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Returning to the Grand Theatre, London (Ontario) and Rejoicing with Mark Uhre’s Seeds of Self on Stage

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To return to the Grand Theatre after all these years is quite the surreal experience, one that I recommend to anyone and everyone if they have the opportunity. It was the first large-scale interaction of my life with live theatre that I can remember, well, one that I went on my own accord. I must have been in my teens. Not even sure I even had my driver’s license yet, but maybe I did. It was a long time ago, but I can still visualize it in my mind. The show was She Loves Me, that sweet jewel-box of a musical about love and pen pal letter writing, that I later saw once again at the Roundabout’s Studio 54 Theatre. It was delicious, they both were, and as tasty a treat as one could dream of for your first live musical.

I had seen other productions prior to that show, probably at the phenomenal Stratford Shakespeare Festival (as it was called back in the day – now, just the Stratford Festival), but those were high school trips, and they don’t really count. Or do they? I’m not sure. I do remember seeing Maggie Smith (I know, right!) on that Stratford stage in Taming of the Shrew, and Peter Ustinov in King Lear wildly standing in a true-blue inside rainstorm. Both phenomenal memories. They certainly dazzled me, informed me, and memorized me. That is the truth, but it was at the Grand that I went, purposefully, to the box office and bought my own ticket. Front row of the front mezz. Naturally. I believe it was a full subscription that I bought and paid for with my own hard-earned money, so the action felt intentional, and far more transformational. At least when I look back to this space this year, after this complicated year and a half. The roots or seeds of it all. My seeds of self, in a way. It all felt so meaningful and important, at least it did to me.

Mark Uhre. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

I can still see the jewel box set for that first staged musical on that very pretty stage and in that theatre back in, let’s say, 1980, give or take. I felt very ‘adult’ back then for a teen, and that particular image floated generously through my head a few weeks ago when I was invited to one of the four Re:Opening productions at the Grand Theatre about 40 years later. That nasty pandemic brought performances in this regional theatre to a screeching halt, as it basically did everywhere. I had been back in Canada since the beginning of 2020, sharing my time between a newly started practice in Toronto all the while attempting to maintain my practice and my connection to NYC. Family was what brought me back, but little did I know just how much. A lockdown literally locked me down here, for the most part, back in this Grand old familial town, the one I was born and raised in, but also the one that brought theatre so dramatically and musically into my life. So when the invite came, I accepted. I was curious and I also wanted to do exactly what I’m doing now; to write about how much the Grand Theatre affected me, altered me, and lead me into being the person I am today. It’s an honor to have the ability to write about this place and have it published for all to see, but I have to admit that I wasn’t prepared for the connection to a different part of my past, a more tumultuous part that came flooding back inside my heart as I took in Mark Uhre’s contribution to the Grand Theatre’s Re:Opening Celebration.

Our first instruction, after entering into the beautifully renovated lobby, was to make our way into the redesigned Auburn Stage for what would be the first of three acts, celebrating our connection to the Grand, to artistic experimentation, and at least for this London homegrown boy, to our younger teenage gay self. That third was the part I wasn’t really prepared for.

After a touching speech by the Artistic Director Dennis Garnhum, a man in a “King and I“-inspired gown slips onto the raised and framed theatrical canvas in the center of the room. He’s both ‘child’ and ‘adult’ in the same exact moment. With a similarly blank canvas hanging behind, the figure dances and twirls around with a wild freeing abandonment, singing and embracing the true equalizer of all; love and childlike transformational energy. It’s a glorious moment, registering in the air as sweet unadulterated acceptance. There are some giggles in the crowd, which made me stop and wonder. What’s so funny about this visual? Is it intentionally comical? Am I missing the humor? Should I be giggling with the others? Or is the idea of a physical non-gender-specific expression of freedom and fun something so complicated to the senses that it has abandoned any connection to laughter? All are problematic conclusions in a way, and as I tumbled around that complex internal terrain trying to understand myself, the harshest of reactions begin to fill the air. It’s a degrading afront, thrown out into the space and degrading the expression, making the moment much more complicated and dark than I even realized. It reverberated throughout the room, triggering a past trauma within – one that isn’t exactly mine but is definitely a shared communal tension. It ricocheted down my spine and unearthed an age-old fear; one of judgment, of ridicule, of homophobic hate, that even though I never really experienced that kind of harsh laughter or that one particular word being thrown in my direction as a child and teenager growing up in London, Ontario (a fact I can’t really explain why that insult was never flung in my direction in the hallways of my school), the weight of that moment, and the fear that is still attached to it, surprisingly, continues to have a home in my cellular structure. It lives and breathes there still. Its name is Shame. Attached most tightly to an unconscious fear of the loss of love, especially attachment or familial love. And it’s debilitating, historically, honestly, unless work is done to understand and unpack it, and find our unique true authentic self within. That, I’m telling you as a psychotherapist, is not easy. 

