Neema Bickersteth in Century Song. Photo credit: John Lauener and Dahlia Katz.When asked what was the initial inspiration for Century Song, Neema Bickersteth says she wanted to see if she could sing and dance at the same time. 

From that initial experimenting grew a beautiful, moving, and yet enigmatic piece of music theatre that defies definition. It is part opera, part dance, part video installation, and all intriguing collaboration by Bickersteth and her creative partners both onstage and off. Musicians Gregory Oh on piano and Ben Grossman on percussion and computer are visible and intimate partners in the live experience, and Kate Alton (choreographer), Ross Manson (director), and video creators fetFilm, Germany Hinrichs and associates Cameron Davis, Kaitlin Hickey and Jeremy Minnagh, have worked together with Bickersteth to create a seamless combination of many elements into a short (50-minute) but satisfying whole.

Without being too specific or detailed, Century Song gives us a glancing glimpse of the history of black women in Canada over the last century, in a format that references and evokes Virginia Woolf’s Orlando without losing its own identity. There is a deep seriousness to the piece and yet also a sense of fun that grows as it moves along the timeline from the early 1910s through the later 20th century to the modern day. Interestingly, the fun elements come mostly through some very clever time-hopping and era-juxtaposing video sequences, featuring Bickersteth in many guises.

The decision to stick with vocalises – wordless songs – felt right, though by the end I felt that if there was a longer version, or a companion piece, that I would want words to be back in the recipe. I had first encountered Neema Bickersteth back in 2010 as a talented singing actor in both Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis at the SummerWorks Festival and then in Staniland and Battson’s dramatic oratorio Dark Star Requiem at Luminato, so I was curious to see her in this concentrated spotlight and in the role of creator as well as performer. Century Song is a great showcase and an intriguing hors d’oeuvre to what she may create in the future. The answer to her beginning question? Yes, she can sing and dance at the same time, and beautifully.

Century Song has toured across Canada, the UK, and to Belgium and runs in Toronto until April 29 at Streetcar Crowsnest, Crows Theatre’s very attractive new home at Dundas and Carlaw. $15 Rush tickets are available in person half an hour before the show.

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.

St. George's of Montreal's "G Major" show choir. Photo credit: Victoria Schwarzl.You don’t know what you’re missing if you’ve never seen the Show Choir Canada competition. It’s every bit as intense and crazy as you imagine, and more – but also mostly just plain fun. This marks the seventh year that producers George Randolph (Founder of the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts [RAPA] in Toronto) and Peter Dacosta (of Dacosta Talent) have been hosting Canadian and international show choirs in competition. There’s a friendly air and a spirit of collegiality, but make no mistake: the competition is real.

Each performance is about 20 minutes long. No one performs any one song or any one style. Music theatre, pop, rock, soundtrack...anything really, if the choir can make it work. The songs blend together, sometimes more gracefully than others, sometimes a hard stop and a new scene begins. Fame, a show choir from Woodbridge, does a set of Beatles songs including “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “All You Need is Love,” and “Help.” Each song is a distinct new scene. Throw in dancing, acting, staging and lighting and these are little mini shows, made up of skits all focused around music.

Hours of group rehearsal, dance classes, acting workshops, singing lessons and personal rehearsal time are behind every show choir. Participants love it. Sophie Koren, from St. George’s “G Major” show choir from Montreal, QC, says, “I joined when I was in grade 7; this is my fifth year. There are only a few of us that have been doing that this long.” G Major are the defending champions, having taken the grand trophy in 2016. But everyone is wary of the American group this year.

The Totino-Grace choir. Photo credit: Victoria Schwarzl.Totino-Grace High School “Company of Singers” is leading off the evening performances. From Fridley, Minnesota, the Americans are bringing a much longer history and institutionalization of show choirs to the competition. From the minute they start, you can see what that means. Their performance was called “Ready Set Go,” featuring “Shut up and Drive” by Rihanna, “For Good” from Wicked, “Change in Me” from Beauty and the Beast, and several other songs. Dazzling costumes, a company of almost 50, a full band in regalia, and artistic staff backing it all up. There’s a lot of money behind this ensemble and it’s obvious compared to the others.

