Friday, June 07, 2019

Laugh, Love and What She Wore - Little Black Dress - Musical Review

Little Black Dress - CAA Theatre - Toronto, ON - ****
Created by Amanda Barker, Natalie Tenenbaum, Danielle Trzcinski, & Christopher Bond
Music by Natalie Tenenbaum, Lyrics by Danielle Trzcinski, Book by Amanda Barker and Danielle Trzcinski, Directed by Christopher Bond
Runs until Jun 9th 2019, Continues on tour.
*Review based on a preview performance

A new girls night out musical has been sewed together with elements of sketch comedy, a bit of improv, catchy music, heartwarming moments, and a little bit of raunch (well, actually a big lot of dirty talk AND a male stripper!). Little Black Dress the Musical has been fabricated for a perfect drunken night out with the girls, a bachelorette's party without the actual need to get married (especially if you never want to, which is also covered as a song in the show!).

We meet Dee (a delightful Danni Davis) and her bff Mandy (always game Jennette Cronk) as they're introduced by Mom (Rachel McLaughlan) to the versatile little black dress as the one piece of clothing appropriate for any situation in life. Each song and scene brings us another piece of Dee and Mandy's lives with the little black dress as a threadbare link to a momentous time in their lives, as they weave through college, first interviews and jobs, first dates, bachelorette party, a wedding, pregnancy, parenthood, as the girls learn that life may not always live up to expectations, but the little black dress (and friendship), is all the support a girl needs. The scenes and songs have a sketch comedy structure but the songs about the little black dress strings it all together.

A super game cast lead by Davis in the central role that threads the musical together is surrounded by the versatile ensemble of Cronk, McLaughlan and Hromsco who all do multiple duties of various roles, sometimes within the same scene! Hromsco is particularly hilarious as the lone man on stage and used both for his body as the stripper while also playing dad, boyfriend, gay salesman, and taking on the brunt of the male jokes in a show designed for women, specifically drunk women, and Hromsco seem game for it all. McLaughlan, under various hilariously bad wigs, has the most varied things to do in the female cast and tirelessly changing dresses and wigs at a spitfire speed.

With some of the funniest songs working best when we see countering views (Like "I Knew It"(misconceptions of a first date), "Yes I Do" (to I do or not to I do), "F*ck All Night" (self explanatory) and "TV Birth vs Real Birth" (also self explanatory and cleverly directed with poor lone male actor Clint Hromsco running between both). The interludes probably had a extra beat at times due to the early preview (it was only the second performance) but I gather the pacing should improve as they get some more performances under their wings. The improv can be more self assured but with a winning Davis, there's a genuine charm and relatability to guide us on this silly fun girls night about a little black dress.

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Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Breaking Through the Square - ANTIGONE: 方 - Play Review

ANTIGONE: 方 - Young People's Theatre Mainstage - Toronto, ON - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Jeff Ho, Directed by Stephen Colella and Karen Gilodo
Runs until May 16th 2019

In an update of the Greek classic Antigone, Jeff Ho melds the old tale with allusions to Tiananmen Square and the Hong Kong Yellow Umbrella Movement in a haunting and chilling production being performed (and produced) by Young People's Theatre for its audience but reverberates for citizens of all ages.

In a transformed mainstage space with in-the-round seating, the high brick walls flanked by imposing red banners (are red banners ever not imposing?) and two giant loudspeakers surround the audience and square platform stage (方 from the title means square) lined with light patterns and a lighting design (by Rebecca Picherack) working seamlessly with Christine Urquhart's semi-futuristic, semi-timeless set and costume designs that mix apocalyptic future with hints of Communist China but leave it open to an anytime and place interpretation.

Adding to the mood with David Mesiha's sound design, Stephen Colella and Karen Gilodo's tone is set with the stark imagery of red umbrellas used as a prop that doubles as weapons, shields, bodies, in a tale of rebellion and and the law. With some subtle changes, Jeff Ho puts Antigone (Jasmine Chen) between her father Creon (John Ng) and her brothers Teo (Aldrin Bundoc) and Neikes (Jeff Yung) when Neikes finds himself opposing the injustice and violence incited by the state. When their mother gets taken and placed in re-education, family members begin taking different sides, as Creon follows the rule of law, with Teo finding himself fighting his own brother Neikes, who sees the truth behind the laws and fights to save the people's rights. The sisters, Antigone and Ismene (Rachel Mutombo) find their loyalties split, especially when a stranger, Haemon (Simon Gagnon) shows up at their door looking for help, and having information on Neikes while hiding from Creon.

Jeff Ho's new adaptation keeps us guessing on where the stakes lay as loyalties and ethical and moral sides begin taking shape under an oppressive regime. Watching the multicultural cast tell this tale is particularly exciting and gives the anytime/anyplace/future/now a particular urgency. The cast, made up of Toronto's talented pool, including John Ng (Kim's Convenience) and Soo Garay, and YPT's Selfie alums Rachel Mutombo and Christopher Allen, is a wonderful ensemble of actors to carry out Ho's complex retelling under Colella and Gilodo's tense and tight production.

This may be one of the more serious Young People's Theatre shows in recent times but it is not presented without humour. Ho has written a terrific new update on Antigone that manages to mix the elements of Greek Theatre, Chinese and Hong Kong history, and that also have hints of Toronto's G20 protests, that asks us as citizens to question what is the moral guideline one needs to follow, and is it ok to break out from the square peg?

Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann
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Sunday, April 28, 2019

Crossing the Atlantic - Old Stock and Small Island - Theatre Reviews

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story - 2b theatre company at Tarragon Theatre Mainstage - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Created by Hannah Moscovitch, Ben Caplan & Christian Barry
Runs until May 26th 2019

Small Island - National Theatre in the Olivier Theatre - London, UK - **** (out of 5 stars)
Adapted by Helen Edmundson, based on the novel by Andrea Levy, Directed by Rufus Norris
Runs until Aug. 10th 2019

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story tells the deeply personal tale of Hannah Moscovitch's paternal great-grandparents and the entry into Canada at the turn of the century as they escaped Romania and found a new life in Montreal. But the journey, and the love story between Chaim (Dani Oore) and Chaya (Mary Fay Coady) isn't as straight forward as the romance we all hope for and to tell this little refugee love story, we have Ben Caplan as The Wanderer, who opens up a shipping container to tell of this beautiful, heartfelt tale with his booming voice and oddball humour.

From within the shipping container, Coady and Oore doubling up as musicians and playing Chaya and Chaim, and Graham Scott on keyboard and accordion and Jamie Kronick on drums, with Caplan leading the way, introduce us to two very different Romanian Jewish refugees as they land in Halifax, sending a spark through Chaim. They meet up again later in Montreal where Chaim has won over Chaya's father, but less so for Chaya, but she enters a marriage more for convenience and survival, and Coady plays Chaya's bluntness and side-eyes to perfection against Oore's naive smitten romantic notions.

The songs by Ben Caplan and director Christian Barry offer more side commentary than it does to move the story along, and the narration adds some humour to a tale that becomes increasingly dark as realities begin to derail what a sweet love story we all root for, and it gives the piece a balance that feels in spirit to the Jewish resilience. While it may be the specific tale of Hannah's great-grandparents, there's of course the universality, especially as Chaya and Chaim's love story must react to the realities of being refugees in a new country, one that may or may not live up to the refugees' expectations.

While Caplan's voice and songs are stirring and sometimes silly and sly, it's when we finally have moments where Chaim and/or Chaya duet, either with Caplan himself or saving the best for last, when they finally duet together, where we truly get the emotional peak of the story but also the theatrical presentation of this musical that felt like it may have held out too long for. While the musical runs only 90 minutes, it is in Chaim and Chaya's final duet where it all culminates into the special little show that Old Stock aims to be.

Over on Small Island, a large, epic sprawling tale of different lives collide in Britain after the war pulls Jamaicans who stay in the UK after helping with the war efforts. Based on Andrea Levy's novel, the new stage adaptation is pretty basic in its theatrical retelling, but the National Theatre production spares nothing with a large cast of 40 on its Olivier stage that sweeps us into the world of three lives that intertwine across the Atlantic.

This time, we follow the journey of Jamaicans crossing the other way over the Atlantic as war eventually brings Jamaican colonials to help in Britain's war efforts. Hortense (Leah Harvey), a Jamaican teaching assistant yearns to live in England, and while her childhood love Michael (CJ Beckford) has moved on to new loves and a new future by enlisting in the English army, she eventually meets Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr), and marries him for the sake of convenience, and as an excuse to move to London.  Meanwhile in England, White Brit Queenie (Aisling Loftus) escapes her family's farm in Lincolnshire to live with her forward-thinking Aunt Dorothy (Beatie Edney), then marries the stiff Bernard (Andrew Rothney) so that she can remain in London when her aunt dies. Lives intercross, the war takes its toll on everyone, and changes the lives forever, as each person tries to survive in their own way.

Hortense's expectations of London are abruptly shattered when she walks into Gilbert's tiny one-room apartment, rented from Queenie's house, as she's left to fend for herself when Bernard disappears in the war. Lives collide and Hortense naively discovers the racial divide still lurking about in England. There's a lot of story to tell but Norris and Edmundson manage to make the 3 hour 10 minute (including intermission) tale flow by with ease. It is wonderful storytelling at its purest, without any necessary fancy theatrical tricks, and I was enthralled the entire time.

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