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Toronto’s Joseph Wears its Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat Energetically and Joyfully

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I was really curious when I arrived at Mirvish’s Princess of Wales Theatre in Downtown Toronto to see a new production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Wondering what I would think. My only other viewing of this show was over the pandemic when Andrew Lloyd Webber gave us 48 hours to stream his Joseph on his YouTube channel: The Shows Must Go On for free, and what I found out, was that I really enjoyed the show, saying with all my heart, “go, go, go, Joseph“! It was a beautifully filmed version, expanded and adapted from the 1992 production starring Donny Osmond, and I had a blast engaging with this musical. I had heard about this production, but had very little knowledge of. So arriving at the theatre just before Christmas to see the North American premiere of Laurence Connor’s dynamic new production, I was ready and willing to be completely entertained.

The production first played at The Palladium in London, UK back in 2019, and some say it has eyes focused on a Broadway transfer, but I’m not so sure that it’s quite ready for that. It certainly is an entertaining jaunt, presenting the musical, with lyrics by Tim Rice (Chess) and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber (Jesus Christ Superstar), in a colorful festive manner, simple and somewhat catchy, having immediate appeal and adolescent charm. The song cycle, ushering forth enthusiastically from different pop genres, follows the optimistic and joyful Joseph, played lovingly by a very appealing and impressively voiced Jac Yarrow (BBC’s “In My Skin“), straight from the Bible’s Book of Genesis. His voice soars, beautiful and gently throughout the show, and never fails to emotionally engage. Lucky for us, he’s the core of this sometimes overly simple and repetitive production, and holds it all together with his presence.

Back in 2020, the video clip of Osmond and the glorious Maria Friedman as the Narrator singing “Any Dream Will Do“ in that streamed version was what initially drew me into the show, and after watching them perform it a few years back, I felt that the filmed version was a must-see event. It’s a completely disarming and charming number, one that won me over quickly and easily. “If you think it, want it, dream it, than it’s real” sings the Narrator, lovingly portrayed in this new production by the talented Vanessa Fisher (NT’s Follies), and I was hooked just the same. I couldn’t help but feel that this “coat of many colors” which tells “the tale of a dreamer, like you“ might just be the ticket I needed to lift up my holiday spirit and take me on a similar enjoyable journey.

Vanessa Fisher in Mirvish’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Photo courtesy of Mirvish Prod.

The leader of the pack in this joyful production, playfully directed by Laurence Connor (25th Anniversary Production of Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall), is the feisty Narrator, who fills more shoes and jackets in this reformation than one can imagine. She starts it all going with a bunch of playful children gathering around for story time. They crowd around Fisher, sitting up tall on colorful boxes as she pulls us and them in as she starts to sing about “a boy whose dreams came true.” It’s touching and sweet, and lovingly brings forth the anthem of the show, “Any Dream Will Do” which springs forward against a backdrop of colorful fabric sewn together to shed light on Joseph and his story of struggle and faith.

The large family photo of father Jacob, played by the fake-beard-atttached Fisher, isn’t as mutually loving as he should have been. His other sons, all eleven of them, aren’t as pleased with Joseph as their father is. And when Jacob gives his favorite son, Joseph, that cloak of many colors, their goat, and ire, is got, and bad things happen to good people when jealousy reigns. They shove and sell Joseph off, far away from his loving father and not-so-loving familial male siblings. And that is just the beginning of Joseph’s story and sorrows.

One spectacular musical number after another, choreographed with enthusiasm by Joann M. Hunter (Webber’s West End Cinderella), Joseph’s optimism never seems to fade, finding himself imprisoned but never, it seems, without hope. The pop song flourishes find their mark, time after time, once with a spectacular tap number with Fisher’s Narrator taking center stage. Fisher and Yarrow, both who first performed these roles in the original 2019 production of Joseph at The London Palladium really hold this piece together in their solid talented grip. They fill those gigantic shoes repeatedly, elevating the production higher than what it might deserve. Their voices sing true, and their energy is undeniable, taking the simple tale forward with a flourish of song and dance.

Jac Yarrow in Mirvish’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Photo courtesy of Mirvish Prod.

