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In Character

A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman

I was reading a book of tributes to the late Peter Gzowski when the CCAG exhibition celebrating Marc Gallant’s tumultuous life opened. What price individuality? The much-loved Gzowski brought to the CBC—radio in particular—needed pith and broadcasting breadth. Gallant and others I know have done something akin for their Island—a Good Thing. Such characters—real characters—are permeated with telling flaws and are never angels, but something there is within them that is a tonic for where we root ourselves.

A real character: Eccentric. Iconoclast. Sheep-disturber. Any or all of the above at one time or another. Some of them burn and perish too soon. The best real characters are self-aggrandizing in measure, but serve their real communities in serving their shaggy egos. Sweet-natured doesn’t cut it. Talent does.

How does one measure the talent? Marc Gallant was a polished commercial artist and illustrator with a verve for unusual, sometimes wild, ideas, some of them arts-related, others relating to the environmental and the teleological. He travelled. It was his unsubtle passion for his own conception of an unspoiled PEI that garnered press attention and stormy response. He was dynamic and purposeful. Gzowski was brilliant at what he did, and I mean his personifying a coast-to-coast radio show, not his being the print journalist he was apprenticed to be. By sheer good fortune his intellect and interests combined with a voice and appearance that transmuted his testiness and impatience for a receptive audience. He struck a happy chord. His humble persona didn’t hurt. Gallant wasn’t modest and that may have hurt, but in repose he can be recognized as an endearing rogue enough of whose ideas made sense to a certain breed of Island cat.

One has to be grown up to recognize a real character as being useful; children tend to humour such people, or avoid them. Milton Acorn was a powerful poet and the price was real characterhood in extremis. He’d not hurt a fly or address a child unless doing so promised a poem. Milton was an uncalculated ranter. Gallant was a calculated ranter. Gzowski didn’t really rant.

Réshard Gool was a real character and constructively calculated. A political scientist, novelist, poet, and publisher, he was drawn to unconditionably motivated people and daredevils. His ideas were leftish, pro-Island, definitely pro-culture. He was tenacious. All real characters are tenacious.

Father Adrien Arsenault qualifies. He was a strong-willed artist and teacher with strong opinions. All real characters have opinions.

Some of us have strong opinions but will never be real characters. The best RCs are courageous, the aforesaid individuals being prime examples. Perhaps chutzpah has as much currency as courage. All of the above had chutzpah.

Real characters have to be good. Of course, goodness may seem relative, but it’s probably safe to say that, were we in the U.S., we’d easily be able to identify our heroes and antagonists by their choice of tribal animal token.

PEI’s most enduring and endearing real characters have had an abiding interest in its culture. No doubt if I hung out at the CDP my cast of RCs would sport different monikers. But whichever of the nine Muses we most admire, the appeal has always been with those opinionated individuals who’ve laboured and fought for ideas and creative tangibles. Real characters must produce real beneficiaries.

There are still some real characters left in service, but the years do take their toll. Twenty-five years ago my family landed on PEI, no one guessing how long our stay would be. (I don’t care to think of the real estate opportunities lost.) Ron Irving and Moncrieff Williamson saw to my meeting the first of several individuals who were revealed to be real characters. Had I appreciated the distinction then, I’d have thought: God spare us complacency and a dull life—long may they each wag a loaded finger.

Eye. Land. Reflections.

A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman

By the time we docked at North Head, we were nearly four hours off schedule, but hey, Blacks Harbour was part of this getaway. Slipping a compact mobile home aboard the Grand Manan V (I wasn’t the driver) is about as slick a procedure as it might have been with the old Holiday Island, the sailing itself holding out a promise unique to the Bay of Fundy —that of potential whale and porpoise sightings. (There’s also a nifty J swing the ferry takes as it rounds GMI to the dock.) Some of us saw some spouts at a distance and we all accepted the blue sky and blazing sun as our due, particularly as we’d left PEI in a downpour.

Why did people settle here, one wonders, and on White Head Island, an additional short ferry ride away, where they are less than receptive to rambling visitors marooned in ATV country until a return sailing. Loyalists did settle, however, with mainland New Brunswick insufficiently appealing, or perhaps already full. Grand Manan’s a handsome island, forested and marshy, but not beautiful. One might say it has character. (Character’s what defines an individual when outer beauty’s in short supply.)

One in our party remarked on the seeming prosperity and propriety (at least ten churches) marbling the cultivated mien of Grand Manan. Most of the homes and commercial buildings seem to be in fine repair. The one main road is in decent shape by regional standards. Even the hardy herring seiners, scallop draggers, and doughty dulse dories appear spruce and sturdy.

