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.

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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.

Toronto Fringe: Post-apocalyptic mayhem and LOLs for days in hilarious, action-packed Wasteland

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Sex T-Rex is back at Toronto Fringe again with their own special brand of physical, film-inspired scripted comedy – this time, with Wasteland, directed by Alec Toller, running at the Randolph Theatre.

The world has been turned into a desert, complete with radioactive zones, a rebar forest and a mutant-infested mall. One glimmer of hope exists, though: The King (Josef Addleman) broadcasting rock ‘n roll from a radio station in Graceland – not a myth, but a life-saving mutant repellant. Over at the Compound, where Marshall (Seann Murray) is the Boss’s right-hand man, an unassuming janitor named Ernest (Conor Bradbury) is forced to make a choice. And he chooses Graceland. With his loyal, feisty sidekick Boy (Kaitlin Morrow) at his side, Ernest travels through dangerous territory and guts for days, pursued by Marshall and his gang. Their journey includes a stopover at the mutant-infested mall, where Professor Mulworth (Julian Frid) and his secret lab may be their last hope. In order to prevail, Ernest must become the hero even he never expected.

Drawing on movie lore from the likes of Mad Max and Tank Girl, the cast does a kick-ass job with the storytelling, which includes awesome fight scenes, car chases, inventive props, awesome puppetry and a rawkin’ soundtrack. Dark comedy abounds, with some surprising poignant moments and plot twists that will keep you laughing and on the edge of your seat. Plus, the show’s program includes a free, hand-drawn map of the Wasteland world.

Post-apocalyptic mayhem and LOLs for days in hilarious, action-packed Wasteland.

Wasteland continues at the Randolph Theatre, with two more performances tonight (Fri, July 8) at 7:30 p.m. and Sat, July 9 at 12:00 p.m. For ticket info and advance tickets, check out the Fringe website.

Toronto Fringe: A most outrageously funny mashup in Romeo & Juliet Chainsaw Massacre

romeo_and_juliet_and_a_chainsaw-wielding_maniac

Bain & Bernard Comedy has cooked up one helluva theatrical mashup for Toronto Fringe with its production of Matt Bernard’s Romeo and Juliet Chainsaw Massacre, directed by Bernard and running to packed houses at the Randolph Theatre.

Inspired by a variety of horror films throughout the decades, particularly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Scream and The Tower of London, we find Romeo and Juliet’s Verona under advisement (via 1950s radio-style broadcasts) that a deranged killer is on the loose after escaping from a local asylum. Dialogue from Romeo and Juliet is combined with modern language to great comic effect, and all hilarious hell breaks loose during the campy fun scenes of stalking and dismemberment.

The kick-ass ensemble has excellent comic timing, and does an amazing job with the hybrid language, chainsaw mayhem SFX and fight scenes. Stand-outs include Sarite Harris’s feisty Nurse; Michael Iliadis’s dramatic Mercutio; Brittany Kay’s sassy Juliet; Jeremy Lapalme’s saucy Peter the Illiterate Servant; Victor Pokinko’s slapdash Benvolio; Nicolas Porteous’s serious, misunderstood Romeo; and Scott Garland’s cocky, sleazy County Paris.

All the key plot points of an abbreviated Romeo and Juliet plus the over-the-top gruesome fun of horror schlock. What more could you ask for?

Star-crossed lovers! Codpieces! Chainsaws! A most outrageously funny Shakespeare/horror film mashup in Romeo and Juliet Chainsaw Massacre.

Romeo and Juliet Chainsaw Massacre continues at the Randolph Theatre until July 10; get your tickets in advance for this one, kids, these guys are packing them in there. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.

Toronto Fringe: Engaging, immersive storytelling & a bird whispering love letter to mom in charming, poignant Life List

life-list-press-photo-1-credit-andrew-gaboury-medAre you ready for an adventure? Then you must come along on Alex Eddington’s bird watching walking tour Life List at this year’s Toronto Fringe, directed by Tyler Seguin and starting off at the Randolph Theatre.

