Jonathan Winsby plays birthday boy Robert in Company, which opens Oct. 11. (photo by Nicol Spinola)
For his 35th birthday, Robert (Bobby), a bachelor, has invited a group of his married friends over to celebrate. And, married or not, you can be a part of Bobby’s party by attending Raincity Theatre’s production of Company, which runs Oct. 11-26 at “Bobby’s Apartment,” 2531 Ontario St.
The immersive production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company is being produced by the same creative team that was behind last fall’s award-winning immersive production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Co-producers are Chris Adams (director), Nicol Spinola (choreographer) and Jewish community member Kat Palmer. Also part of the Company creative team was researcher Michael Groberman. And there are other Jewish connections.
“It is only notated in the script that Paul, Amy’s fiancé, is Jewish,” Adams told the Independent. “However, it is mentioned that half of Amy’s friends are Jewish, meaning a few other characters probably are, too – most notably, Larry, played by Jewish community member Warren Kimmel.”
Larry is Joanne’s third husband. Joanne has known Robert for years.
“Larry is extremely wealthy and successful,” said Kimmel. “He is probably the oldest character in the play. His parents split when he was a child but he is fascinated by his wife and very happily married.”
Just now old enough to play the character, Kimmel quipped, “I intend to make him look younger than his real age.”
Company debuted in 1970.
“This piece is all about commitment and partnership and marriage,” said Kimmel. “It was written not long after the pill was invented, which, along with other cultural changes, threw into question traditional ideas around marriage, monogamy and the way men and women in society commit to each other.”
He added, “As is usually the case, Sondheim and his collaborators have created perhaps the most incisive examination of these issues and so they resonate even today. Every song is so specific and true to life that everyone can identify and, if you haven’t had these exact thoughts yourself, you will definitely have a friend or family member who is in just such a situation. Add to that the incredible music and one hell of a cast and what you have from Raincity is another ‘must see’ piece of theatre.”
As for Raincity’s choice to produce Company, Adams said, “Oftentimes, as it goes with equity collectives, it is a group of people who find a great show and want to see it produced. In this case, not only did I know the show was great, I knew we had Jonathan Winsby to play Bobby. Having worked with Jonathan on last year’s Sweeney Todd, I knew he was more than up for the challenge of this role and I knew it was on his bucket list to play. Sondheim is popular with actor/singers because it is difficult. People want to sing it and audiences seem to want to hear it. We are blessed as well that Company comes with such a strong book and brilliant songs.”
As with Sweeney Todd, the audience will be in the thick of things, specifically, in the midst of Bobby’s birthday party. “We have a bar set up to sell drinks, you can purchase birthday cake or come early and play a song on the piano – everything a fun 1969 birthday party should have,” said Adams. “The audience will grab their purchased seating – you can buy a pillow/floor seat, a couch, a chair or a bar stool – and cozy up to enjoy the show. While there is, obviously, no audience participation, they will feel very much included in the festivities and witness this brilliant journey of a man struggling through his 35th year.”
There is limited seating at the party, however, and Adams said the run is already more than 80% sold out. “If anyone is wanting tickets,” he said, “I’d suggest they don’t wait.”
Warren Kimmel won a Jessie Award for his portrayal of the title character in the Snapshots Collective’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. (photo from Snapshots Collective)
The 37th annual Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards were held on July 15 at Bard on the Beach’s BMO Mainstage in Vanier Park. Fifty theatrical productions were nominated from last year’s theatre season.
In the small theatre category, the Snapshots Collective’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which included several Jewish community members in its creative team, garnered eight nominations: director Chris Adams and costume designer Emily Fraser were acknowledged, along with the outstanding performances by Jewish community member Warren Kimmel, Colleen Winton, Oliver Castillo and Jonathan Winsby, and the production as a whole for its quality and innovation. In the end, the show won four Jessies, for the performances of Kimmel, Winton and Castillo, as well as nabbing the award for outstanding musical production.
Jewish community member Itai Erdal won the award for outstanding lighting design category for his work in Arts Club Theatre Company’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Erdal was also nominated for his lighting in Théâtre la Seizième’s Le Soulier.
At the July 15 ceremony, community member David Diamond received the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance Career Achievement Award.
On June 27, 2019, Governor General of Canada Julie Payette announced this year’s appointments to the Order of Canada, including, as officers, two local Jewish community members: Gordon Diamond, for “his steadfast leadership in business and for his philanthropic support for causes related to health care, education and social services,” and Dr. Peter Suedfeld, for “his groundbreaking research on the psychological impacts of extreme environments and stressors on human behaviour.”
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On June 18, 2019, at Government House in Victoria, B.C., the Janusz Korczak Medal was awarded to Ted Hughes, OC, and Helen Hughes, OC, while the Janusz Korczak Statuette was awarded to Irwin Elman, the past advocate for children and youth of Ontario. The awards were bestowed in recognition of caring for children in the spirit of Dr. Janusz Korczak.
The ceremony started with welcoming remarks by the event’s host, Lieutenant Governor Janet Austin, and Holocaust survivor and writer Lillian Boraks-Nemetz spoke about Korczak, with a personal touch. The awards were presented jointly by Jennifer Charlesworth, B.C. representative for children and youth, and Jerry Nussbaum, president of the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada. And the event was emceed by Jerymy Brownridge, private secretary to the lieutenant governor and executive director of Government House.
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The Jewish Independent won two American Jewish Press Association Simon Rockower Awards for excellence in Jewish journalism this year (for work published in 2018). The awards were presented at the 38th annual AJPA banquet, held in conjunction with the association’s annual conference in St. Louis, Mo., June 23-26.
Bruce Brown’s “The draft: a dad reflects” – in which he shares his experience of sending his son off to serve in the Israeli Air Force – placed first in the personal essay category for its circulation class.
The JI’s editorial board – Pat Johnson, Basya Laye and Cynthia Ramsay – took second place in the editorial writing category for its circulation group. The submission, which included the editorials “Holocaust education needed,” “Impacts of nation-state” and “What is anti-Zionism?” elicited the following comment from the Rockower judges: “Riveting and well-explained editorials on anti-Zionism, the identity of Israel as a nation-state, and a local controversy involving Holocaust education.”
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At Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual general meeting on June 18 at King David High School, Federation elected two new directors – Karen Levitt and Melanie Samuels – and the board appointed a new executive. While Karen James has completed her term as board chair, she remains on the board as immediate past chair. Alex Cristall takes over as chair, Penny Gurstein is vice-chair, Bruce Cohen is secretary and Jim Crooks is treasurer.
At the AGM, several honours were bestowed: Stephen Gaerber was the recipient of the Arthur Fouks Award, Megan Laskin the Elaine Charkow Award and Sam Heller the Young Leadership Award. Tribute was also paid to James; as well as Jason Murray, outgoing chair of CIJA’s local partnership council; Richard Fruchter, chief executive officer of Jewish Family Services; Rabbi Noam Abramchik and Rabbi Aaron Kamin, rosh yeshivah of Pacific Torah Institute; and Cathy Lowenstein, head of school at Vancouver Talmud Torah. Ambassador Nimrod Barkan attended the AGM as part of his last visit to Vancouver before he completes his term as Israel’s ambassador to Canada.
