Tuesday, May 31, 2011
THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
STRATFORD - Take an aging Lothario with ego and appetite both bigger than his pocketbook, throw in a couple of wealthy and bored housewives bent on intrigue, and then add a jealous husband or two.
Is it just another day of hijinx amongst the Desperate Housewives of Wisteria Lane — or, considering time and place, could it be just another opening night at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival? Stratford kicked off its 59th season Monday night in the Festival Theatre with a spanking new production — the sixth in its storied history — of THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR.
If you chose option B, chances are you’ve already heard at least a little about the production which, judging from the audience ovation opening night, is destined (despite its flaws) to prove as popular with Stratford audiences as its earlier incarnations. Happily, there are a few things to like in director Frank Galati’s sedate take on the joyously ribald tale, allegedly written at the command of Queen Elizabeth I, who had — unlike the two women of title — fallen for the charms of Sir John Falstaff, knight errant, introduced to Shakespeare’s fans in the two-part Henry IV.
Mind you, Elizabeth and her court might have been hard-pressed to recognize the tale, despite its genesis. For while it is still set in Windsor, Galati, with the full connivance of designer Robert Perdziola, has, for no apparent reason, marched it forward in time so that it now has the look of a rather prim, even chaste, Jane Austen romance. The text is still Shakespeare, however, as Falstaff (a prosthetically enhanced Geraint Wyn Davies) conspires to woo and bed a pair of well-to-do Windsor matrons — the lovely Mistress Alice Ford (Lucy Peacock) and the equally fair Mistress Margaret Page (Laura Condlin).
But while Mistress Page is possessed of a trusting husband (Tom McCamus) concerned primarily with marrying off his very eligible daughter Anne (Andrea Runge), Mistress Ford is not so lucky. Indeed, her husband, beautifully played by Tom Rooney, is obsessed with the possibility of his wife’s infidelity. So, when the two women discover Falstaff is wooing them both simultaneously, they decide to use Master Ford’s jealousy as scourge to Falstaff’s cupidity, deceiving both husband and suitor not once but several times over.
While all this plays out, a subplot unfolds in which three suitors vie for the hand and the dowry of the lovely Anne, While her father backs the well-born, but not terribly bright, Master Slender (Christopher Prentice), her mother supports Dr. Caius, a French physician (Nigel Bennett) and Anne herself favours the impoverished Master Fenton (Trent Pardy).
While all this sounds like the work of the Bard, sadly, under Galati’s direction, it only occasionally resonates with the kind of life Shakespeare celebrated. His Falstaff has moments of endearing charm, but Wyn Davies never succeeds in rendering Shakespeare’s enduring and endearing trencherman in strokes big enough and bold and broad enough to do him justice. And while Rooney’s Ford is a tribute to the inventiveness of both actor and director, Galati fails to anchor him down in a vibrant community. As played here, no one in the extensive cast, from Falstaff down to Janet Wright’s leaden Mistress Quickly and the Welsh parson Hugh Evans (Andrew Gillies), gives any sign of a life beyond that which exists between entrance and exit.
Finally, what seems most absent from this production is any sense of bawdy fun — a joyous, rollicking celebration of humanity, undertaken not despite our foibles, but rather because of them. One senses that if the lights went out in this Windsor, these people would simply sit in the dark and run lines.
THEATRE NEWS: Cattrell gets her man
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - In the end, it’s not Paul Gross’s Due South Mountie that got his man, but Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall, once again.
So when the curtain goes up on the Canadian première of Sir Richard Eyre’s Broadway-bound West End production of Noel Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES next September at the Royal Alexandra, Canada’s Paul Gross will be starring opposite Cattrall as the legendary star-crossed lovers at the heart of the tale.
Gross’s casting was announced Tuesday by David Mirvish, who had previously announced the Royal Alex engagement. Mirvish also revealed that when PRIVATE LIVES’s limited Toronto run ends, Gross will be packing up his bags and moving on to the Great White Way with Cattrall and the production.
Monday, May 30, 2011
MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW:
MY FAIR LADY
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 4 out of 5
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE - This is one time when scoring only a fair success simply wouldn’t have been good enough by half. After all, in tackling MY FAIR LADY for the first time in its 50-year history, the Shaw Festival is not merely casting a bizarrely belated cloak of theatrical legitimacy over Alan Jay Lerner’s and Frederick Loewe’s musical stage adaptation of the great man’s Pygmalion, but they’ve also chosen to completely re-shape a classic, re-imagining large swaths of director Moss Hart’s 1956 vision of what has come to be considered an iconic work.
So excitement was high as the curtain went up this weekend on the Shaw’s new LADY, on the stage of the Festival Theatre — and happily, it was just about as high when the curtain fell. For while this new version isn’t likely to achieve the fame of the production it replaced, it will almost certainly serve to win another generation of fans for what has, over time, proven itself to be a most enduring literary musical.
Under director Molly Smith, the timeless story of the transformation of Eliza Doolittle from street urchin to elegant lady — chimney swallow to bird of paradise — springs to vibrant life. Leading lady Deborah Hay steps into Eliza’s shoes with a winning boldness, taming the heart of irascible Henry Higgins, tyrannical linguist, played by Benedict Campbell.
Besides Hay’s otherwise impressive performance, there is much to like here, not the least of which is the magic wrought by set designer Ken MacDonald in concert with projection designer Adam Larsen as they conspire to bring Victorian London and the era of the Crystal Palace to sparkling life, their bird in a gilded cage vision falling short only in the certain intimacy needed to frame the very heart of the story.
And not surprisingly in what continues to be one of the continent’s most enduring theatrical ensembles, there is no shortage of fine work from a supporting cast that includes Neil Barclay in the role of Eliza’s fair-weather father Alfred, Patrick Galligan as Higgins’ sidekick, Colonel Pickering, Sharry Flett as Higgins’ elegant and long-suffering mother and Mark Uhre as the hapless street dweller Freddy Eynsford-Hill.
There remain a few casting problems — Campbell has everything for a perfect Higgins, except a certain and necessary indefinable but magnetic charm, while Galligan’s youthful Pickering lacks avuncular grace — but this production certainly sounds impressive, thanks to the musical direction of Paul Sportelli, who provides a lush bed for a legion of memorable songs (although John Lott’s sound design could still use a little fine tuning).
Working with choreographer Daniel Pelzig, Smith keeps the action swirling, particularly in the rough-and-tumble Covent Garden scenes, but one can’t help but wish Smith had taken the time to teach Pelzig that on occasion, less in the way of ornamental flourish, can add up to a whole lot more.
Indeed, the only major misstep in the entire production would seem to be some of the unfortunate costuming excesses wrought by Judith Bowden, who in her attempt to expunge the memory of Cecil Beaton’s gloriously memorable Ascot Gavotte, seemingly transplants the scene to Rio, at the height of Mardi Gras. And in a world mad about a little hat called a fascinator, hers could best be described as detonators. Still, the story at the heart of the production wins out in the end, and the Shaw Festival gives us a production of MY FAIR LADY that is happily on the plus side of fair, indeed.
THEATRE REVIEW: CANDIDA
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE - Long before the folks at DC Comics dreamed up Wonder Woman and Supergirl, Bernard Shaw was toying with the notion of women and extraordinary power. Back then, he called his wonder-woman CANDIDA, and while he stopped short of gifting her with incredible strength or X-ray vision, he made her such a paragon of wisdom and virtue that men simply couldn’t help but be smitten by her. Indeed, men have been falling in love with her for more than a century, even while women have been finding her devotion to hearth, home and duty a trifle tedious.
The latest man to fall for Candida’s charms is director Tadeusz Bradecki, who brings Shaw’s unimpeachable 1897 paragon to life once again in a Shaw Festival production that opened in the Royal George Theatre Saturday afternoon. Starring Claire Jullien in the title role, the play tells the story of how the sweet and long-suffering Candida inadvertently discovers that, in the process of being a loving and dutiful helpmate to her husband, the Reverend James Mavor Morell — a rather self-satisfied and successful cleric, played by Nigel Shawn Williams — she has inadvertently caused the young poet her husband has brought home to fall in love with her as well.
