From the mean streets of New Jersey, a jukebox musical with two dozen hits and a real story. Jersey Boys at the Citadel, a review

Jason Sakaki, Kale Penny, Farren Timoteo (front), Devon Brayne in Jersey Boys, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

By Liz Nicholls,

The history of the jukebox musical is riddled with synthetic duds (like robbing a cash machine, and finding Monopoly money). The stand-outs that rise above are few and far between. Jersey Boys is one.

To help support YEG theatre coverage, click here.

Judging by the Citadel production that opens this week, it remains irresistible, thrilling (and the sort of night out you’ve been waiting for).

The story, says one Tommy DeVito at the start of the musical that traces the rise and fall of the ‘60s pop group the Four Seasons, is really four versions of a story by four guys. But they all go back to the same starting point, “10,000 years ago…. And a few guys under a street lamp singing someone else’s latest hit.”

The thing that you’ve  gotta love about Jersey Boys — besides that amazing string of (two dozen) irresistible No. 1 hits of course — is what sets it apart from its fellow jukebox musicals. It has one, a real story I mean. Not some cockamamie made-up narrative on which to hang a bunch of songs (Mamma Mia! I’m looking at you) or a bunch of songs just hot-glued together (We Will Rock You springs to mind).    

Farren Timoteo (front) in Jersey Boys, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

And in Julie Tomaino’s deft Citadel production of the enduringly popular 2005 Tony Award-winning Broadway hit directed by the Canadian Des McAnuff (it ran for 12 years), you get an affecting story about dreams, unexpected success and the pitfalls of fame that’s as rough-edged as the close harmonies are smooth. Music biz clichés and all, it earns its songs. And these are delivered, in a captivating way, by a cast led by Farren Timoteo, Kale Penny, Devon Brayne and Jason Sakai as the four guys from the mean streets of blue-collar New Jersey who would become the Four Seasons — named after a Garden State bowling emporium.      

Here’s an intriguing cultural phenom: at the crammed preview I was kindly allowed to attend this week, a sizeable student club brigade whose parents weren’t even born in the ‘60s, went nuts over Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like A Man, and the rest. Along with the all-ages crowd they roared their approval in an ovation that felt anything but dutiful. And that youthful response felt almost as cheering as the impromptu moment after a Jersey gig that an Italian street kid named Frankie Castellucio revealed his stratospheric range.

He’s played by Timoteo, a startlingly multi-talented and engaging Edmonton theatre artist — actor/ director/ playwright/ musician/ artistic director — who lands the signature style, with its distinctive falsetto swoops, in an uncanny way. It’s a performance that captures, too, a certain vulnerability, a genuine sense of wonder in making music, getting noticed, getting juiced by making an audience happy.

It’s a hard-scrabble Italian neighbourhood in the blasted wastelands of North Jersey that Tommy DeVito, thug-turned-musician-turned talent scout, introduces at the outset. Kyle Penny’s performance as the bad-ass Tommy, who takes full credit for discovering Frankie (“I’m the Michelangelo…”), is full of cocky swagger. There are three ways up and out of that scene, Tommy tells us. You can get arrested (he himself rotates in and out of Rahway), or get “mobbed up,” or … become a star.” All three are part of the pungent story of Jersey Boys.

Kale Penny, Farren Timoteo, Daniela Fernandez in Jersey Boys, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price

Soon Frankie, hairdresser-to-be, would be Frankie Vally, married to a feisty Italian chick Mary Delgado (Daniela Fernandez) who tells him it has to be spelled Valli (“y is a bullshit letter and you’re Italian”). And, armed with close three-part harmony and that helium falsetto floating on top, along with the song-writing expertise of Bob Gaudio (Sakaki), the boys from Jersey would soon  be singing their own hits. And the world would be singing Shereeee, Sherry baby right along with them.

The laconic bass player Nick Massi, played by Devon Brayne, tells another side of the story. And so does Gaudio, in Jason Sakaki’s performance a wry straight-shooter with a certain under-aged innocence about him. He has a built-in hype detector (“I’m a one-hit wonder again.”)    

Farren Timoteo in Jersey Boys, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

The trajectory is set forth, in smart, exposition-concealing fashion, by the joint librettists Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. To this, costume designer’s Leona Brausen’s vivid array of ‘60s frocks, bowling shirts and jackets is indispensable. The early scenes are full of vivid characters: tough-cookie women (there’s no shortage of outrageously inflated cartoon Joisy accents and bum-wiggling cartoon gaits in the ensemble), trips to “the Rahway Academy of the Arts” as Tommy puts it, Mob bosses (Sheldon Elter as Gyp DeCarlo) and lackeys (Billy Brown as Joe Pesci, yup, that Joe Pesci), loan collectors (Andrew MacDonald-Smith as Norm Waxman).

And amongst a selection of setbacks en route to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — including “come back when you’re Black” and the struggle to get the airplay that underpinned recording — they meet record producer Bob Crewe. He’s played in style by Vance Avery, who claims ”the best ears in the business” and exhorts the lads to solve their identity crisis.

Jason Sakaki, Farren Timoteo, Kale Penny, Devon Brayne in Jersey Boys, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price

Act I is the climb to Top-40 stardom — tough guys doing sweet harmony — with a repertoire of impossibly contagious hits built into your ribcage, who move with that kooky but utterly signature boy group choreography of synchronized leans and bent arms (director Tomaino is the choreographer). It’s in Act II that Jersey Boys turns into the kind of jukebox musical where the songs are actually related to the story. Things are getting strained — money, promises broken, mob debts, domestic strife under the pressures of constant touring. Working My Way Back to You and Bye Bye Baby, for example, get additional resonance from being part of the storytelling. And Tomaino’s cast really bite into the crack that opens between performance and “real life.”

There’s sadness (and a perfunctory entrance by a Catholic priest) in the tragic story of Frankie’s daughter. And that wedding reception staple Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You,  and especially the audience uproar it creates as Timoteo sings it, is a big moment in the story of a comeback after a slide, with the desperation that implies.

Brian Kenny’s impeccable sound design and a band led by Steven Greenfield, make the singular style happen before your very ears. The set, jointly credited to Gillian Gallow and Beyata Hackborn, is a metal grid and catwalk, that transforms from an evocation of industrial North Jersey to the flashing proscenium of concert performance.

And the Great Jukebox returns the band to Frankie Valli’s favourite moment, from the sadder-but-wiser perspective of years on the road: “four guys under a street lamp, when it was all still ahead of us.”


Jersey Boys: the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons

Theatre: Citadel

Created by: Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (book), Bob Audio (music) Bob Crewe (lyrics)

Directed and choreographed by: Julie Tomaino

Starring: Farren Timoteo, Devon Brayne, Vance Avery, Kale Penny, Jason Sakaki, Daniela Fernandez, Sheldon Elter, Billy Brown, Samantha Currie, Andrew MacDonald-Smith

Running: through March 12

Tickets and info: 780-425-1820,

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on From the mean streets of New Jersey, a jukebox musical with two dozen hits and a real story. Jersey Boys at the Citadel, a review

Getting the jump on time: Love Is For Poor People and The Exquisite Hour, a Lemoine double-bill at Teatro Live!

Rachel Bowron in Love Is For Poor People, Teatro Live!. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls,

“So, tonight we’re going to be remembering my glorious future….” declares the glamorous and worldly star ‘Her’ we meet in Love Is For Poor People.

To help support YEG theatre coverage, click here.

In the new Stewart Lemoine that premieres Friday as half of Teatro Live’s winter double-bill, the brain-teasing proposition at play, as Rachel Bowron explains, is a stage memoir of a long, lavishly rewarded, event-filled life, romantic history, and career — before most of it has happened. “A toast to all that will soon be what once was.” 

