Fighting Chance’s “Little Women” Brings Warm Holiday Fuzzies

With its quaint 19th-century setting, four memorable heroines (five if you count Marmee), and its emphasis on the importance of family and togetherness in both good times and bad, Louisa May Alcott’s beloved semi-autobiographical novel Little Women, spanning almost a decade during and after the American Civil War, is both an obvious and daunting choice for adaptation to the stage. Obvious, of course, due to the sheer vitality and festive beauty of the March sisters (bedecked as they are in ribbons and lace, even as they stage blood and guts operas in their attic), and the palpable love and loyalty they feel for one another.

In Fighting Chance Productions‘ first holiday show, Little Women The Musical (music by Jason Howland, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, and book by Allan Knee), the theme of love and loyalty takes centre stage. As the play opens, the adult Josephine March dreams of literary fame but receives only rejection letters from publishers. Dejected in a New York City boarding house, she realizes she was never so brilliant as she was back at home in Concord, Massachusetts, penning lurid tales of adventure and passion for the amusement of her sisters.

It is at this moment that we find ourselves in Orchard House, the home of the March family, many Christmases ago, and it is here that Alcott fans will find their footing. The impetuous Jo cuts down snobbish Mr. Laurence’s Douglas fir, sweet Beth decides to give it to the poor family down the road for a Christmas tree, little Amy complains about the shape of her nose, the romantic Meg hopes to be invited to Annie Moffat’s Valentine’s Day ball, and Marmee is tasked with enveloping all four of her daughters in love and stability while her husband is away at war.

Robin Eder-Warren, Danielle Melvin, Julie Casselman, Roan Shankuruk. Photo: Linda Leong Sum

Robin Eder-Warren, Danielle Melvin, Julie Casselman, Roan Shankuruk. Photo: Linda Leong Sum

The musical adaptation of Alcott’s text is concerned primarily with Jo’s story, and performer Julie Casselman is equal to the task of leading her intrepid band of sisters through the highs and lows of their years together. The March sisters–Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (Robin Eder-Warren, Casselman, Danielle Melvin, and Roan Shankaruk respectively) whirl around the stage in a flurry of ringlets and flying skirts, their beautiful voices singing in harmony like a chorus of angels, and their highly choreographed blocking creating elegant stage pictures worthy of a Christmas card. Ambitious, high-strung, and fiercely devoted to her family, Jo struggles to come to terms with growing up–and with letting the people she loves do the same. While she relies on them to support her in her dreams, she learns that loving her sisters means accepting that they will sometimes leave her–to get married, to travel Europe, or, in the case of the shy and quiet Beth, to finally give in to the spectre of illness that had been slowly sapping her strength.

Unfortunately, Little Women The Musical‘s focus on Jo means many plot points that don’t include her are left out–Meg, Amy, and Laurie, for example, are not given the benefit of the character development we see in the book, and while Meg does eventually become more mature through marriage and motherhood, we leave Amy just as silly at the end of the play as she was at the beginning. Both the adaptation and this production are highly presentational, and I wanted more moments of subtlety and quiet intimacy to balance out the bombast and musical pomp. Having a pianist and violinist on stage were an incredibly nice touch, but in the relatively small playing space some of the lyrics were occasionally drowned out, and the production may have benefited from more physical distance between the musicians and players.

That being said, Little Women the Musical still has plenty of heart. A particularly sweet and surprising duet between Beth and the curmudgeonly Mr. Laurence (Peter Stainton) stands out, and I saw more than one person wiping their eyes as Beth and Jo said their good-byes to each other (as for me, I was a sniffling mess). The love duet between Meg and Mr. Brooke (Mark Kroeker) is quietly romantic, and Jo’s closing solo in Act I (“Astonishing”) paints a strong picture of a dauntless young woman’s determination to succeed.

A refreshing departure from more thoroughly Christmas-based holiday productions, Fighting Chance’s Little Women The Musical, with its flouncing dresses, musical frolics, and story of love is an entertaining introduction to Alcott’s classic. I know if I had seen the production as a child I would have been absolutely in love with it.

Little Women The Musical runs at Studio 1398 on Granville Island until December 21. Tickets can be purchased online through Tickets Tonight.

Disclosure: I attended Sunday’s performance of Little Women The Musical courtesy of Fighting Chance Productions.



