November is almost over and two shows stood out for me recently: The Musical Stage Company’s Uncovered: Dylan & Springsteen with its brilliant storytelling through song, and the wild and wacky low-budget silliness of Christopher Bond’s Evil Dead, the Musical – an incredibly clever tribute to and parody of musicals, low-budget horror movies and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise in particular. (Good news is that the latter show’s run has just been extended to January 7.)

Looking ahead to December there is a wealth of music theatre on offer. With the holiday season approaching, there are many family-oriented shows, including at least three versions of A Christmas Carol in which music is integral to the story and production. Ross Petty Productions gives us its usual anarchic take on a classic through the prism of the traditional English panto. At the Grand Theatre in London, new artistic director Dennis Garnhum is introducing himself to audiences through his own acclaimed version of Dickens’ classic, described as “brimming with music, dance, and ... all of your favourite carols.” And the Shaw Festival is joining the fray, with what I believe is their first Christmas season, in a production adapted and directed by new artistic director Tim Carroll with music direction by Paul Sportelli, movement and puppetry by Alexis Milligan, and as Scrooge, Michael Therriault, star of last season’s Me and My Girl.

The Tale of a Town

In and among Toronto’s rich smorgasbord of music theatre offerings to choose from, many of them not tied specifically to the season, two in particular (one in December, one in January) caught my eye because of their unusual – in different ways – weaving of music with text-based elements.

The second of the two, chronologically, is the Tarragon Theatre’s rock-and-roll Hamlet commencing January 2. (You can read my interview with director Richard Rose elsewhere in the issue.)

Lisa Marie DiLiberto and Charles Ketchabaw, with their Storymobile on PEI, July 2013 - Courtesy of Victory PlayhouseThe other is Fixt Point’s production of The Tale of a Town, the creation of husband-and-wife duo Charles Ketchabaw and Lisa Marie DiLiberto which returns to its starting place at Theatre Passe Muraille, December 14 to 17. Since the show’s beginnings, Ketchabaw and DiLiberto have spent three years touring the country in their Storymobile (recording studio on wheels) gathering the stories and songs of communities from the Arctic to the East Coast and creating local performance installations. They also built a national story map that not only forms part of each local show but remains in place in each community, as well as online and as a ten-part series on TVO – a kind of national story archive.

I spoke with DiLiberto as well as with the show’s current music director, Sophia Perlman, to find out some more details of the musical side of this project. What makes it “a musical”? was our starting point, and here is the essence of the conversation that followed:

DiLiberto: I wouldn’t call it a musical per se, but music is an essential part of the process and the show, which features songs and audio and performance moments which are underscored live.

Perlman: You’re right. It’s not a musical, entirely. I am coming at this production from an early background in opera and music theatre, but with the last decade or so of my career being rooted mostly in jazz, blues and improvised music. Part of what I love about this piece is the process that has gone into preparing each show, and the insight that each member of the team brings to the table in terms of how music can help shape the story.

DiLiberto: For me, this is a real homecoming. We began this project at Theatre Passe Muraille, and have since toured to every province and territory in Canada gathering stories. To return back home to this theatre feels like the project is coming full circle. The music is such a huge part of the show. It reveals the essence of where we are, how we feel throughout the journey of the show. It lifts everything up into a heightened space – like in a musical – but in the case of this show it lifts up the audio, the verbatim performances, and helps us get from place to place. I’m so excited to share this epic story here in Toronto where it all began, partly because of how far it has travelled in the meantime. This production is a culmination of several years of touring, story gathering and local installation performances. During the process, we worked with these archives and adapted a lot of the score from the ideas and music created by the musicians who collaborated on these performances locally.

Perlman: And for me, personally, Queen West was one of the first communities that The Tale of a Town gathered stories from, and several places (like the coffee shop I used to go to in Parkdale and the Cameron House) are featured in the story. I lived in Toronto’s downtown most of my life – and only left a few years ago. … After the amazing adventure I’ve had on the first part of this season’s tour, it feels especially wonderful to have the chance to bring this story so close to home.

