“The hottest show in town”: the unmissable Burning Bluebeard brings its strange magic back for the holidays

Burning Bluebeard, Edmonton Actors Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s playful, it’s dark, it’s magical. Dave Horak’s production of Burning Bluebeard is back on the Roxy stage. And what a strange and wonderful Christmas show it is. You won’t see anything like it anywhere. I fell for it when it arrived in 2015 and I loved it all over again this time out.

Funny how a show about a devastating fire — the 1903 blaze that destroyed Chicago’s snazzy new Iroquois Theatre and killed 600 members of the audience during a sold-out matinee of a holiday panto — is a love letter to theatre. But that’s what Burning Bluebeard is.

The smudged and ghostly clowns who emerge from the ashes of the past, and come to life with a macabre store of one-liners about “the hottest show in town,” want to finish the show and find the happy ending history denied them. Their spectacular failure to provide it on the fateful day haunts them still.

Amber Lewis in Burning Bluebeard, Edmonton Actors Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

“A good show shouldn’t kill you to see it,” as the stage manager (John Ullyatt) says. It’s not as if they were getting great reviews, as he ruefully acknowledges, quoting one account of the time: “upstaged by their own scenery.” That morbid irony isn’t lost on them; moonlight, a spark from the lovely panto moon hanging in the sky at the top of Act II (along with 400 tinder-dry set pieces), set the whole thing off. 

The story of a king who murders a whole bunch of wives? Well, Mr. Bluebeard isn’t exactly Babes in Toyland, as they grimly joke. In true actorly fashion the the earnest young actor (Braydon Dowler-Coltman) who plays Bluebeard says “I like to think he’s  misunderstood.”

Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Vincent Forcier in Burning Bluebeard, Edmonton Actors Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

It’s this distinctive mixture of horror and comedy, affectionate theatre jokes and poignance that sets Burning Bluebeard apart. A histrionic and worldly harlequin (the terrific Amber Lewis) presides over the conjuring of their show, glimpses in moments. Jay Torrence, the Chicago actor/playwright who created Burning Bluebeard originally for his company The Neo-Futurists, calls it “a collapsed panto,” a panto within a panto, comedy sliding into tragedy. 

Horak’s cast is an ensemble of real excellence. As the troubled stage manager Ullyatt delivers the most mesmerizing lip-synch (of Amy Winehouse’s Rehab) you might ever see. As the turn-of-the-century vaudeville star Eddie Foy, Vincent Forcier is funny and heartbreaking. So is Dowler-Coltman. So is Stephanie Wolfe as the fairy aerialist, a down-to-earth out-of-town gal who dreams of flight and magic.

And as the Fairy Queen, who dispenses moonlight in sealer jars, Brooke Leifso, the newest addition to Horak’s cast, is a find: a tiny, sweetly odd urchin in serious glasses, a grimacing smile, and a low irritation threshhold. Richelle Thoreson’s choreography taps into the breezy easy way the performers pepper the period with blithe anachronisms. 

Scott Peters’ design (beautifully lit by him) is a theatre haunting all on its own, the charred remains of a place echoing with lost voices, words, poetry.

In its own weird, extreme, and touching way, Burning Bluebeard is about the unspoken contract of the theatrical illusion, the conjuring turn that connects  theatre artists feel with their audiences. “We wanted to make moonlight for you,” they tell us. “It was supposed to be beautiful.” The Harlequin is more direct. “I wanted a story that the audience would remember forever.”

And they have succeeded.


Burning Bluebeard

Theatre: Edmonton Actors Theatre

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: Amber Lewis, Brooke Leifso, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Vincent Forcier, John Ullyatt, Stephanie Wolfe

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Dec 23

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatre network.ca

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Holiday traditions in every size and shape

The Legend of Sleeping Beauty, Capitol Theatre, Fort Edmonton Park. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Edmonton theatre knows that holiday traditions come in every size and shape, layer on layer, reimagined or reinvented. Have a gander at these: 


At Fort Edmonton, starting tonight in the vintage Capitol Theatre, you can catch a holiday panto. The Legend of Sleeping Beauty, the Fort’s fourth incursion into the form of entertainment that arguably Britain’s most whimsical, oddball export.

Welcome to the riotous world of plundered, cross-hatched fairy tales, blithe cross-dressing, plucky heroes and a snarly but hapless villain, big sassy panto critters, improv, loud audience interaction (which is to say, cheering and booing and generally being rambnctious). Singing and dancing. And lots and lots of jokes, good, bad and shamelessly terrible — some designed for the kids, some that sail right over their heads to tickle the adult funny bone.

Jocelyn Ahlf, who’s also in the cast (as Carabosse, Queen of Thorns), has penned the larky extravaganza. Dana Andersen directs a cast that includes Davina Stewart as The Sugarplum Fairy (on loan from The Nutcracker?), Darrin Hagen as Fanny Bumfuzzle, Luc Tellier as Master Cat and Madelaine Knight as Sourpuss. Jameela NcNeil and Gab Gagnon are the Queen and King.

It runs through Dec. 31 at the Capitol Theatre, a fun excursion in itself. Tickets get snapped up fast, so have a look at fortedmontonpark.ca.

