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Old Friends, New Faces

Anne & Gilbert

by Sean McQuaid

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s literary offspring Anne Shirley is a constant presence in PEI, but with an ever-changing face. Each version of the character has its own flavour, and assorted interpreters put their stamp on her story.

As such, the Harbourfront Jubilee Theatre’s Anne & Gilbert unfolded largely as expected for this long-absent reviewer: a pleasant reunion with an old friend who’s comfily familiar yet somehow different.

It’s a year of the new for Anne & Gilbert: a new director (former cast member Martha Irving) and new incarnations of Anne (Amy Reitsma), Gilbert (Jory Rossiter) and Marilla (veteran Island singer Pamela Campbell in Irving’s old role).

For that matter, Anne & Gilbert itself retains the sheen of novelty; launched a mere five years ago, just a freckled fraction of the decades-long Anne of Green Gables musical run, it still feels fresh. Where Green Gables charts Anne’s childhood, Anne & Gilbert tackles Anne Shirley’s young adulthood, especially her romance with Gilbert Blythe.

Anne & Gilbert’s music, composed by Bob Johnston and Nancy White with a lyrical assist from Jeff Hochauser, is as lively and memorable as its Charlottetown Festival counterpart, and more versatile in terms of tone, mood and style.

Hochauser’s book stays true to the characters while giving them a modern sensibility. Peppered with sly humour, romantic sparring and even occasional glimmers of mercifully genteel sexual innuendo, it’s a more grown-up script for a more grown-up Anne, while carefully preserving the characters’ natural sweetness.

The story drags a bit in act two, becoming heavy-handed or repetitious at times (no less than four heartwarming letter-readings stoke the plot), but it never bogs down for long, and Irving always keeps the show moving briskly.

Reitsma’s crisp enunciation and emotional intensity capture Anne’s intelligence without sacrificing her playfulness, and Rossiter injects enough vulnerability and self-mockery into his Gilbert to make the often-smug character as charming as intended. Campbell’s Marilla evokes the inner warmth wrapped in outer reserve so essential to the character, and Brittany Banks is a font of impeccable comic timing as Anne’s chum Diana.

Other standouts include Robin Craig’s tart-tongued Mrs. Lynde, Brieonna Loche’s lean and hungry Josie, Anders Balderston’s likeably needy Moody, and an animated, engaged Page Gallant making the most of her bit parts.

The colourfully costumed cast looks great apart from a few conspicuous microphones, and assorted quirks of lighting and movement spice up the often plain set, such as a lovely night-lit graveyard scene or Gilbert “swimming” below the main stage. In its best moments, Anne & Gilbert is as playful as Montgomery’s characters themselves.

Gender Bender

The Dating Scheme

by Sean McQuaid

Full disclosure: This reviewer is enduringly fond of the Kings Playhouse, as many of his earliest theatrical memories are rooted in that grand old institution.

Since renovated into a bigger and better version of its former self, the venue has aged considerably better than the reviewer, who nonetheless hauled his superannuated carcass out to Georgetown on July 11 for the world premiere of The Dating Scheme, a play about a couple of Island gals trying to fix their brother up with a friend.

Like many a past Kings Playhouse production over the decades, Scheme hovers somewhere in that hazy critical limbo between the amateur and the professional. Young writer/director/ designer/star John Anderson is formally trained, but his collaborators in the latest version of the King’s Players tend to have less in the way of official credentials or experience.

As such, while Scheme aims for professional quality in many respects, it’s also very much a community theatre project. Local volunteers supply the time, effort, talent and considerable bravery required to put on a live show—and God bless ’em for it, says your musty old reviewer, because these quixotic enterprises help build a richer, livelier community.

This particular community seems to understand that, and showed its players no shortage of love on opening night. The audience received the performers with an air of familiarity, affection and raucous approval more akin to a sporting event than a typical stage show, like a hometown crowd cheering on their local team.

To give credit where it’s due, though, Anderson and company ignited and stoked that warm reception by consistently entertaining the crowd. This dynamic started strong with a weirdly random pre-show of crowd-pleasing, dueling Elvis impersonations by Anderson and castmate Marcus King, and continued into the main show, which had the audience laughing loudly and often.

King Lear it’s not, but it isn’t trying to be. With its mix of slapstick, goofy outfits, mugging and transparent setup-punchline gags, The Dating Scheme feels like an odd throwback to the Miller-Boyett TV sitcoms of the ’80s and ’90s: Family Matters, Full House, Perfect Strangers, etc.

