Thursday, May 31, 2012


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

Pictured: Stephen Patterson as Snoopy

STRATFORD — You were a good man, Charlie Brown — so good, in fact, that after you premiered in 1967, you became the most produced musical in American musical theatre history, chalking up productions from coast to coast here in Canada, too. Then in the late ’90s, Michael Mayer and Andrew Lippa convinced you that in modern Broadway parlance, you either had to go big or go home, Clark Gesner’s beloved 1967 book, music and lyrics got a makeover for the 21st century and a new Broadway version was born. And, based on the Stratford Festival’s production of that version that opened on the Avon stage Wednesday, there’s no question that you’ve gotten bigger, Charlie Brown — but some might wish you’d opted to just go home instead.

Because frankly, despite the added songs and dialogue, they don’t seem to have added much to your charms, Chuck. In fact, in this often self-satisfied over-production, directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, you just may be down a quart or two. Still, with Ken James Stewart in the title role, you get a pretty fair shake, although James is too often just a touch too knowing.

On the plus side, thanks to the visual clamour created by the collision of Michael Gianfresco’s set, Dana Osborne’s costumes, Sean Nieuwenhuis’ video designs and Kimberly Purtell’s lighting, you’ll find that shadings of charm and innocence are inclined to disappear in a world drenched in vivid primary colours. As a fan of continuity, you might be a little distressed too to find some of your best friends, as created by Charles M. Schulz, have changed. A lot.

Your laid-back beagle Snoopy, for instance, seems at first to have been transformed into a hyperkinetic Jack Russell as played by Stephen Patterson, but as he gets caught up in video games and otherwise portraying the cool dude, you’ll realize he’s abandoned his dog’s life and now aspires so much to humanity that for entire scenes, he lets us forget he’s a dog at all. Similarly, Erica Peck seems to have civilized your old friend Lucy, who no longer takes the same joy in putting you down and, while Amy Wallis’ Sally fills the gap left by Patty when she was summarily evicted by re-write, she’s certainly no Kristin Chenoweth, although she gives a game try.

But Andrew Broderick’s Schroeder brings a bit of street cred to the ‘hood while staying down with Beethoven and as for Kevin Yee’s Linus, thankfully he’s just what he’s always been — wise beyond his years and utterly delightful.

You’re a soft-spoken guy, Charlie, so it might upset you to discover that in musical theatre today, bigger and louder have become synonymous — and between Laura Burton’s musical direction and Peter McBoyle’s soundscape, you might leave the theatre suffering from tinnitus. Don’t worry, it’s not unusual in a man of your age, and it won’t last more than an hour or two. Finally, there will be purists, Charlie, who suggest you were better in your younger, more innocent incarnation — and hey, who of us wasn’t? But pay us no mind: Without you, the Stratford Festival could never have proved they are at least as good as every theatre school and community theatre group that’s produced your show over the past 45 years.

You may not be To Kill A Mockingbird — but, for giving this Festival that chance, at least, YOU'RE (still) A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Special to TorSun
30 MAY 2012
R: 4/5

Pictured: Cynthia Dale, Kyle Blair

STRATFORD — Leading lady Cynthia Dale left the Stratford Festival stage five years ago, and Tuesday, she found a route back, taking 42ND STREET, a storied boulevard that currently runs right through the Festival Theatre. Cast as leading lady Dorothy Brock in the Broadway “song and dance extravaganza” based loosely on the Warner Brothers’ 1933 musical of the same name, it is built around a collection of great tunes from Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics).

In this homage to the world of showbiz, Brock is a slightly fading leading lady, who at the height of the Great Depression is surviving on her wits and the good will of sugar daddy, Abner Dillon (Steve Ross), who is big in kiddie cars. So big, in fact that he can totally underwrite a new musical, titled Pretty Lady, directed by Julian Marsh (Sean Arbuckle) and written by Maggie Jones and Bert Barry (Gabrielle Jones and Geoffrey Tyler, respectively).

His only condition? That Dorothy be the star, which means that when leading man Billy Lawlor (Kyle Blair) stumbles across Peggy Sawyer (Jennifer Ryder-Shaw), a hot new talent fresh from Allentown — a little burg just down the road from nowhere — she doesn’t stand a chance, despite the fact she can sing and dance circles around the leading lady. But this is 42ND STREET, where it meets America’s street of dreams — and anything can happen. Mostly what happens, of course, is a whole lot of singing — We’re In the Money, The Lullaby of Broadway and, of course, 42nd Street are just a few of the score’s enduring hits — and a whole lot of top-notch tap-dancing, choreographed in high style by Alex Sanchez.

Under the direction of Gary Griffin, with an eye-catching design by Debra Hanson, 42ND STREET hits the stage under the strong musical direction of Michael Barber, firing on all cylinders and it never really stops, as Dale leads a hardworking and committed cast through the labyrinth of a book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble. And finally, there’s the rub, for while Stewart and Bramble to a bang-up job of playing musical connect the dots, their book seems a trifle short on the character development front, leaving it to the director and cast to not only flesh out the clichéd roles, but often invent them as they go along as well. And in the main, this crew does an impressive job.

