Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Yes, indefatigable Chanhassen Dinner Theatre has brought its winning The Music Man back to the boards, but that is a retooling of their production that opened early in March, 2020and closed a week and a half later. I am talking about a from-scratch production of a show that is brand new local audiences. Islander is an excellent choice for this venture. It calls for only two actors, so there is no crowded stage to pose a public health risk. It is also a great choice to demonstrate the ways in which a beautiful piece of theater benefits from lighting design that is hard, if not impossible, to offer at makeshift outdoor venues.
Islander is a lovely one-act musical set in the present but inspired by Scottish folklore around the myth of the "fin-folk" who live in the sea. It takes place on an island off the coast of Scotland that has lost its economic basis, resulting in an exodus to the mainland, or as islanders call it, "the big land." With dwindling numbers, the island has lost its doctors, school, and many other needed amenities. Those remaining are divided between wanting to abandon it all, and those determined to cling to their ancestral home and find ways to revitalize life there.
Eilidh is a teenager caught in this conflict. She feels abandoned by her mother, who left for the mainland with Eilidh's younger siblings in order to find work. Eilidh chose to remain and lives with her devoted grandmother, whose wicked sense of humor keeps Eilidh on her toes. The girl feels the island's strong hold on her, while recognizing how little a future it can offer.
Eilidh's life is upended, first by the sighting of a beached whale that she tries desperately to save. Soon after, a mysterious girl is found washed up on shore. The girl, Arran, hits it off with Eilidh and it seems they have each made a friend, until Arran angers Eilidh with her account of where she is from and how she landed on the island. The tension between these two girls and their parallel yearning for something that feels like home, along with the larger arena of conflict among the islanders, is tenderly rendered by Stewart Melton's well-devised book and, especially, through Finn Anderson's beautiful music and lyrics.
Anderson is a Scottish singer whose recorded work has a pop, after-hours club feel, but his music for Islanders is altogether different. His melodies are haunting, subtly flowing up and down the scale to draw us deeply into the story. His lyrics most often deliver bits of the narrative with a blend of wit and empathy. These are not songs anyone is likely to leave the theater humming, but you are likely to wish you could hear them all again.
The music is brought to glorious life by the two actors who portray all of the characters on stage. Christine Wade anchors the narrative as Eilidh, whose uncertainties about what direction her life should take is the heart of the story. Wade believably creates an adolescent who can be snarky and immature one moment, and express clear logic and deep reflections and on life the next. She also plays a number of minor characters throughout the show. Emily Dussault delivers the crucial sense of a lost voyager in Arran; the barbed wit, warmth and spunk that animates Gran; and the frustration and sadness of a mother trying her best to meet her family's needs. Both actors switch from one character to another with the blink of an eye, deftly pulling off two frantic scenesone a contentious town meeting, the other upon a boat caught in a terrible stormwithout missing a beat. Note, Dussault alternates performances with Deidre Cochran in her roles.
Both Dussault and Wade have gorgeous voices, splendid singing alone and sublime when harmonizing. Adding to this abundance of riches, Anderson composed the score to include looped recordings that sometimes have the singers harmonizing with themselves, sometimes with a larger chorus of voices. This strikes me as a challenge that might have muddled the show, but here the challenge is fully met, raising the emotional temperature of the show in a glorious mist of sound. Wade serves as Islander's vocal director and, in addition to her own voice, she contributes enormously to the beautiful voices heard.
Lindsay Fitzgerald is both director and designer of this production. She skillfully maintains a sense of mystery, both the uncertain future of the island and the unexplained arrival of Arran, as a driver to propel the show, while allowing us to connect with the more accessible tribulations we see in Eilidh, Gran, and Eilidh's mother. The design includes video images at the rear of the stage that create an island environment, with clouds, flights of birds, and whales trolling the sea causing continuous change. Peter Gustafson's excellent lighting design delivers changes in mood and intensity throughout the play. Jim Ahrens has done superb work as dialect coach, giving each character a slight variation of Scottish brogue.
Islander was first seen in 2019 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it was awarded Best New Musical at the Fringe by Musical Theatre Review. After a brief tour of Scotland, the show had a critically acclaimed run at London's Southwark Playhouse in London and was nominated for best new off-West End musical. Much gratitude goes to Elision Theatre for ferreting out jewels such as this and bringing them to Twin Cities audiences.
Under any conditions, Islander would be highly recommended, both as a new work of musical theater and for Theatre Elision's altogether successful production. Given the fact that this is live, indoor theater after such a long, long time, it is a reason to celebrate.
Islander, a Theatre Elision production, runs through July 31, 2021, at the Elision Playhouse, 6105 42nd Avenue North, Crystal MN. Audience members are required to wear face masks at all times, and there are no concessions or food allowed in the theater. For tickets and information, please visit www.elisionproductions.com.
Conceived by: Amy Draper; Music and Lyrics: Finn Anderson; Book: Stewart Melton; Director and Designer: Lindsay Fitzgerald; Vocal Director: Christine Wade: Dialect Coach: Jim Ahrens; Lighting Designer: Peter Gustafson; Sound Consultants: Harrison Wade, Jeff Geisler; Stage Manager: Z Makila; Assistant Stage Manager: Constance Brevell
Cast: Deidre Cochran (Arran), Emily Dussault (Aran, Eilidh u/s), Christine Wade (Eilidh).