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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New Ideas: The chaotic metaphysics of life, love & monsters in the water in the funny, moving, poetic Week 3 program

Alumnae Theatre Company continues its 30th annual New Ideas Festival (NIF) of short new works, opening the Week Three program last night. It’s the final week of the festival, running up in the Alumnae Studio.

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by Natalie Frijia, directed by Kay Brattan. In 1882 Toronto, 39 people have mysteriously drowned in Lake Ontario—and rumour has it there’s a monster beneath the slate blue water. Rookie reporter Marjorie May (Emma Tse) is determined to get the story, visiting Mary-Anne’s (Stella Kulagowski) pub down by the docks to gather some information. Things get real when they’re joined by the terrified Captain O’Connell (Shawn Lall), who’s barely escaped with his life. As the incoming storm batters the pub, there’s something else out there in the night. Is the creature coming after the Captain to finish what it started?

Nice work from the cast building the intrigue and tension in this 15-minute piece of exaggerated Toronto history. Tse brings a youthful sense of feisty defiance to the young reporter, while Kulagowski is fiery and cynical as the voluptuous barkeep; and Lall’s Captain runs the gamut from frozen terror to gritty resolve as the three stand together in the end.

Marty and Joel and the Edge of Chaos by Camille Intson, directed by Lorna Craig. Chaos theory meets romantic dramedy in this delightful and poignant two-hander played out by four actors. You’ll see what I mean. A couple—Marty (Allison Shea Reed/Kim Croscup), a physicist, and Joel (Simon Bennett/Ryan Bannon), a photographer—occupies the same space in two different times: the day they met and the day of Joel’s second marriage some 20 years later. Constructing and deconstructing the relationship, we see them go from first love to finally working toward some closure.

Beautifully acted and staged. Shea Reed and Bennett are adorably awkward as two 20-somethings getting to know, and falling for, each other. Marty and Joel seem to be perfect complements to each other, with Marty’s adventurous nature and nerdy science knowledge, and Joel’s creative, intuitive sensitivity. As older, more world-weary and disillusioned versions of their former selves, Croscup’s Marty is frustrated and angry, still looking for the answers; and Bannon’s Joel has moved on, but still cares deeply for Marty and treasures their relationship.

The Officiant by Francesca Brugnano, directed by Paige Foskett. It’s 1938, and Shirley (Brianna Riché) and William (Jordan Kenny) have stolen off into the woods, where Shirley has decorated a clearing for them to be secretly married. But when the Officiant (Lisa Kovack) arrives, the wedding service gives them a glimpse into their future together, making them think twice. Is it worth all the pain and suffering?

A lovely, poetic dance of text and movement to tell this story, with moving work from the cast. Riché is brave, romantic and practical as Shirley; and Kenny brings an earnest boyish charm to William. Kovack gives the Officiant a witch-like air of mystery and foresight; cruel to be kind, she means to get real with this couple.

Mourning after the Night Before by Chloë Whitehorn, directed by Heather Keith. When Lucy (Mary Wall) and Drew (Dave Martin) decided to move to a small town, they did it to make to make a quieter, more peaceful home for their family. Making friends with brother and sister Everett (Conor Ling) and Fenwick (Tiffany Deobald), locals who help them get settled, Lucy struggles with her relationship with her daughter Pippa (Grace Callahan), as well as emerging feelings for Everett. Everett is falling in love—but is it with Lucy or Pippa? Drew and Fenwick are trying to keep their respective families safe. Did Lucy miss something in Pippa’s dark, teen angst-filled poems?

Lovely work from the cast in this haunting, lyrical family drama. Wall is wounded and desperate as Lucy; heartbreaking in a life adrift and grasping for a sense of self. Martin’s Drew is heart-wrenching to watch; sensitive and supportive, Drew doesn’t know what to do—and finds himself drifting farther from his family. Callahan gives Pippa an ethereal, creative spirit; a somewhat wild and rebellious teen, she finds solace in writing. Ling brings a sweet, shy romantic edge to Everett; while seeing anew with these new relationships, Everett’s eyes may not be wide open. Deobald is an irreverent charmer as Fenwick; tasked with raising Everett after they were orphaned, Fen is just trying to keep it together, but shows genuine concern for the rift between her new friends Lucy and Drew.

The NIF Week Three program continues in the Alumnae Theatre Studio until March 25. 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 matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 pm.

Coming up: Week Three staged reading on Saturday, March 24 at noon. Animal by Romeo Ciolfi, directed by Liz Best; featuring actors Alexandra Milne, Anton Wasowicz, Steven Vlahos and Michele Dodick.

It’s a very popular festival and an intimate venue, so advance booking is strongly recommended. In the meantime, check out the Week Three trailer by Nicholas Porteous:

 

 

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.