There’s Dale, of course, her glow undiminished by a half-decade absence from these stages, and the always impressive Blair, who seems to be born of this era — and for Stratford fans accustomed to seeing Arbuckle in classical mode, his sure-footed turn here is certain to be a delightful surprise. Both Jones and Tyler get ample chance to prove their mettle too, not just as musical theatre performers but as character actors as well, and they both make the most of it, while a charming Rider-Shaw certainly puts the ‘new’ in ingenue, with a shine on her like a brand new penny.

There’s also impressive showings by Kyle Golemba, Naomi Costain and Dale’s one-time Street Legal co-star C. David Johnson, who shows up as her longtime love interest. But finally, despite the best efforts of Griffin, Sanchez, Hanson and the entire cast — despite very impressive singing, dazzling dancing, lavish design and committed acting — too much of this book feels like it exists simply to keep a truly impressive array of song ’n’ dance numbers from running into each other.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Special to TorSun
29 MAY 2012
R: 4/5

Pictured: Deborah Hay, Ben Carlson

STRATFORD — Much has been made of the casting of real-life husband and wife, Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay, as Benedick and Beatrice in the Shakespearean offering that launched the 60th season of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. And happily that particular piece of casting in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING doesn’t live up to the title of the production that launched the season here on the Festival stage Monday night. In fact, Carlson and Hay, both one-time regulars at the Shaw Festival, sparkle in a Stratford production helmed by Christopher Newton, erstwhile artistic director of the Shaw, returning here to Southern Ontario’s other Festival after an absence of more than 40 years.

That sparkle is, in fact, the main attraction in a production that often takes wing but just as often fails to soar, relying perhaps too heavily on the charm and acting prowess of the four lovers — young Claudio (Tyrone Savage) and his sweet Hero (Bethany Jillard), who fall into love with too much ease, and the aforementioned Beatrice and Benedick, who have to be all but driven to it — at the heart of Shakespeare’s tale.

To bring it to life, Newton first uproots the work from Italian soil and sets it down in Brazil near the turn of the last century, and though designer Santo Loquasto makes the most of this transcontinental tango, neither the era nor Loquasto’s design add many new wrinkles to a timeless plot. The former allows for a few sultry dance scenes, and the latter simply affords yet another chance for an otherwise brilliant designer to demonstrate his contempt for Stratford’s unique thrust stage. While the entire production basks in the glow of Robert Thomson’s lighting, Jonathan Monro’s music and Jane Johanson’s choreography add life.

Otherwise, Newton’s production is pretty straightforward, rising and falling on the strength of individual performances. While the two aforementioned sets of lovers do a fine job of bringing both Shakespeare’s text and tale to life — Carlson, commanding as always opposite Hay’s array of almost too-mannered comedic ticks, both offset by the youthful passions of Savage and Jillard — they are not always well-served by their supporting cast. As Don Pedro, in whose army both Benedick and Claudio serve, Juan Chioran gives a touching, human turn, but in the two-dimensional role of his bastard brother, Don John, Gareth Potter stops just shy of pulling wings off flies to establish street cred as Brazil’s most conniving dude.

Meanwhile, as Leonato, father to Hero and uncle to Beatrice, veteran James Blendick adds yet another over-embroidered performance to his resumé and Richard Binsley blessedly undersells his performance as the misspoken Dogberry — a boon, at least to those of us rarely amused by this particular buffoon. Keith Dinicol has some lovely comedic moments of rage as Antonio, while Michael Blake lends some heft to the villainy of Borachio, without crossing over into the clichéd melodrama that informs Potter’s performance.

Through it all, Newton keeps a firm eye on text and narrative, only occasionally letting things drag as he struggles to accommodate Loquasto’s main folly — a huge stairway that dominates the stage and, at least, provides Hay with a location for the best laugh of the evening. In the final analysis, this may not be a MUCH ADO for the ages, but it is an ADO that will certainly do for today.

Monday, May 28, 2012


Special to TorSun
28 MAY 2012
R: 5/5

Pictured: Alana Hibbert, Thom Allison

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — RAGTIME, like the nation whose story it tells, is a big, sprawling affair that almost defies any stage that might try to contain it. And while this oh-so-American musical might be considered an unusual choice for the Shaw Festival in a year marking the bicentenary of the War of 1812, in which this little town played a big part of course, it proved Saturday in its opening performance at the Festival Theatre to be not only a popular, but perhaps, a perfect choice.

Besides, based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel and adapted to the stage by Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), it has an established Canadian pedigree. Premièred in 1996 by Garth Drabinsky’s LiveEnt, it went on to enjoy a successful Broadway run, winning a brace of Tony nominations and awards, as well as considerable critical acclaim along the way.

And while the Shaw’s production may evoke memories of that earlier production, it never suffers from subsequent comparisons, its smaller stage and more limited resources well, even beautifully, disguised by the combined artistry of director Jackie Maxwell, designer Sue LePage and choreographer Valerie Moore, bolstered by a hugely impressive creative team. It more than makes up for in intimacy what it lacks in spectacle.

