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Next To Normal Offers Hope

Mirvish’s production of Next To Normal is a poignant and thoughtful depiction of mental illness. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010  for its creative team, Brian Yorker and Tom Kitt. Next To Normal is a musical which works extraordinarily well. I think it’s because many of the pieces are done in a fugue-like manner, with two or more interweaving voices. The complexity and richness of the music and lyrics acts as a counterpoint to the set which is stark, yet elegant. It transitions between the home of two architects, and a psychiatrist’s office/clinic. The back wall which is paneled with translucent screens signals transitions in space and mood as its colour changes. It’s very effective.

Ma-Anne Dionisio & Brandon Antonio. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The story introduces us to a family in which the wife and mother, Diana (Ma-Anne Dionisio), has had recurring encounters with mental illness since the birth of their daughter, Natalie (Stephanie Sy) sixteen years ago. The husband and father, Dan (Troy Adams), is both stalwart and anxious. The only family member who has an apparently healthy relationship with Diana is the son, Gabe (Brandon Antonio). The interactions between these two are typical of a cavalier teenage boy and his worried mother. We understand more about their relationship on the night of Gabe’s eighteenth birthday, when Natalie brings her new boyfriend (Nathan Carrol) to the family dinner table. It’s a plot churning moment to say the least. The acting is intense and on point at all times. Louise Pitre as Doctor Madden has a smaller but by no means lesser part. She’s a figurative (and in the play…literal) rock star of a psychiatrist who guides Diana and Dan through treatment options. 

While this description of an evening’s entertainment may sound grim, the play is anything but that. It offers hope. And that’s important when we consider that one on five Canadians will experience some form of mental illness at some point in their lives. The reality is that few people escape the grief of mental illness whether by affliction or association. 

Next To Normal is a play about a family who may never achieve ‘normal’, but it is a family who will be content to live as close to normal as they can. The night I attended, the audience gave this performance a standing ovation. It’s perhaps the second I have seen in my seven years of attending Off Mirvish productions.


Next To Normal is at the CAA Theatre, 651 Yonge Street, Toronto until May 19, 2019


Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend.

Review: The Last Ship

Captains of industry and those who hail from the landed gentry are not likely to enjoy The Last Ship as much as we who carry the memories of a ship’s millwright in our DNA. While the former may squirm, the latter may experience a thrum, as I did, in those ancient cells. The call was visceral and emotional.

The Last Ship is a musical that explores the demise of the shipyards in Tyneside in the late 1980s. If musical and demise of industry sound like an oxymoron, I understand. But think of Come From Away and 911. Artistry, compassion, and music can surmount loss and grief. And that is exactly what happens in The Last Ship.


Sting and the cast of THE LAST SHIP – Toronto Production 2019.
Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.

There are three strands to this play that covers a span of seventeen years. There’s the story of a ship’s foreman, Jackie White, (Sting) who keeps a rough and tumble crew of skilled craftsmen (millwright’s, carpenters etc.) towing the line while his wife, Peggy White, (Jackie Morrison) a Registered Nurse bandages up the men’s scraps and breaks, and hands out pills which will never touch the core of what is killing them—mesothelioma. Then there are two high school sweethearts Meg Dawson (Francis McNamee), a smart young thing who is writing her ‘O’ levels with a view to becoming a lawyer or doctor, and Gideon Fletcher (Oliver Saville) who cannot bear to sign up for work in the yards. Gideon leaves and returns seventeen years later. And finally, there is the story of work—the meaning of craftsmen’s jobs that have been done by generations of forebears—the camaraderie of a tight-knit group who have known each other since infancy—and the implications for middle-aged workers and their community when work is taken away by global competition.

The set is extraordinary. The combination of set pieces, video, and overlaid screens can move the audience easily from the gates of the shipyard to the interiors of a pub or homes, alongside a blast furnace, and inside a chapel. And throughout there is the presence of the sea—its thunderous roar and its saltwater spray. The set lighting is exquisite. At one point, there is an image of the men inside the chapel that looks like an old master’s painting. The set and lighting designers deserve their due!

The score captured me from the beginning. There are the songs and their music which tell the shipyard story through reminiscence, sorrow, and better times. Then there are the foot-stomping rhythms which have the same effect on me as tabla drumming. They call me, and I hope you, to gather round and bear witness. The Last Ship pulls out of Toronto at the end of March. Get on board before it leaves!

The Last Ship is playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre until  Sunday, March 24, 2019

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend. 

A Theatre Buff Reviews Elf – The Musical

Mid-way through Theatre Aquarius’ performance of Elf –The Musical, I realized I could not stop smiling. There’s enough word-play to satisfy the adults with children in hand, and there’s choreography and singing that ranges from the comic to Gee-Wiz! How do they sing and dance, so well, at the same time?!

