Friday, July 29, 2011

Theatre: Railway Children; Wishful Thinking; Next to Normal

So many shows, so little time!  There is so much opportunity for live theatre in Toronto that it is hard to choose what to see.  Including the 8 shows we watched at the Fringe Festival, we're attending 13 different live theatre events in 5 weeks.  Just these past two weekends, we saw "The Railway Children" and "Wishful Drinking" from our Royal Alex subscription and "Next to Normal", part of the Dancap season. 

The Railway Children is playing at the Roundhouse Theatre, which was built specifically for this production.  It is based on a British children's story published in 1906 about three siblings who have to move from their affluent London home to a small cottage in the country when their father is unjustly jailed for espionage.  They fill their days playing at the railway station, waving at the commuters on the trains, making friends with the station porter, getting into scrapes and adventures along the way.

While entertaining, the plot was typical for the children's literature genre and acting was  average.  The main reason to see this show is for the staging which includes the star of the show, a functional vintage 1900s steam engine nicknamed "Vicky" which comes rolling into the theatre at various climatic moments in the story.

The theatre is designed to represent the train station with the seating on either side looking down on the north and south platforms and the real train tracks that run through the centre.  When the action occurs at the train station, the entire length of the long theatre is used as the actors run up and down the platforms and scramble in and out of the tracks.

Scenes away from the station are staged by having "railway men" push out rolling wooden platforms that deftly transformed the middle of the tracks into various locations, including rooms within the London home, the cottage, and the porter's home.

Roundhouse Theatre is built on Roundhouse Park, across from the CN Tower, which is also the home of the Toronto Rail Heritage Centre.  This train museum features an old railway turntable, a historic railway station, a collection of antique but working steam and diesel locomotives run by CP and CNR.  A miniature steam train runs around a track carrying delighted children and their less comfortable looking parents for a ride.

I did not like Carrie Fisher's one woman autobiographical retrospective cleverly called Wishful Drinking.  Unfortunately the title of the show, plus the playful pre-show announcements (Meryl Streep was unavailable for this show so sadly, the role of Carrie Fisher will be played today by... Carrie Fisher) turned out to be the most amusing parts of the show.  This was especially disappointing since Carrie Fisher is known to be a good writer and has a colourful past.

I expected sharp, witty, sarcastic anecdotes that provided good juicy details about her life and acting career.  While we got some of that, I found the narrative and delivery to be weak. Sitting at the back of the theatre, we couldn't hear her whenever she turned away, looked down or otherwise mumbled her words, many times while delivering the punch line.  She used the audience too much as a crutch, repeatedly picking on a few members in the front row to get a laugh, rather than letting her material speak for itself.  We actually left after the first half so maybe the second act improved significantly - we didn't want to stick around to find out in case it didn't.

On the other hand, I loved the Tony nominated musical Next to Normal about a family dealing with the mother's mental illness.  Tony Award winner Alice Ripley gives a searing performance as she plays Diana, who goes through drug regiments, counseling and even electric shock therapy in an effort to find a cure and become "normal".   Her long suffering husband Dan and daughter Natalie struggle to cope, while her "son" Gabriel serves as a mysterious presence through most of the show.

As the side effects of her treatment become more and more severe, Diana starts to wonder whether the cure is worse than the disease.  At one point when she is so drugged up,  she sings an extremely lyrical song about preferring to stay manic depressive than to feel nothing at all - "I miss the mountains .. the climbing and the falling".

Diana and Dan sing dueling songs where she claims that no one knows how she feels, while he sings that he's been there to support her all along.  The frustration, sadness and pain in their voices is heart-breaking.

"Do you wake up in the morning and need help to lift your head?
Do you read obituaries and feel jealous of the dead?
It's like living on a cliff side, not knowing when you'll dive.
Do you know, do you know what it's like to die alive?"

"I am the one who knows you
I am the one who cares ...
And if you think that I just don't give a damn
Then you just don't know who I am"

The daughter Natalie dulls her own pain by taking drugs and pushing away Henry, the boy who loves her.  At one point there is a very powerful song where Diana asks Dan why he stays with her, while Natalie is asking Henry the same question.  The parallel situations are accentuated by the staging with one couple on the first floor and one on the second floor, mirroring each others words and motions.

"Why stay?
Why not simply end it
We'd all comprehend it
And most of the world
would say he's better off that way
To be free and maybe so is she

Next to Normal portrays the issues of mental illness in a raw, realistic manner that shows the devastation that it can bring to all involved.  I was crying unabashedly by the end of the show.

Next up for us will be Lysistrata (a Greek Comedy)  by the U of T Hart House Theatre, and Jesus Christ Superstar at Stratford.  So many shows, so little time...Sadly we ran out of time to watch 9-5 The Musical, Hugh Jackman in Concert and more.  I guess there are worse problems to have!

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