It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play Sings a Sweet Tune

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It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, presented by Theatre New Brunswick. Pictured, left to right: Beau Dixon, Kirsten Alter, Wally MacKinnon, and Ryan Hinds. In the background: Emily Shute, Sound Designer. Photo Credit: Andre Reinders.

I have never watched the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, starring James Stewart. We rarely watched these “holiday classics” in our home. My family gathered around for The Muppet Christmas Carol, A Muppet Family Christmas, and that Christmas episode of Hey Arnold! Any personal knowledge of the film comes from pop culture references and parodies.

Enter Theatre New Brunswick and its holiday production It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, adapted by Joe Landry (from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, and Jo Swerling). Running at the Fredericton Playhouse.

A live radio play? That’s right. It’s like a podcast for your eyes and ears!

It’s Christmas Eve, 1946. Five actors are preparing for a live broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life. A pianist (Emily Shute, sound designer) accompanies the actors. To the side, there is a table full of assorted objects. The radio drama will come alive through the magic of foley. Freddie Filmore (Wally MacKinnon) welcomes the studio audience and invites them to give their honest reactions to heighten the experience for listeners at home. The performance begins after he introduces the ensemble.

It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of a man trying to lift his neighbors out of poverty so that their families may prosper in the small town of Bedford Falls. That man is named George Bailey (Beau Dixon). Now, George’s efforts have not come without sacrifice. George has had to give up many dreams to continue his family’s work. He never went away to college, nor did he ever get to explore the world. George has stayed in Bedford Falls all his life.

George’s love for his community keeps him in Bedford Falls, but there is also something else that prevents him from leaving. Mr. Potter (MacKinnon) is a mean-spirited tycoon bent on controlling Bedford Falls. He owns nearly all the businesses in town save for George’s Building & Loan. Mr. Potter would have shut down the Bailey business long ago if it were not for George. Without George, there would be no Bedford Falls.

On Christmas Eve, an apprentice angel named Clarence (Rudy Hinds) visits George after a mix-up at the bank pushes him to the edge.

Unlike A Christmas Carol, there is no divine intervention that breaks through the heart of Bedford Fall’s old miser. The miser goes unbothered. Both stories are similar in that they demonstrate the impact that one person can have on the lives of many others. Of course, Scrooge only learns this lesson after spirits torment him. In It’s a Wonderful Life, divine intervention delivers George to the arms of his community. The last mile — it’s a community of ordinary people coming together to help one of their own. When George can fight no more, his friends and neighbors come to his aid so he can continue the mission. 

In A Christmas Carol, the poor struggle without the rich. Here, the poor are trying to survive against the rich. Scrooge shuts out the world around him, whereas Mr. Potter has his hands in every corner of Bedford Falls. In a world without George Bailey, Mr. Potter achieves his ultimate goal: total erasure of the small town. The marginalized are further cast aside. George’s efforts help preserve the identity, history, and future of his community. Dixon — one of three black actors in the ensemble — in the role of George Bailey elevates the theme of erasure that runs through It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s hard to ignore as a brown guy sitting in the audience.

The first act is a bit of a drag. Clarence flips through the chapters of George’s life like it were a magazine in the doctor’s office. Except for the odd perfume sample, the plot is mainly a series of “George gets knocked down again.” The tender moments between George and his wife Mary Hatch (Kirsten Alter) are heartwarming. Landry’s adaptation sparks life into the story with commercial jingles that interrupt the program. The actors gleefully perform the jingles.

The actors, already playing multiple roles, take turns as the broadcast’s foley artists. Ordinary objects produce sounds that enrich the radio broadcast. A plunger and washtub full of water stand in for an icy river. Bicycle bells become telephones. And there’s even a small door to mark entrances and exits. It’s quite the old-timey spectacle.

Dixon plays George as a kind of impersonation of James Stewart. It works okay. He slips in and out of it occasionally. Does a radio broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life really depend on an imitation of Stewart’s voice? Director Natasha MacLellan seems to believe it does. I don’t think so, but I say that as someone with no attachment to the original film. All that aside, Dixon delivers a spirited performance as George.

Hinds has a million dollar smile. His cheerful energy lights up the stage. His performance as Clarence is delightful. MacKinnon’s Mr. Potter reminds me of Ed Asner’s performance in Up. Only MacKinnon is playing a real cold-hearted man, and his gruff voice and mannerisms in front of the microphone prove it. Alter is positively terrific as Mary Hatch. Her robust voice and expressive physicality make for a great performance. Jenny Munday demonstrates considerable range as she hops from character to character. 

Set Designer Katherine Jenkins-Ryan turns Studio A into something that looks more like a living room recording session. For a radio station, there’s not a lot of equipment (that we can see, anyway). If it weren’t for the On Air and Applause signs, you would think a group of friends dropped into someone’s spacious home for a script reading. It’s not a negative. I, as a born and raised Martimer, think it’s a big plus. You step foot inside the theatre and almost immediately feel a part of something special. Jenkins-Ryan’s cozy set is the kind of warm and intimate space you want to be in, especially during the holiday season.

TNB’s holiday production is full of joy and wonderful storytelling from its versatile ensemble. 


Theatre New Brunswick’s It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play ran December 12 – 14 at the Fredericton Playhouse.

The production will tour New Brunswick, December 15 – 21.

For more information about the show, visit:
http://www.tnb.nb.ca/its-a-wonderful-life-a-live-radio-play/

On Tour: Decidedly Jazz Danceworks’ Juliet & Romeo at the Fredericton Playhouse

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a lot like a pepperoni pizza. It’s a classic. You know it when you see it. And you know what? You’ll eat it because it’s never really let you down before. In other words, it’s fine. Now, Decidedly Jazz Danceworks’ Juliet & Romeo is all about that pepperoni pizza. It’s just that DJD takes all the basic ingredients of Shakespeare’s play, throws them in a wood-fired oven, and serves you something that makes your taste buds explode.

