Saturday, December 31, 2016


James Karas

Toronto Operetta Theatre ends the old year and brings in 2017 with a production of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic, The Pirates of Penzance. TOT, it bears repeating, works under severe limitations in terms of budget and space but it makes up for that in enthusiasm and simple staying power. This Pirates has energy and fun despite some uneven performances.

Operetta is to opera what farce is to serious drama – silly plot but thoroughly enjoyable. But never underestimate the brilliance of Gilbert’s lyrics or Sullivan’s music. Their work is in a class of its own. 
Vania Chan as Mabel and Colin Ainsworth as Frederic. Photo: Emily Ding
The pirates of the title operate from the coast of Cornwall and they are so soft-hearted that will never molest an orphan. And wouldn’t you know it, the entire British merchant navy is recruited from orphanages.

Among these tough pirates we have our hero Frederic, a Pirate Apprentice and, as the subtitle of the work tells us, The Slave of Duty. Tenor Colin Ainsworth has the looks, voice and innocent mien to satisfy the bill. He has seen only one woman so far but he cannot be discharged from his indenture to the pirates until his 21st birthday. But he was born on February 29 and his release will be decidedly delayed. Ainsworth does a fine job in the role but please tie his hair in a ponytail and get rid of the ridiculous pink headband.

Frederic falls in love with Mabel, (soprano Vania Lizbeth Chan), the daughter of Major-General Stanley. The sweetly-voiced Chan was energetic, coquettish, lovable and just delightful. Hers was one of the best performances of the night.

Baritone Janaka Welihinda attacked the role of the Pirate King with considerable panache. He is a young singer but he has the comic verve and vocal equipment to be around for some time to come. Elizabeth Beeler as Ruth, the Pirate Maid-of-all work, is a veteran performer who tells Frederic that she is fair as gold even if time has lined her face and grayed her hair. A real trooper.

The pirates meet Major-General Stanley (baritone Curtis Sullivan) with his daughters and wards and not surprisingly he turns out to be an orphan too. Sullivan gets the most memorable patter song of the operetta, “I am the very model of a modern Major-General.” It is a tough piece to do because it requires a good voice and a highly disciplined tongue. Sullivan was clearly not at his best during the performance that I saw and may well improve.
Some singers sang as if they were marking and you wanted to reach over and turn up their volume Notable in this respect was Adam Norrad as Samuel, Lieutenant to the Pirate King. He stood out because he was the first one we heard. Antony Rodrigues as the Sergeant of Police displayed the same tendency. Turn up the volume.

Conductor Derek Bate and the “orchestra” are squeezed between the stage and the front row, occupying a kind of no man’s land. Squeezed as they are, they manage to produce fine music under less than ideal conditions.

The reason we have operetta productions in Toronto is Guillermo Silva-Marin. He is the General Director of TOT and the stage director, lighting designer and set designer of this production. He adds some humour with references to CSIS and Trump but he is relatively restrained. The directing is vigorous. The set is minimalist with a few props and silhouettes of ship’s ropes, branches and leaves and the sea as required. He and TOT deserve more funding, a better theatre and more productions. Kudos to him for what he is doing.   

Despite some uneven patches, this is an overall fine and fun production well worth seeing.

The Pirates of Penzance by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan opened on December 27 and will be performed six times until January 8, 2017 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  (416) 922-2912.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016


James Karas

Dinner theaters attract relatively little media attention and it may well be the secret of their success. The Herongate Barn Theatre has been staging plays and offering dinner since 1975 and it has not lost its original shape – yes, it was a barn and still looks like a barn.

Its final production for 2016 is Ray Cooney’s classic farce Run For Your Wife. As with most good farces, even if you have not seen an actual performance you feel that you know the plot. In this case a London taxi driver has two wives and he operates with chronological and emotional precision (we assume) until the curtain rises. Then he is involved in a minor motor vehicle accident and his schedule goes haywire.
 Paul Francies, Grant Evans, Don Green, Lisha Van Nieuwenhove and Chris Cole
 The production of a farce places enormous demands on any theatrical company that dares to produce one. A number of doors have to be opened and shut with almost surgical precision; entrances and exits must be timed exactly, pratfalls must have accurate landings and most importantly the action must move at increasing speed and craziness so that by the end the audience is in stitches.

That is a tall order and if director Anne E. Ward does not fully succeed in the task she has nothing to apologize for in the circumstances. If she is not successful in the ultimate production of a farce, she has at least a good sitcom in her hands that kept the laughs coming and left a largely appreciative audience.

The main vehicle for carrying the comedy forward is Chris Cole as Stanley Gardener. He is a friend and neighbour of the bigamist John Smith and he receives and deflects all the issues created by the situation. Cole reacts, overreacts, overacts and is able to generate laughter at every turn of the incredible plot.

