Dazzling in a gold lamé suit, his lips curled in the famous pout, a young Elvis Presley (Ben Bass) makes his debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. As he thrusts his pelvis against the microphone stand while belting out Hound Dog, a frantic TV producer repeatedly shouts “F---,” for the act he thinks Elvis is imitating. The scene is from Alan Bleasdale’s Are You Lonesome Tonight?, which received its North American première at Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre of the Arts on June 25. The play’s strong language has rocked Prince Edward Island with controversy. Introducing the lewd Elvis— with language to match—to the customarily staid festival has sparked petitions, letters to the editor and concern about the future of the 3 V2 -month event. But ovations and sellout crowds have made Lonesome the biggest box-office success for a new production in the festival’s 23-year history. Declared Colin MacMillan, former board chairman of the Confederation Centre and a champion of change at the festival: “We’re on our way now.”
Clearly, the Charlottetown Festival is in transition. For 23 years it has offered mostly wholesome family fare—most notably with its perennial hit, the light-
hearted Anne of Green Gables, based on the novel by P.E.I. native Lucy Maud Montgomery. But the festival is acquiring a bold new image under Walter Learning, the former artistic director of The Vancouver Playhouse, who took over as the festival’s artistic director last November. Learning says that he is determined to reinvigorate an institution that toward the end of Alan Lund’s 21-year directorship had fallen into debt, mediocrity and a penchant for glittery Las Vegas-style revues.
Learning’s choice of Lonesome— based closely on the life of Presley, who died in 1977—was the first sign that changes were under way. The musical is a frank study of Presley’s rise to fame and his subsequent decline into addiction, obesity and emotional emptiness.
When reports of the plot and language of Lonesome leaked into the community, some Charlottetown residents acted quickly. In April Catherine Callbeck, chairman of the Confederation Centre’s board, threatened to resign if the play were mounted. She enlisted the aid of P.E.I. Premier Joseph Ghiz, who announced that he shared her distaste for the play’s language. But Ghiz could not block the production through legislation, and when the majority of the
Confederation Centre board opposed Callbeck, she quit. Learning now dismisses his opponents as a “vocal minority” engaged in “mild hysteria.” He added: “The fact that one wants to do more provocative work does not preclude family-oriented entertainment. This year we’re proving that they can exist side by side.” Among the other signs that the festival is entering a dramatic new era is Learning’s decision to revise the formerly sacrosanct Anne. He has altered the script by Don Harron, Mavor Moore and Norman and Elaine Campbell—in an attempt, Learning says, to show “Lucy Maud Montgomery’s z darker side.” Learning deleted 2 a few comic scenes—gone are x the jokes about corsets—while □ adding the character of the g Blewett foster child (Todd £ Stewart), who works as a hired I hand but stands apart from the g community. His mournful pres§ ence in several scenes is a grim £ reminder that all is not rosy on the shores of the Lake of Shining Waters.
On its opening night last month the revised Anne also met enthusiastic applause. Harron told Maclean's that he was pleased with the alterations and with Learning’s direction, adding, “Any change is welcome from the cartoon that it had become—an embalmed cartoon.” But there are still some lingering criticisms of Learning, especially his choice of Lonesome for a festival whose mandate has been to showcase works written by Canadians. A June 26 editorial in the Charlottetown Guardian questioned his decision to use a work written by Bleasdale, an Englishman, about an American superstar. The paper added, “The production does nothing to promote or celebrate Canadian history and culture.”
Learning counters that, apart from Lonesome, all his first season’s plays are written by Canadians. They include Noël Coward: A Portrait, the new solo work by Montreal-based Peter Pringle which opened last week, and two sturdy classics of Canadian theatre, John Gray’s Billy Bishop Goes to War and David French’s Salt Water Moon. And next week Learning will begin planning his next season. As well as choosing new works, he says that he will explore the possibility of adding a choral festival and a showcase of children’s books to the event. As a result, future festivalgoers can prepare for more shakeups from the man who introduced Elvis Presley to Anne of Green Gables.
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