Adapted by Cory Bowles, Juliet & Romeo is a reimagining of Shakespeare’s play about star-crossed lovers. The plot is all here but not in a traditional sense. Consider Bowles’ adaptation a remix of Romeo and Juliet. Bowles hits the major story beats but rearranges them into something almost entirely new. Kimberley Cooper’s choreography brings the text alive with movement that is exhilarating, tense, and at times contemplative. The production features live original music from Composer/Musical Director Nick Fraser, accompanied on stage by the Nick Fraser Ensemble (Fraser on drums and percussion; Rob Clutton on bass; Jeremy Gignoux on violin; Carsten Rubeling on trombone). The live jazz music is an integral part of Juliet & Romeo, and the company’s DNA. All these elements together produce a deep dive into the material that explores its themes and puts a spotlight on Juliet.

In DJD’s original production, which premiered at the 2017 High Performance Rodeo, Bowles played the Narrator. This time, company dancer Natasha Korney is the Narrator of Juliet & Romeo. Korney is infinitely charming in the role. She captures your eyes and ears with her larger than life persona and fierce delivery of the text.

Bowles weaves the tragic story of Pyramus and Thisbe into Juliet & Romeo. If you remember from English class, Pyramus and Thisbe appear in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, woefully but amusingly staged by Bottom’s theatre troupe. Korney, dressed in a big coat to play The Wall, energizes Bowles’ take on Pyramus and Thisbe with comedic flair. Shayne Johnson and Catherine Hayward play Pyramus and Thisbe, respectively. Cooper’s choreography sees Johnson and Hayward reaching through the wall, wanting so desperately to bridge the distance between them. The story ends with Pyramus and Thisbe choosing death over living apart — sound familiar?

“3000 years later…”

By including Pyramus and Thisbe, Bowles winks and nods at not only the ultimate fate of our young lovers but the timelessness of their story. Young people will always rebel against their parents and go to great lengths for love (or what they think is love). Or maybe not. Juliet & Romeo’s thesis is not so simple.

Soon after, Juliet & Romeo narrows its focus on Juliet. The dancers gather around a table and, using shoes as hand puppets, illustrate Juliet’s situation at home. Juliet is a 14-year old girl with no freedom. Her future is not her own. Juliet’s father promises Count Paris that his daughter will marry him. Moving up the social ladder is all that matters to the young Capulet’s family, not her happiness. The “shoe show” is delightfully crafted by Cooper.

Meanwhile, Romeo (at this point played by Kaleb Tekeste) is livin’ la vida loca. He’s a regular bro. Tekeste is laid back and totally cool as Romeo. He and the boys have nothing to stress about. No, really. What is the biggest problem in Romeo’s life before he meets Juliet? Unrequited love. After meeting Juliet? Putting a ring on her finger. Small beans compared to everything Juliet has on her plate.

Everything changes when Tybalt (Scott Augustine) enters the equation. Johnson really shines here as Mercutio, the clown of Romeo’s friend group. Even in the face of death, Johnson’s Mercutio has time to crack a smile. Cooper’s choreography brilliantly brings together danger and levity as Mercutio and Tybalt fight, with Romeo trying to defuse the situation. Of course, Mercutio gets stabbed, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to have the last laugh. He collapses, then tries to get to his feet, only to collapse again. Mercutio flips off Tybalt and dies. Johnson’s facial expressions and comedic timing elevate the scene.

Thanks to Costumer Designer Sarah Doucet, the dancers look super slick in this world of secrets and schemes, of jazz and violent delights. 

In the second act, the dancers run through the entire plot of Romeo and Juliet in “6 Minutes and 47 Seconds.” The whirlwind scene sees the whole company flex their comedic talents. It is reminiscent of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). The scene is hilarious.

The show returns its focus to Juliet at the end. In an “Open Letter to Juliet,” the Narrator wonders what might have happened if Juliet had friends around her. What if Juliet had a support system to keep her from acting so drastically? Perhaps it was unbearable loneliness and Juliet’s estrangement from her family that pushed her. Hayward dances an eloquent solo, moving vertically and horizontally across Scott Reid’s industrial set, as Korney laments Juliet’s fate. The open letter also expresses rage, all of it directed towards misogyny and patriarchal oppression. 

DJD’s Juliet & Romeo is a must-see. The company brings together dance, theatre, and live music for an enthralling experience that reimagines and reinvigorates Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.


Decidedly Jazz Danceworks presented Juliet & Romeo at the Fredericton Playhouse on October 30th. The production ran as part of the Fredericton Playhouse’s Spotlight Series.

DJD’s Canadian tour of Juliet & Romeo runs October 8 – November 20.

Juliet & Romeo will run as part of the 34th Annual High Performance Rodeo. The show will run January 16 – 26, 2020, at the DJD Dance Centre in Calgary. Tickets available here.

DJD Dancers:

Scott Augustine
Cassandra Bowerman
Sabrina Comanescu
Jared Ebell
Jason Owin F. Galeos
Catherine Hayward
Kaja Irwin
Shayne Johnson
Kaleb Tekeste

Theatre New Brunswick Turns Back the Clock to 1979

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Michael Healey’s 1979 runs October 16 – 26 at Theatre New Brunswick. The production will tour New Brunswick Oct 29 – November 3. Pictured, left to right: Sarah O’Brecht (Brian Mulroney), Jeff Dingle (Joe Clark), and Kevin Curran (John Crosbie). Photo credit: Andre Reinders.

