Thursday, June 30, 2011


Rating: 2.5 out of 5

TORONTO - Let’s see now — there’s the title (plus the catchy little title song) and a brief but memorable, albeit totally celluloid, appearance by everybody’s favourite country gal, Dolly Parton. Beyond that, there’s precious little in the touring stage version of 9 TO 5, currently featured on the Dancap playbill at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, to make you think of the hit 1980 movie that spawned it — never mind overshadow it.

The story is still there — a delicious little fantasy about three women who give their chauvinistic boss a healthy dose of comeuppance — but frankly, without the assistance of the late Colin Higgins who co-authored the movie’s screenplay, writer Patricia Resnick seems to be largely at sea in bringing her work to the stage. Instead of giving us something fresh and exciting, she is content in the main to rely on movie memories rather than her own ability as a storyteller to carry the tale.

And sadly, she gets scant help from Parton who wrote the music and lyrics for this stage version — a score that certainly capitalizes on the success of the title song she wrote for the movie but rarely equals it. While there’s a certain sweetness to Let Love Grow and a crowd-pleasing I Will Survive quality to Get Out and Stay Out, Parton only really hits her stride in Backwoods Barbie — and that, frankly, is not enough to make a soundtrack memorable, even with Dolly dropping by in a recorded pro- and epilogue to take up the slack.

Not that the three actresses cast as the hapless heroines of the tale — Dee Hoty as the widowed Violet, Mamie Parris as the divorced Judy and Diana DeGarmo as the pneumatically gifted Doralee — don’t give it their best shot. Hoty, in fact, proves to be a real trouper by bringing added value to her character, as does Parris, who in the end is simply undone by tragic underwriting. Even DeGarmo has some wonderful moments, although one can’t help but wish she’d content herself with simply channeling Parton instead of attempting to channel Parton channeling Shirley Temple. Together, they manage to bring a level of credibility to a problematic work and if, in the end, they don’t successfully manage to overshadow memories of Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Parton respectively, they at least manage to avoid unflattering comparisons.

But with lacklustre direction from Jeff Calhoun (sharing a credit for unimaginative choreography with Lisa Stevens), not to mention uninspired set design from Kenneth Foy, they face an uphill battle, as do the most seasoned of the supporting cast. While Wayne Schroder earns a bit of slack for stepping into the role of the creepy arch-villianous Franklin Hart Jr. to replace Joseph Mahowald, he simply can’t overcome his youth, adding a completely unnecessary aura of creepiness to an already distasteful role. And frankly, under Calhoun’s direction, Kristine Zbornik suffers much the same fate in the role of the romantically ill-fated office manager, Roz Keith, turning her character into more of an object of pity than of derision.

While Hoty, Parris and DeGarmo do their darnedest to make us root for the good guys, they are undone by a production where the bad guys seem more to be pitied than punished. So sadly, in the end, there seems to be very little difference between a sentence of 9 TO 5 and one of 15 to life — except that with a bit of luck, you might get out of the latter a little sooner with time off for good behaviour.

Hugh Jackman a triple-threat performer

30 JUN/11


Some know him best as the taciturn but hunky Wolverine in the X-Men film franchise. Others know him more as a romantic leading man in movies such as Kate and Leopold (opposite Meg Ryan) and Australia (opposite Nicole Kidman). Still others know him as the Tony-winning stage star of such hits as The Boy from Oz, or the sophisticated and urbane host of awards shows such as the Oscars and the Tonys (for which he won an Emmy in the days before Neil Patrick Harris).

The latter just might be Hugh Jackman's most intense fans -- the ones who insist that the Australian-born performer is at his best when he's live on stage, demonstrating his incredible talents as a triple-threat performer -- singing, acting and dancing up a storm.

It's rare indeed for North Americans to be able to see the Wolverine deliver such captivating performances in person. But Toronto is the second city, after San Francisco, to host Hugh Jackman in Concert, which opens Tuesday in a limited run on the stage of the downtown Princess of Wales Theatre.

As the title implies, it will be all Jackman all the time. While it inarguably will be a treat but for most of us, it also must be a daunting affair for him -- onstage all alone (save for an 18-piece orchestra), with no one to whom he can throw the ball if he suddenly finds himself short of energy halfway through the voyage from curtain up -- all without even an intermission to call his own. But if Jackman is in any way unnerved at the prospect, he certainly hides it well as he sits down to talk about his upcoming show.

"I know what you mean," he says with an easy smile when it's pointed out that most people's idea of hell would be 90 minutes or so on stage all by themselves, in front of a few thousand people. "But I find it easier to be on stage than to be going on and off. I feel quite alive and comfortable on stage. Once I'm out there, it doesn't make sense to go off."

That would account, in no small part, for the apparent ease with which he has hosted various award shows -- "It's like a dinner party," he says with an expressive shrug -- but as for a one man show? Well, that's a different matter, he concedes. "It's a lot harder than I thought," he admits with quiet candor, recalling that in the beginning he hadn't even really planned to do a one-man show at all.

In fact, all he was really looking to do was to fill some time that had suddenly become available this year while waiting for the next installment of X-Men to come together. Rather than simply sit and cool his heels, he decided to do something with the time. He recalls asking his agent, "Can you find me a charity gig -- a 30-minute gig?" That would entail working up performances of only three or four songs. Instead, what his agent came up with was a two-week theatre gig in San Francisco and the challenge of putting together a one-man show that, all in all, was not only pretty well received in May, it proved to be a good time for Jackman too. "It was so much fun, just putting it together," he says enthusiastically. "Some things worked and some things didn't. It's been a terrific evolution. I'm thrilled I did it."

Of course, that two-week gig forms the basis of the show he's bringing to Toronto, minus the bugs he managed to work out during the San Fran run. "I'm starting work on a much stronger foundation," he says. But in the end, putting it all together was just the beginning. "That's not the exhilarating part," he insists. "The exhilarating part is when you're connecting. It's like you feel you know each other. They're the moments that are out-of-body. Time seems to slow down."

Considering his Broadway background, one simply assumes that Jackman' s ultimate goal is a stint on Broadway in his own one man show -- and one would be right. Sort of. "My ultimate goal is to be able to do this show for the next 30 or 40 years," he insists. "And if that includes New York, you bet!"

Over the past few years, things haven't been easy for the ex-pat Australian Hugh Jackman, who currently makes his home in the U.S. with Deborra-Lee Furness, his wife of 15 years, and the couple's two adopted children. What he has learned is that the full tragedy of things such as floods and fires aren't diminished simply because you're half a world away.

"It does pull on your heartstrings," Jackman says, "And somehow I feel that as evolved human beings it should always pull on your heartstrings." Watching tragedy ravage his homeland has simply made Jackman more committed to the various charities to which he lends his name and his time -- charities such as the Global Poverty Project and the Worldwide Orphans Foundation. By Jackman's lights, no good deed is ever wasted, and a helping hand offered on one continent can most definitely be felt on another. "I've travelled a lot," he says with gratitude. "And it makes the world seem so much smaller."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

DANCE NEWS: NBOC's ALICE a box-office wonder
28 JUN/11


TORONTO - You could say that audience response to its latest production has left the National Ballet of Canada in a state of wonder.

That would be "wonder" as in ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, the title of the new ballet by Christopher Wheeldon that has just closed at the Four Seasons Centre, a co-production between the NBOC and the Royal Ballet (UK).

It would also be "wonder" as in wonderful, which is a pretty fair description of how critics and audiences responded to the work — a celebration of dance that sold 27,180 tickets (for a haul of almost $2.5 million) over 13 performances, making ALICE the highest grossing main season production in the company's history.

And, finally, that would also be "wonder" as in: "Wonder when they'll bring it back?"

