StageWorks Toronto’s Cabaret: Sexy, powerful and boldly staged with a sharp ensemble

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Toshi Murohashi, Jean-Paul Parker & Rachel Hart in Cabaret – photo by Michael Yaneff, Foreshots Photography

Berlin in the early 1930s: a city teaming with life, creativity and possibility. The Kit Kat Klub: a seedy palace of edgy, playful and raunchy entertainment. And a political storm is brewing that will change everything.

StageWorks Toronto opened its fifth musical, Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret (book by Joe Masteroff, based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood), at the George Ignatieff Theatre last night.

Directed by Michael Yaneff, with Music Director Tom Kerr and Choreographer Camille Dziewurski, this production of Cabaret plays all the conflicting dimensions of this story: love and lust, fame and mediocrity, hope and despair. It is both funny and moving, going from entertaining to disturbing – but even the brighter moments have a dark edge.

An excellent, energetic cast does the playful raunch with gusto – and all the while, we know these characters are literally singing and dancing, and sexing, for their lives. The lighter, entertaining atmosphere of the first act grows increasingly foreboding as darkness descends in the second act when the Nazi Party gets a grip on Germany – and this place of song, dance and camaraderie becomes a place of tears, desperation and betrayal. This production goes big on the seedy lust and malevolent politics in its staging, so be prepared for some nudity, sexy times and discomfiting moments.

Shai Tannyan & Hugh Ritchie in Cabaret - photo by Michael Yaneff, Foreshots Photography
Shai Tannyan & Hugh Ritchie in Cabaret – photo by Michael Yaneff, Foreshots Photography

Jean-Paul Parker shines as the Emcee, going from playfully saucy in “Wilkommen” and naughty in “Two Ladies” to darkly edgy in “The Money Song” and drunkenly despairing in “I Don’t Care Much.” Shai Tannyan’s Sally Bowles is a vivacious and sensuous British girl gone wild in her search for fame and fortune on her own terms, her flippant attitude covering a fragile heart. From her sexy crooning at the Kit Kat, to her more introspective moments in the driven but vulnerable “Maybe this Time” and the spiralling desperation of “Cabaret,” Tannyan finds the diva entertainer and the lost girl in Sally. As Cliff Bradshaw, Hugh Ritchie doesn’t get as many opportunities to sing as he did as the Balladeer in StageWorks’ Assassins, but he gives a strong performance as the wide-eyed, passionate and somewhat naïve young novelist who comes to Berlin longing for adventure and excitement, and experience – be careful what you wish for.

Deva Neely and Buck Delaney have lovely chemistry as landlady Fraulein Schneider and her fruit seller tenant Herr Schultz, making an adorable couple with “It Couldn’t Please Me More;” and when their relationship goes off the rails, Neely gives a heartbreaking performance with “What Would You Do?” And really nice work from Eric Synnott as the affable, mysterious and crisp Ernst Ludwig, and Melly Magrath as the cheeky and opportunistic Fraulein Kost.

With shouts to the sexy fun talents of the Kit Kat Boys and Girls: Michael Manning (who stepped in to cover another part last night – thoughts go out to Paul Silvestri and his family) and Danik McAfee (who, as the Soldier, also gives an eerily beautiful, foreshadowing performance of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”), Emily Brown, Kathleen Doerkson, Karen Frank, Rachel Hart, Toshie Murohashi and Émilie O’Brien; and Lawrence Stevenson as their stern and lascivious boss, Kit Kat owner Max.

And shouts as well to set/costume designer Michelle Tracey and the orchestra.

StageWorks Toronto’s Cabaret is sexy, powerful and boldly staged – featuring a sharp ensemble.

Cabaret runs at the George Ignatieff Theatre until July 26; you can purchase tix in advance online. And you can follow StageWorks Toronto on Facebook and Twitter.

Some sympathy for the devils in StageWorks Toronto’s Assassins

Assassins colourized alley“Attention must be paid!” This line from The Death of a Salesman is used as a major talking point by John Wilkes Booth in Assassins. Not able to achieve recognition by regular means, there are some people who will go to extreme measures to be noticed, undertaking the death of another.