Burning Bluebeard, Edmonton Actors Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

At the Roxy, you can catch a sort of panto wrapped in a panto and tied with a vaudevillian bow. Edmonton Actors Theatre is back at the Roxy for the third annual incarnation of Burning Bluebeard, macabre, funny, and touching, as clowns emerge from the ashes of a tragic theatre fire in the Chicago of 1903 to finish the panto and give us the happy ending they missed the first time around. More of this wonderful Dave Horak production later. Meanwhile, have a look at my Burning Bluebeard preview.  


The 18th annual edition of the Citadel’s grand production of A Christmas Carol continues (through Dec. 23) on the Maclab stage. Upstairs, Saturday night (10 p.m.) at Rapid Fire Theatre’s Zeidler Hall stronghold, the Citadel’s Scrooge, Glenn Nelson, is on loan for Scrooge and Friends, in which the old skinflint is visited by three improvising ghosts — and no one really knows what will happen. Tickets: rapidfiretheatre.com


At the Citadel Club Saturday night (8 p.m.), Up Late With Santa!, the man himself (Dana Andersen) presides over a free-wheeling entertainment with interviews, a house band (led by Mrs. Claus, aka Andrea House and containing Paul Morgan Donald), Jeff Page’s reading of The Lost Scrolls of Frosty, and three original Christmas dance numbers by Yednist, accompanied by Jason Kodie on accordian.

It will not surprise you to learn that improv is involved. But you might not be expecting the duelling accordion match undertaken by Kodie and Morgan Donald. Tickets: 780-425-1820.

Kayla Gorman, Corben Kushneryk in The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant … Ever!. Photo supplied.


The eighth annual edition of The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant … Ever! opens at the Varscona tonight!. Tickets for the Whizgiggling Production: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca).



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Bill and Ted are back in the ’80s, rockin at the Mayfield

Back To The 80s Part 2: The Adventure Continues, Mayfield Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The scene: Tuesday night, and a packed house at the Mayfield.

The last time we met them — hey, last year around this time at the Mayfield —  Bill and Ted were erupting from a time-travelling phone booth, the way one does, into the ‘80s.

Their quest, simple but profound? the “non-heinous” in music. And since this is the decade of party-hearty hits that are so contagiously danceable, so embedded in your brain you instantly transcend the lyrics and the residual mullets, they did not fail in this quixotic task.       

The most excellent lads have tuned up their life goals since then. The concept here isn’t mired in existential obscurity: “Let’s go and create the ultimate mixtape.” As one of the decade’s star bands has it “that really really drives ‘em wild.” In Back To the ‘80s Part 2: The Adventure Continues, the sequel to last year’s Mayfield holiday special, Bill and Ted are searching for “true love” whilst avoiding “the non-bodacious trickery sounds of Air Supply.” As your guidance counsellor told you in high school, it’s good to have goals.

Like its predecessor, part 2 is a deluxe edition of the seasonal revues for which the Mayfield is justly renowned. This one, assembled by Will Marks and Gerrad Everard and staged by Dave Horak, is a venture that sidles up to your own nostalgia with a big spritz of parody and general sass.

The decades stars emerge from (and disappear back into)  revolving doors in two outsized jukeboxes. And, thanks to the non-stop inventions of projection and video designer T. Erin Gruber, we’re in a giant light-up Pac-Man maze. The effects, enhanced by Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting and Leona Brausen’s array of witty vintage costumes (check out the boots), are always fun to watch.

Bill and Ted (Brad Wiebe and Cameron MacDuffee) are not pushovers when it comes to current events. In the course of the Golden Girls sequence, and the news that somebody has killed J.R., they note that “this is not excellent at all.” They shiv Brian Mulroney:  “what’s up government?” This is the only show of the season, I dare say, with a GST joke, and a dig at gold medal winner Ben Johnson. The Berlin Wall coming down? Bill and Ted are on it. 

If the music didn’t get nailed, you might find the sheer amplitude of the song list more than a little daunting, even with a signature Love Shack cocktail in hand. But as usual — you gotta have faith, as the prophet George Michael has it — the musical forces led by Van Wilmott are most excellent. The band is expert. And the eight-member cast, set in motion by Christine Bandelow’s witty choreography, attacks with zest (and chops) every style of iconic ‘80s offering from the dopiest ballad to the fizziest pop number and most solemn rock anthem.

Back To The 80s Part 2: The Adventure Continues, Mayfield Theatre. Photo supplied.

Survivor, Foreigner, Bananarama, Blondie, Joan Jett, Milli Vanilli fly by. Dolly, phil Collins, Hall and Oates…. Wigs get changed. The musical pageantry continues. Might I point out Vanessa Cobham’s dance contributions to the Flashdance number, or Jahlen Barnes expertly negotiating Purple Rain? Bandelow’s choreography for The Blues Brothers is sharp and, amusing. Let’s Get Physical is staged as group aerobic workout. Pamela Gordon and Kevin Dabbs are Roxette, and yes, “she’s got the look.”

They’re the hardest working cast in showbiz, and probably the fittest. But going for the gusto never looked more effortless. Let your mind move to the music. 


Back To The 80s Part 2: The Adventure Continues

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Written and compiled by: Will Marks and Gerrad Everard

Staged by: Dave Horak

Choreographed by: Christine Bandelow

Running: through January 28

Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca 

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Away (far away) in a manger: The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant returns to the Varscona this week

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Don’t get just anyone’s baby for Jesus Christ. Get a quiet one….”

That’s the sage advice from the usual director of the small-town Newfoundland Christmas pageant to her temporary replacement. What Mrs. O’Brien inherits is a lot more trouble than the usual chaos with the angel halos.   

Which is the anarchic fun of The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant … Ever!. The Waiting For Huffman-type adventure, adapted from a much-loved Barbara Robinson novel, takes us into the perennially fraught, lethally competitive, high-Drama world of amateur theatricals.

Whizgiggling Productions, the Edmonton indie theatre named (approvingly) for the Newfoundland term for “acting silly and foolish,” returns from a mostly sold-out tour of small-town Alberta for an eighth annual foray onto the Varscona Theatre stage starting Friday.

The annual auditions, as we discover in a riotous scene, have been infiltrated by “the worst kids in school”; the Herdmans have heard rumours of free snacks. Although these thuggish parties are more than a little perplexed about the pageant plot, including that whole weird business with the Wise Guys, they shove their way into the best parts, mainly by threatening the competition. The citizens are mightily concerned.

The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant … Ever!. Photo supplied.

Director Cheryl Jameson,  who’s a sparky whizgiggling fomenter herself, was in the show herself, a Spirit of Newfoundland production, in the four years she spent living in that idiosyncratic, warm-hearted, hospitable province — where shed parties and mummering are built into the festive season. 

“I arrived from working on a cruise ship, with a Newfoundland boyfriend,” she says cheerfully. “We broke up but I stayed.” Now married to another Newfoundlander, she describes the festive scene at her wedding, in one of the outports, Bar Haven Island. “Word got out,” she laughs. “Somebody put wild flowers everywhere. Another guy filled his cabin with food, left it unlocked, and invited everyone to drop in.”

Strangers made salads and dropped them off at a barbecue at her in-laws place. “My dad went to buy booze at a gas station. And the guy filled his car, and said ‘pay me when you come back’…. It’s that kind of place.” 

“I just love it there!” says Jameson, who went back for the 20th anniversary Spirit of Newfound production of The Best Little Newfound Christmas Pageant … Ever!. “When Justin and I left to drive to Alberta I cried all the way across the island.”

Much of the usual Whizgiggling cast returns for the Varscona run. This year Jameson reprises her usual turn as the family bully Imogen Herdman, who claims the role of Mary because she hears it’s a star part. Jameson laughs. “Teachers come up to us after the show and say ‘I taught those kids!’”

Will the pageant turn out to be the worst ever or …? The magic of the show, as Jameson explains, is that something special about the spirit of Christmas gets unexpectedly re-discovered in the course of The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant … Ever!.

“You’re laughing for so long. And then, it’s ‘oh! ow! that hurt my heart a little bit’.”


The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant … Ever!

Theatre: Whizgiggling Productions and Spirit of Newfoundland

Directed by: Cheryl Jameson

Starring: Kayla Gorman, Natalie Czar Gummer, Corben Kushneryk, Cheryl Jameson, Jake Tkacyzk, Lindsey Walker

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Friday through Sunday and Dec. 20 to 23

Tickets: at the door or TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca)


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Burning Bluebeard: out of the flames and into the festive season

Burning Bluebeard, Edmonton Actors Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the resolutely cheery world of holiday entertainments, where the halls (and not your relatives) get decked and grinches see the errors of their ways, there is nothing quite like the macabre, strangely joyful circus/vaudeville that returns to the Roxy Thursday for the third season.

Yes indeed, Jay Torrence’s Burning Bluebeard has all the trappings of the Christmas panto: the jaunty harlequin, the star comic with the topical jokes, the fairy godmother, the fairy aerialist, the fairy tale plundered for its plot and its hissable villain. There’s lip-synching, mime, asides to the audience….

But there’s this: six clowns emerge, tattered and singed, with that chin-up show-must-go-on spirit for which showbiz folk are famous. They’re determined to finish the panto that ended prematurely in 1903 at Chicago’s brand new Iroquois Theatre.

They’re after the happy ending that eluded them the first time around, and they’re up against it. The house was packed for the December 30 matinee of Mr. Bluebeard, a panto of dubious quality that had gotten fairly scathing reviews across the pond. When a spark from the prop moon in Act II caught the scenery on fire, 600 members of the audience were killed.

Amber Lewis in Burning Bluebeard, Edmonton Actors Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

Funny — funny uncanny that is — the way theatre is tuned to the same frequency as the world. We knew something of fire in 2015 when the multiple Sterling Award-winning Edmonton Actors Theatre production debuted; it was the year of the devastating blaze that destroyed the Roxy, Theatre Network’s vintage ex-cinema home on 124th St.

