Wednesday, February 24, 2010

25 Feb'10

‘Grimm Too' a delight

Rating: 4 out of 5

They’re still trapped in a library, it seems — and things are looking mighty Grimm.

After running happily amok through a not-always-likely theatrical bibliography that includes the works of such diverse artists as Dante, Boccaccio and Anton Chekhov, the artists of Theatre Smith-Gilmour have finally alighted, almost inevitably it seems, in the works of the Brothers Grimm.

That’s alighted, as opposed to come to rest, for as usual, once they’ve set foot in a comfortable literary canon, these folks lose little time in making theatrical hay out of it. Happily, a rich vein of theatricality runs through most of the works of the Grimm fraternals, even the lesser known works explored in GRIMM TOO, Smith-Gilmour’s latest theatrical offering, which opened at the Factory’s Studio Theatre on Tuesday.

Created by Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour, who also co-direct, GRIMM TOO is a work for five performers, with Adam Paolozza, Dan Watson and Pragna Desai joining Smith and Gilmour to bring the stories to life in the company’s inimitable clown tradition. And such stories, sufficiently far removed from the Grimm brothers’ more well-known fare including Sleeping Beauty and The Princess and The Frog, have been reduced by evening’s end to mere child’s play.

In the array of stories that this quintet enliven in the course of 100 minutes, there are few indeed that end anywhere close to happily-ever-after territory. Instead, these are short, often brutal tales that still have the soil of tradition clinging to their roots, held there as often as not by the blood, sweat and tears of the very people who put the ‘folk’ in folk tales.

Nor is there a fairy in sight, although a few archangels, a hungry frog, a wise old dog and a boy who is half hedgehog do put in episodic appearances to delight their audience.

It’s all presented in what has become the patented Smith-Gilmour style — in which the physical vocabulary of life plays an even more important role than the spoken, a style that often envelops entire chapters in a single gesture of low-key theatricality.

And this is a cast rich in both components of the Smith-Gilmour vocabulary, which means that while the two principals in the company shoulder much of the heavy-lifting in this evening of tale-telling, each of their very talented co-conspirators gets a chance to shine as well.

So Smith’s comic genius — a rather horrific vignette about a mother and her dead daughter — is close to a perfect showcase, while Gilmour’s loopy charm as the evening’s narrator and an archangel hanging a moon are not so much offset by the skills of their castmates as bolstered by them. Watson shines as a boy and his frog, Paolozza gets spiky as the hedgehog boy and Desai runs a delightful gamut between the bearded lady and a princess in distress.

Throughout, things are improved by the simple elegance of Julia Tribe’s set and costume designs, and the equally understated elegance of Kimberley Purtell’s lighting.

For all of its considerable charm, however, this is an evening that possibly might have been a whole lot more if it had contented itself with being a little bit less. Even with the talents of this delightful quintet to back things up, it is ultimately impossible to transform this series of delectable appetizers into a full-scale theatrical banquet. And for all its demonstrated delight with the product, it seemed many in the audience were ready to leave the theatre about 10 minutes before the artists were ready to surrender the stage — a bit of grim reality intruding on Grimm reality.
THEATRE NEWS: Tarragon to spice things up
25 Feb'10


Officials at Tarragon Theatre on Wednesday laid out the ways they’ll spice up Toronto’s theatre scene for their 40th anniversary season.

The mainstage season launches with the Toronto premiere of THE CLOCKMAKER, written by Stephen Massicotte and directed by Bob White. It will be followed on the mainstage by the Toronto premiere of the Belfry Theatre’s production of Joan Didion’s stage adaptation of her highly personal memoir, THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, starring Seana McKenna, under the direction of Michael Shamata.

The action then moves to the East Coast as Richard Rose directs a co-production (with the Segal Centre) of Kent Stetson’s Governor General’s Award-winning THE HARPS OF GOD.

MORE FINE GIRLS — a sequel to THE ATTIC, THE PEARLS, AND THREE FINE GIRLS — is next up, showcasing a new collaborative script from Jennifer Brewin, Leah Cherniak, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Alisa Palmer and Martha Ross, in a co-production with Theatre Columbus. It will be directed by Palmer and star Ross, Cherniak and MacDonald in the title roles.

Rose returns to direct the English language premiere of Wajdi Mouawad’s FORESTS, translated by Linda Gaboriau to close the mainstage season.

Meanwhile, two world premieres are planned for the Extra Space, with Gina Wilkinson directing Brendan Gall’s WIDE AWAKE HEARTS, and Alan Dilworth directing Kate Cayley’s AFTER AKHMATOVA.

Special ‘Beat the HST” subscriptions are now on sale at 416-531-1827.
FEATURE INTERVIEW: Ted Dykstra: Talk about versatile
24 Feb'10


A couple of centuries into the future, some scholar sifting through the theatrical detritus of the late 20th and early 21st centuries could conclude that there were several theatre artists at work in our time sharing the name Ted Dykstra.

There would, of course, be Dykstra the classical actor, with Stratford Festival credits in works such as Joe Dowling’s acclaimed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, as well as Soulpepper’s American Buffalo and Birdland’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.

Then there’d be Dykstra, the musical theatre actor, with credits that stretch from The Who’s Tommy and Hedwig And The Angry Inch through to Canadian Stage’s production of Fire.

There’d also be Dykstra, the successful playwright (2 Pianos, 4 Hands), and even Dykstra the composer (Knights of the Endless Day).

And finally there would be Dykstra, the director. Even there, in reconciling the skills employed in mounting Ross Petty’s annual Christmas pantos and Scott Thompson’s The Lowest Show On Earth with those employed in staging works such as Of The Fields Lately, Leaving Home and Tuesdays With Morrie, our future scholar might be forgiven for thinking there were at least a pair of Dykstras employed just on the directing side of things.

