Campus theatre review: SMC Troubadours’ Hairspray

A fantastic cast and catchy music make for a worthy, politically charged rendition

Campus theatre review: SMC Troubadours’ <i>Hairspray</i>

The St. Michael’s College Troubadours’ production of Hairspray: The Broadway Musical is a radiant mix of feel-good drama and revolution. 

Hairspray gives its audience the rare experience of being moved by a gripping dramatization of racial struggle while also enjoying a night of lighthearted musical comedy, making it a must-see. It boasts witty, politically charged one-liners and love stories that defy expectation.

Many of the actors’ voices wowed; Hannah Lazare’s Tracy Turnblad is reminiscent of the original Broadway actress’, both in her stunning vibrato and charm. Sasha L Henry’s Motormouth Maybelle immediately evokes Effie from Dreamgirls — unsurprising, as she has played this role before. Her powerhouse solo “I Know Where I’ve Been” is breathtaking, and her final belting note was met with whooping cheers on opening night.

Robert Bazzocchi’s Link Larkin rivals Zac Efron’s in dreaminess. Between his crooning voice, smooth dance moves, and winning smile, the audience can understand why Tracy crawls after him, practically drooling, as he serenades her in “It Takes Two.” Zoi Samonas steals every scene she’s in as Velma Von Tussle, oozing stage presence as she showcases dazzling vocal range and perfect comedic timing.

Alexandra Palma is vibrant and talented as Amber Von Tussle, making it hard to hate this notoriously dislikable character, and Jamie Fiuza’s over-the-top Penny Pingleton is delightful and fun as she expertly walks the line between frenetic dork and loveable comic relief.

The production quality is mostly sound, bar the odd microphone malfunction. A live band provides the music, costumes are era-appropriate and enviably bedazzled, staging and choreography is smooth, and not a hair is out of place.

The audience is bound to be laughing throughout, entertained both by pithy one-offs — “Save your personal lives for the camera!” — and the ongoing antics of Tracy’s quirky yet loveable parents, played by Brendan Rush and Kody McCann.

Under the direction of Armon Ghaeinizadeh, the Troubadours’ production of Hairspray emerges as a theatrical success, hooking the audience from the very first note. Tracy lies in bed, which is set vertically on the stage to create the effect of an aerial view, and wakes up with a comically wide smile that proves to be contagious. By the end of “Good Morning Baltimore,” you’ll find yourself grinning along with her, and only at intermission will you realize you haven’t stopped. 

Hairspray: The Broadway Musical runs at Hart House Theatre until February 17.

Theatre review: VCDS’ The Drowsy Chaperone

A look at a world more glamorous than our own

Theatre review: VCDS’ <i>The Drowsy Chaperone</i>

The Victoria College Drama Society’s (VCDS) recent production of The Drowsy Chaperone was absolutely incredible. The show was written by Bob Martin and Don McKellar in 1998 as a parody of musical productions from the 1920s, and it featured music by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison.

Directed by Meredith Shedden, the production combined the magic of a bygone era with comedy, singing, dancing, romance, danger, satire, and blindfolded rollerblading antics.

The play’s events took place on the day of the wedding between star personality Janet and her fiancé, George. The central premise of the show was keeping the groom from seeing his bride, and this is where the cast of quirky characters play their part.

The set transformed from a 1990s living room to a glamorous 1920s wedding mid-show; it continued to switch back and forth throughout the play, pulling the audience in and out of the fantasy created by the narrator, Tom Fraser, who pulled the show together with his witty commentary.

The set’s French doors opened and immediately engulfed viewers in a magical time. The detailed costumes were particularly notable, full of lace frills, elaborate wedding dresses, luscious velvets and furs, coats and tails, and sequins.

Drowsy‘s incredible cast pulled off iconic numbers, like “Show Off,” wonderfully. Ryan Falconer was perfectly sleazy in the role of Aldolpho the ‘Latin lover,’ with his self-titled solo, “I am Aldolpho,” drawing rowdy laughter and applause. Arin Klein and Jamie Fiuza were excellent as a gangsters-turned-pastry chefs vaudeville duo, and Lucinda Qu was a show-stopper with a wonderful vocal performance as Trix.