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

THEATRE NEWS: Buddies dominates the Doras
28 JUN/11


TORONTO - You could say that Buddies in Bad Times blasted the competition right out of the water at Monday night’s Dora Awards. When the dust cleared after the annual ceremonies honouring the best in Toronto theatre — held this year at the St. Lawrence Centre — Buddies had earned a total of five Dora Awards for its controversial production of Sarah Kane’s BLASTED, an exploration of post- apocalyptic depravity that played Buddies last fall.

In addition to being named best production in the general theatre division, BLASTED also earned best direction for Brendan Healey, best set design for Julie Fox, best lighting for Kimberly Purtell and best sound for Richard Feren.

In the acting categories, however, BLASTED came up short, with Yanna McIntosh being named best actress/play, for her performance in Obsidian Theatre’s RUINED and Joe Ziegler best actor/play for his turn in Soulpepper’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Jane Spidell took the Dora for best supporting player/play for her turn in Soulpepper’s DOC.

Anusree Roy’s BROTHEL #9, premièred by Factory Theatre, was named best new play while Ex Machina’s THE ANDERSEN PROJECT, presented by Canadian Stage, was named best touring production.

Meanwhile, even though the Dora for best new musical went to Rufus Wainwight’s opera PRIMA DONNA in its Luminato première, Mirvish Productions dominated on the musical front, scoring a total of four awards: best actor/musical for Tony Sheldon and best costumes for Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner for PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT THE MUSICAL and best actress/musical for Kate Hennig and best choreography for Peter Darling for BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL. The Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People took the Dora for best production/musical for its staging of A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD.

Also, despite Wainwright’s win for best new musical, the Canadian Opera Company managed to sweep the opera division, taking best production honours for ORFEO ED EURIDICE and best performance for Alan Oke’s memorable turn in DEATH IN VENICE. The COC also earned a Dora in the general theatre division with Harry Bicket taking best musical direction honours for his work on ORFEO ED EURIDICE.

In the smaller independent theatre category, Sky Gilbert’s THE SITUATIONISTS was named best new work, a production which also earned Gavin Crawford best actor honours, while The Company Theatre’s production of THROUGH THE LEAVES, which was named best production, also earned honours for best set design for John Thompson.

Also in the independent division, Nina Lee Aquino was named best director for her work on 'paper SERIES', while Sandy Duarte earned the best actress nod for BLOOD and Christopher Stanton best supporting player for THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM. Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People’s presentation of Concrete Theatre’s ROUTES was named best production in the theatre for young audiences division, while Roberto Campanella and Robert Glumbek took best new choreography for 'Sin BetweenS' in the dance division. Also in dance, 'OUT OF CONTEXT — for Pina' was named best production for its stint at Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage.

In addition to the regular Dora Awards, Michael Hollingsworth, longtime co-artiistic director of VideoCabaret was awarded the silver ticket award and Ben Chaisson the 2011 Pauline McGibbon Award while THE RAILWAY CHILDREN received the audience choice award.

General Theatre Division:
Best New Play-Anusree Roy Brothel #9
Best Production-Blasted Buddies In Bad Times Theatre
Best Direction of a Play/Musical-Brendan Healy Blasted
Best Actor/Play-Joseph Ziegler Death of a Salesman
Best Actress/Play-Yanna McIntosh Ruined
Best Supporting Player/Play-Jane Spidell Doc
Best Set Design-Julie Fox Blasted
Best Costume Design-Tim Chappel & Lizzy Gardiner Priscilla Queen Of The Desert The Musical
Best Lighting Design-Kimberly Purtell Blasted
Best Sound Design/Composition-Richard Feren Blasted
Best Musical Direction-Harry Bicket Orfeo ed Euridice
Best Choreography-Peter Darling Billy Elliot The Musical
Best Touring Production-The Andersen Project Canadian Stage presents Ex Machina
Independent Theatre Division:
Best New Play or New Musical-Sky Gilbert The Situationists
Best Production-Through the Leaves The Company Theatre
Best Direction-Nina Lee Aquino paper SERIES
Best Actor-Gavin Crawford The Situationists
Best Actress-Sandy Duarte Blood
Best Supporting Player-Christopher Stanton The New Electric Ballroom
Best Set Design-John Thompson Through the Leaves
Best Costume Design-Melanie McNeill Madhouse Variations
Best Lighting Design-Trevor Schwellnus Nohayquiensepa (No one knows)
Best Sound Design/Composition-Richard Lee paper SERIES
Dance Division:
Best Original Choreography-Roberto Campanella & Robert Glumbek Šin betweenŠ
Best Production-Out of Context - for Pina Harbourfront Centre's World Stage presents Alain Platel/Les Ballets C. de la B.
Best Performance-Juan Ogalla Espejo de Oro/Mirror of Gold
Best Original Sound Design/Composition-Joby Talbot Chroma
Theatre for Young Audiences Division:
Best Production-Routes Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People presents Concrete Theatre
Best Performance-John Cleland Edward The "Crazy Man"
Musical Theatre Division:
Best New Musical/Opera-Rufus Wainwright Prima Donna
Best Production-A Year With Frog and Toad Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People
Best Actor-Tony Sheldon Priscilla Queen Of The Desert The Musical
Best Actress-Kate Hennig Billy Elliot The Musical
Opera Division:
Best Performance-Alan Oke Death in Venice
Best Production-Orfeo ed Euridice Canadian Opera Company presents Lyric Opera of Chicago

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dancap aims to be Prince of Broadway
20 JUN/11


TORONTO - Hal Prince is headed back to Broadway — once again, via Toronto.

Aubrey Dan and his Dancap Productions, Inc. announced the creative team for a new musical titled Prince of Broadway on Monday — a musical that will feature an array of tunes from shows that Prince has brought to Broadway in a remarkable career that has earned the showman a total of 21 Tony Awards.

Prince of Broadway is slated to hit the Toronto stage in the summer of 2012, with a Broadway opening planned for the fall of that year. Prince himself has signed on to co-direct the project, in company with legendary choreographer/director Susan Stroman. David Thompson is charged with creating the book, while Jason Robert Brown will write the vocal and dance arrangements for musical director Eric Stern. Scenic design and projections are in the hands of Jerome Sirlin, while William Ivey Long will design costumes, Howell Binkley lighting and Peter Hylenski, sound.

As for songs, they’ve got quite a songbook from which to choose. From Pyjama Game and West Side Story to Kiss of The Spider Woman, Sweeney Todd, The Phantom of The Opera, Follies and Fiddler on the Roof, Prince’s 60-year career in show business offers a veritable goldmine of hits.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

DANCE NEWS: Karen Kain distinguishes herself
17 JUN/11


TORONTO - Karen Kain, erstwhile prima ballerina and now artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, was honoured Thursday by the International Society for the Performing Arts with the distinguished artist award.

Awarded in previous years to artists the calibre of Celia Franca, Jerome Robbins, Philip Glass, Maureen Forrester and Oscar Peterson, the award recognizes performing artists who have made an outstanding contribution to the world of performing arts.

Other honourees this year include choreographer Akram Kahn, designer Michael Levine and songwriter Luc Plamondon. 

Friday, June 17, 2011

LU XUN Blossoms
17 JUN/11

Rating: 4 out of 5

TORONTO - For years, the Toronto-based Theatre Smith-Gilmour has maintained a bustling little dream factory at the intersection of theatre and literature, spinning the spirits of such diverse literary lions as Anton Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield and Dante and the Brothers Grimm into full-blown theatrical whimsy, often with great success.

And now — in a world of disappearing trade borders, quite fittingly, it seems — they’ve gone international. While their latest work continues in the company’s long established literary tradition, tackling five short stories from contemporary Chinese writer Lu Xun — considered by many to be the father of modern Chinese literature — it also marks a bold step into the world of international collaboration for the intimate little company.