And yet, as anyone who’s followed theatre in this city for the past few decades can assure you, it’s all just one person. Today, that one person seems a trifle surprised that anyone might find the depth and the breadth of his work impressive.

“I sort of think that the things I do are all the same things,” the 49-year-old father of two says. “Now, it’s just a question of whether it scares me or not. I think: ‘Boy, that would be a real challenge.’”

What’s challenging Dykstra these days is the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company’s forthcoming Toronto premiere of Michael Nathanson’s TALK, slated to open in the Jane Mallet Theatre Thursday on March 4. A finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Awards For Drama last year, TALK is set in Winnipeg and tells a story of misunderstandings, Middle East politics and the end of a friendship.

The Toronto production stars Michael Rubenfeld, reprising his part from the Winnipeg production, and Kevin Bundy — under Dykstra’s direction,

“Understanding the Middle East,” Dykstra says with an impish smile. “If that ain’t a challenge, I don’t know what is.” Not that he’s had to become a scholar on the subject, “What this play is about is two people losing their friendship. It’s not about the Middle East,” he says.

But that troubled locale most definitely plays a role in the play — something of which Dykstra is very aware. “I’ve got to say that this play is a very balanced argument. I don’t think it is taking sides at all,” he insists. “There’s no way I want to skew this either way. I think what it’s about is loss ... The same truth is always there. You try to give the play life from a balanced perspective. I don’t want the audience to think what I think. I want them to make up their own minds.”

TALK marks Dykstra’s second engagement with the fledgling HGJTC, for which he also directed Tuesdays with Morrie last year. As a non-Jew, he’s pleased with the ongoing relationship. “I was very pleased to be asked (to direct Talk),” he says. “It’s like reverse colour-blind casting.”

With TALK out of the way, Dykstra returns once again to the Soulpepper fold for his next big project, helming yet another revival David French’s work — in this case, Jitters, one of the most successful comedies in the Canadian canon.

And that’s pretty scary too, Dykstra says. “Comedy is the hardest thing in the world to do — making it look effortless and yet have the humour.”

Happily, it’s a scary world out there for talented people.

NEWS EXTRA: Dykstra basks in ‘PIANOS’ glory

Actor/director Ted Dykstra has left his fingerprints on a lot of projects over the years, but it is quite possible that he will be best remembered as co-creator (with Richard Greenblatt) of the international success that is 2 PIANOS, 4 HANDS. And yes, that success is ongoing.

“It’s still being done,” Dykstra reports with satisfaction. “I cash the cheques when they come.”

As to whether he and Greenblatt will ever return to the show they made out of their years taking piano lessons, Dykstra doesn’t rule it out. “I think I’d put to rest the idea of ever doing it again until I (directed the Soulpepper revival of) BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR,” he says. “Now I wonder...”

As for acting, he chooses projects more carefully now. “I don’t want to lose my joy in doing it,” Dykstra says, recalling the days when “just the applause was good enough.”

“Now, there are so many things out of your control, so what I do is try to pick out one thing that has a chance of working.” Not that he’s given up on it totally. “What would I wish to do that I haven’t been able to do enough of?” he asks rhetorically. “That would be Shakespeare.”
NEWS ITEM: Adams, Sainte-Marie to get GG's
24 Feb'10


Singers Bryan Adams and Buffy Sainte-Marie were among the winners of the 2010 Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, announced Tuesday.

The other four Canadian artists to be honoured for lifetime achievement include director Robin Phillips, choreographer Edouard Lock, actor Francoise Faucher and arts administrator Walter Homburger.

The recipients will be feted in Ottawa at various events from April 29 to May 1, with celebrations culminating in a celebratory gala at the National Arts Centre. In addition to a commemorative medallion, each recipient will receive a $25,000 cash award.

Additional honourees include Vancouver arts patrons Mohammed and Yulanda Faris, who will receive the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Arts, and musician Nezet-Seguin, who will receive the National Arts Centre Award.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Three more Mirvish shows unveiled
23 Feb'10


The fact that three of the six shows in their forthcoming subscription season have already been announced did little to dim their enthusiasm Monday when David Mirvish and his company announced what’s going to be on the boards for the remainder of the 2010/11 season.

In addition to previously announced runs of the Broadway-bound PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT: THE MUSICAL, the Stratford Festival Production of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM and BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL, three additional shows have been added to the subscription roster.

They include an all new production of the Tony-winning THE SECRET GARDEN, slated to premiere in England and based on the novel of the same name, by Frances Hodgson Burnett; a new take on SWEET CHARITY from London’s acclaimed Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre; and a new production of Tim Firth’s adaptation of his own movie, CALENDAR GIRLS, making its North American premiere under the direction of Marti Maraden.

Bruce Dow and Sean Cullen will alternate in Forum, sharing the role of the slave Pseudolus, while Steven Sutcliffe will step into the role of Hysterium, originated by Stephen Ouimette.

Specific dates and theatres will be announced at a later date for the subscription season. In addition to the six-show subscription season, Mirvish theatres will also play host to six other productions, including a remount of MY MOTHER'S LESBIAN JEWISH WICCAN WEDDING at the Panasonic, ROCK OF AGES at the Royal Alexandra, MAMMA MIA! at the Princess of Wales, A JEW GROWS IN BROOKLYN at the Panasonic, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF at the Canon and WINGFIELD — LOST AND FOUND, in its Toronto premiere at the Panasonic.

Friday, February 19, 2010

19 Feb'10

'Hush' dreams up night terrors

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

TORONTO - All parents, it seems, have dreams for their children -- and, on occasion, just about as many have nightmares because of them. The number of parents who share nightmares with their children is no doubt substantially smaller.

Which means that playwright Rosa Laborde is exploring new turf in HUSH, a new play that made its world premiere in the Tarragon Extra Space on Wednesday. It's the same space where a successful production of her play LEO pushed her career into overdrive a few seasons ago, landing her the position of playwright-in-residence at the theatre.