“Very Lemoinian, I think,” laughs Teatro leading lady Bowron of this knotty little time puzzle. She thinks of the piece as “a nod to the styles of Elaine Stritch’s At Liberty and Bea Arthur’s Just Between Friends, with their fascinating up-front collages of reminiscence and confession. And this one has the Lemoinian twist that, as ’Her’ explains at the outset, there are considerable advantages to getting the jump on time, and doing pre-emptively autobiographical memoirs of long full lives richly lived. Before they’ve actually happened and the star is old. “This is a fun show,” says Her. “But I don’t seriously think you’d want to see me doing it at an advanced age.” 

Rachel Bowron is 'Her' in Love Is For Poor People, Teatro Live!. Photo by Ryan Parker.In a career full of juicy roles in Teatro comedies — most recently the formidably charming winery bistro hostess in last season’s Caribbean MuskratLove Is For Poor People is Bowron’s first-ever solo play. That it happens to be the “first ever single-character show” in Lemoine’s long canon of comedies feels like a special occasion, too. “Freeing, and also terrifying,” says Bowron of having the stage to herself. “There’s something very fun about getting to play with the show on my own! A great exercise for my brain….”

And not only that, Bowron, as the costume designer for the double-bill, got to try on her own old-school Hollywood glam shoes. “They’re pretty uncomfortable,” she says cheerfully, which is a kind of certificate of merit for showbiz footwear.

It’s an assignment in high contrast to the costuming requirements of the other half of the Lemoine double-bill. For Teatro’s first foray into the winter season in a decade and a half, Love Is For Poor People is paired with the moving and insightful The Exquisite Hour, one of Lemoine’s most beloved and oft-produced comedies. His only two-hander, which premiered in 2002, has an intriguing proposition about time, too. 

Mat Busby and Jenny McKillop in The Exquisite Hour, Teatro Live!. P{hoto by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

It happens in the real time of the title, when a mystery woman arrives in the backyard of an unassuming “supervisor of merchandise receiving” one summer evening and asks him politely for an hour. “Are you satisfied with what you know?” And the unexceptional life of Mr. Zachary Teal, unspooling regularly day to day, will never be the same, its horizons exploded by a sense of possibility. Teatro faves Mat Busby and Jenny McKillop star in the revival directed, like its companion piece, by the playwright. So… Bowron’s challenge has been costumes that are”well put-together but unexceptional. Plain without being drab.” Mr. Zachary Teal would never stand out in a crowd. 

Should the exuberant Bowron ever decide to do her own personal stage memoir, à la Stritch, it might start with her declaration that “I was such a shy kid. And as soon as I went into theatre that melted away.” She was such an ardent convert that post-Vic (Edmonton’s arts high school), and a Grade 9 debut as the Winkie general in Wizard of Oz (“I got to wear a red trench coat!”), she immediately repaired to Grant MacEwan’s musical theatre program and “had a lot of fun.” From musicals like On The Town and Nine, she’s carried around the wisdom of director Tim Ryan ever since: “make it work, figure it out.” 

Bowron got her first Teatro gig as “back-up to the Jellicles” in a fund-raiser. “Yup, that checks out, slinging licorice (at the concession) and Cats,” she laughs.  And in 2010, her official Teatro debut was a declaration, par excellence, of non-shyness. In The Hoof and Mouth Advantage (by Lemoine and Jocelyn Ahlf), the premise of a couple of  down-at-heels Depression Era vaudevillians opening a theatre school in the middle of the prairie hinterland, produced a show-stopper: the performance by Bowron. The “a monster child with a bow in her hair,” as she puts it, was Oiseau, a song-and-dance exhibitionist in a party dress. The capper? By the end, Oiseau’s revelation was that she wasn’t actually a little girl; “she’s a lot older than she thinks she is … like 30.” Bowron is amused by the memory.

“I met Leona Brausen and Cathy Derkach, comedy forces,” says Bowron of this turning-point production. “And I thought ‘OK I want to stay here’.” And she saw “some heavy-hitters, in performances and shows,” like Happy Toes and Evelyn Strange. “So exciting, so smart, the Lemoine one-two punch of being hilarious and poignant. His sneak attack in beautiful smart shows: I wanted to be around that,” she says of the company.

And so she has. Music has often been part of Bowron’s Teatro appearances. In Angels on Horseback, a kind of real-time party, she and Ryan Parker played a very funny self-regarding cover band called Medley. In Eros and the Itchy Ant, she was a piano teacher rattled by questions of artistic interpretation from a baker (Parker), curious about a Grade 1 piano piece. In a laugh out loud scene in A Lesson in Brio, Bowron was a singer-songwriter at an open-mic night in Lloydminster. 

Lately Bowron has been expanding her theatrical repertoire with costume design, mentored by Teatro’s brilliant resident costumer Leona Brausen. She was Brausen’s assistant, “fulfilling her design,” with Teatro’s venture into digital streaming. And then assumed the full design assignment with a hilariously rapid-fire succession of costumes and wigs in A Fit, Happy Life in 2021, in which Kristen Padayas played high-maintenance customers, one after the other, of a department store bed salesman.

In last summer’s revival of Lemoine’s only farce A Grand Time In The Rapids, Bowron’s vivid ‘50s-style costumes, got rearranged (and sometimes disappeared) in the course of impending chaos: a true test of designer skill. 

“It was learning by osmosis, always asking Leona questions, and watching how her brain works,” says Bowron of this new venture of her theatre career. ” And it’s a testament to how invested (the ensemble) is in making a safe place to start giving it a whirl, helping us grow in myriad ways.”    

That’s the thing about the like-minded members of Teatro ensemble, says Bowron happily. Check: sense of humour, aesthetic, response to comedy. “We make each other laugh. The weirdest, smallest thing someone says, or a poem we somehow all know, launches us into some obscure musical theatre song. A melding of theatre nerd minds!” 

And there’s this: tucked into Chantel Fortin’s set for Love Is For Poor People are bottles here and there. Her is very fond of champagne; it punctuates her reminiscences at crucial moments. All the bottles are Veuve Cliquot, “and they’re all from the office.” 


Love Is For Poor People/ The Exquisite Hour

Theatre: Teatro Live

Written and directed by: Stewart Lemoine

Starring: Rachel Bowron, Mat Busby, Jenny McKillop

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Friday through March 5



Posted in Previews | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Getting the jump on time: Love Is For Poor People and The Exquisite Hour, a Lemoine double-bill at Teatro Live!

A knock-out production of The Royale at the Citadel, a review

Austin Eckert in The Royale, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price

By Liz Nicholls,

It’s got a powerful, bruising story to tell, lifted from early 20th century history, where boxing, celebrity and racial hatred in America deliver a maximum sucker punch. 

But it’s the theatrical right hook on which that story gets told that makes Marco Ramirez’s The Royale a knockout, as you’ll see in the terrific production directed by André Sills at the Citadel.

To help support YEG theatre coverage, click here.

It’s a drama set in the 1905 boxing circuit, amongst fighters, trainers, promoters. And not one real physical blow lands, person to person, though we feel the reverb and flinch every time. A lighted boxing ring floats in a shadowy dark world, designed by Whittyn Jason and lighted with the tones of a previous century by Steve Lucas. In foot stomps, rhythmic claps, and choreographed moves and reactions (movement director Shakeil Rollock), an ingeniously stylized conjuring of those punches, the pugilist’s ballet as a commentator has said, the story of Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson comes to life. 

Or maybe the chamber we’re in is the mind of the gifted, cocky Black boxer, an aspirationally natty dresser (costumes by Rachel Forbes) who dreams of being the heavyweight champion of the world in 1905.  The atmospheric sound design created by Dave Clarke suggests that, with its echoing reverb. And so does the memory-scape way characters appear and disappear from darkness.  

