Theatrical Review: Unit 102 Actors Company and The Fresh Mint Project’s Hamlet at The Theatre Machine

Unit 102 Actors Company and The Fresh Mint Project’s film noir interpretation of Hamlet is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, even when the 1950s conceit starts to wear thin. The gorgeous costuming and lighting compliment an immensely talented cast, making this production a really solid mounting of what is often called Shakespeare’s greatest play.

As a Shakespearean scholar, I have to admit that Hamlet is the play I like to see performed the least. The text is too dense and literary to lend itself well to nuanced performances since actors too often feel the need to do something while they deliver some of the most famous speeches in the English language. While this production sometimes succumbs to this nearly inevitable invitation to overacting, it also does several clever new things with the play to balance itself out.

The most obvious and most delightful of these things is the cross-gender casting of Lauren Horejda and Anne von Leeuwen as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively. It is no great secret that these two women are among my favourite performers in Toronto theatre and their performances in Hamlet only increase my love for them. Their giggly, flirtatious, self-absorbed characters bring some much-needed life to the stage. It is my greatest hope that one day we can get a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead starring the two of them so that we can have more of them as these characters.

I might also add that Chloe J. Sullivan is striking as Horatio. The way that she, Terrence Duraisami, and Will King play the opening scene reminds me why it is considered to be the best in English theatre. Their performances make the terror, tension, and intrigue of the ghost’s first appearance palpable and set the tone for this production perfectly. It doesn’t hurt that Ashleigh Kasaboski has found the most stunning costume for Sullivan’s Horatio and the lighting design for the sunrise is so unspeakably beautiful. The combination of these things sets the bar for the rest of the show high and lets other key moments in the show meet it in their greatness.

The other really clever thing that this production of Hamlet does is cast the young looking Jeff Irving as Claudius. To my mind, Claudius is not only much younger than Gertrude (played by Lynne Griffin in a tour-de-force performance), but also younger than Hamlet himself. This adds an additional layer to Claudius’ transgression against Hamlet and makes Hamlet’s disapproval of his relationship with Gertrude even more complicated. Irving is alternatively adorably naïve – as he is in his conversation with Polonius where Polonius is trying to convince him that Hamlet is in love with Ophelia – and wickedly manipulative.

Irving also has my vote for best delivery of a speech in this production for his delivery of Claudius’ confession. It is perhaps the most subtle and believable delivery in the show and serves wonderfully as the moment pre-intermission. Director Jesse Ryder Hughes’ decision to end “act one” with Hamlet threatening to kill Claudius just after his confession is nothing short of inspired. Not only does the staging give us a strong visual of Hamlet with a gun to Claudius’ head, but it also leaves any audience members unfamiliar with the play with the ambivalent notion that Claudius may have been killed before the play’s intermission.

Scott Walker and Kelly Van der Burg both give excellent performances as Hamlet and Ophelia, although their interpretations of the characters are generic and (as is usual for their characters) uneven. Walker is downright terrifying when he threatens violence in his confrontation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and his treatment of the two of them as women make his Hamlet outrightly unlikeable. He is also goofy and charming elsewhere in his performance, like in the scene where he mocks Polonius. As is custom, the audience is as unsure of what to make of Hamlet as the rest of the characters in the play. Van der Burg’s Ophelia is another lively bright star in the opening scenes of the play and gave me chills in her descent into madness, but compared to some of the other actors she didn’t bring anything new to the character. That might be my chief complaint against most productions of Hamlet, though.

If you’re a die-hard Hamlet fan or if you’ve yet to see a production of the play, Unit 102 and The Fresh Mint Project’s production of Hamlet is as fine an interpretation as any and worth a visit. In the places that it takes risks in reinterpreting the text, those risks pay off a hundred times over. It’s a totally solid production and I’m thankful that I got to see it.

Hamlet is now playing at The Theatre Machine (376 Dufferin St.) until February 7. Tickets are $20 for general admission, except on Tuesdays when they’re pay what you can (PWYC) and can be purchased online at www.unit102theatrecompany.com or at the door.

Theatrical Review: Circle Jerk by Soup Can Theatre, safeword, and Aim for the Tangent Theatre at The lemonTree Studio

For me, seeing Circle Jerk (produced in glorious collaboration by Soup Can Theatre, safeword, and Aim for the Tangent Theatre) was like having the most incredible tantric sex of my life. It titillated, excited, and stimulated me and then left me completely satisfied, satiated, gratified, and full. In the space of two and a half hours, the four one act plays that make up Circle Jerk prove the utter brilliance and supreme skill of the teams that created them.

The show begins with Dust Peddling: Part Two, written and starred in by Scott Dermody. Admittedly, I think it is the weakest offering of the four, but it sets the tone perfectly for the night. As a scholar of sex and poetry, watching two beautiful people recite Ginsberg and Keats while writhing around in their underwear and pontificating on the abstract, non-corporeal corporeality of the orgasm was a wet dream.

The play brings the audience into the high poetic world of the mundane and the intimate through its frank sexuality and casual, performative, ritual approach to the material. Although it sometimes runs the risk of rehashing some of the generic stereotypes of experimental theatre, it gives us glimpses into the brilliance that is to come and earns its independent merit through that.

Sex and This, written by Wesley J. Colford and performed brilliantly by Tiffany Deobald and Carys Lewis follows Dust Peddling: Part Two. Although the play is written around a tragedy, it is a scathingly accurate, laugh-out-loud hilarious parody of party culture in the vein of Girls.

Deobald is pitch perfect as a party girl from the moment she appears on stage in her costume that prompts the question, “What is Bulgarian for slut?” I’ve got to give props to the costume designer that created her Soviet-stereotype-meets-raver-girl costume because it is one of the two biggest stars of the night for me.

Both Deobald and Lewis deliver Colford’s dialogue so naturally that it seems almost improvisational, but it never feels mundane or banal. The same can be said about the use of technology in the play. I’ve never seen a representation of characters using text messages and Facebook performed as convincingly and naturally as the one in this play.

Combined, these two aspects make Sex and This a fascinating, compelling look at how the youth of today might deal with the grief and existential terror that stem from a first experience with death.

As much as I loved the other plays in Circle Jerk, the next play, Maypole Rose, was my absolute favourite of the night. I think that I sat beside the show’s writer/director Brandon Crone tonight and I have to tell him that his anxious nervousness about how his play might be received was all for nothing. It was (and is) nothing short of spectacular.

The play covers one night and the following morning between a gay married couple played by Alexander Plouffe and G. Kyle Shields. The plot of the play is fairly simple: Plouffe’s character, a business man, just wants to get high and fuck his husband, Shield’s character. The erotic politics of this play are gripping and, quite frankly, really hot. From Plouffe’s character’s dirty talk, to his seduction of Shields’ character, to the inevitable sex scene I have never seen anything that is simultaneously so convincingly mundane and so palpably sexually charged.

The execution of the simulated sex in the sex scene (the particulars of which I won’t spoil for those of you lucky enough to see it) has set an unreasonably high bar for any simulated sex scene I have seen and will ever see again. It is so hilarious, hot, and unbelievably perfect that I don’t even think I would be as impressed if the actors had actually had sex on stage. Undoubtedly, this scene is the highlight of the night for me and it alone is worth 10 times the price of admission.

Finally, Circle Jerk ends with The Session, written and directed by Justin Haigh. The brilliance of this play lies in the tight plotting and slow revelation of the workings of the mind of a nuclear safety expert (played by Allan Michael Brunet) through a therapy session with his newly assigned workplace therapist (played by Matt Pilipiak).

As the gay ex-Mormon workplace therapist, Pilipiak might as well have been torn straight off of the Book of Mormon stage at the Princess of Wales. His mannerisms and affectations would be perfect for Elder McKinley (who has to crush his gay feelings in the show-stopping “Turn It Off” in Mormon) and he brings that sort of likability and hilarity to the role. This is much needed opposite Brunet’s brooding, menacing performance as the charismatic and charming (although sociopathic) nuclear safety expert. For his part, Haigh builds excellent suspense and tension into the last play in the show, which pays off in The Session’s shocking ending.

On top of these four excellent plays, Circle Jerk is also made up of four phenomenal instrumental pieces that precede each of the plays. For me, the standouts are Subtlety is Not Your Specialty composed by Marla Kishimoto, which features a goofy clarinet line that sets the comedic tone for the night and I Think It’s Time We Talked About Your Filthy Rituals composed by Peter Cavell, which is a hauntingly brilliant atonal, avant-garde piece that sets the depraved sexual tone for the beginning of the second act.

If you buy your tickets to Circle Jerk, you will be getting four seriously amazing shows for the price of one. In my opinion, you’d be an idiot not to go. I was blown away completely by each of the four plays and would happily pay to see any of them again individually. Do yourself a favour and catch this show while you can.

Circle Jerk is now playing at the lemonTree Studio (196 Spadina Ave.) until November 23. Tickets are $24 for general admission and $18 for students, seniors, and arts workers and can be purchased online at http://soupcantheatre.com/shows/circle-jerk/tickets/.

Theatrical Review: The Lower Ossington Theatre’s Hair at The Randolph Theatre

The Lower Ossington Theatre’s current production of Hair is an unabashed good time and a deeply affecting play. It’s an excellent ensemble piece with some stand-out leads and absolutely beautiful musical performances.

At the centre of Hair is the friendship between Claude, the hippie destined to go to war, (Carter Easler) and his best friend free-spirited hippie George Berger (Erik Kopacsi) and the chemistry between these two is palpable. Every moment they have to interact – even just a hug or a smile or a friendly punch on the arm – these two actors take and it builds a strong, believable and ultimately heart-breaking friendship between the two characters.

Easler is excellent as the brooding Claude, especially in the scene after his big trip (“Yes I’s Finsihed/Abie Baby”). He’s shy and likeable through the first act and a heavy hitter once he’s sent off to Vietnam. Among my favourite Claude moments is the one where Jeanie claims that she and Claude are in love and Kopacsi vehemently shakes his head in denial. It’s a nice little comic touch.

Kopasci is easily the play’s most likeable character as Berger. He’s charming and goofy and clearly cares a lot about his friend. There’s a line somewhere in the sequence somewhere around “Walking In Space” where they’re singing about the colour white and he and two of the other ensemble members point out that he is white in this line to great comic effect. I took pains to watch his reactions throughout the show and was never disappointed.

Mark Willett also gets big laughs from the audience as both Woof and Margaret Mead. And he deserves them. He’s genuinely very funny and he sings “My Conviction” absolutely beautifully. He’s called on to do a lot of heavy lifting vocally throughout the show and never disappoints.

In fact, none of the featured vocalists disappoint. The show is built on so many beautiful harmonies and there isn’t a bum note in the entire night. I’ve got to give special shout outs to Andria Crabbe, Leilani Ross, Luke Witt, Sara Wilkinson, Tanya Flipopoulos, Seanna Kennedy, and Jessica Harb for all of their incredible solos. Jessica Harb in particular blew me away with “Frank Mills” and with the trio singing “Air.”

Natasha Strilchuk is a little bit hit and miss (but mostly hit!) with her choreography. Some of the more symmetrically choreographed numbers feel more like Hairspray than Hair, but when she nails it she nails it. The group choreography works really well in “Black Boys” and is even more impressive as it breaks down through “White Boys” into the jaw-dropping, spectacular choreography of “Walking in Space.” All of the loose choreography (“Be-In,” “Good Morning Starshine,” etc.) is stunning. She’s got a lot of work in this show to be proud of.

I didn’t expect to be as affected by the Vietnam plot as I was. I expected a fun night with lots of great music. And I got what I wanted there and a really great dramatic show to boot. And for those of you wondering the nudity does stay mostly in tact in this production, so prepare yourselves accordingly. (Whether that means hide your eyes or keep ’em peeled wide open is your call!)

Hair was well worth the night out and I already have plans to return to see the show later in its run. Do yourself a favour and enjoy a night of great music and great acting with the Lower Ossington Theatre.

Hair is playing at the Randolph Theatre from now until September 14. For more information and to buy tickets visit lowerossingtontheatre.com.

Theatrical Review: Hedda Gabler by the Leroy Street Theatre and the Desiderata Theatre Company at the Store Front Theatre

The Leroy Street Theatre and Desiderata Theatre Company’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is a bold, beautiful production of a classic performed impressively by a company of fine, talented actors. Harrison Thomas, who directed and adapted the production, has created and assembled a masterful production of Hedda Gabler packed with bold new choices that are not to be missed.

Chief among Thomas’ changes to the play is his re-imagining of Eilert and Tesman as students of biology. This choice does not only “adjust the scope from the social to the animal” as Thomas states in his director’s note, it creates a series of beautiful visual aspects in both the staging and the set design of the play.

The set, described as “a Victorian drawing room, a monument to decay, and a giant terrarium,” is gloriously exactly as described. The rich dark tones of the chaise, the record player, and the desk are matched with props and set dressings in sepia-toned greens and yellows giving the set an incredibly gorgeous distinctive look. The space at the Store Front Theatre is well-filled so that we see it’s great immensity, and yet that immensity seems illusive once the play is played. The way that Lauren Horejda’s Hedda Gabler flits around the stage she feels like a bug trapped in a glass jar, making the effect of this gorgeous staging is fully felt. It’s an excellent effort on the parts of the Desiderata Theatre and Lynne Griffin.

Similarly breathtakingly beautiful are the costume designs by the Desiderata Theatre. Victorian women’s fashion has never looked better in a small, intimate production. From the flowered hat Miss Tesman wears in the first scene to the yellow dress worn by Hedda and the red shawl worn by Thea in the last scenes every outfit is stunningly beautiful. Bonus points to whoever chose the shoes for the production as every pair was more lavishly exciting than the last.

But the show is not just a revelation visually. Each of the performances of the members of this very talented cast are so impressive (not just in the sense that they evoke admiration through their skill, but also in the sense that they have left what I am sure will be a deep lasting impression on me). And perhaps one might expect that from a production of Hedda Gabler, but this production is truly outstanding.

When Lynne Griffin first appeared as Miss Tesman, I was convinced that she wasn’t acting. Her jovial, sweet Miss Tesman feels so natural that I just assumed that Griffin had been cast because of her own natural disposition. I don’t doubt that Griffin is not jovial or sweet in real life, but it was clear from her scene after the death of her character’s sister that she was giving a genuinely great performance.

The same can be said about Lea Diskin’s Berta, who gets very little speaking time but has the opportunity to give great long solo scenes as she changes the scenery. Having the maid clean up the room between scenes was an ingenious way to change the set while giving Diskin the chance to build a more fully developed character.

Carmine Lucarelli’s Judge Brack was delightful. I particularly loved the bit of stage business with his eating through the first acts and the moment where he reaches for the fruit bowl which has been removed later in the play. Between that and his manner of speaking Lucarelli built a convincing, compelling character who is among my favourites in the show.

The real powerhouse performances, though, belong to the two lead women: Lauren Horejda as Hedda Gabler and Anne van Leeuwen as Thea Elvsted. Van Leeuwen is sweet and relatable as Thea and her tears near the play’s end are genuinely very moving. Watching her and Horejda showdown whenever they discuss Eilert Lovborg was truly truly delightful. And Thomas’ choice to add an additional act of sexual aggression at the end of the second act is a stroke of brilliance that leads to an even richer and more complex performance from both actresses.

Of course, the real crown jewel in this show is Lauren Horejda’s Hedda Gabler. The woman is an intoxicating presence on stage and it is nearly impossible to peel your eyes off of her when she is on stage in order to keep up with anything else that may be happening around her. In the first act, her Hedda has several different characters. She’s prim and proper and detached from Miss Tesman and Berta (and to some extend to George), but when she’s speaking with Judge Brack her entire posture changes as she takes on a more playful, intimate tone. As she spins deeper and deeper on her descent into madness her voice and movements become more erratic and her performance is as magnetic as ever. It is difficult to imagine that Horejda has never been able to influence a human life, since we watch her Hedda command the rest of the room as though she was willing the other characters to act as they do. If Hedda Gabler is the holy grail of parts for actresses to play, Horejda has found the grail and spends two and a half hours showing off its splendour to her audience.

