Thursday, November 15, 2018

MARY POPPINS – REVIEW OF YOUNG PEOPLE’S THEATRE PRODUCTION

By James Karas

Mary Poppins, now playing at Young People’s Theatre, has something for everybody but when it comes to young people, it has everything for all of them. The YPT production is a 90-minute version of the Broadway musical based on the Walt Disney film of 1964 which in turn was based on the children’s books of P.L. Travers.

Those who are of certain age or have read the books will recall that there is chaos in the Banks family in Edwardian England. Mr. and Mrs. Banks (Shane Carty and Jewelle Blackman) cannot find a nanny who will stay for more than a few weeks. They have prepared an ad for the Times. But, as if by magic, Mary Poppins (Vanessa Sears) arrives and offers her services. She comes before the ad appears, knows exactly what the Banks’ children want and need, has no references, is completely self-assured and gets the job.

The cast of Mary Poppins. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Mr. and Mrs. Banks are disciplinarians from the old school but their children Jane (Jessie Cox) and Michael (Hailey Lewis) are a handful. Mary is a no-nonsense nanny who manages to give the children what they want. She is magical in fact and proves her mettle by producing a very long hat stand from her bag. Mouths wide open, please.

Mary appears and disappears from the life of the Banks family as we follow the plot of Mr. Banks’s difficulties with his job, the appearance of the Bird Woman (Aisha Jarvis), the routines involving Bert (Kyle Blair) and those marvelous chimney sweeps, the arrival of the nasty nanny Miss Andrew (Sarah Lynn Strange) until we find a resolution to all the problems and a happy ending.

Mary Poppins has marvelous songs that are probably familiar to most adults from the film and the stage musicals. "A Spoonful of Sugar," "Chim Chim Cher-ee," “Feed the Birds," "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," “Brimstone and Treacle" "Let's Go Fly a Kite" and "Step in Time" are a good sampling of the tuneful and memorable songs offered.

The disciplined and talented cast delivers ninety minutes of energy, humour and beautiful singing, and creates a thrilling atmosphere that kept young and old engrossed in the performance.

The songs go from the jolly “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” to the threatening “Brimstone and Treacle" of the haughty and ghastly Miss Andrew to the uplifting "Let's Go Fly a Kite” to the rousing and super-energetic "Step in Time."
Pictured in promotional photo: Vanessa Sears as Mary Poppins and Kyle Blair as Bert 
 Photo by Ali Sultani.
Vanessa Sears and Kyle Blair get top honours for their superb performances. Jessie Cox and Hailey Lewis are excellent as the children and Jewelle Blackman and Shane Carty make fine parents from another generation, no doubt.

Thom Allison keeps a brisk pace when appropriate with fine variations in tone and speed when necessary. Kerry Gage’s choreography is outstanding.

The two-story set by Brandon Kleiman represents the Banks’ house and is easily converted into a street scene and even a rooftop scene for the chimney sweeps. It provides space for the musicians and is efficient and effective.

I saw the production with two of my associate reviewers, Ava (I am going to be double digit on April 2 and I am one minute older than my sister) and her twin Hannah. They gave the production and the performance enthusiastic reviews. They did not know anything about Mary Poppins before and interestingly they caught on the moral lessons of the musical. One should never give up and if you don’t try you will not succeed, they commented. They liked the reconciliation of the family when the father and the children went to fly a kite together. They liked the atmosphere of the Banks home. 

They also enjoyed the magical effects and were impressed by the dancing.

With reviews like that, the only possible verdict is a command to take your children and go to see the production
___________
Mary Poppins, The Broadway Musical, based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney film, by Julian Fellows (book), Richard M Sherman and Robert B. Sherman (original music and lyrics0 and George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (additional songs and music) continues until January 6. 2019 at the Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. 416 862-2222. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

HELEN’S NECKLACE - REVIEW OF 2018 CANADIAN REP THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

Helen’s Necklace can be subtitled “The Education of a Shallow, Ignorant Tourist from a Northern Peaceful City in a War-torn City in the Middle East.”

Carole Fréchette’s play has six characters (two women and four men) but all of them can be played by as few as two actors or three. Ken Gass in his Canadian Rep Theatre production has chosen to stage the play with three female actors who play the characters interchangeably and not necessarily to good effect.

Initially, Helen appears as a wide-eyed, shallow, self-absorbed woman in a crowded, bombed and very busy city looking for her lost necklace. In the opening scene she is played as a blonde Caucasian by Helen Taylor and she is approaching people on the street in her search for her lost treasure.

She describes the piece of jewelry in very precise and glowing terms as a priceless treasure that has deep meaning for her to people who may speak little, if any, English. She seems impervious to her surroundings and our reaction is “how dense can this woman be?”
 
Akosua Amo-Adem,  Zorana Sadiq and Helen Taylor 
The role of Helen as with the other five characters, as I indicated, will be played by all three actors, the other two being Akosua Amo-Adem who is black and Zorana Sadiq who has a dark complexion and can pass for someone from the Middle East.

The place where Helen searches for her necklace and displays her blindness to her surroundings is by all descriptions a site of death and devastation.  She can’t recall what day it is, where she has been, to whom she has spoken or much of anything. She is completely absorbed by her necklace and describes it in excruciating detail.

