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The King & and I

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were probably whistling a very happy tune when their fifth musical together, The King and I opened at Broadway’s St. James Theatre in 1951. An immediate hit, the musical which starred the invincible Gertrude Lawrence as Anna Leonowens along with relative newcomer Yul Brynner, ran for three years, and became the fourth longest running Broadway musical in history. The later film version with Brynner as the overbearing King of Siam who meets his match with a feisty British schoolteacher made Brynner a Hollywood star alongside co-star Deborah Kerr. The film version, just like its Broadway predecessor, was a smash hit.

The King and I is one of the great Broadway musicals of the 1950’s, a period considered by many to be the prime time for Broadway’s lustrous line-up of musicals which included West Side Story, South Pacific, The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady. A round of applause for the Lincoln Center Theatre’s Tony award-winning revival of The King and I, which has settled into the Princess of Wales Theatre until August 12.

Directed by Barlett Sher, there’s never a wrong note in this production. I confess missing the show’s original splendid theatrical dance drama called The Small House of Uncle Thomas, which is given a more diminutive performance in this production by the engaging Q Lim as Tuptim, the king’s favorite mistress. When Tuptim discovers that that the real love of her life, a servant of the king, has been captured and jailed by the king’s henchmen, The Small House of Uncle Thomas is her dramatic indictment of the king’s ‘slavery’ of his mistresses and wives and becomes a statement of the abuse of power. 

The King and I is based on Margaret Landon's 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam, in turn based on the memoirs of the real Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s. Leonowens who arrived at the court of the King of Siam with her small son Louis, to start her new position as the governess to the king’s many children from his assembly of wives and mistresses. Leonowens was faced with a king and a kingdom much different than what she expected. The gulf between the King of Siam’s colorful if heavy handed monarchy and the common sense of of the British monarchy are witnessed by European diplomats in the musical who have been dispatched by Edward VII to Siam’s royal court to make sure that everything is up to acceptable moral ‘standards’, while Anna coaches the king, wives, and children, and court on English language, customs and etiquette to impress the British inspectors.

Elena Shadow’s Anna is an attractive, intelligent and feisty English widow, a schoolteacher who calms her young son’s apprehension in this strange new land with the production’s opening number. “I Whistle a Happy Tune” sung by Anna, Louis and the ship’s crew. The song would eventually turn out to be the most popular number from the show recorded by every major artist from Julie Andrews to Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and - The Muppets.
While Anna Leonowens’ story is the heart of The King and I, it is also a love story, actually one of three unique love stories: Anna’s affection for the king’s children who return her love as they learn about the much wider world outside Siam; the forbidden love affair between the King’s mistress and an ordinary servant; and the growing affection between Anna and the King. You can almost hear their heart palpitations (thanks to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s pounding one-two-three beat) in the most arousing number in the show, Shall We Dance (choreographed by Christopher Gattelli) as Anna teaches the King how to waltz.

The King and I ends with a compassionate finale beautifully delivered by Ms. Shadow and the company. No wonder the popularity of the show has remained. With its gorgeous score the musical still remains one of the most elegant and moving of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon.
The King and I Plays from July 10 to Aug. 12 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West. For tickets: 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.

Reviewed by Jeniva Berger

The Phantom of the Opera

I’ve always been fond of the Dracula legend in story, stage and film, but when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Phantom of the Opera made its Toronto premiere in 1989 at the Pantages Theatre, a new idol was born. The mercurial Dracula from the movies was out the door as far as I was concerned. He could never make up his mind about who he was or who he was going to seduce, or even what disguise he was going to use for his crass purposes.  Instead, the new honors went to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stately The Phantom of the Opera, who was not only more haunting with his chilling 'now you seem him now you don’t' appearances at the Paris Grand Opera in 1911 where his ghostly presence created all kinds of havoc in the opera and ballet world, but he could genuinely fall in love – and sing about it, too! So much for the film Dracula and his boring Transylvanian nightlife.
Photo above: by Matthew Murphy. Quentin Oliver Lee and Eva Tavares in The Phantom of the Opera.

The Phantom suffered no fools but was helpless when he engaged in a doomed love affair with a young Paris opera starlet named Christine Dae, played in the current touring production by Eva Tavares, who already was in love with someone else, the high born handsome Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny (Jordan Craig) who loved her deeply and demonstrated his devotion in one of the loveliest songs in the production, All I Want from You, though it’s unlikely that his father would ever approve of his son’s engagement to an actress. But that’s another story.

Here we are again, captivated by a brand new “spectacular” production and newly minted The Phantom of the Opera, watching once again, suspecting that the sparkling glass chandelier hovering over us, would once again be lowered and come to a booming halt while the musical chords heralded  the opening of The Phantom of the Opera with a pounding musical note-by- note down the musical scale. It’s gloriously theatrical.

This spectacular opening never fails to get the heart beating faster. The magic continues through the play – especially with the chandelier quietly put in its place above our heads -  up until the very end when the phantom is finally defeated by those who don’t really understand him, who cannot even look at his disfigured face, except for one person, the woman whom he physically captured by promising to teach her to sing better than anyone else, be a shining star in the opera company – and to sing only for him. While the latter didn’t quite work the way he wanted, it is still the cornerstone of the love story. And it is still primarily a love story with a gorgeous score to back it up.

Under Laurence Connor’s direction, Phantom is tightly strung, delivering a lively opening scene with the Paris Opera members engaged in a ballet rehearsal where the young and eager Christine Dae  (Eva Tavares) is called upon – through the unseen phantom’s intervention -  to take over the starring role in the production. Christine has been the phantom’s pupil for some time. Beholden to the phantom for his music instruction and her sudden prominence in the company, Christine still seems a little naïve as to his real intentions, which, it will turn out, is as much bedroom oriented as stage. But the true high note of their performance together is when the both of them recognize their dark co-dependency with the foreboding The Point of No Return.

Since it’s debut in 1986, the show seems to have inched toward more sexual connotations but still makes Christine seem a little too innocent to fathom the darkest of the phantom’s mind-set -  at any rate his partial mind-set.  It’s only at the end of the musical when Christine makes a bold move in showing her own deepening affection for the dying Phantom, even startling her fiancé who has become engaged in the good versus evil fight to save Christine from the Phantom.  Ms. Tavares, by the way, carries off Christine’s awakening and her latent determination to salvage the Phantom’s feelings beautifully, while the superb performance of Quentin Oliver Lee as the Phantom, awakens all our sentiments. Lee is simply marvelous, both musically and theatrically. When he takes Christine to his hide- away below the Opera Garnier, the duet between them both is capped off with Christina singing the highest note in the show –is an unforgettable moment.

While the show is filled with drama, there are some good comic touches, especially with the managers of the Paris Opera House getting together to try to out manoeuvre the phantom. It doesn’t work for them, but Phantom of the Opera certainly does for us. It’s a return engagement for a show that still seems refreshingly new and just as exciting as it did at its Toronto debut back in 1999. The Phantom of the Opera plays from June 7 to 30 at the Princess of Wales Theatre. 300 King Street West, Toronto. Tickets: 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

The Southland may have given birth to the blues back in the 1920’s, but it didn’t take long until the new music swept across the country - and the ocean. It was the Roaring Twenties and the American dream was a driving force, where anyone with ambition, purpose, and ability could go from rags to riches -  and did. The new music was filled with freedom and expression. It was a fairy story in itself. But then, fairy stories can have an unhappy ending. August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was one of them.

Wilson, the African-American Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, had his biggest success and his crowning achievement with The Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of ten plays that marked the African American experience in the 20th century. All of them were set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District except for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which was set in Chicago, a cultural centre for Jazz along with New York. The character of Ma Rainey, a wealthy and real-life jazz diva who was known as The Mother of the Blues and befriended the great Bessie Smith (the two were among the first black singers to receive a recording contract), was said to “command anything and anyone because of her reputation and undisputed popularity with both blacks and whites.”

In real life and as brought back to life by the great Alana Bridgewater in Soulpepper's fine production, she is a commando who can vacillate between kindness and cruelty, ruling her musical empire, her musicians, and even, her young nephew Sylvester (Marcel Stewart) who stutters and whom she drags along reluctantly to a recording session so that he can learn how to record. It’s one of those moments in the show when we feel so badly for the young man who valiantly tries to get through a number but keeps being bolstered up by Ma Rainey who seems blind to her nephew’s embarrassment.

Ma Rainey’s musicians, whom we meet first in the recording studio where they’re supposed to rehearse, but wind up talking a blue streak about everything else except music to kill time until Ma shows up. Except for one of them, the jittery Levee (Lovell Adams-Gray), a musician who seems calm on the outside, his smashing new white shoes his imagined  ‘status’ among other band members, but one who is simmering on the inside, frustrated by having his new avante-garde arrangements for Ma’s old fashioned “jug-band” sound, ignored. It was in fact not a completely authentic statement since ‘blues’ music had already replaced the older form of music by the 1920’s.

Still, Levee is angered that his new arrangements were promised by Ma as well as her white manager Irvin (Alex Poch-Golden), and even the recording studio manager Sturdyvant, (Diego Matamoros), who is so caught up in trying to get the musicians to rehearse and the recording studio in shape until Ma shows up, that he tosses off yet another of Levee’s pleadings like a disciplining father.

Rehearsal is something that no one wants to do -  and so the time turns from productivity into aimless and bitter arguments, and by the time that Ma arrives with her ‘protégé’ nephew and new lesbian girlfriend Dussie May (Virgilia Griffiths), who promptly takes up with one of the band members in a darkened corridor, the band is already headed toward a breakdown.
When Ma finally enters (applause here for Alexandra Lord’s star costuming) and we get a musical number sung by the one we’ve been waiting for a long time - too bad it’s the only one -  our appetites have certainly been tested on that score.

There’s no quibbling that it’s Ma who is the star of this show, Ma who is the money maker, the renowned jazz singer who had the following, the woman who championed and sang the blues, the one who ruled the roost. Ms. Bridgewater takes the trophy for this shining moment in the play, when we hear what Ma Rainey is all about.

If the play ended there, it would be a comedy. But it doesn’t. Turned into a tragedy by the one who is irejected who desperately wants a small part of the world to hear his music but is overshadowed and ignored, the show’s finale is a powerful message to the audience that the forgotten ones don’t always have their day, one special day when a light is shined on them alone. It might be Ma Rainey’s moment in the sun, but in the play it’s a heart rendering grace note to the forgotten talents that often are left in the shadows.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom plays at the Soulpepper Theatre until June 9, 2018. 50 Tank House Lane in the Historical Distillery Area; Box office-1-888-898-1189 or info@soulepper.ca.
Photo: Alana Bridgewater in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann.

