Damn Yankees


It is rare when a show exceeds my expectations and even more rare when many shows do. This spring, three shows blew me away with their – very different – strengths. 

Damn Yankees: my first reaction after seeing the opening-night performance of Damn Yankees at the Shaw Festival was a desire to tell all the cynics, who don’t see the value in remounting the slighter offerings of the Broadway musical canon, to make their way to Niagara-on-the-Lake and take in this show. Yes, this is a slight, rather oddball, musical that gives a Faustian twist to the American obsession with baseball by giving an older fan a deal with the devil to help his home team win. But in the expert hands of director Brian Hill, it is so much more. 

Right from the word go the spirit and heart of this production is right on the money. It could have been cheesy and over the top, but it is not. Hill clearly understands the material inside and out and along with his expert creative team sets exactly the right tone and style so that we are taken along the deliciously comic journey, and at the same time gain an increasing recognition of the simple heartfelt values – love, honesty, loyalty – that lie at the heart of the story. 

Read more: A stellar spring, musical Shakespeare, and a summer of substance (who could ask for anything more?)

Dixon Road – in conversation with Fatuma AdarIt seems that the resurgence of music theatre is for real this time. After so many short-lived restarts and sudden heartbreaking lockdowns, it is invigorating to finally have almost too many shows to see! Music theatre and dance are now back live in theatres and in the parks for a summer season packed with a wide variety of shows for audiences to choose from.

Dixon Road

Starting off the season with a city-wide bang is The Musical Stage Company’s Marquee Festival encompassing a number of initiatives all built around the central idea of “turning points” in people’s lives. The biggest project, and one that has been in development for several years, is the world premiere of the musical Dixon Road by Fatuma Adar, which will take its first bows in the  High Park Amphitheatre (in association with Canadian Stage) June 1-19. Originally commissioned by The Musical Stage Company with funding from The Aubrey & Marla Dan Fund for New Musicals and developed as part of Obsidian Theatre’s Playwrights Unit, Dixon Road is a deeply personal story for its creator and one that many other children of immigrant parents will identify with. 

Fatuma Adar and director, Ray Hogg. Photo ELIJAH NICHOLSDixon Road tells the story of a Somali family who fled the civil war in their homeland in the 1990s to find a new home in Canada, specifically in the neighbourhood around Pearson Airport near Dixon Road and Kipling Avenue now known as Little Mogadishu. Central to the musical is the dynamic between the father learning to navigate his new world and create a new identity for himself while his daughter – now growing up in Canada – starts to have dreams of finding new opportunities of her own. Adar based the book on her own experiences living on Dixon Road. She has also written the score (both music and lyrics) drawing on music that was popular in her community growing up, including R & B, hip-hop, contemporary musical theatre and traditional Somali melodies. I am excited to see Dixon Road and hope that this is just the beginning of an outpouring of new shows by new storytellers. 

Read more: Almost Too Many Shows to See

Orphan Song at the Tarragon Theatre. Photo by CYLLA VON TIEDEMANNI believe that theatre is at its most exciting when it is taking chances and pushing at the walls that define genre. Even if the risks taken don’t pay off 100%. The world premiere of Orphan Song by Canadian playwright Sean Dixon at Tarragon Theatre is a case in point. Orphan Song sits in an imagined prehistory (40, 027 BCE) where a Homo sapiens couple, Mo and Gorse, take in a Neanderthal child and embark on a journey filled with danger, unexpected mayhem, and discovery.  

Stories set in prehistoric times are notoriously difficult to pull off without invoking nervous laughter. On opening night there was an initial hesitation from the audience in accepting the simplified, stilted, language of these early human characters, and yet this hesitation dissipated in the face of the absolute conviction of the actors who give themselves wholeheartedly to the simplicity of diction and wide brush strokes of communication necessary. Sophie Goulet’s performance as Mo was superbly grounded, as was the magical work of puppet master Kaitlin Morrow, not only as the Neanderthal child Chicky, but as the creator of the stunning puppets and master teacher of the puppetry technique in the show: the excellent team of puppeteers brings compellingly to life not only the beguiling Neanderthals, but a wide range of wildlife from the small and unthreatening hedgehog to the terrifying hyenas and more.

Read more: Language as Music as language – Orphan Song at Tarragon Theatre

Italian Mime Suicide: Rose Tuong, Rob Feetham, Adam Paolozza, Nicholas Eddie. Photo by Sandrick MathurinLive theatre is back and breaking down the walls of convention in every direction. George F. Walker’s Orphans of the Czar at Crow’s Theatre is an uncannily apt combination of an iconic Canadian voice and the state of Russia just before the revolution, bringing new insights from that time that apply to ours through strong performances, inspired in some cases with a physical theatre/clown style. Over at Tarragon Theatre, Sean Dixon’s new prehistoric fable of family, adoption and the communication between species, Orphan Song, draws on the twin disciplines of magical puppetry and music as language to share important universal truths – and the season is just getting started. 

One of the things I enjoy most about covering this Music Theatre beat is how much territory is encompassed in that title. From the most classic of classical ballet in the transcendent performances by Harrison James and Heather Ogden as Prince Florimund and Princess Aurora in Nureyev’s version of The Sleeping Beauty for The National Ballet of Canada’s recent revival in March, to traditional Broadway-style musicals such as those now in previews at the Shaw Festival (Damn Yankees) and the Stratford Festival (Chicago) – and from traditional opera to experimental amalgamations of unlikely elements that somehow cohere to make something that unmistakably fits the category. This spring experimental music theatre is popping up everywhere and in widely varying formats: interestingly, the three very different shows that I look at here, choose to explore very dark themes, using a tool kit in which music is an essential, integral, ingredient.

Read more: Music shines transformative light on three kinds of thematic darkness

Opera Atelier’s All is Love: Tyler Gledhill and Edwin Huizinga (Photo, Bruce Zinger)As I started to write this column in early February, we were under full lockdown … again. No theatres or concert halls were allowed to present performances for live audiences …again, and we were forced to turn to our computers (again), for virtual versions of our favourite performance genres.

The unforeseeable Omicron lockdown was doubly heartbreaking after the gradual resurgence of the fall, for creators and audiences alike; nowhere more poignantly, for me, than in the official closing of Come From Away only a week after its glorious reopening, its staging refreshed and the company thrilling – perhaps even more alive, if that’s possible, to the potential of the show than they had been at their original opening just under two years before. 

Pick your own heartbreak, though. Come From Away was just one of many shows that closed, never opened, or were postponed again. Some were able to pivot, including the Next Stage Festival which did a wonderful job of presenting a fully digital slate of a wide variety of shows. Most of the new live season that should have begun in January, however, was either cancelled or postponed until a time in the future that felt even more indefinite than before, because having the rug pulled out from under us after having hope dangled, was harder to bear than just hunkering down stoically, the way we had before. 

Yes, there were some new digital performances to immerse ourselves in, in the interim,  but not as many as earlier in the pandemic as when it was the only option. Tossed back and forth between changing protocols, companies have understandably played it safe, hesitating to announce new dates, for fear of having to postpone or cancel, yet again. The result: a gulf.

Read more: A new “new start” … again: Hope springs eternal
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