But young Eugene Marchbanks, as played by Wade Bogert-O’Brien, is more than merely a poet, He’s also a lonely young aristocrat, fallen on a bit of familial hard times and fairly drunk on romance and the unfamiliar cocktail of hormones coursing through his body. He’s also a bit of a twit. Not surprisingly, in the months he has shared his life with the Reverend and his wife, Eugene’s romantic nature, combined with his search for a mother, has yielded a crush of epic proportion. And suddenly, when he returns with Candida to the Morell home after a stint in the country, things all come to a head. Young Marchbanks confronts the all-too-complacent Morell and declares his love for the cleric’s wife. Initially, Morell laughs it off, but as Marchbanks presses his cause, doubts arise and they are forced to let Candida sort it out.
Not surprisingly, Shaw, having already gifted Candida with great beauty and impressive homemaking skills, has also thrown in a heavy dollop of patience and wisdom which precludes her banging the two men’s heads together, forcing her to sort things out with impressive dispatch. Unfortunately, in this production, much of Shaw’s elaborate characterization is wasted in a first act that never really gels, thanks to Bradecki’s one-note vision of the characters.
William’s saintly Morell is simply too virtuous, his greatest sin being an inconstant English accent, Bogert-O’Brien’s dandified Marchbanks is simply too ridiculous to be taken seriously. And neither of them get a lot of help from Jullien’s swanning and superficial performance as Candida, which seems to involve only her abilities to move well and look good. Even some fine character work from the always impressive Graeme Somerville and Norman Browning, joined by an overwound Krista Colosimo, can’t save the first act from a tedium that leaves you studying the glories of designer William Schmuck’s beautifully panelled parsonage to help pass the time.
Happily Bradecki lights a fire under Williams and Bogert-O’Brien in a second act that warms the storyline, And while it fails to fully ignite the cooly detached Jullien in the title role, it still affords Shaw the opportunity to demonstrate his amazement once again that men and women can continue to put aside their obvious differences long enough to perpetuate the human race.
This is not, by any means, the finest CANDIDA this Festival has produced in its 50-year history, but it is at least a CANDIDA that doesn’t have to take a backseat to Wonder Woman and Supergirl.
DRAMA AT INISH
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — Although life is seldom that easy, it is often tempting to divide the theatre-going world into two parts — those who flock to it to escape life and those who flock to the theatre to embrace it. And if it were indeed that easy, then the twain ’tween the two would probably meet in a little town on the Irish sea coast named Inish, in a play by Ireland’s Lennox Robinson, titled, on occasion, DRAMA AT INISH - A COMEDY and, on others, IS LIFE WORTH LIVING?
Now, if you’ve never heard of the play, it’s not surprising considering that, though Lennox’s contribution to the Irish theatrical canon is considerable, records show that this play last graced a Canadian stage in 1934. Prior, that is, to its current revival here at the Shaw Festival, where it opened on the Court House stage Friday. And, frankly, in the wake of that revival, one is left with the niggling suspicion that both camps — those looking to escape life and those hungry to embrace it — have reason to wish Shaw’s artistic director Jackie Maxwell, who directs this production, had simply let sleeping dogs lie. For while it is not particularly vicious, this particular “dog” turns out to be one of those yappy little Irish terriers who, despite being adored by its family, is capable of driving anyone else in the immediate vicinity to distraction.
The plot is simple: After a series of low-brow summer entertainments, John Twohig (Ric Reid), the owner of Inish’s only theatre, has, at the encouragement of the local prelate, engaged a more upscale (read pretentious) theatrical troupe who will, as the summer progresses, present only the works of the Russians and Scandinavians — works such as A Doll’s House, The Cherry Orchard and An Enemy of the People. Happily, as owner of a hotel and public house, Twohig can also offer lodging to at least some of the players as a bonus. Thus, all the action takes place in a private sitting room in his hotel, run with the assistance of his clothes-horse of a wife (Donna Belleville) and his absent-minded sister, played by Mary Haney.
Initially, this high-minded playbill engenders a fair bit of excitement among the good people of Inish, but the troupe of players, led by the flamboyant Hector de la Mare (Thom Marriott, in full Dracula mode) and his leading lady, Constance Constantia (Corrine Koslo as a mini-Morticia) hasn’t even begun to unpack before things start to go wrong.
The problems are initially isolated, but as the players present their demanding repertoire, the entire town starts to fall apart as the citizens of Inish start to see the drama in the life around them. Husbands try to kill wives, young swains try to kill themselves and politicians become thoughtful, behaving for the good of the citizenry and not on the basis of personal gain nor party favour. What, oh what, will put the cock-eyed world of Inish to rights and save its citizens from high art?
Lumbered with a script that likely would have been distilled to its very essence and served up as a second-rate sitcom had it been written a scant half century later, the cast — supported here by Maggie Blake, Julia Course, Craig Pike, Peter Krantz, a touching Andrew Bunker, Ken James Stewart, James Pendarves and Jay Turvey — trots out its best Irish accents and tackles the story with an enthusiasm that is commendable, if somewhat stately, considering the fare.
But, finally, despite a worthy assist from set designer William Schmuck and lighting designer Louise Guinand, even their best efforts simply aren’t enough. DRAMA has its moments, but not enough to make a memorable comedy. There’s not enough fun for a meaningful escape from life nor enough life to make you want to embrace it.
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF
Rating: 5 out of 5
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — Despite the success of a little work titled A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, the Shaw Festival is claiming the best known work of playwright Tennessee Williams is his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. And, judging by the opening-night response Thursday, when the curtain fell on a new production of CAT in the Royal George Theatre, they might just have the show to back it up.
The production, of course, marks the centenary of Williams’ birth — and the coincidental passing of Elizabeth Taylor, who with Paul Newman conspired to etch the CAT on the public consciousness in the acclaimed 1958 film adaptation, which has become its gold standard. It is thanks to Taylor and Newman, in fact, that the first challenge faced by director Eda Holmes and her team (just like every other director and crew who has tackled it since the movie) is a complex exorcism that allows them to reclaim the story from those more celebrated players, and render it a clean slate on which a new production can be drawn.
It is a fresh slate indeed that Holmes gives us, with a Brick and Maggie so removed from Taylor and Newman that, initially, it almost seems like she’s trying to force round pegs into square holes. As Brick, Gray Powell forsakes Newman’s brooding intensity for deceptive detachment that, at least initially, puts one in mind of post-traumatic shock, while as Maggie The Cat — his sexually frustrated and increasingly desperate wife — Moya O’Connell eschews everything even vaguely kittenish and plays Williams’ celebrated heroine instead more like a wounded and increasingly voracious leopard.
The play is set entirely in a bedroom in Brick’s childhood home on a plantation in the American South — a place to which he has retreated after the death of a beloved friend, to crawl into a bottle and leave Maggie, his interfering wife, far behind. And even the birthday of the patriarch, Big Daddy (a magnificent Jim Mezon), can’t draw Brick out. So while the rest of the family celebrates, Maggie competes for her husband’s attentions with the bottle he clearly prefers.
Because they can’t or, more likely, won’t join the party, the party inevitably joins them. This allows the world to intrude on personal problems that are already too much in the public domain. Led by Big Mama (Corrine Koslo), the entire family invades Brick and Maggie’s bedroom, determined to celebrate not only Big Daddy’s natal day, but also the clean bill of health with which he has been bestowed by the local doctor (Jay Turvey). While Big Mama fusses and Big Daddy preens, Brick’s elder brother Gooper (Patrick McManus) and his fecund wife Mae (Nicole Underhay) conspire to turn Maggie and Brick’s difficulties to their advantage.
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF has always relied on the complex triangle between Brick, Maggie and Big Daddy for its strength. But here, working on a set created by Sue LePage, Holmes conspires to turn it into a more complex family drama, in which the magnificent performances of O’Connell, Powell and Mezon are supported by equally fine, even sympathetic work from a strong supporting cast. She has also managed a subtle shift in emphasis, so that homophobia, rather than homosexuality, becomes the ugly little secret at the heart of the story — a shift that hopefully reflects a shift in public attitude since CAT premièred in 1955.
