8 years ago

Volume 17 Issue 5 - February 2012

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  • February
  • Toronto
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MUSIC THEATREAdamantly Off-CentreObeah Opera and Dani GirlUntil the last few years,musical theatre buffs inToronto and the GTA had to relyon commercial theatres to satisfytheir tastes, looking to companieslike Mirvish Productionsto keep them up-to-date withBroadway and West End hits.Today, things have changed tothe point where musical theatreregularly appears in the city’snot-for-profit (NFP) theatresin forms new and old. Andperformers who cut their teethin shows produced by Mirvish,Dancap and (the now-defunct)Livent Corp. are achieving marqueestatus with new and differentaudiences.Nowhere is this more evident than in a big show co-produced by two of thecity’s smallest theatres that opens on February 22 at the 918 Bathurst Centrefor Culture, just north of Bloor St. Loosely based on historical texts of theinfamous witch-hunts in 17th century Salem, Massachusetts, Obeah Operaviews the trials through a Caribbean filter. “Producing this piece solidifies ourmandate to present works from the [Black] Diaspora inspired by a Caribbeanunderstanding,” says Rhoma Spencer, artistic director of Theatre Archipelago,one of the producing companies. Co-producer ahdri zhina mandiela, founderand artistic director of b current Performing Arts, and the show’s director, iseven more emphatic with her endorsement: “Obeah Opera renews creativeand cultural pride for both companies, our artists, and much of the audience.”Nicole Brooks, who wrote the book, libretto and music for Obeah Opera,echoed mandiela’s sentiments in a chat we shared in early January. “The storythat interests me takes place at the beginning of the witch trials, when the womenare accused, because, of course, there’s very little known about them. I mean,they were slaves, so they barely figure in historical records.” She pauses, as ifrecognizing the contradiction implicit in her statement. “These women weresilenced. Very little of what they said, if they were allowed to speak at all, hasbeen documented. I have taken the liberty of giving them voices to tell theirstories in their own way …”Ironically, this led Brooks to opera, a form rarely connected with Blackmusic. Rather that retreat from the challenge, she embraced it, but added atwist: “I adhere to the definition of ‘opera’ in its true terms, as ‘a play that issung’; but I don’t feel that restricts me to classical music. What each characterhas to say leads me to a different genre of music, which also becomes part ofthat character’s voice …” Ultimately, she suggests, “the music in the piece is ascontemporary as it is historical … the references are all over the place.”Director mandiela agrees: “The music is the spine of Obeah Opera … mixingtraditions of jazz, blues and spirituals from a myriad of Black cultures …‘in themanner of the chapel,’ otherwise known as a cappella style. It’s like a game ofmusical telephone played cross centuries into now …”Obeah Opera is a huge undertaking for Brooks: her first play, her first score,her first opera. And she performs one of the five leads — Candy, a Salem slavewith oratorical skills and the ability to read. After Tituba, another slave, is accusedof practising the outlawed rituals of obeah on and with young white girls,she and Candy, along with three other women, are confined by the town’s eldersto a cell where each shares her personal account of the events that led to her arrest.Through the telling of their stories, the women form a bond strong enoughto initiate a ceremony that conjures up a powerful presence — freedom — whichBrooks uses to structure the endingof her show.In transforming the witchesof Salem to healers with variousspiritual beliefs, Brooks tacklesthe taboo of obeah with thesteadiness of vision she bringsto her project in general. Neithercondemning nor celebrating thecontroversial practice, she aimsto create “a tribute to all thosespiritual practices that had to gounderground to survive: they dolive today, but you have to lookto see them. And that’s their truetriumph — that they didn’t diewith the people they represent ...”Nevertheless, she worriesabout her own mother’s reactionto the show, a fear she confesses with laughter. “When I toldher I was working on the piece, she said ‘so, you’re an obeahwoman now, practising witchcraft …?’”Brooks shakes her head: “Mercy, what have I done?”Obeah Opera may not practise witchcraft, but it promisesmagic nonetheless. Requiring a cast of 15, the show wouldtax the resources of Toronto’s largest theatres, let alone twoof its smallest. To meet the challenge, Spencer and mandielahave gathered a stellar group of women to perform allthe roles, male and female. To play the five arrested slaves,Brooks is teamed with Ella Andell from Trinidad and Tobago,and Canadians Joni NehRita, Saphire Demitro, and SaidahBaba Talibah, who also can be seen (and heard!) this monthin Honey Jam — Then and Now, an all-female showcase atHarbourfront’s Brigantine Room on February 3. Joining themin the ten-member chorus are Kanika Ambrose, Sheila Boydand Jessica Brown, all well-known singers in their own right.For Brooks, mandiela supplied a dramaturge as well as aSaidah Baba Talibah and Nicole Brooks;at b current’s Wychwood Barns studio.musical director, and guidedher through a processof development that theneophyte writer couldn’texpect to find at manytheatres, which she is firstto acknowledge. “What’sgood about b current, andsmall theatre in general, isthe opportunity to spreadyour wings and explore.The [usual] problem isyou don’t have the luxuryof four or five months torehearse …” She reflectsfor a moment. “And, youknow, this is why I appreciatethe [production] incrementsthat ahdri mademe go though. If, fromthe beginning, she had// ROBERT WALLACEb current’s ahdri zhinamandiela.SN BIANCA8 thewholenote.comFebruary 1 – March 7, 2012

