Saturday, January 30, 2010

NEWS ITEM: 30 Jan'10

Fresh Start for Shaw

30 Jan'10

Management at Niagara-On-The-Lake's Shaw Festival were no doubt in the mood to paint the town red yesterday with the news that, despite a grim start to their last season, they still finished the 2009 season in the black — with a little help from their friends.

At the end of the season, the Festival had not completely worked its way out of the hole into which the economic collapse had thrown it, having raised enough money through ticket sales and other sources that they would post a $1.4 million deficit on expenses of $24.10 million for the season. That loss would have brought the company's accumulated deficit to $3.1 million.

But thanks to a bequest of $3.1 million from a long time Shaw patron, the late Mona Campbell, both the season's deficit and the accumulated deficit have been wiped out, leaving The Shaw Festival to launch its 2010 season not only with a clean slates financially, but with with an endowment foundation that manages investments in the neighbourhood of $18 million.
30 Jan'10

Little House built with straw

Rating: 2 out of 5

You loved the book.

You loved the television series.

What you’ll make of the new musical cobbled from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s LITTLE HOUSE books is anybody’s guess. It depends on just what draws you to the theatre.

If it’s story, chances are Rachel Sheinkin’s book is going to disappoint, for although she marshals Wilder’s familiar, familial troops — saintly Ma and Pa Ingalls, their three loving daughters and a community of friends and neighbours — and puts them through their by-now-familiar paces as homesteaders on the American prairie, in the process she manages to turn their life into a homily-ridden pageant, instead of an involving family drama.

In fairness, she gets scant help from Rachel Portman’s music, and less than none from lyricist Donna Di Novelli — which means those looking for a hummable score are likely to discover that this isn’t their particular cup o’ sassafras.
Never thrilling, Di Novelli’s lyrics hit a low point in the first act in a number titled Make It Home, with a lot of nonsense about nailing the outside out, and the inside in — and rarely rise above that level for the duration.

Meanwhile, Michelle Lynch’s derivative choreography does little to enliven things, evoking not so much the spirit of the American West as memories of better musicals and better productions about the American pioneer experience.

If performances are what draw you to the theatre, then Little House at least offers a mixed bag.

As mother Caroline Ingalls, an all-growed-up and strident Melissa Gilbert returns to the LITTLE HOUSE she once occupied as young Laura in the TV series. In the process, she proves conclusively that Harvey Fierstein isn’t the only musical theatre actor in the world who can’t really sing.

Steve Blanchard, Alessa Neeck and Carly Rose Sonenclar do their best to bring life to the cardboard cutouts that are the saintly Charles, the saintly and long-suffering Mary and the timid and long-suffering Carrie. Their best fails to put grit into this piece of American blancmange.

On a more positive front, Kara Lindsay manages, against long odds and with a charming assist from Kevin Massey (cast as love interest Almanzo Wilder), to transform the pivotal role of Laura and her voyage to maturity into something not only three dimensional, but hugely likeable as well. Their success must be weighed off, too often, against Kate Loprest’s over-the-top and hugely self-satisfied turn as the obnoxious Nellie Oleson, a cartoon apparently in exile from Legally Blonde.

And finally, if it’s staging alone that draws you to the theatre, then you should know there are moments when director Francesca Zambello’s work delights, not with the technical pyrotechnics that mark many modern musicals, but rather with utterly elegant simplicity instead — a legacy, one suspects, of the thrust stage on which this production was formed.
But even here, there are mixed blessings.

For while Zambello et al conjure some thrilling horse races and sleigh rides out of little more than thin air, they also manage to ignore the few doors in Adrianne Lobel’s minimal set and walk through walls instead, blinded no doubt by the fact that lurid sunsets seem to last all day on this particular patch of the prairie.

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE is all a bit of a hit-and-miss affair, one that delighted some few of the Mirvish patrons at Thursday’s opening at the Canon Theatre.

But others, one suspects, were left like me, with a vision of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Lucy Maude Montgomery knocking back a few stiff ones in the sweet hereafter, driven to drink by musical theatre adaptations of their work that transform the humanity of their stories into little more than spun sugar.

At the Canon Theatre
Directed by Francesca Zambello

Friday, January 29, 2010

Rating: 3 out of 5

COC’s CARMEN too tawdry

29 Jan'10

In adapting a portion of Prosper Merimee’s novella to the operatic stage, composer Goerges Bizet and his collaborators, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, gave the modern world a prototype for the liberated woman.

She’s called CARMEN — and as sketched by Bizet, et al, in the opera of the same name, she’s a woman who knows what she wants and is prepared to go after it — rules be damned. She’s smart, she’s tough and she’s sexy as hell.

In other words, she’s an intimidating creature, which may account in no small part for the fact she has so often been painted in a long list of productions — most of them directed, perhaps not surprisingly, by men — as some sort of tawdry Gypsy tart.
Now, we can add the Canadian Opera Company’s latest revisiting of the work — this production opened Wednesday on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre — to that aforementioned list, featuring as it does a heroine with the soul not of a feral tigress, but of a table dancer instead.

To be certain, mezzo soprano Rinat Shaham sounds the part and even looks it as well — so much so that a few of Francois St-Aubin’s full-speed-ahead-and-watch-those-torpedoes costumes could most definitely be considered lily gilding.

But what director Justin Way fails to grasp in this wooden and too-often self-conscious staging is that, in much the same way as water never has to try to be wet, Carmen as written never has to try to be sexy. And in insisting Shaham wrap and writhe herself around poles and straddle chairs to seduce tenor Bryan Hymel’s lugubrious Don Jose and bass baritone Paul Gay’s wooden Escamillo, is a little like using an atom bomb to kill a mosquito.

This is kindling she’s trying to set aflame, after all, not a forest.

In fairness, Way and his entire cast are fighting an an uphill battle here, impeded by the production’s Latin-American, modern-dress design that speaks most loudly of a world of cheaply made B-movies. First off, it’s a setting that demands that a character shaped in the world and morals of 1875 inhabit a world a century on — a world where far more women have embraced Carmen’s egalitarian approach to things sexual, thus forcing her character further into trollop mode in order to stand out from the flock. Even worse, it’s a set that somehow manages to rob the opera’s most intimate scenes of their ardour, while at the same time making the crowd scenes feel like they’re all taking place on a packed rush-hour streetcar.Sadly, even the boldly abstract curtain that impressed in the production’s first outing had lost some of its impact in this opening-night performance, thanks to technical glitches that seemed to threaten to derail it.

Happily, there are a few highlights in a production that rarely rises above the pedestrian, not the least of which is soprano Jessica Muirhead’s achingly simple take on the peasant girl Micaela, whose world is torn apart by her beloved’s obsession with the Gypsy girl of title. Add some nice work from tenor Adam Luther and baritone Justin Welsh as a pair of smugglers, and from sopranos Teiya Kashahara and Lauren Segal as a pair of Gypsy maids, and it becomes an evening of memorable moments — particularly when backed by the COC Chorus, the Canadian Children’s Opera Company and the COC Orchestra, under the brisk baton of conductor Rory Macdonald.

Under Way’s direction, however, this Carmen is not a soaring story of a tragic heroine prepared to die for her independence, but rather just another tawdry tale of domestic abuse carried to reprehensible extremes.

At the Four Seasons Centre
Directed by Justin Way
Conducted by Rory Macdonald

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

CLOUD 9 is a golden comedy

28 Jan '10

TORONTO - Forget silver linings. CLOUD 9 — Caryl Churchill’s sexy ’70s gender-bending comedy — has moments that are truly golden.

Subtitled A COMEDY OF MULTIPLE ORGANISMS, CLOUD 9 — which opened in the Panasonic Theatre Tuesday under the Mirvish umbrella — is unlike most any piece of theatre we’ve seen.

Sprung perhaps from the same zeitgeist that informed George F. Walker’s BEYOND MOZAMBIQUE, it has been shaped, prodded and corseted into an often brilliant and witty commentary on the enduring nature of human passion and compassion, and the changing face of the morals and mores that govern them.

In a first act set in colonial Africa, Churchill offers up a madcap overview of the way we were, encapsulated in a single family living on the very edge of Victorian civilization, at the height of the empire.

Ruled by Clive, an insufferable bore played by David Jansen, that family includes wife Betty (Evan Buliung), son Edward (Ann-Marie MacDonald) and daughter Victoria (played, feminist tongue-in-cheek, by a ragdoll).

And while on the surface they represent the most proper of Victorian sensibilities, underneath they are a steaming caldron of rarely-repressed sensuality. Blair Williams (cast as a wandering adventurer), Megan Follows (double cast as a liberated widow and a repressed nurse) and Ben Carlson (as the faithful native retainer) serve as objects of distraction, while Yanna McIntosh’s unbending matriarch Maude looks on.

The second act is set in London, a century on. Many of the same characters, when they reappear, have aged only 25 years — underlining the fact that individuals and societies always change at different rates.

Betty (now played by MacDonald) is on the verge of leaving her husband, while daughter Victoria (now played by McIntosh) is married to a an updated version of her father (Williams) — but is drawn to a friendly lesbian (played by Follows), whose pre-school daughter (Jansen) is a bit of a handful.

Edward (now played by Buliung), meanwhile, has grown into a rather gay man, in love with the predatory Gerry (Carlson), who doesn’t like his sex mixed up with love.

It’s all Churchill’s longish way of saying that the human condition and the human hunger for love is immutable, but in her world getting there is considerably more than half the fun, especially with an A-list cast like this.

Under director Alisa Palmer, this is an evening filled with delicious moments — Williams as a rogue Rhodes, Carlson as a sexual coyote, Jansen as a pre-schooler, Buliung as the flower of Victorian femininity and MacDonald as grande dame lately come to self-pleasure.

