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The Theatres
TORONTO

Alumnae Theatre
Etobicoke Music
Canadian Stage
East Side Players
Encore Entert'n't

Meadowvale Th.
Princss of Wales
Royal Alexandra

Yorkminstrels
-... other Toronto

SW ONTARIO
Players Guild
PortColborneOpera Georgian Festival
Theatre & Co
Theat. Ancaster
Theat. Aquarius
Theat. Cambridge
Theat. in the Trees
Thorold Com.Th.
Touchmark Th.
Shaw Festival
Stratford Festival
-...other SW Ont.

EAST of TOR
Oshawa Little Th.
ClassAct Dinner Th.


|You Never Can Tell | Measure for MeasureCheatin' Hearts | Something on the Side |
| The Sound of Music | Carmen |
Belle Moral:  A Natural History | Roméo et Juliette |
| Jeux d’amour et de folie | Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) |
| Annie | Movin' Out |The Mantini Sisters |
Magic Flute |


Some Stage Door reviews of 2005

Others may be found here, here, here, here, and here!

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Roméo et Juliette

by Charles Gounod, directed by Kelly Robinson
Opera Ontario, Hamilton Place, Hamilton
October 15, 20 & 22, 2005
Centre in the Square, Kitchener
October 28 & 30, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Conductor Embalms Famed Lovers"

Opera Ontario’s continuing exploration of the French repertoire has provided a welcome source of diversity in Southern Ontario’s opera scene. Past season have brought us works like “Les Pêcheurs des perles” (2002), Lakmé” (2003), “Le Portrait de Manon” (2004) and “La Voix humaine” (2004) that have so far never been staged by the Canadian Opera Company. Opera Ontario’s current offering, Charles Gounod’s 1867 opera “Roméo et Juliette”, has not been seen in Ontario since the COC’s 1991-92 season.

For its first-ever production of Gounod’s second most popular work, Opera Ontario has assembled a terrific cast, all Canadian but one, and has borrowed a handsome production from L’Opéra de Montréal. Were it not for the depressingly lifeless conducting of David Speers, Opera Ontario’s new General Director, the evening could have been a major success.

Rarely have I seen a conductor treat so passionate a score so mechanically. It’s as if Speers saw himself merely as a human metronome and cueing machine as he plodded through the score seemingly oblivious to any expressive markings. In his hands what ought to be a scintillating party at the Capulet’s was leaden-footed and dreary. He took Juliette’s “Je veux vivre”, the opera’s most famous aria, so slowly that the Juliette, Laura Whalen, could not sing it properly, making this portrait of a young girl’s vivacity sound like a dirge. Speers did not even rouse himself from his lugubrious pacing for the sword fights of Act 3, meaning that the participants either had to fight in slow motion or, as they did, stand still periodically for the music to catch up with their thrusts and parries. Faced with a conductor who gave the work no sense of tension or forward momentum, the orchestra focussed on producing beautifully blended sounds. The Canadian Speers comes to Opera Ontario from Arizona Opera where his website bio informs us that “Mr. Speers relinquished his conducting career in 1992 to focus on the duties and responsibilities of General Director”. Let’s hope that this uninspiring stint behind the podium is a one-off gesture and that Speers will concentrate his efforts as he did in Arizona where his talents really lie.

Although Speers’s spiritless approach had the effect of embalming the work rather than bringing it to life, the highly talented cast struggled hard to do just that. Laura Whalen was a delightful Juliette. Her sparkling soprano, agile coloratura and solid acting captured the image of a young girl brimming with life and made “Amour, r’anime mon courage”, Juliette’s extended scena when she convinces herself to take Friar Laurence’s potion, absolutely thrilling. As Roméo, the sole American cast member, tenor John Bellemer displayed a cultured voice combining a soft-edged tone with surprising underlying power. Unlike the rest of the cast, however, his acting skills were minimal and his awkward movement about the stage gave him virtually no presence. Luckily, he rallied himself by Act 5 to make the tomb scene and the doomed lovers’ final (non-Shakespearean) duet both impassioned and full of sadness.

To learn how to cut a dashing figure on stage, Bellemer need only have modelled himself after Alexander Dobson as Mercutio, Eric Shaw as Tybalt or, indeed, Norine Burgess in the trouser-role of Stéphano. All three of these fine singers know how important posture and gesture are in creating a memorable character on stage. Dobson’s lush baritone and Shaw’s ringing tenor made them worthy rivals on stage. To have Burgess in the non-Shakespearean role of Stéphano, Roméo’s page, was luxury casting. She made Stéphano’s air “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle?” one of the highlights of the evening.

Baritone Thomas Goerz so clearly distinguished his two roles as humble Frère Laurent and the imperious Duc de Veronne, one might easily think they were played by two people. He made Frère Laurent’s narrative describing the effects of the sleeping potion to Juliet thoroughly chilling. Bruce Kelly as Le Comte Capulet, Lynne McMurtry as Juliette’s Nurse, Doug MacNaughton as Grégorio (a surprising love-interest for the Nurse), Brian Gow as Benvolio and Nelson Sierra as Pâris rounded out the strong supporting cast.

Director and choreographer Kelly Robinson sought to trace a dynamic dramatic arc through the opera from the light-hearted excitement of the Capulet’s party to the wrenching spectacle of two young people confronting death, but was thwarted in this by Speers’s uniformly dull pacing. The attractive physical production itself consisted of arcades of black columns that could be arranged to form various exterior and interior settings. One subtle feature of Claude Girard’s design was to situate the altar where Frère Laurent marries Roméo and Juliette in Act 3, the couple’s bed in Act 4 and Juliette’s tomb in Act 5 in exactly the same place on stage, thus visually reinforcing the theme of doomed love.

The production’s main peculiarity was the painting on the scrim reproducing Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel. The play is set in “fair Verona”, after all, not in the Vatican. While the scrim established a Renaissance setting, its presence before and after each scene increasingly gave the work an undesirably judgmental air, as if the point were to condemn the young couple for throwing away God’s gift of life even though their final words plead for God’s mercy. A scrim with no painting at all would have been superior. Louise Guinand’s lighting remained gloomy throughout. In Act 2 no light broke from yonder window when Roméo claimed it did and the dawn in Act 4 was so painful dilatory in that it was no wonder that the couple could not tell if they had heard the nightingale or the lark.

Despite its flaws what the Opera Ontario production made clear is what a powerful adaptation of Shakespeare’s story Gounod’s opera is. The final tomb scene, even though it deviates from Shakespeare, is so compelling it completely obviates the need for further explanation or remorse from Friar Laurence or the warring families. In a production as well-directed as this, the dying couple leave life and us with a highly complex mixture of emotions. Were the production as equally well conducted the effect would have been overwhelming.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Grand is alive with
The Sound of Music

The Grand Theater, London, until October 9
Review by Stage Door Guest Reviewer, Mary Alderson

Taking on The Sound of Music is a difficult task—it’s Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most familiar musical. Everyone knows story: a carefree, young nun is sent to be governess to the seven children of a very strict navy captain in Austria. She teaches the children how to sing, and in the course of events, the captain and the governess fall in love and marry. Nazi Germany takes over their beloved Austria, and the Captain is told he must join the German navy. To avoid this betrayal of their home country, the family escapes over the mountains to Switzerland.

Everyone knows the memorable score, as well: The Sound of Music, How do you solve a problem like Maria?, Do Re Mi, The Lonely Goatherd, So Long - Farewell, My Favourite Things, and the beautiful Climb Every Mountain are just some of the songs made famous by the movie starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.

You would think that the familiarity of the show would deter the Grand Theatre from attempting it as a High School Project. But they were undaunted and they have pulled it off.

Director Susan Ferley, Musical Director Andrew Petrasiunas and Choreographer Amy Wright have taken 44 high school students and made them worthy of the Grand’s professional stage. Some have been stretched to show maturity well beyond their teenage years, while others have had the clock turned back and become plausible little children again. This is the Grand’s 9 th high school project. They audition hundreds of students and select 40 to 50 to put on a large scale musical. This time, the show has been moved from spring to fall to better accommodate those students who are involved in musicals at their own schools. Also, in this production, an additional 29 students have worked behind the scenes, in properties, scenic art, wardrobe, etc.