Federation thanks the directors who came off the board – Eric Bulmash, Bryan Hack, Rozanne Kipnes and Laskin – for their dedication to community and that they chose to share their time and talents with Federation. In Bulmash’s case, he will continue to contribute, but in a different capacity, as he is Federation’s new vice-president, operations.
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At its annual general meeting on June 19, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre announced the two winners of the Kron Sigal Award for Excellence in Holocaust Education. The VHEC also inducted two new recipients of the Life Fellows designation.
The designation of Life Fellow recognizes outstanding dedication and engagement with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre Society through long-term involvement and significant contributions to the organization’s programs and mandate. This year, VHEC is delighted to have two recipients, Wendy and Ron Stuart, in recognition of their longstanding contributions as artistic directors of the VHEC’s community-wide Yom Hashoah commemoration.
Each year, the VHEC presents the Meyer and Gita Kron and Ruth Kron Sigal Award to a B.C. elementary or secondary teacher who has shown a remarkable commitment to teaching students about the Holocaust and its important lessons. This year’s recipients are Nicola Colhoun and Dr. Christine Paget from West Vancouver Secondary School.
In their remarks, Colhoun and Paget shared, “As social studies teachers … we are tasked with the lofty goal of having students care about what has come before them to shape the world they live in now…. Through the testimonies of survivors, the past becomes tangible, it becomes human, and it becomes relevant to students…. So many of our students come away from the Holocaust Symposium saying things like, ‘I get it now.’ ‘I didn’t realize, but now I understand.’ They understand why the history of the Holocaust matters. And they also understand why they need to speak up for inclusion, and stand against racism and persecution of any kind, from the school hallways to the hallways of power.”
The VHEC’s executive is Philip Levinson, president; Corinne Zimmerman, vice-president; Marcus Brandt, second vice-president; Joshua Sorin, treasurer; Al Szajman, secretary; and Ed Lewin, past president.
Colleen Winton as Mrs. Lovett and Warren Kimmel as Sweeney Todd in Snapshots Collective’s production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which runs Oct. 10-31. (photo by Nicol Spinola)
“To seek revenge may lead to hell, but everyone does it, if seldom as well as Sweeney,” said Stephen Aberle, quoting from the finale of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Aberle plays Judge Turpin in the Snapshots Collective production of the musical, which will take place at Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop, or at least a facsimile of it, at 348 Water St., in Gastown, Oct. 10-31. Most shows are already sold out.
“Part of the power of the piece,” explained Aberle, whose character sets Sweeney on his murderous path, “is that we can identify with all of the characters, see their strengths and their flaws, and observe how much we share with them. That’s what makes it troubling, that irresistible doubt: would I do anything differently?”
Let’s hope most people would, as Sweeney Todd slits quite a few throats in his barber’s chair – providing the main ingredient for Mrs. Lovett’s pies – before getting to the object of his revenge, Judge Turpin, who abused Sweeney’s wife and exiled Sweeney for a crime Sweeney didn’t commit.
“When we decided on doing Sweeney Todd,” director Chris Adams and choreographer Nicol Spinola told the Independent in an email interview, “we knew we wanted Warren Kimmel as Sweeney, so we approached him first to see if he would be interested in playing the title character. He was on board almost immediately and we started moving forward to cast the rest of the show. We next approached Colleen Winton for the role of Mrs. Lovett and held auditions for the rest of the cast. We weren’t shy in letting auditioning actors know that our show was going to be different and that seemed to excite them. We were thrilled with the turnout and were able to cast the show exactly how we saw it.”
And the intimate audience – theatre capacity is about 56 – will be right in the midst of it all.
“The show is staged around the entire venue with some seats being directly in the action,” said Adams and Spinola, who are also co-producers of the show, with Ron Stuart, Wendy Bross Stuart and Kat Palmer. “There will be interactive moments between the actors and the audience, although there is no audience participation required. Sometimes the action will take place right in front of you and other times the action will be across the room.”
Kimmel looks absolutely terrifying in the production’s 44-second teaser.
“It’s always more fun, interesting, to play dark or evil characters than good ones and, for the most part, I am cast as good guys rather than bad guys so this is fun from that point of view,” said Kimmel of playing the title character in the musical, composed by Stephen Sondheim, with book by Hugh Wheeler. “Also, Sweeney Todd is probably one of the most challenging pieces in the musical canon to perform, so that makes it a stimulating and scary experience as well, which is, I suppose, fun in a twisted fashion.”
“I think this is a tremendously important story for our time,” said Aberle, “a time when the power structures that reinforce men’s privilege and women’s presumed subservience (as well as racialized, class-based and other power imbalances) are being challenged by some; desperately defended by others. We read about Judge Turpin analogues just about every day in the news. I think it’s particularly important for those of us who possess power to check in with a story like this and consider our own exercise of that power. To what extent am I being a self-serving brute in this situation? Are there ways I might reduce that extent? The play, it seems to me, asks questions like those pretty insistently.”
About how he has chosen to portray Judge Turpin, Aberle said, “I’m looking for him the way I generally look for a character: by trying to figure out what he wants in the context of the given circumstances. That context, for a judge in mid-19th-century England, was power, privilege and prestige.
“One of the things that makes Judge Turpin interesting, to me, is that he’s not merely a psychopath or even a simple, spoiled narcissist: he tries to do ‘the right thing’ according to social convention and struggles with his desires (though more because of deeply ingrained inner shame than because he really understands his own power to harm, or empathizes with his victims). There are some questions about the man that I’m interested in exploring. What was his blue-sky vision of the perfect outcome when he set this engine of vengeance rolling, 15 years before the play begins? Why, especially given the power of his urges, has he gone through life so far without marrying? Why did he adopt a year-old infant as his ward? There are several plausible answers – and plausible combinations of multiple answers – for each of these, and I’m enjoying playing with them.”
Echoing Kimmel’s assessment of the music, Aberle added, “And, really, let’s face it. This is Sondheim at just about his Sondheimiest. If I can sing the material more or less in time and on pitch, I’ll be pretty happy.”
“The music plays a central role in telling this story,” Bross Stuart, the show’s musical director, told the Independent, “and there is no one more brilliant than Stephen Sondheim to do this for us. Central to the core of this music is the Gregorian chant, ‘Dies Irae’ (‘Day of Wrath,’ ‘Day of Judgment’) theme, heard throughout this work. We hear fragments of this musical motif hidden everywhere. Extended, shortened, pulled out of shape, but it’s there. We know it is the underpinning of Sweeney Todd’s motivation. It helps us understand Mr. Todd’s state of mind; and how revenge morphs into mental illness. When we are in the asylum, in Act 2, some of the ‘patients’ sing a demented version of ‘Dies Irae.’