Each moment is a tribute to Palmer’s vision, and each makes one wish she’d been able to maintain that vision, keeping her entire cast balanced on Churchill’s tightrope and not just individual players.

Instead, Palmer contents herself with having all her performers singing from the same song book, while failing to ensure they are all singing the same tune. Jansen’s overly self-aware pater familias sits over the first act like a shroud, while other performances on occasion fade in and out of character as though viewed through cheap glasses.

If Palmer had devoted a bit more time to shaping the kind of consistent approach a work like this demands — think Coward, with raunch — it would have been easier, perhaps, to overlook the minor pacing problems (and the clanger of a false ending) that make the first act seem overly long, as well as some of the emotional wool-gathering that mars the second.

But in the final appraisal, this is still a golden production — and, happily, beyond the footlights the difference between 10 carat and 18 carat rarely affects the sparkle.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010



26 Jan '10

For a Canadian art lover, it’s the pinnacle of a delicious ambivalence.

The theatre lover in you thrills at Ann-Marie MacDonald’s return to the dramatic stage in the Mirvish production of Caryl Churchill’s CLOUD 9, which opens Tuesday night at the Panasonic Theatre. If you’ve caught her performances in anything from GOODNIGHT DESDEMONA (GOOD MORNING JULIET) to TOP GIRL, you know she spends far too little time acting.

But even while the theatre lover celebrates, those craving another MacDonald novel such as FALL ON YOUR KNEES or THE WAY THE CROW FLIES to take the chill off a February evening, will rue the time the award-winning novelist will not be devoting to quill and quire.

And that doesn’t even touch on how the fans MacDonald has amassed as a playwright (the aforementioned GOOD NIGHT DESDEMONA, the recent Shaw Festival hit BELLE MORALE, A NATURAL HISTORY and several others) might feel. Or fans of her turn as host and narrator of CBC’s The Doc Zone.

So, just what does it take to get the multi-talented MacDonald to favour performing over her other skills?

Simply the right director. And the right director, as usual, is named Alisa Palmer — and not just because Palmer happens to be MacDonald’s wife and co-parent of the couple’s two children, aged five and seven.

“I love working with her” MacDonald says. “She’s an excellent director.”

Further, MacDonald trusts Palmer not to cast her in roles that won’t stretch her as an artist — but even so, it took her a bit of time to grasp the reasoning behind Palmer’s decision to cast her as both a nine-year-old boy and that boy’s 54-year-old mother in this highly unconventional play.

At first, the role of Edward — the nine-year-old boy — seemed a cakewalk to a woman who admits to being a bit of a tomboy in her youth, a woman who has recently embraced the sport of hockey whole-heartedly.

“The furthest thing for me wouldn’t be being a boy,” she says, adding that as a child, she’d compared her life to the boys around her, “and I thought: ‘Wow, if you’re a boy, you just strike a lot of problems off the list.’

“But a boy who’d rather be playing with dolls?” she continues, returning to the world of the play, “And he’s in love with men, and that proves to be an even longer walk for me.”

Then in the second act, MacDonald surrenders the role of Edward to Evan Buliung and herself becomes Betty, Edward’s 54-year-old mother, a role played by Buliung in the first act. And even though it might seem like a more natural fit to the 51-year-old actor, it’s not proved a perfect fusion either.

“I have a composite of Betty,” MacDonald says. “But there’s a danger there too — to do something facile. I’ve had a really hard time with her. I know how to do (the) Betty that is effervescent and pisses everybody off — but that is arch.”

So as she struggles with both, it’s hard to say which MacDonald favours.

“Being an adult, I’m saying Betty. But next week, it could be Edward,” she insists.

And while she juggles her parts, she is very aware of her co-stars — a sort of who’s-who of the Shaw and Stratford companies, with a touch of Soulpepper thrown in for spice — Buliung, Ben Carlson, Megan Follows, David Jansen, Yanna McIntosh and Blair Williams.

“I am very aware of being part of this cast, and of bringing as much to the cast as everyone else is and not letting them down,” MacDonald says. “I’ve got to keep up with them.”

Happily, she seems utterly unaware that a few of them, no doubt, are trying to keep up with her.

Monday, January 25, 2010

OPERA NEWS - 22 Jan '10


COC Premieres, new productions planned for 2010-11 season

22 Jan '10

  With a successful launch to his 2009-10 season under his belt, the Canadian Opera Company's general director Alexander Neef let patrons know Wednesday what he has planned for the company's 2010-11 season at the Four Seasons Centre.

At a news conference, Neef announced the seven operas that comprise the COC's 61st season -- including two new productions and two COC premieres, in addition to a trio of international productions long overdue for a Toronto showcase.

  The season kicks off with a new production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA, directed by Tim Albery and designed by Hildegard Bechtler (sets) and Jon Morrell (costumes). Sondra Radvanovsky and Michele Capalbo will share the title role, with Rasario La Spina cast as Radames.

   It will be paired in the fall season with Benjamin Britten's DEATH IN VENICE, a co-production of the Aldeburgh Festival Opera national de Lyon, Bregenz Festival and the Prague State Opera, directed by Yoshi Oida and conducted by Stuart Bedford, who conducted the work's world premiere.

The winter season launches with an all-new production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's THE MAGIC FLUTE, directed by Diane Paulus and designed by Myung Hee Cho. Michael Schade and Frederic Antoun will share the role of Tamino, with Isabel Bayrakdarian and Simone Osborne sharing the role of Pamina. A special performance featuring the COC's Ensemble Studio is slated for Feb. 17, 2011.

  THE MAGIC FLUTE will be paired with John Adams' acclaimed contemporary opera NIXON IN CHINA, directed by James Robinson and co-produced by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Chicago Opera Theatre, Opera Colorado, Houston Grand Opera,
Minnesota Opera and Portland Opera.

The spring 2011 season will open with a production of Gioacchino Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA that premiered at the Houston Grand Opera, and which has gone on to worldwide acclaim under the direction of Joan Font. It is paired with the Welsh National Opera's production of Richard Strauss' ARIADNE AUF NAXOS, featuring Richard Margison and Adrianne Pieczonka. The
Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Christoph Willibald Gluck's ORFEO ED EURIDICE, directed by our own Robert Carsen, and featuring Lawrence Zazzo and Isabel Bayrakdarian, rounds out the season.
   And while current economic conditions and the realities of opera production mean that seat prices will remain high, Neef also announced a new initiative that will gladden the hearts of opera lovers whose budgets don't match their tastes.

   In addition to the 200 tickets that are available at a reduced cost to the under-30 set, beginning in the 2010-11 season 50 standing-room spaces will be offered for every COC performance at a cost of only $12 per ticket, including all taxes.

    And speaking of taxes, with the HST slated to kick in May 1, COC board president Paul Spafford used Wednesday's news conference as a platform to remind current patrons to renew before that date, in order to avoid the new tax.



Sunday, January 24, 2010

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Creature discomforts

22 Jan '10

If Hollywood were to tell the story of playwright Judith Thompson's career so far, Wednesday's opening of SUCH CREATURES in the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace might have provided a dream ending.

Theatre Passe Muraille, after all, is where Thompson exploded onto the Toronto theatre scene 30 years ago with her first play, CRACKWALKER. Now, after three decades on a roller coaster of hits and misses, it is to Passe Muraille she has returned, no doubt hoping to build on the international success of PALACE OF THE END by adding another sparkling hit to a crown whose lustre has been dulled by a few too many rhinestones over the years.

But, as usual, there's a gap between the kind of happy endings and new beginnings Hollywood serves up, and the kind featured in real life. And while there are brief flashes of Thompson's artistry scattered throughout the play, SUCH CREATURES fails finally to coalesce into a meaningful theatrical experience.

As she did in PALACE AT THE END, Thompson once more sets out to explore the theatrical monologue. But whereas PALACE featured three distinct, separate voices, CREATURES contents itself with only two, upping the ante by inter-weaving them for a final effect that remains largely obscure despite the best efforts of the cast, director Brian Quirt and, finally, apparently even the playwright.

The first of CREATURES' two voices belongs to young Bernadette, also known as Blandy, a tough and troubled young woman fighting to navigate and survive both the mean streets of Toronto and the meaner halls of its schools in one of its rougher areas.

As Blandy, Michaela Washburn does everything in her considerable power to give her her character authenticity. But she is constantly tripped up by a playwright who fails to trust her audience enough and who insists, instead, on laying out Blandy's vulnerability on a platter, rather than allowing it to blossom slowly on its own. Although she tries mightily to master the cadences of teenage alienation, the voice Thompson has created for Blandy rarely rings true, sounding for all the world like it's been filtered through a middle class consciousness to remove not just the profanity, but the rough edges as well.

The second voice belongs to Sorele, played here by Maria Vacratsis.

A survivor of the Nazis' relentless death machine, and fighting cancer for the third time in her long life, Sorele has returned to Poland and the death camp she survived, in the hope that in reliving the huge horrors and the minor triumphs she endured there, she can find the courage for one more fight.

Rooted in real life, Sorele's tale demands to be presented with simple human dignity and honesty but, under Thompson's hand, it is so overwritten that it is transformed into something tailored far more for the eye than the mouth or ear.

As a result, not even an actress of Vacratsis' considerable skill can make the words her own

To the naked eye and heart, what ties these two disparate women together, of course, is their courage in the face of adversity. And while Thompson seems to acknowledge that in passing, she tries to link them as well through a shared love of the language of Shakespeare - a language ironically bowdlerized here from THE TEMPEST to give the play its title.

In Blandy's case, her passion for Romeo's words, believable as it may be, seems terribly contrived, while in Sorele's it is strangely incidental, seemingly imposed as an excuse to use the aforementioned title.

