A Year In Theatre 2019
I was extremely lucky in 2019 to have the opportunity to spend a lot of time out at the theatre. Usually, I catch a couple of musicals at the Mirvish theatres over the holidays, revisiting favourite shows, or shows I’ve been waiting for). While I still frequented the Mirvish theatres, I was able to expand my horizons this year, branching out to visit the symphony and even fulfilling my lifelong dream of seeing shows on Broadway.
As an audience member, I got to experience a wide variety of performances. I loved every single show I saw this year. Naturally, I couldn’t pick and choose for a highlight reel, so I decided to just share a little bit about each of the wonderful shows!
THE LAST SHIP
THE PRINCESS OF WALES THEATRE, TORONTO, ONTARIO
Set in the shipbuilding community of Wallsend in Tyne and Wear, UK, The Last Ship tells the story of a community that rallies together as their livelihood is threatened when the shipyard is at risk of being shut down. Having left town seventeen years ago to avoid being locked into a life in the shipyard, Gideon Fletcher returns to lay his past to rest. Once home, he encounters more ghosts than expected as family and community tensions are on the rise. While the strike rages on, Gideon is once again faced with a decision between family and duty, and a life outside Wallsend.
Seeing The Last Ship has always been one of my theatre dreams. From my first listen to the concept album, the music and the show spoke to me. There was this overall feeling of community and the conflicting feelings one has while growing up in a small town. This only increased when material started being released for the musical, and the original Broadway cast album, with its genius orchestrations and brilliant vocal performances completely transported me. The Broadway production closed in 2015 with no tour announced, so I assumed I had missed my chance to see this show. Almost four years later when it was announced the show was coming to Toronto, I knew I had to go; and having Sting reprise his role as Jackie White convinced my mother to come with me.
The Last Ship was absolutely worth the wait. Every single aspect of this production was breathtaking. The original story, complete with an incredible score by Sting, was impeccably well rounded; combining historical events with something as timeless as a coming-of-age story. From start to finish, all production elements work together to support the narrative creating a sensational piece of theatre.
BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL
THE PRINCESS OF WALES THEATRE, TORONTO, ONTARIO
The story begins with Grammy Award Winner Carole King onstage at Carnegie Hall. This is the Carole King recognized by many - a curly mane and sitting at a grand piano. A flashback begins, and we meet fifteen year old Carole Klein from Brooklyn, preparing to sell her first song. The show tracks the beginning of her career, her personal and professional relationship with Gerry Goffin, and her transition to becoming the solo artist she is today.
I was so excited to see hear that Beautiful was returning to Toronto on tour. I absolutely adored seeing this show in 2016, and one of my favourite performers, Harper Miles, was a part of the touring cast! It was also announced that Chilina Kennedy, who is a personal idol of mine, would be returning to play Carole. So, I decided to return for these familiar faces, and the tunes I love.
Beautiful has everything you could ever want in a musical. Bright dance tunes, power ballads, grounded characters, heightened emotion with snappy dialogue, as well as a happy ending. I have always loved Carole King’s music, but she is so much more than that. Reading her memoir, Natural Woman was moving, and seeing her story represented onstage is powerful. It’s not just a bio-musical about a cultural icon, but a story about a young girl finding herself. I had never expected to see so much of myself in someone as iconic as Carole King, but she began her journey as we all do, with a dream. It’s a show that enlightens, empowers, and uplifts - it’s a show that I would happily see over and over again.
TORONTO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PRESENTS: MODERN BROADWAY
ROY TOMPSON HALL, TORONTO, ONTARIO
Modern Broadway was an incredible concert presented at Roy Thompson Hall featuring the amazing Toronto Symphony Orchestra while welcoming guest conductor Steven Reineke and vocalists Betsy Wolfe and Jeremy Jordan. The concert presented Broadway veterans belting out some of musical theatre’s best tunes from the last decade, as well as showcasing the orchestra with selections from some of Broadway’s longest-running musicals.
In my junior year of high school, I went on a field trip where we sat in on a TSO rehearsal, and I have wanted to go back to the symphony ever since. When I heard Jeremy Jordan and Betsy Wolfe, two of my favourite Broadway performers, I finally decided to take the leap. One of the big factors that prevented me from booking was that I was worried about pricing. However, tickets were very affordable, and I cannot recommend a trip more.
This trip to the symphony was a delightful way to spend the afternoon. Modern Broadway presented many songs from shows that were never written for a full orchestra such as Waitress and Dear Evan Hansen. These songs were cleverly orchestrated and hearing them with this fuller sound was incredibly moving. Wolfe and Jordan gave superb vocal performances, and Reineke gracefully lead the entire afternoon with wit and charm.
After intermission, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra played the theme from Jurassic Park, a tribute to the recently crowned NBA champs, the Toronto Raptors.
