Friday, December 21, 2012


BALLET REVIEW: THE NUTCRACKER

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
21 DEC 2012
R: 5/5

TORONTO - Here in Toronto the fortunate, “visions of sugarplums,” are as likely as not to be set to the glorious music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and cradled in a lush landscape created by designer Santo Loquasto as they move in that truly timeless tradition so elegantly captured by James Kudelka in his 1995 vision of THE NUTCRACKER for the National Ballet of Canada. And small wonder, for as the wraps came off that Christmas classic at the Four Seasons Centre Wednesday night, officially launching its 18th season, Kudelka’s masterpiece proves strikingly undiminished by time.

Of course, in a dance world where careers are too brief by half, many of the faces have changed. But though dancers like Rex Harrington, Martine Lamy and Jeremy Ransom are gone from the front ranks, they are certainly not forgotten, any more than are the characters they created — Harrington’s Peter, the Stableboy, magically transformed into a Nutcracker Prince, Lamy’s Sugar Plum Fairy and Ransom’s wizardly Uncle Nikolai. Instead, those characters have passed to artists like Guillaume Côté, Heather Ogden and Jiří Jelinek, each of whom steps proudly, confidently and artistically into the role, enriching a tradition of excellence that stretches back to the very first vision of this story the company shared with Toronto back in 1952.

But while Côté, Ogden and Jelinek all turn in masterful and magical performances, that is not to say that THE NUTCRACKER is unchanging — far from it, in fact. For, in creating the roles of siblings Marie and Misha (superbly danced on opening night by Rebekah Bloomfield and Simon McNally) and their friends, Kudelka not only placed children at the heart of his story, but ensured that every year, his NUTCRACKER would be infused with enough youthful vigour to keep it not only fresh but evergreen.

Drawn from the student body of the National Ballet School and from schools throughout the area, more than 60 young people take part in every single performance, matching the elegance of the professional dancers with whom they share the stage at every turn, their heady blend of determination and commitment filling the stage with joy. And where many performing artists might be reluctant to share the stage with children or animals, the artists of the NBOC seem to relish the chance to share theirs with an entire menagerie of darling lambs, daring mice and muddled chefs performed by these students.

Whether it is Alejandra Perez-Gomez in her role as Baba, or Xiao Nan Yu as the Snow Queen or James Leja as a cunning fox, every single (adult) dancer seems to take an extra bit of energy and commitment from their youthful co-stars. One is tempted to suggest that, in a world where countless cities can boast they have a Nutcracker, only Toronto has THE NUTCRACKER— and while it may be true, it would hardly be in keeping with the spirit of the season this production captures so well. So let’s just say that, at least at Christmas, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


THEATRE REVIEW: WITHOUT YOU

JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
18 DEC 2012
R: 3.5/5



Pictured: Anthony Rapp

Generals who had led victorious armies for ancient Rome were accorded triumphs — the opportunity to lead a celebratory military parade through the streets of Rome. But during that parade, the successful general had to be accompanied in his chariot by a slave who would constantly whisper in his ear: "Memento mori!" (You will die!)

Actor/playwright Anthony Rapp's victories have admittedly been more of a theatrical nature than military, but he's known his share of triumph nonetheless as one of the principal players in the rock musical Rent. But as he celebrated that success in the streets of New York, he had no need of a slave to remind him of his own mortality, for life, it seems, was doing a pretty good job of bringing him down to earth, even while his career was beginning to soar.

His personal Memento Mori is recalled in WITHOUT YOU, a one-man show, written and performed by Rapp and produced by the Menier Chocolate Factory, that opened Sunday on the stage of the Panasonic Theatre — and while it's certainly not your traditional festive fare, it does rate a look-see for several reasons. First, there is the story it tells — a two-barrelled tragedy that starts with his first audition for playwright Jonathan Larson, the man whose much publicized sudden death almost 17 years ago on the eve of the off-Broadway opening of Rent became the stuff of theatrical legend, as Larson's modern take on the opera La Bohème, soared from posthumous triumph to triumph.

From there, it follows Rapp on his own personal roller-coaster, as Rent's many triumphs are almost always perfectly paired with with bulletins from hometown Illinois, where his beloved mother is staging an ongoing and ultimately unsuccessful battle with cancer.

Interspersed as it is with some of the more enduring songs from Rent and with Rapp's own lyrics, set to the compositions of others, WITHOUT YOU walks an emotional tightrope, dealing effectively with the sentimentality of the stories he's telling without tipping too often into the mawkish. Backed by a tight ensemble, Rapp is not, it must be stated, a great singer, but he knows how to act the part of one, which proves to be just about as effective, and, under the direction of Steven Maler, he offers up a performance filled with that same warm, no-nonsense personality that marked his performance as Rent's Mark.

And perhaps that's the reason his show, while touching, stops short of being a complete success. While WITHOUT YOU flirts almost constantly with being too personal, it remains oddly impersonal as well. Characters, even the ones that are pivotal to his tale, emerge not so much as characters that Rapp is channelling, but as caricatures, dropping in for a guest appearance in a story that seems to be as much about Mark as Anthony. Still, against considerable odds, it emerges as far more of a celebration of life than of death — and, at this time of year, that's no small accomplishment.

Friday, December 7, 2012


BALLET REVIEW: GISELLE

JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
07 DEC 2012
R: 4.5/5

Pictured: Greta Hodgkinson

As enduring stories go, it hasn't a patch on the masters — the works of Chaucer, say, or Shakespeare or even Goethe. But there is something — a certain timeless and heart-wrenching je ne sais quoi — that pulls you into GISELLE, the 170 year-old ballet Karen Kain has chosen as her lead in to a festive season normally marked only, at least on the calendars of the true balletomane, by the National Ballet of Canada's annual production of The Nutcracker. GISELLE opened in a limited run at the Four Seasons Centre Wednesday, with The Nutcracker slated to hit the stage Dec. 19.

Patterned after the rather liberal adaptation of the Heinrich Heine poem by Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot and Marius Petipa, the National Ballet's version of the classic tragedy in two acts was choreographed by Peter Wright and designed by Desmond Heeley and has been a company staple virtually since it entered the repertoire in 1970. Happily, it seems to be a production burnished by age, rather than worn down by it, carried aloft as much by the timeless elegance of Heeley's ethereal designs as by the relish with which the entire company attacks the tale, unearthing a certain freshness in its well-worn and tragic contours.

It is the story of a careless nobleman, Albrecht (Guillaume Côté), who falls in love with the lovely peasant girl Giselle (Greta Hodgkinson) and sets out to woo her, disguised as a peasant lad. But the frail Giselle has already caught the eye of Hilarion, an honest forester (Piotr Stanczyk) who penetrates Albrecht's disguise and exposes him, driving Giselle to kill herself in a frenzy of despair. A heart-broken Albrecht does penance for his heartlessness at Giselle's grave, where he encounters the vengeful Wilis — a band of ghostly women led by their haughty Queen Myrtha (Heather Ogden) — who set out to kill him for his crime, only to be thwarted by the loving shade of the woman he misused.

From happy carefree beginning to tragic ending, it is a story that never seems to grow old in the retelling, its trajectory enriched at every turn by an enduring score composed by Adolphe Adam and served up here with fine fettle by the NBOC Orchestra under the baton of David Briskin.

And while many may see that ever-green quality as a tribute to the story itself, one is inclined, after careful viewing, to lay the success of this enduring production at the feet of dancers like its four principals — the equally ever-green Hodgkinson, tapping into her own private fountain of youth, teamed with the masterfully romantic Côté, backed by the impeccable artistry and commitment of Stanczyk and the icy precision of Ogden.

While it may be true that choreographer Wright and designer Healey conspired in GISELLE to create an antique jewel for the company, it is artists like this that renew it with their artistry and give it a contemporary sparkle.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


THEATRE REVIEW:
THE 501:
TORONTO IN TRANSIT


JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
03 DEC 2012
R: 3/5

Pictured, L-R: Bob Nasmith,
Justin Many Fingers,
Donna-Michelle St. Bernard

TORONTO - In more than 15 years of daily commuting on the Queen line, as it is known, I’ve learned that every time you step aboard the iconic streetcar, you enter a compendium of short stories that you can pick up in progress and often have to abandon mid-tale.
 Which boded well, I thought, for the opening of THE 501: TORONTO IN TRANSIT in the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, where expectations have already been heightened by early entries in the TPM’s Beyond The Walls season, wherein the long-established company has moved well beyond its conventional stages in an effort to expand the theatrical envelope and explore the city we call home.


THE 501, which opened Saturday, is yet another entry in TPM’s history of collective creation, created and performed by a trio of local artists, fittingly drawn from diverse cultures and disciplines. Anchored by veteran actor Bob Nasmith as an avuncular narrator, providing highly personal and historical anecdotes, actor/dancer Justin Many Fingers and performer/poet Donna-Michelle St. Bernard hop aboard to add contemporary dimension and flavour. Aboard a simple evocation of a streetcar, with Nasmith more or less in the driver’s seat, the voyage begins at the western-most point of Toronto’s longest streetcar run and works its way east for just over an hour, expedited by the fact that the run from Broadview to Neville Park takes mere minutes. Along the way, expect infotainment of two types.


