Hope everyone’s been enjoying the holiday season. As we say goodbye to 2016 (for better or worse), it’s time for the annual top 10 theatre list. As usual, this is always a challenging endeavour, so I’ve added a few honourable mentions (in alphabetical order):
Soulpepper added an extra bit of cheer to its holiday programming this year with its production of Philip Grecian’s adaptation of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, directed by Soulpepper Artistic Director Albert Schultz, assisted by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, and opening to a packed house at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre last night.
Set as a 1940s radio play performed on stage—with the actors playing actors playing characters in the story—this version of It’s A Wonderful Life gives us all the favourite moments of the film version, including the dialogue, with the added fun of a behind-the-scenes look at some fabulous Foley (sound effects) work, designed by John Gzowski. And last night, we had the added treat of a charming performance of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” from the Dixon Hall Music School children’s choir.
George Bailey (Gregory Prest) has spent his entire life helping others in his small town. As a kid (Richie Lawrence) he saved his kid brother Harry (Christef Desir) and after school employer, pharmacist Mr. Gower (Diego Matamoros). And as an adult, he sacrificed college and travel to save the family building and loan business from falling into the hands of the corrupt and wealthy Mr. Potter (Matamoros). All so the hard-working, struggling folks of Bedford Falls could have a fair chance at a decent home.
Challenges aside, he’s got a pretty good life, with a lovely, supportive wife Mary (Raquel Duffy) and four sweet kids (Daniel Mousseau, Thea Lapham, Michelle Monteith and Richie Lawrence). Until one Christmas Eve Day, a banking mistake made by his absent-minded uncle Billy (William Webster) threatens to cost him everything. And in his most desperate hour, his guardian angel Clarence (Oliver Dennis) appears and sets out to show him what the world would have been like if he’d never been born.
This production truly captures the spirit of this beloved holiday classic, and then some. In true radio broadcast style, the show features live commercial spots shouting out Soulpepper’s corporate sponsors and other holiday program offering, with live piano accompaniment (James Smith of Chasse-Galerie). But the biggest fun of all has to be the Foley artistry, featuring Christef Desir, Daniel Mousseau and Marcel Stewart as the soundmen (operating a neat assortment of sound-making props and gadgets, and playing multiple characters as well); with the entire ensemble creating various sound effects vocally. And at the end of Act I, aptly staged during George and Mary’s honeymoon scene, the stage goes to black as the scene continues, with lights on the vintage radio down stage left—giving us a taste of the radio drama experience.
Exceptional work from this cast. Stand-outs include Prest, who brings a good-natured authenticity to George Bailey, an everyman performing everyday acts of heroism; there’s really nice chemistry with Duffy’s Mary, George’s warm but feisty perfect match. Matamoros delivers some delicious voice work, from the velvet smooth tones of the announcer, to the gravel-voiced Mr. Gower, to the malevolent, grasping villain Mr. Potter. And Dennis is adorably quaint as the underdog Angel Second Class Clarence, determined to earn his wings.
Monteith brings some great vocal chops and range, going from the slinky town party girl Violet, to the too cute for words Zuzu (George’s youngest daughter, famous for Zuzu’s petals); and Mousseau is a delight as Martini, the owner of one of the town’s favourite restaurants. And shouts to kid actors Lapham (Young Mary and George’s daughter Janie) and Lawrence (Young George and George’s son Tommy).
A little holiday magic with some big Foley fun in Soulpepper’s delightful 1940s radio play production of It’s A Wonderful Life.
It’s A Wonderful Life continues the Bluma Appel Theatre—and, good news, it’s been extended to December 31. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.
Check out the behind-the-scenes video for a peek at the fun in store:
And while you’re at it, check out some of Soulpepper’s other holiday treats, including its annual production of A Christmas Carol and the Family Festival programming. Here’s hoping that It’s A Wonderful Life becomes an additional holiday tradition at Soulpepper.
When we enter the theatre, we find ourselves in the Flying Canoe pub on New Year’s Eve, greeted by members of the band/cast and availed of bar service – when our narrator Lucy (Ghazal Azarbad) emerges to tell us a tale of the Chasse-Galerie, a folk tale of a wild hunt in which those caught up in its path join the hunt forever.