This was the first Lloyd Webber and Rice musical that was actually performed publicly (their first collaboration, The Likes of Us, was written in 1965, but not performed until 2005). And in its innocence, the beauty of this fun simple piece of musical theatre, and the lessons learned, are easily viewable and accessible, regardless of age. Locked up in a cell, caged (and looking pretty darn good), Yarrow’s Joseph finds the optimism to lovingly sing his sad pretty song beautifully. “Go, go, go, Joseph“, is what is he is cheered on by his fellow man, as he gently uses his ability to interpret dreams as his get-out-of-jail card, with or without his Dreamcoat. Good fortune comes a-knocking once again in the form of the Butler, joyfully played by by one of those young kids from the reading circle, and he rises up once again.

Then it’s a big time Welcome to Fabulous Egypt, when the sexy and commanding Tosh Wanogho Maud (West End’s The Drifters Girl; Dreamgirls) muscles his way in with that Elvis swagger and sizzle as the mighty Pharaoh. You better get down on your knees with joy. He’s experiencing a run of crazy dreams, and Joseph is asked to interpret as Maud delivers, quite gloriously, the “all shook up” song and big dance number that rocks forth the seven hip-swiveling pleasures. It’ll “flip your lid“, this number, particularly with Maud’s hot deliciousness and impressive visuals. The crazy dream’s meaning once again is the thing that saves Joseph, elevating his luck up and beyond once again, but this time to the heights of what that first dreamt at the beginning of this fun and sweet-natured musical tale was all about.

Tosh Wanogho Maud (center) and the cost of Mirvish’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Photo courtesy of Mirvish Prod.

We read the book, and you come out on top“, the show tells us and him once again, and thanks to the eleven brothers’ newly found honesty and honor when things look bad for their sweet angelic brother Benjamin, the tide is turned and all is forgiven. The show as a whole has only a few spoken lines of dialogue and is almost entirely sung-through with glee, like a silly Magic Flute without all that messy opera to alienate the kids. The family-friendly story is graced with familiar and satisfying themes anchored by catchy music and lovely performances. First presented in 1968 as a 15-minute “pop cantata” at Colet Court School in London and recorded in an expanded form by Decca Records in 1969, the musical was only embraced after the success of Jesus Christ Superstar, the next Webber and Rice conceptual biblical piece. And the rest is theatrical history.

Only then was Joseph given the chance to secure its place through a number of staged amateur productions in the US starting in 1970. In 1972, it was given a professional veneer as a 35-minute musical at the Edinburgh International Festival by the Young Vic Theatre Company, directed by Frank Dunlop, paired with another, more talk heavy biblical tale. And even as it was undergoing major modifications and expansions, the musical premiered in the West End. Finally,  Joseph was presented in its modern longer form at the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester several times through 1978, pretty much never looking back. The musical was brought over to Broadway in 1982, garnering several major award nominations, just like it did every time it has been revived in the West End, which is many.

Vanessa Fisher in Mirvish’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Photo courtesy of Mirvish Prod.

The show as a whole doesn’t actually seem ready to return to the New York City. It feels somewhat old and stereotypical even in its new and fresh styling. It resembles more a pared-down touring show rather than a fully fleshed-out modernized production that could capture the hearts of Broadway. That doesn’t mean it isn’t possible, but some work needs to be done to establish it more, and maybe get rid of some stereotypical representations. The set and costumes are dutifully playful, colorful, and somewhat non-progressively generic, designed by Morgan Large (Shaftesbury Theatre’s Flashdance), with a somewhat solid sound by Gareth Owen (Broadway/West End’s Come From Away), and a pretty spectacular lighting design by Ben Cracknell (Garrick’s The Drifters Girl). It carries a simple formula, that climaxes pretty spectacularly with the “Song of the King” Vegas number in Act Two. It repeatedly (maybe one too many times) rocks out with large gold statues playing electric guitars as female backup singers strike a Vegas showgirl pose in gold lame. I only wish I could hear and understand the lyrics better during all of this, and maybe a few other numbers.