Amanda Huxtable as Maria is delightful. With her beautiful singing voice and amusing antics, she has great stage presence. Earlier this year, Amanda was in the top 100 at Canadian Idol. Justin Goodhand as Captain Von Trapp is especially good in his moving rendition of Edelweiss. His dignity in the role of the Captain is a far cry from the brooding, evil Judd he played in Oklahoma!

The seven VonTrapp children are wonderful. Caleigh Atkinson is endearing as little Gretl, and this marks the first time in the High School Projects that a role has been filled by an elementary school student. Liesl (Rebecca Peters), Friedrich (Thomas Hill), Brigitta (Jesslyn Hodgson), Louisa (Rivkah Weisdorf), Kurt (Matt Grootjen), and Marta (Samantha Underwood) each bring vitality to the roles, harmonizing their voices beautifully.

Andrew Tribe is excellent as Max Detweiler, providing comedy. Shelly Oakes portrays the snobby Elsa Schraeder, and Andrew Wrath is Rolf, the young Nazi recruit. The remainder of the cast – nuns, townspeople, dancers, and servants at the Von Trapp household are incredible, bringing a fresh take on this very familiar show.

It’s the new energy brought to this production by the young cast that makes this version of The Sound of Music seem so fresh. Susan Ferley’s direction optimizes the students’ abilities. Even though we’re all familiar with the movie and the many versions that have gone before, it’s well worth it to revisit this popular musical, and see it with this lively, youthful cast.

The Sound of Music continues at the Grand Theatre in London until October 9. Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593.

Mary Alderson, a resident of Strathroy, offers her view of area theatre in this column on a regular basis. As well as being a fan of live theatre, she is a former journalist who currently teaches business plan writing.

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

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Something on the Side

by Georges Feydeau & Maurice Desvallières, directed by Neil Munro
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
June 25-September 25, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Lumpy Amuse-Gueule"

The 50-minute French farce “Something on the Side” is not so much a side dish as a lumpy amuse-gueule that really gives no foretaste of the more substantial offerings at the Shaw Festival. This lunchtime show is in no way a must-see, but if you already happen to be in Niagara-on-the-Lake and feel in need of a short but heavy dose of silliness, this skit will fill the bill.

The first thing you notice when you enter the Royal George Theatre is Sue LePage’s incredibly witty set. The action takes place in a fin de siècle Parisian seafood restaurant. As befits a farce LePage has gone overboard with the marine theme of the set giving it the swooping lines of Art Nouveau and making it look like a bathysphere out of Jules Verne. An anchor with lampshades is a chandelier, tendrils sprouting bubbles from nautilus shells are wall lamps, the service doors have portholes and above the proscenium a man in a antique deep-sea diving outfit looks on.

If only the play itself were as clever as the design. The farce is adapted by director Neil Munro from Maureen LaBonte’s new translation of “C’est une femme du monde” by Georges Feydeau and Maurice Desvallières. The play had a disappointing run when it first appeared in 1890 after which Feydeau decided to take a break to hone his craft. Feydeau, it appears, had the right idea.

We meet Alfred and his third wife Jen who run an exclusive seafood restaurant. There two gentlemen, known by their abbreviated names Tom-Pop and H.B.S., come in to arrange private dining rooms. They go beyond the usual gentlemen of French farce since they are there not to cheat on their wives but on their mistresses. When Tom-Pop and H.B.S. decide to share a room for four, fireworks explode since everyone involved knows everyone else.

The work is so slight one wonders why Munro chose this among Feydeau’s numerous and funnier one-acters. Munro has added more verbal wit to the text--his title, for example, is cleverer than the original--but the geometrical relationships of the couples are more interesting in theory than on the stage and the action stops just when you think it should rev up.

The play would be a good vehicle for Simon Bradbury as Alfred if the role were larger. Bradbury chooses exactly the right style, halfway between realism and artifice, to make his character funny but not too mechanical. As usual, his verbal and physical timing are impeccable. I was sorry Alfred’s habit of constantly knocking a Chinese vase from its pedestal but catching it just in time extended only halfway through the show. One wishes Munro had allowed Bradbury a little latitude in improvisation since Bradbury is the one member of the cast who knows how to do this kind of thing successfully. Unfortunately, his character vanishes for much of the second half of the play when the not-too-interesting gentlemen take over.

As H.B.S., Douglas E. Hughes seems more at home in this genre than does Ric Reid as the stuffy Tom-Pop. The tic Munro gives them of loud synchronous laughter wears thin quickly. The talents of Kate Hennig as Rosaline and Lisa Horner as Laurette are wasted in the flimsy roles of the two mistresses. Munro encourages them and the rest of the cast to overact to the point where they are not funny. Trish Lindstrom looks puzzled as Alfred’s jealous but dim-witted wife Jen. Harry Judge, unrecognizable in big glasses and a bad wig, seems to have wandered in from a panto.

Directing farces is like whipping cream. For both to be light and still hold their shape you have to have a firm but light hand and need to know when enough is enough. Munro’s hand is far too heavy and beats the air and much of the humour out of this frothy nothing of a play.

©Christopher Hoile

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You Never Can Tell

by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Morris Panych
Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
May 5-November 26, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door


"You Can Tell When It’s This Good"

Of the Shaw Festival’s past three productions of “You Never Can Tell”, Shaw’s eccentric 1898 comedy, the current production directed by Morris Panych is by far the best. Morris, the design team and the cast have caught Shaw’s sense of whimsy perfectly making this one of the most delightful shows of the season.

Shaw’s goal in “You Never” was to write a comedy in the mold of Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s influence is seen in the intentionally artificial plot where coincidences abound and in the high proportion of witty epigrams. Yet, Shaw can’t hold himself back from his usual preoccupations of satirizing society’s perceptions of class and gender.

Mrs. Lanfrey Clandon, celebrated feminist and author of self-help books, returns from of self-imposed exile in Madeira with her older daughter Gloria, a budding feminist in her own right, and her boisterous twins Philip and Dolly. Mrs. Clandon left her husband 18 years ago and so loathes him she has told her children nothing about him. Now she seeks advice from the family solicitor M’Comas about what to do. The children unknowingly invite their long-lost father to lunch with them along with his penniless tenant, the dentist Valentine, who has instantly fallen in love with Gloria. In the twins who have no concept of English propriety, Shaw has characters who in all innocence continually break social codes and establish a carnivalesque atmosphere of topsy-turvydom that imbues the action.

The physical production is delightful. Dominating the stage is one of the most imaginative sets seen at the Shaw in recent years--Ken MacDonald’s Art Nouveau-inspired curvilinear set based on a conic cross-section of a nautilus shell. This serves briefly as Valentine’s dental office but for most of the show more fittingly as the exterior and interior of the Marine Hotel with the addition of shell-like wall sconces and hanging lamps. Nancy Bryant’s costumes follow though by giving the English characters suits with straight lines versus costumes cut along diagonals for the visitors from Madeira. The twins are always in matching pastel costumes that are as just a bit too much as they are. The white walls of the set and its central spiral tower allow Paul Mathiesen to light the scene in gradually varying pastels. The music for scene changes, intermission, the offstage party and the curtain call are all chosen from the Beatles’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, where, of course the Beatles exercised their own sense of whimsy in imitating songs of a bygone era. Who would have thought the Beatles and Shaw would be such a perfect match?

Panych enhances this giddy atmosphere by having his actors play in the slightly exaggerated style of the screwball comedy films of the 1930s, an artifice perfectly in tune with the plot. The characters are introduced one by one with character poses in front of the closed curtain and are encouraged to strike reaction poses at significant moments during the action. This approach works only if all the cast plays at the same level, but, given the Shaw company’s enphasis on ensemble work that is just what the cast achieves.

The two most difficult parts to bring off are the twins, Philip and Dolly, here played by Harry Judge and Nicole Underhay. The two are perfectly matched, almost like two halves a one person, and get the tone just right. Their enthusiastic, insatiable curiosity is driven by their social innocence and the newness of their surroundings. Sometimes the twins can come off as obnoxious, but not here. The fact that everything familiar to us is new to them sets up the blissful topsy-turvydom of the action.

