Anton Lipovetsky is among the professional artists working with Studio 58 to develop Monoceros: A Musical. (photo by Dahlia Katz)
In the face of a pandemic and all its associated restrictions, the show is going on at Langara College’s Studio 58 – albeit in a very different way. Monoceros: A Musical runs through the end of March and features the contributions of two Jewish community members: writer Josh Epstein and composer/lyricist Anton Lipovetsky.
In contrast to other Studio 58 productions, Monoceros is seen as a “development lab,” an opportunity for the creators to tweak the piece, while allowing students to work on a new musical and learn about the process. The production is not a performance in a traditional sense, as the public will not be able to come and watch it. Ordinarily, shows are performed in Langara’s 100-seat theatre, but this is the first time Studio 58 has created a production outdoors – because of the risks of singing inside.
Adapted from a Suzette Mayr novel by Epstein and his business partner, Vancouver writer/director Kyle Rideout, Monoceros tells the story of Faraday, a high school wallflower who dreams of becoming a famous veterinarian. When Ethan, a classmate known for wearing a unicorn outfit, dies unexpectedly, Faraday sets off on a quest to fulfil Ethan’s last wish.
“The book starts with one of the most powerful chapters I’ve ever read,” Epstein told the Independent. “I was engaged from the first sentence, my heart was drawn to every word. I, too, lost my best friend much too early and I felt very connected to this book. We were about to turn the book into a film, for which we had funding, but, at the same time, we felt a musical bursting out of it and attached Ben Elliott and Anton to write the music. We fell so in love with the musical that we halted the film for now to keep working on the piece. Our show tackles difficult subject matter but in a fresh, humorous way, daring the audience to go on a wild adventure and to listen.”
“I read the book and I loved it. It was heartbreaking and brutal and honest – the kind of book that really stays with you after you read it,” said Lipovetsky. “We decided to centre the story more on a singular character, Faraday, and her quest to bring unicorns to Calgary in honour of the student who passed away. Her quest challenges who she is as a person and she discovers herself along the way.”
Putting on a production in 2021 is “completely wild,” said Epstein, an award-winning actor, writer and producer. “Until the day we started, we had no idea if it would actually happen. Now, here we are with a full tent city built by Studio 58, a rock concert sound setup and an incredible creative team that includes one of Canada’s top directors, Meg Roe, and Lily Ling (Hamilton’s musical director) – who was only available to us because Hamilton is on hiatus.”
Epstein emphasized that, “while the show’s path has been altered by COVID-19, the team has used the time to strengthen the script and score, as well as attach some of the best people around [to the project]. Above all, the process is very safe and we’re having fun being able to work together, if only from a masked distance.”
“Acting, singing and connecting with your collaborators while most of your face is covered is not easy. The students are doing a wonderful job,” Lipovetsky said. “And rehearsing outdoors during early March in Vancouver can be challenging – but sometimes it’s magical. There are moments where the students’ voices soar in beautiful harmony and the sun will come out above us and I’ll feel real joy. I have missed making music and theatre so much and I’m grateful to get to do it even under these strange circumstances.”
In addition to the staff and faculty who are involved, Studio 58 has 10 professionals working with the students, 14 student performers, and many other students helping with technical requirements. One of the top theatre schools in Canada, with the only conservatory-style program in Western Canada, the professional theatre training program at Langara is in its 55th season. It typically produces four main-stage productions a season, ranging from dramas, to comedies, to musicals.
Monoceros is commissioned and supported by Toronto’s Musical Stage Company and funded by the Aubrey and Marla Dan Foundation. The show has an elaborate development road planned out that will include workshop productions in British Columbia and Ontario – culminating in Toronto – before continuing to other stages.
Epstein, whose work has taken him around the world, is currently writing an original feature for Paramount with Rideout. Lipovetsky is an acclaimed composer, lyricist, performer and teacher, and he is currently an artist-in-residence in the Musical Stage Company’s Crescendo Series.
Allan Zinyk as Patrice, left, and David Adams as Bryan in Elbow Room Café: The Musical (Phase 1). (photo by Emily Cooper)
Allan Zinyk and David Adams are veritable doppelgangers for Patrice (Patrick) Savoie and Bryan Searle, who started the Elbow Room Café on Jervis Street in 1983. While the restaurant moved to Davie Street in 1996 and the couple has since taken on another business partner, the heart of the café is Savoie and Searle, and, for many people, “home” is wherever they are.
Elbow Room Café: The Musical (Phase 1) really captures the depth and warmth of their relationship with each other, as well as with their staff and customers. It is a fitting and well-deserved homage to two men who have not only built a successful business, but a community, not to mention raising tens of thousands of dollars over the years for the charity A Loving Spoonful.