Instead of affording Thompson a triumphal return to the stages of TPM, SUCH CREATURES simply underlines the fact that as a playwright, she has lost her way more than a few times in her 30-year career, and returning to a theatre is not the same as finding your way home.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Rating: 2 out of 5

Casting mars 'Macbeth Reflected'

21 Jan '10

TORONTO - Many of us grew up in a world where mothers continually assured us that anything worth doing was worth doing well.

Apparently that axiom has now morphed into something more akin to “Anything worth doing is worth doing — well, at least, we tried.”

Case, in point: Theatre Jones Roy’s presentation of Macbeth Reflected that opened at the Lower Ossington Theatre on Tuesday.

As the title might imply, this is a work that tries to look at Shakespeare’s immortal ‘Scottish play’ from a different perspective — in this case, from inside the marriage between Lord and Lady Macbeth. Theirs was a marriage of love and ambition that has fascinated Shakespeare’s fans on both sides of the footlights since the play’s first performance more than 400 years ago.

To accomplish this, adaptor (or adapting playwright, as he styles himself) and director Thomas Morgan Jones has mined Shakespeare’s text for dialogue to create a portrait of the Macbeth marriage, occasionally appropriating lines and rearranging story — presumably to make his particular take on the refocused tale all the more compelling.

In order to reinforce the whole notion of a peek inside the private lives of his characters, Jones keeps his cast to a minimum, relying on the sound design of Thomas Ryder Payne and the lighting of David DeGrow to flesh out what’s left of Shakespeare’s tale in this 45-minute, modern dress take-out.

With the weird sisters transformed into theatrical aurora borealis, and the middleman eliminated in the death of Banquo, it’s a small but interesting concept. It’s as worthy an experiment in its way as, say, setting the whole shebang in Africa and killing off the title character with a shovel.

So, more’s the pity that it is almost impossible to tell how successful the experiment has been — because of Jones’ casting.

Now, in fairness, it must stated that John Ng has done some impressive work on local stages, while Mary Ashton’s bio would suggest she has been equally impressive further afield.

But when it comes to the formidable challenges every actor must face when tackling Shakespearean verse, these two — cast as Lord and Lady M, respectively — are simply not up to the task. And sadly, in truncating the play, Jones has further underlined their weaknesses by giving them no opportunity to play to other strengths.

He glowers.

She struts.

And they both make a hash of the text.

One is left that with the unfortunate impression that if this couple were to follow the story to the end of Shakespeare’s play, Birnam Wood would not in fact come to Dunsinane, as the Bard decreed, but rather would inexplicably show up somewhere in the area of Wisteria Lane.

This isn’t the worst indignity that has been visited on Shakespeare and, as usual, he wins. Macbeth Reflected doesn’t reflect badly on him, but it sure doesn’t look that good on Theatre Jones Roy.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

THEATRE REVIEW: La COMUNION 16 Jan'10 Rating: 3 out of 5

Playwright half right
Pizano too content to tell of horrors of war at expense of audience feeling those horrors

16 Jan '10

TORONTO - In her latest work, La Comunion, playwright Beatriz Pizano sets herself tasks that, upon reflection, make the labours Hercules faced seem like a cakewalk.

In creating a work to complete a trilogy that also includes For Sale and Madre, Pizano returned to her native Colombia and opened up her heart to stories that would surely make a statue weep, centred as they are around the lives and deaths of Colombia's child soldiers -- young children recruited and heartlessly transformed into all-but-mindless lethal weapons, who are then aimed squarely at the hearts of all who oppose their masters.

To collect those stories, Pizano and her team worked with an array of Colombian youth, some survivors of the ongoing conflicts of the nation's half century of violent unrest, others at risk of being drawn into it.

But that was just the start.

Having collected those stories, each and every one of them no doubt a heartbreaker, Pizano then set herself the task of distilling all of them into a single play -- a play that would not only bring those stories to a wider world here in Canada but would also honour the trust those children had placed in the playwright.

La Comunion, the product of all that labour, opened on the stage of Buddies in Bad Times Thursday, a production of Aluna Theatre.

And it certainly honours the children who put their trust and their stories in Pizano's hands. If it accomplishes nothing else, La Comunion opens windows into worlds and horrors that were heretofore unimaginable, and while it may only briefly make us a little less comfortable in our comfortable world, it's almost certain to make us a little more grateful for that comfort.

But during its 21/2-hour span, it also opens up a debate on the obligations of the playwright.

The obligation that Pizano and her collaborators obviously feel to those tragic children is easy to understand, but what's harder to understand is the proper way to meet those obligations.

Certainly, in sharing their stories, those children placed an obligation on Pizano's team, but in the final analysis, the playwright's primary obligation is to her audience, which must not only be informed by those stories, but engaged, even immersed in them as well -- and La Comunion, for all its strengths, spends too much time and effort on the former and not nearly enough on the latter.

At its heart, La Comunion is really the story of a single child -- the young Magdalena (Zarrin Darnell-Martin) who, at age 11, trades deprivation and abuse in her village for soldiering and is soon immersed in its horror. But memories of her past linger, and after a friendship develops between her and one of her colleagues, Magdalena -- now known as Pantera -- begins to question the "truths" with which she has been indoctrinated.

When disaster finally separates her from her unit, Magdalena ends up in Canada and only then finds the courage to face her past and contemplate the future that has been scarred by it.

While Pizano, who also directs, has assembled a fine cast -- Micheline Calvert, Carlos Gonzalez-Vio, Rosa Laborde and Michel Polak to name a few -- and backed them up with strong technical support -- Trevor Schwellnus simple set is gorgeous, his sometimes muddy lighting a little less so -- she's too often content to tell us (sometimes repeatedly) of the horror, rather than making us feel it.

And finally, that was her final task -- one that could only be achieved, one suspects, by putting her obligation to her audience ahead of her obligation to her subjects, which is, in the end, the best way for a playwright to honour both.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

THEATRE REVIEW: RENT 15 Jan'10 Rating: 4 out of 5

Rent has lost some of its edge

15 Jan'10

TORONTO - Anyone who's ever been lucky enough to compare the vistas afforded by the Laurentian Mountains to those offered by the Rocky Mountains can tell you that time and erosion can be a mixed blessing.

For even while the older, more eroded Laurentians -- trimmed and rounded as they are to a more human level by time and its travails -- offer a more human perspective, in the process they've lost the awe-inspiring, larger-than-life majesty of the upstart Rockies, wrenched more recently from the bedrock.

In theatre, it seems, things erode more quickly with works taking on new shapes in mere months, years or decades instead of the millennia required to turn a majestic mountain into a picturesque hill.

Which leads us, a little sadly, to Rent, the monumental musical that burst onto the scene back in 1996, just as the last century was winding down and taking a millennium with it.

Written by the late Jonathan Larson (who collected a passel of posthumous but richly deserved awards for his work) and inspired by the enduring romance of Puccini's La Boheme, it tells the story of a group of young would-be artists, living from hand to mouth on the very edges of what passes for civilized New York as the 20th century draws to a close and homelessness, avarice and HIV threaten all that is familiar to them.

Filled with youth, vitality and anger, not to mention an entire rainbow of sexual tastes, Rent seemed to speak to the hearts of a new generation of theatre fans who gleefully embraced its rock 'n' roll credo of "No day but today" with a passion, both in its New York production and its subsequent Toronto staging.

And now it's back in what amounts to a valedictory tour, a tour that, among other things, reunites two of the original cast members -- Adam Pascal as rocker Roger Davis and Anthony Rapp as narrator/filmmaker Mark Cohen.

Rent opened a limited run at the Canon Theatre Wednesday night as part of the ongoing Mirvish season.

And while the 14 years that have passed since they first tackled the roles sit pretty lightly on the two leads, all things considered, the production itself, still under the stewardship of director Michael Greif, has been ground down to a point where it has lost some of its majestic, even thrilling edge and affords a more scenic tour from the middle-class middle of the road.

Despite the life and death milieu in which he has set them, it's almost as if Larson's latter-day Bohemians have given up any notion of making art or changing the world and are now content to work on audition pieces that will hopefully earn them a slot on American Idol.

So, while the majority of the singing passes muster (although Pascal seemed to struggle vocally on opening night) what's missing is the passion that used to crackle through Rent like an open flame.

Pascal's Roger and his Mimi (Lexi Lawson) do an adequate job on the hormonal stuff, but fall more than a trifle short on the vulnerability front, while Nicolette Hart's Maureen and Merle Dandridge's Joanne spend a lot of time making strange.

But where the passion really comes up short is in the love story between Michael McElroy's Tom Collins and Justin Johnston's Angel. Whether through ineptness or a misdirected concern for how it might play in the provinces, they've been allowed (encouraged?) to transform the love story that was the very real heart of Rent into a buddies-with-benefits kind of thing that fails to touch the heart the way it should.

In the process, they've robbed this monumental show of several of its untamed emotional peaks and substituted a gently rolling landscape in its place.

It's still an impressive view, mind you, but unless you were lucky enough to catch it in an earlier incarnation, you'll have to use your imagination to have any idea of the heights to which it used to soar.

Taking it to the Next Stage

12 Jan'10

To promote this year's edition of the Next Stage Theatre Festival - an offspring of Toronto's annual summer Fringe Festival - organizers have come up with a clever marketing slogan that brags "January is the new July."

And while patrons at the ongoing theatrical extravaganza this past weekend had occasion to mutter a frosty "If only" into the scarves wrapped tightly around their throats and faces, the truth of the matter is, while the organizers never successfully make it feel a whole lot like summer, they do succeed in making it feel a whole lot like Fringe.

Which is a good thing for a festival that takes a total of eight shows developed on the summer Fringe circuit and gives them a chance to kick things up a notch with a winter run.

