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!

 

 

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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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: Lear (Groundling Theatre Company)

Lear

Canadians pride themselves on being hardy, but already this winter is proving to be a difficult one, dumping large amounts of snow on us along with brutal subzero temperatures. In these kinds of conditions, it’s tempting to take up hibernation, but the Groundling Theatre Company’s female-fronted production of Lear makes it worth your while to leave the comforts of home.

As the second production of this play to feature a woman as Lear that I’ve seen in four months, I can’t help comparing the Groundling Theatre production to last summer’s take on a female Lear at Shakespeare in High Park. Viewing either production is enough to leave audiences ruminating over the greater meaning that can be wrung from the play simply by casting a woman as the lead. Taken together, the Groundling Theatre Company Lear and Canstage King Lear make an eloquent argument for casting a woman in the title role, if not exclusively than certainly more often.

Set in the 16th century, this summer’s CanStage production emphasized female leadership in a male-dominated world, offering fascinating commentary on how women are viewed by others, and how they choose to present themselves to inhabit traditionally male roles. Groundling Theatre’s Lear takes a more intimate approach, focusing on the relationships between mothers and daughters. Of course King Lear is very much a play about filial relationships, but this production places them at the forefront, as a mad Lear repeatedly assumes that Poor Tom’s poverty is because he has daughters. As director Graham Abbey writes in the program notes, viewing the tragedy through a maternal lens makes more poignant Lear’s reaction to perceived ingratitude. Watching a bitter female Lear curse Goneril’s womb to sterility is shocking, while the primal wails of a mother who has lost her beloved daughter in the play’s final scenes are devastating to witness.

The talented cast is composed of screen and stage veterans, including several members of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival company. Led by Seana McKenna, in a commanding performance as Lear, the diverse company excels. Mckenna’s Lear is blunt and precise in her interactions and dialogue. Her Lear is all sharpness and calculation except, as her fool points out, when it comes to her daughters. As her mind slips away, Lear’s edge dulls, revealing her underlying regret and tenderness. It’s a riveting performance to watch, although I’ll admit that I found Diana D’Aquila to be the more affecting Lear, in the Shakespeare in High Park production.

Jim Mezon is a steady and empathetic Gloucester, and Orphan Black‘s Kevin Hanchard is a marvelous Kent, demonstrating loyalty and steadfast devotion. Colin Mochrie, best known for his ongoing role on improv comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, may be the company member with the least Shakespeare experience, but he’s a good fit for the honest and wise fool, delivering his lines with perfect comic timing.

Lear’s elder daughters can often seem one-note, but Diana Donnelly and Deborah Hay are two of the stronger Regan and Gonerils I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. Hay is especially interesting to watch, as she invests her character with a measure of empathy. Her Goneril seems initially to be simply a daughter at her wit’s end with a parent who is increasingly exasperating and verbally abusive, but her resolve strengthens as a play goes on. I liked Mercedes Morris, in a subtler performance, as Cordelia too. Her devotion to Lear is evident in calmly expressed pleas of faithfulness, but Morris could use to project more, as her quiet voice was sometimes lost in the Harbourfront Centre Theatre.

In a memorably villainous turn, the towering Alex McCooeye is an affable Loki-esque figure as Edmund. Undoubtedly the dangerous and destructive black sheep of the family, he’s so damn charismatic you can’t take your eyes off him. His soliloquies feel like he is speaking directly to each member of the audience, and McCooeye admirably walks the line between comedy and drama, drawing laughs from the crowd when earned yet continuing to be a threat.

As his noble brother Edgar, Antoine Yared is likable in a solid performance. However, as more theatres take on Shakespeare’s classic plays with diverse and gender-swapped casting, it’s a bit of a shame to see Edgar repeatedly approached in such a traditional way. In my view of CanStage’s production I remarked on what a shame it was to see Edmund, the villain, queer-coded when Edgar could just as easily have been portrayed as a gay character. After the Groundling Theatre Co. production, my friend remarked on the inadvertent, but unfortunate, commentary made on women rulers, as all of the female characters are dead by the end of the play with only men left on stage as the lights come down. The solution she posited was casting Edgar as a woman too; Edith, if you will. It’s an idea that has a lot of merit, and I’d love to see a production of Lear that gives this a try.

