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Seeing Green

Anne of Green Gables – The Musical 

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your fickle freelancer walked into this year's Anne musical fearing he might be underwhelmed. Granted, the Charlottetown Festival's version of Anne Shirley is a reliable crowd-pleaser, but her sharing a stage with the Festival's surreally dazzling Alice Through the Looking-Glass this summer left your skeptical scribe wondering if plain, simple Anne might pale by comparison.  

As it turns out, not so much. The whip-smart, wildly inventive Alice may be the better show overall -- heck, it might be the best show ever mounted on the festival's main stage -- but Anne herself is the better, richer character, and the musical built around her continues to satisfy with character-driven humour, charm and heart.  

Former associate artistic director Wade Lynch returns as director of this year's Anne. There are lots of fun little touches befitting the comedically accomplished Lynch, plus some additional wordless scenes featuring a girl reading the original Lucy Maud Montgomery novel as our gateway into the story, a nice nod to Anne's creator. 

Even with those extra scenes, Lynch helms a somewhat shortened version of the show here, and all to the good -- there's less of the outdoor sporting business, for instance, but what remains of that is still a lively visual spectacle with lots of tightly choreographed moving parts. The more compact running time is an especially good fit for a show that often attracts a child audience. 

Performance-wise, publicity has focused on local actor Jessica Gallant as plucky orphan Anne Shirley – only the second Islander to fill the iconic role during its 51-year run – but she’s not the only item of note in the cast list. 

Lynch has filled many of the musical’s roles with new faces (some of them new to the Festival and all of them new to their parts), including Hank Stinson and Charlotte Moore as Anne’s adoptive parents Matthew & Marilla, Festival fixture Glenda Landry as meddlesome neighbor Rachel Lynde, Ben Chiasson as Anne’s would-be beau Gilbert, Jessie Cox as Anne’s best friend Diana, Kayla James as Anne’s rival Josie and Katie Kerr as Anne’s teacher Miss Stacy. 

Like Gallant, Stinson and Landry are Islanders, giving this year’s core cast an especially homegrown flavour. More importantly, all play their parts well, whether they are locals or “from away.” Gallant gives Anne the right mix of vulnerable sweetness and larger-than-life flourish; Cox is a girlishly charming Diana; Stinson’s Matthew is full of folksy pathos; Landry nails Mrs. Lynde’s obnoxious hauteur; Moore seems stiff at first as the repressed Marilla, even by the standards of the part, but is all the more emotionally potent when the character softens later on; James is fun to dislike as nasty little schemer Josie, as well as one of the company’s best dancers; and Kerr (who preceded Gallant in the title role) is bright and appealing as Miss Stacy, albeit somewhat implausible in the role since she often looks and sounds more like one of Anne’s classmates than a teacher.

An interesting asterisk, acting-wise: this review was based on a performance featuring understudy Anthony MacPherson as Gilbert, replacing an absent Chiasson. MacPherson usually appears in a smaller role as schoolboy “Moody” MacPherson but he slots seamlessly into a lead role here, which is exactly what an understudy is supposed to do. A solid triple threat, he sings, acts and dances his way through the part with energetic ease. 

The story and the musical are so familiar by now, and this critic so old and jaded, that your reviewer half-expects to be numb to the play’s charms each time he returns – but it hasn’t happened yet. And it doesn’t seem to have happened for the audience as a whole, either, if the large, happy crowd at this performance was any indication. These Gables remain evergreen. 

Power by fear

Captives of the Faceless Drummer

Review by Sean McQuaid

There’s a fun old Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode (“In the Cards”) where a possibly brilliant, probably paranoid scientist is obsessed with protecting his radical scientific research from the “soulless minions of orthodoxy.”

This nifty turn of phrase having lodged in your rerun-relishing reviewer’s noggin for nigh unto two decades now, it sprang to mind repeatedly during Vagabond Productions’ latest play, Captives of the Faceless Drummer.