At its most basic, HUSH is the story of single father Harlem (the Shaw Festival's Graeme Somerville, paying a welcome return visit to the Toronto stage) and his 12-year-old daughter, Lily (Vivien Endicott-Douglas). Lily is a preternaturally glib creature, poised on the brink of womanhood and suddenly suffering from night terrors.

In a dreamscaped script that plays fast and loose with time and place, Laborde makes getting to know her two protagonists a complex task that consumes most of the 80 minutes of the play. For his part, Harlem is a dentist and an icily cool existentialist, determined to raise his beloved only child free of superstition and other religious bugaboos. While fiercely overprotective of his apparently motherless daughter, he is also obviously in way over his head when it comes to parenting, and is consequently grateful for the attachment that has sprung between Lily and his colleague Andre, played by Conrad Coates.

But he also appears to be so caught up in a troubled relationship with the strange and exotic Talia (Tara Rosling) that he fails to notice that the attachment between Andre and Lily has crossed some sort of invisible line -- a transgression he is about to make as well. For when his precocious child starts having nightmares into which he somehow, inexplicably, finds his way, he discovers that Andre is playing a leading (if somewhat racially cliched) role in those dreams. Belatedly, Harlem sets out to establish a few limits, with less-than-impressive results, uniting Andre and Lily in opposition.

Meanwhile, his strange relationship with the odd and needy Talia seems to be spiraling out of control in some sort of parallel universe. And in the middle of it all sits Lily, written by Laborde and played by Endicott-Douglas as some sort of pre-pubescent homage to Ellen Page and JUNO -- a sometimes delightful, more often annoying, mix of innocence, wisdom and childish self-involvement.

For a while, under the taut minimalism of Richard Rose's direction, it's a delightful game of guess-the-destination, played out on a simple set designed and brilliantly, even dreamily, lit by Trevor Schwellnus. In fact, in the early going, constrained performances from Somerville, Coates and Rosling more than compensate for the fact that Lily is simply too precocious by half, but eventually Laborde's dreamscape becomes so bewildering on the one hand, and so pat on the other, that you're simply grateful for the feel-good ending that ties it all up in a star-lit package.

With her earlier work, Laborde's writing hinted at an almost poetic brilliance that blossoms fully in HUSH, a play that also demonstrates her skill at dramatic construction. But even though her work successfully mixes past and present with theatrical effect, the only growth her characters seem to exhibit is arbitrarily imposed by the playwright, rather than arise from their experiences in the play.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

THEATRE NEWS: Passe Muraille names new GM

17 Feb'10

Kendra Fry has been named the new General Manager of Theatre Passe Muraille, replacing Hugh Nielson.

For the past two years, Fry has served as GM for the Harold Green Jewish Theatre, and prior to that, she served as GM for Cahoots Theatre, as well as the Business Manager for the Theatre Centre.

In other stage news, Factory Theatre has extended the run of George F. Walker's AND SO IT GOES - the playwright's first work for the stage in a decade, until March 6, when it absolutely must close. For tickets, call 416-504-9971.
Musical coming to T.O.

17 Feb'10

Right now, they’re a little short on details, but Mirvish Productions still wants you to know that BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL will be kicking up its heels somewhere in Toronto by this time next year.

The announcement of Billy’s incipient but still nebulous Toronto engagement was made Tuesday at the Panasonic Theatre by David Mirvish, as co-producer Jon Finn, executive producer David Furnish and director Stephen Daldry looked on proudly. Based on the low-budget movie of the same name — made in 2000 for $2.8 million — BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL features music by Elton John, book and lyrics by Lee Hall (who also wrote the movie) and choreography by Peter Darling.

Since opening in London in 2005, the musical has spawned a New York company and an Australian company, with a Chicago company poised to open next month — bringing BILLLY ELLIOT's combined celluloid and stage box-office receipts to somewhere in the neighbourhood of half a billion dollars.

While Mirvish plans to make next year’s BILLY ELLIOT engagement a cornerstone of his 2010-11 subscription season, the remainder of which will be announced soon, he said that further details — such as whether it will feature a touring cast or a homegrown company, and in which of Mirvish’s Toronto theatres it will be staged — have yet to be worked out. Canada has already proven to be fertile ground when it comes to casting the musical, director Daldry said, pointing to the two Canadian boys that have played the title character on Broadway, and a third who will essay the role when the Chicago production opens in four weeks. Canadian Kate Hennig is in the Broadway company as well.

Each production has three young males playing Billy at any given time, and that’s a challenge. First of all, they have to be found — and there’s a team of talent scouts in London and another in North America that do nothing but search for young teens for the role, which Daldry compares to “running an Olympic marathon and playing Hamlet at the same time.” But that’s only half the battle, for then you have to keep them — at an age when puberty looms large. “Some kids can stay in the show for 18 months, and some can stay for six months,” Daldry said. And while he admits it can be frustrating, “It’s one of the joys as well,” he insists.

For Furnish, a Toronto native who married Elton John several years ago, bringing the show to Toronto represents a homecoming of sorts. Toronto, and specifically Mirvish productions, is responsible in no small part, he insists, for “all the fire in my belly that relates to theatre.” And the minute he heard about the potential for a Toronto production, he was onside.

“Of course I was,” he said. “For lots of reasons — for personal reasons and also because of my memories of theatre in this city.”
BILLY ELLIOT won’t be Canada's only opportunity to get up close and personal with John’s music in the coming year. On the heels of their success in transforming Joni Mitchell’s work into dance, the Alberta Ballet has been green-lighted to create a ballet based on John’s body of work that is slated to premiere in May.

While tickets will be available for BILLY ELLIOT as part of the Mirvish subscription season when it is announced, single tickets will go on sale in September.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

13 Feb'10

Designing a good fit

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

In theatre, the most complex job often involves keeping things simple.

