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Dear Johnny Deere

Review by Ann Thurlow

I am a huge Fred Eaglesmith fan. And one of the very best things about Dear Johnny Deere, this summer’s offering at The Mack, is that others will get a chance to learn about his music, too. Prolific, but oddly obscure, Eaglesmith is a singular voice and a real Canadian treasure. So it’s great (after years of taking some heat for showcasing non-Canadian music) to see the Charlottetown Festival lead with the chin on this one.

The show takes Eaglesmith’s music and wraps it around a story about a man who is in danger of losing his farm. It’s appropriate; Eaglesmith has never met a farmer or a tractor he didn’t like. A lot of his work laments the loss of the small town, small farm way of life and that’s what this play is all about.

It’s also about the loss of a farm to a major highway development, so the parallels to the so-called Plan B are obvious. In fact, they are played up, with some changes to the original script (the play was first produced in Ontario) to add local colour and references. It’s an interesting choice for the Festival to make, and a brave one.

The cast is great. They sing, they act, they dance and every bit of it is believable; funny when it has to be, heart wrenching when it’s called for. There are a couple of times when the script wanders off a bit. But the actors stay with it and make even the odd transgression credible.

Fans of Roy Johnstone will love seeing him here. You might not have picked the lanky fiddler for a musical theatre actor. But there he is, playing multiple instruments, singing and even taking a star turn across the dance floor in a blond wig.

Caroline (Amanda LeBlanc) and Johnny (Cameron MacDuffee) are at the core of the story, which is as much about their tangled and tempestuous relationship as it is about the farm. Caroline is feisty and Johnny is angry and the two actors have great and sparky chemistry. Enter Mike (Sweeney MacArthur), the land speculator who wants to buy the farm and is, by coincidence, an old flame of Caroline’s. Tempers fly, passions ensue. And believe me, you haven’t seen passion until you see Caroline and  Mike singing a duet.

Holding the whole thing together is neighbour and newspaper man MacAllister (Hank Stinson) whose role is akin to a narrator; he guides us along, explains the back story, does it all with vintage Stinson aplomb.

But it’s Fred Eaglesmith’s music that holds the whole thing together and music director Matthew Campbell does a great job of arranging and interpreting the tunes. This is high praise from a major Fred fan.

As the old theatre cliché goes, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry. But in this case, it’s all true. And I’ll bet you’ll actually think a little bit, too. And you’ll leave the theatre humming some great Canadian music.

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