Dani Girl’s Gabi Epstein and Jonathan Logan.Music TORONTOWALLIS GIUNTA, mezzo sopranoSTEVEN PHILCOX, pianistsaid ‘Write the whole thing,’ I don’t think we would be here.Instead, she said ‘Start with ten minutes’; then she got us into[Buddies in Bad Times] Rhubarb! Festival, where we had 20minutes; then she asked me for 30 minutes. Finally she said,“Nicole, write the whole damn thing; you can do it.”Unlike Obeah Opera, which is totally Canadian, Dani Girlwas created by Christopher Dimond (book and lyrics) andMichael Kooman (music), a creative dynamo at the vanguard ofAmerican musical theatre. The show, which opens at TheatrePasse Muraille on February 16, has “a very lengthy and solidbook,” explains Richard Ouzounian, its director, with “musicalnumbers used to elaborate feelings, or to create the mood ofthe fantasy sequences” that it employs throughout. “The showlargely follows conventional traditions of musical theatre (songs,reprises, etc.) but uses pastiche in the fantasy sequences. Themore realistic songs are presented in a style that, while not‘old-fashioned,’ avoids the clichés of rock, etc.” Like ObeahOpera, Dani Girl was first produced in Canada by a smalltheatre with minimal resources — Talk is Free Theatre, inBarrie. Arkady Spivak, TIFT’s enterprising producer, hiredOuzounian, best known as a theatre critic for the TorontoStar, to direct the piece last January. For this month’s Torontoremount, Ouzounian replaces Jake Epstein from the originalcast, with Jeff Madden, who won a DORA award in 2009for playing Frankie Valli in the Dancap production of JerseyBoys. Joining him and Amanda LeBlanc are the two stars ofthe original cast, Jonathan Logan and Gaby Epstein who wona DORA nomination for her performance in To Life (a musicalrevue by Avery Saltzman and Tim French that the HaroldGreen Jewish Theatre, another NFP company, premiered inToronto last year). And the calibre of the production team forDani Girl matches the pedigree of its cast.Like Caroline, or Change, the ambitious musical thatActing Up Stage Company and Obsidian Theatres opened atthe Berkeley St. Theatre last month, Dani Girl is noteworthyfor the ways it uses the conventions of musical theatre tocommunicate a socially relevant plot that potentially is as depressingas it is odd. After losing her hair to leukemia, Dani,a precocious nine-year-old girl, embarks on a magical journeyto try to get it back. Writing for a cast of four, Dimond andKooman structure her quest as a dramatic comedy, going sofar as to allow the two leads to be played by adults or children.The roles Dimond has written, like Kooman’s music, appealto performers who want to act as well as sing, to step outsidethe box of musical theatre as it traditionally is figured toparticipate in an experience that is, in the words of ArkadySpivak, “off-centre.”Spivak uses the term “off-centre music theatre” to describe“musicals that are not initially or obviously intended for commercialproduction, that offer a higher proportion of artisticambition over commerce, or are simply under-produced.” Forhim, “these range from things like Ride the Cyclone [themusical/cabaret by Victoria’s Atomic Vaudeville that ActingUp co-produced with TPM last November] to failed musicalsby major writers — something like Dear World by JerryHerman — shows that were done on Broadway but didn’t suc-ED GASS-DONNELLY SUSAN BENOITWallis sings English song –and Rufus Wainwright’sSongs for LuluThursday, March 1 at 8 pmCanadianHeritageatPatrimoinecanadienTuesday,March 6at 8 1-800-708-6754order online at www.stlc.comPHOTO: TOBIN GRIMSHAWTickets just.50The inimitable pianistRICHARD GOODEplays Schumann and ChopinFebruary 1 – March 7, 9

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