Toronto Fringe: Ruminations on love, beauty and aging in the nostalgic, intimate, haunting Cheri

cheri-on-the-run-productions invites us to sit down with a former courtesan as she ruminates on love, beauty and aging in the intimate, haunting Cheri. Inspired by the novels of Colette, and written and directed by Sky Gilbert, with music composed by Dustin Peters, Cheri is currently running in the Al Green Theatre for Toronto Fringe.

A music theatre piece within a theatre piece, Cheri weaves storytelling by way of personal anecdotes and reminiscences, and songs—all presented by our hostess Lea (Theresa Tova), a retired courtesan accompanied by the beautiful pianist/singer we only come to know as Cheri (Dustin Peters). And the farther she wanders down the road of memory and loves past, the more she sees in her accompanist the face of lost love—her Cheri.

Tova gives a powerhouse performance as Lea; her elegance, moxie and nostalgic melancholy hearkens back to the golden age of vaudeville and cabaret. Passionate, playful, petulant, and filled with a lust for life and all that is elegant and lovely, Lea is a hopeless romantic with a penchant for harsh honesty. And her heartbreaking torch songs are delivered with vulnerable candor and rich, resonant vocals. As Cheri, Peters is the perfect foil; fastidious, aloof and having none of Lea’s shenanigans and flirtations, Cheri (we never do learn his real name) bears himself with directness and professionalism. Cheri’s desire for privacy and boundaries could be construed as secretive and stand-offish, but one gets the impression that it’s the armour that protects his soul against the barrage of attention his beauty garners.

The march of Time is inevitable and aging is a natural part of life. We can choose to accept ourselves at each stage of our lives and continue moving forward as we cherish our memories of younger days—or risk getting lost in the past.

Cheri continues in the Al Green Theatre until July 15; check the show page for exact times and dates.

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Toronto Fringe: Resilience against all odds in the defiant, poignant, hopeful The Pansy Craze: A New Musical

In a time when “transgender” wasn’t a word and homosexuality was illegal, a trans woman refuses to be invisible and shines on the vaudeville stage in Next Stop Productions’ The Pansy Craze. With book, music and lyrics by Avery Jean Brennan, and directed by Dustin George, with music direction by Brennan, the new musical is running at the Randolph Theatre during the Toronto Fringe festival.

The Pansy Craze takes us to 1930s America, behind the scenes of underground vaudeville venues—speakeasies, where booze wasn’t the only prohibited item on the menu. In a bid to out-do the competition, these establishments boasted titillating shows, putting queer performers on the bill to entice customers. When star actress Helen (Stephanie Hood)—recently and conveniently married to Charlie (Shaquille Pottinger) so they can be a husband and wife act—sprains her ankle, closeted Emcee Duncan (Eric McDace, alternate for Teddy Moynihan) decides to put Jeanie (Devin Herbert), who is a transgender woman, into the act. The group has a huge opportunity at an upscale Manhattan place run by Gladys (Kira Renee) and unofficially overseen by Tom (Sansom Marchand), a cop who turns a blind eye to the illegal goings-on so he can have a place to drink. Gladys also has connections with famous vaudeville impresario Norbert (Peter Mundell).

Jeanie, a talented songwriter/performer, illuminates the stage with panache and heartbreaking torch songs. “Pansies”, as the queer performers are called, are okay with establishment managers, so long as they entertain and bring in customers—but Tom isn’t so happy about turning a blind eye to this particular bending of the law, particularly Jeanie, who doesn’t blend in onstage or off. Complicated relationships emerge within the company, with more drama occurring in the wings than onstage at times.

When prohibition is lifted, booze comes out of the closet, but queer performers are no longer welcome—now that these vaudeville houses are above ground, they can’t risk running afoul of the law and losing customers. Refusing to be closeted or forced into a “normal” life as a man, Jeanie sets her sights on continuing her career, and she and Charlie get audition spots for Norbert’s show. And when tragedy strikes this tight-knit group, Charlie finds himself with a life-altering decision to make.

There’s high-energy hoofing and singing from an entertaining cast. Herbert is a clear stand-out as Jeanie; lighting up the stage, they shine in a charismatic performance, full of style, sass and impressive vocal chops that can belt out a tune or break a heart. Lovely scenes and duet with Pottinger, who gives a nicely layered performance as Charlie, a talented and conflicted young man who’s forced to confront his own heart, inspired in part by Jeanie’s chutzpah. “So What if I’m a Pansy” becomes a defiant and touching anthem—for LGBTQ folks and anyone struggling to be themselves.

