Inimitable Anne

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No other heroine of children’s stories will match the spunky freckle-faced red-headed Anne Shirley of Green Gables as is proven once again in the 2012 production of Anne of Green Gables: The Musical. Her shoes are big ones to walk in, but that didn’t seem to bother Tess Benger, who hollered it out for the second year in a row with her best dramatic flair captivating the audience from the first moment she appeared on the stage until the final bow at the curtain call. She was well-matched by Justin Stadnyk, in his second year as well as Gilbert Blythe, although his voice seemed a tad bit hoarse in the second week of performances. New to the cast and certainly well-added attractions are veterans Marlane O’Brien as Marilla Cuthbert and Tim Koetting as Matthew Cuthbert. Add to that a solid cast of strong singers, actors and dancers and an excellent live orchestra and you have the perfect mix for this ever-popular long-running musical that is as much an institution on PEI as red lobsters.

The audience was greeted by soft nature sound effects with pealing church bells in the distance, a leafy gel-shadow canopy on the stage and, instead of the traditional masking for the wings, stylized floating legs that served as extensions to the multimedia backdrop that added to the realism yet pushed the boundaries of creativity by providing changing and animated scenery. The realism was just so good that there was even a scene-stealing mouse scampering around on the stage while Anne and Marilla bewailed her green hair in the upstairs bedroom set in the second act. Oops. Was the mouse not supposed to be there?

As if foreboding a technical disaster, the voice-over recording greeting the audience at the start of the play had a bad glitch and stopped at the same spot twice over—to the amusement of the audience, eliciting much laughter—before finally playing smoothly through—which then elicited applause. At least the audience, you knew, would be appreciative. The second glitch in the sound system was when someone’s mike rustled loudly in the first classroom scene. Finally, the mikes just squealed their feedback and up and died in the second act for a part of some dialogue. Other than that problem, everything else technical was superb. The sets, which were a mixture of old and new, were changed with amazing efficiency and speed so that there were barely any breaks in between scenes or even during some scene changes, which went on with the singing and dancing.

The other new aspect of the production that definitely made it more lively and more entertaining was the refreshing choreography, which challenged the performers much more. There was just so much exuberance in the chorus numbers that the whole musical seemed completely new. I’m pretty sure even the way the songs were performed was updated, because the whole play seemed more jaunty and upbeat than I last remember it. Or maybe it was just Anne of Green Gables meets 21st century stage technology. Either way, it was a smashingly good way to start the week and it will most certainly be a crowd-drawer and a crowd-pleaser this summer.

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Golden Moments in On Golden Pond

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The first time I watched On Golden Pond was the 1981 film version starring Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda with the screenplay written by the playwright Ernest Thompson. Definitely a hard act to follow, but I really liked that movie, so I was eager to watch the production staged by Victoria Playhouse.

It was my first time to ever watch a play at the Victoria Playhouse and I was eager to see this theatre that had been out of my reach until now. I’ll have to say that, apart from the really tight rows that have barely a hair’s breadth between your knees and the back of the seat in front of yours and no elbow room to either side unless you sit in the aisles, the theatre was pretty impressive. The seats were comfortable if not very roomy, the atmosphere cozy, the stage compact. The lights were more than enough for the stage, which was designed by the Playhouse’s resident scenic designer W. Scott MacConnell. Scott did a pretty good job of making the set look nice and cozy with a view of the pond from the porch window. I’ll overlook the fact that the walls and beams of the Thayer’s summer house didn’t look very much like real wood, if it was meant to look that way because all the other details were well executed anyway. I just thought the fishing rod rack right in front of the hall mirror was a little odd. I don’t imagine real people would want to see themselves in a mirror behind a row of fishing rods. The tiny love seat that stood in for a couch made some of the blocking just a tad bit awkward since the actors looked really cramped sitting on it. I like the fact, though, that there was a lot of seating around, although the dining table didn’t serve a whole lot of purpose and the bench seat next to the fireplace was hardly used. Neither was the door adjacent to the front door. Set design is not just about the appearance but the functionality of the set as well. But enough of that. This isn’t about the set.

