Friday, December 9, 2011
MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW: MEMPHIS
Pictured: Felicia Boswell, Bryan Fenkart
In terms of historic conflagrations, it’s not up there with the burning of Atlanta, but the inflaming of Memphis is still, dramatically speaking, a compelling story. In fact, the musical that’s been spun from it by playwright/lyricist Joe DiPietro and composer/lyricist David Bryan, fittingly titled MEMPHIS: THE MUSICAL, has generated a fair bit of heat.
Having picked up a brace of Tonys, including best musical last year in Broadway’s annual Bonfire of the Vanities, it’s now sparked a touring edition, which burst into flames Wednesday on the stage of Toronto Centre for the Arts, where it will play through to Christmas Eve under the aegis of Dancap Productions.
It’s an interesting tale, set in the city of title in the middle of the last century, just as a new kind of music called rock ’n’ roll was moving out of the black juke joints in which it had been born to claim the musical consciousness of a generation. Inspired by the real-life adventures of one Dewey Phillips, MEMPHIS tells the story of an affable Tennessee high school drop-out by the name of Huey (Bryan Fenkart), whose passion for what was then politely called ‘race music’ (and for one of the lovely young women who sang it) would help transform both modern music and the airwaves on which it was played.
Huey meets Felicia (played by Felicia Boswell) in the all-black club her brother (Quentin Earl Darrington) runs on Beale Street — and driven as much by the beat of the music he loves as his promise to make Felicia famous, he becomes an unlikely but likable disc jockey on Memphis’ pre-eminent mainstream radio station. The establishment, of course, dismisses the young upstart with a sneer, but Huey is soon dominating the airwaves — and after Felicia performs live on his show, romance blossoms.
But this is the American South in the mid ’50s, after all, and a burgeoning romance between a white man and a black woman is little short of incendiary, even if he is from the wrong side of the tracks and she is the epitome of polished grace. And so they find themselves trapped in a great racial divide that 60 years later, still separates much of America.
MEMPHIS: THE MUSICAL, has a lot going for it — not the least of which is a songbook of brand-new rock classics, written specifically for the show, but sounding more or less authentic to the time. Indeed, some of them, like Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night, are even worth more than a second listen, even though few of them conspire to further the story much. Then there’s the choreography of Sergio Trujillo, delivering on the promise he exhibited in Jersey Boys and Stratford’s West Side Story, creating a dazzlingly sexy showcase of funky, sophisticated movement that never seems to let up through the length of the show.
There’s some impressive vocal work too, and while Boswell’s vocal delivery feels a lot more of this era than the one in which the story is set, the work of artists like Darrington, Rhett George, Will Mann and William Parry more than compensates, with Fenkart tying it all together with a loopy, aw-shucks charm.
It all comes together for a rollicking good time, despite the fact that neither DiPietro’s book nor Christopher Ashley’s direction aims to probe too deeply into the very real and painful issues the story explores, content to skate over complex racial and emotional issues that could give the story an emotional heft to match its musical pedigree. In the end, it’s still a love story in which the man chooses the city that spurned her over the girl he loves — and that’s always going to be a tough sell, one suspects.
Thursday, December 8, 2011
FEATURE THEATRE INTERVIEW:
Sergio Trujillo's dance card filled
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Sergio Trujillo made it home for Christmas — but he couldn’t stay.
Instead, the award-winning choreographer of Jersey Boys, The Addams Family and Memphis (the Tony Award-winning musical whose Toronto Centre for the Arts opening Wednesday brought Trujillo home for an early Christmas reunion with his family) will be jetting off to Argentina next week to audition dancers for a new tango-inspired work. But he’s not complaining.
“Actually, I’m not as busy as I’ve been,” Trujillo says as he catches his breath on a whirlwind tour of Toronto media. There was a time, he explains, when he was working on both Memphis and The Addams Family simultaneously and things got a little intense.
“At that point, I was focused” he recalls, “but that’s as busy as I ever want to be. I only do things now that I can manage.” Apparently, however, he can manage a fair bit, for his dance card is still full, with plenty of new offers arriving on a regular basis. Not that choosing new projects is a problem.
“I have to still listen to my instincts,” Trujillo says. “I have to believe in that inner voice. If it’s something I can service — the material — then I’m definitely involved.” That inner voice has set an interesting course for the 48-year-old Colombian-born, Toronto-raised artist, who remembers launching his dancing career in his late teens. “The core of what I wanted to be was a dancer, but I didn’t think you could make money,” he admits.
So, he worked at his dancing at the same time he was working on a bachelor’s degree in science at the University of Toronto, where he studied to be a chiropractor. Dance ended up not only funding his education, but becoming his career as well — and though that career has taken him around the world, Toronto is still home in his heart. Part of that, of course, is the fact that his family is still here — but Toronto is a city of memories as well.
“When I started to dance — from 19 to 25,” he says with a smile. “That’s when I remember myself in Toronto. I remember this young guy with a hunger and an ambition to dance.” That ambition has continued to grow and, having transitioned from dancer to choreographer, Trujillo is now contemplating directing.
“I’ve been directing and choreographing for the last three years,” he says, “Projects that I’m still working on.” And his confidence is growing. “When I work with the great directors, like Des McAnuff, it just seems unachievable, but then I start working on something like Havana (the Frank-Wildhorn-Nilo Cruz-Jack Murphy musical that will mark his Broadway directorial debut) and it just makes so much sense.”
As for the dancing, which he left behind at the end of a hugely successful run in the Toronto-born Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance, he doesn’t miss it, for the plain and simple reason that he’s now calling the tune. “I still dance — and I still dance hard,” he says with conviction.
He smiles. “I just remind myself of where I come from. It’s been a journey that’s been full of hard work and sacrifices.”
But just look where it has brought him — and where it’s likely to take him in the future. And we’re not talking Argentina.
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Theatre renamed in honour of Ed Mirvish
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - Seems Ed Mirvish is going to have his name up in lights — yet again. At a special ceremony Tuesday, the theatre known for the past decade as the Canon Theatre was officially re-christened the Ed Mirvish Theatre by David Mirvish, the son of the late and still greatly beloved theatrical impresario and local legend.
Ed Mirvish started life, by his own reckoning, as a humble shop- keeper, best known for the sprawling Bloor St. bargain emporium known as Honest Ed's. But that all changed when he bought and restored Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1963, transforming the failing show palace into the centrepiece of a vital enterprise that blossomed into what is now known as the entertainment district. It was a purchase that would also also launch a theatrical empire that at one time included London's historic Old Vic Theatre and today includes, in addition to the newly christened Ed Mirvish Theatre and the Royal Alex as it is now known, the Princess of Wales and the Panasonic Theatres as well.
Originally christened the Pantages when it was built in 1920, the theatre at Dundas and Victoria that now bears the Mirvish name became the Imperial Theatre when the man for whom it was named — Hollywood impresario Alexander Pantages — was jailed in 1930. The Imperial it remained, until it was reclaimed from the world of multiplex cinemas by Cineplex and restored, eventually becoming the cornerstone of Garth Drabinsky's now defunct Live Ent empire, once more under the Pantages name. When the Mirvishes took over its management in 2001, the theatre's name was changed to the Canon. It became part of the Mirvish empire in 2008, following Ed's death in 2007.
