Backstage gangster shenanigans & romance in the delightful, sizzling Kiss Me Kate

Another opening of another show for Alexander Showcase Theatre last week with its production of Kiss Me Kate, music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Sam and Bella Spewack. Directed by Vincenzo Sestito, with music direction by Gwyneth Sestito and choreography by Jaime Robertson, Kiss Me Kate is currently running at Fairview Library Theatre. I caught the show yesterday afternoon.

Chock full of Porter favourites that have since become beloved standards, Kiss Me Kate combines Shakespeare with musical comedy. Director/producer/lead actor Fred Graham (Pat Brown) is in Baltimore with his company, opening a production of The Taming of the Shrew. With big hopes of being picked up by a Broadway theatre, he’s hired film star Lilli Vanessi (Finnie Jesson) to play Katherine opposite his Petruchio. Trouble is, they used to be married; and old feelings of pain and romance begin to surface—despite Katherine being seriously involved with mysterious man from Washington, D.C. Harrison (Ian Scott).

Meanwhile, Fred’s been friendly with ingénue Lois Lane (Sharon Zehavi), who’s been cast as Katherine’s kid sister Bianca; she’s hoping to land her big break with this show, as well as romance with young actor Bill Calhoun (James Rowan), who’s playing Bianca’s beau Lucentio. Bill likes to play the odds, but isn’t very good at it; and he’s racked up some serious debt with a local gangster—and signed Fred’s name to the IOU.

Cue the shenanigans when two gangsters (Brandon Chambers and Eliot Winkler) show up in Fred’s dressing room to collect the debt. Adding to the comedy of errors, a bouquet meant for Lois has wound up in Lilli’s hands and Fred is in the dog house—and the show in jeopardy. Fred convinces the gangsters that Lilli is vital to the show’s success—to hilarious effect as they thwart her plans to leave during intermission and begin shadow her, inserting themselves into the show in the process.

It’s all great good fun and the ensemble does a marvelous job singing and dancing their way through this tale of theatre folk working their tails off doing what they love. Jesson and Brown have fantastic chemistry as Lilli/Katherine and Fred/Petruchio—and both have excellent pipes. Jesson is luminous, especially with Lilli’s wistful longing in “So In Love” and Katherine’s impassioned rage in “I Hate Men.” And Brown shows great range with Petruchio’s comic, lusty bravado in “Where Is The Life That Late I Led?” and Fred’s heartfelt realization in “So In Love.”

Other stand-outs include Zehavi’s ditzy Lois, a starlet in waiting with a heart of gold and lots of love to give—maybe too much, in Bill’s eyes. She gives a slinky and playful performance as Lois pleads her case in the “Always True To You In My Fashion.” Rowan’s Bill is a likable young scallywag and leading man who’s got a lot to learn about the world. A great match here as well, with Lois and Bill’s duet “Why Can’t You Behave?” in Act I.

Christoph Ibrahim does a bang-up job as Fred’s dresser Paul, leading the ensemble in “Too Darn Hot” at the opening of Act II; featuring Jonathan Eidelman and David Shiff on solos. And Chambers and Winkler are full of LOL fun as the two gangsters, especially with their duet “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”

With big shouts to the design team: Peter Thorman (set), Gwyneth Sestito and Cheryl Lee (costumes), Chris Humphrey (lighting) and Carlos Fernandez (sound effects); and to the orchestra, conducted by Gwyneth Sestito.

Backstage gangster shenanigans and romance in the delightful, sizzling Kiss Me Kate.

Kiss Me Kate continues at the Fairview Library Theatre until April 8; for dates/times and online booking, scroll down on the show page. You can also book by email or by phone: (416) 324-1259.

Here’s directions to Fairview Library; accessible by TTC.

 

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Great fun & lots of laughs in AST’s big, bold & stylish Lend Me a Tenor

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Peter Raimondo & Darrell Hicks in Lend Me a Tenor – photo by John Meadows

Alexander Showcase Theatre (AST) opened its production of Ken Ludwig’s hilarious romp Lend Me a Tenor at the Papermill Theatre at Todmorden Mills on Thursday, directed by Vincenzo Sestito.

Set in 1934 in a hotel suite in Cleveland, Cleveland Grand Opera Company manager Henry Saunders (Seth Mukamal), his daughter Maggie (Anne-Marie Krytiuk) and his assistant Max (Peter Raimondo) anxiously await the arrival of world-famous tenor Tito Merelli (Darrell Hicks), a stellar performer who’s big on wine and women, but not so much on punctuality. Add to the mix a fanboy Bellhop (Steve Kyriacopoulos, doing double duty as producer), Merelli’s jealous wife Maria (Sharon Zehavi, also the graphic designer), the opera company’s resident diva Diana (Nina Mason) and the Saunders’ doting family friend Julia (Michele Dodick), throw in some mistaken events and a comedy of errors – and hilarity ensues.

Lend Me a Tenor is a prime example of a go big or go home enterprise – and the AST cast brings it big time. Krytiuk is adorably feisty as the star-struck, wide-eyed romantic Maggie, a young woman longing for adventure and excitement, away from the watchful eye of her controlling father. Mukamal’s Henry is all business; gruff, bombastic and able to turn a dramatic and moving phrase when called for, his company’s production of Otello a make or break proposition. Raimondo is sweet and humble as the hard-working, put-upon Max; a lover of opera himself, but always toiling in the background, he’s in love with Maggie and wants to prove himself. Kyriacopoulos gives a great comic turn as the persistent and irritating but likeable Bellhop, a fanboy opera lover himself who needs no excuse to insert himself into the action.