This was my first Groundling Theatre Company show, but I gather clean, simple sets, and costumes that don’t correspond with any particular time or place are hallmarks of this emerging company. The minimalist but effective stage, which is constructed of interlocking monochrome blocks that can be rearranged to give the impression of doors, or a bed works well. There are some really lovely pieces of staging in here too. I loved the scene where Gloucester cannot see a letter proving Edgar’s treachery until he wears spectacles, and where the fool has an opportunity to showcase some tricks. However, I found the costuming, which draws upon everything from a formal waistcoat and cravat to infinity scarves, hoodies, and jeans, to be an oddly lazy choice that doesn’t serve to ground the play in any particular time and fails to create a cohesive vision.

I was more taken with the choice to include a live musician, percussionist Graham Hargrove. The percussion is largely understated, but adds vital tension as needed, and gives thundering voice to Lear’s infamous storm.

With a diverse and talented cast, Groundling Theatre Company’s production of Lear offers a nuanced portrayal of mother-daughter relationships, and commentary on the challenges of being a woman in a position of power. I have some minor complaints, for example I’d prefer that the costumes grounded a show in a particular time and/or place, and while I loved the percussion, it sometimes drowned out the actors in the storm scenes, but on the whole this is a thoughtful, well-acted, Lear that’s worth leaving the warmth of your home to see.

The Groundling Theatre Company production of Lear runs until January 28th at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre.

Photo of Mercedes Morris, Seana McKenna and Colin Mochrie, by Michael Cooper

Stage: Picture This

PictureThis

Based on a 1924 Hungarian play (The Battle of Waterloo by Melchior Lengyel), Soulpepper’s Picture This is an entertaining farce that serves up real laughs. Relying mostly on slapstick and physical comedy, it’s a play that manages to both feel fresh and act as an affectionate throwback to a different era of comedy. It’s not profound. In fact, I probably won’t remember much about this play a year from now, but Picture This is most definitely a fun night out that saves the best for last in a hilarious post-credits scene.

In a 1920s Hungarian hotel lobby, the concierge doesn’t answer the phone, the bell-hop never seems to carry any luggage, and the waitress passes by without taking drink orders. No, it’s not the worst hotel ever, directors, actors, and composers from the local film scene have temporarily taken jobs as staff in hopes of being noticed by major Hollywood director Red (Cliff Saunders), who is staying in the building.

At the heart of the play is Romberg (Jordan Pettle), a down-on-his luck local film producer who hopes to convince Red to make his next silent film at his film studio in Budapest for $5,000 American dollars – a fraction of what it would cost to produce in Hollywood. In on the plan is old flame Milli (Michelle Monteith), an actress posing as a cocktail waitress, who would star in the film.

The twist comes in the form of a misunderstanding. When Red runs into an old friend, Mr. Brown (David Storch), who also immigrated to the United States decades earlier, they immediately catch up. The film industry observers witness the meeting and assume Mr. Brown is a business associate of Red’s. In actuality, he runs a fur shop in Buffalo and is kept on a tight leash by his prudent wife, who has just left town for a few weeks. Left in charge of the exactly $5,000 in life savings he and his wife possess, and free from under his wife’s thumb, Mr. Brown is swayed by Milli’s flattering attentions and goes along with the plan to finance a movie in Budapest – just as long as it’s completed in two weeks (before his wife returns!).

The second act sees Romberg and the rest of the local film scene trying to cobble together an epic film with a limited budget and a short window in which to complete the project. Adding to the dysfunction is temperamental (and somewhat sleazy) lead actor Boleslav, who has been cast as Napoleon.

The set is quite frankly so stunning that it deserves its own paragraph. I mean, I would happily live on this set for the rest of my life! Designer Ken MacDonald outdoes himself, creating a turquoise, art-deco inspired hotel lobby that is elegant, yet playful. Featuring dark wood and a recurring pineapple motif, the set is so evocative that I lamented its loss when the lobby gave way to a film set for Act II.