“Last year was pre-Trump,” says director Dave Horak of the period before the unthinkable really unspooled. “And it feels much different this time out…. We’re desperately looking for hope; we desperately want things to go better than they have been…. How we deal with tragedy, how we find a happy ending: the show just speaks in a different way in 2017.”

A holiday tradition in Chicago since its debut in 2011, Burning Bluebeard is the work of The Neo-Futurists. Horak discovered the off-centre company when he was living in New York in the mid-90s, helping to start the NYC Fringe. “They brought something called Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind (30 plays in 60 minutes), and after the Fringe they had a company that stayed in New York.”

“A year before the Roxy burned down, I’d tagged Burning Bluebeard,” he says. Since he was fresh from directing a production of another “clown-y” show, Fatboy, he held off. The Roxy fire sealed the deal. Poignantly, Scott Peters included salvaged bits of the theatre — the singed wall of Nextfest murals that hung in the lobby — for his design. As Horak points out, the doors of the set will remind you of the Roxy back wall.

The Horaks, Calgary of origin, are a family who gravitate arts-ward. Of Horak’s three younger brothers, one, Bruce (This Is Cancer), is currently in A Christmas Carol at the National Arts Centre; he’ll be in town for Rebecca Northan’s new improv venture Undercover at the Citadel Club later in the season. There’s a musician brother in Victoria, and a graphic designer.

The young Horak, who “always wanted to be a director,” had a built-in cast for his original entertainments. “I got them to dress up, put on make-up, and told them what to do.” He was trained as an actor, at Mount Royal and the University of Calgary, then the U of A. And it’s as an actor that Horak enters his own production of Burning Bluebeard for the second week of the run — as the troubled stage manager when John Ullyatt, the usual occupant of that role, leaves. “I’m realizing how big a role it is,” he sighs, with a laugh.

The other newcomer to the cast is Brooke Leifso, in the silent role of the Fairy Godmother who dispenses magic and starlight (formerly occupied by Richelle Thoreson). Thoreson is a dancer; Leifso, who’s worked with such companies as Workshop West and Cripsie, is an activist/ community outreach specialist. “She’s got a little edge to her,” says Horak approvingly. “Because Jay (playwright Torrence) wrote the piece for his friends, all the characters were created to suit his own pals.” So Horak feels at liberty to make changes to fit his own cast. “The actors have to put their own spin on it.” 

The history of Edmonton Actors Theatre is a record of unusual, theatrically playful and adventurous projects. With The Bomb-itty of Errors, for example, the company’s 2013 show, Horak assembled a cast of hip-hop artists for the re-telling of Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors. “It adds a different authenticity,” says Horak of his decision to cast non-actors. “It challenges how you work; we can get a little too comfortable….”

There was nothing comfortable about 70 Scenes of Halloween, a wildly experimental Jeffrey M. Jones relationship comedy (written for The Neo-Futurists) that Horak’s company brought to the Fringe in 2016. Or Stupid Fucking Bird, Aaron Posner’s contemporary spin on Chekhov’s The Seagull.

Later this season (May 10 to 20), the company surprises again, with the premiere of  play that’s unusual naturalistic for their archive: Collin Doyle’s new play Too Late To Stop Now, which joins the playwright’s Mill Woods Trilogy and restores John Wright to the role of the vicious, boos-soaked dad from Doyle’s The Mighty Carlins. “It’s a little more dream-like than usual,” says Horak. “But it’s still pretty routed in reality.”

Meanwhile, step up to see Edmonton theatre’s most unusual seasonal tradition.


Burning Bluebeard

Theatre: Edmonton Actors Theatre

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: Stephanie Wolfe, Vincent Forcier, John Ullyatt, Amber Lewis, Brooke Leifso, Braydon Dowler-Coltman

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Dec. 23

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca    

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The Citadel’s A Christmas Carol: a new addition to the Scroogian gallery

A Christmas Carol, 18th annual edition at the Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

When a frozen man declares, with some heat, that “Christmas, sir, is a cheat!” you’re in the presence of a Christmas tradition.

And there’s magic to it: Ebenezer Scrooge, the poster boy for last-minute heart thaws, comes in all shapes and sizes — and nuances. This we know from the Citadel’s spectacular big-budget version of A Christmas Carol, which is taking Dickens’ indelible 1843 tale of ghostly intervention into its 18th seasonal incarnation.

For the first decade the production’s original Scrooge, Tom Wood, whose adaptation it is, was a sort of humorist turned rancid. You could calibrate the narrative arc by his series of laughs, from a kind of blistering sarcastic mirth through the joyful sounds of bona fide visceral delight. He stomped through London — a kind of stomp/trudge mix actually — as if to ensure chunks of it wouldn’t suddenly pry themselves loose and fly off. 

James MacDonald’s lanky Scrooge had terrifying layers of icy  subterranean fury about him: . “Secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” as our man Dickens has it. Richard McMillan, even taller and lankier, took over the aerial view of the iconic role, the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.” He hurled Ebenezer’s acid witticisms with grim unsmiling satisfaction —like a man dispersing peanut shells instead of the nuts and hoping no one notices.

