Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Friend Like Me? - Jabber - Play Review

Jabber - Young People's Theatre - Toronto, ON - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Marcus Youssef, Directed by Amanda Kellock
Runs until Dec. 7th 2013


Fatima used to hang out with her hijab-wearing friends, dubbing themselves the "jabbers", but when a racist incident happens at her school, Fatima's parents panic and force her to move to a new school. At the new school, Jorah is a troubled and mysterious boy who is intrigued by the new Muslim girl at his school, where both keep bumping into each other at the Guidance Counsellor, Mr. E's, office. At least, that's what the play sets it up to be, introducing the story as actors playing the story.

Jabber sets itself up as a play for teens, but while it uses it's framing device and teen-speak tone to connect with its intended audience, it's unraveling complexity, slowly revealing the two main characters' individual emotions, problems, and thoughts, and the many issues teens deal with today, manage to draw us in. Everything is not as it first seems, and Youssef's play is wonderfully written to examine the assumptions and stereotypes we make, as well as the isolation and connections Canadian teens live through today, despite our facebook-connected world. While there are some moments that might not make sense, it actually comes into play later in the plot, also showing the realities of our human flaws, and not just some perfect moral tale told all neat and tidily.

Amanda Kellock's direction, and using a simple set (by James Lavoie) with some frames, chairs and a screen, is used to maximum effect, with a cast of three gamely presenting this as actors playing out a scenario.

Mariana Tayler is wonderful and believable as Fatima, the Muslim Canadian teen who isn't as shy as people assume her to be. Tayler's Fatima has a great chemistry with Ian Geldart's Jorah, who gives the misunderstood Jorah wonderful layers beneath the hooded "loner". David Skylar fills in the gap as Mr. E, as well as Melissa, another teen girl that goes to the school. Even Skylar's Mr. E, while attempting to be a calm counsellor, still has is own preconceived notions and imperfections. 

While the effective framing device still does first hint that the play might talk down to its teen audience, much like the subject matter, it uses it to revert your initial thoughts and twists and reels you into the story of these two teens' lives. Fatima, Jorah, even Mr. E, and Melissa, are fascinating characters that are far more complex than first-impressions would indicate, and Youssef (whose play Winners and Losers is playing down the street at Canadian Stage/Crow's Theatre) has written a wonderfully complex tale that doesn't feel like a lesson plan.

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Canadian Thanksgiving - Innovation - Ballet Review

Innovation - National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons for the Performing Arts - Toronto, ON - ****1/2 (averaged, out of 5 stars)
Watershed - Choreographed by José Navas, Music by Benjamin Britten - *****
Being and Nothingness (Part 1) - Choreographed by Guillaume Côté, Music by Philip Glass - *****
Unearth - Choreographed by Robert Binet, Music by Owen Pallett - **** night's bright day... - Choreographed by James Kudelka, Music by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi - ***1/2
Runs until Nov. 28th 2013


Like one of those chef tasting menus where you realize new exquisite flavours from the simplicity and freshness of basic ingredients, the National Ballet's Innovation program, with four new Canadian works, 3 making their world premieres, is a bountiful and filling assortment of ballet delights. Collectively, the works are another beautiful showcase of the ballet company's versatile and powerful ensemble. Canadian dance has much to be thankful for.


Watershed, choreographed by José Navas, is like a ballet rehearsal beautiful lit by James F. Ingalls that displays the beauty of the corps ensemble and the unity AND individuality of the dancers. There are too many beautiful moments from it's large cast of dancers to specify any individual dancer as everyone does a stunning job here. The piece, that uses Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" from Peter Grimes, uses its simplicity as an asset, creating an emotionally swelling piece despite the lack of any narrative storyline. Navas says he "emphasize the simplicity of a gesture, not just its technical execution, but how one breathes life into it..." and one can feel the breathes emanating from the dancers as part of the piece's life force. An absolutely exquisite dance piece performed with passionate precision by the company.

