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!

Stage: The Virgin Trial

virgin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage: HMS Pinafore

Pinafore

Surprisingly the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s production of HMS Pinafore marks my introduction to Gilbert and Sullivan (although I have a DVD of Anthony Warlow in Penzance sitting on my shelf that I’ve been meaning to watch for years). Anxiously the friend I went with, a Gilbert and Sullivan fan from a young age, wondered how I would enjoy it, but I have to admit that I was never in much doubt. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which draws obvious inspiration from Victorian operetta, is one of my favourite musicals, and I adore Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which offers a similarly comic look at English social class structure and even has a plot twist involving a mix-up with a baby. Sure enough, I enjoyed Stratford’s vivid and witty production of HMS Pinafore, which features an excellent cast and a rather stunning set.

The visual appeal of this production is undeniable. The set, designed by Douglas Paraschuk, includes two swinging doors for entrances and exits, two levels, and an entire deck of a ship. It’s an impressive design with appropriate grandeur, that is complimented by vivid period costumes worn by Buttercup (Lisa Horner) and Josephine (Jennifer Ryder-Shaw).

The plot involves Captain Corcoran (Brad Ruby at this performance, the role is usually played by Steve Ross) intending to wed his daughter Josephine to the high-ranking, and much the elder, Sir Joseph Porter (Laurie Murdoch). Although the match would be an advantageous one for Josephine, she is already in love with lowly seaman Ralph Rackshaw (Mark Uhre).

The greatest strength of this production is its universally strong cast. Laurie Murdoch steals the show as Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, his performance including a popping of the cheeks tic, which is funnier than described, and an admirable ability to keep a straight face through the hijinks going on around him.

Other standouts are Jennifer Rider-Shaw, playing a winning Josephine with charm and a beautiful soprano, and Mark Uhre (recently of Les Miserables Broadway) as Ralph Rackshaw, who shows off comedic chops I didn’t know he had. His comic timing is excellent and he has a surprising gift for physical comedy, as well as a strong baritone that’s well suited to the score.

The performance I saw had a few understudies. Although it’s difficult to believe that anyone could dislike Marcus Nance, his Dick Deadeye was believably morose. It’s always nice to see Nance in a larger role, but I suspect this came at the expense of hearing his rich bass anchor “He is an Englishman” in his normal role as Bill Bobstay; the Boatswain’s Mate, and this loss was keenly felt.

Most of the issues I had with this show came from direction. The framing device of setting HMS Pinafore as a production being performed in a British estate hospital on New Year’s Eve during the First World War, was completely unnecessary and adds nothing to the show, particularly since it is never referred to during the production and comes back only briefly at the end. The constant movement of the piece does lend itself nicely to physical comedy and takes full advantage of the set, but at times the production feels busy and over-choreographed, as though no character is allowed to sit or stand still for more than a few seconds. At least for me, a Gilbert and Sullivan newcomer, it made it difficult to know who and what to look at and which actions and plot points were significant.

Still Pinafore, much like The Importance of Being Earnest, stands the test of time. More than a century later, it retains its wit to still amuse and enchant audiences with its gentle satire of social classes. It’s not a show that will make you think, but HMS Pinafore is a fun diversion well executed by a talented cast, and if you don’t walk out humming “He is an Englishman” you’re either remarkably immune to earworms, or you haven’t watched that particular episode of The West Wing nearly as much as I have. I look forward to seeing more Gilbert and Sullivan productions in the future.

HMS Pinafore plays until October 21, 2017 at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Avon Theatre.

Photo of Laurie Murdoch, Mark Uhre, Jennifer Rider-Shaw, and company by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Stage: A Streetcar Named Desire

Streetcar

Unsettling and intense, A Streetcar Named Desire, danced by the National Ballet of Canada in the work’s Canadian premiere, is a striking ballet that sticks with you long after the standing ovation ends.

Rather than a literal retelling of the acclaimed Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire is choreographer John Neumeier’s reaction to the thematic, emotional, dramatic and psychological realities that the play represents. He chooses to set the opening scenes of the ballet where the play ends, with Blanche DuBois in an asylum. The first act follows Blanche’s back-story, from her love for and marriage to a younger man, Allan Gray, her feelings of betrayal as she discovers him locking lips with another man, and Gray’s resulting suicide. Her devastation is hauntingly shown through the repetition of his suicide, the gunshot ringing out again and again in her mind.

As her home of Belle Reve falls into decay, Blanche follows her bolder sister Stella to the French Quarter of New Orleans and the second act more closely follows the story of the play. Out of place in the jazzy modern city, Blanche clashes with her sister’s rough husband Stanley Kowalski and although she is courted by his earnest friend Mitch, Blanche cannot escape her past.

