Stage: Bandstand

Bandstand

This original Broadway musical set in the 1940s finds Private First Class Donny Novitski (Corey Cott) returning from war to find no one’s hiring, not even a talented, but a little cocky, singer and pianist like him. When NBC announces a national competition bringing together competing swing bands from each U.S. state for a shot at stardom, Danny Novitski sees his shot. Putting together a band made up entirely of fellow veterans, and coaxing Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes), the widow of his best army friend, to sing the lead, the Ohio-based band find their voices and confront their pasts through music.

Admittedly this period and this type of music are not favourites of mine. Generally I like my history pre-twentieth century and my music more traditionally musical theatre than swing, but I enjoyed Bandstand and was sorry to hear that it will play its last performance on September 17th. Directed and choreographed by Tony-award-winning Hamilton choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, Bandstand features some strong dancing. The choreography both enhances scenes with subtle choices, and boldly complements the swing music of the period. The image of the weight of the dead soldiers being carried on the backs of those who live on was particularly memorable.

One draw for me was the chance to see Laura Osnes, a true triple threat, live. She did not disappoint! Osnes gives a vulnerable performance as war widow Julia Trojan, showing resilience and charm. Her character’s grief and desire to know how her husband really died are keenly felt, but her Julia is also spirited and passionate. As Donny Novitski, Corey Cott proves her equal. He’s cocky, but never to the point of being unlikable, and he gives a nuanced depiction of the frustration some veterans felt at being portrayed as heroes for their service, yet unable to find work and readjust to life when they returned from the front.

The ensemble, including those who make up the band, remind me a little of Once. All have distinct slightly quirky personalities, even if they are a little stereotypical, and succeed in showing the varying impacts of war on soldiers. A special shoutout to Beth Leavel, as Julia’s mother Mrs. June Adams, who steals the show with some memorable lines and actions, including a platter of over-paprika-ed deviled eggs!

The music was a bit hit and miss for me. Although I enjoyed it at the time and thought it suited the story, there are only a few songs that stuck with me and I’d be more likely to buy a few individual songs off the cast recording than to download the entire album. That said, those few songs are earworms that I found coming back to me days later!  The musical also features a discordant climax song about veterans and the mental health issues they face that I found very poignant and rightfully angry in the course of the story, but not particularly pleasant to the ear.

Ultimately I enjoyed Bandstand, although it’s a pretty predictable show where most of the twists can be guessed well before they happen. I suspect the musical will resonate more with those who are at all interested in WWII stories, in stories that deal with veterans and the aftermath of war, and/or those who enjoy swing music though. Don’t fit into any of those categories? I’m fairly confident you’ll still have an enjoyable afternoon or evening, and walk out humming one or two of the songs.

Bandstand plays until September 17th, 2017 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York City.

Books: Obelisk Gate

26228034Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
Published August 18, 2016
star-4
I finished my re-read of Obelisk Gate, the second book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, on schedule as the last book in my Reading the Hugos challenge, but I’ve been dragging my feet on writing a review for it, not because I didn’t love it (I did!) but because I’ve been exhausted this week and wanted to have the time to do it justice in review form. I considered rushing home last night and trying to write something up before the awards were announced Friday evening but was too tired to ultimately do it. The upside is that it means I get to write this review with the knowledge that for the second year in a row N.K. Jemisin has won the Hugo Award for Best Novel! It really is a deserving series, imho, her finest works of fiction (that I’ve read) to date, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the final book in the trilogy later this month. Congratulations to N.K. Jemisin!

Obelisk Gate is set in a world called the Stillness, a single supercontinent where Earthquakes occur frequently and the aftermath every few centuries results in a “Fifth Season”. Seasons are sporadic climate events which cause flora and fauna become hostile, changing their behaviour to fit the dangerous atmosphere, a time when the sky turns ashy, and human “comms” declare martial law. Seasons also inhibit civilization from ever evolving beyond a certain point. In fact, the world has only lasted this long because of orogenes, a marginalized group of people (also known by the slur “rogga”) born with the ability to manipulate thermodynamics, who can quell shakes. But orogenes are an oppressed minority, killed by those who don’t understand, or kept in check by Guardians of the Fulcrum, who can resist their power and control orogenes through fear.

Picking up right where its predecessor left off, in mid-conversation nonetheless, Obelisk Gate continues the story of Essun and her daughter Nassun. Having learned that the Earth is a) alive and b) angry, Essun learns that her old friend Alabaster, a powerful orogene, has a plan to placate Evil Earth and eliminate Seasons forever, and that he needs her help to do it. But as the Season encroaches, can she learn fast enough from Alabaster’s cryptic instructions or will they seal the fate of the world? In perhaps the more heartbreaking of the two narratives, we also backtrack to Nassun and her struggle for acceptance by her bigoted father and by the world at large.