Written in 1970-1971 by Canadian playwright George Ryga, best known for his 1967 hit The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, Drummer shares Rita Joe’s scattershot narrative structure and sense of crusading social consciousness but was more controversial, less coherent and far less commercially successful. 

Adulterous career diplomat Harry (played here by Robert Crossley) is captured by the terrorist Commander (Courtney Starkman). The play is mostly a series of Harry/Commander conversations and confrontations in the terrorists’ hideout with intermittent appearances by other characters.

Some of those characters appear in person like the Commander’s hapless minions Marcel (Adi Vella) and John (Malachi Roswell), while others manifest as figures from Harry’s memories like his wife Adrienne (Morgan Wagner), girlfriend Jenny (Jade Myers) and confidant Fritz (Ben Hartley).

All five supporting actors double as members of the Chorus (which also includes Matt MacPhee), vaguely ominous observers who drift in and out of view, often commenting on the story and sometimes interacting with it, occasionally slipping into the guises of various major and minor characters. 

Peppered with numerous flashbacks and other digressions, Drummer is light on plot—suffice it to say the Commander’s revolution ends happily for no one—but exists mostly as a framework for sociocultural statements and character study, fueled by a class warfare dynamic between complacent intellectual establishment man Harry (our soulless minion of orthodoxy) and the thuggishly idealistic working class Commander.

Ryga’s script shows flashes of insight, even prescience—its portrayal of a captor/captive bond predates the “Stockholm Syndrome” concept by about two years, and the Commander’s warnings that “anybody can ride to power on fear” feel especially timely in 2015 when our current Prime Minister relies heavily on stoking and exploiting fears aplenty, terrorism included—but Drummer’s oft-preachy characters feel a tad too didactic to be real by times, and their dialogue is often vulgar, banal or repetitive when it’s not being flamboyantly poetic.

It’s the kind of play that might be unbearable (or unintentionally hilarious) in the hands of subpar actors, but director Greg Doran’s casting dodges that bullet. Crossley and Starkman are superb throughout their respective marathon roles, showing tremendous range and intensity—alternately charismatic, repellent, sympathetic, funny, thoughtful, weary or scary as the script demands of them, and fascinating throughout.

The supporting cast is also strong, notably Wagner and Hartley in two of the meatier flashback roles as Adrienne and Fritz; and Vella as terrorist flunky Marcel, who adds extra humour and dimension to his role by conveying Marcel’s hunger wordlessly even when he isn’t vocally complaining about it.

Less ideally, Roswell brings impressively passionate emotion to John’s final falling out with the Commander but he rushes that scene, not giving the audience or the character enough time to move through John’s emotional beats naturalistically; and while Myers brings an affectingly gentle, fragile presence to the role of Jenny, her vocal projection could use a boost.

Also in need of a boost: UPEI’s theatrical venue options. It’s yet another Vagabond show staged in the UPEI Faculty Lounge, and while Doran’s production makes the most of this immediacy with semi-in-the-round seating arrangements and frequent deployments of his Chorus among the audience, a proper UPEI theatre space is long overdue.

Wonderful Bright

Our Town 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your superannuated scribbler has a thing about time. It's partly nostalgia, a lifelong fascination with the past: early jazz, Golden Age comic books, old movies, always looking back. And it's partly mortality, or an aging thespian's awareness of same; knowing all the world's a stage, and that we're all here for a strictly limited engagement. 

Those two preoccupations—one eye on yesteryear, the other on the undiscovered country—make this reviewer an immeasurably easy mark for Our Town, Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer-winning 1938 play about the nature of life and death as epitomized by the ordinary folks of fictional hamlet Grover's Corners, New Hampshire circa 1901-1913. 

Wilder's script is brilliant—sad, funny, hauntingly insightful—and timeless. So it's elegantly fitting on multiple levels that Our Town was the first production staged by ACT (a community theatre) way back in 1995, and that the company is remounting the play this year as part of their 20th anniversary celebrations; a play about community staged by a group building a PEI theatrical community, their efforts and the fruits of same spanning generations. 