On Labour Day weekend, at least, all seemed jewel-like, set upon a proverbial silver sea, atop and beneath which boats and mammals and fish could be witnessed working at what they do best; they just happen to look pretty. The black heads of harbour seals bobbed here and there. On one of the dories down at Dark Harbour, “Unhook the Stars” is painted on its port side, “Gotta Pay the Man” on the starboard.

Castalia Marsh, with its monopoly on contemplative transitory godwits, was hosting a number of seriously equipped birders from the south, but as an amalgam of lowland and ingressing fish-full waters, the marsh speaks to any visitor, even those who haven’t done their wildlife homework.

The morning and evening vista of North Head Harbour as seen from our designated B&B rated better than bought and paid for.

Top of my bill was the view from Swallowtail Light on such an eve—our last— as extended the horizon. Several hundred feet below, that silver sea served up blue ripples, sinuous porpoise shadows haunting the visibly submarine, moving in concert.

Our last overnight on GMI brought a reality check to demi-paradise: police sirens in the wee hours (we hadn’t seen a single cruiser on the road). On the boat ride back to Blacks Harbour, a kitchen worker on her smoke break told me that the population of around 2,600 is plagued by ongoing break-ins. I also learned that our blue-sky weekend was the exception to summer there, fog and damp comprising the usual plat du jour.

South of our thoughts, Hurricane Francis was mutilating landscapes. No world news had reached us for over two days. In a distant town called Beslan, their recently slaughtered, numberless yet named, were being noisily buried and pledged.

Grand Manan is a piece of work on a wall with no corners.

One For the Ages

Anne of Green Gables—The Musical™

Review by Joseph Sherman

With the sad passing of Norman Campbell, Anne of Green Gables: the Musical has finally become an official legacy. Its creators have lived to see their wildest dreams transcended—by a Canadian musical for the ages, built upon a literary phenomenon and a contemporary PEI icon. Exploitation aside, there’s naught wrong with a good myth soaked like a prune.

Never mind that Anne spoke her first words aloud from a CBC TV set in 1956 (thanks to Norm), the Charlottetown Festival is musical theatre, and what worked like a charm immediately in 1964 continues to charm. Prime ministers and premiers come and go, but Anne Shirley nightly and forever evolves, each summer, from loquaciously spunky orphan child to responsible community-connected adult, winning over all in the shadow of a hug.

All artists sense the prospect of immortality, few achieve it. L. M. Montgomery would probably have taken this version of success as her due, though how she’d rate the adaptation we can never know. We do know that Norman and Elaine Campbell, Don Harron, and Mavor Moore proceeded from an appreciation of her novel to an enthused conviction that musical theatre lay therein. They had to love the book to begin, and they did.

No tunes from the musical have ever made the pop charts (I wonder if any have ever been covered), and most Canadians can’t sing a bar, but cue the music itself and a great many feel a sense of recognition. A sub-phenomenon, if you will. You can play each piece in Anne with piano accompaniment and appreciate the genius of the songwriting. The music owes much to the crackle of vintage Broadway, and that’s a good thing, because in this case that tradition quickened a winner.

The formulae: Boy meets girl. Self-centeredness gives over to sacrifice. Childhood advances lickety-split to adulthood. Suppression and repression are vanquished by an opened window. Optimism weathers well and becomes reality. Boy meets girl again. The show’s music conveys both innocence and acquired wisdom, joy and grief, not to forget the humour. Catchy tunes, intelligent and memorable lyrics—ingredients that appeal now as they did in the last century.

There is no sex in this musical, not a tittle. Not even in the Mr. Phillips/Prissy Andrews liaison; they flesh out a risqué joke, is all. As for Anne and Gilbert Blythe, theirs is an equation that retains its innocence through barely articulated hope. Loyalty trumps love.

Periodic attempts to dress AoGG:TM in robes of social reality have foundered. Message to directors born and unborn: Anne of Green Gables—never change her.

Casting history: Elizabeth Mawson was my Marilla of choice, and the younger Glenda Landry as Diana Barry was one for the ages. I believe those who assert that Barbara Hamilton’s Marilla was special, that Peter Mews defined Matthew. I’d choose to see a slightly tougher Gilbert, but this year’s cast is doing just fine. Michael Fletcher’s stout-hearted Matthew is particularly touching (a large man made a playful child again), and Julain Molnar’s vocally magnificent Miss Stacy is stellar; one can see why her students would sit at her feet.

