Wednesday, September 29, 2010

29 Sep'10

Rating: 5 out of 5

These days, when Toronto theatre-goers ask, "Ever been to see Billy?" they'll be more concerned, one suspects, with high camp and hijinx than Captain Highliner.

For the Billy in question is no dewy-eyed little boy -- at least not when we first meet him as the title character in BILLY TWINKLE: REQUIEM FOR A GOLDEN BOY. The latest creation from Ronnie Burkett and his internationally acclaimed Theatre of Marionettes has had theatre people talking across the nation. BILLY TWINKLE finally opened in its Toronto premiere Tuesday, launching a new season at the Factory Theatre. And frankly, when we first meet Billy Twinkle, he is very much at sea, both literally and figuratively -- and he's feeling a little sea sick.

Played by Burkett, Billy, at 50 and beyond, is simply doing what he's been doing for years, entertaining cruise ship patrons with his marionette show titled Stars in Miniature. And not only is he sick of the work, he is sick of his boorish audience as well,. So, it's hardly surprising when he commits what is apparently, the cardinal sin amongst cruise ship entertainers and shushes a member of his audience.

Fired for his transgressions, a marionette master at the end of his rope, he decides to commit suicide. That plan, if plan it be, is high-jacked when he is suddenly possessed by the spirit of his long-deceased mentor, Sid Diamond, who has taken over a hand puppet who shanghais Billy into reliving his life to figure out where it all went off the rails. Or perhaps, off the strings is more appropriate. Under Sid's control, Billy's life is played out, vaudeville style, by a troupe of marionettes, introducing us to Billy as a young boy in Moose Jaw, Sask., dreaming of finding big-time stardom in the miniature world of marionettes and leading him, with several always delightful and usually irreverent side trips, back to his current berth on the voyage of the damned.

But this is no ship of fools, for Burkett's marionettes and their creator/manipulator have shaken off most of the constraint that has marked Burkett's more recent shows to return to the broad and bawdy ways of his and their youth, supported by the music of John Alcorn and the lighting of Kevin Humphrey.

Meanwhile, Billy's story is just autobiographical enough to lead an audience to suspect that it may indeed be Burkett's own story -- Burkett was raised in Medicine Hat, just down the road from Moose Jaw, was mentored by a well-known American puppeteer and even performed in his hometown's annual Kiwanis Festival. Although, if memory serves, his choice of material favoured show tunes from A CHORUS LINE rather than the folks songs Billy struggles to learn. But unlike Billy, Burkett has rarely had to sell his soul as a mere commercial artist, and while Billy claims to be sick of the world of puppets, Burkett is still clearly fascinated by it. After nearly a quarter century, he is still turning the world of marionettes on its ear with a potent blend of inventiveness and irreverence, pushing the creative envelope at the same time as he's teetering on the very outer edges of what is broadly defined as good taste.

So if one is really looking for Burkett in this show, one might be better advised to look beyond facile coincidence to the man himself -- a one-time golden boy suddenly face to face with mortality and learning that, as a truly gifted performer, gifts are not only received but given. Billy Twinkle is not, mind you, a perfect show, particularly in an ending that feels far too pat. But few are likely to notice, for once again, Burkett dazzles us with his creativity and with the sparkle Billy loves.
THEATRE NEWS: More wit from Shamas
29 Sep'10


If all the world is indeed a stage, then it seems Sandra Shamas has a starring role. In fact, the comic genius behind the saga that started with MY BOYFRIEND'S BACK AND THERE'S GOING TO BE LAUNDRY has announced that she's about to take to the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre, yet again, to bring the world up to date on the latest developments in her life.

In fact, her latest show, the sixth in her ongoing comic autobiography, titled WIT'S END III: LOVE LIFE is slated to open a limited run there on Feb. 18, following two preview performances, and run through Feb. 27. Tickets, priced from $25 to $65, are currently available at 416-872-5555.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

28 Sep'10

Rating: 4 out of 5

As long as there are no limits to the depths of mankind's depravity -- and as anyone who follows the news will tell you, we collectively plumb new depths on a regular basis -- then it is my firm belief that playwrights should have no limits set on the depths of depravity they are allowed to explore. Charged with holding a mirror up to our civilization (and our lack of it), they have license to not only soar with our angels, but to periodically dance with our demons as well -- and that's only fair.

