Luminato: Two years ago, in one of my first columns for The WholeNote, I interviewed the creative team of Theaturtle’s Charlotte: A Tri-Coloured Play with Music, Canadian librettist Alon Nashman, acclaimed Czech composer Aleš Březina, and legendary British director/scenographer Pamela Howard, as they were presenting a series of work-in progress performances at the Luminato Festival before touring to Europe. The play is inspired by the real life and artwork of Berlin-born Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon who was sent to Auschwitz at age 26 in 1942, and who in the last two years of her life created a sequence of nearly 800 paintings accompanied by text and musical references to which she gave the title “Life? Or Theatre?” – works which, against all odds, survived. At the time I was bowled over by the wild theatricality of their vision and the bright central message of hope in the arc of Charlotte’s story.

This summer, they are about to go on another tour, this time to Israel, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic, with first, a one-performance-only send-off at Toronto’s Hart House Theatre on June 1. Always curious about what happens over time to things I first encountered as “works in progress,” I plan to attend and to reach out to the creative team again to catch up on what has been happening with this exciting show between world tours. Stay tuned!

This year is, again, a Luminato hotbed of creation including a number of exciting music theatre productions from both home and abroad. Stories shaped by political extremes, and the need to find a personal path through societies characterized by prejudice and oppression, again are highlighted particularly in two Canadian productions that caught my eye: Nicole Brooks’ large scale a cappella Obeah Opera and Tim Albery’s one-man (with one-piano accompaniment) Hell’s Fury; or The Hollywood Songbook starring Canadian opera superstar Russell Braun.

Obeah Opera has been in the works for ten years, a project of personal passion for creator, librettist, and composer Nicole Brooks. Inspired by a desire to tell the untold story of the female Caribbean slaves who were as much a part of the Salem witch trials as the white women and men whose stories have been recorded, Obeah Opera uses Caribbean-inspired music and dance to tell that story. Drawing on transcriptions of the actual trials in Salem, combined with in-person consultation with African spiritual practitioners, Brooks has created a libretto and score focused on the experience of Tituba (the Caribbean slave whom we know from Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible), and her fellow practitioners of “obeah” (witchcraft). A necessary story for our times, it is a reminder of the dangers of societal paranoia and also of histories lost that should be recovered and shared. The cast is 20 strong, all female, all singing and dancing. The dances, showcased last October as part of the Fall for Dance North Festival at the Sony Centre, won rave reviews for their superb theatricality and energy.

Hell’s Fury; or The Hollywood Songbook, on the other hand, is a one-man musical journey through the life of Austrian Jewish Marxist composer Hanns Eisler. Based on a concept from well-known opera director Tim Albery, it was originally developed with Soundstreams and Soundstreams’ artistic director Lawrence Cherney and given a work-in-progress showcase during Luminato last year. Eisler fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and landed in Hollywood where he worked successfully, composing many film scores including the Academy Award-nominated Hangmen Also Die (Fritz Lang) and None But The Lonely Heart (Clifford Odets). Privately, at the same time he was writing Hollywood Songbook, an evocative song cycle full of both wit and melancholy, often using for words, poems by his frequent collaborator Bertolt Brecht, weaving a tale of the horrors of Nazi Germany, the seductions of Hollywood, and a longing to return home. In real life, the seduction of Hollywood was interrupted in 1948 when the House Committee on Un-American Activities banished Eisler from the US, labelling him an “unperson.” The storyline is woven through the songs of Eisler’s own Hollywood Songbook, and is performed by acclaimed Canadian baritone Russell Braun accompanied by JUNO Award-winning pianist Serouj Kradjian.

The cast of Masquerade Photo by Dmitriy DubinskiyIn contrast to these two overtly political story lines, and yet with a central theme illustrating the hidden masked cynical truths of society, is Masquerade, a lavish spectacle presented by the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia, based on the verse drama of Russian poet and playwright Mikhail Lermontov. This production promises to be a tremendously theatrical event employing a clown-influenced physical theatre style of staging supported by and interwoven with a musical score by Faustas Latenas that incorporates the famous Waltz by Aram Khachaturian which was itself commissioned for a production of this play by the Vahtankgov Theatre in 1941. It also promises us “heaps of snow.” Judging by last year’s production of Uncle Vanya, this should be another theatrical feast.

Luminato runs from June 7 to 23 at various venues around Toronto; luminatofestival.com.

Stratford and Shaw

Once again we are entering the season of big musicals at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals. There is already great word of mouth about Stratford’s production of Billy Elliot, the 2005 Tony Award-winning musical inspired by the 2000 film set during the British miners’ strikes of 1984/85. Here again is a political setting, and a score that even includes a song, “Merry Christmas, Maggie,” mercilessly mocking then-British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. At the same time as depicting the destruction of a community, however, Billy Elliot is also a wonderful story of hope, of a young boy in a mining town who discovers an inborn talent for dance and finds a way to follow his dreams in spite of all the obstacles in front of him. Director and choreographer Donna Feore has reimagined the staging to work on the Stratford Festival thrust stage and talks in the show program about the inspiration of Elton John’s brilliantly contemporary score. Billy Elliot plays at the Festival Theatre through November 3.

The Shaw Festival reaches further back into the traditional musical theatre canon to bring us a much more escapist romance than the musicals discussed above: Lerner and Loewe’s 1947 classic Brigadoon, perhaps best known from the 1954 MGM movie starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. A brash young New Yorker, Tommy Albright, on holiday in the Scottish Highlands, falls in love with a girl from a magical village, Brigadoon, that only exists for one day every 100 years. After leaving Scotland Tommy finds himself torn between his increasingly empty life in the modern city and the love he left behind. Naturally there is a happy ending, though one could imagine a dystopian millennial sequel set 10 or 15 years later with Tommy now feeling trapped in the magical but tiny village. One of the great draws of the Shaw Festival’s production will be seeing former Stratford musical star Alexis Gordon as Fiona. Brigadoon plays at the Shaw Festival until October 13. 

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

Around Ontario over the summer, there are many more musicals to be seen, with something for almost every taste. Consult our music theatre listings for details.

JUN 5 TO 22: Drayton Entertainment. Thoroughly Modern Millie. Huron Country Playhouse. The fun 1920s-set musical probably best known from the slightly goofy movie version starring Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Channing. And also from Drayton, Peter Colley’s You’ll Get Used to It!: The War Show, a nostalgic and fun Canadian look back at WWII with period songs, starting at St. Jacobs Country Playhouse, June 5 to 22, then continuing June 27 to July 13.

JUN 27, 8PM: Silly Stages. Chasing Rainbows. Songs of Judy Garland. Regent Theatre, Oshawa. The brilliant Canadian musical theatre star Louise Pitre sings Judy Garland.

JUL 24 TO AUG 16: Gravenhurst Opera House. Dean & Jerry: What Might Have Been. Created by Jesse Collins this two man show about Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and their long partnership, has been gaining a growing loyal audience at summer stock theatres around Ontario.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare, and new Canadian plays.

Toronto’s music theatre scene in April was notable for two plays which had music playing a thematically essential role, as I previewed in my last column.

Under the Stairs at Young People’s Theatre was a fun, theatrically imaginative tale of children sorting out the world in which the characters in the “real world” all sang, and those hiding “under the stairs” spoke, though often in a mix of prose and poetic language. What became very interesting was when the characters overlapped, particularly at the end when the children who have been hiding emerge to reunite the family, even taking in a stray “lost boy” in a subconscious tribute to Peter Pan.

In Lorena Gale’s Angélique, music played a different role, underlying and accenting almost the entirety of the action with a spare but thematically attuned percussion score composed and played by acclaimed ensemble Sixtrum. The play is shockingly relevant and revelatory. I had no idea previously that there was legal slavery in Quebec in 1734; and the horrors of that reality, and its seemingly acceptable entrenchment in society, were powerfully shown in director Mike Payette’s staging. There are several scenes where the music truly took centre stage: the vigorous washing of the sheets, and the wonderful dance scene where the rather rigid Quebecois step dancing is juxtaposed with the more sinuous and supple African dancing of Angélique also pointed to the fact that this would be great material for a serious musical or operatic adaptation.

The Brothers Size

This month another play that uses music as an integral storytelling tool is The Brothers Size, the second in a trilogy of plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the writer of the unpublished semi-autobiographical play that Barry Jenkins transformed into the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight.

Set in the Deep South of Louisiana this is an explosive contemporary story of the return from prison of the fun-loving Oshoosi to live with his serious older brother Ogun (named for the Yoruba god of hard work), but it is also a poetic tale interwoven and imbued with the power of African Yoruba mythology and music. As Oshoosi’s former prison mate Eregba (named for the Yoruba trickster god) arrives to turn their lives upside down, the play interweaves the dreaming and waking lives of these three “brothers” using music as the medium of transfer and emotion. Masterminding the music for this production as composer and onstage percussionist is Waleed Abdulhamid, who praises the three-man cast for being really strong singers and inspiring him to experiment with harmonies and arrangements for the vocal music. Drawing on both his youth in Sudan and an award-winning career in Canadian theatre and film, Abdulhamid describes the music he is creating as a “melting of the worlds” of North America and Africa, incorporating influences from the blues to Yoruba, from the songs of Nigeria to those of Harlem and Mississippi.

FAWN’s Pandora

Also coming up in May is Pandora, a new opera/ballet created by indie company FAWN, inspired by the Greek myth of the girl who unleashes all the evils into the world from a sealed jar (or box) that has been entrusted to her, only closing it in time to keep hope inside.

Intrigued about FAWN and their new take on this classic tale, I contacted the creative team – founding artistic director and stage director of Pandora, Amanda Smith, choreographer and dancer Jennifer Nichols, and librettist David James Brock – to learn more.

Amanda Smith, FAWN’s founding artistic director and resident stage director. Photo by Dahlia KatzWN: FAWN is a relatively new company on the opera/music theatre scene. Can you tell me about why you founded FAWN and what your goals with the company are? 

AS: I founded FAWN because I wanted to be able to create the kind of work I specifically was interested in and in the way I was interested in creating it. Of course, these interests have changed over time as FAWN has grown to include new company members and collaborators. We’ve been active in the new music and indie opera scene for about six years.

Where did the name FAWN come from, and how does it fit with your company mandate?

AS: I always wanted the company to be about developing new content and investigating the possibilities of what the new classical music sound can be in Canada. I loved the idea of a fawn being born, testing its environment, exploring and eventually growing to be a beautiful animal. To get there, it requires nurturing, and the same can be said about the creative process.

How did the new Pandora project come about?

AS: Three years ago, FAWN put out an open call for submissions, from which we selected the works of six composers for a performance in our Synesthesia series that was intending to bring together music and movement. With these works, I created a narrative path for choreographer Jennifer Nichols and I to develop into a dance-theatre piece. Since FAWN has a rather different audience, including a lot of young people and those who don’t typically patronize opera and classical music, I wanted to give them the opportunity to have input. So, at the Synesthesia performance, we asked our audience to select the three composers featured in the show that they most wanted us to work with, and they chose Joseph Glaser, Kit Soden and David Storen. Our three selected composers were then asked to write a 20-minute opera-ballet that we would then produce, and to participate in a one-week devised creation workshop with our team to provide them with the seeds of inspiration for their work. We workshopped the music last summer and it was decided by the team that we would like them to be presented as one piece, thus allowing it to be one experience for the audience. To accomplish this, the composers and our librettist, David James Brock, created a through-line between all three pieces, which I think has been very effective.

Pandora librettist David James BrockJennifer and David, what it is like working with Amanda and FAWN? How is it the same or different from other projects or companies you have worked with? 

JN: The experiences I’ve had working with FAWN have emphasized a fully collaborative approach to new work, with all artistic contributors sharing ideas from the beginning of the process, rather than inserting their work into an already formed production structure. There are benefits to a variety of different processes, but I find this allows for growth that is organic, rather than pre-conceived. The work takes shape via the contribution of all, and is guided along the way by Amanda. It makes for a very balanced work.

In the very first stage of this process, Synesthesia IV, I also worked very closely with Amanda in the studio, just the two of us. We dissected and discussed all of the movement as it was created, a director and choreographer working intimately together as the work took shape.

I’m very excited to apply a similar approach to working with David on Pandora. He and I first worked together on the Canadian Art Song Project’s staged production of Sewing the Earthworm.

DJB: FAWN is asking some pretty big questions about what it means to create new opera. What stories are we telling? Who is telling them? And how can something as labour-intensive as opera be developed and performed in a way that maybe opens things up a bit? Amanda’s organic connection with artists and artistic forms that aren’t often part of opera (I’m particularly thinking of her connection to electronic music) has really opened up the possibility of not just how opera is made, but who it’s made for.

Can you talk about the specific development of Pandora for each of you and how your part of the creative process overlapped with the other members of the creative team? 

JN: As I write this, I am still in the beginning stages of my biggest creative process, movement-wise. The next month in studio will be where the choreography takes shape; however, the conceptual and research process began over a year ago in our devised workshop. There was a great deal of table discussion, improvisation and workshopping with an invited audience which informed the composition and libretti and choreographic structure. My job now is to flesh out the layers of movement that support both of these and focus on character development.

DJB: When I first met everyone there wasn’t a story, yet. We would find it together. But once we all got together in a room, and I think this goes for any new creative relationship, we had to learn each other’s approach (or unlearn whatever approaches we might have come in with). Informed by that first week of exploring ideas, I went away and started writing a piece with each composer. About a year later, when we needed to find a vehicle to carry them all, I added the Pandora framing with interlude text (which the composers then also set). It was really important that even though this was being created with three composers, that this became one show written by the four of us: Pandora.

As you move into the final stage of rehearsals for the performances in May, is there any more you can tell me about how each of the different elements: music, libretto and dance, come together to tell your new take on the classical story of Pandora?

DJB: Pandora, the mythical character, often gets a raw deal – I mean being blamed for all the world’s evils is a lot to lay on one woman. I liked the idea that we could take some of the heat off her and share some of the blame. So, in this retelling, though Pandora exists, we have this new character written specifically for tenor Jonathan MacArthur who also opens the jar (as we all probably would have) and is subjected to the myriad things that escape. Without giving away too much, things don’t go so well for him.

JN: I think our interpretation of the classical story of Pandora is such that not only is she not entirely to blame for “releasing and bringing into existence the evils of the world,” she is actually the presence that subsequently ensures a balance of hope and despair. She is vulnerable yet strong, and perhaps her damned curiosity is representative of mankind’s curiosity in general. Music, text and choreography come together to impose limits on her through separate, unique narratives, yet her presence is consistent and timeless. In mythology, Pandora is known as the first “human woman” (and the one who just couldn’t resist…). Our extrapolation of the story makes her timeless and far more complex than mischievous. And of course Jonathan’s character shares this onus.

It’s always been incredibly important to me as a choreographer to place as much emphasis and attention on the text as the score (if there is accompanying text) and when working with a writer like David, I have to ask myself some big questions. It’s not about simply layering aesthetically pleasing or interesting movement onto the libretto. The text drives the motivation of the choreography and the music shapes it.

DJB: Unique to Pandora’s creation for me was that dance was much more up front for me than it has ever been, and it really does inspire much of the text (and subsequently the scores). I knew Jennifer Nichols was going to be a part of this, both as choreographer and dancer, so I wrote very much with her in mind. Jennifer truly understands and cares about the words, and in writing something I knew she’d be a part of, I tried to create Pandora’s dramatic beats so that they’d demand (and in some cases, restrict) movement. So it was important to me in Pandora that Jennifer was a character integral to the stories, not something “added” later, or a reflection of an emotion, or simply part of the spectacle. Each of the composers was onboard with this, so you’ll see that in each of the pieces, filtered through each of their unique musical sensibilities. Though my part in the creation is largely done, I am excited to see how Amanda and Jennifer interpret the movement written into the scenes.

Pandora plays at Geary Lane (360 Geary Avenue) May 23 to 25. www.fawnchambercreative.com 

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

ONGOING TO MAY 5: Mirvish. Beautiful – The Carole King Musical. Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King . Runs to May 5. An unexpectedly practically perfect biographical jukebox musical full of songs you didn’t know you knew. Canadian star Chilina Kennedy glows and delights as Carole King. Catch it while you can!