Alongside the talented crew of actors playing numerous parts, dancing their feet off throughout, the idea of having the young children at the storytelling play some of Jacob’s sons and some other adult characters does the piece good, engaging us on that youthful level that lovingly works with the overall message and theme. With musical supervising and conducting done by John Rigby (London’s School of Rock), the orchestrations of John Cameron (Les Misérables; 1979-2006) fill the space with ease. The show as a whole delivers the differing song styles strong and true, finding its way to the end of the tale joyfully. This production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat keeps on trucking forward, unapologetically with an optimism that is woven neatly into the story. In closing, it flies through a mega-mix of basically the whole show and every number once again, urging the crowd to jump to their feet and dance along with the cast. The moment feels a bit forced (or is that just me?), and overly long and repetitive, but one can’t help being charmed by the talent and their enthusiasm for the piece. It’s a pure, simple pleasure, matching the popcorn sold at intermission and festive energy that fills the theatre. It’s not quite Broadway ready yet, but it also doesn’t feel too far away from the required upgrade for it to be a success. With a bit more tweaking, this Joseph is a go, go, go.

Vanessa Fisher (center) with Jac Yarrow on the right and the cast of Mirvish’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, Canada. Photo courtesy of Mirvish Prod.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Out of Town

Crow’s/Obsidian Theatre Company’s “seven methods of killing kylie jenner” Kills It, Elevating the Dissertation with a Precise Brilliance

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Dragging their baggage in with a determined force, these two, dressed in fake fur and leather, enter the space at Crow’s Theatre with manic laughter and a forceful narrative. Sharply and expertly written by British playwright, Jasmine Lee-Jones (Curious), the play dives in with a tightness and fortitude that elevates and enlightens the darkness of its exploration. With a hypnotic frustrated energy, the play masterfully rolls out the seven methods of killing kylie jenner without missing a beat, unpacking the intricate exploration of cultural appropriation and queerness with a sharp precision. Delivered in a modern vernacular that excites, it circles around its formula with a careful carefree existentialism, becoming deeply entwined in the pervasive influence of social media and celebrity culture that can do mental damage to those around them, especially in the arena of the ownership of black bodies online and IRL, as well as the connecting energy and complication of female friendships.

Déjah Dixon-Green in Crow’s/Obsidian Theatre’s seven methods for killing kylie jenner. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

It’s completely hyper-engrossing and thrilling, giving power back provocatively to our heroine, Cleo, dynamically portrayed by Déjah Dixon-Green (Stratford’s Much Ado About Nothing), a young black woman who, after a confessional breakup with her cheating boyfriend, expresses her fevered frustration and anger via Twitter using the profile name @INCOGNEGRO. She dives in with gusto, flying into the fray with an aggressive rage that rarely fizzles. The play unwraps the seven methods in a layered unhurried manner, giving space and time to the framework, while also delivering engagement energy to her forever friend, Kara, fascinatingly well-played by Jasmine Case (Tarragon’s Black Girl in Search Of..), a queer person who has lots to say, both positive and negative, about Cleo’s unpacking online.

Dixon-Green is solid and on point throughout, with Case finding engagement at every turn somewhat brilliantly, and together, they excel in every way possible, finding attunement and synchronized energy throughout. Veering somewhere between real life and the virtual space, the play, as directed with exacting intent by Jay Northcott (Tarragon’s A Poem for Rabia), spirals in a rich media space, focusing its lasers on the framework that the born-wealthy media personality, Kylie Jenner, can call herself “self-made“, basking in the positive warm glow of what that label means to a woman like her, and how it can be felt by a woman like Cleo. The unwrapping is expertly intricate and verbally captivating, forcing us to dive in with these two and pay close-close attention to this vivid exploration of Blackness, queerness, and the way the online world can spiral one way and then another in an instantaneous flash of engagement and brutality.

You think you’re funny, don’t you?” as her tweets spiral into the abstract world of death threats and verbal violence enlightening the space, designed with inventive flair by set designer, Nick Blais (Factory’s Trojan Girls…), with well-formulated video graphics, designed by Laura Warren (Outside the March’s No Save Points), helping guide us through the dynamic experimental argument that expands the needed structure addressed. Jones’ dialogue radiates quick, sharp, clever constructs, expanded in thought, and reduced to a parade of letters in caps most brilliantly. The sexual undercurrents are both hilarious and brazen, giving us ample reason to connect as she fastidiously piles up all the injustices against Black women that are woven into the wording of this expert play, and we find ourselves forever invested in her outcome and ultimate safety.

