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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The irrepressible Marie Dressler’s life, love & career in Alumnae Theatre’s delightful, entertaining Queen Marie

Naomi Peltz, Katherine Cappallacci, Siena Dolinski & Seira Saeki. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre Company closes its 100th anniversary season—with heart, moxie and rip roaring good fun— with Queen Marie, a musical by Shirley Barrie, directed by Rosemary Doyle, with music direction by Paul Comeau and choreography by Adam Martino.

Queen Marie is a biographical musical about Canadian-born 1930s Hollywood star actress/comedienne Marie Dressler. Director Doyle takes us to the vaudeville stage, complete with proscenium arch, a live band on one side and stall seating on the other. Using minimal set pieces, projected images up centre present show posters and images of various locations as we travel through Dressler’s storied life and career.

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Catherine Ratusny & Tess Keery. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Born Leila Koerber in Cobourg, Ontario, we witness Dressler being bitten by the acting bug at the age of five (Tess Keery), performing in tableaux realized by her mother (Catherine Ratusny, who also plays Dressler in her 40s). At 14, she lies about her age (Gabriella Kosmidis), saying she’s 18, and gets a job with the Nevada Travelling Stock Company and changes her name to Marie Dressler; launching her career and landing in the U.S.

From tableaux, to theatre, to vaudeville to the silver screen, Dressler’s career is a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs as she weathers the highs and lows of the business, embracing her ‘big girl’ brand with self-deprecation and good humour—and giving her all, and then some, to any part put upon her.

Shifting from theatre to movies, Dressler gets a break, working with fellow Canadian Mack Sennet (Adam Bonney); she goes on to work at MGM with Irving Thalberg (Conor Ling) and Louis B. Mayer (Rick Jones). Performing with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery, Dressler packs movie houses with her comedic antics, and poignant, gutsy dramatic performances—receiving a Best Actress Oscar at the age of 60 (Leslie Rennie) for her performance in Min and Bill in 1930, and a nomination for Emma in 1932. A top box office draw in America at the time, she becomes the first female actor to appear on the cover of Time Magazine.

Embracing romance along the way, she meets and beings an affair with the charming Jim Dalton (Rick Jones), a married man with a wife in Boston who is smitten with Dressler, and woos her with gentlemanly manners and oysters. While happy to live the unorthodox life of an actor, Dressler longs for the stability and respectability of marriage, and she gets her wish; they later divorce after a series of unpleasant revelations regarding her shrinking bank account. Well into middle age, Dressler becomes smitten with Claire (Nina Tischhauser), a young nurse turned actress who she meets at an Oscar party. The two move in together and set up a cozy domestic and professional partnership, with Dressler acting as Claire’s acting mentor; but the relationship takes Claire away from her own dreams and aspirations—and Claire is faced with a hard decision.

Betrayed and cheated throughout her life—both personally and professionally—it is noteworthy that Dressler finds her primary source of support with her close network of women: her friend, astrologer Nella Webb (Siena Dolinski and Nance Gibson, playing Nella at different ages); her no-nonsense, fastidious maid/assistant Mamie Steele (Fallon Bowman and Indira Layne, playing Mamie at different ages); feisty cub reporter/fan turned screenwriter/Hollywood casting advocate Frances (Katherine Cappellacci); and her companion in later life, the tender, loyal caregiver Claire (Nina Tischhauser, who also plays Dressler in her 20s).

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Jessica Bowmer, James Phelan & Tess Keery. Photo by Bruce Peters.

It’s an ambitious production, imaginatively staged with a cast of 25 enthusiastic multitasking actors that includes 21 women, 10 of whom play Marie at various ages and stages of her hard-working, determined, never dull life. Paula Wilkie plays Dressler in the final scenes; despite a serious cancer diagnosis, Dressler eschews her new role as bed-ridden patient, opting to work on three MGM films in six months before dying at the age of 65. Shouts to all the Marie Dresslers (not previously mentioned: Michele Dodick, Katrina Koenig, Stella Kulagowski & Naomi Peltz) for their energy and panache! Other stand-outs include Ling’s snobbish Brit actor Dan Daley and hilarious turn as a petulant Hollywood film director; Jessica Bowmer’s adorably precocious Boy, who hawks newspapers, peanuts and oysters, and gets into scrapes with his competition; Tischhauser as Dressler’s supportive but conflicted lover Claire; and Rick Jones does a mean tap dance bit.

