Favourite Theatre of 2019

Just as I like to look back on my favourite books of the year, I love reminiscing about my favourite theatre productions seen over the last twelve months. These sorts of lists are always subjective and something that speaks to me may not have spoken to someone else. It’s also important to point out that while I see more theatre and ballet than probably the average person in the city, I am by no means an expert or able to take in all the wonderful shows that Toronto has to offer.

Honourable Mentions

First of all, honourable mention to the Canadian cast of the extremely short-lived Toronto production of “Dear Evan Hansen”, especially Robert Markus who played the titular role in a flawless performance. The set design, particularly the way it incorporated technology and social media, was clever, the music catchy, and the Canadian cast were all outstanding in their roles, but ultimately even this excellent production of the musical couldn’t overcome the standing issues I have with the book of “Dear Evan Hansen’/its themes. There’s just an ick factor I can’t get over and honestly I felt mental health issues were better handled in another show further up this list.

Honourable mention also to “Come From Away”. I hadn’t seen the show since its pre-Broadway try-out in the city and opted to revisit partly because there were rush tickets available but I’m tremendously glad that I did. The sit-down Toronto production is in fine shape, receiving a rousing response from the audience (particularly the East Coasters attending the performance I saw – if there’s a chance to see this show with East Coasters jump on it!) In dark times, this laugh-out-loud funny musical about kindness and giving one another a helping hand is a soothing balm. I’d forgotten how much heart there is in this show and I’d definitely recommend going to see it, whether you’re in Toronto, New York, London, Shanghai, or Australia (the cities where it’s currently playing, or will be playing the next year)!

The List

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11. “August Osage County” (Soulpepper)

I’ll admit to mostly going to see this one because Toronto actress Maev Beatty has reached ‘I’ll see anything with her in it’ status. I’m so glad I did though because Beatty wasn’t the only cast member to shine in this domestic tragicomedy. the play tackles weighty themes of addiction and the deteriorating state of the American nuclear family through its story of the dysfunctional Weston family reuniting after their father goes missing. As the self-medicating, dying matriarch Violet, Nancy Palk was compelling even as she hissed venom at her daughters and anyone else within earshot, while the aforementioned Maev Beatty was more than a match for her as headstrong daughter Barbara, whose marriage is failing. Although her lines were few, it was the subtle performance of Samantha Brown as the family’s Cheyenne live-in housekeeper Johnna, who functions also as a largely silent witness to the family hysterics, that really stayed with me. “August Osage County” is a long play, clocking in at over three hours, but it never felt long thanks to the mounting tension, cathartic reveal of devastating family secrets (sometimes to gasps from the audience) and a tremendous cast.
Watch the trailer

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10. “Piano Concerto”/”Petite Mort”/”Études” (The National Ballet of Canada)

Too often the problem with a National Ballet of Canada mixed program is its unevenness. I’ve been to many programs over the years where I’ve adored one short work and been left cold by another, so the pairing of Alexei Ratmansky’s “Piano Concerto”, Jiří Kylián’s “Petite Mort”, and Harald Lander’s “Études” was an inspired choice, resulting in one of the company’s best mixed programs in years.

“Piano Concerto” had its company premiere in 2015 and was an enjoyable work to revisit, although I certainly missed the presence of contemporary dancer Dylan Tedaldi, who I had seen in the role last time. The abstract choreography and use of design elements like hammers, stars, and bolts from soviet ideology effectively evoked composer Shostakovich’s struggle to reconcile his desire for artistic freedom with the demands of the state.

An ode to classical ballet, and to the ballet class in particular, “Études” progresses from work at the barre to pirouettes to more challenging moves like grand jetés. I’m pretty sure the casting process for one of the leading male roles in this ballet went something like this:

Person in charge of casting Études: So basically what we’re looking for is someone who can spend the entire ballet jumping and make it look effortless.

Naoya Ebe: *exists*

National Ballet Casting: Perfect!

Principal dancer Heather Ogden was a highlight as the female lead in “Études”, but actual ballet prince Harrison James and his classical equal Naoya Ebe, who spend most of the ballet spinning and jumping, respectively, were also superb. The progression from simplistic choreography of the warm-up to the showy finale was a joy to watch in this classical gem.

