Acadian and Francophone Affairs Secretariat
Government of Prince Edward Island
Longfellow’s poem is fictional, but the legend of Evangeline has been an ongoing source of inspiration since 1847. This is especially true in the Evangeline region of Prince Edward Island, but it is also the case in Charlottetown, where the Confederation Centre of the Arts is presenting the musical Evangeline from September 14 to October 10, 2015.
The epic but tragic love story of Evangeline Bellefontaine and Gabriel Lajeunesse, torn apart by the 1755 Expulsion of the Acadians, was transformed into a Broadway-style musical and presented for the first time in 2013 at the Confederation Centre of the Arts. The story of the two lovers, separated during the Expulsion of the Acadian people and then reunited many years later in Philadelphia, garnered rave reviews from theatre critics, including those at the Globe and Mail and the National Post.
The legend of Evangeline has long outgrown the dactylic hexameter framework that Longfellow borrowed from classic Greek works like the Iliad and the Odyssey. The same can be said for Evangeline – for many of those involved, it represents much more than a musical production.
For its author, Ted Dykstra, Evangeline is the fruit of a decade-long labour of love that almost failed to come to fruition, until the Confederation Centre of the Arts took it on. Evangeline is a huge gamble for the Centre. It is the first original production featured at the Centre since 1999. According to Dykstra, it is the biggest Canadian musical of all times. It features 30 performers, a 14-piece orchestra and over 200 costumes. It cost more than 1.5 million dollars to produce.
Evangeline is even more important for the Acadian and francophone community of Prince Edward Island. First, it gives its artists a forum to shine. Versatile entertainer Albert Arsenault, a former member of Barachois and Chuck & Albert, interpreted René in the 2013 production. This year, Josée Boudreau, an Acadian actress living in the Evangeline region, plays the main character.
Second, the Acadian community was proud to see its history put on the main stage with a high-quality production. The Centre organized special performances for families with certain Acadian surnames. Hundreds of Acadians from all over the Island sharing the same family name came to the Centre to see the production together, ‘as a family’, so to speak. Also, the French-language school board bused some of its students to attend a stimulating Acadian history class.
And third, the musical raises awareness among the English-speaking community of the Island and around the world about the history, drama and pride of the Acadian people. Starting with the musical’s author: ‘I grew up in Edmonton, and it wasn’t part of our curriculum. I couldn’t believe that such a huge, important part of our history wasn’t even being taught in school.’ Aubrey Cormier, then provincial Assistant Deputy Minister of Acadian and Francophone Affairs, believed the musical would ‘promote a better understanding’ of Acadians and their history.
Although the musical is intended for entertainment and not pedagogy, the Confederation Centre published a bilingual booklet to help the audience better understand the historical content portrayed in the musical. The booklet included a few pages on the expulsion and the return of the Acadians of Isle Saint-Jean (the name of Prince Edward Island at the time), even though the musical deals with the expulsion of the Acadians of Grand Pré, Nova Scotia. On June 16, 2014, in recognition of the Centre’s efforts to raise awareness about the Expulsion of the Acadians, ‘a part of history about which many Canadians have little or no knowledge’, the Acadian historical society Sœur-Antoinette-DesRoches awarded the Centre its annual Gilbert-Buote Prize for the production of the musical and for the accompanying bilingual guide.
While the journey of the legendary Evangeline took her along the American coastline over many years, the journey of Evangeline the musical will be chronologically shorter but geographically more widespread. Following the performances at the Confederation Centre of the Arts, the crew will fly to Edmonton to entertain theatre goers in the Shoctor Theatre from October 31 to November 22. Afterwards, the Confederation Centre hopes to bring the production to Broadway. If Evangeline makes her way to the United States, she will have a much better trip than the one she took in 1755.