Thursday, March 31, 2011

30 MAR/11

QMI Agency
Rating: 4 out of 5

In a world obsessed with celebrity, it grows increasingly difficult sometimes to separate art from artist -- the life the artist lives from the art he makes. That's the very conflict that sits at the centre of AFTER AKHMATOVA, a challenging and thought-provoking new play from Kate Cayley that premièred Wednesday on the stage of the Tarragon Extra Space.

If the name Akhmatova doesn't ring a bell, small wonder. In a time when poetry is held in ever-more-diminished regard, there is every chance you've never heard of a lot of 20th century Canadian poets (and yes, they do exist), and few would be expected to know of the the 20th century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Or of Requiem -- her poetic cri de coeur for a tortured nation, written under the very noses of Stalin and his brutal henchmen, all of whom only ever saw the smoke of its burning after it was committed to memory. Requiem was not published until 1963.

Fittingly, the play begins just over two years after Akhmatova's death in 1966, after Alan Taylor -- an American historian played by Paul Dunn -- has made his way to Russia to interview Lev Gumilyov (Eric Goulem), Akhmatova's only son. But the Russian professor Taylor comes to interview is more than merely the son of the deceased poet, it develops. He is also the inspiration for her masterwork, all of which was written in the wake of his imprisonment for nebulous political crimes. What begins as an interview quickly becomes a confrontation, however, as the two principals struggle to create a portrait of the deceased poet that reflects each man's image of her.

As a fan, self-cast as a worshipful biographer, Taylor's vision of the late poet is shaped by the romantic notion that great art grows from great suffering, while Gumilyov's vision is informed more by recollections of an often absent parent who too often seemed to care more for her art than for her child. At the heart of both visions is Requiem -- a work of art that neither man seems quite capable of divorcing from the artist who created it.

Slowly, as they move often reluctantly through Gumilyov's memories of his mother (played by Sarah Orenstein) and the community that sustained her -- Richard McMillan is cast as the poet Osop Mandelstam, Caroline Gillis as his wife Nadezhda and Claire Calnan as Akhmatova's friend, Lydia Chukovskaya -- the two find common ground in the art the poet left behind.
It's a complex story and it is well brought to life by a powerful cast, used to maximum advantage by director Alan Dilworth, (who coincidentally was named as a new participant in the Stratford Festival's Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction on Thursday.)

Working with designers Jung-Hye Kim (set and costumes), Kimberly Purtell (Lighting) and Thomas Ryder Payne (sound), Dilworth and his cast conspire to overlay the entire production with an unmistakable aura of Russian mystery and suffering, without resorting to accents, black bread or other clichés.

Best of all, more often than not they are equal to whatever complex challenges Cayley throws at them, in terms of time and character shifting. Goulem's Gumilyov often seems carved from a block of endless suffering, while McMillan gives a moving and uncharacteristically understated performance that meshes beautifully with fine work from Gillis, Calnan and Orenstein. Indeed, only Dunn seems out of his depth here, offering up a Taylor more driven by mannered ticks and earnestness than any true sense of romance -- an over-embroidered performance that robs the character of much of its dramatic arc, shortchanging the production in the process. Happily, there's enough left over to make this a memorable play.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

29 MAR/11

Rating: 4 out of 5

Jim Brochu tries to get as close as possible to absolute Zero. And he comes so close, it's positively chilling — a madcap theatrical portrait of the legendary Zero Mostel that is absolutely delightful and, ultimately, deeply moving. Written by and starring Brochu, under the direction of Piper Laurie, the show is called ZERO HOUR and it opened at the Al Green Theatre on Monday, a presentation of the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company.

Set days before his death, in the studio the legendary actor maintained to indulge his passion for painting, ZERO HOUR introduces us to Mostel at the height of his career, full of life and completely oblivious to the little signs that hint that the end of his life is near. Clearly, he's here to indulge his passion for painting — and he resents the intrusion of a New York Times reporter who arrives for an interview.

In one of those awkward conceits that mark the one-man-show genre, ZERO HOUR's audience finds itself playing the hapless journalist — a device that for all its preciousness serves nonetheless to launch Brochu into a rambling vintage Mostel monologue. But not surprisingly, for all its great good humour, that monologue is quickly mired in embittered recollections of the blacklists that grew out of the communist witch-hunts that marked the McCarthy era, and the suffering those lists engendered among Mostel and his politically active friends.

It's a subject worthy of examination, of course — and if ZERO HOUR merely contented itself with retelling the horrors of that era, it would still make for a compelling piece of cautionary theatre, for all that victims don't make for the most compelling theatre. For Brochu, it's only half the story. Dividing ZERO by two acts gives him something delightfully greater than the sum of its parts. For while his first act covers off on the pitfalls of young Samuel Mostel's rise to fame — an immigrant childhood, a failed marriage, a remarriage outside his faith that costs him his family and, of course, the repressive and unconscionable blacklisting he and his friends endured — Brochu gives us a second act about rebuilding, healing and, ultimately, the world on the other side of forgiveness.

This is, of course, the part of Mostel's life with which we are most familiar, his time of triumph in shows such as A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, Rhinoceros and Fiddler on the Roof, and in movies such as The Producers, which he apparently loathed.

But it is a time of healing too — and not just from the lingering effects of an horrific confrontation with an out-of-control bus. When Jerome Robbins is called in to doctor Forum in its out-of-town tryouts, Mostel comes face to face with a man he considers a McCarthy collaborator, and while he never forgets Robbins' transgressions, he puts his anger aside and finds common ground in their shared art. And in finding his version of forgiveness for Robbins, Mostel finds a way to forgive himself too.

Brochu the writer may not have resolved all the kinks in his Act I script, but Brochu the performer fares much better. Under Laurie's direction, he moves far beyond the realm of mere impersonation, inhabiting the character so completely one wonders if there is an exorcist rather than a dresser waiting to help him put the character to bed. Together, writer and performer tell a simple, powerful story of a man who refused to remain a victim and, in the process, gave us ways far beyond the physical to take the measure of a man. By Brochu's reckoning, not a lot of people equal Zero.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Playwright Brochu takes on Zero, his hero
28 MAR/11


It's mathematics, with a theatrical twist. Perhaps only in theatre could one take two larger-than-life characters and put 'em together, only to come up with zero. Actually, make that Zero, as in Zero Mostel, the legendary larger-than-life funnyman best known on stage for scene-stealing performances in A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, Rhinoceros and Fiddler On the Roof — and, famously, on film for his portrayal of Max Bialystock in The Producers.