Finally, it’s not that Holmes has changed the play in any meaningful way (although certainly it is a trifle saltier than I remember it), as much as she has simply dived into it and found a new light to show us what has always been there.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
THEATRE REVIEW: HEARTBREAK HOUSE
Rating: 4 out of 5
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — It takes a lot of resourcefulness (and a certain amount of cheek) to stage a compelling production of a play that was written almost a century ago to tell us that the end of civilization was at hand. I mean, here we are a century later and civilization is certainly changed, but still going strong even if it still teeters on the edge of the abyss.
None of which stands in the way of director Christopher Newton, tasked as he is with directing a production of Bernard Shaw’s HEARTBREAK HOUSE to launch the 50th season of the Shaw Festival, where he once served as artistic director. Newton’s cheeky, sometimes compelling and almost always resourceful production launched the season Wednesday on the stage of the Festival Theatre.
Written and set in England on the cusp of the War To End All Wars, HEARTBREAK HOUSE (which didn’t première ’til after the First World War) is certainly a mammoth theatrical beast — three hours of droll and often dolorous Shavian wit and wisdom. It takes place in the Sussex home of the eccentric Captain Shotover (Michael Ball), a crusty retired sea captain who shares his strangely nautically themed home with his youngest daughter Hesione (Deborah Hay) and her swashbuckling husband, Hector Hushabye (Blair Williams).
As the play begins, Hesione’s dear friend Ellie Dunn (Robin Evan Willis) has arrived for a visit, the unstated purpose which is to give Hesione the time to talk her friend out of a loveless but lucrative marriage to the soulless Boss Mangan (Benedict Campbell), a captain of British industry. Before that can be accomplished however, the captain’s oldest daughter, Ariadne (Laurie Paton) returns to a family fold she abandoned years ago to take up a more conventional life as Lady Underwood. In her wake, she trails her besotted brother-in-law Randall (played by Patrick Galligan).
Every character arrives loaded down with Shaw’s baggage, charged with illuminating his bleak if often funny vision of the world, even while they get on with their self-centred lives. Working on a fussy but effective set created by designer Leslie Frankish and lit by Kevin Lamotte, Newton stages the work with a kind of brittle, self-aware style usually reserved for the works of Coward, relying not on the arc of Willis’ character but rather on Ball (in that full curmudgeon mode that has become his stock-in-trade) to anchor things with a heavy dollop of pragmatic humanity. And it works. Until it doesn’t, of course.
As the house party wears on (and on) and the characters strip away layer after layer of pretense — laying waste to everything from marriage and the relationship of the sexes to capitalism, politics and even good old fashioned horse-sense — the intent is to reveal the heartbreak that informs each sad and empty life. But though Newton draws memorable work from many of his cast-members — Hay, Paton and Williams are all delicious, as is Galligan in melt-down mode, although Campbell adds too much fibre to his diet chewing on the scenery on occasion — when it comes to the pivotal final act in which all the heartbreak is finally laid bare, he falters.
In stripping away the layers of this particular Shavian onion — some disturbingly relevant almost a century later — to get to its heart, he discovers nothing there. Instead of a bleak vision of an impending Armageddon, this production seems to suggest that thanks to an innate inability to muddle through, there will indeed always be an England.
And that’s fair enough. As recent events prove, you can only promise the imminent end of the world for so long before you have to change your tune.
Nightwood Theatre announces 2011-12 season
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - The sun will rise on a new season for Nightwood Theatre, according to artistic director Kelly Thornton, who announced the company’s 2011-12 season Thursday. In addition to annual features like November’s New Groundswell Festival and March’s Fem Cab, it is comprised of three full productions.
The first will be the previously announced production at Buddies in Bad Times, of Margaret Atwood’s PENELOPIAD, directed by Thornton and starring Megan Follows and a stellar cast “of the city’s hottest female actors,” according to the Nightwood media release.
Thornton will also be at the helm when Rose Cullis’ THE HAPPY WOMAN makes its world première on the stage of the Berkeley Street Theatre, starring Barbara Gordon.
The Nightwood season wraps up with the North American première of Bryony Lavery’s STOCKHOLM in the Tarragon Extra Space, a production of Seventh Stage Theatre Productions, directed by Kelly Straughan and featuring Melissa Jane Shaw and Ryan Hollyman.
Passes for the season, priced at $75 and $125, are currently on sale at 416-944-1740.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Canadian Opera Company adds singers, coaches
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - Two new singers and two new vocal coaches have been added to the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio, Canada’s premier training program for young opera professionals.
Soprano Mireille Asselin and Baritone Philippe Sly, both from Ottawa, will add their voices to the ensemble, while Barrie’s Jenna Douglas and Toronto’s Timothy Cheung have enlisted as intern coaches. Over the years, the COC Ensemble Studio has helped to groom talents like Ben Heppner, Isabel Bayrakdarian, David Pomeroy and Krisztina Szabo.
Friday, May 20, 2011
MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW:
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
TORONTO - Musical theatre, it is said, is one of the few truly American art forms. Still, one doesn’t need to probe too deeply into its genealogy to know that without the American Jew, musical theatre wouldn’t have amounted to much. For proof, look no further than a little show titled TO LIFE, currently playing at the Jane Mallett Theatre, a production of Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company.
Conceived by HGJTC’s co-artistic director Avery Saltzman (who also directs) and Tim French (the show’s impressive choreographer), this is a two-hour voyage through the history of musical theatre with a focus on the strong Jewish connection in musical theatre’s bloodlines. Fittingly, it starts and ends with Bock and Harnick’s anthemic To Life, composed for Fiddler on the Roof.
In between, there are two acts of some of Broadway’s best — some of it designed to celebrate Jewish composers, some of it Jewish performers and most of it simply the Jewishness at the heart of it all. As for composers, there’s a cross-section here, ranging from George Gershwin through Jule Styne, Jerry Herman, Richard Rodgers and a host of others. And while Broadway’s pioneer Jewish performers are evoked in only four names — Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Fannie Brice and Al Jolson — a performing pantheon is honoured in the process.
In a first act devoted to the early years of musical theatre and the transition from vaudeville and burlesque, Saltzman and French truck out a passel of old standards — Ain’t She Sweet, Makin’ Whoopie and Rainbow Around My Shoulder — mixing them liberally with funhouse fare like the tongue-twisting Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers and Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday on Saturday Night --- all to maximum effect. The inclusion here of the masochistic My Man is simply unfortunate and proves that not all oldies are golden.
Each of the four talented cast members — Shawn Wright, Patrick Cook, Gabi Epstein and Charlotte Moore — is given a moment in the spotlight as they pay personal tribute to Jolson, Cantor, Tucker and Brice respectively. In the second act, things move into the modern era, with a selection of tunes from more contemporary Broadway shows, drawn from hits like Fiddler, I Can Get it for You Wholesale, Cabaret and Funny Girl as well as lesser known works like Two By Two, The Fig Leaves are Falling and The Bar Mitzvah Boy.
Under the musical direction of Mark Camilleri (who also does keyboard duty opposite pianist Jeffrey Huard), it is indeed a tuneful event and count on a tough time getting the score out of your head — which is the best kind of tribute to this kind of show. But not everything is coming up roses here, to borrow a phrase. While they touch lightly and justifiably on the anti-Semitism which forced most Jewish performers to change their names early in the last century, they serve up songs like Mammy and Swanee with no acknowledgment whatsoever of the hurtful tradition of blackface, which was equally shameful.
And while Saltzman and French keep things alive and lively on a set designed and lit by Phillip Silver, Alex Amini’s costuming for the distaff could best be described as unfortunate. And finally, there’s a strange unevenness to the cast that leaves Cook and the comically gifted Epstein apparently just performing their tunes (sometimes with too evident self-satisfaction) while the more seasoned Moore and Wright successfully inhabit theirs on a deeper level. Coupled with more false endings than a shag carpet, it conspires to make TO LIFE feel just a tune or two too long. And that’s too bad.
