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At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Written by August Wilson

Directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu

Set and lighting by Ken MacKenzie

Costumes by Alexandra Lord

Music director and sound designer, Mike Ross

Cast: Derek Boyes

Alana Bridgewater

Beau Dixon

Neville Edwards

Lovell Adams-Gray

Virgilia Griffith

Diego Matamoros

Lindsay Owen Pierre

Alex Poch-Goldin

Marcel Stewart

August Wilson’s savvy, gripping play about the African-American musician’s experience in Chicago in 1927 and it’s about the beginning of the Blues. The production is bracing.

The Story. Background.  Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was written in 1982 by Africa-American playwright, August Wilson. He had a daunting idea—to write plays that would document the African-American experience through every decade of the 20th century.

And he did it too.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place in Chicago in 1927. It’s set in a recording studio and involves Ma Rainey—called the mother of the blues—her four piece band (all African-American), Irvin, her white manager and Mr. Sturdyvant, the white owner of the record company.

August Wilson usually wrote about African-Americans and how they dealt with each other, within families, relationships with other African Americans etc.  In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that is the focus but lurking in the background, always present, is how African-American’s are treated by white men in positions of power. In this case the two white men are Irvin Ma’s agent and Sturdyvant, the record company owner.

They all wait for Ma Rainey to arrive for the recording. Sturdyvant thinks she’s being difficult on purpose. Irvin sweats that Ma isn’t there and promises to take care of everything. When Ma Rainey arrives it’s with a police officer. She was in an accident with a cab. The officer can’t believe a black woman could own a car. After many stops and starts the session gets under way but there are issues all during the session.

The Production. Ken  MacKenzie has designed a three level set. The top level is the recording control booth. On the main level there is a stand up microphone  and a piano up at the back. This is where Ma Rainey will sing and record her songs. Down one level is where the four piece band of African-American musicians will rehearse while they wait for Ma Rainey to show up.

Sturdyvant (Diego Matamoros) and Irvin (Alex Poch-Goldin) arrive first. As Sturdyvant, Diego Matamoros is impatient waiting for Ma Rainey. He has endured what he considers her demanding antics and he’s fed up. As Irvin, Alex Poch-Goldin is nervous, twitchy and almost sweating with anxiety about where she is. He is her manager but Ma Rainey is the one in control. And she’s not there and he doesn’t know what to do but he promises Sturdyvant he will “take care of it.”

The band arrives from house right on the side of the audience, then they go on stage, across the first floor of the complex then downstairs to put their stuff in lockers and prepare to rehearse. They are Toledo (Beau Dixon), Slow Drag (Neville Edwards), Levee (Lovell Adams-Gray) and Cutler (Lindsay Owen Pierre). They are all in suits and ties. Good shoes.

They banter, tease and trade good natured barbs initially. It’s noted that Levee has spent his whole pay on a flash pair of shows. Their lives and relationships slowly reveal themselves. Over the performance the allegiances will shift and change.

Levee is brash, confident and angry. He plays the trumpet and dreams of getting his own band and depends on Sturdyvant to record his songs. This is the flashiest part in the production and Lovell Adams-Gray plays Levee for all he’s worth. The smile beams, the body language is fluid and muscular. It is an impressive performance even if he starts at about level 10. There isn’t really anywhere to go after that. A bit more variation would be in order and the performance would still be impressive. I do laugh though when Adams-Gray first tries to play the trumpet—all he produces really is wind and a few hiccup sounds. He looks at the trumpet as if this miss-step is its fault. Subsequent efforts are more successful.

Toledo, the piano player, is the intellectual of the band, always reading, always putting things in perspective. He has Levee pegged as a blowhard and tries to take him down a peg or two. Beau Dixon is strapping as Toledo. He is also quietly intellectual and he is the best musician of the group. He commands the piano, playing as if the notes come naturally from his skin.

Cutler, the banjo-guitar-trombone player is the leader of the band and tries to keep the peace between the volatile Levee and the rest of the group. Lindsay Owen Pierre is all calmness and even temper as Cutler.  Slow Drag (Neville Edwards) on double bass is easy going and doesn’t really interfere. They all have opinions of each other. The dialogue zings through the air. The cast have the slang and the pacing of it down pat.

They all know how to act with their white boss and play the game. Cutler gets up off his chair whenever Sturdyvant comes in to the room; subservient as is Levee. It’s uncomfortable to watch.  That’s how they survive but a subservient smile does not mean they are.

When Ma Rainey (Alana Bridgewater) arrives, also house right along the side of the audience, she is furious and marching in with a purpose as the police (Derek Boyes), her nephew Sylvester (Marcel Stewart) and her lover Dussie Mae (a flirty Virgilia Griffith who played up to both men and women) follow her trying to keep up.

Ma Rainey is nobody’s fool. Alana Bridgewater plays her without a drop of obsequiousness. This woman is beholden to no one. She does not bow and scrape. She stares down her adversaries and nails them. She knows her worth and makes everybody know it too.

Director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu does achieve that sense of cohesiveness in the band, keeping the banter sharp and quick. These are guys who get by by their wits. She has some lovely touches. Sylvester, Ma’s nephew, has a stammer but she wants him to say something on her record. While he waits his turn, Marcel Stewart who plays Sylvester, squeezes his hat, turns it nervously in his hands and keeps his head down with his eyes up in a shy, insecure stance. But when he leaves he makes a point of shaking the hand of Sturdyvant (I believe). It is such a sweet, gracious moment for this shy character. The body language of he band with each other is easy and laid back; with Sturdyvant it’s formal, stiff and awkward. Tindyebwa Otu makes us watchful for a subtle reaction here and there and makes us look harder at what is happening between people. The ending leaves you winded

Comment.  And with all these relationships August Wilson paints a vivid picture of life for a black person in America in 1920s.  It’s not a simplistic idea of how the black man is kept down by the white man. It’s more complex. Wilson delves into the black person’s sense of self, his place in the word, the sense of his/her worth. His dialogue is intoxicating. He has recreated the rhythm and beat of black slang and the means of expression and it’s like listening to the tap dancing of masters.  Although I often think that August Wilson overwrote what he wanted to say in many of his plays including Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.  But the play and this splendid production pack such wallop of emotion you can forgive it.

Presented by Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Opened: May 10, 2018.

Closes: June 2, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 35 minutes/



At the Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by C.S. Lewis

Adapted for the stage by Michael O’Brien

Directed by Tim Carroll

Set by Douglas Paraschuk

Costumes by Jennifer Goodman

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Projections by Cameron Davis

Music direction, original music and sound designed by Claudio Vena

Cast: Kyle Blair

Starr Domingue

Deborah Hay

Patty Jamieson

Vanessa Sears

Travis Seetoo

Steven Sutcliffe

Michael Therriault

 A faithful rendering of C.S. Lewis’ book about the beginning of the Narnia world in a production geared towards children that uses technology, puppets and masks effectively.

The Story. The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis charts the beginning of the Narnia series of children’s books, about magic, other worlds, and how much damage a wicked queen can cause when she’s slighted and pissed off.

It’s about two children Digory and Polly. Digory has come from the country with his sick mother to live in London with his aunt Letty and Uncle Andrew. His father is off fighting in the war (WWI).  Polly lives next door and befriends Digory.  Uncle Andrew is shiftless, mean, a bully and a bit of a magician. He dreams of going to other worlds and has created magical rings to do it. To see if they work, Digory and Polly use the magical rings to go to other worlds where they meet: Queen Jadis, a real piece of mean work, Aslan, a noble lion who wants to create a world called Narnia where people are good etc. and all manner of other odd creatures.

The Production. I saw the production with about 375 students.  The students from various public schools had come from a theatre workshop (as part of their theatre-going experience) where they made crowns that they wore during the show. I saw Kyle Blair in costume: shorts, nice shirt, knee high socks and shoes, chat up some children in the audience. He took notes while he chatted then when the show began he rushed up the aisle for the next scene.

