New, Again

“Everything old is new again,” wrote Peter Allen, the Australian songwriter and performer, in one of his memorable hits of the 1980s. As if to prove the point still holds, a spate of high-profile musicals sweeps the GTA and beyond this summer, all but one more than 30 years old. Already attracting crowds at the Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Guys and Dolls, “a musical fable of Broadway” based on stories and characters created by Damon Runyon during the 30s, originated as a 1950 adaptation by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. The most-produced American musical in history, the show has won nearly every possible award and still scores accolades. Given its strong production at the Shaw, “odds are that [it] will become the biggest box-office hit in the Festival’s history,” writes J. Kelly Nestruck in The Globe and Mail. It’s a safe bet that the Festival indubitably is banking upon.

music theatre piazza promotional imageBy now, the plot of Guys and Dolls is well known — at least, to the demographic that appreciates the stylized depiction of Depression-era Broadway that Runyon creates for his motley collection of gangsters, gamblers, chorines and molls. Sky Masterson, a high-roller (played by Kyle Blair in the current production) makes a bet with Nathan Detroit (Shawn Wright), a shady entrepreneur who’s organizing a craps game for his cronies, that he can woo a pious missionary from the Salvation Army — Sarah Brown (played by Elodie Gillett) — and fly her off to Havana. While the sinner and saintly flirt, fight and fall in love, Nathan and his frustrated fiancée of 14 years, Adelaide (Jenny L Wright), a performer at the Hot Box burlesque, conduct a parallel romance that leads to the same destination — the altar, a common site for happy endings in frivolities like this. To chronicle their progress from craps to the church, Loesser provides one of the greatest scores ever written for a popular entertainment — a roster of songs that defines the term “classic” and sets the standard for American musical comedy.

A riskier gamble is the Shaw Festival’s other musical offering this season — The Light in the Piazza, book by Craig Lucas, score and lyrics by Adam Guettel, which opens in late July. One of the few musicals written in the 21st century to receive a major Canadian production this summer, Piazza also evolves from a literary source—a short story set in the 1950s when anxieties about romance and repression ran rampant, a circumstance not incidental to the show’s subject.

Originally a short story written by Elizabeth Spencer in 1960, The Light in the Piazza follows Margaret Johnson, a wealthy matron from the southern U.S. (played by Patti Jamison) as she chaperones her daughter Clara (Jacqueline Thair) on a summer trip to Florence. There, a love affair between Clara and Fabrizio, a young Italian man (Jeff Irving), forces Margaret to face the fact that her future is overshadowed by the past. While still a small girl, Clara suffered a concussion that stunted her mental and emotional growth. Now a beautiful young woman, she retains the innocence of a child, which becomes more than usually troubling after she announces her intention to marry her Italian paramour. Watching Clara’s love blossom, Margaret grapples with her responsibility to her daughter and the girl’s fiancé. Should she acquiesce to love and celebrate the young couple’s marriage, or should she intervene to stop it?

music theatre paul sportelliWriting about The Light in the Piazza, Jackie Maxwell, artistic director of the Shaw Festival, suggests that “actors and singers adore being in an Adam Guettel musical as they have to push themselves to the limit musically and emotionally.” I asked Paul Sportelli, musical director of the show, if he agreed. “Actors do love singing Guettel,” he replied. “He knows how to write for the voice and his compositions are tremendously powerful, so singing actors like to be a part of bringing that kind of composition to life.” Sportelli also suggests that “as much as one can analyze and admire [Guettel’s] composition, there is something in it that is powerful and emotional and transcendent ... that can’t be fully explained ... ” One reviewer of the original Broadway production (2005) made a similar point, observing that “the songs complicate rather than simplify the characters,” which led him to reflect that “the musical is conventionally thought of as the lightest and most disposable of theatrical genres, but The Light in the Piazza is on every level more profound than [many dramas].”

Piazza is one of the few bilingual Broadway musicals to succeed with an audience, many of its characters being fluent only in Italian. The bilingual book and lyrics make the piece more difficult to rehearse than other musicals, Sportelli notes, adding that “the dialect requirements (English with an Italian accent, English with a North Carolina accent), along with the complexity of the score” require extra rehearsal time. Mounting the production in the close confines of the Festival’s Court House Theatre also presents challenges. Using an orchestration that Guettel wrote for piano, harp, double bass, cello and violin rather than a full orchestra, Sportelli and the play’s director, Jay Turvey, hope to turn the liabilities of the space to their advantage. “It’s the orchestration I used when I did Piazza at the Arena Stage in Washington DC in 2010,” Sportelli explains, “and it is very effective: lush while achieving a more intimate ‘chamber’ feel. The five players will be on stage at the back and will be visible.”

music theatre catsAnother show that uses reduced orchestration to meet the demands of a smaller house opens in early June for a two-month run at Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre. Like Guys and Dolls and The Light in the Piazza, it also stems from a literary source, but one less time-specific. Written in the late 1970s, Cats qualifies as both a cultural phenomenon and a large-scale musical, a fact that often overshadows its considerable artistic achievements. Based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), the show premiered in London in 1981 as a high-concept suite for dancers, with music composed by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Trevor Nunn (its director) and choreography by Gillian Lynne. The following year, the same creative team opened Cats on Broadway under the guidance of Cameron MacIntosh, its producer, where, as in the West End, the show garnered instant acclaim and set attendance records. Besides running for 21 years in London and 18 years on Broadway, Cats has since been translated into 22 languages and played around the world. The seven Tony Awards it won in 1983 represent only a few of the many honours it has accumulated during its travels.