THEATRE NEWS: Jersey Boys moves west
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - Dancap Productions is looking to conquer new Jersey territories — Jersey, as in JERSEY BOYS, the Tony and Dora Award-winning production directed by Des McAnuff that ended a Toronto run last August.
Earlier this week, officials at Dancap announced a Western Canadian tour for JERSEY BOYS, slated to take place in 2012, with stops in Calgary (June 28-July 15 at Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium), Edmonton (Aug. 15-Sept. 2 at Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium), Vancouver (Sept. 5-23 at Queen Elizabeth Theatre) and Saskatoon (Sept. 26-Oct. 13 at TCU Place).
Thursday, May 19, 2011
THEATRE NEWS: Hugh Jackman headed for T.O.
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Before Toronto gets to the dog days of August, we'll have a chance this year to sample the Wolverine days of July.
David Mirvish has announced that for two weeks only (July 5 through 17, to be precise) the Princess of Wales Theatre will play host to Hugh Jackman In Concert, fresh from its première engagement in San Francisco. It will, of course, feature the Tony Award-winning actor, still known for his X-Men role, in full song and dance mode, backed by an 18-piece orchestra.
Tickets for the Toronto engagement, priced from $49 through $130 will go on sale May 19 for American Express Front of the Line, May 14 to Mirvish subscribers, and to the general public on May 28 at www.mirvish.com
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
THEATRE REVIEW: THE ALEPH
Rating: 4 out of 5
TORONTO - Simply stated, they have unravelled the threads of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, THE ALEPH, and rewoven them into a new work for the stage. And watching the result, a stage play of the same name, is an experience not unlike an encounter with an old flame who is suddenly sporting a new look — that strange mixture of the familiar and the alien that leaves one torn between nostalgia for the old and interest in the new, even while we embrace the familiar in a whole new light.
It’s the handiwork of three of Toronto’s most respected theatre artists — actor Diego Matamoros, director Daniel Brooks and designer Michael Levine — and it opened at the Young Centre Tuesday night under the Soulpepper imprimatur.
For the uninitiated, an aleph, in Borges’ world, is something far more than merely the first letter of the Hebrew, Arabic, Phoenician and Syriac alphabet or the number 1 in Hebrew, or even the symbol that folklore insists must be drawn on the forehead of a Golem to bring it to life. In Borges’ world, it is also a mysterious point in space that contains all other points — a portal through which everything (and everybody) in the entire universe can be seen, from every conceivable angle, from the very beginning of time.
In Borges’ short story, his narrator, mourning the death of a woman he loved, is introduced to a functioning aleph, courtesy of a poet with whom he has become acquainted through the death of his beloved. What he sees amazes him, but also brings about a youthful act of petty and casual cruelty that seems to haunt him.
In this reworking of the tale, Matamoros himself — or at least a very believable facsimile — is transformed into the story’s narrator, a 50-ish actor who recalls, as a young man just out of theatre school, visiting his diplomat father, then cutting a romantic swath through Buenos Aires. There, the young man falls in with a group of cousins and friends, and is particularly attracted to one young woman whose engagement to his cousin doesn’t seem to stand in the way of a reciprocal attraction. That attraction is barely explored however, before the young man finds himself en route to Canada, and by the time he returns to Argentina, the young woman is dead.
To assuage his grief, the young Matamoros falls in with the woman’s cousin, a theatre artist who seems perpetually locked in a fruitless creative process. And, you guessed it: The cousin just happens to have an aleph in his basement.
It is a story that works on many levels, the aleph serving as a metaphor for everything from the creative process, youth and even theatre itself, and under Brooks’ direction, Matamoros gives a masterful performance, impressive in its carefully cultivated simplicity.
That simplicity permeates virtually every second of this show, as Brooks measures out the carefully considered contributions of his design team — set and costumes by Levine, lighting by Kevin Lamotte and sound by Jean-Sébastien Côté — with a wise but frugal hand, creating a theatricality that is little short of stunning. This is a world where a simple revolution of an office chair can carry Matamoros from Argentina to Toronto and back again and the shifting of a single wall can make an entire world move on it axis.
It’s a production that may not allow us to glimpse all points through a single point, but it is powerful enough at last to make us believe that such a point exists and that we might once have glimpsed it from afar.
Sunday, May 15, 2011
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
TORONTO - Whether it happens in a flash or blossoms slowly over time in a quiet corner of the psyche, it is something we all face — a rite of passage in an often chaotic march from womb to grave. And regardless of when it happens, the realization that “home” has ceased to be a definite physical place and has become, instead, a mere concept suddenly gives us a deeper understanding of the truth behind novelist Thomas Wolfe’s assertion that you can’t go home again.
It seems, too, that the further you are from the place you have heretofore considered home, whether that distance is measured in miles, hours or emotions, the more bittersweet will be the realization. That’s just one of the discoveries at the heart of Guillermo Verdecchia’s FRONTERAS AMERICANAS, a deeply personal one-man theatrical voyage that earned the iconic playwright/performer a Governor General’s Award back in 1993.
By way of background, Verdecchia was born in Argentina and came to Canada with his parents when he was two and FRONTERAS AMERICANAS (American Borders) documents his adult search for a homeland and his discovery that it was neither Argentinian territory nor Canadian, but rather a little bit of both; that home is finally not where we are from or where we are going but rather a safe place we build within ourselves to store our memories and our dreams and give ourselves shape.
At least, that’s what FRONTERAS AMERICANAS is at its best — and that part of it remains largely undiminished in the nearly 20 years since it premièred in the Tarragon Theatre’s Extra Space, a fact proven conclusively, it seems, in a slick new revival underwritten by Soulpepper, currently playing at the Young Centre, where it opened last week.
As in the original incarnation, Verdecchia is the featured performer, playing both himself recalling his international search for his homeland and a perambulating Hispanic stereotype who styles himself Wideload — a character who exists primarily, one suspects, to bring his “Saxon” audience face to face with their prejudices and to create some sort of historical context for the still youthful Verdecchia’s conflicted loyalties. And it is in the fusion between those two characters that, despite the best efforts of director Jim Warren, who has done an impressive job in expanding the show to fit the larger space, the play really shows its age.
Finally, a slick design created by Glenn Davidson and some impressive projections created by Jamie Nesbitt notwithstanding, Verdecchia’s assertions that Canadians see Latin Americans in only the broadest stereotypical and exotic terms simply don’t ring true in a world where the most outrageous zoot-suiter pales in comparison to the excesses of Don Cherry’s wardrobe. We may not have found a perfect world yet, but it is a changed world from two decades ago thanks to ever-shifting perspectives — and one is left with the impression that the world’s perspectives may have shifted just a wee bit more than Verdecchia’s.
In the end, he has overlooked his own assertion that borders are transient. While he and Warren have conspired to update references within the play to reflect the passage of time, there is no real sense here that the same time has had any effect on the playwright himself or on his vision of the world around him. At 50 (or thereabouts) he’s still playing 30 and railing against the world in which he made himself at home 20 years ago — and while his reflections on home still have a ring of universal truth, his view of the broader world seems a trifle dated.
Friday, May 13, 2011
THE SHAPE OF A GIRL
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 5 out of 5
TORONTO - In a perfect world, we would be able to dismiss playwright Joan MacLeod’s heart-wrenching drama, THE SHAPE OF A GIRL, as a dated but still impressive piece of work — a carefully crafted artifact hearkening back to a more troubled time before we got our act together and helped kids sort things out. But, sadly, we live in a world that is far from perfect.
Almost a decade after its Toronto première in the Tarragon Extra Space, a new production of SHAPE from Green Thumb Theatre, currently playing at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre For Young People, underscores just how far we still have to go in dealing with the issue of bullying among young people.
There was a time, of course, when bullying was considered a largely male domain, but not anymore. Inspired by the bullying death in 1997 of young Reena Virk — the Saanich, B.C., girl whose murder shocked the nation — SHAPE is also set on the West Coast. There, young Braidie (played by Georgina Beaty) lives in a state of constant, if unarmed, warfare with a mother with whom she simply can’t connect.
