January/February Wrap-Up

We’re 2 months into 2020 and honestly? I’m not off to a great start. I’ve read 10 books so far (3 of them re-reads), which puts me on track for my Goodreads Challenge goal of 60, but I don’t have a new 5-star read to show for it. February hasn’t been a great month for me personally and I’ve been struggling with both Seasonal Affective Disorder and stress over my job situation (my temp. FT position is coming to an end in less than a month and I don’t know what’s next for me) so I only made it through 4 books this month – 2 of them novellas. Hopefully March will be a more successful reading and blogging month for me!


JANUARY
The Raven Boys (re-read) by Maggie Stiefvater  small 5 stars
The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books by Edward Wilson-Lee  small-2-stars + Review
The Dream Thieves (re-read) by Maggie Stiefvater  small 5 stars
Blue Lily, Lily Blue (re-read) by Maggie Stiefvater  small 5 stars
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine  small 4 stars
Tarnished Are The Stars by Rosiee Thor  small-3-stars

FEBRUARY
To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers  small 3 half stars
The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood  small 4 stars
The Regrets by Amy Bonnaffons  small-2-stars
Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey  small 4 stars

Current Reading: I am slowly working my way through Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I keep getting sidetracked by new release library holds but I am genuinely enjoying it and looking forward to getting back into Wolf Hall in March. I’m just starting Daughter from the Dark by the Dyachenkos (trans. by Julia Hersey). I loved Vita Nostra so I’m hoping this will be another strong release from them. I’m also continuing with my Ace Books Challenge by picking up Belle Révolte by Linsey Miller. Besides those books I’m really desperate to get a few five star books under my belt so I may dive into my backlist of titles I’ve been wanting to read for awhile rather than grabbing the new and shiny.

***Seen on TV***
I don’t have cable or any streaming services except Netflix but I’m slowly trying to catch up on some of the TV that I’ve missed. In the last few months I’ve watched (either on DVDs from the library or on Netflix):

  • Chernobyl (HBO) – Difficult to watch at times but eye-opening, especially since it occurred the year I was born so I didn’t know that much about the events or the government response. Skip episode four entirely if you’re triggered by seeing multiple dogs die.
  • Good Omens (Amazon/BBC) – I read the book years ago and really liked it so I’d been waiting to get my hands on this. First of all, David Tennant and Michael Sheen are perfect as Aziraphale and Crowley and I loved watching their relationship develop on screen. Generally I thought the pacing and depiction were very good. My one complaint is that when Tennant and Sheen weren’t on screen I found myself losing interest, but this is a gorgeous tribute to Pratchett’s work and is so enjoyable!
  • Star Trek Discovery (CBS All Access) – The plot is a little bonkers at times and can be hard to follow, but I just love these characters so much that I don’t even care! Pike was a tremendous addition to the show, Ethan Peck was great as Spock, and I continued to enjoy the relationships between characters: Tilly and Michael’s friendship! Saru and Michael’s respect for and trust in one another! Stamets getting his husband back! I’m curious to see where it will go next, but honestly I’m most interested in the characters so it hardly even matters.
  • The Untamed (Netflix) – In case you missed it, I’ve wholeheartedly fallen into The Untamed and I’m never climbing out! The Untamed/CQL is a Chinese-subtitled fantasy series set in ancient China about different sects who seek immortality through dispelling demons and monsters using magic and swords. It’s part political machinations, part murder-mystery, but mostly it’s a love story between the rule-abiding stoic Lan Wangji (aka. Lan Zhan) and carefree mischievous Wei Wuxian (aka. Wei Ying) that transcends decades, family obstacles, and even death! Although based on a gay Chinese novel, censorship prevents it from openly being depicted as a love story but somehow the show is even gayer as a result? There’s lots of yearning, touching, long-held gazes, and yes they even have their own in-show ship song (sung by the actors portraying the roles). The special effects are awful, but the acting, costumes, and set design are terrific. I’ve actually cried watching this show, which is rare for me, and I’m so hooked that I think I’m on my fifth or sixth re-watch. Let me know if you want to gush about The Untamed with me!

***Seen on Stage***

In contrast to my reading, I saw a lot on stage! The odds that I’ll write full reviews are not good, so here are some short reviews on the Toronto theatre scene this month:

Mother’s Daughter and Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (Soulpepper)
My day off happens to fall on a Wednesday so I made it a two-show day by taking in a matinee performance of Mother’s Daughter and spending the evening at Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at Soulpepper.

Mother’s Daughter is the final part in playwright Kate Hennig’s Queenmaker trilogy, exploring Tudor Queens through a contemporary feminist lens. While I still think the first of these plays (The Last Wife, about Catherine Parr) is my favourite, I loved this story of the much maligned “Bloody Mary” Tudor as she comes into her power. It’s very much a play about perception and legacy, deftly exploring how women (and particularly women with power) are viewed and remembered by those around them. Why is Mary villainized while her father, who executed indiscriminately, is remembered more fondly by history? At the heart of Mother’s Daughter are the relationships between women. Mary (played as a sympathetic anti-hero by Shannon Taylor) has a fraught relationship with the apparition of her dead mother Catherine of Aragon/Catalina (Irene Poole in a commanding performance), who urges her to be merciless and eliminate rivals while she has both a sisterly love and a healthy distrust of half-sister Bess (charismatic Jessica B. Hill), a more able political player, and finds commonality with the pious, doomed Lady Jane Grey (Andrea Rankin). I sympathized with Mary as she at first attempts to placate her enemies and grant them clemency, only to make choices that arguably lead to ruin when she’s pushed to act decisively. Told in accessible colloquial language (in the wake of Brexit, a line about how the ‘English do not like Europeans’ referencing Mary’s unpopular marriage proposal from Spain drew laughter), Mother’s Daughter is a timely and perceptive exploration of women in power.