A configuration of cardboard boxes is piled up centre stage. Several screens hang down from the flies along the back and side walls of the stage, spilling around the proscenium arch and in front of the side walls of the theatre auditorium. I figure that director Tim Carroll will be using projections as he did a few years ago at the Stratford Festival for his production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

When the production begins a group of people on stage introduce themselves as the mystery detectives (I believe) who ferret out mysteries and solve them.

A family is moving. The boy and the girl of the family occupy their time recalling a dream they had. This will segue into the story of The Magician’s Nephew where the boy and the girl will become Digory and Polly.

There is a lot of business of moving boxes around the set to create a wall, a tunnel, a window etc. Cameron Davis’ projections create the impressive perspective of the tunnel the children crawl through. There are wonderful creations of space, the various worlds the children visit and other visions that take us into the story.  There is enough technological dazzle with lots of projections setting the locations to engage the kids but not so much that the play is overpowered.

Tim Carroll’s staging is simplistic—many scenes are delivered directly to the audience rather than to other characters.  But the projections, the puppets and masks are first rate as is the cast. In particular the creation of a bird that will carry the children and a horse is pretty impressive, as is a chair that Uncle Andrew (a soft-talking-oily-acting-spooky-smiling Steven Sutcliffe) sits in that looks like a cardboard box from one direction and an ornate chair from another.

As Digory and Polly, Travis Seetoo and Vanessa Sears respectively are charm itself—he’s sweet and boyish and she is matter of fact and sensible.  As Jadis the Queen, sometimes called a witch, Deborah Hay is formidable, deliciously evil and frightening when put into an adult perspective of every bully who every terrorized anyone. She wants nothing less than to rule the world and would have too if it weren’t for Aslan and the beginning of the land of Narnia.

Aslan is played with nobility by Kyle Blair (in a wonderful lion’s mask) who wears an army uniform with sergeant’s stripes as a nod to WWI. Tim Carroll is acknowledging the centenary of the end of WWI with some of his programming this season. It’s beautifully ironic that a soldier plays a figure who wants to create a land of peace and good.

Michael Therriault is charmingly Cockney as the Cabbie. But when the cabby is asked to sing a song to lighten the mood, Therriault launches into “The Lambeth Walk” a cheesy bit of an insider joke—he starred in Me and My Girl last year leading the rousing “Lambeth Walk” that stopped the show. Why “cheesy”? Because Me and My Girl with “The Lambeth Walk” was produced in 1937 and The Magician’s Nephew takes place at the turn of the twentieth century. Director Tim Carroll’s penchant for cheesy jokes is tiresome and bogs down the pace.

 Comment. he production of The Magician’s Nephew is obviously for children of all ages and heights. C.S. Lewis’ classic book was adapted for the stage by Michael O’Brien and he’s pretty faithful to the book, even using dialogue from the book.

But he frames it with a group of people who say they are mystery detectives and are seeking out people’s dreams –I found this murky so am not clear who they really are.  While the two kids at the beginning of the production are recalling a dream they had, the group of detectives oversee the story. They seem to know what is happening next in the telling and I found that odd.  My quibble is that the framing devise doesn’t make sense here. The Magician’s Nephew is not the result of someone’s dream. It’s the result of the blunder of Uncle Andrew to make magic with these rings without thinking of the consequences.

On one level the whole notion of magic and other worlds appeals to kids and their imaginations.  But for adults it goes deeper. C.S. Lewis was one of the great thinkers of the 20th century.  He taught English at Cambridge and Oxford and also wrote on Christianity and philosophy. So one can look at The Magician’s Nephew as a work about the forces of good (the children) and Evil (Queen Jadis). One can look at Aslan, the lion as a Christ figure who wanted to create a world of good and kindness. The story is rich in themes of this sort that would appeal to an adult audience.  But this production certainly aims for a young audience. If my audience of young kids is any indication, they will love it.

Presented by the Shaw Festival.

Media Premiere: May 9, 2018.

Opening Celebration. May 26, 2018.

Closes: Oct. 13, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.




At the Studio Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Sharon Pollock
Directed by Keira Loughran
Set by Joanna Yu
Costumes by Jackie Chau
Lighting by Ital Erdal
Composed by Kiran Ahluwalia
Sound design by Suba Sankaran
Cast: Kian Ahluwalia
Jasmine Chen
Omar Alex Khan
Tyrone Savage
Quelemia Sparrow
Diana Tso

A serious subject that needs a better play and definitely better production.

The Story. The Komagata Maru Incident by Sharon Pollock about a terrible point in Canada’s past that seemed to set a racist immigration precedent. It was first produced in Vancouver in 1976. The play takes place in Vancouver in 1914 in a brothel. A Japanese freighter named the Komagata Maru carrying 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims, and 12 Hindus, all British citizens, arrived in Vancouver harbour but were not allowed to get off the ship.

Two laws were cited: 1) they had to have made the journey in a direct route with no stops, which they didn’t do. 2) they had to pay a head tax, which they couldn’t afford.

The Sikh community in Vancouver offered to pay it but the government refused it. The ship and almost all aboard it were stranded in the harbor for 2 months with diminishing food and water while people wrangled about what to do. The Immigration Officer negotiating the details between the people on the freighter and the mainland was William Hopkinson who fluctuated between being racist towards immigrants and having compassion for them because they were running out of food and water. Hopkinson has his own secrets.

The underlying reasons were racist. They didn’t want any more South Asians to come to Canada. Eventually the freighter was sent back but this incident certainly established a precedent. I think of the SS. St. Louis with 900 or so Jews from Nazi Germany being refused entry to various ports including Canada, whose policy of how many to admit was “one is too many”, and other incidents of other nationalities over the last century.

This is not a docudrama. Playwright Sharon Pollock says that it’s her impression of the events but she is not being held to just the facts. All the people on the freighter are represented by a woman of South Asian decent. Pollock was more comfortable writing a woman to represent those on the ship rather than a Sikh man. Fair enough.

The Production. Pollock has presented it as a kind of circus act with a Master of Ceremonies who narrates aspects of what is happening, which is mystifying, and the production doesn’t help either.

It’s directed by Keira Loughran and I just don’t think she’s a very good director. She gets mired in trying to be clever and she fails. I thought her work last year directing The Aeneid was poor, again with too much distracting stuff.

This year her production of The Komagata Maru Incident is so busy with distracting staging stuff it is aggravating to watch. There is a large central set piece that represents the Komagata Maru. Standing at the top of the ship structure is The Woman representing all the Sikhs. She is played by the incomparable Kiran Ahluwalia who has written all the Punjabi lyrics for the songs she sings. She is a clear, compelling actress when conveying the urgency of the situation. I wished that there was a translation so I could know what she’s saying. She plays a woman with a small child (unseen) and comments on the goings on. The Woman is perhaps the only one with perception, integrity, and savvy enough to know they are being used as pawns and duped.

So to illustrate my comment about Kiera Loughran’s direction: we have The Woman at the top of the large ship, then down below on stage level are other characters with their own dialogue between them, then there are projections on the bow of the ship representing birds etc. that might expand on the dialogue and the whole thing conspires to scatter our attention. Who do we pay attention to? What is the point of the scene? That I have to ask these questions is maddening and frustrating.

There is a character called T.S who is our Master of Ceremonies who puts on a British soldier’s uniform to comment on the goings on and the law. T.S. is played by a woman named Quelemia Sparrow without a trace of irony, sarcasm or edge. She is so busy playacting at narrating a terrible story and doing cheesy choreography that the character seems just smarmy rather than edgy. Again, the director doesn’t have a grip on how to guide the actress in making the character more substantial than superficial.

I think of the MC in Cabaret whose job was to narrate and yet convey the horrors of what was going on outside that Cabaret in Germany at the time and he did it with sarcasm and irony. But then again the rendering of the MC in Cabaret was brilliant and in The Komagata Maru Incident is just embarrassing.