Jasmine Case and Déjah Dixon-Green in Crow’s/Obsidian Theatre’s seven methods for killing kylie jenner. Photo by Dahlia Katz

Steeped in the language of internet culture, assisted strongly by the sound design of Maddie Bautista (Stratford’s Les Belles-Soeurs), straightforward lighting by Christopher-Elizabeth (CS/Bluebird’s Maanomaa, My Brother), and precise costuming by Des’ree Gray (Coal Mine’s Appropriate), the delivery and online reaction to Cleo’s escalation pushes the agenda outward and upward. Embodying numerous online characters, the two flawless performers combine as an exacting unified force, showcasing Cleo’s viral methods for murder and the resulting pushback from the unseen faceless community that has a lot to say about her tweets. The recitation and debate are raw and deliberate, finding truths and the complicated echoings of racism and rape threats that are honestly horrifying and troubling. It’s a terrifying landscape, displaying the vile and horridness of the internet culture that we all play a part in, either as an active participant or abject denier.

Cleo’s tweets and dissertation gain momentum and the back-and-forth conversation becomes more drenched in blocked anger and hurt, with the two reclaiming their time when needed, as they navigate the difficult cloud space filled with personal dredged-up resentment and smoky spaces of connectivity. Demanding to be heard, yet also needing to find the empathy to apologize when required, these two friends work hard inside the vividness of this captivating play so they don’t get swallowed up whole by the racist violence of the world, even as Cleo vocalizes the seven methods of killing kylie jenner one after the other. Its high-minded viewpoint is crystal clear, and delivered with an expertise that is both thrilling and epic, finding inventive casualness in its meticulous unified delivery.

Gripping tight to our emotional attention with a brilliant determination by writer Jones, the play, while feeling a bit trapped by the body bag hidden in the back, seven methods of killing kylie jenner, produced by Obsidian Theatre in association with Crow’s Theatre, Toronto, finds its sharpness and quick wit in the end, reinventing the meta imaginative exit with the weight of history and cleverness. “What are you going to do now?“, they ask. Well…., I’m going to tell you all that this play is something to engage with, learn from, and completely celebrate, but more importantly, I’m going to tell you to get your tickets and dive into this inventive striking new play without delay or hesitation.

Déjah Dixon-Green in Crow’s/Obsidian Theatre’s seven methods for killing kylie jenner. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Crow’s/Obsidian Theatre Company’s seven methods of killing kylie jenner. For tickets and more information, click here.

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Live From The Hotel Edison Times Square Chronicles Presents tick, tick…Boom!

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We are so pleased to announce our guests this week are Director Eric Rosen, Andy Mientus and Krystina Alabado about tick, tick…Boom! at The Cape Playhouse this summer. Join us Wednesday May 22nd at 5pm.

Andy Mientus as Jon in Tick, Tick…BOOM! at Bucks County Playhouse.
(© Joan Marcus)

Artistic Director Eric Rosen brings his acclaimed production – hailed as a powerful and bold new interpretation of this show – for his Cape Playhouse debut. Rosen directed the original production of A Christmas Story: The Musical, which opened on Broadway in 2012 and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical. He co-wrote and directed Venice at the Public Theatre. He is also known for his reimagining of classic musicals including Sunday in the Park with George, a punk rock production of Pippin, and Hair: Retrospection in collaboration with and starring members of the original Broadway companies of Hair

As a playwright, his work includes the play Dream Boy which won a Chicago Jeff Award for Best New Play and Best Direction.

In 2000, he co-founded About Face Youth Theatre, one of the nation’s foremost arts and advocacy programs for at-risk LGBTQ youth, and the 18 year old program continues to serve thousands of young people in Chicago.

Director Eric Rosen

Andy Mientus toured with the first national touring company of Spring Awakening, appeared in the 2012 Off-Broadway revival of Carrie: The Musical, He made his Broadway debut in the 2014 revival of Les Misérables as Marius Pontmercy. In February 2015, he was cast as journalist Brett Craig in Parade, for a one-night-only concert presentation at the Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. In LA he appeared in the show Bent at the Mark Taper Forum. He also reprised his role as Hänschen in the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening, directed by his partner Michael Arden. The production then transferred to Broadway. In 2013, Mientus was cast in season two of the musical drama television series Smash as series regular Kyle Bishop. Following the cancellation of Smash, Mientus and co-stars Jeremy Jordan and Krysta Rodriguez joined the cast of Hit List, the real-world staging of the fictional rock musicalcreated for season two of Smash

Mientus appeared in several episodes of the ABC Family series Chasing Life as Jackson, the CW series The Flash as the Pied Piper (Hartley Rathaway), having previously auditioned for the lead role of Barry Allen. Mientus made history with this role by playing the first openly gay supervillain ever. He was in GoneGrendel, an eight-episode Netflix series based on Matt Wagner’s Dark Horse comic books.