ZERO HOUR is a new play created by another large-than-life character, Jim Brochu. It promises to bring Mostel back to life in a context and a setting almost certain to add new dimension to the public persona of the beloved comic, who died way too young in 1977. Fresh from New York, Los Angeles and points south, ZERO HOUR— written by and starring Brochu, under the direction of Piper Laurie — IS all set to open Monday night in the Al Green Theatre of the Miles Nadal JCC, a presentation of Harold Green Jewish Theatre.

Reached in New York as he prepares to decamp for his Toronto run, Brochu happily retraced the genesis of the show all the way back to his early meetings with Mostel, who was then appearing in Forum with Brochu's long-time mentor, David Burns. At the time Brochu was on furlough from the military school he was attending, but still in uniform. After being dubbed General Nuisance by Mostel, the two struck up a lasting friendship. In fact, Brochu has developed a real knack for making famous friends, a knack developed early and still maintained as he boasts a buddy list that includes everyone from the late Ethel Merman (the subject of his stage play, The Big Voice: God Or Merman) to Lucille Ball (whose biography, Lucy In the Afternoon, he authored).

"My idols became my friends," he says simply, "And that is the greatest blessing of all — I know how blessed I have been." Still, Brochu admits, Mostel initially could be a little intimidating to a young school boy: "He terrified me. He absolutely terrified me." Soon, however, the fear passed. "Then, he was very sweet to me," Brochu says. After Forum closed, the two stayed in touch, and a friendship blossomed. So did the idea of a show, albeit slowly.

"This has been long in my head to do this," Brochu says, adding that he figured he had a few things he could bring to the part. "I'm big like him. I'm light on my feet and I like to be a little crazy once in a while," the playwright/actor says. Still, he started small and somewhat tentatively. "The play really took shape when his friends started to come to see the show. They all came with a scowl on their face and their arms crossed — and we all became good friends." And once they became good friends, they started helping Brochu shape the show.

Madeline Gilford was one of them. She was the widow of the late actor Jack Gilford, who starred opposite Mostel in Forum and who, like his wife and Mostel, had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era. "She's the one that taught me about the smell of the studio," Brochu says. "The play takes place in (Mostel's) studio. He considered himself a painter who acted, not an actor who painted."

With tips like that the show has grown, and brought Brochu closer to Mostel. "It really has," he says, with a degree of wonder. "Who can know what makes anybody else tick, but Zero and I are very close in a lot of ways. That's kind of fun — to use your own heart beating for someone else."

And, no, Brochu is not about to make a career out of Mostel, tempting though that may be. "I have the new script in front of me, in fact," he says. "I'm going to be doing P.T. Barnum — a two-character play with me playing the old Barnum and the young Barnum. And then, after Barnum," he continues without missing a beat, "I'm doing Rosemary Clooney."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

National Ballet’s Mixed Program brings vibrancy, colour and light
24 MAR/11

Rating: 5 out of 5

Despite the fact that Winterlicious is now behind us for another year — winter itself, maybe not so much — Karen Kain is offering up a menu you might want to consider — and best of all, it’s a zero-calorie affair. In fact, you might even burn up a calorie or two in enthusiastic applause, should you decide to chow down on the dance banquet that Kain has cooked up for the National Ballet of Canada’s new evening of mixed programming, which opened a limited run Wednesday on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre.

To whet the appetite, the evening launches with the cool and sustained elegance of George Balanchine’s APOLLO, set to the the haunting notes of Apollon Musagète, composed by Igor Stravinsky. A work designed to showcase the danseur noble at the zenith of his career, it seems a role almost tailor-made for Aleksandar Antonijevic, who brought a lovely sense of disciplined vulnerability to his opening night performance.

Birthed by a flame-haired Leto (Stephanie Hutchison) and instructed by his half-sisters Calliope (Jillian Vanstone), Polyhymnia (Elena Lobsanova) and most especially Terpsichore (Sonia Rodriguez), Antonijevic gives us an Apollo worthy of the pantheon of memorable performances in this demanding work.

Balanchine is also on offer for the dessert course, with his THEME AND VARIATIONS, an often thrilling homage to the glory days of Russian ballet, taking centre-stage. Set to the music of Tchaikovsky and given the whole tutu-tiara-tights rig-out by designer Santo Loquasto, this is a ballet rich in both tradition and talent, particularly when it showcases dancers the likes of Heather Ogden and Piotr Stanczyk, backed as they are by the hugely talented corps. Technically strong, the work lacked only that nebulous spark that in its brief flaring can join two dancers into a single unit.

Such connections were certainly on offer in the main course Kain cooked up for the evening, however — the company première of choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s explosively colourful RUSSIAN SEASONS, created originally for the New York City Ballet in 2006. But as the ballet unfolds on the wings of Leonid Desyatnikov’s glorious score — a nod to soprano Susana Poretsky and violinist Stephen Sitarski, as well as the NBOC Orchestra and conductor David Briskin is certainly in order here — the dancers of the National Ballet lose no time at all in making it their own, tackling it with the same joyous skill and professional ferocity with which they once tackled demanding new works from James Kudelka, the company’s erstwhile artistic director.

Led by Guillaume Côté and Greta Hodgkinson, a dozen dancers, including Ogden and Antonijevic, Xiao Nan Yu and McGee Maddox and Brett Van Sickle and Lobsanova, fill the stage with the colour and explosive passion of a Russian year, seemingly tumbling over each other in their natural drive to dance. From an awakening spring to a winter’s lingering and frozen death, this thrilling explosion of colour and skill — at times, brooding and threatening, at others whimsical and silly, but always passionate through and through — represents a steppe by steppe celebration of the shifting of the Russian seasons. Galina Solovyeva’s costumes are jewel-like and timeless, flawlessly lit by Mark Stanley.

And fittingly, as winter ultimately strips the life from RUSSIAN SEASONS, the promise of a new awakening — in the new production of ROMEO AND JULIET that Ratmansky has been commissioned to create for the company to launch its 60th anniversary season — hovers tantalizingly in the future.

A feast for the eyes, the ears and the soul, the National Ballet has put a new spin on Winterlicious. And chances are, you’re going to love it.

23 MAR/11

QMI Agency
Rating: 3 out of 5

For many of the artistic residents of the Montparnasse in the wake of World War I — Chagall, Man Ray, Soutine, Picasso, Stein and Hemingway to name but a few — suffering for one's art would prove to be a lucrative long-term investment. At the same time, for a few often nameless (but rarely faceless) individuals, suffering for the art of others would prove to be a pretty thankless endeavour.

They were the models for many renowned paintings, sculptures and other works of art and while the names of many of them may be well known among the cognoscenti in the arts world, to the world at large, they are merely the nameless subject of works like Nude Reclining, Nude Bathing, Nude Sleeping and the like. But now, two Toronto theatre artists have set out to change all that in a new work titled MONTPARNASSE, that opened on the Theatre Passe Muraille mainstage, a production of Groundwater Productions.

Change it, that is, to the degree that it can be changed in a work built around two fictitious Canadian women who flee the constraints of Toronto the good in favour of la vie bohème on offer in Paris the naughty, where ultimately they shed far more than a few inhibitions.

Mag is played by Erin Shields, while Amelia is played by Maev Beaty, both of whom share a writing credit under the direction of Andrea Donaldson. The more adventurous Mag is already in Paris when the show opens and, having ruled out careers in dancing and sausage making, she has doffed her duds and settled into life as an artist's model. Along the way, she has also invited the more timorous Amelia to join her in her wastrelling ways, but has neglected to leave a forwarding address.

So, upon her arrival, an already fraught Amelia's first challenge is to track down her peripatetic friend. That accomplished, she too sets out to conquer Paris, and while Amelia's ambitions trend more towards the wielding of a paintbrush than being captured by it, she soon finds herself sharing modeling assignments with her freewheeling friend, while she waits for artistic inspiration to strike. As they get caught up in the life of Montparnasse — Mag is soon embroiled in a 'meaty collaboration' with Soutine, while Amelia finds herself inspired by the the charms of literary facilitator Sylvia Beach — each of them, ever so subtly, loses her way and her focus.

They come together again, however, in a grand collaboration that ultimately destroys their friendship, even while they destroy what they've created. The entire story unfolds on an adaptable two level set, created by designer Jung-Hye Kim (and who in fairness, considering the amount of time this cast spends au natural, should share costuming credits with Mother Nature or the gene pools from which this cast has sprung).

The goal here, of course, is to examine the role inspiration plays in the world of art and the value we put on it, and while Beaty and Shields make some valid points, they ultimately fail in their attempt to offer new and fresh perspectives. Part of the problem one suspects, is the fact that, as collaborators, they fail to find a unified theatrical voice to speak on their behalf, instead contenting themselves with careering happily between theatrical styles in a manner that is frankly more exhausting than entertaining.

Nudity aside, there is much here to showcase the talents of each of these performers, although it must be said that by digging deeper, Beaty certainly seems to soar higher. But in the end, one suspects, it will take a stronger director than Donaldson to adequately showcase their abilities as playwright/collaborators.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

THEATRE NEWS: Young Peoples change kicks off new season
23 MAR/11


After a decade of styling itself The Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People, the company that operates out of the Front Street Theatre will once again revert to the name first chosen by founder Susan Douglas Rubes back in 1966.

And to celebrate the change in name, LKTYP (or Young Peoples Theatre, as it will be known, come July 1) has announced a 2011-12 season they hope will challenge young audiences to "Change Your World." The season was announced Tuesday by Artistic Director Allen MacInnis.

The mainstage season opens with a movement piece for kids titled THE STUDIO, directed and choreographed by Helene Langevin, which will then be followed by a brand new production of SEUSSICAL, written by Lynn Ahrens and featuring music by Stephen Flaherty.

Next up on the mainstage will be Red Sky performance's production of Tracey Power's THE GREAT MOUNTAIN, which will then give way to David S. Craig's new adaptation of Michael Ende's THE NEVERENDING STORY, produced by Roseneath Theatre.

Linda Garson's new version of JACK IN THE BEANSTOCK follows, with BEYOND THE CUCKOO'S NEST, a new play from Edward Roy, slated to close the mainstage season.

Meanwhile, on the YPT Studio Stage, two productions are planned: (WOULD YOU SAY THE NAME OF THIS PLAY?), written by Berend McKenzie and produced by Small Brown Package Productions and BAOBAB, written by Helene Ducharm and produced by Theatre Motus and SO Company (Mali).

For further information, visit or call 416-862-2222.

Friday, March 18, 2011

18 MAR/11

QMI Agency
Rating: 5 out of 5

Some insist that only candlelight can bring out the true beauty of precious gems. And while that may be true, a diamond lit only by a single naked bulb is still a thing of breathtaking beauty — and certainly no less precious. So it is with the National Ballet of Canada’s exquisitely refurbished production of John Cranko’s ONEGIN, a balletic jewel that debuted last June in what was certainly the theatrical equivalent of candlelight — a lush spring Toronto evening that set off the tragedy of the tale in the same magical way champagne sets off the sweetness of strawberries.

Now it’s March, of course, and while the artists of the National Ballet don’t have the perfection of June to help them showcase Cranko’s dazzling masterpiece, they still manage to find the enduring beauty of the work, bringing it to life once again on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre, where it opened a limited run Thursday.

It is based on a poetic tale, written by Russia’s Alexander Pushkin, that tells of the innocent young woman Tatiana (danced by Sonia Rodriguez) and the ill-fated love she bears for Eugene Onegin (Aleksandar Antonijevic), an arrogant nobleman she meets almost by chance. Onegin is, in fact, in the country simply to visit his friend Lensky (Piotr Stanczyk), a good-hearted young man smitten with Tatiana’s sister, Olga (Jillian Vanstone). When Lensky comes to call on Olga, Onegin tags along.

For Tatiana, it is love at first sight. She writes the stranger a long letter, declaring her love — but both letter and sentiment are spurned by the bored dandy, who instead picks a fight with Lensky that ends in tragedy. The two meet again in the St. Petersburg home she now shares with the prince — and Onegin quickly regrets his earlier dismissal and begs to be forgiven.

As story ballets go, this one is certainly hard to top. It’s set to an enduring and moving score composed by Russian master Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky, a score beautifully rendered by the NBOC Orchestra under principal conductor and music director David Briskin. It is also lushly designed by Santo Loquasto, who proved conclusively with THE NUTCRACKER that he’s a master at evoking the opulence of Czarist Russia.

It is, however, on the backs of the dancers that a ballet quite literally rises and falls, and this is a company tailor-made to showcase the glory of Cranko’s choreography. Rodriguez, for her part, renders Tatiana’s transformation from innocent maiden in Act 1 to mature and compassionate woman in Act 3 as something not only utterly believable but a chrysalis of great beauty too.

Sadly we live in a world where June represents only one 12th of any year — and while ONEGIN seemed to sparkle brightest in the glow of a June evening, this staging proves it’s a precious jewel that can add lustre to a March evening as well.

THEATRE NEWS: Factory season announced;
Could you be an Idiot?;
Penelopiad plays at Buddies
18 MAR/11


Playwright/performer Rick Miller will be the first at bat in the Factory Theatre's 2011-12 season, announced Thursday by Artistic Director Ken Gass and Managing Director Sara Meurling — and he's hoping to bat in a triple.

Miller will start off with a pre-subscription run of WYRD Production's acclaimed staging of MacHOMER, the officially launch the season with the WYRD/Necessary Angel production of BIGGER THAN JESUS, following it up with a revival of WYRD/Necessary Angel's HARDSELL, reworked with director Daniel Brooks for this Factory remount. Also on tap in the season ahead, is an all new production of Tomson Highway's acclaimed comedy/drama, THE REZ SISTERS, directed by Ken Gass, which is slated to follow up Miller Time on the mainstage.

Ronnie Burkett then takes over, returning to the Factory Theatre for the Toronto première of PENNY PLAIN, a new work from the the internationally acclaimed Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes. Anosh Irani's MY GRANNY THE GOLDFISH, featured as part of Factory's CrossCurrents Festival in 2009, will close the season in its Toronto première.

A new work from Newfoundland's Artistic Fraud titled OIL AND WATER, written by Robert Chafe, featuring an a cappella score by Andrew Craig and directed by Jillian Keiley will headline Factory's Performance Spring 2012.

Subscriptions, priced from $85 to $175 are available March 31. For information, call 416-504-9971.


Open Call auditions will be held Sat. March 26 at Roy Thomson Hall for the recently announced Toronto engagement of AMERICAN IDIOT. Producers are seeking male and female rock singers in their early to late 20s to be a part of the production that is slated to run at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, Dec. 28 through Jan. 15, 2012.

For further information on the auditions, visit , or call 212-719-9393x360.


Nightwood Theatre will offer up a Toronto production of Margaret Atwood's THE PENELOPIAD at Buddies In Bad Times in January as part of its 2011-12 season, it was announced Thursday. With direction by Kelly Thornton, sets and costumes by Denyse Karn and lighting by Kimberly Purtell, Nightwood's production of Atwood's response to the Odyssey is slated to open Jan. 12 and run through Jan. 29.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

THEATRE NEWS: Tarragon unveils spicy season
16 MAR/11


The Tarragon Theatre kicks off its 2011-12 season with a spicy little offering titled IN THE NEXT ROOM or the vibrator play, according to an announcement made Tuesday by artistic director Richard Rose and general manager Camilla Holland.

Written by Sarah Ruhl, IN THE NEXT ROOM will be directed in its Canadian première by Rose, in a co-production with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, that is slated to hit the Tarragon mainstage next September. Also on tap for the Tarragon's mainstage season is the Toronto première of the latest work from playwright Hannah Moscovitch. Titled THE CHILDREN'S REPUBLIC, it will be co-produced with Harold Green Jewish Theatre and will be directed by Alisa Palmer, who also directed Moscovitch's EAST OF BERLIN for Tarragon.

Ross Manson, meanwhile, has been signed to direct Tarragon's Canadian première of Roland Schimmelpfennig's THE GOLDEN DRAGON, working from a translation by David Tushingham, while Weyni Mengesha will direct Carole Frechette's THE SMALL ROOM AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, working from a translation by John Murrell. The mainstage season will close with a revival of Michel Tremblay's THE REAL WORLD?, translated by Tarragon founder Bill Glassco and John Van Burek, and directed by Rose.

Meanwhile, in the Extra Space, d'bi.young anitafrika will launch the the season with the world premiere of word! sound! powah!, which is slated to play in rep with two of her earlier works, blood.claat and benu, under the umbrella title, the sankofa trilogy. Also programmed by the Extra Space, the Toronto première of a new work by Daniel MacIvor, titled WAS SPRING, which will be directed by the playwright.

In the coming season, Rose has also programmed two productions in the company's upstairs studio space, which has now been designated the Extraextra Space. On tap there will be the world première of Andre Alexis' NAME IN VAIN (DECALOGUE TWO), under Rose's direction and Why Not Theatre's production of A BRIMFUL OF ASHA, co-written by Asha and Ravi Jain, who also directs.

Subscriptions and single tickets for the new season are slated to go on sale March 21. For further information, contact 416-531-1827.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

13 MAR/11

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Grammatically, the comparative form of “fine” is “finer.” Which means that the title of the show that opened on the mainstage of the Tarragon Theatre Friday should be called, if one were to put a (ahem) fine grammatical point on it, Finer Girls, as opposed to MORE FINE GIRLS. Ultimately, however, such a title change would imply that the play — a sequel to the acclaimed 1995 offering, THE ATTIC, THE PEARLS, AND THREE FINE GIRLS — is somehow better than the play that spawned it. And, sadly, nothing could be further from the truth even if one compares it to the 1995 offering, and not the much more polished 1997 remount that accounts for much of the work’s enduring popularity in our shared theatrical memory.

To refresh that memory: THE ATTIC, THE PEARLS… debuted at the Theatre Centre, a production of Theatre Columbus, and showed certain promise — enough promise, in fact, that it was revived to both critical and audience acclaim on the stage of Buddies In Bad Times two years later. It was a collective creation, the handiwork of writer Jennifer Brewin, director Alisa Palmer and actors Leah Cherniak, Ann-Marie MacDonald and Martha Ross, all of whom shared a single writing credit. To mount the sequel, co-produced by Theatre Columbus and the Tarragon, that entire original creative team was re-assembled, although Cherniak withdrew just prior to the original scheduled opening for unspecified reasons. While Cherniak maintains a writing credit, Severn Thompson was recruited to replace her on stage and the opening of MORE FINE GIRLS was rescheduled.

It is set 13 years after its prequel and the Fine sisters — Jojo, played by Ross, Jayne, played by MacDonald and Jelly, played by Thompson — have been getting on with their lives. Jojo is starting to feel intimations of encroaching old age, but is still determined that life — her own and the lives of those around her — will unfold according to her vision. Jayne, meanwhile, has retired from the high-tension world of big business and has settled on an acreage with her same-sex partner, who continues to work. Jelly and her unseen daughter — fathered in a fleeting tryst with a nameless uni-cycler — are surviving on what Jelly can make as an artist. The Fine girls haven’t seen a lot of each other over the intervening years since last we saw them, but they have now re-assembled at Jelly’s invitation. Not surprisingly, they are getting along in Fine fashion. While Jojo tries to micromanage everything, Jayne frets about her deteriorating relationship and Jelly prepares for her biggest art project ever, one which will convert the family seat into environmental art.

As it plays, it is easy to see a lot of good ideas here but to this point, under Palmer’s direction, they still seem to be little more than a series of improvised scenes being unfairly bullied in an attempt to make a play of them. Ross is her usual frantic, over-emoting self, while MacDonald moves through much of the show like an automaton, waking up and joining the action to create some of the show’s comedic highlights. Only Thompson, divorced from the creation of the material as she is, seems completely comfortable in her character. Her comfort sadly makes her castmates seem like over-eager stage mothers, pushing their timid progeny to excel beyond their talents.