Created and directed by S-G’s co-artistic directors Dean Gilmour and Michele Smith, LU XUN Blossoms — currently playing an extremely limited run in the Isabel Bader Theatre as part of Luminato — represents the first Sino-Canadian co-production in theatrical history, we are told — and here’s hoping it is the first of many.

Created in collaboration with the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, the work is performed in both Mandarin and English in its North American debut, with appropriate subtitling where necessary. It features a cast of three Canadian performers (Smith, Gilmour and occasional collaborator Adam Paolozza) and three highly talented Chinese actors (Guo Hongbo, Zhao Sihan and Wang Yangmeizi). Since 2007, the work has been seen and embraced by audiences in Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Macau.

With Gilmour cast in the role of the writer himself, it all starts simply with the aged Lu Xun seated at his desk writing down his recollections, which come quietly and magically to life as Gilmour leads the cast into the first of five stories. As stories go, the first is more of a vignette, really — a simple, touching recollection of a rickshaw ride that goes horribly awry when the vehicle is in a collision with an old women. Anecdotal though it is, it sets the tone for the rest of the stories, all of which focus on the essential humanity of the poor and dispossessed.

From the rickshaw ride, we move to other recollections, increasingly fleshed out as other cast members take on the role of Lu Xun. An aged servant inadvertently kills a pet mouse then redeems herself with an unexpected kindness; a young man hungers for knowledge, even while he worries that it might land him in hell; an aging peasant dismissed as a criminal ends up giving more than simply his eye teeth in his search for knowledge. In spinning out these tales, each cast member is given a chance to shine, even while they impress with the power of their collaboration.

All of which leads to the grand finale, a deeply affecting exploration of the back story of a tragedy spun out under the title of The New Year’s Sacrifice, and played out with both a sympathy and a simplicity that is little short of breathtaking. Indeed, while some of the stories featured earlier in the program fall prey to Smith-Gilmour’s occasional penchant for over-embroidery (cat’s claws are sharp and some people are really, really hairy — we get it), there is, in this final offering, an almost zen-like devotion to the simplicity and the humanity cocooned at the very heart of the tale.

Rather than gild it, they stand back and simply let the story tell itself, content to underscore its humanity at every turn with an understated but powerful sense of theatricality. It takes a while, but in that single story, Lu Xun does indeed blossom — and it is beautiful.

Tarragon's Holland heads to The Peg
16 JUN/11


TORONTO - After five years at the helm of Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, Camilla Holland is leaving the Toronto theatre scene to take up duties as general manager of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg.

Considered one of the shining stars in arts administration in Toronto, Holland served for two years as general manager of Volcano Theatre before assuming her current position as general manager of Tarragon in 2006.

Holland takes over at RMTC Sept. 6, replacing Zaz Bajon, who retires this month. Chuck McEwen, executive producer of the Winnipeg Fringe will serve as interim General Manager. Tarragon has yet to name her replacement.

16 JUN/11

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

TORONTO - With a veritable mountain of work behind her, Greta Hodgkinson is today standing, in every sense, at the very apex of her career. So it is fitting that the National Ballet of Canada affords the principal dancer the chance to not only dance in the sunshine but to savour the view as well as she marks 20 years with the company.

That in affording her that honour, they give audiences a chance to savour yet again the ever-growing artistry and skill she has shared with us over two decades is merely the icing on the cake. Some icing, as they say, and some cake!

Happily, Hodgkinson has several moments to shine as she takes to the stage in the centrepiece of a new mixed program — a program that brackets the company première of Jerome Robbins’ OTHER DANCES (acquired in celebration of Hodgkinson’s anniversary with the company) with George Balanchine’s masterful MOZARTIANA and Twyla Tharpe’s edgy and thrilling IN THE UPPER ROOM. The three dances opened Wednesday on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre.

Created in 1976 to showcase the talents of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova, OTHER DANCES is a breathtaking piece of work for accomplished artists. And as such, it proves to be a near-prefect showcase for the long-limbed Hodgkinson, elegantly paired here with Zdenek Konvalina, in a work (and a workout) of timeless beauty set to the music of Frederic Chopin, masterfully served up by pianist Andrei Streliaev.

Exquisitely costumed by Santo Loquasto — Hodgkinson in particular looks spectacularly ethereal here, as though she could be blown away, like smoke, by a strong breeze — they tackle a rich blend of Chopin’s mazurkas and waltzes with an ease and grace that belies the demanding complexity of the choreography. They are two mature artists as much at play as at work in the medium they love.

Challenged perhaps by Hodgkinson’s grace, Konvalina claims the stage with his usual technical acumen, coupled with an uncharacteristic authority that is perfectly suited to this demanding role. But finally, it is all about Hodgkinson, and she makes the most of it as she savours every graceful step, every nuanced gesture, every second in this timeless dance as a fitting reward for 20 years of hard and memorable work. With seemingly effortless style, she serves up a mix of skill, experience, knowledge and artistry that is as intoxicating as it is sweet, leaving one wishing she could dance for 20 years more and almost convinced that she can.

The casually classic style of OTHER DANCES proves a lovely contrast to the more formal demands of MOZARTIANA which opened the evening. It is a work which not only offers a delightful showcase for four young ballerinas-in-training on loan from the National Ballet School but for principals Sonia Rodriguez and Alexandar Antonijevic and members of the NBOC Orchestra as well, who under the baton of David Briskin milk every last drop of magic from Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 4, Mozartiana Op. 61.

But finally, nothing can really prepare an audience for Tharpe’s glorious IN THE UPPER ROOM, which closes the program, not so much set to the music of Philip Glass as relentlessly driven by it. Featuring a host of the NBOC’s finest dancers, it is a work that merrily kicks aside any questions of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin in favour of a breathtaking demonstration of how many talented artists can dance on an ever-shifting cloud.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

OPERA NEWS: COC hitting high notes
15 JUN/11


TORONTO - As the curtain falls on its fifth season in the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, the Canadian Opera Company has plenty of reason to celebrate. Not only has the season been a success, generating revenues of over $12 million and playing to 94% capacity, it also garnered a total of 11 Dora nominations for theatrical and operatic excellence for the company in the process.

It also saw the company undertake its second tour in 18 years to the prestigious Brooklyn Academy of Music, where the company’s dazzling production of Robert Lepage’s The Nightingale and Other Short Fables met with both critical and audience acclaim.

In total, 127,387 patrons attended the 66 performances of the seven productions that comprised the COC 2010/11 season, while an additional 15,000 took advantage of the free concert series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.

The COC launches its new season Sept. 22 with the company première of Gluck’s Iphigenia in Tauris, directed by Robert Carson and designed by Michael Levine. A complete rundown of the season is available at

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

15 JUN/11

Rating: 5 out of 5

TORONTO - Since the days of Isis and Astarte, and before that, no doubt, stretching all the way back to the very beginning of time, women have had a secret worth celebrating — a mystery they have explored in rites both temporal and religious, sometimes in the company of men, at others, exclusively on their own. They are exploring it still today — and in a new play titled TOUT COMME ELLE (Just Like Her), it is being celebrated joyfully with anyone with the will to approach it with open eyes, open ears and open hearts to share it.

As many things are in the world of women, TCE is a collaborative effort — first between playwright Louise Dupré, director Brigitte Haentjens and translator Erin Moure, who has served up Dupré's original French text in elegantly simple, moving English. Their collaboration then expands to include a technical team comprised of even more talented women (and a few men), who do a fine job of setting the stage to embrace what surely must be one of the most remarkable casts ever to grace a Toronto stage — 50 of Toronto's most talented actors of the female persuasion, celebrating a shared sisterhood that stretches all the way back to Eve herself.