Category E

Brenda Cornish’s black comedy Category E, will give you some chilling thoughts about the price paid when products are tested for human consumption. The intimacy of the small storefront Coal Mine Theatre on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue adds to the in-your-face observation of how three people in odd circumstances play out their daily routines inside prison like surroundings.  We, the observers, the audience, look in at a nondescript prison like cell, fenced in by wire. Inside there are two beds and a telephone mounted on a high wall, the only thing as it turns out that will connect the people in their cell to their superiors. Like lemmings on a hill, we sit obediently on our chairs, looking in, trying to figure out the why and wherefore, perplexed about their self-imprisonment and, at the odd time, what their future holds, if anything. The story line itself is so tenuous, it’s only through our fascination with the characters themselves, that we wait for developments.

We don’t know what kind of products are in the line-up to be tested. We don’t even know how or why the three people in the jail like cell, seemingly barricaded from the outside world, went after the job as if it were a step up the occupational ladder, or were assigned involuntarily, or why they’ve been subjected to such dire conditions. Cornish has created an environment with characters that might have stepped out of an absurdist comedy. Their only human rapport is with each other, and the phone that is the only connection to their superiors in the head office. We may be in the dark as to the circumstances, but we’re in an infinitely better place than the characters in Category E who will eventually adhere to a belief that life is exactly what you make it.  They’ve abandoned a sense of being ordinary a long time ago.

The play opens with the sudden addition of a third person entering the prison-like room, a newcomer, who sails in exuberantly as if she were making an entrance in a musical. Vivien Endicott Douglas as the new addition to the cell block, is perfect as Millet, a fitting name as it turns out. According to definition the millet is a particular garden seed that can be replanted as fodder. Innocent and eager to do the job, Millet is proud that she’s made the “list” of volunteers. We’re still not entirely sure how the other two have gained their places in the story, volunteers or otherwise.  We do sense that they’ve been there a long time.

Robert Perischini
as Corcoran, is the wise senior in resident, the leader of the pack, smart, laid back, a lover of crossword puzzles with a dry sense of humor. He’s also confined to a wheelchair which doesn’t seem to hold him back from getting around skillfully in his limited environment.  There’s no sense of pity for him at any rate. His intelligence is his fortitude and seems to provide him with a feeling of superiority with his cell mates and with “management”, but also with the gift of knowing how to survive.   

His female colleague, Filigree, played by Diana Bentley, is his inmate – of sorts – attractive but none too bright, an undomesticated adult woman who seems to have more feral tendencies to show her anger or frustration. It should be mentioned here that when Millet becomes the new, third inhabitant in the cell, there are only two beds on the premises, though sex never seems to be an overt part of the characters’ relationships.  In that sense the atmosphere seems almost sterile.

Outside of Millet’s congenial references to her real human family from long ago, the other characters refrain from admitting that they ever had a family and are never called by their actual names from those who are ‘in charge’, whom we hear but never see and who who refer to the others only by the numbers that each have on their backs. We don’t know what they do when they leave the room, why they have been ‘summoned’, nor do we have any sense of what happened after they return, though there is one scene when Filigree returns with the effects of a crude “procedure”, an operation that is possibly the removal of her kidneys. It is the only reference in the play that may point to money or favors earned by the canvassing of healthy organs, and it’s something of a wild herring though strangely apropos to the atmosphere of the play. It prompts Corcoran to lash out at what has happened to Filigree as a grievous mistake from management. She was sent to the wrong room.

Category E made its debut in Edmonton back in 2015. While the initial production there made use of the projection of ads to emphasize the woeful practice of brutal animal testing for human purposes, the ads were dropped in time. Still, without the banality of watching an ad for deodorant or detergent one would have liked more clarity of some sort in the current Toronto production to strengthen the story, to keep reminding us of the play’s purpose. Indeed, there is nothing boring about the current well executed drama which is tightly directed by Rae Ellan Bodie. It’s simply more perplexing when it should have been more provocative.
Category E plays at The Coal Mine Theatre until April 29, 2018.  1454 Danforth Avenue, Toronto. Tickets: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/TheCoalMine
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger

Photo: by Tim Leys. L to R: Diana Bentley, Vivien Endicott-Douglas, Robert Perischini

Cottagers and Indians

A cottage is the palace of humble man, said a renowned Turkish writer who had obviously never been to Ontario cottage country. In Drew Hayden Taylor’s smart, funny comedy, Cottagers and Indians (loosely based on true events) a local native and a well-to-do widow and summer cottager spend time verbally sparring about their own vested interest in an unnamed lake which might be anywhere that cottage communities have sprung up. Native Herbie Barnes (Arthur Copper) believes that he has a right to plant and harvest the wild rice, ‘manoomin’, in the lake, a long time water receptacle for the native population which has provided a healthy food source for them, while Maureen Poole (Tracey Hoyt) feels that the rice plant chokes the lake and makes it difficult to swim or boat.

While it doesn’t sound like an exciting argument on paper, Hoyt and Copper as Maureen and Herbie make it come alive onstage with humor, good natured bantering and their own genuine love of the land, Herbie in his beloved canoe along side Maureen’s lakeside deck, a lit barbecue prepared for a solitary dinner of chicken and chilled Chardonnay. Robin Fisher’s set design makes it every so appealing. The good life. Both characters have known each other for years and have a knack of baiting each other on native rights versus the cottage industry with owners who have invested heavily in pricey vacation properties.

Maureen, an attractive widow whose husband has recently passed away, has a storehouse of memories in her cottage she and her late husband bought as young marrieds, when they welcomed their only child, a son, who has also grown to love the cottage and its surroundings, while Herbie who has has canoed across the precious lake his entire lifetime, looks upon the it  as more than a means of transportation but a source of well being for his people. Each has his or her own vantage point in appreciation and the playwright weighs each with an equal sense of importance. And frustration.

While Taylor pinpoints his play to the current disputes over harvesting of wild rice on Pigeon, Chemong and Buckhorn Lakes in Ontario’s Kawarthas, it might be anywhere on the Great Lakes. Wherever it may be, Cottagers and Indians is both an entertaining comedy and an illuminating look at what divides people who together share the love of the land if for different reasons.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger.
Photo: by Cylla von Tiedemann. Arthur Copper and Tracy Hoyt in Cottagers and Indians.

Cottagers and Indians plays at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace Until March 25, 2018. 30 Bridgman Avenue, Toronto. Tickets  can be purchased online at www.tarragontheatre.com, or by phone at 416-531-1827. Discounts are available for seniors, students and groups and arts workers. Patrons under 35 & arts workers visit www.tarragontheatre.com/tarragon22.


Retribution, no matter what its cause, is always a no-win situation. In hang, Debbie Tucker Green’s award winning British play given a stellar production by Obsidian Theatre, there’s very little room to feel much compassion for a woman who has been summoned to determine the fate of a prisoner convicted of the brutal murder of members of her family. The time is somewhere in the near future where victims of crimes have been summoned to choose the right penalty (hanging the electric chair or lethal injection) for the perpetrator, a page out of Margaret Atwood.  

We don’t discover the nature of the crime and the woman’s involvement until later on in Green’s 1 ½ hour drama, which leaves us almost too long a stretch to wonder why she’s been the chosen one. It also is something of a puzzle as we try to wend our way, baffled, through much of the opening scene.  But Sarah Afful as the woman will turn in a power house performance, leading us through a range of emotions as she struggles through the ordeal of recollection and retribution.

Her only companions during the process are two prison officials (merely referred to as 1 and 2) played by Zoe Doyle and Vladimir Alexis. Doyle stands out as a self-satisfied prison/government employee cum social worker who is determined to lead the woman to an acceptable conclusion without getting involved in the decision herself, while Alexis impresses in an additional brief appearance as the would be killer who befriends the woman before he commits a crime of which we will have very little knowledge.  

While the playwright doesn’t take it much further than that leaving us to speculate why the woman would be so naïve, it bears frightening resemblances to actual similar events that haunt the newspapers and TV today. Still, the crime itself is not centre stage in Tucker Green’s work, as much as the burden placed upon the living victim of the crime. There is a particularly moving scene in which the woman recreates the circumstances which led her to believe that the would be killer was her friend -  and her grief is moving.

Co-directed by Philip Akin and Kimberley Rampersad and performed on the intimate stage of the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, hang is a shot in the arm for high drama on a small stage. It plays until February 25 at The Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs. 26 Berkeley St. Tickets to the Canadian premiere of hang can be purchased via the Canadianstage.box office or by phone at 416.368.3110.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger
Photo: by Racheal McCaig. L to R: Zoe Doyle, Vladmir Alexis, Sarah Afful.

Beauty and the Beast

Young People’s Theatre’s holiday production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast will be familiar territory for anyone who has seen the Disney film.  I would guess that moviegoers who have seen it far outrank the ones who haven’t since one of its accolades is becoming the world’s 10th highest-grossing film of all time.  Bigger may sometimes be better -  but not necessarily so.  The downsizing of a big Broadway musical -  and its film component -  can have its own charm.  For starters, it’s just the right size for a lot of the young people who filled the mainstage audience at the city’s premiere theatre for children.

The 85-minute show directed by Allen MacInnis, moves along at the right pace, not too slow and not too fast, with its familiar storyline and its fetching songs by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, intact. There is just one glitch and it’s there that movies can perform feats that live stage can’t. The ‘beast’ who must metamorphize into the handsome young prince, only does it on the YPT stage from inside a closet where’s he’s enclosed and where his ‘transformation’ takes place without our seeing it. When he walks out a handsome young man, my companion, who is just under under 5 years, seemed a bit concerned about the beast and asked me if he had died. Turns out that the Beast, played by the talented Stewart Adam McKensy, had some caring friends no matter what guise.

It’s a treat taking someone to the theatre who had never seen live theatre before and who, little by little, is captured by that particular ‘magic’ that can happen onstage, miles apart from the amazing technology of the motion picture industry. But, technology aside, it’s still up to the characters to make the story come alive.  One great thing about Disney’s female characters who have been transferred from page to stage and screen, is their stouthearted approach to trouble. Cinderella, The Hunchback’s Esmeralda, the Lion King’s Nala and Frozen’s no nonsence Elsa, have all left the sugar and spice behind to take on the lesser mortals with flare.

In Beauty and the Beast, Belle’s temper lights up like a match when the presumptuous, pompous Gaston (Aaron Ferguson) tries to corral her for his bride. And it flares up even more when she finds her gentle dad (Neil Foster) imprisoned by the Beast. Celine Tsai’s charming Belle might be a bit more forceful in some of the scenes, but this Belle is no one’s fool, enough to recognize little by little how love can grow with this very human – and humane –beast, despite his frightening appearance.

Damien Atkins brings some comic relief as the well lit Lumiere, along with the behind the stairs kitchen crew, Susan Henley’s motherly teapot Mrs. Potts, her errant son Chip (Pheobe Hu), and the unforgettable singing wardrobe, Madame de la Grande Bouche (Zorana Sadiq).