She’s the Queen! The life, love and rollercoaster career of the irrepressible star Marie Dressler in the delightful, entertaining Queen Marie.

Queen Marie continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until April 28. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office: 416-364-4170, ext. 1 (cash only at the box office). Performances run Wednesday – Saturday at 8 pm, with PWYC matinees on Sunday at 2:00 pm.

The run includes a final Post-Show Talkback on Sunday April 22. Check out the fun trailer:

 

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Just before I sat down to write this review, I read in an Alumnae Theatre Twitter post that playwright Shirley Barrie had passed away; I’ve since learned that she’d been living with cancer and died on Sunday. I’m not sure if she was able to see this current production of Queen Marie, but Doyle, cast and crew did her proud. Thoughts go out to Shirley’s loved ones.

Preview: Silly, half-baked schemes & fake identities abound in the charming, farcical Tons of Money

Back row: Neil Nicholas Kulin, Rob Neilly, Ana Gonzalez, Christopher Wakelin & Drew Smylie. Front row: Kory Preston, Len Henderson, Paula Wilkie, Konstance Koutoulakis & Charlie Parker-Patel in Tons of Money—photo by Thomas Kowal

 

Took a trip out to Scarborough last night for a sneak peek preview of the final dress rehearsal of Scarborough Players’ production of Tons of Money, written by Will Evans and Valentine, and adapted by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Jeremy Henson, Tons of Money opens at the Scarborough Village Theatre tonight.

Set in 1926 in the library of an English country house at Marlow, inventor Aubrey Allington (Christopher Wakelin) and wife Louise (Konstance Koutoulakis) are merrily carrying on their slapdash lives while mired in some serious debt; Aubrey has invented a new explosive material that he’s sure will make them millions, so he’s not worried. Then they receive word from lawyer James Chesterman (Kory Preston) that Aubrey’s brother has died, leaving Aubrey a large amount of cash in his will; in the event of Aubrey’s death, the inheritance will pass to his cousin George Maitland, who is believed to be dead but not conclusively. To avoid having all the inheritance go to their creditors, Louise hatches a plan for Aubrey to fake his death in a workshop explosion and miraculously return a few weeks later as cousin George and claim the cash.

Meanwhile, the Allingtons’ skulking butler Sprules (Drew Smylie) and watchful maid Simpson (Ana Gonzalez) are hatching a scheme of their own involving Sprules’ brother Henery (Len Henderson). And the Allingtons’ plan gets complicated with the appearance of Louise’s friend Jean (Charlie Parker-Patel), who has been secretly married to cousin George! Throw in the ongoing appearances of hard of hearing Aunt Benita (Paula Wilkie), lovesick gardener Giles (Rob Neilly) and a surprise third act arrival (Neil Nicholas Kulin), and you’ve got even more wacky, hilarious good times. And, of course, all hell breaks loose as secret plots and disguises collide.

The cast gives us a rip roaring good time—and they look like they’re having a blast. Koutoulakis (the fiery, strong-willed Louise) and Wakelin (the absent-minded, laissez faire Aubrey) have great chemistry and sense of chaotic fun as the Allingtons. Wilkie is a treat as Aunt Benita; constantly in search of her misplaced knitting, Benita’s not as dotty as she appears, and emerges as one of the sharpest minds in the room. Parker-Patel is the picture of the 1920s lady of leisure as the romantic, dreamy Jean; and Neilly brings bits of subtle, well-timed comedy to the heartbroken gardener Giles.