Did you know there’s an election happening right now in Canada? You might have missed it. Pretty low-key. Theatre New Brunswick has had its eyes on it for awhile now. Since April, actually. That’s when artistic director Natasha MacLellan announced TNB’s 2019/2020 season would open with Michael Healey’s political comedy 1979.

Now here we are, just a few days before voters head to the polls. It is the opening night of 1979. Election chatter can be heard in TNB’s Open Space Theatre.

In Healey’s 1979, Prime Minister Joe Clark (Jeff Dingle) is minutes away from losing a crucial vote in parliament. Minister of Finance John Crosbie (Kevin Curran) is ready to do anything and everything to save his budget. Meanwhile, foreign minister Flora MacDonald (Sarah O’Brecht) is focused on the extraction of six American hostages in Iran. Clark thinks the entire operation is ridiculous. A Canadian film crew scouting locations for a film? It’ll never work! (The real-life event was adapted for the film Argo, starring Ben Affleck.)

Built into the play is projected text, which is shown here on the back wall behind Clark’s desk (Matt Carter, Sound and Projection Designer). The text introduces the political figures who swing by Clark’s office. Brian Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau are among those visitors. It also provides useful background information about the broader context in which the play’s events are happening. So, audience members are not only filled in about the politics leading to Clark’s short-tenure as Prime Minister, but also the aftermath of his loss in the 1980 election. Yes, there’s a lot of reading, but Healey brings life to the text with wit and humour. Imagine VH1’s Pop-Up Video. It’s kinda like that. 

At its core, 1979 is about an ordinary person trying to do the right thing while everyone watches in complete disbelief, because yikes. Almost everyone wants to pull their hair out while talking with Clark about the impending vote. So many strategies on the table and yet, Clark remains firm in his convictions. He doesn’t want to do the right thing the wrong way. We can laugh at how many times Clark refuses to budge from his position, but damn if there isn’t something admirable in being such an immovable object. 

On its surface, the play depicts the demise of Clark’s minority government forty years ago, but it also raises questions about power and leadership. You know, the kind of things to chew on during an election season. The kind of things to think about while you’re scrolling through your newsfeed. 

Do you need a degree in political science to enjoy 1979? Nah. It might enhance your experience, but it’s not absolutely necessary. Do you need some patience near the end when the play dives into a drawn-out lecture about politics vs. policy? Yes. You might feel like you’re back in your second-year political science course that was required to graduate.

MacLellan’s direction sees the production lean closer to wacky comedy about an awkward politician than a comedic look at a young politician’s naiveté, which becomes his undoing. In going down that path, the production has a hard time convincing us that Clark truly stands behind his beliefs. The inevitability of Clark’s fate in office defeats the play itself — a problem inherit in the script. TNB’s production does little in the way of spicing things up with some tension between Clark and those who want him to break his own rules. The physical comedy is fun, sure, but the underlying foundation is shaky. 

There is a gravitas missing in Clark’s words. Yes, Dingle is playing someone who was considered a nobody, but does he have to be so passive here? That aside, the actor is enjoyable to watch in this episode of a political sitcom. Dingle’s eyebrow game is strong. It’s fun to watch his character’s facial expressions as he patiently hears everyone’s two cents.

O’Brecht makes a splash with her enormous stage presence. Her interpretation of Mulroney as some slick used car salesman is hilarious. O’Brecht’s performance has Laurie Elliott and Kate McKinnon written all over it. And then there’s Curran whose John Crosbie would get along just fine with Chris Farley’s Matt Foley. The actor dresses in drag to play Flora MacDonald in some scenes, with O’Brecht playing the Secretary of State for External Affairs in others.

Andrea Ritchie’s costume design brings the spirit of the 1970s alive. Dingle’s brown corduroy suit is magnificently drab. Set Designer Patricia Vinluan brings elegance, with a dash of retro goodness, to Clark’s office. Ingrid Risk’s lighting design enriches the wood paneling. 

With voting day just around the corner, Theatre New Brunswick’s production of 1979 is a fun, sometimes too breezy break from lawn signs and campaign promises.


Michael Healey’s 1979 runs October 16 – 26 at Theatre New Brunswick (Open Space Theatre). The production will tour New Brunswick Oct 29 – November 3. 

For more information about the show, including tour dates: http://www.tnb.nb.ca/1979-2/

With Love, Josephine and Gullywhump at the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival

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Greg Everett’s Gullywhump — Abraham (Scott Harris) and the Gullywhump (Laura-Beth Bird). Image from NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival.

This year’s winners of the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival’s playwriting competition in the Acting Out category are Greg Everett (Gullywhump) and Sophie Tremblay-Pitre (With Love, Josephine). Everett and Tremblay-Pitre’s one-act plays, presented as workshopped productions, are running together as a double-bill at Memorial Hall. Both plays received dramaturgical support from playwright Rob Kempsen, NotaBle Acts’ artist-in-residence for the 2019 festival.

Moving between the past and present, Tremblay-Pitre’s With Love, Josephine tells the story of Jo (Mika Driedger) and her grandmother, Josephine (Julianne Richard). It’s 2018, and Josephine has recently passed away. Her former lover Charles (Miguel Roy) visits her house to drop off a box of keepsakes to her daughter Lynn (Kelsey Hines). Among the keepsakes is Josephine’s diary which Jo begins to read in secret. 

The year is 1956, and Josephine is a young woman trying to make her own choices in life. She wants to marry Charles, but her family doesn’t approve of him. Why? Charles is not from a wealthy family, and he’s French. Josephine’s mother Dorothy (Hines) has someone else in mind for her daughter, someone who would be better for her future. Josephine struggles with self-doubt and fear of failure. She feels helpless against the expectations of her mother, her community, and the man she loves. 

Josephine’s story mirrors the issues Jo is facing in the present. Both women are trying their best, but their best doesn’t seem good enough for anyone. Loneliness begins to creep in as so much of their story is wrapped inside someone else’s. And so, what hope can either Jo or Josephine feel for the future when they can’t see their authentic selves ahead of them?

With Love, Josephine sees English and French sharing the same stage. Although it’s not necessary to know French, a basic comprehension of the language does help with appreciating the flavour of Charles’ dialogue. It’s important to note that sometimes Charles makes an effort to translate his thoughts into English, for the benefit of Josephine and some portion of the audience. The play’s bilingualism enriches the drama between Josephine and Charles.

The production is visually interesting with characters entering and exiting from different points of Memorial Hall. Blizzard transforms Josephine’s home into a place where past and present clash just as much as they melt into one another. 

Driedger brings tenderness to the role of Jo, a tenderness that Hines squashes as Lynn and Dorothy. Hines plays the mother characters with the firmness of someone hardened by experience. She is a steamroller run amok. Richard is fantastic as Josephine. Richard and Roy bring out a lot from the other. Anthony Bryan plays the character of Tom with a cool light-hearted energy.

Directed by Miguel Roy, Gullywhump tells the story of two brothers and their pilgrimage to spread their sister’s ashes. Elisha (Alex Rioux) and Saul (Alex Fullerton) revisit painful memories from their childhood as they venture towards Abigail’s final resting place. The brothers are not alone in the cursed forest of Burntland — the same setting as Everett’s Carrion Birds which premiered last year at NotaBle Acts. In pursuit of the two brothers is a Gullywhump (Laura-Beth Bird), a creature of darkness from their father’s old stories. The audience learns the story of the Gullywhump from Abraham (Scott Harris) in segments.

Don’t let all the talk about black magic and the supernatural fool you, Gullywhump is at its heart a story about coping with loss and trauma. Eli and Saul’s trek through darkness revolves around transformation and letting go. The dark is in between and all around the brothers. They can’t see the other in front of them. Eli and Saul project their regrets onto the other person. The brothers’ pilgrimage is a journey towards the light, towards clarity and understanding. 

The Gullywhump is a mysterious, nearly unimaginable creature. Is it a monster? No, maybe not. That seems inaccurate. The creature, animated wonderfully by Bird, is seemingly the physical manifestation of fear and death. Its true form is difficult to grasp, yet its presence is known. Abigail (Brenna Gauthier) befriends the Gullywhump before taking her life. 

And so, Gullywhump is not a play about a monster that needs a stake impaled through its heart. Yes, there is a monster, and that monster is the children’s father Abraham who sexually abused Abigail. The ritual of laying Abigail to peace is grounded in healing. Abigail’s spirit joins the Gullywhump in meeting Eli and Saul. Eli puts his knife down as everything becomes clear. The siblings, imbued with each other’s strength, can go their separate ways now. Abraham, who spoke so gleefully of the creature, finds himself vanquished by the Gullywhump.

Gullywhump is a heavy play, and it is also at times hard to decipher. Everett leaves ample room for interpretation. It is a compelling play, though, with its vivid imagery and poetic qualities. Roy’s direction keeps the play moving at a brisk pace. The scenes between Abraham and the Gullywhump are almost dream-like in their fluidity and intensity.

Harris is frightening in the role of Abraham. He appears on stage as a ghoul, and he floats like one too. The way the actor snaps his fingers and dances to his characters’ telling of the Gullywhump is unsettling. Rioux and Fullerton do well in their roles of estranged brothers. The brotherly conflict is tense. Gauthier breathes energy and a soft earnestness into the character of Abigail.


With Love, Josephine and Gullywhump ran as a double-bill August 1 – 3 at Memorial Hall. 

Fruit Machine Premieres at NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival

 

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Fruit Machine is one of two Mainstage productions at the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival. Pictured, left to right: Lucas Tapley, Samuel Crowell, Kira Chisholm, Esther Soucoup, and Dustyn Forbes. Photo Credit: Matt Carter.

Alex Rioux and Samuel Crowell began working on Fruit Machine in 2017. At the time, Rioux and Crowell were members of the Solo Chicken Productions’ the coop ⁠— a platform for contemporary artists to create original works of physical theatre. In May of last year, a work-in-progress showing of Fruit Machine ran before another production from the coop, A Record of Us.

Fast forward to this summer: Rioux and Crowell, in collaboration with members of the coop, have developed Fruit Machine into a full-length production, and it is one of two Mainstage productions at the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival.

Presented at the Black Box Theatre, Fruit Machine explores the decades-long purge of gay men and lesbians in the Canadian military and RCMP. The ‘fruit machine’ was a device designed in the 1960s by Frank Robert Wake, a psychology professor from Carleton University, to detect homosexuality in subjects, who were unaware of the machine’s true purpose. Cold War paranoia motivated the witch-hunt as officials believed gay personnel could be blackmailed by Soviet spies, effectively making them threats to national security. 

What unfolds in Fruit Machine, which uses physical theatre to interpret historical texts and quotes, is a story of betrayal. We meet men and women who are betrayed by their peers, their families, and their country. We enter a world of secrecy, of coded language, and hidden intentions. It is a dark chapter of Canadian history that is almost too hard to believe, especially from the perspective of a young millennial.

Rioux and Crowell present moments that express the same kind of disbelief. These are moments that could appear in any episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle. One standout moment is when the actors shuffle across the stage while holding newspapers to their faces (no eye holes). It is entirely comical, again straight from a cartoon, because this period of history seems so outlandish from a young person’s point-of-view. Seriously, a man couldn’t drive a white convertible car or wear a ring on his pinky finger without people thinking he was gay? We are soon reminded that these seemingly trivial actions had life-altering consequences.