Herewith, the high points and the low for the current Next Stage Festival, running at the Factory Theatre and the Factory Studio through next weekend.


Like Father, Like Son? Sorry: Writer/performer Chris Gibbs shows up on stage looking like an unmade bed and immediately launches himself into a verbal freefall that keeps his audience riveted (and often greatly amused) for the next 75 minutes. But his portrayal of a naif who's wandered on stage by accident and doesn't know what to do next is all part of the act, and as he 'stumbles' through subjects as diverse as fatherhood and near-death experiences in New Zealand, it's increasingly easy to understand why this show was a Patron's Pick at the 2009 Fringe.

Just East of Broadway: It seems that everybody who decides to do a musical Fringe show figures out pretty early on that the way to make it work is to keep it small. Sadly, most of them, including writer/composers Nicholas Hune-Brown and Ben King and director Jordan Merkur, fail to realize there is a major difference between small and petty. Bad enough that their whole premise of a broken down Broadway star finding redemption in back water Communist China is silly and cliche ridden, but they further weigh it down by encouraging their otherwise game and sometimes talented cast to take all terribly seriously.

The Red Queen Effect: Director Kelly Straughan and her ensemble seem to have struck gold with an idea for a modern take on Lewis Carroll's classic Alice in Wonderland, wherein the heroine of title makes a voyage not through a looking glass but rather through a glass ceiling. Monica Dottor is an effective Alice, while Melissa-Jane Shaw is memorable (if underused) as the Red Queen, while Ted Hallett, Dylan Scott Smith, Aurora Brown, Nicholas Campbell (yes, that Nicholas Campbell) and a host of others round out the ensemble. While we're not sure just where there is, it is safe to say that while they may not be there yet, they're on their way.

Buried: Death, mourning and family secrets have been woven into an apparently heartfelt but nonetheless lacklustre script by playwright Tessa King, all of which has been turned over to director Andrew Lamb, who apparently has no idea at all where to take it. So he throws up his hands and turns it over to a cast that includes Christine Brubaker, Ian D. Clark, Rosemary Dunsmore and Fiona Highet, in the hope that these impressive artists will make him and the playwright look good.
But because they are actors and not miracle workers, they don't.


Quite Frankly: Under the direction of Jonno Katz, playwright/performer Justin Sage-Passant takes us on a remarkable tour of an utterly unremarkable life, namely that of the
sad-sack Frank of title - a man whose gormless childhood has morphed into a gormless adulthood spent caring for his failing mother and being the butt of jokes in the small British town he calls home. With Sage-Passant playing a host of characters, it is all deeply sad and riotously funny by turn, ranking as a must-see for anyone who appreciates fine acting and storytelling. Quite frankly, this just might be the best of the current Next Stage lot.

The Making of St. Jerome: The tragic death of Jeffrey Reodica, already featured in an earlier Next Stage work, has inspired yet another dramatic exploration,, this one authored by
Marie Beath Badian and directed by Nina Lee Aquino. Working with a committed but uneven cast of five, Aquino uses movement and choral speech to level the playing field, allowing The Making of St. Jerome to emerge not as a vehicle weighted down with polemic and politics, but rather as an abiding, even touching, testament of personal loss.

Gas: In his latest foray onto the stages of this festival, playwright/director Jason Maghanoy sets his sights on American soldiers in Iraq charged with transporting shipments of petrol necessary to keep the country running. It's a job particularlly rife with danger, and in exploring the psychological effects of living with death as a constant companion, Maghanoy and a committed cast prove once again that war is hell. But if they don't find much new to say, they still manage to say it well, thanks to solid performances from the likes of Kevin Walker, Marc Senior and Sabryn Rock.

Icarus Redux: Playwright/performer/director Sean O'Neill has brought together a lot of talent for this, his revisiting of the story of Icarus, the lad who, as legend has it, with his father's connivance managed to fly so close to the sun that his wings self-destructed, plunging him to his death. But in the end, despite all the hard work and the good intentions behind it, his examination of grief, incontinence, puppets and the paternal penis fails to take wing under the weight of all the pretension, proving at least that you don't have to get off the ground to fall flat on your face.


8 Jan '10

Citing popular demand, impresario David Mirvish announced yesterday that the touring production of Fiddler On The Roof that played the Canon Theatre last December has been
booked for a return engagement.

Fiddler, still starring Harvey Fierstein in the role of Tevya, will return to the Canon for one week only, June 8 through 13. Tickets for this limited engagement are available at 416-872-1212.

THEATRE REVIEW - COURAGEOUS - 8 Jan'10 Rating: 4.5 out of 5

'Courageous' look at relationships

8 Jan'10

TORONTO - Shaped by scores of Hollywood movies, most of our perceptions of courage are framed in sweeping terms -- lives risked and lost in defence of others or of precious ideals and that sort of thing.

But now, playwright Michael Healey offers a look at courage from a distinctive and uniquely Canadian point of view: A less obtrusive courage that shapes the daily lives of mere mortals, the kind of ordinary men and women who might only rarely catch the eye of a Hollywood producer.

It's called Courageous, and it opened in its world premiere on the Tarragon mainstage Wednesday in a co-production with Edmonton's Citadel Theatre.

And it is, in its way, a courageous play -- and not just because it ignores the established template for an evening of theatre.

Indeed, that it is really two distinct one-act plays, separated by an intermission and only tentatively joined by a common thread, is a function, one suspects, more of Healey's rumpled but endearing intellectualism than of any deep-rooted conviction.

Where the courage comes is in his decision as a heterosexual male to tackle the still thorny issues of same-sex marriage in the first half of the play

And we do mean thorny, for Healey sidesteps the conventional gay-vs.-straight POV that has heretofore marked public discourse on the subject in favour of a more homocentric point of view.

Brian, a high-octane legal type played by Patrick Galligan, wants to marry Martin (Tom Rooney) but when they show up early for their appointment at City Hall, the only one available to perform the service is Tom (Tom Barnett), a self-effacing fellow who puts the 'civil' in civil servant.

But even though Tom is gay and involved in a long- term relationship with Arthur (Maurice Dean Wint,) he is opposed to same-sex marriage on religious grounds and refuses to unite Brian and Martin.

It is a scenario that constantly threatens to tip into the predictable, but Healey and director Richard Rose handle it all like a pair of seasoned matadors, sidestepping the cliches to mine heretofore unexplored depths of comedy and compassion in a debate that for many, both gay and straight, has dragged on too long.

In the second act, Healey turns to a more conventional union -- the marriage of young Todd (Brandon McGibbon) and Tammy (Erin McKinnon) -- a young couple Tom united without reservation in the first act.

A pair of almost stereotypical slackers, they are stumbling under the unaccustomed weight of parenthood, and, while they can't catch a break, it seems their refugee neighbour (essayed by Wint, cast once again as the outsider) is all but drowning in them.

Rounded out by Melissa MacPherson, this is a first-rate cast, beautifully marshaled by director Rose on a wonderfully adaptable set created by David Boechler and lit by Andrea Lundy.

But beautifully calibrated performances from McGibbon, Galligan, Wint and the others notwithstanding, the true star of this show is Healey, who combines a keen observational eye and a finely honed wit with a love of the English language that is as dazzling as it is rare.

Finally is Healey's vision and words that make us fall in love with every single one of these characters and underscores finally that a courageous act is rarely one big thing, but rather a collection of small ones that suddenly acquire critical mass.

And without preaching, flag waving or anything even remotely resembling xenophobia, he makes us realize that Canada is just such a collection of small acts.

And that to dream of something as ephemeral as equality and justice is the ultimate act of courage.
THEATRE REVIEW - VIRTUOSITY - 7 Jan '10 Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Virtuosity turns out to be an empty threat

John Coulbourn - QMI Agency
7 Jan '10

The Bluma Appel Theatre
Starring: The ensemble
Director: Vivian Reed

Like promises, threats aren’t worth a hill of beans unless there’s a bit of follow through involved.

And while the publicity for Virtuosity: A Celebration of Song and Dance boasts that all of its performers are triple threats, the show itself gives the assembled cast but scant opportunity to prove it.

The brainchild of Vivian Reed, whose two Tony nominations were scored back in the last century, Virtuousity opened a blessedly limited run Tuesday in its world premiere on the stage of the Bluma Appel Theatre.

Now, for those of you who took a pass on the CBC series Triple Sensation, a triple threat, theatrically speaking, is not rooted in some sort of arcane mob mythology but rather simply a term used to define a performer who is equally adept at singing, dancing and acting and can therefore meet the performance demands of virtually anything that might be thrown at them. And the problem here is not so much in how Carleigh Bettiol, Angela Brydon, Austin Owen, Destan Owens and Jay Staten handle what Reed and her collaborators throw at them but rather in what it is that is thrown — a sad-ass collection of mostly forgettable songs, rendered even more lacklustre by the musical arrangements, the choreography, the costuming and the staging with which they are embroidered.

And the worst of these is, quite frankly, the staging.

For, while Reggie Ray’s costumes (featuring an overabundance of sleepwear) and Michael Carnahan’s sets (rudimentary geometry gone bizarrely awry) might be masked by better showings from the combined choreographic team of Leslie Dockery, Keisa Parrish and Roumel Reaux (much of whose works would be right at home at Filmore’s) and the musical arrangements of musical director Atsushi Tokuya, nothing can disguise the deficiencies in Reed’s staging.

In her theatrical world, it seems, Virtuousity’s every song, whether it be her own rendition of Verdi’s Pace, Pace Mio Dio through to the staging of her own compositions like I Love Him Still, demands to be cocooned within a vignette that gives the performer a completely unneccessary licence to sing and dance. A true triple threat — think Brent Carver, Chilina Kennedy, Louise Pitre or even the late Bea Arthur — creates reason to sing, dance and act simply by opening his or her mouth.