Set almost entirely in the notorious Rikers Island prison, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train explores themes of contrition and hypocrisy. Minimal set design emphasizes the bleak environment faced by incarcerated men and highlights the sliver of sunlight they observe in their daily allotment of yard time. Although this production is anchored by strong performances from Xavier Lopez as Angel Cruz, on trial for attempted murder, Diana Donnelly as his put-upon, proud defense attorney, and the reliably excellent Daren A. Herbert as charismatic fellow inmate Lucius Jenkins, I couldn’t fully connect with the story. I suspect the play is meant to cause audiences to reflect on morality. I’m all for moral ambiguity and it’s a theme I usually love to see explored, but I found the weighing of an unintentional killing of one man, essentially a cult leader who has objectively done bad deeds, against eight lives of “normal” people taken intentionally to be too cut and dried for me to take seriously.

Singin’ in the Rain – Film with Orchestra at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
I’ve been to a couple film with orchestra presentations in the city now with mixed results, so I was a little skeptical about how well this would work but figured that either way it was a chance to see one of my favourite films on the big screen. Singin’ in the Rain with the TSO was such a delight though! After the first few minutes (in which the live orchestra drowned out the movie musical), the sound was adjusted and I had a lovely time. Admittedly I’m not a film buff and I don’t tend to see a lot of movies while they’re still in theatres, so I’d forgotten the sheer joy of watching and reacting to a film with other people and how fresh that can make the experience even of watching a film you can practically quote from memory. An all-time great made even better with a live orchestra.

Secret Life of a Mother (Crow’s Theatre)
I went into this one-women show completely blind, having booked tickets entirely because I loved both playwright Hannah Moscovitch and Maev Beatty, the actress starring in it. As it turns out, it’s a raw exploration of pregnancy and motherhood that’s by turns laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly poignant. Both the friend I went to see this with and I do not intend to ever have children, yet it had both of us tearing up so I can only imagine the impact this beautiful show would have on a mother or mother-to-be! One of many highlights was Maev sharing that during childbirth, starred at by impatient doctors, she felt such pressure to perform that she pushed so hard she gave herself a black eye! I absolutely loved this and would recommend it to most (although it does deal with difficult issues, including miscarriages, so not for women who have recently been through a miscarriage or infertility).

Caroline, or Change (Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre)
If you’ve never been to Toronto, The Winter Garden Theatre is one of the most gorgeous theatre venues I’ve ever seen. It’s one part of the last surviving double-decker theatre in North America and the ceiling is adorned with lanterns and real beech branches and leaves to give the appearance of an Edwardian garden. These days it’s mostly used as a venue for TIFF so I was thrilled when the Musical Stage Company announced their residency in the Winter Garden Theatre. As I’ve come to expect from Musical Stage Company, this production is top-notch. The cast is terrific, with standout performance from R&B star Jully Black in her first musical theatre role as Black maid Caroline, and Vanessa Sears as daughter Emmie and the simple multi-level effectively conveys the reality of 1963 Louisiana. Unfortunately the problem with Caroline, or Change is the source material. The music is beautifully sung in this production but there’s not a memorable song among them, the book is clunky, and there’s an over-reliance on the double-meaning of change (Caroline is told that she can keep any change found in her employer’s clothes while she does the laundry and the musical is set against the backdrop of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of President Kennedy. I’m also a little baffled by the choice to have all of the inanimate objects (the laundry machine, the radio, the moon, etc.) personified as human beings yet nothing’s ever done with this concept and Caroline doesn’t interact with them? Anyway, great cast, great production, but not a musical that I enjoy. I cannot freaking wait for next year and the Musical Stage Company production of Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 though!!

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

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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!

 

 

Stage: Rose

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Touted as Soulpepper’s first original musical, Rose boldly defies categorization. It’s based on a children’s book (avant-garde poet Gertrude Stein’s The World is Round) yet there are songs and gags that will fly right over the heads of many little ones. The narrative initially follows a familiar path, as a precocious child grapples with questions of identity and her place in the world, and yet the plot takes bizarre, but often entertaining, twists.  Nine-year-old Rose’s journey of self-discovery brings her face-to-face with a pride of lions, her faithful canine companion Love laments his need to be let outside to pee in the soulful ballad “Let Love Out”, and Rose narrowly escapes from a terrifying group of… otters? While this new Canadian musical hasn’t quite reached the height of its potential yet, it’s still an immensely charming show that delivers big laughs with a lot of heart.

A revelation in Musical Stage Company’s Onegin a few years ago, Hailey Gillis is so genuine and endearing that I connected with the titular Rose immediately. I know this is an odd thing to say about an actress who has proven herself capable of playing different roles extremely well, but Gillis has this truthful, self-aware quality that makes it easy to get sucked into her performances. She brings a warmth and inner strength to Rose, a bright and inquisitive nine-year-old with one big problem – she can’t say her name out loud because she doesn’t yet know who she is.

Peter Fernandes has never been better suited for a role than he is here. I’ve often found Fernandes to be miscast or to have a tendency to be too much of a ham in his past roles, but he brings a boyish charm and humour to the role of Rose’s best friend Willy. Other standouts are Sabryn Rock, as the understandably exasperated schoolteacher who must contend with an unusually inquisitive student, and Jonathan Ellul as Love, Rose’s loyal doggo.

Adapted by Mike Ross and Sarah Wilson, Rose is a departure for Toronto’s largest not-for-profit theatre company, in that it’s not a musical cabaret but a fully-fledged musical complete with dancing. Although the three-piece on-stage folk band, which serve as the narrators of Rose’s story, are firmly rooted in Soulpepper’s musical traditions, additional songs have soul, bluegrass, and traditional musical theatre influences.  The score isn’t particularly earwormy, yet the songs work extremely well in the context of the show. Monica Dotter’s choreography playfully  draws upon children’s musicals of the past to feature obligatory classroom scenes complete with desks and simple, energetic motion. Rose even pokes gentle fun at the genre, but never in a way that feels mean-spirited.

Lorenzo Savoini’s design is simple yet effective, using a colour palate that reflects the iconic blue ink on pink page illustrations used in the original book. Alexandra Lord’s costumes are equally evocative, as she dresses the townspeople of Somewhere in colourful clothing and brings the animal characters (including Love the dog, the pride of lions, and a group of back-up singing bunnies) to life in style.

Full disclosure, I attended a preview performance of this new musical, so it’s entirely possible that some of the issues I had with Rose were already resolved by opening night. The performances I saw were strong and very polished for this early in the run, but the material could use some tightening up.

The biggest problem Rose has is that it’s unbalanced. While the first act is high energy and utilizes the show’s talented ensemble to the fullest, the second act drags. Let’s face it, there are only so many ways to make a character’s solitary climb up a mountain engaging! The loss of momentum is keenly felt in a musical that already runs long (the runtime is two-and-a-half hours) for a show that is ostensibly aimed at children. There are some high points after intermission, including the repetition of a song sung in a round, a lovely long-distance ‘thinking of you’ duet, and a finale that both touches and inspires, but other scenes – especially one involving spiders and a joke about sailors – should be trimmed or cut altogether.

Whether it’s in a book, a ballet, or a play, I value uniqueness and Rose certainly wracks up points for creativity. It’s a madcap musical romp that’s ultimately triumphant and hopeful – the sort of story that, like Matilda or Billy Elliot, encourages us to be who we are and proudly. Like it’s heroine, Rose may still have a way to go before it reaches maturity, but it’s an incredibly entertaining journey nonetheless. If you’re in the Toronto area, Rose is not to be missed.

Rose runs until February 24th, 2019 at the Young Centre for Performing Arts in the Distillery District in Toronto. Peek behind the scenes in this video.

Photo of Hailey Gillis and the Rose Ensemble by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Best of Stage 2018

Instead of delving into my most disappointing reads, I’d like to start the new year on a positive note by looking back fondly at my favourite theatre productions of 2018.

I desperately wanted to post a Best of Stage list in 2017, but time got away from me and I never did get around to writing one – something I regret to this day. Although my 2018 year of theatre (much like my year in books) didn’t live up to high standards set by 2017, Toronto and London stages still offered plenty to love.

10. The Dream Being and Nothingness (National Ballet of Canada)

dream

No one is more surprised than me that my favourite National Ballet of Canada pieces this year were not multi-act story ballets, but double and triple bills showcasing shorter works! I often find Principal Dancer Guillaume Côté’s choreography to be inconsistent, but he’s at his best with Being and Nothingness. It was an absolute pleasure to revisit the ballet three years after its Toronto debut. Based on the philosophical work by Jean-Paul Sarte, Being and Nothingness is an inventive and melancholy contemporary piece that featured strong performances by Principal Dancer Greta Hodgkinson and Second Soloist Felix Paquet (who’s had a breakout year) on opening night. New to me was Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, a one-act re-imagining of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in Victorian times. Combining enchantment with humour, The Dream benefited from dream (yes, I made that joke) casting. Actual Ballet Disney Prince Harrison James was a noble Oberon and the perfect partner for Jillian Vanstone‘s regal Titania. It was Skylar Campbell, perfectly cast as the mischevious Puck, who stole the show though, seeming to soar across the stage. Hopefully it won’t be another 17 years before The Dream returns to the Toronto stage!
Watch trailers for The Dream and Being and Nothingness.

9. Bed & Breakfast (Soulpepper – Toronto)

b&b

Written by Canadian playwright Mark Crawford, Bed & Breakfast is a delightful farce about a downtown-dwelling gay couple who decide to leave the big city and open a bed & breakfast in a small Ontario town. Certainly there’s comedy to be found in the classic fish-out-of-water trope, which sees Brett and Drew adapting to life in a slower-paced locale, but Bed & Breakfast is also an emotionally resonant piece that doesn’t shy away from depicting small-town homophobia and long-held family secrets. What made the Soulpepper production this summer work so well though were the performances. Real life couple Gregory Prest and Paolo Santalucia played not only the central B&B-owning couple – they also portrayed every single one of the play’s other 20 characters! Both actors are well-known to Toronto audiences for their range, and Prest in particular has become an actor I would go see in just about anything (read my gushing review of last year’s brilliant adaptation of Of Human Bondage for more on Prest), so Bed & Breakfast served as the perfect showcase for their considerable talents. Through the addition and subtraction of simple props like an earring or a trucker cap, the actors stepped into the roles of the quirky townsfolk, including a flaky, pregnant coffee shop owner, an Irish lesbian, and an awkward adolescent boy in this heartwarming must-see Canadian comedy.

