“Spoon River Haunts The Mack” by PL Holden with Kimberley Johnston

In an anthology of character sketches, the poetry by Edgar Lee Masters, & music composed by Mike Ross, the simple folk of a time long forgotten were immortalized by stirring southern stories that delved into old time trials & tribulations with a whole gamut of Victorian sins. For Kimberley Johnston & I this was 1st time back at The Mack, known for its well put together theatre in a small intimate setting since Dear Johnnie Deere 2 years ago as a reviewer team.

The press release from  gives a very detailed description about the concept & journey of this peice: In 2015, Spoon River (produced by Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto) won Canada’s prestigious Dora Award for Outstanding New Musical. Now in 2016 Spoon River makes its first appearance outside Toronto, at Confederation Centre’s Mack theatre in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. The musical is based on the classic Spoon River Anthology, written 100 years ago by Edgar Lee Masters. In this rendition, poems of the dead are brought to life and set to music by PEI’s own Mike Ross. Albert Schultz directs the 11-member cast, as they raise their voices in song, telling of loves, losses, and hard-earned truths. The Charlottetown Festival produced this mystical, dream-like musical in association with Soulpepper Theatre.

First off, we would say music was on point, incredibly talented Spoon River composer Mike Ross talked a little bit in an interview recently about the trend of Music Theatre: a place where concert & theatre meet. Ross, who has spent some time working in Toronto has been very successful, we’re glad to have him back on PEI teaming up with director Albert Schultz of CBC’s Street Legal & Side Effects (a quote someone who might’ve seen that show might remember was, “people die, it’s a side effect of living”) for Spoon River. Poetry in song is beautiful, so rhythmic.

Brendan Wall (Spoon River world premiere; War Horse for Mirvish and London’s West End; Mirvish’s Once) who is making his Charlottetown Festival debut this year caught my attention early in the show with a song that had a bit of a Tom Waits ring to it. His animated swinging of the mandolin with a tic-toc rhythm standing next to a beautiful, vailed, & very ghostly Susan Henley (‘Rachel Lynde’ in Anne of Green Gables-The MusicalTM; Evangeline; Hairspray! 1st U.S. National tour) with a barrage of instruments including 2 pianists joining in on chorus, jumping back & forth from intimate to blown up musical experience with haunting melodies & saloon-type music would’ve been the musical highlight for me on the 4th or 5th song (I should mention we were a little late getting in so, of course we failed to get a program & missed the introduction). Another honorable mention has to go to Alicia Toner (Evangeline; lead in the Centre’s Cinderella; Mirvish’s Once) for her solo piece on violin with the in-coming train featuring a deer in the headlights look which left me absolutely spell bound.

Actors did amazingly well & were very animated. Characters had distinct facial characteristics which the perfect lighting accentuated. A trip back in time with this play, at least I felt like I was in another time & that, to me, is the power of theatre. Their recitals gave an impression of what the epic poems of Homer’s era might’ve been like. Dialects were great, the Scottish & Southern accents especially. The importance of the way the voice executes a monologue is instrumental. According to Stuart Pearce, Voice coach from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, “Your voice is your identity in sound. It is far more than just a means with which to communicate your thoughts & feelings; it is the expression of your integrity & individuality in the world!

Passion is what the actors put into the poems. In the opening monologue, Jonathan Ellul (Forever Plaid; King Lear and Oklahoma! at Stratford Festival) had to look & delivery of a genuine southern playboy. His accent & demeanor actually reminded me a lot of Robert Downey Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder (a true comedic tour de force in that picture, by the way, for Downey who also shined in the DVD commentary as well).

Fantastic set design convincingly turned the stage atmosphere into a graveyard! Great use of realistic trees & a surprisingly realistic full moon on stage, you could see the craters & everything. All characters were well used & the props were just as well used. In the 1st song, Soulpepper Theatre Company regular, Daniel Williston (Soulpepper’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Death of a Salesman; Mirvish’s Kinky Boots) made poignant use of a casket for drums which might actually have been very cathartic. I loved the scene when those caskets were standing up. There were 2 boards standing upward with couples lying next to each switching pairs each time the lights dimmed. It took a couple of minutes for me to realize, but I got the impression we were watching from a horizontal instead of vertical angle looking down at an open graves. This part quite possibly used old illusionist lighting tactics from the days before Tesla & Edison came on the scene which would’ve been quicker than eyes of those townsfolk seeing as how our more recent generations are so used to the flickering screens of TV, computer, & handheld devices.

