The energy in the room is infectious, with cabaret-style tables and chairs lining the runway of a stage at Soulpepper Theatre on the opening night of the fabulously delicious romp, The Guide to Being Fabulous. Now I must admit (as is my usual), I didn’t know very much walking into the space, but I intuitively knew that something fabulous was going to be gliding down that runway determined to entice and entertain. But I had no idea about this woman or the vibrant life story she was planning to unfurl before me. Feathers and all. And then, she appears, gloriously draped in silhouetted red, standing posed and proud before a video montage of rock stars, models, and iconic stage icons. Who was this woman who was at the center of this wildly energetic universe? Well sit back and soak it all in, because after what felt like a decade of cheers and applause, Sandra Caldwell, the creator and star, let out a hilarious grunt that got this decadent ball rolling. And what a showcase it is.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Sandra Caldwell (Stratford Festival’s Chicago) has had a journey worth telling, and as she starts to unfold her story, one that would walk, or should I say, float us gracefully forward for the next 90 minutes, it’s clear that there is more to this woman than meets the eye. She gently, with a vast unending well of energy and enthusiasm, ushers us into her initial conflict, one that has kept her afraid and nervous for most, or maybe all of her life. She leads us in, telling us about a message her mother left for her one recent day. “Baby, it should have been you,” is what she said, and we all lean in wondering, curious what that was all about. What kind of existence has this seemingly determined and fabulous performer standing tall before us lived through for all these years, to feel the fear of waiting to be caught, as if she’s always hearing dangerous footsteps close behind her.
Is this going to be a tale of violence or assault, played out over the years, I wondered to myself? Generational trauma or post-traumatic stress and how it has played havoc on her life for all these years? Or is it something else; some type of internalized shame that has been lingering around inside her, playing havoc with her senses? Where the footsteps she is so worried about are more about some sort of revelation than an attack, or maybe both, wrapped up together with fear that has been generated by a suppression decades old. Where are we going in this one-person show? And how will it all play out?
Well, you’re going to have to wait a bit for the full unpacking, even though she basically gives it up casually, talking about all the troubles and problems she has had being a trans woman and how they all might disappear now that Laverne Cox was on the cover of a magazine. But Caldwell, who wrote the book and lyrics of this wonderfully captivating spotlight show, with music by Caldwell and James Dower, additional music and lyrics by John Alcorn, and additional dialogue by Marilyn Jaye Lewis, has a lot on her mind as she takes a look back, and she’s not going to give away all of her secrets until she is good and ready. Just like she did in her real, and utterly fascinating, life journey.
She digs in, laying out the hard-knock life she was handed in the very early years of her life, running away, and basically joining the Dupont Circle circus at a far-too-young age. She doesn’t really dive head-first into the emotional baggage of being a trans woman or even how she was handling herself during that difficult time. That, I guess, is beside the point, at least for the time being. But she does talk with great pride about all the intensely strong and powerful women who have helped guide this “brand new girl in a brand new world” through her days as a panhandler and pickpocket. They were there, holding out a helping had all the way from the Circle to the burlesque stage as both a server, stripper, and ultimately a singer. She’s had a few different names bestowed upon her, some sweeter than others, by these guiding ladies, although the one she seems to hold the tightest and dearest feels, at first like a slap, but was really the warmest of hugs.
We move with her, gladly and joyously, down her strongly designed runway, courtesy of set designer Anahita Dehbonehie (Factory’s Trojan Girls…), with strong lighting by Michelle Ramsay (Tarragon’s Redbone Coonhound), a slightly off-balanced sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne (Stratford’s Much Ado About Nothing), and some killer video and projections by Frank Donato (Tarragon’s Orestes). She proudly makes her way around, by the skin of her teeth, from sissy Oliver Twist chic to glamorous cover model, keeping it moving as if her life depended on it. And maybe it did. She finds her way to Harlem in the days and nights of 4 a.m. drag balls courtesy of the Diva herself, to the ‘realness’ that she embodied on that stage. It seems she has had many Divas holding out their hands for her in offering, drawing us into her story with an ease and a wink, as we watch her arms move like graceful swan wings. She floats around the space, telling us about her No-Plan plan, and the generosity and care she was given by many a-mentor. “Das ist gut“, she enthusiastically exclaims, as she strides forward, camouflaging her fear by being loud and confident. It works, for the most part, doing the tango of lies in hopes of pulling it all together and surviving.
We’ve never seen anything like this before, but the “what ifs” hang in the air, challenging her to come clean about her truth, and it takes a while in this storytelling tale. She glosses over her troubles, while offering up fascinating details of her wild and tumultuous life filled with Moulin Rouge intrigue and deportations. It’s a clever unrolling, albeit a bit slight on some of the more intimate, complicated moments she must have been dealing with over all these years as a trans woman, but those seem less important for her to really dive into. She’d rather stick with a different type of programming, one that is more fabulous and frantic, and as directed with a breezy intune-ness by Soulpepper’s Artistic Director Weyni Mengesha (Soulpepper’s Kim’s Convenience) and backed up by two of the most fabulous singers and performers around; the delicious Tiffany Deriveau (Stratford’s Chicago) and the powerful Miss Niki Nikita (Light Echo Theatre’s Fertility), who never let her, or us down for a second, she, and they ride the energy forward, giving us lessons and instruction as were given to her on so many occasions before by her saviors and (sometimes) saints.
