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.