It's a surreal slice of déjà vu all over again for ye olde reviewer, who covered the 1995 show in his younger days: same play, same venue (the fine Carrefour Theatre), same critic, even some of the same performers (albeit in different roles). It all feels vaguely unreal somehow, in a pleasant sort of way. 

ACT's nods to its history in this production go beyond the play, the venue and select performers. The program's credits are split between the present-day cast and crew and the 1995 originals, printing the latter's names in a spectral grey that foregrounds the new folks' credits while paying ghostly tribute to the past. It's a nice touch, as are the exhibits of ACT memorabilia on display in the Carrefour halls. 

So how does the 2015 production stack up against its fabled 1995 counterpart? Quite well, overall. Both productions are faithful to the stripped-down, impressionistic staging Wilder envisioned, using very limited props and sets and relying heavily on pantomime to build the play's world. Director Paul Whelan's actors do a fine job of that here with consistent and believable mime work. 

The 2015 company occasionally stumbles over lines, and some of them struggle with projection. Able ACT founders Barb Rhodenizer and Rob Thomson, both comedy gold here in smaller parts as Mrs. Soames and Professor Willard than the roles they played in 1995, unwittingly underline select fellow supporting players’ volume problems by filling the Carrefour with crystal clear vocal clarity, so the quieter stretches clearly aren't a venue acoustics issue. 

Fortunately, Whelan's core casting is strong. Fraser McCallum and Rebecca Griffin have great chemistry as the play's romantic leads, and are equally strong individually. McCallum crafts an earnestly genuine George with a winningly awkward appeal reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart, while the potently expressive, immensely charming Griffin is both hilarious and heartbreaking as Emily. 

Gordon Cobb, Samantha Elizabeth and Marly and Richard Haines are all solid as the young couple's assorted parents (apart from Elizabeth's occasional projection dips), with particular kudos to the comedic chops of Mr. and Mrs. Haines—most especially some priceless, wordless interplay between Mr. Haines and McCallum before George's wedding. 

Throw in some very fine supporting work from actors like Thomson, Rhodenizer, Gerry Gray, Errol Richardson, Raven Skyllas, Keir Malone and Greg Stapleton, plus predictably superb ACT staple Adam Gauthier as the omnipresent Stage Manager knowingly narrating the whole shebang like some community theatre Rod Serling, and you've got an ensemble to conjure with—worthy of Wilder's words, and of ACT's 1995 debut production. 

Nights of the Coffee Table

Celebrating two decades of ACT

by Sean McQuaid 

ACT’s first director David SherrenIt might be the most important coffee table in PEI theatrical history. That table belonged to civil servant Gerry Gray, who was hosting fellow theatre enthusiasts in his living room one wintry Sunday evening on March 19, 1995. They had gathered around Gray’s table to discuss forming a permanent community theatre group on Prince Edward Island.

Then as now, PEI boasted lots of theatre—year-round professional operations such as Theatre PEI and Off Stage Theatre (both now sadly defunct), plus seasonal enterprises like the Charlottetown Festival and Victoria Playhouse.

There were also scattered amateur productions, school musicals and Confederation Centre Christmas plays, but the coffee table assemblage wanted more—more and better community plays more often, staged by a permanent ongoing community theatre group. As actor Barb Rhodenizer put it, “In order to have performance opportunities, they needed to be created.”

Some of them had idly discussed this idea since at least 1993, and Gray had been courting Confederation Centre administrator David Sherren as a potential director for this theoretical theatre group.

Sherren eventually said yes, and the coffee table crew put their money where their mouths were: a membership fee of 25 bucks apiece made them all founders of a group semi-anticlimactically dubbed ACT (a community theatre). “Does exactly what it says on the tin,” as the old UK saying goes.

