NSTF: Love, grief & celebrating life in the deeply moving, resonant musical Every Silver Lining

Allison Wither & Laura Piccinin. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

 

Silver Lining Productions brings its Toronto Fringe 2019 breakout musical theatre hit Every Silver Lining to the Factory Theatre Mainspace for the Next Stage Theatre Festival. Written by Laura Piccinin and Allison Wither, and directed by Jennifer Stewart, with music direction by Aaron Eyre, Every Silver Lining takes us on a journey of love, friendship, grief and a celebration of life as a family and a group of high school students navigate the loss of a son, brother and friend to cancer. The songs are both profoundly insightful, revealing and catchy—resonating deep in the heart—performed with impressive vocal chops and great sensitivity.

Seventeen-year-old Andrew (Daniel Karp) has leukemia and is looking forward to his last round of chemo. Hiding his illness from even his closest friends, he just wants to get back to school, hang out with his friends and live as normal a life as possible. He and his teen sister Clara (Allison Wither) are good buds, but since his diagnosis, she’s been feeling invisible at home, drowning in the extreme life-changing routine and tension-filled atmosphere; and even having to put some of her own life on hold while she drives Andrew to appointments and keeps him company during chemo sessions. Their mother Judy (Alison J Palmer) is fearful and hovering, and getting on Andrew’s nerves; and dad Kevin (Luke Marty) is caught in the middle, acting as peacemaker between his wife and son while the family lives with the stress and uncertainty of Andrew’s prognosis.

At school, Clara’s BFF Emily (Laura Piccinin) gently prods and advises her on how to get to know the cute new guy Ben (Alex Furber). Clara’s not sure she’s up for it, but finds herself drawn to Ben; and Andrew is happy to be back with his gamer friends Jeremy (Joel Cumber), Bev (Jada Rifkin) and Sam (Ben Skipper). This period of apparent normalcy is short-lived as Andrew comes down with a critical infection, and his chances for further treatment are gone.

Andrew’s friends are stunned to learn of his death—especially as they hadn’t known he was ill—and find themselves facing the death of a loved one their own age for the first time. They’re well-supported by their arts and science teacher Ms. Vella (Starr Domingue), who gives them space to share their thoughts and feelings. Dealing with so many feelings—about Andrew, dealing with school work and tests, blossoming feelings of attraction—and experiencing the various stages of grief is painful and confusing. But, ultimately, the friends pull together to support each other, remember Andrew and celebrate his life.

Delivered with heart and impressive vocal chops—and nicely supported by musicians Aaron Eyre (piano), Erika Nielsen (cello) and Alex Panneton (percussion)—the cast takes us from laughter to tears; performing beautifully composed songs featuring moving and catchy melodies, resonant counter melodies, and soaring harmonies. Karp gives the outgoing Daniel a combination of brave face and resilient resistance; struggling, even fighting, for normalcy when his life has been turned upside down in the face of an unknown outcome. Wither’s performance as the introverted, irreverent Clara is a nuanced portrait of a teen working through complex, challenging times; the sometimes tough, give no fucks exterior belies her inner conflict and fear of losing her brother. She loves her brother, but she hates what the disease is doing to him and their family; and feels guilty for doing so. Palmer and Marty’s grounded, present performances as parents Judy and Kevin run the gamut from hope to despair; Palmer’s loving helicopter mom and Marty’s supportive middleman dad are doing the best they can while facing the unthinkable loss of a child.

Furber gives an adorkably lovable performance as the cute, somewhat nerdy Ben; there are some lovely moments with Wither as Ben and Clara get to know each other and explore their growing attraction. Piccinin and Cumber add some great, and much needed, comic relief as the effervescent extrovert Emily and the goofy, fun-loving Jeremy. Piccinin gives Emily a warm, protective, enveloping hug vibe, while Cumber’s Jeremy is more sensitive than at first glance, using gentle humour to support his friends through their grief. Rifkin gives a poignant performance as the socially awkward Bev; and Skipper does a nice job revealing Sam’s anger about Andrew’s death, and toward Andrew himself, as Sam deals with his grief. Domingue is lovely, engaging and supportive as Ms. Vella; and makes for an understanding, approachable oncologist.

Profoundly poignant and inspiring—and full of spirit, hope and love—in the end, Every Silver Lining is about recognizing and being open to the love and support of family and friends during times of fear, loss and grief; and sharing, remembering and celebrating the life of the departed loved one as part of the acknowledgment of, and working through, the stages of the mourning process.

