At the Royal Canadian Legion 1/42, 243 Coxwell Ave., Toronto, Ont.

Written and directed by Rob Torr

Choreographed by Stephanie Graham

Musical direction by Paul Moody

Percussion by Dave Patel

Lighting by Joe Pagnan

Set design/construction by Rob Torr and Joe Walker

Scenic artist, Eileen von Hampeln

Cast: Greg Campbell

William Fisher

Christopher Fulton

Tim Funnell

Cyrus Lane

Jamie McRoberts

Caulin Moore

Teresa Tucci

And the voice of Cynthia Dale

If you ask me, seeing Jack and the BeansTalk– A Merry Magical Pantomime is the best, most joyous way of ending a full year of theatre going.

Rob Torr writes and directs the show; guides us in the finer ways of booing the villain; tells us when we can use the upstairs washroom and when we can’t;  and leads us singing “O Canada” (it takes place at the Royal Canadian Legion so out of respect for where we are, we sing “O Canada”).

Stephanie Graham is Mr. Torr’s partner in art and life and she choreographs the show with energy and fun; runs the box office and when there is a prop malfunction or part of a costume comes off, Ms Graham can be seen scurrying up to the stage when the lights are down to retrieve the malfunctioning bit with no one the wiser.

This being a pantomime the story of Jack is not exactly as one expects the fairy tale to be. Jack is still a poor country boy and he loves his cow Daisy but he has to sell her to help his family. He’s supposed to get money for her but instead accepts five magic beans which are scattered when his mother realizes what he’s done. One of the beans grows a stalk so high it goes into the sky. Jack climbs it and sees a giant’s castle up there along with a hen that lays golden eggs, which Jack steals. The Giant (the voice of Cynthia Dale altered to be scary) is none too pleased at this and tries to get revenge.

That’s sort of straightforward. But there is also a villain who is referred to as “Flesh Creep” (Cyrus Lane) and booed whenever he appears. There is a woman named Dame Trott (Greg Campbell) who seems to have a change of wig and clothes whenever she appears and she appears a lot. We are also expected to say: What? What, Dame Trott What? What? (Wot? Wot? Dame Trott. Wot? Wot? You decide) whenever she appears. Dame Trott’s son Jack (Caulin Moore)  is a charmer and sweet. He always says, “Hello boys and girls” whenever he enters, and smiles broadly. His friend Jill (Teresa Tucci) is a confident lass who is never afraid of anything. There’s a confused Squire (nicely played by William Fisher) who tries to make things right. There are two lovely characters both named Ed who try and help but mainly are funny. (Tim Funnell as Ed #1 and Christopher Fulton as Ed #2). And finally there is The Fairy (Jamie McRoberts who is both quietly feisty and sweet ) who is trying to thwart The Villain and get her wings. I tell you it’s a show with laughs, musical sound effects (those beans do talk!), a gentle moral and raucous good fun.

You know how in a pantomime there is always danger behind characters and the audience yells, “He’s behind you!!!!” Writer/director Rob Torr doesn’t go for the obvious here—I love that.  There is still danger and the characters we are trying to warn are still deaf –“What? Where??? I can’t hear you” but it’s such silly good fun.

The cast is wonderful to a person. Caulin Moore as Jack is so charming, good-natured, with such a dazzling smile you want to know what toothpaste he uses. And he sings beautifully. Greg Campbell carries off the part of Dame Trott with galloping wide-eyed wonder. Double-entendres are flicked hither and yon and always land beautifully. Cyrus Lane revels in the part of The Villain. He smiles with devilish relish. (I don’t want to know what kind of toothpaste he uses). He entices the boos out of us—not too hard a job. His eyes flash and it’s almost charming. And with careful technological fiddling Cynthia Dale’s voice sounds like a huge, imposing giant.

It’s a show for families, children, adults, people who were children once upon a time, people who know or are part of families but might appear solo but are still included in the fun. It’s a show that makes you leave your decorum at the door and confidently boo the villain and cheer the good guys. And in its good-natured silliness it’s shoulder-shaking funny.

And take a careful look at the title Jack and the BeansTalk…Mr Torr being sly and impish.

Torrent Productions Present:

Began: Dec. 20, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 29, 2019.

Running Time: about 2 hours.

www.brownpapertickets.com

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At the St. Lawrence Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Book by Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha

Music and orchestrations by Howard Goodall

Lyrics by Charles Hart

Direction by Madeline Paul

Choreography by Gino Berti and Daniel Ezralow

Set by Sue LePage

Costumes by Sean Mulcahy

Lighting by Jason Hand

Projection design by Chokolate Vision

Artistic Director, Gurinder Chadha

Cast: Paul Almeida

Nicola Dawn Brook

Catarina Ciccone

Ashley Emerson

Sasha Ghoshal

Blythe Jandoo

Rami Khan

Krystal Kiran

Matt Nethersole

Zorana Sadiq

Asha Vijayasingham

Sorab Wadia

Laila Zaidi

And several others.

Lively and energetic but so diminished from the wonderful film of the same name, one wonders why they bothered. It’s all the more disappointing because Gurinder Chadha, who wrote and directed the film, was all over this ‘musical’.

 The Story.  Bend it Like Beckham, the Musical is based on the film of the same name, about two teenage girls, Jess and Jules, from different cultures who just want to play soccer.

Jess is a teenager from a Punjabi Sikh family living in London. She loves playing soccer with a group of male friends. She’s really good.  One day a teenage girl named Jules sees Jess play and asks her to try out for her girl’s soccer team, “The Harriets”. Jess is accepted by Joe the coach and so Jess plays soccer but doesn’t tell her parents because she knows they won’t let her play because it’s not proper for a girl from a Sikh background to play this game. Her mother wants her to marry a nice man and become a good cook and homemaker. So Jess goes behind her parents’ back and plays in secret. Jess is the team’s best striker. Joe even comes to talk to Jess’s parents to try and convince them how good she is and how important it is for her to play. A personal relationship between Joe and Jess is also developing, so a mixed-race relationship will really cause her parent’s concern.