Early ACT members included Sherren, Gray, Rhodenizer, Jennifer Anderson, Wallena Higgins, Blaine Hrabi, Doug Huskilson, Ben Kinder, Allie McCrady, Ed Rashed, Greg Stapleton, Karen Swanson, Rob Thomson and more. Some were current or future theatrical professionals while others were gifted hobbyists, but 25 dollars bought them all a little slice of local theatrical immortality. It also purchased a pair of step ladders which became the minimalist set for ACT’s first production: Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s classic celebration of small-town life.

Youthful cast member Greg Stapleton was somewhat star-struck at their first script reading. “I remember the passion in that small room with that group of people,” he recalls. “Being 18 at the time, felt pretty special to be a part of something with such elite stage performers.”

Two months after the coffee table summit, Our Town opened at le Carrefour de l’Isle-Saint-Jean. The public responded enthusiastically, including professional actor Nancy McLure (later an ACT member). “It was magical,” she recalls. “I was so very proud of the cast and crew. I was an audience member and the show made me fall in love with theatre all over again.”

Twenty years later, ACT is one of the most enduring and influential groups in PEI theatre, staging well over 50 shows.

Full disclosure: two of those later shows employed this writer (ACT member circa 1998-2000), one secret of ACT’s success being expansion. From the start, they reached out to recruit thespians of all ages from all corners of the PEI theatre community. A wide array of theatre folk have cycled in and out of the group, helping foster variety in ACT’s performance catalog and a sense of a larger community among their ranks.

“We have [mostly] avoided the thing that destroys many amateur theatre groups sooner or later,” says longtime member Terry Pratt. “The impression you have to break into the coterie of insiders to participate in any significant way.”

Local theatre luminaries like Bunty Albert, Olivia Barnes, Dean Constable, Greg Doran, Doug Gallant, Adam Gauthier, Greg Hughes, Ron Irving, Nils Ling, Keir Malone, Sara McCarthy, Fraser McCallum, Rex McCarville, Nancy McLure, Dave Moses, Laurie Murphy, Jonathan Stewart and dozens more all played roles in the ACT story, some briefly and others for years.

Multiple members cite detail-conscious stage manager Wallena Higgins as key in setting a standard of excellence for ACT. Sherren (who left to run professional company Theatre New Brunswick), Pratt, Richard Haines, Brenda Porter, Paul Whelan and others have directed various productions successfully for the company, giving ACT a solid creative track record. Gray credits Karen Swanson with the “mammoth job” of staying in personal touch with ACT’s early members to keep them informed and engaged.

Barb Rhodenizer and Rob Thomson—Our Town Rehearsal, 1995Gray also praises pivotal ACT mainstay Rob Thomson, who has served as administrator, ambassador, emcee, publicist and everything in between while doubling as one of the company’s best actors. “I don’t think Rob Thomson ever gave less than 150% in whatever task he was doing,” says Gray.

Pratt became the ACT board’s first “Director of Theatre,” a position overseeing the selection of plays and directors, keeping both varied to avoid repetition and burnout. He believes ACT’s formal executive management structure has helped make the group stable and prosperous, so much so that ACT even bought its own building in 2004: a Beach Street warehouse, nicknamed “the Beach House,” where the company builds and stores its sets as well as housing ACT’s costumes, props and assorted mementos.

Beyond ACT’s financial and creative success, current president Brenda Porter is proudest of their development activities: “We provide workshops and play readings, lend costumes and set pieces to other theatre groups, encourage attendance at local productions.” Perhaps most notably and commendably, ACT took over management of the PEI Community Theatre Festival after Theatre PEI’s untimely demise.

UPEI professor Greg Doran credits the company with helping sustain a year-round PEI theatre audience despite the province’s often-seasonal theatre industry, and helping to build up PEI’s theatre community. Montreal-based writer Jonathan Stewart agrees: “ACT plays an essential role in building community, training artists, and making the Island a unique and fun place.”