Best of all, Olivia Thornton-Nickerson, who played Drowsy herself, was truly a star. She was funny and glamorous, showing off her incredible voice and stage presence in an enchanting red velvet ballgown. Her rendition of “As We Stumble Along” was hilarious and awe-inspiring.

Drowsy was a complete pleasure to watch, and it transported the audience into a world more glamorous and more musical than their own.

Hart House’s Putnam County Spelling Bee is D-E-L-I-G-H-T-F-U-L

The ensemble cast portrays their roles with humour and sincerity

Hart House’s Putnam County Spelling Bee is D-E-L-I-G-H-T-F-U-L

“My parents keep on telling me just being here is winning, although I know it isn’t so!” sings Chip, a character in the charming musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which opened at Hart House Theatre on Friday, November 10.

The show is set in a high school gymnasium, where contestants compete in the Putnam County Spelling Bee and for a place in the national competition. The story is told across nearly two hours, with the contestants taking turns to spell words that range from easy, like ‘cow,’ to more difficult, like ‘Weltanschauung.’ As the show progresses, the spellers are eliminated one by one, until a single contestant is left. They reveal their backstories between rounds.

The contestants consist of an eclectic and quirky mix of characters. Former spelling bee champion Rona Lisa Perretti (Amy Swift) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Art Carlson) are introduced as the host and pronouncer of the competition, respectively, alongside a mix of overachieving student competitors.

Leaf Coneybear (Kevin Forster) is the only student who didn’t make first place in his district’s spelling bee and spells his words in a trance, and Marcy Park (Braelyn Guppy), who speaks six languages and skipped fourth and fifth grade, has high expectations for winning the competition.

William Barfée (Hugh Ritchie) exudes confidences, using his “magic foot” to spell out words before giving an answer, and the determined Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Erin Humphry) faces severe pressure from her two dads in the audience, frequently ranting about the state of politics in America.

Chip Tolentino (John Wamsley), last year’s champion, is back to defend his title amidst some raging hormones, and Olive Ostrovsky (Vanessa Campbell), a somewhat nervous newcomer, is best friends with her dictionary and the only contestant without parents or supporters in the audience.

Finally, Mitch Mahoney (Carson Betz) is present at the spelling bee in order to complete his community service by comforting the eliminated contestants with a hug and a juice box.

The ensemble portrays these roles with both humour and sincerity. The audience often erupted with laughter at the production’s endless jokes, but attendees were also moved by heartfelt moments like “The I Love You Song” sung by Olive and her parents. Another unique aspect of the show is its audience participation, with several theatergoers brought onstage to participate as contestants in the spelling bee. These unscripted scenes make for hilarious moments.

Throughout the story, the characters learn that winning isn’t everything. This is especially true in a scene near the end, when Marcy asks Jesus himself (Wamsley) if he’ll be disappointed if she loses, to which he replies, “Of course not… I also won’t be disappointed with you if you win… this isn’t the kind of thing I care very much about.”

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will play at the Hart House Theatre until November 25.

Victoria College Dramatic Society celebrates its centennial

Theatre organization commemorates milestone with a seasonal focus on Canadian heritage

Victoria College Dramatic Society celebrates its centennial

The Victoria College Drama Society (VCDS) is celebrating its centennial season by focusing on bringing the works of Victoria University and University of Toronto alumni to life. Since its founding as the first drama society of Victoria University in 1918, the VCDS has developed into a platform that strives to provide the experience of drama to U of T community members of all disciplines, ages, genders, and cultural backgrounds.

The selection of plays for the centennial season leans heavily on drama, exploring the development of Canadian heritage and the meaning of a uniquely Canadian identity. Leora Nash, one of the VCDS’ two Executive Producers, told The Varsity that the idea to focus on a celebration of Canadian theatre and its relevant themes came alongside the Canada 150 celebrations this past summer. Nash and co-Executive Producer Alyssa Dibattista began planning the centennial last year.