The Pansy Craze continues at the Randolph until July 15; check the show page for exact dates/times.

Pun & games for kids of all ages, with hilarious panto good times, in RaPUNzel

 

Amelia Welcher as RaPUNzel (top) and Kristen Foote as Bunny (bottom)—photo by Burke Campbell

 

Red Sandcastle Theatre’s Panto Players are back at it again with more pantomime shenanigans in RaPUNzel, written by Jane A. Shields and Rosemary Doyle, and directed by Jackie English. RaPUNzel marks the company’s 7th annual holiday panto.

This time, the Panto Players take us to Italy in this delightful mashup of beloved fairy tales, pop music and musical theatre tunes as they deliver familiar stories and characters with some goofy—at times surprising—twists. A very pregnant Twankey’s (Chris Gibbs) cravings coax her husband (Farid Yazdani) to pilfer neighbouring ogre Monsanto’s (Taran Beaty) garden for lettuce. His mission becomes compromised and he’s caught in the act, forcing the expecting couple to make a terrible choice. Their thievery comes at a price: they must hand their baby over to the ogre!

Sixteen years later, and having held out on her end of the deal and lost her husband, the Widow Twankey gives in and the ogre gets her daughter RaPUNzel (Amelia Welcher), and locks her in an impenetrable, magically protected tower. Luckily, RaPUNzel’s nimble-footed bff hare friend Bunny (Kristen Foote) is able to get in and out of the tower, and provide our heroine with some company as they try to figure out how to get her out of there. Meanwhile, RaPUNzel’s hair is getting super long—and we wonder if the ogre is as naughty as he wants everyone to believe; after all, his faithful sidekick is a Chicken (Sebastian Marziali). And is Twankey as nice as she appears?

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Chris Gibbs as Widow Twankey, with Co-writer/AD Rosemary Doyle in the background—photo by Burke Campbell

Enter the handsome, though somewhat dim, Prince (Yazdani). Will he be able to free RaPUNzel from her tower prison? To add to the fun, director English returns as our favourite sassy pink cat, who first arrives on sabbatical, but comes on board to assist as only this cat can. And co-writer Doyle appears as the set-changing, noise-shushing Nonna,* a sweet old granny who suffers no fools.

It’s all very wacky and pun-filled—and we’re all invited to join in the fun. Gibbs gives a diabolically silly turn as the vain and manipulative Twankey; and Yazdani does an awesome Don Corleone impression as her husband, as well as a comedic, scene-stealing turn as the dim-witted yet determined Prince. Beaty is hilariously conflicted as the ogre Monsanto; holding RaPUNzel captive for “reasons,” the ogre’s love and care of his garden makes you wonder how bad to the bone he really is—and he brings some kick-ass guitar and vocals to that George Thorogood classic in the process.

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Taran Beaty as the ogre Monsanto, with Sebastian Marziali as Chicken (left), Chris Gibbs as Twankey (background) & Amelia Welcher as RaPUNzel (right)—photo by Burke Campbell

 

Welcher is adorably precocious as the feisty punster RaPUNzel; and impresses with great vocal chops on a Pink power ballad. Foote and Marziali give hilarious turns in multiple roles, starting with a pair of mobsters and a couple of dancing lettuce. Foote is hysterical and educational as RaPUNzel’s bff hare pal Bunny, schooling us on the differences between the hare and the rabbit. And Marziali brings cute and wacky fun as Monsanto’s right-hand man Chicken, providing comic observations and cheeky advice.

We’re invited—and encouraged—to cheer the heroes and boo the villain, and sing and groove along with the pop tunes, rap and musical theatre songs. And a few lucky young audience members will have a chance to get in on the action.

With big shouts to stage manager Deborah Ann Frankel, who’s been with this wild and wacky ride from the beginning; running all the lighting and sound cues, and shepherding the cast.

Pun and games for kids of all ages, with hilarious panto good times, in RaPUNzel.

RaPUNzel continues at Red Sandcastle until January 7, with evening performances at 7pm on December 29 and 30, and January 2-6; and matinees at 3pm on December 28 and 30, and January 3, 6 and 7. Get your advance tickets online (see the date-specific ticket links on the show page) or by calling 416-845-9411.

