It’s show time in Edmonton theatre: what to not miss this season on E-town stages

The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Photo by Citrus Photography

The Garneau Block by Belinda Cornish, based on the Todd Babiak novel

By Liz Nicholls,

“That was what had been missing from his life all these years. His career, his city, this bonehead province. Mythic Power.” — The Garneau Block.

In Todd Babiak’s wry and funny novel The Garneau Block, reborn as a Belinda Cornish play this season on the Citadel mainstage, a vividly mismatched community of Edmonton neighbours will overcome their differences to save a ‘hood. And in the process, a kind of civic mythology will rise from that Edmonton place where low self-esteem (“an anywhere-but-here disease”) lives. “Edmonton is a real city as soon as we, as Edmontonians, believe it is real.”

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And speaking of Mythic Power, there’s a quintessential demo of it, borrowed from history, in the real-life Allied brigade of kick-ass female operatives who drop behind enemy lines in France 1940 in The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Jonathan Christenson’s new Catalyst musical arrives in February on the Maclab stage after an award-winning premiere at Calgary’s Vertigo Theatre last spring.

Power, and (maybe especially) the lack of it, find their way into stories, large and small, as our artists and their companies return to stages of every size, shape, and budget after another record-buster of a Fringe. The season is starting; what should you look forward to? Seek out? Here’s a little selection of intriguing possibilities.


Can it be mere coincidence? This is the season buzzing with the mythic power news that we’ll see not one but two musicals that pry women — six in one, seven in the other — from real-life history and and give them a story to sing about. There’s the new Catalyst musical The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare (see above) with its fascinating premise and cast of female secret agents. And here’s another: Six: Divorced. Beheaded. Live In Concert, from Britain en route to Broadway.

Six. Photograph by Liz Lauren 2019.

With this hotly anticipated production, the Citadel (temporary home for Broadway-bound Hadestown in the fall of 2017) hosts the only Canadian stop for the Toby Marlow/ Lucy Moss rock musical/concert — à la Spice Girls and starring the much-abused wives of Henry VIII, cutting loose from Tudor times — that had its origins at the Edinburgh Fringe, sold out a U.K. tour, and got its North American premiere at the Chicago Shakespeare Festival in May. It arrives Nov. 1 t0 24 trailing raves (and sold-out houses). 

Here are two more:

Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen, Broadway Across Canada. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

(a) Dear Evan Hansen —the Tony Award-winning Hasek & Paul gut-puncher about a maladjusted high school senior who forges a new identity for himself as a player in a classmate’s tragedy — is the highlight of the Broadway Across Canada season here. It arrives at the Jube Feb. 11 to 16.

(b) From the adventurous (and alluringly named) little indie company Impossible Mongoose, Gef, a new “psychological thriller cum Jazz Age musical” by playwright Jessy Ardern and composer Erik Mortimer. It’s drawn from paranormal accounts of a mysterious voice behind the walls of a remote Isle of Man farmhouse in the 1930s. Our first sighting of Gef come in June at the Fringe’s Studio Theatre.       


(a) A play (see above) by an Edmonton playwright (Belinda Cornish) adapted from a satirical but utterly affectionate novel by an Edmonton novelist (Todd Babiak, on secondment to Australia) telling an Edmonton story about a familiar Edmonton ‘hood and its idiosyncratic occupants — premiering on the mainstage of Edmonton’s largest playhouse. That would be The Garneau Block (at the Citadel March 14 to April 5), directed by Rachel Peake. It’s so Edmonton that one of the principal characters is a Die-Nasty improv regular. 

Candace Berlinguette in E Day. Photo supplied.

(b) E Day, a new political comedy from a playwright who specializes in setting up familiar surfaces and exploring the weirdness beneath. Jason Chinn’s latest is set in an NDP campaign office during the orange wave 2015 provincial election that made pollsters look ridiculously off-course. Suspense is galvanized by a parachute candidate, dropped in at the last minute. Dave Horak directs a large all-star cast in this Serial Collective premiere (in Theatre Network’s Roxy Series Oct. 15 to 27). 

(c) After The Fire, running in the Citadel’s new Highwire series (April 18 to May 10) in a Punctuate!/ Alberta Aboriginal Arts collaboration, is the new, re-invented incarnation of Matthew MacKenzie’s black, not to say charred, comedy that originally debuted as Bust (at Theatre Network). It explores (and through Indigenous eyes) the aftermath of the Fort McMurray inferno.

(d) Dead Centre of Town, Catch The Keys’ 12th annual imaginative foray into the dark, dramatic, macabre landscape of Edmonton history, on location at Fort Edmonton. This year, the locale is the intimately spooky Mellon Farmhouse, 4 shows a night Oct. 10 to Nov. 1. 


Here are three new plays from young , smart Edmonton writers that play with the political complexities attached to gender, sexual orientation, and their convoluted route through social media. 

(a) Everybody Loves Robbie. In this new comedy by the startlingly versatile artist Ellen Chorley (director of Nextfest and artistic director of Send In The Girls Burlesque), a musical-besotted high school theatre couple, inseparable stars of the drama club and every festival going, have to reassess when Robbie wonders if he’s gay. Trevor Schmidt’s production at Northern Light Theatre has the added attraction of Jayce McKenzie and Richard Lee Hsi.

Happy Birthday Baby J, Shadow Theatre. Photo supplied.

(b) Happy Birthday Baby J. Premiering in the Shadow Theatre season, Nick Green’s new comedy (Jan. 22 to Feb. 9) boldly takes a run at political correctness. A couple invites friends over to celebrate the second birthday of their kid J, whom they’re raising gender-free.

(c) In Tell Us What Happened, by actor-turned-playwright, Michelle Robb, Charlie and her two roommates manage an online support group that catalogues personal experience of sexual mistreatment. Turns out a few members have suffered at the hands of the same guy and here’s a queasy glitch: the guy is Charlie’s best friend. It runs at La Cité May 14 to 24, in a collaboration between Azimuth Theatre and Theatre Yes. 