There is plenty of information in the “way too much” category — a category with which Queen car regulars are achingly familiar —  most of it supplied courtesy of Many Fingers and St. Bernard as they recreate close encounters of the transit kind: Fleeting collisions with mental patients, cellphone abusers and racists that are the price we pay for our space within the living tapestry that is Toronto. 
On the other hand, there is a bit too much information that falls into the “not nearly enough” category and while that might be the way street theatre unfolds on the TTC, as passengers disembark trailing unfinished personal narrative in their wake, it doesn’t make for satisfying theatre here.


In recalling the funeral of a local music icon, Nasmith alludes to offensive comments made by the officiating clergy but fails to clarify the nature of those remarks, while St. Bernard briefly references a City Hall marriage in an unintentionally smug sort of I’ve-got-a-secret style that’s just annoying. This is not one of those shows that is all talk and no action, however, as St. Bernard joins Many Fingers in choreography that, while fluid, seems to have little to do with the herky-jerk of an actual streetcar trip, and while St. Bernard’s rap interludes prove more satisfying, her sound design fails to effectively integrate them into the rest of the show with any fluidity.


Finally, like the Queen car itself, THE 501 may not represent the most elegant theatrical voyage you’ve ever taken, but in the end, it serves to get you where you are going with only minimal inconvenience.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


PANTO REVIEW:
SNOW WHITE: THE DELICIOUSLY DOPEY FAMILY MUSICAL


JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
01 DEC 2012
R: 5/5

Pictured: Graham Abbey, Ross Petty, Melissa O'Neil, Eddie Glen

In a world where everyone seems intent on bending the best of modern technology to recreate an old fashioned Christmas, Ross Petty stands alone. For 16 years, he’s been bending, folding, stapling and mutilating the age-old tradition of British pantomime to create a slice of cool Yule foolery here on the banks of the Don that is as unique to muddy York as our penchant for beat-up Fords that no longer run on all cylinders.

In this, his 17th year, however, it must be said that Petty manages to scale new heights, offering up a frivolous festive confection that has everything we’ve come to expect — and a little bit more.

Specifically, what Snow White: The Deliciously Dopey Family Musical (which opened Thursday at the Elgin Theatre) has this time out is writers — three of ’em, in fact, share the credit, where in previous years, it was often difficult to find even a single one to take the blame.

And what Rick Miller, Carolyn Bennett and Malcolm Clarke have come up with in their first panto-laboration is little short of inspired, with pure and simple Snow White (played by Melissa O’Neil) teaming up with a slightly over-the-Highland-hill James Bond (a very funny Graham Abbey), a brace of fairytale characters, and a few denizens of the urban jungle, all to defeat her evil stepmother.

The evil queen, not surprisingly, is the latest Petty-in-Pepto proving that while it may take a village to raise a child, all it takes to get them completely engaged in a bunch of whimsical nonsense is a man in a dress.

It becomes, of course, a memorable bawdy brawl, but in the end, of course, evil doesn’t stand a chance. But all that means is getting there is all the fun. What with Bryn McAuley’s scene-stealing turn as Red Riding Hood, David Cotton’s high test blend of vacuity and virility as Jack-In-The-Beanstalk and the truly inspired union of Billy Lake (as an anything but a wooden Pinocchio) and Reid Janisse (as the last of the Three Little Pigs, served up with a very big Cherry in his mouth), seasoned pros like Petty, Abbey and the perennial Eddie Glen, this time playing Infestus, the court fool, end up having to fight tooth and nail for their share of the scenery to shred.

It’s pretty impressive scenery, too, thanks to designer Michael Gianfrancesco, who teams up with Erika Connor (costumes), Steve Ross (lights) and Ben Chasson and Beth Kates, whose Playground Studio supplies an impressive video element.

Then, of course, there are the too-wonderful-to-be-shameless plugs to Petty’s list of loyal sponsors, dressed up as tongue-in-cheeky TV ads by Ted Dykstra, and offering the same sort of entertainment value-added bonus as Super Bowl ads, all at a discount price.

Under the direction of Tracey Flye, with choreography by Marc Kimelman, it’s good silly fun, only occasionally putting a bit too much “Eh?” in “risqué,” and if, in the end, it all feels a trifle long, well, welcome to a good old-fashioned season of excess, where Petty-style and Gangnam-style come together in true Toronto style.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


THEATRE REVIEW: IGNORANCE

JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
29 NOV 2012
R: 3/5



TORONTO - “You gotta have a gimmick, if you’re gonna get ahead,” Stephen Sondheim famously wrote in his lyrics for the musical, Gypsy — and clearly, it’s advice the folks at Alberta’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop took to heart, even though they — currently and somewhat mercifully, I think — appear to have no aspirations when it comes to shucking their duds, à la the trio of strippers for whom the song was initially written.

Instead, Old Trout’s hook, in a life-affirming puppet world famously populated by Elmo, Kermit and their puppet ilk, is mayhem that seems to always end in death. Old Trout rose to prominence, you may recall, with a show titled Famous Puppet Death Scenes, which played Toronto in 2008 and featured — what else? — a parade of puppets doing everything but living happily ever after. And now they’re back with a new show, titled IGNORANCE, that opened at the Berkeley Street Theatre Tuesday and — Surprise! Surprise! — it opens with a rather whimsical encounter between a puppet and a happy-face balloon (a visual leitmotif that runs throughout the show) that ends in gruesomely comic death.

It proves to be the first of many as puppeteers Nicolas Di Gaetano, Viktor Lukawski and Trevor Leigh seemingly stumble across that special place where old elk go to die, where they stage an Old Trout-style puppet extravaganza, the purpose of which is the examination of mankind’s mostly futile search for happiness, beginning with a pair of Cro Magnon block-heads named Adam and Eve and stretching all the way to the modern day.

In this, they are assisted by an off-stage narrator (Judd Palmer) who, in the basso profondo style of the nature films of the ’50s and ’60s, offers often outrageously cynical commentary as our cave-dwelling protagonists alternately hunt for happiness and food, avoiding monsters and slaying mastodons in the process. Against a videoscape designed by Jamie Nesbitt that combines old television footage and rudimentary animation to underscore the futility of our constant search for happiness, they establish that we have indeed evolved — but not much.

The puppets are nothing if not inventive, ranging from egg-headed moppets to mastodons, apparently cobbled together from the remains of a charnel house — and happily, there are some moments of utter if perverse delight. But finally, despite what mama may have told you, IGNORANCE is not bliss, although it does offer a few blissful moments. While it manages to do a fine job of sending up society’s obsession with feel-good moments, it too often lacks focus, allowing itself instead to become bogged down in its own hijinx.

The three puppeteers, arrayed though they are in bizarre puppeteer mufti and sporting their Movember best, may come out of the gate like the Three Stooges, but finally they resemble nothing so much as little boys playing in a sandbox. And while that can provide a few delightful moments of engagement, it does not finally come together as 75 minutes of drop-dead puppet entertainment.

Monday, November 26, 2012


THEATRE REVIEW: TERMINUS

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
26 NOV 2012
R: 3.5/5

Pictured: Maev Beaty

TORONTO - Despite their decline in general popularity, there’s still a lot of entertainment value to be found in a good, old-fashioned radio play For proof, look no further than the production of TERMINUS that launched the spanking new enterprise known as the Off-Mirvish season on the stage of the venerable Royal Alexandra Theatre Friday night, offering Mirvish subscribers a walk on the wild side of theatre and a sampling of more alternate fare.

And, to be clear, when we say “on the stage,” that’s precisely what we mean, for in TERMINUS everything, save for the brief second that ends the show, takes place on a stage where the audience is seated.

Written by Mark O’Rowe, TERMINUS is a harrowing Trainspotting sort of tale featuring three characters — “A” played by Maev Beaty, “B”, by Ava Jane Markus and “C”, by Adam Kenneth Wilson — whose unhappy lives collide for one brief moment on an ill-fated night of horror in Dublin before being blown apart in memorable fashion. In a series of interwoven monologues, O’Rowe leads us through his tale in flashback, using rich language punctuated by unexpected rhymes, and seasoned with dark, gallows-like humour, to paint verbal images that leave one feeling like what’s playing out is a bizarre stage adaptation of a graphic novel.

But as the tale spins deeper and deeper into the troubled world of murder, Irish junk food and the supernatural, littered with references to everything from Faust to Bette Midler and Beaches, it slowly becomes obvious that the images one sees have little or nothing to do with Nick Blais’ set design nor even Richard Feren’s often-ominous soundscape. Instead, they play out primarily in the mind’s eye, the story projected there in much the same fashion as a really good radio play. Rather than show us what is happening, this script, at almost every turn, tries to tell us instead.