The first of the so-called mega-musicals, Cats cost five million dollars to produce on Broadway in 1983, a figure that established a new benchmark for large-scale musical theatre. Given its unusual subject and eclectic score, this cost is remarkable. Much has been written about the initial production, primarily because the cast rehearsed without a book, plot or structure — a situation that regularly led to confusion. Inasmuch as the performers all play cats, they were required to learn a complex physical vocabulary to execute Lynne’s stylized choreography which, while much copied, has never been surpassed. Although the show is sung-through, the music intermittently accompanies spoken text, though never dialogue. Musical forms include an overture that incorporates a fugue for three voices, power ballads, rock solos and chorale recitative as well as novelty numbers that highlight the attributes of the various cats that gather for the Jellicle Ball — an annual event in this feline fantasy that provides the show’s inciting premise. Meeting in a junkyard (the musical’s only set), the phalanx of 22 cats waits for the moment when Old Deuteronomy, a revered elder, will choose the most deserving celebrant to ascend with him to heaven. Defying expectations, he eventually names Grizabella, a shabby old cat shunned by the others, whose signature song “Memory,” introduced at the end of Act One, provides the musical motif that repeats throughout the show to lend it a melancholic tone as indelible as the song’s soaring melody.

The small stage of the Panasonic Theatre is a far cry from the wide proscenium and lofty fly gallery of the Elgin Theatre where Cats received its all-Canadian premiere in 1985. The brain-child of Marlene Smith who, along with Tina Vanderheyden, raised over three million dollars to finance the show (unheard of at that time), Cats gave Toronto’s commercial theatre a long overdue kick-start. The production ran for two years before touring the country and returning for a second sold-out run at Massey Hall in 1987. Responsible, in large measure, for the restoration and refurbishment of the Elgin Theatre, its success had even more important consequences. As Mel Atkey writes in his book Broadway North, the production proved “that there was an audience for musicals in Toronto, the talent to perform (if not yet to write and direct) them and money to be made. When the suggestion of bringing in Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera cropped up, it was feeding time at the zoo.”

Marlene Smith acknowledges that she enlisted a number of investors from her initial team for the new production of Cats that she undertook at the suggestion of her son Geoffrey, with whom she has formed a new company, Nu Musical Theatricals. To direct, she turned to Dave Campbell, who has mounted the show elsewhere in Canada. Interestingly, she sourced her choreographer and musical director from the original Canadian production: Gino Berti, a member of the initial Canadian cast, is charged with recreating Lynne’s West End choreography, and Lona Davis, another member of the original cast, serves as musical director. It was Davis who explained the show’s orchestration to me, noting that “due to space limitations we have a reduced eight-piece orchestra. The arrangements are based on an existing ten-piece version [for which] Mark Camilleri has created new programming for the three keyboards that updates some of the original sounds.” She adds that “the orchestra performs on a scaffold upstage behind the set” and that “all the performers are miked.”

A new Cats for a new generation? Perhaps, given that the set employs the designs of Rose and Thistle, a Toronto-based company whose digital technology attempts to add depth to the Panasonic’s shallow stage by projecting layers of holographic imagery. While such effects are welcome, even without them the old becomes new again as fresh faces enliven a show that has passed the test of time. The same can be said of a number of other productions that grace our stages this summer — too many, in fact, to allow more than a mention here. Tommy, the acclaimed “rock opera” that began as a record album by The Who in 1969, receives a new production at the Stratford Festival under the direction of Des MacAnuff, one of its originators and continues until mid-October. Another all-Canadian production of an oldie but goodie that promises high-tech staging, the show is sure to attract a new generation of theatregoers interested in experiencing a milestone in the history of musical theatre.

Reaching back even further, Anything Goes, in a touring production by New York’s Roundabout Theatre that won the Tony Award for Best Revival in 2011, also arrives in July for a one-month run at the Princess of Wales Theatre. Written in 1934 by the inimitable Cole Porter, this frothy confection is perfect summer fare — and the second most-produced musical in the American theatre canon, right behind Guys and Dolls. If you haven’t seen it before, you’re in for a treat. And if you have, well, as with all the other musicals available to you this summer, it’s worth seeing again — especially in this rousing production that revels in the joy of staging the past. Who knows, you might even want to sing along. I’m sure you’ll know the songs. 

Based in Toronto, Robert Wallace writes about theatre and performance. He can be contacted at musictheatre@thewholenote.com.

 


Originals

Two toronto theatre companies, neither known for musical production, break new ground this month by presenting on their main stages original musicals written and composed by Canadian artists. The first show, by Soulpepper theatre, opens on May 9, and while its title may lack originality, the production certainly doesn’t. An update of a “comedy with songs” that Theatre Columbus created in 1996, The Barber of Seville reunites its creators — Michael O’Brien (writer), John Millard (composer) and Leah Cherniak (director) — for a fresh look at the runaway hit that won DORA awards for outstanding musical production, score, and female performance. Needless to say, the show arrives with buzz.

1808-musictheatre“But original?” you ask. “What about Rossini’s opera?” As if to answer such a question, Michael O’Brien points out that Gioachino Rossini based The Barber of Seville on a comedy that French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais wrote in 1775, the first of his “Figaro trilogy.” Well before Rossini’s opera buffa premiered in 1816, Beaumarchais’ play (itself an opéra comique — a mixture of spoken words and music) inspired other writers and composers (most notably Mozart) to pen variations. This type of borrowing, far from exceptional in the theatre, is common, with writers and composers using a variety of sources to create work whose originality often relies on form more than content. Certainly, this is the case with the two musicals I preview here.

As O’Brien sees it, Soulpepper’s take on The Barber of Seville “combines the best elements of Beaumarchais’ play with highlights of the Rossini opera and a few twists of our own, creating an all-new contemporary version ...” Using a highly theatrical representation of 18th-century Spain as his touchstone, the Toronto playwright heightens the play’s comic elements at every turn. “Dialogue and lyrics are a colourful mish-mash of classic romance and modern irreverence. Plot and characters are faithful in spirit to both Beaumarchais and Rossini, though I’ve thrown in a few big surprises that I hope will delight those who know the source material well.”

Discussing the music he composed for the play, John Millard addresses the similarities and differences between O’Brien’s script and those of his predecessors. “Michael used the dramaturgical structure of the [Beaumarchais] play and placed the musical moments where they belonged inside it. All the recitative is gone. The songs function the way they do in most theatrical situations, in that very little action takes place inside them. Mostly they reveal states of emotion: current, past or future. Many of the recognizable themes are there [but] it’s not the opera. It’s an entertainment of our own devising, based on [the work of] Rossini and Beaumarchais.” Ultimately, Millard regards the score as a “high end folk music version” of Rossini’s creation, noting that it includes “patter songs, cavatina and arias. There is also a Scottish folk song, a couple of things of my own invention and quotes from many different sources.”

