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Out of Town

Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas Needs Tuning



Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, now being presented in a live musical adaptation at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago, was originally a warm-hearted muppet television special from the Jim Henson Company, loosely inspired by the O. Henry story, “The Gift of the Magi”.  It debuted on Canadian television in 1977 and in the U.S. on HBO in 1978. It aired again later successfully in the 90’s on Nickelodeon and ABC.

This live adaptation, co-authored by director/choreographer Christopher Gattelli and producer Timothy Allen McDonald, with songs by legendary songwriter Paul Williams, puts all the muppet magic of the original onstage, plus a whole lot more of it.

Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone, Andy Mientus

Unfortunately, just recreating a filmed puppet show with live performances is not enough to make a successful stage musical.  The leading muppet characters are now being portrayed by live actors.  What was charming and innocent when done by puppets seems unduly naïve and emotionally thin when presented by real adults with black noses.  Adults who are muppet fans because of the raucous comedy of The Muppet Show, and who enjoy the winking, mature knowledge behind the jokes in the Piggy/Kermit relationship, will find none of those pleasures in this childlike, innocent tale.

Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone as Ma

Also, this adaptation is slavishly loyal to the original teleplay. It adds no new dimension to the characters or the story, in either the libretto or the songs. To appeal to all ages, Into the Woods put an adult perspective on its fairy tales, and Avenue Q team layered an adult sensibility onto their muppet characters.  Such an expansion of concept is sorely needed here to keep the grown-ups awake.

What was tightly crafted as a short film is now twice as long, and seems stretched too thin.  The muppets enliven the meager story and simplistic dialogue with their antics as background characters.  But conceptually, the show barely rises to the level of mediocre children’s theater.

Ben Mathew, Nick Cearley, Andy Mientus, Steven Huyn

The story revolves around a boy otter, Emmet, and his mother, Ma, who are looking for a way to buy each other a Christmas present when they don’t have enough money to do so.

Emmet, who isn’t a particularly interesting character in the original film for any reason other than being a talking otter, is given a sincere but equally bland embodiment here by Andy Mientus.  As Ma, the sweet voiced Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone is as touching as the material allows her to be.

Matt Furtado, James Silson, Jordan Brownlee Mat

There are nice turns by all the supporting actors, including Kevin Covert as Mayor Fox, Emily Rohm as Gretchen Fox, and Sawyer Smith as Madame Squirrel, among others. The two actors who really captured my attention were Steven Huynh as the dimwitted Wendell Porcupine, and the ever-talented Sharriese Hamilton, who delivers a G rated, musical striptease that was the most delightful actor moment of the evening.

In the best musicals, the story is driven by the desires of the central character, who gets to express what he or she wants in song. Unfortunately, in this adaptation as well as the original, Emmet is dragged passively through this story for a long time before he seems to want anything. Worse yet, he never gets to sing about it directly.  It’s a glaring shortcoming of the original material which should have been addressed.

I’ve been a fan of Paul Williams for years, but his songs here are all what musical theater conductor and teacher, Lehman Engel, called “charm” songs. Those are songs which stand alone for a pleasant moment, and provide a break from the action. But they neither advance the story nor directly express the emotional journey of the characters, as great theater songs need to do.

The opening number, “The Bathing Suit That Grandma Otter Wore,” about how a fat otter’s pelt got turned into a lot of useful things, was originally very funny, coming from the mouths of puppet otters singing about their skinned relative. But it loses most of its comic impact when sung by very human-looking actors. That’s followed by a string of country-tinged, mildly funny tunes, none of which express the inner lives of the characters.

This show clearly needs a few new musical theater songs that would emanate from the key emotional moments in the story. After twenty-seven years of active development on this project, this creative team should have realized that a long time ago. But apparently, they can’t see the forest for the fake fur.

What is most entertaining about this production are all the muppet characters, both new and old, who are brought to life by a stage full of super talented actor-puppeteers. The opening moment, in which a woodpecker sets the tempo for the band, makes it clear that the puppets will be the real stars of the show. The new opening number, “Waterville”, features tap dancing bunny rabbits who had me giggling. A gaggle of goofy flying squirrels have a fun song with Emmet, “Trust that Branch,” which is the only number that elevates the story thematically.

The muppet bits in the talent show itself are all really funny. A mean piano player drives the dancing bunnies to go at breakneck speed in revenge for having invaded her garden. A troupe of acrobatic squirrels manipulated by unseen operators is a delight of black art puppetry. One brilliant sight gag involves a deer mesmerized by a spotlight as if it were seeing a car in the road. It literally stopped the show with laughter for a very long time. Unfortunately, the central story is not improved by all the furry funny business.

The Henson Company clearly wants a perennial family stage show for the holidays. But unless the creative team finds its musical theater rudder, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas will remain strictly a Saturday morning kid’s show, and drift along in development until, as the song goes, “the river meets the sea”.

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas plays now through December 31st at the Studebaker Theater, 410 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago.  For tickets visit, or call 312-753-3210.

Jeffery Lyle Segal is a multifaceted theater artist who has worn many professional hats. He started as a musical theater performer in his teens. He attended Stanford U., Northwestern University, and SUNY at Binghamton to study acting, directing and dramatic literature. He also wrote theater reviews for The Stanford Daily and was Arts Editor of WNUR Radio at Northwestern. After college, he is proud to have been the first full time Executive Director of Chicago’s acclaimed Steppenwolf Theater Company. He left them to work as a theater actor and director. His special effects makeup skills got him into the movies, working on the seminal cult horror film, Re-Animator.He also did casting for several important Chicago projects, sometimes wearing both production hats, as he did on Chicago’s most famous independent movie, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. While living in Los Angeles, he joined the Academy for New Musical Theater, where he developed two book musicals as a composer, lyricist and librettist, Down to Earth Girl (formerly I Come for Love, NYMF 2008), and Scandalous Behavior! (York Developmental Reading Series 2010). He wrote, produced and performed his song “Forever Mine” as the end title theme of the horror film, Trapped! He also has written songs for his performances in cabaret over the years, and the time he spent pursuing country music in Nashville. Most recently he created a musical revue, Mating the Musical, for the Chicago Musical Theater Festival 2016. In NYC, he has attended the BMI musical theater writers’ workshop, and the Commercial Theater Institute 14 week producer program. He is currently creating a company to develop new musicals online. He still keeps up his makeup chops, working with top doctors in NYC and Chicago as one of the country’s most highly regarded permanent cosmetic artists ( and as a member of Chicago local IATSE 476.