This is not, nor should it be construed as, any sort of negative comment on three finely honed performances from the principals, each of whom tackles a meaty role with relish and manages, under the direction of Mitchell Cushman, to serve it up simultaneously well-done and medium rare, sporting more than just a touch of pink. Nor is it a knock on director Cushman, whose Outside the March company developed and produced TERMINUS for Mirvish — although one suspects that if queried as to his decision to place both audience and cast on stage, the most honest answer Cushman could offer would be: “Because I could.”

In fact, rather than demanding a set that would reinforce his unique staging and force his audience to see this theatre or theatre in general in a different light, Cushman allows Blais’ forced-perspective set piece to obscure his unique location for most of the 90-plus-minute duration of the play — and in the process, reinforces the notion that as live theatre goes, TERMINUS is a pretty damn fine radio play. Sans radio, of course.

Monday, November 19, 2012


THEATRE REVIEW:
THE LITTLE YEARS


JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
19 NOV 2012
R: 4/5

Pictured: Pamela Sinha, Chick Reid, Irene Poole

Playwright John Mighton doesn't put time in a bottle, in the fashion dreamed of by balladeer Jim Croce. Instead, he mixes it with a lively discussion of art and humanity, then puts it under a microscope in a wonderful play titled THE LITTLE YEARS.

If that title sounds familiar, small wonder. Premiered on the stage of Theatre Passe Muraille in the '90s, the play was reworked for the Stratford Festival as part of its 2011 Studio season and now, it's made its way to the Tarragon, where it opened last week. This is however still, in many ways, the Stratford production, featuring the same director and designers,and many of the same actors. But an instrument as delicate as a Mighton play, it develops, can be changed in a big way by the smallest things, and while this treatise on art and time remains a deeply moving and thought-provoking piece, it seems oddly diminished.

Essentially, it is the story of two women — Kate (played as a precocious, prickly teenager by Bethany Jillard and as an increasingly broken adult by Irene Poole) and her sister-in-law Grace (played this time out by Pamela Sinha.) Born into a 1950's world on the cusp of feminism, both, as young women, yearn to change the world. Instead, in myriad ways, they find themselves changed by a world more inclined to embrace the facile contributions of William, Kate's brother and Grace's husband, whose presence looms large over their story although we never meet him.

By play's end, after rubbing up against a cast of characters that includes Kate's shallow, no-nonsense mother (Chick Reid), a popular artist (Ari Cohen) and a God-fearing school teacher (Victor Ertmanis), Kate and Grace see their dreams reborn in a new generation, as Tanya, Grace's daughter (played by Jillard as well) steps blithely into a new world.

This isn't just good theatre. It is also an intensely involving discussion on a veritable encyclopedia of topics as Mighton examines a whole range, all within the context of a rapidly evolving society. But in spinning out the tale on this new, larger stage, director Chris Abraham allows his love of Mighton's art to consume just a bit too much of our time, slowing the pace of his production not just to accommodate scene changes in this larger space but to savour some of the finer performance elements on display.

As she did in the Stratford incarnation, Poole turns in a gut-wrenching performance, certain to break all but the hardest hearts, capably supported by Reid and Jillard. Sinha, meanwhile, succeeds in bringing life to the character of Grace, but finally, one senses that, in much the same way as the stylish costumes designed for the character by Julie Fox seem to be wearing the actress instead of being worn by her, Sinha is wearing Grace instead of inhabiting her. Still, THE LITTLE YEARS is a big piece of theatre.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


THEATRE REVIEW:
THE ARSONISTS


JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
17 NOV 2012
R: 2.5/5

Pictured:
Dan Chameroy, Fiona Reid


Canadian Stage's Artistic and General Director Matthew Jocelyn is clear about the kind of theatre he wants to produce — edgy, cutting-edge stuff that pushes the envelope and establishes theatre as something far more that mere 'entertainment.' But, if his vision is both clear and commendable, it too often falls apart on the way to the stage. With the opening of Max Frisch's chillingly absurdist comedy THE ARSONISTS, written in the wake of World War II and informed by the rise of the communist party in Czechoslovakia, Jocelyn fails to deliver again.

Featuring an acclaimed new English-language translation by Alistair Beaton, Canadian Stage's production, directed by Morris Panych, opened in the Bluma Appel Thursday. The good news is Beaton's translation proves both easy and edgy — but sadly, Panych's interpretation of it, influenced by a too-literal definition of absurd, is far less so.

There is, of course, always an element of the absurd in absurdist theatre, but finally, if it is to be effective, it must be firmly anchored in some sort of reality too. But everything in this production — from Ken MacDonald's Barbie-does-Bauhaus set to Justin Rutledge's hugely intrusive and muddy score and the way it is used — is content to be merely absurd without ever achieving absurdist.

Set in an arson-plagued, un-named city, THE ARSONISTS tells the story of the Biedermanns, played by Michael Ball and Fiona Reid, comfortable members of the city's bourgeoisie, who suddenly find themselves playing host to a pair of thugs played by Dan Chameroy and Shawn Wright. Ensconced in the attic of the Biedermann home, the interlopers fill it with drums of petrol, and though their nervous hosts try to confront them, the thugs take refuge behind their hosts' liberal sensibilities, coercing the hapless couple into helping to set fuses and even supply matches to ignite a conflagration. Along the way, commentary is supplied by a chorus, led by Rutledge, and comprised of two musicians, Chameroy, Wright and Sheila McCarthy, who also plays Anna, the Beidermanns' maid.

Incorporating a chorus is often problematic — and here, Panych not only allows it to intrude, but often to overshadow the playwright's focus. He also fails to find a dramatic through-line of the tale, allowing each of the performers to inhabit their own world without connecting to the others. So while it all works, after a fashion —  Reid and McCarthy fall back on well-honed bags of tricks, Chameroy and Wright grasp wildly at the proper mix of charm and menace and Ball simply walks through it all, often merely reciting his lines — it never really gels.

In a world steeped in fractious politics, THE ARSONISTS has much to say to all the colours of the political spectrum and, as a result, it is hard not to be impressed that Jocelyn has the vision to program it. But finally, that just makes it all the more regrettable that too often his vision doesn't seem to make it all the way to the stage.

Friday, November 16, 2012


MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW:
JEKYLL & HYDE


JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
16 NOV 2012
R: 3/5

Pictured:
Constantine Maroulis


TORONTO - Judging from his Broadway-bound production of JEKYLL & HYDE: THE MUSICAL, it’s a good thing director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun chose a career in theatre and not the amusement park. Had he chosen to make rollercoasters instead of stage musicals, one suspects, his rides would begin at the very peak of the steepest drop and simply not go anywhere from there. Which is pretty much precisely what his production of the freewheeling, bodice-ripping Leslie Bricusse/Frank Wildhorn “adaptation” of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel seems to do in its limited but tightly-wound engagement at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, where it opened Wednesday.

That would, of course, be the same adaptation that Robin Phillips directed on Broadway back in the mid-’90s — a production that, while it ran for years, failed nonetheless to make it into the fiscal black. But while it can never be counted a financial triumph, the Phillips’ production, if happy memory serves, tried mightily to and often succeeded in exploring both the emotional light and darkness of the tale as spun out in Bricusse’s hyper-gothic book. In the process, Phillips also provided a dramatically textured voyage into the heart of the story that did much to minimize the shortcomings of Wildhorn’s overly anthemic music and Bricusse’s elementary rhyming schemes, which hit the very apogee of good taste in the pairing of “upper class” with “his ass”.

Instead of minimizing the faults of the book and music, however, Calhoun’s production embraces them, turning pretty much the entire song-list into a score sung in the key of overwrought, with American Idol’s Constantine Maroulis struggling to find dramatic depth in the dual roles of the good doctor and his villainous alter-ego, but finding only (Johnny) Depp-lite instead.

Deborah Cox, meanwhile plays the tragically fallen Lucy Harris, her character’s tragedy lessened in no small way by the fact that Cox seems to think she’s starring in a steamy music video. Meanwhile, as Emma Carew, virtuous foil to Cox’s Bring-On-The-Men Lucy, Teal Wicks opts for more stainless ’n’ steel than sugar ’n’ spice, although she still manages to offer up the most tender moments in the show in a surprisingly under-stated Once Upon a Dream.

But, in the end, it falls to Richard White, cast as Emma’s loving father, and Cox’s fellow Canuck, Laird Mackintosh, cast as Jekyll’s friend, John Utterson, to periodically coax the production off the clenched-hair cliff on which it is so often perched, affording in the process, moments of genuine true human emotion — but only moments.