The team thrives and is going to the championships but it’s on the same day as Jess’s sister Pinky’s wedding and Jess has to be at the wedding. What to do? It’s a dilemma. So the show is about familial love, being true to yourself and your dreams.

The Production. The musical is based on the 2002 film co-written and directed by Gurinder Chadha.  She co-wrote the screenplay with her husband Paul Mayeda Berges. Chadha also co-wrote the book of the musical with her husband Paul Mayeda Berges. Chadha is also listed as one of the producers—and seems to have picked Madeline Paul as the director of the show if Madeline Paul’s director’s note is any indication. Chadha is listed as the “artistic director” whatever that means in this context. (Since when does a production list an ‘artistic director’ if there is already a director hired?) It’s all very mysterious. Gurinder Chadha seems to be all over this as if she just doesn’t want to let the project go (what’s next—a TV series?) One wonders, therefore, how it’s possible for such a successful film to go so terribly wrong as a musical.

Lemme count the ways. Bend It Like Beckham—the Musical is supposed to be a show about soccer, but there is precious little of it in the show. There is a lot of warm up activity, running on the spot, stretching etc. of the team but precious little soccer. And more often than not we are told about it rather than shown. A lot of attention is placed on Jess (Laila Zaidi) having to sneak away from her family to play an important game in Germany. We are told after the event how she did it. We are told little about the actual game except that Jess made a penalty kick to win the game. No indication of what the score was; no indication of how the team got that score, no sense of what should be the drama and tension of it or the abilities of the other team, just one penalty kick and they win the game because of Jess. Lame.

The same thing happens at the championship game. Jess is about to sneak off from her sister’s wedding when her father finally gives Jess his permission. Again, we are led to believe that Jess makes an important kick and wins the game. Director Madeline Paul’s handling of these two shots is impressive with lighting and animation indicating the trajectory of the ball, but those moments are few and far between. The staging is mainly stand in a line and talk out to the audience with occasional glimpses to the person really spoken too. It all looks so awkward.

In a scene when Pinky’s (Blythe Jandoo) prospective in-laws are coming to talk to her parents they show their displeasure at this unsuitable family, but Madeline Paul has the in-laws at the back of a group of dancers, obscuring their reaction from the audience. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have them at the front but to the side watching in ‘disgust’ at the goings on so that the audience sees it too? That the scene is obscured is a wasted opportunity.

Howard Goodall’s music seems all of the same up beat tempo and undistinguished. As are Charles Hart’s lyrics.  There are 29 songs in all! WHY? Characters we know very little about have songs telling us things about them that are not supported by the dialogue. Jules’  mother Paula (Nicola Dawn Brook) is presented as a silly, thoughtless woman yet she has a song “There She Goes” in which Paula expresses her innermost thoughts about her daughter and their relationship etc. It comes from no where. One wonders if the book writers and the song writers were ever in the same room discussing the characters.

Jess’s Father Mr. Bhamra (nicely played by Sorab Wadia) doesn’t want her to play soccer because he fears she will run into racism as he did and it prevented him from following his dreams. (“People Like Us) Huh? She’s picked for the team by a white teenager. The white coach picks her to be on the team and she is their star. The team wins because of her. The predominantly white team embraces Jess. What is the father talking about? Yet few songs before that Mr and Mrs. Bhamra sing joyfully “Look at Us Now” that celebrates their success since immigrating to England. Which is it—he’s been held back or he’s a success? Confusing.

Joe tries to tell Jess to kick the ball so that it ‘bends’ like David Beckham—her hero. It’s a genius shot in which Beckham could kick the ball so that it bent or curved around players and find the net to score. Jess tries it and kicks it tepidly into the wings. Then Joe goes into the fine mechanics of the kick, how to aim it, position it, what she should feel, the poetry of it. Jess ties again, and kicks it tepidly into the wings only it’s presented as if she has improved the shot. As Jess Laila Zaidi sings with power and enthusiasm and shows her frustration at not playing soccer, but doesn’t show the finesse that Jess is supposed to have as a person who is the star of the team. So much emphasis is placed on Jess’ abilities that it must be there in Zaidi’s performance and it’s not.

The cast is a mix of British actors and Canadians.  Besides Laila Zaidi who is from Britain, Canadian Catarina Ciccone is fearless as Jules—athletic, frustrated with her mother and hiding her feelings about someone she loves. Liked her.

Sue LePage is a wonderful designer but here her set is just odd. Many projections are used to create movement and a sense of changing scenes but there is a wall at the back that obscures most of the projections. As I said, odd.

It’s very tempting to compare the film with the musical. I don’t see the point. They are two different art forms in which each can do things the other can’t so why compare them. That said I’m so aware of aspects of the film that for some reason never made it into the musical: Mr Bhamra clearly expressing his dreams of wanting to play cricket but being thwarted because of racism, that’s not in the musical; any clear build-up of the various games the team plays and the tension and drama of missed shots, goals and ties are given short-shrift in the musical.

The choreography by both Gino Berti and Daniel Ezralow is very athletic and lively. I suspect they created the dances for the team and their various workouts.  But the creation of the Indian Dances by Longinus Fernandes and Krystal Kiran is something special—joyous, raucous, infectious. In fact I thought the best dance scenes are the wedding of Pinky and the curtain call.

Comment.  The musical is heavy going for me.  There are too many opportunities missed to give this show an individual stamp rather than looking at it as a pale imitation of the film.  As a musical Bend It Like Beckham is inadequate and a real disappointment.

Produced by Starvox Entertainment

Began: Dec. 7, 2019.

Closes: Jan. 5, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

http://starvoxent.com/show/bend-it-like-beckham

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At the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines.

Written by Norm Foster

Directed by Patricia Vanstone

Designed by Peter Hartwell

Lighting by Chris Malkowski

Cast: Cosette Derome

Nora McLellan

Hayden Neufeld

Kate Peters

Kelly Wong

The Foster Festival usually happens at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre during the summer. This is the first time that the Foster Festival scheduled a short winter ‘edition’. Aunt Agnes for Christmas played Dec. 11-22.

