music theatre pages 32-33 lacagesieberoption1Musical theatre thrives on showstoppers — performances of songs or dances so striking that they interrupt a show to potentially eclipse the entire production. Of these, few impress me more than the solo rendition of “I Am What I Am” at the end of Act One in La Cage aux Folles, the celebrated musical that premiered on Broadway in 1983 and opens October 10 for a six-week run at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre. Its arrival marks the end of a tour noteworthy for sold-out performances and rave reviews, many focussed on Christopher Sieber, the actor playing Albin, a matronly male who morphs into Zaza, a flamboyant drag queen, early in the show and then makes it his own. Sieber’s version of “I Am What I Am” is one of the best I have heard, imbuing Jerry Herman’s passionate lyrics and indelible melody with a sense of personal conviction worth the price of admission alone.

Herman knew the power of his song when he wrote it, which he reveals in his autobiography, Showtune. As a result, he readily agreed to a suggestion by Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the book for La Cage, to use the number to close Act One. He also realized that by introducing the song at the top of the show, which he intended to do, he risked undercutting Albin’s big moment. So he changed the lyric, but only slightly, having the Cagelles, a troupe of men in drag that performs the song at the Riviera, a St. Tropez club (one of the show’s main locations), sing in the plural: “We are what we are, and what we are is an illusion. We love how it feels putting on heels, causing confusion.” When, at the end of the act, Albin substitutes the singular “I” for the Cagelles’ “we,” he highlights the isolation he feels after being betrayed by Georges, his lover of 20 years (played by George Hamilton in this production), and Georges’ 24-year-old son, Jean-Michel, whom he has raised as his own child. Simultaneously, he emphasizes the show’s focus on identity and asserts the defiant stand that informs its politic: “I am what I am/ I am my own special creation. So come take a look, Give me the hook or the ovation.”

The musical version of La Cage aux Folles is the brainchild of three gay men — Jerry Herman, Harvey Fierstein and director, Arthur Laurents — whose achievement cannot be overestimated. Originally a play by Jean Poiret (1973) that was made into a film (1978), the musical was conceived and presented during the early days of the AIDS crisis — a time when sexuality, especially in New York City, suffered acute disapprobation, and homophobia ran rampant. To win backers and attract an audience, the creative team agreed to create “a charming, colourful, great-looking musical comedy — an old-fashioned piece of entertainment,” as Herman writes. The result was a lavish spectacle, as glamourous as any MGM musical, that broke attendance records, won each of its creators a Tony Award, and grabbed three more for good measure, including one for Best Musical and another for George Hearn, the actor who played Albin.

At the time, I was not impressed. I couldn’t reconcile the money spent to feather and sequin the elaborate costumes designed by the legendary Theoni V. Aldredge with the poverty of resources that bedevilled the work of HIV researchers and people dying of AIDS. Fierstein, a gay activist whose play, Torch Song Trilogy, made a Broadway breakthrough in the 1970s, had sold out to the mainstream, in my opinion, and Herman and Laurents were simply playing their politics too safe for my sensibilities. It was with some reluctance, therefore, that I attended a revival of the musical in London in 2009, a production that also won a slew of awards and attracted large audiences.

The London revival of La Cage that was produced at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2008 created the template both for the production I saw in London’s West End and the show that is touring to Toronto. Conceived and directed by Terry Johnson, it is smaller than the original and much more gritty. The Riviera is down and dirty — more back-street boite than upscale nightclub. The Cagelles are definitely men in drag — as opposed to the ambiguous “showgirls” that Laurents felt obliged to present — muscular mecs whose bustiers slip to reveal tattoos (and more) as they execute the lasciviously acrobatic choreography. The Cagelles’ aggessively physical opening appearance sets the tone for a production both more provocative and more personal than the original. Albin’s betrayal is clearer, and more clearly horrible: Jean-Michel announces his plans to marry the daughter of a virulently anti-gay politician,and demands that Albin absent himself from a family meet-and-greet — in effect, shut himself back in the closet. When Albin subsequently fails to perform a convincingly masculine “uncle” during the visit, questions of “family values” erupt to add freight to the ensuing farce.