It’s very broad comedy milked for easy laughs, but the cast are having fun with it, and it’s often infectious. There are glitches here and there: Marcus King, for instance, playing a waiter, talks a mite too fast—slowing down a bit would sharpen his articulation, boost his volume, and aid his breathing control.

Overall, though, it’s a lively and confident bunch for an amateur cast, and Toby Murphy is the show’s secret weapon as Peggy. Her performance has a few rough edges, but she tackles the role with a natural charisma and palpable glee that mines plenty of laughs from pure, unadulterated silliness, much like the show itself.

Envelope Pushing

Sketch-22, Season 7

by Sean McQuaid

Watching Sketch-22 is a bit like eating those freaky Every Flavour Beans from the Harry Potter stories: wildly eclectic variety, often delicious, sometimes unpleasant.

The show’s occasional lapses are not for lack of ability. Producer Jason Rogerson, director/star Rob MacDonald and his fellow performers Graham Putnam, Dennis Trainor, Andrew Sprague and Lennie MacPherson include some of PEI theatre’s most gifted and experienced funnymen.

They can and do create smart, funny sketches, but sometimes drift into bits where vulgarity, shocks or gross-out tactics end up replacing comedy instead of enhancing it, though the good outweighs the bad overall.

As in past seasons, the live sketches are accompanied by pre-recorded video shorts. This continues to serve the group well, expanding their capabilities in terms of setting and effects.

The recurring “Awkward Moments” video sketches are hit or miss in terms of content, but their oddly formal, eerily-voiced, vaguely robotic, Theremin-playing host Thomas Grillo, introducing each short like some sort of surreal coin-operated phantasm, is an indelibly memorable keeper.

In terms of local humour, “Smelt Shack” overstays its welcome on stage despite a fun video follow-up, but multiple sketches skewer local cable television both effectively and affectionately (and provide an excuse to hand out 3-D glasses, typical of the endearingly playful extra touches often found in Rogerson productions).

A highlight of the close-to-home comedy and of the show in general is “Atlantis Regional Municipality,” which re-imagines local government as acted out by undersea mermen and their randomly bloodthirsty king, played with peerless oddball panache by Putnam.

This sketch also showcases the oft-impressive costumes of stage manager Kelly Caseley, whose merman outfits are visually inventive and surprisingly functional, though only Putnam’s swishing hips fully exploit the design’s finny features.

Other high points include video sketch “Backbencher,” where a great concept deftly defiles a Sir John A. MacDonald statue; video sketch “Fox on the Run,” in which a beloved Canadian icon gets the zombie movie treatment; and the staggeringly weird, daringly obscure and surprisingly profound “Stand Up Canada, Atticus Finch is Passing By,” featuring great turns by the whole ensemble and a bravura performance by Trainor in two or three roles, depending on how you count.

Even the group’s stumbles are often memorably spectacular: the well-acted “Gay Friendly” very nearly spins some envelope-pushing straw into comedic gold, until growing audience revulsion overwhelms the whole sordid exercise partway through.

And speaking of revulsion, kudos to the often-understated Lennie MacPherson, who adds welcome depth and shading to scenes ranging from the Atlantis bit (where his hapless assistant fosters surprising pathos) to “Gay Friendly,” where MacPherson’s own escalating revulsion is a key reason the sketch works for as long as it does.

String Theory

Juan Martín brings his ensemble to the Carrefour

by Sean McQuaid

Juan MartinGuitarist Juan Martín is more than just a set of nimble fingers. Specializing in his native Spain’s traditional Flamenco, he has studied the roots of that music extensively and brings them to life for modern audiences through his composing, writing, recording and performing.

Flamenco’s unofficial international ambassador is now coming back to Canada, where Martín’s latest coast-to-coast tour this October will include his first ever performance in Charlottetown.

An often fast-paced, intricate and sometimes improvisational musical style, Flamenco achieved its earliest and most enduing popularity in the Andalucían region of Spain where Martín grew up, but has always had an international flavour.

Arabic, Moroccan and other Middle Eastern influences permeate its sound, and Flamenco’s popularity in nomadic Gypsy cultures has helped make the music internationally mobile, picking up new sounds along the way.

Recent Flamenco often takes on the properties of modern jazz, but Martín reaches back to older, purer Flamenco traditions, sometimes reviving tunes or styles seldom heard in centuries.