Mark Uhre. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

In his coming-of-age play, Seeds of Self, accomplished actor, singer, dancer, and visual artist Mark Uhre takes us on an intimate, most touching personal journey that explores his own experience growing up as a young, gay person in London, Ontario. Something that I can definitely relate to. Utilizing the four seasons as his storytelling anchor, Uhre’s play leads viewers on an emotive passage, navigating themes of joy and love, as well as oppression and exclusion. Planting seeds of thought and introspection throughout his journey, the audience are invited into a “garden” coming to life through wild paint strokes. He works through his stunning and intimate storytelling, using music and his inner child, to create on the fly with his musical co-conspirator Wayne Gwillim at his side to fuel his fancy. He makes his mark, not just under the coffee table, hidden from view, but upfront and framed in black. It’s an improvised paint ballet to music, structured to confront the harsh words, and expand and deepen self-love and acceptance by bringing freedom and energy into our little box called life, and make it grow up wild and colorful. 

After that mind-expanding experience, we followed your guide to the main Spriet Stage, a space as glorious as I remember, for an immersive artistic encounter, egged on by Uhre and his musical accompanist, Noelle Frances. He invites us in to co-create an adventure, and find expression under his kind watchful eyes.

The afternoon came to a close in the Drewlo Lounge where a documentary was presented with further reflection and self-discovery encouraged. He spoke, most compassionately about the idea of Hating London, while never for once giving us reason to believe him, or disbelieve him, all at the same time. I hated London when I left for university in Toronto way back in the day, vowing to never live there again. But the emotional threat was not real, in a sense. London is and was glorious to me. I found acceptance, oddly enough, in the theatre, and surprisingly, in the halls of my high school, as the one and only out gay kid in class. I’m not sure why they did not harass me, ridicule me, judge me, or hate me. I thoroughly expected them to, but they didn’t. So yes, Mr. Uhre, I get what you mean, because I love London, always did, even when I hated it.

This presentation is now available for streaming until Nov. 29th on the Grand Theatre website for no charge. Another thing that shows us just how Grand London can be. 

Host Artists: Summer Bressette, Mark Uhre, Richard Gracious, and Alexandra Kane. Photo Credit: Mai Tilson

FROM THE GRAND THEATRE: 

November 18, 2021 – London ON – Following a successful four-week engagement that played to intimate audience sizes, the Grand Theatre is thrilled to launch digital versions of the Grand Re:Opening Festival at no cost to online audiences – beginning at 5 p.m. on November 18, 2021.

In early 2021, as our renovation neared completion and as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions slowly began to lift, there was a palpable shift in energy at the Grand,” says Dennis Garnhum, Grand Theatre Artistic Director. “Although there was still much uncertainty about capacity limits, as a company, we knew that we needed to do something to celebrate our outstanding renovation and to bring live theatre – and the healing joy of the arts – back to London. So, in came the idea of the Re:Opening Festival.”

It became evident very early on in the process that we knew what was being created was unique, inspiring, and magical and needed to be shared as far and wide as possible – with as many audience members as possible. The response from the audience members that were able to experience each show in-person confirmed this for us.  We quickly partnered with professional videography company web.isod.es to then film each festival performance,” explains Garnhum.

Directed and led by Artistic Associate, Megan Watson, the Grand Re:Opening Festival  “handed the keys” to the newly renovated Grand Theatre to four local artists for the purpose of creating and staging bold new work. With few defined parameters, the artists were empowered to: utilize any space within the theatre as a stage; to explore any theme, and to invite other local artists to join their experience. The four host artists are: lead activist for Black Lives Matter London, founding member of Black London Network, and artist Alexandra Kane; accomplished actor, singer, dancer, and visual artist Mark Uhre; local singer, songwriter, and band frontman Richard Gracious, and proud Anishinaabe storyteller, curator, and teacher Summer Bressette.

Our four host artists were asked in February this year if they wanted to ‘come play’ at the Grand, and were ultimately tasked with the important responsibility of helping us to reopen after over a year of closed doors. And, did they ever deliver,” remarks Watson. She goes on to say, “Our host artists have each created something completely unique and yet relevant at the same time. While different, each offering really has a beautiful through line – re-emergence. I hope that this exploration of re-emergence is experienced right through the screen and really inspires the hearts and minds of our virtual audiences.”

The four Grand Re:Opening Festival videos will each run 45 minutes to approximately one hour. Combined, this immersive online experience features the four host artists, 55 local performers, and 12 bold theatrical experiences – all originally staged in different spaces within the newly renovated Grand Theatre.

Beginning at 5 p.m. on Thursday, November 18, theatre, music, and art lovers from anywhere in the world will be able to view all Festival performances at no cost, thanks to the generous support of Canada Life. The videos will be available to view online through to midnight on November 29. Viewers are asked to register online at grandtheatre.com, after which a link to view the production will be forwarded by email. Separate registrations will be required to view each unique offering, but once viewers receive the link to view, they may watch on any day, at any time, and as many times as they wish until midnight on November 29.

