Anne with an E and a Flourish

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A review of Anne of Green Gables: The Musical opening night performance, June 30, 2016, at the Homburg Theatre, Confederation Centre of the Arts, Charlottetown

By Cindy Lapeña

It’s Anne with an E who’d rather be called Cordelia, if she could. Yes, Anne Shirley and the longest running signature PEI musical Anne of Green Gables: The Musical is back for the summer with a brand-new cast, brand new choreography, spruced-up sets, and brand new visual effects. Even the music has been spiced up and sounded brighter, livelier, with jazzy innuendos best revealed in the new teacher Ms. Stacey’s (Josée Boudreau) inspiring rendition of “Open the Window”. Certainly, the addition of technology—from can-phones to the newfangled wall-mounted telephone brightened up the gossip song “Did You Hear?” The use of a few more hand props enhanced the dance numbers as well.

What is not to like about the musical? This year’s musical arrangement directed by Bob Foster has the play sounding and feeling more Broadway-ish, matched by accomplished choreography by Robin Calvert. Even the ensemble seemed more exuberant and the cast displayed high levels of energy that poured out in everything they did on stage, from twirling umbrellas to cartwheels, hurdles, skipping rope, and step-dancing. The ensemble playing students were nimble, highly skilled, and just bubbling with smiles, projecting their energy throughout the Homburg Theatre.  Maybe it’s also because I was sitting so much closer to the stage than usual, but there’s no denying all that energy spilling off the stage and into the audience, not to mention pacing at a clip that made the scenes fly by and seem over too soon.

I remember a few years ago, I happily reported the updates made to the production with the addition of video backdrops and improvement of sets. I’m happy to report another update to the sets—my favourite being the intricate scroll-work design on the second floor of Green Gables and the opening scrim with a projected book and Marlane O’Brien’s grand entrance as Mrs. Lynde. (I’m not saying what she does with the book, but it’s really cool and you have to see it for yourself!) I’d become used to seeing Marlane as Marilla, seeing her play Mrs. Lynde is completely refreshing. Hank Stinson seemed just perfect for the role of a more playful, boyish but fragile Matthew Cuthbert. I must say I really liked Katie Kerr as Diana Barry, much more than I like her as Sophie in Mamma Mia! Her voice and tipsy giggly girlishness seem made just for the character of Diana Barry. This year’s gems are first-timer homegrown talents Aaron Hastelow as Gilbert Blythe and Jessica Gallant as Anne Shirley. Hands down, she is the best Anne I have seen, since I saw it for the very first time in 2007.  Kudos to director Wade Lynch for imbuing a new vitality into this 52-year-old musical and topping an already gargantuan reputation; artistic director Adam Brazier for breathing new life into the Centre and leading it in new, exciting directions; and the entire cast and crew for this exceptional production.

You all know I don’t normally rave about a performance, but I am raving over this one. Besides the performance itself, I must mention the inclusion of a song-and-cast list, something I have mentioned several times in the past and something I have wanted to see in the program. I hope it’s a practice the Centre will continue because I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to know the song titles and who perform them. It adds to the memorability of the music. There was just one little thing I was disappointed with. Lines of sight were not checked when the school concert scene was blocked. Because I had the misfortune of being in a seat in the far right section of the audience, the whole “Fathers of the Confederation” tableau was cut from view. I know for certain I’m not the only one who had to invoke an imagination akin to Anne’s to picture that tableau and I do hope they move that scene closer to centre right so every member of the audience can appreciate the full scene. With that exception, everything about the show, from the deliciously topped cupcakes with Anne’s picture on lollipop sticks to set the audience in a good mood before the show to the sober but tender reprises of “The Words” (Marilla) and “Wond’rin’” (Anne and Gilbert), has set the perfect tone for the long Canada Day weekend as well as the rest of the summer!

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*This review can also be seen on ONRPEI.ca

 

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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.

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

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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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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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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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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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.

 

 

365 Things to Look Forward to: Number 5 – Watching a Play

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5. Watching a Play.

I am substituting for a Grade 5 teacher today, the 9th of June 2011, and the Vice Principal gave me a really pleasant surprise as she walked me to my classroom. The 5th and 6th graders had put up a production of Hairspray and were doing a dress rehearsal/special performance for the first half of the morning, with 2nd graders as an audience.

I have always loved theatre–thanks to the exposure I got from my mother–but also because it must be in my genes. My maternal grandfather was a thespian, as is one of my paternal aunts. I also have a special place for musicals in my heart and imagine I could have done that, if my mother, in her contrary way, would have let me become a thespian. She actually considered the profession immoral in a very old-fashioned way.

Theatre, to me as a child, was a magical world that took me away from what would otherwise have been the very drab, introverted world of a nerdy bespectacled bookworm. It not only transported me into the world of my books, it came alive for me so that I didn’t need to stage elaborate and full productions of books in my head.

Whenever possible, my mother would obtain tickets to a play so we could watch it–and while not very frequent, it happened enough times that I remember. The most affordable plays were done by a local repertory company with plays staged in Filipino. I know I learned how to speak and understand Filipino better because of those plays. Plays done by the leading English repertory theatre company were a little too costly, so we got to watch these only once in a rare while. So it was a glorious treat when I became related to that company by virtue of marriage. I was able to watch every play I wanted to as often as I wanted to, and so rarely ever missed one. Then, I worked with this company, as well as another theatre company based in the Cultural Centre of the Philippines, so I had the time of my life!

With every play I watched, I drank in every scene, every song, every detail. I couldn’t get enough of just  watching plays as a child, so I started looking for plays to read. By the time I was done reading every single children’s book in the collections we grew up with, I needed more to satisfy my craving and discovered my dad’s Classics Club collection–and encountered my first complete collection of the works of William Shakespeare!

I never just read plays. In my mind, I became a director, designer, and actress. I could see the play running through my mind, complete with sets, lights, costumes and sound effects, with characters speaking as if they were standing right before me. My secret desire was to be a famous thespian–it didn’t matter if I wasn’t the star, as I was painfully self-conscious as a child. I could be the director, the designer, even the playwright. Anything, as long as I was part of the play. And if I couldn’t be part of it, well then, the next best thing was to watch it!

And so, as I watch a grade school production of Hairspray I am drawn back to the world of my dreams. I only wish live theatre as entertainment were much more affordable. But you can bet that when I get that full-time job that provides me with enough income for all the basics and more to spare, and enough downtime so my evenings and weekends don’t have to be spent working, I will be at the theatre, sitting somewhere in the middle or near the back where I can get a good look at the whole stage and be transported into an alternate reality!