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.
Mirvish Productions 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 bellwether.
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 musical initiative.
“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 on...
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.
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