And while Tobin Ost’s sets and costume designs are suitably goth, if not always strictly Gothic, they do in fact sit well with Calhoun’s high-test vision, as does Jeff Croiter’s lighting — but sadly, rampant over-amplification in Ken Travis’ sound design leaves Maroulis’ Mr. Hyde panting like an over-eager Pekingese in too many of his scenes. If you’re looking for dramatic texture, all this production offers is a game of Hyde and seek.

Monday, November 12, 2012


BALLET REVIEW: ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
12 NOV 2012
R: 5/5

Pictured: Sonia Rodriguez

It's common knowledge that love is better the second time around. But it turns out love's not the only thing that can be improved by a second turn around the block.

Case in point: The National Ballet of Canada's much-lauded production of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND — their latest full-length story ballet produced in association with London's Royal Opera House, currently making its second appearance on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre, where it opened Saturday night. It had it's Canadian première there back in June of 2011 — and in between, it's even clocked a few frequent flyer points, having checked in and wowed them in Los Angeles earlier this fall.

In fact, it was in Tinseltown that choreographer Wheeldon made a few tweaks to this tale wrapped in a tale, then wrapped in yet another tale — changes that seem to tie it all together and make it more of a piece, adding a lovely and loving pas de deux between the young heroine, danced with impressive grace by the evergreen Sonia Rodriguez on Saturday night, and her dual love interests, Jack the gardener and the Knave of Hearts, both danced by the equally impressive Naoya Ebe in a memorable debut.

Wheeldon's changes serve finally to put the romantic pair squarely in the the heart of his story, where before, in a scenario hewn from Lewis Carroll's enduring children's adventure by playwright Nicholas Wright and set to original music composed by Joby Talbot, they were more or less the bookends of Alice's curiouser and curiouser adventures. There are other changes too, most notably a memorable entrance to the enchanted world of the Mother/Queen of Hearts (Xiao Nan Yu, exhibiting a fine flair for comedy) through an oversized jellied confection that should over-ride all parental injunctions against playing with one's food.

For the rest, it is substantially the same as previously staged — good news for all of those who fell prey, the first time around, to the combined and potent magic of Wheeldon's often frenetic choreography and the design vision of Bob Crowley, aided by the lighting of Natasha Katz and the projections of Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington.

It's good news too, for those who enjoy the National Ballet's stable of superb dancers, led here by Aleksandar Antonijevic, cast as both Carroll and the enigmatic white rabbit and finding a lovely balance in both. There's fine work too, from the likes of Rex Harrington, hamming it up in the role of Father/King of Hearts; from Robert Stephen as a tap-happy Mad Hatter; from Jiří Jelinek as a sensuous Caterpillar and from a host of others as well. And this is, as usual, all borne aloft by the seemingly flawless efforts of the NBOC Orchestra, masterfully conducted once again, by David Briskin. In the final analysis, while Wheeldon hasn't found new depths to his artistry, in fine tuning his Alice, he's certainly given her more lustre.

Friday, November 9, 2012


THEATRE REVIEW:
ALLIGATOR PIE


JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
9 NOV 2012
R: 5/5

It's a good thing, one suspects, that kids so enjoy the poetry of Dennis Lee. Because, even if they didn't find such joy in Lee's sweet and simple rhymes, they'd still no doubt face a more-or-less constant diet of his verse, read to them by parents who apparently can't get enough of the off-beat charm of Toronto's most beloved children's poet. For proof, look no further than the stage adaption of a collection of Lee's work, assembled under the title of one his most enduring works, ALLIGATOR PIE, which hit the stage of the Young Centre Tuesday, the handiwork of Soulpepper's recently-minted creation ensemble.

Tellingly, at the end of this hour-long romp, during which creators Ins Choi, Raquel Duffy, Ken MacKenzie, Gregory Prest and Mike Ross hold the younger members of their audience in complete thrall, the cries of "More! More! More!" came from the adults accompanying those children. And while credit for that, at least in part, must go to the utter charm with which this quintet has gotten in touch with their inner brats and brought them to life to inject the right spirit into what proves to be a delightful compilation of Lee's work, much more of it must go to the work itself.

Lee's poetry, after all, whether he's playing with silly doggerel or examining the ties of childhood friendship, has always seemed to plug directly into the notion that the childhood we try to complicate at every turn is often really nothing more than a blissful state of mind. And from the moment Choi, Duffy, MacKenzie, Prest and Ross make their entrance — seemingly arriving by pure chance in a strange attic space, littered with the assorted detritus of everyday life — they seem to have a direct connection to that bliss, channeling it at every turn as they work their way through Lee's stuff.

Some of his poems, of course, are merely recited, their simple rhythms driven home with enthusiastic and highly creative percussive force, but a lot of them are sung too, and while there is no composer or musical director credited, the utter joy that infuses Ross's face tells us from where this music has sprung. Along the way, they employ a host of seemingly found costumes and props, finding new and deliciously inventive uses for everything from a racquet case to staplers, scissors and scotch tape, before going completely over the top with a length of bubblewrap that could well result in it  becoming one of the most requested toys of the Christmas season.

From start to finish, it's a delightful romp, but what is ultimately its greatest charm is not its childish spirit of fun and adventure but the depth of its heart, for while ALLIGATOR PIE is certainly driven by a child's love of playful invention, it revels in a child's need to give and receive affection, regardless of whether he or she is two or 82. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much the age range to whom this show will appeal.

Monday, November 5, 2012


THEATRE REVIEW: SPEAKING IN TONGUES

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
3 NOV 2012
R: 4/5

Pictured:
Yanna McIntosh, Richard Clarkin, Helene Joy, Jonathan Goad


There are many reasons those who love good theatre should be consider catching the Company Theatre's new production of Andrew Bovell's theatrically noir-ish SPEAKING IN TONGUES, which opened Thursday, produced in association with Canadian Stage on the Berkeley Street Theatre's mainstage. First and foremost, there's the acting — a quartet of fine artists, each juggling two or three characters with an easy understated assurance, weaving their way through a dense thicket of time and place, moving with such sure-footedness that, regardless of what the plot throws in their path, no one in their spell-bound audience seems to ever feel the need of the theatrical equivalent of a GPS system.

As Bovell ties time and space into knots, often staging two scenes simultaneously in the same space, at others, folding time back on itself to re-arrange the natural progression of things, Jonathan Goad, Yanna McIntosh, Richard Clarkin and Helene Joy move from character to character and from scene to scene with such ease and fluidity that their audience is never left behind.

For this, full credit to director Philip Riccio who, despite the complexity of the tale and the relationships, never seems to take his eye off the dramatic through-line, ensuring a smooth ride in even some of the plots most twisted routings, and only occasionally sacrificing dramatic tension for clarity as he leads us through the labyrinth Bovell has spun. That he does it all with such unobtrusive ease is not only impressive but refreshing in a world where too many directors seem intent on showily demanding recognition.

Despite Bovell's heavy reliance on dramatic coincidence, what starts out as a pair of couples flirting with infidelity is soon transformed into a dramatic thriller made up of equal parts "Whodunnit?" and "Whodunwhat?" as the playwright examines our inability to say the things we really mean to the people with whom we intimately share our lives.

To accomplish this, Riccio deftly blends John Thompson's highly effective open concept stage design and dark and eery lighting with an equally evocative soundscape from Michael Laird in a production that is starkly understated and often deeply disturbing. There are a few references to "going to America," that prove jarring in a production that, in accent and style, seems to have already arrived, but that aside, this is a smooth and elegant staging.

So, as usual in a world where unset gem stones are rarity, a production showcasing fine acting is also worth seeing for its direction and its production values as Riccio delivers on the early promise he showed in his production of Through The Leaves.

For many theatre-goers, however, the play is still the thing, and while actors and director come together in a strong showcase for Bovell's skills, in the end, SPEAKING IN TONGUES feels a little too much like a writing exercise — a brilliant bit of noodling from a fine writer that someday might be worked into a cracking good play. As it stands now, it's a memorable voyage in search of a destination.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


THEATRE REVIEW: MISS CALEDONIA

JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
31 OCT 2012
R: 3.5/5

Pictured: Melody A. Johnson

It was early in the last century when the great Irving Berlin penned the lines "A pretty girl is like a melody…" So while that means that there is no absolutely chance whatsoever that he was inspired either by the gentle comedic skills of Melody A. Johnson or by her one-woman show, titled MISS CALEDONIA, there exists, despite the years that separate them, a whimsical sort of link between the song, the show and the performer.  MISS CALEDONIA is currently running in the Tarragon's Extra Space.

MISS CALEDONIA, you see, is about a pretty girl in the very old-fashioned sense of the phrase — one Peggy Ann Douglas, to be specific — who would grow up to be the mother of the aforementioned Melody A. Johnson, although motherhood was far in the future of Ms. Douglas at the time in which this show is set. When we first meet Peggy Ann, she's a teenager — a rural child of the '50s, mired in a constant round of slopping, miking, mucking, gathering, butchering and marketing — and roundly sick of it all.