John Smith (played by Paul Francies) is the harried taxi driver who got a bump on the head in the collision and must run from one wife to the next, lie to the police and have to deal with a randy wife in the bedroom while the other one arrives in the same apartment. You get the picture. Francies’ John Smith came out as more pathetic than comic at times. I think he should have been a livelier and more convincing character who was able to persuade two women to marry him and has been able to keep them until the unforeseen accident that caused the play. In this production he could not convince us that he could get a date.

Marion Reid Clarke as Mary Smith and Rose Green as Barbara Smith do a fine job of dealing with the confusion and ensuing mayhem, Lisha Van Nieuwenhove as Sergeant Troughton and Don Green as Detective Sergeant Porterhouse played the two stock characters with ease and got the requisite laughs.

Grant Evans plays the gay neighbour Bobby Franklin with vigour and he provides the double entendre about sexual inclinations and confusion among the characters with fine effect.

For a very reasonable price, Herongate Barn Theatre provides a fine buffet dinner in a very congenial atmosphere. It does seem to be located in the boonies but that impression may have been formed by going there on one of the shortest days of the year with less than perfect visibility and there being nothing around to see.

Their next production is Sylvia by A. R. Gurney which will run from February 3 to March 18, 2017.

Run For Your Wife by Ray Cooney runs until December 31, 2016 at the Herongate Barn Theatre, 2885 Altona Rd. Locust Hill, Ontario, L0H 1J0 Tel: 905 472-3085 or 1-866 902-9884 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


By James Karas

Who killed Spalding Gray?

Well, Spalding Gray jumped off the Staten Island Ferry in the East River and drowned on January 10, 2004. He had health problems including depression but as with any suicide it is not easy to explain why someone would take his life. Who Killed Spalding Gray may be considered a tribute to Gray or a search for an explanation or a portrait of the monologist and writer but it is a bad sign if you cannot tell what a play is about.
Daniel MacIvor . Photo: Guntar Kravis
Daniel MacIvor has written and performs in this 80-minute play and asks the question of the title, I guess, among other things. The set consists of a simple wooden table and chair, a microphone and a glass of water. This is very much what Gray used for some of his own monologues and the play intentionally resembles one of his performances.

When the lights go on, MacIvor invites a member of the audience on the stage and asks him “Who are you?’ the man introduces himself and turns out to be personable and humorous. He is asked “Who am I” and “Who was Spalding Gray.” In front of an appreciative audience, the opening scene goes well and so far so good.

The rest of the play is a disappointment. MacIvor weaves a number of stories in his narrative about himself, people called Howard, Don and Paul and of course Gray. Some may be true, some may be fictional and one is never sure.

MacIvor visits a “psychic surgeon” who can presumably remove an “intuitive” – a spirit or something that invades a person’s being. It takes several sessions to remove the intuitive and since I don’t understand anything about intuitive or psychic surgery, the story left me cold.

Howard considers a number of methods of committing suicide and of course there is none that is completely satisfactory. Jumping off the Staten Island Ferry into the cold waters of the East River can hardly be considered a wise choice but let’s just say that Howard is one of the recurring stories in the play that I could not quite get under my belt.

McIvor is a natural story teller and he speaks in his own voice and in the voice of Gray. He involves the audience at times and recalls the man that he interviewed at the beginning back and they even do a few dance steps.

The stories he tells unfortunately left me cold and his narrative ability and the directing of Daniel Brooks did nothing to raise the production above a mediocre night at the theatre.

Who Killed Spalding Gray by Daniel MacIvor played at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ontario.    

Wednesday, December 7, 2016


James Karas

Dannis Koromilas subtitles his film Greece Year Zero as A Cinematic Essay Exploring Greece’s Untold Century. In fact this moving and brilliant documentary touches on almost two centuries of Greek history from the outbreak of The Greek War of Independence to the current financial crisis that has brought Greeks to their knees.

In the eighty minutes of the film Koromilas zeroes in on a judiciously selected number of events in Greek history, provides narrative descriptions and some extraordinary footage that has rarely or never been seen before.
 There are paintings and photographs from the nineteenth century and film clips and still photographs from World War I and the following decades right up to the current financial debacle. Some of the footage is fascinating as an illustration of Greek history such as clips of the short and pudgy General Ioannis Metaxas, the dictator who gained heroic status when Greece was attacked by Mussolini and Churchill’s visit to Greece on Christmas Day 1944. We get heart-wrenching scenes of children and adults dying of hunger after the Nazi occupation, of mass graves and of executions and an astounding collection of archival material.

The film deserves immense kudos for its collection of illustrative material alone but it has a lot more than that. It gives a brief but synoptic view of Greece as it stumbled from crisis to crisis and survived successive governments that were all too frequently corrupt or inept.