StageWorks Toronto’s production of Assassins – music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, and directed by Lorraine Kimsa and Michael Yaneff, with music direction by Tom Kerr – takes us through a history of nine American assassins, from the 1860s to the 1970s.

Starting at a carnival in limbo, the Proprietor introduces eight of the assassins, arming each with a period appropriate handgun. Spinning the Wheel of Presidents, the Proprietor starts it all off with Booth in 1865 – the father of American presidential assassinations. Our trip through history is not a chronological one, and each outcome is interwoven with various scenes of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore on their comic, bumbling road to their target Gerald Ford. And throughout, the Balladeer adds musical moral commentary on the situation at hand.

It’s not all dark comedy fun and games, though – the final assassination presented – the most affecting historically and personally for America – is nurtured to its horrible fruition by Booth and the others as they coax Lee Harvey Oswald to pull the trigger on John F. Kennedy from that Dallas Book Depository window.

Overall, an excellent cast, serving up some strong vocals – with some stand-outs. Luke Witt is very effective as the devilishly seductive Proprietor, while Hugh Ritchie is beautifully bright and soothing as the Balladeer – the devil and the angel on opposite shoulders of the collective assassins’ consciousness. Rich Burdett is remarkable as Booth, combining a striking, commanding presence and powerful vocals – and his scene with Oswald (played with great passion and inner conflict by Nicholas Arnold) is particularly chilling. Will van der Zyl delivers a hilarious and poignant performance as the crazy Santa Samuel Byck, in his tape recorded letters to Leonard Bernstein and Richard Nixon, outlining his plan to fly a 747 at Nixon in 1974. Laurie Hurst is lovably kooky as Moore and Christie Stewart is adorably deluded as Fromme – and Stewart does a lovely duet, “Unworthy of Your Love,” with Mike Buchanan (nice work as the sensitive, but extremely troubled John Hinckley Jr.), a love song to their celebrity obsessions Charles Manson and Jodi Foster.

Collectively, the Ensemble (Anthony Botelho, Stephen Flett, Lauren Lazar, Suzanne Miller and Peter Nielson) give a lovely, moving performance of “Something Just Broke,” presenting first-hand citizen accounts of where they were when they heard about their president’s death, led by especially strong vocals by Lazar. And the assassins do a great job with “Another National Anthem” and the finale “Everybody’s Got the Right” – hymns of the disenfranchised and marginalized, left behind economically and in some cases dealing with mental health issues. Eerie in light of ongoing current events in the U.S., where everybody’s got the right to own a gun, but not everyone has access to mental health care or equal opportunity – and the deadly, tragic combination these can make.

With shouts to set designer Michelle Tracey, and lighting designers Karen Brown and Paul Harris, for the aesthetically pleasing, very effective multi-level creepy carnival in limbo, with great use of back-screen projection for the footage of the Kennedys making their way from the airport and through Dallas to that shot that was heard around the world. And the use of balloons on set to create the gunshot sounds was both clever and spooky.

Everyone needs to be loved and everyone needs to matter. But not everyone goes about it by deciding to kill the President of the United States. And rightly so. For a couple of hours, we hear their stories, their reasons – and perhaps we can offer up some sympathy. But in light of a deadly, final outcome, we can only feel so sorry for these poor devils.

StageWorks Toronto’s production of Assassins is a rousing, darkly entertaining and moving piece of musical cautionary storytelling. Attention must be paid.

Assassins continues its run at the George Ignatieff Theatre until July 27.

Toronto Fringe: Punch drunk with laughter in Theatre Brouhaha’s Punch Up

_r1a6215Kat Sandler and Theatre Brouhaha bring it again big time with the dark comedy Punch Up, written and directed by Sandler, playing now at the George Ignatieff Theatre as part of this year’s Toronto Fringe.

Stand-up comic/comedy writer Pat’s (Colin Munch) life is in the toilet, his wife/comedy team partner has left him and is now starring on a hit TV show using their material – which he wrote! And his stand-up act sucks. Then, he gets kidnapped by lonely guy Duncan (Tim Walker), who needs Pat to teach him how to be funny so he can win the love of the saddest girl in the world, Brenda (Caitlin Driscoll).

Playing the edge between tragedy and comedy, the Punch Up cast is so much awesome. Munch does a hilarious job with Pat’s stand-up meltdown, his comic rant turning to rage, revealing a man who’s hit rock bottom, his feral energy refocusing to solving Duncan’s problem to gain his freedom calmed as he’s literally chained to a typewriter. Walker’s Duncan is a loveable nerd, full of child-like naiveté, wide-eyed and willing to go to extreme lengths for a woman he’s just met and fallen in love at first sight with. (And, having recently finished a run of Kate and Sam Are Not Breaking Up with Cue6, Walker has become the go-to choice if your show needs a sweet nerd who kidnaps a celebrity for a good cause.) As Brenda, Driscoll is adorably troubled, afraid to love but longing too – her sharp humour softened by a glimmer of optimism when she accepts Duncan’s dinner invitation.

With shouts to the fun set design of Duncan’s place – aka “Pee Wee’s murder basement.”

So. Much. Funny! And some sad. Punch Up kills.

Punch Up continues its run at the George Ignatieff Theatre until July 13 – check here for exact dates/times. Strongly suggest advance tix on this one – this is a very popular company and the place was packed yesterday afternoon.

 

A funny & moving journey that entertains & inspires – Alison Wearing’s Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter

Fairy's DaughterPlaywright/actor/author Alison Wearing’s one-woman show Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter: Growing Up with a Gay Dad, expanded and published as a full-length book last year, is currently running at U of T’s George Ignatieff Theatre as part of World Pride 2014 Toronto. And I was so happy to be able to catch it last night!

Co-created by Wearing and director Stuart Cox, Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter has been re-imagined for this Pride run, with the assistance of Calvin B. Grant’s multimedia and sound design – together creating a magical experience of memoir and storytelling.

Taking us on a journey through her ‘normal’ childhood in Peterborough, Wearing shares memories and events around her Dad coming out when she was 12 – and the subsequent emotional fall-out, and reorganization of family and home life when her parents divorced. Each scene is accompanied by projected images of family photos, and a soundtrack of both her and father’s favourite music, creating a sense of familiarity as we get to know Wearing and the world and people she grew up with.

Wearing is a highly engaging storyteller, shifting with ease through each vignette, and moving in and out of the various characters in her story, deftly performing childhood variations of herself and her friend Jessica, as well as both her parents. And as she progresses into young adulthood, we get the sense that this journey has been as much about self-discovery for her as it was for her father.

Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter is a funny, moving journey of revelation and discovery – and ultimately understanding and acceptance – that both entertains and inspires.

You have two more chances to see Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter: today (Sat, June 28) at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Wearing is available after performances for book signings or just to say “hi.” Go see this.

In the meantime, check out Shelagh Rogers’ interview with Wearing and her dad on CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter.

And have a peek at the trailer for Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter:

 

World Pride 2014 Toronto event teaser: Alison Wearing’s Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter

Fairy's DaughterPlaywright/actor/author Alison Wearing adapted her memoir Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter: Growing Up with a Gay Dad into the award-winning one-woman show Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter, which will be featured during World Pride 2014 Toronto at U of T’s George Ignatieff Theatre (June 25-28).

Written as a comic monologue, Wearing takes us along on her journey of discovery and coming to grips with her father coming out when she was 12.

“Balancing intimacy, history and downright hilarity, this is a story of birthday parties and bath house raids, confusion and closets, scandals and soufflés, disco and opera, and the triumphant music of love.”

This is a show you will not want to miss – so best reserve your tickets for Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter now.

In the meantime, check out Shelagh Rogers’ interview with Wearing and her dad on CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter.

And have a peek at the trailer for Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter:

 

A moving, infuriating inspiration – StageWorks Toronto’s Parade

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Scott Labonte (as Leo Frank) and Lauren Lazar (as Lucille Frank). Photo by Nicholas Jones.

I saw Parade for the very first time when I went to see StageWorks Toronto’s production last night at the George Ignatieff Theatre.

With music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, and book by Alfred Uhry, StageWorks’ production of Parade was directed/choreographed by Lorraine Green-Kimsa, assisted by Michael Yaneff, with music direction by Tom Kerr. Based on a true story of prejudice and gross miscarriage of justice, Parade is a moving, heartbreaking, infuriating inspiration of a musical.

The large energetic cast includes stand-out performances by the two leads: company co-founder Lauren Lazar (Lucille Frank, co-producer) and Scott Labonte (Leo Frank), both doing a lovely job with both the musical demands of their roles, as well as their characters’ arcs. Their relationship distant and strained, Leo is a stiff, frustrated but decent man, while Lucille is prim and loyal – and both face a test of loyalty and strength, both personal and marital, throughout the course of Leo’s trial and incarceration, culminating in the beautiful duet “All The Wasted Time.”

Twaine Ward (Newt Lee & Jim Conley) does a stellar turn, especially as the charming and resourceful Conley, showing great acting and singing chops on “That’s What He Said,” “ A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’” and “Blues: Feel the Rain Fall,” the latter including some great choreography for the chain gang scene. Luke Witt has great range as young Frankie Epps, going from cheeky flirt in “The Picture Show” to devastated, vengeful friend in “There is a Fountain/It Don’t Make Sense.” Stephen Flett does a great job with Governor Jack Slaton, a good ‘ole boy who finds himself rethinking the questionable methods he’s been employing to keep things neat and tidy politically. A nice pairing with Kelly Lovatt-Hawkins as his wife Sally, a balancing influence and an equal in their marriage – and a great fun, charming song and dance number in “Pretty Music.” The villains in this story are played with relish and realism – Will van der Zyl’s Hugh Dorsey, the politically ambitious snake of a D.A., and Michael Yaneff as Watson (also co-founder/co-producer), the dangerous, right-wing Christian bible thumper. All of the characters exude their own kind of virtue and all are flawed.

Parade is certainly a strong socio-political commentary of the time, place, people and justice system – but what makes it so compelling is that it’s a very human story. A husband and wife discover the true love and strength of their marriage, and a governor does the right thing despite the likely peril of his political career.

“Parade” is a reference to the annual April 26 Confederate Memorial Day parade – it is also about the parade of humanity. The show opens and closes with “The Old Red Hills of Home” – first sung by a young soldier going off to fight in the Civil War, then at the end led by Frankie Epps, who is going off to fight in WWI. Not much changes in the 50-odd years in between – and one only has to read the newspaper to see that there is work yet to be done on the justice system in the south.

Parade runs at the George Ignatieff Theatre until August 18. Here’s one of the preview vids for the production – the finale of the rousing and somewhat disturbing, given the play’s journey, “Old Red Hills of Home.” You can see all the Parade preview vids on the StageWorks Toronto’s website:

Upcoming theatre, music, poetry & cabaret happenings this week

Hey kids! For all y’all who are coming back to your regularly scheduled programming after the long weekend: hope you had a good one. Can you believe we’re well into the first week of August already? Holy moly!

Lots coming up, my friends. Here is just a sample of what local artists and performers are up to here in Toronto this week:

StageWorks Toronto’s production of Parade runs Aug 8 – 18 at the George Ignatieff Theatre.

SummerWorks gets up and running Aug 8 – 18 at various venues. I’ve got my eye on: Delicacy, Eating Pomegranates Naked and Utopia.

The August edition of The Beautiful and the Damned on Thurs, Aug 8 at Q Space from 7 – 9:30 p.m., hosted by Lizzie Violet, and featuring Brenda Clews, Adam Abbas and Andrea Matchett, and a whole lotta talented open mic performers. Dead celeb of the month is Janis Joplin. This will be TB&TD’s last show at Q Space – new location TBD.

Songwriters Circle of Jerks is also up on Thurs, Aug 8 at Free Times Café at 8:30 p.m., featuring guest performer blueVenus.

More music at Free Times Café on Sat, Aug 10 at 8:30 p.m. with Craig Robertson, Heather Hill and Tania Joy.

The monthly cabaret/open mic extravaganza Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir says goodbye to Q Space on Sun, Aug 11 7 – 10 p.m., with feature performers sol knots, Andraya and Tania Joy, as well as some amazing open mic talent. Cabaret Noir heads to a new venue in September – new location TBA during Sunday night’s show.