Toronto Fringe: Ruminations on love, beauty and aging in the nostalgic, intimate, haunting Cheri

cheri-on-the-run-productions invites us to sit down with a former courtesan as she ruminates on love, beauty and aging in the intimate, haunting Cheri. Inspired by the novels of Colette, and written and directed by Sky Gilbert, with music composed by Dustin Peters, Cheri is currently running in the Al Green Theatre for Toronto Fringe.

A music theatre piece within a theatre piece, Cheri weaves storytelling by way of personal anecdotes and reminiscences, and songs—all presented by our hostess Lea (Theresa Tova), a retired courtesan accompanied by the beautiful pianist/singer we only come to know as Cheri (Dustin Peters). And the farther she wanders down the road of memory and loves past, the more she sees in her accompanist the face of lost love—her Cheri.

Tova gives a powerhouse performance as Lea; her elegance, moxie and nostalgic melancholy hearkens back to the golden age of vaudeville and cabaret. Passionate, playful, petulant, and filled with a lust for life and all that is elegant and lovely, Lea is a hopeless romantic with a penchant for harsh honesty. And her heartbreaking torch songs are delivered with vulnerable candor and rich, resonant vocals. As Cheri, Peters is the perfect foil; fastidious, aloof and having none of Lea’s shenanigans and flirtations, Cheri (we never do learn his real name) bears himself with directness and professionalism. Cheri’s desire for privacy and boundaries could be construed as secretive and stand-offish, but one gets the impression that it’s the armour that protects his soul against the barrage of attention his beauty garners.

The march of Time is inevitable and aging is a natural part of life. We can choose to accept ourselves at each stage of our lives and continue moving forward as we cherish our memories of younger days—or risk getting lost in the past.

Cheri continues in the Al Green Theatre until July 15; check the show page for exact times and dates.

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Toronto Fringe: The stages of grief & struggle for recovery injected with humour in the moving To Jane with Love

to_jane_with_love_web-250x250Promise Productions explores addiction and grief in their production of Deon Denton’s To Jane with Love, directed by Denton and running at the Al Green Theatre during Toronto Fringe. The show will also be featured in the Midtown International Theater Festival in New York later this month.

Scenes of the evolution of Henry (Geoff Mays) and Jane’s (Mish Tam) relationship weave in and out of the aftermath of a life-altering traumatic experience that changes their lives forever. As much as Henry resists help from his psychology-spouting parole officer Jonas (Philip Cairns), it’s his 10-year-old neighbour Sushanna (Aviv Cohen) who appears to be getting through. Running through Henry’s story, we also see the recovery process of two support group members (Fraulein Almariego and Shobba Hatte).

Mays gives a nice, multi-faceted performance as Henry; a sharp cynic with a serious drinking problem, he’s also a romantic at heart with a deep love of words. Tam is adorably bubbly as Jane; a vibrant spirit who loves books, and revels in performing choice quotes and pieces of poetry. Cairns gives a solid, layered performance as Jonas, the wry-witted and wise parole officer who executes his job with a no-nonsense brand of tough love, and struggles with the clients who don’t make it. Cohen is a treat as Sushanna; a wise guy herself, she shares Jane’s love of books and has an insatiable – and sometimes inappropriate – curiosity. And really nice work from Almariego and Hatte as two women in different stages of recovery.

The stages of grief and struggle for recovery injected with humour in the moving To Jane with Love.

To Jane with Love continues at the Al Green Theatre until July 10. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.

Toronto Fringe: Sexy, saucy fun times as one young woman gets her tassels on in Becoming Burlesque

Untitled-4It was some cheeky fun times at Toronto Fringe last night, as the Al Green Theatre (750 Spadina Ave., southwest corner of Bloor St. West and Spadina) was transformed into Babylon, a burlesque cabaret featuring the music of hot local Toronto bands and even hotter dancers. This is Becoming Burlesque, written/produced by Jackie English, co-directed by English and Sebastien “Toro” Marziali, and choreographed by Pastel Supernova.