Mike Shara puts in a fine comic performance as Valentine, who would like to seem respectable but is rendered goofy by how happy his love for Gloria makes him. As Gloria, Fiona Byrne well portrays a young woman whose stern attitude suggests she protests too much. Rather than being freed by feminism, she seems to have chosen it as a sort of refuge from life. Gloria’s mother, Mrs. Lanfrey Clandon is normally played by Goldie Semple. On the evening I attended her understudy Patricia Vanstone took on the role. She was efficient but understandably cautious in her performance.

Norman Browning is hilarious as the eternally grumbling Fergus Crampton, but makes clear that once Crampton really was in love with his wife. David Schurmann turns a fine portrait of the unflappably philosophical waiter William, whose catchphrase is the play’s title. Guy Bannerman is the suitably gruff solicitor M’Comas, also once in love with Mrs. Clandon. And Graeme Somerville is wonderfully imperious as the “advocatus ex machina” Bohun, who takes over the show’s final act and simply tells everybody what do to you because he knows better. “You think you will, but you won’t” is his usual formulation.

“You Never Can Tell” is one of those productions where every element--direction, acting and design--combine to capture the precise mood and style of a piece so well it’s hard to imagine it ever being done better. The show will leave you with the blissed-out feeling of “Fixing a Hole”, used for the first fanciful scene change, “And it really doesn’t matter if I wrong I’m right/ Where I belong I’m right/ Where I belong.”

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

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Measure for Measure

by William Shakespeare, directed Leon Rubin
Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford
August 13-September 24, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

“The Full Measure of a Dark Comedy"

The Stratford Festival has saved the best for last. The final play to open at the Festival in 2005 is Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” and it turns out to be the best Shakespeare production of the season. Unlike Antoni Cimolino’s “As You Like It”, director Leon Rubin has not imposed a concept on the production that does not fully make sense of the play. Unlike Richard Monette’s tired remount of “The Tempest” that plods sleepily along, this production is riveting from beginning to end.

In the past Rubin has been guilty of directing productions like the globe-trotting “Pericles in 2003 or the bungee-jumping “Midsummer Night’s Dream” of 2004 where an imposed concept squelched any hope of nuanced acting. Initially, when you enter the Tom Patterson Theatre and see what seems to be a stainless steel version of the Kit Kat Klub, you fear this will be another visually rich, verbally poor production. Fortunately, once the Viennese vice squad clears out the whores and pimps mingling with the audience and the dancers who have been performing awkward acrobatic stunts, the production gets down to serious business. From then on character, movement and staging derive from a deep, clear reading of the text. In fact, phrases, ironies and subplots that didn’t quite make sense in earlier production do now due to Rubin’s close scrutiny of the play. If only more directors at Stratford would take this approach.

The plot with its topics of political corruption, sexual harassment and religious fervor pitted against natural vice seems more relevant than ever. Duke Vincentio has let the punishment of vice slip so far in Vienna that he claims he has been called away and appoints the strict, cold-blooded Angelo as his deputy to enforce the laws. Vincentio, who remains in Vienna in disguise, thus wants to preserve his reputation while letting Angelo do his dirty work for him. Immediately a problem arises. Fornicators are to be given the death penalty. Thus Claudio, betrothed but not married to Juliet who is pregnant by him, is to be hanged. A friend Lucio finds Claudio’s sister Isabella, who is just about to take vows as a nun, and asks her to plead with Angelo for her brother’s life. She does so only to have the suddenly smitten Angelo tell her he will pardon Claudio only if she sleeps with him. As directed by Rubin, the twists and turns that follow will have you on the edge of your seat.

The young cast act with greater sense of ensemble and purpose than I have ever seen them do before. Chief among them is Dana Green as Isabella. Isabella is a person who hoped to retreat from the world. Green shows how reluctantly she is forced back into it by Lucio. Only goaded on by him can she find the arguments to present to Angelo. But once Isabella finds a moral way of viewing the subject, Green shows how she gets caught up in the debate despite herself. Green’s incandescent performance finds her on the verge of tears for much of the action, tears of anger, frustration, shame and joy. She burns with an intensity that seems to raise everyone else to her level.

Jonathan Goad seems cast against type as Angelo. Unlike his earlier appearances in Shakespeare he speaks the text clearly as verse not prose. His Angelo’s stiff demeanour and concern for precisely arranging his desk mark him as a obsessive-compulsive. When lust breaks out it is sudden and violent. Goad still need to learn how to act with his voice instead of forcing his face to do all the work. At the end when Angelo is faced with one accusation after another, a suggestion of the thoughts that must be roiling in Angelo’s mind would make a greater impression than the general impassivity Goad displays.

Thom Marriott is an excellent choice for Vincentio but here Rubin has placed him in a bind. Marriott, a fine speaker of Shakespearean verse, uses his full, deep voice as Vincentio. The action being transferred to the present somewhere in eastern Europe, leaves him few options for his disguise as “Friar Lodowick”, especially since he is physically larger than most of the cast. An old-fashioned monk’s garb and hood would have been the best option, but all designer John Pennoyer gives him is a dog-collar, sunglasses and a straw hat. To compensate Marriott uses the higher register of his voice. However, since Vincentio is in disguise more often than not, this leads to Marriott having to speak some of the most famous parts of the play in a false voice. As the action progresses Marriott, in fact, frequently drops his “Lodowick” voice so that it is increasingly difficult to believe that no one recognizes him. Under Rubin, Marriott shows how Vincentio himself gradually falls in love with Isabella, in careful preparation for his declaration at the end that in other productions seems to come out of nowhere.

Don Carrier gives a very fine performance as Lucio. His Lucio is not a fool, but a good man who just accepts that human beings are naturally inclined to vice. His spurring of Isabella on to action is his attempt to achieve justice and his attacks on Vincentio show he is aware of Vicentio’s hypocrisy whether his tales are true or not. Because Carrier plays Lucio seriously Vicentio’s action towards him at the end looks like revenge. In smaller roles Jeffrey Wetsch is impressive as the dejected Claudio, first accommodating himself to death then imploring his sister to commit a sin to save him, while Sarah Wilson is a glowing Mariana

There are two senior Stratford actors in the cast. Robert King tends to bluster as Vincentio’s secretary Escalus, but Diane D’Aquila is hilarious as the drink-sodden madam Mistress Overdone. Her performance as the nun Francisca, however, is an embarrassing caricature of the aged.

For once the wholly comic characters don’t seem out of place in this dark play. The limber Andrew Massingham is very funny as the tapster and pimp Pompey, who addresses members of the audience as his clients, as is Shane Carty as his bumbling nemesis, the dim-witted, malapropism-spouting constable Elbow. Evan Stillwater makes a memorable appearance as the unrepentant bear-like prisoner Barnadine, who will die only when he sees fit.

Still, there are peculiarities. Leon Rubin, an expert on Asian theatre, has designer John Pennoyer display a giant yin-yang symbol prominently beside the ducal throne even though the setting, according to Rubin’s notes, is supposed to be contemporary eastern Europe. It’s jarring not just because of the updated setting but because the play’s ending contradicts the harmony the symbol represents. Pennoyer’s costumes capture a modern Eastern European look, though Vincentio’s “Lodowick” disguise makes him look like a preacher from the American South, Elbow’s uniform makes him look like a New York cop and the camouflage outfits for the vice squad would better suit a South American dictatorship. For a play constantly referring to darkness and shadows, Robert Thomson has strangely overlit the stage, even in the prison scenes.

Yet, these are quibbles. What is most important is that Rubin and his cast have presented the play in such a clear way with such a firm grasp of the issues at stake. It’s a compelling production that deserves to have a longer run than the short one allotted to it. See it while you can.

Note: With the production of “Measure for Measure” the Stratford Festival claims that the Festival has completed the entire Shakespeare canon of 38 plays under Richard Monette’s tenure. This ignores the play “Edward III” which was accepted into the canon in 1998 when the authoritative Arden Shakespeare edition announced it would include the work in its new edition. The Royal Shakespeare Company has since performed “Edward III” as by Shakespeare in its acclaimed “Jacobean season” of 2002-03. I should think that what is good enough for Arden Shakespeare and the RSC should be good enough for the Stratford Festival of Canada. If the Festival really wants to boast it has done all of Shakespeare under Monette, it had better stage an “Edward III”.

