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Tackling the Legacy

Stan Rogers—A Matter of Heart

by Fraser McCallum

Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers is remembered as one of this country’s best and brightest, a big man with a bigger voice. He was a fine poet and a man of great intellect who tragically left the world too young in 1983. After a seven-year absence from the Confed Centre, the Stan musical review, Stan Rogers—A Matter of Heart, returns this summer in a smaller, more intimate production at The Mack.

Covering 35 of Rogers’ best-known songs, Heart is directed by Scott Burke and features just four actors, all of whom are solo performers in their own right. Confed Centre vets Terry Hatty, Julain Molnair, John Connolly and Joey Kitson together tackle the Stan legacy. Along for the ride with them is an expert trio of musicians; guitarist MJ Mullin, violinist Christina Bouey and the show’s Music Director Konrad Pluta. The band is top-notch. For small numbers they create a grand and textured presence, and Mullin is a tour-de-force.

The structure is simple, rolling through two acts of Stan classics with light narration in between. This isn’t traditional theatre, but musical tribute with the performers playing themselves and dressed in period wardrobe to match each song’s theme. A simple set of wooden, vaguely wharf-like flats and masts complement a projector screen backdrop (all the rage these days, it seems!) that shift through land and seascapes. All the classics tunes are here, from “Northwest Passage” to “The Mary Ellen Carter.” Connolly undertakes the holy grail of Stan, “Barrett’s Privateers,” early in the night and nails it. With Kitson and Hatty backing him on the response, Connolly thunders through the tune, a verbal marathon, with sharp character and grit, delivering a show highlight for sure.

Molnair shines on “White Squall,” one of Rogers’ many songs of ships at sea. A hush swept over the crowd as she embodied a sailor’s lover crying out for his safety after taking him for granted for years. Molnair stands out with the most stirring voice of the cast, the kind that carries you somewhere else and leaves you with a lump in your throat. (“Ma’ gawd, she’s some good” I heard an elderly lady astonish behind me). Molnair also gets big laughs on “Working Joe,” a playful Rogers tune about the 9–5 grind. In a great gender-bending flip, Molnair plays the cocky office suit who comes home to the three guys who scurry about in matching aprons, frantically getting her drinks and excessive comforts. This simple scenario  showcased the cast’s solid comic chops.

The numbers range from solos like Hatty’s touching take on “House of Orange,” the story of pushy IRA reps at the door, to rousing songs like “Acadian night” with all four hands on deck locking harmonies splendidly and violinist Bouey taking to her feet as a furious fiddler with poise and color. Heart really shows off the diversity of Rogers’ songwriting with many classic tales of struggle and hardship but plenty of comedic gems, love ballads and, of course, sea songs.

The direction, costuming and lighting are all delivered admirably. The only crack in the show would seem to this writer to be the lack of storytelling about Stan. If you’re a Stan Rogers devotee you will no doubt love the show, however as someone whose Rogers knowledge is small, I felt like I learned very little about his actual life. The man stands shoulder to shoulder with so many other Canadian greats, like Stompin’ Tom and Gordon Lightfoot, yet most of my fellow 20-somethings wouldn’t know much of his life and the opportunity was missed to speak to this. That said Connolly, Hatty, Kitson and Molnair should be applauded for their inspiring performances. Although I longed a few times for Stan’s brassy baritone voice, they breathe new life into his old gems, from beginning to end.

A Difficult Life in Music

The Nine Lives of L. M. Montgomery

by Fraser MacCallum

The cast of The Nine Lives of L. M. Montgomery with Natalie Oman in the lead role

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.


Corner Brook Chronicles

Report from 2009 ECMAs

by Fraser McCallum

A couple of Hobos—ECMAs (photo: Moe)PEI Performance

For the recent ECMAs in Newfoundland, PEI sent more than a dozen musical acts, and a bevy of family, friends and industry supporters to Cornerbrook for the 20th annual awards. Two buses, packed with performers and gear, left PEI on February 25 buzzing with anticipation.

The Seaport Lounge within the “illustrious” Hotel Cornerbrook was Music PEI’s headquarters. Two highlights from the Friday show were The Lazy Jacks and the Grass Mountain Hobos. The four Jacks are experienced tradditional multi-instrumentalists who also feature three part harmonies. They were a dynamic contrast to the young acts on the Island’s roster this year. Says vocalist Peter Wynne, “ECMAs were fantastic. Although the business was constant, it was the chance hangout with other musicians and supporting each other’s shows that will stand out for us.”

Pat Deighan at Marble Mountain—ECMAs (photo: Moe)

The Grass Mountain Hobos followed and proved why they created a buzz all weekend. The Hobos are a stomping string-band made up of six 20-somethings who dress in matching fedoras and poorboy suits. They combine flashy attire with vigorous take on bluegrass music. The Hobos impressed wherever they went, eventually bringing home PEI’s only trophy this year, for best bluegrass album. Exhausted frontman Josh Ellis thanked all their fans and expanded, “To top it all off with the bluegrass album of the year, wow. To quote a not-so-big influence of ours, Crowbar, ‘ooooooohhh what a feelin—what a rush!’”

A couple of Hugs—ECMAs (photo: Moe)One of the big weekend highlights for PEI was singer-songwriter Meaghan Blanchard from Hunter River. Performing five times in four days, the 20-year-old’s dance card was full, yet she met the challenge every time. Meaghan turned many heads Friday night with an all-star band behind her and also at songwriters’ events on the Saturday. Nominated for two awards for her debut EP, Changing Things, Meaghan was in the spotlight on the CBC-televised gala on the Sunday night.

Meaghan Blanchard on the big stage for the televised ECMA awards concert in Cornerbrook (photo: Fraser McCallum)Other Island entertainers who came up big in Cornerbrook were Charlottetown’s Smothered in Hugs. The up-tempo rock fivesome has worked diligently for five years in the Maritimes and is now getting some much deserved attention. At an after-party performance at the Pepsi Centre, the Hugs, colourfully dressed in bright, exclamation-mark collared shirts, thundered out a guitar-driven set that had the room bouncing. According to keyboardist Todd MacLean, the band’s myspace site achieved 4000 visits the next day.

On the ferry—ECMAs (photo: Moe)Kinley Dowling, a violin player from Stratford , performed her final gigs with Newfoundland’s Hey Rosetta! over the weekend. The home-province rockers came away as the big winners Sunday night, snagging three ECMAs and Dowling was part of an excellent live number, televised on CBC.

Folk-singer John Connolly and multi-project frontman Dennis Ellsworth were other PEI talents that got attention.

Ruth Minnikin at the bike shop—ECMAs (photo: Fraser McCallum)All the PEI artists performed with pride and delivered the goods, enduring long days and nights of non-existent rest. Music PEI should be be commended for producing several terrific shows, bringing such a fine group of people closer together, and getting everyone home in one piece to dry out.

The Chronicles

The ECMAs are always the Maritimes’ musical party of the year. This year was no exception; the four-day extravaganza filled with ‘those moments’ and ‘oh-my-god’ performances. However, with the big show held more than a 24-hour bus-ride away in the quirky, industrial town of Cornerbrook, this year was a wild one, unlike any other.

On the Friday evening, I was on the same flight to Newfoundland as the CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi, in town to host the awards show. It should be noted that Ghomeshi reads the business section of the Toronto Star inside out. Also, Ghomeshi shakes one’s hand with the strength of a toddler. Yikes.

I caught up with the PEI crew at the Seaport Lounge, a venue reminiscent of the great downstairs from the days of Myron’s (RIP). Having missed the six-hour ferry ride over (where buses from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI all convened), I was told by many that PEI’s Vishten, the Grass Mountain Hobos, and Meaghan Blanchard had gotten the whole ship hopping along with their Island tunes. O’Leary native Josh Ellis of the Hobos stammered, “We were scheduled to play at 1:30 am, by that time the place was as packed and juiced as an unopened jar of pickles. One Newfie woman wanted to dance with our fiddler so bad she knocked him over on stage—just a complete riot on the waters.”

