In May, two shows stood out for me for different reasons. Picnic in the Cemetery at Canadian Stage’s intimate upstairs Berkeley Street Theatre was an unusual theatrical concert with a whimsical heart and setting, combining often-sublime chamber music (by composer Njo Kong Kie) with simple props, a dancer, short films and onscreen poetic introductions to the various compositions. The beautiful playing by violinist Hong Iat U and cellist Nicholas Yee (supported by the composer on the piano) stood out as enigmatic conversations between their instruments, in much the same way that author Patrick O’Brian describes the often improvisatory, lyrical, shipboard violin and cello duets played by his famous characters Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

A more traditional musical theatre outing was the TSO’s concert presentation of Leonard Bernstein’s musical Candide This was a wonderful opportunity to hear and see the exquisite Tracy Dahl as Cunegonde, with her crystal clear tone, perfect technique, and delightful acting and star mezzo Judith Forst in great comedic form as the lively Old Lady.

Looking ahead to June, there is no shortage of music theatre on offer but the most striking cluster of offerings is concentrated under the umbrella of the Luminato Festival. I took the opportunity to meet artistic director Josephine Ridge to ask her about her approach and goals for the festival as she nears the beginning of her second season in Toronto.

Josephine Ridge 4 Photo by Katherine HollandWN: Looking at the upcoming Luminato program, what really struck me was how much music there is, but also, and this seems new this year, how politically and socially engaged the whole festival is. Is that because of the current atmosphere we are living in?

JR: It’s actually deeper than that; it’s about the way I view the role of a festival within its home city – that a festival needs to be relevant to the inhabitants of its city and therefore we need to engage with the ideas that are in the public realm of discussion. We need to think about what are the issues, the concerns and the enthusiasms and in other words really what’s in the ether, because if we’re not a festival that is distinctly about Toronto and of Toronto then it means that we are not contributing and adding to the cultural landscape in the way that I believe we should as a festival.

It’s something that I was very proud to have been able to do when I was at the Melbourne Festival.

And it takes time to explore and get to know a new city.

That’s part of the excitement of course, and I think, as in all things, with fresh eyes one has a different perspective, perhaps, as well – and that certainly for me adds to the interest in terms of the conversations that I have.

You have talked before about wanting to have conversations with as many of the arts organizations as possible in the city.

Yes, this is the other side of the engagement and connection that we were just talking about. This is really about understanding what Toronto artists and companies are doing now, and how can we add to that and perhaps together achieve something which each can’t on their own.

There is already growing excitement about that approach from some of the artists I’ve spoken to – at Tapestry Opera for example.

In fact, Tapestry is a good case in point. I quickly came to understand the work that Michael Mori and his company are doing, so the conversation with Michael about this year was around work that they have produced in the past that is really deserving of a wider audience and being revisited and seen in an international festival context. We very quickly got to Nicole Lizée’s multimedia piece Tables Turned. It’s one of the important components of a platform we have created this year called Illuminated Works, which is all about fulfilling one of Luminato’s founding briefs – which was to throw a spotlight on the creativity of Toronto and take Toronto arts to the world. We are bringing a large group of international and Canadian presenters and producers to come and look at a whole range of work, with a view to it being picked up and given national and international touring opportunities. We can’t work with everybody every year but we can make a start and really make sure that over time we engage as widely as we can.

Will you be continuing with these conversations, looking for companies you haven’t yet met, and new artists emerging onto the scene?

Definitely. One of the important roles we have is not only to present work that is complete but also to recognize the proper support that is required for the creative development process of new work, and so in the program this year we have four works that are works in progress.

We’re giving those artists an opportunity to put their work in front of an audience so they can feel how it sits with that audience and feed that learning into the way they then take the work forward for future development.

This will be exciting for audiences, too, to be in on the development process on the ground floor.

Yes, and I think the works we have chosen are far-ranging: Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life, Hell’s Fury, The Ward Cabaret, and Balaklava Blues.

Dr. Silver a Celebration of Life - Photo by Neil SilcoxAnd they’re all music theatre – as we define it at The WholeNote – where music is an integral element in telling a theatrical story. This year the mix is very interesting and even more experimental than last year. Do you see music theatre as always being an essential part of the Luminato recipe, particularly as it crosses borders and genres?

Well, I’m particularly interested in artists and their work where they are not working in art-form silos; and distinctions between the definitions of particular art forms now are so blurry. Also, music to me is really central so it’s not surprising that so many works that we are looking at are cross-genre. I also think that the ability that music has to speak to audiences who perhaps might not think of themselves as being a “theatre audience” or a “dance audience,” for example, is exciting.

How did you choose the music theatre pieces this season? Did you start with one that was a cornerstone, the Irish Swan Lake, for example, or did you begin with the underlying themes and ideas you wanted to engage with this season and go from there?

I think it’s partly that I am always drawn to music and so there is no one answer to that. I have a long relationship with Teaċ Daṁsa, Michael Dolan’s company (Swan Lake), and have seen a lot of Michael’s work over the years as a director and choreographer. He is, I think, a unique and important voice, and Toronto audiences and the artists working in Toronto should see the works that he is creating

The excerpts that I have seen online look wildly theatrical.

It’s a completely original reading of such a well-known work, and all the elements of the Swan Lake story are there, but of course it is completely transformed into this really poor community in Ireland. There are no kings and queens and princes here, and the music is original Irish music (with folk references) played live onstage. Somehow even with all of that transformation, the classic story is there, which to me is just magical.

And the Canadian pieces – how did you choose those, Dr. Silver for example?