The highlight of the program though was “Petite Mort”, a clever, sensual, and strange exploration of sex that played with the innuendo of its title (Petite Mort or “Little Death”, referring to orgasm). Featuring six male and female dancers, who sparred with each other using both their bodies and fencing foils, “Petite Mort” was a treat to watch. Inventive and witty, I was transported (and not just from the opportunity to see one of my favourite dancers in the company with a sword).
Watch the trailer

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9. “Prince Hamlet” (CanStage & Why Not Theatre)

I’ve seen more productions of “Hamlet” in the last few years than a person who isn’t particularly fond of the play should, and while the excellent Public Theatre production which featured Oscar Isaac eating lasagna and one of the funniest pre-show announcements ever (asking the audience to please not try to plug their devices in to charge using the wall plugs on the set) has a special place in my heart, “Prince Hamlet” is undeniably the most innovative production of the play I’ve ever seen. Directed by Ravi Jain, “Hamlet” is remixed in this bilingual retelling that effectively integrates English and American Sign Language. “Prince Hamlet’ also breaks through restrictions on race and gender in its casting, giving us a female Horatio and Hamlet and a male Ophelia. While genderswapping some Shakespeare roles, such as Lear, can add new dimension and meaning to the play, I didn’t find that the gender swapped casting altered much of anything about “Hamlet”, it simply allowed actors who might not otherwise be cast in a role, to stretch their wings. Deaf actress Dawn Jani Birley did double duty, acting as both ASL narrator and as Horatio. Her dynamic presence and sharply punctuated, expressive signing were the perfect foil for the sullen Danish Prince (played here by Christine Horne). Scenes between the two of them sparkled, and I loved how they used ASL to communicate plans secretly so Claudius and Gertrude were unaware. As Ophelia, Jeff Ho gave a memorable performance, particularly in his mad scene, and Birley’s ASL retelling of Ophelia’s death had a hauntingly effective quality. The second act faltered a little and the dual didn’t totally work for either me or the friend I attended with, but “Prince Hamlet” is a remarkable achievement and a glowing example of how accessible theatre can be when it’s approached with the audience in mind and not as an afterthought.
Watch the trailer

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8. “
Rose” (Soulpepper)

Soulpepper’s first original musical boldly defied categorization in a memorable theatrical experience that was by turns heartwarming, funny, thoughtful, and empowering. Based on avant-garde poet Gertrude Stein’s collection “The World is Round”, it tells the story of inquisitive nine-year-old Rose who is faced with an unusual problem. Unsure of who she is or of her place in the world, Rose isn’t able to say her name. Her journey of self-discovery leads her into some unusual company, including a pride of lions and a terrifying group of giant otters? Star Hailey Gillis grounded a colourful and sometimes downright odd production with her endearing portrayal of the precocious Rose and Peter Fernandes brought a boyish charm and earnestness to his role as Willy, Rose’s best friend. Lorenzo Savoini’s design was simple yet effective, using a colour palate that reflected the iconic blue ink on pink page illustrations used in the original book. After the high energy first act, I found the second act dragged in the middle and could use some trimming off the long (2.5 hour) runtime for a musical ostensibly aimed at children, but “Rose” was an immensely charming show and a highlight of my theatregoing this year, particularly the climactic point in Rose’s journey of self-discovery, which had me inwardly cheering and outwardly tearing up for joy.
Listen to the cast recording on Spotify
Read my full review.

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7. “Next to Normal” (David Mirvish presents Musical Stage Company)

The Musical Stage Company has quickly become one of my favourite theatre companies in the city and this production continued to illustrate why exactly that is. Deftly handling themes of mental illness, addiction, and grief, “Next to Normal” is a rock musical about a suburban mother’s struggle with worsening bipolar disorder and the impact that has on her family. Any discussion about this production of the show has to begin by talking about the force to be reckoned with that is Ma-Anne Dionisio! Her performance as Diana was undoubtedly one of the year’s best. My jaw quite literally dropped watching her and I keenly felt Diana’s anguish and anger about her condition in this tour-de-force performance. The Toronto cast was refreshingly diverse, with Diana and her children all played by Asian-Canadian actors, and the role of Doctor Madden, usually played by a man, by the inimitable Louise Pitre. Stephanie Sy was another highlight, as underappreciated daughter Natalie. The set design seemed bland and uninspired for a show of this caliber though and I found the actors playing Dan (Troy Adams) and Gabe (Brandon Antonio) didn’t have the strongest voices and failed to live up to the energy or emotion brought to the musical by the other performers. Seeing this so closely on the heels of “Dear Evan Hansen”, I found the message in “Next to Normal” healthier and more relatable personally, and I was more moved by this production than by Evan’s duplicitous actions.
Watch the trailer