Obelisk Gate isn’t so much a better book than The Fifth Season, as it is a worthy sequel with the advantage of reader familiarity. In her first book of this trilogy, Jemisin creates a world so different from our own and rich with detail that it’s a lot to take in. Obelisk Gate has a head start because it can assume the reader is already familiar with the mechanics and prejudices of the world from the first book in the series. This allows for an easier transition that builds on the exquisite world-building and the fully developed but flawed characters introduced in The Fifth Season to continue Essun’s story.

While its predecessor shifted between three non-linear POVs (Damaya, Syenite, and Essun), Obelisk Gate proceeds in a linear fashion, narrowing the focus to one character we’re familiar with, and one who is new to us. I remember initially finding The Fifth Season so jarring partly because Essun’s chapters are written in the second-person, a perspective I don’t think I’ve ever encountered before in published fiction! Much like adjusting to the one gender pronouns in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, where all characters including those who are biologically male are addressed as “she” and “her”, the use of second-person in The Fifth Season took some time to get used to. The second-person chapters continue in Obelisk Gate but again, with familiarity it’s an easier read.

Although the book’s setting and the abilities some of its characters exhibit place it firmly in the realm of fantasy, I’ve recommended this series successfully even to those who don’t usually read fantasy. The prose is absolutely gorgeous and the worldbuilding, while complex, is so well thought out and deep that it transcends genre. Many second books suffer from taking a step back from the action, but Obelisk Gate is far from hesitant in its storytelling. The pacing gives the characters time to breathe and develop, but also includes enough action and suspense to keep the reader engaged.

I also really enjoyed these characters. Essun has been so guarded for much of her adult life, and has been through such trauma, that she finds it difficult to connect with others, but Obelisk Gate gives her people to care about, a position in the comm that matters, and a higher purpose. I love her snarky yet caring exchanges with Alabaster, as these two share such a complicated and bitter history but they also need one another. And then there’s Nassun. My heart breaks for Nassun. As her childhood slips away forever when she realizes by calling her bigoted father “Daddy” she can more easily manipulate him to continue to see her as his daughter and not as a “rogga”, and as she falls so quickly into loving another being as a father-figure because she has been so starved of affection from those close to her.

Whether you’re a fan of fantasy novels or not, I really can’t recommend this series highly enough, and if you’re a fan of fantasy and you’ve never read any of Jemisin’s work, well what are you waiting for?! The final book in the series come out this week I believe, and I know it will be an exciting, but bittersweet experience to say goodbye to this series I love.

Discussion: In Translation

When it comes to reading classics by Russian, French, and Spanish authors, I hum and haw a lot over translations. I ask fans of a work, particularly those who have read more than one translation, what they think. I read reviews, I try to compare passages and construct pro-con lists. I am the Queen of Translation Indecisiveness, anxious that I’ll make the wrong choice and it will take away from the experience of reading the book. I’m in the midst of one of these decisions right now, after committing to read Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace as part of a group led by Rachel and Hadeer on Goodreads (join us if you’re interested, it’ll be fun!) and thought I would share a little bit about what I look for in a translation and how I go about choosing one, and open it up to the book blogging community to share how they select a translation.

Admittedly I haven’t read many translated classics yet, but I’ve read a few and there are others on my near-future tbr. There are three criteria that go into my selection process:

1. It must be unabridged
Abridged versions of books don’t appeal to me at all. I understand the reasoning behind them, and for someone who may have difficulty, or not be interested in, making it through a thousand page book, or for introducing a younger audience to the classics, I can see the appeal, but abridged books are not for me. Period. Personally, I want to experience the novel close to the way in which an author intended it to be read, and with abridgments I worry that I would miss something vital or enjoyable about the text.

2. Too much modernity is a turn-off
My first attempt to read a translation didn’t go so well. I picked up the new Julie Rose translation of Les Miserables mostly for its shelf appeal. It was a hardcover edition of Les Mis, big and beautiful, but when I tried to actually read it, I found the use of modern language jarring. After fifty pages I gave up and switched to the Signet Classics edition, translated by Fahnestock/MacAfee. I’ve never looked back! As a lover of history, and as someone who isn’t put off by dense prose, the older translations were a better fit for me. I learned that, for me, modern prose doesn’t make the text easier to read, it just serves to jerk me out of the story.