Andy Mientus

At the age of 18, Krystina Alabado joined the national tour of Spring Awakening and made her Broadway debut in 2011 as a replacement ensemble member and understudy in American Idiotlater reprising her role in the show’s first national tour. In 2013, she joined the national tour of Evita (based on the 2012 Broadway revival) playing Juan Perón’s mistress. In 2016, she appeared in the short-lived Broadway production of American Psycho.  In  2019, Alabado joined the cast of Mean Girls as Gretchen Wieners, replacing Ashley Park. In March 2020, Alabado started a YouTube channel to explain to her followers different aspects of how Broadway works and interview her fellow castmates during the COVID-19 pandemic that temporarily closed Broadway

Krystina Alabado

“Live From The Hotel Edison Times Square Chronicles Presents ”, is a show filmed at the iconic Hotel Edison, before a live audience. To see our past episodes; First episode click here second episode click here,  third episode click here, fourth episode click here, fifth episode click here, sixth episode here, seventh episode here, eighth episode here, ninth episode here, tenth episode here, eleventh episode here, our twelfth episode here, thirteenth episode here and fourteenth here

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Another Barricade Visit for Mirvish Toronto’s “Les Misérables”

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I was apprehensive and excited, all at the same time, as I entered the touring company staging of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s  Les Misérables, now taking form at the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto. The production, brought to us by Mirvish Productions, transported me back to that time, about forty years ago, when I first saw this glorious musical over in London’s West End. Twice actually, with the magnificent Patti LuPone. Lupone was divine, broking my heart at every moment given. This might have been the show that somehow created this theatre junkie, so much so that I had to return again a few weeks later, spending more than this young man could really afford. And I believe I also returned to see that same beautiful revolving stage design when it made its award-winning debut on Broadway, about two more times before it closed.  It was heavenly and forever memorable.  I remember being swept away by the intensely moving story, and sumptuous music and songs. Tears were in my eyes at so many emotionally heart-breaking moments, that I left fully satisfied and happy each and every time.

The staging this time around, with set and projected image design created by Matt Kinley (25th Anniversary Production of Phantom of the Opera) is said to be “inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo”, and with a stunning musical staging by Geoffrey Garratt and directed most beautifully by Laurence Connor (Mirvish’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) and James Powell (London’s The Witches of Eastwick), the production still found its way into my emotional heart. It carried forth all of the same powerful moments, even without that famous revolve. It was different, and in some ways, it felt smaller and not as expansive and connecting, but maybe, with time and an awareness that I didn’t have when I first saw the same touring revival on Broadway back in 2016, this familiar staging fully engaged, taking me happily on that same emotional journey, even while missing the expansive previous revolving set design.

The music and those powerful tragic moments still deliver with a vengeance, mainly because of the incredible vocal performances of this touring cast. Tears came to my eyes at numerous moments, and I knew that I would enjoy myself from the moment the Bishop of Digne, played by a wonderful Randy Jeter (Public’s Parable of the Sower) told the constables that he had in fact given Jean Valjean, embodied by a magnificent Nick Cartell (Broadway’s Paramour) the church’s silver (that he, in fact, had stolen). And furthermore, he had forgotten to take the more valuable pieces of silver during the epic Prologue and ‘Soliloquy’. That and each subsequent moment, lasting all the way from the beautiful ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ sung with such loving sadness by Haley Dortch, the saddest of all sad songs; the engaging ‘On My Own’ by the powerful voiced Mya Rena Hunter; to Valjean’s stunningly rendered of ‘Who Am I?’ and all points in-between, moved me most generously. The songs, delivered graciously by these glorious-voiced actors brought it all back to life, and embedded itself inside my soul once again.

