Anyone Can Whistle- Almost.

It is always a pleasure to sit amongst the Toronto theatre community, and Sunday night at the Anyone Can Whistle musical concert at the Diesel Playhouse was no exception. The audience was perfectly radiant and included some of the city’s most renowned performers, along with students so recently out of theatre school, I wouldn’t be surprised if they had brought their headshots/resumes in their backpacks. The cast of the concert version of Stephen Sondheim’s most beloved flop was strikingly similar to its audience. Blythe Wilson, famed for her seasons at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals gave a beautiful performance as Fay Apple, an uptight, yet brazen nurse at the local Cookie Jar for the Socially “Pressured”. Her renditions of “Anyone Can Whistle”, “There Won’t Be Trumpets” and “See What It Gets You” tore through the theatre like bolts of energy. Kate Hennig was delightful as Cora Hoover-Hooper infusing the mayoress with a perfect mixture of sassy cruelty. Adam Brazier’s J. Bowden Hapgood was delightfully charming, Jonathan Monro and his gorgeous voice shone as the defrocked preacher Treasurer Cooley and the choreography by Sam Strasfeld was so lively and perfectly suited, I wished that he had blocked the entire show. Richard Ouzounian’s narrator was sheepish, but lacked the presence and charm that overflowed from the others onstage. He recited Arthur Laurent’s book like one trying to remember his grocery list. The ensemble was made up of eight remarkably young and talented performers whose energy radiated from the stage, into the audience, and back out again. The orchestra was simply to die for. In short, Anyone Can Whistle had all the makings of a lovely night at the theatre. And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. There is a song in the Second Act called “Everybody Says Don’t” which refers to the courage it takes to speak out against injustice and authority, and since I firmly believe that it is the young theatre-makers who will inherit the Toronto shaped by those men in power today, I feel it is my duty as a person who cares to ask the pertinent questions.
I was initially struck by the way this show was marketed. Why had Arkady Spivak and Richard Ouzounian decided to do a concert version of this show? If they wanted to stage Anyone Can Whistle, why not just stage it? Is this one step into the process of doing a fully staged version of the show? If so, why was there no mention of this in the programme? Is it a benefit concert like the one for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis staged at Carnegie Hall in 1995? I looked to Ouzounian’s Director’s Note for answers and was not surprised with what I found. I read about how 14 year old Richard became enchanted with Anyone Can Whistle in 1964 and after speaking about the show’s brief run he writes, “it’s nearly 44 years later, but the time has finally come to share my feelings with you.” Has it been Ouzounian’s dream to direct Anyone Can Whistle and to cast himself as the Narrator for 44 years? Was he concerned that the socio-political climate of the world today would not be sympathetic to the show’s messages of corruption within the government and its web of hypocrisy?
At its most basic, Ouzounian’s desire to share Anyone Can Whistle with Canadian theatre audiences is wonderful. The show has only been revived a handful of times and I agree that it is an important show that can become a major musical theatre event in the lives of its audience. That said, it strikes me that Ouzounian would choose to mount a concert version for two performances in Barrie and one in Toronto, with direction that lacked any semblance of clear concept and left a large portion of the audience unable to follow the convoluted story. Surely taking a risk and investing in a longer running, fully blocked version of the show, with a director who makes clear, deliberate creative choices, would be more conducive to Ouzounian’s goals of sharing this musical with the people of Toronto. Or is this not the ultimate goal?
Like in Anyone Can Whistle at times I feel as though I am a “cookie” in a Jar, watching helplessly as those in positions of power in this city create illusions to justify and conceal their personal agendas. Richard Ouzounian is The Star’s theatre critic and it cannot be denied that his opinions on actors, theatre companies, directors and performance choices influence and affect the success and failure of theatre in Toronto. Why, then, am I not dazzled by his acting skill and directing choices? Why do I fail to see even the semblance of skill and choice? Who has given this man such clout within this community and why? Ouzounian has said that I think he is a bad person, which could not be further from the truth. I even see a glimmer of myself in the 14 year old Broadway geek he depicts in his Director’s Note. At the same time, I have questions. I am still idealistic enough to believe in fairness and balance and a theatre community that prizes talent over politics. Perhaps it is naïve to believe such a community could exist, but, as Sondheim himself wrote, “I insist on miracles, if you do them, miracles, nothing to them… I say don’t- don’t be afraid.”

