A veteran photojournalist on the Toronto 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.

EDITION #66 - WEEK OF NOVEMBER 16-22, 2015

Soulful Americana

Spoon River (Soulpepper Theatre)

Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane

Saturday, November 14; 7:30 p.m.

Theatre Review

“The dead only know one thing: it is better to be alive,” so said Sergeant Joker in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. While the anti-war classic rode on the macabre side of death, Soulpepper Theatre’s ever-popular Dora Award-winning musical adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters’ free-verse poetry of Spoon River weaves and bobs of the characters from his one hundred year-old anthology and breathes life into long-gone souls that speak to us about life, done in a uniquely fashion.

After a homily given to a newly departed soul in a Midwestern American town based on where Masters grew up in around the post-Civil War era, the graveyard comes alive with a cast of thousands – played by nineteen of Soulpepper’s basic ensemble – breaking into song and storytelling of their lives, some humorous and some heartbreaking; towards the passer-bys (a.k.a. the audience) on their timeline in this world on how to live life.

There’s the likes of right-wing blowhard Thomas Rhodes, the Chinese immigrant that was the victim of religious extremism against his Confucian beliefs, a playboy named Lucius Atherton and his more-or-less bitter conquests, an elderly maidservant made to suffer in silence yet with pride over the true parentage of a populist young politician from an affluent family, the hindsight of a soldier’s blind patriotism during his involvement in the Spanish-American War in the Philippines to one Fiddler Joe who put his passion of music first ahead of society’s expectations without regret, among others.

Directed and adapted by Albert Schultz, he puts on a hearty and sincere turn to Masters’ characters in the 90-minute run engaged with all melodrama and tragicomedy as seen as an insight through the eyes and norms of late-19th/early 20th-century America, stripped of any hokey or water-downed trappings to give it its sincerity, made possible by the period costuming by Erika Connor and set/lighting designs of Ken MacKenzie.

And the music is true authentic salute to Americana of the original folk/country/bluegrass score of Mike Ross, as demonstrated in a song about the excessiveness of alcohol (“Drinking”), the confessions of an arsonist (“Fire”), an husband’s lament on his unfaithful wife done in New Orleans Dixieland-fashion (“She Took”) to the climactic message about living (“Soul Alive”) is the very heart and soul of this musical journey with the dead.

Frankly speaking, Soulpepper should seriously expand on Spoon River for a larger audience and venue that has great potential on an international stage. But then again, the smaller confines of its venue give it the intimacy, spirit and drive that make it so good for the viewer to delve into the experience.

***

Spoon River runs through to this Sunday (November 22). Tickets/information: 416-866-8666 or soulpepper.ca.

Seaside rom-drama artsy

By the Sea (Universal)

Cast: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupard

Writer/Director: Angelina Jolie Pitt

Producers: Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt

Film Review

Any cynic can call By the Sea a self-indulgent pet project by a Hollywood power couple or from a pragmatist point of view, an analytical perspective on the modern marriage on the rocks story with a European art-house twist presented by Angelina Jolie Pitt – serving as writer, director and co-producer – with husband/co-producer Brad Pitt, their first film in ten years since Mr. & Mrs. Smith (which brought them together in the first place). But one should come into this romantic-drama with an open-minded view that as glorified these two have been branded as Brangelina, they put on a broadening performance they probably wouldn’t put on were it some glossy melodrama as some commercial studios would pressurize them to do instead.

Set in some seaside resort in 1970s southern France, Roland (Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie Pitt) are an vacationing American couple, from the very first opening shot; are indeed troubled with a marriage in dire need of fixing after fourteen years, given their quiet nuances and scattered conversations show a lack of communication in their relationship over a previous tragedy. Roland, a frustrated writer who’s brought her along to find some inspiration to write instead spends more time at the bar run by bartender Michel (Niels Arestrup) and his literally silent partner Patrice (Richard Bohringer) than banging away on the typewriter, let alone be with his gorgeous, lonely wife.

