Eight Signs Aladdin is a Comedy

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A review of Aladdin: A Fairly Tall Tale

By Cindy Lapeña

There are certain definite signs that a play at the Confederation Centre for the Arts Homburg Theatre is not a going to be a serious play. Let me elaborate. For the majority of performances, the first person you see or hear is Monique Lafontaine announcing the entrance of PEI’s very important members of the audience (VIMA, for those who haven’t met them) and the token reprise of O, Canada!, followed by her announcement of the theatre rules in English then French, before the lights dim and the first characters enter.

The first sign that this is not a serious play: When a story claims to be a “fairly tall tale” it’s a dead giveaway for humour with a capital H. This is all reminiscent of Mark Twain and his classical humorous short stories, better known as his ‘tall tales’. But this is PEI and the farther away from center you go, the taller the tales.

The second sign: When the program announces at the top of the cover that “This Christmas, Aladdin gets an Island twist!” Unless they meant a new kind of McCain’s French fry twists, this can only be interpreted as the somewhat quirky twisty sense of humour you get from being an Islander, or living on the island long enough to be almost indistinguishable from the rest.

The third sign: Highly unusual program content, such as Gordon Cobb on Aladdinthe cover with a silly face; Graham Putnam playing a suspiciously-named character called “Widow Twanky”, never before heard of in the fairy tale world; another suspiciously-named character named “Baron Wasteland” played by Dennis Trainor who sounds just like Bawwy Kwipky (from The Big Bang Theory); a cross-over character, Sarah Macphee as the Town Crier from last year’s Cinderella: A Fairly Tall Tale.

The fourth sign: Adam Brazier wrote the script and Scott Christian, who was the musical director, is working on his fourth panto. For those unfamiliar with this term, the panto is short for ‘pantomime’ but really isn’t one; it’s the 18th century British take of the traditional commedia dell’arte, and instead of the traditional Italian characters, they turned fairy tales into comical musical plays for Christmas. Knowing what kind of play it is pretty much explains it all, which makes this our ‘Ah, I see,” moment. But it doesn’t end there.

The fifth sign: Instead of Monique Lafontaine, as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, Adam Brazier walks onto the stage apron before the play begins and, like a TV show cue-master coaches the audience to “boo” or say “we love you Widow Twanky” at the appearance of certain characters, you know it’s a play made for kids and the young at heart, and it’s not going to be serious. Just how much?

The sixth sign: The evil Jafar with Rejean Cournoyer’s larger-than-life presence and distinctive rich booming bass-baritone voice uses a classic mwah-ha-ha laugh and interacts with the audience.

The seventh sign: The explosive and rib-cracking opening number is all about Vic Row in Downtown Charlottetown and Aladdin played by the boyishly charming Gabriel Antonacci is actually a Cinderella-boy.

The eighth sign: People can’t stop laughing when Graham Putnam is revealed as the hilarious Widow Twanky who has at least 3 jokes for every nugget of well-concealed wisdom. The Widow Twanky is also our source of adult humour, which, hopefully, none of the little kids in the audience understood.

I am going to stop at eight signs because if I keep on, then there would be too many spoilers to this insanely inane comedy that had me laughing so hard tears actually came to my eyes. Unfortunately, another spoiler alert I can’t help revealing is that the music is original, funny, and on the verge of copyright infringement—but if you listen to the dialogue and lyrics closely enough, they already know that.

There was really just one major spoiler to this panto and that was the problem with the mikes. I know miking for a huge cast in a musical play is difficult, to say the least, but the mikes were often out when they should have been on and it was very distracting for the voices to suddenly blare on mid-sentence or mid-word. Thank goodness, the audience was laughing most of the time they would have drowned out the dialogue anyway. Really. I miss those days when actors did not have to depend on microphones to be heard and that you really had to learn how to project your voice without losing it after the first show.

That said, everyone needs to catch this performance before it’s over, because it will certainly bring you cheer and laughter for the Christmas season.

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Anne & Gilbert: Island Through and Through

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“You’re never safe from surprises till you’re dead” is what Rachel Lynde always reminds Marilla. It’s perfect advice for the first-timer to a performance of Anne & Gilbert The Musical, running at The Guild until October.