It bears remembering that in their first incarnation, it took two tries for the Fine girls to find the audience they deserved — and with luck and another production, they might succeed in transforming themselves from MORE FINE GIRLS into Finer Girls. But for now, they remain simply a grammatical conundrum.

Friday, March 11, 2011

11 MAR/11

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Of all the ways mankind has found to victimize his fellow man, genocide is perhaps the most enduring, revisiting its victims with the birth (or lack of it) of every subsequent generation. For proof, look to research conducted by a Native American museum in California, which showed that 94% of its clientele came to see a people that no longer existed.

That it was a vanished people patrons were coming to see and not a vanishing way of life spoke volumes to playwright Marie Clements, who was thus challenged to examine in microcosm some of the ways in which North America’s indigenous population has been systematically reduced to a point where too many people believe it not longer exists at all. Her play is called TOMBS OF THE VANISHING INDIAN and it had its world première Thursday, a joint presentation of Native Earth Performing Arts and red diva projects, at Buddies in Bad Times.

Set in and around Los Angeles toward the middle of the last century, it tells the tragic story of three Native sisters, brought to the coast by a loving mother in search of a better life for her children. Instead, she finds a society that thinks it knows, far better than she, how to give those children that better life — and the three sisters suddenly find themselves orphaned and alone, wards of a system that sees them as problems rather than as people.

The diminutive Michelle St. John looms large as the tragic mother whose passion and presence haunts the entire show, while Nicole Joy-Fraser, Falen Johnson and PJ Prudat play her three daughters, Jessie, Miranda and Janey.

The eldest, Jessie, has been ‘disappeared’ most conventionally, adopted by a loving white family who kept her far removed from her Native heritage, from her sisters and from Los Angeles itself. A few decades on, she returns with her new husband (Keith Barker), determined to put their newly minted medical credentials to use by helping the poor. As for her two sisters, Jessie has no idea if they are still alive, or that they have endured an horrific round of abusive foster homes, residential schools and religion, each of which has served to separate them from their own people without making them part of another. But the worst horror has been visited on them at the very clinic in which their eldest sister now labours — a crime that comes to light only when Jessie is found bloodied and alone and is questioned, lost as she is in the memory of her people, by a sympathetic detective (Martin Julien) who suspects she has killed her baby. Similarly abused, Miranda finds her way into acting, where she falls victim to a tortured filmmaker (David Storch) who sees her merely as a childhood fantasy made flesh, robbing her too of the last tattered vestiges of her heritage.

Clements’ script covers a lot of turf and makes a lot of demands on cast and director in the course of 90 minutes, careering between the pragmatic and the poetic, the deeply tragic and the subversively funny. And while director Yvette Nolan, working on a beautiful albeit fussy set created by Jackie Chau and lit by Michelle Ramsay, focuses her cast to meet all of those demands, she struggles and sometimes loses her way in the transitions between a world where memory and spirit dwell, and the world of reality.

Still, in the story it tells, and the larger issues on which it focuses our attention, TOMBS OF THE VANISHING INDIAN is often deeply touching, a piece of theatrical anthropology about the determined survival of a people - not its demise.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

10 MAR/11

QMI Agency
Rating: 4 out of 5

If storylines were ever to become as precious as gasoline, it would almost definitely put the folks at the National Ballet of Canada squarely in the driver's seat.

Watching the opening night performance of their latest revisiting of DON QUIXOTE -- it opened a limited run Wednesday at the Four Seasons Centre -- one can't help but be impressed by the fact that somehow they manage to keep a ballet spinning a top for well over two hours on nothing but a teaspoon or two worth of storyline. And when it comes right down to it, even that has precious little to do with the titular hero of Miguel de Cervantes' seminal novel with which the work shares its name. Instead, most of this story's focus is on the romance between a lusty village barber and his equally lusty sweetheart, the daughter of the owner of the local tavern.

Simply stated, Basilio (Piotr Stanczyk) and Kitri (Greta Hodgkinson) are madly in love and want to get married, despite the fact that her parents want her to marry Gamache, a local nobleman (Kevin D. Bowles, handling it all with what can only be described as good grace). Love, of course, conquers all -- and that's pretty much the end of it, except for a dumb-show prologue, in which Don Quixote, Cervantes' hapless but beloved anti-hero, essayed here by Hazaros Surmeyan, links up with his voracious sidekick Sancho Panza (Robert Stephen) and the two then set off to put the world to rights. From there, their roles are reduced to that of mere bystanders as the romance that drives the ballet takes centre stage and never really surrenders it again.

For those who love Cervantes' tale -- or even the musical, MAN OF LA MANCHA, that it also spawned -- there's no shortage of people to blame for the aged Don's reduction in circumstances, starting with none other than Marius Petipa, the French-born master of the Russian ballet. It was Petipa, after all, who first to attempted to tell this story in dance, setting it to the oddly cartoonish music of Ludwig Minkus and thus providing the inspiration for a restaging (by Lindsay Fisher and Evelina Krasnova) that entered the NBOC repertoire back in 1983. And clearly, they were driven more by respect for Petipa's skill as a dancemaker than as a storyteller.

Still, as a ballet, DON QUIXOTE has endured for almost a century and a half, thanks to audiences who simply enjoy masterful dancing, particularly when it is served up with beautiful style and verve. Here, credit rests squarely at the feet of designer Desmond Heeley, who gives us a series of Spanish tableaux, beautifully balanced between the Gaudi and the gaudy, drenched in joyous colour and beautifully lit by Robert Thomson.

As for the verve, that's something rarely in short supply with this company. As the young lovers, Stanczyk and Hodgkinson are superb, turning Act III's classic pas de deux into a thrilling demonstration of good-hearted balletic one-upmanship. There's fine work too from Aleksandar Antonijevic as a self-possessed toreador and Xiao Nan Yu, as his mistress, and from Elena Lobsanova, as the Queen Dyad of Quixote's dreams, all backed by a disciplined chorus.

Even the NBOC Orchestra shines, doing its utmost under the baton of David Briskin to transform Minkus' score into a thing of memorable beauty -- and coming awfully close to succeeding. Ballet may never give us a memorable DON QUIXOTE -- but apparently an excuse for a memorable evening of dance doesn't come along every day.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

9 MAR/11

Rating: 3 out of 5

There are days when the sophistication of a steady diet of All in the Family and Coronation Street re-runs, leavened only by episodes of The Simpsons and Kenny vs. Spenny starts to wear a trifle thin -- when one must search beyond the reach of the TV remote for intellectually challenging and socially relevant entertainment.