“Show Choirs are big business in the States,” shares Randolph. “However, with our competition, we have judges from the US as well. What they like about our competition is that it isn’t just about extravagant sets…it’s stripped down to a more pure state. Show choir is about the voice. Bottom line. It’s about the vocals.” A recurring theme in the commentary from the judges is too much unison singing. There are songs being sung in too low a key, major triads being built on top of minor keys, and a mismatch between music and style that affects the overall performance. And unfortunately, just a lack of male voices in harmonies, even amongst the co-ed groups. 

After each choir the judges provide feedback. Three judges, Linda Southard of Chicago, Kevin Chase of Iowa City, and Jeannie Wyse of Toronto, lead the evaluations. Steve Lehmann judges the live bands where applicable. The evaluations are affirming and fair, looking to improve rather than admonish. It’s tough to get feedback on the spot like that. But these performing artists are anything but ordinary.

Totino-Grace winning first place at the Canada Show Choir competition. Photo credit: One For The Wall Photography.Everyone is bringing their A-game as best as they can. Koren, of G Major, speaks more about being a defending champion. “Returning to defend is a different feeling,” she says. “But last year, being overall grand champions was wow! [This year] we had to kick ourselves in the butts. We need to stay strong. Our director even said to us, winning the first time is not the hard part. Winning the second time in a row is the hard part.” But she feels confident. “It’s a struggle, but we did our best. Our absolute best. We fully left everything on the stage. We’ll see what happens.” G Major ultimately wins second place, the first place prize going to Totino-Grace.

Randolph shares the story of the success that he hopes the competition continues to foster. He mentions Jahlen Barnes, currently part of the Shaw Festival and signed talent with DaCosta. “This, giving someone the opportunity…for Jahlen, getting into a show choir, getting a full scholarship to RAPA, signs to Dacosta, and now, he’s singing for Stephen Schwartz at the Panasonic.” This is the dream.

It’s a dream that many others are aspiring to. Carter Djam, from Totino-Grace, tells me about getting into show choir. “I play basketball, football, and track – all about sports,” he explains. “But one of my friends kept asking until I finally had to say yes. I fell in love with it at that point. This is my life now. I want to go to school for performing. My life has changed around the subject.” You can see him onstage, acting on point, dancing with all the right energy. He’s still got many years of show choir competitions ahead of him, years more of performing arts.

For Randolph, “It’s about sharing in the creative process, meeting new friends, new relationships...what the students directly benefit from is more self-esteem, confidence. It’s very self-empowering. Because they have found a place that can identify with and have a voice, and be understood.”

The 2017 Show Choir Canada competition took place on April 7-8, 2017 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Toronto.

Full 2017 Grand Competition Results available online:
http://www.showchoircanada.com/championships/results

Full 2017 Junior-Mid Level Competition Results available online:
http://www.showchoircanada.com/jr-mid/results

Non-Arts Large Ensemble

GRAND CHAMPIONS – Totino-Grace, “Company of Singers” (Best Vocals, Best Choreo, Best Combo)
2nd Place – St. George’s of Montreal, “G-Major” (Best Show Design)
3rd Place – Beaconsfield CHS, “BHS Crescendo”
4th Place – Richmond Hill HS, “Vocal Fusion”

Arts/Community Division

1st Place – Milton Show Choir “Gleam” (Best Vocals, Best Choreography, Best Show Design)
2nd Place – Unionville High School “Synergy”
3rd Place – Fame School of the Performing Arts

Non-Arts Small Ensemble

1st Place – Our Lady of Lourdes, “The Pitches” (Best Choreo, Best Show Design)
2nd Place – All Saints CHS, “Flash” (Best Vocals)
3rd Place – J. Clarke Richardson, “Vocal Thunder”
4th Place – Michael Power/St. Josephs, “Power House”
5th Place – York Mills, “Cheat Notes”
6th Place – St. Francis, “Sound FX”

Individual Awards

Top Vocalist : Brendan from All Saints CHS
Top Dancer: Emily from Unionville HS
Top Male Triple Threat: Ryan from St. George’s
Top Female Triple Threat: Mojo from J Clarke Richardson

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang. Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

Karina Gauvin. Photo credit: Michael Slobodian.Karina Gauvin and Tafelmusik are old friends and this shared history comes across in the ease of concertando whenever the two get together. A lot has happened since the rising light baroque coloratura Gauvin recorded Morgana’s “Torna mi a vagheggiar” with Tafelmusik for their 1999 Handel CD—she now sings Mozart’s Vitellia in European opera houses and Tafelmusik now claims the early Romantics as part of their repertoire—but this mutual understanding and ease of playing remains. Tafelmusik and Karina Gauvin will never not sound good together.