3. Remains true to the spirit of the original novel
It doesn’t have to be a literal word for word translation, but the intent and the original spirit of the work must be kept intact. For example, a work that removed or made massive changes to a scene or to dialogue because the translator thought they knew better than the author would not appeal to me. This is definitely a tough one since I can’t read the original language to tell how faithful the translation is to the author’s style, plot, and characters. Generally I read reviews of a translation to see how readers and critics think it compares, both to other translations of the work and to the original text.

Of course, there are also practical considerations. I don’t currently have an eReader, or device that I can comfortably read on, so I’m limited to translations that are still in print. If it’s a massive physical book (over 1,000 pages) will I be reading it at home where the size/weight doesn’t matter? Or does it have to be portable, so I can read on the subway?

How about you? When you read classics or work by foreign authors in translation, how do you go about deciding which translation to choose? Do you compare versions directly before making a decision? Do you rely on reading reviews or comparisons of translations? Do you reach out to friends/the book blogging community to ask their opinions and suggestions on translated works? What are your criteria for selecting a translation?

And since there are a few French and Russian classics I’d like to read in the next few years, do you have a favourite translation of either War and Peace, The Count of Monte Cristo, and/or Eugene Onegin that you would recommend?

T5W: The Middle Was Best

After a few weeks off (and a lovely whirlwind vacation to New York City where I ate some fantastic food and saw some wonderful shows), I’m back with another Top 5 Wednesday! This week’s topic: Second Book is Best. While I’ve tried to stick to series where the second book was my favourite, I’ve tweaked the definition slightly for one choice, selecting a book that is the third in a (currently) five book series.

Top Five Wednesday is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Want to join in the fun? Check out the goodreads group!

TheDreamThieves1. The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater (Book 2 of The Raven Cycle)
I enjoyed Stiefvater’s first book in this world, The Raven Boys, but it’s The Dream Thieves where the series really gets going. Part of the reason for this is that The Dream Thieves is Ronan Lynch’s story. For the first time, the reader gets a vision of what makes Ronan tick and the stew of feelings and fears that lie under his rough exterior. Although there’s a vein of magic running through the books courtesy of the quest to find Glendower, ley lines, and Blue’s psychic family, it’s not until the very end of The Raven Cycle where Ronan’s abilities are first mentioned, and The Dream Thieves is where they come into focus. This second book in the quartet deepens the story and reveals more about each of the characters. I really enjoyed The Raven Boys, but I devoured The Dream Thieves and this is the book where I knew I would re-read this series until the day I die.

2198112. The Virtu by Sarah Monette (Book 2 of The Doctrine of Labyrinths series)
Like The Raven Cycle, Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths books take a bit to get going. To begin with, one of the two P.O.V. characters spends half of the first book quite literally insane! I love the whole series, but The Virtu is a better written book. The plot seems to wander a little less and since Felix Harrowgate is sane(r) in this volume, the sometimes antagonistic and complicated relationship between Felix and his half-brother Mildmay makes for a more interesting read. The reader also gets a lot more of Mildmay’s inner thoughts in this book and he is one of my favourite characters period, so I loved spending more time in his distinctive voice. Monette is a master of worldbuilding, and having established Melusine in the first book, she’s able to expand on and deepen the reader’s knowledge of this fantasy world. It all makes for a captivating second volume. You could definitely make an arguement for the third book, which is also fabulous and offers both a strong female P.O.V. and a heartbreaking plot, but the fourth book, while still worth reading and a worthy conclusion, is less interesting than the previous volumes.

2r7nc603. Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo (Book 2 of The Grisha Trilogy)
The Grisha Trilogy is a perfect example of The Second Book Is Best because it’s the only book in this trilogy that I gave a full five stars to on Goodreads! It’s often difficult with a fantasy series because there is so much worldbuilding that has to occur to set up an interesting and believable setting for a series. Bardugo’s first book in the series suffers a little from this set up, but Siege and Storm kicks into gear and also features the introduction of my favourite character in the series, Nikolai. Nikolai’s swagger and wit instantly grabbed me, and I’m not alone – he’s a fan favourite for a reason! While I was actually fairly pleased with the way the series I ended (I know that’s a fairly unpopular opinion), I also didn’t find the final book of the trilogy as gripping as Siege and Storm, so this series naturally deserves a place on this week’s T5W.