The WholeNote: So the version of the show we will see at Passe Muraille is still in development?

Perlman: We created a score that was an overall shape for the piece back in August and September. Lisa Marie [DiLiberto] is an actor, performer and musician, and there are songs that are sung by her and guest artists. She also plays cello and guitar! Charles Ketchabaw has a background in radio and audio tech and sometimes in terms of live music my role feels a bit more like leading a silent movie orchestra! But part of what drew me to this piece, creatively, was the fact that while the score has been “set” since August, the time we took in the rehearsal room to understand those choices has meant that everywhere we go the score can be adapted to fit different instrumentation, special guests or new local content.

DiLiberto: Each place we go there will be a new band, featured local guests and some kind of a choir ... Perlman: An amazing ad-hoc of musical collaborators and volunteers, you might say … And that becomes part of the story.

After the Toronto run, The Tale of a Town will hit the road again in January for dates in St. Catharines, Burlington, Milton and Kingston. See their website (thetaleofatown.com) for details or call 416-504-7529.

QUICK PICKS

To Dec 31: YPT’s streamlined production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which started November 6, is aimed particularly at families and younger children and features a young, diverse cast including Celine Tsai, one of The Musical Stage Company’s 2017 Banks Prize winners, as Belle.

Nov 23 to Dec 2: Two productions of the operetta Candide have popped up at the same time. Talk is Free Theatre present theirs at the Mady Centre for the Performing Arts in Barrie. Dec 28, 30, 31 and Jan 5, 6, 7, Toronto Operetta Theatre presents their take on the Bernstein/Sondheim classic at the Jane Mallett Theatre. Will the Barrie version have a more “musical theatre” approach?

Nov 28 to Dec 2: Randolph Academy presents the rarely seen musical Moll, with music and lyrics by Canadian composer Leslie Arden and book by Arden and Cathy Elliott, at the Annex Theatre. This is must-see for fans of Arden and Elliott.

Nov 30 to Dec 23: For fans of the comedy side of musical comedy, Theatre Orangeville presents a new Christmas musical, The Last Christmas Turkey, with book by Dan Needles, creator of the Wingfield plays, and music and lyrics by Clive VanderBurgh.

Dec 9 to Jan 21: For fans of the large-scale musical and for families over the holidays, Mirvish Productions offers a musical version of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax – music and lyrics by Charlie Fink, adapted for the stage by David Greig – at the Royal Alex; while Dec 12 to Jan 7, also from Mirvish, Million Dollar Quartet (which always seems to be playing somewhere) moves into the Panasonic Theatre.

Jan 12 and 13: There are only two days to catch triple-threat and Stratford star Juan Chioran, starring in Podium Concert Productions’ concert version of Nine, the Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit musical based on Fellini’s film 8 ½, at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

Feb 4 to 25: Coal Mine Theatre, known for its riveting and dark-edged theatre productions, moves into musical territory with Rumours By Fleetwood Mac: A Coal Mine Concert. It will be interesting to see where this falls on the music theatre spectrum, particularly because artistic director Ted Dykstra is also well known for his accomplished work on musicals as both performer and director.

And more: for a more comprehensive overview of musical theatre listings over December and January, visit our music theatre listings on page 63 in this issue.

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 heart of musical theatre in any time period is storytelling through the combination of words and music, where the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts; and when the right creative team and performers come together the results can be uniquely satisfying.