Happily, there are occasional numbers that survive Reed’s misdirected ministrations — her own rather overwrought performance of Billie Holiday’s God Bless the Child and an anthemic rendition of another overwrought Reed composition titled Woman — but for the most part, they run the gamut from the banal to the outright ridiculous, from the trite barfly take on There’s More to Makin’ Love through the bizarrely bedazzled hounds of hell unleashed during the misguided Pace, Pace.

Virtuosity lacks even the virtue of being truly bad — proving conclusively that even with a range of singing, acting and dancing talent, nothing trumps utterly forgettable.

So in the end the most threatening thing about Virtuousity is the boredom that constantly threatens to overwhelm the show at nearly every turn, all of which means that, at the very least, there should be no problems at the border when these threats head home to roost and embark on the American leg of their tour.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010



Dora winner updates her You Fancy Yourself one-woman show for new staging

28 Dec 09

If Thomas Wolfe had a hit show to help break the ice, he might not have been so quick to assure the world that you can't go home again.

Certainly when Maja Ardal decided to revisit her childhood home in Edinburgh, having a little gem like You Fancy Yourself to take with her proved to be a bit of a boon.

You Fancy Yourself, you might recall, is a one-woman show that earned Ardal, who also wrote it, a Dora Award for best performance last year. It tells the story of Elsa, a young girl who, at age four, finds herself transplanted from her Icelandic home to the tenements of Edinburgh and promptly sets about making herself a home. It's a story with which she is intimately familiar, for Elsa is not merely a good yarn given flesh, but the yarn of personal memory, knitted up into a cozy piece of theatre, giving insight into the playwright's own experiences of growing up in the Scottish capital.

In its premiere in Theatre Passe Muraille's intimate Backspace, YFY not surprisingly won the hearts of both critics and audience -- serving to launch a bit of a Canadian tour, which included a stop in Prince Edward Island -- before Ardal and Elsa headed back to Edinburgh just in time for the 2009 edition of the Edinburgh Fringe.

And if Ardal had any concerns about how a hometown crowd would respond to her theatrical woman child, they were soon put to rest.

"My first audience had a lot of Edinburgh school chums that came out of my past and a lot of Icelandic chums," she recalls, now back on Canadian terra firma. "I found it very difficult not to spend the entire performance crying."

Happily, not only did that opening-night audience love the show, "but they became my best ambassadors," Ardal reports.

Not that she needed a lot of help spreading the word, it turned out, for Scottish critics loved the show as well, launching Ardal on a mini-tour for two weeks in England, arranged by TPM's sister company in Farnham, before she headed home.

"Believe it or not, the English seemed to like it even more," Ardal reports gleefully. "They certainly laughed harder. They don't have the Scottish reserve."

After all of that, it would be understandable -- sad, but understandable -- if Ardal were to put Elsa out to theatrical pasture and start looking for more mature roles.

But no, not only is she preparing to bring You Fancy Yourself back to the Passe Muraille mainstage, where it is slated to open on Jan. 5, she's also prepared a sequel entitled Beatles, Bombs and Getting Groovy that's ready for its first performance -- all of which represents a lot of Elsa.

"You know who keeps me fresh?" she asks. "The audiences. They give me back the emotion."

As for the physical demands of the show, well, they're pretty impressive too, according to the 60-year-old performer.

"It keeps me fit," she insists. "At this age, one tends to spread laterally and I have to have good aerobics."

As for the vocal demands, her voice, she says, has never been better. "I have to be in constant vocal training," she explains.

"I suspect I may be the oldest actress in Canada playing the youngest role," she continues. "If someone else had written this play, they would have never hired me to play it."

And while she's looking forward to the day when another performer tackles the role -- Ardal would love to trade places with director Mary Francis Moore at some point -- she's nowhere near ready to let go of the role of the loveably bratty Elsa herself.

"This little brat is incredible," she says with obvious and profound fondness. "I have my little play that could."

She's also starting to realize, it seems, that wherever Elsa is, she's at home.


NEWS FEATURE - 27 Dec 09


27 Dec 09

It's an ill wind that blows no good, they say -- and for once, it looks like maybe they were spot on the money.

Consider: Even while television's tremendously successful Corner Gas was running out of steam, Toronto theatre fans were reaping some unexpected benefits from its demise, welcoming actor Eric Peterson back to the stages on which he cut his teeth.

So it was that last year closed with memories still fresh of Peterson's compelling turn in Festen. Happily, those memories didn't even have time to fade before Peterson was back burning up Toronto stages, in shows such as Glengarry Glen Ross, Of The Fields, Lately and Hamlet, commanding our attention in a series of demanding roles.

On top of all that impressive work, the true centrepiece of Peterson's theatrical year had to be his return to Billy Bishop Goes To War, a seminal Canadian musical he co-created with collaborator John Gray more than three decades ago.

In his triumphant return to Billy Bishop, Peterson proved that, like fine wine, he simply gets better with age -- and in the process earned his place as Toronto's performing artist of the year.

And while the revitalized Billy Bishop certainly ranks as one of the year's top 10 theatrical memories to treasure, here are another nine, in no particular order.

1. Robert Lepage

Tough to say whether it was his theatrical marathon Lipsynch, or his operatic aquatic masterpiece The Nightingale And Other Short Fables (floated by the Canadian Opera Company) that impressed the most. We'll lump the two together, under his name.

2 & 3. The Canadian Opera Company

In addition to the aforementioned The Nightingale, the COC gave us a few other memorable evenings as well, not the least of which was a stellar production of Simon Boccanegra and a timeless Madama Butterfly that, despite its age, seems tailor-made for the stage of the Four Seasons. And those were just the highnotes.

4. Toronto The Good

Lots of theatre pieces have a lot to say about race relations, but Andrew Moodie's latest undertook a compelling look at the state of race relations and hit the nail squarely on its head in a near flawless production at the Factory Theatre, directed by Philip Akin.

5 & 6. Two Stratford productions

While The Stratford Festival seems to have lost its way when it comes to the world of old Bill Shakespeare, they still came up golden in two superb productions this summer -- a breathtaking revival of West Side Story (in which choreographer Sergio Trujillo seemed to drench Jerome Robbins' original choreography with testosterone and set it alight) and a delicious revisiting of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, not only directed by Brian Bedford but starring him as Lady Bracknell as well. Bedford pulled it off in spades, despite the fact that cross-casting this role is getting to be a bit of -- how should I put this -- a major drag.

7. The Shaw Festival

While productions of In Good King Charles' Golden Days and Born Yesterday were good, It was the festival's intimate staging of Moon For The Misbegotten that claimed top place in our memory banks. It made us grateful not only for directors such as Joe Ziegler and actors such as Jim Mezon, but for the kind of visionary programming that brings them together on a project like this.

8. The National Ballet of Canada

Historically, it seems, it is the full-length-story ballets that sell out for Canada's top purveyors of quality classical ballet, but a few more evenings which feature potent programming like the mix of The Four Temperaments, Watch her and Glass Pieces would ensure that their evenings of mixed programming would become the hottest ticket in town.

9. Martin loves Shirley

During his time at the head of Canadian Stage, erstwhile artistic producer Martin Bragg's programming sometimes left us scratching our heads. But reuniting Nicola Cavendish with Shirley Valentine on the Bluma Appel Stage was little short of inspired.


NEWS FEATURE - 16 Dec 09

Rock of Ages cast found

16 Dec 09

After a continent-wide talent search, producers of the forthcoming Canadian production of Rock of Ages, slated to begin previews at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in late April, ended up finding what they wantred pretty close to home, it seems.

There are, in fact, some very familiar names in limited casting announced yesterday by Mirvish Entertainment for the forthcoming production.

Elicia MacKenzie, for instance, is certain to be a familiar face to the legion of fans she earned while starring in The Sound of Music, while Yvan Pedneault will be equally familiar to fans of We Will Rock You and most recently, Ross Petty's annual Christmas panto, where he's appeared as one of Robin Hood's rocking sidekicks.

David W. Keeley, meanwhile is a popular actor, with major cred on both the musical and classical stages, having appeared in everything from Hamlet to Mamma Mia! Stage stalwarts Peter Delwick and Victor Young round out yesterday's announcement.


NEWS FEATURE - 15 Dec 09

Mirvish picks up Funny Thing

15 Dec 09

The Stratford Festival's production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which played the stage of the Avon Theatre this past summer, has been picked up by Mirvish Entertainment to play as part of their 2010/11 subscription season, it was announced yesterday.

Featuring music by Stephen Sondheim and directed by Des McAnuff, Stratford's production of Forum played to mixed dreviews, with Stratford regular Bruce Dow originally starring in the role of the slave Pseudolus, around whom the story pivots.

Dow was forced to withdraw part way through the run for health reasons, h owever, and was replaced by funnyman Sean Cullen for the remainder of the season.

Casting for the Mirvish run has not been finalized.


THEATRE REVIEW - FIDDLER ON THE ROOF - 13 Dec 09 Rating: 4 out of 5

Tradition upheld
Broadway vet Harvey Fierstein and Fiddler's Tevye make a near perfect match

13 Dec 09

At this time of year, it seems, tradition is something we all understand, regardless of little things like race and creed and colour.

Which makes Fiddler on the Roof, in its way, the perfect musical for the season -- regardless of little things like race and creed and colour.

Because, in adapting Sholem Aleichem's stories of a group of Jewish peasants in the Russian village of Anatevka to the musical stage, Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick managed to pull off something in the nature of a minor miracle, remaining touchingly true to the Orthodox roots of their story while at the same time giving it a spin that makes it enduringly universal.

And happily, it's all yours, Toronto, just in time for the holidays.

