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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Community Theatre: A Festival of Surprises

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Charlottetown joined the rest of the world to celebrate World Theatre Day with, naturally, a theatre festival with not one, not two, but five plays! What more could a theatre lover ask for? Well, good entertaining theatre, certainly; and with five plays in the offing, there had to be at least one good one.

The first half of the program had child-friendly plays, which explained a good number of families in the audience. Englewood Drama Club opened with the charming and witty A Tale of Two Towns created and directed by Peter Bevan-Baker. It was clearly a take from Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story and all the other feuding family tales you can think of, except that this was set in East and West Loyalty between the MacDonalds and the McDonalds, or the Mic-Mac feud for short. Two songs were cleverly written to the tunes of the Spiderman theme and Old MacDonald. Unlike the classic tragic endings, however, this play had a happy ending, with the two clans finally becoming friends as a result of wily plotting by the kids, who didn’t see the sense of the enmity. Thankfully, the well-written script made up for the narrator who hardly ever looked up from her script, and for the kids, several of who still had their scripts with them. That made it seem more like a school play than a festival play. Plus, a lot of lackluster acting from half of the huge cast, saved again, by their witty lines. I did think that the wall created between the two towns was amazing and original—built by the cast themselves out of graffiti-painted large grocery boxes.

Ah, well. At least I knew the second play would be better, as it wasn’t the first time I had seen the Rag Tag Players’ Where the Wild Things Are. The story was as charming as ever, the acting more pronounced, despite the cast being much younger than the first group and different as well, from the original cast. There were a couple of little heads that would scan the audience now and then, presumably looking for familiar faces in the audience. The costumes were great, the masks spectacular, the sets creative, the children adorable. The band seemed a little out of its element and could have played on to segue between scenes, as the scene changes seemed to take a tad bit too long. All that aside, it’s a story that will always be entertaining.

The third and final young people’s theatre was The French Fiasco written and directed by 11-year-old Danielle Proulx and performed by the Bonshaw Young Players. The script was amazing with humour and wit and lots of movement. The acting and direction, considering this was done by an 11-year-old, was pretty well accomplished. Pick-ups could have been a little tighter and if only the French aunt who was the cause of the fiasco in the first place spoke more clearly and loudly and was more aware of the audience, the play would have been much better. I have to mention that the narrator had excellent delivery and was, in herself, quite captivating.

As a whole, the first three plays were definitely entertaining, but I say it’s never too late to teach young people stage discipline and the basics of good acting. That way, they will learn good habits from the onset rather than practice bad ones.

Three good scripts out of three, with two out of three for decent acting wasn’t a bad score for the afternoon. It could only get better, considering the plays after the intermission were for more mature audiences. Thankfully, many of the earlier audience, the children from the plays included, never returned after the break—clearly they were only there for the first half.

The almost nameless group, The Temporary Players from UPEI performed The Philosopher, a play by Dr. Malcolm Murray, directed by Yuling Chen. It had the most curious situation of an old man who kept a philosopher in chains in his basement, feeding him on soup and water, and bringing him up to talk with him about, well, things philosophical. To be invited to meet the philosopher was, apparently, a great honour, at this moment endowed on the unassuming Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the latter seeming quite lost most of the time, almost as if she wasn’t sure what she was doing on stage. Nonetheless, the script was very tightly written, very sardonic at times, but also very funny. The acting was well done with the characters interacting really well, the stage directions almost like a dance.

Sure Thing by David Ives, directed by Jonah Anderson and staged by ACT (a community theatre) was a rip-roaring way to end the day! With only two characters on stage the whole time, the whole script was an exploration of alternatives to just about everything, with the two characters constantly returning to an earlier point in the dialogue and acting out the different ways the dialogue might go with different personalities, progressing bit by bit as they went through the whole boy-meets-girl-and-they-decide-to-date process. The repartee was just amazing and the two actors were superb, picking up lines and characters like they were plucking dandelions in a field.