There's a lovely sense of timelessness right from the top of the show, as these 50 cast members (naming them all here is simply impossible; naming only a few, simply unthinkable) arrayed in everything from undergarments and sleeping apparel to street, business and formal wear, slowly appear and step into 50 pairs of shoes they find scattered across of the Bluma Appel stage where the play opened under the aegis of Necessary Angel Tuesday as part of Luminato. In the process, they immediately and effectively create a subtle but brilliant metaphor that stretches across the 100 minutes-plus duration of the show.

Like all women, the playwright seems to be saying in a text these actors embrace, they are all in some sense destined from birth to step into someone else's shoes — someone's, but not just anyone's. Young or old, zaftig or whippet-thin, drawn from every race and ethnicity, they share two things with each other and every other woman born. They are all, in fact, daughters of mothers and all biologically programmed to become mothers of daughters themselves, becoming in the process in ways both arcane and obvious, their own mothers reborn, repeating rituals, celebrations and mistakes that are the inevitable stations on the voyage from womb to the grave.

Using song, movement, choral speaking and monologue, they conspire to fill the stage with life, exploring the often stormy, always mysterious and intricate bond between mother and daughter in myriad ways. Simply to hear each of these women identify herself as the daughter of her mother is to experience the biblical begats, run in reverse, as their voices ring with a genetic memory that seems to bind them all in a very meaningful and glorious way to the very beginnings of time. Chafe under those bonds as they might, they seem to exult in the fact that those bonds are nonetheless indestructible.

But make no mistake, simply because this play brings 50 women together on stage to celebrate the bond between mothers and daughters, it is never content to be merely chick shtick. You don't, after all, have to have been a mother or a daughter to have loved one — and TOUT COMME ELLE opens windows into a world that's as strange and oddly familiar, one suspects, to the males in the audience as it is to the females For in the end, it is all about an eternal mystery — and the goal here is to celebrate it, not to solve it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

13 JUN/11

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

TORONTO - It owes a lot more, one suspects, to Racine than to Homer or Euripedes, but in the final analysis, Necessary Angel Theatre Company’s new production of ANDROMACHE is more in thrall to director Graham McLaren than to the work of those three writers.

This despite the best efforts of poet Evie Christie, who has authored a new version of the age-old story, one clearly patterned in many ways after the work of Racine, as basis for the Scottish-based director’s latest collaboration with Necessary Angel — a work which had its world première at the Theatre Centre Sunday, a part of the Luminato Festival.

For the uninitiated, Andromache was the widow of Trojan hero Hector, and as such became part of the spoils of war for the conquering armies of Greece. While her fate and the fate of her son, in the worlds of Homer and Euripedes, is far different in Racine’s version — and in this one — Andromache (played by Arsinée Khanjian) and her young son Astyanax (Kieran McNally Kennedy) become captives of the Grecian soldier Pyrrhus (played with almost psychotic fervour by Christopher Morris).

Despite his previous marital commitments to the Grecian princess Hermione (Christine Horne), Pyrrhus develops an unrequited passion for Andromache and, despite her lack of reciprocal passion, forces her hand by threatening to kill Astyanax. But Pyrrhus’s infidelity forces Hermione into an alliance with her would-be lover Orestes (Steven McCarthy), whom she had previously spurned — and this being Greek tragedy (albeit several times removed from its original source), it ends badly for everyone.

It also offers a chance for compelling theatrical explorations of the nature of suffering and pain, love and lust, motherhood and madness — although they seem somewhat secondary here. While they are all touched upon in passing, what’s really on offer here is a compelling exploration of McLaren’s post-apocalyptic vision of a world so battered and bruised that even basic human decency has ceased to exist.

From the very moment one enters the theatre, to be greeted by a host of abusive soldiers in full military drag (more theatres might want to explore the idea of soldiers offering pre-show exhortations to “Turn off your f---ing cellphones!” from behind their machine guns) this is a play consistently more concerned with McLaren’s vision than Christie’s adaptation — an often poetic undertaking that tries to combine the oil of modern day reference and profanity with the water of heroic dialogue, with only mixed success.

And a very talented cast, which also includes Ryan Hollyman in the role of the soldier Pylades, has clearly bent its talents to cleave to McLaren’s directorial and design vision, all of which focuses on a single room in the centre of the theatre, lit in ever-shifting patterns by Andrea Lundy. There are no such things as small performances here, nor even small moments.

Credit sound designer John Wynne, for he gets an in-depth workout here in a sound bed that includes everything from barking dogs to falling bombs and rock music, often offered up in direct competition to often inaudible dialogue. And finally, all of that is the great strength of this production and also its greatest weakness, for in striving to make ANDROMACHE memorably theatrical, McLaren succeeds only by sacrificing all possibility of making it truly memorable theatre.


Vanstone named NBOC principal dancer
13 JUN/11


TORONTO - Hot on the heels of her acclaimed performance in the North American première of Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, Jillian Vanstone is trading in her rank of first soloist with the National Ballet of Canada to become a principal dancer with the company.

Vanstone’s promotion was announced Monday by NBOC artistic director Karen Kain. In other troupe movements, Kain also promoted Elena Lobsanova, McGee Maddox, Robert Stephen and Brett van Sickle to the level of first soloists, while Naoya Ebe and Chelsy Meiss have been promoted to second soloists, from the corps de ballet.

Apprentices Skylar Campbell, Shaila D’Onofrio and Jackson Dwyer have been named to the corps.

DAILY DISH: Jackman left in stitches
13 JUN/11


Hugh Jackman doesn't seem too scarred, physically emotionally, from his close encounter of the painful kind with a few stage lights during an ill-fated zip-line run on Oprah's show.

The Aussiea actor/singer/dancer slid from the top of Sydney's iconic opera house to the stage, where Oprah was waiting to welcome him with open arms in taping one of her last shows.

While in Rotonto thursday to promote his upcoming one-man show next month, Jackman winced and laughed as her recalled the incident, his hand going almost automatically to his left eye, which he narrowly avoided injuring during the mishap. All it took , he says, was "a couple of stitches that were done very well" by a young medic, who was initially more than a little reluctant to take a needle to the famous face of Wolverine.

"Maybe I should call the manager, mate," jackman quotes the star-struck medic as saying. After a hurried and largely whispered telephone conversation with his higher-ups, however, the young man turned to Jackman and said, somewhat resignedly: "Apparently, I'm doing it."

And very well.


13 JUN/11

Rating: 3 out of 5

TORONTO - It is the most expensive commission in the brief and certainly colourful history of Luminato, the upstart arts festival that is currently trying to capture our city and the world in an artful net. But in the wake of the world première of Dash Arts Production’s ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre Saturday, one can’t help but think that organizers should have at least scored substantial discounts to the more than $1 million they purportedly poured into the production simply for buying in bulk.

A compendium of folk tales from across the breadth of the Arab world, compiled and adapted by Hana al-Shaykh, then dramatized and directed by Tim Supple, this is nothing if not an ambitious undertaking, even with the number of tales distilled to 20 individual but oddly interconnected stories, split into two instalments that add up to more than a six-hour running time.
These are not, it might also be noted, anything a childhood exposure to the tales of Shahrazad might lead one to expect, for all that they share the same starting point: a suspicious king whose mistrust of women drives him to take a new virgin to his bed every night only to kill her in the morning. Then, of course, he encounters Shahrazad, a brave spinner of tales who survives, not on sexual prowess, but rather on her skills as a spinner of tales of the cliff-hanger variety, which she delivers on a nightly basis to forestall her own execution.

Brought to life by a committed cast of 24, drawn from across the Arabic-speaking world, these are raunchy vignettes, filled with sex and intrigue, spread over a sprawling and largely empty thrust stage designed by Oum Keltoum Belkassi and lit by Sabri El Atrous. Performed in a mixture of Arabic, French and (usually highly accented) English, it features simultaneous translation that, on occasion, proves rather dodgy.

In addition to the high commitment of the cast, there are some lovely costumes, courtesy of Zolaykha Sherzad, and some pretty explicit albeit highly stylized sexual content, wrapped in a discomfiting look at archaic attitudes towards sex and women that sadly only the most ill-informed might label as exclusive to the Arab world.

But in the end, it all seems to add up to significantly less than the sum of all its parts, for while Supple imposes a highly theatrical style on things, what he produces never really rises too much beyond the level of illuminated storytelling. It’s the kind of show that would be highly entertaining if one stumbled across it in the square of an ancient city and stopped to enjoy it for an hour or two, but in taming it for the conventional stage, Supple fails to impose any sort of new or thrilling context for what is essentially, simply old-fashioned tale-spinning. In a world accustomed to the soaps, this is mere gossip — finally, more a triumph of endurance than of art. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Plenty on offer at Luminato stage events;
Stratford Fest honours former artistic director Michael Langham
9 JUN/11


TORONTO - Since its inception, Luminato has strived to shine its light on the performing arts — encouraging homegrown artists to strut their stuff, while still offering audiences the chance to catch an international array of dancers, singers, actors and performance artists as well. This year's edition is no different, cramming a wealth of stage treasures into the 10-day fest. Or maybe that should be 10 days and One Thousand and One Nights.

As theatrical marathons go, this year's two-part, six-hour retelling of One Thousand and One Nights promises to be almost as challenging as Robert Lepage's Lipsynch — and people are still kicking themselves for missing it in 2009.

Adapted from the tales of Shahrazad by Hana al-Shaykh, and directed by Britain's Tim Supple, OTAON brings the classic tale of Persian intrigue to life on the stage of the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre in Luminato's most ambitious commission to date. Boasting an international cast from the Arabic speaking world, Parts I and II, each clocking in at three hours, run from June 7-19.

Toronto theatre artists are also stepping up and stepping out in honour of Luminato. Necessary Angel, for instance, has recruited a cast of 50 to tackle Louise Dupré's Tout Comme Elle (Just Like Her), at the Bluma Appel Theatre, under the direction of Brigitte Haentjens from June 13-18. And they are also staging the world première of Evie Christie's adaptation of Andromache, under the direction of Graham McLaren at the Theatre Centre, June 10-19.

And while Soulpepper gears up to run seven productions, including Billy Bishop and (re)Birth: e.e. cummings in Song and Dance in rep at the Young Centre over Luminato's run, Theatre Smith-Gilmour teams up with Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre for the North American première of Lu Xun Blossoms, at the Isabel Bader Theatre, June 15-18.

From a dance perspective, international focus is certain to be on Taj, running June 10-12 at the Fleck Dance Theatre, with the artists of Sampradaya Dance Creations bringing life to the back story of the Taj Mahal. Hometown crowds have already enthusiastically embraced the National Ballet of Canada's North American première of Christopher Wheeldon's balletic adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, so the success of its Luminato run at the Four Seasons June 10-12 is more or less assured.

Also on the dance front, Akram Khan and Nitin Sawhney present the North American première of Confluence, a conversation in dance and music at the MacMillan Theatre, June 16-18, a Sadler's Wells production.

And finally, local cabaret's reigning diva and divo, Sharron Matthews and Shawn Hitchins, team up to host Broadway's Night Out June 13 in Metro Square, a free (and free-wheeling, we suspect) event featuring casts from the Shaw Festival's My Fair Lady and the Stratford Festival's Jesus Christ Superstar and a host of others.


TORONTO - The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has announced plans to honour Michael Langham, who served as artistic director of the Festival from 1956 to 1967, at a memorial service to be held in the Festival Theatre, July 10 at 10 a.m. Admission is free.

Langham, who assumed control of the Festival from its founding artistic director, Tyrone Guthrie, died at his home in England in January. He was 91.

THEATRE NEWS: Canucks join Billy Elliot cast
8 JUN/11


TORONTO - After three months on the Toronto stage, Billy Elliot The Musical is making a few Toronto friends. In cast changes announced Wednesday, it seems five familiar Toronto actors are preparing to join the cast of the hit musical.

First and foremost is 12-year-old Julian Elia, a dancer from Markham who will be taking his place as one of the production's four Billys, replacing J.P. Viernes, and keeping the Canadian quotient in the Billy club at a comfortable 75%. Meanwhile, local actor David Keeley is no doubt brushing up on his Geordie accent as he prepares to step into the role of Billy's dad, at about the same time fellow Canuck Jake Epstein steps into the role of Billy's older brother, Tony.

Toronto's Kate Hennig, who just won a Toronto Theatre Critics' Award for her performance as Billy's teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, will have some Canadian company in her ballet school soon too, with Salvatore Scozzari prepping to step into the role of Mr. Braithwaite, the school's accompanist. The Canadian content of the chorus/ensemble will be enriched too, with the inclusion of yet another Torontonian, albeit one transplanted from Newfoundland, as Jillian Rees-Brown prepares to join them. Billy Elliot continues its run at the Canon Theatre.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

THEATRE NEWS: Fest Director to receive doctorate; Dora Award nominations announced
7 JUN/11


TORONTO - The theatre world has long been accustomed to script doctors in their midst, but at the Stratford Festival, they're going to have to start getting used to the idea of director doctors.

Seems the festival's artistic director, Des McAnuff, who recently extended his contract for a further two years, is about to be bestowed with an honourary doctorate of letters from Ryerson University. Dr. Des will receive a  sheepskin recognizing his contribution to Canadian theatre and the arts community  on June 13, at 9:30 a.m. at the Ryerson Theatre.


Judging from nominations announced Tuesday, the 32nd annual presentation of the Dora Awards will feature more than a few horse races, as Toronto’s performing-arts community honours the best in local theatre, dance and opera.

In a world where he who has the most toys wins, one of the biggest contests when the Doras are handed out June 27 at the St. Lawrence Centre will no doubt be between Soulpepper (which leads all production companies in the General Theatre category with 10 nominations, for seven shows) and the Canadian Opera Company (which leads the pack in the Opera category with eight nominations for five shows).

As for individual productions, the stiffest competition is likely to be between Buddies in Bad Times’ controversial production of BLASTED — up for seven Doras, including best actor (David Ferry), best actress (Michelle Monteith) and best direction (Brendan Healy) — and Factory Theatre’s production of BROTHEL #9, which also scored seven noms, including best new play, best actress (Anusree Roy) and best director (Nigel Shawn Williams).

Mirvish Productions dominates the nominations in the Musical Theatre division, with five nominations. Three are for PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT and two for BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL, including a nod for local girl Kate Hennig.

Dancap Productions scored two noms, one for SOUTH PACIFIC as best touring production and a best actress (musical) nod for Ma-Anne Dionisio for her performance in MISS SAIGON.

Mirvish also scored in the General Theatre division, earning three nominations for THE RAILWAY CHILDREN, including best production.

In the smaller independent theatre category, Cahoots Theatre Company seems to be the unquestioned favourite, walking away with seven nominations for 'paper SERIES', produced in association with the Young Centre, plus another two for A TASTE OF EMPIRE. Other strong contenders include Eldritch Theatre's MADHOUSE VARIATIONS with six nominations including best production and best new play, and The Company Theatre's production of THROUGH THE LEAVES, which scored five nods including best actor (Nicholas Campbell), best actress (Maria Vacratsis) and best direction (Philip Riccio).

And while the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People tied with three other companies, each with two nominations apiece, in the theatre for young audiences division, a slew of nominations for A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD - including best musical as well as best actor and actress in a musical (Allen MacInnis and Louise Pitre respectively) - probably has them feeling pretty chuffed.