Dressed to the nines by costume designer Ming Wong (Canadian Stage’s Is God Is), she rallies as the show builds and unpacks years of complicated survival tactics and disappearing acts. But the defining moment of Caldwell’s career and life, “thus far”, she tells us, was her portrayal of Darlene Andrews, an outspoken trans advocate in the ground-breaking production of Charm at NYC’s MCC Theater Company. That charmed play pushed Caldwell into a spotlight that she had so far avoided. But she couldn’t any longer, especially if she wanted to play this character who was based on an actual transgender woman, Miss Gloria Allen who volunteered at a Chicago LGBTQ community center teaching etiquette to a mostly homeless LGBT youth group. It was a play that brought more transgender people to the forefront, presenting a fairly honest depiction while letting them shine and act out in all their glory. The appeal of Charm lifted us all up and shook us awake from our privileged lives. This is what I wrote, in essence, after seeing the play back in 2017, but I didn’t know how much this play was having a pretty similar impact on its leading lady. Until now.
Charm forced her hand, in a way, opening her up and giving herself permission to live as authentically as possible. Because for her to play this character, Caldwell, herself had to be as open and unapologetic as the central figure. She had to step into the spotlight like she had never done before, telling the world her truth, just like she is doing here at Soulpepper. Because, as she says in this unapologetic show, “truth brings truth” and backed by a crew of talented musicians and performers, Caldwell brings it to us all. I only wish she might have dug a bit more into the complicated emotional journey that lies somewhere underneath the facade, into the darkness, telling a more internalized tale of struggle and shame, but that might be another kind of story, or maybe another kind of performance. This Guide to Being Fabulous is a musical celebration of life, created and unleashed for all those enthusiastic souls cheering this powerhouse woman forward. She is here to throw a fulfillment party, overflowing with tearful loving hugs and hurrays, with some stripper beveled poses along the way. And what a fun circus party it turned out to be. Her Charm is infectious, and can not be denied.
Theatre News: Legacy: An Evening with Maria Friedman and Friends, Heart of Rock and Roll, Melba Moore, Gun & Powder and Bordello The Musical
The new, one-night-only concert event Legacy: An Evening with Maria Friedman and Friends will celebrate the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim, Marvin Hamlisch and Michel Legrand on Monday, March 4, 2024 at 8PM at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre (141 West 44th Street). The evening will benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, The Stephen Sondheim Foundation and The Marvin Hamlisch International Music Awards. Tickets, which start at $100, and VIP sponsorship packages are now on sale at broadwaycares.org/mariafriedman.
Four-time Olivier Award winner and director of this season’s critically acclaimed Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along, Maria Friedman has crafted a special one-night-only concert, with friends old and new, that will explore the legacies of three titans of 20th century musical theatre. The evening will showcase Maria Friedman, Santino Fontana, Savy Jackson and a special company of extraordinary young talent performing from the songbooks of celebrated composers Stephen Sondheim, Marvin Hamlisch, Michel Legrand, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Bernstein, along with a special surprise performance from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in which Friedman famously starred as The Narrator alongside Donny Osmond.
Collaborating with musical director and pianist Theo Jamieson, Legacy: An Evening with Maria Friedman and Friends is directed by Tony Award Winner Christopher Gattelli.
Producers Hunter Arnold, Tyler Mitchell and Kayla Greenspan welcomed the company of The Heart of Rock and Roll as rehearsals began for the upcoming Broadway musical, which is set to begin previews on March 29th, 2024.
The Heart of Rock and Roll, the new musical inspired by the iconic songs of Huey Lewis and The News, will open on Broadway at The James Earl Jones Theatre (138 W 48th St, New York, NY 10036) on Monday, April 22, 2024.
The principal cast features Corey Cott, McKenzie Kurtz, Josh Breckenridge, F. Michael Haynie, Zoe Jensen, Tamika Lawrence, Raymond J. Lee, John-Michael Lyles, Orville Mendoza, Billy Harrigan Tighe and John Dossett.
The cast also includes Mike Baerga, Tommy Bracco, TyNia René Brandon, Olivia Cece, Taylor Marie Daniel, Lindsay Joan, Ross Lekites, Robin Masella, Kara Menendez, Joe Moeller, Jennifer Noble, Fredric Rodriguez Odgaard, Michael Olaribigbe, Kevin Pariseau, Robert Pendilla and Leah Read.
Set in 1987 and jam-packed with Huey Lewis megahits like “Do You Believe in Love”, “Hip to Be Square” , and “If This Is It,” The Heart of Rock and Roll centers on a couple of twenty-somethings on the cusp of their futures—Bobby, a rock and roller who’s traded his guitar for the corporate ladder and his boss Cassandra who’s always put the family business first. When they both get a second shot at their dreams, it’ll take “The Power of Love” and a little help from their friends — to figure out what kind of life they really want.
The Heart of Rock and Roll premiered in San Diego at The Old Globe, helmed by Erna Finci Viterbi Artistic Director Barry Edelstein and the Audrey S. Geisel Managing Director Timothy J. Shields, in 2018.
Paper Mill Playhouse (Mark S. Hoebee- Producing Artistic Director; Michael Stotts- Executive Director), recipient of the Regional Theatre Tony Award, is pleased to announce the full cast and creative team for the new musical Gun & Powder, with book and lyrics by Angelica Chéri and music by Ross Baum. Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, choreographed by Tiffany Rea-Fisher and music directed by Austin Cook, the production will play April 4 – May 5, 2024 at Paper Mill Playhouse (22 Brookside Drive). Opening night is Sunday, April 14. Gun & Powder will feature Liisi LaFontaine (West End: Dreamgirls, Moulin Rouge!; Regional: Born for This) as Martha Clarke,Ciara Renée (PMP: The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Broadway: Waitress; TV: “The Flash,” “Arrow”) as Mary Clarke, Jeannette Bayardelle (Broadway: Girl from the North Country, The Color Purple) as Tallulah Clarke, Aaron James McKenzie (Broadway: A Beautiful Noise; TV: “Bull”) as Elijah, Hunter Parrish (Broadway: To Kill a Mockingbird; TV: “Weeds,” “The Other Black Girl”) as Jesse Whitewater, and Jisel Soleil Ayon (National Tour: Hamilton, Waitress) as Standby for Mary and Martha. The ensemble of Gun & Powder will include Rickens Anantua, Reed Campbell, Carrie Compere, Meghan Olivia Corbett, Joann Gilliam, Francesca Granell, Aaron Arnell Harrington, Mary Claire King, Malik Shabazz Kitchen, Rayshun LaMarr, Zonya Love, Tiffany Mann, Tony Perry, Adam Roberts, Hank Santos, Christine Shepard, Katie Thompson, Aurelia Williams, and Jason SweetTooth Williams.