The glorious “Bring Him Home“, sung with incredible intensity and love by the gifted Cartell, felt as tender and angelic as ever. Understudy Cameron Loyal (Broadway’s Bad Cinderella) as the determined Javert couldn’t match the heightened level of expertise that Cartell climbed himself up to and was maybe the weakest link in this beautifully performed construction, but it never tarnished the overall effect. The Thenardier husband and wife team, gorgeously well-played by Matt Crowle (Mercury Theater’s The Producers) and Victoria Huston-Elem (Goodspeed’s Gypsy), performed the wonderfully crafted ‘Master of the House’ number with great comic timing and delivery, and the Student’s songs, ‘The People’s Song’ and ‘Drink With Me to Days Gone By’ were also lovingly performed, although there were a few over-done attempts of humor and inauthentic drunkenness. Marius, lovingly portrayed by the handsome Jake David Smith (Off-Broadway’s Between the Lines) delivers a tender (but not so well stage-designed) version of one of my favorite songs, ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’.  His voice graced us with its loving tones, lifting us in its softness, and working well our emotional heartstrings with this sad sweet song.

All in all, my friend and I had gathered together to hear all these aforementioned, beautifully crafted, and much-loved songs, sung with care, expertise, and love. Les Misérables sounds as glorious as ever, and I must add that I was happy to have had the chance to insert these songs back into my head. I’ve been humming these numerous melodies, all of which brought me great joy and happiness, all weekend long.  This small simple staging still packs a musically beautiful and powerful punch, and I’m forever grateful for that gift, revolving or not.

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Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” Burns Hot and Cool at Coal Mine Theatre

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With homecoming flowers and the sound of strings, Coal Mine Theatre‘s revival of the classic Hedda Gabler gets underway. It’s a captivating runway set-up, giving intimacy to the struggles of Henrick Ibsen’s anti-hero and namesake by placing the audience on three sides of its wood-planked rectangle. Played with wild abandonment by Diana Bentley (Coal Mine’s Detroit), her Hedda finds herself sitting in the moonlight at the piano, hunched over in some complicated state of anguish, trapped and caged in a backless gown. It’s clear, from that first image and the music that comes, that this production, adapted with tinges of modernity by Liiisa Repo-Martelli (Crow’s Uncle Vanya), is aiming itself directly at the naked soul of Hedda Gabler, now Hedda Tesman, the married woman who had once enchanted the men of this town with her beauty and cool exterior. But in what time frame does she come from and live within? That is a complex question that doesn’t actually have to be answered because as directed by Moya O’Connell (Actor: Coal Mine’s The Sound Inside) with a fierce passion that sometimes overflows the sparsely-used space created by set and costume designer Joshua Quinlan (Crow’s Theatre’s The Master Plan), this Hedda is from no distinct era, floating and fighting against her position and place in the world that never fits her frame.

Fiona Reid and Diana Bentley in Coal Mine Theatre’s Hedda Gabler. Photo by Elana Emer.

When the sweet Auntie Julia, played lovingly by Fiona Reid (Shaw’s Dance of Death), is ushered into the living room by an overwhelmed nervous Berta, played quietly by Nancy Beatty (“The Shipping News“), it is clear that there is tension in this newly acquired home of Hedda and her newlywed husband, Jorgen Tesman, played a bit too obviously by Qasim Khan (Canadian Stage’s The Inheritance). Jorgen is forever oblivious, even when prompted by the sweet maternalness of Auntie Julia. He doesn’t seem to see much beyond his books and personal interests, even when addressing the woman he has married and is completely spellbound by. Khan’s Tesman is a bit dense about marriage and what comes next, sailing in worlds that are oceans apart from his wife, especially when it comes to sensuality and seduction. It all flies over his head, but not ours.

Trapped in a marriage and a house that she does not want, Bentley’s Hedda is a heap of contradictions, struggling with her new life and the timeframe she must live in. Devoid of any excitement or enchantment, she battles with an inner demon that only comes out when she finds herself alone on that stage. Her fighting spirit erupts in those moments, making it clear that when she is in the room with others, she is mostly insincere and putting on whatever face is required. This is especially true when it comes to her interactions with the timeframed women who float in and out of the room in a more traditional tone. She belittles them, slyly, for no other reason than knowing how. Playing nice, when she needs security or information, but shifting gears the moment she is no longer in need. Hedda’s tragic flaw, as we all know, is her willful narcissism that latches itself on to a destructive force within. Her only focus is getting whatever she wants at any given moment, even if it comes at the expense of another person’s feelings.