In the case of Dr. Silver, A Celebration of Life I was invited by Mitchell Cushman of Outside the March, very soon after I arrived in Canada (the middle of 2016), to go to a day of workshops they were holding, and this was one of those works in a very raw form. I met and talked with Mitchell and then also with Mitchell Marcus of The Musical Stage Company, as it was absolutely evident to me that Britta and Anika Johnson are a real creative force. I was interested in not just the direction of that work but of whatever else they were doing, and wanted to signal that I would be interested in finding a way for Luminato to be part of that story to support those artists. Although Dr. Silver has its official presentation in September as a finished work, I asked if it would be useful for them to have an opportunity on the way through to put it in front of an audience, so that’s how that conversation went.

Hells Fury: The Hollywood Songbook [Tim Albery’s concept based on the life and songs of composer Hanns Eisler], on the other hand, came to us as an idea from Lawrence Cherney at Soundstreams. He said “We want to create this work and need a partner.” So, there are many ways in which these projects can come to life. You have to be in the room, seeing work, having the conversation for these outcomes to even occur.

And if artists are interested in having a conversation with you how should they approach you?

I try to go to see artists working at all scales and at all types of work, so people do tend to find me in foyers, but I can also be easily be contacted at Luminato.

The Ward Cabaret you mentioned is also a work in progress – can you tell me a bit more about it?

I think it’s a really important piece because it comes from the recent book The Ward from Coach House Books that deals with the importance of the Ward [an area bounded roughly by Queen and College, Yonge and University] and the cultural diversity of its original inhabitants as being the real basis of Toronto’s cultural diversity today. What David Buchbinder (the show’s originator) has done is have a musical response to that material, and I think it’s going to be really interesting and very rich.

Now that playwright Marjorie Chan and director Leah Cherniak are newly involved in the collaboration, is there any sense yet of how theatrical it is going to be?

What we have now is really a cabaret concert performance, but eventually it will be a fully staged theatrical experience. I can’t tell you when that will be but we are certainly there for the journey.

Before we finish, could you tell me a bit more about Riot, the other show you are bringing from Ireland? It sounds like a smorgasbord of different genres, including music theatre, all mixed together.

Riot is uplifting. It’s funny, energetic, has got real heart and soul, and deals with – going back to your first questions – issues and ideas. It covers quite a lot of really important territory of social politics, in particular, but does it in a way that is very entertaining and lightly done. I think you’ll find a lot of connection to Toronto audiences because of the territory it covers and because it is so entertaining.

Up Over It in 'Riot' - Photo by Conor Horgan for THISISPOPBABYAnd because of the contrast in style with everything else?

That’s why we are running it a bit longer – so it has a chance to bridge a lot of the other works that are taking place.

The whole festival is longer this year. Is there extra programming or are you spreading things out?

It’s more about pace, allowing there to be some air in between, so hopefully people can see more but also connect the various aspects of the festival. It’s also structural: with only two weekends you begin and you end; with three weekends now we have a beginning, middle and end, and we’re telling a story.

Luminato runs from June 6 to 24 at various venues around Toronto.

Follow our online blog for more previews and reviews of music theatre around Ontario this summer.

Quick Picks

June 1 to 10: Frame by Frame. A new collaboration between international theatrical innovator Robert Lepage with Canadian choreographer Guillaume Côté, celebrating and showcasing excerpts of Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren’s groundbreaking films. National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre, Toronto.

June 6, 7: Soundstreams finishes its 35th season with an exciting two-part music theatre program, the world premiere of James Rolfe’s I Think We Are Angels, with a libretto based on the poems of Else Lasker-Schüler, and a new theatrical version of David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion led by music director John Hess and stage director Jennifer Tarver. At Crows Theatre, 345 Carlaw, Toronto.

June 16: Tony Award-winning Scottish actor Alan Cumming (of The Good Wife and many other shows) comes to Massey Hall for one night only with his new cabaret show Legal Immigrant, built around stories and songs of his life and loves in his adopted homeland, the USA.

June 26: A rare chance to see Canadian stage and film star Christopher Plummer live at the TSO, in Christopher Plummer’s Symphonic Shakespeare, at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

July 13 to August 12: Rosalynde (or As You Like It). Driftwood Theatre places one of Shakespeare’s most musical comedies in Canada in 1918, with the songs given new musical settings to fit the period by music director and composer Tom Lillington. In parks around Ontario; see driftwoodtheatre.com/bards-bus-tour for details. 

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.

Steven Reineke leads Stephanie J. Block and the TSO in "On Broadway." Photo: Jag Gundu/TSOApril provided a rich abundance of music theatre in Toronto from the traditional to the wildly experimental, from new creations to double adaptations. Early in the month the Toronto Symphony Orchestra celebrated the classic musical with the superb pops concert “On Broadway,” under the skilled and energetic baton of Steven Reineke. On hand to sing the songs were the brilliant and brilliantly contrasting current Broadway stars, Canadian Ramin Karimloo (Phantom of the Opera, Les Mis) and Stephane J. Block (Falsettos, Wicked). These two stars had never worked together before and their personal styles could not be more different. Block, with a bigger, brasher belting style, practically channelled Barbra Streisand in a galvanizing Don’t Rain on My Parade from Funny Girl and Karimloo, with a much quieter, focused presence, though equally powerful, captured the audience entirely with an exquisite rendering of Old Man River to his own classical guitar accompaniment partnered with principal cello Joseph Johnson. It was fascinating to see these giant talents each hold the audience in the palms of their hands and to come closer and closer as stage partners through various solos and duets, culminating in what felt like an anthem for each: Being Alive from Company for him and Defying Gravity from Wicked for her, and with a beautifully nuanced Move On by the two together from Sunday in the Park with George. It was an evening that reminded us of the power of the best Broadway scores to move our hearts with stories told through words and music; particularly in the hands of interpreters with such a profound connection to the material, with each other, the orchestra and the audience.