The 85-minute show is one of several holiday treats currently playing in Toronto theatres for young people and has been extedned due to its popularity. You can find the full list of holiday shows on our Preview Page. Beauty and the Beast plays at the Young People’s Theatre until Jan. 7, 2018. Recommended for Ages 5 & up. Runs Approx. 85 min.Performances: Tuesdays to Sundays at various times, with 8 performances during Holiday week. All performances open to the general public.Schedule: http://www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca/shows-tickets/beauty-and-the-beast/ Young People’s Theatre . 165 Front Street East, Toronto
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger
Photo: by by Cylla von Tiedemann. Stewart Adam McKensy and Celine Tsai in Young People's Theatre Beauty and the Beast

The Lorax

We have all been watching the National Theatre Live bringing performances at the Old Vic and the New Vic into Canada via satellite. This time, David Mirvish brings the Old Vic production of The Lorax with a British cast and creative team to Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre for a perfectly executed performance of The Lorax, live without the camera!  The experience is so completely exciting it had the little ones and the older ones glued to their seats, for almost two hours and 15 minutes including the intermission.
Photo: by Manuel Harlan. Simon Paisley Day, Laura Caldow, Ben Thompson and David Ricardo Pearce in The Lorax.
With 16 actors/singers dancers, numerous understudies and musicians, the company puts on a show for both children and adults, an exceptional feat that has transformed the chubby beaver-like orange creature with the humongous voice and thick whiskers, into one of the vital figures of Anglophone popular culture. Writers, choreographers, singers, musicians and all manner of talented individuals under Max Webster’s direction, along with Rob Howell’s design, Drew McOnie’s choreography, and Charlie Fink’s music and lyrics, have set the show into several levels of performance appealing to all generations, in the unmistakably playful and creatively twisted language of author Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss. 

Going back to the original book on which the first animated cartoon film scenario was based, the show opens in the murky space of a “Street of the Lifted Lorax “where an empty pedestal arises out of the ‘smogular smog.’  A group of inquisitive children sneak onto the property of the Once-ler, a strange old fellow hiding at the top of the rotten wooden structure. They want to find out what a Lorax is, and where he went, and what happened here?  Two eyes burning in the dark agree to reveal all their secrets as the children settle down for a fascinating two hours of a most unbelievable story.  From that moment on, we're hooked.

The set explodes into the past, the cockney brood and family of the young Once-ler leap on stage headed by a figure that is mindful of Eliza Doolittle’s father.  The young, dreamy and too poetic Once-ler, played by a most versatile Simon Paisley Day, is tossed out of the family and sent on his way to find greatness and a way to make money .  From then on extraordinary multi-colored creatures fly past, pop up, climb, swing by, bury themselves and create an atmosphere of nonstop magic as they all harness their special energies. The special trees grow in brightly colored masses. It’s a world subjected to magic lighting that brings to life the golden Swomee Swans, the bouncing Barbaloo bears, and the humming fish.

Out of this natural paradise comes the ‘tuffs’, the material that will allow the Once-ler to create his “Thneeds”, objects that don’t seem to serve any purpose. But soon, he predicts, everyone will need them, and Simon Paisley Day raps out a solo explaining the multiple uses of Thneeds knitted from the tufts of the Truffula trees. Neighbors and family in a frenzy of collective excitement gather around the Once-ler, a Steve Jobs in the making , and let themselves be hypnotized by the project which will  better their lives and change the world, but ultimately destroy nature.

The stage inventions grow ferocious as tree cutting machines inspired by images of The Terminator gobble up the land and modern structures spring up like weeds. The Once-ler becomes a corporate fanatic, a consummate liar, and an astute business man which will resonate with the adults. There is even a moment when a trio of the most perfectly synchronized lawyers: Von Goo, McGee and McCann turn up to find the loopholes in the
Once-ler’s contract with The Lorax so that he can ignore their agreement and continue chopping trees. It resounds with the forestry conflicts on the Canadian west coast and becomes very real for a Canadian audience.

It was the most powerful musical moment in the show as the lawyers are suddenly transformed into a sparkling trio headed by Wendy May Brown. With an operatic voice that works on multiple musical levels, she could have taken over the show.

Michael Ajao ,who plays many roles, left his mark during intermission when he began improvising a rap monologue to amuse the audience with his spoken word performance, his sense of humor and great corporeal control. The show was bursting with talent and the conception of the play opened the artistic space to give all forms of talent its outlet.  Even the puppetry was imposing as the three puppeteers brought The Lorax to life by operating his voice, and movements in a Bunraku style of manipulation with the voices of Owain Gwynn and David Ricardo-Pearce.

One might wonder if such an overflowing of staging would confuse young people, or if the strange language games of Dr Seuss might confuse the message. But even if a four year could not follow Seuss’ verbal tricks, the ecological message about unbridled capitalism, and the destruction of nature, was clear as a bell.  “I speak for the trees” roared The Lorax, projecting anger, sadness and deep emotion.  We could almost feel his eyes fill with tears as the tree stumps rotted away under the gaze of the greedy Once-ler. The staging showed it all, even if the language was not always easy for the young ones.  It was the great art of the show, and it worked at all levels. An astounding artistic success.
The Lorax  plays at the Royal Alexandra Theatre until  January 21, 2017. 260 West King Street, Toronto. Tickets: Online www.mirvish.com.  By Phone 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.
Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht, an Ottawa based theatre critic.

Maggie & Pierre

“We’re all afflicted with the psychology of the voyeur,” wrote American singer, songwriter and poet, Jim Morrison in the introduction to Linda Griffith’s 1980 play, Maggie & Pierre. Currently being given a new production at Tarragon Theatre Workspace under Rob Kempson’s direction and starring Kaitlyn Riordan, Maggie & Pierre was a nation-wide hit for Griffith, Theatre Passe Muraille, and the theatre’s Artistic Director Paul Thompson who was involved in the writing of the play and directed its first production.
Left: Kaitlyn Riordan in Maggie & Pierre. Photo: by Greg Wong.

Maggie & Pierre was part fairy tale and part historical treatise based upon Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s and Margaret Sinclair’s much publicized courtship and marriage. Trudeau was 30 years older than 18-year-old Margaret Sinclair when they met, Sinclair the penultimate flower child of the 1960’s, a beautiful free-wheeling spirit, a rebel and a party girl, enchanted Trudeau and became his wife and the mother of his children. Griffiths based her play on the bones of the story and reportage of their relationship, while adding her own inimical “inserts” and dialogue between two – and a reporter named Henry.  The three characters by the way, are played by one actor, and it was a brilliant touch.

When the play premiered it was an instant hit before it even started. You could feel the excitement in the theatre before the lights went out. Griffiths’ audacity in writing the play had been overwhelming and the anticipation of hearing what ‘personal’ perhaps outlandish things that might be unveiled was titillating. No one knew what to expect nor what personal secrets or flamboyant behavior of that young and impetuous woman was about to be displayed, what secrets spread out before a hungry audience. Maggie and Pierre in real life were never a disappointment and their lives an open book in the spotlight. Griffiths was well aware of that.

So, he we are thirty-eight years later, waiting for a new production of Maggie & Pierre, this time in the more intimate second floor theatre space of the Tarragon Theatre where all the room’s a stage, designed simply but effectively by Jung-Hye Kim, directed by Rob Kempson, and featuring the very talented Kaitlyn Riordan, who plays both Maggie and Pierre and a reporter named Henry who always seems to be following them around, listening in, getting the lowdown and sharing his opinions.

The opening night is packed and though it’s a mixed crowd, it’s the reactions of the younger generation who interest me. I ask a young woman sitting next to me if she were looking forward to the play and she answers that she expects “to learn something.” I’ve never thought of Maggie and Pierre as something educational, but she’s right, there’s a lot to be learned from the play. First and foremost, no matter how scandalous something was 38 years ago, today’s market, in particular today’s youth is more sophisticated, less shocked about the goings on in the political, personal or social corridors of the famous and infamous.

It is, however, still a terrific story, though less sensational on either the personal or the political side, as the sexy and appealing Pierre Trudeau in his heyday, still climbing the political ladder, shocked the masses when he was asked how far he would go in the suspension of civil liberties to maintain the order. His calm, self-satisfied retort “Well, just watch me,” (and we did!), is still unequivocally one of his greatest quotes. Riordan never tries to masculinize Trudeau by lowering her voice to more of a basso than what she can handle, or by trying for a more macho approach to the character. We accept her more for the character she’s portraying rather than an impersonation.

Maggie & Pierre will be a nostalgic trip for anyone who remembers when Pierre Trudeau and his young wife provided the inspiration for Linda Griffiths groundbreaking political play. For those who didn’t, it’s still an entertaining way to learn about the heady days when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, like no one before or after him, was exciting, colored our imagination, and roused our interest in government affairs.
Maggie & Pierre plays in Toronto until May 19, 2018 at the Tarragon TheatreWorkspace, 30 Bridgman Ave. Tickets on sale now at Tarragontheatre.com.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger

Peter Pan

Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie’s 1904 stage play, has had scores of presentations from its early beginnings as a novella graduating to a stage play, film and then a Broadway musical with the inimitable Mary Martin as Peter. The genius of the work is that no matter what form it takes, there’s something about Peter Pan that appeals to almost every age group from five to ninety-five. The latest Toronto production, a stage musical based upon Barrie’s play, is in Toronto for the holiday season.  Produced by Bad Hats Theatre and presented by Soulpepper Theatre with a new adaptation by Fiona Sauder and Renanne Spitzer and music by Landon Doak & Company, this Peter Pan has all the necessary ingedients of a musical filled with high energy performances and lively songs, primarily aimed at the young set, many of whom sat around the stage area as the show progressed.  
Photo: by Nicholas Porteous. L to R: Graham Conway, Fiona Sauder.

There’s no lack of fun or action in the show, and though the theatre and stage dynamics don’t allow for Peter and Wendy to actually fly off to Neverland and back home again, director Severn Thompson and her first-rate cast work wonders with our imaginations seeped in the bountiful magic of Barrie’s play. In fact, while the Broadway staging of Peter Pan with its aerial tricks inspired generations of theatre productions to try and emulate Peter and Wendy and crew flying back and forth from home to Neverland and back again like the flying Wallendas, there's no such thing on the small Soulpepper stage. Wonder of wonders, we still believed that they could fly.

There are some added and appealing touches of humor which were a little sophisticated for the younger crowd.  Wendy Darling (Lena Maripuu) let her genuine affection for Peter out of the bag when someone asks her why she’s doing so much for Peter. Peter himself, the man of the hour, played by Fiona Sauder, is a rock for all the lost boys in Neverland, especially on the track to buck the conceited pirate Captain Hook by fooling him with the chilling sounds of the Crocodile.

