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Many “A Christmas Carol” Told, This One at Campbell House Museum Toronto Elevates the Tale Immersively and Emotionally

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As Christmas approaches, there is always a gorgeous gaggle of retellings of this holiday classic, almost to the point of oversaturation. There are numerous television options 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 which is just plain joyful, 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, although I generally have a leaning towards the darker versions as I’ve grown older. I recently saw a sweet pantomime version at the Shaw Festival a few weeks ago, which was fun. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to experience another jolly telling with carols and jokes, so I went in not exactly sure I was in the right head space for another.

John Fray and Thomas Gough in A Christmas Carol at the Campbell House Museum, 2023. Photo by LD.

Sometime in October for Nuit Blanche, as we wandered around Toronto for a night of art viewing (and I really mean a full night, as the event starts at 7pm and ends at 7am the following day, and we were up walking and walking until we crawled into bed at 5am exhausted but thrilled), my guy and I noticed that there was a theatrical presentation of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing that was taking place leading up to Halloween at the historical Campbell House Museum. That thought sounded like an amazing thing to do to get us into the spirit, so I reached out and introduced myself.

That production and its scheduling didn’t work out time-wise, but I was pleased as holiday punch when Soup Can Theatre reached out and invited me to their celebrated Three Ships Collective’s immersive and award-winning production of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. There was no way I could resist. The production was returning for its fifth year, aimed to enchant and dazzle us all and usher us into this festive season most spectacularly. And I felt truly blessed to be able to get into the Campbell House Museum for the production’s last performance of their acclaimed and sold-out 2023 holiday season run.

Jesse Nerenberg and Renisha Henry (as Bob and Emily Cratchit; center) and the cast of A Christmas Carol at the Campbell House Museum, 2023. Photo by LD.

Set in the charming and picturesque Campbell House Museum – a staged historical house turned into a well-regarded museum that I have always wanted to visit located in the heart of downtown Toronto – The Three Ships Collective production, with the support of Soup Can Theatre, is a surprisingly meaningful, superbly performed, and engaging retelling of this Victorian England tale. Played out by a stellar cast determined to draw us in and guide us through, this unique creation, written to perfection, pulls us in, gently and with care, finding emotional truth inside a tale we all know almost too well. It’s been decades since I actually read the story, so I have a hard time knowing exactly what this production, penned most tenderly by playwright/assistant director, Justin Haigh (Spoon Vs Hammer’s Behold, the Barfly!), did to the text to create such a captivating and fluid retelling. Yet some aspects seemingly have been changed and altered, I imagine, to fit the confines of this gorgeous historic house and to bring it all together.

The production, directed cleverly by Sare Thorpe (Soup Can’s Heretic), stealthily leads us through all of the museum’s well-cared-for rooms, gesturing us to follow the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, wonderfully embodied by Thomas Gough (Hart House’s The Crucible). He bah-humbugs the day away with cold detachment, that is until he is visited by some beautifully reinvented ghosts who deliver him carefully and thoughtfully through a much-needed journey of redemption. Passing through a series of well-crafted scenes and rooms, courtesy of some fine work by production manager/music director/assistant producer, Alecia Pagnotta (Guild Festival’s The Red Priest…), costume/prop designer, Rose Tavormina (RISE’s Personal Pandemic), assisted most diligently by stage manager Scotia Cox (b current/Theatre Passe Muraille’s X and Da Spirit) and assistant designer/assistant stage manager, Claudia Matas (Randolph School’s UrineTown), the story is brought to life in a remarkably simple and straightforward rendering that elevates and illuminates the tale with unexpected heart and care.

Nicholas Eddie in A Christmas Carol at the Campbell House Museum, 2023. Photo by LD.

Beginning in a stark office space, we are seated and instructed about what will transpire before us. We watch a hard-working Bob Crachett, played delicately and tenderly by Jesse Nerenberg (Shakespeare BASH’d’s Hamlet), engage in his work with diligence as he tries to warm his hands against all odds in the coldness. That chill lives in the air, emulating from the heart of Scrooge who makes his sharp entrance from behind. But first, just like Scrooge will soon also experience, we become acquainted with the compelling and handsomely engaging ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s recently deceased partner, played with clever fun by the devilishly good and charming Nicholas Eddie (Deadbeat’s A Plague Upon the Doctor’s House). Towering over us all, his engaging smile and ghostly presence will be our guide as we step into this carefully constructed story. He teases us onwards, pulling us forward into each of the original scenes and characters that make this the most unique re-imagining of this beloved holiday tale I have yet to see, or walked through.

With the arrival of Scrooge’s festive nephew, Fred Scrooge (who also plays father Augustus), handsomely portrayed by John Fray (safeword’s Turtleneck), his joy of the festive season sets this tale emotionally floating forward, heralded in and guided by Eddie’s Marley. The story systematically unfolds in room after room, boldly re-inventing the tale to fit the space and the spirit with some very insightful reconfigurations. I did miss the tender attachment that Scrooge has with his sister, a character not seen here, which took away a bit of the sad disconnection context with nephew Fred, but the actors make up for it with their thoughtful interactions.

Filled with a mirthful and macabre collection of magic and music, courtesy of composer/music director Emeritus, Pratik Gandhi (Soup Can’s Love is a Poverty You Can Sell), this adaptation of Charles Dickens’s tale unwinds the well-known journey with an expert’s ease. It reforms plot points in unique and captivating ways, embracing trauma and recasting ideas of love and loss. And thanks to Haigh’s superb script, the immersive Christmas Carol flows just beautifully from room to historic 1822 room, fulfilling its task spectacularly and carefully. All of the cast deliver thoughtful and engaging performances that draw us in emotionally, especially the carefully sweet Cratchit family, headed by Nerenberg’s Bob and his loving wife, Emily Cratchit, played powerfully by Renisha Henry (“BLK: An Origin Story“) – who also does a lovely job as Mrs. Fezziwig, standing engagingly beside the wonderful Luke Marty (TSC/CAA Mirvish’s God of Carnage) as the joyful Fezziwig (and Barleycorn).

