Musical theatre by the book!

Theatre review of Broadway Across Canada's The Book of Mormon March 31 - April 5, 2015 at Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary, AB

Book of Mormon review - Vince KanasootThe Book of Mormon combines South Park humour with good old-fashioned American musical theatre.

The next time a Mormon missionary rings my doorbell and says, “hello” I’m keeping my fingers crossed he will break out into a show tune, joined by a chorus of other adorable missionaries in sweet harmony. Because that’s exactly what happens in the hit Tony award-winning Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, which recently delighted Calgary audiences as part of Broadway Across Canada’s current tour.

The Book of Mormon, written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez, is a Tony award winning musical parody about two young Mormon missionaries, Elder Kevin Price (Billy Harrigan Tighe) and Elder Arnold Cunningham (A.J. Holmes) who are sent by the Church of Latter-Day Saints on a mission to Uganda to convert the local people to the Mormon religion.

The Book of Mormon is a hilarious musical theatre parody that follows Mormon missionaries in their quest to convert Ugandans.

Throw in a ruthless Ugandan warlord, a community of Ugandans who are more concerned with issues such as poverty, death and AIDS, and a chorus of tap dancing Mormon missionaries, and our two lead characters are swept away into the adventure of their lives.

Along the way, they meet a sweet young Uganda girl, Nabulungi (Alexandra Ncube) whose yearning to learn more about the world opens a door of opportunity for the missionaries to introduce the Mormon religion to the Ugandans. However, the fact that Cunningham hasn’t actually read the Book of Mormon results in him teaching the local community by hashing whatever he can pull together as well as throwing in science fiction and fantasy characters such as hobbits, Yoda and Darth Vader.

Elder Cunningham (A.J. Holmes) attempts to teach  the Book of Mormon to the local Ugandan community, even though he's never actually read the whole thing. Photo credit: Joan Marcus, Calgary Herald.

This absurdly satirical show is filled to the brim with swears and obscenities of every nature, and does not fail to insult pretty much everyone…. and that’s what makes the show so much fun! Many people love The Book of Mormon because of this. However, underneath the humour, I found the story really sweet. For example, Cunningham starts off as an unconfident underachiever forced to accept the role of wingman to bright, rising Mormon star, Price. However, throughout the show, it was really nice to see Cunningham gain confidence and develop, and find his independence.

In the role of Price, Billy Harringan Tighe is excellent! While his character says and does things that makes him come across as arrogant and self-centred, Tighe is able to bring a layer of likeable naivety and innocence that’s forgiving to his character. Tighe is an amazing singer…and it’s clear he’s also an excellent dancer! There were times during the show where he would dashingly break out a switch split jump or a triple pirouette with charm and polish.

The show's stars Billy Harringan Tighe (left in the far left photo) and A.J. Holmes (right in the far left photo), in their first and last performances together in "The Book of Mormon". Photo credit: theoriginoffandom.tumblr.com

As Cunningham, A.J. Holmes is adorable! His unrefined and sometimes dim-witted portrayal of Cunningham is very cute. Additionally, he masterfully develops Cunningham’s character from a sad underdog to a…ummm…unrefined, slightly dim-witted but confident leader.

One of the highlights of this fine production is Alexandra Ncube's performance as Nabulungi. Her presence on stage is delightfully refreshing and her voice is absolutely stunning. While hilarious, her rendition of “Sa Tley Ka Siti”, is also extremely poignant and touching. Kudos also to Brian Beach as Elder McKinley, whose fierce tap dancing and wonderful comic timing helped make the show such a treat to watch.

Alexandra Ncube's performance as Nabulungi is stunning. Photo credit: Joan Marcus, Calgary Herald.

What makes The Book of Mormon such a unique and special piece of theatre is its ability to combine contemporary humour with good old-fashioned American musical theatre. Helped out by Casey Nicholaw’s genius choreography with throwback references to musicals like Lion King, La Cage Aux Folles, 42nd Street and The Drowsy Chaperone, The Book of Mormon’s use of classic Broadway-style choreography, music and plot structure packages this absurdly entertaining parody into a true musical theatre win!

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Don't forget to check out Broadway Across Canada's next production to hit Calgary, Disney's The Lion King! 

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A beautiful journey of the heart

Theatre review of Theatre Calgary's Anne of Green Gables April 23 - June 2, 2013 at the Max Bell Theatre in Calgary, AB

Theatre Calgary's production of "Anne of Green Gables" tells the story of a young girl's beautiful journey from abandoned orphan to young adulthood.

Theatre Calgary closes its mainstage season with a gorgeous production of the timeless Canadian treasure, Anne of Green Gables

Theatre Calgary’s (TC) final production at the Max Bell Theatre this season is a gorgeous production of the Canadian musical theatre classic, Anne of Green Gables. Brilliantly directed by TC’s artistic director, Dennis Garnhum and choreographed by world-renowned choreographer, Lisa Stevens, TC's Anne of Green Gables showcases the talents of Canada’s theatre crème de la crème in a truly exquisite production.

Based on L.M. Montgomery’s timeless tale of young Anne Shirley and her journey from an outcast orphan, to a young woman who captivates and touches the hearts and souls of everyone in her town, the stage production is presented annually on Prince Edward Island as part of the world famous Charlottetown Theatre Festival. How wonderful it is then, to witness this highly acclaimed musical right here in YYC.

The cast of Theatre Calgary's "Anne of Green Gables" in the closing number of the first act. Photo by Trudie Lee.

TC’s production features a cast that combines Canada’s top young musical theatre performers with some of Canada’s legendary musical theatre masters. And it is none other than young Jill Agopsowicz, a recent Randolph Academy graduate, who brilliantly leads this production, in the role of Anne Shirley. Agopsowicz’s crystal clear, nightingale voice is absolutely stunning and the combination of her top notch singing and acting, produces an Anne Shirley that is smart, genuine, heartwarming and delightful to watch. It’s truly magnificent watching Agopsowicz’s Anne mature and develop.

Jill Agopsowicz is Theatre Calgary's Anne Shirley. Photo by Trudie Lee.

Jeremy Crittenden is a young theatre actor that has definitely made his mark in Canadian theatre, having played leading roles in theatres across the nation, and no doubt stealing the hearts of many young theatre goers, with his adorable charm! Crittenden’s portrayal of Gilbert Blythe, the romantic interest of Anne Shirley is indeed adorable and charming. As always, it is also a treat to hear Crittenden’s outstanding vocal performance as well.

But what story is complete without a resident mean girl? Anna Hurshman is hilarious in the role of sassy chick, Josie Pye. Meanwhile, Jaclyn Herder is cute and charming in the role of Prissy Andrews, the school girl whose relationship with teacher, Mr. Phillips, scandalously goes beyond the classroom. I often watch individual cast members during large ensemble numbers, because I highly appreciate the work of ensemble members. Herder was especially wonderful to watch in the Act one finale number, Ice Cream, where her pleasant smile lit up the stage!

The town kids rocking out the choreography with their fab teacher, Miss Stacey. Photo by Trudie Lee.

Jennie Neumann, who has lit up the theatre scene in Vancouver, shows Calgary why she is the talk of the west coast theatre community, with her wonderfully engaging portrayal of Diana Barry, Anne’s BFF. One of the highlights of the production is when Diana accidentally gets wasted from drinking homemade wine! Neumann’s comic timing and awesome laugh is definitely a delight. Thomas Alderson also brings great comic timing to the show, with his goofy portrayal of class clown, Moody MacPherson. Meanwhile, the great Liz Tookey is gorgeous as always, playing Josie’s sister, Gertie. Tookey’s excellent dancing and characterization is beautiful to watch!

The brilliant dance ensemble with world famous choreographer, Lisa Stevens. From left to right, Jaclyn Herder, Anna Hushman, Tyrell Witherspoon, Lisa Stevens, Liz Tookey and Sierra Brewerton. Photo courtesy of daCosta Talent.

Avonlea seems like it would be a super fun place to grow up and a great training ground for aspiring dancers, as the kids in town all happen to be amazing dancers! Choreographer Lisa Stevens has set enchanting choreography upon the strong ensemble of dancers, showcasing their excellent technique in ballet and jazz. Stunning lines, jumps, turns and movement is presented front and centre in this production! Best of all, the choreography is extremely clean – kudos to dance captain, Robert Allan for his efforts!

The adults in Avonlea are played by some of our nations greatest actors to ever grace the stage. The incomparable Colleen Winton, who has performed in shows from coast to coast, including productions with the Stratford, Shaw and Charlottetown Festivals, as well as the original Canadian companies of Cats and Show Boat, brings her well developed acting chops to the Max Bell stage in the role of Marilla Cuthbert, Anne’s adoptive mother. Barrie Wood, another Canadian theatre veteran who has also performed at Stratford, Charlottetown, and in the mega-musicals Cats, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Crazy For You, plays the role of Marilla’s brother Matthew. Wood shows that no matter how old you get, you an always stay a triple threat, exemplified by his strong acting, singing and dancing! Together, Winton and Wood deliver heartwarming performances, no doubt enhanced by their many years of experience. It was an honour to see these two acclaimed actors on the Max Bell stage.

Musical supervisor, Dave Pierce and director, Dennis Garnhum. Photo by Trudie Lee.

I also quite enjoyed Brigitte Robinson, Nora McLellan and Jan Alexandra Smith in the roles of Mrs. Pye/Mrs. Spencer, Rachel Lynde, and Mrs. Barry. These three ladies also hold incredibly impressive resumes, and it was so much fun to watch them strut their stuff in their comical roles, helping to lighten to mood of the show and add brilliant colour to the town of Avonlea! Lastly, Leora Joy Godden is wonderfully refreshing in the role of Miss Stacey, Anne’s school teacher and mentor, who encourages Anne to reach for her potential.

I would also like to extend kudos to Patrick Clark’s set and costume design as well as Gerald King’s lighting design. The stunning work of these two gentlemen has helped create a captivating and picturesque storybook Avonlea that is enchanting and captivating! Combined with the other strong elements of the production, including the outstanding direction, choreography and performances, TC’s final mainstage production of the season is a gorgeous theatrical experience that will touch your heart and inspire you. If you have yet to experience TC’s Anne of Green Gables, book your tickets today! You will not forget this wonderful production.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Don't forget to check out Theatre Calgary's upcoming summer Shakespeare in the Park production of Romeo and Juliet! 

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OMFG of Carnage!

Theatre review of Theatre Calgary's God of Carnage March 12 - April 7, 2013 at the Max Bell Theatre in Calgary, AB

Theatre Calgary's God of Carnage

Theatre Calgary's God of Carnage reveals the primal savage in all of us

Like most people, I like to think of myself as a civilized human being. After all, I’m law abiding, well-mannered and pleasant. But how far would I go to protect someone I love? I’m not a parent yet, but in the future when I have kids, I fully intend on doing whatever it takes to ensure they are respected, safe and have every opportunity to live up to their full potential. Theatre Calgary’s latest production, the 2009 Tony Award winner for Best Play, God of Carnage, reveals the protective inner primal instincts that live in all of us, especially parents. In addition, God of Carnage shows us how easy it is for us to lose our cool and succumb to our underlying frustrations and emotions.