63079644. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin (Book 3 of A Song of Ice and Fire)
Although not the second book in the series, A Storm of Swords is smack dab in the middle of the five books currently published of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. It’s the finest book in the series so far, and includes THAT scene which makes people hurl their books against the wall. Although it’s a long read, coming in at over 1,000 pages in paperback, I found it the most gripping, as it contains plotlines with most of the major characters we know and love (compared to AFFC and ADWD, which divides point of views by geography) and some truly phenomenal plot twists and climaxes. This was the book I couldn’t wait to see adapted on screen, and although I have some (many) issues with Game of Thrones, like many book fans, I enjoyed the true initiation of show fans to Martin’s world and brutality when the Red Wedding appeared onscreen.

cityofblades5. City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett (Book 2 of The Divine Cities Trilogy)
I didn’t expect to love this book as much as I did. The first book, City of Stairs, featured one of my favourite female characters in literature, Shara Komayd, as the protagonist. This glasses-wearing, tea drinking, petite woman of colour torn between her love of history and mythology and her occupation as a spy won me over quickly. When I heard that the second book would feature this beloved character in only a minor role, I was skeptical. Instead, Jackson Bennett gave us Turyin Mulaghesh, a disabled, middle-aged, WoC General who swears like it’s going out of style for a protagonist, and a plot that was even better developed than the first book. City of Blades cemented this series as one of my favourites of all-time. I wasn’t as enchanted by the third book in the series, City of Miracles, which focused on a protagonist who couldn’t carry the story as well, but it was still an interesting read and a wonderful series.

What are some of your favourite middle books in a series?

Monthly Wrap-Up: July

July was generally a good month of reading for me! I ended up rating most of the six books I read this month four stars, and the only exception was Too Like The Lightning, a case of fabulously ambitious ideas that weren’t executed as well as I hoped. I continued my Reading the Hugos challenge, to read all of this year’s nominees for Best Novel and really enjoyed All The Birds in the Sky, but my favourite books of the month are all YA titles.

July17

Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee  small 4 stars + Review
The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente  small 4 stars + Review
Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer  small-3-stars + Review
All The Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders  small 4 stars + Review
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee  small 4 stars + Review
Now I Rise by Kiersten White  small 4 half stars + Review

Book of the Month: Now I Rise by Kiersten White. I enjoyed the first novel in her The Conqueror’s Saga, Now I Rise took it up to a new level. I loved the fact that this is a book about consequences and the fallout from choices made, and that no one is left unscathed.

Runner-Up: A tie between Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee and The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee. I loved both of these books and would recommend them to just about anyone. Tash Hearts Tolstoy is a rare YA contemporary where I really connected with the characters and enjoyed the storyline. I also LOVED that it features an asexual protagonist who isn’t forced to change and who has friends who support her. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is just so damn charming. I was swept away by its adventure and a delightful central trio of characters.

Least Favourite: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. This may partially have been a case of my expectations being too high, but I didn’t think it clearly delivered on its ambitious ideas. There are some interesting thoughts and concepts here, but I didn’t connect with the characters and found the plot slow-moving.

***

Reading the Hugos Challenge Update: 6/8  Month three of my challenge to read all of the Hugo nominees for Best Novel and besides Cixin Liu’s Deaths End (which I gave up on after suffering through the second book in his trilogy), I have just one more book to go! I’ll be re-reading N.K. Jemisin’s Obelisk Gate in the first week of August shortly before the awards are announced on August 11th.

***

Seen on Stage: July was a busy month for me! Kelly Bedard, the editor of My Entertainment World, asked if I was interested in joining their staff and covering the Toronto Fringe Festival. I saw a total of 16 shows, 11 of which I reviewed for My Theatre Toronto. You can read my write-up of the experience, my reviews of the 5 shows I saw on my own, and check out my reviews for My Entertainment World in this wrap-up post on the Festival. My favourite shows of the lot were definitely the rightfully hyped The Seat Next to the King, Grey, and Recall. The Seat Next to the King I found incredibly moving. It was a case of a great script being elevated by some simple but inventive direction and a pair of actors who had immediate and strong on stage chemistry. Grey was a poignant exploration into a crime that challenged the audience’s preconceptions by slowly peeling back the layers to reveal contributing factors to a murder (including parental neglect, disability, and bullying). Finally, Recall was a sci-fi dystopia about children with latent sociopathic tendencies being targeted before they commit a crime. Recall was anchored by strong performances by the whole cast and a quickfire script.

***

Coming up in August: I’ll be on vacation in New York City for the first week of August, so the blog will be quiet during that time, but when I return I’ll be reviewing the last in my Hugos challenge, N.K. Jemisin’s Obelisk Gate. I’m also hoping to finish off a few series, including V.E. Schwab’s Our Dark Duet, and the final book in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy.