There are some new characters, like the lovely Briony Merritt (The Lakeside Players’ Shanty Show), as the desperate soon-to-be evicted Lydia Berryman whose traumatizing encounter with the cold-hearted Scrooge gives added contextualization to his abhorrent character, reminding me of that horrifically well-done scene in Guy Pierce’s Scrooge. It’s disturbing to watch Gough’s Scrooge approach Merritt’s Lydia with that cold hard stare, and even though the scene shifts quickly, the smell of cruelty hangs like smoke in the chilly air. That is until Marley ushers in visitation number one, the angelic Ghost of Christmases Past, beautifully portrayed by violinist Manon Ens-Lapointe (Guild Festival’s Pygmalion), who takes us onward and upward, stopping first for a touching encounter with the newly re-crafted father of Scrooge, Augustus. (Fray). This telling doesn’t cast the man as the cruel and detached father figure he is in most depictions, but more about a man brought down by the world and about to be thrown into debtor’s prison because of his inability to succeed financially. It’s a terribly touching interaction, as created here, and it adds a whole different layering to Scrooge’s obsession with the accumulation of wealth and his tight handedness with money.

Thomas Gough in A Christmas Carol at the Campbell House Museum, 2023. Photo by LD.

One after the other, the ghosts arrive to the ringing of a bell. Second to make an appearance is the Ghost of Christmas Present, played fascinatingly by the gifted Jonnie Lombard (Birdbrain’s Featherhead). They find the formula within to create the heartbreaking cautionary tale with empathy and clarity, but most of all, uniqueness and insight. Their return as the menacing Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come is veiled in tense inventiveness, especially when we are led past a foyer filled with other veiled spirits standing ominously still, waiting and watching us. It’s a sharp creepily fun addition, that fills the air with exactly the kind of energy needed at that turning moment.

The rest of the cast finds all the right notes to draw us in as we go from room to room. Will Carr (Calgary Opera’s South Pacific) as the Young Ebenezer does a lovely job giving us an authentic view of a man on the edge, looking at love and at money with equal interest. And then letting us watch him fall, sadly to the darker side, mainly because of fear and a love avoidance to the gentle Belle, lovingly and playfully portrayed by Justine Christensen (Scrap Paper’s Cannibal); a fall that makes unfortunate sense because of that earlier re-imagined scene with Ebenezer’s father.

It’s that kind of bravery with such a sacred text and storyline that elevates this immersive re-telling and makes it somehow more connective to our modern moment. I was truly surprised when one of the most famous lines, usually spoken by the un-redemptioned Scrooge in that first scene to two men looking for donations for the poor, is transferred most tellingly to a later scene, directed at the newly formed Lydia character. It hits somehow harder there, in that different setting, more personal than when it is typically stated earlier in the first scene.

he cast of A Christmas Carol at the Campbell House Museum, 2023. Photo by LD.

I had no idea when I walked in, but this production is a holiday gem, utilizing the historic space beautifully and insightfully. Each scene feels strongly connected to the room that is being used, guiding us clearly to a time and place, but mostly to a formulation and a feeling. I would have appreciated (I think) a stronger, more deliberate lighting design, professionally edged in softer more focused tones with a greater use of shadows and an overall sense of darkness and light, but the intimacy and sense of illusion cleverly cover up the limitations and restrictions that probably have been put in place for the use of a historical museum for their immersive production.

Playwright Haigh boldly and thoughtfully adds even a deeper, more tender layer to the play’s final act, disrupting my senses and bringing some surprising tears to my eyes and a lump into my throat. Gough’s approach to Scrooge is thoughtful, giving him a level of cruelty that is not overwhelmingly evil, but somehow burned in by trauma and disconnection. He’s as cold and callous as can be, yet his transition in the final moments rings true, not because it is overly enthusiastic, but because it lives restrained somewhere inside him, cautious but desperate for connection with the people that have been living around him for years, mostly in fear of him. I did not expect that level of emotional connection when I first arrived for the last performance of A Christmas Carol by The Three Ships Collective with the support of Soup Can Theatre. But, from beginning to end, the unwrapping of this precious gift is as good as it can get, especially as it is being presented immersively and emotionally inside the historic 1822 Campbell House Museum.

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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“Women of the Fur Trade” Soars (even with all those controlling men looking down on them)

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Portraits of distinguished men stare down at us, surprisingly, as we enter the space. I did not expect those domineering men’s faces peering at me, with three rocking chairs out front giving off a feeling of waiting and wanting, comfortably and leisurely, for movement without too much proactive action. It’s a captivating portrait highlight, filled with power dynamics and control, that ushers in the Women of the Fur Trade, presented strongly and dynamically by Native Earth Performing Arts. Rocking back and forth with a hypnotic clarity, the three emerging women play a quoting game with glee, one that I would definitely lose without a doubt. The ladies in fur and formal period form engage in a manner that makes us want to lean in with wonder and curiosity. We watch them prattle and dabble on with a modern air of compellingly fun dialogue and gossip, wondering where this is going, and how the essence and themes will be delivered.

With an eccentric electric energy, dropped and messaged in by a basket post, the play, written with a strong sense of self and history by Frances Končan (Space Girl), unleashes ideas and captive arguments about rebellion and colonialism that are drenched in historic fact and laced with symbolic fiction. The play intends to find meaning and understanding of that particular time and place in Canada’s dark treatment of the indigenous population, and the women, representing different fractions, find themselves, trapped, for reasons unknown, in a fort on the banks of the Reddish River in Treaty One. The dividing politics and approaching violence hang over their heads like those black and white male faces, pressing down and inflicting themselves in every engagement, as the three causally and with a modern vernacular that is impressively smart, unpack themes of racism, misogyny, and the challenge of remaining united while having differing views. Its comedic delivery and contemporary colloquialisms keep the space light, delivering empathy and care inside ideas without shame or defensiveness.