I don’t think I have left a theatre so impressed by a performance as I was tonight. The Leroy Street Theatre/Desiderata Theatre Company production of Hedda Gabler is great because it reminds us that theatre should be fulfilling because you can see the skill of the artists who’ve come together to make the show happen. I’m hesitant to draw a distinction between entertaining theatre and great theatre, but this show is truly truly great. Miss it at your peril.

The Leroy Street Theatre/Desiderata Theatre Company production of Hedda Gabler is playing at the Store Front Theatre (955 Bloor Street West) from now until September 7. For more information and to book your tickets visit leroystreettheatre.com.

Theatrical Review: Hedwig and the Angry Inch at The Belasco Theatre with Andrew Rannells

The multi-Tony winning Hedwig and the Angry Inch just got even better with Andrew Rannells replacing Neil Patrick Harris. The show was a crowd-pleaser with Harris at the helm (and rightly so), but Rannells’ authentically damaged rock-and-roll performance amps up the drama and the fun to a level previously unimaginable.

All of the things that made the show great before Rannells was cast still apply to this leg of the show’s run. Lena Hall is still a rock-and-roll/musical theatre goddess deserving of every ounce of praise she’s earned this season as Yitzhak. (I don’t know how they’re ever going to replace her). The book is still bitingly funny and the music is still energetic and emotionally moving. And the staging, costumes, and projections are still jaw-droppingly stunning as ever. Each of these aspects on their own should draw in audiences for their unparalleled perfection and make the show worth seeing again and again regardless of the leading man.

Rannells’ Hedwig is a show-stopper that should draw back the crowds who saw NPH and also those who fear they may have missed out with NPH’s departure. Rannells is the most genuinely physically beautiful Hedwig I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing and he sings the score as though it was written for him.

Lena Hall has finally met her match in the versatile rock-star department in Rannells. He growls through “Angry Inch” like a true punk icon, but also consistently nails the shows big ballads. He has such crazy control over the range of his powerhouse voice. The way he curls the ends of his low notes is so pleasurable that I’m sad that we won’t get a recording of the cast album with him on top of the one we got with Neil. His vocals are absolutely outstanding.

That said, Rannells’ Hedwig feels a lot less broadway-friendly than Neil’s. (And I mean that as high praise). She’s clearly very damaged and angry and swears like a sailor. His performance feels less polished and his raw displays of emotion (read: violent outbursts) produce an uneasiness that makes the show more dark and complicated than some broadway audiences might expect. Harris’ performance was certainly not devoid of violent, passionate feeling or darkness and complication but his performance was more digestible than Rannells’ is. All of which I think work in Rannells’ favour.

Rannells’ Hedwig also moves in a more naturally sexy way. The way Rannells’ Hedwig dances feels like authentic, spontaneous movement, whereas Harris’ Hedwig’s dancing felt more tightly choreographed or at least pre-meditated. Both performances are delightful to watch in their own ways. Harris was a spectacle whereas Rannells is a gritty drama. Watching Rannells play Hedwig is like watching Patti LuPone play Mama Rose, you find yourself utterly transfixed watching this character run the gamut emotionally. It’s exhausting, exhilarating, and rewarding.

Sometimes his authenticity lead to Rannells’ nerves showing through (and who wouldn’t be nervous in Rannells’ position on their first night?), but his performance will lose that quality after a few more shows. He might also start to play with the audience a little more once he gets more comfortable in the role. (Some audience members felt robbed of the major moment from Harris’ “Sugar Daddy” where Hedwig makes out with an audience member, although I’m not one of them. It’s a bit of spontaneous audience interaction which will likely make its way back into the show in some performances but doesn’t feel absolutely necessary to me). After that we’ll be left an even more splendid performance than the one that I saw and I’m jealous of all hose who will have the pleasure of witnessing that.

As I heard someone in the audience saying after the show, it’s too bad that an actor can’t be nominated for a Tony as a replacement actor. Rannells would undoubtedly be deserving of the honour and his time in the show will maintain the show’s high quality reputation.

Brava once again to all involved. This show is still incredible.

Theatrical Review: Randolph Academy’s “Into the Woods” at the Randolph Theatre (B Cast)

The great joy of the Randolph Academy having a B Cast for their Into the Woods is that I got to see two variations on the same great play in two nights. The music, the set, and the choreography may be largely the same in both productions, but the performances the actors give is largely very different. And the difference is really a blessing because each cast highlights different characters and gives every actor in the Randolph senior class a moment to shine.

The only cast members (aside from some of the ensemble) that remain the same are Mathieu Aubin (playing Cinderella’s Prince), Danik McAfee (playing Rapunzel’s Prince) and Chelsea Lahey (playing Cinderella’s Mother). The boys (as I stated in my review of the A Cast) are both hilarious and charming, and their choreography makes excellent use of ridiculous synchronization and a lot of hilarious straight-leg jumping. Lahey sings Cinderella’s mother beautifully and wears the gorgeous costume (designed by Rachel Berchtold) elegantly.

Aside from that, the cast is entirely different. And thankfully this is true because, as a result, I got to see another version of the show that I loved just as much as the first. 

Ali Froggatt’s Narrator has sass and personality from the moment she steps on stage. She takes great liberties with the rhythms of James Lapine’s book (which is as highly structured as Sondheim’s score) and her choices pay off. Her delivery stands out above all of the great Narrators (the role in the play, not the concept in the abstract) that I’ve seen. She’s really funny and sarcastic, and she’s just a little bit sinister – like Alan Cumming as the Emcee in Cabaret (the first time – the performance he won the Tony for). And kudos to Randolph for making the narrator a female in both shows – its an excellent role to genderflip and you got two great performances out of it.