©Christopher Hoile

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Cheatin’ Hearts

... Makes great end-of-summer fare
Victoria Playhouse Petrolia till September 3, 2005
Guest Review by Mary Alderson

Victoria Playhouse Petrolia is closing out their summer season with a light musical Cheatin’ Hearts. Don’t let the name fool you – it’s not really heavy-duty country music. Not being much of a country fan, I went to the show with trepidation, but I was pleasantly surprised – it’s easy country, with some numbers just a little bluesy. In fact, it’s very new millennium with songs written just for this show. And the show itself centres on a relatively new theme – reality TV.


(L to R) Desirée Beausoleil, Brendan Wall, Naomi Emmerson and Erin McGrath
turn on the heat on talent night at the Golden Horseshoe Tavern in
Paul Ledoux and David Smyth’s Country Musical, “Cheatin’ Hearts”,
playing until Sept. 3rd at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia.
(PHOTO BY CLOUSE PHOTOGRAPHY PETROLIA)

Canadian playwright Paul Ledoux has written a story about The Golden Horseshoe, a country & western bar facing tough economic times. In order to save it, the owner, Bobby, has arranged to be part of a new TV talent show contest. Country singers will be in regional play-offs at his bar, and all the singing will be broadcast on live TV, the country equivalent of Canadian Idol. Three local women form a group to compete, but after the hint of some contest rigging (thus the Cheatin’ Hearts) and the mandatory love story, they become solo acts. Musical composer David Smyth has written several good numbers that enhance the show.

The script is well written, and VPP director Robert More took the liberty of personalizing it. News is reported in the Sarnia Observer, crowds are lined up as far as the Oil Rig, and other Petrolia references are scattered throughout, much to the audience’s delight. Ivan Brozic has designed a wonderful set – neon beer signs, the stage for the band, and the rustic posts – the audience feels they really are at the local bar. Brendan Wall is excellent as bar owner Bobby Curtis. He’s one of those comfortable, natural actors, who looks completely at home on stage, and doesn’t seem like he’s acting at all.

The three singers all handled their parts well and are all familiar to the VPP audience – Desirée Beausoleil (Danielle) was seen earlier this season as “The Woman” in Dads, Erin McGrath (Linda) was Beth in Little Women last Christmas, and Naomi Emmerson (Kelly) was Jo in Cowgirls. Ralph Small is also back, having appeared in Looking in June. You’ll also recognize Small as the guy in the Clubhouse ads on TV who doesn’t recognize his barbecue guest. In this show, Small plays a developmentally disabled character, affectionately called Hoss Cartwright. He handles the difficult role well, creating just enough empathy for the character without becoming pathetic. He’s an audience favourite, but at times he over-exaggerates the enunciation of his final consonants, which can distort his message.

Completing the cast is musical director Danny Johnson, as bandleader Stan the Man. Johnson shows talent as both an actor and musician. Don Mehagen on drums and Jacqueline Sadler on bass round out the band. Overall, Cheatin Hearts is a good night out – some laughs combined with good singing, using a script and music provided by Canadian talent.

Cheatin’ Hearts continues at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia until September 3. Call the box office at 1-800-717-7694 or (519) 882-1221 for tickets.

Mary Alderson, a resident of Strathroy, offers her view of area theatre in this column on a regular basis. As well as being a fan of live theatre, she is a former journalist who currently teaches business plan writing.

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Carmen

Canadian Opera Company at The Hummingbird Centre (2005)

Carmen's depths left unplumbed

Stage Door Guest Reveiw by S. James Wegg (09/30/05)

In a deft, if coincidental stroke of “Life Imitates Art,” the Canadian Opera Company’s opening night of Carmen resonated in a most Canadian way.  Earlier that day, the Supreme Court of Canada paved the way for the provinces to sue big tobacco; earlier the same week, Canada’s new Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, brought another “Micaëla” to the world stage.  Unfortunately, Mark Lamos’ vision and Richard Bradshaw’s realization of the perennial favourite lacked the passion, drama and colour of the present-day landmark events. 

The problems began with a phraseless Prélude that zipped along at such a breathtaking pace that the intrepid band barely churned out the notes, leaving the subtleties of music for another day.  Sadder still was the inability of Bradshaw to mesh Douglas Stewart’s stellar flute solo to Sarah Davidson’s clean and clear harp accompaniment in the Introduction to Act III.  More astonishing was the soon-to-follow celli offering:  two rehearsals short of readiness. 

Lamos seemed at odds with using the Hummingbird’s vast stage to his advantage.  The crowd scenes were particularly, er, crowded.  The boisterous gang of young smugglers-in-training (whose angelic voices were always a pleasure) was thrust about the stage aimlessly like gleaming spheres in a pinball machine.  The Act I gate that protected the police from their public, miraculously lifted (yet stylishly so, thanks to Michael Yeargan’s savvy set design), only to descend back into place for the too “on-the-nose” metaphor of Don José’s upcoming prison stint.  Who would have guessed?

Plotting the on-stage movement of the lovers only served to lessen the impact of their angst.  José’s confession of love (La fleur que tu m’avais jetée) was more declaimed to the patrons of orchestra right than the object of his desire.  Later in the wonderfully designed tavern of Lillas Pastia (resplendent with a juke box and vinyl-covered chairs) the brazen, devil-may-care Carmen tidied up the set before tearing out the hearts of the men in her strife. 

Nonetheless, the smaller ensembles were far more successful with a bit of vaudeville, sight gags and some wonderful movement combined to excellent effect. 

Vocally, the outstanding performance came from Paulo Szot as Escamillo.  His campy entrance as a rockstar/toreador (surrounded by CK, muscle-shirted soldiers without a cause) is worth the price of admission alone.  Szot carried off his table-dance aria with panache, which only worked because of his exemplary musicianship and effortless range.  Olay!

Atilla Kiss’ Don José had some memorable moments, soaring easily to the top whenever required, but his more introspective final cadences whether alone or in duet were just enough under target to cause a twinge of discomfort.   Ana Ibarra had a flexible range and an endearing presence, however the slight metallic edge to her tone became a distraction and the deceptively treacherous Micaëla’s aria would benefit from a wider dynamic range and a more secure conclusion. 

In the title role, Larissa Kostiuk was undisputedly sexy but was unable to dig down into the sultry, near animal qualities required to carry off the role.  Despite the primary reds that draped so many of her admirers, Kostiuk’s demeanour couldn’t shake off its pastel rose. 

The supporting cast often took up the slack, notably Virginia Hatfield (Frasquita) and Michèle Bogdanowicz (Mercédès) whose contributions did not go unnoticed by the first night's sold-out crowd.   

Composer

Georges Bizet

Libretto

Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on a novel by Prosper Mérimée

Conductor

Richard Bradshaw/Derek Bate

Director

Mark Lamos

Set Designer

Michael Yeargan

Costume Designer

François St-Aubin

Original Lighting Designer

Robert Wierzel

Chorus Master

Sandra Horst

Main Cast

Ana Ibarra, Atilla B. Kiss, Alain Coulombe, Larissa Kostiuk, Virginia Hatfield, Michèle Bogdanowicz, Paulo Szot

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Belle Moral:  A Natural History

by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Shaw Festival ( to Oct 7,2005)

Play by ear lies well

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Stage Door Guest Review by S. James Wegg (09/09/05)

Magic has come to The Shaw.  Not just pixies and red-headed faeries, banshees and werewolves that lurk above and below the plot, but on the Courthouse Theatre’s ever-flexible stage until October 7, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Belle Moral:  A Natural History weaves its irrepressible spell and makes believers of us all. 

The multi-layered reworked material (originally produced as The Arab’s Mouth in 1990) has found its voice and makes its points brilliantly.  Over three fast-moving acts, art is pitted against science, truth struggles with lies, pride goes to bed with greed and humanity’s penchant to be “cruel to be kind” is explored with honesty, humour and pathos.

The turn-of-the-twentieth-century Scottish Manor is craftily rendered by Judith Bowden’s design and Kevin Lamotte’s mastery of light and dark.  Swinging walls, rolling horned furniture and the all-important specimen jar (home to a human/canine ear) keep the production flowing easily from scene to scene.  Whether in the study, drawing room or the secret-filled attic, the breadth of the country estate is as believable as the likelihood of hidden passageways that those who play fast and loose with reality must travel to protect the family shame.