Fruit becomes a powerful image in the play. It is an object that holds a lot of significance for the characters and their relationships with others. Fruit is something to be discarded. Fruit is something to be destroyed. Fruit is something to be embraced. Fruit is something that connects people. The inanimate objects are transformed into characters, and the actors respond to them accordingly. The result is beautiful storytelling told through eloquent movement.

Rioux’s direction smartly crafts an intimate atmosphere with characters weaving in and out of the action on stage. There are moments where the connective tissue seems loose, leaving the play and its network of characters feel a bit disjointed. Still, the scenes manage to be effective on their own. The director stages scenes of palpable heartbreak and tightening dread.

The company — Lucas Tapley, Dustyn Forbes, Kira Chisholm, Esther Soucoup, and Crowell — proves versatile with every scene. The actors jump effortlessly from the physical demands of the play to its segments that are more documentary-style. 

Fruit Machine is emotionally devastating. A must-see.


Fruit Machine ran July 23 -25 at the Black Box Theatre as part of the 2019 NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival.

For more information about the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival:
https://nbacts.com/

Extra, Extra! Newsies Rocks The Black Box Theatre

Did you know the Broadway musical Newsies is an adaptation of a 1992 musical film produced by Disney? I didn’t. I guess I was too busy watching Power Rangers in the 90s. I wish someone had told me about Newsies a lot sooner, because folks, it is seriously awesome.

Based on the Newsboys Strike of 1899 in New York City, Newsies (Lyrics by Jack Feldman, Music by Alan Merken, Book by Harvey Fierstein) tells an underdog story about children taking a stand against The Man, otherwise known as publishing magnate Joseph Pulitzer (Drake Ferris). The newly unionized children refuse to work until Pulitzer reverses his decision to raise the cost of newspapers for newsies. The organized strike is led by Jack Kelly (Cameron Patterson), a charismatic orphan who dreams of leaving the Big Apple for Santa Fe. With help from reporter Katherine Plumber (Allie Jeffery), the newsies’ cause is made known across the city.

Under the direction of Tania Breen, STU Musical Theatre’s production of Newsies is a real winner.

First, let’s talk about the cast. Here are more than 30 students absolutely crushing it, number after number. The characters come to life with earnest theatricality. You could freeze almost any scene with the newsies and capture in that one image so many little stories. These moments really pop thanks to the clarity Breen brings as a director.   

Patterson’s Jack has a sharp tongue and plenty of swagger. Of course, none of that makes a difference for Jeffery’s Katherine who can’t be impressed so easily. Jeffery is a true delight in the role of Katherine. Ferris is entertainingly pompous as the newspaper tycoon. Mallory Kelly shows great comedic timing as the plucky youngster Les. 

Courtney Arsenault’s choreography is big and explosive, which is absolutely wild because the Black Box Theatre isn’t that large, especially when you fill it with an audience. I just imagine someone saying the same thing to Arsenault and her replying with “watch me.” What makes the choreography so good is how Arsenault captures that fighting spirit and youthful energy that Newsies is all about. Arsenault’s choreography is absolutely electric.

Newsies tells a story that’s still relevant in our modern times. More than a century later, young people and their concerns are still being marginalized. “Think for yourself!” but not like that. “Stand for what you believe in!” but not like that. How dare young people protest greed while the Earth is slowly dying, right? Newsies reminds us that young people can make a difference, that Goliath can be defeated.

The production is held back by poor sound mixing. The orchestra, led by Michael Doherty, overpowers the ensemble’s vocals. So, the anthemic “Seize The Day” loses some of its lyrical power. There are also pieces of dialogue lost along the way. Frustrating? You betcha.

Ross Simonds’ vocal direction manages to shine despite the audio troubles.

From the timeless story to the irresistible musical score, there’s a lot to like about Newsies. Don’t miss STU Musical Theatre’s outstanding production. It’s a must-see.


STU Musical Theatre’s production of Newsies runs Feb 20 – 23 (7:30pm) at the Black Box Theatre, located on the St. Thomas University campus. There is a 2:00pm matinee on Saturday, February 23rd. Tickets are $20 General / $15 Students.

Joyful Magpies’ Best of Fredericton Theatre 2018

Arrivals and Departures

In February, Theatre New Brunswick announced the departure of Artistic Director Thomas Morgan Jones. Natasha MacLellan was named TNB’s new artistic director in July. MacLellan is the former Artistic Producer of Ship’s Company Theatre.

Next Folding Theatre Company staged its final production in March, bringing an end to the company after eight years.

Grey Rabbit Theatre Co. is Fredericton’s newest theatre company. Theatre artist Laura-Beth Bird is the company’s founder and producer. Grey Rabbit held its first public event in August. The public was invited to an evening of play readings at Planet Hatch, where Bird was the ARTrepreneur-in-Residence.

Stay tuned for Joyful Magpies’ interview with Laura-Beth Bird.

Drumroll

Well, here we are. The end of 2018. Creating this list wasn’t easy. It was, however, really fun to write. What a blast to look back on the past year, and remember everyone who shared their talents with audiences in Fredericton.

See you in the new year!

Note: My review of Theatre St. Thomas’ A Life of Galileo is available here.