8. Les Miserables (Queens’ Theatre – London)

mis kil

Les Misérables is my all-time favourite musical, but the fact that it merits a place on this list is undoubtedly influenced by two things. One: I didn’t see a lot of shows this year that blew me away, and Two: The last production of Les Misérables I watched (the US tour cast in 2017) featured some of the worst across-the-board principal casting I’ve witnessed for this musical. The 2017/18 West End cast were not the best I’ve seen in their respective roles, but this was nonetheless a very solid cast.  Killian Donnelly was a standout in the role of Valjean, showcasing both control over and knowledge of how to use his powerful voice. For such a young actor (Donnelly was 33 when I saw him), his aging and death scene were among the most believable I’ve seen and I loved his dynamic with both Cosette and Fantine. Carley Stenson also stood out as one of the best Fantines I’ve ever watched. In the post-Anne Hathaway years there’s been a tendency to sing “I Dreamed A Dream” as a paint-by-numbers, heavily choreographed, ‘here is the big song the audience is waiting for’ kind of moment, but Stenson’s Fantine looked natural throughout and sang with a gorgeous belt that never edged into shouting. After becoming familiar with the Broadway/Tour staging over the last few years, it was also lovely to see the original turntable staging of the London production again. It is a shame that I missed David Thaxton (off sick the week I was there) as Javert though. After a string of awful Javerts, it would have meant a lot to see someone who understands the role take it on, and I have no doubt that Les Miserables would be higher on this list if I’d watched him perform.

7. The Dreamers Ever Leave You / The Four Seasons Emergence (National Ballet of Canada)

emergence

My favourite National Ballet of Canada production of the season was this excellent triple-bill featuring works by Canadian choreographers. Originally co- produced with the Art Gallery of Ontario as an immersive ballet that allowed members of the public to walk around the dancers and take photos, The Dreamers Ever Leave You was inspired by the paintings of Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris. I missed the widly popular Art Gallery of Ontario staging, so I was thrilled to have the chance to see a version of the ballet (modified to fit a traditional stage) this Spring. It did not disappoint. Set to an original score written and performed live by extraordinary pianist Lubomyr Melnyk, this moving ballet succeeded in evoking the beauty and loneliness of Canada’s northern landscapes.

To say I’m not a fan of James Kudelka’s choreography would be putting it mildly. I hated The Man in Black (a short ballet set to music by Johnny Cash and danced wearing cowboy boots), and I was underwhelmed by his versions of both The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. But with The Four Seasons I found a Kudelka ballet I actually liked watching! Set to Vivaldi’s famous work of the same name, it depicts the life cycle of a man through the lively spring of his youth, sultry summer, lazy fall, and his decline and infirmity come winter. The choreography was still very classical for my tastes, particularly for a piece that debuted in 1997, and the costumes left something to be desired, but The Four Seasons was an enjoyable short ballet and an excellent showcase for Guillaume Côté.

An unsettling work that posits “the instinct for social organization found in the insect realm as a precise metaphor for human interaction and purpose”, Crystal Pite’s Emergence is one of the most unique ballets I’ve ever encountered. Opening with an eerily realistic approximation of an insect and set to a drone soundscape and a monotonous chorus of whispered counting, Pite uses ballet dancers to reproduce swarm behaviour seen in the insect world in this deservedly acclaimed ballet. Watch footage of Emergence.

6. The Music Man (Stratford Shakespeare Festival)

music man

With revivals of classic musicals like The King and I, My Fair Lady, and, most controversially, Carousel recently appearing on Broadway stages, there have been questions over whether some musicals are timeless classics or dated relics that have nothing to say to modern audiences. I can’t say that I have any particular attachment to The Music Man as a show, but Director/Choreographer Donna Feore did just about everything right in this thoroughly enjoyable revival. Her choreography breathed new life into a dated story by adding crowd-pleasing, high-energy dance numbers performed by a talented ensemble. Yet it was the inspired casting that made this production so memorable. The Music Man is based on the idea that one con-man is so damn charming that he manages to swindle an entire town, yet in the end no one really minds that much. Who better for the role of Professor Harold Hill than the vortex of charming that is Daren A. Herbert!? In his Stratford debut, Herbert was charismatic, playful, and had excellent chemistry with both Marian the Librarian (a likable Danielle Wade) and close friend Marcellus Washburn (Mark Uhre, a true triple threat). There are some elements in The Music Man that don’t translate as well to present day sensibilities (Harold Hill’s admonishment of fast women, for example) and, as a librarian, I’d be creeped out if a guy I had rejected wound up stalking me at my place of work, but minor quibbles aside this was a tremendous amount of fun.

5. Jane Eyre (Northern Ballet – London)

Jane Eyre

My favourite ballet of the year was Jane Eyre, performed by Northern Ballet, an English touring company based in Leeds known for their storytelling. Part of the reason I chose to visit the UK when I did was so that I could catch their London engagement and I was not disappointed. Cathy Marston’s striking choreography uses classical ballet language but with a contemporary edge. She made adapting Jane’s internal narrative into a medium that doesn’t use speech look effortless. Antoinette Brooks-Daw (as Young Jane) and now-retired ballerina Dreda Blow (as Jane) were both gorgeous to watch, subtly conveying Jane’s strength of spirit and independence even as she undergoes hardship. Yet from the moment he appeared on stage, sprawling insolently into a chair and preventing Jane from leaving the room with an elegantly outstretched leg, I was captivated by Javier Torres’ Mr. Rochester. He was quite simply magnetic. and there was an immediate chemistry between his Rochester and Blow’s Jane that only intensified through a series of passionate pas-de-deuxs. It’s easy to understand why Dance Europe referred to Northern Ballet as boasting “the best dance-actors in the world”. I’m thrilled that I had the opportunity to witness such a talented company performing a largely faithful and clever adaptation of the early feminist source material we hold so dear.
Read my full review of Jane Eyre.

The acclaimed American Ballet Theatre (ABT) are performing Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre this summer at the Metropolitan Opera House, so if you’re in New York City this June I highly recommend checking it out!
Watch the trailer for Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre here.

4. The Cursed Child (Palace Theatre – London)

cursedchild

The Cursed Child is the only entry on this list that succeeds not because of its script, but in spite of it. As many Harry Potter fans found when the script was published in 2016, the plot is a convoluted mess that reads more like bad fan-fiction than a carefully constructed work of literature. The character of Delphie is so thinly written that even the most talented actress wouldn’t be able to imbue her with any depth, and the heterosexual romance foisted upon us despite a lack of chemistry and at the expense of developing the far more interesting gay subtext is, unfortunately, exactly what we’ve come to expect from Rowling. The script has its moments, using humour to great effect (in particular I’ll never be able to walk past a farmer’s market again without smiling), but it’s the theatrical wizardry (pardon the pun) and the performances that have made The Cursed Child work as well as it does. Without giving too much away, The Cursed Child made me believe in magic, or at least in the ingenuity and imagination of an exceptionally talented creative team. More than once I found myself wondering how’d they do that?! There’s such a feeling of nostalgia attached to Harry Potter for many of my generation and this play was able to recapture the magic of reading about the wizarding world for the first time in an immersive theatrical way. I caught the second year cast of the London production and genuinely enjoyed everyone’s performances. The original trio were all believable, particularly Thomas Aldridge as an endearing Ron, but I was actually most interested in the Malfoys. Scorpius (Samuel Blenkin) became my favourite character by the end of the show and the standout of the evening was James Howard as a pitch-perfect Draco. Ultimately The Cursed Child is a play about parent-children relationships with all of their complexities, friendship, and how you thought your life would go vs. how your life actually is. As a millennial, this is definitely a theme that speaks to me and I loved The Cursed Child in spite of its plot holes.

3. Fun Home (Musical Stage Company/Mirvish Productions – Toronto)

fun home

I’m surprised it took this long for Tony-award-winning musical Fun Home to make it’s Toronto debut, but it was worth the wait! For the last few years The Musical Stage Company has been behind some of the best musical productions in the city (including Onegin and Life After, two of my theatre favs from 2017), so I couldn’t wait to see what they’d do with the funny and heartwarming story based on Alison Bechtel’s graphic memoir about growing up in a funeral home and the discovery that both her and her father were gay. Fun Home in Toronto was professional, well-designed and well-directed,  but the starry all-Canadian cast were the number one reason to see this production. All three Alisons (played as a girl by Hannah Levinson, as a sexually awakening college student by Sara Farb, and as an adult by Laura Condlin) were superb and stand to clean-up at any Toronto theatre award shows. Reliably excellent Evan Builing, Cynthia Dale, and Sabryn Rock rounded out the cast of this terrific show.
See Sara Farb perform “Changing my Major” (featuring the Toronto Reference Library!)
Watch the trailer for Fun Home in Toronto here.

2. The Wolves (Howland Company/Crow’s Theatre – Toronto)

wolves

I don’t have a single negative thing to say about the Toronto debut of Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer-Prize nominated The Wolves. I went in nothing absolutely nothing except that it had been well-reviewed and was blown away by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster’s thoughtful direction, a talented young cast made up of women and non-binary individuals, and the clever dialogue that so perfectly captures the cadence and thought processes of teenage girls. The staging of this play about an indoor girls’ soccer team at a transitional time in their lives was kinetic, following the team as they stretched, warmed-up, and played, all while discussing everything from talking behind one another’s backs to periods and the Cambodian genocide. Characters were identified by their jersey numbers rather than their names, yet each player had a distinct personality and their unique place within the group. The Wolves was also one of the best-paced shows I’ve ever seen, with a 90-minute no intermission run-time that ensured the play didn’t overstay its welcome, yet gave enough time and weight to its characters to develop them fully and leave a lasting impact. Humourous, heart-warming, and featuring one of the best ensemble casts I’ve sen recently, The Wolves was undoubtedly a highlight of the Toronto theatre scene this year.

1. The Ferryman (Gielgud Theatre – London)

ferryman

On my final night in London I caught the closing performance of The Ferryman and all I can say is WOW. What a way to end a trip! Set almost entirely within the Carney farmhouse in Northern Ireland during the 1980s, The Ferryman is about a family haunted by the unexplained disappearance of one of its members (the brother/husband/father of those left behind). Predicated on the idea of physical and psychological ‘ambiguous loss’ – which occurs when a loved one disappears and their whereabouts are unknown – The Ferryman is a weighty play about family conflict, loss, and the toll of existing in an in-between state without closure. I loved the references to myths and folklore, the crowd-pleasing presence of live animals and a (very young and very well-behaved!) baby that made the play feel so real, and the emotionally charged performances given by the entire cast, especially Rosalie Craig as the maybe widow-maybe wife Caitlin Carney. As someone fascinated by Irish history, I adored everything about this. The Ferryman is currently playing on Broadway and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Go see this magnificent play while you can – oh, and stagger your water intake because it’s a long play with one short intermission!

