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Acadie en Musique

Review by Patrick Ledwell

As a ship captain announces in an opening scene, the performance “Acadie en Musique,” playing throughout the summer at the Carrefour Theatre, is a voyage charged with an impossible mission. The show aspires to celebrate and somehow capture the soundtrack to 400 years of Acadian history, a task made no easier by the embarrassment of musical diversity that this tradition embraces.

While maintaining its own distinct character, the Acadian musical spirit has been made a magpie by the accidents of time, feathering its musical nest with other bordering cultural traditions and also tuning in to influences from modern airwaves. Is it possible for the group to trace all the strands in this crazy-quilt in two spare hours, and not go crazy themselves?

The answers are yes and no, respectively, and entertainingly so in both cases. Sung a capella from the four corners of the theatre, the opening song “La mer est mon domaine” gives voice to the theme that Acadians have salt water in their blood. My theory is that the salt has actually increased the boiling point of Acadian plasma. Each member of this talented five person troupe appears to be able to perform indefinitely at a breakneck pace that would soon burst the bubbles of those from differently seasoned backgrounds.

In one of his many side-splitting bits, Chuck Arsenault (who, along with fellow performer Louise Arsenault, was a member of the celebrated, now-retired group Barachois) plays a nutty professor teaching Acadie 101, claiming that Acadians are defined by their ability to “take what’s given and make it better.” For me, this cultural alchemy was the theme of the show, as many of the pieces are explorations of the Acadian gift for reinventing and reinvigorating tradition.

“A la claire fontaine” shows how a single folksong can experience life as both a heartbreaking air, sung by the sweet-voiced Tanya Gallant, and a heartpounding reel, practically sawed in half by the gifted fiddler Louise Arsenault. If someone knows the spell that can remove the perpetual motion tapshoes from Louise’s feet, please do not give it to her until the end of this summer’s performances.

The performance shows how the spirit of Acadian song can survive not only changes in tempo but also changes in the times. In the touching piece “Dors, dors, dors,” Gallant and Louise Arsenault sing a duet timed to the different cadences of maternal life, one melodic line rocking softly and the other clicking like a busy household. Later in the show, Gallant updates the motherhood sentiments with a strip-off-the-apron, kick-off-the-shoes rock number, “SuperMaman.”

The musical selections are rounded out by the brilliant blue bass of Julie Arsenault and the rhythm guitar of Robert Arsenault, both of whom also steal the spotlight for two of the show’s richest comic moments. In a role that is not too much of a stretch, Robert plays a vertically-challenged man declined admittance everywhere from the King’s Army to the Pearly Gates, and Julie sings a playful song about a husband too small to be found in the marriage bed.

The pantomime that accompanies this winking humour also acts as a sign language for anglophones like me, allowing me to follow the narratives behind the all-French songs. The troupe also does an admirable job of translating their dialogues between songs. More importantly, though, they remain true to the role that language plays in their musical rhythms, a universal language that won’t have you scrambling for your Larousse dictionary. This summer, hitch your wagon to an Acadian star, and buckle your seat belts for the ’50,001st party’ in their rich history.

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