THE FOUR GRAND RE:OPENING FESTIVAL OFFERINGS INCLUDE:

Alexandra Kane’s Re:Opening Festival Online
Mark Uhre’s Re:Opening Festival Online 
Richard Gracious’ Re:Opening Festival Online
Summer Bressette’s Re:Opening Festival Online 

Alexandra Kane | Finding Black Joy


ALEXANDRA KANE

What is Black Joy?

How can there possibly be such a thing as Black joy, when racism, specifically anti-Black racism, exists in systems and people? How do we find peace and joy when there is so much stacked against us? As the world uncovers systemic oppression and violence and what that means to Black people, we are invited to take a critical look at our own selves and how we have helped shaped these experiences for others.

Lead activist for Black Lives Matter London, Founding member of Black London Network, and artist Alexandra Kane has curated a truth-telling piece in Finding Black Joy. Using song, text, and multimedia to shine a light on the raw truth and consequences of anti-Black racism, Alexandra presents racism in an unavoidable way and defines the strength, resilience, peace, and love that is Black Joy.

The Auburn Stage and main lobby will set the tone for this powerful evening of racial truth and honest discourse. Interactive film installation, A Grave and A Mirror will unfold on the Auburn Stage, and a spoken word poetry reading by 19-year-old Nigerian-Canadian slam poet and author, Fauzia Agbonhin will transpire in the main lobby. Audiences will then move to the Spriet Stage, where Kane and a troupe of performers will dynamically stage pre-existing music and original text in Finding Black Joy. The evening will close with an intimate speakeasy and Q & A period with host artist, Alexandra Kane. 

Mark Uhre | Seeds of Self


MARK UHRE

Do you remember who you were before you grew up? Do you recall the passions you held and the moments that you would give anything to experience once more – or, perhaps, to never remember again? If you could reach back in time, and hold the hand of the child you once were, what would you tell them?

In his coming-of-age memory play, Seeds of Self, accomplished actor, singer, dancer, and visual artist Mark Uhre will take audiences on an intimate, personal journey that will explore Uhre’s experience growing up, as a young gay boy in London, Ontario. Uhre’s play will lead audiences on an emotive and colourful passage – navigating themes of oppression and exclusion as well as unbridled joy and self-love. Connecting to the seasons and nature throughout his journey, audiences will experience the Auburn theatre magically transforming. Uhre shares his story through movement, text, and art-making, combined with thrilling original music composed by Wayne Gwillim, and paired with songs from the ‘golden age.’

Gathering at the Auburn Stage, audiences will begin their experience with Uhre’s original play, Seeds of Self. They will then continue their journey to the Spriet Stage for an immersive artistic encounter, combined with live music by singer songwriter, Noelle Francis. Like flowers from a garden, the evening will come to a close in an array of colour in The Drewlo Lounge, where a documentary presentation and a visual arts gallery will encourage further reflection, conversation and self-discovery.

Richard Gracious | One Year


RICHARD GRACIOUS

“I think you’re on mute.”
“What do you mean you are out of toilet paper?”
“Don’t forget your hand sanitizer!”
“It’s time to pivot.”
“These are unprecedented times…”
“Have we flattened the curve yet?”

In March 2020, life – as many knew it – came to a dramatic halt. Barred within our homes by the wide and rapid spread of COVID-19, individuals across the globe found themselves facing uncertainty, fear, and FOMO* like never before. Fifteen months later, as hope and new life emerges, local singer, songwriter, and band frontman, Richard Gracious begins developing an original performative concept album, entitled One Year.

Showcasing Gracious’s unique musical style that combines acoustic, full-out rock and roll and everything in between, the album is centred on reflections from the past 15 months, including: the feelings and emotions many of us have gone through; questions around if and how much we have changed as a society; and the transitions many of us have made (and will continue to make) as we collectively navigate our emergence from the pandemic.

More than your typical concert experience, One Year will take audiences on a shared musical journey that will open with the debut of Gracious’s album. A delight for all the senses, theatrical elements, such as puppetry and dance, will accompany this melodious celebration of life. Audiences will then be invited to flow to the Auburn Stage, to take in more of London’s local live music scene. The evening’s final notes will play in the Drewlo Lounge, with an intimate performance by local singer and songwriter, Misha Bower. 

Dust off the melancholy of the pandemic! Release the pent-up energy of isolation! And, experience music in new and unexpected ways as Richard Gracious guides you through a raucous, rock-and-roll catharsis.

*Fear of Missing Out

Summer Bressette | Love Song for the Thunderbirds


SUMMER BRESSETTE

Intergenerational storytelling has been paramount in the understanding of our history and in maintaining connections to our ancestors. Whether through spoken word, dance, or song, the art of storytelling permeates across cultures and often serves as a guiding light for one’s personal morals, values, and understanding. But, what if these words were stolen? What if the very language that helped to form our existence was torn from us?