What was your favourite read in July? What books are you planning to read in August?

Books: Now I Rise

22817331Now I Rise by Kiersten White
Published June 27, 2017
star-4-half
Like the first book in the series, And I Darken, White’s novel is a gender-swapped YA re-imagining of Vlad the Impaler as a young woman named Lada Dracul. Determined to sit on the throne of Wallachia, which she believe to be her birthright, fierce Lada leads her men on a quest to win allies to her cause and reclaim the Wallachian throne. Her narrative is paralleled with that of her brother Radu, who is working as a spy inside Constantinople and reporting to the Sultan Mehmed.

It did take me a bit to get back into the world, but this is likely because I didn’t re-read And I Darken before diving into Now I Rise. Ultimately I found it the more engrossing book, one that takes the Dracul siblings on separate but parallel journeys. I loved the symmetry of a brother and sister with different strengths who are keenly aware of each other’s gifts and of their absence.

Both characters are utterly fascinating. Lada is fierce and often downright mean. Her methods, at least initially, involve force, but she begins to long for her brother’s skill at subtlety and politics as the road to the throne proves more difficult than she had expected. In contrast, while he feels guilt about his deception, Radu effectively uses subterfuge and skillful persuasion to help the Sultan bring about the fall of Constantinople. However, he often thinks of his sister and her more straightforward methods of obtaining the same result.

I enjoyed the first book in the series, And I Darken, giving it a solid four stars on goodreads, but I loved Now I Rise. Judging from others’ reviews, I’m not alone in this. I suspect this difference is because the first book introduces the world and two interesting and completely different protagonists, but Now I Rise sees Radu and Lada make choices based on what is important to them, be it power, religion, love, etc., and then feel the weight of the consequences. With each character there is a distinct sense that they have blood on their hands. These are people who have been forced to make terrible choices, and who must live with them, wondering if they have done the right thing. It’s a rough progression into adulthood, from which neither will emerge unscathed.

As someone who enjoys stories about difficult choices, and about situations where characters make decisions that are morally ambiguous, Now I Rise really appealed to me. Radu especially, but Lada as well, begin to see that things are not so simple as good and bad, and question whether the ends justify the means. Although it’s said in a different context, there’s a quote from my favourite series of books, The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, where a character gives the protagonist a piece of advice to “Speak as you would write: as if your words were letters of lead, graven there for all time, for which you must take the consequences. And take the consequences.” It’s that last line that has stuck with me over the years and I think it’s relevant here, where Lada and Radu find out the hard way the bittersweet cost attached to getting what they want and must live with it.

The minor characters in this book, on all sides, are wonderful. I loved the father-daughter relationship between Hunyadi and Lada, the friendship and feelings between Radu and Cyprian, and the support and love that Nazira (I could write paragraphs about my love for Nazira!) and Radu share. Of course there are also the complicated relationships that each Dracul sibling has with Mehmed, the Sultan.

Lada and Radu both change over the course of their journeys, becoming less naive about the way things work. By the end they are no longer content to be pawns who are used/manipulated by others. While I adore Lada, her unabashed ferocity and desire to go after what she wants, it is Radu who stole my heart. His journey is especially devastating to read about as he doubts himself and all that he is doing to people he has begun to care for. Now I Rise is that most wonderful of things, a sequel that improves upon its predecessor. I cannot wait to find out the fate of the Dracul siblings when book three in the Conqueror’s Saga is published next summer!

Books: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

292838841The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
Published June 27, 2017
star-4
As a fan of musical theatre, the combination of a rakish, devious, but lovable main character named Monty, and the similarity of the title to that of one of my favourite musicals, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, meant that my first impulse was to burst into one of its song (Perhaps “It’s Better With A Man”?). Once I suppressed this urge though, I found a quick-paced YA historical fiction novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring issues of race and sexuality in 1700’s Europe.

Part of the appeal that The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue held for me was the setting. I’m a sucker for a good hist fic book, but surprisingly there are still relatively few YA historical fiction books out there. Even more unusually, The Gentleman’s Guide is set in early eighteenth century Europe, not in one of the more popular time periods (such as the Renaissance, Victorian era, or the Regency). The story follows Henry “Monty” Montague, a young gentleman who enjoys gambling halls, alcohol, and trysts with both men and women. Monty is expected to settle down and take over his family’s estate, but first he gets to embark on a final hurrah, a Grand Tour of Europe. He’s accompanied by best friend, Percy, who he is secretly in love with, and his practical and bookish younger sister Felicity.  Monty’s light fingered approach soon turns the trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt though, and secrets are revealed on all fronts.

