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.

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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: Sweeney Todd

Sweeney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

TheGreatComet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage: Bandstand

Bandstand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!