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Christmas Time at the Shaw Festival with a Family-Friendly “A Christmas Carol” Before a Lovely Trip to “Brigadoon”

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It seems like the most Christmas-y thing to do, after seeing Chris, Mrs. – A New Holiday Musical last week, is to go to Niagara-on-the-Lake and take in the Shaw Festival‘s two holiday season shows – A Christmas Carol and Lerner & Loewe’s Brigadoon. What could be more perfect? The town feels as joyously festive as you can imagine, filled to overflowing with twinkling lights and holiday wreaths a-plenty everywhere you look. We even saw Santa Claus ride by at the tail end of their Christmas parade on Saturday afternoon as we made our way to the matinee at the main Festival Stage. It was a glorious two days, drinking Bailey’s Lattes in the musical’s interval, and seeing a good friend from my college days in the York University theatre department. It couldn’t be any more seasonal than that. I even managed to watch my favorite film, “Fiddler on the Roof” once I got home from the matinee. And what a glorious ending that was.

As if made to order, the first up was the classic Charles Dickens tale, A Christmas Carol, based on a novella first published in London in 1843, but here at the Shaw Festival, we are given a pantomime posturing, adapted (and originally directed) by Tim Carroll. A Christmas Carol dutifully and singingly recounts the story of the elderly miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, who after showing us his bah-humbugged nature on Christmas Eve, is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, followed by three spirits determined to melt his cold dark heart; Christmas Past, Present, and the one Yet to Come, so that he may see the value of human kindness and generosity. And after their eye-opening visits, Scrooge is transformed, miraculously, into a man filled to the Christmas brim with kindness and love. It’s the warmest of tales, and when told right, does the holiday trick with ease.

Sanjay Talwar as Ebenezer Scrooge, with Shawn Wright and Kiana Woo, in A Christmas Carol (Shaw Festival, 2023). Photo by David Cooper.

It seems this production is a solid staple of Christmas in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and I’ve always loved and embraced all the different tellings of it, from the legendary 1951 “Scrooge” starring Alastair Sim (the B&W version only, please, if I may say so. Not the colorized version), through the most wonderful 1992 “The Muppet Christmas Carol all the way to the 2019 FX magnificent and dark gothic adaptation series of “A Christmas Carol” starring Guy Pierce. All are excellent in their own way, shape, and form. So I was looking forward to seeing what the Shaw Festival had in store for us, but I must admit I was hoping for a darker and more adult-focused adaptation of A Christmas Carol than what the festival had in mind. Which, I will add, is completely reasonable, and had I given it more preshow thought, I should have known that the focus would be on a more family-friendly approach than the more gothic versions I saw on Broadway last year and the years before that; the Old Vic version and the one-Mays extravaganza, both excellent in their own manner.

Directed this time at Shaw by Brendan McMurtry-Howlett (Theatre Center’s After the Fire), their Christmas Carol rings itself into our hearts before the lights even dim. It’s all sweetness and carols, playing with the comic bits on equal footing to the more poignant ones. Scary it is not, which from the looks of all the children around me and how engrossed they all were, this production, as presented with puppets and pantomime, finds just the right tone and energy to carry us through gently and charmingly. I did miss the tension, especially in the first classic scene inside, what should have been the cold and heartless office of Ebenezer Scrooge, played with great heart and determination by Sanjay Talwar (Shaw’s Prince Caspian), where a cold Bob Cratchit, portrayed clearly by Andrew Lawrie (Shaw’s The Playboy of the Western World), sits working diligently, scared of his employer and therefore, freezing in the darkness at his desk. But here, inside the Shaw‘s Christmas Carol, the scene is played against a very bright and charming painting of the town we are all in, Niagara-on-the-Lake, with a crisp sweet blanket of snow covering the wreath-lined streets, with the distinctive clock tower in the center, just like it is right outside the door of the Royal George Theatre. Pretty and charming.