Having been to the past three ECMAs, I can attest that Cornerbrook organized some of the quirkiest host venues. One unforgettable show took place inside a tiny shop, Cycle-solutions. With small, yellow lights blinking and mountain bikes hanging all around, a captive audience took in the fine folk sounds of Duane Matthews and later Ruth Minnikin. Matthews, of St. John’s, acrobatically finger-picked through a set of playful gypsy and jazz songs, closing with a hilarious, classical take on Sweet Georgia Brown. Minnikin, a tall, smiley Haligonian with a sultry voice played a wide array of bittersweet folk songs from across her career. This was the most attentive audience I saw all weekend, obviously not bothered by the pungent scent of new rubber tires.…

From there it was off to Union Station for the Music Nova Scotia stage. Big-voiced singer Carmen Townsend, a consummate ECMA nominee, brought down the house. Her fiery red hair flying around like a windmill, Townsend amazed with her Joplin-esque vocal style and wall-of-sound guitar shredding. The double-threat was followed by Share, an up-and-coming indie band from Fredericton. The five-piece’s red/blue light show was dazzling, lyrics introspective and music full of epic swells and gang vocals. Two of Share’s members often support PEI’s Catherine MacLellan, among others, and they proved they could shine with any project.

Saturday morning, after a bowl of rabbit stew and some hilarious banter with Hotel Cornerbrook’s staff (Wot would'ja like, moy trout?) I caught PEI’s Songs & Writers concert.

Dennis Ellsworth’s acoustic set was a great surprise. Normally the front-man of hard rock band, Battery Point, he showed an intimate side, playing some Haunted Hearts (his other project) and Battery Point songs acoustically. Music PEI Exec Rob Oakie added a layer of mandolin atop a few, including “Electric Stars,” a heartfelt song about missing one’s love on the road. The synergy was powerful, an afternoon highlight that entranced the room.

Down East Islander Tim Chaisson hit the deck next alongside his barefooted, right-hand man, Tian Wigmore. They delivered a vibrant set of poppy, acoustic tunes. Chaisson, a previous ECMA nominee, started feeling unwell from the flu, but acting fast, whipped out his fiddle and nimbly demonstrated his skills with some classic celtic, stirring the crowd. A fan-club of girls sprung up just as quickly, spinning and grinning across the dance floor. Aside from the ill-health Chaisson coveted his weekend, reflecting, “So much good stuff went on at ECMAs! It was great to hang out with the other artists all weekend too!”

From Chaisson to the Sidewalks and from Vishten to The Orb Weavers, many spoke of the strong fraternity among the Island delegation this year. Showcasing folk artist, and three time PEIMA winner, John Connolly echoed this, “My impression of PEI was one of unity…more than ever it seemed like one big band.”

Never was this more evident than when the exhausted musician gang finally left the ferry during the 24-hour bus ride home. Our oddball bus driver forgot the aforementioned Connolly onboard. The panicked howls of the entire PEI crew eventually forced the jumpy driver to pull over. Luckily for Connolly, it was only a three-kilometre chase in the sleet and snow. Crisis averted.

Some other highlights included the return of folk singer Jill Barber, who now calls BC home. Her performance of “Oh my my” at the Sunday’s gala showed a new depth to her music, and she looked radiant in a 50s pink and white gown. Also seeing Charlottetown’s country gem, Nudie and the Turks in a live workshop with hotshot producer Tom Jackson was memorable. A frantic American, Jackson stripped a Turks’ song down and built it back up in front of a live audience. An impromptu jam session on the ferry home was unforgettable as well. Led by New Brunswick country singer Ryan Cook, and featuring the strings of the Hobos and Turks, and fine voice of Meaghan Blanchard, the artists rolled through a lively set of folk and country classics. A large crowd of Newfoundlanders, artists and others amassed, somehow still energized after four intense days of entertainment, and loved every minute of it.

The weekend is a blur in retrospect, and a challenge to process as a reporter. My eyes were opened to both the inspiring depth of Island talent, and the respect and mutual support that exists within that scene. I’m sure the same can’t be said all over this country. Although all of the bands’ friends and families couldn’t make it, it was impressive to see MLAs Carolyn Bertram and Cynthia Dunsford in town along with the managers of Harmony House and The Guild. The support from such players is essential in keeping our music scene strong and developing in these tough times.

Cornerbrook proved to be a little too spread out and industrial to really excel and embrace the music festival. This didn’t hinder our performers from making big strides and putting on many engaging shows, but I echo the sentiment expressed by many performers and industry folks alike; it’s pretty tough to beat the ECMA party when it’s in Charlottetown. Let the countdown begin to March 2011.