In a touch that no doubt would have pleased Ed Mirvish, who was renowned for his self-professed "humbility," Tuesday's re-christening was no gala affair, but rather a public event, free to the legion of Mirvish subscribers and friends. Hosted by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, currently starring in a revival of 2 Pianos 4 Hands at the Panasonic Theatre, the ceremonies included special appearances by artists like Louise Pitre, Michael Burgess, Molly Brown, Camilla Scott and Shirley Douglas, as well as theatrical producer Paul Elliott and the Toronto Police Choir, the latter, performing a medley of showtunes from The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Evita.
And while Premier Dalton McGuinty and Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered best wishes via video links, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford showed up in person, proclaiming Dec. 6, 2011 to be Ed MIrvish Theatre Day, calling it a "true testament to the significant impact he had on Toronto." Signage has already been changed to reflect the theatre's new name.
Friday, December 2, 2011
THE WIZARD OF OZ:
THE WICKEDLY WACKY
Pictured: Ross Petty
TORONTO - Perhaps the true magic of Christmas can be found in the fact that, while the holiday rarely plays out according to the script one creates, you still find yourself having a wonderful time in the midst of the ruins. And that’s what makes Ross Petty’s annual stage panto the perfect Christmas entertainment, for while it only occasionally proves to be as good as you expect it to be, year after year it still proves to be one of the best ways to celebrate the holiday in Toronto. And happily, this year is no different.
So, while Ross Petty Productions’ THE WIZARD OF OZ: THE WICKEDLY WACKY FAMILY MUSICAL (which opened Thursday at the Elgin, where it runs through Jan. 6) owes just about as much to L. Frank Baum’s iconic story book as Rob Ford owes to Arts Vote, it still adds up to a pretty, Petty fine time, despite itself.
Adapted — and boy, is that term used loosely here — by Lorna Wright and Nicholas Hune-Brown, it starts on a promising, if clunky, note as a host of magical beings convene in coven to task the good witch Splenda (Jessica Holmes) with the protection of a young girl named Dorothy Gale (a feisty Elicia MacKenzie). Dorothy is subsequently discovered in downtown Toronto, imaginatively created by set designer David Boechler, in concert with video designers Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson. Undeterred, Splenda whisks her new ward to a magical land named Oz, short for Australia — get it?
Lame, but at least it allows the chorus to showcase accents almost as egregious as the one employed by Splenda, who sounds like she was spawned in a night of passion shared by Elmer Fudd and Barbara Walters. It all serves to get things running at a fair clip, although, this being panto, still far from smoothly — but then the wheels fall off and the whole story gets shanghaied by a group of miners who dig a hole so deep, the show could be trapped in Chile. And director Tracey Flye gets so caught up in the rescue effort, she fails to showcase some truly fine performances to maximum advantage.
On the comedic side, of course, there are plenty, not the least of which is Holmes herself, rising above ridiculous accents and Emily C. Porter’s muddy sound design. Then there’s Petty himself, as a wisecracking Wicked Witch, either passing the villainous panto torch to — or having it dragged from his long green fingers by — a bewigged and upstaging Dan Chameroy, reprising his Plumbum role for the third time. Even Eddie Glen has fun as the Wizard, aiming at Ozzy Osbourne but unleashing his inner Wynona Judd instead.
On the charm side, the music may be lacklustre, but that said, there are the sponsor ads, which still represent some of the best commercial values in town, and some fine choreography from Marc Kimelman to boot. And, from a performance perspective, it’s tough to imagine a more endearing cowardly lion than Steve Ross’, perfectly paired with Kyle Blair’s loose-limbed scarecrow, Teamed with Yvan Pedneault, cast more for his belt than his bonhomie as the Tin Man, they create a winning trio with which Flye should have conjured more.
So, in the end, it’s not perfect — and so what? It’s still a Petty panto, done the way we’ve come to love them, and while it is certain to improve in the playing, it still teaches us yet again that Christmas doesn’t have to be perfect — it just has to be Christmas.
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
THEATRE NEWS: Dream set to return to High Park; Singers take home prizes;
Stratford actor returns to his roots;
Backbeat to play Toronto
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - Canadian Stage plans to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its annual Dream in High Park with a single Rose. To that end, CanStage artistic director Matthew Jocelyn announced Monday that award-winning director Richard Rose will stage a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream next summer in the High Park Amphitheatre, where it will run from June 26 through Sept. 2, 2012.
Two Montreal sopranos and a New Brunswick tenor took top honours as the Canadian Opera Company's inaugural Ensemble Studio Competition wrapped up Monday night at the Four Seasons Centre.
After the 10 finalists had sung, the $5,000 first place purse went to soprano Sasha Djihanian, while soprano Claire de Sevigne took second ($3,000) and tenor Owen McCausland claimed third ($1,500). Soprano Lindsay Barrett, of Sudbury, meanwhile won the Audience Choice Award of $1,500.
Members of the 2012-13 COC Ensemble Studio will be chosen from the contestants and will be named sometime in the new year.
It was Thomas Wolfe who said, "You can't go home again," but clearly, he never said it to Graham Abbey. The Stratford Festival announced Tuesday that Abbey, a Stratford native who once dominated its stages, will be returning to the fold in 2012, cast as Posthumous in the Festival's production of Shakespeare's Cymbeline.
Abbey's not the only familiar face headed back to Stratford, either. Nigel Bennett, Dan Chameroy, Josh Epstein, Kyle Golemba, Gabrielle Jones, Nora McLellan, Timothy D. Stickney, Brian Tree and Geoffrey Tyler were all added to the company roster for next year's Festival as well. Meanwhile, the Fest also announced the ensemble for its production of The War of 1812, which will include Paul Braunstein, Greg Campbell, Richard Alan Campbell, Mac Fyfe, Jacob James, Linda Prystawska and Michaela Washburn.
Looks like David Mirvish might have picked up another bundle from Britain to delight Toronto audiences — just in time for Christmas. According to Playbill.com, the Mirvish organization has inked a deal with the Karl Sydow, producer of Backbeat, a stage version of the 1994 movie of the same name, to bring the show to Toronto next summer.
Co-written by Iain Softley, who wrote and directed the movie, and playwright Stephen Jeffreys, Backbeat is directed by David Leveaux and tells the story of “How the Beatles ‘became’ the Beatles.”
Backbeat is currently playing in London’s West End, where it has been running since October, only recently announcing it would close more than a month earlier than initially planned. The Mirvish organization is hosting a “special announcement” event Tuesday.
Friday, November 25, 2011
THEATRE REVIEW: RED
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Pictured: David Coomber, Jim Mezon
TORONTO - If you’ve got 90 minutes to spare and want to spend them engrossed in a thrilling and passionate discussion on art and artists, here’s some advice: Get down to the Bluma Appel Theatre, buy a ticket for RED and then — and I mean this in the nicest possible way — just shut up and listen. Because when it comes to thrilling and passionate discussions about art and artists, it simply doesn’t get much better than John Logan’s Tony Award-winning play.
A co-production of Canadian Stage, Vancouver Playhouse and Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, RED opened its Canadian première at the Bluma Thursday, where it will run through Dec. 17.
Set in the paint-splattered New York studio of famed abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, the play takes place in the late 1950s, covering the two years the renowned artist famously devoted to creating murals commissioned for the Four Seasons eatery in the famed Seagram Building, the fate of which has become the stuff of artistic legend.
It is, coincidentally, the same two years an aspiring (and entirely fictional) young artist named Ken (played by David Coomber) was employed by Rothko (played here as something akin to a force of nature by Jim Mezon).
It begins as Ken reports for duty, clearly much in awe of the great man in whose service he has just enlisted. His job? Mix paint. Stretch and prep canvas. Fetch supplies from the outside world, including paint, coffee, cigarettes and, no doubt, replacements for the bottle of whiskey that will figure often in their subsequent discussions. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, for in the beginning, those discussions are more monologues as Rothko delivers a series of lectures on the art world and the place he and his work hold in it.
But as time passes and the self-absorbed Rothko opens up about the creative process, the young man slowly loses the sense of awe that has heretofore informed their working relationship, daring to express opinions of his own. In fact, the title of the play comes from a single word Ken offers up in answer to a question Rothko clearly intended to be purely rhetorical, inspiring a breathtaking reaction that borders on the tectonic. But as Ken’s confidence grows, Rothko’s seems to diminish, and through the process, art is once again reborn in a process that was old when Michelangelo was a pup.
In its original configuration, RED played in one of the West End’s smallest performance spaces, and to re-create that sense of intimacy, designer David Boechler and director Kim Collier have shrunk their stage, setting Rothko’s studio on the diagonal, opening up the set on two sides and allowing many of the more thoughtful monologues on Rothko’s work and his philosophy to be delivered directly to the audience.
And when those two walls reappear to accommodate scene changes, they are transformed into faux-Rothkos by the projections of Brian Johnson, affording intimations, in addition to the recreated canvases that litter the stage, of the power of Rothko’s monolithic works.
For a director whose work has most often been rooted in movement, Collier acquits herself beautifully, keeping a tight rein on Mezon’s raw power as Rothko, while slowly coaxing Coomber’s Ken into full bloom until the two match each other note for note in the soaring arias Logan has written — each a love letter to the enduring magic that is making art.
In a lesser production, the more lurid aspects of Alan Brodie’s over-enthusiastic lighting design could be distracting. But with a play and performances as strong as these, such excesses all but disappear.
If you love art, you’ll most definitely be seeing RED.
Thursday, November 24, 2011
WOULD YOU SAY THE NAME OF THIS PLAY? (NGGRFG)
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Pictured: Berend McKenzie
TORONTO - They're called mixed messages and we've been broadcasting them into our schools for years.
Consider: In literature classes around the world, teachers espouse the incredible power of words, teaching the works of Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Leacock and the entire literary pantheon — artists all, each capable of using a single word so that it cuts like a rapier or tickles like a feather. Then, the bell rings and we send those same kids out into the playground, and when the inevitable teasing starts — kids being kids — we simply tell 'em words can never hurt them.
So it's nothing if not refreshing to see Young People's Theatre wading into the fray, offering a temporary performance home to theatre artist Berend McKenzie and his one-man show, titled WOULD YOU SAY THE NAME OF THIS PLAY? (NGGRFG)
Now, when it comes to the wounding power of words, McKenzie might be considered a bit of an expert. African-Canadian and gay, he was adopted as an infant and raised in an otherwise white family in small town Alberta, where apparently people had no problem buying the vowels to complete the bracketed part of his play's title — not that Alberta has the market cornered on bigotry.
In a series of often highly personal yet unflinching vignettes, McKenzie assumes the persona of a kid named Buddy and then proceeds to tell us about his troubled life. Although, over the course of the next hour, we will get to know Buddy as an innocent and delightful child and as a troubled and often conflicted adult, we first meet him in the middle, a student in junior high, eager to fit in with the special-ed students with whom he spends his days.
To that end, he's set his sights on dating the toughest girl in his class, in the belief that having her on his arm will not only give him "street cred," but silence the whispered slurs, inspired by his flamboyant behaviour. But once he lands a date with his dream girl, he makes a series of bad choices, culminating in a same-sex tryst in the bushes. Things go dreadfully off track and he moves from existing on the fringes of acceptance to being a total outcast. From there, Buddy leads us through numerous episodes in his life where his colour and/or his 'gayness' is used to define and disparage him, whether its being diagnosed as "lazy" by a small-town doctor or being mocked and worse for his passion for skipping and his pink skipping rope.
But while Buddy quickly recognizes that the names other people call him are wrong, it takes him longer to learn that in allowing those words to define him — by internalizing the pain of hearing them hurled at him like missiles — he has compounded the problem. His struggles with the demons that attach themselves to him in his troubled childhood form a major part of the show and underline the fact that words, carelessly used, can create deep wounds prone to fester.
As a writer and as a performer, under the co-direction of Allen MacInnis and Tanisha Taitt, McKenzie proves utterly fearless and unflinchingly honest, his comedic chops honed, no doubt, by years spent as an outcast attempting to disarm things with a laugh. But while he uses that charm to maximum effect — his fey rapper is indeed a thing of beauty — he weaves in enough moments of emotional truth that his target audience (14 and up) will know that words are indeed a powerful weapon to be used with care.
THEATRE NEWS: 2P4H extends again; Luminato will premier SADEH21 in 2012
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - At the risk of having their show labeled 2 Pianos 4 Hands, 1 More Extension, Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra have once again extended the run of their hit show, 2 Pianos 4 Hands, now playing at the Panasonic Theatre through Jan. 5. After that, they must decamp for an already announced Ottawa engagement. Tickets for the added performances, priced from $49 to $69, will go on sale Monday, Nov. 28 at 9 a.m. at www.mirvish.com.
Luminato has teamed up with Israel's Batsheva Dance Company to present the North American première of SADEH21, co-commissioned by Luminato and choreographed by Batsheva's artistic director Ohad Naharin. The work premiered in 2011 at the Israel Festival in Jerusalem.
SADEH21, literally translated as Field 21, will run for three performances June 14-17 at the University of Toronto's MacMillan Theatre as part of the 2012 edition of Luminato, running June 8-17.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
THEATRE REVIEW: HALLAJ
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Pictured: Peter Farbridge
TORONTO - Based on religious iconography, martyrdom is a subject more suitable to the painter’s brush and the sculptor’s chisel than to the playwright’s pen. And even on the rare occasions that a playwright picks up his pen to paint a theatrical portrait of a martyr — Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan comes immediately to mind — success seems predicated more on establishing the subject’s humanity than in revealing the convictions that drives him or her.
So, full credit then, to Modern Times Stage Company’s Peter Farbridge and Soheil Parsa for putting a work like HALLAJ on the stage, exploring as it does the life and, equally important, the death of Mansur al-Hallaj.