Sanjay Talwar as Ebenezer Scrooge and Élodie Gillett as Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol (Shaw Festival, 2023). Photo by David Cooper.

it’s a gentle loving visual, one that worked extremely well with the carolers who usher us into the theatrical world of Dicken’s gothic novella tale, with advent calendar windows and doors ready to be utilized in the playful way this production has intended, at least in this first scene. After the carols are sung with bells a-chiming, a woman and a door become Scrooge’s desk that he bends over with determination and greed, and an advent opening becomes a door, held true by Lawrie’s Cratchit, a door that flings itself down into his lap to become his small work desk. It’s a very cute playful endeavor, extended to the two actors who become Scrooge’s armchair at home where he eats his stew all alone in the dark after it is served up by Mrs. Dilber, portrayed by Patty Jamieson (Shaw’s Mother, Daughter). But then, that playful humans-as-furniture falls away, never to return again.

It was a structuring that I wasn’t pining for its return, to be honest, as the setting, as designed by Christine Lohre (Shaw’s Charley’s Aunt) who also is credited with the fine costumes, could have just used some real solid pieces of furniture for those two scenes, and maybe utilized the magnificent darker background for the office, a vista that was used hereafter to great results, as this darker backgrounds would have served the story far better than the light silliness that those advent ideas presented. It would have given the play a more aligned mood and atmosphere, but maybe not in the flinging-of-snow kind of cute way this production had in mind.

Kiana Woo as Tiny Tim puppeteer, Tiny Tim and Andrew Lawrie as Bob Cratchit, with the cast of A Christmas Carol (Shaw Festival, 2023). Photo by David Cooper.

Once again, I think I was in want of a darker journey in general, but after those initial moments, the visuals improved, even when made jolly by the movement and puppetry of Alexis Milligan (Shaw’s The Horse and His Boy), drawing forth the headless ghost of Mr. Marley and those other ghosts from the present and the future. However, in that other moment with the Ghost of Christmas Present, embodied with comic chops by Shawn Wright (Mirvish’s Harry Potter…), the scene shifts from the strong use of those small flying puppets to the actual flesh and blood Scrooge peering in on a festive feast and game played out against him. I wasn’t convinced that his physical full-sized presence was needed for that one scene to find its connective tissue, as the flying small puppet that he had become for this adventure was working its magic on us throughout this present-day visitation. And the shift, as with many ideas used, and then dropped, felt like unneeded whiplash of the creative order.

The headless antics between Scrooge and Marley also felt a bit off, in my book, but the floating hat is a fun visual that delighted the kids around me, as is the swinging child-like way that the first visitation, that of the Ghost of Christmas Past, played most pleasantly by assistant director Élodie Gillett (Shaw’s On the Razzle), unpacks the history lesson with the use of shadow puppetry on the bed curtains of Mr. Scrooge. It’s the perfect antidote for strong storytelling and edgy visuals, an element that elevates the production to a higher power.

Sanjay Talwar as Ebenezer Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in A Christmas Carol (Shaw Festival, 2023). Photo by David Cooper.

Comedy seems to be the go-to vibe in the Shaw production, with extraneous bits of humor played out by a flaming present-day ghost on roller skates and a young kid with a kite. It’s amusing, especially for the kids, but somehow the telling of this tale never completely captivated my heart or my soul. But with the ghost of Christmas Future, looming over the fearful Scrooge, I finally caught on to the wonder of this production. It’s fearsome, while also visually interesting in the flowing way the whiteness is draped over a skull’s head and hands, emphasized well by the lighting design of Kevin Lamotte (Shaw’s The Clearing).

But what follows that well-crafted graveyard scene made me question the framework once again. The cast all comes out of the shadows to sing an unnecessary and oddly placed ditty, “Put a Little Love In Your Heart” as Scrooge sleeps the rest of Christmas Eve away. I did sort of lean back in my seat, wondering where that fits in with Dickens and his world. I also didn’t see the use of that wandering cat, to be frank. Does that make me a Grinch or a Scrooge? I don’t think so, but maybe a very super family-friendly A Christmas Carol was not on my Santa wish list that night. I can’t say, but I will say, if you are in Niagara-on-the-Lake for an evening (or weekend afternoon) with a few children in tow, this is the holiday show for you and your lot. It gives you that Christmas Carol cathartic joy in the end, and that’s really what this show is all about, whether it starts out in darkness or in the light of a picture-perfect advent calendar with doors that become desks, and where snow is flung in the air every time one comes or goes.