Music also plays an important role in the collective suspension of disbelief.  Composer/pianist Paul Sportelli’s able fingers and inventive mind have come up with an entrancing soundscape replete with a brooding “Waltz Macabre,” Satie-like, desolate underscoring—even an aural signpost of the Industrial Revolution as a trio of piano thirds heralds the passing of a train to begin Act III.  All of this combines in a wonderfully eerie fashion to produce the canvas upon which the actors can play. 

Belle Moral is home to the MacIsaacs.  As the action begins, Father has just died; Mother long ago succumbed to a difficult labour.  There are two children.  Pearl MacIsaac (Fiona Byrne, too fast in her delivery to savour MacDonald’s insights and wit in the early going) is purposely single and studious (the aforementioned ear her current subject)—a modern woman whose life is driven by facts.  Her younger brother Victor (played with unabashed enthusiasm by Jeff Meadows) wears his kilt “regulation,” prefers cafés to commerce and is haunted by the loss of his mom at childbirth. 

Watching over the siblings is Aunt Flora (Donna Belleville, a marvel at every turn).  Her re-interpretation of the English language adds many laughs even as her sense of duty to her late sister confounds and confuses her soul.  The servants (Young Farleigh, masterfully given by Bernard Behrens and his grandson, Wee Farleigh whose Pan costume drew applause on its own) are judiciously used by MacDonald to both provide relief from their dysfunctional masters and mock the notion of classes while serving tea.  

With the wayward Victor’s arrival home, Flora summons her father’s lawyer, Mr. Abbott (Graeme Somerville) to read the will.  This causes much apprehension in the family physician, Dr. Reid (Peter Millard, whose rhythm couldn’t quite match his colleagues’).  It’s the good doctor who has provided Pearl with the curious body part.  Despite being a contemporary of MacIsaac Sr., Dr. Reid, after everyone learns the surprising conditions of the will, offers to wed the “cut … off at the ovaries” heiress, but without bedroom privileges. 

Much mayhem ensues, not the least of it centres on the possibility that not all of the dearly departed are six feet under.  As the plot heats up (with the nearly wordless Jessica Lowry showing an admirable range of character—both animal and human), the playwright’s deeper thoughts rise to the surface, seemingly unbidden. 

In this era of racial profiling and the institutional warehousing of the “freaks” of nature (too often, young persons living with the effects of acquired brain injury are deposited in nursing homes for seniors), the characters and audience alike are confronted with the horrors of such inhumanity and their catastrophic results.  In this manner, the work becomes a timeless discussion of how we really treat one another. 

Happily, director Alisa Palmer is on the same page.  She has coaxed her talented ensemble into just the right mix of bare-assed humour (no exaggeration!) and introspective angst to effectively harvest the rich material that lies in every page.  Not least of which is the oh-so-subtle mixture of music (“Au Claire de la Lune,” both sung and interweaved into the score), people (the mystery of Claire) and food (chocolate éclairs all around).  Would that all such writing be as rich and satisfying. 

Director - Alisa Palmer

Cast

Fiona Byrne, Jeff Meadows, Peter Millard, Donna Belleville, Jessica Lowry, Jeff Madden, Bernhard Behrens, Graeme Somerville

Production

Production designer

Judith Bowden

Lighting designer

Kevin Lamotte

Original music

Paul Sportelli

 

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Jeux d’amour et de folie

by Georges Feydeau & Sacha Guitry, directed by David Danzon
Théâtre français de Toronto, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto
November 18-December 3, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Delightful Triple Bill"

In recent years Canada’s main classical theatre companies have presented French farce without much success. Of three productions of works by master farceur Georges Feydeau (1862-1921)--“A Fitting Confusion” at Stratford in 1996, “A Flea in Her Ear” by Soulpepper in 2001 and “Something on the Side” at the Shaw this year--none had the lightness of touch combined with the precision of execution necessary to make farce work. What a pleasure then to encounter this presentation by the Théâtre français de Toronto of three short farces and see them succeed brilliantly. What a pleasure, too, to be introduced to delectable work of Sacha Guitry (1885-1957).

The TfT has given this triple bill the title “Jeux d’amour et de folie” (“Games of Love and Folly”). First up is “Une paire de gifles” (“A Slap in the Face”) by Sacha Guitry from 1939. Then “Feu la mère de Madame” (“Madame’s Late Mother”) by Feydeau from 1908 followed by “Une lettre bien tapée” (“A Well-Typed Letter”) by Guitry also from 1939. Director David Danzon has the three follow one after the other without intermission, making this production not only a model of how to perform farce but how to make a satisfying whole of three one-act plays.

The first thing you see when you enter the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs is a white column with a slot in it marked “25¢” surmounted by an old gramophone. When anyone puts a quarter in the slot a small curtain opens to reveal Danzon as an automaton in 17th-century costume welcoming us by means of a scratchy recording to the Théâtre des Funambules, the Parisian home of popular theatre. Danzon is so delightfully perfect in imitating a machine that patrons queued up to cast in their quarters see his performance over and over again. On his last go before the show begins, Danzon speaks directly to us. From then on he serves as a kind of chorus/stage manager linking the three playlets together. An opening number where the cast sweeps the stage together introduces us to the players. Danzon announces the play’s title and removes sheets covering the needed furniture. Before the Feydeau he recites the authors printed description of the stage as he places significant props in place. Danzon thus creates just the right sense of time, place and humour before the programme even begins and maintains it throughout the evening.

“Une paire de gifles” opens with two young people, L’Homme (Manuel Verreydt) and La Femme (Stéphanie Broschart), having an argument. It seem that the man has been showering the married woman with gifts and attention for months, but she has not consented to be his mistress. She says that it’s now too late and her impertinence so angers the young man that he slaps her face. At that exact moment her husband (René Lemieux) enters and the young man pretends that the wife slapped him. The husband is so successful in reconciling his good friend with his wife that he unknowingly becomes at once both pander and cuckold. A reciprocal slap seals the agreement between the two lovers.

“Feu la mère de Madame” is not quite so neatly structured. It involves an escalating series of unrelated mishaps that prevent the members of a household from sleeping. The play begins at 4am with both Yvonne (Karen Racicot), the mistress of the house, and the unseen maid Annette (Broschart), soundly asleep. Yvonne is awakened by the noisy arrival home of her husband Lucien (Lemieux), who is suffering both from drink and indigestion. Disguised as Louis XIV, he has just returned from the Bal des Quat’z’Arts, a famous (or infamous) carnavalesque costume party organized every year by the students of L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His 17th-century costume looks ridiculous in his modern apartment. Annette has been sleeping in Lucien’s bed to keep Yvonne company through the night, now she is aggravated to be evicted to her own bed. Yvonne and Lucien argue about whether the breasts of a model he saw at the party were superior to Yvonne’s then about the enormous expense of attending such a decadent affair. Meanwhile, they periodically wake up Annette to wait on them. Just when the couple’s fight is really taking off, a Valet (Verreydt) arrives with the sad news that Yvonne’s mother is not only not feeling well, as they feared, but is, in fact, dead. This being a farce, there are several twists before the ending that leaves the couple relieved but still bickering.

The final play is the most charming. A businessman (Verreydt) in a provincial hotel orders up a typist (Broschart) to type a letter to another businessman. The pretty typist can’t help herself from commenting on the content of the businessman’s letter. At the same time the businessman who has to wait by himself for two days for his business to be concluded can’t help noticing how pretty the typist is. Eventually, his musings about the typist make their way into the very letter she is typing. The interplay between what is conscious and unconscious in the couple’s actions is delicious.

The plays are well cast and well played with those who have multiple roles highlighting the contrasts among them. The actors create a sense of ensemble that reinforces the sense of unity. Danzon’s gradual unveiling of Glen Charles Landry’s single set, the pastel palette of Nina Okens’s costumes and Landry’s set and lighting further links the three plays as does Danzon decision to use the two short Guitrys to bookend the Feydeau.