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6. Modern Broadway (Toronto Symphony Orchestra)

The TSO’s Modern Broadway concert was not only an entertaining, well-sung evening of recent(ish) Broadway hits, it also crossed an item off of my bucket list:

✔ See Jeremy Jordan perform live

Broadway is my favourite genre of music (I mostly listen to cast recordings) and Jeremy Jordan is my favourite vocalist. Seeing him live has been a dream of mine for years and although it wasn’t in a musical showcasing his acting chops, on stage in my hometown being impossibly charming and belting out his signature Santa Fe? Pretty much a dream come true. Jordan’s tenor is to die for and he was self-deprecating and charismatic as he introduced songs with anecdotes about his career. His take on Waitress’ “She Used to be Mine” brought the house down. Why then, you might be asking, wasn’t this my favourite theatre experience of the season? Well, although the Toronto Symphony Orchestra played beautifully of course, the problem with a pops concert like this is that it has to be as much about the orchestra as the guest vocalists. This resulted in some dubious song choices that stretched the definition of Modern Broadway. Unfortunately I also wasn’t so taken with Jordan’s co-star, Betsy Wolfe. Jeremy Jordan is a hard act to follow and though Wolfe gamely tried, she wasn’t able to live up to the high standard set by her fellow performer.

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5. “The Merry Widow” (The National Ballet of Canada)

A glittering delight, “The Merry Widow” was so incredibly charming that I seriously considered playing hooky from work so I could see it again with a second cast! Combining romance, whimsy, comedy, and the aesthetic splendor of Belle Époque Paris, the ballet told the story of a fictional Balkan principality on the brink of ruin unless the aristocratic Count Davilo (danced by Guillaume Cote) can woo rich widow Hanna Glawari (Xiao Nan Yu) before she is swept off her feet by a foreigner. Naturally, complications and miscommunications ensue. For all that I loved it, “The Merry Widow” was a bittersweet affair because it marked one of the final performances of principal dancer Xiao Nan Yu before she retired from the stage. I’ve been a fan of Nan’s for awhile and as thrilled as I was that I got to witness one of her final performances, I miss her presence on stage so very much this season and I haven’t quite accepted that I’ll never see her thoughtful Tatiana (in “Onegin”) or powerfully composed Paulina (in “The Winter’s Tale”) again. Guillaume Côté was the best I’ve ever seen him, displaying a talent for comedy as the drunken count, then partnering Nan beautifully in their romantic scenes later in the ballet. Jillian Vanstone was also winning as the young Valencienne and the set design and costumes deserve a mention for their sheer splendor. I really hope The National Ballet of Canada remounts this one sooner, rather than later.
Watch the trailer

ghost

4. “Ghost Quartet” (Eclipse Theatre Company/Crow’s Theatre)
Offbeat, non-linear, and just plain odd, Dave Malloy’s song cycle “Ghost Quartet” was an absolute delight from start to finish. I’m predisposed towards Malloy’s brand of weird, being a huge fan of “Natasha Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812”, so his musical style obviously works for me. The structure of the show is cyclical, twisting, and plays with magical realism in a story that spans generations of characters, including a spurned sister bent on revenge, an astronomer, and even a bear. “Ghost Quartet” artfully balances the haunting intensity of the storytelling songs with the ease of four friends fueled by whisky telling ghost stories around a campfire. Lines like “I will transcend and vomit this loser out of me” are poetic and powerful, yet humourous, representing Malloy’s style, but it’s the catchy foot stomping “Any Kind of Dead Person”, in which Hailey Gillis tells us why she’d rather be a ghost than a zombie, mummy, or other supernatural creature, that was the show’s standout number. The Canadian cast of four (Beau Dixon, Hailey Gillis, Kira Guloien, and Andrew Penner) were all outstanding, having an easy chemistry with one another that got stronger as the run went on, voices that melded well in song, and the ability to play instruments as well as sing.  Set, Costume, and Lighting Designer Patrick Lavender created a warm and yet otherworldly space where anything felt possible, costumes that felt old and modern all at once, and dreamy lighting that transported us to another time. It was the perfect show to get me in the Halloween spirit. We went twice, and I was very tempted to go a third time. It was just that addictive!
Watch the trailer