With shouts to the design team for the fabulous roaring 20s English country house meets art deco vibe: Greg Nowlan and Katherine Turner (set design), Katherine Turner and Jeremy Henson (set décor), Andra Bradish (costumes), Jennifer Bakker (lighting) and Sidnei Auler (sound). Great, fun staging elements in the silent film sequence off the top and the vaudevillian cowbell sound effect highlighting the gags.

Silly, half-baked schemes and fake identities abound in the charming, farcical Tons of Money.

Tons of Money continues at Scarborough Village Theatre till April 22; check the box office page for dates, times and ticket reservations; or call 416-267-9292. Click here for directions (the theatre is part of the Scarborough Village Community Centre), also home to the Scarborough Theatre Guild and Scarborough Music Theatre; the theatre is wheelchair accessible and parking is free.

With thanks to director Jeremy Henson and producer Linda Brent for having me in to see the final dress rehearsal last night, and to Erin Jones for the drive to/from the subway (and the coffee!).

Lovely ode to vaudeville in the bawdy, funny & poignant Mel Malarkey Gets the Bum’s Rush

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Cathy Petch as Mel Malarkey in Mel Malarkey Gets the Bum’s Rush

Fresh from a very successful run at The Theatre on King in Peterborough, Cathy Petch mounted Mel Malarkey Gets the Bum’s Rush for a one-night performance in Toronto, playing to a packed room at The Cameron House last night.

Accompanied by Dickie the Pianist (director Em Glasspool), Mel (Petch) walks the talk when it comes to ‘the show must go on,’ for her heart is heavy with sad news about her Vagabond Theatre home: the theatre is closing to make way for a movie cinema. And she knows she must tell Dickie and the audience, but hasn’t the heart just yet. And so the intrepid impressaria carries on, introducing her vaudeville show line-up and regaling the audience with skillful musical saw numbers. Taking moments in her dressing room during the acts, she reminisces and read odes to the various loves of her life: her mentor Dr. Sweeney, who ran a travelling medicine show where she got bit by the acting bug while working as his assistant; her male impersonator persona Victor the Crooner, with whom she discovered the man inside; and the unique love she found in the unappreciated beauty of a side-show attraction colleague.

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Cathy Petch as Victor the Crooner

Petch brings a lovely, melancholy sense of mirth to Mel; saucy and entertaining in the shifts from Mel’s bits and introductions, to Victor (a suave lady’s man performer – and “Just a Gigolo” is a perfect song for him), to a Dietrich impersonation-driven spoken word performance on being called a “tramp,” to Dr. Sweeney (the charming rascal elixir salesman). And then, in Mel’s private moments backstage, misty-eyed with memory as she reflects on her history in vaudeville – a job she loves, working with colleagues she regards as family. While Mel’s inability to say the words “goodnight” or “goodbye” is hilarious – there’s an undercurrent of sadness there – and her ability to smile through the heartbreak is what Chaplin wrote and sang about in “Smile.” Glasspool gives one of the most hilarious drunk performances I’ve ever seen as the reliably drunken pianist Dickie; there’s a rhythmic quality to his staggering and swaying, and a child-like wonder on display, as he occasionally gets lost in watching the onstage goings-on while chugging back bottles of Dr. Sweeney’s elixir and needs to be reminded of his cue.

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Cathy Petch as Mel & Em Glasspool as Dickie

Through the 1931derful vaudeville laughs and cheek, there’s a reminder here that live performance brings a flesh and blood immediacy that watching onscreen can’t.

A lovely ode to vaudeville in the bawdy, funny and poignant Mel Malarkey Gets the Bum’s Rush.

Mel Malarkey Gets the Bum’s Rush was a one-night only affair at Cameron House this time around, but keep your peepers open for future productions at a fine performance venue near you.

In the meantime, you can catch Petch hosting the finals for Hot Damn, It’s a Queer Slam at Buddies in Bad Times on April 19.

Interview with writer/poet/cabaret mistress Lizzie Violet

img_1052Lizzie Violet is a Toronto-based writer, editor, poet, blogger, cabaret organizer/host and horror aficionado. She is a huge fan of zombies. She’s also an awesome person and a great friend.

Lizzie hosts Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir (LVCN), which features music, poetry/spoken word, vaudeville and burlesque performers, as well as open mic artists, at The Central. She recently launched Lizzie Violet’s Poetry Open Mic at Amsterdam Bicycle Club, and has ongoing shared organizing and hosting duties for The Beautiful and the Damned poetry and music cabaret at The Central. All this in addition to performing at a variety of other poetry/arts events throughout the City – including WordSpell and Songwriters Circle of Jerks at Free Times Café – and writing (poetry/spoken word, fiction, blogging, music video story and playwriting). I interviewed Lizzie via email about her various projects – and got a peek at what the New Year will bring.

LWMC: So, wow, you’re a very busy gal and I was having a bit of a challenge coming up with what to ask – given your multidisciplined work – so let me first ask about LVCN. You launched it almost a year ago at the former Q Space before moving it to The Central in the fall, and it’s developed quite a following. Tell us a bit about the format and what made you want to launch a cabaret format show.

LV: I certainly do have my fingers in a lot of pies and even with everything I was involved in, I decided to scratch an itch I had for many years. I’ve been obsessed since I was a child, with Vaudeville its history and that entire era (Edwardian/Flappers/1920s). When others find it to be just entertainment, I see the complete beauty in this wonderful art form of performance.

Currently, I only have three features and a true Vaudeville show has anywhere from 12 or more acts per night. Keeping in mind they have an intermission. My dream is to do a full Vaudeville show with a Lizzie Violet twist. There is a lot of preparation that comes with this type of show and I am working to bring that dream to fruition.

LWMC: What’s in store for LVCN in 2014?

LV: In 2013, LVCN grew very quickly into a wonderful night of entertainment. 2014 is about making it bigger and taking it on the road. I absolutely adore our current home at The Central and plan to remain there, but I also want to start taking the event around to other venues in Toronto and eventually other cities in Southern Ontario.

LWMC: This past summer, you wrote the music video script for Toronto band I Hate Todd’s debut single “Zombie Love,” then worked crew for the video shoot. (And I had a blast working crew with you guys that weekend.) Tell us about that experience. What was it like combining your love of writing, zombies and music?

LV: It’s like sitting at a table with all my favourite people, eating all my favourite foods, watching all my favourite movies and laughing till your belly hurts. The whole process from beginning to end, though long hours, was a total blast and I can’t wait to do it again. On top of it all, I got to work with my favourite band and spend three very long and fun filled days with my favourite zombies and friends (both old and new).

LWMC: Your work was published in several poetry/art magazines/collections in 2013 alone, including Carousel, Big Art Book 2, NorthWord and Nest. What can you tell us about the importance of getting published on paper, as opposed to digitally online?

LV: Even in this day and age of digital, publishers and anyone giving out grants to the literary arts, want you published on good ole paper. Plus, there is something about being able to pick up a physical book or magazine and see your words in ink. It’s euphoric. Plus, it’s easier for my Mom to put on her fridge.

LWMC: 🙂 You’ve also been working on a TV pilot script and a stage play. What inspired you to write these? What have been the challenges and delights as you tell stories in these very different formats?

LV: Both the TV pilot and the play have been inspired by real life and the people in it. The most recent project is the play. A really dear friend of mine Nelson Sobral wrote a song called “Arsenic & Turmeric,” and something about this song grabbed at me and this story formed in my head. I wrote the first draft of the play in one evening. I haven’t been this excited about writing something in a long time. At this moment, I have finished the second draft and am hoping to do a reading in the spring.

The TV series is based loosely on the antics of my single life. My dating life has been like a bad sitcom, so I figured, why not turn it into a TV script. It will be true dark comedy. I have changed names to protect the not so innocent.

My current challenges right now are finding the time to sit and be able to write. The bug has bitten me in the ass again, I’ve been writing like I’m on a mission. This all started right before Yule.

LWMC: Writing is a very solitary pursuit, while performing as cabaret host and feature poet is very public. What’s it like being in front of a live audience with your work after spending so much time crafting it in solitude? Does the prospect of performance influence your writing – and, if so, how?