“Evil Dead: The Musical” is Bloody Outrageous

Five young college students park their car on a lonely road and venture deep into the woods to spend their vacation in an abandoned cabin. The boys are expecting a weekend of hanky-panky and the nerdy little sister has plans to read and bake. Their car is an unreliable piece of junk, they’re technically breaking into the cabin since they didn’t actually rent it, and they didn’t tell anyone where they were going. Surely nothing can possibly go wrong, except everything you might expect from an abandoned cabin in the middle of the woods (accessible only by a single, easily destroyed, footbridge) a creepy cellar full of creepy voices, and an ancient book written in blood.

So begins the camp and gore-fest that is Down Stage Right ProductionsEvil Dead: The Musical, a blood-squirting, chain-sawing song-and-dance extravaganza that has its tongue firmly in cheek and its demon-possessed sister locked in the basement.

Scott Walters and Meghan Anderssen('s head). Photo: Graham Ockley

Scott Walters and Meghan Anderssen(‘s head). Photo: Graham Ockley

For an exaggerated and ridiculous show like Evil Dead to be cheeky and entertaining rather than silly and embarrassing, two things need to happen. First, the cast needs to be strong enough to carry their audience through outrageous plot points and musical numbers like “What the F*ck Was That?” and “”All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons”. Second, everyone involved needs to completely understand what kind of show they’re in. Performers who aren’t talented or don’t try because it’s supposed to be “funny” rely on the jokes in the script without actually doing the work required to transmit those jokes to the audience. Alternatively, an actor (or director) taking themselves too seriously would deflate every scene and pull the audience down with them. Luckily, this production of Evil Dead has none of those problems. Every cast member is an excellent singer with impeccable comedic timing, and every cast member knows how to work with an audience to ensure we’re the ones having the most fun (not that the performers aren’t having fun as well).

Simply put, Evil Dead: The Musical is ridiculously fun. What began as a cult classic film series has moved onto the stage and gained a devoted fan-base (some of whom are willing to attend the show in costume and pay extra to sit in the “splatter zone”). The play involves several nudges and winks to the audience, and the audience itself is evolving some traditions that make watching the show similar in feel to cult productions like Rocky Horror Picture Show, however, unlike Rocky Horror, you don’t need to be in on the traditions to get the joke. Since Evil Dead pays homage to horror movie tropes familiar to anyone who spent their youth watching teen slasher flicks, and actually has a plot that makes (some) sense, I believe Evil Dead to be more enjoyable and less alienating to the average unfamiliar-with-the-show audience member. Young love, bad puns, dancing demons, shotguns–in a show that consistently makes fun of itself, what’s not to like?

Evil Dead: The Musical plays at the Norman Rothstein Theatre until November 1. Tickets can be purchased online through DSR Production’s website.

Disclosure: I attended Friday night’s performance of Evil Dead: The Musical courtesy of DSR Productions.




Sal Capone: a tragedy with sincerity and depth

Sal Capone PosterWhen I was offered the opportunity to attend Sal Capone: the Lamentable Tragedy of (presented by urban ink productions in cooperation with Black Theatre Workshop) I had no idea what to expect. I know nearly nothing about hip hop, and had no idea how it would play in a theatrical production. I thought, this will either be an incredible experience or a dud. I had never heard of Fredy Villaneuva, the unarmed youth whose fatal shooting by Montreal police inspired this play. Many new plays have called themselves tragedies, but very few have had the balls to honestly examine the complexities that create them.

It was my good fortune to discover that Omari Newton’s Sal Capone is a tragedy in the true Shakespearean sense of the word. As in Macbeth or Hamlet, one act of violence leads to others–violent emotions, violent words, violent actions. We know where this is going but the powerful emotional responses that bring us there are so skillfully wound up that we cannot look away. In this tragedy, the protagonists are not kings or princes but disenfranchised young people full of potential and talent. Their “fatal flaw” is not ambition or indecision but their anger at a system that marks them as dangerous, dehumanizing rather than protecting them.

Kim Villagante as Jewel

Kim Villagante as Jewel. Photo: Andrée Lanthier

I know I am watching a compelling piece of theatre when I cannot see the line between where the script ends and the performance begins. Tristan D. Lalla, Kim Villagante, and Jordan Waunch did exactly what excellent actors should do, inhabiting their characters (members of a hip hop group called “Sal Capone”) so completely that I never saw them working, only being. The hip hop pieces in the show are unforced, unpretentious, and incredibly powerful. I may not know much about hip hop, but I know when a performer is truly connected to what their character is doing, and these actors (who are also hip hop artists) are nothing if not genuine. I believed it. I bought it. I sent my heart out to it.

Counterintuitively, a cross-dressing sex worker narrator (played by Billy Merasty) frequently breaks the fourth wall and a little sister character (Letitia Brooks) also seems to play directly to the audience with her amusing grammatical pedantry. I personally found this contrary to the authenticity Lalla, Villagante, and Waunch create (which is not to say that there were problems with Merasty and Brooks’ performances, only that they operate, it seems, on a different level of theatricality). That said, when Merasty and Brooks enter the action not as a guides or foils but simply as people caught in the crosshairs, the “actor” masks fall away and you see every character for what they are, motivated by fear and anger, prey to a violence they participate in but cannot control. What I’m saying is that there will be times in this play when you are taken out of the honesty of the moment, into a place a little more literary, a little more theatrical, but when shit hits the fan the moment becomes real and every single performer is in it, body and soul. Sal Capone transports you into a place you’ve been busy ignoring, a place where violence isn’t just something that happens to people in gangs (as one of the characters points out, “What does ‘known to police’ even mean?”). A place where we realize that we, as a society, need to do better.

One of Newton’s greatest achievements in his script is his ability to examine violence and culture without resorting to a dichotomy of black and white, hip hop=good, police=bad. The “enemy” of the story (i.e. the police) are never even present onstage but between Newton’s sympathetic characters there is still enough fear and violence to spur the plot towards its tragic conclusion. Marginalized and misunderstood, Sal Cappone‘s characters trade in words of hate, hurting one another with “chink” and “faggot”, understanding that words are weapons, often the only weapons they have, and the only outlet for the violence they feel, fending off the physical violence that threatens to emerge.

The lesson in this tragedy, as in so many great tragedies, is that violence begets violence. People must be given a chance to break the cycle. We need to talk to one another, and do better. Sal Capone: the Lamentable Tragedy of is an incredible achievement and a powerful addition to this necessary conversation.

Sal Capone: the Lamentable Tragedy of plays at the Roundhouse Theatre until May 31. Tickets can be purchased online through urban ink production’s website.

Disclosure: I attended Sal Capone: the Lamentable Tragedy of courtesy of urban ink productions. The content of this review is my own.


“AFTER” – Hilarious, Awkward, and Close to Home

AFTER-Poster-FinalThe premise of Martha Herrera-Lasso’s new play, After, is fairly simple: four young people navigate the murky waters of love and lust, all through conversations that take place after sex. While the premise may be simple, the emotional situations explored are anything but, rife with humour, heartbreak, and devastating shades of grey.

If you like sharp, fast-paced dialogue, nuanced performances with rapid-fire timing, and recognizing the awkwardness of your own life onstage, you will not want to miss dream of passion productions and Excavation Theatre‘s co-production of After, running at the Havana Theatre until April 5.

When it comes to intimacy and matters of the heart, once the moment of passion has ended few of us are secure enough with vulnerability to simply be. Instead, we protect ourselves: we make jokes, justify, feign nonchalance, contradict ourselves or lay blame. Many relationships are not what they seem, and the biggest fools are usually the ones with the front-row seats.  Herrera-Lasso’s intelligent, funny, and honest script requires performers who identify with their characters, even as they hurt others, hold tight to things they don’t want, hide from their partners and hide from themselves. Luckily for us, under the direction of Excavation Theatre’s Jessica Anne Nelson, the ensemble of four actors (dream of passion’s Stefania Indelicato, Al Miro, Jane Hancock, and Matthew McLellan) deliver tight performances that never miss a beat. Both perfectly natural and perfectly rehearsed, no gesture, line, or inflection is wasted as the performers feed off one another and carry the audience through an incredibly quick (but incredibly satisfying) 80 minutes.

What strikes me most about  After is the characters’ extreme lack of self-awareness, even as they are acutely self-conscious (whether due to insecurity, like the verbally incontinent Jackie, or narcissism, like the incorrigible James). Unhinged by their moments of vulnerability, these four young people fumble towards and away from one another, wanting both the satisfaction of intimacy and the safety of independence. After the Friday-night show, we overheard another audience member saying he had been all four of the characters at one time or another, and I think this is the play’s real strength. For my part, I certainly recognized myself in two or three of the characters (I won’t give myself away by saying which characters or why) and it is this familiarity and recognition that elevates a simple (rather comedic) premise into something much more impressive and special.

After plays at the Havana Theatre (1212 Commercial Drive) until Saturday, April 5. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online at Brown Paper Tickets. Shows are at 8:00 p.m.