October’s musical theatre season started strongly with Britta Johnson’s Life After at Canadian Stage debuting to rave reviews, sold-out houses and an extended run (so far to October 29). Audiences were bowled over with the sophistication of the music, the humanity and wit of the book, and the potential of many more new musicals to come from such a talent. An unexpectedly welcome addition to the summer and fall was the classic Euripides drama The Bakkhai (in the recent Anne Carson adapation) at the Stratford Festival, in which director Jillian Keiley made the radical and fascinating decision to have the chorus sing rather than speak and chose Vancouver composer Veda Hille (of the recent Onegin and King Arthur) to create their sound, a sultry, disturbing folk-like music. Back in Toronto, Red Sky Performance continued to assert their strength of vision with Adizokan (a collaboration with the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall) that will continue with a remounting of Backbone at Canadian Stage Berkeley Street November 2 to 12.

As October ends and November begins there is even more of a wide range of music theatre offerings to choose from. Personally, I have been immersed in rehearsals for Opera Atelier’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (October 26 to November 4 at the Elgin Theatre) which, in Marshall Pynkoski’s exquisitely detailed commedia dell’arte-inspired period staging, pulls those watching as if through a window into the 18th century, where words, music and movement are inextricably intertwined to serve the storytelling, obliterating the fourth wall and delighting in sharing the space with the audience.

Jake Epstein performing Only the Good Die Young in Uncovered: Elton John & Billy Joel - Photo by Joanna AkyolThe Musical Stage Company’s Uncovered concert series goes to the root of the storytelling concept, deconstructing and reconstructing the songs of popular singer-songwriters to uncover and share the stories at the heart of the songs. Artistic director Mitchell Marcus works side by side with music director Reza Jacobs and the individual performers, experimenting and exploring the material to create new uniquely theatrical arrangements that clarify and heighten the stories they discover.

November 14 to 16 they present “Uncovered: Dylan & Springsteen” at Koerner Hall with an exciting cast of leading musical theatre performers featuring Jake Epstein as Bruce Springsteen and Sara Farb as Bob Dylan.

Wanting to know more details, I approached Mitchell Marcus about how the series started and his ongoing collaboration with music director Jacobs.

Here is our conversation:

WN:What was your initial impetus or inspiration to create the concert series?

MM: The first Uncovered (in 2007) explored the musical catalogue of The Beatles. We both loved The Beatles and loved musical theatre, and wondered how the songs could be interpreted with a group of singing actors. It turned out to be revelatory as audiences started to hear the stories contained in these iconic songs in a way that they hadn’t previously. The combination of a great actor and an examination of the material from the perspective of character and narrative became something we were fiercely passionate about.

Uncovered seems to have become a cornerstone of your season. Is there a connection between your choice of singer-songwriters to feature with the mainstage show(s) that you are presenting in the season or is there instead (or as well) an arc of experimentation in the choices from year to year? How do you choose which songwriters to feature?

There is no specific connection between the Uncovered concert selections and the mainstage shows, except for the hope of always presenting exciting work of the highest quality. The choice of songwriter is a strange combination of intuition and zeitgeist. Sometimes it’s an artist that one of us loves and has been waiting to tackle. Sometimes it’s a circumstance like the death of David Bowie last year which prioritized Bowie/Queen over Dylan/Springsteen (which we had [already] been debating). I think we also try to ensure that the concert doesn’t stay too stagnant from one year to another, which has frequently resulted in alternating between rock/pop and folk music.

Has the shape of the show or your approach to the material changed since the series began?

When we first started, the concert was thrown together much more quickly, so what was onstage was really the version of the song that the artist wanted to try out. Since then, we spend a lot more time in rehearsal and really try to shape the overall evening into something whole rather than feeling like a cabaret. On the musical side, this has meant a more rigorous dramaturgical process of diving into the lyrics of the songs and making clear decisions around whose story we are telling and what story is being told. This becomes the foundation from which all musical decisions are made and the lyrics of the songwriter serve as our guide. Dramatically, we also started integrating text into the concert to serve as a bridge between numbers. We exclusively use quotes from the songwriters we are featuring and it has been a very effective way to capture their spirit alongside their music.

Could you tell us about your decision to sometimes cast female performers as male singer-songwriters, for example, Maev Beaty as David Bowie last year, and this year, Sara Farb as Bob Dylan? 