*As of December 28, Nonna will be played by Panto Players veteran Brenda Somers.

Backstage gangster shenanigans & romance in the delightful, sizzling Kiss Me Kate

Another opening of another show for Alexander Showcase Theatre last week with its production of Kiss Me Kate, music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Sam and Bella Spewack. Directed by Vincenzo Sestito, with music direction by Gwyneth Sestito and choreography by Jaime Robertson, Kiss Me Kate is currently running at Fairview Library Theatre. I caught the show yesterday afternoon.

Chock full of Porter favourites that have since become beloved standards, Kiss Me Kate combines Shakespeare with musical comedy. Director/producer/lead actor Fred Graham (Pat Brown) is in Baltimore with his company, opening a production of The Taming of the Shrew. With big hopes of being picked up by a Broadway theatre, he’s hired film star Lilli Vanessi (Finnie Jesson) to play Katherine opposite his Petruchio. Trouble is, they used to be married; and old feelings of pain and romance begin to surface—despite Katherine being seriously involved with mysterious man from Washington, D.C. Harrison (Ian Scott).

Meanwhile, Fred’s been friendly with ingénue Lois Lane (Sharon Zehavi), who’s been cast as Katherine’s kid sister Bianca; she’s hoping to land her big break with this show, as well as romance with young actor Bill Calhoun (James Rowan), who’s playing Bianca’s beau Lucentio. Bill likes to play the odds, but isn’t very good at it; and he’s racked up some serious debt with a local gangster—and signed Fred’s name to the IOU.

Cue the shenanigans when two gangsters (Brandon Chambers and Eliot Winkler) show up in Fred’s dressing room to collect the debt. Adding to the comedy of errors, a bouquet meant for Lois has wound up in Lilli’s hands and Fred is in the dog house—and the show in jeopardy. Fred convinces the gangsters that Lilli is vital to the show’s success—to hilarious effect as they thwart her plans to leave during intermission and begin shadow her, inserting themselves into the show in the process.

It’s all great good fun and the ensemble does a marvelous job singing and dancing their way through this tale of theatre folk working their tails off doing what they love. Jesson and Brown have fantastic chemistry as Lilli/Katherine and Fred/Petruchio—and both have excellent pipes. Jesson is luminous, especially with Lilli’s wistful longing in “So In Love” and Katherine’s impassioned rage in “I Hate Men.” And Brown shows great range with Petruchio’s comic, lusty bravado in “Where Is The Life That Late I Led?” and Fred’s heartfelt realization in “So In Love.”

Other stand-outs include Zehavi’s ditzy Lois, a starlet in waiting with a heart of gold and lots of love to give—maybe too much, in Bill’s eyes. She gives a slinky and playful performance as Lois pleads her case in the “Always True To You In My Fashion.” Rowan’s Bill is a likable young scallywag and leading man who’s got a lot to learn about the world. A great match here as well, with Lois and Bill’s duet “Why Can’t You Behave?” in Act I.

Christoph Ibrahim does a bang-up job as Fred’s dresser Paul, leading the ensemble in “Too Darn Hot” at the opening of Act II; featuring Jonathan Eidelman and David Shiff on solos. And Chambers and Winkler are full of LOL fun as the two gangsters, especially with their duet “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”

With big shouts to the design team: Peter Thorman (set), Gwyneth Sestito and Cheryl Lee (costumes), Chris Humphrey (lighting) and Carlos Fernandez (sound effects); and to the orchestra, conducted by Gwyneth Sestito.

Backstage gangster shenanigans and romance in the delightful, sizzling Kiss Me Kate.

Kiss Me Kate continues at the Fairview Library Theatre until April 8; for dates/times and online booking, scroll down on the show page. You can also book by email or by phone: (416) 324-1259.

Here’s directions to Fairview Library; accessible by TTC.

 

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious & deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Katherine Cullen & Britta Johnson in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Better late than never to the party, as I finally got out to see Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson’s SummerWorks hit Stupidhead! A Musical Comedy, directed by Aaron Willis—now in its final week in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Written and performed by Cullen and Johnson, who also collaborated on the lyrics, with music by Johnson, Stupidhead! is a part musical, part stand-up, part personal storytelling journey of Cullen’s experience living with dyslexia.

