Theatre Review: Guys and Dolls (Shaw Festival)

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Guys and Dolls is classic Broadway musical: people bursting into song for no particular reason, tremendous energy, big show-stopping numbers and enough heartwarming moments scattered throughout to give everything some weight. Experts in the satirical wit of Oscar Wilde, the Shaw Festival knows a a lot about balancing the light with the heavy, and their take on Guys mostly hits the sweet spot.

The brightest star is Jenny L. Wright as Miss Adelaide, 14-year fiancé to longtime gambling organizer Nathan Detroit (Shawn Wright). She nails the nasal Brooklyn accent (where “cold” becomes “co-wuld”) and affecting angst that comes from wanting nothing more than to have a ring on her finger already. She owns the stage in her solo number, “Adelaide’s Lament”, one of the few performers with such individual presence in this production. At many points throughout the show, I was struck by how big the stage was; except during the big numbers with a lot of hustle and bustle, the actors were often dwarfed by their surroundings. Not so with Jenny Wright.

The cast at large knows how to deliver on the biggest numbers: “Luck be a Lady”, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and “Havana/If I Were a Bell” are all wonderful and highly entertaining with fun choreography. Elodie Gillett as Sergeant Sarah Brown does a nice switch from uptight to drunk and back again. It’s the secondary male characters who don’t quite carry the load. The opening number with Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Thom Allison), Benny Southstreet (Billy Lake) and Rusty Charlie (Kelly Wong) just doesn’t have the energy it needs to propel the show forward, and again I was struck by how large the stage was during Allison and Lake’s “Guys and Dolls” midway through act one.

Also on the note of staging, I have to wonder at set designer Peter Hartwell’s decision to make Broadway so monochromatic. The characters’ colourful costumes certainly stand out against the black and white marquees, but drained of colour, New York itself seems to fight against what life the actors can bring to its streets. Perhaps that’s why “Havana” and “Bell” were so successful; suddenly, the stage was awash in yellows, blues  and reds that enhanced the action and choreography. Back on Broadway for “My Time of Day”, and all of a sudden Sarah and Sky Masterson (Kyle Blair) just didn’t have the same impact.

Shaw has put on an overall an enjoyable, faithful rendition of a Broadway staple, sure to be one of their best sellers this 2013 season.

4 out of 5 floating craps games.

~Mike!

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Theatre Review: The Nance (Broadway)

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With Nathan Lane headlining a show, you may be forgiven for walking in with some unreasonably high expectations, especially post-Tonys where he was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in Leading Role in a Play. How nice then to have those expectations easily met.

The Nance is a clever, touching new play by Douglas Carter Beane, a period piece set in 1940s New York. Actually, clever doesn’t quite cover it; that implies a lot of wry smiles and knowing nods of the head among the audience. “Laugh-out-loud” comes closer, but implies that it’s essentially a comedy. How exactly does one peg a show that covers everything from romance to politics to burlesque to full-on belly laughs and, most importantly, depth of character across the cast?

We meet Lane’s Chauncey Miles at a local self-serve diner, where he briefly walks his latest prey through the ropes: young, down-and-out Ned (Jonny Orsini) has wandered by-mistake-but-really-on-purpose into one of those places where “boys like the boys,” it’s not uncommon to make surreptitious plans to meet up around the corner in half an hour, and everyone goes tense when a police siren enters earshot. How far we’ve come in 70 years. Chauncey leaves the diner for work, playing the titular nance for comic relief at a local burlesque house. He leaves work for home, picking up Ned along the way for what he assumes another in a long line of one-night stands.

The burlesque scenes are truly inspired, with a healthy dose of vaudevillian rapid-fire double-entendres (my favourite involved a later scene with Chauncey in drag as a prostitute named Hortence; cue the joke about how relaxed she looks). The stage is also a masterwork, a massive turntable with sets on each facing side. It’s used to best effect when turned on an angle, with most of the burlesque “backstage” facing the audience for dialogue between characters while a hint of the “onstage” side remains visible, with secondary performers playing to the wings. There’s a continuous energy to this show that comes through staging and performance simultaneously.

