Of the many music theatre events in October, one that stood out for me was the Canadian Musical Theatre Project’s annual festival of new musicals in progress at the beautiful Winter Garden Theatre. An international incubator for the creation of new musicals based at Sheridan College, the CMTP also gives fourth-year Sheridan musical theatre students an unparalleled opportunity to be part of the creation and development of new works alongside working professionals, and, on top of that, to have this exceptional showcase of their own abilities. Of the three musicals presented in excerpt, one in particular caught my eye: Pump Up The Volume by Jeff Thomson (music) and Jeremy Desmon (book and lyrics). Although based on the 1990 film by Alan Moyle, this show exploded onstage with youthful energy echoing the energy and passion of the growing number of youth-led movements to fix what is wrong with our world today, whether the proliferation of guns or the imminence of climate disaster. Songs, script and performances added up to more than the sum of their parts. If the whole musical is this strong, I can see young audiences responding to it in a big way.

This same energy was captured by Hanna Kiel’s world-premiere dance piece for Human Body Expression at the end of September: Resonance, explicit in its own language of movement and 80’s inspired rock music about the need for all of us to stand together to fight for what is right. (See my review on The WholeNote blog).

David BrockA Million Billion Pieces

Music, as an essential ingredient in portraying youthful passion and idealism, will also be seen in the upcoming new “play with opera,” A Million Billion Pieces by David James Brock (book) and Gareth Williams (music). Though a creative extension of The Breath Cycle Project the duo began with Scottish Opera in 2013, Brock explains that the play stands on its own, set in a “SciFi/Fantasy realm where a simple touch can cause the two main characters to explode into a million billion pieces, due to a rare genetic illness.” Isolated by their illness, two 16-year-olds, Pria and Theo, craving connection, create online personas and correspond as these ‘ideal” selves for a year before daring to meet in person. This online ideal world is set apart from the real world by being “heightened cosmically and sonically,” as Brock says, not just with singing but “through vocal effects and scoring, so that the music evolves into fuller vocal lines and scenes as the relationships do,” to the point where music enters the real world as Pria and Theo dare to actually meet in person. When I asked Brock if his writing process changed for this project since he was writing for a teenage audience, he said, “not much. The characters are teenagers, but they’ve lived their whole lives being told they wouldn’t survive to adulthood, so they’ve had to fit as much as possible in on a countdown. These characters are hyper aware of the finite amount of time in a life. I think we all have a sense we’re not using the time we have correctly – I certainly do. As a side note, at the climate march recently, I overheard a conversation where two teens truly didn’t think the planet would be around when they were 50.”

A Million Billion Pieces is directed by Philip Akin and runs November 25 to December 13 in YPT’s studio theatre. Paired with it in the season, and beginning two weeks earlier, is a heartfelt musical version of the classic fairy tale of the boy whose nose grows whenever he tells a lie: Pinocchio. Created by Neil Bartram and Brian Hill (who first met as cast mates in the Toronto production of Forever Plaid in the 1990s), this Canadian premiere will be directed by Canadian musical and television star Sheila McCarthy, notable for past incarnations as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors and Adelaide in Guys and Dolls to name just two.

Orpheus Revisited

Over at the National Ballet of Canada, another classic tale is being explored and revisited through two short ballets: George Balanchine’s 1975 Chaconne, and the world premiere of Robert Binet’s Orpheus Alive. Both ballets are inspired by the classical tale of the musician, Orpheus, who petitions the gods to bring his beloved wife, Eurydice, back from the dead. Balanchine’s piece, while set to some of Gluck’s score for his opera Orfeo ed Euridice, is mostly abstract, whereas Binet’s new work sets out to really tell the story, setting it in our own times and switching the gender of the leading roles, making Orpheus a woman artist, and Eurydice a man, her husband. He also turns the audience into the gods who must judge their case. Set to a new score by the award-winning composer Missy Mazzoli, and including projections, and text spoken by some of the dancers to the audience, this looks like a must-see for fans of contemporary ballet.

Another Brick in the WallWalls

Another must-see in November is the Toronto premiere (after the world premiere in Vancouver two weeks earlier) of The 9th!, A dance work ten years in the making by co-choreographers Roberto Campanella and Robert Glumbek of ProArteDanza. Set to Beethoven’s famously iconic Ninth Symphony and inspired by its connection with the celebration of of the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago (almost to the day of the opening), the full-length work also uses the full four movements of the symphony to explore the idea of the need to demolish inhibiting walls in our lives, both tangible and metaphysical. (November 6 to 9, Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront). (See my upcoming interview with Roberto Campanella on The WholeNote blog.)

The powerful image of a wall is central as well to Another Brick in the Wall, a new opera inspired by and based on Roger Waters’ music from the famous Pink Floyd album, The Wall. The album predated the fall of the Berlin Wall by ten years, but the themes being explored by composer Julien Bilodeau and director Dominic Champagne – “the difficulties of a whole generation confronted with the destruction of its dreams” – are certainly similar. (November 13 to 23 at Meridian Hall, the former Sony Centre).

Storytelling through song

Old and new, traditional and experimental, were combined in another October highlight over at Crow’s Theatre in collaboration with Eclipse Theatre, with the Toronto premiere of Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet in a production that – with a stage the size of a postage stamp – managed to create a multi-layered, magical, eerie world of time travelling, interconnected characters, and a wild variety of mixed genre music, folk tale and dialogue that created a hypnotically fascinating world via the stories told by the songs of a concept album that forms the first layer of the show’s structure.