For the uninitiated, Hallaj was a ninth-century Sufi poet and religious mystic whose quest for God led him into a direct conflict with the clerics and the rulers of his time — a conflict that ended with a particularly grisly execution in old Baghdad. HALLAJ opened Tuesday on the mainstage of Buddies in Bad Times in a Modern Times’ Production, where it will run through Dec. 4.
We meet the title character, played by Farbridge, on the eve of his execution. As the night wears on, he is visited not only by his enemies, represented by Nasr (John Ng), the chief of police who has long plotted against the poet, but by his friends and sometime-supporters as well, like his one-time teacher and now father-in-law, Junayd (Steven Bush), who has played a major role in Hallaj’s religious evolution.
But mostly, Hallaj is visited by his memories — memories that trace not only his religious voyage, but more personal memories as well, like his courtship of Jamil (Beatriz Pizano), the loving woman who would first become his wife and then the mother of his son. Those two worlds collide, however, when Junayd informs Hallaj that Jamil and the couple’s son are currently being held in the same prison and are slated to be executed before his very eyes — the last thing he will see before his own execution sends him to meet his god. As Hallaj wrestles with his conscience and his convictions, he is joined by a fellow convict (Stewart Arnott) who becomes the audience’s eyes and ears as the story marches to its inexorable, bloody and ultimately triumphant conclusion.
Working under Parsa’s direction, the cast is rounded out by Costa Tovarnisky, Carlos González-Vio and Bahareh Yaraghi, the latter two turning in particularly impressive performances in small but pivotal roles.
And as he has done in productions that range from Hamlet to Aurash, Parsa once again blends Persian, Asian and contemporary theatrical influences in a spare staging, using Trevor Schwellnus’ spare set, David DeGrow’s precise lighting and Thomas Ryder Payne’s often subtle sound palette to add emotional intensity to performances that are rarely anything less than fully and deeply committed.
But while HALLAJ certainly does a fine job of exploring the depth of its subject’s religious convictions, establishing his bona fides as a holy man beyond even a shadow of a doubt, it is less successful in bringing full dimension to his humanity.
A too-brief, playful scene between Farbridge and Pizano exists, tragically, not to create a sense of human intimacy but merely as a launching point for further religious exploration, missing what proves to be the one chance to allow an audience to identify with him on the most basic human level. Because, finally, that is the only level from which his tragedy can be fully appreciated on a theatrical level.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
DANCE NEWS: RWB Svengali dates cancelled
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - Citing "unprecedented fiscal pressures with live performance touring," the Royal Winnipeg Ballet Tuesday cancelled January performance engagements of Svengali at Toronto's Sony Centre, Hamilton's Hamilton Place and London's John Labatt Centre. All ticket orders will be refunded.
Meanwhile engagements at Ottawa's National Arts Centre (Jan. 26-28) and in British Columbia in April remain unaffected and the company plans a Toronto return to premier a new work created for the company by Twyla Tharp.
Friday, November 18, 2011
THEATRE REVIEW: THE CHILDREN'S REPUBLIC
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Pictured: Mark Correia, Katie Frances Cohen, Elliott Larson
TORONTO - Since the beginning of time, republics have been built on at least the putative notion that ultimate power rests with the people. And when that illusion is shattered, most often tragedy ensues.
That’s particularly true in Hannah Moscovitch’s understated but powerful new play, THE CHILDREN'S REPUBLIC. Directed by Alisa Palmer, who also directed Moscovitch’s break-out play, East of Berlin, THE CHILDREN'S REPUBLIC opened earlier this week on the Tarragon mainstage in a co-production with Harold Green Jewish Theatre and will play there through Dec. 18.
It’s set in an extraordinary orphanage in Warsaw during the Second World War — an orphanage founded and run by an extraordinary man. Trained as a medical doctor, the plain-spoken Janusz Korczak (played by Peter Hutt) grew tired, as he confesses, of treating the illnesses of the street urchins that made their way to his hospital, only to see them returned to the streets that had made them sick. Flying in the face of the wisdom of the day, he founded an orphanage that would give those urchins a home and an education that would allow them to escape the squalor and the ignorance (the good doctor labelled it their stupidity in days long before political correctness) that was too often killing them.
His orphanage was run as a republic, with many decisions made by its residents. They made many of the rules, and in-house infractions were then judged and punished by a children’s court. Even their physical battles were structured to ensure that while honour was maintained, serious injury was avoided.
Of course, the ultimate power rested by Korczak and his long-suffering assistant Stefa (Kelli Fox), who were charged with the care and feeding of up to 200 wards, many of them Jewish — and by 1939, when the play begins, times are getting tough. Not so tough, mind you, that when Korczak encounters a young con artist named Israel (Mark Correia) on the streets, he can’t make room for the feral young lad.
But while Israel is soon ensconced under Stefa’s wing, his brooding reserve puts him at odds with fellow residents, Mettye (Katie Frances Cohen), Sara (Emma Burke-Kleinman) and Misha (Elliott Larson), even while it frustrates Korczak, whose efforts to reach the tormented youth are rebuffed. So too are the efforts of Madame Singer (Amy Rutherford) a good-hearted teacher who clearly doesn’t understand the depth of Israel’s emotional scars and, in consequence, probes too deeply.
Act II rockets us into 1942 and the heart of the Warsaw Ghetto which now surrounds Korczak’s orphanage. Israel, having fled the orphanage, returns as tragedy stalks them all and they face an inevitable end.
This is a quiet sort of play, built of vignettes that play out almost like memory, on a stark but effective set created by Camellia Koo and lit but Kimberly Purtell. And while director Alisa Palmer does a good job of minimizing the episodic nature of the script by keeping things simple, her true strength is in shaping performances and drawing maximum if understated impact from every scene. This is a show that teaches without ever once stooping to preach.
Hutt is in top form, packing his performance with thought and eschewing avuncular sentiment, while Fox amazes, a single drink into a treatise on exhaustion. But finally and fittingly, it is in the performances of the four young people that THE CHILDREN'S REPUBLIC soars. Led by the very gifted Correia, they forge a small but real republic where the ultimate power of human dignity, at least, resides solely in their hands.
DANCE REVIEW: ROMEO AND JULIET
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Pictured: Elena Lobsanova, Guillaume Côté
TORONTO - At first blush, Romeo seems like one dude — a young man who, just prior to his ill-fated meeting with Juliet, professes undying love for another. But that’s the way with it is with passion — and by those lights, it’s easy to equate the reactions of a young man who’s simply in love with love to the reactions of a ballet audience that’s simply in love with dance.
An audience, say, like the one that gathered in the Four Seasons Centre Wednesday for the world première of choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s brand new production of ROMEO AND JULIET. The work was commissioned by the National Ballet of Canada to commemorate its 60th anniversary and to replace an admittedly threadbare but beloved version choreographed by John Cranko — an audience favourite since it was acquired in 1964.
But while the opening night audience no doubt treasured the enduring beauty of the Cranko version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, they lost no time in embracing this new version. And they embraced it, one suspects, because they fell in love with Ratmansky’s demanding choreography, even while they were swept up by the music of Sergei Prokofiev and seduced by the sun-drenched colour palette employed by designer Richard Hudson to bring life to Renaissance Verona, more Fra Angelico it seems than Tintoretto.
Still, it’s hard to embrace even the showiest choreography unless it is superbly danced — and, once again, that’s the trump card for artistic director Karen Kain and her company.
As Romeo, Guillaume Côté is once again a superb romantic lead, bringing youthful elegance, athleticism and great lashings of charm to the role. He is perfectly paired with the exquisite Elena Lobsanova whose youthful, even ethereal, grace turns their courtship scenes — the party scene where they meet and the balcony scene where they declare their love — into a potent distillation of youthful passions. Only in the bedroom scene does Lobsanova fall short, seemingly more in love with dance than the man with whom she just spent the night.
Of course, no story ballet is complete without fine work from the supporting cast — and that is particularly true in this work, for Ratmansky spreads the spotlight around, showcasing not just the breadth of this company’s talent but its depth. Thus, dancers like Jiří Jelinek and Patrick Lavoie are afforded an opportunity to dig deeper into characters like Tybalt and Paris respectively, bringing life and dimension to roles too long danced in only two dimensions. And while, in Ratmansky’s vision (as opposed to Shakespeare’s), Mercutio seems more prankster than swaggering cynic, Piotr Stanczyk proves to be such a crowd-pleaser, backed by Robert Stephen’s game Benvolio, that it’s hard to fault the vision.
There’s fine work too from corps members and character artists alike. That includes Lorna Geddes’ Nurse, Etienne Lavigne’s Lord Capulet, Peter Ottman’s Friar Lawrence and Rex Harrington’s Duke of Verona — all dancers that have formed the backbone on which this glorious company is built.
There are, of course, fleeting moments when the action lags and one realizes that for all its dramatic richness, this is neither Shakespeare’s R&J, nor Cranko’s. But, aside from a bit of foreshadowing that robs Juliet’s supposed death scene of much of its sting, they are all likely to disappear as the company continues to explore this dense new vision. Even while an audience as in love with dance as Romeo is with love finds the moments and the artists that will make it something to treasure over the next 60 years.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
THEATRE NEWS: GG Awards for Drama announced
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Canada’s best writers took centre stage Tuesday as the winners of the 75th annual Governor General’s Literary Awards were announced in Toronto.
In the prestigious category of English language fiction, Patrick de Witt’s The Sisters Brothers emerged as the winner, despite having been beat out by Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues in earlier competition for the Giller Prize.
Meanwhile, in English language non-fiction, Charles Foran earned top honours for Mordecai: The Life & Times, writing about the celebrated Canadian literary icon, Mordecai Richler, himself a GG winner in his time.
And in English language drama, Erin Shields’ If We Were Birds, produced last year at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, took top prize.
In addition to a $25,000 cash award, winners will be honoured at ceremonies at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, presided over by Governor General of Canada, David Johnson, on Nov. 24.
The complete list of winners follows:
Patrick de Witt, The Sisters Brothers
Charles Foran, Mordecai: The Life & Times
Phil Hall, Killdeer
Erin Shields, If We Were Birds
Charles Foran, Mordecai: The Life & Times
Children’s literature — text:
Christopher Moore, From Then to Now: A Short History of the World
Children’s literature — illustration:
Cybele Young, Ten Birds
Donald Winkler, Partita for Glenn Gould, translated from Georges Leroux’s Partita pour Glenn Gould
Perrine Leblanc, L’homme blanc
Louise Dupré, Plus haut que les flammes
Normand Chaurette, Ce qui meurt en dernier
Georges Leroux, Wanderer: essai sur le Voyage d’hiver de Franz Schubert
Children’s literature — text:
Martin Fournier, Les aventures de Radisson — 1. L’enfer ne brule pas
Children’s literature — illustration:
Caroline Merola, Lili et les Poilus
Maryse Warda, Toxique ou L’incident dans l’autobus, translated from Greg MacArthur’s The Toxic Bus Incident
RIDE THE CYCLONE
Pictured: Rielle Braid, Sarah Pelzer
TORONTO - If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if a piece of musical theatre fluff like Forever Plaid collided head on with a darker version of Glee, book a ticket to RIDE THE CYCLONE. That’s the name of a new show produced from Atomic Vaudeville, a company that in periodic forays from its British Columbia home base charmed us with memorable and wildly inventive works like Legoland, which delighted in a brief run in the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace a few years ago.
Now, AV’s movin’ on up, strutting its stuff on TPM’s mainstage in their latest and already highly pedigreed romp, the aforementioned RIDE THE CYCLONE, presented by TPM in collaboration with Acting Up Stage Company.
Set in a nether-world combining elements of a dusty midway warehouse with the smoking brimstone of the afterlife, it reunites the members of Uranium City’s teenage chamber choir — all killed when a roller coaster called The Cyclone went off the rails — for one final hometown performance. On certain levels, it bears more than passing resemblance, plot-wise, at least, to Forever Plaid, which reunited the deceased members of a ’60s boy band — killed en route to their first gig — for a posthumous opportunity to give the concert they never gave.
But where Plaid represented one of the first charming trickles in what was destined to become a flood of jukebox musicals, all recycling old music, Cyclone boasts a whole bouquet of original tunes, which pretty much cover the waterfront when it comes to style and all the handiwork of composer Brooke Maxwell and playwright Jacob Richmond, who both share the credit for the lyrics.
Where Plaid offered its protagonists a collective vocal opportunity, Cyclone goes all psy-clone-logical, allowing each of the six dearly departed choir members an opportunity to explore his or her innermost longings before the plug is pulled on Karnak, the old carny soothsayer who brings them back to life.
So, young Noel Gruber (played by Kholby Wardell), who died knowing he was gay without ever having a chance to be gay, is given a chance to get in touch with his feminine side, at the same time as Ricky Potts (Elliott Loran), a comic-book geek, gets to explore his hyper-masculinity as an otherworldly superhero.
And while the self-centred Ocean Rosenberg (Rielle Braid) gets to settle a few scores, outsiders Misha Bachinsky (Matthew Coulson) and Constance Blackwood (Kelly Hudson) finally have a chance to have their say too. Even Jane Doe (Sarah Pelzer), found sans head in the post accident-carnage, gets a chance for a memorable solo turn.
With castmates providing dramatic back-up, they each enjoy their moment in the post-Cyclone sun, with the multi-talented Loran also doing double duty at the keyboard. He also proves a good eye behind a video camera, providing further excitement to a low-budget, hi-tech set design created by Hank Pine and James Insell, the latter charged with bringing Karnak to life.
All of this teenaged soul-searching puts one in mind of Glee, but while there are certainly Glee-ful elements at play here, it’s more like watching a negative instead of a film, as co-directors Richmond and Britt Small cultivate Glee’s preciousness while cleaving to a darker, even more cynically adult sensibility. It’s the kind of theatre that aims to keep its audience in the theatre instead of carrying us away — truly impressive work for all that it never shakes its louche post-Brechtian theatricality long enough to really soar.
DAILY DISH: Jeremy Kushnier to play Pontius Pilate
TORONTO - Less than a week before Friday’s opening at the La Jolla Playhouse, the Stratford Festival has announced that Jeremy Kushnier will replace Tony-winner Brent Carver in the role of Pontius Pilate in the Festival’s Broadway-bound production of Jesus Christ Superstar, directed by Des McAnuff.
“Brent requires a vocal rest at the moment,” a Stratford spokesman said Monday, adding casting for the Broadway run slated to kick off at the Neil Simon Theatre in March has yet to be determined.
For the La Jolla run, which ends Dec. 31, Paul Nolan, Josh Young, Chilina Kennedy and Mike Nadajewski will all reprise the featured roles they played in the Stratford production this past summer.
Monday, November 14, 2011
MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW: MARY POPPINS
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Pictured: Rachel Wallace, Nicolas Dromard
TORONTO - Some met her first as the unbending heroine in the series of children’s stories by P.L. Travers, but the world didn’t really fall in love with her until she loosened her corsets — figuratively speaking, of course — to lend her name to an Oscar-winning Disney movie musical that convinced us all that MARY POPPINS (as played by Julie Andrews, at least) was simply supercalifragilisticexpealidocious.
Now, almost 80 years after Travers’ stories and half a century after the the movie, books and film come together in an eye-catching stage mashup, written by Julian Fellowes, fusing story elements from both sources and blending many of the musical elements composed for the movie by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman with new compositions from George Stiles and Anthony Drew. And finally, after playing London’s West End, Broadway and diverse locales, MARY POPPINS has landed in Toronto where a touring production opened at the Princess of Wales Saturday, just in time to give a few local Christmas classics a run in the Yuletide family experience department before the wind changes and it decamps for other stages Jan. 8.
And, as produced by Disney and Cameron Mackintosh and directed by Richard Eyre, it is, it must be said, a pretty lavish affair, using an extensive cast and a high-energy staging to tell the story of rambunctious siblings Jane and Michael Banks (played on opening night by Camden Angelis and Dakota Ruiz) and their adventures with the mysterious and magical nanny of title, played by Rachel Wallace.
Initially perilously out of control, the two siblings are slowly tamed as the brisk and no-nonsense Poppins works her stuff and teaches them life lessons through magical adventures that always seem to involve Poppins’ adoring and adorable side-kick, Bert (Nicolas Dromard), a sometimes-chimney sweep whose ability to conjure wonders is surpassed only by Poppins’ own. Under their auspices, toys become animated, kitchens are demolished and rebuilt, statues come to life and Bert goes on a complete tour of a proscenium arch, while, in a darker sub-plot, the children’s parents (played by Laird Mackintosh and Blythe Wilson) struggle to create a safe-haven and keep everything afloat in a world of uncaring Victorian banks and bankers that seems oddly and disturbingly contemporary.
But while Eyre and choreographer Matthew Bourne, in concert with designer Bob Crowley, conspire to keep the stage alive in a constant swirl of colour and movement, layering light, colour and stagecraft to maximum, even dizzying, effect, one might find oneself longing finally for a bit of depth and emotional texture in a story that seems too often to have been written entirely in upper case, using only the exclamation point for punctuation.
In an attempt to evoke the prickly character created by Travers without setting aside the incredible appeal of Andrews’ portrayal, they’ve created a Mary Poppins who moves through the story with all the detachment of an animated robot, smiling, singing and making all the right moves but ultimately as unplugged from the story as a bored supermodel. There’s little chemistry here with Dromard’s chummy Bert and even less with the children she is charged with redeeming and while it’s lovely to see so many Canadian actors — Mackintosh, Dromard and Wilson are joined by Valerie Boyle, Janet MacEwen and a host of others — strut their stuff, it fails to engage on the deepest level.
Because, in the end, it is not any umbrella — or even the enduring magic of tunes like Chim Chim Cher-ee, A Spoonful of Sugar, Step In Time and Feed the Birds, (wherein MacEwen almost steals the show) — that makes MARY POPPINS soar. It’s chemistry, pure and simple — and this high-test production could use a touch of that kind of purity and simplicity.
Saturday, November 12, 2011
THE REZ SISTERS
Pictured: Djennie Laguerre, Michaela Washburn, Jean Yoon
TORONTO - In a world where entire decorating shows can be devoted to finding just the right shade of white, mankind’s notion of defining others by skin colour is revealed as several different kinds of ridiculous. As the races meet and mingle with increasing abandon, one can no more assume that skin tone defines race any more than a big belly defines pregnancy.
So, full credit to Factory Theatre’s Ken Gass for his refusal to define race by mere pigment in casting Factory Theatre’s revival of Tomson Highway’s THE REZ SISTERS, populating the Manitoulin Island reserve on which the play is set with a group of women whose skin tones are far more varied than the imaginations of most casting directors. His production opened Thursday on the Factory mainstage where it is slated to run through Dec. 11.
But while Gass’s production appears to fully appreciate that colour is only skin-deep and that Highway — like most great playwrights — is far more concerned with the shadings of his characters’ hearts than the shading of their skins, it still manages to fall more than a trifle short. There’s a wonderful sense of rambunctiousness, to be sure, as Gass follows the lives of the seven women at the heart of Highway’s play — tracing their big-hearted dreams and their nightmares with often raucous abandon.
For some, like Jani Lauzon’s Pelajia Patchnose, those dreams simply frame something more exciting than patching the roof of her two-room shack. For others, like Jean Yoon’s Veronique St. Pierre and Djennie Laguerre’s Annie Cook, dreams are more materialistic — a new stove or more records.
And while some, like Kyra Harper’s Philomena Moosetail and Michaela Washburn’s Emily Dictionary, who have come home to the reserve to heal, their dreams are of what they left behind. Still, for others like Cara Gee’s Zhaboonigan Peterson and Pamela Sinha’s Marie-Adele Starblanket, escaping the nightmares of past and future proves dream enough.
So it’s hardly surprising that when word comes of the world’s biggest bingo being planned in Toronto, they’re all aboard as each dreams of the magic the $500,000 grand prize might work in her life. Unfortunately, they dream without remembering the ever-present hand of the mythical Nanabush, the trickster of First Nations’ myth, played by Billy Merasty.
As usual, Highway writes characters not only large, but broad, infusing his sisterhood with a bawdy earthiness that is delightful. And, in the main, Gass captures that innocent bawdiness to perfection in a sprawling production that, thanks to Gillian Gallow’s set — and Highway’s far-flung story — has no real anchor.
But in bringing life to a story meant to underline the simple quiet courage and natural dignity of women living life in the face of sexual and spousal abuse, surrounded by poverty, substance abuse, sub-standard medical care and uncaring bureaucracy, Gass and his otherwise talented cast fail to find the emotional heart in their individual struggles. In a series of confessional soliloquies, they fail to find the stoicism imbued in these characters since birth. Meanwhile, Merasty renders his role in an almost stolid way, his gravity weighing down the shape-shifting and irreverent trickster making a spirit too much to the earth.
In the end, it’s all a bit of a toss-up, despite quality work from Harper, Lauzon, Sinha and Yoon, as well as some good collective scenes. While it offers a chance (and one that shouldn’t be missed) to revisit what has become a Canadian classic, it’s likely to leave you hoping that should you get a chance to see it again, they’ll somehow do it all just a little better.
