Rob Reviews: The Songs of Anne & Gilbert, the Musical

I knew I was in trouble, pretty much right away.

In an effort to salvage some sort of a season out of this Life-On-Hold-And-Oh-Yeah-A-Pandemic-Too situation in which we find ourselves immersed, the producers of perennial The Guild mainstay Anne & Gilbert the Musical stubbornly insisted on “putting on a show” this summer. This, despite pretty much the rest of the theatrical community here on The Island, and around the world, stating “That, sir, is nigh on impossible!” They came upon the idea of presenting The Songs of Anne & Gilbert, the Musical.

It is, they tell us, a pared-back theatrical experience, comprised of six performers, two musicians, and a trio of young dancers, performing select songs from the musical along with a few that never made it into the show.

I knew I was in trouble, pretty much right away.

The Guild has altered its theatre to accommodate the safety of its patrons, according to regulations and guidelines set by the Chief Public Health Office and Renew PEI. So the theatre has a maximum of 50 seats placed in small groupings throughout the audience area. It takes what was already an intimate space and makes it even more intimate.

I knew I was in trouble, pretty much right away.

The show started with a performance of The Log Driver’s Waltz by the three female performers. And, yeah, so, I knew I was in trouble, pretty much right away, when I started crying. Crying at The Log Driver’s Waltz. I never considered this a song to cry at. Definitely a song to enjoy, as experienced via the NFB’s animated short, which I’m including here:

So, I was shocked and curious as to why I found myself crying. Not, like, full-on blubbering wailing or anything. More like lump in throat, welling eyes, quivering bottom lip. It was sung beautifully, wonderful harmonies, and a pure joy of performance. And it made me cry. As I’ve said, I knew I was in trouble, pretty much right away.

So, long story short, I cried my way through the first five songs or so, before I managed to compose myself – only to find actual tears falling down my cheeks again about three-quarters of the way through the show, well after I thought the crying episode was over for me.

So, what happened? Well, the pandemic happened and it, you know, totally screwed up all of our all’s capabilities to deal with our emotions. And then this show happened. This intimate, personal, professional show happened. And I guess I wasn’t ready for it.

The simple staging of the show creates a very warm and inviting, intimate experience. The two musicians – Music Director Lisa MacDougall playing keyboards and accordion, and Laurie Forsyth playing cello and upright bass – remain onstage throughout, with the singers coming and going as their performances require.

The six singers – Jacob Hemphill, Morgan Wagner, Page Gallant, Simone Derome, Nick Whelan, & Melanie Piatocha – are exceptional. When they sing solo, they absolutely own and inhabit the songs they are singing. When they sing together, in duos or trios, or as an ensemble, their voices blend exquisitely, creating pure and beautiful harmonies. All to the point of eliciting tears and emotions – seemingly at whim – from a rather stoic and curmudgeonly middle-aged reviewer.

Each performer gets their moment to introduce themselves and explain their personal connection to the show and its history. And each takes what could be a bit of a hokey “allow me to emote myself” moment and turns it into a personal and touching evocation. Special mention must be made of Morgan Wagner who quadruple-threatened herself into the role of fiddler with the band – a truly impressively talented performer. Even music director Lisa MacDougall, gets in on the feels, and then offers up her rendition of a wonderful ballad. I did find myself wishing for cellist Laurie Forsyth to speak a bit of her experience, to have her own solitary moment. She was the only of the cast, apart from the young dancers, who didn’t have that opportunity of focus.

In trying to figure out why I enjoyed this show so much, I’ve come to the conclusion that something interesting happens when the focus is purely on the songs from a musical. Not having to worry about the story (not that it is a big worry) allows us to devote the entirety of our attentions on the quality of the songwriting. And I was thrilled and excited to realize just how terrific they are. Kudos to writers Jeff Hochhauser, Bob Johnson and Nancy White for their exemplary talents. If nothing else, you’ve created an Island anthem in “Island Through and Through” that will live on forever.

What is perhaps most remarkable, for me, is this: The performances on the night I saw this show made me feel that this night’s show was a special and unique experience. They perform this show six times a week, and I have no doubt that there must be a bit of a rote element to the proceedings for everyone involved. So to make it seem like the show I saw was somehow elevated and special is a testament to the talents of everyone involved in the production.

My only slight criticism of the show has to do with the inclusion of the young dancers who appear a few times throughout. While their participation no doubt adds an injection of energy and movement to an otherwise grounded staging, the quality of performance was rather below the exceptional we experienced throughout the rest of the evening. Just a little bit sloppy. I’ll just leave it at that.

You should go see The Songs of Anne & Gilbert the Musical. For the superb songs. For the talented performances. For the joy of experiencing theatre.

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