The Studio 58 and Zee Zee Theatre collaboration is a work in progress, but its Phase 1 opening on March 21 was a pretty polished effort. It will be interesting to see what changes on the path to its final form. Already, the musical – book and lyrics by Dave Deveau, music and lyrics by Anton Lipovetsky, directed by Cameron Mackenzie – arouses a range of emotions, from belly laughter to touching sentimentality. The songs are catchy and singable, the characters are memorable and relatable, the choreography is appropriately silly and sexy.
Led by professional actors Zinyk and Adams, the Studio 58 cast was top-notch. The audience gets lost in the life dramas that take place at the café: Tim and Tabby, a tourist couple from Kansas who stop in for a bite to eat on their way to Stanley Park, and are introduced to a whole new world; will Jackie and Jill, broken up for 253 days, get back together, despite all they’ve said to each other and what has happened since their breakup?; will the shy girl (aka Menu) find love at the café?; and Amanda, who finds out as her bachelorette party comes to an end that her wedding won’t take place as planned. Then there’s Patrice and Bryan, both getting older and a little slower – what’s to become of the café once they are no longer able to run it?
These main storylines are all played out in front of an odd, and endearing, assortment of other customers. One of the many notable aspects of this musical is how the supporting cast reacts to what’s going on around them. The full-cast musical numbers are big and bold, and there are some unique roles, such as Autograph, who takes on the personas of various celebrities who have eaten at the café, Tom Selleck and Sharon Stone, for example.
Since the musical is only in the first of a planned three phases, it is likely that the stories, dialogue and/or music will change. Considering who’s involved in the production, however, it should only get better. Then maybe afterward they can start on Jewish Independent: The Musical.
Elbow Room Café is at Studio 58 until March 29. As the musical’s program notes, there is “coarse language and immature content.” For tickets and information, visit studio58.ca.
Left to right: Andrew McNee as Francis and Martin Happer as Stanley Stubbers in One Man, Two Guvnors at the Arts Club Stanley Theatre. (photo by David Cooper)
It’s always disconcerting when sitting in a theatre listening to everyone laughing while thinking, “What’s so funny?”
That was my experience at the media opening of One Man, Two Guvnors Jan. 28. I’m thinking, therefore, that this review is going to be controversial. Judging by the audience response to the play, I was, with the dozen or so others who left at intermission, clearly in the minority.
Perhaps the problem was that reading the name of the play and about its background, and having been to British period comedies in the past, I had high expectations. I anticipated caustic wit and clever verbal jousting; instead, I was witness to very lame jokes and antiquated slapstick comedy.
For much of Guvnors, I felt as though I was in a studio audience watching a bad sitcom. It hearkened back to when, as a child, I watched my parents roll in laughter at the likes of Wayne and Schuster’s antics – certainly performances that would draw yawns today.
Now, just in case I’m coming across as a humorless Scrooge who wouldn’t release a guffaw unless I was on laughing gas, let me remind readers of previous reviews. I have snickered at the wit in The Philanderer, joined the multitudes who guffawed to The Producers and fell off my seat convulsing in laughter during Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. But those plays were smart. Witty.
Guvnors seems to play to the lowest common denominator of predictable, parochial humor at the level of arm-pit noises and fart jokes. The main character Francis is compared by the director to Will Ferrell. ‘Nuf said.
Now, before I continue on my rant, let me delve into the plot for some context. The play takes place in 1963 in England, starting in London where Pauline and Allan are preparing for a marriage that looks like it’s going to be thwarted: Pauline’s former fiancé, Roscoe, appears to have come back from the dead. It turns out that Roscoe is, in fact, Rachel, Roscoe’s twin sister, who must keep up the sham that Roscoe is alive until she can collect on the 6,000 pounds Pauline’s father is supposed to give him/her, at which point Rachel plans to run away to Australia with her lover Stanley, who is actually Roscoe’s murderer. Rachel and Stanley become the two “guvnors” to Francis, a poor sod who’s either starving for food or starving for love.
The story picks up in Brighton where the farce of mistaken identities really takes off. Francis, who is the consistent backbone to the plot, finds himself serving both guvnors in one hotel, trying to keep them apart, not knowing their hidden connections. In the end, there is a “happy” ending, with two avoided suicides and three marriages.
In an unusual twist, the performance is introduced by a quartet of musicians, a guitarist, a banjo player, stand-up bass and washboard – the first I’ve seen at the Stanley – that introduces the first and second acts and intersperses the play with fun tunes and singing.
As well, during the show, a few audience members are coerced to come on stage and be part of the performance. (Don’t worry, it’s all part of the act.)
At intermission, I was told by friends enjoying the performance that it is supposed to be silly. Indeed, the director’s notes state that it pays tribute to the vaudeville era of entertainment, the play itself being an adaptation of the beloved 18th-century Italian playwright Carlo Osvaldo Goldoni’s A Servant of Two Masters, which itself is based on the commedia dell’arte of the 16th century.
But so what? In a play where the comedy is predictable, does it really matter if it’s due to bad actors doing a bad job versus good actors intentionally doing a bad job? What’s the difference between a show that recreates outdated theatrics well and one that is simply outdated?
In fact, the play itself suggests there is no difference. In one conversation one character asks, “Does he smell of horses or does he smell like horses?” Suggesting the difference is that a man who smells of horses might have been riding them and, therefore, comes from good stock; whereas a man who smells like horses just smells bad.
His counterpart responds, “Well, it’s all the same in the end, isn’t it?”
Guvnors runs until Feb. 22 at the Stanley Theatre. The Jewish community’s multitalented Anton Lipovetsky is not only the musical director and lead-guitar player in the quartet but also has a small part in the play. Another bright community talent, Ryan Beil, plays the love-struck Allan Dangle. Israeli Vancouverite Amir Ofek designed the sets that hearken back to the Stanley’s original life as a vaudeville house.
Baila Lazarus is a freelance writer, painter and photographer. Her work can be seen at orchiddesigns.net.
Left to right: Andrew Wheeler, David Adams, Anton Lipovetsky and Chris Cochrane. (photo by David Cooper)
If Saturday night’s performance of Urinetown was any indication, the Jewish community has two rising stars in its midst.
Triple-threats Anton Lipovetsky and Andrew Cohen are actors to watch; and the latest production at the Firehall is a perfect opportunity to see them show off their singing, acting and dancing talent.
Despite its unfortunate name, which gives rise to equally unfortunate double-entendres in theatre reviews, Urinetown did live up to the hype that’s labeled it a Broadway hit. Not one for musicals, I’m happy to say this one kept me entertained throughout the performance, due in no small part to the fancy footwork directed by Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg and Tony Award-winning lyrics by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis.
Urinetown takes place in a “town like any town you might find in a musical,” according to the narrator (who jumps periodically out of his role as Police Officer Lockstock to educate the audience about the workings of a play). The year is some point in the middle of a long drought, water is scarce and free toilets have been overburdened in what have become known as the “stink years.”
Facilities are now owned by private companies who charge people for their use. Thus the request, “A penny for a pee?” becomes the begging mantra of street people looking to relieve themselves. If they can’t afford the few cents to get in the doors, their only recourse is to do their business in a public space, for which they will get arrested and sent to Urinetown. The audience doesn’t get to see Urinetown until the second act, so we’ll avoid the spoiler here. Suffice to say, it’s known as a really undesirable spot, and one to avoid at all costs. So paying a fee to pee is really the only option.
In the rather stale part of this “town like any town,” a group of homeless people around “Amenity #9” start to revolt against a new fee hike. The group is led by Bobby Strong (Lipovetsky), who happens to be in love with Hope (aptly named, of course), the daughter of Caldwell B. Cladwell (stage veteran Andrew Wheeler). Cladwell is CEO of Urine Good Co., which owns the private toilets. In this case, the love interest doesn’t get in the way of a good revolution, thankfully, and eventually the impoverished cast free themselves from the shackles of the tinkle toll. Is it a time for celebration? You’ll have to see the play to find out.
The role Lipovetsky has been given in this play serves to highlight his incredible singing talent, comedic flair and even his ability to direct the cast in a choir-like ensemble near the end.
The play only demonstrates a few of Lipovetsky’s skills, actually. The gifted 24-year-old has already won a Jessie Award for outstanding composition for the musical Broken Sex Doll (currently on its second run, playing until Nov. 22 at the Cultch’s York Theatre) and he shared the 2011 Mayor’s Arts Award in Theatre with Bard on the Beach artistic director Christopher Gaze. Lipovetsky won for best emerging actor and playwright.
For his part, Cohen has also been busy in the B.C. theatre scene, appearing in Chicago, Fiddler on the Roof and The Laramie Project, as well as becoming one of the finalists on CBC’s Triple Sensation TV show and performing in the 2010 Olympic Games Closing Ceremonies. He also does sound design and composes. (See “A next gen of theatre artists,” Nov. 7, jewishindependent.ca.)
