Historic rock opera remounts as unplugged live performance expertise in Edmonton

EDMONTON — A theater company is remounting its production of a musical tragedy, based on a true story of Irish immigrants finding solace in Canada, in an unplugged concert experience.

Jonathan Christenson, artistic director with Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre, who wrote, directed and scored the music for “Vigilante,” says the stripped-down version allows the audience to center on the story and the music.

“Our shows are visually pretty full on. There’s a lot going on, a lot to take in. In some ways, you get to hear the lyrics, the music and the text in a new way,” Christenson said.

The rock opera is based on the story of a young Irish couple who leave Ireland in the midst of the potato famine and conflict among Catholics and Protestants in the 19th century.

Christenson said he heard the story when he was growing up in southern Ontario.

“They were refugees from Ireland on these boats that were crammed full of people who had paid their life savings to get one of these boats. Many of them died on the trips over, the conditions were absolutely terrible,” said Christenson.

“I was really struck by the parallels to what we’re seeing in the world today with refugees in such desperate situations coming to Canada and proceeding to try and build a new life for themselves.”

“Vigilante” premiered at the Citadel Theater in Edmonton in 2015 and went on to tour in Ottawa and London, Ont.

Catalyst has done stripped-down versions of productions in the past. With the COVID-19 pandemic, Christenson said recording albums of the work provided a new life line.

“We had to look at other ways of getting our work out. And so over the past couple of years, we’ve started creating cast recordings of a couple of our shows,” said Christenson.

“It just gives people another way to access our work and get a sense of what it is that we do.”

Christenson said the theater company is also recording video on some of its productions, but sometimes theater doesn’t translate to film in the most organic way.

“Theatre artists aren’t necessarily film artists. So, the results weren’t always the most engaging.

“There’s so much more storytelling that happens in the text, so I do think it tends to translate into audio better or more easily,” said Christenson, adding the company has received requests to record albums before.

Catalyst has been based in Edmonton since the late ’70s. Back then, it operated as a social action theater company working with community groups to educate and empower change.

In 1996, Christenson, who was building a reputation for his original productions, was asked to join and reinvent the company.

His visual style has been compared to American filmmaker Tim Burton, who is known for gothic-fantasy style films including “Sweeney Todd,” “Sleepy Hollow,” and the “Corpse Bride.”

Christenson said that most theater companies in English Canada don’t have a touring model like others in Quebec or in other parts of the world. Many produce plays written by other playwrights and show them for a short run for hometown audiences.

Catalyst’s shows often tour across Canada and Europe.

“It’s exciting to reach audiences beyond your own community,” said Christenson, adding that they’ve been able to reach tens of thousands of people.

Christenson said the company hopes to tour the full production of “Vigilante” again, but with COVID-19 still causing precariousness in the theater industry, it’s unsure when that might be.

“Vigilante — In Concert” premieres Friday at the Westbury Theater in Edmonton, with another show available in person and via streaming on Saturday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2023.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Angela Amato, The Canadian Press

Comments are closed.