A Theatre Buff Reviews North By Northwest

Campy special effects are not usual associations with stories of cold-war intrigue and mistaken identities; however Mirvish has found a way to combine both in its current production of North By Northwest. The result is laughter throughout and, at opening night, a standing ovation.


Olivia Fines and Jonathan Watton in North by North West – Theatre Royal Bath. Credit: Nobby Clark

The play is an adaptation of the movie and while it seems ‘true’ to the movie, something I learned after seeing three very different productions of Agnes of God is that there is never ‘one right way’ of producing an art piece. There is no end to human creativity when given the same words and directions. Playwright Carolyn Burns has risen to the challenge of transforming an action-suspense script to the stage.

The play is set in the sixties during the cold-war. The plot line is simple—a case of mistaken identity set inside international espionage. There are good guys, bad guys, a sexy dame, and FBI/CIA agents. With a 1940’s sense to the cadence of dialogue and conduct my sense is that the playwright’s intention was to create a mash-up of these two periods to allow for the use of particular special effects.  (Now I have to re-watch the movie to see how it was produced!)

Anyone who comes to this play with distant recollections of scenes from the movie (the drunken ride, the crop duster airplane and the climb down Mount Rushmore) will wonder how they might be recreated on stage. Superb choreography in combination with AV technologies and sound effects make them happen. The choreography is first evident when a set piece that looks like a leather two-seater couch is ‘transformed’ into a taxi. Actors in behind the piece move it in time with the projected street scene and sound. It’s simple and it works because it’s live theatre and the audience’s imagination and willingness to suspend belief are essential to the magic of every performance. But what is really interesting is the use of the overhead projector. The audience’s first introduction to it is a ‘zoom-in’ of an address on a rolled cardboard tube. After that, this old technology is used to great and somewhat campy effect to create the scenes I had recollected from the movie as well as many more.

North By Northwest is an excellent example of the amazing team work that goes into every production. It’s playing at The Royal Alex in Toronto until October 29, 2017.

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: If/Then

If/Then is a musical that delivers through story, song and dance. It’s engaging and it’s clever. The premise explores possible futures for Elizabeth (Jackie Burns), a young and recent divorcée, as she learns how to make a life in New York City after moldering in Phoenix for ten years.

If/Then seamlessly blends two versions of Elizabeth’s life from the pivot point of one day in Central Park. As Liz/Beth’s futures evolve, then so do the lives of her friends. Not surprisingly, the story-line becomes complex. Audience members who prefer a linear tale could find the play/musical confusing. Mirvish often has a synopsis in their programme, but not this time.

This musical examines the fabric of living and loving in the city. Elizabeth, who has a PhD in urban planning,and her social activist friend, Lucas (Anthony Rapp), explore the form-function question: How does one design city space to enhance constructs like social justice and hard realities like personal safety? The same question plays out in relationships. How does one weave in threads of love, joy and spontaneity into structures of marriage, job and family. These complex questions are explored through characters who are intelligent and reflective, and they are handled in a way that is funny yet serious, and light-hearted yet poignant. As one character notes, “How much you love your life is what every life is worth.” This statement summarizes the ethos of the play perfectly.

While I will admit to preferring musicals where I leave the theatre humming, If/Then’s music and lyrics are compelling. The performers are energetic and they are ‘on their game’ for both acts. Jackie Burns, is the lynchpin and she never wavers. She has an outstanding ability to convey a range of emotion through song.

The set designers skillfully convey a range of space in NYC by the creation of two levels: A walkway, like an industrial High Line, runs the length of the stage. Above the walkway, images of brownstones and iconic NYC buildings are projected and  often overlaid on city planner grids of neighborhoods. Most of the performance takes place below the walkway using a movable feast of stage props to proficiently create a variety of scenes: city park, office, living room, bedroom, bathroom, and subway.

If/Then is a musical, which much like Rent, is likely to bring a young audience into the theatre. And that’s a good thing for those of us who enjoy the artistry and energy of live theatre!

If/Then is performing at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto until May 8, 2016.


A Theatre Buff Reviews: Bigmouth

Bigmouth is an inspired production, brilliantly executed.

It’s a one man show with Valentijn Dhaenens as the writer and performer, and Jeroen Wuyts as his sound and light design technician. They make a powerful team.

The seminal idea for the production grew from Dhaenens’ decision to read one political speech a day. In the course of a year he had read more than 1000 speeches that span centuries, and cover a range of concerns that include political, religious, military, and moral issues. In time, patterns emerged. Dhaenens wove the speeches together to exemplify and profile the messages: war mongering, manipulation, mourning, celebration, defiance, apology, and abdication.

While the line-up may sound dry, the delivery and staging is anything but. The mash-up of the speeches by Goebbels and Patton was spellbinding. Dhaenens moved between microphones as he did an onstage ‘quick character change,’ multiple times, between the two historic speakers. In doing so, he captured the individual and diametrically opposed power of their respective delivery styles —elegant vs. brash, tempered vs.vociferous.

Dhaenens engages whether he is speaking in Latin, French or German. (For those of us who are less than multilingual, there are super-titles.) He captures cadence and accents superbly to portray English speaking characters that include Robert Kennedy, Nicola Sacco and F. Van Hecke.

The set is simple: multiple microphones are attached to an extended conference table, on which several glasses of water sit. Without giving anything away, I will note that the water is used for more than drinking. Looping music is interspersed throughout the production as an effective transition between themes and mood. The last piece, which I will not disclose, is a poignant finale.

I managed to see Bigmouth on Tuesday this week. It runs until Sunday February 7, 2016. It’s definitely worth your while.


A Theatre Buff Reviews: Cinderella

I’m not sure which pleased me more – the edgy, contemporary take on the Cinderella story, or the rapt attention of my six and a half year old seat mate. Mirvish’s Cinderella is lushly costumed, fast paced, fun and filled with humour that has a multi-generational appeal.

What’s so different about this version? Cinderella (Kaitlyn Davidson) is a modern young woman, dressed in 19th century clothing, who becomes empowered through the timely intervention of her mentor/ fairy godmother “Crazy Marie” (Liz McCartney). At court, Cinderella demonstrates the power of kindness and compassion in a culture that has come to celebrate ridicule. And with a wonderful twist on an age-old story, the handsome prince, Topher (Andy Huntington-Jones), is ‘saved’ by the humble Cinderella. I fear giving away the plot but let me just say that when Act 1 ended with Cinderella running off at midnight wearing both glass slippers, the audience gasped. The lost slipper has always been Cinderella’s calling card.

The principals play their roles with a combination of humility and gusto:

  • Cinderella and Prince Topher — gentle and well-intended
  • The Wicked Stepmother (Blair Ross) and the Prime-Minister (Blake Hammond)— nasty and scheming
  • The Fairy-Godmother — confident and capable
  • Charlotte (Amyee Garcia), a wicked step-sister — narcissistic and opportunistic
  • Gabrielle (Kimberly Fauré), a not-so-wicked step-sister —  friendly and cautious
  • Jean Michel (David Andino) — hopeful and almost revolutionary.

The staging is splendid with something always happening. There is a fairy-tale appeal to the forest, the family home, and the palace, and the set changes occur seamlessly.  The transformations of pumpkin to carriage and critters to footmen take place before the audience’s eyes. The choreography, verging at times on gymnastics is engaging. The costumes are vivid and lush. And at risk of having you catch something I could not capture, do watch closely for Cinderella’s on-stage quick changes. They are amazing, and as close to magic as the costume designer would have envisioned.


Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music and lyrics were new to me. The original production of Cinderella had been designed as a musical for television in 1957 and showcased Julie Andrews. As a Julie Andrews fan, I would say that Kaitlyn Davidson’s voice is a good match. It’s pure and strong.  One young woman I spoke with had been expecting the music from the Disney version and was disappointed to not hear ‘Bippity-Boppity-Boo’, however it did not prevent her from enjoying the show which she found “enchanting”.

I am left with one quote from Crazy Marie aka The Fairy God-mother: “If you have a dream, then very soon thereafter you’re going to have to fight for it.” It’s a positive message for all of us, regardless of generation.

Cinderella is playing at the Ed Mirvish Theatre on Yonge Street until January 10, 2016.

See you at the theatre!