Gun & Powder is a new musical inspired by the true story of Mary (Renée) and Martha Clarke (LaFontaine), African American twin sisters who take extraordinary measures to settle their mother’s sharecropper debt and save her home. In 1893 Texas, the Sisters Clarke—passing as white—embark on a remarkable Wild West adventure that examines race, family, and identity with two electrifying women who transformed from farm girls to outlaws to legends.
The production features orchestrations by John Clancy (Broadway: Kimberly Akimbo, The Notebook), scenic design by Beowulf Boritt (PMP: The Wanderer, Murder on the Orient Express; Broadway: Harmony; New York, New York; The Scottsboro Boys), costume design by Emilio Sosa (PMP: On Your Feet!; Broadway: Sweeney Todd; Ain’t No Mo’; Good Night, Oscar), lighting design by Adam Honoré (PMP: After Midnight; Broadway: Purlie Victorious, Ain’t No Mo’), sound design by Connor Wang (Broadway: How to Dance in Ohio; American Repertory Theatre: Evita), wig, hair, and makeup design by J. Jared Janas & Tony Lauro (PMP: Clue; Broadway: Sweeney Todd, & Juliet), fight direction by Sordelet, Inc./Rick Sordelet (PMP: The Wanderer, Fiddler on the Roof; Broadway: Take Me Out), and intimacy direction by Crista Marie Jackson (Broadway: Between Riverside and Crazy; Film: Dumb Money, No Hard Feelings). Casting is by Tara Rubin Casting. Jakob W. Plummer is the Production Stage Manager.
The York Theatre Company (James Morgan, Producing Artistic Director, Marie Grace LaFerrara, Executive Director) “Where Musicals Come to Life,” will present developmental readings of Bordello, The Musical, with book by Barbara Bellman and Joan Ross Sorkin, music by Emiliano Messiez, lyrics by Barbara Bellman, music direction by Steven Gross and directed by Will Pomerantz. The presentations by invitation only will take place on Thursday, February 29 and Friday, March 1. These presentations are part of The York Theatre Company’s Developmental Reading Series. General Management by Hillel Friedmanfrom Evan Bernadin Productions. Executive Producer is Rashad Chambers.
Synopsis: Set in the colorful world of Buenos Aires in 1920 and inspired by historical events surrounding Raquel Liberman, Bordello is the story of a Polish immigrant who is forced into prostitution and risks everything to bring an international Jewish sex-trafficking ring to justice. This never-been-told-before tale of love and bravery has a musical theatre score that incorporates tango, klezmer and other sounds of the period.
Cast: Dana Aber, Harrison Bryan, Emily Brockway, Ellie Biron, Alison Cimmet, Omar Cepero-Lopez, Cicily Daniels, Ryan Duncan, Jamie LaVerdiere, Jillian Louis, Benjamin Magnuson, Samantha Massell, Shereen Pimentel, Cheryl Stern, Pablo Torres, and Eric Van Tielen. Stage Manager is Michael Wizorek.
Two Epic Centerpieces in Two Very Different (and Dynamic) Musical Treatments Revel in Their Magnificence in Toronto: “Dion: A Rock Opera” & “De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail”
Within two very different musical renderings inside two different theatres in Toronto, two very different yet magnificently dynamic characters take hold of center stage and create magic out of legends; one myth and the other tragically human, and musical art out of their tales of love and power. Seen back to back over the weekend, these two shows: Coal Mine Theatre‘s Dion: A Rock Opera & Soulpepper‘s De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail deliver the musical goods in abundance, finding opportunity and inventiveness in their unpacking, opening up the field with creative power, and fueling our imagination with their energy and superb talent.
With a red-tiled runway and a magnificently gifted soothsayer calling forth a Greek mythology pathway down the center of the Coal Mine Theatre, Dion: A Rock Opera rocks fantastically and enthusiastically into the black and white fashioned spotlight of The Bacchae. The musical tailors, quite tremendously, the tale of Dionysus, orDion, as he is sung and called here, in surprisingly theatrical energy and determination. It’s an epic rendering of an ancient tale with modern gender-bashing sensibilities and a captivating sound and fury, with four chorus souls seated at each end, giving us just a wee flavor of the spectacle we are about to digest. We, the spectators of this extravaganza, sit on each side of this runway, gazing at the statuary and each other, waiting in anticipation for Euripides’ classic tragedy to begin. And within the first few bars of music, sung by the impeccably dynamic and detailed SATE (Soulpepper’s A Streetcar Named Desire), we are transported and delivered into the hands of Ted Dykstra and Steven Mayoff’s Dion.
