Golden Moments in On Golden Pond

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The first time I watched On Golden Pond was the 1981 film version starring Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda with the screenplay written by the playwright Ernest Thompson. Definitely a hard act to follow, but I really liked that movie, so I was eager to watch the production staged by Victoria Playhouse.

It was my first time to ever watch a play at the Victoria Playhouse and I was eager to see this theatre that had been out of my reach until now. I’ll have to say that, apart from the really tight rows that have barely a hair’s breadth between your knees and the back of the seat in front of yours and no elbow room to either side unless you sit in the aisles, the theatre was pretty impressive. The seats were comfortable if not very roomy, the atmosphere cozy, the stage compact. The lights were more than enough for the stage, which was designed by the Playhouse’s resident scenic designer W. Scott MacConnell. Scott did a pretty good job of making the set look nice and cozy with a view of the pond from the porch window. I’ll overlook the fact that the walls and beams of the Thayer’s summer house didn’t look very much like real wood, if it was meant to look that way because all the other details were well executed anyway. I just thought the fishing rod rack right in front of the hall mirror was a little odd. I don’t imagine real people would want to see themselves in a mirror behind a row of fishing rods. The tiny love seat that stood in for a couch made some of the blocking just a tad bit awkward since the actors looked really cramped sitting on it. I like the fact, though, that there was a lot of seating around, although the dining table didn’t serve a whole lot of purpose and the bench seat next to the fireplace was hardly used. Neither was the door adjacent to the front door. Set design is not just about the appearance but the functionality of the set as well. But enough of that. This isn’t about the set.

As Norman Thayer, Bill McFadden did great justice to the role. He was as much of a curmudgeon as the character could be and he definitely commanded the stage when he was on it. That’s not to say that Sharlene MacLean in the role of Ethel Thayer didn’t keep up. It would be totally unfair to compare her to Katherine Hepburn in the same role, and I wasn’t always convinced that she was Ethel, but all things considered, she fit in nicely with the rest of the cast. Kathleen Hamilton as the daughter, Chelsea, seemed a mite too stiff in her role. Granted her character was carrying around a huge chip on her shoulder, the emotions she showed didn’t always seem very genuine. The opposite was true of Mark Fraser as the postman and Chelsea’s past summer love, Charlie, who was constantly jolly and carried on buoyantly. Josh Weale as Bill Ray was a perfect match to Kathleen’s Chelsea. Elijah Smith as the young Billy Ray was a delight to watch and was definitely less surly, more friendly and ready for action than Doug McKeon’s Billy Ray in the film version. All together, the cast played together very well. The pickup of lines was excellent and the jokes never fell flat. That’s also probably because of the very attentive and appreciative audience, and a full-house at that! Definitely a feel-good performance that was applauded with a standing ovation.

I must say that another thing I like about the Playhouse is the acoustics. I firmly believe that thespians must learn to project their voices as well as their characters and the high-tech sound systems in Charlottetown have spoiled actors so much that they need wireless mikes even in as small a venue as The Guild. The Playhouse holds as many seats as The Guild does (I estimated seating for 150) yet the actors’ voices were perfectly clear even in the back row, where I was seated. I am definitely coming back to the Playhouse!

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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.

 

 

The Attic, The Pearls & 3 Fine Girls Make One Very Fine Evening!

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(This article is also available on onrpei.ca)

I love comedy. There. I’ve said it. There are many other things I’ll say I love, but the evening of November 3 has gotten me out and admitting that I love comedy, and I just loved this performance, so wonderfully directed by Laurel Smyth! CONGRATULATIONS, Laurel!

Of course, without the cast, the play would have been nothing at all, and it was mainly the cast that made the play so amusingly and amazingly human.

The playwrights, whom, I have learned, started writing the play as improvisational theatre and worked on it over several years, have captured the essence of family and sisterhood in their delightfully delectable and infinitely humorous script. Tell me if there are too many superlatives…but I can’t really think of enough.

Three sisters, Jojo (the eldest, played by Melissa Mullen), Jane (the in-betweener, played by Kathleen Hamilton) and Jelly (the baby, played by Gill Mahen) have to deal with their father’s death and the party he requested as his dying wish. But it is not just the party and his death they have to deal with, apparently. Like any normal family, they have had issues about each other and with each other, as well as with their lives outside their sisterhood.

Jojo has been in a couple of failed relationships after giving up her one true love, Umesh, to be with Jane at her “death bed” which, as it turns out, was not final. Jane, who is plagued with episodes of some unnamed condition (asthma? a weak heart?) has also been in several relationships, and is as yet unable to come out in the open about her sexuality. Jelly is a struggling artist who has decided to return home and take care of their ailing father in his last year of life.

Jojo is angry at Jane for many things, but mainly the loss of her one true love and for having slept with her ex-husband, then inviting him to the party. Jane is obsessed with her work, her girlfriend, and her former lover, Mrs. Gray, who is also at the party. Jelly is the only without any real hidden anger, and interprets her life in her art, particularly for an upcoming exhibit in Munich.

Their father’s death has thrown the three together in the house they grew up in, full of memories of good times and bad times, and the script constantly throws us back and forth between past and present. Most of the memories are literally and figuratively stored in the attic, which is where the girls are reminded of most of them.

How they confront each other and their pasts is alternatingly poignant and hilarious, as Jane and Jojo lapse into rambunctious remembering in between blaming and bickering. Jelly finds herself more and more in the role of mother and peacekeeper, emphasized by the way she is supposed to look so like their mother and how she does things the way their mother did. Still, she is the “baby” who is constantly ignored and not heard, until she finally finds a way to get their attention and make them listen to her. In the end, they find the best solution, which really was Jelly’s suggestion in the first place.

The actresses were superb in their roles, which all seemed so natural. It’s no wonder after all, since Laurel told me that they had about two years to go over the script and work on the characters before they finally decided on a definite run.

The sets, executed by Anne Putnam, had all the charm of a rustic aging attic—indeed, the whole house seemed like an attic, fraught with memories—and served the performers well. David Bennet’s lighting, including a few special effects, worked excellently with scene changes, except for one tiny forgivable execution in timing, which revealed an exit that should have been hidden. The costuming was both whimsical and characteristic of the teacher, the businesswoman, and the artist in each of the three characters. And the music! The sound effects and the music that triggered many of the memories were the icing on the cake.

If I could, I would watch this show every night of its run! One performance is not enough to savour every little aspect of the play, or even to just enjoy the quick and witty dialogue and the little surprises every scene change brought. Definitely a play to catch before the month is over!

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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!