In her poignant play Love Song for the Thunderbirds, Summer Bressette confronts these questions, while embracing themes of resilience, love, kinship, transformation, and emergence. A proud Anishinaabe storyteller, curator, and teacher, Bressette employs elements of magical realism to tell the story of Jackrabbit, Nokomis, and Thunderbird in her loosely autobiographical play. Set in contemporary time, Bressette has reimagined a lullaby sung to her by her grandmother, who learned the song from her great-grandmother, a residential school survivor. The play centres on the ‘rule’ that children were forbidden to sing while at residential school, and consequently many words and stories have vanished. In a mission to find what has been lost, Jackrabbit is tasked with the imperative mission of finding the words to their Grandmother’s lullaby. Through Jackrabbit’s journey, audiences will come to understand the interconnectedness of the human experience and the power in understanding one’s own unique gifts.

Love Song for the Thunderbirds transpires at the Auburn Stage, where audiences will follow the journey of Jackrabbit in Bressette’s deeply personal piece. Afterwards, audiences will follow the sounds of traditional drumming to the Spriet Stage, where they will have the opportunity to listen to music by the Eagle Flight Singers, comprised of Gordon Sands, Vydel Sands, and Liam Sands. Hoop dancer, River White will also appear on the Spriet Stage with the Eagle Flight Singers. The experience will culminate in a live performance by the Red Skye Sisters and spoken word poetry by Awasis.

THE STREAMING OF THE GRAND RE:OPENING FESTIVAL

The Grand Re:Opening Festival was initially staged at the Theatre from October 13 – November 6, and was performed at no cost for intimate viewing audiences. Following the provincial announcement, which removed capacity limits, the theatre expanded the capacity of each show. However, to preserve the artistic integrity of the work, in-person audience sizes were still very limited.

The Festival was produced with the financial support of season sponsor, BMO Financial Group. Additional funding support was provided by the London Community Foundation and Horizon Solutions.

In lieu of a ticket fee, the Grand is asking its virtual audience members to pay tribute to the work of the participating artists by making a charitable contribution to the Grand – designated to the Festival.

To learn more about the Grand Re:Opening Festival, including full cast bios, please visit: https://www.grandtheatre.com/event/grand-reopening-fest. Additional facts, photos, and updates can also be found by following @thegrandlondon and #GrandFestival on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

For more from Ross click here

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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“Player Kings” Shines in the West End With Ian McKellen at Falstaff

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I read that the first published book written about a Shakespearian character was focused not on the legendary Macbeth or Hamlet, but on the “dodgy, obese, cash-strapped, dissolute, self-interested” Falstaff, a larger-than-life antihero and cultural phenomenon, this time dutifully played in the new West End revival rich and tragic by McKellen (The Other Palace’s Frank and Percy; West End’s Ian McKellen on Stage).


Ian McKellen and Geoffrey Freshwater in Player Kings. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

His Falstaff is utterly dynamic and fascinating from the get-go, drawing us in with his grotesque drunkenness in a stained shirt. It’s flawless and funny, especially so as the character’s humor is delivered dry and philosophically portioned out for great effect, giving this slick modern-dressed production a thrilling brave heart and a solid foundation.

It’s a handsome, strongly staged production, not exactly centered around Ian McKellen’s great performance as one devilishly sharp Falstaff, but having that dynamic character involved lifts up the whole thing making the joined-together Player Kings a carnivalesque joy to witness. It’s a role he seemed destined to play, but unfortunately, he had a nasty fall from the stage in mid-June, forcing him to not only drop out of the play in the West End, but also from the tour that was created all around him playing this part. It’s a devastatingly sad turn but luckily for us, we were able to see him before his accident. And I’m hoping he will be back on his stage feet quickly so we all have the opportunity to take in his expert renderings for years to come.

Yet Player Kings, when I saw it in early June, had McKellen in full true form, creating this delivery as expertly as one could hope for. Surrounded by talent on all sides, the curtain is quickly pulled back in those first few moments, and all kinds of partying chaos flies forward in abundance. A bare-bottomed rendering destined to be king sends just the right energy into the air and we can’t help but lean into this expertly crafted production of the two Henry IV history plays combined into one, adapted and directed with strength and clarity by Robert Icke (Almeida/Park Avenue Armory’s The Doctor).

Toheeb Jimoh and Daniel Rabin in Player Kings. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

On a detailed, multidimensional set, incorporated with great intent by set and costume designer Hildegard Bechtler (Old Vic’s Mood Music), with sharply hewed slices of light by Lee Curran (Donmar’s Next to Normal) and a solid sound design by Gareth Fry (Donmar’s Macbeth), the brick and curtained crew of revelers and hang-abouts make playful use of the arena given. The cast is cleverly created for this sometimes complicated history concoction, a dual engagement that I have only seen once before, to a somewhat lesser effect. But with Toheeb Jimoh (“Ted Lasso“) as Prince Harry (or Hal) staggering about in his skivvies ready and willing to expose his true nature before us all, this Player Kings is destined to be remembered. And not only for McKellen giving it his all in a dream part.

But Hal’s difficult journey forward into the adulting royal circle, standing true and solidly performed, is just one of many contextual arrangements created with flair around the centripetal force that is Falstaff. Hal’s proxy-father relationship with Falstaff is balanced and pulled tight with tension by the hard-hearted King Henry, played with intensity by Richard Coyle (Almeida/Duke of York’s Ink). It unpacks layers of patriarchal complications that shuttle between coldness to death-bed loving attachment. It’s a compelling understanding delicately unfolding over the course of this fascinating adventure.

