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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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

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.