Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Theatre Highlights and Lowlights in 2019

I continue to marvel at the vast amount and variety of theatre that we have available to us in Toronto. While we don't really have concentrated theatre districts in the city that match New York's Broadway and Off-Broadway or the West End in London, we can certainly claim a large number of independent theatres scattered throughout our city.  The options grow even more nurmeous if you include surrounding areas in Ontario including Stratford, Niagara on the Lake and little community theatres in small towns.  Each year we end up watching about 20-30 plays, anchored by our annual subscription to Mirvish Productions which includes 6-7 shows per season with an emphasis on musicals,( which I love!).  In the past, I've blogged about many of the shows shortly after we watched them.  I was remiss this year and so this will be one big blog with a few quick thoughts about some of the more memorable shows that we watched this year, for better and for worse...

One of our first shows of the year was called Foreign Tongue, a curated performance that was part of the annual Next Stage Fringe Festival, which provides a platform for emerging theatre artists to present their works.  Foreign Tongue is a whimsical romantic musical set in Toronto that deals with multiculturalism and acceptance.  Kathy Woodrough, a yuppie from Peterborough gets knocked on the head and wakes up speaking with a thick European accent (an affliction known as Foreign Language Syndrome).  Confused, disoriented and no longer able to pronounce her own last name, Kathy reinvents herself as "Ludmilla", joins an English as a Second Language (ESL) class where she bonds with the other immigrants and starts a romance with a man who is attracted to women with foreign accents.  For a semi-pro production, this show was quite strong in terms of clever songs and story-line and excellent acting and singing performances.  We look forward to this theatre festival each year since there are often some very entertaining and unexpected gems that you can watch for less than $20 per show.

We expected great things from our first Mirvish show of 2019, the comedy "The Play That Goes Wrong" which enjoyed a lengthy and successful run in London and received rave reviews.  We were additionally encouraged since during our vacation in London the previous year, we saw another play called "The Comedy About A Bank Robbery" by the same acting troupe and absolutely loved it.  That comedy was hilarious but also witty with a great farcical plot delivered with impeccable timing by the accomplished performers.  Unfortunately "The Play That Goes Wrong" did not measure up in any respect.  As the title implies, the show deals with a group of actors putting on an extremely low budget play where everything that can go wrong, does so.  But rather than clever farce, the plot was banal and the humour involved the lowest form of slapstick that failed to be funny after the same pratfalls and crumbling set sequences were repeated endlessly.  A good comedy starts slowly and gradually adds to the insanity until all hell breaks loose at the climax.  This play went full throttle right from the start, then could not sustain the pace since there was nowhere else for it to progress to.

 ** Photos by David Cooper
By comparison, Ladykillers, which we watched at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake) in June had much more interesting characters, dialogue and a clever plot based on the classic 1955 crime comedy starring Alec Guiness and Peter Sellers.  A group of hapless bank robbers who are preparing for a heist, rent a room from a seemingly sweet little old lady, Mrs.Wilberforce, while pretending to be classical musicians.  Problems ensue when their intrepid landlady gleans the truth of the situation and the robbers agonize over how to deal with her.  I particularly liked the staging and set of the production, which showed a cross section of Mrs Wilberforce's two-storied home so that we could see the activities of the criminals in their second-floor room at the same time as the puttering of the old lady downstairs, as well as watch their reactions each time she comes up the stairs towards them.  The set then spins around to show to exterior of the house, where more shenanigans take place.  While the timing of the physical comedy was not perfect, this was still an extremely entertaining show to watch. We saw this at the beginning of its run, so perhaps the timing would have been better later in the season.

While on a short vacation to Pelee Island, we stopped overnight at Port Stanley to watch Lunenburg by Canadian playwright Norm Foster.  Recently widowed Iris has arrived in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia to inspect the cottage that she inherited from her late husband following his sudden accidental death.  With her friend Natalie along for moral support, Iris meets next-door neighbour Charlie and slowly learns that she did not know her husband as well as she thought she did.  The entire story plays out on the porch of the cottage as the various characters interact in this touching yet humorous three-hander.  We have watched many other plays by Norm Foster and this one is by far his best and most poignant.

Lately, Mirvish Productions has done a great job of bringing the most recently acclaimed shows from Broadway or the West End.  The final shows in the 2018/2019 season included Dear Evan Hanson which won the Tony Award for best musical in 2017 and Waitress which was nominated for the award in 2016. Evan Hanson is an awkward, lonely teenager with a crush on his classmate Zoe.  After the school bully Connor ( Zoe's brother) commits suicide, Evan pretends that he was best friends with  Connor in order to maintain a relationship with Zoe and the dead boy's family.  To support the charade, Evan creates fake email correspondence between himself and Connor.

The musical Waitress, with music and lyrics written by singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles, is based on the 2007 film of the same name starring Keri Russell.  Jenna is the titular waitress who wants to leave her unhappy marriage when she finds out that she is pregnant after a drunken encounter with her abusive husband.  Jenna finds solace in the pies that she bakes at the diner that she works for.  As a clever tie-in to the musical, small jars of fruit pie were sold before the start of Waitress.  Both Dear Evan Hanson and Waitress were good shows but I wasn't sure either was worth all the hype.  I found the songs to be rather bland and not very memorable with the exception of the big number from each show"You Will Be Found" and "She Used to Be Mine" respectively.

I enjoyed the lesser known musicals The Last Ship and Jukebox Hero better, perhaps because I went in with lower expectations than I had for the more highly touted shows. Last Ship is an original musical with music and lyrics written by Sting, whose own childhood experiences in the shipbuilding town of Wallsend, England inspired the story.  It deals with a community of generational shipbuilders who learn that the shipyard which provides the main source of the town's employment will soon be shut down. After some fruitless protests, in a final act of defiance the workers decide that they will build one last ship to sail down the River Tyne.  The songs range from haunting and melancholy to spirited and inspiring and it was an extra thrill to have Sting himself play one of the lead roles.

Even though I don't usually like jukebox musicals, I went to see JukeBox Hero, based on the songs of the 70s rock band Foreigner since I love so many of the songs by this group.  As expected with the jukebox musical genre, the plot is a bit clunky in order to force-fit Foreigner's hit songs into it.  At least it did not fall upon the hackneyed trope of the "dystopian world" as Bat Out of Hell and We Will Rock You did.  Ryan and Mace are two brothers who are part of a band playing in dive bars along with Mace's girlfriend Linda. In the beginning, the lyrics of a few songs actually seemed to advance the story until it all fell apart and songs started to be sung just for the heck of it. After a heated argument between Mace and Linda (Head Games, Say You Will, Say You Won't), Mace catches Ryan and Linda in an impromptu kiss (Feels Like the First Time) and the band breaks up (Break It Up).  Mace joins the army (At War With the World) and Ryan heading off to musical stardom as a solo act. The closing of the steel mill (doesn't this sound like The Last ship!?!) lures Ryan back to give a charity performance for the beleaguered town, giving the brothers a chance to reconcile.  Despite a convoluted plot, it was great fun hearing all my favourite songs, played with high energy and serious guitar licks.  All it took was the strumming of "one guitar" from the titular Jukebox Hero to get the crowd rocking.

One of the most intellectually stimulating and exciting shows that we watched in 2019 was the political thriller Oslo, offered as an "Off-Mirvish" production (emulating Off-Broadway).  The play hypothesizes what was discussed during secret negotiations held in and facilitated by Norway that led to the historic 1993 Oslo Accords, an attempt at a peace treaty between Israel and Palestine.  The simple use of tension-filled dialogue conveyed the high stakes of the talks, both personally for the negotiators and politically for their respective nations.  There were no guns, overt violence or even a soaring emotion-inducing score to ramp up the pressure and yet you were at the edge of your seat throughout the entire show.  This was a fascinating play that presented what was a brief glimmer of hope for these war-torn enemies, before it all fell apart by the actions of radical factions that could not condone compromise.  The main part of the play ended triumphantly with the signing of the treaty by Israeli President Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat on the lawn of the White House.  Unfortunately the denouement lined up all the characters on stage where each described what happened to them next including the assassination of Rabin by an Israeli settler.

The 2019/2020 Mirvish season started with two musicals that I did not enjoy very much.  The Band's Visit won the Tony award for best musical in 2018 while The Girl From North Country was a highly acclaimed show from London's West End that made a brief stop Off-Broadway before coming to Toronto.  The Band's Visit is based on the 2007 movie of the same name, which deals with an Egyptian police band who travel to Israel to play a concert, only to accidentally end up in the wrong town.  Stuck until morning in the tiny remote village of Beit Hatikva, the band members bond with the villagers, bringing a little excitement to their monotonous existences.  The movie is slow, quiet and melancholic in tone with not much action or even dialogue.  Unfortunately, even with the addition of songs and a few dances, the musical comes across in the same way.  While the music was culturally interesting and appropriate for the plot, there was not enough to keep my interest for the entire show.  The one song that I really liked from this musical repeated the words "Umm Kulthum and Omar Sharif".  Although I recognized the name of actor Omar Sharif, I did not realize that Umm Kulthum was a famous Egyptian singer and actress active from the 1920s to 1970s.

I did not expect to like The Girl From North Country and I was right.  The show is a jukebox musical based on the songs of Bob Dylan (which I don't know that well and don't really like to begin with).  But unlike other musicals of this genre, Girl From North Country takes pride in choosing songs that don't advance the plot at all, but rather "sets the mood" for what is happening on stage.  This goes against everything that I enjoy about a good musical and it did not work for me.  This was a sombre, overly long, morose play set in a rundown guesthouse in Minnesota during the Great Depression.  The people who interact with one another all have their problems, and then suddenly break into a Dylan song for no apparent reason.  The only character whose song reflects his situation is Joe, the black boxer on the run from the law who sings "Hurricane", which Dylan wrote about wrongfully convicted boxer Rubin Carter.  This was the only song in the show that I could relate to and yet the playwright ruefully suggested that it was "a bit on the nose".  Obviously we do not share the same opinion as to what makes a true musical.

I thought I would feel the same antipathy about Piaf/Dietrich, a biographical play detailing the tumultuous friendship between two powerhouse performers--Edith Piaf (nicknamed Sparrow) and Marlene Dietrich (The Angel).  Yet I ended up being won over by the amazing acting and singing performances of the two main stars.  Jayne Lewis portrays the German ice queen while Canadian legend Louise Pitre took on the role of the manic, emotionally-overwrought French singer.  Pitre in particular shone in her role as Piaf and sang all of her songs in French including the signature tunes La Vie En Rose and Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.  Throughout the show, Piaf and Dietrich alternated in giving performances on a cabaret-styled stage with the respective singer's name lit up in giant lights.  To accentuate the feel of a floor show, the people in the first few rows of the orchestra section were seated at lamp-lit tables (with drinks!) while a few members of the audience were seated at elevated tables on either side of the stage.  While it would momentarily be a thrill to be situated so close to the actors, I'm not sure that I would like this since for the most part, you are looking at the back of their heads.

We like watching the occasional show at the Lower Ossington Theatre since its repertoire often includes smaller, more obscure musicals including ones that I have not seen elsewhere.  This season we watched 9 to 5 The Musical, the 2008 musical based on the 1980 comedic film starring Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda.  Violet, Loralee and new hire Judy are three harassed office workers who turn the tables on their sexist, lecherous boss in what has turned out to be a harbinger of the "Me Too" movement. For a relatively small theatre company, most shows offered at Lower Ossington are surprisingly high in quality and this one was no exception.  9 to 5 the Musical featured excellent production values including strong performances by the three leads, snappy choreography (especially in the opening number that featured the titular song 9 to 5) and great costumes and wigs which made the three leads look almost identical to their movie counterparts when viewed from the back.

In 2019, we discovered the Crow's Theatre in the East end of Toronto which has two performance spacesthe larger Guloien Theatre and the smaller, more intimate Scotia Community Studio.  There we watched two of the most unique and challenging plays of the seasonThe Flick and Ghost Quartet.  Each show demanded your attention in a different way and stretched your preconceived notions of what to expect from a play.

It is totally disorientating when you first enter the Guloien Theatre to watch The Flick since there is stadium seating located on both sides of the floor.  For a moment, it is not clear which side is part of the stage and which are the seats for the audience. The Flick is set inside the last non-digital movie theatre where underpaid movie ushers (Sam and Avery) and the movie projectionist (Rose) subsist in their dead-end, monotonous jobs which match their equally boring lives.  To emphasize this monotony, the 3.5 hour long show spends many many minutes showing Sam and Avery slowly, methodically and SILENTLY sweeping up popcorn from the aisles.  Somehow rather than being sleep-inducing, this robotic repetition was fascinating to watch.  In between scenes where the three characters interact with one other and we learn more about their lives and dreams, the stage fades to black.  The next scene starts up as if a new movie is being screened, as from the darkness we see the beam of light from the projection room and hear the opening credit music (e.g. the lion roar from an MGM movie).  It is set up so that the audience becomes the defacto location of the movie screen and often the characters sit in their stadium seats looking out at us.  Also, when the lights come back on, you see that the stage is once again strewn with popcorn.  We find out at the end of the play that there is a machine set up at the back to spit out popcorn.  The movie analogy continues with the "program" which, instead of a booklet,  is in the format of a paper movie listing calendar like the ones found at Hot Docs.  As well, the advertisement for the play in the windows of Crow's Theatre look like movie posters.  You need to go into this play with the understanding and acceptance of what the playwright is going for, but once you do, this is a superb experience that immerses you into the drab lives of the characters.  Luckily you get to go back to your own (and hopefully) much better lives at the end of this.

Ghost Quartet, which we watched in the smaller Scotia Community Studio, had its own unique staging and was cerebral, weird and disorienting in its own way.  We walked into a darkened, smoke-filled room and had to squint to see that there was stadium seating on both ends with a set in the middle consisting of a piano, drum set and various weird musical instruments.  Four performers appeared and proceeded to tell us an elaborate, eerie ghost story through spoken dialogue and haunting tunes.  But we were warned near the start that this was a "circular story" that jumped back and forth between time and space as each performer played multiple roles, switching on a dime with no warning.  This made it difficult to follow the plot, but after a while, you stopped caring and just gave in to enjoying the beautiful songs and spooky atmosphere.  It would have helped to read a synopsis like the one found on Wikipedia ahead of time.  I would have learned that this was a tale of two sisters who loved the same man, an astronomer in a treehouse (?!? just go with it...).  Wanting revenge, the spurned sister is sent on a quest by an evil bear to gather four items, leading to four intervening fairy tales that reference characters from Arabian Nights and Edgar Allen Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher.  Not understanding most of this as I was watching the show, I still appreciated it but left the theatre wondering "What just happened?".

One of the stand-out shows that we watched in 2019 was not actually live theatre, but the filming of a live National Theatre production of The Lehman Trilogy, which we watched on a movie screen at Cineplex Theatres.  Three superb actors play multiple roles in telling the history of the global financial services and investment banking firm Lehman Brothers Holding Company before it went bankrupt during the financial crises of 2008.  Dressed in long black trench coats, they portrayed the original Jewish brothers Henry, Emanuel and Mayer Lehman who emigrated to America from Germany between 1840-50 and started a small business which eventually grew into the international empire.  Along the way, they invented the business concept of the "middle man".  Remaining on stage for the entire show and dressed in the same wardrobe, in addition to the three brothers, these amazing actors also portrayed their girlfriends, wives, children and grandchildren as well as other minor roles.

The set and staging was quite unusual as the action took place within a spinning glass cube on which the actors used markers to write dates and statistics to mark the passage of time and the growth of the company.  There was very minimal furniture on the set other than a boardroom table, a few chairs and a some cardboard boxes which were stacked in different configurations to form platforms, walls, towers, inventory and more.  The boxes take on a final poignancy when they become the containers carried out by workers who lost their jobs after the bankruptcy.

Including the three musicals that we watched on Broadway when we visited Manhattan in December, we saw many great shows in 2019 and already have several lined up for 2020.