Ultimately we want to pay tribute to the spirit of the artists and share their words and music with an audience, without – in any way – trying to emulate or impersonate them. As such, the key criteria – whether it’s for delivering text from the songwriter, or singing their songs – is that the artist capture their spirit and intention, both of which transcend gender or age!

There also seems to be a core group of performers who return to take part. Is that just by chance or because they have become part of an Uncovered rep company, so to speak?

Over time we have realized that being a successful Uncovered performer is harder than it looks! Koerner Hall is spectacular, but its acoustics are so good that any imperfections are amplified tenfold. So we need fabulous singers who are also really, really good actors and who collaborate very well in the rehearsal process, since we start with a blank slate and build the arrangements together. We also need a very diverse group of performers so that we can tackle a broad spectrum of songs and styles.

So we try to find the balance between introducing new artists, showcasing returning artists who weren’t in the show the previous year, and bringing back some of the artists from the year prior. Each artist who has ever worked on Uncovered has brought something so unique and special to it. So it’s also a case of just trying to find the group who are interesting as a unit and also right for that particular songwriter.

Do either or both of you find that working regularly on the Uncovered series together has changed the way you work together, or with other collaborators, on other projects?

It has certainly built a very meaningful friendship for the two of us, and a shorthand which I think comes in handy on other shows that we do together. It’s also led to a lot of lessons when it comes to developing our new musicals. Looking at good songwriting from the perspective of narrative arc has come in handy when looking at new musical theatre songs.

Do you see the Uncovered series leading in turn to further experimentation with popular music, perhaps extending to exploring staging – or do you see it staying at the simpler level of song – words and music presented/sung live to the audience with the revelations in the new musical arrangements?

I think Uncovered is meant to stay simple in its concert format, with an emphasis on teasing out stories while just focusing on the words of the songwriter. But I think it has illuminated the power of pop music and so who knows what is possible as we continue to develop new musicals and new musical projects. We wouldn’t want to create a Mamma Mia per se, but I think it’s a very interesting exploration to examine how else pop music can be used to create contemporary and important musical works.

Elsewhere

This month there is a wide range of music theatre to choose from. Music is the medium that transforms Shakespeare’s romance of forgiveness The Winter’s Tale into one of the most effective recent story ballets, through the choreography of Christopher Wheeldon combined with the score of Joby Talbot (the same team who brought us the popular Alice in Wonderland ballet). Winter’s Tale returns to the National Ballet of Canada November 10 to 19, only two years after its debut, because of its great initial success.

On the opposite side of the spectrum the record-breaking Canadian Evil Dead the Musical returns to Toronto yet again (to the Randolph Theatre November 9 to 19), proving that a cult classic musical version of a horror movie can have, perhaps, even greater staying power than the movie itself. Tickets are already selling quickly but at the time of writing there is still room in the “Splatter Zone” for the most ardent fans.

QUICK PICKS

Nov 6 to Dec 31:Young People’s Theatre presents a streamlined (85-minute) Beauty and the Beast, giving fans of one of Disney’s best musicals the chance to catch their favourite story live.

Nov 10 to 12/16 to 18: Word has just come in about another new Canadian musical, Riding Off In All Directions . . . . the telling of lies, about the relationship between Mazo de la Roche and Stephen Leacock at Mississauga’s Maja Prentice Theatre. It will be directed by the well-known stage and screen star Colin Fox, who also plays the part of Leacock. The cast includes Bó Bardós as de la Roche; James McLean as Timothy Findley, and Marion Samuel-Stevens as de la Roche’s cousin and lifelong companion, Caroline Clement.

For more information—call 529-846-2552 or go online to: bit.ly/TellingLies.

Nov 11 to Dec 3, at Factory Theatre: Trace is a one-man show that follows three generations of mothers and sons from occupied Japan to 21st-century Canada combining virtuoso original piano compositions with lyrical text.

