Lead role in Rob Ford musical ‘opportunity of a lifetime’ for Prince Albert actor

Matt Gardner
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Such is the controversy surrounding Toronto mayor Rob Ford that every new incident seems to attract worldwide media attention.

Prince Albert actor Sheldon Bergstrom is set to perform the lead role in the upcoming Toronto production of 'Rob Ford The Musical.' Based on the trials and tribulations of Toronto’s controversial mayor, the show is scheduled for the second half of September.

When the mayor’s adventures were immortalized in a high-profile musical, it was only natural that the man set to portray Ford would find himself in the eye of a similar media hurricane.

“It has been absolutely insane,” Prince Albert actor Sheldon Bergstrom said on Thursday, speaking to the Daily Herald in the midst of a massive publicity blitz to promote the upcoming Toronto production of Rob Ford The Musical.

“I’ve talked to people all over Canada and even the BBC in London called. We had a chat on the radio last night. Unbelievable -- my head’s still spinning.”

The musical is scheduled to run at the Factory Theatre in Toronto from Sept. 16-28.

The highest-profile performance yet for Bergstrom, his starring role as Ford also represents the culmination of a long acting career that has seen the P.A.-born thespian tackle a wide range of roles in theatre and television.

Born in Prince Albert in 1971 -- his father worked at Saskatchewan Penitentiary and his mother at Harold’s IGA -- Bergstrom attended Vincent Massey Community Public School before the family moved to Saskatoon when he was six years old.

Despite the move, P.A. would always hold a special place in his heart.

“My siblings are all older than me, so they all stayed in P.A. when we moved to Saskatoon,” he noted. “So I always spent my summers back in P.A. and it’s always been home to me.”

It was while attending school in Saskatoon that Bergstrom was first bitten by the acting bug.

Inspired by a live performance of The Sound of Music, he began performing in plays in Grade 6, with roles in theatrical staples such as Oklahoma! and Annie.

By the time he began studying arts and science at the University of Saskatchewan, Bergstrom was uncertain what he wanted to do in life but knew he loved performing.

Fate would soon point him in an appropriate direction.

“I lucked into an audition for a theatre company in Regina right after my first year of university and they offered me a job that was about a year-long contract,” he recalled.

“I didn’t want to say no and my parents were kind enough to let me do it … I thought I’d take a year off and do a little acting and make some money and go back to school.”

Bergstrom’s time at the Celebrations Dinner Theatre, however, was the spark that ignited a successful acting career that has now lasted almost three decades.

His theatrical performances -- which included roles in titles such as South Pacific, West Side Story, Camelot, My Fair Lady and others -- soon blossomed into television work, with roles on YTV program The Incredible Story Studio as well as the first two seasons of Corner Gas.

The actor also found plenty of work in the P.A. area through Broadway North and with Country North show producer Paul Lomheim.

“He was unbelievably generous and gave me a lot of work hosting that show,” Bergstrom noted.

When he first became aware of a musical involving Rob Ford, Bergstrom was in Edmonton working on a production of Hairspray.

Like many, he had long been fascinated with the embattled Toronto mayor.

“When he first came into the spotlight, everyone thought he was Toronto’s golden boy who was going to come in and save the day,” Bergstrom said.

“People really, really love him and it’s just been an interesting few years to watch him rise so far and then fall so fast.”

At the same time, the actor had long wanted to work with writer/producer Brett McCaig and composer Anthony Bastian.

Friends of Bergstrom who had worked with the two rising stars had often raved about their experiences.

They’re holding onto the ending of the show just in case something crazy happens in the next few weeks, because you never know with this guy. Sheldon Bergstrom

“When I heard they were writing a musical about Rob Ford, I desperately wanted to work with them and I desperately wanted to do a show about Rob Ford,” Bergstrom said.

“I think I kind of look like him in a bizarre way,” he added. “I know I’m taller and chubbier than he is, but he’s just so larger than life in so many ways, I think it kind of works for me to be the guy … I’ve always wanted to work with them and I’ve always wanted to do something about Rob Ford, and it just seemed like the perfect combination.”

Stuck in Edmonton, however, Bergstrom was unable to make the auditions in Toronto.

Unwilling to give up on what he saw as an ideal creative match, he asked the producers whether they would consider allowing him to audition later or send in videos.

Meanwhile, friends and family who saw how badly he wanted the role began sending the producers emails and using social media to lobby in his favour.

Finally, the producers tracked Bergstrom down and listened as the actor offered a passionate pitch.

He also sent them a video of himself singing Mustang Sally. When Hairspray ended its run, he cut his hair short and dyed it peroxide blonde to better resemble Ford and sent in another video of himself singing the Amy Winehouse song Rehab with slightly modified lyrics referencing the mayor.

Weeks passed and just as he was beginning to think they had gone in another direction, the producers called Bergstrom to tell them he had gotten the role.

Describing himself as “completely freaked out” by the news -- to the point where he almost fell out of his chair -- Bergstrom was initially sworn to secrecy.

“I couldn’t tell anyone except for my wife,” he said. “But I called her and she was at work, and we just gushed back and forth about how this was the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Bergstrom described Rob Ford The Musical as a South Park-style satire that pokes fun at a wide range of figures beyond Ford, including his brother Doug, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, Olivia Chow, editors of Toronto newspapers and even Margaret Atwood.

The show begins on the day Rob Ford takes office and ends “almost present day” – with Bergstrom noting the writers had taken care to allow for further developments in the Rob Ford saga.

“They’re holding onto the ending of the show just in case something crazy happens in the next few weeks, because you never know with this guy.”

Much of Bergstrom’s dialogue is taken verbatim from interviews and sound bytes Ford has offered over the years.

As a result, his portrayal of the mayor will skew closely to Ford’s own mannerisms.

“I’m hoping to get as close to an impersonation of him as possible -- as well giving it a bit of my own flavour at times, of course, because he’s not a singer and this is a musical,” Bergstrom said.

“So I’ll certainly have some moments where I get to be me a little bit. But I know people are going to be expecting to see something similar to what Mr. Ford’s been doing, so I’m going to try and be as close to that as possible.”

Tickets for Rob Ford The Musical are available online at www.robfordthemusical.com.

See also:

No place like home for Sheldon Bergstrom

Organizations: Daily Herald, BBC, Factory Theatre Vincent Massey Community Public School University of Saskatchewan Celebrations Dinner Theatre

Geographic location: Toronto, Prince Albert, P.A. Saskatoon Canada London Edmonton Oklahoma Regina South Pacific West Side Story Broadway North Country North South Park

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