The 2017/18 music theatre scene is starting with a bang this month with two large-scale, vastly different projects, both equally exciting.

Miigis

Miigis by Red Sky Performance: Sandra Laronde, concept/direction; Jera Wolfe, choreography; Sophia Lebessis, performer - photo by Donald LeeIn this year of celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday how perfect is it to have a new creation by Red Sky Performance taking up residence at Fort York. Red Sky, based in Toronto, is Canada’s leading company of contemporary Indigenous performance in dance, theatre, music and media.

On September 15 and 16 they are bringing to life the world premiere of Miigis, a fusion of contemporary Indigenous dance and powerful original music, with concept and direction by artistic director Sandra Laronde, choreography by associate artist Jera Wolfe, and design by Julia Tribe, exploring the catalysts, trade routes, and stories of a journey from the Atlantic coast to the Great Lakes and the “seven prophecies marked by miigis.”

The seven prophecies (or seven fires prophecy) are at the heart of the belief of the Anishinaabe people, prophecies that follow seven epochs (and predicting an eighth) in the life of the people of Turtle Island (North America) following the migration of the people from the East Coast into the interior of the continent and encompassing the arrival of the Europeans and the effects of the meeting of the two cultures. The miigis in different tellings of the prophecies are either/both the cowrie shells that mark the various lands where the migrating people should stay and settle, and the prophets that guided them.

Fascinated with Laronde’s choice of this as the heart of the new piece, I asked her a few key questions about the inception of Miigis and her production choices (her responses have been edited for length).

WN: Can you tell me more about the choice of the seven prophecies of miigis as the subject matter for the new work? What is it about the prophecy that you want to communicate through the piece and that you think is important for audiences to learn about/experience now?

SL: Miigis is akin to the holy grail for the Anishinaabe people. We followed it from the Atlantic Coast to the Great Lakes. I’m interested in the third fire prophecy given to us which was ‘to move westward until you come to a place where food grows on the water’. I’m interested in what happened along the travel and water routes, what got exchanged, what happened. The food that ‘grows on water’ is known as manoomin or wild rice which the Anishinaabe are renowned for harvesting. Its harvest life cycle is part of the structure of the Miigis production.

Our seven fires prophecy includes an eighth fire, where society could choose to go down either a dark path or a bright path, and we are in this eighth fire now. All of the warnings are here – now – especially with regard to the environment, nature, and the loss of many species.  The question is can we turn this around? Can the dominant culture move beyond a ‘take, take mentality’?

WN: Why did you choose Fort York as the location for the world premiere, and how will this location set off the work you will be creating? 

SL: We are fortunate to have wonderful partners involved in Miigis, and it is co-commissioned by the City of Toronto, The Bentway Conservancy and Fort York Historic Site. This location is perfect because the Gardiner Expressway was the natural shoreline of Lake Ontario, one of the five Great Lakes. Garrison Creek runs along Fort York which is where the Anishinaabe used its waterways. Of course, Fort York has a lot of history before it became known as a fort, as Anishinabek and Haudenosaunee shared this land that is now known as Toronto. Toronto is a Haudensaunee word that means “where trees grow in the water.” That speaks to quite a beautiful image of Toronto, and its natural beauty.

Fort York has a lot of big open spaces and it has quite a good feel there. Ironically, while creating a high Indigenous content with Miigis, we would hear cannonballs being fired off on a daily basis, and young men and women marching around outside in colonial vestments. At first, it was quite startling to hear cannonballs firing a few times a day. It’s ironic that we have something very colonial happening all around us while we are inside the Blue Barracks creating a work that goes right back to our origin story and our seven fire prophecies. It’s strangely appropriate somehow as we are giving Indigenous voice back to this tract of land.

It’s ideal to be at the Bentway and Fort York because this work has approximately 18 to 20 dancers, both contemporary and traditional, and six live musicians, so a lot of people are involved. We need the space for this outdoor spectacle experience of original live music and dance. The music is extraordinary, rich, Indigenous and surprising. It’s a big ambitious piece in many ways.

WN: Will the piece take place in one place or move about the fort? How do you see this affecting both the creation of the piece and the reaction of the audience? 

SL: We will have a procession from The Bentway area into Fort York, and we will perform outside on a low-rise stage. We all want the feeling of the performance being accessible to audiences. Miigis is a piece to be performed outdoors amidst nature and the Toronto cityscape. This land allows our production to move distances, to cover ground, and to involve a lot of artists involved in the process, including traditional dancers and singers.

I would love audiences to take away images, moments, and knowledge nuggets that swim around in their heads and hearts for years to come, to feel the urgency of what Miigis is about, to experience the Indigenous artistry, and to have a rich sonic experience of Indigenous music. We are very excited to reveal this new terrain of dance and live music that immerses audiences in the power of nature and Indigenous prophecy right here in downtown Toronto.

Miigis plays for two performances only, September 15 and16, with a third music-only concert on September 17. Performances are free.