The cast of God of Carnage

Written by French playwrite Yasmina Reza and translated into English by Christopher Hampton, God of Carnage invites us into the living room of Veronica and Michael Novak, your average couple next door. Their 11-year-old son Henry was recently beaten up in the playground by another boy, Benjamin. Benjamin’s parents, Annette and Alan have paid Veronica and Michael a visit to apologize for their son’s behavior. However, what starts off as a nice, civilized meeting between two sets of parents soon dissolves into a hilarious, yet intriguingly compelling chaotic event where all niceties and social graces are thrown out the window.

What adds to the interest of the story, are the tremendous differences between each set of parents. Veronica researches and writes about African culture and her husband Michael owns a wholesale hardware store. Veronica seems like the type of person who is constantly concerned with doing the right thing and runs the show in her home. On the other side of the coin, Annette is the type of mom who wears stilettos and carries a Coach purse to parent meetings and her husband Alan is a cocky corporate lawyer who is always on his phone. As the evening progresses, all four individuals square off face to face, the dynamics between them constantly changing.

Doug Mckeag, Daniela Vlaskalic and Ryan Luhning

While the initial concern for this parent meeting may have been the children’s playground brawl, the meeting soon falls victim to a battle of the sexes, an inquisition regarding the fate of a hamster, the fight for control over a cell phone, lectures on good parenting and spousal skills, a vomiting fiasco, and then a drinking party! Throughout the course of  action, we see full-grown parents assault each other, violently destroy flowers and vomit all over the stage. These parents mean business!

Helen Taylor and Doug Mckeag are adorably cute and sweet as Veronica and Michael. Meanwhile, Daniela Vlaskalic and Ryan Luhning are the sexy parents! In portraying the couple of Annette and Alan, Vlaskalic and Luhning get to wear sleek, stylish outfits and they’re exactly the kind of parents that everyone talks about in high school, when discussing fill in the blank’s hot mom or dad. Together, this sensational quartet of actors brings brilliant comedic life, timing and personality to their colourful roles and it’s quite a treat to watch them interact with each other.

Vlaskalic and Luhning

Jan Alexandra Smith has done an excellent job directing this highly entertaining play, allowing the actors to naturally transform what started as a nice, pleasant living room into their own adult playground. Speaking of playgrounds, I also particularly enjoyed Patrick Du Wor’s set – the Novak’s living room was really fun to look at. It’s part contemporary, part retro (I know that’s an oxymoron) and offers ample space to serve as the adult playground. It truly added to the flavour of the play.

Theatre Calgary’s God of Carnage is a delightful spark of entertainment that will keep you chuckling long after you’ve left the Max Bell Theatre. After Theatre Calgary’s last presentation, the emotional and dramatic The Kite Runner, it was nice to have a breather with a bit of light-hearted entertainment. Variety is the spice of life! Ironically, the next book that I plan on reading, The Dinner, by Herman Koch, is also about two sets of parents who meet to discuss a problem involving their children. But apparently the plot is much darker!

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

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Theatre review of Theatre Calgary's The Kite Runner January 29 - February 24, 2013 at the Max Bell Theatre in Calgary, AB

Theatre Calgary's The Kite Runner

Theatre Calgary's The Kite Runner takes us on a journey of redemption, forgiveness and humanity 

Anyone who has survived adolescence will agree that adolescence is a time that we all look back upon with mixed emotions. Quite often, this has to do with our decisions that we made during those tender years as well as intrigue as to how things could have turned out differently if we had made different choices. For the protagonist in Theatre Calgary’s latest play, The Kite Runner, one of his decisions as a 12-year-old results in dramatic consequences that haunts him throughout his adult years, and compels us, the audience to follow him on a powerful and emotional journey as he hopes to finally make amends.

Based on Khaled Hosseini’s novel, and adapted for the stage by Matthew Spangler, The Kite Runner transports us to 1970s Afghanistan, where we meet 12-year-old Amir. As we follow his tale, we meet his best friend Hassan, who also happens to be Amir’s servant. Additionally, we meet Amir’s father Baba, whose best friend and servant also happens to be vested in one individual, Hassan’s father, Ali.

Kite Festival

As the tale progresses, we watch both Amir and Hassan fall victim to bullying, led by the town bully, Assef. On the night of the annual Kite Festival, Amir wins the prestigious competition; however, while trying to help Amir win, Hassan encounters a potential dark and horrific fate and Amir is the only person who can prevent this fate from becoming a reality. Everything comes down to Amir’s decision, the results of which, drives the remainder of this dramatic and thought provoking play.

Director Eric Rose has done an exquisite job in his staging, taking full advantage of the Max Bell Theatre stage space. He effectively transports us to a wide variety of locations, including a backyard birthday party lit with lanterns, the war torn streets of Afghanistan, the streets of 1980s San Francisco, and of course, a festive Kite Festival during pre-war Afghanistan.

The journey of one man

However, what I found most impressive about Rose’s direction was his ability to draw my attention and personally engage me in a chillingly powerful and gripping way. At times, the content was very painful to watch and I felt my emotions overtaking me. However, no matter how emotionally disturbing the story got, I could never look away from the stage – I was completely captivated and swept away.

As young Amir and Hassan, Conor Wylie and Norman Yeung deliver heartbreaking performances that capture the innocence and complexity of adolescence with painful honesty. As adult Amir as well as the narrator of the play, Anousha Alamian’s strong performance serves as the backbone of the production and carries the play from beginning to end with his wonderful humour, emotion, and at times, frighteningly realistic portrayal. Michael Beng’s portrayal of Amir’s father, Baba is equally outstanding and powerful.

As Soraya, Amir’s wife, Dalal Badr’s performance is exquisitely captivating and stunning and offers a wonderful female touch to the otherwise all-male principal cast. Omar Alex Khan’s depiction of Amir’s family friend, Rahim Khan, is also quite strong, as Khan offers an intriguing and mysterious spine chilling quality to his performance. Lastly, as the town bully, Assef, Ali Momen’s performance is realistic and frightening, especially as his character further develops in the second act.

The Kite Runner Cast

This is not an easy play to get through. While watching The Kite Runner, I experienced a roller coaster ride of emotions, including intrigue, laughter, sadness and horror. However, above all else, the Kite Runner compelled me to think about the effects that our decisions can have on our families and loved ones - I left the theatre stunned and provoked by this brilliant and profound tale.

At its heart, The Kite Runner tells a tale of what happens when a man finally finds the courage to face his fears and make amends for his mistakes. The Kite Runner teaches us that while we may not always be able to fully repair the damages that ensue from our decisions, we can learn from the past and rebuild our lives. However, the first step is to admit our mistakes and learn to forgive – because after all, we are all human.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

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Theatre review of Alberta Ballet's Othello October 18-20, 2012 at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary, AB and November 2 - 3, 2012 at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton, AB

Alberta Ballet's Othello

Alberta Ballet's Othello was an exotic, creative and passionate re-telling of Shakespeare's tragedy

During the past few weeks, Alberta Ballet presented its stunning interpretation of Shakespeare’s Othello in Calgary and Edmonton. To me, Othello is one of the more relevant plays that Shakespeare wrote, simply because it’s a story that audiences can still relate to. Domestic abuse and violence is still ever present and Othello really hits the nail on the head when it comes to depicting the common situations, emotions and thoughts that are involved with this issue. Therefore, I enjoyed Alberta Ballet’s production of Othello, not only for its magnificent dancing, choreography and visual presentation, but also for the haunting messages that it evoked.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this production was the North African theme that prevailed throughout. Having previously travelled to North Africa during my cruise ship dancing days, I immediately recognized the authentic North African designs in Sandra Woodall’s scenic design, brilliantly partnered with Pierre Lavoie’s wonderful lighting. The visual design of the show was genius; both my friend and myself gasped at the gorgeous bedroom scene near the end of the show – a dramatic presentation of the foreshadowing murder scene, highlighted by an eerie array of candles. Kirk Peterson’s choreography paired quite effectively with Jerry Goldsmith’s North African inspired score, adding to the authenticity of the presentation.

Alberta Ballet female ensemble

Othello is one of the harder Shakespearean plays to translate to ballet – while everyone already knows the beloved tale of Romeo and Juliet, Othello is a less familiar story to some. In addition, the conversations between characters in Othello are difficult to depict through dance, as the intricacies and sophistication of the dialogue and plot are quite challenging. Given this feat, Peterson has done an exceptional job choreographing and staging this work, allowing his dancers to really develop into larger than life characters through movement. Every character had a distinct style of movement that defined them, often supported by repeated choreographic phrases.

The hands-down star of the show on the night that I attended the performance was the great Kelley McKinlay, who brilliantly portrayed the role of the evil villain, Iago. McKinlay is truly the epitome of a principal dancer – yes, he possesses fabulous technique, but he is also a versatile actor. I think most audiences have become accustomed to seeing McKinlay in “Prince Charming” type roles such as the Prince in Cinderella, the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Prince, Romeo, and Elton John (another type of prince, but a prince nonetheless). What a treat it was then to see McKinlay portray such a dark, twisted, conniving character as Iago.

Kelley McKinlay as Iago

Right from the start of the show, McKinlay commanded the attention of the audience, with his eerie-like body mannerisms set to the mysterious musical score. As I mentioned, McKinlay’s technique continues to impress, especially his strong turning ability, both in the air and on the ground. However, I would like to see greater flexibility, especially in the extensions of his leaps.

As Othello, Elier Bourzac definitely had the whole jealous husband thing down pat. Paired with his excellent dance ability, he did his job well. Othello is a really difficult role, in the sense that no one in the audience ever sympathizes with him – yet he’s not a fun, interesting villain like Iago…Othello is just kind of like the character of Nate Archibald in Gossip Girl – he often gets taken advantage of and then gets really mad when he realizes what has happened. In addition, I was not a fan of Othello’s costuming in this production – from where I was sitting, Bourzac’s flesh coloured tights made it look like he wasn’t wearing tights at all, which could have made his costumes appear to be quite scandalous to audience members sitting in the balconies of the Jubilee Auditorium.

Mariko Kondo and Elier Bourzac as Desdemona and Othello

Mariko Kondo was absolutely stunning in the role of Desdemona. Her exquisite lines, pointe work, attention to detail and characterization of Desdemona were breathtaking. She evoked passion and sincerity in her role, making it believable as to why a woman would stay so committed to a man who doesn’t trust her, and who also frequently becomes enraged.

Colby Parsons was quite charming and dashing in the role of Cassio. I would also like to mention Hayna Gutierrez’s wonderful performance as Emilia, Iago’s wife. Gutierrez is really the whole package when it comes to being a dancer. While she is an amazing technician, she is also capable of portraying a wide range of characters, such as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cinderella. She really is a wonderful actress who can adapt her body movement and characterization to any role at the drop of a hat. Gutierrez’s stage presence also has a special quality that really stands out.

Alberta Ballet male dance ensemble

As always, the Alberta Ballet company dancers displayed world-class work. I especially enjoyed the fun themes that Peterson provided the ensemble dancers with. The male dancers were depicted as exotic desert men, while the female dancers had a fun Medusa-like theme to play with. This added a nice touch to the ballet.