Played in Sills’ production by Austin Eckert in a performance of charisma, nervy bravado, and reserves of angst, Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson is clearly a fictional allusion to an historical celeb. Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight world champion, got the title by luring a legendary white title-holder out of retirement for “the fight of the century” in 1910. For that groundbreaking victory and step forward, as history tells us, a terrible price was paid. In a segregated racist America it unleashed a horrifying backlash of violence across the country.

Mohamed Ahmed and Troy O’Donnell in The Royale, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

The Royale populates a whole world ingeniously with five characters, acted with  commitment and nuance by Sills’ cast. It opens with a match: Jay Jackson, the rising star of Black boxing (“toes like Jack Nimble, fists like John Henry”) vs. a young challenger, in his first pro fight. As Fish, who lands a job as Jay’s sparring partner afterward, Mohamed Ahmed captures a wary kind of grace and natural dignity, in a fine performance. 

Troy O’Donnell is vivid as Max, the motor-mouth promoter (boxing’s “only interracial promoter!” he claims) and referee, an exuberant, self-justifying and more than slightly sleazy hawker of hype. Max claims his progressive bona fides, but his run-of-the-mill racist streak gets regularly outed in throwaways about the status quo. “It ain’t like he’s a bigot,” Max declares of Bixby the white champ with whom Jay is hot to land a title bout. “His driver’s a Negro.” Or, when push comes to shove: “How would you like it if I asked Jay to get in the ring with a goddam grizzly bear?”

Be patient, he keeps reminding Jay. How many ‘coloureds’ ever get their picture on page five of the tabloids. “Why not the front page?” demands Jay.  

Alexander Thomas and Austin Eckert in The Royale, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

Jay’s trainer Wynton, played with compelling authenticity, weight, and  knowing worldliness by Alexander Thomas, sees right through all the persiflage. It’s his story of being a youthful fighter, scrabbling blind-folded for coins thrown by white standers-by, that gives The Royale its title. In the theatrical terms of the play, Wynton’s coaching instructions, blow by blow, apply both to moves in the ring and at press conferences, a fight that in the end is harder to win. “Whatever you choose to do, you do it alone.” 

It’s when Jay’s sister Nina arrives in his mind from outside the ring, with warnings about the dangerous backlash that will happen if he wins and fells a white cultural icon, that real tension is unleashed. Jameela McNeil really bites into the role in a memorable way as she accuses him of being “so caught up in playing David to Goliath, in being the one fish swimming upstream….” that he’s forgotten the danger to his family, his race. In an audacious theatrical gambit, she has a double role that in itself is a gut-puncher.

For a Black hero, it’s a deck that’s stacked, a fight that’s fixed, in a ring that’s circumscribed. And the price of moving history even a little bit forward is scary. Is winning ever more than a draw? This is an evening in the theatre that leaves you off-centre, on your wrong foot. Don’t miss it. 


The Royale

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Marco Ramirez

Directed by: André Sills

Starring: Austin Eckert, Mohamed Ahmed, Jameela McNeil, Troy O’Donnell, Alexander Thomas

Running: through Feb. 19

Tickets: 780-425-1820,   

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on A knock-out production of The Royale at the Citadel, a review

Now we know what we’ve been missing: fun. Ronnie Burkett’s Daisy Theatre is back at Theatre Network with Little Willy

Little Willy photo supplied by the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes

By Liz Nicholls,

It was one of those nights out in the theatre that make you know what you’ve been missing. Fun. Surprise. A feeling you’d have to call wonder — when you wake up the next morning and can’t quite believe what you saw the night before.

To help support YEG theatre coverage, click here.

Last night, in a theatre that’s come through fire to rise again, a Canadian artist of dazzling originality returned to us. And, in a vision of delight, Ronnie Burkett brought with him to the new Theatre Network a large and rambunctious ensemble of diminutive but larger-than-life actors we’ve met before, and loved, in other theatrical circumstances. 

The string-puller extraordinaire, who presides from above the stage, lets the company loose, in all their living breathing gesturing  mouthy little 3-D selves, in a bawdy semi-improvised cabaret. With Little Willy, Toronto-based Ronnie Burkett, bona fide son of the prairies, returns to a theatre where he has a history dating back more than three decades. And in this latest from the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes, the Daisy Theatre seems to have acquired a hanger-on. It’s William Shakespeare himself, backstage with his famous “very large canon” (Burkett has never met an entendre he didn’t want to double) in his perfect doublet-and-hose. “Bill?? Bill! Get out here….” 

Little Willy, The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes. Photo supplied.

The ensemble, who’d arrived at the theatre to premiere Esmé Massengill’s latest musical All Hands On Dick, discover the theatre has advertised Shakespeare, as Canadian theatres are wont to do. There are negotiations. Debbie the Witch has kindly offered to play all three witches in The Scottish Play and been hustled off the stage (“fuck off Debbie!” we chant).

In the end the company scrambles to have a go at Romeo and Juliet. And all the leading ladies of the company, flamboyant femmes d’un certain age exquisitely dressed by costumer Kim Crossley, know a juicy ingenue role when they see one. They clamour to be Juliet.  Collegial, ha! 

Who will play Juliet? The battling divas of The Daisy Theatre in Little Willy, chanteuse Jolie Jolie and Esmé Massengill, in Little Willy. The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes. Photo supplied.

Esmé Massengill the“monster diva” (pronouns “me/myself/I”) arrives onstage as snarly and imperious as ever. She’s aggrieved by the sheer inadequacy of our Edmonton-in-winter response to her starry presence, and her “biblical showgirl costume.” She and the ancient French chanteuse Jolie Jolie have a musical duel, composed like all the clever songs by John Alcorn. And the histrionic classicist Lillian Lunkhead, half of a travelling brother-and-sister act fresh from their two-hand Othello in Didsbury, is keen to revisit a youthful triumph as Juliet.  

The plump prairie matron Mrs. Edna Rural from Turnip Corners AB, (the self-styled “silly old biddy in a Sears housedress” and one of Burkett’s most enduringly popular characters), has the Nurse’s role. And in a scene that’s both comical and tender, she sets her ample self down in her favourite armchair to show off her new Naturalizers from the Bay, and to remember her own 62-year history with the undemonstrative Stanley Rural (“He died. (pause) I think.”), by way of guiding Juliet toward womanhood. 

Schnitzel the non-binary fairy we first met in the improvised Daisy shows in Tinka’s New Dress, has a particular purchase on the balcony scene, and can’t see any reason not to be either/or (or both) about Romeo and Juliet. Actually, the balcony scene is a tour de force of complex puppetry with both marionettes below and hand-puppets up there on the hand of “god” above.     

It’s a clever, hilariously wayward entertainment. In a riotous scene the superannuated Vegas entertainer Rosemary Focaccia in a fringed dress and white boots, delivers a showstopper song and dance number of extraordinary brio. How her back-up orchestra of eight union musicians arrives onstage is something for you to enjoy in the moment. Suffice it to say that a willing and charmingly amazed audience member, Katie, came up to the stage to assist on opening night. 

The cast list will vary night to night, as determined by the satirical inspirations of Burkett, who’s a fearless improviser. And so will the length, from 90 minutes to two hours he says at the outset. Naturally “the republic of Alberta” and its notorious backward slide to the right, can expect to take some shots (and Burkett, who’s from Medicine Hat, takes pleasure). Ditto the bereft downtown, the sorry decline of the Bay, the state of Canadian theatre, assorted Edmonton theatres….

On opening night, among other characters, we met the “volunteer stage manager” who’s a librarian by day, and the adenoidal indie singer-songwriter Indy Fret who offers to provide acoustic music for the Capulet’s party. Retired major general Leslie Fukwah puts in an appearance, gorgeously appointed in his late mama’s gown. And Jesus Christ, what’s he doing here? Jesus Christ, I mean. But first, as per Daisy tradition, there’s a striptease by Dolly Wiggler who doffs ’em Elizabethan style, to a particularly amusing Alcorn song.

