As some of you may know, some of my best professional experiences as a musical dramatist (and related to that) have been in Canada; and as a sidebar, that has afforded me the geographical opportunity to visit a few of the nation’s principal theatre centers and get a sense of their collective imprimaturs, cultural sensibilities and etc. And at the forefront is Soulpepper of Toronto, which I visited not only as a theatregoer, but as an author attending auditions (which were held in two cities, despite the show being staged in Montreal). Without a car, getting to Soulpepper within Toronto is not necessarily the easiest public transportation commute; its location within the Historic Distillery District, not that far from the shoreline of Lake Ontario, can make getting there involve a combination of subway and/or bus and/or streetcar, and a serious walk once you enter the Distillery District gates. And you have to budget the time for it.
Which is why you might well take advantage, fast as you can, of the all-too-brief Soulpepper Festival, that has taken over the Pershing Square Signature Theatre Centre, dead midtown on 42nd Street, going into its final NYC week.
First up is the most successful straight play ever to be produced in Canada, which debuted as a sellout phenomenon in the Canadian equivalent of an off-off Broadway venue, directed by the author when his choice of director was unavailable; was adopted by Soulpepper, who added said director to the mix; and there became not only an extended sellout phenomenon again, but was brought back for multiple engagements (I think the number I heard was ten) and subsequently exported (as a full production) to every major theatre center in the country, never, as far as I can tell, without its original actor in the title role. Whereupon it also became the basis of a hit CBC sitcom, currently filming its second season.
Next up is the epic, first-ever stage adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage, the tale of a doomed affair between an obsessively infatuated British medical student (Gregory Prest) and an only conveniently interested—one might argue sociopathically opportunistic—barmaid (Michelle Monteith). By NYC-based, but native Canadian playwright, Vern Theissen, it takes what by now is often shorthanded as “a Nicholas Nickleby approach,” that combines representational and abstract black box techniques with multiple casting, so that a wide canvas can be presented sparely and suggestively. Under the direction of Albert Schultz (Soulpepper Artistic Director) the staging is imaginative and brisk, with a propulsive energy that avoids the traps that come with dramatizing a claustrophobic relationship. The cast is solid and splendid.
Finally, there’s an all-new musical adaptation of Edgar Lee Master’s poetry cycle, Spoon River Anthology, called simply Spoon River. For me, the term “musical” is applied somewhat loosely: No matter what kind of subtextual through-line one laces through this material, no matter how cleverly you group or program its components, it will always, only yield what it offers at heart, fodder for a themed revue, drawn from the notion of a small town’s deceased characters each giving their own life stories and or philosophies in miniature, as a kind of eulogy. And having no actual story, the trick must be to keep dramatic tension aloft. And to create songs out of free verse that employs little or no rhyme.