Percussive elements are usually part of the Flamenco mix, even with a solo guitarist; Martín often drums his guitar’s soundboard with his fingers in addition to playing its strings, making it almost two instruments in one.

“That comes partly from years of playing with dancers,” he explains. “They don’t dance for you; you play for them. Flamenco combines guitar, singing and dance — my purpose … is to show it in its purity in all three of its forms.”

Martín’s latest tour achieves that by teaming him with singer/guitarist Manuel Jimenez and dancer “El Tigre” (Salvador Moreno). Some of their songs feature only guitar or song or dance, while others feature assorted combinations of all three. “It gives a lot of variety to the show,” said Martín.

Martín has always drawn inspiration from visuals, and not only dancers. His mother was a painter and he grew up around art, later recording songs based on pictures — most notably his 1981 tribute to Pablo Picasso, Picasso Portraits.

“Dance is very visual,” he continues. “The music fulfills the most spiritual side of Flamenco, but with beautiful dancing it can be more of a sensual experience; you engage the eye and the ear at the same time.”

Like the traditional fiddling and step-dancing of the Maritimes or the jazz, blues and rap pioneered by African-Americans, Flamenco is a musical style with humble socioeconomic roots.

“I don’t think many great geniuses were born in palaces,” Martín muses, crediting much of Flamenco’s development to “downtrodden peoples” like the Gypsies. Some Flamenco “is like a Mediterranean Blues,” he says, though it is also often sunny and upbeat.

As a touring musician, he feels some kinship with the Gypsy lifestyle, but he feels modern airports are “a bit too boring” by comparison. “To be honest, what compensates for all of that travel is the two hours on stage — if it goes well, you’re in Heaven.”

Flamenco trio Juan Martín, Manuel Jimenez and dancer “El Tigre” (Salvador Moreno) will perform at the Carrefour Theatre in Charlottetown on October 11.

The Lorne Ranger

Lorne of Green Gables
by Sean McQuaid

Wide-ranging, that’s Lorne Elliott’s comedy in a nutshell. Delivered in a rambling, deceptively casual, seemingly stream-of-consciousness fashion, it hits listeners with a little bit of everything and leaves them laughing.

Local, regional and national humour, universal slice-of-life anecdotes, linguistic jokes, cultural observations, musical comedy and tons of sheer silliness – Elliott taps all these comedic wells and more over the course of his standup set, embellished by occasional guitar and ukulele numbers.

Much of it’s familiar to Island audiences, of course. Practically an honorary Islander, the Quebec-based playwright/musician/comedian has been bringing his one-man comedy show to various PEI venues for many years.

Familiar doesn’t mean stale, though. Patrons of his latest Guild run laughed painfully hard at vintage material like the tale of Elliott’s malfunctioning bungee-cord-socks, one of many bits showcasing his unique gift for painting hilarious slapstick word pictures.

The show features plenty of newer material as well, including more than a little improvisation: sometimes clumsy, sometimes witty, and often hilarious—like his seemingly endless closing night obsession with New Brunswick’s “Maritime Magnifique” tourism promotion.

Building on an early suggestion from the audience, Elliott came back to the nebulous “Magnifique” concept over and over again, culminating in his plans for a government-funded “Acadians in spandex” musical featuring a born-again Christian trucker. “It gave me the heebie-jeebies to hear JC on my CB,” sings Elliott, in character, at the height of this charmingly lunatic detour.

As the improv angle suggests, it’s an often interactive show. He solicits suggestions or feedback from the audience, leads various sing-along bits, and responds to whatever catches his eye or ear in the crowd. “This isn’t TV,” he reminds one vocal patron. “I can hear you, too.”

Audiences might be either relieved or disappointed to learn that the current show’s “Green Gables” title is something of a red (-headed) herring, as there’s little or no Anne content – but there is plenty of PEI comedy in the mix, ranging from merciless mockery of topical targets like Disco Cirque to delightfully warped meditations on the piping plover (among other things, Elliott doubts it really exists).

The entire two-hour set flies by, packed with literally too much stuff to recount in any one review, such as the comic’s often “near-fatal” forays into sports or his wild tales of squirrels and raccoons worthy of Chuck Jones cartoons. Articulate, clever and eternally playful, Elliott remains one of the finest and funniest fixtures of any Island summer.