In the beginning, “the word is Evoi” and SATE sings out loud, magnificently, and emphatically, framing a concept that proclaims the ‘exclamation of Bacchic frenzy‘ as delivered by the blind soothsayer, Tiresias (SATE), who has lived a life as both a man and a woman. Tiresias lays out the foundations in subtle magnificently sung scenarios that hold our attention hypnotically, backed by an energized chorus, made up of the followers of the cult of Dion: Max Borowski (Ovation’s Cabaret), Saccha Dennis (Tift’s Jesus Christ Superstar), Kaden Forsberg (Drayton’s Sh-Boom), and Kelsey Verzotti (Vertigo’s Gaslight). Their voices ring out the proclamation with a deliciously operatic edge and fever that engages and excites us delightfully, as the chorus plays with light and their supple bodies, energized by the captivating choreography of associate director Kiera Sangster (Shaw’s Grand Hotel). As directed with fire and precision by Peter Hinton-Davis (Tarragon’s The Hooves Belonged…), Dion unwraps the electric formula and dives fully in, unleashing the nine-person cast with a communal vibe reminiscent of an elevated and gender-fluid Jesus Christ Superstar in the modern world of inclusivity. The musical piece drives forward in both its sound and fury, thanks to the fine work by composer Ted Dykstra (Coal Mine’s Creditors) and a libretto by Steven Mayoff (Turnstone Press’ Fatted Calf Blues), giving us echoes of others, while finding authenticity and inclusion inside itself.Mastering the duality of the otherworldly central character, this non-binary demigod Dion, played to vocal perfection by the talented Jacob Macinnis (Stratford’s Play on! A Shakespeare Mixtape), luxuriates with style and stature in the powerful position of half-human, half God. Dion, in great magical style, has enraptured the citizens of Thebes, who have been tyrannically ruled in pseudo-Trumpian rage by Pentheus, well played with fury by Allister MacDonald (That Theatre Company/Buddies’ Angels in America). It’s the ultimate powerful match, between absolute power and absolute pleasure, embodied passionately by both Macinnis and MacDonald.
The strange “seduction” of the city, set upon first by Dion on the mother of Pentheus, Agave, beautifully embodied by the captivating Carly Street (Canadian Stage’s Heisenberg), has drenched the city streets with mayhem, violence, and drunken desire, in revenge against the hateful Pentheus for spreading blasphemous lies about Dion’s mother Semele, destroying her reputation after her death and Dion’s birth. It’s epic and delicious, as the two stand facing one another for battle on that long narrow stage, designed dynamically by set and costume designer Scott Penner (Off-Broadway’s JOB), with inventive insightful lighting by Bonnie Beecher (Shaw’s Shadow of a Doubt) and a clever sound design by Tim Lindsay (Eclipse’s Sunday in the Park…), assisted beautifully by technical director Sebastian Marziali (TO Fringe’s Lysistrata), stage manager Fiona Jones (Tarragon’s The Hooves Belonged…), production manager Erik Richards (ReadyGo’s Talk Treaty to Me), and supervising production manager Wesley Babcock (Factory’s Armadillos).
The battle is on, “storming and surrendering” to the sound of bursting balloons and agony, all exactly as Dion has planned and dynamically unfolded by this terrifically engaging cast. “It’s you who’s in my trap“, sings Dion, as Pentheus fights back with a “Tweet, Tweet, Tweet“, but the “great reclaiming” is not far away, with Dion, through the powerfully voiced cast (particularly Macinnis, SATE, and Street), working their magic on Pentheus, and us in the audience. We watch in wonderment as this magnificently dynamic reckoning of Pentheus struts its way to the decapitating ending. The music, as delivered solidly and dynamically by musical director Rob Foster (Mirvish’s Rock of Ages), sings and soars non-stop, from beginning to end, touching on the ancient story with a rock opera edge and wit.
The pop song aria energy is dramatic, even when repetitive, finding urgency in its drawn-out meanderings in single-minded non-binary force. The catchy choral arrangements layer the piece with movement and light, on that catwalk stage, and we can’t help but be pulled into the theatricality of the piece, as planned by both the director, Hinton-Davis, and The Bacchae story. It is exactly as it should be, and we can’t help but fall under the spell of Dion: A Rock Opera at Coal Mine, and its magical Rock Opera queerness and sensual subline sensibility.
De Profundis (Latin: “from the depths”) is a hypnotically potent letter written by a ruined and tormented Oscar Wilde during his many years’ imprisonment in Reading Gaol, to the man who ultimately destroyed him, “Bosie”, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde wrote this letter in 1897, close to the end of his imprisonment after his conviction for ‘gross indecency‘, recounting his relationship and extravagant engagement with Bosie, which eventually led to his ruin and imprisonment. He indicts both Bosie’s vanity and selfishness, while also acknowledging, quite poetically, his own weakness in acceding to Bosie’s demands. “I blame myself,” he repeats in Soulpepper Theatre’s brilliant De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail, before singing the refrain, “Happy Birthday Oscar!” for the ‘presents‘ he was sarcastically gifted by himself, and by others.
This is just the first half of the letter, wherein the second half, Wilde dives into a spiritual landscape, ending with the framing, “Your Affectionate Friend“. Soulpepper’s De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail, crafted from this very letter, is a powerful and majestic investigation, worthy of all the magnificent theatrical magic that is unveiled here. Through the unparalleled creative energy of adaptor and director, Gregory Prest (Soulpepper’s Of Human Bondage) with original music by composer/music director/arranger/orchestrator Mike Ross (Soulpepper’s Spoon River) and lyricist Sarah Wilson (Soulpepper’s Rose), Soulpepper has unleashed the most magnificent musical fantasy that I have had the pleasure of sitting through. It’s powerfully captivating and emotionally destructive; engagingly clever and beyond witty, pulling quotes from Wilde out of a metal hat, reminding us all of his incredible ability to craft intellectual gold from his quick observations and sharp mind. “If you know, you know.”
