Second City serves up the fun with a trippy mashup of holiday classics in Twist Your Dickens

Ever wonder where the misfit toys went after Santa took them off the island? How about that original ending to A Charlie Brown Christmas that the network execs didn’t want you to see? And how Oliver Twist became an activist?

Wonder no more, my friends. For this holiday season, Second City presents Twist Your Dickens. Written by former The Colbert Report writers Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort, and directed by Chris Earle, with music direction by Ayaka Kinugawa, it’s running right now at the Greenwin Theatre at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

If you’re looking for a straightforward comedic retelling of A Christmas Carol, you ain’t getting it here. Starring Seán Cullen and Patrick McKenna, and featuring award-winning Second City alumni Jason DeRosse, Nigel Downer, Sarah Hillier, Karen Parker and Allison Price, Twist Your Dickens plays with sketch comedy and improv as it weaves other classic holiday favourites with Dickens’ famous Christmas tale, twisting and turning the storytelling—and the fun—in wacky, unexpected ways. Think secret Santa at the Fezziwigs’ office Christmas party; Tiny Tim’s sleepover; Oliver Twist’s orphan protest.

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Karen Parker, Sarah Hillier & Patrick McKenna in Twist Your Dickens – all photos by Paul Aihoshi

Leading this wacky band of performers, Cullen gives us a deliciously nasty and darkly funny Scrooge; callous and money grubbing, with hints of the Grinch, he has a game, child-like quality—which comes in handy on his journey with the ghosts. McKenna does a fabulous job, juggling several supporting characters, including the woebegone Jacob Marley; the chains he forged in a miserable life linked with confessions shared by audience members, inspiring a round of hilariously bizarre improv. McKenna also does a hysterically hyper-cheerful (or is he?) Fred, Scrooge’s nephew; he does a mean Jimmy Stewart George Bailey too.

Rounding out the ensemble is a fine group of sketch comedy/improv performers. DeRosse is Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s put-upon but faithful clerk (or is he?); he gives a stand-out performance as Linus in the alternate ending for A Charlie Brown Christmas, as the gang reacts to his speech at the school Christmas pageant. Karen Parker plays Mrs. Cratchit, Bob’s supportive wife who can barely stand to tolerate Scrooge—and has some interesting suggestions on that score. And she shines with the song stylings of Ruby Santini, delivering her own personal, hilariously inappropriate take on classic Christmas songs during a recording session (featuring McKenna as her baffled, stressed out producer). Hillier plays Tiny Tim, with a decided twist; this kid may be schlepping along with an ill-fitting crutch, but he’s no wilting wallflower.

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Seán Cullen & Sarah Hillier in Twist Your Dickens

Downer calls out the show’s obvious and not so obvious anachronisms as the Heckler; and does an awesome job as the rad, energetic Ghost of Christmas Past. And Price is hilarious as the drunken party girl Ghost of Christmas Present and the prankster Ghost of Christmas Future.

With shouts to the design team Jackie Chau (set), Melanie McNeill (costume) and Christina Cicko (lighting), and stage manager Andrew Dollar.

Second City serves up the fun with a trippy mashup of holiday classics in Twist Your Dickens.

Twist Your Dickens continues in the Greenwin Theatre at the Toronto Centre for the Arts until December 30. Get your advance tix online; for group discounts (8 plus), call THE Group Tix Company 647-438-5559, outside GTA 1-866-447-7849 or visit the group box office online.

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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!