Toronto’s Fall Season Highlights

Yaga 

Written and directed by Kat Sandler

Featuring: Claire Armstrong, Will Greenblatt, and Seana McKenna

Set and costume design by Joanna You

Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon

Sound design by Christopher Ross-Ewart

At the Tarragon Theatre (Mainspace)

The Jungle

Written by Anthony MacMahon and Thomas McKechnie

Directed by Guillermo Verdecchia

Set and costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle

Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay

Featuring: Shannon Currie and Matthew Gin

Tarragon Theatre (Extraspace)

The Band’s Visit

Music and lyrics by David Yazbek

Book by Itamar Moses

Directed by David Cromer

Featuring: Chilean Kennedy, Sasson Gabay, Pomme Koch, Joe Joseph, Mike Cefalo, Adam Gabay, Ronnie Malley, David Studwell, Jennifer Apple, Danny Burgos, Marc Ginsburg, Kendal Hartse, Sara Kapner, Loren Lester, Ahmad Maksoud, James Rana, Nick Sacks, Hannah Shankman, Bligh Both

Scenic design by Scott Park

Costume design by Sarah Laux

Lighting design by Tyler Micoleau

Sound design by Kai Harada

Projection design by Maya Ciarrocchi

At the Ed Mirvish Theatre

PIAF/ DIETRICH

Written by Daniel Grove Boymann & Thomas Kahry

Directed by Gordon Greenberg

Adapted by Erin Shields

From the translation by Sam Madwar

Based on a concept by David Winterberg

Featuring: Louise Pitre and Jayne Lewis with Louise Camilleri, Réjean Cournoyer, W. Joseph Matheson, Tracy Michailidis Seana-Lee Wood

Set design by Michael Gianfrancesco

Costume design by Louise Bourret

Lighting design by Michael Walton

Sound design by Michael Laird

At the CAA Theatre

Girl From The North Country

Written and directed by Conor McPherson

Music and Lyrics by Bob Dylan

Orchestrations, arrangements and musical supervision by Simon Hale

Scene design by Rae Smith 

Featuring: Daniel Bailey, Colin Bates, Katie Brayben, Anna-Jane Casey, Nicole Cherrie, David Ganly, Simon Gordon, Steffan Harri, David Haydn, Rachel John, Sidney Kean, Finbar Lynch, Donald Sage Mackay, Gloria Obianyo, Ferdy Roberts, Wendy Somerville, Gemma Sutton, Shaq Taylor, Alan Vicary

Royal Alexandra Theatre

mirvish.com

A Streetcar Named Desire

Written by Tennessee Williams

Directed by Weyni Mengesha

Set design by Lorenzo Savoini

Costume design by Rachael Forbes

Lighting design by Kimberly Purcell

Sound design by Debasha Sinha

Music direction by Mike Ross

Featuring: Akosua Amo-Adem, Leah Doz, Mac Fyfe, Sebastian Marziali, Gregory Prest, Amy Rutherford, SATE, Lindsay Owen Pierre, Oliver Dennis, Kaleb Horn

the book of life

Co-created, written and performed by Odile Gakire Katese

Co-created and directed by Ross Manson

Projection design by Sean Frey and Kristine White

Composer, Mutangana Moise

Music recorded by Ingoma Nshya and the Women Drummers of Rwanda

*** *** *** *** ***

Yaga

Written and directed by Kat Sandler

Featuring: Claire Armstrong, Will Greenblatt, and Seana McKenna

Set and costume design by Joanna You

Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon

Sound design by Christopher Ross-Ewart

At the Tarragon Theatre (Mainspace)

“If you go out in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise…” especially if Baba Yaga is lurking anywhere nearby. And be especially careful if the witch in question is a contemporary update on the old Russian fairy tale, remolded into a bold tale of woman’s power that transcends centuries and geographies. This modern day woman of the woods lives by her own rules and is intellectually superior to any of the men who might think they have a thing or two up their sleeve or down their pants when they pass by her sylvan neighborhood. 

Playwright Kit Sandler has concocted a witches brew (appropriate for this time of year) of story telling by mixing healthy doses of legend and myth derived from ancient tales and then simmered them over a hot fire that crackles with the pulsating pace of a page turning mystery thriller which doesn’t end until we finally find out whodunit. 