Life After

Britta Johnson’s musical Life After, which will debut at Canadian Stage September 23 to October 22The other centrepiece of the September season is Life After, a new Canadian musical by Britta Johnson, first seen and widely acclaimed at the Toronto Fringe in 2016, workshopped again last April, and in rehearsal now for its debut at Canadian Stage September 23 to October 22 (at the Berkeley Street Theatre), in a three-way co-production with the Musical Stage Company and Yonge Street Theatricals. A funny and frank story of love, loss and vivid imagination, Life After follows 16-year-old Alice, left to navigate life after her father, a superstar self-help guru, dies in a car accident. The audience is plunged into Alice’s overactive inner world as she tries to decipher the events that led to that fateful day.

Unusually for a musical, the composer is also the writer of both book and lyrics, and the story is one she says she has been writing since her teens as it draws in part on her own experience of losing her father when she was young.

Reviews of the original Fringe production speak of how moving but also how funny Life After is, calling Johnson’s work revolutionizing and comparing her to Sondheim. In a recent blogpost, director Robert McQueen (who also directed the original Fringe production) wrote that he “can’t wait to get Life After back into the theatre and to invite audiences to hear the unique voice of this truly gifted musical theatre artist.”

Joining McQueen at Canadian Stage is a top-notch creative team and cast featuring emerging star Ellen Denny, Dan Chameroy, Rielle Braid, Tracy Michailidis, Kelsey Verzotti and Trish Lindström; leading the ensemble are Neema Bickersteth, Barbara Fulton, and Johnson’s sister Anika Johnson (who also is the production’s dramaturg).

The production is also marking a number of firsts. Britta Johnson is the inaugural artist chosen to be part of the Musical Stage Company’s new Crescendo series which gives the chosen composer a three-year residency with a commitment to produce three of her new musicals in development over that time. This is also the first Canadian musical to be programmed at Canadian Stage under artistic and general director Matthew Jocelyn. Jocelyn, whose family origins trace back to Johnson’s hometown Stratford, Ontario, caught some of her early student productions  and was immediately struck by the mature, insightful voice in her work, both as librettist and as a composer: “Life After is a searingly beautiful piece of music theatre that we are honoured to have opening our 30th anniversary season,” says Jocelyn.

We are in an exciting era of musical theatre development in Toronto with a growing proliferation of new musical incubators as well as more companies featuring music theatre of various kinds in their seasons. Canadian Stage stands out as breaking new ground in this regard with fully 10 out of 15 productions in their new season featuring music as an integral element of the production. I will be writing more on that next month.

Not Too Late

If you are still feeling the draw of summer days in small-town Ontario, head out to Stratford to see their strong production of Damon Runyon’s classic Guys and Dolls featuring Steve Ross’ perfect Nicely-Nicely Johnson at the Festival Theatre (until Oct 29) or grab the chance to see brilliant Canadian actor Michael Therriault (Golem in the ill-fated LOTR musical) starring in the 1930s musical Me and My Girl at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake (until Oct 15).

Or for something more modern, watch Cirque du Soleil explode into the Port Lands with Volta, their new show about blazing your own trail (Sept 7 to Oct 29).

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

 

Update 4pm, Aug 31 2017: A previous version of this article referred in one instance to Canadian Stage as 'CanStage'; this error has since been corrected.

Look-alikes Lotte Lenya and Tilly LoschAs I start to write this column I am in Versailles with Opera Atelier, and after each rehearsal I tune into the news programs - on what seems like every TV channel - all discussing the recent election of Emmanuel Macron as President of France, his choice of Prime Minister, the ensuing choosing of government ministers, and his positive and hopeful approach to the renewal of Europe. Politics is the hot topic of the moment, particularly with the general relief at Macron’s win over Marine Le Pen of the Front National.

Then there is also the current pre-election state of the UK, made even more complex with the attack on Manchester as well as the ongoing passionate debate about Brexit. And there is the undefinable situation in the good old USA, south of our own border; the international rise of populism and its frightening similarity to Fascism; the continuing war and refugee crisis in Syria, and more.

How interesting then, that in Toronto, in June, there will be two productions in the same week that can be construed as reactions, quite different reactions, to the historical antecedents of these current political situations - specifically to the rise of Facism/Nazism? 

June 14 and 15, at Roy Thomson Hall, the Toronto Symphony is presenting Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht’s 1933 classic “sung ballet” The Seven Deadly Sins in a semi-staged version by director Joel Ivany and choreographer Jennifer Nichols. Then, starting just two days later, June 16 to 18 at the Theatre Centre, Luminato presents Theaturtle’s work-in-progress production of CHARLOTTE, a genre-bending new chamber musical based on Charlotte Salomon’s life story, coming of age in Berlin during the rise of Nazism.