Set in and around New York in the early 20th century, RAGTIME braids three storylines into a quintessential American tale. It begins with an upper middle class white family, led by Father, a self-involved patriarch played with perhaps too heavy a dollop of unction by Ben Campbell. When Father decides to go exploring, Mother (Patty Jamieson) steps into the breach, discovering a broader world than she’d ever imagined, although not as broad as that uncovered by her Younger Brother (Evan Alexander Smith).

She also discovers an abandoned baby, the son of Sarah (Alana Hibbert), a black servant, and her paramour, a charismatic ragtime musician named Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Thom Allison). About the same time, Mother’s path intersects that of Tateh (Jay Turvey), a Jewish immigrant and his ailing daughter, fled to America from Eastern Europe, only to become mired, for a time, in the grinding poverty they fled. Against an ever-shifting human backdrop that throws famous folk like Booker T. Washington (Aadin Church), Emma Goldman (Kate Hennig), notorious showgirl Evelyn Nesbitt (Julie Martell), Henry Ford (Peter Millard) and Harry Houdini (Kelly Wong) into their sphere, the three families explore an American dream that morphs quickly into a nightmare and, for the lucky, back into that dream again.

Though one might quibble with a very few of her individual choices, Maxwell nonetheless forges her extensive cast into a truly impressive ensemble that grabs an audience by its heartstrings at the top of the show and never lets go, tackling not only Moore’s often-inventive choreography, but a score served up under the fine musical direction of Paul Sportelli, with highly disciplined artistry as well.

But while it is the entire company that carries this production aloft, it truly soars on the wings of a few individual performances, capped by Allison’s carefully crafted, powerful turn, a turn often matched by Jamieson, who brings an aching sense of perplexed humanity to her performance. In supporting turns, look for particularly fine work from Hennig, Wong, Church and Millard —  frontmen for one of the hardest working ensembles on a Canadian stage.

This production leaves one with the suspicion that not only has RAGTIME ripened over the past 20 years, but that, as decanted by the Shaw Festival in a world of Barack Obama and Trayvon Martin, it just might make 2012 a vintage year.


Special to TorSun
28 MAY 2012
R: 2.5/5

Pictured: Martin Happer, Robin Evan Willis

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — As children, most of us learned that good things come to those who wait — and it’s a lesson that might bear remembering for anyone who finds himself trapped in the Shaw Festival’s Royal George Theatre, watching a performance of Terence Rattigan’s 1936 breakout hit, FRENCH WITHOUT TEARS, which opened here Saturday. And finally, in the wake of that remembrance, it all comes down to two questions: How long should one wait? And just how worthwhile is the stuff for which we are waiting?

Set in the living room/study of a sea-side villa on the west coast of France in the mid-’30s, FRENCH WITHOUT TEARS revolves largely around a group of young British youth who have put their private schoolboy days behind them and fled across the channel to study the French language, under the tutelage of the curmudgeonly Monsieur Maingot (played by the increasingly curmudgeonly Michael Ball). But while Kenneth Lake (Billy Lake), Brian Curtis (Craig Pike), Alan Howard (Ben Sanders) and Kit Neilan (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) are at best perfunctory students of the French language, they all are interested, in varying degrees, in conjugating verbs with the opposite sex.

In this case, that obsession is heightened by the presence of young Mr. Lake’s sister Diana (Robin Evan Willis), a young woman determined to test the full mettle of her sexual powers. As the play opens, she is working her wiles on Kit, but with the arrival of Lt. Commander Rogers (Martin Happer), she quickly refocuses her high beams on the more mature military man, leaving Kit fuming. As a sidebar, it seems that M. Maingot’s young daughter (Julie Martell) is also in love with Kit, leaving Curtis to try his hand with lesser local girls, while Howard contents himself with minding everyone else’s business.

It is not, it must be said, riveting stuff for anyone with even a passing knowledge of current rom-coms, but frankly, it could be a lot more engaging than director Kate Lynch makes in the first act of this tedious little love story. Not only does she never really manage to achieve the requisite sense of rambunctious camaraderie that would mark this as a believable pride of randy young men, she is further hampered by the fact that as costumed and played, Willis’ Diana is far too mature and predatory. In fact, thanks to designer William Schmuck, even the otherwise excellent Martell comes across as more cougarly than one suspects the playwright intended.

Happily, after a first act that throbs with all the passion of an annual dramatic offering at a British boys’ school, Lynch and her cast find a rhythm of sorts in a second act that begins with a drunken late-night encounter between Sanders, Happer and Bogert-O’Brien that actually suggests something awfully close to chemistry between the three of them. It isn’t, it must be said, enough to save the entire production, but it does generate enough heat to carry a play and its audience to a happy, if not wildly successful conclusion, despite the dated nature of the material.


Special to TorSun
28 MAY 2012
R: 2.5/5

Pictured: Thom Marriott, Tara Rosling

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — In a little town currently marking the bicentennial of a little dust-up known as the War of 1812, one would think a sense of time and place would be considered pretty important But one would be wrong, for in a Shaw Festival production of Bernard Shaw’s MISALLIANCE that opened on the stage of the Royal George Theatre Friday, director Eda Holmes jettisons all such concerns, blithely transplanting the Shavian comedy from the Edwardian era in which it was initially set to the year 1962 — coincidentally, the year the Shaw Festival was born.

