Great holiday panto fun in Camelot with EXCALI-PURR: The Once & Future Cat

Red Sandcastle Theatre’s (RST) Panto Players take us on a wacky fun medieval adventure of knights, wizards, destiny—and, of course, an unusual, feisty pink cat—with their multimedia production EXCALI-PURR: The Once & Future Cat. Co-written by Jane A. Shields and Rosemary Doyle, and directed/choreographed by Jackie English, this is RST’s eighth holiday pantomime.

Young Wart (a plucky, precocious turn from Rosie Callaghan) leaves his home with adopted father Sir ‘Ector (a delightfully silly Taran Beaty) and jealous, whiny brother Kay (Farid Yazdani, with a comical sly, pernicious edge—and who does a darn good Elvis) to seek his destiny with the help of a guitar playing wizard who ages backwards (Beaty, who finally gets to play a good guy this time, as the cheeky, enigmatic Merlin) and the effervescent Twanky of the Lake (played with sassy gusto by Andrew McGillivray, who also acts as our host with the 411 on traditional panto audience responses).

Meanwhile, the evil sorceress Morgan Le Fey (played with delightful, exacting and nasty glee—plus mad trash talking skills—by Linette Doherty) plots to rule the world with a new pink, four-legged associate. Can it be that our favourite pink cat (Jackie English, with lovable sauce and guile) has gone over to the dark side? With the contest for the sword in the stone (aka Excalibur) coming, Le Fey invites Kay into her nefarious plan to secure Excalibur and the throne of England. Throw in the Pokémon-seeking knight Sir Pelinore (a treat of a goofy performance from Matthew Donovan), who challenges Kay in the joust, and we have some riotous panto adventure for kids of all ages. Will Wart find his destiny? Will good prevail?

Of course! With twists and turns, and plenty of goofy good times, laughs and music along the way (including live music performed by the multi-talented cast), EXCALI-PURR combines projected images; revamped pop tunes (from iconic rock, to hip hop and R&B, to show tunes); nods to magic/adventure movies (Harry Potter, Monty Python’s Holy Grail, Back to the Future and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button); and audience participation to great effect. All played out on a set that wraps the audience in the story—and held together by multi-tasking stage manager Deborah Ann Frankel (also the General Manager at RST since owner/AD Rosemary Doyle started a new gig as AD/Producer at Theatre Kingston back in August).

EXCALI-PURR: The Once & Future Cat continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre (922 Queen St. East, at Queen/Logan) until January 6, with evening performances at 7pm on Dec 28-30 and Jan 2-5, and matinées at 3pm on Dec 29-31 and Jan 5-6. Tickets ($25 adult, $15 child and family fun pack $60) are available online, by calling the box office at 416-845-9411 or at the door (cash only).

And that, my friends, is officially my final review of 2018. I’ll be back in January for more amazing Toronto theatre. Happy holidays and all good things for 2019!

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A big fun, magical ride for kids of all ages with the imaginative, wonder-filled Peter Pan

Clockwise, from the top: Matt Pilipiak, Victor Pokinko, Fiona Sauder, Lena Maripuu & Landon Doak. Production design by Amy Marie Wallace. Lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

 

Bad Hats Theatre returns to the Young Centre, adding a sprinkle of magic fairy dust to the holidays with its Dora award-winning stage adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Adapted by Fiona Sauder and Reanne Spitzer, directed by Severn Thompson, with choreography by Reanne Spitzer, music by Landon Doak, and arrangements by Nathan Carroll and the company, this low-tech, highly imaginative version of the beloved children’s classic promises magic, fun and wonder for kids of all ages.

From its genesis as Co-Artistic Director Fiona Sauder’s dream project, first produced by Bad Hats at the Old Flame, a brewery in Port Perry, to a five-brewery tour in Toronto the following winter, Peter Pan first landed at the Young Centre in 2017, when Soulpepper invited the company to perform in its holiday time Family Festival. The production went on to win Dora awards for Outstanding Ensemble, Direction and Production.

Part story time, part dress-up, part musical—all magic and imagination—Peter Pan draws us in with joy, make believe and a child-like sense of play that starts before the show gets underway, with the ensemble emerging for some live music and fun with the kids sitting on the mats along the front of the horseshoe seating arrangement. Best. Pre-show. Ever.

