Wendy Bross Stuart accepted her GVPTA Career Achievement Award while playing the koto. (screenshot)
On June 29, the 38th annual Jessie Awards were celebrated virtually, with several Jewish community members among those being honoured.
The GVPTA [Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance] Career Achievement Award went to Wendy Bross Stuart, who gave her acceptance speech while playing the koto (a Japanese stringed instrument).
“Like most middle-class Jewish kids growing up in postwar New York City, I went to Broadway shows with my parents every few weeks,” she said. “I dreamed of conducting the pit orchestra and conducted many records in my living room on a regular basis.
“My first role was in Peter Pan – as Tinker Bell. I was 6 years old and three feet tall!
“I music-directed my first show – South Pacific – when I was 13, for a day camp in Tarrytown. I was given a script – no score – so I played it all by ear … in the preferred key for each of the teenage actors.
“Later, I went to a musical theatre training program in upstate New York, where I played scenes opposite a young man – named Stephen Schwartz.”
Bross Stuart did her graduate work in ethnomusicology, with a focus on Coast Salish music; research that was published, as was her later research on Northern Haida songs. She and her family lived in Japan for many years, where she continued studying traditional music for Japanese koto and shamisen, earning an advanced teaching licence.
“I’ve arranged and accompanied many Yiddish songs for voice and piano, producing four CDs with Claire Klein Osipov,” she said. “I’ve even arranged some Yiddish songs for koto and voice,” she added, noting “Yiddish was the language of my grandparents.”
“I love arranging and conducting choral music: 20 of my pieces have been published in the U.S. and Canada; most recently, an arrangement of my daughter Jessica’s composition,” she continued.
“For the last 15 years, we have co-produced and music-directed the annual Holocaust Commemorative Evening for the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
“In theatre, I have thoroughly enjoyed working with you. Where? At Theatre Under the Stars, the Arts Club, the Electric Company, Touchstone Theatre, Famous Artists, Blackbird Theatre, Snapshots Collective, Presentation House, the Chutzpah! Festival and 25 years at Perry Ehrlich’s Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance!
“My husband Ron Stuart – anthropologist and filmmaker – has been with me on this journey. Our most recent collaboration is our film company: Cultural Odyssey Films. All eight of our most recent films were shot on location in South Africa over the last 10 years.
“Thank you very much for this special honour. I look forward to working with you in the near future!”
In the small theatre category, Itai Erdal and Amir Ofek won for outstanding lighting design and set design, respectively, for the Search Party’s production of The Father, while Warren Kimmel was part of the cast of Raincity Theatre’s Company, which won significant artistic achievement: outstanding innovative and immersive storytelling.
Nominees for this year’s awards included, in the large theatre category, Erdal for outstanding lighting of Savage Society’s Skyborn: A Land Reclamation Odyssey (presented by the Cultch) and Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg for outstanding choreography in Cipher, presented by Arts Club Theatre Company (in partnership with Vertigo Theatre); in the small theatre category, Stephen Aberle for outstanding performance by an actor in a supporting role for his role in Slamming Door Artist Collective’s The Sea; and, for outstanding original script, Deborah Vogt for Big Sister, presented by Rapid Pitch Productions.
Wendy Bross Stuart leads singers Lisa Milton, Kat Palmer and David Urist in the JSA program With a Song in My Heart, which takes place March 29 at the Peretz Centre. (photo from Wendy Bross Stuart)
This year’s Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver Spring Forum features a concert with music director and pianist Wendy Bross Stuart and singers Lisa Milton, Kat Palmer and David Urist. The program, called With a Song in My Heart, takes place March 29 at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture.
“We are planning a program of Jewish-related songs all pertaining to our love of music,” Bross Stuart told the Independent. “‘With a Song in My Heart’ is a famous song by Rodgers and Hart (Jewish writers) from the 1929 musical Spring is Here. Very true that, by March 29, spring will indeed be here!
“We will include that song in our program as an ensemble piece,” she said. “We will have duets – in Yiddish – ‘Her Nor Du, Sheyn Meydele’ and ‘Vu Ahin Zol Ikh Geyn’; and many solos from Jewish-themed musicals, for example Rags, Milk and Honey, The Rothschilds and a song that was deleted from Fiddler on the Roof!”
Bross Stuart has contributed to more than a dozen seasons of Theatre Under the Stars, as conductor, music director and pianist, and has been music director and pianist for many other theatre companies, including the Arts Club, the Electric Company, Famous Artists, Touchstone Theatre, Presentation House and Snapshots Collective. She has composed numerous choral arrangements and recorded four CDs of Jewish music with soprano Claire Klein Osipov.