Brilliantly directed, designed and performed, this show was/is unique, and yet it also made me think of two ongoing Toronto concert series that in their own ways, create their own magic by revisiting classic songs in new contexts, creating new and enthralling music-theatrical world’s for audiences to experience. Both series have shows coming up this month. First is The Musical Stage Company’s 13th edition of Uncovered, this time looking at the connected lives and works of Stevie Wonder and Prince, inspired by the fact that the two artists knew and admired each other and influenced each other’s work. Following the gender-blind casting tradition begun in 2017 when Maev Beaty played David Bowie, and followed by Sara Farb as Bob Dylan in 2018, this year Sarah Afful takes on the role of Stevie Wonder, with Chy Ryan Spain appearing as Prince.

Toronto’s other storytelling-through-song tradition, Soulpepper’s concert series curated by music director Mike Ross, brings back its 2017 hit Riverboat Coffee House:The Yorkville Scene, November 5 to 17. Written and directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell, this concert weaves together songs by and stories about such iconic Canadian singer-songwriters as Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Murray McLauchlan and Neil Young, to recreate the anarchic excitement of Yorkville in the 60’s.

Bands on stage

Onstage bands are the anchors of two more new plays with live scores opening in Toronto this month. The world premiere of The Wager is inspired by the true story of a scientist in the 19th century who accepted a bet to prove that the planet Earth is round rather than flat, only to have his proof rejected by the hostile flat-Earthers. Provocative and timely in our era of climate denial, the play employs Theatre Gargantua’s signature combination of physical theatre, innovative use of technology and a live vocal score to tell the story, with the cast doubling as the live on-stage band. (November 14-30 at Theatre Passe Muraille).

Steve O'Connell and Berni Stapleton in Artistic Fraud’s Between Breaths. Photo by Rich BlenkinsoppOpening shortly after The Wager, down the street at Factory Theatre (November 20 to December 8) is the Toronto premiere of Between Breaths, an Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland production written by Robert Chafe and directed by Jillian Keiley (famous for her very physical, almost stylized, productions at the NAC and Stratford). Inspired by the real life of Jon Lien known as “the Whale Man” the play tells the story of his inspiring career during which he freed more than 500 whales from fishing nets off Newfoundland’s coast. As might be intuited from the title, there are also links here to A Million Billion Pieces, as later in his life Jon Lien suffered from dementia ending his days in a wheelchair, chronically short of breath. Between Breaths begins at the end of the story and travels back to Lien’s very first whale intervention, the whole story buoyed and infused by the live music, vocal and instrumental, of famed Newfoundland folk trio The Once.

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

NOV 4, 8PM: One show only. Stratford Festival. Avon Theatre. The House of Martin Guerre in concert. A wonderful chance to see Leslie Arden’s musical version of this classic tale, starring the luminous Chilina Kennedy, directed by Richard Ouzounian.

NOV 4 TO NOV 17: Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company. The Pianist of Willesden Lane. A play that makes classical music a character of its own through the piano playing of the protagonist. An intriguing premise.

NOV 6 TO NOV 10: National Ballet of Canada. Giselle. Music by Adolphe Adam. Sir Peter Wright, choreographer. Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. One of the most beloved romantic ballets, and one of my favourite productions at the NBC. There will be some notable debuts and farewells in the role of Gistelle this fall.

NOV 12 AND NOV 14, 8PM: Mirvish. Mandy Patinkin in Concert: Diaries. Ed Mirvish Theatre. A rare chance to see a great musical theatre star live. Mandy Patinkin is electric onstage whether playing Che in Evita or singing concert material with Patti Lupone, or alone with a band.

NOV 28 TO DEC 22: Theatre Orangeville. Little Women. Canadian composer Jim Betts’ musical version of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel. It debuted to acclaim in 2001 with a great cast that included Douglas Chamberlain, Tracey Michailidis and Michael Therriault.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare and new Canadian plays.

Two unconventional music theatre works opening in early October caught my eye right away for the excitement of their risk-taking and also for the clear desire each production has to find new ways to involve audiences in a deeper, more immersive way.

Ghost QuartetGhost Quartet: Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet, a four-person ghost-storytelling “live concept album” presented in a joint production by the new Eclipse Theatre Company (Kiss of the Spiderwoman at the Don Jail) and the always innovative Crows Theatre, is the first. Malloy is best known for his Tony Award-winning popera take on Tolstoy’s War and Peace: Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.

Ghost Quartet is a smaller show but hugely ambitious within a deceptively straightforward format. A camera breaks, and four friends drink whiskey and tell each other ghost stories in an interwoven narrative that spans seven centuries drawing on sources as varied as The Arabian Nights, a retelling of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, Japanese Noh Drama, Grimmsian fairly tales, grisly urban legends and 19th-century broadsheet ballads. The music is equally eclectic including gospel, folk ballad, honky-tonk, electropop, doo-wop and jazz. The cast is made up of four of Toronto’s top actor/singer/musicians: Hailey Gillis (star of Soulpepper’s Rose), Kira Guloien (Doctor Zhivago on Broadway, The Who’s Tommy at Stratford), and Beau Dixon (Soulpepper’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Harlem Duet), led by Andrew Penner (Sunparlour Players and Harrow Fair) who is also the music director.

Wanting to find out more about how this show works from the inside and how they will be approaching the production, I spoke with Andrew Penner and stage director Marie Farsi:

WN: What do you think led Dave Malloy to create this show in the format of a “live concept album”?

Marie Farsi: It was definitely an homage to great masterpieces made on vinyl. Dave explains that his desire was to take the narrative form of the rock concept album “with all of its vaguery and weirdness, symbolism and surrealism, adrenaline and angst” and theatricalize it. In the show, each of the songs is announced by one of the performers with its track number and title. I think the intention is to use it as a device to reframe the narrative and encourage a looser frame of mind.