ONGOING TO MAY 19: Mirvish/Musical Stage Company. Next to Normal. Ma-Anne Dionisio and Louise Pitre lead a strong cast directed by award-winning Philip Akin, in this timely musical.

MAY 4, 3PM AND 7:30PM: The Canadian Music Theatre Project presents, an Off-Sheridan staged reading of Stars of Mars. Theatre Passe Muraille. A new musical comedy by Canadians Daniel Abrahamson and Ashley Botting, set inside the first human colony on Mars, about a mother and daughter who are worlds apart.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare, and new Canadian plays.

The boundaries of music theatre in Toronto continue to be stretched in all directions from Opera Atelier’s The Angel Speaks, the brilliant “modern meets Baroque” extrapolation by composer Edwin Huizinga, choreographer Tyler Gledhill, and director Marshall Pynkoski, from Purcell’s The Blessed Expostulation of the Virgin Mary, to the changing nature of what we know as the traditional stage musical into the most effective platform for exploring and dealing with some of society’s darker and more difficult issues in such shows as Parade, Next to Normal, and Dear Evan Hansen. While the latter two have not yet opened as I write, Toronto Musical Concerts just presented a two-day run of a semi-staged concert reading of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade. Based on real events – false accusation, mistrial, and eventual lynching of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank in 1913 Georgia – this is dark material. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the theatre was packed for a strong rendition of this powerful work anchored by outstanding, magnetic performances from Eric Craig and Ma-Anne Dionisio as Leo and Lucille Frank. The content is so relevant to the evils faced by contemporary society, and the audience attention was so rapt, that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of a full production happening somewhere soon.

Another direction of the current redefining of music theatre being explored by an increasing number of companies is the move from purely text-based shows to plays where music is not only an important but an integral element of powerful theatrical storytelling. This is resulting in some fascinating and unique hybrids.

AngéliqueToronto’s Factory Theatre is hosting, in the latter part of its season, two productions from other Canadian companies that are experimenting in this way: Bears and Angélique. When I asked Factory’s artistic director, Nina Lee Aquino, about the choosing of these two multidisciplinary shows, particularly if their incorporation of music as an integral element of storytelling was instrumental in her choice, she said:

“Not directly on purpose, but ... how the Canadian experience is presented on our stages is just as important as the what and the why. All the productions in our past seasons have had amazing, different, and unique containers of telling the Canadian story. It is necessary to be able to look at something in different ways, from different lenses and perspectives. It reminds us (and our audiences) to keep witnessing and listening to stories in prismatic ways. That’s one of the more meaningful ways to learn from one another and become better human beings to each other.”

Bears (an Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts and Punctuate! Theatre co-production) which just finished its run on March 17, is unique in that it began with playwright Matthew Mackenzie exploring his newly discovered Indigenous heritage and wanting there to be a movement vocabulary along with his words to create the specific world and language of the play. From the beginning he worked with choreographer Monica Dottor as his co-creator to invent the show’s physical language, then brought on board composer and sound designer Noor Dean Musani to develop a musical vocabulary to meld the two together. The result is an amazingly effective myth-turned-music theatre experience. With humour as an important element, the words, music and movement align to immerse us in a mythic yet completely modern wake-up call to recognize our ties to the earth and the need to save it from the inroads of industry and climate change.

Next in the season, Factory partners with Obsidian Theatre to present the Toronto premiere of Lorena Gale’s award-winning musical play Angélique in a new production from Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop and Tableau D’Hôte Theatre that incorporates a live musical score throughout. Like Parade, Angélique is based on real events and another case of false accusations and miscarriage of justice. The location this time, though, is Montreal in 1734, where an enslaved Black woman, Marie Joseph Angélique, was accused and convicted of setting fire to the city although there was very little evidence against her.

I asked director Mike Payette why he feels this play written in 1998 is an important one to share with audiences now. He responded passionately about its contemporary relevance:

Angélique is an urgent play that speaks to the immediate and historical systemic nature of oppression and racism within our country, but more importantly, as this is not a history lesson on slavery, it is about the life of a woman who is forced into an environment of abuse and servitude, unrelenting in her condemnation of slavery, and ultimately tortured and killed for something we will never know she did. This is a play that looks at the visceral qualities of us as human beings; the monsters that we have inside all of us and the questioning of whether we act on these monstrous thoughts. Angélique says at one point: ‘And though I am wretched, I am not wicked.’ I find this to be a compelling distinction of the human experience. In the pursuit of dialogue and understanding, Lorena Gale urges us to find the inherent and universal qualities of both the oppressed and the privileged; all this through a highly theatrical and contemporary experience.”

Sixtrum Percussion EnsembleMusic is central to the language of the play and particularly this production. As the director explains:

“I wouldn’t call Angélique a musical theatre play, but it is indeed, musical. The score, composed by award-winning Sixtrum Percussion Ensemble, has myriad influences, from Afrocentric to European to popular, seamlessly heightening tension and giving breath when we need it most. The drum is central to this play, it is one of the last words spoken, and it becomes the instrument that is universal because it represents not only the rage of fire, but the swelling of a heart beat.

The score is unique to this production. From my understanding, although the script calls for dance and musicality, this is the first time the play has offered the music to be a character in and of itself. The musicians are ultimately always present, we allow ourselves to be swept by how they complement the action of the play, and ultimately it is but one of the elements of the production that makes it an exceptionally alive and aural experience.”

