Marnie Breckenridge and Matt Haimovitz. Photo by Dahlia KatzToward the end of January I was invited to sit in on an early staging rehearsal of the new opera, Jacqueline, gaining a rare glimpse into the creation of this experimental world premiere that explores the life and legacy of celebrity virtuoso cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who, at 23, began experiencing numbness in her fingers, at 28 was diagnosed with MS and stopped playing the cello, and in 1987 passed away at age 42.

While the work’s stated format, a duet for soprano and cello, sounds as though it might be very static on stage, what I saw in the rehearsal room was the exact opposite. It moves, is playful, fun, exciting, sad, and unexpected. The music, both vocal and instrumental, is gorgeous and sometimes startling in its layering and detail, echoing the same experimental nature of the libretto and the whole approach of the production. The staging that I saw is equally dynamic: as if happening in the moment, always grounded in the characters’ motivation and inspired by the music, using the full space of the stage, finding a physical shape for everything happening in Jacqueline’s mind and memory. Versatile soprano Marnie Breckenridge embodies Jacqueline du Pré, but at many different ages and stages of her life; the second “character,” is the cello itself – Jacqueline’s closest friend, partner of her greatest successes, witness and sharer in her failures and losses, and finally a potent symbol of her legacy to the world – portrayed by renowned cellist Matt Haimowitz.

Read more: New Opera for Soprano and Cello Promises Multilinear Magic

The holiday season is almost here, overflowing with family-oriented musical theatre offerings, beginning with YPT’s beautiful new production of The Adventures of Pinocchio in a musical version by Canadians Neil Bartram and Brian Hill. Originally commissioned by the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, this is the Canadian premiere of a delightful 75-minute version of Carlo Collodi’s classic tale of the wooden puppet who longs to become a real human boy. 

Connor Lucas (left) in YPT’s Pinocchio, with Arena Hermans as Cat (centre) and Joel Cumber as the Fox. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.I have to admit that Pinocchio has never been one of my favourite fairy tales, even in the iconic 1940 Disney animated film, but I was completely won over by this version. At its heart is a warmth and gentleness that focuses on how the impulsive puppet learns through his (sometimes scary) misadventures and impulsive mistakes how to start thinking of others before himself, that life is about making (sometimes very hard) choices, but if he has courage, and looks inside himself, he can find the right choices to make and achieve his dream of becoming a real boy. Sheila McCarthy’s imaginative production is fast-paced and fun, with the young dynamic cast moving nonstop through multiple scene and character changes. Veteran Shawn Wright as a sympathetic Geppetto and Malindi Ayienga as a majestic Blue Fairy anchor the story while Connor Lucas as Pinocchio, though wearing a half Harlequin-like mask, wins the audience’s heart with his impulsive energy and vulnerability – and fantastic tap dancing. Joanna Yu’s storybook design for set and costumes perfectly matches the material, and hearing the children in the theatre reacting audibly as events unfold adds to the fun. 

Read more: From Pinocchio to Poppins - A Cornucopia of Family Fun

Of the many music theatre events in October, one that stood out for me was the Canadian Musical Theatre Project’s annual festival of new musicals in progress at the beautiful Winter Garden Theatre. An international incubator for the creation of new musicals based at Sheridan College, the CMTP also gives fourth-year Sheridan musical theatre students an unparalleled opportunity to be part of the creation and development of new works alongside working professionals, and, on top of that, to have this exceptional showcase of their own abilities. Of the three musicals presented in excerpt, one in particular caught my eye: Pump Up The Volume by Jeff Thomson (music) and Jeremy Desmon (book and lyrics). Although based on the 1990 film by Alan Moyle, this show exploded onstage with youthful energy echoing the energy and passion of the growing number of youth-led movements to fix what is wrong with our world today, whether the proliferation of guns or the imminence of climate disaster. Songs, script and performances added up to more than the sum of their parts. If the whole musical is this strong, I can see young audiences responding to it in a big way.