On days such as those, one can now make their way to the Princess of Wales Theatre, where playwright/director/performer Brendan O'Carroll has set up shop to demonstrate once again to a Canadian audience that, at least in Ireland, the lowest common denominator has more numbers after the decimal point than true pi.

O'Carroll, of course, is the brains and the talent behind the highly successful Brown franchise -- introduced to Toronto audiences last summer, via HOW NOW MRS. BROWN COW! And if you've never heard of it, not to worry, for O'Carroll's success has been based largely in Britain, where he has earned a following tracing the antics of his heroine, the widow Agnes Brown and her family and friends. Born on British radio, O'Carroll's Agnes and her gang have gone on to conquer print, movies, television and stage.

And now, it's our turn. As most successful formulas often are, O'Carroll's is a simple one, built around the antics of Agnes -- a role which he essays in a kind of drag that offers graphic reminder that drag is also a means of finding dead bodies. GOOD MOURNING MRS. BROWN is set in the Dublin home Agnes shares, not only with an ever-shifting panorama of grown children and their partners, but with her late husband's father as well. And when Grandad Brown (Dermot O'Neill), at age 92, starts worrying about what will be said at his funeral, Agnes decides to re-arrange the order of things and give him his funeral before he dies rather than after.

Along the way, she has to sort out a few family matters: A robbery son Dermot (Paddy Houlihan) is planning, even while his wife (Fiona O'Carroll) is about to give birth; a feud between glittering son Rory (Rory Cowan) and his paramour, Dino (Gary Hollywood); a burgeoning romance that's lighting up the life of daughter Cathy (Jennifer Gibney).

O'Carroll also throws in a dipsomaniacal priest, a pair of errant Mormons and other assorted local Dublin fauna, beefing out the script in a more or less ad hoc fashion that allows him to run amok and demonstrate the varied and impressive number of ways the word 'fecking' can be used and abused. (If the Mirvishes were to impose the same kind of quota on this particular f-word as they are rumoured to have done on f-bombs in PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT, they'd be left with little more than a comedy sketch out of almost three hours, one suspects.)

It's beer-soaked British music hall with all the elegant bits removed or Dame Edna on the skids if you will. But it is also, Lord help me, sometimes wickedly funny, often in a way that would be embarrassing as hell if you were caught laughing at it. Reviewed here in its final preview, GOOD MOURNING MRS BROWN Brown is a rambling, rambunctious affair that often loses its way and, in the final analysis, even forgets what it set out to do, which is, of course, to allow Grandad to hear what people will have to say about him. But even while it is too fecking long by half, it is still, on occasion, a fecking good time.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

THEATRE NEWS: Donny Osmond returns to T.O.;
Railway Children auditions
8 MAR/11


They may have called it puppy love — but almost four decades on, Dancap Productions is betting that the romance between Donny Osmond and Toronto theatre fans is something a little more enduring.

Dancap officials announced Monday that they have added a two-week July run of Donny & Marie, starring the erstwhile star of the Toronto production of JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT and his singing sibling — at the Four Seasons Centre to a summer season that already includes runs of NEXT TO NORMAL and COME FLY AWAY.

At the same time, Dancap announced that Colm Wilkinson, who coincidentally was appearing in the Toronto production of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA at the same time as Osmond was appearing in JOSEPH, will join the summer line-up too. Colm Wilkinson In Concert: Broadway And Beyond will take to the stage of the Four Seasons for two shows only, Aug. 12 and 13. Finally, Dancap announced that the touring production of Broadway's GREEN DAY'S AMERICAN IDIOT will make its only scheduled Canadian stop at the Toronto Centre For the Arts, Dec. 28 through Jan. 15, as part of Dancap's subscription season.

On hand for the announcement the affable Osmond says he's looking forward to opening again in the city he called home for two years and still sees as his "second home." And he's certain he'll be a little more relaxed going into this show, which he and his sister have been doing for at the Flamingo Las Vegas for more than two years, than he was back when JOSEPH opened. "You can't imagine how nervous I was," he recalls. "I think everybody expected me to fail. All I remember is curtain up and curtain down."

Aside from a stint in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, however, he's not returned to the theatrical stage since, but with the youngest of his five sons attaining maturity, the grandfather of three is starting to get the itch again — and he figures he'll have the time to scratch it when his youngest flies the nest.

"When you do a show, you've got to do a three to six month commitment," he explains, adding that he's not prepared to commit that kind of time while he's still parenting. As for the current incarnation of Donny and Marie, which has just been signed for another two years in Vegas (and will make a stop in another American city later this year, he hinted), he's more than fine with that.

"We both knew it was inevitable we were going to get back together," he says of re-teaming with his sibling, his sister, his foil and his longtime performance partner. "And it all worked," he says, pointing to a polished show that features eight dancers and nine musicians in addition to the titular brother and sister act that give it all its cachet. And while he's enjoying riding the wave of nostalgia yet again, he's not anywhere close to tired of the cage in which that places him. "There is always reinvention," he insists. "There is always room to grow." While he admits that the whole Donny Osmond nostalgia thing could be considered a monkey on his back, he insists,"I kind of like that monkey."

Tickets for Donny & Marie and for the other two shows are available to Dancap subscribers today at 416-644-3665, with single tickets available at a later date.


Producers of the forthcoming production of THE RAILWAY CHILDREN (which begins a summer run at the new Roundhouse Theatre on May 3) will host open auditions on Monday, March 14 for children to perform as part of the ensemble.

Auditions will be held in the Metro Convention Centre (255 Front St. W.) North Building, main lobby. Children 9 to 13 should arrive at 10 am to register, while children 14 to 16 should arrive at 2 pm — and all children must be accompanied by an adult. For further information, visit

Sunday, March 6, 2011

6 MAR/11

Rating: 3 out of 5

It’s not easy to create a work of theatre that can be all things to all people, so right off the top fledgling playwright/performer Tara Grammy deserves a nod for creating a piece of theatre that successfully leaps a few cultural hurdles. In a new work, titled MAHMOUD, young Grammy and her collaborators at Pandemic Theatre give us a 50-minute playlet that apparently speaks evocatively to the experiences of first and second generation Iranian Canadians (in whose number Grammy counts herself), even while it opens windows into those experiences for a broader theatrical audience. MAHMOUD opened Friday at the Tarragon Extra Space.

