PELAGIE by Vincent de Tourdonnet and Allen Cole, directed by Michael Shamata, with Susan Gilmour, Réjean J. Cournoyer, Shaun Amyot, Edward Belanger, Stephen Guy McGrath, Cliff Le Jeune, Jayne Lewis, Mary Ellen Mahoney, Mike Nadajewski and Cliff Saunders. Presented by CanStage and the NAC at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front East). Opens tonight (Thursday, April 8) and runs to May 1, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm and Saturday 2 pm. $20-$77, some Monday pwyc and rush seats. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
Bigger isn't always better, but it's certainly more challenging. That's what composer Allen Cole has discovered as he premieres the musical Pélagie, co-created with Vincent de Tourdonnet.
Best known for his music for small shows - Hush, Anything That Moves, The Crimson Veil and the beautiful Fringe show The Juniper Tree - Cole here jumps up to a piece with a cast of 16 and a seven-piece orchestra.
Pélagie, based on an award-winning novel by Acadian writer Antonine Maillet, has been in development for seven years. It's the tale of Pélagie LeBlanc, a fictional Acadian woman who in the 1770s gathers up a group of other Acadians dispersed throughout the American colonies. Her goal? An epic journey to their Nova Scotia homeland.
"The work's resonance for Acadian audiences is tremendous," says Cole, who wrote the musical's book with de Tourdonnet. "A theatrical adaptation of a Carol Shields novel for anglophone viewers would have the same strength.
"But the expulsion of the Acadians - a pivotal piece of Canadian history - is something that many Canadians don't know about," says the Nova Scotia-born writer. "It was almost a genocide by the ruling English."
But the piece is far more than a Canadian history lesson.
"It has an affinity with Fiddler On The Roof. Back in the 60s, people said that musical wouldn't play outside the Jewish community. But that idea was proven wrong, because Fiddler - and, I think, Pélagie - has a universality based on its specificity. Any community that's struggled can relate to the story."
Pélagie is not only an epic with a dash of The Odyssey's wanderings, but also a love story. The title character becomes involved with Beausoleil, a dashing sea captain. That relationship humanizes Pélagie and also gives her a modern feel, since she's caught between private and public roles.
"Given the scope of the story, the chamber ensembles I've used before just didn't cut it. Also, the Bluma Appel Theatre's a big space, one that wants a big sound to fill it.
"We chose a few traditional Acadian pieces in strategic places. The actors perform them onstage, playing violin and Jew's harps. The sounds I've composed come from the pit and mark my first use of a virtual orchestra, with sampled sound as well as the live players. That composed music is larger, more cinematic in quality than the traditional melodies.
Because the piece is about the re-establishment of a community, one of the features of the music is its choral singing.
Or as Cole puts it, "There's no better way to make the point of community than through a lot of people raising their voices together."
Cole came to musical theatre from his work as a sound designer in alternative theatre - that is, his way into writing words was through creating music. These days, the nature of his collaboration depends on each project.
"Musical theatre writing in Canada is still young and growing. I think it's situated somewhere between the Broadway musical and European opera.
"When I began work in the early 80s, there weren't as many musical-theatre practitioners, including serious singing actors, as there are now. I hope the prejudice against musicals is dying out. It never made sense." email@example.com