There's no snow for fort-building, and skating is way too dangerous. For a different kind of fun, here's a round-up of holiday performances.
Here we are, officially in mid-December and full-on holiday gear. Outside, the winter season really isn’t beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but fortunately that’s not the case with the seasons of Toronto’s performance companies. There are plenty of options to suit every show-goer during the holidays, be they a connoisseur of the classics, a comedy fan, a dance enthusiast, the outdoorsy type, or a family man or woman. After all, the holidays are about so much more than just peppermint lattes, last-minute shopping, and complaining about the weather that’s to come. It’s about the traditions, both new and honoured, that mark this time of year in a special way.
Here’s what’s going on in the city right now.
At first glance, Parfumerie even looks sweet. Ken MacDonald’s curvy, swirly, plushy, bubbly set, of the interior of a luxury department store in Budapest, screams “FARCE!” in a way that only pleasantly pink walls, rich wood accents, and a revolving door can. Then enter the characters, and we have a full-on toothache. Anchoring the story of unexpected love and friendship are two characters, Rosie and George, who bicker like toddlers during work hours but spend their evenings pouring over love letters they’ve been exchanging—without realizing their correspondents’ respective identities. As their relationship slowly unfolds in front of both of them and the rest of their colleagues, the store’s owner Hammerschmidt finds an ally in his apprentice Arpad as he aches over his wife’s infidelity. There are plenty of moments of delightfully over-the-top slapstick, melodramatic musical cues (sometimes even by an onstage duo of accordion and violin from Miranda Mulholland and Mike Ross), word play, mistaken identity, and highly choreographed dances between the store clerks and their many impatient holiday shoppers that make this adaptation of Miklós László’s Parfumerie by Adam Pettle and Brenda Robbins a sugary treat. But ultimately, the success lies in Morris Panych’s ability to balance the sweet with the bitter, supported by heartwarming and genuine performances by the entire all-star cast including Oliver Dennis, Patricia Fagan, Jeff Lillico, Michael Simpson, Joseph Ziegler, Maev Beaty, Kevin Bundy, William Webster, and Robins (who nails every moment in her smaller role). If candy canes aren’t your thing, Parfumerie is a great way to get your feel-good fix.
If you have seen the National Ballet of Canada’s production of The Nutcracker choreographed by James Kudelka, then you know exactly why it’s probably the most beloved winter holiday tradition known to man, child, and overly nostalgic mid-twenties female (ahem). It hardly changes from year to year: Misha and Marie (played by National Ballet School students) will forever be squabbling and swatting at each other oh-so gracefully; Uncle Nikolai will always come off half-magical and half-creepy as he delights the children with antique toys (though it does become harder and harder to imagine any bratty kid would be so stoked to get a wooden nutcracker for Christmas); and the Snow Queen and Sugar Plum Fairy will continue to be the definition of grace and beauty against which all other women in the history of the world will be judged. It’s certainly not breaking any new artistic ground—and that has more than a few implications—but it’s still a visually stimulating production with sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto and performances by some of the country’s most mesmerizing dancers, set to Tchaikovsky’s classic music that’s now the auditory equivalent of drinking hot chocolate while decorating the Christmas tree and hanging stockings over the fireplace in gaudy knit sweaters. Though the shticks of a dancing horse, rollerskating bears, a giant tree, a chorus of baby lambs, and fat chefs chasing a chicken around the stage may be entertaining for the tots (okay, maybe not only for the tots), they sometimes overpower the real artistry at work. But after seeing it once, twice, or 12 times, the kitsch begins to fade and such artistry begins to shine through.
And if you haven’t seen it, stop sitting on your hands and go already.
If your love of theatre has legs, you definitely want to check out this unique piece of outdoor theatre, celebrating the season with a quirky re-telling of the Nativity story taking place at the Evergreen Brick Works.
Right from the get-go, when the Three Wise Men flail into the pavilion, gifts clutched in hand, the audience watching from bails of hay with hot chocolates in theirs, the whole production of The Story has a rural charm that is rarely felt so close to the city. The beginning is captivating, as the eager audience follows their Shepherd’s lantern through the kiln room, coming across a confused and desperate Mary (Haley McGee) and Joseph (Richard Lee) forced to separate because of Caesar’s census, and a volatile Herod (Rylan Wilkie) atop a gilded throne scolding the Wise Men (Lee, Lisa Karen Cox, and Sanjay Talwar) for insinuating there is a new baby King.
