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Off Broadway

Aisle Say On The Square: Soulpepper at the Signature

Aisle Say On The Square: Soulpepper at the Signature


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.

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee

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.

Chantelle Han, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee

Chantelle Han, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee

The festival contains a number of side offerings and cabarets (there’s a real sense of having brought not just its most celebrated mainstage shows, but its community of esteemed and usual “suspects”), any of which is worth checking out, but we’ll concentrate here on the Mainstage offerings.
Rosie Simon, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, and Ronnie Rowe Jr.

Rosie Simon, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, and Ronnie Rowe Jr.

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.

Ins Choi

Ins Choi

The play is Kim’s Convenience, by Ins Choi. It is not, in any story or style sense, a revolutionary or even unconventional family comedy. Except for one thing, which makes all the difference: the family are Korean–Canadians (both first and second generation) and the locale is a convenience store in Toronto. The story is so simple it hardly bears summation; suffice it to say that it’s about relationships on a day when things need to resolve. At the hub is Appa the store owner/father (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, in a genuine star-making turn) and the orbit around him is made up of Janet, his daughter (Rosie Simon); Umma his wife (Jean Yoon); his estranged son, Jung (the playwright), and a few other visitors to the shop (all Ronnie Rowe, Jr.).
Also highly original is the character of Kim himself. While he’s hardly tragic, he’s a man of fierce contradictions, and earns the bigness of other dominant theatrical patriarchs such as Willy Loman and James Tyrone, because his outlook is so idiosyncratic and, with his Korean accented English, so uniquely articulated. One of the extraordinary set pieces is the lesson he gives his daughter on store management, when he asserts of a customer, “He is steal … He is black guy, jean jacket. That combo is steal combo. You don’t know how to run store, I teach. This is training day. Lesson number one, steal or no steal. Every customer, have to know. Steal or no steal. Okay, see that girl? She is no steal. She is fat girl, black. Fat, black girl is no steal. Fat, white guy, that’s steal. If fat guy is black, with brown shoes, that’s no steal. That’s cancel out combo. “ Janet: “That is so awkwardly racist.” Appa: “Not racist…survival skill. Look. Secret survival skill like this. Make eyes very small. That way no one can even see you looking. Lookit. Brown guy, that’s steal. Brown girl, that’s no steal. Asian guy, that’s no steal. Asian girl, that’s steal. If you is the gay, that’s no steal. Easy. The gay is never steal, but if you is the lesbian, that is girl who is the gay, that’s steal, 100% guarantee they is steal. But, two lesbian, that’s no steal, that’s cancel out combo.”
It’s all wonderfully acted, and directed with a sure hand and an eye for detail by Weyni Mengesha, on a pitch-perfect set (with costumes to match) by Ken MacKenzie.
Sarah Wilson, Gregory Prest

Sarah Wilson, Gregory Prest. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

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.

Jeff Lillico, Gregory Prest

Jeff Lillico, Gregory Prest. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

Gregory Prest, Michelle Monteith. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

Spoon River, Soulpepper, Jackie Richardson

Jackie Richardson. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

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.

Spoon River, Soulpepper, Hailey Gillis

Hailey Gillis. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

As co-adapted by Albert Schultz (who also directed) And Mike Ross (who also composed), and residing somewhere between play with music and folk opera, Spoon River gets a great deal of mileage out of tone, mood, design, an appropriate anthology philosophy about staging devices, and an excellent ensemble of 19, some of whom are also the show’s musicians (see what you encourage, John Doyle?), some of whom are also in Of Human Bondage. But the stomping and strumming of a country-infused score that is more trope-driven than character-driven does finally hit a point of diminishing returns, as the palate itself is so theatrically limited. None of which makes Spoon River anybody’s disaster: it’s a bold and interesting experiment that puts a fresh spin on familiar material that has been adapted for the stage before, and even at its least effective, it keeps showing off the Soulpepper ensemble to not only fine but memorable advantage. Which is not a bad endgame for the trifecta entry that doesn’t quite catch the brass ring…or coffin handle, as the case may be.

Off Broadway

David Spencer is an award-winning composer-lyricist, lyricist-librettist, author and musical theatre teacher. He has written music and lyrics for the Richard Rodgers Development Award-winning musical The Fabulist, which also contributed to his winning a Kleban lyrics award and several Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla Theatre Foundation grants. He is also lyricist-librettist for two musicals with composer Alan Menken: Weird Romance (WPA 1992, York 2004) and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which had its sold out, extended world premiere in Montreal in Summer 2015; cast album release soon. He made his professional debut in 1984 with the English Adaptation of La Bohéme at the Public Theatre; and he has since written music and lyrics for Theatreworks/USA’s all-new, award-winning Young Audience versions of The Phantom of the Opera (1996) and Les Misérables (1999) (book and direction for both by Rob Barron). Currently he is writing book, music and lyrics for a musical based on the iconic Russian novel The Golden Calf. Spencer’s published books are the Alien Nation novel Passing Fancy (Pocket, 1994), The Musical Theatre Writer’s Survival Guide (Heinemann, 2005, a regularly reprinted industry standard) and the script of Weird Romance (Samuel French, 1993). He is on faculty and teaches at the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop and has taught at HB Studio, the Workshop Studio Theater and Goldsmith’s College in London. His primary professional affiliations are BMI, The Dramatists Guild and The International Association of Media Tie-in Writers.

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