As You Like It, Citadel Theatre

(a) All you need is…. OK, how can you not be intrigued by the prospect of As You Like It set to the music (25 songs) of the Beatles? Daryl Cloran’s 60s-style production, which broke every box office record at Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach, is at the Citadel Feb. 16 to March 16, with a new cast. And there’s wrestling.

(b) The most deranged prospect of the season — I mean this in a good way, of course — is at Theatre Network. In The Society For The Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius, a gaggle of grotesque bouffon-style clowns  present a version of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, a Bardian gore-fest of eviscerations, dismemberments, murders, cannibalism, and other anti-social activities. It’s by the star Canadian playwright Colleen Murphy, so there won’t be any polite side-stepping or shirking. Bradley Moss’s production runs Jan. 30 to Feb. 16.

(c) Pawâkan Macbeth: A Cree Tragedy, from Akpik Theatre (the Northwest Territories’ only professional Indigenous company), propels Shakespeare’s swift and brutal tragedy into the war-ravaged world of the plains Cree in the 1870s. In the adaptation by Reneltta Arluk (now head of the Banff Centre’s new Indigenous arts department), the great Okiheitlâw warrior is urged by an evil cannibal spirit, the Wihtiko, to assassinate the chief. Azimuth Theatre presents it as part of Expanse at the 2020 Chinook Series (Feb. 6 to 16).


(a) In her 2012 dark musical comedy Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, the brilliant American playwright  Anne Washburn (10 Out Of 12) conjures a post-apocalyptic world in which the survivors are comforted by pop-culture stories recollected, told and re-told — in this case, specifically the 1993 Cape Feare episode of The Simpsons in which Bart is stalked by the homicidal Sideshow Bob. Blarney Productions and You Are Here Theatre collaborate on the production, directed by Andrew Ritchie, that runs at the Westbury Nov. 28 to Dec. 7, in the Fringe Spotlight Series.

(b) Bright Young Things dazzled at the Fringe with the bright, cuckoo  precision of their revival of Ionesco’s Euro-absurdist classic The Bald Soprano. The company, part of the Varscona Theatre Ensemble, is back (Nov. 21 to 30) with another kind of absurdism, Thornton Wilder’s rarely performed 1942 Pulitzer Prize winner The Skin of Our Teeth. It’s for ingenious director Dave Horak to figure out how on earth to track the Antrobus family of suburban New Jersey (and their pet dinosaur and woolly mammoth) through a series of timeless catastrophes that include ice, flood, and war. In its own oddball way, it’s the perfect response to surviving the declension into chaos of our world. 


Here are two new Canadian plays, one by a famous writer, one by an emerging playwright — and both writers to seek out:

(a) Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes. Who would willingly miss the latest from Hannah Moscovitch, one of the country’s premier playwrights, especially if she said it was “the favourite play I’ve written so far….”? Just asking.  A 40-something professor, his young and worshipful student, a romance. Don’t you have butterflies already? Marianne Copthorne directs; Dave Horak and Gianna Vacirca star in the Theatre Network production (April 23 to May 10).

(b) In The Ballad of Peachtree Rose, Nicole Moeller, whose work to date (including An Almost Perfect Thing, Without You, The Mother) is witty, weighty, and complex, has created a thriller about a street kid recruited by a Canadian criminal organization. Brenley Charkow directs the premiere production at Workshop West (Oct. 30 to Nov. 10.)


With their new musical revue Get Happy! (at the Varscona Theatre in February) the Plain Janes, purveyors of off-centre musical theatre experiences, assemble songs from every corner of the repertoire and marries them to original songs by Edmonton songwriters (they’re currently scouting). The theme? “things we do in the the pursuit of happiness.”

Here’s a thing Edmonton does to get happy (and energized and argumentative): live theatre. It’s show time, my friends. Million Dollar Quartet is already running at the Mayfield. Up very soon are The Colour Purple at the Citadel and Vidalia at Teatro La Quindicina.

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In a lather at Big Little Lake: the 27th annual Die-Nasty Soap-A-Thon

Stephanie Wolfe, Kristi Hansen, Delia Barnett, Shannon Blanchet in Big Little Lake: 27th annual Die-Nasty Soap-A-Thon. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

Funny how a charming resort village like Big Little Lake, where the  well-toned meet the well-heeled over white wine spritzers, can turn suddenly … well, sinister.

Murder has a way of doing that. It populates the most idyllic village with suspects and suspicions; it pulls at the loose threads of dark family secrets to see what unravels. It even changes the lighting. Yes, my shivery friends, the stakes are high.

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It’s to the affluently benign golden world of soccer moms and gossip that the 27th annual Die-Nasty Soap-A-Thon takes us this weekend in Murder At Big Little Lake. In the course of the venerable 50-hour improv soap marathon that suds up Friday at 7 p.m. and doesn’t rinse off till Sunday at 9 p.m. — a venerable Edmonton comedy institution — the grand traditions of murder mysteries get the best kind of tribute workout, Dame Agatha to Broadchurch to Big Little Lies.

During the suds weekend, the core Die-Nasty company of improvisers will be joined by a steady stream of all-star guests (including former Rapid Fire Theatre artistic director and improv guru Patti Stiles, in from Australia for the occasion, Saturday only). And because murder mysteries require a particular finesse in the plotting — a challenge only deluxe improvisers can meet — the return of playwright Stewart Lemoine to the team of scene directors, after a suds absence of many seasons, is especially welcome.

No one, including the cast or directors, knows what will happen in Murder at Big Little Lake, of course; it’s to be discovered, minute by minute this weekend. But this is the week the cast mulls over the starting possibilities. Who will they play? Here’s a small sampling:  

Jeff Haslam: “Im the village doctor Dr. Cal Shamrock. Sheri (Sheri Somerville) is my wife Diane. We’re on the rocks, but we present a perfect picture….”

Sheri Somerville: “I’m Diane Shamrock, Jeff’s wife. I do a lot of charity events. I have no job, and no interest in one: my husband is a doctor. We have children. They were selfish as they pursue their ‘dreams’. They also feel it necessary to compost table scraps.”

Stephanie Wolfe: “I am Clair Leclair. I’ll be someone’s wife even if he isn’t a character. I think he’s a bond trader and made zillions selling short bonds in 2008 just before the crash (we just watched The Big Short again so it’s on my mind!). I own the Wellness Centre but I’m too perky to be very zen about it. The wellness centre is also where we produce the community play. I’m SO rich.”

Jason Hardwick: “I’m thinking of playing local priest Father Barry Crisp. Very relaxed religious type — more of a friendly therapist than a priest.

Delia Barnett: “I’ll be playing Honey Crisp, Father Crisp’s twin sister who left the nunnery and town mysteriously, and has returned for the weekend….”

As usual in Soap-A-Thons, there are “special shifts.” Saturday, for example, from 5 to 7 p.m., is devoted, in some fashion, to the iconic board game Clue in honour of this year’s setting. The Family Hour, all sweetness and light, is Sunday 1 to 3 p.m.


Murder at Big Little Lake

27th Annual Die-Nasty Soap-A-Thon

Theatre: Die-Nasty

Directed by: Vincent Forcier, Belinda Cornish, Tom Edwards, Stephanie Wolfe, Jeff Haslam, Stewart Lemoine

Starring: Belinda Cornish, Jesse Gervais, Shannon Blanchet, Jason Hardwick, Stephanie Wolfe, Jeff Haslam, Sheri Somerville, Tom Edwards, Vincent Forcier, Delia Barnett, Kristi Hansen, Paul Morgan Donald. Plus many special guests.

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Friday 7 p.m. non-stop through Sunday 9 p.m.

Tickets: $20 daily ($10 for artists and arts students) and $60 weekend passes available at the door. Passes online at

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A whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on: Million Dollar Quartet at the Mayfield. A review

Million Dollar Quartet, Mayfield Dinner Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

By Liz Nicholls,

Every once in a blue moon history serves up one of those those born-to-be-mythology moments where the greats happen to converge behind the scenes (and give the entertainment industry something juicy to speculate about).

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One of the great what-if? scenarios transpired in a barebones Memphis recording studio one December afternoon in 1956. What if you were Sam Phillips, the visionary of Sun Records, having a recording session, and what if four legendary rockabilly stars, at various stages of career trajectory, showed up to discuss their contracts with the man, smoke, tipple, shoot the breeze? And then, impromptu, what if the young Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis jammed on each other’s hits and assorted other chart busters? 

That’s the premise, the real-life infrastructure, upon which Million Dollar Quartet, the rockin’ 2006 jukebox musical currently igniting the Mayfield stage, is loosely based.

In jukebox world there have been thinner racks to hang songs on, and more preposterously elaborate ones, too (we’re looking at you, Mamma Mia! and Flashdance). Anyhow the song list, which starts with Blue Suede Shoes, rolls out hit after hit, Folsom Prison Blues, That’s All Right, Great Balls of Fire, Hound Dog, Who Do You Love.… And director Van Wilmott has assembled a top-drawer cast of performers with startling musical chops to deliver them — no mean assignment since the actors have to actually play the characters AND the iconic music that everyone knows. And they do.

Not only that, Million Dollar Quartet catches the characters as their younger selves and not in concert performance mode — behind the scenes of their public personas, in the place that all four made their start. Elvis (Matt Cage) has already left Sun Records for RCA and Hollyweird (as Perkins puts it), super-stardom in progress, “the curse of the answered prayer” as someone says.

Cage’s performance seems mid- rather than early-period Presley, with all the signature moves codified in place, even on an informal occasion. He’s just back, chastened, from a disastrous run in Vegas opening for borscht belt comic Shecky Greene (an amusing thought). “I will NEVER play Vegas again!” he declares vehemently, in one of the evening’s prime laugh lines.

Rockabilly king and guitar virtuoso Perkins (Tyler Check), resentful that Elvis has co-opted his Blue Suede Shoes, is looking for profile, and a hit. And, like Johnny Cash (Devon Brayne), he’s leaving Sun Records for Columbia. This is the day they’ll be breaking the news to Mr. Phillips (Leon Willey).

Devon Brayne as Johnny Cash, Million Dollar Quartet, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

The personality profile of Carl Perkins isn’t as etched in the public consciousness as the other characters in the play, but his stature as a guitar whiz (and songwriter) makes him a daunting assignment: Check is very impressive. And so is Brayne, who captures the rumbling cadences and the signature cool, wry, mannerly qualities of the younger edition of Cash in a smart way.    

And there’s a brash newcomer, the inflammable Jerry Lee Lewis, quite possibly batshit crazy in the show-grabbing full-throttle performance from Jefferson McDonald. His demented, untethered attack on the keyboard and the proprieties startles, impresses, amuses, appalls, and aggravates the gathering in roughly equal measure. You can’t take your eyes off him either; he’s the human embodiment of a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on, torn between the irresistible attractions of the devil’s music and the prospect of damnation.

Mr. Phillips (as everyone calls him), swagger-y but vulnerable in Willey’s engaging performance, is himself mulling over an offer from RCA. He’s the narrator, who weaves flashbacks and annotations, bits of history and exposition, sometimes right between lines of a number like That’s All Right.

The ensemble is supported by the more than able duo of bassist Evan Stewart and percussionist Brendan Lyons, as well as Alicia Barman as Elvis’s latest squeeze, an aspirational singer who gets her own numbers (I Hear You Knocking, Fever)

Jefferson McDonald as Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet. Photo by Ed Ellis.

The musical quality of the show, its prime asset, will knock you back in your seat. And in the astute mix of rock, country, and a cappella gospel that is the fabric of Million Dollar Quartet, you get a sense of history being made. That sense is reinforced by Ivan Brozic’s vintage studio design and sepia lighting by Gail Ksionzyk.