How do the different styles of music contribute to the telling of the individual stories, and the overall theme of the show?

MF: Through different styles of music, we can paint different worlds for the audience to travel to through their own imagination; and the restlessness and unexpectedness of the music captures love, which is so beautifully complicated. It makes us feel alive and invincible until it’s gone, or stolen, or lost.

What is it like as music director, working with a cast of actor/singer/musicians to master all these different styles? 

Andrew Penner: The three other performers in the show are killers. We made sure of that before we went ahead with the show. They’re all amazing multi-instrumentalists with great instincts. Plus, we’re all really hard on ourselves in the best way. The styles are very genre spanning and we are trying to bend them as far as we can.

Will the staging be traditional or more immersive than we usually expect to mimic the telling of ghost stories and how they interconnect? 

MF: The staging will definitely be more immersive. Among the multiple storylines, one is simply the four performers (Hailey, Kira, Beau and Andrew) as friends, jamming, drinking whiskey and telling each other ghost stories. So I anchored the reality of the show in the “here and now” of the theatre: instruments, microphones, cables are all on stage. However, I’d say our production is even more theatrical than the original, which was presented at the McKittrick Hotel and had a real concert feel, because I’m creating a secret hideout for the band, placing it in a more natural environment. I was inspired by the Black Forest associated with the Brothers Grimm, and the stories we tell around the campfire. We’re bringing the magic of fairytales and the wonder of haunted forests a bit more to life on stage!

Have the different styles of music led to different styles of staging within the one show?

MF: I’d say the different worlds have led to different styles of music and staging. Many ghosts haunt (or come visit?) our four actor-musicians each night. We eventually understand piece by piece that the characters are reincarnations of each other, and ultimately past lives of the performers. Some of those past realities have very distinct atmospheres (created musically and sonically of course) that I am amplifying through visuals.

How do you expect audiences to react to this mix of storytelling elements?

MF: I’m expecting total disorientation and confusion at first, but in a very good and intended way. The show is a huge mishmash of various horror and fantasy tropes, and taps into our irresistible curiosity for mysteries (the murder kind along with the mystery of ghosts, life, love and death). The show is a very well-constructed puzzle to solve as well as an exciting adventure quest for the main character Rose. I have no doubt that the audience will be wrapped in the dreamy and dark.

Ghost Quartet runs October 5 to November 3 at Streetcar Crowsnest: crowstheatre.com.

Broken Tailbone. Photo by Erin BrubacherBroken Tailbone: The second show that caught my eye is even more immersive than Ghost Quartet, aiming to not only wrap the audience completely in the show’s context but to make them moving, dancing participants in the story. Broken Tailbone was inspired by multiple award-winning creator and performer Carmen Aguirre’s personal experience arriving in Vancouver as a child with her parents, all Chilean refugees, and helping her family recreate wildly popular makeshift Latinx dance halls. She also really broke her tailbone, which comes into the story.

While there are chairs around the sides for those who need to sit, most of the audience is literally on their feet learning to salsa, being taught by Aguirre as she takes them through a partly choreographed, partly improvised immersion in an irresistible musical environment that weaves together hilarious personal stories with tales of radical resistance in South American history.

The show was wildly successful in Vancouver in 2018 and I got in touch with its creator to find out more about the inspiration behind it and what it is like to perform.

WN: What made you decide to create this show – to share your own experience with audiences in this unusual format?

Carmen Aguirre: About six or seven years ago I spent two years touring the country with my one-woman show Blue Box, also dramaturged and directed by Brian Quirt, and also developed and produced by Nightswimming Theatre. In that show, I talk for 80 minutes. Non-stop. I literally stand in one spot for almost the entire show. The theatricality of that piece lies 100 percent in the text.

However, in the middle of the piece a loud salsa song comes on seemingly out of nowhere, and I break into dance. I invite the audience to join me onstage and we have an impromptu dance party. Once the song is over, they sit back down and I continue with the story. There were several reasons to have that moment in Blue Box, which did actually make sense in terms of the content of the play. Every night the response was different, of course. (There were a couple of times that every single person in the audience got up and danced and there was one time that no one did.) Brian Quirt and I were really taken with that part of the show and decided to create a piece where the audience is dancing with me the entire time. The fact that the form is simultaneously accessible and confrontational is compelling to us. 

How does the audience follow the story while they are in the midst of learning to salsa?

Interestingly, they follow the story far better than when they are seated. The act of listening while you’re moving makes you listen better. You are taking in a story about a dance hall while you are dancing in an impromptu dancehall, or a story about the dance form that you are actually doing in the moment, or geopolitical history of Latin America from a Marxist perspective, all while listening to a song with political lyrics and learning to dance to it. You are listening, processing, digesting with your entire body. It is embodied listening.

How does this change the usual performance experience for you?

I’m juggling a lot during the show. Remembering my lines; really watching the audience and interacting with them because it truly is a dance lesson; improvising based on what I’m seeing; translating bits and pieces of the songs; and dancing! It is completely immersive for me and for the audience. This type of performance requires you to be completely yourself. There are no filters. 

How intricate is the relationship of the music to the storytelling and immersive staging?

There are 15 songs in the play that were curated by Brian and I over a series of workshops. I brought in dozens of songs that mean something to me, each with a story attached. We played with all of them, and at the end of each workshop process we shared what we had with an audience. We finally distilled it down to the 15 songs in the play based on the particular story that was attached to it and how it fit in the over-all narrative arc.

Broken Tailbone runs from October 2 to 13 at Factory Theatre: factorytheatre.ca.

For some of the other exciting and varied shows opening this month please see my quick picks below.