King of Quirk

Lorne Elliott

Review by Fraser McCallum

The king of quirk is back. Lorne Elliott recently rocked The Guild with the first of three completely different stage shows this season. Hitting the road soon for a cross-Canada comedy coup, Elliott chose his frequent summer home to debut a treasure trove of standup comedy gems. Back for the first time since a startling heart attack last year, Elliott addressed the elephant in the room before the lights even went up, irreverently titling the show “Catch him before he croaks.” Within the first five minutes he had the house in stitches recounting the strangeness of the event that “was all the gossip in my household.” Knocking off comic shots left and right he persisted at an electric pace all evening, musing at everything from the blandness of a New Brunswick drive (the Manitoba of the East!) to the frustration of the much celebrated GPS technology.

Elliott has made a career out of fast wit and a foolish delivery. His signature mop of almost self-determined curls flopping back and forth, Elliott matches his verbal eloquence with a lively sideshow of onstage physicality. With a simple stretch of the jaw and wide-eyed blink, he can transform his rubber face into great contortions, throwing the audience into fits of laughter. He carries a full bag of tricks as his physical humour is top shelf yet his targets never run astray. Eliot weaves nimbly from storyteller to satirist, from the political to the absurd, always enduring as the audience’s fellow laymen, and not one who “tells you how it is.” While hitting upon some classic common ground (middle-aged marital mirth, or Canada’s great outdoors) Eliot also keeps it topical when needed examining Afghanistan and even the ubiquitous green shift. In one of the heartiest laughs of the night, the master comic gleefully suggested that “slittin’ your wrists and flingin’ yourself on the compost heap” could be a desperate answer to the climate change conundrum. Cue hoots and howls.

The expert funnyman also carries a fine musical ear as his 90-minute show is fleshed out with deft homage to folk, classic rock, blues and country. Unlike some comedic acts, Elliott is a true double threat. His songs are clever but fundamentally well-crafted and his fingers fast and nimble. He wisely keeps the crowd snapping and clapping in between musical guffaws, getting all involved while reminiscing of “his crappy highschool band” or spinning Hendrix in his grave with a priceless rendition of “the Wind cried Mary” on ukulele.

Little critique can be made of the nutty night chez Lorne. Occasionally, his comedic tangents can weave slightly astray leaving the big punch lines a little anti-climactic but the detour is often a thrill ride with its own payoffs. As well, some Canadian pot-shots are a bit obvious at times but both these critiques are rare occurrences amongst a quick-witted act that was nothing short of outstanding. At 55, Eliot is still a joy to watch and hasn’t softened a bit over his illustrious career. He is truly a master of his craft from all aspects and will leave you gasping for air. While always biting and absurd, Eliot’s playful standup is never vulgar and can hit home with all ages.

Imaginative Dexterity

Stones in His Pockets

Review by Fraser McCallum

Stones in His Pockets stars Wade Lynch and Patric Masurkevitch in a compelling two hander—an Irish dramatic comedy presented by more than thirteen unique characters, but just two tireless performers. The result is a poignant and thoroughly entertaining tour-de-force by two veteran funnymen.

Stones, written by Marie Jones and directed soundly by Confederation Centre favourite Marlane O’Brien, has a classic premise. Big wig Hollywood arrives in a small town Ireland and attempts to recreate the “Irish-feel” with a blockbuster film. The results of this clash are both hilarious and startlingly tragic.

The play follows both sides of the show-within-the-show centering on two under-worked, directionless Irish locals, Jake Quinn and Charlie Conlon, cast as extras in The Quiet Valley. The bigheaded film producers exploit the Kerry county locals, paying them meagerly and dismissing them as bumpkins. Amongst the many characters Lynch and Masurkevitch embody are a pair of arrogant Assistant Directors; the hilarious Caroline Giovanni—a ditzy American starlet bent on capturing the elusive ‘Irish lilt’; veteran film extra Mickey—a merry old Irishmen with a pentene for gin and off-key crooning; and Clem—a fop of a British director chasing the film’s commercial appeal.

The show moves along at an elevated pace, often feeling more like a spectator sport or improv comedy show than a drama. The characters transition nimbly from drunken local at the pub to bad-tempered bodyguard (a Scotsmen nailed hilariously by Masurkevitch) without dropping a beat. The actors have only the basic theatre tools of characterization and simple costuming to transform themselves mid-scene into a drastically different persona and back again. This could lead to confusion if not for the imaginative dexterity executed by both actors. They play perfectly off one other, be it as bickering farmers or as swooning love interests.