By this time we have lost it with this bimbo but reality will soon visit her in ways that even she cannot completely ignore. In the meantime she meets Nabil, the taxi driver, who simply wants to know where to take her, as she continues jabbering about her necklace. A construction Foreman gives her a brief lesson on the effects of demolition and tells her to go home to her place which has never been bombed.  She understands almost nothing.

Helen meets a Woman looking for a red ball and hears her description of a little boy killed in the cross-fire. The Woman gives her a powerful dose of reality which has some effect on her. The Woman is looking for her son; Helen is looking for a bauble.

Then she meets a Man who has lost everything. It is a difficult concept to absorb but the Man knows it all too well. He tells her to scream “we cannot go on living like this” and she seems to have understood a bit more of reality. I will not spoil the end for you and you may want to see where Fréchette takes us.

The play can deliver a powerful punch to the self-absorbed middle class which has scant idea about what is happening in the Middle East and in other war-torn places in the world. How can we know what it means to lose everything?

But Gass muddles the emotional impact of the play by having three actors perform all the roles interchangeably. It shifts our focus from one actor to the next as we try to keep up with who is doing what and the emotional impact is almost lost or at least seriously diminished. A bad choice.

The actors show that they have the emotional depth and talent to do the play if only Gass would let them do it.

The set consist of an empty stage with some white boxes which can be used as seats in a taxi or to represent the other venues in the city.
______
Helen’s Necklace by Carole Fréchette played at the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre, November 8-11, 2018 and will continue at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre, 440 Locust Street Burlington, ON L7S 1T7 from November 15 to 18, 2018. (905) 681-2551 bpac@burlington.ca/

Monday, November 5, 2018

BAD JEWS – REVIEW OF HARMON’S PLAY AT GREENWIN THEATRE

James Karas

Bad Jews struck me like a mediocre boxer who runs around the rink to avoid his opponent, throws punches that do not hit their target or just flails pointlessly with his arms in a sad attempt at boxing. But in the end, to everyone’s surprise, he lands a solid hook and knocks out his opponent.

Joshua Harmon does land a punch in the final minutes of the play but we can’t forget the rest of it where there are all kinds of problems.

Bad Jews is about three grandchildren who meet after the funeral of their grandfather. They meet in Jonah’s (Jake Goldsbie) studio apartment in Manhattan. His cousin Daphna (Sarah Segal-Lazar) is there and she expresses a great interest in getting her grandfather’s chai.

Jonah’s brother Liam (Jamie Elman) arrives with his girlfriend Melody (Ellen Denny) and after some time arguing about sleeping arrangements in the small apartment and looking for alternatives, the issues among the four characters are joined. The central issue is who will get the chai.

The chai (the word means living or alive) is a gold medallion that was worn by their grandfather around his neck. When he was taken to a Nazi concentration camp, he kept it under his tongue for two years. He gave it to his wife because she gave him life.

Jamie Elman, Jake Goldsbie, Sarah Segal-Lazar and Ellen Denny
Photo by Leslie Schachter
A few words about the characters. Jonah is a dishrag who tries to stay out of the conflicts among Daphna, Liam and Melody. He is a nothing, in other words, until near the end when he does deliver a punch, but it is fortuitous because it is not in character.

Melody is blonde, pretty, and not too swift with German roots. She is not Jewish and that makes her an easy target for the religious Daphna who treats her with contempt largely because she is not Jewish and therefore not worthy of marrying a Jew.

Liam is a modern Jew who points out some issues one may have with the Bible. He is an atheist Jew and has a practical approach to Judaism. He wants the chai and has in fact gained possession of it before his grandfather died. His loyalty to the family is questionable because he did not come for the funeral because he was skiing. He makes a mealy-mouthed excuse for his non-attendance.

The most interesting character is Daphna. She is a devout Jew who wants to return to Israel and become a rabbi. She is a bitch, to put it politely, and her opposition to Liam’s proposed marriage to Melody is that it will adulterate Liam’s Jewish blood. He mercilessly points out to her that she is repeating the language of the Nazis about racial purity. She attacks Jonah spinelessness, Melody for her background and Liam for just about everything from not using his Jewish name (Shlomo), to not attending the funeral, to gaining possession of the chai under false pretenses.    

Bad Jews develops slowly, very slowly, and it lacks a moral center. The chai is symbolic of deep faith that sustains life and love under the most horrific circumstances imaginable. It meant a great deal to their grandfather not just because of how he kept it under his tongue but also because he gave it to his wife as an equally powerful act of love. Daphna despoils even that by offhandedly referring to her grandmother as a bitch.

I will not disclose what happens in the final minutes of the play when there is a type of resolution after about an hour of less-than-exciting development, when the plot comes to life.

The actors do their job and they do it well. If you need someone to represent a bitch, just call Sarah Segal-Lazar. She plays with her hair to the point of distraction and in her ferocious devotion to Jewishness, her attack on her cousins and Melody she is, well, one king-size bitch.

Goldsbie, Elman and Denny play well against her and each other and director Lisa Rubin does the best she can with the play.

In the end, the grandchildren of the Holocaust survivor are not so much bad Jews as unworthy heirs to the strength, faith and love represented by him or of a play, for that matter, that does not do justice to him.
____________

Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon, in a production by the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts Production, continues until November 11, 2018 at the Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St, North York, ON M2N 6R8. www.hgjewishtheatre.com