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Shangri-La Review

September 27, 2013

A show which opens with a temper tantrum is bound to catch your attention, and that is certainly the case with Shangri-La, written and performed by Judy Wensel as part of the Shumiatcher Sandbox Series at Globe Theatre.

The temper tantrum I am talking about is pitched in a pillow-wielding fury by a 14-year-old named Jeanne McCate, who has been banished to the bedroom by her no-nonsense mother and ordered to stay there until she has pulled herself together.

Eventually, Jeanne will do exactly that, but not before Wensel has treated her audience to a story that tells of a family in crisis and one adolescent’s attempt to cope. A teenager’s life is complicated enough without an older sister, 16-year-old Connie, who is pregnant and, with mother’s support, determined to keep her baby.

At first, Jeanne is resentful of her sibling. She is concerned that it will reflect poorly on her to have a sister with an out-of-wedlock child. In the end, however, she displays sufficient maturity to put aside her self-interests in favour of family solidarity, regardless of the personal sacrifice it might require.

All of this unfolds one night in late August of 1963 in the rural community of Millard, which offers the charms of small-town life and inevitably the headaches, as well. The show ends as abruptly as it began, but the passionate frenzy we saw in the initial scene has given way to a stoic calm as surely as our heroine has swapped blue jeans and blouse for a pink party dress she is to wear to the annual Harvest Family Dance.

Around the primary storyline, Wensel has woven threads that embroider her tale as a series of short anecdotes whose subjects and themes include what you would expect for a young woman in Jeanne’s situation, not only in a general sense of boys and girls and school, friends and neighbours, gossip and innuendo, but also through vignettes that deal more specifically with stuff like how her father and mother met, her father’s alcoholism, and Jeanne’s own flirtation with drinking beer and experimentation with cigarettes.

These various episodes are punctuated by music, music and more music. Wensel has chosen from a wide selection of pop tunes that served as a soundtrack of teenage existence in that time period, and as she spins the 45s and LPs on her portable record player, Jeanne sings along with the songs and even goes as far as to plant kisses on an album sleeve.

If there’s a bottom-line message in Shangri-La, it is delivered in Jeanne’s observation that we are all just treading water and the only options are to sink or swim.

This show was dramaturged by Denise Clarke and Michelle Kennedy, who doubles as its director. Shaunna Dunn provided design support for costumes and set, and all things technical were in the capable hands of Patrick James.

I hope you’ll go and see it.


The Last Resort Review

September 20, 2013

Norm Foster has been described as Canada’s Neil Simon. At times like this, I wonder if it isn’t the other way around. Maybe Neil Simon is America’s Norm Foster.

I say “at times like this” because Globe Theatre has launched a brand new season with a wonderful production of The Last Resort, one of Foster’s most popular pieces in a body of work that makes a strong case for him as our country’s preeminent humourist playwright and certainly our most prolific.

This particular piece being a musical, the credit for its success must be shared, of course, with Foster’s collaborator, Leslie Arden, who has achieved a comparable lofty status among Canadian composers and librettists.

When you add Max Reimer to the mix, how could it possibly be anything less than a triumph? Reimer is a highly respected director and choreographer, and he also happens to be an old hand at staging Foster, which virtually ensures that the production not only resounds with the obvious stuff but brings out every last nuance of subtly as well.

The cast features the multiple talents of eight performers (Jacob James, Kevin Aichele, Cailin Stadnyk, Gaelan Beatty, Sarah Higgins, Dawn Bergstrom, Sheldon Davis, Ian Deakin) who work splendidly together as an ensemble in portraying the many and varied idiosyncrasies in a collection of truly eccentric characters.

A satire, The Last Resort has two targets. It is a spoof of the murder mystery genre and it also pokes fun at musical theatre. The stereotypes are ridiculed, the archetypes are praised.

The setting is northern Saskatchewan, specifically a remote tourist lodge that is managed by an elderly female concierge of immigrant extraction (James) whose guests on this noteworthy occasion are an assortment of loveable odd balls.

There is a tattle-tale informant on the run from the mob (Aichele) whose paranoia has him imagining a hit man in every hallway. He is accompanied by a bodyguard, a mildly neurotic FBI agent (Stadnyk).

There is a blustery, knee-slapping carpet salesman (Davis) and his equally boisterous, starved-for-affection wife (Bergstrom), who are celebrating an, ahem, “milestone” 24th-wedding anniversary with a second honeymoon.

There is a poet (Beatty) who considers himself God’s gift to women but is currently suffering from a horrendous and lengthy bout of writer’s block.

There are identical twin sisters (Higgins), polar opposites, to say the least, one being a wholesome, innocent Goody Two Shoes, the other a sexy, evil seductress.

And, finally, it goes without saying, there is a police inspector (Deakin), a stumbling, bumbling detective who ultimately solves the mystery, but not before presenting numerous fanciful, false scenarios and navigating his way through a sea of red herrings.

To reveal the details would be a disservice. You should discover the rest for yourself and I hope you will.

The background stories are supplied in the first half of the show, the mystery is revealed in the second. The pace is brisk, the action flows smoothly, and when you aren’t being entertained by Foster’s hilarious dialogue, you will be enthralled by Arden’s jazzy, bluesy music and lyrics.

Live accompaniment is provided on keyboards by musical director Craig Salkeld, who, truth be told, has the best seat in the house, on stage, along the periphery of the hotel lobby, behind the bar.

Designed by Scott Penner, the costumes and set convey the requisite tackiness, but, with the assistance of lighting designer Siobhan Sleath, this tackiness gives way to an elegance that conjures images of film director Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation of the Stephen King novel, The Shining.

Bottom line? Three months ago, Globe Theatre ended the 2012-13 season on a high note with the musical comedy The Drowsy Chaperone, and now, three months later, with The Last Resort, things are picking up right where they left off.

Scott Penner: Set and Costume Designer for The Last Resort

September 12, 2013

As a high school student in Toronto, Scott Penner had a passion for drama. In fact, he would dearly have loved to make a career of it. But there was a hitch.

 “I wasn’t a very good actor,” he says with a smile. “I enjoyed it, I enjoyed it tremendously, but I wouldn’t want to subject other people to my acting. So I thought, what other kind of stuff can you do in theatre if you’re not a good actor?” Read more…

Leslie Arden: Composer of The Last Resort

September 11, 2013

Conventional wisdom says the words “murder mystery” and “musical” should NEVER appear in the same sentence unless the sentence concludes with the phrase “Nope, it can’t be done!” The reason for this is simple. How in the world can a plot built on suspense move steadily toward its dramatic climax if every five minutes the story is interrupted by people who burst into song and dance? Read more…

Norm Foster: Author of The Last Resort

September 9, 2013

Three decades ago, Norm Foster traded the airwaves for the footlights, and, long story short, broadcasting’s loss was theatre’s gain. A former radio host, he is now the most-produced playwright of the Canadian stage.

“Who knew?” Foster says, and it really does make you wonder if maybe this was one of those things that was simply meant to be. Read more…

The Last Resort: Preview

September 5, 2013

When artistic director Ruth Smillie was programming the Globe’s 2013-14 season, she chose to open it and close it with musicals, namely The Last Resort, book by Norm Foster, music and lyrics by Leslie Arden, and the Broadway blockbuster Man of La Mancha. Read more…

No Summer Off For Theatre School

July 12, 2013

The curtains are down, metaphorically speaking, in both performance spaces, Main Stage and Templeton Studio, but this doesn’t mean that things are in a state of suspended animation. Far from it. Just ask Jodi Norman. She is the interim director of Globe Theatre School, and she barely had a chance to catch her breath between the end of the summer session and the start of the summer lab. There are fall and winter segments, as well, because programming continues the year ’round. Read more…