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, 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.


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.


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.

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 ( for details or call 416-504-7529.


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.


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.


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:

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.”


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.)


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.


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.

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