Sandler has stacked her narrative with native wit and energy, but with no recognizable roadmap so be careful of the potholes and detours that may take you out of your normal comfort zone while navigating this piece. Part fairy tale, part police procedural and part pent-up Furies’ rage calling out #MeTo, this compelling mashup excels, especially with the acting talents of Claire Armstrong, Will Greenblatt and Seana McKenna on exhibition. The playwright also directed her play, so – for her at least – the path was clear from the very start, even without dropping breadcrumbs along the way.

The Jungle

Written by Anthony MacMahon and Thomas McKechnie

Directed by Guillermo Verdecchia

Set and costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle

Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay

Featuring: Shannon Currie and Matthew Gin

Tarragon Theatre (Extraspace)

Not since Guillermo Verdecchia gave us The Noam Chomsky Lectures (written with Daniel Brooks) have I had the experience of seeing a play that is so clearly anti-capitalist in its format while being so entertaining in its content. Is there something dialectical going on here? Yes, I think so and perhaps that is why Tarragon Theatre asked Verdecchia to direct The Jungle.

Anthony MacMahon (Animal Farm) and Thomas McKechnie’s (Remembering the Winnipeg General) Marxist romp on the gig economy does yeoman’s work in illuminating the current stage of predatory capitalism that continues to seek out the lowest global common denominator with regard to working conditions, environmental regulation, economic equality and social justice while exalting Wall Street, higher profits, the meritocracy and the power of the few over the many as the apex of human achievement. 

In The Jungle, Shannon Currie and Matthew Gin play two young working people – Veronica and Jack – who meet one night in the taxi cab that Jack is driving for a living. Having been part of the gig economy myself as a young person and having driven a cab for a period of time, I can think of no better venue for anchoring an agitprop explanation of Karl Marx’s theory of surplus value. The play does this by cutting back and forth from its developing love story between driver and fare, and moving into their various living spaces (cramped apartment living rooms and kitchens) while freely using the white walls of their various abodes (cleverly designed like chalk boards by Shannon Lea Doyle) as magic marker friendly lecture sounding boards with equations and diagrams that help illustrate microcosms from their own work-a-day lives and expand upon them to explicate the big picture of what global capitalism is all about. No small task for a short 90 minute play, btw.

All of this while maintaining the love story and the stress and strain that goes with trying to maintain a relationship, as they slowly begin to realize that all personal relationships have economic foundations to them that either bolster or tear you apart. The chemistry between Currie and Gin is delicate and tender. When they love each other, we root for them – when they argue, we silently boo the system we know is oppressing them.

Although The Jungle does not have anything in common really with the novel of the same name by Upton Sinclair – except perhaps its broadly anti-capitalist thesis – the writers have courteously provided an homage of sorts to Sinclair in their program notes, as the inspiration for the play. He is an author well worth covering for anyone seriously interested in socialist ideas and how they can be popularly portrayed within literature, poetry, drama, dance and the visual arts. 

The last time Upton Sinclair’s name was mentioned in any mainstream way within popular culture was some years ago by way of the film, There Will Be Blood, starring Daniel Day Lewis. Unfortunately, here again, Sinclair’s novel, Oil, which was said to be the inspiration for the film, had nothing to do with the script that was fashioned as a Hollywood star vehicle. George Bernard Shaw once said that “when I look at the history of the world between 1919 and 1949, I refer people to the novels of Upton Sinclair.” He was referring to Sinclair’s epic 11 novel, The Lanny Budd Series, that follows the life and times of the fictional art collector, savoir-faire socialist, and political dilettante, Lanny Budd. 

Actually, there is a movie or Netflix series that is just waiting to happen. 