Quite a laudable litany of achievements, all built on the quixotic foundation of those 25-dollar investors assembled around Gerry Gray’s coffee table twenty years ago. Or as Rob Thomson ably sums it all up, “We made something good happen.” 

Sean has compiled an appendix of additional ACT production history which is available below: 

ACT's 20th: Members Survey 
ACT's 20th: Tributes 
ACT's 20th: History

Endearing Silliness

Cinderella: A Fairly Tall Tale

Review by Sean McQuaid

Cinderella (photo: pixbylorne)Your paternal prattler was in no mood for princesses. He was tired and grumpy and wishing he’d gone to that mashed potato party with Mrs, Prattler, fond as he is of both her and potatoes.

But dauntless daughter Elsa was stoked for the princess show, so ye olde reviewer and his offbeat offspring ambled into the Homburg Theatre to watch the Confederation Centre of the Arts’ new community musical Cinderella: A Fairly Tall Tale. And the critic’s small heart grew three sizes that day, as the daddy-daughter duo enjoyed themselves immensely.

A yuletide jukebox musical written and directed by the Centre’s shiny new artistic director Adam Brazier, Cinderella: A Fairly Tall Tale (CFTT) returns yet again to the Cinderella fairy tale – this time set in a wintry PEI where Cinderella (Alicia Toner) toils thanklessly at the Happiness Hotel until she finds romance with Prince Edward (Aaron Hastelow) through the mystical aid of her Fairly Good Mother (Meghan Hoople) despite the interference of her wicked stepmother Putrid (the conspicuously male Jody Racicot). Hijinks ensue, as they are wont to do.

There’s singing, dancing, slapstick, local humour (the Tignish and Crapaud references are especially good), pop culture references (everything from Shania Twain to Frank Langella) and poop jokes (executed with enough shameless glee, deft wordplay and expert timing to largely negate your constipated critic’s reflexive disdain for such things).

It’s all about as subtle and sophisticated as a pack of strawberry Twizzlers, yet often just as pleasingly sweet. Brazier’s show seldom takes itself too seriously, basically serving as a loose framework for a bunch of cornball jokes and musical numbers. It’s all written and performed with a tongue-in-cheek wink that makes all the silliness palatable, even endearing.

CFTT’s knowingly goofy vibe, its communal spirit (embodied by a pleasingly eclectic 90-plus cast with only several professional actors among them), its variety show elements (such as a talent show segment and some lovely choral singing before the show and during intermission) and a very meta sense of characters consciously putting on a show are all pleasantly reminiscent of The Muppet Show. In fact, one of CFTT’s musical numbers even comes from The Great Muppet Caper (1981).

Welcome added bonuses are CFTT’s video segments directed by Jan Rudd, TV commercials which combine brazenly blatant local business promotion with surreal comedy bits. It’s hard to resent product placement in your entertainment when it’s this funny.

Lead players Toner, Hastelow, Hoople and Racicot are all great. Other standouts include Jacob Durdan as Cinderella’s friend Buttons, an unrecognizably vile Adam Gauthier as wicked stepsister Botox, a similarly hideous and even funnier William Millington as wicked stepsister Bovine, and a note-perfect Fraser McCallum as cheesy talent show host Ryan Seabiscuit.

My second-favourite performer in the bunch is the delightfully pathetic Sarah MacPhee as a teary-eyed town crier, who wrings countless laughs from her one-joke character; but my favourite would be Elsa McQuaid herself, appearing on stage during an audience participation segment as a talent show judge. Impartiality be darned, she was adorable (takes after her mother that way); and the rest of CFTT was pretty good, too.

Online Edition Bonus: Elsa’s Review

As noted above, Elsa was among several kids drafted into appearing on stage as talent show judges, rewarded with plastic light-up wands for their efforts. “I felt like I had butterflies in my stomach while I was on stage,” she says, “but it was worth it because I got this cool wand.” 

She said it was “really strange” to be up there in front of so many people. But she concludes, “I enjoyed my time up on the stage, and I could actually see the people doing the music” in the orchestra pit.