David Andrew Reid as Charlie Dalrymple with Graeme Kitagawa, Jordan Mah and the cast of Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon (Shaw Festival, 2023). Photo by David Cooper.

Over on the main stage of the Shaw Festival, there is a different kind of show that is definitely more my cup of tea, or should I say, more my big cup of Scotch Whiskey. For this same holiday season, the festival has brought forth, once again, Lerner and Loewe’s 1947 classic, Brigadoon, and has found the formula to deliver it forth in spectacularly good form. It’s a superb, gorgeous production, revived from 2019, that is most definitely worthy of a road trip from Toronto just to wallow in its wonderfulness. The musical, with an original book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner (and a revised book by Brian Hill) and music by Frederick Loewe, is as Scottish as you can get from those first strongly crafted notes played most dynamically by the ShawFestival orchestra, with musical direction by Paul Sportelli (Shaw’s Gypsy) and a strong sound design by John Lott (Shaw’s Sweeney Todd), to the lovely romantic ending brought forth out of the fog by the powerful and perfectly sung “There But For You Go I“.

This show truly is a big warm slice of the golden age of Broadway, living in the foggy highlands of Scotland just waiting to be found once again inside its infectious loving songs and characters. It’s whimsical and wonderful in its undercurrent, and even though I couldn’t help myself but ponder the hilariously lost parallels to Apple+’s “Schmigadoon!“, I also found myself lost in a lovely dream, just like those two men in the glory and beauty of Brigadoon. And glad the cast didn’t abide by or stick to those traditional Scottish kilt-dressing rules. That would have been a different kind of show with all those high Highland kicks and dance moves.

It all starts as it did for those two characters in “Schmigadoon!“, lost in the Scottish woods, talking about true love and marriage. But this time around it’s 1946, and the lost souls who are about to be found are two American GI men, fresh (and still haunted) by the war. The love they are discussing lives, or maybe doesn’t, inside the unhappy Tommy, beautifully embodied by the vocally-gifted Stewart Adam McKensy (Stratford’s Hairspray), in Scotland on a bachelor weekend with his best buddy, Jeff, played to hilarious perfection by Kevin McLachlan (Shaw’s Gypsy). They are out and about hunting in the highlands, lost and looking for a way out, when, out of the fog, they find themselves an unmapped town called Brigadoon, filled with inhabitants not of the GI’s time and frame of mind.

The cast of Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon (Shaw Festival, 2023). Photo by David Cooper.

The town, as created by set designer Pam Johnson (Vancouver Playhouse’s Equus), literally emerges from the fog most dynamically and beautifully, assisted strongly by the projections designed by Corwin Ferguson (Stratford’s Rent). It’s gorgeously crafted, filling our hearts with quaint ideas of when life was (mystically) easier and happier. The two men can’t help but notice the happiness, and the lack of phones and any knowledge of the outside ‘modern’ world. For one of them, Tommy, this is an escapist gift and secret wish fulfillment. But for Jeff, it’s just a funny distraction and possibly a mirage or dream state, of some sort, one that they are sure to wake from any minute.

The town folk, straight out of a Scottish clan catalogue, seem to be stuck in the year 1746, happily engaged and excited for the wedding day of two of their townsfolk. But not everyone is jumping high, singing a merry show-stopping tune entitled, “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean” – a magnificent presentation, thanks to the dynamic choreography of Linda Garneau (Citadel’s The Curious Incident…). There is one Scottish son, the brooding Harry Beaton, played true by Travis Seetoo (Shaw’s Everybody), who, like Tommy, wishes for an escape. Not from the same place, nor because he questions his love like Tommy does, but because he is heartbroken and overwhelmed with love for the lovely Jean MacLaren, tenderly portrayed by Madelyn Kriese (Gateway’s Fiddler on the Roof). Unfortunately for Harry, she is about to be married to another; the one kicking up his heels with joy and excitement, the effervescent Charlie Dalrymple, powerfully embodied by a dynamic David Andrew Reid (Shaw’s Damn Yankees). A pill that is too hard and bitter for poor Harry to swallow, day after day.