Certainly, that’s often the director’s principal chore, particularly in a show such as INTIMATE APPAREL, Lynn Nottage’s beautifully written and achingly touching story of a black seamstress in New York at the beginning of the last century. It’s a challenge that director Philip Akin shouldered with relish — and considerable success — in Obsidian Theatre’s 2008 production of the work. And it was, no doubt, largely due to Akin’s shaping of the work that Obsidian was subsequently invited to partner with Canadian Stage and remount the work on the stage of the much larger Bluma Appel Theatre, where it re-opened Thursday as part of the Canadian Stage subscription season.

For the uninitiated, it should be pointed out that transplanting a show into a larger theatre is a little more complex than transplanting a houseplant into a bigger pot. To do it effectively, a director and his cast and crew have to effectively rebuild the show from the ground up — a task made more difficult by the fact they are not simply trying to create a successful staging, but rather recreate it instead (and, with luck, improve it in the process). Happily, it’s a task to which Akin and his team prove more than equal on several fronts.

From a design perspective, for instance, Tamara Marie Kucheran’s multi-level, multi-locale set sits under the Bluma’s proscenium as if it was made for it, capturing 1905 New York from the boudoirs of the idle rich to the boarding houses, bars and brothels of Harlem and the tenements of the Lower East Side — with the same sprawling intimacy that marked the set in the earlier production.

All of which constitutes a milieu in move-in condition for Akin and an original cast, reunited to tell the story of Esther (Raven Dauda), a spinster seamstress, who has immersed herself in her work rather than court romance in a world where most suitors are so concerned with the sizzle that they too often overlook the steak.

In lieu of romance, she has built a career for herself, hand-crafting luxury undergarments, not just for the carriage trade, as represented by the tragic Mrs. Van Buren (played by Carly Street), but for working girls such as the amoral Mayme (Lisa Berry), for whom intimacy is simply business, as well. Esther’s faith and friendships with her landlady, Mrs. Dickson (Marium Carvell), and with Mr. Marks (Alex Poch-Goldin), an Orthodox Jew who is also a purveyor of fine fabric, round out her rather simple life.

Then, suddenly, Esther’s life is thrown into something akin to turmoil, when a letter arrives from a Caribbean-born black man, labouring on the construction of the Panama Canal. Mired in the dirt and disease of his working world, George (Kevin Hanchard) appears to be looking for something better. Esther dares to believe that she might offer it.

In reuniting his cast, Akin does some impressive work, maintaining a firm grip on the storyline and allowing the audience to revel in the exquisite language the playwright uses to tell it. But, too often, he allows the simple things to slip away. George’s Hanchard, swathed as he is in layer after layer of mosquito netting, still proves to be an unnecessary distraction throughout the entire first act, made too mysterious by half when simple back-lighting would probably accomplish much the same thing to better effect.

And sadly, while Dauda still turns in an impressive performance, she too often does even more embroidery on her work than Esther does on hers, anticipating her laughs and playing to them where once she played to her character’s simple dignity with impressive and deeply touching results.

Immersed as they are in their work, even truly great actors don’t always recognize the border between enough and too much — so most often, it’s simply up to the director to set them straight.

Friday, February 12, 2010

12 Feb'10

‘Yichud’ a funny family affair

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

At its most basic level, it could be compared to Tony ’n’ Tina’s Wedding — but without the food.

But YICHUD (SECLUSION) emerges as more than a sustained and loving ethnic joke — although playwright Julie Tepperman and director Aaron Willis could be accused, on occasion, of venturing a little too far into T ’n’ T territory.

After a colourful and occasionally troubled voyage, YICHUD (SECLUSION), which began as a single 20-minute scene, finally reached the Theatre Passe Muraille mainstage Wednesday, produced by TPM in association with Convergence Theatre.

In honour of the production — and to heighten the experience it offers — the entire theatre has been transformed into a place of worship for Orthodox Jews — an ersatz synagogue where, even though the “congregants” intermingle regardless of sex, the “members” cleave to the ancient law of Yichud, or separation, which forbids the intermingling of the sexes in daily life. We are gathered together — or at least brought to the same building, it seems — for the wedding of Rachel Blitzer (played by Tepperman) and Chaim Berman (played by Willis). Theirs is an affair arranged after only a few heavily chaperoned dates that leave the bride and groom virtual strangers.

As the play begins, the bride and her mother, Malka (played by Diane Flacks), greet the female guests. In another room, the groom and his brothers — Menachem (played by Michael Rubenfeld) and Ephraim (Jordan Pettle) — party with Rachel’s father Mordechai (Richard Greenblatt) and the menfolk. Even the air dances, it seems, to the relentless beat of Klezmer and other traditional music, served up under the musical direction of Aviva Chernick.

The main business of the day is the wedding that will unite the two young people — and lead them inevitably to the Yichud Room, where Orthodox Jews traditionally spend the first few moments of marital intimacy, and where Tepperman chooses to end her story. But the deft hand of designer Beth Kates takes us behind the scenes for more intimate moments that allow the characters to become more human, and serve to pull the audience into the family circle of the event.

Through confrontations between Rachel and Malka, Malka and Mordechai and Menachem and Ephraim, Tepperman puts Orthodoxy under a microscope to show us the challenges inherent in living a righteous life in a secular world, where lines seem to be drawn only to be crossed. Just where do homosexuality, feminism, Facebook, oral sex and even thongs fit into an Orthodox world? And where does the Orthodox world fit into the larger world?

