Review by Sean McQuaid
When the Charlottetown Festival announced its 2015 theatrical line-up featuring the girl power trinity of Alice, Anne and Evangeline, your rascally reviewer remarked on how this combo could become an adorable merchandising juggernaut along the lines of Disney Princesses: Festival Fillies, collect them all!
I was joking, of course—unless it actually happens someday, in which case I'll demand my cut —but in all seriousness, it's great to see the Festival mounting three significant, ambitious shows like this in one season, and the fact they all feature female leads is a rather neat incidental bonus.
For me, Evangeline takes the bronze on this year's Festival podium—not as fun or as freaky as Alice, and nothing beats Anne in terms of warm, fuzzy theatrical comfort food—but Evangeline's an undeniably well-crafted, musically rich, often emotionally powerful show.
Written by Ted Dykstra and based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1847 epic poem of the same name, 2013 musical Evangeline chronicles the British Empire’s 18th-Century expulsion of the Acadians as personified by Acadian newlyweds Evangeline (Josée Boudreau) and Gabriel (Jay Davis), separated during the expulsion and doomed to decades of heartsick wandering.
New leads Boudreau and Davis are solidly entertaining performers with great voices, capably backed by a big cast whose standouts include fellow newcomers Brent Carver (as clergyman Father Felician), Stephen Guy-McGrath (as fiddler/notary René), Sera-Lys McArthur (as Shawnee nomad Cornflower) and Cameron MacDuffee (distinctive and versatile in multiple roles).
Meanwhile, excellent returning cast members Laurie Murdoch and Réjean Cournoyer continue to play the heck out of the show's two primary British characters: morally conflicted Colonel Winslow and cartoonishly evil Captain Hampson, respectively.
Directed by Bob Baker and co-produced by Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, the 2015 production is faster, more lively, more colourful—changes to the blocking, choreography, projections and set (including a revolving stage) give the show more visual energy and verve, and some minor script revisions streamline the story a bit.
Yet despite all the outward modifications, Evangeline remains a somewhat ponderous show at its core—long (still a good three hours), repetitive, melodramatic and a bit overstuffed, partly because some of the musical sequences seem to be more about celebrating culture than advancing story. Evangeline's adventures span "many a tedious year" (to borrow Longfellow's phrase), so any faithful version is going to be more of a marathon than a sprint, but Dkystra's version of the tale feels drawn out regardless.
There's a lot to like here, and the Festival still deserves major kudos for midwifing such an ambitious new Canadian musical; but for all its undeniably stirring music and artful flourishes, Evangeline remains for me a show more admired than enjoyed.