It is, in the main, the handiwork of Grammy herself, who not only wrote the work in collaboration with director/dramaturg Tom Arthur Davis, but performs in it as well, essaying all three of the characters they have created to bring the work to life. The first of those characters, and the one who ties them all together in the end, is Mahmoud, a garrulous affable sort who has been making his living as a Toronto taxi driver for the past 25 years, even while he dreams of his homeland and his life there as a successful engineer. These days, he finds not only comfort and wisdom in the poetry of Hafez and the engineering genius of Toyota, but also the time and energy to keep his needy wife happy too.

Young Tara, the second character, has dreams of her homeland too, at least when she’s not dreaming of playing Tinkerbell in her school’s production of Peter Pan, or conspiring to catch the eye of a high school jock who has already caught hers. To her, Iran is a glorious place where she might be able to simply be herself.

The third character is a young gay Spaniard named Emanuelos who, at first blush, might appear to have absolutely nothing to do with the ex-pat Persian community, beyond a shared immigrant experience, of course. But like the two characters with whom he shares the stage, he is about to discover that Persian roots run deep — and that what anchors so many people can also serve to hold them back.

As a performer, Grammy has a definite facility with character roles, but under Davis’ direction — even with an assist from consulting director Soheil Parsa — she still struggles with separating character from caricature. Even while they are revealing wonderful little nuggets about their individual and shared experiences, her characters feel a little too much like mere amalgams of clichés, strung together merely for entertainment purposes.

So, when the action suddenly turns serious and leads us into the tumult of the Green revolution, that first zephyr that has grown into the winds of change currently sweeping through the Middle East, her characters are, in the main, utterly incapable of shouldering the emotional demands with which they are faced. Still one suspects that those familiar with the Iranian-Canadian experience will see at least some of their lives reflected on stage, even while outsiders enjoy a glimpse into the complexities of living with a foot in two worlds.

Friday, March 4, 2011

4 MAR/11

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

TORONTO - One never merely watches good theatre. Because when you think about it, good theatre engages all five senses. We see it and hear it, and while we may not touch it, it certainly touches us. As for smell and taste, anyone who caught the late Peter Donaldson doing a hangover in A LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT or Sandra Shamas' describing the virtues of pumpkin pie fudge a few shows back knows what it's like to smell and taste theatre.

And the omens are good for a full sensory experience when we enter the Factory Theatre for Thursday's opening night performance of BROTHEL #9, the latest -- and certainly the most ambitious -- play from rising star Anusree Roy, who's made a big splash on the playwrighting front of late. In fact, thanks the artistry of designer Shawn Kerwin, we are dropped immediately into the squalid slums of Calcutta, specifically a dank courtyard at the centre of a warren of alleys and hallways -- a place where life thrives, even though the sun rarely penetrates the exotic miasma moodily rendered by lighting designer Bonnie Beecher.

It is, it develops, the courtyard of the establishment of title, a play-for-pay emporium of the slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am variety run by the amoral Birbal, played by Ash Knight, and ruled over by the slatternly Jamuna, played by Roy herself. Introduced to the flesh trade by Birbai's late father, the aging Jamuna now knows all the tricks of her trade -- and it falls to her to teach young Rekha (Pamela Sinha) the ropes, when the beautiful young country girl arrives under the delusion that she is about to begin employment at a factory where they make something other than whoopee.

Jamuna, of course, quickly disabuses the new arrival, and with the enthusiastic help of the corrupt Salaudin (Sanjay Talwar), introduces the reluctant young girl to her new duties. That Salaudin happens to be a married man and a cop -- not to mention, a member of completely different religious faith -- presumably makes her offstage violation all the more horrific.

But involving Salaudin, with whom she has shared a longtime business/personal relationship, proves to be the aging Jamuna's undoing, for Salaudin is soon paying regular visits to the young interloper and ignoring the fading charms of his one-time paramour and confidant in the process. It is a transfer of affections that will break both women's hearts.

In bringing Brothel #9 to the stage, director Nigel Shawn Williams makes some good moves, capturing a cultural ethos that certainly feels authentic. But in the end, it adds up to not much, thanks to his failure on a very basic level. For while his audience may indeed be engaged on all five sensory levels, one of them -- hearing -- proves to be a major stumbling block. It's not that the work is inaudible -- in fact, one occasionally wishes Williams would tone things down a bit -- but rather, it is too often incomprehensible, at least for ears untuned to the thick sub-continental patois that marks both Knight's and Roy's performances.

If Roy wants to tell stories of her homeland to an audience exclusively of her homeland, then she's certainly on the right track. If however, she hopes to tell those stories to a broader audience clearly hungering for them, she needs a compromise that preserves the verbal flavour of her homeland while still rendering speech comprehensible to an untrained ear. This might be a great play -- my guess is that it is merely on the plus side of adequate -- but in the end, that can only be determined if and when all five senses can be fully engaged.

Nightingale sings in Brooklyn
4 MAR/11


Forget Berkeley Square. Our Nightingale is singing in Brooklyn — and they love it.

The Canadian Opera Company’s production of THE NIGHTINGALE AND OTHER SHORT FABLES — Robert Lepage’s acclaimed mixed program of opera — is following up its acclaimed 2009 run at the Four Seasons Centre here in Toronto with a run at the prestigious Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it opened March 1. And, once again, critical response is enthusiastic.

The New York Times describes it as “more splendid” than a pivotal scene in a Zefferelli production at the Met, while the New York Post calls Lepage “one of the most imaginative directors currently active” and praises his work for both its “pure magic” and its “child-like wonder.”

And while praise was high for soprano Olga Peretyatko and the rest of the cast, the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and chorus and their music director Johannes Debus drew praise for their vibrancy as well.
THE NIGHTINGALE runs at BAM through Sunday.

4 MAR/11

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Although I've never studied the principles of aerodynamics and flight, simple logic suggests the first thing one should do if one wishes to become airborne is to jettison everything that might possibly hold one down.

That logic could easily be applied to the new production of ALICE IN WONDERLAND that opened Wednesday at Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People (where it will run through March 19, with added performances during March break). A production of Quebec's Théâtre Tout à Trac, it is, of course, yet another stage version of Lewis Carroll's beloved children's classic and its sequels, adapted this time out by TàT's artistic director Hugo Bélanger, who apparently laboured en français and then had his handiwork translated to English by Maureen Labonte.

Recommended by the folks at LKTYP for the age 6-10 demographic, this show is, first and foremost, a treat for eyes of every age. But one is forced to conclude, based on the size of its set, that it is a treat designed to be served up in a much smaller space than this theatre And once the five-member cast launches into the business of bringing Carroll's beloved characters to life, with the aid of designer Patrice Charbonneau-Brunelle's inspired creative genius, it is almost certain anyone seated in the back half of the auditorium will be wishing for closer seats.