A touring production of director Sammy Dallas Bayes' Tony Award-winning revival of Fiddler set up shop at the Canon Theatre this past week, where it opened yesterday, as part of the ongoing Mirvish season.

It was, of course, the production that initially was to have starred Chaim Topol, recreating on stage the role that earned him an Oscar nomination when the movie was released.

But just over a month ago Topol was forced to withdraw from the production, clearing the way for Broadway's own Harvey Fierstein to return to a role he'd made his own on the Broadway stage.

With Toronto the first stop on Fierstein's Fiddler tour, he's lost no time settling into the role of Tevye, an impoverished and hard-working dairy man in the time of the Czars. A simple man, with a huge heart and a simple faith, Tevye is the patriarch of a family that includes not only his long-suffering wife Golde (Susan Cella), but five daughters as well, each one of whom will have to be married off.

And happily, according to tradition, Yente, the village matchmaker, played by Mary Stout, has been hard at work, arranging a union for his eldest, Tzeitel (Rena Strober) with the widowed village butcher (David Brummel).

Tzeitel, for her part, has other ideas, however, having fallen in love with the impoverished tailor, Motel (Erick Liberman).

Having already promised his daughter to one man, Tevye finds a way, in his tradition, to give her to another, setting a precedent that gets more and more complicated as each of his daughters falls in love, the second (Jamie Davis) with a student revolutionary (Colby Foytik) and the third (Deborah Grausman) with a Russian boy from the village (Eric Van Tielen).

And while Tevye's home life spins dangerously out of control, life in the broader world is taking a few sharp turns as well -- and the carefully balanced life that Tevye has made, juggling family, community and religion, threatens to topple into chaos.

It's a powerful story about the making of Americans, for all that, under Bayes' direction, it is awash in sentimentality, with Fierstein and the rest of the cast playing far too broadly to the humour of the tale and paying only scant lip service to the pathos with which it is so carefully balanced.

But if it is a production short of grit, it is undeniably long on charm, despite the fact that while some people might have accused Fierstein of being a singer, no one to date has been able to make the accusation stick. Ultimately, Fierstein makes Rex Harrison sound like an operatic tenor, but few can deny that his heart is in the right place, and heart is what counts here.

Because, thanks to the enduring magic of Stein's book, Bock's tunes, Harnick's lyrics and the amazing vision of director Jerome Robbins, on whose vision this production is based, it's a show that still packs a wallop.

When it comes to tradition, a show, over-sentimentalized though it may be, is still a
mitzvah any time of year.


DANCE REVIEW - THE NUTCRACKER, NBOC - 12 Dec 09 Rating: 5 out of 5

Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker is a holiday treat for all ages

12 Dec 09

The smell of a roasting turkey, the moon glinting off new-fallen snow, the taste of fresh-baked shortbread, the mystery of lovingly wrapped parcels -- just a few of the things that make this a season to treasure.

But truly, nothing says 'Christmas' with such persuasively magical power as the combination of the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and the look of wonder on the face of an enthralled child.

Of course, few things brings those last two things together with more effect than the National Ballet of Canada, with their annual Christmas presentation of The Nutcracker.

And for those who find they're needing a little Christmas in their lives as December bears down on us -- and, frankly who, doesn't? -- the good news is, the NBOC's annual production of The Nutcracker opened yesterday at the Four Seasons Centre, where it is slated to run through Jan. 3.

It is, of course, a timeless story full of the kind of familiar quirky elements that have, over the years, become firmly entrenched in our Christmas tradition: duelling siblings, danced this year by Megan Storm Hill as Marie and Sebastian Lecomte as Misha; a memorable party for extended family and friends; a magical uncle full of tricks (Noah Long once again tackles the role of Uncle Nikolai with no small success) and finally a wonderful gift that whisks us all away to a magical kingdom ruled over by a beautiful queen -- and few are more beautiful than Sonia Rodriguez floating through the role the Sugar Plum Fairy.

But while the story may be familiar, there is something about the potent magic cooked up in 1995 by choreographer James Kudelka and designer Santo Loquasto, that makes it all seem new and vibrant and wondrously magical, year after year after year -- a feast for the senses, filled with enough wonder that there is something certain to delight audiences of any age and any taste.

For the young and the young at heart, there's the magic -- roller-skating bears and dancing horses and a midnight battle where everyone is fighting like cats and dogs, including the mice.

For the romantic, there's the passion that springs up between the Nutcracker, who just happens to bear a striking resemblance to Peter the Stableboy, both danced by Aleksandar Antonijevic, and the aforementioned Sugar Plum Fairy, after they've all arrived in her magical kingdom and seen her Faberge home.

For those who simply want to be charmed, there's charm aplenty in the array of darling lambs and dancing bees and prancing unicorns with which the story is larded. For those who want beauty, there is the timeless opulence of Czarist Russia, perfectly captured in Loquasto's scarlet and gold designs -- the perfect foil to the richness of Tchaikovsky's music, served up with verve every year, it seems, by the NBOC Orchestra, this year once again under conductor David Briskin.

And finally for those who love dance, there is, first and foremost, Kudelka's enchanted choreography, which runs the gamut from the delightful to the breath-taking, showcasing as it does both the developing talents in the students (drawn from the National Ballet School and a host of others) and the mature and towering talents that are the artists of the National Ballet of Canada.

Firmly anchored by Antonijevic and Rodriguez, the company not only boasts seasoned performers like Victoria Bertram, returning once again to the roles of Baba and the Empress Dowager, but dancers like Long and Tanya Howard (cast as the Snow Queen and teamed with Nan Wang and Brett van Sickle) who are the ever-shifting backbone of Canada's pre-eminent classical company.

It's Christmas, all tied up in a package to treasure.


THEATRE REVIEW - CIVIL ELEGIES - 12 Dec 09 Rating: 4 out of 5

Civil Elegies a poetic reflection

12 Dec 09

TORONTO - From Shakespeare to the works of Leonard Cohen, poetry has been used to add spice to theatre since theatre first began.

And based on the latest offering from Soulpepper, it's a safe bet that things poetical will continue to find their way onto theatrical stages for the foreseeable future as well.

It's called Civil Elegies, named for a collection of poems authored by Torontonian Dennis Lee, some 40 years ago, long before he earned recognition among the younger set (and those who love them) for works like Alligator Pie.

Apparently, this show got its start a decade or so ago, when a young theatre artist named Mike Ross took a few of Lee's adult verses from Elegies and started noodling with them, setting them to music -- an effort he continued as he matured, relocated from his Prince Edward Island home to Toronto and became professionally involved with Soulpepper as a participant in its inaugural Academy program.

And it was at Soulpepper, not surprisingly, that his work with Lee's poems caught the attention of artistic director Albert Schultz, who teamed up with Ross and scenic artist Lorenzo Savoini to turn Lee's poems and Ross's tunes into an evening of theatre.

A pretty memorable evening of theatre too, based on Tuesday's opening at the Young Centre.

It begins as the lights come up on a derelict stage, littered with old set pieces and a baby grand piano, prominently placed.

As those lights come up, Ross, cast as the troubadour poet, makes a casual, somewhat harried entrance, juggling coffee and a jelly doughnut, both of which will play their part in the evening ahead.

He takes his place at the piano, juggles a few papers and begins to play.

For the next hour, not a word will come out of his mouth, either spoken or written, that was not authored by Lee.

But as he ranges through Lee's poems, riffing on everything from skyscrapers to the MacKenzie Rebellion to Tom Thomson, a sense of time and place begins to emerge.

This is Toronto in the mid-'60s -- a city at the centre of a country obsessed with the determination to redefine itself and chart a course for the future in a world that sees its people as little more than hewers of wood and drawers of water. Through Lee's poetry and his own music, Ross opens a magical window into Toronto's past and present (much of Elegies is framed by the then-new space that is Nathan Phillips Square and an ode to the ill-fated Spadina Expressway figures prominently), flirting with eerie prescience along the way.

As a singer, Ross draws more from passion than from any deep-rooted vocal technique, one suspects, and it is largely thanks to his diffident, winsome charm and his source material that his audience is able to overlook the unfortunate balance his sound engineer has struck between his amplified voice and the piano he plays.

Meanwhile Savoini's video projections fade in and out of the background, at times illuminating the poetry, as often underscoring it with such a heavy hand that one suspects this designer has absolutely no faith in the imagination of his audience. That suspicion is underscored, in fact, by the use of a live overhead projection that occasionally delights but more often feels -- with its all-but-illegible script on a too-small screen -- like it's been used simply because it was available, not because it adds depth and texture to the evening.

Happily, thanks to Lee's powerful verse and Ross' aforementioned charm, it is an evening that doesn't require much in the way of added depth and texture -- although with the current amplification, a bit of help with the diction wouldn't hurt.


OBITUARY - 10 Dec 09

Shaw veteran Goldie Semple dies

10 Dec 09

The Canadian theatre world today mourns the passing of one of the Shaw Festival's most-beloved leading ladies, the elegant Goldie Semple.

Semple, 56, died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. She is survived by her husband of more than 30 years, Lorne Kennedy, also a veteran of the Shaw stage and by their daughter Madeline.

Semple recently completed her 17th season at the Shaw that saw her earn critical acclaim for her comic turns in multiple roles in Brief Encounters, the first three one-act plays in Noel Coward's Tonight at 8:30 series, but fans of the Shaw Festival will also remember her in more serious fare as well, in everything from Sondheim's A Little Night Music to J.B. Priestley's Eden End.

At the Stratford Festival, earlier in her career, she proved her mettle in roles ranging from Cleopatra in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra through Maggie the Cat in Tennessee Williams' Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.

Funeral arrangements are not yet available.




9 Dec 09

It was the birth of a millennium, and theatre lovers were full of dreams.

