Evangeline Revisited

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A Review by Cindy Lapeña

When Evangeline premiered in 2013, a new world-class musical was born and PEI stage was THE place to be. It’s 2015 and the Charlottetown Festival has brought back Evangeline with a few changes, and I must admit that I quite liked what I saw.

Except for two major actors whose roles have been reprised and a couple of members of the ensemble, this year’s cast of Evangeline is totally new. Whereas, Josée Boudreau played understudy in 2013, she carried the role of Evangeline Bellefontaine marvelously with her powerful soprano and forceful character. Jay Davis, whom I first saw in Bittergirl, played an admirable Gabriel Lajeunesse opposite Boudreau’s Evangeline. His wonderful voice, at times gritty but always very masculine and powerful, dominated the ensemble. I’m hoping it was a matter of balancing the wireless microphones, but he literally drowned out Boudreau in at least one of their duets. At times, it felt as though the songs were not really composed for him. All the Broadway-style belting is overpowering, and I would have appreciated a great deal more sensitivity, texture, control, and subtlety in the interpretation of some of the songs besides full-volume delivery. Réjean Cournoyer as the invented character, Captain Hampson played the perfect villain as he did the first time around, just as Laurie Murdoch as Colonel Winslow revealed the conscience behind the whole idea of the Expulsion of Acadiens, reprising the role that humanized a reprehensible historical event.

The backdrops made use of video technology, as they did in the premier showing, but rather than using the bright paintings of Claude Picard, a generally darker atmosphere pervaded the new sets designed by Cory Sincennes. I loved most the water scenes, with the actual waves moving in the projected backdrop, which added to the feeling of realism. The images projected on the backdrop were more carefully chosen so that they blended much better with the scenes. There was greater use of the revolving stage, which enhanced the movement across space and time, and eliminated the more realistic sets used in the premier. The basic set of rough-hewn lumber beams crisscrossed over the movable wings, was repeated in the stylized boardwalk that became decks, ladders, shelters, ships and boats. I would have liked to see that same feeling of roughness and simplicity in the crucifix used in the final scene. I’m glad water scenes were kept, because those were some of my favourites, especially with Gabriel and Evangeline rowing through the swamps, although Boudreau’s boat was not moving too smoothly, which occasionally jarred the illusion. It was a tad distracting, as well, to see movement under the sets when characters who were not part of the scene remained partly hidden, something that can so easily be solved by perfect stillness to maintain the illusion that they are not even there. Another tiny technical issue: the notice of Expulsion was tacked to a beam, but thumbtacks were not invented until 1903. I would have expected the soldier who posted the notice to use a nail and hammer. I would also think that he would have done this less surreptitiously as it symbolized the beginning of the tragedy that was the Expulsion.

I did not care very much for more than one ensemble dance number to end with the same parallel arms raised uniformly stiff above their heads; I felt that was somewhat awkward and neither very aesthetically nor symbolically significant. I seem to remember a little more dancing in the premier as well.

There were moments in the gala performance when I felt that the cast had not completely gelled together, and that some of the actors were still feeling their roles and not quite their characters. As well, I missed the completely smooth transition from one scene to another throughout that I have come to expect from the Centre’s performances.

That said, I would watch Evangeline again and again and again, because, as a theatre person, I know that no two performances will be exactly the same, and the gala performance was but one show. It is still, and always will be, a powerful story with beautiful music and lyrics. This new version of Evangeline has so much going for it and I am sure that, when everything falls into place, the brilliance of writer and composer Ted Dykstra and the vision of director Bob Baker will shine through.

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This review is also available on onrpei.ca

The premier performance of Evangeline was also reviewed by this writer. Read the review here.

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The Silliness in the Looking-Glass: A Review of Alice Through the Looking-Glass

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The Silliness in the Looking-Glass: A REVIEW*

By Cindy Lapeña

I have great memories of Lewis Carroll’s pair of books: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which I first read as a very young child in a single-volume Children’s Classics Edition. Back then, I didn’t know what to make of the jabberwocky or brillig and no dictionary search could help me, yet the poems did make sense in my child’s mind. Watching James Reaney’s stage adaption of Through the Looking-Glass as interpreted by directors Jullian Keiley and Christine Brubaker for the Confederation Centre of the Arts’s 2015 Charlottetown Festival brought back wonderful memories of my childhood reading and the zany characters that populated the pages of Carroll’s timeless stories. Kudos to set and costume designer Bretta Gerecke for the amazing and innovative sets. I thought that it was extremely clever to show the scene changes by having the cast wheel them about with bicycles. The stylized and whimsical designs for the sets felt like something out of a cross between Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl, and Tim Burton—straight out of a child’s imagination.

Admittedly, there was a lot of cheesiness and tongue-in-cheek acting, but it enhanced the story so much so that, instead of the existing film interpretations, which feel like literal and somewhat serious interpretations of the book, the stage production created humour and evoked hysterical laughter from the audience at almost every turn. It was so entertaining with so many surprises dropping down or popping out at the audience that one could not help but be completely engaged with the performance. The use of human Zorb bubble balls was another huge surprise and I could only think of how much fun it would be. There was a great deal of complicated and complex choreography by Dayna Tekatch, interpreted by the Confederation Centre’s resident choreographer Kerry Gage and executed perfectly by the cast.