But while Peggy Ann's Scots' Presbyterian roots stretch deep into the rich soil of Southern Ontario's farmland, her dreams certainly soar far higher and she finds escape, not only in romantic books, but in those dreams as well. Problem is, for a pretty girl in the '50s, all roads lead to — well, pretty much nowhere, unless, of course, she happens to be pretty enough to be a be a beauty queen. That's what happened to Debbie Reynolds, after all, and Peggy Ann figures she just might have a chance at following in her heroine's footsteps. Even though her hide-bound father forbids it, she pursues just such a dream, aided by a loving mother and a few good friends.

But while Peggy Ann's pursuit of crown and sash forms the plot of this story, its charm is very much built from solid blocks of character development, as Johnson (who both wrote the script and stars under the direction of Rick Roberts and Aaron Willis) brings life to not just Peggy Ann and her parents, but to the community around them — bossy neighbours, shyly amorous milkmen, officious school marms and community minded auctioneers mix it up with a bevy of young beauties who represent Peggy Ann's principal competition.

The direction here is deft, if sometimes-overly-fussy and, while the show (reworked, apparently from its run in the 2010 Summerworks Festival) feels a trifle long at 75 minutes, it is nonetheless wonderfully entertaining, showcasing the trademark built-from-the-heart-out style we have grown to love in Johnson's earlier forays onto the stage. In fact, with a talent such as hers, one wonders why she has put herself in such strong competition with fiddler Alison Porter, whose sprightly musical contribution initially proves charming, but quickly becomes intrusive as an audience falls more and more under Johnson's spell.

Berlin, of course, got it right — a pretty girl is like a melody. And when the one calling the tune is this sweet and touching, nothing should be allowed to intrude on the Melody.

Friday, October 26, 2012


THEATRE REVIEW: POLITICAL MOTHER

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
26 OCT 2012
R: 4/5

Pictured: The Hofesh Shechter Company

Israeli-born and British-based choreographer and composer Hofesh Shechter may not be the first to cotton on to the notion that there is a certain circular (and often horrifyingly familiar) pattern to be found in the political upheavals that have rocked our world for millennia — but one can say with some degree of certainty that no one has drawn our attention to it with a louder fanfare.

As part of an extensive international tour, Shechter has brought his British-based dance company to Toronto for a very limited engagement, performing as part of the current Canadian Stage season. On offer, his highly acclaimed theatrical dance thesis, titled POLITICAL MOTHER, which opened Wednesday at the Bluma Appel Theatre.

On examination, POLITICAL MOTHER proves to be an often aggressive, sometimes reflective, work that boldly (though sometimes far from seamlessly) fuses dance and theatre, rock music and classical, in a work that while thought-provoking, proves to be jarring and too often repetitive. Built around the cycles of political violence that form so much a part of out political history, evoking everything from Japan's militaristic samurai to the fascistic pageantry that led inexorably to World War II, it is for all its faults, an often-engaging piece of work. Built around a dozen committed dancers and seven live musicians, backed by the recorded contributions of seven more, PM strives to blend an unorthodox dance vocabulary with what is often a veritable wall of sound, all intended to drive home Shechter's political
premise: a premise that seems to suggest that in the face of inevitable oppression, we are repeatedly redeemed by hope, creativity and the conviction that things can be healed, that wrongs can be righted.

Its 70 minute duration is marked by moments of touching intimacy, played out against moments of sheer horror — a samurai committing ritual suicide and a dictator haranguing a rapt audience played out in contrast to repeated images of people coming together and slowly finding a common language of movement that enables them to band together before the inevitably split into factions again. It is an often visually stunning work, using highly dramatic lighting to underscore the passion of the dancers, each of whom dons the role of oppressor and the oppressed with equal ease and conviction.

And while the sheer volume involved in the collision of metal guitar stylings and militaristic percussion often threatens to overwhelm the proceedings, it nonetheless renders the more thoughtful, classical moments woven into the fabric of the dance all the sweeter in comparison.

But finally, while one has no choice but to admire the sheer audacity of Shechter's creativity and vision, one is forced to conclude that the reach of his dance thesis has exceeded his inspiration and in the end, it all seems just a trifle repetitive. Indeed, at Wednesday's opening night performance, it seemed that too many of the audience members, enthralled though they were by Shechter's inventiveness, still managed to reach a conclusion about 20 minutes before he did.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


OPERA REVIEW:
DIE FLEDERMAUS


JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
16 OCT 2012
R: 3/5


Pictured: Ambur Braid, Peter Barrett

If there’s one thing — beyond a good waltz — that defines Vienna for most people, it is that city’s association with Sigmond Freud, father of modern-day psychoanalysis. And disparate though those two elements may be, they are brought together, for good or for ill, by director Christopher Alden, in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Johann Strauss II’s DIE FLEDERMAUS, playing in rep at the Four Seasons Centre.

As for judging the merits of what Alden has wrought, that will probably be hotly debated by the two factions comprising the modern opera audience: Those to whom the story reigns supreme and those to whom a concept is to be considered king.

Alden, of course, is a director in love with concepts staging, director of the COC production of The Flying Dutchman, simultaneously loved and loathed by Toronto audiences — and while this latest production isn’t as visually dank and dismal (both were designed by Allen Moyer), it manages nonetheless to make both debauchery and 19th century Vienna seem bleak and dull, despite the lighting genius of Paul Palazzo.

Written as a mere confection — a musically driven French farce —the unbearable lightness of DIE FLEDERMAUS proves utterly incapable of carrying the weight of Alden’s re-imagining, wherein it is transformed into a funeral march through the human psyche, full of Freudian slips, and most of those worn by men in the chorus, at that. His concept is almost totally at war not only with the libretto, crafted from the bones of a vaudevillian stage play titled Le réveillon, by Carl Haffner and Richard Genée, but with Strauss’ music as well, a series of lilting Viennese waltzes deserving of a glittering meringue of a production.

And one suspects that such a production might showcase this excellent cast in a better light as well, although these performers fearlessly tackle anything Alden throws at them. Indeed, tenors Michael Schade and David Pomeroy seem to be having a better time than a major portion of their audience, cast as rivals Alfred and von Eisenstein, the former still madly in love with the latter’s wife, Rosalinde, played by magnificent soprano Tamara Wilson, who also has the dubious distinction of being by far the worst victim of Constance Hoffman’s appalling costuming.

Starting in Rosalinde’s boudoir, featuring an over-sized bed that almost never leaves the stage — underscoring Alden’s Freudian conceit — the action progresses through lavish costume ball to a police station, before it is all revealed as mere hijinks cooked up by old friend Dr. Falke, sung by baritone Peter Barrett.

This is an impressive slate of principals, supported by fine performances from the likes of soprano Ambur Braid, tenor David Cangelosi, baritone James Westman and soprano Laura Tucker. And with Johannes Debus conducting, it all comes together sounding like a musical sacher torte worthy of Vienna’s best cafés. Sadly, Alden serves it up, for those who prefer story-driven to concept-driven work, like a slab of dry black bread. 

Monday, October 15, 2012


THEATRE REVIEW:
BLOODLESS


JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
15 OCT 2012
R: 3.5/5


Pictured: Evan Buliung, Trish Lindström

TORONTO - If, in lieu of life imitating art, life were to imitate musical theatre instead, Theatre 20's natal production, which launched Toronto's newest company last week on the stage of the Panasonic Theatre, would be Broadway-bound, destined to sweep the Tonys and carry all the talented artists involved with this promising new company to richly deserved stardom. But things work the other way around, of course, and because BLOODLESS: THE TRIAL OF BURKE AND HARE — a new Canadian musical written and composed by Joseph Aragon — still has a way to go in creating a viable imitation of the seedy lives it attempts to portray, audiences and players alike are simply going to have to content themselves with a first production that lands happily somewhere between promising and highly promising.

Part of this production's problems, of course, rest ultimately in Aragon's book and score, which spins out a tale that both thematically and stylistically owes a considerable debt to one of Stephen Sondheim's more enduring works: Think Sweeney Todd, with a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan thrown in; a true-life tale of two ex-pat Irishmen on a murder spree in 19th century Edinburgh, providing fresh cadavers for medical dissection, while enriching themselves in the process. It gets insufficient help here in a production helmed by Adam Brazier — already a director of no small accomplishment, who for all his talents, just can't seem to get his extensive and highly talented cast singing out of the same songbook, at least on a figurative level.

Is this the dark and sexy thriller Evan Buliung's finely-drawn William Burke suggests? Or is it the silly black comedy that Trish Lindström's broadly overblown take on Burke's wife, Margaret, leads us to expect? Is everyone as two-dimensionally villainous as David Keeley's portentous turn suggests, cast as the supposedly respectable Dr. Knox — a man whose willingness to turn a blind eye to the murderous ways of our two protagonists comes as a surprise to no one? Or, finally, is everyone as innocent and winsomely tragical as Carly Street's well-scrubbed, well-fed and bodacious bawd, Janet Brown?