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

OCT 2, 8PM: No Change In The Weather, Jane Mallet Theatre. In a world where Come From Away is at the top of the musical theatre pinnacle, here comes another show from the Rock but this time looking at a story older than 9/11 The identity of Newfoundland and Labrador is explored through a historical lens focusing on the 23-year tenure of Premier Joey Smallwood and the controversial creation of the Churchill Falls power plant. Packed with traditional music the show has been on a cross-country tour and is garnering great word of mouth: nochangeinitheweather.com.

OCT 3 to 5, 9 to 13: Caminos Festival, Aluna Theatre and Native Earth Performing Arts. Artscape Daniels Spectrum. An increasingly important launching pad for new work by Canadians from the South American diaspora and Indigenous populations, this year’s program features some exciting experimental music theatre content including The Art of Storytelling, Catarsis, We are, what we are, The Mente, and the free Aluna Cabaret (October 10 to 12) alunatheatre.ca.

OCT 9 TO 20: Something for the Buoys. Sapling Productions/Bygone Theatre. George Ignatieff Theatre, A new musical that sounds like a fun take on an old-style musical à la Anything Goes or On the Town, in one of Toronto’s best intimate theatre spaces.

OCT 13, 7:30 PM: ONE NIGHT ONLY. “Portrait of a Collaboration.” Meighan Forum, Stratford Festival Theatre Lobby. A rare treat of an evening with celebrated composer Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors and many Disney shows) in conversation with one of the Festival’s best kept secrets, the multi-talented Marion Adler, interwoven with performances of songs from Little Pinks, the musical they created together from Damon Runyon’s short story.

OCT 20, 2:30PM: Fallis & Tiefenbach. Haliburton Concert Series. If you have never seen the inimitable Mary Lou Fallis (soprano) and Peter Tiefenbach (piano) in concert, now is your chance! Their theatrical concerts can leave you helpless with delighted laughter and this one promises to have songs from the very best of their Primadonna shows as well as “a sendup of every voice recital you’ve ever been to.”

OCT 25, 7:30PM: Urinetown, (The Musical) in concert. Toronto Musical Concerts. Al Green Theatre. TMC concert stagings of important musicals are getting stronger all the time. Urinetown is more of a parody than a serious look at the dangers of politics gone wrong, but this should be fun. Featuring Erica Peck from We Will Rock You and Kinky Boots.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare and new Canadian plays.

It’s been a wonderful summer of musical theatre highlights: the TSO’s brilliant “Modern Broadway” pops concert starring the electric Jeremy Jordan; the return of The Lion King to the Princess of Wales, where families could introduce their children to the joys of musicals via the still amazing puppetry of Julie Taymor; Nicole Brooks’ wonderfully positive a cappella retelling of the Salem witch trials in Obeah Opera at Luminato; Jake Epstein’s Boy Falls From The Sky at the Toronto Fringe; and Reprint: three brand new short musicals inspired by articles In The Globe and Mail archives. And now the new fall season is ready to begin.

Erin Shields. Photo by Dahlia KatzErin Shields’ Nuanced Piaf/Dietrich Book

September brings an exciting new production to the CAA Theatre that draws on well-known musical material but gives it a new and thrilling twist. Piaf/Dietrich; A Legendary Affair, as the title indicates, is about two of the most legendary performers of the 20th century: France’s petite passionate songbird Edith Piaf and Germany-by-way-of-Hollywood’s cool and aloof femme fatale Marlene Dietrich. There have been many shows written about Piaf, and not enough about Dietrich, but they haven’t been seen together until now. It turns out that the two stars were friends (and perhaps more than friends) for the last few years of Piaf’s life, meeting for the first time in the washroom of a New York theatre where Piaf had just given a less-than-successful concert in 1960. This rich possibility for a theatrical undertaking was discovered and developed by German playwrights Daniel Grosse Boymann and Thomas Kahry, beginning in 2009 as a reading of letters and writings from and about the two stars accompanied by matching songs. In 2014, a hugely successful full production (in German) called Spatz und Engel (The Sparrow and the Angel) opened in Vienna and played for six seasons while other productions followed throughout Europe.

For its debut in North America last year, it was felt that something more than a direct translation was needed, so award-winning playwright Erin Shields was asked to take on the task of creating the first English-language version, adapting the original by way of a literal translation from Sam Madwar. As soon as I saw Shields’ name attached to this show, I knew I wanted to find out more about her involvement and how the show might have developed from its European version. I have known Erin since I invited her to take part years ago in the New Ideas Festival (of which I was then artistic director) and was impressed by her adaptation of classic fairy tales. Since then she has gone from strength to strength, becoming one of Canada’s most highly regarded playwrights, from winning the Governor General’s Award in 2011 for If We Were Birds, to skewering the sexism of the television industry with Beautiful Man at Factory Theatre, to her brilliant feminist updating of Milton’s Paradise Lost for the Stratford Festival. There is also something wonderful about a Canadian woman adapting this material for an all-Canadian cast led by two of our top musical theatre performers: Louise Pitre (Piaf) and Jayne Lewis (Dietrich). Shields’ adaptation made its debut at Montreal’s Segal Centre last year as The Angel and the Sparrow (also starring Pitre) to great acclaim. I reached out to her to learn more about what the adaptation experience was like,

“This whole process has been a very different type of project from what I usually do,” she told me. “I’m not the primary creator, I wasn’t the person that had the primary impulse. Daniel and Thomas, did. They have devoted so much to creating this play that for me there is a joy in respecting their vision but also doing my best to make sure that their creation is able to meet a North American audience in a way that will be successful and speak to them.”

