A Roy Orbison musical, a Pulitzer-winning two-hander and a sizzling Almodóvar short

Reviews of In Dreams, Topdog/Underdog, Spaciousness, Six The Musical, Appropriate, Heroes of the Fourth Turning and more

A Roy Orbison musical, a Pulitzer-winning two-hander and a sizzling Almodóvar short
The In Dreams ensemble, photographed by Pamela Raith.

An apology. I've been fiddling around with this file for more than a week and a half. Life, world events and a bunch of freelance assignments got in the way.

On a week when a whopping seven productions opened within a few days, I missed several of them because my lovely, talented, humane niece Annie was celebrating her wedding in upstate New York.

(Reminder to self: always prioritize life stuff over work stuff; also: next time you go to a rural retreat, don't take on an assignment involving a Zoom call on a Saturday morning.)

Anyhow, when I returned I had to quickly play catch-up. And then the world erupted and it made me feel that writing about theatre at a time like this was, well, trivial and inconsequential.

Special Spaciousness

That said, the night of Hamas' attack on Israel, I tore myself away from the news to attend the final performance of Ahmed Moneka and Nicky Lawrence's Spaciousness (Rating: ✭✭✭✭), which took place on the grounds of Fort York. And the walkabout show did what great theatre often does: it took me outside of my head and made me think about the lives of others. In this case, the lesser known real figures who took part in the War of 1812.

✅ = Critic's pick / ✭✭✭✭✭ = outstanding, among best of the year / ✭✭✭✭ = excellent / ✭✭✭ = recommended / ✭✭ or ✭ = didn't work for me

Trudging from canteen to garrison to barracks, groups of us (divided into three sections) bore witness to the lives and stories of various real-life people. These included Miskwaaki (William Yellowhead), played by Dillan Chiblow, the "head chief" of the Chippaweans of Lakes Huron and Simcoe whose father sided with the British in the War of 1812; Richard Pierpoint (a dignified Cassel Miles), a former slave who won his freedom by fighting for the British in the American Revolution and later enlisted men for an all-Black unit to defend Upper Canada in the war; and, most movingly, Private William Jones (Rudy Ray Kwaku) and Emma Jones (co-writer Lawrence), whose lives turned out to be connected.

Director and co-writer Moneka, one of the gifted creators and performers in the recent King Gilgamesh and the Man of the Wild, also acted as narrator and shared his own story of surviving the Iraq War and resettling in Toronto.

Taken individually, the vignettes were powerful, each setting thoughtfully chosen for its subject – Kwaku's entrance alone in the "Gun Powder" room was full of stage magic, and Andrew Chown's scene as a Dubliner who fought with the British to help out his family was set at a barracks, as if he had just woken up to tell us his tale.

But with echoes and references among them, and bookended by Moneka’s warm, inclusive monologues, they had a cumulative, haunting effect.

See what else is currently playing in So Sumi's Toronto Theatre Listings
In Dreams, photographed by Matthew Tsang

Jukebox Orbison

The heart of In Dreams (Rating: ✭✭✭), the new Roy Orbison jukebox musical created by & Juliet's book writer David West Read and director Luke Sheppard, is in the right place. But in its current state, the musical itself isn't quite ready for a larger and longer run.

✅ = Critic's pick / ✭✭✭✭✭ = outstanding, among best of the year / ✭✭✭✭ = excellent / ✭✭✭ = recommended / ✭✭ or ✭ = didn't work for me

Kenna (Lena Hall), the lead singer of the country rock group Heartbreak Radio, has just received a cancer diagnosis. And so after she wanders into a Mexican restaurant that serves up memorials along with tacos and margaritas, she decides to check into an adjoining room and throw a big going-away party for herself. She'll memorialize herself before she's gone.

