If you could live forever… Tuck Everlasting the musical at St. Albert Children’s Theatre

Tuck Everlasting, St. Albert Children’s Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If “the music!” is the answer, what is the question?

It seems wise to consult musical theatre experts. Janice Flower and Jackie Pooke, director/artistic director and choreographer respectively, are on the phone explaining their attraction to the semi-obscure Broadway musical opening Thursday in a St. Albert Children’s Theatre production. Tuck Everlasting is a highly unusual musical version of an award-winning 1975 novel for young readers by the American writer Natalie Babbitt. And it got overlooked in its short-lived Broadway run in 2016, partly because that was the year of the Hamilton sweep at the Tony Awards.

“Jackie and I share an office, and we have soundtracks on all the time,” says Flower of the house music in their Arden Theatre headquarters. They heard Tuck Everlasting, and were instantly struck. “We ordered the script right away,” says Pooke.

In Tuck Everlasting, 11-year-old Winnie, a rural New Hampshire kid whose father has died, follows the sound of a music box into the woods, discovers a magical spring and the immortal family who’ve been drinking from it for a century — with mixed results on the happiness scale. And there’s a villain, the venal Man In The Yellow Suit, who’s eager to get his mitts on the water and bottle it. 

Flower and Pooke describe the score by Chris Miller (music) with Nathan Tysen (lyrics) as an appealing combination of pop and “folkloric,” with a Celtic flavour. Says Flower, “it reminds me a little (musical) The Secret Garden, and with some musical theatre vaudeville duets…. One of the thing I love about it is that the ensemble is critical to the piece, a sort of Greek chorus (of townspeople).”

As usual with the St. Albert troupe, unafraid of tackling the most full-bodied Broadway musical, the cast is large (well, huge, by the standards of the era). The unfazed-able Flower, though, doesn’t consider 30 actors (ages 10 to 23, plus one 30-something alumnus) out of the ordinary. This is the unusual part: more than half are boys.

The story is unusually philosophical and resonant for both a young-reader-type book, and the musical spun from it. It touches on the meaning of life, the passage of time vs. the idea of the eternal, so desirable in theory and maybe less so in practice. If you got the chance to live forever, would you snap it up? “The message of the story is the life (lived) not the years,” says Flower. “Technology is changing us; everything’s about saving time. And ironically we find ourselves with less and less of it…. People aren’t making the same connections as when we grew up.”

Poole, who has choreographed the movement epilogue “that tells the story of Winnie’s life,” echoes the thought. “This is about kids just being kids…. Now by Grade 10, they’re pressured to know how exactly how they want to spend their lives. And, really, it’s OK to be a kid and enjoy your time. Enjoy your life, enjoy the people in your life, whatever amount of time you have. That’s the message! It’s very positive….”

The kids in the unique St. Albert theatre company “devote 15 to 20 hours a week to something they love….” says Flower. Not everyone will go on to make theatre a career, of course. But that doesn’t negate the life-long reverb of theatre training. “Theatre is about how to communicate, to listen, to empathize. It’s so important right now.… I’ve often heard from interviewers that (theatre kids) stand out because they look you in the eye; it’s the ability to carry on a conversation with an adult.”

“To meet people to have a face to face conversation, to work through problems, not just Send or Copy and Paste,” says Pooke. That’s live theatre.

PREVIEW

Tuck Everlasting

Theatre: St. Albert Children’s Theatre

Directed by: Janice Flower, with Jackie Pooke (choreography) and Janet Nichol (musical direction)

Where: Arden Theatre, St. Albert

Running: Nov. 22 to Dec. 2

Tickets: Arden Theatre box office (780-459-1542), Ticketmaster (ticketmaster.ca)

   

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A love story and a cautionary tale: a riveting production of What A Young Wife Ought To Know at Theatre Network

Cole Humeny and Merran Carr-Wiggin in What A Young Wife Ought To Know, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Love,” Sophie tells us near the start of What A Young Wife Ought To Know, “is a strange sort of madness that comes over you and makes the future go dark.”

In Hannah Moscovitch’s gut-wrenching coming-of-age story, which opens the Theatre Network season in a riveting Marianne Copthorne production, there’s a dark and terrible price to be paid for love, intimacy, and desire. And it’s paid, in the main, by the poor and the female.

In the Ottawa of the 1920s, with its immigrant ghettos and entrenched poverty, young lower-class women like our narrator Sophie (Merran Carr-Wiggin) and her spirited big sister Alma (Bobbi Goddard), have no access to information about “family limitation” or “birth prevention” — and no means to support an unstoppable series of babies.

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Men must be approached with extreme caution, and certainly not whilst lying down, according to Alma who’s in a position to know, as it turns out in (trust me) horrifying developments in the play. Sophie’s mom, by reputation an archive of “what a young wife ought to know,”  tells her girls that there are only two types of men, “the ones who leave you, and the ones who don’t leave you but you wish they would.”

Handsome Irish stablehands like Jonny, played with a beguiling mixture of come-hither swagger and perplexed innocence by Cole Humeny, spell trouble. Passion without birth control is a fearful thing. We watch the heartbreaking struggles of Sophie, young wife, and then serial mother, and Jonny, the husband with whom she’s madly, deeply in love, to keep their distance, we’re seeing a love story thwarted by ignorance, by poverty, by class prejudice and puritanism, by everything about their lives. 

And it’s a world of nightmare absurdity: strict medical warnings (do not have more children), zero medical advice on how that might be accomplished in an intimate relationship. And speaking of those, if sex is risky, don’t have it. Separate beds and gardening are the only answer provided; the under-the-table answer is back-alley or DIY surgery. And this is a play that is unflinching about going there. 

