Tuesday, December 24, 2013

REVUE REVIEW: THE MUSICAL OF MUSICALS: THE MUSICAL

Pictured: Dana Jean Phoenix, Mark Cassius

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
24 DEC 2013
R: 3/5

In Gypsy: A Musical Fable, lyricist Stephen Sondheim (inadvertently perhaps) offers advice to aspiring musical theatre producers, cloaked in his ode to burlesque's ladies who lurch: "You can pull all the stops out till they call the cops out, grind your behind till you're bent," sings Mazeppa, the weary hoofer, "But you gotta get a gimmick, if you wanna get ahead." It is advice composer Eric Rockwell and lyricist Joanne Bogart clearly heeded, and hence, THE MUSICAL OF MUSICALS: THE MUSICAL has not just one gimmick, but five.

But not all gimmicks are created equal, as evidenced by Vintage Productions' take on their show, revived after a successful Fringe Festival stint this summer for a limited commercial run at the Panasonic Theatre. In a world where imitation is recognized as the sincerest form of copying, Rockwell and Bogart band together to tell and re-tell the same simple story five different ways, each version in the style of one of the lions of 20th century musical theatre. 

To begin, they tell the story of the hapless June (Dana Jean Phoenix) in the style of Rogers & Hammerstein in a vignette titled Corn — an obvious homage to Oklahoma! But as the melodrama progresses — June can't pay her rent and so is being forced to marry her evil landlord, Jitter (Mark Cassius), but is rescued finally by the leading man Willy (Adrian Marchuk), while the diva Abby (Paula Wolfson) offers advice from the sidelines — they touch on pretty much the entire R&H canon, in a series of songs slyly referencing the teams' style without ever slipping into actual plagiarism. And, despite the casting, they avoid any reference to June is Bustin' Out All Over —  which is commendable.

From there, they tell the same story four more times, tackling, respectively if not always respectfully, the styles of the aforementioned Sondheim (A Little Complex), Jerry Herman (Dear Abby!), Andrew Lloyd Webber (Aspects of Junita) and Kander & Ebb (Speakeasy), throwing in an homage to Marvin Hamlisch at the end for good measure. Musical director Michael Mulroney, seated on stage at a grand piano, provides musical accompaniment and sardonic commentary throughout.

It's a talented cast and director Vinetta Strombergs makes the most of what is clearly a limited production budget, taking Rockwell and Bogart's admittedly "Inside Baseball" book and score and enlivening it with touches borrowed from directors like Rouben Mamoulian, Harold Prince and Gene Saks and choreographers Agnes de Mille, Larry Fuller and Bob Fosse.

But despite her best efforts, Strombergs simply doesn't have the resources to transform a Fringe hit into a mainstage offering, particularly when she's encumbered with an intermission in the middle of a 90 minute show, which simply lets the air out of a production that has just found its legs after a lacklustre start. But in the end, this show's problems are more than merely budgetary — and if you want to know what's missing for too much of it, take a listen to Adler & Ross's score for Damn Yankees — that song about "All you really need is heart." 

Monday, December 16, 2013

BALLET REVIEW: THE NUTCRACKER

Pictured: NBOC Nutcracker Company

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
16 DEC 2013
R: 5/5

The weather outside was certainly frightful but, of course, inside the Four Seasons Centre Saturday evening, it was nothing short of delightful — although no one was foolish enough to sing a chorus or two of "Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…" for the gathered crowd. And frankly, why would they? Not only did Mother Nature need no such encouragement, the audience happily had other things on its mind.

It was the first unofficially official night of the Christmas season here in Toronto — the night the artists of the National Ballet of Canada and a few hundred of their closest friends from the National Ballet School and similar institutions band together once again to weave a magical Christmas tapestry out of threads spun by composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, author E.T.A. Hoffman, choreographer James Kudelka and designer Santo Loquasto.

And frankly, unless one were stuck behind the wheel of a car, the snow falling outside when glimpsed through those glorious glass curtain walls at intermission, simply added to the magic as THE NUTCRACKER exploded onto the stage in a swirling vision of seasonal spirit once again.

By now, of course, the NUTCRACKER story — or at least the version told by the NBOC — is familiar to most, a timeless tale of siblings in the time of the Russian Czars. On a winter's night, young Marie (Houston Toews) and her brother Misha (Tristan Brosnan) find themselves sharing a dream-like adventure, when their Nutcracker (Guillaume Côté) — a Christmas gift from the mysterious Uncle Nikolai (Jonathan Renna) — comes to life and sweeps them off to the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Greta Hodgkinson), aboard a magical sled conjured by a beautiful snow queen (Xiao Nan Yu).

In the palace of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Marie and Misha are entertained not only by the their hostess, who lives in a beautiful Fabergé egg, but by her subjects as well. A beautiful sheep and a wily fox (Chelsy Meiss and Giorgio Galli repectively), a bunch of adorable lambs, a bumblebee (Tanya Howard) and a whole garden of flowers dance for them, before the children are whisked back to the bedroom where the adventure began. It is a simple, timeless story, wonderfully told in a fashion that just never seems to grow old, filled with the magic of dancing horses, roller-skating bears and simple childhood that is as evergreen as the giant tree that sprouts mid-stage and mid-story.

But it is also a glorious evening of ballet for the entire family, for while the younger set thrills to the timelessness of the tale, parents can get lost not only in the delight that comes from watching children like Toews and Brosnan throw their hearts into their performances, supported by the impeccable artistry of dancers like Hodgkinson (who in her character's signature dance seems to have chimes instead of toes) and Côté (an artist who can not only bring nobility to the stable boy Peter, but boyishness to the Nutcracker, as well.)

Take one snow storm, add the National Ballet's NUTCRACKER — and you've got more delightful Christmas magic than you can shake a stick at.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW: ONCE

Pictured: Stuart Ward,
Dani de Waal


JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
04 DEC 2013
R: 4/5

Many stories begin with ONCE, as in "Once upon a time…" But while, in adapting the story and music from the 2006 movie of the same name to the musical stage, playwright Enda Walsh and composer/lyricists Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová have created something some might consider a modern-day romantic fairytale, they adroitly — and wisely — sidestep conventional notions of an "and they all lived happily ever after" ending, in favour of a more pragmatic but satisfying "and they all managed to make the most of the present and get on with their lives."

Having cleaned up at the 2012 Tony Awards, ONCE has spawned the obligatory touring company to bring the tale to the provinces, and it pulled into the Royal Alex last week for a Toronto run over the holiday season, adding another love interest to the Mirvishes ongoing and now public affair with the genre. It's a simple love story, simply told — more of a romantic sketch than a portrait, really — spun out in a faux-Irish working pub in modern-day Ireland, where immigrant and native alike struggle with economic sobriety after a long and ill-fated, Euro-inspired binge.

It is in that environment that a Guy (played by Stuart Ward) and a Girl (Dani de Waal) meet. He's an Irish-born vacuum repairman and, after wearing a groove in his guitar writing love songs to a woman who left him for New York, he's ready to throw in the towel, musically speaking. She's a Czech immigrant with a daughter, a mother and no visible means of support, living a life in which everything seems to suck — except her vacuum cleaner.

And while it's immediately obvious to everyone that the Gods of both Hoover and Kismet intended them to be together, they aren't too quick on the uptake. Instead of falling into each other's arms, they fall into music, conspiring to build a romance of sorts through a score comprised mostly of Celtic rock-love songs. Meanwhile, Dublin life plays out around them, reflecting both the joys and the sorrows of Irelands's post-prosperity letdown, all sketched with the same minimalist brush strokes Walsh uses to create his main characters.

While it's an unusual writing technique, it serves to draw a willing audience into the story, demanding that one intuit the humanity to flesh out the skeletons with which director John Tiffany and movement designer Steven Hoggett populate their stage. They offer only brief and telling glimpses — but little more — into the lives of their principals and a lovely roster of supporting players, all of whom, like Ward and de Waal, do double duty as the orchestra.

And in the end, it all comes together as a strange and sometimes hypnotic hybrid of theatre, ceili, and illuminated story telling that is undeniably charming, despite a certain sense of corn-fed American complacency in de Waal's performance (evident, to a lesser degree in Ward's) that leaves one feeling that, somewhere just out of sight, ONCE's main street Dublin just might intersect with Disneyland's Main Street USA.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

PANTO REVIEW: THE LITTLE MERMAID

Pictured: Marc Devigne, Chilina Kennedy,
Ross Petty, Jordan Clark,
Dan Chameroy



JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
01 DEC 2013
R: 5/5


It's going to take Santa a bit of time to figure things out at a certain Toronto household this Christmas. One can picture him, in fact, pacing the living room of the Ross Petty home, trying to figure out whether the head of the household has been naughty or nice. But if the jolly old elf were to ask me — and that's highly unlikely — my best advice would be to lay on an extra sleigh and fill the house, for while Mrs. Petty's little boy is currently being mighty naughty, it's never been nicer — and fans of the annual Petty Christmas panto are reaping the benefits.

