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A Dutiful and Desirable Summer at Stratford Festival 2023

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It’s going to be an exciting summer for Frontmezzjunkies. That is for sure. Filling up my summer months, I’ll be fortunate beyond words to be attending so many Stratford Theatre opening nights and a whole heap of lively, thought-provoking production across the four theatres that make up this famous Ontario theatre festival. The excitement and energy of this 2023 season announced by Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino will be almost overwhelming. And this theatre junkie feels as lucky as can be, as I get to fully experience this world-renowned summer event. And, of course, share it with you all moment by moment, opening night after opening night.

Festival Theatre. Photo by Krista Dodson.

Inspired by the theme of Duty vs Desire, the 2023 season will run from mid-April through October, featuring four Shakespeare plays, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, Richard II and Love’s Labour’s Lost, and two musicals, Rent and Monty Python’s Spamalot, along with Les Belles-SoeursA Wrinkle in TimeFrankenstein RevivedWedding BandGrand MagicCasey and Diana and Women of the Fur Trade

The plays examine both sides of the Duty vs Desire debate, some through irreverence and comedy, others through the catharsis of tragedy. They look at social stigma and societal pressures, at selfishness and selflessness – at a time when we are all reexamining our place in the world. They also entertain and offer a healthy dose of laughter.

We’ve always been told to follow our hearts,” says Cimolino. “But that hasn’t been so easy over the past few years. The pandemic has left us in dire need of pleasure, eager to fulfill our desires but often with no way to do so. At the same time, it has brought us face to masked face with the vital importance of social responsibility. Here in the West, many of us have had the luxury of pursuing romantic notions for decades. Desire has fueled our economy. But what do we do when suddenly we must sacrifice our comfort for the greater good when our heart’s not in what we do anymore when we want to shirk responsibility even though we know that could have dire consequences? These are the questions and ideas that inspired the plays of the 2023 season.

FESTIVAL THEATRE

Paul Gross, appearing in King Lear. Stratford Festival 2023. Photography by David Hou

The season opener will be Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Festival Theatre, directed by Kimberley Rampersad. Perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, King Lear is the story of an aging king, who, in demanding a show of devotion from his three daughters, leaves his kingdom divided, his family destroyed, the faithful banished and the hateful left to wreak inhuman havoc in the realm.

Rampersad’s production of Serving Elizabeth was a highlight of the Festival’s 2021 season. She currently serves as Associate Artistic Director at the Shaw Festival, where she directed a resonant production of Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman in 2019, and Chitra in 2022, both of which were featured in The New York Times. She has also directed and choreographed at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and other theatres across the country.

Nestor Lozano Jr. (centre) as Angel Dumott Schunard with members of the company in Rent. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.

Rent, the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical by Jonathan Larson, will be directed on the Festival Theatre stage by Thom Allison and choreographed by Marc Kimelman. Set in Manhattan in the 1990s and inspired by Puccini’s opera La Bohème, the musical follows a group of young East Village artists, performers, and philosophers as they struggle through the hardships of poverty, societal discord, and the AIDS epidemic in the search for life, love, and art. With a song list that includes the iconic “Seasons of Love,” Rent tells a story as relevant today as when it took Broadway by storm more than 25 years ago.

Allison’s personal connection to the show stretches back to 1997 when he was a member of the original Canadian company of Rent, which premièred in Toronto and went on to play in Ottawa and Vancouver. He returns to the Festival for his seventh season after directing the irresistible cabaret You Can’t Stop the Beat in 2021. His other credits as a director include YPT’s Seussical The Musical, and the record-breaking production of Mary Poppins, as well as Million Dollar Quartet at Theatre Calgary.

Marc Kimelman will return to Stratford for his fifth season. He served as choreographer for Man of La Mancha in 2014 and as assistant choreographer of 2011’s Jesus Christ Superstar, which went on to Broadway, where he continued to work, including as associate choreographer for A Bronx Tale.

From left to right: Maev Beatty and Graham Abbey, appearing in Stratford Festival’s Much Ado About Nothing. Photography by Ted Belton.

Director Chris Abraham continues his work at the Festival with Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The story follows Beatrice and Benedick, two quick-witted and sarcastic individuals who are happily single, but whose friends believe would make a great romantic match. Set in the Early Modern world, an era of ever-changing attitudes towards marriage and power, the play presents a society at once filled with progressive feminist impulses and countervailing forces rooted in traditional patriarchal values. With his astonishing wit and insight, Shakespeare explores the complexities that underlie these growing social tensions.

Abraham has had many memorable productions at Stratford, including 2013’s Othello, 2014’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and 2017’s Tartuffe. He is the Artistic Director of Crow’s Theatre in Toronto, where he has programmed and directed a string of acclaimed productions.

From left – Allison Edwards-Crewe, Lucy Peacock, and Seana McKenna, appearing in Stratford Festival’s Les Belles-Soeurs. Photography by Ted Belton.

