The irrepressible Marie Dressler’s life, love & career in Alumnae Theatre’s delightful, entertaining Queen Marie

Naomi Peltz, Katherine Cappallacci, Siena Dolinski & Seira Saeki. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre Company closes its 100th anniversary season—with heart, moxie and rip roaring good fun— with Queen Marie, a musical by Shirley Barrie, directed by Rosemary Doyle, with music direction by Paul Comeau and choreography by Adam Martino.

Queen Marie is a biographical musical about Canadian-born 1930s Hollywood star actress/comedienne Marie Dressler. Director Doyle takes us to the vaudeville stage, complete with proscenium arch, a live band on one side and stall seating on the other. Using minimal set pieces, projected images up centre present show posters and images of various locations as we travel through Dressler’s storied life and career.

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Catherine Ratusny & Tess Keery. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Born Leila Koerber in Cobourg, Ontario, we witness Dressler being bitten by the acting bug at the age of five (Tess Keery), performing in tableaux realized by her mother (Catherine Ratusny, who also plays Dressler in her 40s). At 14, she lies about her age (Gabriella Kosmidis), saying she’s 18, and gets a job with the Nevada Travelling Stock Company and changes her name to Marie Dressler; launching her career and landing in the U.S.

From tableaux, to theatre, to vaudeville to the silver screen, Dressler’s career is a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs as she weathers the highs and lows of the business, embracing her ‘big girl’ brand with self-deprecation and good humour—and giving her all, and then some, to any part put upon her.

Shifting from theatre to movies, Dressler gets a break, working with fellow Canadian Mack Sennet (Adam Bonney); she goes on to work at MGM with Irving Thalberg (Conor Ling) and Louis B. Mayer (Rick Jones). Performing with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery, Dressler packs movie houses with her comedic antics, and poignant, gutsy dramatic performances—receiving a Best Actress Oscar at the age of 60 (Leslie Rennie) for her performance in Min and Bill in 1930, and a nomination for Emma in 1932. A top box office draw in America at the time, she becomes the first female actor to appear on the cover of Time Magazine.

Embracing romance along the way, she meets and beings an affair with the charming Jim Dalton (Rick Jones), a married man with a wife in Boston who is smitten with Dressler, and woos her with gentlemanly manners and oysters. While happy to live the unorthodox life of an actor, Dressler longs for the stability and respectability of marriage, and she gets her wish; they later divorce after a series of unpleasant revelations regarding her shrinking bank account. Well into middle age, Dressler becomes smitten with Claire (Nina Tischhauser), a young nurse turned actress who she meets at an Oscar party. The two move in together and set up a cozy domestic and professional partnership, with Dressler acting as Claire’s acting mentor; but the relationship takes Claire away from her own dreams and aspirations—and Claire is faced with a hard decision.

Betrayed and cheated throughout her life—both personally and professionally—it is noteworthy that Dressler finds her primary source of support with her close network of women: her friend, astrologer Nella Webb (Siena Dolinski and Nance Gibson, playing Nella at different ages); her no-nonsense, fastidious maid/assistant Mamie Steele (Fallon Bowman and Indira Layne, playing Mamie at different ages); feisty cub reporter/fan turned screenwriter/Hollywood casting advocate Frances (Katherine Cappellacci); and her companion in later life, the tender, loyal caregiver Claire (Nina Tischhauser, who also plays Dressler in her 20s).

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Jessica Bowmer, James Phelan & Tess Keery. Photo by Bruce Peters.

It’s an ambitious production, imaginatively staged with a cast of 25 enthusiastic multitasking actors that includes 21 women, 10 of whom play Marie at various ages and stages of her hard-working, determined, never dull life. Paula Wilkie plays Dressler in the final scenes; despite a serious cancer diagnosis, Dressler eschews her new role as bed-ridden patient, opting to work on three MGM films in six months before dying at the age of 65. Shouts to all the Marie Dresslers (not previously mentioned: Michele Dodick, Katrina Koenig, Stella Kulagowski & Naomi Peltz) for their energy and panache! Other stand-outs include Ling’s snobbish Brit actor Dan Daley and hilarious turn as a petulant Hollywood film director; Jessica Bowmer’s adorably precocious Boy, who hawks newspapers, peanuts and oysters, and gets into scrapes with his competition; Tischhauser as Dressler’s supportive but conflicted lover Claire; and Rick Jones does a mean tap dance bit.

