Toronto Fringe: Resilience against all odds in the defiant, poignant, hopeful The Pansy Craze: A New Musical

In a time when “transgender” wasn’t a word and homosexuality was illegal, a trans woman refuses to be invisible and shines on the vaudeville stage in Next Stop Productions’ The Pansy Craze. With book, music and lyrics by Avery Jean Brennan, and directed by Dustin George, with music direction by Brennan, the new musical is running at the Randolph Theatre during the Toronto Fringe festival.

The Pansy Craze takes us to 1930s America, behind the scenes of underground vaudeville venues—speakeasies, where booze wasn’t the only prohibited item on the menu. In a bid to out-do the competition, these establishments boasted titillating shows, putting queer performers on the bill to entice customers. When star actress Helen (Stephanie Hood)—recently and conveniently married to Charlie (Shaquille Pottinger) so they can be a husband and wife act—sprains her ankle, closeted Emcee Duncan (Eric McDace, alternate for Teddy Moynihan) decides to put Jeanie (Devin Herbert), who is a transgender woman, into the act. The group has a huge opportunity at an upscale Manhattan place run by Gladys (Kira Renee) and unofficially overseen by Tom (Sansom Marchand), a cop who turns a blind eye to the illegal goings-on so he can have a place to drink. Gladys also has connections with famous vaudeville impresario Norbert (Peter Mundell).

Jeanie, a talented songwriter/performer, illuminates the stage with panache and heartbreaking torch songs. “Pansies”, as the queer performers are called, are okay with establishment managers, so long as they entertain and bring in customers—but Tom isn’t so happy about turning a blind eye to this particular bending of the law, particularly Jeanie, who doesn’t blend in onstage or off. Complicated relationships emerge within the company, with more drama occurring in the wings than onstage at times.

When prohibition is lifted, booze comes out of the closet, but queer performers are no longer welcome—now that these vaudeville houses are above ground, they can’t risk running afoul of the law and losing customers. Refusing to be closeted or forced into a “normal” life as a man, Jeanie sets her sights on continuing her career, and she and Charlie get audition spots for Norbert’s show. And when tragedy strikes this tight-knit group, Charlie finds himself with a life-altering decision to make.

There’s high-energy hoofing and singing from an entertaining cast. Herbert is a clear stand-out as Jeanie; lighting up the stage, they shine in a charismatic performance, full of style, sass and impressive vocal chops that can belt out a tune or break a heart. Lovely scenes and duet with Pottinger, who gives a nicely layered performance as Charlie, a talented and conflicted young man who’s forced to confront his own heart, inspired in part by Jeanie’s chutzpah. “So What if I’m a Pansy” becomes a defiant and touching anthem—for LGBTQ folks and anyone struggling to be themselves.

The Pansy Craze continues at the Randolph until July 15; check the show page for exact dates/times.

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Whooping it up like it’s 1926 in the entertaining, intriguing Hogtown: The Immersive Experience

Mark Prince, Dan Willmott & Jerome Bourgault in Hogtown—photo by Sam Gaetz Photography

Back by popular demand, The Hogtown Collective returns to Campbell House Museum for a new run of Hogtown: The Immersive Experience—written by Drew Carnwath and Sam Rosenthal, and directed by Rosenthal—with new stories and adventures as the audience finds new intrigue and secrets around every corner and behind every closed door.

It`s the eve of the 1926 municipal election, and union boss Bob Delacourt (Dan Willmott) is hosting a big shindig at his home. The incumbent, conservative prohibitionist Mayor Thomas Foster (Jerome Bourgault) is up against the progressive, union- and booze-friendly Sam McBride (Mark Prince). And everyone`s making backroom deals, including McBride`s fierce wife Fanny (Kirstin Hinton).

Meanwhile, local scribe Ben Stein (Gord Gammie) divides his time between covering the event and wooing the McBrides’ daughter Ronnie (Sappho Hansen Smythe), a modern young woman with dreams of becoming a famous reporter. And country bumpkin brothers, the clumsy Tanner (Jonathon Ellul) and malapropism-dropping Jackson (Derek Keurvorst) Busch have high hopes of making loads of cash from their home-cooked hooch; and the menacing Gil Schwartz (Jorge Molina) hopes to get in on some big time gangster action with the rumoured arrival of Chicago rum-runner Franco Vitale (is he really there or not?).

The action starts out on the lawn around the house, as we take in various goings-on and meet some of the key players. Once inside, we are ushered in groups from room to room, getting the opportunity to see three different scenes. My group first entered the dining room, where the McBrides were hosting an intimate gathering of friends and supporters, including Delacourt, developer Lol Solman (Keurvorst) and clergyman Eddie Smalls (Ben Bain). It’s all aces until they’re interrupted by the appearance of a surprise guest—and it’s Mrs. McBride who’s the most infuriated by this unexpected arrival.

Upstairs, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union is having a meeting. Chaired by the imperious Mary O’Grady Hunt (Tara Baxendale), assisted by her demure daughter Eleanor (Jaymee Fuczek) and radical colleague Pauline Drabble (Andrea Irwin), these ladies are hell-bent on spoiling the fun. Even here, there is division on how to best accomplish their goal of keeping prohibition alive and getting Foster re-elected. Even O’Grady Hunt has a secret, which we learn by way of confession and cautionary tale when she has a mother to daughter sit-down with Eleanor, who she fears is getting too friendly with Lulu and Toni.

hogtown gals
Laura Larson, Karen Slater & Emmea Wiechers—photo by Sam Gaetz Photography

Downstairs in the gaming room, Shwartz is waiting on the outcome of some bets—and we’re ushered over to the basement speakeasy when his private meeting arrives. Over in the speakeasy, we can buy yourself a prohibited beverage while we wrap your ears around some hot jazz, courtesy of Cali-Mays Johnson (Michelle Piller) and her girls, accompanied by Colin Frotten on the ivories. It’s here that we learn that Foster’s daughter Maddy (Karen Slater) is working as a singer, and has set up a meeting with Dr. Libby Prowse (Claire Francis Muir) via her pal Anastasia (Emma Wiechers). Don’t worry, barkeep Mad Tom (Michael Lamport) is the soul of discretion, and Katie O’Malley (Susie Burnett) can find you some company or place your bets.

Then, we are invited to wander the house to discover what we may. Upstairs, baseball star Tommy Burt’s (Eric McDace) secret is revealed even as he discovers the secret of another; and his attempt to solicit help from Solman takes an unexpected turn. Wayward Catholic schoolgirls and wanna-be flappers Louise “Lulu” (Laura Larson) and Antoinette “Toni” (Arinea Hermans) may be okay on the dance floor as they try out for jobs in the speakeasy, but they may be in over their heads when it comes to handsome Tommy—lucky for them Detective Hank Dyer (Matt Richardson, also the fight director) steps in. And across the hall at the latest temperance meeting, Pauline makes a dramatic revelation as to how far she’s willing to go for the cause.

hogtown ronnie & tom
Sappho Hansen Smythe & Michael Lamport—photo by Sam Gaetz Photographer

It’s an entertaining and exciting ride. You never know who you’ll encounter or what’s going to happen. And everyone has a secret. The ensemble is fantastic—genuine and engaging storytellers fully inhabiting their characters, interacting on occasion with the audience (we are instructed to only speak when spoken to) to pull us into the story in an up-close and personal way. The show features several musical numbers, with stand-out vocals from Slater, Piller and Baxendale; and a charming duet from McDace and Hansen Smythe, as Tommy, feeling the pressures of external expectation, finds a kindred spirit in Ronnie McBride.

Secrets, back room deals and home-made hooch. Whooping it up like it’s 1926 in the entertaining, intriguing Hogtown: The Immersive Experience.

Hogtown continues at Campbell House till August 20; advance ticket booking strongly recommended—it’s a very popular show. Please note the 7:30pm start time; get there by 7:15pm to see the outdoor scenes. Get a taste from the trailer: