Tag Archives: Kimberley Johnston

A Quiet Riot

The English musical theatre adaptation of Les Belles-Soeurs, originally written by Michel Tremblay (his landmark piece of theatre, Les Belles-Soeurs, has been performed around the world in more than 25 languages), is a fun show to behold, but could also be a cautionary tale of commercialism and the perils of piety.

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When dreary housewife Germaine Lauzon (Lisa Horner, who is debuting at The Centre this year, having played in Kinky Boots, Wizard of Oz, Les Misérables (Mirvish Productions); Fiddler on the Roof, Good Mother (Stratford), & TV/Film credits for Little Mosque on the Prairie, Road to Avonlea to name a few. Lisa has also received two Dora Awards for her work in Wizard of Oz and Grey Gardens) wins one million customer loyalty stamps worth $100,000 of free catalogue items and is betrayed by her God-fearing friends and relatives during a stamp licking party, one has to wonder what they are really worshipping. Is it God, materialism, or both?

The performance runs rampant with religious overtones. Germaine’s favourite exclamation is: “St. Therese!”, a French saint who wants for everything in her childhood but joined a convent to serve God when she was 15 years old. Germaine hands out the stamps to her friends, almost as if they are a sacrament, to paste to redemption cards. The most notable, and entertaining, example is the Ode to Bingo stop action, slo-mo number, in the second act, which ends in a tableau reminiscent of da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

The play starts off with a bang amidst an invigorating performance of “I Want It All” with an all-female cast of jealous homespun ladies spanning the generational spectrum trickling in, drooling over the prospect of new furniture, reversible dresses, & 4-slice toasters. It takes place in the working class community of Plateau-Mont-Royal, Montreal, in 1965, in the midst of the Quiet Revolution, a time of cultural introspection for Quebec. The time period is after schools are no longer administered through the Catholic Church and before Expo 67, when French president Charles De Gaulle declared “Vive le Quebec Libre!” on the balcony of Montreal city hall.

The word ‘Free’ is a recurring theme in the script. Germaine and her party guests crave things they don’t have to pay for but also wish to be liberated from their dreary lives. They steal their host’s stamps, diminishing their respective portrayals of piety, leaving Germaine to question her own belief system.

The ‘holier than thou’ attitude of the party goers is most evident when Germaine’s sister Pierrette (played by Geneviève Leclerc in her debut at The Centre, having appeared in: Guys & Dolls, Lies My Father Told Me (Segal Centre); Les Misérables (US and Canadian tours), a club hostess and social pariah, makes an appearance at the end of the first act. Everyone seems scandalized and are hesitant to exchange words with her, even if they see her regularly at the club. Germaine’s daughter Linda (played by Elise Cormier, also debuting at The Centre, appearing in Les Misérables(Le Capitole, La Place des Arts) & Little Women (La Bordée) is anxious to speak with Pierrette about her lifestyle and how she was able to escape the drab existence that plagues the other characters.

One of my favorite numbers included a song of jealousy called ”It’s A Dull Life” featuring some unusual, yet surprisingly delightful percussion choices (by Peter Colantonio with pit credit for Belles Soeurs: The Musical (National Arts Centre) including pots, pans, a washboard & even a kazoo! Another song featured the use of a rocking chair & of course, there’s no other way to describe it other than to say It Rocked! Aside from the music & a story that I think a lot of people can relate to (6/49 & Chase the Ace wishlist fantasies have never been hard to come by around here), the use of gossip & perfectly timed passive-aggressive name-calling kept the laughs rolling throughout this kitchen party of a tale that surfs on the cusp of rags to riches.

This show is excellent and will give audience members a lot to talk about. The creative and technical aspects are all very well thought out and executed. The 1960s kitchen and costumes (Costume Designer: Mérédith Caron who has contributed to more than 150 works & is considered a leader in the field of costume design, having worked at the Stratford Festival & Cirque du Soleil: Criss Angel Believe (Las Vegas) & Amaluna since the beginning of her career in 1978) were brilliantly done, along with the second storey balcony where the characters could sing and emote without having to be on the stage proper. Audience members familiar with the story will recognize Pierrette almost immediately.

Eagle-eyed viewers may also recognize Lisa Horner (Germaine) as the Ikea Start the Car lady, from the iconic commercial (which, oddly, has similar themes to this play). In this show, Horner looks more like Jean Stapleton’s Edith Bunker, which is a testament to the skills of the makeup and costume departments. I enjoyed the costumes of Linda most of all. They were bright, fun, and fit the period; and were a stark contrast to the other ladies’ outfits. Germaine’s party dress is also a showstopper.