Other music theatre works attempting to take possession of our minds and hearts this past month ranged from a lesbian cartoonist trying to figure out her past in order to move on, a man trying to deal with a recent tragedy and escape his grief, a poor accountant whose life is irrevocably changed by the acquisition of a new coat, and an American GI staying behind in Paris after WWII to indulge his love of painting.

All but one of these are adaptations of other source material. Adaptations are often difficult to pull off, having to match script and score to the source and meet or exceed the expectations of an audience perhaps familiar with the original material.

Fun Home, the 2015 Tony Award-winner for Best Musical, based on lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s acclaimed and bestselling autobiographical graphic novel, opened on April 17 at the CAA (formerly Panasonic) Theatre in a new production from the Musical Stage Company presented by Mirvish Productions. It connected so strongly with its first audiences that its run was immediately extended (currently to May 20). I wasn’t familiar with the graphic novel before seeing the show, but the adaptation feels flawless. The characters are real, complex people, immediately recognizable; the script by Lisa Kron rings true and the songs by Jeannine Tesori (with lyrics by Kron) feel like necessary moments of heightened emotion, the musical style with a 70s feeling to it helping to create that sensation. The all-Canadian cast is excellent, led by Laura Condlin, Sara Farb, and young Hannah Levinson as central character Alison Bechdel at three different ages. (You can read my full review online on
thewholenote.com).

An American in Paris, another 2015 Tony Award-winner, also made its Toronto debut in April with the North American touring company coming to the Princess of Wales Theatre for a six-week run. In a way this could be looked at as a double adaptation. While this is a new stage musical inspired by/adapted from the famous MGM musical of the same name that starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron (and won a special Academy Award for the innovative and brilliant 17-minute American in Paris ballet that took Kelly and Caron’s characters through a love story using panoramic sequence of Parisian painters), the film itself with a script by Alan J. Lerner, was built around earlier classic songs and works by George and Ira Gershwin.

In developing the new stage version, director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and book writer Craig Lucas have spoken in various interviews about how they wanted not to just “put the film on stage” but to create a new show with a deeper background. They wanted a more complex story, tied more closely to historical reality by setting it clearly in a Paris just beginning to recover from the ravages of occupation by the Germans. The first half of the show, I found, succeeds wonderfully in these goals. Paris slowly awakening from war and coming to life again becomes itself a character through the brilliant choreographed crowds who fill the stage from the top of the show, clearly signalling the style of the world we are about to enter. The characters we know and love from the movie are still there but slightly altered: Jerry Mulligan, the GI who has stayed after the war to paint, is here a slightly less confident character than in the movie, more uncertain in his talent, more affected by the war. Lise, Caron’s character, has become an aspiring ballet dancer, but still works in a perfume shop, still torn between Jerry and Henri Baurel. Henri is no longer an established musical hall star but a would-be performer, though still in love with Lise. Interestingly, Oscar Levant’s iconic cynical Adam has become the narrator and another would-be lover of Lise. Matthew Scott from the original Broadway company was so strong and likeable in this role that he stole the show from the other men.

While by intermission I felt won over by this new version of one of my favourite films, I found in contrast that the second half was a bit of a letdown, particularly in the iconic ballet sequence which here is very modern and abstract, and where Lise makes her professional debut and becomes a star. I found the choreography in this sequence dull and frustrating after the character and imagination elsewhere throughout the show, particularly in contrast to the movie, and not completely saved by the intense romantic pas de deux at its centre where Lise imagines that she is dancing with Jerry. I will say, though, that the audience around me did not seem to have the same reaction. It also seemed to me too easy and clichéd to make Lise a Jewish girl saved by Henri’s family when her parents were killed by the Germans, instead of her being, as she is in the film, the child of Resistance fighters. Still, with those caveats aside, this is a show worth seeing, particularly for its re-creation and re-imagination of post-war Paris.

Overcoat: The other big new music theatre production, half opera, half musical, this month was the world premiere production of The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring, a three-way co-production from Tapestry New Opera, Canadian Stage and the Vancouver Opera Company.

Highly anticipated as a new experimental exploration of Gogol’s famous short story by Morris Panych (the director and co-creator of the famous wordless physical theatre production of The Overcoat 20 years ago that repeatedly toured here and internationally), The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring is, as I wrote in The WholeNote last issue, also the first collaboration between Panych and acclaimed Canadian composer James Rolfe. When I spoke with Panych about the show before rehearsals began he talked about the scope of expectations that this new production was facing: people who had loved the original show so much and seen it many times told him they did not want to see this new version for fear that it would dilute that original experience. And yet the creative team were all so energized and excited by the possibilities of exploring the original source material again from new angles and with new artistic tools, that one couldn’t help but feel as though they couldn’t fail to bring something remarkably new to life.

The new Overcoat, with words and singers rather than purely physical performers, is definitely recognizable as a relative of the first production but also clearly something different. It realizes many of the goals of the creative team to explore more intellectual themes and ideas, and it explores the potential of melding purely physical theatre with new opera. To anchor the physicality, choreographed again by Wendy Gorling (co-creator of the original Overcoat), are two actors from that original company and while they stand out from the rest as they do not sing, they perform their function well of anchoring the audience’s perception of the physical world in the style of movement presented, as well as leading the way for the rest of the cast. The singers do a wonderful job with the choreography, in fact seeming to revel in the extra theatricality, particularly the brilliant Peter McGillivray, a standout as singer and actor in his leading contrasting roles of Head of the Department and the Tailor.

The design team has created a clearly evocative world, a slightly macabre, slightly Dickensian, silent movie-in-looks world, dark with colours for highlights, faces all painted white with black-rimmed highlighted eyes exaggerating every facial expression. The music is clean and spare, toeing the line between new opera and new music theatre, occasionally going into flights of fancy (as when the tailor takes his snuff) and finding eerie harmonies for the mad-girl chorus who haunt the hero like an invisible three fates waiting for him to fall, commenting on his actions and predicting his end.