THE ED MIRVISH THEATRE, TORONTO, ONTARIO
Waitress follows the story of Jenna Hunterson, a waitress and pie maker, who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant while stuck in an unhappy marriage. When a pie baking contest comes to a nearby town, she realizes that she has a chance to build a better life for herself and her unborn child.
What instantly caught me attention about Waitress was its ground-breaking all female production team, and the beautiful score written by Sara Barellies. While this show came highly recommended by many of my friends, the heavy subject matter kept me away for a long time. When it was announced that the national tour was stopping in Toronto, with Christine Dwyer (my very first Elphaba!) as Jenna, I knew I had to go and find out “what baking can do”. Also joining the tour was Lulu Lloyd, another one of my favourite performers, so it was a no-brainer.
Waitress quickly became my new favourite musical, and I can’t believe it took me so long to see it. In a way, Waitress is musical ‘“comfort food”, reaching out with a joke or uplifting speech even in its darkest moments. This production was well-rounded, and the clever book addresses the show’s most painful topics while still uplifting and empowering its audience as well as its characters. The audience reactions were as powerful as the show itself; and I overheard conversations between audience members sharing their own experiences, or how they knew a friend in a similar situation to Jenna. Almost every woman in that theatre had experienced, or knew someone who had experienced domestic abuse. As much as this was a sad observation for me to make, I think it’s incredible that this musical presents this experience in a way that opens comfortable conversation about an uncomfortable topic. Isn’t that what theatre was made to do?
I remain incredibly touched by this moving piece of theatre, and cannot stress enough that we need more musicals like Waitress.
THE WINTER GARDEN THEATRE, NEW YORK CITY
Following a plot line similar to the original film, the musical focuses on the recently deceased Adam and Barbara Maitland, who turn to ‘bio-exorcist’ Beetlejuice when their former home is inhabited by the wealthy Deetz family. The Maitlands begin to haunt the house, hoping to scare away the newcomers. The two ghosts quickly form an unexpected bond with Lydia Deetz, a teenage girl mourning the loss of her mother. Beetlejuice works to aid the three in hopes that he can convince Lydia to summon him by saying his name three times.
I hadn’t initially planned to see Beetlejuice on Broadway. I am not a Tim Burton fan; it just has never been my cup of tea. My best friend had wanted to go, and I agreed because I had heard amazing things about the puppetry and effects. One of my biggest theatrical idols, Kerry Butler was in the show, and I figured that would cover price of admission for me.
Even watching the film for the first time, I was skeptical; but watching promotional material of the show hooked me in and got me very excited to experience it live.
I have never been more pleasantly surprised by a musical. I was absolutely blown away by the high caliber of this entire production. Not only was this show full of jokes, special effects, and incredible performances; it had a huge heart. Beetlejuice was reborn into something surprisingly touching and relevant. The musical provides a very realistic presentation and interpretation of the grieving process, and I never expected it to hit so close to home.
I am proud to call it my first Broadway show.
BAT OUT OF HELL
NEW YORK CITY CENTER, NEW YORK CITY
Bat Out of Hell is a futuristic, rock and roll love story. The island of Manhattan, renamed Obsidian, has floated out to sea and is now under the reign of Falco, a dictator intent on ‘revitalizing’ the city. Living in the subway tunnels underneath the city are a group of genetically-altered teens, known as the Lost, who are frozen at the age of eighteen. When Strat, the wild rebel leader, meets Falco’s sheltered daughter, Raven, on the eve of her eighteenth birthday; the stars align and they fall head first into the wonder of first love.
New York City marked my 6th and 7th trips to Bat Out of Hell. As someone who has seen the show so often, it’s common that I get asked what keeps me coming back. Every time, my answer is the same; Bat Out of Hell is a huge lovefest. It’s a story about so many different kinds of love; romantic love, love within a family, and the love you share with friends who become your family. Not to mention that it is set to some of the most incredible rock songs ever written. What’s not to love?
I also see a lot of myself in Raven, and there’s something so magical about a show where you can relate so deeply to a character onstage. What is wonderful about Bat is the variety of characters you get to meet in the show, and I truly believe that this musical has something from everyone to connect to.
As the show is set in a post-apocalyptic Manhattan, seeing the show make its NYC debut was incredible. This was also my first time seeing a show in previews, and there was so much energy in the theatre. I was lucky enough to see the show twice during previews (Thank you, Brad!) and it was exciting to see the changes made, even in the first two nights.
The absolute best part of the entire show was its entire company, who were giving so much to their performances. You could tell they were giving 250%.
Long story short, Bat Out of Hell is an adrenaline rush. It is a rocking night out at the theatre that will make you laugh, cry, and your heart soar.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
THE SHUBERT THEATRE, NEW YORK CITY
This production of To Kill A Mockingbird provides a new perspective to the classic story. For those unfamiliar with Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, tackles the subject of racism in the American South during The Great Depression. Told by six year old Scout Finch, the book begins by recounting lazy summers spent playing pretend and trying to catch a glimpse of local legend, Boo Radley. Everything changes when her father, Atticus Finch is appointed to defend Tom Robinson; an African American man accused of raping a white woman.