THEATRE NEWS: Stratford commissions new Canadian works
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - In the waning days of his artistic regime, the Stratford Festival's Des McAnuff continues a commitment to new Canadian works begun at the end of his first season in 2008.
In fact, McAnuff, who leaves the Festival at the end of the 2013 season, announced Thursday that the Festival has commissioned new works from Canadian playwrights Jason Sherman and Hannah Moscovitch, as well as an English translation from Linda Gaboriau of a new play by Michel Tremblay.
Under McAnuff's auspices, new or revised works from George F. Walker and John Mighton have already been produced on Festival stages, while another new work from Marek Norman and Morris Panych is slated for production in 2012.
In addition, there are also Stratford commissions in the works from playwright Judith Thompson; and from Lisa Lambert, Bob Martin, Don McKellar and Greg Morrison, the team behind The Drowsy Chaperone.
Friday, November 11, 2011
MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW: SEUSSICAL
Pictured: Damien Atkins
It wasn’t even a year ago that Allen MacInnis, artistic director of the newly re-re-christened Young People’s Theatre worked a bit of stage magic, stripping the wraps off a delightful mainstage production of A Year with Frog and Toad that quickly became a must-see on the kiddy’s Christmas circuit. And for those of you wondering if he can pull another rabbit out of his hat for this year’s holiday season, the answer might be a highly equivocal “No.” That’s because when you can stick a hand into a hat and pull out a kangaroo, a trio of monkeys, a brace of exotic birds, a stout-hearted elephant and a delightfully peripatetic cat who normally wears that hat, who really needs a rabbit anyway?
Particularly when you’ve got a rhyming magician like Theodor Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss, on side, as re-interpreted for the stage by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Several years ago they put their heads together over a library of the good Doctor’s collected works and came up with SEUSSICAL — a show that, while it failed to take Broadway by storm, proved nonetheless, in a somewhat expurgated version, to be an enduring delight to children of all ages.
In fact, a lot of people learned that when MacInnis first staged the work in his theatre in 2006. Now MacInnis is doing it again, marshaling a delightful and largely brand-new cast on Judith Bowden’s lollipop world of a set and serving up a treasure chest full of life lessons all but guaranteed to underscore the less materialistic side of the forthcoming holiday season.
It all begins with an encounter between young Jojo (Jennifer Villaverde, just a tad overwound on the charm front) and the Cat in the Hat (a spot-on Damien Atkins) The soigné sort of feline quickly teaches the young girl about the glories of imagination — all of which leads, with inexorable delight, to a retelling of the tales of Horton, a steadfast elephant played with simple stalwart charm by George Masswohl.
One day, while languishing in his bath, Horton starts hearing things and discovers the things he is hearing all emanate from a tiny speck of dust, which is really home planet to an all but invisible population of microscopic beings called Whos. Suddenly aware of the dangers his new friends face, Horton sets about protecting them, earning the scorn of his neighbours, who think he’s got bats in his trunk. But undeterred, Horton soldiers on in the firm conviction that a person’s a person, no matter how small.
In the midst of general derision, Horton catches the eye and the heart of a sad little bird named Gertrude (Jane Johanson), who lives next door. She’s fallen in a big way for the protective pachyderm, despite the certain knowledge he is unlikely to notice a girl like her in a world filled with pumped-up pouty birds of paradise like Mayzie (for a good time, MacInnis called the incomparable Sharron Matthews and got just the right numbers). But the showboating Mayzie thinks a bird in the bush is a bit of a drag and sticks Horton with a mother of a babysitting gig, just at a time when he’s desperately wondering where the Who went and why.
It all resolves nicely in the end, but not before the cast — bolstered by Bethany Kovarik, Nichola Lawrence, David Lopez, Dale Miller, Natasha O’Brien and Desmond Osborne — have a chance to strut their stuff in song and dance, showcasing the work of musical director Diane Leah and the choreography of Nicola Pantin.
All in all, another fine package from the folks at YPT, just in time for the holidays.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
THEATRE/OPERA NEWS: ShawFest completes lineup; COC turns profit
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
With the release of casting for the Royal George and the Studio Theatre Wednesday, the Shaw Festival seems to have completed its casting for the 2012 season in Niagara-on-the-Lake. On the Royal George stage, look for Drama at Inish’s Thom Marriott and Krista Colosimo to reunite in Misalliance, under the direction of Eda Holmes, supported by Wade Bogart-O’Brien, Catherine McGregor, Jeff Meadows, Peter Krantz, Craig Pike, Tara Rosling and Ben Sanders.
Meanwhile, Shaw veteran Michael Ball heads up an ensemble that includes Robin Evan Willis, Billy Lake, Julie Martell, Bogart-O’Brien, Pike and Saunders in French Without Tears, directed by Kate Lynch. As well, look for Corrine Koslo and Ric Reid to return to the festival in Come Back Little Sheba, joining Julia Course and Sharry Flett in a production directed by Jackie Maxwell. And finally, Rosling will team up with Sanjay Talwar in Helen’s Necklace, the first Canadian play to be presented on the stage of the Studio Theatre, to be directed by Michelene Chevrier.
Hitting the high notes in a questionable economy is arguably a high-wire act — but the Canadian Opera Company continues to maintain its balance despite it all. In financial statements released at the COC annual general meeting Wednesday, the company reported a “modest” surplus of $10,000 on revenues totalling $12.3 million at the end of its 2010-11 season. In total, the COC drew 129,450 patrons to 66 performances of the seven operas that comprised the company’s fifth season in the Four Seasons Centre. In addition to box office revenues, which represent 33% of their total budget and grants from various level of government (19%), the COC also raised an additional $8.6 million from other sources — an increase of 5% in fundraising over last year.
DANCE REVIEW: LOVE LIES BLEEDING
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
It’s taken a year and a half, but Toronto fans of one Reginald Kenneth Dwight — perhaps better known these days as Sir Elton John — are finally getting a chance to get up close and very personal with a dance biography inspired by the composer/singer/showman’s life and music. And in those 18 months, choreographer Jean Grand-Maître, who created the work for the Alberta Ballet (where he serves as artistic director), has taken the opportunity to tweak, tighten and otherwise polish a work that seemed destined to become an international calling card from its first performance at Calgary’s Jubilee Auditorium. It’s called LOVE LIES BLEEDING and it opened Tuesday at the Sony Centre, where it is slated to play through Saturday.
There is nothing new in the confluence of celebrity and dance; Grand-Maître preceded LOVE LIES BLEEDING, with Joni Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum set to Mitchell’s music and followed it up with Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, set to the music of Sarah McLachlan, while the National Ballet of Canada scored box office gold in ’08 with Christopher Bruce’s Rooster, set to the music of the Rolling Stones.
But what sets LLB apart from the pack is the biographical element, which opens highly stylized windows into John’s life at the same time it revisits a bouquet of hits and some lesser known tunes drawn from the songbook John created with lyricist Bernie Taupin, over his years at the top of the rock ’n’ roll heap.