Our grown-up narrator (Matt Pilipiak, with fun in his heart and a twinkle in his eye, going on to play the shy, soft-spoken Mr. Smee) sets the stage; and we watch as Peter (Fiona Sauder, with boyish swashbuckling bravado and impish mischief) enters the Darling home through the nursery window in search of his AWOL shadow. A lover of stories, he’s been listening at the window as Wendy (played with a lovely combination of grown-up earnestness, and childhood fun and romance by Lena Maripuu) tells stories and plays games of dress-up adventure with her younger brothers John (little gentleman, full of fun Victor Pokinko) and Michael (Richard Lam, brimming with adorable wide-eyed wonder, in the role till Dec 16; followed by Landon Doak in the role).

A sprinkle of fairy dust and a happy thought send the Darling children into flight with Peter and his fairy BFF Tinkerbell (the spritely, feisty, don’t you dare cross her Reanne Spitzer, who also plays Mrs. Darling and a Pirate) to their address at second star to the right and straight on till morning: Neverland. Joining the Lost Boys (great high-energy, comic fun turns from Jocelyn Adema, Andrew Cameron, Matthew Finlan and Tal Shulman, who all double as the rough and tumble, fun-loving Pirates), Peter and the Darling boys adopt Wendy as their new storytelling mother. Meanwhile, Captain Hook (played with hilariously evil camp by Graham Conway, who does double duty as Mr. Darling) is out to avenge his lost hand, and plots to find Peter Pan’s secret hideaway, and kidnap his friends to lure him into a trap. All the while, Hook is pursued by the crocodile that ate his hand, its whereabouts given away by the tick tock of the clock it also managed to swallow.

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Fiona Sauder & Graham Conway. Production design by Amy Marie Wallace. Lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

Sword fights, a jealous fairy turned hero and a stalking, hungry croc ensue—and good prevails over evil, with determination, pluck and ingenuity. And it’s a bittersweet moment when the Darling children return home to the nursery, in part because it also signals the end of this magical journey for us. The kids in the audience are a huge part of the fun of this show; and one or two even get a chance to get in on the fun. I dare you to not stomp your feet along with the music—and believe in magic and fairies.

Peter Pan continues at the Young Centre into the New Year, until January 5. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Booking in advance is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment. Bringing a kid isn’t mandatory, but it will ramp up your fun if you’re joined by a young friend. Go see this!

Check out the trailer, featuring highlights from this multi-talented, energetic ensemble:

 

Keep an eye out for Bad Hats Theatre, who are cooking up a new children’s tale for an upcoming musical brewery tour; check out their website for details, and give them a follow on their social media channels.

 

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River

Spoon River ensemble—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Is your soul alive?

As we make our way into the theatre, we find ourselves entering the funeral of Bertie Hume; filing past old family portraits and rows of headstones as we make our way out of the funeral parlor and into the cemetery. We are greeted by funeral home attendants and, possibly, friends and family of the deceased.

This is our introduction to Soulpepper’s immersively staged Spoon River, based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology poetry collection, and adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz for the stage, with music composed by Ross. A remount of this beloved, award-winning show is currently running in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre, located in Toronto’s Distillery District.

As Bertie Hume is left to her eternal rest, former citizens of the town—now “asleep” in the cemetery on the hill—emerge to share their stories with us, the passersby. Set in small-town America, the lives, loves, joys and pain of its people are revealed with memories, regrets, confession; at times harrowing (“Fire”), hilarious (“Couples” and “Drinking”) and heartbreaking (“Mothers and Sons”). The quirks, the humanity, the secrets and betrayals—all interwoven with poetry, spoken word, music and song, as we get snapshots of the people they once were.

The remarkable, multitalented ensemble plays and sings, with rousing, foot-stomping sounds and gorgeous, resonant harmonies in a collection of blue grass and gospel-inspired songs. Stand-out soloists include Alana Bridgewater, Hailey Gillis (as Bertie Hume), Miranda Mulholland, Jackie Richardson (“Widow McFarlane”) and Daniel Williston (“Fire”). Soulpepper veterans Oliver Dennis and Diego Matamoros bring stellar character work, as do Raquel Duffy, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis and Michelle Monteith. Ultimately, Spoon River is a celebration of life (“Soul Alive”)—and a reminder that life, warts and all, is a cherished gift. I dare you to not stomp along.

With big shouts to the design team for their work on this magical, evocative production: Ken MacKenzie (set and lighting), Erika Connor (costumes) and Jason Browning (sound).