Tessa Stamp’s design, a tall, blank facade of tenement windows that dwarfs its powerless inhabitants, is eloquent in itself  (lighted empathetically by Scott Peters). And Darrin Hagen’s haunting Celtic-flavoured score lingers in the harsh air.

Merran Carr-Wiggin, Cole Humeny, Bobbi Goddard in What A Young Wife Ought To Know, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson.

The desperate stakes are set forth vividly in Copthorne’s strikingly well-acted production. And it’s not least because the chemistry between Carr-Wiggins and Humeny is compelling, and hot. The movement-scape by which proximity is both longed-for and dangerous is electric.

Carr-Wiggin is stunning as the young wife who steps out of the frame of her era into a shivery timelessness intermittently to address us directly, with questions that (as in the case of so many Moscovitch narrators) are guilty overtures to potential allies or accusers. “Ladies, would you make the same mistake?” 

It’s a beautiful (and beautifully thought-out) performance that charts the development of the character from sweet and girlishly comical naiveté to a kind of desperate, not to say tragic, womanly wisdom about the world, and the nature of the lonely trap in which Sophie finds herself. You believe Carr-Wiggin every step of the way in a love story that becomes a story of unrequited love. Start right now thinking about all the roles you’d love to see this luminous actor take on.

Goddard is excellent, too, as the feisty, cynical Alma, whose confidence — she doesn’t walk, she stomps in her boots — is camouflage. The sisterly relationship, which goes beyond the grave, is compellingly lived-in. And Humeny as Jonny, battling comfortless social and economic circumstances designed to keep a poor immigrant down and cast him as a sort of domestic villain if he yearns to have a big family. When he says that the world around them treats them as animals, he’s not off the mark.  

One hundred years later, the world has changed, true; birth control and abortion are widely if not universally available. But we’re seeing a drift backwards. What A Young Wife Ought To Know can’t help but be a cautionary tale about women’s reproductive rights and its corollary, women’s identity as sexual beings. That little frisson of relevance is  horrifying in itself. What a young wife ought to know, in the end, is what everyone ought to know, that what has been gained can be lost. 

REVIEW

What A Young Wife Ought To Know

Theatre: Theatre Network

Written by: Hannah Moscovitch

Directed by: Marianne Copthorne

Starring: Merran Carr-Wiggin, Bobbi Goddard, Cole Humeny

Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Dec. 2

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

 

  

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What A Young Wife Ought To Know: a 20s love story with a modern reverb opens the Theatre Network season:

Merran Carr-Wiggin and Cole Humeny in What A Young Wife Ought To Know, Theatre Network. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Ladies, you’ve come by it, have you? Can I ask, do you tell your Husbands…that you’ve come by it, or…do you….keep it from them….?”  — Sophie in What A Young Wife Ought To Know, Hannah Moscovitch

In the Hannah Moscovitch play that opens the Theatre Network season Thursday, we meet a young working-class woman in the Ottawa of a century ago who’s struggling against the enforced ignorance of her age. And in a society that doesn’t acknowledge women’s sexuality, except to decry it, Sophie is up against it.

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She’s barred from information about birth control, birth, abortion, sexual health. She’s trapped into choosing between ever-riskier (and financially ruinous) pregnancies and foregoing any intimate, fully loving relationship with her husband. And in considering the potentially disastrous consequences of being a sexually active woman, Sophie has to hand the tragic example of her sister Alma and botched DIY surgery . 

When 12thnight.ca talked to Moscovitch last season about Infinity, produced at Theatre Network, the country’s hottest playwright mused on the disconcerting loop by which history seems to be spinning backwards. Just look south, past the 49th parallel, she pointed out, where the forces of conservatism are gathering their might against women’s reproductive rights. “When we premiered What A Young Wife Ought To Know in 2015 (a production by Halifax-based 2b theatre that has toured since), the question we most often asked ourselves was ‘is this even relevant?’ Now every interview starts with “this is so relevant!’ The whiplash is insane!”

Moscovitch’s curiosity (and horror) was piqued when she stumbled on a yard-sale volume of startlingly frank and desperate letters, pleas for information, written by women to the pioneer British birth control advocate Dr. Marie Stopes in the ‘20s and ‘30s. And in the course of this research that worked its way — sometimes very directly — into What Every Young Wife Ought To Know, she also discovered “the very bizarre history” of the birth control movement in Canada, and its unlikely father, a businessman with a rubber-boot factory in Kitchener, Ont. Moscovitch’s The Kaufman Kabaret, commissioned for the U of A theatre school graduating class of 2016, premiered at Studio Theatre. 

Merran Carr-Wiggin and Coley Humeny in What A Young Wife Ought To Know. Photo by Ryan Parker

The fraught history of women’s reproductive rights and identity as sexual beings is clearly something that has inspired the playwright (Bunny, which premiered at Stratford in 2016, is a more contemporary take, the story of one woman’s life and sexual history). We met up with the three 20-something actors in Marianne Copithorne’s production of What A Young Wife Ought To Know in the Theatre Network green room last week, to find out what they think.

Carr-Wiggin produced and starred in Kat Sandler’s Punch Up at the Fringe. Bobbi Goddard arrives in 1920s Ottawa from two performances that crossed gender lines — Horatio in the Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s Hamlet this past summer and an air force sergeant on a flight counting down to crash in the most recent incarnation of Dead Centre of Town. Cole Humeny won a Sterling Award last season for his performance in Collin Doyle’s Terry and the Dog. All three are U of A acting grads.