But all that is secondary, in a way, to the main magical reason these two American men find themselves conflicted and in opposition to one another about what they want to do, what they should do, and where they want to be. The quickly love-struck Tommy finds himself questioning everything, especially the feelings he should have for his fiance back in New York, and the woman, the stunning Fiona MacLaren, portrayed by the gloriously gifted Alexis Gordon (Stratford’s Carousel), whom he just met gathering “The Heather on the Hill” for the wedding of her sister. Within moments, and a few beautifully rendered songs, such as Gordon’s “Waitin’ For My Dearie” and the spectacular duet, “Almost Like Being in Love“, the two fall madly and deeply in love, and Tommy can’t figure out what he wants to do; whether he should return to New York to marry someone he thinks he doesn’t really love, or should he forever remain in Brigadoon with his newfound love, but with an unknown ending to their story.

Genny Sermonia as Maggie Anderson, Alexis Gordon as Fiona MacLaren, Kristi Frank as Meg Brockie, Madelyn Kriese as Jean MacLaren, with Jenny L. Wright as Aileen MacFarlane in Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon (Shaw Festival, 2023). Photo by David Cooper.

The glorious score couldn’t be more sweeping and gorgeously performed and sung by a cast that is absolute perfection. Their expert vocals and their intricate and spirited dance moves are displayed throughout; at every sword dance and wedding day packin’ up. The musical couldn’t be more appealing if it tried, and as directed with an expert hand for romantic melodrama and emotional revelations by Glynis Leyshon (Shaw’s The Children’s Hour), Brigadoon finds its way beautifully through the fog, embracing the romanticism that is at its core, while never sidestepping the humor and the joy that is inherent to the tale.
One of the best highlights, beyond McLachlan’s magnificent best friend embodiment of a Danny Kaye attitude and perspective, is Kristi Frank (Grand Theatre’s Shrek) as the fireball Meg, delivering two of the best and smart funny songs of the show; the deliciously delightful “The Love of My Life” and the impossibly fun “My Mother’s Weddin’ Day.” She reminded me of the ‘Can’t Say NoOklahoma! gal, Ado Annie, but all dressed in Scottish red yet similarly ready, for a romp at a moment’s notice. Frank shines so so bright in this fantastical part, throwing herself fully into its delivery with a wild dynamic energy that is infectious. In the same energetic expressive vein, it would also be criminal to not give a shout-out to the mournful dance that is beautifully done by an endearing Genny Sermonia (Shaw’s Sweet Charity) as the heartbroken young lassy by the name of Maggie. I’m usually not taken in by those moments in classic musicals when dance takes over in that way, but with Sermonia channelling some aspect and feel of the original Agnes DeMille dance framing, the emotional energy is well spent and much appreciated.

The top-heavy but magnificent Brigadoon, with an Act One that feels twice as big and fantastically as the slim Second Act, unfolds like a romantic storybook, beautifully brought to life thanks to the spectacular work by set designer Johnson, lighting designer Kevin Lamotte (Shaw’s Holiday Inn), and the beautiful costuming by Sue LePage (Blyth Festival’s Liars at a Funeral). It’s exactly the Scotch Mist I was hoping for during this two day visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake, and with this dynamic fun show, as beautifully rendered as one could hope for, a Christmas wish was granted. So, for this show (unlike the other), leave those kids at home with the babysitter, and get yourself into town where goodness reigns and true love can take many forms, well, at least in Brigadoon, and in “Schmigadoon!” for that matter. Because this show is as good as it gets this holiday season.

David Adams as Archie Beaton, Kevin McLachlan as Jeff Douglas, and Kristi Frank as Meg Brockie in Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon (Shaw Festival, 2023). Photo by David Cooper.

Brigadoon and A Christmas Carol play at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario through December 23, 2023. For information and tickets, click here.

Stewart Adam McKensy as Tommy Albright and Alexis Gordon as Fiona MacLaren in Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon (Shaw Festival, 2023). Photo by David Cooper.