And the dynamic of spontaneous jam session by artists who get a kick out of making music, is captured in the easy, informal, bantering/ bickering quality of Wilmott’s production.

“We are gonna nail this sucker,” declares Mr. Phillips darting back into the control room to record as his “boys” attack Matchbox. And, hey, that’s what they’ve done at the Mayfield.


Million Dollar Quartet

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Created by: Colin Escott, Floyd Mutrux

Directed by: Van Wilmott

Starring: Devon Brayne, Matt Cage, Tyler Check, Brendan Lyons, Jefferson McDonald, Evan Stewart, Leon Willey, Alicia Barban

Running: through Oct. 27

Tickets:, 780-483-4051

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A new season at Theatre Network, and 3 Canadian plays

Gianna Vacirca in Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes. Photo by Ryan Parker

By Liz Nicholls,

Three Canadian plays, two by star playwrights and one by a hot up-and-comer, are the 2019-2020 lineup Theatre Network announced this week.

There will be a moment (more than one) in this upcoming 45th season that you’ll find yourself laughing — and appalled at yourself for laughing.

Artistic director Bradley Moss can hear it now, the reaction from the house seats to The Society For The Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius: “O. my. gawd! Did they just say that?”

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The play, by the notably fearless Governor General’s Award-winner Colleen Murphy (Pig Girl, Armstrong’s War), is a bouffon-style clown version of Titus Andronicus, top contender for most gruesomely violent play in the Bard canon. Moss calls it “Shakespeare’s Quentin Tarantino bloodbath.… I wonder if we treat it too reverentially these days.”

playwright Colleen Murphy

No problem with reverential here, by the sound of it. Armed with a modest grant, “thanks, taxpayers!,” five grotesque clowns, undertake a production of Shakespeare’s early hit,  a veritable carnival of revenge that includes dismemberments, beheadings, rape, evisceration, and cannibalism.

The bouffon coach is (who better?) Michael Kennard of the “horror clown” duo Mump and Smoot, who specialize in such matters. 

“Colleen has really upped the ante,” says Moss. “This is so connected to the (contemporary) world.”

Moss directs her black comedy, which premiered at the Cultch in Vancouver in 2017 in a Rumble Theatre production (so far its only staging). The “destitutes” constitute a social cross-section: ex-cons, single moms on welfare, sex workers, alcoholics….  The playwright “spares nobody,” Moss says, “ old, young, all genders …. It’s super-funny.”

“And I’m directing it at my peril. Dare I? I dare…. This is exactly what Theatre Network should be doing,” says Moss. So far his cast for the production (running Jan. 28 to Feb. 16) includes Robert Benz and Helen Belay, 

The season opens in laughter of a different tone, at a different angle. In Bed and Breakfast by actor-turned-playwright Mark Crawford we meet a 30-something urbanite gay couple. When one of them inherits a house from his aunt, they uproot their Toronto lives, and move to a small Ontario town to renovate it. So, as Moss describes, there’s the comedy of urban vs. small-town sensibility, “an updated Wingfield scenario.” There’s friction, homophobia, reno stress. “A secret is uncovered, people’s minds are changed.… ”

“Two actors flip all the characters, more than 20, and that drives the style,” says Moss of the comedy, which premiered at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in 2013. The playwright, who has toured in Bed and Breakfast with his real-life partner Paul Dunn, is “a fresh new voice,” says Moss. “He’s getting traction for the way he tackles issues while still celebrating the people struggling with them.”

Moss directs the Theatre Network production (Nov. 19 to Dec. 8), which stars Mathew Hulshof and an actor yet to be cast.

playwright Hannah Moscovitch

Hannah Moscovitch, whose work is frequently seen at Theatre Network (Little One, Infinity, What A Young Wife Ought To Know),  has told Moss that “my favourite play I have written so far” is the one that Theatre Network audiences will see next April: Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes. “It’s the first play of the season I figured out. And just about died when I read it, the way it turns on itself,” says Moss. “It’s such a good play.” His challenge, he says, ”was how do I get plays to match this in our season?”

The new Moscovitch, which premieres at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in December, tracks a relationship through time: a promising 19-year-old university student and the professor she fervently admires. Sexual tension, as you might glean from the title, ensues. Marianne Copithorne directs; Dave Horak and Gianna Vacirca star.

The finale to the season (June 4 to 14), as usual, is Nextfest, the innovative multi-disciplinary celebration of emerging artists headed by Ellen Chorley.

Alberta Musical Theatre Company returns to launch the Roxy Series of indie theatre productions curated, supported, and presented by Theatre Network. Sleeping Beauty, by Farren Timoteo (the company’s artistic director) and the late composer Jeff Unger, is the revival of their irreverent musical re-imagining of the classic tale, for young audiences. It runs Sept. 19 to 22, and 28 and 29.

Candace Berlinguette in E Day. Photo supplied.

E Day is a new large-cast political comedy from the pen of Jason Chinn, one of our most distinctively original playwrights whose archive of “dark, surreal, strange shows” (as Moss puts it) includes Bitches, Ladies Who Lynch, Murderers Confess At Christmastime. This new Chinn, set in an NDP campaign office during the 2015 Alberta provincial election and inspired by the playwright’s his own experience as a volunteer.

Dave Horak directs the premiere production (Oct 15 to 27). And his cast includes such Edmonton stars as April Banigan, Candace Berlinguette, Beth Graham, Sheldon Elter. 

Wild Side Productions gives Edmonton audiences a chance to see The Children by the starry young Brit playwright Lucy Kirkwood, who gravitates to the big issues. Billed as an “eco-thriller,” and asking questions about the possibility of normalcy in a post-apocalyptic world, the 2016 play is set in the wake of a nuclear disaster at an English power plant. We meet a scientist couple visited by a third character from their past.

Jim Guedo’s production (March 10 to 22) features Marianne Copithorne, Christine MacInnis and David McNally.