The marionettes created by Burkett are, as his fans will instantly remember, gorgeously  sculpted, and kitted out in the kind of detail-to-scale — in every glove, pleated skirt, beaded flapper frock, librarian’s cardigan, boot — that leaves you kind of breathless. And perhaps the most astonishing thing about the complex virtuosity that breathes life into marionettes — from the most minute flick of a wrist, tiny shrug, inclination of chin, knee-bend, bum wiggle — is the magical way that extraordinary technique simply disappears from view as you believe the characters. 

With its 14-year-old heroine, R&J is an apt and very funny playground for Burkett’s special fascination, as both artist and artisan, with aging:  eye bags and cheek sags, the way boobs hang and shoulders hunch, the dance moves that creak with time. And his affection for the faded, and sometimes tawdry, old-school showbiz makes for a complex tone, a mix of amusement, mockery, and sweet admiration. 

In these parlous times, the sheer riskiness of inviting game and willing guys from the audience, ready to be shirtless novice puppeteers, turns into one of the funniest scenes of the whole evening. And an uproarious let’er rip good time in the company of a  provocateur becomes a joyful one too. Little Willy is not just an acknowledgment of but an homage to the audience. Burkett not only plays for us, he plays with us, lets us in to the playfulness at heart of it all.

And, as little Schnitzel tells us, with touching gravity, we’re bonded for life. There’s genius in that. 


Little Willy

Theatre: The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes

Created and performed by: Ronnie Burkett

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy

Running: through Saturday


Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on Now we know what we’ve been missing: fun. Ronnie Burkett’s Daisy Theatre is back at Theatre Network with Little Willy

Behind the red door: a Forever Home for Rapid Fire Theatre

By Liz Nicholls,

A Forever Home is for dreaming in. For feeling you have a place in the world, imagining your potential, getting creative. 

To help support YEG theatre coverage, click here.

At 42, Rapid Fire Theatre, Edmonton’s premier improv company and its longest running, is experienced at sleeping on other people’s couches, so to speak. They are, after all, an agile ensemble of performers who pack light and specialize in making it up as they go along. They’ve always known how to make do — with other people’s spaces and stuff, corners of other people’s lobbies, back shelves in other people’s bar fridges. 

They had Theatresports matches in the old Theatre Network when it was an ex-Kingdom Hall dive near the Coliseum. They spent 20 years of late nights in the old Varscona, another eight downtown in the Citadel’s Zeidler Hall. And for the last year they’ve been in the black box warehouse space now occupied by Workshop West (the Gateway).  

And now, as I got to see last weekend, Rapid Fire has a home sweet (forever) home of their own, specially designed for improv. In the ‘hood that is their natural habitat, the lively Old Strathcona entertainment district. With their own red door, and their inspirational welcome sign, a light-up mantra in red neon, hanging over their own bar: Let’s Make Shit Up.

They’ve moved into the Strathcona Exchange Building, a historic old telephone exchange-turned-phone museum on 83rd Ave. that we all recognize from its summers as a Fringe venue — less than 50 steps from the Next Act, the Strathcona theatre bar. Telus still uses part of the building for phone and internet digital services. 

It’s a February Sunday afternoon, a scant year after the entire interior of the old building has been gutted, and a fleeting 14 months since RFT signed a long-term lease (20 years, with two 10-year renewals) with Telus. Which has got to be some sort of land speed record for re-builds. Phase 1, which includes a 160 to 170-seat mainstage theatre specially designed for improv, is a $3.5 million re-fit designed by Group2 the architecture/ interior design firm responsible for Theatre Network’s new Roxy on 124 St. 

And I’m on a RFT Forever Home tour with artistic director Matt Schuurman and general manager Sarah Huffman. They positively revel in the historical antecedents of a building that dates back more than a century — intriguing in itself since they’re a hip improv company that’s all about the immediate unscripted moment. 

Huffman has a special connection. It was only when she got her RFT job a year ago, just after the fateful signing of the lease, that she discovered that her grandfather had worked on creating a phone museum in the building. 

‘City Telephone Exchange’ is carved over the front door. “I love the idea: communication, bringing together, exchange,” says Schuurman an improviser himself, and a videographer and projection artist. “I love the fit! It’s literally what we do….” 

As a Fringe venue the Phone Exchange involved worming your way into the “theatre,” and there were lots of wrong turns. The old building was a cramped, much-divided space with low ceilings and dingy grey-brown carpets about which nostalgia is futile. We’d race up the stairs inside the front door, and squeeze down a skinny hallway to get into the makeshift “theatre,” do an abrupt U-turn since you were on the “stage” by then, and clamour up improvised bleachers.

The lobby of Rapid Fire Theatre’s Forever Home.

A revelation happens up the stairs: the startling sight of a pleasingly airy, spacious, high-ceilinged, light-filled lobby, with windows giving out on Old Strathcona. Where did all the space and light come from? Walls are gone. “We ripped out the ceiling and got an extra three or four feet (of height) that way,” says Schuurman. 

Minus the gross carpet, the floor turned out to be chic cement inlaid with rock. Schuurman points out a series of smallish plugged circles embedded in it. That’s where wires from the phone operators of yore in the basement exchange came out. You imagine them all down there, head sets on, just like in Bells Are Ringing, the 1956 Judy Halliday musical revived by Plain Jane Theatre a few years ago. 

Rapid Fire Theatre lobby.

The box office is at the entrance end of the lobby. Against a brick wall at the other, there’s a bar (bi-level for wheelchair patron accessibility) and its adaptable glowing pep talk. Turn off two letters and “Let’s make shit up” becomes “Let’s make it up.” Or how about just leaving “sh”? 

The Rapid Fire ensemble, about 45 performers strong at the moment, really need, and use, a lobby: hanging out translates into new improv teams, new long-form concepts, new festivals. “It’ll be so great to have people in here, a space people can enjoy before, or after, performances,” says Huffman. 

Rapid Fire artistic director Matt Schuurman and general manager Sarah Huffman, and The Nose.

In the middle of the floor awaiting a wall mounting is a giant nose, acquired from a World of Science body exhibit auction. “Our performers were ‘we have to have the nose!’,” reports Schuurman. “So someone is making glasses and a moustache for it, and it will really be OURS.” 

And they’ve kept a round window in the floor, an outsized glass manhole cover with a view to the subterranean caverns where the telephone operators of old did their work. “We’re not sure what we’ll use it for. A lighting installation maybe?” says Schuurman. In any case, Rapid Fire is the only theatre in town with a “cable vault” and a wall hanging of phone switcher units, “another little nod to the origin of the space. Even the (configuration) of the sound proofing is based on old cable diagrams.”

a wall hanging from telephone exchange history.

An attractively curvilinear wall, slatted with foam and fabric for soundproofing and acoustics, separates the lobby from the theatre. “There’s a continuous flow to it,” says Huffman of the undulating impulse that leads you into the house. 

RFT artistic director Matt Schuurman and general manager Sarah Huffman in the deluxe new all-gender theatre bathroom

And that’s where we’re going, after a moment to ogle the local gender-inclusive washroom, all stalls, with locally designed showbiz lighting. The re-fit has happened under the watch of an “accessibility consultant.” And, unique to Edmonton theatre, there’s a dedicated “mindfulness” room, “for anyone who needs, for whatever reason, a quiet time away from a crowd,” says Schuurman. 

The main theatre in Rapid Fire Theatre’s Forever Home. Photo by yours truly.

The theatre itself, with 160 to 170 soft seats, some red some charcoal (and all with cup-holders), is a beauty. Six rows gently curve around a shallow moon-shaped stage, a proscenium modified with a thrust. It’s low, only about six inches high, a gilt-edged invitation to step off and into the audience, and vice versa.