As the action moves throughout the park the sense of curiosity never fades, but the story of The Story does get a little lost. The latter half, the parts most well-known to audiences, seem rushed and brief, with unneeded (but funny) scenes between two bored Shepherds, and other vignettes that seem too short for the effort of moving the entire audience from location to location. The lead-up to the climactic birth of Jesus (spoiler alert!) falls flat, with an unexplained absence of Joseph. Perhaps smoking a congratulatory cigar?
In any case, the use of the Evergreen Brick Works is intriguing and at times stunning (especially the view of Herod pacing on the bridge above the pond, framed by the hills behind him). With time, hopefully the technical and scripting crinkles get worked out, because we hope this is the beginning of a new tradition.
Trust former Torontoist Hero Lupe to come up with the most outrageous, racy contribution to holiday theatre this season. Creator Melissa D’Agostino has expanded on her modest 2009 cabaret staging of the tempestuous South American spitfire’s Christmas story, with more raunchy interplay between her and her motley crew of not-so-wise men (some of Toronto’s strongest buoffon boys—Phil Luzi, Sam Kalilieh, and director Adam Lazarus) and her mute machete-swinging lackey Pepe (Hart Massey). The new setting at 918 Bathurst really does resemble a large nativity, and the show has an intermission and full bar, so by the time the audience interaction really picks up in the second act, many patrons have lost some of their inhibitions. With plenty of pelvic thrusting incorporated into choreographer Monica Dottor’s dance sequences, this isn’t the holiday experience to take both your nonna and nieces and nephews too, but if you like a bit of saucy sacrilege mixed in with your seasonal theatre, this is a great night out.
Second City has long had seasonal sketch writing down to a T, and this touring company cast (the “farm team” for the mainstage revue) has plenty of sketch and improv experience, so it’s a reliably good time. Standouts in the cast include Connor Thompson, a consummate straight man, and Alice Moran, whose unhinged characters—like a tough-talking game show contestant and a cat-loving gal who wants her boyfriend back just for the holidays—are a real treat. The cast’s improvised numbers for the full house on the night we attended worked particularly well, with a My Little Pony–inspired musical number earning plenty of comments from the drunk couple behind us, though not all of the cast are true triple threats. Despite the main schedule consisting of matinees, however, this isn’t a show to take the kids to between X-mas shopping destinations; cussin’ and sexual innuendo abound. It would, however, do very nicely as a holiday diversion for the office, especially if the boss OK’s a bar tab and cab chits.
The brother and sister team of Ann and David Powell, together comprising Puppetmongers Theatre, have been honing their unique style of handcrafted puppet theatre for about 40 years, the last 21 of which featuring an annual holiday show geared towards young audiences. This year, they’re showing their Dora-nominated adaption of The Princess and the Pea, called Bed and Breakfast. The pair has toured Canada, the States, and Europe with their creations, even appearing with Natalie Portman and Dustin Hoffman in Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, so when they say that the show will take place in their own tiny Edwardian mansion with a working steam bathtub and period lighting fixtures, we’re pretty sure it won’t only be the kids that are watching.
Ross Petty’s holiday pantomimes have become as cherished a Toronto holiday tradition as a skate at Nathan Phillips Square, and the show’s absolutely critic-proof; audiences have a good idea what to expect, with the over-the-top tweaks of classic fairy tale stories, and established Canadian talent gamely playing along with Petty and other stalwarts outrageous drag characters. This time around, Rock of Ages alum Elicia Mackenzie and Yves Pednault star as Dorothy and the Tin Man respectively. Petty’s brought some interesting contributors on this year off stage, too; The script is by Just East of Broadway scribes (and recent Hooded Fang alumni) Nick Hune-Brown and Lorna Wright, and light and sound wizards Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson have applied their Dora-winning projection and sound magic to the show, as well. It might not reveal the true meaning of Christmas, but the panto is a safe bet for the whole family to enjoy.