The 2018/19 season has started off with a bang with an exciting mix of risk-taking experimental music theatre alongside the traditional musicals continuing on many stages large and small. Over the course of just one week in September I saw three world premieres in a row that were entirely different from each other; unique in atmosphere and style, yet alike in a desire to explore and push the boundaries of what music theatre is capable of.

Opera Briefs: The first of these, Tapestry Opera’s Opera Briefs: Tasting Shorts is always one of my favourite fall shows, the chance to see a smorgasbord of bite-sized brand new operas created in Tapestry’s annual summer composer librettist laboratory, the Liblab. This year’s edition of sophisticated operatic speed-dating was no exception, with 11 mini-operas on a variety of themes. One of the necessities of successful bare-bones staging is good direction - this time by artistic director Michael Mori assisted by Jessica Derventzis. Another is having a company of singers who are equally good as actors, able to intuitively convey complexities of character and story as well as to master new and widely varied music scores very quickly. Anchored by the veteran brilliance of tenor Keith Klassen and baritone Peter McGillivray (who were joined by newcomers soprano Teiya Kasahara and mezzo Stephanie Tritchew) this company shone throughout the evening with each “brief” a tiny complete world of its own, set apart by story and music style. Jennifer Tung’s music direction and playing was also subtle and effective throughout. As always there were strong “real life” musical stories most notably the funny but heartbreaking The Farewell Poo by Rene Orth and Daniel Solon, and the more stylized and politically apposite Bring Me the Head of Our President by August Murphy-King and Colleen Murphy. Taking the program even beyond this usual excellence was a new experiment: writing for Virtual Reality settings. Of the Sea created the VR experience of meeting African slaves thrown overboard on their way to the new world who have made new lives below the ocean, and was surprisingly powerful although fantastical. Even more experimental was sci-fi thriller Hydrophis Expedition designed as a purely aural experience. Eerie and fascinating, as we listened with our eyes closed, the sung music as well as the underwater soundscape made it easier to succumb to the experience and believe in the underwater world and its lurking dangers.

Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life, with Edge of the Sky Young Company. Photo credit DAHLIA KATZDr. Silver: In contrast to the multiple worlds of Tapestry’s Briefs, the latest creation of the uber-talented Stratford-born and raised sisters Anika and Britta Johnson: Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life is a fully realized, intensely cohesive, almost claustrophobic, single immersive world.

At Toronto’s historic Heliconian Hall in the heart of Yorkville the audience arrives at the door to be greeted by young members of the “congregation” welcoming us to the funeral of Dr. Silver who – we find out quite soon – was the leader of a cult. As the congregation we sit around three sides of the room with an altar and multimedia screen at one end, and with space in the middle for the cult’s youth chorus (the incredibly polished Edge of the Sky Young Company) to sing and perform.

Once the show begins we are completely immersed in the funeral and music, and then the history of the family at the centre of the cult. It is this mix of family history and the formal dynamics of the funeral ritual that gives interest and depth to what might otherwise be just a clever concept. As idiosyncratic moments occur (as at any real funeral) they sometimes trigger flashbacks and we get to know the various members of the family (mother, two daughters, estranged son, and son’s friend/devoted acolyte): suffice it to say, all is not as perfect as one might think from surface appearances.

The excellent cast (Donna Garner, Bruce Dow, Kira Guloien, Rielle Braid, Peter Deiwick) sing and act so well and truthfully that we don’t just watch, we come to really care about them and what is going to happen. The sung-through nature of most of the show seems natural, particularly because the cult worships music as divine (a clever concept). The direction by Mitchell Cushman is seamless and the choreography by Barbara Johnston for the young chorus is dramatic and effective. The use of character quirks and comedic moments in the writing lightens the tension and darker side of the material and the electro-pop music works for all the characters (though I found myself wishing for a bit more musical variety). Currently a co-production between Outside the March and The Musical Stage Company this show will likely continue to develop and be seen again. Please see my upcoming interview with the Johnson sisters on our online blog at thewholenote.com for a much more in-depth look at the show and its creation.

I Call myself Princess: Now, from the multiple individual worlds of Tapestry’s Briefs and the immersive single world of Dr. Silver, to Jani Lauzon’s I Call myself Princess where two worlds 100 years apart not only exist side by side but intersect and influence each other. Excitingly ambitious in scope Lauzon’s “play with opera” is rich in rediscovered historical fact and imaginative in how it combines this history with present-day reality. From the beginning, the two worlds seem to be overlapping, with Indigenous singing like a magical chant opening the doors between the two. Music interweaves the 2018 world of young gay Métis opera student Will with the world, 100 years earlier; which gave rise to the classically oriented “Indianist” music of Charles Wakefield Cadman. Cadman was a composer of many songs but also of the first opera with an Indigenous story to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera: Tsanewis or The Robin Woman. When Will is given an aria from this opera to learn he becomes obsessed with learning more about its creation. As he does, the walls between the worlds become increasingly thin, allowing him to meet and even interact with the woman who inspired Tsanewis – Tsianina Redfeather, a classically trained Creek Cherokee singer who, as Will eventually realizes, is experiencing many of the same trials that he himself is facing as a lone Indigenous artist trying to navigate a primarily non-Indigenous world. The power of the play comes from this intersection and interaction, as both characters find comfort and strength in the other’s understanding and through a sharing of the music. While the acting and singing of some of the company are not as smoothly integrated as they could be, I found myself caught up in both stories and fascinated by the reality of the proto-feminist ground-breaking opera of 100 years ago

I Call myself Princess continues at the Aki Studio until October 6 and Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life at Heliconian Hall until October 14.

Upcoming: October 17 and 18, another risk-taking musical, and a longtime cult favourite of musical theatre fans, Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along is being revisited in a semi-staged concert format by Toronto Musical Concerts at the Al Green Theatre.