“Another example is Sondheim’s use of a repeated note for more than 100 bars. Why does he do this? It is Mr. Todd’s obsession with murdering Judge Turpin. Even while the men are having a seemingly ‘friendly’ conversation, Todd is thinking along more sinister lines.”
“Sweeney Todd, as far as we can tell, is a normal man with a wife he adores and a new young daughter,” said Kimmel. “Without spoiling the plot altogether, life deals him a hand that most would find impossible to survive, let alone overcome, and so we have a perfect vehicle to allow us to ask what we would do in his position and, if we are honest with ourselves and had the courage to follow through, we could easily imagine doing the same things he does.”
But, he added, “In the end, I think it is a very moral story and the final destination is morally inevitable – although we feel for him and want to see him get his revenge, and although he and Mrs. Lovett almost get away with what they have done, it cannot be…. The world is set to rights at the end of the piece.
“You could say that this is just a Victorian melodrama, a deliciously dark tale underlining all the Christian moral virtue of the period,” he continued. “However, like all great drama, I think the rules of the game are timeless – first dramatized in Greek times or even biblical times. You cannot fool God; you cannot escape the price that must be paid for transgressing His rules. There is a fashion now to believe that we have moved past these religious moral strictures and that religion has less to offer a modern society but, in the end, this is a morality tale that resonates with very deep archetypal themes. No matter how justified it may seem, revenge will lead nowhere good.
“From a performance point of view, it is always a gift to be able to play someone truly morally compromised and, in a broader sense, I think that is what the theatre is really for: to allow us to watch this story and go through all that life is able to throw at us, to imagine, to understand and even to justify truly extraordinary behaviour, and yet to laugh and cry and cringe and know that, at the end, the moral compass of the world is back on true north.”
An emotional connection to the show is one of the reasons that the Stuarts wanted to be involved in this production. “We saw the original Broadway production in New York City in 1979, with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou,” said Ron Stuart. “It was brilliant and riveting and unique in the genre – like West Side Story was 20 years before or Showboat before that.
“Our co-producers had the concept of an immersive version of the show at a Gastown venue around Halloween, and we thought it was an interesting way to present the work.”
In addition to funding, he said, “with projects of this scale, we are also very hands-on. Our director, choreographer, music director and assistant director are also producers. We readily share our contacts in a variety of specialities, such as costumes, set design, lighting, instrument rental, legal issues, marketing, etc. Moreover, we are a collective under Equity rules, so we all have ‘skin in the game.’”
This is Palmer’s first experience as a producer. “It has been nice to learn from professionals who have been through this journey from beginning to end,” she told the Independent.
Knowing that they wanted this show to be immersive, the venue not only had to work from a mechanical perspective, “but add to the experience,” said Palmer, who is also in the ensemble.
“It’s been a fun challenge,” she said, “to be switching between my assistant stage managing hat and my performer hat – ‘this prop will need to be pre-set here, oh no, this is the lyric, this person has a quick change.’”
Palmer described the show as being very difficult technically, “there is not just Stage Left and Stage Right to worry about, there is a whole building.”
This is part of the attraction for Bross Stuart.
“We, the musicians, are very close to the audience and to the actors,” she explained. “Communication, page-turning, singing as you play – could be problematic. And the action is very immediate and very gripping. Very exciting!”
“My favourite number in the show,” said Palmer, “has to be our opening number, ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.’ Our amazing choreographer, Nicol Spinola, has created something so eerie, unique and unsettling. It immediately brings the audience right into this dark and thrilling world of 1840s London. Not only does it sound fantastic to have our entire cast of 17 singing Sondheim’s challenging music, but it also sets the mood for the entire show. I get chills performing it and I am very confident the audience will have never experienced anything like it before.”
For more information and tickets to Sweeney Todd, visit sweeneytoddthemusical.ca. And plan to have dinner at the venue before the show – pies, of course.
“Our pies come fresh each day from the Pie Hole located on Fraser Street in Vancouver,” said Adams and Spinola. “We are offering a traditional steak-and-stout meat pie, an aromatic Moroccan chickpea vegetarian pie and a delicious Thai coconut curry vegan pie. Pies can be added on when you are purchasing your tickets.”
Warren Kimmel and Cathy Wilmot in Arts Club’s Mamma Mia. (photo by David Cooper)
Warning: The song titles mentioned in this article have been known to cause stuck-song syndrome for several weeks. Read at your own peril.
So, let’s say it’s Friday night and the lights are low, and you’re looking out for a place to go. Is the music in your head yet?
Even if the simple mention of the name Mamma Mia doesn’t have you drumming up ABBA songs in your head that get stuck there for days at a time, don’t jump to any quick conclusions about whether you’ll enjoy this play. I am not a raving ABBA fan, but highly recommend it – for the singing, the characters and, very last but far from least, the outrageous closing number.
If, for some reason, this were the last review I were able to write, I would put down my pen feeling complete, having seen Warren Kimmel prance around stage in a hot pink jump suit singing ABBA. Does this man’s talent know no bounds?
It’s also worthy to see, at least once, the show that has had such lasting power and whose celluloid “offspring” has broken records.
The title of the 1999 musical was taken from the group’s 1975 hit. In London’s West End, it became the eighth-longest running show in history, as well as the ninth-longest-running show in Broadway history, closing in 2015 after 14 years.
In 2008, Mamma Mia became the highest-grossing film to ever be released in the United Kingdom, beating Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
But, if you’re not one of the huge Mamma Mia fans out there, you may not know the story.
We open on a Greek island, where Sophie and friends are planning for her wedding. Sophie reveals that, upon reading her mother’s journals, she may know the identity of her father, whom her mother left before Sophie was born. Sophie has narrowed the list to three potentials and, without telling her mother, invites them to the wedding.
When the possible dads show up, mom is more than a little surprised and curious that they all ended up coincidentally on her island at the same time, but even they don’t know at first the real reason they were summoned.
Dad potential Bill Austin (Warren Kimmel) is the early favourite, but the question of who the real father is stays up in the air – and please, no bribes this time. I’m not telling.
This is really the feel-good play of the summer. The singing is fabulous and many of the dance numbers (including seven guys doing a can-can wearing diving flippers) are highly entertaining.
If you’re a fan of Absolutely Fabulous, you’ll recognize a lot of Joanna Lumley’s character Patsy in Mamma Mia’s Tanya. One half-expects her to pull out a cigarette and bottle of booze and start tripping around the stage.
Even a mild ABBA fan will enjoy the music and the way the lyrics are woven into the story. Since the words of many of ABBA’s songs talk about relationships and life, they lend themselves well to being adapted into dialogue and plot.
I am left with two complaints, however. The first is the exaggerated movements and over-acting that permeate the first quarter of the production. It seems to be a fault of many musicals, as though every sentence that isn’t sung needs grand arm gestures or running around the stage for no reason. Once that dies down, however, you are free to sit back, tap your toes and enjoy the fun.
