By Courtney Leigh Church, February 25, 2019
After a sold-out, week-long run in 2017 on the Grand’s Spriet Stage, Jonathan Christenson’s “Vigilante” is back – bigger and better – on the Grand’s Spriet Stage.
The rock musical is based on the true story of Johannah (Jan Alexandra Smith) and James Donnelly (David Leyshon), two Irish lovers on opposing sides of a secret society feud. Johanna is the daughter of a Whiteboy, a secret society of Catholics who revolt against Anglo-Protestant landowners in Ireland. While James shares the Whiteboy’s Catholicism, he is not so inclined to incite violence. His refusal to join the Whiteboys lands him the label “Blackfoot” which means, in the Whiteboys’ eyes, he is now traitor to Ireland.
The conflict doesn’t stop Johannah and James’s conviction for one another. Upon falling in love and marrying, the two flee to the New World to begin anew, far from the feuds of the past – that is, until the past catches up with them in Canada.
Narrating the story from the afterlife, Johanna and James’s six sons explain their version of events. The Donnelly boys take several liberties with what few facts we have, but these inconsistencies serve a sympathetic function. Their tale is, in part, a vindication of their role in the local conflict and they spin themselves as economic aggressors rather than violent troublemakers. The story also sheds a ghostly light on local mystery and reminds us that the many holes in history have answers that we may never find.
Except for Johnny (Eric Wigston), the cast have reprised their 2017 roles. The actors’ familiarity with their own characters and each other lends authenticity to their family dynamic, however dysfunctional their family may be. Choreographed by Laura Krewski, the ensemble’s sequences are near flawless and their vocal harmonies are shiver-inducing, especially songs that include Smith’s higher range.
Together, the cast is am an indomitable family unit, but there are several stand out individuals.
Jan Alexandra Smith’s Johanna is deliciously ruthless. Johanna’s family-first mentality lends itself to her role the cutthroat and cunning matriarch; though this is her sons’ story, she plays the central role.
As eldest brother and primary narrator, Carson Nattrass’s Will serves as storyteller and, at times, comic relief from his own tale. His comical asides remind us of the frame and serve to undercut the tension within his story; jokes told in his high-pitched Irish accent are a delightful distraction from the bloodshed on stage. This strategy works well in the climactic second act, though the constant short quips in the first half slacken the story’s grip.
Tasked with playing dual roles, Kris Joseph’s Constable Carrol and Scott Walters’s Patrick Farrell make for detestable antagonists. Joseph’s Carrol is perfectly self-righteous in his role as Biddulph constable and Walters’s Farrell is smarmy enough to make your skin crawl.
Pale-faced and grey-clad, the stellar cast is ghostly and gothic thanks to costume, hair, and makeup designer Narda McCarroll and the work of the University of Alberta’s costume department.
The cast is joined on stage by musicians: Leah Grandmont (violin), Taylor Cochrane (bass, banjo, and keyboard), Kurtis Schultz (percussion), Scott White (guitar), and Earl Pereria (guitar, mandolin, and tin whistle). The on-stage musicians make this rock musical feel like an epic rock concert and add vitality to the ghostly chorus of brothers. The music mixing isn’t perfect; at times the vocals are overpowered by the instruments or slightly off pitch, but the overall effect of the musician-actor combination is an amplified gothic ambiance ideal for “Vigilante.”
Catalyst Theatre’s team have recreated a thrilling production whose music and storytelling intertwine to devise a heart-pounding rhythm from start to finish. The play’s rock musical form sets the perfect score by which the Donnelly boys settle a score of their own.
The Grand Theatre
February 19 – March 9
Purchase tickets online
Box office: 519-672- 8800
Courtney Church is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University, where she researches modern and contemporary British theatre. Most of her time in the theatre is spent behind the scenes, tinkering with set design and thinking about props.