When a high kick goes awry and a dancer is injured, a helpful female audience member who retrieves a stray costume piece finds herself with a new job when the girls take her under their collective wing. Starting as a kitten (the gal who strikes discarded costume bits), she learns how to walk in heels and work the revealing costume, eventually finding herself in the middle of a dance number. Caught up in the choreography, she’s a natural – and her burlesquification continues under the watchful, supportive eye of her new family until graduation day – and the kitten grows up and gets a feature spot of her own.

Becoming Burlesque features scenes/choreography from Pastel Supernova’s upcoming indie film Love Letters Cabaret (the live cabaret of the same name runs at Lula Lounge). Featuring fabulous and entertaining performances from Kasia Rheann aka Minou, Amber-Kelly Mackereth aka Azura, Knox Harter, Julie McLaughlin aka Revel, Sweet Rosie Me, Thrasher and Liana Lewis aka Petra – and English as the new girl – Becoming Burlesque treats the audience to some hot good times, with scintillating moves, and plenty of opportunities to whoop and woot their appreciation of the performances. These women come in all shapes and sizes – and all are beautiful.

It’s some big, sexy, saucy fun as one unsuspecting young woman gets her tassels on in Becoming Burlesque.

Becoming Burlesque has one more performance at the Al Green Theatre: today (Sun, July 12) at 4:00 p.m. So get yourselves down there and cheer on the girls! The house was packed last night, so if you haven’t pre-booked your ticket, you best get your pretty butts to the venue box office early.

Bloody good musical macabredy fun in Alexander Showcase Theatre’s Sweeney Todd

ST_Web_Banner-685x269From the dark, seedy nooks and alleyways of the foggy set, and creepy opening organ music to its tragic ending, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street takes us from pathos to camp and back again in this story of one man’s singular and bloody drive for revenge gone horribly astray.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler and adapted by Christopher Bond, this particular trip to the dark side of Fleet Street comes courtesy of the folks at Alexander Showcase Theatre (ASL), directed by Vincenzo Sestito, with music direction by Gwyneth Sestito and choreography by Jaime Robertson – running now at the Al Green Theatre. ASL’s Sweeney Todd features a cast of thousands, with a fine and energetic ensemble, and an outstanding core cast that includes some familiar faces and voices.

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Patrick Brown & Sara Stahmer in Sweeney Todd – photo by John Meadows

As the titular infamous barber, Patrick Brown (back with a fright wig hair style last seen when he played the title role in ASL’s Young Frankenstein) gives a compelling portrayal of a man both frozen with grief and seething with rage, the layers of heartbreak and guilt showing beneath the bitterness and merciless sense of vengeance (so aptly illustrated in his ode to his collection of razors “My Friends”). As Todd’s landlady and partner in crime Mrs. Lovett, Sara Stahmer bursts onto the stage, buxom, raucous and larger than life, taking the piss out of herself and her pie shop as she shouts from the rooftops about “The Worst Pies in London.” A woman with secrets and desperately in love with Todd, she’ll do anything to keep him with her as their individual needs and desires marry into an unspeakable arrangement.

Seth Mukamal is diabolically chilly and repugnant as the tyrannical and corrupt Judge Turpin, a covetous and nasty man with a hint of the romantic (“Pretty Women,” an ironic and suspenseful duet with Todd). Jeremy John Yorga gives a great turn as Turpin’s right hand man Beadle Bamford, a sinister soul with a flair for flattery and a taste for quaint old tunes (“Parlour Songs” with Mrs. Lovett and Tobias). As the secret, put-upon young lovers Anthony and Johanna, Joshua Wales and Alexandra Reed have adorable chemistry. Reed’s beautiful crystalline voice in “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” is the essence of Johanna’s innocence and longing, and Wales’ soaring, heart-felt “Johanna” offers a glimmer of hope for these bright-eyed young people – brief moments of optimism in an otherwise hopeless and harsh world. Nina Mason is endearingly cocky as the boy Tobias, a seasoned salesman and showman despite his youth – and a lad with a crush, intent on being Mrs. Lovett’s protector (“Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and “Not While I’m Around”). As Todd’s professional rival, the pompous huckster Adolfo Pirelli, Darrell Hicks gives us a sly and slick charlatan with an amazing set of operatic pipes. And as the mysterious Beggar Woman, Sharon Zehavi gives a performance that is both bawdy fun and poignantly heartbreaking, skulking in the shadows, haunted by the vague memory of a former life (“Ah Miss” and “Wait”).