Jonathan Fisher and Jesse Gervais in Native Earth Performing Arts’ Women of the Fur Trade. Photo by Kate Dalton.

It’s quite a challenging premise, met with sharply constructed success by Končan, to find pathways through windows and disappearing doors without sounding preachy or heavy-handed. Yet, the playwright manages the space with perfect formulations and structure, giving an intelligent space on the banks of the Reddish River to discuss advancing British troops, confederation, and whether the hot nerd Louis Riel, played beautifully by Jonathan Fisher (VideoCabaret’s New France) is truly worthy of the undying adoration of a young Métis woman, Marie-Angelique, played brilliantly by Kelsey Kanatan Wavey (Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s The Rez Sisters). Or whether the momentarily pregnant Cecilia, portraying a nervous married settler woman to perfection by Cheri Maracle (Firehall’s White Noise), is correct to think that Riel’s assistant, Thomas Scott, played hilariously well by Jesse Gervais (MTC/Grand’s Clue), is the actual true heartthrob of the pair (I’m leaning towards Gervais, even if he is, ultimately, the bad guy of the lot). Their portraits hang above their heads proudly, setting up a battle of more than just one superficial dimension, while the free-spirited Ojibwe, Eugenia, perfectly and powerfully portrayed by Lisa Nasson (Stratford’s R+J), watches on with amazement, knowing that they both have a lot to learn and understand about these men. As do we.

The inescapable reaction to their history and predicament hangs heavy and true, like the watchful male oppression made clear within the subtle and wonderful set design by Lauchlin Johnston (RMTC’s The Secret to Good Tea), with strong lighting by Jeff Harrison (Arts Club’s Hand to God), a spot-on projection design by Candelario Andrade (Bard on the Beach’s Julius Caesar), and a clear sound design by composer MJ Dandeneau (RMTC’s YAGA). This lively historical satire of determined survival and cultural historical inheritance plays out like a romantic comedy with an untimely preference for twenty-first-century slang pulled through the dark waters of racism, oppression, and colonialism. The women speak of undying and unknown love of rebellious strangers and symbolic heroes. But out front, the two men travel and engage in a strong game of sideways Cyrano with rollie-bags, giving signals as to where they stand. They are a hypnotic pair, drenched in fascinating dynamics of conflictual power, which ultimately leads to one of the funniest and sharpest scenes of cross-haired love and mistaken admiration that I have seen for a long time, thanks to Wavey and Gervais’s impeccable timing, physicality, and perfect comic delivery.

Cheri Maracle and Lisa Nasson in Native Earth Performing Arts’ Women of the Fur Trade. Photo by Kate Dalton.

The irreverent and pointed humor is as clever as can be, finding empathy and care in their comic humanity, and timelessness. The three actors portraying these women are perfect in their rocking situation sometime in the year “eighteen hundred and something something.” They excel in all aspects, guided most wisely by the original direction of Renae Morriseau (“Angela’s Shadow“), with revival director Kevin Loring (Battle of the Birds/playwright) coming in to assist in the last month of this production. The energy of the well-crafted piece, with disarmingly clever costuming by Vanessa Imeson (A Company of Fools’ Hamlet), hilariously and wisely unpacks history, religion, and rebellion, inside a framework of teenage girl gossip and lust, and it works most mystically and spiritually in a manner I never expected.

This was one of the only shows I, unfortunately, missed at the Stratford Festival last summer, and I was so pleased to be given a second chance to take it all in. But I had no idea how funny and charming this play actually is, and how accomplished this production and its cast & crew would be. I’m not sure I was able to fully take on and take in every symbolic plot point or focused line. It’s clear that the three represent differing polarities that could cause a break in the camaraderie of these three women. Their coming together against overwhelming historical odds while being trapped and controlled by the men of the times is the contemporary point that needs to be taken. But some of the details and points of storyboard friction were lost on me. Or was I looking too deep within?

The written colonial representation of our history, including Louis Riel, Thomas Scott, and the unseen, but much-discussed John A. MacDonald, needs a whole lot of rewriting in our history books to even come close to the reality. Končan does a fantastic job trying to present forward an alternative with hopes of expanding our understanding of how our complicated Canadian history was not as neat and wholesome as we were taught in high school. Being a card-carrying status indigenous person, the platform that Končan has dutifully and skillfully created is a welcome wonder, filled with unquestionable laughter and sharply aimed shots, fired from weapons more powerful than a few random sticks in the woods. Women of the Fur Trade is as precise and clever as one could hope for, and a wonderfully clever, entertaining adventure into some dark Canadian history. Don’t try to resist. Just go if you can, even if it means climbing out a window, and join these well-crafted characters on the banks of the Reddish River in Treaty One Territory to laugh and fall hopelessly in mistaken love with a pretty perfect piece of theatre and enlightenment. Every dog will bark in support.

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Tarragon’s El Terremoto Rises and Faulters Inside its Cracks

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The Latin music and the birds chirping draw us into the scene, that is, before the tremor sounds blow their nose all around us. We feel the vibrations throughout our bodies as we sit up and take notice of Tarragon Theatre‘s compelling but ultimately disconnecting El Terremoto, written with an earnest determination to engage by playwright Christine Quintana (Someone Like You; As Above). “Why do you get so tense?“, one caring neighbor asks the oldest of three sisters, Luz, portrayed by Mariló Núñez (Aluna’s La Communion), as she busies herself preparing for a sweet birthday party that no one really seems to want to be at, beyond a few outsiders. And it’s no wonder, with the energy that exists at the core of this half-interesting, half-disjointed play that is trying to tell us a lot of things, without having a stable foundation to stand on.

Rosalba Martinni, Monica Garrido Huerta & Juan Carlos Velis in El Terremoto – Tarragon Theatre 2024 – Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Directed with an unfocused vision of constant movement by Guillermo Verdecchia  (Tarragon’s The Jungle), the fault lines appear way before the foundations of this familial home are shaken to its ghostly roots. A grandmother, Abuela, played with heart and nuance by Rosalba Martinni (Nightwood/Aluna’s The Solitudes) stands before us, paying dear homage to the lost parents of these three Jurado sisters who will come together like a different kind of terremoto. The set-up sizzles with possibility, but somewhere along the road to reconciliation, which is clearly the desired outcome in this messy play, too many inauthentic cracks and travels take place for one to fully engage with these three. Based on the way these sisters argue and attack one another, the faultlines that become visible from the onset make me care more for those poor souls who hang around hoping for some breadcrumbs of love and affection. A connection that is in short honest supply in this family’s East Vancouver home.

 Margarita Valderrama, Caolán Kelly, Miranda Calderon, Michael Scholar Jr., Rosalba Martinni & Mariló Núñez in El Terremoto – Tarragon Theatre 2024 – Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

It’s been twenty years since the parents of these three died suddenly in an automobile accident, but rather than bringing them together, the crash has only made them more fractured and distant. Núñez’s Luz tries with all her anxious might to hold and keep the family unit working, even as she forgets to care for her own self along the way. She needles and micromanages those who have come together, pushing them away and reaching out for them like a desperate yoyo. The middle sister, Rosa, portrayed conflictually by Miranda Calderon (Stratford’s Birds of a Kind), is clearly the mess of the family, lashing out relentlessly at almost everyone who looks her way, including the man who got away (maybe luckily), Henry, dutifully portrayed by an engaging Michael Scholar Jr. (Alameda’s The Refugee Hotel). Like a lot of this play, the relationships are clear from the very beginning, leaving little to fully understand except maybe why one would travel across town, and kayak across dangerous waters to see, only to be told to go home with a wave of a messed up wrist. And leave without question. That exit didn’t make any emotional sense, like a lot of the comings and goings in their home.

Shooting back shots that taste like lost youth, the birthday party of the late arriving youngest sibling, Lina, played with an air of disconnected desperation by Margarita Valderrama (Roseneath’s Meet Cute), along with her well-meaning and lovestruck partner, Tash, engagingly well played by Caolán Kelly (Stratford’s Hamlet-911), pull us into the dynamics of the family, and because of Tash’s openness to the engagement, we can’t help but notice that the structural ideals of the play make us want to lean in and hold on for support through their trauma. Yet somewhere along the road, past a failed and ignored proposal to Luz by the family’s neighbor, Omar, played compassionately by Sam Khalilieh (Studio180’s Stuff Happens), this dramatic comedy tries with an almost too diligent force to throw us off balance. It shows us its complicated value while never feeling completely true, all before the interval earthquake envelopes us. It’s a tremor of epic proportions, felt by all, that nearly destroys the city of Vancouver, taking down bridges and buildings in an almost unimaginable way, and leaving us wondering how this will throw them off their destructive combative course.

Caolán Kelly & Margarita Valderrama in El Terremoto – Tarragon Theatre 2024 – Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

On a well-crafted set, designed by Shannon Lea Doyle (Soulpepper’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train), with distinct costuming by Fernando Maya Meneses (NAC’sNigamon/Tunai), strong lighting by Michelle Ramsay (Theatre Rusticle’s The Tempest), a sometimes clever projection design by Samay Arcentales Cajas (Native Earth’s Where the Blood Mixes), and an environmentally powerful sound design by Alejandra Nuñez (Two Birds/Common Boots’s Apocalypse Play), El Terremotomoves with frantic supernatural (and unnatural) movement forward, delivering the message that nothing really matters, “so everything matters.” So when the doors fly forward and the aftershock releases the parental visuals by Monica Garrido Huerta (lemonTree Creations’s Private Eyes) and Juan Carlos Velis (Alameda’s The Refugee Hotel), we work hard at staying connected to this dysfunctional family. Because we want to see understanding and reconciliation, even with all the acts of inconsistency.

Their urgency in their manic movements, decision-making, and sparring never feel organic or honest, even as the actors work hard to find honest connections with one another. But only in the outsiders do we find the much-needed thread of connectivity. Kelly’s Tash, a beautiful creation that could have easily been a stock figure, finds the formula of play that unpacks the complications of feeling love with a wide-eyed honest observance. They register, that even with the strong feelings attached, this family is too much. The work to find stable connection that feels honest is elusive and probably not possible. I wanted them to find unity and some sort of authentic understanding, but the aftershock of the play El Terremoto at Tarragon Theatre was of sad disbelief.

https://tarragontheatre.com/

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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Events

Long Island Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame to Celebrate 20th Anniversary Honoring Billy Joel

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G.H. Harding

The Long Island Music and entertainment Hall of Fame (LIMEHOF) will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a concert gala in honor of Billy Joel at Tilles Center for the Performing Arts at LIU Post (720 Northern Blvd., Brookville, NY) on June 7th, 2024, at 7:30 p.m.

“We are thrilled to celebrate the Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame’s acclaimed 20-year history with an extraordinary benefit concert honoring Billy Joel,” said Ernie Canadeo, LIMEHOF Chairman. “This spectacular evening will showcase Long Island’s creative talent and impact on the world, with historic performances by many of our 120+ inductees, exciting induction ceremonies, and highlights of our organization’s educational mission to preserve Long Island’s unparalleled music and entertainment heritage for future generations. It is the perfect complement to the much acclaimed “Billy Joel-My Life” exhibit, currently on display at the Hall of Fame in Stony Brook.”

This epic concert will feature an impressive lineup of musicians who are scheduled to perform, including Alexa Ray Joel, Debbie Gibson, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, DJ Johnny Juice (from Public Enemy), Felix Cavaliere (from The Rascals), Jimmy Webb, Mike DelGuidice, Philip Edward Fisher, Albert Bouchard and Joe Bouchard (former members of Blue Oyster) joined by current band members Jules Radino and Danny Miranda, and the full band Zebra (including Randy Jackson, Guy Gelso and Felix Hanemann).

