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.

Liberty at any cost – hardened life choices in Toronto Irish Players’ Big Maggie

bigmaggie1Saw another marvelous Toronto Irish Players (TIP) production yesterday afternoon – this time, John B. Keane’s Big Maggie, directed by Harvey Levkoe, on now at Alumnae Theatre.

Big Maggie is set in 1960s rural Ireland, where recently widowed Maggie Polpin (Janice Hansen) is delighted at her newfound freedom from a philandering lout of a husband – and doesn’t care who knows it. Her four young adult children, each in various stages of grief, are disappointed when mum takes control of the family farm and general store, not receiving their expected share of the business – and are forced into choosing her way or the highway. For Maggie, her singular goal is to live free and secure, with no one to answer to or for but herself. And she is not above making some ruthless, calculated choices to get there.

Levkoe has a fine cast for Big Maggie, with some particular stand-outs. Janice Hansen gives an outstanding performance as Maggie, the complex family matriarch, full of anger, ambition, desire and unstoppable drive. Maggie has a sharp wit and can be darkly funny, but is also so very lonely – and by choice. Lovely turns from the actors playing the Polpin kids: Ben Clifford as the oldest brother Maurice, struggling to come to a compromise with his mother so he can have a life of his own; Kyrah Harder’s Gert, the youngest daughter and “good girl” of the family, dreams still intact, and longing for her mother’s love and approval; Conor Murphy as the impetuous firebrand youngest brother Mick; and Kate Sheridan as “bad girl” Katie, strong-willed and driven, but no match for her mother. Stephen Flett was a delight, providing comic relief as Byrne, the cemetery monument sculptor and hopeful bachelor. Damien Gulde was very effective as the charming playboy travelling sales rep Teddy; and Rebecca Liddiard gave a strong, layered performance as Maurice’s sweetheart, balancing the introvert/extrovert and mild/fierce sides of Mary.

Shouts to designer Wayne Cardinalli, and the construction and dressing teams, for a beautifully rendered, detailed and practical set that drew us into the Polpin’s world.

Liberty at any cost. In the end, Maggie, with her life-hardened choices, is as much a victim of time, place and circumstance as those around her are victims of her premeditated cruelty – especially her children.

Big Maggie continues its run on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage – until March 8. I strongly recommend you reserve in advance – this past weekend’s performances were sold out.

In the meantime, check out the Big Maggie backstage goings-on via interviews and production photos on the TIP blog, by writer/journalist/blogger Jennifer Hough.

A moving, infuriating inspiration – StageWorks Toronto’s Parade

DSC_4453
Scott Labonte (as Leo Frank) and Lauren Lazar (as Lucille Frank). Photo by Nicholas Jones.

I saw Parade for the very first time when I went to see StageWorks Toronto’s production last night at the George Ignatieff Theatre.

With music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, and book by Alfred Uhry, StageWorks’ production of Parade was directed/choreographed by Lorraine Green-Kimsa, assisted by Michael Yaneff, with music direction by Tom Kerr. Based on a true story of prejudice and gross miscarriage of justice, Parade is a moving, heartbreaking, infuriating inspiration of a musical.

The large energetic cast includes stand-out performances by the two leads: company co-founder Lauren Lazar (Lucille Frank, co-producer) and Scott Labonte (Leo Frank), both doing a lovely job with both the musical demands of their roles, as well as their characters’ arcs. Their relationship distant and strained, Leo is a stiff, frustrated but decent man, while Lucille is prim and loyal – and both face a test of loyalty and strength, both personal and marital, throughout the course of Leo’s trial and incarceration, culminating in the beautiful duet “All The Wasted Time.”

Twaine Ward (Newt Lee & Jim Conley) does a stellar turn, especially as the charming and resourceful Conley, showing great acting and singing chops on “That’s What He Said,” “ A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’” and “Blues: Feel the Rain Fall,” the latter including some great choreography for the chain gang scene. Luke Witt has great range as young Frankie Epps, going from cheeky flirt in “The Picture Show” to devastated, vengeful friend in “There is a Fountain/It Don’t Make Sense.” Stephen Flett does a great job with Governor Jack Slaton, a good ‘ole boy who finds himself rethinking the questionable methods he’s been employing to keep things neat and tidy politically. A nice pairing with Kelly Lovatt-Hawkins as his wife Sally, a balancing influence and an equal in their marriage – and a great fun, charming song and dance number in “Pretty Music.” The villains in this story are played with relish and realism – Will van der Zyl’s Hugh Dorsey, the politically ambitious snake of a D.A., and Michael Yaneff as Watson (also co-founder/co-producer), the dangerous, right-wing Christian bible thumper. All of the characters exude their own kind of virtue and all are flawed.

Parade is certainly a strong socio-political commentary of the time, place, people and justice system – but what makes it so compelling is that it’s a very human story. A husband and wife discover the true love and strength of their marriage, and a governor does the right thing despite the likely peril of his political career.

“Parade” is a reference to the annual April 26 Confederate Memorial Day parade – it is also about the parade of humanity. The show opens and closes with “The Old Red Hills of Home” – first sung by a young soldier going off to fight in the Civil War, then at the end led by Frankie Epps, who is going off to fight in WWI. Not much changes in the 50-odd years in between – and one only has to read the newspaper to see that there is work yet to be done on the justice system in the south.

Parade runs at the George Ignatieff Theatre until August 18. Here’s one of the preview vids for the production – the finale of the rousing and somewhat disturbing, given the play’s journey, “Old Red Hills of Home.” You can see all the Parade preview vids on the StageWorks Toronto’s website:

Chillingly fascinating journey into man’s dark side – Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

Last night, I headed to the Papermill Theatre to see Amicus Productions’ Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, adapted from the Robert Louis Stevenson novella by Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by Harvey Levkoe. Not to be confused with the musical version that has also been playing in Toronto recently.

Dr. Jekyll (Christopher Irving) is man driven to find a way through that door of the mind that leads to man’s baser, primal nature – the dark side of his personality – to study it in order to ultimately control it. What he doesn’t count on is his own dark side becoming physically manifest, to the point that a very different man emerges, bursting forth and wrecking havoc in the city, engaging in every form of debauchery – even to the point of torturing, maiming and murdering. And even when Jekyll realizes what is happening, he is somehow able to dissociate those evil actions – they were done by someone else: Mr. Hyde (played by a mini-ensemble of four multi-tasking actors: Chris Coculuzzi, Stephen Flett, Derek Perks and Jenn Sellers). As we are warned during a medical school lecture: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Of course, it all ends very badly for the “good” doctor.

Wayne Cardinalli’s minimalist set design is incredibly effective. The central set piece, the rotating door – red on the side facing the street and steel blue grey on the inside – is a perfect realization of that door into the mind that Jekyll is so keen to unlock. Another key piece is a wooden table on castors: an examining table, displaying corpses for medical students in one scene, later becoming the bed at the hotel Jekyll checks into and where he meets Elizabeth (Stephanie Barone), the woman Hyde loves. Orderlies/servants played by assistant stage managers Kristin Myers and Jamie Zhuravel, along with the cast, shift the set pieces and furniture, changing the scenes with choreographed precision.

The use of four Hydes is particularly interesting – and the four actors, including one woman, each bring different colours to the character. Coculuzzi, the Hyde who falls in love with Elizabeth, is a wounded animal, instinct pushing him to lash out, but finding peace and calm in a woman’s love. Flett is menacing as the rough and course Hyde, while Perks finds his diabolical side and Sellers the smooth, charming tones. And Irving gets a chance to find the savagery in Jekyll, as the lines between him and Hyde blur near the end of the play and he can no longer distinguish between his “good” and “bad” self.

Levkoe has an excellent cast to take us on this trip, which also features Coculuzzi’s daughter Cabiria Aquarius as the Little Girl. Barone is brave and tender as Elizabeth, seeing beyond the surface of Hyde’s brutality into his pain, as well as Jekyll’s torment. Coculuzzi (also Dr. H.K. Lanyon) and Flett (as lawyer Gabriel Utterson) do a nice job of switching back and forth from their respective Hydes to supportive friends of Jekyll. Perks and Sellers do a great job of juggling mini-casts of their own, with Sellers playing male and female characters, including Jekyll’s servant Poole and one of the Hydes, and Perks shifting from arrogant surgeon Sir Danvers Carew to a wry-witted private investigator and Hyde, among others.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a chilling, compelling – at times darkly funny – journey into the dark side of the mind. As bad as you know it’s going to get, you can’t help but be fascinated by this story. And the four Hydes on the stage, shifting in and out from other characters, remind us of the potential for cruelty that lies within all of us.

You have a few more chances to see this – it runs until this Saturday (November 24), with matinée and evening performances on Saturday. Click here for more info: http://www.amicusproductions.ca/current_season.php#jekyll