The second has to do with a dream sequence that completely lacks any esthetic cohesion. A chorus in full-body leotards, leaves on their heads and arms, left me with more questions than answers about what was going on.
But this is where the story ends, this is goodbye. I know some JI readers might think Mamma Mia is just going to be a silly romp. However, if you’ve got no place to go, if you’re feeling down, if you change your mind, be the first in line … oops, there I go again.
Mamma Mia is at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage until Aug. 12. For tickets and information, visit artsclub.com.
Baila Lazarusis a Vancouver-based writer and principal media strategist at bailalazarus.com.
Warren Kimmel (Shylock), left, with Charlie Gallant (Bassanio) in Bard on the Beach’s Merchant of Venice.(photo by David Blue)
It is always hard as a Jew to watch Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which has been characterized at one end of the spectrum as purely antisemitic and at the other as sympathetic to the plight of outsiders. Each vicious epithet hurled at Shylock, the Jewish protagonist, hits you in the gut like a ton of bricks. However, the play has to be considered in the context that Shakespeare likely had never even met a Jew.
Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and not invited back until the 1650s, by Oliver Cromwell. England was judenrein (“free of Jews”) for almost 400 years. Merchant was written between 1594 and 1599. How, then, could Shakespeare write such virulent diatribes against Jews? Was he influenced by the zeitgeist of his time or was he trying to preach a morality lesson to Elizabethan audiences? Bard on the Beach takes on the daunting task of presenting this “sinister parable of our times,” as director Nigel Shawn Williams calls it in his director’s notes.
The story revolves around Bassanio (Charlie Gallant), a Venetian lord and bankrupt fortune hunter, who needs 3,000 ducats (apparently close to three-quarters of a million in today’s dollars) to woo Belmont heiress Portia (Olivia Hutt) so that he can wed wealthily. His friend, Antonio (Edward Foy), a successful shipping merchant, urges him to borrow the sum from Shylock (Jewish community member Warren Kimmel) and agrees to stand surety for the loan. Shylock, who has been humiliated and abused by Antonio and his ilk, sees an opportunity for revenge and agrees to lend the money on the condition that if there is a default he gets a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Antonio’s ships run aground, he cannot repay the loan and Shylock demands his bond in a dramatic court room scene that includes the “Quality of Mercy” speech and, unfortunately, a not-so-happy ending for Shylock.
Fast-forward several centuries and enter cosmopolitan Venice as presented in Bard’s contemporary take on this play. It is a world inhabited by self-centred metrosexuals with a sense of entitlement, where money and power carry the day. These guys are not very nice and anyone who does not fit their worldview is an outsider deserving of contempt. The play opens with a frenetic scene as actors bustle to and fro. Shylock enters the melee, is tripped by Antonio and falls flat on his face amid the jeering crowd – a harbinger of what is to come.
I have seen all four of Bard’s productions of Merchant since it was first presented in 1996 – this one raises the bar, although there are some shaky bits along the way. While purists decry taking Shakespearean works out of period, putting Merchant in a contemporary business setting full of suits will resonate with audiences.
Despite the fact that I cringed every time Shylock was spat upon or called a Jew dog, I was moved by Kimmel’s “Hath a Jew not eyes” soliloquy, his heartbreak on learning that his daughter Jessica (Carmela Sison) had eloped with gentile Lorenzo (Chirag Naik), his soulful rendition of the Kaddish and his isolation as he sat alone in the courtroom facing his antagonists. Kimmel is sublime in his dignified portrayal of Shylock. You really care about what happens to him.
While Antonio is the merchant of Venice and Shylock the victim, this Bard version is very much about Portia and her plight as a woman facing stereotypical and misogynistic restrictions. We first see this when she has to endure the indignity of being the prize (wife) in a game devised by her now-deceased father for three would-be suitors. Each has the chance to pick one of three caskets (gold, silver and lead) that contains her photograph. The first two, Prince of Morocco (Nadeem Phillip) and Prince of Aragon (Paul Moniz de Sa), are brilliant in their cameo roles. In other productions, they are played as buffoons. Here they are elegantly dressed but smarmy and unctuous and, thank goodness, ultimately unsuccessful in their casket choices. Then along comes Bassanio, who picks the right casket (“all that glimmers is not gold”) and wins fair lady.
Portia’s next trial is the real one, where she disguises herself as a young lawyer and listens carefully to Shylock’s pleas for justice. It is in this scene that Hutt truly shines as the quick-witted and resourceful heroine Shakespeare intended her to be.
As good as the production is, there are some problems. Many of the actors spend a lot of time yelling their lines, which is distracting. I was offended by the Nazi salute Solania (Kate Besworth) made when mocking Shylock. It adds nothing to the story and should be taken out. There is a short homoerotic scene between Bassanio and Antonio, including a full-on mouth-to-mouth kiss, that seemed out of place, and Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity is played down – he is told he must convert and simply walks off the stage, leaving the audience to wonder what happened to the bankrupt and humiliated moneylender.
Production values are high, including some interesting freeze-frame moments. The stage is at floor level, making for a very intimate audience experience. The stark minimalist set allows the focus to be on the dialogue. High-tech gadgets like cellphones, laptops and iPads seamlessly fit into the mix, and Drew Facey’s stylishly chic costumes are structured and fitted for urban Venice, and softer and looser for coastal Belmont. Conor Moore’s projections, Adrian Muir’s lighting and Patrick Pennefather’s sound, a mélange of contemporary and classical music, provide the finishing touches.
This is an intelligent, moving production. See it, consider it, discuss it. Tickets for this and other Bard shows can be purchased at bardonthebeach.org or 604-739-0559.
Tova Kornfeldis a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.
Also on stage …
Running on the Main Stage at Bard on the Beach is Much Ado About Nothing with The Winter’s Tale. Director John Murphy has transported the comedy of Much Ado into a 1950s Italian film studio. Think Fellini, Sophia Loren, Vespas and fabulous cocktail dresses.
The story is boy meets girl, they profess to hate each other and then realize (with a little nudging from family and friends) that maybe they are right for each other. Of course, to get to the final epiphany, there are lots of misadventures, including mistaken identities, a young bride left at the altar and a faked death. As the program guide notes, “Friendships are tested, secrets are revealed but will love conquer all?” Amber Lewis and Kevin MacDonald are stellar as in the main roles of Beatrice (one of Shakespeare’s feistiest female characters) and Benedick. Community member Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg’s choreography is featured in this fun foray.
The Two Gentleman of Verona, which is on the Howard Family Stage, is also very good. Friedenberg choreographed some of the movement in this production as well, and her work is lovely. This production also stars a real dog, a basset hound named Gertie, who almost steals the show without doing anything but coming out on stage and mournfully looking at the audience.
