Why You Should Care About Your Parents’ Musicals

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The original Broadway cast of A Chorus Line. Image via Playbill.

With revivals of classic musicals like Carousel, Kiss Me Kate, and My Fair Lady soon coming to Broadway, there’s lots of buzz about whether or not these productions should be mounted in the first place. Is this really where our worldviews still stand? Is this how we want to portray women? Can they still be relevant without being distracting?

There’s a lot of discussion around “classic” musicals, but there is this glorious pocket that is somehow still so often overlooked – the ’70s. When you start becoming interested in musicals, you usually start one of three ways: you either start with the modern hits (e.g., HamiltonWicked), you start way way back with Rodgers & Hammerstein, or you start in the ’80s, with two of the still most popular musicals of all time: Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera. Why don’t most of us discover this creative hotspring of a decade until later?

(Stop reading this blog post and check out Playbill’s ’70s playlist to get acquainted with the decade. The rest of the post read better with the funky opening to Company in your head.)

Somehow we jump from the so-called “golden age” of musicals right to Andrew Lloyd Webber. They’re not considered “classic” musicals, yet the ’70s was an incredible time for creation. Why doesn’t this period get a catchy name? Sure, I’m probably saying this because it was Sondheim’s heyday (six musical premieres between ’71 and ’79, including CompanyFolliesSweeney Todd, and A Little Night Music), but the ’70s were also home to The WizChicagoAnnie, Grease, Patti LuPone FINALLY becoming the star she was always born to be, and of course, the one, the only A Chorus Line.

A Chorus Line is so important to musical theatre history I couldn’t exaggerate its significance if I tried. When it opened on Broadway, the New York Times review basically already called it legendary – saying it was a “musical to sing about for years,” and that you’d be telling your grandchildren about it. And indeed, it did not disappoint – it was, at the time, the longest-running show on Broadway, it won nine Tony Awards, and it even won the Pulitzer Prize for drama (only the fifth musical in history to do so, and even now, only nine have won). It was one of the first shows to flip the plot around on theatre dancers and not tell a story with them, but about them. It let the theatre world know that you didn’t need big costumes and sets to tell a real, human, relatable story. It barely has a plot at all, and that’s sort of the genius of it (this seemed to be the trend at the time – Follies, released three years earlier, also about show people, doesn’t really have a plot either).

It’s about dancers, all desperate to get a job. But they’re not begging to break into the business, they’re begging to stay. This is all they’re trained for, and this is their last chance. This is what they live for. It’s do or die.

The two oldest arts companies in Winnipeg, the WSO and Rainbow Stage, are putting on their production of this show in the middle of March. When I saw the cast list, even though only the actors are listed and not the parts they’re playing, I knew immediately that Catherine Wreford had to be Cassie.

Cassie, the heart of this show, is the role that gave Donna McKechnie a Tony Award. McKechnie, who originated the part, came back to Broadway in 1986, after being practically paralyzed by rheumatoid arthritis and was told she’d never walk, much less dance, ever again. (Watch this video of her performing “The Music and the Mirror” in 1986). That story sounds very similiar to Wreford.

Hailing from Winnipeg, Wreford has performed in national tours and on Broadway and has proved herself through and through as a talented performer. But her real story begins in 2013. I’ll let her tell the rest of it:

On June 24th, 2014, exactly a year after my diagnosis of brain cancer I moved home to Winnipeg. I hadn’t danced in 9 years. I had passed and completed my nursing exam right before my diagnosis but could no longer practice. I was given 2-6 years to live. I was still going through treatment at CancerCare so I had a bit of time to figure out what was most important to me. I decided to go back to what I love most – dancing. 
 
I’ve been working with Rainbow Stage in the ensemble (and loving it!) but when the WSO and Rainbow said they were going to be doing A Chorus Line I knew the part I wanted. I am Cassie. I was on Broadway and toured all of the US as leading roles. I then moved to California and somehow lost my way. I did, however, find the love of my life and have 2 beautiful children. 
 
Last April (after the announcement) I hired a trainer at the gym to get into “dancer shape” for the auditions and danced in my living room as much as my husband would let me!!! Ha!
I found out I got the part on Rainbow’s opening night of Mamma Mia. Pretty sure I cried. I’ve been scared to have a role since my diagnosis and all my treatments. When I had an awake craniotomy I had to relearn how to speak and I still say words that are not always correct. The radiation I had on my brain scorched my vocal chords and my voice will never be the same (although I have learned how to get around most issues). The 4 kinds of chemo I took for a year still give me leg cramps and numbness in my hands and my short term memory is pretty much nonexistent. But….I can still DANCE!!!! As Cassie says, “I want to do what I love as much as I can for as long as I can”. That’s me and that’s her and that’s us. We’re dancers. 

Why should you care about 43-year-old musicals? Like I mentioned before: they don’t get a lot of love because they’re not old and they’re not young. But mostly, you should pay attention to them because of stories like Catherine’s – A Chorus Line is real and happening right now.

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“Excuse me, where’s the theatre?”

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The beautiful Empire Arts Center in downtown Grand Forks. Via visitgrandforks.com.

This is the question I’m most likely to ask whenever I visit a new place. Not “Where’s the gas station?” or “Where’s the bathroom?” – I know where my priorities lie. Where the theatre at?

I have a talent of finding theatre no matter where I travel, and that’s because there’s always theatre going on – a tour, a local production, a high school play. Something is always happening all the time. You just have to get good at knowing where to look. I’ve seen theatre in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Vancouver, and of course, in my hometown. No matter where I go, it’s always easiest to go back home. To know that the portals of the Centennial Concert Hall are odd numbers stage left, even numbers stage right. To know that the seats are way comfier (and probably newer) at the Warehouse than at the Mainstage. To know which venues are air conditioned at the Fringe. To know that certain aisle seats at Rainbow don’t have another seat in front of them for optimal leg room. To know which coffee shops are open after 10 so you can sneak in a post-show London Fog.

These warm, comforting feelings, like a pair of sweatpants right out of the dryer, are now over for me. Because I don’t live in Winnipeg anymore.

I didn’t even really “upgrade cities,” per se – I live in Grand Forks, North Dakota now. Don’t get me wrong, Grand Forks is nice – its downtown is beautiful, its walkability and navigation are braggable especially compared to Winnipeg, and the cost of living is crazily low. A smaller city has its advantages, in that I don’t have to take traffic or parking into accomodation when I go anywhere; it also has its disadvantages, in that I can’t rely on transit to take me anywhere, “fine dining” is the local Olive Garden, and I shouldn’t count on any entertainment to tour through my state.

I moved here because this is where my husband is, and we both know that Grand Forks is temporary for us – because Grand Forks is temporary for all people. If you live here, it’s probably because you’re going to school here, you’re an air force reservist here, or you’re a retired farmer and you’ve come to the city for ease of doctor’s appointments and prescriptions. I am none of these people.

Though I am still becoming comfortable in my new home, there is nothing quite more relaxing than the theatre. There is no other medium in the world where I can shut off the world and have a truly human experience than in the theatre. I can slip away, and all the stresses of my life do too.

Thankfully, Grand Forks has a few theatres. And they are saving my sanity.

I’m particularly thankful for the Empire Arts Center and the Empire Theatre Company. Literally the heart of downtown Grand Forks, I fell in love with their sparkling marquee the first time I saw it. No theatre in Winnipeg has a marquee this beautiful. The programming is diverse and innovative, especially for a consistently red state, but my favourite part of the Empire is the 1919 Lounge – an intimate cabaret where they bring in Broadway stars to perform for 40 or 50 people while drinking cocktails onstage. I haven’t even seen anything like this in Winnipeg before, and why not?

My life is different now. I go to a different grocery store, I use a different set of keys, I go to the gym three times a week (which is the most surprising new thing), I have a dog, I pay more bills. But one thing remains constant – I still have a nose for finding theatre everywhere. And when you come to visit, I guarantee there’ll be something going on that we can get tickets for.

Diana’s Christmas in Winnipeg Checklist

Screen Shot 2017-12-11 at 7.14.43 PMI love Christmastime. There’s not a single thing I don’t love about it: shopping, movies, songs, food, the company, even the weather – I don’t mind a little snow and frost in December. And if there’s one thing that Winnipeggers know how to do better than anyone, it’s how to make the most out of winter. Like all times of year, Winnipeg’s arts scene is jam-packed with things to do. Here’s my top five things to do this holiday season:

Royal MTC’s A Christmas Carol
Runs now until December 16 at the John Hirsch Mainstage

A tried-and-true classic, A Christmas Carol reminds us that it’s not wealth that keeps us warm at night, but the love of others, and that’s what we should keep in mind at this time of year. Robb Paterson delights as Ebenezer Scrooge in this stage adaptation of Dickens’ yuletide tale. You can read my review of this production on ChrisD.ca and get more information at royalmtc.ca.

MTYP’s A Charlie Brown Double Bill
Runs now until December 31, relaxed performance on December 26, at Manitoba Theatre for Young People

This absolutely darling play, made up of selections from You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown and the iconic A Charlie Brown Christmas, is made up of a cast of Winnipeg theatre all-stars that bring new life into the classic Peanuts gang. While attending this show, I realized I have A Charlie Brown Christmas completely memorized. I also have to mention how incredible it is to see a play when you’re surrounded by kids who can’t quite figure out how theatre is made – that’s real Christmas magic. You can get more information at MTYP.ca.

WSO’s Messiah
December 15 & 16 at the Centennial Concert Hall

Have you ever heard Messiah’s “Hallelujah” chorus live? It’s nothing short of remarkable. The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas tradition continues this year with an all-new, all-Manitoban chorus made up of some of the finest singers from across the province. Paired with the core Baroque orchestra, you’ll be in awe of the musical talent that we have in this city. The WSO’s Resident Conductor Julian Pellicano conducts this masterwork for the very first time. Get more information at wso.ca.

RWB’s Nutcracker
December 21-30 at the Centennial Concert Hall

Can you hear that? Off in the distance? If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of bells playing “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy.” This unmistakable melody belongs to The Nutcracker, and our own Royal Winnipeg Ballet performs it with grace and great attention to detail each year. There’s a reason they perform it every year. Go see why! For more information, check out RWB.org.

Die Hard
December 19 at the Park Theatre

Die Hard is the best. And if the aforementioned more traditional holiday things aren’t your speed, John McClane absolutely destroying some terrorists with a machine gun (ho ho ho) just might be. Join your fellow moviegoers in watching this infamous Christmas classic for one night only at the Park. myparktheatre.com for more info.

Non-ticket-requiring things I’ll also recommend: getting a london fog at Espresso Junction and enjoying a skate at The Forks (the canopy is open!), driving through the lights (and the drive-thru mini-donuts) at Canad Inns Winter Wonderland, and being nice to every overworked retail employee you encounter. Happy holidays!

Review: ‘Swordplay: A Play of Swords’ at Winnipeg Fringe

This is the first and only non-Winnipeg-based theatre company production I attended at this year’s Fringe. I didn’t plan it that way, but that’s how it turned out – I’m just naturally attracted to local talent, I guess. But after I heard a rep from Sex T-Rex promote Swordplay: A Play of Swords at The Cube as “a retelling of The Princess Bride told through an ’80s video game,” I was sold.  The Princess Bride is very near and dear to my heart. I knew I had to make the trek out to the West End Cultural Centre to see this show.

It’s difficult to be consistently funny – either you’re not funny, or the actors get exhausted, or they start to annoy the audience. But Swordplay, thankfully, does none of these things. They are funny throughout the hour-and-change play, taking every opportunity to make a meticulously-crafted joke. Every line has been chosen deliberately to advance the plot or be funny; every line is important.

This show has been performed and workshopped just enough that it’s in its sweet spot: it’s been through other Fringes and will continue on after this one, but Swordplay is seeing its first Winnipeg audience. It’s still fresh and funny and hasn’t been overperformed.

The DnD Improv crowd will enjoy this one – it’s nerdy and has hints of inside jokes while paying homage to video games and poking fun at fantasy clichés. It’s not so niche that others won’t enjoy it. I consider myself a very middle-of-the-road yes-I-like-nerd-things-but-I’m-not-a-dungeon-master-or-anything kind of nerd and I was able to catch every joke. That’s when you know that the comedy is good: it can still be about a particular thing to a particular audience, but it’s still funny to everybody.

Although Swordplay borrows from nerd culture across the map, it’s still a original tale with just the right amount of camp. I didn’t even want to take notes because I didn’t want my eyes to leave the stage and miss anything. Many of (if not all) the Fringe shows I saw this year left me thinking about vast topics on my drive home, but this one wasn’t. This is just a good ol’ no-thinker funny (without being offensive) swashbuckling adventure. And that’s a good thing.

Swordplay: A Play of Swords and the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival are on now until July 30. For ticket information, show times, and a venue map, visit WinnipegFringe.com.

5/5 stars

Here’s how I’ll be starring all my Fringe reviews:

  • 5 stars = Astounding. I will physically push you in the direction of this show. Must see.
  • 4 stars = Very good! Highly recommended.
  • 3 stars = Well done. People interested in this genre/subject matter will enjoy it, but it may not be for everyone.
  • 2 stars = Only people interested in this genre/subject matter will probably enjoy it.
  • 1 star = Not recommended to anyone.
  • 0 stars = Run in the opposite direction.

Read my other Fringe experiences:

• Review: 4.48 Psychosis
• Review: The Trump Card
• 
Review: Joe Job
• Recap: SLAM!
• Review: Macbeth
• Review: KING

Review: ‘KING’ at Winnipeg Fringe

Napoleon Bonaparte, Henry VIII, Emperor Nero. ’90s grunge. RENT meets Hamilton. What would happen if the biggest dicks in history were together to measure them?

These are all massive, legendary concepts, but you shouldn’t expect a similarly-styled show. It’s DIY. It’s duct tape and cardboard boxes, pickle tub drum kits and burlap and rope. It’s thrift store clothes and ripped jeans, Chucks and cheap beer. It’s not clean or polished; it has frayed edges and tears. It’s the feeling when you have a lunch of mini donuts – are there healthier options? Sure. But indulge yourself. This one tastes good.

Nominated for the Harry Rintoul Award for Best New Manitoban Play (created by stars Duncan Cox, Tanner Mason and Ben Townsley), this quasi-musical (more of a play with songs if you ask me – not that there’s anything wrong with that) explores the trials of these three kings/emperors/rulers if they had been forced to answer for their tyranny. It’s loud (very loud, actually, for the small space) and occasionally obnoxious, but that’s what these men likely were – loud, obnoxious, childish, and utterly human. We forget these imperfect qualities when they become legends.

Henry VIII as a Mick Jagger-meets-Christian Borle-as-Shakespeare type. Emperor Nero as a flamboyantly gay Kurt Cobain (although I would’ve liked to see him with hints of more of a chainsmoking Donatella Versace). Napoleon as a jean-jacketed womanizing-yet-lovelorn Tom DeLonge of sorts. All of these men are obsessed with their legacy, but what does that mean? Does it mean land? Property? An heir? Love? What’s left when you’ve been dead for hundreds of years? In the end, does it even matter?

KING and the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival are on now until July 30. For ticket information, show times, and a venue map, visit WinnipegFringe.com.

4/5 stars

Here’s how I’ll be starring all my Fringe reviews:

  • 5 stars = Astounding. I will physically push you in the direction of this show. Must see.
  • 4 stars = Very good! Highly recommended.
  • 3 stars = Well done. People interested in this genre/subject matter will enjoy it, but it may not be for everyone.
  • 2 stars = Only people interested in this genre/subject matter will probably enjoy it.
  • 1 star = Not recommended to anyone.
  • 0 stars = Run in the opposite direction.

Read my other Fringe experiences:

• Review: 4.48 Psychosis
• Review: The Trump Card
• 
Review: Joe Job
• Recap: SLAM!
Review: Macbeth

Review: Knavish Hedgehogs’ ‘Macbeth’

I love Shakespeare, I love innovative lighting, and I love weird theatre superstitions. After Knavish Hedgehogs reached out to me on Twitter when I was looking for suggestions, I knew I had to make their production of Macbeth (or as you say in the theatre, The Scottish Play) part of my Fringe schedule.

Here’s the elevator pitch: the original text, condensed to an hour or so, seven actors, and no sets, no costumes, and no lights. The cast is illuminated only by each other’s handheld flashlights.

It’s not hard to see or hard to follow. The cast has been expertly coached by director Ari Weinberg to be in the right place at the right time, moving so swiftly and carefully that they occasionally startled me when they flicked their lights on. Theatre doesn’t scare me a lot – it was a nice change. I actually purposefully moved closer to the stage so I could see faces, and I’m glad I did.

Macbeth is my favourite Shakespeare play and the Hedgehogs did it well. Daniel McIntyre-Ridd as the titular character was wonderful, not serving up the typical power-hungry-into-paranoid Scotsman, but instead making him anxious all the way through (which, admittedly, reminded me a little of Evan Hansen – which is a great thing; don’t give me an opportunity to talk about how much I love Evan Hansen because I won’t stop), giving new depth to the ancient character.

Lady Macbeth always steals the show, but Miranda Baran slayed. Pun intended. Also portraying one of the witches, she showed why Shakespeare ladies continue to be dream roles for any actor. She commanded the stage, commanded your attention, and got it. Deservedly.

I appreciate Shakespeare much more as an adult, and much more when acted instead of read, like it was intended. When you were first exposed to the Bard, you probably read it aloud in your ninth grade English class with kids who couldn’t pronounce “Fleance” without stumbling. This production is the opposite. The ending left me speechless. It is a masterpiece.

Macbeth and the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival are on now until July 30. For ticket information, show times, and a venue map, visit WinnipegFringe.com.

5/5 stars

Here’s how I’ll be starring all my Fringe reviews:

  • 5 stars = Astounding. I will physically push you in the direction of this show. Must see.
  • 4 stars = Very good! Highly recommended.
  • 3 stars = Well done. People interested in this genre/subject matter will enjoy it, but it may not be for everyone.
  • 2 stars = Only people interested in this genre/subject matter will probably enjoy it.
  • 1 star = Not recommended to anyone.
  • 0 stars = Run in the opposite direction.

Read my other Fringe experiences:

• Review: 4.48 Psychosis
• Review: The Trump Card
• 
Review: Joe Job
• Recap: SLAM!

Recap: SLAM! at Winnipeg Fringe

Screen Shot 2017-07-26 at 10.43.00 AMI didn’t want to call this a “review” because I knew it couldn’t be: the poets rotate, the poems are different, the audiences are different – it would be impossible to give my thoughts on any given night because they are all different.

I’d never been to a poetry slam before, although I’ve always appreciated the art, I hadn’t built up the courage to sit in an audience and look performance poets in the eye as they bared their souls. My only exposure to poetry slams was that scene in An Extremely Goofy Movie (which is still an incredible modern-day classic, by the way). I figured that Fringe would be a risk-free opportunity to get exposed to some poetry. It felt excellent to dip my toes in that pool.

Here’s the way it worked: each performance that Winnipeg Poetry Slam has at the Fringe will feature four poets (out of eight, in a round robin tournament). Picked in a random order, they all perform one poem. The judges (picked from the audience) give scores out of 10. At “halftime,” the audience takes turns writing haikus. Here’s mine:

A haiku for Winnipeg Fringe:
Sweet mini donuts
I could eat two buckets, man
Wait, no. Big mistake.

The poets then each perform another poem, and are again scored. Depending on their standings, they each earn points, which determines how they rank. The top four poets will perform in the final, and will earn a real prize – money from ticket sales. You can check out the tournament standings on their website.

It was difficult to take notes during performances, because the rhythm and smoothness and passion that the poets exert is so difficult to describe in a word other than “poetry.” I wrote that down in my notebook: “How do I use a word that isn’t ‘poetry’ to describe poetry?” It’s an artistic expression of the human spirit, combining words and emotions and occasional rhymes and body movements to attempt to convey inside gut reactions that can only ever truly be felt, but the poets came close to portraying them effectively, as close as possible.

They covered topics like love, death, inner demons, and even Batman. It can’t be predicted what could come up next, but take my word for it – I’m hooked on poetry slams.

SLAM! and the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival are on now until July 30. For ticket information, show times, and a venue map, visit WinnipegFringe.com.

Read my other Fringe experiences on ChrisD.ca:

• Review: 4.48 Psychosis
Review: The Trump Card
Review: Joe Job