As Norman Thayer, Bill McFadden did great justice to the role. He was as much of a curmudgeon as the character could be and he definitely commanded the stage when he was on it. That’s not to say that Sharlene MacLean in the role of Ethel Thayer didn’t keep up. It would be totally unfair to compare her to Katherine Hepburn in the same role, and I wasn’t always convinced that she was Ethel, but all things considered, she fit in nicely with the rest of the cast. Kathleen Hamilton as the daughter, Chelsea, seemed a mite too stiff in her role. Granted her character was carrying around a huge chip on her shoulder, the emotions she showed didn’t always seem very genuine. The opposite was true of Mark Fraser as the postman and Chelsea’s past summer love, Charlie, who was constantly jolly and carried on buoyantly. Josh Weale as Bill Ray was a perfect match to Kathleen’s Chelsea. Elijah Smith as the young Billy Ray was a delight to watch and was definitely less surly, more friendly and ready for action than Doug McKeon’s Billy Ray in the film version. All together, the cast played together very well. The pickup of lines was excellent and the jokes never fell flat. That’s also probably because of the very attentive and appreciative audience, and a full-house at that! Definitely a feel-good performance that was applauded with a standing ovation.

I must say that another thing I like about the Playhouse is the acoustics. I firmly believe that thespians must learn to project their voices as well as their characters and the high-tech sound systems in Charlottetown have spoiled actors so much that they need wireless mikes even in as small a venue as The Guild. The Playhouse holds as many seats as The Guild does (I estimated seating for 150) yet the actors’ voices were perfectly clear even in the back row, where I was seated. I am definitely coming back to the Playhouse!

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Canada in Love: In Love with Canadian Song

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While it might have been a little late for Valentine’s Day, Canada in Love was not a moment too late to experience as the appeal of love songs never fades. After all, who doesn’t love a love song? Whether you’re love struck or lovelorn, bursting at the heart or broken hearted, in love with your country or just in love with love, there is a love song somewhere out there for you. And so Canada in Love made its way to The Guild theatre in Charlottetown for its final performance after a gruelling 38 performances in a 5-week tour of PEI, bringing love and laughter to the many island seniors who would otherwise not have had a chance to see the show. That was, after all, the purpose of the production team of Young at Heart Musical Theatre for Seniors.

I’ll have to admit that prior knowledge had me somewhat confused. I’d read that it was a performance of several songs Canadian, so I had come to the conclusion that it was a concert of some sort. Then the programme said it was a musical by Young at Heart Musical Theatre for Seniors, so I decided it must be a musical play, in which case I was delighted. Then I saw the song list and again had my doubts as to the play-fulness of this musical. So my curiosity peaked, but I imagined it would be a completely unique and challenging script to use all the songs on the list, assuming it was a full-length play with a running time of at least 180 minutes.. Then director and choreographer Catherine O’Brien announced that it would run for just a little less than an hour. I tell you, my mind was like a 78 playing at the speed of a 45—or would it be the other way around? Anyway, I had decided that you couldn’t really have a play with all those songs in less than an hour.

So I focused on the backdrop and scenery, which was a colorful screen that I initially thought was randomly designed with little hearts thrown here and there. After staring at it for a couple of minutes, trying to figure out its significance, being abstract and all, I realized it was a multi-colored map of Canada and the hearts were the provincial capitals! That was charming and quaint. And of course the wing screen on one side was a row of colourful houses along a shore, much like you would see on any eastern shore in the Maritimes. On the other wing screen was rolling plains and fields of whatever-you-will. This being the electronic age, of course the piano was an electronic keyboard with a mock-up lamp promising a bit of romance, of course, and live accompaniment.

Going down the list of songs, I have to confess that I didn’t recognize several of the particularly Canadian titles and so prayed that my initiation to authentic all-Canadian music would be a happy one. At least the familiar songs spelt out c-o-u-n-t-r-y and f-o-l-k music. I’m pretty partial to country and folk music after all, and Anne Murray and Paul Anka songs on the list were a reassurance.

After a 10-minute introduction and sponsorship-drumming by Catherine O’Brien, the show began. I was happy to see April Cook again, after seeing her in The Sound of Music. That she has a beautiful voice is no question, but the quality of the performance and the theatre makes a huge difference! In The Guild, April’s voice could be heard in all its power and all its nuances, the songs requiring quite a vocal range, and if there’s one thing April is good at, it’s belting out those high notes. Just perfect for a musical theatre soprano. Kevin Morris’s clear and powerful voice matched hers just wonderfully, doing vocal gymnastics from crooning to yodeling as the songs required.

So it wasn’t just a concert. But it wasn’t a play either. Clearly, this was a musical revue with very clever dialogue running along the theme of Canadian lovebirds across the nation. The script was clever and funny and so very tongue-in-cheek—which made it funnier. A voice-over narration sounded just like the narrator in the Dudley Do-Right cartoons, with constant exhortations to “please contact the Canadian Wildlife Federation for more information on the Canadian lovebird.”

