White Witch (Fairfield Theatre Productions)
Cast: Maylynne Walton, Keiran King, Noelle Kerr, Peter Abrikian and Philip Clarke
Venue: Fairfield Theatre,
Tyrone’s Verdict: B+
Who says Annie Palmer was nothing more than a heartless, conniving bitch? You might come away with a slightly different view of the controversial woman after seeing the Fairfield Theatre’s incarnation of the anti-heroine in Jane Crichton’s musical folk drama, White Witch, a fascinating production that blends historical drama with song, dance and storytelling for a tremendously spirited and entertaining package.
While there’s no sugar-coating of the horrors that went down at Rose Hall at the height of plantation slavery, Crichton’s story (which soars in director Douglas Prout’s capable hands) offers a sensitive yet thought-provoking dimension to the myriad of stories and rumours that have passed down through generations about the goings-on at the world-renowned estate.
An absorbing account of romance, evil, aristocracy and redemption, White Witch introduces us to Englishman Robert Rutherford (Keiran King), a handsome and dashing bookkeeper who arrives at Rose Hall to learn about sugar cane cultivation. Annie, who has long buried her three murdered husbands, is immediately infatuated with him, but so too is the sweetly innocent house slave, Millie (Noelle Kerr). Consequently, a fierce rivalry for Robert’s attention and affection ensues between both women.
To help her gain an advantage in winning Robert’s heart, Annie turns to Taku (a terrific Philip Clarke), the frightful and trusted witch doctor and also Millie’s grandfather, who is popular for his seemingly effective black magic and strangely resembles Rafiki from The Lion King. Meanwhile, the slaves on the plantation, under the supervision of distracted overseer, Joe (Peter Abrikian), are on the verge of rebellion, putting additional strain on Annie’s emotions. What plays out involves much physical and emotional turmoil, manipulation and a series of unfortunate events that test the strength of the human spirit.
Ideally cast in the title role, Maylynne Walton is congenially brilliant as the widely misunderstood she-devil, who allegedly relied on witchcraft and murder to get her way during her years at Rose Hall. But instead of utterly zoning in on Palmer’s vindictive and treacherous side, Walton makes wiser character choices here, chiefly portraying Palmer more as a needy, relentless and passionate love-seeker than a cold and calculating victimizer. There’s as much flair, grace and elegance as there is meanness, treachery and shamelessness in her character, based on Walton’s portrayal.
As Robert, King looks the part and works hard to convince, but his performance rarely rises above a singular dimension. Supporting players, including Abrikian, David Tulloch, Coleen Lewis and Angelita McDonald also give decent accounts, but the real revelation is Noelle Kerr, who offers an incandescent and thoroughly award-worthy turn as the sweet and gentle Millie, a girl who bravely chooses to follow her heart.
Musically, the production has it moments; “Damn Them” is a particularly outstanding number. “Average Joe,” on the other hand, is long and irrelevant. At the same time, the pre-recorded music occasionally overpowers the live vocal performances. But, thankfully, the show’s pacing is brisk, the set design and lighting is laudable while costuming also gets high marks.
Crichton’s story has plot holes and minor inconsistencies, but the language employed for dialogue is frequently beautiful and evocative. While director Douglas Prout and his committed cast and crew haven’t exactly crafted a masterpiece, White Witch is a splendidly rendered and provocative musical production that melds history and fiction, superstition and romance with largely good results.