Of the ensemble that will join her on March 29, Bross Stuart said, “These three singers are very accomplished. They must have an opportunity to sing what inspires them, but which also fits into the theme of the program.”
She noted that Milton is Klein Osipov’s younger daughter. “She spent many years observing her mother’s performances and rehearsals. She knows all the arrangements I created for Claire – perfectly. When I accompany Lisa, it’s magic,” said Bross Stuart. “I see and hear Claire! What a delight!”
In addition to being an award-winning musician, Bross Stuart is an ethnomusicologist. She has written two books – Gambling Music of the Coast Salish Indians and, with John Enrico, Northern Haida Songs. She and her husband, Ron Stuart, collaborate in the making of documentary films shot in South Africa.
“Ron and I just returned from two-and-a-half months in Cape Town, where we started working on our eighth documentary there,” said Bross Stuart. “This one is called Gugulethu Warriors – Making Things Right! It’s a documentary based on the grassroots efforts of township residents to cope with the social issues of crime, safety, unemployment and community cohesion.”
The Stuarts established Cultural Odyssey Films, notes the website culturalodysseyfilms.com, “to provide a platform for the production and distribution of documentary films about contemporary cultural groups and individuals committed to social change.”
The Stuarts also formed WRS Productions, which has numerous producing credits, including the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre’s annual community commemoration of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Bross Stuart said that, while preparing for the JSA Spring Forum, she, Milton, Palmer and Urist are also working on the Yom Hashoah commemoration.
“After that,” she said, “I jump into rehearsals for Theatre Under the Stars’ upcoming production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Perry Ehrlich’s Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance! – year 26!
Bross Stuart is a co-founder of the Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance! musical theatre program, which is held at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver every summer. The deadline for youth to apply to this year’s sessions is April 1.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Bross Stuart recently adapted an indie pop song. “I just completed a new choral arrangement,” she said. “Of one of my daughter Jessica’s new songs. A first for me!” (The original “Simple Little Song” can be heard at jessicastuartmusic.com.)
As to why she is making the time to perform at the JSA forum, Bross Stuart said, “The JSA is run by a group of very talented, diligent, kind and caring individuals. They provide a wonderful service to the community, where we share with one another. It is my pleasure to contribute to this.”
With a Song in My Heart starts at 2 p.m. on March 29. Refreshments will be served and underground parking is available at the Peretz Centre – cars must enter the alley from 49th Avenue, as 45th is closed to traffic. The nominal cost of the event is $5. For more information and to register, call 604-732-1555 or email [email protected].
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.”
* * *
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.
* * *
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.”
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
Left to right: Sheryl Wheaton as Rosie, Lori Ashton Zondag as Tanya and Caitriona Murphy as Donna in Mamma Mia! with Adam Charles as Jack, Caleb Lagayan as Race and Graeme Kitagawa as Mush in Disney’s Newsies. (photo by Lindsay Elliott)
Iconic Swedish pop music and a story that exemplifies America’s love of the underdog are coming to Stanley Park’s Malkin Bowl this summer. Theatre Under the Stars presents Mamma Mia! and Disney’s Newsies on alternate nights, starting with a preview of Mamma Mia! July 5.
Set in the Greek islands, Mamma Mia! features ABBA songs aplenty, as bride-to-be Sophie invites three of her mother’s former lovers to her wedding in order to figure out which one is her father. The TUTS production features two Jewish community members who are veterans of the stage: Wendy Bross Stuart as music director (and rock band pianist) and Stefan Winfield as Harry Bright, one of the possible fathers, a role that was played by Colin Firth in the film version of the musical.
About his preparation for the TUTS production, Winfield shared: “Main note to self: do not attempt to replicate Colin Firth’s performance! He is a great actor. His quintessentially understated, sensual and impossibly British charm that comes across so well on the screen is not something I’d ever be able to reproduce on the Malkin Bowl stage in a way that connects with anyone past the first row … so, I’m bringing what I can to the role, doing my best to fulfil the vision of the creative team.”
Winfield’s first TUTS show goes back to childhood. In 1976, he played Randolph in Bye Bye Birdie. “My next appearance on the Malkin Bowl stage was not until 1999,’ he said, “when I played an adult role (i.e., not a Jet or a Shark!) in West Side Story.”
Since then, he has been involved in several TUTS shows, including Jesus Christ Superstar, another mounting of Bye Bye Birdie and of West Side Story, and The Drowsy Chaperone. Among other things, he was also in Parfumerie at the Metro Theatre in 2014, directed by Disney’s Newsies musical director, Christopher King, and has been directed a few times by fellow Jewish community member Richard Berg, who is currently TUTS’s production manager.
“It’s a pleasure to be working again with Shel Piercy,” Winfield added. “This is the fourth time I’ve performed under his direction on a theatre production, but the first time dates back to 1977! I played Kurt in a very local production of The Sound of Music for Marpole Community Theatre, directed by Shel, who, I believe, had only recently graduated from Eric Hamber. He’s a guy who’s been telling great stories for several decades, on stage and screen; I am very honoured to work with him.”
Another co-worker partially explains why Winfield likes being involved in TUTS. “The opportunity to work under the direction of and perform with outstanding theatre professionals, including my wife, choreographer Shelley Stewart Hunt – not to mention the crowd of extraordinarily talented and impressively trained up-and-coming young people who give themselves over to TUTS for the summer. And, for me personally, TUTS has really lived up to its mandate of creating a family atmosphere in allowing me to share the experience with my son Wesley, who was ‘en ventre sa mère’ during Bye Bye Birdie as Shelley was choreographing, then performed in featured bits in The Drowsy Chaperone at the age of 5, and is doing the same now in Mamma Mia! – this time actually executing choreography set by his mum! To watch it gives me joy … naches, if you will.”
And it’s a family scene that is among Winfield’s favourites in Mamma Mia!
“There are a lot of great moments,” he said, “but I’d say my favourite occurs during the scene when the dads meet Sophie for the first time. Harry is singing ‘Thank You for the Music,’ playing the guitar while lost in wistful reminiscence, when, to his surprise, in walks Sophie who joins in on the song. It’s a moment made all the more special by the lovely voice and energy of the young lady who’s playing Sophie in our production, Keira Jang.”
Also a TUTS veteran, Bross Stuart has worked with Piercy and Stewart Hunt before.
“Shel, Shelley and I have worked together on many shows; we go back a very long time,” said Stuart. “In fact, Shelley was actually my student when she was in Grade 8. And an excellent student at that! As a team, I have profound respect for Shel and Shelley. There is a wonderfully creative synergy between the two of them and between them and myself. They see possibilities which are almost magical.”
Bross Stuart’s first TUTS production was Fiddler on the Roof in 1997.
“In those days,” she said, “it had not occurred to people in Vancouver that it might be useful to have an actual Jewish person involved with a production of Fiddler on the Roof. TUTS was ahead of its time, realizing how important this would be! In those days, there was very little Jewish influence in this town, especially compared to where I had spent my childhood and young adult life – in New York City and Montreal.”
Describing working at TUTS as “intoxicating,” Bross Stuart highlighted the beauty of Stanley Park and said about the feeling of “conducting/playing outdoors in front of a large, appreciative audience – absolutely second to none. A very special experience!”
As well, she noted that “each show has completely different demands because of the material we are using.” For Bross Stuart, ABBA’s music was a new challenge.
“ABBA was not in my repertoire at all,” she admitted. “During the ABBA period, I was busy living in Japan and studying traditional music for koto and shamisen, composed by Yatsuhashi Kengyo and Tsuruyama Kengyo. No pop music for me! However, I have learned so much about this style from working on Mamma Mia! Doing ABBA music has taken me to a new place in my musical life. Growing and learning is such an exciting venture.”
While music rehearsals officially started on April 24, Bross Stuart said she opened her home for early rehearsals to anyone who wanted a head start.
“The style of the music makes the approach much different from most shows,” she said. “Less on the micro details and more on the big picture. As a detail-oriented person, it is a great learning experience for me – and, I am playing keyboard in a rock ’n’ roll band (and conducting). Each of the four keyboards is hooked up to a computer with many sound patches. I love it!”
For tickets to Mamma Mia! and Disney’s Newsies – which may not have local Jewish community members in its creative team but has music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman and book by Harvey Fierstein – visit tuts.ca or call 604-631-2877.
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.”
The PNE is hosting a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance! and, on Aug. 24, 4:30 p.m., there will be a show featuring 2014 participants in the program, Perry Ehrlich’s ShowStoppers and Sound Sensation troupes, as well as some past participants in these programs. (photo from Perry Ehrlich)
There are several anniversaries in Vancouver’s arts scene this year. It’s the 50th for the Arts Club and the 25th for Bard on the Beach, for example, but the one that hits closest to home is the 20th for the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s resident summer musical theatre program, Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance! (GSGD).
The brainchild of local lawyer Perry Ehrlich, this program grew from a relatively inauspicious start to become one of the premier children’s musical programs in the Lower Mainland. In an interview with the Independent, Ehrlich noted that it all started when he tried to enrol his daughter, Lisa, in musical theatre classes.
“I realized that when I was looking around at the various offerings that I could do a better job and, if I participated with Lisa, it would be an outlet for my creativity and a playground for my daughter and myself. I thought when my kids were finished, that would be the end of it. I never thought it would last for more than five or six years – but I fell in love with the kids and the process and here we are 20 years later!”
