Dear Rita

Beautiful Voices Sing Dear Rita’s Songs

Reviewed by Mary Alderson

Rita MacNeil was a great Canadian singer-songwriter and Cape Breton’s First Lady of Music. But did we really know anything about her?  In a new show, Dear Rita, A Musical Toast to Rita MacNeil, on stage with Tweed & Co., I learned that I knew nothing at all about this talented woman. Tweed & Co., is currently producing it at their Marble Arts Centre in Tweed and then moving it to Bancroft Village Playhouse.

A cast of eight, including a sign language interpreter and two musicians, covers all Rita’s glorious songs, each song telling a story, usually about her life or the beauty of Cape Breton. What I also found interesting is that they shared her life’s story in between songs, much of it difficult and heartbreaking, mixed in with the joyous moments when she finally achieved her dream of singing in front of a large audience. Some of the stories were kept hidden from the public while she was alive, while others formed some of her songs.

All six performers in this show all have amazing voices. Creator Lindsay Kyte has a soaring voice much like Rita herself, while Belinda Corpuz has one of those clear, bell-like voices, reminiscent of Karen Carpenter. Evelyn Hecht has a rich, melodic voice, and Seanna-Lee Wood is a seasoned musical theatre professional with an amazing list of credits, and a full voice. Joining these brilliant women is musical director Ian Sherwood who sings and also takes his turn as Rita telling her story. As well, Cassie-Hope Aubin, who is deaf/disabled, signs the dialogue and the songs, her hands moving gracefully with the music, adding to the presentation.

All five singers perform solo numbers or sing together in perfect harmony. Each of them also takes turns with various musical instruments, sitting at the piano, or playing guitar, with Wood joining in on the accordion, cello and other instruments. The versatility of this cast is astounding. Among the many numbers are favourites like “Flying on Your Own”, which caused a positive murmur to go through the audience, and “Working Man”, one of Rita’s most popular songs.

The stories are told in Rita’s voice, and have been taken from her autobiography, “On A Personal Note”. Some are heartbreaking: being teased and bullied as a child because of her cleft lip, alcohol addiction following a separation, and having the media say nasty things about her appearance. But some stories are empowering or joyful, such as when she became involved in the women’s rights movement and found supportive friends, when she was able to step out on a stage in front of a big, full house, or when she got her own television show. Each story is moving and captivating.

This show first ran in 2021 at the Charlottetown Festival. The current performance is its Ontario premiere. so please take advantage of seeing it here. Along with beautiful and meaningful music, it’s an endearing slice of Cape Breton life. Sadly, Rita died following surgery in 2013, but her songs will long be remembered, with special thanks to this show.

Dear Rita, A Musical Toast to Rita MacNeil, presented by Tweed & Co., continues at the Marble Arts Centre, Tweed, until June 8, and at the Bancroft Village Playhouse June 16. Tickets are available by calling 613-478-6060 or visit https://www.tweedandcompany.com/

Photo: Ian Sherwood, Belinda Corpuz, Lindsay Kyte, Evelyn Hecht. Behind: Drummer Justin Veri, Guitarist Matthew Zachary Tenedero. Not in photo: Seana-Lee Wood. Photo by Heather Cardle.

Dear Rita, A Musical Toast to Rita MacNeil
By Lindsay Kyte and Mike Ross
Featuring the music of Rita MacNeil
Arrangements by Mike Ross
Directed by Ann-Marie Kerr
Musical Direction by Ian Sherwood
ASL Interpretation by Cassie-Hope Aubin
Performed by Belinda Corpuz, Evelyn Hecht, Lindsay Kyte, Ian Sherwood, Seana-Lee Wood, with musicians Matthew Zachary Tenedero and Justin Veri
June 5 to 8, 2024, at the Marble Arts Centre, Tweed
June 12 to 16, 2024 at the Bancroft Village Playhouse, Bancroft
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

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