Any acting troupes looking for a fun musical with 12 strong female roles, an entertaining book and lyrics (Book and lyrics by Director René Richard Cyr & Music by Juno Award winner Daniel Bélanger), should take a look at Belles Soeurs: The Musical.

Belles Soeurs: The Musical runs from September 13th to October 1st, 2016 at the Homburg Theatre.

Review by Kimberly Johnston and PL Holden, Used by permission. Originally posted on http://www.onrpei.ca.

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Mining the Mundane for Comedy Gold

British-born comedian Chris Gibbs, who opened for the sold out run of Stranger to Hard Work starring Cathy Jones last summer, has returned to Victoria Playhouse with his new one-man show about life, death, family, and fatherhood. Like Father, Like Son? SORRY (which premiered at the 2009 Toronto Fringe Festival, where it won Patron’s Pick) is billed as a stand-up comedy show but it’s so much more. Gibbs, the creator and star, mines his life for comedy gold. He brings us into his world of memorable characters and noble self-deprecation.

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Chris Gibbs (who has toured extensively as a stand-up comedian and improviser, written and performed 5 hit, award-winning one-man shows, & was a regular guest on NBC’s comedy series Howie Do It) now lives in Toronto with his Canadian wife and son, is sensitive to the fact audiences may be offended by words like “vaginal”, or “fallopian”. He mentions that words can be more palatable when spoken in a cartoon voice; so he says them like Scooby Doo. Gibbs is also apologetic when he says his son is blonde-haired, blue-eyed and tall for his age. But he doesn’t mean to brag; he’s only stating facts.

One of my favourite parts is when Gibbs makes light of the fact his good-looking son has all the dominant traits of his mother. He launches into the interaction that must have taken place between the sperm and egg to result in a complete lack of genetic representation on the part of the Gibbs family.

The most vivid scene Gibbs paints is the birth of his son, Beckett, by way of caesarean section. He uses voices, physicality & plenty of his patented Gibb-erish to introduce the different personalities taking part, one of which is an overly-sensitive anaesthesiologist. His Hugh Grant impression, I might add, was also right on.

Gibbs, who kept the laughs coming in rapid succession in this light-hearted & clean (which this audience, I’m certain, was very appreciative for) two set stand-up routine, was quick to point out his shyness but seemed very at ease on the Victoria Playhouse stage, appearing unwilling to leave it at the end of the night. He thanked his audience members profusely and asked them to tell everyone they know about the show.

And that’s what I plan to do.

Like Father, Like Son? SORRY is playing at the Victoria Playhouse September 9th to 16th.

Review by Kimberly Johnston and PL Holden Used by permission. Originally posted on http://www.onrpei.ca.

A Prism For Your Soul

The Glass Menagerie is 1,000 points of light being refracted into a kaleidoscope of emotion. It will give you many feelings, big and small. You may have feelings that you don’t know where they come from and you possibly never will. The performances are so raw they will reach you on a cellular level instead of an emotional one. Basically, The Glass Menagerie may break your heart into a million tiny pieces lying on the floor of the Watermark Theatre. You may not be able to mend it until you’ve had a good cry in your car after the show.

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In Watermark Theatre’s 9th season Robert Tsonos, in his 1st year as Artistic Director, introduced this classic written by Tennessee Williams who wrote his first play as a teenager in 1935. Williams was a cutting edge playwright & most widely recognized for winning two Pulitzer Prizes, with “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947) and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1955). This play, I’m told, is partly autobiographical based on his college years in St. Louis providing him with a time & place for his first masterpiece.

Tsonos also took time to thank the interns that are part of the company this season as part of their Mentorship Program. We were talking with one of the stage hands during intermission who was grateful to get some hands-on experience through this program. Another example of how much this theatre continues to care about giving back to the next generation of talent. According to the program: This is a great set for learning. The theatre is small enough to be nurturing & large enough to have processes & policies in place to keep an intern safe.

In the early moments of the first act, Gracie Finley (raised in Charlottetown, trained in London, England, Ms. Finley is best known for playing Anne Shirley at the Charlottetown Festival from 1968 to 1974 and again in 1984 and 1985, being the first Islander to play Anne. She has had numerous roles at The Watermark including The Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, the Nurse in Romeo & Juliet, & Lady Markby in An Ideal Husband) pranced around the stage cleverly decorated with antique furniture (compliments to set designer William Layton who created a convincing depression era St. Louis atmosphere on this unique in-the-round stage) as she reminisced about her younger days of entertaining her multitudes of callers. In a most intense performance, she plays a mother who is extremely worried about the future for her daughter & feels as though something has got to give for better or worse. Finley in my opinion is the face of Watermark this year & gets my vote for MVP of this company.