Samuel Edward-Cook in Player Kings. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Another tight-rope balancing act, this time between two different yet powerful worlds, Samuel Edward-Cook (Globe’s Titus Andronicus) finds compelling tones with his Hotspur, in suit and also donning fatigues, playing the modern dress unveiling with force, even with a few unclear contemporary connotations.

At just over three and a half hours, the tonal shifts of Player Kings between parts one and two are subtle yielding a suspenseful framing that leads into a less captivating battleground. But every moment of the complex condensed storytelling is well worth it, mainly to see McKellen living large inside a part that seems tailor-made for this expert thespian. The historical text is heavy lifting sometimes, not exactly created for those looking solely for light comic entertainment, but if Shakespeare is your thing, even the more complicated history plays, then Player King with McKellen feels like required viewing. I only hope that it has been recorded so those who unfortunately missed their chance, will have a further opportunity to take in his glory.


Sir Ian McKellen and cast at the curtain call during the press night performance on 11 April, 2024.

Player Kings was performed at Noël Coward Theatre, London, closing on 22 June, 2024.

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Fringe Festival “86 Me: The Restaurant Play” Serves It Up Strong

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Grabbing a seat inside and a drink from the bar on a Saturday afternoon (don’t judge me), we are welcomed into Our Lady Kensington, a dive bar on the verge of being 86’d from the scene. That is until this evening when chaos and fires erupt, and a seemingly straight-laced young man enters the space. He has been sent by management to inspect the bar for efficiency and professionalism, but what he discovers about the space, the people in it, and himself is far more complicated and difficult to correct simply with a clipboard and pen. The qualities listed are obviously lacking in this forever empty establishment, and this band of misfits who ‘work’ here, who harass, flirt, break up, drink, and indulge themselves silly during their shift, don’t seem like they are the ones who could help. Or are they?

With a cast of wonderfully focused actors, namely Luke Kimball, Marianne McIsaac, Mia Hay, Ben Yoganathan, Carson Somanlall, Elizabeth Rodenburg, and Jeff Gruich, 86 Me: The Restaurant Play, currently playing to sold-out crowds at The Supermarket Bar and Variety as part of Toronto’s Fringe Festival, is deliciously fun and invigorating. The play, as written, is definitely overly complicated and sometimes distracting. It veers this way and that through the immersive space trying to connect while dodging the problems within the framework, but with a solid tightening of that waiter apron, the heart of the piece could live quite solidly within the space, and inside these strong-minded performances and their pre-wrapped set-up. The actors do their job well, working hard trying to get to the essence of their inner world and bring it into some sort of order, all the while engaging with the delivery of drink orders and their lines to each other and us.

The cast of 86 Me: The Restaurant Play at Toronto’s Fringe Festival.

The central force of the play runs true and compassionately focused, as the cast runs circles around us all, flinging drink orders into the air for others to catch, along with other antics that endear us to this motley crew. But the catalyst really lies in Luke Kimball (Mirvish’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and his portrayal of the socially awkward, young, but determined newbie, Zach, or as he is affectionately called, even by a member of the audience, the bar’s “little bitch boy”. And it sticks, mainly because of his focused portrayal of someone lost and looking for salvation, even if it seemingly is arriving thanks to “Mr. Fancy Pants“, played cleverly by Jeff Gruich as James “The Owner”.

There is a couple (Carson Somanlall & Elizabeth Rodenburg) who break up and quit each other more often than the number of times audience members bravely call out their drink orders to cast members who never break focus, even when the order comes at an impromptu moment. The drinks do make it to them, thanks to the staff of the actual bar, who keep the energy of the space filled and rolling, even as the drunk regular (Marianne McIsaac) preaches and yells at the staff from the back table wanting more of everything from anyone who will listen. An indulging host (Mia Hay) vapes and drinks in the corner waiting for connection, but ultimately looking for an escape, and a desperate server (Ben Yoganathan) cooly and constantly trying to use his French-ness as a ploy to get closer to the escape-artist host. It’s a lot, but it’s sold well, so we drink it all down, like a good tall Gin and Tonic on a hot day.

Directed and created by Jackson Doner, 86 Me: The Restaurant Play finds hilarity and some tender engagements within the chaos that lives and breathes in this dive bar on the verge of being 86’d out of existence. The talented crew and script offer up a problematic staffing situation that is completely out of control. Clearly, there is no one strong enough or focused enough on board to guide them through this tumultuous time, but maybe there is someone who can help, if only they can help themselves first. All this, while attempting to take care of a full bar of thirsty patrons and a father who doesn’t know how to really be there for his son. But even in all that chaos and wild shenanigans that transpire within this converted cabaret space, produced by Dead Raccoon Theatre, 86 Me keeps us tuned in and caring, while throwing coins in cups to show our appreciation.