The Band’s Visit

Music and lyrics by David Yazbek

Book by Itamar Moses

Directed by David Cromer

Featuring: Chilina Kennedy, Sasson Gabay, Pomme Koch, Joe Joseph, Mike Cefalo, Adam Gabay, Ronnie Malley, David Studwell, Jennifer Apple, Danny Burgos, Marc Ginsburg, Kendal Hartse, Sara Kapner, Loren Lester, Ahmad Maksoud, James Rana, Nick Sacks, Hannah Shankman, Bligh Both

Scenic design by Scott Park

Costume design by Sarah Laux

Lighting design by Tyler Micoleau

Sound design by Kai Harada

Projection design by Maya Ciarrocchi

At the Ed Mirvish Theatre

In the middle of the night a group of strangers descend upon a small town and must rely on the locals to see them through an awkward and frustrating period. No, I’m not talking about the musical Come From Away. That’s the one playing at the Elgin Theatre right next door to the Ed Mirvish Theatre, where The Band’s Visit also sings to us about living together in harmony, and trying to get along while working through life’s big wicked problems collectively.

But what I really like about this tuner, is the music and lyrics by David Yazbek and the overall musical aesthetic of this small, soft show whose time signature beats as true as the heart at the centre of it. Also, it thankfully, oh so thankfully forgoes the power ballad format that so many musicals think they must employ these days with songs that are thrown at you with such amplified force and decibel level that they must be as hard on the performers throat to sing as they are on the ears to hear. The book by Itamar Moses is like a nicely made cocktail, from the first sip, it builds slowly until you start to relax and just accept it for what it is – a lovely, warm story with beautiful music. 

The 19 member cast is led by Chilina Kennedy as Dina, the owner of a small cafe in the Israeli town of Beit Hatikva located in the middle of the Negev Desert. It is there that a group of eight musicians from the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra from Egypt get off the bus after a miscommunication that should have landed them at an Arab cultural centre in the town of Petah Tivkah. That is the central conceit of the show right there. The band is led by Tewfig, played by Sasson Gabay as the older man who shares a common liking with Dina for the actor, Omar Sharif, and the song that takes his name (they sing it as a duet) is one of the most moving moments in the show. Other subplots are woven in nicely.

But no mention of this show would be compete without a hearty shout-out to the band itself: Rick Bertone, Adrian Ries, Tony Bird, George Crotty, Evan Francis, Roger Kashou, Ronnie Malley, Mark Van Ziegler, Shai Wetzer, and Alex Farha. And might I just add here that the incidental music provided by this talented group of folks covering scene changes as well as a short “concert” at the show’s conclusion, is in many respects as good as the score itself!

PIAF/ DIETRICH

Written by Daniel Grove Boymann & Thomas Kahry

Directed by Gordon Greenberg

Adapted by Erin Shields

From the translation by Sam Madwar

Based on a concept by David Winterberg

Featuring: Louise Pitre and Jayne Lewis with Louise Camilleri, Réjean Cournoyer, W. Joseph Matheson, Tracy Michailidis Seana-Lee Wood

Set design by Michael Gianfrancesco

Costume design by Louise Bourret

Lighting design by Michael Walton

Sound design by Michael Laird

At the CAA Theatre

Two powerful performers of the present, Louise Pitre and Jayne Lewis, playing two powerful performers of the past, Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich, is a recipe for success. This idea for a two hander began a decade ago with a series of workshops that examined text about and letters between the two women over the years. Although I know them both separately as artists, I had no idea of the close bond that existed between these two women for many years. Dietrich even attended Piaf’s funeral in 1963 at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. 

Early on in the show we learn that the two were also lovers. Certainly not committed as life long partners, nevertheless these voluble personalities where life long friends and admirers through good times and bad. The bad included Piaf’s drinking and pain killing drug taking that would eventually consume her.

Their respective songbooks, with Piaf’s list of hits outnumbering Dietrich’s considerably, compete with one another in interesting ways – much as the two stars did in real life. Dietrich’s act was honed mainly out of her first breakout film, The Blue Angel (1930) in which she played a cabaret singer name Lola Lola and sang what was to become her signature tune, “Falling in Love Again”. She also included on her playlist the universally beloved “Lili Marlene” which appealed to service men on either side of the conflict. She toured with the USO during World War II and even appeared in Las Vegas at the Sahara Hotel with an act that included the Pete Seeger anti-war anthem, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”. Who knew!?