We never do find out whether the Crock cornered his prey, though Hook did get his in the end by being shoved into a suitcase. But I loved Graham Conway’s first gesture in introducing the supreme vanity of pirate chief by twirling his moustache like a Victorian playboy as he approached his pirate gang.  And a round of applause for Reanne Spitzer’s most visible Tinkerbell ever, who being her own woman, rang her own bell.

If there’s one thing that I found lacking in this Peter Pan, it was the warmth that I found in Barrie’s play when the lost children that Wendy has rounded up from Neverland have been brought back to her London home to be adopted by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Darling. There is something beautiful in Barrie’s ending when Peter realizes he cannot convince Wendy to return to Neverland to be his and the lost boys’ mother. Instead, Wendy wants to grow up and have her own home and her own children. In real life, J.M. Barrie was a terrible husband and father who turned his own marriage and home life into a disaster. In Peter Pan he got it right. Peter Pan plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Historic Distillery area uontil Dec. 31. 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto until December 31, 2017. Tickets: Phone: (416) 866-8666.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger

The Goat or Who is Sylvia?

What is this thing called love? Edward Albee’s 2002 searing drama produced by Soulpepper Theatre under Alan Dilworth’s direction, doesn’t pretend to solve that puzzle. It does however provide a host of some interesting questions about the random definition of love.

Photo: by Cylla Von Tiedemann. Raquel Duffy and Albert Schultz in The Goat or Who is Sylvia?

The play opens with Lorenzo Savoini’s pristine, carefully arranged living room set.  White brick walls and white bookshelves are perfectly arranged with several books – just enough to keep the balance between them and the odd piece of china or family portrait. The congenial, laid back Martin (played by Albert Schultz who is always a master at the unflappable), a world-famous architect who has just landed a big contract, is having a conversation with his devoted wife Stevie (Raquel Duffy), that shines with brittle humor. It’s a repartee that can only be had by two people who are sure of their relationship.

There is one slight ripple in the perfect family compound: their son Billy (Paolo Santalucia) is a dysfunctional kid who happens to be gay. Martin and Stevie joke about it with each other and with Billy himself, just short of trespassing a comfort zone.

But there’s something in the air that you can’t quite put your finger on. Despite all the perks of a good life: money, a wonderful marriage, a brilliant career with accolades and awards, Martin seems strangely distant, forgetful, even apprehensive, like a man on the verge. When his oldest and best friend Ross (Derek Boyes), a television producer, arrives to interview Martin for a TV show, he has to convince him that’s he’s a sterling subject for the interview. “Some people are more extraordinary than others,” the good-natured Ross tells him. . Martin in fact has just won a billion dollar contract for his design of a project called World City. It will turn out to be a smaller world than he anticipated.

Ross also suspects that something is amiss. Reminiscing about their randy young buck days before Martin settled down contentedly with Stevie, Ross’s mind as a matter of course heads straight for the obvious. He thinks Martin is having and affair, and eager to find out if his suspicions are on target, pries it out of him using the bait of their longstanding friendship.
When he discovers that Martin is indeed involved with someone, though the object of his affection is a four-legged goat named Sylvia, his reaction is at first amusement, then disbelief and finally revulsion. “This is Sylvia who you’re fucking?” he asks incredulously. “Don’t say that,” snaps Martin. “It’s whom.”

Albee packs so much into the next hour of the 90-minute play – Stevie has found out about Martin’s affair from “good” friend Ross – that it’s easy to miss the other thematic strains sandwiched in between the ongoing dialogue about Sylvia. The basic animal instincts we all have, the social outcasts who are condemned by the moral majority for doing something outside the norm (Martin’s son Billy has been his own home grown social outcast and is suddenly relieved he’s taken second place to Dad), and Stevie’s primal scream of agony when she can no longer tolerate the idea of sharing her husband with someone else, let alone an animal, is the work of a playwright who looks with undiminished eyes on both the absurdities and the reality of life. There is even a point in the play when you forget for a moment that what Martin is describing is his love for a goat. It’s a revelation.

And so the play continues with humor that is even more biting, with the excoriation, the anguish, the admonishment, and the pain, building into a smashing finale with a wallop: the primitive human animal protecting its lair in the only way it knows. Until retribution sets in, it’s left to Paolo Santalucia’s Billy to convince us that he is the one truly tragic figure in the play. His final scene with his father is both touching and uplifting, a contemporary Greek tragedy that is unforgettable. The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? runs until November 18, 2017. at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts; 50 Tank House Lane. Distillery District. For Tickets: 416-866-8666 or soulpepper.ca.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


The world is too much with us said British romantic poet William Wordsworth.  It was a phrase that crossed my mind recalling the number of plays this past year dealing with the escalation of political and social problems in the world: war, immigration, refugees, and crimes against humanity, racial and religious discrimination. Theatre is a reflection of what mankind is and teaches us some tough lessons.  Perhaps playwright Aydan Akhtar said it more cogently in his addendum to his Pulitzer Prize winning play Disgraced: “The only way we can change the world is by recognizing what it is now.”
Photo: Karen Glave and Raoul Banja in Disgraced.

In Disgraced, Director Robert Ross Parker’s simmering 90-minute production currently playing at the Panasonic Theatre until November 26, all seems well in the household of Amir Kapoor (Raoul Banja) a smug and successful Wall Street Lawyer and his lovely blonde, level headed wife Emily (Brigitte Solemn), a painter who specializes in Islamic art and is anxiously awaiting to see if she’s been accepted into the upcoming exhibit at the Whitney Gallery. They live in a tasteful, streamlined Upper East Side New York apartment (designed by Sue LeSage). Both have ‘good’ taste in clothes (also Ms. Lippage’s artful hand), Amir boasting that he pays six-hundred dollars for his crisp Charvet designer shirts. He’s also unmercifully lords it over a mere paralegal who is late in returning his phone call. Amir is a man at the height of his career – which is about to collapse.

His well stacked house of cards, has a foundation that is built on lies. Amir, who works for a Jewish law firm, has been questioned that afternoon by firm’s principal partners regarding his parentage.  Amir who was born to Muslim Pakistani parents, changed his name from the Islamic Abdullah to Amir Kapoor, and his birthplace to India. It sounded better on a job application he tells Emily. The name change promised more attention to his ambition than his religious persuasion which he has successfully stifled. His upward mobility is a precious commodity to Amir who is line for a handsome promotion from the firm.

The fact is, Amir is a lapsed Muslim who abhors many of the religion’s tenets and has no qualms about pretending to be defined as something else. Until he is encouraged by Emily and his nephew Abe (Ali Momen) to become part of a legal team to defend an imam, a Muslim cleric, who has been unjustly accused and imprisoned for raising money for Hamas.  Amir had been living comfortably in his adopted skin, but the wall comes tumbling down when a newspaper article only singles him out “supporting the imam.” Like a bolt out of the blue, Amir begins to realize that his identity, his background, his religion, is like a birthmark. You can try to wash it off but it just doesn’t go away.

That realization hits him like a bombshell a few months later during a dinner party Emily has planned for her African-American colleague Jory (Karen Glave) and her Jewish husband Isaac (Alex Poch-Goldin) who is also a curator for the Whitney Museum and a fan of Emily’s work. At first their camaraderie is almost contagious, friends who ‘get’ each other’s jokes, appreciate each other’s wry sense of humor, understand each other’s likes and dislikes. The conversation is amiable and ranges with non-committal banter from where to buy the best dessert to how to make a great salad. Karen Glave’s Jory is the delightfully sharp witted wife who can spar ‘smartly’’ with her husband, Alex Poch-Goldin’s more laid-back Isaac.

Everyone is relatively comfortable until that one unthinking, loaded remark that Isaac makes. He wouldn’t even know that Amir is a Muslim if it weren’t for the article in the New York Times. And from there on in the party’s over, ultimately ending in a vicious verbal free for-all that finds Amir defending the religion from which he had distanced himself. When he and Emily are alone, he commits a brutal act that stuns him. It’s a hard awakening and brings him face to face with the contradictions he had safely stored away, the awakening of an identity he has suppressed in a post 9/11 world where being Muslim and American are not seen as compatible.

The plays answers no questions for us – even the ending which finds Amir and Emily at a turning point in their marriage isn’t clear cut  - but it does ask questions of us which is the playwright’s point. How do we get past that point of no return in looking at people only through a historical lens, and not for their individuality.
Disgraced plays until November 26 at the Panasonic Theatre. 651 Yonge St., Toronto Available online www.mirvish.com; Ticketking 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger.
(This review was published originally for the April 2016 production of Disgraced at the Panasonic Theatre. The cast remains the same except for Alex Poch-Goldin who now plays the role of Isaac, originally played by Michael Rubenfeld.)

My Name is Asher Lev

Chaim Potok’s 1972 book My Name is Asher Lev is prefaced by a quote by Picasso: “Art is a lie, which makes us realize the truth.” It’s no wonder that Aaron Posner’s theatrical adaptation of Potok’s book, has much to do with the ‘truth’. The truth is not always easy to digest for young up and coming artist Asher Lev, with his strict Hassidic background. 

Photo: by Dahlia Katz. L to R: Jonas Chernick, Ron Lea, Sarah Orenstein.

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company in a co-production with Studio 180 Theatre, under Joel Greenberg’s direction, has turned out a strong production of Posner's play that manages to show off the versatility of its actors, all of whom except for Jonas Chernick as Asher Lev, take on several roles. The pain of turning against one’s society, especially the people who are closest to you, is apparent when Asher Lev, who no longer wants to simply paint the flowers and sunny skies that his mother prefers, but people at the cross roads, meets his mentor, a great  Expressionist painter who bluntly tells him “Be a great artist. It is the only justification for all the pain you are about to cause.”

And Asher makes his choice. There is pain, so much so you can feel it emanating from his pragmatic, religious mother (Sarah Orentstein) who cannot understand how her son, who as a child drew ‘beautiful things,” could now turn to painting nudes – against Hassidic beliefs -  when there are so many ‘happier’ things to paint, and his angry father who sees Asher’s artistic path as a betrayal. Asher’s insistence to keep his ground is a grand slam against religious tradition. His father is not only religious but a spiritual advisor who travels the world, and healing the wounds will be non-existent. 

Ron Lea as the father (Lea plays all the men, the mentor, and Asher’s beloved and understanding uncle who passes away early in the play) doesn’t allow us to feel anything more than annoyance at his intractability, while his mother, is of less sterner stuff, worrying about what the community will think, though the wonderful Sarah Orenstein as Asher’s mother, who will later double as a congenial nude model, and a sharp art dealer, is impressive as all three.