Nativity Story Filled with Rock, Hope and Surprises

mike tremblay with cast

It is a story so familiar it’s almost clichéd: girl meets boy, boy asks girl to marry him, girl gets impregnated by God, and a baby boy is born in a stable. It has been told thousands of times, from the biblical to first graders dressed as donkeys, and yet fundamentally the story remains the same. There is no room at the inn, the angels tell the shepherds, the three wise men give gifts… but what happened before Gabriel came along, and who are these people called Mary and Joseph anyway, and why aren’t they at home snuggled in their cozy bed instead of on a donkey when Mary is so close to having the baby believed to be the chosen son of the Lord? Perhaps at one point in the past I asked these questions, only to be told that no one knew the answers, or that that part was not important, and I began to take the official story as gospel, without much thought behind it.

Nativity, the rock musical now playing at Saint Matthew’s United Church in Halifax does not simply attempt to integrate rock music into a traditional tale, but instead creates its own narrative, offering fresh perspectives on characters and circumstances thousands have taken for granted for centuries. It sounds like a recipe for corny modernization and campy humor, but the playwright, Reverend Betsy Hogan skillfully maneuvers her way around the potential for cheese and instead roots the story firmly in two clearly developed, strongly likeable characters and an extremely specific historical backdrop.
Mary, played by the charming Nicole Moore, is a vivacious, yet dreamy young girl with a certain Disney Princess-like quality about her as she dreams of something greater than the ordinary and longs for a world that doesn’t involve being a second class citizen subjected to the brutal whims of constant Roman guards. She has a mother and father who care about her while trying to ground her fanciful dreams in bleak reality. She must be a good Jewish girl- obey her father, find a husband and respect the hierarchy she was born into.
Joseph is filled with angst and helplessness as he is ensnared within the confines of his world. He has hope for the future he is forging with Mary and the love beginning to develop between them. He is understandably enraged when Mary becomes pregnant with another man’s son, but struggles in attempt to be a good person, while still maintaining boundaries for the woman who has apparently betrayed him.
It is interesting that Nativity would develop out of a Christian church as its story surpasses biblical doctrine and portrays the bible’s most famous parents as people, with hopes and fears and a range of emotions not always equated to the divine. The families are distinctly Jewish, a subtle reminder during the holiday season of the tight interconnections between these two faiths. The rock music, songs such as, “Down on the Corner” by CCR and “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty evolve from the action like in any good book musical, without seeming too hokey or contrived. The highlights include a beautiful performance as Mary’s lovingly concerned father by Scott Murphy, Mike Tremblay’s rock star Joseph, Murphy and Tremblay’s show stopping performance of “Under Pressure,” and Roy Ellis’ hilarious nod to Jesus Christ Superstar’s Herod’s Harem with “Love Shack.” The direction by Jolene Pattison is well suited to the small playing space. Pattison wisely keeps a core ensemble in almost constant motion throughout so there is always something interesting to watch and the dancing feels consistent with the world she has created.
Most importantly, however, Nativity feels like a labor of love. The joy of the performers pour off the stage and into the audience. The sheer fun of the process is apparent in smiling faces and shining eyes. There is a spark at Saint Matthew’s that goes beyond a night at the theatre, and the monotony one can find in the professional world, the excitement of creating something new while making a difference in the community is strongly present. The profits from this musical go toward the church’s outreach program, helping those in need in our community.
With its mixture of ambition and faith, Saint Matt’s Church is emerging as an exciting source of Canadian Theatre creativity in Halifax. Nativity shows great promise as a musical. More dialogue and a tighter correlation between the book and the lyrics could help solidify Mary and Joseph’s journeys throughout without relying so heavily on convenience and prior knowledge of the story. As a World Premiere of a new Canadian musical, this show is fraught with potential.
All and all in the here and now, Nativity is both heartwarming and thought provoking. Whether you believe the story to be fact or fiction, this musical tells the story of a girl and a boy you thought you knew, and leaves you asking the questions you may have forgotten were important when they weren’t answered when you were a kid. Who were these people, Mary and Joseph? We probably won’t ever know for sure, but in this show it is the array of possibilities which make it so compelling and exciting.
Nativity is playing at Saint Matthew’s Church on Barrington Street, December 14th at 7:00pm and December 15th at 2:00pm and 7:00pm. For tickets call 902 423-9209