“It’s an absolute privilege and certainly fitting that LIMEHOF’s 20th Anniversary Concert Honoring Billy Joel take place here at Tilles Center,” said Tom Dunn, Executive and Artistic Director, Tilles Center. “Billy is a longtime friend and supporter of Tilles’ impactful mission, and we are thrilled to celebrate his unparalleled and legendary career with this star-studded group of music luminaries.”

Legendary Music Agent Dennie Arfa, Chairman of Independent Artist Group, will be inducted in the “Music Industry” category. Additionally, Tilles Center for the Performing Arts will be inducted in the “Venue” category.

Tilles Center for the Performing Arts at LIU Post is honored to be inducted into the Long Island Music Entertainment Hall of Fame,” Dunn said. “For over 40 years – from Bruce Springsteen’s iconic recording of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” to Tony Bennett, from Jerry Seinfeld to James Taylor, Tilles Center has been home to a who’s who of performing artists creating and delivering unforgettable and lasting memories. In the last year alone, we’ve been honored to bring Samara Joy, Brandi Carlile, Trevor Noah, John Legend, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Dancing with The Stars Live to our great and diverse Long Island community.

The show will be hosted by Hosted by LIMEHOF inductee Bob Buchmann (WAXQ, WBAB). Catholic Health is the presenting sponsor for this event. Advanced pre-sale tickets will be available starting March 25th on the LIMEHOF ticket page (https://www.limusichalloffame.org/tickets-and-gift-cards/) and Tilles Center ticket page (https://www.tillescenter.org/events)  .

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Canadian Stage Scores Powerfully with Matthew López’s Epic Play, The Inheritance

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Arriving at the Canadian premiere of The Inheritance, I could barely contain my excitement (just ask the press person whom I’ve been hounding for months for opening night tickets). Produced by Canadian Stage at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto and opening on World Theatre Day, The Inheritance holds one of the greatest places in my theatrical heart, enveloping my soul with its clever and emotional writing and captivating spiritual connection to the ideas of life-long friendship, love, and loss. Hanging out in a focused bubble on the wide sparse stage, around a long table with an assortment of chairs, matching the assortment of men, they sit, processing and tuning themselves into the written task before them and before us as we take our seats.

L-R: Aldrin Bundoc, Breton Lalama, Hollywood Jade, Ben Page, Antoine Yared, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Qasim Khan, Landon Nesbitt, Gregory Prest, and Salvatore Antonio in Canadian Stage’s production of Matthew López’s The Inheritance. Photo by Dahlia Katz

The play, after premiering at London’s Young Vic in 2018, where it was called “the most important American play of the century,” transferred to the West End later that year, and then opened on Broadway in 2019. The Inheritance quickly became one of the most honored American plays of this generation, sweeping the “Best Play” awards in both London and New York including the Tony Award, Olivier Award, Drama Desk Award, Evening Standard Award, London Critics Circle Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Drama League Award, WhatsOnStage Award, and the Southbank Sky Arts Award. It is often compared to Angels in America in both a positive and negative light, and rightly so, as it clearly is a homage-creation based on the same epic proportions of its predecessor. It pushes itself solidly before us, somewhere to the right of Kushner’s far more ethereal exploration of AIDS in America back in the day. Engaging with a slightly more aggressive and political stance, playwright Matthew Lopez (The Legend of Georgia McBride, Some Like It Hot; “Red, White, and Royal Blue) dares us to look deep into its imperfect but devastatingly emotional six acts and seven hours.  Angels is considered by many as the “most beautiful and far-reaching introduction to a place and time representing the History of Gay America in the 1980s “, and to even attempt to align himself and his play with that signpost is a brave act of determination. But even in that weighted comparison, The Inheritance is most decidedly a masterpiece, almost measuring up to Kushner’s triumph as it dives head-first into 21st-century queer politics and the economic discrepancies that plague modern culture and society through the eyes of a pack of well-intentioned gay men in New York City.

I just had to watch, read, and rewatch the magnificent Howard’s End, the classic novel by E. M. Forster, before seeing The Inheritance once again (3rd time’s the charm, I might add), after falling in love with the 1992 movie many years ago. That beautifully orchestrated film, produced by Merchant Ivory stars the amazing Emma Thompson as Margaret Schlegel, Helena Bonham Carter as sister Helen, Vanessa Redgrave as Ruth Wilcox, Anthony Hopkins as her wealthy husband, Henry, and Samuel West as the pitiful but lovely Leonard Bast. It has been described as a touching deconstruction and examination of the three social classes of Edwardian England at the beginning of the 20th Century. The Wilcoxes are considered the Victorian capitalists, with the Schlegel sisters as the enlightened bourgeois brimming over with humanistic and philanthropic tendencies, and the young Bast standing in for the struggling working-class intellect fighting hard to survive in London as a mere clerk.

The dual plot of the novel and film delicately revolves around a deathbed wish by Ruth, the sickly and ignored wife of Henry Wilcox, a man of significant wealth, who bequeaths her beloved country house, Howards End, to her dear friend, Margaret, and not one of her children or husband. The Wilcox family deems this request as financially non-binding and decides to not give the house away, nor tell Margaret, even with the knowledge that she has become, over the last little while, a new and very dear kindred spirit to Henry.

Meanwhile, Margaret’s sister Helen has taken a strong interest, mostly philanthropic, in Leonard Bast, a poor married working-class clerk, who slowly descends the ladder of success, mainly because of Henry Wilcox’s un-asked for advice at Helen’s insistence and interference. As Margaret gravitates towards Henry Wilcox after Ruth’s death, eventually becoming engaged to the man, Helen becomes more and more aligned with Leonard. The parallels to The Inheritance are striking and extremely well formulated, thanks to the diligence of playwright Lopez, with clever shifts and alterations that make complete sense, but with a connective depth that really pulls us all in from this very modern and gay-male perspective.