Dreams that Toronto could continue to play a vibrant, vital role in the international commercial theatre community, despite Garth Drabinsky's fall from grace; that the fledgling Soulpepper Theatre Company would somehow become Toronto's version of Chicago's Steppenwolf Company; that vibrant productions of the work of William Shakespeare would once again be the cornerstone of the Stratford Festival, rather than the perfunctory affairs they had become.

Dreams that we would all somehow live long enough to see Canadian plays by Canadian playwrights at the Shaw Festival; that World Stage would not only thrive but survive in the absence of major sponsorship; that Toronto's precious but woefully undervalued chain of not-for-profit theatres would no longer be forced to careen from financial crisis to financial crisis.

And, finally, dreams that Toronto might finally build a home for the National Ballet of Canada and the Canadian Opera Company, surely two of our city's and our nation’s most precious cultural resources.

A decade later, some of those dreams have come true, others are in abeyance and a few have turned to nightmares.

We now know that Toronto’s vibrant, vital role in commercial theatre was actually little more than chimera built on grandiose dreams and creative book-keeping. And while the give-and-take between the Mirvish organization and Aubrey Dan's upstart Dancap Productions may not yield the fireworks (or the Tonys) that Livent gave us, the commercial sector seems to have found a model that works for all, that it might occasionally seem pretty dull, or in the case of The Lord Of The Rings, desperately over-reaching.

And thanks to the undiminished nerve and talent of Canadian theatre artists, shows such as The Drowsy Chaperone, BASH'd, Goodness and the like continue to prove there's an appetite out there for made-in-Canada quality.

Soulpepper, meanwhile, seems to have plateaued a trifle short of Steppenwolf's heights, as it gets comfortable in its new home — perhaps too comfortable? — while company's such as the Company Theatre, Theatrefront and Theatre 180 doggedly pursue that bigger, bolder vision.

As for Stratford, the retirement and untimely death of artistic director Richard Monette has had little positive effect on the quality of the Shakespeare produced on Stratford's stages, where the the quality of the Bard's work continues to slide under the part-time artistic direction of Des McAnuff.

The Shaw Festival has expanded its mandate to include, among other innovations, plays by Canadian authors.

World Stage survives in much-altered form, while an underfunded Nuit Blanche continues to whip Luminato's over-financed upstart butt in the battle to be Toronto's dominant arts festival.

Theatres in our not-for-profit sector continue to lurch from one financial crisis to the next, with balance sheets from Theatre Passe Muraille and Canadian Stage making it into the news most recently.

And they're not alone. The current financial downturn meant red ink last season for both the National Ballet of Canada and the Canadian Opera Company, despite the fine new home they’ve acquired on the corner of Queen and University — a home launched with Canada's first Ring cycle and one that, for many of us, will always be wonderfully haunted by the ghost of a proud, beaming Richard Bradshaw.


Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Comedy out of the black into blood red

6 Dec 09

If black comedy were ever to be designated an Olympic sport, then Irish playwright Martin McDonagh would be the man to beat for the first gold medal.

There are, of course, hints of his dark vision in the film In Bruges -- but as Toronto theatre fans can tell you, one has to have a taste for things theatrical in order to explore the deepest reaches of McDonagh's stark and often hilarious vision.

But chances are, even those who have been lucky enough to catch local productions of The Beauty Queen of Leenan, The Lonesome West and The Pillowman might be surprised, indeed even shocked, at how much darker McDonagh's vision can be.

Just how deep is evident -- however faintly -- in the production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore which opened at the Berkeley Street Theatre Friday, in a production by Rep 21 Contemporary Theatre.

The second in McDonagh's Aran Islands trilogy -- preceded by The Cripple of Inishmaasn and followed by the not surprisingly as-yet-unproduced and unpublished The Banshees of Inisheer, Lieutenant recounts the disaster that befalls the island of title when a black cat is found dead on one of its quiet little byways.

The cat in question, however, is not just any cat, but rather the beloved pet of local lad Padraic (played by Matthew Krist ), a demented sort who has made a name for himself by running off and joining the struggle for an independent Ireland, where he has become an expert in torture, if not explosives.

Rather than tell his son that his beloved cat is dead, Padraic's drunken father (Tim Nicholson) simply says instead that the cat is ailing -- a little lie that nonetheless brings Padraic home posthaste, where he quickly discovers the deception his father has wrought.

Padraic's grief at the loss of his pet is, to say the very least, profound -- and driven mad by grief (not much of a drive at all, it must be admitted) he unleashes a bloodbath of horrifying proportions, showing the folks back home everything he's learned in his time away, while they, in turn, demonstrate that homegrown violence can have a bit of a kick too.

It's a disturbing look at the futile one-upmanship that violence represents -- and while this production, under the direction of Rod Carley, certainly gives one ample opportunity to see the bleak comedic potential in McDonagh's extreme bloodbath, it emerges finally as a strange sort of banquet of black comedy, set out behind a plate glass window -- one that can be seen, but sadly never tasted, thanks to a lacklustre production that, in the end, doesn't even demonstrate the gumption to be memorably bad.

Despite a game effort on the part of his largely inexperienced cast, Carley has put together a production that trips all over itself in its effort to amuse, impressively unmarked in any way by the realization that the only possible way to make this kind of theatre funny is to mine the pathos and the madness on which it is built, until we are forced to choose between laughter and tears.

For all its violence, the play's full tragedy could nonetheless be encapsulated in the character of the waif Mairead, but even here, under Carley's direction, Jennifer Matthies turns the character into a misplaced supermodel, failing to even live up to the way she's described in the script.

So, finally, instead of serving up a memorable tragi-comedy about people so immured in desperation and violence that they are, in the end, immune to its horrors, Carley and his cast serve up a community of demented leprechauns who can only be captured if you close one eye and make a wish that you were someplace else, watching a pot of gold that contained something more than a mess of iron pyrite like this.



Opera Atelier singing sad song

5 Dec 09

Add Opera Atelier to the list of arts organizations hit by the ongoing economic doldrums.

Despite a surge of 31% in its annual subscription base during the 2008/09 season and more than $1 million in fundraising revenue, Toronto's baroque opera company finished the past season with a loss of $68,072 on an operating budget of $2.3 million, it was announced this week.

In order to offset further losses, all senior managers with the company have taken a 3% minimum salary cut, although artist salaries are protected.

The current Opera Atelier season continues in April with an all-new production of The Marriage of Figaro, at the Elgin Theatre.


5 Dec 09 Rating: 4 out of 5

'Robin Hood' holiday musical merry

5 Dec 09

TORONTO - In a season when it's all too easy to get caught up in the excesses of gift-giving, it's best to remember that sometimes, less really is more.

Even if all you're doing is producing a Christmas panto.

In the wake of last year's delightfully muddled production of Cinderella, producer Ross Petty has assembled many of the same team members for this year's edition of his annual holiday entertainment, revving them up and setting them loose on the legend of Robin Hood, transforming it into Robin Hood: The EnvironMENTAL Family Musical ... That Targets Your Funnybone, which opened Thursday in the Elgin.

Which is good news for Petty's ever-expanding fan base -- that broad mix of the young and the young at heart for whom a festive season would not be complete without a super-sized portion of Petty's hi-test theatrical silliness.

Good news indeed-- but not great news, for in addition to re-assembling many of the elements from last year's hit, he's thrown a few new ones into the mix that, taken individually, might well add a lot of spice, but taken collectively, only serve to overwhelm the delicacy of the brew.

At its heart, of course, this remains a love story between the altruistic Robin Hood (played with loopy charm by Jeff Irving) and Maid Marian (singer Eva Avila).

He's the head of a gang of do-gooding cutpurses -- Jaz Sealey as L'il Sean John, We Will Rock You's Yvan Pedneault as Jacques le Rock and Scott Hurst as Friar Tuck -- known collectively as the Merry Men, while she is the ward of the evil Sheriff Of Nottingham (Petty, shedding last year's drag rags and morphing once again into the man all Toronto loves to hate for the holidays.)

But while those elements of the story are familiar, they all but disappear under the layering added by writer Chris Earle and director Ted Dykstra, who pile nonsense on top of silliness in a full-out pursuit of panto mayhem.

In their world, Maid Marian is an ecologist, determined to save Sherwood Forest -- a legacy from her late father -- from the horrors of clear-cutting, blissfully unaware that her beloved woodlot is home to Robin and his group of overgrown campfire boys.

Unaware, that is, until they rescue her and her love-starved nurse (Dan Chameroy reprising his over-the-top take on last year's Plumbum Von Botox), from an incident with a pair of liberated lumberjacks, employed to advance the evil designs of the Sheriff and his dementedly double-jointed deputy, played by Colin Heath.

All of which, one suspects, would be more than enough panto for most plates, especially as it includes the obligatory romp through the entire canon of popular music to showcase the wide range of vocal talent assembled.

But no, they keep piling it on, borrowing heavily from not only the headlines but from Shakespeare as well.

All this proves a lot to pack into one evening and though director Dykstra and choreographer Tracey Flye do their level best to keep things on track, it is an evening that teeters constantly on the edge of excess -- in the world of panto, an admittedly strange place to be.

Finally, they further impede themselves by keeping Petty in the wings for far too long before unleashing him on an audience that is clearly on board to cut loose and join the fun.

After all these years, they should know that if they want to pack us aboard the panto train, Petty's villain is just the ticket to get us to ride.


THEATRE REVIEW: PARFUMERIE - 4 Dec 09 Rating: 4 out of 5

Romantic scent of Parfumerie

4 Dec 09

TORONTO - There's something in this story -- call it a lingering scent of romance -- that makes it truly timeless, in it's way.