Sascha Stewart’s Little Red Riding Hood is a pint-size tough girl and she’s consistently adorable and spunky in the role. She has a very different little kid feeling from Emma Gibney (who plays the role in the A Cast) – she’s somehow more hardened and less cutesy, but she plays the role like a diva kid role on a Disney show. Except she’s still always likeable. And the way that the choreography and staging uses her height (she’s a very little girl) is exceptionally funny.

Her Jack, played by Adam Turgeon, is similarly less cartoonish than the A Cast. Where Luke Letourneau goes for comedy at every possible moment, Turgeon’s Jack is honest and earnest and grows enormously from the scared young boy we see in the first scene to the giant killer we get by the end. His performance is fascinating and nuanced and it was an absolute pleasure to see him in the role. Although I missed the comedy in his “Giants in the Sky,” I think his rendition of the song is the most exciting I’ve ever seen. I felt like I was going on a real emotional journey with this character who’d just discovered something in himself and you can’t ask for more than that in a musical theatre solo.

Conversely, Meaghan Henstridge’s Witch was much more comedic than Tiera Watts’. Both ladies are phenomenal in the role and both sing through “The Last Midnight” and “The Witch’s Lament” stunningly and heartbreakingly. To compare them to current broadway leading ladies, Watts is Idina Menzel (with an impressive belt and a commanding stage presence) and Henstridge is Sutton Foster (in that she’s got more of a goofy-funny presence, but can still move an audience to tears). And those comparisons aren’t just for point-of-reference. Both actresses are of the kind of calibre that should put them in the same sorts of places as Menzel and Foster one day.

The most outstanding performer of the B Cast, however, is Troy Goldthorp as the Baker. In the A Cast, the Baker/Baker’s Wife plot belongs undoubtedly to Rachelle Bradley as the Baker’s wife. In the B Cast, you’d be hard pressed to care more about a character in the show than the Baker. Goldthorp has a melodious, silky, sweet, strong singing voice and the charm and acting chops to back it up. I usually tend to think that “No More” is a little extraneous, but all three of the show’s 11 o’clock numbers (“Last Midnight,” “No More,” and “No One Is Alone”) felt absolutely necessary to the storytelling as each hit a perfect musical and emotional chord. He too makes a fine leading player, and will undoubtedly continue to do so through a long and illustrious career.

In that vein, Nick Jeffery’s Mysterious Man gives a touching performance in “No More” and the two harmonize exceptionally well. In fact, most of the “parent” roles are standouts, including Madison Hayes-Crook as Cinderella’s Step-Mother. Other standout moments include Andrea Page’s Baker’s Wife’s reaction to being kissed by Cinderella’s Prince (a hilarious shoulder shrug) and Kathleen Doerkson’s Jack’s Mother’s repeated “promise me” joke. 

Like I said in the A Cast review, the show’s set is really visually stunning. I didn’t mention the puppets for Cinderella’s birds, the pigeons, and the chicken yesterday – but I think that all of them are also gorgeous. I’m also deeply enamoured with Rachel Berchtold’s costume design. Having seen the variation in the costumes between the two casts, I’m amazed at the seeming effortlessness of costuming two huge casts with wonderful costumes that all fit comfortably into the same world. There isn’t a single visual aspect of this production that I don’t absolutely love.

Brava to both casts of Randolph Academy’s Into the Woods. You’ve put together two enjoyable experiences that I won’t soon forget. 

Take your pick between the A Cast or the B Cast, you’re going to end up with a phenomenal Sondheim experience either way. Or, if you want to get the full experience – see both. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

Into the Woods is playing at the Randolph Theatre from now until August 9. For more information and to buy tickets visit randolphacademy.com.

 

Theatrical Review: Randolph Academy’s Into the Woods at the Randolph Theatre (A Cast)

I couldn’t be more grateful that Randolph Academy’s production of Into the Woods is the show that is closing my Summer of Sondheim. It is the most technically complex of the three Sondheim shows I saw this summer and it is also the most beautifully performed of the three.

Into the Woods is an epic musical (with a running time to match), but the Randolph’s company made every moment of the show enjoyable. The score is rich and complex and sounds like magic coming out of the mouths of these actors.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, tackling a Sondheim score is a great undertaking, and to call this cast merely competent to sing it would be insulting. They sang through this score like old pros. It was an utter delight to watch. Every cast member was excellent.

Kayla Coolen is wonderful and warm as Cinderella. She gives us a sense of how funny she is during “A Very Nice Prince” and its reprise, while showing us just how talented she is at singing through a difficult score. Like all actresses who play the role, her shining moment is in “No One Is Alone” which she sings stunningly beautifully, but her rendition really stands out because of her ability to convey warmth and to be nurturing. The tender moments between her and Little Red Riding Hood were among the most heart-melting in the show. 

Cassie Doane’s Rapunzel was beautiful and hilarious. She also really does have the kind of enchanting voice Rapunzel is said throughout the play to have. No suspension of disbelief necessary. The best moments in the show vocally were when she sang with Tiera Watts’ Witch (especially when they sang together in “Our Own Little World”).

Joel Schaefer is both incredibly sweet and likeable as the Baker and (when the moment is right) he’s utterly repugnant. He’s the kind of protagonist we want to follow and want to root for.