For Elf novices (which I was before this production), Elf is a love story, wrapped inside a lost and found story. It begins with Buddy the elf (Brent Thiessen) learning from Santa (Neil Barclay), that he is a human, and that his father who lives in New York City is on Santa’s ‘Naughty List’. Buddy does what any lost elf would do; he walks south for 3500 miles to find his father. Fortunately, when he arrives in NYC it’s Christmastime. Not only is he seasonally dressed in his elf clothing, but stores are also decorating and Santas are proliferating. His father, however, has not caught the spirit; he believes that “Christmas always gets in the way.” It becomes Buddy’s mission to help his father and other NewYorkers begin to care about Santa Claus. Without telling more, I will say, “and therein lies the love story.”

The show is supported by a set that combines AV backdrops with traditionally built pieces on flies. The observant, or perhaps obsessive, may have noted that in this production Santa’s sleigh is supposed to be powered by belief, but as we see Santa flying over Manhattan there are reindeer pulling the sleigh. The acting is not only superb, it’s a series of high energy triple-threat performances. And the tap-dancing hearkens back to movies from the 1930s and ’40s.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Theatre Aquarius’ production is Brent Thiessen’s smile. He radiated light, love, and goodwill, which is what the season is supposed to be about. Go see Elf with the whole family!

 Elf – The Musical is playing at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton until December 24, 2018.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. 

Charlie and The Chocolate Factory Whips Up Delicious Confections

I’ll begin with a confession. My husband and I drove into Toronto this week to see Charlie And The Chocolate Factory having never read the book, nor seen the movies*. The thought at top of mind as we sat in traffic was, Why are we going to see another bloody musical, and a children’s production to boot?  Yes. The mood was definitely Grinchish. Fortunately it dissipated within minutes of Charlie Bucket (Henry Boshart) appearing on stage, and we settled in to enjoy the performance.

The story, in quick summary, is about the series of events that transpire after Willy Wonka (Noah Weisberg), the owner  of a chocolate factory, decides to give away his business to someone with pure imagination—someone who embodies “believing is seeing”. His challenge though is to find such a person. For the cynics in the audience, it’s clear at the outset that Wonka’s legacy will be to Charlie Bucket who “can’t stop making something out of nothing.” But it’s the fun, hi-jinks and creative ‘just desserts’ getting to that point that will make even skeptics laugh and clap with joy.

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The cast of Roald Dahl’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY – Photo by Joan Marcus

The Mirvish production delights on many levels. The acting is superb; the choreography is exuberant and entertaining; and the set, visuals, and costumes are candy-store bright. The story itself is engaging. I loved the portrayal of healthy inter-generational relationships, and melted at the fantasy dance between Charlie’s mother (Amanda Rose) and the ghost of his deceased father. A review would not be complete without noting the brilliant puppetry that makes the Oompa-Loompas come to life.

If you have children in your life who love song, dance or just plain silliness, take them in hand to see Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. It will be a delicious treat—without the calories or the caries.

* There have been two movies. Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp have each performed in the role of Willy Wonka.

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is playing at The Princess of Wales in Toronto until January 6, 2019

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humor despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. 

A Theatre Buff Reviews The Father

There are public nightmares, and then there are private terrors. We know the former well, or think we do, as they repeat themselves on the news cycle. But a diagnosis for which there is no treatment can be equally harrowing as it slowly and persistently shreds the core of self and family. Dementia is one such diagnosis, and Florian Zeller’s play, The Father, depicts the horror.

2018-The Father (2)In short, The Father is a story about a daughter (Raquel Duffy) trying to manage her life as her widowed father (Eric Peterson) slides into cognitive decline. Or is The Father a story about an elderly engineer whose daughter brings strangers into his home — strangers who infantilize him, steal from him, and treat him badly? The situation is not unique. For the daughter there are the conflicting demands of fidelity, a career, a relationship, and geography; for the father there is the accumulation of losses — his watch, his words, his trust, and his recognition. And yes, there is abuse, both verbal and physical. I wondered if we were to also infer the subtleties of financial abuse (Yes. It does happen.) as the set and stage props gradually changed,  or whether the set changes were a metaphor for cumulative losses.

Eric Peterson is spot-on in his brilliant portrayal of cognitive decline. He is well supported by Raquel Duffy, Brad Rudy, Molly Kidder, Tess Degenstein and Mathew MacFadzean. On opening night the cast received a standing ovation, I however remained seated. I needed to compose myself; my eyes were wet and my mascara had run. The Father was an astonishing portrayal of events I have seen far too often in private homes and public institutions.

The Father is playing at Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton until November 10, 2018.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humor despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. 