Another highlight for me, Matt Campbell, (lead in The Full Monty and Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad; Canada ROCKS!) I am happy to report, is back at The Mack! He’s an old pro of the Charlottetown Festival & he’s someone I’ve gotten a chance to see on stage every year since I started doing reviews. Whenever we see him perform, we want to see more of him, especially in these ensemble pieces. Kimberley’s need to see him this time, however, was sated, he was really well used. His boyish charm is an asset that is right up there with his musical ability, he’s versatile yet he sticks to his niche & he always seems to play roles that suit his style. The extremely gifted vocalist Alana Bridgewater (Hairspray; Mirvish’s We Will Rock You; Gemini-nominated vocalist), Mary Francis Moore (co-writer of Bittergirl and Bittergirl-The Musical; lead in TPM’s The Thing Between Us), Sandy Winsby (four seasons as ‘Matthew’ in AnneTM; Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway; Mirvish’s Kinky Boots), Amanda LeBlanc (lead in Dear Johnny Deere; 2016 National Arts Centre Ensemble), & Richard Lam (Spoon River world premiere; The Crucible and Of Human Bondage (Soulpepper) rounded off the cast of 11 with some shining moments of their own, showing off their singing, acting, dancing, & musical talents.

Some big names were in the house for this special night including Director Albert Schultz, cultural patron of the arts Mike Duffy, Spoon River Composer & former Jive King Mike Ross, reps from the corporate sponsors, & of course, Confederation Centre of the Arts Chair & 2015 Order of Canada recipient Mr. Wayne Hambly.

Fant-Abba-lous Mamma Mia! By Cindy Lapeña

The 2016 Charlottetown Festival opened with the resounding echoes of some of the best-loved and most popular song-and-dance music of the 70s in the musical play Mamma Mia! by Catherine Johnson with music and lyrics by Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus—both original musicians with Abba, and some songs by Stig Anderson. The stage play debuted in 1999 and a movie, starring Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried as the mother-daughter leads with Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård as the three dads. Being very familiar with the movie as well as the songs of Abba, I had high expectations as well as mixed feelings about seeing the stage play, feelings that were, unfortunately, not alleviated by the television ads that did not strike me as particularly captivating. Still, I love a good performance and set off determined to enjoy myself.

What Artistic Director Adam Brazier, Musical Director Bob Foster, and Choreographer Kerry Gage put together for this year’s festival was stage-worthy and filled with ribaldry that had the audience rolling in laughter. Needless to say, the music had the audience tapping, nodding, and even singing along on occasion. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by Eliza Jane Scott in the role of Donna, the mother who raised her daughter single-handedly on a Greek island in an inn built after the design of the love of her life whom she believed had left her the year before her daughter, Sophie, was born. The audience was literally floored by her powerful and winning rendition of “The Winner Takes It All”—probably her best song of the evening. No stranger to the Festival, Réjean Cournoyer with his easily recognizable powerful baritone brought both humour and class to the role of Sam, besting Pierce Brosnan in the singing parts. As Sophie, Katie Kerr sang her heart out, winning the hearts of her three dads and the whole audience as well. Jan Alexandra Smith and Nicola Dawn Brook had some great comical moments as Donna’s best friends and former backup singers, while Stephen Guy-McGrath and Cameron MacDuffee held their own as Sophie’s two other possible dads. Cory Sincennes’s elegant and extremely flexible set design was complemented by the sensational lighting design by Michael Walton, that brought me back to the disco era, complete with smoke effects.
 
I have to say I miss theatre when actors were not individually miked and being heard depended on projection and excellent theatre acoustics, because one of the things that detracted from complete enjoyment was the uneven quality of voices against music, voices occasionally overlapping over two individual mikes, or even voices not being picked up by the mikes. While the disco era and dance clubs do seem to believe that the louder the music the better, it isn’t always the case in theatre, because when live band music on amplifiers is picked up by mikes, it becomes so much louder and drowns out the performers’ voices. Another thing I did not really enjoy were a couple of sharp tinny voices rising above all the rest. I also felt Sophie’s voice was occasionally too whiny, often nasal, and sounded much like a very spoiled kid. I probably wouldn’t have really minded it, but because her mike volume seemed set on high, it did not make my eardrums too happy. As for some of Sam’s Saturday-Night-Fever-ish poses in his SOS duet with Donna, I thought he’d be better off without them. The ensemble, on the other hand, was fabulous, and the boys, especially, were bursting with energy. I will never never forget their skin-diving dance routine! Kerry Gage has outdone herself, introducing some of the liveliest, funkiest choreography, worthy of Broadway and West End, I have seen on the Homburg stage.