This same energy was captured by Hanna Kiel’s world-premiere dance piece for Human Body Expression at the end of September: Resonance, explicit in its own language of movement and 80’s inspired rock music about the need for all of us to stand together to fight for what is right. (See my review on The WholeNote blog).

David BrockA Million Billion Pieces

Music, as an essential ingredient in portraying youthful passion and idealism, will also be seen in the upcoming new “play with opera,” A Million Billion Pieces by David James Brock (book) and Gareth Williams (music). Though a creative extension of The Breath Cycle Project the duo began with Scottish Opera in 2013, Brock explains that the play stands on its own, set in a “SciFi/Fantasy realm where a simple touch can cause the two main characters to explode into a million billion pieces, due to a rare genetic illness.” Isolated by their illness, two 16-year-olds, Pria and Theo, craving connection, create online personas and correspond as these ‘ideal” selves for a year before daring to meet in person. This online ideal world is set apart from the real world by being “heightened cosmically and sonically,” as Brock says, not just with singing but “through vocal effects and scoring, so that the music evolves into fuller vocal lines and scenes as the relationships do,” to the point where music enters the real world as Pria and Theo dare to actually meet in person. When I asked Brock if his writing process changed for this project since he was writing for a teenage audience, he said, “not much. The characters are teenagers, but they’ve lived their whole lives being told they wouldn’t survive to adulthood, so they’ve had to fit as much as possible in on a countdown. These characters are hyper aware of the finite amount of time in a life. I think we all have a sense we’re not using the time we have correctly – I certainly do. As a side note, at the climate march recently, I overheard a conversation where two teens truly didn’t think the planet would be around when they were 50.”

A Million Billion Pieces is directed by Philip Akin and runs November 25 to December 13 in YPT’s studio theatre. Paired with it in the season, and beginning two weeks earlier, is a heartfelt musical version of the classic fairy tale of the boy whose nose grows whenever he tells a lie: Pinocchio. Created by Neil Bartram and Brian Hill (who first met as cast mates in the Toronto production of Forever Plaid in the 1990s), this Canadian premiere will be directed by Canadian musical and television star Sheila McCarthy, notable for past incarnations as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors and Adelaide in Guys and Dolls to name just two.

Orpheus Revisited

Over at the National Ballet of Canada, another classic tale is being explored and revisited through two short ballets: George Balanchine’s 1975 Chaconne, and the world premiere of Robert Binet’s Orpheus Alive. Both ballets are inspired by the classical tale of the musician, Orpheus, who petitions the gods to bring his beloved wife, Eurydice, back from the dead. Balanchine’s piece, while set to some of Gluck’s score for his opera Orfeo ed Euridice, is mostly abstract, whereas Binet’s new work sets out to really tell the story, setting it in our own times and switching the gender of the leading roles, making Orpheus a woman artist, and Eurydice a man, her husband. He also turns the audience into the gods who must judge their case. Set to a new score by the award-winning composer Missy Mazzoli, and including projections, and text spoken by some of the dancers to the audience, this looks like a must-see for fans of contemporary ballet.

Another Brick in the WallWalls

Another must-see in November is the Toronto premiere (after the world premiere in Vancouver two weeks earlier) of The 9th!, A dance work ten years in the making by co-choreographers Roberto Campanella and Robert Glumbek of ProArteDanza. Set to Beethoven’s famously iconic Ninth Symphony and inspired by its connection with the celebration of of the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago (almost to the day of the opening), the full-length work also uses the full four movements of the symphony to explore the idea of the need to demolish inhibiting walls in our lives, both tangible and metaphysical. (November 6 to 9, Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront). (See my upcoming interview with Roberto Campanella on The WholeNote blog.)

The powerful image of a wall is central as well to Another Brick in the Wall, a new opera inspired by and based on Roger Waters’ music from the famous Pink Floyd album, The Wall. The album predated the fall of the Berlin Wall by ten years, but the themes being explored by composer Julien Bilodeau and director Dominic Champagne – “the difficulties of a whole generation confronted with the destruction of its dreams” – are certainly similar. (November 13 to 23 at Meridian Hall, the former Sony Centre).