A connecting theme is the borrowing of money abroad and the mounting national debt. From excessive borrowing in the 19th century that led to the national bankruptcy of 1893 to the borrowing binge of the last few decades, Greek politicians seem to have learned nothing from their history. In fact things got even worse than grotesque economic mismanagement. The Greek government simply cooked the books in order to get into the Eurozone. The word for that is fraud.

Koromilas tries to be scrupulously even-handed in his presentation of facts but there is no way he can avoid strident disagreements with his approach. Communist-led EAM/ELAS gets considerable coverage but there is hardly a mention of the right-wing EDES. He avoids mentioning that the resistance groups fought among each other as much if not more than they fought the enemy and his sympathies are clearly with the people as opposed to their leaders.

The film is narrated in English by Alex Karzis and it is easily transported to other countries by providing a voice-over in different languages. 

I will not try to argue about Koromilas’s approach or the events that he selected. When the film is generally distributed, there will no doubt be a storm of arguments about his choices. So be it. I will however comment about the visit of Winston Churchill after Greece’s liberation from the Nazis in 1944.. By mentioning the December Events (Dekemvriana) after covering the visit, the film gives the impression that Churchill visited Greece before the December 3, 1944 eruption of violence in Syntagma Square. In fact Churchill dropped in on Christmas Day 1944 because of the eruption of violence that resulted into war in the streets of Athens.   

Almost every scene in the film is worth a one-hour documentary. It is a signal indictment of where Greece has been brought to that there is no moony in Greece for Greek filmmakers to produce well-researched, even-handed and brilliant documentaries like Greece Year Zero. It is supremely ironic that this film was made by a man who was born and lives in Canada.

And if you want a quick, vociferous but pleasant argument note the date given for the start of The Greek War of Independence as stated at the beginning of the film. When do you think that War began?

The film is a major accomplishment. 
Greece Year Zero, a film by Dannis Koromilas, was shown on December 4, 2016 at The Royal Theatre, 608 College Street, Toronto, Ontario.

Sunday, December 4, 2016


James Karas

Ross Petty is still at it. This time he fractures the story of Sleeping Beauty and evokes laughter and sheer joy from an audience that is infectiously enthusiastic. In fact there is a conspiracy between the stage and the youngsters in the auditorium that raises the level of fun to wonderful heights. Petty is listed as only the producer of Sleeping Beauty: The Deliriously Dreamy Family Musical but one feels that the writer, director and the rest of the artistic crew and cast are working under his inspiration and style or there more than that?

Sleeping Beauty gives a wildly funny version of the fairy tale with marvelously comic characters, rousing music, athletic dancing, colourful costumes and stage effects that keep going at a relentless pace.

In the Kingdom of Torontonia whose skyline boasts a tower in the background a Princess is born and is named Rose (AJ Bridel). The Princess receives three blessings but also one curse from Malignicent (Hilary Farr). Boo! If she pricks her finger, she will go to sleep. Nothing is left in the Kingdom that could cause that except for the “turning table” which has a needle. Yikes. Thank goodness, I mean, how terrible, that CDs have not been invented.    

Let us meet the other important members of the story. A beautiful fairy princess needs a tall, blond and handsome fairy prince, here called Luke, and James Daly fits the bill even if singing is not his strongest asset.

What we need is broad comedy and we have two terrific comic talents. Eddie Glenn as EGG (and Jacob Grimm) and Paul Constable as Sparklebum provide inspired comedy. They can act, overact, goad the audience and do almost anything with a focused aim: laughter.

Jeremy Diamond who wrote the book does not hesitate to bring current events into the story. Donald Trump, Mike Pence, toll roads in Toronto and hydro are just some of the subjects captured in the dialogue.
Michael Gianfrancesco’s sets and costumes are extravagantly colourful and varied. Projection Designers Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson with Lighting Designer Kimberly Purtell have to deal with storms, thunder, lightning and numerous scene changes. They produce a kaleidoscope of wonders that keep young and others admiring and applauding their work.

Director Tracey Flye drilled as much as directed the comic and musical routines with meticulous care making everything look spontaneous.

Petty did not hesitate to include commercials during the show but those too were amusing. And he did appear as Captain Hook in a brief video. 

I brought Emily (“I’m going to be nine next March”), my Associate Reviewer with me in order to capture the more subtle points of the production. She was a most enthusiastic booer and cheerer with instant expressions of disapproval or approval of the bad and good characters. She found the show funny and the scenes in fairyland were her favourite. 

Her final comment: “When are we coming back?”     

Sleeping Beauty: The Deliriously Dreamy Family Musical continues until January 7, 2017 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario.