By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
You have to hand it to the catastrophe that is the pandemic: it’s impossible now to take for granted the “live” in live theatre. “Going out to the theatre,” a phrase to be tossed off expectantly in my line of work, has a newly minted kind of thrill to it. The feel of an adventure. If I ever took it for granted, I sure don’t now.
It’s exciting to go out and have theatre be your destination. Hell, it’s even a bit exotic finding parking in Old Strathcona.
That’s what happened last night. The air was so coughable that the Plain Janes moved their Scenes From The Sidewalk “inside-out cabaret” inside — the Janes’ artistic director Kate Ryan called it “an inside-inside cabaret” — for the second of their sold-out two-performance run.
The sidewalk is where you hang when you can’t go inside. In the first instalment of Scenes From the Sidewalk last September, the performers were outside the Varscona, looking in at an audience of 20 with masks, clean hands and a temperature of 37 or less in the lobby, looking out. This time the “inside” was the lobby of the Fringe’s Westbury Theatre (everyone was masked, and that felt relaxing). And, hey, here’s a cheering thought: intermission, verboten in the depths of the pandemic, is back!
The intervening 10 months, isolating and scary, have ceded, if not quite given way, to a feeling that didn’t resonate in 2020. “Have you ever felt like nobody was there? Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere?” wonder the cast together in one of the evening’s finale ensemble numbers (Found/Tonight, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pasek & Paul). “Have you ever felt like you could disappear? Like you could fall, and no one would hear? Well let that lonely feeling wash away….”
Wash away it does in the togetherness experience that is theatre. Funny how musical theatre and even pop song lyrics take on new colours from their environment, one that feels different in a somewhat vaccinated summer, in sometimes subtle ways, from 10 months ago.
Beautiful City from Godspell, for example, sung by newcomer Logan Stefura, loses its carapace of pandemic edge in the hopefulness of the moment (“not a city of angels/ But we can build a city of man”). Ditto Feeling Good from The Roar of the Greasepaint the Smell of the Crowd, performed by the formidable triple threat/spoken word poet Althea Cunningham. Or I’m Not Afraid of Anything, an escalating anthem to self-confidence from Jason Robert Brown’s Songs For A New World, delivered with major impact by the charismatic Daniela Fernandez.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more darkly funny song about the ironies of death than My Dogs from the William Finn musical Elegies, written in the aftermath of AIDS 9-11. The wry Josh Travnik makes a meal of it — as he does with the breathless momentum of One by One by One from the Adam Gwon musical Ordinary Days, whose frustrated protagonist, rebuffed over and over by urban passersby in his quest to distribute handbills for a visual artist who’s in jail, sings “the city tends to make me feel invisible.”
So are we ready to shed the cloak of invisibility that wrapped around us when all human contact was declared dangerous? As always the Janes mine the musical theatre and pop repertoire for songs that get at questions like that, in clever ways. Gwon’s Calm (sung by Rain Matkin-Szilagyi, who’s a real find) is playful about the frantic life that catapults towards a calm that feels all wrong.
The seven-member cast — including musical theatre composer/lyricist Graham, a sympathetic and lively accompanist at the keyboard — have chosen songs that speak to them. Graham, who’s off to NYU Tisch this fall, is a talent to watch, judging by the musical Marnie Day he wrote with cast-mate Sue Goberdhan, and his song In 50 Years, with its lyrical insights in how to approach a future that is anything but certain.
Time, suspended indefinitely during the pandemic, is back in operation. As the finale of Marnie Day has it, “We don’t got forever…. You just gotta do what you can with the time you’ve got….”
Back to the theatre, my friends, to discover the possibilities.