Out of Town

Two Epic Centerpieces in Two Very Different (and Dynamic) Musical Treatments Revel in Their Magnificence in Toronto: “Dion: A Rock Opera” & “De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail”




Within two very different musical renderings inside two different theatres in Toronto, two very different yet magnificently dynamic characters take hold of center stage and create magic out of legends; one myth and the other tragically human, and musical art out of their tales of love and power. Seen back to back over the weekend, these two shows: Coal Mine Theatre‘s Dion: A Rock Opera & Soulpepper‘s De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail deliver the musical goods in abundance, finding opportunity and inventiveness in their unpacking, opening up the field with creative power, and fueling our imagination with their energy and superb talent.

Jacob MacInnis in Coal Mine Theatre’s Dion: A Rock Opera. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

With a red-tiled runway and a magnificently gifted soothsayer calling forth a Greek mythology pathway down the center of the Coal Mine Theatre, Dion: A Rock Opera rocks fantastically and enthusiastically into the black and white fashioned spotlight of The Bacchae. The musical tailors, quite tremendously, the tale of Dionysus, orDion, as he is sung and called here, in surprisingly theatrical energy and determination. It’s an epic rendering of an ancient tale with modern gender-bashing sensibilities and a captivating sound and fury, with four chorus souls seated at each end, giving us just a wee flavor of the spectacle we are about to digest. We, the spectators of this extravaganza, sit on each side of this runway, gazing at the statuary and each other, waiting in anticipation for Euripides’ classic tragedy to begin. And within the first few bars of music, sung by the impeccably dynamic and detailed SATE (Soulpepper’s A Streetcar Named Desire), we are transported and delivered into the hands of Ted Dykstra and Steven Mayoff’s Dion.

(L to R): Saccha Dennis, Kelsey Verzotti, Max Borowski, and Kaden Forsberg, with Jacob
MacInnis in the center, in Coal Mine Theatre’s Dion: A Rock Opera. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

In the beginning, “the word is Evoi” and SATE sings out loud, magnificently, and emphatically, framing a concept that proclaims the ‘exclamation of Bacchic frenzy‘ as delivered by the blind soothsayer, Tiresias (SATE), who has lived a life as both a man and a woman. Tiresias lays out the foundations in subtle magnificently sung scenarios that hold our attention hypnotically, backed by an energized chorus, made up of the followers of the cult of Dion: Max Borowski (Ovation’s Cabaret), Saccha Dennis (Tift’s Jesus Christ Superstar), Kaden Forsberg (Drayton’s Sh-Boom), and Kelsey Verzotti (Vertigo’s Gaslight). Their voices ring out the proclamation with a deliciously operatic edge and fever that engages and excites us delightfully, as the chorus plays with light and their supple bodies, energized by the captivating choreography of associate director Kiera Sangster (Shaw’s Grand Hotel). As directed with fire and precision by Peter Hinton-Davis (Tarragon’s The Hooves Belonged…), Dion unwraps the electric formula and dives fully in, unleashing the nine-person cast with a communal vibe reminiscent of an elevated and gender-fluid Jesus Christ Superstar in the modern world of inclusivity. The musical piece drives forward in both its sound and fury, thanks to the fine work by composer Ted Dykstra (Coal Mine’s Creditors) and a libretto by Steven Mayoff (Turnstone Press’ Fatted Calf Blues), giving us echoes of others, while finding authenticity and inclusion inside itself.Mastering the duality of the otherworldly central character, this non-binary demigod Dion, played to vocal perfection by the talented Jacob Macinnis (Stratford’s Play on! A Shakespeare Mixtape), luxuriates with style and stature in the powerful position of half-human, half God. Dion, in great magical style, has enraptured the citizens of Thebes, who have been tyrannically ruled in pseudo-Trumpian rage by Pentheus, well played with fury by Allister MacDonald (That Theatre Company/Buddies’ Angels in America). It’s the ultimate powerful match, between absolute power and absolute pleasure, embodied passionately by both Macinnis and MacDonald.

The strange “seduction” of the city, set upon first by Dion on the mother of Pentheus, Agave, beautifully embodied by the captivating Carly Street (Canadian Stage’s Heisenberg), has drenched the city streets with mayhem, violence, and drunken desire, in revenge against the hateful Pentheus for spreading blasphemous lies about Dion’s mother Semele, destroying her reputation after her death and Dion’s birth. It’s epic and delicious, as the two stand facing one another for battle on that long narrow stage, designed dynamically by set and costume designer Scott Penner (Off-Broadway’s JOB), with inventive insightful lighting by Bonnie Beecher (Shaw’s Shadow of a Doubt) and a clever sound design by Tim Lindsay (Eclipse’s Sunday in the Park), assisted beautifully by technical director Sebastian Marziali (TO Fringe’s Lysistrata), stage manager Fiona Jones (Tarragon’s The Hooves Belonged…), production manager Erik Richards (ReadyGo’s Talk Treaty to Me), and supervising production manager Wesley Babcock (Factory’s Armadillos).