Aunt Agnes for Christmas is a sweet, quiet play. George Trimble, his lovely wife Sally and their two children are preparing to celebrate Christmas. George, always cheerful, always optimistic, sells RVs. Sally, his sensible wife, is the mayor of the little town in which they live. Their two children are Brian, who says little but acts as if he’s a diminutive Frank Sinatra and his older 15-year-old sister Melissa who seems a bit bored with her small town life. Melissa reads a lot.

The family experiences some bumps in their happy lives—George loses his job and Sally frets about the warm weather that prevents the town from having ice for the skating rink. They are also visited by a woman who says she is George’s Aunt Agnes. He can’t remember her but she has pictures and seems to know a lot about him. She fits in comfortably, helping around the house, making the children do their chores when it was impossible before. Agnes gets Melissa to reveal that she would like to leave that small town as soon as she is able. Over the course of the play Agnes carries out some pretty impressive things such as making a full cooked dinner appear on the table in minutes, or a wonderful breakfast appear when minutes before there was nothing on the table. If you want to say “Mary Poppins”, I won’t stop you. Mary Poppins is referenced in the lay, but Agnes doesn’t levitate.

This is Norm Foster’s take on making Christmas Miracles. The intention is to make Melissa change her mind about leaving. Truth to tell I thought the play a bit premature in its intention. Melissa is only 15. Where would she go? How? Name me a 15 –year-old who is not bored no matter where they lived.

The play still has Norm Foster’s quirky sense of humour and odd-ball characters and director Patricia Vanstone knows how to realize that humour with finesse. George is almost a man-boy he is so optimistic and simplistic in his outlook on life. But he is played with such buoyant charm by Kelly Wong, we just believe him. George’s wife Sally is played with common sensical good humour by Kelly Wong’s real wife Cosette Derome. Young Hayden Neufeld has the moves of a young (public school) Frank Sinatra and later Elvis. Kate Peters is terrific and natural as Melissa. The sassy, confident Aunt Agnes is played by the sassy, confident Nora McLellan who can float a laugh-line like nobody’s business. The banter between Aunt Agnes and Melissa is effortless and hilarious because of these two wonderful actresses.

The run was short but you will have a better chance of experiencing Norm Foster’s work when the summer edition of the Foster Festival gets into swing beginning in June.

The Foster Festival Presents:

Began: Dec. 11, 2019.

Closed: Dec. 22, 2019.

Running Time:  2 hours.

www.fosterfestival.com

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 At the Harbourfront Centre Theatre

Conceived, developed and co-directed by David Buchbinder

Written by Marjorie Chan

Co-directed by Leah Cherniak

Set and costumes by Victoria Wallace

Lighting designer Simon Rossiter

Choreography by Monica Dottor

Cast and musicians: David Buchbinder

Aviva Chernick

Jacob Gorzhaltsan

Cara Krisman

Derek Kwan

Kaisha Lee

Michael Occhipinti

Cynthia Qin

Louis Simäo

Mitch Smolkin

Jeremiah Sparks

The Ward Cabaret is a labour of love and art by musician/composer David Buchbinder who conceived, developed and co-directed it. It was workshopped at Luminato last year and now it’s the finished product at Harbourfront Centre Theatre for a short run.

The text is written by Marjorie Chan and tells some of the stories of the area of the city called the Ward where City Hall and environs now stand. Chinese men working on the railway arrived at the turn of the last century. Their wives did not accompany them. Jewish people escaping the pogroms in Russia; Italians coming for a better life; people of colour all arrived in Toronto for a better life and lived and worked in the Ward. They each brought their culture, stories, arts, music and memories. They mainly worked at the Eaton’s Factory making clothes. There is a wonderful segment describing how Jewish grandmothers and Italian women sold bootleg whiskey. So some the area was a crime-laden slum. To others it was simply home.

The area was teaming with all sorts of nationalities of immigrants who played, fought and lived in tight quarters. And mainly they sang. The music and songs depict their lives, histories, cultures, and traditions. Buchbinder has been meticulous in finding the music of the various cultures who lived there. There are songs in Yiddish (“Das Goldene Land”); songs of slavery (“I’m Coming Home to Canada”); songs in Italian (“Avanti Popolo”); songs in Cantonese (“Meeting at West River”), Hebrew (“Tikanto Shabbos”); and also jazz, blues, songs of celebration, of the factory, gospel songs, and songs of hope for the future. Jeremiah Sparks brings a soulful gentleness to everything he sings and says. Derek Kwan is compelling when representing his various Chinese characters and singing his various songs with intensity. Kaisha Lee takes us to the deep heart of every song she sings. The whole cast sings with enthusiasm and joy. Sometimes the singers also read letters a character might have written or speak dialogue. Often the singing was more effective than acting or reading.

I thought the production tended to be a bit fussy with the band upstage and the singers wandering around downstage. Why are two directors needed to direct this? The piece needs focus of movement and direction and it needs more simplicity.  Activity always seemed to be going on—less is best. Also I always wonder why EVERYBODY has to be amplified—from the band to the cast in small shows like this. Too often the result sometimes comes out in a confusing screech.

But you can’t deny David Buchbinder’s commitment in getting this show on and to celebrate this pulsing centre of Toronto’s early days.  The stories are compelling; the music is illuminating and you figure that everybody on that stage might have had a relative who arrived from somewhere else to Toronto to live in the Ward as a start.

DB Works Presents:

Began: Dec. 12, 2019.

Saw it: Dec. 18, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 22, 2019

Running Time: 2 hours.

Box Office: 416-973-4000.

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Various musicals: Lil’ Red Robin Hood at the Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto, Ont., Anastasia, at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto, Ont., Mary Poppins at the Grand Theatre, London, Ont.,

Lil’ Red Robin Hood, at the Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Matt Murray

Directed and choreographed by Tracey Flye

Set by Cory Sincennes

Costumes by Michael Gianfrancesco

Projections by Cameron Davis

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Musical director, Joseph Tritt

Cast: Evan Taylor Benyacar

AJ Bridel

Mariah Campos

Michael De Rose

Eddie Glen

Sara-Jeanne Hosie

Julia Juhas

Lawrence Libor

Robert Markus

Gray Monczka

Tyler Pearse

Conor Scully

Genny Sermonia

Daniel Williston

 

This is the annual Panto of fractured fairy tales produced by Ross Petty. Lil’ Red Robin Hood is written with smart flair by Matt Murray with lots of goofy jokes for kids and lots of sophisticated jokes for the adults in the room. The slashing of the education system by the government comes in for a lot of attention.

 

In this production a modern teenager nick-named Lil’ Red (Robert Marcus) is studying for a history test. Somehow he’s sucked into his locker and back to medieval times to the time of Robin Hood, in Sherwood Forest to be exact. There he meets Maid Marion (AJ Bridel).  Maid Marion is a devoted teacher married to Robin Hood (Lawrence Libor) but they are estranged. Their enemy is the Sheriffe of Naughtyham (Sara-Jeanne Hosie—an evil woman—who wants to confiscate all the books so that she will be the smartest person in the shire. Naturally as a committed teacher Marion wants to thwart the Sheriffe.

 

The Sheriffe sees that Lil’ Red has a book of the history of the world and realizes she can learn of history before it happens, become the smartest person in the world, and get control of the people. Times are fraught and the Sheriffe elicits many boos from the audience. We are expected to boo her every entrance. She is expected to fling invective our way. There is the force of good vs. evil.

 

These pantos play to a formula: humour is silly and yet topical; a youthful cast bops to modern pop songs of the day; there is an evil character the audience loves to boo; a love interest and a really impish, smarmy funny character here called Sugarbum (Michael De Rose); and there is a funny foil to the evil character, in this case he’s named Marvin (Eddie Glen), and in the end, good prevails. A fairy tale indeed.

 

I thought this year’s version of the panto did very well.   They really slammed the government’s cutting of education programs.  I did get a sense that the humour was mainly geared towards the adults, but there are those delicious moments when the whole audience of kids and adults boo the villain.

 

The Sheriffe of Naughtyham is played by Sara-Jeanne Hosie with great flair. She has that easy almost ad-libbing style that whips up the audience to boo more.  It’s a terrific cast of top talent lead by Robert Marcus as Lil’ Red—charm for days. AJ Bridel plays a sassy Maid Marion. Eddie Glen plays Marvin who works for the Sheriffe but is really a sweetie.  Lawrence Libor is a dashing Robin Hood. And Michael De Rose plays an outrageous Sugarbum with lots of double entendre. Friar Tuck (Daniel Williston) also makes an amusing appearance.

 

Tracey Flye directs and choreographs like the wind. The production moves and dances at a gallop, and it’s wonderful, silly fun.  It plays to a formula but the formula works.

 

Ross Petty Productions Presents:

 

Began: Nov. 29, 2019.

Closes: Jan. 4, 2020

Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes.

 

www.rosspetty.com

 

Anastasia

 At the Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Terrence McNally

Inspired by the Twentieth Century Fox Motion Picture from the play by Marcelle Maurette as adapted by Guy Bolton.Music by Stephen Flaherty

Music by Stephen Flaherty

Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens

Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Choreography by Peggy Hickey

Music director, Lawrence Goldberg

Scenic design by Alexander Dodge

Costumes by Linda Cho

Lighting by Donald Holder

Sound by Peter Hylenski

Projections by Aaron Rhyne

Cast: Joy Franz

Brad Greer

Tara Kelly

Taylor Quick

Edward Staudenmayer

And many others.

It’s 1917 and the beginning of the Russian revolution when the aristocracy of Tzar Nicholas Romanoff II was overthrown and the whole Romanoff family killed, or so they thought. It seems that Princess Anastasia escaped and trying to find her occupied many. Two opportunists—Vlad, a one-time member of court and Dmitry—decided to pass off a young woman as the missing Princess and get the reward for finding her. The person who they tried to dupe was the Dowager Empress, Anastasia’s grandmother. She fled to Paris before the bloodshed began.

The two men meet a young woman named Anya who is a bit hazy on who she is. She can’t remember. She remembers waking up in a hospital. After that Vlad and Dmitry teach Anya about the Romanoff family, the workings of court, how to carry herself like a royal princess etc. It’s not clear if Anya knows she is being passed off as an imposter or she really believes she is Princess Anastasia. In true fantasy style, Anya and Dmitry fall in love. Will Anya convince the Dowager Empress that she is her granddaughter Anastasia? Will Anya find happiness with Dmitry? Questions, questions.

Anastasia also works to a Broadway musical formula in a sense and it’s not a good thing. The text has been sanitized to give the barest facts of the time and the Romanoff family and the history of the revolution and context all but ignored. (The Americanization of Russian history?)  That the unremarkable book of the show was written by Terrence McNally, who has done such good work elsewhere, is startling. The score by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens is shockingly forgettable considering these two are Broadway stalwarts. Director Darko Tresnjak has created the big picture of flashing video images to suggest the passage of time and distance (a scene on a train is rather impressive) but it’s at the expense of clarity. This must be the new ‘thing’ for Broadway—to use video and animation for sets (this is ‘so ten years ago’ in London). Next they have to learn how to temper their use so that our senses are not bombarded—or perhaps that’s the point.

Few in the cast suggested any sense they were playing Russians. Tari Kelly as Countess Lily and Edward Staudenmayer as Vlad are the worst in that they so overplay their supposed comic characters. Comic relief? They were not funny and only when they were off stage was it a relief. A refreshing change is Taylor Quick as Anya who has a light voice and a keen sense of the hidden royalty that Anya might be. Quick was the understudy for the lead on the opening night. Brad Greer plays Gleb a man on a dangerous mission. He was also an understudy and he displayed a nice sense of the courtliness of the character. Rounding out this group is Joy Franz as the Dowager Empress. Again she is regal and projected a strong sense of the Russian royalty that her character was. I was grateful for their presence in this flashy, unfortunate production.

David Mirvish Presents:

Opened: Dec. 4, 2019.

Closes: Jan. 12, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.

www.mirvish.com

 

Mary Poppins

At the Grand Theatre, London, Ont.