When she’s not popping tranquilizers to dull her senses or lounging on the balcony making observations of a fisherman who goes out to sea and returns empty-handed on a daily basis, bored Vanessa keeps tabs with some young French honeymooners next door, François (Poupaud) and Lea (Laurent), with casual balcony encounters or discreet voyeurism with their bedroom antics with a hole between their suites she accidentally discovers. As their lives intersect with each other, Roland and Vanessa slowly try to find each other and salvage what is left or if it can be saved at all.

As she did in her first directing effort In the Land of Blood and Honey, Jolie Pitt shoots luscious scenery and turns stories into character-driven works with bluntly honest and sparse dialogue echoing the palpable tension within the deafening silence and distance between them that can be felt in the performances working in its favour than any talky drama of this ilk would, and boils over in the third act effectively.

Jolie Pitt plays a tortured and tragic anti-heroine out of Vanessa, letting her be eaten up by envy against the happiness by the younger couple yet still looks to reach out to Pitt’s Roland, who’s swallowing all his pent-up frustrations with equal conviction and looking for a way to reconnect to her. Supporting acts Arestrup divulges worldly wisdom despite his own personal loss in a fatherly way in this role; Poupard and Laurent make a convincing innocent couple not caught in any hang-ups until they meet Vanessa and Roland as simple as they can to flesh out.

By the Sea is a tense, interesting character study put on by Jolie Pitt and Pitt away from their more commercialist work of late that isn’t seen too often from a major studio to let them do something this bold outside the indie film circuit they could have easily have done all by themselves, is what’s needed in a film industry way too occupied with film franchises nowadays to do some realistic and brave filmmaking. Bravo.

Head-Bangers to Humbugs hold the Holidays

Left-right: Tomson Highway; Ross Petty and Company's Peter Pan in Wonderland and Twisted Sister headman Dee Snider in his Rock & Roll Christmas Tale offers just a sample of a plethora of holday happenings across Toronto.

Holiday Listings 2015

This holiday season in Toronto gets jam-packed with choices around town from a theatre company taking on an ambitious distribution of productions, one comedy troupe posing a triple threat for all ages, a celebrated dramaturge tickles the ivories to a local stage legend preparing to step down from being the nastiest of them all that should keep the populace well entertained into the new year.

Starting with music, The Art of Time Ensemble begins a new holiday tradition with To All A Good Night (December 3-5) at Harbourfront Centre Theatre (235 Queen’s Quay West) playing traditional and non-traditional tunes in reflecting the season with five singers and the Ensemble’s seventeen-member big band doing Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite to darker anti-Christmas classics by The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” and Tom Waits’ “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”, Joni Mitchell’s “River” and off-beat staples including Tom Lehrer’s “Hanukkah in Santa Monica.”

Native Canadian playwright Tomson Highway takes to the piano for Songs in the Key of Cree (December 12-13) at Hugh’s Room (2261 Dundas Street West) where he’ll play Brazilian samba, jazz and Québécois folk songs with the influences of Cole Porter and Kurt Weill with a few friends like John Alcorn, Marcus Ali, Micah Barnes, Laura Hubert, Teresa Castonguay, Jani Lauzon and Patricia Cano helping out.

And for a little rocking around the Christmas tree, Dee Snider’s Rock & Roll Christmas Tale opens this week (November 17) created by 1980s hair metal god Dee Snider of Twisted Sister fame narrating a twisted take on the yuletide season at the Winter Garden Theatre (189 Yonge Street) following Däisy Cütter, a heavy metal band still pursuing the big dream of stardom and in desperation sell their souls to Satan. But instead, their head-bangers anthems turn into warm-hearted carolling tunes, thus turning it into a lesson about the holiday spirit. The show will also include ‘80s pop queen Taylor Dayne joining the cast of Kevin Fox, Sean Kelly, Lexi Soha, Tim Funnell and Second City’s Josh Murray. The show will run through to January 3.