The failure of other theatres to succeed with the “light” comedy of French farce stems from the heavy-handedness of both director and actors. Here in “Jeux d’amour de folie”, Danzon, who is also a dancer, has realized that, like ballet, such works need a minutely detailed choreography where any effort in execution must be invisible to the audience. The result is a delightfully well-planned, well-performed programme of verbal dance.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)

by Ann-Marie MacDonald, directed by Douglas Beattie
Touchmark Theatre, River Run Centre, Guelph
November 10-15, 2005
Markham Theatre, Markham
November 17-18
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door


"A Great Night for Marion Day"


Touchmark Theatre has opened its seventh season with a delightful production of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s "Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)". Since its appearance in 1988 the play has received over 200 productions internationally and is one of a handful of plays that can be considered a classic of Canadian drama. The favoured style of Touchmark’s repertoire is poetic realism, whether it is realist works written the poetic prose of Tennessee Williams or John Millington Synge or in actual verse like those of Christopher Fry. “Goodnight Desdemona” marks a departure from this; for, while it is written in blank verse, the play is primarily a fantasy, a dramatic projection of a struggle within the central figure’s mind, her Jungian discovery of self through encounters with two of Shakespeare’s most famous female characters.

One actor plays this central figure, the downtrodden academic Constance Ledbelly, an Assistant Professor at Queen’s University, whose birthday leads to a journey of spiritual rebirth. The other fifteen characters are played by only four actors. Director Douglas Beattie has assembled a fine cast with Marion Day in a revelatory performance as Constance. While the other actors-- Michael Peng, Elana Post, Stephen Russell and Jane Spence--are not all equally successful in their multiple roles, the production captures the joyous invention of MacDonald’s work and makes it seem as fresh as it was seventeen years ago.

When I saw the CanStage production of the play in 2001, with the author herself as Constance, I wrote that “MacDonald gives us the definitive portrayal of this central role”. Marion Day’s portrayal is so absolutely right it rivals MacDonald’s and in many ways is superior. Constance is female nerd with hidden pluck despite a morbid imagination and tendency to let other take advantage of her. Fiction and footnotes are more real to her than anything in the outside world. MacDonald caught all this but in some ways was too self-possessed in the role while Day shows us struggle in Constance between the narrow horizons she is comfortable with and the new freedoms she discovers. Day shows that beneath the awkward movements, bad hair and constant readjusting of glasses, is an endearing person that Constance doesn’t even know is there. When Day’s Constance realizes that the wedding ring Professor Night shows her is meant for someone else, we feel a real pang of sadness even if Constance tries not to let it show. It’s a wonderfully warm-hearted, richly comic performance that has us rooting for her all the way.

The play takes place in three locations--Professor Night’s office at Queens, Desdemona’s Cyprus and Juliet’s Verona with a brief excursion to Hamlet’s graveyard--the Shakespearean locations, of course, situated somewhere in Constance’s mind. In the first scene Michael Peng is a fine Chorus; Elana Post, all too believable as a student making transparently false excuses for a late paper; and Jane Spence, suitably imperious as Ramona, a Rhodes Scholarship winner who has also won over Professor Night. Stephen Russell is an excellent as the Professor, who is worse than outright slimy since he takes Constance’s slaving for him so completely for granted he barely notices her.

Once we move to Cyprus the performance levels unaccountably drop down a notch. As Othello (thankfully without blackface), Russell seems to give a very serious performance while Peng as Iago is so unassertive it’s hard to imagine his character is supposed to be a villain. Since, according to Constance’s theory, both “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet” are not tragedies but failed comedies, the Shakespearean scenes work best if their unintentionally comic aspects are played up. As Desdemona, Spence certainly conjures up Constance’s image of her as a warrior-queen, but Spence begins on a single strident note and stays there for too long.

Once the scene shifts to Verona the performances return to striking just the right note. Post is excellent as a Juliet, a teenager as much fixated on death as she is on forbidden love. Peng captures Romeo’s melancholy but could give the character more personality. Spence is believable as a wise-cracking Mercutio. And Russell is in fine form as the lively Tybalt and is hilarious as Juliet’s bearded Nurse.

The action takes place on and in front of a lovely set designed by director Douglas Beattie. It looks like a full-sized, roofed, four-columned toy Elizabethan stage in deep hues of green, red and blue with richly patterned curtains. All is enhanced by Jeff Johnston-Collins’s wide range of lighting effects, especially inventive in the comically woozy transitions from place to place in Constance’s mind. Brad Rudy has choreographed the exciting sword-fights in which both men and women take part. As usual Beattie’s direction is thoughtful and crisp. MacDonald sometimes packs in almost too many allusions per line, but Beattie and his cast make sure they all register. Unlike other directors of this play, Beattie realizes that not all passages are satirical but express MacDonald’s thoughts about love, transformation and the interconnectedness of things. It’s a pleasure that Beattie encourages the actors to bring out their beauty .

This is a fine production, particularly notable for its attractive staging and the marvelous central performance of Marion Day. If you’ve seen the play before, you’ll get even more out of it in Beattie’s production. If you’ve never seen it before, don’t miss it.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Annie

The Grand Theatre in London until December 24.
Stage Door Guest Review by Mary Alderson

You gotta love those orphans

The musical Annie, like Oliver and Anne of Green Gables, is a great show about an orphan finding a family. While the Grand Theatre’s production of Annie is practically flawless, I left wondering why I don’t love it as much as I love Oliver and Anne of Green Gables.

And then it struck me – Annie is based on a comic strip, for heaven’s sake. Oliver is based on a classic Dickens novel, and Anne of Green Gables is based on L.M. Montgomery’s great Canadian story. The plot in Annie pales by comparison and is contrived, but given its comic strip background, we’ll have to be forgiving.

Having said that, I still recommend that you take the kids and enjoy this Christmas favourite. Director D. Michael Dobbin has made it fun, but he also showed us the gritty side of the Dirty Thirties. We’re reminded that life was not pleasant in an orphanage during The Great Depression. It can be a bit of a history lesson for the family, as well as entertaining.

Dobbin also did well to prevent the show from being too schmaltzy. Just when I was afraid it was going over the top, he seemed to rein it in, not an easy feat when dealing with some corny scriptwriting.

Of course, the young orphans are delightful, led by Annie, played on opening night by Sarah Dedyna, and on alternate performances by Kaitlyn Parr-Cowan. Several of the young orphans have been cast twice to ease up on the demands of the show. Thom Allison as Daddy Warbucks displays his velvet singing voice. He’s just completed the summer at Stratford Festival in Into The Woods and Hello, Dolly. Sara Topham who played Rosalind so well in Stratford’s As you Like It, has a charming swoon as Grace.

The crowd pleaser is Karen Skidmore as Miss Hannigan, the drunken mistress of the orphanage, so evil that she rips heads off dolls and smacks around the little girls. Miss Hannigan, her brother Rooster (Kevin Power) and his girlfriend, Lily (Tracy Dawson) are lively in their rendition of Easy Street.

The addition of Canadian content is cute – Rooster and Lily announce that they are just back from “Saskatchewan, eh?”

Choreographer Kerry Gage deserves credit for all the dance numbers, especially in making full use of Skidmore’s comedic talents in both Easy Street and Little Girls. Gage also makes clever use of props, such as the orphans’ beds, buckets and scrub brushes.

Annie continues at the Grand Theatre in London until December 24. Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593.

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Movin’ Out

conceived and directed by Twyla Tharp
Mirvish, Toronto, Canon Theatre
November 25-December 31, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door  (Mary Alderson's review here)
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

"Physically Movin’, Yes--Emotionally, No"

What you get out of “Movin’ Out”, renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp’s so-called “dance musical” from 2002 to songs by Billy Joel, depends on what you expect from it. If you like modern dance, you will love this display of Tharp’s signature style flawlessly executed by a first-rate cast. If you like Billy Joel, you will get to hear an hour and a half of his music performed live with the accompanying dance. If you like theatre, you may be frustrated by a fairly routine story explored with little depth.

