Thursday, July 29, 2010

Toronto Theatre Recommendation

If you're a theatre fan in the Toronto area this weekend, My Theatre and its parent company My Entertainment World would like to recommend No Strings Theatre's production of Les Miserables (School Edition) playing today through Saturday at the Al Green Theatre.

For the youth company's 5th anniversary, they are taking on perhaps the most challenging ensemble piece in the musical theatre canon. The 4 performances, double cast with orchestral accompaniment, are a must-see for Les Mis fans in the area as this impressive group of young performers (aged 13-21) take on this remarkable piece.

For more information or to buy tickets please visit or call 416-912-9809.

Shows are at the Al Green Theatre at Spadina & Bloor.

Thursday, July 29 @ 7:30pm
Friday, July 30 @ 7:30pm
Saturday, July 31 @ 1:30pm
Saturday, July 31 @ 7:30pm

Thursday, July 15, 2010

One of My Favourite Young Performers Makes it To "The Best of the Fringe"

When I was 13 years old I heard a voice like I'd never heard before. I was in the back of the chorus of HMS Pinafore as I listened to the Boatswain sing "For He Is An English Man" in a deep bass full of expression and power. That enormous sound was coming from a skinny 15 year old with funny hair and a quirky demeanor.

That 15 year old would grow up to be one of the most-lauded stars of Love is a Poverty You Can Sell, a recent pick as Best of the Fringe for Toronto's 2010 festival.

I've been a fan of Michael-David Blostein from the very first readthrough of Pinafore, so naturally I had Love, a cabaret tribute to composer Kurt Weill, down on the calendar as a must-see at this year's Fringe.
Out of town for much of July, I only got to see 2 shows this season (the other being Keir Cutler's delightful Teaching Shakespeare- the most fun I've had at the theatre in years), but opening night of Love was one I was certainly glad to have experienced.

As I thoroughly expected, Michael-David brought down the house with 2 songs from Sweeney Todd, a part he was born to play. Annoyingly, that was where his featured role ended, only gracing the stage for a group number or 2 that would come later on.

Luckily, it's not as if the rest of the cast were miles behind him. Christian Jeffries turned in the night's best emotion with contrasting performances, one in a three piece suit and one in full drag ("The Streets of Berlin"- a highlight of the cabaret). While some of the less powerful cast members struggled to be heard over the impressive 10 piece band, strong singers like Arthur Wright and Dayna Chernoff soared beautifully. The inclusion of fun character numbers like "Money Money" and "Class" balanced some of the more drab ballads.

The comical narrators kept the ball rolling and the piece connected. Scott Dermody, in particular, stood out as the lovable foppish sidekick Jodel who takes on an eerily charming devil persona at one point in the story.
In contrast to Dermody's masterful accent, bits of Ryan Anning's Hans got lost in translation but he nevertheless guided the audience charmingly through the complexly dark cabaret as the ringleader of sorts.

A breakout production for Soup Can Theatre and the remarkably young cast, Love is a Poverty You Can Sell will play its Best of the Fringe performances Sunday July 18th at 7pm and Wednesday July 21st at 9pm at the Toronto Centre for the Arts Studio Theatre in North York. Tickets are $15 and available online at, through Ticketmaster (416-872-1111), or in person at the Toronto Centre for the Arts box office.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

High Flying Adored?

The Stratford Festival took on something big this year in tackling Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's rock opera Evita. For the title role of passionate icon Eva Peron, the company chose their favourite little girl: Chilina Kennedy, a tiny ingenue with a big voice and a knack for ditzy charm. Her husband, Peron, would be played by festival staple Juan Chioran and for all-important narrator Che, an American import named Josh Young was brought in.

The critics generally panned the show, slaughtering Kennedy for her lack of passion and labeling director Gary Griffin's production gaudy and abrasive. I myself, not a Kennedy fan based on her simplistic caricatures in last season's West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and this season's other musical Kiss Me Kate, was anticipating that Evita would be my least favourite production of the year with her in the lead. But what I found after tonight's show was that I have absolutely no desire to crucify little Kennedy with this review. I came away from the theatre tonight with my low expectations easily beaten by the enjoyable production and the odd and unexpected desire to jump to Chilina Kennedy's defense.

 In the interest of fairness, I have to acknowledge that the ingenue was wholly outmatched by the role she was thrown into well before she was even remotely mature enough as a performer. I'm not sure who gets the blame on this one, it could be Griffin, it could be festival artistic director Des McAnuff (lord knows I do love to blame things on Des), it could be someone else entirely. But I'm certainly not going to hold it against Kennedy for trying to tackle Eva. Her performance was, if nothing else, remarkably brave. Unsympathetic, vocally draining and dramatically dynamic, the role of Eva is a mountain of a part. Kennedy was tasked with carrying the production on her tiny shoulders, a challenge the young performer, only in her second season with the festival, faced without a tinge of fear in her eyes. She screamed the purposely unpleasant high notes with abandon, strutted about with character confidence, opened her arms wide to belt to the cheap seats and even allowed herself to be truly ugly in Eva's sick final days. Chilina Kennedy was offered the chance to play one of the greatest female roles in musical theatre, and she stood center stage, her small frame seeming bigger than ever before, and threw herself in head first, unafraid of the the spotlight hurtling towards her like an oncoming train.

Unfortunately, the train of one of the world's most successful musicals in the shadow of one of history's most startling icons, mowed the ingenue down and carried on without her. Vocally she was almost there, so close to nailing Eva's challenging range that the flaws aren't really worth mentioning. But dramatically, Kennedy was simply miscast. Her Eva lacked ambition, darkness and sex appeal. She was frothy, charming and innocent with none of the manipulative mind that makes the character truly interesting. Eva needs to sparkle with irresistible fire, drawing the audience into her alongside Peron. While Kennedy did accomplish the great feat of making me cheer for her as Chilina, she lacks the maturity to make me believe in the power of Eva.

I may not have believed in Kennedy's Eva but I certainly believed in Griffin's Evita. The accusers behind words like "gaudy" are clearly missing the point of Griffin's sparkly production. His focus was celebrity, perception and the glamour of man-made icons, gaudy was a sort of requirement. His directions were clever, tricky concepts like a large crowd effect using only a set number of players were navigated well and the production ran smoothly and was well-balanced. At times, character complexity fell to the wayside of larger statements, truly a shame, but ultimately Griffin's direction was far from terrible.

Chioran's Peron was unremarkable yet inoffensive, a respectable character reality, whether it was intentional or not is up for debate. Josie Marasco turned in a memorable "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" as Peron's mistress, something that was both pleasing and somewhat expected from the actress who was a highlight of last year's West Side as Jet-wannabe Anybodys. The capable chorus was responsible for some of the production's greatest moments in dynamic numbers like "Peron's Latest Flame", assisted by a stellar job on the part of choreographer Tracey Flye.

But the production's best feature by far was Josh Young, who's Che was well worth the price of admission and who proved a more than worthy import to Canadian professional theatre. Young's vocal acrobatics were dumbfounding, his tone beautiful, and he acted circles around the rest of the cast, creating the only truly flesh and blood character on the stage. The way Griffin built Che from well-kempt storyteller to rough-and-tumble revolutionary involved slowly hiding more and more of Young's handsome features until he resembled an angry mess of an icon even more notorious than Eva (though unnamed, Che is meant to represent Che Guevara). As odd as the stick-on facial hair and wig looked, I appreciated the concept and Young's charm shone through the extra layers expertly. A heartbreaking line flub (in "High Flying Adored") kept his performance from true greatness, but a quick recovery that I'm sure fooled fans less familiar with the libretto saved the day.

Ultimately, I love Evita and it would take me a lot to make me forget that. Lloyd Webber's score and Rice's lyrics pair with the thrilling story brilliantly and the play's refusal to pass judgement for or against its heroine makes it all the more engrossing. There were a couple moments when the sound board was delayed in picking up a mic, the wigs sometimes revealed their inauthenticity, the direction lacked some character focus, the music direction was rushed and constricted and the cast was far from perfect, but The Stratford Festival's Evita makes for an enjoyable night of spectacle.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Ballet I Believe In

I have never been a great ballet lover. I love theatre, classical music and even dance in its So You Think You Can Dance-like manifestations but my love of ballet was pretty much limited to the film Center Stage. I find The Nutcracker dull, and while I loved the one act Carmen I saw last year I found myself fighting to stay awake during Sleeping Beauty (yes, I am aware of the irony). All that changed on June 19th with The National Ballet of Canada's Onegin.

After taking a "Music Through the Ages" class on Onegin with Clayton Scott last summer, I knew I'd be kicking myself if I didn't see one of only eight performances of the ballet this June. Onegin is an extremely rarely performed piece, licensed to only a handful of companies around the world and a beloved part of the NBC's repertoire. Based on a Pushkin poem, the ballet (not to be confused with the opera of the same name and composer) is formed from various Tchaikovsky compositions. Choreographed by John Cranko, it is a remarkably narrative work more beautiful than I can possibly describe.

First of all, what sets Cranko's work apart is his sense of story. Unlike many ballets, in which the action is interrupted often and for quite some time while various soloists dance some very impressive choreography completely unrelated to the narrative, every step of Onegin is driven by plot and character. The gorgeously complex choreography tells the story and reveals the joy, impatience, frustration and heartbreak of the characters through movement. Brilliantly paced, musically connected, remarkably technical and achingly emotional, Cranko's choreography makes ballet the only medium through which I could possibly imagine the beautiful story of Onegin ever being perfectly captured.

That beautiful story is of Eugene Onegin, a bored aristocrat who comes with his friend Lensky to see what the country has to offer since the city has proven so dull. Lensky's fiancee Olga and her mother Madame Larina are in excited preparation for her elder sister Tatiana's birthday party, but Tatiana is more interested in her romance novels. Upon seeing Onegin, Tatiana falls in love and imagines her life with him. She writes him a letter and the next day at her birthday party, Onegin tears the letter and throws it in her face. Bored once again, he begins to flirt with Olga. Infuriated, Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel and is killed by his friend. Years later, Onegin, deepened by his guilt, is invited to a party at the palace of Prince Gremin only to find that Tatiana has grown into a beautiful and sophisticated woman and married the prince. Regretting his past behaviour, Onegin writes Tatiana a letter professing his love. And the end, well, the end is the best part, inspiring whooping applause from the audience and not to be spoiled by a blog post. The whole thing is heartbreakingly beautiful.

But when danced by the cast that I saw, Onegin is simply indescribable.

If you are unfamiliar with Canadian ballet, you may not have heard the name Rex Harrington, that is truly a shame. Harrington was a dance superstar, a charismatic virtuoso who's moving performances of Onegin, his trademark role, have become iconic. After retiring from the NBC in 2004, Harrington injured his Achilles tendon on opening night of Lloyd Webber's musical Song & Dance in 2006 and hasn't really danced since. But on June 19th, as I waited for Harrington to do the "Ballet Talk" introduction I'd come to the Four Seasons Centre early to hear, a young ballerina named Jillian Vanstone approached the mic and said "I know the usher at the door told you Rex Harrington would be doing this talk. But you've got me instead. Rex is performing tonight". I stared at her for a moment, unsure if I'd heard her correctly. Obviously, the 48-year-old retired dancer was not reprising his iconic performances as Onegin. But he wasn't doing a cameo as a character actor either. He was going to dance Prince Gremin, a less demanding role that requires mature partnering skills. That night, for one performance only, Rex Harrington danced again.

It was magnificent to see Harrington, received with warm applause by an audience who had sincerely missed him and dancing a part that saw Canadian ballet's biggest star sweetly supporting his partner as she held the spotlight. If nothing more, Harrington's single-performance role as Prince Gremin made the night I saw Onegin a one-of-a-kind experience in which the NBC's rich past co-mingled with it's extraordinary present and future.

That present and future are defined by the spectacular performers I saw in the other roles.

The NBC's prima ballerina name-to-know du jour is Heather Ogden. She was Carmen when I saw Carmen, Aurora when I saw Sleeping Beauty, the young and vibrant star of the company. When Ogden dances you'd swear no one's ever danced before or ever will after. At 5 foot 7 inches, Ogden's extensions seem to, well, extend, far beyond the limits of human ability. And with partner Guillaume Cote, who is equally talented and renowned, the star really flies. (The two also make the cutest onstage and offstage couple I've ever encountered. They're engaged to be married this month!). But what is truly remarkable is that the bench depth at the NBC is so impressive that the night I saw Onegin (the first evening performance, with the premiere cast in place) Ogden and Cote danced the supporting roles of Olga and Lensky. Beautiful roles unto themselves, Olga and Lenksy are nothing to sneer at both technically and dramatically. In fact, Cote's Act II solo as Lensky prepares to duel with his friend was one of the most moving pieces of the memorable production. But for the couple (who would play the lead roles on June 20th and 24th), the extraordinary parts of Olga and Lensky were a warmup.

With the supporting cast populated by superstars (both iconic and current), the lead roles of Tatiana and Onegin belonged to dancers who defy description. NBC veteran Xiao Nan Yu (now in her 9th season as a principal dancer) was joined by Czech import Jiri Jelinek, who was brought in specially to dance the titular role after great success around the world. They were, um...just, a...oh, I don't know. Brilliant. They were brilliant. That is literally all I can think to say. I have never seen anything as beautiful as these two dancers together in these roles.

The National Ballet of Canada's 2010 production of Onegin has redefined the ballet experience for me with it's new design by Santo Loquasto, beautiful Tchaikovsky arrangements, spectacular narrative choreography by John Cranko and dream cast including Jiri Jelinek, Xiao Nan Yu, Heather Ogden, Guillaume Cote and Rex Harrington. I have never seen nor am likely to ever see anything like it and am not the least bit ashamed to say it moved me to tears more than once.

A video that does little to capture the vitality of the production as seen from the second row but at least demonstrates the virtuosity of this extraordinary cast and the beauty of Cranko's work can be found here.