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If you don’t do anything else, have fun!

By June 20, 2019 Performance

Messy times we’re in, messy and uncertain, and I’m not talking about the raccoons who have figured out how to open my green bin, flipping me the finger claw mid-dive. Turns out, Game of Thrones is not over. War is on, baby. Messy political elections to come. Messy climate doubletalk. Messy privacy losses-does anyone know what is going on, really? Me, I find answers in art. Hardly new, say you, readers of this space. Some of us— a lot of us apparently if you were part of the celebrations across the country this past week— find answers in sport too. On Monday, we witnessed a seismic shift in swagger in Toronto.

In 1972, another seismic event touched down in Toronto in the form of monster talent; a cast performing the musical Godspell, a cast including Gilda Radner, Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Victor Garber, and Dave Thomas. All would become household names in the comedic world and beyond. Bringing them together as company manager at the time was Marlene Smith, who first broke into the theatre world as a way to get out of the house in the late 1960’s. Smith, who had four children under the age of six when she began work in show business doing group sales for the musical Hair, would go on to produce countless hit musicals in this city. Godspell, written by Stephen Schwartz, was clearly special and remained so not just for Smith but for millions around the globe since it first appeared off-Broadway in 1971.

So it wasn’t wild imagination that provoked an invitation from me to this theatre powerhouse; an invitation to come and meet another young Toronto Godspell cast (hoping for seismic action in the current theatrical scene) and share some of her memories of her rise to the top of the commercial theatre world in Toronto. It was nostalgia: I, like many ’70’s kids, performed Godspell at camp. It was the closest I got to hippy culture.

I met Marlene downtown where the Wavestage Theatre Company cast was running through final performances of the modern revival version of Godspell: they open June 20th at the George Ignatieff Theatre.

In that strange confluence of events that make up a city of millions, I was listening to these talented performers in a chorus of that beloved Godspell showpiece, Day by Day at exactly the hour someone was pulling out a gun across town.

What follows are some of the excerpts of my chat with Marlene Smith.

Anne: What was it like navigating all that talent?

It was like having fourteen more children! When you sit through a lot of auditions, you can always tell when there’s someone who has a little bit of extra sparkle. The energy was unbelievable.

Marlene Smith,
legendary Canadian theatre producer

Anne: As a woman in show business, did you have to ‘muscle” people differently?

I became everyone’s mother only because I had so many of my own, and I also had a niece and nephew living with me so basically I had six kids so it was mostly, do what you’re told or look out! But you can do it nicely!

Anne: Godspell has been called a transformative musical. To what do you attribute the longevity?

It’s fun!. If you don’t do anything else, have fun! Really sock it to you. You can’t do too much of it. It was a joyful piece and every review said that. It’s like Come from Away. You cannot not enjoy it.

Anne: What did Stephen Schwartz think of the Toronto show?

Are you kidding? He made a fortune. He loved it!

Anne: You’ve been around for decades producing musical theatre. What, in your opinion, is the future of this genre? Will it survive?

I think it’s tough. The tickets have become way too expensive. After we finished Godspell, I got Marty Short and Andrea Martin and others and did a show What’s a Nice Country like You Doing in a State like This? The logo was a very pregnant lady in the harbour in NYC. I myself went with them, the cast, handing out one dollar bills with cards to all the cab drivers around… I mean we really worked at selling tickets.

Anne: Is there a song you love most from Godspell?

It’s got to be Day by Day.

Wavestage cast of Godspell sing for Toronto theatre powerhouse Marlene Smith, who was company manager of the original 1972 Toronto production of Godspell.

My favourite song from the spectacular Godspell soundtrack is All Good Gifts. Saying grace in whatever form you fashion? Nothing messy about that. Thank you, Marlene, for sharing.

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Theatre is where the green grass grows

By June 6, 2019 Coming soon, Performance

Fresh ideas spring everywhere in this fine city. If you’re looking for ways to take a breather from Raptors frenzy (just a moment, okay?), live theatre is always waiting with answers.

Continuing at Toronto’s Monarch Tavern, Danny & The Deep Blue Sea is an inaugural production from the LOVE2 Theatre Company; written by John Patrick Shanley as an early breakout play before the Pulitzer playwright went on to international acclaim for Moonstruck and Doubt. A two-hander set in a bar, the plot is deceptively simple: two dysfunctional characters from the Bronx meet in a rundown bar and thus we have our setting. Literally. Ticket holders to this production are rewarded with full immersion. That kind of site-specific theatre is pure adrenaline.

Toronto actor Jennifer McEwen:

This is the way this play should live. It shouldn’t be removed from the audience.

McEwen is the founder of LOVE2 Theatre Company and says its inception was born out of personal agency after an acting hiatus.

