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If You Could Read My Mind

Review by Sean McQuaid

The Charlottetown Festival has been good to great musicians over the years. A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline was one of the MacKenzie Theatre's most popular and longest-running shows. More recently, the Festival mainstage played host to Stan Rogers-A Matter of Heart. This summer, the Festival is toasting another great Canadian singer-songwriter with If You Could Read My Mind: The Music of Gordon Lightfoot.

Written by Michael Lewis MacLennan & Duncan McIntosh and directed by McIntosh (with musical direction by Donald Fraser), If You Could Read My Mind is a very polished, professional show...but it's also a bit puzzling. The show's performers-The Lover (Gab Desmond), The Philosopher (Terry Hatty), The Mother (Marlane O'Brien), The Creator (Zipporah Peddle) and The Troubadour (Jean-Francois Poulin)-are meant to represent different aspects of Lightfoot and his music, but who and what they are is not made readily apparent to the casual viewer. The program does identify the characters by the aforementioned titles, but there's no further information apart from a brief explanatory note in French for francophone viewers, and the performance itself doesn't really make any of this clear (though an astute viewer might get the idea by noting the performers' respective titles and analyzing the thematic content of their respective songs). It's all a bit vague and muddled.

The result is something more than a concert, something less than a play-an artful revue of sorts. Basically, the five performers come out and sing an assortment of Lightfoot songs for a couple of hours, which is worth the price of admission in and of itself. The show features plenty of gorgeous, often familiar melodies, and lyrics that capture personal emotion and national identity with equal ease.

The players are very strong, too. All five cast members sing, and all five play multiple instruments such as guitar, fiddle, keyboards and a plethora of portable percussion. Hatty (a veteran of last year's Stan Rogers show) tackles the material with infectious gusto and a rich, authoritative voice that cuts through the instrumentals. Desmond, on the other hand, sometimes has trouble finding his level-nearly inaudible at times in the early "Did She Mention My Name," but teeth-rattling loud in a couple of the later numbers. He's an appealing and charismatic performer, though, as are the consistently solid Poulin and Peddle (who has a hauntingly lovely voice). In her more prominent numbers (such as a smokily sultry version of "Make Way for the Lady"), O'Brien matches Hatty in terms of musical zeal, which helps make the spirited Hatty-O'Brien combo on "Cotton Jenny" one of the most rousing numbers in the show. Other highlights include "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" and an aggressively quirky version of "Sundown."

Sets and lighting help make the show something more than a purely musical experience. Ken Garnhum's unassuming, attractively simple set (a house facade that does double duty in the Festival production Fire) provides a versatile canvas for a wide variety of lighting effects (designed by Paul Mathiesen), evoking everything from a warm campfire to a starry sky. Regardless, the music and the musicians remain the real stars of this show. As a play, If You Could Read My Mind makes a lovely concert.

If You Could Read My Mind: The Music of Gordon Lightfoot plays through September 7 at the MacKenzie Theatre.

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