From the Mad Hatter and Humpty Dumpty to the Cheshire Cat, from the Dormouse and the Door and the Queen of Hearts — Carroll's cast of strange and wonderful characters are brought to life with such a vital and magical mix of puppet technology and live performance artistry that they all but demand to be seen from the closest possible vantage point. For once, front row centre would be a great place to be.

But while the sheer artistry of the staging is thrilling and certainly welcomes audiences of all ages, this is a production that fails to put out the welcome mat in any meaningful way for its youthful target group. While no one can fault the level of artistry and dedication brought to the stage by Valérie Deault (who plays the indefatigable Alice), and castmates Sarianne Cormier, Gabriel De Santis-Caron, Marie-Eve Trudel and Phillippe Robert (who share the other 15 roles between them), as Francophone artists, they simply lack the linguistic skill to bring Labonte's admittedly somewhat leaden translation to life.

And that's a serious problem in this particular work, for while Carroll's story has always appealed to the imagination of young readers, his facility at playing with language has also been a large part of his ongoing appeal with that same demographic. Even while one acknowledges the game effort with which this cast attacks Labonte's workmanlike translation (doing, I suspect, a far better job with the help of Julia Lenardon's tutoring than a lot of Anglophones might do if the tables were reversed), asking them to pull off some of Carroll's verbal gymnastics with the élan and polish required to make them fly is a little like asking fledgling jugglers to forsake their foam training balls in favour of chainsaws at full throttle. Or, for that matter, asking the Wright brothers to take wing and soar in a cast-iron bathtub.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

THEATRE NEWS: Shatner to receive GG arts honour
3 MAR/11


William Shatner, the Canadian-born star of three current television series, is amongst the list of artists to be honoured in the 2011 Governor General's Performing Arts Awards for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, to be held in Ottawa May 14.

Joining Shatner in the winner's circle will be Quebecois monologuist Yvon Deschamp, dancer/choreographer Margie Gillis, composer Howard Shore (who earned three Academy Awards for his music for The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and two major players on the Canadian stage -- Leslee Silverman, long-time artistic director of the Manitoba Theatre for Young People, and Paul Thompson, founding artistic director of Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille and one-time director general of the National Theatre School.

Also slated to be honoured at the ceremony are Jean-André Elie, a longtime supporter of the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal, who will receive the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts and Academy Award-nominated movie director Denis Villeneuve will be honoured with the National Arts Centre Award for exceptional achievement in the past year.

Each of the six winners will receive a cash award in the amount of $25,000 from the Canada Council, as well as a commemorative medallion struck by the Royal Canadian Mint. Elie, for his part, will receive a medallion and an original art work by glass artist Naoko Takenouchi, while Villeneuve will receive a medallion, a $25,000 cash purse from the National Arts Centre and an original work from ceramic artist Paula Murray.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

2 MAR/11

Rating: 5 out of 5

Decades after the Orangemen surrendered the streets of Hogtown to a vision more attuned to the growing multicultural pulse, Toronto is once again hailing the virtues of good King Billy. Not Billy as in William of Orange and his consort Mary, mind you, but rather Billy Elliot, the young working class hero of both the 2000 movie that bore his name and the subsequent stage musical it spawned.

And as everybody knows, BILLY ELLIOT The Musical opened at the Canon Theatre Tuesday, an event that even the much-hyped presence of Sir Elton John (who wrote the music for the stage adaptation) and his Toronto-born consort, executive producer David Furnish, failed to overshadow. Indeed, BILLY ELLIOT The Musical proves to be quite the little conqueror. For even though John garnered the first standing ovation of the evening, it certainly was not the last. An opening night audience overcame characteristic Toronto reserve on several occasions to hail the handiwork, not just of the composer, but of Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of his own movie script and of director Stephen Daldry’s realization of that adaptation.

But mostly, those ovations were for Billy Elliot, played on opening night by young Cesar Corrales (sharing the role with Myles Erlick, Marcus Pei and J.P. Viernes) and for his feel-good story. It is, of course, the story of a young man with a passion for dance, told against the backdrop of the worst of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, as the Iron Lady fights to the death with her nation’s coalminers.

Billy’s dad (Armand Schultz) and his older brother (Patrick Mulvey) are two of those miners, and with a few hundred thousand of their union brothers, they are on strike as the play opens, fighting desperately to preserve not just their livelihoods but their way of life as well. While they struggle to do that, however, Billy dreams only of dancing — a dream fostered by Mrs. Wilkinson, the pragmatic local dance teacher (played to perfection by our own Kate Hennig) who refuses to let the working class Geordie prejudices of young Billy’s family stand in the way of her young pupil’s dreams.

In the world of stage adaptations, this particular one flies in the face of a conventional wisdom that suggests a story has to be pared back for the musical stage. Instead, Hall et al expand their back story — Thatcher vs. the working man — to a point where it almost rivals Billy’s own, underlining in the process, the redemptive power of art and of hope, even while they threaten to over-balance it all and bring it down like a house of cards.

But if the story itself seems to career dangerously on occasion between the personal and the political, the poetic and the profane, Daldry nonetheless manages to keep the focus on young Billy and his dream — a task rendered much easier by the quality of young Corrales’ performance. As a dancer, he delivers even the most demanding of Peter Darling’s choreography in flawless terms, his acting so focused he even convinces us he’s a fine singer.

Happily, Corrales isn’t the only talented youngster on the Canon stage, for Daldry has surrounded him with a bevy of multi-talented kids, led by a hugely likeable Dillon Stevens, who turns the cross-dressing Michael into one of the least sexually confused kids in the show. As far as diction goes, Daldry walks a fine line too, juggling the all-but-impenetrable Newcastle dialect with the need for it to be understood. While he seems to recognize that finally the rough-hewn blue collar British sensibility is as important here as it was to BLOOD BROTHERS (a musical which coincidentally finds the occasional echo here), one wishes he would realize that simple volume is not always the solution.

Interwoven through it all, of course, is John’s music, a pastiche that embraces everything from stirring anthems to touching ballads with the occasional charming but forgettable stop along the way. And while it may seem on occasion a tad overstuffed, clocking in at around the three-hour mark, in the final analysis, it proves that if a musical’s heart is in the right place — which is right up there on stage — it is possible to forgive just about anything.

So all hail King Billy, and long may he reign.

T.O.'s South Pacific run cut short
2 MAR/11


Toronto's return engagement of director Bartlett Sher's Tony-winning re-imagining of the classic stage musical SOUTH PACIFIC has been cut short.

Cast and crew were informed before Tuesday night's performance that the show's run at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, where it opened Feb.18 after a summer run last year at the Four Seasons Centre, would end March 20 instead of April 10, as previously announced.