Have you seen any of these ballets, musicals, or plays? What were the best things you saw on stage in 2018? Let me know in the comments!

Stage: Life After

LifeAfter

Life After is a poignant exploration of one family coming to terms with grief in the wake of tragedy. When her self-help guru father is killed in a car crash on her birthday, sixteen-year-old Alice’s life shifts. Plagued by questions about the circumstances of his sudden death, and by regret at the angry last words they ever exchanged, Alice searches for answers. This coming of age story coloured by loss is anchored by moving performances from a talented cast, and by a soaring, complicated score by young Canadian composer and lyricist Britta Johnson.

There are a lot of unique elements about this show, most notably the inclusion of a three-person Greek Chorus (played by Neema Bickersteth, Barbara Fulton, and Anika Johnson). The chorus voices Alice’s inner fears about her role in her father’s death, and play other minor parts, such as the kids at school drawn to tragedy, and fans of her father’s self-help books, who attend the funeral service. In a refreshing change from most musicals, the cast is overwhelmingly female (eight of the nine actors are women), although the lone male, Dan Chameroy as Alice’s deceased father Frank, casts a long shadow over the show.

I have also never seen a show use silence as well as Life After does. In the moments following a powerful climactic breakdown song (more on that later), you could have heard a pin drop.

Employing a  naturalistic style in its dialogue and lyrics, Life After incorporates current speech trends. Lyrics such as, “she was just, like, around” and “you are a literal warrior”, set the show firmly in the present day. Lyrics often repeat, but never in a way that feels tired. In fact, for me, Life After accomplishes what a previous CanStage show, London Road, tried and failed to do, with lyrics that follow natural speech patterns and could just as easily be spoken as sung.

The soaring score, by composer and lyricist Britta Johnson, has been compared to Sondheim for its harmonic complexity. Like Sondheim, Johnson’s music makes demands of the actors who perform it, with songs that are quick-paced and emotionally taxing.

Seeing Life After on the weekend after my whirlwind trip to New England, I couldn’t help drawing comparisons to the shows I had just seen. In its taut seventy-five minutes, Life After contains more heart and authenticity than I experienced in the entire two-and-a-half hours of the current US tour of Les Miserables. This production of Les Miserables suffers from miscast actors who often seem to be just going through the motions. Not so Life After, which had me teary-eyed by the end. You would expect an exploration of grief to feel almost manipulative, yet Life After never does. This is largely due to the anchoring presence of a cast who make you believe every word.

Ellen Denny is stunning as Alice, showcasing a sweet, strong voice and a powerful belt. One of the most passive heroines I’ve encountered, Alice spends the first half of the show observing and reflecting, paralyzed by grief and the fear that she bears responsibility for her father’s death. Yet Life After uses this to its advantage. The moments where Alice takes action and gains momentum as she begins to accept and move through her grief are all the more powerful for her earlier inactivity.

A much touted Toronto theatre scene actor who I’ve never had strong feelings about, Dan Chameroy is excellent here. His performance as Alice’s self-help guru father, Frank, is appropriately understated, comic and sweet by turns. His presence lingers, even when he’s not on stage, and Chameroy switches effortlessly between playing the always busy but well-intentioned father of Alice’s memories, and the more ambiguous creation her imagination comes up with as she searches for answers.

The highlight of the show is the mental breakdown of Alice’s mother Beth. In Tracy Michailidis’ rendition of “Wallpaper”, repressed emotion comes to the fore after an argument with her daughter over painting Frank’s office. Seeing the Huntingdon Theatre Company’s stunning production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along in such close proximity, I couldn’t help drawing comparisons between “Wallpaper” and Damian Humbley’s tour-de-force performance of patter song “Franklin Shepard Inc”. How I wish I could witness these two powerful breakdown songs back-to-back!

Musicals with serious themes often feel the need to include comic relief characters and/or songs (such as “Master of the House” and “Beggars at the Feast” in Les Miserables), often with cringe worthy results,  but Life After integrates humour incredibly well. As someone with a sometimes exasperating preachy vegan friend, I probably enjoyed the running joke about sister Kate’s veganism more than the average theatre-goer, but Kate (Rielle Braid) isn’t reduced to a punchline, nor is Alice’s best friend Hannah (a believably teenage Kelsey Verzotti). Both characters provide humourous moments, but also enable Alice to make breakthroughs in her journey to acceptance.

Unfortunately the Berkeley Street Theatre continues to be a blight on the otherwise sunny development of new Canadian musicals. Its location near the downtown core and smaller size make this theatre a popular choice for independent shows, but the exposed brick walls  swallow sound, making any musical with an open set difficult to hear. This is especially disappointing when the score is A) new, so you don’t know the lyrics already, and B) as quick and wordy as Life After is. I would love to see this show again in a space where the glorious score doesn’t come up against the obstacle of the Berkeley walls.