Breaking that down into more detail, she explained that making the language more natural than the literal translation was one of her tasks, but on a deeper level there were two bigger cultural and dramaturgical issues to address. “The biggest thing the original playwrights realized,” she told me, “was that Marlene Dietrich is extremely famous in Germany, so there were a lot of things taken for granted in the script about who she is. In North America, although we know Dietrich from her movies, we don’t know much more about her. We have to teach people who she is, whereas with Edith Piaf we have a bit more of a sense of her life, particularly in Montreal. Equally important”, Shields continued, “the show is about female friendship and because it was written by two guys there were some missing elements.” She made it her goal to deepen the depiction of the friendship between the two legendary figures, yet to not shy away from the conflict that arose from their completely opposite backgrounds and public personas. This led, again, to making sure the audience would understand how different the two are. “Piaf’s track has always been very clear,” Shields says. “She has a real Hollywood storybook tragic arc to her life. She has a compulsive artistic drive: she sings and brings people to tears, and then she gets addicted to all this stuff to maintain her self and keep performing, and ends up dying young. Marlene’s story is very different. It doesn’t have the same trajectory as Piaf’s; they are working in opposite ways. While Piaf is tearing herself apart, Dietrich is trying to maintain a very composed, manicured, beautiful, iconic version of herself while she rails against age and becoming less important in the world. I am trying to bring out her story more, and to make sure that the audience sees how important Piaf and Dietrich are to each other as foils, how they provoke each other, but also ultimately how they love and support each other in a way that no one else can, partly because they both lived this life of fame which is so alien to most of us.”

Of course, this isn’t only a play, but a musical, and the show includes 20 songs including La Vie En Rose, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, Falling in Love Again and Lili Marlene, all performed by the stars and all integrated into the telling of the story.

While Shields has had experience with musicals before – she performed in shows in high school and recently took part as a book writer in The Musical Stage Company’s Reframed – she had never written or adapted the book for a full scale musical. The rehearsal process in Montreal with the expert cast and creative team was full of revelations. “The director Gordon Greenberg (who also directs the Toronto production) really has an intuition for musical theatre. He is on his feet all the time and the show lives in his body as he is directing, so he would have thoughts, suggestions or provocations all the time on the fly – searching for clarity in the storytelling. Watching him and music director Jonathan Monroe and the actors navigate and negotiate the elements of the show, I learned that the text isn’t always the most important thing in terms of character or story. In some ways, spoken scenes have to be slightly more perfunctory; each still has to have an action and the actors have to ‘do things to one another’, but at the same time the function of some scenes is simply to get us from one song to another, and the songs should function as story moments themselves. For example, working with a performer like Louise Pitre whose whole body becomes overwhelmed with emotion when she is singing – grounded in that same visceral quality that Edith Piaf has – made me realize the effect her singing would have on an audience and that I could cut bits out of the script and rely a bit more, instead, on the music for the emotional journey of the play. The emotional heart of a musical really is the music.”

This is a particularly interesting journey for Shields to have experienced. “As a playwright I would say I am more of an auditory creator than a visual creator which is why I always love when I start working with a director, because directors are all visual. I always hear the play in my head, the voices and rhythms of the characters, the totality of the play whether that incorporates music or not.”

Something else always important to Shields as she crafts her plays is (often dark) humour, and while she hopes that Piaf/Dietrich will make “questions bubble up in the audience about fame and the cost of sacrificing oneself for art’, she also insists that the show is “funny, too. There is a lot to enjoy and have fun with.”

When I asked if she might consider writing the book for a new musical now that she has adapted the book for this one, she said, “Absolutely!” and already has several projects on the go, giving us even more to look forward to. Piaf/Dietrich plays at the CAA Theatre from September 17 to December 8.

Two contrasting Canadian Premieres

Toward the end of September are two intriguing, contrasting Canadian premieres: The first, Girl From The North Country, written and directed by Conor Mcpherson (The Weir, Seascape), is a look back at small town America at the height of the Depression, as seen through the eyes of this Irish playwright; “of the people” and infused with the passionate and political songs of American icon Bob Dylan. Described as a “powerful new show full of hope and heartbreak,” Girl is coming to Toronto for a strictly limited run from September 28 to November 24 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre after acclaimed sold-out runs at both the Old Vic in London’s West End and at the Public Theatre in New York. For fans of both McPherson and/or Dylan this should be fascinating to see. (mirvish.com)

The second, a call to the present and cry to the future, is Resonance, a new creation by (Seoul-born, but Canadian resident) choreographer and director Hanna Kiel. Inspired by the peaceful protests in 2016 that led to the ousting of South Korea’s former corrupt president, Park Geun-Hye, Kiel is fusing an original rock music score by JUNO Award-winning Greg Harrison with passionate new choreography for 12 dancers to explore this evolution of social outcry into direct but peaceful action.

September 26 to 28, at the Saints Cyril and Methody Macedonian-Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church in Toronto (brownpapertickets.com).

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

SEP 7, 2PM AND 8PM ONLY: Miz/Saigon, Broadway Concert Series Inc. Toronto Centre for the Arts (ticketmaster.ca). A rare chance to see some of our top Canadian musical theatre stars including George Masswohl (Come From Away) and Ma-Anne Dionisio (Next to Normal, Miss Saigon) singing hits from Les Mis and Miss Saigon.

SEP 16, 7:30PM: The PAL Kitchen Party. One show only. Stratford Festival Theatre (stratfordfestival.ca). Support the Stratford Performing Arts Lodge by attending this one-night-only concert, a mix of songs and stories with a Newfoundland theme, performed by members of the Stratford Festival Company (and some special guests including George Masswohl and Greg Hawco) directed and hosted by company member and “Newfoundland’s own” Brad Hodder.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare and new Canadian plays.