For Christopher Sieber, playing Albin is a gift. A gay man who married his same-sex partner last November, Sieber understands the discrimination that Albin protests. In a telephone interview, he makes an (unnecessary) apology for pleading the case for gay rights before he proceeds to discuss his performance. The key to his role, he tells me, is to recognize that it combines two characters in one: “Albin is a needy, emotional, insecure person, but he’s also Zaza, an over-the-top chanteuse.” Sieber uses the duality to turn “I Am What I Am” into his personal showstopper. “Initially, I played the moment as if Albin feels he has no one but the audience left –he’s singing to them. Now I play it differently — as if he is all alone, has no one but himself to rely on, and he’s singing for himself. Ultimately, the song is triumphant, and that’s why it has become such an anthem. I don’t get mad when I sing it, the way some performers have. I use the discrimination as fuel.” He pauses to admit a sly edge to his tone. “Sometimes I become a little more fierce than others ...”

music theatre pages 32-33bloodless face closeup option 1Bloodless: It remains to be seen how Christopher Sieber will play “I Am What I Am” in Toronto. I have no doubt, however, that he’ll stop the show — and that his performance will widen a fan base that already is expanding. I also have no doubt that the Toronto premiere of Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare that opens for a limited run at the Panasonic Theatre on October 11, will introduce another talent, new to Toronto, destined for wide recognition. As I mentioned in my column last March, Joseph Aragon wrote the book and lyrics for this wickedly clever show, as well as composed the music. Until now, he has remained relatively unknown outside of Winnipeg, his home town, a situation that Adam Brazier is hoping to change.

Brazier is the artistic director of Theatre 20 (T20) which, with this production, makes its debut as Toronto’s newest not-for-profit company devoted to the creation and production of musical theatre. Last winter, in a national search for new scripts, he met with Aragon in Winnipeg. “I had never heard of Joseph Aragon before then,” he explains. “Now it is my personal goal for theatre lovers and producers throughout Canada to make sure they know his name.”

Brazier’s choice of Bloodless is appropriate given that a company goal is “to present story-driven musicals by developing new Canadian works ... ” Although the musical premiered at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival in 2008 under the auspices of White Rabbit Productions, since then it has been developed by T20 through workshops with students in Sheridan College’s Music Theatre Performance program. For Aragon, “the [present] show is more economical and streamlined than it was in its Fringe incarnation,” a change that rehearsals have further refined. “The artists at Theatre 20 are, for the most part, significantly more experienced” than the ones Aragon worked with in Winnipeg, and, as he points out, “now the stakes are higher.”

Producing a new musical by a relative unknown is always a gamble. In the case of Bloodless, the stakes are higher than usual because of the subject matter. Based on true events, the book tells the story of William Burke and William Hare, two Irish immigrants to Edinburgh in the early 19th century who, after numerous failed attempts to make a living, resort to selling dead bodies for scientific research. Instead of unearthing the newly deceased, they opt to produce their own corpses. Soon, they are murdering and selling bodies on a daily basis, until their criminal misdeeds are discovered, which leads to “the trial of the century” that Aragon uses to frame his story.

Relying heavily on flashbacks, the book for Bloodless is fast paced and exciting; nevertheless, its story is gruesome, which Brazier took into account while directing the production. “The greatest challenge in creating a piece like Bloodless is making your antagonists human beings we care to watch. Although their conduct and behaviour are deplorable, we work tirelessly to make them relatable and entertaining.” The cast of 14, including well-known Stratford performers Evan Buliung ( William Burke) and Eddie Glen ( William Hare), works very much as an ensemble. “One of the things I most like about the piece is that it offers quality roles for everyone involved,” Brazier comments. “As an artist-led company we are all highly driven by the text and stories we want to tell.”