Life After is an excellent show, but there’s room to grow. Running a tidy seventy-five minutes with no intermission gives Britta Johnson room to expand on her engaging minor characters, such as sister Kate and mother Beth. I especially wanted more from Kate, who is explored purely as a peace making character in the musical, but has her own issues about Frank’s clear favoritism of Alice. Johnson likely wants to avoid unnecessarily bloating the musical, but I’d love a song or two more from their perspectives.

Life After also falters a little as it winds down, with the final few songs all sounding like they could serve as an ending. Still, this is a beautiful show about flawed people coping, in their own ways, with the death of another flawed, and utterly human, individual. The melodies stick with you, as does the emotional heft of this show, which I’m sure will have a life after the Berkeley Street Theatre.

Life After ran from September 23rd to October 29th at the Berkeley Street Theatre. Watch the show trailer here.

Photo of Ellen Denny (Alice) by Michael Cooper.

Stage: Sweeney Todd

Sweeney

In 2014, Tooting Arts Club staged a production of Sweeney Todd in Harrington’s – London’s oldest working pie and mash shop. The immersive experience allowed audience members to arrive early and have their very own pie and mash before the show. This Off-Broadway transfer at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City uses a replica of the original pie-shop, and keeps up the pre-show tradition, employing former White House pastry chef Bill Yosses as its official pie maker. No, sadly I didn’t opt for a pre-show pie, but the atmosphere remains unique and this is an excellent production of Sondheim’s operatic masterpiece about a barber intent on seeking revenge against The Judge who had him transported as a convict on false charges, and who seduced and raped his wife, and is raising his daughter as his ward.

I have to start by raving about Carolee Carmello because wow, what a performance! As Mrs. Lovett she displays excellent comic timing, and is both appropriately pragmatic, and sympathetic. I think there’s often a tendency for actresses playing the role to air on the side of comedy, singing in a harsh or less pleasant manner. Carmello finds just the right balance, singing the role every bit as well as she acts it. Her exchange with Lewis’ Sweeney Todd in “A Little Priest” (“good you got it”) is absolutely hilarious, and her Mrs. Lovett is fully alive and energetic without ever being over-the-top.

Norm Lewis is undoubtedly the best-sung Sweeney Todd I’ve ever heard. His baritone fits the operatic style of Sondheim’s masterpiece to a tee, but unfortunately his acting is less impressive.  His Sweeney seems to vacillate between two extremes, becoming either a stone-faced expressionless man or one who shouts in uncontrolled fury. Its an approach that renders the character less sympathetic and less deserving of pity than he should be by the end of the play, and I sorely missed the nuance in Lewis’ performance. I was also disappointed by Norm Lewis’ take on “Epiphany”, a pivotal soliloquy for the character, which he decided to shout. The choice completely baffled me because it meant there was no use of dynamics, no building to a climactic moment, just a furious one-note yelling throughout.

Slight side rant here to say that whether it’s an actor’s choice based on what he’s seen done before or a decision in directing, I don’t understand this choice to play a big song for an anti-hero or antagonist character as straight anger! Unfortunately it’s something I’ve seen more than once with Javert’s Soliloquy in Les Miserables, and both in Les Mis and in Sweeney Todd it has the effect of robbing the audience of the natural pity and emotion they should be feeling for the character. In Norm Lewis’ case, it’s all the more frustrating because he has such a fine baritone that a sung-through take on the song would undoubtedly be impressive, and help with some of the acting issues I had with his performance.

Norm Lewis was the only thing in this fabulous Off-Broadway production that I was not wild about though. Alex Finke, who I loved in Les Miserables last year, is the kind of actress who can make even a somewhat shallowly written character, like ingenue Johanna, feel three-dimensional. Spirited and beautifully sung with a clear soprano, Finke’s Johanna was one I rooted for. More than any other actress I’ve seen perform this role, she portrays the fear and despair Johanna feels at being trapped in her situation.

It helps that Finke has such an able partner in Matt Doyle’s youthful and likable Anthony. Their chemistry is strong enough to overcome the slightly ridiculous idea of two people falling in love through a window, and I believed in their connection. Jamie Jackson was another standout as Judge Turpin, superb in voice and acting ability, and suitably creepy. An interesting choice is made to cast Pirelli as a woman, and in this case it works well.

The replica pie-shop set is small, but the staging is thoughtful, using both levels of the theatre, the shop’s counter area, a staircase, and the long bench seated tables where audience members sit to tell the tale. This space is used to the fullest, most ingeniously when the intermission is (politely) kicked out of their seats to the lobby during intermission so that the crew can make over Mrs. Lovett’s original rundown establishment into the spruced up, more popular pie shop it becomes as soon as a more abundant pie filling is decided upon by Lovett and Todd. Audience interaction is a factor here if you’re sitting on the main level, but it’s done in a way that’s entertaining, rather than over-the-top or unnecessary.

Sitting in the balcony seats on the upper level (all that was left when we purchased tickets) meant that I felt a little removed from the action, but the seats do offer an excellent view of the stage in the small Barrow Street Theatre. A note on the seats though: the balcony seats, at least for a woman of average height, are undoubtedly THE MOST UNCOMFORTABLE seats I have ever sat in for a show. Both me and the two women I saw the show with were not able to touch the ground from the high bench-seating, which forced us to brace our feet either on the bar under our seats or on part of the balcony railing in front of us, not exactly a comfortable way to see a show! I would go back and see this production again in a heartbeat if it were in a different theatre, but the seating experience was so painful that I’d think twice about returning to the pie-shop balcony. I have no idea whether the floor seats are more comfortable or not, but for those audience members who are short or who have disability issues, I can’t recommend sitting in the upper level.

