Saturday, February 08, 2014

Next Stage Theatre Festival - Killer Business and A Misfortune

These days it is in vogue to declare that "X" is the new "Y", as in "Orange is the new Black".  The Toronto Fringe Festival has jumped on the band wagon with their mini winter Fringe festival called the Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF), whose motto is "January is the new July".  Although this festival has been held for the last 7 years, this is the first time we've been aware of it and we ended up seeing two excellent shows, "Killer Business The Musical" and "A Misfortune"–both musicals but each of a very different vein.

Unlike the summer Fringe Festival which selects its shows by lottery, the NSTF uses a jury of industry experts to pick what it considers are the 10 best shows.  These shows can be comedies, dramas, musicals or dance and maybe be new or revised works.  The main criteria is that all applicants must have participated previously in a Canadian Fringe Festival.  Because they are selected by jury, the collection of shows at the NSTF should have of higher quality than the summer Fringe, whose offerings can be hit or miss.  If the two musicals which we saw are any indication, this is definitely the case.

Killer Business is a comedic "show within a show" musical that is very much like the 2006 Broadway show "Curtains" which starred David Hyde Pierce.  As in that musical, a cast member is murdered in a theatre and the remaining cast and crew are questioned as prime suspects by a stereotypical gumshoe, decked in hat and trench coat.  In a clever twist, the two tall, seemingly clichéd dumb blond chorus girls, turn out to be ultra-smart forensic science and criminology students who become the detective's assistants in the investigation.  There is great tongue-in-cheek fun made out of the detective's name, including a hilarious song called "It's All About the Dick". 

The murder victim is Stella, the beautiful, talented but bitchy leading lady.  The colourful suspects include Tony, her producer who is in debt with the mob over the financing of the show, Steve, her leading man who wants to "come out of the closet", Guy the wardrobe manager who is outwardly gay, Flo, the aging understudy who dreams of being the star again, Cleo, the second understudy and stage manager, who is in love with Tony, and finally Jason, an enigmatic handyman who spouts pithy sayings.

We watch all of Stella's movements and interactions before she collapses and dies during a performance of her show "Lucky in Love".  Then in one of the most inspired songs of the show called "That's What I Saw", each cast and crew member recalls some suspicious activity performed by one of the others.  During each recollection, the previous seemingly innocent interaction with Stella is reenacted, but this time with a much more sinister feel, as perceived by the witness.  It was impressive how many times Stella recreated her "death scene", falling each time in the exact same position.

Although the performances and singing qualities were a bit uneven throughout the cast, in general they were very good and the songs and staging were stellar.  The show is fast-paced and hilarious.  Hopefully it will play again some time, since I would love to watch it a second time.

In contrast, A Misfortune is a small, intimate piece, bordering on light opera.  It is based on the short story of the same name, written in 1886 by Russian writer Anton Chekhov.  The story explores themes of fidelity, desire and indecision as married Sofya tries to decide whether to run off with her enamorous suitor Ivan, with whom she has spent a flirtatious summer, or stay with her staid, passionless husband Andrey and their child.  In the musical, these relationships are contrasted with the volatile, lusty marriage of Masha and Pavel, when the five friends gather for a social evening.

The acting and singing of the entire cast was superb in this musical, and the clever, intricate lyrics were reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim.  In particular, there are similarities to Sondheim's "A Little Night Music", which has been named as a major influence by the composers.  I became even more impressed by the skillful writing of the musical's book and songs, after finding out that my favourite characters of Pavel and Masha were not even part of the original Chekhov short story.  The musical also flushes out the ambiguous Chekhov ending, bringing Sofya's inner conflict to a decisive conclusion.

One of the highlights was a song where the various characters toast each other's company.  Pavel and Masha's toasts to each other were amazing to watch, as they quickly move through a range of emotions, all in song.  The toasts start with feigned politeness before dissolving to vicious cattiness, as each accuses the other of infidelity, which then leads to arousal as they are turned on by the other's passion.  Their in-your-face attraction and desire for each other serves as a great counterpoint to the quiet, urgent love that the brooding Ivan exudes, and the repressed emotions of Sofya, who tries desperately to deny her feelings and stay within the acceptable social mores of a faithful married woman.

We were so impressed by the quality of these two Fringe shows, which could both easily make it in mainstream theatres.  Can't wait for next year.

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