Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Pictured: Dana Jean Phoenix, Mark Cassius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 16, 2013


Pictured: NBOC Nutcracker Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Pictured: Stuart Ward,
Dani de Waal

Special to TorSun
04 DEC 2013
R: 4/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 1, 2013


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

Special to TorSun
01 DEC 2013
R: 5/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 29, 2013


Sarah Orenstein,
Tony Nappo,
John Bourgeois,
Linda Kash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Pictured: Marc Labrèche

Special to TorSun
28 NOV 2013
R: 4.5/5

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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