So, on the one hand we have a classic of the Brecht/Weill oeuvre, originally created for look-alikes Lotte Lenya and Tilly Losch, usually seen as a drivingly sarcastic condemnation of capitalism, as well as a wonderful vehicle for the leading singer and dancer who play two sisters - or are they the two sides of the leading character’s  personality? And on the other, we are offered a new work based on the life of a young girl who personally witnessed the rise of Nazism and recorded her experiences, her terrors, hopes and dreams in a series of over 700 gouaches - creating what has been described as possibly the first graphic novel or the story board for a musical of her life.

Curious about this juxtaposition and the approaches of the two creative teams to their respective projects, I reached out to both to talk about their own shows and this odd synchronicity. As it turns out the connections are, in the eyes of their respective producers, more apparent than real: the Brecht/Weill was written in the 1930s and is being presented as a “modern classic” by its producers. CHARLOTTE is an entirely new work based on historic/autobiographical material; the coincidence in timing is just that – a coincidence, and not particularly instructive.

So, are they connected? Yes, I think so, but perhaps more for the active observer reacting in one’s own time to the state of the world.

Brecht and Weill

2209 Music Theatre 2Let’s start with The Seven Deadly Sins. Part of the TSO’s ongoing “Decades Project,” it is being presented as emblematic of the 1930s and is accompanied on the program by Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celestina (as well as a newly commissioned short work for Canada’s 150th birthday).

Styled as a satirical sung ballet The Seven Deadly Sins follows the adventures of two sisters sent to seek their fortune in the big cities in order to earn enough money to buy their family a little house on the banks of the Mississippi. In each city they encounter one of the sins of the title: Sloth, Pride, Wrath, Gluttony, Lust, Avarice and Envy.  The sisters are both called Anna. Anna 1 (the singer) whose “head is on straight” is the entrepreneur type, and Anna 2 (the dancer) is the more compassionate one and also, as Brecht calls her, “the article sold.” The family acts like a Greek chorus, commenting on the events as they fall out in each city.

Creating semi-staged versions of things is at this point right up a familiar alley for Joel Ivany (artistic director of acclaimed Toronto opera company Against the Grain) and choreographer Jennifer Nichols who have collaborated previously on AtG’s groundbreaking staged Messiah in 2013, remounted in 2016, and on La Belle Hélène at the RCM. (Joel also created a semi-staged version of Mozart’s Requiem for the TSO last year.)

I was secretly hoping to hear from Ivany that he was seeing the piece from a political angle, given the current state of the world, but he said that they had decided to stay with a very straightforward approach, treating the piece as a modern classic, and coming at it from a place of “what is the music and text saying and then how are we going to show that?” They used an exploratory week at the Banff Centre at the end of the summer as a starting point and to set the company language for the exploration.

Nothing daunted I asked choreographer, Jennifer Nichols, (who, conveniently, was with me in Versailles, dancing in Médée, if there was more she could tell me about her approach to the creation of the dance elements:

“What I am hoping to achieve choreographically is that the family is simply an extension of Anna,” she said. “That their hopes and fears and judgment are her own [judgment] of herself…. At times Anna 1 and 2 blend, as if one is the puppet and the other the puppeteer, and then this dynamic switches.” Supporting the staging will also be video elements created by Nichols with Christopher Monetti, inspired by  the layering of facial symmetry and asymmetry in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, and “posing the question: Is Anna 1 the sister of Anna 2, or are they two parts of the same person?”

Playing the singing Anna 1 opposite Nichols’ dancing Anna 2 is Canadian star mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta, headlining a strong cast of singer/actors: Isaiah Bell, Owen McCausland, Geoffrey Sirett, Stephen Hegedus (who just played King Creon in Médée to acclaim in Toronto and Versailles), with TSO Maestro Peter Oundjian conducting the TSO.

So, look forward to a potentially interesting and well-sung version of Brecht and Weill’s 1933 classic, the last piece they would create together.

CHARLOTTE

A much more complex and ambitious project and one very much intent on portraying the state of the world as it is now as well as how it was in the 1930s is CHARLOTTE: a Tri-Coloured Play with Music.

2017 is the centenary of Charlotte Salomon’s birth, a significant milestone, and one of the sparks that led to the creation of this new multidisciplinary chamber musical.

What were the other sparks? Where did it all begin? “Seventeen years ago,” says librettist Alon Nashman, “I encountered the artistic genius of Charlotte Salomon at the Art Gallery of Ontario. There I saw over 700 paintings, stunning in their complexity and beauty. I read every word of the text she offered for what was in essence a huge graphic novel and a thinly veiled autobiography. I listened to the music Charlotte proposed as accompaniment to her images and storytelling. I fell in love with this highly intelligent and talented young artist, whose ironic take on events I thought I already knew well is completely disarming. I mourned for the loss that her immediate death at the doors to Auschwitz represented. Here was a profoundly and articulate witness, not only to the atrocity that was Nazism, but to a complex stew of artistic, familial and societal transformation.”