Aragon banks on the score to keep the audience on side. Noting that it “is based heavily on Irish and Scottish folk music, with some Danny Elfman-like touches to throw things off kilter,” he uses it to calibrate the show’s tension. With a live band (piano, viola, bassoon, clarinet, flute and cello) under the direction of Jason Jestadt, the music invariably prompts comparisons to the score of Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim’s gothic masterpiece. Aragon readily admits the influence. “I’d be lying if I said Bloodless wasn’t inspired in some way by Sweeney Todd, and I knew when I started, just by virtue of the subject and setting, that intersecting Sweeney’s world would be inescapable. That said, we’re doing everything we can to make it as distinct as possible, and in the end, it really is a very different story.”

The mention of Sweeney Todd leads the composer and lyricist to acknowledge that Sondheim’s work has influenced more than this show; it has impacted his creative process. “Sondheim talks about having a ‘puzzle mind’ when composing and writing lyrics, and I happen to see the process the same way — a lot of logical problem solving, trial and error, working backwards, setting up and paying off, choosing words that rhyme and scan correctly, all the while ensuring you’re telling the story and being emotionally honest. He’s also big into content dictating form, and violating structure if the story demands it.”

Including “showstoppers,” Aragon might have added: Sondheim has written more than a few. It will be fascinating to see if and how the neophyte artist follows his lead.

And speaking of showstoppers, there’s more! Political Mother arrives in Toronto for a six-show run at Canadian Stage on October 24. This production has stopped the entire contemporary dance world cold in its tracks, presenting a coup de théâtre that runs for 90 minutes without letting up. Visit thewholenote.com for an extended discussion of this heartstopping show.

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

Ushering in the GTA’s fall season of music theatre, April 30th Entertainment presents the world premiere of Queen for a Day: the Musical on September 26, for a 12-show run (ending October 7) at the brand new Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts. With this show, the independent production company, a new player in the city’s burgeoning musical theatre scene, introduces a rarely seen developmental model — a full-scale, professional showcase aimed at future producers as well as current audiences. Not since Garth Drabinsky used the model in the 1980s has a commercial producer emerged to champion the creation and production of new musicals in Toronto, a role primarily left to the city’s not-for-profit companies. Indeed, Queen for a Day is a game-changer in the development of large-scale, original Canadian musicals.

The show’s subject matter is appropriate. Queen for a Day originated on American radio on April 30, 1945, where it ran for over a decade. Picked up by NBC Television in 1956, the show became one of the most popular on TV until its demise in 1964, its “rags to riches” format imitated by numerous game shows such as Strike It Rich and It Could Be You. As a prototype for “reality television,” the show changed American TV, its formula of elevating “ordinary women” to celebrity status, at least for 15 minutes, still a television staple. To win the title of “Queen for a Day,” contestants were invited by program host Jack Bailey to recount recent financial and emotional difficulties before a live studio audience whose “approval rating” was evaluated by an “applause meter.” Winners were then robed, crowned, and seated on a throne where, listening to their their prizes being announced, many broke down and wept. Winners’ prizes also included “extras” — gifts from sponsors that featured vacation trips, kitchen appliances and clothes. Runners-up also were rewarded while the audience clapped and cried its delight.

Queen for a Day garnered as many detractors as fans — which has helped to ensure its importance in the annals of popular culture, and for Linda Barnett, founder of April 30th Entertainment, made it a natural for adaptation to musical theatre — an opinion that her co-producers, Jeffrey Latimer and Natalie Bartello, share. “Being so surrounded by reality TV these last years,” Barnett explains, “Queen For A Day struck a chord as the first reality show on TV. Taking audiences back to the time where [these shows] fascinated and motivated us all, in that everything was done live and the women’s wishes were so simple and real.” The book for the musical (written by Chris Earle and Shari Hollett, with additional dialogue by Paul O’Sullivan and Timothy French) does more, however, than recreate the television show. The musical’s “past narrative,” as she calls it, “centres on the 24 hour period after Claribel Anderson appears on the show ... how her life drastically changes because of the experience.” In the present day narrative, Claribel, in her 80s and living as a hoarder, reflects on her experience for the benefit of Felicia, a troubled adolescent.

The way the two narratives inform each other was what most attracted Timothy French to the production. With a long career as a choreographer and director (recent credits include the acclaimed productions of Altar Boyz and [Title of Show] for Toronto’s Angelwalk Theatre), he joined the creative team over a year ago. Since then, dramaturging the book and directing a workshop of the show has only heightened his interest in the lives of the original participants — women like Claribel whose character is based on an actual winner. “What fascinates me is how that one day had repercussions in the women’s future lives that they never could have guessed.” The way winning the title “Queen for a Day” “changed the winners’ lives” is what he and his fellow writers seek to emphasize in the book.

The showhas an orchestra of ten and a cast of 22 performers, many with considerable experience. Not the least of these is Alan Thicke, the Canadian actor and seven-time Emmy nominee, best known as Dr. Jason Seaver (“America’s Dad”) on the television sit-com, Growing Pains. Thicke’s goal is to make the pivotal character of Jack Bailey as appealing today as he was in the 50s — not an easy feat given the evolution of gender politics. No stranger to musical theatre, Thicke’s credits include the role of lawyer Billy Flynn in the Broadway production of Chicago, and leads in Promises, Promises and Mame at the Hollywood Bowl. Joining him are Stratford veteran Denise Fergusson, who plays the elderly Claribel, and Blythe Wilson, another seasoned Stratford performer, as Claribel’s younger self. An impressive roster of musical stalwarts also includes Marisa McIntyre and Lisa Horner. “All of the cast were attracted to working with Tim,” Barnett explains, “and to the opportunities implicit in a commercial showcase that is still in development.”

Besides working as co-producer of the musical, Barnett assumes the ambitious task of writing and composing its 18 songs, arranged by Noreen Waibel and orchestrated by Mark Camilleri, musical director of the production. Unlike April 30th Entertainment itself, Barnett isn’t new to musical theatre. In 1986, she founded Stage Kids, whose mandate was to make musical theatre accessible to youth who otherwise could not afford to attend performances in main stage commercial venues. Over the next 20 years, she created, developed and produced 18 musicals with two teams of young people drawn from the company, receiving a Dora nomination in 1996 for The Player Principle. Two of her shows toured widely, and many of her “stage kids” have progressed to professional musical careers. One of Barnett’s greatest joys in working on the current show was seeing graduates of her program, résumés in hand, turn up at auditions.

The music in Queen for a Day Barnett characterizes as “eclectic, though much of it is rooted in a 50s sound,” which is fitting given that the younger Claribel wins the game-show in 1953 — the year in which much of the action is set. At that time, the series was telecast from the Moulin Rouge night-club in Los Angeles which the production recreates for a major portion of the show. Tim French is more specific in his comments about the music, noting that “musical motifs from the early 50s weave throughout the show, but there’s no attempt to create a period piece. Swing, boogie-woogie, Latin tango, they’re all there, but so are rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop and rap — particularly in the contemporary scenes. It was important to write for today’s audience when the show moves to the present ... The songs develop plot and character, as in all musicals, and this is as true for Claribel and Felicia today as for the characters in the past.”

What will happen to Queen for a Day: the Musical after the showcase closes? Barnett and French realize there are various options and possibilities for its future, ranging from more development, perhaps by a regional theatre, to a commercial run and tour, using members of the current cast. What is certain at this point is that the time, money and talent lavished on the showcase ups the ante for the creation of musical theatre in the GTA. Yes, there’s a new player in town, with an eye on the prize of long-running success.