If you want to be an actor, you need to get used to waiting around for auditions to come your way. I have come back to the profession not wanting to wait.

This kind of just-do-it moment deserves to be rewarded. The leap from discovering the text at a routine scene study with a savvy acting partner to mounting a play in Toronto’s dynamic performing arts scene is confidence writ large. You can catch the final weekend of this production this Friday and Saturday at 7 pm. Ticket information can be found here.

Over at Soulpepper, they might as well have blasted fireworks with the mounting of The Brothers Size, a spectacular production which ended an extended run last weekend. Will their current production, August: Osage County be as rewarding? That’s my next show, followed by Godspell at the George Ignatieff. For those of you familiar with Godspell, seeing it over Pride Weekend is your best way to embrace the most exhilarating show in town. If you don’t know the soundtrack, and you’re new to the show, I guarantee you won’t leave without buoyancy in your back pocket. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yes, there is room for Raptors fans at all these productions. This fangirl loves it all. Toronto, I’m coming for you.

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Rocketman, the first half

By June 4, 2019 Film, Performance

We took up most of the row in the cinema. Nine pals who remembered when rock was young, hoping for the biggest kick we ever got…Okay, I’ll stop now with the Bernie Taupin lyrics, except lawdy mama, what happened to the second half?

Rocketman is a great ride. It’s a better ride than the current incarnation of Aladdin, now beating Rocketman at the box office, but don’t you dare come at me for going to see it: it has a magic carpet and 🎵 A Whole New World 🎵and that’s enough for me (and my young pals who joined me when I asked, Will you take your Auntie Anne to the movies?)

Rocketman begins with a full list of confessions. Elton John listing all of his addictions and we’re off, watching little Elton Sad Boy become big Elton Star Boy through a trippy set of brilliant musical sequences. At some point, the little Elton (known as Reggie then) and Big Elton meet one another in this musical mirage and little Sad Boy asks big Star Boy for a hug. Right there we are in the zeitgeist proper and nobody can quibble with therapy and all of its attendant hopeful outcomes. Nor can we fault the soft lens on a long friendship: Elton John’s celebrated partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin is the heart of the film— and the most intriguing. These two talents worked separately. How they collaborated is one of the film’s more accurate threads. The star gave his blessing to this film, signing on as executive producer, and his obvious pride in that rare showbiz jewel of a union shines brighter than anything else here. Except for the music. Oh yes, the music. We didn’t break into full out karaoke although tempted I was at points. This was our early tweendom’s soundtrack so B-B-Benny me back, baby.

Parts of the film feels utterly generic. We have seen these rock narratives before and know of their properties. What makes this one beat are dizzying music sequences with their own aesthetic ( and conveniently muddled timelines- songs are presented to fit the film, not the reality) and the guy who punches life into every one of them is Welsh actor Taron Egerton. Here he is showing off his pipes at a recent Aids Foundation auction.

The twenty-nine-year-old joins actor Jamie Bell, who is also a dancer (remember Billy Elliot?), and Richard Madden as a trio of stellar talent; reason enough to go. Madden is hot hot hot these days as rumours continue he is the clear favourite to follow Daniel Craig as James Bond. I loved him in the British Bodyguard series and GOT fans know him as Rob Stark.

If you’re like me, you might wonder at the sudden end of the film. No spoilers but there’s a chunk of life history smushed at the conclusion of the film into a few photos and information graphics; all equal in the redemptive narrative possibility to the wild tale preceding it. This is a musician who has raised $450 million for AIDs research, after all. It’s a minor quibble but this fan wanted to see more of that real life second chapter’s potency. And for all the whiners dissing jukebox musicals, there is this: music as we know it will never be like this again. It will continue to morph and produce wondrous sounds as it has, but we are now in a time of ephemeral shapeshifting: never has it been harder for artists to reach this kind of international success. The best moment in this film is one of gorgeous levitation. I won’t spoil it for you but it is this moment that captures the entire giddiness of hearing magic. I dare you not to smile. Or cry. Eventually, this kind of film will die out, and this well-trodden genre, but the music? It lingers on and we will all sing until we have lost our voices. Look for me this summer, roaring around town, belting out Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters in one never-ending loop.

🎵 And I thank the Lord there’s people out there like you. 🎵

And finding more excuses to wear floppy hats. Wore them then. Still wearing them now, without the spitting gap.

What is your favourite Elton John song?

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While we wait for Spring…theatre is always there.

By May 1, 2019 Performance

The green is poking out and doing its usual flirtation. Elsewhere in Toronto, theatre is blooming.