The play is a perfect match for Neumeier’s dark and expressive choreography, which has the ability to convey emotional complexity. I’ve seen a few of Neumeier’s ballets before, most notably Nijinsky, my favourite ballet of all time, and each work seems to require its dancers to be especially strong actors in order to convey the emotional depth of the material. This quality makes Neumeier’s ballets an excellent fit for The National Ballet of Canada’s repertoire.

I was thrilled to hear that Sonia Rodriguez, in my view one of the most gifted dancer-actresses this universally talented company has to offer, would be dancing the role of Blanche DuBois on opening night. As Blanche, she is quite simply stunning, showing the fragility of a woman who can’t adapt to the changing world around her. From her opening scenes, where she trembles on the bed in an asylum, Rodriguez is vulnerable and expressive. She is matched by an excellent Guillaume Cote, as the rough Stanley Kowalski. A savage alpha-male, he beats his chest and engages in boxing matches (a change from the movie Stanley’s stationary love of poker to a hobby more dynamic and action-oriented). Despite this, Blanche is drawn to him, leading to the fateful rape scene, depicted with a brutal, unflinching, physicality.

The rest of the opening night cast was similarly strong. Jillian Vanstone is a lively, carefree presence as Stella, and although the character of Mitch doesn’t have a lot to do, Evan McKie makes the most of the role, giving a sympathetic portrayal of a man who genuinely cares for Blanche and is enraged when Stanley reveals the truth about her past.

There are just four leading roles, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Allan Gray, danced in the opening night cast by Skylar Campbell, had nearly, if not more, to do in the ballet than Mitch. Campbell’s duet with his friend, played by Francesco Gabriele Frola, was a highlight for me, as the choreography demonstrates the pull Gray feels towards the other man and his suppressed longing. Campbell is precise and expressive in the role, and reappears in the second act as a doppelganger newspaper boy who Blanche tries to seduce.

Like he did with Nijinsky, Neumeier chooses music that effectively intensifies the unnerving atmosphere of the work. Set to music by Prokofiev and by Alfred Schnittke, A Streetcare Named Desire has no live orchestra though, a decision that allows the stage to be extended over the pit and the action to take place closer to the audience. Although the loss of a live orchestra is felt, I think the choice works for Streetcar.

A Streetcar Named Desire is a very physical ballet, particularly for Stanley and for Blanche, who is thrown around the stage a great deal. In that respect it makes for an interesting contrast with Neumeier’s Nijinsky, where the male lead throws himself around the stage in a way that must leave bruises.

Personally, I not only enjoyed the inventive choreography and emotional intensity of the ballet, there were also several refreshing things to admire. The National Ballet of Canada has often focused, to a certain extent, on height-based casting, so the opportunity to see Evan McKie, one of the tallest dancers in the company, partner petite Sonia Rodriguez was a first for me. Although the height gap could look awkward, as McKie has to bend nearly in half to rest his head on her shoulder, I really enjoyed the opportunity to see these two gifted dancers duet.

A Streetcar Named Desire also presented the opportunity to see McKie play a role entirely different from the classical prince roles or, alternately, the characters who are quite frankly somewhat dickish (Onegin, Leontes) he has often played in the past. Although he dances these roles very well, it was a nice departure to watch him portray a slightly awkward sweet and earnest man.

And finally, kudos to the multi-talented Dylan Tedaldi, who shows off a fine singing voice (and to my untrained ear a pretty good southern accent!) with his rendition of Paper Moon.

I’ve never seen Tennessee Williams’ acclaimed 1947 play or even watched the movie. Beyond the famous STELLA! cry and Blanche’s famous final line, “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers”, I probably couldn’t tell you a single other thing about the play, so I certainly can’t comment on the ballet as an adaptation. I loved the National Ballet of Canada’s A Streetcar Named Desire though, and highly recommend it to those interested in an intense, emotional, but very beautiful night out at the ballet.

A Streetcar Named Desire is on stage until June 10, 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

Photo of Guillaume Cote and Sonia Rodriguez by Aleksandar Antonijevic.

Stage: Onegin

Onegin

“Oh dear father up in heaven, release us from boredom, oh dear father up in heaven send us a good time,” sing characters in the opening earworm song of Onegin, a new Canadian musical written by Amiel Gladstone & Veda Hille. The Musical Stage Company’s new production certainly succeeds in this goal, with a show that is inventive and fun. By presenting the nineteenth century source material in a contemporary way, they show that this classic tale’s exploration of love has relevance today.

The musical is based on Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse about bookish country girl Tatyana Larin, who falls for St. Petersburg dandy Evgeni Onegin. She declares her feelings for Onegin in a letter but he condescendingly rejects her advances. Later he is invited to Tatyana’s name day celebrations by his good friend Lensky, a hot-tempered poet who is engaged to Tatyana’s younger sister Olga. Bored at the celebrations, Onegin avenges himself by flirting and dancing with Olga. The display upsets Lensky and he challenges his former friend to a fateful duel.

While the novel has previously been adapted into an opera (Eugene Onegin, first performed in 1879 and also credited as an inspiration for this musical), I’m most familiar with it from the excellent John Cranko ballet (created for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1965).

Self-referential and interactive, Onegin involves its audience. The actors move among the audience, break the fourth wall (as Lensky says in the first number, “that’s right, I’m actually talking to you. It’s one of those shows”), and even use the first row as a postal service to deliver letters between parties. This could easily be taken too far, but in Onegin it adds to the fun atmosphere of the performance.

The gorgeous two-level set, created by Denyse Karn, is designed to resemble the old house full of books that Tatyana dreams about. Clever staging allows the space to transform with minimal adjustments so a folded white sheet becomes a snow covered dueling ground, and the remnants of a cup of tea become the spilled blood that follows a duel.

Comprised of a three-person on-stage band and a seven person cast, the ensemble is strong and sounds richer than you would expect from its small number. A shout-out to Shane Carty, who plays Prince Gremin and others and whose baritone gives the ensemble depth (and I’m not just saying that because he brought me a shot of vodka in my second viewing!).

Rare is the show where it’s not just one or two songs that stick with you, but most of the score. That was the indie-rock inspired Onegin for me. Standouts are “Let Me Die”, Tatyana’s solo about falling in love, Lensky’s moving “Olga Will You Weep”, sung the night before his duel with Onegin, and the earworm “Oh Dear Father” that opens the show. This is a score I would happily listen to over and over again.

The standout performance of the night comes from Hailey Gillis. Her Tatyana has a naive earnestness in the first act and is believably awkward and lovestruck in her interactions with Onegin. She matures in the second act into a confident young woman, capable of feeling her youthful passion for Onegin while realizing how poorly he treated her when she was an uncultured country girl and not a member of society. I never feel like I have enough superlatives to describe a Hailey Gillis performance and here, where she plays a character that she can really sink her teeth into, she shines, showing vulnerability and passion by turns. Her voice has a light, almost ethereal quality to it, that suits the score, and her acting is subtle with every choice feeling genuine. You can see the hope leave her eyes as Onegin turns Tatyana down.

The other standout is Josh Epstein, reprising his Jessie award winning role as Vladimir Lensky. Serving as a narrator of sorts for the show, his Lensky is both genial and passionate. Epstein seems the most comfortable with the self-referential style of the show, and his soaring tenor is a treat to listen to, especially in the moving night before the duel solo “Olga Will You Weep”. Even knowing how the story would play out, each time I wished that Lensky would reconcile with Onegin, not ready to say goodbye to the character.

There’s something almost intoxicating about Onegin for me. I first saw the show when it was still in previews and by intermission was planning a return. Shortly into the second viewing I realized that I had to see this one last time before it closed and have since bought tickets for a final performance. Needless to say, I love it.

As much as I enjoy this show though, I do have some critiques of the production. I’m so glad I went back for more because some of the issues I had when I saw Onegin in previews had been fixed, most noticeably, the cast have settled into their roles and are more comfortable with the style of the material. This is especially true of Daren A. Herbert, who played bored so well in the first act that the charming rakish young dandy didn’t always come across, and whose voice wasn’t always settled in the score. This time around he was a standout, incredibly charming from the get go, which meant that I felt sympathy for his Onegin even as I cheered Tatyana on. His voice was also stronger, finding the perfect balance between rough emotion and pitch.

There are still a few things that don’t work for me with this show, most notably the comic relief. Admittedly I’m not a huge fan of the comic relief song in musicals. I’d be perfectly happy to listen to Les Miserables without “Master of the House”, or Jesus Christ Superstar minus “Herod’s Song”. Onegin has two such songs designed to break the tension.  “Queen of Tonight” at least draws a few laughs from the audience, although I thought its placement interrupted the flow of the show a little, but the song about rules for dueling fell completely flat and could use some re-writing, particularly since any musical in the modern age with a song about dueling is going to draw comparisons to Hamilton and “Ten Duel Commandments” this song ain’t.

As a mostly sung-through musical, I also found the transitions between songs were sometimes rough and could use some smoothing over.