Luminato: Two years ago, in one of my first columns for The WholeNote, I interviewed the creative team of Theaturtle’s Charlotte: A Tri-Coloured Play with Music, Canadian librettist Alon Nashman, acclaimed Czech composer Aleš Březina, and legendary British director/scenographer Pamela Howard, as they were presenting a series of work-in progress performances at the Luminato Festival before touring to Europe. The play is inspired by the real life and artwork of Berlin-born Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon who was sent to Auschwitz at age 26 in 1942, and who in the last two years of her life created a sequence of nearly 800 paintings accompanied by text and musical references to which she gave the title “Life? Or Theatre?” – works which, against all odds, survived. At the time I was bowled over by the wild theatricality of their vision and the bright central message of hope in the arc of Charlotte’s story.

This summer, they are about to go on another tour, this time to Israel, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic, with first, a one-performance-only send-off at Toronto’s Hart House Theatre on June 1. Always curious about what happens over time to things I first encountered as “works in progress,” I plan to attend and to reach out to the creative team again to catch up on what has been happening with this exciting show between world tours. Stay tuned!

This year is, again, a Luminato hotbed of creation including a number of exciting music theatre productions from both home and abroad. Stories shaped by political extremes, and the need to find a personal path through societies characterized by prejudice and oppression, again are highlighted particularly in two Canadian productions that caught my eye: Nicole Brooks’ large scale a cappella Obeah Opera and Tim Albery’s one-man (with one-piano accompaniment) Hell’s Fury; or The Hollywood Songbook starring Canadian opera superstar Russell Braun.

Obeah Opera has been in the works for ten years, a project of personal passion for creator, librettist, and composer Nicole Brooks. Inspired by a desire to tell the untold story of the female Caribbean slaves who were as much a part of the Salem witch trials as the white women and men whose stories have been recorded, Obeah Opera uses Caribbean-inspired music and dance to tell that story. Drawing on transcriptions of the actual trials in Salem, combined with in-person consultation with African spiritual practitioners, Brooks has created a libretto and score focused on the experience of Tituba (the Caribbean slave whom we know from Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible), and her fellow practitioners of “obeah” (witchcraft). A necessary story for our times, it is a reminder of the dangers of societal paranoia and also of histories lost that should be recovered and shared. The cast is 20 strong, all female, all singing and dancing. The dances, showcased last October as part of the Fall for Dance North Festival at the Sony Centre, won rave reviews for their superb theatricality and energy.

Hell’s Fury; or The Hollywood Songbook, on the other hand, is a one-man musical journey through the life of Austrian Jewish Marxist composer Hanns Eisler. Based on a concept from well-known opera director Tim Albery, it was originally developed with Soundstreams and Soundstreams’ artistic director Lawrence Cherney and given a work-in-progress showcase during Luminato last year. Eisler fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and landed in Hollywood where he worked successfully, composing many film scores including the Academy Award-nominated Hangmen Also Die (Fritz Lang) and None But The Lonely Heart (Clifford Odets). Privately, at the same time he was writing Hollywood Songbook, an evocative song cycle full of both wit and melancholy, often using for words, poems by his frequent collaborator Bertolt Brecht, weaving a tale of the horrors of Nazi Germany, the seductions of Hollywood, and a longing to return home. In real life, the seduction of Hollywood was interrupted in 1948 when the House Committee on Un-American Activities banished Eisler from the US, labelling him an “unperson.” The storyline is woven through the songs of Eisler’s own Hollywood Songbook, and is performed by acclaimed Canadian baritone Russell Braun accompanied by JUNO Award-winning pianist Serouj Kradjian.

The cast of Masquerade Photo by Dmitriy DubinskiyIn contrast to these two overtly political story lines, and yet with a central theme illustrating the hidden masked cynical truths of society, is Masquerade, a lavish spectacle presented by the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia, based on the verse drama of Russian poet and playwright Mikhail Lermontov. This production promises to be a tremendously theatrical event employing a clown-influenced physical theatre style of staging supported by and interwoven with a musical score by Faustas Latenas that incorporates the famous Waltz by Aram Khachaturian which was itself commissioned for a production of this play by the Vahtankgov Theatre in 1941. It also promises us “heaps of snow.” Judging by last year’s production of Uncle Vanya, this should be another theatrical feast.

Luminato runs from June 7 to 23 at various venues around Toronto; luminatofestival.com.

Stratford and Shaw

Once again we are entering the season of big musicals at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals. There is already great word of mouth about Stratford’s production of Billy Elliot, the 2005 Tony Award-winning musical inspired by the 2000 film set during the British miners’ strikes of 1984/85. Here again is a political setting, and a score that even includes a song, “Merry Christmas, Maggie,” mercilessly mocking then-British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. At the same time as depicting the destruction of a community, however, Billy Elliot is also a wonderful story of hope, of a young boy in a mining town who discovers an inborn talent for dance and finds a way to follow his dreams in spite of all the obstacles in front of him. Director and choreographer Donna Feore has reimagined the staging to work on the Stratford Festival thrust stage and talks in the show program about the inspiration of Elton John’s brilliantly contemporary score. Billy Elliot plays at the Festival Theatre through November 3.

The Shaw Festival reaches further back into the traditional musical theatre canon to bring us a much more escapist romance than the musicals discussed above: Lerner and Loewe’s 1947 classic Brigadoon, perhaps best known from the 1954 MGM movie starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. A brash young New Yorker, Tommy Albright, on holiday in the Scottish Highlands, falls in love with a girl from a magical village, Brigadoon, that only exists for one day every 100 years. After leaving Scotland Tommy finds himself torn between his increasingly empty life in the modern city and the love he left behind. Naturally there is a happy ending, though one could imagine a dystopian millennial sequel set 10 or 15 years later with Tommy now feeling trapped in the magical but tiny village. One of the great draws of the Shaw Festival’s production will be seeing former Stratford musical star Alexis Gordon as Fiona. Brigadoon plays at the Shaw Festival until October 13. 

