A Christmas Carol

photo by Racheal maccaig

photo by Racheal maccaig

It's not too late to see Ross Petty's rip-roaring, funny family musical, A Christmas Carol! Audience members, young and old, will delight in this modern and hilarious take on a classic story. What's more is that on January 4th and 5th, you can be part of a live audience for a television broadcast on the CBC and Family Channel. Don't miss your chance to be a part of it!

 A Christmas Carol is playing at the Elgin Theatre until January 5, 2018. Ticket prices range from $27-$99 Adults • $27-$69 Children under 12 • $256 Family 4-Pack. Tickets can be purchased online at rosspetty.com/tickets, by phone at 1.855.599.9090 or in person at the Elgin Theatre Box Office, 189 Yonge Street.

 

 

Lela & Co. - Theatre Review

Lela & Co. - Theatre Review

Some months ago, I saw a play that will remain nameless. It dealt with profound, emotional subject matter – sexual slavery during wartime. It was intense and graphic and disturbing. The writing was uneven, flowery and artificial in some parts and exposition-heavy in others. The directorial treatment wavered between mawkish symbolism and misery porn, lavishing attention on women's tortured bodies. And this story, meant to be about women, somehow managed to give more time to the voices of men – the women's abusers and loved ones. It was a disappointing evening. Maybe it just can't be done, I thought to myself. Maybe this kind of story is so powerful, so disturbing, that it just can't be made into good theatre.

Lela & Co., now playing at the Theatre Centre, proved me wrong. 

The subject matter is the same; Lela & Co. is a play about sex trafficking. It tells a harrowing story and it doesn't sugarcoat the realities of war. But it is so much more than that. It's the story of Lela, her childhood, her struggle, her resistance and resilience. It's a story of war, those who suffer, those who profit, and those who try to help. It's a production that educates, yes, but never at the expense of character. Most of all, it proves that in the hands of skilled writers, performers, and crew, even a story as painful as this one can be a thing of beauty. 

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Sleeping Beauty - Theatre Review

By: Angela Guardiani

When I was very young, I lived a life devoid of glamour. I yearned for rhinestones and lipstick and drama but lived with bowl cuts and knee socks and science fairs. In other words, I was a very average ten-year-old who wanted to be Miss Piggy. 

Around Christmas of that year, though, my mother let me dress up in my Sunday best (I remember admiring my shiny new patent leather shoes) and took me downtown. I knew we were going to see a show and braced myself for the usual ballet / opera / Shakespeare that my parents usually dragged me to, calling it “culture.” 

Instead, what I saw was pure magic. 

Jeff Hyslop (from Today's Special!) sang! And tap-danced! Karen Kain, the most exquisite ballerina, pirouetted across the stage and cracked jokes, like Miss Piggy but better. Instead of sitting quietly and politely, I was told that I should boo the hilariously evil villain and cheer for the good guys as loudly as I wanted. And there were more sequins on stage than I had ever seen in my life. This was unbelievable! For the first time in my life, I was watching a show that was geared unapologetically to me.

That was Aladdin, one of the very first holiday pantomimes produced by Ross Petty. More than twenty years later, the annual spectacular is still thrilling kids with its over-the-top, kid-friendly fairy-tale extravaganzas. The celebrity guests stars are still there and the sequins are as sparkly as ever. But I now realize that what was pure anarchic hedonism to my ten-year-old self has plenty of sly wit, improvisational comedy, and topical references to appeal to my adult self, too. It was hard to know who was having more fun – the six tweenagers I sat beside, bopping along to every musical number, or me. I think I can safely recommend this show to all ages. 

The fairy tale production this year is Sleeping Beauty, but let me be honest with you – the story doesn't matter. It's cheerfully twisted out of shape to give the cast of thousands as many one-liners as can be squeezed into a two-hour show. The King and Queen of Torontonia (Laurie Murdoch and Lisa Horner, who, for me, shall forever be the “Start the car!” lady from a certain Ikea commercial) invite four fairies to gift their newborn Princess Rose with harmony and light. But alas, they forgot to invite the wicked Malignicent. Rose is cursed to prick her finger on a needle and fall into an enchanted sleep, but thankfully for the audience, we get follow Rose on a psychedelic journey through Dreamland (complete with sentient sheep and aging hippies) instead of watching her sleep. Rose manages to find a way back to the real world by using her brains and her heart, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Of course, the story is only a frame on which to hang ridiculously opulent musical numbers and campy scenery chewing. AJ Bridel is utterly charming as the compassionate and thoughtful Princess Rose, and James Daly makes a sweet and respectful love interest (with some slick dance moves). Paul Constable (the Canadian Tire guy!) and Eddie Glen remind me of something an old professor of mine used to say; there's just something really funny about a great big guy and a tiny mouthy guy together on stage. As the good fairy Sparklebum (my inner ten-year-old finds that name incredibly hilarious) and evil minion Egg, they make quite the dynamic duo. The dance ensemble are fantastic - colourful, energetic, and dressed in some very snazzy Chucks – but the show belongs to its villain. Hilary Farr (from Love It or List It) prowls and sneers and slinks across the stage, dripping with sparkles. She's part evil 80s soap opera schemer and part wannabe Darth Vader, and she is fantastic. With a commanding stage presence and a rich, purry, poshly-accented voice, Farr is the villian everyone loves to hate. Go ahead and boo – it's incredibly satisfying.