Taken individually, some of the asides certainly are more effective than others at exploring both what unites this community with a broader world, and what separates us from it as well. Not surprisingly, considering their backgrounds, Flacks and Greenblatt (who also served as dramaturge and consulting director on the project) go into full sitcom mode here, doing their utmost to turn it into an episode of Little Yeshiva on the Prairie, coming perilously close to derailing things in the process. Meanwhile, Tepperman and Willis — while largely convincing — bring an awkwardness to their performances that seems to be rooted in the performers as much as in the performances.

The feuding fraternals, Pettle and Rubenfeld, are letter perfect — and hence deeply affecting in a way that leaves one wishing that the rest of the cast had found its way into the zone that these two actors inhabit.

Happily, it’s all done with so much affection that, even though the ghosts of Tony ’n’ Tina make a few too many guest appearances in the course of the evening, one can’t help but wish Rachel and Chaim a heartfelt mazel tov!

At Theatre Passe Muraille
Directed by Aaron Willis
Starring the ensemble

Thursday, February 11, 2010

11 Feb'10

This evening for LuPone, Patinkin fans only

Rating: 4 out of 5

Think of it as an evening of basic black and pearls — and as the fashion mavens used to say, it’s hard to go wrong with basic black and pearls.

The basic black? Well, there’s nary a hint of colour in the street-smart costuming affected by the principal players in AN EVENING WITH PATTI LUPONE AND MANDY PATINKIN, which opened a short run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre on Tuesday. There’s a little black dress for her, at least in the second act, and black sweater and slacks for him.

As for the pearls, well, don’t call Tiffany’s quite yet. The pearls here are of the musical variety — a series of carefully chosen and lustrous gems from the musical theatre canon, which string the work of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and that of Stephen Sondheim, onto a silken thread with the work of gifted theatrical songmakers such as Jerome Kern, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Irving Berlin and a few others.

But other than those composers, this is — under Patinkin’s direction — pretty much an evening as billed. LuPone and Patinkin share the stage with only a pair of musicians and enough ghost lights, one suspects, to supply most of the theatres on the Great White Way. All of which goes down very well indeed with fans of the high-energy, Tony-winning duo — judging from the audience’s opening-night reaction.

It is not just a dream evening for fans of the celebrated pair, however. In the course of the proceedings (conceived by Patinkin and musical director Paul Ford, who provides piano accompaniment), both principals are afforded plenty of opportunity to strut their stuff. They seem to enjoy themselves as well.

They also avail themselves of the opportunity to play roles for which they would never be considered — and to sing the songs written for those roles. Not even their most rabid fans, one suspects, would expect to ever see LuPone cast as SOUTH PACIFIC’s Nellie Forbush, or Patinkin as CAROUSEL’s Billy Bigelow. But, by intertwining a lot of folksy humour and a dollop or two of sentimentality — Ann Reinking’s sweet and simple choreography doesn’t hurt either — they manage to pull off songs such as A Cockeyed Optimist and You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan in such convincing fashion that you’d almost think they were meant to sing them.

The duo also manage to weave in a few of their own personal faves and high points — LuPone goes for nostalgia with EVITA’s anthemic Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina, then ups the ante with a reprise of Everything’s Coming Up Roses from her recent turn in GYPSY, while Patinkin goes all hyper-kinetic with The God-Why-Don’t-You-Leave-Me Blues from FOLLIES.

But be warned: if the title of the show isn’t enough of a hint, it should be stressed that this is an evening for dyed-in-the-wool fans of this particular dynamic duo. If you’ve ever found yourself wishing Patinkin could commit to life either as a tenor or a counter tenor, instead of fusing the two with heavy-handed vocal embroidery, or if you’ve ever caught yourself wondering why it is that your ear picks up more flat notes than the average Patti LuPone fan’s does, then you might want to give serious consideration to an evening of Olympic TV viewing instead.

The title promises an evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, and that’s precisely what they deliver. How much you enjoy it will depend entirely on just how big a fan of theirs you are.

Directed by Mandy Patinkin
Starring Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin
At the Royal Alexandra Theatre

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

9 Feb'10

Numero Uno unsatisfactory stew

Rating: 2 out of 5

To Allen MacInnis, the artistic director of the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre For Young People, it no doubt seemed like a surefire recipe for a tasty little pepper pot.

With the calendar once again rolling around to Black History Month, something like author Pam Mordecai's heretofore undeveloped play -- a promising stew of Caribbean language and tradition -- no doubt looked like it just might be the perfect dish to serve up as February's plat du jour.

But as any good cook can tell you, there can be many a slip between the plate and the lip -- and now that they're actually serving up Mordecai's handiwork at the Front Street theatre, it's a dish that proves to be more thin gruel than rich stew. It's called EL NUMERO UNO and it opened on the LKTYP mainstage on Thursday.

Well, actually, it opened in the LKTYP mainspace, a semantic clarification necessitated by director ahdri zhina mandiela's strange (some would say ill-advised) decision to stage the work in the round -- a decision taken, it seems, for no better reason than "We can, so we will."

But not only does staging the work on a new circular stage, otherwise superbly designed by Astrid Janson, not serve to enhance the work in any perceptible fashion, it actually impedes its flow, adding completely unnecessary distraction in the wings along the way, just for good measure.

This has all the makings of a charming story -- those portions of it, at least, that manage to filter out to the audience from a cast far more obsessed, it seems, by the complex demands of this unusual staging than with vocal considerations and audience connections that make for riveting theatre, regardless of the audience's age.

Set on a fictitious island in the Caribbean, it is the story of a good natured teen-aged pig, El Numero Uno by name, who is learning to be a cook. When we first meet Uno, played by Andrew Broderick, he is making his leisurely way to the home of his teacher, Chef Trenton (played by Walter Borden), with the ingredients to make a strange and marvelous soup.

But along the way, he's distracted by most of the residents of the island, including a songless bird, a pair of rabbits (John Blackwood and Jajube Mandiela), a holy man named Ras Onelove (Jamie Robinson) along with a few costumed jonkannu masqueraders, just for good measure.

Distracted by all the companionship, Uno finally drops and seriously bruises the precious ingredients he's transporting. And because Chef Trenton's recipe demands only the freshest, unblemished ingredients, the affable young pig has to make a return visit to the market -- a return that results in him being kidnapped by a pair of beastly boars (Robinson and Borden doubling up at the trough, as it were). But before they can make a meal of him, the other residents of his island conspire to free him, in the process freeing the two villainous boars from an evil curse and saving the island as well.

With Lisa Codrington and Sabryn Rock rounding out the cast, this is nothing if not a game ensemble, and they tackle the story's complex linguistic demands -- a patois of English, Spanish, French and African languages -- with respect for both its source and their audience, slowing it down so it can be understood, at least by those who hear it.

But unfortunately, it's a consideration that often slows the action to a crawl too -- a crawl that not even the occasional musical number can overcome. Slow cooking is not a recommended technique for theatrical stews.

Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People
Starring the ensemble
Director: ahdri zhina mandiela
DANCE NEWS: NBOC announces 2010-11 Season
9 Feb'10

Magic comes to ballet


It will be a season bracketed by fairy tales, but as usual Karen Kain and the NATIONAL BALLET OF CANADA are relying more on hard work and impressive dancing to illuminate their 2010-11 season, than on magic wands — which seem in short supply right now anyway.

The new season, announced by artistic director Kain at a news conference Monday, begins in November with a revisiting of James Kudelka’s acclaimed production of CINDERELLA, paired with a mixed program highlighted by the company premiere of British choreographer Wayne McGregor’s acclaimed CHROMA, featuring a set by architect John Pawson and a score by the rock band The White Stripes.

CHROMA will be paired with a revisiting of Crystal Pite’s Dora Award-winning EMERGENCE and with George Balanchine’s SERENADE.

For the full-length ballet in the winter season, the company will revisit Nicholas Beriozoff’s DON QUIXOTE after a decade-long hiatus, before presenting a mixed program that includes both Balanchine’s THEME AND VARIATIONS and his APOLLO, paired with the company premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s 2006 creation RUSSIAN SEASONS.

The NBOC’s summer 2011 season will open with an all-new production titled ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND from choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and composer Joby Talbot, in a co-production with the UK’s Royal Ballet, where the work will premiere earlier in the year. The summer’s mixed program will comprise Balanchine’s MOZARTIANA, Maurice Bejart’s SONG OF A WAYFARER and Twyla Tharp’s IN THE UPPER ROOM.

In addition to the regular Christmas offering of Kudelka’s THE NUTCRACKER, the NBOC will host the Ninth International Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize, honouring the memory of the company’s one-time artistic director in the 25th anniversary of his death.

Kain also announced that before the company launches its 2010-11 season at the Four Seasons, it will pay a return visit in October to Quebec City, after an absence of 20 years. That will be followed by performances in Montreal, before making the company’s annual pilgrimage to Ottawa.

NBOC executive director Kevin Garland opened the news conference on a high note, with news that the company’s fall 2009 season had exceeded financial projections, as had last year’s staging of THE NUTCRACKER, which enjoyed a record turnout. That means things are looking promising for the coming season, despite the fact the company roster has been trimmed from 62 dancers to 58.

Garland reminded everyone that the harmonized sales tax, due to kick in July 1, will raise the price of ballet tickets, an increase that can be avoided by purchasing a subscription early.

Monday, February 8, 2010

8 Feb'10

'Assassins' to die for

Rating: 5 out of 5

Every now and again, a production comes along that offers a stunning reminder that, theatrically speaking, the word 'ensemble' is more than merely a collective noun to be used when one doesn't have the space to list an entire cast. ASSASSINS, a production from BirdLand Theatre and Talk Is Free Theatre that opened at the Theatre Centre last Thursday, is one such production.

Written in 1990 by musical theatre genius Stephen Sondheim in a collaboration with John Weidman, Assassins is not so much the thinking man's musical as it is the thinking American's musical, concerned as it is with the uniquely American penchant for taking potshots at people in power — particularly, the popular pastime of attempting to unseat the sitting President of the United States of America through the use of deadly force.

From John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald to Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme and John Hinckley, Sondheim and Weidman culled the history books to assemble a unique cast of characters. Ignoring timelines and other constrictions of logic, they bring everyone who has ever approached a president with murderous intent to a single stage and wring them dry for the sole purpose of examining their motivations and their madness with a view to establishing the links between the American dream and the American nightmare.

Considering its subject matter, it is perhaps not surprising that, while ASSASSINS has achieved something akin to cult status with Sondheim fans, it has never found the wider American audience it so richly deserves. Happily, Sondheim's popularity doesn't recognize borders — so ASSASSINS has enjoyed success both in London's West End and here in Toronto, where an earlier production earned a following more than a decade ago.

But this new one is a production for the ages, despite the fact that it is obviously produced on a shoestring — and the reason can be found in that single word, ensemble.

Somehow, actor-turned-director Adam Brazier has assembled a rich mix of well-known musical theatre performers and developing talents for his project and fused them in such a way that they rise so far beyond the sum of all their parts that one suspects the word 'ensemble' might just be defined as a theatrical state of grace.

Under Brazier's direction, Graham Abbey, Jay Davis, Kaye Hewlett, Martin Julien, Trish Lindstrom, Paul McQuillan, Mike Ross, Steve Ross, Eliza-Jane Scott, Christopher Stanton, Jonathan Tan, Alicia Toner, Geoffrey Tyler and Kieran McNally-Kennedy all come together in a production entirely devoid of star turns. Instead, each performer is focused almost entirely it seems on telling their story in the best possible fashion. And to add to their accomplishments, many play musical instruments while they are doing it.