Being and Nothingness (Part 1) choreographed by principal dancer Guillaume Côté, and danced by Greta Hodgkinson alone with gusto and fury, is a stunning addition to the National Ballet's repertoire. Alone under a pulsating single lightbulb, Hodgkinson jerks and flits in lonely despair to Philip Glass' "Metamorphosis I-V (4th Movement)" and it's heartbreaking and hypnotic. With a title that suggests there will be a part 2, it only suggests more exciting things to come from Côté the choreographer and not just the dancer.


Unearth is a strange and seductive dance piece, with 14 dancers, a mix of principals and corps, showing the amount of talent from all levels of the company. Like aliens on a space mission, or even music and gold reflective costumes that evoke a lost episode of the original Star Trek show, the 14 dancers move about in odd jerky movements in between moments of smooth tranquility, odd body contortions in unison that look perfectly balanced. Against a giant white rock, evoking some distant planet surface, or even Ayers Rock, a grander presence amongst the range of dancers, dancers of different sizes and shapes, Binet's piece is a strange but satisfying composition that feels mystical and out of this world.


... black night's bright day... feels mythological, with mini "stories" and moments with solos, duets and groups that evoke some sort of simple but grandiose tale. James Kudelka's piece has an abundance of beautiful and evocative moments, with haunting images that may have too much for clarity for this one piece, but when it works, it's a beautiful showcase for the company. With great solos by Piotr Stanczyk, Guillaume Côté, and Heather Ogden, and a beautiful debut by guest artist Svetlana Lunkina (from the Bolshoi Ballet), here paired with Côté, it's an embarrassment of riches that might work more with less, but when it also gets to showcase corps members like a captivating Lise-Marie Jourdain against company stars Ogden, McGee Maddox, Robert Stephen and Chelsy Meiss, one can forgive minor misgivings like that.

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Monday, November 18, 2013

Highs of Lows - The Valley - Play Review

The Valley - Tarragon Theatre - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Joan MacLeod, Directed by Richard Rose
Runs until Dec. 15th 2013


When we expect our police to protect us, what do we actually mean? When someone is depressed or has a mental illness, what is our responsibility to them? Joan MacLeod's new play The Valley delves into these two simple-sounding-but-weighty questions when two families collide by chance on the Skytrain one night in Vancouver.

Dan (Ian Lake, This Is War), a Vancouver policeman, and wife Janie (Michelle Monteith) are new parents and while Dan is off at work, Janie struggles with being herself in motherhood. Up in the hills, single mother Sharron (Susan Coyle) dotes on grown loner son Connor as he goes to university in Calgary for his first semester. When Connor (Colin Mercer) returns at Thanksgiving, he is a shell of a man and Sharron has no idea how to deal with her son's newfound situation. With Connor remaining in Vancouver, he eventually finds a job, but an encounter with policeman Dan on his commute home changes the paths of both these families.


The play is a fascinating set up that raises some fascinating questions about mental health, depression, our role(s) and responsibility towards someone with mental illness, and how our encounters with the police can be affected by it all. They are two huge issues to cover and while the melding of the two creates a great premise, the play understandably only scratches the surface as it tries to keep its focus on these four particular characters.

The cast is wonderful, with Colin Mercer managing to keep our empathy while his Connor tunnels into a dark despair that is frustrating for all those around him. Mercer's performance feels honest and grounded despite the different levels he must vary through the play. Ian Lake is a great anchor as the police officer, trying to keep things straight at home just as he's about to encounter Connor on that fateful night. Michelle Monteith has a inviting presence that lets us into her Janie's struggle and slow devolvement and only wish we got to dig even deeper into Janie's world (as much of the first act felt like Janie-as-seen-through-husband Dan's eyes). Susan Coyle has a innate sensitivity and grace that at times holds her back from truly showing the frustration her Sharron might be struggling with in understanding Connor, but it adds a warmth to the relationship that could have been played simply as dramatic tension.

Richard Rose's direction, putting the audience on both sides of the stage, and keeping the lights just bright enough that a self-awareness of the audience as a community watching, is a smart way to add another layer to the play. The four "stations" in the set, a bed, a dining table, a couch, and desk, most that double as multiple locations, keeps the fluidity between the two stories, with a grey circle at the centre of the stage marking the spot when the stories come together. Beautifully staged and mostly well paced, there are no deep valleys in the production of The Valley.

Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann
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Friday, November 15, 2013

Thank Heaven for Little Girls - Annie - YPT Toronto and Broadway - Musical Reviews

Annie TYA- Young People's Theatre - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Martin Charnin, Book by Thomas Meehan, Directed by Allen MacInnis, Choreographed by Nicola Pantin
Runs until Dec. 29th 2013

Annie - Palace Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Marin Charnin, Book by Thomas Meehan, Directed by James Lapine, Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler 
Runs until Jan. 5th 2014

My fear of little girls singing probably rivals Miss Hannigan's fear of little girls, so I was a bit apprehensive going into Annie this year for my first time (on stage), but the delightful and charming musical is the classic it is for its winning songs and its optimistic outlook and I came out both times humming the tunes with a sunny smile on my face (and I'm still singing it in my head right now).

Annie on Broadway manages to cast some terrifically talented little girls who manages to keep the annoying grating and mugging to a minimum while adults Faith Prince and Anthony Warlow keep command of the stage. Annie at Young People's Theatre uses young adults playing children but it is basically a non-issue with its very young looking cast, and instead, probably provides the most well sung bunch of orphans around. Add in Louise Pitre, Sterling Jarvis and a terrific cast of 14 in the condensed version of Annie (truncated for young audiences), and this simplified version remains a charmer.


Annie at YPT Toronto sounds marvellous with Jenny Weisz (Sheridan Theatre's Come From Away) as its lead. With a group of adults-playing-children orphans (Jess Abramovitch, Mary Antonini, Jessie Cox, Ramona Gilmour-Darling, Natalia Gracious, Nicole Norsworthy), the orphanage sounded fantastic and in wonderful harmony.


Weisz manages to make us forget her real age with some wide-eyed optimism and her beautiful voice and considering most of Annie's lines are simple two word sentences, it's a great feat to keep her feeling real and naive without making her feel stupid. With a great Sterling Jarvis (Caroline, or Change) commanding the role of Oliver Warbucks, Weisz and Jarvis make for a genial pair and their duets sound terrific.

Shawna Van Omme is a lovely Grace, assistant to Warbucks, and is exactly the loving warm heart needed for that role. Richard Binsley is an amusing Roosevelt, while W. Joseph Matheson and Natasha O'Brien have a fun time in the creepy roles of Rooster and Lily St. Regis. (as well as doubling as Roosevelt's cabinet). Dale R. Miller and his beautiful voice fills in various roles nicely.


Then there's Louise Pitre (A Year with Frog and Toad, Mamma Mia) who seems to be having a ball chewing the scenery as the scenery-chewing-character Miss Hannigan, the miserable and deceitful woman running the orphanage. Miss Hannigan's entrance is a little anti-climatic, and her punchlines don't always zing because of the underlining piano runs to emphasize them, but it's fun watching Pitre be deliciously horrible at the children and conniving with Matheson's rooster (and her real life partner).

While the singing in this production was top notch, it was underlined by some great choreography by Nicola Pantin. The staging was efficient on a beautifully versatile set by Teresa Pryzbylski and lighted by Michael Walton (although the opening number could have reframed Annie a tad better), and it made the Young People's Theatre stage look grande, especially in the Warbucks mansion scenes and "NYC" scenes. With the voices and harmony sounding so full, the musical arrangements by Diane Leah work well with a simple piano and wind instrument but one can only imagine what those singers could sound like with a full orchestra behind them!


While the Young People's Theatre uses the "TYA" version of Annie, running approximately 80 minutes, I did not really miss much from the longer version (other than the final romantic development between Warbucks and Grace and a final invite for all the orphans to stay), but instead, we got all of our favorite songs without all the exposition and political elements snuck into the book scenes that probably goes way over the head of a large portion of Annie's audience. It was the best-of-Annie without feeling like a best-of collection, and still felt whole and complete.


Having the full version is what sometimes stalls the Broadway version of Annie. While current Miss Hannigan Faith Prince (Guys & Dolls, A Catered Affair) is, like Pitre, a Broadway diva eating up the orphans with relish and evil sass (and some great comedic moments), and Anthony Warlow is a wonderful Warbucks, some uneven casting in other roles and some over-extended book scenes with some politically heavy story elements sometimes overtake the pleasure of the core story. Taylor Richardson makes a wonderful Annie, and her child cast mates of orphans are terrific. Jenni Barber (who is no longer with the show) was a great Grace, but some of the other cast members were almost mystifying. Still, the overall production, despite some tightening needed, is still an enjoyable Annie overall.

Photos of YPT Toronto production by Cylla von Tiedemann
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Monday, November 11, 2013

Duck Dynasty - Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty - Tchaikovsky Ballet Reviews

Swan Lake - National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts - Toronto, ON - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Choreography by James Kudelka
Runs until Nov. 17th 2013 and returns Mar. 8-16th 2014

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance - A New Adventures Production at New York City Center - New York City, NY - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Choreography by Matthew Bourne
Currently on tour. 

Perhaps I need to see Bourne's Sleeping Beauty again, because while there were enjoyable moments, and I will say the new twist on the story to modernize it interesting..., I did not feel connected to the piece and thought the choreography was not the most interesting dancing Bourne has done, and did not come close to the inventiveness and expressiveness of his Play Without Words or The Car Man. Maybe a second viewing might give me better insight, as my second time around to National Ballet of Canada's Swan Lake, a version choreographed by Canadian James Kudelka, struck me far more than my first viewing. Possibly knowing and understanding the story helped and let me enjoy the choreography unhindered by trying to figure out the classic story (that I had never seen up to that point), but this time around, I found the ballet classic simply beautiful and a great showcase piece for the members of the ballet company.


So now that I fell in love with Kudelka Swan Lake choreography, with scenes to showcase the male ensemble corps in the first act, then the ladies get to impress as swans in the second. With this opening, the company chose to give the leads to rising star McGee Maddox as Siegfried, opposite Principal dancer Xiao Nan Yu, a pairing I was surprised at when first announced for Swan Lake, but in actual performance, works smashingly beautifully!

Xiao Nan Yu is a very strong, self assured dancer. I tend to think of her as the queen mother of sorts of the company, but often, I find her pairings a bit unbalanced because she IS so strong and confident, and a times overpowering her pairing. McGee Maddox, who is a sort of beast of ballet, a muscle framed hulking dancer, who looks more appropriate for the football field than in tights, is a unique star-in-the-making. Maddox, with his boyish matinee idol looks, and atypically large frame, looks like he would be weighted down by his muscles and yet dances with the grace of a feather and manages to float through the air as he jumps. The pairing of Maddox and Yu only strengthens each others best qualities (which they hinted at in Elite Syncopations, though I missed their previous pairings), and allows Yu to freely be as strong as she is, and she gives what may have been her best performance I have seen her do yet.

Yu's Odette, the White Swan, is strong, assured, and beautiful in her confidence. Not necessarily the frail swan waiting for her Prince, but this swan understands her grace and power and it nicely contrasts to Maddox's naive and melancholic Siegfried. We easily understand why the indifferent Prince would fall in love with the radiant swan Odette. Then when Yu becomes Odile, the Black Swan, she becomes confident in a different way. Yu's Odile is coy and seducing, and


Meanwhile, the opening night cast, with nary a sight of the usual Principal stars Antonijevic, Ogden, Côté, Stanczyk, etc., was basically a great showcase for the upcoming stars of The National Ballet of Canada!

Tanya Howard as the Wench, Jillian Vanstone, Jenna Savella, Elena Lobsanova, and Tina Pereira as the Princesses, Nan Wang as Benno, Robert Stephen (who plays the Fool on other nights) in the male corps, Etienne Lavigne as Rothbart. The National Ballet of Canada's future is in great hands (or should that be pointed feet?)! The female corps seemed tighter than ever, while the men had great fun trying to amuse and brighten up the sullen Prince (and this time, beside Robert Stephen, I found Giorgio Galli particularly mesmerizing within the corps).