If you couldn't tell, I enjoyed myself immensely at Sleeping Beauty. I wondered, though, if I was letting my own nostalgia colour my experience too much. Was it the ten-year-old drama queen driving this review, or was it the older and wiser theatre reviewer? I turned to my partner, C., who accompanied me to this performance. I knew he'd be an impartial observer – he'd never seen a Ross Petty panto before. 

“C.,” I planned to say, “are you objectively enjoying this show? Have I remembered it as being better than it is?”

Turns out I never needed to ask at all. C. couldn't answer me. He was laughing too hard, tears of mirth rolling down his face. If you want an escape from the realities of adulthood, take a trip to Dreamland. I think you'll find it most rewarding.

Sleeping Beauty plays at the Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge Street) until January 7, 2017. Tickets are $27 - $99 and are available in person at the box office, by phone at 1-855-599-9090, or at rosspetty.com.

Photo by Bruce Zinger. 

Matilda The Musical - Theatre Review

By: Angela Guardiani

I've never seen a theatrical event with so much anticipation around it as Matilda The Musical. Part of it, of course, is nostalgia. Like Tim Minchin,  Matilda's  composer and lyricist, I can remember reading Roald Dahl's savagely funny book and cheering for its sweet-hearted, big-brained heroine. (Unlike Tim Minchin, I'm not an idiosyncratic genius, but I can appreciate a good bit of weirdness when I find it.) But a bigger part of it, I think, is how much the modern musical has become something so expressive of the way we live and create and consume art. Musicals today aren't necessarily campy or cheesy or over-the-top. They can be full of spectacle, like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, or they can be quiet and deeply personal, like Fun Home. Matilda is smack dab in the middle. It is exuberant and colourful and dazzling and snarky, but it is gentle and honest too. And that makes is something worth seeing.

Matilda is about a precocious six-year-old who loves to read. Ignored and unloved by her obnoxiously loud family and bullied by her horrible headmistress, Matilda stays serenely self-composed because of the bond she's formed with her teacher, Miss Honey, who sees and fosters Matilda's intelligence.

When a dark secret from Miss Honey's abused past threatens her beloved teacher, Matilda finds a strange talent within herself that saves the day. It doesn't sound realistic at all, and it's not meant to be – the story is a fairy tale, all extremes.

Miss Honey is everything good and kind and thoughtful and sweet, and Matilda's parents – the repulsive Wormwoods – are everything loud and trashy and gleefully ignorant. “You chose books and I chose looks!” Mrs. Wormwood announces scornfully to Miss Honey before launching into a breathtakingly athletic musical number (“Loud”).

Mr. Wormwood gets an entire song and a good ten minutes of the intermission break to scoff at children in the audience for their bookwormy tendencies and to (literally) sing the praises of cable and reality TV (“Telly.”) And in my very favourite bit of stage business, the evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull seizes a child by her long pigtails, spins her around, and literally flings her into the ceiling. I don't know how the director managed to launch a child actor up into the Ed Mirvish Theatre's proscenium arch and had her drop like a stone into the waiting arms of an adult – without any ill effects! - and I don't care. It's incredible. 

The plot's not realistic, but that doesn't mean it's not real. Matilda has brains, but she has heart, too. Although she's plucky enough to engage in a bit of mischievous revenge, her family's bullying isolates and hurts her. The scene where she imagines a loving father coming home to rescue his beloved daughter made my chest ache with sympathy (“I'm Here.”) 

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the supporting cast of child actors. Matilda is the star of the show (three girls share the role - Jamie MacLean was playing the role the night I saw it), but this is a show about childhood that's equally for kids and adults. You can't speak to children without including children, and this show gives them a voice. A lot of film/TV/theatrical productions have uncannily adult-like children parroting lines that I can never imagine a real child saying – basically well-trained ventriloquist's dummies. Not here! These children act their age. They are all really, really talented, but they are kids playing kids. It's lovely to see.

I wondered, as I watched the show, if the many young people in the audience were getting as much out of it as I was. Minchin's lyrics are dense with wordplay and metaphor, and there's an awful lot of “You maggot! Keep quiet!” low-level verbal abuse being hurled at kids. So at intermission, I asked a few of them.

“The dad is funny!” one of them said, grinning ear to ear.