For the uninitiated, MISALLIANCE is essentially a commemoration of sorts of the ongoing war between the sexes, with a few of Shaw’s other favourite hobby horses thrown in and ridden into the ground for good measure — universal suffrage, socialism, snobbery, prudery and Britain’s ongoing class struggle, the latter of which gives this play its title, concerned as it is with a potential marriage between an aristocrat and a daughter of the wealthy middle class.

That middle class is represented by the affable John Tarleton (Thom Marriott, wearing a hairpiece more appropriate to The Lion King), a self-made underwear magnate whose adventuresome but spoiled daughter, Hypatia (Krista Colosimo), is being wooed by Bentley Summerhays (Ben Sanders), the overbred son of the vice-regal Lord Summerhays (Peter Krantz). Their burgeoning romance — to which neither of them seem overly committed — comes to a sudden end however, when a plane flown by the swashbuckling Joey Percival (Wade Bogart-O’Brien) crashes into the Tarleton family home, dislodging not only its handsome pilot but a mysterious Polish passenger (Tara Rosling), determined to turn everything into a three-ring circus for the sake of family honour.

Done in period it can be a romp, of course, but finally Shaw’s play sits in the ’60s like a Visigoth at a delicate Edwardian tea party. Even while one applauds Holmes for her sense of adventure, one is forced to note that, while many of the issues Shaw examined in his enduring and admittedly talky comedy might have had an equal resonance in the Kennedy era - feminism, politics and the class struggle were all discussed in a far different vocabulary 54 years on.

While the entire cast, which also includes Jeff Meadows, Catherine McGregor and Craig Pike, are victims of director Holmes’ and designer Judith Bowden’s unfortunate misadventures in time travel, it is in the end, perhaps Colosimo’s Hypatia that suffers most from it. In 1908, Hypatia’s interest in all things sexual signalled a much-needed loosening of the steely bonds of Victorian prudery, but in 1962, it reads far, far differently, especially as Bowden has tarted Hypatia up in a costume that is not only inappropriate but hugely unflattering as well.

For the rest, miscasting abounds. While Krantz, Marriott and McGregor are all far too young for the roles they play, Meadows is more than a trifle too old, and Sanders appears to have been cast solely for his whippet-like build in the misguided belief that skinny means the same thing as tiny. As for Rosling, it is no easier to believe that she could ever be mistaken for a man now than it was when she played St. Joan. But the big problem here finally is the era. In 1908, it was simply the plane that wouldn’t fly in Shaw’s comedy. In 1962, it proves to be the entire play. A misplaced MISALLIANCE finally proves to be a miserable mistake.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Special to TorSun
25 MAY 2012
R: 4.5/5

Pictured: Sharry Flett, Marla McLean, Kate Hennig

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — Proponents of enlightened feminism have long held that in rethinking and restructuring traditional male and female roles, we will ultimately liberate not just women but men as well. Just how long that notion has been around, in fact, is evident in the Shaw Festival’s production of A MAN AND SOME WOMEN that opened on the stage of the Court House Theatre Thursday.

Premièred almost a century ago, it is the work of Githa Sowerby, a once-obscure British playwright, familiar to Shaw audiences through earlier productions of her plays, The Stepmother and Rutherford and Son. A MAN AND SOME WOMEN effectively (if occasionally predictably, for modern audiences) examines, within the microcosm of a single family, the chains a paternalistic society places not just on its women but on its men as well.

The play opens in the library of the home of Richard Shannon (Graeme Somerville) — but though it may be his name on the title, the home is, in fact, disputed territory, as Shannon’s grasping wife Hilda (Jenny L. Wright) and her husband’s maiden sisters, Rose (Kate Hennig) and Elizabeth (Sharry Flett), battle for supremacy. While the women bicker — the latest bone of contention between them is the care and rearing of young Jack (a suitably awww-inspiring Jordan Hilliker), nephew of Richard’s good friend, Jessica, and now the victim of parental misdeeds — the ‘master’ of the house is off attending to the affairs of his late mother who, for reasons unspecified, was estranged from his sisters. His return simply ups the stakes for the two domestic camps, as the three women dependent on his largesse — just how dependent, not even they are aware, it develops — carp over the spoils of his mother’s estate. Not surprisingly, a long-overdue explosion ensues, shaking everyone’s world to its very core.

In different hands, one suspects, this play could almost be dismissed as tedious polemic, but happily, director Alisa Palmer instead turns it into a delicious, often thought-provoking romp, keeping a tight rein on her hugely talented cast while allowing each of its members to strut her or his stuff within a well-balanced framework.

In consequence, there is superb, even electrifying, work, from Somerville and Flett, both of whom have long demonstrated their worth to this festival, and from Hennig, who returns to these stages having carved a niche for herself on larger, if no more impressive, stages. But if Hennig’s villainous turn is impressive in its cohesive understatement — and it most certainly is — it is a performance perfectly matched at every turn by Wright’s, who under Palmer’s tutelage, brings just a soupçon of Victorian melodrama to a performance that all but invites hisses from her audience. In the face of such expertise, a lesser actor than McLean might well disappear in the thankless role of the noble long-suffering Jessica, but this actor not only claims her territory, she owns it by play’s end.

Working within the limitations of the Festival’s most intimate and challenging spaces, designer Leslie Frankish creates a pair of memorable, contrasting spaces, carefully lit by Louise Guinand — spaces which Palmer fills with the kind of life that proves, once again, that when it comes to bringing life to “plays about the beginning of the modern age,” the Shaw Festival still has few peers. 


Special to TorSun
24 MAY 2012
R: 3.5/5

Pictured: Steven Sutcliffe, Claire Jullien

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — Noel Coward, playwright and bon vivant, often dismissed his prodigious creative gifts as simply “a talent to amuse” — and judging from a new production of one of his plays, his death, in 1973, did little to diminish that talent. In fact, the production of Coward’s 1942 play, PRESENT LAUGHTER, that launched a new season of the Shaw Festival on the Festival Stage Wednesday, is often amusing — at least when director David Schurmann puts his trust in the playwright and simply lets Coward work his magic as he spins a spoonful of plot into a towering comedic confection.

But welcome as they are, those occasions are too often overshadowed in a production that has its problems, not the least of which is the casting of Steven Sutcliffe in the pivotal role of leading man Garry Essendine, a larger-than-life actor the playwright freely admitted was patterned after himself. While the talented and self-effacing Sutcliffe has often proved himself an actor with whom to conjure, he comes up short here, successfully inhabiting the character of Essendine in every way, save the one that would bring him completely to life. In the final analysis, he lacks the ability to get outside himself and watch his performance with the same adoration that his audience watches it, and Essendine is in every way his own biggest fan.

Simply stated, Sutcliffe is an actor who works and works hard for his audience’s affection, while the role of Essendine demands an actor so confident of that affection that he will play with it instead. That said, Schurmann finds some nice stuff in an often elegant production, thanks to a cast the includes Shaw regulars like Gray Powell, Claire Jullien and Moya O’Connell, all following the example set by two of the Festival’s most enduring leading ladies — specifically Mary Haney and the venerable Jennifer Phipps, both of whom give ample demonstration here of the truth in the adage that there is no such thing as a small part. And while Julia Course, James Pendarves and Patrick McManus fail ultimately to impress, under Schurmann’s direction, they at least manage to make it through the production without slowing it down.

But, while Schurmann finds memorable things in this delightful stage confection, he too often seems to forsake both play and playwright, setting aside Coward’s elegant and charming tale of a leading man who sees the whole world as his stage in favour of a kind of self-absorbed buffoonery completely at odds with a playwright who elevated wit and elegance to a religion. One might, for instance, forgive Corrine Koslo’s heavy-handed attempts to steal scenes as Essendine’s housekeeper Miss Erikson. But when that kind of over-acting is coupled with the silly, childish rambunctiousness Jonathan Tan brings to his performance as pushy playwright Roland Maule, it adds up to such a surfeit of bad acting that the very fabric of the play is threatened.

On the plus side designers William Schmuck (sets and costumes) and Kevin Lamotte (lighting) do a bang-up job of creating an elegant London studio as setting for the unraveling of Essendine’s life — and if Schurmann fails to achieve the consistent light and elegant touch that would bring Coward’s work to life, he does at least manage on occasion to shed a bit more light on a great man’s enduring talent to amuse. 

Monday, May 21, 2012


Special to TorSun
20 MAY 2012
R: 4/5

Pictured: Oliver Dennis, Michael Hanrahan

TORONTO - When it comes to defining them within the context of modern life, words like ‘home’ and ‘family’ have proved impressively adaptable, stretching themselves to embrace almost anyone’s personal interpretation of what they might be. In fact, the fluid nature of home and, to a lesser degree, of family (at least, in terms of the family of man), was something British playwright David Storey explored as long ago as 1970 in a quirky little comedy titled, appropriately enough, HOME. And now Storey’s play is making itself at home here in Toronto where it opened last week on the stage of the Young Centre in a new Soulpepper production, helmed by artistic director Albert Schultz.

With Soulpepper regulars Oliver Dennis (truly golden in his 50th Soulpepper turn) and Michael Hanrahan in the roles of Jack and Harry, famously played in the work’s première by British greats Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud respectively, it certainly begins well as the two meet on an elegant, if somewhat gone-to-seed terrace in an un-named park.

Under a cloud-strewn sky created by set and costume designer Ken MacKenzie and lighting designer Lorenzo Savoini, the two exchange banalities and, in the process, offer up clues to an upper middle class life as they discuss military service, mutual acquaintances, the demise of the walking stick and, of course, the “sceptred Isle” that is their home. And yet, the playwright implies with often subtle humour, all is not right in their world and we’re not just talking the decline of the British Empire that they periodically lament. That fact becomes increasingly evident when they abandon their conversation in favour of a stroll around the park.