While this production of Othello made excellent use of a medley of Goldsmith’s scores, I was not a fan of the overture or entr’acte. Sitting in a dark theatre and listening to music played by a live orchestra prior to the start of an act can be quite lovely – however, in this instance, there was no live orchestra. The show was performed to a recording (with less than stellar sound quality – it sounded like the recordings were produced decades ago). Therefore, sitting and listening to the overture and entr’acte before the first and second acts really re-enforced the fact that we were listening to an old recording, and it also seemed unnecessary and a little annoying.

Kelley McKinlay leap

Overall, Alberta Ballet’s production of Othello was a exquisite. Alberta Ballet effectively translated one of Shakespeare’s most treasured works into a ballet that flowed fluently, showcased a company of strong dancers who brilliantly depicted the characters, and was set against a stunning backdrop of scenic and lighting designs. The final moments of the ballet also leaves quite a haunting image that continues to resonate in my mind.  Moreover, the compelling theme of domestic violence is one that still prevails in today’s society and reminds us that this is an issue that we need to continue to fight. Perhaps that is why Othello remains a timeless tale.

If you or someone you know is affected by domestic abuse or violence, please visit www.distresscentre.com or phone (403) 266-4357.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

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Theatre review of Theatre Calgary's Next To Normal, in co-production with Citadel Theatre September 11 - 30, 2012 at the Max Bell Theatre in Calgary, AB

Next To Normal

Theatre Calgary's Next To Normal tells an emotionally captivating and truthful tale

Three years ago, I watched dancers Tara-Jean Popowich and Vincent Desjardin perform a gut-wrenching duet on So You Think You Can Dance Canada, choreographed by the incomparable Stacey Tookey, which dealt with mental disorder. This number tore my heart out and really made me think about the complexities, struggles and emotions that embody the issues of mental disorder. Last week, all of these memories came flooding back when I attended Theatre Calgary’s season opener, Next To Normal.

Next To Normal opened on broadway in 2009, after a successful off-broadway run. The show garnered three Tony Awards as well as the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. With a musical score by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Next To Normal is a contemporary musical that, for the most part, is sung through. And although it is labelled a rock musical, this isn’t a Rent or Rock of Ages. The singing is legit, contemporary broadway style – think Spring Awakening or Catch Me If You Can.

The "Next to normal" family

I first heard about Next To Normal in the spring of 2009 when I was dancing onboard Princess Cruises. One of the other dancers in my cast was from New York and couldn’t stop raving about Next To Normal. That season was unquestionably a stunning year on broadway, with the opening of Billy Elliot – The Musical, and the long-anticipated revivals of West Side Story and Hair. Yet, Next To Normal, a modest musical in comparison, with a cast of six, was still able to make headlines and stir up conversations across the ocean.

The plot centres around Diana (Kathryn Akin), a mom and housewife who struggles with bi-polar disorder. Her husband of many years, Dan (Rejean Cournoyer) does what he can to try to help her while their teenage daughter, Natalie (Sara Farb) gets forgotten in the background. Diana’s bi-polar disorder is driven by her inability to get over the loss of her son, Gabe (Robert Markus), who died as an infant and would have been 17-years-old at the time of the musical’s story if he had lived. Frustrated and desperate, Dan takes Diana to Dr. Madden (John Ullyatt) to seek new medical treatment – however, this treatment turns out to be quite risky. While all of this is going on, Natalie struggles with adolescence and finds comfort, friendship and possible love in her high school classmate, Henry (Michael Cox).

When I walked into the Max Bell Theatre last weekend and laid eyes upon the pre-show setup onstage, I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful miniature house that was lit from within – it immediately reminded me of Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House. Is there a connection between A Doll’s House and Next To Normal? I couldn’t wait to watch the show and find out.

"Next to Normal" deals with mental disorder and families

Next To Normal’s cast was absolutely sensational! It really was a spectacular display of the top musical theatre talent in Canada. As Diana, Kathryn Akin brought the house down with her amazing vocal ability and emotionally stirring performance. A veteran of the West End, The Shaw Festival, Mirvish Productions and much more, Akin’s portrayal of a mom paralyzed by the effects of mental disorder was disturbingly realistic.

Rejean Cournoyer, familiar to Canadian theatre audiences as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables for Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre Company and the Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for Theatre Calgary/Citadel Theatre, also delivered an excellent performance as Diana’s husband, Dan. I remember last seeing Cournoyer in Alberta Theatre Project’s True Loves Lies (I wrote his bio for him in the playbill when I interned for the company two summers ago!). It was impressive to see him display his enormous versatility as an actor, as his roles in True Love Lies and Next To Normal were at complete opposite ends of the spectrum.

It was wonderful to see the great Sara Farb play Natalie, Diana’s teenage daughter. The first time I saw Farb was at a cabaret performance in Toronto when she sang a song by the name of Blue and I still remember how awesome her performance was to this day! It was such a pleasure to see her perform again and she definitely did not disappoint in Next To Normal. Her portrayal was honest and relatable to any kid who has ever felt that they’ve been left in the shadows of their sibling, or their parents’ messed-up lives. In addition, it was such a treat to hear her incredible singing.

Akin and Cournoyer

Speaking of incredible singing…Robert Markus’ performance as the ghost/memory of Diana’s son, Gabe, was spellbinding! Very rarely have I heard such spectacular singing and vocal technique from a young male musical theatre performer. Markus’ rendition of I’m Alive was electrifying…when he later sang There’s A World, I had chills going up my spine. Markus’ performance was haunting and unforgettable.

Michael Cox was really sweet as Henry, Natalie’s stoner boyfriend! He combined excellent comic ability with a genuine and sincere portrayal, giving his character strong integrity and substance. As Dr. Madden, John Ullyatt also gave an honourable performance, backed by his outstanding singing.

Rocking the house

I also enjoyed how the casting of the two kids in the family appeared to be age appropriately believable. Although I am a huge fan of broadway star, Aaron Tveit, I felt he appeared to be too old to play Gabe in the original broadway production of Next To Normal. Markus and Farb were very believable as kids in their late teens. In fact, kudos to director Ron Jenkins, who did a brilliant job of casting. Akin, Cournoyer, Markus and Farb made a great family (as ironic as that may sound) and they, along with Cox and Ullyatt all had fantastic chemistry and vocal blend together onstage.

The only thing that I didn’t like about the production, was that I often got confused about where the scenes were taking place. The set, a two-story scaffold-like structure was designed to be a versatile space that could serve as numerous locations. However, it was often hard to tell where the characters were. For instance, the upstairs centre area of the set was used as Natalie’s room, the halls of a high school, the bathroom of a club, and various other locations – and since it all appeared to be the same space, I was often bewildered as to where the characters were. Then again, this same thing happened during Alberta Theatre Projects’ production of True Love Lies, which ironically, was also about a dysfunctional family with two young adult kids, and included a two-story scaffold-like set and Rejean Cournoyer. Go figure.

A birthday party where something isn't quite right

At the conclusion of Next To Normal, my mind referred back to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (the opening set reminded me of A Doll’s House). Just like Next to Normal, A Doll’s House stirred up attention when it premiered in the late 19th century, as it challenged the idea of what a normal family is. At the end of the play, the heroine, Nora, makes exactly the same decision that Next To Normal’s Diana makes at the end of the musical. Coincidence? I think not.

The point is, Next To Normal reminds us that the definition of a “normal” family has long been a myth for many. This was evident even back in 19th century theatre. So, while many people may appear to have a “normal” family life, things are often very different within the walls of their home. We all have our own issues to deal with and fears to overcome – and that isn’t “next to normal”…it’s completely normal.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

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Theatre Review of Alberta Ballet's Great Masterpieces of the 20th Century September 13 - 15, 2012 at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary, AB        and September 21 - 22, 2012 at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton, AB

Alberta Ballet's Great Masterpieces of the 20th Century

The Alberta Ballet brings to life the magnificence of Balanchine and Tharp

The Alberta Ballet began its 46th season last week with its presentation, Great masterpieces of the 20th century. This was a rare opportunity to witness three choreographic gems by two legends in the world of dance – George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp. The superb Alberta Ballet, under the direction of renowned artistic director, Jean Grand-Maitre and in partnership with the world class Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of musical director, Peter Dala, masterfully presented the exquisite works of Balanchine and Tharp.

Before the performance began, Grand-Maitre made a heart felt speech, acknowledging the passing away of former Alberta Premier, Peter Lougheed. Grand-Maitre recognized Lougheed for his lifelong dedication to the dance community and thanked him for his unwavering appreciation and commitment towards the arts. It was an emotionally stirring and very fitting tribute to a great, passionate leader.

Divertimento No. 15

The first piece of the production, Divertimento no. 15 choreographed by George Balanchine, was beautifully performed to Mozart’s Divertimento in B-flat major. On the evening that I attended the performance, Elier Bourzac, Alison Dubsky, Hayna Gutierrez, Nicole Caron, Akiko Ishii, Mariko Kondo, David Neal and Ben Warner brilliantly danced the principal roles. The dancers brilliantly brought to life 18th century classical ballet, danced with warm sensitivity to the music and meticulous detail to the distinctive style. The costumes, designed by Karinska were absolutely gorgeous. Combined with Pierre Lavoie’s wonderful lighting design, Divertimento no. 15 was quite a treat to watch.

The next piece, George Balanchine’s The four temperaments, demonstrated Balanchine’s superb diversity as a choreographer. Completely different from the 18th century classical style of Divertimento no. 15, The four temperaments (which, interestingly premiered in 1946 – ten years prior to the premiere of Divertimento no. 15) showcased neo-classical ballet at its best. The piece featured inventive, sharp, angular lines with a very clean look – the costumes consisted of simple body suits and tights, and the set was minimal.

The Four Temperaments, led by Mark Wax

According to the programme, “the ballet is inspired by the medieval belief that human beings are made up of four different humours that determine a person’s temperament.” The piece reflected all four of the different temperaments (gloomily pensive, headstrong and passionate, unemotional and passive, bad-tempered and angry). I really enjoyed this piece – it was extremely inventive and interesting; it was also really nice to see the contrast between Balanchine’s classical and neo-classical works.

At the end of The four temperaments, the entire Jubilee stage was full of dancers as students from the School of Alberta Ballet had the opportunity to join the company in the finale section. It was wonderful to see so many outstanding dancers at different stages in their careers join together for a memorable ending to an extraordinary piece.

The Four Temperaments

The final piece, Twyla Tharp’s In the upper room, completely took my breath away. I have absolutely no idea what the storyline was and the description in the programme really didn’t explain it – but who cares! This piece made my heart pound right from start the finish – in fact, my heart was pounding long after the piece was over. Coupled with the brilliance of the Calgary Philharmonic, Alberta Ballet’s performance of In the upper room was an absolutely stunning showcase of contemporary ballet and jazz – shades of Tharp’s later works, such as her broadway shows, Movin’ out and Come fly away. The magnificent artistry of the piece was something I had rarely seen on stage before – Alberta Ballet’s Love Lies Bleeding is the only other dance performance that left me as breathless as In the upper Room.