12thnight: So, why do this play in 2018? 

Bobbi Goddard (Alma, Sophie’s doomed sister) : “There are plenty of women in other parts of the world for whom access to sexual education and contraception are currently problematic. And look what’s happening just to the south, the political climate of appealing the things we’ve worked for a long time to put into place. So these are legitimate fears of access.

Merran Carr-Wiggins (Sophie): “It’s a reminder that this is an issue to fight for every day. We can’t become complacent…. Access requires constant vigilance.”

BG: “What really resonated with me was the idea of feeling shame, shame about women having sex lives…. The world may have changed a bit and I’m glad about that, but it’s still there.”

MCW, nodding: “The invention of birth control completely changed the idea of women’s sexuality. But female sexuality is still punished. And birth control isn’t free. I buy it every month, but not everyone can.…”

Cole Humeny (Sophie’s Irish immigrant husband Jonny, a stable hand):  “We males should shut the hell up and listen…. Jonny shuts Sophie down at every turn with his opinions. He doesn’t listen; he doesn’t know how she feels. He’s never in the room for the birth…. She has some credible information, but (to him) it’s about class, and the doctor is from another class.”

MCG: “The thing is, there is so much love between them; it’s a love story. Sophie is so attracted to Jonny. It’s not that she has to do her marital duty; that’s not what’s at issue in this play at all. Love: they both want it so badly. And they need a way to express this love; because of this lack of information and access (to birth control) they just don’t know how…. You go to the pharmacist and want a condom and you hear ‘are you having an immoral going-on’? If you like sex, and you want to have sex with your husband you must be a whore.

CH: Birth control: separate beds or gardening.

12thnight: Moscovitch plays often have a narrator who is anticipating disapproval from the audience; I’m thinking of East of Berlin, This Is War, Little One. In What Every Young Wife Ought To Know, who is Sophie talking to when she’s the narrator?

BG: I’m thinking that she’s speaking to the women of today! When Sophie asks the audience ‘is this what you do?’ (about birth control), that women in a totally different time can still have a relationship to that question is what makes the play so interesting!

12thnight: What is it like to work on such dark, even gruesome, material?

BG: What we’ve discovered is there’s a great deal of lightness inside in all that darkness; Hannah always finds it in her plays…. And (laughing) we have a big supply of kitten videos.”

PREVIEW

What A Young Wife Ought To Know

Theatre: Theatre Network

Written by: Hannah Moscovitch

Directed by: Marianne Copthorne

Starring: Merran Carr-Wiggin, Bobbi Goddard, Cole Humeny

Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: Thursday through Dec. 2

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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Raising a little hell: Canada 151 at the Mayfield. A review.

 

Canada 151, Mayfield Dinner Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

You know you’re in Canada when the Beachcombers theme is in the air pre-show. And the band arrives onstage in lumberjack shirts. And your heart melts just a little when everyone in the opening production number is decked out in parkas, toques, and snow boots.

The amusingly non-assertive title of the latest from the Mayfield is a wry salute to Canada’s signature contribution to international discourse, the apology. Canada 151 turns out to be a hugely entertaining, celebratory, and spirited revue of this country’s music and musicians, and also its defining cultural motifs, riffs, personality quirks. 

Canada 151, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

The subject in Canada 151 is Canadian-ness, a quality that some days seems to have spread its tiny wings and flown away. And the musical range is, to say the least, wide — Don Messer to Leonard Cohen, Our Pet Juliette to Morissette, Stan Rogers to Céline, Bieber to Burton  to Buffy, Great Big Sea to shining sea. As wide as the country splayed out imaginatively as a giant translucent backdrop map (with the TransCanada Highway in big dots) on which the projections of video designer T. Erin Gruber play — Canadian landscapes, people, concerts, northern lights, trips down historical main streets.

The country’s song-scape — a veritable tower of song — is delivered by a startlingly versatile and accomplished nine(!)-member cast of singer/dancers and a crack five-piece band led by musical director/arranger Van Wilmott. It is just not reasonable to expect such deluxe application. And yet, as usual in the Mayfield’s musical extravaganzas, there is nothing skimpy about Canada 151, in either conception or delivery.

Canada 151, Mayfield Dinner Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

As written and compiled by Will Marks and Gerrad Everard (the former a mystery man, the latter a performer in the cast) and directed by Kate Ryan, Canada 151 wraps its theatrical wits around “Canada” and gives it an affectionate squeeze.

It starts with, and regularly returns to, hockey, not so much a sport as a mythology, or maybe a genetic code. This is a country where a hockey announcer — or some big-mouth lunatic in a loud sports jacket who talks about hockey a kilometre a minute — can be a national star. Hockey Night In Canada, Coaches’ Corner, spontaneous eruptions of pick-up hockey in the street (players yell “Car!” and move the net when one comes by, then berate the driver for not picking another road).

The show touches down on all of the above and more. Nice, polite, apologetic, and goofy aren’t in themselves qualities to conjure with, in showbiz. Canada 151 approaches smartly: fast and funny are crucial in collages. And here, it’s mixed with touching. 

Hinterland Who’s Who is an amusing gallery of Canadian species including the Canadian Cougar, a hockey mom with a ferocious appetite for Timmy Ho coffee, and blood. “Do not confront or make eye contact.” Did you know that Christopher Robin’s friend Winnie The Pooh has Canadian affiliations? I did not. Someone with free time can explain to me Pooh’s thing with the moose.

