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.

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Toronto Fringe: Out of the echoes of pain and loss comes a beautiful noise in the powerful, moving Echoes – A New Musical

nickeshia_garrick_and_kyle_holt_brown - echoesWriter/director Andrew Seok “wanted to write a musical about war and its effect on families and relationships” – and he’s done just that, to great effect with Chaos & Light’s production of Echoes – A New Musical, running at Toronto Fringe at Jeanne Lamon Hall in Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church, with music direction and accompaniment by Robert Graham.

Inspired by personal letters and journal entries, and taking us across decades and into a new century, Echoes is divided into three acts, starting with the American Civil War, where fugitive husband (Kyle Holt Brown) and wife (Nickeshia Garrick) slaves are separated when the wife and their daughter (Millie Davis) are captured; when he reaches the north, the husband joins the army to gain his freedom. Act II takes place during WWI, where we see the effects of war on the future of a young captain (Andrew Seok) and his fiancée (Marisa McIntyre). Act III finds us in WWII and a father (Micah Richardson) leaving his daughter (Millie Davis & Amaka Umeh) to serve in the army shortly after her mother has died; ashamed by what he’s doing in the name of duty, he constantly breaks his promise to return home to his daughter until years later. The common, running thread throughout all of these stories is the courier (beautifully performed by Jeff Madden), delivering and receiving letters for delivery – and wondering about the reasons for it all.

The score is filled with gorgeous, heart-wrenching ballads, with some dark comic relief (performed by a pair of scoundrels played by Hart Massey and Christopher Sawchyn – “The Treaty” and “We’ll Be Back”). Stand-outs include “Demons & Angels,” “Angels Won’t Sleep Tonight” and “All the Things that Life Used to Know.” And “Hymn,” the gospel-inspired finale lead by Nickeshia Garrick is a perfect way to end this piece in that it reminds us of the better angels within us all.

I’ve seen several standing ovations over the course of Fringe this year, but none so unanimous as the one the Echoes cast received last night.

Out of the echoes of pain and loss comes a beautiful noise that reminds us what we could be in the powerful, moving Echoes – A New Musical.

Echoes – A New Musical has one final performance at Jeanne Lamon Hall in Trinity St. Paul’s: tonight (Sat, July 9) at 8:00 p.m. They’re sold out, but there may be a few stray tickets at the door.

Big eclectic, quirky fun with music that moves and grooves – The Fairest & Best @ Horseshoe Tavern

Was out on a school night at the Horseshoe Tavern last night to see The Fairest and Best. I’d met front man Robert Graham a couple of years ago at a Red Sandcastle Theatre fundraiser – and had a chance to sample some of his solo work Storm in a Teacup, but this was my first time hearing him with the band.

The band played a short, early set – an eclectic mix of pop, 80s-inspired rock and Latin stylings on a variety of themes, from sweet love songs (“Do You Believe in Love?”) to rockin’ anthems of social commentary/consciousness (“Refugee”). Quirky, fun and engaging, the band got the crowd movin’ and groovin’.

The Fairest and Best features some outstanding musicianship and tight vocals with excellent harmonies. Band members are: Robert Graham (lead vocals and keyboard), Tony Nesbitt-Larking (drums), Darryl Wood (bass guitar and vocals), Gerry Williams (guitar and vocals), Jimmy Reilly (guitar and vocals) and Caitlin Holland (vocals).

Keep an eye out for these guys; check out their upcoming show dates here. You can follow The Fairest and Best on Facebook and Twitter – and stay tuned for their upcoming EP release later this year.

Here are some pix from last night’s festivities:

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An eclectic, trippy journey through sound on Robert Graham’s “Storm in a Teacup” CD

Storm in a Teacup coverWhen I dropped by Red Sandcastle Theatre for the In Loo Of fundraiser a few weeks ago, owner/manager/AD Rosemary Doyle introduced me to Robert Graham, who was there to accompany singers on piano for the four-day open mic event. While chatting with Graham, I learned that he’s also a singer/songwriter – and I headed home that evening with a copy of his Storm in a Teacup CD.

Co-produced by Graham and Chris Brown, Storm in a Teacup is a trippy, eclectic collection of pop, rock and blues – with hints of jazz and soul – accompanied by some stand-out musicians and vocalists, including Graham, Brown, Anton Fier, Andy Love, Teddy Kumpel, Rob Jost, Tony Scherr, Alec Barken, Dan Charbonneau, Eli Abrams, John Abrams, Ford Pier, Eric Schenkman, Kerryn Graham and Leann Cunningham.

Storm in a Teacup starts out with the gentle, unassuming instrumental track “Blue Lullaby (Intro.),” slips into pop ballad “Reaching You” and finishes with a soul vibe on “Set it Free (Afro-Astro Mix),” a remix of earlier mellow pop track “Set it Free.” From the epic rock-operatic “Living in a Coma” to the comic tale of unrequited love in “In Love with a Girl” to the haunting jazz/blues-infused piano instrumental “Second Prelude,” there’s a big range of emotional and musical expression on this record. And “Jonathan Baker” combines the whimsical poignancy of Beatles storytelling with the dark social commentary of The Police’s “Synchronicity II” – a quiet life of desperation about to explode in the face of a cruel world. The lyric “It’s easy to be nasty. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to be nice” is particularly potent. Storm in a Teacup is a trippy journey through genres and musical moments, each song a brand new vibe. Check it out.

You can catch Robert Graham, playing with his new band The Fairest and the Best at The Central on Monday, May 13 at 7 p.m. And on Friday, May 24, he’ll be hosting Robert Graham and Friends – A Fundraising Concert for the “We Are Jose” Campaign – 7:30 p.m. at Lower Ossington Theatre. For details on these two shows, please visit the Gigs page on Graham’s website.

Robert Tanglefoot photo
Robert Graham

In the meantime, you can also pay him a visit on his YouTube channel and check out his new single “Believe In Love.