In the process, they surrender their seats to the sunny Kathleen (Brenda Robins) and the stormy Marjorie (Maria Vacratsis), a pair of working-class drabs who are, it is quickly evident, a few fish and chips short of a full basket. Amongst the legion of problems their conversation reveals is Kathleen’s rather over-active libido, which means the when Jack and Harry return, the foursome is quickly fused into a sort of family of convenience. Not only do they look out for each other, they successfully fend off the incursion by Alfred (André Sills), another occasional denizen of their shared and increasingly claustrophobic territory  — a claustrophobia slowly revealed as something far less bucolic that it initially seems.

Of course, it’s all a metaphor for what passes for civilization in a nation, or perhaps a world, gone mad — a tale that still amuses even while it grows progressively darker and more disturbing. But while Schultz captures much of Storey’s dark whimsy in the early portions of the production, he is less successful as things get more and more complicated. Under his direction, the normally impressive Robins makes her entrance, badly wigged and shrieking like a refugee from a particularly rambunctious Carol Burnett sketch and sadly is rarely allowed to explore Kathleen’s humanity, her very obvious problems reduced to simple grist for the laugh mill.

Being Robins, she’s still a worthy foil to the three other finely drawn performances here, but, ultimately, it unsettles the balance of this delicate and more-than-slightly absurdist work and proves conclusively when you enter David Storey’s world, HOME can only be where the heart is.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


Special to TorSun
19 MAY 2012
R: 3/5

LOST IN YONKERS may not be, as some suggest, the best play Neil Simon ever wrote — although it did earn him a Pulitzer Prize — but few can argue that the beloved American playwright built the play around one of the most enduring dramatic characters he ever imagined. Few dramatic roles in the modern canon prove as demanding as LIY's Grandma Kurnitz — a character that must not only dominate the stage for the time she's on it, but before she enters it and after she leaves it, as well. To tackle the role of Grandma K, Harold Green Jewish Theatre has recruited Marion Ross (aka Happy Days' Mrs. C) in a production that opened at the St. Lawrence Centre Thursday.

Set during World War II, LOST IN YONKERS plays out in the home of Ross's Grandma Kurnitz, a home shared with her damaged daughter, Bella (Linda Kash), a perpetual child, trapped in a woman's body. And even though he fled this home and Grandma Kurnitz's iron will at the first opportunity, Grandma's grown son Eddie (David Eisner)  has, in the wake of his wife's death, brought his two young sons — Jay (Alessandro Costantini) and Arty (Jesse Shimko) — to his mother in desperation, hoping she will care for them while he takes to the road to pay bills that accrued during his wife's illness.

But time has not softened the heart of a woman who terrorized her own children, and though, at Bella's urging, the disagreeable old matriarch agrees to take the two boys into her home, she makes it clear she will not take them into her heart. They will work, as unpaid help, in the store she runs downstairs, and they will live according to her unbending rules — and not even the arrival of the boys' raffish Uncle Louie (Ari Cohen) and their troubled Aunt Gert (Sheila McCarthy) will soften her rule.

Working with actors almost all of whom are a trifle mature for their parts, director Jim Warren does his level best to set things right, maintaining a brisk, business-like pacing as the story unfolds on a serviceable set created by Sue LePage and lit by Lesley Wilkinson. But ultimately, this otherwise-accomplished director seems to think this is simply another Neil Simon comedy, when in fact, what he has on his hands is perhaps Simon's only drama — and while there are comedic overtones at play here, a successful director must focus on that drama, certain that the comedy will take care of itself.

Under his direction, the venerable Ross succeeds in offering occasional glimpses into the troubled soul of the complex Grandma Kurnitz — an embittered German Jew who traded a life of hard work and grinding poverty in Berlin for a life of hard work and grinding poverty in Yonkers. But ultimately, she fails to create a cohesive portrait of a woman who triumphs through endurance.

Kash too does some fine work, only to be undone by a comedic touch too broad by half, all of which leaves an impressive Cohen and the always watchable McCarthy to team up with Eisner's care-worn Eddie to balance two fine performances from Costantini and Shimko. Sadly, for fans of Neil Simon, this production of LOST IN YONKERS shows up on stage more than a little lost in translation.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


Special to TorSun
10 MAY 2012
R: 4/5

Pictured: Kathleen Turner, Evan Jonigkeit

In HIGH, playwright Matthew Lombardo trots out age-old notions of faith, hope and charity for a contemporary romp around the track — and while it all ends in a bit of three-horse pile-up, the play is still a compelling, at times, even engaging horse race. On the surface of things, HIGH, which opened a very limited run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre Wednesday, is a play about addiction, involving as it does, a prolonged effort to save one young man from the demons of drug abuse and the horrors that led him there. But on another — not necessarily deeper — level, it is also a play about the power of faith, the cost of hope and the human price of charity.

Set in a church-run centre for drug addiction, it is the story of the foul-mouthed Sister Jamie (played by Kathleen Turner) and her efforts to free young Cody Randall (Evan Jonigkeit) from the a world of drug abuse and prostitution — a world he’s inhabited since childhood, sharing it with demons with very real and familiar faces. Initially, Sister Jamie is a less-than-willing participant in the battle, dragooned into it as she is by Father Michael (Tim Altmeyer), her spiritual and temporal boss, who has, it develops, more than a passing interest in her success or failure of the young man’s treatment.

