Summertime, and the living is … hot. If you’re looking for a night’s entertainment beneath cooler skies, head east to Millbrook, Ontario, where 4th Line Theatre is presenting a new musical on its Barnyard Stage at Winslow’s Farm. Opening on July 3for a month’s run, Queen Marie, by Toronto playwright, Shirley Barrie, is a sure bet for engaging entertainment that is, well, cool — in both senses of the word. Chronicling the true story of a Canadian original — Marie Dressler, a beloved star of the silver screen who rose from humble beginnings in Cobourg (where she was born in 1868) to the heights of Hollywood fame— the play is the stuff of legend, certain to delight all ages.

“Many people know Marie Dressler’s name,” says Kim Blackwell, director of the show, “but few know the real story and the obstacles she overcame.” This is exactly the reason that Barrie was attracted to the project. “When Robert Winslow (artistic director of 4th Line Theatre) asked me if I’d be interested in working on a play about [the comic actress], I knew very little about her except for a famous scene with Jean Harlow in [the film] Dinner At Eight.” Barrie soon discovered that Dressler “upended expectations” all through her career. “She was large, and not conventionally attractive, but she used these “drawbacks” to create a new kind of physical, masculine comedy with heart that won over and delighted audiences. I’ve always been intrigued by women from the past who refused to play by the rules and Marie, who took great chances and rarely backed down from a fight, certainly is one of these.

Queen Marie is scored by 4th Line’s long-time musical director, Justin Wilcox, who integrates songs Dressler performed during her lifetime with music he composed for the production, including solo numbers and chorale works for the ensemble of 20 performers Blackwell has cast. To augment instrumentation for a trio of piano, strings and percussion, Wilcox has members of the chorus play instruments ranging from clarinet to ukulele. After scoring dozens of shows for 4th Line on his own, the Peterborough resident enjoys collaborating with lyricists, and especially appreciates the opportunity to write “stand-alone,” character-driven songs like A Life at Last, a ballad he wrote for Shelley Simester, the Stratford Festival veteran who plays Marie Dressler.

When she was nearly 50, Dressler’s support of the 1919 Actors Equity strike ended her career as a Broadway actress. By the late 1920s, she was largely forgotten and living in near-poverty. In 1927, after meeting screenwriter Frances Marion (played by Robert Winslow in this production), Dressler began to work in the “talkies,” quickly becoming Hollywood’s number one box-office attraction, and winning the Oscar in 1930 for her performance in Min and Bill. Since her death from cancer in 1934, her fame has not been forgotten … especially in Cobourg where the home of her birth now houses a museum and visitor information centre. Each year, the Marie Dressler Foundation Vintage Film Festival offers screenings of her films in Cobourg and Port Hope.

Robert Service, another Canadian original, is the subject of Wanderlust, the second new musical to receive its world premiere this summer in Ontario. A collaboration between two Vancouver artists, Marek Norman, a composer and musician, and Morris Panych, one of Canada’s most celebrated playwrights and directors, the show opens on July 11 at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival where it runs through September.

Based on the poetry of Robert Service (the “Bard of the Yukon”) whose poems, along with additional text by Panych, constitute Norman’s lyrics, Wanderlust focuses on Service’s creativity, which might seem ironic in that he spent much of his life working in a bank. But, as Panych points out, even as a ledger-keeper, Service had “a boundless imagination” that allowed him to write most of his Klondike poems long before he travelled north. “A shaper of images and stories, of places he’d never even seen, things he had never done,” Service piques Panych’s own creativity, leading him to explore the man’s life and work in what ultimately becomes a tribute to his passion for poetry. “The story I have written is nothing close to the truth, of course,” Panych adds wryly.

If this project offers a more pertinent irony, it rests with the fact that Service’s best-known poems such as The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee still are dismissed by literary scholars as doggerel. Despite such disapprobation, Songs of a Sourdough, the collection in which the poems were published in 1907, has sold more than three million copies, making it the most commercially successful book of poetry of the 20th century. How Marek Norman uses the poems in his sonwgs is just one reason to check out this innovative musical. Another is to see the poetry brought to life by such accomplished actor/singers as Dan Chameroy (Dan McGrew), Randy Hughson (Sam McGee), and Lucy Peacock (Mrs. Munsch). That Tom Rooney plays Robert Service also bodes well for the show. An accomplished actor, singer and comedian, most recently seen on Toronto stages in Queen of Puddings’ Becket:Feck It! last February, Rooney may have found the perfect role for his winsome chicanery.

Robert Service emigrated to Canada from England at the age of 21, finally reaching the Yukon in 1904. After his poetry achieved wide publication, he became so successful (and wealthy) that he settled in Paris where he went on to write novels and an autobiography, besides more poetry. Often called the “Canadian Kipling,” he cared little about critical approval. “Verse, not poetry, is what I was after,” he explained late in life, “something the man in the street would take notice of and the sweet old lady would paste in her album; something the schoolboy would spout and the fellow in the pub would quote.” With no desire to become a household name, he nonetheless became one.

While Fred Eaglesmith has yet to achieve such fame, he still might, and for much the same reasons. Already, he has accumulated a substantial following for his unique singing voice and song-writing talents that combine to create a sound best described as alternative country-and-western, crossed with folk and bluegrass. Performing with a band known variously as the Flying Squirrels or the Flathead Noodlers (depending on the style of music it plays), Eaglesmith tours his Travelling Show across Canada, the US and Europe. Last month, the Blythe Festival premiered Dear Johnny Deere, a new musical based on his songs, and, if you hurry, you can catch it before it closes on July 7.

Directed by Eric Coates, artistic director of the festival, Dear Johnny Deere is written by Winnipeg playwright Ken Cameron who explains that, like many other “Fred-heads,” he fell so hard for Fred’s music that it now features prominently “in the soundtrack to my life.” Inasmuch as Eaglesmith’s songs frequently concern failing farms and small businesses, and are peopled with characters forced to deal with loss of love, livelihood, or both, they were an obvious choice for Cameron when he decided to write a musical about Johnny and Caroline, a couple struggling to keep their farm and marriage together, even as the bills pile up. Cameron explains that “[When] I set about cataloguing each of the more than 140 songs Fred has recorded, I was drawn to the quirky down-on their-luck characters and his accessible imagery.” All he had to do was create a play-list, and he had a score.

Fashioning a narrative around Eaglesmith’s lyrics, Cameron discovered that the composer’s songs “are like short stories, each with a twist ending in the final verse.” It was inevitable that he would arrive at a tractor to help resolve John and Caroline’s plight, given that Eaglesmith regularly writes about machines or vehicles such as trains, trucks, cars, and engines. The play-list for Dear Johnny Deere, besides including titles like White Trash, Bench Seat Baby and Yellow Barley Straw, featuresFreight Train and Old John Deere — which suggests not only its rural emphasis but, as well, the prominence of a tractor in its plot, a perfect ingredient for a festival like Blythe that foregrounds Canadian plays which speak to a rural community.

It’s one thing to use Eaglesmith’s songs to score a musical; it’s quite another matter to imitate the sound made by Fred Eaglesmith and the Flying Squirrels. Yet Blythe’s musical director, David Archibald, attempts just that by giving J.D. Nicholson the role of Johnny, and the task of singing like Fred. He’s made a good choice, for Jack, a founding member of the 1991 JUNO-Award-winning band, the Leslie Spit Treeo, is a seasoned singer/songwriter, currently a member of the popular Toronto-based the Cameron Family Singers. Archibald, a composer and singer himself, joins Nicholson, along with Matthew Campbell and other seasoned singers, to give Dear Johnny Deere a musical style that has won Eaglesmith’s blessing.

So, take your pick. This summer, pack a hamper and head east or west for big-time theatre in small-town Ontario. Cool originals, guaranteed. 

Based in Toronto, Robert Wallace writes about theatre and performance. He can be contacted at musictheatre@thewholenote.com.

Anniversaries are great occasions to celebrate success. Fittingly, then, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival presents The Pirates of Penzance, one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular operettas, to help mark its 60th season. The festival has a long tradition of Savoyard successes, beginning with Tyrone Guthrie’s groundbreaking HMS Pinafore in the 1960s. During the 1980s and 1990s, the company’s innovative productions of G&S classics attracted a huge following, especially those directed by Brian MacDonald, the visionary Canadian choreographer who toured his Stratford production of The Mikado to London, New York, and across Canada to showcase the festival’s achievement. “Now once again we’re taking a fresh approach to this beloved repertoire,” says Antoni Cimolino, the festival’s general director, “one that will surely inspire a whole new generation of G&S fans.” Judging by the production that I saw in preview last month, he may be right.

There’s nothing quite like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, of which there are 14, all written in the late 19th century for the ambitious producer, Richard D’Oyly Carte who, in 1881, built the Savoy Theatre in London specifically to accommodate their presentation. Although the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company closed in the 1980s, replications of its productions still appear world-wide, as do updated versions that reinterpret the originals to meet the tastes of contemporary audiences. At their core, no matter what style of presentation, all depict a comic view of human folly in nonsensical narratives that use satire, parody, slapstick and exaggeration in the service of an energetic romp. A pre-cursor to musical comedy, the shows rely less on dialogue and more on music to construct characterization and propel plot — scores adroitly composed by Andrew Sullivan to complement the witty librettos of W.S. Gilbert. Talking about Stratford’s Pirates, Franklin Brasz, its musical director, is quick to point out that “those witty lyrics are inextricably tied to memorable melodies.” He adds, “I derive great pleasure from Arthur Sullivan’s wonderfully crafted music: solo arias with gorgeous melody, rich choral writing, deceptively clever rhythmic playfulness … ”

Stratford’s Pirates provides an excellent introduction to the world of G&S by setting the show backstage at the Savoy Theatre where the audience can view the mechanics of staging as well as its effects — the rigging, for example, that facilitates a flying kite, or the moving flats that simulate a roiling sea. Ethan McSweeny, director of the show, and Anna Louizos, the set designer, incorporate concepts from the contemporary “Steampunk” movement into a design inspired by backstage images of Victorian theatre. “I was thrilled to learn more about these retro-futurists,” McSweeny explains of the Steampunks, “[and] their glorious expression of neo-Victoriana through the lens of Jules Verne. I think an important aspect of Steampunk is its effort to render our increasingly invisible and virtual world into ostensible and visible machines.”

The approach works well, allowing for a stage within a stage that deconstructs the technology of theatrical illusion even as it creates moments of high humour and memorable beauty. The ironies of the approach suit the improbable story of Frederic, an upright young man who, as a child, mistakenly is indentured to a band of pirates that later is revealed to be more (or less) than it seems. About to turn 21, Frederic believes he finally has fulfilled his obligations to his criminal comrades, and vows to seek their downfall, only to discover that, through a preposterous technicality, he must remain their ward for 63 more years. Simultaneously, he falls in love with Mabel, the comely daughter of Major-General Stanley. Bound by his sense of duty, he convinces Mabel to wait for him faithfully … until, well, it’s best that you find out what happens for yourself.

McSweeny hews closely to Gilbert’s book and libretto, noting that “I have even gone back to some passages that were in earlier drafts.” Brasz takes more liberties, using new orchestrations (by Michael Starobin) “that are respectful of the core G&S orchestral sound but add new flavours by incorporating Irish whistles, bodhran drum, accordion, mandolin, even banjo.” A few costumed musicians join the actors onstage but, for the most part, the 20-piece orchestra performs from its traditional location under the stage — the orchestra pit. As for the singing, Brasz confesses that “the vocal challenges are, well … operatic. With few book scenes, the cast is singing throughout the show. There is antiphonal chorus writing, layered themes, demanding patter sections (and not just famously for the I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General), coloratura, and cadenzas. The vocal forces are massive and demanding but satisfying to perform; and we’ve assembled an extraordinary cast …”

theatre_42ndstreet4_photo_by_david_houIndeed, Stratford’s The Pirates of Penzance is a crowd-pleaser that deserves all the accolades it is bound to receive — a show “respectful of tradition but absolutely contemporary at the same time,” to quote McSweeny. Something of the same could be said about 42nd Street, the other musical offering that I saw in preview at Stratford last month, albeit for different reasons. There’s a symmetry between the two shows that becomes especially evident when one views them back-to-back, a connection that suggests a possible reason for their being programmed together in an anniversary season. Each depicts theatre from a back-stage perspective that allows the audience to see the process of making a show. Whereas McSweeny chose the approach to help conceptualize his innovative staging of Pirates, Gary Griffin, the director of 42nd Street, had no choice in the matter: the book for the musical begins and ends on-stage.

42nd Street originated as a novel, written by Bradford Ropes in the early 1930s. Better remembered is the 1933 film version that ushered in the career of Ruby Keeler and introduced choreographer Busby Berkeley to the song-writing talents of Harry Warren (composer) and Al Dubin (lyricist). The stage version of the story that premiered on Broadway in 1980 under the direction of choreographer Gower Champion primarily uses the movie as its source, which possibly accounts for the flimsiness of the book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble. This quintessential back-stage narrative in which an unknown chorine saves the show on opening night after its leading lady breaks an ankle, has inspired so many imitations that its original impact has been lost to cliché — except for the tap dancing.

“There’s an old saying that when the characters in musical theatre can’t speak any more, they sing; and when they can’t sing any more, they dance.” So writes Gary Griffin in his notes for Stratford’s production of 42nd Street . “There’s a real desperation behind [the characters’] dance; they need to get a job in order to survive.” Indeed, the mood of the Great Depression gives the whole production an ironic, if not bitter, edge. When rehearsing “Pretty Lady,” the show they are about to open, the chorus dresses in various shades of brown. For the show itself, they switch to costumes of black, silver and gold — flashing more lamé and glitter than I would have thought possible outside Las Vegas. Literally dancing on coins in the number We’re in the Money, their tap routines become increasingly frenetic, a performance of urgency in which the sound of synchronized shoes is nerve-wrackingly loud. While the effect highlights the dancers’ polish and precision, it also demystifies the genre: this is an exercise in show business, with tap-dancing its tendentious technology.

Griffin calls 42nd Street a “noisy” musical, one that has “a certain brash energy that befits its subject matter.” Alex Sanchez, choreographer for the show, explains, “Gary and I were also interested in making it a sexier and grittier production, much like the film.” His biggest concern was the floor of the Festival Theatre which “after the show, is taken apart and replaced by the floor for the next production. I didn’t know what to expect as far as the kind of material they used and how the taps would sound. The staff and crew of the Festival … created a great sounding deck aided by floor microphones.”

Microphones also are on view in the orchestra loft that Griffin has integrated into the set design. “I wanted the audience to see and feel the presence of the musicians,” he explains; “it was important to me to put the musicians into the world of the play.” Michael Barber, musical director for the show, agrees with the decision: “I think it adds an excitement to the show not felt when the band is hidden from view. It’s also important because people see the musicians play — it reminds them that there is a live band — and that’s what it takes to make a show sound great.” The orchestrations by Philip Lang, written for the 1980 version, are reminiscent of the 1930s, he suggests, but “reimagined through the lens of 1980s Broadway. The effect is more glamorous and showy than trying to go period …”

For all its glitz and glamour, this production of 42nd Street is memorable more for its dancing than anything else. Peppered with popular standards like Lullaby of Broadway, Shuffle off to Buffalo and the eponymous 42nd Street, the score is as familiar as the narrative is known. What feels contemporary, even as it remains traditional, is the sight and sound of tap dancers filling the Festival Stage … and the reasons for their deployment.

Based in Toronto, Robert Wallace writes about theatre and performance. He can be contacted at musictheatre@thewholenote.com.

15_sheridan_rent_0364Rent, the iconic rock musical that stormed the bastions of musical theatre during the 1990s, returns to Toronto in a new incarnation mid-month at the Panasonic theatre. This time ’round, it arrives as a transfer from Sheridan College where, last December, it excited acclaim at the school’s Oakville campus when it was presented by Theatre Sheridan as a showcase for the graduating class of the advanced diploma program in music theatre performance. Remounting the high-octane show for a limited run is a no-brainer for theatre impresario, David Mirvish, who considers Rent “this generation’s best musical about the struggle young people face in finding their way in the world. Having a new generation of talent from Sheridan College … is perfect casting.”

The endorsement by Mirvish is more than just hype. For years, Sheridan graduates have helped build Toronto’s music theatre community. Read the cast notes for any musical produced recently in the GTA and you’ll find the bio of a Sheridan theatre grad. And if you’re lucky enough to get a ticket to Jesus Christ, Superstar, currently running on Broadway, check out the résumé of Chilina Kennedy who plays Mary Magdalene; she, along with two others in the cast, honed her skills at Sheridan. This is just one of the reasons that Jacob MacInnis, who plays the role of Tom Collins in Rent, was keen to enter the program which, he says, is “tops in Canada.”

Theatre Sheridan heralds the cast of Rent as “the stars of tomorrow” — a sobriquet justified by the school’s track record. The phrase also could apply to Rent’s characters, an eclectic mix of twenty-something artists who scramble to eke out careers in the mean streets of New York City. Written by Jonathan Larson, who died unexpectedly before the show’s off-Broadway premiere in 1996 (and its Pulitzer Prize-winning success), the libretto is based on Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème. AIDS replaces tuberculosis, the scourge of Puccini’s opera; Paris in the late 1800s is reconfigured as New York’s Alphabet City in the early 1990s; poverty still prevails; and love, lust and lassitude suffuse the characters’ hopes with a paradoxical blend of energy and langour that lends “la vie bohème” an air of melancholic urgency.

Despite the angst and terrible odds, love survives in Rent — three varieties of it, no less. Roger, a jittery musician traumatized by AIDS, falls for Mimi, a night-club dancer with a habit for cocaine. Maureen, the ex-lover of Roger’s roommate, Mark (a film-maker), stakes out a love-hate relationship with her new amour, Joanne, an erstwhile lawyer. Tom Collins, a gay anarchist and sometime college professor, picks up with Angel, a flamboyant drag-queen, also living with AIDS, who teaches him to trust. More important than the characters’ individual lives is the community they help create — one where the incessant demand to “pay the rent” signifies the crises that threaten love and creativity. “Seasons of Love,” the song that opens Act Two (and the show’s one bone fide hit), is a paean to survival in a world that frequently condemns love as wrong, sex as dangerous, and art as frivolous, if not decadent. Rejecting the costs of social and artistic approbation, the characters forge their bonds without a belief in tomorrow. Together, they celebrate the present which, for some of them, is all they will ever know.

Jacob MacInnis tells me that Lezlie Wade, the director of Sheridan’s Rent, conceived the production to foreground community. “For her, the cast is a family,” he says — a large one, in that it numbers 32. “Everyone has a story-line with which to build their character. This isn’t a ‘leads plus ensemble’ production; everyone takes the final bow together.” The approach suits a show that offers “a snap-shot of an important moment in American history,” as MacInnis puts it, a time when artists “cried out for people to open their eyes to what was happening all around them.” He pauses, as if considering how to continue. “A group of young artists struggles to leave something behind. What will it be? At the end of the show, they know. It will be love.” He pauses again, then gets personal. “I found a lot of myself in Tom Collins …”

17_colemanlemieux_fhom3.jpgAlso opening mid-month is From the House of Mirth, another adaptation of a famous work — in this case, a novel by celebrated American author, Edith Wharton, first published in 1905. Unlike Theatre Sheridan’s production of Rent, this show is created and performed by some of Canada’s best-known, senior artists, working under the auspices of Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie (CLC), one of the country’s most respected dance initiatives. Founded in 2000 by Bill Coleman and Laurence Lemieux, pre-eminent choreographers and dancers, CLC creates intimate, small-scale performances, as well as spectacular stage shows, that feature some of Canada’s greatest dancers. This new presentation qualifies as both.

From the House of Mirth is a music/dance/theatre collaboration with an original score by Rodney Sharman, libretto by Alex Poch-Goldin, and choreography by James Kudelka, the CLC’s resident choreographer and director of the show. Kudelka stresses that this version of Wharton’s story evolves “not as a ballet, not as an opera, and not as a sung play,” but as all three, with each form picking up the narrative according to the emotional and intellectual demands of the moment. Four male singers take the stage, along with four dancers, all female. Only the male characters use songs to tell the story. The female characters remain silent, danced by Victoria Bertram, Claudia Moore, Christianne Ullmark and Laurence Lemieux who plays the lead character, Lily Bart. The four singers — Scott Belluz (countertenor), Graham Thomson (tenor), Alex Dobson (bass-baritone) and Geoffrey Sirret (baritone) — like the dancers, are accompanied by a five-piece chamber orchestra of piano, harmonium, harp, violin and cello, under the direction of John Hess.

Despite its substantial cast, From the House of Mirth recalls the salon evenings of Wharton’s time — genteel soirées staged in intimate venues, often private parlours. The approach fits the Citadel, the venue CLC now calls home. The performance space is housed in a three-storey building erected in 1912 at the base of Regent Park, formerly owned by The Salvation Army and renovated by CLC during the past few years. A state-of-the-art dance studio that seats an audience of 60, the Citadel’s intimacy fits Kudelka’s reimagining of New York salon culture in the early 20th century. Ironically, he uses the piece to expose the repressive manners and manipulations of the society that treasured the form — a “hot-house of traditions and conventions,” as Edith Wharton called it.

In the novel, Wharton charts the descent of Lily Bart from a glittering social circle in 1890s New York to poverty and a solitary death, her dreams of marriage — whether for wealth or for love — shattered by convention and her own conflicted desires. The challenge for Kudelka and his collaborators has been to create a vocabulary of music, movement, and theatre that evokes the novel’s moral issues while, simultaneously, it illustrates Lily’s inner life that evolves through her relationships with a number of men.

For composer Rodney Sharman, this challenge is tantamount to creating a structure that unites the disparate elements of the score. The music, he explains, “must set an atmosphere for the dance”; equally as crucial, it “must convey the most important moments in Lily’s story.” The songs sung by the men in From the House of Mirth use Poch-Godin’s libretto to convey much, but not all, of the exposition. “In the pivotal scene where Lily is disinherited,” Sharman notes, “there is no song whatsoever.” Moments like this lead him to remark, “it is a testament to the power of dance that the women in the piece can communicate so much, so fully, without using words.”

At the end of Wharton’s novel, when Lily dies from an overdose of a sleeping powder, her complicity in the event is left ambiguous. Not so Wharton’s attitude to the milieu she depicts with her cautionary tale. Summarizing its theme as “lost illusions and destructive melancholy” she pares her point-of-view to a succinct description that highlights the novel’s social critique. Coincidentally, one could apply her summary to the characters in Rent. At least for them, however, love survives, even as idealism fades.

Ah, New York, New York: “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere …” Plus ça change

And There’s More!

May is the month for musical adaptations (or so it appears this year), at least two of which deserve mention in addition to those above. Opening early in the month is West Side Story, one of the most famous adaptations in recent history, in a touring version presented by Dancap Productions. Inspired by William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the book by Arthur Laurents updates the rivalry between the Capulets and Montagues to New York’s Upper West Side in the mid-1950s where the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage gangs, fight to control the streets. The Sharks and their Puerto Rican heritage are taunted by the Jets, a white working-class gang, even as Tony, a Jet, falls for Maria, the sister of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks. With a soaring score by Leonard Bernstein, poetic lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and the electric choreography of Jerome Robbins, the show is one of the great achievements of American musical theatre.

West Side Story premiered on Broadway in 1957. Fifty years later, Arthur Laurents undertook a major revival of the show by weaving Spanish lyrics and dialogue into the English libretto, arguing that “the musical theatre and cultural conventions of 1957 made it next to impossible for the characters to have authenticity. Every member of both gangs was always a potential killer even then. Now they actually will be. Only Tony and Maria try to live in a different world.” This new “edgy” production, even more successful than the original, is the one on tour to Toronto.

Opening late in the month, Dear World is possibly as obscure as West Side Story is well-known. Using music and lyrics by Jerry Herman to refashion Jean Giraudoux’s play, The Madwoman of Chaillot, the show was a flop when it opened in New York in 1969 for a brief, calamitous run. Despite negative reviews, it won Angela Lansbury a Tony Award for her performance as the Countess Aurelia, a woman driven mad by a lost love who spends her days reminiscing in the basement of a Parisian bistro — at least, until it is targeted for demolition by an multinational oil corporation. Conceived as a chamber piece, the show reputedly was overwhelmed by the grandiose design of its initial staging. A subsequent revision of the book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee returned the script to its intimacy, and Herman added three new songs to expand his melodic and clever score. Presumably, this version is the one that the Civic Light Opera presents at the Fairview Library Theatre until June 9th. Check it out.

Based in Toronto, Robert Wallace writes about theatre and performance. He can be contacted at musictheatre@thewholenote.com.

Fans of a capella singing are in for another treat. Following fast on the heels of Obeah Opera, whose unabashed vocal prowess thrilled audiences and critics last month, another new play filled with similarly skilful, unaccompanied singing opens this month (April 18) at Toronto’s Factory Theatre, courtesy of Artistic Fraud, the innovative Newfoundland company known for its large-scale, chorus-based work. Created by founding members Jillian Keiley, artistic director and director, and Robert Chafe, artistic associate and playwright, the company’s production of Oil and Water opened in St. John’s last year to rave reviews; now it is touring Canada and Newfoundland to standing ovations.

_s_oil_and_water_at_factory_theatre_apr_18-may6_2012_-_photo_by_paul_dalyOil and Water, like Obeah Opera, unites disparate musical traditions in an original score (composed specifically for this production by Andrew Craig) that relies on an unlikely blend — Newfoundland folk songs and African-American gospel. More an underscore than songs within scenes, the music augments the emotional impact of the script by Robert Chafe (2010 Governor General’s Award winner for drama) that uses a cast of ten to dramatize the true story of Lanier Phillips, the sole African-American survivor of the USS Truxton, a military ship that sank off the shores of Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula in 1942. “Often the cast stand in the shadows singing wordlessly or humming, which is moving enough in itself,” critic Rob Ormsby writes of the show. “But when we hear, for instance, ‘There is a Balm in Gilead,’ the power of the words and the longing for deliverance with which they are conveyed are simply overwhelming.”

music_theatre_1_robert_chafe___jillian_keiley2Indeed, Oil and Water concerns much more than the wreck of the USS Truxton. Rather than merely document Phillips’ terrifying experience of the disaster, Chafe expands the narrative to depict the mess-hand’s desperate efforts to send his daughter to an integrated school in Boston two decades later. As well, he introduces Phillips’ great grandmother’s live as a slave to counter-point the harsh existence of the St. Lawrence mining families who rescued 46 of the Truxton’s crew. His aim, Chafe explains in an interview with CBC Radio, is to contrast the villagers’ acts of kindness with the racist attacks that Phillips and his family suffered throughout their lives in the United States.

Ironically, until the 1980s, many Newfoundlanders were reluctant to talk about the heroic deeds of the people of St. Lawrence on the fateful night of the ship-wreck, if for one reason only: Violet Pike, the woman charged to clean the oil from Phillips’ body after he was rescued, kept scrubbing needlessly at his skin because she didn’t realize it was black. “For a long time the experience of what happened between Violet Pike and Lanier Phillips, and her lack of awareness of African people — black people — was viewed by a lot of Newfoundlanders as a source of shame: it was a ‘Newfie Joke’.” Chafe notes that it was Phillips himself who changed this attitude. “When Lanier started coming back to Newfoundland in the Eighties, and went to St. Lawrence and told his story, he changed this perception. He’s the person who contextualized what happened between him and this woman as a moment of innocence and incredible beauty.”

Oil and water don’t mix, or so the adage goes. In the case of Oil and Water, they alchemically fuse to bring about not only one man’s redemption, but that of a whole town as well — a statement that might seem grandiose were it not for Phillips’s life-long praise of his Newfoundland saviours. Until his death last month, Lanier Phillips continued to credit the 48 hours he spent with the people of St. Lawrence 70 years ago for more than his life. In countless talks and testimonials, he claimed, without qualification, that the encounter renewed his belief in human kindness and inspired his fight for civil rights. When he died, Artistic Fraud issued a press release expressing their regret at his passing; they also explained how difficult it was for them to convey “how much [this man] has done for us. Lanier Phillips was a friend unlike any other to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, an unparalleled champion of this place. The way he saw us changed forever the way we saw ourselves.”

Following the wreck of his ship in 1942, Phillips fought to become the first black sonar technician in the U.S. Navy, eventually enjoying a career in marine research that he worked to achieve as strenuously as he campaigned for civil rights. To dramatize Phillips’ struggle, Chafe uses two actors, Ryan Allen, who plays Phillips at 19, and Jeremiah Sparks, who depicts him as an older man. Jillian Keiley cast her net wide across Canada to secure actors who could handle the complex demands of the script: “It would be helpful it they all were acrobats, as well as actors and singers,” she remarks as she describes the challenges of the set that is dominated by a giant representation of a sextant. As in all of her work with Artistic Fraud, the accomplished director takes an imagistic approach to staging, effecting stylized activity that often requires the precision of dance. The style is as visually stunning as it is physically difficult.

music_theatre_paul_sportelliA more traditional approach to staging, as well as to singing, characterizes Ragtime, an equally significant production that the Shaw Festival previews this month (beginning April 10) prior to its official opening in late May. Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow (1976), the musical premiered in Toronto in 1996 and transferred to Broadway in January 1998 where it won Tony Awards for its score (Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens) and book (Terrence McNally), as well the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for best musical and best score. Although a “book musical” in the conventional sense, Ragtime shares similarities with Oil and Water in the way it turns to the past to make sense of the present — in this case, the arrival in the United States of immigrants from diverse cultural backgrounds at the beginning of the 20th century, people whose values and customs, not to mention skin colours, often led to misunderstanding and conflict. Explaining her choice of the show to inaugurate the Shaw’s 51st season, Jackie Maxwell, artistic director of the Festival and director of the production, opines that Ragtime “is essentially an examination of the beginnings of the modern American nation [that] captures perfectly a period in history that has had a huge impact on the way we live now.”

McNally’s book for Ragtime, mainly sung-through, interweaves the rise and fall of three American families in New York city — a white, upper-middle-class household in New Rochelle, an African-American musician and his wife and child in Harlem, and an Eastern European artist and his daughter in the Lower East Side — to dramatize the struggles and successes of the period. Intersecting these characters’ stories are incidents involving famous personalities that include magician Harry Houdini, civil rights leader Booker T. Washington, political activist Emma Goldman, business mogul J.P. Morgan, inventor Henry Ford and performer Evelyn Nesbit. McNally’s goal, like Doctorow’s, is to illustrate how ordinary people connect with celebrities, and with history, and how, as a result, each is culpable for shaping the lives of the other.

This is an ambitious project, one that McNally locates in the tradition of Showboat and South Pacific, shows, he suggests, that have “a lot of plot, a moral fabric to the center of them, and a real involvement with the society we live in.” The production also represents a big undertaking for the Shaw, a fact that music director, Paul Sportelli, is well aware of as he rehearses the largest cast ever assembled by the Festival for a musical — 28 adults and four children. Sportelli will conduct an orchestra of 15 musicians from the pit, “essentially taking the same approach in terms of my orchestral adaptation that I did to My Fair Lady last season: being as faithful to the original [instrumentation] as possible, and using keyboards as discreetly as I can — always going for a balanced blend of what is acoustic and what is synthetic. Except of course for the piano writing, which figures prominently in the orchestration, and will not be discreet!”

The score for Ragtime, as intricate as the narrative is complex, is a major achievement in contemporary musical theatre, primarily because it allows Flaherty to work with a variety of styles. While the primary motif is, of course, ragtime, the composer also introduces a wide range of additional musical elements appropriate to the diversity of the characters: Eastern European klezmer music, Western European operetta, Victorian parlour music, gospel, jazz, Tin Pan Alley — all receive serious attention. For Sportelli, “it’s always interesting doing a musical that involves historical forms,” and this is especially the case here where “you can see that the history of forms such as ragtime, the cakewalk, and gospel, have been shaped by the history of African-Americans and race relations between blacks and whites.” With wit and insight, Ahrens’ lyrics add depth to the enterprise, helping to establish the context of the three fictional families even as they foreground the tensions that ensue when their paths intersect.

But perhaps the ultimate achievement of the score of Ragtime is the opportunity it gives the cast for choral singing on a grand scale. “The entire ensemble sings together at times,” Sportelli exclaims with excitement, “and the wall of sound is fantastic!” Indeed, the score of Ragtime is as powerfully complex in its harmonies as it is rich in melody and form. Like Oil and Water, it offers a surfeit of outstanding choral composition, all the more exciting because it tempers emotion with ideas.

There’s More!

An expanded version of this column can be found at www.thewhole­note.com, including details of several one-off concerts featuring songs from the musical theatre repertoire that pop up like spring flowers all through the month. On April 1 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, Encore Entertainment gets things started with “Songs in the Key of Stephen”; the same evening at Koerner Hall, Acting Up Stage Company continues to blur the lines of rock, cabaret and musical theatre that it began two years ago with “Both Sides Now,” in “The Long and Winding Road”; April 23 at the Al Green Theatre, the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre toasts 60 years of contributions to the cultural evolution of downtown Toronto with “Stars on Spadina,” including the singers of Countermeasure, a hot new vocal group whose eclectic use of the contemporary songbook defies notions of genre in its pursuit of originality.

 

Based in Toronto, Robert Wallace writes about
theatre and performance. He can be contacted at

Based in Toronto, Robert Wallace writes about theatre and performance. He can be contacted at musictheatre@thewholenote.com.

The proliferation of musical theatre across the GTA does more than provide new and interesting options for the audience. It also creates work for “triple-threat performers” — those who act, sing and dance, and who like to do it all at once. Two of these I mentioned in my discussion of “off-centre” theatre last month — Jeff Madden and Gabi Epstein; both can be seen this month in another new musical developed south of the border. Indeed, the two popular performers will barely catch their breath after Dani Girl closes at Theatre Passe Muraille early this month before they open in I Love You Because, a production by Angelwalk Theatre at the Studio in the Toronto Centre for the Arts (TCA), on March 28. Neither is complaining; especially not Madden.

I Love You Because marks Madden’s return to the theatre where he scored one of his biggest hits — a portrayal of Frankie Valli in the Dancap production of Jersey Boys that won him a DORA award in 2009. This time out, he’s performing a more intimate show on the Centre’s smaller stage, which will bring him even closer to his growing following of Toronto fans. If for no other reason, he’s excited about his return, which he explained to me last month. “I love working in smaller spaces. Having the audience literally inches away forces you to be at your most honest and real. Any false moment will appear obvious to them, so it puts the onus on the actors to be at their best. And certain shows really suit small spaces: it would be ridiculous to put a show like Dani Girl onto the mainstage of the TCA, for example.”

The same could be said of I Love You Because which employs a cast of six. Like many “off-centre” shows, this modest bijoux premiered off-Broadway at the Village Theatre in 2006 before being produced in similarly small venues such as London’s Landor (2007) and Vancouver’s Granville Island Studio where it had its Canadian premiere last month. A contemporary reworking of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the show heralds the debut of Joshua Salzman (music) and Ryan Cunningham (book and lyrics), a song-writing duo that met in NYU’s graduate programme in musical theatre-writing a few years ago. Relocating the story to present-day New York City, Cunningham refocuses the narrative on a man instead of a woman — Austin Bennett, a young, uptight greeting-card writer (played by Madden), who undergoes a life-change after he meets Marcy, a flighty photographer with whom he initially appears to share nothing in common. Along with their eccentric friends and siblings, the pair of opposites weathers a series of mishaps and mistakes, ultimately learning to love each other because of their differences, not in spite of them — a resolution direct from Austen’s novel.

The structure of the show, which its creators sub-title “a modern-day musical love story,” is notable for its intricate plot, as well as a humorous rendering of the emotional and sexual entanglements of urban characters whose reliance on technology Austen could not have envisaged. Well served by Cunningham’s witty lyrics and Salzman’s melodic jazz/pop score, the book uses a tried and true formula that “ends up exactly where you know it will,” as Neil Genslinger wrote in the New York Times. “But who cares?” he added. “It’s terrific, refreshing fun” — a sentiment echoed by numerous reviewers who found the show’s upbeat and tuneful approach “charming” in the manner of Friends.

I Love You Because resembles [title of show], another quirkily (un)titled contemporary American musical that Angelwalk produced to considerable acclaim last season. One of the reasons the company is rapidly gaining a reputation is by producing these “chamber musicals” — small-cast productions that showcase acting, music and dance with a minimum of staging and effects. Founded as a not-for-profit theatre in 2009 to provide opportunities for emerging and established Canadian theatre professionals, the company’s primary focus is musical theatre. Relying on small casts and simple sets allows it to foreground the talents of its performers, and to supply them with top-notch direction.

Certainly this is the case with I Love You Because, whose director, Darcy Evans, spent eight seasons as an actor and associate director with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival where he honed his directorial smarts on productions such as Hello, Dolly!, The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof and Man of La Mancha. Joining him as musical director on I Love You Because is Lily Ling, well known in Toronto for her work on The Fantasticks at Soulpepper Theatre, and Acting Up’s productions of The Light in the Piazza and Parade, the latter co-produced with Studio 180 last year. Both directors join Angelwalk for the first time — a good indication of the company’s rise in profile that began when it took up residency at TCA, a theatre that Madden, like many, considers “the best in the city. It’s the newest, and the facilities and the staff are all first rate.”

As more small theatres develop projects that draw on the growing rank of musical theatre talent across the GTA, it’s inevitable that resources consolidate into what can be termed a musical theatre community. Madden, one of the busiest performers in the city, maintains that “there certainly is not enough work for local artists coming just from our commercial theatre producers” to sustain a career in the genre. As a result, he’s quick to thank “the group of artists and businessmen who have created those smaller companies to provide work for artists like myself.” Obviously, these companies undertake musicals for more than altruistic reasons; arguably, they recognize that audience interest in the genre grows apace with the talent to create it. “I think just about everybody loves musicals,” Madden says. “Some may hate to admit it, but let’s face it, music is universal. Everyone responds to music on an emotional level, and when it suits the story being told onstage, it can make for a magical experience.”

This idea no doubt also influenced the formation of another theatre company devoted to musical theatre that enthusiastically announced its first season in late January. With a mandate rooted in the development, education and celebration of the form, Theatre 20 proposes to create work not just for performers, but also for directors, choreographers, musical directors and designers. Adam Brazier, artistic director of the artist-run enterprise, stresses that Theatre 20 aims to be “the voice of the great unsung musicals” and promises that the company will produce “theatre that asks big questions and explores big ideas,” work that is “evocative, memorable and challenging.” Central to this vision is the development of young artists through mentorship and education programs; just as important, the company vows to nurture Canadian writers and composers.

This is good news, for what is lacking in the GTA’s otherwise burgeoning musical theatre scene is the development of Canadian musicals that proceed beyond the workshop phase to achieve full production here and elsewhere. This requires pro-active support for writers and composers that, until now, has been lacking. As Madden points out, “If you want to be a musical theatre writer, you pretty much have to head to New York, where the pre-eminent schools and training facilities exist. Nothing to that extent exists in Canada.” While exceptions like The Drowsy Chaperone (see its awards and credits further down in this article) have emerged to challenge his assertion, they are few and far between — or, at least, so says conventional wisdom. Interestingly, Theatre 20’s choice for its inaugural production calls the idea into question.

28-29_MUSIC-THEATRE_COLM-WILKINSON_HEA228-29_MUSIC_THEATRE_Jeff_MaddenBloodless, a musical about the 19th-century Edinburgh “body snatchers,” Burke and Hare, will open at Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre next October, in a production directed by Colm Wilkinson, the near-legendary star of Les Misérables, and a founding member of Theatre 20. While it’s too early to discuss the show, it’s timely to note that the book, music and lyrics are written and composed by Joseph Aragon, a Winnipeg-based playwright, performer and musician who graduated from the National Theatre School in playwriting some years ago. Since 2004, Aragon has written and composed eight full-length musicals, all of which have received full-scale productions at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival. Who knew? Someone at Theatre 20, apparently, who left it to Jeff Madden and Juan Chioran to sing a duet from Bloodless that had people cheering at the company’s press launch last month.

Perhaps cross-border shopping is over-rated? It seems we soon will be better equipped to answer the question.

And there’s more, much more

If you missed The Drowsy Chaperone in one of its previous incarnations (and even if you didn’t, it’s worth seeing twice), you’re in luck. City Centre Musical Productions gives the show a full treatment at Mississauga’s Meadowvale Theatre for a week, opening March 23. One of the most successful creations in the history of Canadian theatre, this affectionate spoof of vintage musicals grew from humble beginnings at Toronto’s Rivoli Cafe in 1998, to achieve accolades on Broadway and beyond after it opened at New York’s Marquis Theatre in 2006. Along the way, it played to sold-out houses at the Toronto Fringe Festival, Theatre Passe Muraille, Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre and the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, accumulating critical acclaim that heralded the Tony Awards it won for its book (written by Bob Martin and Don McKellar) and score (composed by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison). Widely produced across Canada and the US since then, the show also received productions in London, Australia, and Japan. This new presentation, directed by Michael MacLennen as part of the popular Encore series of Music Theatre Mississaugua, stars David Grimason as The Man in the Chair, an agorophobic musical fanatic who is transported into the world of a fictional 1928 Broadway musical that he listens to on a record. The conceit allows the writers to structure a play-within-a-play that presents an intriguing central character at the same time as it offers an hommage to musicals, past and present.

City Centre Musical Productions is one of many community theatres which draws upon the audience for musicals even as it fuels the aspirations of triple-threat performers. These theatres achieve something their professional counterparts rarely attempt: contemporary productions of musical “classics.” This month, for example, two of the most loved American musicals are on view in community productions that are sure to sell out. Opening on the same night as The Drowsy Chaperone, but for four shows only, Man of La Mancha (book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, music by Mitch Leigh) is presented by Steppin’ Out Theatrical Productions at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts. First produced on Broadway in 1965, the show is based on Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th-century novel, and has been revived four times on Broadway, as well as produced around the world. Its principal song, “The Impossible Dream,” is one of the best-known standards in the musical theatre repertoire.

Similarly, “Hello, Dolly” the central song of the eponymous musical hit written and composed by Jerry Herman, has been heard in almost every major language since Carol Channing introduced the catchy lyric in the Broadway premiere in 1966. The book, by Michael Stewart, is based on Thornton Wilder’s 1938 farce, The Merchant of Yonkers, that Wilder revised and retitled The Matchmaker in 1955. The current production, presented by Onstage Productions (formerly the Scarborough Choral Society) at the J.T.M. Guest Theatre, also opens on March 23, making that evening one of the busiest of the month for musical theatre buffs.

If you prefer a big American musical that’s more contemporary in its concerns, Legally Blonde: The Musical, which opened on Broadway in 2008 and continues to play London’s West End, premieres at the Lower Ossington Theatre on March 9 where it runs for the entire month in a production directed by Tricia Lackey, with musical direction by Robert Wilkinson. Based on the film of the same name that stars Reese Witherspoon, the show uses music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, and a book by Heather Hach, to tell the story of Elle Woods, a sorority girl who enrolls at Harvard Law School to win back her ex-boyfriend, and proceeds to achieve fame and fortune. It’s not the first Toronto production. A touring version of the show played at the Princess of Wales Theatre in 2010. But as far as I know, this is its first Canadian production. A classic? I doubt it. But I also doubt that this is the last time we’ll see the show in Toronto.

Based in Toronto, Robert Wallace writes about theatre and performance. He can be contacted at musictheatre@thewholenote.com.

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