I’ll have to say there wasn’t a dull moment in whole 50-some minutes of their whole performance—not once in the music, dialogue, singing or dancing, which is a whole lot to say for a solid 50 minute show. Every moment was funny or lively or exhilarating or whimsical with a lot of campy humour and music playing all throughout. Sean Ferris certainly did an amazing job at the piano and he’s a wonderful accompanier—you could tell he was looking out for the actors and not just playing on ahead by himself. With him at the piano, even I would be confident singing out there with the rest.

April and Kevin switched characters on and off as quickly and as clearly as changing hats—which they actually did with the authentic and famous Canadian hat dance—and when one of the hats flew down to the audience, they managed to get it back with witty ad-lib by Kevin “after 38 shows…” all without skipping a beat. I just wonder if that was actually planned or if it truly was an accident. While each performer was excellent and their duets were in perfect harmony, they were no Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and after 38 shows, they couldn’t raise their batons at the same level or keep them aligned somewhere near the start. That didn’t stop me, though, from expecting them to break out into a step-dance or tap-dance number during the piano interludes. Such was the vivacity and energy they exuded.

In the end, they summarized the top ten things Canadians love and I will quote: Tim Horton’s, the Canadian Rockies, Healthcare, fresh water, freedom, multiculturalism, the changing seasons, the Canadian landscape, the Canadian character and home. Their one addendum was hockey for the rousting grand finale, The Hockey Song.

My one addendum to the list of things that Canadians love: music!

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Evangeline: The World Premiere of a World-Class Musical

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                  I was in 5th grade when I first encountered the poem Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was already one of my favourite poets, because of another popular poem he had written, “The Song of Hiawatha.” Back then, I thought nothing of the significance of the poem, living on the other side of the world where anything about the West was almost a fairy tale. When I learned that the poem had been turned into a musical play, I just knew I had to see it and, in the meantime, refreshed my memory by digging up an old copy of the poem. Ted Dykstra did not disappoint with his well-woven script and amazing songs and music that ranged from spine-tingling spiritual choruses and deeply moving duets for Evangeline and Gabriel, to lively and rousing chorus numbers that had the house tapping and bobbing their heads in accompaniment. Under the masterful direction of Anne Allan, Dykstra’s script was transformed into a powerful performance that deserves Dora Mavor Moore Awards across several categories.

 

The musical Evangeline closely follows the story of Longfellow’s poem with a few artistic liberties, mainly the addition of the antagonist Captain Hampson, played by Rejean Cournoyer, a re-ordering of Evangeline’s stay with the Quakers, and letting Baptiste Leblanc, played by David Cotton, accompany Evangeline on her search for Gabriel, rather than his father, Basil, played by Tim Koetting, who did not remarry either in the poem. The character of Albert Arsenault’s Rene Leblanc in the musical is a merging of the poem’s notary public and story-teller, and the town fiddler, Michael. Evangeline’s encounter with the Creoles in Atchafalaya was represented by the character of Claiborne, played by the marvelous voiced Marcus Nance.  Nonetheless, the changes created the perfect mix for the musical by enhancing the roles of the supporting characters in the poem.

 

The title role of Evangeline Bellefontaine was beautifully executed with passion and strength by Chilina Kennedy, while Adam Brazier as Gabriel Lajeunesse, complemented her with his character’s devotion and undying love for Evangeline. Sandy Winsby played Evangeline’s devoted father Benedict Bellefontaine, while Olivier Leblanc, played as a boy by Nathaniel Ing and as a young man by Louie Rossetti, is an invented character who plays a foil for Gabriel and does what Gabriel’s more reserved and restrained character cannot do. The full cast and crew have been assembled from all over Canada, with several well-known names from around PEI. The choreography was simple and appropriate, although one of the female dancers lost her stride and danced to a different beat in the opening scene. The audio was extremely well-balanced, except for a few times speaking or singing volumes rose suddenly because of character proximity, but the balance was quickly and masterfully restored.

 

The meticulous detail with which costumes and sets have been designed by Patrick Clark is highly commendable as was the execution of the remarkably flexible sets. One thing that makes this production still more astounding is Jamie Nesbitt’s cycloramic video backdrop, which executes a panoramic view that translates Longfellow’s descriptions of the landscape and events into graphic depictions that emphasize the milieu of this story of a woman’s undying love and her strength, courage and determination to overcome all odds to be reunited with her husband.

 

Without doubt, this brand new musical that depicts the resilient spirit of Canadians in general, and Acadians and women in particular, will be welcomed with much applause wherever it is performed in Canada and around the world.

 

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 *This review is also available on ONRPEI.ca

**Evangeline formally opened at the Confederation Centre of the Arts Homburg Theatre, Charlottetown, PE on July 6, 2013 as part of the Charlottetown Festival 2013.