Friday, November 23, 2012

Time After Time - The Little Years - Theatre Review

The Little Years - Tarragon Theatre - Toronto, ON - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)

Written by John Mighton, Directed by Chris Abraham
Runs until Dec. 16th 2012

Kate's a smart, socially awkward teenage girl with an exceptional understanding and interest in mathematics, particularly in association with time. Too bad she herself lived in the wrong time, in the mid 20th century Canada, where girls are born to be secretaries, nurses and housewives. Spanning decades, the play traces the small words and actions that can have rippling effects on the lives that surround and include Kate.

The beautifully written play The Little Years is a fascinating account of multiple lives where the course of time and expectations take their toll. As directed by Chris Abraham, on a beautifully simple and sparse set by Julie Fox (who also does wonders with the multiple decade spanning costumes) that reconfigures the Tarragon Theatre in an open space. With a terrific lighting design by Kimberly Purtell, and composition and sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne, the production elements heighten the dramatic layers within the play, helping Abraham produce an extremely fluid piece of theatrical art.

Bethany Jillard and Irene Poole share the stage as Kate in different phases of Kate's life, with both turning in solid and heartbreaking performances that have a unity and believability of playing the same character. Chick Reid is irritatingly perfect as Kate's irritatingly perfectionist of a mother, who is stuck in her mid 20th century thinking, and with her tiny criticisms of Kate, and her lavish words for her unseen (but ever felt) brother William, sets Kate upon an unfulfilled and unrealized life despite her clear intelligence.

While brother William leads a successful but busy life, his wife Grace, (a sensational Pamela Sinha) is a far more progressive woman of the era, and willing to push boundaries, and lovingly tries to help and push Kate along the way, though usually with little success. Grace's own life, entangled by her own limits of boundary pushing in the ennui of the suburban life she has somehow found herself in, takes a plot of its own.

The rest of the cast are great in smaller roles, but it is really Jillard and Poole with Sinha who ground the play with a soul against the intellectual discussions of time and place, all under the haunting words of Reid's mother. While I'm still unsure of my thoughts on the taut ending, everything leading up to it was heartfelt and fascinating, in a production that keeps the contemplative play moving at a brisk place. The sound effects/score almost becomes a narrative voice to the play, while Purtell's lighting design helps focus (literally) the multiple characters in their entangled lives.

First seen at Stratford, it is wonderful that Tarragon has brought this beautiful production to Toronto, with most of the cast intact! Such a fascinating piece of theatre.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hot and Bothered - The Arsonists & Murder Ballad - Theatre Reviews

The Arsonists - Canadian Stage at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Max Frisch, In a New Translation by Alistair Beaton, Original Music by Jason Rutledge
Directed by Morris Panych
Runs until Dec. 9th 2012

Murder Ballad - Manhattan Theatre Club in the Studio at Stage II in New York City Center - Off-Broadway - New York City, NY - *** (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by Juliana Nash, Conceived, Book, and Lyrics by Julia Jordan
Directed by Trip Cullman
Runs until Dec. 16th 2012

Other than Tyler Perry shows, Pantomimes and the current production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, is it ever proper to yell at the characters on stage? Because The Arsonists and Murder Ballad certainly make a case for it. In both shows, symbolic characters do stupid things and you want to yell at them like you would want to at a horror film.

Two cautionary tales, both told with the simplest of plots, using music to add a level of excitement in productions staged on cool-looking sets. The effectiveness of the shows seem to only match the levels of absurdity and clarity in the satire in two new productions, one, a revised revival at Canadian Stage Company, and another, a new musical from the Manhattan Theatre Club in the small Studio space at New York City Centre.

The Arsonists is an absurd little piece that is so simple in concept that it could easily burn up in the wrong hands. While it is labeled as a farce, this is not a laugh-out-loud type of piece, with the humour only pointing to more chilling facts, and beautifully underlying the allegorical nature of the piece. Written after the Nazi's rise and Switzerland's neutral stance, the play is about a man named Biederman who takes in two strangers who are obviously arsonists who have been burning down the town. All while Biederman tries to keep his wife calm, while remaining polite, despite the eye-rolling warnings from his maid.