JOYFUL MAGPIES’ BEST OF FREDERICTON THEATRE 2018

Best Actor

Hannah Blizzard – No Exit – Theatre UNB

Honorable Mentions:
Claudia Gutierrez-Perez – Any Given Moment – Theatre New Brunswick
Kira Chisholm – The Dangers of Geothermal Heating – NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival

Best Supporting Actor

Allison Basha – The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe – Theatre New Brunswick

Honorable Mentions:
Jane Marney – The Real Inspector Hound – Theatre UNB
Sage Chisholm – A Life of Galileo – Theatre St. Thomas

Best Ensemble

The Dangers of Geothermal Heating – NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival

Honorable Mentions:
A Life of Galileo – Theatre St. Thomas
No Exit – Theatre UNB

Best Set Design

Andy Moro – Finding Wolastoq Voice – Theatre New Brunswick

Honorable Mentions:
Mike Johnston – The Dangers of Geothermal Heating – NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival

Robin Whittaker & Chris Saad – A Life of Galileo – Theatre St. Thomas

Best Lighting Design

Ingrid Risk – Any Given Moment – Theatre New Brunswick

Honorable Mentions:
Chris Saad – The Dangers of Geothermal Heating – NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival
Trent Logan  – A Record of Us – Solo Chicken Productions

Best Sound Design

Deanna H. Choi – The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe – Theatre New Brunswick

Honorable Mentions:
Mike Johnston – The Dangers of Geothermal Heating – NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival
Aaron Collier – Any Given Moment – Theatre New Brunswick

Best Costume Design

Cathleen McCormack – Any Given Moment – Theatre New Brunswick

Honorable Mentions:
Kat Hall – Songs of the Seer – The Next Folding Theatre Company
Laura-Beth Bird – The Dangers of Geothermal Heating – NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival

Best Direction

Lisa Anne Ross – The Dangers of Geothermal Heating – Notable Acts Theatre Festival

Honorable Mentions:
Jean-Michel Cliche – Casualties – NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival
Len Falkenstein – No Exit – Theatre UNB

Step Through the Wardrobe with Theatre New Brunswick

Published in 1950, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is an enduring tale of family and forgiveness. The book was adapted for the screen in 2005, with Liam Neeson as Aslan and Tilda Swinton as Jadis the White Witch. This holiday season, Theatre New Brunswick brings the story to life in a production that’s fun for the whole family, save for some intense moments.

Dramatized by Joseph Robinette, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe tells the story of four siblings who discover the magical world of Narnia after walking through a wardrobe. The first to find Narnia, Lucy (Sasha Mais) meets a fawn named Tumnus (Andy Massingham) who has been ordered by the Witch (Raven Dauda) to kidnap human children. Tumnus refuses to take Lucy to the Witch and helps her escape Narnia. Because he allowed Lucy to go free, Tumnus is taken away by the captain of the Witch’s secret police Fenris Ulf (Qasim Khan).

Lucy returns to Narnia with her brother Edmund (Ben Rutter). Edmund stays put while Lucy goes out to find Tumnus. Edmund meets the Witch who promises him royalty and rooms full of turkish delight if he brings the other three to her castle. The Witch’s plan: To keep the prophecy that promises an end to her reign over Narnia from coming true.

Older siblings Peter (Carter Scott) and Susan (Elena Hrkalovic) join the others in Narnia. With help from Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (Derek Kwan, Allison Basha), the four children embark on an epic journey to help Aslan (Jeremiah Sparks) return peace to Narnia.

Patrick Clark’s set is really neat. The back wall features a large oval frame and within that frame, there are mountain peaks layered behind each other. In the centre of the frame stands a big, tall castle. It kinda has the look of a pop-up book. Outside of the frame, there are trees that resemble a paper craft, a lamppost, and multi-purpose blocks (stone table, Beavers’ dinner table).

Leigh Ann Vardy lights the inside of the frame with frigid blues, and warmer colours when the Witch’s control over Narnia starts to diminish. The lighting work gives Clark’s set a little bit of a Magic Garden vibe. Vardy’s eerie lighting for the scene where Edmund finds the Witch’s enemies, now turned to stone, is stunning.

Sound Designer/Composer Deanna H. Choi makes the production feel like a sweeping epic, despite being staged in quite a minimalist way. Choi’s sound design opens up the world of Narnia with strings and drums.

Robinette’s stage adaptation keeps some of the more harsh elements of Lewis’ story (Aslan tells Peter to wipe Fenris Ulf’s blood off his sword). These parts of the play clash with Lynda Hill’s brisk and upbeat direction, and the colorful pop of the production.

But Father Christmas makes an appearance, so it’s not all grim!

Speaking of not grim, Dauda is comically evil as the Witch. Sure, she has her dark moments, like plunging a knife into Aslan (it’s shadow theatre, don’t worry), but Dauda’s Witch is like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon. The actress is delightfully physical in the role, giving little kicks when things aren’t going the Witch’s way. There is a levity that Hill allows the production to explore and Dauda runs with it.

Kwan and Basha are a great pairing as Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Clark has dressed the Beavers with big tails, which are attached to overalls. No comically-sized teeth, thank goodness. For the bottom layer, the Beavers wear long-sleeve flannel shirts. If it weren’t for the tails, one might think the couple worked deep in the woods.

Back to Kwan and Basha.

Kwan and Basha are superbly pleasant as the Beavers. Basha’s Mrs. Beaver is a sweetheart, while Kwan’s Mr. Beaver has a little bit of a gruff edge but you know he’s a softie at heart. The actors are a lot of fun to watch.

Who’s afraid of Fenris Ulf? Not me, because Khan’s howls sound more like an angry house cat than a big bad wolf. Which is hilarious. It works well with the ‘cartoonish supervillainy’ of this production.

Massingham is jovial as Tumnus, brutish as the Dwarf, and jolly as Father Christmas.

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe asks us to reflect on what family really means. Family means to love each other despite our faults and to forgive when we are wronged. It’s a strong message for this time of year when families are coming together, sometimes from far away, for the holiday season. 

It’s also a hopeful story about good always winning over tyranny, no matter the odds.

The big brother/little brother dynamic is well-performed by Scott and Rutter. I say this as someone with two older brothers. Mais’ Lucy is daring and kind — a small, yet mighty force. Hrkalovic’s Susan is a joy. The four actors make clear the play’s message about family with strong performances and a confidence that pulls the production forward.