The humour is generally strong, with a few gags, both verbal and physical, landing particularly well. I guffawed as Romberg pitches his idea for a film about The Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon, and his beloved Josephine. ‘Of course, where would Napoleon be without his noble horse?’ cries a clueless Milli. An accordion-playing gag and a scene where bad actor Hudascek (Gregory Prest) lurks outside a window with his headshot are also laugh out loud funny. While Prest is excellent in a minor role, generating laughs even without speaking, I was less impressed with the actor playing the writer character, who comes off very one-note as he repeats his frustration with the historical inaccuracies in the film.

The standout performances of the night come from Buffalo couple Mrs. and Mr Brown (David Storch and Brigitte Robinson, respectively) though. Storch is pitch perfect as the meek fur salesman. Jumping at the chance afforded by a case of mistaken identity to gain some autonomy over his life by emulating his powerful old friend Red, he is swept away by the grandeur of the plan and the excitement it brings to his mundane Buffalo existence. Brigitte Robinson is an excellent contrast, stealing every scene she’s in with a wry and commanding presence.

On the otherhand, while I enjoyed both Michelle Monteith (as Milli) and Jordan Pettle (as Romberg)’s performances on their own, I would have liked to see more of a connection between them. As a couple they’re sweet enough, but the chemistry never really fully ignites.

All in all, Soulpepper’s Picture This is an entertaining comedy that’s sure to please, and has the added benefit of the best ‘Exit, Pursued by a Bear’ I’ve seen since The National Ballet’s (excellent) production of The Winter’s Tale! It’s definitely worth checking out, especially in this day and age, where we could all use a few hours of escapism and a good laugh.

Picture This plays until October 7th, 2017 at the Young Centre for Performing Arts in the Distillery District.

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Stage: King Lear (Shakespeare in High Park)

Lear

Shakespeare in the Park feels like a summer rite of passage. Every major city has at least one seasonal production of the Bard’s works, performed in an outdoor theater under the stars, and Toronto is no exception. Celebrating its 35th anniversary this season, Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare in High Park is a local institution. So it may be surprising to learn that until this year I was a Shakespeare in High Park virgin!

I’ve lived in Toronto for five years now and I’m still slowly working my way through essential Toronto experiences. I’ve visited the Island, the Beaches, waited in line for instagramable food, trekked out to Scarborough to see the Bluffs, and visited the Christmas Market in the Distillery District. Shakespeare in High Park has always been on this to-do list, but it took a female-fronted production of King Lear for me to finally make it to a performance.

Canadian Stage sets Shakespeare in High Park’s Lear loosely in the 1600s, drawing inspiration from the reign of Elizabeth I, but its selling point is definitely the casting of a woman, stage veteran Diana D’Aquila, in the role of Lear. Her performance itself was transcendent, but the casting of a woman also allows this Lear to explore issues of what it means to be a powerful woman in a traditionally male-dominated role. Of note is the fact that, according to a director’s note, the play was originally approached with the thought that the audience would experience a female Lear in the context of a Hilary Clinton presidency. Instead, President Trump’s vision for the United States has brought misogyny in the Western World into sharper focus.

A female Lear allows for some fascinating commentary on how women are viewed by others, and how they choose to present themselves to inhabit traditionally male roles. Following in the example of Elizabeth I, Diane D’Aquila presents Lear as a once-powerful ruler in decline. Although I thought the opening scenes of the play, in which D’Aquila enters as a frail older woman in a white chemise and is dressed on stage, fitted into the black corset, hoop skirt, and ruffled high collar that show her to be a Queen, went on too long, I liked the concept and symbolism behind this ceremonial dressing.

Diane D’Aquila is the number one reason to watch this play. As Lear, she is captivating, portraying the mental decline of this once powerful woman, the anguish of loss and regret, and the tyrannical fits of fury expected from a woman who has never been denied in her life. At times she displays physical tics and tremors, as well as lapses in concentration that indicate a descent into senility, but these are subtle choices and never feel over-the-top. I couldn’t take my eyes off her whenever she was on stage, and I held my breath as she staggered into the audience, climbing the outside arena’s stairs into the storm. D’Aquila admirably balances fragility and strength in her portrayal of this ailing monarch and it’s an incredibly sympathetic performance.

This masterful performance is just one more reason why a female Lear is such an interesting choice. While King Lear is one of the greatest roles a classical male actor of a certain age will play, it’s that much more difficult for older women to be cast in leading, or at least major, roles. Seeing a woman take on Lear, and do so with such success, was incredibly powerful to witness.