Speaking of which, the casting was brilliant, and way the chorus was dressed and acted was largely responsible for chortles that broke out from different parts of the audience each time they appeared. I had always read Carroll’s two books as somewhat serious adventures where the well-mannered Victorian Alice just could not understand why everything had to be so illogical and so silly, but this interpretation has given me a totally different and fun perspective on the story. It has made me see this from a child’s point of view, which could be just what the author intended in the first place. That the looking-glass world was also funny was evident throughout and magnified by the silliness of the acting.

I have to admit that I was taken aback by Natasha Greenblatt’s powerful and lower-register voice, which is the opposite of the almost shrill falsetto childishness of the Alices of film, but once you get over the it in the first scene, it grows on you and becomes a warm, conversational tone that does not jar the eardrums. The Red and White Queens, Charlotte Moore and Eliza-Jane Scott were spectacles on their own. Qasim Khan as the White Knight was a walking—or rather, rollicking, bouncing—comedy and the knight’s horses were a riot. While Hank Stinson as the Red King uttered nothing more than snores, his sleeping presence commanded enough attention to keep the audience in stitches. The White King, Rejean Cournoyer, on the other hand, stole his laughter as he executed his single-square moves in his scene.

As town councilor Greg Rivard said, it was a bit slow starting but was thoroughly enjoyable and interactive by the second act, so that his kids enjoyed it very much. That children will enjoy it is undoubtable, as one little child yelled out answers to Alice’s questions, adding to the entertainment value. Unless you are an avid reader, I would not suggest reading the books, though, as the turn-of-the-century language lacks the vibrancy, humour, surprises, and pacing that the play brings. The 2 ½ hours it took from beginning to end didn’t seem like 2 ½ hours at all, except, maybe, before Alice stepped through the looking-glass.

I could go on and on about each cast member’s performances and the clever costumes and props, but that would be giving too much away. Suffice it to say, there were surprises in every scene and you just have to see it for yourself. I do not know if the original performance of this play was meant to be interpreted this way, but I couldn’t care less because this version is what I want to remember from now on.

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 *Also available on www.onrpei.ca

They Rock! Canada Rocks! The Hits Musical Revue: A Review

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 2014-06-20 03.21.48

by Cindy Lapeña

It might have been a preview night, but the Company of Canada Rocks! The Hits Musical Revue 2014 show delivered a performance that rocked the rafters of the newly-reopened Homburg Theatre in the Confederation Centre of the Arts. A 26-member cast, 14-member orchestra, and 4-man rock band regaled a full house with 74 songs spanning several decades of Canadian hits from the 60s all the way to Paper Lions, PEI’s rock band-winner of the 2014 Independent Music Award for Best EP – Pop (Pop/Adult Contemporary;See more at: http://awardsandwinners.com/ceremonies/12th-independent-music-awards/#sthash.Tvoi3GMH.dpuf).

Musical Director and Arranger Craig Fair led the orchestra and band in an almost non-stop score with only the intermission as a break, showing off not only great musical panache but the excellent new sound system as well. Renée Brode’s lighting design, sometimes intense and emotional, most of the time playful and spectacular, likewise exploited the extensive capabilities of the new lighting system—something I would want to play with myself. I only wish that the two spotlights set in the back of the stage were not so blinding when they were bare—a result of their being set so high on the raised stage they were pointing directly at the audience at the start. The production design by Charlotte Dean was enhanced by 23 screens, on which video images were projected—sometimes to create a single gigantic image, sometimes displaying 23 different images that were entertaining on their own; kudos to projection designer James Nesbitt.

The show was directed and choreographed by none other than long-time Charlottetown Festival Artistic Director Anne Allan, who, along with Doug Gallant, Terry Hatty, Wade Lynch, and Hank Stinson, wrote and conceived the whole musical revue, which took the audience on an East-bound journey from BC to PEI. Overheard from the audience was a desire to see a more consistent story line, with the train-trip theme more evident. That might have made the performance more theatrical than revue-ish, but it could not matter less to me. In fact, I had to look away from certain video footage because they induced a touch of motion sickness. Nonetheless, the projections enhanced the story of Canada’s music industry, creating a more synaesthetic and memorable experience in a way that the songs and narration alone cannot.

While I enjoy a wide variety of musical genres and avoid really loud music and wild concerts, I have to say that the loudness of the sound system was within tolerable levels and not deafening—something I really appreciated. Much more than that, however, is the way Canada Rocks! The Hits Musical Revue is my first real lesson in Canadian music. Not having been born here, I was quite unaware of the who’s who of Canadian music, thinking all the music I heard growing up on the late Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 was American—such was our exposure to the Western world. I was pleasantly surprised to discover, in the few years I have lived on this Island but mostly through this Musical Revue, that so many songs I was familiar with and learned to love are actually Canadian; and so many musicians I liked—both singers and songwriters alike—are Canadian. This knowledge made the show not only enjoyable and educational—it made the show more personal: Canada Rocks! made me feel that I have truly come home.