The late-opener at the Festival Theatre is Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-Soeurs, directed by Esther Jun. After 32 years, Tremblay’s masterpiece, which revolutionized Québécois theatre and is renowned the world over, returns to Stratford on the Festival Stage. Written in 1965, Les Belles-Soeurs portrays 15 Québécois women expressing their anger, desperation, and frustration loudly, rudely, and audaciously. Germaine Lauzon has won a million stamps in a contest. She invites her family and neighbours into her kitchen to help paste them into booklets. Fighting for any power in their suffocating lives, the women yell, backstab, dream, and steal in grand theatrical style.

Jun, the Director of the Festival’s Langham Directors’ Workshop, created a delightful and touching production of Little Women at the Avon Theatre this season, as well as the hugely entertaining 2021 production of I Am William. Her work has been seen across the country, including at the Shaw Festival, Soulpepper, Tarragon, The Belfry, and GCTC.

Liam Tobin (left) as Sir Dennis Galahad and Jennifer Rider-Shaw as Lady of the Lake in Monty Python’s Spamalot. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.

AVON THEATRE

And now for something completely different: over at the Avon Theatre, Monty Python’s Spamalot offers up a hefty share of irreverence in a hilarious spoof of the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table as they go in search of the Holy Grail. This outrageous comedy lets us look at our flaws and foibles and in doing so allows us to laugh at the things that make us human. It will be directed by Lezlie Wade and choreographed by Jesse Robb.

Wade’s production of HMS Pinafore had audiences in stitches in 2017, as did her delightful 2018 production of An Ideal Husband. Wade served as assistant director on 2011’s Jesus Christ Superstar, which went on to Broadway, and she has directed productions for Luminato, the Shaw Festival, the Grand Theatre, and Musical Stage Company.

Robb is a New York City-based choreographer, serving as associate choreographer for the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon. In Toronto, he was the dance captain for the world première of The Lord of the Rings, associate resident choreographer for We Will Rock You, and resident choreographer for Dirty Dancing, all Mirvish Productions.

The Schulich Children’s Play is A Wrinkle in Time. This new adaptation directed and written by Thomas Morgan Jones is based on the classic fantasy by Madeleine L’Engle, in which a young heroine leads her brother and a friend on a spectacular journey through space and time, from galaxy to galaxy, to save the world and rescue her father who mysteriously disappeared while working on an astounding scientific concept.

Jones, the Artistic Director of Prairie Theatre Exchange, returns to Stratford after a decade, having served as assistant director on The Winter’s Tale in 2010 and The Grapes of Wrath in 2011. He most recently directed Darla Contois’s The War Being Waged and Hannah Moscovitch’s Post-Democracy, and is the playwright of A Dance to the End of the World, currently featured on Stratfest@Home.

Laura Condlln, appearing in Stratford Festival’s Frankenstein Revived. Photography by Ted Belton.

From Morris Panych, co-creator of the landmark movement piece The Overcoat, and internationally acclaimed composer David Coulter, comes a thrilling new work: Frankenstein Revived. Panych will direct the production on the Avon stage, with movement choreographer Wendy Gorling and dance choreographer Stephen Cota. Focussing on Mary Shelley, who at just 18 wrote the most celebrated horror story in English literature, this exuberant and passion-filled theatrical movement-based piece explores the big question at the heart of her work: what does it mean to be human?

Panych wrote and directed The Trespassers for the 2009 season, and was the director and librettist for the world première of the musical Wanderlust in 2012. He also adapted and directed 2008’s Moby Dick, another movement-based work he created for the Stratford stage. Frankenstein Revived has been in active development in Stratford since 2016.

Gorling co-created The Overcoat with Panych and created the choreography for the 2008 Stratford production of Moby Dick, as well as for Trojan Women that same season. Based in Vancouver, she is an in-demand choreographer and a highly respected instructor at Studio 58.

Cota returns to Stratford for his 15th season. He most recently served as choreographer for 2021’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, assistant choreographer, and assistant director for Little Shop of Horrors, and associate choreographer for The Music Man and Billy Elliot the Musical.

Geraint Wyn Davies, appearing in Stratford Festival’s Grand Magic. Photography by Ted Belton.

TOM PATTERSON THEATRE

At the Tom Patterson Theatre, Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino returns to the work of one of his favourite playwrights, Eduardo De Filippo, with Grand Magic, a funny, thought-provoking, and deeply moving play, presented in a new English translation by John Murrell. In this comedy, we find Otto Marvuglia, a once master illusionist, reduced to performing magic for money at a seaside resort. When one of his tricks seems to go awry, a guest tumbles into a world of illusion as another escapes an unhappy reality.

Cimolino is working with dramaturge Donato Santeramo on this production. The translation was a very special gift to Cimolino from Murrell, completed not long before his death and delivered by mail just before the pandemic.

Cimolino and Murrell collaborated on a funny and touching production of De Filippo’s Napoli Milionaria! in 2018. It was one in a string of appealing comedies directed by Cimolino, including The Merry Wives of WindsorThe School for ScandalThe HypochondriacThe Alchemist, and The Beaux’ Stratagem. This season Cimolino directed Richard III and The Miser.

Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, appearing in Stratford Festival’s Richard II. Photography by Ted Belton.

Jillian Keiley returns to the Festival to direct Shakespeare’s Richard II. In a revolutionary adaptation by Brad Fraser, this Richard is the story of a king who believes that God gives him the right to live above the rules and who ultimately suffers the consequences. The story is embedded in a time of great freedom that is soon crushed – the late 1970s and early ’80s: when lives were lived at great volume against a suffocating strain of conservatism and fear. Fraser’s adaptation maintains Shakespeare’s text but draws on sources beyond Richard II. The choreographer for the production is Cameron Carver.

Keiley’s Stratford directorial credits include Alice Through the Looking-GlassThe Diary of Anne FrankAs You Like ItBakkhai, and The Neverending Story. She has just completed her tenure as the Artistic Director of English Theatre at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

Fraser, one of Canada’s best-known playwrights, has a string of successes to his name, including Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of LovePoor Super ManMartin Yesterday, and Snake in Fridge. He has also written and produced a number of episodes for the Showtime hit series Queer as Folk.

Sam White directs Alice Childress’s rarely-produced play Wedding Band.This stellar work, written with great precision and powerful storytelling, gives an emotional portrayal of a relationship between a Black seamstress, Julia, and a white baker, Herman, in the shadow of the First World War and the 1918 flu epidemic in Charleston, South Carolina. The couple’s deep love and commitment face the cruel racism of the Deep South in this revealing portrayal of interracial love. They are forced to navigate the societal racism of laws and culture, along with heartbreaking judgment from their own families and communities. Written during the Civil Rights era, the play resonates in our modern times of racial reckoning with movements such as Black Lives Matter across North America, and at a time when a new pandemic is tragically altering lives.

White has directed and taught classical theatre across North America and is a respected arts leader in Detroit, where she founded Shakespeare in Detroit in 2013. In 2018 she served as assistant director for Antoni Cimolino’s production of The Tempest. She is currently working on a commission for The Old Globe in San Diego, in addition to serving as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Acting/Directing at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Sean Arbuckle (left) and Krystin Pellerin, appearing in Stratford Festival’s Casey and Diana. Photography by Ted Belton.

STUDIO THEATRE

The Studio Theatre will feature two new plays and a Shakespeare comedy.

Casey and Diana, a Stratford Festival commission by Nick Green, will be directed by Andrew Kushnir. As the Toronto AIDS hospice, Casey House, prepares for the historic visit of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1991, residents and staff are inspired to beat the odds as a plague continues to ravage a generation. This potent and moving drama vividly captures a moment in time when a rebel Princess, alongside less famous caregivers and advocates, reshaped the course of a pandemic – and how those stricken by the virus found hard-won dignity, community, and love in the face of astonishing hardship.

Kushnir, a playwright, dramaturge, actor, and director, is the Artistic Director of Toronto’s Project: Humanity, which uses the arts to raise social awareness. Here at the Festival, he served as assistant director for Cimolino’s productions of Napoli Milionaria! and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Green, a prolific playwright and actor, won the 2017 Dora Award for Outstanding New Play for Body Politic, which dramatized the history of the Canadian LGBTQ newsmagazine of the same name. His work includes Happy Birthday Baby JIn Real LifeEvery Day She Rose (co-written with Andrea Scott), Dinner with the DuchessFangirlLiving the Dream, and The Fabulous Buddha Boi.

Joelle Peters, appearing in Stratford Festival’s Women of the Fur Trade. Photography by Ted Belton.

Frances Koncan’s Women of the Fur Trade will be directed by Yvette Nolan. It is set in eighteen hundred and something-something, somewhere upon the banks of a Reddish River in Treaty One Territory, where three very different women with a preference for 21st-century slang sit in a fort sharing their views on life, love, and the hot nerd Louis Riel. This lively historical satire of survival and cultural inheritance shifts perspectives from the male gaze onto women’s power in the past and present through the lens of the rapidly changing world of the Canadian fur trade.

Nolan is a playwright, director, and dramaturge. She has worked extensively as a director for Gwaandak Theatre, Gordon Tootoosis Nīkānīwin Theatre, Signal Theatre, the Globe Theatre, and Western Canada Theatre. She was the artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts from 2003 to 2011.

Koncan is an Anishnaabe-Slovene playwright, director, and journalist from Couchiching First Nation. Her 2015 play The Dance-off of Conscious Uncoupling was shortlisted for the Tom Hendry Award for Best New Comedy. Her other plays include zahgidiwin/love and Space Girl. She is a winner of the REVEAL Indigenous Arts Award and the Winnipeg Arts Council’s RBC On the Rise Award.

Peter Pasyk will helm a production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. In this beloved early comedy, Shakespeare delivers a touching and funny coming-of-age story with a twist ending. Seeking self-improvement, the King of Navarre and his three best friends swear off sex and love for three years, just as the Princess of France and three other women arrive on a diplomatic mission. Pasyk will give this classic play a fresh and modern take.

Pasyk directed this season’s thrilling production of Hamlet, as well as the 2021 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A two-time Dora Award nominee for outstanding direction, Pasyk was at the helm of the pre-pandemic hit production of The Nether, a Coal Mine Theatre and Studio 180 production. He was part of the Festival’s Langham Workshop for Classical Direction and served as assistant director on Cimolino’s productions of Birds of a Kind and The School for Scandal.

Buckle up, it’s gonna be a busy summer for Frontmezzjunkies.

Tickets for the 2023 season go on sale to Members beginning November 6. More information is available at www.stratfordfestival.ca.

SEASON AT A GLANCE

FESTIVAL THEATRE

Déjah Dixon-Green, appearing in Stratford Festival’s King Lear. Photography by Ted Belton.

Director: Kimberley Rampersad

Rent

Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson

Director: Thom Allison

Choreographer: Marc Kimelman

Much Ado About Nothing

By William Shakespeare

Director: Chris Abraham

Les Belles-Soeurs

By Michel Tremblay

Translated by John Van Burek and Bill Glassco

Director: Esther Jun

AVON THEATRE

Monty Python’s Spamalot

Book and Lyrics by Eric Idle

Music by John Du Prez and Eric Idle

A new musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture “Monty Python and the Holy Grail

From the original screenplay by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin

Director: Lezlie Wade

Choreographer: Jesse Robb

World Première Adaptation:

Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, appearing in Stratford Festival’s A Wrinkle in Time. Photography by Ted Belton.

A Wrinkle in Time

By Madeleine L’Engle

Adapted for the stage by Thomas Morgan Jones

Director: Thomas Morgan Jones

World Première

Frankenstein Revived

By Morris Panych

Based on the novel by Mary Shelley

Music by David Coulter

Director: Morris Panych

Movement choreographer: Wendy Gorling

Dance choreographer: Stephen Cota

TOM PATTERSON THEATRE

World Première Translation:

Grand Magic

By Eduardo De Filippo

In a new English translation by John Murrell

Director: Antoni Cimolino

Richard II

By William Shakespeare

Cyrus Lane (left) and Antonette Rudder, appearing in Stratford Festival’s Wedding Band. Photography by Ted Belton

Director: Sam White

STUDIO THEATRE

World Première

Stratford Festival Commission

Casey and Diana

By Nick Green

Director: Andrew Kushnir

Women of the Fur Trade

By Frances Koncan

Director: Yvette Nolan

Love’s Labour’s Lost

By William Shakespeare

Director: Peter Pasyk

Tom Patterson Theatre. Photo by Ann Baggley.

.For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Out of Town

Standing at the Sky’s Edge in the West End Soars Three Times Higher Than Expected

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As the dawn breaks” over the houses, a songbird’s tender melody flies this new musical forward over the three mornings, decades apart. As three households are revealed, dated and notated above as 1960, 1989, and 2015, we are welcomed most harmoniously to the brutalist iconic housing development in Sheffield, and the emotionally clever and connecting musical, Standing at the Sky’s Edge. Sitting forcibly on top of the world, with a forever fussy neon sign giving us a glimpse into some form of engagement ahead, the musical, as written by the wonderfully talented Richard Hawley (“Soldier On“), digs into the personal ramifications of the nation’s political upheavals that bubble up into the lives of these families from the 1960s through Thatcherism, immigration, Brexit, and beyond. With a strongly layered book by Chris Bush (The Changing Room), Sky’s Edge unearths deeply felt, intertwined connections in the three families of three generations over six decades. The opening feels almost Shakespearian, with subtle flavors that remind us of that opening monologue from Romeo & Juliet (a show we were seeing hours after this show), with these somewhat stereotypical family dynamics moving steadily forward in life and love. Planted inside this boxy structure of many layers, these characters find greater depth with each passing emotional moment as they move forward through a classic gentrification dynamic all within one concrete iconic housing estate.

Laura Pitt-Pulford as Poppy, Elizabeth Ayodele as Joy. and Rachael Wooding as Rose in Standing at the Sky’s Edge in the West End. Photo Credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

All adventures are scary,” we are told pretty straight up in this fascinating creation, and we lean into the melodic unveiling before us. The three stories of differing social situations are riveting, engaging us in ways that resemble more of a play with fantastic deliverable songs sung in a more performative fashion rather than sung from within the storytelling. Delivered like rockstars standing at their microphone stand (sometimes), and arranged and orchestrated by Tom Deering (Almeida’s Tammy Faye) with musical direction by associate music supervisor Alex Beetschen (RADA’s Spring Awakening), this midnight train is a clever layering filled with many little treasures that add energy and emotional clarity to the piece. As the characters open up their doors to us, they keep deepening their directive, revealing their dilemmas and dynamics with sharp contrast and emotional compassion.


Elizabeth Ayodele as Joy and Samuel Jordan as Jimmy in Standing at the Sky’s Edge in the West End. Photo Credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg.

The cast is completely fantastic across the board, giving us chills in their unity of action, striking forward the distress and pain of the world they live in while struggling to hold on to the few crumbs of gratitude and humble acceptance. They find harmony in their collective, drawing us in, even as they stand together in a more choral arrangement. The leads are particularly good, with Samuel Jordan (“Sex Education“) in the pivotal role of Jimmy giving us an anchor to hold onto, with his counterpoint, Elizabeth Ayodele (NT’s Small Island) as Joy, the one who catches his eye (or is it the other way around). The circumstances that plant her here are complicated and emotionally stirring, delivered well by the family of actors that surround her, including Sharlene Hector (Barbican’s Strange Loop) as her Aunt Grace and Baker Mukasa (RSC’s The Winter’s Tale) as cousin George. Also tugging hard on our heartstrings are the young married couple who move into the flat with the view in the 1960s, played strongly by Rachael Wooding (Dominion’s We Will Rock You) as Rose and Joel Harper-Jackson (West End’s Cock) as Harry. Their heartbreaking unraveling is the key to the Sky’s Edge puzzle that slowly comes together with grace and dignity. But they are just part of the formulations.The whole is what makes this musical sing and stride forward so effectively.

The most modern entry into that flat is the compelling story of Poppy, played strong and true by Laura Pitt-Pulford (NT’s The Light Princess), and the complexities that surround Nikki, played engagingly well by Lauryn Redding (Vaudeville’s The Worst Witch). Redding delivers the song, “Open Up Your Door” with a force that knocks us off-center, mainly because we see it one way, until we are thrown a curve ball to look at it in a different framing of light. Poppy’s story is the looser connective tissue, keeping itself one knot removed, unlike the other two tales. But it somehow stays tied in, even if the grief and the sense of loss are played out in reverse. They still register, and give us a new doorway to walk through.

Lauryn Redding as Nikki, Laura Pitt-Pulford as Poppy, and the cast of Standing at the Sky’s Edge in the West End. Photo Credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Tonight, the streets are hot,” and the show unpacks a wealth of interactive complications and connections in a series of tender boxes that have been dutifully crafted to keep the tumultuous rain out, laid out with style by set and costume designer Ben Stones (Leeds’ Hedwig and the Angry Inch), with sharply tuned in lighting by Mark Henderson (Chichester’s Flowers for Mrs. Harris) and a strong sound design by Bobby Aitken (West End’s Ghost). As directed with care and focus by Robert Hastie (Sheffield/Donamr’s She Loves Me), the framing embraces our curiosity continuously, and engages our attention throughout, leading us through fireworks, love, despair, and grief that touch our collective heart and soul in abundance.

This magnificently moving three-layered story, with stunningly searing songs and sharply tuned-in choreography by Lynne Page (Broadway’s American Psycho) is billed as a musical, but carries the heavy weight of a play that is unpacking modern Britain and its politics. Delivered and unpacked through the stories of the landmark Park Hill estate. this view from the sky’s edge is a powerfully performed and sung exploration of the connective tissues of community and family, and what it means to take shelter in a brutialist box that will keep out the rain.

Rachael Wooding as Rose and Joel Harper-Jackson as Harry in Standing at the Sky’s Edge in the West End. Photo Credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg.

The musical engages, pulling us gently into a dramatic tension that surprises and enlightens. Standing at the Sky’s Edge gives us a stunning view to take in, three times stronger than anything I could have imagined, and one that we won’t easily forget. Winner of the 2023 Olivier Award for Best New Musical, UK Theatre Award for Best Musical Production, and the South Bank Sky Arts Award, Standing at the Sky’s Edge soars to the highest of heights and holds us tight. Now playing until August 3rd at the Gillian Lynne Theatre, London.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com
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Events

Billy Joel and Roger Sichel Quiet Brunch Turned Newsworthy Thanks to Justin Timberlake

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The night before Justin Timberlake was busy drinking and talking with his friends. Timberlake was stopped by police just after midnight on Tuesday. Billy Joel and artist Roger Sichel the next morning were having brunch at their usual hang out at the American Hotel, next to each other. Joel and Sichel were bombarded by photographs due to the late breaking news. What was scheduled to be a  quite afternoon turned out to be what has taken over the news.


Timberlake who is in the middle of a world tour that includes upcoming Madison Square Garden told the officers he had just “one martini.” According to sources he was inhibited on them and refused to take the sobriety test.

Billy Joel is busy working and lives within walking distance of the hotel.

Sichel just finished an art show in Beverly Hills and will be opening in Sag Harbor Kramois’s art gallery two doors down from the American Hotel next week.

Seems that the American Hotel is the place to hang this summer, well it always was.

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Out of Town

Jamie Lloyd’s “Romeo & Juliet” in the West End Finds Unparalleled Amplification in its Microphoned Words and Limited Movements

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Behind a large industrial gate, Verona stands hard and dominant in the stark white light. It’s 1597, as projected, but the energy is utterly contemporary and fascinatingly modern. Designed to shock and startle from the get-go, this Romeo, as directed with a sharp focus by Jamie Lloyd (Broadway/West End’s Betrayal), strides in through the backstage hallways in dynamic fashion, destined to illicit a guttural response. “See where he comes,” we are told, and as movie star Tom Holland (West End’s  Billy Elliot the Musical) makes his way confidently forward, we must come to amplified terms with Lloyd’s very distinct version of this famed tale, one that will either excite or disappoint, but it will never be a bore.