Monty is definitely a flawed character. Although he has dashing good looks, dimples, and is sometimes a quick thinker, he’s also impulsive, reckless, and an insatiable flirt who dulls the pain of his seemingly unrequited crush on Percy through alcohol. More than once Monty lands the travelling group in trouble because he hasn’t stopped and thought about his actions. Yet his ardor for Percy is real, and it’s this earnest emotion that makes Monty a character that we root for, despite his flaws.

Percy, on the other hand, is a hard character not to like. His heritage and identity as the ward of nobles, but also a biracial man in a time when slavery still existed, is deftly handled. My only complaint is that because Percy is so proper and has learned to act in accordance with social customs, because as a man of colour he can’t get away with Monty’s wild actions, we don’t get as much insight into Percy’s thoughts as I would have liked.

The great surprise was Felicity though. Barely mentioned in the summaries for this book, this lone central female character is an absolute delight. Monty’s capable younger sister longs to study medicine, can always be found with her nose in a book, and acts a bit as the Hermione of this trio, practical and collected in a crisis. I loved her slightly abrasive, but genuinely loving underneath sibling relationship with Monty and how she doesn’t shrink away from what needs to be done.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue does rely heavily on one of the oldest tropes in the book, miscommunication. However in this setting, where a man choosing to reveal his love for another man could not only result in the loss of a friend but also a fate at the end of a hangman’s noose, the miscommunication is effectively employed.

The story itself is a tremendous amount of fun. Once The Grand Tour goes off the rails, the resulting adventure involves robbery by highwaymen, imprisonment, pirates, poisoning, and more. Author Mackenzi Lee moves the action along at a brisk pace, but gives us quieter interludes where Percy and Monty can share a moment, or reflect on themselves. Remarkably, although the novel generally has a light tone, it discusses a wide range of serious issues that effect our characters, such as homophobia, abuse, racism, disability, and sexism with the appropriate consideration they deserve. The friendship between Percy and Monty is deep and affectionate, and it develops believably, although both characters have wounds past and present to overcome.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is an enjoyable YA historical fiction read that uses its 1700’s setting to explore serious issues of race, disability, and homosexuality. I loved the relationship between Percy and Monty, and this book also features one of the best central trios I’ve ever encountered. I also loved the fact that the end includes detailed author’s notes that place the book into its historical context! Definitely recommended, especially as a fun summer read.

Stage: Toronto Fringe Festival Wrap-Up

Last month, the editor of My Entertainment World asked if I was interested in joining her staff to cover Toronto theatre, beginning with the Toronto Fringe Festival. I enthusiastically, but with some anxiety, said yes for a few reasons. As much as I love writing reviews here, and will continue to do so, I’m aware that most of my wonderful followers are not local and read my stage reviews out of curiosity or out of a (very flattering!) desire to know my opinion on a show, not because it’s something they’re considering attending. Writing for My Entertainment World offers a really cool opportunity to support Toronto theatre and ballet by sharing my honest opinions on what’s worth seeing to an audience who just may buy a ticket for the show. I had a wonderful time reviewing 11 shows for My Entertainment World this year at the Toronto Fringe Festival, an annual independent theatre festival featuring 160 shows in 12 days, and I’m looking forward to writing more for them in the future.

The opportunity to help cover the Fringe also brought with it some nerves . You see, I am a former Fringe virgin (well, almost virgin – I’d previously seen exactly one Fringe show The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!) in 2013). The sad part is that I honestly don’t know why I never attended the Fringe Festival before. I follow enough theatre-related publications and social media accounts that despite not attending before, I generally knew which shows were the year’s standouts. I’d even talked about seeing a show since the festival’s “Best of Fringe”(not held this year due to restructuring at the usual venue) is in my neighbourhood. Sure enough, this year as I looked through the programme I noted several shows that I was interested in seeing!

In the end I attended 16 shows, 11 of which I reviewed for My Entertainment World. Interested in reading my reviews? You can check them out, including my feelings on one of my highlights of the Fringe, Grey, here.

The remaining 5 shows, I’ve reviewed below in order from least impressive to most impressive. Since I already have this nifty stars and half-stars system, I’ve recycled my star ratings for the plays and musicals I witnessed.

