A veteran photojournalist on the arts and entertainment scene, Julian Bynoe is a Toronto-based cartoonist, artist and arts blogger. From 1996 to 2014, he was the arts/entertainment editor for the street publication The Outreach Connection, and has had articles featured in Realms Magazine, among others.
Twist Your Dickens (The Second City)
Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts (5040 Yonge Street)
Wednesday, December 7; 8 p.m.
The ever-beloved A Christmas Carol never gets tired readings and viewings – or tired of getting spoofed in countless versions over the years and The Second City comedy troupe gets to take numerous pot-shots with Twist Your Dickens as the raunchiest ribald on Charles Dickens’ tale that I’ve seen yet, as written by Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort from TV The Colbert Report for its debut Toronto run at the Toronto Centre for the Arts’ Greenwin Theatre.
Since the Victorian Era story is so familiar that it doesn’t need too much to describe the miserly financier Ebenezer Scrooge’s (Seán Cullen) scared conversion to save his soul in sending him the three spirits the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, courtesy of his ghostly partner Jacob Marley (Patrick McKenna); there are some differences here: it mixes the contemporary pop culture with the story’s era, much to the chagrin of a audience heckler (Nigel Downer) who’s a stickler-to-details theatre student; and in-between skit segments parodying everything from the Three Wise Men in how to present their gifts to Jesus to Oliver Twist wanting to organize the Dickensian universe’s orphans into a union along with other famously fictional orphans from the Wizard of Oz and Batman, to some jazzy diva crucifying holiday songs during a recording session.
Director Chris Earle maintains the troupe’s tradition of improvisational comedy to seep into the play to give Twist Your Dickens its edge you’d expect from Second City to meld into its fabric of holiday pop culture crossovers to mingle into it from Scrooge giving directions for the George Bailey character from It’s A Wonderful Life to go jump off the nearest bridge when he comes looking for charity and the improv skits revealing “lost” footage from the A Charlie Brown Christmas TV special that is worth its weight in chuckles, are wicked watching in themselves.
Cullen dives into his Scrooge with totally evil abandonment from getting his jollies foreclosing mortgages on orphanages to terrorising his underlings – and is pretty funny in his dual roles as a 1950s jazz crooner named Johnny Ovenmitts – as Jason Derosse is good as the downtrodden apprentice Bob Cratchit, who contemplates murdering his boss horribly; along with his wife (Karen Parker) and Tiny Tim (Sarah Hillier). Other cast members are a hoot with Allie Price as a totally inebriated Ghost of Christmas Present and Nigel Downer doing double duty as the stickler-for-detail audience heckler-cum-theatre major and a colourful if fun Ghost of Christmas Past.
Unlike the annual Soulpepper Theatre’s traditional and truer adaptation of the story that they also take a dig at, Twist Your Dickens is definitely not a fare for the whole family. But if you don’t mind some salty banter in skewering the holiday season’s traditions to laugh at, then this two-hour farce will fill your bill even more than Second City’s own in-house production down at Mercer Street.
Garth Drabinsky (centre; with scarf) poses with the cast and creative team of his first theatre production in five years, Sousatzka, at the December 8 media conference at the Elgin Theatre where it will be held first next February in previews, before going to Broadway on its 2017-2018 season.
Veteran impresario Garth Drabinsky reveals his latest theatrical production Sousatzka, set for a pre-Broadway world premiere run at the Elgin Theatre beginning March 2017
Worlds collide and yet come together almost seamlessly by Garth Drabinsky, the pioneer behind cinematic multiplexes and Toronto becoming a major theatrical hub in the 1980s and ‘90s, as he presented Sousatzka, his latest production based on the 1962 Bernice Rubens novel Madame Sousatzka; before the media preview on December 8 at the Elgin Theatre’s dance rehearsal room.
Before presenting the five selections to be part of the musical that will get a limited world premiere run at the Elgin in next March before shuffling off to New York’s Broadway by the following October, the entertainment impresario and his director Adrian Noble opened with a few words before the cast went before the cameras of the media.
Sousatzka producer Garth Drabinsky
“It’s noteworthy that this (Elgin) theatre is the last freestanding Edwardian stat atmospheric theatre in the world,” Drabinsky began. “It was built in 1913 and architecturally designed by Thomas Stamp, the same architect that also built the Pantages (now Ed Mirvish Theatre) theatre up the street from here where Phantom of The Opera was housed for ten years…I have a tremendous emotional connection to this theatre, because I presented (Phantom) here for two years and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, as well as Aspects of Love and in 2011, the return engagement of Barrymore with Christopher Plummer.