Unable to shake the notion that Charlotte wanted her work to be performed publicly, Alon dreamed of adapting this painted/indicated singspiel “Life? Or Theatre?” for the stage. The next step was to find the right director who would understand from the inside Charlotte’s world and artistry. Through the help of Canadian-bred producer Liz  Bradley, Nashman found  her in British director and sceneographer Pamela Howard, who had already been thinking independently about creating a piece based on Charlotte’s work. Pamela in turn introduced Nashman to composer Aleš Březina, one of the leading lights of European composition for theatre, and director of the Martinu Institute in Thessaloniki and the Czech Republic, and the creative team was complete.

The development process began with meetings in 2013 and 2014, leading to a first three-week workshop at Canadian Stage in 2014. On their promotional video the team state that their goals were to create a fully 3D realization of Charlotte’s visions and images, in an equal partnership of text, movement/image and music. By the end of the first workshop they had an initial footprint for the production to grow from. In 2016 there was a further music workshop, and this year a double workshop residency at Kingston’s Isabel Bader Centre and at Toronto’s Theatre Centre leading up to a return visit to the Bader June 1 for a concert premiere, and then the upcoming work-in-progress performances for Luminato which will have full sets, props, and costumes, although production details will continue to evolve.

All three CHARLOTTE collaborators declined any specific political alignment or direct artistic parallel to The Seven Deadly Sins other than that of recognizing the general use of art to ridicule and expose the moral bankruptcy of the Nazi regime, particularly through the way of  theatre that Brecht and Weill established. Pamela Howard suggests that a more appropriate parallel would be Brecht’s Theatre poems or his dictat “Show what has to be shown.” Much more clearly they all three talk about bringing this specific story to life: “This beautiful portrait of a decline of a flourishing multicultural life in Berlin (or Germany or Europe) in the late 1930s…the link not only to today but to all times to come” as Březina puts it. Or in Howard’s words “The inspiration or rather determination…to create something that reinforces the power of art to survive beyond human life…not simply a reaction to Nazism, tragic as that is, but (to) the current political repetition once again that is daily witnessed (that) is motivating artists all over the world to make work together that speaks louder than words.”

Nashman says: “Charlotte did not know how the war would unfold but she had a sense that everything she associated with civilization was being destroyed. She sets the date of her creativity as ‘Year One of the New Salvation.’ Her remarkable premonition was that out of the ashes of Europe would arise a new and better civilization. And that she would likely not survive to see it.”

Charlotte in exile had only three colours of paint to create her series of 700 + gouaches images. From three colours she made a myriad colours. This “tricolour” is the tricolour of the subtitle of the show, but it also refers to the three collaborators, to the equal importance of words, images, and music coming together to communicate a world and story. All three collaborators champion this idea and process. In Březina’s words: “We were like three sides of the same person, discussing every small detail together to find out a solution, which (would) always display all three aspects inevitably intertwined.”

Finally, I asked the three what they wanted to create for their audiences, how they wanted their audiences to emerge from the experience of the project. Howard summed up their goals: “To experience a remarkable - yet horrific - story and to come out changed” she said. “I think of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as a guiding principle. We have to be optimistic for the future otherwise…how can we go on? The Soviet Union fell, Hitler died, Idi Amin ceased to exist and Rome fell. People suffer, but the human spirit will rise, as Brecht said ‘In the dark times - will there also be singing?’”

And a last word from Nashman: “Charlotte’s artistic response to her tribulations make me wonder if there is a young woman in Aleppo today painting her life, or writing poetry or songs, in order to survive.”

 Works like CHARLOTTE: a Tri-Coloured Play with Music, giving us new windows on times we don’t want to return to, are essential to the survival of the human spirit.

Is CHARLOTTE an example of how the art of music theatre is becoming more widely and wildly experimental, pushing the envelope, breaking the box, becoming more strongly political? Or is it just that there happens to be a whole bunch of this happening clearly and visibly right now?

The rest of the line up at Luminato is an interesting case in point. More than half the productions could be described as falling under the music theatre umbrella, but from under the shelter of that umbrella are breaking and making  new rules, becoming radically diverse, more connected to the world around us, engaging with hot button topics through art, wanting to shock, perhaps, but even more wanting to engage and connect with audiences and the world around us. Active political theatre-making in the best sense.

2209 Music Theatre 3Staying with the offerings at Luminato for a moment, King Arthur’s Night, (whose composer Veda Hille also co-created Onegin which continues until June 4 at the Berkeley Street Theatre), is a new take on the classic legend, commissioned by Luminato from British Columbia’s Neworld Theatre. This world premiere is co-created by Hille, Marchus Youseff, James Long and writer/co-creator Niall McNeil - an artist living with Down syndrome who grew up in the midst of BC’s Caravan Theatre. The production  features a fully integrated professional cast, which includes actors from Burnaby, BC’s Down Syndrome Research Foundation, a live band and a 16-person choir: “An upside down world. A Betrayed Love. An unwanted child. Animals learning to walk and talk. A revolt by the subjugated masses. A kingdoms come undone. This isn’t the King Arthur you know.”

Nearby on Front Street, the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre will house a custom-built performance space for two very different cross-genre productions to tell epic stories from two different cultures.

Bearing is a world premiere dance-opera by internationally acclaimed theatre-maker Michael Greyeyes (Plains Cree), playwright/director Yvette Nolan (Algonquin) and librettist Spy Denomme-Welch (Anishnaabe). It explores the legacy of Canada’s residential school system through music, dance, and spoken word, presented in three sections on a nearly bare stage with - in the words of the creators - “live music being integral to the audience’s understanding of the work,” and with music ranging from Bach to Vivier to new pieces composed for this Signal Theatre production. Actor and singer Marion Newman (Kwagiulth and Sto:lo) leads a company of actors, singers, and dancers,  a custom built choir, and members of the National Youth Orchestra in what promises to be an unflinching yet poetic look at this difficult and enduring scar on Canada’s history.

Until the Lions is a tantalizingly feminist dance/music theatre project drawn from Karthika Nair’s “Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata,” a collection of poems about the overlooked female characters in the Sanskrit epic.  Director and (award-winning) choreographer Akram Khan, who spent two years as a performer in Peter Brook’s renowned international nine-hour version of the full Mahabharata, declares that “as in many myths, the female characters are often the unsung heroes, the figures of strength and imagination and endurance. It is their unsung stories in particular that still haunt me today.” His “Until the Lions” fuses traditional kathak with contemporary dance and live music (an original score) to explore the tale of one of the these women, the Princess Amba, who invokes the gods to seek revenge when her chances of love and marriage are stolen from her.

 The juxtaposition of these two new works in a custom built in-the-round space should prove to be fascinating for the avid music theatre goer to see. How will the space affect the different productions and how will each make use of it, and to what effect?

Worth a look as well for their promised pushing of genre boundaries are Vertical Influences, an ice-skating double bill by Montreal’s Le Patin Libra aiming to move skating into the theatrical arena (one piece being about bullying); Breakin’ Convention, an international  festival of Hip Hop Dance Theatre from Sadler’s Wells, London, and UK hip hop pioneer Jonzi D; and an award-winning production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya by the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia which promises, in the style of theatre pioneer V. Meyerhold, a blend of words, music, mime and symbolism.

Elsewhere in the City

Soulpepper brings us Porgy and Bess in Concert (June 1-3 ) as well as the closing performances of their very successful run of “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf.”       The National Ballet of Canada unveils their new production (and Canadian premiere, of John Neumeier’s A Streetcar Named Desire (June 3-10 using music and dance to reimagine Tennessee Williams’ famous play, focusing on exploring themes of memory and loss. The ballet has a new first act, set to romantic music by Sergei Prokofiev and picks up the familiar story in the second act to more jarring, fragmentary music by Alfred Schnittke.

On a lighter note, the Gerald Isaac studio presents a short run (June 29-July 2) of Sweet Will.

This time-bending musical transforms the Bard’s most iconic works into a new story “rife with song and sass that strikes a powerful synthesis between old and new.” The exhilarating musical hodgepodge originally from 1985 is dressed up this time in spectacular Steampunk style, with Tony Award-winning Lance Mulcahy’s original book enhanced by a new script, and is under the direction and choreography of Stratford alum and Canadian theatre great Gerald Isaac and musical direction of Dora Award-winning Bob Ashley. See their Sweet Will Facebook page for more information or universe.com for tickets.

A bit further afield

The Stratford Festival, underway from mid-April, is getting into full swing with two musicals onstage: the wonderful Broadway classic Guys and Dolls directed by Donna Feore, with Ben Carlson as Sky and Alexis Gordon as Sarah Brown; and the perennial G & S favourite  H.M.S. Pinafore directed by Lezlie Wade. For one day only, on June 24, at 2:00 pm., you can also catch Stratford Company member and Tony-Award winning singer and actor Brent Carver in concert with The Art of Time Ensemble at the Avon Theatre in a program of songs  by Charles Aznavour, Leonard Cohen, Kander and Ebb, Elton John, Jacques Brel, Noël Coward and others, arranged especially for this concert by a selection of the best composers and arrangers in Canada.

At the Shaw Festival, Me and My  Girl continues its run until October 15. The sparkling and fun British musical about whether a Cockney man can give up his old life – and love -  to join the upper class, was famously a hit in London’s West End starring Emma Thomson in full tap dancing mode in the 1980s; in the 1930s, when it premiered, it was so successful that its hit song and dance “The Lambeth Walk” was so popular across Europe during the Munich Crisis that an article in The Times of October 18, 1938, quoted a contemporary poet: “While dictators rage and statesmen talk, all Europe dances – to The Lambeth Walk.”

Summer Stock

Ontario’s long Summer Stock Season has also begun with many performances around the province featuring both new Canadian and traditional Broadway musicals.

