National Theatre of the World wants audiences to "share and delight in how ridiculous it’s been to have him as our mayor."
Matt Baram had a brief moment of panic when a judge found Mayor Rob Ford had breached the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and removed him from office last month. The writer of It’s a Wonderful Toronto: The Rob Ford Holiday Spectacular!, which opens tonight at Theatre Passe Muraille, was worried that without Ford in office, the play would lose some of its impact.
“When Torontoist broke the news [of his removal] on Twitter, my heart sank,” he says. “It was going to be a sad day for comedy in this city, and for my play…It wasn’t meant to be overly political, but if it was going to be political and have some gravitas, it was going to be a battle cry, like ‘Let’s gather together and take our city back, at least in this one room.’”
Thankfully, at least for Baram and his company, the National Theatre of the World, Ford was granted a stay, leaving him in power pending an appeal.
“Because he appealed, we’re still good,” Baram says. “In fact, it kind of adds to the stakes of the show.”
The idea for It’s a Wonderful Toronto came to Baram when he was approached by Andy McKim, artistic director for Theatre Passe Muraille. McKim had a hole in his schedule, while Baram had a desire to write a script for the traditionally improv-focused National Theatre of the World.
“Not a lot of people are around in December, but we thought, ‘OK, maybe we’ll do a Christmas show,’” he says. “Andy’s season was plays about Toronto…So I thought, ‘Let’s do something like It’s a Wonderful Toronto,’ and it occurred to me: who would be George Bailey other than Rob Ford?”
The play’s premise is a show within a show. The second show—a fictional one, being staged by the characters in the play—is another holiday special, which also happens to be called It’s a Wonderful Toronto: The Rob Ford Christmas Spectacular!. It’s a musical review meant to showcase the mayor’s human side. Paul Bates plays Ford. Interestingly, he also played Mel Lastman in 2005’s SARSical. He says it was a challenge learning to mimic Ford’s unique mannerisms.
“He talks as though he’s midway through a book report that he doesn’t want to do,” says Bates. “He always seems as if he’d rather be somewhere else.”
He adds that he’s developed a small ritual to help him become more Ford-like before taking the stage.
“I walk around thinking that my time is being wasted,” he says. “I walk around and stare at things like he does at council when he feels his time is being wasted. I stop, look at some things…sigh a lot and breathe really heavily through my nose.”
Jenna Warriner portrays Krista Ford, Doug Ford’s daughter (and Rob Ford’s niece). She says she got involved with the project after reading an early version of the script.
“I just couldn’t stop laughing,” she says. “I was wheezing I was laughing so hard.”
She adds that her role has given her a new appreciation for the real-life Krista Ford.
“I don’t know her, but I think I love her,” she says. “Her big quote is ‘I don’t want to be Barbie, I want to bench press her.’ And then, she’s strong, but she’s also still this beautiful woman who dresses provocatively, because that’s what she likes. And she has bleach-blonde hair and this huge smile.”
Baram says that, ultimately, he knows the play isn’t going to cause Ford Nation to see the flaws in the mayor. His only goal, he says, is to help Torontonians appreciate Ford for what he is.
“We’re not going to convert anyone,” he says. “We’re just going to share and delight in how ridiculous it’s been to have him as our mayor.”