On another New Year’s Eve, four coureuses des bois (i.e., female lumberjacks) are cold, exhausted and nearly out of whiskey. Alex (Tess Benger) longs to see her sweetheart, the lovely golden-haired fiddle player Jaune; Lea (Nicole Power) misses her red-headed whiskey maker Michel-Paul; coincidentally, so does Michelle (Kat Letwin); and Toba (Shaina Silver-Baird) doesn’t have someone special, but pines for music and romance. Fondly remembering their favourite Old Montreal pub, The Flying Canoe, the four women are dying for a road trip. There’s just one problem: it’s a three-day trek.
Enter Damien (Tyrone Savage), disguised as a weary frozen stranger, who offers them a way to get their wish and travel to the pub in hours. But his magic comes with conditions and a price: they must not swear or touch a cross, and they must be back by dawn. If not, their souls belong to him.
The women agree to his terms and travel by magic flying canoe to Old Montreal; convinced they’ll be fine as long as they don’t drink – especially Michelle, who has the biggest potty mouth of them all. Alex sets off in search of Jaune (Alicia Toner), and Michelle finds the lusty Michel-Paul (Michael Cox) before Lea does. And Toba becomes smitten with the bashful band leader Francois (James Smith), who is equally taken with her and gives her a fiddle lesson. Meanwhile, Lea meets a handsome cowboy who speaks in Shakespearian verse (the angel Uriel in disguise, played by Hunter Cardinal). To ensure that he reaps those four souls, Damien enlists Lucy’s assistance to foil our four heroines at every turn.
All hell breaks loose in the pub and dawn is fast approaching. When all seems lost, Toba challenges Damien to a fiddle duel to save her friends. And you won’t believe what happens next!
Incorporating animation, puppetry, songs and folk dance – not to mention a butt load of Québécois swears, including a very catchy audience participation tune at the end of Act I – Chasse-Galerie is one big fun musical ride of adventure and friendship, featuring performances from an outstanding multi-talented cast. Everyone sings and everyone plays an instrument (in Smith’s case, more than one); the excellent band is rounded out by Justin Han (drums) and Jason O’Brien (bass).
Benger’s Alex is sweet and pious; she may be a virgin, but Alex is full of fierce passion and love for her Jaune. Letwin is hilariously irreverent as Michelle; hard-drinking and a master at cursing there’s a soft gooey centre beneath that tough exterior. Power’s bespectacled Lea is the level-headed brains of the group; and when she finds herself struggling with the prospect of lost love, she gets some unique advice from Uriel about what to do about her love triangle situation. Silver-Baird’s Toba is the peacemaker of the group; not expecting to find love at The Flying Canoe, she is put in the difficult position of choosing between her dream and making it home on time to save her own soul and those of her friends.
Savage is deliciously diabolical as Damien; comic and compelling, Damien’s dead serious when it comes to this deal – and he needs these souls as much as the four women want to keep them. Azarbad is cabaret sexy and delightfully mischievous as Lucy; our storytelling host and Damien’s right-hand minion, she excels at manipulation and even gets on a bit of romancin’ of her own.
With huge shouts to the design team for this remarkable, immersive environment: Lindsay Dagger Junkin (set and props), John Leberg (scenic magic), Holly Lloyd (costumes), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Andre Stankovic (sound) and Daniel Briere (projection and puppetry).
The Devil went down to Old Montreal. A singin’, dancin’, whiskey drinkin’ helluva good time in the foot stompin’, magical Chasse-Galerie.
Chasse-Galerie continues the Young Centre; get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666. it won’t be there forever though – so what are you waiting for?
Update (Nov 17):The run of Chasse-Galerie has been extended, with new shows just added:
Some big magical fun at the Young Centre last night when I went to see Soulpepper’s production of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You, directed by Joseph Ziegler, where we spend a few days in the family’s living/dining room witnessing the comings and goings of various family members, friends and even prospective in-laws in this rollicking circus of a household.