The Roxy season includes five Friday night editions of Hey Ladies!, the free-wheeling “infotainment comedy show” invented and hosted by Leona Brausen, Davina Stewart, Cathleen Rootsaert: Oct. 4, Dec. 13, Feb. 28, March 27 and May 15.

Girl Brain. Photo by BB Collective.

Girl Brain, the hot and happening sketch comedy troupe starring Alyson Dicey, Caley Suliak and Ellie Heath, arrives in the Roxy Series for the first time for four Saturday night specials: Dec. 14, Feb. 29, March 28, and May 16. Says Moss, “I’m very pumped to support them. They have something to say — very funny, but Ouch! moments too.”

Meanwhile, there’s the Roxy itself, and the new $11.5 million theatre on 124th Street, under construction on the footprint of the old, destroyed by fire in 2015. By February 2021, it’ll be ready to go, says Moss from his current temporary office in the Roxy on Gateway in Strathcona.

“It’s going to be beautiful,” he says of the plans for the new glass-faced Roxy, and its collection of a 200-seat MainStage theatre, 80-seat black box studio theatre, rehearsal hall, lobby spaces, gallery. He imagines evenings where we’ll watch a play in the theatre, and go downstairs to the cabaret space to hear some music or enjoy some stand-up. “We’ll be able to do things we could never do before!” 

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“There’s only now”: the eternal present of Rent. A review

Rent 20th Anniversary Tour. Photo: Amy Boyle 2019

By Liz Nicholls,

In one of the anthems to outsiders in Rent, the characters pay tribute to their gritty low-rent East Village world of starving artists, junkies, dealers, the homeless, the destitute, the marginalized of every sexual persuasion, “anyone out of the mainstream.” 

“Tear down the wall, aren’t we all?” they sing in La Vie Bohème. One character toasts “to being an us, for once, instead of a them.”

The ‘90s rock opera that first squatted then signed a long-term lease on the mainstream American musical theatre is back, in a deluxe 20th anniversary touring edition. And, in Evan Ensign’s production, it’s with an extremely limber, exuberant, vigorous young 15-member cast that catapults, physically and vocally, through the intricacies of Jonathan Larson’s take on Puccini’s La Bohème like there was no tomorrow. Which is, come to think of it, one of the salient points of Rent anyhow: “there’s only now.” 

That physicality (choreographer: Marlies Yearby), which gives the set-up a feverish kind of hyperactive buzz — this is a no-saunter production — ruled Act I absolutely on opening night. And it had double-duty. It had to stand in for Larson’s dexterous lyrics almost completely since they were virtually inaudible in the brightly tinny, harsh, forward sound mix (at least from Row C).

The lyrics reference Diet Coke; the presentation is pure Red Bull. The result, I’d imagine, was pure (if stunningly costumed) confusion for Rent newbies — at least at first.

By Act II, the much-improved sound gave us a chance to appreciate the ways in which Rent remains punch-y after two decades-plus — and how much the production has going for it.

It was always easy, of course, to take shots at the 1996 musical — that had its origins at tiny New York Theatre Workshop (original NYC home of Hadestown) — for its high-price uptown vision of downtown squalor. By tradition the producers, incidentally, make available $25.50 rush tickets for the front orchestra seats an hour before every performance. But any show whose “plot” hinges on gentrification and a slum landlord evicting impoverished artists and shutting down the tent city next door, hasn’t exactly outlived its best-before date.

True, the particulars of life in the shadow of AIDS may have changed, but the sense of mortal fragility hasn’t gone anywhere, lord knows. And as for the upbeat exhortations to seize the day and hang on to your dreams — “the opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation” — that kind of message lifts itself out of vintage, and speaks to a particularly vicious, cynical, hard-ass moment in history. It never goes out of style in American musicals.

In Seasons of Love, the stirring Act II anthem, Rent asks the question how to measure a year in the life of someone. And, since this isn’t the kind of musical to leave you ruminating in thoughtful ambivalence, it delivers the answer, obvious but powerful as delivered musically: love. That this is the most racially, culturally diverse cast (and onstage band) you’ll see all season has its own eloquence too.

Rent 20th Anniversary Tour. Photo: Amy Boyle 2019

The singing talent onstage, who clamour over the twinkling New York fire escape scaffolding of Paul Clay’s design (with its lovely paper lantern moon), is hot. As Roger, a stalled songwriter — HIV-positive and struggling to write one last great song before his candle is snuffed out — Coleman Cummings is compelling. As usual in Rent, though, the arc by which Roger gets drawn out of his life as recluse into a declaration of love for the doomed Mimi seems cluttered and full of unconvincing stops and starts. But the actor really invests in Roger’s big finale creation, Your Eyes, thinnish though it is.

His best friend Mark is a wry and nerdy filmmaker who steps in as narrator to proceedings, sells out to tabloid TV and regains his artistic integrity. He’s played with engaging comical zest by Cody Jenkins. And their chemistry is one of the delights of the evening.

Aiyana Smash in Rent 20th Anniversary Tour. Photo by Amy Boyle.

As the HIV-positive Mimi, a junkie and exotic dancer in an S and M club, the exquisite Aiyana Smash has a powerhouse voice and acrobatic suppleness shown off to great advantage in Angela Wendt’s slinky elastic costumes. You wouldn’t call her waif-like: her initiation approach to her neighbour Roger is more like an ambush.

Rent is crammed with love stories and resentful ex’s. Tom Collins and the drag queen street drummer Angel get excellent performances from Shafiq Hicks and Joshua Tavares. Their tender love duet I’ll Cover You is a highlight.

There’s a couple with a comic inability to stop bickering no matter how many times they manage to reconcile. One-half is Mark’s ex, the sassy performance artiste Maureen (Kelsee Sweigard), whose daffy one-woman show is billed as a protest provocation. The other is Joanne (Samantha Mbolekwa), an increasingly exasperated lawyer who’s been roped into being a sort of protest stage manager.

