BIG NEWS: This is a Parade Not to Be Missed

michael therriault and tracy michailidis
photo by john karastamatis
In 1998 Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) and Alfred Uhry (book) collaborated with celebrated Broadway director Harold Prince on Parade, a Tony Award winning musical based on the controversial conviction of Jewish superintendent Leo Frank for the 1913 murder of thirteen year old factory worker Mary Phagan, and his subsequent lynching by a mob of prosperous townsfolk in Atlanta, Georgia. Now Studio 180 and Acting Up Stage Company are presenting the Canadian premiere of this powerful and still strikingly socially relevant piece at the Berkeley Street Theatre (Upstairs) until January 22nd 2011.
Parade tells a complex tale, based on true historical events, surrounding the suspicion of a Jewish pencil factory manager, Leo Frank, originally from Brooklyn, New York, in the rape and murder of a young girl named Mary Phagan in Atlanta, Georgia, described in the musical as “the land time forgot.” Still reeling from the loss of the Civil War fifty years earlier, racial tensions, Anti-Semitism and bitterness toward anything suggesting Yankee prosperity or supremacy ran rampant there at this time. In Parade Uhry and Brown dramatize the accepted opinion of many contemporary historians that this volatile and polarizing atmosphere led to Frank’s unlawful conviction for a murder he did not commit. At the same time, we can see that the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan was set to reassert “Southern justice” on Frank, an outsider, whilst subtly asserting to all of Atlanta that Mary Phagan was the poster child who proved that consorting outside the Caucasian Protestant Georgian way of life posed imminent danger to the welfare and innocence of children. To make matters more complicated, it is widely believed that the true murderer of Phagan was Jim Conley, a black janitor at the factory and the prosecutor’s chief witness against Frank. At first glance this musical seems to be yet another one about the injustices faced by minorities in America’s racially charged past, but this musical goes beyond this one particular case and explores our human propensity to blame others for our own misfortunes and how this alienates us from one another, how our sorrows turn to rage and how quickly violence begets violence in the quest for justice, and of course that old adage about how undoubtedly power corrupts.
Parade is one show that offers definitive proof that musical theatre can be drama, that its characters can be three dimensional, its stories powerful and compelling, dark and political, and that the term “musical theatre actors” is not an oxymoron. Musically, Brown has isolated Leo from the rest of the cast, almost as though they inhabit different shows. The Ensemble sings in a manner that is reminiscent of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! while Leo belongs in a world closer to How To Succeed In Business Without Even Trying or even a precursor to the fragmented, urban work of Stephen Sondheim. This clash is intrinsic to the plot, not only emphasizing that he does not belong to the community he lives in, but also his own resentment toward all things Southern, which he takes out on his wife Lucille, with whom he has a strained relationship. Brown expertly makes beautiful use of sweeping, epic, patriotic and religious ballads saturated with passion, grief and rage for most of the characters, while also constructing his songs for Leo and Lucille to mirror their inability to connect and communicate with one another effectively. Brown also makes brilliant use of powerful, gorgeous, overlapping harmonies in the ensemble singing to represent a chillingly theatrical mob mentality.
Joel Greenberg directs this production in a style that is traditionally more common for plays than musicals, capturing beautifully the rich, moving, rousing component of music, but minimizing its penchant for razzle-dazzle, which works very effectively for this particular show. That being said, I thought the number “Real Big News” could have benefited from more assured choreography and the lynching scene from a more formidable energy. Musical director Paul Sportelli works wonders with his magnificent cast to make sure that every time they sing together the entire theatre erupts in goose bumps.
Ultimately, this production is given life by its incredible ensemble, each one pulsating vividly within these explosive circumstances. Jay Turvey is lush and brassy as the gossip hungry Britt Craig, who spins stories about Frank to propagate the sales of his newspaper. Mark Uhre, with his lovely voice, is disturbing as the righteous right-wing politician Tom Watson. Daren A. Herbert gives a beautifully poignant performance as Newt Lee, the black night watchman who is initially suspected of being Phagan’s murderer, and then returns as the cocksure Conley. Herbert has a magnificent voice and makes “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’” (a duet with Alana Hibbert, whose voice is also strong) and “Blues: Feel the Rain Fall” two of the biggest musical standouts of the show. Jessica Greenberg is sweet and feisty as Mary Phagan, but I wasn’t convinced that she was a thirteen year old. Gabrielle Jones, as her mother, is absolutely heartbreaking, especially in her song “My Child Will Forgive Me,” Jeff Irving, as Mary’s friend Frankie, is equally as heartbreaking singing “It Don’t Make Sense” and it is incredible to watch this character’s journey through grief to bloodthirsty ire. Tracy Michailidis gives a nuanced and complex performance as Lucille Frank, simultaneously a traditional woman who knows her place, dainty, polite and filled with sweet charm and graces, but also a wife deeply wounded but also bound to her husband by a fierce love despite his shortcomings. Finally, she emerges as a strong, confident and intelligent crusader for justice for him. Michailidis has an endearing chemistry with Michael Therriault’s Leo, and their sweet duet “All The Wasted Time” proves that hope, love and dreams have the ability to transcend hatred. Therriault is simply brilliant as Leo Frank, introverted and methodical, we watch him bloom and melt, for as the threat of the noose tightens around his neck, while imprisoned, he ends up freeing himself of the walls he built up around his heart. There is so much subtext in this performance and it culminates in his shattering rendition of “It’s Hard to Speak My Heart.”
It seems strange, perhaps, that a musical about the rape and murder of a child, the lynching of a man who was most likely innocent of any crime, of anti-Semitism and racism should be called “Parade.” This inherent contradiction, murder overlapping with Confederate Memorial Day, the horrific and the celebratory existing simultaneously, is intrinsic to the human experience. The inane and the historic always unite, and therefore there is perhaps no better way to tell such a tale than through musical theatre, a genre often dismissed for being vapid, flashy and superficial. A great many theatre critics, for reasons that I cannot understand, express discomfort and unease with musicals that seek to push the boundaries of the genre into rougher, darker and more complicated waters. I am grateful that we have not one, but two companies (four if you count the two mounting the similarly political, dark and wonderful Assassins) here in Toronto that are dedicated to thought-provoking theatre of exquisite calibre, for they will be the ones to shape the theatre history of tomorrow.
Feel your heart coming alive again, before the Parade passes by.
Parade runs until January 22nd 2011 at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs (26 Berkeley Street) Tuesdays-Sundays. For tickets or more information please call the Box Office at 416.368.3110 or go online to

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  • Peter Donaldson

Where’s the Place For Us: Why I’m Concerned About Musical Theatre in Toronto

musical theatre offerings from Mirvish Productions
In March Artistic Director Matthew Jocelyn announced that Canadian Stage had a new mandate as he unveiled the company’s 2010-2011 Season and sought once again to clear up the huge name debacle that has been confusing theatre artists and patrons since the company’s name was changed from Canstage to The Canadian Stage Company in 2007. For the record, the company’s name is now officially Canadian Stage and there seems to be hope that the tendency to refer to it as Canstage will be swiftly phased out. As an aside, if the company is listed as something other than Canadian Stage on your resume or in your stock programme bio, it may be advisable to change it. Anyway, as the saga of the company’s ever-changing name continues, I must tell you that Canadian Stage’s change in mandate has me extremely concerned.
Canadian Stage’s new mandate is as follows, “Jocelyn seeks to redefine Canadian Stage as a home not only for great Canadian and international plays, but also for trans-disciplinary theatre that pushes the boundaries of convention and reflects a resolutely 21st century aesthetic. The work, driven by directors and auteurs at the vanguard of contemporary theatre, will give audiences the opportunity to discover a new generation of storytellers who question, challenge, move and entertain not only with the tales they tell, but with the way they tell them. The company will continue to invest in the future of the art form by nurturing and developing the work of artists and theatre practitioners. Jocelyn looks forward to revealing more details about the company’s training and development initiatives in the coming months.” Jocelyn’s exciting transgression from the conventional regional theatre fare that Canadian Stage became synonymous with under the leadership of former Artistic Producer Martin Bragg is clear in the company’s innovative and internationally conscious 2010-11 season. My concern, it seems obvious, is not for the new direction of Jocelyn’s company, because I am thrilled that he is bringing such interesting and diverse examples of storytelling by truly gifted artists, both Canadian and International, to Toronto and to a theatre with such a broad and dedicated audience. So, you are asking, what is the problem? Why am I extremely concerned?
