After seven years of development and numerous workshops, the distressing thing about “Pelagie” is how many fundamental things are wrong with it, from the lack of a clear thematic intent to a physical production capable of holding this epic tale together.
This world-premiere musical is based on the Prix Goncourt-winning novel “Pelagie-la-Charette” by Acadian author Antonine Maillet. It deals with a Mother Courage-like character who seeks to return her family to their native Nova Scotia in 1775, nearly two decades after they were forced to leave home when the British purged all Acadians from their native lands in Atlantic Canada.
Authors Vincent de Tourdonnet and Allen Cole were drawn to the material and have labored over it mightily, but it’s hard to determine exactly what their intention was. If they expect us to mourn the loss of the Acadian world or cheer for its return, they would have been well advised to show us what was so savagely treated by the British.
“Fiddler on the Roof” offers us nearly three hours of life in Anatevka before its residents are exiled. We come to love them and the culture that we have witnessed. Not so “Pelagie.” We begin, confusingly, in the bowels of a ship taking the Acadians to exile in Georgia. We then rush — equally confusingly — through nearly two decades of confinement and finally start the journey back.
The damage has been done. We do not know who these people are or what they stand for. We have no initial reason to care for them and the authors offer us little along the way.
They favor the kind of songs that drive the narrative forward or tell amusing folk stories, but — with one or two exceptions — they give us no character revelation or depth.
Cole’s music possesses a few pleasing melodic strains, but it steadfastly refuses to weave them into a coherent musical number. De Tourdonnet’s lyrics try to walk the fine line between simple and simplistic, but keep slipping into cliche.
Inventive staging might have helped things along, but this too is lacking. Director Michael Shamata keeps things moving in the same repetitive pattern: Pelagie pulls her wagon across the stage, then they play a scene; the wagon crosses back, then they play on the other side, etc.
Set designer John Ferguson’s attempt to be starkly Brechtian winds up looking meager; only John Munro’s lighting possesses color and texture.
The cast is solid, but most of the actors have little to play. Susan Gilmour, in the title role, sings with strength and radiates emotion, but (except for one touching song on the night of her daughter’s wedding) never gets much in the way of flavorful characterization.
The final resolution: Pelagie arrives home, discovers it is now a barren wilderness and quickly concludes, “Wherever we are, is Acadie.” It manages to be depressing and unsatisfying at the same time.