She liked the Snow White sequence “because all of the dwarfs were coming behind Snow White and then they wouldn’t stop to walk and it was just really funny.”

“I also loved when the rainbow lights went on the sides” of the theatre walls, she says, a neat effect used recently in Jesus Christ Superstar.

“I thought the commercials were really funny. All of the characters kept on appearing in the commercials and it was just really funny.”

Regarding audience participation of the cheering/booing variety: “I thought that the cheering was okay but the booing was, like, weird to me.”

“I loved the little cute pony that pulled Cinderella and I loved Cinderella's dress. It was all white like a wedding gown but all sparkly, and her old dress transformed into her beautiful dress.” Best spinning transformation since Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, says the paternal prattler…

Ado Done Well

Much Ado About Nothing

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your broken-down bardolatrist’s brain is bedeviled by Much Ado About Nothing, what little of said brain isn’t awash in abusing alliteration anyway.

On the one hand, Ado features some of William Shakespeare’s finest comedic dialogue and two of his most entertainingly alluring romantic leads, acerbic verbal sparring partners turned soul mates Beatrice and Benedick.

On the other hand, the plot strains both credibility and modern gender sensibilities in its treatment of junior romantic female lead Hero, who ultimately shrugs off some unforgivably ugly mistreatment from the men in her life en route to the requisite Shakespearean comedy matrimonial happy ending.

There’s unresolved darkness in Hero’s arc, all the more conspicuous given how frothily fluffy the rest of the play is, a will-they-won’t-they lark about a couple of jaded upper-crust quipsters manipulated into romancing each other by mischievous peers.

That being said, there’s so much to like in Ado’s language and characters that a skillful production can transcend the play’s limitations, such as Joss Whedon’s sweetly hilarious 2012 film adaptation or the funny, inventive production mounted in Robert Cotton Park by ACT this summer.

The latter is the latest in ACT’s series of Shakespearean park productions, comparing favourably to its predecessors. While not quite as wide-rangingly adventurous as ACT’s MacBeth in terms of mining the park’s many locales, it surpasses their A Midsummer Night’s Dream by more fully exploiting the park’s varied surroundings.

The result is a show with lots of visual variety, much of it quite pleasing, though a scene inexplicably staged in front of some ill-concealed modern park dumpsters is an odd choice that gels with neither the show’s often-pastoral vibe nor the period-specific, post-World War I setting conceived for this production by director Richard Haines.

Speaking of that postwar setting, it works well here. Ado’s story – about feuding nobles Beatrice (Olivia Barnes) and Benedick (Adam Gauthier) falling in love with each other while they help save the romance of Beatrice’s cousin Hero (Alexandra MacDonald) and Benedick’s friend Claudio (Patrick Jeffrey) from a plot engineered by evil Don John (Robert Crossley) to spite his estranged half-brother Don Pedro (Keir Malone), influential friend to the assorted lovebirds – is a straightforward romantic comedy that could fit comfortably into most any time period, and the military background of multiple characters translates well to Haines’ chosen postwar milieu.

The post-World War I setting also enables Haines to add some colour by way of handsome period-specific costuming and tantalizingly brief tastes of period-specific music as well, giving this production its own unique look and feel.

Haines and his cast excel at finding the funny in their script, sometimes in unexpected ways. There’s a lot of cartoonishly broad physical comedy, executed especially well by Gauthier; but there’s also subtler nuances like a good eye and ear for the comedic potential of quiet awkwardness, whether it’s Barnes’ Beatrice squirming at a hint of romantic interest from Malone’s Pedro or Hero’s gentlewoman attendant Ursula (Catherine MacDonald) uneasily interrupting an overly ardent Beatrice/Benedick duo.

Ye olde reviewer is considering programming a keyboard shortcut along the lines of “Adam Gauthier is great as _____” because Gauthier’s work in parts large or small is so consistently strong. His Benedick is no exception: alternately tough or tender as the story requires, always entertaining and believable whether he’s being suavely aloof or goofily vulnerable, he fills out every aspect of the role adroitly.

