CHARLOTTETOWN - Someone lets out a loud yelp that ignites a crowded room of people and, on cue, they begin clapping in time with a fiddle.
Joey Kitson stomps his foot and starts to sing but he's not at a traditional ceilidh (the Gaelic word for a social gathering is pronounced KAY' lee in Atlantic Canada). Instead, it's mid-performance at "Stan Rogers - A Matter of Heart," a stage production at the Charlottetown Festival.
A projected image of barn rafters lights up the stage behind Kitson and the performers singing "Acadian Saturday Night" at the MacKenzie Theatre, better known as The Mack, in Charlottetown.
"Part of the maritime experience is you go to work and you have your struggles, but then at the end of the week, you put your feet up, break out the fiddle and have some fun, and the show is a good example of that," Kitson said in an interview before one his shows.
"A Matter of Heart" isn't your typical musical - the characters vary by song and the four performers use their own names - but it isn't a straight-up concert, either.
The cabaret-style performance showcases songs by the late Canadian musician, Stan Rogers. The Ontario-born folk musician is remembered for his ballads about Canadian history and life in rural communities, particularly in the Maritimes.
Rogers died in 1983 when he was only 33 but songs such as "Barrett's Privateers" and "Northwest Passage" have become iconic Canadian classics.
In the tradition of the songwriter himself, "A Matter of Heart" tells sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes raucous stories of rural life - of 19th century shipwrecks, fishermen going home after a fish plant closes and lonely nights spent by transplanted workers in Alberta bars.
"You got to be tough to live in the Maritimes," Kitson tells the crowd.
Without undue explanation or overwrought emotion, the show is compelling without being cliched.
"Depending (on) who you are and how you're feeling that particular night, it can hit you different ways," Kitson says. "Some nights are looser than others - typically the weekends."
Kitson, who has an album of Rogers cover songs, looks forward to performing the songs live and interacting with a live audience.
The Mack holds around 200 people and, with a circular bar that remains busy through the evening, the venue evokes a neighbourhood pub rather than a theatre as people rub shoulders and crowd around circular tables.
The set is as simple as stubby vintage Alpine beer bottles and a backdrop of projected images of seascapes and sunsets. A keyboard, guitar and violin, which transforms into a fiddle for the more upbeat numbers, are the only musical accompaniment.
Audience member Suzanne Kennedy of Montreal had never heard of Rogers but recognized the songs and related to the stories.
"I really appreciated that it had a local feeling and everyone in the audience seemed to really be engaged by it," the 24-year-old said after the performance. "It was kind of inspiring."
"A Matter of Heart" is part of the Confederation Centre of the Arts' summer festival, best known for the stage adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. Anne has been mainstage since 1965 but the secondary shows vary by year.
Penny Walsh, the centre's marketing manager, said in recent years, there's been a shift from musical theatre to more musical review-type shows.
"Music is at the heart of it all and drives us forward from season to season" she says.
With performances of Riverdance running into October, the 2009 season is the longest it has ever been.
Islanders and visitors alike have embraced "A Matter of Heart," with shows selling out throughout the summer.
"You see just how relevant some of the songs surrounding the fishermen and the farmers are today, not just to East Coasters, but to Canadians," says Walsh.
If you go . . .
$35 for adults, $24.50 for children. Discounts are available for groups, students and seniors.
Tickets can be purchased online at confederationcentre.com. The Mack is licensed. Doors open at 6 p.m. for light snacks.
The MacKenzie Theatre, corner of Grafton St. and University Ave. - across the street from Province House and a block from the Confederation Centre of the Arts.
July 4 - Sept. 26, 2009
Other Charlottetown Festival shows at the Homburg Theatre:
Anne of Green Gables, the Musical:
June 18 - Sept. 26, 2009. Prices range from $55 to $75 with discounts available.
June 24 - Sept. 24, 2009. Tickets are $39 to $62 with discounts available.
Tickets are $40 to $60 with discounts available. It runs from Oct. 2 - Oct. 17, 2009.