Since Jocelyn has moved away from producing Canadian productions of the standard regional theatre’s foray into classical, contemporary and musical theatre, there leaves just one small problem: who will produce these shows instead? I am not too concerned about Toronto having a lack of classical theatre and companies such as Studio 180, Obsidian Theatre and The Harold Green Jewish Theatre have been able to bring many contemporary plays from the world stage to Toronto under their various mandates. Indeed, my extreme concern lies in the absence of Canadian Stage’s former musical theatre productions, which were locally cast and produced with all the panache and grandeur that certain musicals necessitate. Who will fill this important demographic for the city of Toronto now?
Two small, but brilliantly valiant and utterly essential, theatre companies of course immediately spring to mind. Acting Up Stage Theatre has been dedicated to producing professional, intimate, contemporary musical theatre shows since 2004. Angelwalk Theatre is also dedicated to the production of exciting musical theatre works, and in only two years will have produced four professional, contemporary musicals. These companies and their Artistic Producers, Mitchell Marcus and Brian Goldenberg respectively, are currently keeping musical theatre afloat in Toronto, and they are doing an impressive and commendable job. Both of these companies are presenting interesting and fresh musicals and both hire skilled directors, musical directors and employ many of the city’s most talented and proficient performers which ensures that these productions are well received and well respected. Yet, it still seems to me as though we are placing all of our hopes and visions for the future of musical theatre in Toronto in two, as yet, quite small and modestly funded baskets. This seems to me, quite unwise.
Of course, I’m not forgetting about DanCap, whose Canadian production of Jersey Boys is a smash success and has employed a steady number of Canadian actors for the past eighteen months. What I find so frustrating about DanCap is that, despite Jersey Boys’ undisputable success, the future of DanCap, as far as the eye can see is their bringing in two American touring productions, Miss Saigon and South Pacific. Although it is fantastic that there are Canadian performers in leading roles in both of these productions (Ma-Anne Dionisio (Kim) and Dora-Award winner Kevin Gray (The Engineer) in Miss Saigon and Jason Howard as Emile de Becque in South Pacific) it seems strange for these performers to have to work with an American theatre company in order to perform these sorts of huge-budget musicals in Toronto. Bringing in these tours, even with a smattering of Canadian talent in attempt to legitimize or justify the production choice, does little to help foster indigenous musical theatre in Toronto or provide opportunities for the theatre artists who live here.
My primary concern with DanCap is that I worry that the abrupt closure of its Canadian production of The Toxic Avenger in January has made producer Aubrey Dan hesitant about investing in further indigenous musicals, especially those that are not Jukebox shows which are in vogue at the moment and arguably cater to a large and already built-in audience. I find it frustrating that the largest musical theatre producers in this country continue to bring in the most enduring and critically acclaimed Jukebox shows, which immediately capture the hearts of mainstream Torontonian theatregoers, but then bring in book musicals like Toxic Avenger, which received comparable reviews in New York to the mixed ones found in Toronto, despite its stellar cast and brilliant direction by John Rando, and then seem to suggest that, because this one show was less successful, that Torontonian audiences in general prefer readymade Jukebox shows to ones with original scores and creative and heart rendering stories. The truth, it seems to me, is that Torontonian audience are not captured by musicals like The Toxic Avenger or Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein (a touring version of the Broadway flop even Sutton Foster and Megan Mullally could not save, which Mirvish brought in earlier this season) simply because they are flawed shows. Earlier this winter Birdland Theatre in association with Talk is Free Theatre in Barrie (a company that not only produces a multitude of musicals made up entirely of Canadian casts and artistic teams, but also is instrumental in fostering new Canadian musical development) produced Assassins at the same time that Acting Up Stage Theatre produced A Light in the Piazza. Even though these two shows were running concurrently, and A Light in the Piazza (2005), a beautiful operatic musical written by Adam Guettel, had never been produced in Toronto before and harkens back to a far more innocent time, both of their runs sold out. These theatre companies cannot compete with Mirvish and Dancap when it comes to their advertising budget, but both still managed to draw in crowds of theatregoers and sell out, because, I would argue, A Light in the Piazza and Assassins are both brilliantly conceived, original book musicals and audiences were craving just that. It did not hurt that both these shows also boasted of the very best of Torontonian musical theatre talent. I don’t believe that audiences are consciously choosing to patronize Jukebox musicals instead of book musicals because they prefer them; I think that the producers are simply not giving their patrons adequate options.
Mirvish Productions is trying to balance being a roadhouse for American touring productions, trying to foster some quirky Canadian shows (such as My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding), likely in the hopes of stumbling upon another Drowsy Chaperone, and reclaiming its former position as the city in which to premiere shows such as the Upcoming Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical in North America before it heads to Broadway. It can be argued that David Mirvish is doing a reasonably good job at juggling his theatre’s three functions, and yet, I remain too much of an idealist to be appeased. My problem with Mirvish Productions really isn’t a problem with Mirvish at all; it is a problem with the musical theatre performers who live in Toronto. They are, in general, simply too talented to be thrust aside for the shows that David Mirvish is choosing to bring to Toronto and there are far too many of them for the few meagre opportunities for jobs that Mirvish Productions is offering them.
Every year dozens of highly trained musical theatre performers pour out of Sheridan College’s Music Theatre: Performance Program and the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts. What are we training them for? Where are they supposed to go to get work? Every year I watch more and more young, talented, bright, ambitious, excited singers and dancers become increasingly frustrated and disillusioned as they produce their own Cabarets, sing at Curtains Down and leave the city for out of town summer stock, Dinner Theatre, and regional theatres across the country without hope that the infrastructure even exists for them to even dare to strive towards a goal of someday working in Toronto. This creates a ripple effect across the country, as, since performers indigenous to Toronto are unable to find work there, they find themselves encroaching on the job opportunities of local actors in other Canadian cities, which can lead to needless resentment and awkwardness developing between the theatre communities from province to province.
David Mirvish owns four large theatres in downtown Toronto, and often I think their space is being wasted. Toronto is a great city with a strong theatre history, marred by a scandal I think has haunted us far too long. I believe that because Toronto produces brilliant theatre on its own, not just musical theatre, but classical and contemporary and brilliant new Canadian plays, that a production should have to be of supreme quality and artistic worthiness in order to justify taking theatre space from our own fiercely talented artists. These productions exist, but they are not often the ones that Mirvish chooses to invite into his theatres. Peter Brook warns about the “deadly theatre” in his book The Empty Space, and he spends an entire chapter explaining his very intricate perspective on the deadliness that plagues much of the theatre produced and written in the 20th Century. For me, I have often considered touring productions of Broadway musicals to be a hotbed for some of the deadliest theatre one could ever hope to see. Touring Productions have their merits and they can be extraordinary, but they also tend to suffer from the exhaustion of the performers, the monotony of what has become a monthly or yearly routine which can zap previously sparkling performances of their freshness and sprinkle the entire stage with dust. If David Mirvish was continuously bringing in productions like Steppenwolf Theatre’s August: Osage County, I would admit that the company was providing Toronto with an opportunity to see exceptional performances and vivid new productions, but that simply is not the case.
I know that the issues that these producers face are not simply artistic, but powerfully economic, but I think that Toronto audiences and Torontonian theatre performers deserve to have adequate space in the city to be able to foster not only small, contemporary productions, but larger productions of shows from across theatre history guided by the most ingenious of Canadian directors and casts of Canadian performers. Stuart Ostrow, one of Broadway’s last independent producers spoke of what he saw happening in the New Broadway Establishment of the late 20th Century saying these producers, “prefer to buy the future rather than undertake the labor of making it… Today the theatre is ruled by bottom-line thinking. Who’s the star? What does it cost? When will it recoup? Where is the profit-earnings ratio?… To be present at the creation of an original musical is what interests me most… and is of little interest to the current crop of Broadway wise guys. They are only end-game players.” (Grant 307). Musical theatre in Toronto, it seems, is being run in the same way, with little attention to the significance and the heart of the story being told and a lack of respect or understanding for the powerful connection that comes from sharing something earnestly with someone else, rather than simply reaping in financial gain. Harold Prince refers to the musicals that Ostrow described as “McShows”, a reference to the readymade, corporate, convenient, homogenized conveyor belt fast food that dominates North America. We know that this food is bad for us, and yet we continue to buy it because it is fast, convenient and formulaic so we always know just what to expect. A Big Mac, for example, tastes the exact same in Paris as it does in Halifax.