Stupidhead! is Cullen’s childhood dream of being in a musical come true. And, despite her lack of training, experience and self-reported ability, she was determined to make it happen; and recruited her good friend Johnson to help her write the music. Johnson joins her onstage, accompanying her on piano and back-up vocals—reacting to Cullen’s performance throughout, sometimes cracking up along with the audience.

Pointing out that dyslexia affects people differently, Cullen has no trouble with reading and writing—and as a child enjoyed escaping into writing poetry, and stories about the adventures of a silly koala and rabbit. Diagnosed at a young age, Cullen relates her struggles with math, organizational skills and directions, finding herself mentally lost at school and physically lost in her own neighbourhood—and, above all, labelled. And that label put her in the position of having to deal with ignorance and lack of compassion from others, making her sense of otherness feel even more isolating and humiliating, and becoming a part of her identity.

Her anecdotes about trying to fit in are both hilarious and moving—from her grade three poetry contest nemesis (now a CFL football player), to being lost on her own street, to two weeks in a puppet camp in Vermont as a young adult and her love of Jesus Christ Superstar—all delivered with genuine feeling and gusto. While it’s a show about the “glamour of failure,” it’s also a show about throwing off the chains of shame and isolation. In the end, Cullen avoids tying it up neatly, but emerges from the darker moments of her experience into a place of hope and determination.

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Katherine Cullen in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

Cullen shines onstage. An engaging, genuine and charming performer, she’s gutsy and kick-ass, but also vulnerable and fragile. As she schools us on dyslexia, she gives us the straight goods about what it’s like to live inside her head. And she gives ‘er with the music, putting her all into performing the songs, from belted out numbers to gentle, heartfelt ballads. She and Johnson make a terrific duo. Johnson is pretty damn funny herself; and there’s a lovely tender moment of compassion and understanding between them that rings with friendship and love. And their anthem of “don’t give up!” brought tears to my eyes.

With big shouts to set designer Anahita Dehbonehie and lighting designer Jennifer Lennon for the cool and beautiful neurosciencey environment.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious and deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Stupidhead! continues in the TPM Mainspace, closing on Apr 2; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529. Check out Hallie Seline’s interview with Cullen and Johnson for In the Greenroom.

And here’s the trailer:

 

 

NSTF: Hidden WWII treasure, a closeted aunt, a shifty foreign cousin & other family secrets in the funny, surprisingly poignant, Songbuster

Songbuster Inc. brings the funny with a musical twist in with Songbuster – An Improvised Musical; a new show created every performance by the ensemble with musical director Tom King. Currently running during the Toronto Fringe Next Stage Festival (NSTF) in the Factory Theatre Studio, the ensemble features Tricia Black, Kristian Bruun, Ashley Comeau, Alexandra Hurley, Stephanie Malek, Josh Murray, Nug Nahrgang, Nicky Nasrallah and Connor Thompson.

It all starts off with an ask. In this case, the ensemble asking an audience member for a setting to work with; something in the nostalgic gathering department. The woman in the front row suggested a family reunion. And off they went.

From there, a series of musical scenes unfolded, incorporating various music styles from classic musical, to country western, to blues, to ballads. A cantankerous, forgetful grandfather has a heart-to-heart with his hair-eating, taxidermy practicing teenage granddaughter Claire, who was named after her grandmother (one of the only things he can remember), who was known to walk the tightrope on occasion. The strained relationship between Aunt Eleanor and her husband Philip, who both really like to drink beer (like, a lot), unfolds as we learn that Eleanor is secretly in love (mutually so) with their next door neighbour Martha. An unexpected guest arrives, a previously unknown cousin from Norway, who cross country skied the whole way there—and who has secrets of his own.

And then there’s Claire’s mother Donna, trying to keep things together at home since her husband John left for another woman. And her kid brother Robert, who misses his dad’s scary bedtime story character voices and takes out his confused frustration by punching trees. Unbeknownst to this family, John is making his way home to the family ranch, hoping for reunion and redemption.

Meanwhile, Grandpa unearths the strange cousin’s secret and rallies the family to protect a hidden cache of WWII treasure (and weapons, apparently) buried on the property—forcing everyone to put their differences aside for the good of the family.