It starts and ends simply, with a kid on a tricycle, an evocation and an homage to a core of childish innocence that has allowed John in his later years to carve a niche for himself composing music for family musicals like The Lion King. As for the time in between, that is revisited through the eyes of an Elton Fan (danced by the hyper-athletic Yukichi Hattori) who inadvertently wanders into an alternate universe where he finds himself reliving his favourite rock star’s life.
From the innocent exuberance of Bennie, played out in full baseball rig-out, he goes on to explore the highs and lows of a life of excess — a life that masked but only barely, both overindulgence and sexual crisis as John struggled to come to terms with fame and his personal demons. Over a song list that includes such classics as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, as well as lesser known works like Madman Across the Water and The Bridge, Grande Maître imposes a contemporary dance vision that, while informed on occasion by classical ballet, owes much to the jazz, tap and hip-hop schools as well.
Similarly he raids the cupboards and closets of contemporary culture, both gay and straight, to create visuals that are delightfully in-your-face and decidedly homosexy, referencing everything from stripper bars to Andy Warhol, A Clockwork Orange and Cirque du Soleil. There’s an eye-catching and ever-evolving set from Guillaume Lord, videos by Adam Larsen, dramatic lighting by Pierre Lavoie and barely there costumes by Martine Bertrand.
And while it all comes together in an impressively rollicking, crowd-pleasing two-hour package that will delight John’s fans, one can’t help but wish that after 18 months of practice, the corps had achieved a bit more in the way of precision to showcase some of Grand-Maître’s work. Or miss the fact that LOVE LIES BLEEDING offers scant opportunity for the troupe’s ballerinas, who are to be forgiven if they are jones-ing for a similar dance-ography inspired by the work of k.d. lang.
Monday, November 7, 2011
THEATRE REVIEW: SANKOFA TRILOGY
Pictured: d'bi.young anitafrika
“Tell me a story.”
They are four tiny words that, once spoken, throw wide the doors of the imagination and uncover portals that stretch into the worlds of literature, music, the visual arts and, of course, theatre. But while every piece of theatre tells us a story, not every theatre artist is a storyteller — nor is every storyteller a theatre artist. But in d’bi.young anitafrika, it seems, those elements meet and mesh.
On the theatre front, Toronto has been fortunate to see her skills in works like Da Kink in My Hair and Three Penny Opera. And while there has also been plenty of local opportunity to tune in to her abilities as a storyteller, it’s hard to imagine things getting any better in that department than the current run of her Sankofa Trilogy in the Tarragon Extra Space.
The three works that it comprises — blood.claat, benu and word!sound!powah! — tell the tale of three generations of Jamaican women and they are playing in rep through Dec. 4. The run was launched Friday with a performance of word!sound!powah! — the final and most recent chapter in the saga of the Sankofa women.
Through the eyes of Benu Sankofa, — granddaughter of Mugdu and daughter of Sekesu, the driving characters in blood.claat and benu respectively — this chapter tells the story of an aspiring young poet who gets caught up in the politics and polemic of Jamaica’s 1980 election and consequently finds herself accused of involvement in a political assassination. Those are merely the bare bones of the story — and what makes this story so compelling is the flesh that anitafrika puts on those bones, along with the spirituality she weaves into them, deftly creating characters and casting them aside as she builds a community.
For brief intervals she brings life to an almost dizzying array of characters, including a rather blissed-out disciple of Rastafari movement, a corrupt cop and a whole slew of early dub poets, made memorable by their delightful idiosyncrasies. Their leader and the most politically active styles himself the Robin Hood of Poets, while the emotionally bruised Peaches channels the rage and the love of a single mother and the aptly named Stammer gets around his impediment by making what he calls physical poetry.
As good storytellers do, anitafrika relies largely on voice and gesture to define character, only occasionally incorporating more physical elements — props, costumes and the like — into her tale. Set under a stylized tree created by designer Camellia Koo and lit by Michelle Ramsay, it is a story completely capable of standing on its own, even while it references the earlier works in the trilogy. And while a knowledge of Jamaica’s history and politics will enhance her stories, it is far from mandatory. anitafrika incorporates much of Jamaica’s colonial history as well as the history of the renegade Maroons into her tale, adding a heavy dose of a spirituality rooted in the African continent while still balancing linguistic authenticity with the knowledge that the Jamaican patois can sit heavy on unfamiliar ears.
It’s a complex balancing act, underscored not only by her in-your-face physicality but by the power of her voice and by her compelling rhythms (backed here by a three-piece musical ensemble under the direction of Waleed Abdulhamid). All of which means that if you’re in the mood to open a few doors in your imagination and let in some fresh air and sunshine, the best thing you could probably do is ask anitafrika to tell you a story.
THEATRE NEWS: MacLeod wins Simonovitch Prize; Cat cast back at ShawFest
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Canadian playwright Joan MacLeod has been named the winner of the 11th annual Elinore and Lou Siminovitch Prize, the nation’s most lucrative award in theatre.
Chosen from a field of finalists that also included Robert Chafe, Jasmine Dubé, Greg MacArthur, Mansel Robinson and Larry Tremblay, MacLeod was honoured at a gala Toronto presentation Monday, where she received a cheque in the amount of $75,000. Thanks to the unique structure of the Siminovitch Prize, sponsored by the BMO Financial Group, playwright Anusree Roy also shared the largesse, chosen by MacLeod to receive the $25,000 purse awarded to a protege chosen by the winner.
MacLeod, who has already earned a Governor General’s Award and two Chalmers Canadian Play Awards in a career that spans more than a quarter century is known for a host of plays, including Jewel; Toronto, Mississippi; Amigo’s Blue Guitar; The Hope Slide; Little Sister; 2000; The Shape of a Girl; and Another Home Invasion and is hard at work on a new play titled What to Expect, slated to debut next year.
A clearly thrilled MacLeod said that choosing her protege from a field of talented young Canadian playwrights wasn’t as hard as one might expect. “It was easy and very flukey,” she says, recalling a playwright’s residency at the Stratford Festival last fall. “I met Anusree there and I really liked her but I didn’t know her work. Then I happened on a copy of Brothel #9 and I thought it was terrific,” she says.
The Siminovitch Prize is awarded annually on a three-year rotation, recognizing excellence in direction, playwriting and design.
After steaming up the stage of the Royal George Theatre at last summer’s Shaw Festival in a production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Moya O’Connell and Gray Powell are slated to reunite next summer on the Festival’s Court House stage, cast opposite Patrick McManus, Jim Mezon, Mary Haney and Jennifer Phipps in a production of Hedda Gabler, directed by Martha Henry.
In other Court House casting announced Monday by Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell, Marla McLean and Graeme Somerville will team up with Sharry Flett, Kate Hennig and Jenny L. Wright in A Man And Some Women, directed by Alisa Palmer. Meanwhile, Mark Uhre and Elodie Gillett are paired up in Trouble In Tahiti, under the direction of Jay Turvey, while Nicole Underhay and Kevin Bundy headline a cast that also includes Kevin Hanchard, Martin Happer, Steven Sutcliffe and Robin Evan Willis, in Blair Williams’ production of The Millionairess.