Pelagie, the musical that opened this week at CanStage, has been seven years in development. It is based on the novel Pelagie-la-Charrette, Antonine Maillet's account of one woman's superhuman effort to return her family and culture to her native Nova Scotia after having been deported by the British. Writers Vincent de Tourdonnet (book and lyrics) and Allen Cole (book and music) have fashioned a pageant that aspires to epic stature, but the results are inconsistent and the epic is diminished by borrowing heavily from previous theatrical models without adding a signature of its own.
The evening is earnest and there is never any doubt that the creative team is anything less than sincere, but after a short while that becomes the work's undoing. (By the end of the extended evening, we have seen and/or heard echoes of Les Miserables, Sweeney Todd, Mother Courage and a compendium of staging devices that run the gamut from mid-century operetta to old-fashioned musical comedy, not much of a gamut, frankly.) The story is laudable on paper but lacking any forward motion on the stage. The characters are stock types lacking the complexity that might make them interesting enough for us to worry for them or care about their next adventure. They do seem to possess an uncanny sense of direction as they drag themselves and their carts along the eastern seaboard on their journey north.
De Tourdonnet and Cole have fashioned a book that is episodic but static. How odd it is to tell a story so crowded with incident but lacking in action. Offstage events outnumber those onstage and the result is cumulative tedium. At the end of the first act Pelagie sings of her resolve to return home. But that is where the act itself began ñ so much time and so little progress. The second act sets its focus on family but then shifts to a catalogue of plot catastrophes that culminates in a closing anthem meant to get us to our feet, as if that in itself had value and legitimacy.
Furthermore, the work lacks both a clear tone and overall purpose. There are passing references to the British and the Americans, but these occasional sneers do not constitute a political position, and the lack of an honest political voice in a play about cultural destruction exposes the flab surrounding the too-gently beating heart. The final image of the tri-colour serves nothing but to remind us that Pelagie begins and ends with its inspiration drawn from others' imaginations.
The weak structure is further hobbled by stage-bound dialogue. Noble characters speak nobly and the supporting characters add a rural, rough-edged, wisdom that manages to see the truth through adversity while adding humour. How much more demanding it might be for us to see that there are some worlds where the foolish are not given the keys to human understanding and where folk tale pieties reveal themselves as false hopes and empty dreams. I don't mean to advocate despair for its own sake, but the writers have hung their thesis on a theory that holds sway in the Land of Never Never Was. Where else can characters emerge from the wings in such a timely fashion that long-lost relationships are tied up in the blink of an eye or during the repeated chorus of a cheery refrain? Where else does the figure called Death stroll about in a big dress, first dragging her own fancy cart, then walking with hands free for clutching and, finally, flying above the heads of the sorry Acadians as though we needed a reference to Peter Pan or The Wizard of Oz. And if the dialogue is weak, the lyrics are, sadly, even worse.
There is little range of emotional or intellectual power in the text. De Tourdonnet is dedicated to false rhymes and couplets that we hear coming long before they arrive. Just when we yearn for a poetic image to match a character's longing, the vocabulary is false and underwhelming. Pelagie herself is referred to as "queen of the quarterdeck" over and over again. Once would have been inadvisable. As she leads her group onward, she repeats the phrase, "Heigh, heigh ho!" at which point we think of nothing but a septet of pick-axe wielding dwarves. (In his earlier Jeanne, a musical based on the life and death of Joan of Arc, De Tourdonnet had the titular character rally her troops by singing, "Hear me when I say, 'Hey, hey, hey!'") In the final moments, during which Pelagie sings up a storm of resolve with grim-faced determination, she tells us that she will keep her stories alive in her pocket and the memory of her lover in or near her belly. Repeatedly, the lyrics let down the performers who are doing the best they can with what they have been given.
The company of singers is strong and they produce a wonderful sound, especially for a few well-chosen moments of a capella harmony. In these all-too-brief departures from form, the stage opens and the heart is engaged, but the moments are too few to be substantial and the talent on the stage is compromised. Susan Gilmour absolutely hurls herself at the title role, but it is unclear whether it is the role or the actor who is exposed by trying too hard to be so relentlessly driven to realize her dream. Rejean J. Cournoyer has a large voice but he is relegated to a one-dimensional persona of goodness and unclouded integrity. Mary Ellen Mahoney and Cliff Le Jeune do what they can with their too-coy characters and Amy Walsh, as Pelagie's daughter, has many opportunities to display a rich and true voice, though she isn't convincingly weighty as the heir to her mother's fire and passion. Cliff Saunders has nothing of note to do the entire time he is on stage, leading me to wonder if his character had originally been given a number or a scene to play that is now part of the project's development history.
The gestation of any musical is always tenuous and perilous. Books aplenty have been written to chronicle the journey taken by hits and misses alike. The almost intangible quality that blends story and character and song so that we give in to the artifice eludes most authors and composers who try to find the formula. But that is no reason to stop trying, to be sure. What is so disappointing with Pelagie, however, is seeing the result of so many years of development, so many creative contributions and knowing that there is still so much work to be done before Pelagie can, at last, find her rightful home.
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