Every Silver Lining continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until January 19; check the show page for exact dates, times and advance ticket purchase.

Toronto Fringe: Furtive desires emerge in Karenin’s Anna

karenin's anna - 2Karenin’s Anna is playwright Michael Ross Albert’s modern-day adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, directed by Luke Marty and currently running in the Toronto Fringe at St. Vladimir’s Theatre.

In this two-hander version, Anna (Caitlin Robson) is a Brooklyn girl who has just married Sergei Karenin (Daniel Pagett), the cousin of a friend, so he can get his green card. For the next six months, he will be living with her in her one-bedroom apartment, sleeping on the couch and paying her rent. Anna intends to use the money to pursue childhood flame Bobby, who is off in Italy to marry someone else.

From the moment the two enter Anna’s apartment, there is an earnest quality to their relationship, even in their polite stranger’s distance. As the play progresses, the dynamic between them evolves, and new – and previously hidden – feelings and emotions emerge.

Robson does a lovely job with Anna, a restless, passionate woman, full of longing – her emotions sometimes getting the better of her and shifting to cruelty. Pagett’s Sergei is nicely layered, frustrations surging beneath his calm politeness as he struggles with his own desires, missing his beloved back home terribly. Both are living daily lives of quiet desperation that can only come to a boil.

With shouts to Marty’s in-the-round set design, which gives the audience an intimate, fly-on-the-wall perspective of this relationship.

Karenin’s Anna is a beautifully rendered adaptation, told with passion and truth by an excellent pair of actors.

The show runs at St. Vladimir’s Theatre until July 12 – check here for exact dates/times.

 

Queen Milli of Galt a charming, touching Canadian fairytale love story

It’s been a while since I visited The Village Playhouse in Toronto’s Bloor West Village neighbourhood – and last night brought me out to see my friend Victoria Shepherd’s latest directing gig for Gary Kirkham’s play Queen Milli of Galt.

The play was inspired by a true Canadian story: Millicent Milroy, a retired teacher in Galt, Ontario (now Cambridge), caused quite a stir when she had a tombstone made, the inscription describing herself as the wife of King Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor. Bookended with short scenes outside her family home in 1972, where a young journalist visits in an attempt to get her story (shortly after Edward’s death), the play transports the audience back into 1919, the year that Edward – then a young Prince of Wales – was taking a train tour of Canada, including small-town Ontario. The meeting is accidental and the Prince, who introduces himself with his Christian name David, and Milli initially despise each other. And, of course – since this is a love story – the sparring turns into respect, friendship and more.

Shepherd found a lovely cast for this production: Lydia Monet (Milli) and Luke Marty (doing double duty as the journalist and Edward) have lovely chemistry as the young lovers, and it’s great fun to watch as serious, small-town schoolteacher Milli and cheeky playboy royal David find their mutual revulsion transform into friendship and love. Anne McDougall is adorably sweet as Milli’s enthusiastic church lady mother Mrs. Milroy, while David Eden gives a lovely layered performance Edward’s wry-witted, but amiable personal secretary Godfrey, and Caitlin Robson brings some big-city, modern girl dazzle as Milli’s friend, actress Mona.

Those of you who’ve been to the Village know that it’s a bit of a tricky set-up – the small rectangular stage with a support column at the down right corner (dubbed “Andrew”), with audience seated in an L-shaped arrangement around it. Set designer Alexis Chubb did a lovely job of realizing the worlds of the two main characters, with David’s tour train suite stage right (where images were projected on the back wall to evoke time and place, as well as the characters’ thoughts and memories), and the front garden and front door of Milli’s house stage left. Minimal furniture/set pieces for optimal playing space; for scenes taking place elsewhere, including a state ball, the full stage was taken as the new environment – nice staging by director Shepherd on this challenging stage. Shouts as  well to costume designer Theresa Arneaud for the fabulous period togs and John Stuart Campbell for the evocative soundtrack, which included both popular tunes of the period and thematic music for scene changes.

Queen Milli of Galt runs until February 2 – ticket reservations are recommended as this show is been very popular (I tried to book the first Sunday matinée and it was already sold out).

Wanna know more about what it’s about? Check out the production’s video, which features Shepherd, Monet and Robson: