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:

 

 

Fond, foolish love & trickster shenanigans in the roaringly entertaining Twelfth Night

Shakespeare BASH’d continues its 2016-17 season with a ripping version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; directed by James Wallis with associate director Drew O’Hara, and opening to a sold out house at the Monarch Tavern last night.

Set in the 1920s, and inspired by the music, speak easy atmosphere and carpe diem abandon of that decade, this version of Twelfth Night also hits notes of melancholy and the lost innocence of a society that’s just come through its first world war—self-medicating with jazz and booze, and grabbing love and happiness when and where they can.

Orsino (Shawn Ahmed) is deeply in love with Olivia (Hallie Seline), but she is in deep mourning for her father and now her brother, whose death occurred soon after. Meanwhile, Viola (Jade Douris) has washed ashore, surviving a ship wreck in which she fears her twin brother Sebastian was lost. Aware that she is a woman alone and setting foot on less than friendly territory, she disguises herself as a page named Cesario and goes to work for Orsino. Seizing an opportunity to utilize the pretty youth, Orsino sends Cesario/Viola to press his suit to Olivia—leaving Olivia smitten with Cesario, which is beyond awkward for Cesario/Viola, as she’s fallen in love with Orsino.

In Olivia’s household, her drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch (Daniel Briere), ignored suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jesse Nerenberg) and sassy gentlewoman Maria (Julia Nish-Lapidus) plot revenge on Olivia’s severe, proud steward Malvolio (Jesse Griffiths) with the help of the newly returned Feste (a female Fool in trousers played by Lesley Robertson) and the local parish priest Fabian (Augusto Bitter).

Meanwhile, we learn that Viola’s brother Sebastian (Jeff Yung) has survived the wreck; saved by the ship’s captain Antonio (Nate Bitton), now a good friend and devoted to Sebastian. And, of course, as this is Shakespeare, there’s a comedy of errors with the twins—and as it’s a comedy, it all works out in the end. But this is a comedy with dark undertones, particularly with the tricks played on Malvolio, which go from harmless prank to gas lighting; and there is an edge of wounded melancholy evident in all the characters.

Really nice work from the ensemble, who invite the audience along the journey, bringing us into this world. Stand-outs include Seline’s Olivia, a lovely and richly layered performance; a proud, strong woman, Olivia has sharp enough wit to match any man, but also a tender and fragile heart. Seline conveys as much from a facial expression as she does with the text. Griffiths does a great job with Malvolio; stiff and imperious, with a nasty, prideful underbelly, the self-righteous Malvolio is too self-involved and delighted to see what’s really going on when the others punk him.

Robertson drops the mic as Feste; hilariously witty and a master debater, she too has a soft heart—especially for Curio—and we get the sense that, beneath all her tomfoolery, she’s come through the war deeply hurt. And Briere and Nerenberg make for a very funny, odd team as the drunken, layabout Belch and awkward, clueless Aguecheek.

Speaking of tomfoolery, the letter reveal scene is particularly hilarious, with Belch, Aguecheek and Fabian rushing about to hide as they watch Malvolio read a love letter he believes to be for him from Olivia; as is the duel scene between the terrified Aguecheek and Douris’s adorably baffled and equally petrified Cesario/Viola.

Opening with music selections from the period—and featuring accompaniment (guitar, ukulele and piano), lovely vocals and original music by Franziska Beeler (as Curio)—there’s a sexy, jazzy vibe to this production; and nicely bookended with the dance number (choreographed by Douris) at the curtain call.

Fond, foolish love and trickster shenanigans in the roaringly entertaining Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night continues at the Monarch Tavern until February 5; it’s a short run and they’re already sold out, but if you show up early, they may be able to squeeze you in. Please note the 7:30pm start time for evening performances; there are also matinees at 2pm on February 4 and 5.

Keep up with Shakespeare BASH’d on Twitter and Facebook.

Photo by Kyle Purcell: Jesse Nerenberg, Julia Nish-Lapidus & Daniel Briere, with Jesse Griffiths’ legs

The Hogtown Experience is the bee’s knees!

hogtown - speakeasy
Laura Larson (as Anastasia Petrov), Dov Mickelson (as Tracey Doyle) & Aisha Jarvis (as Sally Styles) – photos by Joseph Hammond

Better late to the party than never – I finally got out to see the Hogtown Experience at Campbell House Museum last night. And what a party it was!

Written by Drew Carnwath and Sam Rosenthal, and directed by Rosenthal, assisted by Nicola Pantin, the Hogtown Experience is an immersive, site-specific theatrical event that puts you in the middle of the action, which includes over 30 actors and live music, as you rub elbows with politicians, union muscle, gangsters, speakeasy girls, temperance ladies, party girls, moonshiners, a lady doctor and a baseball star.

hogtown - mcbride
David Rosser as Sam McBride

When you arrive at Campbell House (I’d suggest getting there half an hour before show time), you may wander the grounds and the house. Catch some jazz in the basement speakeasy or get an early introduction to some of the characters on the front lawn, where the Temperance ladies are protesting the evils of drink, and mayoral candidate Sam McBride (David Rosser) and his wife Fanny (Kirstin Rae Hinton) are greeting and glad-handing, and the small-town Busch brothers (Matthew Bradley and Tim Ziegler) are anxiously anticipating a meeting with Delacourt to pitch their moonshine. Or wander towards the back, where the Schwartz brothers (Scott McCulloch and Jorge Molina) talk business and the wily, opportunistic Tracey Doyle (Dov Mickelson) inspects his girls before they start their shift – one of which (Anastasia, played by Laura Harding in last night’s performance) makes an appointment with the friendly, socially aware local doctor Libby Prowse (Lori Nancy Kalamanski) for her friend/co-worker Maddy (Lea Beauvais). And there’s a rambunctious, playful and strange little girl (Claire Frances Muir) running around there too.

hogtown - ronnie and ben
Dana Fradkin (as Ronnie McBride) & Drew Carnwath (as Ben Stein)

Newspaper man Ben Stein (Carnwath), who’s dating the McBride’s daughter Ronnie (Sappho Hansen Smythe,* who has been playing the role this summer), gives us an introduction and some ground rules. We are here for a party at the home of union boss Bob Delacourt (David Keeley) on the night before the 1926 municipal election, where the conservative, tee-totalling, penny-pinching incumbent Mayor Thomas Foster (Jerome Bourgault) is up against the more progressive, alcohol-friendly and forward-thinking McBride. From there, the audience is divided into three groups, and each group is guided to a room in the house to start their rotation of three scenes. You may speak to the characters, but only when spoken to.

hogtown - foster
Jerome Bourgault as Thomas Foster

My group was first taken upstairs to the ballroom, to a meeting of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union, led by the imperious President Mary O’Grady Hunt (Tara Baxendale), where we hear anecdotes of personal family tragedy that resulted from intoxication. We were then treated to a lively and intense dining room scene, where the McBrides and their supporters – including Delacourt, who remained eerily silent and stone-faced – toasted their good fortune, and a surprise guest made an appearance, decidedly spoiling the good cheer. Then it was down to the games room, where our cheeky hostess Katie (Siobhan Richardson) took all bets, including one from the jovial Police Chief Draper (Robert Clarke); and over to the speakeasy for drinks (cash bar, where you can order wine in a teacup or a can of beer in a paper bag) and music, overseen and kept running smoothly by the tough, but gentleman-like Donato Granta (Conrad Bergschneider).

hogtown - delacourt
David Keeley as Bob Delacourt

From there, where you go and what you see is up to you. You are encouraged to give rein to curiosity and follow characters, open doors – and see what you may find. Young love. Backroom deals upon backroom deals. Desperate, last-ditch efforts to win a race. One of the speakeasy girls in trouble. You won’t be able to catch everything, and you may want to see the show more than once; to this end, keep your program (handed out as you leave) and that will serve as your discount voucher for your next visit. And with all the election and boozy shenanigans – not to mention the red hot jazz – you may want to take them up on that deal.

An outstanding ensemble and fabulous music, creating a unique, intriguing and engaging theatrical experience, and a colourful taste of 1920s Toronto. This humble scribe had a marvelous time at the pre-election soiree at Campbell House last night. The Hogtown Experience is the bee’s knees – go see it!

The Hogtown Experience runs until August 28 at Campbell House Museum; performance info and advance tickets here; otherwise, it’s cash only at the gate.

In the meantime, you can keep up with Hogtown on Twitter and Facebook; and check out the show trailer:

* Department of Corrections: The role of Ronnie McBride, previously attributed to Dana Fradkin, was actually played by Sappho Hansen Smythe. Due to the scope of the show and the size of the ensemble, there is a rotating cast, so some characters are played by different actors, depending on when you see the show.

An eclectic, trippy journey through sound on Robert Graham’s “Storm in a Teacup” CD

Storm in a Teacup coverWhen I dropped by Red Sandcastle Theatre for the In Loo Of fundraiser a few weeks ago, owner/manager/AD Rosemary Doyle introduced me to Robert Graham, who was there to accompany singers on piano for the four-day open mic event. While chatting with Graham, I learned that he’s also a singer/songwriter – and I headed home that evening with a copy of his Storm in a Teacup CD.

Co-produced by Graham and Chris Brown, Storm in a Teacup is a trippy, eclectic collection of pop, rock and blues – with hints of jazz and soul – accompanied by some stand-out musicians and vocalists, including Graham, Brown, Anton Fier, Andy Love, Teddy Kumpel, Rob Jost, Tony Scherr, Alec Barken, Dan Charbonneau, Eli Abrams, John Abrams, Ford Pier, Eric Schenkman, Kerryn Graham and Leann Cunningham.

Storm in a Teacup starts out with the gentle, unassuming instrumental track “Blue Lullaby (Intro.),” slips into pop ballad “Reaching You” and finishes with a soul vibe on “Set it Free (Afro-Astro Mix),” a remix of earlier mellow pop track “Set it Free.” From the epic rock-operatic “Living in a Coma” to the comic tale of unrequited love in “In Love with a Girl” to the haunting jazz/blues-infused piano instrumental “Second Prelude,” there’s a big range of emotional and musical expression on this record. And “Jonathan Baker” combines the whimsical poignancy of Beatles storytelling with the dark social commentary of The Police’s “Synchronicity II” – a quiet life of desperation about to explode in the face of a cruel world. The lyric “It’s easy to be nasty. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to be nice” is particularly potent. Storm in a Teacup is a trippy journey through genres and musical moments, each song a brand new vibe. Check it out.

You can catch Robert Graham, playing with his new band The Fairest and the Best at The Central on Monday, May 13 at 7 p.m. And on Friday, May 24, he’ll be hosting Robert Graham and Friends – A Fundraising Concert for the “We Are Jose” Campaign – 7:30 p.m. at Lower Ossington Theatre. For details on these two shows, please visit the Gigs page on Graham’s website.

Robert Tanglefoot photo
Robert Graham

In the meantime, you can also pay him a visit on his YouTube channel and check out his new single “Believe In Love.

A magical evening of music & friends

One of my favourite things about receiving an invitation to an intimate gathering for a friend’s birthday – besides the celebration and being with friends – is the opportunity of going to a place I’ve never been. And the adventure of a new space and how anything can happen.

My pal Kira Callahan organized such an outing for her fête this past Friday, starting with an afternoon visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario (which I couldn’t attend as it was a work day), dinner over jazz at Quotes and a CD launch at the Alliance Française Toronto: Amélie et Les Singes Bleus (Amélie and the blue monkeys) À l’étage des funambules (The tightrope walker lives upstairs).

Before I get into the CD launch, I want to give a shout out to Quote’s amazing jazz combo, The Canadian Jazz Quartet: Gary Benson (guitar), Frank Wright (vibes), Duncan Hopkins (bass) and Don Vickery (drums), with Friday’s featured guest Russ Little on trombone. We managed to catch their first set and a couple of tunes into the second, and I gotta say, Little’s playing is as smooth as silk and he’s one of the most joyful, positive guys I’ve ever met. An excellent way to spend an early Friday evening – and Quotes’ burgers are very tasty. Pay them a visit sometime – Quotes is downstairs from Barootes at 220 King St. West, Toronto: http://www.barootes.com/

From there, Kira and I took the subway up to the Annex (Spadina/Bloor area) to meet the rest of the gang at the Alliance Française space (http://www.alliance-francaise.ca/en/) – this time for some French standards – and what a treat!