On a beautifully imposing set by Ken MacDonald, with lighting by Jason Hand, director Morris Panych keeps the impending doom at bay while Biederman deludes himself that things are all fine. With new added music by Jason Rutledge (who performs it himself with his band), a new added layer of the narrative commentary (and ironic humour) is added to the already twisted tale, a cautionary tale about recognizing and speaking up in times of danger.

Sheila McCarthy is perfectly sly and exhaustively annoyed as the maid. A seemingly smaller role for the accomplished actress but her sharp performance only underlines the importance of that character.

Wonderfully befuddled, Michael Ball's Biederman, "everyman", is a strong anchor as the centre of the absurdist piece. Fiona Reid works perfectly as the thorn in his side as he tries to deal with the outside interlopers.

As the titled arsonists, Shawn Wright's calming demeanor and wily moustache makes for the perfect sinister culprit, just staying on the right side of the fine line from being a cartoon villain. Dan Chameroy is a little less convincing, but probably only because of all my wonderful memories of him playing the protagonists, so I'm less convinced he can be that evil.

From the bold set, to the dynamic music, this new production of The Arsonists manages to turn the predictable story into a chilling warning, and while there are moments that wane, and the laughs are muddled from the impending doom of the story, the show works wonderfully as an absurd allegory.

Over in New York, a less successful, but boldly told story is rocking out the Studio at City Centre. Murder Ballad can be seen as an exciting, refreshing new musical, but the actual show misses the mark despite a talented cast that throws themselves (sometimes literally) into their performances, while glimmers of clever commentary shows itself in the lyrics, albeit mostly too late in a great final song.

The story is simple. A hot and heavy couple in the East Village break-up, and the woman moves on by meeting a loving nerd, marries, moves to Upper Manhattan, has a child, and lives the upper-middle class dream. As ennui sets in, she's rekindled with her old lover. Jealousy rages and someone is murdered. Unfortunately, most of the show is played so straight and serious that when the moment of wit and the cautionary allegory comes to light near the end, it is too late to care about these characters. There's too much time spent on certain spans of the story, which in itself has little surprise.

Despite the best efforts from Rebecca Naomi Jones (always excellent, Passing Strange, American Idiot) as the sumptuous narrator, the show tries to ooze sex appeal but comes off with very little passion and a certain coldness, partly because the story seems at odds with its bar setting that puts some of its audience members in the middle of a realistic looking (and working) low Rent bar. It doesn't help that the story is basically the tale if Mimi decided to go with Mark instead of Roger, and jealousy and revenged ensued. The story spends way too much time in certain set ups and life in yuppie domestic bliss, all while we see the characters dancing on a grungy pool table in a dingy bar.

Karen Olivo (Tony winner from West Side Story) is terrific and believable as the woman who moves from the cool hip life to a far calmer lifestyle with a man who wears glasses and reads books, but the framework and lyrics don't allow for much more depth, though Olivo tries hard.

Will Swenson and John Ellison Conlee sound great and do what they can with their etched out characters but poor Swenson has to make do with a character whose motivations are thinner than his character in Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

The music by Juliana Nash has a thrilling beat and ease of melody at first, until it starts getting into a monotonous ennui (much like the yuppie couple) and only comes alive again in the final song that throws the entire musical into a different satirical spin, an inspiration missing from the previous 80 min. proceedings.

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Child's Play - Cinderella (A RATical Retelling) & Alligator Pie - Theatre Reviews

Cinderella (A RATical Retelling) - Young People's Theatre - Toronto, ON - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Mike Kenny, Original Music by Jason Jestadt
Directed by Allen MacInnis
Runs until Dec. 30th 2012, Review Based on the first preview.

Alligator Pie - Soulpepper at Michael Young Theatre in the Young Centre for the Performing Arts - *** (out of 5 stars)
Based on the book by Dennis Lee, Created by Ins Choi, Raquel Duffy, Ken MacKenzie, Gregory Prest and Mike Ross.
Runs until Dec. 2nd 2012. Returns in the 2013 season.

Is theatre created specifically for children required to take into account their supposed lack of attention spans? Or is that just condescending to kids whom we tend to label as ADD as soon as their mind wanders? Two new shows geared towards young audiences have opened in Toronto and while one tends to be a jumpy, slightly scattered show that one would think would be perfect for the short attention spans of its audience, it's the slightly longer, more patient play that seems to have kept the kids from agitating in their seats. Both shows have their charms, but I guess being an adult, my view of the shows may already be skewed.