If Barnes’ Beatrice seems a tad more affected by times, it doesn’t sink her performance. She strikes a tone of airily arch wit that suits the character’s penchant for clever banter, which Barnes delivers smoothly and amusingly throughout. She and Gauthier make a good team, helped along by some of Shakespeare’s best playfully romantic dialogue.

Other standouts in the cast include reliably strong performers Catherine MacDonald & Malone; sympathetic lovers Alexandra MacDonald & Jeffrey; father-son funnymen Tim & Danny Wartman netting laughs aplenty as inept policemen Dogberry & Verges; comforting presence Alex Arsenault as supportive clergyman Friar Francis; and a delightful Amanda Rae Gallant, who brings winning charm and primo pipes to her role as Hero’s attendant Margaret.

Able ACT veteran Terry Pratt mostly works well as Hero’s father Leonato, apart from the character’s mid-show meltdown over Hero’s supposed infidelities. It’s a potentially awkward scene for any actor given how unsympathetically over-the-top Shakespeare writes Leonato’s reaction to begin with, but Pratt’s version goes simultaneously too far and not far enough: going through the motions of literally falling down and tearing up the ground in distress, without injecting quite enough raw emotion to really sell that extreme action as genuine.

Robert Crossley is a puzzle as Don John. It’s not a bad performance, and often unexpectedly entertaining, but his off-kilter tone and delivery often feel more eccentric than malevolent, more of a wacky neighbour vibe than a “plain-dealing villain.” Not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not always clear what emotion or motivation he’s trying to convey.

Haines is a plain-dealing director, though, and a fine cast in a fun location helps him achieve Ado done well.

(Having said that, ye olde reviewer, musically suggestible as he is, keeps hearing “Ado done well” on an endless loop in his noggin to the tune of vintage pop song “Da Do Run Run” – which apart from offering further proof  of said reviewer’s dubious mental stability, just might form the basis for a catchy advertising campaign someday.)

The Meaning of Storytelling

Story

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your aged analyst has a long history with David Weale productions, dating back to when the inimitable Ed Rashed and I briefly served as roadies for a touring production of Weale’s very first storytelling stage show, A Long Way from the Road. Our only remuneration was our supper and a lift back to Charlottetown, but we enjoyed the show—as did PEI audiences. Weale spent much of the next two decades starring in Long Way and its assorted sequels, and I reviewed a few of those shows.

Fast forward to 2014, when Paper Lions drummer David Cyrus MacDonald had an idea for a show about storytelling and secured a 2014 grant to fund it. Weale endorsed the grant proposal and later joined the production, co-writing the script with its director, MacDonald’s Paper Lions band mate Colin Buchanan. The result is half anthology, half analysis as the show presents a series of stories while pondering the meaning of storytelling itself.

The show features a host of short stories presented by assorted performers in impressively varied formats—dialogues, monologues, jokes, poems, songs, photographs, video clips, even animated cartoons—all introduced and interlinked by narrator/host Mike Walker, who appears as the personification of Story itself.

Other performers include actor Hank Stinson, storyteller Alan Buchanan, singers/songwriters Ashley Condon & Dylan Menzie, and musician Brad Fremlin. It’s a good mix of complimentary and contrasting storytelling styles and flavours, shifting back and forth between larger-than-life character Buchanan (the director’s father), wryly understated Stinson, charmingly folksy Condon and the more musically intense Menzie. Walker ties it all together neatly as Story with silky-smooth, seemingly effortless grace.

Story’s performers are all individually impressive, especially Condon—her emotional range, warmth, humour and musicality could justify the price of admission all on their own—but this production is more than just the sum of its excellent parts. The playwrights’ meditations on the meaning and importance of storytelling, mostly voiced by Walker’s Story, offer thoughtful insight and provide a narrative spine giving the show a sense of continuity, momentum and purpose. The show also features many thoughtful and often amusing comments on the nature of PEI stories in particular, including consideration of how storytelling both defines and preserves a given time or place.