This year's edition of the made-in-Toronto stage Yule tradition is titled THE LITTLE MERMAID: ONTARIO's O-FISH-al FAMILY MUSICAL, and as usual, the closest it comes to the Disney Classic with which it shares a certain titular resonance is the Broadway-bound production of Aladdin, playing up the street and, between us, looking rather lacklustre by comparison. In fact, this year, Petty doesn't just hook a winner, he nets a whole school of 'em.

First off, there's Chilina Kennedy in a memorable turn in the title role, playing Angel, an environmentally aware mermaid concerned about her future in Toronto Harbour, ground zero for a casino planned by the evil Ogopogo, played with — ahem — his usual villainous flair by Petty himself. Then there are bang-up performances from regulars like Eddie Glen (as Sponge Bill Triangle Pants) and the gender torturing Dan Chameroy, once again channeling his feminine side as Plumbum and  proving once again that in nature, at least, there is nothing like his dame.

Meanwhile, to label performers like So You Think You Can Dance's Jordan Clark, Canadian Idol's Marc Devigne and the very gifted Lana Carillo mere supporting players seems to diminish their fine work — and happily, director Tracey Flye and choreographer Marc Kimelman give each of them every opportunity to shine.

But in the face of such a barrage of talent, the real star of the show this time out just might be Reid Janisse, who not only does some giddy on-stage work as Carl, the Clownfish, but in his off-stage guise as writer, demonstrates an impressive understanding of what makes a good panto tick, and as a result, turns in a script that runs like a Swiss clock. That, at two and a half hours (with intermission) runs a little long is a niggling complaint, considering the laughs he's packed into the show — for every age.

Set designer Michael Gianfrancesco and videographers Ben Chaisson and Beth Kates meanwhile come together to create an amphibian production capable of vibrant life either on land or under the sea, all dressed to impress by Erica Connor's swimmingly successful costumes.

In short, it's an impressive panto package, tied up with a pretty bow by musical director Steve Thomas, serving up a playlist of re-purposed tunes — modern pop to classic show tunes, with original work thrown in for good measure. In fact, this just may be one of the most memorable Christmas pantos Santa's ever found under the tree — wickedly naughty and as nice as can be.

Friday, November 29, 2013

THEATRE REVIEW: GOD OF CARNAGE

Pictured:
Sarah Orenstein,
Tony Nappo,
John Bourgeois,
Linda Kash


JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
29 NOV 2013
R: 3.5/5

TORONTO - Whether it’s a friend destroying an expensive piece of artwork, or, as is the case in GOD OF CARNAGE, a woman’s simple failure to ask for a washroom when she clearly has a pressing need of one, playwright Yasmina Reza asks her characters to behave in ways that stretch an audience’s credulity almost to the breaking point.

But if you can get past the excesses of Reza’s characters — and with the help of a good cast and a solid director, that is certainly possible - international award-winning productions of Art and GOD OF CARNAGE have shown that she’s written some good, even great theatre. And while Toronto audiences have enjoyed a few opportunities to see Reza’s Art, her 2008 GOD OF CARNAGE, which has played numerous other Canadian centres, is only now receiving its Toronto English-language première in a Studio 180 production, presented by David Mirvish at the Panasonic Theatre.

Translated by Christopher Hampton, who also translated Art, GOD OF CARNAGE is directed here by Joel Greenberg. On a high-style set — a living room in Brooklyn, all blood-red and white marble, created by designer John Thompson — it brings together two couples: Allen and Annette, played by John Bourgeois and Sarah Orenstein; Michael and Veronica, played by Tony Nappo and Linda Kash.

On the day prior to the opening scene, it seems the couples’ young sons have had a playground altercation, resulting in a few lost teeth and a lot of questions and recriminations. Summoned by Veronica and Michael, Allen and Annette have made the trek to the former’s Brooklyn home to discuss just what is to be done. It is, of course, all very civilized, at least on the surface, but not so slowly and certainly very surely, that surface begins to crack and mayhem ensues. As things get more and more out of control, a certain sense of humanity — these are all characters we know, although not ones we necessarily like — keeps things on track.

Or it should, but in staging the play, although he succeeds in drawing four fine performances from his players, Greenberg seems to have trouble deciding whether G OF C is a comedy with dramatic overtones, or a drama that spills over into black comedy. And in trying to play it both ways, he manages only to unbalance his production. Holding up the comedy end of things, Kash once again proves her impressive comedic chops, leaving it to an affably-centred Nappo, Bourgeois, and Orenstein (who must and does make the unthinkable almost rational in the process) to argue for the dramatic end of things. And frankly, theirs is the more compelling argument here.

In the end, played as a comedy, G OF C comes across as little more than a put-down of the kind of elites Ford Nation so despises. Played as a drama, however, it’s a blackly funny reminder that in the battle of nature over nurture, nature always holds the winning hand.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

THEATRE REVIEW: NEEDLES AND OPIUM


Pictured: Marc Labrèche

JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
28 NOV 2013
R: 4.5/5

Over the past two decades, Toronto audiences have become addicted to the works of Robert Lepage, bedazzled as much by his unique stage vision as by the sometimes rambling stories he chooses to tell. So, it is small wonder that people are lining up to catch his re-working of NEEDLES AND OPIUM, a play — actually, more of a meditation — he created more than two decades ago on the heels of a particularly painful romantic break-up.

Lepage himself created the pivotal role of Robert in the original, to be replaced eventually after an extensive tour by Marc Labrèche. Happily, Labrèche returns to this re-imagining, currently playing, under the aegis of Canadian Stage, at the Bluma Appel Theatre, bringing not just a depth of experience but the gravitas he's picked up in the ensuing time as well. And this time out, Lepage, serving solely in the roles of writer/director, has created a much richer environment in which Robert's story unfold, — a three-sided half-cube that seems to be in almost constant motion, as Robert's life spins ever more out of control.

He is in Paris, when it begins, in a seedy if somewhat historic hotel room, brought there from his Quebec home to narrate a film about the American jazz great Miles Davis (played by Wellesley Robertson III), whose love affair with Paris introduced him to some new and troubling demons. At the same time as Davis was falling under Paris' spell, the French artist Jean Cocteau (played by Labrèche) had fallen under the spell of New York while dealing with his own addictions — and in NEEDLES AND OPIUM, Lepage defies time and place to bring these three disparate characters together, offering a unique perspective on addiction, pain and art that is rarely anything less than riveting.

Which is a good thing, here, as Lepage still eschews almost everything that smacks of conventional linear story telling here, instead overlaying and layering the three stories he's trying to tell with snippets of Cocteau's poetic prose and his drawings, excerpts of Davis' music, clips of Jeanne Moreau in Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows and of chanteuse Juliette Greco, who shared a long romance with the troubled jazz legend. The end result is both state of the art and state of mind.Perhaps the most notable change Lepage has wrought in this revisiting however is in making Davis an actual presence in the story instead of consigning him to mere musical background — and it is a powerful one.

But finally, the real star of the show, with all due respect to the two fine performers, is the constantly shifting set-piece that magically transforms itself from street-scape, to hotel room to recording studio to airplane. That said, it is not quite as fluid as one might wish in its magical transitions, given too often to loud bangs and periodic groans in its revolutions. For anyone who remembers some of the early difficulties in Lepage's ongoing love affair with technology, these are niggling, albeit still intrusive, concerns — and in the main, NEEDLES AND OPIUM makes its points with typical Lepage style.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

BALLET REVIEW: INNOVATION (MIXED PROGRAM)

Pictured: Dylan Tedaldi in ...black night's bright day...

JOHN COULBOURN. Special to TorSun
25 NOV 2013
R: 4/5

TORONTO - For the second time in her tenure at the helm of the National Ballet of Canada, Karen Kain has surrendered her stage and her classically-trained company to some of the most promising dance makers around, challenging them to combine their talents and her dancers to dazzling effect. 
And dazzle they do, in a program titled INNOVATION, currently playing at the Four Seasons Centre -- although, in fairness, the dazz-ability of the four contributing choreographers is neither assured nor consistent.


José Navas, for instance, makes an impressive start to his Watershed which opens the program, set to Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, then squanders it by having some of his male dancers appear in tutus -- a gimmick best left to comic ballets, in that it seems to always leave an audience in search of a punch-line.


And while principal dancer Guillaume Côté shifts gears to whip up a tasty, meaty work titled Being and Nothingness (Part 1) for fellow principal Greta Hodgkinson, setting it to Philip Glass's Metamorphosis, it is, at seven minutes and despite Hodgkinson's flawless work, really little more than a balletic amuse bouche, served up under a single electric light bulb.


The setting -- a huge rock, created by designer Hyemi Shin and lit by James F. Ingalls -- is also memorable in Robert Binet's Unearth -- so much so that it overshadows both Owen Pallett's original composition and a choreographic mission that suggests Binet has bitten off more meaning than he and his highly talented corps can digest, proving in the process that you never quite know what your going to find under a rock.


