The Nine Lives of L. M. Montgomery
by Fraser MacCallum
The famed author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, is dear to the hearts of hundreds of thousands who have been swept away by her inspiring heroines, playful imagination and vivid description of this Island. Montgomery was a best seller of over 20 works and as Islanders, we owe her thanks for helping to put us on the map and create an eventual behemoth of an industry (I recently saw Anne ear muffs for sale. Essential? Absolutely). However, behind Montgomerys legacy there is a woman, who, although a brilliant wordsmith, was agonized by personal demons for much of her life. This duality brings us, the audience, to the Carrefour Theatre in Charlottetown for the ambitious musical, The Nine Lives of L.M. Montgomery.
Returning for a second year, the production has moved from Georgetown to Charlottetown’s French school. Following Maud from childhood right to death we explore her early inspirations, the valleys and peaks of her career, her family life and numerous internal struggles.
Natalie Oman, in her first year with the production, plays the heroine and truly leads with excellence. Her portrayal of Maud is complex and textured, her comedic timing superb and her voice smooth and soaring. Throughout the show we meet many of Maud’s storybook characters including the famous orphan, Anne, played expertly by Lindsay Kyte. Kyte’s voice is enchanting and her energy seemingly boundless, hitting all the right marks. Other standout performances include local talent Helen Killorn as Maud’s dear friend, Frede and adorable Island youngster Lacey Koughan as the title character from Magic for Marigold.
The Carrefour is a challenging theatre to stage a show in. Its high school setting can disrupt the atmosphere of a professional show. The production team behind Nine Lives compensates however, with some very technically intricate stage pieces. A tall, backlit scrim with a changing LCD panel above bearing the names of Maud’s titles was very effective in creating a book cover effect. Characters like Emily of New Moon and Valency of Blue Castle would appear in the frame as Maud created them. The other major stage piece was a massive backlit LCD screen that serves as backdrop. It was used very creatively showing character silhouettes (a great scene involving Maud’s greedy publicist, played well by Scott McGuigan) or video (young Maud’s cross country train trip). It was less effective, however, when simply showing still nature shots seeming almost too modern and alien for the period furniture and costumes (which are terrific).
Director Adam-Michael James and Musical Director Leo Marchildon have assembled a solid cast and created some beautiful musical numbers. Highlights include “I am a Newspaper Woman,” a catchy number with Maud and her uptight press staff at the Halifax Echo, “1917,” a looming war march where Maud grapples with the strains of WWI and “Maud meets her public” where our heroine handles a blitz from press and fans.
The fundamental difficulties with Nine Lives however are in length and tone. The second act dragged sometimes, and three hours is a long time to explore such darkness and depression. We learn extensively of Maud’s personal life, her overbearing grandmother, her husband’s severe melancholia, her lofty expectations for her sons, all of which is compelling for LMM fans old and new, however at times the plot becomes overly involved and confusing, and the continuously dark tone overbearing and sometimes melodramatic. Some theatergoers mentioned afterwards that the story’s balance between Maud’s highs and lows felt uneven, leaving a somber tone in the theatre.
The Nine Lives of L.M. Montgomery is still a unique and entertaining show, a crucial viewing for fans of her work. The writers obviously did extensive research about Maud’s life, and one comes away with a comprehensive grasp of her inspirations and legacy. The set is original, the cast predominately strong and the music first-rate. With alterations for length and more focus on her successes in the second-act Nine Lives could compete for many summers to come.