In creating HIGH, Lombardo has crafted an undeniable showcase for a mature actor of Turner’s range, and, under the direction of Rob Ruggiero, she makes the most of it, tearing into the role of the troubled nun-with-a-past with a vengeance and finding a deep reserve of humour in the process. Sister Jamie’s prickly personality and her humanity are both given flesh in Turner’s hands as she spits out dialogue in short, staccato sentences that, while highly effective, have little to do with writing and punctuation.

There’s quality work from Jonigkeit too, as he fearlessly inhabits the dark world of his character, filling it with a potent combination of knowingness and innocence that keeps his audience on-side despite his obvious bent for self-destruction. Under Ruggerio’s direction, even Altmeyer, lumbered as he is with a role that exists largely to advance the plot, succeeds in making his mark, adding intimations of darker shadings of humanity to the role of the good-natured-but-troubled priest at every turn.

But ultimately, despite a reported major reworking of the script since its less-than-successful Broadway run, HIGH remains far more interesting and compelling for the power of its performances than its plot. In the final analysis, while it purports to examine issues of faith and human charity, it fails to confront them, retreating too often into the comfortable inside argot of clerics and social workers instead of bringing things to the street level where most of us live.

And despite a deeply moving performance by Jonigkeit, his Cody fails to exhibit not only the physical ravages of his abusive and abused life — stripped down, he’s frankly more likely to be mistaken for a steroid abuser than a junkie — but the emotional ones as well. In a tough-love world where the battle is all too often centred on finding a soul in the human wreckage, he seems to have a surfeit of it, and in consequence, even though HIGH aims to be a play about saving fallen sinners, it emerges as a play about saving fallen saints instead. 


Special to TorSun  
10 MAY 2012 
R: 4/5

Pictured: Evy Ortiz, Ross Lekites

TORONTO - Rather than dimming with the passage of time, the genius that illuminated the 1957 première of WEST SIDE STORY seems to burn brighter with each passing decade. That's tribute, one suspects, not only to the enduring brilliance of William Shakespeare, whose Romeo and Juliet inspired this classic, but to the creative power of the collaboration that adapted his play to the musical stage -- playwright Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director/choreographer Jerome Robbins. And happily, the power of that collaboration shines brightly in an occasionally-flawed-but-ultimately-powerful production of the show that opened at the Toronto Centre for the Arts Wednesday, part of Dancap's ongoing season.

Reviewed here in its Tuesday preview, this is a touring production of the 2009 Broadway revival, in which the late Laurents not only assumed the director's mantle, but reworked some of the dialogue as well to deepen the Hispanic element of the story. In the main, Laurents' reworking -- which has members of the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, speaking Spanish amongst themselves -- plays well for an audience that has had half a century of not-always-positive television portrayals of Hispanic youth to broaden its horizon since the show debuted. But from a directorial point of view, Laurents cleaves fairly closely to not only the choreography but the stage vision originally created by Robbins, spinning out the story of the tragically ill-fated romance between the Polish-Irish Tony (played by Ross Lekites) and the Puerto Rican-born Maria (Evy Ortiz).

It's a romance torn apart by gang warfare between the Jets -- who count Tony as an increasingly reluctant member and comprised mostly of the children of Irish and Eastern European immigrants -- and the Sharks, led by Maria's brother, Bernardo (German Santiago) and comprised of the kids of the more recent Puerto Rican migration to New York.

Under the direction of  David Saint, who recreates Laurents' vision for the road, and working with choreographer Joey McKneely (recreating the style of Robbins' original choreography, if not its menace), the extensive cast claims James Youmans' wonderfully down-at-the-heels evocation of Manhattan with plenty of energy, basking in the glow of Howell Binkley's masterful lighting. From the pit, John O'Neill leads the orchestra through a timeless score that includes such musical gold as Something's Coming, Maria, Tonight, I Feel Pretty and Somewhere.

As Tony, Lekites seems rather stolid 'til he opens his mouth and soars to those high notes, while as Maria, Ortiz blends a wonderful innocence with a youthful soprano voice. They are supported by some fine performance from the likes of Santiago, Michelle Aravena (as Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita), Drew Foster (as Tony's best friend Riff) and the diminutive Alexandra Frohlinger -- who, as Anybodys, tears into Somewhere (originally sung from offstage) as an anthem for all the world's outsiders. On the downside, in minor roles, John O'Creagh's Doc, Wally Dunn's Krupke and Mike Boland's Lt. Schrank all seem a touch road-weary, while Stephen DeRosa is all but unforgivable in his turn as Glad Hand. In the end, in the pantheon of memorable tellings, this one stops just shy of greatness, but a production of WEST SIDE STORY that is merely pretty damn good is still well worth seeing.

Friday, May 4, 2012


Special to TorSun
04 MAY 2012
R: 3/5

If you want to know how much theatre has changed over the years, consider this: Back in the days when Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland defined the youth of America, it was “My dad has a barn, let’s put on a show.” Today, that line might read more like “My dad has a stadium, let’s put on a show.” Which leads us inevitably to BRING IT ON-THE MUSICAL (inspired by Bring It On, the movie, which was in turn inspired by the world of competitive cheerleading). The possibly Broadway-bound musical opened a limited run Thursday in the Ed Mirvish Theatre (formerly the Canon).

First off, for those unfamiliar with such things, it should be noted that cheerleading has changed from the days when squads were comprised of those whose gender or athletic ability precluded making the team — so much so that modern cheerleading often demands a level of athletic prowess exceeding that of the competitors being cheered. And based on Thursday night’s opening, BRING IT ON is a fine showcase for that kind of talent, filled as it is with high-flying acts of derring-do from some of America’s best cheerleaders, who comprise about half the cast. But finally, all those breath-taking gymnastics can’t really mask the shortcomings of a wickedly-derivative book (by Jeff Whitty) or a pleasant, engaging and largely forgettable score (by Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the latter of whom collaborated with Amanda Green on lyrics.)

The story, such as it is, is a convoluted affair revolving around the misadventures of the lovely young Campbell (played by Taylor Louderman) who, as reigning queen of the cheerleaders at upscale Truman High, suddenly finds herself shunted aside in her senior year through the machinations of her young protégé (Elle McLemore). Exiled to the down-market Jackson High, Campbell eventually befriends the haughty Danielle (Adrienne Warren), the diva of Jackson’s dance crew, and after a few missteps, the two team up to transform dance crew into cheerleading squad and find themselves competing against Truman at the national cheering championships. Along the way, Ryann Redmond (as the full-figured Bridget) and Gregory Haney (as the funky shemale La Cienega) offer intimations that inner-city campuses might well be in the vanguard of positive social change.

But, ultimately, there’s not a single character here who is deeper than a dime, and while director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler polishes things to a high gloss, all that sparkle simply serves to underline the fact there is no depth to the story. Despite everyone’s best efforts, all the earnest athleticism of the cheerleaders only serves to get in the way of hitting that perfect tongue-in-cheek sweet spot that made Legally Blonde such a romp.

Meanwhile, David Korins' sets are simple and serviceable befitting a production born on the road, relying heavily on video screens and banks of school lockers to set most scenes, while Andrea Lauer’s costumes run the gamut from preppy to funky, with, not surprisingly, a heavy infusion of cheer gear all along the way. But finally, while BRING IT ON-THE MUSICAL pumps us up like cheerleaders should, it lacks an emotional touch-down to win the game — so if your dad has a stadium, the best thing to do is still to put on a game.


Special to TorSun
03 MAY 2012
R: 3.5/5

Pictured: Matthew Edison, Jane Spidell

Long before writers like James Frey and Mike Daisey led us to examine the often tenuous relationship between authorship and the truth, the subject was pretty incisively dissected and explored by Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay in a play titled THE REAL WORLD?. Now, 25 years after it made its English language première at the Tarragon Theatre in a translation by Bill Glassco and John Van Burek, THE REAL WORLD? returns to the Tarragon in a production that allows a whole new audience to get a look at the play — considered by many to be amongst Tremblay’s best work.

Directed by Tarragon’s artistic director Richard Rose, this new production features an all-star cast, albeit one drawn from admittedly different constellations, combining the artistry of respected stage artists like Tony Nappo, Jane Spidell and Matthew Edison with one-time Oscar nominee, Meg Tilly, essaying what proves to be a pretty graceful leap from screen to stage.

Set in a suburban Montreal home in the ’60s (created by designer Charlotte Dean), THE REAL WORLD? begins as a confrontation between a care-worn mother (Spidell) and her grown son, Claude, a playwright (a tentative Edison). Seems Claude has written a play that lays bare some innermost family secrets, documenting not only a troubled relationship between his mother and his travelling salesman father (played by Nappo), but the equally dodgy one between his father and his sister, played by Sophie Goulet.

While his mother doesn’t dispute the cold hard facts as laid out in Claude’s play, she has serious issues with the attitudes he portrays, at the same time as she clearly resents the colossal invasion of privacy, her own and her family’s. As mother and son debate the fictional treatment of the family and, in the process, dissect his own troubled relationship with his father, the characters with which Claude has populated his play take centre stage, sharing the world with his real-life family and playing out his version of the family’s story, achieving a resolution that real life seems to have withheld.

In this alternate world, Claude’s father, Alex, is essayed by Cliff Saunders, while Spidell’s earthy and heart-breaking mother is echoed by Tilly, both adding a staginess that contrasts beautifully with Nappo’s and Spidell’s more centred performances. Cara Gee plays Claude’s troubled sister Mariette in this alternate world.

It’s a thought-provoking, sometimes touching, piece of theatre, in which the writer’s imperative is thoroughly examined within the context not just of truth, but of emotional honesty as well, while issues of privacy hang in the balance — a drama finally about family drama.  But it is also problematic in that, with two realities sharing time and space, it offers a minefield for its director —  a host of problems which frankly are not all sorted out in this too often turgid staging.

And finally, in a rather showy reminder that this is not merely a play within a play, but in fact, a play within a play within a play, Rose successfully drop kicks his audience out of the world of any of those plays and leaves us sitting in the theatre waiting for all those plays to end.