But happily in what proves to be a long two and a half hour program, Kain saves the best for last, inviting one-time artistic director James Kudelka back into the NBOC's creative fold to create another new work for the company. In ... black night's bright day... Kudelka continues his exploration of death and grieving in a work set to Pergolesi's valedictory, Stabat Mater, beautifully sung by soprano Dame Emma Kirkby and countertenor Daniel Taylor, backed by the NBOC Orchestra, masterfully conducted by David Briskin.
 In a series of wonderfully danced vignettes, a young woman (Heather Ogden) remembers the life and grieves the death of a young man (McGee Maddox), surrounded by a community which at first joins her in her grieving, then draws her back into the world of the living. But she is not alone in her grief, as attested by a solo from the indefatigable and always watchable Piotr Stanczyk as a lame young man determined to dance his sorrow and by the loverly duets danced by Côté and guest artist Svetlana Lunkina.


And while the transition from grief to joy is somewhat abrupt here -- leaving the impression that Kudelka has not said everything he has to say on this subject -- both dancers and audience seemed so happy to be reunited with Kudelka in the creative mode that everyone was more than prepared to overlook ... bnbd...'s minor flaws.

Monday, November 25, 2013

MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW: ALADDIN

Pictured: Adam Jacobs

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
25 NOV 2013
R: 3/5

TORONTO - I don't have kids -- but I do have a pretty good memory. Good enough, in fact, to remember how wary I was, as a child, of grown-ups who came on too strong. Back then, kids -- at least kids like me, of which there were (and still are) many, I suspect --  wanted to be led to a good time and drawn into it, not dragged to its edge and simply tossed in.


And the good folks at Disney waste precious little time dragging anyone anywhere when it comes to their new Broadway-bound family edition of ALADDIN, currently playing the Ed Mirvish Theatre. 
Instead, we're simply tossed into the fray as director Casey Nicholaw and his production team whip up a maelstrom of sound and furious colour, signifying -- well, not much, as near as I can figure.


There is a story of sorts, of course, as Chad Beguelin tries to nurture a meaningful love story in the brief intervals between a cascade of songs, composed by Alan Menken, with lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Beguelin himself -- most familiar from the animated movie that inspired it all, with an additional tune or two thrown in for good measure. But there's precious little room for the delicate love story at Aladdin's heart to blossom -- the romance between the street-smart titular hero (Adam Jacobs) and the Princess Jasmine (Courtney Reed) is constantly pushed aside by the meta hijinx of the three other members of Aladdin's boy band (Brian Gonzales, Jonathan Schwartz and Brandon O'Neill) or the machinations of the villainous vizier, Jafar (Jonathan Freeman) and his pint-sized sidekick Iago (Don Darryl Rivera). Not to mention James Monroe Iglehart's over-the-top Genie, popping out of his lamp with enough voltage to light the Great White Way, stealing every single scene he is in. In a bottle, this Genie would be labelled over-proof.


And if that's not enough distraction, Nicholaw injects plenty of his own choreography (more memorable for enthusiasm than inventiveness) into the melee, whipping things into even more of a visual frenzy with Gregg Barnes' vividly bejewelled costumes and Bob Crowley's equally lurid sets. 
In short, it's a visual assault that doesn't so much draw one in as simply sweep one up in an overly long first act that washes one up on the shores of intermission, gasping for air.


Things improve, for a time, in a much briefer second act, as Nicholaw offers up a magical carpet ride, pulling out all the theatrical stops but muting the emotional ones, for A Whole New World providing the highlight of a production that tries mightily to be magical but never really pulls a rabbit out of a hat. With the exception of Iglehart's gigantically genial Genie, there is no character in which an audience can make an emotional investment -- no quiet moment that might allow any of the characters, good or evil, to exist in three dimensions. And while that approach may work in an animated feature, when it comes to live-on-stage, it's simply not enough to be merely animated.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

THEATRE REVIEW: HEAVEN ABOVE/HEAVEN BELOW

Pictured: Layne Coleman, Linda Griffiths

JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
23 NOV 2013
R: 4/5


A man and a woman, once lovers, meet up at the wedding of a mutual friend and, later that evening, end up in her hotel room, where much booze and some illegal drugs are consumed. "Seen it," you are no doubt thinking as you fasten your seat belt for a voyage down a much-travelled road littered with recriminations and regrets for all the things that might have been. Or so you think.

But in her new play, HEAVEN ABOVE/HEAVEN BELOW, playwright-performer Linda Griffiths opts to take a road less travelled, introducing us to mature characters who are capable of wandering through their past without getting lost in it, regardless of what they ingest. After a health concern forced a delay last spring, HEAVEN ABOVE/HEAVEN BELOW opened this week in the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace in a production by TPM in association with Griffiths' Duchess Productions.

And there's a lovely synchronicity to it all, in view of the fact that the characters featured in this new play first saw the light of stage in Griffiths' The Darling Family: A Duet For Three, in which she starred back in 1991.

This new play is separated from the original by 20 years, and HE (played this time out by Layne Coleman) and SHE (Griffiths) have grown older, although initially, it is not clear how much they have matured, if at all. They arrive back at her hotel room — designer Kimberly Purtell transforms the small stage into a credible room in a boutique hostelry — armed with the dregs of a cheap bottle of wine, filched from the nuptial celebrations they have just attended.

The situation is obviously strained, but as the two indulge in some conversational thrust and parry, time starts to slip away and we begin to see the two characters who parted at the end of The Darling Family, having ended the pregnancy their brief romance had produced. She's now a journalist and a quite successful one, all things considered, while he's living in Britain, married, raising a four-year-old and writing for television.

Slowly, they reveal and examine the scars their union left, emboldened by booze, marijuana and cocaine, sometimes cautiously reading the ruins of their relationship and pouring over the past in the same way they once used I Ching to try to divine the future, at other times, tackling it all with alacrity. The repartee is both clever and cutting, and director Karen Hines quite wisely keeps things brisk, in an attempt to hide the fact that Coleman finally has been quite utterly miscast in the role of the urbane sophisticate to which his character pretends.

But Coleman's shortcomings notwithstanding, there is no denying these two work well together, and happily, when it comes to vulnerability, defiance and hard won wisdom, Griffiths proves capable of providing enough for two.

While it is not play to warm the hearts of the Calvinists in our midst, HEAVEN ABOVE/HEAVEN BELOW is a quietly hopeful evening of theatre that manages to put the past in the proper place. Behind us.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

THEATRE REVIEW: WINNERS AND LOSERS

Pictured: James Long, Marcus Youssef









JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
20 NOV 2013
R: 3.5/5

TORONTO - Judged purely on dramatic merit, WINNERS AND LOSERS (the Theatre Replacement/Neworld Theatre/Crow’s Theatre production currently being presented by Crow’s and Canadian Stage at the Berkeley Street Theatre) would come up a winner on pretty much every front.

Conflict? You bet! In fact, it’s surprising just how much conflict can be generated by merely staging an essentially pointless game, wherein two contestants — in this case, Neworld’s Marcus Youssef and Theatre Replacement’s James Long, each playing himself and sharing a writing credit in the process — suggest topics, and summarily (and with an apparent spontaneousness that is the hallmark of satisfying performances) assign to them the status of winner or loser, defending their verdicts where appropriate.

Dramatic build and character development? It’s got those in spades too, as the game these two play grows ever more personal, moving from judging and justifying the win/lose status of obvious targets like Pamela Anderson, microwaves and Mayor Ford to riffs on the relative merits of their personal masturbating styles, their respective fathers, their own parenting skills and finally, each other.

Under Chris Abraham’s taut direction, things move at a satisfying clip toward inexorable trainwreck status with the two performers employing everything including beer drinking and Greek wrestling to avoid being reduced to the status of mere talking heads by the process. Taken at face value, this is theatre as entertaining and as disturbing as it is unorthodox, stripped as it is of conventional plot and staging, dwelling instead in a seemingly real world, the soil of its Vancouver genesis still clinging to its roots and littered with deeply personal improvised explosive devices that prove more than capable of not only wounding and scarring but taking off a metaphorical limb, should the occasion demand.

It’s Ultimate Fighting for the intellectual set. But — and yes, there is a big but here — finally, WINNERS AND LOSERS falls apart under the weight of its own pretension, asking that we extrapolate what we have seen on stage into the broader world — see it as a damning commentary on the capitalist system. Problem is, the boyish dynamic behind their game — a game, I suspect, that would be dismissed by most females of my acquaintance as utterly childish after about 10 minutes — would be exactly the same, were this game played with the same kind of earnestness by two men raised in a country where communism, socialism, informed dictatorship or even theocracy held sway.

Finally, it’s too easy to write it off as just a guy thing, and frankly, WINNERS AND LOSERS emerges more as condemnation of the mind-numbing effects of testosterone than of capitalism. One wonders if it ever crossed any of the three male minds involved in creating this work that perhaps God gave you wives specifically to save you from playing hurtful games like these.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

THEATRE REVIEW: AFTER MISS JULIE

Pictured: Christopher Morris, Claire Armstrong

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
19 NOV 2013
R: 5/5

If it's gold you're seeking, make your way to a gold field. Pearls? Find an oyster bed. But you need something more than a theatre to strike theatrical riches. Case in point: the funky, friendly and aptly named Storefront Theatre, in the region of Bloor and Ossington — a charming place where one might expect to find theatrical offerings best defined by their earnestness rather than their excellence. But, thanks to the hard work of the Red One Theatre Collective, Storefront is currently playing host to a production of Patrick Marber's AFTER MISS JULIE that combines both earnestness and excellence to maximum effect. This is a riveting stuff.

AFTER MISS JULIE, as its title implies, is a brainchild of Strindberg's 19th century classic, Miss Julie, updated to the post World War II era, and Anglofied in a hugely successful attempt, all things considered, to render it more relevant to modern-day audiences. It is directed here by David Ferry in a sexy, muscular production that fuses the power of Marber's re-envisioning  with the talents of his three member cast in such a way that the production manages to keep its audience on the very edges of their seats for the duration.

Serving as his own (quite talented) set and lighting designer, Ferry takes Storefront's low-ceilinged, dimly-lit space and makes of its shortcomings - virtues, creating a dank "below-stairs" feel to the play's country house setting, standing in for a ruling class as tattered and torn as the Union Jack suspended over the audience.

Miss Julie (played by Claire Armstrong in a turn that is heartbreakingly luminescent) is a child of that class, and, as the lower classes around her celebrate an end to the war and the election of a Labour government, she finds herself perched on the very edge of the crumbling class system, a woman child, watching her world crumble beneath her very feet, unsure whether to jump or simply take the fall. Her father's chauffeur, John, played by with a note-perfect blend of swagger and obsequiousness by Christopher Morris, sees the same fault lines around him and is determined to land in a better place.

On this night, the two come together, drawn by the sexual tension that runs between them like an electrical current, fighting against the last vestiges of Victorian prudery and the British class system to find a way to save themselves from a coming social apocalypse. Meanwhile, Christine, Miss Julie's cook and John's intended bride, is determined to survive in the here and now, drowning the pain of John's betrayal in a simple pragmatism that is all but bulletproof, thanks to a triumphantly understated performance by Amy Keating.

Save for a few extended blackouts that strain an audience's patience, this is a superb production and as they breath new life into this old story, you're likely to realize that all it will take to turn AFTER MISS JULIE into a golden theatrical experience is a post-show drink and some fine conversation.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW: ANNIE

Pictured: Jenny Weisz

JOHN COULBOURN
Special to TorSun
18 NOV 2013
R: 2/5

I couldn't have been the only one surprised (and yes, disappointed) when Young People's Theatre announced plans to produce the Broadway musical ANNIE.

YPT, after all, has built a golden reputation producing plays and musicals that refuse to talk down to its target audience — and ANNIE, for all its considerable popularity and numerous awards, is a musical that talks down to absolutely everybody. In the final analysis, it's little more that a series of musical flashcards (featuring saccharine lyrics by Martin Charnin, set to simple tunes by Charles Strouse) hung loosely on a scant storyline cobbled together by Thomas Meehan in an attempt to pass it off as family entertainment — theatre for young audiences only in the minds of people who don't really think young audiences have much in the way of minds at all.

Even YPT's artistic director, Allen MacInnis, who programmed ANNIE and helms the production now playing in YPT's Front Street space, conceded its weaknesses but forged ahead, determined to mine it for something more than musical ear wax. And, to give him credit, in this pared-down 90 minute version, he's certainly tried.

For instance, to side-step the terminal cuteness that has rotted the teeth of most earlier productions of ANNIE, he's cast a young adult in the title role, sparing us the leather-lunged pubescents who normally don an obligatory red fright wig and cuddle up to whatever mutt is playing Sandy (consigned here largely to the dog house), all for the opportunity to belt out a musical ear worm like Tomorrow like they have enough life experience to really mean it.

But despite the best efforts of young Jenny Weisz — a wonderfully talented Sheridan College graduate cast in the title role — it's a ploy that simply doesn't work. In the end, when you take the cute out of ANNIE, there's nothing left, save for a few depression-era jokes about the New Deal and Roosevelt that, one suspects, have long since lost the ability to amuse anyone collecting Old Age Security and simply fly over over the heads of anyone younger. At least, in today's Toronto, they'll have the virtue of being easier to explain to the kiddies than some of our Mayor's most recent remarks.

To add further roughage to ANNIE's purée, MacInnis has recruited some fine talent to flesh out the supporting roles, but though Sterling Jarvis (cast as Oliver Warbucks), Louise Pitre (cast as the evil Miss Hannigan) and Shawna Van Omme (cast as Warbucks' pretty right hand) do fine work, their best efforts prove only that the first thing a good supporting performer requires is something worthy of support.

That said, this is an still an ANNIE that looks pretty good, thanks to designers Teresa Prysbylski (sets), Melanie McNeill (costumes) and Michael Walton (lighting). But sadly, despite MacInnis's determination to mine the story for gold, ANNIE remains theatrical small change — deep as a dime and not worth a plugged nickel.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


THEATRE REVIEW:
THE VALLEY


Pictured: Ian Lake,
Colin Mercer


JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
16 NOV 2013
R: 4.5/5

If it's simple answers to complex social questions you seek, you're more likely to find them, one suspects, in a church rather than in a theatre. After all, sermons most often wrap things up in nice simple packages, setting out answers most often painted in stark shades of black and white.
 
Theatre is a little messier, at least when its firing on all cylinders, serving up issues wrapped in sloppy, barely contained packages, coloured in the full spectrum of human experience. In the face of complicated moral issues,  it doesn't eschew answers in favour of helping us frame the questions we still need to ask. By those lights, Joan MacLeod's THE VALLEY, currently playing in its Toronto première on the stage of the Tarragon Theatre, is pretty fine theatre.

The subject is nothing if not totally contemporary — hardly surprising really, when one considers that MacLeod has often been amongst the first playwrights to tackle complex social issues like teen bullying and the like. On the increasingly mean streets of modern-day Vancouver, the lives of a hard-working police constable (played by Ian Lake) and a mentally tortured young man (Colin Mercer) intersect, with tragic, although not fatal, results. In the ensuing public firestorm, the young man's mother — Susan Coyne plays a proud, loving woman with a highly defined middle class sense of right and wrong — is highly critical of the officer's behaviour, although she has no idea of what really happened. She believes justice should be meted out with equal doses of compassion by those who serve on the front lines.

And while the police officer deals with her charges and accusations with equanimity, weighing them against a reality that embraces everything from murderous pig farmers to rioting hockey fans, the ensuing tension spills over into his home life, where his troubled young wife (Michelle Monteith) struggles to deal with a new baby, and a case of postpartum depression spinning increasingly out of control.

It all unfolds on a single sprawling set that serves not only as home to mother and son, husband and wife, but as a range of other locations as well, simply and effectively designed and lit by Graeme S. Thomson. Working in the round, director Richard Rose puts his trust in a finely honed script, a top-notch cast and an intelligent audience to sort things out — all to positive effect. Coyne and Lake give particularly well-drawn, solidly anchored performances, opening windows into the souls of good people who are not always right, while Mercer and Monteith offer less accessible turns reflective of our inability to connect with those touched by mental illness.

And while, on the surface, THE VALLEY would seem to be a dissertation on the shifting demands of modern day policing in a world where the social safety net is increasingly frayed — and a pretty effective one at that — it is, in the end, like so many fine works of art, also a compelling argument for empathy and understanding, offering an ending that leaves us with few answers, but a firmer knowledge of the questions that must be asked.

Monday, November 11, 2013

BALLET REVIEW: SWAN LAKE

Pictured:
James Kudelka






JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
11 NOV 2013
R: 4.5/5

Choreographer James Kudelka's legacy to the National Ballet of Canada, where he served as artistic director for several years, includes a whole library of memorable full-length story ballets. Of these, his re-telling of SWAN LAKE is probably the weakest — at least when judged exclusively from a narrative point of view. In the final analysis, it seems almost as if, in spinning out the story of the tormented Prince Siegfried, undone by his love for a Swan Queen in thrall to the villainous Rothbart, Kudelka simply couldn't come up with enough story to flesh out a truly timeless score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

But happily, not all full-length ballets are judged solely on their narrative depth, for as the NBOC proves in a remounting of Kudelka's 1999 masterwork currently gracing the stage of the Four Seasons, when it comes to story ballets, "story" is merely a modifier — and the subject is most definitely "ballet."

And when it comes to that particular form of dance, at least in its classical form, this SWAN LAKE is steeped in it. From its very opening scenes, in which Siegfried's courtly companions get carried away while cavorting with a local wench, through to the tragic and inevitable denouement, in which Rothbart succeeds finally in separating the young lovers forever, Kudelka fills the stage with breath-taking movement, bending it to his will to create not only showcases for magnificent leading artists, but moving tableaux of such great beauty and artistry featuring the entire company, that it often leaves you breathless.