Disclosure: My TC and I attended Friday night’s performance courtesy of Excavation Theatre and dream of passion productions. My content is my own.

“Ghosts in Baghdad” and the Vulnerabilities of Heritage

Sarah May Redmond (Malika) and Alec Willows (Khalil). Photo: Tim Matheson

Sarah May Redmond (Malika) and Alec Willows (Khalil). Photo: Tim Matheson

What would you do to protect your life’s work? Your country’s heritage? When does an object stop being a “thing” and become a treasure worth risking your life for? How far will you go to protect the treasures you hold dear?

These are the questions posed by Ghosts in Baghdad, a new script by playwright and Working Spark Theatre founder Michelle Deines. Inspired by a New York Times article by Roger Cohen, Deines’ script centres around the complex decisions faced by Khalil and Malika, two fictional museum directors who continue their work in fear and isolation ten years after the 2003 American invasion and the looting, destruction, and subsequent closure to the public of the Iraq Museum. With thousands of ancient historical and cultural objects still missing and the Museum open only to government officials and foreign diplomats, Khalil walks the empty halls alone, dreaming of the day he can throw open the doors and share his country’s history with its people. Malika, meanwhile, hides away in her office, hunching over a piece of stone tablet she has been translating for over a decade, and while she tries to decide if her affection for country and colleague are enough to keep her in a city still so dangerous and full of sorrow. When a desperate young boy appears claiming to have found the missing Mask of Warka, his arrival threatens to unravel the delicate webs of secrecy and betrayal that have sustained what is left of the damaged Museum.

The Little Mountain Gallery, which houses this production, is a spartan venue that certainly has its difficulties (I’ve performed there myself so I know first hand). Working Spark has done an exceptional job of transforming this space, building a new and larger platform for the actors and bringing in more comfortable multi-level seating for the house. That said, the space has its challenges. The performance I attended was the Thursday-night preview and it was clear, both from director John Murphy’s comments before the show and the slightly tentative energy of the performers onstage, that there were still a couple of kinks to be worked out in the space. Without a conventional “backstage” in the Little Mountain, the transitions between scenes seemed to be a particular challenge for this particular performance. However, I trust these transitions are going more smoothly during the actual run of the play, and also recommend simply choosing the seats in front of the shallow thrust stage (rather on the left or right side) where the “offstage” movements of the actors won’t be as visible.

Still, the actors fill their roles with natural ease and without pretension (Gili Roskies’ performance as the youth Dawood is particularly arresting) and Deines and Murphy made important choices in the writing and direction that support this ease. The actors’ voices are without put-on accents and their dialogue is as casual and full of expression as any other English dialogue. These choices (i.e. the choices NOT to have the actors use accents or speak using phrases or expressions that are different from those we would use in everyday English) are tremendously important in that Working Spark has managed to set a play in Baghdad without casting the characters as “the Other”. Of course there are no special accents–Iraqi people are not “foreign” in their own country. Of course there are no unfamiliar expressions–the expressions used by native Arabic speakers would not sound unfamiliar to other Arabic speakers. The point is not to exoticize Baghdad or to pass any kind of judgement on its culture, before or after the American invasion. The point is that culture is important in itself.

What Ghosts in Baghdad shows us is the way in which society’s treatment of historical, natural, and cultural artifacts is a measure for the condition of its people. When looters storm a national museum and force its closure to the public, they steal not from an enemy force but from themselves. Only extreme circumstances would create that kind of selfishness in most people–circumstances whose immediacy renders centuries and millennia of artistry miniscule. You can’t eat a statue, or live in an ancient vase. An artifact in a display case can’t protect you from bullets and heritage can’t buy your ticket to a safer place. But if money could do these things–and you could find the right buyer–could anyone blame you? Sadly, these treasures once lost are usually lost forever, and a people whose history has been stolen and who are unable to take pride in their collective culture will find it that much more difficult to heal–but what can they do?

In Ghosts in Baghdad these questions are turned back on themselves, as those champions who have sworn to preserve their cultural artifacts struggle to protect them from the desperation of poverty and fear–and also from themselves.

Ghosts in Baghdad plays at the Little Mountain Gallery (Main at 26th Ave.) until Sunday, April 6 (no show Monday, March 31). Tickets can be purchased online through Brown Paper Tickets.

Disclosure: TC and I attended the Thursday-night preview courtesy of Working Spark Theatre. My content is my own.