Reviewed by James Karas
The Charlottetown Festival is back, albeit in a pandemic-modified format. It features three productions with emphasis on eastern Canada. The first production was Between Breaths a play by Robert Chafe about the controversial life of Dr. Jon Lien, a Newfoundlander credited with rescuing more than 500 whales trapped in fishing nets. It ran util June 19, 2021.
The second production, reviewed here, is Dear Rita, a tribute to the great Canadian singer. The next production will be Old Stock by Hannah Moscovitch, Christian Barry and Ben Caplan about Jewish refugees from Russia. It will run from August 12 to September 4, 2021.
The beautiful theatre in the Confederation Centre of the Arts can seat 1100 people but only 300 were allowed in observance of strict social distancing and other Covid related rules. The small number did not dampen the enthusiasm of the audience.
Lyndsay Kyte as playwright and Mike Ross as co-creator, music director and arranger have crafted a program that pays tribute to MacNeil’s wide-ranging musical contribution a well as her life. A company of eight actors, singers and musicians are tasked with presenting the program with sufficient enthusiasm and pathos as to be rewarded with a standing ovation by the reduced audience.
The four women of the cast, Michelle Bouey, Kristi Hansen, Melissa Mackenzie, and Lindsay Kyte, and four men, Sheldon Elter, and Brendan Wall with Chris Corrigan on guitar and Trevor Grant on drums, showed acting versatility, musical talent and reasonable vocal ability. The songs are sung by cast members individually and as an ensemble.
“Working Man,” a tribute to Nova Scotia coal miners “Flying on Your Own” about the strength she showed after leaving her husband, her love letter to Cape Breton “I'll see you again” and many more give a fine accounting of her varied talents in folk and country music and as references to her life.
Born in 1944 on Cape Breton Island with a cleft lip and palate, she had to suffer the worst insult that can be targeted in a small community: being “different.” She was sexually abused for years by the calloused hands of a great-uncle. She kept the abuse secret until she revealed it in her 1998 autobiography On A Personal Note.
She eventually gravitated toward Toronto more than once where she kept some menial jobs, became pregnant and had an out of wedlock daughter. She returned to Cape Breton but the desire to sing proved powerful and she left her child with her parents. Back in Toronto she got married, had a second child and even tried farming. But she could not stay away from singing and writing songs for long.
The play mentions her attempted suicide when she took a bottle of sleeping pills and her little son stood by her all night. She woke up 24 hours later and found pizza crumbs near her. Worse was to come in her battle with obesity. She reached 186 pounds and received some disgusting comments about it. The all-time low was reached during the 1993 World Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Blue Jays where MacNeil sang the national anthem during one game. A Philadelphia newspaper suggested that she should get a forklift to transport her to home plate among other despicable comments.
We learn that there were numerous such insults in the media, but she seemed to take them with aplomb. When a journalist asked her if she was “a dish” when she weighed 113 pounds, she retorted that she is still a dish and asked if he was no longer a dish after he lost his hair.
Rita MacNeil had a big and resonant voice and she performed powerfully and movingly. The cast, admirably directed by Mary Francis Moore, captures much of her musical and personal life and, to their great credit, entertain us and make us want to go back to the original.
Dear Rita by Lyndsay Kyte and Mike Ross plays from June 19 to August 6, 2021, at the Confederation Centre of the Arts, 145 Richmond Street, Charlottetown, PE C1A 1J1 https://confederationcentre.com/
James Karas is the Senior Editor – Culture of The Greek Press. This review appeared initially in the newspaper