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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.

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

Fire

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."

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