Talk About Talent! If These Shores Could Talk Review by PL Holden

Executive Director Haley Zavo talked about the stellar Summer 2016 ‘Coming Home’ schedule & thanked all of their supporters before the stage was lit up for this “Love Letter of Songs & Poetry”. King’s Playhouse may be older than your great grandparents (build in 1897, there was a fire in 1983 that took the entire building. It was rebuilt within 2 years, showing just how valuable the space is to the community) but as far as I can tell it is in its prime this summer with this Ceilidh-themed labour of love If These Shores Could Talk among a stacked deck of a line up including The Four Tellers on Mondays, Tuesday Night Ceilidhs, If These Shores Could Talk on Wednesdays, the Dinner Theatre, It’s Good to Be Home on Fridays, & Salt-Water Moon (which I’ll be attending on Opening Night this weekend) on Sundays.

In a show that transports the shores to the stage & the audience to the shores, this revue wastes no time getting kicked into high-gear nostalgia with the opening song courtesy of Sherri-Lee Darrach on lead vocals, who is no stranger to the Island stage with credits for acting, directing, singing, & playing multiple instruments in productions of The Drowsy Chaperone & Boy Meets Girls just to name a few. Her ability to connect with audiences is so impressive. I’m sure most audience members would’ve almost felt like the only one she was singing to.

The essence of If These Shores Could Talk was, from my point of view personified by Kevin Ryan, whose resume as a Canadian singer/songwriter/musician was definitely above average. Even more remarkable was his ability to match that knack for bringing out the best of song with his ability to tell a great story. I was reminded throughout the night of The Songs & Stories of Lenny Gallant & I think that Ryan’s performance is right on par. I really enjoyed his straight up rockin’ second set opener “Oh, Oh, Oh, n’ Up She Rises”.

Jennifer Carson, the darling & true triple threat of the show hit lots all of the right notes with strong vocals, well-timed comedy, & explosive footwork in her step dance routines. She was reunited with talented & accomplished fiddler, the lovely Allison Ling Giggey for the first time since their University days (how long ago it was, according to the performers after the show, remains debatable/undisclosed)

Everyone in this cast had their chance to shine! It’s always heartwarming to see people doing what they love & you could tell the cast loved every minute of it. On “Stranger in My Place” Ben Aitken & hometown boy Garrett O’Brien earned huge rounds of applause for their skills on keys & vocals respectively. The mother-daughter combo of Sherri-Lee & Dakota Lee Darrach (she’s also performing on stage at The Guild in The Little Mermaid Junior this summer) was sweet, especially when joined by Carson for harmony on The Rankin Family cover for “Tell My Ma” (I bet Heather, Cookie, & the late Raylene would be dazzled).

It’s apparent that boredom was not in the vocabulary of this time & place we were blessed enough to sneak away to for an evening of story & song on Randall Fletcher’s no frills rustic set design in a room with acoustics right up there with Harmony House (my personal favorite on PEI) & a surprisingly killer light show in Georgetown. Stories about Cofflin’s Coffin, the Islander who goes out west to work (everybody knows at least one) while dealing with the personal struggle with missing home on that heroes journey, & of course the phantom ships (a story PEI musician & actor Adam MacGregor, who was part of the opening night crowd, shared with me his personal connection to) with their ceaseless ability to bring about a childlike fascination, were intermingled with a great list of songs, flawless acting/storytelling (notwithstanding the fact that most of the 7 member cast was very young, as pointed out by fellow audience member, musician & UPEI student Gabriel Vizcaíno), & some very well recited poetry (they saved the best for last in that respect, but I’m not about to post any spoilers) were all part of a winning hand for what may very well be Down-East’s Ace of Stage in Georgetown.

Hamlet: A Very Palpable Hit by Kimberley Johnston

Are you suffering from a Hamletian dilemma about whether to go or not to go to ACT ( a community theatre)’s latest Shakespearean offering?  You should most decidedly go.

Director Terry Pratt’s vision of Hamlet is a very palpable hit. The show portrayed choices I had never seen but were exceedingly fun to watch. Pratt, who wrote this version and directed, cut the script extensively but people unfamiliar with the text would not have noticed. The nearly three-hour show held the attention of two very young girls on opening night. The girls seemed very saddened when at the end, spoiler alert, nearly everyone dies.