In a way, Maureen’s song, kooky though it is, speaks to the original audacity of Rent, and the commitment of this touring cast. “Leap of faith leap of faith leap of faith leap of faith,” she sings in her earnest ‘hey diddle diddle’ tale of the enterprising bovine who went for the long leap. “The only thing to do is jump over the moon.”

Words to live by in theatre. 


Rent 20th Anniversary Tour

Broadway Across Canada

Created by: Jonathan Larson

Original direction: Michael Greif, re-staged by Evan Ensign

Starring: Coleman Cummings, Cody Jenkins, Aiyana Smash, Shafiq Hicks, Juan Luis Espinal, Samantha Mbolekwa, Joshua Tavares, Kelsee Sweigard

Where: Jubilee Auditorium

Running: through Sunday

Tickets: 1-855-985-5000,

Rush tickets ($25.50) are available for the first rows of orchestra seating one hour before every performance, for in-person purchase at the Jube.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , ,

Rent is due: the 20th anniversary tour arrives. Meet the original choreographer

Rent 20th anniversary tour. Photo by Amy Boyle 2019

By Liz Nicholls,

It’s been nearly two decades since a young dance-theatre choreographer from New York’s downtown alt-art scene got invited to meet up with a little-known composer to make plans for a revolutionary new rock musical.

It would have a cast of characters who, like their creator, were aspiring outsiders, bohemian artists living hand-to-mouth, struggling to make the rent and keep their dreams afloat.

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Who could have known that Jonathan Larson’s Rent, six years in the gestation and inspired by Puccini’s opera La Bohème of exactly a century before, would go on to be hailed as the iconic counter-culture musical of its generation — Hair for the ‘90s as the New York Times called it? That it would move uptown to a Broadway incarnation that would run 12 years, attract a Pulitzer Prize and a fistful of Tony Awards including best musical, become a movie, be seen by the world (in 21 languages)?

Or, for that matter, that a contemporary La Bohème set in New York’s East Village, in a world made feverish and fragile by AIDS, would be in the fourth year of its 20th anniversary tour? Rent arrives on the Jube stage here Tuesday on the Canadian leg of its continuing travels.

Marlies Yearby. Photo by Andy Cohen, Fifth Eye Photography.

That original choreographer enlisted by Larson and director Michael Greif was the much-awarded Marlies Yearby. Warm of voice, she’s on the phone from Louisiana and a visit to her dad, musing on that fateful meeting in the early ‘90s. “Amazing. To think that you take one step in a direction, and your whole life shifts.”

In this thought echoes the lyric from Seasons of Love, Rent’s big Act II show-stopper: “How do you measure a life of a woman or a man.” And it’s especially striking when you consider the tragedy of Larson’s sudden death, at 35, from an aneurysm mere hours after the dress rehearsal the night before the Off-Broadway production started previews. His era-changing triumph was posthumous. 

In alternative dance/theatre circles, Yearby, a born-again New Yorker, was known for her championing of new work. Witness the archive of Movin’ Spirits Dance Theater, the company she founded and ran at PS 122 when she arrived in New York from California in 1985. The company’s calling card production at the time was a piece called Vanquished by Voodoo. And “I’d just finished Feathers at the Flame … a piece about the mixing of the blood, the legacy between Native Americans and African-Americans, that led us to a discussion of what is America, and how America crosses so many lines…..”

Rent 20th Anniversary Tour. Photo: Amy Boyle 2019

When it came to Rent, “Jonathan’s dream for the work was that he saw artists of different background s coming together to make his world…. The set was an art installation. Blake (lighting designer Blake Burba) did lighting in clubs. I was downtown alt…. We all came from different places to make this work.” 

What sealed the deal, thinks Yearby in retrospect, was her multi-disciplinary zest, and the non-prescriptive way she thought about choreography. When Larson and Grief looked at her work, “they saw people not characters,” she muses. “Jonathan had a real love for dance; he understood it on multiple planes…. And he understood the way I worked.”

“I chose to work with subtle brushes in Rent, small gestures,” says Yearby, who choreographed the 20th anniversary production we’ll see at the Jube. “I was very much impacted by the people who played the roles. In their own selves they were interesting people…. I watched first who they were, and then I watched them embody the character. I never stopped watching them….”

“As an example, I noticed that Wilson Heredia (who played Angel, Rent’s drag queen street percussionist with AIDS) always liked to jump up on the table and sit cross-legged to take notes….” She asked him to duplicate that impulse as Angel — to jump up and dance on the table —  a move made trickier by Angel’s 4” heels. 

“And it became a thing. It was the same with every single character, a (matter of) taking the time to discover who they were as people, to bridge their -isms and the characters’…. I’m a natural people-watcher as an artist.”

Rent 20th Anniversary Tour. Photo: Amy Boyle 2019

Every time new actors joined the cast, or a new tour was mounted, Rent was “re-visited, re-constructed,” says Yearby. “There are audience expectations, yes, but subtle differences in every production.” And that accounts for the “authentic breath” of the show, she thinks. “It keeps us honest! There are marks we hit, but the journey, how we get there, is really influenced and inspired by who we’re working with….”

The biggest change of late came about when Rent played China where “there was an issue with touching,” says Yearby. “I think it’s important for the work to travel internationally, so I agreed to make some shifts.” 

Since Yearby was used to taking a year, sometimes two, to craft a work, the six weeks rehearsal for that first Off-Broadway showing of Rent, at New York Theater Workshop, was wildly compressed. “The consensus was we were done. And I was O my gawd, no! I found myself fixing and fixing the first year after we opened, touching and re-touching.”

“That first group that hit the stage in 1995, it was beautiful watching them evolve,” says Yearby. And she’s been struck by the excitement of this latest cast, the one we’ll see, “their energy and love for the work, how intently they listened” in rehearsal.

From the start Rent was a tangible demonstration of diversity, both in conception and execution, as Yearby points out. “It’s hugely important. There are a lot of different cultures on that stage!”