This is a rare opportunity to visit a time capsule in history and relive the journey of two amazing women who lived very public lives in very individually unique and private ways. Louise Pitre and Jayne Lewis just pour their hearts out in this very satisfying evening of musical theatre. Go and enjoy being a fly on the wall!

Girl From The North Country

Written and directed by Conor McPherson

Music and Lyrics by Bob Dylan

Orchestrations, arrangements and musical supervision by Simon Hale

Scene design by Rae Smith 

Featuring: Daniel Bailey, Colin Bates, Katie Brayben, Anna-Jane Casey, Nicole Cherrie, David Ganly, Simon Gordon, Steffan Harri, David Haydn, Rachel John, Sidney Kean, Finbar Lynch, Donald Sage Mackay, Gloria Obianyo, Ferdy Roberts, Wendy Somerville, Gemma Sutton, Shaq Taylor, Alan Vicary

Royal Alexandra Theatre

mirvish.com

Most of the advance pieces and reviews for Girl From the North Country, caution theatre goers not to expect a “jukebox musical” in this award winning show that features a book by the Irish playwright, Conor McPherson with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan. The reason for this disclaimer with regard to genre indicates a bit of confusion around the unwieldy nature of the genre itself, that Stephen Sondheim once described as “musicals where the audience enters the theatre humming the tunes.”

The grandparent of all the American jukebox musicals is Ain’t Misbehavin’ which made its way onto Broadway in 1978 (it is perhaps the bluesy distant cousin of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris which preceeded it Off-Broadway by a decade). Referred to then as a “revue”, AM showcased the music of Fats Waller along with others of his period. Although the show lists “book by Murray Horowitz and Richard Maltby, Jr.” there is really hardly any book or story line to speak of other than the 31 songs that comprise the lovely score. 

By the time Forever Plaid came along in 1989 the term for the genre began to shift and “compilation musical” became the description of choice for some critics, perhaps to cover the fact that music and lyrics for the show is listed simply as, “various artists.” The book credit – such as it is – attributes Stuart Ross, the show’s creator, for the thinnest of premises involvolving a 1950s close harmony guy group called the Four Plaids (or maybe it was just The Plaids, I don’t rightly recall) with having had a tragic fatal car crash on Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania that led to the poor plaid lads ending up in an afterlife limbo tasked with having to do that final gig before they can ascend heavenward for their celestial reward. Our role as audience is to see that they are cheered on their way. And that is pretty much it.

Another jukebox musical, Five Guys Named Moe (circa 1990), opens with a depressed guy at a bar contemplating suicide until 5 singer/dancers literally jump out of a real juke box in the bar and entertain the fellow with the uplifting music and lyrics of Louis Jordan in an attempt to dissuade him from his dark thoughts. That’s about it as far as that story-line goes.

Then there are the various bio-musicals such as the Buddy Holly Story (which opened on the West End in 1989); Jersey Boys (Frankie Valle and the Four Seasons); Beautiful (Carole King); Million Dollar Quartet (Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins); Smokey Joe’s Cafe (Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller tunes); Motown (Barry Gordie bio); Moulin Rouge (still too early to pin down what this one is); Ain’t Too Proud (based on Otis Williams’ biography of The Temptations, 2017); Jagged Little Pill (music by Alanis Morissette with a book by Diablo Cody opening on Broadway December 5th).

These things are always a roll of the dice in a crowded, competitive field. The Cher Show closed after 296 performances and a run on Broadway of less than a year, but it will continue to pull in box office with a touring production. Plus the real Cher is still on the road and will play Toronto on November 29th. So Cher is out there competing with Cher. Given a choice, I’d opt for the real Cher! And the upcoming, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, starring Adrienne Warren (with a book by Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins) will open on Broadway November 7th after being received well on London’s West End last year.

In a recent interview with Gordon Lightfoot by Brad Wheeler in the Globe and Mail, the folksinger admits that of the 22 songs in Girl From the North Country, there were many tunes in the musical he had never heard of, though “there were five titles I recognized immediately.” He goes on to name four of them: “Hurricane”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Slow Train”, and “Forever Young”.  Although it wasn’t mentioned in the article, the fifth tune Lightfoot probably recalled was “I Want You.” 

I agree with Gordon and must admit I had a similar experience the first time I saw that blockbuster of all the jukeboxers, Mama Mia. Never being a big Abba fan (that’s putting it politely), I had never heard any of the 22 songs on the playlist except “Waterloo” and “Dancing Queen”! However, I was properly chastened by the end of the show by how cleverly the book and the music worked together to produce such an enjoyable evening.

Lightfoot, who Robbie Robertson once called “a national treasure,” went on to say that he was at one time approached by a group from the Stratford Festival who were interested in his own songbook as the basis for a musical. “I had a meeting with them a few years ago. I was going to pick out some song titles, and dig deep into my own stuff. But nothing ever came of that, which was fine by me.”

It’s tragic to think that somewhere in Lightfoot’s archives of correspondence there might be a letter from Antoni Cimolino that reads something like: “Dear Gordon, thank you so much for your interest in the Stratford Festival at our meeting the other day. After careful consideration of your project, we regret to inform you…”

So no, Girl From the North Country is not a jukebox musical if you are looking for an evening that features Bob Dylan’s greatest hits. But in the end, it is still all about the lyrics and music of Bob Dylan, here exquisitely curated by Connor McPherson and sublimely orchestrated and arranged by Simon Hale. So book yourself a room at that guest house in Duluth, Minnesota, during the winter of 1934 and let the quintessential Dylan, performed by a multi talented ensemble, warm your soul and transport you to a higher plane.

A Streetcar Named Desire

Written by Tennessee Williams

Directed by Weyni Mengesha

Set design by Lorenzo Savoini

Costume design by Rachael Forbes

Lighting design by Kimberly Purcell

Sound design by Debasha Sinha

Music direction by Mike Ross

Featuring: Akosua Amo-Adem, Leah Doz, Mac Fyfe, Sebastian Marziali, Gregory Prest, Amy Rutherford, SATE, Lindsay Owen Pierre, Oliver Dennis, Kaleb Horn

To paraphrase one of the most well known songs of the musical theatre: 

“Oh, hello Weyni, well, hello Weyni It’s so nice to have you back where you belong…”

I am referring, of course, to Soulpepper’s new artistic director, Weyni Mengesha whose inaugural production of Tennessee Williams’ classic play, A Streetcar Named Desire, not only marks her first production since taking over the reins of the company but also demonstrates that Canada does not need to go searching abroad looking for artistic leadership. Although in Mengesha’s case they did have to lure her back home from that siren’s call of the television and film industry in Los Angeles.

Of all the dramatic plays within the American canon it is difficult to think of one that deconstructs so particularly the notion of class as does Streetcar. This is especially important with regard to the American theatre because Americans historically like to think of themselves as without the encumbrance of class. The upper classes, class snobbery and royalty is more of a British thing that Americans pride themselves on having divested in the 18th century. Although politicians today on the centre left side of the ledger refer ad infinitum to the “one percent” beyond that, it is all about the middle class. No one apparently wants to think of themselves as representative of the working class. 

When Blanche DuBois gets off a New Orleans streetcar and walks into the run down small apartment of her sister, Stella Kowalski, we begin to understand the meaning of déclassé. Although the time is 1947 – the same year in which the play was written – Blanche in every way represents the fading aristocracy of the South which found itself expropriated after the Civil War. In Blanche’s case the old homestead property, a plantation named Belle Reve, slipped away because of her own carelessness and mismanagement. Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard transported to the agrarian southern U.S. .

When Stanley presses her on what happened to Stella’s inheritance (because, as he reminds her, under the Napoleonic code governing the state of Louisiana, what is Stella’s property is also his property by law since they are spouses of each other), Blanche pushes back and says she is the only one in the family who really cared about Belle Reve and stayed to fight for it. But Stanley wants to see the legal paper work on what happened and when. Says Blanche: “There are thousands of papers, stretching back over hundreds of years, affecting Belle Reve as piece by piece, our improvident grandfathers, and fathers and uncles & brothers exchanged the land for their epic fornications – to put it plainly!”

But Mengesha doesn’t stop there in her investigation of the play’s intertwining themes, particularly those of race and sex. Here she holds up a magnifying class so that we can look more closely at the racialisms and sexual abuses that abound in the play. This is perhaps her most creative contribution in this new reading of the text.  