And Brazier doesn't stop there, deftly incorporating the handiwork of musical director Reza Jacobs and his three musicians, as well as that of set designer Beth Kates, costume designer Erika Connor and lighting whiz Gareth Crew in such a way that their contributions support the ensemble as well.

Miraculously, they conspire to transform the shortcomings of the space and the limitations of their budget into virtues that make the production even more memorable. The result is not merely riveting, but often thrilling too, as actors like McQuillan, Julien, Lindstrom and Tyler turn in what may be the best performances of their careers to date, supported at every turn by the solid, grounded skills of castmates like the two Rosses, Scott and Stanton and their director's heretofore unexplored ability.

Together, they transform ASSASSINS into a team undertaking that , for a theatre lover, is certain to make anything that happens centre ice or centre field (short of a cup for the Leafs) pale by comparison.

If you love musical theatre and somehow manage to miss this show, you just might feel like shooting yourself.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

6 FEB'10

New George F. Walker play triumphs

Rating: 4 out of 5

TORONTO - For playwright George F. Walker, it's a little like riding a bicycle -- something he does so well that he can pick it up after a 10-year hiatus and simply ride away.

Which is precisely what he's done in a new work titled AND SO IT GOES, which opened Thursday on the Factory Theatre's mainstage, under the playwright's direction -- thus ending a decade long, self-imposed exile from the stage.

While Walker's skill and balance appear to be undiminished, he's a little more tentative when it comes to traversing the emotional tightrope on which much of his earlier work was balanced, contenting himself to pedal along a gentler terrain that is more forgiving of life's little spills.

That's not all that has changed in Walker's world. His new play is marked not only by an episodic bleed-over from an impressive second career as a television writer, but by a subtle shift in focus as well. After years of opening windows to allow his middle-class audience to glimpse the lives of those forced to survive at the very fringes of society, in this new play he opens a window to show that same audience how little separates them these days from those fringes.

We meet Ned and Gwen (played by Peter Donaldson and Martha Burns) shortly after they've reached the top of their middle-class heap and begun the descent down the other side. After years as a successful financial planner, Ned has lost his job at the same time as their family appears to be falling apart.

Grown daughter Karen (fearlessly played by Jenny Young) is trapped in the throes of full-blown schizophrenia, a condition that may or may not have played a role in her brother's decision to fall off the face of his family's earth long before this play began.
Driven to distraction by her daughter's illness, Gwen is contemplating a return to an abandoned career as a teacher of Latin, while Ned explores the ins and outs of a career as a creme-caramel-challenged pastry chef.

For comfort and support, Gwen immerses herself in imaginary conversations with a character the program describes as "Vonnegut ... a writer" played by a rumpled but artfully lovable Jerry Franken. Clearly, it is meant to be the late iconic satirist Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who in SLAUGHTERHOUSE-5 popularized the phrase that gives this play its title. As their world slowly crumbles, Ned starts conversing with "Vonnegut" too, buying into a habit that will comfort them when Karen's life takes a tragic twist.

Not that hers is the only one that does, for where Walker once created emotional roller-coasters for his audience, here he takes us on board something more akin to The Scream -- a hair-raising free-fall with somewhat controlled landing that just might leave you breathless, if not exactly giddy.

But while Walker seems comfortable with this new voice, his directoral approach to it is definitely a little more tentative.
Working on a brooding, beautiful evocation of our city created by designer Shawn Kerwin and lit by Rebecca Picherak, Walker and his talented cast too often content themselves with creating snapshots of this familial tale, instead of the emotional vignettes theatre demands. Too often his characters seem concerned more with talking about their feelings than experiencing them.

In an unfortunate bit of enforced asymmetry, Donaldson traces the arc of Ned's emotional descent with clarity but remains oddly untouched physically, while Burns' Gwen shows the arc of physical deterioration without fully exploring the emotional.

It is easy to embrace a kinder, gentler Walker in the role of playwright, but as a director he has to learn that one of the quickest ways to the heart of a matter is most often right through the jugular. Even with a few simple reservations, AND SO IT GOES suggests that Walker has not only returned to the stage, he has come home.

Fest community gathering to honour Lindsay Thomas

6 Feb'10

Friends and members of the Stratford Festival will gather at 3 p.m. Monday at Stratford’s Parkview United Church to honour the memory of actor Lindsay Thomas, who died of cancer Wednesday. She was 31.
In addition to her appearances in Oklahoma, My One And Only, The Music Man, Oliver!, Don Juan and Fuente Ovejuna at the Stratford Festival, the promising young performer had appeared across the country, as well as on stages in Toronto (Jersey Boys) and on Broadway (Hairspray).

Friday, February 5, 2010

5 Feb'10

COC's OTELLO powerful, complex

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

TORONTO - Engineers have long recognized the effectiveness of the triangle as one of nature's most enduring building blocks.
Romanticists, meanwhile, have known for as long, or perhaps even longer, that when it comes to affairs of the heart, a triangle can be an instrument of destruction. Nowhere moreso, perhaps, than in Shakespeare's Othello, an unconventional tale of love and hate that ultimately destroys all three of its protagonists, through the corrosive powers of jealousy.

That power has been distilled even further, it seems, in OTELLO, Giuseppe Verdi's valedictory to the opera world, and what many consider to be his magnum opus.

OTELLO is on display now on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre in a lush Canadian Opera Company/Welsh National Opera co-production that opened Wednesday.

It's a production in which no one is likely to have the slightest difficulty recognizing the principal characters, for all that they have been substantially tweaked by librettist Arrigo Boito to make the twisted plot a little more focused and a trifle more -- well -- operatic.

First off, there is Otello himself, sung by tenor Clifton Forbis -- a Moor who has not only escaped a life of slavery but has, in the service of the Venetian Republic, pulled himself up by his military bootstraps until he commands a military force that, at the top of the tale, defeats the Turks in a massive sea battle. In celebration of his victory, he returns to the island of Cyprus and there weds the lovely Desdemona, sung by soprano Tiziana Caruso, a loving and faithful daughter of the republic that Otello serves.

And then, of course, there is the evil Iago (baritone Scott Hendricks), Otello's lieutenant and a man so jealous of his commander's success he will stop at nothing to cut him down to size. Using nothing but a handkerchief and Otello's own insecurities, he not only accuses his commander's new wife of infidelity, he weaves such a compelling web that Otello is driven first to murder and then to suicide, leaving Iago's career in ruins as well.

But in the end, it's a libretto that supports Verdi's dark and dramatic music far more than it does nuanced characterizations -- and one suspects every director who has ever tackled the work has faced a major challenge in balancing Iago's treachery with Otello's intelligence.

To forestall any questions as to why Otello doesn't see through Iago's very obvious machinations, director Paul Curran and designer Paul Edwards have conspired to create a rough-and-tumble military world in period, wherein both men are far more concerned with doing than with feeling, and both Forbis and Hendricks embrace it with convincing swagger and strong vocal skills.

Meanwhile, Caruso's Desdemona quickly rises above the kind of unfortunate costuming that suggests that before there was a Frederick's of Hollywood, there was a Frederick's of Venice, to create a memorably tragic and musically nuanced operatic heroine.

But mostly, they just go with the musical flow, wisely relying heavily on Verdi's complex and magnificent score -- a whole-cloth exploration of the darker side of human emotion, served up with tightly reined skill by the COC Orchestra under Paolo Olmi -- and Edwards' lush sets to carry the day. They all succeed admirably, despite that pile of rubble that anchors an otherwise strong design palate and cramps some of the otherwise beautiful crowd scenes, featuring a memorable blending of the COC Chorus and the Canadian Children's Opera Company.

They may not climb to Shakespearean heights, but somewhere Verdi could be grinning ear to ear as he enjoys the view.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

3 Feb'10

‘Light In The Piazza’ seductive

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

In the geography of the modern musical, it’s located in the under-populated middle ground. Somewhere south of opera, but far to the north of the music hall; somewhere between the tuneful but often formulaic turf frequented by traditional musical theatre, and the more rarefied intellectual heights claimed by Sondheim and his disciples.
That’s where you’ll find a wonderful musical titled THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA.

On a more pragmatic level, it is set in Florence, Italy, circa 1953. After a winning a clutch of Tonys in its New York premiere a few years back, THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA finally made its Canadian premiere in Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Theatre, where it opened Monday in an Acting Up Stage Company production of often understated elegance.

Adapted from the novella of the same name by Elizabeth Spencer, it’s the handiwork of playwright Craig Lucas and composer/lyricist Adam Guettel, the latter clearly following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Richard Rodgers, at the same time as he explores fertile new ground.

The subject here is love — a romance between Fabrizio, a shy young Italian man played with a potent mix of bravado and delicacy by Jeff Lillico, and Clara, a developmentally disabled American woman, played with equal skill and charm by Jacquelyn French.

At age 26, Clara, whose intellect was stunted by a tragic accident at age 12, has come to Italy with her devoted and protective mother Margaret, played by Patty Jamieson.

The two young lovers meet while mother and daughter are touring Florence. That’s when Clara’s hat is snatched by an errant breeze and redeemed by Fabrizio, who quickly succumbs to Clara’s innocent charm. Despite her mother’s best efforts to run interference, Clara is charmed by the halting attentions of the awkward young suitor, who in turn is quickly so smitten that he won’t let minor considerations such as language or parental antipathy stand in his way.

Soon, his entire family is involved in the courtship of Clara — his father (played by Juan Chioran), mother (Christina Gordon), even his brother (Michael Torontow) and sister-in-law (Tracy Michailidis). All of which leaves Margaret struggling under the increasing burden of an unshared secret.

As love stories go, it is a bit of a minefield. But thanks as much to the focus and skill of both director Robert McQueen and his cast as to Lucas’ adaptation, it’s a seductive story that is both deeply and surprisingly moving. Happily, love seems to be fluent in both Italian and English.

There’s simplicity and elegance at play in Phillip Silver’s lighting and set design, and period elegance in Alex Amini’s costuming. But what finally carries the day is superb acting coupled with Guettel’s score, adapted here for a five-piece ensemble by the composer himself, and served up by musical director Jonathan Monro.

Whereas too many musicals impose and inject songs on a story, story and music are fused here in such a way that it seems all but impossible to remove any of the musical numbers from their context. Songs such as the haunting Say It Somehow and Love To Me, and even the madcap Aiutami — an entire opera in a single song — serve as powerful musical adjuncts to the moment. Few would linger were they to be surgically excised from their context.

All of which is not to say that this is a perfect production — at least not yet — for while the entire cast claims the stage with confidence, the entire production is marked by a certain formal reserve that, one suspects, may well disappear in the playing.

The Light In The Piazza
At the Berkeley Street Theatre
Directed by Robert McQueen
Starring the ensemble

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

OPERA NEWS: Atelier goes gold for silver
2 Feb'10


Opera Atelier is gearing up to celebrate its silver anniversary — and true to form for a company with a baroque gilt complex, they're doing everything to ensure that their silver anniversary season will be nothing if not golden.

To launch its 2010/11 season, the company will revisit Handel's ACIS AND GALATEA, a work they last tackled in the early '90s. Tenor Thomas Macleay and soprano Mireille Asselin will essay the title roles under the direction of Marshall Pynkoski.

For the second show in its two-show season, OA will produce North America's first period production of Mozart's LA CLAMENZA DI TITO, while Pynkoski will once again direct this fourth production in the company's Mozart Six plan, which already includes IDOMENEO, THE ABDUCTION OF THE SERAGLIO and THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO (which will open in a new production in April). No casting is yet available.

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