The show-stealer of the night features Lynch’s bumbling Jake Quinn trying to seduce the arrogant star Giovanni in her Winnebago. Both have ulterior motives, with Quinn looking to make it big in Hollywood and Giovanni simply chasing the elusive Irish accent. Her early attempts at articulating “I will speak to my father” are hysterical enough but Masurkevitch need only throw a simple toss of the wrist and Giovanni the airhead is alive and vivacious, and the results side-splitting.

Lynch, as always, shines bright in this story of adversity and opportunity. His various accents are impeccable and his physical presence powers many of supporting scenes to both comic and dramatic success. Even when confronted with an uncooperative prop headset as anxious Assistant Director, Aisling, Lynch’s adlibbed “Ooh….technology!” was committed and physical enough to earn one of the biggest laughs of the night.

Paul Mills’ basic set design compliments the frenzy of hat-swapping and guise-jumping nicely. A row of tall wooden silhouettes of extras, a few shovels, a small pub bar and some tables and chairs are more than enough to paint the backdrop of rural Ireland—a town with the feel of any PEI community. Sharply-timed lighting, mood music and crowd effects are sprinkled wisely throughout, particularly the inclusion of “When your mind’s made up” from the Oscar-winning Irish film Once which closes the first act after the tragic death of a townsmen.

Stones is in His Pockets is a fascinating theatre experience that nails comedy in the right places but also captures the hardships and humanity of working class culture. With some mature language and adult content, Stones is perhaps not best for families but is sure to leave theatre fans of all types sore with laughter and inspired to attempt the heights.

ACT’s Blue Castle

L.M. Montgomery-based musical at The Guild

by Fraser McCallum

Hank Stinson (right) at Blue Castle rehearsalDirector Hank Stinson is more than thrilled to be back behind the helm of The Blue Castle. After a ten-year absence, his adapted work of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s dark love story is set to return to the PEI stage, reinvigorated and reimagined by a devoted ACT company team. “I truly hope this production will complete a dream that, for me, began over sixteen years ago” says Stinson. The energetic musical is based on Montgomery’s 1926 tale about Valency Stirling, a tragic young woman who, at 29 and unmarried, seems bound to be alone for the rest of her dreary days. She embarks on a quest to reinvent herself and escape her spinster life. In Valency's words, “it’s only when you realize that no one else is going to take care of you that you begin to take care of yourself.” According to Stinson, Valency is the quintessential everywoman, yet is full of the drive and imagination that Montgomery is known for painting so well with her other female protagonists. The novel, one of Montgomery’s later works, is her only story set outside of Prince Edward Island. It takes place in Deerwood, a fictional Ontario town with a friendly community and traditional nature much like the Island’s. Valency is an earnest young woman who takes great risk in her pursuit to break loose of the expectations of the time, and find herself, love and a happy independent lifestyle.

Director Hank Stinson, who’s acting credits include Beauty and The Beast, Billy Bishop Goes to War and Anne of Green Gables—The Musical, originally adapted Montgomery’s work into its musical format in the early 1990s.

In this intimate new production, Stinson has joined forces with ACT to bring The Blue Castle to life once more in Charlottetown. The script has been trimmed, the cast condensed, and new exciting musical numbers developed. Along with a team of twelve actors and more than twenty other production members, Stinson has brought the musical to the Guild, an intimate setting for a week-long run at the end of November. The cast’s principles include Claire Casely Smith as Valency, Albert Kays as Barney Smith, and Valerie Moore as Mrs. Frederick. Other cast members include Raymond Moore, Barb Rodenhizer, Rowena Stinson and Laurie Brinklow. The stage crew includes a cozy three-member pit band, let by musical director and assistant composer, Helen MacRae. MacRae worked with Stinson on the original adaptation of Montgomery’s works. “If not for Helen, I couldn’t have developed this musical production. Her knowledge of theory, musical understanding, and great dedication truly helped this work come to life.” Choreography is by Julia Sauvé.

As ACT is a non-profit community theatre association the production team has divided up the behind the scenes work into close to two dozen smaller jobs. The team includes Producer Brenda Porter, Musical Director MacRae, and Stage Manager Paul Whelan.

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