Maybe because I came into West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre just days after seeing a more traditional (and somewhat lackluster) Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival in Canada, I was game for some changing of the rules, and inside the editing of the iconic text, fascinatingly created in layers by Nima Taleghani (“Heartstopper“), this radical reappraisal by the Jamie Lloyd Company unpacks more emotional layers while barely moving a muscle than many a traditional staging does. Delivered with clarity and an extreme understanding of what’s at stake in the storyline, it simmers with taunt muscular sexuality, anchored in their tight formulations and delivery, and held together by the star-powered force that is Holland and company.

Francesca Amewudah-Rivers and Tom Holland, starring in Romeo & Juliet, a Jamie Lloyd Company production at West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre. Photo by Marc Brenner.

More importantly, Francesca Amewudah-Rivers (“Bad Education“), as his ill-fated Juliet, unmasks layers of unapologetic strength and passion giving the delivery and the play’s text its captifying edge. She is a hopeless romantic, but more of a determined woman than a cowering child. The power dynamics are reframed and realigned with this more stripped-away staging, giving Amewudah-Rivers’ Juliet more room to engage with that overpowering chemistry that exists between her and Holland’s Romeo, even when she almost ridicules the young man when he attempts to swear by the moon. That isn’t going to fly with this engaging creation.

This Juliet is a powerfully profound unpacking, supported most brilliantly by Freema Agyeman (Trafalgar Studieo’s Apologia) as her confidently embodied confidant; the multilayered Nurse. Her in-tune performance adds weight, connection, and energy, humorously stroking Holland’s impressive biceps, while proclaiming Juliet “will be a joyful woman.” But she also masterfully delivers despair and angst, possibly because the sharp edit has cut down the external paternal voices to only one per household. Juliet’s mother is nonexistent, giving all matters to her father, Capulet, masterfully maneuvered by Tomiwa Edun (NT’s Macbeth). This sliced-down rendering elevates the positioning that the maternal Nurse must take. The actor must balance both the emotional engagement and the hierarchy at play within the household. The mother-subtraction ultimately adds a jolt of energy into the whole, especially the pivotal scene between Juliet, her father, and the maternal Nurse, when the marriage to Paris, played engagingly by fresh-faced newcomer, Daniel Quinn-Toye, making his professional debut, is being forced upon the young already married daughter. It’s a captivating unraveling that lives and breathes inside a construct that completely makes sense.

The same is true for Romeo’s parental force. His mother, already barely a presence in the text of the play, especially at the end, has been given full command and sole ownership of the Montague household. Played well and true by Mia Jerome (Punchdruck’s Lost Leading Library), she delivers the required emotional force but leaves a special space for the paternal Friar, normally portrayed by Michael Balogun (Gillian Lynne’s The Lehman Trilogy), but was delivered with intensity by Phillip Olagoke (Old Vic’s A Number), to step in and engage with Romeo as if he is the son he never had. It’s a spectacularly astute repackaging that really shows its full worth when two scenes of the young married lovers’ angst are played on top of each other with the four: Nurse, Romeo, Juliet, and the Friar, lined up intersecting their lines straight into microphones on the stand.

Tom Holland (center) and cast in Romeo & Juliet, a Jamie Lloyd Company production at West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre. Photo by Marc Brenner.

When I tried to explain this to someone, their reaction was, with all those microphones and cameras on stage, projecting images that overlay one another, that it must feel stalled and somewhat boring. But in many ways, Lloyd’s creative engagement in stillness and striped-away engagement elevates the dynamic, creating a telling of this tale that is sexy, intense, and completely haunting. It’s filled with suspense and understanding, played true and confident by a cast that is completely engaged with the text. The electricity lives and breaths within these assured performances, and I was enraptured from beginning to end.

The editing pen also solidly pulls out all the excess in the play’s denouement, leaving the two to deliver their hopelessness without a soul in sight to get in the way and muddy the water. Played out on that bare cavernous stage, crafted with intent by set and costume designer Soutra Gilmour (West End/Broadway’s A Doll’s House), with meticulous lighting by Jon Clark (West End/Broadway’s The Lehman Trilogy), a solid sound design by Ben & Max Ringham (West End’s An Enemy of the People), composition by Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante (NT/The Shed’s The Effect), and assisted by the tender and captivating video design and cinematography by Nathan Amzi & Joe Ransom (Savoy’s Sunset Boulevard), this unpacking is as dark and engaging as one could possibly hope for. There is no Paris to do battle with, and the Friar doesn’t run in and out attempting to, and failing, to save the two from their breaking hearts. It’s just the two broken souls, overcome with grief, unable to move forward without their other.