06-02-2017-163909-2413Everything There Is To Know
star-2-half
I enjoyed Everything There Is To Know, an original 90 minute musical by Aaron Jensen, more than you might guess from my 2.5 star rating, but I can’t justify giving it a higher rating than this when it needs so much work. To quote Meatloaf, ‘two out of three ain’t bad’ and that’s where this musical currently stands. I found the cast strong overall, especially Sheridan College graduate Quinn Dooley in the lead role of Sophie. Plucky and precocious, but with real moments of feeling, Dooley is believable as a preteen with an overactive imagination. Much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Sophie makes up stories and likely unconsciously casts her friends and family in the various animal roles. It’s a shame that the last note of the show didn’t seem to fit comfortably in Dooley’s range, although judging from a few stifled coughs following the show, it’s possible that the actress was sick. I also enjoyed Christopher Wilson as Dad/Buffalo, and while Sara Stahmer (Mom) was outmatched vocally by the score, she made up for it with an energetic performance. Most of the cast play multiple roles and threw themselves with abandon into each part, but it’s Karolina Kotus (Beatrice/Turkey) who steals the show as an intimidating camp counselor in a patter song that also shows off her ability to belt called “The Forest Is Not Your Friend”.

I generally liked the music, although at times it comes off a little Sondheim-lite. There are no obvious earworms here, but the score is enjoyable and the lyrics often witty. The lyrics did have some of the cast tripping over their diction, but I’m not sure if this is an indication that the tempo is too fast, or that they didn’t have enough rehearsal time.

Unfortunately this family-friendly musical loses all it has going for it with an awful book. It starts out strongly enough as a play about a girl whose parents are going through a rough patch. Former free spirit Mom leaves, Dad lies about it, and it seems to be about a girl who escapes into imagination and stories when her parents split up. Unfortunately, there’s a completely unnecessary, and so unclearly depicted that I didn’t even pick up on it, twist. Suddenly it’s about the end of the world. Honestly the way it’s currently scripted and staged, I thought the whole ‘the world is ending’ thing was one of Sophie’s nightmares right up until father and daughter were in a bunker! The passage of time is unclear, leading to questions such as ‘Why did Dad bother painting the kitchen when the world is ending?’, ‘Does Mom know the world is ending?’ ‘What happens to her?’, and even ‘It’s been long enough that he built a bunker in the backyard!?’ I know the story is supposed to be from Sophie’ perspective, but I don’t think that excuses this muddled writing and staging! It’s unfortunate because a more grounded approach that focuses on separation/divorce from the perspective of an imaginative child might have served the show better. I honestly do hope Everything There Is To Know goes somewhere. As it stands now though, it’s a bloated musical and the great cast and good music aren’t enough to redeem this muddled mess of a book.

a0d0f6_f45c6c03e2b74087af496caee9b498a7Confidential Musical Theatre Project
star-3
Waiting in line for the Confidential Musical Theatre Project (or CMTP) to open its doors, is a bit like waiting to be inducted into a cult. “This is my third Confidential,” said one man in line to an older woman, who replied that she had been to all of the Fringe Festival performances so far. Certainly after the 60 minute show ended I felt as though I had been brainwashed. ‘Maybe I should go to another performance,’ I found myself thinking. Perhaps the odds would be in my favour and I’d get Les Miserables, Company, or a show that I was more familiar with than the musical I’d just witnessed. After about ten minutes, happily ensconced in the nearby used bookstore, I returned to reality. I can understand the appeal of the Confidential Musical Theatre Project, which offers the guarantee that no two shows will be the same as well as the ability to be let in on a secret. It’s a strategy sure to incite repeat visits, but I wasn’t as thrilled with the output as I expected to be. The show I saw was good, not great. It was generally well sung and acted, but the performances (with one exception) weren’t stunning, and the show wasn’t as funny as I expected. Part of my meh response comes from the fact that the classic musical they performed is not one I’m very familiar with, or one that I particularly like. Ultimately I thought the rest of the audience got more out of it than I did. There was a general atmosphere of joy and willingness to laugh easily, which makes me suspect the audience was mostly made up of fellow actors and/or artists at the festival, who had a different perspective on how difficult it is to step into something after only an hour of group rehearsal. That said, I was very impressed by Jada Rifkin, our lead for the night, who was funny, charming, and unafraid to go all out, even when the risks didn’t always pay off. Rifkin alone was worth the price of admission. Would I go to another CMTP show? Possibly, but as much fun as the element of surprise is, I think I’d like to know what the musical is before committing.