And what’s Narnia withouts Aslan? Sparks is fiercely majestic as the good lion. He is a big presence with a big voice that fills the theatre.

TNB’s production of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is fun, exciting, and heartwarming. Step through the wardrobe, a good time awaits you.


Theatre New Brunswick’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe ran Dec 13 – 15 at the Fredericton Playhouse. The production is now on tour with performances this week in Moncton. 

For more information, visit: http://www.tnb.nb.ca/lion-witch-wardrobe/

The Real Inspector Hound and No Exit Launch Theatre UNB’s 2018/19 Season

Theatre UNB opens its 2018/19 season with an evening of one-act plays — The Real Inspector Hound by Tom Stoppard and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit.

The double-bill, running at UNB’s Memorial Hall, features performances from the students of Drama 2173. Len Falkenstein directs.

First up: Stoppard’s 1968 parody of The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie. The Mousetrap is famously known for its decades-spanning run and twist ending that audiences are supposed to keep a secret.

Theatre critics Moon (Julianne Richard) and Birdboot (Rory Jurmain) are reviewing a whodunit. The critics start to chat before the play within a play begins. Moon is a second-string critic filling in for Higgs. Moon dreams of revolution, an era where the “stand-ins of the world stand up.” Meanwhile, Birdboot sings the praises of a young actress whose career he is ready to launch with a glowing review of tonight’s performance. Birdboot assures Moon that anything scandalous that has been said about him is untrue. He is devoted to his “homely but good-natured” wife Myrtle.

The whodunit is set in Lady Muldoon’s country residence, in early spring. Mrs. Drudge (Swarna Naojee) dumps this information while speaking on the phone with an unknown caller. Radio broadcasts alert local residents of a madman on the loose.

Simon Gascoyne (Chris Rogers) enters the manor unannounced. He only wants to speak with Felicity Cunningham (Brooke Benton), but Cynthia Muldoon (Jane Marney) invites him to stay. Simon’s presence greatly upsets Magnus (Alex Pannier), the half-brother of Cynthia’s late husband Lord Albert Muldoon.

The murder mystery unfolds clumsily, not that Moon and Birdboot really care. Moon fantasizes about killing Higgs, and Birdboot is spellbound by Cynthia.

Worlds collide when the critics become involved in the whodunit.

Acknowledging media headlines in 2018, Falkenstein pulls attention to Birdboot’s exploitation of his position. The director does not gloss over the serious abuse of power in Stoppard’s text. It is an uncomfortable kind of laughter when Jurmain’s Birdboot vehemently denies any wrongdoing, reminding Moon that he is a family man, despite his inappropriate conduct being an open secret.

Falkenstein avoids the whole ‘crane your neck to watch Moon and Birdboot (who you suspected were part of the play but weren’t too sure)’. Instead, Richard and Jurmain sit on an elevated platform upstage center. Their seating area is nicely framed by the red-striped walls of Muldoon Manor (design by Devin Rockwell).

The mirror element of Falkenstein’s staging is visually interesting and thematically appropriate given Stoppard’s ideas on identity (Birdboot is Simon, Simon is Birdboot; What does it mean to play a role?).

Naojee dives deep into the melodramatic as Mrs. Drudge. She really knows how to sell an eyebrow raise. It is a delightful performance. Richard and Jurmain are enjoyable as the theatre critics. There is a starved look for recognition all across Richard’s Moon. Jurmain’s Birdboot has enough bravado for them both. Brenton is sharp as Felicity, the rejected love interest. Marney is lively as Cynthia. The war of words between their characters is wonderfully tense.

Rogers plays Simon as if Simon has convinced himself that yes, he is the madman on the loose. He is meek and suspicious, the total opposite of Pannier’s Magnus. Pannier’s Magnus is loud and brash. 

Temi Osunbunmi plays Inspector Hound, and it is a lot of fun when she enters as the incompetent detective. As Inspector Hound, Osunbunmi walks around in confident strides, as if the case is on its way to be solved, and gets up in peoples’ faces. 

And Sean Miller plays the body, which no one notices until Inspector Hound arrives on the scene.

After intermission: Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, which premiered in 1944.

The famous line “Hell is other people” comes from No Exit.

The play opens with a Valet (Sean Miller) showing Garcin (Hirad Hajilou) his new residence. The room is a modest one, with three couches and a fireplace — an immovable bronze statue sits on the mantelpiece. Hell looks a lot different than Garcin, a journalist in his former life, expected. There are no torture devices, or red devils with pitchforks. The Valet is unhelpful answering Garcin’s questions. Satisfied, the Valet leaves Garcin alone.

A postal clerk named Inez (Hannah Blizzard) joins Garcin in the room. She suspects Garcin is the torturer, otherwise why would she be left alone with him? Inez and Garcin are later joined by socialite Estelle (Mary Walker).

No one is offered any reason why they are in Hell, nor are they granted an explanation of what’s going to happen inside the room. Inez, however, guesses that their punishment is being locked inside with each other.

Garcin tries to set ground rules, one of which is that each of them has their own corner.

That doesn’t work.

Since there are no mirrors in the room, the characters are left to rely on how others see them. That’s true in two ways. Garcin is tormented by the fact that his colleagues will remember him as a coward. He wants someone to tell him that it isn’t true, that he did his best. Maybe then Garcin can find peace with himself.

Estelle cannot be that someone, because she has no feelings for cowards. And Inez refuses to absolve Garcin of his anguish.

The door opens suddenly, giving the characters an opportunity to escape. Garcin refuses to leave. Why? Because he cannot leave without convincing Inez that he is not a coward.