Ditto for the folks at the National Ballet of Canada, whose breathtaking and explosive production of CHROMA earned four nominations in the dance division, including nods for best production, best choreography (Wayne McGregor) and best performance (ensemble).

In addition to the nominees for 35 Dora Mavor Moore Awards, the Barbara Hamilton Memorial Award for performing excellence and advocacy for the arts was awarded to David Ferry; the Leonard McHardy and John Harvey Award for excellence in theatre administration was awarded to Ghislain Caron of Théâtre français de Toronto; and the George Luscombe Award for mentorship in theatre was awarded to Yvette Nolan.

A full list of nominees can be found at:

Monday, June 6, 2011

Toronto Theatre Critic's Awards unveiled
6 JUN/11


TORONTO - Theatre critics for Toronto’s four major daily newspapers have banded together to create a new awards program aimed at honouring their 
choices for the best in Toronto theatre. And the first winners of those awards were announced Monday at 6 p.m. 

The awards are called the Toronto Theatre Critics’ Awards and winners will be decided annually by John Coulbourn, theatre critic for the Toronto Sun; Richard Ouzounian, theatre critic for the Toronto Star; Robert Cushman, theatre critic for the National Post and Kelly Nestruck, theatre critic for The Globe and Mail. The possibility of expanding the circle of voting critics is to be discussed at a later date.

In addition to 13 annual awards, the participating critics involved in the TTCAs will also award special citations, when merited, to individuals within the theatre community who have made a significant contribution to theatre in Toronto.

Consideration for the first year’s awards was given to all shows that opened and were reviewed in the city of Toronto between the dates of June 1, 2010 and May 31, 2011. While all remounts are ineligible for design, direction, production and Canadian play awards, new actors cast in remounts are eligible for all acting awards. 

Winners of the Toronto Theatre Critics’ Awards for 2010/11 are as follows:

Best Canadian play
: The Clockmaker by Stephen Massicotte (Tarragon Theatre)

Production of a play:
 The Middle Place (Theatre Passe Muraille/Canadian Stage)

Production of a musical: 
South Pacific (produced by Lincoln Centre Theatre, presented by Dancap)

Director of a play or musical: 
Gina Wilkinson (Tarragon Theatre’s Wide Awake Hearts)

Design: Studies in Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge (produced by 
The Electric Company Theatre; presented by Canadian Stage; set, light 
and video design by Robert Gardiner)

Actress in a play
: Yanna McIntosh (Ruined, produced by Obsidian Theatre in association 
with Nightwood Theatre)

Actor in a play: 
David Ferry (Blasted, Buddies In Bad Times)

Supporting actress in a play: 
Cara Ricketts (Eternal Hydra, produced by Crow’s Theatre in association 
with Factory Theatre)

Supporting actor in a play: Richard McMillan (After Akhmatova, Tarragon Theatre)

Actress in a musical:
 Louise Pitre (A Year With Frog and Toad, Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for 
Young People)

Actor in a musical: 
Tony Sheldon (Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, Mirvish Productions)

Supporting actress in a musical: 
Kate Hennig (Billy Elliot the Musical, Mirvish Productions)

Supporting actor in a musical: 
Oliver Dennis (The Fantasticks, Soulpepper)

Voting members of the TTCA also chose this year to honour Factory 
Theatre’s longtime artistic director Ken Gass, with a special 
citation for his contribution to Toronto theatre, not simply in 
founding the theatre he now runs but for returning to it when it fell 
on hard times and thereby ensuring the survival of a “place where 
some of the best Canadian playwrights debut, develop and grow.”

Winners of the TTCAs will receive certificates recognizing their 
excellence, hopefully at a reception later in June which is currently 
being planned.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

5 JUN/11

Rating: 5 out of 5

TORONTO - It may be a familiar story, but chances are you’ve never seen ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND told quite this way. In part, that’s because choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has taken a few liberties with Lewis Carroll’s tale in bringing it to the balletic stage in a rambunctious new full-length work co-produced by Britain’s Royal Ballet and our own National Ballet of Canada that premièred on this side of the Atlantic Saturday at the Four Seasons Centre after a world première in London earlier this year.

But Wheeldon’s changes to the story — effectively transforming Carroll’s dreamscape to a tale within a tale within a tale that carries it from Victorian England to Carroll’s alternate reality to the present day — are merely the tip of a theatrical iceberg that fills the stage with life and magic.

That’s credit, in no small part, to the technical team Wheeldon’s assembled to assist in the project, a team that tackles Nicholas Wright’s scenario with a full arsenal of the very latest in theatrical technology. Everything, from the sets, costumes and props designed by Bob Crowley through the projections of John Driscoll and Gemma Carrington to sound design by Autograph and lighting by Natasha Katz, not only serves the story but drives it onward and ever upward as well. As does an extensive cast, comprised of the artists of the National Ballet and the students of the National Ballet School, all sharing a clear commitment to this whimsical project.

As Alice, Jillian Vanstone brings a youthful charm and a fetching spirit to her performance, while Zdenek Konvalina is strongly cast too as the Knave of Hearts, transformed in Wheeldon’s vision to a love interest named Jack. They are joined by Aleksandar Antonijevic, in a work where almost everyone is double-cast, portraying the author Carroll and the White Rabbit, whose appearance draws a petulant Alice into the tale when she follows him into a photographer’s bag.

And once those adventures begin, Wheeldon pulls out all stops, combining humour and the latest in technology in a potent cocktail that is certain to impress, delight and amuse, particularly as more and more dancers take the stage, including erstwhile principal dancer Rex Harrington, cast as Alice’s father and King of Hearts. He is, of course, consort to an impressively comedic Greta Hodgkinson as mother/Queen of Hearts in a scene-stealing performance that suggests that if, after 20 wonderful years here, Hodgkinson moves on, she might have a future as the first female in the legendary Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.

Look for fine work too from guest artist Steven McRae, tap-dancing his way into balletomanes’ hearts as the Mad Hatter and from Kevin Bowles as the Duchess and Piotr Stanczyk and Keiichi Hirano as the fish and the frog respectively — and from a host of others. And finally, for those who think the parade of lambs in the annual Nutcracker represents the absolute apex of ‘Awww, isn’t that cute!,’ a brace of hedgehogs offers some prickly competition, once things get tense on the croquet pitch.

As story ballets go, however, Wheeldon unquestionably puts as much emphasis on story as he does on the dance, only rarely allowing the former to be slowed to accommodate skillful demonstrations of the latter. Indeed, even the music, composed by Joby Talbot and rendered with the kind of skill and precision we have come to expect from the NBOC Orchestra under the baton of David Briskin, seems designed first and foremost to serve this fanciful production.

For true aficionados, one suspects, history will never regard this as one of the great ballets — but for the rest, it will most certainly be long remembered as a great time.


THEATRE NEWS: Stratford's 2012 season unwrapped
4 JUN/11


With a largely lacklustre 2011 opening week behind him, Des McAnuff, artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, wasted no time in stripping the wraps of the 2012 season Saturday, a season which also happens to be the Fest's 60th. The season announcement was coincidental with an announcement from the Festival board that McAnuff has agreed to extend his contract with the Festival for an additional two years, which will put him at the helm through the 2013 season.

"I had intended to stay for five seasons and I'm staying for six. I think six years is a good contribution" McAnuff said in the wake of the announcement, adding that he has "absolutely" no plans to extend his contract beyond 2013. "I hope to stay involved if the new leadership wants me to stay involved, but I won't be petulant if they decide they don't want me to come back for awhile," he said, adding: "For now, I'm genuinely enjoying being here and I want to make sure I enjoy it to my last day as artistic director."