It’s no wonder that the ambitious Lopez was struck by the political and social layers of Howards End, seeing within a construct that could fit somewhere inside the psyche of this new generation of gay men, especially taking into account Edward Morgan Forster’s own personal battle with visibility, authenticity, and hiw own hidden closeted sexuality. Paying a certain homage to the fore-bearers of gay culture, The Inheritance tackles, with aplomb, a tremendous amount of complicated territory, diving headfirst into the political landscape of the last ten years or so in modern America. It owes itself more to the closeted E. M. Foster than Kushner though, delivering a monumental piece about the turbulent lives of a group of young, ambitious gay New Yorkers floundering and excelling, just like the Schlegels. This go-round, Forster’s engaging sisters are now Lopez’s complicated lovers, sometime after the peak of the AIDs crisis in New York City, living the life of the somewhat privileged, even if they don’t realize it.

They are unconsciously strutting proudly through the newly informed gay frontier of sexual liberation and love relationships, with marriage equality readily at hand, and the upcoming and disturbing loss of fellow travelers to addiction with abandonment standing just outside their door. Spanning generations of attachments and the entanglement of lives and loves, The Inheritance bridges the themes of E. M. Forster’s novel and attaches itself to the past and present New York City, while trying with all its might to understand the legacy that threads the two together and what the two worlds owe one another in the realm of care and thoughtfulness.

Qasim Khan with Stephen Jackman-Torkoff behind in Canadian Stage’s production of Matthew López’s The Inheritance. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

One by one the men at the core of this drama find their place in this fantastic unraveling. The space easily serves up this deliciously prepared feast. We aren’t exactly sure who the main storyteller is in those first few moments, but all these men seem to be in need of some guidance to write the stories of their lives. “Let’s have a look“, and so they turn, most delicately and decisively to the wise and structured E. Morgan Forster, played with sweet composition by the glorious Daniel MacIvor (Tarragon’s White Biting Dog). With his steady and kind repressed hand most beautifully crafted and delivered, the hounds of a rethought Howards End are released into the space. Directed with impeccable care, the oral history of flawed engagement goes strongly forward, diving in full force while following the antiquated Queensbury rules as it attempts to know thyself, the mythical story of the healing bark, the implanted pig’s teeth, and the tangled web of The Inheritance.

It all starts with a voicemail, a few of them actually, to introduce us to the gentle and kind Eric Glass, played to perfection by the wonderful Qasim Khan (Stratford’s The Miser) and his boyfriend, the pleasure-seeking Toby Darling, a writer of narcissistic impression, played fully by the captivating Antoine Yared (Groundling’s King Lear). “Eric Glass did not believe he was special“, we are told,  and while that personal affliction never enters the mind of Toby,  Yared’s sensual young writer saunters with an entitled, falsely-created pride, although his past doesn’t support his construct. Toby has written an acclaimed and self-described autobiographic novel, based on that same insincere construct, and then quickly started to adapt it for the stage. He believes in his power far more than the gentle Eric does in his own, and even as they are presented initially as the love-struck couple, we see the cracks and the mismatched puzzle pieces fighting to fit together far before the foreseeable destruction that comes in the form of a duality thrust upon them, reminiscent of Forster’s Leonard Bast. But not exactly.

L-R: Daniel MacIvor, Hollywood Jade, Landon Nesbitt, Aldrin Bundoc, Qasim Khan, Salvatore Antonio, Breton Lalama, Gregory Prest, and Ben Page in Canadian Stage’s production of Matthew López’s The Inheritance. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The contrast expands, especially in that deliciously sexual interaction between these two with the observant MacIvor’s Morgan on the side. The wry wonderfully inventive moment encapsulates all that this play is attempting to lay out; the levels of advancement and the traps we all can fall into. With Lopez replacing umbrellas with Strand Bookshop bags, the introduction of Adam McDowall, portrayed with breathtaking awkwardness by Stephen Jackman-Torkoff (Stratford’s Richard II), one of the threads that will lead to destruction and enlightenment, is off and running with a clarity and authentic-ness that is appealing and forever heart-breaking. Jackman-Torkoff does an excellent job playing the leading man-to-be, a stand-in of half sorts of Forster’s Bast, although dramatically and financially not one and the same. He is basically a hat-trick sleight-of-hand that will become apparent later on. His initial introduction to the cast of found-family:  the proud activist Jasper, dynamically portrayed by the solid Salvatore Antonio (CS’s Domesticated); the best friend Tristan, played somewhat flat by the show’s choreographer Hollywood Jade (Drayton’s Beautiful); the appealing husbands, Jason #1 and Jason #2, joyfully and wittily portrayed by Aldrin Bundoc (Buddies’ Body Politic) and Breton Lalama (Soulpepper’s King Lear/Queen Goneril); and the other young passionate men: Landon Nesbitt (Odyssey’s The Miser), who also beautifully portrays the young Walter; Ben Page (Bad Hats/Soulpepper’s Alice in Wonderland) who also plays the young Henry; and Gregory Prest (Soulpepper’s Of Human Bondage) who also aggressively portrays Charles Wilcox and Toby’s frustrated agent;  leaves us all, including Eric and Toby, wanting more and more of the complex Adam creation. He’s a lucky orphan adopted into wealth and privilege, in a way that only Toby could dream of, but also as manipulative and seductive as the blind and willing writer can be. The impressiveness of Jackman-Torkoff also presents itself later on, ratcheting up the drama most determinedly by playing the other slide of Forster’s Leonard Bast, the downtrodden and emotionally abused and discarded Leo with a powerfully emotional delicacy that makes it harder and harder to see them personified by only one person. It’s a forceful creation, this bipolar splitting of Bast, and one that flowers wildly and beautifully the deeper we go into the unfolding history of The Inheritance.