“And I also love the ensemble work that happens in Rent…. When it was created there were no principals; it was just never discussed. Kudos to the original cast that first year.” True, stars emerged from Rent, Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, Anthony Rapp, Rosario Dawson among them. But that’s not how it started. “It was the idea that we are all together telling this story; individuals come onstage, across all cultural demarcations, and become the characters…. That’s something that’s very special about Rent.”

Two decades-plus have done nothing to diminish Rent’s currency, says Yearby. In an era where “women and our bodies, racial equality, sense of identity,” seem to be losing ground, the musical remains as powerful as ever. “‘Rent had changed my life; it has given me permission to be who I am!’ That’s the most consistent thing I hear from people,” she says, people who weren’t even born when Rent stormed onto Broadway.

“In the current climate, to figure out who they are in this world, what the risks are, what they’re willing to risk for love,” says Yearby, “it’s huge to remind people to stand up for what’s important to them. We are all connected, and this connection is one of love. If we cut that out, we lose, we lose everything we thought we had….”


Rent 20th Anniversary Tour

Broadway Across Canada

Created by: Jonathan Larson

Original direction: Michael Greif, re-staged by Evan Ensign

Where: Jubilee Auditorium

Running: Sept, 3 to 8

Tickets: 1-855-985-5000,


Posted in Previews | Tagged , , , , , ,

There’s more. Update on the Fringe holdovers: the Grindstone is in

Gender? I Hardly Know Them held over at the Grindstone

By Liz Nicholls,

The “shoulda,” and the “meant to…” regrets that always accompany the end of the Fringe are getting some get some relief this week. As already announced, some of the Fringe’s hottest shows are getting held over in three locations: Fringe headquarters (the TransAlta Arts Barns), the Varscona Theatre, and Holy Trinity Anglican Church. Now, there’s a fourth locale: the Grindstone Theatre.

Here’s an update:

•Fringe Theatre Adventures is holding over a quartet of hit shows next week, Wednesday through Saturday at the Westbury Theatre (aka Fringe Stage 1). The Green Line by Makram Ayache is the play, set in war-torn Beirut. See the review HERE. TEDxRFT is an improvised TED Talk created on the spot from  slides the participants have never seen and topics from the audience they don’t know in advance. Reality Crack is a strange and wonderful two-hander set in the fissure between reality and nightmare. There Ain’t No More is a highly original solo “musical” by and starring Arkansas’s Willi Carlisle that dives into the American folklore repertoire for its characters and its tragedies. 

Tickets and schedule:, 780-409-1910.   

•At the Varscona (aka Fringe Stage 12), Teatro La Quindicina’s summer season continues with the run of Stewart Lemoine’s comedy A Momentary Lapse, Tuesday through Saturday. Tickets and times: The review is HERE

•At Holy Trinity Anglican Church, home of three Fringe BYOVs, star storyteller Keith Alessi continues his hit solo show Tomatoes Tried To Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life Wednesday through Saturday. Tickets and times: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757,  

•At the Grindstone (10019 81 Ave.) through Saturday, you can catch Alpha Hypnosis, Last Days On Krypton, Art of Astonishment, All You Need, Martin Dockery: You Belong Here,   Gender? I Hardly Know Them, and a new musical, ThunderCATS. Tickets and schedule:

Posted in Fringe 2019, News/Views | Tagged , , , , , , ,

The Wild Things eat up the box office: a record-crushing Fringe comes to an end Sunday

Reality Crack

By Liz Nicholls,

“We’ll eat you up we love you so….” — Where The Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak

The Wild Things have been rampaging through town on a Fringe tear, eating audiences up (or is it vice versa?).

Sunday night, the 38th annual edition of our monster summer theatre bash, crashed through last year’s record-breaker by selling 147,358 tickets to its 258 shows. That’s up from 134,276 at last year’s Fringe O’Saurus Rex (for 227 shows) , and 129,800 the summer before that. You can see where this is going.

Box office revenue was up to $1.72 million (with $1.4 million paid out to Fringe artists). And the carnival crowd “site visits” (848,263) were up to (from 817,000), amazingly, though it’s not as if Where The Wild Things Fringe got any special favours from the weather which, to put it politely, pretty much sucked.

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“Larger than we’ve ever been,” declares the exuberant Fringe artistic director Murray Utas who is “not afraid of growth.” But maybe even more than the celebratory news from the box office is that the spirit of “‘take a chance!’ is alive and well” — for both artists and audiences, Utas says.

The Fringe’s “Randomizer,” an online button the festival website that lets Fate pick a show for you, saw hot action, Utas reports: $120,000 in ticket sales from the Magic Eight Ball, up from $39,000 last year.

Fringe observers are constantly predicting that artists will play it safe at the Fringe. Director/ actor/ producer Utas (who restored the word “theatre” to Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival the moment he got his job six Fringes ago) demurs. As a measure of the enhanced air of risk-taking he points to the selection of shows held over next week. “We curated a hold-over series that’s as weird and wild they come, a Fringe cross-section.” Of the four shows that will play Wednesday through Saturday, “one is a performance for the ages,” (Willi Carlisle in There Ain’t No More), in which the star, who plays a startling variety of instruments, sifts through the dark-hued American experience armed with its folk music.

“One is a new play by a young writer who’s going to take the country by storm,” says Utas of The Green Line by Makram Ayache. One is  “among the weirdest experiments I’ve seen since the ‘90s.” That would be Reality Crack, an enigmatic new performance piece by and starring Candace Berlinguette and Laura Raboud.

“I saw shadows of our history at this festival,” says Utas. “And I saw new stories, too….”

And then, as a fourth Fringe Theatre holdover, there’s the sheer crazy impossibility of TEDxRFT, in which Kory Mathewson and Julian Faid actually improvise an entire TED Talk from slides they’re never seen, and audience cues of the moment.