Watching No Exit reminds me of arguments on social media. It’s a specific kind of argument, though. I’m talking about the kind of escalating arguments that blow up underneath a Facebook post. Everyone can log off and move on with their day, but no one does because some people have to win. Some people have an intense need to prove themselves in front of friends and strangers. 

What does it matter? Whose mind has ever been changed because of an online argument? 

People convince themselves that they are right all the time, but what is really important for some people is that outside validation that confirms what they know. Without that, well how can you truly know what you know?

Sartre’s play is a compelling look at the ways people are flawed and vulnerable to each other.

Blizzard taps right into the wicked cruelty of Inez and makes the character feel like punishment eternal. Blizzard’s Inez is ruthless in the way she tears down the other two. Inez has her weak spots, though, and Blizzard turns on a dime marvelously. Walker — no doubt inspired by Paris Hilton (circa The Simple Life) — is strong in the role of Estelle. There is something dangerous about Walker’s Estelle, who is not so innocent as she appears. The actress maneuvers carefully between Estelle’s bubbly charm and her frigidness. And Hajilou’s Garcin is like a stone worn away by water, then split apart in a flash. The character tries keeping cool, but eventually Inez and Estelle break him. Hajilou’s downwards spiral into anger is fascinating to watch.

And Miller is devilishly charismatic as the Valet. The character clearly knows more than he lets on, and Miller has fun with the fact. He dangles it over Hajilou’s Garcin like a carrot.

Falkenstein’s direction moves the play thoughtfully. Although, there are some stretches of the production that feel a little too heightened, as if the needle is stuck on high. The overall effect is what a boiling pot must feel like for lobsters.

Rockwell keeps the room simple, as mentioned earlier, but elegant. It’s exactly the kind of room that would make someone ask “this is it?” while wondering what the catch is.


Theatre UNB’s There’s No Getting Out of Here Alive: Two Sinful One-Act Existentialist Comedies ran November 29 – December 1 at the University of New Brunswick’s Memorial Hall. The double-bill presented Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Float Comfortably with Norm Foster’s Come Down From Up River

Norm Foster’s Come Down From Up River is like that chocolate chip muffin that turns out to actually be raisin. It’s still a muffin, so yay, but raisin? Well, okay.

Part of Theatre New Brunswick’s 50th anniversary season, Come Down From Up River is a world premiere production from The Foster Festival. The production, running at the Fredericton Playhouse, is directed by Patricia Vanstone.

Come Down From Up River stages a family reunion between Bonnie Doyle (Amanda Parsons) and her uncle Shaver Bennett (Peter Krantz). The two haven’t seen each other in 23 years, and Bonnie has been perfectly okay with that. Bonnie’s wife Liv (Kirsten Alter), on the other hand, thinks it’s sad that Bonnie wants no kind of relationship with her uncle. After all, doesn’t family stick together, no matter what? Well, Bonnie doesn’t think so, even though Shaver is all the family she has left.

Why is Bonnie so cold towards Shaver? She won’t tell. All Bonnie will say about Shaver, a logger from up around the Miramichi River, is that he’s a lout who will strongly disagree with Bonnie and Liv’s interracial, same-sex marriage.

And that’s all we know about Shaver until he steps foot inside their home.

Surprise, Shaver is actually an okay guy.

In fact, Shaver is super likeable. Maybe too much, though. Every time he cracks a joke, you wonder what messed up thing Shaver did for Bonnie to hate him. Was he part of a hate group? Did he kill his sister in that drunk driving accident? You can’t help but feel a kind of dread for the big reveal that Shaver is a monster.

Well, turns out Shaver didn’t accept guardianship of Bonnie after her mother’s death.

That’s bad, obviously, but not exactly everything Bonnie made him out to be.

Yes, Foster’s misdirection makes a point about stereotypes, but the way Foster just so weakly tackles racism and homophobia is disappointing.

The hate doesn’t come from inside the house, but the law firm where Bonnie works. She isn’t made partner because the firm’s biggest client has a ‘moral conflict’ about her and Liv’s relationship. Seriously fucked up, right? This news prompts an emotional speech from Liz about facing racism and homophobia everyday. Instead of walking around it, Liv says, she walks through it.

Walk through it? The play glides through it. Bonnie and her colleague decide to resign and start their own firm. That’s it. Bonnie doesn’t even drop her resignation letter into the hands of her employers. Instead, she tells Liv, it was their personal assistants who felt her wrath.

Cool?

Well, at least the playwright got to tell us how bad hate is.

If you want a fun two hours of characters trading quips, look no further than Come Down From Up River. It’s a funny play that happens to be set in Saint John, New Brunswick. Picture a combination of Ron Swanson and Uncle Buck, that’s Krantz as Shaver. He’s hilarious. And Alter, she’s fabulous in the role of Liv, a person who needs to know details even if it annoys the other person. It’s like a game of squash when Krantz and Alter share a scene together. It’s hit after hit after hit, with the walls vibrating with laughter. Parsons does a fine job of playing Bonnie, the tough one. Of course, she isn’t always tough. Bring a tissue.

Stage right, there’s a table and some bar stools, with a Moosehead sign just behind on the wall. Stage left, a hospital waiting room. And right in the center, it’s Bonnie and Liv’s living room with a couch and table where family photos are on proud display. It’s a simple set from Set and Costume Designer Peter Hartwell.

There’s a lot of sitting and talking, though it doesn’t feel like a lot. Vanstone breaks it up with some movement, just enough so the banter keeps from going stagnant. She keeps the play grounded in effective simplicity, wonderful for those emotional highs that come late in the play.

If you don’t think about it too much, Norm Foster’s Come Down From Up River is a comfortable comedy.


Norm Foster’s Come Down From Up River runs Nov 8 – 10 at the Fredericton Playhouse.

For more information about the show, visit: http://www.tnb.nb.ca/come-down-from-up-river/