Amazing work from the ensemble in this hilarious trip through family relationships and crises—and all with music and improvised lyrics, folks. And these guys can sing. This performance of Songbuster included some surprisingly poignant moments, especially during John’s entrance. Sorry for his trespasses and realizing the huge mistake he made in leaving, he’s been longing to return home to be reunited with Donna and the kids. Here, solo turns into quartet as Donna and the kids join him in the background.

Hidden WWII treasure, a closeted aunt, a shifty foreign cousin and other family secrets in the funny, surprisingly poignant, Songbuster – An Improvised Musical.

Songbuster – An Improvised Musical continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Jan 15. Get your advance tix and passes online; and check out the full NSTF schedule.

 

Some sympathy for the devils in StageWorks Toronto’s Assassins

Assassins colourized alley“Attention must be paid!” This line from The Death of a Salesman is used as a major talking point by John Wilkes Booth in Assassins. Not able to achieve recognition by regular means, there are some people who will go to extreme measures to be noticed, undertaking the death of another.

StageWorks Toronto’s production of Assassins – music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, and directed by Lorraine Kimsa and Michael Yaneff, with music direction by Tom Kerr – takes us through a history of nine American assassins, from the 1860s to the 1970s.

Starting at a carnival in limbo, the Proprietor introduces eight of the assassins, arming each with a period appropriate handgun. Spinning the Wheel of Presidents, the Proprietor starts it all off with Booth in 1865 – the father of American presidential assassinations. Our trip through history is not a chronological one, and each outcome is interwoven with various scenes of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore on their comic, bumbling road to their target Gerald Ford. And throughout, the Balladeer adds musical moral commentary on the situation at hand.

It’s not all dark comedy fun and games, though – the final assassination presented – the most affecting historically and personally for America – is nurtured to its horrible fruition by Booth and the others as they coax Lee Harvey Oswald to pull the trigger on John F. Kennedy from that Dallas Book Depository window.

Overall, an excellent cast, serving up some strong vocals – with some stand-outs. Luke Witt is very effective as the devilishly seductive Proprietor, while Hugh Ritchie is beautifully bright and soothing as the Balladeer – the devil and the angel on opposite shoulders of the collective assassins’ consciousness. Rich Burdett is remarkable as Booth, combining a striking, commanding presence and powerful vocals – and his scene with Oswald (played with great passion and inner conflict by Nicholas Arnold) is particularly chilling. Will van der Zyl delivers a hilarious and poignant performance as the crazy Santa Samuel Byck, in his tape recorded letters to Leonard Bernstein and Richard Nixon, outlining his plan to fly a 747 at Nixon in 1974. Laurie Hurst is lovably kooky as Moore and Christie Stewart is adorably deluded as Fromme – and Stewart does a lovely duet, “Unworthy of Your Love,” with Mike Buchanan (nice work as the sensitive, but extremely troubled John Hinckley Jr.), a love song to their celebrity obsessions Charles Manson and Jodi Foster.

Collectively, the Ensemble (Anthony Botelho, Stephen Flett, Lauren Lazar, Suzanne Miller and Peter Nielson) give a lovely, moving performance of “Something Just Broke,” presenting first-hand citizen accounts of where they were when they heard about their president’s death, led by especially strong vocals by Lazar. And the assassins do a great job with “Another National Anthem” and the finale “Everybody’s Got the Right” – hymns of the disenfranchised and marginalized, left behind economically and in some cases dealing with mental health issues. Eerie in light of ongoing current events in the U.S., where everybody’s got the right to own a gun, but not everyone has access to mental health care or equal opportunity – and the deadly, tragic combination these can make.

With shouts to set designer Michelle Tracey, and lighting designers Karen Brown and Paul Harris, for the aesthetically pleasing, very effective multi-level creepy carnival in limbo, with great use of back-screen projection for the footage of the Kennedys making their way from the airport and through Dallas to that shot that was heard around the world. And the use of balloons on set to create the gunshot sounds was both clever and spooky.

Everyone needs to be loved and everyone needs to matter. But not everyone goes about it by deciding to kill the President of the United States. And rightly so. For a couple of hours, we hear their stories, their reasons – and perhaps we can offer up some sympathy. But in light of a deadly, final outcome, we can only feel so sorry for these poor devils.

StageWorks Toronto’s production of Assassins is a rousing, darkly entertaining and moving piece of musical cautionary storytelling. Attention must be paid.

Assassins continues its run at the George Ignatieff Theatre until July 27.