Is life as bleak and dour as Jan Alexandra Smith's touching portrayal of Helen McDougal, partner to William Hare, sees it, or as inconsequential as Eddie Glen's David Hare leads us to believe, at least on the rare occasions when he emerges from the shadows of superior performances by Buliung and Smith? Finally, is it the horror story its ending suggests, or does it follow through on its title in the fashion of Dr. Knox's single dissection, wherein viscera emerges from the body like jars of pickles and preserves? Or is it simply as it finally appears, merely a morality play that strives to amuse without ever offending, sidestepping the humanity of the tale at nearly every turn?

It is almost as though Brazier has forgotten that good theatre is not merely art imitating life, but rather art imitating life (and death) through a prism of order and vision imposed by a strong director. BLOODLESS, for all the charm Brazier has unearthed, still needs another blood transfusion — of the blood, sweat and tears variety.

MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW:
LA CAGE AUX FOLLES


JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
15 OCT 2012
R: 4/5


Pictured: George Hamilton, Christopher Sieber

TORONTO - It’s been almost four decades since we fell in love with a charming little piece of French cinema, based on a then little-known stageplay titled LA CAGE AUX FOLLES — and a lot has changed since then. Most of us look differently, for instance, on the whole notion of same sex families, which serves to render La Cage’s portrayal of two men — one a drag queen, the other a bit of a gay Lothario — raising a son above the transvestite club they operate in the south of France at least a trifle less exotic. A revolutionary idea in the wake of the sexual revolution of the ’60s, today it would raise eyebrows only in the most right wing of circles.

In fact, even the whole idea of drag has changed significantly, as transvestites in the know move away from the gender-based tromp l’oeil popular then in favour of a broader androgyny that celebrates elements of both sexes in an often mind- (and certainly gender-) bending explosion of feather boas and broad biceps. So it’s hardly surprising that the latest version of the musical adapted from that movie reflects those new realities in a pared-down touring version which took to the stage of the Royal Alexandra Friday as the latest entry in the Mirvish subscription series.

For openers, British director Terry Johnson pulls out all the stops in his portrayal of the seedy French nightclub in which the show is set, challenging his chorus, as well as many of his principals, to go completely over the top in their performances. It often feels like it is not life they are sending up as much as the music of Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s adaptation of Jean Poiret’s stageplay.

In fact, things are so over the top in the first act, as George Hamilton and Christopher Sieber’s characters set the stage in both the club they own and the home they share above it, that it all threatens to get a trifle tedious, their antics incapable of masking neither the annoying performance by Jeigh Madjus as their sexually ambiguous butler nor an utterly white-bread turn from Michael Lowney as Jean-Michel, the priggish son they have raised, only to lose him to the daughter of a politician of the rabid right.

As the drag queen, Albin, Sieber goes broad on the Ethel Merman front, while Hamilton gives an oddly endearing but detached performance as Georges that, over the course of three hours, not only wins over his audience but almost convinces them he can sing.

In the second act, the production falls victim to the modern-day penchant for portraying villains as mere fools, rendering Dindon, the right-wing-politician played by Bernard Burak Sheredy, a bit of a straw dog in the process. But happily, the production still manages to drive home the same strong message that the play and the movie delivered almost 40 years ago and it does so with a lot of heart. And while the notion that it is finally love that defines a family might have been groundbreaking back then, it is certainly no less moving in today’s world.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


THEATRE REVIEW:
THIS MUST BE THE PLACE:
THE CN TOWER SHOW


JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
R: 3.5/5

With all the media coverage of Toronto's myriad problems — be it gun violence, transportation woes, construction dilemmas or a dysfunctional council — one might assume that a quick look at our city through rose-coloured glasses might be a welcome change. And to some degree, one would be right. For proof, look no further than THIS MUST BE THE PLACE: THE CN TOWER SHOW, currently playing on the stage of Theatre Passe Muraille, the latest entry in a series of fresh-faced Toronto-centric shows that comprise the theatre's current season and anchor it firmly in its community.

Collectively created by the Architect Theatre Collective in the great tradition on which TPM was built, this is a show that attempts to capture modern-day Toronto in microcosm, building on a series of one-on-one interviews conducted and then dramatized by the four-person cast, aided by director Jonathan Seinen, Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman and Layne Coleman. And while it can boast dramatized interviews with former mayors David Miller and David Crombie, as well as the late Jane Jacobs, it also offers perspectives gleaned from a host of everyday Torontonians living their everyday Toronto lives.

Subway riders, panhandlers, community workers, disaffected youth and ambitious city councillors mingle with fresh-faced newcomers and jaded members of the established middle class — they are all embraced in a show that gently mocks our city even while it underscores a deep affection for the place. All of which means that there's not a lot of hard-hitting stuff here, hardly surprising, on reflection, in a world where people don't much like portraits that show them in anything less than flattering light.

But under the rather loose direction of Seinen, it still merits more than a quick look-see, for while THE CN TOWER SHOW may not offer any terribly earth shattering new perspectives on this city we call home (unless, of course, you didn't know the tower of title was to have been the centre-piece for a massive urban renewal renewal that would have claimed Union Station), it does give us a close up look a four very appealing young performers.

Led by a hugely talented Greg Gale, who inhabits even the most ludicrous comic characters with great heart, Georgina Beaty, Ingrid Hansen and Thomas Anthony Olajide individually and collectively demonstrate a genuine gift for stage-craft. But too often, this appealing quartet are charged with tedious exercises intended to involve an audience in their shenanigans, when composing songs and eliciting confessions of bad behaviour from said audience really only serves, at best, to blur their efforts to put modern-day Toronto under the microscope and, at worst, distracts us from the quest altogether.

So, if you're looking for deep insight into what makes Toronto tick, this might be a show to miss. But if you're simply looking for a pleasant evening of theatre, then, by all means, THIS MUST BE THE PLACE.
THEATRE REVIEW:
I ON THE SKY


JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
12 OCT 2012
R: 4/5

Pictured: The Ensemble

At first blush, DynamO Théâtre's production of I ON THE SKY, currently playing at Young People's Theatre, might seem a strange, even over-demanding, choice for an organization justly celebrated for its ability to bring theatre artists and young audiences together to the enduring maximum benefit of both. But not so fast.

Created for the Montreal-based company and directed by Yves Simard, the hour-long work may be all but devoid of spoken text, but it nonetheless fluently and fluidly blends music, movement and, of course, some high quality acting to tell a complex story of a young woman who finds herself alone and unanchored on a park bench in some un-named park, a refugee full of hope but haunted by her memories.

But as told by the the artists of DynamO Théâtre, her story really needs no words. Tormented and bullied by a group of teenage thugs, the waif-like heroine nonetheless finds refuge not only in the occasional kindness of the strangers who mill around her but in her own memories of familial and romantic love — memories that appear to grow from the very music they evoke. That music (composed by J.S. Bach and Christian Légaré) and an ever-shifting sky-scape that serves constantly to enhance the ever-shifting mood (part of an ingenious set created by Simard and Pierre-Étienne Locas) are the only additional clues the five-member cast use to enhance a story they tackle with an almost ferocious intensity and physicality.

And while the absence of dialogue might initially prove distancing for some members of their young audience , the athleticism and commitment in performances crafted by Laurianne Brabant, Andréanne Joubert, Marie-Ève Lafontaine, Frédéric Nadeau and Hugues Sarra-Bournet soon serve to draw that young audience into the heart and soul of these characters and the story they tell. In the finest sense, this is a theatrical colouring book that challenges its young audience to fill in the emotional colours of the story that is being outlined on stage.

And such a story. Using a rich mix of dance, acrobatics and mime, these artists populate the their un-named park with a rich pastiche of humanity, blending the rambunctiousness of youth and the self-involvement of the middle class into a tasty stew that requires no heavy handed preachiness as spice. Instead, there is wit aplenty, all offered up in a style that trusts its audience to figure out right from wrong, the humane from the inhumane.

Only in the portrayal of an old lady do they stoop to clichéd caricature, making infirmity an object of gentle derision and thus marring an otherwise strong piece of theatrical art. But such an oversight can almost be forgiven in a work that boldly challenges a young audience to blend their own imaginations with those of the performers to enrich their theatrical experience, instead of simply sitting back and becoming passive young theatrical consumers.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


THEATRE REVIEW:
TEAR THE CURTAIN!


JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
10 OCT 2012
R: 4/5

Pictured: Laura Mennell

TORONTO - They exist, side by side and, most often, unobtrusively, in all quality stagework — the often antithetical notions that theatre is mere entertainment and that it is, in fact, something far deeper. But in TEAR THE CURTAIN!, a stylish new work from Vancouver’s Electric Company (of Studies In Motion fame), produced in association with the Arts Club Theatre Company and presented by Canadian Stage, those duelling elements are front and centre, fighting for control of the stage in a noir-ish nightmare that also pits live performance against film, blending them in such a rich pastiche that it is often hard to remember which is which, or even that they are two separate components in the theatrical experience. TEAR THE CURTAIN! opened a limited run Tuesday at the Bluma Appel Theatre.