People who are familiar with ACT’s previous Shakespearean offerings are aware the show takes place out of doors in Stratford and audiences are led from scene to scene around Robert Cotton Park. They may be surprised to learn, however, that the entirety of this year’s play is being performed by only eight actors.
A lot was asked from the performers and they delivered ten-fold. They worked incredibly well together and were all given the opportunity to shine in at least one scene where their raw talents and energies could be showcased, no matter how many parts they played.
Sara McCarthy and Keir Malone, who each played four different parts, were entertaining in all of their roles. I loved McCarthy most as Gravedigger 1. She held nothing back belting out a tune (written by Pratt) whilst digging up skulls. Malone’s acting and physical agility was best demonstrated in his portrayal as Laertes, both when his sister Ophelia was found drowned and during the fencing scene with Hamlet.
T. Noah J. Nazim as Hamlet was exciting to watch. His madness (whether there was method in it or not) was captivating. This was Nazim’s first experience with ACT. I’m anxious to see him in more theatre in the future.
Lindsay Gillis’s ACT debut as Ophelia (Hamlet’s love interest) was breathtaking. Her final  scene exposed  the audience to her amazing singing voice as sweet Ophelia loses touch with reality. Especially poignant was when she picks reeds from the Stratford shoreline and passes them out, believing them to be various flowers.
ACT veterans Ashley Clark, Richard Haines and Catherine MacDonald were stellar as ever in their roles. Gordon Cobb as Polonius was the highlight for me. Cobb mastered the verbose speeches of the king’s advisor and demonstrated some excellent physical comedy, especially with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Malone and McCarthy respectively, I think).
Cobb’s portrayal of Polonius made me ask questions of Hamlet that I never thought to ask before, such as: Was Polonius aware of Claudius’s betrayal in killing Hamlet’s father? Nazim’s most  hilarious moment was as he pulled Polonius’s lifeless body behind the gazebo.
In a production of this magnitude and with so many moving parts, it takes a talented crew to make the cast look this good. McCarthy underwent several challenging costume changes, I would think, in the curtained gazebo that doubled as Queen Gertrude’s bed chamber and the final resting place of Polonius. The costumes, hair and makeup were on point, as was everything to do with this production, from the music arrangements to the mobility cart driver.
It will be difficult for ACT to top this play next year, but I sincerely hope they try.

Evangeline Revisited by Cindy Lapeña

Except for two major actors whose roles have been reprised and a couple of members of the ensemble, this year’s cast of Evangelineis totally new. Whereas, Josée Boudreau played understudy in 2013, she carried the role of Evangeline Bellefontaine marvelously with her powerful soprano and forceful character. Jay Davis, whom I first saw in Bittergirl, played an admirable Gabriel Lajeunesse opposite Boudreau’s Evangeline. His wonderful voice, at times gritty but always very masculine and powerful, dominated the ensemble. I’m hoping it was a matter of balancing the wireless microphones, but he literally drowned out Boudreau in at least one of their duets. At times, it felt as though the songs were not really composed for him. All the Broadway-style belting is overpowering, and I would have appreciated a great deal more sensitivity, texture, control, and subtlety in the interpretation of some of the songs besides full-volume delivery. Réjean Cournoyer as the invented character, Captain Hampson played the perfect villain as he did the first time around, just as Laurie Murdoch as Colonel Winslow revealed the conscience behind the whole idea of the Expulsion of Acadiens, reprising the role that humanized a reprehensible historical event.

 The backdrops made use of video technology, as they did in the premier showing, but rather than using the bright paintings of Claude Picard, a generally darker atmosphere pervaded the new sets designed by Cory Sincennes. I loved most the water scenes, with the actual waves moving in the projected backdrop, which added to the feeling of realism. The images projected on the backdrop were more carefully chosen so that they blended much better with the scenes. There was greater use of the revolving stage, which enhanced the movement across space and time, and eliminated the more realistic sets used in the premier. The basic set of rough-hewn lumber beams crisscrossed over the movable wings, was repeated in the stylized boardwalk that became decks, ladders, shelters, ships and boats. I would have liked to see that same feeling of roughness and simplicity in the crucifix used in the final scene. I’m glad water scenes were kept, because those were some of my favourites, especially with Gabriel and Evangeline rowing through the swamps, although Boudreau’s boat was not moving too smoothly, which occasionally jarred the illusion. It was a tad distracting, as well, to see movement under the sets when characters who were not part of the scene remained partly hidden, something that can so easily be solved by perfect stillness to maintain the illusion that they are not even there. Another tiny technical issue: the notice of Expulsion was tacked to a beam, but thumbtacks were not invented until 1903. I would have expected the soldier who posted the notice to use a nail and hammer.  I would also think that he would have done this less surreptitiously as it symbolized the beginning of the tragedy that was the Expulsion.
I did not care very much for more than one ensemble dance number to end with the same parallel arms raised uniformly stiff above their heads; I felt that was somewhat awkward and neither very aesthetically nor symbolically significant. I seem to remember a little more dancing in the premier as well.
There were moments in the gala performance when I felt that the cast had not completely gelled together and that some of the actors were still feeling their roles and not quite their characters. As well, I missed the completely smooth transition from one scene to another throughout that I have come to expect from the Centre’s performances.
That said, I would watch Evangeline again and again and again, because, as a theatre person, I know that no two performances will be exactly the same, and the gala performance was but one show. It is still, and always will be, a powerful story with beautiful music and lyrics.  This new version of Evangeline has so much going for it and I am sure that, when everything falls into place, the brilliance of writer and composer Ted Dykstra and the vision of director Bob Baker will shine through.