Staged without an intermission, My Name is Asher Lev, does not edge toward any auspicious ending and there are times when its almost seems repetitious, especially with an ongoing declamation of what makes a good artist.  Asher does become a well-known painter by virtue of his highly debated work entitled The Brooklyn Crucifixion, one who is totally accepted, not only by the community, but by the world. Unlike Potok’s other great book, The Chosen, which was also made into a play by Aaron Posner, and builds up to a more emotional finale, My Name is Asher Lev ends quietly, unceremoniously, the passage of time hopefully healing the pain of hurting the people you love to make great art.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger.

My Name is Asher Lev
Plays at The Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts (Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge Street) until November 26. Tickets can be purchased online at www.hgjewishtheatre.com, by calling Ticketmaster at 1-855-985-2787, or in person at the box office of the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

Prairie Nurse

Marie Beath Badian’s play about two Filipino nurses who immigrate to a small town in the northeastern part of the province of Saskatchewan, has all the sentiments of the postwar era when immigrants flooded to North America and its beckoning land of peace and opportunity. The time in Badian’s play, is long past the time where nurses in Hollywood films were seen as heroic, part of medical teams who became saviors to the soldiers who served in the war. Badian’s play, neatly directed by Sue Miner, is fictional but “inspired” by real life folks (in fact Badian’s own parents), and set in the post-war era when the adjustment newcomers faced could be as difficult as it was promising.  

In Prairie Nurse, two nurses, have taken positions in a small hospital in Arborfield, a rural town in Saskatchewan. Everyone is informal and down to earth, the kind of people who are either loveable eccentrics or plain hard -working folks who speak their mind and get on with life, thank you.  
Nurse one, Indepencia “Penny” Uy’ (played Isabel Kanaan ) has come to Saskatchewan via California where she fell in love with the movies, while nurse two, the  more provincial Purificacion “Puring” Saberon  (Belinda Corpuz)  is shocked when coming in from the airport she sees a billboard which described the upcoming town as the land of “ rape and honey”, rape apparently  the short version for rapeseed oil. It is only mildly funny when you realize that you yourself might have questioned the same thing.

While a hospital staff lounge is the primary setting for the play, the action is lively. The two new nurses are caught up in the parade of hospital workers constantly passing through as if they were going to Grand Central Station, which is about par with most staff lounges. The hospital staff can’t remember the girl’s names, and if they do, can’t remember which is which, though strangely enough both women look and act decidedly different from each other. Correction: there is one person who immediately knows who is who. Wilf (Matt Shaw), a young laboratory technician takes an immediate liking to Puring, though, as the play goes along he too seems slightly confused. There’s also another problem that both Wilf and Puring knowingly have serious significant others in their lives, a fact that only seems to put a mild damper on their blossoming friendship.

The play in fact is rife with ‘characters’ who are very entertaining but don’t really fit the prototype of whom they’re portraying. That may be an improvement for anyone who is familiar with hospitals staffs.  The Chief of Staff, Dr. Miles MacGreggor (Mark Crawford) is a Scotsman who delights in showing off his heritage with his clothing attire, and his hunting expertise with the rifle he carries, though come to think of it the latter is not so keen, while Wilf looks as if he’s protecting his good looks with a goalie mask. Both seem to have one foot in the door ready to bolt out quickly when the home team beckons. Layne Coleman is a gregarious hospital caretaker who stands on guard for girls’ virtue.  

Prairie Nurse premiered for the Blyth Festival in 2013, and subsequently was a big hit in 2018 at the Thousand Islands Playhouse, Springer Theatre in Ganonoque, co-produced with the Factory Theatre.  It’s a thoroughly entertaining play that would have been right at home in the 1950’s when television sit-comes conquered audiences across North America. It still has possibilities for that market, but in the meantime it’s on at the Factory Theatre until May 13. 125 Bathurst Street; Tickets: visit factorytheatre.ca or call 416.504.9971.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger

Photo: by Joseph Michael Photography. L to R: Catherine Fitch, Belinda Corpuz, Isabel Kanaan

Party Today, Panic Tomorrow

At Second City Toronto, it’s always something of a party. With the opening of their new Mainstage show, Party Today, Panic Tomorrow, the atmosphere smacked of one big ongoing frat party. The crowd’s boisterous enthusiasm is always the lightning rod to the show in a nightclub style space which seems to be filled with die-hard fans who start the cheering even before the show begins. It’s an indication of the popularity of Second City shows, especially among the millennials who dive into the shows especially when the comic routines deal with the “absurd dilemma of living in 2017.”  It happens to be the theme of Second City’s newest addition:  Party Today, Panic Tomorrow.
Photo: by Rachael McCaig: L to R: Allana Reoch, Ann Pornel.

According to the program it’s that stretch of modern day breathe in and breathe out when political exhaustion just gets us down. That may be stretching it a bit, but one only needs to drop into Party Today, Panic Tomorrow to feel the electricity in the air from the audience,  the anticipation of watching six very funny performers do some hilarious sketches about modern day marriage (it seems to be a favorite topic in Second City shows); sleepless,  panic- stricken nights with baby played with a properly glassy eyed look by Brandon Hackett and Nadine Djoury; the lonely guys in the bar (a sketch which manages to be both funny and sad at the same time. All we miss is Billy Joel singing about the sad young men.  

There’s the three women (Ann Pornel, Nadine Djoury and Allana Reoch)  who don’t like the ‘new’ Wonder Woman character of the recent film, and just to prove their point, strip down to the bare essentials onstage to show us some very human proportions; the Toronto real estate market interpreted by a man with money and an ordinary Joe; and a hilarious bit starring an audience choice inclusion, in this case lemon scented Windex migrated into a send-up of The Trojan Women with Allana Reoch and Colin Munch in great form with makeshift togas.  No further explaining the logic behind that one, but trust me, it was a winner.

I also liked the sketch between a bride (Ann Pornel) and her nervous Dad, a talkative baseball freak (Allan Roech) just before the inimitable walk down the aisle when all the fatherly affections come to an aggravating  surface. And my favorite, the wackiness of modern day life when the only person you can tell your troubles to to is an imagined giant banana.

What I do miss are the barbs of political satire which seems to have disappeared from the Second City sketches of late. Party Today (Panic Tomorrow) has been written and performed by the entire cast and directed by Leslie Seller and is a thoroughly enjoyable evening. But certainly the absurdity of living in 2017 and all its ramifications might have had its wings stretched more along the lines of sharper satire with a more perceptive look at the many faces of the human comedy. Oh, and by the way, pass the bananas. Party Today, Panic Tomorrow plays at 51 Mercer Street (at Blue Jays Way), Toronto for an extended run. Tickets available online at secondcity.com, or The Second City box office at 416-343-0011.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger

London, Ontario
The Grand Theatre

Chariots of Fire

The latest artistic director at London’s Grand Theatre has enjoyed a powerful first season.  Dennis Garnhum has taken the theatre for a “test drive”, offering everything from comic improv to dramatic spectacle.  He has just opened the North American premiere of Chariots of Fire, imported fresh from England and recast with Canadian performers.  This production is getting standing ovations as the story follows two runners, Abrahams running for fame and fortune and Liddell as a dedication to God.

His cast is in excellent condition, particularly Harry Judge as Liddell and Wade Bogert-O’Brien as Abrahams.  You can go to your seat passing athletes in white, stretching and running-on-the-spot.  Designer Gretta Gerecke has expanded the Spriet stage with mylar reflections and created the portholes of a trans-Atlantic ship from the Olympic Rings.  The staging is vast and the choreography and blocking are efficient and impressive.  Lighting is top-notch and sound is good.  Technically the show is superb.

The messages in the play are nestled with the action scenes and they are well-delivered by Thom Marriott and Charlie Tomlinson as Cambridge university officials and Anand Rajaram as the paid coach who is not welcome at an event that is supposed to be performed by amateur athletes.  The show has few women, but all are reflecting images of Abrahams and Liddell.  Anwyn Musico, Erin Breen, Alex Furber and Ellen Denny put a little romance and passion into a show that otherwise could have been narrated by the late Howard Cosell.  In all, the entire season reflects well in the talents and taste of Artistic D irector Dennis Garnhum.  I can hardly wait until next season. Chariots on Fire runs to May 5 at the Grand Theatre.Tickets are available at grandtheatre.com, by phone at 519-672-8800, or at the Box Office, 471 Richmond Street. 
Reviewed by Ric Wellwood, a London, Ontario based theatre critic.
Photo: The running ensemble in the Grand’s production of Chariots of Fire. Photo Christina Kuefner.

London, Ontario
The Grand Theatre

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Based on the award-winning novel, “A Thousand Splendid Suns” follows a family trying to survive one of Afghanistan’s wars.  Exit the Soviets and enter America, with thousands dying because they are “in the way”.  Still, thousands are faceless statistics and far less personal than the story of Maryam and her family.  Haysam Kadri’s brilliant stage production has hit the Spriet Stage at London’s Grand Theatre with standing ovations for moving performances and superior design, both in set and sound, supported by very good music.

Developed by an American Stage company in San Francisco, it breathes new life into a story that we could miss because the news mentions numbers only and the true tragedy is discovered in the suffering and pain of the characters, particularly the women.  They must live as second-class citizens with forced marriages and very poor support from a male-dominated system.   

Deena Aziz is compelling at Maryam, often in conflict with her husband Rasheed, who is played as extremely selfish and cruel by Anousha Alamian.  He has actually been booed at curtain calls.  The story surely pulls the audience into an unfair world.

The unfair world contains a young woman who is forced into marriage at age fifteen and spends a good deal of her life with one pregnancy after another.  Laila is played with sensitivity by Mirian Katrib.  She seems to be dragged into one problem after another until she eventually is reunited with her childhood sweetheart.  You have to bring some personal energy to this production which runs two and a half hours.  It could be just as wonderful if they could cut twenty to thirty minutes from the running time.  Still, it is strikingly good theatre. . Grand Theatre Spriet Stage March 13 to 31, 2018. Tickets are available at grandtheatre.com, by phone at 519-672-8800, or at the Box Office, 471 Richmond Street
Reviewed by Ric Wellwood.
Photo: Deena Aziz as Mariam​ and Anousha Alamian as Rasheed​ in the Grand's production of A Thousand Splendid Suns. Photo Claus Andersen​​​​

The Gladstone

Miss Shakespeare

There’s a memorable moment in the Three Sisters Theatre Company’s production of Miss Shakespeare when an outstanding Robin Guy transports us back to the early 17th Century with a song called Tumbling.

Ms. Guy plays a woman named Katherine Rose who has lost 14 of her children in infancy yet still yearns for them to be alive. She gives utterance to this fantasy in one of this show’s most poignant musical numbers. Guy captures the tearful sensibility of the song brilliantly, but she’s also adding layers to her character. There’s this terrible loss in Katherine’s life, but there’s also a sturdy resilience and enough rebelliousness to make it conceivable that she would join other female characters in agreeing to defy the strictures of the day and act on stage at a time in history when the idea of a woman performer was unthinkable.

A number like Tumbling strikes one kind of chord — a sobering one — in Miss Shakespeare. But this is a show that navigates mood changes as slickly as a knife through butter. Hence, we also have Leah Cogan —  an ongoing delight in the role of William Shakespeare’s bright and determined daughter Judith —  jauntily delivering a ditty called Ass Song. It’s prompted by the fact that she’s been watching a rehearsal of Macbeth and has been so taken by the actor portraying Lady Macbeth that she launches into this cheeky comic ode — not to his performance but to his posterior!

Watching this show at the Gladstone, you’re repeatedly impressed by the determination of the all-female cast to draw out the material’s best features — its seamless mood changes, its concern for character delineation, the moments of wit and satire and naughty comedy, its quietly persuasive feminist agenda.

Miss Shakespeare originated a few years ago on Canada’s West Coast. Its driving force is Tracey Power who wrote the book for this musical, as well as its clever and inventive lyrics, and also collaborated with composer Steve Charles on the score. It takes us back to a time when women were forbidden to act on stage, a fascinating period in theatrical history. It presents us with a situation in which Shakespeare’s daughter Judith, herself an aspiring playwright, is so driven by a need for self -expression and a theatre company of her own that she and her friends surreptitiously begin to explore the acting experience in the dingy basement of a tavern.

Eventually they are driven to the perilous decision to perform in public, which in turn gives the show the chance to explore the now-strange gender-shifting terrain of theatrical performance in Shakespeare’s time. Show and production are therefore making their own edgy comment about the marginalization of women in the culture of the day, but at its best Miss Shakespeare garnishes these concerns with satirical flourishes that are more good-humored than biting.

The spectacle of these women donning the clothing of men to play male roles only to contemplate the further challenge of playing men doing women’s roles — well, if it starts seeming wackily surrealistic, so be it. And Tracey Power’s impish sense of humor, not to mention a deft touch with bawdry, serves the material well in numbers like Acting The Gentleman or — with its cautionary references to the male anatomy — Keep Your Pizzle in Your Pants.

Bouquets are in order for Vanessa Imeson’s excellent costumes. David Magladry’s distinctly minimalist design offers the opportunity for fluid narrative in performance — an opportunity somewhat squandered in Bronwyn Steinberg’s production. And pianist and musical director Wendy Berkelaar, with the backing of double bass player Rowena Paul, provides excellent musical support.

The songs themselves offer both variety, texture and emotional linkage to Power’s lyrics. There are some delicious cascading octaves, an affection for minor keys and adventurous rhythms. There are moments that make you think of Kurt Weill and the cabaret culture identified with the dying days of the Weimar Republic. Miss Shakespeare is a show full of surprises.

However, at the Gladstone, the members of the cast deserve the greatest credit for surviving a production in which the direction seems at best tentative. Leaving the theatre, you keep reflecting on the pleasures of the individual performances. Robin Guy, as always, is worth watching. Leah Cogan’s Judith Shakespeare exudes a quiet elegance in her desire to be accepted for what she really is. Tamara Freeman is an incandescent delight as Isabel Loxley, a bouncy imp ready to try anything in this enticing new world of make-believe.

Andrea Massoud brings urgency to the role of Hanna Storley, a young woman almost denied membership in the club because of her bastardy. As Judith’s sister, Susannah, Natalie Fraser effectively brings a new dynamic to proceedings because she fears the consequences of what they are doing. Laura Hall is sensitive, fragile and emotionally wounded over the fact that she remains a virgin after marriage. And Rachel Eugster does impressive double duty not only as the story’s narrator but as the garrulous shade of William Shakespeare whose encouragement of Judith’s ambitions is — to say the least — questionable.

There are times when the production could show more momentum. One wishes, for example, that these women were having more fun in the scene when they pull the Pyramus And Thisbe lampoon out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and try doing it themselves: it’s a case of potential not being realized, and that’s a pity given that the sequence can make a useful contribution to a stage piece preoccupied with the shifting, shimmering nature of identity. Evidence of a guiding directorial hand seems indistinct. But repeatedly the material is rescued by the individual performers. Bless them all.
Miss Shakespeare plays from May 24 and runs until June 2, 2018. 910 Gladstone Avenue Tickets are available from The Gladstone box office at www.thegladstone.ca or 613.233.4523.
Reviewed by Jamie Portman, an Ottawa based theatre critic.
This review was originally published in the Capital Critics Circle publication, Ottawa.

The Ottawa Fringe

The Last Spartan

Ottawa theatre legend Pierre Brault returns to Fringe Fest with a comedic solo show about an ancient Spartan who just wants to enjoy art, and perhaps create some too. Kaphalos is an amateur historian in a society that hates writing and is a disgraced Spartan warrior, one of the 120 Spartans to surrender to Athenian forces at the Battle of Sphacteria in 425BC.

Living in Sparta years after the battle and now working as a tanner, Kapahalos is asked by Lysander, legendary Spartan admiral, to act as defense lawyer to an irreverent playwright charged with sedition and breaking Sparta’s strict laws involving what can and cannot be said in art. The play follows Kaphalos’ struggle to defend the only great playwright Sparta has ever had, and his increasing disillusion with Spartan society that values death on the battlefield as the greatest thing in the world.  

Brault has certainly done his research. Spartan society is carefully recreated, from its strict class divisions to the upper class’s fear of the helot slave class that outnumbers the citizenry, as Brault casually but correctly states, by eight-to-one. The details of the Peloponnesian War are factual, and Brault uses real Spartan history to create a convincing backstory for his protagonist. Preoccupied as it is with real events going on, The Last Spartan feels like it could have honestly come out of the Dionysia theatre festival at the end of the Peloponnesian War.

In small asides removed from the main story, Kaphalos reflects upon Sparta’s military training schools, socially endorsed pederasty, and his time as a hostage in Athens, with such a depth of knowledge that makes it seem these events are Brault’s own life. Kaphalos becomes an historical person, not just a stage character, and the keen sense of setting imbues the play with the sense of a really interesting biography or history lesson.

Historical accuracy aside, Brault gives a wonderful performance, effortlessly handling about six different characters over the course of the play, usually flipping between two at once. He plays the fictional Kaphalos, the historical Lysander, the condemned playwright, Kaphalos’ ideologue wife, and the comedic playwright Aristophanes in a hilarious bit that contrasts Athenian sense of humour with Sparta’s dour seriousness.

It’s easy to get caught up in the historical accuracy or the masterful acting, but the themes tackled in The Last Spartan are of equal importance in making this a must-see play. Kaphalos is tasked with defending a playwright who dared poke fun at the proud Spartan society. Art in Sparta is strictly regulated by the government. It explores issues of censorship and satire, but also, on a larger scale, of the place of art in society. Should culture only exist to praise great warriors, or is it allowed to critique and push boundaries to inspire reflection and change? Can art change people’s minds? As Kaphalos deliberates near the dramatic conclusion of the play, art does not fight battles or plow the field or protect a city from invasion. But surely it must have its role in building a better society.

In history, Sparta was the dominant military power of the ancient world. The city never lost of a major battle between the years 669BC and 371BC, and in the Peloponnesian War they crushed Athens and became the most powerful city-state in Greece. But they were an ideologically driven state, the world’s first fascist superpower. With no culture to guide them except the culture of war, did Sparta really come out on top? That’s the question that Pierre Brault brings to this expertly played, riveting production, a question that we still grapple with over 2400 years later. The Last Spartan plays at La Nouvelle Scène Studio A (333 King Edward Ave) until Saturday June 23, 2018.  Visit ottawafringe.com for the schedule and box office info.
Reviewed by Ryan Pepper for the Capital Critics Association.

The Gladstone

Cry Baby

Not since Tim Oberholzer* and his merry band of performers let loose at the Gladstone with their cult rock musical productions (The Rocky Horror Show and Hedwig and the Angry Inch), has the Gladstone theatre (in Ottawa) housed such an exuberant cult film event. However, this one has a different twist.  Pianist and artistic director Chris Lucas signaled to his five piece band and off went the overture making fun of the way those numbers end, by endless endings that always restart, signaling the beginning of this huge send-up that already had us giggling.
Photo: Allison (Emma Woodside) and Cry-Baby (Nicholas Dave Amott)

Class conflict at the teen-age level, pits a group of wealthy snobby young ones with perfect morals, against a less fortunate group of apparent social misfits as the music reflects the social confrontation of the 1950’s . There is Baldwin and his band of squeaky clean do-gooders who always get vaccinated- remember the polio outbreak? They flee pinkos, weirdos, they wear pastel colors, go to the good schools and abhor that indecent rock music. They are confronted by the rebel rocker and devil himself (watch the lights change). Wade Cry-Baby Walker accompanied by his eccentric friends who can all sing and dance their way rings around the “correctly” brought up group.

They all meet at an anti-polio picnic, setting off a Romeo and Juliette /West side Story style of plot where forbidden-boy Cry-Baby meets beautiful good girl Allison and that first spark underlies the rest of the evening. Will Cry-Baby and Allison really get it on?  Will they properly “infect”each other with their “inappropriate” cross-class feelings?   The number of the Jukebox Jamboree at Turkey Point where Allison finally decides to escape the stifling Baldwin (an excellent interpretation Kenny Hayes) who hovers around her, is the turning point.  She needs to prove she is not really such a “nice”girl after all.  This seems to come out of Grease but nothing is that simple here because the book and the music turn all these events into parodies of themselves.

There is an upward spiral of jokes that even the “good” bad guys are just as silly as the “bad” good-guys, where the prison romp is a send up of Elvis’ Jail house rock and where the Jamboree at Turkey Point becomes a perfect send up of that high school gymnasium dance in West Side Story. Note especially the magnificent voice of Steph Goodwin, known here as “Hatchet-Face” whose vocal power and singing ability should propel her onto greater things!  Very High tenor Dupree W. Dupree was another strong voice that made its own special place in the crowd as he hurtles his upper notes around the theatre whenever the script gives him the chance.  Emma Woodside as the shy beautiful Allison was perfectly infected with the spirit of parody as she switched from romantic longing to bad girl howling at the right point.

Apparently Act II makes changes by twisting the plot and adding new songs. For example, Act II also gave an excellent number to Mrs. Vernon Williams, Allison’s conflicted grandmother - “I did something wrong once” - performed by Christine Drew whose guilt-ridden outbursts are well served by her tortured interpretation of that song in her beautifully tasteless comic rendition. And Lawrence Evenchick as the angry judge, spokesperson for the system that "Can’t be beat " never stops eyeing the young ones, suggesting the time will come when it will be beat! His contribution is always impeccable.

The male lead, (poor orphan Wade Cry-Baby Walker) confirmed the immense talent of Nicholas Dave Amott. His vocal and corporeal mimic of Elvis was perfect, but it also had a special personal touch because of his outpouring of charm and sex appeal which is very necessary to that role. This is an actor/singer capable of adapting to any role at all.  We are lucky to have Amott in Ottawa but who knows how much longer he will be here before some agent grabs him!

What also worked strongly was the overall energy of this show, the excellent music under the direction of Chris Lucas, some of the group numbers choreographed by Brenda Solman who along with director Fex assured a breathtaking pace, tight performances and a fine   group effort where they all worked beautifully and performed to their fullest. The fact is that this musical gives one the sense that you have already seen “that” somewhere before because of all the references, but it is also thoroughly entertaining  precisely because the borrowing is all turned on its head ; the way the performance style and all the brazen textual parody  take us right into the world of  so many popular musicals even including the angry  Mel Brooks style humor of The Producers which is the epitome of bad taste becoming brilliant parody turned into social and  political criticism.

Cry-Baby is not quite as brilliant as those other shows, but the intentions are there and most of the performances hit the spot especially as director Don Fex keeps it all boiling hot.
No doubt this company, given the extent of their current ambitions which they rightly pursue, and the more than 20 singing and dancing performers needed a bigger stage. Some of those dance numbers clearly had to be downplayed because they had no room to expand freely and it looked as though the musicians felt crushed on the right. How does an actor feel with the music blasting in his/her ear?  That is not the fault of the company but the problem with Ottawa. There is no affordable space for such companies who  should be able to stage such an event in a proper venue! Even the electrical system in the Gladstone is old and we heard crackles from a sound system did not quite work the way it should although the glitch will not happen again!

In the meantime, you are in for big surprise! Cry-Baby, the musical, adapted from the John Waters film runs from May 11 to 19 at the Gladstone Theatre. 910 Gladstone Avenue. Tickets: (613) 233-4523 or boxoffice@thegladstone.ca.

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht, an Ottawa based theatre critic.
This review was originally published in the Capital Critics Circle publication, Ottawa.

The National Arts Centre English Theatre Production
Babs Asper Theatre

Up to Low

Ottawa to Wakefield in 1950 was a bumpy  road covered with pebbles that used to make the car shake until the fenders came loose.  Such was the trip made by local  cottage goers  into  the Francophone Pontiac   but nothing as harrowing  or as colourful  as writer Bryan Doyle suggests . His  memories are piled high with everyone’s stories filtered  through the expanding imagination of 15 year old Tommy, producing  an  epic  tale right out of  western Quebec where even the vicious black flies have a role as the great villains of the plot, thanks to the opening solo by Pierre Brault. This is about local Quebec culture but Janet Irwin’s  deft staging and the well written adaptation brings this   story telling up to  the level of mythology that resounds singularly like the magical arctic world captured by Robert W. Service’s  The Cremation of Sam McGee and .

Tommy remembers that journey with  his father  along that  dusty old road up to Low to his mother’s old house  to see  mean old Hughie “dying of the  cancer “ but all  Tommy really thinks about are those deep green eyes of  Baby Bridget, Hughie’s one armed daughter  whom Tommy has never forgotten.  A love story simmers under the trials and tribulations of the journey and allows  Brendon  McMurtry -Howlett  to master  all the moods of his role. An excellent performance that easily held its own within that ensemble  of  his many seasoned partners with whom he shared the stage!

At that time  it took  6  hours  to travel  40 miles in a rundown old Buick driven by a drunken uncle  who  refused to take the “pledge”, until the priest and his strongmen got hold of him and convinced him it was the best thing for his health. Attila Clemenn  as uncle Frank is again up to his level of greatness, especially  when he is quoting Wordsworth . Those incidents are great  moments of joyful storytelling and excellent physical work with the actors as they jostle with the car, pull each other out of the river, deal with disappearing ancestors and lug cases of drinks or pull a stone coffin.   This also  becomes  a story of immigration as all these events take part in a   space where the Irish immigrants cohabited with the local Francophones,  sharing their legendary creatures , their  food, their religion, their music  and  learning  how to  appreciate each other’s stories. 

This new  staging first created in 2015 at Arts Court,  begins by a   cabaret-style  setting  that emphasizes   the  mise en abyme/ theatre within  theatre format   so that  the  multiple changes in the acting space  are no challenge thanks to  Brian Smith’s  artful wooden construction   and Martin Conboy’s magic lighting effects. Human figures  melt into the shadows of the surrounding woods as the richly royal blue sky, the night  lights from the power plant or the golden rays of the rising sun  and the churning  water  of the  the rising river   set  the stage event into a theatrical world larger than life. 

Voices of the chorus pick up their cues and keep the  narrative rolling along at a good pace, creating the sense of an epic oratorio that quickly builds up momentum .  A  crowd of unforgettable characters  comes to life thanks to a text which gives them  meaty responses often full of humour  and  a talented  director  whose orchestration of the voices  is very precise.  

Kristina Watt  is  Aunt Dottie obsessed with cleanliness.  Given her own centre space on the end of the slightly thrust stage setting,  she comes downstage and tells us  squarely in the face  all her woes about dirt. A funny but pathetic creature  who  builds up her own alienation by becoming a caricature.  Her performance works very well in spite of the fact that hers is not the tone that prevails in the show. Pierre Brault used his  gifts of accents, and music and shifting types to portray several individuals and brought much excitement to the stage.  

Chris Ralph (Tommys father) and  Paul Rainville ( Mean Hughie) contributed  their own characters beautifully to  the ensemble.  Rainville  especially as the dying Hughie  brought a chill of horror  to our bones while Megan Carty  as the courageous Baby Bridget and the long suffering, constantly baking , Poor Bridget (Doreen Taylor –Claxton ) as the women  in  Mean Hughie’s  household were low-key, strong  and very effective.

As always, Ian Tamblyn working with two other musicians was a vital part of the story telling and the construction of soundscape which became a force of nature addressing the audience in multiple ways.  However, because, the musicians were placed on the extreme end of stage right,  it appeared that they had to  readjust  the sound mix  so as not to drown out the other voices if they made the music too loud.   Thus at times, Tamblyn and his musicians  were barely audible. Perhaps  the technician could bring the sound up from time to time so we can really appreciate their playing,  especially the more delicate sounds like the Tamblyn’s Mongolian bowls, instruments of his own creation that sent   gentle vibrations over the water as Tommy and Baby Bridget  float by in the night.

Nevertheless this is a show that speaks to our  region in a  way that inspires  much nostalgia, while inserting this  local microcosm into a much larger form of popular legend.  Up to Low has at last  found its proper place in the National Arts Centre. 
Up to Low plays until May 19. in the Babs Asper Theatre of the NAC. 1 Elgin St. Ottawa.  Tickets: Order by Phone at 1-888-991-2787; Online: Ticketmaster.ca. or purchase in Person at the NAC Box Office location & hours. NAC Box Office location & hours
Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

This review was originally published in the Capital Critics Circle publication, Ottawa.

Guest Review
By Jane Baldwin

Jagged Little Pill
Central Square Theatre
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette’s internationally famous alt-rock album released in 1995, has been turned into exciting musical theatre with two new songs composed for it. Imaginatively directed by the American Repertory Theatre’s Diane Paulus and stunningly choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the performers sing, dance, and act with skill. At the opening, two bands roll on stage. A thirteen person chorus sings and dances to the music before pulling a screen open exposing the Healy living room. This chorus functions much like its ancient Greek predecessor.
Photo: Celia Gooding as Frankie in Jagged Little Pill

The book, written by Diablo Cody, revolves around the Healy’s, an affluent family living in a wealthy suburb in Connecticut. Each family member has a secret. Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley), a stay at home mother, is writing a Christmas letter in which she explains that she had a bad automobile accident followed by two operations but is now fully recovered – a lie. Her husband Steve (Sean Allan Krill), involved with his work life, is seldom at home. When he is, his time is spent watching pornographic videos on his computer unaware that his wife is monitoring him.

The Healys have two children. Nick (Derek Klena), the eldest is a good student who intends to go to a top college. His mother believes he is her “only success.” The younger, Frankie (Celia Gooding) was adopted after Mary Jane had three miscarriages. She is black, angry, and having a clandestine affair with Jo (Laura Patten) a transgendered school mate. Frankie lives in a completely white world. Like many adolescents, she resents her mother while acting out to get her attention. Mary Jane falls for it and feels inadequate. “All I Really Want” sung by Frankie and Mary Jane expresses their frustration.

On their way to school, Frankie confides in Jo about her relationship with Mary Jane. Later in her writing class when Frankie is verbally attacked by other students about her use of the word ironic, Phoenix, a new student, praises her poem to her delight. The two sing “Ironic,” a work criticized over the years for misusing the word. Attracted to each other they remain after school to talk together. They grow closer over time and become lovers. Jo is devastated. Lauren Patten brought down the house with her rendition of “You Oughta Know” the night I saw it.

Mary Jane, addicted to opioids first prescribed for her after her surgeries, meets drug dealers in back alleys. It is her addiction that put an end to love making with her husband and left him feeling “So Unsexy” that the only sexual outlet he had was his porn habit.

Event piles on event. Frankie runs off to New York as the “Unprodigal Daughter” and her relationship with Phoenix terminates when he refuses to say he loves her. Nick, the perfect son, has his morality tested when he becomes involved in a rape committed by his friend Andrew (Logan Hart) and must decide whether to tell the police what he knows. Bella (Kathryn Gallagher), the rape victim, is encouraged to go to the police by Frankie. They don’t believe her and she is vilified by the kids in town. Mary Jane almost dies of an overdose. No realism here; the scene takes the form of a ballet performed by Elizabeth Stanley and a dancer dressed and made up to look like her.  Nick does the right thing and Bella is exonerated by her peers proving that a man’s word is still stronger than a woman’s. Mary Jane and Steve reunite though she undergoes rehabilitation first. Posters in hand, the students join together to protest social evils and support movements such as #Me Too and #Black Lives Matter.

The acting is strong throughout with standout performances given by Elizabeth Stanley, Celia Gooding, Lauren Patten, and Antonio Cipriano. 

Riccardo Hernandez’s clever and efficient scene design helps keep the pace up. Justin Townsend’s lighting is beautiful.Although I found the play too long and overpacked, the powerful production may carry it to Broadway. 

Jagged Little Pill runs through July 15 at the Loeb Theatre in Cambridge, MA. An American Repertory Theatre Production. 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge MA.
Reviewed by Jane Baldwin
Photo: by Evgenia Eliseeva.