With shouts to set designers Peter Thorman (also Head Builder) and Beth Roher (also Head Scenic Artist), and costume designer Cheryl Lee for their evocative period creations. And to the ASL orchestra, a small but mighty force of fine musicians.

ASL’s Sweeney Todd is some bloody good musical macabredy fun with an excellent cast. Get on over to the Al Green Theatre for some darkly funny, thrilling good times.

Sweeney Todd continues at the Al Green Theatre until May 10; you can purchase advance tix online here.

An early holiday treat – Alexander Showcase Theatre’s A Christmas Carol

a xmas carolA wonderful evening of fun and festivity at the Papermill Theatre last night at Alexander Showcase Theatre’s (AST) opening night of their adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a special wine and dine gala that featured a very tasty and highly digestible pre-show Christmas dinner. Directed by Vincenzo Sestito, who adapted the script with Gwyneth Sestito, this version of the holiday favourite is set as a 1940s radio play within a play, much like AST’s 2012 production of It’s A Wonderful Life.

The cast does an amazing job of juggling multiple characters, including playing actors who are playing characters in a radio play of A Christmas Carol. Seth Mukamal’s (as actor Felix Underhill) Scrooge would do Alistair Sim proud, a remarkable balance of curmudgeon and lost boy. Andrea Brown (as actor Amelia Copeland) and Matthew Payne (as actor Allan Flynn) do a great job as the co-narrators, with Payne giving a jolly performance as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, and Brown hilarious as charwoman Mrs. Dilbur, and supportive and no-nonsense as Mrs. Cratchit. The two have some especially lovely moments behind the scenes, as we witness Copeland and Flynn’s burgeoning romance. Tayves Fiddis (as actor Jack Smythe) does a nice job playing Cratchit and young Scrooge, and Michelle Berube is a flirty firecracker as the talented young Foley Artist Jayne Whitley. As their respective actor characters, these two share some adorable offstage (and on) flirtation, which doesn’t get past the watchful eye of Head Foley Artist Beulah Higgins, played with a good-natured den mother vibe by Deborah Mills.

David McEachern’s beautiful bass baritone is perfect for the Announcer, and goes from jovial to menacing as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Steve Kyriacopoulos does a great comic turn as the put-upon Station Manager Gordon Smithers, and gives us a kind and ethereal Ghost of Christmas Past. Nice work from James Phelan, as the morose and penitent Ghost of Jacob Marley, and the comically opportunistic Undertaker; and Eugene Fong-Dere is both jovial and funny as the chain smoking actor Johnny Choi, who plays Mr. Fezziwig, among others. Nina Mason (young Scrooge’s sweetheart Belle, the Laundress, and the Boy who Scrooge sends to purchase the goose for the Cratchits) and Anne-Marie Krytiuk (Scrooge’s sister Fan, Cratchit’s kids Martha and Peter) show some very impressive chops with a wide variety of characterizations, both male and female. And young Michael Speciale is a puckish little rascal and a fine performer as actor Mitchell Rooney, who plays Tiny Tim, among others.

The charm of this adaptation lies in the nostalgic radio play production setting, with its period music and holiday tunes, sound effects work (Mills and Berube do a stand-up job with the equipment – and the contraption Berube uses to create the audio representation of the Ghost of Christmas Future is eerily fascinating) – and, especially, the behind-the-scenes rapport of the radio play actors, with all the collegial teasing, hamming it up, romantic intrigue and general shenanigans one would expect from a group of actors.
Adding to the fun of the production is a series of live 1940s-style jingles for the show’s sponsors, with music and lyrics (lyrics by Gwyneth Sestito for The Pilot Tavern) by Robby Burko, who plays the radio show’s pianist, and belted out in true Andrews Sisters style by Brown, Krytiuk and Mason.

Additional music for the opening performance was supplied by special guests, including Supertonic Quartet, who delighted the crowd with some tunes during dinner, as well as a guest number during a music break in the play (they’ll be returning on Nov 29 & Dec 7). And Supertonic member Patrick Brown and cast member Nina Mason (who played the actors playing George and Mary Bailey in AST’s production of It’s A Wonderful Life) performed a fabulous duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” during the show’s music break. Katey Morley is set to perform at the Dec 6 show.

Think it’s too early for a holiday treat? Bah, humbug! Alexander Showcase Theatre’s A Christmas Carol is a delightful way to kick off the holiday season – for kids of all ages.

A Christmas Carol continues its run at the Papermill Theatre until Dec 7. Up next for AST: Sweeney Todd at Al Green Theatre (April 30 – May 10, 2015).

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Rowdy, entertaining romp of mystery & music @ Alexander Showcase’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood

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The Mystery of Edwin Drood – cast photo by Paul Brown

Alexander Showcase Theatre (AST) opened their run of The Mystery of Edwin Drood at the Al Green Theatre (Jewish Community Centre at Bloor/Spadina, Toronto) last night. Based on the unfinished Charles Dickens story, this version of Edwin Drood is a musical by Rupert Holmes and was originally produced by Joseph Papp at The New York Shakespeare Festival. The AST production team includes director Vincenzo Sestito, music director Gwyneth Sestito and choreographer Jaime Robertson, and the show was produced by the Sestitos.

Edwin Drood is an engaging Dickensian musical, a play within a play as the audience is treated to the baffling story of young Edwin Drood by the company of the Music Hall Royale (reminiscent of AST’s radio play within a play, It’s A Wonderful Life). Even before the show starts, we’re introduced to some of the Royale actors as they mingle in the audience, preparing us for what’s to come in our part of the storytelling. As the story was left without an ending (Dickens died before its completion), it will be up to the audience to answer key questions, including one of coupling two of the characters as lovers, in order to finish the story. Actors also use this time to lobby for audience votes. I was briefed by Miss Janet Conover, who plays Helena Landless in Edwin Drood – both ultimately played by Mallory Smith. Once the show officially commences, the charming Chairman (Ilan Muskat, who also plays the town’s comic Mayor) introduces the headline players in old music hall style as each makes his/her entrance, the players pausing for a bow and applause before continuing the scene.

The show features a large, energetic cast, suitably raucous and bawdy for the music hall setting – ample cleavage and double entre abound – and the songs are delivered with great skill, style and enthusiasm. Stand-outs include, in order of appearance: Luke Hobbs, deliciously demented and conflicted as Edwin’s youthful uncle John Jasper; Jennifer Schembri is a treat as the diva male impersonator Miss Alice Nutting, who plays the boyish Edwin Drood; and Alexandra Reed reveals an outstanding set of pipes as Edwin’s lovely fiancée Rosa Bud, giving a moving performance of “Moonlight” and a beautiful duet with Schembri on “Perfect Strangers.” Mallory Smith, fetching and congenial as Miss Janet Conover, brings an exotic sense of mystery and passion to Helena Landless; as Princess Puffer, Sharon Zehavi works the audience – and her cleavage – stealing the show with a knock-out rendition of “The Wages of Sin;” and Seth Mukamal and Nina Mason are a sheer delight, bringing comic relief as the father/son duo Mr. Nick Cricker and Master Nick Cricker.

Adding to the great fun of this production, towards the end of the second act, the Chairman tells us that they’ve taken the story as far as Dickens’ writing, so it is now up to the audience to direct the company on how to finish it. At this point, Edwin is missing and presumed dead – and there a variety of plausible suspects and motives. Several key questions are put to a vote, the audience choosing from a selection of actors/actresses for each one. Votes are tabulated and the cast finishes the story based on the audience’s decisions.

With shouts to a fabulous design team, who transported us into this music hall production of Edwin Drood: Peter Thornton and Beth Roher (set); Gwyneth Sestito, Cheryl Lee and Linda Farquharson (costumes); Chris Humphrey (lighting – complete with follow spot); Sharon Zehavi (art director, graphic and projection design); Angus Barlow (sound); and Deborah Mills (props). And kudos to AST’s wonderful orchestra, all decked out in period costume – headed by music director Gwyneth Sestito, fabulously decked out in male drag as Maestro Thomas Purcell. Last night’s opening offered a special treat during an extended intermission: an abundant selection of mouth-watering desserts, served with coffee, champagne and fruit. My compliments to the chef and his team!

Alexander Showcase Theatre’s production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a spectacular, rowdy and entertaining romp of mystery and music – on at the Al Green Theatre until May 11. Go – have some fun!

 

 

Great big hair-raising fun @ Alexander Showcase’s Young Frankenstein – The Musical

top-banner2-685x269I had the great pleasure of seeing Alexander Showcase Theatre’s highly entertaining production of Mel Brooks’ and Thomas Meehan’s  Young Frankenstein – The Musical, playing now at the Al Green Theatre (Jewish Community Centre at Bloor/Spadina, Toronto) last night. The Alexander Showcase production was helmed by director Vincenzo Sestito and musical director/producer Gwyneth Sestito, with choreography by Jaime Robertson. Original direction and choreography was by Susan Stroman.

The stand-out cast did a splendid job with this zany horror story set to music. If you’re familiar with the movie, all your favourite characters and moments are there – this time, with music and song. And, yes, the Irving Berlin “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number is there, in all its song and dance glory, as is Elizabeth’s ecstatic “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” moment. And, boy, does this cast bring it with the song. Patrick Brown – mostly known for his handsome leading man roles – is outstanding as the nerdy and passionate scientist Frederick Frankenstein (that’s “Fronkensteen”), transitioning from a man intent on renouncing his family history to embracing his grandfather’s scientific legacy. Erin Hyde is hilariously flakey and glamourous as his self-involved fiancée Elizabeth Benning (and a great set of pipes too, especially on “Deep Love”), while Christine Lindo does a lovely turn as his smart girl meets blonde bombshell lab assistant Inga. Matthew McGrath is hysterically charming as the simple-minded but sweet Igor (that’s “Eye-gor”), and Andrea Brown gives a stand-out performance as the creepy and imperious Frau Blucher, who – in her sexy and sad tale “He Vas My Boyfriend” – we learn is full of longing and desire under that tough cookie exterior. And David McEachern gives us a fabulous monster – misunderstood, afraid and fumbling around the world he’s found himself in – like Blucher, a soft caramel centre under that hard shell. Other stand-outs include Seth Mukamal as the revenge-driven but somewhat inept Inspector Kemp, Bob Deutsch as the blind hermit, Ted Powers as  Frankenstein’s (deceased) grandfather Dr. Victor von Frankenstein, and Steve Kyriacopoulos (doing double duty as publicity guy) as Frankenstein’s neurology lab subject Mr. Hilltop. Nice work from the entire ensemble!

Set designer Peter Thorman did a terrific job, with moveable set modules shifting with the scenes – from the Transylvania town square, to a New York City college classroom to castle Frankenstein – with projection design by Dan Surman and lighting effects by Chris Humphrey adding to both the set and atmosphere. The most impressive set had to be the laboratory – with its giant electric switches, multi-coloured diodes, control wheels and wires, stone arch window projections on either side and flashes of lightning up centre. It was just as you’d pictured Frankenstein’s lab would be. Shouts to sound designer Angus Barlow; it was all I could do to not whinny along with the horses every time someone said “Frau Blucher”! Kudos to make-up/hair artist Rosalind McArthur, who did an amazing job with the look of the characters – especially Frankenstein’s Edward Scissorhands hair, and the make-up for the monster and Blucher.

Young Frankenstein – The Musical is most definitely some very big fun times. You still have a few more chances to catch it before the show closes on Sunday; please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time for evening performances. Look out for Alexander Showcase Theatre’s next production this fall – Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – on the Alumnae Theatre main stage November 14-17 and 21-24.