The WWII theme continues at the 4th Line Theatre in Millbrook with David S. Craig’s musical Bombers: Reaping the Whirlwind,  a new play with music danger and romance about Canadian bomber crews “as they struggle to win the war.” The new Canadian musical about Terry Fox, Marathon of Hope by John Connolly and Peter Colley, plays at the Dunfield Theatre in Cambridge, as well as the King’s Wharf Theatre in Penetanguishene. Broadway musical favourites Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat are coming to the Drayton Festival Theatre, and Huron Country Playhouse, and Thoroughly Modern Millie comes along at the beginning of July to the St Jacob’s Country Playhouse.

For more details on Summer Stock shows see our own listings and helpful websites summertheatre.ca, or summerfunguide.ca.

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

2208 Music Theatre BannerIf any more proof was needed that the story of Eugene Onegin in all its forms continues to capture the interest of audiences, the National Ballet of Canada revived John Cranko’s Onegin just last fall, and the latest Metropolitan Opera production of Tchaikovsky’s opera will appear on Cineplex screens in May.

2208 Music TheatreSo when I received an email message from the Musical Stage Company in February that tickets were on sale for their production of Onegin, a new Canadian musical opening in May, right away my excited interest was caught. Cranko’s Onegin (beloved by Toronto ballet fans) has long been one of my favourite “story ballets,” its aloof and then passionate title role a test of star quality for every male principal dancer, and the role of Tatiana, who falls headlong and unrequitedly in love with Onegin, an equal dramatic proving ground for female principals.

Cranko’s ballet was not, apparently, the first inspiration for this new telling of the story by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille, two of the creators of the 2012 musical Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata. But Tchaikovsky’s version of the story, a favourite of opera fans the world over, definitely was. This new Canadian Onegin had its world premiere a year ago at the Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver where it won rave reviews and an unprecedented ten Jessie awards. The Toronto production features an almost entirely new cast and is directed by Gladstone who will be working with a new creative team; Hille provides the musical direction.

Intrigued and wanting to know more I approached the show’s creators, Gladstone and Hille, as well as Musical Stage Company artistic director Mitchell Marcus. Here are those conversations.

AMIEL GLADSTONE and VEDA HILLE

Why Onegin? What was it about the story that caught your interest and inspired you to create a new musical version? After the Craigslist Cantata, which was all about disconnection and more of a revue kind of piece, we wanted to look at something that had real passion and a stronger narrative drive. It was an opportunity to push and challenge ourselves, and see what happened if we tried to make a musical like the ones we’d grown up with. We connected strongly to themes of love - bad timing and trying not to waste your life.

I read in the press release that it was a production of Tchaikovsky’s opera that gave the first spark and that you have adopted the opera’s structure. In the process of creation, did you also go back to the novel, for inspiration and/or material? Yes, many times and through many different translations. There was even an attempt to follow Pushkin’s verse structure, but that lasted for one song. If we’d stuck with that, we’d still be on the first draft. The Pushkin is one of those things that is untranslatable - the original Russian has it all, while in English we can only give an essence. So the show is our essence of “Russianness,” of being welcomed at the theatre, of creating a space to sing some songs and tell a story together. In the novel Pushkin is a rascal; we really tried to retain his sense of fun and provocation.

You have adopted the structure of Tchaikovsky’s opera and even some of the musical lines. How would you describe the music you have created and the larger musical choices you have made for this show? There are a few Tchaikovsky quotes here and there - hidden Easter eggs for true fans. The music is definitely a mix of what could be considered standard Veda Hille type fair, (piano-based indie folk?) but with a strong sense of cabaret and other musical theatre styles. We were influenced by a wide range - everything from Boney M. to Kendrick Lamar. And we try to rock out a bit.

What was your creative process as composer and book writer? Did words or music come first or did that change along the way? Although Veda is primarily a musician and Amiel a playwright, there isn’t a separate composer or book writer. Words would usually come first, then song structure, and then adapting and deepening as we went. We had to remind ourselves what life was like as virginal teenagers. In some cases, we would find a beat and then work off of that.

From the photographs it looks as though you have kept to the story’s original period setting. How have you given the story a contemporary relevance or edge? I think you are referring to the Arts Club premiere production in Vancouver. Most of the costumes in that were modern with period touches. We felt items like Onegin’s iconic top hat were important and we kept period silhouettes, but most of the costume pieces were things you could find on the rack today. For the Toronto production, we are doing a new design - similar ideas, but possibly exploring more of the Spanish and Italian fashion world. It’s a real mix of periods, just as we live now. We’ve also attempted to clear up any of our questions, along the way. Why does Lensky get so upset? What’s the deal with duels anyway? And so on.

You had a great success with the premiere in Vancouver. What do you feel the audience connected with so strongly? It’s unabashedly romantic. It’s about being together, and love.

This is a bigger project than your earlier Craigslist Cantata. Was it a very different creation and/or workshop development process in this case? The process was both similar and different. Our investigative process was similar - building ideas and themes and then looking at how to continually deepen and clarify. With Craigslist it was all about how to structure, and how to find a through-line not based on plot. With Onegin it’s been more about clarity - making it make sense for a modern audience, giving as much agency as possible to Tatyana. When should it sound classical? When should it sound like disco? When was it spoken? Those kinds of questions. We did workshops at the Arts Club and In Tune, we saw how the audience was responding, we could feel we were on the right track - that part felt very similar.