Of course, it’s hard not to care about the Baker’s Wife more. Part of it is the way that the play was written: she’s given more sympathy (even through “Any Moment” and “Moments in the Woods”) and her character is given more depth. The other part is the phenomenal performance of Rachelle Bradley. She’s sweet and funny and sexy and deep. And has one hell of a voice. She’s a commanding presence on stage and is truly a joy to watch.

The same can be said of Emma Gibney’s Little Red Riding Hood. She plays little girl sweetness without ever being cloying or annoying. You can’t help but think her Little Red is more clever than she lets on, and her comic timing is perfect. I want to see her play Sally in You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown, but I’d also love to see her range stretched. I imagine she’d be great in anything.

Red’s counterpart, Jack, (played by Luke Letourneau) also captures a youthful innocence without stepping into precociousness. Letourneau’s Jack is believably simple. He’s never a slack-jawed buffoon for laughs, which is a refreshing break from how Jack is usually played. Instead, he’s eager (if dim-witted). His “Giants in the Sky” is easily the best I’ve ever seen.

The princes (played by Mathieu Aubin and Danik McAfee) are majestically hilarious. They hit all the right notes as the royal caricatures they are meant to be. Both “Agony” and its reprise are excellently choreographed and both young men dance it skillfully for laughs. As Cinderella’s Prince, Aubin gets more time to build his character (of course) and makes use of every second on stage to make a lasting impression.

Other scene stealers include Lauren Mayer as Florinda and Justine Grimes as Lucinda, who are particularly hilarious once they are blinded and Jade Percival as Milky White who is the most side-splittingly hilarious speechless character I’ve ever seen on stage. Her physical comedy (especially during “Maybe They’re Magic”) is unrivalled by anyone else in the cast.

The unrivalled standout in a cast full of standouts, however, is Tiera Watts, who plays the Witch. Watching her play the role that Sondheim wrote for Bernadette Peters, I couldn’t help but think that someday someone is going to write roles for her. She’s a star already in her own right. Her “Last Midnight” is the star performance of a star song that it was meant to be. She oozes charisma and belts her way through the score with ease. I felt like I was watching a Broadway show whenever she was on stage. Her great talent is elevated when she sings her duets with Cassie Doane (as I’ve already mentioned), but she is also excellent all on her own.

Aside from the acting and singing, the show has a number of really clever bits of staging (like the use of shadows in “Giants in the Sky” which was breath-taking – thanks to lighting designer Siobhan Sletah for that moment of brilliance) and incredibly beautiful sets and costumes (created by Anna Treusch and Rachel Berchtold, respectively). I was particularly blown away by the clever use of columns for the woods that opened up (like story books) to reveal the respective homes of the major characters. In these technical respects the show was brilliant, fascinating, and diverse. Kudos to all involved!

Randolph Academy’s production of Into the Woods is just all around excellent. I was nervous about seeing Sondheim and Lapine’s masterpiece being played by students, but this show was left in very very capable hands (whether you see this A Cast or the B Cast). Make your way out to see this show. It is totally totally worth it. 

Into the Woods is playing at the Randolph Theatre from now until August 9. For more information and to buy tickets visit randolphacademy.com.

Theatrical Review: Stageworks Toronto’s Assassins at the George Ignatieff Theatre

Stageworks Toronto’s current production of Steven Sondheim’s Assassins is a rich, complex, and enjoyable performance of a rich, complex, and enjoyable musical. This play, which is comprised of a number of musical and non-musical vignettes about the assassins and would-be assassins of various American Presidents, is all at once darkly funny and deathly serious and never misses a chance to grapple with the big themes that director Michael Yaneff points to in the note at the beginning of the program: entitlement, oppression, symbolism, and the American Dream.

The Stageworks’ production is privileged to have so many great actors in their cast who not only give compelling performances, but also sing Sondheim virtually flawlessly. Luke Witt’s Proprietor is an amalgamation of Alan Cummings’ MC from Cabaret and a darkest-timeline version of Patina Miller’s Leading Player in Pippin. He even does Patina’s signature “join us” hand wave at one point during the performance. I’ve seen him play charmingly sleazy before in the Lower Ossington Theatre production of Rent and as Frankie Epps in last year’s Stageworks show Parade, but he really turned up the Lucifer charm in this show and he hits the high note in the opening number absolutely beautifully.

Playing his opposite is the classically good looking Hugh Ritchie as the Balladeer, who is another kind of charming all together. You really want to root for the American Dream he represents in “Another National Anthem” because there is just something so earnest and likeable about him. It makes it really difficult to totally write off the ideals that America was founded on that this play could so totally dismantle. And he sings through the most difficult parts of Sondheim’s score for this show with total ease. I know I’ve praised that seemingly unimportant quality a lot throughout this review, but goddamn it Sondheim writes music that most people can’t sing and these actors sing it well. It’s an accomplishment.

Other of the show’s standouts include Laurie Hurst as Sara Jane Moore who makes a recurring joke about a lost gun feel funny and fresh every time it is made, Russ Underdown who makes “The Ballad of Guiteau” one of the show’s highlights, Will van der Zyl who delivers one heck of a monologue twice in the show as Samuel Byck (if Sondheim’s score is difficult to sing, John Weidman’s book is damn near impossible to get right and bout does van der Zyl hits both of his monologues right out of the park), and Mladen Obradovic as Guiseppe Zangara whose pleading speech to Lee Harvey Oswald in “Scene 16” almost brought me to tears. The rest of the cast is also remarkable and it has to be for this ensemble piece to work as well as it does.

Lorraine Kimsa and Christine Stewart deserve big shout outs as the choreographer and dance captain because they managed to make what I was afraid would be stage-y/community theatre group dance numbers dynamic and interesting. The staging for the hysterical and poignant “How I Saved Roosevelt” and “The Gun Song” were exceptionally strong efforts, as was “The Ballad of Guiteau” which earned big audience laughs and “Another National Anthem” which felt like as big of a rallying cry as “Do You Hear the People Sing” from Les Miserables with half as many people on stage.

Assassins feels just as bitingly funny and difficult as ever in 2014, especially when it addresses the pathology of (mostly) young men who feel dejected not only by society but by women. It explores all of the things that conspire to make America uneven and unfair through its nine title assassins without completely justifying their crimes. If you aren’t going to see it for the brilliance of Sondheim and Weidman’s writing or for the brilliance of the Stageworks cast, creatives, and band, then see it because it is an important part of the discussion of the state of modern North America. The Stageworks Toronto production is an admirable and enjoyable production of one of the greatest works of American theatre of the last 25 years (can you believe that it’s almost 25 years old!?) and I absolutely urge you to go see it.

The Stageworks Toronto production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins is currently playing at the George Ignatieff Theatre until July 27. For more information and to buy tickets visit http://www.stageworkstoronto.com/productions.html.

Theatrical Review: Company by Theatre 20 at the Berkeley Street Theatre

As a fan of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, I am lucky to have seen Theatre 20’s current production of the play. Or rather, I am lucky to have been a huge fan of Company when I saw the Theatre 20 production. Their production is far from perfect, but I was able to revel in the parts of the show that really worked because of my familiarity with the show. That being said, my familiarity with the show also made things that might have worked for other audience members not work at all for me.

I’ll start with what was good about the show, because when it was good it was excellent. Everyone who sees the show will leave talking about Louise Pitre’s “Ladies Who Lunch.” Her Joanne is perfectly hard-hearted and hilariously sarcastic until she gets halfway through the second last verse. And then you see the fear/anger/sadness in her eyes when she realizes that she is singing that song about herself. I’ve seen the pro-shots of the New York Philharmonic Concert version with Patti LuPone and the 2006 Broadway with Barbara Walsh, and neither of these two actresses’ performances felt as raw to me as Pitre’s. And both were fantastic. If nothing else, this performance is worth the price of your ticket.

In general the women’s performances were excellent. I have to commend Carly Street for getting through “Not Getting Married Today” and never breaking a sweat (except in character). She made one of Sondheim’s toughest songs look easy, and performed it with pitch perfect comic timing.

Marisa McIntyre hits similar notes of quirky and loveable with her performance as April. She has a knack for making the repetitive dialogue in the scene where April first enters Bobby’s apartment sound earnest and natural without losing the joke. Her bright-eyed wonder makes her compelling for a character who doesn’t get much stage time.

Nia Vardalos, though, is the undisputed queen of comedy on this stage. Her Jenny is so over-the-top-laugh-out-loud funny but she is never ever mugging. When she was brushing her teeth in “Poor Baby” I was doubled up in hysterical laughter. And you’ll be begging for more of her in the pot-smoking scene between her, Dan Chameroy, and Steven Sutcliffe once she gets banished to the kitchen. She is simply brilliant.

The men’s performances don’t compare to the women’s although they are by no means bad. The basketball game staging that starts “Have I Got a Girl for You” is really awkward, but the quintet sounds beautiful by the last refrain of “What do you want to get married for?”Brent Carver’s Harry is a standout. His last note in “Sorry-Greatful” is beyond gorgeous, even if it is a little hard to hear.

One of the greatest problems of this production is the way that it is mic’ed. Instead of character mics, they rely on the actor’s power of projection and a series of stage mics to do the trick and this really doesn’t work for Sondheim’s score. Almost all of the character introductions are drowned out in the opening number. You can almost never hear one line over another, especially when Bobby is singing on his own. So, anytime that the “Company” through line it’s a little garbled and it really takes away from the show. And if the audience applauds part-way through a performance (like halfway through “Not Getting Married Today” you miss the lines that come next – “bless this bride/totally insane” for example).

The other major problem with this production is Dan Chameroy’s aggressive insistence that Bobby is a straight man. It’s hard for me to sympathize with a wealthy, good-looking, charming, well-liked, straight, white playboy struggling to want to want to get married. Although it has been often denied, other productions have let ambiguity about Bobby’s sexuality enrich the character. Even when he admits to Peter that he has had a homosexual encounter in act two, he has a moment of definite queer panic at the end of the scene that makes him decidedly heterosexual. I’ve always liked that discomfort to be ambiguous because I think that the “Bobby is closeted” reading of that story is more compelling. And again, it’s not that other performances blatantly suggest this, they just don’t close off the possibility so completely.

Dan Chameroy sings the part with the utmost skill, but (perhaps because of my bias) I always find his performance a little disingenuous. It always feels to me a little more like a vanity project than a character role because he always seems so smug about his performance. In that way his “Being Alive” goes from being an emotionally devastating epiphany (like Raul Esparza’s in the 2006 Revival) to a cabaret performance to show off Chameroy’s impressive range. Chameroy’s Bobby is more an allusion to charming and likeable than genuinely charming or likeable – but if he is “Don Draper before we even knew who Don Draper was” maybe that’s the point. I just wish he’d played the role more sincerely, he’s certainly got the talent to pull it off.

When asked by a friend whether or not I’d recommend this show, I struggled with the answer. I’m not sure that I liked it enough overall to recommend it, especially not to an audience who doesn’t already love Company. There are definitely glimmering moments of greatness in this show that will reward an audience member for going, but I’m not sure that a critical theatre lover will be overly impressed by the show as a whole.

Theatre 20’s production of Company is currently playing at The Berkeley Street Theatre until July 13. Tickets are $69 for seats in the audience and $30 for seats on stage and are available on the Canadian Stage website.

Theatrical Review: The Deliverance of Juliet & Her Romeo at the Unit 102 Theatre

The Leroy Street Theatre’s current production of The Deliverance of Juliet & Her Romeo is the most enthralling, complex, and fascinating adaptations of Shakespeare that I have ever seen. When I first saw posters for the play I thought that its being a queer (and especially lesbian) retelling of the story would be reason enough to see the show, but the additional layer of the cult setting made the show riveting. And it wasn’t just Harrison Thomas, Ashleigh Kasaboski, and Ann van Leeuwen’s masterful adaptation and extention of Shakespeare’s text that made the show so riveting, they also cast (and directed in Thomas’ case) a group of actors that gave universally excellent performances. This delightfully funny and daringly tragic adaptation of Shakespeare’s most famous play is a must see theatrical event.

This show’s great strength is its multi-layered complexity. Thankfully, it doesn’t slip into the comfortable territory most queer reimaginings of Romeo and Juliet fall into where the tragedy of the deaths of the title characters is told through the lens of queer tragedy. Instead, we’re given a rich story of pain, grief, and extremism that is told through a uniquely queer lens. Although the central story of the romance between two women takes centre stage, it’s tragedy is as universal as Shakespeare’s telling of the story is thanks in part to the show’s focus on its many other characters.

Lauren Horejda’s Mercutio is the heart of the first act with her quick-wittedness and bawdy humour. She plays the role as would any of the great Shakespearean clowns, with an eye to her audience’s comic sensibilities. Her take on the role feels fresh and funny without ever feeling forced. That’s half of the reason her death is so powerful: it signals the death of the comedic portion of the play and ushers in the tragic.

The other half of the reason it’s so powerful is because of the relationship the play gives her with Friar Lawrence. Watching Christopher Mott’s character mourn the loss of his daughter is heartbreaking, which is only a taste of what is to come.

The idea to split Lady Capulet’s role into three is a stroke of brilliance. It allowed for three varied interpretations of the role to exist at once and gave us great performances from Michelle Cloutier, Kelly van der Berg, and Michelle D’Alessandro Hatt. D’Alessandro Hatt’s performance as the third Lady Capulet (who is amalgamated with the Nurse) is truly exceptionally stunning. Her inner conflict is apparent on her face at every moment, so the character is at once supportive of Juliet as she chases her desires and deeply concerned for her. Watching a religious woman accept her homosexual child whole heartedly while still reconciling this newfound revelation with her faith (and the subsequent questioning of her fundamental beliefs) in the background of every scene was fascinating. By the end I was rooting for her to leave the cult and save herself because I truly believed that amount of change could have occurred.

Although Emily Nixon’s Lady Montague is a relatively minor character in the story, her unwavering love for her daughter is beautifully expressed and so is her terror when Romeo turns on her.

Not all of the parent characters are equally loving, though. Scott Walker’s Capulet is intense and terrifying. He begins as a benevolent cult leader and adds layers and layers of creeping manipulation and scare tactics as the play progresses. The scene in which he tells his daughter that she must marry Paris in the second act had me legitimately fearing for the safety of all of his wives and his daughter. The passionate rage he brings to that part is electrifying and horrifying. He’s charismatic enough in the role to believe that a whole sect of people would follow him to their death when he decides that the time is right. And that’s truly terrifying indeed.

Although the cult subplot of the show can sometimes threaten to upstage the familiar romance plot of Shakespeare’s play, Anne van Leeuwen’s Romeo and Ashleigh Kasaboksi’s Juliet are so wonderfully watchable that their plot always remains centre stage. The blooming of their romance in the first act is very sweet and naturalistic. Their flirtation feels flirty, and we don’t question the immediacy of their being overcome with passion. Unlike some productions where there is a certain amount of irony about the love affair between Romeo and Juliet, we never feel that their love is inauthentic. Both deliver their respective balcony scene monologues with a modern inflection that removes all traces of doubt from our minds that this is the kind of epic love we’re so used to parodying in Shakespeare. Instead, it’s the kind of hard and fast romance that theatre and film often use as shorthand for a real, deep love connection that’s limited by the two and a half hour time limit of the play.

There is nothing in this show more impressive than Kasaboski’s delivery of her second act monologues. If I wore make-up, my cheeks would be as mascara-stained as hers are by the end of the speech where she learns Romeo has been banished and Tybalt is dead. The grief and anger that overcomes van Leeuwen after Mercutio’s death that leads him to kill Tybalt and then later leads her to threaten to kill her own mother is a close second for most impressive delivery, but Kasaboski’s tears just barely beat her out. If the show was merely a queer retelling of Shakespeare’s play, these two ladies’ performances would still earn standing ovations from me.

This show might give you more than you expect when you go to see an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but it does so in all of the best ways. The extended story brings new elements to the retelling that will keep you on the edge of your seat and the exquisite acting from the whole cast will make you feel their every emotion. This is a fantastic show that I hope finds itself with a sold out and (eventually) extended run. The show just too great to imagine that there will be people who miss it.

The Deliverance of Juliet & Her Romeo is now playing at the Unit 102 Theatre until June 21. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door and are available at the Leroy Street Theatre website at http://www.leroystreettheatre.com/#!gallery/cfvg.