It’s a theatre that satisfies the deal-breaker requirement for improv: closeness, intimacy with the audience. Improv plays with the audience. The audience is part of the show, and performance is a constant interaction, an exchange of cues and people between stage and the house seats. It’s not a passive entertainment. The new improv theatre is everything the long narrow Zeidler — the long narrow ex-cinema at the Citadel — wasn’t. 

At the back of the house you’re only six rows from the stage. Behind that is a drinks counter and bar stools, defined by “cage-match” mesh, a motif that honours Rapid Fire’s flagship improv entertainment Theatresports (Schuurman calls it “the wrestling match of theatre”). From the stage you’ll be able to see the expressions on faces in the back row of the audience. 

There’s room closest to the stage for two rows of “loose, detachable seats, removable for for wheelchair access, or cabaret tables, or in the case of kids shows, cushions on the floor. Flexibility is a big asset: RFT is the busiest theatre in town with a rotating roster of some 300 performances a year, some weekly, some one-off.

So what can an improv theatre company get up to in a 14,000 square-foot space, 7,000 or so on each floor? Phase 1 is all about the public spaces (it’s a Junos venue in March). Outside the scope of that budget for now — fund-raising is ongoing — is a big empty future green room on the east side of the space, fixtures and furniture to come. It looks bigger that the Shoctor green room at the Citadel, but then it might need to hold three dozen or more festival participants from time to time. Dressing rooms, including one that’s barrier-free and suitable for pre-show smudging, await completion too.

The classes and public workshops that are Rapid Fire’s bread and butter will happen in the 7,000-plus square feet of basement, says Huffman. So will a second stage, a smaller flexible black box rehearsal and performance space, capacity less than 100 (take note, Fringe). And for the first time Rapid Fire will have offices, lighted through the glass brick along the west side  of the building.   “Maybe we’ll start with a folding table,” grins the latter. 

Yes, the improvisers with a four-decade history of making it up have dreamed big plans. And now they’re home.



Posted in Features, News/Views | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Behind the red door: a Forever Home for Rapid Fire Theatre

A week of many choices on Edmonton stages of every shape and size

Austin Eckert in The Royale, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

By Liz Nicholls,

A crazy week in Edmonton theatre is underway. (So don’t go trying to land a stage from which to deliver your own innovative modern dance movement memoir; they’re all occupied.) 

To help support YEG theatre coverage, click here.

•At the Citadel, the much postponed production of The Royale finally opens Thursday. The 2013 play by the American writer Marco Ramirez, loosely based on real events, chronicles the struggles of a Black boxer in a racially segregated world in the early years of the 20th century. ln the America of 1905 can Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson realize his dream of being the heavyweight champion of the world? He’s up against it.

Stratford and Shaw Festival star André Sills directs the five-actor production led by Austin Eckert as Jay that runs through Feb. 19. Tickets:, 780-425-1820.

Girl Brain’s Alyson Dicey, Ellie Heath, Caley Suliak in the deluxe bathroom at Theatre Network. Photo supplied.

•At Theatre Network, Another F!*#@$G Festival (soon to be renamed by… you) — adult, contemporary, and multi-disciplinary — starts tonight and runs through Feb. 12 at the Roxy. Its muse is adult, contemporary, and multi-disciplinary, and includes such artists as Rebecca Merkley, Lilith Fair, and Girl Brain. The mainstage headliner is Little Willy, in which the great marionettiste Ronnie Burkett and his naughty Daisy Theatre ensemble return to TN to have their way with Romeo and Juliet. Check out the 12thnight interview with Ronnie Burkett, and our preview survey of the F!*#@$G lineup. Tickets, the full schedule, and your chance to rename the festival:

Omisimawiw by Shyanne Duquette, RISER Edmonton. Poster image supplied.

•RISER Edmonton, which launched its 2023 quartet of shows with After Faust last week (check out the 12thnight review), continues this week at the Backstage Theatre with the premiere of Omisimawiw at the Backstage Theatre. Shyanne Duquette’s new play, titled with the Cree word for elder sister, has a remarkable real-life backstory. Have a peek at my interview with the playwright before its Nextfest run last June.

Duquette talks about the uncanny experience of meeting her sister for the first time on the LRT. There was just something about the young woman she saw on the train, something familiar. So she made the overture: “Hey, is your dad my dad?” In this encounter Duquette found not only her sister but the inspiration for her first play, all about self-discovery, validating her Indigenous identity, and connecting to the Indigenous culture.

In RISER, the Edmonton branch of Why Not Theatre’s national initiative,  Omisimawiw has been boosted by the support and mentorship indie productions really need to flourish. Danielle LaRose directs the RISER production that runs Thursday through Sunday. It stars Duquette herself and Emily Berard. Tickets:

•In honour of the Cupid season and all its alluring complications, Opera Nuova offers us a pair of chamber-sized one-act musicals, Romance Romance at the vintage Capitol Theatre in Fort Edmonton Park. The Little Comedy, Act I of the 1988 Broadway double-act for four performers, by Keith Herrmann (music) and Barry Harman (book and lyrics), is set in turn-of-the-century Vienna and based on an Arthur Schnitzler story. A couple of upmarket Viennese swells decide to play at being impoverished bohemians to see if that’ll be an aphrodisiac. Act II, Summer Share, is from a Jules Renard play, updated to the 1980s in the Hamptons, where two married couples take a vacation house. Hmm, what might occur to them? 

Brian Deedrick directs the Opera Nuova production starring Justin Kautz, Erin Vandermolen-Pater, Ben Kuchera and Eli Gusdal. It runs Saturday and Sunday, then Feb. 18 and 19. Tickets:  

•Edmonton’s university theatre schools are both opening shows this week. At the U of A’s Studio Theatre it’s Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (translated by Martin Crimp), an absurdist 1959 fable of wincing timeliness in which the inhabitants of a small French town are turning into rhinoceroses — all but one man. It’s an indictment of populist extremism, mob mentality, and the kind of conformism in which fascism takes roots and grows. Ring a bell?

Jake Planinc’s production runs through Feb. 18 at the Timm’s Centre for the Arts (87 Ave. and 112 St.). Tickets:  780-492-2495,

At MacEwan University Wednesday through Sunday is London Road. Developed at the National Theatre, this highly unorthodox 2011 true crime musical uses verbatim interviews of inhabitants of an Ipswich street where six sex workers were murdered in 2006. Jim Guedo directs the MacEwan theatre department production that runs in the Tim Ryan Theatre Lab in Allard Hall (11110 104 Ave.). Tickets:

•At Walterdale Theatre, a community company of startling ambition, The Mousetrap, the classic Agatha Christie murder mystery that ran continuously in London from 1952 to 2020. Lauren Tamke’s production runs through Feb. 18. Tickets:

•Unsung: Tales From The Front Line,
real stories from verbatim interviews with health care workers as a “performance instalation,” continues at Workshop West Playwrights Theatre‘s new home, The Gateway, through Sunday. See the 12thnight review, and a preview interview with co-creators Heather Inglis and Darrin Hagen. Tickets:

•At the Citadel through Sunday, Deafy, Chris Dodd’s captivating (and enlightening) solo show about the quest of its Deaf protagonist to negotiate a path through the Deaf and hearing worlds. See the 12thnight review here. Tickets:, 780-425-1820 .

Posted in News/Views, Previews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on A week of many choices on Edmonton stages of every shape and size

What’s on at Another F!*#@$G Festival at Theatre Network? Hey, Jesus and Shakespeare will be there

Rebecca Merkley, creator and star of Jesus Teaches Us Things, Dammitammy Productions. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

Yes, Edmonton, Another F!*#@$G Festival is coming at you. Find the festivities — multi-disciplinary, adult, contemporary — at Theatre Network, in their beautiful new Roxy on 124th St. starting Tuesday And here’s big-shot validation: Shakespeare and Jesus will be there.