Bob and Doug McKenzie, the SCTV hosers, have long ago ceased to raise a laugh even in memory. They’re actually funny as conjured by Keiran Martin Murphy and Kevin Dabbs to pick the top 10 Canadians of all time. Anyone remember Body Break? Anyone wonder why curling is considered a viable spectator experience? 

Kevin Dabbs, Kieran Martin Murphy iin Canada 151, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

The songs, which keep coming for more than two and a half hours, are introduced in unexpected ways from their Canuck point of origin on the map. The Trailer Park Boys, for example, do the honours for Barrett’s Privateers by Stan Rogers. The introduction to the Guess Who’s American Woman is cut short when the introducers just blow away at the corner of Portage and Main in the ‘Peg.

To return to the music, the raison d’être of the show, there is an crazy profusion of it. And while they’re not about impersonation per se, the performers and the band are remarkably dexterous at capturing the recognizable essence of a huge variety of styles and sounds. In this they are materially assisted by Christine Bandelow’s choreography and the hundreds of costumes designed by Leona Brausen — both liberally laced with signature motifs and amusing references.

Brad Wiebe, Canada 151, Mayfield Dinner Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

O what a feeling … gonna fill your head with music and satisfy your soul. Well, there’s something pretty mesmerizing about having Canadian music collected on one stage for one evening’s entertainment. Only because Canada 151 is so fulsome do the absences of Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson and a big Drake splash even cross your mind. The Rankins, k.d. lang, Gord Downie, Corey Hart, Shania and Sarah, Avril Lavigne, Buffy Sainte-Marie, a funny Bieber scene, a Nickelback stage gag, Rush, a visual deconstruction of the CBC logo …. The list is vast.  

We Canadians may not have been born to be wild. But the urge to raise a little hell knows no age or climatic impediments. Time to get out that gift certificate, and your Christmas shopping list. This is a good one.

REVIEW

Canada 151

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Written and complied by: Will Marks and Gerrad Everard

Directed by: Van Wilmott

Staged by: Kate Ryan

Choreographed by: Christine Bandelow

Starring: Tyler Check, Kevin Dabbs, Gerrad Everard, Pamela Gordon, Kieran Martin Murphy, Laura Mae Nason, Larissa Pohoreski, Devra Straker, Brad Wiebe

Running: through Jan. 27

Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca

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How to meet people you never meet: thoughts on Viscosity

Viscosity, Theatre Yes. Photo by Dave DeGagné

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Life is full of surprises. Last night I found myself sitting at a bar stool next to a woman I’d just never run into in my usual life of 7:30 curtain times.

She’s a heavy-equipment operator in the Oil Patch. Feisty, cheerful, evidently not the kind to sidle up to bullshit obliquely, she looked me right in the eye, brewski in hand. And she shrugged as she told her story of working in a man’s world, a world of harsh sexist confrontations and the need to choose between submissiveness and defiance. She told of changing her demeanour and even her body shape (with steroids and visits to 24-hour gyms) in order to show she could do the work of any man, survive, prevail.

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Played by Melissa Thingelstad with fierce good humour, she was one of the series of close encounters with real-life stories that make up Viscosity. I met a guy in overalls (Murray Farnell) working on (and under) his pick-up truck, telling his own story of being a regular guy with regular dreams working in the Patch — and his own first-hand realization that not every oil guy was a young dope who makes a shitload of money and blows it all on partying and Ford 150s.

I sat outside a trailer strung with fairy lights as a woman (Sandy Paddick) with a much different Oil Patch story revealed her lonely life far from her daughter: seven years of 10 12-hour days on, four off, in an environment where 80 per cent of the guys are fine and the other 20 per cent, well, aren’t.

Heather Inglis’s Theatre Yes initiative, which has gathered and edited verbatim interviews into monologues, is a drop-in affair that transforms the Backstage Theatre into a bunch of venues — and gives your easy assumptions about big oil a jostle with personal perspectives from people who actually work in that world. 

That’s how I ended up at a coffee shop table with an electrician (Chris Bullough) who talked about the dangers of working in oil (the safety standards book was, he said, “written in blood”), and about transitioning the skills of oil workers to alternative energy industries.

If you assume that oil workers aren’t conflicted about environmental science, or they’re just venal and/or blithely ignorant, you’d be off the mark, judging by Viscosity. I got into a car with an actor (Byron Martin) who didn’t make enough money to start a family, buy groceries, pay rent, until he landed an Oil Patch job. He thinks he “won the lottery.” But he points out that it’s not as if we aren’t all complicit in destroying the environment. You drive a car? You fly anywhere? You wear shoes?

I met a Philippine foreign worker (Jimmy Buena) with a sad story to tell about being cheated, both on his home turf and here. I met an Argentine immigrant (Leo Campos Aldunez), who left violence and oppression in his home country for the relative safety here. 

Viscosity, Theatre Yes. Photo by Dave DeGagné.

The actors, who occupy a series of evocative “locations” in Brian Bast’s evocative design, are so forcefully engaging that it’s a kind of invitation: you feel the urge to respond directly, even though Viscosity is not that kind of show. Inglis calls it a “performance installation,” and as I did you can arrive when you like, come and go, “activate” a monologue by standing or sitting on an X, and … listen.

It’s meaningful that the stories, with their homely, telling details, are from real life and feel like it. What did I take away? The proposition that the great debate of our time probably shouldn’t be a debate anyhow. How are humans to live in the world without destroying it? If the word “conversation” hadn’t been abused into fraudulence by the corporate and political realms, that would be a place to start.

Check out my interview with Theatre Yes artistic director Heather Inglis here.

Viscosity, directed by Heather Inglis of Theatre Yes, runs at the Backstage Theatre (ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.) through Nov. 17. Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca) or at the door.

      

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One fine night (or the case of the reluctant star): Beautiful – The Carole King Musical. A review

Sarah Bockel, Beautiful – The Carole King Musical. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the history of the Great White Way, there’s no shortage of musicals, jukebox and otherwise, that are defined by the showbiz gene: the drive for stardom, the magnetic pull of performance, the compelling need to leap out of the crowd of hopefuls and into the limelight whatever the cost.

The 2014 jukebox musical biography that’s arrived at the Jube in a fine Broadway Across Canada touring production, is in the oddball position of having a star who resists stardom at every turn. Until she doesn’t, of course. Or can’t.

In the climactic finale scene of Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, the heroine, played winningly by Sarah Bockel, is entering the stage at Carnegie Hall for the legendary Tapestry concert. And she hesitates for a second, as if she’s missed a cue, or it’s the wrong one and it’s too soon. She peeks out at the audience as if to say we must be as surprised as she is to find herself there.

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Bockel embraces this tentative quality in an engagingly self-deprecating, warm, convincing performance as the un-flashy and vulnerable woman whose career is as startling as her life challenges are, well, old-fashioned normal — career vs. home life, crumbling marriage to an unstable philanderer, kids…. “I’m just a normal person,” says King resisting an invitation to join the band onstage at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village at a crucial Act II moment.  “Who wants to hear a normal person sing?”

Sarah Bockel in Beautiful – The Carole King Musical. Photo supplied.

The answer, very evidently, is ‘lots of people’ since Beautiful has played on Broadway, in the West End, internationally and on tour for millions since 2015. There was an unmistakeable eau de nostalgie floating through the crowd on opening night at the Jube.

In the story of the early life and career of the iconic American singer-songwriter chronicled by Beautiful, King’s is a rare case of having stardom thrust upon her, instead of vice versa. And we’re in a position to savour the binary arc of Beautiful all the more in Douglas McGrath’s libretto since the King archive is an astonishingly ample catalogue of chart-toppers: songs you know, songs you  might not even realize she wrote.

At first they were written in tandem with her husband Gerry Goffin for such artists as the Shirelles, the Drifters, the Righteous Brothers, the Monkees, Little Eva (their babysitter, really). The show includes Chains, which the Beatles covered on an early album. And then, in an act of female empowerment that was a groundbreaker in the new age of singer-songwriter reclamation, King took to the stage herself to perform and record her own hits — witness the stunning and durable success of her 1971 album Tapestry

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Beautiful follows a perky but determined 16-year-old Brooklyn kid, King née Klein, into the rock and-roll hit-making factory near Times Square — theatrically conjured in Marc Bruni’s production as a perpetual motion hive of musical activity, framed by a light-up proscenium (designer: Derek McLane with lighting by Peter Kaczorowski). 

It’s the early ‘60s, and the teen songwriter sells a song to eagle-eared finger-on-the-pulse record exec Don Kirshner (James Clow), and meets the alluring young lyricist Goffin (Dylan S. Wallach). They team up, in work and life. And shortly thereafter, they have a No. 1 hit, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, recorded by the Shirelles — and a baby.

Sarah Bockel and Dylan S. Wallach in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Photo supplied

The fun of Act I is that the  dazzling string of hits — by King and Goffin and their best friend/rivals Barry Mann (Jacob Heimer) and Cynthia Weil (Alison Whitehurst), also hit-makers par excellence — spring to life onstage in smartly choreographed (by Josh Prince) numbers by actors playing the artists who recorded them. The high-speed costume changes, the staccato pace … all very entertaining and playful. Heimer and Whitehurst have an amusing showbiz sass about them, and the interplay between the two couples is the infrastructure of the show.

Act II is the female empowerment act. As King’s personal life falls apart and Goffin’s behaviour becomes increasingly impossible, she struggles to find her own two feet onstage singing her own songs. The long-suffering King ditches him, finally (an applause-inviting moment), and goes solo. The songs have a kind of yearning simplicity (simple is hard, as someone says in this very musical) to them. And Bockel, whose voice, though not an imitation per se, has an array of interesting husky edges and King-esque angles to it, delivers them beautifully. Natural Woman is a knock-out.

McGrath’s script, though, thuds from time to time — the usual jukebox challenge of how to make an excuse for a song not look quite so much like … an excuse for a song. In Beautiful, it’s pretty obvious that narrative convenience wins over writerly elegance, for example, when on the cusp of her move to L.A.,  King tells her friends Barry and Cynthia she’s not going to say goodbye but instead she’s going to sit down at the piano and sing You’ve Got A Friend. There are other examples too; they jar because they’re only occasional.

The music, accompanied by forces that include a contingent of top local musicians, doesn’t have that problem. It’s a lavish evening of timeless songs. The sound, though, especially in Act I, errs on the side of a forward sheen that sometimes obscures the lyrics.

There’s a lovely performance at the centre of it all. Bockel finds the quiet drama in a  woman who gradually discovers her own considerable strength and makes you glad to cheer her on. It’s without thunder — and that’s how the earth really moves under your feet.    

REVIEW

Beautiful – the Carole King Musical

Broadway Across Canada

Written by: Douglas McGrath

Directed by: Marc Bruni

Starring: Sarah Bockel, Dylan S. Wallach, Alison Whitehurst, Jacob Heimer

Where: Jubilee Auditorium

Running: Tuesday through Sunday

Tickets: BroadwayAcrossCanada.ca, Ticketmaster (ticketmaster.ca, 1-855-985-5000).