The cultural anthropology is done well also. The New Orleans jazz played faintly in the background for the purpose of ambience at the opening builds into a Mardi Gras like procession from the back of the house. Other live musical segues cover scene changes with the jazz, skat and Cajun rhythms that one could hear anytime of the day or night along Bourbon Street and in the famed clubs of the French Quarter. Here Mengesha (with the assistance of music director Mike Ross) insists on live musicians front and centre playing and singing with great period sounding music.

The poker game with Stanley Kowalski and his drunken friends is loud, raucous and angry as an argument ensues over a bet. One feels that a fight could break out at any moment. There is real danger in the air.

The play is very well cast with Amy Rutherford (Blanche DuBois), Leah Doz (Stella Kowalski) and Mac Fyfe (Stanley Kowalski) excelling in the lead roles. Amy Rutherford’s Blanche, a coveted role for many actors, was originated on Broadway by Jessica Tandy in 1947 in a storied production that also starred Marlon Brando as Stanley.

If there is any justice, this production will win Doras and Toronto Theatre Critics Awards come next award season. And finally, award or no award for his acting skills, Mac Fyfe should be congratulated for definitively breaking through the “Brando curse” that hung over the role of Stanley for so many years. Brando’s mannered and totally self absorbed acting that he described as “method” did a disservice to a whole generation of actors who mistakenly thought they must mimic his brooding interpretation of the role that echoed even more abrasively after the movie came out in 1951. 

Mac Fyfe searches deep within himself after physically abusing his wife and we interpret his subsequent wailing, “Stella! Hey Stella!” as the cri de couer of a very conflicted soul. Yet, for Stanley anyway, it was a plaintive plea to his wife for forgiveness. Prescient characteristics associated with wife abuse then and now.

All of the supporting roles were done with the grace and skill one has come to expect from this repertory company. Even the calm and dignified Oliver Dennis, playing the doctor who is summoned in the play’s concluding moments to transport Blanche to the sanitarium. Without Dennis uttering one word, there is eloquence nonetheless. Blanche is visibly moved. Our sympathies are firmly with Blanche – who has always appreciated the kindness of strangers.

the book of life

Co-created, written and performed by Odile Gakire Katese

Co-created and directed by Ross Manson

Projection design by Sean Frey and Kristine White

Composer, Mutangana Moise

Music recorded by Ingoma Nshya and the Women Drummers of Rwanda

Canadian Stage

Odile Gakire Katese, a talented Rwandan theatre director, actor, playwright and story teller, here is co-partnered with Canadian director Ross Manson of Volcano Theatre to produce a one hander that is part play and part African story telling. The production had a limited run at Can Stage’s Berkeley Theatre venue in September.

The form for the the book of life put me in mind of the early work of Rita Cox and Amah Harris here in Toronto. Cox was the story teller/ librarian who developed the form so effectively while building the Black and Caribbean Heritage section of the Toronto Public Library system. And Amah Harris, as director of Theatre in the Rough, took her series of Anansi plays on tour across Canada and South Africa. 

The Rwandan genocide is the horrific backdrop of the story but don’t look for any historical detail that will explain the catastrophic attacks against the Tutsi tribe that began in April, 1994. This play is largely told in metaphor and is meant to cover a wide age span that includes adolescents as well as adults. There are helpful backgrounder notes in the program, however, and references to the genocide that can be found in other sources.

In her opening remarks, Katese made mention of the Women Drummers of Rawanda. It is sad that the Conservative government of Stephen Harper cut the Department of Canadian Heritage touring budget so drastically when he was in power. The story behind the women’s drum ensemble is central to the show and although we hear them by way of a recording throughout, it would have been very exciting if money could have been found to bring them to Canada and make them central to the performance. Maybe now that we have a new government…?

Also on my “to see” list of productions currently running in Toronto is the wonderful revival of Daniel David Moses’s 1992 play, Almighty Voice and His Wife which is also playing at Soulpepper and Ghost Quartet, the surreal time travelling acapella musical that played to sold out crowds in the small New York Theatre Workshop space last year. Reviews to come asap.

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