Will we accept the same for the theatre of Toronto? The same laziness to tolerate something we know is inferior, that we understand to be devoid of creativity or effort or individuality simply because it is cheaper to produce? I think we, the citizens of Toronto, deserve better than these McShows and I think our talented theatre artists do as well. As The Toxic Avenger and Young Frankenstein, like hundreds of shows before them, have proven, even with the most talented performers in the country, a poorly constructed script has little chance to allow the production to soar. So often I hear the argument that theatre producers seek to cater to their “conservative” middle-age subscription audience and that is seen as being a solid defence for why they must make safe choices and rely on that which is already familiar to lure patrons into their seats. I have made previous arguments which support the idea that theatre audiences do not like to be surprised, but at the same time, I am reminded of who these middle-aged and young senior citizen theatre patrons are. These are the same Baby Boomers who rebelled their parents’ traditions around every corner, from pushing for Civil Rights and Feminist Rights, to embracing Rock N’ Roll music to creating a counterculture of drugs and sex and a true spirit of revolution. Gerome Ragni and James Rado, the book and lyricists for the musical Hair (1969) spoke about the goal of this musical saying, “The Kids are a tribe. At the same time, for the purposes of HAIR, they know they are on a stage in a theatre, performing for an audience, demonstrating their way of life, in a sense, telling a story, in order to persuade those who watch of their intentions to perhaps gain greater understating, support, and tolerance, and thus perhaps expand their horizons of active participation toward a better, saner, peace-full, love-full world. They are trying to turn on the audience” (Jones 249). It seems an absurd misjudgement to assume that this same generation of theatregoers grew into adults unable of handling anything less tame than a show like Mamma Mia!
I am idealistic, but I am not convinced that Mirvish Productions will change its ways so dramatically that their producers will rush to break the mold of McShows that they have been offering us and to give our Torontonian musical theatre performers the opportunities they deserve to work in musicals that will challenge and inspire them toward excellence. But, someone needs to fill this void. There needs to be a theatre in Toronto that can mount revivals of productions from Les Miserables to Sweeney Todd, with Canadian casts and artistic teams dedicated to providing quality musical theatre to Toronto. There needs to be a theatre in Toronto where Canadian musicals can be produced after they have been rigorously read and work-shopped. There needs to be an entire musical theatre infrastructure in Toronto that can accommodate a higher percentage of its highly trained and proficient performers, just as the infrastructure exists for the actors in Toronto who don’t perform in musical theatre. Being a performer is supposed to be competitive; it is not supposed to be impossible.
The reality is that I am extremely concerned because I know that this is an urgent and pressing problem facing hundreds of some of our most talented actors, singers, dancers, triple threats and Cabaret Stars and I know that if this lack of infrastructure continues to plague these artists and makes it unfeasible for them to work in our city, they will leave and that will be a massive blow to the dream of our own flourishing indigenous musical theatre here in Toronto. We can do better than that.

Man in the Mirror Rocked My World (You Know It Did)

louise pitre, thom allison, justin bott, adam brazier, sara farb
amanda leblanc, david lopez, jeigh madjus, erica peck, eliza jane scott
As I sat in the Bathurst Street Theatre on Monday April 26th watching an array of stars from the Toronto musical theatre community perform in Acting Up Stage’s annual fundraiser, this year entitled Man in the Mirror, I was struck with the overwhelming feeling that somewhere out there Michael Jackson was smiling.
Each year, Acting Up Stage’s producer Mitchell Marcus puts together an evening of song inspired by the catalogue of a contemporary music artist and, with the incredible musical genius of Musical Director extraordinaire, Reza Jacobs, the songs are re-imagined, arranged and sung in creative and dynamic new ways by ten of Toronto’s most acclaimed musical theatre vocalists. This year Man in the Mirror played homage to the music of Michael Jackson, a choice that may have raised some reservations from the sceptical among you. Michael Jackson, after all, was an extraordinarily gifted and unique performer, a true legend whose music was tailored specifically to showcase his greatness. It is a testament to the eleven artists I saw Monday evening and especially to the ingenuity of Reza Jacobs that they were able to strike the perfect balance between honouring Michael Jackson, staying true to the essence of each of his songs while also revelling in each singer’s own individuality.
Adam Brazier kick started the evening with a rendition of “Keep the Faith,” which suited his lovely, smooth voice very well. He has very powerful belting capacity, which immediately intensifies the energy in the room which makes for a perfect opening number. His performance later in the evening of a particularly clever combination of “Pretty Young Thing (P.Y.T)” and “The Way You Make Me Feel” was true Brazier belting bliss.
I felt very fortunate to see David Lopez perform for the first time this evening and he is utterly divine. He sang a jazz rendition of “Remember the Time” accompanied by a cello, which showed off his deep, sensual, rich vocals perfectly. He is a wonderfully laid back performer who infuses his songs with emotion and is immediately captivating. I hope to have the opportunity to hear him sing again soon. Justin Bott wowed the crowd with “Billie Jean” by recording his own beatbox and backup vocals live and layered on top of one another on a recording device, similar to the way American real-life Yale glee club star Sam Tsui makes his youtube videos. It was a definite highlight of the evening. Erica Peck also showed off her belting chops with “Thriller.”
Amanda LeBlanc and Sara Farb provided their always beautiful two part backup harmonies to most of the songs of the evening, which gave a strong element of texture to each of the numbers, along with the addition of a larger chorus for the show-stopping numbers. LeBlanc and Farb’s voices are wonderful complements to one another with LeBlanc’s genuine warmth blending perfectly with Farb’s intensity. Their duet of “Beat It” proved without a doubt that they should be singing together far more than once a year. In their solo pieces, Sara Farb was charming in bringing some of her signature angst to “Blame It On the Boogie” and it was delightful to watch her let the music sweep the angst away. I also am not sure how it is possible, but I’m certain that her already formidable belt has intensified since the last time I heard her sing. Amanda LeBlanc sang “Rock With You” as a gorgeous ballad with magic shining in her eyes. She is truly a treat to watch.
The First Act of this show was definitely stolen by ten year old Ezra Tennen who gave a perfectly earnest performance of “Ben” and sang a charming duet of “The Girl Is Mine” with Reza Jacobs. Tennen has beautiful and impressive voice; I think Justin Beiber had better look out. The Second Act was stolen by Jeigh Madjus’ “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” which could not have been more perfect, especially since it gave him the opportunity to do the moonwalk. His rendition of “Stranger in Moscow” also showed off his gorgeously smooth voice, incredible falsetto and his unmistakeable star power. Jeigh Madjus simultaneously blows audiences away and melts their hearts with even the quickest glimpse of his radiant sheepish grin.
Eliza Jane Scott transfixed me as always with her stunning powers of storytelling singing “Human Nature” which suited her bright voice beautifully and she showed off her rock star powers at the end with incredible belting prowess. She also sang a beautiful folk version of “We Are The World,” accompanying herself on the acoustic guitar, which quickly turned into a rousing sing-along. Always brilliant and hilariously quirky, Louise Pitre gave true star turns with “I Want You Back” and “Bad” both of which, of course, brought down the house. Which brings me to Thom Allison. What can be said about his gorgeous voice that hasn’t already been said? He is such an earnest performer whose love for performing always shines so brightly in the most infectious of ways because he sings straight from his soul. He sang “Got to Be There” first which showed off his voice as cool, smooth and creamy as a chocolate milkshake as though having his voice soar through the theatre was the most effortless thing for him in the whole world. Fittingly, it was Allison who closed out the evening with an incredibly dreamy rendition of “Man in the Mirror.” To bring an entire evening of show-stoppers to a close, this song was the ultimate of ultimates, Thom Allison’s performance was unbelievable and left the entire theatre breathless.
It is also impossible to speak of this show without commending the incredible band (Jamie Drake (drums), Devon Henderson (bass) and Erik Patterson (guitar) who rocked out with panache throughout the entire evening and of course, Reza Jacobs who plays the keyboard like nobody’s business. The one thing that strikes me as odd each year with this fundraising show is that with class-act upon class-act, at the end of the evening the audience is applauding and screaming wildly and yet there is never an encore. I understand that busy schedules are difficult to accommodate, and that every year at least one performer (incredibly) flies in on his/her day off from somewhere else in the country just for the opportunity of being in this show for one night (this year it was Thom Allison coming from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in Calgary and Jeigh Madjus from Peter Pan in Halifax), but it would be ideal for there to be one big ensemble number to greet the fervently applauding fans at the very end of the night. It wouldn’t have to be complicated, and could even be sung in unison, with perhaps some additional harmonies from Sara Farb and Amanda LeBlanc.
It is discouraging how few opportunities there are for Toronto’s musical theatre stars to perform with one another in this city, and so I am excruciatingly grateful to Mitchell Marcus and Acting Up Stage Theatre for continuously providing support and opportunities for our community to grow and thrive amid a disheartening situation. This company is the future of musical theatre in Toronto and, thankfully, it won’t stop until we have enough.

Amanda LeBlanc: Chasin dreams, Heart upon her sleeve

amanda leblanc
There are certain performers who shine with a particular and natural beauty when they sing. They don’t adopt an intense persona, but the music seems to radiate directly from their souls with seemingly effortless prowess. One such performer is Amanda LeBlanc, an actor/singer/songwriter originally from Nova Scotia who is currently primarily based in Toronto. I caught an evening with Amanda LeBlanc entitled Let’s Be Foolish on Wednesday, April 1st at the Press Club where she performed with singer/songwriters Melanie Peterson and Marta. Accompanying herself on guitar, which she plays without a pick, she sang ten songs of her own composition and one cover song with some “impromptu musical splendour” from Marta’s band.
Music from the East Coast often has a particular spirit to it, one that pays homage to our Celtic forefathers and seems saturated with salty sea breezes and a yearning for home. Amanda LeBlanc’s music is no exception. Her song “Highway Drivin’” captures perfectly a journey so many of us can relate to, with “bare feet up on the dash,” as we drive toward the place where “the water kisses stone.” Her upbeat rock-out song “Take Me Down” is a perfect toe-tappin,’ jaunty pub song with similarly wistful lyrics that reflect the magnetic pull of the ocean on the soul. “Movin’ On” reminds me of Melanie Doane’s song “Salt Water,” as it follows in the tradition of tunes written to reconcile the choice so many East Coasters make to leave the ocean behind and to follow our dreams and our hearts to a much larger labyrinth of “grey on grey” concrete.
LeBlanc’s signature song is the winsome and utterly endearing “Man in the Moon,” which is a light and poetic tune that freely emphasizes the lovely upper register of her voice. She also sings a “classic breakup song” entitled “Cover to Cover” and the very poignant “Letter” which begins “Dear Sir” and expresses the hope one clings to for salvaging the lost friendship after a romantic relationship has ended. Her voice soars with particular resonance in the chorus of this song. Her haunting song “Change,” is inspired by her reactions to Edmonton’s conspicuous problem with homelessness while she was living in the city performing at the Citadel Theatre. It is considerably darker than her other songs, but very evocative. The song that her voice suits with absolute perfection is called “Little Walls;” the refrain seems as polished as one would expect from a song on the radio and LeBlanc’s belt flies with finesse and breezy ease.
One of the most striking moments of the show is LeBlanc’s rendition of her one cover song, “Tennessee Waltz,” which she sings with utter gorgeousness in a performance that surpasses that of every single one of the long line of artists who have made this classic so beloved and renowned. She belts certain phrases, filling each syllable with emotion, and the effect is absolute, utter perfection. I am so thankful that there is a demo recording of her rendition on her MySpace because all the others pale so dramatically in her shadow. Let’s Be Foolish ended with LeBlanc’s jaunty song “Drip,” which boasts of the catchiest tune and shows off LeBlanc’s brilliant scatting talents, and on this evening in particular the audience was treated to a rousing kazoo solo by the inspired Meredith Zwicker.
“Drip” is the song that you will go home humming at the end of the evening, but with all her wistful tunes and her contagious and utterly endearing spirit and charm, Amanda LeBlanc always insures an evening that will leave you feeling warm and cozy in your heart, although perhaps also pining slightly for the sea.
Amanda LeBlanc can next be seen at the Free Times Café (320 College Street) on April 15th, 2010 at 9:00pm singing her own songs, and then at the Bathurst Street Theatre (736 Bathurst Street) on April 26th, 2010 at 8pm as part of The Man in the Mirror, Acting Up Stage Theatre’s annual evening of Toronto’s finest musical theatre stars paying homage to rock n’ roll, with a night dedicated to the music of Michael Jackson.
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