The battle is on, “storming and surrendering” to the sound of bursting balloons and agony, all exactly as Dion has planned and dynamically unfolded by this terrifically engaging cast. “It’s you who’s in my trap“, sings Dion, as Pentheus fights back with a “Tweet, Tweet, Tweet“, but the “great reclaiming” is not far away, with Dion, through the powerfully voiced cast (particularly Macinnis, SATE, and Street), working their magic on Pentheus, and us in the audience. We watch in wonderment as this magnificently dynamic reckoning of Pentheus struts its way to the decapitating ending. The music, as delivered solidly and dynamically by musical director Rob Foster (Mirvish’s Rock of Ages), sings and soars non-stop, from beginning to end, touching on the ancient story with a rock opera edge and wit.

The pop song aria energy is dramatic, even when repetitive, finding urgency in its drawn-out meanderings in single-minded non-binary force. The catchy choral arrangements layer the piece with movement and light, on that catwalk stage, and we can’t help but be pulled into the theatricality of the piece, as planned by both the director, Hinton-Davis, and The Bacchae story. It is exactly as it should be, and we can’t help but fall under the spell of Dion: A Rock Opera at Coal Mine, and its magical Rock Opera queerness and sensual subline sensibility.

Max Borowski, Kaden Forsberg, Kelsey Verzotti, and Saccha Dennis in Coal Mine Theatre’s Dion: A Rock Opera. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

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

De Profundis (Latin: “from the depths”) is a hypnotically potent letter written by a ruined and tormented Oscar Wilde during his many years’ imprisonment in Reading Gaol, to the man who ultimately destroyed him, “Bosie”, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde wrote this letter in 1897, close to the end of his imprisonment after his conviction for ‘gross indecency‘, recounting his relationship and extravagant engagement with Bosie, which eventually led to his ruin and imprisonment. He indicts both Bosie’s vanity and selfishness, while also acknowledging, quite poetically, his own weakness in acceding to Bosie’s demands. “I blame myself,” he repeats in Soulpepper Theatre’s brilliant De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail, before singing the refrain, “Happy Birthday Oscar!” for the ‘presents‘ he was sarcastically gifted by himself, and by others.

This is just the first half of the letter, wherein the second half, Wilde dives into a spiritual landscape, ending with the framing, “Your Affectionate Friend“. Soulpepper’s De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail, crafted from this very letter, is a powerful and majestic investigation, worthy of all the magnificent theatrical magic that is unveiled here. Through the unparalleled creative energy of adaptor and director, Gregory Prest (Soulpepper’s Of Human Bondage) with original music by composer/music director/arranger/orchestrator Mike Ross (Soulpepper’s Spoon River) and lyricist Sarah Wilson (Soulpepper’s Rose), Soulpepper has unleashed the most magnificent musical fantasy that I have had the pleasure of sitting through. It’s powerfully captivating and emotionally destructive; engagingly clever and beyond witty, pulling quotes from Wilde out of a metal hat, reminding us all of his incredible ability to craft intellectual gold from his quick observations and sharp mind. “If you know, you know.”

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

Ushered into the fantastic unwrapping of this letter; a 55,000-word communication addressed to Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, Wilde’s friend and previous lover, Robbie, touchingly and lovingly portrayed by Jonathan Corkal-Astorga (Eclipse’s Sunday in the Park…), engages directly with us, taking us gently by the hand and guides us through the proceedings, that is until an impatient Oscar pokes his head through the door and chastizes the gentle Robbie, hilariously. It’s a wonderful bit of pre-play, propelling us into the more torturous arena of a confinement cell where Oscar Wilde, played to wild perfection by the intricate and meticulously well-defined Damien Atkins (Factory’s Here Lies Henry), dives right into the specific meanderings of his sharp-witted mind and angry hurt heart.

The unraveling, over 95 minutes, is a not uncomplicated, defined bit of abundance, on a stage meticulously well orchestrated in layers by set and lighting designer Lorenzo Savoini (Soulpepper’s King Gilgamesh…). Savoini creates some visually arresting magic, as Oscar’s cramped jail cell evaporates to the sides, giving Oscar an ever-enlargening arena to dramatize his damaged psyche and emotional variance. The effect is majestic and deep, with perfect projections elevating the dramatics almost effortlessly, created masterfully by designer Frank Donato (Soulpepper’s Guide to Being Fabulous), with a strong forceful assist by costume designer Ming Wong (Stratford’s Rent), movement director Indrit Kasapi (Buddies’ The First Stone), and sound designer Olivia Wheeler (Stratford’s A Wrinkle in Time).

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

Director Prest delivers an exceptional experience filled to overflowing with personality and emotion, playing with the interconnectivity of the framework and giving Atkins the space and platform to really capture and translate his emotional language. De Profundis is not your traditional musical, by any means, it lingers and floats around the idea of love and lust that sometimes is best delivered through song (and some dance). Atkins is the perfect vessel to unpack it vocally, spiritually, and creatively, either through dramatic sequences filled with anger and sadness, or a bouncy Irish song, that spins out of his control most amazingly.

Bosie, magnificently embodied by the gorgeous Colton Curtis (Stratford’s A Chorus Line), flits in and out, playing both the antagonist and the pained lover, edging him forward into emotional chaos with a captivating stare or snarl. For having little to say, like the pseudo-MC role of Corkal-Astorga’s Robbie, the effect is powerfully dynamic and painfully engaging. It’s almost a solo show, with Atkins leading us through the paces expertly, but it would also diminish the piece without these two adding a layer of entrapped emotional engagement. Pirouetting between musical genres most cleverly, De Profundis elevates itself with its unpredictability, cleverly enacted emotionality, and the absolute brilliance in its visual splendor. “Like Byron, but better.