All in all, Onegin isn’t perfect yet, but it’s a promising new Canadian musical with one of the best scores I’ve heard and a universally strong cast. I’m sure the road for this musical, which will also be heading to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa this fall, and on a tour of Western Canada, is not over yet and I hope very much that it will one day lead this very deserving show to The Great White Way.

If you’re in the Toronto area, don’t miss the chance to see this wonderful show before it closes on Sunday!

Onegin plays until June 4th at the Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre.

Photo of Josh Epstein, Daren A. Herbert, Hailey Gillis by Racheal McCaig Photography

La Bohème: An Opera Newbie’s Thoughts

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Before Tuesday night I had been to a grand total of two-and-a-half operas, including an excellent and gorgeously sung production of Carmen, and half of a Don Giovanni best forgotten. With such limited experience of opera, I hesitated over whether I should write a review at all, but part of the magic of Against the Grain Theatre’s contemporary take on La Bohème is that it appeals to both opera newcomers and seasoned veterans alike.

I may not be qualified to comment on the technical aspects of this performance, such as how the English-translated libretto works compared to the original Italian, or on the vocal technique of the performers, but I can certainly discuss how the opera works as an introduction to opera newcomers, its timeless themes of friendship, love, and artists struggling to pay the rent, and the superb performances from a universally excellent cast.

This modern “transladaptation” of Puccini’s classic opera is set in present-day Toronto, sung in English, and takes place at a dive bar in the Annex (and yes, you can drink during the show!). Puccini’s characters and music are kept, with some minor updates (Rodolfo is a screenwriter, rather than a poet). The orchestration is stripped down to a solitary piano, but the simple accompaniment serves to highlight the strong voices in this well-rounded cast.

The opera opens with Rodolfo (Owen McCausland) and Marcello (Andrew Love)’s frigid apartment, as they burn sections of Rodolfo’s latest screenplay to stay warm. Joined by friends Colline and Schaunard (Micah Schroeder), who arrives bearing food and beer, they ply the shady landlord with liquor and send him away without the rent he demands. While the others head to the bar, Rodolfo stays behind to work on a script, but when a power outage strikes, he meets Mimi (Kimi Mc Laren), who is looking for someone to light her candle, and they fall in love.

Rarely have I seen a cast as strong as this one. From Kenneth Kellogg (as Colline)’s beautiful aria to his coat, to Owen McCausland (Rodolfo)’s strong tenor, which is particularly heartbreaking in his final tragic scenes with Mimi, there is not a weak link among them. Adanya Dunn is also captivating, introduced as a flirtatious, confident Musetta who does what she wants (including very nearly Marcello in a memorable scene on the bar!), she later shows a softer side as Musetta prays for Mimi to live.

The two standout performances of the night belong to Kimy Mc Laren and Andrew Love though.

Kimy Mc Laren is a wonderful Mimi. Her decline and death are incredibly affecting, aided no doubt by the fact that she imbues her character with a warmth and light that give the audience the impression that she is not just loved romantically by Rodolfo, but is also loved as a dear friend by the other artists, particularly Musetta and Marcello.

A fan of Andrew Love’s since his Les Miserables Toronto days, I was pleased but not at all surprised to see him steal every scene he’s in as Marcello. His characterization is nuanced, showing all of Marcello’s sides, from jealous suitor to clowning roommate, to grief-stricken friend, and it’s always a treat to hear Love’s gorgeous baritone again.

It would be easy for this adaptation of La Bohème to lean too heavily on the local setting, including references with a wink, but the subtler inclusion of details like a shot glass with a blue jays logo, and a casual reference to shopping on Bloor Street West, are just enough to set the scene and spark the thrill of recognition. Although less subtle, I also enjoyed the fact that Colline gets a job at BMV, a used bookstore located across the street that I frequent whenever I’m in the neighbourhood. Modern touches on the set and in the translated libretto add to the atmosphere, with the words, “I’ll text him” sung in a rich baritone drawing chuckles.

As a relative opera newcomer, I can’t imagine a better introduction to the art form than this one. Inventive and interactive (Musetta in particular wanders into the audience during the second act), La Bohème manages to be both laugh-out-loud funny and poignant by turns. The 1896 opera’s themes of struggling artists trying to make a living still carries weight in a world where millennials with four-year degrees struggle to find jobs in their field, and in a city where housing prices have skyrocketed. Its other themes of friendship and love are timeless. I highly recommend snagging rush tickets for this unique show if you can. I guarantee you will not regret it.