Nov 20 to Dec 8: At Crow’s Theatre (345 Carlaw) rock ’n’ roll takes centre stage in the world premiere of a new rock fable, A&R Angels, by Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene, directed by Chris Abraham.

Nov 10 to 25, at Hart House Theatre, the first of two musical offerings: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Nov 29 to Dec 1: Also at Hart House Theatre, the now-classic Canadian musical inspired by the old Astaire-Rogers films, The Drowsy Chaperone, arrives in a production by the Victoria College Musical Society.

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 fall theatre season in Toronto is usually overshadowed by TIFF, so most seasons launch after the end of that festival. One company that did start during the film festival in mid-September was Red Sky Performance, launching their 2017/18 slate of shows with the magical Miigis transforming the military colonial setting of Fort York into a site of myth and reconciliation. Red Sky is all over the city this year, it seems (as well as touring internationally), and, as such, is a perfect exemplar of two themes emerging from season announcements: the increased presence of Indigenous artists and companies on the Toronto scene on their own and in collaboration with other companies; and collaboration itself, which can be seen across the board in the arts scene.

On October 7, Red Sky partners with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to present, as part of Canada 150, the world premiere of Adizokan, a new genre-bending creation that explores an image-rich experience of Indigenous dance, video, music, electroacoustic and orchestral music. Next they collaborate with Canadian Stage to present the Toronto debut of Backbone (November 2 to 12), a cutting edge Indigenous dance creation noted for its masculine ferocity, inspired by the spine of the continents (originally co-commissioned with the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity).

Canadian Stage

BackboneCollaboration is at the heart of the Canadian Stage season, a theme chosen to celebrate their 35th year and featuring a plethora of genre-bending creations from around the country, most involving music, and many choreographed movement, as integral ingredients. Their first production (before Backbone), as previewed in our September issue, is a collaboration with the Musical Stage Company and Yonge Street Theatricals: Life After, a newly expanded and developed version of the Toronto Fringe Festival musical hit by Britta Johnson, directed by Robert McQueen. Opening on September 29 and running until October 22, Life After is already generating a lot of buzz. Along with theatrical productions at the Bluma Appel and Berkeley Street Theatres there is also an intriguing wide-ranging music series which includes (in March) a bringing together of multi-award-winning Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq with trailblazing Greenlandic mask dancer Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory in a concert event combining tour-de-force vocals, kinetic movement and powerful spoken word.

Buddies in Bad Times

Bathory also collaborates with Canadian poet, composer and performance artist Evalyn Parry for Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools (October 24 to November 5) at Buddies in Bad Times, in a co-production with Theatre Passe Muraille as part of a new initiative between those two companies to share resources and introduce audiences to the work being done on other stages in Toronto. Both powerful storytellers, Parry and Bathory, who met on an Arctic expedition from Iqaluit to Greenland, will use music, movement and video as well as spoken word to map new territory together in a work that gives voice and body to the histories, culture and climate we’ve inherited, and asks how we reckon with “these sharp tools.”

Tarragon

Across the city, Tarragon Theatre has two musicals as part of its mainstage season: in January Richard Rose directs a new version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, reimagined through the powerful lens of rock ‘n’ roll with a score and music direction by Thomas Ryder Payne. Earlier, in November, Tarragon presents the Macau Experimental Theatre/Music Picnic/Point View Art Association Production of Mr. Shi and His Lover, another show that began life at a festival, in this case the 2016 SummerWorks festival where it was an award-winning hit. Performed in English and Mandarin and with performers from Toronto and Macau, Mr. Shi and His Lover, written by Wong Teng Chi and Njo Kong Kie with music and music direction by Kie, tells the real-life story of a French diplomat in China who falls in love with a mysterious opera singer. With music inspired by Chinese opera and vintage pop from both East and West, the show will be performed in Mandarin with English surtitles.

(Kie, who is also the long-serving music director of Montreal’s La La La Human Steps, also collaborates with Canadian Stage toward the end of their season [April 26 to May 6], introducing the Macau-based Folga Gaang Project in their Toronto debut with the hybrid musical performance Picnic in the Cemetery.)

Soulpepper

Almost cheek by jowl with Canadian Stage downtown, Soulpepper presents a more traditional season but again, music plays an important part, with the blues-infused Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in the spring. Soulpepper’s expanded concert series also begins in October with Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville Scene (October 6 to 14), bringing to life the 1964 launching pad of Canadian singer-songwriters like Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia, Murray McLauchlan, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Mike Ross will music-direct a lineup of multi-disciplinary artists as they celebrate the stories and songs that made Yorkville the place to be in the free-loving 60s. The series also includes A Very Soulpepper Christmas (December 15), Prohibition, the Concert (February 9, 10, 14) and A Moveable Feast; Paris in the 20s (March 30 to April 2). Created by Albert Schultz, with overall music direction by Mike Ross, the scripted concert series has a lively energy marked by its collaborative nature and its bringing together of different Toronto artists and musicians for each event.

Soundstreams

Michael Greyeyes - photo by Jeremy MimnaghDowntown and uptown, venue depending on the type of event, is Toronto’s eclectic and experimental yet classical Soundstreams, where music combines with dance and theatre in ever-evolving combinations.

Soundstreams’ 35th season opens very strongly with two productions in October. On October 16 at Koerner Hall, Northern Encounters celebrates Canada 150 and Finland at 100 with Europe’s northernmost professional orchestra, the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, performing music by Jean Sibelius, Harry Somers and Claude Vivier and, most interestingly for me, includes a new dance piece by powerhouse Canadian choreographer Michael Greyeyes to Vivier’s Zipangu exploring the idea of “the city of gold.”

A bit later in the month (October 26 to November 4) at Crows Theatre’s new permanent space (at 345 Carlaw) Soundstreams collaborates with Crows’ artistic director Chris Abraham (whose production of Moliere’s Tartuffe is currently electrifying and delighting audiences at the Stratford Festival) on the world premiere of the first staged production of Claude Vivier’s Musik für das Ende.

The wonderful Soundstreams Salon 21 series has also begun and continues throughout the season, offering audiences the opportunity to meet artists involved in upcoming events and to explore the inspiration behind those events, usually in the intimate setting of the Gardiner Museum. The Salon on October 19 (at Crows Theatre), “Endings: Lieke van der Voort and Jumblies Theatre,” will feature a special rapid-creation performance inspired by Vivier’s Musik für das Ende.

Quick Picks

Sept 22 to Oct 7: Hart House Theatre pushes the boundaries with what should be a strong production of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s rock ‘n’ roll Hedwig and the Angry Inch. (WARNING: Coarse language, mature themes and sexually explicit scenes.)

Oct 24 to Dec 24: For fans of Meatloaf, David Mirvish presents the North American premiere of Brian Steinman’s Bat out of Hell The Musical at the Ed Mirvish Theatre. A critical and popular hit already in England, the run here has quickly been extended to December 24.

October 20 and 21: Catch one of Toronto Masque Theatre’s iconic double bills in TMT’s final year: Dido and Aeneas/Aeneas and Dido, pairing Purcell’s classic with James Rolfe’s contemporary take on the same tale, starring Krisztina Szabó, Alexander Dobson, Andrea Ludwig and Jacqueline Woodley. At Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

October 28 and 29: Gilbert and Sullivan fans might want to catch TrypTych’s production H.M.S. Parliament  at Trinity Presbyterian Church West Hall, 2737 Bayview Ave. With a script by Canadian William Henry Miller and music by Arthur Sullivan, it’s an intriguing music-theatre piece featuring eminent Canadian figures Sir John A. MacDonald and Sir Alexander Mackenzie.

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.

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