King Lear is perhaps not the most well-known of Shakespeare’s tragedies – Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet are more commonly cited as favourites – but I adore this play. For those new to King Lear, the play tells the story of an aging monarch, who plans to divide her kingdom between her three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and her youngest and dearest daughter Cordelia. Before issuing them each a parcel of land, she demands a declaration of love and devotion. While the eldest daughters extol Lear’s virtues and are rewarded, Cordelia speaks honestly and is banished. Goneril and Regan soon reject their mother, casting her out into a raging storm. Meanwhile Edmund, a bastard son, schemes to supplant his half-brother Edgar as heir to their father’s earldom.

At the heart of the play is the fraught relationship between Lear and her daughter Cordelia. The last actress I saw play the role of Cordelia was inexplicably wooden, and it threw off the whole dynamic of an otherwise solid production. Fortunately Amelia Sargisson is an excellent Cordelia. She is honest and compassionate in the play’s early scenes, creating a character who is likable and wronged by Lear’s ego. A highlight of the play was seeing Cordelia appear on the second level of the set, backlit, and surrounded by billowing smoke. I had chills watching this armor dressed Cordelia, a sword in her raised hand, rallying her troops. Seeing this scene in a play where Lear is portrayed by a woman adds a feminist undertone to the story, and I loved that Cordelia had this grit and determination without losing her compassionate nature.

The other performances were generally solid, particularly the sarcastic Fool (Robert Clarke), and Earl of Gloucester (Jason Cadieux). I liked Michael Man’s Edgar, but in this shortened version of the play it felt like the “B” story, featuring Gloucester, Edgar, and Edmund, had less time devoted to it so we saw comparatively little of his Edgar.

My one complaint is with Edmund (Brett Dahl). I can’t say whether it was an actor’s choice or a case of direction gone wrong, but Dahl played Edmund as stereotypically gay, complete with a lisp and an inexplicable costuming choice where he was the only character wearing an open shirt (or no shirt at all!) for most of the night. I’m of two minds about the choice to play Edmund as homosexual. It does add an interesting element to the scenes between Goneril and Regan as they fight over Edmund’s nonexistent affections, because Edmund is all the more coldly calculating while he clearly plays the women for power/ambition. My problem with it is that the portrayal was just so over the top! Subtlety, thy name is not Edmund. There have been so many cases of the stereotypically gay or coded-as-gay villain in film and other mediums that it’s murky enough territory to wade into, but particularly with such an insensitive portrayal.

The costuming is also a little hit-and-miss. Shakespeare in High Park uses black-and-white costuming that melds the modern with the Elizabethan. This is most effective in Lear’s period black gown, which evokes Elizabeth I with her high ruff collar, and in the simple white chemise she wears underneath. I was less impressed by the more modern gowns worn by Goneril and Regan and the men’s costuming, which had a contemporary feel to it, despite the swords. Since Canadian Stage runs two Shakespeare productions in rep (this year Twelfth Night was the other play), set design has to work for both. This lead to a fairly sparse two level set, brought to life mostly by lighting (which I thought was well done) and a tall throne, which acts as an anchor for the production. The throne design is reminiscent both of a medieval torture device (there are straps for the ankles and wrists) and of the Iron Throne, an interesting commentary on the cost of power.

Some mixed results with the costumes and set and a portrayal of Edmund that didn’t work for me personally are minor complaints though in a production that feels so fresh and interesting. Diane D’Aquila’s performance alone was worth the trek to High Park, and there’s a lot here to admire, from a strong yet kind Cordelia, to the commentary on what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated role. This was my first trip to Shakespeare in High Park and if the quality is generally this high, it certainly won’t be my last.

King Lear
wrapped its summer run in High Park on September 3rd.

Photo of Jason Cadieux & Diane D’Aquila, by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Stage: Hamlet

Hamlet

Hamlet at The Public Theater in New York City has the odd distinction of being the funniest production of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy I have ever seen. Certainly Shakespeare’s work is often humorous, but with the possible exception of Polonius, the morose Dane isn’t usually a great source of comedy. Directed by Sam Gold, this production throws all that out the window to deliver a Hamlet that is comic, contemporary, and delivered in a way that feels accessible for Shakespeare fans and those less familiar with the Bard’s work alike.