Arguably, it is the quotes and references that most distinguish the show as contemporary — a mash-up typical of late 20th-century performance that is clever, tuneful and fun. In many shows from this period, style uses content as a pretext for coups des théâtre that foreground the paradox of combining live performers with technological wizardry. Barber is no exception although, rather than treat its sources with reverence, it lampoons them with a playful vigour that is as physical as it is stylized. In the press release for the 1996 production of the show, Theatre Columbus celebrated the act of “freely plundering from Rossini’s opera” even as it reduced its summary of the plot to a cryptic sentence: “A lovesick nobleman seeks the woman of his dreams but to win her, he must enlist the help of the mercurial Figaro.” More telling of the company’s theatrical goals and achievements with the prodution was its contention that the play leads the audience “into a madcap spiral of deceit, disguise, trickery and mayhem.”

In productions such as this, style is tantamount to sensibility. In this particular Barber, the sensibility is simultaneously base and sophisticated — an appropriate combination given the show’s debt to bouffon and commedia dell’arte — theatrical styles that elevate mime and exaggerate gesture with a precision akin to dance. The style was noteworthy in the Theatre Columbus production, of which Kate Taylor noted in her review for the Globe and Mail:“From the slightest gesture to the smallest prop, every opportunity for a laugh is exploited in a hugely detailed production. It takes a great deal of control to create the appearance of reigning confusion on stage; Theatre Columbus has plenty.”

The onstage band that John Millard has assembled to accompany the Soulpepper cast promises to further extend the stylish originality that the play achieved in its first production. Millard’s use of banjo, violin, accordion, bass, guitar and flute is unconventional to musicals, let alone opera, yet “true to the spirit of Rossini,” he suggests, though he quickly adds “but it’s quite a different creature.” He explains that “In some of the pieces I’ve attempted to replicate [Rossini’s] score. In other arrangements, we’ve approached it in the form of a lead sheet. In others, a re-envisioning. It’s a broad approach.” The cast, he notes, which mixes new faces and seasoned veterans like Stratford stalwart Dan Chameroy who plays Figaro, is “discreetly miked,” a tip of his hat to current fashion.

There’s nothing discreet about our second original either: Of A Monstrous Child is a new musical that recalls Weimar cabaret in its coupling of queer provocation and steamy style in the service of a political aesthetic. Created by Ecce Homo for Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, which co-produces the piece on its main stage starting May 15, the show’s subtitle, “A Gaga Musical,” offers a key to the production’s theme that Alistair Newton, its writer and director, is happy to elucidate in an interview. “I think that Lady Gaga is a kind of climax — or perhaps denouement — of post-modernism. Gaga is the ideal cipher to explore and explode our current cultural moment, ruled as it is by hipster ersatz-irony and obsession with authenticity. […] Gaga is obsessed with persona and fantasy and self-aware self-expression, and that’s really what theatre is all about.”

Ecce Homo, like Newton (the company’s artistic director), is preoccupied with theatre in extremis — or, more precisely, “total theatre” as it was theorized by artistic visionaries like Meyerhold and Antonin Artaud in the early 20th century. For them, “self-aware self-expression” was tantamount to theatre as theatre, not as a representation of life. Ecce Homo, founded in 2005 by Newton, Matt Jackson, a production designer, and Austrian installation artist Edith Artner, defines its goal as “stylized theatrical works with strong socio-political content which synthesize text, music, dance and design to yield a total theatrical experience. Ecce Homo strives to equally balance politics and entertainment, to challenge audiences visually, intellectually and emotionally; to produce work on big themes for troubled times.”

While Lady Gaga might seem a strange choice on which to focus a musical with such lofty pursuits, Newton says otherwise. “I think Gaga is actually a deadly earnest figure in a pop-cultural landscape that prizes detachment above all. I think her project is to elicit intimacy through artifice, and my work attempts to do the same.” Besides, as he points out, Of A Monstrous Child is not about Gaga per se but, rather, one of her fans who loses his way en route to a Lady Gaga concert and encounters the ghost of Leigh Bowery, a performance artist who died in 1994.

Described by Boy George as “modern art on legs,” Bowery has become more famous in death than in life, an irony that Newton exploits by making him emcee of the evening’s shenanigans that proceed in cabaret fashion. Introducing a who’s who of artists, academics and celebrities whose work Lady Gaga has used in her rise to fame, Bowery gives “the monstrous child” (and the audience) a crash course in queer performance. Simultaneously he constructs a dialectic in which originality and fame square off. As Newton puts it: “Leigh sought the kind of fame Gaga has achieved but he wasn’t willing to compromise, even slightly [to get it]. A part of Gaga’s genius is her ability to sell downtown aesthetics to a midtown audience. I’m not sure what Leigh would have thought of her.”

For Newton, Bowery is “the rarest of pop cultural figures: a total original.” To play him, the director has cast Bruce Dow, a masterful singer and actor as well as a consummate comic whose latest incarnation as King Herod in the Stratford production of Jesus Christ Superstar landed him on Broadway. At his side, celebrated comedian and impersonator Gavin Crawford plays a host of famous artists and intellectuals that includes Bjork, Marina Abramović and Andy Warhol. To bring Lady Gaga onstage, Newton employs the talents of Kimberly Persona whose uncanny resemblance to the pop star extends the musical’s interrogation of authenticity. With her voice, movement and style Persona mimics the pop star so expertly that she calls into question the idea of personal authenticity in much the same way that the show interrogates the notion of originality.

This latter theme is best illustrated by the score of the piece which, ironically, is not credited to a composer. “I view Lady Gaga as an appropriation artist, in the tradition of painters like Jasper Johns and musicians like Girl Talk,” Newton explains. “It only seems appropriate to create a score that deconstructs and reconstructs and mashes up bits and pieces of existing pop music to create something ‘new.’” To achieve this end, Newton, along with his musical director, Dan Rutzen, and sound designer, Lyon Smith, devised a process by which Newton would suggest “how certain pieces of songs might fit together — related by a similar key, or a hook that seems to fit” at any given moment. Rutzen’s task was to translate Newton’s instincts into vocal arrangements and the basic outline of the instrumentation, which he then would give to Smith to create the final backing tracks. “Both Dan and Lyon are taking on several roles in this project — producer, session musician, vocal coach etc. — and they’ve combined their talents to create a unique musical experience.”

Unique equals original? Hardly, in that all the music in the show has been heard before, although not in the way it is presented here. Onstage: a cello, piano and live, amplified voices; offstage: recorded sound. “You’ll hear many recognizable pieces of songs throughout the show,” Newton comments, “though no part of my artistic practice is ever entirely straight ...”

A rock-show with choral singing and acoustic moments: something like a Lady Gaga concert by way of Yoko Ono and a Gregorian choir? Rossini, via banjo, accordion and flute?

See both, and then you decide on the effect ... and the label. If you must. 

Based in Toronto, Robert Wallace writes about theatre and performance. He can be contacted at musictheatre@thewholenote.com.

Breakthroughs

Music Theatre Acting up Stage Company is on a roll.  Since its inauguration in 2005, this small but visionary theatre has steadily attracted attention, its 2011/2012 season pulling an audience of over 11,000 members, landing six Toronto Theatre Critics’ Awards, and  receiving 11 Dora Award nominations, four of which it won for the acclaimed production of Caroline, or Change.  As Mitchell Marcus, the company’s peripatetic artistic director puts it, “we were blessed with a … season where all of the elements magically came together.”  Inevitably, the comment prompts him to ask, “Where do we go from here?”

            The answer, or the first half of it at least, was on view this past February and March at Toronto’s Factory Theatre. Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata is a song cycle of ads from the online classified site set to music by Veda Hille and Bill Richardson that generated enthusiastic responses when it premiered at Vancouver’s PuSH Festival last year.  After seeing the show, Marcus “knew that we had to find a way to produce it in Toronto.  Our company has been known for eight years for bringing to Toronto boundary-pushing musicals that defy our expectations from the genre; in that regard, it is imperative that we also play that role with similar kinds of works that are being developed in Canada.”  Toronto critics lauded A Craigslist Cantata as much as they praised Ride the Cyclone, Acting Up’s import last season.  Audiences, concurring with critics who found the show “intoxicating, wildly creative, wonderfully witty and just downright fun,” queued nightly for rush seats.  The production sold out an extended run.

            For its second show this season, Acting Up Stage joins forces with the Harold Green Jewish Theatre to co-produce Falsettos, a new production of the Tony and Drama Desk award-winning musical whose book by James Lapine and music and lyrics by Lapine and William Finn is widely considered a break-through in musical theatre form.  Despite such regard, the show, last seen in Toronto 18 years ago, rarely is produced, a fact that surprises Marcus.  “Falsettos might be my favourite musical ever, and I [am] shocked that it hasn't received a major revival anywhere in the world since its Broadway run in the early 90s.”  Opening the show on April 23 for three-weeks at Daniels Spectrum, a new space in Regent Park, he hopes to ensure its success by hiring the Dora Award winning team responsible for Caroline, or Change to stage the production.  With Robert McQueen (director), Reza Jacobs (music director), and Tim French (choreographer) rehearsing a stellar cast, Marcus is betting on another winner.

            Most synopses of Falsettos do little to suggest the “difficult” nature of its book, or its historical significance—not to mention the wit, poignancy and sophistication that elevate its music and lyrics above standard Broadway fare.  The show incorporates three plays written over a 15-year period, each staged separately Off Broadway as one-acts before being integrated into one long production that opened on Broadway in 1992.  Significantly, that two-act presentation, despite winning Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score, failed to take home the Tony for Best Musical of the year, an irony that attests as much to the themes of the piece as to its unusual form—fast-paced sequences of short vignettes sung-through in a non-linear and frequently self-referential fashion. 

Act One of Falsettos, titled “March of the Falsettos,” incorporates material written by Finn for “In Trousers” in 1979, the year in which the act is set, to bring to life a group of New Yorkers whose circumstance is by no means extraordinary.  Marvin, the central character, leaves Trina, his wife, and Jason, his son, for another man, Whizzer Brown.  Complications ensue when Trina falls in love with Mendel, Marvin’s psychiatrist, then moves in with him and begins to plan their marriage. At act’s end, Marvin’s dream of a tightly-knit but “extended” family lies in ruins, and his relationship with Whizzer comes to an end.  Desperate, he turns to Jason to posit a future, assuring his son that no matter what sort of man he chooses to be, he will be loved, at least by him.

            When “March of the Falsettos” premiered as a one-act production Off Broadway in 1981, the libidinous experiments of the swinging Seventies were shifting to more sombre reflection—or so popular wisdom holds.  Nevertheless, the tone of the piece was upbeat, its bitter-sweet ending promising change.  In 1992, as Frank Rich recounts in his New York Times review of Falsettos,  “When ‘March of the Falsettos’ first charged confidently forward . . . 11 years ago, nothing so bad was happening, and the high spirits of that moment pump through Act I of Falsettos as if pouring out of a time capsule.  Act II plays out in another key as lovers no longer ‘come and go’ but ‘live and die fortissimo’.”  He refers, of course, to the havoc wrecked by AIDS which, by then, had devastated communities of gay men perhaps more extensively in New York than any other American city. 

In 1981, AIDS had yet to be identified, let alone named.  The fact that Act II of Falsettos, titled “Falsettoland,” is set in that year, allows the writers to introduce a darker tone to the music as they expand their narrative to include the effects of the mysterious new illness that Whizzer contracts.  Rich notes that "[In Falsettos], Mr. Finn is not merely writing about the humorous and sad dislocations produced by an age of liberated sexual choices and shifting social rules. When 1981 arrives in Act II—and with it, a virus ‘so bad that words have lost their meaning’—Mr. Finn is not merely charting the deadly progress of a plague. . . .  [He is writing about] a warring modern family divided in sexuality but finally inseparable in love and death.”

“Falsettoland” premiered as a one-act production Off Broadway in 1990.  While it introduces two new characters—Marvin's lesbian neighbours, Dr. Charlotte, an Internist,  and Cordelia, a kosher Caterer—its focus remains Marvin and his relationships with Trina, Whizzer and Jason.  When Trina turns her considerable energy to planning Jason’s  Bar Mitzvah, the enquiry into manhood begun by “March of the Falsettos” gains a new dimension.  Simultaneously, Whizzer’s reappearance and subsequent reconciliation with Marvin ushers in the unexpected complication that has begun to unsettle Dr. Charlotte in her practice—the mystery virus killing scores of gay men.

  For audiences who saw “Falsettoland” as part of Falsettos in 1992, Rich notes, the act “[gained] exponentially in power by being seen only 15 minutes, instead of 9 years, after the first installment.”  For Toronto audiences today, it is difficult to forecast how the power of Falsettos will register, the AIDS crisis having lost the media spotlight even as it continues to blight the lives of millions of people worldwide.  Mitchell Marcus argues that the time is ripe to restage the show—not because it foreshadows AIDS but because it emphasizes the changing nature of families and the way they respond to crisis. As he says, “In a world concerned with the legislation of Prop 8, the It Gets Better campaign, and the recent repeal of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,’ Falsettos offers a platform for discussion about how far society has or has not progressed since the AIDS era.  Looking at the breakdown (and ultimate re-genesis) of family after a father leaves his wife and son for another man, Falsettos explores connections (both losses and gains) of those closest to us.”

It also revives a water-shed moment in the history of American musical theatre.  Again, I quote Frank Rich: “Falsettos is a show in which the boundary separating Off Broadway and Broadway is obliterated, a show in which the most stylish avatars of the new American musical embrace the same thorny urban landscape of embattled men and women to be found in so many new American plays.”  For this reason alone, Toronto’s production is worth seeing.  But there are other reasons as well. 

For the first time ever, William Finn has granted permission to a producing company to use the text and score of the original one-acts that comprise Falsettos to re-create the sensibility of the different time periods in which each act is set. “We are delighted to have built such a strong relationship with William Finn over the last nine seasons […] that he has endorsed our re-examination of the piece,” says Marcus, noting that his company has produced the professional Canadian premiere of Elegies: A Song Cycle and A New Brain, two of Finn’s lesser known works.  For Marcus, staging the two acts in their original form provides “a genuine snapshot of two moments in history—something utterly unique in the musical theatre. As such, we want to highlight this rarity and try to recreate for our audiences what it would have been like to revisit these characters after a decade, with a completely new perspective. So while the texts will reflect the original one-acts, the design and staging will be utterly different for each act. It's a very novel approach to this piece and one that I think will help to frame the experience of this family pre and post the discovery of AIDS….”

The approach is appropriate to Finn’s score which includes a variety of styles characteristic of the 80s.  In his review, Rich suggests that “One of the virtues of Falsettos is that you take in [Finn’s] whole, wide range in one sitting and appreciate the dramatic uses to which he puts his music, not just the eclecticism of tunes that range from show-biz razzmatazz (‘Love Is Blind’) to lullabye (‘Father to Son’) to lush ballads (‘Unlikely Lovers’). . . .”  For Marcus, the score is “one of the most unique ever heard in a Broadway musical.”  He elaborates: “Finn employs almost patter-like songs which shift quickly from one to the next, and allow characters to rapidly deliver train-of-thought information.  Nothing feels planned; it always feels like characters are discovering things for the first time as they sing their thoughts. The result feels so deeply human and raw. These characters are in a constant state of panic as they try to put their lives back together.”  Remarkably, the two acts, though different in tone, create a cohesive score.  A musical signature from Act I turns up in Act II, fractured and reformed, to highlight how life cracks and reshapes the characters.  In Act II, Finn embellishes the music that accompanies Dr. Charlotte’s lyric about “something bad spreading, spreading, spreading round” so that it itself appears to spread, a metonym for the insidious terror that accompanies the proliferation of the still nameless virus.

Like Marcus, Reza Jacobs, muscial director of the production, is thrilled by the opportunity to work with a sung-through score that is neither opera nor conventional musical.  Nevertheless, he admits that the score challenges the cast of seven, most of whom are known to Toronto audiences for their work in productions here and at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals.  One actor, in particular, I would like to mention—Michael Levinson whose performance as Noah, the privileged son in Caroline, or Change, won him a Dora nomination last year.  In the demanding role of Jason, Levinson must navigate not only the complex requirements of the score but, as well, the complicated emotions of the adult characters.  It is appropriate that Acting Up Stage uses his image in its advertising for the show for, in many ways, his character symbolizes the emotional break-throughs that all the characters pursue and, to differing measure, achieve.

Lapine and Finn end Falsettos with a scene that centres on Jason’s Bar Mitzvah—a rite of passage that celebrates a boy’s arrival at manhood in the Jewish religion.  From this time on, the child is entitled to participate in all areas of life in the Jewish community, but must do so as an adult, assuming full responsibility for his actions.  Because this ritual often occurs when a boy turns 13, his voice frequently “breaks” around the same time, so that he speaks in two registers—the modal or normal one, and the falsetto, an octave highter. The dual nature of a speaker’s voice during this period of change suggests the double nature of the boy/man—a person able to frame his perceptions of the world from two different perspectives.  This, Lapine and Finn imply, is the state of many of the characters in Falsettos who are left to celebrate Jason’s coming-of-age in the hospital room where Whizzer lays dying. 

Yes, the ending of Falsettos IS difficult, but it heralds a number of beginings.  All of them merit attention. 

Based in Toronto, Robert Wallace writes about theatre and performance. He can be contacted at musictheatre@thewholenote.com.