What I did miss was the odd aria, or solo song, to give the characters a chance to connect more deeply with the audience. Both librettist/director and composer spoke to me about wanting to give primacy to the words and ideas rather than musical ornamentation. But I missed the connection that an aria or solo can create between the stage and the audience, particularly for the lead character Akakiy, embodied well by Geoffrey Sirett, a simple man obsessed with numbers to the exclusion of almost everything else in his life. Oblivious to the attraction his rather Brechtian landlady has for him (she gets to tell us a little bit about this) he follows his daily routine and does sing to us a bit about numbers but not at any length or to any great depth. If the creative team still tinker with their creation as it goes on the road and goes into the opera repertoire I hope they will consider adding a solo or two.

Musicals, in my view, need to have these moments – in Fun Home, currently onstage, for example, the most powerful moments are captured in solo songs where the leading characters, unable to hold their feelings in, turn to the audience and sing. Middle Alison in Changing My Major and Small Alison in Ring of Keys, for example, offer clear moments of discovery for both characters.

That being said, there are some other very interesting dramaturgical choices that work well in this Overcoat. Taking Akakiy’s original obsession with copying letters from the short story, turning it into an obsession with numbers and then throughout the libretto into combined themes of counting and measuring a man’s worth, for example. The biggest dramaturgical choice that departs from the short story is the framing of the stage version with madness. When Akakiy loses his overcoat to thieves here, he goes mad rather than just getting mad, and the mad girls and physical performers become the inmates of a mad house where Akakiy ends up, wearing another sort of jacket altogether.

While there is a definite neatness to this concept, it is a bit frustrating in that it loses the universality of the original symbolism of Akakiy dying and his ghost continuing to haunt the streets stealing coats from passersby. There is a haunting moment in the staging where it looks as though this will indeed happen, but then it is gone. These caveats aside, this Overcoat is a highly accomplished, highly theatrical night in the theatre, and I’m sure it will live on and develop further.

QUICK PICKS

To June 3: Fans of TV Series Downton Abbey will be delighted to see Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) as Miss Hannigan in Annie (run extended to June 3), presented by Mirvish at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.

To May 6: Former composer for La La La Human Steps, Canadian Njo Kong Kie brings his musical collage Picnic in the Cemetery to Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre.

Starting May 3: Grand Hotel begins at the Shaw Festival. Fans of the film starring Greta Garbo and John Barrymore may be curious to see this musical version.

May 4 to June 2: Soulpepper presents August Wilson’s classic 1920s musical Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring Alana Bridgewater and a strong Toronto cast.

May 24 to June 17: Grease Toronto presents Grease. Music, lyrics and book by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Winter Garden Theatre, 189 Yonge St. 

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.

The Toronto spring season continues to be a hotbed of music theatre creation and revival, from traditional works to many variations on cross-genre experimentation.

The National Ballet of Canada brought back one of the jewels in its crown with Nureyev’s The Sleeping Beauty. Over many years of watching ballet I had become disenchanted with the great Russian classics but when given the chance to see first, the dress rehearsal, and then the opening night of Sleeping Beauty in March, I found myself swept away by the company’s delighted ownership of Nureyev’s version of Petipa’s masterpiece and newly enchanted by the theatrical and dramatic variety in Tchaikovsky’s famous score. The dress rehearsal also featured a captivating last-minute pairing at the dress rehearsal of Jurgita Dronina and Harrison James as Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund for Act Three. On opening night Heather Ogden was an incandescent Princess Aurora, dancing as if without any thought of the technical demands of the rose adagio or grand pas de deux, for example (which she danced brilliantly). Ogden brought to life in every moment, with every gesture, the 16-year-old princess of Act One, the yearning dream princess of Act Two, and the newly mature, newly awakened princess of Act Three. Also outstanding was Tanya Howard as the Lilac Fairy, slim authority personified in her flowing lilac fairy dress, with echoes of her equally authoritative performance of Paulina in The Winter’s Tale last fall.

The Ballet’s spring season also brought to the Four Seasons Centre the mixed program Made in Canada featuring a fascinating piece by Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite: Emergence, to an original score by Owen Belton. While the first two pieces of the program were lyrical and beautiful, Emergence startled with its stark, spiky, modern, almost science fiction-style choreography and music. Exciting in its energy and unexpected dangerous quality of movement, this piece was atavistically disturbing and sometimes terrifying to watch; the dancers all in black seeming to be a cross between black swans and insects, an impression enhanced by a score made up of unusual sounds, most disturbingly what sounded like a horde of beetles’ mandibles clicking.

Betroffenheit - photo by Michael SlobodianPite, recognized internationally as an innovative choreographer with commissions around the world as well as for her own company Kidd Pivot, also returns to Toronto April 19 to 22 with Betroffenheit at Canadian Stage, her co-creation with playwright-performer Jonathan Young (of Vancouver’s Electric Theatre Company) originally co-commissioned by Canadian Stage and presented as part of the 2015 Panamania Festival. Inspired by the real tragic event of Young’s young teenage daughter and two cousins dying in a cabin fire and his own spiral into despair that followed, the show was first conceived as a one-man play but with the collaboration of Pite as director and then choreographer it developed into something much more. The show interweaves play text (mostly through voiceover) with dance in a way that allows the creators and performers to go beyond the literal into the metaphysical and imaginary to explore the ideas and emotions in great depth. It has been described as a “harrowing representation of trauma and suffering” but is also heralded by almost everyone who has seen it as phenomenally powerful and inventive, particularly in its combination of dance and theatre. Almost a signature piece for Canadian Stage as an example of this type of cross-genre collaborative creation, it is also a cousin to another show in the Canadian Stage season: The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring, which opens with previews on March 27. The world premiere of the new opera/musical version of Gogol’s short story by director and librettist Morris Panych with a score by James Rolfe and movement choreography by Wendy Gorling promises to be an exciting event, and particularly fascinating for anyone who saw Panych and Gorling’s original famously physical theatre “silent movie” style production of The Overcoat which wowed audiences here and around the world.