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Banquet: Art as Music and Dance

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by Cindy Lapeña

Banquet may be the most fleeting of art installations, lasting all of 30 minutes, but delivering an impact achievable only by that delicate balance between music and dance. It is the first extended composition choreographed by PEI’s Mark Sampson, who made us proud in 2013 when he made the cut and was accepted to the prestigious Juilliard School of Dance in New York.

He collaborated with island violinist Christine Bouey, who graduated from the Manhattan School of Music in 2013 to produce a unique art installation interpreting the birth of the Confederation in music and dance, to commemorate 150 years since the 1864 Charlottetown Conference.

Bringing together three of his American Juilliard peers, Daniel Ching, Zoe MacNeil, and Cleo Person, the young and very talented Mark Sampson forged an expressive work executed with mastery that won the admiration of their gala audience, a fitting way to start the Charlottetown Festival sesquicentennial celebration.

Amid a stark set of four chairs and four tables in the centre of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery’s third floor gallery, the piece wove dancers and musician in a web depicting the interactions and conflicts among confederation delegates as they experienced feelings of alienation, homesickness and loss before finally achieving harmony that led to building a community in agreement. The whole piece made effective use of the intimate space corralled by limited seats. The proximity of the performers to the audience treated spectators to a stark view of the raw power and control exercised by the artists. All together, the space, sets, music, and movements brought to light a facet of confederation that has not been explored in other performances.

Bouey‘s music is as passionate and powerful as Sampson‘s choreography, and equally groundbreaking. She matches the energy of the dancers with her dexterity and mastery. Her composition conveys as much range of emotion as that depicted by the dancers so that one cannot imagine the dance without the music. That is how intricately and ingenuously the two arts are woven together; the audience is constantly reminded of this as musician and dancers rotate around the four corners of the performance space and, at other times, weave among themselves and the sets. In fact, Bouey‘s blocking throughout the performance is as intrinsic to the performance as the sets are; this juxtaposition is intensified in the end, emphasizing the attainment of unity.

These young artists represent the future of dance and music and bring with them enthusiasm, talent, and passion for their craft. It is they who will keep art and culture alive and thriving, along with the support of organizations that make such creativity possible. Thanks to PEI Energy Systems, PEI audiences will be able to enjoy this truly innovative artistic experience.

Banquet runs at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery until June 26, 2014 with show time at 7:30 p.m.

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The Recipe for Soup’Art: A Review

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The Recipe for Soup’Art

by Cindy Lapeña

What do you get when you serve nine different kinds of soup and a variety of visual art pieces at The Mack? You get Soup’Art!

No, it’s not a joke. The Societe Saint-Thomas-D’Aquin and Confederation Centre of the Arts were completely serious when they sent out invitations to a novel art exhibit where, instead of picking at trays of traditional cocktail fare, viewers were presented with nine varieties of soup, from the traditional vegetable soup to the exotic Kenyan soup and the innovative sweet potato and coconut milk soup. It was an adventure and in itself, with the soup ladled into coffee cups that were just the right size to get a good taste of the soup without being filled so that you had no room to try the other varieties. It was soup sampling extraordinaire created by innovative and skilled soup artists.

That was not the only part of this twin-event. Along with the soup buffet was an exhibit of works by francophone artists. On display were works by Norah Pendergast, Faysal Boukari, Noella Richard, and Alma MacDougall, including paintings, photographs, graphic art, and animation. Also part of the exhibit was a traditional animal-hide shirt by self-taught Mi’kmaq artist Alma MacDougall, whose vibrant photographs of Mi’kmaq dancing in their brilliantly coloured ceremonial costumes were captivating. She photographed dancers’ heads so that they resembled colourful birds with extravagant plumage. Similarly, she captured costumed dancers in motion so that they resembled birds in some sort of ritual dance, flaunting their feathers as they twirled around.

Throughout the whole event, short films created by Faysal Boukari with students from L’École François-Buote under the ArtSmarts Program were projected onstage. Faysal is a Parisian graphic and animation artist who has chosen to stay in PEI.
He brings with him a unique and contemporary style with a certain whimsy that contributes to the mélange of artistic styles in PEI. When not working with film, Faysal’s preferred medium seems to be pen and ink.

Norah Pendergast displayed a few works that reflected island life. A French teacher in rural PEI, she is also a writer. Her paintings are reminiscent of illustrations for storybooks, likely a reflection of her background as a school teacher. Her use of primary colours in focal images in her painting draw the eye to them immediately. Her human figures are disproportionate, with the legs elongated and the heads and torsos much smaller in relation to the legs, a lengthening of proportions that is similar to Modigliani’s methods.

Noella Richard’s portrait of a man called the most attention to it, with the man’s face spilling out of the canvas, pursing his lips over likely toothless gums. Unlike her smooth portraiture were paintings of a squeeze-box and a keyboard that were done in similar style with strong red tones, rough textures, and the paint applied with a palette knife.

The variety in the artists’ styles was a great complement to the variety of soups and viewers left sated, both aesthetically and gastronomically.

2014-03-20 18.57.17

Soup’Art visual artists and soup artists

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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.