For Saturday's opening performance, artistic director Karen Kain made some interesting casting choices, not the least of which is the casting of McGee Maddox in the role of Siegfried. A dancer of more mature physical dimension than a typical balletic leading man, Maddox is nonetheless a perfect partner for Xiao Nan Yu's stunning portrayal of the lovely Odette and her evil doppelganger Odile.
 
As well, possessed of a regal bearing, he requires none of the flourishes other dancers use to establish a courtly persona - but while that allows him to cut right to the chase, it also leaves him with precious little to do once that chase has been joined. Worse, in this production, it serves to unbalance the rivalry between his Siegfried and an otherwise wonderful Rothbart, as danced by Etienne Lavigne, who tends to disappear when pitted against Maddox. But such considerations are minor when one considers the artistry of, say, Keiichi Hirano's Fool or the work of Tina Pereira, Elena Lobsanova, Jenna Savella and Jillian Vanstone as royal aspirants to Siegfried's hand — all apparently found under mushrooms in the forest. Throw in a corps drilled to almost military precision and that magnificent music, all of it served up with high drama and even higher skill by the NBOC Orchestra under David Briskin and it's easy to overlook a certain look lack of narrative depth and simply float along, enjoying the scenery.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

THEATRE REVIEW:
THE GRAVITATIONAL PULL OF BERNICE TRIMBLE


Pictured: Peyson Rock, Alexis Gordon, Karen Robinson, Lucinda Davis

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
08 NOV 2013
R: 3/5

Theatre is built on trust: the trust a playwright places in actors who ultimately bring a play to life; the trust a playwright, director and actor place in a willing audience, that we will suspend disbelief and share their voyage; the trust an audience places in the play itself, a commitment to a shared voyage to someplace better, deeper, wiser, richer.

Ironically, though issues of trust sit at the very heart of Beth Graham's THE GRAVITATIONAL PULL OF BERNICE TRIMBLE, it is evident in the 90-plus minute production, co-produced by Obsidian and Factory Theatres, on the Factory mainstage, that the playwright doesn't trust anyone very much. Right from the top, there's the feeling the playwright wants to push us, rather than lead us through her tale of the title character's fight with early on-set Alzheimer's, as seen through the eyes of one of her three children.

Finally, when the playwright sets up a code to tell us whether we are in Bernice's kitchen or the kitchen of her daughter Iris, played by Alexis Gordon, the two locales in which the action is set, it's crystal clear she thinks we're not too bright.

And just as you are thinking "It's not that complicated," it dawns on you that for the most part, the entire play is concerned not with showing us what is going on in each of the character's minds, but with telling us, as Graham doesn't trust her cast with that task. Finally, Graham's belief that we aren't smart enough nor her cast good enough to take us where she wants us to be turns the whole thing into an illuminated monologue better read than performed. And that's a pity, for in examining a proud woman's struggle to regain some sort of control over a life spinning ever more  out of her own control, Graham raises issues not only thought-provoking but timely as well, Sadly, we have too much time to contemplate them, for the playwright's faulty dramatic structure brings us to the end of the play long before her characters arrive, leaving us plenty of time to think.

Faced with a play in which three of the characters exist only in the mind of the fourth, director Philip Akin does respectable work, drawing solid, if limited performances, from Karen Robinson as the tragic Bernice, Lucinda Davis as her daughter Sara and Peyson Rock as her son Peter. Despite Akin's best efforts, they all end up simply lined-up in support of the playwright's party line, with none of the shading that makes for memorable theatre.

In the role of narrator, Iris, Gordon spends so much time telling us what she is feeling that any attempt to inhabit those feelings becomes redundant. Her tentative, trembling need for approval grows a little wearisome. Still, many, I suspect, will support Graham's point of view, while as many will no doubt reject it —  but, trust me, this is not a play that will advance public debate.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

THEATRE REVIEW: MOSS PARK

Pictured: Graeme McComb, Haley McGee

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
05 NOV 2013
R: 2.5/5

There's a lot of good red meat in George F. Walker's MOSS PARK, currently playing in a Green Thumb Theatre production on the Theatre Passe Muraille mainstage. But director Patrick McDonald serves it it up as a bland and watery vegetarian stew, offering precious little into which an audience can sink its teeth.

A stand-alone sequel to Walker's Tough!, which premiered in the '90s, MOSS PARK reintroduces us to Bobby and Tina, two young Toronto kids who seemed damned to a life below the poverty line when we left them at the end of that first play. In the real world, nearly two decades have passed, but it is only a few years on in the world of Walker's characters, and their situation still appears hopeless as they meet up for an evening in the neglected park of title.

Tina, played by Haley McGee, is struggling as a single mother, raising a two-year-old daughter, while Bobby, played by Graeme McComb, remains a child trapped in a man's body, sorting out commitment issues, not just with Tina, with whom he wants to share his life, but with potential employers, jobs, the truth and even his loser friends. But Tina is short of patience, perched as she is on the verge of eviction and trying to sort out whether to continue with the pregnancy she's just discovered or to terminate it.

In many ways, this is typical Walker fare, unrelenting and occasionally even brutal in its examination of the self-perpetuating nature of the poverty cycle, lacing it all with compassion and black comedy of the bleakest sort — and when he rubs our noses in the options open to young people like these, it is utterly devastating on so very many fronts. Or it would be, one suspects, had director McDonald attacked the script with the same honesty and passion with which it was written.

Instead, in what one assumes is an attempt to create characters with  whom a broad range of young people can identify, he soft-pedals everything, serving up a Bobby and Tina who, despite the words they mouth, look and act like nothing so much as a pair of middle-class high school students, having a bad day.

Had McDonald had the courage or the vision to demand the same kind of grit from the performers as he received from set designer Martin Conboy — poverty, after all, leaves physical and emotional scars as well as mental ones —  MOSS PARK could have been deeply moving — thought-provoking not just for young adults but for a broader audience as well. Though it's hard to tell, this is a play that could have been a worthy successor to the likes of The End of Civilization, which still ranks as one of the most powerful contemporary indictments of public policy to ever grace a Toronto stage.

If this were a grammatical progression, Tough! would be followed by Tougher!, but sadly that's not the way it seems to work in theatre. Pity.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

OPERA REVIEW: ABDUCTION FROM THE SERAGLIO

Pictured: Curtis Sullivan,
Ambur Braid

JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun,
28 OCT 2013
R: 3/5

TORONTO - It may be hard to walk a mile in another man’s shoes, but it can be even harder to re-walk a mile in your own, attempting to retrace your own footsteps exactly. But don’t just take my word for it. Ask Opera Atelier’s Marshall Pynkoski, whose revival of his 2008 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s ABDUCTION FROM THE SERAGLIO at the Elgin Theatre (where it opened Saturday) leads his audience through familiar territory, but shows them a radically different adventure.

Where Pynkoski’s original take was so deliciously light it threatened on to take wing, his new take seems often laboured, even desperate, as it struggles to escape the cocoon of Gerard Gauci’s lush Persian sets and take wing, arrayed in Margaret Lamb’s jewel-tinted costumes. In attempting to recapture his vision, Pynkoski has even recruited some of the same players to help re-tell this comedic tale of two British women, kidnapped and held captive in a pasha’s harem, from which their paramours try to rescue them.

The always-delightful soprano, Carla Huhtanen, succeeds in recapturing the magic of her winning performance as the morally adaptable maidservant Blonde, while bass-baritone Curtis Sullivan and bass Gustav Andreassen do some fine work in their returns as Pasha Selim and his bloodthirsty henchman, Osmin, respectively. To round out the cast, soprano Ambur Braid steps into the role of the noble Konstanze, mistress to Blonde and object of Selim’s affections, while tenors Lawrence Wiliford and Adam Fisher are cast as the noble twit, Belmonte, a man madly in love with Konstanze, and Pedrillo, manservant to Belmonte and Blonde’s paramour, respectively.

And while they all try, the production just doesn’t come together, as Pynkoski forsakes his hard-won reputation as a director with a light, deft touch and strains for a broader, more frantic comedic take, throwing off the production’s timing in the process. Things become tedious, despite some lovely interventions by choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, who manages to bring the stage to sparkling life with her corps of dancers, every time things get deadly.

Pynkoski’s over-reach is particularly evident in the performances of the new-comers, for while Braid does her usual fine work vocally, she clearly hasn’t been given a clear vision of just who her character is. Wiliford, meanwhile, seems totally at sea and, as often as not, is content to merely show up and sing, an approach which, ironically, Fisher, who brings so much in the way of over-the-top mugging to his performance, might want to consider on occasion.