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

Around Ontario over the summer, there are many more musicals to be seen, with something for almost every taste. Consult our music theatre listings for details.

JUN 5 TO 22: Drayton Entertainment. Thoroughly Modern Millie. Huron Country Playhouse. The fun 1920s-set musical probably best known from the slightly goofy movie version starring Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Channing. And also from Drayton, Peter Colley’s You’ll Get Used to It!: The War Show, a nostalgic and fun Canadian look back at WWII with period songs, starting at St. Jacobs Country Playhouse, June 5 to 22, then continuing June 27 to July 13.

JUN 27, 8PM: Silly Stages. Chasing Rainbows. Songs of Judy Garland. Regent Theatre, Oshawa. The brilliant Canadian musical theatre star Louise Pitre sings Judy Garland.

JUL 24 TO AUG 16: Gravenhurst Opera House. Dean & Jerry: What Might Have Been. Created by Jesse Collins this two man show about Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and their long partnership, has been gaining a growing loyal audience at summer stock theatres around Ontario.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare, and new Canadian plays.

Toronto’s music theatre scene in April was notable for two plays which had music playing a thematically essential role, as I previewed in my last column.

Under the Stairs at Young People’s Theatre was a fun, theatrically imaginative tale of children sorting out the world in which the characters in the “real world” all sang, and those hiding “under the stairs” spoke, though often in a mix of prose and poetic language. What became very interesting was when the characters overlapped, particularly at the end when the children who have been hiding emerge to reunite the family, even taking in a stray “lost boy” in a subconscious tribute to Peter Pan.

In Lorena Gale’s Angélique, music played a different role, underlying and accenting almost the entirety of the action with a spare but thematically attuned percussion score composed and played by acclaimed ensemble Sixtrum. The play is shockingly relevant and revelatory. I had no idea previously that there was legal slavery in Quebec in 1734; and the horrors of that reality, and its seemingly acceptable entrenchment in society, were powerfully shown in director Mike Payette’s staging. There are several scenes where the music truly took centre stage: the vigorous washing of the sheets, and the wonderful dance scene where the rather rigid Quebecois step dancing is juxtaposed with the more sinuous and supple African dancing of Angélique also pointed to the fact that this would be great material for a serious musical or operatic adaptation.

The Brothers Size

This month another play that uses music as an integral storytelling tool is The Brothers Size, the second in a trilogy of plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the writer of the unpublished semi-autobiographical play that Barry Jenkins transformed into the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight.

Set in the Deep South of Louisiana this is an explosive contemporary story of the return from prison of the fun-loving Oshoosi to live with his serious older brother Ogun (named for the Yoruba god of hard work), but it is also a poetic tale interwoven and imbued with the power of African Yoruba mythology and music. As Oshoosi’s former prison mate Eregba (named for the Yoruba trickster god) arrives to turn their lives upside down, the play interweaves the dreaming and waking lives of these three “brothers” using music as the medium of transfer and emotion. Masterminding the music for this production as composer and onstage percussionist is Waleed Abdulhamid, who praises the three-man cast for being really strong singers and inspiring him to experiment with harmonies and arrangements for the vocal music. Drawing on both his youth in Sudan and an award-winning career in Canadian theatre and film, Abdulhamid describes the music he is creating as a “melting of the worlds” of North America and Africa, incorporating influences from the blues to Yoruba, from the songs of Nigeria to those of Harlem and Mississippi.

FAWN’s Pandora

Also coming up in May is Pandora, a new opera/ballet created by indie company FAWN, inspired by the Greek myth of the girl who unleashes all the evils into the world from a sealed jar (or box) that has been entrusted to her, only closing it in time to keep hope inside.

Intrigued about FAWN and their new take on this classic tale, I contacted the creative team – founding artistic director and stage director of Pandora, Amanda Smith, choreographer and dancer Jennifer Nichols, and librettist David James Brock – to learn more.

Amanda Smith, FAWN’s founding artistic director and resident stage director. Photo by Dahlia KatzWN: FAWN is a relatively new company on the opera/music theatre scene. Can you tell me about why you founded FAWN and what your goals with the company are? 

AS: I founded FAWN because I wanted to be able to create the kind of work I specifically was interested in and in the way I was interested in creating it. Of course, these interests have changed over time as FAWN has grown to include new company members and collaborators. We’ve been active in the new music and indie opera scene for about six years.

Where did the name FAWN come from, and how does it fit with your company mandate?

AS: I always wanted the company to be about developing new content and investigating the possibilities of what the new classical music sound can be in Canada. I loved the idea of a fawn being born, testing its environment, exploring and eventually growing to be a beautiful animal. To get there, it requires nurturing, and the same can be said about the creative process.

How did the new Pandora project come about?

AS: Three years ago, FAWN put out an open call for submissions, from which we selected the works of six composers for a performance in our Synesthesia series that was intending to bring together music and movement. With these works, I created a narrative path for choreographer Jennifer Nichols and I to develop into a dance-theatre piece. Since FAWN has a rather different audience, including a lot of young people and those who don’t typically patronize opera and classical music, I wanted to give them the opportunity to have input. So, at the Synesthesia performance, we asked our audience to select the three composers featured in the show that they most wanted us to work with, and they chose Joseph Glaser, Kit Soden and David Storen. Our three selected composers were then asked to write a 20-minute opera-ballet that we would then produce, and to participate in a one-week devised creation workshop with our team to provide them with the seeds of inspiration for their work. We workshopped the music last summer and it was decided by the team that we would like them to be presented as one piece, thus allowing it to be one experience for the audience. To accomplish this, the composers and our librettist, David James Brock, created a through-line between all three pieces, which I think has been very effective.