Based on Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s 1934 play of the same name, which begins at the end of the story and goes back in time to the beginning, Merrily We Roll Along has had a problematic production history beginning with its less-than-fully-successful premiere in 1981, but as TMC’s Artistic producer Christopher Wilson says “Yet it is one of Sondheim’s finest, most complex, and diverse scores, and the thematic material of choosing success over artistry is age-old and one worth exploring through a contemporary lens.” In fact, as time goes by, audiences and critics seem to have found a new appreciation for the show, in part, perhaps, because the original production’s decision to cast very young adults who would have to play “forty-somethings” at the beginning before reverting to their own ages, was flipped to having performers roughly the right age at the beginning, who would then play younger selves as the play went on – a concept that Wilson has followed for this version. The wonderful 2016 documentary about the original production, The Best Worst Thing That Could Have Happened, has certainly whetted a lot of appetites to see and hear this musical live once again,

Speaking of revivals, on the second last day of October, the Stratford Festival is presenting, for one day only, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s beloved chamber musical, The Fantasticks, in concert at the Avon Theatre starring Eric McCormack. Yes, Eric McCormack from TV’s Will and Grace. McCormack’s ties to Stratford go back 30 years to when he was a young actor in the company appearing, for example, in Measure for Measure, Murder in the Cathedral and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; last year he was awarded the Festival’s Legacy Award. It is also a homecoming in another sense, McCormack being Toronto-born, raised, and trained (Ryerson Theatre School) and having cut his early professional teeth in outdoor park performances at Skylight Theatre in North York’s Earl Bales Park. He also has musical theatre credentials having made his Broadway debut as Harold Hill in The Music Man in 2001. In The Fantasticks he is aptly cast in the wonderfully swashbuckling role of the “kidnapper” El Gallo. Richard Ouzounian will direct, and Franklin Brasz, is in charge of the music.

This should be a fun revisiting of an old favourite musical and also raises the tantalizing question of whether we might see a longer run of The Fantasticks, or McCormack himself, in a full Stratford Festival season in the near future.

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

OCT 2 TO 20: Oraltorio, A Theatrical Mixtape, Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Soulpepper joins with Obsidian for the first time to present this intriguing coming-of-age story through movement and music described as “part poetry slam, part house party.”

OCT 18 TO 21: Xenos, Bluma Appel Theatre. Canadian Stage presents Akram Khan’s highly acclaimed last solo dance creation (with a book by Jordan Tannahill) exploring and commemorating Indian soldiers’ experience in World War I. Khan’s fiercely dramatic Until the Lions was a highlight of the 2017 Luminato Festival.

OCT 24 TO 28, 7pm: Dancyn Productions present Billy Bishop Goes to War at RCAC Oshawa. A fun chance to see John Gray’s Canadian classic musical about Canada’s great pilot in an appropriate military setting.

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

The September 2018/19 music theatre season starts off with the exciting world premiere of a new piece by Jani Lauzon, which will be presented in a three-way co-production by Paper Canoe Projects, Cahoots Theatre Projects and Native Earth Performing Arts at Native Earth’s Aki Studio. I Call myself Princess (the lowercase of the “m” in “myself” is intentional) is a fascinating new “play with opera” that uses an interdisciplinary approach to delve into the past, making new discoveries about both the past and the present by relating it to today.

Jani Lauzon. Photo courtesy of Jani LauzonA hundred years ago in 1918, an opera titled Shanewis (The Robin Woman) with music by Charles Wakefield Cadman and libretto by Nelle Richmond Eberhart made its debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as part of a three-part program about American life. It was such a success that it returned the next season and continued to tour and be revived around the United States for years afterwards.

This was the second opera by Cadman and Eberhart on an “American Indian” theme, but their first to be accepted for production. What seemed to make the difference with Shanewis was the contribution to the story and libretto by Cadman’s musical touring partner the Creek/Cherokee singer Tsianina Redfeather, who, although never officially credited, provided ideas from her own life and experiences – resulting in an opera that resonated with both producers and audiences.

A hundred years later, playwright Jani Lauzon’s I Call myself Princess is about to bring this story back to life for us in a modern context. The first seeds of inspiration for the play came when the playwright was working with the Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble, the acclaimed Native Women’s collective that she co-founded with Michelle St. John and Monique Mojica. While working on a new project, Lauzon came across the 1972 book The Only Good Indian: The Hollywood Gospel. It was full of critical viewpoints on the inclusion, or lack thereof, of Indigenous performers in opera, jazz, silent film, the talkies and vaudeville, starting at the turn of the 20th century.

“At first we were surprised by how many Indigenous performers there were. Then we were upset with ourselves that we were surprised,” Lauzon tells me. “We had bought into the narrative that we weren’t there. But we were there. We were producers, writers, performers.” The story of Tsianina and the opera Shanewis in particular stood out as something to be explored further. “What struck me about Tsianina Redfeather was her working relationship with Charles Wakefield Cadman,” she says, “and the complexities of how they were both navigating the industry and expectations of the audience.”

Cadman was already well known at the time as a composer and expert in “American Indian Music” and for composing his own pieces in a style that became known as “Indianist.” He gave lecture tours around the United States and Europe, joined from 1908 by Redfeather, who dressed for the concerts in beaded traditional costumes, her hair in braids, and was credited as “Princess Tsianina.”

In I Call myself Princess, we meet Tsianina and Cadman as they and their opera are discovered by William, a young Métis opera singer in the course of his studies. As he learns more and deals with the difficulties of finding his own identity as a young Indigenous performer in the world of opera and today’s political climate, music and theatre become intertwined. “I was conscious of the need to seamlessly integrate the libretto and music that was Charles Wakefield Cadman’s and Nelle Eberharts’ within the context of my story,” says Lauzon. “In many ways the writing process was a constant reminder that the very act of reconciliation is a delicate balance that takes work, thought and negotiation.”

Marjorie Chan. Photo courtesy of Marjorie ChanThis intertwining of story, genre, time and theme is exciting and ambitious. Joining Lauzon to undertake the challenge of bringing it all to life is director and dramaturge Marjorie Chan, also artistic director of Cahoots, a theatre company dedicated to working with diverse artistic voices. Many things, Chan says, drew her to the project: knowing Jani Lauzon and her work with the Turtle Gals, the chance to tell a story that has thus far had little opportunity to be heard, but also the combination of theatre with opera. Chan herself is well known as an opera librettist. “When we started to work on this project,” she says, “I often felt like my worlds were starting to come together.”

When I asked Chan about the intermixture of play and opera, she said that to her it is like an opera within a play. “In terms of the actual opera that was performed on the Met stage in 1918, we are, in the play, looking at its creation from both the time when it was created and from our modern perspective in 2018,” she explains. “We are poking at it from all different sides and different times so that pieces of the opera are consistently being performed throughout the entire evening.”

Marion NewmanOne of the challenges of getting this right is casting, particularly with the very specific demands for each character. Acclaimed for her warm strong mezzo-soprano voice and experience in contemporary opera, Marion Newman, of Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations as well as English, Irish and Scottish heritage, was an obvious choice for Tsianina, Chan says. Newman has been an integral part of the project since the workshop in 2014. Opposite her, as the composer Charles Wakefield Cadman, is versatile performer and director Richard Greenblatt, known, perhaps most famously, for his two-man show with Ted Dykstra, Two Pianos Four Hands. As Cadman he not only has an acting role but a musician’s role: playing the piano – in character – throughout the piece.

Playing William, the Métis opera student, is Aaron M. Wells (of Ehattesaht and Lax Kwalaams First Nations) from the west coast, who, Chan says, is not only a terrific singer but also “understands on a really intuitive level William’s position as an Indigenous person in a program that was not specifically designed with his culture in mind.”

Leading the musical side of the production is music director Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate whose background, classical training and compositional experience make him – as Lauzon says – a perfect fit for the show. A Chikasaw classical composer and pianist whose own works are inspired by Indigenous history and culture, Impichchaachaaha’ Tate met Jani Lauzon when he came to Toronto in 1994 to compose the music for Native Earth’s production of Diva Ojibway. While “blown away by his talent and experience as a composer,” Lauzon says, “it is also a blessing that Jerod is well versed in Cadman’s music, the Indianist music and Tsianina. He gets the way Indigenous people work and think because he is one, and he understands the circumstances that Tsianina faces because as an Indigenous artist he lives it every day.”

The music he will be directing is made up of key moments from the opera, from a beautiful aria about love to an idealized version of an Ojibwe song that Cadman included not only in the opera but also in the “Indian Lecture” tour that he and Tisanina took all over the world. As well, Lauzon says, “Jerod is composing a traditional Ojibwe melody that grows as a musical theme throughout, and Marion Newman has been hard at work practising the slide guitar, which Tsianina played for the troops overseas during World War One.”

As Chan says, since in the play William is discovering the opera Shanewis, “We have to dive in. We have to hear enough of the original to understand and ask, ‘How do I feel about that?’”

The company is also spending time exploring what might have been the original performance style for opera in 1918, adds Chan: “How well that (might) hold in our contemporary space and seeing where we should offer something more naturalistic that we might be more accustomed to, and to be more truthful to the piece.” The opera was daring for its time, as Chan emphasizes. “It has a female protagonist who is very strong, very forthright. Furthermore, she is a female protagonist who is an Indian who speaks quite truthfully about her experience as a colonized person. She is the love interest of a white man and rejects him in favour of honouring her people. So we think about how that would have landed on an audience of 1918.”

As Lauzon mentioned, the opera – though highly successful in its time – contains images and concepts that today would be recognized as problematic. A challenge for the creative team and company will be balancing this intriguing and daring 1918 world with the more familiar world of 2018, and focusing the play in performance so that the audience will receive it in the way the playwright intends.

Chan says that Lauzon is “gifted in layering all these complex ideas in a really articulated, clear way.” According to Chan, the play is about Tsianina Redfeather at the turn of the century but “it is also about this young Métis man in an opera program, and what it means for him to encounter and be impacted by this music. That’s the beauty of how we find the ways to leak the music in and take it out, to stay with the emotional journey of the young Métis opera singer.”

Intriguingly, when I suggest that there was a time travel element to be experienced, Chan says that they are aiming for something even more complex: “the thought that if we might expand what we know around us we could reach it; that they are existing at the same time.”

Ultimately, says Chan, the goal of the team is that “the audience should be able to come in and experience the journey of a young man reaching back into his culture – and reclaiming culture and music that belongs to him.”

I Call myself Princess plays September 9 to 30, at Native Earth Performing Arts’ Aki Studio, Toronto. 

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

 Donna-Michelle St. Bernard - "Sound of the Beast." Photo credit Graham Isador 2017SEP 28 & 29, 7:30PM: Sound of the Beast. Theatre Passe Muraille (followed by a national tour): Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, who collaborated so wonderfully with Tapestry Opera last season on the Persian inspired Tap Ex: Forbidden, is the solo artist here as emcee “Belladonna the Blest,” and, using a combination of hip-hop, spoken word and storytelling, tells truth to power with a brutally honest take on policing in Black communities.

SEP 18 to 29: Grand Theatre. Prom Queen: The Musical. The High School Project - Grand Theatre London, 471 Richmond St., London. The Grand Theatre’s annual high school project aroused controversy earlier this year in the city of London because it tells the true story of Marc Hall, who in 2002 wanted to take his boyfriend to the school prom. Originally developed at Sheridan’s Canadian Musical Theatre Project, the show has earned rave reviews elsewhere and here will have a large cast of real high school students, 50 onstage and 30 backstage.