The programme for the show says “Movin’ Out: A New Musical”. That is a deliberate misuse of the word “musical”. An entertainment in which the characters dance but do not sing is a ballet. Obviously, the producers are afraid of scaring away potential viewers who go to musicals but would never be caught dead at a “ballet”. Yet, a ballet is exactly what “Movin’ Out” is. Many reviewers have tried to relate “Movin’ Out” to the so-called “jukebox” or “catalogue” musicals like “Mamma Mia” in which the back catalogue of a singer or group stitched together to create a story. Once you realize that “Movin’ Out” is a ballet, the speciousness of the argument becomes plain, since for decades new ballets have been created based on sequences of pre-existing material. Michael Fokine’s “Les Sylphides” (1909) based on Chopin’s piano music or Kenneth MacMillan’s “Elite Syncopations” (1974) based on Scott Joplin’s rags are just two examples.
Twyla Tharp uses 30 of Billy Joel’s songs and classical piano pieces to tell the story of five friends growing up on Long Island in the 1960s. The happy relationship of James and Judy is contrasted with the breakup of Brenda and Eddie and Brenda’s linking up with Tony. The three men go off to fight in Vietnam, but only Eddie and Tony return. The vets’ trauma, Brenda’s wild life and Judy’s grief prevent the four from coming together. Rather unbelievably, everything works out in the end and we have two happy couples, Tony and Brenda and Eddie and Judy.

What is missing from the piece is any sense of irony. It views the Vietnam War only as something to get over. While the show details the negative effects the war has on those who return, the happy ending ignores how profound those effects are and trivializes the action. Indeed, for Tharp’s purposes the three men could just as well have been in a car crash that two of them survived. Besides this, Tharp does not have, say, British choreographer Matthew Bourne’s gift for narrative where every dance sequence moves the action forward. Rather, Tharp treats each of the songs as a discreet dance piece much more along the lines of classical ballet. The most dramatically effective sequence, danced to “She’s Got a Way”, parallels Brenda alone in a bar in the States with Tony alone in a bar in Saigon, each tempted but trying to fend off advances from the opposite sex.

Aside from its narrative limitations, Tharp’s choreography is thrilling. Her style combines ballet with all forms of dance from modern to jazz, ballroom to acrobatics. In fact, she identifies each of the four main characters with different kinds of dance. Judy is most closely related to classic ballet since she is the only one who goes on pointe and performs a “pas de bourrée couru”. The contrasts in Brenda’s personality are revealed through long-limbed jazz dances moves alternating with the body-popping of Sixties go-go dancers. Tharp shows a certain rigidity in Tony’s personality through his frequent habit of extending his leg without flexing his foot, as if he is always holding something inside. Eddie’s volatile personality comes out in his rapid pirouettes and acrobatics including multiple forward flips. In pas de deux Tharp shows the relationship of two characters. When the contented James and Judy dance in a beautiful sequence to “Just the Way You Are” their movements mirror each other. When Tony and Brenda finally manage to work out their difficulties to “Shameless”, Tony starts to adopt Brenda’s jazz dance style while she imitates his extensions with unflexed foot. By the end he extends his leg with his foot flexed.

The principals and corps are uniformly excellent. As Brenda, Holly Cruikshank is lithe and seductive but clearly expressed the neurosis behind Brenda’s desire to be free of all constraints. As Judy, Julieta Gros shows us a fragile, tightly wound figure who shatters under pressure. David Gomez’s smooth lines show Tony as both a romantic figure and an innocent, the one most eager to go to war and unsuited to Brenda’s shifts of mood. Matt Dibble makes a positive impression as James despite Tharp’s choreography that has him so often blend in others. The real star of the show is Ron Todorowski as Eddie. His combination of effortless precision and jaw-dropping athleticism is amazing and he approaches Tharp’s increasingly demanding choreography as if it were a joy to show off what he can do. It’s no wonder he won the 2005 Helen Hayes Award for his performance of the role on Broadway.

At the piano Irish-born Darren Holden (who alternates with James Fox) comes directly from the Broadway production and heads the eight-piece band. He has a very similar vocal quality to Billy Joel, but with clearer diction, less occasional harshness, and with fewer distorted vowels. In many ways, his renditions are superior to Joel’s simply because you can understand every word.

Viewed simply as ballet, “Movin’ Out” is a electrifying, high energy work drawing on Tharp’s seemingly inexhaustible dance vocabulary. You will likely leave exhilarated by the dancing itself but wishing it were wedded to a more complex view of life. Should Tharp manage that in future, the result would be explosive.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

And speaking of your comments, here's one:

Saw this in preview last week and completely enjoyed it. Especially enjoy Mr Hoile's take on it, though. Quite bang on! I read somewhere that it got some award for Vietnam issues, either pro or anti, can't remember which. But Hoile is right - it was neither. But the dancing - wow! - - Jim in Toronto

 
I came to Toronto, with some fellow James Fox fans from the UK, specifically to see James in the show. I had already been to NY back in April to see him in his Broadway debut, and his two other shows that week, so I was no stranger to the show and really excited to be seeing it again. As a fan of Billy Joel's music already (something James himself introduced me to), I had loved the show instantly and thought him awesome in the role back then. But to see him several months down the line, having grown confidently in to the role? Well he blew all previous conceptions of him being awesome out of the water, he has positively blossomed, his voice and piano playing skills so much more enhanced since those early shows.
 
I came to see James in the show, and not knowing which 4 of the 8 shows he would be doing, I had phoned ahead from the UK and already bought tickets for all 8 shows that week to ensure I got good seats. I used them all and have to say that Darren Holden was every bit as good in the role as James and I looked forward to every show with the same anticipation of excitement, believe you me that is the highest compliment I could ever pay Darren, for anyone to match James in my eyes is virtually unheard of, and I told Darren so too! They were both awesome, they have so much talent.
 
The show itself? Well it has 26 or so Billy Joel songs which was always a good start, the piano players gave the show heart by delivering them all in their own unique way, not just singing them and playing them, but acting out every song and emotion as they sang, a true performance up there on their elevated platform. Down on the stage below, there was so much talent among the dancers that it was almost frightening, the energy, the emotion, the agility and precision of every more was so perfectly executed it took the breath away. As I saw all the shows, I got to see both casts several times and I have to say that Holly Cruikshank and Ron Todorowski were in my opinion the strongest in the key roles of Brenda and Eddie, faultless, she was so graceful and he was just so talented and seemed to encourage the audience to enjoy it. But that said, Whitney Simler put her own interpretation on the Brenda role and was excellent too. I loved Matthew Dibble as James and his 'Judy' was so graceful, petite and fragile as the grieving widow.
 
I can't say enough good things about the show, the stage is filled with so much talent throughout, the dancers are phenominal, the musicians are top class, and it has everything from a touch of comedy, soft ballads, and uptempo rocky numbers, it makes you laugh and it makes you cry. James and Darren both sing with powerful, yet soft and gentle voices during, Just The Way You Are, She's Got  A Way, and This Night, it could move you to tears, then they rocked the place with Still Rock and Roll, and brought all sorts of emotions to mind for the graffic Goodnight Saigon. But the song that has always stood out for me even from the first show I saw, with either of them singing it, is 'Shameless'. When either of them reach the line 'You know it should be easy for a man who's strong, to say he's sorry or admit that he's wrong' I feel that shiver of anticipation for what is about to come next ' I've never lost anything I ever missed, But I've never been in love like thissssss!!! Oooh it's out of my hands! That line hits the spot and brings the hairs to attention on the back of the neck! The lady behind me said 'Oh my god' and I knew exactly what she meant! Oh my god indeed!
 

I'm back home in the UK now, still struggling in the knowledge that the show is continuing in Toronto without me, I would love to have stayed and done 8 shows a week all over again, but alas that isn't possible. I am sad that I am unlikely to see Darren Holden in the role again, but it has been announced that the show is coming to London in March, I have high hopes that James Fox may be the piano Player there. I have already got my first preview show and offical opening night tickets. It isn't just a wonderful show, it is two wonderful shows! The ballet being danced to perfection down on the stage, and the 'Billy Joel' concert being perfromed on the platform above, you need to see the show more than once to really take in everything on both levels because your eyes cannot do both effectively at the same time! - Carol Billett, UK

see also http://www.jamesfox.biz

 

Movin’ Out

at the Canon until December 31.
Stage Door Guest Review by Mary Alderson
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Movin’ Out is a show in motion

Wow! That’s the only word to describe Movin’ Out, the rock and roll ballet that just opened at Toronto’s Canon Theatre. This amazing dance show is based on the music and lyrics of Billy Joel’s songs. Choreographer extraordinaire Twyla Tharp has created a plot and tells the story through dance, while a booming orchestra features a pianist/vocalist better than Joel himself. The horrible impact of the Viet Nam war on the lives of five young people is finally overcome, as we follow them through the sixties and seventies. The energy of these dancers has the audience leaning forward in their seats and filling the huge Canon Theatre with frequent spontaneous applause. Movin’ Out continues at the Canon until December 31.

Mary Alderson, a resident of Strathroy, offers her view of area theatre in this column on a regular basis. As well as being a fan of live theatre, she is a former journalist who is currently the Community Economic Development Officer with the Sarnia-Lambton Business Development Corporation.

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Mantini Sisters'
Moments to Remember

Victoria Playhouse Petrolia until December 17, 2005
Stage Door Guest Review by Mary Alderson

In the Spirit of Christmas

Sandra, Barbara and Ann Mantini want to take their audiences down memory lane for the holiday season. The three sisters, originally from Niagara-on-the-Lake, have been singing together for more than 20 years. Despite the fact that they are sisters, each one has a unique voice, and they are able to blend together in beautiful harmony.

Their show Moments to Remember has been very popular throughout the area. In 2004 it sold out at Huron Country Playhouse in Grand Bend. Based in its popularity, they have produced A Christmas to Remember.

The sisters sing beautifully, and also take time to tell stories and jokes between the numbers. They seem to be enjoying themselves, particularly in The Twelve Days of Christmas, where Ann swims gracefully like the swans, and then turns it all into the chicken dance.

Barbara pulls a reluctant “volunteer” out of the audience, and then sings a sultry version of Santa Baby to him. On opening night, Tom from Sarnia was blushing as red as the Santa hat she made him wear.

The trio has fun singing the Chipmunks’ Christmas song. Their impersonations of Simon, Theodore and Alvin are spot on.

The hilarity continues in the second act with Grandma’s Killer Fruitcake. In between the laughs, there are many traditional Christmas songs such as White Christmas, It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, and Silent Night. Also included are international favourites such as Feliz Navidad and Christmas in Killarney.

Director David Rogers has used each sister’s voice to the greatest advantage, alternating trios with solos. Musical Director Mark Camilleri plays piano, and leads three others in an excellent back-up band.

VPP continues to have difficulties with lighting. On opening night, the follow-spot wasn’t always following; in fact, on occasion the Mantinis had to backtrack to find the spotlight. Frequently the lighting was too strong, creating harsh shadows under their eyes and on their necks.

The show finishes on a sombre note – the Mantinis sing a heartfelt number in Italian. While it is very beautiful, it is also very slow and ends the concert on a serious tone. This song would have been much better included in their section called ‘Christmas Time All Over The World.’ Then they could have concluded on familiar high note, sending the audience singing into the parking lot.

Nevertheless, these lovely renditions of favourite Christmas tunes would make even the worst Scrooge smile. Music is one of the many joys of Christmas, and an evening with the Mantinis is probably the best way to enjoy it.

A Christmas To Remember continues with eight shows a week at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia until December 17. Call the box office at 1-800-717-7694 or (519) 882-1221 for tickets.

Mary Alderson, a resident of Strathroy, offers her view of area theatre in this column on a regular basis. As well as being a fan of live theatre, she is a former journalist who is currently the Community Economic Development Officer with the Sarnia-Lambton Business Development Corporation.

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Magic Flute

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, directed by Andrew Porter
Canadian Opera Company Ensemble, MacMillan Theatre, Toronto
December 16, 18 & 20
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Magical ‘Flute’ Indeed"

To celebrate its 25th anniversary the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio mounted its biggest production ever, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. It was a respectable production, making imaginative use of a small budget, that highlighted Mozart’s music above all and served as a fine showcase for young Canadian operatic talent.

The production marked the first time the COCES has performed in the MacMillan Theatre on the University of Toronto campus, a proscenium theatre with a stage opening as wide as that of the Hummingbird Centre but seating only 815. Designer William Schmuck and lighting designer Stephen Ross worked carefully together to create the peculiarly eclectic fairy-tale world of Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto that mixes symbols of Freemasonry with Egyptian and all manner of other oriental influences. Tamino, who in the original first appears “in einem prächtigen japonischen Jagdkleide” was dressed in Persian style. The Queen of the Night wore a huge Turandot-like headdress while the Three Ladies who serve her were dressed in a modern version of 18th-century Western costume. The captive Pamina was clad in a period 18th-centruy gown while her lustful guardian Monostatos wore an Arabian costume à la Ali Baba complete with turban and slippers with upturned toes. That this mélange of styles worked so well was do to Schmuck’s use of colour-coding with the good characters in light yellows and beiges and the evil ones in dark reds and blues.

The set itself was constructed of construction materials. Plastic netting and outlined with white ducting signified various rooms in Sarastro’s palace. Its columns were made from sections of sonotubes strung together with deliberate gaps to show them lit up from within by Ross’s coloured lights, a suitable visual metaphor for Sarastro’s realm where realizing the inner light of reason is man’s highest attainment. Much as the opera itself does with folksong, Schmuck and Ross’s lively imagination transformed simple workaday materials into sublime visions.

Famed music critic Andrew Porter directed his own English translation of the German libretto. Its English is eminently singable and the dialogue cut to its essentials. Porter changes Pamina’s guard Monostatos from being black to “ugly” which thankfully gets rid of the need for blackface. Costuming this equivocal figure as a fairy-tale Arab, however, seems to substitute one racial bias for another. Porter’s direction was clear and straightforward throughout and pleasantly little old-fashioned in bringing the singers right downstage and face forward for most of the arias and ensembles.

Tenor Victor Micallef sang Tamino in a very Italianate style including throat-catching entrances more appropriate for Verdi or Puccini than Mozart. “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” was truly lovely, but nothing subsequently rose to that height. Of the cast he also seemed the least at ease on stage. This was definitely not the case with baritone Peter Barrett as Papageno. His portrait of the childlike bird-seller emerged complete and fully-fledged, so to speak, ready for any opera house in the world. His energy, self-assurance and delightful singing sustained the opera’s buoyant mood throughout.

With his lush, resonant voice former Ensemble member Alain Coulombe was as magisterial a Sarastro as one could wish. His bass plumbed the challenging depths of “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” with full security of tone. In contrast, Lawrence J. Wiliford, who played a very animated Monostatos, displayed little resonance or richness of tone even in his main aria “Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden”. Baritone Jason Nedecky as the Temple Spokesman and tenor Peter Collins as a Slave and Priest both made much more of their roles that is usual, with Collins bringing a sense of grim humour to his role as Papageno’s keeper. Their performance as the two Men in Armour was suitably imposing.

On the distaff side, Virginia Hatfield was a constant pleasure as Pamina. There is a slight metallic tinge to her soprano which she is able to tame as she did in a ravishing account of “Ach, ich fühl’s”. It’s been a while since the Ensemble has had a true coloratura soprano in its midst which made Nikki Einfeld’s presence all the more exciting. Her first aria as the Queen of the Night was not as high-powered as it could have been, but the precision and pyrotechnics of her character’s signature piece “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” brought down the house.

Soprano Michèle Bogdanowicz was an ideal Papagena, perfectly matched in sound, perkiness and sense of joy with Peter Barrett’s Papageno. Sopranos Joni Henson and Melinda Delorme and mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal gave the Three Ladies nicely differentiated dramatic personalities while vocally they blended beautifully. The Three Boys (sometimes called the “Three Genii”) were delightfully played and sung by three girls, Tess Roby, Veronica Anissimova and Dina Shikhman.

COC General Director Richard Bradshaw conducted an orchestra of 44 in an account of the score that cast any pretense of authentic performance practices aside and clearly related the work forward to 19th-century German romantic opera. For anyone more familiar with Tafelmusik’s performances of the score in 2001 and 1991 for Opera Atelier, one’s ear had to adjust. There is no doubt, however, despite a fairly rocky start, that Bradshaw’s approach had the great merit of revealing just how revolutionary this well-known score can sound. It is all to the credit of the fine reputation the Canadian Opera Ensemble Studio has built up over the years that all three performances were sold out months before the opera opened.

©Christopher Hoile

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