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)

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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)

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: Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre

Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre breaks your heart and then puts it back together again. Deftly adapted for the stage by choreographer Cathy Marston and brought to life by a talented company, Jane Eyre is an overwhelming love story with a feminist slant.

Departing from the Charlotte Bronte novel on which it is based, Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre begins on the moors shortly after Jane has escaped from Thornfield. Jane fights off violent attempts by male ensemble members, who represent her inner demons, to cage her spirit, before she is found by St. John Rivers. The ballet then takes us back through Jane’s memories to her abusive childhood experiences in the Red Room and at Lowood before depicting her burgeoning romance with her mysterious and haunted employer, Mr. Rochester.

SETS, COSTUMES, & MUSIC

Perhaps partially because this is a touring production, the minimalist set design uses few props or furnishings, beyond several chairs, to set the scene, but the gothic atmosphere of the novel is effectively captured through low lighting and neutral-toned costumes. Pops of colour occur in the form of Jane’s pupil, Adele’s, girlish pink dress and Bertha’s red ragged gown, which mirrors the fire she will eventually set.

I can’t say that the score, compiled by Philip Feeney, made much of an impression on me one way or another. Although certainly appropriate for the ballet, it’s a score that didn’t stick with me, unlike some of the more memorable ballet scores, like those of Cranko’s Onegin (selections from Tchaikovsky) or Neumeier’s Nijinsky (music by Chopin, Rimsky-Korsokov, and Shostakovich).

CHOREOGRAPHY

Cathy Marston’s striking choreography uses classical ballet language, but with a contemporary edge. Adapting a first person narrative as internal as Jane Eyre into a medium that doesn’t use speech should be a challenge, but Marston makes the transition seem effortless. Arguably one of the greatest accomplishments of Jane Eyre is Jane’s narrative voice as she expresses a feminist desire for agency that still resonates today. Working from source material that offers little in the way of male characters, Marston cleverly uses members of the male ensemble as ‘D-Men’, who represent Jane’s inner demons. The eight D-Men surround Jane in moments of turmoil and she physically fights off their influence, retaining the novel’s early feminist themes.

Jane’s inner struggle to repress her passionate feelings is shown through a repeated symbolic gesture where the ballerina calms herself by pressing a horizontally-held hand down from her heart through her body. I was also struck by a moment with Jane and Rochester where they shake hands with the requisite formality, but the choreography has each dancer duck under the other’s hand and indicate how the handshake has inwardly affected them before they snap back to reality. How I wish Cathy Marston would lend her considerable talents to my beloved National Ballet of Canada!

I’ve seen some criticism that the ballet is quite dark which, if you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you’ll know is the opposite of a problem for me! I often like my ballet like I like my books – dark and painful – so I loved that about Jane Eyre. Some critics also found the structure confusing. Admittedly if I hadn’t read the synopsis and/or the novel first, I may have been confused by the D-Men, but having done so I thought this technique was quite a clever way of depicting an internal struggle in a medium that doesn’t use words.

PERFORMANCES

In this adaptation, Jane is danced by two different ballerinas. Antoinette Brooks-Daw portrays Young Jane, while Dreda Blow dances Jane as a young woman. Brooks-Daw is immensely sympathetic as the orphaned, maltreated younger heroine. Jane’s childhood is far from idyllic, but Brooks-Daw retains Jane’s characteristic strength of spirit throughout and shows plenty of fire when she retaliates against her cousin John’s [a wonderfully cruel Matthew Koon] physical abuse.

In a subtly affecting performance, Dreda Blow conveys Jane’s strength, intelligence, and the passion she tempers down. She simply breaks your heart along with Jane’s. More than any prior adaptation (yes, even the excellent BBC miniseries starring Toby Stephens) I understood Jane’s attraction to the enigmatic Mr. Rochester. From the moment Javier Torres appeared on stage, sprawling insolently into a chair and preventing Jane from leaving the room with an elegantly outstretched leg, I was captivated. Torres is magnetic, portraying Rochester’s irritability, arrogance, and yet his charisma. The chemistry between Jane and Rochester is palpable from their first meeting and only intensifies through a series of passionate pas-de-deuxs.

The minor characters are no less excellent. Rachel Gillespie is a buoyant, excitable presence as Adele, Pippa Moore is flightier, younger, and perhaps more comic than the housekeeper, Ms. Fairfax, of the novel, but was lovely to watch nonetheless, and Kiara Flavin imprints herself on our hearts as well as on Jane’s as Helen Burns.

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. Jane Eyre undoubtedly ranks among my favourite storytelling ballets, and should the company decide to revive it, I strongly urge even those who have never seen a ballet before to take a chance on it. I’m certain you won’t be disappointed.

Photo of Javier Torres and Dreda Blow by Caroline Holden.

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: 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: 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.