SEP 13 to OCT 7: Musical Stage Company. Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life. Heliconian Hall, 35 Hazelton Ave., Toronto. The latest creation by the talented Johnson sisters, Britta and Anika, this co-production with Mitchell Cushman’s Outside the March company promises to be “immersive” and very different from your usual musical. At the historic, tiny, Heliconian Hall in Yorkville.

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

In May, two shows stood out for me for different reasons. Picnic in the Cemetery at Canadian Stage’s intimate upstairs Berkeley Street Theatre was an unusual theatrical concert with a whimsical heart and setting, combining often-sublime chamber music (by composer Njo Kong Kie) with simple props, a dancer, short films and onscreen poetic introductions to the various compositions. The beautiful playing by violinist Hong Iat U and cellist Nicholas Yee (supported by the composer on the piano) stood out as enigmatic conversations between their instruments, in much the same way that author Patrick O’Brian describes the often improvisatory, lyrical, shipboard violin and cello duets played by his famous characters Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

A more traditional musical theatre outing was the TSO’s concert presentation of Leonard Bernstein’s musical Candide This was a wonderful opportunity to hear and see the exquisite Tracy Dahl as Cunegonde, with her crystal clear tone, perfect technique, and delightful acting and star mezzo Judith Forst in great comedic form as the lively Old Lady.

Looking ahead to June, there is no shortage of music theatre on offer but the most striking cluster of offerings is concentrated under the umbrella of the Luminato Festival. I took the opportunity to meet artistic director Josephine Ridge to ask her about her approach and goals for the festival as she nears the beginning of her second season in Toronto.

Josephine Ridge 4 Photo by Katherine HollandWN: Looking at the upcoming Luminato program, what really struck me was how much music there is, but also, and this seems new this year, how politically and socially engaged the whole festival is. Is that because of the current atmosphere we are living in?

JR: It’s actually deeper than that; it’s about the way I view the role of a festival within its home city – that a festival needs to be relevant to the inhabitants of its city and therefore we need to engage with the ideas that are in the public realm of discussion. We need to think about what are the issues, the concerns and the enthusiasms and in other words really what’s in the ether, because if we’re not a festival that is distinctly about Toronto and of Toronto then it means that we are not contributing and adding to the cultural landscape in the way that I believe we should as a festival.

It’s something that I was very proud to have been able to do when I was at the Melbourne Festival.

And it takes time to explore and get to know a new city.

That’s part of the excitement of course, and I think, as in all things, with fresh eyes one has a different perspective, perhaps, as well – and that certainly for me adds to the interest in terms of the conversations that I have.

You have talked before about wanting to have conversations with as many of the arts organizations as possible in the city.

Yes, this is the other side of the engagement and connection that we were just talking about. This is really about understanding what Toronto artists and companies are doing now, and how can we add to that and perhaps together achieve something which each can’t on their own.

There is already growing excitement about that approach from some of the artists I’ve spoken to – at Tapestry Opera for example.

In fact, Tapestry is a good case in point. I quickly came to understand the work that Michael Mori and his company are doing, so the conversation with Michael about this year was around work that they have produced in the past that is really deserving of a wider audience and being revisited and seen in an international festival context. We very quickly got to Nicole Lizée’s multimedia piece Tables Turned. It’s one of the important components of a platform we have created this year called Illuminated Works, which is all about fulfilling one of Luminato’s founding briefs – which was to throw a spotlight on the creativity of Toronto and take Toronto arts to the world. We are bringing a large group of international and Canadian presenters and producers to come and look at a whole range of work, with a view to it being picked up and given national and international touring opportunities. We can’t work with everybody every year but we can make a start and really make sure that over time we engage as widely as we can.

Will you be continuing with these conversations, looking for companies you haven’t yet met, and new artists emerging onto the scene?

Definitely. One of the important roles we have is not only to present work that is complete but also to recognize the proper support that is required for the creative development process of new work, and so in the program this year we have four works that are works in progress.

We’re giving those artists an opportunity to put their work in front of an audience so they can feel how it sits with that audience and feed that learning into the way they then take the work forward for future development.

This will be exciting for audiences, too, to be in on the development process on the ground floor.

Yes, and I think the works we have chosen are far-ranging: Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life, Hell’s Fury, The Ward Cabaret, and Balaklava Blues.

Dr. Silver a Celebration of Life - Photo by Neil SilcoxAnd they’re all music theatre – as we define it at The WholeNote – where music is an integral element in telling a theatrical story. This year the mix is very interesting and even more experimental than last year. Do you see music theatre as always being an essential part of the Luminato recipe, particularly as it crosses borders and genres?

Well, I’m particularly interested in artists and their work where they are not working in art-form silos; and distinctions between the definitions of particular art forms now are so blurry. Also, music to me is really central so it’s not surprising that so many works that we are looking at are cross-genre. I also think that the ability that music has to speak to audiences who perhaps might not think of themselves as being a “theatre audience” or a “dance audience,” for example, is exciting.

How did you choose the music theatre pieces this season? Did you start with one that was a cornerstone, the Irish Swan Lake, for example, or did you begin with the underlying themes and ideas you wanted to engage with this season and go from there?

I think it’s partly that I am always drawn to music and so there is no one answer to that. I have a long relationship with Teaċ Daṁsa, Michael Dolan’s company (Swan Lake), and have seen a lot of Michael’s work over the years as a director and choreographer. He is, I think, a unique and important voice, and Toronto audiences and the artists working in Toronto should see the works that he is creating

The excerpts that I have seen online look wildly theatrical.

It’s a completely original reading of such a well-known work, and all the elements of the Swan Lake story are there, but of course it is completely transformed into this really poor community in Ireland. There are no kings and queens and princes here, and the music is original Irish music (with folk references) played live onstage. Somehow even with all of that transformation, the classic story is there, which to me is just magical.

And the Canadian pieces – how did you choose those, Dr. Silver for example?

In the case of Dr. Silver, A Celebration of Life I was invited by Mitchell Cushman of Outside the March, very soon after I arrived in Canada (the middle of 2016), to go to a day of workshops they were holding, and this was one of those works in a very raw form. I met and talked with Mitchell and then also with Mitchell Marcus of The Musical Stage Company, as it was absolutely evident to me that Britta and Anika Johnson are a real creative force. I was interested in not just the direction of that work but of whatever else they were doing, and wanted to signal that I would be interested in finding a way for Luminato to be part of that story to support those artists. Although Dr. Silver has its official presentation in September as a finished work, I asked if it would be useful for them to have an opportunity on the way through to put it in front of an audience, so that’s how that conversation went.

Hells Fury: The Hollywood Songbook [Tim Albery’s concept based on the life and songs of composer Hanns Eisler], on the other hand, came to us as an idea from Lawrence Cherney at Soundstreams. He said “We want to create this work and need a partner.” So, there are many ways in which these projects can come to life. You have to be in the room, seeing work, having the conversation for these outcomes to even occur.

And if artists are interested in having a conversation with you how should they approach you?

I try to go to see artists working at all scales and at all types of work, so people do tend to find me in foyers, but I can also be easily be contacted at Luminato.

The Ward Cabaret you mentioned is also a work in progress – can you tell me a bit more about it?

I think it’s a really important piece because it comes from the recent book The Ward from Coach House Books that deals with the importance of the Ward [an area bounded roughly by Queen and College, Yonge and University] and the cultural diversity of its original inhabitants as being the real basis of Toronto’s cultural diversity today. What David Buchbinder (the show’s originator) has done is have a musical response to that material, and I think it’s going to be really interesting and very rich.

Now that playwright Marjorie Chan and director Leah Cherniak are newly involved in the collaboration, is there any sense yet of how theatrical it is going to be?

What we have now is really a cabaret concert performance, but eventually it will be a fully staged theatrical experience. I can’t tell you when that will be but we are certainly there for the journey.

Before we finish, could you tell me a bit more about Riot, the other show you are bringing from Ireland? It sounds like a smorgasbord of different genres, including music theatre, all mixed together.

Riot is uplifting. It’s funny, energetic, has got real heart and soul, and deals with – going back to your first questions – issues and ideas. It covers quite a lot of really important territory of social politics, in particular, but does it in a way that is very entertaining and lightly done. I think you’ll find a lot of connection to Toronto audiences because of the territory it covers and because it is so entertaining.

Up Over It in 'Riot' - Photo by Conor Horgan for THISISPOPBABYAnd because of the contrast in style with everything else?

That’s why we are running it a bit longer – so it has a chance to bridge a lot of the other works that are taking place.

The whole festival is longer this year. Is there extra programming or are you spreading things out?

It’s more about pace, allowing there to be some air in between, so hopefully people can see more but also connect the various aspects of the festival. It’s also structural: with only two weekends you begin and you end; with three weekends now we have a beginning, middle and end, and we’re telling a story.

Luminato runs from June 6 to 24 at various venues around Toronto.

Follow our online blog for more previews and reviews of music theatre around Ontario this summer.

Quick Picks

June 1 to 10: Frame by Frame. A new collaboration between international theatrical innovator Robert Lepage with Canadian choreographer Guillaume Côté, celebrating and showcasing excerpts of Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren’s groundbreaking films. National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre, Toronto.

June 6, 7: Soundstreams finishes its 35th season with an exciting two-part music theatre program, the world premiere of James Rolfe’s I Think We Are Angels, with a libretto based on the poems of Else Lasker-Schüler, and a new theatrical version of David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion led by music director John Hess and stage director Jennifer Tarver. At Crows Theatre, 345 Carlaw, Toronto.

June 16: Tony Award-winning Scottish actor Alan Cumming (of The Good Wife and many other shows) comes to Massey Hall for one night only with his new cabaret show Legal Immigrant, built around stories and songs of his life and loves in his adopted homeland, the USA.

June 26: A rare chance to see Canadian stage and film star Christopher Plummer live at the TSO, in Christopher Plummer’s Symphonic Shakespeare, at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

July 13 to August 12: Rosalynde (or As You Like It). Driftwood Theatre places one of Shakespeare’s most musical comedies in Canada in 1918, with the songs given new musical settings to fit the period by music director and composer Tom Lillington. In parks around Ontario; see driftwoodtheatre.com/bards-bus-tour for details. 

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

Steven Reineke leads Stephanie J. Block and the TSO in "On Broadway." Photo: Jag Gundu/TSOApril provided a rich abundance of music theatre in Toronto from the traditional to the wildly experimental, from new creations to double adaptations. Early in the month the Toronto Symphony Orchestra celebrated the classic musical with the superb pops concert “On Broadway,” under the skilled and energetic baton of Steven Reineke. On hand to sing the songs were the brilliant and brilliantly contrasting current Broadway stars, Canadian Ramin Karimloo (Phantom of the Opera, Les Mis) and Stephane J. Block (Falsettos, Wicked). These two stars had never worked together before and their personal styles could not be more different. Block, with a bigger, brasher belting style, practically channelled Barbra Streisand in a galvanizing Don’t Rain on My Parade from Funny Girl and Karimloo, with a much quieter, focused presence, though equally powerful, captured the audience entirely with an exquisite rendering of Old Man River to his own classical guitar accompaniment partnered with principal cello Joseph Johnson. It was fascinating to see these giant talents each hold the audience in the palms of their hands and to come closer and closer as stage partners through various solos and duets, culminating in what felt like an anthem for each: Being Alive from Company for him and Defying Gravity from Wicked for her, and with a beautifully nuanced Move On by the two together from Sunday in the Park with George. It was an evening that reminded us of the power of the best Broadway scores to move our hearts with stories told through words and music; particularly in the hands of interpreters with such a profound connection to the material, with each other, the orchestra and the audience.

Other music theatre works attempting to take possession of our minds and hearts this past month ranged from a lesbian cartoonist trying to figure out her past in order to move on, a man trying to deal with a recent tragedy and escape his grief, a poor accountant whose life is irrevocably changed by the acquisition of a new coat, and an American GI staying behind in Paris after WWII to indulge his love of painting.

All but one of these are adaptations of other source material. Adaptations are often difficult to pull off, having to match script and score to the source and meet or exceed the expectations of an audience perhaps familiar with the original material.

Fun Home, the 2015 Tony Award-winner for Best Musical, based on lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s acclaimed and bestselling autobiographical graphic novel, opened on April 17 at the CAA (formerly Panasonic) Theatre in a new production from the Musical Stage Company presented by Mirvish Productions. It connected so strongly with its first audiences that its run was immediately extended (currently to May 20). I wasn’t familiar with the graphic novel before seeing the show, but the adaptation feels flawless. The characters are real, complex people, immediately recognizable; the script by Lisa Kron rings true and the songs by Jeannine Tesori (with lyrics by Kron) feel like necessary moments of heightened emotion, the musical style with a 70s feeling to it helping to create that sensation. The all-Canadian cast is excellent, led by Laura Condlin, Sara Farb, and young Hannah Levinson as central character Alison Bechdel at three different ages. (You can read my full review online on
thewholenote.com).

An American in Paris, another 2015 Tony Award-winner, also made its Toronto debut in April with the North American touring company coming to the Princess of Wales Theatre for a six-week run. In a way this could be looked at as a double adaptation. While this is a new stage musical inspired by/adapted from the famous MGM musical of the same name that starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron (and won a special Academy Award for the innovative and brilliant 17-minute American in Paris ballet that took Kelly and Caron’s characters through a love story using panoramic sequence of Parisian painters), the film itself with a script by Alan J. Lerner, was built around earlier classic songs and works by George and Ira Gershwin.

In developing the new stage version, director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and book writer Craig Lucas have spoken in various interviews about how they wanted not to just “put the film on stage” but to create a new show with a deeper background. They wanted a more complex story, tied more closely to historical reality by setting it clearly in a Paris just beginning to recover from the ravages of occupation by the Germans. The first half of the show, I found, succeeds wonderfully in these goals. Paris slowly awakening from war and coming to life again becomes itself a character through the brilliant choreographed crowds who fill the stage from the top of the show, clearly signalling the style of the world we are about to enter. The characters we know and love from the movie are still there but slightly altered: Jerry Mulligan, the GI who has stayed after the war to paint, is here a slightly less confident character than in the movie, more uncertain in his talent, more affected by the war. Lise, Caron’s character, has become an aspiring ballet dancer, but still works in a perfume shop, still torn between Jerry and Henri Baurel. Henri is no longer an established musical hall star but a would-be performer, though still in love with Lise. Interestingly, Oscar Levant’s iconic cynical Adam has become the narrator and another would-be lover of Lise. Matthew Scott from the original Broadway company was so strong and likeable in this role that he stole the show from the other men.

While by intermission I felt won over by this new version of one of my favourite films, I found in contrast that the second half was a bit of a letdown, particularly in the iconic ballet sequence which here is very modern and abstract, and where Lise makes her professional debut and becomes a star. I found the choreography in this sequence dull and frustrating after the character and imagination elsewhere throughout the show, particularly in contrast to the movie, and not completely saved by the intense romantic pas de deux at its centre where Lise imagines that she is dancing with Jerry. I will say, though, that the audience around me did not seem to have the same reaction. It also seemed to me too easy and clichéd to make Lise a Jewish girl saved by Henri’s family when her parents were killed by the Germans, instead of her being, as she is in the film, the child of Resistance fighters. Still, with those caveats aside, this is a show worth seeing, particularly for its re-creation and re-imagination of post-war Paris.

Overcoat: The other big new music theatre production, half opera, half musical, this month was the world premiere production of The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring, a three-way co-production from Tapestry New Opera, Canadian Stage and the Vancouver Opera Company.

Highly anticipated as a new experimental exploration of Gogol’s famous short story by Morris Panych (the director and co-creator of the famous wordless physical theatre production of The Overcoat 20 years ago that repeatedly toured here and internationally), The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring is, as I wrote in The WholeNote last issue, also the first collaboration between Panych and acclaimed Canadian composer James Rolfe. When I spoke with Panych about the show before rehearsals began he talked about the scope of expectations that this new production was facing: people who had loved the original show so much and seen it many times told him they did not want to see this new version for fear that it would dilute that original experience. And yet the creative team were all so energized and excited by the possibilities of exploring the original source material again from new angles and with new artistic tools, that one couldn’t help but feel as though they couldn’t fail to bring something remarkably new to life.

The new Overcoat, with words and singers rather than purely physical performers, is definitely recognizable as a relative of the first production but also clearly something different. It realizes many of the goals of the creative team to explore more intellectual themes and ideas, and it explores the potential of melding purely physical theatre with new opera. To anchor the physicality, choreographed again by Wendy Gorling (co-creator of the original Overcoat), are two actors from that original company and while they stand out from the rest as they do not sing, they perform their function well of anchoring the audience’s perception of the physical world in the style of movement presented, as well as leading the way for the rest of the cast. The singers do a wonderful job with the choreography, in fact seeming to revel in the extra theatricality, particularly the brilliant Peter McGillivray, a standout as singer and actor in his leading contrasting roles of Head of the Department and the Tailor.

The design team has created a clearly evocative world, a slightly macabre, slightly Dickensian, silent movie-in-looks world, dark with colours for highlights, faces all painted white with black-rimmed highlighted eyes exaggerating every facial expression. The music is clean and spare, toeing the line between new opera and new music theatre, occasionally going into flights of fancy (as when the tailor takes his snuff) and finding eerie harmonies for the mad-girl chorus who haunt the hero like an invisible three fates waiting for him to fall, commenting on his actions and predicting his end.

What I did miss was the odd aria, or solo song, to give the characters a chance to connect more deeply with the audience. Both librettist/director and composer spoke to me about wanting to give primacy to the words and ideas rather than musical ornamentation. But I missed the connection that an aria or solo can create between the stage and the audience, particularly for the lead character Akakiy, embodied well by Geoffrey Sirett, a simple man obsessed with numbers to the exclusion of almost everything else in his life. Oblivious to the attraction his rather Brechtian landlady has for him (she gets to tell us a little bit about this) he follows his daily routine and does sing to us a bit about numbers but not at any length or to any great depth. If the creative team still tinker with their creation as it goes on the road and goes into the opera repertoire I hope they will consider adding a solo or two.

Musicals, in my view, need to have these moments – in Fun Home, currently onstage, for example, the most powerful moments are captured in solo songs where the leading characters, unable to hold their feelings in, turn to the audience and sing. Middle Alison in Changing My Major and Small Alison in Ring of Keys, for example, offer clear moments of discovery for both characters.

That being said, there are some other very interesting dramaturgical choices that work well in this Overcoat. Taking Akakiy’s original obsession with copying letters from the short story, turning it into an obsession with numbers and then throughout the libretto into combined themes of counting and measuring a man’s worth, for example. The biggest dramaturgical choice that departs from the short story is the framing of the stage version with madness. When Akakiy loses his overcoat to thieves here, he goes mad rather than just getting mad, and the mad girls and physical performers become the inmates of a mad house where Akakiy ends up, wearing another sort of jacket altogether.

While there is a definite neatness to this concept, it is a bit frustrating in that it loses the universality of the original symbolism of Akakiy dying and his ghost continuing to haunt the streets stealing coats from passersby. There is a haunting moment in the staging where it looks as though this will indeed happen, but then it is gone. These caveats aside, this Overcoat is a highly accomplished, highly theatrical night in the theatre, and I’m sure it will live on and develop further.

QUICK PICKS

To June 3: Fans of TV Series Downton Abbey will be delighted to see Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) as Miss Hannigan in Annie (run extended to June 3), presented by Mirvish at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.

To May 6: Former composer for La La La Human Steps, Canadian Njo Kong Kie brings his musical collage Picnic in the Cemetery to Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre.

Starting May 3: Grand Hotel begins at the Shaw Festival. Fans of the film starring Greta Garbo and John Barrymore may be curious to see this musical version.

May 4 to June 2: Soulpepper presents August Wilson’s classic 1920s musical Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring Alana Bridgewater and a strong Toronto cast.

May 24 to June 17: Grease Toronto presents Grease. Music, lyrics and book by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Winter Garden Theatre, 189 Yonge St. 

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

The Toronto spring season continues to be a hotbed of music theatre creation and revival, from traditional works to many variations on cross-genre experimentation.

The National Ballet of Canada brought back one of the jewels in its crown with Nureyev’s The Sleeping Beauty. Over many years of watching ballet I had become disenchanted with the great Russian classics but when given the chance to see first, the dress rehearsal, and then the opening night of Sleeping Beauty in March, I found myself swept away by the company’s delighted ownership of Nureyev’s version of Petipa’s masterpiece and newly enchanted by the theatrical and dramatic variety in Tchaikovsky’s famous score. The dress rehearsal also featured a captivating last-minute pairing at the dress rehearsal of Jurgita Dronina and Harrison James as Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund for Act Three. On opening night Heather Ogden was an incandescent Princess Aurora, dancing as if without any thought of the technical demands of the rose adagio or grand pas de deux, for example (which she danced brilliantly). Ogden brought to life in every moment, with every gesture, the 16-year-old princess of Act One, the yearning dream princess of Act Two, and the newly mature, newly awakened princess of Act Three. Also outstanding was Tanya Howard as the Lilac Fairy, slim authority personified in her flowing lilac fairy dress, with echoes of her equally authoritative performance of Paulina in The Winter’s Tale last fall.

The Ballet’s spring season also brought to the Four Seasons Centre the mixed program Made in Canada featuring a fascinating piece by Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite: Emergence, to an original score by Owen Belton. While the first two pieces of the program were lyrical and beautiful, Emergence startled with its stark, spiky, modern, almost science fiction-style choreography and music. Exciting in its energy and unexpected dangerous quality of movement, this piece was atavistically disturbing and sometimes terrifying to watch; the dancers all in black seeming to be a cross between black swans and insects, an impression enhanced by a score made up of unusual sounds, most disturbingly what sounded like a horde of beetles’ mandibles clicking.

Betroffenheit - photo by Michael SlobodianPite, recognized internationally as an innovative choreographer with commissions around the world as well as for her own company Kidd Pivot, also returns to Toronto April 19 to 22 with Betroffenheit at Canadian Stage, her co-creation with playwright-performer Jonathan Young (of Vancouver’s Electric Theatre Company) originally co-commissioned by Canadian Stage and presented as part of the 2015 Panamania Festival. Inspired by the real tragic event of Young’s young teenage daughter and two cousins dying in a cabin fire and his own spiral into despair that followed, the show was first conceived as a one-man play but with the collaboration of Pite as director and then choreographer it developed into something much more. The show interweaves play text (mostly through voiceover) with dance in a way that allows the creators and performers to go beyond the literal into the metaphysical and imaginary to explore the ideas and emotions in great depth. It has been described as a “harrowing representation of trauma and suffering” but is also heralded by almost everyone who has seen it as phenomenally powerful and inventive, particularly in its combination of dance and theatre. Almost a signature piece for Canadian Stage as an example of this type of cross-genre collaborative creation, it is also a cousin to another show in the Canadian Stage season: The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring, which opens with previews on March 27. The world premiere of the new opera/musical version of Gogol’s short story by director and librettist Morris Panych with a score by James Rolfe and movement choreography by Wendy Gorling promises to be an exciting event, and particularly fascinating for anyone who saw Panych and Gorling’s original famously physical theatre “silent movie” style production of The Overcoat which wowed audiences here and around the world.

Also opening March 27 is the Toronto run of the touring production of An American in Paris, presented by Mirvish Productions at the Princess of Wales Theatre. A more traditional musical offering, the draw for me is to see how the newly expanded and darker book by Craig Lucas will work with Christopher Wheeldon’s Tony Award-winning choreography, and how both will compare to the beloved Gene Kelly film.

Mirvish Productions is also presenting another Tony Award-winning musical, the Musical Stage Company’s new production of Fun Home, coming to the intimate CAA (formerly Panasonic) Theatre April 13 to May 6; the first time that a local musical production has been part of the Off-Mirvish Program.

On a much smaller scale than the shows I have been talking about above, Fun Home tackles issues much bigger than the size of its cast in a show described as both heartbreaking and fiercely funny. Adapted from Alison Bechdel’s best-selling semi-autobiographical 2006 graphic novel, it tells the story of Alison, a 43 year-old lesbian cartoonist, struggling to untangle her complex relationship with her deceased father. Moving between past and present, and connecting directly with the audience, Alison relives an unusual childhood growing up in a funeral home, her sexual awakening, unanswerable questions about her father’s secret life and eventual suicide and the effect that has on both herself and her family.

Hannah Levinson in 'Fun Home' - photo by Adam RankinAdapted by Lisa Kron, and with a 70s-inflected score by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie), this production of Fun Home will be brought to life by the Musical Stage Company’s usual brilliant creative home team of director Robert McQueen, music director Reza Jacobs and choreographer Stephanie Graham. The dynamite cast includes Stratford stars Cynthia Dale and Evan Buliung as Alison’s parents Helen and Bruce Bechdel, with Laura Condlln as Alison at 43, the narrator who holds the show together; Hannah Levinson as Small Alison (age 10), and as Medium Alison (age 19, university student), Toronto native Sara Farb.

As Toronto audiences may remember, Farb was one of two young Janes in the musical Jane Eyre that had its world premiere at the Royal Alex back in 1996. In a 2015 interview for In the Greenroom, she talked about her thoughts a few years earlier of getting out of the theatre business because “what [she] offered was too astray from the norm [of] musical theatre” and yet over the last five years at Stratford and in Toronto, she has developed into a powerful presence, most notably recently as the powerful goth-like Mary Tudor in The Last Wife (Stratford and Toronto) and The Virgin Trials, and her enigmatically sardonic Bob Dylan in the Musical Stage Company’s most recent Uncovered concert: Dylan and Springsteen – a fascinating segué to exploring the role of Medium Alison, a character discovering and coming to celebrate that she is a lesbian, and the effect that has on her family. You can hear Farb singing one of the signature songs of Fun Home, “Changing My Major” on Youtube in a promotional video shot at Toronto’s Metro Reference Library.

As you will hear in this song, Jeanine Tesori’s score has that almost indescribable quality of sounding like real people singing – just that one step beyond talking – before soaring into melody, that can pull the audience immediately into the story. Interestingly, the story itself, centering on a daughter trying to come to terms with the death of her father and their earlier troubled relationship, irresistibly brings to mind Britta Johnson’s Life After which opened the Musical Stage Company’s season in September. Did they plan it that way?

Other echoes of the Musical Stage Company appear in the first previews of the Stratford Festival’s musicals this month. Dan Chameroy, who was so good as the motivational speaker father in Life After, shakes things up in the Tim Curry-associated starring role of Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Show at the Avon Theatre, and Daren A. Herbert, who was so charismatic and effective as Onegin in the new Canadian musical of the same name last spring, takes on the iconic Robert Preston role of Harold Hill in The Music Man at the Festival Theatre.

Breaking news this week as we prepare to go to print has it that the new musical Jukebox Hero, being created around songs from classic rock band Foreigner’s hit list, will follow up its debut performances this summer in Calgary and Edmonton with a Toronto engagement (of only five performances so far) in February 2019 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre under the Mirvish umbrella. Excitingly, the cast is all Canadian, featuring musical veterans Richard Clarkin and Jonathan Whittaker as the two fathers, and the creative team is top shelf, led by director Randy Johnson (A Night with Janis Joplin), choreographer Tracey Flye (Mirvish Productions, Ross Petty Productions), music director Mark Camilleri (Mirvish, Dancap) and writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (best known for their films The Commitments and Across the Universe, as well as their one previous stage musical Billy which starred Michael Crawford). Tickets go on sale on Ticketmaster on March 26.

QUICK PICKS

Ongoing: The wonderfully life-affirming Canadian musical Come From Away continues its run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, now extended to October 2018.

Apr 10 to 12: “On Broadway”: A rare chance to see Canadian (born in Iran but brought up in Brampton) Ramin Karimloo, star of Broadway and London’s West End and a brilliant Jean Valjean in the recent remount of Les Miserables in Toronto and New York, in a concert of Broadway favourites with Stephanie J. Block (Wicked) and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steven Reineke at Roy Thomson Hall.

Apr 21 and 22: “Broadway Reimagined.” Sarah Slean brings her unique Canadian pop sensibility to a program of Broadway classics with the Mike Janzen (jazz) Trio and the Niagara Symphony Orchestra.

Apr 26 to May 6: Picnic in the Cemetery, is a multimedia performance/concert presented by Canadian Stage and created by Toronto composer Njo Kong Kie with the Macau-based Folga Gaang Project. Described as a combination of the whimsical and the macabre, Picnic (which previously played at the Edinburgh Festival) was originally inspired in part by the composer having lived near the Mount Pleasant Cemetery. 

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

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