Casting stares into the audience, the two leads deliver the goods in spectacular fashion, given that violence and hate are hovering behind them in the smokey darkness. The force is as exacting as the expert mashing and cutting of truth, side by side. There is more authentic emotion than many other pairings (and foursomes) that I have seen over the years, giving this tragic love story the undeniable edge and intensity that electrifies Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Even when it flies sometimes a bit too far from the stage, Lloyd’s distinctive directorial style lands hard and true.

Francesca Amewudah-Rivers, Tom Holland (center), and the cast of Romeo & Juliet, a Jamie Lloyd Company production at West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre. Photo by Marc Brenner.

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Out of Town

Crow’s Theatre, Musical Stage Company, and Soulpepper Theatre Company Take Home Numerous 2024 Toronto Theatre Critics’ Awards

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After a four-year hiatus, the Toronto Theatre Critics’ Awards (S) returned to honor excellence from the 2023-24 professional theatre season. The 11th TTCAs, announced Tuesday morning, June 11th, boast 19 winners across 14 categories, including a special citation for artistic achievement.

Crow’s Theatre and Soulpepper Theatre Company were the big winners this year, each receiving seven awards, with the sensationally well-received Crow’s Theatre/Musical Stage Company co-production of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. The production led the musical division with three wins, including Best Production of a Musical, with two members of its company; George Krissa and Heeyun Park 박희윤, jointly awarded for Best Supporting Performance in a Musical.

Soulpepper Theatre Company followed close behind with two wines for the fascinatingly dynamic world premiere of De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail. Damien Atkins, the production’s star, won the award for Best Lead Performance in a Musical. Gregory Prest, who directed and adapted the production from its source material; Wilde’s original love letter of the same name, was also recognized as Best Director of a Musical.

Damien Atkins and Colton Curtis in Soulpepper Theatre’s De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

In the Musical Division

  • Crow’s Theatre and Musical Stage Company co-production of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812: Best Production of a Musical, and George Krissa and Heeyun Park박희윤 were jointly awarded the prize for Best Supporting Performance in a Musical.
  • Soulpepper’s production of De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail: Damien Atkins won the award for Best Lead Performance in a Musical, and Gregory Prest, who directed as well as adapted the material from Wilde’s original love letter of the same name won Best Director of a Musical.
  • Kelly v. Kelly, Britta Johnson and Sara Farb’s new musical inspired by true events, produced by the Musical Stage Company in association with Canadian Stage won Best Ensemble in a Musical.
Sean Arbuckle (left) as Thomas and Krystin Pellerin as Diana in Casey and Diana. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The Play Division

  • Nick Green’s drama Casey and Diana, which ran at Soulpepper after premiering at the Stratford Festival, won the award for Best New Canadian Play, and actor Sean Arbuckle received the prize for Best Leading Performance in a Play.
  • Michael Healey’s satire The Master Plan, produced by Crow’s Theatre, also won Best New Canadian Play, and the cast won Best Ensemble in a Play
  • Amaka Umeh also won Best Leading Performance in a Play for their performance playing two characters in Soulpepper’s Sizwe Banzi is Dead.
  • Two actors were awarded the prize for Best Supporting Performance in a Play: Jadyn Nasato, for her performance in the Studio 180 Theatre production of Four Minutes, Twelve Seconds, and Oyin Oladejo for her turn in Three Sisters, co-produced by Soulpepper and Obsidian Theatre Company.
L-R: Antoine Yared, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Ben Page, Qasim Khan, and Daniel MacIvor in Canadian Stage’s production of Matthew López’s The Inheritance. Photo by Dahlia Katz.
  • Crow’s Theatre’s production Bad Roads won Best International Play, and Andrew Kushnir won Best Director of a Play. The work by Ukrainian playwright Natal’ya Vorozhbit is based on real-life testimonies from witnesses to Russia’s invasion of the Donbas in 2014.
  • Leora Morris also wins Best Director of a Play for their work on Coal Mine Theatre’s production of The Sound Inside by Adam Rapp.
  • Canadian Stage’s production of the two-part drama The Inheritance won Best Production of a Play.
  • Best Design, Play or Musical went to Nick Blais (lighting), Heidi Chan (sound), Anahita Dehbonehie (set), and Niloufar Ziaee (costumes) for their collective work on A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, co-produced by Outside the March and Soulpepper Theatre Company.
  • Theatre legend Daniel MacIvor received a special citation for his work over the past season, which included a memorable performance in The Inheritance, and the revivals of his plays Monster and Here Lies Henry, both produced by Factory Theatre.
Mike Shara (front and center) and the cast of Crow’s Theatre’s The Master Plan. Photo by Dahlia Katz.
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Hairspray – High Stepping in Houston

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Returning to the Broadway at the Hobby Center series for one week only, the high-stepping, toe-tapping, raucous romp good time known as Hairspray the musical. Join “The Nicest Kids In Town” for a three hour escapade through history, teenaged angst, a powerful message against the evils of segregation and the importance of inclusivity. With joy peppered in to its oh-so-beating, never ending, joy ride, heart, this Tony Award-winning musical comedy brings smiles to the faces, as well as a few well-earned tears of joy to the eyes, of every audience member.
Let’s quickly revisit the history of all things Hairspray. This material originated back in 1988, in John Waters and New Line Cinema’s cult classic movie of the same name. Launching the career of then newcomer, Ricki Lake, and featuring Water’s frequent onscreen collaborator, Divine, with Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Sonny Bono as the scheming baddies. Fast forward to 2002, Hairspray was brought to the stage as a full-fledged Broadway musical, winning eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, as well as trophies for Marissa Jaret Winokur and Harvey Fierstein, as the dynamic mother/daughter act. The cast also and included a pre-Glee Matthew Morrison and a pre-Xanadu Kerry Butler.

