By: Angela Guardiani
It is really and truly summer in Toronto - hot, steamy weather, beer on patios, snatches of music spilling out of bars, arts festivals everywhere. For me, summer is a glorious time, but has a hint of sadness and nostalgia underneath all the sunny fun times. No feeling can ever match the thrill of being a kid on the first day of summer vacation, seeing time unspool in a lazy ribbon into an infinite point in the distance. September seems so far away. As an adult, though, you can’t help but remember other, perfect, past summers and wonder what might have been.
This week, there’s a show at the Toronto Fringe Festival that combines that nostalgia, yearning, music, bars, and laughs. It’s called Lighters in the Air and it’s the product of musician/writer/actor Kris Hagen. He calls it “not quite a musical, not quite a play, not quite a concept album, and yet at the same time kind of all three.” It’s a show that defies easy characterization, but whatever else it might be, it’s perfect for right now.
Lighters in the Air focuses on the character of Leo (Hagen), a musician who’s put his dreams aside. Disillusioned and questioning, he’s compelled to return to his old haunt, a dive bar he’s left behind. Here, he finds a community ready to help him rediscover why he fell in love with music in the first place. In an example of perfect staging, Lighters in the Air is being held at the Monarch, one of Toronto’s oldest bars.
Hagen tells me that the Monarch was often in his mind as he wrote, as it’s pretty much the platonic ideal of a neighborhood drinking hole. The bigger and more anonymous a city gets, the more likely it is you’ll find pockets of like-minded people forming unlikely bonds with each other - at the gym, at the amateur sports league, or of course at the bar. When I asked Hagen if he envisioned his show as something that represented Toronto, he told me that while it is a city story, “there is something that does feel small town about it, as though the bar itself is a small town with its own small community at its most vibrant and loneliest times.”
Hagen is the writer, director, and star of this show, but he doesn’t consider it a one-man show; it’s very much an ensemble cast. Although he admits “it's sometimes difficult to pass my songs off to others to sing in the show, their unique voices and experience as musicians has made many of the songs better and brought out ways of approaching them I wouldn't have discovered otherwise.” And certainly Leo’s story wouldn’t be possible without the depth of characters around him. One interesting twist to this show is that it will literally be a different show every night; each performance has a different guest artist. Hagen explains that “the show is set in a bar where the mic is always open. Within the play there is a scene involving the open mic, so we're having our guests perform songs or standup as they would at any open mic.”
I think what really sold me on this show is Hagen's attempt to categorize it. It wouldn’t be wrong to call Lighters in the Air a musical, but it wouldn’t be quite right either. Hagen wrote the script with the intention of having it be able to form a strong story without the support of catchy tunes, but as he says “at the same time, a play about musicians would certainly feel like it was missing something without the audience hearing some music, and so while technically probably a musical, I'm more inclined to call it ‘a play about musicians featuring live original music.’ Which is probably too wordy.” A wordy and complex definition, sure. But doesn’t it sound rewarding too? I can’t imagine a better show for a summer evening.
Lighters in the Air is part of the Toronto Fringe Festival and plays until July 15th. Tickets are $13 and are available at fringetoronto.com.