LV: When writing poetry and spoken word, I keep the page and performance pieces separate in my writing process. Though everything can be read to an audience, I have only been performing pieces that I specifically have written to perform. Oddly, those are the pieces that have been published in print.

LWMC: What else is coming up for you in 2014? (See January events here.)

LV: I have a few features coming up. The next one is January 22nd for the Queer Snow Ball, and a few more that will be happening over the next few months. Currently, I am putting a lot of my energy into the Cabaret and Poetry Open mic. I’m hoping to build on the Cabaret and at some point in the near future have a full Vaudeville show.

Other than performing, finish the play and a full season of the TV series and get them produced.

LWMC: Anything else you’d like to share?

LV: Well, firstly, a great big thank you for interviewing me. You truly are an inspiration to me. I’m looking forward to 2014. There is a lot of amazing stuff happening and I can’t wait to find out what else is waiting around the corner for me.

LWMC: Thanks, Lizzie!

The January edition of Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir is tomorrow night (Sun, Jan 12) at The Central with featured artists Brock Hessel, David Bateman, and Cap & Kev (who are both also in the band I Hate Todd) 7 p.m. open mic sign-up. PWYC – $5 suggested.

Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir launch @ Q Space – fun, sexy & smart

Writer/poet/horror aficionado/editor Lizzie Violet launched her brand new monthly cabaret – Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir – at Q Space last night. And what a fun, sexy and thought-provoking night it was.

The cabaret premiere included feature performers Mullet the Clown, David Bateman and Kat Leonard, as well as a very talented line-up of open mic folks. Music, comedy, spoken word, poetry, a zombie clown telling stories and performing card tricks – it was a mix of the ridiculous and the sublime, visceral and cerebral, personal and political, as these talented artists took the stage. Q Space is a casual, intimate, welcoming storefront place, with a cool, eclectic and creative group of folks – and it’s the perfect home for the cabaret as friends, fellow artists and neighbourhood peeps gather to support some incredible local talent.

Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir will be a monthly event, the second Sunday of the month, and will feature music, vaudeville, comedy, burlesque, poetry and open mic performances. The next cabaret is set for Sunday, April 14 (7 – 10 p.m) – with feature artists author/poet Brandon Pitts, music by Cry Wolf (Jess McAvoy and Nelson Sobral from Melting Pot), and burlesque performer Bella Fox. Come on by, get yourself a beer or a latte – and enjoy.

Because this is Cabaret Noir, I decided to do this batch of pics in black and white.

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Tash Jolly (aka Super Tash) performs some spoken word
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Duncan Armstrong
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Brenda Clews
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Vanessa McGowan performs “On other Chunks” from her book Divine Cockeyed Genius
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Feature performer Mullet the Clown tells us a story
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Host Lizzie Violet reads “Chlamydia is not a Flower!”
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Feature performer Kat Leonard performed 3 new songs, as well as some Depper Love favourites
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Feature performer David Bateman reads some short creative non-fiction
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Philip Cairns
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Norman Allen
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Brandon Pitts
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Feature performers (left – right) Mullet the Clown, David Bateman, Kat Leonard & host Lizzie Violet

Vaudeville, Silent Movies and me…

I like it!

Lizzie Violet

Tonight I’m going to The Local to check out The Boxcar Boys.  A ragtime band, that has me intrigued.  I’m actually on the outlook for all kinds of Vaudeville acts.  So if you are one, message me. I’m working on  a new project that involves Vaudeville. My passion for the Silent Film era and the 20’s have me realizing I need to take that knowledge and do something about it.  So I am!

I’m keeping the details hushed for now.  Soon it will all come to light.  I’m excited about this project, excited in a way I haven’t been in a long time.  Since meeting certain people in the last 2 years, returning to performing, I  seem to have relit a fire under my arse that burnt out. In the process I’ve also allowed myself fall back in love with my silent movie collection, last night drooling over Harold Lloyd. …

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