Theatre Reviews

Toronto
Montreal
INDECENT - This deeply moving, complex and exquisitely directed production reveals the enormous talent of Montreal’s Segal Centre for Performing Arts. Written by Paula Vogel, the play was first produced at the Yale repertory theatre in 2015. This present show is directed by Lisa Rubin, artistic and executive Director of the Segal Centre in Montreal.  To be very clear, Indecent is not the staging of Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance written in 1906 that  first appeared on Broadway in 1923.  This is the story of the difficult journey of a classic work of Yiddish theatre called God of Vengeance (Got fun Nekome) , and the process it went through from its creation pre World War I  to the present.

What Paula Vogel gives us is a play within a play, where 10 excellent actors, dancers and three musicians, all part of the  Segal Arts Centre,  perform   47 characters  including the ones from the original play plus all the people involved in various stagings around the world as the actors grow older as well as the administrative population in Europe and America who influenced positively and negatively the difficult journey of Asch’s  controversial work.

Bits of that original play, as well as moments of their collective experiences in theatres across the continent and off stage, are shown  by these  actors who imitate  the style of the  performers from Asch’s original  Yiddish-speaking theatre company  as dancers and musicians.  They rehearse, quarrel, defend themselves from attacks by theatre administrators and censors.  They show how they survived in Germany and Poland during the war, before they were swallowed by prejudice and antisemitism, on the part of the public and the administrators who were afraid to break with traditions and stereotypes.

We learn of every important step that gave life to this controversial production, causing shock, anger and much criticism, especially within the Jewish communities of all the cities it visited.  The on-stage illustrations of snippets from the original show, which integrated marvellous dancing and singing, much Klezmer cabaret style and Brechtian snippets of short episodes along with the Klezmer exuberance that  exposes and  tears open the struggle of a whole  Community of Central European Jews.  They represented all the actors from the theatre hired to perform what they felt they had the right to show.  All they demanded was   the right to define themselves as any other cultural community on this earth, despite of what tradition might have them believe.

In the original play, God of Vengeance, Yankl and his wife Soreh, run a brothel in their basement.  Asch insisted that even Jews are allowed to run brothels and be prostitutes and perform a beautiful lesbian love story  that became one of the high points of the show. However with the rise of fascism, especially in America, there was fear that Asch’s theatre was feeding antisemitism which became even stronger in the 1930’s

Parallel to this difficulty of dealing with the play that underlies the entire performance, Vogel’s work embraces the whole context of European Jewish life and Central European theatre unfolding in the background as the company travels around with the show.    The authentic traditions of Burlesque and cabaret that reminds us of the Klezmer Cabaret style with a German twist,  with cross dressing ,   and later  as they move towards  WWII  how this theatre was transplanted to America and the difficulties that awaited the those who decided to come to America assuming they would have no trouble fitting into Broadway. However, actors who could barely speak English had a very difficult time and much emphasis was placed on their attempts to prepare for performances in a language they did not know.

. .  This side of social and cultural development was emphasized in Vogel’s version and dramatized in a most interesting way as the new Immigrants to America tried  their best to read their lines trying to show they were not overcome by language difficulties. Their lack of  English prevented them from understanding the administrative interference in the text and the American producers’ need to cut portions of the play to avoid upsetting  Americanized Jewish  audiences on Broadway who  would not want to  see Jewish women working as prostitutes, in Jewish run Brothels, or even lesbianism on stage.

Play moves from different historical moments changing actors as the characters age and all the actors adapt to their roles and their ages most strikingly in this perfect ensemble piece where they all fit together like the most perfectly well-oiled machine.  As musical theatre is Americanised, we hear how   styles, gestures, tunes and forms that are too strongly linked with Yiddish traditions, are transformed by contemporary American music thus  destroying the substance of the original Yiddish roots of the performance.

The show follows the portions of the troop that remain in Nazi occupied Poland, how the actors tried to continue performing in Lodz Poland; the sets shift to the ghettos. It is all smoothly choregraphed  with the group that sings and creates touching tableaux of the actors crouching together, as  a  stone is tossed through a glass window,  a yellow star appears  sewn on a coat as small props such as these  introduce  powerful meaning into the space as the sets shift, the actors line up with their suitcases, and shuffle  by into the dark smoky mouth of the Auschwitz hell  as the American musical theatre blares out Oklahoma, gobbling  up the traditional left overs of what seems to be  a new culture rising out the ashes of a dying  culture.

And yet Vogel’s play and the contribution of the Segal Centre are doing much to ensure the return of something beautiful and important of past generations of immigrants, strongly connected to our own families. It was so moving I could barely breathe when it was over.

Anyone who loves excellent theatre will be thrilled and moved by this performance and by the chance to discover writers as talented as Paula Vogel and Sholem Asch.

Indecent continues at the Théâtre Sylvan Adams Theatre, Segal Centre, Montreal, until May 19.  5170 Ch.Côte-Ste-Catherine  Montreal. Tickets: 1-514-739-7944

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht.