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3. “School Girls; Or The African Mean Girls Play (Obsidian in association with Nightwood Theatre)

Dealing with issues of shadeism, racism, and classism in a nuanced way, “School Girls; Or The African Mean Girls Play” was such a joy! Playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s script about adolescent girls at a Ghanian boarding school in the 1980s is often laugh out loud funny and yet so beautifully poignant. Paulina (Natasha Mumba) has been Queen Bee of the school’s clique for years, but when new student Ericka (Melissa Eve Langdon), the daughter of a mixed-race couple, arrives from Ohio, Paulina’s control and social standing is threatened, particularly when a recruiter arrives to select one school girl to compete in the Miss Ghana beauty pageant with a shot of impressing on the world stage to become Miss Global Universe. Although the script is terrific, replete with 80s references and bitingly accurate in its depiction of adolescent nastiness between girls, it was the cast that made the Toronto production the success that it was. I can’t even choose one or two standout performances because the standard was so high across the board! Hilarious and heartbreaking, this was one of the year’s best.

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2. “The Brothers Size (Soulpepper)

Can I just RAVE forever about how fabulous and moving and important “The Brothers Size” is? The Canadian debut of Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin McCraney (who co-wrote Moonlight based on his play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue)’s play was the highlight of a strong season for Soulpepper. Part of McCraney’s Brother/Sister plays triptych, which incorporate Yoruba mythology into a contemporary setting that examines the issues faced by African-American men in the present, “The Brothers Size” is a huge achievement. The relationships between the three Black men, older brother Ogun, younger brother Oshoosi (who has just been released from prison), and Oshoosi’s cellmate and sometimes lover Elegba, were rendered artfully by actors Daren A. Herbert, Mazin Elsadig, and Marcel Stewart, respectively. The portrayals and the relationships between the characters in this intimate piece are even more impressive considering we learned at the talkback session following the play that Mazin Elsadig had replaced another actor in the role just two weeks before opening night! The performances delivered by all three actors were layered and thoughtful, charming and heartbreaking. Intimate, sensual, heartwrenching, and powerful in its examination of brotherhood, freedom, and responsibility, “The Brothers Size” was one of the best shows I saw all year and I desperately hope that one day soon Soulpepper will produce the other two plays in this triptych.
Watch the trailer

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1. “Kiss of the Spiderwoman(Eclipse Theatre Company)

Sold out before its limited run even began, Eclipse Theatre Company’s staged concert of “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” was the best thing I saw all year. Although the musical has a long history (and one that heavily involves Toronto) this was the first time I’d ever heard the score or seen a production of it. I bought tickets partly for the cast, all of whom I’d seen and liked in previous Toronto theatre productions, but mostly because it was being staged in the historic Don Jail (active as a prison from 1864 until 1977). The evening began with a tour of the jail, infinitely spookier at night than during the day, before we took our (extremely uncomfortable metal bar stool) seats for the performance. As one reviewer called it, “the perfect marriage of venue and subject matter”, “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” is set in an Argentinian prison during the country’s Dirty War. In order to escape from the dark reality of their days, gay window dresser Molina (Kawa Ada) spins colourful tales of the glamourous actress Aurora (Tracy Michailidis) to his cellmate, political prisoner Valentin (Jonathan Winsby), with whom he is falling in love. A grudging respect and tender camaraderie develop between the two men as they grapple with politics, masculinity, and the power of love over death. The Don Jail was the perfect venue for this musical, providing an atmospheric setting and acoustics that allowed the cast’s vocals to wash over the audience in a wave of glorious sound and emotion. The entire cast was phenomenal, starting with Kawa Ada, who was heartbreaking and honestly so perfect that it’s difficult to imagine another actor in the part of Molina. Tracy Michailidis was powerful and brought glamour and colour to her sensual performance as film star Aurora, and Jonathan Winsby’s vocals BLEW ME AWAY, especially his haunting performance of “The Day After That.” Even though this was by far the most uncomfortable theatre seating experience of my life, I would have gone back every night if it hadn’t been sold out. I’m devastated that there isn’t a cast recording or professionally shot video to capture this perfection but am so thrilled that I was able to witness it.

So there you go, my favourite things that I saw all year. What were your favourite plays, musicals, ballets, or operas of the year? Leave a comment and let me know!

 

 

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