Chauncey is also a bit of a stand-in for some one of today’s political curiosities: how can you be gay and Republican at the same time? For Chauncey, the answer is easy; neither party supports gays in that era, so he may as well go for the individualist do-it-yourself-ers who support business and enterprise. His blind faith that the crackdown on his livelihood is a temporary political stunt is tragic; surely a Republican would never close down an industry that employs thousands solely on moral grounds? Ned (who has moved in with him and joined the burlesque show) and his coworkers are excited about an impending sympathy strike among all the arts performers in the city. Chauncey is dismissive of their enthusiasm, a wet blanket over their belief that together they can make change.

Which isn’t to say that he is without courage or empathy. Amid the crackdowns and police raids, he insists on playing his effeminate nance, even to the point of courting investigation and arrest. He refuses to plead guilty, thinking his status as “one of them,” a Republican, will protect him. The chemistry between Lane and Orsini is undeniable, and the show’s laughs never overshadow its inherent tragedy. Also excellent is the burlesque show’s owner, Efram (Lewis J. Stadlen), a rough and practical funny man who is politically savvy enough to be aghast at Chauncey’s decisions while wise enough not to take personal offense at them. His patter with Lane and Orsini on and off the stage-within-the-stage keeps the show moving at a good clip, never wasting a moment.

In the end, this is a show about how nothing is straightforward, faith is seldom rewarded, and people will be who they are to the end, no matter how bitter. We all know how the story proceeds (thank you Supreme Court of 2013), but The Nance takes us back to a harsher time for social justice and makes us ask: “What would I have done?”

4.5 out of 5 double entendres.

~Mike!

Theatre Review: True West (Soulpepper)

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First, I need to give a shout-out to the architects who designed the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2008. Apart from making the most of its re-purposed industrial-Victorian architecture, the Baillie Theatre is a phenomenal space. I’ve seen it operate as a proscenium arch, a theatre-in-the-round, a thrust stage. I never know what I’m going to find when I walk in.

Also, props to Soulpepper as a company for a consistently impressive job with its set design. Oleanna had a simple off-kilter and claustrophobic feel in 2011, Parfumerie looked like it took place inside a tasty cream puff last year, and yesterday’s True West was such a perfect suburban kitchen that I could have been in virtually anybody’s house and felt at home. Old-school white fridge with faux wood handles, white oven with clunky dials on the back, floral trim on the wallpaper near the ceiling, decorative plates on the walls, delicate floral detailing on the cupboard doors, Formica table with chrome trim and legs… and how did they scrounge up so many era-specific toasters, anyway?

As for the performance, I enjoyed it. Mike Ross is by turns weak, determined, angry and adorable as screenwriter Austin while Stuart Hughes does well as his brother Lee, a grizzled and conflicted thief who kept on reminding me of Wolverine. Something about the hair.

I like how the level of antagonism between the two brothers didn’t exactly boil over. Sure, they start off talking and wind up fighting, but you get the sense that it was almost inevitable. That tension fueled every word they exchanged, and at almost any time it would have made sense for one of them or the other to throw the first punch. The lingering resentment between siblings is palpable. Mom trusts you more. All dad wants from me is money. I know a story about dad you don’t. Who are you to tell me if I can stay here? It’s mom’s house, not yours. My life is real and important. No, mine is. I want your life. Me too.

There are a couple of highlights in particular. I loved the scene where Austin tries to write the outline for Lee’s terrible-yet-intriguing idea for a Western film. Austin points out how cliché it is (they run out of gas in the middle of a car chase, but it’s ok, because they both have a trailer with a saddled horse ready to go) but Lee won’t be swayed. Hughes’ voice takes on wonderfully haunted quality as he describes the fear both his characters feel: one for not knowing where he’s being led on the chase, and the other for not knowing where he’s going. They’ll chase each other wherever Lee damn well tells them to go, but the point is that they’re scared while they do it.

Ross does a good drunk. He rhapsodizes about the glory of toast (the smell of it means a fresh new day of possibility), gets at the heart of his jealousy for Lee’s survival wits and acumen, calls his brother out for being a failure, and plays wide-eyed earnestness with lovable energy. He makes you believe that this prim and proper academic has a callow, violent drunk like his brother and father just lurking beneath the surface. About 20 seconds before the curtain, there’s a chilling moment where I truly wondered just how far he’d gone, and was willing to go.

Most of all, however, I laughed. And so did the rest of the audience; there was a happy buzz walking out of the theatre. A solid line drive for Soulpepper.

Four out of five toasters.

~Mike!

Theatre Review: Come From Away (Theatre Sheridan)

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Charming. Folksy. Touching. Funny. Sad. Ambitious.

That’s Come From Away in a nutshell – a rollicking play that has you laughing one moment, wiping a tear away the next, and laughing again in a heartbeat. That it’s still a work in progress makes it all the more impressive. The performance I saw was a one-off workshop, a staged line reading: 14 student actors from Sheridan College spread out across the stage with microphones, literally backed up by the band.

The city of Gander, Newfoundland, had about 10,000 residents back in September, 2001, and unexpectedly swelled to nearly 19,000 for the better part of a week when 38 passenger jets made emergency landings. Did the community pull together to feed, clothe and care for its visitors? Yes. Was there any doubt that they would? Hardly. Writers David Hein and Irene Sankoff found drama and poignant moments in the low yet fascinating stakes of simple stories simply told by the people to whom they happened. Every vignette on stage is true, diligently researched and faithfully recalled.

Also? The play is a musical, if you can believe it, and a very smart one. Rather than power ballads and individual virtuoso moments, the rustic, Celtic-inspired sounds of the Maritimes provide the show’s narrative and emotional backbone. The songs and dialogue trade off continuously through each scene, the former rising to establish the mood of the moment, the latter acting as specific punctuation to further each individual story and character beat. “Wherever We Are” is an early winner, the ensemble keeping up a steady refrain of confusion and helplessness while the dialogue intervenes to deliver a rapid-fire sequence of reassured phone calls to loved ones, cheers about free booze on the plane, negotiations for cell phone use, and one man’s desperate “Please pick up. Please pick up. Please pick up.”

So what did I witness, exactly? I saw one romance end and another begin. I saw a Gander SPCA volunteer essentially burgle her way into the planes’ cargo holds to care for the animals she knew must be inside. I saw a New Jersey man convinced his hosts were going to steal his wallet or shoot him; the worst they did was invite him in for a cuppa. I saw the mayor of Gander make the most of cancelled hockey games, turning the rink into the world’s largest walk-in freezer so he could satisfy Health Canada’s regulations that all donated food be refrigerated. I saw one of the first female airline captains ever sickened at the idea of her one true passion, flight, perverted into a weapon.

There were missteps, to be sure. The play’s structure and flow need work, where some stories felt as though they stepped on each others’ toes. Why have the two romantic couples interact with each other for a few lines of dialogue if nothing will come of it? In a triumph of muddled storytelling, it really didn’t come across that passengers were prevented from disembarking due to security concerns; it seemed to be due to a labour dispute with Gander bus drivers. (There was a strike, but they lifted it for the emergency long before the security regulations permitted people to leave.)

Some of the jokes fell flat for me, just because they’ve been done before. Any time you have city slickers in a hick town, you’re guaranteed to get one guy asking how to leave, and a local giving an unintelligible string of directions all in one massive breath, ending with a clearly understood “and then you’ll be where you want to be” and a long staring contest, the visitor flummoxed by vernacular and the local pleased with a question well answered. Notice to all writers everywhere: it’s been done. Much better was the gag where a bus with freshly deplaned passengers comes to a screeching halt, the driver announcing calmly, “Don’t worry, it’s just an elk up ‘dere in ‘da road.” Ten-second pause, everybody staring. “She’ll move soon. ‘Talways do.” Fifteen-second pause, staring. “When she’s good and ready.” Stare. Even the schmaltz worked for me, and my schmaltz detector is always on high alert. I’d be singing a different tune if the show were fiction, but it isn’t. Made-up schmaltz is emotional manipulation at its worst; real-life schmaltz works its way into your jaded heart for the simple reason that it’s real.

If the concept of “Canadian musical about 9/11” has you running for the hills, I don’t blame you. And yet Come From Away works brilliantly, and not in spite of its concept. It’s a little play about little people who get stuck in a little town, and the little things that happen to them. I hope this work continues its progress and finds a larger production one day. To say that it shows promise is a little unkind; for my money, it’s almost ready to go. I only wish it was more than a one-night affair so more people could have seen it at this early stage.

~Mike!