Friday, December 21, 2012


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


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


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

THE 501:

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


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.