Written by Kevin Kerr and Jonathon Young — who also juggles co-directing duties with creator Kim Collier, while starring in the role of troubled theatre critic Alex Braithwaite — it is set in a fictitious Vancouver of the 1930s, a city where two separate gun-toting gangs battle for control of the city’s theatres. One favours the world of the status quo, where live performance is king, while the other favours new-fangled motion pictures, like the soon-to-be-released talky, The Swan, starring Lillian Gish.

In the midst of this gang warfare, Young’s perfectly drawn Braithwaite is seduced by the sultry charms of Mila Brook (a Harlow-esque Laura Mennell) and becomes the tool of the anachronistically named Empty Space gang and their even darker secret vision for capturing the imagination of a nation. As Braithwaite’s life spins out of control and he struggles to sort dreams from reality, he discovers that only the love of a good woman — in this case, that would be Mavis, the long-suffering newsroom secretary played by Dawn Petten — can redeem him.

In Collier’s hands, the action switches almost seamlessly from film to live performance and back again as Young and Kerr’s convoluted plot unfolds/unravels over the course of close to three hours — an often riveting hybrid that blends elements of homage and send-up in much the same way as it blends live action and film. But, while Collier’s creativity proves impressive, it is finally insufficient to a storyline that keeps wandering off in search of even more ways to demonstrate the cleverness of its creators. As things becomes more and more cuckoo and less and less Cocteau, TEAR THE CURTAIN!’s audience becomes ever more caught up in the ‘how’ of it all, instead of the ‘why.’

Its message — that theatre remains a highly personal, versatile and immediate art form — seems to get lost in the creative glitz. Despite the high level of its artistry, it loses all sense of urgency and with it, any sense that there is a meaningful battle going on here.

Friday, October 5, 2012


MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW:
SISTER ACT


JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
5 OCT 2012
R: 3/5


Pictured: Hollis Resnik, Ta'Rea Campbell

Consider it a bit of divine intervention that, when Deloris Van Cartier, the brassy, ambitious heroine of SISTER ACT: A DIVINE MUSICAL COMEDY, witnesses a gangland execution, she finds herself hiding out in a Philadelphia convent. Because if there is one thing Deloris — and indeed the entire musical in which she is featured — is in need of, it’s a good book. And a convent is bound to have at least one of those.

But sadly, it’s not the kind of book on which winning musicals are based - the kind that use such things as plot and character development to take us where they want us to go instead of simply telling us where we should be. And that leaves Ta’Rea Campbell — cast as the hapless Deloris in the touring production of SISTER ACT launched Thursday at Ed Mirvish Theatre — and her castmates with only a score and a lot of God-given talent with which to redeem themselves.

Happily, that score is composed by Alan Menken, who, in complicity with lyricist Glenn Slater, manages to provide a songbook full of ’70s inspired disco soul that does much to mitigate the many shortcomings in a book inelegantly hewn from Joseph Howard’s hit movie by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane. Deprived of the familiar hit tunes that propelled the movie, Menken and Slater have at least come up with an original score that has the virtue of sounding oddly familiar. On the talent front, however, veteran director Jerry Zaks hasn’t fared nearly so well, recruiting a cast that individually seems up to its tasks, but collectively, earns a failing grade on the interacting front.

Cast as the stiff-necked Mother Superior, Hollis Resnik brings a lot of heart to her character, which only serves to underline the fact that while Campbell may have the vocal range necessary for her role, she is a brassy one-note wonder on the acting front. As bad guy Curtis, Kingsley Leggs can’t scare up enough villainy, even backed by a gangland version of the Three Stooges, to make happy salvation anything less than utterly inevitable. And as for love interest sweaty Eddie, E. Clayton Cornelious has some nice moments in I Could Be That Guy, but is left hanging in his ‘romantic’ interludes with a self-involved Campbell.

On a choreographic front, Anthony Van Laast at least keeps things hopping, whether it serves the story or not, and while Klara Zieglerova’s sets are often eye-catching in their use of theatrical trompe l’oeil, the costumes, designed by Lez Brotherston, prove conclusively that, at least on Broadway, sequins are a tough habit to shake.

Where truly memorable musical theatre succeeds by gently wooing its audience into a willing surrender of disbelief, SISTER ACT: A DIVINE MUSICAL COMEDY shows up with little more than brash enthusiasm and demands we simply take it all on faith. 

Monday, October 1, 2012


OPERA REVIEW:
IL TROVATORE


JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
30 SEPT 2012
R: 5/5

Pictured: Elza van den Heever, and Chorus


Giuseppe Verdi's musically magnificent IL TROVATORE is, by modern lights, an opera almost at war with itself, weighed down by the now-clichéd melodrama of Salvatore Cammarano's libretto (adapted from a play by Antonio Garcia Gutierrez), even while it is carried aloft by some of Verdi's most passionate and enduring compositions. But when the Canadian Opera Company enters the fray between a leaden libretto and a soaring score, their audience almost always emerges victorious.

For the second time in less than a decade, the COC is showcasing a production of Verdi's tragic opera that ranks as a must-see for opera-philes. This time out, it is a production from Opéra de Marseille, under the direction of Charles Roubaud, and it opened at the Four Seasons Saturday, with conductor Marco Guidarini marshalling the impressive skills of the COC Orchestra to maximum effect. In staging IL TROVATORE, Roubaud deals with the challenges of the tale -- a story of two brothers, separated at infancy, who grow up on opposite sides of the political spectrum, only to fall in love with the same woman -- with appealing wisdom and dispatch.

Recognizing that almost all the most interesting and certainly active elements of the story take place off stage, he conspires with his design team -- Jean-Noël Lavesvre, sets, Katia Duflot, costumes and Marc Delamézière, lighting -- to create a monumental setting for the work and then sets his hugely talented cast down smack in the middle of it, challenging them to illuminate Verdi's score with simple, exquisite passion and utmost vocal artistry. This may indeed be museum opera, but in Roubaud's vision, it is, by every light, a most impressive museum.

And the COC has assembled just the right cast, it seems, to fill that museum with masterpieces, with baritone Russell Braun and tenor Ramón Vargas cast as the Conte di Luna and the troubadour Manrico respectively -- antagonists in a romantic and political struggle that can only end in unwitting fratricide. Soprano Elza van den Heever, meanwhile makes a worthy object of both their affections, giving lustrous depth to the steadfast and constant Leonora. Meanwhile, mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina rounds things out with heart-breaking skill as the gypsy Azucena, driven to vengeance and then madness by an act of horror that spawned the brothers' separation.

In the hands of this cast, Verdi's masterpiece emerges as so much more than the classical earworm that is the Anvil Chorus, although even that is delivered here with a fresh sheen, thanks to the talents of the COC Chorus. Backed by a supporting cast that includes assured performances from the likes of bass Dmitry Belosselskiy, tenor Edgar Ramírez, bass-baritone Robert Gleadow and soprano Rihab Chaieb, each of the four principals mines the emotional jewels with which Verdi adorned his score and polishes them until they blaze with pain and passion. And in the process, of course, they ensure that this production of IL TROVATORE will be remembered as yet another jewel in the ever-more impressive crown of the COC.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


THEATRE REVIEW: PROUD

JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
26 SEPT 2012
R: 2.5/5

TORONTO - Until now, Michael Healey’s PROUD could claim to be Canada’s best known contemporary play — despite the fact it had never been produced. Written while Healey was playwright-in-residence at the Tarragon Theatre, PROUD became a cause celèbre when Tarragon artistic director Richard Rose chose not to produce it — a decision Healey very publicly proclaimed to be motivated by fear of political retribution. For reasons both ethical and legal, Rose said nothing in response and controversy about his decision grew to national proportions.

Having exited stage left from Tarragon, Healey and PROUD resurfaced Saturday in an independent première production that opened in the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, finally affording Toronto and, indeed, Canadian audiences, a first look at a full production of the work.

As everyone by now surely knows, it is set in an alternate reality in the Prime Minister’s Parliament Hill office in the wake of the last federal election. Although he is not named, all references point to the fact that, despite the fictitious nature of the work, the Prime Minister (played by Healey himself) is in fact Stephen Harper, and he is savouring the fruits of an election victory that has given him the second largest majority in Canadian history.

But while he and his politically pragmatic assistant (Tom Barnett) juggle the “very important decisions” of forming a government, their ruminations are interrupted by Jisbella Lyth (Maev Beaty), a rookie MP from Quebec who swept in on the Prime Minister’s coat tails, and is looking to christen her office in rather unconventional style. The two men, initially appalled by the newcomer’s political naiveté, set out to teach her the game of power as played by Stephen Harper’s rule book of situational ethics.