In her too-brief life -- a life she chose to end by her own hand -- playwright Sarah Kane danced with far more demons than most of us will ever encounter and seemingly found precious few angels dancing on the head of her pin. In fact, in her early works, like BLASTED -- which opened in its Canadian English language premiere at Buddies in Bad Times Tuesday -- she not only danced with those demons but got down on the ground and rolled around in the coals with 'em for good measure.

Set in an anonymous hotel room in Leeds, BLASTED starts out as a sleazy, sad encounter between Ian, a hard-bitten and hard-living journalist (played by David Ferry), and Cate, a (too) young and developmentally impaired naif with who he has shared a sexual dalliance (played by Michelle Monteith). Whether out of scruple or pure indifference, Ian had let their sordid little relationship lapse for awhile, but there is not much confusion about why he has lured his young victim back into his circle again -- and, not surprisingly, when she refuses his overtures, he simply takes what he wants.

With Ferry initially in fine form and playing off Monteith's superbly etched performance -- she played the same kind of damaged innocent in Nightwood's production of Kane's CRAVE -- this is very creepy stuff, bordering on the unwatchable. But, in truth, the playwright is just getting started and she's going a lot deeper into the muck before she's done. While Ian has been abusing Cate, it develops, war has broken out in the world around them -- and it arrives in their room in the form of an unnamed soldier for whom war has become a deeply personal quest for revenge. Dylan Smith tackles what is essentially a thankless and dehumanizing role with admirable ferocity.

In a world turned suddenly upside down, the victimizer is soon the victim, but Kane doesn't even stop there, spiraling further and further into the darkest corners of the human psyche to create an unflinching screed that while it may fail to plumb the full depths of depravity, certainly goes deep enough to give anyone with a conscience the bends.

Working on an appropriately anonymous set created by designer Julie Fox and lit by Kimberly Purtell, with sound by Richard Feren, Buddies artistic director Brendan Healy has created an unflinching interpretation of Kane's work. It is marred -- though certainly not undone -- by the size of Ferry's performance, which just gets bigger as the tale progresses -- regardless of the horrors visited upon his character -- until he tramples all over the single grace note that ends the show with metaphorical hobnail boots.

Reviewed here in final preview, BLASTED emerges as a commendable piece of work, which should not, for a moment be confused with recommendable piece of work. Outside of a few people currently serving life sentences, I can't think of a single person to whom this work could be recommended in good conscience. That said, if you feel you must, then you have every bit as much right to see this play as Kane had to write it.

At least, that's what I believe.

THEATRE NEWS: Four 'Billies' toddlin’ north
27 Sep'10


Chicago may indeed be a toddlin' town, just like the song says. But when BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL opens on Toronto's Canon stage in January, it will feature the four young men currently sharing the title role in the Chicago production of the Tony Award-winning show -- all of whom will be toddlin' north to be a part of the Canadian premiere cast. And for at least three of them, it will be a homecoming of sorts.

Of the four young Billies announced on the weekend, three of them -- 14-year-old Cesar Corrales, 12-year-old Myles Erlick and 12-year-old Marcus Pei -- have trained at the National Ballet School, as well as performed in the National Ballet of Canada's production of THE NUTCRACKER, leaving only 14-year-old J.P Viernes from California to make his debut on the Canadian stage.

Of the quartet, Cuban-born, Quebec-trained Corrales and Viernes are the most seasoned in the role, having performed as Billy since it hit the Chicago stage in March. The Iowa-born Pei made his Billy debut just a few weeks ago, while Erlick, who hails from Burlington, is preparing to dive into the role in the next few weeks. With four young actors sharing the role, it boils down to two performances a week for each of them -- and that's just fine with them, it seems.

"I think two shows a week is fine," Corrales said Monday as he sat down with his fellow Billies for a bit of a chat at a media meet-and-greet at the Canon Theatre. And Pei certainly concurs, pointing out that performing isn't all they do. "We have to be there for rehearsals and stand-bys and stuff."

And while all four clearly are as happy as clams in the make-believe world of Billy Elliot, they all admit to an occasional longing for aspects of the life they've left behind. For Corrales, it's having two full days a week off, while for Viernes, it's his circle of friends back in California. Erlick meanwhile sums it up for all of them when he says: "There is sometimes that you (miss your old life), but this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. This is an amazing experience and it is just so cool."

And all four of them have been in the show long enough to learn to savour the moment, for all of them know that with every passing day, they are one day closer to outgrowing the part of the young man driven against all odds to dance. When Erlick steps into the part, he will be the 48th performer to play Billy since the show debuted in London's West End, according to producer Eric Fellner who also produced the movie on which the musical is based.

As the two senior members of Toronto's Billy brigade, Viernes and Corrales are sanguine about their diminishing shelf life as Billy. "Usually, I just try to enjoy the moment," Viernes says, while Corrales adds: "You can't stop growing." And for this talented foursome, Billy Elliot is clearly a growth industry.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

24 Sep'10

Rating: 3 out of 5

Hey Toronto! Fernando Krapp wrote us this letter -- but sadly, something seems to have been lost in the translation. Not so much in Matthew Jocelyn's translation of Tankred Dorst's free-wheeling stage adaptation of Miguel de Unamuno's novella Nothing Less Than a Man, mind you, but rather in Jocelyn's subsequent transformation of his translation from the page to the stage.

FERNANDO KRAPP WROTE ME THIS LETTER: AN ATTEMPT AT THE TRUTH opened in its Canadian première at the Bluma Appel Theatre Thursday, launching a new season for Canadian Stage. In the process it marked an official inauguration of sorts for Jocelyn's tenure as artistic director there, launching as it does the first season to bear his imprimatur. And almost from the get-go, it is clear that, as an artistic director, Jocelyn certainly knows how to pick 'em.

While, at least in Jocelyn's translation from Dorst's native German to English, this play may fall a trifle short of the language of truly great drama. It is nonetheless a powerful, timeless piece of work that offers three roles against which any actor who aspires to greatness should be proud to measure him or herself. But while the choice of FERNANDO KRAPP may give Jocelyn major street cred on the artistic front, his subsequent staging of the work fails to impress on the directorial level.

Set in an unnamed town at a time unspecified, FKWMTL begins just after the letter in question has been received. That letter was written to Julia, the most beautiful girl in town (played by Ngozi Paul) by the fabulously wealthy Fernando Krapp (Ashley Wright). Krapp has just arrived in town and is proposing marriage with the full connivance of Julia's father (Walter Borden), who has arranged a brief bridal viewing across a crowded park. Overwhelmed by her unknown suitor's brashness, Julia eventually succumbs to his matrimonial blandishments, but in the face of her husband's unassailable pragmatism, the romantic and insecure young wife eventually falls under the spell of her tragic and poetic neighbour, played by Ryan Hollyman.

It's a compelling love story, devoid of heroes or villains in the conventional sense, that nonetheless succeeds time after time in its attempts at emotional, even human truths. Unfortunately, Jocelyn seems determined to put the wrong emphasis on Dorst's international reputation as an absurdist playwright, using absurdity not so much to underline the humanity of the tale, but rather as a bizarre end in itself.

By walling his performers off from the drama of their characters and fitting them instead with metaphorical straight jackets of silliness, he transforms Paul, Wright and Hollyman into a sloppily deconstructed and woefully reconstituted version of The Three Stooges. This forces them to not only walk all over the story they are trying to tell, but to take the occasional pratfall on it as well for good measure. It's not exactly a clown version of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, but it comes uncomfortably close.

Ironically, the tragedy of Jocelyn's blurred vision is compounded rather than diminished by typically fine work from designer Astrid Janson (sets and costumes) and Robert Thomson (lighting), who fill the stage with flashes of brilliant colour, fairly dripping with sunshine. The contributions of sound designer Lyon Smith however prove a tad more difficult to embrace, seemingly imposed more because they are available than because they are necessary.

As a publicity stunt, faux-protesters welcomed opening night audiences to the St. Lawrence Centre with cheeky signs proclaiming: "Live Theatre is Krapp." While that may indeed be true, one can't help but conclude that this playwright deserves better KRAPP than this -- and so do CanStage audiences.

Friday, September 24, 2010

23 Sep'10

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

TORONTO - While few dispute Socrates' assertion that an unexamined life is not worth living, the notion that the afterlife might be worth a session under the microscope has received precious little attention in modern theatre. Until Alberta playwright Stephen Massicotte came along, that is.

In his latest work, THE CLOCKMAKER, Massicotte takes the time-worn notion of creation as a finely tuned time piece and turns it on its ear in a work that borrows liberally from such disparate sources as Franz Kafka, Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin, without ever diminishing the playwright's impressive creative capital.

And while THE CLOCKMAKER, which had its Toronto premiere at the Tarragon Theatre Wednesday, may be just the latest work to hit the Toronto stage -- still sporting the hyper-theatrical glitter that marks a lot of the work coming out of Wild Rose Country -- it doesn't stop there. For even though it is cloaked in the theatrical preciousness popularized by Edmonton's Teatro La Quindicina and more recently that city's Catalyst Theatre, this production directed by Bob White moves beyond such stylized theatricality to actually touch its audience.