Also opening March 27 is the Toronto run of the touring production of An American in Paris, presented by Mirvish Productions at the Princess of Wales Theatre. A more traditional musical offering, the draw for me is to see how the newly expanded and darker book by Craig Lucas will work with Christopher Wheeldon’s Tony Award-winning choreography, and how both will compare to the beloved Gene Kelly film.

Mirvish Productions is also presenting another Tony Award-winning musical, the Musical Stage Company’s new production of Fun Home, coming to the intimate CAA (formerly Panasonic) Theatre April 13 to May 6; the first time that a local musical production has been part of the Off-Mirvish Program.

On a much smaller scale than the shows I have been talking about above, Fun Home tackles issues much bigger than the size of its cast in a show described as both heartbreaking and fiercely funny. Adapted from Alison Bechdel’s best-selling semi-autobiographical 2006 graphic novel, it tells the story of Alison, a 43 year-old lesbian cartoonist, struggling to untangle her complex relationship with her deceased father. Moving between past and present, and connecting directly with the audience, Alison relives an unusual childhood growing up in a funeral home, her sexual awakening, unanswerable questions about her father’s secret life and eventual suicide and the effect that has on both herself and her family.

Hannah Levinson in 'Fun Home' - photo by Adam RankinAdapted by Lisa Kron, and with a 70s-inflected score by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie), this production of Fun Home will be brought to life by the Musical Stage Company’s usual brilliant creative home team of director Robert McQueen, music director Reza Jacobs and choreographer Stephanie Graham. The dynamite cast includes Stratford stars Cynthia Dale and Evan Buliung as Alison’s parents Helen and Bruce Bechdel, with Laura Condlln as Alison at 43, the narrator who holds the show together; Hannah Levinson as Small Alison (age 10), and as Medium Alison (age 19, university student), Toronto native Sara Farb.

As Toronto audiences may remember, Farb was one of two young Janes in the musical Jane Eyre that had its world premiere at the Royal Alex back in 1996. In a 2015 interview for In the Greenroom, she talked about her thoughts a few years earlier of getting out of the theatre business because “what [she] offered was too astray from the norm [of] musical theatre” and yet over the last five years at Stratford and in Toronto, she has developed into a powerful presence, most notably recently as the powerful goth-like Mary Tudor in The Last Wife (Stratford and Toronto) and The Virgin Trials, and her enigmatically sardonic Bob Dylan in the Musical Stage Company’s most recent Uncovered concert: Dylan and Springsteen – a fascinating segué to exploring the role of Medium Alison, a character discovering and coming to celebrate that she is a lesbian, and the effect that has on her family. You can hear Farb singing one of the signature songs of Fun Home, “Changing My Major” on Youtube in a promotional video shot at Toronto’s Metro Reference Library.

As you will hear in this song, Jeanine Tesori’s score has that almost indescribable quality of sounding like real people singing – just that one step beyond talking – before soaring into melody, that can pull the audience immediately into the story. Interestingly, the story itself, centering on a daughter trying to come to terms with the death of her father and their earlier troubled relationship, irresistibly brings to mind Britta Johnson’s Life After which opened the Musical Stage Company’s season in September. Did they plan it that way?

Other echoes of the Musical Stage Company appear in the first previews of the Stratford Festival’s musicals this month. Dan Chameroy, who was so good as the motivational speaker father in Life After, shakes things up in the Tim Curry-associated starring role of Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Show at the Avon Theatre, and Daren A. Herbert, who was so charismatic and effective as Onegin in the new Canadian musical of the same name last spring, takes on the iconic Robert Preston role of Harold Hill in The Music Man at the Festival Theatre.

Breaking news this week as we prepare to go to print has it that the new musical Jukebox Hero, being created around songs from classic rock band Foreigner’s hit list, will follow up its debut performances this summer in Calgary and Edmonton with a Toronto engagement (of only five performances so far) in February 2019 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre under the Mirvish umbrella. Excitingly, the cast is all Canadian, featuring musical veterans Richard Clarkin and Jonathan Whittaker as the two fathers, and the creative team is top shelf, led by director Randy Johnson (A Night with Janis Joplin), choreographer Tracey Flye (Mirvish Productions, Ross Petty Productions), music director Mark Camilleri (Mirvish, Dancap) and writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (best known for their films The Commitments and Across the Universe, as well as their one previous stage musical Billy which starred Michael Crawford). Tickets go on sale on Ticketmaster on March 26.

QUICK PICKS

Ongoing: The wonderfully life-affirming Canadian musical Come From Away continues its run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, now extended to October 2018.

Apr 10 to 12: “On Broadway”: A rare chance to see Canadian (born in Iran but brought up in Brampton) Ramin Karimloo, star of Broadway and London’s West End and a brilliant Jean Valjean in the recent remount of Les Miserables in Toronto and New York, in a concert of Broadway favourites with Stephanie J. Block (Wicked) and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steven Reineke at Roy Thomson Hall.

Apr 21 and 22: “Broadway Reimagined.” Sarah Slean brings her unique Canadian pop sensibility to a program of Broadway classics with the Mike Janzen (jazz) Trio and the Niagara Symphony Orchestra.

Apr 26 to May 6: Picnic in the Cemetery, is a multimedia performance/concert presented by Canadian Stage and created by Toronto composer Njo Kong Kie with the Macau-based Folga Gaang Project. Described as a combination of the whimsical and the macabre, Picnic (which previously played at the Edinburgh Festival) was originally inspired in part by the composer having lived near the Mount Pleasant Cemetery. 