Glenn Nelson, who’s alternated with all the above, is wonderful in the role, by all reports. And now this wisp of strange Christmas magic: Bob Cratchit, decent, generous-minded, unstoppably positive and chin-up, the human face of Victorian victimhood, has turned into Mr. Scrooge himself, the “tight-fisted hand at the grindstone.”

Yes, my friends, the mild-mannered recipient of a thousand Bah, Humbugs! is delivering them himself this year, in the performance by Julien Arnold.

Arnold, who alternates with Nelson in the production that’s directed (for the first time in 18 Christmases) by a director other than Bob Baker (Wayne Paquette) has turned his naturally jovial, cordial aspect into a portrait of an energetic misanthrope and career skinflint.

His Scrooge isn’t of the desiccated school of Ebenezers; he has a vigorous, juicey, animated kind of malice about him. He isn’t ice, he’s fire. A Scrooge for our time perhaps, who flies off the handle when crossed? Let your mind play around with that thought.

The real beauty of the Citadel’s spectacular production, beyond its ingenious theatricality on a thrust stage, is that Mr. Scrooge isn’t just the portrait of a curmudgeon in a perpetual bad mood, who learns to lighten up. Trust me, I’ve seen many examples of that (with interventions from the tickle trunk). No, A Christmas Carol, at the Citadel, is a real play not a vaudevillian trick. It’s  about transformation, against all odds, inspired by a ghostly vision of the past and then forward into a bleak future, to revive a withered sense of human interconnectedness amongst all of us “fellow passengers to the grave.”  

It’s still a show for everyone who figures they’ve heard enough of “Merry Christmas” to last a lifetime. When Ebenezer Scrooge declares it, finally, from the heart and after gut-wrenching resistance, your own doesn’t stand a chance. 

A Christmas Carol runs at the Citadel through Dec. 23. Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com.

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Yule Be Swell! Teatro La Quindicina’s musical comedy concert tonight

Teatro La Quindicinas Mathew Hulshof and Rachel Bowron. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The stockings were hung by the green room with care….

In the fraught world of Yuletide concerts (which account for a disproportionate percentage of the world’s supply of opening night nerves), you have a chance tonight to relax and see what happens when real musical comedy pros take to the stage tonight in honour of the sparkly season.

I refer to the forces of Teatro La Quindicina, who tend to use the (much-abused) term “hi-jinks” in its original and precise meaning. Yule Be Swell! is their holiday concert. The evening at the Varscona will include musical numbers, carols, readings, eggnog and mulled wine consumption — and drama, in the form of Holiday Plays By Children, staged and directed by Teatro’s resident playwright Stewart Lemoine.

Teatro artistic director Jeff Haslam’s rendition of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and Yuletide in the Alto Section with Rachel Bowron are among the evening’s offerings. These two Teatro stars are joined by Kendra Connor, Mathew Hulshof, Belinda Cornish, Jason Hardwick, and Jenny McKillop, along with the pianist Steven Greenfield. And they are joined by up-and-comers from MacEwan Theatre Arts and the St. Albert Children’s Theatre.

Tickets: teatroQ.com or at the door.

Incidentally, the company has announced a 2018 season that includes premieres of two new Stewart Lemoine comedies, as yet unnamed. The finale is a revival of Lemoine’s 2003 screwball Skirts On Fire, which blithely negotiates the intricacies of a literary hoax in the world of ‘50s Manhattan publishing — in a production that stars Andrew MacDonald-Smith as the principal fomenter of chaos, with Louise Lambert, Ron Pederson, and Paula Humby. 

Teatro’s July offering is a venture onto the Wilde side, The Importance of Being Earnest, a  replacement for the production, previously announced, of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple — a question of restricted North American rights.

Ron Pederson and Mark Meer, who were to have starred as Oscar and Felix (or was it Felix and Oscar?) in The Odd Couple, will tackle the subterfuges and cucumber sandwiches of Oscar Wilde’s towering achievement in comedy, as Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, with Louise Lambert and Shannon Blanchet as Gwendolyn and Cecily. Leona Brausen makes her Wildean debut as the redoubtable Lady Bracknell.

Subscriptions (discounted before Dec. 31) are available at teatroQ.com



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It’s beginning to look a lot like … and other weekend possibilities on Edmonton stages

Hey Ladies! From left Cathleen Rootsaert, Davina Stewart front), Trevor Schmidt, Leona Brausen, Noel Taylor. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

We’ll start with things of a wintry, possibly Yule-ish, tinge, and their antidotes.

•If you’ve already had it up to here with the fa-la-la’s even though you’re still eating crappy leftover Halloween candy …

If the word “heartwarming” already congeals yours …

If you already ponder homicidal fantasies when you hear the term “holly jolly” and your spirits plummet to dangerous levels when you hear Mariah Carey slide around over All I Want For Christmas Is You in a mall …


•there’s probably no one in the country better to hang out with Trevor Schmidt.

And this Friday you can do it. The Northern Light Theatre artistic director, who has brought us such bleakly hilarious seasonal offerings as The Santaland Diaries and Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge, is a special guest on Friday night’s Office Christmas Party episode of Hey Ladies! at Theatre Network.  — He returns for the third year to his Bad Santa alter-ego.