Diana Bentley in Coal Mine Theatre’s Hedda Gabler. Photo by Elana Emer.

This Hedda, passionately portrayed by Bentley, needs to manipulate others as an undercurrent form of power and control, forcing those frameworks forward, most likely, because of societal expectations and norms. Ideals Hedda can’t abide by. Bently does a fascinating job at flinging herself into the role, flipping back and forth from insincere politeness and care to manipulative and suggestive power dynamics, usually involving one particular way of sitting on that lounge chair. Unfortunately, those two aspects get used repeatedly without much variance or subtlety added. Where is the steady climb to destruction? And where is the fall from grace? She is supposed to be a woman born into a higher class than the one she finds herself in; more her regal father’s daughter than her intellectual husband’s wife. Thus the play’s focus on her maiden name. But rather than class consciousness, she simply comes off as a hungry smooth sociopath, with no empathy and an impulsive streak that stings all that get too close. This Hedda sometimes falls into the form of a one-page, two-sided narcissist without a soul, and with nowhere to go, she doesn’t hold our interest as sharply as she is supposed to.

A sense of subtlety seems to be the key that is missing in much of this production of Hedda Gabler. Everyone is hitting their marks, doing what is required of them at any given moment, raising their voice when they are told to, but the deeper depiction of the manipulative nature feels a bit hurried, as we watch the characters move with urgency around the space. Within this patriarchal society, Hedda pushes a bit too hard and obviously, trying to gain some agency or control over her existence. It’s clear that she is forever disturbed by her marriage to the boring Tesman, now that she has found herself caged in a new house that, while being more extravagant than they can really afford, “smells like old lady” and death. And it will never bring her any contentment unless she seizes control.

(L to R) Andrew Chown, Diana Bentley (back), and Leah Doz in Coal Mine Theatre’s Hedda Gabler. Photo by Elana Emer.

So when she hears from a former classmate Thea Elvsted, portrayed tense and uncomfortable by Leah Doz (Coal Mine’s The Effect), that a former lover, Eilert Lovborg, handsomely portrayed by Andrew Chown (Crow’s Bad Roads) has resurfaced, her focus shifts. “He’s nothing to me“, Hedda delivers, but a shaking, dynamic need has been awakened. A spark has been lit inside this trapped animal, and this spark leads all to chaos and a sea of drunken madness and despair. “No one trusts a tea toddler,” Hedda says, tempting and creating her own manifesto for the future, one of manipulation, deviance, and a roaring fire of pages destroyed. Why, we may ask? Because something must happen in this woman’s new world order, and she must find a way to take control. “This night will be the making of him,” she says, for someone, or herself.

Hedda is smug and cruel, out of boredom and shallow emotional connection to others. She moves through the space like a caged lioness, under captivating lighting by Kaitlin Hickey (Factory’s Wildfire) with a strong sound design by Michael Wanless (Coal Mine’s Appropriate). Hedda initially only finds excitement in the eyes of their family friend and helper, Judge Brack, played suggestively and a bit overtly by Shawn Doyle (Canstage’s A Number). But that triangle only works with one rooster in it, the Judge tells the woman he wants to control, and once he sees the glint in Hedda’s eyes for the firebrand that is Lovborg, a different tension climbs up and out of its box. And like any caged animal unleashed, destruction must come for all those who get too close and demand too much.

Diana Bentley (back) and Shawn Doyle in Coal Mine Theatre’s Hedda Gabler. Photo by Elana Emer.

The ending is legendary, complicated and raw. A different fuse has been lit, as we witness what happens when Hedda discovers that the intended destruction did not go how she had conceptualized it. She must take control of something, but unfortunately, after such a solid buildup, the end disappears into the depths in a far too quick undynamic fashion with an inauthentic mayhem following soon after the firing. The symbolic bodily unleashing is fascinating, but doesn’t actually carry the emotional weight and magnitude that is intended. It’s overwrought and disconnected from the heart, even with the thought-provoking physicality thrown out with wild abandonment. The tragedy doesn’t connect to the desperation that is underneath in Coal Mine‘s Hedda Gabler. It’s distinct and electric, but doesn’t manage to shoot itself deep into the soul.