Leah Pritchard (who has worked throughout the Atlantic provinces & helped lead Watermark Theatre’s youth theatre conservatory for the past two summers) plays Laura, a china doll of a woman who has a penchant for collection glass trinkets. In the grips of the shyness of her character often loses her composure. She displays convincingly that she lives with a disability & very low opinion of herself. I had high expectations of Pritchard’s portrayal of the sensitive, delicate Laura and I was not disappointed. Similarly, Gracie Finley did an outstanding job in her interpretation of the aged Southern Belle Amanda Wingfield. The play was the perfect vehicle for both performers and they pulled out all the stops.

Daniel Briere (who has spent the last 3 seasons at the Stratford Festival of Canada. Recent credits include Hamlet (Shakespeare Bash’d), Antony & Cleopatra, & Romeo & Juliet (Stratford Festival) makes an appearance as the much anticipated dinner guest, and Laura’s high school crush, Jim O’Connor. He is charismatic and dapper, and everything Laura deserves. The scene where Laura and Jim sit on the floor talking may be my favourite part of the show. This is where we see Laura turn into the ethereal, beautiful creature she has the potential to be. And the kiss was pretty spectacular as well.

Rounding off the cast of four, Joshua Browne’s (who has worked at IFT Theatre, Circlesnake Theatre, Theatre Gargantua & more) portrayal of Tom Wingfield is an excellent case study in how raw emotion can be conveyed just by standing still. I’m not sure what method Browne used to master the 1,000-yard stare Tom adopts, during critiques of his character by Amanda, who accused him of being as eloquent as an oyster, but it was effective. And universal. I felt scenes much like that one, between mother and son, were being played out in households all over the world in a million different languages. Often times getting poetic, the young low-wage warehouse worker spoke of magicians, late night travels, & a thirst for adventure. I must admit I was a little surprised to see him smoking on stage, but I later learned it was actually an e-cig, which is apparently acceptable indoors.

I’m not sure how much information to give about the much anticipated second half, for fear of spoilers, but it may not incorporate the ending audiences were hoping for. However, it could be the ending we needed in order to realize how invested we’ve become in the characters.

Robert Tsonos, who directed the play and is doing great so far as Duncan MacIntosh’s successor as Artistic Director for the Watermark Theatre this year did an amazing job in leading the cast and crew to create something, I hope, they will always be proud of. After the show, I think I heard Tsonos’s voice crack as he invited the audience to a reception. He seemed to be quite moved by the performance, and rightly so. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay at the reception for long. I had to go to my car and cry.

This, much like other classics over the years in Rustico, is not light theatre, although there are plenty of laughs scattered throughout the script. The lesson I took from this play is the harsh reality present early in the Twentieth Century still holds true today that if we can’t believe in ourselves we simply cannot expect anyone else to & I can totally relate to that scenario, as I’m sure many others in the audience probably could at some point in their lives. Bottom line: Great show all around. If it is not the ending audience members are hoping for, they can read A Pretty Trap by Tennessee Williams. That oughta cure what ails them!

Review by Kimberley Johnston and PL Holden. Used by permission. Originally posted on http://www.onrpei.ca.

Blithe Spirit Transcends Time and Space

Director Alan Kinsella could help a cucumber sandwich achieve its fullest theatrical potential. I know this because I played witness to the managerial marvel at the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico Friday night. What he was able to do with a misbehaving wooden table during a séance was pretty impressive as well. With such direction, it is no small wonder the cast and crew of Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward pulled off a transcendent performance on opening night, July 15th.

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The show was written in 1941 but the set, lights, and music were done in such a way the show could have been set in any decade. The play is no doubt British but, with some imagination and talent, it could take place in any village or city. That’s the joy of life, death and jealousy. The themes transcend both time and space.

Watermark stalwart Gracie Finley set the standard in her exuberant portrayal of Madame Arcati, a vivacious medium who unwittingly turns Mr. and Mrs. Condomimes’ lives upside down by granting Mrs. Condomine the Former, Elvira, a visit of indeterminate length. Mr. Charles Condomime is at first rattled by the sojourn of the free-spirited spectre and quickly becomes comfortable with the idea of being an ‘astral polygamist’. Charles is played marvellously by Daniel Briere who has a wide repertoire of facial expressions, reminiscent of Rowan Atkinson of Black Adder fame. Briere and Suzanne Roberts Smith (Elvira) play off each other nicely and make the relationship between Charles and Elvira quite believable and, oddly, not creepy.