Bard on the Beach’s The Merchant of Venice is set in modern times, where the character of Shylock, played by Warren Kimmel, is a high-powered businessman. (photo by David Cooper)
Among the Shakespearean works being presented by Bard on the Beach this season is The Merchant of Venice, which is being complemented with a short run of local playwright and Jewish community member Mark Leiren-Young’s one-man show Shylock. Fellow Jewish community member Warren Kimmel has taken on the daunting task of playing Shylock in both the main production and its eponymous companion piece.
There is continuing controversy over whether or not theatrical companies should produce Merchant. There are those who say the play should be relegated to the dustbin of history while others champion it as an opportunity for meaningful dialogue about outsiders and otherness.
In Merchant, Bassanio, an eligible Venetian bachelor, wishes to “wed wealthily” and woo the beautiful heiress Portia. To do so, he needs money. Enter his friend, Antonio, a successful merchant of Venice, who can guarantee a loan. Jewish moneylender Shylock is approached. Shylock, who has been ridiculed and despised by the citizens of Venice, especially Antonio, sees an opportunity for revenge and agrees to make the loan in return for Antonio’s bond, which, if forfeit, would give Shylock a “pound of Antonio’s flesh.”
Meanwhile, Portia’s father has devised a test for eligible suitors to win his daughter’s hand. The antics of the three suitors vying for the prize provide some comic relief for the tragedy that follows. Bassanio wins his lady but learns that Antonio’s ships have all been wrecked at sea and that the merchant cannot pay back the loan. Shylock is insisting upon his “pound of flesh” so Bassanio makes haste back to Venice.
This leads to a powerful courtroom scene where Portia, disguised as a young lawyer, makes an emotional plea in her “quality of mercy” speech. However, Shylock insists upon his legal rights and wins the suit. Just as he is about to take his “prize,” Portia points out to him that he is restricted to exactly one pound of flesh and not one drop of Christian blood is to be shed, or else Shylock will forfeit his own life. Shylock agrees to walk away but is nonetheless systematically stripped of all his possessions and forced to convert to Christianity.
“I was very flattered when Christopher Gaze, the artistic director, asked me to play Shylock in both plays,” Kimmel told the Independent. “This will be my Bard debut and the first time that I have played a really serious dramatic role in Canada, as my background has mostly been in musicals.”
Kimmel, born in South Africa, was trained in classical theatre at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, England. He compared Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter verses to the rhythm in songs, so there is no problem there, but he has been grappling with how to present this iconic character to audiences.
“The problem I have with the play is the portrayal of Shylock,” he said. “It is very complicated because it is antisemitic. But, at the same time, it is not just black and white. Shylock is not a nice guy, he is a piece of work – but a complicated one. On one side, he is an aggressive businessman but, on the other, he lost his wife, had a hell of a life and loves his daughter more than anything, perhaps too much … to the point that she wants to escape and does so by taking his money and running off with a gentile. So, I have an inner conflict to resolve to get into the character so that it makes sense to me.”
“That really is the central question, isn’t it – is this play sympathetic or not? This is the first time a Jew on stage has been portrayed as anything close to human and we can say Shakespeare is amazing for doing this. Or, let’s be honest, it is an antisemitic piece and the guy is basically cast as the villain for whom you have absolutely no sympathy.”
Some productions portray Shylock in a sympathetic light, while others paint him as the quintessential villain. “That really is the central question, isn’t it – is this play sympathetic or not? This is the first time a Jew on stage has been portrayed as anything close to human and we can say Shakespeare is amazing for doing this. Or, let’s be honest, it is an antisemitic piece and the guy is basically cast as the villain for whom you have absolutely no sympathy.”
This is the fourth time Bard will have produced Merchant and Kimmel is the third Jewish actor to take on the role. “You don’t have to be Jewish to play Shylock, just like you don’t have to be black to play Othello. However, I do believe there is a cultural sensitivity that a Jewish actor brings to the role,” said Kimmel.
Many with even only a passing knowledge of literature know who Shylock is, and the iconic “Hath not a Jew eyes” soliloquy is as well known as Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.”
“Funnily enough,” said Kimmel, “doing that soliloquy is not what worries me about the piece…. You can do it as a plea for justice or you can do it with more of an aggressive tone,” he said, paraphrasing the speech’s main point, “But what about us? We are the same as you, so we don’t need to take this from you anymore.”
“I have decided that I am not going to play it as a victim,” said Kimmel.
As to the courtroom scene where Shylock demands his “pound of flesh,” he said, “I think I have to play him there as a vengeful kind of guy, I just don’t see any other way to do it. Some productions try to show the struggle between the good soul and the bad soul, but I see him as unrelenting in his quest for the forfeit, even though he has been offered up to three times the original amount of the loan and even though he is aware that what he is doing is wrong, fully aware, but he can’t stop himself.
“That is what happens with big emotions like revenge – one gets tunnel vision. I sing a piece of the [Maurice] Ravel Kaddish, which is very ornate, just before the courtroom scene. The point of that is to show Shylock’s mindset, ‘Look, my wife is dead, my daughter is dead [to me], I have nothing left to live for, I am going to take this man’s pound of flesh.’ I think that I would like to play the character as sinister but understandable – that this is a steely, powerful guy who is saying, just because people are prejudiced against you, does not mean you have to be a victim.”
Bard on the Beach’s Merchant is being set in modern-day Venice.
“It is a pretend world, it has to be,” said Kimmel. “It is a corporate banking world of suits that centres around a group of high-powered businessmen. Shylock is one of them. He is savvy and a very powerful guy by virtue of the fact that he has a lot of money. There is a tension there in the play itself as, despite his money, he is treated as a second-class citizen. We are not playing up the religious aspect in terms of costuming so that the only outwardly visible sign of his Judaism will be the yarmulke that I will be wearing – he is a modern Jew.”
On the issue of whether or not the play is too offensive for contemporary sensitivities, Kimmel is thoughtful.
“I don’t think you should look at it with post-Holocaust eyes,” he said. “The fact that this version is set in modern times makes it even more difficult to digest. In the actual period, 1500, Jews were essentially reviled wherever they lived, and Shakespeare was just reflecting the animus of the time.”
Despite the antisemitism, Kimmel feels that the play is one of the great works of literature and that it is important to see it.
“I feel that, as actors, if we are not doing something that is offending someone, why are we doing it? We are supposed to provoke dialogue and conversation.”
Noting that “there is way too much political correctness in the world right now,” he said, “I feel that, as actors, if we are not doing something that is offending someone, why are we doing it? We are supposed to provoke dialogue and conversation. For example, when people are spitting on Shylock and calling him a dirty Jew, that has to be part of the story so you get what is going on. You can’t ask, does it offend you because people are spitting on you? That’s the story and that is part of why he goes and tries to cut someone’s heart out. You have to be driven to that, so what would drive you to do that? Once you get the back story, then you see the context of his actions.”