Qasim Khan and Shawn Doyle in Coal Mine Theatre’s Hedda Gabler. Photo by Elana Emer. For tickets and more information, click here.

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Studio 180’s Four Minutes Twelve Seconds Ignites Tarragon Theatre’s Extra Space

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The sharpness and pointedness of this new play, Four Minutes Twelve Seconds is signaled quickly within the first few minutes and unknown seconds when the first of many lies are told from one partner to another. The lie, once revealed, seems simple enough, protective even, but as directed with a diligent focus to detail by Mark McGrinder (Studio 180’s Oslo), the unpacking that follows is anything but simple. This play, written to make us sit up and take notice by James Fritz (Parliament Square, Start Swimming), is as unrelenting as peeling an onion in tight quarters. It seeps inside, igniting a myriad of emotions that will stay with you long after the 85-minute play comes to its final resting place.

Megan Follows and Sergio Di Zio in Studio 180 Theatre’s Four Minutes Twelve Seconds. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Do you really want to do this now?” asks the husband as he watches anxiety grow in his concerned wife and mother. The production, by Studio 180 Theatre in association with Tarragon Theatre, revolves with intent around the actions or inactions of a couple around the unseen son’s state that starts with a nosebleed, which isn’t exactly a nosebleed. “It’s the circle of [bloody] life in Scarborough.” But it’s not just teenagers being teenagers. Nor is it “kid’s stuff” that ignites the forever-shifting dynamic. Their teenage son has either found himself, or placed himself in an unforgiving framework of sexual assault rumors, that are seen one way and then another as the plot thickens.

His parents, Di and David, expertly portrayed by Megan Follows (Soulpepper’s Top Girls) and Sergio Di Zio (Coal Mine’s Between Riverside and Crazy), find themselves at a crossroads, faced with a dilemma of the highest, most complicated order. Forever fencing with one another, skirting the formalities of truth and deception, they must come to terms with actions that are hard to take in, let alone process or understand. Impossible, in a way. They have devoted their whole lives to the care of their prized son, Jack, ushering their “good boy” through the world so that he may have every opportunity they never had. He must succeed, they think, after all they have done for him, but within an instant, some Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, a startling incident outside of school escalates into something they can’t quite seem to wrap their heads around. The gravity is huge, threatening everything they have tried to achieve, while also, more importantly, possibly destroying their faith in each other and the family unit.

Jadyn Nasato and Megan Follows in Studio 180 Theatre’s Four Minutes Twelve Seconds. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Who are they to trust, inside and out of their family unit? “Are people always gonna believe her?” they ask, and as the play sharply progresses forward, questions of a huge magnitude are asked; to us, to them, and to those around them. The framing thrusts Follows’ concerned and confused Di into a number of possibly ill-advised one-on-one interactions with both Jack’s “idiot” friend, Nick, played beautifully by a tender Tavaree Daniel-Simms (New Harlem’s The First Stone), and Jack’s now-ex girlfriend, Cara, powerfully embodied by a wonderful Jadyn Nasato (Canadian Stage’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), who represents everything the parents have tried to keep Jack away from. She makes regrettable accusations one after the other, and the interactions dig deep holes in the outlook of almost everyone around. It’s tense powerful stuff, beautifully played out in two angled pathways to light and understanding, orchestrated with distinction by set and costume designer Jackie Chau (NEPA’s HUFF), with precise lighting by Logan Raju Cracknell (Bad Hats/Soulpepper’s Alice in Wonderland) and a solid sound design by Lyon Smith (Soulpepper’s Pipeline).

Tension lives and breaths in this production, deftly produced by Studio 180 Theatre, with important ideas and questions hanging in the air just long enough for us to breathe them in and sit inside them. The answers aren’t easily given, as we watch these two parents lie to one another for purposes unknown at the time. Each moment meticulously unveils more problematic ideas that lead to larger questions of morality and responsibility, while also shining a harsh light on how we engage with one another, and maybe on how we try to use each other. There are no easy straightforward answers to be had in Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, but it sure will linger in your head and heart for a much longer time than that.

Megan Follows and Tavaree Daniel-Simms in Studio 180 Theatre’s Four Minutes Twelve Seconds. Photo by Dahlia Katz.
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