The Legend of the Dumbells

Bittersweet Buffoonery

Review by Sean McQuaid

The

Old musicals never die...they just get remounted; and in a sense, The Legend of the Dumbells is older even than most of its peers. The musical itself only dates back to the 1970s, but it is based on real-life entertainers whose act was forged under fire in World War One. The Dumbells were Canadian soldiers assigned to stage a musical comedy show for their comrades, a show which proved so popular that it outlasted the war and marched on to Broadway.

The Legend of the Dumbells was originally conceived, directed and choreographed by Alan Lund and written by George Salverson for The Charlottetown Festival in 1977, and has returned to the Festival this summer under the guidance of director Duncan McIntosh-once part of the original 1970s cast himself, now Artistic Director of the Charlottetown Festival.

There's something surreal about this show; the bulk of Legend is devoted to resurrecting the wacky comedy sketches and lively musical numbers that made the Dumbells famous-but at the same time, all of this is happening amidst an appallingly bloody and senseless war. McIntosh's adaptation of the Lund-Salverson musical (including newly added material) plays up this unsettling juxtaposition by reinforcing the grim realities of the conflict; for instance, the production begins with a harrowing battlefield scene and closes with a solemn tribute to the soldiers of World War One (the latter rooted in a recitation of the classic "In Flanders Fields" poem). These bits neatly bookend the show, placing all the madcap antics in perspective and helping audiences appreciate the tragic gravity of this moment in history.

As narrative, Legend is a bit flimsy and disjointed, rather episodic. It's essentially a bunch of songs and sketches strung together, though assorted highlights of the story of the Dumbells (their formation, a tragic wartime loss, their postwar renaissance) afford the script some sense of cohesion and continuity.

Anemic plot aside, Legend offers plenty of entertainment in addition to its historical value. McIntosh has assembled a spirited, nimble cast of singers, dancers and comedians as the Dumbells, and they do their material ample justice. Classic period songs featured in the show range from the touching ("Keep the Home Fires Burning") to the unapologetically silly ("Mademoiselle From Armentieres") and help foster a warmly nostalgic tone. This atmosphere is further bolstered by evocative lighting and sets, courtesy of Adrian Muir and Charlotte Dean.

Among the younger cast members, Darren Voros stands out as the cross-dressing Dumbell Ross Hamilton, who broke many a soldier's heart in his on-stage alter ego as "Marjorie"; but the sweetest scene-stealers are two of the older members of the cast: Jim White (another veteran of the 1970s Dumbells cast) is vividly memorable as the Dumbells' bullying supervisor, Sergeant Pound, leavening his shrieking, red-faced histrionics with moments of surprising tenderness; and Wade Lynch (featured in earlier Charlottetown Festival shows such as A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline) is delightfully funny as comedic Dumbell Jack McLaren. His "No Man Knoweth When Inspection Cometh" monologue is a masterpiece of comic delivery and timing, and he lends a sense of mischievous mirth to all his scenes.

While relatively short on story, The Legend of the Dumbells is long on nostalgia, comedy, music and historical consciousness-well worth catching before it fades away.

Evergreen Gables

Anne of Green Gables-The Musical™

Review by Sean McQuaid

If you'll forgive your reviewer for slipping into self-indulgent first-person, I must say I'm glad I got to see Anne of Green Gables this year. The freckled spectre of Anne Shirley seems omnipresent for those of us who grow up on Prince Edward Island, and doing theatre reviews for much of the past decade has made me a steady customer of her musical incarnation; but I'm moving away for a while this fall, so it was nice to see the old girl one more time-especially this year, when she's making a return to classic form.

This season, Artistic Director Duncan McIntosh, director/choreographer Anne Allen and their various collaborators have tried to re-create the original Alan Lund production of Anne of Green Gables-The Musical, first staged in 1965 and last staged in 1985 (the show has continued its run since then, of course, albeit with various differing post-Lund interpretations). Allen researched archival video and stage managers' records and consulted past Charlottetown Festival performers to be as faithful to the original Lund vision as possible.

Truth be told, I don't really clearly remember the Lund version of Anne (though I think I saw it once as a child in the early 1980s); but I have seen plenty of post-Lund takes on the show, and this neoclassical Lund tribute version stacks up against them nicely. The orchestra is strong as always and full of lovely little touches (such as Dave Shephard's crisp snare drum in the Lady Cordelia segment of "Facts"), there's a dreamily liquid grace to much of the choreography and the lighting, and the dancing is as lively and physically demanding as I've ever seen it. There also seems to be a greater emphasis on humour than there has been in recent years, whether it be new sprinklings of visual comedy or more comedically slanted delivery of the established material; either way, it works well for such a lighthearted show, and helps offset the more sentimental aspects of the story.