Ushered into the fantastic unwrapping of this letter; a 55,000-word communication addressed to Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, Wilde’s friend and previous lover, Robbie, touchingly and lovingly portrayed by Jonathan Corkal-Astorga (Eclipse’s Sunday in the Park…), engages directly with us, taking us gently by the hand and guides us through the proceedings, that is until an impatient Oscar pokes his head through the door and chastizes the gentle Robbie, hilariously. It’s a wonderful bit of pre-play, propelling us into the more torturous arena of a confinement cell where Oscar Wilde, played to wild perfection by the intricate and meticulously well-defined Damien Atkins (Factory’s Here Lies Henry), dives right into the specific meanderings of his sharp-witted mind and angry hurt heart.
The unraveling, over 95 minutes, is a not uncomplicated, defined bit of abundance, on a stage meticulously well orchestrated in layers by set and lighting designer Lorenzo Savoini (Soulpepper’s King Gilgamesh…). Savoini creates some visually arresting magic, as Oscar’s cramped jail cell evaporates to the sides, giving Oscar an ever-enlargening arena to dramatize his damaged psyche and emotional variance. The effect is majestic and deep, with perfect projections elevating the dramatics almost effortlessly, created masterfully by designer Frank Donato (Soulpepper’s Guide to Being Fabulous), with a strong forceful assist by costume designer Ming Wong (Stratford’s Rent), movement director Indrit Kasapi (Buddies’ The First Stone), and sound designer Olivia Wheeler (Stratford’s A Wrinkle in Time).
Director Prest delivers an exceptional experience filled to overflowing with personality and emotion, playing with the interconnectivity of the framework and giving Atkins the space and platform to really capture and translate his emotional language. De Profundis is not your traditional musical, by any means, it lingers and floats around the idea of love and lust that sometimes is best delivered through song (and some dance). Atkins is the perfect vessel to unpack it vocally, spiritually, and creatively, either through dramatic sequences filled with anger and sadness, or a bouncy Irish song, that spins out of his control most amazingly.
Bosie, magnificently embodied by the gorgeous Colton Curtis (Stratford’s A Chorus Line), flits in and out, playing both the antagonist and the pained lover, edging him forward into emotional chaos with a captivating stare or snarl. For having little to say, like the pseudo-MC role of Corkal-Astorga’s Robbie, the effect is powerfully dynamic and painfully engaging. It’s almost a solo show, with Atkins leading us through the paces expertly, but it would also diminish the piece without these two adding a layer of entrapped emotional engagement. Pirouetting between musical genres most cleverly, De Profundis elevates itself with its unpredictability, cleverly enacted emotionality, and the absolute brilliance in its visual splendor. “Like Byron, but better.“
Atkins’ Oscar is definitely the main and most ingenious focal point, even as he stares longingly and angrily at the beautiful Bosie. The actor is outrageously magnificent in the part, rotating and spinning himself from charming and witty to manic and completely diminished by anger and frustration, mostly for his blind obedience to Bosie’s vanity and eventual dismissal. Curtis’ Bosie mesmerizingly unleashes a silent but meaningful dance behind the singing Oscar, nearly perfect in his frame and form, adding a layer of complicated understanding to the idea that Wilde basically “lost his mind over a beautiful man.” Understandable, but it is Atkins who holds us completely in his hands, leading us through the letter with imperfect perfection right to the last moment of engagement. It’s one of the most stellar performances of the year, inside an absolutely gorgeous rendering, and it should not be missed if you have any say in the matter.
Oscar Wilde wrote this impressive manuscript and poem between January and March of 1897. There was no contact between Bosie and Wilde, even as Wilde desperately pleaded to the prison walls for a reply. After all these trials and tribulations, both public and criminal, and all the suffering from his imprisonment, the physical hard labor of his punishment, and the emotional isolation, his impulse, layered with anger, frustration, love, and forgiveness, was to write a ‘love letter’ to the man who essential caused his destruction. The prison did not allow Oscar to send the long letter, which he was only allowed to write alone in his cell “for medicinal purposes”, one page a day. Each page was taken and saved for him to read over and revise at the end when he was finally released on May 18, 1897. The rest is history, sad, but true. Yet, it made the most magnificent musical fantasy one could ever hope for, from a love-sick artist, struggling to deal with his anger, betrayal, and the art of forgiveness.
Girl from the North Country Tugs Your Heartstrings
Bob Dylan’s songs reflected the struggles of the working class, and evoked images of the Depression era, rural America, which still lived in the memories of the older adults of the late 60’s and early 70’s. In writer/director Connor McPherson’s jukebox musical, Girl from the North Country, Dylan’s songs serve as a backdrop for the world of pained souls he assembles onstage. The national tour of this show, in Chicago now through February 25 at the CIBC Theatre, is an emotionally charged evening with an outstanding ensemble of performers who should not be missed when it comes to your town.
Nick Laine (John Schiappa) is the proprietor of a boarding house in Deluth, Minnesota in 1934. Mr. Schiappa’s face seems to be chiseled from stone. He brings a similar strength of heart to his performance, as he doggedly tries to sustain the lives of his family while on the brink of foreclosure. He juggles that obligation with caring for his mentally ill wife, Elizabeth (Jennifer Blood). She left me alternatingly in laughter and tears with her unfiltered outbursts and unexpected sense of humor in the face of her character’s disability.
Nick and Elizabeth have raised a black teenage girl as their own, Marianne (Sharaé Moultri), whose centered performance is both stunningly honest and deeply beautiful. She is also inexplicably pregnant, in a story beat that is oddly unexplored. Their young son, Gene (Ben Biggers) is an unemployed drunk, who seems to know he has no future. Mr. Biggers makes us ache with sympathy for this poor, tortured soul.
One of their boarders, Mrs. Neilson (Carla Woods) is sleeping with Nick, and waiting for a financial windfall with an optimism which is ripe to be shattered. Ms. Woods is a warm and wise soul who makes us share her longing for a better life.