Instead, Braidie turns to her older brother Trevor, who has already slipped the familial bonds for life on the mainland, forcing her to pour out her fears and frustrations in a long open-ended letter. Braidie, it seems, has become utterly and somewhat mysteriously fascinated with a trial taking place nearby, in which a group of girls have been charged with the murder of one of their schoolmates — a murder that bears more than a passing resemblance to Virk’s.
Oddly, however, the perpetrators and not the victim intrigue Braidie, who goes to great lengths to highlight class and cultural difference, building a wall between the teens involved in the murder and her own group of intimate friends. While Braidie is clearly one with the in-crowd of her world, it is clear that membership in that club is tightly controlled by Braidie’s oldest friend, Adrienne, against whom Braidie has always defined herself.
Slowly, in between rants about her clearly long-suffering mother and recollections of summers spent on the beach at a nearby camp for the blind, it comes clear that Braidie is something more than just a garden-variety self-obsessed teen. She has, in fact, been staying away from school and avoiding her beloved Adrienne. Finally, between her obsession with the school-girl murderers and her estrangement from her own friends, a portrait of tragedy emerges — in the words of the playwright, “a girl in the shape of a monster, a monster in the shape of a girl.”
Directed once again by Patrick MacDonald, THE SHAPE OF A GIRL seems more focused and distilled this time out, as it plays out on a functional and evocative set designed by Scott Reid and lit by Jacquie Lazar to shelter the story and its teller. As Braidie, Beaty makes some bold and courageous decisions, under MacDonald’s direction, reveling in the character’s self-absorption and casual heartlessness, and giving her audience broad licence to experience not merely a distaste for Braidie’s action, but for Braidie herself.
It’s a gamble that pays off, for it gives MacDonald and Beaty an impressive opportunity to underline the truly chilling arc MacLeod creates for this character — an arc that clearly demonstrates that even while we rethink the notions that girls are confections of sugar and spice and everything nice, and that sticks and stones break no bones, we should also be taking another look at the whole notion that somehow silence is golden.
ORFEO ED EURIDICE
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 5 out of 5
TORONTO - From the very first notes, it shimmers with heartbreak and emotion, as conductor Harry Bicket leads the superb Canadian Opera Company Orchestra into a brilliant score with complete assurance, the power of the composition undiminished by two-and-a-half centuries worth of musical progress.
And frankly, that’s just the appetizer. For when the curtain goes up on the COC’s ORFEO ED EURIDICE — a production of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, currently playing in rep at the Four Seasons Centre — it is clear that this production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s masterwork is gilded with the same kind of timeless beauty as the opera itself.
The story, of course, is rooted in ancient mythology — a tale that was old before Romulus and Remus discovered sibling rivalry. But for all its antiquity, this opera proves as contemporary as the latest pop tune in its telling of the story of a young man prepared to go to hell and back for the woman he loves. The man in question here, of course, is Orfeo (exquisitely sung by counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo, in a riveting performance). When we first meet him, he is overwhelmed by grief, mourning the death of his beloved Euridice, even as he prepares to bury her. That task accomplished, and despite the best efforts of friends and neighbours — all brought to life by the glorious COC Chorus — he proves inconsolable, and decides he would rather die by his own hand than live in a world without Euridice.
Rather than see Orfeo take his own life, however, the goddess Amore (soprano Ambur Braid, in a delightfully commanding performance) intervenes with the news that the depth of his grief has so moved the theological pantheon that Orfeo is being allowed the chance to pass through Hades to reclaim Euridice from the Elysian Fields. All he has to do is charm his way past the Furies and then promise not to look at Euridice’s face — or to offer her any explanation as to why he won’t — until they are back in the land of the living.
He agrees, but once Euridice (the incomparable Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian in impressive form) is restored to life, she interprets Orfeo’s aloof behaviour as a loss of his affection, and ultimately forces her broken-hearted swain to break the promise he made to Amore, thus inadvertently consigning her once more to endless sleep in the Elysian Fields. Until, that is, Amore once again intervenes.
Under the direction of Robert Carsen, set and costume designer Tobias Hoheisel has created a world of vast and timeless beauty, filled with an aching loneliness that plays on primal memories that stretch from a barren Greek seashore to the bleak and haunting vastness captured in David Blackwood’s finest etchings. Enriched as it is by a flawless lighting design, created by the director and designer Peter Van Praet, it proves the perfect setting for this tiny jewel of an opera, performed here in the original Vienna version, rather than the longer, more embroidered French version familiar to Opera Atelier audiences.
And Carsen unquestionably makes the most of it, drawing strong, controlled and, best of all, thoughtful performances from all involved. In the process he creates a work of art that is stunning in its deceptive simplicity. Despite that apparent simplicity, this is an incredibly complex work fusing music and story with such genius that one suspects it would be impossible to improve upon it in any way. It is a measure of Carsen’s genius that he accomplishes all of this and still makes it look simple.
THEATRE NEWS: Ballet comes to the Sony;
casting set for The Test
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - The Alberta Ballet will bring its acclaimed production of Love Lies Bleeding — a ballet inspired by and featuring the music of Elton John — to the Sony Centre for six performances Nov. 8 through 13, in a presentation by David Mirvish, as part of the 2011/12 Sony season announced Tuesday. The ballet, which premièred last year in Alberta, will make its Toronto debut hot on the heels of a Vancouver engagement in October.
An appearance by the Bolshoi Ballet, performing Swan Lake, May 15 through 19, is also on the Sony program. For ticket information and a complete rundown of the forthcoming Sony season, visit www.sonycentre.ca
Complete casting has been announced for Lukas Barfuss' The Test, the first production in the Company Theatre's three year participation in the Berkeley Street Project with Canadian Stage. Gord Rand and Sonja Smits will join the previously announced cast of Eric Peterson, Liisa Repo-Martell and Phillip Riccio, all under the direction of Jason Byrne.
The Test runs at the Berkeley Street Theatre Oct. 31 through Nov. 27.
THE POST OFFICE
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 3 out of 5
TORONTO - We may all yearn, in some primal way, for a simple life — but ultimately, it’s not that simple. A simple garment, after all, rarely disguises the body’s flaws while life in a simple home demands sacrifices a lot of us are simply not prepared to make. And creating a simple staging of a simple play is a lot harder than one might think too, demanding nothing less than complete and simple honesty in every second of every scene.
As plays go, it’s hard to imagine one more simple than India’s first Nobel Laureate and Renaissance man Rabindranath Tagore’s THE POST OFFICE, written in 1911 and finally, a full century later, playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre in its Canadian professional première, in a production by Pleiades Theatre.
Translated to English by Julie Mehta, it tells the sweet and simply tragic story of a boy, adopted by wealthy relatives, who finds himself housebound when he falls ill and the healer called in to treat him forbids him access to the outdoor world. But young Amal, as played by Mina James, is a resourceful sort, and without even realizing what he is doing, he sets about bringing the outdoors in, befriending any and all who pass his window on the seemingly busy street where he lives with his unseen aunt and his doting uncle, played by Sugith Varughese.
But while he makes friends with everyone from the local curd-seller to the crusty village headman, he also keeps a close eye on the post office being built across the street. As his illness progresses, he becomes obsessed with the idea of not only delivering the King’s mail, but receiving a letter from His Royal Highness, as well.
Barely more than an hour in length, this production is embellished in the tradition of Tagore’s work, with the music of the sub-continent he called home, as well as its dancing. But while its look and its sound evoke Tagore’s homeland, Mehta’s sometimes too contemporary translation, coupled with director John Van Burek’s vision, opens its casting up to a wonderfully broad ethnicity.
Or it could, if everyone in the cast were capable of playing all their roles with equal facility, but sadly, they’re not.
While James and Varughese meet most of the challenges of their single roles, members of the supporting cast stumble under the weight of multiple characters.
Weighed off against a beautifully simple set designed by Teresa Przybylski and Van Burek’s vision for (as opposed sometimes to his realization of) the show, these are problems that, in another show, might be disguised by creative staging or camouflaged by a bigger, bolder design. Though in a show like this, where simplicity is all, they prove to be a lot more problematic. But the simple truth is, we should be glad they tried.