Hamlet at the Public Theater is also the most #aesthetic performance I’ve seen of this play. A table covered with fresh cut flowers sets the scene, but the lighting choices as well, particularly in the ghost scenes, have a beauty all their own. The set is spare, consisting mainly of a metal table and chairs and a few props on a red carpeted stage, but it’s used effectively. Actors who are not actively involved in a scene often sit just off stage, but visible, on a carpeted stair at the back of the set. A just off-stage washroom, visible to the audience, is also used to great effect.

It’s a distinctly contemporary version of Hamlet. The actors wear modern-day dress, including Polonius in a business suit and Hamlet alternately in a hoodie or in a cozy sweater and a pair of briefs, the poison is delivered using a syringe, and lasagna features prominently in one scene. Yes, there is a lasagna splash zone! This has its pluses and minuses. The costuming isn’t particularly original, and the play removes some of the broader context of Hamlet, such as Fortinbras and the European political situation of the day, but the contemporary setting does lend itself better to physical comedy and it feels like a very accessible version of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

I’d be lying if I said the chance to see Oscar Isaac live on stage wasn’t the impetus for my most recent trip to New York City. First introduced to Mr. Isaac’s work through the most recent Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, I began working my way through his filmography (more of a feat than it sounds because I’m generally more of a TV viewer than a moviegoer). I marveled at his on-screen charisma and admired his ability to transform into completely different roles with conviction. When the news that he would be taking on the Dane in New York City broke, a friend and I quickly hatched vacation plans, egged on further by the knowledge that the new season of Broadway musicals featured exciting shows like Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 that we both wanted to see.

So, after all of this build-up how was Oscar Isaac’s Hamlet? His performance is every bit as good as expected. Isaac appears comfortable and at ease on stage, his charisma radiating throughout the theatre. His Hamlet is animated, seeing to teeter on the edge of madness throughout the play, and Isaac is adept at balancing low comedy (as he plays mad, Isaac’s Hamlet quite literally spends much of the play without pants) with soliloquies that are heartfelt and imbue the well-known text with meaning. He engages directly with the audience and is fully committed to a very physical performance that must be exhausting to perform each night.

The other standout of the evening was undoubtedly comedian Keegan Michael Key. Even before the performance began Key brought the laughs, giving a pre-show speech where he asked the audience not to plug-in their cellphones to a socket at the back of the stage during intermission. “You would think I wouldn’t have to say this,” Key said, “but it happened last night.” Personally, having skipped dinner before the nearly four hour show due to train delays back from Coney Island, by intermission the tray of lasagna still on stage was looking more interesting than the socket!

Keegan Michael Key’s portrayal of Horatio, much like this production of the play itself, relies heavily on physical comedy but it’s extremely effective at doing so. Key’s depiction of the murder of Gonzago in the play within a play scene not only had the audience laughing uproariously but also had his cast-mates struggling to keep straight faces! The rest of the cast is generally strong, especially Peter Friedman (Polonius) and Ritchie Coster (Claudius). Gayle Rankin certainly provides a unique take on Ophelia, as an angry, sarcastic young woman who doesn’t seem to have much of a connection with Hamlet at all, but I’m not certain it worked for me.

This production of Hamlet also acts as an effective ad for Dyson or other industrial cleaning products. By the end of the night the red carpeted stage is such a mess of fresh cut flowers, lasagna, and mud that I don’t envy the cleaning staff!

All in all, it’s a very good production of a play that, full disclosure, has never been a favourite of mine, but I think Hamlet at the Public would have benefited from a more cohesive vision overall. Running four hours, it also begins to feel a little long. Oscar Isaac’s performance would be worth the price of a ticket on its own though and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to see his energetic and charismatic take on the Dane live.

Hamlet plays until September 3rd at the Anspacher Theater of The Public Theater in New York City.

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!