Weale fans might be disappointed that his only appearance in the show is a brief video voice-over, but anyone who doesn’t see him in Story isn’t looking hard enough. His sensibility, quirks and even some of his old material are peppered throughout the script, and Walker’s sly, lilting storytelling cadence often echoes Weale’s performance style.

The first of the show’s many gear shifts is an awkward one as the velvety-voiced Walker’s opening monologue gives way to a jarringly loud Menzie musical number, but most of the show’s various sequences blend together much more smoothly, forging an eclectic array of entertaining stories into a coherent and compelling whole. It’s an impressive debut production for MacDonald’s company, Confederation Entertainment. One might call it a success story.

Living a Legend

The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom

Review by Sean McQuaid

Cameron MacDuffee as Stompin' TomYour crusty chronicler admires the persistence of playwright David Scott. By his own account, Scott pestered Canadian music icon Stompin’ Tom Connors into helping him create a musical based on Connors’ life and music, wearing him down with a series of letters until the living legend acquiesced.

Five years of development later, The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom premiered at the Blyth Festival in 2006 and has since been remounted by several companies, including the Charlottetown Festival in 2008. The show is now playing exclusively at the Harbourfront Theatre as the foundation of that venue’s nascent Summerside Theatre Festival.

Between and sometimes during performances of Connors’ songs, the show stages a largely chronological series of vignettes charting the star’s life story. His troubled youth (parts of it spent on PEI), nomadic wanderings, career struggles, rise to fame, self-imposed retirement and latter-day comeback all unfold over the course of the play.

Jukebox musical veteran Cameron MacDuffee (past credits include Ring of Fire and Dear Johnny Deere), stars as the adult Connors and leads all the songs in that guise. While not an impersonation per se, MacDuffee’s performance captures much of Connors’ style as both a musician and a personality, often strongly evoking the original.

MacDuffee brings a crafty twinkle to the show in general and the musical numbers in particular, but he also has enough dramatic range to pull off the darker chapters of Connors’ story, whether he’s observing them passively in flashbacks or actively participating in the scenes.

He’s backed by an excellent house band (led by musical director Chas Guay), who also play assorted small supporting roles in the story; and a strong cast of eight actors, most of whom also play multiple parts. Highlights among these include a haunted Emily Oriold-Keay as Connors’ petty criminal mother Isabel, who brings the play much of its pathos; and all-star utility player Gordon Gammie, whose many roles range from the quiet dignity of Connors’ stepfather Russell to the screwball comedy of the world’s weirdest ice cream vendor, not to mention a laugh-out-loud hilarious bit as a potential employer baffled and repulsed by Tom’s bizarre “Muleskinner Blues” song.

Scott’s script has more meat than many such jukebox musicals, crafting a life story that conveys a strong sense of Connors’ character and the events that shaped it, not just a concert with dramatic asides. Director Catherine O’Brien and her fine cast do Scott’s work ample justice with a smooth, well-crafted production that often fosters a sense of playful humour in the proceedings.

Scott’s script loses steam somewhat near the end, partly because the most dramatic elements of its subject’s life are unavoidably front-loaded in Tom’s early years. Even taking that into account, the home stretch before the finale feels somewhat cursory and anticlimactic as the story more or less peters out, though a big musical finish helps the show end on a high note regardless.

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Recent News & Articles

New location for PEI MFRC

After being closed for most of 2018, the PEI Military Family Resource Centre (PEI MFRC) has re-opene [ ... ]

Music PEI SOCAN Songwriter of the Year A...

Music PEI kicked off the first of the ticketed shows for 2019 Credit Union Music PEI Week on Thursda [ ... ]

PEI director

Charlotte Gowdy to direct Crimes of the Heart at Watermark Watermark Theatre has announced that Cha [ ... ]