THEATRE NEWS: Siminovitch jury set;
Ghost Stories set to fade;
Whoopi! show to open in T.O.
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - The National Theatre School’s Maureen Labonte will chair the jury that will choose the winner of the 11th annual Siminovitch Prize in Theatre, a jury that will also include Yvette Nolan, Carole Fréchette, Craig Holzschuh, Scott Burke and Vanessa Porteus.
The Siminovitch Prize, which is awarded in a three-year cycle honouring direction, playwrighting and design, will this year honour a professional playwright who has made a significant contribution to Canadian theatre in recent years. In addition to a cash purse of $75,000 the winning playwright will also name a protégé who will receive a purse of $25,000. This year’s winner will be announced at a ceremony in Toronto on Nov. 7. Deadline for nominations is June 10 and a shortlist will be announced in September.
The Siminovitch Prize honours distinguished scientist Lou Siminovitch and his late wife Elinore, a playwright. For further info, visit www.siminovitchprize.com
The Toronto production of Ghost Stories, which opened at the Panasonic Theatre in mid-April, is about to fall victim to a commercial exorcism, but not before Toronto has a chance to bid it a proper goodbye.
Representatives of the Mirvish organization announced Tuesday that Ghost Stories will run for three more weeks, with a special performance on Friday the 13th, before closing on May 29.
Seems now that Whoopi Goldberg has got her Sister Act together, she's taking it on the road. And that road begins in Toronto.
In fact, Goldberg and co-producer Stage Entertainment announced Wednesday they will launch the North American touring production of their five-time Tony nominated musical from Toronto's Canon Theatre in the fall of 2012. Based on the Touchstone film of the same name by Joseph Howard, Sister Act features a score by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater and a book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner. The production is directed by Jerry Zaks and features choreography by Anthony Van Laast. Casting, dates and additional cities will be announced at a later date.
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
THEATRE REVIEW: DOUBLE BILL: (Re)Birth: E.E. CUMMINGS IN SONG
& WINDOW ON TORONTO
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
TORONTO - There’s an unquestionable element of children run delightfully amok in a candy store in (re)Birth: E.E. CUMMINGS IN SONG, one half of a new Soulpepper double bill that opened at the Young Centre Monday. And frankly, it fits the work like a tailor-made Spanx, Cummings having been a poet deadly serious about maintaining a strong tie with his inner child.
Indeed, it may have been that element of innocence that appealed to the members of the Soulpepper Academy a few years back and led them to build an entire one-act show around the late great American poet’s work. Then again, it might simply have the inspired musicality inherent in Cummings’ work — a musicality mined, then enriched by a strong 10-member cast under the tutelage of Mike Ross, Soulpepper’s resident music director, who also appears in the show. Ins Choi, Tatjana Corniji, Trish Lindstrom, Ken MacKenzie, Abena Malika, Gregory Prest, Karen Rae, Jason Patrick Rothery and Brendan Wall round out the cast.
Together, they take an entire spring bouquet of Cummings’ irrepressible poetry — I Like My Body When It’s With Your, Anyone Lived in a Pretty Town and Nobody Loses All the Time, to name a few — and tunefully transpose them for the stage, informed by styles that range from torch to twang, with plenty of other musical influences thrown in for good measure. Musically, this appears to be a gifted class, and Ross capitalizes on it, showcasing performers who clearly know their way around pianos, accordions, fiddles and double-bass, backed up by a wide range of found instruments that include everything from scrub-brushes to suitcases, penny-whistles to squeegee frogs, wielded with enthusiasm and considerable skill.
While Ross clearly provided the musical direction — no program credit required really, as one has only to watch his face throughout to know from where the music has sprung — no other direction is credited. And while the cast has often struck pure gold by marrying childish innocence with a darker sense of adult knowingness, all of it underscored by MacKenzie’s quite delightful set and costume designs, one can’t help but feel that, in the end, a strong directorial hand on the tiller would lend a bit of bite to this delightful little theatrical amuse-bouche.
In the second half of the program, titled WINDOW ON TORONTO, many of the same performers are featured — joined by André Sills but now sans Ross and Malika — and a director’s hand is obvious, right from the top of the show. As water pours down the window of title, in fact, it sends a certain signal to all familiar with his work that Laszlo Marton is back in town. The window of title is, by way of explanation, the service window of a hot dog truck parked on the edges of Nathan Phillips Square.
From an inside perspective, courtesy once more of MacKenzie’s design, the audience is invited to watch an entire year of business compressed into less than an hour. It is inarguably a rich canvas for the talents of this ensemble as they create and fire off characters with the speed of an AK47, slowing things down only occasionally for Hallmark moments designed, it seems, to fool us into thinking this is more than merely a sustained and ultimately overworked sketch that flirts dangerously and pointlessly with tastelessness and repetitiveness.
Still, if you’re one of those people whose theatrical tastes run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous — slick, even polished cabaret to overworked and overlong Saturday Night Live sketches — then this double bill might be just the ticket. In fact, it’s likely to have you Cummings and going.
Monday, May 9, 2011
THEATRE NEWS: Doras set for June 27
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - The Toronto theatre community will celebrate its best when the 32nd annual Dora Mavor Moore Awards, otherwise known as the Doras, are handed out in ceremonies at the Bluma Appel Theatre, June 27.
According to an announcement Monday from the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, this year’s Dora event, honouring the best of Toronto theatre in the past year, will be hosted by Craig Lauzon and Michaela Washburn, written by Chris Earle and directed by Sandra Lefrançois.
Ceremonies will be preceded by a VIP reception in the lower lobby of the Sony Centre and followed by a street party under the stars in front of the St. Lawrence Centre.
Tickets, priced at $65, are available at 416-366-7723, while VIP tickets are priced at $165 and are available at 416-536-6468, ext. 27. For further info, visit www.tapa.ca.
Sunday, May 8, 2011
THE RAILWAY CHILDREN
Rating: 4 out of 5
TORONTO - If you’re the kind who thinks that the trip should be every bit as much an adventure as the departure and arrival, then THE RAILWAY CHILDREN might be just the ticket, if you’re looking for a summer theatre jaunt.
Direct from Britain where it apparently played to enthralled audiences, the York Theatre Royal’s production (in association with the National Railway Museum) of Mike Kenny’s stage adaptation of Edith Nesbit’s THE RAILWAY CHILDREN opened under the big-top of the new Roundhouse Theatre yesterday, offering a round trip ticket to the Victorian era to all comers.
As departures go, this voyage begins in a rather quiet way. Although the extensive cast is fully arrayed in period costume when they first confront their audience, they are very much of today as they do the theatrical equivalent of warm-up exercises, drawing that audience slowly into their sphere and gently leading them on the first step of their voyage. And soon, thanks to the collective efforts of siblings Roberta (Natasha Greenblatt), Peter (Harry Judge) and Phyllis (Kate Besworth), in whose memory that story plays out, we are at home in Victorian London, sharing the upper middle-class existence of a senior civil servant and his family. But not for long, for the children’s beloved father (Richard Sheridan Willis) is suddenly taken away.
The three children are then whisked away to a strange new home in Yorkshire by their mother (Emma Campbell), there to dwell in genteel and anonymous poverty, as the Dreyfus-esque details of their father’s fate are slowly revealed. Turns out however, that Victorian kids were still kids after all, and, after some initial mis-steps with the locals, our threesome is soon in thrall not only to the kind-hearted local station master (Craig Warnock), but to the railway which he serves — the daily London-bound train serving as an imaginary conduit to carry their best wishes to their missing father.