Caroline Eiseman

In 2007, the movie-turned-musical, returned to cineplexes, this time starring A-list Hollywood royalty including John Travolta as Edna, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Zac Efron and Queen Latifah. Almost a decade after that, NBC remounted a live television musical, including Tony Award-winner Kristin Chenoweth, EGOT Jennifer Hudson, pop princess Ariana Grande and Dancing With The Stars Emmy-winner, Derek Hough, in the cast. Today, however, the show has returned to the stage in a gloriously remastered national tour.

Caroline Eiseman, Greg Kalafatas

The story centered around plucky teenager, Tracy Turnblad, played with aplomb by Caroline Eiseman. We are under her delightful spell from the moment she began the opening number “Good Morning, Baltimore.” The spirited, zaftig teen has one ambition, to become a council member and dance on “The Corny Collins Show” an American Bandstand type program based in Baltimore. Her worried mother, Edna (a scene stealing Greg Kalafatas) frets they won’t put a girl as heavy as Tracy on air, and that her daughter is setting herself up for a massive disappointment. With best friend, delightfully dorky, Penny Pingleton (a dynamite Scarlett Jacques) by her side, Tracy headed to the studio where she came face to face with her onscreen crush, teenaged heartthrob, Link Larkin (Skyler Shields) an Elvis wannabe with dreams of stardom of his own. The roadblocks to her teenaged-dreams becoming a reality, racist television producer, the villainess, Velma Von Tussle (Sarah Haynes) and her daughter, and Link’s current girlfriend, Amber (Caroline Portner), both putting Turnblad squarely in their nefarious sights.

Josiah Thomas Randolph, Kalab Quinn, Gabriel Yarborough and Company

Frequently sent to after-school detention, Tracy met a slew of kids of color, and quickly befriended Seaweed J. Stubbs (an electrifying Josiah Rogers). His rendition of “Run and Tell That” paired with his precision dance moves, proved Rogers should have a long and celebrated career ahead of him. A little cultural appropriation later, Tracy “borrowed” all of Seawood’s singular sensational dance moves, and secured herself a spot on the show. Believing everyone should have the right to dance together, Tracy then started a movement for equality that set the racially-segregated Baltimore on its ear. Her student activism fueling the engine on this exciting train ride of a narrative. Seaweed’s mother, Motormouth Maybelle (standout Deidra Lang) delivered the emotionally impactful, gospel-tinged power ballad, “I Know Where I’ve Been” to thunderous applause.

Greg Kalafatas, Ralph Prentice Daniel

The talent team behind the show is a who’s who of Tony Award-winners and Broadway legends. The music and lyrics, written by Tony Award-winners, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, is a combination of silly shenanigans and poignant prose that has stood the test of time. “Welcome to the 60s’, sung by The Dynamites (Ashia Collins, Leiah Lewis and Kynnedi Moryae Porter) is an act one standout, arguably the three strongest voices on the stage. The closing number “You Can’t Stop The Beat” is an anthem of equality and progressive momentum that will stay with you long after the curtain has dropped. William Ivey Long’s costume design is so well honored here, you would think they are all his Great White Way originals.

Greg Kalafatas, Caroline Eiseman

It wouldn’t be Hairspray, without the gravity defying wigs and hair design, credited to Paul Huntly and Bernie Ardia, with visual nods to the rock band The B-52’s, former first lady, Jackie O and the silhouettes of ancient Greek statuary. David Rockwell’s technicolor set proved the importance of coloring with every crayon in the box. Robbie Roby energetic choreography paid tribute to the original signature moves of Jerry Mitchell. The same Mitchell behind hits Kinky Boots, La Cage aux Folles, On Your Feet!, and Pretty Woman: The Musical fame, just to name a few. Finally, Jack O’Brien’s brisk direction has been wonderfully reproduced at the skilled hands of Matt Lenz.

Does the chubby girl get the guy in the end? Will the Corny Collins Show become fully integrated? Will the devilish Von Tussle’s be undone? Well, you have to see the show for answers to all of these questions and more. Well worth your time, the charms of this Hairspray continue to hold tighter than Aqua Net in a rainstorm. Consummately sung, skillfully danced and packed to the gills with scene stealing comedians, Hairspray the musical is a pre-summer Houston treat to beat the heat.

Stephen Best

Hairspray played Broadway at the Hobby Center in Houston from June 4-9, 2024

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