Book it today:

Hand to God at the Coal Mine Theatre. Minuscule but mighty is the space on the Danforth run by Ted Dykstra and Diana Bentley. As Dykstra told our audience last weekend, this is bare-bones-budget kind of theatre and yet, what has been on offer since he began five years ago is continued excellence in programming and product. I have yet to see anything there that didn’t provoke and prod at the brainspace: Hand to God was another home run. If you like your comedies running dark and demonic, this is for you. I loved it. So did a lot of others: the show is sold out but added matinee info is here.

Godspell at the George Ignatieff Theatre. Coming just in time for the Summer Solstice, Wavestage surely will tune us up for summer and all the vibrancy that season offers with their production of this hit musical. Godspell was the first major musical theatre offering from three-time Grammy and Academy Award winner, Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin, Children of Eden) and chances are strong if you went to summer camp anytime after it hit off-Broadway in 1971, you sang some of that memorable score as did millions around the world when the show toured. When Godspell went on to open on Broadway in 1977, that music won Schwartz a Tony award for best original score. Toronto has a strong connection with Godspell. When it opened here in 1972, it became an instant hit. Cast included Gilda Radner (making her stage debut), Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas and Victor Garber (who would go on to star in the film adaptation), and of course, Andrea Martin. Ticket info here.

I will never forget it. All those people became my best friends. I remember every moment of that play.

-Andrea Martin

Next to Normal at the CAA theatre. This musical won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama along with three Tony awards and is part of the Off-Mirvish series. Produced by the Musical Stage Company whose mandate is to offer material that “cause conversations on the car ride home”, this is a show that will do more for understanding the impact of mental illness than any flashy health campaign out there. Go see it for the best cast on Toronto stages right now led by Louise Pitre and Ma-Anne Dionisio: both, along with the other cast members, were outstanding on the preview performance I saw. Yes, we stood and cheered. Toronto audiences need to do that more often. These people delivered. Ticket info here

On the horizon: Toronto Fringe Festival will be partnering with Crow’s Theatre this coming July and bringing 16 festival shows to their home in Leslieville. That’s a first. As for Crow’s upcoming season, the hottest ticket next fall is sure to be Ghost Quartet.  The Canadian premiere of what Crows are calling a “surreal chamber musical” comes from Dave Malloy, the composer/lyricist of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. If this new production is anything as fresh as that one, I’m in.

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Your next web series to watch

By March 27, 2019 Coming soon, Film, Performance

The Regent Park Project is a dynamic web series, now set to debut its second season on YouTube next month. This is a must-see for those wanting an authentic glimpse into one of Toronto’s most diverse neighbourhoods, a place less storied than stamped with negative stereotypes. Until now. Have a peek at episode 1.

Sheena Robertson has worked in Toronto’s Regent Park for over 25 years. As a teacher, advocate, and artist-educator, Robertson saw a demand for projects that allowed the creative youth she engaged with daily to not only gain access to the professional film world but also to build strong relationships, and skills to share their own stories. To her, the stories were always there; they just needed a forum. Kick Start Arts, where Robertson is artistic director, jumped in with free acting classes where content began to take shape.

Sheena Robertson, director

We used a story circle process where we used prompts to generate story ideas, and over time we told stories, and responded to them, pulling out the ones that felt important to us. Using forum theatre approaches, we improvised those stories, honing them, and eventually filmed them, and created scripts by scribing the improvisations. What developed were a series of fictionalized characters, and interactive stories, drawn from the lived experiences of our participants.”

Sheena Robertson, director

Never before have we been exposed to such a flowering of narrative, spinning out of every corner. Consumers are hardly starved for content, even if it is one look-alike series after another. Along comes this unique interactive story with an absolute mandate of authenticity.

Someone said to me that they think our series is ‘like the Degrassi Street series, but real’ – and I understand what they mean, and take that as a compliment. I think we’re super unique in that I don’t see anything out there where the youth participants are so engaged in all elements of the creation; from acting, to writing, to crewing. Our hope is these episodes give people an opportunity to look beyond the negative stereotypes of Regent Park, and see the amazing, smart, articulate, and talented young people I know so well.”

Season One follows an eight-episode arc exploring a community the cast and crew describe as one of “complexity, friendship, love, fear, laughter, and irony.” I encourage you to check it out. Season Two will begin with a launch party Wednesday April 17th in Toronto. See here for details.

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Oscar countdown: the also-rans

By February 21, 2019 Film, Headlines, Performance

Lots of the audience watching awards shows want their winners to be films with a certain gravitas.  But is there really high art and low art? Or just good movies?

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Oscars for geeks

By February 21, 2019 Film, Headlines, Performance

The Oscars are in crisis but it’s an easy fix.