Jim Mezon and Qasim Khan in Canadian Stage’s production of Matthew López’s The Inheritance. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Another thread that most beautifully transcribes Howards End into this modern and complicated century is the moment we are given the phenomenal MacIvor as the Ruth stand-in, Walter, the ignored husband of Henry Wilcox. “I’m the man who fell in love with Henry,” he says, as he ushers forth a pitch-perfect portrayal of love emerging and being discarded by the powerful and wealthy Henry, played most elegantly and intelligently by Jim Mezon (CS’s The Other Place). Backtracking effectively alongside, we are given a glimpse into the formulation of the love between the Young Walter and Henry, deepening the unfathomable attachment most majestically, compassionately, and intelligently. Their love and bond are given spiritual meaning in that paralleling, and because of that, it also becomes one of the core heartbreaks. Mezon’s Henry doesn’t actually enter into the gathering until much later, but Eric Glass and Walter’s friendship, a beautiful recreation of Redgrave/Thompson’s Ruth and Margaret, finds beautiful form and depth with a tense ease. His dinner party unpacking of what it was like to live through the AIDS pandemic at its height is devastatingly brilliant in its unwrapping, giving the play its strongest moment of emotional heartache and pain. It will truly take your breath away.

In one of the other, most delicious re-imaginings of the dinner scene, lifted straight from the Merchant/Ivory film when Redgrave struggles to understand Margaret and her friend’s feisty involvement in the Suffrage movement, the internal bond between Eric and Walter seems to materialize organically within the political activism of Eric’s friends. Lopez does this alignment a solid slice of justice with a gay oral history told passionately by a greek chorus of gay male friends at Eric’s 35th birthday party brunch. This Camp discourse is full on and deliberate, hitting hard and wide, even when not exactly feeling completely authentic or organic. Lopez can get preachy and informative at times, in a way that feels unnecessary for half the crowd, but possibly very important for the others, like the young artistic Tucker, lovingly portrayed by Nesbitt who stands in for all the young gay men who have no clue. It is left up to Walter and ultimately Henry later on, to make these young men understand the agonies that his generation faced when AIDS devastated a whole swath of their generation, a result that I personally know and carry as deeply and strongly as many others my age. “THERE ARE NO GAY MEN MY AGE. Not nearly enough,” states Henry, and rightly so. It’s a thought that puts a huge lump in my throat every time that truism passes through my brain. Even as I write that line. It squeezes my heart, which lives somewhere between grief/loss and the deep complication of survivor guilt.

Finishing out Part I of The Inheritance, Lopez vividly propels us into the dynamic theatrical destruction of their caring narrator; a device that served the first three acts so well and is somewhat missed in Part II (although it makes complete sense). The emotional tear in our collective hearts that flow testify to the delicacy of the writing and the poignancy of the truth that Lopez is trying to enlist.  It sometimes feels manipulative yet profound, but the depth of disappointment in Henry and his two sons (Antonio, Prest) is magnificently inflamed by their decision to ignore Walter’s deathbed request, and the imbalances of empathy and emotional thought are blatantly exposed. He throws forward the further collapse of our faith in humanity with the Hilary question, “Are you sure she’s going to win?” That scene, election night 2016, and other interactions pile on the parallels between the superficial decadence of the modern gay man’s lifestyle of prosperity and the rigid class system of Edwardian England, stomping forth the complicated inequalities that define our own need for external validation and instant gratification. The social system, although less cleanly defined, still does just that, with Henry Wilcox as the billionaire gay Republican at one end, and the homeless rent boy, Leo addicted to crystal meth at the other, even as the thin thread of disavowed connection between the two comes to the surface for a grasp of air. There is “a difference in morality“, Jasper (Antonio) defiantly declares, but does wealth and privilege, sprouted forward quite remarkably by Wilcox at his brunch meeting with Eric’s friends, negate the advances of civil rights and the gay movements forward? Does this imbalance demolish the concept of equal opportunity for all, even those without a huge bank balance to buy their influence?  Leo’s poverty rings true, but it’s really inside Toby’s destruction of Morgan that decidedly brings Part One to an emotional close. Somewhere, thanks to the beautiful writing, the cruel and ultimately deadly blow to the narrator, Forster, hits hard.

Antoine Yared and Stephen Jackman-Torkoff in Canadian Stage’s production of Matthew López’s The Inheritance. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

It’s difficult to even discuss the last few moments of Part One. It floats in with the strongest of punches, introducing and delivering the pain of loss and lives ending far too soon and too young. The Canadian Stage production takes on a different stance than the West End and Broadway productions to differing results. On Broadway, we are enveloped in the emotional loss of lives cut short as a sea of young, beautiful men surround the dumb-struck and honored Eric. It transports the grief and sense of loss as the youthful air of promising futures fade before us. But here, in this delicately crafted and utterly thoughtful production, we are shown the infinite vastness of the disease’s destruction and the wide scope of the affected/infected. It’s a strong compassionate positioning, that unpacks a construct different than its predecessors. It may not have overwhelmed me with tears like the Part One finale did when I saw it before, but it did expand something else. An idea that is worth engaging with, and even when prepared for what floats in, the moment still demolished my heart and senses.

The next night, arriving back for the continuation of The Inheritance, Morgan is gone, for the most part, and the meaninglessness of faux art and Fire Island Pines partying is all the rage. Civil rights have advanced, far beyond the closeted Forster’s era, but trouble remains as clear and disconcerting as ever, with friendships fracturing, partnerships dissolving, and the abandonment of one another being the biggest disease of the modern gay man. The familial gathering of community is fractured, going from communal table to dance floor to graveyard, as the pack finds themselves fighting for our Nation’s soul, while leading us to a ghostlike apparition that digs deep into our hearts and breaks all resistance down. Toby makes his re-entrance in style (“Did you miss me?”) dragging the beautiful, tender, and damaged Leo down a beach boardwalk to destruction, crashing a wedding and himself in that order. “Who said anything about falling in love?” is the phrase of the sun-drenched, awkwardly staged dance party. Leo’s stumble and fall is as scary as they come, but it’s in his engagement with the returning Morgan looking down from up above that makes an appointment with emotional heartbreak.