e4e0a2a037Maddie’s Karaoke Birthday Party
star-4

Above all, Maddie’s Karaoke Birthday Party is a really good time. Set in The Monarch Tavern, cast members mingle with the audience before the show, snapping selfies and giving out birthday hats, while audience members play keep it alive with the dozens of yellow happy face balloons covering the floor. Although the pre-show talk and banter between songs is a little weak, the original pop songs, which range from a power ballad (sung beautifully by Erica Peck) to charming comic number “I’m a little bit Basic” (a hilarious Tess Barao), are catchy and well-sung by this talented cast. Throughout the show, Maddie’s friends provide insight into how reliable, kind, and smart the missing Birthday Girl is, but when Maddie finally arrives at her party (spoiler-alert!) she’s drunk and not nearly as put-together as she has always seemed. It’s a musical made with the millennial in mind and, as part of this oft-disappointed in the world generation, I was won over by Maddie’s Karaoke Birthday Party. The site-specific nature of the show does mean that sight lines are sometimes compromised, but not significantly enough to impact the experience, and the casual immersive atmosphere would be hard to duplicate in a more traditional venue.

06-02-2017-174128-9050Recall
star-4-half
Recall was the last of a four show evening for me, and with an 11 PM curtain on a day when I got up at 5 AM, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to stay awake. Fortunately Recall is such a clever and captivating show that all thoughts of my bed were banished for its 85 minute duration. Eliza Clark’s intelligent science-fiction dystopia Recall examines a world where children with sociopathic tendencies that have not yet manifested are hunted down by the government. The cast is terrific, with Kyla Young giving an unnerving performance (with an excellent dead-eyed stare!) as Lucy, and Warren Kang providing a sarcastic, yet vulnerable, presence as Lucy’s friend Quinn, who is also suspected of being abnormal. The standout though is Genevieve Adam as Justine. A few months ago I mentioned that one of the things I would like to see more of in fiction is mothers in SFF and with Justine my prayers were answered. Adam plays her as a spitfire, spunky and flirtatious, but also practical and tough when she needs to be. Her attempts to balance having some semblance of a life with keeping Lucy safe by dodging the authorities drives the story forward. Dialogue flies back and forth at a brisk pace throughout this script, which also finds moments for humour and affection despite the bleakly atmospheric world. As someone who loves fiction about morally grey characters and situations, and as an admirer of effective science-fiction, Recall spoke to me. It’s a clever play with charismatic performances and strong world building. It’s also completely unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and I would gladly watch it again.

the2bseat2bnext2bto2bthe2bking2bbannerThe Seat Next To the King
star-5
The worry with a play like this, a play that received a coveted Fringe 5N review from Now Magazine’s Glenn Sumi and won the ‘Best New Play’ award before it had even premiered, isn’t that it won’t be good, it’s that it won’t live up to the hype. I attended the second last performance of The Seat Next To The King and for me it falls into the rare category of shows, along with the likes of Hamilton, that actually live up to the hype. The Seat Next To The King imagines a sexual encounter between a pair of men in a 1964 public washroom. One of the men is Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King’s right hand man. The other is Walter Jenkins, top aide to President Lyndon B Johnson. Playwright Steven Elliott Jackson’s script deftly explores themes of race, sexuality, and politics in 1960’s America, and it’s brought to vivid life through a perfect marriage between playwright, director, and actors.

The Seat Next To The King was easily the most professional show I saw at the Fringe Festival this year as well as the most affecting. Some of the credit for this clearly belongs to director Tanisha Taitt. What struck me most about her vision for this show is how well it uses transitions between scenes. Simple set pieces, such as a bathroom sink, are turned into a hotel bed by the two actors, but continuity is maintained through period-appropriate musical selection, and the actors remain in character, using the time to reveal more about their characters’ mindsets. I was fortunate enough to attend a talkback after the show with the cast and creative team, and it sounds like Taitt also deserves credit for her role in the casting process. The chemistry between Kwaku Okyere (Bayard Rustin) and Conor Ling (Walter Jenkins) is intense, and both actors, as well as the creative team, described the chemistry as “immediate” from the first read. I know that down the road there will likely be other productions of this play with other actors, and I imagine they will be very good, but it’s hard to imagine anyone fitting as well as Okyere and Ling do onstage. As wonderful as the script is, this two-man play wouldn’t work without a strong cast who are believable together. Between Okyere and Ling the atmosphere is charged. Bayard is charming and self-assured, while Walter is cautious and afraid of what he has to lose. Watching the initial cat and mouse game develop into something deeper and more meaningful is truly beautiful to watch. Like most reviewers who attended this show, I can only add my voice to the chorus of those hoping The Seat Next To The King will be picked up by a professional company and added to their season. It’s a gorgeous moving work that begs to be seen again.

Hope you enjoyed reading my (not at all concise) coverage of the 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival.

Next up in August: a trip to New York City to take in some Broadway shows!