Jersey Boys - They were just four guys from the wrong side of the tracks, but the tracks led them to international fame, gold records, millions of dollars and a permanent place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their story, filled with mob connections, jail convictions and years of slugging it out in cheesy bowing alleys and sleazy lounges, had never been told before. That is until writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice with composers Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe decided it was high time to turn it into a musical. And the rest is Broadway history. With critical acclaim under its belt, a Grammy and a 2006 Tony Award for Best Musical, Jersey Boys, The Story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, is making the 50’s come alive again.

The Toronto production, once again directed by Des McAnuff who also directed the Toronto production in 2008, is one of those well-oiled shows that moves along so smoothly and effortlessly, you don’t have too much time to wonder how on three guys, two of them felons, ever made it to uptown New Jersey, let alone to the top ten on the Billboard charts for so many years. Their story is unique in the world of pop music, but so was their music. They were just stringing along, no money and out of work most of the time, changing the group’s name back and forth until guitarist Tommy DeVito, the roughest and toughest of the three, finally gave into singer Frankie Valli and pal Nick Massi about adding a fourth name to the trio, composer Bob Gaudio.

Gaudio was just a kid himself. When he was 15 years old he wrote a hit song called Who Wears Short Shorts, danced by some nubile chorines in the production who illustrate why the song was a teeny bopper favorite in the late 1950’s. By the age of 18 Gaudio thought he was a one-shot wonder. He was far from it. From the first time he heard Frankie Valli’s voice, a three-octave range that knocked him for a loop, he knew he had to write for him.

Jersey Boys doesn’t just concentrate on the upbeat times. The quartet which still knocked around for some time in local lounges and clubs, didn’t really get going until Gaudio’s trio of mega hits, Sherry, Walk Like a Man and Big Girl’s Don’t Cry put them on the music map. By then they were known as The Four Seasons.

Gaudio, who was a good kid with a music background and not from the wrong side of the tracks in Jersey, still fell into the good times as easily as the others. Booze, late night hotel parties with nameless willing women (Oh, What a Night Gaudio in his song,

and it was an understatement), Vallie’s domestic problems with his hard-edged wife, Lorraine (Jessica Wockenfuss) and Tommy DeVito’s ongoing debts to the mob, took its toll. Valli’s marriage broke up and years later his estranged daughter with whom he had finally formed a latent friendship, died from a drug overdose.

Though Frankie Valli was the one whose high notes were the ones that gave a unique sound to the close harmony of the quartet – Jonny Wexler is perfect as the kid from Jersey who started out naïve and ended up a workaholic who was never able to sustain a relationship. Nearly everyone in the group had an ego as big as New Jersey. Corey Greenan’s group honcho Tommy DeVito, was a tough guy with a modicum of talent whose mob connections were legendary and whose gambling habit almost scuttled the group until the mob exiled him to Las Vegas and Frankie Valli willingly took over the debts, an affirmation of the close ties the Jersey Boys had to each other.

Gaudio was as talented as he was good looking, clean cut and personable. Eric Chambliss’ wide-eyed innocent abroad look as a youngster housed a sharp business sense that surfaced at the right time. When Valli’s star was fading many years later, Gaudio, by then a record producer, convinced him and everyone else to take a chance on a romantic number that was considered too “artistic” to be a hit. It was a huge success, and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” put Valli back on the charts big time.

It was Nick Massi who was always odd man out with the group, never confided in, never brought into business conversations, and in the end just walked away and back to the life and New Jersey, the place he loved. The litany of faults that he relates to mob boss Gyp de Carlo (Todd Dubail) about roommate Tommy DeVito almost sounds like a camp counselor’s grievances about one of the kids in the cabin, and its earnestness is one of the show’s funniest moments. It isn’t the most colorful role but Jonathan Cable gives Massi a strength that no one else had: the ability leave when it was time.

Jersey Boys is filled with all the hoopla bright lights and crescendos of a mega star pop group of the 1950’s, complemented by 33 musical numbers and Sergio Trujillo’s snappy choreography which is reminiscent of the time. It was the period of television’s June Taylor dancers and American Bandstand’s hot dance steps, but the impeccable choreography for the Four Seasons’ themselves during their musical numbers is a real scene stealer.

There are no grandiose sets though there are plenty of technical effects and microphones that appear as if by magic then disappear into the floor. Howard Binkley’s lighting design provides its own theatrical atmosphere while comic cartoon strips above the bridge are colorful and a clue to the primary emotions of the teenaged girls who read romance comics and were thrilled by groups like The Four Seasons.

The Four Seasons’ ups and downs weren’t so very different from other groups of the period wo worked tirelessly to get somewhere,  then took a roller coaster ride to fame and fortune until the ride ended. What’s different is that Jersey Boys concentrates on the individuals themselves, not only their personalities but what made them tick as human beings. Together with the music it’s a winning combination.

The Jersey Boys plays at the Ed Mirvish Theatre until March 17, 2019. 244 Victoria St. Tickets 415-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.

Reviewed by Jeniva Berger