Schmidt, who has an unparalleled purchase on gallows humour, has made multiple Hey Ladies! appearances. And he’s always been a favourite, says Davina Stewart one of the three co-creators and co-hostesses (along with Leona Brausen and Cathleen Rootsaert) of the live comedy, musical, info-tainment, talk/ variety/ game show. Bad Santa’s views will make your own perspective on foggy pudding and all the associated ding-dong-merrily’s seems positively sunny and buoyant.

The evening includes Etown Salsa’s Sabor Divino, Office Party Matchgame, winter comfort booze, “special holiday prizes! perfect for re-gifting!”. And lots of dancing. 

Tickets: 780-453-2440, TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca)

Patricia Zentilli, PattyZee@theRoxy

•Let it snow let it snow…. At Theatre Network Saturday night actor/ cabaret artiste extraordinaire Patricia Zentilli resumes her cabaret series PattyZee@theRoxy with a Winter edition. Don Horsburgh, far too deluxe a musical companion to be called an accompanist, is at the piano. Special guests are Citadel leading man John Ullyatt and 10-year-old wunderkind Will Brettelle. And there’s a (lucky) surprise guest who will sing “a winter duet” with Zentilli. 

Ullyatt incidentally rises above mere seasonal considerations with his musical choices. One is downright counterintuitive, which is worth something at this time of year: David Gilmour’s arrangement of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (you know, “shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” which figured prominently in Shakespeare in Love). The other is Be Our Guest, the cutlery production number from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, in which Ullyatt has played the riotous French candelabra Lumière.

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

Lizzie The Musical, Scona Alumni Theatre Company and Uniform Theatre. Photo supplied.

•Here’s one that puts the edge (not to mention the rage and gore) back in the season: a bad-girl rock musical starring Lizzie Borden, who (as you may recall) “took an ax and gave her mother forty whacks. And when she saw what she had done, gave her father forty-one.” No one, including the creators of this  musical, has much doubt Lizzie did the deed; (the New York Times memorably called her “the OJ Simpson of 1892). But, hey, she had her grievances.

Scona Alumni Theatre Company and Uniform Theatre go for the gusto with Lizzie The Musical: four killer performers (Carling Hack, Amanda Neufeld, Gianna Read-Skelton, and Victoria Suen) and a band of six. Linette Smith directs and choreographs the far-from-demure maidens. Mackenzie Reurink is the musical director.

It runs Dec. 4 to 10 on the Strathcona High School stage (10450 – 72 Ave.).

A Doll’s House, Studio Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

•With her vintage Studio Theatre production of A Doll’s House, opening Thursday, director Beau Coleman finds a home for Henrik Ibsen’s radical 1879 play — and its heroine, suffering in a stifling marriage and culture — in the America of the 1950s. The production references Betty Friedan’s seminal text The Feminine Mystique. 

It runs through Dec. 9. Tickets: 780-492-2495, ualberta.ca/artshows 

•Other possibilities for your nights out (get your butt in gear, the first three end this weekend):

Kingsley Leggs in Hadestown, Citadel Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

If you haven’t seen Hadestown at the Citadel Theatre yet, at least once, what in hell are you waiting for? The ravishing Rachel Chavkin production (in preparation for a Broadway run next year) only runs here through Sunday Check out my 12thnight.ca Hadestown review.

Ian Leung, Mark Meer, Mathew Hulshof in Our Man In Havana, Bright Young Things, Varscona Theatre Ensemble. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

If you haven’t seen what happens when the (normally separate) worlds of espionage and retail vacuum cleaner sales collide, get yourself to ’50s Cuba for Bright Young Things entertaining production of the spy comedy Our Man In Havana at the Varscona. It only runs there through Saturday. Check our my 12thnight.ca Our Man In Havana review.

Sister Act gets ’70s Philly soul, r&b and disco back where they belong — in the convent. Jim Guedo’s student (and alumnae) production of the Broadway musical spun from the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie opens MacEwan U’s snazzy new Triffo Theatre in the campus’s  glass-box downtown arts centre, Allard Hall. It runs through Saturday. Have at peek at my 12thnight.ca Sister Act feature/review.

There’s Back To The 80s Part 2: The Adventure Continues at the Mayfield (through Jan. 28), a whole bunch of music and comedy, staged by Dave Horak. I haven’t seen Part 2 yet, but Part 1 was a hoot. The company sets the bar for music high. They also set the bar.

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A legendary clown guru returns to the stage … in a box: Over Her Dead Body at Fringe Theatre Adventures

Christine Lesiak (top), Jan Henderson in Over Her Dead Body, Small Matters Productions. Photo by Ian Walker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I’ve been spending a lot of time in a coffin lately,” says Jan Henderson cheerfully. “Talk about rubbing your nose in mortality.” 

As a way to celebrate a return to the stage after 25 years, the view from the (unpadded) box comes with its own built-in ironies, of course. They’re courtesy of Over Her Dead Body, a new “clown-esque” Small Matters creation premiering Thursday at The Backstage Theatre and hereby launching the Fringe Theatre Adventures season.

Henderson, an authority with blue-chip clown credentials as a performer/ mentor/ coach/ director/ writer/ clown philosopher, notes with an air of amusement that mortality is the furthest thing from the clown mind. “You’re immortal when you’re a clown; you live in the moment.” And tomorrow never comes.

Tomorrow has come. Over Her Dead Body, which Henderson has created with her co-star Christine Lesiak and director Suzie Martin, takes physical comedy à la Mr. Bean or Buster Keaton into the perpetually fraught world of mother-daughter relationships.

“There are no words,” says Henderson, one of Edmonton theatre’s most engaging conversationalists (an irony in itself). Instead, there’s “physical comedy, with heightened characters,” says Henderson, who plays free-spirited mom, with Lesiak as her brisk, organized daughter. And there’s an original score, by the brilliant up-and-comer Leif Ingebrigtsen, who has created (and also improvised) entire musicals. “It’s the real world with occasionally magical overtones.”

Jan Henderson, Christine Lesiak in Over Her Dead Body, Small Matters Productions. Photo by Ian Walker.

When there are no words, storytelling takes other routes. “The music,” says Henderson, “is there to impart a basic underlay of what’s going on emotionally.” She sometimes gives her theatre workshop students a piece of music, and gets them to create a clown routine that fits. “You’re not ruled by music; you’re informed by music,” she says. “By the rhythm.”

“Clowns,” Henderson says, “experience the entire life span of every thought and every emotion…. As soon as it’s not pleasurable, they move on.” Which sets the clown apart from the rest of us, since we spend a lot of our time mucking around in denial and avoidance, or else clinging — to guilt or disappointment or regret. And so do our moms. She cites Leonard Bernstein on the transmutation of art: “we take the pains of life and craft them into gold….”

“Clowns accept all of their emotions; they feel them 100 per cent, and then it’s over. They turn to something else.” Henderson beams. “Clowns accept themselves…. Most angst comes from doubt.”

Henderson herself entered the world of clowning in something of that abrupt left-turn clown way — via pharmacy. Which makes her an intriguing partner to her Small Matters cohort Lesiak, a physicist-turned-clown.

“I’d never seen a play,” says Henderson, remembering her sudden impulse as a student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, to sign up for Drama 100 as an option. A legendary teacher, Robert Merritt, for whom Dalhousie’s teaching awards are named, changed everything for her.

“The first play I ever saw was Waiting For Godot,” with its two vaudevillian tramps at an existential crossroad trying to pass the time as they wait for meaning. Henderson was hooked on theatre. And her fellow summer intern at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre further refined the direction of this emerging career. Richard Pochinko, who would go on to found a famous mask/clown training technique, was a frequent Henderson collaborator and, she says, the instigator of her life as a teacher as well.

It was under his mentorship that Henderson’s own personal clown, the adorable Fender, first emerged. And Fender “still comes out every day,” she says, “depending on what’s happening in my own life.”

Jan Henderson, Christine Lesiak in Over Her Dead Body, Small Matters Production. Photo by Ian Walker

Over Her Dead Body is not only Henderson’s return to the stage — “I was busy!” she says of her complicated life of directing and coaching at the University and Alberta and elsewhere— but her return to an establishment with which she has a long and festive history: Fringe Theatre Adventures. They go back. Henderson was at the very first Fringe in 1982, in Small Change Theatre’s signature charmer One Beautiful Evening, a clown-mask piece set in a small prairie town bingo hall, with wistful, lonely characters who end up sharing a bingo card. 

There have been a lot of clown and mask shows since then, some with Henderson in the cast, some up on their feet with Henderson’s mentorship. Henderson has directed (and co-created) such Small Matters productions as Sofa So Good, Fools For Love, The Heavy Sleeper, Ask Aggie. And now, she’s Minnie, whose middle-aged daughter Mim returns to her small-town origins for a funeral.

“We mined all our mother/daughter experience,” says Henderson of the brainstorming that resulted in Over Her Dead Body. “All those half-drunk cups of tea scattered over the apartment, all the times my mother took off her engagement ring, wrapped it in Kleenex and stuck it in her pocket.…” 

No words. No red noses. Only the complications of real life embodied in physical comedy. “In a good play,” says Henderson, “the characters are always pushed beyond their comfort zone, into the un-characteristic.”

Isn’t it always that way when you’re with your mom?


Over Her Dead Body

Theatre: Small Matter Productions, in the Fringe Theatre Adventures season

Created by: Jan Henderson, Christine Lesiak, Suzie Martin

Directed by: Suzie Martin

Starring: Jan Henderson, Christine Lesiak

Where: The Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns

Running: Thursday through Dec. 9

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

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Nuns get down, and raise your spirits: Sister Act at MacEwan’s snazzy new theatre

Sister Act, starring Chariz Faulmino, at MacEwan University’s new Triffo Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There’s something pretty sweet about christening a new theatre with a musical that includes an all-inclusive singing benediction like the one you’ll hear in Act II of Sister Act:

“Bless the songs we’re gonna sing./ Bless the stage that we’ll stand on/ When we stand and do our thing….” sing Deloris and a convent full of nuns. They go on to salute everything from the props to the costumes, the lights and the soundboard, the amps and, hey, the audience. Odes to the collaborative nature of theatre, production to performance, don’t come more detailed.

Sister Act, the 2011  musical fashioned from the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie, is not only a rare opportunity to see nuns in their pjs laying down the boogie (as the song goes), it’s our first chance to see (and hear) MacEwan University’s elegantly tiered, curvaceous new 415-seat Triffo Theatre in full showbiz mode. Which is to say packed to the rafters with people in the seats and a big-cast Broadway musical rocking onstage — and all the trimmings including a 12-piece band that seems to float above proceedings in a crimson box as if it’s just touched down from that great big musical theatre venue in the sky.

When I toured the new proscenium theatre last March, the seats were still plastic-wrapped. I can report that unwrapped, they welcome the posterior and (as overheard at intermission) a great variety of human shapes and sizes. In the two wrap-around balcony galleries, the seats are in a single row — and they swivel. I’ve checked out seats at every level (except the gallery seats closest to the stage), and the sight lines are splendid everywhere I sat.

You enter from the main floor in the airy five-story atrium, criss-crossed with apparently floating staircases. So far your intermission refreshment possibilities are limited to two machines, one for pop, one for chips, plus a drinking fountain (major queues for all of the above). But it’s a potentially festive space that will eventually be attached to a cafe on the southwest corner of Allard Hall.

But I digress. Back to the beautiful Triffo, where Jim Guedo’s highly entertaining  student (and MacEwan alumnae) production of Sister Act is testing the state-of-the-art resources of the new theatre with screens and projections, set pieces from above, turntables (set design by Melissa Cuerrier), big sound (Wade Staples), Scott Peters’ glitzy lighting, and zestfully inventive period choreography (Jacqueline Pooke) for a cast of about two dozen.

In a fundamental way the choreography, the lighting, the catchy ‘70s- style songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater are the narrative: Sister Act, after all, is all about a double-sided conversion into musical theatre performance. Guedo’s production is all over that thought.

We follow the fortunes of Deloris Van Cartier (Chariz Faulmino, who’s a veritable human sparkler), an aspiring disco diva in ‘70s Philadelphia who has the bad luck to witness her mobster boyfriend (Damon Pitcher) ice a guy. It’s witness protection with wimple: she hides out under wraps in a convent — disrupting the strict regime of the Mother Superior (Kristi Hansen, a MacEwan grad of yore), kvetching about the “penguin dress,” incredulous there isn’t a smoking section. “Let he who is without sin get stoned first.”

The irrepressible Deloris kickstarts the pious (and tuneless) sisterhood to get down with Philly soul, r&b and disco. “Ride the groove/ boogie till you feel your spirit move,” they sing in Sunday Morning Fever. And, lo and behold!, the long-empty pews start to fill, much to the delight of the Monsignor (Tim Yakimec, another distinguished MacEwan alumnus, and now artistic director of Edmonton Opera).

Amusingly, he starts to sound more and more like a Vegas hustler. “If you see one Roman Catholic mass this season, let this be the one!” The book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, with additions by playwright Douglas Carter Beane, is peppered with lines like that.

There is, of course, something perennially irresistible about the sight of nuns in full black and white regalia getting fabulous and shaking their booty — an old joke but an eternal one. And the group numbers, like It’s Good To Be A Nun, have a rousing, contagious spirit to them.

Jackie Kucey as the ebullient Sister Mary Patrick and Stephanie Swensrude as the sardonic Sister Mary Lazarus are particularly striking. And as the convent’s postulant, Bella King really lands a terrific musical theatre-type song of unsurpassing wistfulness-turned-resolve, The Life I Never Led. As the Mother Superior, whose disapproval is delivered in a series of wry wisecracks, Hansen, a Teatro La Quindicina star, is excellent. 

If Deloris has a caffeinating effect on the convent house choreography, she too is transformed by the experience of going undercover. Her exhibitionist soloist ambition (Fabulous, Baby!) gets tempered by an ensemble sister act spirit — a development that speaks to a theatre school with a brand new theatre. Take Me To Heaven, Deloris’s Donna Summer-esque anthem at the outset, gets a reprise that’s more like gospel by the end.

Meanwhile the mobster’s thugs — played by Josh Travnik, Anthony Hurst and Ricky Rivera — get a very funny rock trio number, Lady In The Long Black Dress, executed in hilarious ‘70s moves, where they predict that no nun will ever be able to hold out against them.

The plot is giddy, and the musical is put together by Broadway experts who aren’t departing from formula. At a theatre school that specializes in the multiple demands of musical theatre, in a spanky new downtown theatre, a musical about the impulse to reach out, find an audience, and raise the rafters is on the money.

“Jump in … that is what your spirit is for,” sing the sisters in the finale number. Words to live by. What are you waiting for? Join the crowd.

Sister Act runs at the new Triffo Theatre in MacEwan University’s Allard Hall (11110 104 Ave.) through Dec. 2. Parking, surface and underground, behind the Hall on 105 Ave. Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca).   

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