Book by Julian Fellowes

Based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney Film

Original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman

New songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe

Co-created by Cameron Mackintosh.

Directed by Megan Watson

Music director, Craig Fair

Choreography by Stephen Cota

Set by Lorenzo Savoini

Costumes by Dana Osborne

Lighting by Bonnie Beecher

Projections designed by Jamie Nesbitt

Sound by Brian Kenny

Cast: Christy Adamson

Hayden Baertsoen

Ben Carlson

Alexis Gordon

Deborah Hay

Phoebe Hu

Jan Alexandra Smith

Giovanni Spina

Mark Uhre

Abi Verhaeghe

Sandy Winsby

Robert Yeretch

Have you ever read any of the Mary Poppins series of books by P.L. Travers? She was one prickly writer. I never read them as a kid. I began reading them as what I laughingly call an ‘adult’ when I saw the show in London. I remember reading the first book in the series and my jaw dropped when Mr. Banks said to Mrs. Banks that she could either have a clean house or children, but she couldn’t have both. Woow. Along came the children: Jane and Michael.

While P.L. Travers sold the rights to Mary Poppins to Walt Disney, she hated the resultant film. It was too sweet; it didn’t have the edge the books had. Cameron Mackintosh convinced her to let him have a try creating a musical that would be true to the books. Apparently the results pleased her.

Mr. Banks is a harried banker. He does not share his worries with his wife because he doesn’t want to worry her. He has no time for his children and more often than not finds them an intrusion while he tries to do work at home. Michael in particular pines for his father’s affection. Affection of any kind seems to have been thrust out of Mr. Banks by cold parents and a horror of a nanny. Jane and Michael in turn see a quick turn-over in nannies who are hired to take care of them. Jane and Michael focus on bedeviling each nanny until they just quit. Until Mary Poppins arrives. Miraculously and mysteriously. She arrives even before the job is posted. Mary Poppins takes over caring for the children with confidence and attitude. She specializes in dysfunctional families, working with them (unbeknownst to them) to dispel the ‘dys’ in ‘dysfunctional’.

Mary Poppins (she’s always referred to by both names) believes in order, good manners, consideration for others, playing and fun. She is never sentimental, for the most part; always looks out for the good of her wards but is not overly cloying about it. And when she is no longer needed, she just disappears into the air.

Lorenzo Savoini has designed a stylish set of the Banks’ home that suggests the size and the homeyness of it. The house is projected (?) onto the curtain with a projection of a wonderful tree with swaying leaves and branches in front of the house. Loved that detail.

Director Megan Watson is such a fine director: economical with inventive images and staging; relationships are beautifully established with her fine cast.

If I have a concern it’s that the sound/amplification is ear-splitting at times and the sound level needs to be brought down a lot. Again both the unseen orchestra is amplified and so is the cast. TOO MUCH!

Deborah Hay is splendid as Mary Poppins. Her back is straight; she is matter-of-fact with the children and has no time for bad manners. She corrects bad behaviour with a quiet but firm voice and never lingers on a reprimand. Everybody she comes in contact with, loves her it seems. But she is stingy with her affection. When Michael (a sweet Hayden Baertsoen) says, “I love you, Mary Poppins” at the end, Hay looks at him with a tight smile and a glimmer of a tremble of emotion at such a comment. She never says she loves him back because it’s not what he really needs. He really needs to fly kites with his father. Mary Poppins’ humanity, thanks to the shimmering work of Hay, is never in doubt.

As Mr. Banks, Ben Carlson is stodgy, on the cusp of being careful with his anger and frustration and harried. As Mrs. Banks, Alexis Gordon has that look of anticipation along with an effort to being unobtrusive. Mark Uhre as Bert is honey-voiced and good-natured. Uhre is so present and joyful in the part. Jan Alexandra Smith is a wonderful horror as Miss Andrew, Mr. Banks’ nanny. Phoebe Hu is an irreverent Mrs. Brill and Giovanni Spina is a well-intentioned klutz as Robertson Ay.

With imagination, talent, wit, compassion, understanding and kindness, this is a terrific production of P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins.

The Grand Theatre presents:

Began: Nov. 26, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 29, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.

www.grandtheater.com

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The Nonna Monologues, Columbus Centre, 901 Lawrence Ave. W., Toronto, Ont.

Concept and direction by Daniele Bartolini

Written by Daniele Bartolini with Danya Buonastella and Maddalena Vallecchi Williams.

Production designed by Franco Berti

Costume designed by Franco Berti, Danya Buonastella and Maddalena Vallecchi Williams.

Peformed by Danya Buonastella and Maddalena Vallecchi Williams.

While Daniele Bartolini invests huge effort and imagination into his creations for his theatre company, DopoLavoro Teatrale (DLT), The Nonna Monologues is something special. With this show it’s personal for Bartolini because it’s about a revered generation of women in his life—grandmothers, or “Nonnas’ in Italian. (Is there anyone in the free world who doesn’t know that Nonna means grandmother in Italian? I doubt it.)

The audience sits in chairs facing two white screens. When the room goes to dark we hear the voice of Daniele Bartolini himself describe both his Nonnas who grew up in Italy. Apparently they? One? Of them made bolognaise sauce but without the most important ingredient—the meat. And so begins the mystique of the Nonna—the recipes that are either passed down from generation to generation or kept secret.  (If I have a quibble here it’s that while Bartolini enunciates, he does speak rather quickly. Perhaps slow it down please?)

The lights go up on the two screens and behind each is a pair of legs. One pair belongs to Danya Buonastella, the other to Maddelena Vallecchi Williams. Both women appear from behind each screen and talk about their Nonnas. They both loved to watch television and there are prolonged scenes as if each woman plays her own glamorous Nonna as if interviewed on a television show. Buonastella’s Nonna loved Monica Viti and played out a scene as if she was Viti. Vallecchi Williams played out a scene of her Nonna’s favourite actress, Sophia Loren, doing a scene from Marriage Italian Style. The scene is impassioned, dramatic and done in Italian which I don’t speak. A slight précis is offered at the end, but it would have been dandy to have a concise translation as the scene went on. I think this whole section should be re-thought. I can appreciate both Nonnas loved television, it’s just that these scenes went on too long without a connection to us, the audience.

Both Buonastella and Vallecchi Williams tell stories of their Nonna’s bravery or selflessness. There are stories of who makes the best lasagne. These moments when the stories are personal work the best. They are human, tender and loving. The last moments are exquisite. Both actresses are wonderful, lively, agile, expressive and beguiling. And whether you call her Nonna, or Bubbie, or Nanna, or Granny or whatever, The Nonna Monologues makes us all think of our grandmothers in our own collective way. Ultimately that is the show’s beauty and gift.

Presented by Villa Charities Inc.:

Began: Dec. 6, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 22, 2019.

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

www.villacharities.com/nonna

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At Theatre Passe Muraille, Mainspace. Toronto, Ont.

Written by Samah Sabawi

Directed by Rahaf Fasheh

Set by Kayla Chaterji

Costumes by Mira Salti

Lighting by Lidia Foote

Sound by Matt Lalonde

Cast: Liana Bdewi

Basel Daoud

Nawal Hamdan

Anas Hasan

Saja Kilani

Kody Poisson

Naseem Reesha

Maher Sinno

May Tartoussy

Khira Wieting

Singers: Natalie Fasheh

Shireen Abu Khader

Well intentioned but ultimately frustrating.

The Story. We are in a Gaza refugee camp in 2008. Jomana is a Palestinian woman living in the camp. Rami is an American-born Palestinian who practices medicine in Texas. He has come to Gaza on one of the Free Gaza boats to see for himself what is going on there and connect with his roots. In the short time he’s there he falls in love with Jomana and wants to marry her and take her back to the States. She refuses because she fears she will never see her family again. He also fears that if he goes home he won’t see Jomana again. He must return home to his practice. They call each other. They Skype. He finds a way to return. It’s a love story in fraught times.

The Production. Kayla Chaterji has designed a simple, beautiful set of a sturdy fig tree with foliage suspended from what seems like wire octagons, perhaps symbolic of the wire enclosures that keep the Palestinians captive in the refugee camp. There are multi-coloured cushions at the base of the tree where Jomana (Saja Kilani) and her friend Lama (Liana Bdewi) often sit, daydream, listen to music or write poetry. Jomana keeps a journal of what is going on there and also writes her poetry in the journal.

Rahaf Fasheh’s direction is straightforward in establishing relationships. Jomana and Lama are close and share their dreams with girlish delight. When Jomana and Rami (Anas Hasan) are together they face each other and hold hands. Quite often speeches are delivered directly to the audience making it seem like a declaration rather than dialogue, for example Jomana laments the poverty and despair of the people of the camp. Rahaf Fasheh’s direction establishes a clear sense of danger when the camp is bombed—kudos to sound designer Matt Lalonde.

But there is a ‘split-scene’ between Jomana and her father (Basel Daoud) talking about her love for Rami stage right and Rami talking to his mother (May Tartoussy) about the dangers of going back to Gaza, stage left that is clumsy, both in the writing and direction. It does not work. The scene is supposed to alternate between both pairs of speakers but while the cast is committed to the work they are not accomplished enough as actors to pull off the tricky timing of the scene with ease. Often one can’t hear what is being said the speech is so muted.

Shireen Abu Khader is a beautiful, emotional singer who sings several songs in Arabic. These songs are obviously important to the play I just wish there was a list of their names and a translation of what the songs mean, if one is not Arab speaking. Alas the program does not provide either.

The last song is particularly moving because many in the audience quietly sing along with Shireen Abu Khader. Yara Shoufani, the Production Manager was kind enough to explain what the song is in an e-mail: “The song at the end is called “Mawtini” and it means “my homeland”. It has been considered a nationalistic anthem to Palestinians as it originated there in the 1930s. Since then it has become a revolutionary anthem in the Middle East, with Iraq adopting it as their official anthem in 2004.”

She was also helpful in solving a pronunciation question. Throughout the production the Palestinian characters pronounced the place as “Rezah” at least it seemed to me. Then in a last scene Rami is at the border and American guards refer to the place as “Gaza.” Were they one and the same? Again Yara Shoufani is helpful: “I do know that Ghezah is the Arabic pronunciation of the word. The gh sound is an Arabic sound that does not exist in English and so it could perhaps sound like an R.” Again, a programme note explaining this would have been really helpful.

Playwright Sama Sabawi has provided precious little historical context in her play or in informative programme notes. It’s as if it’s expected that the audience would automatically know this information. Then it dawns on me. That’s the point and also the problem of Tales of a City by the Sea. It’s meant for an audience of Palestinian or at least people of Middle Eastern descent who would know about the historical, language and philosophical context. Those others in the audience who don’t know are out of luck or at least can try and rely on Google for information. This is an unfortunate decision.

She says in her programme note: “Through creating a glimpse into the beauty and hardship of those existing under Israeli military occupation in Gaza, I hope to re-spark this essential conversation with raise awareness to the ongoing trauma that Palestinians continue to endure.” One has to ask, ‘re-spark this essential conversation’ with whom? With the people who already know one side of the story?  That seems like talking to the converted. Or does it mean to spark a conversation with people in the audience who are excluded because of lack of context or language, who need and want to know the various sides of the story? If that is the case, then Sama Sahawi has to open up her play, provide context and more historical reference. Her play touches on the strong presence of Hamas as a governing body. That too must be expanded and given more prominence.

As it is Tales of a City by the Sea is a well intentioned play but terribly frustrating.

Comment. I can appreciate the good intentions of all those involved in mounting this endeavor. It was heartening to see so many of Middle Eastern descent at the performance I was at. But the experience for a person not versed in Arabic or the context of the thorny issues in Gaza is frustrating. I think the absence of these important components diminishes the play.

Presented by the Canadian Friends of Sabeel:

Opened: Dec. 6, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 15, 2019.

Running Time: 80 minutes.

Box Office: 416-504-7529.

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At Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton, Ont.

Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan

Music by Marc Shaiman

Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman

Directed by Mary Francis Moore

Musical director, Reza Jacobs

Set by Patrick Clark

Costumes and provided by Maine State Music Theatre

Lighting by Gail Ksionzyk

Sound by Anna-Maria Grant

Choreography by Robin Calvert

Cast: Brittany Banks

Patrick Brown

Saphire Demitro

Keisha T. Fraser

Aaron Hastelow

Jeremy Carver-James

Hailey Lewis

Monique Lund

Larry Mannell

Andrew McAllister

Jade Repeta

And others..

Joyous!

The Story.  Hairspray is based on the 1988 film of the same name by John Waters. That was then adapted into Hairspray the award winning 2002 Broadway musical, with the book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman.

It’s 1962, Baltimore, Maryland. Tracy Turnblad is a teen who just wants to be a dancer on The Corny Collins Show, a local tv show.  When she goes to audition in open auditions she is made fun of by the show’s snooty producer Velma Van Tussle because Tracy is overweight. But Tracy dances with joy and Corny Collins feels she is the kind of participant the show needs.

One day in the year is set aside for Negro teens to participate in the show.  In true open-hearted spirit Tracy also feels that every day should be Negro Day and says so.  She believes that the show should be integrated.  Tracy is encouraged by her loving parents, Edna, a stay-at-home Mom who takes in laundry to help with the finances and Wilbur her wonderful father who owns a joke store. Their decency helps Tracy  deal with the thorny issues of body shaming, segregation and racism.

The Production. This is a local Canadian production of Hairspray playing at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton. It is joyful, glorious and beautifully done in every way thanks to the direction of Mary Francis Moore who directs with imagination, sensitivity and humour and all the people surrounding her.

Patrick Clark’s set is beautifully, efficiently designed and bursting with colour. It’s almost akin to Technicolor that makes it all seem otherworldly. But the serious aspects of the show-racism, body-shaming, corruption and bribery—are there in stark relief. Set pieces move on and off with efficiency.

The show starts off with a bang with the up-beat, “Good Morning Baltimore” with Tracy (Saphire Demitro) in bed. The scene is presented as if we are looking down from the ceiling as Tracy wakes up. In fact she’s standing up with the bed behind her as if she’s ‘in’ it, with the covers pulled tight around her as she sings. Then she flips the covers aside, ready to greet the day. Saphire Demitro instils a joy and optimism in Tracy that makes her indomitable. Her voice is strong and her dancing is effortless. She presents a character who is easy to love she is so open-hearted.

Patrick Brown plays Tracy’s loving, wise mother Edna—yes a man plays the mother in every production of Hairspray. This is not a camp performance. This is a performance of a large woman (Patrick Brown obviously wears a ‘fat suit’) who has a certain grace but is embarrassed about her size. Edna is a woman who has put her dreams of being a designer aside, to stay at home mending and ironing other people’s clothes. She is wise to the hurts of body shaming and tries to protect her daughter from the same treatment. She and her husband Wilbur (a charming, loving performance by Larry Mannell) have given Tracy the confidence to face the world because of their love.

Monique Lund plays Velma Von Tussle, the condescending producer of the TV show who wants to keep Tracy and people of colour off the show. Velma is the person you love to hate because Monique Lund plays her so well.

Robin Calvert has choreographed an ensemble that is believable in 1962 but does not look dated. The dancers are vibrant and energetic.

The production is classy, smart, joyful. Loved it. See it.

Comment. Hairspray has all the hallmarks of a typical big, blaring Broadway musical: it has a pulsing score by Marc Shaiman; clever lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, and rousing dance numbers. But writers Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan have written a book full of consequence (and is true to the spirit of the film by John Waters). They have taken the odious subjects of body shaming and racism among others and dealt with them head on.  Director Mary Francis Moore and her splendid company have brought it boldly to the stage. See it.

Theatre Aquarius Presents:

From: Nov. 27, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 24, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.

www.theatreaquarius.org

 

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Review: CATS

by Lynn on December 8, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T.S. Eliot

Directed by Trevor Nunn

Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler

Based on the choreography of Gillian Lynne

Scenic and costume design by John Napier

Lighting by Natasha Katz

Sound by Mick Potter

Cast: Caitlin Bond

Kaitlyn Davidson

Maurice Dawkins

Giovanni Digabriele

PJ Digaetano

Cameron Edris

Keri René Fuller

Justin W. Geiss

Timothy Gulan

Emma Hearn

Dan Hoy

Rose Iannaccone

Laura Katherine Kaufman

McGee Maddox

Brandon Michael Nase

Brayden Newby

Emily Jeanne Phillips

Alexa Racioppi

And others…..

CATS is the musical based on T.S. Eliot’s small book of light poems called “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” written in 1939 for his godchildren. It’s about the various kinds of cats and their psychologies.

Andrew Lloyd Webber then blew them out of proportion in his 1981 West End megahit, with choreography by Gillian Lynne. This is a touring version of CATS with new choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler. This didn’t go down too well with Gillian Lynne so to placate her the New London Theatre was renamed the Gillian Lynne Theatre. Classy since that was the theatre where CATS first played. A short time after that Ms Lynne died. Well she was 92.

It’s about a group of cats that come together for one night to pick the cat who will be reborn in a different life. Having nine lives is not enough. This let’s them leave their bad life behind to start again.

Each cat seems to have his/her own song but the one that stands out is “Memory” sung by Grizabella the “Glamour Cat” who has seen better days. She is played here by Keri René Fuller. Her face seems battered with bruises and there is a lovely touch in which the lipstick slides down the lip as if Grizabella can’t put on her make-up with confidence any longer. And Fuller sings “Memory” beautifully, full of heartache, longing and desperation. I was ready to yell, Hallelujah she did it so well.  The audience seemed to wake up after she sang it.

I’ve seen CATS over the years, starting with the original London production in 1981 and it doesn’t really change. The various cats are energetic, mischievous and agile. Why then did I choose to see this touring production?

