TORONTO SEASON 2014-15: In Retrospect
Reviewed by Robin Breon
Last month’s Dora Mavor Moore Awards had a sanguine and
celebratory feel to it and I agree that this past Toronto Theatre Season was
well worth a few toasts for a number of reasons.
excelled with the well received Heart of Robin Hood and very well
with Once which won a DA for best
production musical theatre and best performance - female (Trish Lindstrom).
Recently, the Canadian production of Kinky Boots opened - during Gay Pride week - to rave reviews which immediately
extended the show’s run through November. Add to this, the opening of the touring company of the Broadway musical, Newsies, and you have some real headline grabbers.
Soulpepper Theatre is
definitely kicking up its heels after a hugely successful season, that included
breakaway hit shows such as Of Human Bondage (adapted by Vern
Thiessen), Accidental Death of an
Anarchist (Dora Award, best production general theatre division; DA,
outstanding performance, male (Kawa Ada);
Spoon River (DA for
outstanding new musical (Albert Schultz and Mike Ross) also outstanding musical direction to Mike Ross;
and (most recently) an outstanding production of the classic Jewish morality
play,The Dybbuk. Soulpepper led the evening with a total of over
twenty Dora nominations.
And Soulpepper Theatre has just announced that it is poised to
take another leap forward as the preeminent not-for-profit theatre company in
Toronto. Currently, with an operating budget of 9.7 million and a company of
230 artists supported by 73 full-time and part-time staff, the company has
announced a $10 million dollar Creative Capital Campaign that is already 77%
subscribed toward its goal.
Artistic Director Albert Schultz and Executive Director Leslie
Lester dubbed this effort the “Soulpepper
National Civic Theatre” initiative recently at Soulpepper’s annual general
meeting (AGM) on June 2nd in Toronto, noting that the campaign is already the
recipient of a lead gift of $3 million from the Michael Young Family
Foundation, $1.6 million from the Slaight Family, $1 million from Gail Drummond
and Bob Dorrance and $450 thousand from Richard Wernham and Julia West.
The Soulpepper Concert Series, which began in January, was a
noteworthy harbinger of things to come and has added significantly to the
company’s already heady repertoire.
With everything else happening at Soulpepper since it began year
round programming, the Slaight Family Concert Series might have been easy to
miss. Indeed, much of the press and reviews over the past several months has
centered more on the shows than the concerts. But there is something very
musical in the air at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts and I think it
is well worth writing about.
Since February, I have seen three of the four concerts that, as
events, grew out of Soulpepper’s annual Cabaret Festival. With an initial
contribution of 1.1 million dollars from the Slaight family (and this is not
counting the “top up” mentioned above) and the appointment of Mike Ross as the
first Slaight Family Director of Music, the company is reaching toward a whole
new level of achievement. Ross’s highly acclaimed production of Spoon River (which he and Albert Schultz adapted from the novel
by Edgar Lee Masters and for which Ross composed the score) might have been the
Following is an interview that I did recently with Ross. I ask
him how the Slaight Family’s contribution helped him to conceptualize this new
“The support of the Slaight Family allows us to explore ideas and
to develop new work involving music, and that’s a rare gift. The Slaights have
also been at the centre of the music business in Toronto for a long time and to
have their wisdom and experience as guiding forces is also a meaningful part of
our relationship,” said Ross.
He went on to note that the initial donation from the Slaight’s
allows for experimentation and invention. “We are particularly interested in
blurring the lines between mediums - concert meets theatre meets documentary.
These are not new ideas alone, but when put together it allows us to use the
term “concert” to mean a deeper audience experience.”
The three concerts I attended were A Moveable Musical Maritime
Feast, celebrating the musical heritage and
cultural folkways of Eastern Canada; The Nina Project, celebrating the life and times of the incomparable
Nina Simone; and New Orleans - the Big Easy, a musical pastiche from the city that invented
jazz. The musicians and actors were a who’s who of Toronto’s finest: Jackie
Richardson, R.H. Thomson, Joe Sealy, Gregory Prest, Shakura S’Aida, Kellylee
Evans, Bill King, Coco ‘Cognac’ Brown, Colleen Allen, Conrad Coates, Brooke
Blackburn, The Heavyweights Brass Band, Saidah Baba Talibah and the list goes
Jackie Richardson acted as the anchor and featured performer for
all four concerts. Her warm presence and commanding stature as a singer lifted
the shows while generously highlighting the younger performers in the ensemble.
Says Ross: “Jackie is brilliant. She’s a legend and as any guests
to our concert series can attest, you can’t put her anywhere but at the end of
a show, she’s always the highlight.” Interestingly, in A Moveable Musical
Maritime Feast, which had the air and feel
of one big Cape Breton kitchen ceilidh narrated by R.H Thomson, Richardson
perfomed a song with Joe Sealy from Sealy’s Juno Award winning CD, Africville
Suite, which not only enhanced the overall
performance but broadened the cultural content as well with a lovely elegy to
the historic African Canadian community of Africville that was expropriated and
destroyed by the city of Halifax in the 1960s.
And the newly minted MD says this is only the beginning. “There
is much more to come. Marat/Sade in the
fall will have all new music and there are also new productions and concerts in
development. We might also bring back some audience favourites. Stay tuned!”
With the continuing support of the SSF you can be sure that
musical theatre will continue to maintain a major presence within Soulpepper’s
increasingly expanding aspirations.
Other outstanding productions over the past Toronto season
included Ibsen’s, An Enemy of the People
at Tarragon, Lorca’s Blood Wedding
(co-production with Modern Times Theatre and Buddies in Bad Times which
received a DA for outstanding independent theatre production); and a superb
rendering of Falstaff by the
Canadian Opera Company who took away four Dora Awards for outstanding
production, outstanding performance from an ensemble, outstanding scenic design
and outstanding costume design.