Storytelling through song

Old and new, traditional and experimental, were combined in another October highlight over at Crow’s Theatre in collaboration with Eclipse Theatre, with the Toronto premiere of Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet in a production that – with a stage the size of a postage stamp – managed to create a multi-layered, magical, eerie world of time travelling, interconnected characters, and a wild variety of mixed genre music, folk tale and dialogue that created a hypnotically fascinating world via the stories told by the songs of a concept album that forms the first layer of the show’s structure.

Brilliantly directed, designed and performed, this show was/is unique, and yet it also made me think of two ongoing Toronto concert series that in their own ways, create their own magic by revisiting classic songs in new contexts, creating new and enthralling music-theatrical world’s for audiences to experience. Both series have shows coming up this month. First is The Musical Stage Company’s 13th edition of Uncovered, this time looking at the connected lives and works of Stevie Wonder and Prince, inspired by the fact that the two artists knew and admired each other and influenced each other’s work. Following the gender-blind casting tradition begun in 2017 when Maev Beaty played David Bowie, and followed by Sara Farb as Bob Dylan in 2018, this year Sarah Afful takes on the role of Stevie Wonder, with Chy Ryan Spain appearing as Prince.

Toronto’s other storytelling-through-song tradition, Soulpepper’s concert series curated by music director Mike Ross, brings back its 2017 hit Riverboat Coffee House:The Yorkville Scene, November 5 to 17. Written and directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell, this concert weaves together songs by and stories about such iconic Canadian singer-songwriters as Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Murray McLauchlan and Neil Young, to recreate the anarchic excitement of Yorkville in the 60’s.

Bands on stage

Onstage bands are the anchors of two more new plays with live scores opening in Toronto this month. The world premiere of The Wager is inspired by the true story of a scientist in the 19th century who accepted a bet to prove that the planet Earth is round rather than flat, only to have his proof rejected by the hostile flat-Earthers. Provocative and timely in our era of climate denial, the play employs Theatre Gargantua’s signature combination of physical theatre, innovative use of technology and a live vocal score to tell the story, with the cast doubling as the live on-stage band. (November 14-30 at Theatre Passe Muraille).

Steve O'Connell and Berni Stapleton in Artistic Fraud’s Between Breaths. Photo by Rich BlenkinsoppOpening shortly after The Wager, down the street at Factory Theatre (November 20 to December 8) is the Toronto premiere of Between Breaths, an Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland production written by Robert Chafe and directed by Jillian Keiley (famous for her very physical, almost stylized, productions at the NAC and Stratford). Inspired by the real life of Jon Lien known as “the Whale Man” the play tells the story of his inspiring career during which he freed more than 500 whales from fishing nets off Newfoundland’s coast. As might be intuited from the title, there are also links here to A Million Billion Pieces, as later in his life Jon Lien suffered from dementia ending his days in a wheelchair, chronically short of breath. Between Breaths begins at the end of the story and travels back to Lien’s very first whale intervention, the whole story buoyed and infused by the live music, vocal and instrumental, of famed Newfoundland folk trio The Once.

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

NOV 4, 8PM: One show only. Stratford Festival. Avon Theatre. The House of Martin Guerre in concert. A wonderful chance to see Leslie Arden’s musical version of this classic tale, starring the luminous Chilina Kennedy, directed by Richard Ouzounian.

NOV 4 TO NOV 17: Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company. The Pianist of Willesden Lane. A play that makes classical music a character of its own through the piano playing of the protagonist. An intriguing premise.

NOV 6 TO NOV 10: National Ballet of Canada. Giselle. Music by Adolphe Adam. Sir Peter Wright, choreographer. Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. One of the most beloved romantic ballets, and one of my favourite productions at the NBC. There will be some notable debuts and farewells in the role of Gistelle this fall.

