Wheel of misfortune

Review by Sean McQuaid

Charlottetown Festival, Sobey Family Theatre
June 23, 2023

Long on heart, short on story. That’s my six-word impression of MAGGIE, the new musical playing at the Charlottetown Festival this summer after a spring debut run in Hamilton, Ontario. A collaboration of the festival and Hamilton-based Theatre Aquarius, the show features book and lyrics by Johnny Reid & Matt Murray with music by Reid, Murray and music director Bob Foster, plus dramaturgy by director Mary Francis Moore. 

Scottish born singer/songwriter Reid lends star power to the project. His first professional theatre credit, the play is a loving tribute to his late Scottish grandmother, on whom the titular Maggie is based. Unlike Alan Doyle in last season’s hit Tell Tale Harbour, Reid doesn’t star in his own musical; the lead here is the superb Dharma Bizier as Maggie, among the finest of the production’s many virtues. 

Set in the Scottish mining town Lanarkshire in the years 1954 to 1976, the musical shows how proud, spirited school cleaner Maggie is widowed early and left to raise her three sons alone in a community plagued by sectarian religious tensions, financial hardship and a shrinking population (characters even resort to finding work in exotic Canada). 

Maggie’s family suffers more than most, facing death, violence, poverty, substance abuse, religious strife, jail time and more; and perhaps it’s the musical’s based-on-a-true-story roots, but the narrative flow of it all feels aimless and meandering. Bad things happen to good Maggie, she endures; more bad things happen, she endures some more. The character and the musical both seem stuck on a hamster wheel of serial misfortune. 

Lest that sound too bleak, there’s fun aplenty here: charming actors and lively musical numbers bring the Lanarkshire folk to life, and the ensemble’s chemistry builds an appealing sense of community with an occasional party vibe. 

The supporting characters tend to be thinly sketched or broad types (like the boys’ flamboyantly gay uncle Charles), though Maggie’s salty pal with a social conscience Betty feels more real because she’s more specific. Maggie and her boys are fleshed out the most, though Maggie’s low on agency for a lead character and her troubled son Shug’s storyline just fades away towards the end. 

Yasmine Lee’s choreography is charmingly playful but lacks visual pop or wow moments, often feeling like dancing calibrated for non-dancers. More impressive is Ken MacDonald’s set, dominated by a pair of working-class apartment building exteriors rendered in a three-quarter view that adds immersive illusory depth, and the working lights in the windows are a nice added touch. 

Jeremy Legat plays Charles with winningly impish verve, Jamie McRoberts pairs potent charm with powerful pipes as Maggie’s chipper chum Sadie, and Nicola-Dawn Brook’s sharp comic timing as Betty steals scene after scene. Aidan Burke shows solid range as Maggie’s brainy son Jimmy (who’s got the best-developed story arc of the whole family), as does Kaitlyn Post playing his love interest Teresa. 

Best of the lot by far, though, is Bizier, aces at both comedy and drama and gifted with a rich, emotionally resonant singing voice that elicits chills during numbers like “Unbreakable” and “My Confession.” MAGGIE the show may be an imperfect gem, but with Bizier as Maggie, the character always sparkles.