That's thanks in no small part to the fine work of the two leads -- Christian Goutsis in the title role of Herr Mann, an unassuming little German clockmaker with more than a few nervous ticks; and Claire Calnan, as Frieda, his love interest. Mind you, under White's assured direction, they get a lot of help from two other highly skilled performers cast in supporting roles -- Kevin Bundy, chilling as Frieda's abusive husband and Damien Atkins as the mysterious Monsieur Pierre -- in this fast-paced, 95-minute work.

THE CLOCKMAKER is simultaneously simple and complex, funny and sad. It all starts with a bewildering confrontation between the aforementioned Monsieur Pierre, an over-officious bureaucrat of the highest order (although just what order remains unclear for most of the play) and the hapless Herr Mann, newly arrived at an unnamed destination where he is under suspicion for a murder that has not yet been committed. From there the action rockets back to Herr Mann's shop, just in time for Frieda to arrive bearing a shattered clock she hopes Herr Mann can repair -- even though it is clearly irreparable. The rest of the work unfolds rather tidily on these two plains, with Scott Reid's industrial set serving a multitude of purposes, lit by Rebecca Picherack and only marginally impeded by the overlong blackouts that separate the scenes.

There was, one suspects, more than a touch of whimsy in artistic director Richard Rose's decision to launch Tarragon's 40th anniversary season with a work about time -- but happily, as this production proves so conclusively, there was more than a dollop of genius as well.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

22 Sep'10

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Anyone who might be inclined to rush out to catch the Company Theatre's production of THROUGH THE LEAVES on the basis of playwright Xaver Kroetz's ongoing popularity in his native Germany might be well advised to remember, if only for a moment, that this is also the country that gave us filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

For while designer John Thompson happily avoids in his sets, costumes and lighting, the bile-tinted palette so beloved by the iconic German filmmaker, the playwright nonetheless leads us into the same slough of human despair from which Fassbinder forced us to drink.

Translated from its native German by Anthony Vivis, THROUGH THE LEAVES -- currently playing in the Tarragon's Extra Space -- is a tragic love story, of sorts, between Martha (played by Maria Vacratsis) and Otto (played by Nicholas Campbell).

Well beyond the first blush of youth, we meet them near the very beginning of their affair -- if it can be called that -- as Maria prepares to entertain Otto in the back room of her butcher shop, which specializes in tripe and the assorted offal Europeans seem to find more appetizing than their North American counterparts, even if a lot of it is simply fed to pampered pets. It is a business Martha inherited from her parents, but she's worked hard to keep it afloat -- an exercise that has not only supported her but distracted her for years from the fact that she is slowly drowning in a sea of loneliness. Now, suddenly there is Otto, obviously someone Martha considers a catch even though it is obvious to even the most casual observer that his best-before date is clearly a matter of ancient history.

But even though these are clearly two people striving to find a way out of the isolation that threatens to consume them, it seems the closer Martha and Otto become, the more impossible it is for them to connect in anything but the most rudimentary sexual fashion. While everything in Martha seems willing to do just about anything and everything she possibly can to bind Otto to her, the native intelligence that has brought her comparative success in her business holds her back and demands she maintain a degree of independence, even while she strives to involve Otto in her life.

Meanwhile, for Otto, Martha's success proves as problematic as her insurmountable plainness, and he strives not only to dominate her, but to cut her down to his level -- and what ensues over the 75 minutes of the production has a terrible beauty, for all that it is often far from pretty.

In his directorial debut, Phillip Riccio, co-artistic director of The Company, gives us an admirably constrained and understated production -- so constrained and understated, in fact, that one wishes he'd provided a bit more emotional texture and shape to both performances, for while both his principals turn in fine performances, one is hungering for human roughage by the time the curtain falls.

For a woman who has spent her life alone, Vacratsis' Martha seems to exist on a surprisingly barren emotional plain throughout, even while she's making the diary entries that drive the show. Meanwhile, Campbell simply wallows in Otto's chauvinism and misogyny, without ever really allowing us a glimpse of the demons that consume him.

Still, it's compelling theatre. And while one is left feeling that they can't really see the forest for the leaves, at least we've had a tantalizing and terrifying glimpse of the heartbreaking demons who make it home.
THEATRE NEWS: Monday with Stephen
22 Sep'10


David Mirvish is betting all those who love SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH
GEORGE aren't going to want to miss Monday in the theatre with Stephen.