Eight Signs Aladdin is a Comedy By Cindy Lapeña

There are certain definite signs that a play at the Confederation Centre for the Arts Homburg Theatre is not a going to be a serious play. Let me elaborate. For the majority of performances, the first person you see or hear is Monique Lafontaine announcing the entrance of PEI’s very important members of the audience (VIMA, for those who haven’t met them) and the token reprise of O, Canada!, followed by her announcement of the theatre rules in English then French, before the lights dim and the first characters enter.

The first sign that this is not a serious play: When a story claims to be a “fairly tall tale” it’s a dead giveaway for humour with a capital H. This is all reminiscent of Mark Twain and his classical humorous short stories, better known as his ‘tall tales’. But this is PEI and the farther away from center you go, the taller the tales.
 
The second sign: When the program announces at the top of the cover that “This Christmas, Aladdin gets an Island twist!” Unless they meant a new kind of McCain’s French fry twists, this can only be interpreted as the somewhat quirky twisty sense of humour you get from being an Islander, or living on the island long enough to be almost indistinguishable from the rest.
 
The third sign: Highly unusual program content, such as Gordon Cobb on the cover with a silly face; Graham Putnam playing a suspiciously-named character called “Widow Twanky”, never before heard of in the fairy tale world; another suspiciously-named character named “Baron Wasteland” played by Dennis Trainor who sounds just like Bawwy Kwipky (from The Big Bang Theory); a cross-over character, Sarah Macphee as the Town Crier from last year’s Cinderella: A Fairly Tall Tale.
 
The fourth sign: Adam Brazier wrote the script and Scott Christian, who was the musical director, is working on his fourth panto. For those unfamiliar with this term, the panto is short for ‘pantomime’ but really isn’t one; it’s the 18th century British take of the traditional commedia dell’arte, and instead of the traditional Italian characters, they turned fairy tales into comical musical plays for Christmas. Knowing what kind of play it is pretty much explains it all, which makes this our ‘Ah, I see,” moment. But it doesn’t end there.
 
The fifth sign: Instead of Monique Lafontaine, as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, Adam Brazier walks onto the stage apron before the play begins and, like a TV show cue-master coaches the audience to “boo” or say “we love you Widow Twanky” at the appearance of certain characters, you know it’s a play made for kids and the young at heart, and it’s not going to be serious. Just how much?
 
The sixth sign: The evil Jafar with Rejean Cournoyer’s larger-than-life presence and distinctive rich booming bass-baritone voice uses a classic mwah-ha-ha laugh and interacts with the audience.
 
The seventh sign: The explosive and rib-cracking opening number is all about Vic Row in Downtown Charlottetown and Aladdin played by the boyishly charming Gabriel Antonacci is actually a Cinderella-boy.
 
The eighth sign: People can’t stop laughing when Graham Putnam is revealed as the hilarious Widow Twanky who has at least 3 jokes for every nugget of well-concealed wisdom. The Widow Twanky is also our source of adult humour, which, hopefully, none of the little kids in the audience understood.
 
I am going to stop at eight signs because if I keep on, then there would be too many spoilers to this insanely inane comedy that had me laughing so hard tears actually came to my eyes. Unfortunately, another spoiler alert I can’t help revealing is that the music is original, funny, and on the verge of copyright infringement—but if you listen to the dialogue and lyrics closely enough, they already know that.
 
There was really just one major spoiler to this panto and that was the problem with the mikes. I know miking for a huge cast in a musical play is difficult, to say the least, but the mikes were often out when they should have been on and it was very distracting for the voices to suddenly blare on mid-sentence or mid-word. Thank goodness, the audience was laughing most of the time they would have drowned out the dialogue anyway. Really. I miss those days when actors did not have to depend on microphones to be heard and that you really had to learn how to project your voice without losing it after the first show.
 
That said, everyone needs to catch this performance before it’s over, because it will certainly bring you cheer and laughter for the Christmas season.