Little Willy, The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes. Photo supplied.

The mainstage headliner, opening Wednesday for a four-performance run (through Saturday), is Little Willy. It marks the homecoming of a true original, the Canadian marionettiste/ actor/ playwright/ designer/ artisan Ronnie Burkett, whose history with TN goes back three decades. The Daisy Theatre, that riotous X-rated cabaret marionette ensemble, arrives with the Bard himself, to have a go at Romeo and Juliet. And all the leading ladies of the company, including burlesque star Daisy Wiggler and the aging diva Esmé Massengill, jockey for the plum ingenue role. Check out 12thnight’s interview with the ineffable Ronnie Burkett here. 

And Jesus H! Yes, the guy with the big hair and the old-school showbiz charisma is here to fill in at the Christian Bible Assembly’s Grade 2 Sunday School class. And if you thought he was kinda mopey and listless, wait till you see his rockin’ entrance in Jesus Teaches Us Things, which premiered at the Fringe last summer. It’s the inspired creation of its exuberant star Rebecca Merkley. And as I can attest, the Dammitammy Productions show, directed by the expert clown Christine Lesiak, is a riot. Check out my August review here. It runs Saturday. 

The Pansy Cabaret, starring Zachary Parsons-Lozinski and Daniel Belland. Photo supplied.

If you missed its Fringe premiere last summer, you shouldn’t miss the chance to see The Pansy Cabaret, created by the indefatigable queer history researcher Darrin Hagen (co-creator of Unsung: Tales From the Front Line, currently running at Workshop West Playwrights Theatre). It’s an extraordinary re-creation, in vintage music and the flamboyant vintage performance (by Lilith Fair, aka Zachary Parsons-Lozinski, accompanied by pianist Daniel Belland), of the period a century ago in New York City — in pansy bars, music halls and cabarets, on Broadway stages and in vaudeville — when brave queer and gender fluid performers were the hottest ticket in town. The “pansy craze” is a fascinating and little-known history (abruptly truncated by the end of Prohibition and the rise of homophobia), when playful free expression seemed possible. The Pansy Cabaret is a show that celebrates that time, a legacy that seems ever more fragile in these right-drifting times. It runs Wednesday through Friday. Have a peek at my Fringe review here.  

Girl Brain’s Alyson Dicey, Ellie Heath, Caley Suliak in the deluxe bathroom at Theatre Network. Photo supplied.

Girl Brain, that quick-witted and adventurous sketch comedy trio (Alyson Dicey, Ellie Heath, Caley Suliak), have devised a new show for Another F!*#@$G festival. Humans Never On Stage (Saturday) is inspired by Working, the 1974 Studs Terkel oral history volume in which he got working people talking about what they do and how they feel about it. The monologues are based on Girl Brain’s verbatim interviews, and an interview with the girls about the experience of gathering them. Theatre Network’s Bradley Moss directs. 

Marv n’ Berry, a five-member hit sketch comedy troupe — Chris Power-Borger, Quinn Contini, Nikki Hulowski, Mike Robertson, Sam Stralak — arrives onstage Thursday and Friday. 

The range of arts experience is wide. There’s a burlesque night Thursday:  Bosom Buddies by the joint forces of House of Hush Burlesque and Capital City Burlesque,. There’s a music night Sunday, with AV & The Inner City, Tzadeka, and Maria Dunn. 

The lineup includes a workshop performance Saturday of a new musical What Was Is All (formerly titled Host Town), by Jacquelin Walters and Michael Watt. Currently in development, the musical takes us to a rural commune whose inhabitants are preparing in divergent ways for the end of the world. Presented by Nextfest, the performance showcases songs and scenes from the new piece. 

And there’s visual art, too. The Human Experience features the photography of Curtis Trent (a record of the 1992 Toronto Pride parade), Larry Louie (whose photos speak to human resilience in extraordinarily harsh circumstances), and Ryan Parker (who takes us Backstage in the theatre world).  

The F!*#@$G kicks off Tuesday, with opening ceremonies that feature Mercy Funk and iHuman, among others. The full schedule and tickets for all F!*#@$G stage events are at  



Posted in Previews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on What’s on at Another F!*#@$G Festival at Theatre Network? Hey, Jesus and Shakespeare will be there

A new season, a new mission, all new work: Thou Art Here in 2023

By Liz Nicholls,

A dozen years ago, a couple of emerging Edmonton theatre artists in love with Shakespeare started a theatre collective that, light on its feet, would take them along with their favourite playwright to the people — in assorted disguises and in unexpected locations. They’ve taken the Bard to bars and bedrooms, museums, historic homes, cinemas and subway stations, street corners, into parks, onto puppet stages, into a cemetery.

To help support YEG theatre coverage, click here.

Since then the collective started by Andrew Ritchie and Neil Kuefler has expanded, to include core artists Alyson Dicey and Mark Vetsch. It has hatched a contemporary sibling, You Are Here Theatre, premiered new Canadian plays, unleashed clowns, yanked plays from the existing repertoire out of conventional theatres where they tended to be ensconced, into other kinds of spaces. 

On Sunday night at Boxer (the Strathcona bistro and bar), Thou Art Here, the agile artist-driven collective founded by Ritchie and Kuefler in 2011, morphed again. “We needed to re-brand,” says the former, Thou Art Here’s current artistic director, “new people, new voices, new artists as producers and directors.” The 2023 Thou Art Here season announced Sunday is a radical reimagining: “a new mission, 3 new projects, and all new work.”

What hasn’t changed for Thou Art Here is the “Here” (it remains “authentically and intentionally Edmontonian”). And for that matter, neither has the “Thou,” the audience. Thou Art Here remains devoted to “breaking the expectations of audiences, and the (conventional) rules of engagement” as Ritchie puts it. “Activating audiences outside theatres.”  

“I still love Shakespeare,” says Ritchie, who has a master’s degree in directing and creation from York University. “But I feel more motivated by theatre responding to contemporary issues and situations.” 

It’s a 2023 season entirely devoted to new work, its development and its presentation in workshop form — works-in-progress that can lead to full premiere productions in 2024. Ritchie’s Cycle (May 19 and 20), as he describes, is all about urban bicycling, a passion of his and a veritable minefield of contentious hotly current issues: the politics of active transportation in Canada, urban planning and who exactly we’re designing our cities for, climate change, the gig economy, the connection between bikes and children…. 

“People get upset so quickly,” says Ritchie cheerfully. Just think about the heated discussions ignited by the two words “bike lanes.” 

“I’m pretty passionate about it,” says Ritchie of the new solo show, inspired by his personal experience as a bicycle food courier in Toronto. Even labour issues are involved. The company he worked for, he says, pulled out of Canada completely when the workers tried to unionize. 

The multi-disciplinary potential of Cycle is expansive: “spoken text, dance elements, projection design.” He tested a 10-minute excerpt as part of Good Women Dance’s “Creative Incubator” in 2021. Unusually for Thou Art Here, the workshop presentation this spring (directed by Kristi Hansen and choreographed by Ainsley Hillyard) happens in a theatre, Studio B at the ATB Financial Arts Barn. But “I’ll be on a bicycle the whole time.” And since the bicycle is the stage, the relationship with the audience, yet to be finessed, will be unusual. 

playwright Josh Languedoc

With Civil Blood: A Treaty Story, a large-scale 13-actor piece co-created by Josh Languedoc and Neil Kuefler,  Thou Art Here returns, in an oblique way, to its first love, Shakespeare. Inspired jointly by Romeo and Juliet, Treaty 6, and Languedoc’s own supply of traditional Indigenous stories — in English, French, and Nêhiyawêwin (Cree) — Civil Blood is set in 1846, at the signing of the Treaty. The star-cross’d lovers are a Cree and a French settler. 

After workshops at both Nextfest and the Found Festival, the May 28 workshop production, directed by Kuefler at Fort Edmonton, takes us into the fort itself, and divides the audience in half to move and follow different threads of the story. The relevance of the piece is immediate and urgent. “What does it mean to be a Treaty person?” It’s a prime question for our moment in history. The cast is yet to be announced. 

The third part of Thou Art Here’s season, and new identity, is the Write Here Immersive Playwrights Unit initiative, produced by Thou Art Here’s Dicey. “We want to seed new work and send it out to the community,” says Ritchie. The idea is to “support the development of three new immersive plays by Edmonton playwrights,” set in unexpected Edmonton spaces (“I don’t know, the Mindbender before it closes?” he teases). The proposals are gathered by means of a public submission call (deadline Feb. 20). Each playwright receives a $2500 honorarium, with staged readings of the first drafts Nov. 25, and Dec. 2 and 9. 

“I hope we get tons of submissions, and it’s really hard to choose!” says Ritchie. 


Posted in News/Views, Previews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on A new season, a new mission, all new work: Thou Art Here in 2023

The feel-anxious comedy of First Date, at the Mayfield. A review

Ron Pederson and Julia McLellan in First Date, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson.

By Liz Nicholls,

“Are you ever gonna find The One?” wonders the rousing opening number of First Date, the funny, sweetly unassuming little romantic comedy musical that opened Friday at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre. A chorus tots up rather hilariously the dating fiascos built into long odds of finding a mate in the big city (or, for that matter, on Google).

To help support YEG theatre coverage, click here.   

Actually, the title of this one-act 2013 Broadway musical (book by Austin Winsberg, music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner) might be considered a bit of a spoiler. When Aaron Met Casey — under a New York skyline in a bistro elegantly designed by Ivan Brozik and set in motion by Matt Schuurman’s projections — is a classic Blind Date. With all the trepidation and hope, in varying percentages, that implies. 

We’ve all undergone them (consult your memory bank of embarrassing encounters). Blind dates unfold in real time that can either fly by in a twinkling, or seem to be standing still, leaving you stranded on the shoals of eternity. They’re a test of fortitude that can leave you with a burning desire to strangle the ‘well-meaning’ person who set you up for humiliation. Or they’re a vindication of eternal celibacy. OR … they’re the moment when you can actually glimpse a horizon, the end of the lonely, romantically under-hefted urban life in solitary.

Apparent incompatibility is the well-trod turf for romantic comedy. And it’s the playground for an entirely charming, comically inventive, strong-voiced seven-actor cast in this enjoyable Kate Ryan production. They’re led by Ron Pederson and Julia McLellan, whose frictions as Aaron and Casey are set forth in bold strokes at the outset. And they arrive on blind date night surrounded by their human “baggage,” the ex’s, the relatives, the friends who constitute their inner critics, annotating in song and dance their unwelcome advice. 

Aaron (Pederson), a Mr. Nice Guy nebbish, arrives first — a nervous wreck of a guy overdressed in a suit and tie, and obviously a novice to the dating scene. “Beer? Vodka? Xanax?” asks the waiter (Jason Hardwick). Making a welcome return to Edmonton theatre, Pederson is very funny, a veritable human pretzel of anxiety. “What exactly are we dealing with here?” asks Casey (McLellan), who consults with the Waiter while doing a reconnoitre of the twitchy guy sitting by himself at a bar table. There he is, oh no, putting in eye drops, confirming her worst fears for the date to come.

She’s a boho chick, an intimidatingly artsy tough cookie in leather, sexy red satin, and boots (costumes by Brozic). “She’s kinda indie and pretty hot, and a lot like all the things I’m not,” Aaron sings in First Impressions, one of the musical’s best. For her part in that song, Casey thinks “He’s a bit annoying/ And overdressed/ He’s got the kinda vibe that says ‘Look at me I’m stressed’.” The lyrics by Zachary and Weiner are witty (in a way the music, less distinctive, isn’t).  

The cast of First Date, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson

The date has been set up by Casey’s sister (Patricia Zentilli) who’s on hand in Casey’s mind with pep talks at every impasse. The getting-to-know-you phase is a veritable minefield into which — every time tensions seem to ease — Aaron inevitably puts his foot and trips. He’s an investment banker; she’s a photographer who works in an art gallery. To break the ice she calls him playfully a BDV, a blind date virgin. Since she admits to a history of serial blind dating, he tries to be funny and calls her a BDS, a blind date slut. And you just wince for him.  “Too soon, right?….” 

In The Awkward Pause, the chorus details dramatically all the things they’d rather be doing, including eating a plate of glass, than living through this moment. It’s the theme song for blind dating world-wide. 

Pederson and McLellan, who have captivating chemistry (and real musical theatre chops), inhabit characters who get on each other’s nerves. These are performances of real charm. Pederson has an expert  comic physicality that stands him in good stead as the wired schlemiel and a self-sabotage expert, a square in desperation mode. McLellan’s performance as the freer, sparkier, more hostile spirit with commitment issues, quick to be exasperated, is vivid and fun too.

They’re conceptual opposites. And their pasts come to life in opposing scenes. Aaron’s, triggered by the offhand revelation that Casey isn’t Jewish, takes on an amusing sort of Fiddler-esque dance number in which his late grandmother deplores his choice of girl, oy oy oy goy goy goy. Casey’s is a selection of the “bad boys” to whom she’s normally attracted, tattooed rockers and stoners. 

Meanwhile Aaron is haunted by an ex (Sarah Dowling) who dumped him at the altar, and frantic date coaching from his best friend (Michael Cox) exhorting him to be less wimpy, and never ever, on god’s green earth, to mention the ex. Casey’s phone keeps going off – recurring Bailout Song calls from her gay best friend (Robbie Towns), her personal insurance against the intolerable. She’s distracted by pep talk visitations  and reproaches by her sister (Zentilli), who’s all about identifying goals and pursuing them.

All the supporting characters are amusingly realized in specific comic performances; Ryan’s cast is excellent. As the droll and knowing server Jason Hardwick gets a highlight dance number (with tap!), that reinforces the old truism that every waiter in New York is just biding his time, waiting for the call. And there’s a galvanizing number in which, encouraged by Casey, Aaron finally exorcises the ghost of his ball-busting, manipulative ex. Casey and the audience cheered him on. 

Ryan’s production charts smartly the gradual two-steps-forward-one-back progress into honest exchanges upon which the ritual of dating is built. It’s only when First Date tries a bit too hard to land on sentiment — a number in which Aaron reveals his late mother’s regrets — that it backfires.  

You might want to call First Date is a retro comic tango of stock characters. And you wouldn’t be wrong. But the pleasure of it, in this production, is the way a first-rate cast, led by Pederson and McLellan, bursts right out of the time-honoured constraints. You want the characters to succeed and find love. You really do. 

Which is a romantic way to spend an evening in the theatre. Give yourself a chance to smile. 


First Date

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Written by: Austin Winsberg (book) and Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (music and lyrics)

Directed by: Kate Ryan

Starring: Julia McLellan, Ron Pederson, Michael Cox, Sarah Dowling, Jason Hardwick, Robbie Towns, Patricia Zentilli

Running: through March 26 

Tickets:, 780-483-4051


Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on The feel-anxious comedy of First Date, at the Mayfield. A review

Little Willy: the great marionettist Ronnie Burkett is back, with the raucous Daisy Theatre ensemble, and Shakespeare

Who will play Juliet? The battling divas of The Daisy Theatre in Little Willy, chanteuse Jolie Jolie and Esmé Massengill, in Little Willy. The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

Ronnie Burkett is back. 