This is not, as one might have already guessed, a flattering portrait of either the man currently at the helm of our government nor of the party he leads — and, in fact, as a playwright, Healey does score more than a few glancing blows to Harper’s carefully maintained image, right off the top. But as the play wears on (95 minutes, without intermission), it grows tiresome — as thrilling, at least for all but the most virulent anti-Harperites, as shooting fish in a barrel.

Despite his best efforts, Healey’s laudable determination to give Harper a fair shake is at constant war with his own personal politics, and PROUD emerges as not only a two-dimensional portrait of of a multi-dimensional man, but a bit of political polemic almost as cringeworthy as Clint Eastwood’s conversation with a chair.

Performance-wise, under the direction of Miles Potter, Healey and Barnett give the same performances for which audiences have rewarded (and consequently awarded) them in the past, as does Jeff Lillico, charged with delivering Healey’s political and personal vision in a passionately boyish coda. Beaty, for her part, rips into her role in such a way as to suggest that, despite the critical acclaim heaped upon her, she is only beginning to explore the full range of her talents.

Her performance notwithstanding, we may never know why Rose chose not to program this as part of Tarragon’s season, but thanks to this production it seems to be a decision of which he should be Proud.


THEATRE REVIEW:
NO GREAT MISCHIEF



JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
25 SEPT 2012
R: 3.5/5


Pictured: David Fox, R. H. Thomson

Sometimes, great literature becomes great theatre, usually in the hands of an adaptor and a director prepared to sever the ties that bind the story to the page and set it free. In the hands of adaptor David S. Young and director David Rose, however, Alistair MacLeod's NO GREAT MISCHIEF never manages to slip those surly bonds of earth poet John Gillespie Magee Jr. immortalized and soar into a theatrical wild blue yonder over the rugged wilds of Cape Breton.

For that is where MacLeod's tale is rooted and much of it plays out, with side trips to Toronto's Spadina Avenue and its flophouses and the mines of Elliot Lake, of course. It is the tale of two MacDonald brothers — Calum, the elder, played by David Fox and Alexander, the youngest, played by R. H. Thomson, from whose perspective the story is told. And it's a long story indeed, at least in the temporal sense, stretching back to the times when General Wolfe invaded Quebec (and gave this play its name, it might be added) and the brothers' forefather, Calum Ruadh, shook the heather of Scotland from his plaids and set sail for the Maritimes.

It is a familial history fraught with tragedy, and the two brothers and their siblings do not escape its curse, orphaned when their parents and a brother fall through the ice and disappear, leaving almost no trace of their passing. Unable to support the entire crop of orphaned grandchildren, their paternal grandparents, played by John Dolan and Nicola Lipman, opt to raise young Alexander, while leaving Calum to ride herd over his siblings, creating him as the de facto head of a clan of hard rock miners in the process.

Initially, it appears Alexander will escape the hard life of his siblings, but after he graduates from dental school, he opts to join his brothers underground, putting himself in a position to bear witness to the great tragedy that will ultimately destroy Calum's life.

Although the cast is rounded out by Daniel Giverin, Stephen Guy-McGrath, J. D. Nicholson and Ben Irvine (who seems to think he's cast in a send up the '60s), carrying the story forward falls largely on the shoulders of Fox and Thomson. While each gives a quality performance, they are undone finally by a combination of their own shortcomings and a text that never really seems to leave the page. This is dialogue written for the eye, not the ear.

For his part, Thomson never quite seems to strike the right note of self-effacing humour that makes his character so appealing as a story teller, while Fox succeeds in mining the full depth of Calum's tragedy without ever really grasping the wild and youthful Highland nobility that underscores it.

A really good stage adaptation — and they do exist — makes one forget the book that spawned it, while the merely adequate serves only to make one want to read the book again. A lot of people, one suspects, will be re-reading MacLeod's glorious novel in the wake of this production.

Saturday, September 22, 2012


THEATRE REVIEW:
BETWEEN THE SHEETS


JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
21 SEPT 2012
R: 4/5



Pictured: Christine Horne, Susan Coyne

TORONTO - In drama, as in engineering, a triangle has proven itself, time and time again, to be a hugely dependable building block. So, fledgling playwright Jordi Mand doesn’t explore much new ground in BETWEEN THE SHEETS, a play about a love triangle that had its world première in the Tarragon Theatre’s Extra Space Thursday. In setting up a confrontation between the wife and mistress of a philandering husband, Mand is definitely ploughing familiar turf, dramatically speaking.

Happily, the strength of this work can be found not so much in the ground the playwright turns over, as the contemporary perspectives she unearths along the way. Set in the classroom of a private school, the play starts late in the afternoon, as Teresa, a young teacher played with spot-on awkwardness and touching commitment by Christine Horne, prepares to call it a day after a slew of parent-teacher interviews.

But before she can depart, Marion (a cooly elegant and edgy Susan Coyne), the mother of one of Teresa’s young students, arrives, all brittle and patronizing efficiency, despite the fact she is clearly late. She is, it develops, hugely annoyed, perhaps because she seems to have been cut out of the loop in discussion regarding the progress of her only child.

As the two women circle each other with ill-concealed hostility, however, it becomes clear there is much more at stake here than good grades. What initially seems to be a problem of communication between Marion and her husband is revealed as something far deeper — and as we learn about the affair between him and the young teacher half his age, things initially seem to be falling into a dramatic rut.

But not for long, as the playwright and director Kelly Thornton conspire to make this old story very much of today, picking the scabs off the guilty wounds contemporary working mothers have been receiving, some of them self-inflicted, and examining in ways both stark and moving, the pain of biological clocks transformed for whatever reason into a time bomb.

From two very gifted performers, Thornton draws strong performances, allowing each to don the time-worn roles of victim and victimizer before casting those roles aside in recognition that neither can be tailored to fit either woman in this modern world. Wounded as they may be by the struggle in which they are engaged, each of them is forced to confront the role she has played in her own wounding, even while she is made intimately aware of the pain the other is experiencing.

Thanks to the performance quality, audience sympathy careers back and forth between each of the women, compassion forcing everyone to the very edge of their seats. If the play has a problem — and obviously this writer feels it does — it comes in an ending in which the playwright, having made us care deeply about both women, abandons them both in an ending that would seem utterly hopeless. A fair reflection of life perhaps, but also, finally, a helluva place to leave an audience.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


THEATRE REVIEW:
HIDING WORDS (for you)


JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
17 SEPT 2012
R: 2.5/5


Pictured: John Ng, Rebecca Applebaum

The more one delves into the history of mankind, one can’t help but be impressed, not only by the depths some segments of society have plumbed in their efforts to oppress others, but by the ingenuity of the oppressed in thwarting those oppressors. Centuries ago in China, for instance, when they were forbidden access to the written word, resourceful women developed their own way of communicating — a hidden language called Nushu, literally woven into the very fabric of their lives and passed under the noses and eyes of those who oppressed them.

This fascinating secret script is at the heart of a new play, titled HIDING WORDS (for you), which had its world premiere Saturday at the Enwave Theatre, a production by Eventual Ashes. Written and co-directed, with Esther Jun, by Gein Wong, it tells the story of two young women: Grace (played by Stephanie Jung), a modern-day young Canadian of Chinese descent who finds herself suddenly and inexplicably on the wrong side of the law; and Wing-Yin (Rebecca Applebaum), an ambitious young girl of mid-19th century China, hungering for knowledge in a world teetering on the brink of bloody revolution. Grace has been inadvertently caught up in an international investigation of terrorism, while Wing-Yin’s hunger for knowledge has led her into the heart of the revolution sweeping her land and into tragedy.

Through a bit of theatrical hocus-pocus, playwright Wong brings these two young women and their problems together, despite the disparity in their eras. But ultimately, what she fails to do is make her audience understand in any meaningful way the depth of their oppression, or their courage in fighting it.

Her cast, which also includes Traci Kato-Kiriyama, Richard Lee, Susan Lock and an over-wound John Ng, is obviously committed to the project as is dancer Soomi Kim, cast as the living embodiment of this ancient text. On a design front, Wong creates a sometimes impressive sound and projection design, backed by designers Jung-Hye Kim and Faline Park who take care of sets, props and costumes. But in the end, she has stretched herself too thin on several fronts.

As a playwright, Wong fails to provide a tight and cohesive script. As directors, she and her associate fail to impose not only a strong sense of time and place on the work, but a sense of pacing as well. Instead, they allow elaborate technical demands to trip up the storyline, slowing the action and leading us off on tangents that do little or nothing to serve the story, adding only a sense of confusion to an over-elaborate plot.

Still, this is a visually powerful work that manages to shine a light into the bottomless well of inventiveness from which the oppressed have always drunk. Best of all, that light, unfocused though it may be, illuminates a part of history that deserves to be more widely known. There’s a good play buried in here. Wong has yet to find it.