As I do every time, I entered The Guild with no expectations and a lot of questions in my head, all wondering how this play would connect with my experiences watching Anne of Green Gables The Musical. I have been to The Guild several times and from the moment I learned that Anne & Gilbert would be staged there, I was thinking that the small stage and narrow hall would constrict the performers and box in the performance too much. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the black box had been completely transformed. The whole orientation was shifted 90 degrees so that the performance space included the whole length of the theatre, as did the audience space, which was transformed by several risers providing every row of the audience with perfect sight lines. Already, I was pleased.

Soon enough, the play began with the lively opening number of Avonlea schoolgirls in a passionate rendition of “Mr. Blythe” led by Brieonna Locche as Josie Pye. This song establishes the fact that Gilbert Blythe is the most sought after bachelor in town and Josie is out to make sure he becomes hers despite his known love for Anne. Margot Sampson’s portrayal of Rachel Lynde is livelier, wackier, and more endearing than the same character in Anne of Green Gables The Musical, albeit somewhat sedate in her first number “Gilbert Loves Anne of Green Gables.” Carroll Godsman’s Marilla Cuthbert still bustles around but her role as Anne’s adoptive mother has become stronger and more assertive. Ironically, it is through a letter to Anne at College that she reveals a depth of love for a former beau, which begins Anne’s journey to accepting her feelings of love. PEI’s most beloved character Anne Shirley, portrayed beautifully by Ellen Denny, is only slightly more restrained as a young adult, but still passionate and dramatic. Ellen Denny’s sweet, clear soprano voice reveals itself little by little and is at its best in her solos, my favourite being “Someone Handed Me the Moon.” Her best friend, Diana Barry, is played wonderfully by Brittany Banks, and shares Anne’s trepidation for married life. Unlike Anne, however, Diana is more excited, as she already has a beau and eagerly plunges ahead into marriage, while Anne continues holding Gilbert at bay, denying that she has any feelings for him. Patrick Cook is the perfect Gilbert, somewhat cocky, but utterly devoted to Anne, and certainly the best-looking guy in town. With his voice and looks, he most certainly will find not only all of Avonlea’s schoolgirls, but all of Charlottetown’s, hankering after him.

In the same way she instantly befriends kindred spirits, Anne befriends the wealthy Philippa Gordon, played by Morgan Wagner, whose bubbly but ever-pragmatic personality dominates the stage so that the fiery red-head seems quite sedate by comparison.

The projected backdrops were amazing, the proximity to the audience making one feel part of the scene, especially at the end of Act I. The sets were completely manageable and the execution of scene changes was disciplined and efficient. The costumes were reminiscent of the times. The music original, varied, and covering every range of emotions felt by the characters. The lighting was spot-on although I wonder if the space restricted back lighting and side lighting so that larger-than-life shadows were thrown about on the floor and backdrop, sometimes in more than one direction. Because the stage was much wider than it was deep, certain scenes had characters at opposite ends beyond peripheral vision, which limited the view for the rows nearest the stage. Having to turn your head to one side then glance quickly to the other just to see if something significant was happening there was a bit of a stretch. The best thing, however, was the absence of mikes. Hearing natural stage voices is something I really miss, because so many productions take advantage of wireless mikes, which can be a problem with a big cast and a lot of movement. Overall, though, the technical aspects of the production enhanced every minute of the performance and helped to draw the audience deeper into the atmosphere of Anne & Gilbert’s Avonlea.

Indeed, the surprises were plentiful in this play and, I am happy to say, they were wonderful surprises! The thrill of courtship, the warmth of a close-knit community, and the cheer brought on by song and dance were conveyed over and over again throughout the play. Brittany Banks’s lively and masterful choreography enhanced every mood and the Young Company players and cast executed it precisely and enthusiastically.

Patrick O’Bryan, a gentleman from Chicago sitting a seat away from me at the performance aptly summarizes what everyone in the audience must have been thinking by the end of the first act: “I am very impressed with the professionalism. The dancing, the singing, the music—all excellent!” To add to that, I say Broadway move aside, Charlottetown is here!

