Toronto Fringe: Family, sacrifice & hope in the timely, heart-wrenching Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy

Trisha Talreja, Jennifer Walls & Liana Bdewi in Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy—photo by Dahlia Katz

Thick and Thin Theatre Productions presents Rick Jones’ timely and poignant musical Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy. Directed by Barbara Larose, assisted by Ellen Green, with music direction/accompaniment by Robert Graham and stage management by Margot “Mom” Devlin, the Paul O’Sullivan Prize-winning show is running at the Randolph Theatre for Toronto Fringe.

Opening not with music but with the sounds of gunfire and bombs, we are thrown into a horrific world of civil war, where sisters Mara (Liana Bdewi) and Saleet (Trisha Talreja) have lost everything—except each other. In search of a safe place away from the bullets and collapsing buildings, they accept the help of family friend Tobim (Nabil Ayoub), a soldier fighting for the government who has connections with a man who can get them passage across the sea. Only able to afford one passage, Mara insists that her younger sister Saleet go, and plans to reunite with her sister when Saleet has settled somewhere safe. Their mother’s jewellery proves insufficient payment to the pirate Zaydal (Milton Dover, in multiple roles, including the Judge), and Tobim pledges to work security for him for a month.

During the sea voyage, Saleet meets Manu (Noah Beemer); he has papers, money and a lawyer aunt sponsoring him, while she has nothing. In a bargain that will benefit them both, she accepts his “on paper” marriage proposal, as it will be better for them both to be travelling as man and wife. Meanwhile, Tobim is taking out his displeasure at having to work for Zaydal on Mara, who is forced to become his slave in order to survive in the refugee camp. Raped and beaten, she never gives up hope that Saleet has made it to safety.

By the time Saleet and Manu get to his aunt’s (Jennifer Walls, in multiple roles), they have fallen in love; and with a baby on the way, they are granted refugee status and set about sponsoring Mara. Unfortunately, Mara’s application is denied; she’s been associated with Tobim, who’s been labelled a terrorist. They must find another way to bring Mara over—but will it work?

The music has a Western Asian flavour; and there are some particularly beautiful duets, especially between the sisters, and Saleet and Manu, with stand-out vocals from Talreja, Beemer and Walls (who also plays a UN refugee worker). News headlines come into an up-close and personal focus as we see the human stories behind the statistics. As this is a musical tragedy, there is heartache and grief—and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes.

Family, sacrifice and hope as separated sisters struggle for safety and reunion in the timely, heart-wrenching Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy.

Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy continues at the Randolph Theatre until July 16; see dates/times and get advance tickets online.

StageWorks Toronto’s Cabaret: Sexy, powerful and boldly staged with a sharp ensemble

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Toshi Murohashi, Jean-Paul Parker & Rachel Hart in Cabaret – photo by Michael Yaneff, Foreshots Photography

Berlin in the early 1930s: a city teaming with life, creativity and possibility. The Kit Kat Klub: a seedy palace of edgy, playful and raunchy entertainment. And a political storm is brewing that will change everything.

StageWorks Toronto opened its fifth musical, Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret (book by Joe Masteroff, based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood), at the George Ignatieff Theatre last night.

Directed by Michael Yaneff, with Music Director Tom Kerr and Choreographer Camille Dziewurski, this production of Cabaret plays all the conflicting dimensions of this story: love and lust, fame and mediocrity, hope and despair. It is both funny and moving, going from entertaining to disturbing – but even the brighter moments have a dark edge.

An excellent, energetic cast does the playful raunch with gusto – and all the while, we know these characters are literally singing and dancing, and sexing, for their lives. The lighter, entertaining atmosphere of the first act grows increasingly foreboding as darkness descends in the second act when the Nazi Party gets a grip on Germany – and this place of song, dance and camaraderie becomes a place of tears, desperation and betrayal. This production goes big on the seedy lust and malevolent politics in its staging, so be prepared for some nudity, sexy times and discomfiting moments.

Shai Tannyan & Hugh Ritchie in Cabaret - photo by Michael Yaneff, Foreshots Photography
Shai Tannyan & Hugh Ritchie in Cabaret – photo by Michael Yaneff, Foreshots Photography

Jean-Paul Parker shines as the Emcee, going from playfully saucy in “Wilkommen” and naughty in “Two Ladies” to darkly edgy in “The Money Song” and drunkenly despairing in “I Don’t Care Much.” Shai Tannyan’s Sally Bowles is a vivacious and sensuous British girl gone wild in her search for fame and fortune on her own terms, her flippant attitude covering a fragile heart. From her sexy crooning at the Kit Kat, to her more introspective moments in the driven but vulnerable “Maybe this Time” and the spiralling desperation of “Cabaret,” Tannyan finds the diva entertainer and the lost girl in Sally. As Cliff Bradshaw, Hugh Ritchie doesn’t get as many opportunities to sing as he did as the Balladeer in StageWorks’ Assassins, but he gives a strong performance as the wide-eyed, passionate and somewhat naïve young novelist who comes to Berlin longing for adventure and excitement, and experience – be careful what you wish for.

Deva Neely and Buck Delaney have lovely chemistry as landlady Fraulein Schneider and her fruit seller tenant Herr Schultz, making an adorable couple with “It Couldn’t Please Me More;” and when their relationship goes off the rails, Neely gives a heartbreaking performance with “What Would You Do?” And really nice work from Eric Synnott as the affable, mysterious and crisp Ernst Ludwig, and Melly Magrath as the cheeky and opportunistic Fraulein Kost.

With shouts to the sexy fun talents of the Kit Kat Boys and Girls: Michael Manning (who stepped in to cover another part last night – thoughts go out to Paul Silvestri and his family) and Danik McAfee (who, as the Soldier, also gives an eerily beautiful, foreshadowing performance of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”), Emily Brown, Kathleen Doerkson, Karen Frank, Rachel Hart, Toshie Murohashi and Émilie O’Brien; and Lawrence Stevenson as their stern and lascivious boss, Kit Kat owner Max.

And shouts as well to set/costume designer Michelle Tracey and the orchestra.

StageWorks Toronto’s Cabaret is sexy, powerful and boldly staged – featuring a sharp ensemble.

Cabaret runs at the George Ignatieff Theatre until July 26; you can purchase tix in advance online. And you can follow StageWorks Toronto on Facebook and Twitter.

Bloody good musical macabredy fun in Alexander Showcase Theatre’s Sweeney Todd

ST_Web_Banner-685x269From the dark, seedy nooks and alleyways of the foggy set, and creepy opening organ music to its tragic ending, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street takes us from pathos to camp and back again in this story of one man’s singular and bloody drive for revenge gone horribly astray.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler and adapted by Christopher Bond, this particular trip to the dark side of Fleet Street comes courtesy of the folks at Alexander Showcase Theatre (ASL), directed by Vincenzo Sestito, with music direction by Gwyneth Sestito and choreography by Jaime Robertson – running now at the Al Green Theatre. ASL’s Sweeney Todd features a cast of thousands, with a fine and energetic ensemble, and an outstanding core cast that includes some familiar faces and voices.

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Patrick Brown & Sara Stahmer in Sweeney Todd – photo by John Meadows

As the titular infamous barber, Patrick Brown (back with a fright wig hair style last seen when he played the title role in ASL’s Young Frankenstein) gives a compelling portrayal of a man both frozen with grief and seething with rage, the layers of heartbreak and guilt showing beneath the bitterness and merciless sense of vengeance (so aptly illustrated in his ode to his collection of razors “My Friends”). As Todd’s landlady and partner in crime Mrs. Lovett, Sara Stahmer bursts onto the stage, buxom, raucous and larger than life, taking the piss out of herself and her pie shop as she shouts from the rooftops about “The Worst Pies in London.” A woman with secrets and desperately in love with Todd, she’ll do anything to keep him with her as their individual needs and desires marry into an unspeakable arrangement.

Seth Mukamal is diabolically chilly and repugnant as the tyrannical and corrupt Judge Turpin, a covetous and nasty man with a hint of the romantic (“Pretty Women,” an ironic and suspenseful duet with Todd). Jeremy John Yorga gives a great turn as Turpin’s right hand man Beadle Bamford, a sinister soul with a flair for flattery and a taste for quaint old tunes (“Parlour Songs” with Mrs. Lovett and Tobias). As the secret, put-upon young lovers Anthony and Johanna, Joshua Wales and Alexandra Reed have adorable chemistry. Reed’s beautiful crystalline voice in “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” is the essence of Johanna’s innocence and longing, and Wales’ soaring, heart-felt “Johanna” offers a glimmer of hope for these bright-eyed young people – brief moments of optimism in an otherwise hopeless and harsh world. Nina Mason is endearingly cocky as the boy Tobias, a seasoned salesman and showman despite his youth – and a lad with a crush, intent on being Mrs. Lovett’s protector (“Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and “Not While I’m Around”). As Todd’s professional rival, the pompous huckster Adolfo Pirelli, Darrell Hicks gives us a sly and slick charlatan with an amazing set of operatic pipes. And as the mysterious Beggar Woman, Sharon Zehavi gives a performance that is both bawdy fun and poignantly heartbreaking, skulking in the shadows, haunted by the vague memory of a former life (“Ah Miss” and “Wait”).

With shouts to set designers Peter Thorman (also Head Builder) and Beth Roher (also Head Scenic Artist), and costume designer Cheryl Lee for their evocative period creations. And to the ASL orchestra, a small but mighty force of fine musicians.

ASL’s Sweeney Todd is some bloody good musical macabredy fun with an excellent cast. Get on over to the Al Green Theatre for some darkly funny, thrilling good times.

Sweeney Todd continues at the Al Green Theatre until May 10; you can purchase advance tix online here.

SummerWorks: Powerful, moving & darkly funny apocalyptic musical And Now, The End

HERO-And-Now-the-End-149-620x500A musical about an impending apocalypse by asteroid? Count me in!

Ante Up Productions’ And Now, The End at SummerWorks – by writing team Victoria Hauser, Emily Nixon, Drew O’Hara, Zach Parkhurst and Jake Vanderham, with music, lyrics and music direction by Vanderham, and direction by Esther Jun – is just the thing.

Roxton, a small Canadian town, becomes a microcosm for a what-if scenario of an upcoming global-scale disaster, where we see the practical, social, emotional and psychological effects on humanity. The opening scene between the Doctor (Amir Haidar) and Patient (Zach Parkhurst) sets the tone: the Doctor’s job has become about assisted suicide.

Attempts to stop Asteroid AXS-677’s trajectory towards Earth have failed and citizens have been told that it will collide in a year, in effect ending the world. The news throws society into chaos, forcing people to rely on transistor radios and landlines to maintain communication. Buddies Dan (Paolo Santalucia) and Scott (Jeff Yung) have taken advantage of the situation at the local, now abandoned, radio station where they once worked low-level jobs to start their own radio show, providing news, views and music. Cathy’s (Tamara Bernier Evans) astronaut husband is stranded on a space station and befriends her neighbour’s brother Frances (Troy Adams), who has returned home to find his brother’s family gone. School’s out for high school seniors Johnny (Hugh Ritchie) and Clare (Ruth Goodwin), but these BFFs will never really graduate. And Inez (Kaleigh Gorka) is alone and will give birth within the year.

The score soars and moves, with gorgeous cello arrangements, beautiful lyrics and strong vocals from the ensemble. Full cast choral work book-ends the show with “Beneath Our Falling Sky” to set the scene and the finale “Look To The Burning Horizon,” a bittersweet, hopeful anthem for what’s to come. Santalucia’s and Yung’s scenes provide great comic relief (“Listen To Our Show”). Gorka and Haidar give a lovely performance of the passionate and conflicted love song “Kiss Me;” while Bernier Evans’ moving “Parts of You” is a heartbreaking grasp at the memory of what her husband looks like – and Adams is equally moving as the man who reluctantly stands in for that memory (“Crazy”). Goodwin’s account of an incident from Clare’s past, one that has repercussions today (“Look in the Eyes”), is a beautifully rendered ballad of pain and conflicting emotions. Ritchie’s “Frogs in the Rain,” a song about Johnny and Clare’s childhood adventures, brought tears to my eyes.

These are complex relationships, made all the more poignant by the countdown to impact: One year, one month, one week. One day.

With shouts to Beth Kates’ set design: the sterile white environment, the abandoned personal artifacts, and the moving flats with black light-activated illustrations of the constellations, are starkly beautiful – not to mention eerie.

And Now, The End is a powerful, moving and darkly funny apocalyptic musical with an outstanding cast and score.

Do the Mirvish folks know about this?

There are two more performances for this run, playing at the Theatre Passe Muraille main space: tonight (Sat, Aug 16) at 10 p.m. and Sun, Aug 17 at 5 p.m. You can also follow And Now, The End on Facebook.

World Pride musical drag fabulousness & support for PWA – A Chorus Queen

A-Chorus-Queen-Poster-30I was very happy to kick off my World Pride Toronto experience with the opening of A Chorus Queen at Hart House Theatre last night; a drag musical conceived by Marc Simcox (also the show’s executive producer and artistic director) and Ramzi Ayyash, with book by Joseph Amenta.