Mirvish has announced that, on Monday, Dec. 6, the Princess of Wales Theatre will play host to AN EVENING WITH STEPHEN SONDHEIM, featuring a rare appearance by the 80-year-old composer and lyricist behind such celebrated works as WEST SIDE STORY, COMPANY, FOLLIES, SWEENEY TODD, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, and, of course, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, which is part of the Mirvish subscription season.
After an introduction from Stratford's Des McAnuff, who directs FORUM, Sondheim will engage in an onstage conversation with Toronto theatre journalist, Robert Cushman.

Sondheim's new book, 'Finishing the Hat--Collected Lyrics 1954-1981 with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies,Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes' will be published Oct. 26 by Knopf.

Tickets for the Dec. 6 event, priced from $22 to $99, are available at
416-872-1212 or at
THEATRE NEWS: Shaw Fest’s golden season announced
22 Sep'10


Artistic director Jackie Maxwell is determined that the 50th season of the Shaw Festival will be a golden one indeed. To that end, the 2011 season she announced Monday will include three plays by Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright for whom the Festival is named, as well as a musical adaptation of a fourth.

But Maxwell's new season certainly doesn't stop there. In addition to productions of Shaw's HEARTBREAK HOUSE (to be directed on the Festival Theatre stage by the Fest's erstwhile artistic director Christopher Newton), ON THE ROCKS (on the Court House stage, directed by Joseph Ziegler), CANDIDA (on the Royal George stage, directed by Gina Wilkinson) and MY FAIR LADY -- Alan Jay Lerner's and Frederick Loewe's musical adaptation of Shaw's PYGMALION (on the Festival stage, directed by Molly Smith) -- Maxwell has a impressive bouquet of other shows planned. Two of them she will direct herself -- the world premiere of MARIA SEVERA, a new musical by longtime Shaw company members Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli on the Court House stage; and the Canadian premiere of Lennox Robinson's DRAMA AT INISH -- A COMEDY.

In addition, look for a Festival Theatre production of J.M. Barrie's THE ADMIRAL CRICHTON, directed by Morris Panych, and a new production of Tennessee Williams' CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, directed by Eda Holmes.

For lunchtime patrons, Maxwell plans to revive the acclaimed 2008 production of Morwyn Brebner's adaptation of Ferenc Molnar's THE PRESIDENT, directed by Blair Williams.

Two productions have also been programmed for the third season of the Fest's intimate Studio Theatre -- the Canadian premiere, in association with Obsidian Theatre, of Suzan-Lori Parks TOPDOG/UNDERDOG (directed by Philip Akin), and the Canadian premiere of Andrew Bovell's WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING (directed by Peter Hinton).

Casting for the 2011 season is to be announced next month, with tickets on sale to the general public in January, priced at 2010 levels.

Monday, September 20, 2010

20 Sep'10

Rating: 3 out of 5

More than two decades after successfully reinventing the circus, the folks at Cirque du Soleil have apparently been overcome once again with an uncontrollable desire to take something old and magically make it new again. Or at least, make the attempt.

In this case, the focus of their reawakened creative juices is not on the circus ring but the dress circle as they move up entertainment's evolutionary ladder from the big top to the theatrical stage -- or more specifically, the vaudeville stage. But despite their best efforts, first in New York and then in Chicago, it doesn't seem that they've managed to do for the borscht belt what they did for the big top, at least judging by the production of BANANA SHPEEL that pulled into the Canon Theatre Sunday for a Toronto run. Put succinctly, BANANA SHPEEL doesn't so much serve to usher in a thrilling vaudeville renaissance as introduce us to a heightened state of ambivalence with a show that walks a new kind of tightrope, managing in the end to be neither bad enough to hate nor good enough to love.

That it is not traditional Cirque fare is to be expected, even celebrated -- and indeed, that isn't the problem, for if anything there are far too many of the big, bold Cirque acts on offer, re-thought and reconfigured for the proscenium stage. In fact, the impressive roster of contortionists, jugglers, spinners and gymnasts are all certifiably Cirque, even though their skills seem to be have been reined in to accommodate the diminished height and depth of the conventional stage.

And then of course, there are the clowns -- a slate of seven of 'em, in fact, all of them seemingly convinced their form of comedy is interchangeable with the stand-up skills of great comedians who once spent years honing their skills on the vaudeville circuit. And indeed, they just might be, for Danny Rutigliano, Claudio Careiro, Patrick de Valette, Shereen Hickman, Daniel Passer, Gordon White and Wayne Wilson are all hugely talented.

But under the direction of writer David Shiner, they get precious little chance to show it -- at least to their advantage. Instead, they are charged with carrying the full weight of a second-rate narrative that Shiner has imposed as seeming justification for forsaking the big top for the theatrical big-time. And frankly, that's where things start to fall apart; for in attempting to hitch a ride on vaudeville's rather shabby coattails, the folks at Cirque seem to have overlooked the audience on whose collective imaginations Cirque's success has been built.

Over the years, Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix have consistently refused to simply tell a story, instead setting scenes that force every member of their audience to impose his or her own narrative -- a brilliant way to draw an audience into a show. Now, with a narrative served up on a platter -- Shiner takes the whole premise of the Ed Sullivan Show and almost succeeds in converting it into the Dead Sullivan Show as a Schmelky Spectacular, overseen by impresario Marty Schmelky, played by Rutigliano -- it all just seems a little tedious, as he tries to pass an amuse-bouche off as a main course.

In the end, one has to be grateful for the artistry of choreographer Jared Grimes, whose tap numbers fairly sparkle, and designers Patricia Ruel and Bruno Rafie, whose respective sets and lighting are often delightfully breathtaking. But ultimately, though no one is killed in this collision between Cirque and vaudeville, no one really walks away uninjured either.

19 Aug'10

'Bass-baritone JASON HOWARD equally at home singing musical theatre or opera'


It may be a long, long way from Valhalla to Bali Hai, but bass-baritone Jason Howard certainly doesn't seem to mind the commute, anymore than he minds the commute between Strasbourg, France, and Toronto that has consumed his summer. One voyage is figurative, of course, for as any opera buff can tell you Valhalla is the legendary home of the god Wotan and his slain hordes in Richard Wagner's glorious Ring cycle, while Bali Hai is the fabled island paradise at the heart of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical theatre classic, SOUTH PACIFIC.

And as for the more literal commute, Howard has spent a major portion of his summer in Strasbourg performing in Wagner's magnum opus -- and now he's back home in Toronto, singing the role of the romantic planter Emile de Becque in SOUTH PACIFIC at the Four Seasons Centre. The touring version of director Bartlett Sher's acclaimed 2008 Tony-winning Broadway revival, SOUTH PACIFIC opened Sunday, the second offering in Dancap's first summer season in Toronto's beautiful opera hall.

Having established himself first as a dab hand in the world of Italian and French opera, before tackling The Ring's Wotan in such a way as to lead one critic to describe him as "the Wotan of his generation," the Welsh-born Howard, who now makes his home in Toronto with his wife and two daughters, might have expected his debut on the stage of the Four Seasons to be something more operatic, echoing the work that has led him to stages in other Canadian cities such as Hamilton and Edmonton. But if he's disappointed to be appearing instead in musical theatre, he's certainly masking it well.

"They didn't have to tempt me at all," he insists. "This is one of the iconic roles (in musical theatre). I'm delighted to be singing this show of all shows. It's so accessible. This show appeals to everyone."

And so what if it's not opera? Musical theatre, particularly musical theatre this good, is just fine with him. He got his start more or less in musical theatre, after all, combining it with the choral work so popular in the land of his birth. "And over the years of my career, I've kept one foot in each camp," he continues, pointing out that not only does he include musical theatre standards on his albums, "I've always included the songs in my concerts in Wales as well. I warrant and respect this piece, and this production of this piece, as one of the best shows I've ever done," he says.

There are, not surprisingly, major differences in the demands of opera and the demands of musical theatre. "You don't do eight shows a week in opera," Howard points out. "You pace yourself in a different way." Which is not to say that roles such as The Ring's Wotan are cakewalks --far from it.

"It's like the biggest, fattest juiciest steak you've ever seen," he says with a relish that indicates that vegetarianism isn't going to play a major role in his life. "Wotan is easily the hardest thing I've ever done -- but difficult challenges bring big rewards, if you get through them."

But moving back and forth between the two gives a performer a chance to stretch different muscles. "Definitely," he says. "That's one of the challenges of doing musical theatre. I get to do dialogue like a proper actor."

Regardless of what he's singing, he has discovered there's always a payoff that goes beyond dollars and cents. "Oh yeah, very much so," he says with a slow smile. "I've always had a deep love of the art form, and I've always loved the physical sensation of singing. I love thrilling people with my voice. There's something wonderful about allowing yourself to be the conduit for conveying great art."

In short, it's worth the commute.