It’s all a sort of steam-driven re-telling of Little Women, complete with stiff upper-lips, life lessons, mysterious foreigners and ripping adventures — and not surprisingly, heroics and heart-warming resolutions ensue. The story moves at an often stately pace, giving an audience plenty of time to appreciate the quality performances of a supporting cast that also includes John Gilbert, Alison Deon (standing in for Laura Schutt), Doug MacLeod and a host of others. As the childish Phyllis, Besworth is a delight, but Judge’s preciousness, masquerading as brattiness, fast wears thin. But that’s only half the story, of course, for this is as much an adventure in stagecraft as it is in storytelling, cooked up by director Damian Cruden and designer Joanna Scotcher. Together, they turn their new tent-theatre and the railway track that runs through it into a slice of industrial age Britain— albeit an industrial age with most of the grit and virtually all of the grime removed.
Complete with an antique steam engine that makes a couple of pivotal appearances and ever-shifting set pieces to keep the story moving , it makes for an experience that might even make you forgive seating that seems to have been borrowed from the immigrant trains that ran across Canada in the same era. So, all aboard — but bring a cushion!
Saturday, May 7, 2011
THEATRE REVIEW: ZADIE'S SHOES
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Turns out breaking in isn't something reserved exclusively for new shoes. Case in point: ZADIE'S SHOES, a play by Adam Pettle that, a decade ago thrust the then largely unknown Toronto playwright into the limelight when it premièred on the Factory Theatre mainstage.
Directed by Factory's erstwhile artistic director Jackie Maxwell (now happily ensconced as head of the Shaw Festival) and featuring the playwright's thespian brother Jordan opposite the estimable Kelli Fox in the leading roles, it was so well received that it transferred to the Winter Garden Theatre, where it took a stab at a commercial run. And audiences of all ages seemed to enjoy walking in the shoes of a young man who inherited a gambling addiction from his grandfather — a man who, on the eve of his departure from Poland for Canada, lost his shoes in a game of chance.
Now, a decade on, ZADIE'S SHOES are again pacing the stage of the Factory Theatre, this time under the direction of the playwright and his actor/director brother. And based on the final preview performance (on which this review is based) SHOES still has a lot of traction.
In the pivotal role of Benjamin, a man whose familial problem with gambling is exacerbated by a penchant for losing he also inherited from his grandfather, Joe Cobden may lack the easy loopy grace that marked Jordan Pettle's performance, but he brings an off-centre sort of commitment to the role that seems to work almost as well. Cobden is particularly strong in the scenes he shares with Patricia Fagan, cool and elegant in the role of Benjamin's sweetheart Ruth, an ailing woman frustrated over her boyfriend's love of gambling even while she's preparing to to take a major gamble of her own.
Based on minimal local references, the work is set in Toronto in the present day, which proves to be more than enough to make us terribly grateful that designer Jackie Chau didn't choose urban design as her career. A whole city as awkward and uninhabitable as this set would be all but unliveable.
Still, both William MacDonald (as an edgy refugee from the societal underbelly named Bear) and Harry Nelken (as a sometimes profitable prophet named Eli) manage to make it their home, sharing it comfortably with Cobden and Fagan as the story demands. Ultimately, however, the problems with this production are perhaps best defined by the roles of Ruth's sisters, Lily (Shannon Perreault) and Beth (Lisa Ryder), the former gambling on the hereafter and the latter on the here and now.
In both previous productions, these characters, as well as that of Beth's husband, played by Geoffrey Pounsett, seemed two-dimensional, awakened from his imagination only to showcase the playwright's gift for witty repartee. In this production, they seem to fit much better, but that does not mean their characters have acquired depth under the stewardship of the brothers Pettle.
Rather, it underscores the fact that the whole production seems to exist on a much more shallow plane — one created to showcase the writing, rather than the humanity of the story it tells. This time out, ZADIE'S SHOES might be comfortable for walking, but running? Not so much. Perhaps some resouling is in order.
Thursday, May 5, 2011
THEATRE REVIEW: BROWN BALLS
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 4 out of 5
When it comes right down to it, every one of us has to battle a host of stereotypes if we want to carve out a personal niche as a home for our true self. That said, those who are part of a visual minority face even greater challenges than those of us who represent the various sub-strata of broadly drawn norms, comprised of skin colour, gender, sexuality and a host of other things that should in reality be dismissed as personal modifiers rather than arbiters.
Not surprisingly, those defined almost solely by race often choose to fight back — often from a place of rage, sometimes from a place of sadness but always from a place of humanity. Happily, in celebration of Asian Heritage Month, the folks at fu-Gen Asian Canadian Theatre Company have settled on edgy humour as the tone for their examination and rebuttal of the stereotypes faced by males of Asian extraction in our civilization.
Actually, make that males of East Asian and South East Asian, for as is made abundantly clear in fu-GEN's production of BROWN BALLS, which opened in the Factory Studio Tuesday, the "Asian" label covers a broad spectrum of humanity indeed. So playwright Byron Abalos narrows his focus, choosing to dwell on the experiences of three young Canadian men from diverse Asian backgrounds. Paul Jeong or PJ (played by Sean Baek) traces his roots to Korea, while John Paul Kung or JP (Richard Lee) is of Chinese descent. As for Charles Crawford (David Yee), his background is mixed, son of a Scottish father and a Filipino mother.
After setting the scene with a bizarre and often very funny evocation of the Sunday night rush at the only Chinese eatery in a Jewish 'hood, the trio tackles what is to prove the main course for the evening, taking their audience hostage and serving up a whole plateful of Asian Male stereotypes, most of them shaped by a long and often colour-miscoded relationship with Hollywood.
With Yee doing Charlie Chan, Lee essaying Fu Manchu and Baek covering off on a pantheon of martial arts stars like Bruce Lee, they eviscerate and reconstruct the image of the Asian male in Western civilization in an attempt to redeem it. Under the free-wheeling direction of Nina Lee Aquino, this is an often free form affair with few barriers between the action on stage and the audience. Indeed, as the 85-minute show evolves, the audience becomes a principal player, providing not just statistical fodder for the performers but comedic fodder as well. One might also add that there are definitely no sacred cows here, but then as they clearly point out, that is another part of Asia entirely.
But as its title implies, this is often edgy stuff, as the personality of each of the characters evolves, with Baek staking out turf as the stereotypical young Asian Canadian on the make, Lee, the equally familiar driven-to-succeed Asian Canadian scholar and Yee, the passive Asian American gay man, even as they rail against those stereotypes.
Working on a slick set created by designer Jackie Chau, in a successful creative collaboration with electronic whiz kids Aaron Kelly and Shawn Henry, BROWN BALLS is an often slick and entertaining affair, although in the climactic shift from comedy to drama, a little more care in separating the performer from the performance might be advisable.
Still, it's an an often thought-provoking and almost always entertaining evening, underlining the fact that the best way to debunk stereotypes is to ignore them and make contact with the human who happens to be wearing them.
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
THEATRE/OPERA NEWS: 'Mormon' tops Tony Award noms; remembering Domini; Actors' Fund benefit; Pieczonka returns
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
While the comedic The Book of Mormon dominated the nominations for the 2011 Tony Awards announced yesterday in New York, there also proved to be a few seriously exciting nominations with a Canadian connection.
That would include at least one of Mormon's 14 nominations, with Nikki M. James, nominated for best supporting actress -- best known to Canadian audiences for her work opposite Christopher Plummer in the Stratford Festival production of Caesar and Cleopatra.
And then there is Brian Bedford's revival of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which garnered a total of three nominations including best revival, best actor/play (for Bedford's performance as Lady Bracknell) and best costumes for Desmond Heeley, who designed the production in its original Stratford iteration as well.
Other names familiar to Canadian audiences include Winnipeg-born Joshua Henry, nominated for a best actor/musical Tony for his work in The Scottsboro Boys (one of 12 nominations for the musical), in competition with Australia's Tony Sheldon, currently reprising his Toronto-honed performance in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which earned his nod.
And while there are plenty of other names familiar to Toronto theatre audiences -- everyone from the legendary Vanessa Redgrave, nominated for best actress/play for Driving Miss Daisy and Patty Lupone (supporting actress/musical for Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown) to one-time Dora nominee Norbert Leo Butz (best actor/musical for Catch Me if You Can) and playwright Athol Fugard, who will receive a special lifetime achievement award -- there's also more than a few nominees who will be giving Toronto audiences a look at their work in the year ahead.