Less mesmerizing was Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty, which had many great ideas and nice theatrical elements (including a somewhat creepy baby puppet to begin the prologue) but it all did not add up to enough of an emotional pull that usually dominates previous Bourne shows I've seen. I appreciate Bourne's effort to rework the simple story of Sleeping Beauty and give it an update and dramatic boost, but it seems to illicit more of a confused response. The subtitle A Gothic Romance brings Sleeping Beauty to modern times in the second act, as Sleeping Beauty has been sleeping for over a 100 years, but while having the young love meet before her sleep induced coma adds resonance to the love story, trying to keep it alive by turning the young man into a vampire, starts feeling more like a way to grab more demographics than trying to make the story make sense.


There are some interesting ways Bourne has inserted unique characters for solos, including some "good" vampire/angels(?), and the costumes and sets by Lez Brotherston keep the visual interest alive, but overall, something about the production just did not quite awaken for me despite an attempt and shaking up the classic fairytale.

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Heavy Mental - The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble - Play Review

The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble - Factory Theatre and Obsidian Theatre - Toronto, ON - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Beth Graham, Directed by Philip Akin
Runs until Dec. 1st, 2013

I often complain that too many plays seem to be based around white families with drinking or drug problems and while they definitely mine some dramatic classics out of it (Long Day's Journey Into Night, August: Osage County), it is getting a bit repetitive. Watching The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, it dawned on me why the drinking and drug theme amongst a white family might be so popular, and not just as a default subject for a play. Perhaps there is a slight schadenfreude-ish nature to it, since watching Bernice Trimble, a play presented here by Obsidian Theatre in conjuction with Factory Theatre, a play about a black family dealing with their mother's deteriorating health issue, seems far more heartbreaking with its hopeless nature. Watching Bernice Trimble, the matriarch of the family, growing older and falling into her medical spells is scary and is easily recognizable to anyone who has dealt with elders in their family. Presented and written in such a realistic, matter-of-fact way brings it much closer to our own understanding, and it becomes a painful reminder of the infallible nature of our bodies and mind. While this production presents it happening to a black woman, it could really be any family of any colour or background. The play feels very Canadian, but quite universal.


This is not to say drugs or drinking is funny or sympathetic, but whereas there might be hope in recovery, and sometimes played for laughs by white people in a play, Bernice Trimble is a heavy and saddening tale about the Trimble family, who happen to be black, and their hopeless fight against a deteriorating disease.

While the play is about an extremely depressing subject matter, Beth Graham's play manages to inject humour and light moments giving Bernice Trimble a needed balance to the weighty tale. There is a middle section where moments seem slightly stretched out, buying time and sympathy for the surrounding family before a third-act-reveal moves the play into its most devastating and interesting momentum. But at the heart of the story of Bernice Trimble, we still know little about Bernice herself, and the play spends a tad too much time in setting up the reveal. It however is the family and the cast that ground the play and make it as heartfelt as it is.

Karen Robinson (Stuff Happens) is Bernice Trimble and it is a heartbreaking performance of a woman experience early onset Alzheimers. Lucinda Davis (da Kink in my Hair) plays eldest daughter Sara, a non-stop talking new-mother who spreads her energy and voice in any room she's in. Both are great, and surround the middle child who becomes the centrepiece of the play as the narrator, and while the role is a bit too explanatory, it is encapsulated luminously by Alexis Gordon, who makes Iris Trimble, a nervous, fidgety, compassionate centre and caretaker to Bernice. Squaring off the family is newcomer Peyson Rock as youngest brother Peter, a quiet, introverted but soulful good son and Rock brings a soothing tone that adds some comic beats when placed against the hectic Sara or the intense darkness happening upon Bernice. Four beautiful performances of four very different characters of one family, on a stunning set by Camellia Koo.

The memory play about the loss of memory skills begins well with an engaging Gordon pulling us into her recount. While the play balances the tone quite well, with some light moments and comedic touches amongst a dark story, it could rebalance some of the moments with title character Bernice more in focus, including fleshing out more about Mr. Trimble. Still, the lovely cast pulls out the emotional punches of a loving family dealing with such a realistic bomb.

Photo by Joanna Akyol
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