Stage: The Virgin Trial

virgin

Some of the best theatre I saw earlier this year was on a whim, including the closing performance of Soulpepper’s Of Human Bondage (I scored a rush ticket), and The Last Wife, a Soulpepper remount of a Stratford play. Taking advantage of my 30 and under cheap ticket status, I went in knowing only that it was a contemporary feminist spin on the relationship between Henry VIII and his final wife, Catherine Parr. I walked out devoted to Maev Beatty, who played Parr, and determined to see the second part of this planned trilogy about the Tudor Queens when it premiered over the summer in Stratford. Several months and one long, but not uncomfortable, bus ride later, I’m happy to report that The Virgin Trial lived up to my anticipation. Intense, well-written, and exceptionally acted, it’s a worthy successor to The Last Wife, and left me salivating for part three. Full disclosure, I attended The Virgin Trial while it was still in previews and aspects of the show may have changed since the performance I saw.

Inspired by historical personages and events, The Virgin Trial is centered on the aftermath of Thomas (“Thom”) Seymour’s attempt to force his way into the rooms of young King Edward VI. Following his capture and arrest, fifteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth (“Bess”) is implicated and questioned about her role in the events, and about the nature of her relationship with Thom, her step-father and possible lover. Director Alan Dilworth keeps the tension running high and the audience on the edge of their seat, but the play really comes together in the second act, as we see more of the underestimated Bess’ guile that lies beneath her projected innocence.

Darker and more intense than its predecessor, The Virgin Trial‘s starkly modern set, and location in the small Stratford Studio Theatre with its an unusually steep rise, has a vaguely claustrophobic feeling, as though the audience is trapped in the interrogation room with Bess. Torture scenes take place behind a backlit semi-opaque curtain at the rear of the stage and are eerily reminiscent of images from Abu Ghraib. Although most of the present day scenes take place at a metal table, flashbacks to conversations Bess has had with Thom and with Mary add movement and colour into the space.

Bahia Watson is excellent as Bess, expertly capturing the point where girlhood and womanhood intersect. Under interrogation in the play’s present she proclaims her innocence of Thom’s scheme to break into Edward VI’s apartments at Hampton Court with a girlish vulnerability. However, through flashbacks to conversations with her attendants (Laura Condlln as governess Ashley and André Morin as Parry), Thom (Brad Hodder), and, in some of the play’s best scenes, her sister Mary (Sara Farb), Bess’ agile mind and guile is seen at work. Her role in Thom’s actions is slowly revealed as Bess matures and begins to shape her image through the persona of ‘virgin power’.

Some of the best fictional antagonists I’ve encountered are those who can turn on a dime from a genial person who seems to have values to someone who casually carries out acts of violence for his or her own purposes. Ted is one such antagonist, reassuring Bess that he will ensure that she receives a pot of tea while torturing her friends for information. It’s a chilling performance and Nigel Bennett is fabulous in the role.

The standout, however, is Sara Farb, in a smaller role this time around as she performs Juliet in repertory at the festival. Farb received entrance applause more than once at the performance I attended. Although I suspect this reflects her status as a beloved Stratford actress rather than her role in this particular play, she stole scenes as the acerbic, blunt, yet good-hearted Mary, who assists Bess when she needs it most.

Although audiences may get more out of The Virgin Trial if they’ve seen the companion play first, it can just as effectively be watched as a standalone piece. Playwright Kate Hennig’s dialogue is sharp and intelligent, skillfully using contemporary dialogue put in historical context to tell her story, a quality that is mirrored in the superb costuming. Modern dress is used, including business suits for Ted and Eleanor, but some outfits draw inspiration from the renaissance. Bess’ costumes are of particular note, as she initially wears a flowered dress, which is both tailored to her body and yet modestly girlish, and a symbolic white renaissance inspired gown as the end of the play as she reinvents herself as a virgin Princess who is actively in control of her image.

According to a 2016 interview playwright Kate Hennig gave to Timeline theatre, early drafts of the third play, Father’s Daughter, focus on Mary’s story as she becomes Queen of England, with Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey, the 9 days Queen, also playing large roles. I can’t wait to see the conclusion to this stunning trilogy, and hope very much that The Virgin Trial, a dark and thrilling piece of theatre, will be remounted at Soulpepper like its predecessor so I have the chance to see it once more.

The Virgin Trial
 
plays until September 30, 2017 at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Studio Theatre.

Photo (l-r) of André Morin (Parry), Nigel Bennett (Ted), Laura Condlln (Ashley), Yanna McIntosh (Eleanor), and Bahia Watson (Bess), by Cylla von Tiedemann.