Wear some good walking shoes and bring binoculars. If you don’t have binoculars, no worries – Eddington has extra and he’s got great tips for those who haven’t used them before. Working in pairs, with binoculars and clip board maps in hand, you’ll set off into Seaton Village (the neighbourhood just northwest of Bathurst/Bloor) as you assist Eddington in his search for an elusive and rare leucistic bird that’s been sighted in the neighbourhood, and drawing a following of fans and protectors. There’s even a debate on what to name it.

As you scan the trees for movement and check the ground for evidence of feathers, and note any sightings on your map, Eddington gives a brief history of how he got into bird watching. Through anecdotes, songs and memories, we learn of his late mother’s love of birds – and how she kept a life list of her sightings in a little silver book, which contains sightings dating back to 1977. Before she died of breast cancer in 2014, she passed her book and her bird watching legacy on to Eddington, who fondly recalls watching with her. Stories of family and beloved pets emerge, in particular a cockatiel named Spike; full of character and definitely part of the family, Spike was also a winged guardian for Eddington.

I first saw Eddington perform during a preview of his SummerWorks production of Yarn two years ago. An entertaining and genuine storyteller/field trip leader, in Life List he adeptly weaves interesting facts and tidbits about our feathered neighbours with childhood memories and stories of family, especially his mother. The tension comes when the time and energy spent on the object of our search becomes challenging, tedious and seemingly fruitless. Where did she go?

Engaging, immersive storytelling and a bird whispering love letter to mom in the charming, poignant Life List.

Life List continues, with its starting point at the Randolph Theatre, until July 10; advance tickets are a good idea for this one – spots are limited and the show has been getting good buzz. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.

Toronto Fringe: Big fun therapeutic trip through time, space & friendship in Peter n’ Chris Present: Here Lies Chris

Peter n' Chris Present: Here Lies Chris
Peter n’ Chris Present: Here Lies Chris

Toronto Fringe favourites Peter n’ Chris are back again this year with their own special brand of sketch comedy shenanigans in Peter n’ Chris Present: Here Lies Chris, running at Randolph Theatre.

When Chris (Chris Wilson) dies in a tragic accident, Peter (Peter Carlone) must travel through time and space to find a replacement Chris in an alternate universe.

Here Lies Chris features hilarious physical comedy, including classic comedy bits, chase scenes and interdimensional travel sequences – all interwoven with real-life personal conflict between our boys. From the hysterical opening, where the boys air drum along to Fun’s “Some Nights” – Peter’s arms flailing like Kermit the Frog – to the movie homage (Lord of the Rings, Braveheart, The Matrix, Stand By Me), kick-ass soundtrack and heartfelt conclusion, your eyes and seat may very well be wet (with laughter and pee, respectively).

Peter n’ Chris Present: Here Lies Chris is a big fun therapeutic trip through time, space, friendship and sketch writing partnership.

Peter n’ Chris Present: Here Lies Chris continues at the Randolph Theatre until July 11 – check their Fringe show page for exact dates/times. Meantime, why don’t you go ahead and give Peter n’ Chris a follow on Twitter.

Toronto Fringe: A rootin’ tootin’ wild west good time in Peter n’ Chris & the Kinda OK Corral

peter_n_chris_hand_gunsPeter n’ Chris (aka Peter Carlone and Chris Wilson) are back at Toronto Fringe, this time with their own brand of sketch comedy in Peter n’ Chris and the Kinda OK Corral – on now at the Randolph Theatre.

Peter Earp and Texas Chris become unwitting allies in the fight against an evil oil baron (inspired by Francis Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s character in The House of Cards) to save Peter’s farm, corral and beloved cow.

Hilarity and shenanigans ensue, in this show that is part scripted, part improv, part homage to movie westerns – featuring soundtrack bites from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Brokeback Mountain, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I especially loved the dramatic saloon entrance slow pan from the boots up, the horseback chase scene, and that Peter and Chris both got turns at playing the bad guy.

Peter n’ Chris and the Kinda OK Corral is a rootin’, tootin’ barrel of wild west fun!

The show continues at the Randolph Theatre until July 12 – check here for exact dates/times.

In the meantime, Peter n’ Chris are launching a web series Hardly Men, based on the Hardy Boys, and you can help them out by contributing to their indiegogo campaign.