musictheatreoption danielle wade photo credit mirvish productionsJust in time for the holidays, the North American premiere of The Wizard of Oz settles into the Ed Mirvish Theatre for an open-ended run on December 20th, replete with Dorothy, Toto and the cast of characters known the world over. An adaptation of the 1939 film that won Academy Awards for both Judy Garland and “Over the Rainbow” (the song by Harold Arlen that became the singer’s signature), the musical is the brainchild of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the celebrated producer/composer (The Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard) who opened the show at the London Palladium, which he owns and operates, in March 2011. The Toronto production, presented under the auspices of Mirvish Productions, uses the same creative team to duplicate the staging that won accolades for Robert Jones, the production’s designer whose collaboration with writer/director Jeremy Sams transformed the fantasy world of L. Frank Baum’s 1901 novel into a visual feast as distinctive as the one Victor Fleming committed to celluloid. Considering that the film’s special effects, to say nothing of the performances of its cast, have accrued mythic status while scaling the heights of cinematic and cultural history ever since, this is no minor achievement.

It probably was inevitable that Baum’s much-loved fable would find life in the theatre, but its success was by no means assured. This helps to explain why Lloyd Webber hedged his bets when he undertook the London production. Banking on the kudos garnered by Jones and Sams for their revival of The Sound of Music at the Palladium in 2006, he gave them full license to create a new vision of Oz; in addition, he supplied them with new material — primarily, songs he himself wrote to augment Arlen’s score.

Although the original songs are memorable, their lyrics by Yip Harburg illustrate that the movie is not a musical but, rather, a story with music — too fine a point to belabour here, but one that film historians emphasize, and Lloyd Webber shares. On record as considering the film score under-written, he invited Tim Rice, his first (and best?) collaborator (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita), to write the lyrics for his new melodies. Rice accepted, thus ending a long-standing separation from his erstwhile partner while completing the new material which, in the tradition of contemporary musicals, is more character-driven than plot-inspired. This becomes evident quickly in the production when Dorothy sings “Nobody Understands Me,” a Rice/Webber number, in Scene One. “Over the Rainbow,” her first song in the film, must wait till Scene Two.

Caroline McGinn, theatre critic at London’s Time Out, opines that Webber and Rice are “right to add [the] extra material” for “the new music is tense and atmospheric, albeit a tad cruel and campy.” In The Guardian, Michael Billington concurs, suggesting that the additions are “perfectly acceptable” and citing, in particular, Dorothy’s “plaintive” opening song and the “pounding intensity” of the “Red Shoes Blues,” a new number for the Wicked Witch of the West. Nevertheless, he suggests that the additional material, in its pursuit of a nebulous “full-blown musical” form, disrupts “the delicate balance” between fantasy and music that the film attains, ultimately making “an essentially simple fable about the importance of individual worth seem overblown.”

At its core, The Wizard of Oz is about heart — or, more accurately, its absence. While the Tin Man can openly lament his physical emptiness, other characters must reveal their heartlessness in less literal ways — unless, of course, they are downright wicked. The unmasking of the Wizard near the conclusion of the piece brings to full poignancy Baum’s parable of dashed hopes and thwarted desire in which Dorothy’s quest for a return route to Kansas stands in for her search for love and acceptance, always out of reach. What better way to fulfill her longing, and that of all the Dorothys of the world, than to make her dreams come true?

Surely, this, as well as clever marketing, influenced Lloyd Webber’s decision to cast the role of Dorothy through a national audition masked as a television show. In the UK, over 10,000 women competed for the part which, in the end, was decided by the public through phone-in votes on Over the Rainbow, a BBC One musical rendition of reality TV. Building an audience for the stage production in what amounted to a long-running television commercial, Lloyd Webber repeated the formula that worked so successfully for The Sound of Music for which, to win the coveted role of Maria, neophyte actors auditioned on BBC TV’s How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? Although the premise of these shows is obviously commercial, the dreams that fuel their participants’ ambitions — and the support of their fans — are more real than Dorothy’s. Winning the competition equals getting a job. Appearing on a popular television show secures exposure and opportunity. When Elicia Mackenzie won the role of Maria in the CBC’s version of How Do You Solve in 2008, she launched a career that otherwise might have eluded her. “I will never forget the feeling of that moment when they called my name!” she acknowledges. And nor should she.