To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my all time favourite books, and I love the film starring Gregory Peck. I was skeptical when I heard another adaptation of this story was headed for the stage, but was relieved to hear that the script was in the hands of Aaron Sorkin. I was ecstatic about the casting of Celia Keenan-Bolger as Scout, and the minute I confirmed my trip to New York, I bought myself a ticket.
This production is both the Mockingbird you expected, and the Mockingbird you didn’t know you needed. Sorokin rounds out Scout’s rose-tinted gaze, providing an insightful look at at darker themes of racism and sexual assault which cannot be discussed when a child serves as the narrator. Told in flashbacks, Scout reflects, with the help of her brother Jem and friend Dill, Tom Robinson, Boo Radley, on whether or not Bob Ewell fell on his knife. While remaining a classic coming-of-age story, this new version adds another layer to the loss of childhood innocence; the moment we recognize our parents as people, not just our heroes. As always, the story is powerful, and Sorokin presents an emotional, raw take. There were moments where you could have heard a pin drop in the theatre, I know I was holding my breath at the end of Act 1.
This production should be mandatory viewing for everyone, and I hope it continues to have a long and successful run.
THE BAND’S VISIT
THE ED MIRVISH THEATRE, TORONTO, ONTARIO
Set in Israel during the late 1990’s, The Band’s Visit has a very simple plot. The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra have travelled to Israel from Egypt to perform at an event in Petah Tikvah. Due to a miscommunication, the group of musicians end up in the isolated desert town of Bet Hatikva. The next bus does not come until the next day, and as the small town has no hotels, the locals take in the musicians for the night.
I didn’t know much about The Band’s Visit besides the basic plot, which I now know is the entire plot. I remember seeing Katrina Lenk’s captivating Tony Awards performance and knowing I had to see this show. There was something so beautiful about the simplicity of ‘Omar Sharif’, and I wanted to see how it transferred to the rest of the story. When the tour was announced with Chilina Kennedy as Dina, I knew I had to see her sing this song.
I don’t think I was expecting the show to be complicated, but I remember feeling extremely refreshed by how simple the show was. The Band’s Visit is stunning, the complexity in layers underneath its surface. It was a vignette of real life, capturing the longing that sits deep within us all, and the intimate struggles of daily life.
It once again showcases my favourite trope, how people are brought together through circumstances and shared experience, but this time with music. In a show where the main characters are using their second language (English) to communicate with each other, the power of music and silence takes the stage brilliantly. The Band’s Visit is a touching tribute to the power of music and the arts have to connect people from all walks of life.
GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY
THE ROYAL ALEXANDRA THEATRE, TORONTO, ONTARIO
Girl From The North Country is set in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934 and focuses on the community of people residing in a guesthouse owned by the Laine family. Nick Laine is deeply in debt, and cares for his wife, Elizabeth, who has dementia. Their son is a drunk, and their daughter is unmarried and pregnant. Many of the tenants of the guesthouse are struggling through the Great Depression, including a widow awaiting an inheritance, and a couple who have an adult son with the mental age of four. Everyone seems to be teetering on the edge, and the midnight arrival of a bible salesman and a boxer causes everything to begin to slide out of control.
I hadn’t planned on seeing this production. All I knew was that it was “the Bob Dylan Musical” and that one of my favourite West End performers, Simon Gordon, was in the ensemble. My interest was piqued when the production’s Canadian premiere received mixed reviews, ranging from extremely bad to extremely good. When the opportunity came to see the show, I purchased a rush ticket and went in to see for myself.
Girl From The North Country is probably the most innovative piece of musical theatre I was able to see this year. This show boldly kicks the concept of ‘theatre for escapism’ to the curb, confronting its audience with timeless, real world issues and while it leaves us with resolution, there is no “happily ever after”. Even structurally, this production began to look at musical theatre in a new way; mainly in presenting the musical numbers to the audience with microphones, instead of the characters singing directly to each other (My favourite number being Katie Brayben’s thrilling performance of Like A Rolling Stone). There was nothing “classic” about Girl From The North Country, and I think that is what I loved the most about it.
In a year with so much variety, how can I possibly pick a favourite? It’s been an absolutely dreamy year, and while I’ve enjoyed shows with friends, I have fallen in love with going to the theatre alone. It’s been a year of solo trips, grand adventures, and first experiences in new cities. It’s also been an exciting year of making new connections and having new conversations about the art form I love.
2020 is going to be another amazing year, and I hope to spend as much time on or backstage as I do in the audience! So far, I’ve booked exciting trips to hit musicals Come From Away and Hamilton, as well as another trip to New York City in the spring! And of course, I will keep you all posted on all of my stagey adventures.
Did you have a favourite theatre moment of 2019?!
What are YOUR theatre plans for 2020?!
Let me know in the comments below!