From One Theatre Reviewer to Another

ron pederson as seymour
I take issue with Richard Ouzounian, theatre critic of the Toronto Star. I do not know whether to be scathing or to be respectful and polite is a more compelling way to express myself, but since I have arrived in Toronto I have been constantly baffled and saddened in reading his reviews. I know it’s his job to critique. A very good argument could be made that he holds Canadian theatre to a high standard and this is a positive, but, I am unclear what exact standard it is, and curious whether he has any suggestions how Artistic Directors, producers and Canadian theatre makers can improve themselves, or whether his job description simply ends with ripping shows apart. I have dismissed him in the past, usually in remembering the script to his musical Emily, which as much as I had personal investment in wanting to read it, I simply could not- I felt Montgomery roll in her grave, and never looked back. What could he know, I thought, we have different tastes it’s clear, and that’s okay, surely. However, his review for Little Shop of Horrors sent me over the edge. I’m not exactly sure why.
I find his constantly beating down of Canadian theatre, especially Canadian musical theatre, to be doing a massive disservice to the citizens of Toronto. In an age where the majority of Canadians do not venture out to attend the theatre at all, but stay inside watching craft-less television programs and playing video games, Ouzounian is positioned with an opportunity to promote Canadian theatre and Canadian actors, and instead he more often than not uses his platform to tear productions limb from limb and rip often beautiful and compelling performances to shreds. No one needs Ouzounian to tell them why they shouldn’t venture out into the cold of winter in Toronto and support Canadian theatre. However, it would be nice if someone made a case why theatre should be a priority in Canadian lives before it disappears altogether. Perhaps then he wouldn’t have to write reviews with titles such as “If They Only Had A Budget.”
It is obvious that I am in a biased position when it comes to Little Shop of Horrors. I care about every single person standing on that stage, as a person first, and then as an actor. Most of them I don’t know very well, some not at all- but I still care that they succeed because that is the sort of person I am. I have chosen to champion Canadian theatre in the position I am forging for myself, to support the actors whose talents I don’t think can be denied. I like being a little light in the road; I think that’s important. I don’t think Ouzounian needs to champion my cause, but I would like to see him step up with a little more balance.
I think what struck me with his review of Little Shop of Horrors was how much Ouzounian missed. It seemed to me like he was intent on finding fault with the show from the moment it began, perhaps because it did not fit with what he had expected from Ted Dykstra. In the review he said, “I hoped they had some inventive reason up their sleeve for picking it and that director Ted Dykstra would illuminate the work in some crazy new way.” Firstly, Toronto is not New York, no matter how many Louis Vuitton handbags and Starbucks coffees it sells, Toronto’s theatre community is not comparable to Broadway because we don’t have that many theatres and we don’t have that many shows. In New York, directors have to be creative when they want to remount Sweeney Todd or Company because they are competing with forty-five other musicals, not to mention all the plays and special events going on constantly. Plus, there are constant college and community productions of these shows going on all the time. In New York, “you gotta get a gimmick if you wanna get ahead.” Patti Lupone plays the TUBA, now that is something that will get New Yorkers in to see Sweeney Todd for the third time. In Toronto, it seems silly to try to turn a book musical into a concept show, especially if a large portion of the audience has never seen a professional version of the show.
Why is Canadian Stage doing this show, Ouzounian asks. I think the answer is simple. Canadian Stage is a subscription based not-for-profit theatre company, and you only have to attend a few shows there and look around to see who their audience is- predominantly older, retired folks who have the money to pay $70.00 to attend a night at the theatre once every month and a half. A theatre, like anything, cannot hope to thrive in the future if over half of its customers are entering a phase of their lives when going to the theatre may soon become impractical or impossible. The Canadian Stage Company is smart to appeal to the younger generations. There is the generation that grew up watching this film, who may bring their children along if they have them, and there is the college and high school generation who will be intrigued at least by a musical that is campy, and self parodying and more about the blood and great tunes and less concerned with being intellectually self-involved.
I had the privilege of watching the audience out of the corner of my eye both times I have seen Little Shop of Horrors. As far as the eye could see at the Bluma Appel Theatre were Torontonian theatergoers utterly engrossed in what was going on onstage. A girl a few seats down from me was leaning so far forward, I’m sure she would have crawled onto the stage if she had been allowed. The performance was constantly being interrupted by applause, cheers and laughter- especially when Ron Pederson and Patricia Zentilli brought the house down with their astonishing version of “Suddenly Seymour.”
Perhaps the problem with Ouzounian is that as an occupational hazard, he has really seen it all. That may explain why he has the urge for everything to be done in “crazy new ways.” However, I think he needs to remember that the people of Toronto have not seen it all- most of the people in Toronto don’t go to plays, or musicals at Canadian Stage. Some of them probably have never gone to see a play because they keep getting scared away by awful reviews. A bad review by Ouzounian is not going to scare away Canadian Stage’s subscription members. The older crowd who is more likely to have “seen it all”, will probably still go. The sad truth is that a bad Ouzounian review most likely dissuades the people who haven’t seen that much theatre at all. These people most likely will not be judging by the Ouzounian standard, and therefore might actually see an entirely different production than the one portrayed in The Star. I feel that is the true tragedy of Richard Ouzounian.
I feel sorry for him in truth. I am sorry that he seems to have lost the ability to feel the sheer power of joy that still greets me whenever an overture starts. I am sorry that he chooses to focus his attention on some ideal in his head, rather than enjoying the reality offered to him onstage. I feel compelled to speak in particular to Ron Pederson, who I watched from the third row, and whose performance is so all-encompassing and detailed, you could watch him, and only him, for the entire show, I think, and feel as though you had gotten your money’s worth. I don’t understand what the fact that Ouzounian doesn’t think Pederson is actually a nerd has to do with Pederson’s portrayal of Seymour.
That aside, Ouzounian is in a lucrative position at The Star and with power comes responsibility. It may be easier sometimes to dismiss art, to write wishy-washy reviews on what we perceive as being trite or ordinary, but I believe that a brave man who wanted to truly promote, champion and foster theatre in his own community would take a firmer stance to create something constructive and encouraging. Richard Ouzounian, however, impersonates an impassioned theatre lover without ever really becoming one. I don’t believe for a second that he’s the musical obsessed nerd driven by his love of theatre to write reviews. I think that is what is missing, more so in Ouzounian than in any show playing in Toronto.

You Betta! Tellin’ You You Betta: Head Downtown to Little Shop Now.


ron pederson as seymour & patricia zentilli as audrey

There is a certain, special spark in musical theatre that gives it life, depth, heart and soul- the audience can feel it radiate from the stage, they lean in for a closer look, but can’t quite put their finger on what exactly it is. Usually the spark ignites from the very first notes to guarantee a worthwhile evening. As someone who sees a lot of musical theatre on an extremely frequent basis, often I forget all about this special spark and how powerful it can be. Then I see something like Little Shop of Horrors directed by Ted Dyskra at the Canadian Stage Company and am blown away by It.

A story about a poverty-stricken, nerdy botanist named Seymour whose careful nurturing of an exotic plant with a taste for blood not only turns his own world upside-down but wreaks havoc worldwide does not immediately sound like the perfect ingredients for a musical. However, this campy little show with its satire of musical theatre and science fiction has become one of Broadway’s most produced musicals. Its success is due to the amazing collaboration between Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the team that would go on to gives us the classic scores to Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992). With a sadistic dentist, a bluesy talking plant, one of the most awkward- yet surprisingly charming- romantic couplings in musical theatre history, clever lyrics, snappy music, a wonderfully bizarre narrative and hilarious dialogue: Ashman and Menken seem to have created a sure-fire hit.

That said, in the Canadian Stage production IT is in the astounding cast of nine brilliant performers. Ron Pederson does not simply star as the delightfully clumsy Seymour, but actually transforms into the role he has obviously carefully shaped- with beautiful clear physicality, a perfect Skid Row accent, intonations of love, awkwardness, loyalty and fierceness all mixed together and genius comic timing. He also has one of those singing voices that you wish you could bottle and keep with you for whenever you’re feeling down. It soars. It’s radiant. It has that spark. Réjean Cournoyer shows a gigantic array of his talents in playing various characters, each one both distinctive and compelling.. He is fantastically terrible as Orin,, the dentist- walking the perfect balance between eliciting humor and disgust simultaneously. His brutal strength is consistently clear- he delivers one of the most realistic across-the-face-slaps I have seen onstage- and yet his laughing fit is perfectly hysterical. I find Orin’s interaction with Seymour in this particular version especially fascinating as a complex interplay is clear between Pederson and Cournoyer’s strong, complex characters.

Also a highlight is watching Sheldon Davis and Ron Pederson dance together in the number “Mushnik and Son”, while Jenni Burke, Starr Domingue and Michelle E. White (Ronette, Crystal, Chiffon) provide the show with its constant energy, life and soul as they are musically inter-spliced into the action. The perfectly in-synch duo of Jeff Jones as the voice for Audrey II and Eric Woolfe as the puppeteer are astounding in their ability to give life to this character that surpasses audiences reacting to a puppet and beyond their perception of what constitutes “realistic” plant behaviour. Once Jeff Jones begins to sing “Feed Me,” you won’t want him to stop.

They all have got the spark to give to the show, but it is Patricia Zentilli as Audrey, the battered and bruised flower shop girl with painfully low self-esteem, who brings down the house with her rendition of “Suddenly Seymour.” Her voice alone will leave you breathless in wonder at its sheer force and simultaneous beauty, clarity and resonance- add on her shrewd sense of comedy, her ability to make audiences laugh and cry at the same time and a beautiful and truly compelling portrayal of a girl who honestly believes she deserves no better than to be handcuffed by a sadist- Zentilli is reason enough to head downtown to the Canadian Stage Theatre and check out Little Shop of Horrors now playing until December 15, 2007.

For tickets call 416. 368. 3110 or visit And whatever you do: don’t feed the plant!

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