There are no role models for gay men anymore, no one to pass down the inheritance of history or the bitter inheritance of death and destruction. The responsibility of gay men to care for one another; this is what has not been taught, passed on, or learned. It’s only when Eric removes his high-end dress shoes and returns to himself that salvation comes before us all. It is in the care of the house that forever truly belonged to Eric where we become emotionally transfixed, long before any of us are even aware how perfect a fit it all is.

That return also ushers in the engaging Louise Pitre (Broadway’s Mamma Mia!) as Walter’s upstage house caretaker Margaret, a part that was wonderfully portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave when it first opened in London’s West End, completing a circle of engagement that is deliciously sweet. Margaret’s story is thoroughly engaging and utterly brutal, traversing all that is at stake in The Inheritance. It’s a ‘passing-down’ moment, an Inheritance of history, love, pain, and connectivity with the likes of Forster and Kushner, neatly encompassing all the themes of community, engagement, art, dysfunction, and the alignment of love and care. “You’ve seen them too,” she says to Eric, and in that moment of connection, the play acknowledges all and more of the young men whose lives have been unnecessarily cut short. They arrived at this house with their complicated and tragic need for salvation, and found forever peace inside- although I didn’t love the overly symbolic structuring of the house and its open book visual. Still, it’s heartbreakingly haunting, and deftly unwrapped for us as we struggle to retain what it’s like to be hopeful.

Stephen Jackman-Torkoff (center) with L-R: Salvatore Antonio, Landon Nesbitt, Hollywood Jade, Ben Page, Aldrin Bundoc, Breton Lalama, and Gregory Prest in Canadian Stage’s production of Matthew López’s The Inheritance. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The performances, even with the occasional Canadian “sorry”, revel in the brittle difficulty of this modern age, finding truth and togetherness against the force of humanity and this difficult time we find ourselves living within. “How much do I matter?” is where the power and thought-provoking center lives. Surrounded by ghosts of men who were lost before their time, The Inheritance is guaranteed to bring forth tears, even when put off a bit here and there with its overly simplistic dive into crystal meth, sexual addiction, and internal political and personal exploration. Those tales are complicated ones, clinging to our flesh like unwanted bacteria, but it’s also an important invader that must be rectified in order for our community to come together. “Heal or Burn“, states a desperate Toby. It’s a rallyingcry that’s as important as any.

Forster’s Howards End, much like his Maurice, is gorgeous and deep, and as told in the beloved Merchant/Ivory film and reformulated by Lopez into this epic masterpiece, The Inheritance delivers on so many levels of observation and deconstruction on class structure and sociopolitical decrees that it is a wonder that it works as well as it does. Lopez finds his way through these themes expertly and constructs them delicately and compassionately into a different time and place while simultaneously holding true to the questions the story raises. It plays on Forster’s Maurice and the gay civil rights movement with clarity and sweet charm, opening up a dialogue on diversity and privilege while developing ideas of prosperity and poverty that impact our fearlessness and pride.

The Inheritance is an exhausting and exhilarating way to spend a few nights in the theatre, whether it is in London’s West End, on Broadway, or at the Blume Appel Theatre in Toronto. The journey is well intended, containing truths that need to be told and a message to all of us to try to do better. The ending struggled to enter my soul as much as the rest of this long “400-page” play that seems to be co-created by its ancestors and predecessors. They speak of a future that we know nothing about, one that feels too rosy and optimistic, especially with all the dreadful realness of the world that we see around us, where the Orange Monster still terrorizes and “faggot” is still a hostile and purposeful snarl. I hope they are right, though, and the difficulty to see brightness and clarity in our collective future is misguided. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

L-R: Antoine Yared, Qasim Khan, Louise Pitre, and Stephen Jackman-Torkoff in Canadian Stage’s production of Matthew López’s The Inheritance. Photo by Dahlia Katz.
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Paper Mill Playhouse’s New Musical Gun & Powder Meets The Press

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The Paper Mill Playhouse production of the new musical Gun & Powder. Inspired by the true story of sisters Mary and Martha Clarke, met the press yesterday.

T2C’s Magda Katz was there to capture the event with musical numbers and interviews.

Ciara Renee and Liisi LaFontaine

Liisi LaFontaine (West End’s Dreamgirls) as Martha Clarke, Ciara Renée (Waitress) as Mary Clarke

Aaron James McKenzie and Jeannette Bayardelle

Jeannette Bayardelle (Girl From the North Country) as Tallulah Clarke, Aaron James McKenzie (A Beautiful Noise) as Elijah, and Hunter Parrish (To Kill a Mockingbird) as Jesse Whitewater.

Completing the cast are: Rickens Anantua, Jisel Soleil Ayon, Reed Campbell, Carrie Compere, Meghan Olivia Corbett, Joann Gilliam, Francesca Granell, Mary Claire King, Malik Shabazz Kitchen, Rayshun LaMarr, Zonya Love, Tiffany Mann, Aaron James McKenzie, Tony Perry,  Adam Roberts, Hank Santos, Christine Shepard, Katie Thompson, Aurelia Williams, Jason SweetTooth Williams

Angelica Cheri and Ross Baum

Featuring a book and lyrics by Angelica Chéri, who is a descendant of the Clarke sisters, and music by Ross Baum, Gun & Powder follows Mary and Martha Clarke, African American twin sisters who take extraordinary measures to settle their mother’s sharecropper debt and save her home in 1893 Texas.

Tiffany Rae-Fisher and Stevie Walker-Webb

Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, choreographed by Tiffany Rea-Fisher and musical direction is by Austin Cook.

Gun & Powder plays at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Milbrook New Jersey April 4-May 5 with an official opening April 14.

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