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

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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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Canadian Stage’s Dream in High Park Gives Toronto a Hamlet Under the Stars

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Canadian Stage celebrates 41 years of High Park performances with a production of one of Shakespeare’s most iconic plays Hamlet directed by Jessica Carmichael and featuring a luminous cast led by Qasim Khan as Hamlet,
with Prince Amponsah, Raquel Duffy, Christo Graham, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Sam Khalilieh, Breton Lalama, Beck Lloyd, Dan Mousseau, Amelia Sargisson, James Dallas Smith and featuring Diego Matamoros as Claudius. On stage July 21 – September 1 in the glorious High Park Amphitheatre

For 41 years, Canadian Stage – one of the country’s premiere producers of large-scale theatre and the largest not-for-profit theatre in Toronto – has been an accessible and foundational theatre experience for generations of Torontonians through its beloved summer theatre tradition Dream in High Park.   This magical annual event returns this July with a new production of one of Shakespeare’s definitive tragedies, HAMLET, on stage under the stars from July 21st to September 1st.

Jessica Carmichael – whose 2021 production of The Rez Sisters for the Stratford Festival was called “the most confident directorial debut at the festival in ages” by The Globe and Mail, directs a stunning cast led by Qasim Khan as Hamlet, joined by Prince Amponsah, Raquel Duffy, Christo Graham, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Sam Khalilieh, Breton Lalama, Beck Lloyd, Dan Mousseau, Amelia Sargisson, James Dallas Smith, and featuring Diego Matamoros as Claudius.  Dream in High Park is generously supported by Lead Sponsor TD Bank.

Set amidst the tumultuous backdrop of political intrigue and familial betrayal, this iconic tale follows the tormented Prince of Denmark as he grapples with existential questions of life, death, and revenge. The upcoming production is only the second time in Dream in High Park’s history that Hamlet has been produced and this year’s show serves as a companion to Canadian Stage’s hotly anticipated Canadian Premiere production of the 2022 Pulitzer prize-winner, Fat Ham.

“Hamlet is one of the most loved and iconic titles in Shakespeare’s canon and also one of the most thrilling psychological dramas in the theatre,” says Canadian Stage Artistic Director Brendan Healy. “We are incredibly excited to be able to offer Toronto audiences the opportunity to experience a new production of the original text in the park this summer, and then to also discover the Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning adaptation FAT HAM, later this seasonWe are also thrilled to introduce our audiences to Jessica Carmichael, an exceptional director whose work at Shaw and Stratford has proven her to be an essential voice in this country.”

Coming off a breathtaking performance as Eric in The Inheritance, Canadian Stage is delighted to welcome Qasim Khan back to its stage. Khan, in fact, performed in the one previous production of Hamlet in 2016 as Horatio, now stepping into the titular role. He now leads a luminous cast comprised of many of Canada’s most talented actors, both seasoned and up-and-coming.

Largely considered one of the most complex and coveted roles in classical theatre,

Shakespeare is thought to have written Hamlet in 1599 or 1600 and the play is most likely to have first been performed in 1601.  It has been translated into over 75 languages in the over 400 years since publications, and, like many of Shakespeare’s texts, coined several phrases now embedded in the English language including; ‘to the manner born’, ‘cruel to be kind’, ‘the primrose path’, ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’, ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’, ‘something is rotten’, ‘more things in heaven and earth’, ‘the time is out of joint’, ‘brevity is the soul of wit’, ‘this mortal coil’, ‘hoist with one’s own petard’ – and Gertrude’s line, ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks’.

Hamlet runs July 21st through September 1st.  Performances take place Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00pm with Sunday performances now offered at 7:00pm. For tickets and information, click here.

Photo by Dahlia Katz.

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Live From The Hotel Edison Times Square Chronicles Presents Bradley Jaden In A Special Edition

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“Live From The Hotel Edison Times Square Chronicles Presents”, is  filmed live every Wednesday from at the Hotel Edison.

In this episode T2C’s publisher and owner Suzanna Bowling talks with Bradley Jaden. This is a special episode as I was at Bradley Jaden’s concert in NYC and asked to interview him, but he was flying back ASAP to London to do two sold out concerts there. This was very last minute but I am so glad it happened.

I am so grateful to my guest Bradley Jaden.

Suzanna, Bradley Jaden and Rommel Gopez

Thank-you Magda Katz for videoing and creating the content to go live, Rommel Gopez and The Hotel Edison for their kindness and hospitality.

We are so proud and thrilled that Variety Entertainment News just named us one of Summer’s Best Picks in the category of Best Television, Radio, PodcastsThe company we are in, has made us so humbled, grateful and motivated to continue.

You can catch us on the following platforms:

Pandora:

https://www.pandora.com/podcast/live-from-the-edison-hotel-times-square-chronicles-presents/PC:1001084740

Stitcher:

https://www.stitcher.com/show/1084740

Spotify:

Amazon:

https://music.amazon.com/podcasts/e3ac5922-ada8-4868-b531-12d06e0576d3

Apple Podcasts:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/live-from-the-edison-hotel-times-square-chronicles-presents/id1731059092

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Stratford’s Romeo and Juliet Satisfies But Never Truly Finds its Originality

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Drumming up a goddess in white, she sings from the opening monologue that lays the groundwork for Stratford Festival‘s Romeo and Juliet. It’s a sparkling starry opening, drawing forth images of star-crossed lovers that look to the heavens for guidance. Captivating and engaging in its creation, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is getting the full treatment this year playing well and true. Directed with determination by Sam White (Stratford’s Wedding Band), the production digs its heels into the traditional, holding on to a visual that feels more historical than forward floating. It’s a pleasurable outing, giving these fine actors ample opportunity to do what they are trained to do, with the older guard finding an authentic connection to the material. At the same time, the younger, less seasoned souls deliver their lines compassionately and with respect, but did not manage to find an earthy grounded nature to their unpacking. They say lines cause they are written, not because they feel them moving through them.

Jonathan Mason as Romeo and Vanessa Sears as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

The famed star-crossed lovers, dressed in color-coded costumes by set and costume designer Sue LePage (Shaw’s Brigadoon), are utterly sweet and endearing in the first half of their love story. Romeo, played warmly and compassionately by the handsome Jonathan Mason (Stratford’s Little Women) finds ample opportunity to give us a youth who falls quickly in love with his Juliet, played wide-eyed and giggly by the lovely and captivating Vanessa Sears (Stratford’s Twelfth Night). Following the straightforward path to love and marriage, these two come together as if following the stage directions of the play, rather than us feeling the electricity in their actions. It does feel sweet and engaging when they talk about love to others, especially in the first half, but when the actually falling in love happens, it comes too fast and somewhat forced, saying lines about love, attraction, and devotion as if they know they are famous lines, long before we even feel the spark of lust or fascination flying between them. In the second half, filled with despair, grief, and anger, these two struggle to find the emotional truth hidden deep down inside their young hearts. They stay, following the text and emoting as instructed. The lines are delivered with force, but never feel like it is in their bones or their flowing in their red hot blood.

From left: Glynis Ranney as Nurse, Andrew Iles as Mercutio, John Kirkpatrick as Balthasar, and Steven Hao as Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

The same can not be said of Glynis Ranney (Stratford’s Much Ado About Nothing) and Scott Wentworth (Stratford’s Twelfth Night) as the Nurse and Friar Laurence, who find clarity and deep connection to every line uttered. Ranney’s Nurse gives a well-rounded and clever portrayal that is both touching and lovely, making every line have a personal journey and meaning. And “Holy Saint Francis“, Wentworth’s Friar also unpacks frameworks and understanding into every movement he makes and every line spoken. It feels rooted in the here and now, and motivated by what is happening around him and what is being said to him. This can not be said of the majority of this production.