Those wishing to stick to the sacred, there’s the return of South Africa’s Soweto Gospel Choir at the Sony Centre (1 Front Street East) with their newest choral show Celebrate on December 4; the Nathaniel Dett Chorale and Ballet Creole sharing a stage for An Indigo Christmas…Soulful Messiah (December 4-6) at Harbourfront Centre’s Fleck Dance Theatre (207 Queen’s Quay West) with their take on Handel’s Messiah and the St. Michael’s Choir School marking half a century with their Golden Jubilee Concert (December 5-6) at Massey Hall featuring the 270 choristers perform under the direction of conductors Dr. Jerzy Cichocki and St. Michael’s Cathedral organist William O’Meara along with Teri Dunn and Maria Conkey who makes her Massey Hall Christmas concert debut conducting the Junior Choir, plus special guests harpist Lori Gemmel and the True North Brass.

The Danforth Music Hall (147 Danforth Avenue) puts on its 23rd annual charity Riverdale Share Concert on December 6 to benefit the non-profit Riverdale Share Community to raise funds for needy families in the Riverdale community which will have The Toronto Choral Society Children’s Choir, jazz chanteuses Terra Hazelton and Micah Barnes, the Artist Play Dance School, The Uncle Ron Band and more, including a brief drop-in from Santa Claus with Mike Tanner hosting this year’s event.

Onstage, Second City Toronto (51 Mercer Street) has two holiday shows, the adult-oriented Unwrapped (November 23 - January 1) satirizing tacky traditions, unwanted gifts and familial meltdowns; the all-ages puppet show The Naughty Listers (December 19-January 1) as a trusted elf decides to go AWOL at Santa’s Workshop and old Saint Nick is forced to hire the naughtiest kids on his list to redeem themselves by getting the Workshop back in line in time for Christmas Eve, as well as their current sketch show Click Bait & Switch will have a special New Year’s Eve show (December 31) complete with party favours and champagne. And for more local laughs, the cabaret Live from the Annex’s holiday show December 1 will have stand-up comic star Elvira Kurt, comedy ensemble Brunswick Stew and others to give their take on sketch humour, music and on-spot improv at the Centre for Social Innovation’s Annex Garage (720 Bathurst Street).

Soulpepper Theatre puts together theatricals, magic and music for the month of December and into early January, all but two of them returnees under their home roof at the Young Centre (50 Tank House Lane) with A Christmas Carol (December 3-January 3), comedy/drama Kim’s Convenience (December 10-27), the kid-lit poetry carnival Alligator Pie (December 16-January 3), master illusionist David Ben’s new magic show Tricks (December 5-January 3) and the all-ages concert A Very Soulpepper Christmas (December 19, 20, 23 and 26) of holiday songs and stories; and exclusively at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts (27 Front Street East), the screwball rom-com Parfurmerie (December 3- January 3) of two loggerheaded shop clerks inadvertently sending each other love letters.

And it’s the end of an era of sorts, as the infamous King of Boos Ross Petty makes his final appearances in his annual pantomime in colliding two classics into one for Peter Pan in Wonderland, the 20th Anniversary Family Musical Panto-monium (November 27-January 3). Anthony MacPherson plays the eternal boy wonder and Canadian Idol finalist Steffi DiDomenicantonio is Wendy taking a unusual detour into Alice’s Wonderland run by the Queen of Hearts by Jessica Holmes up against the returning Dan Chameroy as the love-starved favourite Plumbum versus Petty’s dark-hearted Captain Hook and Eddie Glen as his suffering sideman Smee, down by the Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge Street).

***

Tickets are now on sale. For information, call 416-866-8666 or soulpepper.ca. (Soulpepper); 416-973-4000/harbourfrontcentre.com (Harbourfront events) or artoftimeensemble.com (Art of Time Ensemble); 1-855-872-7669/sonycentre.ca (Soweto Gospel Choir); 416-872-1255/masseyhall.com (St. Michael’s Choir); 416-531-6604/hughsroom.com (Songs in the Key of Cree); 416-343-0011/secondcity.com (Second City); 1-855-622-2787/ticketmaster.ca (Dee Snider Christmas); ticketmaster.ca (Riverdale); 416-619-4621/livefromtheannex.com (Annex) and 1-855-599-9090/rosspetty.com.(Peter Pan).