"Evangeline” is Louisiana’s tale. Since the story was first told on the Greer Center stage here at Episcopal 20 years ago, it has become a defining piece for so many. The tale of long lost love set in the midst of the Acadian exile has impacted the lives of Episcopal families for a generation. Today’s cast is comprised of the children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and friends of those who have played the parts before them. For some, every member of the family has portrayed the same part and worn the same costume. It is a legacy that can only truly be told where it all began, by the people who created it.
Living in Louisiana and married to a Cajun local, Episcopal Band Director Paul Taranto felt compelled to share the story of the Acadians’ banishment from Nova Scotia in a way that would connect the audience with their plight. Having read the epic poem by Longfellow, Taranto began writing the songs and composing the music that would set the scene for Evangeline and her love Gabriel. The two were ripped apart the night of their betrothal as the King of England claimed their village of Grand-Pre. The musical follows the life of Evangeline as she stays true and faithful to the only man she ever loved. She never gives up and never doubts the commitment the couple forged the night before her home was burned, and so many of her loved ones were lost. Ultimately, she makes her way to the heart of the bayou, which becomes the new home of the Acadians.
Taranto initially teamed up with Episcopal Drama Teacher Danny Tiberghein and later Baton Rouge actor Jamie Wax to transform the story of Evangeline into a theater production. In November of 1998, this moving tale was first performed as a concert piece. The full musical came to life on March 24,1999, under the direction of Performing Arts Director Paige Gagliano. What resulted was a story that features the unbreakable spirit of humankind. “Evangeline” reminds the audience not to lose hope and that yes, the wait is worth it, if you are waiting for the right thing.
“Evangeline” proved to have a spirit all its own. It was more than just a play and its message truly hit home for those involved when they were dealt an unexpected tragedy. Before the play was ever complete, Tiberghein was killed, leaving a hole among the theater department staff that’s still felt today. As a result of this, the initial run was dedicated in Tiberghein’s memory. “We knew it was ordained. We knew it was bigger than all of us because it wasn’t about any one of us,” says Gagliano.
However, the story of “Evangeline” was just getting started. After LSU, LPB inquired about the production. The network wanted to broadcast the musical across the entire state of Louisiana. Again, Taranto, Gagliano and the Episcopal students were thrust onto a new and exciting stage and there was much more to come. There was a television recording done on the Strand Theatre stage in Shreveport and the performance was shared statewide, from Acadiana to New Orleans to Monroe. There were performances in Lafayette and visits to St. Martinville. There were CD recordings and local performances. CC Lockwood visited the cast and then-governor Kathleen Blanco met with the creators. Eventually, PBS picked up the performance and the story was broadcast to 46 states across the country.
Taranto’s vision of telling a tale that would connect with audiences has certainly become a reality. “Evangeline” has a dedicated following and elicits a deep passion that is still felt 20 years later. The play has been performed everywhere from Theatre Baton Rouge to Phoenix, Arizona to Nova Scotia, where the story originated so many years ago. The actors have spoken English and French and have included Broadway performers, amateurs and always, children. Everywhere the audiences have cried and laughed and ultimately risen to their feet with applause and praise.
“Evangeline” has such staying power because of its lasting message. It’s not only a story of long lost love, but also of faith, hope and promise. The story attempts to help people make sense of the world, regardless of the challenges that eventually befall us. It reminds us to keep going and keep believing and working toward our goals and ideals, even when they may seem out of reach or out of focus. Such faith and hope simply resonates with casts and audiences no matter the location, the language or the year.
And to think it all began with a cast of students from a school on Woodland Ridge in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It all started from the musings of a talented and inspired band teacher who wanted to honor his wife’s heritage. It was crafted in honor of and in memory of someone who was passionate about theater and teaching students. It was and is for us all.
Don’t miss your opportunity to see where “Evangeline” takes you.
“Evangeline” is set to return to the Episcopal stage in honor of its 20 year anniversary. The show will run March 17th through March 24th. Tickets go on sale soon. All Episcopal alumni and previous “Evangeline” performers are invited to the closing night performance, which will feature a special opportunity to join today’s cast singing “Worth the Wait” on stage. Afterwards, a reception for alumni and cast will be held.