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.

Shortly after I wrote my February 2018 column I had the unexpected opportunity to see a show that at first I wouldn’t have categorized as belonging to music theatre but which, after seeing, I think fits this category as much as it fits any category at all. Brodsky/Baryshnikov offered the extraordinary experience of listening to the great dance artist Mikhail Baryshnikov speak the poetry of his friend and fellow Russian exile, Joseph Brodsky, intermittently breaking into poetic and achingly evocative moments of choreographed movement in reaction to and interpretation of a soundtrack consisting of profound and mostly darkly sorrowful poetry spoken in the recorded voice of his friend. Not a play, not a musical, there was no music at all except for the sonorous quality of the two male voices, mellow and alternately melancholic and passionate, speaking in the traditional Russian poetic cadence. A fascinating evening.

February continued with exciting variations on the music theatre theme with the latest edition of Tapestry Opera’s Tap:Ex (a series created to explore the future of opera, particularly through cross-disciplinary hybrids). Tap:Ex Forbidden, based on an idea of Iranian-born composer Afarin Mansouri, combined her mix of classical Persian music and opera with a libretto by Afro-Caribbean hip-hop artist Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, in the service of a story that featured a very strong and talented small cast and an unexpected use of Lucifer as an instigator of rightful rebellion. The show equates the biblical eating of the apple to not only the acquiring of knowledge but, through that knowledge, the freedom and strength to rebel against a wrongfully authoritarian regime and to rise up for what is right. This heady mix of genres (including rapping in Farsi) gave power to the expression of a Persia aching to find a new modern identity. Seeing many members of the Persian/Iranian community in the audience clearly moved by the experience only added to the power of the evening.

February also saw the homecoming to the Royal Alexandra Theatre of Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s heartwarming, hilarious, foot-stomping and inspiring Canadian musical Come From Away, with an almost entirely Canadian cast who astound with their talent and versatility. This innovative, deceptively simple yet complex musical – based on the true events of 9/11 when 38 planes carrying 7000 passengers were stranded for five days in Gander, Newfoundland – grabs at the heart while also making you laugh. So explosively positive was the opening week that the run was immediately extended another six weeks to October 21. (I reviewed the opening performance on our website and can’t wait to see the show again.)

March on, March on!

March looks to be equally full of musical highlights, the biggest of which is the world premiere at Canadian Stage’s Bluma Appel Theatre of The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring, with music by Canadian composer James Rolfe and libretto and direction by prolific theatre creator and director Morris Panych. (Please see the feature article elsewhere in this issue.) In terms of categories, this new Overcoat could be seen as part opera (it is sung through) but also as part musical, in terms of pace and drive, in both the words and the music, in the service both of the narrative and of breaking open the ideas at the heart of Gogol’s original short story

Fides KruckerAlso at Canadian Stage is another experimental work on a smaller scale: in this body (March 14 to 18), a new creation by acclaimed Canadian vocalist Fides Kruker and her ensemble, along with some of Canada’s top contemporary dancers, Laurence Lemieux, Heidi Strauss, and the luminous Peggy Baker who also choreographs. (Peggy Baker is very much on the Toronto scene these days having also just presented Map By Years with her own company at the Theatre Centre last month, a retrospective of her solo creations with a new solo created for her by Sarah Chase.) Using choreography and voice, in this body will explore “the wilderness of a woman’s heart” through a score made up of Canadian popular song by Joni Mitchell, Alanis Morissette, k.d. lang, Feist and more.

Meanwhile, over at Soulpepper, their extremely popular concert series turns to Paris in the 20s for A Moveable Feast, interweaving song and story to bring alive the world of post-WWI expats and European artists in the City of Light.

An American at the Princess

Paris is also at the heart of another big musical coming to Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre towards the end of the month: An American in Paris. The 2015 Tony Award winner and Broadway and London hit is finally coming to Toronto, starring McGee Maddox, a favourite of ballet fans as a beloved former principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada.

An American in Paris touring company The 1951 film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron has always been one of my favourites (as it is of many people) so I am curious to see how I will feel about this new stage version. Although inspired by the film and its beloved Gershwin score, it has also gone beyond those templates to try and create a darker or more realistic version of a Paris recovering from the ravages of occupation and privation during WWII.

So why try to recreate this beloved movie onstage when you can watch it any time? The answer, it seems, was that the success of the 1990s Gershwin musical Crazy for You (developed by Mike Okrent from the original Girl Crazy) prompted the Gershwin estate to inquire into making a stage musical out of An American in Paris as well. According to broadway.com, they approached producers Stuart Oken and Van Kaplan with this idea but it took years to find the right path and the right creative team. Eventually Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, Light in the Piazza) came on board to write the book, and ballet dancer and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (who had choreographed An American in Paris as a ballet for the New York City Ballet in 2005) came on board as director and choreographer.

What Lucas and Wheeldon have brought to the original story of Jerry, an American G.I. painter staying on in Paris after the war and falling in love with Lise, a sweet but spunky Parisian girl, is the added dimension of a Paris more affected by the war, and characters also with a darker or sadder side. There are hints of this in the original movie (Lise’s parents worked for the resistance, Jerry fought through and survived the war and doesn’t want to return to the States), but here they are given more emphasis. Oscar Levant’s role of Adam (Jerry’s concert pianist friend in the film) has also been given more depth, and Lise has been made an aspiring ballet dancer, so that, as Christopher Wheeldon has said, the new version plays on two fronts: “the friendship and the bonding and the love story,” but also the “creation of art and the struggle to create art.”