Playing William Hopkinson is Omar Alex Khan who spends too much time expelling large sighs to convey frustration and not much variation in a rather wooden performance.

A bright note in this dreary production is Tyrone Savage as Georg, a mysterious German businessman. Savage gave Georg class and sophistication.

Comment. Sharon Pollock is a leading Canadian playwright who has created interesting plays in the past. The Komagata Maru Incident is not one of them. It is plodding, ponderous in the story telling in that much of it tells and doesn’t show and is often confusing.

The Komagata Maru Incident is a play that is rarely done. There is a reason for that. It’s not a good play. It’s an important issue, but not a good play. And the static production doesn’t help. Save your money and Google the Komagata Maru Incident and learn about it that way.

Plays at the Stratford Festival until Sept. 24, 2017.


At the Elgin Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book by Craig Lucas
Based on the original novel “Madame Sousatzka” by Bernice Rubens
Music by David Shire
Lyrics by David Maltby, Jr.
Additional Vocal Arrangements and Music by Lebo M
Directed by Adrian Noble
Choreography by Graciela Daniele
Set by Anthony Ward
Costumes by Paul Tazewell
Lighting by Howell Binkley
Sound by Martin Levan
Projection design by Jon Driscoll
Cast: Ryan Allen
Jordan Barrow
Victoria Clark
Rebecca Eichenberger
Sara Jean Ford
John Hillner
Judy Kaye
Virginia Preston
Christianne Tisdale
Nicky Wyman

The production is overproduced; over-written with too many storylines, many of which should be cut and too many extraneous songs that should also be cut. However the singing of Victoria Clark as Sousatzka, Judy Kaye as the Countess and Montego Glover as the mother, is glorious.

The Story. Sousatzka is based on the 1962 novel Madame Sousatzka by Bernice Rubens and not on the 1988 film starring Shirley MacLaine. The novel is set in London. It’s about Madame Sousatzka, an eccentric Polish piano teacher and her gifted student Marcus, the son of a single mother from Eastern Europe.

But in the musical, Sousatzka, this simple story has been fiddled with to such an extent that it’s just chocking with storylines, many of which are not developed or are eye-poppingly incredible. Playwright Craig Lucas has made several changes and additions for the musical Sousatzka (I guess copyright rules prevented the producers from using the clearer title of Madame Sousatzka. Sousatzka doesn’t really tell ticket buyers much about the show).

The setting is still London but it begins in South Africa in 1976 during the uprisings against apartheid. A man named Jabulani Khenketha leads a group of black South Africans seeking justice but are shot at by the police. Several people are killed and Jabulani is sent to prison for treason. His wife Xholiswa Khenketha and their young son, Themba leave South Africa and make a dangerous journey to London (1983) and a better life. Themba is now the gifted student of Madame Sousatzka.

Over the course of the show we see Madame Sousatzka’s back story—family wiped out by the Nazis in Warsaw, Poland (1938) and there are other horrors she experiences as well. There are the back stories of the rest of the people who live in the boarding house with Madame Sousatzka; Themba is torn between his cultural attachment to South Africa and the transplanted South Africans in London and his awakening to another kind of life involving Madame Sousatzka and her odd friends. Themba becomes attached to Sarah, a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed ballerina in his school which does not go down too well with his mother. Themba is also conflicted with who he is as a person and the music he wants to follow. And of course as Themba becomes accomplished Madame Sousatzka worries that he will leave her on his way to success. Lots too digest.

The Production. In the musical world you set the tone, mood and idea of a musical in the first five minutes of the show. In the first five minutes of Sousatzka we are in Soweto, South Africa, 1976 (this is projected on the back wall of the stage) at a rally against apartheid led by Jabulani, Themba’s father. Several traditional South African songs are sung by a throng in full voice including the South African national anthem and an anti-apartheid song. (I wish there was a projected translation of the songs so we could get the full benefit of their meaning.) Police shoot; people are dead and there is a court case with three very angry prosecutors screaming their verdict as Jabulani is put in prison. There is the escape of Themba and his mother to London where most of the musical takes place, except for those scenes that go off to other places.

This musical does not know what it wants to be it’s so confused. It doesn’t know if it wants to be a rousing South Africa story—though that gets the audience ‘up’ and excited–or an otherwise ‘quiet’ ordinary story in London with some lovely ballads. .

I found Anthony Ward’s set oddly designed and often oppressive. Too often there is a backdrop that goes up a bit higher than the actors on stage that establishes where we are—Sousatzka’s flat, Xholiswa’s London flat, etc., but above that is darkness. It’s as if the actors are playing the scene in a cave.

The South Africa scenes have the benefit of an impressive rising sun etc. thanks to the projections by Jon Driscoll, but for the most part there is a sense of gloom because of the odd design by Antony Ward. Strange because he’s a fine designer.

While Craig Lucas’s book is choking with too many story-lines he has captured the deep devotion that Sousatzka has to music. Lucas has also captured her quirkiness in telling Themba how to feel the music and let it play. In Themba we get a sense of the depth of his character.

For all the problems with this show, there are some bright spots. Victoria Clark as Madame Sousatzka is a gift of an actress. She captures the eccentric oddness of Sousatzka, her confidence, her fire and in her quiet moments, her uncertainty. And she sings like a dream. Clark is a true, clear, rich soprano who knows how to interpret the heart and soul of a song. She sings the beautiful song “Music Is In You” to convey that love of music to Themba.

Clark is ably matched by Judy Kaye as the Countess, a woman with a heart of gold and a keeper of many secrets. Kaye also sings beautifully. One of the best moments is their duet on “Let Go” a beautiful song about coming to terms with knowing when to let a person in your life go on to other things. Both are glorious singers and lovely actors.

Jordan Barrow as Themba has passion and charm. You get the sense of his growing confidence and confliction of where he should be in the world. He has poise and ability to handle this tricky part. Montego Glover as his mother Xholiswa also sings beautifully and is a fine actress. She conveys the pride and stubbornness in wanting the best for her son. And she does a rousing rendition of “Song of the Child” that is thrilling, until you realise that the song is oddly placed as if it was dropped in the story like an errant piece of lint. It’s an important song and should be better placed.

But too often one wondered what was up with all those songs? The music is by David Shire. The lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. Additional music is by Lebo M who has written the rousing South Africa portion. (All have done better work elsewhere.) There are 16 songs in the first act and 17 in the second with about 16 songs taking place in South Africa. Many of them should be cut because they are sung by people we don’t know or in situations that can’t support them. It’s as if the creators are determined to beat us into submission with too many story lines and too many songs.

Adrian Noble’s direction is pedestrian at best. He shows us the individual people in Sousatzka’s house involved in their activities: a man manipulates a client (he’s an osteopath), a young woman manipulates a client, (she’s a prostitute). What’s missing is who they actually are for context. Songs are often sung full out to the audience, or speeches addressed to them but not the people the speech is meant for. So old fashioned.

Graciela Daniele’s choreography for the South African scenes is lively and acrobatic. When there are scenes in Xholiswa’s flat that is cause for more rousing singing—there are usually at least 20 people there—Daniele has them gyrating to a seductive beat.

So many people associated with this jumble of a show have done good work elsewhere. You want to ask, “What happened here? Are you too close to see you need a scissors to cut out swaths of this clutter?”

Themba might have a “Brand New Family” but that song comes from no where about people we know nothing about. Cut it.

Themba has enough on his plate to contend with besides also having to deal with a blonde, blue-eyed girlfriend ballet dancer since nothing of that relationship is developed. It’s just plopped in and it’s cheesy. Cut it. Cut the ridiculous number “All I Wanna Do (Is Go Dancin”) because it veers away from the central plot.

When Themba goes to a soiree at the home of the man who will arrange a concert for him, that is not cause for a production number of “Manders Salon” of the snotty, bigoted people invited there. The song is clever for no reason and the message of it has been handled better elsewhere in the show. Cut it.