Pandora librettist David James BrockJennifer and David, what it is like working with Amanda and FAWN? How is it the same or different from other projects or companies you have worked with? 

JN: The experiences I’ve had working with FAWN have emphasized a fully collaborative approach to new work, with all artistic contributors sharing ideas from the beginning of the process, rather than inserting their work into an already formed production structure. There are benefits to a variety of different processes, but I find this allows for growth that is organic, rather than pre-conceived. The work takes shape via the contribution of all, and is guided along the way by Amanda. It makes for a very balanced work.

In the very first stage of this process, Synesthesia IV, I also worked very closely with Amanda in the studio, just the two of us. We dissected and discussed all of the movement as it was created, a director and choreographer working intimately together as the work took shape.

I’m very excited to apply a similar approach to working with David on Pandora. He and I first worked together on the Canadian Art Song Project’s staged production of Sewing the Earthworm.

DJB: FAWN is asking some pretty big questions about what it means to create new opera. What stories are we telling? Who is telling them? And how can something as labour-intensive as opera be developed and performed in a way that maybe opens things up a bit? Amanda’s organic connection with artists and artistic forms that aren’t often part of opera (I’m particularly thinking of her connection to electronic music) has really opened up the possibility of not just how opera is made, but who it’s made for.

Can you talk about the specific development of Pandora for each of you and how your part of the creative process overlapped with the other members of the creative team? 

JN: As I write this, I am still in the beginning stages of my biggest creative process, movement-wise. The next month in studio will be where the choreography takes shape; however, the conceptual and research process began over a year ago in our devised workshop. There was a great deal of table discussion, improvisation and workshopping with an invited audience which informed the composition and libretti and choreographic structure. My job now is to flesh out the layers of movement that support both of these and focus on character development.

DJB: When I first met everyone there wasn’t a story, yet. We would find it together. But once we all got together in a room, and I think this goes for any new creative relationship, we had to learn each other’s approach (or unlearn whatever approaches we might have come in with). Informed by that first week of exploring ideas, I went away and started writing a piece with each composer. About a year later, when we needed to find a vehicle to carry them all, I added the Pandora framing with interlude text (which the composers then also set). It was really important that even though this was being created with three composers, that this became one show written by the four of us: Pandora.

As you move into the final stage of rehearsals for the performances in May, is there any more you can tell me about how each of the different elements: music, libretto and dance, come together to tell your new take on the classical story of Pandora?

DJB: Pandora, the mythical character, often gets a raw deal – I mean being blamed for all the world’s evils is a lot to lay on one woman. I liked the idea that we could take some of the heat off her and share some of the blame. So, in this retelling, though Pandora exists, we have this new character written specifically for tenor Jonathan MacArthur who also opens the jar (as we all probably would have) and is subjected to the myriad things that escape. Without giving away too much, things don’t go so well for him.

JN: I think our interpretation of the classical story of Pandora is such that not only is she not entirely to blame for “releasing and bringing into existence the evils of the world,” she is actually the presence that subsequently ensures a balance of hope and despair. She is vulnerable yet strong, and perhaps her damned curiosity is representative of mankind’s curiosity in general. Music, text and choreography come together to impose limits on her through separate, unique narratives, yet her presence is consistent and timeless. In mythology, Pandora is known as the first “human woman” (and the one who just couldn’t resist…). Our extrapolation of the story makes her timeless and far more complex than mischievous. And of course Jonathan’s character shares this onus.

It’s always been incredibly important to me as a choreographer to place as much emphasis and attention on the text as the score (if there is accompanying text) and when working with a writer like David, I have to ask myself some big questions. It’s not about simply layering aesthetically pleasing or interesting movement onto the libretto. The text drives the motivation of the choreography and the music shapes it.

DJB: Unique to Pandora’s creation for me was that dance was much more up front for me than it has ever been, and it really does inspire much of the text (and subsequently the scores). I knew Jennifer Nichols was going to be a part of this, both as choreographer and dancer, so I wrote very much with her in mind. Jennifer truly understands and cares about the words, and in writing something I knew she’d be a part of, I tried to create Pandora’s dramatic beats so that they’d demand (and in some cases, restrict) movement. So it was important to me in Pandora that Jennifer was a character integral to the stories, not something “added” later, or a reflection of an emotion, or simply part of the spectacle. Each of the composers was onboard with this, so you’ll see that in each of the pieces, filtered through each of their unique musical sensibilities. Though my part in the creation is largely done, I am excited to see how Amanda and Jennifer interpret the movement written into the scenes.

Pandora plays at Geary Lane (360 Geary Avenue) May 23 to 25. www.fawnchambercreative.com 

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

ONGOING TO MAY 5: Mirvish. Beautiful – The Carole King Musical. Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King . Runs to May 5. An unexpectedly practically perfect biographical jukebox musical full of songs you didn’t know you knew. Canadian star Chilina Kennedy glows and delights as Carole King. Catch it while you can!

ONGOING TO MAY 19: Mirvish/Musical Stage Company. Next to Normal. Ma-Anne Dionisio and Louise Pitre lead a strong cast directed by award-winning Philip Akin, in this timely musical.

MAY 4, 3PM AND 7:30PM: The Canadian Music Theatre Project presents, an Off-Sheridan staged reading of Stars of Mars. Theatre Passe Muraille. A new musical comedy by Canadians Daniel Abrahamson and Ashley Botting, set inside the first human colony on Mars, about a mother and daughter who are worlds apart.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare, and new Canadian plays.

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