Amongst the highlights of the Festival's newly announced 2012 season will be another visit from the venerable Christopher Plummer in a new one man show of his own devising, programmed for the Avon stage and titled A Word Or Two. it will feature selections from Stephen Leacock, Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare, performed by Plummer under the supervision and direction of McAnuff.

Meanwhile, on the Festival stage, McAnuff will direct Shakespeare's Henry V, while Christopher Newton, erstwhile artistic director of the Shaw Festival and himself an acting alumnus of the Stratford Festival, will direct Shakepeare's Much Ado About Nothing. A production of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, directed by Chris Abraham, will also be featured on the Festival stage, as well as a production of the Harry Warren/Al Dubin/Michael Stewart/ Mark Bramble musical, 42nd Street, directed by Gary Griffin.

In addition to Plummer's show, two musicals are planned for the Avon stage: a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan's much loved operetta, The Pirates Of Penzance, directed by Ethan McSweeney, and a production of Clark M. Gesner's You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, inspired by the characters created by Charles M. Schultz and directed by Donna Feore.

On the Tom Patterson Stage, a production of Shakespeare's Cymbeline is planned, under the direction of the Fest's General Director Antoni Cimilino, as well as a new translation of Sophocles' Elektra, written by poet Anne Carson, and directed by Athens' Thomas Moschopoulos. The Tom Patterson will also host the world première of a new Canadian musical inspired by poet Robert Service, titled Wanderlust, composed by Marek Norman and written and directed by Morris Panych, developed as part of the Festival's New Play program.

Two other plays developed under that program will be featured on the Studio Stage — Daniel MacIvor's The Best Brothers, directed by Dean Gabourie and The Hirsch Project (working title), an "intimate portrait" of former Festival Artistic director John Hirsch, created by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson and directed by Thompson. Rick Miller's MacHomer, a popular work that blends Shakespeare's Macbeth with TV's The Simpsons, rounds out the Studio season.

As for the 2013 season, planning for that is already underway, McAnuff said. "I like to think we are on the ascendant right now and I would love to continue to ride that wave to further heights. We have a lot of commissions out there for new work and we will continue to produce those as they come in."

The current Stratford season, continues through October 31, with openings of Twelfth Night, The Misanthrope, The Homecoming, Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's Will, The Little Years and Hosanna slated throughout the summer.

4 JUN/11

Rating: 5 out of 5

STRATFORD — To cap an otherwise lacklustre opening week here, the Stratford Festival pulled out the heavy artillery and ended it with, if not a bang, than at least a bang-up staging — an old-time revival of what was once considered a new-fangled musical that had an opening night audience shouting “Hallelujah!” at Friday’s opening.

Having carved a major niche for himself in the world of rock musicals, it was not surprising to see artistic director Des McAnuff return to his roots, revisiting and revitalizing the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber groundbreaker, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, in a production on the Avon stage. What was surprising, however, was what he found when he made that return. For while many questioned this particular programming choice when it was announced last summer, many more now realize that McAnuff’s choice was little short of divine inspiration.

To refresh your memory: Released as an album in 1970, SUPERSTAR caused a sensation well before its 1971 Broadway debut. Exulted and excoriated in its early days for its very human portrayal of Jesus Christ in the last seven days of his life, it was a work that eschewed any judgment on divinity and celebrated instead the humanity of the man. What started as a cult hit quickly moved mainstream, despite the disapproval of some sectors of organized religion, who ultimately, despite those concerns, embraced the show and turned it to their own purposes. But in a sparkling production literally pulsing with life, McAnuff reclaims the show and returns it to its rock’n’roll roots, jettisoning much of the religious iconography that had attached itself to the work over the years and once again emphasizing its very human roots.

Cast in the title role of a man who believes he was born to save the world, Paul Nolan gives a heart-wrenching and compelling performance, despite a nasty opening night virus that managed to cut his remarkable singing voice off at the knees — even while it might have added a certain feverish aspect to his knock-out performance.

Meanwhile, Chilina Kennedy could be accused — at least by those willing to cast the first stone — of phoning in a vocally strong performance as Mary Magdalene, caring for Jesus in a perfunctory, almost business-like way. The vocally powerful Josh Young however, is nothing if not electrifyingly present in every moment in his portrayal of Judas, completing the emotional triangle on which Rice constructs his tale and bringing a much needed sexual tension to the proceedings in the process. Despite Kennedy’s lacklustre acting, these three manage to light up a stage designed by Robert Brill, but clearly influenced by some of McAnuff’s earlier works in the genre.

But it is in the supporting performances that McAnuff finds the sparkle that sets the show aflame. While Bruce Dow clearly aims to delight — and succeeds — in his performance as a decadent dancing Herod, Marcus Nance lends lovely reserve to evil gravitas as the high priest Caiaphas. There is also memorable work from Mike Nadjewski (as Peter) and from a talented and hard-working chorus, marshalled to perfection by choreographer Lisa Shriver, who keeps things hopping without overshadowing the storyline.

But finally, only one member of the supporting cast threatens to steal the show. As a tortured Pontius Pilate, Brent Carver gives a performance of understated excellence that forces an audience to come to him, rather than have him bring it to us. In simply counting out 39 Lashes, Carver leaves one with the certain knowledge that even one more lash would break his heart — and ours.

For those who love good musical theatre, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is something very much akin to a religious experience.


3 JUN/11

QMI Agency
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

STRATFORD - In acting circles, William Shakespeare’s RICHARD III always has been known for the plum roles it offers the fairer sex — a good thing for a portion of the acting community that, to put it bluntly, has not always been well served by the Bard and his work. But in theatre, good can always be better.

And now, in addition to meaty and memorable roles such as mad Queen Margaret, the ill-fated Lady Anne, the tragic Queen Elizabeth and the dowager Duchess of York, the Stratford Festival has conspired to add the name of Richard himself to the roster of roles open to actresses of demonstrated talent.

As Seana McKenna has proved in roles that range across the classical and contemporary canons, she is one talented actress, a perfect choice to bring life to a new vision of cross-gender casting once limited to males turning Lady Bracknell into a drag. That’s precisely what McKenna does in a much-anticipated Stratford Festival production of RICHARD III, which opened Thursday on the stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre. She is the leading lady cast in the role of the leading man.

For the record, this is perhaps not as groundbreaking as it might seem at first blush, for there is a tradition that stretches back to Sarah Bernhardt and beyond of women playing at least the gentler and more youthful male roles in Shakespeare’s canon, in much the same way as young men originally played all the female roles. But roles such as the evil Richard, it has long been assumed, were simply too evil, perhaps too masculine, for the fairer sex. Females in classical theatre aren’t evil to begin with; they’re driven to it, in roles such as Lady Macbeth and Medea.

It doesn’t take long in a production helmed by director Miles Potter, however, for McKenna to demonstrate that Richard’s evil is most certainly not beyond her reach. Wearing a bedraggled bald-wig, she shoulders Richard’s hump and proceeds to wreak havoc in the court of Richard’s brother, the ailing Edward IV (played by David Ferry). Arrayed in men’s clothing, McKenna aims for, and achieves, not so much a sense of malevolent and twisted masculinity as a trollish, spiteful, almost child-like androgyny that proves effectively chilling, especially in the early scenes. As the competent but largely unimaginative production wears on, however, it becomes evident that Potter has allowed McKenna to become entrapped in an emotional cul de sac that reduces her acting options to merely more of the same, rather than opening up a field in which she can give Richard’s ambition and madness free rein.

And, frankly, she gets little help from the rest of this extensive cast, save for, ironically, those cast in the traditional female roles. While there’s impressive work from Wayne Best as the ambitious Duke of Buckingham and a smirking Sean Arbuckle as the evil Sir William Catesby, the likes of Michael Spencer-Davis, Nigel Bennett, Dion Johnstone, Oliver Becker, Shane Carty, Andrew Gillies and Gareth Potter simply tromp through the show as if they were merely interchangeable players in a military tattoo.

