Charlottetown Festival, Confederation Centre – June 29, 2022
Hopes aplenty are pinned on Tell Tale Harbour, both the fictional East Coast town and the real-life musical comedy of the same name making its world premiere at the Charlottetown Festival this summer.
Co-created by Atlantic Canadian music mainstay Alan Doyle (who also stars as larger-than-life local character Frank), festival Artistic Director Adam Brazier and collaborators Bob Foster (music director) & Edward Riche, this new musical – adapted from 2013 movie The Grand Seduction – tells a sunnier, streamlined version of the film’s story about a remote coastal town manipulating a doctor into moving there.
In the musical, Frank schemes to revitalize his shrinking hometown by luring a frozen french fry factory there; but the deal requires a local fulltime physician, so the town tries to trick visiting British doctor Chris (played by Jahlen Barnes) into staying. Frank’s sharp-tongued shopkeeper niece Kathleen (Michelle Bardach) scorns Frank’s machinations even while the townsfolk try to push her into a romance with the doctor.
It’s a charming story with a Newhart-caliber batch of likeable, folksy eccentrics. The plot skews silly by times, notably a twist involving a faked death and a reverse-Weekend at Bernie’s scenario that’s funny but nearly derails the story with its sheer implausibility and lack of any logical foundation, though it helps that Dr. Chris doesn’t seem lastingly fooled for long.
Musical theatre neophyte Doyle is a perfect Frank, aided by the obvious overlap between character and actor, both gregarious born showmen. Festival newcomers Bardach & Barnes offer emotional range, charisma, chemistry and superb vocals as the romantic leads. Standouts include Alison Woolridge as Frank’s world-weary wife Barbara, and the sweet, funny spark of older couple Vera and Yvon, played by a saucy Charlotte Moore and the reliably great Laurie Murdoch.
Other townsfolk are played by proven festival assets like Stephen Guy-McGrath, Alanna Hibbert, Cameron MacDuffee, Jacob MacInnis and Marlane O’Brien (absent the night of this review but adroitly spelled by understudy Jamie Murray); this company’s tremendous bench strength helps make their fictional town colourful and engaging, building an infectiously cheerful sense of community.
That vibrant sense of place is enhanced by Cory Sincennes’ versatile set. Static touches like wildflowers and a simple fishing net backdrop evoke the place, as does a big stack of wooden crates and boxes typical of any wharf; but these crates, adjusted, opened and closed over the course of the show, are full of set dressing, lights and props that help convert those boxes into specific locations like Kathleen’s store and the local Legion hall. It’s an ingenious Swiss army knife of a set piece.
The entire cast are often perching, climbing and clambering atop all those boxes, which feels potentially perilous, but they make it look easy. It helps keep the blocking lively and visually interesting, and much credit goes to director Jillian Keiley, movement director/choreographer Linda Garneau and the actors for how smooth and natural it all seems.
It’s a show full of fun music, courtesy of a rollicking little orchestra described as a “Celtic rock pop music theatre band” and a company of great vocalists. It’s varied in tone – songs like “Payday” and “You Never Looked So Good” have the Celtic party energy you’d expect from Doyle, but other tunes have more of a pop or lyrical flavour. “My Family,” a touching anthem to the beauty of rural community might be the best of the bunch, though “Payday” is a rousing highlight as well.
“Nothing is more important to me in my professional life than giving people a good night out,” Doyle has said, but in this case he’s giving himself too little credit. He and his Tell Tale Harbour collaborators have given their audience a great night out.