Cinderella (A RATical Retelling), a new spin on the classic tale with the rats acting as a chorus of narrators, is a delightful holiday show for YPT that does not dumb down the emotions and tone for the kids' sake.

The cast is a stellar group of some of Toronto's best actors, including Dmitry Chepovetsky (A Midsummer's Night Dream), Elodie Gillette (Shaw Festival), and Deanne deGruijter, and they throw themselves into their roles (as rats) with the same aplomb they would a Shakespearean play, giving this Cinderella the heft of an epic drama but with the silliness of a family friendly show. Amy Lee, better known as half of Morro and Jasp, is absolutely hysterical as a rat and one of the evil stepsisters, while she's matched in comedic prowess by Richard Lee (A Midsummer's Night Dream, Other People), who has some truly laugh-out-loud moments while switching characters and switching accents.

With a looming set by Robin Fisher, the stage at YPT has never looked bigger or more epic, almost operatic. Perfect to bring us down into the world of these narrator rats, who befriended Cinderella and name her for being on the ground covered in cinder ashes. A dark but evocative lighting design by Lesley Wilkinson and some intricate and clever costumes by Fisher, might at first seem a bit dour and brown, but manage to work perfectly with the tone of the show, directed by Allen MacInnis in a way that does not condescend to its younger audience base.

Former Canadian Idol contestant Steffi DiDomenicantonio, who was a revelation on the Spring Awakening North American tour, is absolutely delightful here in the title role. With a beautiful singing voice, and with an emotional presence that is affecting but not overdramatic, Steffi D keeps the role grounded in an honesty that centres the production and avoids drawing bold strokes for the young audiences sake.

The whole cast has an amazing comedic timing together, already with perfected rhythms required (especially considering it was the first preview performance), and they all seem to have fun with the enjoyable songs by Jason Jestadt while wearing costumed tails. While the songs may not become musical theatre history classics, they work in the context of the show and have some hummable moments. While the show feels more like a play with songs, there are quite enough songs that it is basically a musical, though an additional song near the beginning, while the story is being set up, might help move things along early on (despite working well as a patient play).

Still, with terrific past holiday shows like Seussical and Frog & Toad, YPT's great penchant for top notch casts and imaginative costume and playful set designs may finally have culminated in their best show yet here with an original version of a classic tale (and not rely on existing, and problematic musicals as in the previous mentioned cases) that seems suitable for kids of all ages (and the adults who accompany them).

Alligator Pie, developed and created by Soulpepper's younger ensemble members; Ins Choi (writer of Kim's Convenience), Raquel Duffy, Ken MacKenzie, Gregory Prest (Ghost) and Mike Ross, based on the famous Canadian children's book of poetry by Dennis Lee, is the rare Soulpepper effort to create a brand new show, and one specifically geared toward children no less, an audience rarity in the usual Soulpepper repertoire (Despite being housed in a theatre complex called the Young Centre).

Based on a series of poems, the stage play with new music set to the poems, is a bit of a hodgepodge of ideas and creative presentations, with the winsome cast doing their darndest to keep the audience of kids (and some adults) entertained. While there are many cool and unique moments throughout the show, things begin to get slightly tiresome as we move from one idea (and poem) to the next, to the next, and the whole show doesn't congeal together quite as well as it should. While things end off with a bang (or multiple mini bangs involving bubble wrap), and there are clever uses of "found" items, many sequences are as quickly forgotten as they came to be, as the game cast moves on to the next part of the show.

It's fun to watch the cast, usually seen in far more serious fare at Soulpepper, act all silly for the kids, and when there are creatively clever theatrical moments, the show shows what its potential can be. Performed in-the-round, sometimes one side misses actions, faces and even lines, due to some sound and diction problems, but they are quibbles that can be fixed. The entire show as a whole though, as fun as it may be, still needs some editing and tightening as the middle jumble set off some restless kids (and one tired adult) at the matinee I attended.

Cinderella photos by Mark Seow
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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Naked Ambitions - The Performers - Theatre Review

The Performers - Longacre Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by David West Read, Directed by Evan Cabnet
Review based on late preview.

Looking for a fun and frivolous night at the theatre that is heartwarming and uncontroversial? The new play The Performers, about porn stars at the Adult Film Awards in Las Vegas will likely fill that hole. Written by Canadian David West Read with his Broadway debut, this new play lands on Broadway in virgin territory, making its world premiere, with Henry Winkler stripping away his wholesome Happy Days image by playing a legendary porn star who is up against a younger beefcake in Cheyenne Jackson (Finian's Rainbow, 30 Rock). It's not a deep or penetrating play, but there are some laughs, and the terrific cast go hard and come through with a solid evening of fun.

The play itself is a bit light on plot and a trifle of a show, with the plot relying on lots of misunderstandings and mixups when a journalist Lee (Daniel Breaker, Passing Strange, Shrek) and his fiance Sara (Alicia Silverstone) are in Las Vegas to interview Lee's high school classmate, and nominated porn star Mandrew (Jackson). Meanwhile Mandrew is having problems with his wife Peeps (Ari Graynor, For A Good Time Call) because she's having a fit over her former BFF/porn rival Sundown (Jenni Barber). All while Mandrew is up against aging porn idol Chuck Wood (Henry Winkler). Breakup and makeups abound, but really it is all an excuse to have dildos used as jokes and Cheyenne Jackson dressed in barely anything, which I'm not criticizing at all! There are a lot of amusing cock and boob jokes but it never gets too dirty, and the satirizing of the industry and the mainstreams secret love for porn, never goes deeper than the surface.

Jackson returns to Broadway playing a likable dimwit which he seems to excel at (Xanadu), all while showing us that he definitely still works out and looks great even with cheesy porn hair.

Graynor, who singlehandedly charms with titillating sweetness and saves For A Good Time Call, does the same here but ups the titillation. Anytime she's in the room, there's definite excitement in the air, and her performance alone is worth seeing this play for.

Silverstone plays cute and along with a wide-eyed Breaker, gets to react shockingly at the porn world that surrounds them on their Vegas trip.

Jenni Barber, in a smaller role, still manages to illicit some big laughs to match her big (prosthetic I hope) boobs in the limited time she's on stage.

And The Fonz? Winkler looks like he's enjoying himself on stage, though I'm not sure I totally buy the seemingly wholesome Winkler as a legendary porn star but it's still an amusing notion. It's never milked quite enough considering the potential that is built into the character, but the entire premise of the play never quite rises to its full potential. Luckily, the game cast work hard to keep things up and running. The play takes place within the confines of a Vegas hotel, switching between two rooms, a lounge area, and the awards ceremony itself, but the play seems to work best during the scenes in the hotel rooms. Apropo. Or should I say Apornpo?

Photos by Carol Rosegg 

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Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Small Town, Big Dreams - Miss Caledonia - Theatre Review

Miss Caledonia - Tarragon Theatre - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Melody A. Johnson, Musical Score by Alison Porter
Directed by Rick Roberts and Aaron Willis
Runs until Nov. 22nd, 2012

Miss Caledonia, written and performed by Melody A. Johnson, is a wonderfully cute little one-woman show (sort of) that pays tribute to her mother Peggy Ann Douglas growing up in small town Ontario in the 50's and by extension, it is also a wonderful tribute to Johnson's grandmother. After hearing of Debbie Reynolds' story of a girl who gets plucked to Hollywood stardom after winning the Miss Burbank pageant, Peggy sees this as a route to leave the dirt roads of her small town life and hopes to use the Miss Caledonia pageant as a stepping stone to something bigger than the farm life standing before her.

Performed with aplomb and flair, a charming Melody A. Johnson switches characters from Peggy, to Peggy's parents, from pageant host/town auctioneer, to many more, with such an ease that the transitions are sometimes so startling because they seem so effortless. While the tale is genial and grin-inducing, but not totally surprising, it is Johnson's performance that elevates the simple story and makes it such an endearing show.

While I say the play is a one-woman show, it is not exactly true, as Alison Porter sits on the side adding a musical score that in itself, becomes a character of its own. While never actually ever interacting with Johnson, the musical score gives the piece such a wonderful third dimension, that you can almost see the scenery solely from the score, while there are many moments in Porter's instrumentation that adds humour and characterization into the play.

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