Opening for Amélie and her band was the lovely and dynamic duo of female musicians: Willow Rutherford on vocals and accordion, and Virpi Kettu on violin. Charming, talented and so much fun! And Amélie’s daughter Eloïse enchanted the audience by dancing along. (Merçi to Rizaldo Padilla for the info on the names of these delightful performers.)

I suppose at this point I should mention – not so much by way of disclaimer as an FYI in the spirit of full disclosure – I am not fluent in French. While I do remember a remarkable amount of high school French, it’s still high school French – very rusty at that, and I’ve found that I understand it much better than I speak or write it. Hence, I tend to fall into Franglais – or Frenglish, as one of my French Twitter pals likes to call it. And, anyway, I like to think that music transcends language and cultural differences.

As I write this post, I’m listening to the À l’étage des funambules CD – and the audience’s introduction to Amélie et Les Singes Bleus was bang on: what you hear onstage is exactly what you hear in this recording. This band is tight and Amélie Lefebvre’s vocals are strong, sultry and playful. The band, Les Singes Bleus, features stand-out musicians Beth Washburn (trumpet, alto tuba), Rizaldo Padilla (guitar), Brad Hart (drums, percussion, guitar) and Rick Walters (bass, clarinet) – and they all provide incredible back-up vocals.

From sexy, swingin’ original tunes like “Avec toi” (written by Lefebvre and Padilla) and “Big city” (Lefebvre) to beautiful, haunting melancholy ballads like “Gottingen” (by Barbara, the stage name of famous French singer Monique Andrée Serf), and the sheer fun of “Les singes” (when Lefebvre sings sections through a bull horn – super fun!) and “Elaeudanlatéitéia” (which had us up out of our front row seats and dancing in front of the stage) – this was a big fun, magical evening of music and friends. Coincidentally, when I looked Barbara up online, I learned that we share a birthday – yet another amazing birthday twin to celebrate!

Willow Rutherford & Virpi Kettu
Amélie Lefebvre
Rick Walters & Beth Washburn
Rizaldo Padilla
Brad Hart

Beyond the incredibly polished vocals and musicianship, I was struck by how much fun these guys were having – with each other and with the audience. There was even a blue monkey or two – inflatable toys, one of which Lefebvre had up onstage and tossed into the audience. Such a warm, friendly and fun atmosphere – everyone laid back and enjoying the music.

Seriously, check these guys out. Here’s the English version of Amélie et Les Singes Bleus website: http://www.lessingesbleus.com/en/home.aspx

More music & theatre this week: Shannon Butcher & Mr. Paradise

Hey again – had to give a shout out to some more upcoming music and theatre events, so here goes…

Jazz tomorrow night (Thurs, May 3): Shannon Butcher (http://www.shannonbutcher.com/), Mark Kieswetter and Ross MacIntyre will be playing at The Cherry Street Restaurant (275 Cherry St., Toronto), from 7:30 p.m. – 10 p.m. There’s a $10 cover and reservations are recommended: 416-461-5111 (http://cherryst.ca/).

Theatre this week through Monday next week: Mr. Paradise (Tennessee Williams), featuring Kate Besworth and Christopher Kelk, will be performed at a variety of venues:

May 2 Green Room (296 Brunswick) 7:30 p.m.
May 3 Kiwanis Club (101 Spruce) 8 p.m.
May 4 Gibson House Museum (5172 Yonge) 8 p.m.
May 5 Galleria 814 (814 St. Clair W.) 9 p.m.
May 6 Kiwanis Club (101 Spruce) 8 p.m.
May 7 Magic Oven (798 Danforth) 8 p.m.

Great opportunities to get out and support our local Toronto artists. Seen anything cool this week?