This piece was pure athletic presentation at its best. The stompers, danced by Tara Williamson, Nicole Caron, Alison Dubsky, Kelley McKinlay, David Neal and Garrett Groat, displayed unbelievable athleticism throughout the performance – I was tired just watching them. Ironically, my favourite and least favourite aspects of the piece were the ballet couples, played by Akiko Ishii, Hayna Gutierrez, Skye Balfour-Ducharme, Yukichi Hattori, Jaciel Gomez and Peter Starr. There were times in the first half of the piece that I thought the couple sections were a little messy and not quite as refined as I would have liked. For instance, the timing was a little off amongst the couples and not all the angles and positions were exactly the same. However, midway through the piece, the ballet couples delivered a section of choreography that was to die for. Their timing and interpretation of Twarp’s amazing choreography was absolutely stunning – I thought my heart was going to pound right out of my chest.

In the upper room

In addition, it is always a treat to watch Yukichi Hattori onstage. His unbelievable technique, athleticism and character interpretation is always first rate. Furthermore, I would also like to point out two other outstanding company dancers that always take my breath away – Nicole Caron and Tara Williamson. These two fine dancers never cease to amaze me  - yes, they both have brilliant technique and beautiful lines but they also have an extraordinary ability to interpret any style or character that is thrown at them.

In the upper room was the perfect finale piece to close out an exceptional evening of dance. Alberta Ballet’s presentation, Great masterpieces of the 20th century was a masterpiece showcase of a first rate dance company and I was delighted to have the opportunity to witness such fine work. It was truly inspiring and I look forward to the remainder of what promises to be an extremely sensational 46th season for the Alberta Ballet.

Rating: 4.5 stars out 5 Go to top of page



Theatre Review of Landmark Production's Blowing Whistles In association with GuySpy.com. July 26th - August 4th, 2012 at the Pal Studio Theatre in Vancouver, BC

This year, as part of Vancouver Pride, Landmark productions presented Matthew Todd’s Blowing Whistles, a two act play that tells the story of a gay couple who struggle to keep their relationship alive. Blowing Whistles, which originally premiered in London in 2005, is more than just a tale of a troubled relationship – it’s also a compelling look at how underlying secrets can threaten to destroy what we hold dear and how our personal choices can have traumatic consequences on those who love us.

The play centres around the characters of Nigel and Jamie on the couple’s tenth anniversary. As an anniversary celebration, Nigel invites an unknown young man by the name of Mark, whom he met online to have a threesome with himself and Jamie. Except for this couple, threesomes are not reserved simply for special occasions. We learn that Nigel is a gay sex site addict and frequently arranges for these types of sexual encounters. Although Jamie is hesitant, he always relents and engages in these threesomes to please his Nigel. However, on this particular night the young man whom they invite over is different from the rest of their hook-ups – he has a different agenda. Set against the backdrop of Vancouver’s Gay Pride, Blowing Whistles tells a story that on the surface may seem only relatable to some audiences; but when studied deeper, this is a play that painfully touches many audiences, gay or straight, single or coupled.

Why? Three reasons. Nigel’s addiction to sex is a legitimate addiction, just like an addiction to drugs, alcohol or gambling. He is constantly online checking out profiles and chatting with other men, always looking for sex. He gets to the point where he doesn’t even care if Jamie is involved or not. Similar to other addictions, Nigel becomes overpowered by his urges and his actions – he displays mood swings and lies compulsively. It eventually becomes impossible to distinguish the real Nigel from the personality that his addiction has created. Michael Lyon’s performance as Nigel is a bang-on depiction of someone completely overtaken by a poisonous addiction and who is no longer in control of their actions.

Secondly, Blowing Whistles is about making choices. We all come from different backgrounds, have had different opportunities and all painfully faced the struggles of sexuality and adolescence. The character of Mark symbolizes all of these things and his journey shows us that while people may make certain choices so they can be perceived a certain way, sooner or later these choices define who they are, right down to their core – they truly become the disguise they’ve been displaying.

Mark’s journey tells the heartbreaking story of a young gay boy who is thrown out of his home and forced to grow up on his own. However, the choices that he consequently makes are deliberate, strategic and similar to many, regardless of sexual orientation. Cameron Crosby delivers an honest and moving performance that shows the transformation of an innocent kid to a conniving home wrecker who thrives off the thrill of playing with people’s emotions.

Thirdly, Blowing Whistles touches audiences because Jamie’s experience makes us question how much we value ourselves and how much crap we are willing to take from our partners before we call it quits. Jamie is not a victim of physical abuse, nor is he incompetent or ignorant – he’s an intelligent and caring young man who is the victim of psychological abuse and watching him suffer is gut wrenching. Shane Bingham delivers a magnificent performance that combines humour and a likeable personality with sensitivity and painful insecurity that is truly compelling.

Brilliantly directed by Morgan David Jones, Landmark Productions’ presentation of Blowing Whistles is a powerful piece of theatre that takes its audiences on an intimate emotional journey. Yes, this story speaks directly to gay audiences, but it also speaks to straight audiences as well because of its universal nature. It forces us all to take a look at what we value and how deep our integrity is. Ironically set against the background of Gay Pride, Blowing Whistles asks the question: do you have enough pride in yourself to change your life? Prove it.

Rating: 4 stars out 5 Go to top of page



Theatre Review of Vertigo Theatre’s Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street May 5th – June 3rd, 2012 at the Playhouse in Calgary, AB

While it’s true that desire lies at the core of what it means to be human, uncontrolled desire can lead to deadly obsession. Vertigo Theatre’s final production of the 2011/2012 season, Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street tells the story of a man who allows his appetite for revenge to turn into a deep, dark obsession that leads to a bloody human massacre.

The plot centres on the return of Benjamin Barker to his old neighbourhood of Fleet Street in mid 19th century London. Barker had been convicted on false charges and sent to live in a prison colony in Australia. He manages to escape and make his way back home, determined to get his family back and to bestow revenge on those who had ruined his life. Barker changes his name to Sweeney Todd and with the help of pie chef Mrs. Lovett, the two embark on a plan that leads to a dark and twisted tale of events.

Originally presented on Broadway in 1979, Sweeny Todd garnered eight Tony Awards, including the award for best musical of the year. The production was directed by Harold Prince and featured a musical score by Stephen Sondheim. Both Angela Landsbury and Victor Garber were amongst the renowned original cast. Since then, the show has seen a number of notable revivals, including an inventive 2005 Broadway revival that starred Patti LuPone.

Vertigo’s production of Sweeney Todd, directed by Mark Bellamy in his final season as the company’s artistic director, effectively captures the eerieness of Harold Prince's original broadway production. Bellamy capitalized on the intimate atmosphere of the Playhouse, staging the show to bring the story to life in a way that was engaging and at times very real and frightening. Sweeny Todd is a difficult show to stage – the sheer logistics of the show requires great attention to detail, as it involves elements like trap doors, a shaving competition and piles of human bodies flying around. Thankfully, Bellamy’s production displays meticulous attention to these details; combined with strong cast performances and exceptional creative design elements, this production is indeed impressive.

Narda Mccarroll’s scenic and lighting designs, and Deitra Kalyn’s costume designs brilliantly transports the audience to Victorian era London. Maccaroll’s versatile set effectively serves as a convincing setting for the streets of London, in addition to a variety of other locations throughout the show.

Kevin Aichele’s portrayal of Sweeney Todd is first rate. His tall stature, strong vocal delivery and powerful presence produces a chilling and frighteningly convincing portrayal of a man so scorned and wronged in life that he turns to reckless murder. Along with Elizabeth Stepkowski Tarhan’s likeable portrayal of Mrs. Lovett, it was thrilling to see the infamously twisted characters of Todd and Lovett come alive on the Playhouse stage.

As Anthony and Johanna, the young couple in the show’s subplot, Scott Shpeley and Allison Lynch both give refreshingly sweet performances. However, I suspect that a lot of Shpeley’s music was transposed to meet his lower vocal range. I was disappointed with his rendition of my favourite song from the show, Johanna, for this reason. At times, his singing sounded unnaturally low and did not blend well with the other actors onstage. Lynch on the other hand pleasantly surprised me. As 15-year-old Johanna, Lynch is extremely convincing in her body language, the way she carries herself, her vocal delivery and overall characterization.

On the other side of the coin, Scott Olynek’s performance in the role of Tobias is indeed an epic fail. The character of Tobias is a young adolescent male. Directors have some leeway in deciding how old they want this character to be. Sometimes he’s in his late teens; in Tim Burton’s film version, Tobias looks like he is around 12-years-old. Olynek looks far too old for the role. I appreciate the fact that he tries his best to act like a young boy, but unfortunately his manly appearance results in his Tobias coming off as an adult male with mental disabilities. Maybe this was Bellamy’s intention? Even if it was, the end result is confusion about whether this production’s Tobias is a mentally disabled adult, or a man trying desperately to play a 12-year-old boy.

Reid Spencer offers a chilling performance in the role of Judge Turpin, the character responsible for wrongfully convicting Sweeney Todd and sending him to prison in Australia. A strong ensemble, all of which are excellent at portraying a variety of different characters, round out the rest of the cast. Props go out to Katherine Fadum, who never ceases to impress me with the versatility of roles she portrays.

Although I acknowledge how Bellamy may have felt that sound amplification (having the actors wear microphones) may have been unnecessary in such an intimate presentation space, the production suffers immensely because of this. Why? Because Stephen Sondheim wrote the score. Sondheim’s work is beautiful – his scores are sophisticated and masterfully written…but also renowned for the wordiness and intricacies of their lyrics. The detailed nature of his lyrics require complete understanding from its audiences, as they often contain important information integral to the plot.

The absence of amplification in Bellamy’s production make the lyrics very difficult to hear at times from the back of the Playhouse and left many of the senior citizens (who comprise a large percentage of the theatre community) whom I sat beside, frustrated. In addition, while Lynch’s soprano voice is exquisite, the absence of amplification often made it impossible to hear what she was singing about. Microphoning actors is more than just ensuring voices are heard. It also allows the sound operator to effectively mix the vocals with the orchestra to optimize sound quality – something this production could have greatly benefited from.

One aspect of the show leaves me utterly baffled. As the audience was filtering into the theatre before the show started, there was an odd looking display on stage – it looked like the figure of a man hanging upside down over top of a bucket. Once the show began, a couple of actors proceeded to whisk it away within the first moments of the opening number; the peculiar setup was never explained.

Despite some of the odd choices made for this, Vertigo’s Sweeney Todd captures the dark spirit of the musical and offers some outstanding performances. As Bellamy stated in the playbill, “at its heart, Sweeney Todd is a play about obsession – every character has something that they obsess over – a person, love, money, prestige, power, revenge – the drive of these obsessions fuels the play and all of it’s characters.” While the story of Sweeney Todd involves rare and extreme cases of out-of-control obsessions, it makes us question where we draw the line when it comes to justice and selfishness, compelling us to realize that no matter how honourable or dishonourable our intentions are, we are always responsible for the consequences that ensue.

Rating: 3 stars out 5 Go to top of page