The perky, lovable staff at the restaurant – owners Oscar (Manuel Pacific) and Nicole (Nasim Ramírez), Nicole's widowed mother Ana Sofia (Alma Cuervo) and cook Tom (Leon Craig), who happens to be a rabid Heartbreak Radio fan – are happy to accommodate her unusual request.

Kenna invites her former bandmates Jane (Sian Reese-Williams) and Donovan (Noël Sullivan), who are now married and raising a bunch of kids. She's less eager to see the band's former drummer, and her ex, Ramsay (Oliver Tompsett). But Ana Sofia, playing matchmaker, takes care of inviting him herself.

And so begins the contrived narrative of the show, in which, as in sitcoms, the secondary characters all have one or two personality traits they keep hammering home for a laugh track (on TV) and some chuckles (on stage).

In addition to the above characters, there's someone named George (Richard Trinder), an older widower who chats up Ana Sofia. And while Ramsay is driving to the party, he gets pulled over by a cop (Mark Peachey), who's also a Heartbreak Radio fan.

Can you guess who pairs up with whom? To quote an Orbison song, "You got it."

Those songs – which will be familiar or new, depending on your age – form the spine of the show, and they range from serviceable to jokey to quite moving.

The main problem with Read's book is that we're presented with situations, not characters. And because we know so little about these people, their songs don't resonate that much. Even Kenna lacks complexity; one of the only pieces of information we know about her is her love of a certain clothing item.

But the actors, especially Tony Award-winner Hall, do a fine job of making up for that. Her act one closer, "Crying," is a painful, heart-rending wail, and the actor invests it with lots of feeling.

An unlikely duet pairs "Blue Bayou" with "Only the Lonely," with charming results from the orchestra and actors Trinder and Cuervo.

Another highlight comes when Oscar, who hasn't opened up to his concerned wife Nicole about the loss of his own parents, unleashes a poignant version of the title song, which Pacific delivers with Orbison's haunting falsetto.

Unfortunately, some of the power of the moment is diminished by Arnulfo Maldonado's set, which displays a big starry sky and strives for profundity but ends up looking cheesy or like it belongs in The Lion King. For most of the show, his set is a colourful, lively recreation of the Mexican restaurant, which is so cluttered Sheppard has a hard time staging action on it – especially when the fictional band is reunited and have to play instruments. And there's a revolve on the stage, but it feels superfluous.

As I suggested earlier, however, the show has a big heart. It's especially touching in the way it looks at how adults lose touch with one another as they get older and life gets in the way. Kenna's friendship with Jane comes across effectively, and Reese-Williams has a vivid and charismatic presence as well as a distinctive, sultry voice.

Note: I interviewed book writer David West Read and director Luke Shepherd, who created the big hit & Juliet, here. In Dreams continues at the CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre until November 12. See info here.

Mazin Elsadig (left) spars with Sébastien Heins in Topdog/Underdog. Photo by Dahlia Katz

Intriguing match

I still recall the excitement of Philip Akin's production of Suzan-Lori Parks's Topdog/Underdog, which played the Shaw Festival in 2011 and then transferred to the Theatre Centre later that fall.

While Parks's Pulitzer Prize-winning script remains as nuanced and powerful as ever, something's missing in the current Canadian Stage revival (Rating: ✭✭✭) directed by Tawiah M'Carthy.

✅ = Critic's pick / ✭✭✭✭✭ = outstanding, among best of the year / ✭✭✭✭ = excellent / ✭✭✭ = recommended / ✭✭ or ✭ = didn't work for me

The pacing, for one, feels a little slack, especially in the middle. And while Rachel Forbes's set is inspired by a boxing ring – complete with a bell announcing "rounds" in Stephen Surlin's sound design – that motif limits the scope of the play and its many themes.

There's much more than mere brute force at play between siblings Booth (Mazin Elsadig) and Lincoln (Sébastien Heins), who were abandoned by their parents and are now struggling to get by.

Lincoln has a job recreating his namesake (the boys' names are a sick joke played on by their estranged father) at an arcade, wearing whiteface and repeatedly getting shot – as grim a metaphor as you can imagine. The younger Booth, meanwhile, fantasizes about becoming a three-card monte pro like Lincoln used to be before he went straight.

The two young men are dealing with the weight of their pasts, and the way Parks suggests their separate backgrounds is truly masterful and tells you a lot about their current situations.

Both actors are fine. Elsadig captures Booth's cocky, strutting attitude and Heins's Lincoln truly comes alive when he reluctantly returns to his card-hustling. (With his height and stature, Heins captures his namesake's physicality, but feels a little young to be playing this character.)

I'm not sure M'Carthy's placement of the stage area works, especially since between scenes we see the actors having to walk along the perimeter to get to the door. The boxing ring motif might have succeeded more had the show been staged in the round, surrounded by audiences on all four sides.

So this production isn't a total knockout, but it's still a win.

Topdog/Underdog continues at the Berkeley Street Theatre until October 21. See info here.

Ethan Hawke (left) and Pedro Pascal smoulder in Strange Way of Life. Photo courtesy of Mongrel Media

Short and sweet

It's been a while since a short feature generated so much mainstream attention. But when the director is Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, the subject two cowboys reigniting the flame that once burned between them and the stars are Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal, you can understand the buzz.

Thankfully, Strange Way of Life (Rating: ✭✭✭✭), currently being paired on screens with Almodóvar's 2020 English-language short The Human Voice (starring Tilda Swinton), packs a lot of cinematic heat.

Filled with references to classic westerns and their tropes, Almodóvar establishes the setting quickly – two former lovers reunite after decades, with one of them trying to protect his son from a murder charge – fills in their steamy backstory and then charges along to its intriguing climax.

That flashback, featuring actors José Condessa and Jason Fernandez and a bullet-ridden bag of red wine, is particularly juicy and suggestive. But Hawke and Pascal are fully committed and believable as older lovers, harbouring grudges and resentments towards each other.

The director's love of melodrama seeps through in the film's coy ending. But while the soundtrack – including a song that gives the film its title – and the rugged, expansive landscapes are captured effectively, I wish the film were longer.

As is, it feels like film foreplay.

Other shows currently playing

I mentioned at the beginning that with the Toronto theatre scene in full swing, freelance assignments have kept me busy. I sometimes forget that not everyone is on social media, where I usually share links to articles. And even if you are on Twitter/X or Instagram, or are about to leave (join the club), you may not have seen them when I posted them.

So I'll include them here. Apologies if you've read them before.

Two controversial and acclaimed off-Broadway plays received their Canadian premieres recently.

Gray Powell (left), Amy Lee and Raquel Duffy dig up the past in Appropriate. Photo by Dahlia Katz

Coal Mine Theatre opened its season with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's Appropriate (Rating: ✭✭✭), and I weighed in on it for the Globe and Mail here. I liked Ted Dykstra's production and most of the performances, but had some issues with the script itself, which feels like both an homage and a response to a bunch of American theatre classics. Incidentally, the Broadway premiere of the play goes up next month.

For an alternate take on the play, I highly recommend Aisling Murphy's articulate, enthusiastic rave at Intermission here. The show has been extended until October 21.

The excellent ensemble of Heroes of the Fourth Turning, photographed by Dahlia Katz.

I much preferred Will Arbery's nuanced, intelligent play about a group of right-wing Catholics reuniting at a small Wyoming college in Heroes of the Fourth Turning (Rating: ✭✭✭✭). It's difficult stuff, at times hard to watch (and hear – you'll know what I mean after seeing it), but in Philip Akin's gripping production for the Howland Company and Crow's, with a first-rate cast, it's absolutely essential viewing.

I reviewed it for the Star here, and got to interview playwright Arbery for the Globe here. The show's been extended until October 29.

See what else is currently playing in So Sumi's Toronto Theatre Listings
The cast of Six The Musical, photographed by Joan Marcus.

While theatres across North America are struggling to get back to pre-pandemic attendance levels, I hope Mirvish Productions has a big, long-running hit on its hands with Six The Musical (Rating: ✭✭✭✭). Smart, fast-moving, exuberantly performed and directed, it also clocks in at 80 minutes, which in a season full of 2.5-hour shows is a blessing.

I reviewed it for the Globe here. The show's been extended until February 11, 2024, but with luck it will keep going. Buy those Christmas presents now, folks. As I indicated in my review, I wouldn't be surprised if fans make repeat visits.

Dan Mousseau and Rose Napoli star in Wildwoman. Photo by Dahlia Katz

Speaking of 2.5-hour shows, I also took in Kat Sandler's Wildwoman (Rating: ✭✭✭✭), the fall opener for Soulpepper and the kick off to its Her Words festival.

Like Six, the play offers an alternate, often irreverent take on a royal figure: Florentine Catherine de' Medici (Rose Napoli), who didn't know what she was getting into when she agreed to marry Henry II (Tony Ofori) in 16th century France. I feel like it took writer/director Sandler a while to figure out what story she was telling – Catherine's story intersects with that of Pedro González (Dan Mousseau), the inspiration for the "Beauty and the Beast" myth – but once she finds it the play soars.

I reviewed Wildwoman for the Star here. The show runs until October 29.

And finally, one play I was looking forward to this season was Tarragon's season opener, Walter Borden's The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time (Rating: ✭✭), a play he's worked on for decades. Alas, I found the poetic monologue fairly impenetrable, and didn't think Peter Hinton's production did it any favours. But Borden is such a warm and engaging performer he kept you engaged throughout.

The run ended today (Sunday, October 15), but here's my review for the Star anyway.

Dahlia Katz, photographing herself, at London's Grand Theatre.

Photo finisher

As you can see from the credits to four of the production stills above, Dahlia Katz is one of the best, and busiest, theatre photographers around.

As the season kicked off, I got to interview her about her work (including directing) for the Star. To illustrate the piece, Katz took a special self-portrait, photographed at one of her favourite venues, the Grand in London.

I also wrote a little essay on attending theatre alone, which I've been doing a lot lately. My thanks to everyone who replied to my callout on social media, and to Howard Sherman (doesn't like attending theatre alone) and Elan Mastai (likes it), whose stories made their way into the article.

Some theatre news

The Siminovitch Prize, one of the country's most prestigious and lucrative theatre awards, has announced its latest nominees.

The four playwrights are: d'bi.young anitafrika (from Brampton, Ontario), Mishka Lavigne (Gatineau, Quebec), Berni Stapleton (St. John's, Newfoundland) and David Yee (Toronto, Ontario).

“The shortlisted artists struck us as simultaneously profoundly attentive to language and very conscious of the special possibilities theatrical performance affords," said Siminovitch Prize Jury Chair Guillermo Verdecchia, in a statement.

"Each has developed a unique voice and practice and is tirelessly pursuing individual aesthetic questions and concerns. The shortlisted artists are recognized and celebrated leaders in their community, making outstanding, exciting work that challenges and delights audiences.” 

The winner will be announced on December 4, with the laureate winning $75,000, with $25,000 given to their emerging artist protégé.

See more info here.

And it's just been announced that the new Canadian musical Maggie, which recently finished a run in eastern Canada after premiering at Hamilton's Theatre Aquarius (my review is here), will receive its American premiere as part of the prestigious Goodspeed Musicals 2024 season.

In its announcement, Goodspeed – which has developed musicals like Annie and Man of La Mancha – said it was proud to "continue our tradition of world premieres while providing the opportunity to engage in an exciting international collaboration."

You can find more info about Goodspeed and Maggie, by Johnny Reid and Matt Murray, directed by Mary Francis Moore, here.