Call it a reunion, or maybe a homecoming. The show that opens Wednesday at the Roxy for four performances marks the return to this theatre town, and to Theatre Network, of a Canadian artist like no other. A true original: marionettist/ playwright/ actor/ designer/ artisans aren’t exactly thick on the ground anywhere in the world.

With Little Willy, The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes is back at the Edmonton theatre — which is to say a beautifully rebuilt version of that theatre — where six of Burkett’s multi-character plays, with their big casts of diminutive actors, have a history. And a devoted following.

Little Willy, The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes. Photo supplied.

And this time, Shakespeare himself is hanging around backstage, angling for a part. In Little Willy, with its saucy Burkettian title, the Bard might be up against it. The raucous Daisy Theatre, a vaudevillian-type cabaret ensemble some 40 puppets strong, has their way with Romeo and Juliet, improvising as they go. And all the leading ladies of the company, including the aging diva Esmé Massengill, burlesque star Dolly Wiggler, and Lillian Lunkhead (half of the brother-sister duo of “Canada’s oldest and worst actors, who’ve been touring the provinces for 70 years”) are hot for the lovestruck ingenue role. 

Audience faves, like Mrs. Edna Rural, the plump matron from Turnip Corners AB, and the charming fairy child Schnitzel have supporting roles. The former plays the Nurse; she dispenses marital advice from the stronghold of her favourite armchair. Schnitzel dreams of playing either Juliet or Romeo, or both.

Why Romeo and Juliet you ask? “I wanted something most people might have some grasp on,” says Burkett,”Like A Christmas Carol, everyone thinks they know it: ‘miser, night of three ghosts, has to be redeemed, little boy with crutch, God bless us every one. End of story’.” 

“With Shakespeare I didn’t want to alienate the Saturday night date crowd, thinking they’re not smart enough…..” Thanks to high school, most of us get the gist. “Boy meets girl, opposing families, can’t be together, get together, both die. End of play’. 

Burkett laughs. “I had to know the plot points I was skipping over…. You’ve got to know the material in order to (a) ignore it or (b) fuck with it.”

The set-up, Burkett explains, is that the Daisy Theatre performers arrive at the theatre thinking they’re doing Esmé’s new musical. “But the theatre has advertised that they’re doing Shakespeare. So they’re thrown into mayhem. And the divas start fighting over who gets to play Juliet. It’s pretty loose (laughter)!” And since Shakespeare is there anyhow, he’s after the ingenue role, too, since, what the hell, the Elizabethan stage was a men-only proposition.  

“The company knows about as much about Shakespeare as the average audience member,” Burkett says. “Ah, except Esmé, who has superior knowledge. ‘I know Shakespeare! I dated him’.”   

Little Willy is not The Daisy Theatre’s first X-rated venture into the classics. Little Dickens, in which the ensemble assails A Christmas Carol — with Esmé as Scrooge, haunted by the ghost of her showbiz nemesis Rosemary Focaccia — sold out its most recent run at CanStage this past Christmas. “Are there no dinner theatres?” thunders Esmé at the two charitable people collecting on behalf of the Actors’ Benevolent Fund. “Are there no touring children’s theatre productions?”

And now Shakespeare. Burkett had actually been thinking about doing “a straight-ahead Shakespeare play” until his long-time production manager Terry Gillis talked him out of it. Theatre presenters unanimously reinforced Gillis’s thought. “When things opened up and they started booking again, everybody said, ‘could we have a version of the Daisy? It’ll get bums in seats’.” 

And they were right. “It’s the stupidest thing I’ve done,” says Burkett cheerfully. “And it’s been outrageously well received, an amazing reaction from theatres and audiences.… That’s the thing, first let’s get people back in the theatre having fun.”

Little Willy comes to Edmonton from a sold-out three-week world premiere run at the Cultch in Vancouver and a trio of sold-out weekend performances at the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary. After TN, the tour includes dates at Victoria’s Intrepid Theatre, Stanford University in California, Le Diamant in Quebec City and the Centaur in Montreal. It’s a tour Burkett didn’t see coming, given the pandemic givens. “No one was more surprised than me….”  

“Ha!, my first comeback tour!,” he says, as that unmistakeable laugh rumbles across the phone from Vancouver last week. 

Burkett spent last year building another show, “a hand puppet salon show” called The Loony Bin. “At the beginning of the pandemic I didn’t know when and how we’d go back to work…. So I figured I’d better have a small show that fits in a car, a show I can set up myself… like when I was a teenager touring in Alberta (the Medicine Hat-born puppeteer hit the road at 14).  So I built 18 hand puppet characters and a little stage that would fit in your living room. I control lights and sound.”

He has another “big scripted show” in the works, Wonderful Joe, about an old man and his dog. But the time, out of joint as it is, seemed more propitious for something lighter and giddier.  

Little Willy photo supplied by the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes

In Daisy Theatre tradition, there’s lots of (masked) audience interaction. As always, Dolly Wiggler starts the show with a strip number, this one with Elizabethan top notes, cue the recorder and lute before it all goes brassy. It’s one of the the five new songs created for Little Willy by composer/ lyricist/ pianist/ musical arranger John Alcorn, Burkett’s real-life partner. And it mirrors the structure of Shakespeare’s opening prologue in the play, Burkett points out. Alcorn’s little song for Schnitzel at the end has the same structure as the final stanzas of the play, too. “Yup, Mr. ‘I know nothing about Shakespeare’ Alcorn got up to speed pretty quickly.” 

For a self-producing artist the pandemic that dragged on and on posed a couple of crucial and related questions. “(a) how do I re-boot? and (b) do I want to? A year off was nice; I’d never have taken a sabbatical otherwise. But almost three?” 

Ronnie Burkett

Burkett emerged from his Toronto studio in the most dramatically fraught way possible in COVID-ian times. He took his play Forget Me Not to Europe last May (it ran at the Fidena Festival in Bochum, Germany). It’s a show “for 100 people max” built on audience interaction: “everybody gets a hand puppet, as a sort of Greek chorus, and I’m right in the middle of them….” Disinfecting hand puppets after every use isn’t in any puppeteer manual. “So we had everyone pre-glove, a condom for the hand.” 

Right after that, he rented a car, drove to Montreal, and did The Loony Bin for a week at The MIAM, in a tiny and beautiful new international marionette centre there. “Such a nice way to meet the public again … a sort of hand-puppet Daisy Theatre in a way, totally improvised.” 

And now, as the only member of the company whose head isn’t made of wood and papier mâché, Burkett is on the road with the Daisy Theatre, named in honour of the subversive underground puppet shows in Prague during the Nazi Occupation. And come Wednesday, as the headliner at TN’s new contemporary adult ‘Another F!#@$G Festival’ (as yet to be officially named, by theatre-goers), Burkett is “really happy” to be back at a company that’s been, he says, seminal to his career, . When Awful Manors premiered at the Roxy in 1990, a gothic romance-thriller murder-mystery musical with 17 characters and 43 marionettes, Theatre Network was, as he has said, his first “legitimate” stage after the Fringe.

Tinka’s New Dress, Street of Blood, Happy, and Provenance (which premiered here in 2003) all played the Roxy — plays that changed the course of Burkett’s career, and claimed for puppets something they hadn’t had in Canada, a rightful home in the adult theatre.

Much has changed since 2003, to be sure, not least that the Roxy burned to the ground in 2015 and has risen again on that very 124th St. footprint seven years later. Burkett brings with him vivid memories of seeing long queues outside the Roxy doors, and watching people rush into the theatre and down the aisles to throw their parkas down and claim a spot. Wait till Burkett and his company see the new Roxy bathrooms. 


Little Willy

Theatre: The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes

Created and performed by: Ronnie Burkett

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy

Running: Feb. 8 through 11



Posted in Previews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Little Willy: the great marionettist Ronnie Burkett is back, with the raucous Daisy Theatre ensemble, and Shakespeare