She’s the Queen! The life, love and rollercoaster career of the irrepressible star Marie Dressler in the delightful, entertaining Queen Marie.

Queen Marie continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until April 28. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office: 416-364-4170, ext. 1 (cash only at the box office). Performances run Wednesday – Saturday at 8 pm, with PWYC matinees on Sunday at 2:00 pm.

The run includes a final Post-Show Talkback on Sunday April 22. Check out the fun trailer:

 

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Just before I sat down to write this review, I read in an Alumnae Theatre Twitter post that playwright Shirley Barrie had passed away; I’ve since learned that she’d been living with cancer and died on Sunday. I’m not sure if she was able to see this current production of Queen Marie, but Doyle, cast and crew did her proud. Thoughts go out to Shirley’s loved ones.

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Courage, poetry & resilience. Final words & accounts of the 16 executed rebels in the moving A Terrible Beauty: Voices from 1916

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Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?

That is heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?

No, no, not night but death.
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.

And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse —
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Whenever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Easter 1916, by W.B. Yeats

The Toronto Irish Players, as part of their commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Irish Rising, presented A Terrible Beauty: Voices from 1916, an evening of readings and music, assembled and directed by Lucy Brennan, on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage last night.

The evening began with the Irish Proclamation of Independence, read at the top of the stairs near the entrance of the Mainstage before we were invited to enter and take our seats. What followed was a multimedia tribute of 1916 Rising film footage and photographs, and readings of words written by the 16, and accounts from their family, loved ones, attending priests and brothers in arms. All of this interspersed with a cappella music breaks, sung by a single male voice: Mise Eire (Sean Ó Riada), The Bold Fenian Men (Peadar Kearny), The Minstrel Boy (Thomas Moore) and A Nation Once Again (Thomas Davis); and including poetry by W.B. Yeats, Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Mary Plunkett, as well as an introductory composition by director Lucy Brennan, and verbatim text of the last words and meetings in Kilmainham Jail, taken from Last Words.

With its dramatic readings of quotes, statements, and extracts from letters and speeches by and about the 16 leaders and executed rebels of the 1916 Irish Rising, A Terrible Beauty gives us a glimpse into the lives and dreams of those who were, in the words of the Proclamation (read on the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin by Patrick Pearse on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916) fighting for an Ireland that “guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens and [which] declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally.”

The 16 leaders and executed rebels included in the evening’s readings included the seven signatories of the Proclamation (Éamonn Ceannt, Thomas James Clarke, James Connolly, Seán MacDiarmada, Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse and Joseph Mary Plunkett) and nine other executed leaders (Roger Casement, Con Colbert, Edward Daly, Seán Heuston, Thomas Kent, John MacBride, Michael Mallin, Michael O’Hanranhan and William Pearse).

The ensemble did a lovely job with these deeply moving – at times tender, fierce and poetic – final words and first-hand accounts. The humanity and struggles of these men, and the sorrow of their family and those near to them coming to life on stage; the audience rapt in remembrance, responding with sounds of recognition, dismay, the occasional chuckle, and even humming or singing along with the songs. Kudos to the cast, in order of appearance (in some cases, playing multiple roles): Mark Whelan, Alan King, Nora Rafferty, Sheila DeCuyper, David Mackett, Jean Ireton, Danny Sullivan, James Phelan, Catherina Maughan, Alan Hunt, Mairead Clancy, Lucy Brennan, Davis Tyrell and Mark Hill. And thanks to the Toronto Irish Players and Lucy Brennan for the comprehensive and informative program notes.

Courage, poetry and resilience. Final words and accounts of the 16 executed rebels in the moving A Terrible Beauty: Voices from 1916.

A Terrible Beauty: Voices from 1916 was a one-night only event. You can catch the Toronto Irish Players as they continue their run of John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar, on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until Nov 5.

You can keep up with the Toronto Irish Players on Twitter and Facebook.

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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