A Theatre Buff Reviews O’Flaherty V.C.

Ben Sanders as O'Flaherty and Patrick McManus as General Sir Pearce Madigan in O'Flaherty V.C. Photo by Emily Cooper.
Ben Sanders and Patrick McManus. Photo by Emily Cooper.

O’Flaherty V.C. is the quintessential Shavian play. The  time period is World War I; the setting is just before tea-time in the courtyard of a general’s manor house. In the space of a forty-five minute one act play, Shaw skewers religion, politics, education, war, and the British class system. O’Flaherty V.C. is fast, funny, and provocative; the actors (Ben Sanders, Patrick McManus, Tara Rosling, and Gabriella Sundar Singh) are superb. Please note however, there are two downsides. The play is only being offered in the 11:30 a.m. slot, and the run ends on October 6th. It was last presented at The Shaw Festival in 1983. If you don’t catch it this year, it may be a long time before it returns!

O’Flaherty V.C. is playing at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-On-The-Lake until October 6, 2018.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humor despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to friends and family who want to prepare themselves to help fulfill the final wishes of someone they love. 

 

 

A Theatre Buff Reviews Three Plays from the Shaw Festival – 2018: The Baroness and the Pig, Stage Kiss, and Grand Hotel

Some theatrical productions get inside my mind and are hard to shake out. The Baroness and the Pig is one of those plays. I saw it in early June and thought it was excellent, but couldn’t find time to comment. It’s niggled away ever since.

The Baroness and the Pig is an unusual story about a 19th century French baroness (Yanna McIntosh) who brings a feral child, Emily, (Julia Course) into her home as her maid. Her previous maids had to leave; they were “too pretty”. Emily is far from presentable. Her clothing is tattered and soiled, her hair is stringy and dishevelled, and she is pre-verbal. In fact the sounds she makes are guttural. The baroness begins a formal training process with Emily who is inattentive in the extreme. Exasperation reigns on both sides.

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Julia Course & Yanna McIntosh. Photo by Emily Cooper.

The baron, who is referred to lovingly by his wife, is a presence in the play but never seen by the audience. We hear footsteps and a closing door that we infer to be his. Events that follow these sounds are sinister, yet his wife loves him and speaks well of him. I will not spill more beans than that!

The play ends with Emily being introduced to society by the baroness who is pleased with the results of her training. It was only then that I was hit with a bolt of understanding: all of us, not just the baroness, may be blinded by our passions and special interests to which we devote both our hearts and intellects. I had not seen that coming.

The set is stark; the acting is superb. Yanna McIntosh inhabits a space where she is both stately and anxious; Julia Course assumes the role of a feral child with wonder, surprise and fear. As I said at the outset, it will be some time before I get this play out of my head. It may require a second viewing!

A comedy that manages to be frothy and substantive is one worth seeing. Stage Kiss is  two plays cleverly done within one. The premise is that two former lovers (Fiona Byrne and Martin Happer), both actors, end up working together in a play where a kiss has been written into the script. These two have not kissed in eighteen years and when they do, memories return and feelings ignite. Relationship chaos ensues and therein lays the humour and the substance. I saw Stage Kiss as a preview performance; it’s both an engaging and entertaining examination of enduring love.

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Martin Happer & Fiona Byrne. Photo by David Cooper.

Grand Hotel is a musical with choreography and costumes that will make you want to put on your best duds, polish your dancing shoes and go find a band.

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Kiera Sangster & Matt Nethersole with cast. Photo by David Cooper.

The play is set in post WW1 Berlin in a hotel where the rich and famous come to stay with kindred spirits. There are exceptions and therein lies the story. We have an addicted Colonel Doctor (Steven Sutcliffe), a baron (James Daly) who is being pursued by a loan shark’s goon (Jeff Irving), a ballerina (Deborah Hay) who is doing her eighth farewell tour, a mogul (Jay Turvey) whose financial empire is about to fall apart, a pregnant secretary (Vanessa Sears) who aspires to movie stardom, a dying man (Michael Therriault) who wants to spend his last days in luxury, the ballerina’s companion (Patty Jamieson) who loves her, a concierge (Travis Seetoo) whose wife is in labor, and a predatory hotel manager (Jeremiah Sparks). Add a gun, some thefts, spectacular dance numbers and you may do what the audience I was part of did—give a standing ovation.

The Baroness and the Pig is playing at the Shaw Festival’s Jackie Maxwell Theatre, until October 6, 2018.

Stage Kiss is playing at the Shaw Festival’s Royal George Theatre, until September 1, 2018.

Grand Hotel is playing at the Shaw Festival’s Festival Theatre until October 14, 2018.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humor despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to friends and family who want to prepare themselves to help fulfill the final wishes of someone they love.