The two convened again March 23-26 at Koerner Hall in a program titled “Baroque Diva.” Gauvin sang four programmed pieces and two encores which demonstrated again how remarkable her range is. The aria “La mia costanza” from Handel’s opera Ezio is a serene, moderate number with a good amount of coloratura. “Mio caro bene,” from Rodelinda, which she introduced for the first encore as the “all is well with the world” aria, is in a similar tone. Alcina’s aria “Ah, mio cor,” on the other hand, is one of those agonizingly sad and long (it’s the most glorious kind of wallowing) Handel arias that shows how polished the soprano’s high sustained piani are. Beauty and purity of tone are a must. Together with “Verdi prati” in Alcina, “Ah, cor mio” is the saddest point of this magic opera, illustrating what happens when the spell of love wears off or is suddenly taken away. A dramatic commitment is required in equal measure. Gauvin of course got both sides down to a T. Her voice is more substantial now, there’s a well controlled vibrato, there are gradations in shading: not all light and bright, the voice is more womanly than girly. Gauvin acted the aria as a scene, and while she was as dramatic as she would be in a staged opera, nothing went overboard. There was no hamming, because she withheld nothing.

Moving on across the Gauvin range, the Vivaldi’s religious motet “O qui coeli” on first online listening in preparation for the concert may sound a little boring, but Gauvin rendered it as an aria and it was anything but. It sounded like the motet was written exactly for Gauvin’s tessitura and timbre; she made the absolute most of it at every turn, including the virtuoso “Alleluia” coda. Her final aria on the program was of the baroque soprano rage type: “Furie terribili” from Rinaldo showcased this side of the consummate baroqueuse. There are speedy high coloraturas, some stylish screams and extravagant ornamenting packed into this two-minute aria.

The concert finished with a second encore, the classic Handel weepie “Lascia ch’io pianga” that he used in more than one opera. We were back in the slow, intimate, melancholy range after a whole lot of different soprano territory was criss-crossed in the preceding two hours.

In the last several years, we have been lucky to hear a wide array of new guest musicians with Tafelmusik, which has brought in some new rep and new visions of the rep. One of those new interpreters—now fortunately a regular—is British/Brazilian violinist Rodolfo Richter. Deciding to open the concert with Telemann’s “The Frog” Concerto in A Major was unexpected and bracing: the solo violin is meant to echo frog sounds, and it starts the bariolage on its own, the production of the fairly unlovely sounds made by moving between stopped and open strings on (roughly) the same note. The other instruments join in, and the music continues as it keeps moving between the discordant frog chorus and beautiful passages of the familiar kind. It’s a funny and fun piece.

With Telemann’s Concerto in D minor, as with the sonata and concerto by J.G. Pisendel in second half of the concert, the extremely polished sound of the Tafelmusik ensemble is back on. Telemann’s D minor concerto in particular showed just how consistent and melded the sound of both the strings and the woodwinds are, and how they merge seamlessly in the tutti passages. It’s a fresco always worth coming back to.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to artofsong@thewholenote.com.

Jordan Barrow (L) and Victoria Clark (R) in Sousatzka. Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.There is nothing quite like the opening of a Broadway musical – or of a large scale musical on its pre-Broadway out-of-town opening night – and the air was crackling with energy at the Elgin Theatre on March 23, from the sidewalk through to the orchestra, as we waited for the curtain to rise on the official opening performance of Sousatzka.

The brainchild of Garth Drabinsky (somehow back in the saddle after having spent 17 months in jail following his conviction for fraud and forgery while with Livent), the new musical is based on the 1962 novel by Bernice Rubens (which also inspired the 1988 film Madame Sousatzka starring Shirley MacLaine) and boasts a multi-Tony Award winning and nominated creative team and cast to tell the story of a young piano prodigy torn between his mother and his brilliant but eccentric piano teacher. Or is that the story? This musical version of Sousatzka has changes and additions to the original novel. They make the production more ambitious but ultimately make it unwieldy and muddied, trying to tell too many stories and to be too significant in too many ways at the same time.

The piano student is now a young South African, Themba Khenketha (newcomer Jordan Barrow) who has escaped from the uprisings and dangers of imprisonment in Soweto with his activist mother, Xholiswa (the amazing Montego Glover). The title character, Madame Sousatzka (Tony winner Victoria Clark), for her part, has been given an equally dark past in World War II Poland,  though, in her case, one she is trying, impossibly, to forget. As these three characters meet there are conflicts and tensions but eventually (spoiler alert) they break through the barriers between them and rejoice in Themba’s success.

Onto this personal story of three people, the production attempts to graft the weight of a moral fable about refugees, crossing racial boundaries, and in the words of the press release, of “genius, sacrifice and the redemption of the human spirit”; it is too much, at the moment, for the framework of the show to bear, although we do eventually come to see the parallels between the two backstories of the main characters, and to be moved by their personal journeys.

All seems to start well with a wonderfully powerful opening number (the prologue) depicting the education riots of 1976 Soweto where we meet a younger Themba, his mother and father, and are pulled forcefully into a brilliantly choreographed and lit world full of passion, violence and emotion. The contrast to the world of the next scene at Sousatzka’s home in a rather dilapidated London house is – at least partly intentionally, I’m sure – a bit of a shock. The characters all seem slighter and less convincing, and unfortunately so, too, does the music. The longtime composer-and-lyricist team of Richard Maltby Jr. and and David Shire seem to fall down here, lapsing into rather mediocre tunes and banal lyrics that are only uplifted by the passionate performances of the actors. A sympathetic audience, while disconcerted by this, still wants to give them a chance to get better but, again, unfortunately, they don’t and it is a pity. The excellent powerhouse cast pulled out all the stops last night, putting heart and soul into every scene and every song, but the show is too divided and too uneven to get our wholehearted approval. The London-based (as opposed to South African-based) numbers, even ballads such as “This Boy” or “Gifted,” were frustrating in the simplicity and repetitiveness of their lyrics, and two of the big London-based production numbers, I felt, were clichéd to the point of being almost self parodies, and could easily be cut or edited down. “All I Wanna Do (Is Go Dancin’),” where Sousatzka’s housemate Jenny (Sara Jean Ford) takes Themba out to a punk dance club, could be cut without losing anything important to the story (other than cutting Jenny’s one solo), and the odd My Fair Lady-ish “Maunders’ Salon,” while necessary to show the audience Themba losing his nerve at a first public performance, could be turned into a much shorter straight scene and be more effective.

Having said that, there were some powerful moments: Xholiswa’s ballad of a mother’s love for her son “Song of the Child,” sung with heart-stopping emotion by Montego Glover; Victoria Clark’s heartfelt embodiment of the eccentric piano teacher coming to love Themba as a son she does not want to lose and yet learning to let him go; the spirited full-cast singing (led by Ryan Allen as Themba’s father) of the Desmond Tutu inspired “Rainbow Nation”; and one of my favourite scenes – the escape sequence from Soweto to London, “Themba’s Dream,” cleverly directed and choreographed by Adrian Noble and Graciella Danielle, with effective projections by Jon Driscoll.

As a director curious to see new work and as a musical theatre fan, not realizing at the time that I would be reporting on this for The WholeNote, I had actually seen the very first preview, and then another a week later. So I was particularly excited, opening night, to see what had been accomplished since I had last seen it. I’m happy to say that an enormous amount of work has already been done. The structure is much tighter and the themes and parallels are clearer. But it is still not fully clear exactly whose story it is and what we, the audience, are supposed to feel is the heart of the show. As the show stands now, it feels more Themba’s story than his teacher’s because of the primacy of the South African-based songs and production numbers. If it is supposed to be Madame Sousatzka’s it would help, perhaps, to see her at the beginning before we meet Themba and his family; then the impact of their experiences could be seen as a new influence on Sousatzka’s life and work, and we would know that this is the journey we are being taken on.

The audience at the end of last night’s performance gave the show a standing ovation, every bit of which was deserved by the 47-member-strong ensemble cast, for their talent, passion and commitment. But I believe the production itself needs some more serious workshopping before it will be ready for Broadway.

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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