Enter Ruth, Mrs. Condomime the Current, played by PEI native Bryde MacLean. Understandably, Ruth is not happy with the new living arrangement but she keeps a stiff upper lip. For a little while, anyway. MacLean’s portrayal of Ruth was fun to watch. It was exquisitely executed and made more visually arresting by MacLean’s resemblance to Anne Hathaway. Her presence was made ever more magnetic with the outfits put together by costume designer Kathryn Sherwin. MacLean’s absence for part of the show was very remarkable as I was excited to see what she would be wearing next.

Joshua Browne makes the most of his time on stage, as Dr. Bradman, who takes Madame Arcati’s jabs like a champ. I’m anxious to see Browne play Tom in The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams on July 16th.

Leah Pritchard returns to the Watermark this year to work double duty in this piece; first as Edith, the ready-to-serve maid who may be more than she appears and, second, as Dr. Bradman’s chatty better half. I very much look forward to Pritchard’s portrayal of Laura in The Glass Menagerie. With Pritchard’s easy beauty, light complexion and nuanced performances, Laura may be the role she was born to play.

Robert Tsonos had a very successful first opening night as the new artistic director. Tsonos is no stranger to the Watermark stage and seems very eager to take on new responsibilities. In addition to his artistic director duties, of which I’m sure there are many, Tsonos will be directing The Glass Menagerie. Tsonos is making great strides in making the Watermark a community-integrated space. The theatre acts as a fine gallery for local artisans, serves local beer, and hosts a mentorship theatre program and teenage conservatory to foster the next generation of theatrical professionals.

Bottom line: If you’re looking for some cerebral comedy with a splash of slapstick, Blithe Spirit is the show for you. It’s playing now until August 27th at 7:30 p.m. on selected dates with one matinee on August 10th starting at 1:30 p.m.

Review by Kimberley Johnston. Used by permission. Originally posted on http://www.onrpei.ca.

Spoon River Haunts the Mack

In an anthology of character sketches, the poetry by Edgar Lee Masters, & music composed by Mike Ross, the simple folk of a time long forgotten were immortalized by stirring southern stories that delved into old time trials & tribulations with a whole gamut of Victorian sins. For Kimberley Johnston & I this was 1st time back at The Mack, known for its well put together theatre in a small intimate setting since Dear Johnnie Deere 2 years ago as a reviewer team.

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The press release about Spoon River gives a very detailed description about the concept & journey of this peice: In 2015, Spoon River (produced by Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto) won Canada’s prestigious Dora Award for Outstanding New Musical. Now in 2016 Spoon River makes its first appearance outside Toronto, at Confederation Centre’s Mack theatre in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. The musical is based on the classic Spoon River Anthology, written 100 years ago by Edgar Lee Masters. In this rendition, poems of the dead are brought to life and set to music by PEI’s own Mike Ross. Albert Schultz directs the 11-member cast, as they raise their voices in song, telling of loves, losses, and hard-earned truths. The Charlottetown Festival produced this mystical, dream-like musical in association with Soulpepper Theatre.

First off, we would say music was on point, incredibly talented Spoon River composer Mike Ross talked a little bit in an interview recently about the trend of Music Theatre: a place where concert & theatre meet. Ross, who has spent some time working in Toronto has been very successful, we’re glad to have him back on PEI teaming up with director Albert Schultz of CBC’s Street Legal & Side Effects (a quote someone who might’ve seen that show might remember was, “people die, it’s a side effect of living”) for Spoon River. Poetry in song is beautiful, so rhythmic.

Brendan Wall (Spoon River world premiere; War Horse for Mirvish and London’s West End; Mirvish’s Once) who is making his Charlottetown Festival debut this year caught my attention early in the show with a song that had a bit of a Tom Waits ring to it. His animated swinging of the mandolin with a tic-toc rhythm standing next to a beautiful, vailed, & very ghostly Susan Henley (‘Rachel Lynde’ in Anne of Green Gables-The MusicalTM; Evangeline; Hairspray! 1st U.S. National tour) with a barrage of instruments including 2 pianists joining in on chorus, jumping back & forth from intimate to blown up musical experience with haunting melodies & saloon-type music would’ve been the musical highlight for me on the 4th or 5th song (I should mention we were a little late getting in so, of course we failed to get a program & missed the introduction). Another honorable mention has to go to Alicia Toner (Evangeline; lead in the Centre’s Cinderella; Mirvish’s Once) for her solo piece on violin with the in-coming train featuring a deer in the headlights look which left me absolutely spell bound.

Actors did amazingly well & were very animated. Characters had distinct facial characteristics which the perfect lighting accentuated. A trip back in time with this play, at least I felt like I was in another time & that, to me, is the power of theatre. Their recitals gave an impression of what the epic poems of Homer’s era might’ve been like. Dialects were great, the Scottish & Southern accents especially. The importance of the way the voice executes a monologue is instrumental. According to Stuart Pearce, Voice coach from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, “Your voice is your identity in sound. It is far more than just a means with which to communicate your thoughts & feelings; it is the expression of your integrity & individuality in the world!

Passion is what the actors put into the poems. In the opening monologue, Jonathan Ellul (Forever Plaid; King Lear and Oklahoma! at Stratford Festival) had to look & delivery of a genuine southern playboy. His accent & demeanor actually reminded me a lot of Robert Downey Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder (a true comedic tour de force in that picture, by the way, for Downey who also shined in the DVD commentary as well).

Fantastic set design convincingly turned the stage atmosphere into a graveyard! Great use of realistic trees & a surprisingly realistic full moon on stage, you could see the craters & everything. All characters were well used & the props were just as well used. In the 1st song, Soulpepper Theatre Company regular, Daniel Williston (Soulpepper’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Death of a Salesman; Mirvish’s Kinky Boots) made poignant use of a casket for drums which might actually have been very cathartic. I loved the scene when those caskets were standing up. There were 2 boards standing upward with couples lying next to each switching pairs each time the lights dimmed. It took a couple of minutes for me to realize, but I got the impression we were watching from a horizontal instead of vertical angle looking down at an open graves. This part quite possibly used old illusionist lighting tactics from the days before Tesla & Edison came on the scene which would’ve been quicker than eyes of those townsfolk seeing as how our more recent generations are so used to the flickering screens of TV, computer, & handheld devices.

Another highlight for me, Matt Campbell, (lead in The Full Monty and Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad; Canada ROCKS!) I am happy to report, is back at The Mack! He’s an old pro of the Charlottetown Festival & he’s someone I’ve gotten a chance to see on stage every year since I started doing reviews. Whenever we see him perform, we want to see more of him, especially in these ensemble pieces. Kimberley’s need to see him this time, however, was sated, he was really well used. His boyish charm is an asset that is right up there with his musical ability, he’s versatile yet he sticks to his niche & he always seems to play roles that suit his style. The extremely gifted vocalist Alana Bridgewater (Hairspray; Mirvish’s We Will Rock You; Gemini-nominated vocalist), Mary Francis Moore (co-writer of Bittergirl and Bittergirl-The Musical; lead in TPM’s The Thing Between Us), Sandy Winsby (four seasons as ‘Matthew’ in AnneTM; Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway; Mirvish’s Kinky Boots), Amanda LeBlanc (lead in Dear Johnny Deere; 2016 National Arts Centre Ensemble), & Richard Lam (Spoon River world premiere; The Crucible and Of Human Bondage (Soulpepper) rounded off the cast of 11 with some shining moments of their own, showing off their singing, acting, dancing, & musical talents.

Some big names were in the house for this special night including Director Albert Schultz, cultural patron of the arts Mike Duffy, Spoon River Composer & former Jive King Mike Ross, reps from the corporate sponsors, & of course, Confederation Centre of the Arts Chair & 2015 Order of Canada recipient Mr. Wayne Hambly.

It was surprising to us (again, we missed out on getting programs) that it was only 1 Act, which was a jam-packed 90 minutes, if it wasn’t mentioned in the intro or program, it would be good to take note. Nice little encore as well.

Other than 2 or 3 songs toward the end that weren’t quite my cup of tea, the show surpassed my expectations & Kimberley said she would see this show again & again & again & that this is the most uplifting thing about the dead she’s ever seen (and Kimberley has seen a lot of stuff from all genres). Kimberley would also like to thank the ushers for their professionalism & stealth. Props to everyone! To put it gingerly, we were not disappointed with Spoon River & to paraphrase actress Susan Henley, who we met after the show: “even though it is set in a graveyard, it isn’t dismal or sad. Our culture should take a second look at death. Only through death can we celebrate life.”

Review by PL Holden and Kimberley Johnston. Used by permission. Originally posted on http://www.onrpei.ca.