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Viscosity: Theatre Yes challenges preconceptions about big oil and the people who work it

Viscosity, Theatre Yes. Photo by Dave DeGagné.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s not exactly a play, although there are actors. It’s not exactly journalism, although the monologues are transcribed (and edited) verbatim from interviews with real-life people. And you might resist calling it an exhibit, although you can come and go as you like, stay as long as you like, see any segment partially or in full, in any order.

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Heather Inglis calls Viscosity — the latest from Theatre Yes, opening Thursday at the Backstage Theatre — a “performance installation.” The production, from a theatre company of the experimental stripe (Anxiety, The Elevator Project), it an opportunity to challenge what we think we know on the hottest subject there is in these parts: big oil and the people who are its front-line workers. 

“Big rhetorical questions” are in the air, as Inglis says of the quintessential Alberta debate topic. “We talk about saving jobs for Alberta families, for example. Who are they? What’s happening with them?”

They’re people we might not otherwise meet, as Inglis points out. “It was an enlightening process, and I felt strangely connected to the people I had conversations with, recording the day-to-day mundanities of their lives. For me, it’s been a whole journey….”

That investigative journey to the territory beyond our clichéd preconceptions about oil workers — “22-year-old guys buying expensive trucks” — involved considerable “friend of a friend” networking, “happenstance,” and “a lot of coffee” this past summer, Inglis reports.

She met people of all ages, genders, sexualities, cultures. She had conversations with immigrants, foreign workers, career workers in every kind of oil industry job; she consulted Ian Wilson from Iron and Earth (an organization devoted to transitioning workers for the 21st century energy economy). Some had little or no real interest in talking for a theatre project. One fellow finally agreed because “he said his ex-girlfriend’s friend was bugging him.” Two wanted to be anonymous; “they were afraid of having the label ‘anti-oil’…. And I’m certainly not trying to catch them or expose them.” 

“The other thing is that these people are very busy,” says Inglis. Typical oil work schedules include “24 on, four off, of 12- to 14-hour days.” 

“I feel like I’ve got a reasonable breadth of experience and a variety of points of view,” says Inglis. But Viscosity is, in the end, “an art piece not journalism. It’s oral history about people’s perspectives, first-person stories placed uniquely in Alberta, with material that was drawn from something ‘real’.” And the interviews will be gathered for the Alberta Labour History Institute.

“Our dialogues around oil are (full of) repeating talking points, without real analysis. And as we go into the election there will more of that, a lot more. In many ways we’re just hitting each other over the head.”

The situation calls for more intimate encounters. And that’s what you’ll have with the seven diverse performers Inglis has assembled for Viscosity. It’s not interactive; it’s “a close-up storytelling venture” as she describes it.

Was she surprised by what she heard? “I think we have a range of ideas. Lots of things surprised me, and surprisingly they weren’t the things I thought would surprise me.”

PREVIEW

Viscosity

Theatre: Theatre Yes

Created: from real-life interviews by Heather Inglis

Starring: Jimmy Buena, Chris Bullough, Leo Campos Aldunez, Murray Farnell, Byron Martin, Sandy Paddick, Melissa Thingelstad

Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Thursday through Nov. 17

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

  

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Some kind of wonderful: Beautiful: the Carole King Musical comes to the Jube. Meet the star Sarah Bockel

Sarah Bockel stars in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“She’s … normal,” says Sarah Bockel, musing on the woman she plays in the jukebox musical that arrives on the Jube stage Tuesday under the Broadway Across Canada touring banner. “She’s grounded. Pretty self-effacing. And also insecure! Something I can identify with….”

There’s some kind of wonderful in all that normalcy, of course, since the woman in question is one of contemporary music’s legendary talents, Carole King. The soundtrack of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is a stellar array of songs that you know all the words to — chart-toppers that will connect you instantly with your previous selves … Up On the Roof, One Fine Day, I Feel The Earth Move among them.

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And the list is stunningly long, since King’s career trajectory began in the ‘60s, as a teenage writer and seller of songs for other artists to make into hits. In this the Brooklyn kid from James Madison High partnered with her unstable and dysfunctional first husband Gerry Goffin; together they penned dozens of indelible chart entries, like Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, The Loco-Motion, Take Good Care Of My Baby, Go Away Little Girl…. Bockel imagines the scene in the storied Brill Building, 1650 Broadway: “teenagers wandering around smoking cigarettes, writing the kind of songs that teenagers listen to.”

Sarah Bockel and Dylan S. Wallach in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Photo supplied

But, as the 2014 Broadway show celebrates, King’s ascent to stardom wasn’t marked by a voracious appetite for centre stage herself. Solo performing came later, inspired by the vicissitudes of life, marriage, the sexism of the music industry. And the approach to the stage was tentative, full of doubts. That resonates strongly with Bockel, a friendly and self-deprecating voice on the phone from Minneapolis, where the Beautiful tour opened a couple a weeks ago.

For one thing she’s from Chicago, where self-deprecation vis-à-vis New York is congenital. And her roots, as she says, are in “the storefront scene” there — dozens of tiny indie companies doing innovative, off-centre work in unexpected spaces. “I started seeing storefront shows in high school,” she says of her young “theatre junkie” incarnation. Think of the high school in (the Greta Gerwig movie) Lady Bird, Bockel laughs. 