While Judy Kaye sings “Ring One Bell” beautifully about a Christmas in Warsaw, the song comes from no where and is supported by nothing and veers away from the plot. Sorry, cut it.

And while the incredulous ending might make one think this is a happy ending it’s just another eye-rolling moment in a show full of them.

Comment. Craig Lucas’s book of Sousatzka seems like a checklist of the ills of the 20th century—apartheid, the Holocaust, rape, racism, bigotry and interracial relations to name a few—and it makes the whole enterprise seem disingenuous. It’s as if the creators were taking a basically simple story and puffing it up to look important and substantial. And it’s neither.

Sousatzka marks the return of Garth Drabinsky to theatre producing after an absence of 15 years, some of which was spent in jail because of fraud. His intention is to send this to Broadway in the fall. If Garth Drabinsky thinks this new production is Broadway material he’s 20 years out of date. This production has been kicking around on Drabinsky’s bucket list for years and in that time it doesn’t seem that he’s noticed that Broadway has changed. These over-blown, bloated productions have passed their ‘best-by-date.” Song after song is bellowed out giving a false sense of ‘tingle’ and a distinct sense of being manipulated.

There are 11 roles in Sousatzka with a stuffed cast of 48 (and many of them should be cut.) In true Drabinsky fashion all the creative people on this show are either American or British. All the speaking roles are American. Of the cast of 48 only 16 are Canadian and they are relegated to the chorus. I have seen many of those Canadians in the chorus in lead roles in shows across the country, but you won’t find that in a Garth Drabinsky show. The message is clear: Canadians aren’t good enough for a creative or speaking role in a Drabinsky show.

Sousatzka was work shopped in Toronto (where the dollar is weak) and has its only run here before it hopes to go to Broadway in the fall. I would like to think this is one case that Drabinsky will not tell us (Canadians, Torontonians) how lucky we are that this show started here.


Teatro Proscenium Limited Parnership and Sousatzka Broadway Limited Partnership present a Garth Drabinsky Production:

Opened: March 23, 2017
Closes: April 9, 2017.
Cast: 48; 4; men, 8 women and a lot of chorus.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes.


At the Elgin Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book by Craig Lucas
Based on the original novel “Madame Sousatzka”
Music by David Shire
Lyrics by David Maltby, Jr.
Additional Vocal Arrangements and Music by Lebo M
Directed by Adrian Noble
Choreography by Graciela Daniele
Set by Anthony Ward
Costumes by Paul Tazewell
Lighting by Howell Binkley
Sound by Martin Levan
Cast: Ryan Allen
Jordan Barrow
Victoria Clark
Rebecca Eichenberger
Sara Jean Ford
John Hillner
Judy Kaye
Virginia Preston
Christianne Tisdale
Nicky Wyman

Sousatzka is about an eccentric piano teacher named Madame Sousatzka and her gifted student, Themba. The production is overproduced; over-written with too many storylines, many of which should be cut; too many extraneous songs that should also be cut. Setting it in London and South Africa with a checklist of the ills of the 20th century—apartheid, the Holocaust, rape, racism, bigotry, and interracial relations to name a few—makes the whole thing seem disingenuous.

Craig Lucas (book) David Shire (music), Richard Maltby Jr. (lyrics) have all done better work elsewhere. The additional music by Lebo M is rousing.

Adrian Noble’s direction is pedestrian. I found the set (Anthony Ward) oddly designed and often oppressive. He too has done better work elsewhere. (what has happened to you people??!!)

If Garth Drabinsky thinks this production is Broadway material he’s 20 years out of date.

The saving graces are Victoria Clark as Madame Sousatzka and Judy Kaye as the Countess. Both are glorious singers and lovely actors. Jordan Barrow as Themba has passion and charm. And Montego Glover as his mother also sings beautifully and is a fine actress. I was so grateful for them.

But to the rest—feh.

Full review to follow. I will review this on CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm on Friday, March 24 from 9 am to 10 am.

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At the Avon Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Gary Griffin
Musical director, Franklin Brasz
Designed by Debra Hanson
Lighting by Kevin Fraser
Projection Consultant, Brad Peterson
Sound by Peter McBoyle
Cast: Matt Alfano
Gabriel Antonacci
Sean Arbuckle
Ben Carlson
Juan Chioran
Cynthia Dale
Rosemary Dunsmore
Sara Farb
Barbara Fulton
Alexis Gordon
Ayrin Mackie
Yanna McIntosh
Stephen Patterson
Jennifer Rider-Shaw
Kimberly-Ann Truong

An uneven production (dare one say, sloppy) of Stephen Sondheim’s sublime musical, with a director more interested in moving furniture to change scenes than in helping actors desperate for direction, but with performances from Ben Carlson and Yanna McIntosh (among others) that are wonderful.

The Story. Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 musical is suggested by Ingmar Berman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night. A Little Night Music takes place in Sweden at the turn of the last century. Fredrik Egerman, a middle aged lawyer, is trying to please his very young wife, Anne, with theatre tickets to a French comedy starring Désirée Armfeldt. Frederick and Anne have been married for eleven months and have not consummated the marriage because at 18, Anne is timid, afraid of sex, or perhaps sex with Fredrik. Fredrik is frustrated. Years before he married Anne he had an affair with Désirée Armfeldt. Now after the French comedy Fredrik goes to Désirée for solace, even though they haven’t seen each other for at least 14 years.

To complicate matters Fredrik’s nineteen-year-old son Henrik, from a previous marriage, is secretly in love with Anne. And there are further complications: Désirée has a very pompous dragoon as a lover—who in turn is married as well. It’s Sweden. They don’t get enough sunlight. It wrecks havoc on people’s emotions.

The Production. Five formally dressed Lieder Singers set the tone and elegance of the musical and give hints of the stories to come, but the production is marred by over-amplification. What is this penchant for microphoning both the orchestra and the cast then ramping up the sound so that you almost can’t make out the lyrics and the music sounds harsh? It’s Sondheim! If you can’t make out the lyrics and the music the point is wasted. The audience is there to listen. Trust them to do it. Cut the amplification down by half, please!

There is such a sense of clutter and busy stage business in director Gary Griffin’s disappointing production. The cast always seems to be moving and pushing set pieces from one end of the stage to the other, often for no reason or during a scene causing distraction. So many actors need guidance with their intricate characters and the director seems nowhere in attendance except for the ‘look’ of the production and even here there are eye-brow-knitting moments.

In the scene when Fredrik and Anne go the theatre to see Désirée in her play, Fredrik and Anne sit in a box stage right, watching Désirée and two characters do a scene, facing downstage, towards the audience. There is a projection at the back of the set of a multi-tiered, very ornate theatre with plush seats, facing the audience (us). The projection is in the wrong place. It’s backwards if the action of the scene is played downstage towards the audience (us). That sight of the rich theatre is what Désirée and her fellow actors on stage would see as they looked out to their audience. It’s not what we (our audience) should be looking at at the back of the set. Is no one in this production paying attention to this stuff? Does the director really care this little?

Debra Hanson’s set, with its odd smoke stacks configuration and overpowering gate and faux foliage, to quote a line from the musical: “was, to put it mildly, peculiar.” Her costumes, on the other hand, are ravishing, elegant, and fitting the time.

This difficult show requires a cast that is strong in both singing and acting; who know how to find the nuance and detail in Hugh Wheeler’s elegant (that word again) text and Sondheim’s intricate lyrics. Four actors hit the mark in spades. As Fredrik, Ben Carlson goes from strength to strength. Whether he is acting in Shakespeare or singing Sondheim, his acting is true, detailed and heartfelt. As Fredrik, Carlson shows the man’s frustration with a young wife and the longing for a former lover. This is a performance full of patience, wit, pent up emotion and courtliness. And he sings beautifully.

As Désirée, Yanna McIntosh has the sass and boldness of an actress forced to tour the country-side in second-rate productions, but still has the allure and class of an actress that can draw crowds. This Désirée is knowing, ironic, sarcastic and coy. McIntosh’s rendering of “Send in the Clowns” is wonderfully heartbreaking. McIntosh conveys Désirée’s initial yearning and disappointment when singing the song for the first time and her quiet joy when singing the reprise that it will all work out.

Juan Chioran brings out all the pomposity and arrogance of Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm. He has the stature and sneer of a man who believes he deserves everything from all his women. Chioran does it with a haughty flair. You are never in doubt that he has “the vanity of a peacock (and ) the brain of a pea” in Chioran’s performance and he does it beautifully. That also carries over in his commanding singing. This is a character that is a pompous fool and totally mesmerizing because of Chioran’s playing of him.

Madam Armfeldt, Désirée’s mother, is a woman with a colourful past; who counts kings among her former lovers. As played by Rosemary Dunsmore, with an impish hauteur, Madam Armfeldt conveys the exasperation of a woman of class who laments her daughter’s messiness in her own affairs. Madam Armfeldt is watchful, all-knowing, impatient with the shoddiness of the ‘modern’ generation who come calling to her estate. Yet has the most delicious whimsy and wry humour when commenting about it all to her granddaughter. Dunsmore brings all this out with economy and the most riveting stillness.

A Little Night Music demands absolute mastery of all its actor/singers, not just four of them. What of those who are floundering and need a strong director’s hand? They seem to be out of luck here. As Anne Egerman, Alexis Gordon (so wonderful last year as Julie Jordan in Carousel) plays the flightiness and girlishness of Anne but does not go deeper to find the emotional uncertainty.

As Countess Charlotte Malcolm, Cynthia Dale is all surface and superficiality. A bright smile and the hint of a furrowed brow does not begin to plum the depths of Charlotte’s character and her conflicted emotions. While Dale hits all the notes in “Every Day A Little Death” she does not realize the emotional rawness in the song. Charlotte has a nimble wit and keen sense of humour, but again Dale ploughs through lines without seeming to know where the laugh is. Case in point: Carl-Magnus tells Charlotte of going to his mistress Désirée’s for part of his leave. He tells Charlotte of finding Fredrik Egerman there, a lawyer. Charlotte says: “What kind of lawyer? Corporation, maritime, criminal—testamentary?” Writer Hugh Wheeler shows the actress playing Charlotte where there is a pause in the list, namely, that dash. And that sets up the joke that follows the dash, namely, the word “testamentary.” Dale doesn’t pause to set up the laugh. And she mispronounces “testamentary,” which doesn’t help either. The stress in on the first syllable and not on the last. Is there nobody to help her, such as the director?

Can somebody please tell Matt Alfano who plays Frid, that Frid is a servant in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century and not someone from a borough of New York City in 2016, who seems fresh from A Chorus Line?

Sara Farb is flirty and sexually charged as Petra, a servant in the Egerman household. She knows how to take advantage of any opportunity that passes by. She belts out “The Miller’s Son” but one wishes it was less an obvious effort of a bravura performance to bite out all those challenging lyrics, and a more varied exploration of the depths of that stunning song.

Comment. Stephen Sondheim writes of the wounded heart, love in all its guises and the folly of people ruled by their emotions like no other living composer for the musical theatre. A Little Night Music is a musical as delicate as a feather on the breeze but with heightened emotions. Characters are fraught, conflicted and often emotionally fragile. It requires a delicate, but firm, directorial hand to realize the subtleties in the piece. Unfortunately it doesn’t have that in Gary Griffin. Actors desperate for guidance don’t seem to get it; a note to ‘bring the performance down a lot’ doesn’t seem to have been given; how to play a part in the time period of the musical and helping an actor find the humour and the laugh in so many lines does not seem to be important in his direction. One also wonders if musical director, Franklin Brasz helped any of the singers who needed guidance to find out what their songs meant.

I am grateful for Ben Carlson, Yanna McIntosh, Juan Chioran and Rosemary Dunsmore for giving performances that are beautifully rendered with all the nuance and shading that is necessary in realizing this difficult, elegant musical. But for the rest, sadly this production of A Little Night Music is a disappointment.

The Stratford Festival Presents:

Opened: June 21, 2016.
Closes: October 23, 2016.
Cast: 18; 7, 11 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.


January, 2014

Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary

At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

By Michel Tremblay

Directed by John Van Burek

Richard McMillan played Sandra as a sashaying, coy, seductive, bitter transvestite. As the audience filled in, McMillan, as Sandra, strolled on stage wearing a floor-length satin dressing gown. He sat down at a table facing us and stared.  His middle finger made small circles on the surface of the table. He pouted at the audience. He was toying with us. The performance revealed a deep-rooted vindictiveness and sadness.

Irene Poole played Manon, a repressed, religious woman, stuck in her own disappointment. She wore a severe black suit with a long skirt. When she sat her knees were tight together and were covered by the skirt. Poole still pulled the skirt tighter down her already covered legs.

Slowly, almost without us noticing, the huge backdrop of the Virgin Mary ever so slowly came into view. Kudos to the lighting of Itai Erdal.

Light Princess

National Theatre, London, England.

Music and Lyrics by Tori Amos

Book and Lyrics by Samuel Adamson

Suggested by a story by George MacDonald.

Directed by Marianne Elliott

Designed by Rae Smith

Lighting by Paule Constable

Choreography by Steven Hoggett

Starring Rosalie Craig

Not exactly a shining moment for Tori Amos in her musical theatre debut, or for Samuel Adamson who keeps just missing in his playwriting. About a princess who is cursed to defy gravity and never really alight on the ground.

The always imaginative Steven Hoggett devised choreography-movement that had the princess floating in air, and ‘bounced’ and flipped by a group of black-clad men who were therefore to be considered invisible.  A technicolor set and striking lighting from director Marianne Elliott’s stalwart team:  Rae Smith on sets and Paule (pronounced Paulee) Constable on lighting.

Henry V

At the Noël Coward Theatre, London, England

Written by William Shakespeare (of course!)

Directed by Michael Grandage (part of his season of plays with British star actors)

Designed by Christopher Oram

Lighting by Neil Austin

Composed and sound by Adam Cork

Starring Jude Law

An unevenly acted production with Jude Law playing Henry V— the draw for this production. Mr. Law is determined to be taken seriously as an all-round commanding actor (both in film and on the stage). He didn’t blow me away but I admire his tenacity and his not being afraid to disappear into his characters and be unrecognizable.

As the all-important Chorus  (who calls “O for a muse of fire….” and sets the stage and tells us what is going to be ‘crammed within this wooden O’),  Ashley Zhangazha left a lot to be desired, starting with contained passion and  comprehension of the text. He needed a director to help him and Michael Grandage was not that person. Zhangazha was so busy flinging his arms around and seemed so delighted to be onstage that comprehension of what he was saying was flung away.

The back wall was curved like Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, which is where the play was first done. But when Zhangazha came to the line “Crammed within this wooden O,” instead of flinging his arms wide to indicate the curved walls, he flung his hands down in front of him, indicating the floor. Mystifying.

Stephen Ward

At the Aldwych Theatre, London, England

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Book and Lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black

Designed by Rob Howell

Lighting by Peter Mumford

Sound by Paul Groothuis

Choreography by Stephen Mear

Directed by Richard Eyre

Starring Alexander Hanson

Dr. Stephen Ward, osteopath, arranged women for his male friends in high places. He introduced John Profumo — in the British cabinet — to Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. There was a scandal. Political crisis. Stephen Ward was sacrificed. Andrew Lloyd Webber thought this would make a swell musical.

Alexander Hanson was a suave, smooth Stephen Ward. He smoked with style. He put the slow moves on women. He sang beautifully. You wanted to take a shower after spending time with the character.