Which accounts, in no small part, for the fact that people have been rediscovering, resurrecting and/or retelling and re-inventing Parfumerie since it first premiered in Budapest, circa 1937.

Happily, after spawning a clutch of Hollywood movies -- the latest being You've Got Mail -- Hungarian Miklos Laszlo's lovely little tale has now made its way back to the stage, just in time for Christmas.

Parfumerie opened at the Young Centre Wednesday in a new English language translation/adaptation from Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins, produced under the Soulpepper banner.

It is a production that has much to recommend it.

Principal amongst its strengths, of course, is the love story at its heart -- the same love story told and retold in movies like The Shop Around the Corner, In the Good Old Summer Time, and She Loves Me.

Set in an upscale notions shop in Budapest in the days before the Second World War, Parfumerie is primarily the story of a pair of all but invisible social misfits -- both employed in the shop where the story is set -- who carry on a smoldering professional feud, even while they are falling madly in love in an ongoing but anonymous correspondence that anchors the story firmly both in time and place.

Oliver Dennis and Patricia Fagan are almost perfectly cast as George and Rosie, the romantic antagonists at the heart of the tale, and despite the obvious disparity in their ages, they are almost letter perfect, meeting both the demands of pathos and comedy placed on them by the convoluted relationship in which they find themselves.

Meanwhile, life swirls on around them, both the life that is the interior world of the upscale shop in which they are employed, beautifully rendered in an art nouveau jewel box designed by Ken MacDonald, and outside it.

As fellow employees in the shop owned by the venerable Mr. Hammerschmidt (Joseph Zeigler), Maev Beatty, adaptor Robbins, Michael Simpson, a villainous Kevin Bundy and Jeff Lillico all do some fine work, although Lillico doesn't so much slip into wretched excess in the second act as dive into it headfirst and then splash around doing the goose step for good measure.

Meanwhile, William Webster, Stacey Bulmer, Miranda Mulholland, Noah Reid and Kristina Uranowski do an equally fine job of bringing the broader world that exists beyond the shop's revolving door to life, playing police officers and detectives and middle-class shoppers caught up in a pre-Christmas frenzy.

But while MacDonald's set does a bang-up job of capturing time and place to perfection, director Morris Panych fails to plumb the rich vein of hidebound Hapsburg haughtiness running through the tale, imposing on it instead a sense of brash North American bonhomie that one would have considered nothing short of vulgar in the city and the era in which this play is set. While Hammerschmidt's staff may indeed be a family of sorts, they are a family more along rigid Victorian lines than the sitcom model Panych imposes.

There are hints of the rigid Austro-Hungarian class system and the fierce pride of position in the performances of Ziegler -- as a betrayed husband -- and Simpson as the his long-serving clerk, and from Robbins, too, in a lovely little supporting turn -- but they are all but lost in a directoral vision that fails to recognize the societal changes that have been wrought on both sides of the ocean in the past 70 years.

Happily, there's enough heart, both in Laszlo's timeless tale and this skilled and committed cast that Parfumerie still comes out smelling like a winner.



Theatre opts out of co-production

3 Dec 09

It's official.

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company has opted out of it's previously announced co-production with Theatre Passe Muraille of Julie Tepperman's Yichud (Seclusion), slated to take to the TPM mainstage in February.

In it's place, HGJCT has programmed Michael Nathanson's Talk, a finalist in the competition for 2009 Governor General's Literary Awards for Drama.

Talk, directed by Ted Dykstra, will open in the Jane Mallet Theatre on March 4.

Meanwhile, TPM will proceed on their own with the production of Yichud (Seclusion) although according to HGJTC co-artistic directors Avery Saltzman and David Eisner, their company has "made a financial commitment to ensure that Yichud will be experienced by Toronto audiences."


THEATRE REVIEW: ORSON'S SHADOW - 3 Dec 09 Rating: 2 out of 5

Orson Welles play fails to inspire

3 Dec 09

TORONTO - Talk about casting a lo-o-o-ng Shadow.

At first blush, Pilot Group Theatre's presentation of Orson's Shadow, currently playing the Theatre Passe Muraille mainstage (where it opened Tuesday), seems like one of those interminably talky plays that, given one or two productions, succeed only in boring an audience to distraction and giving theatre a black eye in the process.

But make your way past the too-often flawed casting and the leaden, uninspired direction of Rona Waddington, and you'll discover that, in playing fast and loose with the lives of the late and great, playwright Austin Pendleton has in fact written quite an entertaining and theatrical little essay on the often crippling nature of genius.

The genius in question is the kind of genius displayed, at various points in their careers, by a menagerie of stage and screen legends in the first half of the 20th century.

First and foremost, of course, there is the late Orson Welles, the man who, for many, moved American cinema into auteur territory, a man whose career seemingly peaked when he was 26 with the making of Citizen Kane and then went steadily downhill from there for several decades.

In Pendleton's tale, based loosely on fact, Welles, played with satisfying hubris and vulnerable bombast by Steve Ross, is recruited by critic Kenneth Tynan (Christopher Stanton) to direct the legendary Laurence Olivier (Paul Eves) in a production of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist Rhinoceros for Britain's fledgling National Theatre.

As Pendleton tells it, this does not, when it comes to fruition, result in a meeting of great minds, but rather a titanic clash of greatly damaged egos as each man looks to validate his own genius by subsuming the others'.

Nowhere near the bottom of the slide in his post-Kane career, Ross's Welles is desperate to make a success of the production he hopes will not only contribute to getting his life's work on Othello made, but garner a new and more appreciative audience for his adaptation of Falstaff as well.

Eves' Olivier is no less desperate. His marriage to a deeply troubled Vivien Leigh at an end, his best stage work supposedly behind him and his new relationship with Joan Plowright (Janet Porter) on seemingly shaky ground, he's determined to re-invent himself, even while he's afraid to let go of the past.

Faced with a recipe for a rich and meaty dramatic character stew, Waddington allows her cast to serve up a thin gruel of impersonation instead, seemingly blissfully unaware that good theatre is as much about good reacting as it is about good acting -- and frankly, both commodities are in short supply here.

Virtually unanchored in either time or place, except for the playwright's exposition -- no costume or set design credit is given, so no blame can be assigned -- Orson's Shadow keeps constantly tripping over caricatures when the work demands three-dimensional character work of the highest order.

While Ross gives us a Welles we can often believe in, Eve's Olivier is so riddled with tics he risks unleashing an epidemic of Lyme Disease on his audience, which could, at the very least, put paid to Stanton's fresh-faced Tynan before the emphysema he tries to suffer from can progress much further.

Scott's Leigh, teetering on the edge of madness, and Porter's Plowright, clinging resolutely to sanity, fare only slightly better in this leaden production, undone by a director who seems determined to take the golden nuggets of wit the playwright has scattered throughout the script and convert them into theatrical dross as qucikly as possible.

In that, at least, she succeeds. The measure of her success is in just how long a shadow Orson's Shadow seems to cast.



Glenn Gould archive good as gold

2 Dec 09

When filmmakers Peter Raymont and Michele Hozer set out to make a film about Canadian musical legend Glenn Gould, they very quickly ran up against a major problem -- one every filmmaker should have.

"It was a very difficult film to make because there is such a wealth of material," Raymont recalls, taking a breather as the two of them rush to get a final print of Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould ready for screening at last fall's edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

"It's an embarrassment of riches."

Much of that embarrassment of riches can be attributed directly to Gould's genius -- not just his musical genius, but a heretofore largely unexplored genius for exploiting the media.

"He was very skilled at using the media. He really understood the media and how to use it. He was ahead of his time," Raymont says.

Happily, he was also ready to claim centre stage during what many have come to recognize as the golden days of the CBC, and that didn't hurt a burgeoning artist like Gould either -- or his career, according to Raymont.

As a rising star and a Canadian, Gould fascinated folks at the CBC -- and small wonder.

"He was hip, he was sexy, he was articulate, he was accessible," Raymont points out.

And because he was all those things, they gave him plenty of exposure and turned him into a homegrown star.

"It was the CBC who gave him that," Raymont points out, adding that times have changed for the CBC. "Many people who knew Gould say that Gould today would not exist."

But the fact that Gould and the CBC came of age together has left a legacy of Gould material in the CBC archives that is only beginning to be tapped -- some of it showcased, in fact, in Genius Within.

That is, however, merely the tip of the iceberg, Raymont suggests.

"I'm sure, five or ten years from now, someone will make a film about Glenn Gould filled with stuff that has never been seen before. There's that much depth (in those archives)."

In addition to his music, Gould is also remembered for the weird little tics that set him apart -- the gloves, the chair, a host of idiosyncrasies, some infuriating, others endearing.

"Some of them were affectation, for sure," Raymont concedes. "He used it to promote himself and the music he was playing."

But it wasn't all affectation.

"When you see him as that young, fresh guy, he's a different person altogether -- perhaps the drugs changed him," Raymont says, adding with a shrug, "there's a lot of burdens that go into being a genius."

All of which makes for an interesting movie, albeit a strange bedfellow for the team that brought us the award-winning Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire, which Raymont directed and Hozer edited.

"It may seem like a leap, but it's not as big a leap as one might imagine," Raymont insists.

"They are both fascinating men whose lives were full of crisis and struggle. They were both extraordinarily important Canadians in their own way -- both very articulate, both icons, and in both cases, the films humanize these people -- get inside all the hype about them."

Nor was it a big leap for Hozer to move from the role of editor to that of co-director, at least not by Raymont's lights.

"She's an editor and she's edited many, many films. This is her first time as a director, yes, but she almost deserved being called a director many times before," he insists. "It's been a very good collaboration."

And in documentary filmmaking, collaboration is paramount, he continues.

"It would have been impossible for me to do this all by myself, and I wouldn't have wanted to. I really enjoy collaboration."