In Toronto’s Wizard, Danielle Wade plays Dorothy Gale after winning the part through an audition process identical to the one taped by the BBC. Here, CBC-TV cooperated with David Mirvish and his co-producers to create a reality show also called Over the Rainbow — adding further lustre to the template that Webber can market as a success. Joining Wade, a 20-year-old student at the University of Windsor, is an all-Canadian cast of veteran performers certain to make her onstage experience real — at least for her. Cedric Smith, a Gemini-winning film and theatre performer,stars as the Wizard. Lisa Horner, featured regularly at both the Shaw and Stratford Festivals, plays the Wicked Witch. Actor and choreographer Mike Jackson takes on the Tin Man. A Dora Award winner for his play High Life, Lee MacDougall plays the Lion. Jamie McKnight, one of the Canadian Tenors, breathes life into the Scarecrow. And Robin Evan Willis, well-known for many Shaw Festival productions, plays Glinda.

And heart? Does the show have heart? Well, dear reader, that is for you to decide. With certainty, I promise that the production will have spectacle. Discussing the Palladium show, Billington notes that, “Not since 19th century Drury Lane melodramas can London have seen anything quite like it.” With the same design team at work in Toronto, local audiences can anticipate a similar experience. “The Kansas cyclone that whisks Dorothy into a dreamworld is evoked through vorticist projections (the work of Jon Driscoll) that betoken chaos in the cosmos. The yellow brick road is on a tilted revolve from inside which poppyfields and a labyrinthine forest emerge. The Emerald City is full of steeply inclined walls suggesting a drunkard’s vision of the Chrysler Building lobby. And the Wicked Witch of the West inhabits a rotating dungeon that might be a Piranesi nightmare.” Not exactly suitable for young children? Well, neither is the movie.

Snow White: If you’re looking for “family fare” of a less scary sort, albeit with less innovative staging, check out Snow White, a presentation by Ross Petty Productions that opened at the Elgin theatre on November 23 and runs through early January. The latest in a series of shows presented by this unique company every Christmas, Snow White follows the conventions of British pantomime that the London Palladium was built to present in the early 20th century. Almost always, pantomime is based on traditional children’s stories, especially fairy tales (Cinderella, Aladdin, Peter Pan etc.), performed at Christmas for family audiences. Interestingly, although The Wizard of Oz figures rarely as the subject of pantomime, Ross Petty used it here only last year to create his annual Elgin panto in which a skateboarding Dorothy was deposited in a place called Oz where, as John Bemrose put it in the National Post, “a gyrating gesticulating crew of outback yokels, whom the Wicked Witch of the West dismisses, not too unjustly, as a bunch of ethnic stereotypes” are quickly recognized as Aussies. (It’s worth noting in this context that in last year’s Petty pantomime production of Oz at the Elgin, Dorothy was played by Elicia Mackenzie, and that, by falling in love with the Tin Man, performed by Yvan Pedneault, a formidable talent that Mirvish introduced to local audiences in We Will Rock You, she helped him find his heart.)

British pantomime (or “panto” as it is affectionately termed “over there”), has been popular since the mid-19th century, its use of song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, crossdressing, in-jokes, topical references and audience participation appealing to people of all ages. Indeed, theatrically spectacular musicals such as the Webber Oz and pantomime share similar goals — notably, reassurance of the audience’s values (hence the use of stock characters and well-known stories) coupled with emotional and visual transport.

Variations to the story of Snow White in this year’s panto, while equally audacious, are more traditionally conceived to adhere to the conventions of the form. Subtitled “A Deliciously Dopey Family Musical!” the show collapses the seven dwarfs of the original fairy tale into one character — 007, a James Bond lookalike played by Stratford leading man, Graham Abbey, whose appearance fulfills the convention of a celebrity guest star. As usual, the convention of the crossdressed older woman (known as the “pantomime dame”) is addressed by Petty himself who, by performing the role of the evil Queen, adds another drag performance to the long list of comic portrayals that makes him a fan favourite. Playing the title character is Canadian Idol winner Melissa O’Neil who made her panto debut as Belle in Petty’s 2010 production of Beauty and the Beast. Fresh from appearing in the Broadway production of Stratford’s Jesus Christ Superstar, she perpetuates an unofficial connection between Petty and Mirvish that the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber continues to facilitate.

musictheatre the story photo credit jacqui jensen royThe Story: Moving further afield, geographically if not aesthetically, a third show provides a unique form of spectacle even as it depicts a narrative traditional to the season. The Story, a production by Theatre Columbus, conceived and written by Martha Ross, returns to the Evergreen Brick Works on December 4th where it plays for the remainder of the month. Now in its 29th year, Theatre Columbus has a prestigious history of innovative play creation and production, with roots firmly planted in the creative compost of clown, commedia and buffoon. Ross, a co-founder of the company, unites her performance experience and writing skills to create the script for The Story which uses various locations in the Brick Works and its adjacent parkland to imbue the tale of the nativity with comic irreverence and visual beauty.

Based on the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the events of The Story are widely known. In this hour-long version, they occur mainly outdoors as the audience follows the flickering lantern of a solitary shepherd as he guides them past kilns, under iron girders, along gravel paths, through various interiors and into open spaces. With a strong eye for visual composition, director Jennifer Brewin uses the industrial and natural geography to imaginative effect, ably supported by Catherine Hahn (set and costumes), Glenn Davidson (lighting) and John Millard who, as sound and musical director for the production, oversees the local choirs (a different one each evening) that serenade the audience with seasonal songs while it weaves its way to each location.

Brewin’s DORA award for her direction of the premiere of this show last year is well deserved. Her decision to bring a physical approach to the material encourages the actors to develop their characters with broad, clown-like techniques at which they excel. The Three Kings are lost and disoriented; Mary is impatient and tense; King Herod is paranoid and petulant; and Gabriel, the herald, overwhelmed by the message he must deliver, has a dizzy quality reminiscent of a befuddled fairy in a panto. In fact, all the characters resemble those of a pantomime, their slapstick and buffoonery foregrounding psychological states and, ultimately, infusing their situation with a winning humanity.

The Story is short, sweet, and, at times, stunningly beautiful—the majesty of a star-lit winter sky providing a backdrop so unexpected that it hardly seems real. But it is, and so is the weather. Dress warmly and treat yourself to the hot chocolate on sale at the site — unusual directions for my hot tip of the month. 

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

 

 

With just three seasons under its belt, Toronto’s Angelwalk Theatre has built a record of success that makes it a company to watch. Dedicated to producing “off-Broadway” musical theatre that integrates established Canadian professionals with emerging artists, the resident company of the Studio Theatre at the Toronto Centre for the Arts has accumulated 11 Dora Mavor Moore nominations and garnered accolades from audiences and critics alike — most recently, two Dora nominations for I Love You Because, a musical I discussed in this column last April. Producing just two shows per season, the not-for-profit enterprise commits its modest resources to small scale, character-driven shows whose minimal instrumentation and spare staging work to maximum effect. The company’s production of Ordinary Days that opens on November 29 for a two-week run provides a perfect example, with one important caveat: the show is co-produced with the Winnipeg Studio Theatre (WST), a signal that Angelwalk is branching out.

27-28-musictheatre-gordonOrdinary Days, a one-act musical by American writer and composer Adam Gwon, premiered to mixed reviews in a production by New York’s Roundabout Theatre in 2009 where it caught the attention of Brian Goldenberg, artistic producer of Angelwalk, and Kayla Gordon, artistic director of WST, a company whose mandate resembles Angelwalk’s except that it includes plays as well as musicals. The two first connected via Altar Boyz, a musical comedy by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker about a fictitious Christian boy band, that their companies produced separately. By the time they discovered Ordinary Days, “We had come to a decision that we wanted to produce something together,” Goldenberg tells me. “It was just a question of what.” Gordon adds, “We’ve been trying to find just the right project for a while.”

With a cast of four, a contemporary urban setting, an innovative score, and an emphasis on character, Ordinary Days fits the aesthetic of both companies to a T. For Gordon, the show “takes us somewhere new mainly because so much of the story is told through songs ... . It has a very contemporary feel to it, much like the work of Jason Robert Brown ... .” Goldenberg agrees with her comparison and he should know: he produced Brown’s The Last Five Years in Angelwalk’s inaugural season and staged the American composer’s Songs for a New World in March 2011. (Toronto audiences also may remember Brown’s Parade that Acting Up Stage Company co-produced with Studio 180 Theatre in January 2011). “The music is stunning,” Goldenberg says of Ordinary Days, before admitting that it was Gwon’s lyrics that really sold him on the show. “Gwon creates characters through songs with some of his lyrics working like dialogue. He’s not afraid to push the boundaries of musical theatre — but gently, without flash.” The same might be said of Angelwalk itself.

27-28-musictheatre-gwonOrdinary Days tells two stories simultaneously, using a pair of trajectories that have two separate couples affecting each other without crossing paths. For Charles Isherwood, a critic at the New York Times, the result is “a sad-sweet comment on the anonymity of life in the city, where it is possible to change other people’s fates without actually getting to meet them.” The older couple, Claire (Clara Scott) and Jason (Jay Davis), struggle to maintain their relationship after moving in together and discovering that each has more baggage than they realized. More interesting is the odd couple bonding of Warren (Justin Bott), a gay would-be artist, and Deb (Connie Manfreddi), a graduate student writing a dissertation on the novels of Virginia Woolf. After Warren finds (and reads) Deb’s lost notebook, he arranges to return it to her at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Repeatedly, Gwon places his quartet of lost souls inside the Met where, in “song after song, [they] struggle to pull their way into rapturous melody, paralleling their struggles to cement a place in the cement jungle,” as Bob Verini writes in Variety. Viewing painting after painting, the characters reveal the particularities of their ordinary lives like so many pointillist dots on an impressionist canvas. “What am I doing here?” one of them asks. The question haunts the show.

For Kayla Gordon, who directs as well as co-produces the piece, the charm of Ordinary Days lies in the characters’ search for space within intimacy, calm within disorder. “It’s a universal subject in our busy lives,” she says, “taking the time to look at the little joyous things in life, and to appreciate them more.” Her challenge as director is “to create the stillness of those special moments of discovery — the feeling of a person standing and admiring a piece of art while the whole world is erupting around them ... to find that special moment of introspection.” This requires that the cast “keep all the stories as honest as possible,” and that she connect “all the many facets of the characters’ lives in a fluid way, so as not to stop the momentum ... .”

Ordinary Days is a genuine co-production. Rather than merely combine their budgets and place one company in charge, the two small theatres have amalgamated creative resources to achieve an equitable split of time and talent. The production premieres in Winnipeg on November 21 in the Tom Hendry Warehouse Space of the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) where Winnipeg native Paul DeGurse, as musical director, will use orchestrations by Joseph Aragon, whose musical Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare I discussed in my column last month. Instrumentation includes piano, cello and violin. The set and costumes for the show are designed by Torontonian Scott Penner who, like lighting designer Siobhan Sleath, created the imaginative set of I Love You Because for Angelwalk last season. Unlike that set, this one will be built professionally in the shop of MTC then shipped from Winnipeg after the show’s brief run there in time for the Toronto opening.

Gordon acknowledges the challenge of “mounting the show in a space in Winnipeg and then taking it to a smaller venue in Toronto,” but she considers that “it will keep the show fresh, which is great for the actors.” Goldenberg sees other benefits of a co-production that is “artistically-driven.” Noting that “cost savings are incidental,” he suggests that “the primary benefit to both companies is the exposure that our artists gain in a different city,” and he muses about how it might “open doors” to opportunities for all of them. But perhaps the biggest winners in this undertaking are the audiences in Winnipeg and Toronto for each of whom the show will introduce a new company, as well as a new musical. By expanding horizons and combining resources, Angelwalk and WST are helping to widen Canada’s musical theatre community in both size and vision.

Fundraisers: One of the methods that small companies such as Angelwalk use to build funding and raise awareness for their work is the celebrity showcase. Earlier this year, Angelwalk produced Dianne and Me, a solo show that was a hit at the 2011 Vancouver Fringe Festival. A portrait of mothers, daughters and the sacrifices they make, the tiny musical starred award-winning actress, Elena Juatco (I Love You Because; Canadian Idol top 10 finalist). Next February, the company offers something more ambitious — “Villains and Vixens,” a concert featuring songs by some of the most infamous characters in musical theatre, from Javert in Les Misérables to Sally Bowles in Cabaret, all performed by Angelwalk stalwarts.

This month, Acting Up Stage Company mounts a similar one–night only fundraiser on November 26 in Koerner Hall at the Telus Centre for Performing and Learning. “Tapestries: The Music of Carole King and James Taylor” continues the tradition of compilation concerts that Acting Up introduced several years ago, a hit series that includes such sold out concerts such as “Both Sides Now,” a celebration of the songs of Joni Mitchell and “Long and Winding Road,” a tribute to the music of Lennon and McCartney. Under the stellar music direction of Reza Jacobs, these one-off evenings showcase some of the best performers currently working in Canadian musical theatre. “Tapestries,” for example, will present performances by Bruce Dow, Cynthia Dale, Arlene Duncan, Jake Epstein, Sara Farb, Kelly Holiff, Sterling Jarvis, Amanda LeBlanc, Eden Richmond, and Josh Young, among others. Blurring distinctions between cabaret, musical theatre and pop concerts, these evenings feature original orchestrations and new vocal arrangments (also by Reza Jacobs) that foreground the performers’ voices and talents in a format that appeals to a wide audience. To add panache to the procedings, Elenna Mosoff oversees continuity and staging. While the affair is informal, it is by no means casual in its approach. Consider it my hot tip for the month. 

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

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.

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