything… (remember the hapless Lloyd Dobler and his boom box?).  The musical follows, among other plot-lines, the burgeoning relationship of Corey Palmer and Tiffany Houston as they navigate their way through the clique-cloaked politics of high school hallways and locker-rooms in their senior year.

For Amy Melanson, the school’s music teacher and co-director of the production, Back To The 80s has remained a favourite with high school students under her tutelage since it was first released in 2004. “The emotions are the same,” she says of the joys and struggles faced by the senior students at the fictitious William Ocean High School, “but how they are brought about is different.” It’s an interesting, and timely, observation, particularly as high schools across Canada grapple with the challenges of bullying in all of its terrible forms.

When this roving reporter (who grew up, not in the 80s, but in that blessed decade which followed Corey Palmer’s graduation) arrives at the St. Thomas Aquinas cafeteria on a blustery Thursday night to cover the production for the Lindsay Advocate, the rehearsal is in full swing.

A four-piece band, consisting of Melanson on keyboard; Jeremy Stillman on percussion; Luca Simmons on bass; and Liam Shea on guitar, is sounding forth the strains of The Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), as Aiden Shearer – who plays a young Corey Palmer – practices its memorable refrain. Melanson calls the proceedings to a halt, and goes over the confer with her cast at the front of the stage. Messrs. Shea and Simmons quietly strum away in the background as various stage directions are given. Props are shifted around as required. Melanson returns to the keyboard to run through Bon Jovi’s You Give Love A Bad Name. More directions are given. The cast is having a great time, whether they are in the scene being rehearsed or whether they are watching their peers from cafeteria tables laden with coats, backpacks, laptop computers, and homework.

Ah, the wonderful, if sometimes hectic, world of a rehearsal!

At last, the cast is able to enjoy a break as they await a supper of warm pizza. They gather around, and I ask them for their thoughts about the show. “I’ve done plays all my life, but this is my first musical,” says Carson Sager. A seasoned performer in Lindsay Little Theatre productions, Sager plays the part of William Ocean’s mathematics teacher, Mr. Cocker.

Not only is it the first musical for much of the cast, it’s also the first time many of them have been exposed to the fads, social customs, and language of the 1980s. “What was new to them, we now find ‘retro,’” observes Aiden Shearer, pointing to then-popular computer games as an example. His sister, Lael Shearer, has been cast as ‘Eileen,’ the new girl at William Ocean High School. “Friend groups are really distinguished,” she says, with ‘jocks’ and cheerleaders each forming their own coteries. Dalyah Schiarizza, playing the role of Cyndi Gibson, enlightens me on some of the slang used by high school students of the 80s. (A “dive,” for instance, refers to a disreputable place frequented by those one would normally stay away from if they wished to preserve their social status.)

Ultimately, though it’s the music which defines Back To The 80s. “All of the songs go with the scenes,” explains Alisha Byrne, who stars as Tiffany Houston. Music, perhaps more than any other element in the show, conveys a strong sense of nostalgia – the latter fittingly derived from two Greek words meaning to go back to where one came from. This theme is taken up by Cameron Leibovitch, who narrates the story in his role as a middle-aged Corey Palmer. Back To The 80s, says Leibovitch, “is all about reflecting on the best four years of your life.”

The whole experience has been rewarding for students and teachers alike. “There’s been a lot of progression,” remarks Chris Evans, drama teacher and co-director. “Their level of excitement has grown from the first reading back in October,” he says of the cast. “They are becoming more and more disciplined in the arts.”

While the staff and students might be taking us back to the 80s in this musical, the overarching themes they explore are timeless. “There will always be those groups,” says Evans of the cliques in which Corey, Tiffany, Cyndi, Eileen, and the rest find themselves. By drawing attention to stereotypes and their impact on the senior students at William Ocean High School, Evans hopes that cast and audience alike will see how a spirit of collegiality must reign in the hearts and minds of all people – regardless of which decade they came of age in.

Back To The 80s…The Totally Awesome Musical! goes up at the Academy Theatre for Performing Arts on February 28th and March 1st at 7 pm.  Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students, and are available for sale only at the school or online at

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