Panto REDUX

musictheatreoption danielle wade photo credit mirvish productionsJust in time for the holidays, the North American premiere of The Wizard of Oz settles into the Ed Mirvish Theatre for an open-ended run on December 20th, replete with Dorothy, Toto and the cast of characters known the world over. An adaptation of the 1939 film that won Academy Awards for both Judy Garland and “Over the Rainbow” (the song by Harold Arlen that became the singer’s signature), the musical is the brainchild of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the celebrated producer/composer (The Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard) who opened the show at the London Palladium, which he owns and operates, in March 2011. The Toronto production, presented under the auspices of Mirvish Productions, uses the same creative team to duplicate the staging that won accolades for Robert Jones, the production’s designer whose collaboration with writer/director Jeremy Sams transformed the fantasy world of L. Frank Baum’s 1901 novel into a visual feast as distinctive as the one Victor Fleming committed to celluloid. Considering that the film’s special effects, to say nothing of the performances of its cast, have accrued mythic status while scaling the heights of cinematic and cultural history ever since, this is no minor achievement.

It probably was inevitable that Baum’s much-loved fable would find life in the theatre, but its success was by no means assured. This helps to explain why Lloyd Webber hedged his bets when he undertook the London production. Banking on the kudos garnered by Jones and Sams for their revival of The Sound of Music at the Palladium in 2006, he gave them full license to create a new vision of Oz; in addition, he supplied them with new material — primarily, songs he himself wrote to augment Arlen’s score.

Although the original songs are memorable, their lyrics by Yip Harburg illustrate that the movie is not a musical but, rather, a story with music — too fine a point to belabour here, but one that film historians emphasize, and Lloyd Webber shares. On record as considering the film score under-written, he invited Tim Rice, his first (and best?) collaborator (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita), to write the lyrics for his new melodies. Rice accepted, thus ending a long-standing separation from his erstwhile partner while completing the new material which, in the tradition of contemporary musicals, is more character-driven than plot-inspired. This becomes evident quickly in the production when Dorothy sings “Nobody Understands Me,” a Rice/Webber number, in Scene One. “Over the Rainbow,” her first song in the film, must wait till Scene Two.

Caroline McGinn, theatre critic at London’s Time Out, opines that Webber and Rice are “right to add [the] extra material” for “the new music is tense and atmospheric, albeit a tad cruel and campy.” In The Guardian, Michael Billington concurs, suggesting that the additions are “perfectly acceptable” and citing, in particular, Dorothy’s “plaintive” opening song and the “pounding intensity” of the “Red Shoes Blues,” a new number for the Wicked Witch of the West. Nevertheless, he suggests that the additional material, in its pursuit of a nebulous “full-blown musical” form, disrupts “the delicate balance” between fantasy and music that the film attains, ultimately making “an essentially simple fable about the importance of individual worth seem overblown.”

At its core, The Wizard of Oz is about heart — or, more accurately, its absence. While the Tin Man can openly lament his physical emptiness, other characters must reveal their heartlessness in less literal ways — unless, of course, they are downright wicked. The unmasking of the Wizard near the conclusion of the piece brings to full poignancy Baum’s parable of dashed hopes and thwarted desire in which Dorothy’s quest for a return route to Kansas stands in for her search for love and acceptance, always out of reach. What better way to fulfill her longing, and that of all the Dorothys of the world, than to make her dreams come true?

Surely, this, as well as clever marketing, influenced Lloyd Webber’s decision to cast the role of Dorothy through a national audition masked as a television show. In the UK, over 10,000 women competed for the part which, in the end, was decided by the public through phone-in votes on Over the Rainbow, a BBC One musical rendition of reality TV. Building an audience for the stage production in what amounted to a long-running television commercial, Lloyd Webber repeated the formula that worked so successfully for The Sound of Music for which, to win the coveted role of Maria, neophyte actors auditioned on BBC TV’s How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? Although the premise of these shows is obviously commercial, the dreams that fuel their participants’ ambitions — and the support of their fans — are more real than Dorothy’s. Winning the competition equals getting a job. Appearing on a popular television show secures exposure and opportunity. When Elicia Mackenzie won the role of Maria in the CBC’s version of How Do You Solve in 2008, she launched a career that otherwise might have eluded her. “I will never forget the feeling of that moment when they called my name!” she acknowledges. And nor should she.

In Toronto’s Wizard, Danielle Wade plays Dorothy Gale after winning the part through an audition process identical to the one taped by the BBC. Here, CBC-TV cooperated with David Mirvish and his co-producers to create a reality show also called Over the Rainbow — adding further lustre to the template that Webber can market as a success. Joining Wade, a 20-year-old student at the University of Windsor, is an all-Canadian cast of veteran performers certain to make her onstage experience real — at least for her. Cedric Smith, a Gemini-winning film and theatre performer,stars as the Wizard. Lisa Horner, featured regularly at both the Shaw and Stratford Festivals, plays the Wicked Witch. Actor and choreographer Mike Jackson takes on the Tin Man. A Dora Award winner for his play High Life, Lee MacDougall plays the Lion. Jamie McKnight, one of the Canadian Tenors, breathes life into the Scarecrow. And Robin Evan Willis, well-known for many Shaw Festival productions, plays Glinda.

And heart? Does the show have heart? Well, dear reader, that is for you to decide. With certainty, I promise that the production will have spectacle. Discussing the Palladium show, Billington notes that, “Not since 19th century Drury Lane melodramas can London have seen anything quite like it.” With the same design team at work in Toronto, local audiences can anticipate a similar experience. “The Kansas cyclone that whisks Dorothy into a dreamworld is evoked through vorticist projections (the work of Jon Driscoll) that betoken chaos in the cosmos. The yellow brick road is on a tilted revolve from inside which poppyfields and a labyrinthine forest emerge. The Emerald City is full of steeply inclined walls suggesting a drunkard’s vision of the Chrysler Building lobby. And the Wicked Witch of the West inhabits a rotating dungeon that might be a Piranesi nightmare.” Not exactly suitable for young children? Well, neither is the movie.

Snow White: If you’re looking for “family fare” of a less scary sort, albeit with less innovative staging, check out Snow White, a presentation by Ross Petty Productions that opened at the Elgin theatre on November 23 and runs through early January. The latest in a series of shows presented by this unique company every Christmas, Snow White follows the conventions of British pantomime that the London Palladium was built to present in the early 20th century. Almost always, pantomime is based on traditional children’s stories, especially fairy tales (Cinderella, Aladdin, Peter Pan etc.), performed at Christmas for family audiences. Interestingly, although The Wizard of Oz figures rarely as the subject of pantomime, Ross Petty used it here only last year to create his annual Elgin panto in which a skateboarding Dorothy was deposited in a place called Oz where, as John Bemrose put it in the National Post, “a gyrating gesticulating crew of outback yokels, whom the Wicked Witch of the West dismisses, not too unjustly, as a bunch of ethnic stereotypes” are quickly recognized as Aussies. (It’s worth noting in this context that in last year’s Petty pantomime production of Oz at the Elgin, Dorothy was played by Elicia Mackenzie, and that, by falling in love with the Tin Man, performed by Yvan Pedneault, a formidable talent that Mirvish introduced to local audiences in We Will Rock You, she helped him find his heart.)

British pantomime (or “panto” as it is affectionately termed “over there”), has been popular since the mid-19th century, its use of song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, crossdressing, in-jokes, topical references and audience participation appealing to people of all ages. Indeed, theatrically spectacular musicals such as the Webber Oz and pantomime share similar goals — notably, reassurance of the audience’s values (hence the use of stock characters and well-known stories) coupled with emotional and visual transport.

Variations to the story of Snow White in this year’s panto, while equally audacious, are more traditionally conceived to adhere to the conventions of the form. Subtitled “A Deliciously Dopey Family Musical!” the show collapses the seven dwarfs of the original fairy tale into one character — 007, a James Bond lookalike played by Stratford leading man, Graham Abbey, whose appearance fulfills the convention of a celebrity guest star. As usual, the convention of the crossdressed older woman (known as the “pantomime dame”) is addressed by Petty himself who, by performing the role of the evil Queen, adds another drag performance to the long list of comic portrayals that makes him a fan favourite. Playing the title character is Canadian Idol winner Melissa O’Neil who made her panto debut as Belle in Petty’s 2010 production of Beauty and the Beast. Fresh from appearing in the Broadway production of Stratford’s Jesus Christ Superstar, she perpetuates an unofficial connection between Petty and Mirvish that the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber continues to facilitate.

musictheatre the story photo credit jacqui jensen royThe Story: Moving further afield, geographically if not aesthetically, a third show provides a unique form of spectacle even as it depicts a narrative traditional to the season. The Story, a production by Theatre Columbus, conceived and written by Martha Ross, returns to the Evergreen Brick Works on December 4th where it plays for the remainder of the month. Now in its 29th year, Theatre Columbus has a prestigious history of innovative play creation and production, with roots firmly planted in the creative compost of clown, commedia and buffoon. Ross, a co-founder of the company, unites her performance experience and writing skills to create the script for The Story which uses various locations in the Brick Works and its adjacent parkland to imbue the tale of the nativity with comic irreverence and visual beauty.

Based on the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the events of The Story are widely known. In this hour-long version, they occur mainly outdoors as the audience follows the flickering lantern of a solitary shepherd as he guides them past kilns, under iron girders, along gravel paths, through various interiors and into open spaces. With a strong eye for visual composition, director Jennifer Brewin uses the industrial and natural geography to imaginative effect, ably supported by Catherine Hahn (set and costumes), Glenn Davidson (lighting) and John Millard who, as sound and musical director for the production, oversees the local choirs (a different one each evening) that serenade the audience with seasonal songs while it weaves its way to each location.

Brewin’s DORA award for her direction of the premiere of this show last year is well deserved. Her decision to bring a physical approach to the material encourages the actors to develop their characters with broad, clown-like techniques at which they excel. The Three Kings are lost and disoriented; Mary is impatient and tense; King Herod is paranoid and petulant; and Gabriel, the herald, overwhelmed by the message he must deliver, has a dizzy quality reminiscent of a befuddled fairy in a panto. In fact, all the characters resemble those of a pantomime, their slapstick and buffoonery foregrounding psychological states and, ultimately, infusing their situation with a winning humanity.

The Story is short, sweet, and, at times, stunningly beautiful—the majesty of a star-lit winter sky providing a backdrop so unexpected that it hardly seems real. But it is, and so is the weather. Dress warmly and treat yourself to the hot chocolate on sale at the site — unusual directions for my hot tip of the month. 

Based in Toronto, Robert Wallace writes about theatre and performance. He can be contacted at musictheatre@thewholenote.com.

 

 

Small Pleasures

With just three seasons under its belt, Toronto’s Angelwalk Theatre has built a record of success that makes it a company to watch. Dedicated to producing “off-Broadway” musical theatre that integrates established Canadian professionals with emerging artists, the resident company of the Studio Theatre at the Toronto Centre for the Arts has accumulated 11 Dora Mavor Moore nominations and garnered accolades from audiences and critics alike — most recently, two Dora nominations for I Love You Because, a musical I discussed in this column last April. Producing just two shows per season, the not-for-profit enterprise commits its modest resources to small scale, character-driven shows whose minimal instrumentation and spare staging work to maximum effect. The company’s production of Ordinary Days that opens on November 29 for a two-week run provides a perfect example, with one important caveat: the show is co-produced with the Winnipeg Studio Theatre (WST), a signal that Angelwalk is branching out.

27-28-musictheatre-gordonOrdinary Days, a one-act musical by American writer and composer Adam Gwon, premiered to mixed reviews in a production by New York’s Roundabout Theatre in 2009 where it caught the attention of Brian Goldenberg, artistic producer of Angelwalk, and Kayla Gordon, artistic director of WST, a company whose mandate resembles Angelwalk’s except that it includes plays as well as musicals. The two first connected via Altar Boyz, a musical comedy by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker about a fictitious Christian boy band, that their companies produced separately. By the time they discovered Ordinary Days, “We had come to a decision that we wanted to produce something together,” Goldenberg tells me. “It was just a question of what.” Gordon adds, “We’ve been trying to find just the right project for a while.”

With a cast of four, a contemporary urban setting, an innovative score, and an emphasis on character, Ordinary Days fits the aesthetic of both companies to a T. For Gordon, the show “takes us somewhere new mainly because so much of the story is told through songs ... . It has a very contemporary feel to it, much like the work of Jason Robert Brown ... .” Goldenberg agrees with her comparison and he should know: he produced Brown’s The Last Five Years in Angelwalk’s inaugural season and staged the American composer’s Songs for a New World in March 2011. (Toronto audiences also may remember Brown’s Parade that Acting Up Stage Company co-produced with Studio 180 Theatre in January 2011). “The music is stunning,” Goldenberg says of Ordinary Days, before admitting that it was Gwon’s lyrics that really sold him on the show. “Gwon creates characters through songs with some of his lyrics working like dialogue. He’s not afraid to push the boundaries of musical theatre — but gently, without flash.” The same might be said of Angelwalk itself.

27-28-musictheatre-gwonOrdinary Days tells two stories simultaneously, using a pair of trajectories that have two separate couples affecting each other without crossing paths. For Charles Isherwood, a critic at the New York Times, the result is “a sad-sweet comment on the anonymity of life in the city, where it is possible to change other people’s fates without actually getting to meet them.” The older couple, Claire (Clara Scott) and Jason (Jay Davis), struggle to maintain their relationship after moving in together and discovering that each has more baggage than they realized. More interesting is the odd couple bonding of Warren (Justin Bott), a gay would-be artist, and Deb (Connie Manfreddi), a graduate student writing a dissertation on the novels of Virginia Woolf. After Warren finds (and reads) Deb’s lost notebook, he arranges to return it to her at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Repeatedly, Gwon places his quartet of lost souls inside the Met where, in “song after song, [they] struggle to pull their way into rapturous melody, paralleling their struggles to cement a place in the cement jungle,” as Bob Verini writes in Variety. Viewing painting after painting, the characters reveal the particularities of their ordinary lives like so many pointillist dots on an impressionist canvas. “What am I doing here?” one of them asks. The question haunts the show.

For Kayla Gordon, who directs as well as co-produces the piece, the charm of Ordinary Days lies in the characters’ search for space within intimacy, calm within disorder. “It’s a universal subject in our busy lives,” she says, “taking the time to look at the little joyous things in life, and to appreciate them more.” Her challenge as director is “to create the stillness of those special moments of discovery — the feeling of a person standing and admiring a piece of art while the whole world is erupting around them ... to find that special moment of introspection.” This requires that the cast “keep all the stories as honest as possible,” and that she connect “all the many facets of the characters’ lives in a fluid way, so as not to stop the momentum ... .”

Ordinary Days is a genuine co-production. Rather than merely combine their budgets and place one company in charge, the two small theatres have amalgamated creative resources to achieve an equitable split of time and talent. The production premieres in Winnipeg on November 21 in the Tom Hendry Warehouse Space of the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) where Winnipeg native Paul DeGurse, as musical director, will use orchestrations by Joseph Aragon, whose musical Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare I discussed in my column last month. Instrumentation includes piano, cello and violin. The set and costumes for the show are designed by Torontonian Scott Penner who, like lighting designer Siobhan Sleath, created the imaginative set of I Love You Because for Angelwalk last season. Unlike that set, this one will be built professionally in the shop of MTC then shipped from Winnipeg after the show’s brief run there in time for the Toronto opening.

Gordon acknowledges the challenge of “mounting the show in a space in Winnipeg and then taking it to a smaller venue in Toronto,” but she considers that “it will keep the show fresh, which is great for the actors.” Goldenberg sees other benefits of a co-production that is “artistically-driven.” Noting that “cost savings are incidental,” he suggests that “the primary benefit to both companies is the exposure that our artists gain in a different city,” and he muses about how it might “open doors” to opportunities for all of them. But perhaps the biggest winners in this undertaking are the audiences in Winnipeg and Toronto for each of whom the show will introduce a new company, as well as a new musical. By expanding horizons and combining resources, Angelwalk and WST are helping to widen Canada’s musical theatre community in both size and vision.

Fundraisers: One of the methods that small companies such as Angelwalk use to build funding and raise awareness for their work is the celebrity showcase. Earlier this year, Angelwalk produced Dianne and Me, a solo show that was a hit at the 2011 Vancouver Fringe Festival. A portrait of mothers, daughters and the sacrifices they make, the tiny musical starred award-winning actress, Elena Juatco (I Love You Because; Canadian Idol top 10 finalist). Next February, the company offers something more ambitious — “Villains and Vixens,” a concert featuring songs by some of the most infamous characters in musical theatre, from Javert in Les Misérables to Sally Bowles in Cabaret, all performed by Angelwalk stalwarts.

This month, Acting Up Stage Company mounts a similar one–night only fundraiser on November 26 in Koerner Hall at the Telus Centre for Performing and Learning. “Tapestries: The Music of Carole King and James Taylor” continues the tradition of compilation concerts that Acting Up introduced several years ago, a hit series that includes such sold out concerts such as “Both Sides Now,” a celebration of the songs of Joni Mitchell and “Long and Winding Road,” a tribute to the music of Lennon and McCartney. Under the stellar music direction of Reza Jacobs, these one-off evenings showcase some of the best performers currently working in Canadian musical theatre. “Tapestries,” for example, will present performances by Bruce Dow, Cynthia Dale, Arlene Duncan, Jake Epstein, Sara Farb, Kelly Holiff, Sterling Jarvis, Amanda LeBlanc, Eden Richmond, and Josh Young, among others. Blurring distinctions between cabaret, musical theatre and pop concerts, these evenings feature original orchestrations and new vocal arrangments (also by Reza Jacobs) that foreground the performers’ voices and talents in a format that appeals to a wide audience. To add panache to the procedings, Elenna Mosoff oversees continuity and staging. While the affair is informal, it is by no means casual in its approach. Consider it my hot tip for the month. 

Based in Toronto, Robert Wallace writes about theatre and performance. He can be contacted at musictheatre@thewholenote.com.


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