Finally, a shout out to the creative minds who came up with and designed the La Boheme faux newspaper that serves as the show’s programme, complete with articles, a headline (“The Rent is Too Damn High”), and a classifieds section. Given Toronto’s current housing market situation, the subject is timely. I particularly loved the listed requirements for renting an apartment in Toronto these days: “landlords now demand 10 post-dated cheques, first and last month’s rent, a cleaning deposit, a repair deposit (your landlord isn’t going to fix that thing on their own), a reference letter from all former employers going back five years, dental records, access to social media accounts, and, in some cases, a urine sample.”

La Bohème plays until June 2, 2017 at the Tranzac Club. The show is sold out for the rest of its run, but rush tickets are available for $35 cash only at the door for each performance.

Photo of Kimy Mc Laren and Owen McCausland by Nikola Novak

Stage: Spoon River

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Based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, a collection of short poems, this musical adaptation features the residents of a small town mid-west graveyard returning to share stories of their lives and deaths with curious passersby. By turns funny and moving, Spoon River serves as a celebration of life.

Inspired by immersive theatre, the audience arrives as mourners to a funeral. Instead of entering the theatre through its main doors, the audience walks down a hallway decorated with black-and-white photos and files past an open casket with a young woman in it. An usher in black historical costume expressed his condolences on our loss, and we file across the back of the stage (a series of tombstones that make up the cemetery), before being guided to our seats for the service. This unique entrance certainly adds to the atmosphere of the show, which begins, appropriately enough, with a eulogy.

As the preacher finishes his eulogy and leaves the graveyard, the various dead residents of Spoon River sing “The Hill”, the first of Masters’ poems set to music, a bluegrass theme about how in death all are equal. Throughout the show, some cast members double as musicians, accompanying on the fiddle, percussion, and brass instruments in a folk style that’s reminiscent of Once. The mixture of Americana, Appalachian folk tunes and gospel music is not outstanding or particularly memorable on its own, but it works to set the period and tone of the show and alternates nicely with scenes of spoken dialogue. Some of the songs work more effectively than others, particularly a quiet duet between a husband and wife who sing about being in love and growing old and dying together, the penultimate song where the young woman whose funeral opens the show sings a bittersweet goodbye to life, and the final earworm, that encourages us to live life to the fullest with lyrics like, “you will die no doubt, but die while living” and “is your soul alive? then let it feed.”

Spoon River is very much an ensemble piece. The play unfolds through a series of vignettes, and the actors play multiple characters over the course of the performance, appearing as an individual figure only briefly for a short monologue, scene, or song. These short appearances and the lack of an overall arc for the characters or the show offer little opportunity for standout performances, and mean that the ensemble must cohere.

Although more than half the cast has changed since I saw the production two years ago, I thought performances from the new cast members were strong and worked towards a cohesive whole, with one exception. A rare standout from Spoon River‘s 2015 run for me and the friend I attended with was Colin Palangio as an arsonist (since none of the character names are provided in the programme, we referred to him as “pyro guy” until we could look up the actor’s name). This time around, I believe the role was played by Daniel Williston and I didn’t find his performance nearly as engaging or charismatic. Williston chooses to growl rather than belt his main song and on the night I attended this meant that his vocals were not strong enough to be heard over the orchestra.

On the other hand, Hailey Gillis remains a standout as Bertie Hume, the deceased young woman whose funeral the audience (passersby) is attending. In a floral dress with tears rolling down her cheeks, she is an ethereal presence with a distinctive voice as she sings a farewell to life. Gillis has the sort of presence that makes anyone watching want to see more of her, and I’m very glad that she’ll be leading the cast of new musical Onegin performed by The Musical Stage Company in May.

This was my second time seeing Spoon River and while I still enjoyed it and found the show unique, for me it lost some of its charm this time around. I think the format of the show both helps and hurts it. The eulogies and decision to have actors play multiple characters in shorter cameo appearances makes Spoon River distinct from other musicals, but without time to get to know the characters and their stories, it’s difficult to feel any deep attachment to them. Soulpepper is also primarily a play company and although they have a cast of actors who can sing, it’s sometimes evident that this is not a company full of singers.

Personally I tend to prefer musicals with strong storytelling, with characters who you connect with deeply, and with gorgeous music. Spoon River doesn’t tick those boxes for me, but I do know devotees of the show who have been to see it upwards of five times, so it’s a musical where your mileage may vary. I think it’s a show that should be experienced once for the unique premise and take on small-town history, but whether or not you’re engaged enough to revisit this sleepy graveyard town of secrets after that, is up to you.

Spoon River plays until April 21st, 2017 at the Young Centre for Performing Arts in the Distillery District. You can also catch it this summer at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City.

Photo of the 2017 Spoon River Ensemble, by Cylla von Tiedemann