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River.

Spoon River continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre until April 21; booking in advance is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment—the place was packed last night and this show is getting lots of standing ovations. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Up next: Soulpepper will be taking Spoon River to New York City’s 42nd Street in July as part of its first NYC season at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

The Spoon River soundtrack is available on CD in the lobby of the Young Centre; you can also find it on iTunes. In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

 

Raoul Bhaneja & Divine Brown take us to the Church of the Blues in Life, Death and the Blues

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A young boy with a dream – and the harmonica is his ticket.

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM), in association with Hope and Hell Theatre Co., opened Raoul Bhaneja’s Life, Death and the Blues in the TPM mainspace last night – and wowed a packed house.

Directed by Eda Holmes and associate director Kate Lynch, Life, Death and the Blues is a journey of music, culture, history and personal discovery. Bhaneja, Divine Brown, and The Big Time band members Jake Chisholm (guitar), Tom Bona (drums), Chris Banks (upright bass) take us on a trip through time and space, across Blues – and personal – history, traversing cities, countries and continents as Bhaneja continues his Blues education.

While Bhaneja challenges the audience’s preconceived notions of who and what a Blues man is, Brown is the perfect Devil’s advocate for Bhaneja’s assumptions on the cultural significance and place of the Blues today. Throughout this theatrical/music hybrid journey, Bhaneja gets schooled on the true meaning and placement of the Blues. More than a technique or a style or an expression – Blues is about roots and about rooting yourself in the music.

Life, Death and the Blues features stellar performances for this ride. Bhaneja is highly engaging, a slightly cocky but extremely likeable and funny guide on this trip, not to mention a talented showman, bringing it with strong vocals and musicianship (dobro and harmonica). Divine Brown is a fabulous foil, standing for no nonsense from Bhaneja, and taking us to heaven with her incredible vocal range and power. And those Big Time boys were cookin’. In addition to the live performances, we were also treated to the sights and sounds of some Blues greats, including Paul Oscher, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker and Bad News Brown. I dare you to not be bopping your head and tapping your feet – and even shouting out “Damn!” – during this show (I know I did).

Every performance of Life, Death and the Blues will feature a special finale: an interview and jam session with a living Blues legend, including Chris Whiteley, Jay Douglas, Paul James, Rita Chiarelli and others. Last night’s opening featured the cool sounds of Chris Whiteley & Diana Braithwaite.

TPM also launched a Youth Blues Challenge in conjunction with this production, and sought out some talented young blues artists (25 or under) to perform during intermission up in the cabaret space near the bar. Last night’s young guest was Dov Beck-Levine, who wowed the audience with a solo performance on guitar and vocals.

Life, Death and the Blues is a remarkable theatre/music hybrid, featuring an outstanding cast of actor/musicians – taking us to the Church of the Blues.

Life, Death and the Blues runs on the TPM mainspace till October 19. Do yourself a solid and get yourself over there to see this. You can purchase advance tickets online.

In the meantime, check out the promo vid:

SummerWorks: Spellbinding, trippy good times in Against Gravity

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Mind of a Snail: Jessica Gabriel and Chloe Ziner

One of the things I love about SummerWorks is the unique multi-media and multi-disciplinary work it features. I had the great pleasure of seeing Mind of a Snail’s Against Gravity last night – on at the Theatre Passe Muraille back space.

Mind of a Snail is a duet of fun gals from Vancouver: Chloe Ziner and Jessica Gabriel. Against Gravity is part shadow puppetry, part live music, part human-generated sound effects, part clowning – an all big fun for kids of all ages!

Gabriel mostly handles the puppetry – in this case, using an overhead projector and transparencies (in some cases, using multiple transparencies to create cool animation effects) – and even becomes a shadow puppet of sorts herself. Ziner mostly handles the music and sound effects, using electric guitar and looping to create character and atmosphere. And the audience is welcomed – and encouraged – to create sound effects too!

The story in Against Gravity is an entertaining adventure of discovery and following one’s heart – but warns against letting your heart become imprisoned by emotions once you catch up with it.

Against Gravity is a spellbinding, trippy good time, with excellent work from Ziner and Gabriel. The show runs until Sat, Aug 16. Check here for date/time details.

You can also find Mind of a Snail on Facebook – and check out the Against Gravity trailer vid:

Department of Corrections: In the original version of this post, Ziner’s and Gabriel’s roles were reversed; this has been corrected.