Under the StairsUnder the Stairs at YPT

This fascinating concept of the music becoming “a character in and of itself” or having a very specific role, coincidentally is also true of the world premiere this month at Young People’s Theatre (YPT) of acclaimed British playwright Kevin Dyer’s Under the Stairs.

Innovative, poignant, and funny, the play tells the story of Timmy, a boy who tries to escape the throwing of plates and noise of his parents arguing by going into the cupboard under the stairs only to find that there are other children there, too. When Timmy’s parents disappear, he enlists the help of the other children to find them. Together they uncover surprising secrets that could repair the turmoil in Tim’s house. In the words of the playwright, “This is a story that is sung; a contemporary mash-up of free verse, prose and delicious music.”

YPT’s artistic director Allen MacInnis explained the unique roles of music and spoken text that the playwright imagined:

“YPT has produced two other new works by Kevin Dyer (The Monster Under the Bed and Minotaur). When he proposed this play, one of its many intriguing features was his idea that the turmoil in Timmy’s home should be expressed entirely in singing while the quiet of the cupboard under the stairs to which Timmy retreats should be expressed in talking, no music. When we asked if he planned to write the music, Kevin said ‘heavens no … but I think I know what it sounds like.’ This set us on a journey to find a Canadian music theatre composer who could capture what Kevin heard in his head. We asked a number of people to set to music some of Kevin’s poetic, rhythmic dialogue from sung sections of the first draft of the script. Having heard them all, the composer Kevin chose was Reza Jacobs. We couldn’t have been more pleased to bring these two great artists together.”

Jacobs, who will also be the music director for the show, is well known as an award-winning composer and music director for companies including the Stratford and Shaw Festivals as well as being the “Fine Furneaux Director of Music” for the Musical Stage Company, where he creates the musical reworkings of iconic songs for the annual Uncovered concerts as well as music directing regular shows in the company’s season.

Playing the role of the mother in Under the Stairs, is Neema Bickersteth, one of our most versatile and accomplished cross-genre performers, known for her classically trained beautiful soprano voice, rich acting talent, and for her multidisciplinary theatrical work. When I asked her what it is like performing the “mash-up” of text, poetry and music in this show, and knowing that she will be playing to younger audiences, she said that in contrast to some of her other work this show is a natural extension of her everyday life:

“It is all mashed up so beautifully! When I’m at home with my kid, all our games are a mishmash of one thing flowing to the next. And in the moment, it all totally makes sense.”

This points again to the inherent ability of music to connect with all of us, and how it is a part of our lives even if we don’t specifically notice from moment to moment. Theatre creators are drawing more and more on this intrinsic power of music as a universal language, continuing to push the boundaries of how words and music can be combined together in a myriad of different ways uniquely appropriate to each theatrical story. 

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

APR 1 TO 16: Under the Stairs. YPT.

APR 3 TO 21: Angélique. Factory Theatre.

ONGOING: Dear Evan Hansen. Mirvish, Royal Alexandra Theatre. The almost entirely Canadian cast is just one of the reasons to see this multi-Tony Award-winning pop musical by Pasek and Paul.

APR 9 TO 11: The House of Martin Guerre. Theatre Sheridan. Canadian composer Leslie Arden’s 1993 version of The Return of Martin Guerre seems to be making a comeback now that its rights, which were tied up for years, are available again. It had a successful concert performance at the Charlottetown Festival last September.

APR 9 TO MAY 5: Beautiful: The Carol King Musical. Mirvish, Princess of Wales Theatre, another chance to see the luminous Canadian star Chilina Kennedy reprise her Broadway triumph as Carole King in this biographical musical.

APR TO MAY 19: Next to Normal. Musical Stage Company. Ma-Anne Dionisio, continuing her season with the Musical Stage Company, leads the cast as a mother trying to deal with bipolar disorder in this urgently contemporary rock musical

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare, and new Canadian plays.

Dear Evan HansenToronto musical theatre fans have been eagerly waiting for the advent of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s 2017 Tony Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen, and now the waiting is almost over. Previews begin at the Royal Alexandra Theatre on March 5, with the official opening later this month. Not only is this the very first international production of the massive hit, but following an eight-month casting tour across the country, the cast led by Robert Markus is almost entirely Canadian (with almost every province represented) making this a great showcase for Canadian musical theatre talent. On top of that, this is a “sit down” production that can run as long as there is a demand for tickets; and there is a great demand, the run having already been extended to June 30.

There is something about this show that connects with audiences as well as critics in such a strong way that Dear Evan Hansen won the top musical theatre Tony Awards in 2017 (Best Book, Best Score, and Best Musical), over the gloriously life-affirming Come From Away. Why has there been such a strong reaction?

Perhaps it is because it is so unexpected that a musical could be written about bullying, loneliness, and suicide and yet, with its unique groundbreaking recipe of authentic characters, popular score and uncannily modern use of social media, also manage to be upbeat and positive, taking the audience through a sometimes painful, cathartic journey to a place of hope and human connection.

Pasek and Paul are now famous for their award-winning lyrics for the movie La La Land and songs for The Greatest Showman, but when they were still young students in college (University of Michigan) they started talking about something that had happened at Pasek’s high school that, as they discussed it, would turn into the unlikely inspiration for musical creation. Over one summer a student had passed away, and although he had been almost anonymous at the school, because of his death, became a celebrated figure with everyone looking for a way to be connected to him. Talking about how this need to be part of a collective mourning process seemed to be something that wasn’t exclusive to that event but also belonged to other tragic events as well, such as school shootings, or 9/11, they decided to create a musical around a similar event, not ever expecting it to be a hit.

Even without the infectious pop-musical score at hand, the book and lyrics are interwoven seamlessly and pull the reader into the world of Evan Hansen, a lonely, high school senior, bullied for his shyness and extreme anxiety, who, through the mistaken attribution of a letter, finds himself a hero on social media, thereby changing not only his own life but those of many others. In song after song, even the lyrics alone go beyond the spoken thought, reaching for the feelings hidden behind, without sentimentality, and with an almost uncannily recognizable rightness.

The musical’s creators have talked in interviews about how audience members approach the actors saying that they “are, or know Evan Hansen” or the other characters, and are grateful for this chance to be able to talk about difficult social and personal issues with their friends and families. While there are cynical and mocking elements to the story, for example, looking at how quickly people can jump onto the bandwagon of popularity, the composer/lyricists credit working with book-writer Steven Levenson with the emerging discovery of how to make the show both funny and uplifting as well.

Dear Evan Hansen doesn’t stand alone in its ambitious contemporary storytelling. Looking at the current music theatre landscape there seems to be an increasing appetite for musicals with stories about today, about complex, dark issues that are difficult to talk about otherwise. Pasek and Paul credit this at least in part to their generation growing up during the renaissance of the movie musical (Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, etc.) and the resulting expectation that characters in movies or onstage will express themselves and their emotions through music. The expected music then becomes a way to go beyond the spoken word to what lies beneath, and so to create a deeper more profound experience for the audience.

In Toronto last month, Tapestry New Opera premiered Hook Up, a new musical/opera hybrid about campus rape by Julie Tepperman and Chris Thornborrow. It struck a profound chord with audiences, combining the authenticity of a very real contemporary setting and characters with humour and compassion to bring a discussion of a very sensitive topic into the shared space of the theatre. Sting’s The Last Ship, which is making its North American debut of a revised script, at the Princess of Wales Theatre until March 24, does something similar, though on a different scale, using wonderful pop- and folk-inspired music to explore the darker side of government interference and industrial privatization, giving life to a community’s desperation at the threatened closure of its shipyard, and also to the resurgent strength of that community as hope is found in banding together against the threat.

Leo Frank, the subject of ParadeParade

Both recent and older musicals that deal with difficult issues are also being revived more and more frequently, in full productions and in concert format. One of the darker shows inspired by real-life events, Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s 1998 Tony Award-winning musical, Parade, is one of these, although the true story can be difficult to handle, even filtered through the medium of the stage. Based on the real false arrest, 1913 trial and eventual lynching of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank in Atlanta, Georgia. Parade was revived here in 2011 by The Musical Stage Company and is being performed again this month as a professional staged concert reading by Toronto Musical Concerts on March 21 and 22.

Toronto Musical ConcertsSpeaking to TMC’s artistic producer, Christopher Wilson, about why he feels this is an important show to revive, I couldn’t help but see another reason why there is a resurgent hunger for musicals that deal with difficult topics; the world we are living in now is fraught with political and social extremes, and we need a way to comprehend and find a way to deal with those issues. As Wilson says about this show: “Though Parade is set in 1913, a (post-Civil War) era fraught with immense racial tension and religious intolerance, it is both shocking and disconcerting how prevalent that same systemic antisemitism, divisiveness and violence exists in our world’s current political and social climate. As artists, I feel it is our responsibility to share powerful and moving stories that both examine and reflect the darkest corners of humanity.”

Talking about the prolific movements of hatred and racism currently being spread not only south of the border, but also here and around the world, Wilson passionately believes that shows such as Parade “serve as cautionary tales, inviting those both brave and conscious enough to challenge systemic intolerance, and to promote both discourse and change.” As well, he says, “the poignancy of presenting this disturbingly topical musical at the Miles Nadal JCC further punctuates the importance of the work.”

As Wilson said to me about Parade, it is important to keep works like this alive in the repertoire to “continue to promote discourse and awareness of difficult and important issues.” Toronto’s Musical Stage Company is a great champion of works of this type, with last season’s Toronto premiere of Fun Home based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel dealing with issues of gender identity and family dysfunction; and coming up in April, Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s Next to Normal, which explores issues of mental health and the impact of a bipolar parent on her family.

The Lightning Thief

Even on the lighter side of music theatre these days, serious issues of identity and social belonging find their place. In Soulpepper’s world premiere in February of Sarah Wilson and Mike Ross’ new musical Rose (based on Gertrude Stein’s children’s book The World Is Round), a brightly coloured symbolic and lighthearted world is anchored on a nine-year-old girl’s desperate need to understand “who, what, where and why” she is; and the power of those questions makes her journey a profound one for the audience. In the upcoming visit to the Ed Mirvish Theatre (March 19 to 24) of the Off Broadway musical The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical based on Rick Riordan’s hugely successful series of books for the 10- to 12-year-old set, our hero, Percy, suffers from ADHD (as Riordan’s son did) and an awful home situation at the beginning of the story, but then discovers his true heritage as a son of the Greek god Poseidon (and his own innate strength of character) through his escape to Camp Half-Blood and the meeting of other sons and daughters of the gods as he helps to retrieve Zeus’ lightning bolt.

Even Alice in Wonderland, the National Ballet of Canada’s returning hit ballet (March 7 to 17), based on Lewis Carroll’s classic story, can be looked at through a serious lens, though this production is famed more for its wonderfully colourful set, costume and projection designs, and the exuberant physical choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, all of which have been acclaimed both here and abroad as creating an “exhilarating spectacle.”

In short, there is no shortage of rich music theatre this season, whether your taste leans more to the socially serious or fantastically escapist, or to all of the combinations in between.

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

MAR 3, 3PM: Perchance to Dream. Toronto Operetta Theatre. TOT’s first production of a musical by famous English composer Ivor Novello (Keep the Home Fires Burning). and one of his greatest hits. The original ran in London from 1945 to 1948.

Toronto Dance Theatre's Persefony SongsMAR 5 TO 9: Persefony Songs. Toronto Dance Theatre. Fleck Dance Theatre at Harbourfront Centre. Christopher House’s reimagining of his early piece based on The Odyssey.

MAR 6 TO 10: Kiss of the Spider Woman. Toronto’s (former) Don Jail. Eclipse Theatre’s debut site-responsive production starring Tracey Michailidis and Kawa Ada.

MAR 17, 3PM: Bijan and Manijeh: A Love Story. Aga Khan Museum. Experience the art of Naqqali (ancient Persian dramatic storytelling involving music, dance, painted scrolls, role playing, gesture, verse, prose and improvisation).

MAR 20 TO 25: If/Then. George Ignatieff Theatre. Trinity College Dramatic Society production of this moving story (by the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning creators Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt of Next to Normal) explores what might have been as the story follows one woman, but two possible paths which her life might have taken. Brian Yorkey is also co-writer of the book of Sting’s The Last Ship.

MAR 23, 7:30PM: The Erik Bruhn Prize Competition. Four Seasons Centre. Balletomanes’ chance to spot future stars of the ballet stage as they perform pieces of both classical and new choreography. Hosted by principal dancer Harrison James with National Ballet of Canada Corps de ballet members Jeannine Haller and Siphesihle November representing the company. Dancers from American Ballet Theatre, The Hamburg Ballet and The Royal Danish Ballet will also compete.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare, and new Canadian plays.

The winter musical theatre season is off to a thriving start with the world premiere of Mike Ross and Sara Wilson’s new musical Rose winning over audiences at Soulpepper. Based on Gertrude Stein’s only children’s book, The World is Round, this is very much a children’s or family show, except that Rose’s solo songs transcend that context through their philosophy and aching vulnerability, as she tries to understand who, what, where, and why, she is, so that she can finally say her name out loud.

Although I have never seen Soulpepper’s famous Alligator Pie shows, I imagine that the staging style of Rose draws from those years of experience – a talented ensemble of actors and musicians happily playing myriad parts, slipping in and out of characters and costumes with the strum of a guitar. Hailey Gillis is superb as Rose, awkward and gawky as only a nine-year-old little girl can be; but beautiful in stillness and intensity as she focuses passionately on the goals of her adventure. Peter Fernandes is an excellent foil as Willie, her best friend, who is not bothered by existential questions at all until the day Rose is missing from school. The music is accessible and fun, and the show has huge potential though it seems still to be teetering between two plausible personalities, and hasn’t yet decided exactly how serious or tongue-in-cheek the ensemble should be. (Rose runs until February 24 at the Young Centre).

From family theatre to rock and roll, Jukebox Hero, based on the songs of Foreigner, notably I Want To Know What Love Is, Jukebox Hero and Waiting For A Girl Like You has its official world premiere at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, February 20 to 24, after successful workshop performances this past summer in Calgary and Edmonton. A dream come true for Foreigner founder and front man Mick Jones, the musical idea was inspired by a passing comment from Diana Ross back in the 1980s and is now coming to life through the partnering of the band with Canadian producer and promoter Jeff Parry (Annerin Theatricals) who says he is determined to develop more new musicals in Alberta where he is based. Directed by Broadway veteran Randy Johnson, with a book by prolific British duo Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, there is Canadian content on the team with music direction by Mark Camilleri and choreography by Tracy Flye as well as a Canadian cast featuring Geordie Brown and Richard Clarkin.

Sting. Photo by Eric Ryan AndersonMirvish is also presenting a very exciting Canadian premiere: an exclusive production created for Toronto of Sting’s 2014 musical The Last Ship; at the Princess of Wales Theatre, February 9 to March 24. A deeply personal story for Sting, who grew up in Newcastle, and based on the successful “work-in” staged by the Upper Strathclyde Shipbuilders in Scotland in the 1970s, the show tells the story of a young man who returns home after 17 years at sea to find that the local shipyard is closing and no one knows what will come next, although a half built ship looms over the working class homes below. Sting will star in the role of Jackie White, the union leader who, with his wife, rallies the community in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Original music and lyrics by Sting along with some of his best loved songs (Island of Souls, All This Time, When We Dance) form the score, and the book is a reworking of the original by director Lorne Campbell. This new version recently completed a sold-out run at Newcastle’s Northern Stage and a successful 12 -week UK tour. Perhaps this will be the beginning of a new North American life for the show. The Celtic-influenced music and theme irresistibly make me think of Come From Away, another wonderful story of a community coming together to do the impossible.

The Kiss of the Spider Woman

Jumping into the hotbed of musical theatre creation that Toronto has become, is a new company: Eclipse Theatre Company (ETC), founded by Canadian Broadway star Chilina Kennedy, artistic producer, Evan Tsitsias, artistic director, and choreographer/performer Sara-Jeanne Hosie, executive director.

ETC’s mandate is to create site responsive work: reworking traditional musicals in non-traditional settings; producing new Canadian works; and laying the groundwork for future site responsive work through their annual Lab where musical theatre creators are invited to experiment and create in a hothouse atmosphere. The Lab had its first outing in 2018, and their first full production will be Kander and Ebb’s The Kiss ofThe Spider Woman, at Toronto’s old Don Jail, starring Tracy Michailidis, Kawa Ada, and Jonathan Winsby.

Kiss of the Spider Woman famously began its road to a Tony Award-winning run on Broadway here in Toronto in 1992 under the banner of Livent. Directed by Hal Prince, it starred Chita Rivera as the Spider Woman and Brent Carver, who leapt to a new level of stardom and international recognition as Molina, the gay window dresser imprisoned for a “sexual indiscretion,” who survives the awful reality of his cell by escaping into Hollywood-fuelled fantasies of another world ruled by Aurora, the Spider Woman of the title.

Intrigued by the emergence of this company, their mandate, and their choice of flagship production, I asked two of the founders – Kennedy and Tsitsias – a few questions about their goals and what we might expect when Kiss of the Spider Woman opens in March.

WN: Why a new musical theatre company now – and in Toronto?

Eclipse: We are all music theatre performers and creators and wanted to contribute our share to the Canadian musical theatre landscape. Creating opportunities for both artists and audience was something that compelled us. Canadian musicals are exploding right now and we couldn’t be happier to be part of that ecology. We are also strong advocates for creation and wanted a chance to incubate new work to add to the expanding canon.

How did you come together to share this goal and why is creating “site responsive theatre” at the heart of your mandate?

Chilina: When I originally had the idea to start the journey to what is now the Eclipse Theatre Company, I wanted to bring on board an artistic director who had a strong and passionate vision for the company and who would help add a new colour to the already rich theatre scene in Toronto. Evan was the perfect choice and I have been excited by his ideas from our very first phone conversation. The addition of Sara-Jeanne Hosie made the perfect triumvirate. Her business skills mixed with a smart and creative artistic mind made her an easy and clear partner for Evan and I.

Evan: I have spent the better of ten years travelling around the world creating site responsive theatre in countries like Germany and Taiwan, usually creating original pieces that spoke to the history of the space we were creating and performing in and making parallels to what is happening now in the world. I wanted to bring that to Toronto, which has a rich history and is full of stories itself. We wanted to animate spaces that highlight that history and bring awareness to those spaces. It’s also a matter of “Why spend all that time and effort to recreate a space for a piece inside a theatre when we can find an actual space that exists and bring theatre to it?” Of course, this poses its own challenges, but in the end it’s all worth it for this magical experience.

Why did you choose Kiss of the Spider Woman as your inaugural show, and Toronto’s old (former) Don Jail as the performance location? Which came first? 

Evan: They kind of went hand in hand. I started by Googling “interesting spaces” in Toronto to see what would inspire or trigger an idea, while at the same time I created a list of shows that interested me. When I saw the Don Jail, those two ideas collided thrillingly into this production.

Kawa Ada in The Kiss of the Spider Woman. Photo by John GundyImmersive and site specific shows are on the rise again – what in your approach to using the space will be unique? Also, will the performers and/or the audience be stationary or moving around the site? 

Without giving much away, there is definitely a walk-through element to the piece pre-show that will be immersive. We are also doing our best to animate the space fully during the show to make that space a character in itself. The space, though extremely high, is still intimate and has the perfect bones to make the audience feel like they are experiencing the show inside the actual environment.

Given that the show will be in a non-traditional space, how big a band/orchestra will you have, and will they be set in one place or able to move to follow the staging if necessary? 

We are using a full orchestra and at the moment they are staying stationary since that space is an extremely tall echo-filled chamber so we need to control the sound as much as possible.

The run of Kiss of the Spider Woman is very short, just seven performances from March 6 to 10. Why such a short run?

This particular Eclipse “event” is something we want to produce annually. It is based on the New York City Centre’s Encores Series, where, although it’s “concert” style, it is still as fully realized as possible, but with scaled-back costumes and set, which is one of the reasons we are staging it in the Don Jail (where we are literally in the set). The short run is a way to produce these larger-scale shows on a more limited budget, otherwise it might not be possible. Musicals are extremely expensive!

How does this first production connect with the two other main elements of your season the Lab and the new Canadian show you will present next?

The Lab was an exhilarating project and the true definition of site responsive. We brought the creators to a loft we rented in Leslieville and, without ever seeing it until the first day of the week long project, they entered the space and responded to it, writing scenes and songs about the space itself and the objects they found in it. The results were tremendous and it was a magical event. We are now incubating a show from one of the scenes that was written that week based on a toy they found in the space. The other project is still in development, but again, we will respond to the piece appropriately once it’s completed. Even if it ends up being in a traditional theatre, we will do our best to create a space and environment that feels as immersive as possible.

Kiss of the Spider Woman runs March 6 to 10 at the Don Jail administrative building. For more information go to eclipsetheatre.ca.

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

CONTINUING TO FEB 9: Tapestry Opera/Theatre Passe Muraille. Hook Up. Opera meets music theatre in this hard-hitting new opera about the issue of consent by Julie Tepperman and Chris Thornborrow featuring a fabulous young cast of crossover performers directed by Richard Greenblatt in his opera-directing debut.

FEB 14 TO 24: Canadian Music Theatre Project/Theatre Sheridan. My Bonnie Lass. A first look at another new Canadian musical, this one with a Scottish theme, by Johnny Reid and Matt Murray.

FEB 21 TO 24: Canadian Stage. who we are in the dark. Peggy Baker joins forces with Jeremy Gara and Sara Neufeld of the award-winning Canadian band Arcade Fire, seven dancers, and light and projection designers, for the world premiere of what promises to be an exciting new collaboration

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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