Adaptation is a difficult and fascinating art whatever the original material; while this adaptation of a beloved classic film musical has been lauded and given many awards, it will be interesting to see for ourselves how well it works for Toronto audiences. I am curious about the added darkness (Leslie Caron herself suffered through the occupation of Paris so it must have informed her original performance despite how Hollywood-happy the movie is). I’m curious as well about the choreography and how well it will stand up to Gene Kelly’s original dances for the film (for which he received an honorary Academy Award). When something is that iconic and entrenched in people’s memories, how do you match it?

McGee Maddox as Jerry in An American in ParisFinding the right triple threat performers for the two main leads has reportedly been a difficult and time-consuming process, but if the choice of McGee Maddox as Jerry is any indication, we’re in luck. Already very familiar with Wheeldon’s choreography, Maddox made a considerable impact as Leontes, the role of the jealous king in Wheeldon’s ballet version of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (a ballet created after An American in Paris, but seen in Toronto both in 2016 and this past fall).

Altogether, March is shaping up to be an exciting month for music theatre in the city.

News has just broken as I write this that a year from now Dear Evan Hansen, the musical by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) and Steven Levenson (book) which won the Tony award for best musical in 2017, will have its first international production beginning in Toronto in March 2019, in partnership with David Mirvish. Another good opportunity for Canadian music theatre performers, and exciting for music theatre fans.

QUICK PICKS

Mar 8 to 18: Rudolph Nureyev’s version of the classic Petipa ballet Sleeping Beauty, to Tchaikovsky’s beloved score, features his famous introspective solos for the prince, as well as the classic rose adagio for Princess Aurora and the fabulous fun of the wicked fairy Carabosse. National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

Mar 14 to 25: Gobsmacked at the newly renamed CAA Theatre (formerly the Panasonic) sounds intriguing as it promises an evening of interwoven stories told solely through a cappella singing from “traditional street corner harmonies to cutting-edge, multi-track live looping.”

Mar 16 to 17: newly rebranded Toronto Musical Concerts (TMC), a professional not-for-profit company with a mandate to provide educational and community outreach through the performing arts, presents a staged reading of Sondheim’s classic Company at Eastminster United Church (310 Danforth Ave.) to benefit The Canadian Safe School Network (647-298-9338).

Mar 16 to 25: On the community music theatre front, the North Toronto Players present Lear Incorporated, their own new “operetta meets musical comedy” version of Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, featuring music by Arthur Sullivan, Bizet and others.

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.

The winter music theatre season is off to a great start with Tarragon Theatre’s exhilarating experimental rock-‘n’-roll-scored Hamlet showcasing some of the city’s most versatile theatre and music performers led by a sympathetic and passionate Noah Reid as Hamlet. The score itself, under the guiding hand of music director Thomas Ryder Payne – is this a first? – is composed and arranged by the ensemble, and played by them, in varying combinations, in between acting their Shakespeare roles.

On the more traditional musical theatre side, Podium Concert Productions gave us a chance to see a concert staging of Maury Yeston’s Nine (the Tony Award-winning musical based on Fellini’s famous autobiographical film 8 1/2) starring Stratford veteran, triple threat Juan Chioran, at Trinity St Paul’s Centre. I have to say, this is not one of my favourite musicals as I find the book and some of the songs weak, but it can be a great showcase for a talented cast and that was the case here. Surrounding Chioran in the central role of Guido Contini, world-famous film director, were some of the country’s best female musical theatre performers in the other leading roles. Tracy Michailidis, who was so strong in Britta Johnson’s Life After last fall, again brought her exquisite subtlety of emotion to the important underpinning role of Contini’s wife Luisa. Against this strong centre those in the more eccentric or extravagant roles could let rip, notably Kira Guloien as Guido’s mistress Carla, stunning in a slinky green dress, singing and acting seductively just over-the-top enough to satisfy; Rebecca Poff as Liliane La Feur, very demanding, deliciously dramatic and very French as Guido’s film producer; and Alexis Gordon, in contrast to the last two, projecting a yearning sweetness and reluctant strength as Guido’s muse Claudia Nardi. The only real drawback to the evening was the very uneven sound, with quieter lyrics sometimes hard to hear from the balcony over the volume of the orchestra onstage. Perhaps another venue with a different or more elaborate sound system would be better for projects like this as opposed to TSP’s, which is designed for its usual – less wired – tenants Tafelmusik and the Toronto Consort.

At the Mirvish theatres, alongside large-scale traditional and rock musicals, a growing importance and presence of musical scoring for otherwise straight theatre productions could be seen. This year already, two in particular stood out for me.

North by Northwest (adapted by Carolyn Burns and directed by Simon Phillips) used much of Bernard Herrmann’s original film score in the soundscape created by composer Ian MacDonald as an essential tool to pull the audience into the – admittedly rather odd and rather tongue-in-cheek – experience of seeing this famous Hitchock thriller recreated live onstage before our eyes.

In Marianne Elliott’s deservedly award-winning production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (adapted by Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon’s acclaimed novel) the potentially overwhelming technological ingenuity of the set and effects was balanced by a constantly present sympathetic musical score by Adrian Sutton to project the very simple heartfelt and very human story at the centre.

Looking ahead, coming up in the current Mirvish season is a musical I am dying to see as, like many others in the city, I couldn’t get a ticket during its first run back in the fall of 2016 since it sold out much too quickly, though I have since listened to the songs and loved them.

Come From Away, famously based on the true story of the tiny community of Gander, Newfoundland, that took in the stranded passengers of 38 planes forced to land there on the day of 9/11, was a runaway hit in 2016 at the Royal Alex and has since triumphed on Broadway to the tune of seven Tony nominations (winning Best Direction of a Musical for director Christopher Ashley) and many other Best Musical awards. This month it returns to the Royal Alex with a new all-Canadian cast while the original production continues in an open-ended run on Broadway.

Eliza Jane Scott in Come From Away - Canadian cast 2018. Photo by Matthew Murphy.Unlike The Drowsy Chaperone, another Canadian hit that triumphed on Broadway in 2006, Come From Away did not start at the Fringe but from a suggestion by Michael Rubinoff of Sheridan College’s Music Theatre Program to husband and wife co-creators Irene Sankoff and David Hein in 2010. That suggestion did follow, however, the great success at the Toronto Fringe in 2009 of their first musical My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding and likely was inspired by that musical’s folk-music inspired score and staging style that included talking directly to the audience; two characteristics also of Come From Away.

With lucky timing and a Canada Council grant, Hein and Sankoff were able to go to Gander in September 2011 when not only the residents would be there to be interviewed, but also many, if not all, the “come from aways” – the passengers who had been unexpected guests on that day in 2001 – were visiting to commemorate the tenth anniversary of their meeting.

The show grew from the stories Sankoff and Hein heard and the people they met. It then began a five-year development process with workshops and performances at Sheridan College’s Canadian Music Theatre Project followed by further development south of the border that led to its 2015 debut as a full-fledged production directed by Christopher Ashley at La Jolla Playhouse in California and the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Pre-Broadway runs followed in Washington and here in Toronto before the Broadway opening on March 12, 2017. All along the journey Come From Away garnered praise and followers and awards including many Best Musical nods, and even a Twitter shout-out from Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda. Now a North American touring company is being put together, the original cast album (recorded in Toronto) has been nominated for a Grammy and a feature film is being made, written by the show’s creators.

As I write this column the new Canadian company of Come From Away is in Winnipeg performing a sold-out run at the Manitoba Theatre Centre until February 3 before returning to Toronto to prepare for the run here.

Leading up to the second first-night at the Royal Alex on February 13, I wanted to touch base with Irene Sankoff and David Hein to ask a few questions about this new stage of their incredible journey.

WN: How does it feel to be coming home after the huge success you have had with the show on Broadway, particularly when the show had it’s first beginnings here at Sheridan College and then the sold-out run at the Royal Alex last year?

IS: It’s practically unbelievable. When we started at Sheridan – and even at the Royal Alex – there’s no way we could have had any idea how far this would go. We originally hoped it might play in Canadian high schools because it had historical content and many characters, and now to have it playing in two countries every night, it’s beyond our wildest dreams – but it is such a testament to the power of the story that we’re telling. That’s what we fell in love with in the first place and it’s thrilling to see so many others feel the same way.

DH: As a kid who grew up on Canadian folk music, there’s something really exciting about seeing this story and these traditional instruments brought back and celebrated by a Canadian cast – especially in the town where we were first started. It means the world to share it with the community that supported us while we were obsessed with telling this story and following every opportunity that came our way.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Photo by Sankoff and Hein.WN: I understand you have an all-Canadian cast for this remount, which is exciting. Did you find that you looked for different qualities – or did you discover different casting possibilities in the process this time around?

DH: Many of these performers we’ve either worked with before or have admired their work – some were new to us. It’s such a joy watching them create and invent it again. Chris Ashley, our director, really let the cast work through it organically.

IS: When we first cast the show, we all agreed that we weren’t looking for dopplegangers of the real people – and when we cast it in Canada again, we weren’t looking for copies of the Broadway cast. What’s so exciting, within this intricately detailed and blocked-out show, is how much interpretation each actor can bring. That, and apparently their Newfoundland accents are a little better.

WN: Is there anything else new or different in the show compared to the original production that we can expect? I understand that there is at least one new song.

IS: There is! As we were leaving the Royal Alex, we recorded the cast album in the last week. (I think it’s the only Grammy-nominated Original Broadway Cast Album recorded in Canada.) Chris had been asking us for another song for one of the characters since La Jolla Playhouse two years earlier, but we didn’t feel like we had a real way in to that character until a couple weeks prior to recording when we spent an afternoon with her and her family. Suddenly this new song appeared, about a mother being far away from her son. It was recorded for the album before it was ever put in front of an audience, which was risky.

DH: And yet now – we can’t imagine the show without it! It feels like we’ve made a million tiny changes, right up to opening night – but in so many ways it’s the same true stories which made us laugh and cry and cheer out, in Newfoundland – and it’s so wonderful to return to celebrate everything that’s happened on this crazy journey.

Performances of Come From Away begin at the Royal Alexandra Theatre on February 13.

QUICK PICKS

Feb 1 to 11: Richard Rose’s exhilarating rock-‘n’-roll-scored Hamlet continues at Tarragon Theatre.

Feb 1 to 4: St Anne’s Music and Dramatic Society presents the wonderful and too rarely seen Gilbert & Sulivan Ruddigore.

Feb 4 to 25: Coal Mine Theatre presents Rumours, by Fleetwood Mac, not a musical but a recreation in concert of the well-known and beloved Fleetwood Mac album by a chosen group of Toronto musicians.

Feb 9 to 22: Soulpepper continues its hybrid concert/storytelling series with a spotlight on the Roaring 20s with Prohibition, the Concert, created by Richard Ouzounian, Gregory Prest and Mike Ross.

Feb 15: Opera Atelier recreates the concert they performed in the Royal Chapel of the Palace of Versailles last May. Transforming the concert into a moving dance/music theatre hybrid event is the inclusion and integration of the lyrical and moving new contemporary dance piece choreographed and danced by Tyler Gledhill to an evocative solo violin score composed and played by Edwin Huizinga. One Night Only.

Feb 22-24: Canadian Stage continues its showcase of original and groundbreaking music makers with Musica Nuda featuring vocalist Petra Magoni and double-bassist Ferruccio Spinetti. Not a musical but apparently dramatic and deconstructing performance.

Feb 26: “How to Succeed in Musical Theatre Business Without Really Trying,” hosted by the The Musical Stage Company. This one-day event will be held at the Al Green Theatre in Toronto and is free of charge for Canadian musical theatre writers.

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.

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