Besides these fabulous contributors are Wheeler as the nasty, money-grubbing CEO, David Adams as the singing/dancing/narrating officer and Michelle Bardach as Hope. As well, numerous quirky directorial choices, such as having Strong freeze with an expression as though he’d been stung by a bee every time he has a flashback, and Little Sally (Tracey Power) jumping in and out of character to ask the narrator questions about the play, meld to create a surprisingly fun, witty and thoroughly enjoyable production.
Since last year’s Chutzpah! Festival, the Jewish Independent has been waiting to see Noah Drew’s Tiny Music. The read-through in 2013 was a unique experience of a work-in-progress, and it will be fun to compare that “teaser” with the production that takes to the Rothstein Theatre stage later this month as part of this year’s Chutzpah!
“This play has actually been slow-cooking for almost 10 years,” Drew told the Independent in an e-mail interview. “In 2004, the fabulous actor/writer Josh Epstein approached me about writing and composing a musical together. We jammed on ideas, and decided to adapt a short story by Sholem Aleichem called The Fiddle, which I’d been very fond of growing up. At my grandparents’ house, I used to listen to a record of the great Howard Da Silva reading Aleichem’s stories accompanied by a klezmer band, and The Fiddle was one of my favorites: a dark fable in which a boy who’s obsessed with music is forbidden to have anything to do with it, but can’t help himself, to his family’s ruin. Josh and I wrote a few songs and scenes about a boy in the Old Country who was born with unusually large and dexterous hands – a violin prodigy. Some of the material was great, but then, life happened – Josh booked a big show in Toronto and moved there, and shortly afterwards I got a full scholarship to do my MFA in acting at Temple University in Philadelphia, and also moved east. Every once in awhile, Josh and I would connect and talk about working on the show, but it never quite happened.
“Then, in 2010, I was visiting my friend Sarah Shugarman (a wonderful musician in Toronto) and ended up unearthing one of the songs I’d written for the Fiddle project. When I read her the lyrics, she was effusive in her praise and excitement, and encouraged me to reopen the piece. We talked about co-composing, but in the end the scheduling and geography didn’t cooperate (I had completed my degree and moved back to Vancouver by this point) so I decided to push forward with the project alone.”
At the heart of Tiny Music is Ezra, described in the Chutzpah! program as “an autistic man with an auditory-processing disorder that heightens his experience of the sounds around him.” About the writing of such a character, Drew explained that, around the time he re-committed himself to the play, he was “spending a fair amount of time with two members of my family – one adult and one child – who are on the autism spectrum. I also had a private acting student who was autistic. I noticed that all three of these individuals had certain challenges, particularities and special abilities when it came to focusing, and that all three seemed to have a very strong relationship to music. Music has always been incredibly important in my life also, and I was finding nice connections with my autistic family members through listening to and/or playing music together. I conceived of a contemporary version of the Sholem Aleichem story with an autistic man who hears in an extraordinary way at the play’s centre.”
Drew said he wrote a handful of songs and a first draft. “A two-day script workshop in Montreal in January 2013 led me to a second draft of the script, which was presented as a reading in the 2013 Chutzpah! Festival,” he said. “That reading was a bit of a whirlwind – we had only the one day to rehearse – but it was a good opportunity to see how the story was working (and where it wasn’t) and to hear a few of the songs with piano and voice. I learned from that reading that some aspects of the characters and story were really working, but others were a bit superficial and/or clunky.
“I went back into the writing process and, in October 2013, the show’s director/dramaturg Jamie Nesbitt and musical director Yawen Wang came out to Montreal to join me, sound designer Joe Browne and eight Concordia theatre and music students for a six-day workshop of the piece. That was a fantastic process! In addition to further developing the script and story, we got to explore the most important question of the piece stylistically: how can we make the songs, story, instrumental music and sound design all work together as a cohesive whole? We did some wonderful experiments, played around with ways of combining the elements and made discoveries such as: in this show, sometimes a sound cue or instrumental moment could actually replace dialogue. The script, music and sound all moved forward a couple of drafts. The characters were becoming more three-dimensional. The music was becoming more contemporary (‘less Sondheim and more Bjork’). The unique world of the show was coming into focus.”
Rethinking the storytelling
At this point, however, Drew and Nesbitt – co-founders of Jump Current, the producer of Tiny Music – noticed a “significant problem with the script.”
“Although the show is experienced from the perspective of an autistic individual, the storytelling mode was still quite ‘neurotypical,’” explained Drew. “Ezra had monologues in which he explained his situation and point of view to the audience in a very linear, chronological way. But the more I read and spoke to people about the range of autistic experiences, the more I realized that this linear way of speaking and thinking didn’t feel right. At Jamie’s urging, I took the script apart, and re-imagined it as a world in which time and memory are at times fluid, fragmented and unpredictable. Now, in the language, sound, music and staging, we are finding rhythms, patterns and textures that feel more true to who Ezra is. Rather than just describing and showing the story of this unique individual, we are figuring out how to invite the audience to share his visceral experience.”