NOV 12 AND NOV 14, 8PM: Mirvish. Mandy Patinkin in Concert: Diaries. Ed Mirvish Theatre. A rare chance to see a great musical theatre star live. Mandy Patinkin is electric onstage whether playing Che in Evita or singing concert material with Patti Lupone, or alone with a band.

NOV 28 TO DEC 22: Theatre Orangeville. Little Women. Canadian composer Jim Betts’ musical version of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel. It debuted to acclaim in 2001 with a great cast that included Douglas Chamberlain, Tracey Michailidis and Michael Therriault.

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

Two unconventional music theatre works opening in early October caught my eye right away for the excitement of their risk-taking and also for the clear desire each production has to find new ways to involve audiences in a deeper, more immersive way.

Ghost QuartetGhost Quartet: Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet, a four-person ghost-storytelling “live concept album” presented in a joint production by the new Eclipse Theatre Company (Kiss of the Spiderwoman at the Don Jail) and the always innovative Crows Theatre, is the first. Malloy is best known for his Tony Award-winning popera take on Tolstoy’s War and Peace: Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.

Ghost Quartet is a smaller show but hugely ambitious within a deceptively straightforward format. A camera breaks, and four friends drink whiskey and tell each other ghost stories in an interwoven narrative that spans seven centuries drawing on sources as varied as The Arabian Nights, a retelling of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, Japanese Noh Drama, Grimmsian fairly tales, grisly urban legends and 19th-century broadsheet ballads. The music is equally eclectic including gospel, folk ballad, honky-tonk, electropop, doo-wop and jazz. The cast is made up of four of Toronto’s top actor/singer/musicians: Hailey Gillis (star of Soulpepper’s Rose), Kira Guloien (Doctor Zhivago on Broadway, The Who’s Tommy at Stratford), and Beau Dixon (Soulpepper’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Harlem Duet), led by Andrew Penner (Sunparlour Players and Harrow Fair) who is also the music director.

Wanting to find out more about how this show works from the inside and how they will be approaching the production, I spoke with Andrew Penner and stage director Marie Farsi:

WN: What do you think led Dave Malloy to create this show in the format of a “live concept album”?

Marie Farsi: It was definitely an homage to great masterpieces made on vinyl. Dave explains that his desire was to take the narrative form of the rock concept album “with all of its vaguery and weirdness, symbolism and surrealism, adrenaline and angst” and theatricalize it. In the show, each of the songs is announced by one of the performers with its track number and title. I think the intention is to use it as a device to reframe the narrative and encourage a looser frame of mind.

How do the different styles of music contribute to the telling of the individual stories, and the overall theme of the show?

MF: Through different styles of music, we can paint different worlds for the audience to travel to through their own imagination; and the restlessness and unexpectedness of the music captures love, which is so beautifully complicated. It makes us feel alive and invincible until it’s gone, or stolen, or lost.

What is it like as music director, working with a cast of actor/singer/musicians to master all these different styles? 

Andrew Penner: The three other performers in the show are killers. We made sure of that before we went ahead with the show. They’re all amazing multi-instrumentalists with great instincts. Plus, we’re all really hard on ourselves in the best way. The styles are very genre spanning and we are trying to bend them as far as we can.

Will the staging be traditional or more immersive than we usually expect to mimic the telling of ghost stories and how they interconnect? 

MF: The staging will definitely be more immersive. Among the multiple storylines, one is simply the four performers (Hailey, Kira, Beau and Andrew) as friends, jamming, drinking whiskey and telling each other ghost stories. So I anchored the reality of the show in the “here and now” of the theatre: instruments, microphones, cables are all on stage. However, I’d say our production is even more theatrical than the original, which was presented at the McKittrick Hotel and had a real concert feel, because I’m creating a secret hideout for the band, placing it in a more natural environment. I was inspired by the Black Forest associated with the Brothers Grimm, and the stories we tell around the campfire. We’re bringing the magic of fairytales and the wonder of haunted forests a bit more to life on stage!