“I liked the part where they hid the boy under the coats!” said another. (She's right. It's not as brilliant as the pigtail-enabled tossing, but it's pretty awesome.)

“I want to sing and dance too!” said a third, bouncing up and down with enthusiasm. 

The kids are all right, I thought, heading back into the theatre for Act Two. Matilda's got something for everyone.

Matilda The Musical is playing at the Ed Mirvish Theatre (244 Victoria Street) in Toronto until November 27, 2016. To purchase tickets, visit: mirvish.com.

Photos by Joan Marcus. 

Angela Guardiani is a lady of strong opinions who lives and teaches ESL in Toronto. She is a food lover, grammar nerd, book junkie, and will try anything once. Follow her enthusiastic but sporadic tweets at @minorgoddess.

Forever Plaid - Theatre Review

By: Angela Guardiani

When I was offered the chance to review Forever Plaid, the jukebox cabaret currently playing at the Panasonic Theatre, I couldn't say yes fast enough. 23 (!) years ago, I saw the original run of the very same show in the very same theatre. The New Yorker, as it was then called, was brand-new, and Forever Plaid was the first show performed in the former movie house. I remember it clearly but with the softness of nostalgia; the shimmering harmonies and sweet story stuck with me, sparking a love of theatre that persists today. 

Time goes on and things have changed. I still love to sing but I'm no longer a fresh-faced teenager (thank goodness). The New Yorker itself was torn down in 2004, leaving only the facade, and the larger, sleeker Panasonic Theatre was built in its place. The 1990's are to me now what the 1960's were to my parents in 1989, the year Forever Plaid debuted – a less cynical and less self-aware time. So does the show hold up? Mostly, it does. 

Forever Plaid is presented to us as a one-night-only concert performed by the four charming young lads of a harmony quartet. A voice from above tells us that the group had been on their way to their first big gig when they were tragically killed in a car accident with a group of schoolgirls on their way to see The Beatles' Ed Sullivan appearance in 1964, a neat bit of symbolism (just as video killed the radio star, rock n' roll put a nail in the coffin of harmony groups like The Four Lads). Thanks to some mystical metaphysical technobabble, Sparky, Smudge, Frankie and Jinx are allowed to return to Earth to give the concert they were never able to in life. 

It's a bit of a grim premise, but don't worry. Apart from a gentle wistfulness over a time long gone, it's the only down moment in 90 minutes of sweet, bubbly fun. The concert unfolds, the quartet is charming and the music is effervescent. Forever Plaid is a show that relies on the charisma and vocal chops of its four leads and this production delivers. Jonathan Cullen (Frankie) really hustles as the group's tenor and defacto leading man, and Scott Beaudin (Sparky) brings a baby-faced enthusiasm to everything he does. (And he comes by it honestly – at 23, he literally was a baby at the time of Forever Plaid's Toronto debut!) Matt Cassidy as the timid bass Smudge is singing a little out of his range and playing a little younger than he is, but he brings a real depth and honesty to his character when given a moment to open up to the audience. The standout of the evening for me was Jeff Madden's performance as Jinx. As with Cassidy, Madden looks a little old to be playing Beaudin's stepbrother, but the second he opens his mouth to sing all is forgiven. His assured, honeyed falsetto brought the house down and gave me the best kind of chills. It's no surprise that Madden did a turn as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys. 

So how does the show hold up, after 23 years? The move to a bigger stage isn't in its favour – a lot of visual gags that were clearly intended for a smaller venue fall flat, simply because people can't see them. The actors are emoting their hearts out to reach the balcony and the back of the house, and in a play as gentle as this one, where the emotion comes from smaller, subtler actions, it can come off as looking excessively acrobatic and a little hammy. And in the 90's, jokey calypso and Spanish numbers didn't have the baggage they have now. When I was fourteen, they were hilarious. Now, they remind me that the 1950s and 60s may have looked idyllic – the era of “harmony, innocence, and sincerity of dreams,” as the program puts it.

But does any of that matter in a show like this? It really, really doesn't. In everything that counts, Forever Plaid delivers. Any small inconsistencies in the cast is overcome by their chemistry and their exquisite harmonies – any uncomfortable thoughts about the era are put aside by the show's self-awareness. Forever Plaid is about the beauty of the human voice, a love letter to a time gone by that's fine right where it is, firmly in the past. Go see it. I hope your experience is as blissful as mine and that you leave the theatre, as I did, singing.

Forever Plaid is playing until June 12, 2016 at the Panasonic Theatre in Toronto. Tickets can be purchased online at mirvish.com.

Photos: Racheal McCaig

Angela Guardiani is a lady of strong opinions who lives and teaches ESL in Toronto. She is a food lover, grammar nerd, book junkie, and will try anything once. Follow her enthusiastic but sporadic tweets at @minorgoddess.