Directed by Heather Nassler, with choreography by Lucas Porter, A Chorus Queen takes us on a journey of live, love and following a dream as we tag along with three intrepid drag queens Tanya (Justin Deschaine/Laydee Justice), Veronica (Devion Farley/Devine Darlin) and Dede (Andrew Pelrine/Bunni Lapin) – sisters in heels – on their trip of self-discovery as they go after their dream of performing at the Moulin Rouge. All presided over by their mentor Mama Rose (Chantelle Helena Carr/Farra N Hyte), and accompanied by a hot and talented ensemble of young men (aka “the boys”), a soundtrack of well-known and beloved show tunes, the hilarious hoofer antics of the puckish Delicious Dick (Jose Arias/Dyna Thirst) – and a struggle against the vicious machinations of the evil queen Unca (Matty Cameron/Scarlett Bobo). Adding to the fun and glamour is a cast of guest queens, including Sofonda Cox, Brooklyn Hytes, Judy Virago, Xtacy Love, Carlotta Carlisle, Jada Hudson, Igby Izzard and Ala Mode.

A Chorus Queen is a singing, dancing, drag extravaganza, featuring stunning costumes by Michael DiFruscio, and witty – sometimes bitchy – banter. The second act especially stands out, with Carr giving her all in a knock-out performance of “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy; and Farley and Pelrine rock “Take Me Or Leave Me” from Rent. I adored the rendition of “You Don’t Own Me” from (the First Wives Club (movie version) from our three heroines Deschaine, Farley and Pelrine – reprised near the end of the show in its full pop glory. And the entire cast gives us a tap number that’ll knock your socks off.

A Chorus Queen is a magically delicious drag musical with sparkles on top. And if that weren’t enough, the show is a fundraiser for the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation (PWA).

That’s two reasons to go out and see A Chorus Queen. If you need a third – it’s World Pride! A drag show is pretty much compulsory for a complete Pride experience. The show runs until June 28 – be sure to note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time.

So go forth, get tickets, have lots of fun and support a great cause. And have a happy and safe Pride! xo

#DICKWHITFORMAYOR and his… Cat brings holiday panto fun @ Red Sandcastle Theatre

DICKWITFORMAYOR-POS-ON-LINE-1.21Red Sandcastle Theatre continues its annual tradition of holiday fun for all ages with its musical pantomime #DICKWHITFORMAYOR and his… Cat.

Co-written by Jane Shields and Rosemary Doyle (who is also Red Sandcastle’s owner and A.D.), all the classic panto characters are here – with a twist and a decidedly local flavour, including some timely jabs at municipal politics. Inspired by Dick Whittington and His Cat, this version is set in two Toronto neighbourhoods at opposite ends of Queen Street, Parkdale and Leslieville (the latter the location of the theatre), and references local Leslieville shops. Drawing from music theatre and current pop music, the cast belts out tunes from the likes of Annie and Katy Perry – to great fun effect.

The energetic, multi-talented cast takes us on a big wacky fun ride as our young hero Dick Whit (played with adorable, wide-eyed optimism by Allison McCaughey) is inspired by the world-wise Vagrant (fierce style and cockney sass from Brenda Somers) to travel from Parkdale to Leslieville to find his fortune. In Leslieville, Dick encounters Jamie Olisfer the Nasty Chef (played with delicious arrogance and a soupcon of evil charm by Taran Beaty) and his employer the Widow Twankie (Phil Luzi, gloriously larger than life in a series of stunning bright pink wigs) – and Dick’s luck begins to change for the better. That is, until he’s kept up all night by the awesome moves and super-energized go-getter ‘tude of tap dancing brother and sister act King Rat (Andrew Prashad, who brings a lovely sense of verve and naiveté) and Queen Rat (Sarah Murphy-Dyson, who rounds out her performance with an adorably sweet insecurity). Coming to Dick’s rescue is the Cat, an audience favourite at all of Red Sandcastle’s pantos (played by Jackie English with unflappable nerve, cocky charm and cat-like agility), who provides a unique solution to the rat problem. And, of course, the nasty Chef has a disgustingly evil plot and our stalwart hero Dick manages to thwart it with the help of his friends.

With shouts to SM Deborah Ann Frankel, who’s stage managed every panto at Red Sandcastle Theatre, for running sound and lights, and keeping it all together.

You have two more chances to join in the fun at #DICKWHITFORMAYOR and his… Cat – today (Sat, Jan 4) at 3:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. All happening at Leslieville storefront theatre Red Sandcastle Theatre – 922 Queen St. East (north side, just east of Logan, next to Ed’s Real Scoop).