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

Atkins’ Oscar is definitely the main and most ingenious focal point, even as he stares longingly and angrily at the beautiful Bosie. The actor is outrageously magnificent in the part, rotating and spinning himself from charming and witty to manic and completely diminished by anger and frustration, mostly for his blind obedience to Bosie’s vanity and eventual dismissal. Curtis’ Bosie mesmerizingly unleashes a silent but meaningful dance behind the singing Oscar, nearly perfect in his frame and form, adding a layer of complicated understanding to the idea that Wilde basically “lost his mind over a beautiful man.” Understandable, but it is Atkins who holds us completely in his hands, leading us through the letter with imperfect perfection right to the last moment of engagement. It’s one of the most stellar performances of the year, inside an absolutely gorgeous rendering, and it should not be missed if you have any say in the matter.

Oscar Wilde wrote this impressive manuscript and poem between January and March of 1897. There was no contact between Bosie and Wilde, even as Wilde desperately pleaded to the prison walls for a reply. After all these trials and tribulations, both public and criminal, and all the suffering from his imprisonment, the physical hard labor of his punishment, and the emotional isolation, his impulse, layered with anger, frustration, love, and forgiveness, was to write a ‘love letter’ to the man who essential caused his destruction. The prison did not allow Oscar to send the long letter, which he was only allowed to write alone in his cell “for medicinal purposes”, one page a day. Each page was taken and saved for him to read over and revise at the end when he was finally released on May 18, 1897. The rest is history, sad, but true. Yet, it made the most magnificent musical fantasy one could ever hope for, from a love-sick artist, struggling to deal with his anger, betrayal, and the art of forgiveness.




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Out of Town

Girl from the North Country Tugs Your Heartstrings



Bob Dylan’s songs reflected the struggles of the working class, and evoked images of the Depression era, rural America, which still lived in the memories of the older adults of the late 60’s and early 70’s. In writer/director Connor McPherson’s jukebox musical, Girl from the North Country, Dylan’s songs serve as a backdrop for the world of pained souls he assembles onstage. The national tour of this show, in Chicago now through February 25 at the CIBC Theatre, is an emotionally charged evening with an outstanding ensemble of performers who should not be missed when it comes to your town.

Nick Laine (John Schiappa) is the proprietor of a boarding house in Deluth, Minnesota in 1934. Mr. Schiappa’s face seems to be chiseled from stone. He brings a similar strength of heart to his performance, as he doggedly tries to sustain the lives of his family while on the brink of foreclosure. He juggles that obligation with caring for his mentally ill wife, Elizabeth (Jennifer Blood). She left me alternatingly in laughter and tears with her unfiltered outbursts and unexpected sense of humor in the face of her character’s disability.

Jennifer Blood in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Nick and Elizabeth have raised a black teenage girl as their own, Marianne (Sharaé Moultri), whose centered performance is both stunningly honest and deeply beautiful. She is also inexplicably pregnant, in a story beat that is oddly unexplored. Their young son, Gene (Ben Biggers) is an unemployed drunk, who seems to know he has no future. Mr. Biggers makes us ache with sympathy for this poor, tortured soul.

Sharaé Moultrie in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

One of their boarders, Mrs. Neilson (Carla Woods) is sleeping with Nick, and waiting for a financial windfall with an optimism which is ripe to be shattered. Ms. Woods is a warm and wise soul who makes us share her longing for a better life.

Carla Woods (foreground) in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

The other boarders include the Burke family, who have fallen on hard times. David Benoit as Mr. Burke is compelling as a man dancing on an emotional tightrope, desperately trying to avoid being pushed off by financial and family tensions. As Mrs. Burke, Jill Van Velzer is both riveting and heartbreaking in her longing to escape the personal prison of her life. I can still see the pain in her eyes as she would try to force a smile in the face of hopelessness. As their seemingly autistic adult son, Elias, Aidan Wharton is convincing, if necessarily limited as a character.

Jill Van Velzer in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

The boarding house is also visited by a young black boxer with a past to hide, Joe Scott, played with great dignity by Matt Manuel. The other visitor, Reverend Marlowe, is a small time con man whose unctuous manner and devious soul are perfectly captured by Jeremy Webb.

Alan Ariano in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

The personal stories interwoven into this emotional tapestry evoke memories of the great ensemble plays by early twentieth century writers, like Clifford Odets and Eugene O’Neill. It’s the kind of writing we don’t get to see enough of anymore, in our times of rising budgets and shrinking casts. It’s also a far more serious exploration of character, and depth of emotion, than you get from the typical musical today.

(L-R) Aidan Wharton, David Benoit, Jennifer Blood and Jeremy Webb in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Their stories are told in flashback by the spirit of another boarder, Dr. Walker, played by Alan Ariano. Unlike Tom in “The Glass Menagerie,” The doctor does not undergo any personal emotional journey, or gain any perspective on his own life by being the narrator of the play. As a result, his presence seems tacked on, and he lacks any of the emotional heft accorded to the other characters in the story.

John Schiappa in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Producers and writers in theater and film have been cobbling stories together around existing song catalogues since the early 20th century.  It was easier to create a direct relationship between the songs and stories back in the day when the songs were mostly simpler variations on love, which could be shoe-horned into almost any Broadway romance. Dylan’s twenty-two musical ruminations on life included here, which range from familiar hits (“Like a Rolling Stone”, “Make You Feel My Love”) to lesser known titles, relate much less directly to the story being told here than the songs do in other successful jukebox shows, whether we’re talking about Jersey Boys, Beautiful or even Singin’ in the Rain.

Sharaé Moultrie in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

The title song, “Girl from the North Country”, is a memory song about a lost love on a wintry day, no part of which has anything to do directly with what is being depicted on stage. The legacy of the Depression is evoked by “Duquesne Whistle” which states,“Can’t you hear that Duquesne whistle blowing/ Blowing through another no good town.”But the rest of the song doesn’t have anything to do with this story either.

Sharaé Moultrie and Matt Manuel in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

There’s a bit more connection to the existential despair of “Jokerman,” whose lyric states, “Freedom just around the corner for you. But with the truth so far off, what good will it do?”The songs overall create an appropriate tapestry of Americana sounds and deeply personal images. But they intersect only tangentially, at best, with McPherson’s story.

L-R Ben Biggers, Sharaé Moultrie, Jennifer Blood and John Schiappa in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American Tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

To the credit of the production, the songs seem to come from the hearts of the characters even if the lyrics are disconnected from the actual story. The music evokes both the era and the despair of the characters, and the universally talented singing actors stir the soul. A great deal of credit for the emotional power of the music goes to Simon Hale for his outstanding orchestrations and arrangements.

Chiara Trentalange (center) and the cast of the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

The fine ensemble of musicians under the direction of Conductor/Keyboardist Timothy Splain, and supporting ensemble singers, weave in and out of the action seamlessly under Mr. McPherson’s direction. Actors David Benoit and Jill Val Velzer are also employed as percussionists, at a drum kit which sits for the whole show on one side of the stage. It did seem a bit odd and inconsistent to have only these two actors step out of their roles and become musicians, when the other actors were not similarly used.

Aidan Wharton and the cast of the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American Tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

When I go to the theater, I would rather be stirred deeply than glossed over emotionally. Although the songs may not integrate with the story, The Girl From the North Country will move you with the emotional power of the outstanding performances.

Chiara Trentalange and Ben Biggers in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American Tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

The Girl From The North Country continues now through February 25, 2024 at the CIBC Theatre in Chicago.

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Out of Town

A Slew of Personal One-Person Shows Hit Deep in Toronto: “Guilt (A Love Story)” & “As I Must Live It”




It’s all about the one in the center, and after taking in the heavy, twisted, and intense one-person show, Huff at the Grand Theatre in London Ontario earlier this week, I found myself entering back into the Toronto Theatre world for another two, albeit very different, but somewhat similar one-person shows that etched out very specific landscapes for each of the talented writers/performers to spin out from. Each in their own very particular and very personal way, and both from an internal force that, turns out, is impossible to ignore.

Diane Flacks in Guilt (A Love Story) at Tarragon Theatre (2024). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The first was on Valentine’s Day, entitled, ever so appropriately for the day, Guilt (A Love Story) at Tarragon Theatre. How perfect. The second is the very inventive As I Must Live It, at Theatre Passe Muraille. Both excellent streams of confession, manifested out of personal trauma, pain, and pride or joy, and brought to the stage in an exuberant style overflowing with energy and determination. And I have one more to go this weekend (after a slight detour into Dion at The Coal Mine), when I see another one-person show, De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail at Soulpepper, although I think that will have a very different edge than the two I saw over the last two nights.

Both of the opening night shows are an experience in personality and pain to remember, led by high-wattage performing balls of light, with big proclamations and endless amounts of style and energy. They each usher us into the space with a unique personal flair and differing edges that engage; one fueled by tequila, wine, and a historical tradition of self-doubt and confidence; the other filled to overflowing with familial love, need, and mental health complications, drunk in from a faulty water bottle that needs to be replaced. Or it could be Jamaican rum in that bottle. But I doubt it.

The first one begins with a shot inside the Tarragon Theatre. The energy is high and excited, as the writer and performer, Diane Flacks (Tarragon’s Waiting Room), makes her way in from the lobby for her fifth one-person show in the space. She comes in big, carrying a tray of tequila shots for the willing few who took her up on her offering. I wish one of those shots were within my reach, as a bit of tequila wouldn’t hurt the hearing of her one-person show Guilt (A Love Story) as it dances its way into our frame. The premise is intoxicating, like the drinking that Diane says she doesn’t have a problem with. “I feel better when I’m drinking“, she tells us as she opens up seeing how that could be read a bit wrong. But this is not the story she is intent on telling. Oh no, it is something far more complicated and engaging than that. That old alcoholic story we have heard, in a way, before, but what Flacks has in store is something entirely hers, and one that piques our interest pretty much from the get-go.

Drinking numbs the guilt,” is also something she leads us in with, but that’s no surprise, and as the references fly fast and furious forward, rattling the cage bars with funny intent, Guilt (A Love Story) finds its true force in the unraveling of a family and a partnership. But she isn’t the typical victim in the stereotypical tale. She is the one who opens this thing up and runs a bit wild with her newfound freedom. She is the one who left, found passion and excitement outside, and she is also the one who has to take on the Guilt.

Diane Flacks in Guilt (A Love Story) at Tarragon Theatre (2024). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

It’s a captivatingly funny unpacking, filled with formulations and characterizations that connect with the passion and the raw guilt that has been found, like “a raccoon in my chest” clanging and banging on the bars. And as directed smoothly by Alisa Palmer (Tarragon’s Sibs), Flacks finds a way to both laugh and find emotional truth in the matter, walking us through her crumbling marriage and all the ways she tries to hold on to all things important. She radiates pride in her family, but also, slyly, adds that being Jewish leads her easily down the road of self-blame into a landscape filled with Guilt and desperation. Her embodiment of Sigmund Freud steps in for a few moments, giving us a playful intellectual framework on the matter, inhaling deeply the smoke from an imaginary cigar, quite naturally. We also are visited by Flacks’ memorable bubbe who unpacks more in a few one-sided lines of a phone conversation than one can fathom. But it’s the yoga instructor who is the one that seals the deal for me, adding layers of underlying knowledge and insight that can only be matched by Flacks’ characterization of a neuro-scientist explaining it all to us as a glowing brain centers our soul.

Featuring uncomplicated choreography and intimacy coordination by Rebecca Harper (National Theatre School of Canada’s Director of Movement), a somewhat overly complicated diamond island set and costume design by Jung-Hye Kim (Crow’s The Chinese Lady), superb transitional lighting by Leigh Ann Vardy (Stratford’s Richard II) and a solid sound design by Deanna H Choi (Tarragon’s Cockroach), Guilt (A Love Story) and Flacks engage with her complicated unraveling with an expert’s ease. It’s the one with her wife that fills the space, but also the one that gets the shorter end of the stick as the divorce papers get finalized. Her X takes up very little space in this tale, as it centers itself more firmly around the effects this breaking has on her family; mainly her two sons whom she worships and defends like the greatest of wild beast mothers. Her play borders on standup, filling in the gaps with funny asides on culture and Tik-Tok mothering, with some being more engaging than others, Yet, most find their target effectively, pulling the audience along in connected happy engagement even if the framework isn’t as solid as one could hope for. I can’t say that I was completely enraptured from beginning to end, but she is an effective personality and an engaging performer who finds her way through a unique perspective with aplomb and determination.

Over at Theatre Passe Muraille, in co-production with Modern Times Stage, another unraveling comes alive, rollicking playfully forward most wonderfully and emotionally. The show, As I Must Live It, opens up in the lobby, much to my surprise, from the stairs to the floor where a rose is given, as well as a ball and a hat. All are de-thorned and disinfected for our safety, we are told by the exuberant and charmingly sweet Luke Reece, the writer and performer of this one-person rotation. He’s clever and engagingly childlike, as he draws us to the window to tell us a story about a squirrel named Blackie who eventually comes home. It’s an endearing start, metaphorically and creatively, placing the formula in and around the idea of external editing and control; holding high our own particular voice and not giving it up for anything or anybody. We lean in, adoringly, to the imminent unveiling, curious to see more of this captivating and pure adventure that is about to be thrown, like a ball, around by this fantastically talented spoken word artist. We happily follow him into the space to take a seat somewhere in the expanse of the theatre, but we can’t help but feel like we are following some magical pied piper. Maybe more like curious city squirrels than medieval rats that had overrun Hamelin, but the appeal of his identity is strong and true; someone we want to know more about and are eager to engage with.

Under the solid direction of Daniele Bartolini (DLT Experiences’ the stranger…), As I Must Live It dives into familial engagement like an energetic kid in a playground, moving through the wide open spaces of the theatre with an expert focus. The overall experience is of wonder, yet, we are told, it is “haunted by joy” yet filled with an air of stress “cause I wanted to be perfect.” Our expert guide Reece (CBC’s ‘Notice’) starts off curled up inside a colorful pool of papers and playground equipment, courtesy of set and costume designer Jackie Chau (Factory’s The Waltz) and lighting designer Sarah Mansikka (Gloria Grethel Productions’ Elbow Room), delivering poetry with a tender air, but the unedited energy of this engaging performer can’t let him stay still for long. Soon we are transported, playfully and inventively, through his madcap costumed experience, and we just can’t help but stay completely tuned in.

Luke Reece in Theatre Passe Muraille/Modern Times Stage’s As I Must Live It. Photo by Cesar Ghisilieri.

Flying and moving through the space with a strong confidence, Reece touches on so many aspects of childhood, ranging from grandmothers, dinosaurs, Chris Pratt’s Jurassic physique, all the way to Darth Vader and a Star Wars line made famous, even in its incorrectness. That one line repeated incorrectly affected this boy named Luke for many of his most formative years, that is until he was renamed Cool, Hand-ed to Luke by a mentor that would change the angle this young emerging artist would see the world. And we revel in his open-hearted presence and delivery, feeling his effervescence and his shame as he climbs about, taking us on journeys that register and roll.

The one-person telling really takes shape, thanks to some spectacularly well-choreographed projections from UK’s Limbic Cinema (2023’s Glastonbury Festival), and their designers: Barrett Hodgson & Thom Buttery, assisted by the detailed sound design by Adrian Bent (‘SNOLPS‘). It’s cleverly playful and authentic, mixing poetic storytelling with tenderly told experiences growing up in his mixed-race hybrid family, with a mentally ill father and an overly protective caring mother, with a few grandparents thrown in for good measure. We watch the smile of this retail salesman fade from anger and shame as he climbs through his memories to talk to his mother and more, letting petals fall to the sound of Italian music. He is “killing it” throughout, as he says, even when he becomes the “robber of ignorant bliss“. Or is it “blissfully ignorant“? Such things can’t be helped sometimes when the power of words spoken from the heart is truly heard by the ones who may need to hear them in poetic delivery.

Through his signature deft wordplay, the show, As I Must Live It, is an invitation to move forward, to hear a truth that needs to be told, by a performer with clarity and vision. It moves around the playground of his youth with purpose, maybe more so, and with more structural awareness than Guilt (A Love Story). But both shine light on realms and arenas that need to be seen and truly felt, from the ground up, and it doesn’t hurt at all to be in the presence of these wonderful storytellers determined for us to see what is hidden and not talked about.

Luke Reece in Theatre Passe Muraille/Modern Times Stage’s As I Must Live It. Photo by Cesar Ghisilieri.

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Out of Town

Huff Breathes Abusive Pain in Deep at the Grand Theatre, London




The far-off static sound of television catches our attention. We focus in, searching the space for a source, but only see signs of a struggle; maybe internal. Maybe not. There is an overturned chair, a beer case, an old discarded white towel, and a beer bottle open on a black milk crate waiting for its receiver to drink it in. He, Cliff Cardinal (VideoCabaret’s (Everyone I Love), the writer and solo performer of Huff, now playing at the Grand Theatre in my hometown of London, Ontario, holds us there, enticingly, making us lean in, almost against our will, in anticipation of what will be exhaled in this 70min one-person show. We feel it coming, even through our uneasiness.