Ontario native Jennifer Toulmin plays the title role with lively grace. She's a pocket dynamo with the kind of insatiable energy the part demands, and her range allows her to navigate Anne's emotional extremes-from gleeful raptures to the depths of despair-with endearing ease. It's an appropriately larger-than-life performance.

An effervescent Heidi Ford (returning as Diana Barry) matches Toulmin's exuberance nicely, and newcomer Sean Hauk may be the strongest Gilbert I've seen to date, a solid triple threat with an appealing presence. Michael Fletcher does justice to the lovable Matthew, and Judy Marshak gives us a distinctively acerbic tongue-in-cheek take on Marilla. Even the bit parts are memorable: Mike Ross's Cecil the Farmer, for instance, boasts a charming goofiness reminiscent of Ed Rashed, and Wade Lynch is so palpably unpleasant as Mr. Phillips that you can practically hear Wicked Witch of the West woodwinds as he rides his bicycle across the stage.

Lucy Maud Montgomery's tale of the unwanted orphan who makes good, as adapted by Harron & Campbell, retains a charm all its own after all these years-and the current version of the show channels that charm most effectively. One suspects Lund and Montgomery are pleased.

The Leight Fantastic


Final Thoughts

Review by Sean McQuaid

It's been a somewhat slow summer for local indie theatre. A reinvigorated Charlottetown Festival is in full swing, but the city's more low-rent venues have been relatively idle this year-with one shining exception: the show is Final Thoughts, its venue is the Arts Guild, and its audiences are lucky. It's one of the finest shows this town has seen in a very long time.

Final Thoughts is a collection of short works written by Tony award-winning playwright Warren Leight and staged by the Gang of Four, a quartet of theatre veterans from New York City. Most of the plays are performed by Alexander R. Scott (who also directed the production) and Ean Sheehy, plus a rotating assortment of local performers in the sole female role. In addition to Scott and Sheehy, Gang personnel include producer & set designer Irene Strang and costume designer Lauren Cordes. Local recruits include technical director Dawn Binkley, lighting designer Paul Druet and sound designer Rob LeClair.

Leight's scripts are compact gems of characterization and observation, capturing an eclectic collection of characters in a disparate array of situations and drawing on everything from post-communist politics to comic book trivia. In one interview, Scott describes the characters as loners and outsiders, desperate or despairing types nearing the ends of their respective ropes. "This may be the last time some of them ever speak," he says, by way of explaining the production's overall title.

Most of the pieces are monologues: in "Diary of a Voyeur," Sheehy plays a screenwriter struggling with writer's block while nursing an infatuation with a female neighbour he observes from his window; in "The Poem Writer," Scott is a crusty old veteran poet giving a reluctant lecture on his profession; in "Ol' Gator," Sheehy portrays an obnoxiously creepy weatherman whose big mouth costs him his job; in "What I Did Wrong," a woman (played capably if somewhat one-notedly by Kathleen Hamilton this night) muses on why her man left her; and in "Jaguar Jesus," Scott voices a free-ranging meditation inspired by a street musician.

The show also features Scott and Sheehy in a couple of two-handers: "The Final Interrogation of Ceaucescu's Dog" is a brilliant satire depicting a revolutionary (Sheehy) interrogating the dog (Scott) of the fallen dictator Ceaucescu, and the quirkily clever "A Bus for Mr. Morton" (making its world premiere) casts Sheehy as a rookie cop who gets some life lessons from a surprisingly chatty corpse (Scott).

Leight's darkly witty scripts are full of thought-provoking insights into human nature (the writer seems to have a particular knack for concocting self-deluded characters); but above all else, these plays are hysterically funny. All of the above is aided immeasurably by the talents of Scott and Sheehy, whose comedic sensibilities, measured subtlety, finely honed timing and expansive range make Leight's characters both human and hilarious.

The sets are extremely simple (assorted furnishings and dressing) but effective, and the production makes practical use of the awkward Arts Guild space by framing the various plays in and around the hall's existing pillars. There are minor glitches here and there (Scott calls for a line once and Sheehy has trouble staying in his light a time or two), but overall, this is a very professional, very polished show, and a rare opportunity for Islanders to see some first-rate New York City theatre right here in Charlottetown. Don't miss it.

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