But all is not lost, despite Pynkoski’s apparent decision to transform Mozart’s opera buffa into an opera boffo — apparently wooing an audience steeped in the frenetic comedic styles of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey without much success. There is still the enduring charm of the music, and with David Fallis in superb control of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chorus, it is the music that saves the day. If not the production.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

THEATRE REVIEW: PUPPET UP! UNCENSORED


JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun,
24 OCT 2013
R: 3.5/5

TORONTO - When it comes to potty-mouthed puppets, it’s pretty old hat here in Toronto, where Ronnie Burkett and his Theatre of Marionettes have been happily and successfully stretching the envelope of good taste for years, so that it now resembles nothing so much as a bee skin stretched over a rain barrel.

Which means if you’re hoping to impress a Toronto audience by transforming family fare like the Muppets into X-rated stuff for the adult set, you’d better bring your A-game. And in many ways, that’s precisely what WestBeth Entertainment has done with PUPPET UP! UNCENSORED, which opened at the Panasonic Theatre this week, produced (and co-created with director and host Patrick Bristow) by Brian Henson, son of the late Jim Henson.

With a menagerie of puppets, obviously inspired by the Henson’s Muppet mob, six hugely talented (and oddly uncredited) puppeteers take to the stage, with Bristow at the helm, prepared to take even the most ludicrous suggestions from their audience and riff on them to the delight of just about everybody involved. Yet, very early on in Tuesday’s opening, it became very obvious that Bristow and his crew hadn’t done much in the way of homework or acclimatization, assuming apparently that Canadians were just Americans in toques and Toronto, merely New York running on an outdated Swiss movement.

In assembling the elements for one of their first improv skits, Bristow called for a political name and, surprise, surprise, Rob Ford’s was proffered with an enthusiasm this crew clearly seemed to think should reserved for John Boehner. In fact, the Ford name meant nothing to the host and his cohort of American puppeteers, until one of them dredged up a memory of an infamous video no one seems to have seen despite the international attention it has received. To be fair, it all came together in an irreverent sketch involving Hisawner dancing a pickup ballet at the Gay Pride parade, but one shudders, nonetheless, to think of what might have happened had the name of Senator Mike Duffy collided with this crew’s clearly limited vision of the world.

Still, PUPPET UP! UNCENSORED offers a new perspective on puppetry, forcing the felt, fur and tennis ball set to share the spotlight with their human underlings. Where conventional puppet shows go to great pains to conceal the puppeteer, PU! U puts the puppeteers front and centre, showing the puppets-only versions of their work on two video screens, located on both sides of the stage, often incorporating technology to turn the work of six talented artists into a cast of hundreds, And it’s all good fun — at least until it isn’t. Puppet improv, it develops, follows the same downward trajectory as regular improv, and things get pretty silly pretty fast. Happily, Henson has revived two of his father’s earlier puppet skits that, at least for a short while, serve to slow the transition from work filled with childish wonder to work filled with simple potty-mouthed childishness. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

THEATRE REVIEW: FARTHER WEST


Pictured:
William Webster,
Tara Nicodemo



JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun,
21 OCT 2013
R: 3.5/5


TORONTO - Think of it as the world’s second oldest profession — the career some men make of sweeping women up who are plying the world’s oldest profession to try to carry them away from it all, whether they want to be carried away or not. Playwright John Murrell, however, didn’t go back to the beginning of time when he wrote his story about a prostitute and the men determined to save her, back in the early ’80s. Instead, Murrell rewound only a century or so to recount the true story of the prostitute/madame May Buchanan and the two men determined to lift her from the way of life into which she had fallen.

Problem was, May didn’t fall into it as much as she jumped into it with her eyes wide open, embracing it for the freedom it could give her. She didn’t want lifting.

Murrell’s play is called FARTHER WEST, and it recently made a return to the Toronto stage after an absence of more than 25 years in a Soulpepper production currently playing the Young Centre.

We first meet Meg, played by Tara Nicodemo, as a young woman, naked and asleep in her father’s Ontario home in the equally naked arms of a man she has seduced. As Meg recalls her pragmatic father’s advice to keep moving west ’til she encounters a society that won’t judge her, we see her take her place in the frontier town of Calgary, where she catches the eye of Constable Seward (Dan Lett), a moralizing police constable obsessed with saving Meg’s soul, even while he aches to despoil her body. She also catches the eye of Thomas Shepherd (Matthew MacFadzean, too long absent from Toronto stages), a rancher who simply wants to look after Meg and build his life around her.

Surrounded by her stable of whores (Akosua Amo-Adem, Christine Horne and the ever-capable Kyra Harper) and her clients (Dan Chameroy, Jeff Lillico and Evan Buliung in a small but lovely turn), Meg struggles to maintain her own vision of herself in the face of the two men’s visions of what she should be, all the while moving ever further westward against the backdrop of designer Astrid Janson’s evocative mountainscape, beautifully lit by Graeme Thomson.

This is graphically adult and often compelling fare, almost operatic in its scope and staging, but despite the best efforts of director Diana Leblanc and a strong supporting cast that also includes Jesse Aaron Dwyer and William Webster, the triangle on which Murrell has built his story eventually buckles and collapses. MacFadzean’s and Nicodemo’s finely etched performances continuously wash up on the shoals of Lett’s shallow one-dimensional take on Seward, whose crazed religious zeal proves inadequate to even Nicodemo’s perhaps-too-understated commitment to freedom and is certainly no match for the powerful passion with which MacFadzean fills his performance as Shepherd.

So while everyone else seems determined to keep things moving FARTHER WEST at every turn, when the focus is on Lett, things just seem to go further and further south.
THEATRE REVIEW: YUKONSTYLE

Pictured: Grace
Lynn
Kung, François Klanfer










JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
21 OCT 2013
R: 3/5

TORONTO - There’s a problem with perching oneself on the cutting edge of something. Cutting edges, after all, are usually honed to an exquisite sharpness and theatre artists have learned that one wrong move while perching on the cutting edge of things can leave one bleeding on the stage. Case in point: Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Theatre production of YUKONSTYLE, the second in a pair of plays by Quebecois playwright Sarah Berthiaume to grace this stage — The Flood Thereafter played this same space just before YUKONSTYLE began last week.

This time out, Ted Witzel directs, stepping into shoes filled by Ker Wells in the earlier production — the two comprising the inaugural cohort of the York University/Canadian Stage MFA in Stage Direction program. And at first blush, it must be conceded that Witzel has put together the livelier production of the two, for in spinning out the tale of four disparate characters brought together during the seemingly endless Yukon winter of 2007, while the equally endless Vancouver trial of pig farmer Robert Picton dominates the airwaves.

The trial has caught the attention of Garin (Ryan Cunningham), whose mother, a young First Nations’ woman like many of Picton’s victims, disappeared from the streets of Vancouver when he was only a child. Now, grown and living with Yuko, a young Japanese woman with problems of her own, played by Grace Lynn Kung, he pesters his alcoholic father, a displaced French Canadian played by François Klanfer, for information but the old man refuses to talk about Garin’s mother and her disappearance.

Then, one night, Yuko encounters Kate, an aspiring under-age Harajuku girl played by Kate Corbett, as unprepared for the Yukon winter as she is for the baby she’s carrying. Yuko promises Kate a place to stay for as long as she needs it, but the casually ignorant and blithely racist Kate proves to be trouble for the already-overwound Garin.

The playwright’s work is once again translated into English by Nadine Desrochers and once again emerges as an unwieldy mix of poetry and the prosaic — Kate at one point worries she might become “a Mama Burger squashed between two snowbanks” — and although lighting designer Bonnie Beecher and projection designer Cameron Davis conspire with the hardworking cast and director Witzel to impose a sense of order on Berthiaume’s fevered imaginings (or at least show them in their best light), in the end, they are undone by a play written more for radio or television than for the stage.

What is perhaps most ironic here is that while each of the cast members manages to shine for a few brief moments in this ‘cutting edge’ piece of theatre about alienated young people, it is left to the seasoned Klanfer, with his strong skill set and a commanding voice, to make things come briefly alive as his character is dying. They may all be perched on the cutting edge here, but only Klanfer succeeds in making us see flesh and blood.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

THEATRE REVIEW: A STORY BEFORE TIME

Pictured: The Company

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
18 OCT 2013
R: 4.5/5

TORONTO - It’s not the miracle of creation that is likely to impress any adult lucky enough to catch Young People’s Theatre’s presentation of Kaha:wi Dance Theatre’s and the Banff Centre’s A STORY BEFORE TIME. Mind you, it is that very miracle, as recounted in the folklore of the Onkwehonwe First Nation, that sits at the very heart of this tale — and it is a tale well told indeed.


But the true miracle here can be found as much in watching a theatre-full of children at an age when they normally operate at two volumes — loud and “If you don’t cut that racket ...” — rendered utterly speechless by their absorption in this simple tale, as in the tale itself, exquisitely told through the fusion of word, dance, music and the artistry with which they are all brought together. But let’s start at the beginning.


In the Onkwehonwe’s version of creation, the lovely Sky Woman is sent to earth from her celestial home by her loving mate, and after being aided by the animals, establishes her home on Turtle Island, built on the back of a giant turtle. There, she gives birth to a daughter, who in turn, mates with the West Wind, and from that union, produces twin sons — the good-hearted Holder of the Sky and the dark-natured Bent One. Constantly at odds, it is nonetheless these two offspring who shape and populate our home on Turtle Island and give it its balance.


The bare bones of the story are delivered up by a storyteller (Semiah Kaha:wi Smith) and brought to life by a cast of talented dancers — Sarain Carson-Fox, Zhenya Cerneacov, Michael Demski, Louis Laberge-Cote, Emily Law and choreographer Santee Smith — making the most of Smith’s choreography, set to music created by Donald Quan, music which seamlessly blends traditional First Nations’ elements like drum and flute with more contemporary instrumentation, all with lovely effect.


There’s the same sort of blending of elements of the timeless indigenous culture and the modern in both Harry Frehner’s delightful sets and costumes and in Smith’s demanding, spell-binding choreography, both of which serve to make the story compelling to a modern young audience while, at the same time, respectfully serving the spirit of the tale they are telling. Overall, A STORY BEFORE TIME is presented more as an exercise in sharing than in proselytizing and that too is refreshing.


Finally, it is only in the text, written by Drew Hayden Taylor that A STORY ... disappoints.
 In a production that clearly trusts its young audience in every other respect, Taylor’s attempts to achieve collegial status — references to ice cream and things that are “icky” — are jarring in their obvious intent to patronize an audience that has proven itself content to meet the challenges this story throws at them. And to soar on the wings of it.
THEATRE REVIEW:
I LOVE LUCY: LIVE ON STAGE


Pictured: Sirena Irwin
JOHN COULBOURN,
Special to TorSun
18 OCT 2013
R: 2.5/5

TORONTO - At some point in each of our lives, we’ve all loved Lucy, or more specifically, the late Lucille Ball, the flame-haired queen of comedy whose reign over the golden age of television started, fittingly enough, with a little show called I Love Lucy. Today, Lucy still lives in golden memories, re-runs and YouTube clips, but for theatre maker Rick Sparks, apparently, that’s just not enough. So, he’s acquired the rights to two episodes of Ball’s ground-breaking sitcom and with the help of collaborator Kim Flagg, adapted them as a stage show titled I LOVE LUCY: LIVE ON STAGE, currently on the boards at the Royal Alexandra Theatre under the Mirvish imprimatur.

The two episodes — The Benefit and Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined — have been recreated as a live taping, complete with an unctuous emcee (well played by Mark Christopher Tracy), back-up singers and even the obligatory flashing “Applause” sign. After the audience has been suitably ‘fluffed’ by Tracy, the taping commences in CBS studios cheesily recreated by Aaron Henderson, with Sirena Irwin playing Lucy, Bill Mendieta playing Ricky, Kevin Remington playing Fred, and Joanna Daniels playing Ethel.

And let’s be clear here, that’s who they are playing, for the names Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are never mentioned — even a certain Chevrolet pitch mistress (who was in fact a staple on NBC), appears under the moniker Dinah ‘Beach.’ And for a little while, it all kind of works, at least on the nostalgic level, although the audience plants and the silly bonhomie start to wear a trifle thin pretty rapidly.

And as the 100-minute show drags on, one starts to realize that there’s a whole lot of impersonation going on up on stage — and very little acting, at least of the commendable kind. Through the magic of make-up, Irwin has been tricked out as some sort of broad caricature of the woman she is playing and she even manages moments where she successfully mimics some of that beloved actor’s moves. But finally, ironically, she works so hard to capture a few moments of acting like Lucille Ball that she fails to even come close to reacting like her — and it was in Ball’s reactions that her brand was born.

Under Sparks’ direction, Mendieta, Remington and Daniels seem trapped in a similar box as Ricky, Fred and Ethel, utterly failing to capitalize in any way on moments where they’ve been given an opportunity to show us the actors behind the characters. In an attempt to enliven the growing tedium, Flagg and Sparks throw in re-creations of period commercials and even a fake trivia contest, but in the end, it all adds up to something distinctly underwhelming. For anybody who really did love Lucy, this isn’t “Live On Stage,” but merely “Going Through The Motions.”

Friday, October 18, 2013

THEATRE REVIEW: THE NORMAN CONQUESTS

Pictured: Laura Condlin,
Albert Schultz, Fiona Reid

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
17 OCT 2013
R: 3.5/5

TORONTO - There was a time in Canada, back in the ’70s, when every regional theatre included at least one comedy by Alan Ayckbourn in every season. But times change, and for an entire new generation of theatre-goers, the works of the British playwright who spun out comedic hits like A Chorus of Disapproval and How the Other Half Loves have become unexplored territory.

Now, after a renaissance in the country of its birth, one of Ayckbourn’s more clever works has returned to the Toronto stage in a Soulpepper production at the Young Centre. Actually, make that three productions, for in THE NORMAN CONQUESTS, Ayckbourn created a ground-breaking theatrical triptych — three plays, each (more or less) capable of standing on its own that, when viewed in total, come together as a single comedy in six acts, with scenes that interweave and interlock to tell a larger tale.

As stories go, mind you, it’s a relatively simple one, unfolding over the course of a weekend and set in a country home inhabited by an aged invalid (whom we never meet) and her spinster daughter, Annie, played by Laura Condlin who serves as caregiver. Annie, it seems, is the youngest of three children, and she has called upon her elder brother Reg (Derek Boyes) and his prissy wife Sarah (Fiona Reid) to take over while she goes away for a weekend of rest. What she hasn’t told them is that her partner for the weekend won’t be Tom (Oliver Dennis), the hang-dog veterinarian who’s been sniffing around, but rather her brother-in-law, the Norman of title (Albert Schultz), wild-boy husband to Annie’s work-addicted sister, Ruth (Sarah Mennell).

It all begins in the dining room of the family home in a work titled Table Manners and from there moves to the living room (Living Together) before wrapping up in the garden (Round and Round the Garden), with each instalment revealing more and more of Norman’s efforts to keep everybody — or at least all of the women and himself — happy and fulfilled.

All plays take place simultaneously, with characters exiting one play and re-appearing in another, carrying elements of plot and character with them. It’s an often giddy romp, saved from pure farce by the human insight of Ayckbourn’s work. (As for each play standing on its own, it’s true — if one can live with a lot of loose ends. The time is the mid-’70s and while there is no reference to the time of year it takes place, this Soulpepper cycle would suggest it is autumn, judging from the amount of mutton on stage, masquerading as lamb.

In staging the work in the round on sets designed by Ken MacKenzie, director Ted Dykstra manages to keep the pot bubbling despite it’s slightly dated feel, making the most of performances that range from comedic gold (Reid) to a rather disappointing brass plate (Mennell), with Condlin, Boyes and Dennis each given plenty of opportunity to shine along the way.

But as the title implies, the success or failure of the cycle revolves around Norman and the actor playing him — and while Dykstra and Schultz collaborate to ensure Norman has sufficient charm to cut a wide swath through all three plays, physically, they go a trifle overboard on the “unmade bed” couture the character cultivates. This is a Norman of such slovenly mien that one suspects his “unmade bed” just might be hiding a few critters — finally more dirty old man than over-sized boy. Still, even if Norman isn’t much of a conquerer, there’s enough charm here and enough cleverness to count this production a win in three parts.

Friday, October 11, 2013

MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW: LES MISÉRABLES

Pictured: Earl Carpenter, Ramin Karimloo


JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
10 OCT 2013
R: 4.5/5

TORONTO - If, despite Thomas Wolfe’s injunction, you did decide to go home again, chances are, the first thing you’d probably do is redecorate. Certainly, that seems to have been much on producer Cameron Mackintosh’s mind when he returned to LES MISÉRABLES, the mega-musical woven by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer from Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name — or, at least, that novel’s dramatic high points.


As a consequence, the silver anniversary Broadway-bound edition currently playing the Princess of Wales Theatre boasts not only a spanking new staging from directors Laurence Connor and James Powell (replacing John Caird and Trevor Nunn) and new orchestrations, but a whole new design too, conceived by Matt Kinley, a design, inspired by novelist Hugo’s own paintings, that embraces an entire-quarter century technological innovation. Not surprisingly, it’s spectacular.


To bring the story to life, there’s a whole new roster of talent too, led by Richmond Hill’s Ramin Karimloo, returning in triumph from London’s West End. Karimloo’s strong, impassioned take on the one-time criminal Jean Valjean is pitted against Earl Carpenter’s equally fine performance as the unbending Inspector Javert — and the two provide some of this production’s finest moments as they play a deadly game of fox and hound across the width and breadth of 19th century France.


Of course, that’s always been the strength of both this musical and the novel that spawned it. But things get a little rockier when LES MIZ, the musical, morphs into a love story between Marius, a young revolutionary played by Perry Sherman, and Cosette (Samantha Hill), an orphan raised by Jean Valjean. Though both actors give it a game try, the plot has become so episodic by the time they meet that their audience must take their passions on faith. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast enjoys mixed success. As Fantine, Genevieve Leclerc all but disappears, done in as much by memories of Susan Boyle and of Anne Hathaway’s over-wrought Oscar-winning performance, one suspects, as by her own shortcomings.