Which leaves the most memorable moments, not surprisingly, in the hands of Martha Henry as Queen Margaret, and in those of Yanna McIntosh and Roberta Maxwell cast, respectively, as Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York. Sadly, as Lady Anne, the usually impressive Bethany Jillard reduces what should be a keystone role to a tedious demonstration of proper Shakespearian enunciation and diction.

For her part, McKenna ultimately demonstrates more than enough steel to prove this to be far more than mere stunt casting. But given a magnificent production, instead of this fancy-dress war horse designed by Peter Hartwell, and placed in the hands of a director of sweeping vision, she could have created impressive proof that true talent knows no gender.

2 JUN/11

Rating: 3 out of 5

STRATFORD - Like most of the great stories in our world, THE GRAPES OF WRATH is a story that recognizes no borders, either in space or time, even while it is firmly anchored in both. The time is the Great Depression, its greatness undiminished by ensuing decades, and the place — well, it stretches from the desolation of dust-bowl Oklahoma to the lush and fertile verdure of California.

But the story it tells is the story of the dispossessed of every era and of every nation, first distilled into a single novel by John Steinbeck. Long ago, that novel inspired a memorable movie but it has, until now, defied the theatrical stage, where Steinbeck is better known for OF MICE AND MEN, and where the challenge of capturing the broad sweep of GRAPES, without diminishing its fragile humanity, has proved too daunting. But now, thanks to adaptor Frank Galati, many of those challenges have been faced and few overcome in an adaptation created for the artists of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and now serving as the basis for a production by the Stratford Festival that opened Wednesday in the Avon Theatre.

For the uninitiated, this is the story of a single family, the Joads, stripped of everything but dignity and a will to survive, who decide to make their way to California’s promised land after drought forces them from the farm they’d wrenched from Oklahoma’s fertile soil. But they find little milk of human kindness in this new land of milk and honey, where they are seen as sub-human interlopers, to be used and then simply discarded.

But, for the family Joad — Ma and Pa (played respectively by Janet Wright and Victor Ertmanis) and their grown children, the recently paroled Tom (Evan Buliung), the hormone-driven Al (Paul Nolan), the outsider Noah (Steve Ross) and the newly married and pregnant Rose of Sharon (Chilina Kennedy) as well as assorted hangers on — it is a journey not just of a physical nature but of a spiritual one as well. Under the tutelage of Jim Casy (Tom McCamus), a one-time preacher fallen from the faith, the Joads slowly re-invent the old time religion of their forbearers to accommodate a vision of the shared spirituality of humanity — a vision that resonates with even more truth today perhaps than when it was written, in a world where mankind still struggles with defining our role as our brothers’ keepers.

Under the direction of Antoni Cimolino, who also serves as the Fest’s general director, this is a major undertaking, involving not only an extensive cast but a talented design team that includes John Arnone (sets), Carolyn M. Smith (costumes) and Steven Hawkins (lights). Together, they successfully capture the physical sweep and the desolation of a story that stretches from the dust bowl of Oklahoma to the fruit bowl of California — a voyage driven by a trio of faux-Okie musicians, whose attempts to camouflage scene changes serve instead as a dramatic drag, like ill-considered singing Burma Shave ads on the side of a scenic highway.

In condensing Steinbeck’s tale of hope and desolation and bringing it to life, Galati has understandably gone for the pith of the original dialogue and while his choices all serve the moral centre of the story, they also conspire to rob many of his characters of the little touches that serve to make them human.

Of course, superb actors like Buliung and McCamus bring dimension to even the most underdrawn characters, but in the main, while there are a few touching moments courtesy of actors like Ross and Robert King, others like Wright and Ertmanis never seem to achieve that vital third dimension that brings the theatre to life. And as a result, this remains far more pageant than play — an homage to a great work of literature rather than a groundbreaking new stage play.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

1 JUN/11

QMI Agency
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

STRATFORD - If one is given to counting one’s blessings, then one should be very grateful indeed for the fact that, over the course of half a century and untold incarnations, Lerner and Loewe’s CAMELOT has been trimmed from the 4.5 hours it ran in its world première at what was then known as Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre to a far more civilized run of just under three hours. But even while such pruning proves there’s traction in the old adage that a whole lot less can prove to be a whole lot more, it still seems to take an inordinately long time to get to the story’s end, even in the Stratford Festival’s glitzy new production that opened in the Festival theatre Tuesday.

Camelot is based on T.H. White’s epic, The Once and Future King, and it manages to hit most of the high points of the Arthurian legend and the King who spawned it, played here with an affable, easy charm by Geraint Wyn Davies. We first meet him as a youth, in his final days with his mystical mentor Merlyn (Brent Carver) and the young king is anxiously awaiting the arrival of his new bride Guenevere (Kaylee Harwood), pledged as surety in a recently signed treaty.

Their union upon her arrival proves to be a happy one, after a few initial bumps, and soon Arthur and Guenevere are cooking up notions of round tables and law courts and the like — notions which ultimately draw la crème de la crème of the world of chivalry to knightly his service. Indeed the fame of Arthur’s court is such that even the creamy, dreamy Sir Lancelot (Jonathan Winsby) is drawn to Arthur’s court, setting off unrequited fireworks between the knightly newcomer and Arthur’s Queen — fireworks that Arthur’s bastard son, Mordred (Mike Nadajewski), ultimately uses to try to destroy everything Arthur has built.

Under the direction of Gary Griffin, this is nothing if not a lavish production, fairly radiating with colour and sparkling with luxurious appointments, thanks to the combined talents of designers Debra Hanson (sets) and Mara Blumenfeld (costumes).
And while its score may not burn with the enduring flame that has seared Lerner and Loewe’s better-known collaboration MY FAIR LADY, (currently playing down the road at the Shaw Festival) into the public consciousness, it proves hummable nonetheless, with numbers like If Ever I Would Leave You, The Lusty Month of May and Camelot itself, served up under the assured musical direction of Rick Fox.

From a casting point of view, there’s a lovely, old-fashioned sort of chemistry between Wyn Davies and Harwood (once she finds a balance), beautifully supported and accentuated by a wonderfully centred and touching performance from Carver, doubling as the bumbling but wise King Pellinore.

But while the extensive cast, fleshed out by Stratford regulars Dan Chameroy, Lucy Peacock and Bruce Dow, tackles the project with professional enthusiasm, making the most of both the score and Warren Carlyle’s often showy choreography, Griffin seems to lose his way, scarring his production with a certain unevenness of tone. Indeed, it is as if Griffin and the actors are still struggling to reconcile transitions in the characters of Lancelot and Mordred in order to set them comfortably within the complex of the show. Winsby handles Lancelot’s vocal demands with dispatch, but he never really gets a grip on whatever it is that might inspire Guenevere’s passion, while as Mordred, Nadajewski never allows the evil to run any deeper than mere shtick.

Coupled with problems still unresolved in Lerner’s rambling libretto, it all conspires to come together and render that “one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot” so brief, in fact, that it threatens to disappear in a three-hour extravaganza. 

THEATRE NEWS: Blue Man returns
1 JUN/11


TORONTO - After a less than successful run a few years back at what is now Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre, Blue Man Group might have felt a little defeated when they left our city and a theatre especially refurbished to meet their specific needs. If so, they’re over it and they’re coming back this summer for a limited engagement, presenting a show that includes many of their tried and new routines in a whole new context in a show designed for bigger, Broadway-style houses.
Houses, in fact, just like the Princess of Wales, where the Mirvishes will present them from July 19 through 30. Tickets, priced from $40 to $99, go on sale Saturday at 416-872-1211.