After graduating from Illinois Wesleyan in musical theatre (she’d originally intended to be a Spanish teacher) and moving back into Chicago eight years ago, she joined in. “There was so much work to be had, dream roles! So exciting. Everyone making no money, working three different day jobs to pay the rent.” It makes her interested in the indie scene in Edmonton.  “I miss that so much!” she says of that collaborative DIY spirit. 

“Everybody in Chicago knows about Jessie Mueller, hometown pride!” Bockel says of the Chicago actor who was the original Carole King in Beautiful on Broadway. “When she won the Tony, we all cheered…. I knew I wanted to be like Jessie; I wanted to be her.”

It was in “a weird production of (Sondheim’s) Into The Woods” by an indie Chicago company — she played Cinderella/Rapunzel —  that Bockel had her big-M Moment of “discovery” by a prospective agent. “I made a tape and flew to New York, and three more times after that.”

In the end, she understudied Abby Mueller, Jessie’s sister, “a friend now,” who’d taken over the role for the national tour that left New York in 2015. “That was best,  really,”  Bockel says cheerfully. “I was very starstruck.” But the role would have been “just too much pressure. I wasn’t even Equity at the time.”

There’s an echo of King’s famous shyness and holding back in her story, as Bockel concedes. “I felt like it’s not a stretch for me to play the role. It’s a good fit…. She can laugh at herself, which I love. She’s very funny.” Bockel had a chance to discover that firsthand. “I met Carole for 15 minutes in Orange County after she saw the show. “She made jokes, she laughed, she was so friendly….”

Of the show’s songbook, Bockel does enjoy singing the earlier stuff by King and Goffin and their hit-making friend/competitors Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, Walking In The Rain) “who are still married and still friends with Carole.” And in the show the relationship between the two couples figures prominently, as “a kind of comedic relief,” says Bockel. But her own favourites are from “the Tapestry era,” as she says of “woman’s perspective” built into the 1971 King album that sold 25 million copies world-wide, remained on the charts for six years, and for two decades held the record for consecutive weeks on the top of the Billboard 200 by a female soloist.

It’s Too Late, one of the hit singles from the album, gets a context in the show, as Bockel explains. Gradually King’s marriage disintegrates, Goffin’s mental issues exacerbated by drugs and electro-shock therapy. “The pressure to be the next Bob Dylan, the trying to keep up with each other after such early success….” Bockel considers. “But he was such a brilliant lyricist.”

It’s Too Late comes in the last half-hour of the show. “The bass line plays, and everyone sits up in their seats; you can feel it,” says Bockel. “It’s everybody’s break-up song. It’s mine too….”

When Bockel first saw Beautiful and heard You’ve Got a Friend, she “just wept. Such a sweet anthem ….” The show, she says, is “a memory bank…. Everyone remembers where they were when they heard that song. Or who they used to sing it with.”   

PREVIEW

Beautiful: the Carole King Musical

Broadway Across Canada

Written by: Douglas McGrath

Directed by: Marc Bruni

Starring: Sarah Bockel

Where: Jubilee Auditorium

Running: Tuesday through Sunday

Tickets: BroadwayAcrossCanada.ca, Ticketmaster (ticketmaster.ca, 1-855-985-5000).

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The quest to be a warrior: an Indigenous story gets a powerful telling in Redpatch. A review.

Raes Calvert in Redpatch, Hardline Productions. Photo by Mark Halliday, Moonrider Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the striking opening moments of Redpatch a masked prophet in a pyramid of light asks “what is life?” and then vanishes into mist.

It’s a question with legs (and vast reservoirs of imaginative and aerobic drive) in the production by Vancouver’s Hardline theatre that’s arrived on the Citadel’s Maclab stage to tell a Canadian story that Canadians don’t know. Suddenly the stage is infiltrated by strange nightmare creatures in perpetual motion. They’re wearing gas masks. And you realize that the thudding drum score is the doom-laden sound of cannon and artillery fire, woven with barely audible human cries.

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If Redpatch, created by Hardline’s Raes Calvert and Sean Harris Oliver, were simply an anti-war play — and really, how could any play about the First World War not be? — it would join a considerable repertoire of horror stories and poetic elegies. But Redpatch sets itself apart, with a particular story to tell. It’s a story drawn from history, in a country where history is hardly a matter of public currency.

More than 4,000 Indigenous Canadians signed up to fight in “the world to end all wars,”  for a country that in word and deed didn’t value them very much. And the artful production directed by Oliver sets about shedding light, both the narrative and theatrical kind, on the mystery of this sacrificial contribution. In the end, Redpatch’s theatrical storytelling, richly imagined in light, sound, explosively choreographed physicality, seems more successful than its storytelling in narrative text. But that’s not to devalue the significance and impact of addressing a little-known story in the live theatre.

Raes Calvert in Redpatch. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

At the centre is Half-Blood (Calvert), a young mixed blood First Nations soldier of the Nuu-chah-nulth nation on the west coast of Vancouver Island, who leaves his home on the shores of one ocean to cross another. It’s an aspirational kind of identity crisis that propels him into the bloody, trench-scarred battlefields of western Europe, torn between native tradition and a sense that “the world is changing.”

Like his boyhood friend Jonathon (Joel D. Montgrand), a pal from residential school (a salient fact, fleetingly referenced), he dreams of being a warrior. And on location in the  Half-Blood proves himself formidable in war like his Indigenous compatriots: his wilderness survival skills make him a star in scouting, sniping, trench-raiding, German-killing. As he says, when the going gets tough it’s ‘hey fellas, let’s throw in the Indian first’.” 

As Half-Blood’s soul-destroying tally of kills mounts, his visions of home, infiltrated by thoughts of natural beauty, are ever-more powerful and troubling. In Oliver’s production and the performance from Calvert, a charismatic, physically eloquent actor, the past and the present cohabit in ways that are always inventive, visceral, emotionally accessible. Half-Blood is a haunted man. And the Raven (the protean Odessa Shuquaya in one of her three roles), a link from home like his grandmother’s medicine bag, signals as much. 

Redpatch, Hardline Productions. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

The cast of six accomplished Indigenous actors populate the stage, and the story.  Fellow Canuck recruit Dickie (Chelsea Rose) is a raucous prairie dim-bulb with an ugly racist streak. Bam-Bam (Jennifer Daigle) is a Quebecer who is subject to some taunting, too, because of his other-ness in the Canadian group portrait. Medical student Howard (Taran Kootenhayoo) is a civilizing and conciliatory influence. And the Scottish sergeant (Shuquaya), who barks orders like sergeants do world-wide, “doesn’t like Indians, Frenchies, smart people, and pebbly-faced boys from Saskatchewan” about equally.

The fractiousness of real-time encounters, designed to reveal something about the Canadian mosaic (and they do), seem rather over-extended and repetitive in comparison to the theatrical landscape in which the play flourishes otherwise. The story soars when it’s stylized and imagistic — or unfolds in memorable, economical, wispy memory scenes like the two boys on the lam from school, paddling their canoe out into the ocean to hunt a killer whale. It’s more earthbound in its scenes where the plot unfolds in dialogue. 

James Coomber’s rumbling sound design evokes a landscape of dread, ready at every moment to explode into cosmic chaos. And Brad Trenaman’s extraordinary lighting, in dramatic shafts and pools and exploding shimmers, makes it possible to take six actors to Vimy Ridge on a bare stage.

Is war a dream quest where a man discovers himself? Half-Blood’s grandmother She Rides Between (Shuquaya) doesn’t think so. “War drowns men,” she says as he leaves  to “prove himself.” Redpatch unfolds itself in the tension between Jonathon’s “hold my hand and don’t let go” and Grandmother’s “let go of the rope.”

It turns out that the one thing you can’t let go is home. 

REVIEW

Redpatch

Theatre: Hardline Productions presented by the Citadel and Vancouver Arts Club Theatre

Created by: Raes Calvert, Sean Harris Oliver

Directed by: Sean Harris Oliver

Starring: Raes Calvert, Joel D. Montgrand, Taran Kootenhayoo, Jennifer Daigle, Chelsea Rose, Odessa Shuquaya

Where: Citadel Maclab Theatre

Running: through Nov. 11

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com  

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Song-and-dance con men, two World War I plays, and more… a theatre weekend in E-town

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A con game (with song and dance) is one of your options for a night out at live theatre this weekend. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a larky musical by the team of David Yazbek (The Band’s Visit, The Full Monty) and Jeffrey Lane, opens Foote in the Door Productions’ fifth season Friday as a purveyor full-bodied Broadway musicals.

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Spun from the 1988 Michael Caine/ Steve Martin movie, it stars a competing pair of scam artists on the Riviera (always a propitious setting for lighting) who have their beady eyes on an American soap heiress. Lawrence is palming himself off as a cash-strapped aristocrat-in-exile. Freddy is a small-time swindler, whose technique, pathos-based, involves soliciting funds to buy his ailing grandmother a leg.

Long-time performer Caroline Waye is back directing, after a 10-year hiatus. Her cast, 16 strong, is led by Foote in the Door co-founders Russ Farmer and Ruth Wong-Miller, and Trevor J. Worden. It’s the latter, as Freddy, who gets to sing Great Big Stuff, an ode to crass materialism and upward mobility — the pioneer spirit of conning.

Says Wong-Miller, “I love a show where it seems like men will outsmart women.” Emphasis on seems.

The archive of the Foote in the Door performance collective goes back to a 2013 launch by performers who’d met as students at the Citadel’s Foote School, and a debut production of She Loves Me. This fifth season includes a spring production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.

The show runs at La Cité francophone, 8627 91 St. through Nov. 10. Tickets: Tix on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca) and eventbrite.ca.      

•Onstage in Edmonton this weekend are two productions timed to commemorate the impending 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War on Nov. 11.

Steven Greenfield, Sheldon Elter, Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Jesse Gervais in The Comedy Company. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2018

At the Varscona, it’s Shadow Theatre’s premiere of a new play by Neil Grahn. The Comedy Company, inspired by the real-life First World War story of members of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Division ordered by their commander to create original musical comedies to boost troop morale. A cast of top Edmonton actors runs with it through Nov. 11. 12thnight.ca got the chance to talk to the playwright; meet him here. And here’s the 12thnight.ca REVIEW. Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org.

At the Citadel, opening this very night, is Redpatch, the work of Hardline Productions, their first professional foray outside their Vancouver home town. Co-created by Raes Calvert and Sean Harris Oliver, it’s inspired by the little-known history of the 4,000 plus Indigenous Canadians who signed up to fight in the First World War. It follows the fortunes of a young mixed blood First Nations man (Calvert) who leaves his West Coast home to be a Canadian soldier in that terrible conflict. Meet Hardline’s Calvert and Oliver, a most engaging pair of young theatre artists here. The production runs through Nov. 11. Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com.

•And, this being E-Town, there’s improv galore: at Rapid Fire Theatre and Grindstone Theatre & Bistro.

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