Four out of five and what an afternoon feast! The big plus was the presence of Wade Lynch as adjudicator, who was generous with his praise as well as really good advice, especially to the young actors. Rob Thomson of ACT was a wonderful Master of Ceremonies, ebullient, engaging, entertaining. A couple of last words, though, about the audience. While teaching young children how to appreciate theatre through exposure, part of teaching them is teaching them how to behave in a theatre, and if they can’t or won’t behave, they should be taken out so that others in the audience will not be disturbed. And a cellphone going off is totally inconsiderate and in bad taste, especially since the audience was already requested to turn off their electronic devices at the beginning of the festival.

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Come-All-Ye for the Time of Your Life!

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On its second year run, Come-All-Ye opened to a full house at The Mackenzie Theatre, better known as simply The MackCome-All-Ye brings together a stellar cast of five musicians and one comedian for an evening of live island music and, yes, comedy. The show runs for two full hours, possibly a bit more, since I got home really late and I’m sure I didn’t spend an hour and a half chatting with fellow-reviewer Michelle Pineau or Patrick Ledwell, the show’s sole comedian and co-creator or Acadienne singer Caroline Bernard. If I did, I certainly didn’t notice time fly, and fly it does when you’re having fun! What made the evening more entertaining was that Michelle and I were fortunate enough to be seated at the same table as the legendary veteran music radio host Eric MacEwen (the Director’s Notes misspelled it “MacEwan”) who was featured in videos presented during the show. Come-All-Ye is a multimedia show about PEI and its denizens, told through music, songs and witticisms, backed with photographs, slides and video clips that help the imagination and the mood. Except for the first time John Connolly and Patrick Ledwell used the center mike solo and the pickup was somewhat spotty—more likely because they were too tall for the mike’s position, which was rectified by the next number—the show was technically flawless. I just miss the presence of footlights or at least sidelights that would lessen the shadows on performers’ faces—which is what footlights are for.

Besides the music being an excellent representation of island music, the singers were top-of-the-line professional performers—stars in their own rights who, nonetheless, worked marvellously well together. I completely agree with Director Wade Lynch that there is so much talent on the island and to see it put together so magically is always a treat. Kudos to Music Director and performer John Connolly, who wove together a program of well-chosen songs with the right mix and mood that kept the audience clapping and stomping and singing along alternately with swaying and quietly listening to more introspective numbers.

And then there was Patrick. Most of my encounters with Patrick are of a more serious nature, although he manages to slip in some humour here and there, mostly tongue-in-cheek. The first time I saw him “at work” was when he emceed a mixer for Culture PEI. I thought he was quite the funny man there and his accompanying slides helped to emphasize the humour. This show was the first chance I had to catch him in full glory and all revved up in performance mode, bounding up the stage on his daddy-long-legs and keeping the audience charged and rolling with laughter after every two or three songs in the program. I guess the best thing about being a comedian is that you don’t really have to act and be someone else you really aren’t, and that’s just what Patrick was on stage—completely himself and at home, well, I’d say ninety-eight percent at home on stage—and only because he once in a while tripped over his own tongue or almost said something he didn’t mean to say, or seemed to be trying to recall a thing or two. Still, it was all very natural and very endearing as well as entertaining. Since he was also plugging his new book I Am An Islander, I’ll help him along and say that if the jokes in the book are as funny as the jokes he told in the show, I’m definitely buying that book and hoping he’ll sign it for me someday.

Kidding aside, Patrick Ledwell’s spiels explored various aspects of PEI, from history to geography, Charlottetown, the Acadian influence, the pros and cons of living on PEI, the Confederation Bridge and all the peculiarities of the typical islander, along with the unavoidable gibe at government. But only, in his words, “about what I know.” His penultimate spiel was a recitation of the poem “John of the Island” by his poet father Frank Ledwell, which pretty much summarized what PEI is all about. Without doubt, Come-All-Ye is the best and most entertaining way to learn as much as possible about this gentle island and its islanders. It is music and humour that will be appreciated by everyone, whether you are from here or away, as islanders would say. To quote my new friend Eric MacEwen, “it was a beautifully inventive celebratory show.” And to that, with a little intake of breath, I say “Amen!”

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A Portable Shakespeare: Vagabond Productions’ The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

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The doors to Room 303 of the Murphy Community Centre opened promptly at 7:00 p.m. with tickets priced at $4.00 for adults and $2.00 for children, which is an amazing bargain for a Shakespearian production, granted it would be good. That rock music played in the interim did not sit very well with me, although a former technical theatre/production design class of mine did stage a Goth production of Hamlet, complete with electric guitars and yes, rock music. At least this group didn’t have the speakers for outdoor rock concerts in a small room. There were barely 100 seats arranged around an empty 10’ x 10’ square space in the center of the room, the seats no more than 3 deep, and the corners wide open.

Ah, theatre in the round. I personally like the intimacy of small theatre spaces as they naturally draw the audience into the play and, I suppose, there’s nothing like the intimacy of arena theatre to involve the audience in a play by Shakespeare. It was an eclectic audience for sure, a good number looking like parents and university professors and the rest being university students and, certainly, family members and friends.

Without so much as a by-your-leave or a dimming of the lights, Lucentio made a smashing entrance, followed by the glib Tranio. It was a brilliant use of doors as entrances and exits, with characters roaming about the room, around the audience and in the central space. They certainly took command of the available space, although the audience was hard pressed to follow some of the movement, especially if it was happening behind them. Still, it was an engaging way to keep the audience awake and involved, considering the language of Shakespeare can sound completely stilted to the untrained ear. Anent to that, the scene changes were seamless as characters entered from one door while others exited through another and it was their voices that drew the audience to turn to see them, much as one actually would turn toward new voices in a three-dimensional real world. The fourth wall was certainly there, and then again it was not. The overall effect was that the audience was more like ghosts within a world of another dimension, silently watching events as they unfolded, sitting in the midst of everything, yet not really being part of it all. In a way, it was surreal and I liked it.

The effect of using the normal lighting of the space with no sets save some empty seats in the audience that were used by the characters in character was effective in making the audience part of every scene. It was most unlike any other Shakespearean production I have witnessed, where minimalism was used to maximise the impact of Shakespeare’s spoken verse, edited as it was. Yet, it was that same minimalism that cut out lines and scenes from the original play that would have caused the play to drag on, although I think the value of a new gown for Kate was lost because we never saw her dragging her wedding dress through the mud and having to wear it day in and day out.

I have to mention that this performance was physical theatre—nay, physical comedy—in a way that Shakespeare must have somehow meant it to be. Bawdy, rowdy, loud and earthy, sans the fancy ways of upper society that transformed Shakespeare’s plays into two-dimensional worlds of unutterable language and twisted speech viewed by powdered wigs in fancy dress from balconies untouched by the riffraff in the orchestra. The amount of unpretentious hitting, dragging, bumping, running, struggling, wrestling and touching between characters was completely unprecedented. But there was no way they could not do it, the audience being in their midst, after all.

To add to the minimalist staging, the actors wore contemporary clothing with token costuming and accessories to accentuate the character or the occasion. Not that it was a problem. The delivery of lines and consistent internalization of character completely overshadowed that fact that the dress did not the language match. And yet, because the action and the actors are so close to the audience, the way they relate to each other as characters has to be convincing, and Hortensio in disguise looked not in others’ eyes, whereas all the other characters maintained eye contact with each other or with the audience.

Besides the fact that one actor could properly pronounce the Italian “Signor” but another could not say “Signora,” Mantua should sound more like Padua than Manchew-a, and Hortensio’s widow should speak a bit louder so that even the audience behind her can hear what she is saying, the deliveries were clear, precise and rhythmic. Someone might have forgotten a line a spent a couple of extra seconds getting it out, but no harm done. What did harm the illusion was someone’s cellphone going off somewhere in the last act.

So yes, I will admit that, once again, I was entertained, and thoroughly. I am the bard’s number one fan, and this rendering hasn’t changed my mind at all about his genius, but it’s genius as well to pull it off without boring the audience. It’s a wonderful play to bring on the road as it’s perfectly portable, extremely affordable and will charm even non-believers. I hope every performance is at least as captivating as this one!

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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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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.