Only on PEI in Harbourfront’s Lights, Camera, Island!

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A Review by Cindy Lapeña

What happens when big time movie stars from Toronto come to small town PEI to shoot a film? To find out, you really have to see Island author Karen Slater’s Lights, Camera, Island! The Harbourfront Players’ latest offering is a charming comedy that had just the right mix of Island humour and sentimentality. It’s a full-blooded Island production that can only be pulled off by an Island cast and crew. It’s great community theatre that no one will appreciate more than Islanders, as evidenced by the laughter and enjoyment elicited from a highly appreciative opening night audience. Harbourfront Theatre’s relatively new Executive Director Kieran Keller welcomed the audience back to what promises to be a wonderfully entertaining season and it was good to come back and be welcomed by Slater’s ribald slice of Island life.

What makes the script more delectable is how Slater adopted the classic plot of cross-dressing and mistaken identities, not unlike Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will. That, coupled with your friendly countryside folk and the small town gossip mill, became the grist for Lights, Camera, Island! While anyone will enjoy the classic humour, only islanders will immediately pick up on certain jokes such as the gasps and the real reason for the big surprise kitchen party. That said, more of the jokes would have had greater impact if there were much quicker pick-up between lines. Or is that an Island thing as well? One sign of experienced stage actors is how well they are able to ad lib when they forget lines or cues and there is no dead air between lines. Nonetheless, recovery was successful, the audience clearly overlooked those few moments, and a good night was still had by all.

Director Marlane O’Brien must have had as much fun as I hear the cast and crew did while rehearsing this play, which they started working on in workshops, until it finally shaped up into this rollicking piece. What gave the performance that great community theatre flavour is probably the fact that the cast was not comprised of professional actors, just a big group of friends having great fun together. It’s completely plausible some added humour came from the mixed identities that extended to a general confusion in almost interchangeable names of two brothers and brother-like cousin—who sometimes reminded me of the Three Stooges—that added to the merry mix-up that became all the more confusing until it was all sorted out in the end. It’s the kind of play I would have loved to be part of!

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Dance Umbrella’s Thirst for Life: Beauty and the Vampire

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I was expecting a dance concert, after all, it was a Dance Umbrella production. The simple but informative programme told me right at the start that it would be a play, and a musical one to boot! What luck! I just love musicals. Then I read the synopsis and said to myself, “Oh no. Not vampires again.” Believe me, I do not watch the vampire series or movies. My vampires began with Bram Stoker and ended with Anne Rice, the glut of vampire literature, television shows, and series notwithstanding. Did they have to bring it to the stage too? But we try to keep an open mind, eh?

So at seven-thirtyish, choreographer Morgan Wagner walked out onto the stage to formally announce the beginning of the play, in which she played the dual roles of the rather sedate Auntie Belle and totally dizzy Lizzy.

I must admit that despite my trepidation over the current vampire genre extending to the stage, I was drawn in by the music. Louisiana is a great place for music and, in keeping with the blue bayou tradition, the play delivered where music was concerned. Even the singing of the Ensemble was pretty good, I’ll admit. The voices blended well, there was vocal energy and character in the chorus numbers, and the lyrics were appropriate.

And then it hit me. It was a teen vampire play. Of course. And most of the players were pretty much teens, or looked it. Well, I recognized a couple of familiar faces in the cast and I do know for a fact that they are teens. So the audience was quite naturally made up of family, parents and friends of the performers. Fair enough. They were a really appreciative audience though, and they did laugh in all the right places. But that’s because the book was well written. It was witty with some really quick dialogue and snappy exchanges that the cast executed really well. After all, timing is of the essence in comedy. And indeed, there was comedy.

But really, it was a love story. In vampire land. Vampire boy falls in love with normal girl who falls in love with normal boy who’s cursed to become a vampire when he does fall in love. Rival boys fight and fledgling vampire is near death and the only thing that can save him is a true love’s kiss. Sigh. Trite. But the dialogue had its moments, especially with the Ripper-Drucilla-Lizzy tandem and Mayor and the Town Council quartet.

The choreography suited the play. Nothing out of the box, no big surprises. Just good old fashioned standard musical theatre choreography. The execution was another thing, though, as the ensemble repeatedly showed that they were amateurs at it. Granted there were stand-outs who sang and danced with all their heart and all their energy, when one, two or three people in the chorus don’t know their choreography and miss a beat, you see it. When arms and legs aren’t all at the same level, you see it. When bodies are lax and lack tension, you see it. It’s not the coordination that stands out. It’s the uncoordinated ones that stand out. As dancers, the ensemble have a thing or two to learn about sustaining energy levels, watching the other dancers to match levels and movements, and dance as a single entity rather than several individual stars. After all, they weren’t doing solo numbers. That said, I must say, the fight sequences were nicely done and pretty well executed.

Kudos to the leads. While they weren’t Broadway material, they have the potential. Special mention goes to Veruca, played by Melissa MacKenzie. She has a beautiful voice and internalized her character well, but lost control of her voice in the very crucial duet (Your Light Within) with Eryck in Act 2. She’ll also need to practice looking at a boy with love in her eyes. Dalton MacKenzie as Eryck wasn’t too bad and he got better towards the middle and even better in Act 2. You could see his confidence building up as the play went on, and with the proper training, he’ll be a regular on musical theatre stages.

Jacob Hemphill’s Bobby John was quite a strong character from the beginning and it was something he maintained throughout the play. While his projection was weak in the lower registers, he really shone when he was belting out, and the development of his character was evident in his portrayal. His “Child of the Night” and “Kill the Fanger” were memorable.

Ripper/Rupert played by Tristan Lewis was a perfect foil to Bobby John. Along with his sidekicks Drucilla (Emma Zinck) and Lizzy (Morgan Wagner), he commanded the stage when he entered in character. In the ensemble, however, he clearly did not know his choreography by heart.

Alex Durant was vivacious and outstanding in the ensemble, but totally bland as Felicia. The Mayor, played by Lindsay Gillis, had some really great musical and dance numbers, and the character was consistent throughout, except that I got the feeling that she sometimes didn’t know what to do with her hands. The movements often came out quite artificial, though her firm movements were certainly better than Jolie’s overall limpness. Gesturing with your hands half-closed just isn’t gesturing, and the kill scene seemed more like an accident than a deliberate attack. She might as well have been holding a hairbrush. She was highly conscious of the audience, frequently sneaking peeks at them that it ruined the illusion.

The Mayor’s three stooges were just that, and they played their role well. No lack of energy there, except that Lucy occasionally dropped out of character and she and Bartles were clearly not dancers.

One of the aspects of theatre that make a performance really good is the blocking. Being conscious of positioning on stage, audience sight lines and the blocking of other characters is second nature to seasoned performers. There were just way too many scenes with duck rows in them, I wished I had a paintball gun in my hands.

The lighting was well done, again no bells and whistles except for the “Kill the Fanger” number, which totally stood out. The microphone levels were just right, except when the characters raised their voices or sang in high registers. Then the feedback was annoying to say the least, but at least not totally disturbing or uncontrolled. What really broke the momentum and the mood, however, was the awkward gap when the music went dead between the end of Act 2 and the Epilogue. That really threw everyone off.

Still and all, if I weren’t reviewing this performance and because I do love a musical, in the end I’d say I did have a good time!

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Come-All-Ye for the Time of Your Life!

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On its second year run, Come-All-Ye opened to a full house at The Mackenzie Theatre, better known as simply The MackCome-All-Ye brings together a stellar cast of five musicians and one comedian for an evening of live island music and, yes, comedy. The show runs for two full hours, possibly a bit more, since I got home really late and I’m sure I didn’t spend an hour and a half chatting with fellow-reviewer Michelle Pineau or Patrick Ledwell, the show’s sole comedian and co-creator or Acadienne singer Caroline Bernard. If I did, I certainly didn’t notice time fly, and fly it does when you’re having fun! What made the evening more entertaining was that Michelle and I were fortunate enough to be seated at the same table as the legendary veteran music radio host Eric MacEwen (the Director’s Notes misspelled it “MacEwan”) who was featured in videos presented during the show. Come-All-Ye is a multimedia show about PEI and its denizens, told through music, songs and witticisms, backed with photographs, slides and video clips that help the imagination and the mood. Except for the first time John Connolly and Patrick Ledwell used the center mike solo and the pickup was somewhat spotty—more likely because they were too tall for the mike’s position, which was rectified by the next number—the show was technically flawless. I just miss the presence of footlights or at least sidelights that would lessen the shadows on performers’ faces—which is what footlights are for.

Besides the music being an excellent representation of island music, the singers were top-of-the-line professional performers—stars in their own rights who, nonetheless, worked marvellously well together. I completely agree with Director Wade Lynch that there is so much talent on the island and to see it put together so magically is always a treat. Kudos to Music Director and performer John Connolly, who wove together a program of well-chosen songs with the right mix and mood that kept the audience clapping and stomping and singing along alternately with swaying and quietly listening to more introspective numbers.

And then there was Patrick. Most of my encounters with Patrick are of a more serious nature, although he manages to slip in some humour here and there, mostly tongue-in-cheek. The first time I saw him “at work” was when he emceed a mixer for Culture PEI. I thought he was quite the funny man there and his accompanying slides helped to emphasize the humour. This show was the first chance I had to catch him in full glory and all revved up in performance mode, bounding up the stage on his daddy-long-legs and keeping the audience charged and rolling with laughter after every two or three songs in the program. I guess the best thing about being a comedian is that you don’t really have to act and be someone else you really aren’t, and that’s just what Patrick was on stage—completely himself and at home, well, I’d say ninety-eight percent at home on stage—and only because he once in a while tripped over his own tongue or almost said something he didn’t mean to say, or seemed to be trying to recall a thing or two. Still, it was all very natural and very endearing as well as entertaining. Since he was also plugging his new book I Am An Islander, I’ll help him along and say that if the jokes in the book are as funny as the jokes he told in the show, I’m definitely buying that book and hoping he’ll sign it for me someday.

Kidding aside, Patrick Ledwell’s spiels explored various aspects of PEI, from history to geography, Charlottetown, the Acadian influence, the pros and cons of living on PEI, the Confederation Bridge and all the peculiarities of the typical islander, along with the unavoidable gibe at government. But only, in his words, “about what I know.” His penultimate spiel was a recitation of the poem “John of the Island” by his poet father Frank Ledwell, which pretty much summarized what PEI is all about. Without doubt, Come-All-Ye is the best and most entertaining way to learn as much as possible about this gentle island and its islanders. It is music and humour that will be appreciated by everyone, whether you are from here or away, as islanders would say. To quote my new friend Eric MacEwen, “it was a beautifully inventive celebratory show.” And to that, with a little intake of breath, I say “Amen!”

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