34 julie -fides   richard in rehearsal w0a0083Julie sits waiting: The mandate of Good Hair Day Productions is to explore and challenge the formal possibilities of lyric theatre, and to examine the fragile cracks in human experience. The company’s new show, Julie Sits Waiting, opens in the BackSpace of Theatre Passe Muraille for a limited run on September 14, uniting a team of internationally-celebrated artists whose innovative work invariably excites expectations. Not least of these is Fides Krucker, the show’s producer and female lead, whose contributions to vocal music during the last 25 years in Canada and abroad are such that she recently won a Chalmers’ Fellowship to write a book about her artistic practice, vocal innovation and pedagogy.

Julie Sits Waiting is epic in purpose but small in size, and short in length—“67 minutes,” Krucker notes with pointed precision in an interview. “I need new forms,” she explains, referring to music, theatre, and the creation and performance of both. Because she plays a married mother in the show, a woman involved in a passionate and ultimately tragic love affair with an Anglican priest, her remark could easily apply to new models of intimacy as well, which I point out. She muses for a moment, then asks, “How do we reconcile reason and passion?” Her question resonates not only through the annals of art, but those of politics, love and sex—indeed, through all the profound and picayune intricacies of life and spirituality. Epic.

In 2006, after working with collectives for years, Krucker decided to commission a single writer and a single composer to create the libretto and score of what has become Julie Sits Waiting. For the libretto, she turned to Tom Walmsley, a writer whose brutally honest portrayals of sex and violence in plays such as White Boys (1982), Getting Wrecked (1985) and Blood (1995) led one critic to call him “Canadian theatre’s chief chronicler of the dark underside of Canadian urban life.” Initially intimidated, Walmsley accepted after listening to recordings by Stravinsky, Wagner and other musical iconoclasts that Krucker hand-picked and delivered, finally expressing his astonishment that, in opera, “you get to write the subtext!” Krucker, likewise surprised by the subject of his libretto (the perils of succumbing to love at first sight), now embraces it fully: “Tom’s words are physically connected with the body, not with images; they are visceral.” At the same time, their meaning is “distilled to essences—to poetry, like haiku.”

To find a composer for Julie Sits Waiting, Krucker looked to Quebec where she eventually commissioned Louis Dufort, a Montreal artist known for electroacoustic composition and, in particular, creations for Québeçois dancer and choreographer, Marie Chouinard. Improvising with a group of actor/musicians who voiced Walmsley’s text in a series of workshops, Dufort composed a score that, in Krucker’s estimation, combines “a beauty and grittiness appropriate to Walmsley’s words” with textures that are “edgy and urgent.” It also requires her and fellow performer, Richard Armstrong, to move from speech and chant to virtuosic bel canto and extended-voice singing.

Having worked with Richard Armstrong since the mid-1990s, Krucker was able to convince him to make a rare foray into performing the role of Mick, Julie’s paramour—an undertaking she regards as “a renaissance of sorts, for him, as a performer.” A pioneer of “extended-voice,” a vocal technique that pushes the boundaries of normal singing to include (potentially) all the sounds that the human voice can make, Armstrong, as a founding member of the Roy Hart Theatre in France during the 60s, helped to create one of Europe’s most influential schools of voice and body research. His work as a teacher, director and performer has taken him to over 30 countries and inspired a generation of performers. Associate professor of drama at New York University’s Experimental Theater Wing of the Tisch School of the Arts, his appearance here is a treat.

Krucker has assembled a talented team for the production, worthy of its performers. Directors Alex Fallis and Heidi Strauss, designers Teresa Przybylski (set and costume), Jeremy Mimnagh (video) and Rebecca Picherack (lighting) are joined by Darren Copeland who has the uncanny ability to make complex electronic sound available to human ears while simultaneously amplifying voices so that they still sound human.

Julie sits waiting ... but not for long. My hot tip for the month. 

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

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.

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