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Seth Mukamal & Michele Dodick with Anne-Marie Krytiuk & Steve Kyriacopoulos in the background – photo by John Meadows

Hicks gives a larger-than-life, but warm performance as the brilliant and generous Merelli; mining the sensitive and sensual soul of the famous tenor, he finds the facets of Merelli and avoids a two-dimensional rendering – and he’s got an impressive set of pipes. As Merelli’s fiery wife Maria, Zehavi is by turns sexual and sexually frustrated; fully aware of her husband’s penchant for dalliance, she is ever on the prowl for hidden mistresses – and at the end of her rope with trying to keep up. Mason gives us a sensual, wry-witted performance as the slinky and driven soprano Diana, an ambitious opportunist who’s willing to do whatever it takes to make it to the Met. And Dodick is a delight as the Saunders’ friend Julia; “Aunt Julia” to Maggie and a big Merelli fan herself, she’s a jovial and positive force to be reckoned with.

With shouts to the design team for the sleek 1930s vintage flare: Gwyneth Sestito (music co-ordinator and costumes), Deborah Mills (props) and Peter Thorman (set).

Everyone loves a tenor, especially the ladies. Great fun and lots of laughs in Alexander Showcase Theatre’s big, bold and stylish Lend Me a Tenor.

Lend Me a Tenor runs at the Papermill Theatre until Dec 5; see the show’s page for dates/times and advance tickets.

You can also keep up with Alexander Showcase on Facebook and Twitter.

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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The Crucible – a moving & haunting cautionary tale

top-bannerTC32-685x269crucible n.1 a container in which metals are heated 2 a severe test or trial (Oxford Canadian Dictionary)

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a drama set during the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s – and a metaphor for the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, when the play was written – is a period piece that maintains its relevance today. The damaging “with us or against us” mentality still rings chillingly true.

Alexander Showcase Theatre (AST) is currently running a moving and haunting production on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage, directed by Vincenzo Sestito. Beneath the social turmoil is a story of personal lies, love and redemption, as the lives of the townspeople are turned upside down by the vengeful machinations of a jealous, grasping young woman. Thanks to her, the local clergy cry “witch” – and the full weight of the witch trials comes down upon their heads.

As a container, the crucible remains unchanged during the process of burning the object inside it. While this is also true of the legal arm of this trial, the same cannot be said of the religious arm. Wielding religious and legal power – and fear – the black and white thinking that is dangerous to any who stand in its path leaves those in ultimate power unmoved.

The Crucible features a fine cast, with some familiar faces from previous AST productions. Stand-outs include Patrick and Andrea Brown, the real-life husband and wife playing John and Elizabeth Proctor. Both give strong, layered performances as an estranged couple struggling to move past John’s extramarital sin to face an even more horrific situation when Elizabeth is accused of witchcraft. The two have some lovely domestic and tender moments as the Proctors fight for their marriage and, ultimately, their lives, when protecting each other becomes foremost in their minds. Sharon Zehavi is striking and sensual as Abigail Williams, the original mean girl, troubled and sly – and merciless in her pursuit of vengeance and her former lover, John Proctor. This is a huge departure from Zehavi’s previous AST role as the wide-eyed rookie actress in the radio play version of It’s A Wonderful Life; she is also part of the graphic design team on the production poster for The Crucible.

Seth Mukamal does an excellent job with Reverend Parris, providing a nice arc to the church leader’s decent from pompous, materialistic cleric to the damaged, shell-shocked man we see during the trials. Matt Jensen, as Reverend Hale, gives a nicely rounded performance of the young, intelligent and energetic clergyman turned disillusioned and desperate when his eyes are pried open to the willful blindness of the Puritan-driven judiciary, looking to find witches no matter what the cost. Shouts to Nina Mason, who gives us a Mary Warren that is a silly girl and a follower, but just really wants to fit in and be somebody; to Doug McLauchlan as the simple, litigious Giles Corey, who provides some much needed comic relief; and to Arnie Zweig, who brings a natural officiousness to the imperious Deputy-Governor Danforth.

Kudos to an excellent design team: Angus Barlow (sound),  Chris Humphrey (lighting), Deborah Mills (props), Beth Roher (set), Gwyneth Sestito (costumes) and Jo-Anne Wurster (original music composition). The minimal wooden furniture, everyday objects and period costumes set us firmly in time and place, while the back-lit scrim painted with black trees, coupled with lanterns emerging from the darkness, and music and snatches of hymns, add to the eerie transformation of a lovely town set aflame by greed and religion running rampantly astray.

Seeing The Crucible is a grim reminder of the dangers of all or nothing thinking – especially when used as a tool of fear and control by an unchecked political leadership.

Alexander Showcase Theatre’s production of The Crucible runs until November 24.

Department of Corrections: Due to an error in the Production Team section of the program, the set designer was incorrectly identified here in the original post as Marc Davies. Beth Roher was the set designer for this production; this has been corrected.