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Song and Story

HERE on the Island

Review by Sean McQuaid

Prince Edward Island doesn't have that many enduring theatrical shows. There's the Charlottetown Festival's Anne of Green Gables, of course-and for the better part of a decade, there was her twisted doppelganger, Annekenstein, courtesy of the late, lamented Off Stage Theatre; but apart from Lucy Maud Montgomery derivatives, few Island theatre entities can rival the endurance of the one-man institution known as David Weale.

A respected author, educator and broadcaster with a penchant for Prince Edward Island history, culture and folklore, Weale has been parlaying his unique Island knowledge and his celebrated storytelling skills into assorted stage shows for much of the past decade or so-first with the long-running A Long Way From The Road (which paired him with fiddler Roy Johnstone and other musicians), and more recently with his one-man show Greenmount Boy. This summer, Weale joins forces with traditional singer-songwriter Allan Rankin (who had previously teamed with Johnstone and storyteller Frank Ledwell as Crowbush) and musicians Brad Fremlin & Perry Williams to perform Here on the Island: A Harvest of Stories and Songs.

Weale and Rankin both remain masters of their respective crafts, and Fremlin & Williams provide solid musical accompaniment (Fremlin in particular stands out with his eerie saw-playing and his gently pervasive keyboards, though Williams plays a mean mandolin); however, this arrangement has some inherent drawbacks.

For one thing, long-term fans of this kind of show may find it all a bit familiar-some of the featured material has been used before in similar shows by Weale or Rankin.

Also, this particular reviewer has never quite shaken his preference for a more no-frills take on Weale, who often seems most effective as an intimate, unaccompanied storyteller, or as a storyteller accompanied by a lone, complementary instrumentalist whose playing blends naturally into Weale's material. The Weale-Johnstone collaboration was probably the most successful version of the latter approach, though there are moments in Here on the Island where Weale's words and, say, Fremlin's piano form a seamless whole. More often than not, though, Here on the Island has something of a choppy, stop-and-start feel to it. A story, then a song, then a story, then a song...

Of course, they're memorably entertaining stories and songs (which is the important part), and they do a nice job of capturing various aspects and oddities of the place we call the Island. This show also distinguishes itself from past efforts with some well-chosen multimedia material. For instance, the production opens with a fun black & white film short featuring the performers in the style of an old-time silent movie. During the main show, a projection screen behind the performers displays vintage photographs, some of which serve as evocative backdrops for the words and music, some of which encourage audience participation by having Weale challenge viewers to identify assorted pictorial subjects from the old days. This particular mixture of old and new seems to work, complementing the efforts of Weale, Rankin and friends rather than distracting from them or further compartmentalizing the proceedings. The result is a pleasant combination of novelty and nostalgia.

Soul Music


Review by Sean McQuaid

Mike Ross as Cale Blackwell in the 2002 Charlottetown Festival production of Fire

As the old rhetorical riddle asks, what does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul? The musical Fire more or less asks the same question...and while the answers aren't pretty, it makes for a powerfully memorable evening of theatre.

Written by Paul Ledoux & David Young and directed by Richard Rose with musical direction by Donald Fraser, Fire is set in the American south of the late 1950s and tells the story of brothers Cale & Herchel Blackwell (played by Mike Ross & Geoffrey Pounsett), the sons of preacher J.D. Blackwell (Terry Hatty). Struggling under the expectations of their stern father, the boys share both a desperate longing for greatness and an ardent attraction to sweet young thing Molly King (Allison Plamondon), whose father, Truman (Hank Stinson), makes his fortune by managing the brothers in their respective careers. As the years pass, Cale becomes an infamous rock star and Herchel becomes an influential televangelist, but neither fame nor money nor even the love of Molly brings the feuding brothers contentment as their lives are slowly poisoned by pride, envy and hate.

The Ledoux-Young script (inspired by the real-life relationship of rocker Jerry Lee Lewis and his televangelist cousin Jimmy Swaggart) is a winner, crafting a vivid and uncomfortably plausible collection of self-deluded characters on the road to moral ruin; the play also works as a social commentary of sorts, capturing some of the worst aspects of politics and fundamentalist religion. At the same time, the play functions as a rousing musical revue by incorporating a host of rock and gospel classics performed by the actors (supported, in this production, by Don Fraser's rock-solid house band).

Rose's presentation of the text is lively and engaging; performers work the floor as well as the stage of the theatre, drawing the audience further into the action, and multiple playing spaces are often active on and off stage at any given time (though on occasion, lights seem to linger overlong on inactive playing spaces and their frozen-in-place performers to no useful effect). Ken Garnhum's simple yet versatile set morphs into a slew of diverse locations with a little help from assorted set dressing and the evocative lighting design of Paul Mathiesen. It's a show full of clever and classy little touches, like the church scene where the cast members take up a collection from the audience for the local food bank.

Fire also boasts a crackling cast. Ross's violently passionate Cale exudes a lust for the spotlight, whether he's tackling a musical number with wild abandon or prowling the stage with the lean and hungry look of a hard-living Cassius, and he brings a believably haunted, pathetic quality to Cale's later, leaner years. Pounsett has a less flashy role as the pious brother but is every inch Ross's equal with a masterfully nuanced, far-ranging performance that chronicles Herchel's evolution from a humble, well-meaning innocent to a self-important, pitiless firebrand. Plamondon displays similarly solid range as Molly, shifting from bubbly schoolgirl to sadder-but-wiser woman over the course of the show while investing her character with an enduring sense of innocence. Stinson is appropriately unsavoury as the venal, glad-handing Truman, and Hatty fills a host of minor roles (often netting some major laughs) in addition to his well-played part as fire-and-brimstone preacher J.D. Blackwell. Throw in a lovely choral quartet and you have a cast that makes beautiful music together in every sense of the phrase.

From ABBA to Anne

Jennifer Toulmin stars in Anne of Green Gables-The Musical™

by Sean McQuaid

Jennifer Toulmin as  Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables-The Musical™

Jennifer Toulmin can hardly believe her good fortune. At the age of twenty-four, she is starring in her second major musical, playing a character she has adored since childhood, and loving every minute of it.

"I feel blessed," says Toulmin, who is playing the title role in Anne of Green Gables this summer at the Confederation Centre of the Arts. An Ontario native, Toulmin began training as a dancer at age twelve, embraced theatre a year or two later after falling for Shakespeare, played her first Lucy Maud Montgomery heroine in high school after being cast in an Ontario production of Hank Stinson's Blue Castle, and eventually landed in the musical theatre program at Randolph Academy, Toronto. She was hired straight out of school to join the touring cast of the smash hit ABBA musical Mamma Mia! before landing her dream role this year with the Charlottetown Festival.

"I think I've always dreamed of working here," says Toulmin. "I find the Island very accepting. It's got a really peaceful rhythm. I didn't expect to fall so deeply, so quickly in love with this place."

While the Island has begun to feel like home, the Festival cast and crew have begun to feel like family. "It's a very special group of people," Toulmin says; and Anne creator Lucy Maud Montgomery feels like part of that family. "Lucy Maud was a special woman. I read excerpts from [her original novel] every day. It's like my Bible," she says with a chuckle.

Of course, Toulmin is not a recent convert to the Montgomery faith. "I think I was given the set of [Anne] books when I was probably six," Toulmin recalls. "Anne was always a part of my life. She is an incredible character, and it's an honour to bring her to life."


A Passion for Gordon

If You Could Read My Mind presents the songs of Gordon Lightfoot

by Sean McQuaid

Terry HattyDuncan McIntosh is a man with a lot on his mind. It's his first season as Artistic Director of the Charlottetown Festival, after all; but however full his dramatic plate might be right now, McIntosh seems to retain an insatiable appetite for one of his favourite creative comfort foods: the music of Gordon Lightfoot, celebrated this summer in the Festival's brand-new show, If You Could Read My Mind.

McIntosh approaches this production with a missionary zeal, and not just because he co-wrote and directed the show. For him, Lightfoot's music is a lifelong passion. "He wrote songs about love," McIntosh recalls, "when I was barely crawling out of adolescence, and my first feelings of love were somehow given voice and dignity by his music. He taught me that my country's history was mythic and poetic. He gave to Canadians a sense of what it was like to be Canadian."

Placing Lightfoot in an historical context, McIntosh recounts the flourishing of Canadian creative talent in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the emergence of figures such as Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Martin Short, Dan Ackroyd, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. "Gordon was part of an explosion of Canadian expression," says McIntosh.

Charlottetown Festival Artistic Director Duncan McIntosh

Amidst that explosion, Lightfoot stood out and somehow stood apart; or so it seemed to Terry Hatty, a senior member of the Lightfoot show's cast: "The sixties, Beatlemania, the psychedelic stuff...he just existed apart from all that, independent of everything, in the Gordon Lightfoot zone." As McIntosh and Hatty explain, Lightfoot was a storyteller as well as a musician, a modern-day balladeer or troubadour.

Asked what they hope audiences take away from this show, Hatty offers this take on it: "The nationalism thing, the sense of country, they gotta get that or it's not successful. The pleasure of being part of it, a wholesome, proud kind of a feeling."

McIntosh agrees, but notes that the show is first and foremost entertainment. "I'd like people to leave with full hearts, uplifted." In other words, McIntosh hopes his show will do for audiences what Lightfoot's music has done for McIntosh himself.

Joy in the Wings

Danny Austin directs the Young Company in The Happy Prince

by Sean McQuaid

The Happy Prince is a new musical written and composed by Leslie Arden (based on the classic story by Oscar Wilde) and staged by the Confederation Centre Young Company; it's a tale of compassion and self-sacrifice hinging on an unlikely friendship between a flighty bird and a melancholy statue.

Musical theatre veteran and choreographer Danny Austin is the Director of the Young Company, a post he assumed last year. Hailing from Edmonton, Alberta, Austin has long been a fan of the Charlottetown Festival and first joined it in 1989 as a performer in several shows. "That had always been my dream," he says. "I desperately wanted to get here."

Austin won an Artistic Director's Award for his work with the Festival ensemble, and participated in their 1991 touring production of Anne in Japan. After years of stage and screen work elsewhere, Austin was recently recruited back into the Festival to take over the Young Company. "It meant no more performing for me," he says wistfully, "[but] this was the time to make that jump."

Austin now lives in Toronto, which he describes as a professional necessity, albeit one that has grown on him. "I've learned to love Toronto. It's colourful, it's exciting, it fuels me." But he loves to travel the world, too, and is grateful that his work allows him to do so. "It gives me a perspective on the world. It allows me to reflect and be objective about where I'm from. I'm really proud to be a Canadian."

Austin is proud to be with the Festival, too, and salutes its current Artistic Director: "Duncan McIntosh is a huge reason why I'm back here this year. The season that he's planned is creating a viable artistic theatre community...I don't think that's happened here in a long time. It's very exciting. It's crazy, and it's wild, [and] everybody is so supportive. I believe in the Charlottetown Festival so much."

Laughs in the Trenches

The Legend of the Dumbells portrays famous Canadian WWI comedy troupe

by Sean McQuaid

Members of The Charlottetown Festival ensemble in the Legend of the Dumbells

The Legend of the Dumbells musical, first staged at the Charlottetown Festival in 1977 and freshly remounted this summer, is the true story of Canadian soldiers who formed a comedy troupe during their service in World War One; and appropriately enough, its current cast includes some veterans-theatre veterans, that is.

Charlottetown Festival ensemble performers Jim White (who plays Sgt. Pound) and Michael Fletcher (who plays Col. Lipsett) are both returning to the Festival after long absences-over thirty years in the case of Fletcher, who is also appearing as Matthew in the Festival's Anne of Green Gables this summer. What drew them back? Both men cite confidence in new Artistic Director (and Legend of the Dumbells director) Duncan McIntosh and his efforts to rejuvenate the Festival. "I believe in Duncan," says White. "I believe in what he's doing. The Festival is a Festival again. It's an exciting place to come back to."

"Knowing Duncan had just taken over" was an incentive, Fletcher concurs. "There was a worthwhile possibility of a renaissance here."

"Everyone is happy, everyone's excited," says White. "You cannot buy that. There's not an individual in this company who doesn't want to be here."

Which is in stark contrast to the real-life Dumbells, most of whom wanted to be anywhere but in the middle of a war. They had no aptitude for being soldiers, White explains, so "they contributed by being themselves," exploiting their natural flair for comedy.

White describes his character, Sergeant Pound, as "exceptionally aggressive, monumentally motivated...he's a bully [who] has a heart of gold underneath it all, but you'd never know."

Fletcher regards his Colonel Lipsett as a conflicted character trying to "salvage morale while salving his own conscience" as a senior officer in a bloody war that was supposedly an idealistic crusade but was actually "a useless economic ploy on the part of a bunch of warmongers."

"It's an ugly war," says Fletcher, who is disgusted by humanity's seemingly endless appetite for senseless conflict, "and the first war without any rules...[but] I think it's great that we invented sketch comedy out of it."

Of Mice and Murder

The Mousetrap

by Sean McQuaid

Ever experience déja vu? Your dreaded chronicler has had his share of it over the years, and it's a feeling that flares anew upon viewing ACT's recent production of The Mousetrap, staged at the Carrefour Theatre in late May and early June. It's a lovingly lavish adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie play, but there's something oddly familiar about the whole business.

The play itself feels familiar, of course-Christie's Mousetrap is one of the longest-running, most-produced plays in theatre, and arguably a prototype for the modern murder mystery (as one Carrefour audience member remarked, it's rather like watching a life-size game of Clue). Even those who don't know the story itself will recognize elements which have long since become clichés or conventions of the genre.

That being said, there's also something familiar about this particular production. Specifically, your nostalgic natterer is reminded of ACT's Four-Cornered Couch (1998). The Mousetrap is a bigger, slicker affair, but both projects are staged at the Carrefour, the two shows have several players in common, and both productions are impressive efforts built around a somewhat unimpressive script. For all its celebrated longevity and undeniable historical significance, The Mousetrap is a conspicuously weak text: repetitive dialogue, baffling plot holes, vexing inconsistencies and plausibility-straining conveniences abound, and some of the characters amount to little more than overblown set dressing. It's not a play that stands up to close scrutiny.

So it's flawed fluff. That being said, The Mousetrap is fun flawed fluff, a flavourful slice of well-aged theatrical cheese, complete with humour, suspense and a juicy twist ending; and the ACT cast & crew do it ample justice with this classy, cleverly playful production.

Director Monique Lafontaine puts her own stamp on the play by adapting it to a Prince Edward Island setting-but the characterizations and the basic situation remain the same. The Ralstons (Mary Joan Campbell and Christian Gavard), a young married couple, are getting started as innkeepers at Monkswell Manor, where their guests include the disagreeable Mrs. Boyle (Barb Rhodenizer), the distinguished Major Metcalf (Terry Pratt), the eccentric Christopher Wren (Kirk MacKinnon), the mysterious Ms. Casewell (Aldera Chisholm) and the morbidly bizarre Mr. Paravicini (Rob Thomson). When circumstances strand hosts and guests alike at the inn, Sergeant Trotter (Joey Weale) appears, warning them of a murderer in their midst. As the evening unfolds, suspicions are raised, secrets are revealed, and the killer is exposed...but not before committing a murder or two, of course.

Lafontaine assembles a wonderfully eclectic ensemble cast, able actors all, though MacKinnon and Thomson (who also produced the show) stand out in particular through their loopily larger-than-life portrayals of Wren and Paravicini-hammy stuff, but very entertaining indeed. The other roles are less flashy, but all performed very capably, and every actor nets some laughs over the course of the evening.

It's a very polished, professional production. The lighting (designed by Paul Druet and operated by Danny Maloney) is effective, the set (designed by Elissa Baltzer and constructed by various ACT personnel) is gorgeous, and the original music (composed and conducted by Carl Mathis) underlines and enhances the grimly playful mood of the show-a very nice touch indeed, especially since original music is something of a rare bonus in local theatre. All told, Lafontaine and company provide more than enough tasty tidbits to make it worth getting caught in The Mousetrap.

The Leight Brigade

Gang of Four productions presents Final Thoughts by Warren Leight

by Sean McQuaid

Ean Sheehy and Alexander ScottThis summer, a gang from New York City is occupying the Arts Guild in downtown Charlottetown…but neighbours need not fear. This is a gang of thespians, and they're here to put on a show.

The Gang of Four consists of performers Alexander Scott & Ean Sheehy, producer Irene Strang and author Warren Leight, all veterans of the New York theatre scene. Together, they are presenting Final Thoughts, a collection of short works by Leight, a Tony Award winning playwright. The show will include previously produced scripts and brand-new material, making this a world premiere of sorts; and they're delighted to be doing it on Prince Edward Island.

"I'm excited," says Sheehy. "We're coming here, and we get to do theatre the whole summer long. Thank God we're here." He marvels at how everyone seems to know everybody else, but is even more impressed by local attitudes. "Everyone is very nice," he says, noting that the community has been very supportive.

"I used to come here in the summers a lot," says Scott. "That was a big high point of my youth." Scott is the son of celebrated actors Colleen Dewhurst and George C. Scott, both deceased. Dewhurst bought a house in Fortune in 1972, becoming a longtime summer resident of the Island, and would bring her children here on extended vacations.

No surprise, then, that Scott eventually married an Islander, the aforementioned Strang, an accomplished producer, designer and decorator for stage and screen. "She has an incredible eye," says Scott of her work, "[but] she just always wanted to come home...and I finally listened to her. It's always been a dream of mine to be able to come to the Island and do theatre. Doing it for the sake of doing it…I always wanted to find a place where I can do that."

Sheehy and Scott were prepared to play all the Final Thoughts roles themselves, but then decided to hold auditions. "We thought it would be a great way to meet people in the Island theatre community," Sheehy recalls. In the end, they hired four "fantastic women"-Nancy McLure, Bonnie MacEachern, Kathleen Hamilton and newcomer Faye Williams-and divided the performances among them.

"It's about passion," Scott says of the casting, praising the "courage and magical raw talent" of their new recruits.

The Gang themselves are driven by passion for theatre. "We don't know how to do anything else," Scott says, "and it's not about taking anymore. I took a lot when I was younger." Scott hopes they can give something back to people through their work. "Maybe somebody will be positively affected by what we do," he muses. "That's an incredible sense of accomplishment.

"The long-term goal," Scott says, "is to try to develop a real ensemble company here. Geez, I would be almost happy then."

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