Kimmel believes audiences will get something different out of this version of the play than from the three previous productions. One of the reasons for this belief, he said, is that the director, Nigel Shawn Williams, is playing on the theme that we are all outsiders at one point or another. Kimmel wants people to leave the theatre challenged to sort out their feelings about what they have just seen.
Shylock will run for one week in September. In this work, the actor who plays Shylock comes out after the final performance of Merchant – the play has been shut down due to public pressure and, as part of a talk-back, the actor defends his participation in it as a Jew and explains why it is important to stage Shakespeare’s play.
“I am more excited about that piece because, with it, I know exactly where I am at and I get the arguments from both sides,” said Kimmel. “It was written specifically for Bard and Vancouver to run alongside its 1996 Merchant production with local community member David Berner playing the Jewish actor.”
Kimmel said, “The play seems to say that you can’t censor something just because it offends you. Why can’t you have a Jewish villain? Why don’t we just stop doing anyone who is in any way compromised?”
Audiences will be exposed to a range of perspectives on history, censorship, identity and the meaning of art in this intensive 90-minute offering, which is being directed by first-time Bard director Sherry Yoon, who will be fleshing (pun intended) out the play with projections and sound effects.
“Shylock is a character that has endured for over 400 years. He is the best-known Jewish character in literature. There are people the world over who know what a shylock is. That is because he is so fascinating. Jews are fascinating people.”
“This is the first great Shakespearean character,” said Kimmel of Merchant’s Shylock. “After this comes Othello, Hamlet and Lear. It is really the first time Shakespeare goes from silly comedies with twins with mistaken identities to serious roles that fascinate humanity through time. Shylock is a character that has endured for over 400 years. He is the best-known Jewish character in literature. There are people the world over who know what a shylock is. That is because he is so fascinating. Jews are fascinating people.”
The play had been used to incite hatred against Jews – the Nazis in particular promoted it because it fit in with their worldview.
“That is exactly why it is important for everyone to see Merchant for themselves,” said Kimmel, “so you don’t get the story secondhand – you should be exposed to it, not told about it.”
Bard on the Beach runs until Sept. 24. Its other productions this season are Much Ado About Nothing, Winter’s Tale and Two Gentleman of Verona. For the full schedule and tickets, visit bardonthebeach.org.
Tova Kornfeldis a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.
Katey Wright and Warren Kimmel co-star in A Little Night Music, which opens at Anvil Centre Theatre on May 13. (photo by David Cooper)
“The end of Act One may just be the most brilliant piece of musical theatre writing ever,” actor Warren Kimmel told the Independent when asked about Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, which will have a limited run at the Anvil Centre Theatre, starting next week.
And Jewish community member Kimmel knows of what he speaks when it comes to musical theatre. To name only some of the super-well-known musicals he’s been in – Billy Elliot, Fiddler on the Roof, Les Misérables, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, Sound of Music, Beauty and the Beast.
In A Little Night Music, which takes place around the turn of the last century, Kimmel plays Fredrik Egerman, who has just married 18-year-old Anne, many years his junior. One problem is that Fredrik’s son also loves Anne. Two other problems are that Anne is reluctant to give herself to Fredrik and Fredrik hasn’t quite doused the fire that exists between him and Desiree, a former girlfriend. Then there’s Desiree’s jealous (and married) lover. “All of these trysts and twists come to a head,” reads the promotional material, “when Desiree convinces her mother to host Fredrik and his family for a weekend on her lavish estate – where the count [Desiree’s lover], with his wife … crash the party.”
“Apart from its sheer entertainment value – the incredible music and genius lyrics of Stephen Sondheim – A Little Night Music is based on a film by Ingmar Bergman – Smiles of a Summer Night – so the themes are eternal,” said Kimmel. “How do you find love? How do you find the right person to love? How do you love the person you are with? How do you get the person you are with to love you? How do you remain faithful? Should you remain faithful? Like all great works of art, it doesn’t so much speak to a modern audience as whisper and shout!”
“I don’t know if I can adequately state the importance of Stephen Sondheim and his work,” director Peter Jorgensen told the Independent. “No other single artist has thought more deeply about composition as a tool for telling stories. No other lyricist gives characters such distinctive, rich language. As a musical dramatist, he has set the gold standard for artistry and craftsmanship.”
“Sondheim has a special place in the heart of all singer/actors,” agreed Kimmel. “His material is, without doubt, the most challenging and also the most satisfying to perform of anyone in the musical theatre canon. It’s really hard to get right but thrilling every time you do. Fredrik has some particularly complicated and expressive songs, and that’s the best and worst thing about this role.”
The Broadway musical – with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler – won six Tony Awards, a Golden Globe and a Grammy. In the local Patrick Street Productions mounting of the show, Kimmel co-stars with Katey Wright, who plays Desiree.
Real-life husband-wife team Wright and Jorgensen founded Patrick Street Productions in 2007. Their mandate: “to offer great productions of great plays and musicals for Metro Vancouver, with an emphasis on contemporary musicals that have not yet been professionally produced in the region.”
“For Patrick Street Productions,” said Jorgensen, “it is important for us to program musicals that challenge conceptions of what a musical is and what a musical can do. That aspiration is never better matched than with a Sondheim musical.
“As to why A Little Night Music,” he continued, “in many ways it is similar to why Hal Prince (the show’s original director) and Sondheim chose to create the show: we wanted to program something romantic and light that had a broad appeal, but that was still sharp and biting. Hal Prince described the show as ‘whipped cream and knives.’ There is no better statement that sums up the show’s appeal than that.”
Kimmel added, “Apart from ‘Send in the Clowns,’ which is perhaps Sondheim’s best known song, A Little Night Music is not as well-known as some of his other stuff, and certainly not as well known as Phantom of the Opera or something like that, but this piece is a real gem. The end of Act One may just be the most brilliant piece of musical theatre writing ever. The brilliance of the material forces you to really step up – and everyone has. From the costumes to the lighting, from the orchestrations to the casting, the level of work and attention to detail in this production are quite wonderful. It’s just worth seeing on every level.”
A Little Night Music opens at Anvil Centre Theatre in New Westminster on May 13, 8 p.m., with previews on the nights of May 11 and 12. Show times are Wednesday through Saturday, 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinées May 14, 20-21. Tickets are $25.50 for the previews and range from $25.50 to $39.50 for the run; they can be purchased at ticketsnw.ca or 604-521-5050.
Jewish community members in Royal City Musical Theatre’s production of Fiddler on the Roof, left to right: Erin Palm, Warren Kimmel and Zach Wolfman, with Michael Wilkinson in front. The show runs April 7-23 at Massey Theatre. (photo by Tim Matheson)
This year’s Royal City Musical Theatre production is Fiddler on the Roof. Playing the legendary lead character of Tevye the Milkman is Jewish community member Warren Kimmel.
Addressing the community, Kimmel acknowledged that Fiddler is “one of those pieces of art that have just become part of the culture almost by osmosis.” But, he added, “Fiddler on the Roof is an intensely Jewish musical and, although musical theatre is hugely populated by Jewish composers and performers, Fiddler is perhaps the only mainstream musical that deals directly with the Jewish experience. So, although your children might know ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ by cultural absorption, I would urge you to bring them all to see this piece. It’s a fundamental part of who we are and I think it’s going to be a great production.”
Directing and choreographing the RCMT show is Valerie Easton and the musical director is James Bryson, who will lead a full orchestra. Kimmel will be joined by three other Jewish community members on stage: Michael Wilkinson (Fiddler), Zack Wolfman (Perchik) and Erin Palm (Fruma Sarah). They and the rest of the cast have a challenge in making their iconic characters their own.
“I have made the character my own by growing a real beard!” said Kimmel, noting that it took three months to grow and has changed his life. “Seriously though, the fact that the role is iconic has been a real issue for me because I actually grew up watching that movie and I think that it is not for no reason that Topol is world-famous from only one identifiable role. I think it’s a brilliant movie and a landmark performance, so it has been quite difficult not to copy what he’s doing. At the same time, I think what would be worse would be to try and do something different just for the sake of being different. So, what I’ve tried to do, and I guess what I always try to do, is find the truth of the story for that character and play that. But they are big boots to fill, no doubt, and an even bigger beard!”
“It’s definitely hard when there is a fixed idea of how a character should be,” Wolfman said. “I am steering clear of the trap by approaching the role like I would any other. I look at the words on the page and the circumstances the character finds himself in. The show is iconic because the characters and story are well written, and it makes our jobs easier as actors because that information is all on the page for us to use…. When I say the same words in the same order, it is the character, and I suppose it will become my own when it comes out of my mouth!”
For her part, Palm said she loves “when an actor really takes risks and brings new life to the characters they play. I think I make Fruma Sarah my own by really trying to understand what she wants, in the most honest way possible.”
Fiddler on the Roof was one of the first musicals Palm ever saw. “It made a huge impact on me,” she said. So, for her, part of the fun of being in this production “comes out of years of being excited about the opportunity to do the show and then getting a chance to do it. I love the music and the story.”
Part of the challenge is to convey the time and place of the action. Based on Tevye and his Daughters and other stories by Sholem Aleichem, Fiddler is set in 1905 in Anatevka, a fictional Russian village. It centres around Tevye and his efforts to maintain Jewish traditions while trying to keep his wife and five daughters happy and safe.
“Being that we don’t live in Anatevka and it is 2016,” said Palm, “it’s relating to those social and economic differences and times that makes it a challenge … capturing the old world feeling in a way that is truthful and heartwarming, that’s what sweeps you away to Anatevka, that’s the charm of the show.”
For Wolfman, “Having the opportunity to play a character that is playing against the traditional values of the characters in the play is fun. Perchik has more modern sensibilities and, in a way, he acts as a proxy for the audience to see the differences in beliefs on stage. It is fun to play a character with a strong point of view who is willing to fight for what he believes in…. The challenge for me has been finding the balance between the Perchik who is warm and loving, and the hard-nosed revolutionary. Of course, both sides exist within the character, so it’s interesting to grapple with what comes out at what times. It’s an ongoing question for me so, as my old acting professor Stephen Heatley would say, I’m ‘keeping the questions open and active.’”
In a somewhat similar vein – trying to find balance within a character – Wilkinson said, “It’s been very fun and exciting for me to find the way the Fiddler fits in as a metaphor in Tevye’s mind but also has a personality and character of his own.”
Not only does Wilkinson have to figure that out, but he is also playing a Russian dancer in the song “To Life.” He said that Easton “has given us wonderful choreography and the Russian dancing is particularly fun, but also challenging – especially since most of us don’t have training in Russian dance!”
Kimmel described Easton as “one of the real jewels of this city’s theatre community and we have worked together enough times now that I know I can allow her to guide me in my performance and that, if I trust her, she will make it a better one. That’s meant to be the director’s job, I guess, and it’s what you always hope for as an actor, but it doesn’t happen nearly as often as you would hope.”
Last year, Kimmel worked with both Easton and Bryson on RCMT’s My Fair Lady. “Both brilliant,” he said. “Also, there are a few cast members from My Fair Lady that have reappeared in Yiddish garb and large beards and it’s always great to be on stage with people you know and trust. However, all the people I have close relationships with in the piece – my wife and five daughters – are all performers I’ve never worked with before and that’s quite exciting.”
It is also Wilkinson’s second production with Easton, Bryson and RCMT. He was in the ensemble of Annie in 2014. “The Vancouver theatre community isn’t huge, so usually there are some familiar faces when a new production starts rehearsals. I’ve met a bunch of new wonderful people in this production, as well as a few with whom I’ve worked before.”
Wolfman was at the University of British Columbia with a couple of the other leads, including Jenika Schofield, and has acted before with several members of the cast. “In fact,” he noted, “Jenika actually played my love interest in Titus: The Light and Delightful Musical Comedy and now she’s playing Hodel, who falls in love with Perchik. Crazy, right?!”
While this is his first time working with Easton and Bryson, Wolfman said, “Patrick Ray, our piano player, accompanied a show I did in the past, and maybe saved my life musically more than once.”
Palm worked with Easton right after graduating from Capilano University. It was in an Arts Club on Tour production of the musical The Thing About Men, where, she said, “I played 13 different characters, that was a highlight of my career. I just love her as a director. She’s just so present and physical in her directing skills. She’s very giving, she’s very much an actor’s director…. Also, I am a big fan of female directors. There are so few of them and so, when you get an opportunity to work with a director with such a clear vision who is a woman, I celebrate that.”
Palm also knows some of Fiddler’s cast from previous acting work, she took voice lessons for awhile with Sylvia Zaradic (Yente) and did a video with Natasha Zacher (Tzeitel) and others called Finding Face Time: A YouTube Musical!, which is online.
In the casting process, Palm was called back for two different roles: Tzeitel and Fruma. She said she is grateful to have been chosen “as part of the vision of the show and cast as Fruma Sarah.”
“I think the casting is very well put together and I couldn’t imagine the show being cast any other way,” she said. “We really have worked together as a collective, the chorus is really strong. There are a lot of talented actors and singers in this show, lots of young and up-and-coming talent, too, who really bring something special, new and exciting to the roles they play.”
Initially, Wolfman wasn’t sure for which role he would audition. During Oliver! at Theatre Under the Stars last summer, he said, “[M]any of the cast members in the show were buzzing about Fiddler on the Roof auditions during the run. A fellow cast mate, Kat Palmer, said I should go out for Perchik if I got a chance, so the show fell on my radar. When I first auditioned, I was thinking about Motel and Fyedka as possible roles, but after re-reading the script, I definitely had my heart set on Perchik and that’s what happened!”
When Wilkinson auditioned, he said, “I had to sing a song in front of the directing team and take part in the group dance call. I didn’t go in with a specific role in mind and was just hoping to be a part of the show in some capacity. It worked out well and I’m having a great time being a part of the production.”
As for the patriarch of the show, Kimmel said, “I originally auditioned for the role of Yente the Matchmaker but I lost that role, unfortunately, and had to settle for Tevye. No, in reality, I think Tevye has always been one of the roles that I felt I would have to do at some point or other, being Jewish for a start, and just loving this play since I was a child. So, I asked Val if I could audition. Honestly, I thought I was a bit young for the role and I still feel I struggle with the [emotional] weight of Tevye…. Also, there are a few performers in town that have been very successful playing the role and I was pretty sure they would be offered it, but it seems my audition – together with a large cheque made out to Val – clinched it for me.”
RCMT’s Fiddler on the Roof takes place at Massey Theatre, 735 Eighth Ave., in New Westminster, Wednesday-Sunday, April 7-23. Ticket are $47 ($38 seniors/students, $29 children 13 and under) from ticketsnw.ca and 604-521-5050.
Warren Kimmel as Javert in Arts Club Theatre’s Les Misérables. (photo by Ross den Otter)
This October will mark the 30th anniversary of one of the most adored, reproduced, translated and recorded performances of our time.
If you are one of the few who has not seen Les Misérables, take the opportunity now and head down to the Arts Club presentation, which is on at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage until Aug. 16. Even if you have seen Les Mis before, this production is worth catching for a number of reasons, not the least of which is seeing Warren Kimmel display his musical prowess on stage.
Les Mis opened in London with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985 and has been seen by more than 70 million people worldwide. In the Arts Club version, Kimmel stars as the policeman Javert who has committed his life to capturing prisoner Jean Valjean. Kimmel reveals on his website that he is surprised that this is the role he ended up in, but happy to be finally doing the show.
“It was the thing to see when I was leaving school and going to university … and, when I graduated from drama school, it was top of my list,” he writes. “For one reason or another, I have either declined, missed or chosen not to be a part of many productions. All of those decisions were mistakes in my opinion but I have finally been sucked into the vortex. And, to boot, I am playing the last character I ever imagined I would be. Great hat though!”
The award-winning Kimmel is one of a stellar cast of singers who hardly have a fault among them, and their performances are stirring – from the mournful “I Dreamed a Dream” to the rousing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” to the plaintive “Bring Him Home.” (I dare you not to shed a tear during this heartrending rendition by Kieran Martin Murphy.)
Even a tiny bit by ensemble member Kevin Michael Cripps as Bishop Myriel stands out as a memorable performance. And Kimmel’s interpretation of “Stars” certainly holds its own against that of any of the other Javerts in the musical’s history.
Many people think that Les Misérables was written about the French Revolution of 1789. In fact, the story centres on a lesser-known republican rebellion that took place in 1832. Like a fire that appears to have been squelched but comes back to life after a time, the 1832 insurrection was a reigniting of leftover anger from a larger rebellion in July 1830 that saw the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy.
The story’s author, Victor Hugo, was on his way home when he was caught in the crossfire in 1832, stuck in an alley behind the barricades that are a key element in the musical. Though originally a staunch monarchist, he became a republican supporter and, 30 years after his experience, he wrote the novel, which is still required reading in many French schools.
So popular has this story been that the musical has been translated into 22 languages. For a taste of some of these, including songs in Swedish, Japanese, Polish and Norwegian, watch “Do you hear the people sing: Sung by 17 Valjeans from around the world” on YouTube.
Though it’s normally performed in large theatres with the capacity for several thousand, the production translates very well onto a smaller stage, and I think the intimate location makes for an even better experience. It has been six years since it played at the Arts Club, and who knows when it will be back? Don’t miss the opportunity.
Baila Lazarus is a freelance writer and media trainer in Vancouver. Her consulting work can be seen at phase2coaching.com.
Tracy Neff (Eliza Doolittle) and Warren Kimmel (Henry Higgins) before the phonetics lessons start. (photo by Tim Matheson)
It was hard not to sing along. In fact, the couple in the row behind me couldn’t stop themselves on more than one occasion. So wonderfully witty and familiar are all of the songs in My Fair Lady, which is playing at Massey Theatre until April 26.
Directed by Max Reimer, the Royal City Musical Theatre production is well worth the trip to New Westminster. If you’re like me, the proposition is daunting. I made an afternoon and evening of it, heading out from Vancouver before rush hour, enjoying a walk along the quay and dinner with friends before heading to the theatre for the 7:30 p.m. show. While it took almost an hour to get to New West, I made it back in about 25 minutes. Granted, that’s about 15 minutes longer than if I had been coming from downtown, but the parking was plentiful and free – and I had longer to sing in the car on the way home, which made the drive seem that must faster.
I had forgotten just how funny are the book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner – even 50ish years after they premièred on Broadway! With the stellar cast enunciating brilliantly, nary a word was lost, and the 22-piece live orchestra and 30-plus cast also gave justice to Frederick Loewe’s music.
Of course, the musical’s origins go back further, more than 100 years, to George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Phonetics professor Henry Higgins bets phonetics enthusiast Colonel Pickering that he can take Eliza Doolittle, a street seller of flowers, and transform her: “You see this creature with her curbstone English that’ll keep her in the gutter till the end of her days? In six months, I could pass her off as a duchess at an embassy ball. I could even get her a job as a lady’s maid or a shop assistant, which requires better English.” (In Shaw’s version, the bet is three months to “pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party.”)
Led by Warren Kimmel as Prof. Higgins and Tracy Neff as Eliza, there are many standouts in the Royal City production, including John Payne as the charming scoundrel Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father, and tenor Thomas Lamont as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who falls for Eliza at the Ascot (her test run as a lady) when she cheers on the horse Dover to win, hollering, “Come on, Dover! Move your bloomin’ arse!” In addition to Kimmel, other Jewish community members involved in the show are Jonathan Boudin and Kathryn Palmer in the ensemble. Both do very well, but Palmer is particularly expressive, standing out as both a flower seller and a maid, very much at ease on stage.
The entire cast seemed to be having a great time on the preview night I attended, good-humoredly negotiating through a couple of technical glitches, including a tough-to-light candle. And the main two sets, which go from being two sides of a London street corner to Higgins’ study when they are turned around and pushed together, are fabulously detailed and necessarily sturdy (the actors must travel to a balcony on one side, a landing on the other), but they must be quite heavy – every time the halves of it slowly came together to form the study, I released a small sigh of relief.
None of this detracted from the performance. In fact, these instances made it seem more intimate, and reminded me of one of the reasons live theatre is so fun to watch. It was a great show. I got lost in the words, music, sets, costumes (gorgeous!). The cast, crew and musicians all deserve kudos – as Pickering says to Higgins after the ball, “Absolutely fantastic.… You did it!”
For tickets ($26-$47) to My Fair Lady at Massey Theatre through April 26, visit masseytheatre.com or call 604-521-5050.