Because there is new choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler and I haven’t seen the show in a few years and was intrigued. So I fell for that ploy. Andrew Lloyd Webber and the masterful Cameron Mackintosh know how to spin a story and spin and spin it and sell and resell something that has been changed a bit as if it’s new. Well it’s not. John Napier’s junkyard set seems rather clean and lacquered.

CATS continues to be a triumph of make-up, clever costumes by John Napier and meticulous attention to feline body language. The cats still come into the audience and get up close and personal with the patrons. None of the children in my audience seemed to be terrified by some furry face being thrust close to theirs. The dancing is energetic. As Rum Tum Tugger, a hipster cat very full of himself, McGee Maddox plays him to the hilt, twirling his tail with saucy delight.

The slower songs go at a glacial pace. “Gus the Theatre Cat” is interminable as is anything to do with “Old Deuteronomy” (a stiff-pawed Brandon Michael Nase)

But CATS is just repackaged and recycled. I never have to see it again, and that goes for the movie too.

David Mirvish Presents:

Began: Nov. 27, 2019.

Closes: Jan. 5, 2020

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

www.mirvish.com

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At the Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto, Ont.

Created by STARS, Chris Abraham and Zack Russell

Written by Zack Russell with STARS and Chris Abraham

Set and lighting by Ken MacKenzie

Sound by Jesse Ash

Video Designed by Amelia Scott

Puppet Co-Designer, Zack Fraser

Cast: Torquil Campbell

Evan Cranley

Chris McCarron

Pat McGee

Amy Millan

Chris Seligman

STARS: Together is a STARS concert with some history, angst, frustration, forgiveness and whining about the band’s 20 years together and dancing at the end.

STARS is the rock indie band from Montreal headed by Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan as the two most prominent members of the band, at least to me who has listened to them only on the radio. It’s usually Campbell and Millan who are referenced most often. The band has been together for 20 years and recorded eight albums. This is quite an accomplishment so Torquil Campbell believed that there was a play there to explore the people of the band and how and why they have been together for so long. He found a willing collaborator in Chris Abraham, the Artistic Director of Crow’s Theatre.

In 2017 Campbell and Abraham collaborated on Campbell’s play, True Crime in which Campbell revealed his obsession with real-life murderer and imposter Christian Gerhartsreiter. As a performer in that show Torquil Campbell was intense, introspective, poetic, exuberant and scary-obsessed.

Now we have STARS: Together. STARS is composed of Torquil Campbell, Evan Cranley, Chris McCarron, Pat McGee, Amy Millan and Chris Seligman. Rather than go in a chronological format telling us when they met, formed the band and began writing and recording songs together, we get bits and pieces of the history, the relationships of the various band members—they seem to have had various pairings in the band over the years and now Amy Millan is married to Evan Cranley—and how they all differ personality wise. Most of the men are quiet, unassuming and keep a low profile. Torquil Campbell, who formed the band with his school friend Chris Seligman, is the ‘wild-man’ of the group and is intense, introspective, poetic, exuberant and scary-obsessed. Amy Millan is the optimist and the peace-maker. When ever Torquil Campbell seems to go off on a philosophical, psychological, self-absorbed rant, which is often, there is Amy Millan calming the waters.

After Campbell lets loose berating the band for not caring about something and that only he cares for the band and takes everything on himself to defend them, the men of the band want nothing to do with him. Campbell calls each in turn on their cell phones. Each in turn sees that it is Campbell calling and ignore the call. Campbell then calls Amy Millan who sees it’s Campbell and cheerfully says to the group, “Oh it’s Torq” and answers the phone as if nothing is wrong and he did not behave badly. There is a lot of forgiveness going on in that group. I guess it’s one of their talents as well as making music.

In another scene the band has to get to New York on their own dime to play a free gig for Spotify. The whole idea irks Campbell. They play the gig but Campbell sounds off to the assembled heads of the company about corporate greed and moral corruption etc. and also empties the cupboards of the snacks on hand into a giant green garbage bag. He later is contrite to his band mates. This comes early in the show so we get a sense of with what they all have to contend.

The ‘play’ takes place in an apartment they all rented in Montreal where they hung out, recorded their music, wrote and chilled. It’s packed with all sorts of stuff from musical instruments, dishes, cups, saucers, a microwave, stove, fridge, couch, and recording equipment. Thanks to Ken MacKenzie’s design it looks like a place well lived in.  And there are two wonderful ‘robot-puppets’ with a balloon for a head in each case (bravo to Zach Fraser who is listed as the Puppet Co-designer, but no other person is listed. If someone in the band said he helped design the puppets, shouldn’t that be noted in the programme?). At times a face is projected onto the balloon as the robot-puppet comes to ‘life.’ Masterful.

Chris Abraham directs this with a sense of whimsy and irreverence. We hear each member of the group trudging up what must be a lot of stairs to get to the apartment. The door opens and each steps in using a high-stepping leg movement. It’s funny maybe once. It’s repeated often. Millan hangs her coat on a hook on the wall and then the coat falls off the hook, repeatedly. Others hang their coats on the hook and the coats stayed. Torquil Campbell is the last to arrive and he appears along a runway going through the audience.

The band sings many of their songs—alas there is no song list. The singing from Millan and Campbell is joyful, energetic, exuberant and full throated. The lyrics are poetic, deeply thought and literary.

There is no indication of who wrote the song or why I guess because STARS: Together is not interested in the nuts and bolts nature of the history of such bands. And besides the fans of the band would know all that. Who then is this show for? The place seemed to be packed with a different Crow’s Theatre audience. A STARS audience? Probably. At the end of the show Torquil Campbell let loose with a song, jumping in the air with the exuberant joy of performing and then said it was time to dance and those in the know got up and swayed to the music.

STARS: Together is an odd show. It’s really a concert with some biographical bits to it. The programme says “Crow’s Theater presents STARS in concert” in the smallest print imaginable without having to use a magnifying glass. For those who don’t know the band’s biographical details there is always ‘Google.’ And for those who don’t know the band’s music, there is always Spotify. (Sorry Mr. Campbell).

Crow’s Theatre presents:

Opened: Nov. 29, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 15, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes approx.

www.crowstheatre.com

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