It’s a compelling beginning, filled with deadly fumes of something coming, and then we are startled into awareness by the screeching of duct tape being stretched and unwound. All this before driving music leads us fully into this life-and-death situation in that square of white light, and it becomes as clear as a plastic freezer bag pulled tight around a pained face, that this ride is going to be a wild one. Cold and weird, in a funny, disturbing kinda way that will resonate and remain in your senses like the smell of gasoline huffed for the pseudo-pleasure of pure escapism. Not actual pleasure, but the determined desperate way one would turn to in order to cope with the pain and intense hurt of neglect, abuse, and the lingering effects of loss and addiction.

A scene from Huff, showing Cliff Cardinal at the 2017 Sydney Festival (photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival)

Spun out in a space that becomes more crystal clear as this tale unwinds, with the same electric nervousness of that duct tape removal (I must say that I was glad to be situated in the third row, and not just for the fact that my note taking could be a distraction – just ask that one young lady who was doing just that in the front row), Huff  flies forward with a tense fierce chaoticness that delivers. It’s a tense unraveling, ignited by flung cigarettes and drenched in gasoline, just waiting to blow up and destroy. It’s sharp and sinewy in its humor, but complicated in its rapid-fire unveiling. Cardinal, the performer, merges his essence and scent with those he portrays, mingling his own persona with all those affected inside the story of three brothers growing up in an indigenous community in northern Ontario. It’s not a safe space, this home, and the actor unleashes them all at us with a kinetic force, giving access to their wildly violent dysfunction and abuse with a deliberate edge that is both compelling and utterly disturbing to witness.

The boundaries shift relentlessly, sometimes too quickly, as if the fear that attracts the Trickster, will summon more destruction than this middle child can bear. Is this his own story, or one that he needs to tell, loudly and aggressively, from the fume-induced perspective of a pair of underprivileged indigenous children, tortured casually by alcoholics, directed to the privileged, non-indigenous viewer, or as he calls us, his imaginary friends? Cardinal engages us directly and with force from the very beginning, drawing us into the character’s world via an in-the-moment suicide attempt. He makes us complicit to the attempt, tightening the situation around us all, and depriving himself, and the room, of oxygen, in order to really make us feel his pain, and his dark imaginative humor.

A scene from Huff, showing Cliff Cardinal at the 2017 Sydney Festival (photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival)

A solid storyteller, wrapped in frantic chaotic energy and directed with a wild force by Karin Randoja (Theatre Centre’s Jacinto; VideoCabaret’s (Everyone I Love), Cardinal unleashes a world of violence and abuse, but within the fumes of imagination and hope, possessing sacred gifts bestowed on us, as they may have been to the youngest son who can make one laugh just by blowing. The energy takes us down deep, into that deserted motel room and makes us almost sniff the siphoned-off petrol that the two youngest use for entertainment, like a demented game show run amuck, in between playing the fumiest game of all, semi-asphyxiation, all for some fun and distraction. The pain and horror of their upbringing fill the space like invisible smoke, except for the moments when hope slips into the toxic smell. It sneaks in brandishing an old-spirited cane, breathing life back in through the protective acts of a determined grandmother and a younger brother willing to do anything to draw the abuse away from this middle child, our central character, and the one that Cardinal truly wants us to know.

Somewhere between myth and reality, the mythical Trickster sneaks in, as he always does (so we are told), forcing a battle between hope and horror; life and death. The fraught chaos is relentless and real, assisted by the fine work done by set and costume designer Jackie Chau (Factory Theatre’s Wildfire), lighting designer Michelle Ramsay (Theatre Rusticle’s The Tempest), technical director Allan Day (Three Ships Collective/Soup Can Theatre’s A Christmas Carol), and sound designer Alex Williams (TPM’s Fare Game), sometimes to its detriment, hazing us in its hallucinogenic fumes, when a tad more focus could have crystalized the disturbance more. But Cardinal is relentless in his approach, forever changing form in his continual recalibration of what he wants us to hear, see, smell, and feel with determined talent. There is nothing comfortable or conventional in Cardinal’s Huff, but he does manage to draw us into his deprivation of oxygen, making us all gasp a little for breath once the lights go down and the ovation ignites.

Cliff Cardinal in Huff. Photo by Dahlia Katz. Now playing at the Grand Theatre, London. For tickets and information, click here.


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Out of Town

Diana Flacks Talks “Guilt” and the Wrestling of it at Tarragon: The Interview




GUILT (A Love Story), an all-new play about pathos returns Diane Flacks (Tarragon’s Waiting Room) back to the Tarragon Theatre for her fifth one-woman show. It’s a deep dive, we are told, into a complex, uncomfortable, and highly human feeling; into and about the “unshakable monster that is guilt,” and the things we’re not supposed to talk about. It’s around the state of being that most of us, especially parents, wrestle with inelegantly. And this frontmezzjunkie can not wait to see it.

Flack’s solo show – her first in 10 years – offers a return to her celebrated comic style that is as funny as it is wrought with guilt. In it, she offers up her most autobiographical work to date, a relatable reflection of being submerged in the long, lingering, uncomfortable feelings of guilt she experienced after ending her marriage. With Guilt, Flacks offers audiences the chance to dig deeper into the emotion with her, exploring the struggle and the comedy that can be found in our feelings of guilt and the acute awareness that she has caused others pain.

“What happens when you take that ever-present feeling of guilt and match that with the effervescence of comedy?” asks Artistic Director Mike Payette. “You get an insightful glimpse at humanity, penned and performed by the brilliance of Diane Flacks’ signature style. We’re so excited to welcome Diane back to her theatre home at the Tarragon, embracing the strange things we hold onto when life gives us lemons.”

Guilt brings the perspective of a self-sacrificing Jewish mother who becomes the instigator of a family’s dissolution. Societal effects, causes and casualties, and the feeling that we have when we’ve profoundly hurt others. This exploration may not pull punches, but don’t worry, we are told, it’s accompanied by laughs – “because how else do we get through anything?

Frontmezzjunkies was fortunate to have a little Q&A with Flacks, before seeing this personal odyssey live on stage this month at Tarragon. 

Diane Flacks in Guilt (A Love Story) at Tarragon Theatre (2024). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Q: Diane, how does it feel to return to the Tarragon Theatre with your fifth one-woman show?

A: It feels like coming home, when you adore your home. It feels full circle in many ways. The Tarragon has been the home of so much of my work as an actor and playwright. I really cannot overstate how much that means in a completely insecure and often excruciating line of work. And I admire and adore the leadership team and their focus on bringing the community together and back to the theatre.

Q; When you think about presenting something about pathos, the “unshakeable monster that is guilt“, what is your focus around this “complex, uncomfortable, and highly human feeling”?

A: My focus is being as unflinching as possible. My goal isn’t to be autobiographically accurate, but to use my own hapless experience, and the wisdom gained from it, to help illuminate something that I assume is as complex for others as it has been for me. That’s one of my missions as an artist.

Q: Where did this idea or this formula originate from?

A: I actually did a gig where I had some prepared material and then had to go on in the second act without anything prepared. I looked at the audience and admitted what was really starting to weigh on me. I was drinking too much, and it was because I was trying to numb my guilt. The audience response sent me on a journey to investigate what guilt is and how we cope with it as humans. Is it useful? Is it unique to each of us?

Q: My main gig is a psychotherapist, and in my work, guilt and shame are probably the two most talked about emotional states of being, making me more curious (and excited) to see this show in February. How did you find your way through this complicated landscape?

A: I did a lot of research into origins, personally, culturally, and psychologically. I took time to try and embody many different perspectives on what it is and how to wrestle with it. I looked for ways through, that would be useful to communicate. I used humour as a major tool because it helps when we’re talking about things that make us squirm.

Q: The piece presumably deals with the idea of feeling or being ‘hurt’ or ‘hurting’ others –  how impactful is your own life experience on your creative process as an actor and a writer in this offering?

A: It’s a big one. I didn’t imagine writing about it at first, but when something is persistent and complex in my life, I assume it is for others, and that’s where my mission statement as an artist comes in. Art’s magic is in allowing our stories to be shared, reflected, integrated, and used to heal. That sounds grandiose, but think about every time you tell or retell a story, with jokes, and how that works to ease whatever moment is troubling you. Think of trauma therapy, which, I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but the goal is to tell and retell until the story is integrated and less harmful. Theatre can do this live, together, and connected.

Q: What was the greatest challenge you had in bringing this piece to the stage?

A: Discovering the ending!

Q: What about this presentation excites you the most? What scares you the most?

A: I’m excited to be back at Tarragon and to share the material and the world with an audience. The designers are some of Canada’s treasures and I can’t wait for people to see what they have done. And Director Alisa Palmer is so sublime. She did the epic 6-hour Fall on Your Knees adaptation with the skill of a master chef, and now she does this one-person piece like a boss. Fabulous.

As to scared – it’s insane to do a solo show. It’s bonkers. Sorry, I know you’re a therapist, but bear with me. It’s very vulnerable in the best of times because you have no safety net. No other actor to lean on, no one to pick up a dropped line, no one to focus on so that you don’t focus on your nerves or insecurities. And the content is personal, so it’s especially vulnerable for me. There is a lot of humour, but if the audience is quiet, it can cause anxiety. And this is why I don’t undertake one unless the material feels super relevant and important to share with an audience. I’ve done one per decade of my career. Well, two in my twenties.  My first one Myth Me was about how young women’s identities were manipulated before they could process why. By a Thread was about childhood sexual abuse and fear and art, and was inspired by a friend’s experiences. Random Acts was about the societal expectations around coping with the randomness of violence and hurt, and based on a lecture I saw by Marianne Williamson. And Bear With Me was adapted from my book of the same name and was about all those THINGS that no one TELLS you when you’re pregnant and a new mom. Not just my experience, but literally everyone I talked to. Outrageous! And this one is similar. There is not a lot about mothers who end their marriages in the zeitgeist and about how to cope with the guilt.

Q: And what would you most like an audience to connect with?

A: I hope they connect to their own senses of empathy, accountability, love, and to their ability (or lack of it) to allow themselves the compassion to let go.

GUILT (A Love Story) runs in the Mainspace, February 6 – March 3, 2024, opening February 14. Guilt: A Love Story was developed by Mything Inc., with support from the Canada Arts Council, Tarragon Theatre (Toronto, ON) and One Yellow Rabbit (Calgary, AB), which presented a limited-run workshop production in 2022. Following its premiere run in Toronto, GUILT(A Love Story)  will appear at the Centaur Theatrein Montreal, and Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg.

Guilt (A Love Story) is written and performed by Diane Flacks (Tarragon’s Waiting Room).
Directed by Alisa Palmer (Tarragon’s Sibs), Guilt (A Love Story) features choreography and intimacy coordination by Rebecca Harper (National Theatre School of Canada’s Director of Movement), set and costume design by Jung-Hye Kim(Crow’s The Chinese Lady), lighting design by Leigh Ann Vardy (Stratford’s Richard II) and sound design by Deanna H Choi (Tarragon’s Cockroach).

GUILT (A Love Story)
Written  and performed by Diane Flacks
Directed by Alisa Palmer
February 6 – March 3, 2024 (opening February 14)

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