A Theatre Buff Reviews The Lorax

What more could you ask for from a play like The Lorax that entertains, engages and educates? Perhaps it’s the presence of a wee one to whom you’ve read the Dr. Seuss story fifty times or more. Perhaps it’s even the presence of someone who was once a youngster and who knew much of the story by heart after multiple bed-time readings.

I’ve never felt the need to see a favourite book or story be turned into a movie or play. In fact I’ve often worried when I’ve heard that it is about to happen because my own images have always been vivid. Curiosity usually prevails and I succumb,  So it was with some trepidation that I went to see The Lorax. It’s a story that has been much loved in our tree hugging family. (We planted two-hundred and thirty-six trees and berry-bearing bushes twenty eight years ago and are now surrounded by a forest.)

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(Left to Right) Laura Caldow, David Ricardo-Pearce, Ben Thompson and Simon Paisley Day. Photo by Manuel Harlan

The play, which has come to Toronto straight from London’s Old Vic, is a satisfying and visually rich production. The creators have taken some licence with the fable and created a back-story, a new middle, and revised the ending. I was not disappointed by these changes. (As I type, I have the original beside me to check out the differences!) For those readers who are not familiar with the story it’s about an enterprising young man, the Once-ler, who comes across a forest of  brightly colored Truffulo trees which he describes: “The touch of their tufts was much softer than silk. And they had the sweet smell of fresh butterfly milk.” For want of a ladder to harvest the tufts he chops down a tree so he can produce a Thneed. When he finishes, a strange sort of man with a “sawdusty sneeze” pops out of the stump and declares “Mister! I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” And so the battle between capitalism and environmental protection begins.

The Once-ler is perfectly embodied by a string-bean of an actor (Simon Paisley Day). He is joined by a cast of characters who are not in the original story, but who fit the play perfectly. It’s possible though that the puppets upstage the actors! The Lorox’s three handlers are brilliant: the little “beaverish guy” absolutely pleases on every level. The Swomee-Swans swoop gracefully over the audience and the Humming-Fish leap in and out of pails and ponds. The Bar-ba-loots (actors in costume) give audio effects to illustrate the experience of  “getting the crummies.” The set and props satisfyingly re-create the “far end of town where the crickle grass grows,” the “Whisper-ma-Phone” and the glorious feeling of Truffulo trees “[m]ile after mile in the fresh morning breeze.”

The Lorax is playing at Toronto’s Royal Alex Theatre until Sunday January 21, 2018. My recommendation? Re-read the story to someone you love and then take them with you to see the production. I think you’ll be happy you did.

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 people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend. 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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