Toronto stages serve up festive fare for a wide variety of tastes this holiday season.
Would you prefer to spend the holidays with the Sugar Plum Fairy or a flame-haired dominatrix in kinky boots? Whatever your tastes, naughty or nice, Toronto’s stages have something to make you merry this season. Family shows are ubiquitous, from old faves like A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker, to another of Ross Petty’s fractured fairy-tale musicals. If you prefer adults-only entertainment, there are wicked laughs to be had at the Second City, and BDSM hijinks to be seen at Canadian Stage—the latter courtesy of the company’s hit production of Venus in Fur. Here’s a guide to some festive fare in Toronto that’s as diverse as the city itself.
Cinderella: The Gags to Riches Family Musical
Ross Petty Productions
Runs to January 4
Normally, when a star steps on stage and is greeted by a deafening chorus of boos, it signifies an epic fail. But if that reviled star is Ross Petty in a dress, wearing enough eye shadow to clean out the Bay’s cosmetics department and snarling like a man-famished cougar, you know you’re in for an uproarious good time. For this, Petty’s 19th annual holiday panto, the producer-star plays an evil stepmother called Revolta Bulldoza who wants to take over the Toronto farmers’ market run by spunky Cinderella (Danielle Wade of The Wizard of Oz) and replace its organic produce with toxic (and hypnotic) potato chips. Happily, Cindy has the help of that other dude in drag, Dan Chameroy’s lovably klutzy Plumbum, this time doubling as a fairy godmother. The cast also includes eternally hunky Soulpepper alum Jeff Lillico as a pop-star prince, audience fave Eddie Glen as Cindy’s wisecracking wingman, Bryn McAuley and Cleopatra Williams as her mean-girl step-sisters, and a pair of real live ponies. Like Revolta’s chips, Petty’s pantos are chock-full of bad ingredients, from silly shtick to repurposed pop tunes—but like the best junk food, they’re also delicious. Although it’s an all-ages show, Cinderella is best appreciated by older kids, who will get at least some of the gags.
James and the Giant Peach
Young People’s Theatre
Runs to January 4
What better way to celebrate the holidays than with a gang of mutant insects and one humongous piece of fruit? James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl’s juicy variation on “Jack and the Beanstalk,” is YPT’s seasonal offering this year, in a musical version with songs by Broadway team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (A Christmas Story). Alessandro Costantini stars as lonely orphan James, who discovers the meaning of family on a transatlantic voyage in a titanic peach riddled with big, talking bugs. Class-conscious adults will enjoy the tensions between the snooty aristocratic Ladybug (Lana Carillo) and the scrappy, working-class Centipede (Dale Miller), but a cuddly Jacob MacInnis is everybody’s favourite as the timid Earthworm. Sue Miner has directed this brisk, imaginative 85-minute show, which boasts some clever creepy-crawly costumes and shadow puppetry. A shade less dark than Dahl’s original story, it’s suited to children six and older.
Runs to January 3; December 18-21
You might have missed Mayor John Tory in his dance debut at the opening performance of the National Ballet’s The Nutcracker, but there’s still plenty of time to catch the annual production of James Kudelka’s version of the show (roller-skating bears, giant Fabergé egg, and all). The one drawback is that star ballet couple Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté won’t be performing as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince this year—Côté tore his ACL during a performance on opening day, and Ogden is expecting a baby on Christmas Eve.
You can also catch an indie production of The Nutcracker by the Pia Bouman School for Ballet and Creative Movement. This annual production provides students aged seven to 18 with a professional environment in which to showcase their skill, performing the choreography of school founder Pia Bouman.
Holidazed and Confused
The Second City Touring Company
Runs to January 1
Roll over, Santa Claus. It turns out that in Austria, the traditional Christmas avatar is a scary, horned goat-demon who tracks down naughty children and dunks their heads in a wash basin. These are the kind of fun facts you’ll learn when you see Holidazed and Confused, the Second City’s hilarious look at the holiday season. In this 90-minute revue, you’ll also thrill to the action-packed perils of Black Friday at Walmart, discover what happens when cable giant Rogers expands into the grocery business (fruit bundles, anyone?), and be titillated by an unusually hot ‘n’ heavy wine-tasting session. The sketches are often only tenuously linked to the holiday theme, but the writing is sharp and the ensemble—Second City’s touring company—have a surfeit of goofy charm. Highlights include Hayley Kellett’s priceless monologue as a hard-core Toronto cyclist, aspiring fiancé Devon Hyland giving a PowerPoint presentation to his prospective in-laws, and a cunning improvised spin on the inevitable It’s a Wonderful Life spoof.