Clockwise from top left: Carson Somanlall as Carson “The Supervisor”, Mia Hay as Eva “The Hostess”, Ben Yoganathan as Francois “The Server”, Elizabeth Rodenburg as Laurie “The Bartender”, Luke Kimball as Zach “The New Guy”, Jackson Doner, and Marianne McIsaac as Jasmine “The Regular” from 86 Me: The Restaurant Play at Toronto’s Fringe Festival. Photo by Ally Mackenzie.

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The John W. Engeman Theater Presents Legally Blonde

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The John W. Engeman Theater celebrated the opening night of Legally Blonde.

The Cast and Creative of Legally Blonde

Choreographer Jay Gamboa joins with Sorority Members- Lara Hayhurst, Rebecca Murillo, Juliana Lamia, Emma Flynn Bespolka, Julianne Roberts, Emily Bacino Althaus, Bridget Carey, Amelia Burkhardt and Jessie J. Potter

The Musical is directed by Trey Compton (Engeman: Once, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder; Off-Broadway: Yank!, White Lies; Regional: Seattle 5th Avenue, Goodspeed, The Ogunquit Playhouse, The Fulton, Riverside, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, Millbrook, Mac-Haydn, and Cortland Repertory) and choreographed by Jay Gamboa (Engeman: Mama Mia!; National Tour: PJ Masks, Hello Kitty; Regional: Stages St. Louis, Gateway Playhouse, San Diego Musical Theatre, East West Players; Film/TV: The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”).

Trey Compton (Director) and James D. Sasser

Elle Woods appears to have it all until her life is turned upside down when her boyfriend dumps her to attend Harvard. Determined to get him back, Elle charms her way into the prestigious law school. An award-winning musical based on the adored movie, Legally Blonde, The Musical, follows the transformation of Elle as she tackles stereotypes and scandal in pursuit of her dreams. Exploding with memorable songs and dances–this musical is so much fun, it should be illegal!

Emma Flynn Bespolka

Emma Flynn Bespolka

Quinn Corcoran

The cast of Legally Blonde, The Musical features Emma Flynn Bespolka as Elle Woods (UK Premiere: Clueless; Regional: Kinky Boots, South Pacific, Bye Bye Birdie, Grease)

Quinn Corcoran, Emma Flynn Bespolka

Quinn Corcoran

Quinn Corcoran as Emmett (Off-Broadway: James and the Giant Peach, Rescue Rue, Blue Man Group, Hair; Regional: Maltz-Jupiter Theatre, Sierra Repertory Theatre, Servant Stage, Mac-Haydn Theatre)

Chanel Edwards-Frederick

Chanel Edwards-Frederick as Paulette (West End: Hairspray; International Tour: The Book Of Mormon; Regional: The Royal Theatre, La Mirada Theatre, Repertory East Playhouse, Interlakes Theatre)

Nicole Fragala

Nicole Fragala, Emma Flynn Bespolka

Nicole Fragala as Vivienne (National Tour: Tootsie; Regional: Cmpac, The New School, Broadhollow Theater; TV/Film: “Pretty Little Liars: Summer School,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “The Prom”)

Nathan Haltiwanger

Nathan Haltiwanger, Emma Flynn Bespolka

Nathan Haltiwanger as Warner Huntington III (Regional: Sweeney Todd, Beauty and the Beast, My Fair Lady, Next to Normal, The Sound of Music)

Julianne Roberts

Julianne Roberts as Brooke Wyndham (Regional: Chicago, The Little Mermaid, Movin’ On, Catch Me If You Can)

James D. Sasser

James D Sasser as Callahan (Engeman: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; Broadway: Riverdance; National Tour: Jesus Christ Superstar; Off-Broadway: Teeth; Regional: Theatre Under The Stars, Four Corners Musical Theatre, The Village Theatre, Berkeley Playhouse; TV/Film: “Madam Secretary,” “The Good Fight,” “Succession,” “The Bite”).

Sorority Members- Lara Hayhurst, Rebecca Murillo, Juliana Lamia, Emma Flynn Bespolka, Julianne Roberts, Emily Bacino Althaus, Bridget Carey, Amelia Burkhardt and Jessie J. Potter

Katelyn Harold

Terrence Bryce Sheldon

Amelia Burkhardt

Matt DeNoto,

Joshua James Crawford

Rebecca Murillo

Zunmy Mohammed

Juliana Lamia

Bridget Carey

Emily Bacino Althaus

Yash Ramanujam

Lara Hayhurst and Trey Compton with Little Ricky and Cha Cha

Lara Hayhurst

The Swings-Amelia Burkhardt, Terrence Bryce Sheldon, Joshua James Crawford and Katelyn Harold

James D. Sasser, Nathan Haltiwanger and Quinn Corcoran

James D. Sasser, Trey Compton Nathan Haltiwanger and Quinn Corcoran

Legally Blonde, The Musical will play the following performance schedule: Wednesdays at 7:00 pm, Thursdays at 8:00 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm. Tickets start at $80 and may be purchased by calling 631-261-2900, going online at engemantheater.com, or visiting the Engeman Theater Box Office at 250 Main Street, Northport.

The John W. Engeman Theater at Northport is Long Island’s only year-round professional theater company, casting actors from the Broadway talent pool. From curb to curtain, we have made it our business to provide affordable, quality theater in an elegant one-of-a-kind location with outstanding facilities and extraordinary service. The renovated theater offers stadium-style seating, state-of-the-art lighting and sound, a full orchestra pit, and a classic wood-paneled piano lounge with a full bar.

For a complete show schedule and more information, contact the theater directly at 631-261-2900, visit the box office at 250 Main Street, Northport or visit engemantheater.com.

The Cast and Creative of Legally Blonde

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Entertainment

Times Square Chronicles Presents The Hamptons

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Since “Live From The Hotel Edison Times Square Chronicles Presents” is so popular, we decided to do a summer edition called “Times Square Chronicles Presents The Hamptons”. We started with the Bay Street Theatre  Gala because it is what we know.,,,,,theatre. The Gala honored Neil Patrick Harris, David Burtka, and Dr. Georgette Grier-Key.

In this episode you can see Richard Kind, Marc Kudisch, Scott Schwartz, Tovah Feldshuh, Lena Hall, Tracy Mitchell, Rose Caiola, Stewart F Lane, Lliana Guibert, Kate Edelman Johnson, Steve Leber and Bonnie Lautenberg and Riki Kane Larimer.

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Out of Town

Soulpepper’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” Clashes Hard and True Against the Backdrop of Jazz and Booze

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It’s the quintessential sound of New Orleans that draws us in. Starting with the iconic rattle of that Streetcar Named Desire, clanging and banging its way through the streets, the unraveling, beautifully unpacked here at Soulpepper, brings a clearly out-of-place, white-clad sister to the door of a home filled with a rough and tumble energy that is as red as she is white. It’s a classic beginning, seeing her stand there, out-of-place and out-of-sync with a subtle modernist flair courtesy of director Weyni Mengesha (Soulpepper’s The Guide to Being Fabulous). It is that visual that delivers Tennesse Williams’ iconic damsel to the door of sister Stella, and we see it in her contemporary touch that this is an undoing worthy of our watch.

The big easy New Orlean chaos is rolled out and unmasked, here and there from time to time (with an energy that I wished I got to see a bit more), as the clashing of types overpowers and fills the stage and down the aisle. Meat is thrown from outside in, by a wife-beater-wearing Stanley, played with blue-collar deliverance by Mac Fyfe (Howland C0./Crow’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning), and caught by the love-struck Stella, played with a straightforward deliberation by a very game Skakura Dickson (Mirvish’s Dear Evan Hansen). Their engagement is effortlessly of that space, etched in the way they look and touch one another before she runs off to watch him bowl. And then she comes, dragging a hard-cased rollie bag down the aisle, banging the floor at each step as if to signal her approach. Or maybe an alarm. Possibly to her own self as much as to the others. It almost screams out, I don’t belong here. That I am a visitor, from another time and place, and this arrangement is a distinct contradiction to the word ‘easy’.

Mac Fyfe in Soulpepper’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo by Dahlia Katz

This Soulpepper Blanche, played timelessly as if a relic from some other world by the captivating Amy Rutherford (Segal Centre’s Fifteen Dogs), is worthy of the look the neighbor, Eunice, played to perfection by Ordena Stephens-Thompson (Soulpepper’s Three Sisters), gives as she leaves Blanche to her requested privacy and her secret consumption of Stan’s liquor. Rutherford’s Blanche is vibrant in her false framing, modulating her drawl for full manipulating effect, moment to moment. She gives us a magnificent creation based on nervous intention and supreme denial, pivoting this way or that, depending on the requirement that hangs in the thick air. It’s the smoothest of simulated posturing, that conveys a deft and disturbing downfall waiting in the wings, just behind another type of curtain drawn to protect and hinder inspection under a harsh unforgiving light.

Her statuesque framing is in harsh objection to all that runs around it, swinging and engaging in the smooth wildness of modern New Orleans. The sounds rise up from the edges and behind closed walls, singing and laughing in their jazz-infused joy, but they find no home in Rutherford’s Blanche. Here is the hot-blooded underlying surrounded by hard metal that reveals smokey sexuality when required, that breathes extra life and fire into the roughness of the room, designed to deliver by Lorenzo Savoini (Soulpepper’s De Profundis), with captivating lighting by Kimberly Purtell (Tarragon’s Withrow Park) and a strong sound by Debashis Sinha (Stratford/Soulpepper’s Casey and Diana). This hot musical energy is what I was waiting for as Soulpepper revisits A Streetcar Named Desire, which comes clanging back to their main stage (after a very successful 2019 production). Blanche’s downfall is clear and predetermined, mapped out from the moment Fyfe’s Stanley first sees her, and from the faulty flirtation she throws his way. Blanche is out of her dimmed-light element, and even though Dickson’s Stella tries her best to serve her in the way she likes to be cared for, the escalations of love, lust, and fury will have their way with this damsel in self-created distress. And she won’t have the strength to see her way through the smoke into the reality of the modern world that swirls around them.