The other boarders include the Burke family, who have fallen on hard times. David Benoit as Mr. Burke is compelling as a man dancing on an emotional tightrope, desperately trying to avoid being pushed off by financial and family tensions. As Mrs. Burke, Jill Van Velzer is both riveting and heartbreaking in her longing to escape the personal prison of her life. I can still see the pain in her eyes as she would try to force a smile in the face of hopelessness. As their seemingly autistic adult son, Elias, Aidan Wharton is convincing, if necessarily limited as a character.
The boarding house is also visited by a young black boxer with a past to hide, Joe Scott, played with great dignity by Matt Manuel. The other visitor, Reverend Marlowe, is a small time con man whose unctuous manner and devious soul are perfectly captured by Jeremy Webb.
The personal stories interwoven into this emotional tapestry evoke memories of the great ensemble plays by early twentieth century writers, like Clifford Odets and Eugene O’Neill. It’s the kind of writing we don’t get to see enough of anymore, in our times of rising budgets and shrinking casts. It’s also a far more serious exploration of character, and depth of emotion, than you get from the typical musical today.
Their stories are told in flashback by the spirit of another boarder, Dr. Walker, played by Alan Ariano. Unlike Tom in “The Glass Menagerie,” The doctor does not undergo any personal emotional journey, or gain any perspective on his own life by being the narrator of the play. As a result, his presence seems tacked on, and he lacks any of the emotional heft accorded to the other characters in the story.
Producers and writers in theater and film have been cobbling stories together around existing song catalogues since the early 20th century. It was easier to create a direct relationship between the songs and stories back in the day when the songs were mostly simpler variations on love, which could be shoe-horned into almost any Broadway romance. Dylan’s twenty-two musical ruminations on life included here, which range from familiar hits (“Like a Rolling Stone”, “Make You Feel My Love”) to lesser known titles, relate much less directly to the story being told here than the songs do in other successful jukebox shows, whether we’re talking about Jersey Boys, Beautiful or even Singin’ in the Rain.
The title song, “Girl from the North Country”, is a memory song about a lost love on a wintry day, no part of which has anything to do directly with what is being depicted on stage. The legacy of the Depression is evoked by “Duquesne Whistle” which states,“Can’t you hear that Duquesne whistle blowing/ Blowing through another no good town.”But the rest of the song doesn’t have anything to do with this story either.
There’s a bit more connection to the existential despair of “Jokerman,” whose lyric states, “Freedom just around the corner for you. But with the truth so far off, what good will it do?”The songs overall create an appropriate tapestry of Americana sounds and deeply personal images. But they intersect only tangentially, at best, with McPherson’s story.
To the credit of the production, the songs seem to come from the hearts of the characters even if the lyrics are disconnected from the actual story. The music evokes both the era and the despair of the characters, and the universally talented singing actors stir the soul. A great deal of credit for the emotional power of the music goes to Simon Hale for his outstanding orchestrations and arrangements.
The fine ensemble of musicians under the direction of Conductor/Keyboardist Timothy Splain, and supporting ensemble singers, weave in and out of the action seamlessly under Mr. McPherson’s direction. Actors David Benoit and Jill Val Velzer are also employed as percussionists, at a drum kit which sits for the whole show on one side of the stage. It did seem a bit odd and inconsistent to have only these two actors step out of their roles and become musicians, when the other actors were not similarly used.
When I go to the theater, I would rather be stirred deeply than glossed over emotionally. Although the songs may not integrate with the story, The Girl From the North Country will move you with the emotional power of the outstanding performances.
The Girl From The North Country continues now through February 25, 2024 at the CIBC Theatre in Chicago.
A Slew of Personal One-Person Shows Hit Deep in Toronto: “Guilt (A Love Story)” & “As I Must Live It”
It’s all about the one in the center, and after taking in the heavy, twisted, and intense one-person show, Huff at the Grand Theatre in London Ontario earlier this week, I found myself entering back into the Toronto Theatre world for another two, albeit very different, but somewhat similar one-person shows that etched out very specific landscapes for each of the talented writers/performers to spin out from. Each in their own very particular and very personal way, and both from an internal force that, turns out, is impossible to ignore.
The first was on Valentine’s Day, entitled, ever so appropriately for the day, Guilt (A Love Story) at Tarragon Theatre. How perfect. The second is the very inventive As I Must Live It, at Theatre Passe Muraille. Both excellent streams of confession, manifested out of personal trauma, pain, and pride or joy, and brought to the stage in an exuberant style overflowing with energy and determination. And I have one more to go this weekend (after a slight detour into Dion at The Coal Mine), when I see another one-person show, De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail at Soulpepper, although I think that will have a very different edge than the two I saw over the last two nights.
Both of the opening night shows are an experience in personality and pain to remember, led by high-wattage performing balls of light, with big proclamations and endless amounts of style and energy. They each usher us into the space with a unique personal flair and differing edges that engage; one fueled by tequila, wine, and a historical tradition of self-doubt and confidence; the other filled to overflowing with familial love, need, and mental health complications, drunk in from a faulty water bottle that needs to be replaced. Or it could be Jamaican rum in that bottle. But I doubt it.
The first one begins with a shot inside the Tarragon Theatre. The energy is high and excited, as the writer and performer, Diane Flacks (Tarragon’s Waiting Room), makes her way in from the lobby for her fifth one-person show in the space. She comes in big, carrying a tray of tequila shots for the willing few who took her up on her offering. I wish one of those shots were within my reach, as a bit of tequila wouldn’t hurt the hearing of her one-person show Guilt (A Love Story) as it dances its way into our frame. The premise is intoxicating, like the drinking that Diane says she doesn’t have a problem with. “I feel better when I’m drinking“, she tells us as she opens up seeing how that could be read a bit wrong. But this is not the story she is intent on telling. Oh no, it is something far more complicated and engaging than that. That old alcoholic story we have heard, in a way, before, but what Flacks has in store is something entirely hers, and one that piques our interest pretty much from the get-go.
“Drinking numbs the guilt,” is also something she leads us in with, but that’s no surprise, and as the references fly fast and furious forward, rattling the cage bars with funny intent, Guilt (A Love Story) finds its true force in the unraveling of a family and a partnership. But she isn’t the typical victim in the stereotypical tale. She is the one who opens this thing up and runs a bit wild with her newfound freedom. She is the one who left, found passion and excitement outside, and she is also the one who has to take on the Guilt.
It’s a captivatingly funny unpacking, filled with formulations and characterizations that connect with the passion and the raw guilt that has been found, like “a raccoon in my chest” clanging and banging on the bars. And as directed smoothly by Alisa Palmer (Tarragon’s Sibs), Flacks finds a way to both laugh and find emotional truth in the matter, walking us through her crumbling marriage and all the ways she tries to hold on to all things important. She radiates pride in her family, but also, slyly, adds that being Jewish leads her easily down the road of self-blame into a landscape filled with Guilt and desperation. Her embodiment of Sigmund Freud steps in for a few moments, giving us a playful intellectual framework on the matter, inhaling deeply the smoke from an imaginary cigar, quite naturally. We also are visited by Flacks’ memorable bubbe who unpacks more in a few one-sided lines of a phone conversation than one can fathom. But it’s the yoga instructor who is the one that seals the deal for me, adding layers of underlying knowledge and insight that can only be matched by Flacks’ characterization of a neuro-scientist explaining it all to us as a glowing brain centers our soul.
Featuring uncomplicated choreography and intimacy coordination by Rebecca Harper (National Theatre School of Canada’s Director of Movement), a somewhat overly complicated diamond island set and costume design by Jung-Hye Kim (Crow’s The Chinese Lady), superb transitional lighting by Leigh Ann Vardy (Stratford’s Richard II) and a solid sound design by Deanna H Choi (Tarragon’s Cockroach), Guilt (A Love Story) and Flacks engage with her complicated unraveling with an expert’s ease. It’s the one with her wife that fills the space, but also the one that gets the shorter end of the stick as the divorce papers get finalized. Her X takes up very little space in this tale, as it centers itself more firmly around the effects this breaking has on her family; mainly her two sons whom she worships and defends like the greatest of wild beast mothers. Her play borders on standup, filling in the gaps with funny asides on culture and Tik-Tok mothering, with some being more engaging than others, Yet, most find their target effectively, pulling the audience along in connected happy engagement even if the framework isn’t as solid as one could hope for. I can’t say that I was completely enraptured from beginning to end, but she is an effective personality and an engaging performer who finds her way through a unique perspective with aplomb and determination.
Over at Theatre Passe Muraille, in co-production with Modern Times Stage, another unraveling comes alive, rollicking playfully forward most wonderfully and emotionally. The show, As I Must Live It, opens up in the lobby, much to my surprise, from the stairs to the floor where a rose is given, as well as a ball and a hat. All are de-thorned and disinfected for our safety, we are told by the exuberant and charmingly sweet Luke Reece, the writer and performer of this one-person rotation. He’s clever and engagingly childlike, as he draws us to the window to tell us a story about a squirrel named Blackie who eventually comes home. It’s an endearing start, metaphorically and creatively, placing the formula in and around the idea of external editing and control; holding high our own particular voice and not giving it up for anything or anybody. We lean in, adoringly, to the imminent unveiling, curious to see more of this captivating and pure adventure that is about to be thrown, like a ball, around by this fantastically talented spoken word artist. We happily follow him into the space to take a seat somewhere in the expanse of the theatre, but we can’t help but feel like we are following some magical pied piper. Maybe more like curious city squirrels than medieval rats that had overrun Hamelin, but the appeal of his identity is strong and true; someone we want to know more about and are eager to engage with.
Under the solid direction of Daniele Bartolini (DLT Experiences’ the stranger…), As I Must Live It dives into familial engagement like an energetic kid in a playground, moving through the wide open spaces of the theatre with an expert focus. The overall experience is of wonder, yet, we are told, it is “haunted by joy” yet filled with an air of stress “cause I wanted to be perfect.” Our expert guide Reece (CBC’s ‘Notice’) starts off curled up inside a colorful pool of papers and playground equipment, courtesy of set and costume designer Jackie Chau (Factory’s The Waltz) and lighting designer Sarah Mansikka (Gloria Grethel Productions’ Elbow Room), delivering poetry with a tender air, but the unedited energy of this engaging performer can’t let him stay still for long. Soon we are transported, playfully and inventively, through his madcap costumed experience, and we just can’t help but stay completely tuned in.
Flying and moving through the space with a strong confidence, Reece touches on so many aspects of childhood, ranging from grandmothers, dinosaurs, Chris Pratt’s Jurassic physique, all the way to Darth Vader and a Star Wars line made famous, even in its incorrectness. That one line repeated incorrectly affected this boy named Luke for many of his most formative years, that is until he was renamed Cool, Hand-ed to Luke by a mentor that would change the angle this young emerging artist would see the world. And we revel in his open-hearted presence and delivery, feeling his effervescence and his shame as he climbs about, taking us on journeys that register and roll.
The one-person telling really takes shape, thanks to some spectacularly well-choreographed projections from UK’s Limbic Cinema (2023’s Glastonbury Festival), and their designers: Barrett Hodgson & Thom Buttery, assisted by the detailed sound design by Adrian Bent (‘SNOLPS‘). It’s cleverly playful and authentic, mixing poetic storytelling with tenderly told experiences growing up in his mixed-race hybrid family, with a mentally ill father and an overly protective caring mother, with a few grandparents thrown in for good measure. We watch the smile of this retail salesman fade from anger and shame as he climbs through his memories to talk to his mother and more, letting petals fall to the sound of Italian music. He is “killing it” throughout, as he says, even when he becomes the “robber of ignorant bliss“. Or is it “blissfully ignorant“? Such things can’t be helped sometimes when the power of words spoken from the heart is truly heard by the ones who may need to hear them in poetic delivery.
Through his signature deft wordplay, the show, As I Must Live It, is an invitation to move forward, to hear a truth that needs to be told, by a performer with clarity and vision. It moves around the playground of his youth with purpose, maybe more so, and with more structural awareness than Guilt (A Love Story). But both shine light on realms and arenas that need to be seen and truly felt, from the ground up, and it doesn’t hurt at all to be in the presence of these wonderful storytellers determined for us to see what is hidden and not talked about.
For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com
Huff Breathes Abusive Pain in Deep at the Grand Theatre, London
The far-off static sound of television catches our attention. We focus in, searching the space for a source, but only see signs of a struggle; maybe internal. Maybe not. There is an overturned chair, a beer case, an old discarded white towel, and a beer bottle open on a black milk crate waiting for its receiver to drink it in. He, Cliff Cardinal (VideoCabaret’s (Everyone I Love…), the writer and solo performer of Huff, now playing at the Grand Theatre in my hometown of London, Ontario, holds us there, enticingly, making us lean in, almost against our will, in anticipation of what will be exhaled in this 70min one-person show. We feel it coming, even through our uneasiness.
It’s a compelling beginning, filled with deadly fumes of something coming, and then we are startled into awareness by the screeching of duct tape being stretched and unwound. All this before driving music leads us fully into this life-and-death situation in that square of white light, and it becomes as clear as a plastic freezer bag pulled tight around a pained face, that this ride is going to be a wild one. Cold and weird, in a funny, disturbing kinda way that will resonate and remain in your senses like the smell of gasoline huffed for the pseudo-pleasure of pure escapism. Not actual pleasure, but the determined desperate way one would turn to in order to cope with the pain and intense hurt of neglect, abuse, and the lingering effects of loss and addiction.
Spun out in a space that becomes more crystal clear as this tale unwinds, with the same electric nervousness of that duct tape removal (I must say that I was glad to be situated in the third row, and not just for the fact that my note taking could be a distraction – just ask that one young lady who was doing just that in the front row), Huff flies forward with a tense fierce chaoticness that delivers. It’s a tense unraveling, ignited by flung cigarettes and drenched in gasoline, just waiting to blow up and destroy. It’s sharp and sinewy in its humor, but complicated in its rapid-fire unveiling. Cardinal, the performer, merges his essence and scent with those he portrays, mingling his own persona with all those affected inside the story of three brothers growing up in an indigenous community in northern Ontario. It’s not a safe space, this home, and the actor unleashes them all at us with a kinetic force, giving access to their wildly violent dysfunction and abuse with a deliberate edge that is both compelling and utterly disturbing to witness.
The boundaries shift relentlessly, sometimes too quickly, as if the fear that attracts the Trickster, will summon more destruction than this middle child can bear. Is this his own story, or one that he needs to tell, loudly and aggressively, from the fume-induced perspective of a pair of underprivileged indigenous children, tortured casually by alcoholics, directed to the privileged, non-indigenous viewer, or as he calls us, his imaginary friends? Cardinal engages us directly and with force from the very beginning, drawing us into the character’s world via an in-the-moment suicide attempt. He makes us complicit to the attempt, tightening the situation around us all, and depriving himself, and the room, of oxygen, in order to really make us feel his pain, and his dark imaginative humor.
A solid storyteller, wrapped in frantic chaotic energy and directed with a wild force by Karin Randoja (Theatre Centre’s Jacinto; VideoCabaret’s (Everyone I Love…), Cardinal unleashes a world of violence and abuse, but within the fumes of imagination and hope, possessing sacred gifts bestowed on us, as they may have been to the youngest son who can make one laugh just by blowing. The energy takes us down deep, into that deserted motel room and makes us almost sniff the siphoned-off petrol that the two youngest use for entertainment, like a demented game show run amuck, in between playing the fumiest game of all, semi-asphyxiation, all for some fun and distraction. The pain and horror of their upbringing fill the space like invisible smoke, except for the moments when hope slips into the toxic smell. It sneaks in brandishing an old-spirited cane, breathing life back in through the protective acts of a determined grandmother and a younger brother willing to do anything to draw the abuse away from this middle child, our central character, and the one that Cardinal truly wants us to know.
Somewhere between myth and reality, the mythical Trickster sneaks in, as he always does (so we are told), forcing a battle between hope and horror; life and death. The fraught chaos is relentless and real, assisted by the fine work done by set and costume designer Jackie Chau (Factory Theatre’s Wildfire), lighting designer Michelle Ramsay (Theatre Rusticle’s The Tempest), technical director Allan Day (Three Ships Collective/Soup Can Theatre’s A Christmas Carol), and sound designer Alex Williams (TPM’s Fare Game), sometimes to its detriment, hazing us in its hallucinogenic fumes, when a tad more focus could have crystalized the disturbance more. But Cardinal is relentless in his approach, forever changing form in his continual recalibration of what he wants us to hear, see, smell, and feel with determined talent. There is nothing comfortable or conventional in Cardinal’s Huff, but he does manage to draw us into his deprivation of oxygen, making us all gasp a little for breath once the lights go down and the ovation ignites.
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