Of the many diverse play proposals submitted by potential directors, Colours in the Storm, written by  Jim Betts and directed by Shannon Dunbar, was chosen to kick off the season on October 19. The musical follows Tom Thomson and his struggles as a painter, from his debut in Algonquin Park to his mysterious death. The show focuses not only on an “iconic” Canadian artist, wrote Nash, “but also looks at the evolution of conservation… and the beginnings of what we might consider some of Canada’s iconography (lush nature, outdoors).”

Contrasting with Colours in the Storm, which inhabits a more traditional perspective on Canadian identity, the play Lady in the Red Dress will display a more contemporary representation of our culture. Written by David Yee and directed by Jasmine Cabanilla, the play is a modern-day noir unfolding within the context of the Chinese-Canadian redress movement. “[It] comments on the state of diversity and inaction in our history,” Nash stated.

The season will also include a production of Bob Martin and Don McKellar’s musical The Drowsy Chaperone, a parody of American musical comedies centring on the wedding of an oil tycoon and a Broadway star. Despite the show being a late addition to the season, Nash believes that it complements the other selections well, as it embraces a classical musical spirit. The final production of the VCDS’ 2017–2018 season will be a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the first production ever put on by the society.   

Nash stated that the VCDS is “very proud” to be including so much Canadian theatre in its season. The group has also been working in conjunction with Victoria University alumni on outreach efforts, including advertising, and on a centennial subcommittee focusing on planning and event logistics. A closing gala, to be held in March, will honour both alumni and current students involved in the VCDS and Victoria University theatre.

A preview of this weekend’s U of T Drama Festival

From pho to family, and everything in between

A preview of this weekend’s U of T Drama Festival

Now in its twentieth year after its resurrection in 1993, the University of Toronto’s annual Drama Festival has returned to Hart House Theatre this weekend. Since its founding in 1936, the Festival has launched the careers of many, and serves as a showcase for students, especially now in its 15th year of accepting only original student work. 

Playwright and actor David Yee will be adjudicating this year’s festival. Yee is a playwright-in-residence at Tarragon Theatre, and has been awarded the Governor General’s Literary Award for his work carried away on the crest of a wave. The student productions are eligible for awards including ones for technical achievement, playwriting, and best direction.

Read on for a preview of each of the nine shows that will be performed as part of this year’s U of T Drama Festival. 

Thursday, February 9

  • Family Portrait / St. Michael’s College — Troubadours

Family Portrait is a deeply personal look at familial trauma; playwright and director Kat Hatzinakos hopes the audience will be able to see their own family reflected in the characters.

Of the inspiration for the play, Hatzinakos says that the story is based on her own family’s history, and that she “found it remarkable that although we never openly discussed our trauma, we discovered other outlets for telling our story.” By channeling the pain and difficulty of her family’s experience into a new medium, Hatzinakos hopes to bring the story back to life.

  • Swipe Right / Woodsworth • Innis • New • Drama Society (WINDS)

Inspired by the alternately comedic and aggravating aspects of online dating, Swipe Right attempts to bring a “cheeky” perspective to the more discriminatory aspects of dating apps.

Savana James, who cowrote Swipe Right along with Mackenzie Stewart, says she hopes the audience identifies not only with the characters who face discrimination within the play, but also the ones doing the discriminating. Director Nicole Bell echoes this sentiment, saying “having the audience connect with all the characters on stage will hopefully help people see that sometimes what people say can be hurtful, regardless of intention.”

  • Just the Fax, Ma’am, Just the Fax / UC Follies

This marks Lucas Loizou’s fourth year participating in the Drama Festival, and his first year having submitted his own original work. He describes Just The Fax as a “world made up of fragmented dreams” that explores the tensions between our psychic and social lives, the fantasies we conjure for ourselves, and the characters in our lives.

“That’s where magical realism lies,” he said. Loizou also described director Deniz Basar’s vision of the play as a portrait in cartoonish and bright colours, while “encouraging a goofy, clownish atmosphere.”

Friday, February 10

  • Mama / UTM Drama Club

Shaquille Pottinger says that Mama was inspired by his desire to tell a “uniquely Black” story — one that serves as a showcase for the “many talents of Black artists who study at this very institution.”

Director Fuchsia Boston says that Mama might seem like a deceptively simple play about a conversation between two sisters. However, the structure of the play gradually reveals new depths to each of the characters, some of whom have dark histories. This served as an anchor for Boston, who aimed to have the actors “highlight reasons their characters are human and how they can connect to them.”

  • A Lullaby and an Apology / Woodsworth • Innis • New • Drama Society

The second offering from WINDS is a story that aims to respond to the problem of bigotry and overgeneralization in the media in the name of realism.

Playwright Cy Macikunas says that the play was written with the goal of telling “a story with diversity that isn’t about the tragedy of being different.” He also acknowledged the opportunities offered by the festival, saying “I just think it’s a brilliant idea, theatre made by and for other students. It provides a platform that many of us wouldn’t have, or wouldn’t attend otherwise.

On the takeaway for viewers of the play, Macikunas said, “If I wanted to make anything clear, it’s that this world we’re in is always changing, always falling apart, and it’s okay to look after yourself first, and it’s okay to be falling apart.”

ARTS_U_of_T_Drama_Festival_Precoverage-PHOTO_COURTESY_OF_GRACE_MANALILI-Trinity_College_Dramatic_Society_TCDS_production_Suzanne

PHOTO COURTESY OF GRACE MANALILI

 

  • Suzanne / Trinity College Drama Society

When asked about his inspiration for Suzanne, writer and director Jonathan Dick describes one image, at length — a photograph of a woman clutching the chest of a girl to whom the woman’s son’s heart had been donated after his death.
“I remember feeling so touched… I found that sentiment really quite beautiful, that idea of hearing the heart of a loved one beat one more time,” Dick said.

He also explained that many of the people who impact us the most are our loved ones, leading Suzanne to ask the question: what do we do with the things they leave behind? Without giving too much away, Dick said he hopes viewers come away with not only an emotional response but also a resolve to discuss organ donation with their loved ones.

Saturday, February 11

  • A Perfect Bowl of Phở / Victoria College Drama Society

Writer Nam Nguyen was inspired to write A Perfect Bowl of Phở after reading an article that discussed the more intriguing elements of the history of the traditional Vietnamese dish, leading him to realized that “pho was interesting enough to write about.” What resulted was a humorous musical touching on the Asian-Canadian experience that includes songs such as “Vietnam Pimpin’” and “Refugee Flow.”

Director Abby Palmer also noted the timing of producing a show about immigration, saying that upon reading the script, “it was… evident that this story of Asian-Canadian youth, historical characters, and refugees needed to be told in Toronto, right now.”

NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

  • Touch / UC Follies

Marium Raja’s Touch centres on Florence, who has difficulty making contact and forming connections with others. Raja says, “the need to reach out to someone but not knowing how to, the ease of touching someone who you have a strong connection to — these are things that everyone I know has dealt with at some level.”

In casting Touch, Raja emphasized diversity, wanting the characters to reflect the people she had come to know at university.

  • Monsters / UTM Drama Club

Monsters aims to examine the weighty topic of sexual assault with compassion. Director Kailtyn White says that audience will find the use of movement in the play compelling. “I was lucky enough to work with women who are incredibly connected to their bodies and understand how to tell a story through them,” said White.

While the crux of the play is to be taken seriously, White also noted that “if we were to make Monsters a straight drama, it would be draining.” Instead, she aims to incorporate elements of humour without being disrespectful towards an story that, though is a reality for many, is often underrepresented in media.

The U of T Drama Festival runs at Hart House Theatre from February 9-11.

Asuncion

Asuncion's problematic dialogue is balance out by superb acting

Asuncion

SMC Troubadour’s production of Asuncion performed for an almost entirely sold out theatre at the Luella Massey Studio. Asuncion (pronounced Ah-sun-sea-on) is a powerful yet hilarious show about stereotypes, cultures, and society’s perceptions of specific ethnic identities.

The cast had phenomenal chemistry and remarkable comedic timing. Edgar (played by James Hyett) is a morally ambiguous character that at times you can sympathize with and at times detest. Regardless of moral compass, Hyett had the audience in the palm of his hand the entire time.

Asuncion (played by Maya Wong) is a Filipino woman who’s married to Stuart (played by Bennet Steinburg). After getting into some trouble, Stuart takes Asuncion to his brother Edgar’s house to hide her. Edgar, who comes across as rather ignorant, instantly concludes that Asuncion must be a prostitute or “sex slave” based on the fact that Stuart needs to hide her and that Asuncion is Filipino. Although Edgar initially opposes the idea of Asuncion staying with them, he’s ultimately overruled by Vinny (played by Kirk Munroe), and Asuncion stays with them until Stuart returns.

At times, the production can come across as mildly offensive. Yet it becomes clear throughout the play that this is ultimately the whole point of the production. Each character is meant to embody a stereotype that is designed to be offensive. The offensiveness, it seems, is supposed to be self-aware, and is supposed to prove a point. It intentionally draws on the flaws within our society and misconceptions we often create regarding others’ cultures and lifestyles.

Ascuncion. Courtesy SMC Troubadours.

Ascuncion. Courtesy SMC Troubadours.

One particularly interesting component of the production is the way that the venue is reconfigured to be situated where the audience would normally be seated. This particular method worked well for Asuncion, as it created a very naturalistic experience. The one problem with the set-up, however, is that the lighting booth that typically controls lights and sound for the show is facing the audience. This is very problematic for the people in the lighting booth, as they usually need to see the stage in order to receive their cues for lighting and sound effects.

In the first act, the writing falls short, leaving the audience questing where exactly the plot is going. Luckily, this is cleared up in the second act, and is compensated by the actors, whose performances can be credited more to their acting abilities than the writers’ abilities. Munroe’s duality, comedic timing, and stage presence is a joy to watch. There’s great chemistry between characters like Edgar and Vinny along with Vinny and Asuncion. Wong brought stage presence to her role and a strong sense of poise, charm, innocence, and stability.

Overall, the SMC Troubadours production of Asuncion is hilarious and heartfelt, brilliantly directed and cast, and leaves the audience reflecting on the powerful production they just had the pleasure of watching.

The makings of a play

In the lead up to the U of T Drama Festival, we tracked a UC Follies production

The makings of a play

The logistics of a theatrical production can be complicated. Finding a performance venue, or even just rehearsal space can be an arduous process. Fortunately, Twenty-Two Troubles Theatre Company — founded by three U of T drama students — found out about a UC Follies initiative that would provide them with administrative and creative support. They were taken on as the Follies’ incubator project, which came with a conditional spot in the annual U of T Drama Festival.

The company is curated by Madeleine Heaven, Sophie Munden, and Carmen Kruk. It will soon premiere What She Said, an experimental piece that uses the real words of real women to create a story.

The journey from inception to performance has been a long one. Munden has always wanted to work ‘in verbatim,’ but was daunted by the prospect of gathering enough raw material for an entire play. Once she, Heaven, and Kruk began working together, they started to discuss what they “wanted to say with the work that [they] were doing in theatre.” They decided to collect true stories of women, hoping that “sharing these stories [would] expand the cultural understanding of what it means to be a woman.”

The support of the Follies has been helpful, says Kruk. “They were very clear with us [that] if we ever needed anything, we could go to them for support, whether for administrative reasons or artistic reasons.”

They began by interviewing different women. The process was difficult at first, as the directors found it hard for the women involved to open up in such an intensely personal setting. Eventually, the team decided that the best way to move forward would be to approach the interviews as conversations, by gathering groups of about six or seven women, and participating in the interviews themselves.

“We never asked anybody to speak about something that we didn’t feel comfortable doing ourselves,” Kruk says. The questions became more specific, but the atmosphere was more conducive to personal connection. What they learned from this process, says Munden, was that “you can ask people anything and they’ll talk about the things they want to talk about. They’ll find a way to get there. People often found a way to talk about what they needed to talk about, regardless of the format of the question.”

The participation of the directors themselves in the interview process also created a deeply personal connection with the material. When the three started combining the stories of their interview subjects into composite characters, something felt off. “It felt like we weren’t doing their stories justice if we started putting them together to make characters out of them,” says Kruk. They agreed that “if we wanted to tell narratives, the best way to do that was to use the words of the females to whom the narratives belonged,” says Heaven.

Though the production has been in progress for about a year, it wasn’t until the winter holidays that the script was finally written. Even now, Kruk says, “We’ve been making little changes here and there.” The script has a conversational, but deeply intimate tone. It deals with themes of miscommunication, self-perception, and belonging. It’s about how people can isolate themselves in their own worlds, but have more in common than they think. “When you’re doing a show that’s about women’s narratives, you’re going to get things that are difficult to talk about,” Heaven says.

Rehearsal for What She Said is an exercise in organized chaos. There are seemingly endless questions to be asked and answered, about everything from the arrangement of the boxes that comprise the sparse set, to the precise number of seconds an actor will need to bounce her leg nervously. Everything is complicated by the busy schedules of everyone involved and sometimes the actors even have to rehearse around another’s absence.

There is no central message, though, and the directors make a point of saying so. Kruk says, “the heart of it has always been to try to do justice to the stories, and to the girls who shared with us.” Munden adds, “The important thing is that [the viewers] listen. I think that’s pretty much what it is for me, is that they just take a moment to listen to other people.”

Twenty-Two Troubles Theatre Company’s What She Said will debut on Thursday, February 11

Student Theatre: Moby Dick! The Musical

The Woodsworth Innis New Drama Society's production is a whale of a tale

Student Theatre: Moby Dick! The Musical

“Moby Dick is the whale’s revenge on man,” the St. Godley girls exclaim in preparation of their school production.

Moby Dick! The Musical is a light-hearted, cheeky alternative to Herman Melville’s classic tale of man’s futile pursuit of vengeance upon mother nature. Originally a Cameron Mackintosh production, the Woodsworth Innis New Drama Society’s (WINDS) rendition, directed by Lanndis De Lallo, exudes joy, despite the occasional hardships depicted in the plot. The play acts as a heroic antithesis to the novel’s theme of humanity’s antagonism; the primary characters aim to save, rather than kill.

Ironically, both the novel and its musical production were initially commercial failures. The novel was only recognized as one of America’s greatest after Melville’s death. Perhaps this is because both are difficult to categorize into a single genre. Like the novel, the musical is a story of both tragedy and comedy, of death and survival, and of choice and the inevitable.

The musical’s frame narrative, a story within a story, tells the binary subplots of the St. Godley girls and their performance of Moby Dick. The show begins with a buoyant choir performance brilliantly led by Michael Bazzocchi, the school’s animated headmistress, who also plays Captain Ahab, dressed in fluorescent green and pink floral. The novel’s anarchic adventure is effectively juxtaposed by the disorderly innocence of the St. Godley girls and their male counterparts.

The score’s performers are equally vibrant. Ishmael (Renae Wolfesburger) sings longingly of the ocean’s magic, accompanied by endearing sea creatures — puppets and stuffed animals — dancing along the water. Esta (Jocelyn Kraynyk), anticipating her husband Captain Ahab’s return from three long years of adventure, sings “A Man Happens to a Woman” upon receiving his letter. Pip’s (Michael Henley) dreams of being in an illustrious boy band are fulfilled near the show’s finale, as he sings a Jason Derulo song.

The great white whale itself, Moby Dick (Leah Ritcey-Thorpe), makes a few grand   appearances throughout the performance — a clever addition by Lallo. The musical contains a multitude of double entendres, including the variety of sexual innuendos associated with the whale’s phallic title.

Contemporary anachronism is abundant, as a passenger at sea alludes to James Cameron’s Titanic, gushing, “Near, far, wherever you are,” to which Celine Dion herself would be proud.

WINDS’ Moby Dick! The Musical is a welcome dose of warmth to a snowy Toronto night. The musical raised donations to support the Trek for Teens Foundation for homeless youth.

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