Have the different styles of music led to different styles of staging within the one show?

MF: I’d say the different worlds have led to different styles of music and staging. Many ghosts haunt (or come visit?) our four actor-musicians each night. We eventually understand piece by piece that the characters are reincarnations of each other, and ultimately past lives of the performers. Some of those past realities have very distinct atmospheres (created musically and sonically of course) that I am amplifying through visuals.

How do you expect audiences to react to this mix of storytelling elements?

MF: I’m expecting total disorientation and confusion at first, but in a very good and intended way. The show is a huge mishmash of various horror and fantasy tropes, and taps into our irresistible curiosity for mysteries (the murder kind along with the mystery of ghosts, life, love and death). The show is a very well-constructed puzzle to solve as well as an exciting adventure quest for the main character Rose. I have no doubt that the audience will be wrapped in the dreamy and dark.

Ghost Quartet runs October 5 to November 3 at Streetcar Crowsnest: crowstheatre.com.

Broken Tailbone. Photo by Erin BrubacherBroken Tailbone: The second show that caught my eye is even more immersive than Ghost Quartet, aiming to not only wrap the audience completely in the show’s context but to make them moving, dancing participants in the story. Broken Tailbone was inspired by multiple award-winning creator and performer Carmen Aguirre’s personal experience arriving in Vancouver as a child with her parents, all Chilean refugees, and helping her family recreate wildly popular makeshift Latinx dance halls. She also really broke her tailbone, which comes into the story.

While there are chairs around the sides for those who need to sit, most of the audience is literally on their feet learning to salsa, being taught by Aguirre as she takes them through a partly choreographed, partly improvised immersion in an irresistible musical environment that weaves together hilarious personal stories with tales of radical resistance in South American history.

The show was wildly successful in Vancouver in 2018 and I got in touch with its creator to find out more about the inspiration behind it and what it is like to perform.

WN: What made you decide to create this show – to share your own experience with audiences in this unusual format?

Carmen Aguirre: About six or seven years ago I spent two years touring the country with my one-woman show Blue Box, also dramaturged and directed by Brian Quirt, and also developed and produced by Nightswimming Theatre. In that show, I talk for 80 minutes. Non-stop. I literally stand in one spot for almost the entire show. The theatricality of that piece lies 100 percent in the text.

However, in the middle of the piece a loud salsa song comes on seemingly out of nowhere, and I break into dance. I invite the audience to join me onstage and we have an impromptu dance party. Once the song is over, they sit back down and I continue with the story. There were several reasons to have that moment in Blue Box, which did actually make sense in terms of the content of the play. Every night the response was different, of course. (There were a couple of times that every single person in the audience got up and danced and there was one time that no one did.) Brian Quirt and I were really taken with that part of the show and decided to create a piece where the audience is dancing with me the entire time. The fact that the form is simultaneously accessible and confrontational is compelling to us. 

How does the audience follow the story while they are in the midst of learning to salsa?

Interestingly, they follow the story far better than when they are seated. The act of listening while you’re moving makes you listen better. You are taking in a story about a dance hall while you are dancing in an impromptu dancehall, or a story about the dance form that you are actually doing in the moment, or geopolitical history of Latin America from a Marxist perspective, all while listening to a song with political lyrics and learning to dance to it. You are listening, processing, digesting with your entire body. It is embodied listening.

How does this change the usual performance experience for you?

I’m juggling a lot during the show. Remembering my lines; really watching the audience and interacting with them because it truly is a dance lesson; improvising based on what I’m seeing; translating bits and pieces of the songs; and dancing! It is completely immersive for me and for the audience. This type of performance requires you to be completely yourself. There are no filters. 

How intricate is the relationship of the music to the storytelling and immersive staging?

There are 15 songs in the play that were curated by Brian and I over a series of workshops. I brought in dozens of songs that mean something to me, each with a story attached. We played with all of them, and at the end of each workshop process we shared what we had with an audience. We finally distilled it down to the 15 songs in the play based on the particular story that was attached to it and how it fit in the over-all narrative arc.

Broken Tailbone runs from October 2 to 13 at Factory Theatre: factorytheatre.ca.

For some of the other exciting and varied shows opening this month please see my quick picks below.

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

OCT 2, 8PM: No Change In The Weather, Jane Mallet Theatre. In a world where Come From Away is at the top of the musical theatre pinnacle, here comes another show from the Rock but this time looking at a story older than 9/11 The identity of Newfoundland and Labrador is explored through a historical lens focusing on the 23-year tenure of Premier Joey Smallwood and the controversial creation of the Churchill Falls power plant. Packed with traditional music the show has been on a cross-country tour and is garnering great word of mouth: nochangeinitheweather.com.

OCT 3 to 5, 9 to 13: Caminos Festival, Aluna Theatre and Native Earth Performing Arts. Artscape Daniels Spectrum. An increasingly important launching pad for new work by Canadians from the South American diaspora and Indigenous populations, this year’s program features some exciting experimental music theatre content including The Art of Storytelling, Catarsis, We are, what we are, The Mente, and the free Aluna Cabaret (October 10 to 12) alunatheatre.ca.

OCT 9 TO 20: Something for the Buoys. Sapling Productions/Bygone Theatre. George Ignatieff Theatre, A new musical that sounds like a fun take on an old-style musical à la Anything Goes or On the Town, in one of Toronto’s best intimate theatre spaces.

OCT 13, 7:30 PM: ONE NIGHT ONLY. “Portrait of a Collaboration.” Meighan Forum, Stratford Festival Theatre Lobby. A rare treat of an evening with celebrated composer Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors and many Disney shows) in conversation with one of the Festival’s best kept secrets, the multi-talented Marion Adler, interwoven with performances of songs from Little Pinks, the musical they created together from Damon Runyon’s short story.

OCT 20, 2:30PM: Fallis & Tiefenbach. Haliburton Concert Series. If you have never seen the inimitable Mary Lou Fallis (soprano) and Peter Tiefenbach (piano) in concert, now is your chance! Their theatrical concerts can leave you helpless with delighted laughter and this one promises to have songs from the very best of their Primadonna shows as well as “a sendup of every voice recital you’ve ever been to.”

OCT 25, 7:30PM: Urinetown, (The Musical) in concert. Toronto Musical Concerts. Al Green Theatre. TMC concert stagings of important musicals are getting stronger all the time. Urinetown is more of a parody than a serious look at the dangers of politics gone wrong, but this should be fun. Featuring Erica Peck from We Will Rock You and Kinky Boots.

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

It’s been a wonderful summer of musical theatre highlights: the TSO’s brilliant “Modern Broadway” pops concert starring the electric Jeremy Jordan; the return of The Lion King to the Princess of Wales, where families could introduce their children to the joys of musicals via the still amazing puppetry of Julie Taymor; Nicole Brooks’ wonderfully positive a cappella retelling of the Salem witch trials in Obeah Opera at Luminato; Jake Epstein’s Boy Falls From The Sky at the Toronto Fringe; and Reprint: three brand new short musicals inspired by articles In The Globe and Mail archives. And now the new fall season is ready to begin.

Erin Shields. Photo by Dahlia KatzErin Shields’ Nuanced Piaf/Dietrich Book

September brings an exciting new production to the CAA Theatre that draws on well-known musical material but gives it a new and thrilling twist. Piaf/Dietrich; A Legendary Affair, as the title indicates, is about two of the most legendary performers of the 20th century: France’s petite passionate songbird Edith Piaf and Germany-by-way-of-Hollywood’s cool and aloof femme fatale Marlene Dietrich. There have been many shows written about Piaf, and not enough about Dietrich, but they haven’t been seen together until now. It turns out that the two stars were friends (and perhaps more than friends) for the last few years of Piaf’s life, meeting for the first time in the washroom of a New York theatre where Piaf had just given a less-than-successful concert in 1960. This rich possibility for a theatrical undertaking was discovered and developed by German playwrights Daniel Grosse Boymann and Thomas Kahry, beginning in 2009 as a reading of letters and writings from and about the two stars accompanied by matching songs. In 2014, a hugely successful full production (in German) called Spatz und Engel (The Sparrow and the Angel) opened in Vienna and played for six seasons while other productions followed throughout Europe.

For its debut in North America last year, it was felt that something more than a direct translation was needed, so award-winning playwright Erin Shields was asked to take on the task of creating the first English-language version, adapting the original by way of a literal translation from Sam Madwar. As soon as I saw Shields’ name attached to this show, I knew I wanted to find out more about her involvement and how the show might have developed from its European version. I have known Erin since I invited her to take part years ago in the New Ideas Festival (of which I was then artistic director) and was impressed by her adaptation of classic fairy tales. Since then she has gone from strength to strength, becoming one of Canada’s most highly regarded playwrights, from winning the Governor General’s Award in 2011 for If We Were Birds, to skewering the sexism of the television industry with Beautiful Man at Factory Theatre, to her brilliant feminist updating of Milton’s Paradise Lost for the Stratford Festival. There is also something wonderful about a Canadian woman adapting this material for an all-Canadian cast led by two of our top musical theatre performers: Louise Pitre (Piaf) and Jayne Lewis (Dietrich). Shields’ adaptation made its debut at Montreal’s Segal Centre last year as The Angel and the Sparrow (also starring Pitre) to great acclaim. I reached out to her to learn more about what the adaptation experience was like,

“This whole process has been a very different type of project from what I usually do,” she told me. “I’m not the primary creator, I wasn’t the person that had the primary impulse. Daniel and Thomas, did. They have devoted so much to creating this play that for me there is a joy in respecting their vision but also doing my best to make sure that their creation is able to meet a North American audience in a way that will be successful and speak to them.”

Breaking that down into more detail, she explained that making the language more natural than the literal translation was one of her tasks, but on a deeper level there were two bigger cultural and dramaturgical issues to address. “The biggest thing the original playwrights realized,” she told me, “was that Marlene Dietrich is extremely famous in Germany, so there were a lot of things taken for granted in the script about who she is. In North America, although we know Dietrich from her movies, we don’t know much more about her. We have to teach people who she is, whereas with Edith Piaf we have a bit more of a sense of her life, particularly in Montreal. Equally important”, Shields continued, “the show is about female friendship and because it was written by two guys there were some missing elements.” She made it her goal to deepen the depiction of the friendship between the two legendary figures, yet to not shy away from the conflict that arose from their completely opposite backgrounds and public personas. This led, again, to making sure the audience would understand how different the two are. “Piaf’s track has always been very clear,” Shields says. “She has a real Hollywood storybook tragic arc to her life. She has a compulsive artistic drive: she sings and brings people to tears, and then she gets addicted to all this stuff to maintain her self and keep performing, and ends up dying young. Marlene’s story is very different. It doesn’t have the same trajectory as Piaf’s; they are working in opposite ways. While Piaf is tearing herself apart, Dietrich is trying to maintain a very composed, manicured, beautiful, iconic version of herself while she rails against age and becoming less important in the world. I am trying to bring out her story more, and to make sure that the audience sees how important Piaf and Dietrich are to each other as foils, how they provoke each other, but also ultimately how they love and support each other in a way that no one else can, partly because they both lived this life of fame which is so alien to most of us.”

Of course, this isn’t only a play, but a musical, and the show includes 20 songs including La Vie En Rose, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, Falling in Love Again and Lili Marlene, all performed by the stars and all integrated into the telling of the story.

While Shields has had experience with musicals before – she performed in shows in high school and recently took part as a book writer in The Musical Stage Company’s Reframed – she had never written or adapted the book for a full scale musical. The rehearsal process in Montreal with the expert cast and creative team was full of revelations. “The director Gordon Greenberg (who also directs the Toronto production) really has an intuition for musical theatre. He is on his feet all the time and the show lives in his body as he is directing, so he would have thoughts, suggestions or provocations all the time on the fly – searching for clarity in the storytelling. Watching him and music director Jonathan Monroe and the actors navigate and negotiate the elements of the show, I learned that the text isn’t always the most important thing in terms of character or story. In some ways, spoken scenes have to be slightly more perfunctory; each still has to have an action and the actors have to ‘do things to one another’, but at the same time the function of some scenes is simply to get us from one song to another, and the songs should function as story moments themselves. For example, working with a performer like Louise Pitre whose whole body becomes overwhelmed with emotion when she is singing – grounded in that same visceral quality that Edith Piaf has – made me realize the effect her singing would have on an audience and that I could cut bits out of the script and rely a bit more, instead, on the music for the emotional journey of the play. The emotional heart of a musical really is the music.”

This is a particularly interesting journey for Shields to have experienced. “As a playwright I would say I am more of an auditory creator than a visual creator which is why I always love when I start working with a director, because directors are all visual. I always hear the play in my head, the voices and rhythms of the characters, the totality of the play whether that incorporates music or not.”

Something else always important to Shields as she crafts her plays is (often dark) humour, and while she hopes that Piaf/Dietrich will make “questions bubble up in the audience about fame and the cost of sacrificing oneself for art’, she also insists that the show is “funny, too. There is a lot to enjoy and have fun with.”

When I asked if she might consider writing the book for a new musical now that she has adapted the book for this one, she said, “Absolutely!” and already has several projects on the go, giving us even more to look forward to. Piaf/Dietrich plays at the CAA Theatre from September 17 to December 8.

Two contrasting Canadian Premieres

Toward the end of September are two intriguing, contrasting Canadian premieres: The first, Girl From The North Country, written and directed by Conor Mcpherson (The Weir, Seascape), is a look back at small town America at the height of the Depression, as seen through the eyes of this Irish playwright; “of the people” and infused with the passionate and political songs of American icon Bob Dylan. Described as a “powerful new show full of hope and heartbreak,” Girl is coming to Toronto for a strictly limited run from September 28 to November 24 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre after acclaimed sold-out runs at both the Old Vic in London’s West End and at the Public Theatre in New York. For fans of both McPherson and/or Dylan this should be fascinating to see. (mirvish.com)

The second, a call to the present and cry to the future, is Resonance, a new creation by (Seoul-born, but Canadian resident) choreographer and director Hanna Kiel. Inspired by the peaceful protests in 2016 that led to the ousting of South Korea’s former corrupt president, Park Geun-Hye, Kiel is fusing an original rock music score by JUNO Award-winning Greg Harrison with passionate new choreography for 12 dancers to explore this evolution of social outcry into direct but peaceful action.

September 26 to 28, at the Saints Cyril and Methody Macedonian-Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church in Toronto (brownpapertickets.com).

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

SEP 7, 2PM AND 8PM ONLY: Miz/Saigon, Broadway Concert Series Inc. Toronto Centre for the Arts (ticketmaster.ca). A rare chance to see some of our top Canadian musical theatre stars including George Masswohl (Come From Away) and Ma-Anne Dionisio (Next to Normal, Miss Saigon) singing hits from Les Mis and Miss Saigon.

SEP 16, 7:30PM: The PAL Kitchen Party. One show only. Stratford Festival Theatre (stratfordfestival.ca). Support the Stratford Performing Arts Lodge by attending this one-night-only concert, a mix of songs and stories with a Newfoundland theme, performed by members of the Stratford Festival Company (and some special guests including George Masswohl and Greg Hawco) directed and hosted by company member and “Newfoundland’s own” Brad Hodder.

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

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