Ehrlich, a pianist, has a strong musical background. While at law school at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, he played for dinner theatre at a downtown hotel and was the musical director of the faculty’s annual Legal Follies. He also was co-director of Sound Sensation, which rehearsed in Richmond. GSGD owes its name to that group: when Ehrlich was looking for new members for the group, he put an ad in the Vancouver Sun setting out the required qualifications, “Gotta sing, gotta dance.” When searching for a name for his “baby,” he was reminded of that ad and the rest is history.
Over the years, hundreds of youngsters from 9-19 have come to the JCCGV every summer from all over British Columbia, the United States, Europe and Israel to participate in one of the two three-week sessions. Each session culminates in a public performance at the Rothstein Theatre with a bespoke Broadway-like production penned by Ehrlich.
“By writing my own show, we get to do not 10 but 30 songs, all choreographed, so everyone of the kids gets to do something. My philosophy is to teach the kids to get along with each other and to work as a team to develop both personally and artistically – the younger ones work with the older ones and we are like a family.”
Ehrlich treats participants like adults and the program is set up like a school, six hours a day, and the kids are expected to behave responsibly and with respect towards their fellow students and the teachers. Ehrlich has high expectations for his charges and pushes the kids to their limits.
“I don’t want them to be second rate,” he said. “Mediocrity is not an option. With only 13 days from start to end of rehearsal and then three days of performance, this is a pretty intense experience.”
The teachers are a world-class staff with the likes of choreographer Lisa Stevens, actor Josh Epstein and musician Wendy Bross-Stuart. Noting that one of the dance teachers choreographed the Olympic opening ceremonies, Ehrlich said, “The kids are exposed to that message of excellence.”
His three keys to success? “To stand up, speak up and know when to shut up.”
In addition to the base program, Ehrlich runs a finishing school for two hours after each day of GSGD for serious students who get instruction in auditioning techniques from local professionals.
Ehrlich takes the crème de la crème from his annual programs and invites them to participate in a year-round group appropriately named – from what this writer observed while sitting in a rehearsal – ShowStoppers. This mix of energetic, talented young teens performs together up to 20 times a year at such events as the BMO Vancouver Marathon, the Santa Claus and Canada Day parades and the opening ceremonies of the Special Olympics. On Aug. 24, 4:30 p.m., there will be a 20th-anniversary performance at the PNE.
Andrew Cohen, who recently emceed Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation’s Eight Over Eighty event, is an alumnus, one of the founding members of ShowStoppers and now a faculty member of the program. “I remember looking forward to summer vacation every year knowing that I would be going to GSGD,” he told the JI. “It grounded me and taught me respect and the work ethic you need to succeed in the industry. It gave me an edge over other kids when it came time to audition for parts. Theatre is an incredible outlet for growing kids. It teaches them the necessary social skills, to have confidence and speak out and up for themselves.” As to the success of the program, Cohen said, “I would say that GSGD is synonymous with children’s talent in Vancouver.”
Parent Mark Rozenberg was effusive in his praise of GSGD, in which two of his children participated. “It allows kids with a passion for singing, acting and dancing to learn and to practise their passion. It is the most amazing program with some of the best instructors. When I sent my children off to the JCC every day in the summer, I knew they were in good hands.”
Nathan Sartore, a current ShowStoppers participant, could not contain his enthusiasm for the program. “It is such an important part of my life and means everything to me,” he said. “I can’t imagine my life without it.”
“I watch these kids coming in as shy, quiet youngsters and see them leave as confident performers…. I teach and expect the kids to make a full-out commitment but also to have fun and laugh.”
Ehrlich said that he was bullied as a child and feels that many young people involved in musical theatre have faced some sort of bullying for their artistic passions. “I see my job as providing a safe, happy, nurturing, learning space where all the kids can develop confidence and self-esteem,” he explained. “I watch these kids coming in as shy, quiet youngsters and see them leave as confident performers. They get the opportunity to work as a team and make lifelong friends in an environment where people are loving and caring. I teach and expect the kids to make a full-out commitment but also to have fun and laugh.”
Ehrlich is grateful to the community for its financial support of GSGD through scholarship funds like the Babe Oreck Memorial Fund and the Phyllis and Irving Snider Foundation, so that no child is turned away from the program for financial reasons.
“I am no different than any father who coaches basketball or baseball,” said Ehrlich. “I am doing exactly what they are doing, creating teams, teaching excellence, building confidence and skills. All of us, in our own way, are giving these kids something productive to do, not just hanging around the local 7-Eleven.”
Productivity aside, walk by the Rothstein Theatre on any given summer weekday and you will hear the sounds of joy coming through the doors. You gotta love it.
Tova Kornfeldis a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.