Lloyd Webber repeated and repeated melody lines and songs he wanted to be the hit tunes. With all that repetition naturally the melodies stuck. The first scene took place in The Chamber of Horrors in Blackpool. A semi-circle of wax figures — a who’s who of the monsters of the 20th century were there — Hitler, Stalin, the Acid-bath murderer and Stephen Ward. Ward came out of the line of wax figures and sang that he was there on display between Hitler and the Acid-bath murderer. Only he wasn’t. He was between Hitler and Stalin. The Acid-bath murderer was waaaaay over there at the other end of the line.  I knew we were in trouble then. The show closed in four months.


At the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, England.

Written by Jez Butterworth

Directed by Ian Rickson

Designed by Ultz

Lighting by Charles Balfour

Music by Stephen Warbeck

Sound by Simon Baker

Starring: Brendan Coyle

Rupert Grint

Tom Rhys Harries

Daniel Mays

Colin Morgan Ben Wishaw

Silver Johnny was a rock star on the club circuit in London. People went wild when he appeared. Everybody wanted to represent him. A kind of bidding war happened. Things got ugly. A guy who managed him was found in two barrels.

In setting up the scene when Johnny goes on stage, Tom Rhys Harris swiveled his hips to get in the groove; put his hands down his pants to ‘fluff’ himself up; then flung himself over a railing to jump on the stage below. Talk about a dramatic entrance. No stairs for this guy.

Brendan Coyle (a long way away from Mr. Bates on “Downton Abbey”) played the brains of one of the groups. Ben Wishaw, who usually plays slight, sensitive men, was unrecognizable as one of the toughs. A fabulous production.


At the Trafalgar Studios, London England

Written by Henrik Ibsen

Directed and adapted by Richard Eyre

Designed by Tim Hatley

Lighting by Peter Mumford

Sound by John Leonard.

Starring: Adam Kotz

Jack Lowden

Brian McCardie

Charlene McKenna

Lesley Manville

As Mrs. Alving, Lesley Manville was glorious. She can assume a look of sadness, despair, joy with a tinge of ‘something’ and yet never give it away. You didn’t see the last scene in her first entrance.

The design/set/lighting etc. were the other stars. Dark, forbidding walls then became slowly transparent with light as a glass wall appeared where we thought there was wood.  I love the ache of the play; the trapped, gasping characters. The sins of the father heaped down on his innocent son. That Ibsen knew his way around a woman’s heart and mind.

Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense

At the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, England

Written by The Goodale Brothers

From the works of P.G. Wodehouse.

Directed by Sean Foley

Designed by Alice Power

Lighting by James Farncombe

Music and sound by Ben and Max Ringham

Starring Matthew Macfadyen

Stephen Mangan

The story is impenetrable, complicated, and hilarious. Bertie Wooster, that upper-class twit, was played by the lively, toothsome Stephen Mangan. The always calm, efficient, wily Jeeves was played by a totally contained Matthew Macfadyen. With a purse of his lips, a raise of his eyebrows, and a slow pan to the audience, Macfadyen spoke volumes but said nothing.  These two actors played all the characters, both men and women, sometimes at the same time. At one point the set was changed when a hook attached to a wall of the set was then attached to a stationary bicycle and one of them peddled like mad, and the set then revolved to reveal another location. Great silliness.

Emil and the Detectives

At the National Theatre, London, England

Written by Erich Kästner

Adapted by Carl Miller

Directed by Bijan Sheibani

Designed by Bunny Christie

Lighting by Lucy Carter

Movement by Aline David

Music by Paul Englishby

Sound by Ian Dickinson

Starring a cast of thousands it seems, and one of three Emils (I think I had Daniel Patten)

Emil was going to his relatives by train. His mother gave him some food for the journey and money for his relatives. A scumbag thug on the train stole the kid’s money. When  Emil arrived at his destination the word went out to all the kids in the town about the theft an the need to get it back. The kids rallied. The scumbag was caught. The whole thing looked like a film noir setting. Loved it.

This is the show I was seeing when, at intermission, Andrew told his girlfriend Emily (sitting next to me) that they would honeymoon in Venice but would live in Pasadena. Emily seemed agreeable. Then Andrew announced he wanted to get married when he was 24. That gave them 15 years to plan it all, Andrew pointed out, because he is currently nine.

Happy Days

At the Young Vic

Written by Samuel Beckett

Directed by Natalie Abrahami

Designed by Vicki Mortimer

Lighting by Paule Constable

Sound by Tom Gibbons

Movement by Joseph Alfond

Starring: David Beames

Juliet Stevenson

I saw the second or third preview. Not fair to comment. Never mind. This was one of the best productions of this hard play I have ever seen. Vickie Mortimer designed a mound of earth at the bottom of a craggy cliff. Every time the bell rang with its teeth-gritting sound, pebbles would trickle down the cliff. This takes away any mystery as to how Winnie got buried up to her waist. Even in repose, bent down over the mound, Juliet Stevenson as Winnie, looked like it was an unrestful sleep. The jollity was forced. The tenacity of Winnie was heartbreaking and impressive.

In Act II Winnie should be up to her neck in dirt. Here she wasn’t. She was up to her chin—much worse.  When Winnie screamed twice in Act II, to release tension, get rid of angst, the stones trickled more and faster. That made me heartsick. To be stuck, trapped, desperate to release a desperation by screaming, and the scream loosens pebbles that are slowly burying you. God! As Willie, Winnie’s consort, David Beames is masterful  — present but absent, trying to help and failing. The director is Natalie Abrahami. Brilliant.






Review: SPIN

by Lynn on November 21, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written and performed by Evalyn Parry
Directed by Ruth Madoc-Jones.
Video and production design by Beth Kates
Arrangements for String Trio by Michael Holt
Also starring: Brad Hart on the Bicycle
Don Kerr on the Cello
Kathleen Kajioka on Viola
Anne Lindsay on Violin

A terrific journey on and about the bicycle, women’s emancipation and bloomers.

The Story. Evalyn Parry tells us in song and occasionally speech about the importance of the bicycle regarding women’s emancipation. She tells several stories involving 19th Century adventurers and women’s rights activists. The main story is about Annie Londonderry, who, on a dare from a man, decided to ride a bicycle around the world in 1895! She was 23, married with three children, and she left them to go on this year-long adventure.

She funded her trip by selling post cards of her on her bike and by selling advertising space on her clothes and her bike. That’s an idea that has caught on if golf pros, tennis players etc. are any indication. The selling of ads provides a different definition of ‘spin’ besides the spin of the bicycle wheels.

Parry tells how the bicycle provided freedom to those women more than 100 years ago. It was a chance to break out of the home and perhaps drudgery. The clothing proved a problem. The dresses worn at the time were layered, heavy and cumbersome when trying to ride a bicycle. And there was the corset underneath. Along comes something called “Bloomers”. They were named after Amelia Bloomer, who did not invent them—I believe that was the Egyptians. Amelia Bloomer was a writer and publishing mover and shaker at the time, and championed those billowing pants, so the nickname for the pants came from her.

The Production. Stage left is a man’s bike raised on a stand. Centre stage is a microphone and two guitars on stands. Stage right are three chairs and music stands for the string trio who wear black pants, white shirt, perhaps formal tailed jackets: Don Kerr on cello (he wears goggles as he plays), Kathleen Kajioka on viola wears a black bowler hat; Anne Linsday on violin does not wear anything out of the ordinary as far as I can tell.

When the show is about to begin, Brad Hart takes his position behind the bicycle and begins to play it—ringing the bells on the handle-bars; tapping the cross-bar and seat; stroking the fender with a brush, plucking a spoke or two; twanging on something else.

Evalyn Parry, who wrote the script and the songs, appears in what looks like a circus master of ceremonies costume—red jacket with tails, tight black pants and maroon boots: Her hair is in one braid in the back, perhaps to suggest the 1890s yet she is also firmly in the 21st century.

There are projections on the back wall as well; a circle with the word “spin” repeated in the circle then spiralled; there are projections of bicycles through the ages; pictures of feminist icons of the day: Annie Londonderry, Emilia Bloomer, Frances E. Willard.

But it’s Parry with her easy smile, sense of irony and lilting voice that tells the story in song and dialogue that draws us in. She conjures the world of women on bikes in 1895 in the song, “She Rides”. She sings of Amelia Bloomer and her crusade for fashion reform in “Amelia Bloomer Sings for Fashion Reform,” and she talks about spin in terms of biking and advertising in “World of Spin.” Her songs are articulate, literate, occasionally impish, always witty and provocative. It’s directed with understated attention by Ruth Madoc-Jones.

Comment. When Spin played at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre three years ago, it played in the smaller Tallulah’s Cabaret. Now after touring the country from east to west and top to bottom for three years, Evalyn Parry and her troop have returned to Buddies, this time playing in the larger Chamber. The play is still intimate but now plays to a larger audience.

There are a few changes. A string trio has been added and their playing gives the sense of bicycle wheels spinning and movement happening, usually accompanied by wind in one’s hair. The music of the trio is by Michael Holt. There is also an additional moving song about a relative of Annie Londonderry who has taken her own journey and thus influences Evalyn Parry on hers.

Spin is parked at parked at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre for one short week and plays until Nov. 23 after which it will ride off into the sunset. By writing about women in 1895 and their sense of earned freedom with the bicycle, Parry has created a parallel comment about our own times. Spin is thoughtful, perceptive, provocative, insightful and moving. Don’t miss it.

Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and Outspoke Productions present:

Opened: Nov. 19, 2014
Closes: Nov. 23, 2014
Cast: 2; 1 man, one woman (a trio of musicians)
Running Time: 80 minutes.


Playwright Project 2014

For the past three years Founder and Project Director Alex “Addy” Johnson and her artistic team have created a festival of one act plays devoted to one playwright. In its first year the playwright was Tennessee Williams. In the second it was Sam Shepard. This year it’s British titan Caryl Churchill.

Churchill’s work is as fascinating as it is controversial, obtuse, clear, provocative, subversive, game changing, theatre-defining and always, always challenging. The variety of subjects explored is mind-blowing. Her use of language is like no other playwright because she re-invents it and you are never in doubt as to what she means.

From April 23 to May 4, four spunky independent theatre companies will present a play each which gives a taste of Churchill’s range as a playwright. They are: A Number produced by Cart/Horse Theatre. Vinegar Tom produced by Neoteny Theatre, Drunk Enough To Say I Love You produced by Circle Snake Productions, and Three More Sleepless Nights produced by Bad Joe.

I saw two plays of the four this weekend. I’m seeing the other two this week.

A Number.

Produced by Cart/Horse Theatre. Directed by Matthew Gorman. Starring: Craig Pike and Mark Whelan.

Cloning, identity, the relationship between fathers and sons, trust and the truth. These are some of the themes playwright Caryl Churchill explores in her play A Number. Bernard(2) is upset. He has found out that he is a clone and tells his father, Salter, and that there are a number of them, and he’s not sure how many. He’s not sure if he’s the original. He’s not sure how this happened—he mentions some mad scientist. The truth is more frightening. Bernard is as confused and concerned as his father is trying to be supportive and initially hiding the truth.

Another son appears looking exactly the same but not the same, Bernard (1). He is combative, accusatory, dangerous. Salter is scrambling to explain. Is this Bernard the original? And then there is Michael who looks like the others but seems to have little interest or connection to Salter.

Fascinating. Leave it to Churchill to explore cloning in such a way that while the three (known) clones look alike, they are totally different. There is a suggestion (I’m not giving it away) that the reason for the clone was to produce an exact replica of the original. And physically they look alike. In a lovely touch both Craig Pike as all the sons (Bernard 1, 2, and Michael) have the same kind of goatee as Mark Whelan who plays Salter the father. They all wear button down shirts. But the sons are different and Pike differentiates them beautifully. Bernard 2 is confused, trusting of his father, upset of course and questioning of what happened. Bernard 1 is angry, accusatory towards Salter, aggressive in his questioning and definitely not trusting of Salter. Finally Michael is uninvolved and unconcerned in a way. This is a glitch and Salter is a stranger to him. There is a reserve and distance between this ‘son’ and that father. Whelan on the other hand shifts and reacts to each ‘son’; at first trying to hide the truth and appear uninvolved; then trying to address the accusations of Bernard 1, and then trying to see a connection to Michael.

Director Matthew Gorman has created the different attitudes and relationships with clarity and economy. There are only two chairs that are moved depending on the scene. A Number . The acting by both Pike and Whelan is compelling. The story is gripping.

Vinegar Tom

Produced by Neoteny Theatre. Directed by Carly Chamberlain. Starring: Madeleine Donahue, Sophia Fabilli, John Gordon, Lynne Griffin, Keelin Jack, Jessica Moss, Kelly Penner, Sabryn Rock.

This is Churchill’s 1976 play dealing with witch hunts in the 17th century in England. Not to be confused with Arthur Miller’s play (1953) The Crucible, which also dealt with witch hunts in Salem Massachusetts in 1692-93, Miller’s play is a metaphor for the McCarthy witch hunts in the States in 1952.

In Vinegar Tom Churchill is exploring the inequity of women through the ages right up to the time of her writing the work. Alice, a saucy, tough talking woman has a flirtation with a mysterious man. The sex is rough and quick. She is enamoured of him. He is not with her. He considers her a whore. Insults fly. He calls her a witch. That’s the attitude. Men can blithely sleep with women and not have their reputations sullied. But women can’t do the same without being called whore, tart, and base.

Margery is a dutiful, hardworking wife to Jack. He treats her with disdain because he feels guilty. He is hopelessly attracted to another. Again when the advances are rebuffed insults and threats result.

There are many references to witchcraft and frequent and hideous efforts to rid a woman of the witchcraft in them no matter the age. The torture is done by self-righteous men. The other women of the village get into the vindictive spirit so that the women charged with witchcraft are either killed or driven out of the village. In one of Churchill’s most chilling inventions, Vinegar Top is the main culprit of the witch craft in the area. Vinegar Tom is a cat and the pet of Alice’s mother.

Director Carly Chamberlain has produced a production that is swift, efficient and realizes those things in the play that make us squirm for all the right reasons. The large cast is always on stage, situated in chairs on either side of the playing area, ready for swift entrances and exists. There is also a sense of the players being witnesses to the goings on, when they aren’t in a scene, as well as participants when they are in a scene.

Misogynistic lyrics of modern day songs are projected on a back wall to bring the point home that equality of the sexes is a reality in Churchill’s world at least.

As Margery, Madeleine Donahue is dutiful to her husband Jack but pensive with him. His mind is elsewhere; he is ill-tempered and she’s trying desperately to hold on to him. As Jack, John Gordon has the weight of the world on his shoulders. There is the guilt of his obsession with another. There is his wanting revenge to get even when he’s spurned. Every second on a farm is a challenge and he never lets Margery forget it. As Alice, Sabryn Rock is flirtatious, tough, desperate and resigned to being thought lowly. As her mother Joan Lynne Griffin has a defiant streak that could frighten the toughest men. She plays up being considered a witch with speeches that are nuanced, dangerous, subtle and attacking.

Another terrific production of a play by the prickly but always provocative Caryl Churchill.

Playwright Project
From April 23 to May 4
At the Downstage
Downstairs from the Magic Oven Restaurant
798 Danforth Ave.


The following reviews were broadcast on Friday, April 18, 2014 CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 FM, Floyd Collins at the Mady Centre for the Performing Arts in Barrie, Ont. Until April 19 and Beatrice & Virgil at Factory Theatre until May 11.

The host was Phil Taylor.


Good Friday morning. It’s theatre fix time with Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. So, what treats to you have for us this week?


I have two intriguing shows that tell compelling, shattering stories.

The first is Floyd Collins, a musical based on a true story. Book by Tina Landau with Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel and additional lyrics by Tina Landau.

It’s about Floyd Collins, a man from Kentucky who dreamed of finding the perfect cave and get it ready for the public as a tourist attraction.

And Beatrice & Virgil an adaptation of author Jann Martel’s novel of the same name. It’s about the friendship and harrowing story of Beatrice who is a donkey and Virgil, a howler monkey who are friends, and what they had to endure.


Let’s start with Floyd Collins. Is there much drama in a man trying to find the perfect cave?


Heaps. It’s 1925. In central Kentucky. There are interconnected caves all through that area, and Floyd Collins, a cave explorer, wants to find a new entrance to these caves. He walks into the cave but then has to crawl on his stomach through passage ways, and 55 feet down he gets stuck. His lamp goes out. He’s in the dark. He dislodges a rock that falls on his left foot and then wedges against the wall. He can’t move. He’s 150 feet from the opening of the cave.

Help comes. They get him light, food and water.They try and get him out. They can’t because of the rock on his foot that is lodged tight. The press comes. A reporter named Skeets Miller, who usually covers sports, is sent to cover this story for his small paper. The story is first considered unimportant, hence the sports guy is sent.

Miller’s dispatches on the event eventually are syndicated in more than 1000 papers. (An aside, he wins the Pulitzer Prize for this). Amateur radio covers the story. It’s huge. It was like a circus atmosphere on the surface outside the cave, but not so much for Floyd Collins inside the cave. Through it all Floyd Collins was in the cave for 14 days waiting for rescue.

So the drama and tension of course is established by Tina Landau’s book depicting Floyd’s situation; the frantic efforts to free him; with the stirring, gripping music and lyrics of Adam Guettel adding to the experience.


Talk about the music a bit…it seems odd subject matter for a musical.


I’m not so sure. Whoda thought the rise of the Nazis in Germany would make a thrilling musical—but Cabaret does nicely. A serial killer who uses a straight razor to kill his customers becomes the musical Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street.

So why not a guy stuck in a cave becoming a musical? Adam Guettel’s music and lyrics grip you by the throat. He comes by his talents honourably. His mother is Mary Rodgers, who wrote the Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress. And his grandfather is Richard Rodgers who seems to have composed everything else on Broadway—Carousel, South Pacific, Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, etc. All shows dealing with serious stories.

Guettel lulls us into the story of Floyd Collins with the beautiful song “The Ballad of Floyd Collins” which tells us who Floyd is, his hopes, dreams and ironically how he realized those dreams. The music is melodic; the lyrics are thoughtful and vivid. There are songs that depict the attitude of Floyd and his changing moods in the cave; songs that characterize what’s going on above ground both cynical and fearful. They cover a whole raft of emotions and depict the world Floyd lives in. And of course there are echoes of our world too—the hunt for glory through celebrity, for example.


How do you put that story on the stage?


With tremendous ingenuity and tenacity. First a background story. This production of Floyd Collins is a co-production between Patrick Street Productions in Vancouver, where the show played first, and Talk is Free Theatre in Barrie, Ont. The set was put on a transport truck for the journey to Barrie. It never arrived in time for the opening night last Friday. The truck never left Vancouver and the trucking firm was not forth coming with any information as to why. When the Globe and Mail started enquiring the theatre company was informed. It was not viable to do the journey with just the containers with the set—the trucking company was hoping/waiting for another shipment of other goods to make the journey. Never happened.  So the truck never left.

The production was done with no set but a whole lot of imagination and clear, clean direction by Peter Jorgensen. Simple projections on a large screen at the back of the stage established various locations. A huge photo shows a shelf of rock underneath which is the cave entrance. A diagram shows Floyd’s location in the cave. Headlines are projected charting the gruelling two weeks of trying to get Floyd out.

As Floyd Collins, Daren Herbert, slithers, his way along the floor and with every grunt and gasp conveys the tight quarters he’s in; how trapped he is; how terrified; yet brave. It’s a dandy performance of a man who says that faith is believing in something you can’t see; who is religious, tenacious, hopeful, and eventually resigned. He also sings beautifully.

As Homer Collins, Floyd’s brother, Michael Torontow is strapping, a bit of a hot head, but totally devoted to his brother. He too sings beautifully.

As their fragile minded sister Nellie, Krystin Pellerin is a waif of a woman, innocent and delicate. The family bond between sister and brothers is strong.

Much of the rest of the cast is uneven and that tends to slow down the pace. But they all work beautifully when they sing, thanks to Jonathan Monro, the musical director, who has a strong grasp of the music and how to get the best out of his chorus of singing actors.

Floyd Collins is a gripping tale and worth a visit to Barrie.


And now this odd tale of Beatrice &Virgil about a monkey and a donkey. What’s that all about?


It’s based on Yann Martel’s novel of the same name. It was adapted by first time playwright, Lindsay Cochrane. It begins with a letter that a celebrated author named Henry receives. Henry alludes to his hugely successful second novel that used animals to tell the story—the book is of course Martel’s The Life of Pi.

The letter is from a taxidermist also named Henry. He wants the author to come and help him with his play. The play is about two of Henry’s stuffed animals; Virgil, a red howler monkey who had his tale cut off by his murderer, and his close friend Beatrice, a donkey.

In one of their early scenes in the play within this play, Virgil and Beatrice are on a lonely road, waiting by a tree. They talk of waiting, of wanting to leave but staying. The references to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot are obvious. And I’m a bit intrigued why the author, who would know such things, does not mention that in the play.

Beatrice and Virgil can’t remember what day it is. They talk of many of the days being Godless. The author sounds out the taxidermist about the background of the stuffed animals and his play. Gradually, clues emerge. It was a time in which efforts were made to get rid of people of a certain faith; in which laws were imposed against them. Beatrice and Virgil called that time “The Horrors”. While such situations can be applied to many horrors of the 20th Century, Martel is referencing The Holocaust and the Jews. And he’s using Beatrice and Virgil as his voices.

We get a shuddering feeling from the author’s questioning that the Taxidermist might have been involved. As the play moves on, the grip on the audience becomes tighter and tighter.

It ends with the author reading off several games, which are really moral dilemmas. For example after being aware of this particular horror and you got to heaven what would you say to God? This goes nicely with the reference earlier to several days being Godless.


How is it as a production?


The production is shattering for all the right reasons. Theatre does many things–it entertains, informs, enlivens. But it’s at its most effective when it holds a mirror up to us and shows us how we are, what we have become and where we are going. Certainly what is happening to Jews in Ukraine is a sobering reminder of how history repeats itself.

The play is sensitively adapted by Lindsay Cochrane.  Director Sarah Garton Stanley continues on that sensitive tack. There is nothing brash, loud or overbearing about the direction. She directs her actors with a steady hand guiding them with as much subtly as the text demands as the shock of it reveals itself to its stunning conclusion.

It starts with the author giving a reading/lecture about his book and how he came to meet Henry the taxidermist. The author is played by Damien Atkins. Atkins has a way of looking both bemused and moved at the same time.  There is grace in his work.  His character is quietly amused by this mysterious taxidermist and then stunned by the story and how deeply he’s sucked into it. Atkins also plays Beatrice with intriguing body language that comes clear towards the end.

As the taxidermist, Pierre Brault is blunt, matter of fact, a bit impatient, and formidable.  He also plays Virgil the howler monkey as a kind companion to Beatrice, who is overwhelmed with what they have witnessed.

So, Beatrice & Virgil starts off slowly revealing itself. Initially you wonder where the play is going but when it becomes obvious and it has you in its grip you can’t move. That’s theatre at its best. It shows us our world. And with what is going on in it at the moment, theatre and plays like Beatrice & Virgil are more important than ever. 


Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at

Or on Twitter @slotkinletter

Floyd Collins plays at the Mady Centre for the Performing Arts until April 19.

Beatrice & Virgil plays at the Factory Studio Theatre until May 11.