“Over Sousatzka’s five-year journey to the stage, we produced a two-week reading in January of this year of the work and a six-week workshop this past summer,” he continued. “I want to stress that Sousatzka is not based on the (1988) film of the same name starring Shirley MacLaine that I co-produced while I was at Cineplex Odeon some thirty-odd years ago…(It’s) a musical about god-given genius, the sacrificial journey of refugees and the ultimate redemption of the human spirit to begin again.”
Centering on a young South African piano prodigy Themba, played by newcomer Jordan Barrow; who is torn between his teacher Miss Sousatzka, herself a refugee who fled her native Poland to escape the Holocaust, played by Broadway legend Victoria Clark; and his political refugee activist mother Xholiswa, to be played by Tony-winning actor Montego Glover (Memphis), all living in early 1980s London at the height of Thatcherism in England and South African apartheid gaining back the world’s attention, with flashbacks to the 1975 Soweto uprisings and to pre-World War II Warsaw and during the Nazi German occupation added in between.
As all three struggle and learn on finding their own voices about freedom and hope in exile, it’s also a timeless tale on learning to let go of the things that hold so dear to us, which is not lost on the producer and his team of 47 performers and a powerhouse of creative minds involved with three-time Tony nominated book writer Craig Lucas (An American in Paris, The Light In The Piazza, Prelude to a Kiss), Tony-winning lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. and Academy Award-winning composer David Shire (Norma Rae) with additional lyrics and vocal arrangements by the Grammy-winning Lebo M.(The Lion King) and Grammy-nominated Marius de Vries (Moulin Rouge; La La Land) and choreographed by ten-time Tony-nominee Graciela Daniele (Ragtime; The Visit), all created in a mélange of the classical, pop and punk genres of the West to the jazzy mbaqanga polyrhythms of South Africa which contributed to the liberation movement.
“Over the two-and-a-half years I’ve been involved in this,” said Noble, a veteran director who served off-and-on as Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespearean Company from 1980 to 2002 and worked with the likes of Helen Mirren to Kenneth Branaugh; “it’s been a remarkable how very intimately this material has touched people, not because of the potency of the music and story, but because of the themes and the emotion of those themes evoke.
Sousatzka director Adrian Noble
“The musical rather ambushed me because I found that it talked to my life in way that I really wasn’t expecting to at all. My grandfather was an economic migrant one hundred and twenty years ago, when all the coal mines and timber mills had closed (in England) and there was a diaspora of all the workers from across the globe, many here to Canada. My grandfather went to Colorado and from Colorado he was recruited to South Africa. And as you do, of course he died at the age of thirty-four of silicosis, and my father was orphaned and they were shipped back to Cornwall and his grave is now less than thirty miles from the site of our first scene in Sousatzka opens (in South Africa).
“So we have a century of peoples, millions of people moving around the earth the consequences of which is very hard to predict and the implications of which we certainly in Europe, we feel almost daily in the political aftermath that seems to be ricocheting through the world. As I say, this material echoes in us all…It’s important about journeys; about physical journeys, about spiritual journeys. But I suppose at the heart of it really, is something rather marvellous which, of course, is the dream of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who expressed the notion of a ‘rainbow nation’ of which is an idea that we celebrate in our musical,” Noble said. “It’s an idea of hope and it proffers a great political and social challenge for our time and it’s a challenge that we’ve got to meet.”
Despite the socio-political messages imbued in their presentation, Drabinsky insisted that Sousatzka doesn’t set out to present an indictment of any past political movement or government, other than dramatizing of what it takes to survive the brutality political imprisonment, of exile and loss, which is a universally trans-historical problem evidentially to all eras and to all continents and every nation, at one time or another; or even from his own personal experiences of being a the son of refugee parents from postwar Europe, overcoming his hardships of childhood polio (which was evident at the media conference, as he came out in a walker) to his noted career ups and downs of starting and losing both his cinema chain and theatrical empires of Cineplex and Livent, respectively.
Dress rehearsal scenes from the Sousatzka media conference with Montego Glover and Fuschia! performing “So Sing” (left); “Gifted/This Boy” with Victoria Clark and Jordan Barrow (center) and “All I Wanna Do (Is Go Dancin’)” as performed by Sara Jean Ford and Barrow (right).
“In so doing, our musical is in the context of the political and social upheaval of certain periods of the twentieth-century,” Drabinsky explained, “and hopefully gives it a social and political relevance. This is done of what I said five years ago. However, as intervening world events unfolded, I believe the story has become a profound fable for our times, as it confronts the chilling issues of race, of exile and of refugees.
“But in the end, Sousatzka is a story about dreams of what’s possible and what might be. We deal with the dreams of people from different cultures, languages, memories and music in art living side by side without eliminating anyone’s truth or roots, coexisting and collaborating.”
©2014-2017 Julian Bynoe/Snow Leopard ArtsEntertainment. All rights reserved.