This is a new production with a new creative team other than yourselves, and an almost entirely new cast. Is it a bigger production? Will you be taking this opportunity to make any changes or to explore the material in any new ways? For the most part the design is all new - we are looking at pushing the contemporary even more. As evidenced by your earlier question, the Arts Club version may still look period, but we want to keep making it look more contemporary - or at least keep trying. And we continue to work on the writing, yes. Still many questions around how it all works.

Is there anything you would say to the audience here before they come to see Onegin, to shape their expectations? Bring someone you like, or love, or are hoping to love. We can’t wait to see you.

MITCHELL MARCUS

What was it about this show that made you want to produce it in Toronto? There were three things that really appealed to me. First off, the score is unbelievable. I can’t get enough of the songs in Onegin and knew that Toronto audiences had to have a chance to hear them. Second, we are fiercely dedicated to growing Canadian musical theatre. Onegin is certainly an impressive and surprising homegrown musical work which made me want to do anything we could to help it. I felt that giving the writers a second production in Toronto, and being able to promote the work nationally and internationally from our city would be advantageous for them. Finally, we believe in building long-term relationships with artists. We were so lucky to produce and tour Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata by Ami, Veda and Bill Richardson. So continuing to collaborate with Ami and Veda on this new piece was natural and welcome.

How would you describe what makes this version of the story different from the opera and ballet - and relevant, as you have said, to a contemporary audience? I must (embarrassingly) admit to having never seen the ballet or opera. But what I love about what Ami and Veda have done is keeping the piece firmly rooted in the 19th century but giving the music and performance aesthetic a 21st-century feel. I think this highlights the universal nature of love - how we fall into it, how we are shamed by it, how we lose it. Through the hip, artistic sensibilities of Ami and Veda, this story written 150 years ago feels like it captures our contemporary world so beautifully.

Onegin opens on May 13 and plays until June 4 at the Berkeley Street Theatre downstairs.

What’s On: It has become a cliche that there is so much going on in the Toronto arts and culture scene that it has become impossible to see everything you want to see, particularly if you like different genres. Even within the genre of music theatre there are almost too many shows to see ranging from opera to traditional broadway fare, to new musicals experimenting with style and form, to various new hybrids of words, music and dance. Not that I would complain.

If you are working on a show yourself it becomes even harder. I have been immersed myself in French Baroque music theatre as fight director for Opera Atelier’s production of Charpentier’s 17th-century Medea. One of the fascinating things about this production is the modernity and level of passion in the acting, so much so that director Marshall Pynkoski describes the story as one of “domestic passion similar to that of Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf.”

From the shows I was able to see over the last month, two that stood out were rarely seen operas steps from each other along Philosopher’s Walk, both with clever and interesting staging experiments by their directors illuminating the stories and making them accessible to the audiences: Marilyn Gronsdal’s production of Niccolo Picinnini’s La Cecchina for the Glenn Gould School at the RCM with the mutli-level permanent set on the Koerner Hall stage and Tim Albery’s setting for the U of T Opera School of Handel’s Imeneo along the full width of the back wall of the MacMillan stage with the audience sat on risers on the stage itself.

April also saw the return to Toronto of Garth Drabinksy with Sousatzka, a new musical on a mammoth scale of ambition and sheer size featuring an ensemble of 47 led by three Broadway stars, a multi-award-winning creative team, and a good number of Canadians. Hopes were high for going to Broadway in the fall. As it turned out, the show proved not to be ready yet for that leap.

Elsewhere in the city April saw the return of Soulpepper’s popular Spoon River. Sheridan’s Musical Theatre program continued to display the initiative which gave birth to the Toronto and Broadway sensation Come from Away, with the workshop production of a new musical by Neil Bartram and Brian Hill, Senza Luce; and Neema Bickersteth brought her one-woman amalgamation of song, dance and story, Century Song, to the new Crow’s Theatre space under the banner of Nightwood and Volcano.

Looking ahead: In May, and beyond, there is much to look forward to, from one-night-only events to long-running shows beginning their season at the big festivals.

May 1: One night only at the Atrium: Toronto Masque Theatre makes a specialty of bringing back to life rarities from the past as well as re-interpretations of well-known stories. On this evening they are presenting “The Ben Jonson Project: The Vision of Delight,” a staged reading of Ben Jonson’s Jacobean The Vision of Delight, reimagined and accompanied by an array of musical styles.

May 7: One night only at the Panasonic Theatre traditional musical theatre fans will be delighted to hear and see Stephen Schwartz (award-winning composer and lyricist of Wicked, Pippin, Godspell and more) live in conversation interspersed with performances of some of his greatest hits by Cynthia Dale, Chilina Kennedy and more.

