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’ lady in the red dress

The show explores discrimination against Chinese-Canadians, both past and present

Theatre review: VCDS’ <i>lady in the red dress</i>

The Victoria College Drama Society (VCDS) began 2018 with its production of lady in the red dress on Thursday, January 25 at The Cat’s Eye Student Pub & Lounge. The show examines the anti-Asian racism surrounding the Chinese head tax imposed by the Canadian government, as well as issues of sexism, violence, and death.

The play takes place in Toronto, and loosely follows the timeline of the Chinese head tax, alternating between present day and the early 1900s.

A talented young cast was on hand for this adaptation of David Yee’s play, portraying their characters in dramatic, yet realistic and comical ways. Max (James Hyett), a lawyer negotiating the head tax redress, encounters Sylvia (Kenzie Tsang), an enigmatic woman in a red dress looking for vengeance.

Sylvia drags him into the history of the Chinese-Canadian struggle, and her search for the elusive Tommy Jade (Nam Nguyen). Along the way, Max is shot, stabbed, suffers a heart attack, and discovers that his son Danny (Cy Macikunas) has been taken hostage. As the show progresses, Max experiences the discrimination against Chinese-Canadians and the effects of the head tax firsthand.

While the show is at first insensitive to these disparities, he comes to the realization that everyone has a collective responsibility to do the right thing and draw attention to the harsh history endured by past generations.

Gianni Sallese gives brilliant performances in the roles of Hatch and Coogan, and Alice Guo and Victoria Ngai’s non-speaking roles in the chorus also added to the dramatics.

Overall, lady in the red dress is an extraordinary play that portrays the diversity of a predominantly Chinese-Canadian story well with mostly Chinese and mixed actors. It reverberates the significance of Canada’s diversity today, especially in Toronto, and helps us to shift our perspectives on critical issues of injustice.

lady in the red dress runs at The Cat’s Eye until Saturday, January 27.

Theatre review: TCDS’ Rumors

The Neil Simon production is a farcical descent into chaos

Theatre review: TCDS’ <i>Rumors</i>

The best way to sum up the plot of Neil Simon’s Rumors is this: the dinner party’s host shoots himself, and hilarity ensues. The Trinity College Dramatic Society (TCDS) presented a rendition of the 1988 play from November 22–25, directed by Vanessa Perruzza.

The setting of the play is the 10th anniversary party of Mira and Charles, although neither character actually appears in the show. Charles is unconscious and wounded from a shot to the ear and Mira is missing.

Rumors is a farce that combines slapstick humour and witty commentary on upper-class life, as well as the dinner party/murder mystery trope. It is full of big personalities and big misunderstandings. At times, neither the audience nor the characters know exactly what is going on, a recurring theme throughout the show.

The play opens immediately after an accident has occurred, although what exactly happened remains unclear. Through a conversation between two of the characters, Chris and her husband Ken, we find out that the host has suffered a minor bullet wound, perhaps attempted suicide.

As guests begin to arrive, the characters try to piece together exactly what has happened. Where are the hosts? Where is the help? Is a scandalous affair involved? Why were there gunshots?

Those who know try to keep the secret from those who don’t, and the miscommunications and rumours become increasingly elaborate and far-fetched. The characters spend the party trying to save their reputations, marriages, and the dinner itself, while their level of intoxication increases.

Gianni Salese gave an excellent performance in the role of Len, as did Kenzie Tsang as Chris. Perruzza did an outstanding job as director. The set and staging made the audience feel as if they were sitting in the dining room with the guests, experiencing the commotion firsthand.

Simon originally wrote Rumors to cheer himself up during a period of depression, and the dark comedy definitely lived up to this goal. Although it carries an undertone of sadness, Rumors was funny, smart, and featured some great talent.

Grease gets an update in its tech-savvy Toronto production

Matthew Haber of design studio BeSide Digital explains the challenges of updating the show

<em>Grease</em> gets an update in its tech-savvy Toronto production

The run of Toronto’s Grease the Musical was recently extended to January 7 at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre, which the show attributes to the “amazing support” it’s received from the city. The production, which stars Janel Parrish as Sandy, Dylan S. Wallach as Danny, and Katie Findlay as Rizzo, makes heavy use of onstage technology, including animations and projections.

This is the work of Matthew Haber, the co-founder and managing director of BeSide Digital, a New York City-based experimental design studio. Haber is one of few Americans working on the production, and he travelled frequently back and forth from New York City to Toronto to create the large scale virtual designs that appear in the show. The Varsity spoke to Haber to discuss maintaining a balance between Grease’s 1950s setting, and the modern sensibility provided by the incorporation of technology.

The Varsity: How did you become involved in the production design for Grease?

Matthew Haber: The set designer Paul DePoo, and I had designed a show together a couple years back. When Josh Prince, the director of Grease, brought up a desire for world-building scenic projections, Paul suggested that BeSide and my approach to multimedia storytelling might be a good match for Josh’s vision.

TV: What were some of the challenges involved in the show’s production design?

MH: The story of Grease is really a personal story about young love between the characters. Any time I’m creating physically large-scale projections for a show that has a human-scale story, it’s a challenge to develop a design approach that supports the actors on stage instead of dwarfing them and their storytelling. For Grease, we had to develop compositional and stylistic techniques for the integration of the projection design to ensure that we were most effectively melding our work with the action on stage.

TV: Were you ever concerned about anachronism in using projection or other technology in the show and its setting in the 1950s, or whether this would distract the audience?

MH: Absolutely. We worked really hard to develop an aesthetic sensibility for the show that would help build the world of working class 1950s Chicago in a way that felt analogue and authentic instead of cold and digital. Typically we might rely heavily on techniques such as 3D animation, but for Grease, my team collected thousands of period images and videos over several weeks of research, and those formed much of the visual foundation of the design and really guided the way we constructed the computer-generated visuals that we do have. For example, in “Grease Lightning,” the characters are catapulted through 1950s Chicago surrounded by a complex CGI cityscape, but rather than looking harsh and animated, we developed a look for the sequence that feels more like a vintage postcard come to life.

TV: What sets Grease apart from other shows you’ve worked on, and what should potential playgoers know about the show?

MH: The vast majority of the shows I’ve designed in the past are new plays and musicals, so we’re really working from a clean slate in terms of the visual and narrative vocabularies of the production. Grease carries with it the baggage of an untold number of stage productions as well as the iconic film. Josh, the director, and my fellow designers and I have worked to respect that heritage while also trying to create a production that feels simultaneously true to the show’s roots and fresh for a contemporary audience.

TV: Finally, what is your favourite song from Grease?

MH: Definitely “Grease Lightning,” but that may be because of all the times I listened to it while we created animation for it.

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.

Campus theatre preview: Love’s Labour’s Lost

Trinity’s Shakespeare in the Quad production focuses on the right to love

Campus theatre preview: <em>Love’s Labour’s Lost</em>

Trinity College’s iconic quadrangle was once home to one of the largest outdoor Shakespeare festivals in Canada. The Trinity College Dramatic Society (TCDS) has continued this tradition with an annual Shakespeare in the Quad production each fall to begin their season. This year, the TCDS is shaking things up by staging a modern musical retelling of the Bard’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, written by Alex Timbers and with music by Michael Friedman.

The musical is set in front of a hotel in a university town, where alumni students from said university are visiting for a school reunion. The King and his buddies swear an oath to stay away from women, which becomes increasingly difficult when girls from their past arrive. In classic Shakespearean comedy style, the story is filled with hijinks, miscommunication, and the chase for love.

Director Nicole Bell, a third-year theatre student, revealed that she was drawn to this show after listening to “Love’s a Gun” off the soundtrack. While the lyrics provide a commentary on heteronormative relationships, she realized that the songs in this show “are so easily steeped in queer narratives” as well. “I picked this show because it’s fun and it’s goofy, but I found meaning in it,” Bell said.

“This show is about love, [but] what I wanted to do with the show is ask the question ‘who has the right to love?’” Bell continued. By casting the show completely gender-blind, the production attempted to show that everyone has that right.

Moreover, most of the show’s five couples are queer and interracial, aspects that were particularly important for Bell to have represented on stage. “I really wanted to try to accent one or both, and I’m very lucky that I got to accent both,” she shared.

Bell mentioned that there are moments when actors break the fourth wall and interact with the audience, and these won’t be the only instances where reality and fiction intermingle. After Bell got a hold of the libretto, she discovered that the original production was also set outside, in New York City’s Central Park, and that the band had doubled as the one for the university reunion as well. This will be replicated in the TCDS production. “I’m glad that I have the opportunity to take some of the original aspects of the show and bring it into this space,” she added.

The Trinity College Dramatic Society’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost opens Wednesday, September 27 and closes Saturday, September 30.

Take a bite out of environmental issues

U of T-based Broadleaf Theatre to take on this year’s Fringe Festival

Take a bite out of environmental issues

Three years ago, Kevin Matthew Wong and Nathaniel Rose founded Broadleaf Theatre, a student-run company with a focus on environmental issues. It seeks to make important issues more accessible and relatable than the average petition. Rose has since left the company, but Wong continues to be the artistic director and producer.

“A lot of the exposure you get towards environmental issues, it’s the petitions, it’s the sad video on your news feed,” Wong said. “We’re not that and we want to give you something that those can’t do.”

Broadleaf uses a technique called ‘devised theatre’ and they rarely begin with a set script. Instead, they use a communal process — such as watching documentaries and discussing current events — to create each play. Wong pointed out that the environmental movement does not have a single president or leader, and that Broadleaf operates similarly. By opening up the creative process to all performers, the actors also become the creators.

“The scary thing for us, too, is telling a story that is not ours,” Wong said. “There are a lot of questions of ethics about that. We want to talk about the Boil water crisis on First Nations reserves. How do we do that? …I don’t think we can say this is our experience, because it is not.”

Born out of brainstorm sessions at the Kruger Hall Second Cup, Broadleaf Theatre’s Bite-Sized will come to life once again at Factory Theatre during the Toronto Fringe Festival, which runs June 29 to July 10. It is a collection of 15 plays addressing environmental issues, each three minutes or less. It was first performed at the U of T Drama Festival in 2014, where it won the Viewer’s Choice Award and the President’s Award for Best Production.

“In 60 minutes, we hope to give everybody a sense of where they exist in the world – intense, fun, wacky, and all the things,” Wong said.

The Varsity sat down with Wong to discuss everything from the evolution of Broadleaf to advice for theatre enthusiasts.

The Varsity:  You’re taking evolution and distilling it into a three-minute act of interactive seventies aerobics dance? I would love to see that.

Kevin Wong: Come on by! I think it is also understanding the demographic. I think we are under-served as a demographic… I didn’t realize a few years ago that the art wasn’t really connecting with me fully because it wasn’t made for me. We’re trying to make theatre that is made for people who are realizing this is the world that they will have to contend with – these are the issues that are nascent now, but they are going to be with them their entire lives, and how do we make that not a great tragedy but a great comedy?

TV: …I’m so amazed you took inspiration from a U of T prof.

KWDan [Dolderman]’s concept is a concept called “everything you love,” and I really love it because it is about thinking about all the things that you value, even in a small way, and realizing that not only does that thing probably affect the issue of environmental issues of climate change, it is also threatened by climate change. It is something at stake, and if you think about everything you love and don’t want to lose, that is exactly why we are doing this. I think that is a great concept by a U of T prof that really personalizes it.

TV: How has [Broadleaf] enriched your U of T experience? You said you were in International Relations — that’s pretty different.

KW: I am so grateful for the theatre community. I wouldn’t have been in the theatre community if I didn’t catch a Facebook post out of high school for auditions for somebody who dropped out of King Lear with the [Trinity College Drama Society]. I swear that changed the entire trajectory of maybe my life. It’s super wacky to think about how a Facebook post could change your life, or meeting the right person. Nathaniel Rose, he’s no longer with the company, but he was my co-founder. He was in the same class. There were a few of us that were interested in these issues, but it was finding the person at the right time, the right wavelength, with similar theatre practices and interests, and how that shaped my experience.

Performers of Abandoned City Courtesy of Rusaba Alam

Performers of Abandoned City
Courtesy of Rusaba Alam

TV: Did you say you co-founded it? Can you give us a little more of the history of Broadleaf Theatre?

KW: Broadleaf Theatre happened because we were in performance class at the [Leonard Common Room], it’s in the basement of Morrison Hall, in the theatre program. We really loved all the things we were doing in the class and we were really challenged, in terms of being actors. But there was part of us, a few of us, that felt that the work wasn’t really yet about what was really at the core of us, what we really cared about.

TV: You mentioned initiative – if you want to be seen, you have to do it yourself. Do you have any other advice for students in theatre, students looking to get more involved in theatre, or students looking to start their own productions?

KW: Sometimes the best help isn’t the people that are five steps ahead of you, but the ones that are one step ahead of you… If you’re working with your instructor, they are [five steps ahead] – you’re really grasping for something you are not sure about. If you take a look at your TA or something, they’re like two steps ahead of you. That is something that is sort of attainable and you can reach for that. It is just steps, especially in your theatre practice or as an artist. It is what is the next step. Sometimes I see artists that are everywhere in the city. I can’t be them tomorrow. Humility is really important. Self-awareness is also really important.

A Cind-Ah-Rella story

Director Vanessa Jev talks about remounting ASCU's Cind-Ah-Rella

A <em>Cind-Ah-Rella</em> story

Vanessa Jev is no stranger to theatre. From the Lost King to Romeo and Juliet, she has been creating plays for the University of Toronto theatre community that re-interpret classic tales with her own unique twist.

Earlier this year, Jev presented Cind-Ah-Rella in association with African Students Course Union. The modern day, African retelling of Cinderella quickly sold out and garnered great acclaim across the city.

Jev Productions is currently presenting an encore of this smash production. In the midst of all the excitement, Jev sat down with The Varsity to talk about inspiration and student theatre.

The Varsity: What do you do and why?

Vanessa Jev: I write theatre shows! At first, it really started as a necessity. I was auditioning for a lot of plays on campus and there weren’t any roles for black leads or plays that had many black characters. The roles that were available were limited to the sassy church lady or the loud best friend. As a result, I decided to create my own shows and create a space for people of colour to express themselves on campus.

TV: How did your desire for representation and passion for theatre culminate with you writing Cind-Ah-Rella?

VJ: From Romeo and Juliet to the Lost King to this, I believe it is making sure that someone comes to the show and says, “Wow, what an amazing costume. What an amazing set. What an amazing song choice. What an amazing plot.” It is all about looking back at shows and thinking what will make this piece of work impactful to the audience. I think it all comes down to making sure all these points are hit and that nothing comes out flat.

Performers on stage. COURTESY OF CIND-AH-RELLA

Performers on stage. COURTESY OF CIND-AH-RELLA

TV: How did you come to write Cind-Ah-Rella?

VJ: Cinderella was a play I wanted to do for a long time. After I had done Romeo and Juliet, everyone asked me what was next step and the automatic response was Cinderella. I wanted to do Cinderella in particular because… it would be something unique.

How many black fairytale characters have you seen in the mainstream? I mean there was Princess Tiana in the Princess and the Frog, but she was a frog for most of the movie. [F]rom my experiences with children’s theatre and from my own experiences as a child, I know how important representation is. With a character that is traditionally portrayed in one way, seeing it in a new way can have a profound effect.

TV: What was the thought process behind the costumes in the play?

VJ: Costumes are always fun. With the play, I wanted to represent what everyday life really is like in an African country. Not all the characters were wearing a dashiki or Ankara outfits, some were wearing regular clothes, like jeans and a t-shirt. This created an authenticity.

However, for Cinderella’s dress I was insistent that it was made with African fabric. Her first dress was a gorgeous, bright yellow dashiki, which I designed with the designer ZNA.K. For the second round, we will be featuring a new dress and featuring various designers. After the show, we will create a look-book of all the amazing pieces.

TV: How do you see this play impacting the U of T community?

VJ: I believe the impact could be big, but there needs to be a variety of people from all backgrounds coming to see the show. When the show first played, some people said they had never gone to a theatre show where everything was so interactive.

The greatest impact is that the play isn’t classical theatre. Through its uniqueness, the play has the ability to break down stereotypes of what a theatre show has to look like and how people of colour are portrayed on stage. It shows that theatre doesn’t have to fit into one culture or experience, but can be for all people.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.