Thursday, 5 January 2012

My Favourite Shows in 2011

by Tim Chapman, Professional Theatre Coordinator

As 2012 begins, we have seen many best of the year lists for 2011.  So I thought I would look back and quickly comment on my favourite shows of the past year.  The problem with this is that I do not get out to the theatre as much as in my younger days.  I have missed a lot of shows which would probably be on my list.  In Now’s Top 10 theatre shows of 2011 (December 22 -28 issue, Toronto only), I found that I had seen just four of their top ten shows.  All right, to be honest, my first reaction was positive that I had seen four of their top ten.  Anyway, the point is that the following twelve shows come from the approximately forty shows I saw this year in Toronto and around Ontario.

Sterling Jarvis and Yanna McIntosh
in Ruined.  Photo by  Christopher Gallow.
The first superb show I saw in 2011 was Ruined by American playwright Lynn Nottage, co-produced by Obsidian Theatre and Nightwood Theatre.  Yanna McIntosh won a deserved third Dora Award for her amusing and searing portrayal of a hardened madam in a Congolese brothel during a civil war.  Obsidian’s Artistic Director Philip Akin directed a fine cast in this riveting follow-up to Nottage’s Intimate Apparel previously produced by Obsidian.

Billy Elliot The Musical was excellently produced by Mirvish Productions and the cast included our own Kate Hennig fresh from her Broadway triumph in the show.  I had never seen a musical like it.  I bumped into Kate after I had seen it.  She described it more as a “play with music than a musical.”  Maybe that was central to the show’s originality and its uncompromising look at the working class mining community where Billy came from.  Later in the spring, I saw the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice directed by Robert Carson.  It was such a clear, finely realized show beautifully and simply designed.

In the late spring and summer, I attended a number of shows across Ontario.  I loved four of those shows.   The first was Dance Legends at Drayton Festival Theatre conceived and directed by Drayton’s Artistic Director Alex Mustakas.  I love show dancing and the cast of fourteen dancers and two singers did not disappoint in this first-rate song and dance celebration.  The Festival Players of Prince Edward County under the artistic direction of Sarah Phillips continues to produce impressive productions.  In early July, I was down for the remount of John Gray’s musical Amelia  prior to the production going to the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa in September.  It is a three-hander musical about the iconic flyer Amelia Earhart, a companion piece to Gray’s Canadian classic, Billy Bishop Goes to War.  Sarah and the cast, including Eliza-Jane Scott in the title role, do a bang-up job delivering a smartly-staged pocket musical.  You can see it this upcoming summer at Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque.

In early August, I saw the opening of 4th Line Theatre’s The Cavan Blazers.  I had never seen it before.  It was 4th Line’s inaugural production in 1992 and they have produced it another four times, most recently in 2004.  I had always wanted to see it as I knew there were characters riding real horses in the show—perfect for outdoor theatre.  It’s a monumental undertaking with a cast of nearly sixty (led by Richard Greenblatt, Edward Belanger and Artistic Director Robert Winslow) and a gripping 19th century local story.  It is the type of big show which 4th Line produces so well.

Later in the summer I caught up with the much-lauded Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Shaw Festival.  What a triumph!  Director Eda Holmes has mined terrific performances from the entire cast but especially Jim Mezon as Big Daddy.  It was thrilling to see this Williams classic so superbly staged.  Speaking of Jim Mezon, I recently saw his passionate portrayal of the 20th century American painter Mark Rothko in Red at Canadian Stage.  He is one of our very best actors.  I also was once again excited by director Kim Collier’s work, who previously gave us the stunning Studies in Motion in 2010.

This past fall I was invited to see Ibsen’s Ghosts at Soulpepper.  It is probably the least favourite of Ibsen’s plays with which I am acquainted.   I will never forget falling asleep in a boring Broadway production of the play starring Liv Ullman and John Neville.  Plus, it was being directed by Morris Panych which seemed an incongruous combination to me.  Wrong!  I was deeply moved and engrossed with this quietly rich, haunting production.  The nuances of the play came to life for me in the thoughtful performances of the cast led by Toronto’s first couple of the stage, Nancy Palk and Joe Ziegler.  I am eagerly looking forward to seeing Nancy and Joe in Soulpepper’s upcoming Long Day’s Journey into Night.  And if you missed them in the acclaimed 2010 production of Death of a Salesman, Soulpepper has also slotted that for 2012.

At the Tarragon in November, I caught up with d’bi.young anitafrika’s Word! Sound! Power!, the final show of her Sankofa Trilogy.  I am not sure I have ever seen a more intense, engaging performer in my life.  In Tarragon’s Extra Space, you simply cannot take your eyes off her.  We are so lucky that Toronto is her home.

At the end of November, I got to see 2 Pianos, 4 Hands again.  Mirvish Productions brought Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt back for, purportedly, the last time.  What a treat!  The show was better than ever.  It evoked so many marvellous memories.  I was at the Tarragon for the show’s premiere and I was able to attend the show’s New York City opening, one of the highlights of my career in theatre.

Patricia Fagan and Oliver Dennis in
Parfumerie.  Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Finally in December I saw two very different, very good shows.  Soulpepper revived their Dora-winning production of Parfumerie, a 1937 Hungarian play adapted by Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins.  I missed it the first time, so I was thoroughly charmed by this delightful comedy/drama.  The deft, lively production was utter perfection, beautifully directed, designed and performed. 

The next week I was again privileged to attend one of Jumblies Theatre’s huge shows which they produce every three years.  This one was Like an Old Tale, “an East Scarborough telling of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.”  I say huge as Jumblies mingles a few professional artists, musicians and actors with literally hundreds of Toronto community members—children, teenagers, seniors, First Nations, Tamils and many, many residents of Scarborough—to create a unique spectacle of storytelling and performing arts.  It is a multi-layered synthesis of performing techniques including acting, singing, dancing, poetry, puppetry, shadow-playing, drawing, stilt-walking, clowning, and improvisation set in a beautiful, white, vast playground, not unlike the wonderful white “gymnasium” of the seminal 1960’s Peter Brooks production of Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Absolutely unique and wondrous!  Even the intermission was fun as some of the children sold short, short stories they had written on cards for a loonie.

So it was another good year of theatre-going.  There were other good shows, but I did not like them quite as much.  Then, there were remounted shows that I had previously seen in other years such as The Time of Your Life at Soulpepper.  And there were many really good shows that I did not make it to.  But I cannot complain.  I got my money’s worth and more in 2011.

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