Set in the late 30s, the living/dining area of the Sycamore home is surprisingly neat, considering all the various pursuits and work going on in the house. Mom Penny (Nancy Palk) has been turning her hand to playwriting of late – this after giving up painting – with several scripts in progress, moving from one to another when she gets writer’s block. Dad Paul (Derek Boyes) plays with Meccano erector sets in his spare time, and designs and creates fireworks in the basement with friend/colleague Mr. De Pinna (Michael Simpson), an child-like unmarried chap, formerly the ice man who came into the house eight years ago and never left. Daughter Essie (Patricia Fagan) works at home as a candy maker and is an aspiring ballet dancer, but not particularly good at it after eight years of studying with Mr. Kolenkhov (Diego Matamoros), while her husband Ed (Mike Ross) who delivers the candy, accompanies her dancing on the xylophone and enjoys printing things – everything from the family’s dinner menu to phrases that catch his fancy. Daughter Alice (Krystin Pellerin), the most conventional member of the family, works at an office, where she meets and falls in love with Tony (Gregory Prest), the boss’s son. Grandpa (Eric Peterson) decided to quit the rat race 35 years ago and has been having loads of fun ever since attending circuses and commencements, playing darts, collecting stamps and caring for his snakes. In addition to the family members are Rheba (Sabryn Rock), the Sycamores’ maid/cook, and her boyfriend Donald (Andre Sills), the handyman – who in their way are both family as well.
Tony and Alice want to get married, but Alice is worried that her unconventional family won’t fit in with prospective – wealthy and conservative – in-laws Mr. and Mrs. Kirby (John Jarvis and Brenda Robins). And her nightmare comes true when Tony brings the folks over a day early for dinner and, despite her family’s support of the match and wanting to make a good impression, all hell breaks loose.
Kaufman and Moss have written a highly entertaining piece about family, acceptance and finding your bliss. Do what you love even if you’re not particularly good at it – as long as you’re getting a kick out of it, it’s all good. Like Grandpa says of money and position: “You can’t take it with you,” so you may as well relax and enjoy yourself – a very forward-thinking notion for the time.
A thoroughly charming play, with lovely performances all around. I especially enjoyed Peterson, an audience favourite who gives us a brilliantly funny and real performance as Grandpa, commenting on the household goings-on and calling folks on their silliness, his pre-dinner grace more like a state-of-the-union chat with God. Additional cast include some fun turns from Raquel Duffy as a drunken actress who comes to read for Penny, Maria Vacratsis as a displaced Russian royal now working as a waitress, and Brian Bisson and Tim Ziegler as the G-men who raid the Sycamore’s dinner party (with Ziegler also playing Henderson, the IRS man who comes to see Grandpa about his unpaid income taxes).
Busy week for this bloggergal, chickens. Here’s a peek at what I’ll be up to:
Atic Productions has a short run of Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? opening at the Tarragon Extra Space tonight and running until June 24. This production was directed by Carter West, and features actors Benjamin Blais, Ben Hayward, Rosemary Doyle and Tim Walker. I’ll be wandering over on Friday. For info: http://aticproductions.com/
So after not getting on top of the ticket ordering in time to see its previous Soulpepper run, I finally got out to see Kim’s Convenience at the Young Centre last night. And this time, I took two pals Kerri and Ty along for the ride.