Opening May 24: Opera as musical theatre: after a long development process with Tapestry Opera, Gervais and Murphy’s Oksana G., a daring new music theatre story of human trafficking gets a full production under the leadership of brilliant stage director Tom Diamond and music director Jordan de Souza.

April 18 to May 28 at the Tarragon Theatre, veteran musical theatre performer Tamara Bernier Evans directs the new Midsummer (a play with songs) described as “the hilarious story of a great lost weekend of ill-advised romance.”

And a final note: a heads-up for creators of new musical works! May 13 is the deadline to submit for The Aubrey and Marla Dan Fund for New Musicals. The Dan Fund is the first ever fund exclusively for the commissioning of new Canadian musical works. The fund offers financial and dramaturgical support to creators in developing new musicals. Ideas that exemplify the most potential will be awarded an $8,000 commission from the Musical Stage Company and a reading or workshop of a draft. Contact the Musical Stage Company for more information.

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals. 

MUSIC THEATRE covers a wide range of music types: from opera, operetta and musicals to non-traditional performance types where words and music are in some fashion equal partners in the drama.

These listings have been sorted alphabetically BY PRESENTER. Some information here is also included in our GTA and Beyond The GTA listings sections, but readers whose primary interest is MUSIC THEATRE should start their search with this section.

This section is still in development. We welcome your comments and suggestions at publisher@thewholenote.com.

Friends of Gravity. The Seven Deadly Sins. Music by Kurt Weill, text by Bertolt Brecht. Cabaret band and silent film projections. Stephanie Conn, vocals; Scott Gabriel, music director; Branko Džinović, accordion; Max Christie, clarinet; Scott Good, trombone. St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church, 509 Dundas St. E. 416-700-5914. $25/$20(st). Tickets available in advance or at door. Sep 25 and 26 8:00.

Lower Ossington Theatre. Always ABBA. An evening of ABBA’s best hits for all ages, recreated in the original style. The Lower Ossington Theatre. 100A Ossington Ave. 416-915-6747. $34.99; $159.96(table); Plus fees and taxes. Call ahead to book table. Runs Aug 14-Sep 20; Fri (7:30pm), Sat (4pm&7:30pm), Sun (4pm).

Lower Ossington Theatre. Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story. The story of the young man with glasses, and his brief musical career during the golden days of rock ‘n’ roll. 100A Ossington Ave.416-915-6747. $49.99-$69.99. Sep 24-Oct 25. Thurs-Sat 7:30pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 4pm.

Lower Ossington Theatre. Mary Poppins. Based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Disney Film. Lower Ossington Theatre Mainstage, 100A Ossington Ave. 416-915-6747. $49.99-$59.99. Until Sep 24. Thurs-Sat 7:30pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 4pm.

Mirvish Productions. Kinky Boots. The Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King Street West. 416-593-4142. From $39. Runs to November 8.

Mirvish Productions. Motown The Musical. Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King Street West. 416-593-4142. From $49. Runs to Sept 22 to Oct 25.

National Lampoon. Full House The Musical. Randolph Theatre, 736 Bathurst Street. 416-924-2243. From $29.95. Runs to Sept 6.

Opera by Request. Weber: Der Freischütz. In concert with piano accompaniment. Vanessa Lanch, soprano; Vania Chan, soprano; Ryan Harper, tenor; John Holland, baritone; Kieran Kane, baritone; and others; William Shookhoff, music director and pianist. College Street United Church, 452 College St. 416-455-2365. $20. Sep 18 7:30

Oshawa Opera. Suor Angelica by Puccini. In-concert version. Natalya Gennadi Matyusheva, Catharin Carew, Kaili Kinnon, Rachelle Kelly, Christina Campsall, and other soloists; Oshawa Opera Chorus; Lenard Whiting, organ; Kristine Dandavino, music director/piano. Kingsview United Church, 505 Adelaide Ave. E., Oshawa. 905-995-2847. $25; free(child). Sep 27 3:00

Shaw Festival. Sweet Charity. Book by Neil Simon; music by Cy Coleman; lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Festival Theatre. 10 Queen’s Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake. $33.90-$129.95. Runs to Oct 31.

Shoestring Opera. Mozart’s Magic Flute. A preschooler-friendly introduction to Mozart’s most famous opera. Kingsway-Lambton United Church, 85 The Kingsway, Etobicoke. 647-980-1729. $15; group rates available. Wheelchair accessible. Proceeds benefit Kingsway-Lambton United Church Special Music Fund and Shoestring Opera. Sep 26 11:00am and 2:00pm.

Stratford Festival. The Sound of Music. Rodgers and Hammerstein. Festival Theatre. 55 Queen St. Stratford. 1-800-567-1600. From $20. Runs to Nov 1.

Stratford Festival. CAROUSEL. Rodgers and Hammerstein. Avon Theatre. 99 Downie Street. Stratford. 1-800-567-1600. From $20. Runs to Nov 1. 

“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.

 

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