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Highs of 2018

By December 31, 2018 Film, Headlines, Life, Performance, Travel

Is there ever a time you can’t muster a high? When you scoff at such a list; mind blank and steeped in bleak forecasts?
Are you screaming YES?

This was a year maybe a high might be hard to find.

A year to confront aging. A unknown father rushes in moments before a school holiday concert and mouthes “sorry” to his annoyed wife. As he brushed past me (proud aunt in the front row) to take his seat down the row, I found myself breathless-he was so very very young, this tardy father. Suddenly I was seized with panic. I was that wife, when? Yesterday, wasn’t it? We were the parents with little ones in concerts we never missed. Now I’m…what? Old?
NEVER. Have you seen me do my ab exercises?  MOVE ON, NOW.

I was silly and stern and strong this year. Sad and deliriously happy. Woeful and wonderstruck both.  Age is my friend after all, even if nobody gave me Time for Christmas. Hint for Santa: I only want TIME and you can bring it without wrapping as our blue bin is full.

A funny thing happened on this adventure in adulthood: there’s always a high. We go high when they go low, says Michelle Obama.

What makes me high? (My lawyer has advised me to refrain from the truth when crossing the border). Here is the secret: stories.

Here are some stories on page, stage and screen that shone for me in 2018 and maybe a few from my own story. Read More

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There’s Roma, and then everything else

By December 11, 2018 Film, Performance

If someone gave you the opportunity to recreate your childhood home as an exact replica, then fill it with actors cast with likenesses much like your family, how would you move those actors through space?  If you’re Alfonso Cuarón, you do it by keeping one thesis front and centre: focus on the women who shaped you. What this decorated director has been able to do with his latest project, Roma (due for Netflix streaming this week), is so masterful that it belongs in a category of rare achievement.  Looking back on the many movies screened in 2018, I can’t say any film stayed with me as much as this one— it features the most epic scene of the year but no spoilers here. It sent me home from the theatre to peer deeply at our own culture, where women like the nanny, Cleo, dot households across North America.  As portrayed beautifully in the film by Yalitza Aparicio (a real-life preschool teacher and novice actor), Cleo is the heart of a family in turmoil, providing constancy and continuity in a mad world.

Cuaron(speaking to those of us lucky to see this film on a big screen at TIFF earlier this past September), told us he spent many hours interviewing his childhood nanny as part of his research so that he would get it right. Along the way, as we move with his protagonist performing her many daily domestic duties; bestowing love on a family of four children, Cuaron paints stunning scenes of intricate detail and avoids nothing; political events are part of this tapestry while never overwhelming it. The camera sweeps and we receive in a slow build of absolute immersion.

What is most startling about Roma is what is missing: there are no recognizable stars, no overblown budgets, no heavy-handed arrows pointing us to facile conclusions, nor is this narrative laden with syrupy nostalgia-tinged speeches or soundtracks. Memory is a most excellent tour guide here as an observer of universal truths about social class. Indeed, Cleo’s role in the household, like millions of others, brings to mind an award-winning Atlantic essay from years ago, an essay that, at the time, reworked for me the very idea of feminism, and gave new urgency to my personal sense of identity. In her cover story, How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement, Caitlin Flanagan wrote:

The precise intersection of many women’s most passionate impulses—their profound, almost physical love for their children and their ardent wish to make something of themselves beyond their own doorstep—is the exact spot where nannies show up for work each day. 

Cuarón’s work here may capture a year of his life back in the early ’70s but this is surely the year’s most relevant film, just as it is miles ahead artistically of anything else released this year.  Roma will both awaken your spirit and break your heart as great works of art can do.

Note: This pristine gorgeous work is hardly usual fare for Netflix and I fear some of the deliberate pacing will lose swaths of viewers who can pause a film at their leisure. Yet how else to ensure the film be seen in the most democratic fashion? This month, Netflix confirmed that Roma will be released in more than 600 theatres internationally at the same time as the December 14th launch on Netflix. It is also winning awards: this week, the Toronto Film Critics Association voted Roma best movie of the year. It has also been named the best film of 2018 by critics’ groups in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Roma could make history as the first Netflix film to be up for best picture when the Oscar nominations are announced on 22 January.

More reading:
My Scrumptious Films list from TIFF 2018

TIFF 2018: Second best

TIFF Quotables: Don’t stop until you get enough


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A moment for Mercury

By November 5, 2018 Film, Performance

He’s having a moment, Freddie Mercury is. Playing currently in theatres is a wonky bio-pic of Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody. For those of us leaning into nostalgia, the film serves as a glorious reminder of stadium anthems and communal moments that don’t exist anymore. Performance pieces make the film imminently watchable, but let’s be frank for Freddie, shall we? It was all about him.

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