Weyni Mengesha directed the Soulpepper run (playwright/actor Ins Choi directed for Toronto Fringe run last year) with most of the same cast from the Fringe premiere, with the exception of Clé Bennett, appearing on stage for the first time (well, since high school), who took on the role of Alex and various other characters. Once again, this outstanding cast gave us a truly funny, poignant and real performance. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee is brilliant as Mr. Kim (aka Appa) – bringing us a stoic, stubborn, hard-working man with a quick temper and sharp wit – not to mention awesome martial arts skills – and a sweet guy under the gruff veneer. Jean Yoon returns as Mrs. Kim (Umma), creating a wife and mother who is tiny in stature but big on love, strength and support – and do not piss her off. Lee and Yoon have lovely, tender moments as husband and wife, speaking to each other in Korean during private moments – and in the context of the scene, understandable to everyone in the audience. Other favourite exchanges are between Kim and his daughter Janet (Esther Jun), at times hilarious – from their quick-fire banter to Kim’s imparting his “steal” or “no steal” theory – to combative and intensely fond. Jun is a fun-loving spitfire as Janet, a 30-year-old single gal living at home with her parents and an aspiring photographer, is smart, funny and itching to get out of the store and have a life, but she loves her family dearly despite the generational and cultural differences with her folks. Clé Bennett does an excellent job of juggling four very different characters, including the cop Alex, a childhood friend of Jung’s who now sees his friend’s kid sister Janet with a man’s eyes – and likes what he sees – giving us a nice combo of good-humour and shy suiter. Choi reprises his role as Jung, the son who at first is only spoken of in terms of his troubled teen years and an incident involving his father before he left home at 16. We see him for the first time meeting his mother, in secret, at the family’s local Korean church, a church that is closing due to condo development in the neighbourhood – the same evolution that Kim faces when he is offered a buy-out for the store from a developer. Choi brings a nicely rounded prodigal son tempered by feelings of nostalgia – and a sense of pain regarding the separation from his birth family and disillusionment with his own life and family.
Seeing Kim’s Convenience a second time (I saw it during its Toronto Fringe run last year) was a pleasure – and I got to relive my favourite moments with the Kim family, with two members of my chosen family, who were both seeing it for the first time. And that’s always cool too – watching the reactions of folks who are visiting Kim’s Convenience for the first time.
You know what? It’s okay to laugh during a Eugene O’Neill play. Sure, the themes of family dysfunction, addiction and despair are emotionally taxing – for the actors and the audience – but it’s not all grim and gloom. There are some genuine giggles to be had – and not all of them on the darker side of funny.
That was a happy surprise for me as I watched Soulpepper’s production of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night last night – it’s long, it’s intense and the occasional bit of comic relief was most welcome, the laughter like a communal exhalation, the entire audience dropping their shoulders, minds relaxing if only for a moment.
Director Diane Leblanc has a lovely cast for this production: Evan Buliung, Nancy Palk, Krystin Pellerin, Gregory Prest and Joseph Ziegler. Real-life husband and wife Palk and Ziegler play Mary and James Tyrone – she a wife, mother and morphine addict, and he a once great actor turned land- and money-grabbing miser, given into fear of ending up in the poorhouse. Their eldest son Jamie (Buliung) is a disappointing wild child, while their youngest Edmund (Prest) is favoured and in ill-health. All three men are alcoholics. The adorably cheeky maid Cathleen (Pellerin) knows the family well enough on a day-to-day level, but is seemingly unaware of the darker family dynamic at work in the house.
Long Day’s Journey is a deeply tragic autobiographical play – and O’Neill had wanted it kept under lock and key until 25 years after his death, but his widow opened it early. An Irish Catholic tragedy of isolation, addiction, despair and desperation – the Tyrones are his family, including himself. It’s a long, challenging play for both actors and audience, but the cruelty of the family’s substance-addled battles are softened by moments of comic relief and even tenderness. Cruel to be kind, you always hurt the one you love. My favourite scenes are the two-handers: Mary inviting Cathleen to sit down for a drop of whiskey, relating the tale of how she and James met; Edmund and James drinking and playing cards, with James revealing the desperately impoverished childhood that is the source of his miserly ways; the two brothers, Jamie drunkenly returned from the whorehouse, confessing evil intentions and ill-will towards his baby brother – but with a love and tenderness that belies his callousness.
Lovely design work from Peter Hartwell (set and costumes), Steven Hawkins (lighting) and John Gzowski (sound). Like the Tyrones themselves, the family’s summer home is neglected and worn out – a house, but not a home – the upstairs windows suspended from the flies, as if floating, and the centre upstairs room with the small table lamp is particularly foreboding. The lighting is frugally dim, on James’s orders, and the mist of the fog rolling in, with the accompanying sounds of fog horn and bell adding to the sense of isolation. Everything about this family and this place is haunting.