Clinging to her distorted past that we hear glimpses of, playing in the background until the shot ends the fantasy, A Streetcar Named Desire delivers magic and the cruelty of realism balanced in abundance. The visuals and the musical energy, courtesy of both Mike Ross (Soulpepper’s Of Human Bondage), the original music director, and Kaled Horn (Shakespeare Bash’d’s As You Like It), the music director of this remount, emphasize the clash, excluding the delusional Blanche from the rest, even as she entices, for a moment, the kindly Mitch, played engagingly by Gregory Prest (Can Stage’s The Inheritance). The costumes by Rachel Forbes (Can. Stage’s Topdog Underdog), push forth the same cultural and societal clash. Stanley and his buddies, played well and true by Sebastian Marziali (“Dark Side of Comedy”) as Pablo, and Lindsay Owen Pierre (“Jack Reacher”) as Steve, are outfitted in your standardized blue-collar constructs, that feel curated from a different era then Blanche, although I never really understood the collection of coats and jackets these guys carry around with them on these hot humid nights. Stella finds herself straddling the timeframes in short shorts that bridge the gap that Blanche’s ensembles don’t. They engage with both, to different effects, igniting Stanley’s passion while also cementing a subtle connection to Blanche and her past life.

The cast of Soulpepper’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

But it’s Rutherford who our eyes are glued to, and she is a marvel inside her performative Blanche, weaving lies upon lies in hopes of escaping the trap she has created or found herself in. She tries her best to hold it all together, taking hot baths on steamy hot days to calm her nerves, and weaving tales of Southern elitist privilege often in comparison to Stanley’s less refined heritage. It makes her hard to feel much for, on the surface, as she lies and throws attitude, but Rutherford finds her way through the text pretty brilliantly, delivering a woman who is perplexed, anxious, and confused. It’s all wrapped up in one intense performance by one amazing actress. Dickson’s Stella doesn’t stand a chance in that rosy dim spotlight.

It’s no wonder this part is coveted by so many performers, and I’ve seen a few, including Cate Blanchette at BAM, Jessica Lange on Broadway, and Gillian Andersonat St. Ann’s Warehouse. It’s an emotional and deeply complex role that gives an actress such a deviating journey to move through from entrance to heart-breaking exit. Rutherford’s Blanche finds her way into the room inside a unique framing, taking us through an emotional journey that is epic, devastating, and deeply affecting. It’s an extremely complex and modern take on the role, weaving in layers of addictive energy and validating anxiety that feels so deeply integral to Blanche, especially during the incredibly uncomfortable interaction with the young newspaper collection boy, played captivatingly cute by musical director Horn.

Amy Rutherford and Gregory Prest in Soulpepper’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo by Dahlia Katz

The time flies by as we watch Rutherford’s wounded, flailing, and righteous-sounding bird struggle to save herself, but Fyfe’s Stanley is too brutal of an animal force to be caught in Blanche’s desperation. He’s also difficult to ignore. He plays it more subtle than loud, unpacking unknown layers that intrigue, even when they don’t add the required heat. The same could be said of Dickson’s Stella who finds her space, but not always the right amount of heat.

At times we are drawn into Blanche’s flawed pain, especially the dramatic sad story of the love that seemed to break her apart. That famous monologue, as it should, destroys, but she’s also too difficult to love and to take. During many of those tense moments, we feel for her sister, Stella, who has no idea how to take care of her or even deal with Blanche’s grandiose facade. The only one who can actually save Blanche from Blanche and her situation is Mitch who attempts to balance the sweet suitor with the desperately defeated man. Prest’s Mitch is far more gentle than most I’ve seen tackle the part, bringing his own dreaminess to the role, but it doesn’t actually mesh well with the resulting pivotal provocative scene that erupts from inside him brought to the surface because of her lies and deceit.

The tension and the rise to violence does float in the air over and within, matched by the music that erupts from behind that wall. And with the loud crash of bed posts against the same, the loud collision elevates the heat and the heaviness, sometimes too fast and furious, changing direction and speed as if the anxiety and the alcohol levels fuel the fire and the fury, without enough underlying formulations. This idea includes the final inevitable collapse of Rutherford’s Blanche, and her disconnect from reality.  It’s a jarring, majestic, and heart-wrenching full-speed crash, and one not to be missed, but somehow it doesn’t hold the framing together as well as I expected.  I wanted more of a build-up; a long fuse leading from one room to another, lit by claustrophobia and an insulting fantasy world. But this one, pushed forward by Fyfe’s Stanley is short, popping up hard and violent into the hot humidity. Yet, as expected, we watch her walk out on the arm of the stranger; a gentleman doctor who is to commit her to a mental asylum, with compassion and sorrow.  Her disintegration into shattered collapse is complete, but the mystery and deluded fantasy of her grand self still holds even if it’s as wobbly as the legs that carry her forward into the night, and up the aisle before our very eyes.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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