The same can be said of the always reliable and talented Graham Abbey (Stratford’s Much Ado About Nothing) as Capulet, Juliet’s father, who has to manage his emotional state through a range as large as a roller coaster. He first has to be open and accepting when he sees Mason’s Romeo at his masked party, a party that is filled with sexual tension and energy. Abbey’s Capulet must chastize the overzealous (and not all that believable) Tybalt, portrayed by Emilio Vieira (Stratford’s Grand Magic), to settle his fury down. He instructs him to just enjoy the party, as Romeo is doing no harm, and he hears he’s quite likable. Yet, later, he must shift to the father figure who is ready to throw his daughter down and away almost violently when she says she does not want to marry the good, somewhat bland, Paris, played by Austin Eckert (Stratford’s Twelfth Night). It’s a difficult and dutifully performed swing that Abbey must make, and we believe it, drinking the shift in authentically.

Unfortunately, Jessica B. Hill (Stratford’s Richard III) as Lady Capulet doesn’t achieve the same level of understanding. She, like the somewhat forgettable 郝邦宇 Steven Hao (Tarragon’s Cockroach) as Benvolio, the underused Michael Spencer-Davis (Stratford’s Love’s Labour’s Lost) as Montague, and Antonette Rudder (Stratford’s Hamlet-911) as Lady Montague, never really finding a strong footing within this rendering. They all, like the two leads, deliver fine presentations, without discovering a unique framework or motivation for them to actually speak those famed lines. [On a side note, I’ve always been curious about the disappearance of Lady Montague in the second half for reasons of plot. leading me always to question why Shakespeare doesn’t include her for that emotional final scene when all the other parents and players arrive. I wonder if some double-casting complications prevented Romeo’s mother from being present in that final scene. Did the same actor also play the Friar? Or Paris? The reasonings are there and reported by Montague, but they don’t seem necessary to the plot or the play, and are somewhat imposed upon.]

Andrew Iles as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

One of the better performances of this production lies within Andrew Iles (Stratford’s Three Tall Women) and his double-duty portrayal of Mercutio and another hooded role that surprisingly makes us sit up and take notice in a production that does not have a lot of surprises within. The sword scenes are generally thrilling, produced by fight and intimacy director Anita Nittoly (Stratford’s The Rez Sisters), although the epic battle between Romeo and Tybalt felt awkward and misrepresented. Romeo doesn’t actually stab the fiery cousin of Juliet, but strangles him in a way that looks more like a neck and shoulder rub than anything remotely deadly, yet they continually speak of blood being shed. Now in a production that took a lot of liberties with the language, this could be forgiven, but this is not the construction of this Romeo and Juliet. It’s literate and determined to follow the text to a level that almost hurts their unpacking. And speaking of literate, Thomas Duplessie (Stratford’s Grand Magic) as the illiterate servant Peter also manages to find moments of charm and engagement that feel honest and clever. I wish the production took more chances like it did with these two, delivering moments of unique thoughtfulness and earthiness that live deeper in the soul and soil of the play. Many in the cast, thanks to White’s direction need to dig down much deeper below the obvious surface to create more complex formulations, contemplations, and emotional states that would make us sit up and pay more attention. Giving us a slightly different vantage point to unpack, Like they did with the apothecary casting.

But as delivered here on Stratford’s Festival Stage, with lighting by Louise Guinand (Stratford’s Les Belles-Soeurs) and musical composition and sound design by Debashis Sinha (Stratford’s Casey and Diana), this Romeo and Juliet delivers a Shakespearean staple that isn’t all that deep or unique. It’s genuinely straightforward and unpacked in a clear obvious manner – beyond the seasoned pros who find some captivating weight. It keeps us tuned in but not dazzled or fascinated by this well-known story. This Romeo and Juliet needed some freshness and a formula that didn’t feel so standardized. It needs some originality stitched inside its well-wornness. The Stratford Festival can do better than this. It’s definitely not unwatchable nor is it terrible, but it does hang out in the world of fine and functional, and I was hoping for more. I guess I’ll have to hold my breath and wait to see what is in store for me this week when I see the new West End production of Romeo & Juliet, directed and produced by Jamie Lloyd, and starring Tom Holland as Romeo and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers as Juliet.. It just opened a week or so ago at the Duke of York’s Theatre, and I’m seeing it tomorrow. Cross your fingers for me. And for these two star-crossed lovers.

Jonathan Mason as Romeo (left) and Vanessa Sears as Juliet with Scott Wentworth as Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

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