Featured in the forthcoming Mirvish season, War Horse, has earned a special Tony Award slated to be awarded to South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, who brought the title character to life on stage. War Horse is also nominated for best play, best direction/play (Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris), best scenery (Rae Smith), best lighting (Paule Constable) and best sound design (Christopher Shutt).
The Tony Awards will take place at the Beacon Theatre in New York on Sunday, June 12.
BLYTHE SPIRIT: Actress Domini Blythe, who passed away late last year, will be remembered by family and friends at a memorial to be held from 4 to 6 p.m. on Sunday, May 15, in the lobby of the Stratford Festival Theatre. Remarks at 4:30 p.m.
ART FOR ARTISTS' SAKE: Nicholas Carrière, J. Anthony Crane and Ben Lipitz -- three actors currently appearing in the touring production of Disney's The Lion King -- will take to the stage of the Factory Theatre on Monday, May 16 to present a single performance of Yasmina Reza's thought-provoking play, Art. Tickets are priced at $25 and all proceeds will go to the Actors Fund of Canada. For tix and further info, call the Factory box office at 416-504-9971 or visit www.factorytheatre.ca
ADRIENNE AUF NAXOS, AT LAST: After being sidelined by ill health for Saturday's opening performance of Ariadne auf Naxos at the Four Seasons Centre, local favourite Adrienne Pieczonka was not only recovered but raring to go for the second performance of the Canadian Opera Company's production of the work last night, according to opera sources.
Monday, May 2, 2011
OPERA REVIEW: ARIADNE AUF NAXOS
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 4 out of 5
TORONTO - Prevailing wisdom notwithstanding, coalitions are nothing new — even in the world of opera. And for proof, cast an eye and ear to the Four Seasons Centre, where, under the tutelage of the Canadian Opera Company, high art and low comedy have found a way to work together to dominate the stage in a work titled ARIADNE AUF NAXOS — with a little help from composer Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, of course.
On the high art front, it is the story of Ariadne, abandoned wife of the heroic (but caddish) Theseus. Finding herself all alone on the deserted island of Naxos, she takes comfort in the arms of Bacchus, inadvertently setting a pattern of alcohol abuse for spurned lovers throughout history, it seems to me — but we digress.
It’s a touching tale, full of mythical pain, pathos and passion — and a fair bit of high comedy too, thanks to an early sitcom concept cooked up by composer and librettist that results in the tragic opera being invaded during its first performance by a troupe of comedians from the base world of musical comedy. The collision of two worlds is set up in a back-stage prologue, effectively staged in this production from the Welsh National Opera by director Neil Armfield.
Backstage at a private theatre in Vienna, a young composer (mezzo-soprano Alice Coote) prepares to debut a serious new work, but as his cast assembles, it is revealed that they will share the stage with a troupe of music hall comedians engaged to perform directly after them — a revelation which outrages all involved. But when word comes from the master of the house that, due to time constraints, they are expected to perform simultaneously, things really begin to fall apart. Or at least, that’s how it seems, until the curtain goes up on the second act and artists, high brow and low, get serious about making art.
It’s a delicious conceit, but apparently fate wasn’t content with the twists and turns cooked up by composer and librettist as this work took to the Four Seasons Stage on Saturday. First off, soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, a COC favourite, withdrew from the role of the Prima Donna/Ariadne due to illness, surrendering the stage to soprano Amber Wagner for the opening performance. Hot on the heels of that announcement came word that soprano Jane Archibald, cast as Zerbinetta, was suffering from an infection and begged indulgence from her audience during her performance.
In short, it seemed to be the kind of performance where just about anything could happen — and indeed, it did, at least on the plus side of the ledger. While Toronto opera fans have learned to justifiably treasure Pieczonka’s artistry, one suspects there were few in Saturday’s audience who felt they were making do with second best in Wagner’s touching, vocally thrilling performance opposite the magnificent tenor Richard Margison as Bacchus. And if illness diminished Archibald’s bravura performance as the touchingly madcap Zerbinetta, backed by baritone Peter Barrett, bass Michael Uloth and tenors Christopher Enns and John Easterlin, then one can only conclude that a performance delivered at the peak of health would, quite simply, be one for the ages. And it didn’t stop there.
With the COC Orchestra under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis, making a welcome Toronto return, and a supporting cast that also included tenor Roger Honeywell, baritones Adrian Kramer and Doug MacNaughton, mezzo Lauren Segal, bass-baritone Richard Stilwell and sopranos Teiya Kasahara and Simone Osborne, director Armfield and his creative team (including designers Dale Ferguson and Tim Mitchell and choreographer Denni Sayers) came up with a coalition that not only worked, but soared. In the end, it seems, all it takes is a lot of good faith and a willingness to work together.
Sunday, May 1, 2011
Rating: 4 out of 5
TORONTO - First off, and just for the record, it should be stated that this is not Walt Disney’s Cinderella — or even the one that predated it, for that matter. In fact, the Canadian Opera Company’s production of the classic story, titled LA CENERENTOLA, could be said to be something both a lot older and considerably newer than the Cinderella who dwells in today’s public consciousness.
Older, in that it is an opera almost 200 years old, composed by Gioacchino Antonio Rossini around a libretto by Giacomo Ferretti, patterned after a couple of stories that were even older. And newer, in that this co-production of the Houston Grand Opera, Welsh National Opera, Gran Teatre del Liceu and Grand Théâtre de Genève sports a highly theatrical Babes-in-Toyland look that might have been achieved had Mondrian, Picasso, Gaudi and a few of their artist friends collaborated on the design of a nursery for a very precocious child hooked on classic Commedia de’Arte.
All of which means the production, currently playing at the Four Seasons Centre, isn’t your mamma’s LA CENERENTOLA — or your daughter’s CINDERELLA, either. But there are things that would be familiar to both camps — things like a tragic title character, sung here by mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, who survives on the very fringes of familial life, abused by two self-centred sisters, sung by mezzo Rihab Chaieb and soprano Ileana Montalbetti and finding warmth in the ashes of the family hearth. And, of course, all three of them find themselves competing for the hand of a handsome prince, sung by tenor Lawrence Brownlee.
But from there, things take a few unfamiliar turns. The evil stepmother’s gone, replaced in this story by a venal father (bass Donato DiStefano doing a boffo turn in classic buffo tradition), while the role of the fairy godmother has been usurped by a Merlin-esque royal advisor (bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen), who has cooked up a bit of a bait ’n’ switch scheme for the Prince and his valet (baritone Brett Polegato) to ensure the King-in-waiting doesn’t fall prey to some heir-brained scheme cooked up by the likes of Cinderella’s father or her sisters.
Musically, of course, it is a classical treat, with conductor Leonardo Vordoni putting the COC Orchestra through its paces with measured briskness. But from a plot point of view, it might be considered just a trifle short, as composer and librettist come together to demand long segments of the kind of stand-and-deliver staging that could, in the right circumstances, render all but the most musically adoring fans utterly comatose.
But here, director Joan Font brings his background with Spain’s Els Comediants to bear, combining the candy floss colour palette of Joan J. Guillen’s inventive toy-like sets with the sun-drenched lighting of Albert Faura to maximum effect. Font also conspires with choreographer Xevi Dorca to incorporate a troupe of often delightfully entertaining mice to enliven the proceedings when they become mired in the music. They don’t completely solve the problem, but they help.
Vocally, this is a universally impressive cast — and happily, almost everyone seems comfortable enough to have a bit of fun with Font’s admittedly eccentric take on the tale. From a comedic point of view, of course, DiStefano steals the show, but credit must also go to Chaieb and Montalbetti, who, as the evil sisters, refuse to allow massive panniers to turn them into overly upholstered couch potatoes. As the Prince’s valet, Polegato walks a fine line, milking maximum comedy from his role, while never upstaging the quite believable romance developing between the masterful Brownless and the delightfully pragmatic DeShong.
It may not be your mamma’s version of the story, or your daughter’s, but if you’ve got a taste for something a little different, you might want to make this one all your own.