A Christmas Carol
Runs to December 27
We associate the holidays with lavish spending and, when it comes to the performing arts, lavish stage shows, whether it be the National Ballet’s sumptuous Nutcracker or one of Ross Petty’s gloriously tacky pantos. But Soulpepper takes the opposite approach with its much-loved version of A Christmas Carol, which returns for its eighth production since 2001. Director Michael Shamata’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ immortal ghost story favours character over stagecraft, focusing on the psychological transformation of the bitter miser Scrooge (the ever-subtle Joseph Ziegler) into a joyous philanthropist. This year’s 15-member cast includes welcome returnees John Jarvis, playing the four phantoms who guide Scrooge’s conversion, and Oliver Dennis as a Bob Cratchit, who is poor of pocket but unbroken in spirit. The show (which features its share of youngsters) is perfect for older kids, and an outright tear-jerker for adults.
Venus in Fur
If the real Nutcracker isn’t your thing, you may be interested in “The other Nutcracker,” as this show is so cheekily marketed. About to begin its second and final remount (its original run in 2013 was first extended, then remounted later that year), this Canadian Stage hit starring Rick Miller and Carly Street (in a role that won her a Dora Award) consists of an intensely sensual head-to-head that takes place upon a—ahem—casting couch (or, rather, a chaise longue). There are no sleigh bells or Christmas miracles anywhere near this battle, directed by David Ives, between a male director and a female actress auditioning for his play—but there is definitely a blurring of reality, myth, and tradition that’s all too familiar this time of year.
The Dog and the Angel
Runs to December 31
This is Theatre Columbus’s fourth year producing an outdoor winter show, and it seems Torontonians are up for every minute of the hour-long production. Directed by Jennifer Brewin, The Dog and the Angel takes audiences on a fascinating tour of the Evergreen Brick Works. But Martha Ross’s script is problematic: the story of a family learning to abandon external pressures and have a perfect Christmas is a good one, but there are too many underdeveloped plot lines (why is the dog sick?) and characters (why don’t we ever meet Florence, their neighbour and competitor in yuletide cheer?). That said, there are enough highlights to make the show worthwhile, including a charming squirrel (Michael Rinaldi), several unlikely spiritual guides (Rinaldi, Paul Rainville, and Courtenay Stevens), and a surprise appearance by George the Golden Doodle.
Runs to December 28
29-$89, day-of rush tickets $5-$23
Arguably Toronto’s biggest theatrical hit of the 21st century, Kim’s Convenience—which we first dubbed a promising Fringe Festival show, and then praised when it had its Soulpepper debut—is back again for a limited run. It’s toured across the country since, and while it’s still funny and charming, it won’t tour forever—so if you haven’t seen it yet (or want to see it again), don’t wait until next year.
Burt & Werneburg
Another show we’ve previously recommended, Elizabeth-Darcy is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice performed entirely by Hallie Burt and Kate Werneburg. The two performers take the audience through the entire novel, and the historic Campbell House is perfectly suited to its setting. The two actors are obviously serious fans of the classic, and even if you’ve not read it, the story is clear and engrossing.
Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Experience
December 17-January 11
In the truncating tradition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner’s Potted Potter is a merry romp through all seven of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels in just 70 minutes. The show, a spawn of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, made its North American debut at Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre in 2012. Now Starvox Entertainment has brought it back to the same venue, but with some fresh actors—Benjamin Stratton, James Percy, and Jesse Britton—to tackle the tomes. It’s an all-ages parody of all things Harry, including a PowerPoint demonstration of Rowling’s literary techniques and slapstick shenanigans with Silly String. Best of all, you’ll get to participate in a Quidditch match—no flying broomstick required.
The Christmas Story
The Church of The Holy Trinity
Runs to December 21
Holiday shows are everywhere, but if you’re interested in seeing what the whole Christmas thing is really all about, Church of the Holy Trinity’s The Christmas Story pageant, now in its 77th year, goes straight to the source. As well as the Nativity, the production also covers some of the lesser-known aspects of the Jesus’s birth, such as the slaughter of newborns by King Herod. Nevertheless, it’s very much a family-appropriate event, staged and beautifully lit in the gorgeous church, which appears untouched by the past century and a half as the city sprang up around it. Plus, the baby Jesus is actually played by an infant, who was exceedingly beatific on stage at the performance we saw.