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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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.