The actors are accompanied by a three-piece on-stage orchestra, and vocally there is not a weak link among the cast. This makes Sondheim’s operatic score a treat to listen to. I’m sorry to have missed Jeremy Secomb, who originated the role of Sweeney Todd in this production and in the original London Tooting Arts Club show, but it’s still a strong production worth seeing… just beware of those balcony seats!

Sweeney Todd is booking into 2018 Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City.

Stage: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

TheGreatComet

Based on an excerpt of Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is inventive and energetic, an immersive spectacle of a show. Seeing The Great Comet is an experience. From the almost otherworldly and intimate design, which includes staircases enabling the cast to ascend to the mezzanine, making interaction with the audience at all levels of the theatre possible, to the interactive elements, which see cast members toss boxes of pierogis into the audience and hand out egg-shaped musical shakers to wave in time with the music, The Great Comet embraces its uniqueness.

Immersive theatre has been a growing trend of late, but in some cases it can seem forced or even cringe worthy. Not so with The Great Comet. Although the cast recording is wonderful, and has definitely been on repeat in my apartment this month, the design and immersive aspects are such an integral part of the show that it’s actually difficult to picture a stripped down concert version of the musical. The cast fully commit to their part in the performance, creating a euphoric atmosphere that the audience can’t help but get swept up in.

This genre-hopping musical, described by creator Dave Malloy as “an electropop opera”, is based on twenty-two chapters of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace covering Natasha Rostova’s affair with Anatole Kuragin while her finance Prince Andrey is away at the front. After a disastrous visit with her future in-laws, and missing Andrey, Natasha is pursued by the handsome and rakish Anatole, a conquest aided by Anatole’s sister Hélène. However, Hélène’s husband, Pierre who has been a friend of Natasha’s family for years, as well as Natasha’s closest friend, her cousin Sonya, decide to intervene.

Walking into the Imperial Theatre, I found it difficult to believe this was even the same place where I had seen Les Miserables only a year earlier. The stage has been extended and reconfigured into raised walkways around both pockets of musicians and audience members seated at cabaret-style tables. Even before the show begins, there is a lot to take in, such as the walls draped with red velvet and covered in pictures, and the stunning starburst chandeliers, suspended from the ceiling to create an effect that is nothing short of magical. The set and lighting design is complemented by the costumes (designed by Paloma Young), which range from the elegant nineteenth century period wear adorning the main characters to the steampunk-inspired costumes worn by the energetic ensemble and even glowstick covered ravers in one memorable scene. The design is exquisite, creating an aesthetic that belongs to Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 alone.

I absolutely loved watching Denee Benton. As Natasha, she conveys the character’s youth, as well as her vanity and desire to be liked. In the hands of a less capable actress, I think it would be easy to dismiss Natasha as flighty and foolish, but Benton is so damn charming, and her wide-eyed naivete so convincing, that I completely believed that everyone has always liked Natasha. Her soprano seems effortless, but packs a punch, and with multiple cast members (Oak, Amber Gray, and Grace Maclean in particular)  opting for a grittier and sometimes growly approach to their characters, her clear tone was a particular delight.

One standout for me was Ashley Pérez Flanagan, the understudy for Sonya, who was on in the performance I watched. Admittedly I went in unfamiliar with the cast recording and not knowing who songwriter Ingrid Michaelson (playing the role of Sonya in a special engagement) was, so I didn’t realize Pérez Flanagan was on until the performance ended, but I thought she was absolutely lovely and performed a beautiful soulful solo on friendship in “Sonya Alone”.

Seeing the show only a week after the casting controversy that embroiled the Broadway community, I was most curious about Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan as Pierre. Oak received an incredibly warm and well-deserved reception from the audience, including sustained and hearty applause following a moving rendition of “Dust and Ashes”. His Pierre was melancholic and self-pitying, and Onaodowan conveyed the character’s weariness with himself and with his life in a performance full of pathos. His voice may not be quite as clear as Josh Groban (who originated the role on Broadway and appears on the cast recording), it has more of an edge to it, but it’s strong, and suits the material extremely well. It’s a beautiful performance and I’m thrilled that I had the chance to see it.

Like everyone who sees this show, I also loved Lucas Steele as Anatole. The height of arrogance and vanity, his swagger is terrific and his tenor soars. This is really a show that highlights the entire cast though, and every actor, from the other featured roles to members of the ensemble, was enthusiastic and in the moment. It’s such an energetic show and must take so much to perform that I could envision a ‘The Great Comet Workout’ routine being a bit hit!

Although I loved my first (and sadly only) time visiting this eclectic take on nineteenth century Russia, I suspect Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is the kind of show that grows on you and gets better with each viewing. It’s a visual feast with so much to take in, and so many different seating options for the audience, that I imagine theatre-goers could have an entirely different experience across multiple visits, and I am so disappointed that I will never get the chance to fully appreciate this wonderfully weird show from new vantage points.

It’s never easy for a less traditional show to find its way on the Great White Way, particularly given the casting kerfuffle that occurred last month, but I’m devastated that Broadway is losing this unique show, and encourage anyone who can to get themselves to the Imperial before September 3rd to bid Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 a bittersweet goodbye.

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.