At a Fringe where improv is constantly dreaming up new ways to verify spontaneity — from Gordon’s Big Bald Head, which promises to improvise any Fringe show from a randomly selected title in the Fringe program, to Jacob Banigan’s The Game of Death to The Royal Zissou Academy (an entire Wes Anderson movie improvised from cues), TEDxRFT counts as the smartest, the most ambitiously brainy. 

Sarah Feutl, Carmen Osahor, Jessy Ardern in Queen Lear Is Dead. Edmonton Fringe 2019.

I like that there’s room on the the Edmonton Fringe spectrum for the new generation of creators, like Ayache or Jesse Ardern (Queen Lear Is Dead), alongside experienced, stylish artists like Stewart Lemoine (A Momentary Lapse), Clinton Carew (director of The Trophy Hunt), Ryan Gladstone (Juliet: A Revenge Comedy), Trevor Schmidt (Check Me Out).

I like the Fringe’s hit-and-miss quality. Ditto the crazy mixture of polished pieces (like theatre simple’s much-travelled The Master & Margarita) and experiments, like the cluster of brand new musicals that includes Meat: The Musical, Invisible Friend: The Musical, Alberta Musical Theatre’s Baba Yaga.

Candice Roberts in Larry. Photo supplied.

I like the way the Fringe has time for shows that step boldly up to the risk factor, like Candice Roberts’ complex, fearless, and very funny portrait of a redneck dude in Larry, a reinvention of clowning if there ever was one. I like the way veterans veer off into left field at the Fringe. Sandy Paddick’s Crescendo! for example, set in a women’s community choir, is now a musical as tended by Plain Jane Theatre and Chorus Productions. Actor April Banigan tries out directing with the acidic little Quebec comedy You Are Happy.

And, hey, isn’t it heartwarming that there’s still a Fringe audience ready to take a chance on a play that is enhanced by its BYOV location? The clever Queen Lear Is Dead is a “celebration of life” in a church. Fake Ghost Tours, by a Victoria duo, takes its audiences on a tour of made-up haunted Strathcona locations (I tried to go; the show was sold out right through tonight). There’s a tale set in a miniature town: 

Chase Padgett and Christina Garies, in Chase Padgett Gets Married, at Edmonton Fringe 2019.

There was even a wedding, a real one, by definition a one-off  performance. Chase Padgett and Christine Garies actually got married Friday onstage at the Garneau Theatre in Chase Padgett Gets Married. And there wasn’t a ticket to be had, for love or money. A romantic at heart, Utas is pumping for a sequel: Christina Has A BabyThe happy couple has not been consulted on this.

“Festivals are a celebration. Artists and audiences are in this together….” 

Posted in Fringe 2019, News/Views | Tagged , , ,

A last weekend fling with the Fringe: see some shows!

By Liz Nicholls,

If you aren’t just a little amazed to see a long queue of people outside a theatre waiting patiently to see a 1950 absurdist play by Ionesco — at noon, on a weekday — you, my friend, are officially jaded.

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Ditto, if you squeeze into one of the last seats in a makeshift school theatre to catch a play about the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. Or you realize that the servers in a hot Strathcona restaurant have created and staged a new musical, or a young company has rediscovered a long forgotten 18th century gender-bender comedy. 

You just can’t take the Fringe, Edmonton’s best and most influential idea ever, for granted. You have to be startled by this place. And by the sheer dimensions of its favourite festival. Which brings me to the alarming realization that the Fringe does actually does end this weekend. 

The curtain doesn’t come down in the Fringe’s 50 venues in Old Strathcona and beyond till Sunday night. But Where The Wild Things Fringe, the 38th annual edition of Edmonton’s favourite festival, goes into its final weekend with box office revenue up. By Thursday night, 121,000 tickets has been sold ($1.3 million in sales), 4,000 ahead of the same point last year.

So, for your last weekend of fringing, have a look at our reviews on (all grouped under Fringe 2019) by me, Marc Horton, and Alan Kellogg. Wrap a tendril around the grapevine. Overhear the buzz. Or take a chance, experiment! After all, that’s what artists do when they try something at the Fringe. If you’re completely flummoxed in the 258-show world, let the Fringe’s Randomizer ( select for you. It just picked Things To Ruin, billed as “a theatrical rock concert,” for me.

Whatever you do, see a show. Or several. Go Wild. You haven’t fringed till you have.   


Posted in Fringe 2019, News/Views | Tagged , , ,

The Wild Things aren’t done with you yet: Fringe holdovers next week in three locations

There Ain’t No More, starring Willi Carlisle, Breaker/Fixer Productions

By Liz Nicholls,

The Wild Things haven’t finished with you yet, my theatre-hungry friends.

The 38th annual edition of our summer theatre bash might end Sunday night. But you get a reprieve on some of the Fringe hits you haven’t managed to catch yet, at three locations.

Fringe Theatre Adventures is holding over a quartet of hit shows next week, Wednesday through Saturday Aug. 31, at the Westbury Theatre (aka Fringe Stage 1). The Green Line by Makram Ayache is the play, set in war-torn Beirut. See the review HERE. TEDxRFT is an improvised TED Talk created on the spot from  slides the participants have never seen and topics from the audience they don’t know in advance. Reality Crack is a strange and wonderful two-hander set in the fissure between reality and nightmare. There Ain’t No More is a highly original solo “musical” by and starring Arkansas’s Willi Carlisle that dives into the American folklore repertoire for its characters and its tragedies. 

Tickets and schedule:, 780-409-1910.   

Mathew Hulshof and Luc Tellier in A Momentary Lapse. Photo by Ryan Parker

•At the Varscona (aka Fringe Stage 12), Teatro La Quindicina’s summer season continues with the run of Stewart Lemoine’s comedy A Momentary Lapse, Tuesday through Saturday Aug. 31.

Tickets and times: The review is HERE

•At Holy Trinity Anglican Church, home of three Fringe BYOVs, storyteller Keith Alessi continues his hit solo show Tomatoes Tried To Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life Wednesday through Saturday Aug. 31.

Tickets and times: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757,  

Posted in Fringe 2019, News/Views | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,