by Lynn on July 12, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

More from the Toronto Fringe: Dancer, Our Little Secret, Dead End.


Book and lyrics by Jim Betts

Music by Marek Norman

Music director, Mark Camilleri

Director/choreographer, Stacey Tookey

Set and costumes by JB Nelles

Lighting by Alia Stephen

Lighting by Wayne Deering

Cast: Barbara Barsky

Louise Camilleri

Mark Cassius

Jonathan Cullen

Gene Gabriel

Sterling Jarvis

Daniel Kash

Laura Larson

Emily Masurkevitch

Lucas Popowich

Sam Rosenthal

Keanu Uchida

The Band:

Mark Camillieri-keyboards

Sharon Prater-cello

Tony Zorzi-guitar

Steve Heathcote-drums.

Dancer is a musical about a horse, and not just any horse—Northern Dancer, the most celebrated horse in Canadian horseracing history. Jim Betts has written a bracing, poignant book about a misfit of a horse. Northern Dancer was small as race horses go, head strong, often unmanageable, some thought untrainable, but he could run. And he won. He was owned by E.P. Taylor, a Canadian businessman and breeder of horses. Northern Dancer was the particular favourite of Winnifred, Mrs. Taylor.

Marek Norman has composed a score of 21 songs that cover the various milestones and people in the horse’s life in 10 furlongs; being passed over at the annual yearling sale, hating it when he is whipped, the various races that added to his reputation, the blinkered arrogance of The Grand Señor, Northern Dancer’s trainer, and the loving care of Bill Brevard his groom. The songs are melodic, move the plot forward and develop character.

Northern Dancer is ‘played’ or rather danced by the wondrous Keanu Uchida. He is agile, combative, frisky and even impish. A chorus of dancers ‘play’ the horses in various styles of gracefulness. Their gracefulness is in wonderful contrast to an almost ungainliness in Northern Dancer. But what he lacked in elegance, he made up for in running like the wind with an almost seething determination to win.

The production is directed and choreographed by Stacey Tookey. Her creation of the various races and how Northern Dancer factors into the pack and then breaks away, is artful. Stacey Tookey has given Northern Dancer a sense of humour, a horsey guttural sound to emphasize a moment of triumph, a breath out to flick the hair—it all adds to this horse as outsider but with a strong sense of himself.  As Northern Dancer endures injury because The Grand Señor’s arrogance does not allow him to listen to Bill Brevard and tend to his injured hoof; as he is then looked at by a doctor who is too arrogant and frivolous for words; he endures many and various difficulties. The result is a piece that is loaded with theatricality and drama.

Jim Betts has tried to comment on other aspects of what was going on at the time (mid-60s) with less success. Mrs. Taylor longs for a time when women will come into their own and be respected for themselves, not just for whom they married. Bill Brevard had difficulties with racism because he was a Black man. In the States he could not stay in some hotels, or be tended to any hospital when he was injured. But these moments seem tacked on. If the show has a further life, and I hope it does, these moments need to be incorporated more fully and fleshed out.

The sound with musicals continues to be maddening. Even with the largish Harold Green Theatre where the acoustics are not brilliant, there is no excuse for the sloppy sound. Does the band really have to be as amplified as the singers, in which everybody is banging their instruments to be heard or overpower the singers. I was sitting at the back as far away from the four person band as possible, and hearing the lyrics was a struggle because they were drowned out with all that amplification. The problem must be solved.  Really, does every instrument need to be amplified? Can’t there be a central microphone for the band’s use, an the level of the sound be low? Is that not possible?

I found it bizarre that this huge musical was playing at the Fringe, but stranger things have happened. I know the creators are hoping for another Drowsy Chaperone or Come From Away. Fix the sound. Tighten the book. Perhaps rework some songs to make the show tighter. I would love to see this one again, in another iteration.

Dancer continues at the Toronto Fringe Festival July 12, 15, 16.

Running time: 90 minutes.

Our Little Secret

Written and performed by Noam Tomaschoff

Composed by Ryan Peters

Directed by Rose Bochner

Arranged by Ben Deverett

Noam Tomaschoff decided to do a DNA test with 23 And Me, because a friend suggested it and besides the offer was on sale. When his Jewish parents (his father is Israeli) heard this they thought they better come clean with the family’s little secret. So when Noam Tomaschoff was at the family cottage one weekend his parents sat him down and told him that the person he thought was his biological father, wasn’t. While his parents tried to have children, and went to all sorts of doctors, the reality is that his father was low in sperm. His parents had to depend on a sperm donor in order to have children. Noam Tomashoff’s ‘father’ was an anonymous sperm donor.

This revelation set off a whole host of emotions and questions for Noam Tomaschoff. Who was he really if 50% of him was not who he thinks he was? What really is a man? How did his father really deal with this situation? Tomaschoff says that although he knew his father for 30 years, his father was really a mystery to him. They did not get along. This revelation of a sperm donor being his ‘real’ father threw Tomaschoff for a loop. So to explore these many and various emotions, he went ahead with the 23 And Me enquiry and wrote a musical about the whole experience.

It turns out Tomaschoff’s sperm father was a pilot who left his own family to fly the world, and presumably share his sperm as a donor. Tomaschoff discovers that he has 35 half-siblings, that he knows about. His donor father gave the gift that keeps on giving. There is no Jewish blood in Tomaschoff!!! Irish, Italian, but no Jewish.

There is no song list with the program, which would have been helpful. Just to say they are plentiful and dense with emotion, philosophical musings, existential ponderings and psychological delvings with a song about the joys of drinking with your ‘brother’. Tomaschoff has several songs devoted to his father (I use that word in the sense that this is the man that Tomaschoff considers his father—the man who was there for him for 30 years, ill-temper notwithstanding.) He imagines his father’s embarrassment when he realized he did not have enough sperm to make a baby with his wife. He imagines what people would say about such an embarrassment. He conjures all sorts of reactions. He wrote a song about his father when in fact he took the news well and develops that thought too. It’s interesting he wrote songs that delved deeply into the psyche of a man he says he didn’t know well. Hmm.

Tomaschoff’s lyrics are so complex, clever, esoteric and dense they overwhelm the whole narrative. It’s as if he wants to top himself with each song, leaving the audience trying to keep up listening and ending up exhausted by the cleverness.

There seems to be a piano/drum? recorded accompaniment. It’s so loud that it often drowns out Tomaschoff as he sings. Either cut the amplification in half or cut it completely. Over amplification seems to be a problem with many musicals these days.

While the show starts with sobering news about his parentage, Tomaschoff seems to have come through it finding the humour in the whole thing, especially finding a drinking-buddy-brother.

There are pictures at the end of his family and new-found siblings. Moving.

Continues at the Toronto Fringe July 12, 13 15.

Running time: 60 minutes.

Dead End

Written by Michael Posner

Directed by Briane Nasimok

Composed by Ari Posner

Cast: Cara Hunter

Julian Ford

Chris Gibbs

Michael Posner’s tightly written mystery has more breath-taking twists and turns than a car chase on narrow roads in the high mountains of a James Bond movie.

Reg Lawson is a real estate agent trying to sell a once grand house in the English countryside to a couple, Lil and Kevin. Reg is gracious and accommodating. Lil is a nice woman and Kevin, her husband, is a bit of an impatient lout. Reg is trying to keep things together. His wife Evy has disappeared the week before and he’s worried to say the least.

The banter in Michael Posner’s play is easy and seems like so much small talk. But we are wise to the fact that things may not be what they seem. Then Posner raises the stakes. Just when you think that the key to the mystery of what happened to Evy rests in one direction, Posner pulls the rug out and sets us in another direction. When we think we have it figured out, the play goes in another direction, and it’s not arbitrary for the sake of confusion. It’s carefully planned, plotted and detailed.

Briane Nasimok has directed the play with little hints that things are not as they seem. Have Lil and Kevin been in that house before? It’s possible that they are just curious about exploring when they go off looking for the washroom; or perhaps they know because they have been there before? Both are possible. One is alerted to their confidence. I am not giving anything away. One is alerted to question everything. And when one does, Posner adds another twist.

The cast is dandy. Julian Ford as Lawson is eminently even-tempered and polite. He is self-effacing and just wants to sell the house, and of course to find his wife. Cara Hunter as Lil is a peace-keeper between the emotional Reg and the world. Lil is an easy-going woman who can ‘handle’ Kevin. As Kevin, Chris Gibbs, is intimidating, controlling, combative and impatient. You know you have him figured out, and of course you don’t.

There are gunshots. But is there a murder? Dead End is worth a visit to find out.

Continues at the Toronto Fringe July 12, 14, 16.

Running time: 60 minutes.

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