Cliff Saunders and Lisa Horner are all but out-of-control as the child-abusing Thénardiers — and quickly become tedious, then irrelevant. Melissa O’Neil plays their daughter Éponine with a touch of Che but makes it work nonetheless, while Mark Uhre has stirring moments as Enjolras, the golden-haired leader of the revolutionaries, making his wig — a bizarre 19th century version of a Trump comb-over — all the more regrettable.


Ultimately, of course, what Mackintosh and his team have done to make LES MISÉRABLES sparkle for its silver anniversary involves a lot more plate than sterling, which is fitting in its way. LES MIZ may boast some of theatre’s most enduring musical earworms, but historically, this adaptation has always relied too heavily on incident over character development, using a theatrical shorthand comprised of cute kids, waving flags and a musical palette both jingoistic and anthemic, to make up for its shortcomings. And while all the new glitter is likely to make this the best LES MIZ you’ve ever seen, for many, it may still seem oddly hollow at its core.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

OPERA REVIEW: PETER GRIMES

Pictured: Ben Heppner

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
09 OCT 2013
R: 4.5/5

TORONTO - A lot can change in 70 years but not everything gets simpler. Certainly, thanks to a seemingly never-ending flow of horrific news stories, composer Benjamin Britten’s darkly masterful opera PETER GRIMES is, if anything, more emotionally complex and morally ambiguous for a contemporary audience than it was for the audience at its 1945 première in London, England.

Back then, one suspects, it would have been easier by far to condemn the nosey hypocrites that populate the small fishing village at the heart of George Crabbe’s poem, The Borough (which inspired the opera), as moralizing poseurs for their treatment of the fisherman of title, a lumpen, hard-working anti-social type who exists under a cloud of suspicion after his young apprentice dies in mysterious circumstances. But in today’s world of heightened social awareness and responsibility, it is not so easy to dismiss their concerns, particularly in the fine production currently gracing the stage of the Four Season Centre, under the aegis of the Canadian Opera Company.

At least initially, director Neil Armfield (whose work for Opera Australia, the Houston Grand Opera and the West Australia Opera is ‘revived’ here by Denni Sayers) makes the most of that ambiguity, letting us believe there may be something to their suspicions, as a malevolent Ben Heppner (in magnificent tenor voice, despite some lingering vocal problems that forced him to cancel an opening night appearance) simmers and stews in the title role. In a magnificently nuanced performance, Heppner builds a memorable Grimes, completely human, undone but undiminished by his own obstinacy.

And happily, Heppner has been surrounded by a superb supporting cast that works hard to showcase that humanity, from bass-baritone Alan Held as the gruff but compassionate Balstrode, to soprano Ileana Montalbetti, whose soaring high notes as school mistress Ellen Orford make up for the fact she all but disappears in the lower registers. Throw in tenor Roger Honeywell (as a feisty, fiery Bob Boles), mezzo Judith Christin (as the addled Mrs. Sedley) and a host of others and it is all but impossible not to get caught up in this dark tale, particularly when it is anchored by the strength and musicality of the COC Chorus backed by the nuanced work of conductor Johannes Debus and the COC Orchestra.

In staging the work, Armfield embraces Britten’s conceit wherein the poet Crabbe haunts the stage in a spectral, non-singing turn, and while Thomas Hauff adds an element of detached depth to the production in his role of observer and arbiter, one can’t help but wish Armfeld and his associates had found something more for him to do than re-arrange the chairs on Ralph Myer’s austere and highly evocative community hall set, finely lit by Damien Cooper. Granted, it affords us the opportunity to enjoy Britten’s musical evocations of nature and humanity to the utmost, but it also impedes the dramatic flow of what is otherwise a strong and moving production.
OPERA REVIEW: LA BOHÈME

Pictured: Dimitri Pittas, Grazia Doronzio

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
07 OCT 2013
R: 4/5

TORONTO - There’s a reason LA BOHÈME is one of the most popular operas in the world — and in staging it in a new co-production for the Canadian Opera Company, the Houston Grand Opera and the San Francisco Opera, director John Caird seems to have plugged directly into it.

Caird’s new production of Giacomo Puccini’s most enduring work recognizes that, despite the fact that LA BOHÈME deals in no small part with the tragic romance between the poet Rodolfo and the frail seamstress Mimi, what Puccini and his collaborators, librettists Giuseppe Giacoso and Luigi Illica created in their adaptation of Henri Murger’s short stories is an operatic celebration of life and art, even in the face of poverty and death. As a result, Caird’s new production, currently playing at the Four Seasons Centre, fairly spills over with life. In fact, sometimes — specifically in Act II, set on Christmas Eve in the Café Momus in Paris’s bustling Latin Quarter — Caird seems overwhelmed by all that life, letting it crowd out the story he has heretofore done a pretty fine job of telling.

In this, Caird shares blame with designers David Farley, whose execution of the fine idea of a belle époque Paris which flows from the brush of Rodolfo’s painter friend, Marcello, claims far too much of the stage, and Michael James Clark, who relies too much on that life to light up the scene. Toronto audiences, after all, have grown accustomed to LA BOHÈME played out on a pretty spectacular set in an earlier, now retired production and this scene in particular is likely to make you regret its passing. Happily, however, Caird has been given a cast that more than makes up for the production’s shortcomings at almost every turn.

In the pivotal roles of Rodolfo and Mimi, tenor Dimitri Pittas and soprano Grazia Doronzio are vocally almost perfectly matched and do a fine job of capturing the romance, the passion and the pathos of their story. Meanwhile, life goes on in the (admittedly rather expansive) garret loft Rodolpho shares with his good friend, Marcello (baritone Joshua Hopkins), and two other artists — the philosopher Colline, sung by bass-baritone Christian Van Horne, and the musician Schaunard, sung by baritone Phillip Addis.

And despite their shared poverty and the double drama Rodolfo and Mimi’s romance and Marcello’s stormy affair with the coquette Musetta (soprano Joyce El-Khoury in fine voice despite the fact she seems to have parachuted in from another production), Caird manages to capitalize on his characters’ youth and their shared passion for art and life, using it as a powerful counter-balance to the tragedy at its heart, making death very much a part of the vibrant life they share.

As usual, it is a production well served by the COC Orchestra, this time under the baton of conductor Carlo Rizzi, who adroitly keeps a firm rein on Puccini’s gorgeous score without ever appearing to drive it. While it isn’t likely to make it even more popular, this is at least a production that should do nothing to diminish the place LA BOHÈME holds in the world of opera.
THEATRE REVIEW: VENUS IN FURS

Pictured: Rick Miller, Carly Street

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
08 OCT 2013
R: 4.5/5

TORONTO - Every now and again, a piece of theatre hits the stage that reminds us that the operative word in theatre is ‘play.’ At their best, playwrights ‘play’ with plot, words and their audience, after all, and certainly, all the best actors ‘play’ their parts, even when working their butts off. And when all this play comes together, an audience is able to climb aboard and join the game. Canadian Stage’s production of VENUS IN FURS, currently gracing the stage of the Bluma Appel Theatre, is one of those theatre pieces.

It features a clever, thought-provoking and thoroughly modern script, courtesy of playwright David Ives, one that, even though it is built around it, it proves to be far, far more than a mere adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 19th century Venus im Pelz — the novel which gave the world “masochism” as counterbalance to “sadism.” It also features two strong players, kept more or less in balance by the increasingly sure-handed skills of director Jennifer Tarver.

Rick Miller plays Thomas, a playwright who has adapted Sacher-Masoch’s famous novel, while Carly Street plays Vanda, a brash and brassy New York actress who arrives just as Thomas is finishing a long and disappointing day of casting. That he sees in this latest arrival everything he loathes about the actresses he has so far seen is of little consequence to the force of nature that is Vanda. She steamrolls him into an audition wherein Thomas’ adaptation opens windows into something far more personal — and definitely more real — than the 19th century novel they are bringing to life.

The story unfolds on an intimate little set created by Debra Hanson and lit by Michael Walton, and while it might be considered a little on the romantic side for a 21st century rehearsal studio, there is no doubt it lends a certain romance to the proceedings. Miller, for his part, turns in a strong performance, marred only slightly by the fact that he plays his emotional cards a little too close to his vest, never letting us feel the heat until it is in full flame. Which makes it that much easier for Street to steal the show, seamlessly inhabiting a part filled with so many quicksilver character changes with such ease that one suspects that Mercury is as important here as Venus.

Finally, although it is marked with an almost giddy sense of play throughout, this is very grown-up work, challenging at every turn, evolving gender roles along with conventional notions of what represents the sexual norm. Ultimately, these are things to ponder after you’ve left the theatre, however. In VENUS IN FURS, as in few other productions, from lights up to lights down, the play (and the playing) really is the thing.