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Get Thee to Nunsense Funsense!

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This being my first visit to Summerside’s Harbourfront Theatre, I must admit that I like the theatre very much. The seats are comfortable with good sightlines because even from the very edge of a row near the front, I had a clear view of the stage. The wings were well-masked and the sets were well-built with excellent and sufficient detail. I just wondered about the sort of vow of poverty the Little Sisters of Hoboken that they could have such a glamorous bed and frilly window dressing, not to mention the huge plush toy and plush bedroom slippers and robe owned by novice Sister Mary Leo. That is my one little quibble for the night, besides the couple of times a costume piece latched onto a mike. Everything else makes me want to just see the play again.

The musical accompaniment was provided by the Musical Director Leo Marchison a.k.a. Brother Leo, complete in clerical black with a signature white clerical collar on an electronic keyboard, which went well with the Little Sisters of Hoboken Benefit Show setting. Brother Leo certainly provided a rousing overture that set the audience in the mood for what promised to be interesting, to say the least.

I knew from a couple of times the play had been performed back in Manila that it was a riot, and all the more fun because the play poked a whole lot of fun at Roman Catholics and made several references to common RC practices. Dan Goggin’s script, on its own, is extremely funny especially if you are Catholic. Even if you aren’t, there is just so much witty repartee and banter, not to mention the completely hilarious if not absurd situation of a group of nuns who have to raise funds to bury four deceased congregation members who have been temporarily housed in the convent freezer until the nuns have enough money for the burials. What is new is the incorporation of a multimedia presentation with the nuns watching themselves in a silent-movie video “Nun on the Run.” This mini-feature is a unique, creative and certainly shameless but hilarious way to promote the city Summerside. A couple of localized jokes were especially funny and I thought the recipe for Stuffed Turkey Steven Harper very clever and pretty apt. The cast also interacted with the audience, making the play’s audience the audience of the play’s Benefit Show. Audience participation was rewarded as well, which added to the novelty of theatre.

Not unexpectedly, the five nuns who are selected to participate in the show all have the human frailty of wanting to be a star, having come from backgrounds where they had a taste of the spotlights. The nuns are led by the energetic Sister Mary Regina, played by Robin Craig, who does her best to be a role model, mother and mediator among the sisters. Regina has a performing background, having been one of a family of tightrope artists and who, through a fluke of fate, has to fulfill a promise to dedicate herself to religious life. From the start, Regina/Robin has the audience in stitches. She was at her most hilarious in the scene where she investigates a sniffing bottle and gets high, but her best number, by far, is when she gets into full throttle in the throaty jazzy Turn Up the Spotlight. The growling gets better when she sings in harmony with her No. 2, the Novice Mistress Sister Mary Hubert, played by Marlene Handrahan. Marlene shows off her tap-dancing skill as well as her powerful voice in a couple of numbers, and delivers the grand finale with a parody of a roof-raising singing Baptist preacher.

Brieonna Locche as Sister Robert Anne has the Brooklyn accent and swagger to go with her streetwise ways as she constantly tries to get into the limelight and finally does it with a smashingly hilarioius number. I remember a nun I used to know who also played with her veil but never in as many creative ways as Robert! Sister Mary Leo was the novice who hadn’t quite learned to suppress her desire to be a star or to be famous, but remains an expressive dancer, using ballet to express herself, including in prayer. Natalia Gracious is a skilled ballet dancer who, with her beautiful clear voice fits the role of Mary Leo perfectly. Her solo, “The Dying Nun Ballet” is a hilarious parody of “The Dying Swan.”

A great deal of the story hinges on Sister Mary Amnesia’s inability to remember who she was before she lost her memory from being knocked on the head by a crucifix. Natalia Sullivan, with her amazing soprano, plays Amnesia with a sweetness and innocence befitting a mindless nun who, nonetheless, is a great ventriloquist as well!

The music was wonderful, the singing was almost sublime—and I use almost because sublime is not exactly the word to use with the throaty belting and growling in the jazzy numbers—certainly accomplished, the acting was superb, the story absurd and the script hilarious. What more can you want of a comedy?

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