Ontario Summer Theatre Reviews

Ottawa, Ontario - Strathcona Park
Twelfth Night

No  need to  outline the plot here for this  pleasant evening in Strathcona Park played out on Brian Smith’s colourful set glowing with contemporary forms but perfectly adapted to this fantasy of overseas voyages, shipwrecks, disguises, impersonation, and  shifting genders.  It prepares us  for a rollicking adventure in an imaginary land where strange puppets speak their mind or  pop out from behind the greenery with their funn,y screechy little voices.  Shakespeare’s great comic creations such as Sir Toby Belch, and Andrew Aguecheek, and Fabian transformed into a chattering little hairy puppet, as well as the sly fun-loving Maria (Olivia’s servant) played by Kate McArthur who  took on other  roles alongside a  cast of professional actors with much experience and magnificent costumes designed  by the very talented Vanessa Imeson. All  this   created  great expectations for an  excellent evening of fun. 
Photo: by Andrew Alexander. Kate Smith in Company of Fools' Twelfth Night.
However, apart from several moments that worked fairly well because the actors involved  projected  high  verbal and corporeal  energy, there is no doubt that the Comedy of Fools  has lost a lot of its spirit this summer. Something happened  to give us the impression we were watching a student production  that could not always attain  the traditional “Fools” mode of speech .  Such was the case with many  of these excellent actors whose performances  were almost neutralized by a lack of strong direction so that the  staging appeared to work  against the performers’ instincts.

We have seen how  theater companies do change, especially if they are working on a specific acting tradition or esthetic which was their trademark at the beginning.  Take The  Odyssey theatre which began its summer life in Strathcona Park as a tightly trained team of actors inspired by the masked theatre of the Commedia dell’arte . Their work has been evolving over time and is now at a point where it is experimenting with various versions of masked theatre and rewritings of plays that are not necessarily suited to masked performances at all. Much thought is given to the mixture of performance styles, to the way the script suits the acting form (and sometimes they don’t fit perfectly),  and how best to interpret the essence of the play while allowing each actor to give vent to his or her own talents . 

This kind of mixture needs a director like Andy Massingham or Al  Connors,  and actors such as Katie Ryerson, Scott Florence, Margo MacDonald and many more who have  gone on to greater glory since their 'Fools' days but who were trained  specifically to capture the style of the fools which did not come that easily.  Nowadays, such a  background is necessary to capture the ins and outs of masked performance while being able to take advantage of the talents of each actor to assure that  he/she never  misses  the bounding rhythms of  these corporeal  styles that flow through the spoken word  just  as  much as through the moving body, sweeping  the spectators and participants forward into moments of great delight.

Here such encounters were rare.  The actors seemed trapped in the text.  They did not try to create an interesting encounter between the words, the characters and the rhythms embedded in Shakespeare’s writing.  There were long moments of monotony, of  sliding over  the text as though it did not exist. In the past, that was one of the great strengths of the company, the way it played with Shakespeare's writing in a most sharp and witty way. More use might have been made of the music with a better sound system  to bring out  more of the atmosphere of a public fair, where certain characters  transformed  themselves into strange puppets and  suffering lovers without ever conveying any of the emotion we hoped for;  a  mischievous Garret Quirk  slipped between aristocracy and  a debauched  and mumbling drunken noble  without making his transformations  strong enough. 

Olivia( Kate Smith) had her moments as a  saucy Madonna who eventually worked it all out as the cheeky Andrew Aguecheek ; then there was Viola  (Catherine Rainville) a rather bland lovesick young lady disguised as a man. Nothing more transpired! The encounters with all the characters portrayed by Kate McArthur shot out  great sparks that lit up the stage and drew us back to the  original Fools. When  she came on stage as Viola’s lost brother  Sebastian, or as Maria (Olivia’s servant), the energy soared  up to the trees, even when she barely moved .  Of course Shakespeare’s plot is wonderful and carries it all along, especially when he has  poor Malvolia  tortured  by Maria’s cruel joke.. Nevertheless the proof was there.  Malvolia ( the  exquisite Mary Ellis) emerged  a crushed creature who evaporated in her text because she  seemed  miscast.

If the Company of Fools is to find its past glory it will have to find artists who have  experience with masked theatre or at least corporeal theatre of all sorts so that a new concoction of performance styles might eventually  emerge.  It  just  doesn't  happen by accident. It can’t just be willed by strong convictions.  It has to be sought out  and studied. Laurie Stevens trained her actors as did  Massingham who experimented with various styles as well before he left Ottawa.  Such a shame for us.   

Im convinced there are  still  artists/directors  - male and female,  who could certainly follow in the  footsteps of these founding people.  Let’s see what happens next year.

Twelfth Night is directed by Bromwyn  Steinberg and produced by a Company of Fools.  Check the timetable for the performances which take place in parks across the city:
 Plays From July 2 to August 18, 2018.
Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht
(This review was originally published in the Capital Critics Circle publication)

1,000 Islands Playhouse
Ganonoque, Ontario

The Buddy Holly Story

Any rock musical that’s worth its salt needs catchy tunes that will engage and excite the audience. Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story, the musical created by Alan Janes, based on the life of American rock pioneer Buddy Holly, is certainly no exception to this; it’s jam-packed with many hit songs from Holly and other major singers of the 1950s. With this repertoire, the rendition of this musical produced jointly by 1000 Islands Playhouse and Western Canada Theatre (from Kamloops, BC) and directed by James MacDonald is nothing short of impressive.

Photo: Nathan Carroll and Hal Rogers in Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story. Photo by Randy deKleine-Stimpson / ftbd.ca

MacDonald’s production features a highly talented cast who are equally capable of playing multiple instruments as they are acting and singing. The deliberate effort on the part of the director and performers to include the audience as much as possible in the show (presenting the old radio shows and music festivals as if they’re happening in the current moment) helped to ensure engagement and attention.

Following the story of the young rock icon from his beginnings in Lubbock, Texas to his tragic death in a plane crash with two other musicians (later immortalized in Don McLean’s song “American Pie”), Buddy features the personal and professional challenges Holly faced as well as the conflicts between different kinds of music on which he took the rebel side, principally, between country and rock, and ‘white’ and ‘coloured’ music. While Holly’s story is certainly an inspiring and compelling one, it is really the music which carries this production along and gives it power. It is also what best demonstrates Holly’s status as a pioneer of rock.

Nathan Carroll’s performance as the title character is stellar - complete with the signature glasses, he gives off a well-crafted impression of Holly. His visible facial expressions and expressive movements (such as excitedly jumping around when a local radio host decides to helps Holly form a band) further help in creating vividness to his character. Even more, his singing of Holly’s classic tunes consistently is remarkably steady and holds its own against the many instruments onstage.

Other particularly good portrayals come from Nick Fontaine as fellow icon Ritchie Valens, Sheldon Bergstrom as larger-than-life “Big Bopper” (J.P. Richardson), Montgomery Bjornson as the delightedly Texan DJ Hipockets Duncan, and Hal Wesley Rogers as Apollo Theatre host Tyrone Jones. The vocal performances of each of the cast stand out, however, as do their ability to play instruments as diverse as banjos and saxophones.

Most of the elements on the technical front served to enhance the musical’s atmosphere. A combination of imaginative but not too complicated sets by Robin Fisher (such as the cut-out window from a wall in record producer Norma Petty’s living room to show his studio), with colourful and scenic lighting by Rebecca Picherack, help to provide a sense of place to the events and concerts taking place onstage. The only aspect which momentarily interrupts the illusion is the rather long scene changes wherein the moving of set pieces is visible even on the darkened stage.  While a bit cumbersome, they don't detract from the overall smooth staging of the show.

The final thing which makes this production special is its performers’ engagement with this audience and efforts to increase the show’s immediacy (such as a  radio host at the beginning thanking the theatre’s real-life sponsors and another urging the audience to look in their programs for a winning orange card later on). A delightfully local and Canadian production about an American rock icon, Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story is one which keeps the toes tapping throughout!

Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story continues until July 21 at the Springer Theatre, 690 Charles Street South.For show times and tickets, see http://www.1000islandsplayhouse.com/buddy-holly/ or call the box office at 613-382-7020 .
Reviewed by Natasha  Lomonossoff

(This review was originally published in the Capital Critics Circle publication)

1000 Islands Playhouse

Ganonoque, Ontario

2 Pianos, 4 Hands

As the first offering of the 1000 Islands Playhouse’s summer 2018 season, 2 Pianos, 4 Hands (a Marquis Entertainment Production) serves up delightful music with a comedic and light-hearted story.

Photo: L to R: Bryce Kulak and Max Roll in 2 Pianos, 4 Hands.

Though the production has received prestigious awards and has travelled to many places overseas, one may still wonder whether the same  ‘big stage’ experience may be had in the modest Springer Theatre. Any doubts on this front, however, were instantly put to rest. This production, directed by one of the show’s co-creators, Richard Greenblatt, skilfully packs classic and pop piano tunes and comedic storytelling together in a largely entertaining production.

The show, created by Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra, both theatre artists and musicians, dives into their childhood and adolescence as aspiring concert pianists. The trials of forced practicing by strict parents, anxiety-inducing competition performances, and difficult piano lessons are all portrayed through a distinctly humorous lens.

Underlying the comedy is also an important moral: the realization that one may not be the best or even as good as they hope to be at an activity, and that’s ok. However, it is the comedic aspects which truly carry this production along and seem to resonate most with the audience (judging by the numerous laughs throughout).

The performances by the two actors in the show, Bryce Kulak (Richard) and Max Roll (Ted), are excellent and highly entertaining. Portraying young Richard and Ted as they move through their musical journey, they also double as a range of different characters including parents, eccentric teachers, and tough music school examiners. It is their acting and musical ability which truly make the show-from their superb piano playing to their ease in switching between characters, Kulak and Roll do a great job of ensuring engagement.

To that effect, the minimalistic set by production designer Steve Lucas, consisting of two pianos and two framed projection screens upstage, works well as a space for the performers. Along with the performers, the pianos and projections shown on the screens provide enough context for individual settings and situations in the show. The lighting design, also by Lucas, serves the production effectively. Lighting colours are matched and acutely timed with dramatic moments throughout the show, for instance the stage being very brightly lit when the boys each do their exams to enter music schools.

The show is not just all slapstick.  There are moments of genuine emotion in the telling of each of the boys’ efforts to become the best piano player. Such moments when Richard breaks down after his father threatens to cancel his lessons and when Ted’s dream of being a concert pianist is dashed by the school examiner. The latter scene is especially poignant when Ted realizes that he does not quite have what it takes to be a professional pianist despite his years of practice. Yet, these moments do not seem to be quite as long-lasting or have as much impact as the jokes and enjoyable piano pieces performed onstage. The strength of this production of 2 Pianos, 4 Hands comes from its ability to transmit a powerful combination of nostalgia and feel-goodness.
2 Pianos, 4 Hands continues until June 16 at the Springer Theatre in the 1000 Islands Playhouse. For more information and tickets, visit http://www.1000islandsplayhouse.com/2-pianos-4-hands/
Reviewed by Natasha Lomonossoff, an Ottawa based theatre critic.

(This review was originally published in the Capital Critics Circle publication)

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