I understand that Norman Campbell periodically auditioned prospects for the Anne cast by himself playing Matthew in his opening scene, and occasionally in the death-chair scene. I would like to have been there. Matthew is Anne’s essence; his repressed inner child is born with Anne’s arrival, and expires altogether just as she bids her own childhood farewell. No further analysis is necessary, doctor.

If pretty well every song in AoGG:TM is hummable, the near operatic “The Words” is as poignant as any contextualized show tune written, sung by Marilla and Matthew each, from their own islands of inarticulateness. The song touches that proverbial universal chord. We, the universal audience, are all and always looking out to find the words.

Joy and Enthusiasm

Polokwane Choral Society

Review rby Joseph Sherman

Think South African music and what comes to mind are such names as Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Hugh Masekala, Johnny Clegg. The Polokwane Choral Society is not a household name, and not a professional choir, but within strong musical cultures the amateur can be as accomplished and as affecting, at least to the untrained but receptive ear.

Experiencing the PCS (my acronym) performance at Indian River was a lesson in musical history, if we feel attuned to gospel, blues and jazz traditions. Africa is where it all began, and the multilingual PCS spans styles, though always with a sound and arrangement particular to its own South African background.

It is anything but condescending to note that this mixed choir of 24 voices, led by Matlakala Bopape, appears to sing for its own sake…their joy and enthusiasm contagious enough to break down the somewhat stiff, if receptive, audience, nearly a full house. By the time the choir leader had invited—no, insisted upon—audience participation, the connection was complete.

South Africa has eleven official languages, and the PCS dipped into most, as well as English (a stunning rendition of “Precious Lord”) in conveyancing a musical experience too seldom heard on PEI. St. Mary’s acoustics and setting were perfect, all considered.

Such music, we were reminded, is a way of dealing with oppression and poverty, partly because it offers hope and a way of shouting defiance, as well as a feeling of accomplishment.

Mostly a cappella, but with intermittent drum accompaniment, this concert was no less than a lesson in (probably untrained) close and magnificent harmonies, the soloists as good as one might wish. There was a spot of infectious dancing as well, near the end, the end itself the respectful singing of the familiar and always stirring South African National anthem, “Nkosi Sikeleli.” I haven’t had this much fun since attending a cymanfa ganu in Wales. The Welsh, too, like to end an evening of song with their anthem.

A Swell Salute

Broadway Heroes: A Salute to the Great Leading Men

Review by Joseph Sherman

The best audience for Broadway Heroes will recognize all the tunes in this warm cabaret show, unless they stopped listening to the music—spanning roughly 85 years—just as Andrew Lloyd Webber was enthroned. Assembling such a show would mean determining what to exclude, and this show’s pivotal jam-packed medleys suggest that the process must have been onerous.

David Rogers, a young triple-threat performer (accompanied by an able David Warrack on piano and occasional vocal accompaniment), who boasts an impressive résumé with Broadway north, has a significant tenor/light-baritone range that was improved, on opening night, by the eventual failure of a sound system that, until then, hissed and crackled to distraction. The ubiquitous head mike allows for mobility, but in such an intimate show as this, a smoothie belter—and Rogers has the chops—should use a charming old hand mike (for effect) or none at all. I preferred his unfiltered voice.

Medleys are acceptable if there’s a list to deliver, and if the audience is content with cropped snapshots of familiar tunes, but too many fine songs were merely called to attention, only to be buried beneath the next snippet. Rogers also sang a few numbers that were left unfinished, the equivalent to listening to the radio and having a favourite song fade too soon. Heck, I grew up on most of this music, and the best of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley have a lyricism and a wit that warrant completion.

Broadway tunes are generally part of a firm story line, sometimes with their own complete tale, and context and character combined best deliver the goods. Mr. Rogers is more an interpreter than a character actor-singer, though I’d prefer to hear him deliver “My Boy Bill,” from Carousel, one of the chewiest musicals ever, in its intended setting. Such a composition makes “Music of the Night,” from Phantom of the Opera, seem comparatively insubstantial and merely sleek. But then, comparing the two is like comparing John Raitt with Michael Bublé.

David Rogers loves what he thinks Broadway is, and loves to sing. A rich voice can work wonders, even with crimped medleys. If his closing number for each half—”The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha, and that aforesaid Phantom show-stopper—are his favourites (he’s actually played the Phantom), it’s because this is the show music that speaks most directly to his own generation and its sensibilities. That said, our hero has great and reverent fun with the Al Jolson and Danny Kaye legacies, and with that corniest of old Broadway delights, Oklahoma!

They hummed along, they laughed, they applauded. Broadway aficionados on PEI have rarely had it so swell.

Ghosts and Demons

The Woman in Black

Review by Joseph Sherman

Why are solicitors writ so vulnerable…the English kind? Or is it that they are just being picked on? In Dracula, one Jonathan Harker, all self-confidence and innocent keenness, is dragged into a milieu of toothsome evil. In The Woman in Black, one Arthur Kipps, all self-confidence and innocent keenness, is dragged into a milieu of…something akin. (Though authors struggle to explain their evil…there is always some wrong transmuted into the need for ineluctable revenge.)

A young man from a world of blue skies and common sense travels to a remote part of England to deal with the estate of a recently deceased 87-year-old woman with a terrible family secret known only to the denizens of her tight-lipped village. Pride and sanctimoniousness, combined with the feral vicissitudes of fate, have produced a rationale for ghosts, some merely fog-born players playing out an endless tragedy again and again, but one bent on eternally punishing the living for her terrible loss.

The man (the solicitor) barely survives the creeping horror, at a cost, and elects to tackle his demons by consulting, not an alienist or a cleric, but an actor/director (and admirer of Sir Henry Irving), so that his story-from-a-journal might be acted out and exorcized. The times are Victorian, the setting a period theatre. The actor/director, himself self-confident and fairly naive, for a thespian, instructs and coaches his patron, and even becomes him as the two men dramatize the grim story of private record.

The play’s audience should care about, not only the story known to the village and the solicitor, but the innocent actor/director who assumes there are no ramifications to such role-playing. This is a genre piece. The audience knows that, in a ghost story, innocence is lost as easily as daylight, and that no one can truly remain innocent, even those to whom the characteristic seems a birthright.

Very few real surprises met a substantially filled Victoria Playhouse, renovated and now perfectly comfortable of a summer‚s night, but the actors in The Woman in Black, directed by Sheila McLean, displayed confidence and keenness. A basic hoary story was delivered with verve and conviction, given the multi-tasking, especially by the endearing Erskine Smith, and with the asset of an evocative and appealing set. Christopher Kelly’s accent was its own riddle, but his passion for the moment was admirable. Transference: by the end of one adventure, the audience knows where to shift its pity.

Here was an evening of great theatrical fun—a purposed summer chill gone with the dawn.

Spring Keening

A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman

I lost my best cap, a casualty of my own carelessness, and troubling for both loss and circumstance. I’m an arch materialist (worse, a sentimental one), and I’d had that denim peaked jobbie since 1978. Let it go, Pieces would say if he could speak human, but it’s hard, reader, it’s very hard.

 The news that Canada Post in Saint John chooses to divest itself of public sculpture once commissioned from the marvelous John Hooper is as disturbing as it may be inevitable. Public art is the best art, the best hope for ensuring that people who never darken the doors of an art gallery might take an interest in what’s important.

Domino is failing, which is to say he has become more mortal of late. A 15-year-old cat is no spring chicken; still, the emperor-feline whose seniority he long ago assumed did make 18. The little black upstart has become a frail wraith, and we’ve ordered up one more bone-warming summer for him. He’s happiest lying on the back lawn with his little bat-face and belly to the sky.

The Newfoundland/Labrador Government has closed its only public art gallery (along with the historical museum and public archives) for at least a year. This will save a pocketful of moolah. NF&L is experiencing the worst socioeconomic crisis, but what’ll be lost by mothballing its most prominent cultural institutions is incalculable.

Midway through this last column ’til fall, my computer dares me to finish, to even proceed. Is it a mouse problem? The hard drive? The ghost in the machine? Menu options pop up unbidden on my screen like bubbles on fresh lava. Files shunt forward and back palpitationally. Will I make it through?

ArtsAtlantic is shoaled and holed, again with an official holding-out-of-hope, this time for an autumnal resurrection. Miracles are handmade. Floating an arts magazine is challenging at any time, and does indeed require rocket science. I’m an observer now, but the solutions are the same as they were when I was involved: more of the same, fervently applied. Atlantica must have a responsible arts magazine. Aa ought never to have left PEI.

 The City of Ottawa is shutting down various of its cultural institutions; Regina is doing likewise and has lost its venerable Dunlop Gallery…all this ought to depress anyone who has long warred from the cultural trenches. It’s worse than that hole in the dike; the dike itself needs a makeover.

Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919 is about the fateful peace-treaty year following the Great War. Nation states and disparate people…desperate, fractured, bitter, brazen, manipulative, hopeful. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Ness paw?

The PEI Council of the Arts and the Arts Guild has/have received good news: financial stability can be a reality at last. So far, Charlottetown is not like St. John’s, Ottawa, Regina. The other good news is that my daughter has taken up painting, like her brother. It seems apt.

David Helwig’s new novel-length book of poetry, The Year One, is as personal as this committed and undersung writer has ever been, and because it is structured upon a keen and passionate observation of a calendar year’s passage, it is, dare I remark, important. His year was my year. Yours too. The writer’s latest novella will be published come fall, but this is fresh and an impressive reminder that PEI is home for significant poets.

I do miss that peaked cap, purchased at a marine outfitters in Abersoch, Gwynedd, Cymru, in 1978. It’s been everywhere I’ve been. I don’t subscribe to omens. I’d prefer a return to Wales to purchase a replacement.

This was to have been my May column, and then Norman Campbell left us; remembering him became the priority. And now, as I dust this off, I can add that we had to make that decision about Domino that troubles and haunts anyone possessed by pets. It’s been tough. Love comes in a variety of packages.

Something Wonderful

A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman

For the last several years my summer has begun with the reappearance of Norman and Elaine Campbell at the Farmers Market. Their long association with the Charlottetown Festival is one thing, but they so looked forward to returning to PEI, I came to better appreciate the routine that is permanent residency on the Island. They may have resided in suburban Toronto (and ‘owned’ a table at St. Lawrence Market), globetrotting over the winter months, but Norm and Elaine were always securely at home on the Island, where myth and reality conjoined and became a happy singularity.

I came to know the Campbells toward the end of my time at the Confed’ Centre. While I admired their accomplishment in co-creating Anne the musical, what I really responded to were Norm’s stories about working with everyone in show business from the stars of Canadian ballet and classical theatre to the likes of Liberace and Mary Tyler Moore. He pirouetted so easily between high art and popular culture, both terms became almost meaningless when he spoke of the creative sparks he saw developed or ignited, and of the human beings behind layers of mask. I assume, from listening to those who worked with him, that he was a perfectionist and taskmaster. But boy, did it pay off.

Canadians don’t know nearly enough about this charmingly ebullient and brilliant man who embodied the high end of television in its infancy and took a Canadian imagination and know-how to Hollywood and New York and London and always returned.

I wonder what I’ll remember of all he related. We spoke often of his memoir-in-waiting; I was never sure how secure those wonderful stories and recollections of his were, but I could envision a fat book.

Norm and Elaine loved movies, and we’d compare notes all summer, the four of us meeting over coffee from time to time after a screening at City Cinema. The Campbell’s farmhouse at Covehead (purchased from Nathan Cohen, whoever it belonged to prior), became unequivocally theirs in ongoing renovation, sequestered at the end of a country road cleverly and mischievously named Normandy Lane.

Others have itemized Norman’s many and impressive professional accomplishments, with and without Elaine, though it needs to be said that Elaine was always a presence, the muse, a partner. And there’s that great and lively family they raised, all connected by the creative process—he was so proud of them.

Norm’s spirit soared when he reached PEI, and if he could speak wryly of disappointments and impediments over his full and active life, those were life’s punctuation marks and striations. That wit, that warm Celtic glow that was Norm, were genuine, and made you sympathetic to the vivacity of his creations, his wide world. He appreciated fine workmanship in any discipline, and he’d compliment accordingly and spread the word. Such generous enthusiasm was infectious, a reliable validation of everything dandy.

I missed a great evening at Covehead last August, being infectious in a deleterious way, so Ann went off alone to enjoy Campbell hospitality and high spirits. When, a few weeks later, I bid my seasonal farewell to Norm and Elaine at the Farmers’ Market, it was with the familiar expectation that I’d greet them both again as the gate swung wide on a new summer. Occasional e-mail exchanges would keep us connected.

My personal recollections will spin out over the days ahead, not a one of them without a smile. Norman loved where he’d been and what he’d done, and he embraced the interesting people with whom he made his art. The Campbells might have put roots down pretty much anywhere, but PEI and its annual arousal from wintersleep sang to them. Humour and love and friendship meant everything. Here was where he found it. And left so much of his own.

How does one measure a friendship, old or new, if not by the depth of one’s feelings when it is sundered? I feel robbed. All those questions I had still to ask, Norm. And time ran out. I’ll be waiting a long while for summer.

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