This is what makes Tiny Music not just a regular, run-of-the-mill musical.
A sound design musical
“I call Tiny Music a ‘sound design musical’ because I want the audience to spend 90 minutes really hearing through Ezra’s ears,” explained Drew. “For Ezra, tiny details of the sonic environment that might go unnoticed by most people are very vivid. Sometimes, these details might mesmerize him. At other moments, they might overwhelm him. And sometimes, he hears the patterns in things so vividly that mundane sounds coalesce and occur for him as music. So, the songs in Tiny Music don’t just happen because, hey, it’s a musical. Instead, we only have songs because either (a) it makes sense that another character would actually be singing to Ezra in a certain situation, or (b) Ezra’s internal experience of certain sound patterns ends up transforming non-musical sounds into a kind of song. And, there are many times in the show – even some pieces I’ve called a ‘number’ – when nobody actually sings. Instead, it’s more like the environment itself that sings … all the sounds on all the floors of the building he’s in combine to make a kind of ‘sound design song,’ or a the voice of a person who is just speaking warps and distorts in Ezra’s perception, becoming rhythmic and harmonic. Every sound can be a kind of music if you really listen.”
The producers: Jump Current
Tiny Music is but one of several projects that Jump Current is currently producing, despite its relatively recent appearance on the theatre scene. “Very close friends who have led kind of parallel lives for awhile now,” Drew and Nesbitt started the company last spring. Of the reasons for the collaboration, Drew said, “We’re both fairly well known in Canada as theatre designers (he for video projections and I for sound), but we both consider ourselves to be theatre artists in a much broader way than only design. In fact, we both are suspicious of the way that sometimes design tricks and flash can get in the way of real, organic moments of storytelling in the theatre. (Also, as it happens, Jamie and I are both married to yoga teachers who used to work as actors, who are now studying to be expressive arts therapists – go figure.)
“In 2012, Jamie got very involved in working on Tiny Music, and I started working as a dramaturg on a play he’s writing called Salamandra (which is based on the true story of his inheriting a 150-bedroom castle in Poland from his great-uncle, Poland’s former minister of war, and his great-aunt, a former Polish movie star). Because we were doing these two projects together, and because our views about theatre, politics and life are so aligned, we decided to start a company together.
“In addition to creating and producing works of theatre and media-based performance,” he continued, “Jump Current’s mission is to research, develop and champion uses of design and technology that illuminate live human-to-human connection, and counteract people’s sense of alienation from one another. We believe deeply that, although, of course, it’s true that we live in an age when technology can really separate people from direct, organic connection, there are ways that it can also facilitate a shared experience of wonder that can really unite people.”
Another project that Drew and Nesbitt are developing is The Riot Ballet, “which explores themes of crowd psychology, identity and protest – both peaceful and violent,” said Drew. “We recently participated in a two-week development process in Barcelona, which led to some really exciting material and ideas. The team is amazing – this project brings us together with fantastic theatre companies from Spain, Colombia, the U.S., and a dance company from Toronto. We’re aiming for a late 2015 or early 2016 première in the U.S., then dates in Canada and Europe.”
All of this is in addition to Drew being a tenure-track faculty member in the theatre department of Montreal’s Concordia University, his continued freelancing in sound design and his voice teaching work. One of his sound design projects, he told the Independent, is for Horseshoes and Hand Grenades’ production of This Stays in the Room, which will be performed at Gallery Gachet in Vancouver March 19-30.
About his full schedule, Drew said, “I feel very grateful that my years as a full-time freelancer and the demanding process of doing an MFA really helped me develop good time-management skills! But, when it’s all amazing, a busy life is a pleasure. Sometimes, when things get a little too intense, my wife and I look at each other and say, ‘At least it’s not boring!’ We’re usually smiling.”
Tiny Music takes place Feb. 25 and 26, 8 p.m., at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre. It stars Anton Lipovetsky, Susinn McFarlen, Caitriona Murphy and Bob Bossin, with musicians Yawen Wang (piano and accordion), Joe Browne (live electronics), Caitriona Murphy (violin), Mike Braverman (clarinet), Jodi Proznick (bass) and Jason Overy (drums). There is a post-performance talk-back on Feb. 25. For tickets, visit chutzpahfestival.com, call 604-257-5145 or 604-684-2787, or drop in to the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver.