Why You Should Care About Your Parents’ Musicals

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.


“Excuse me, where’s the theatre?”

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: 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

‘Really terrifying… but also really freeing’: 4.48 Psychosis and Portraying Mental Illness Onstage

Psychosis TBTR-5
Liz Whitbread performs in Theatre By The River’s production of 4.48 Psychosis. She is also rocking the shit out of those high-waisted shorts. Photo: Giovanni Navarro.

You can go to any fringe festival in the world, throw a stone, and hit a poster for a comedic show. I promise. Fringe is often a time for improv-ers and sketch-ers to stretch their legs for a ten-day or week-long performance schedule and roll around in audiences looking to have a good time on a weekend. And although that’s all fun and good and you can definitely find quality theatre productions while wading through knee-deep pools of laughs, fringe festivals are about more than that. They’re about experimenting – for both the theatre companies and the audiences. Trying new things, going to something that might make you uncomfortable, or seeing a show on a subject you know nothing about. That’s what Fringe is – getting out there.

I had the joy and privilege to sit down with the luminous Liz Whitbread (and you should too, given the opportunity) about this very thing, regarding her performance in Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, about to begin at the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival. 4.48 does not have a linear storyline, nor is the script written like a traditional script (“One page is just blank. It’s part of the script, but it’s blank,” she told me). Whitbread performs by herself, with the audience surrounding three-fourths of the “walls,” and – oh, yes, the author of the play killed herself shortly after finishing it. 4.48 is Kane’s swan song.

Whitbread said she “wouldn’t call it [Kane’s] suicide note,” but that kind of thing still carries a lot of weight, especially when you’re alone onstage. “It’s unfortunate that [the play] is in this context, but you can’t ignore it,” said Whitbread. “Because of the way it’s written, it’s easier to separate myself from the words. It’s affecting, but because of the writing, not the context.”

Whitbread is a Winnipegger, but now lives in Toronto, where she just performed in 4.48 (the last performance was Saturday) at the Fringe there. She was last seen in the River City as part of the ensemble in the WSO and Rainbow Stage’s South Pacific in April. She said doing a one-woman show is a little different. “In some ways, it’s really terrifying. If I forget a line, no other actor can save me. I can’t look over and be like, ‘give me the line!’ But it’s also really freeing. If I forget a line, I can go to the next part of the script I know. I’m in control of this.”

The staging is different in Winnipeg than it was in Toronto – with a venue change comes a staging change. The audience will be seated in a horseshoe-shape around Whitbread. “I’m speaking directly to the audience, I can see the audience,” she said. It’s vulnerable being up there alone. “I had to learn to be comfortable with having silence, and be comfortable with having laughter. I have to let them enjoy it, let myself enjoy it.”

I asked her, straight up: why should people come to this likely-depressing show when they could go see some improver make poop jokes instead? “It’s a really important – small, but important – discussion on mental illness and how it’s portrayed,” she said. “It portrays mental illness in a really personal way, an open and blunt way. It doesn’t dance around anything.” That’s a conversation worth having. “This is what it could be like,” for someone with mental illness, she said. But mental health never fits a specific mold. “Not everyone will identify with it, and that’s okay.”

“Sarah Kane had such a revolutionary idea of what theatre should look like,” she said. “If people want to challenge themselves, this is a good show to see.”

Theatre by the River’s 4.48 Psychosis opens on Wednesday, July 19, and runs throughout the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, playing venue #11, Red River College. Check out showtimes and a venue map here. See you at the Fringe.

Diana’s 2017 Tony Predictions

Tom and Donna voice: It’s the best day of the year! Image via BloxImages.

It’s not an understatement when I say that predicting this year’s Tony Awards is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. After the Year of Hamilton (and its inevitable sweep of awards), this year has produced an incredible number of new musicals and equally incredible talent backing them all. I’m confident in saying that I have no confidence in any of my predictions, because really, anything could happen this year.

Best Musical
Come From Away
Dear Evan Hansen
Groundhog Day
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Will win: Dear Evan Hansen
Upset: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 or Come From Away


Remember when Groundhog Day opened in London and it generated so much buzz about being the next big thing? Me either. It’s a perfectly fine show, and might win any other year, but the other three are far more likely. Now that Come From Away won the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical, it might even seem like more of a frontrunner – but then again, its competition for that award was slim to none (out of the five nominees, three of them were Off-Broadway, hence ineligible for Tony nominations, and the other one was Anastasia, which failed to garner a Tony nom. None of its actual competition in the Tony race).

When I left the Imperial after seeing Great Comet, I thought for sure it had Best Musical locked up. It is the definition of a spectacle, and it’s hosting a theatre experience that no other show on Broadway is doing right now. Its lighting, staging, interactive experience, top-tier performances and the most interesting score make it an ideal frontrunner – or at least, so I thought. I would love for Great Comet to win any category, even if I didn’t pick it to win, because that means it’s a step forward for innovative, diverse theatre.

Best Revival of a Musical
Hello, Dolly!
Miss Saigon

Will win: Hello, Dolly!
Upset: Falsettos

I recently listened to the new Hello, Dolly! cast album and realized that when people say they don’t like musicals, this is the kind of musical they don’t like. Belting divas, a big chorus, feather headpieces, and classic numbers. A.K.A. heaven.

Leading Actor in a Musical
Christian Borle, Falsettos
Josh Groban, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Andy Karl, Groundhog Day
David Hyde Pierce, Hello, Dolly!
Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen

Will win: Ben Platt
Upset: If anybody but Ben Platt wins, I will burn this place to the ground.


Christian Borle should be applauded for two leading roles in a single season (he’s currently playing the candy man himself in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a show that garnered 0 nominations), and he’s always a Tony favourite, but this is more a thank-you for doing Falsettos, and he won’t clinch his third trophy this year, although it would be well-deserved.

I love Josh Groban!! That’s not an exaggeration. I’ve been a fan of his music for years, and he’s perfect in Great Comet. He might be the nicest guy on Broadway right now (at least for the next month-or-so until his last performance on July 2), and this nomination is saying thank you for this great performance – please come back soon.

If it weren’t for Ben Platt, Andy Karl would be the favourite. He’s worked hard on Broadway for years, he earned the Olivier for the role of Phil Connors earlier this year, he just won the Drama Desk for the part, and he literally tore his ACL on stage and continued to perform. He’s due to become Broadway’s next Susan Lucci. You’ll get ’em one year, Andy.

David Hyde Pierce already stole Raúl Esparza’s Tony in 2007 (somebody PLEASE explain to me how his Bobby was not Tony-winning. I still don’t understand), and although I haven’t seen the show in person, how could he not be upstaged by Bette?

Leading Actress in a Musical
Denée Benton, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Christine Ebersole, War Paint
Patti LuPone, War Paint
Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly!
Eva Noblezada, Miss Saigon

Will win: Bette Midler
Upset: Denée Benton

I would love to see my personal Jesus Patti LuPone take home her third, but it’s basically a sure thing that Bette’s taking home the trophy this year. Even if she MIGHT NOT PERFORM.

Even if it wasn’t the Year of Bette, Patti and her War Paint counterpart Christine Ebersole would likely split the votes and it wouldn’t go to either of them.

The youngest Tony nominee this year Eva Noblezada (she is 19!!!!) is absolutely killing it in the titular role of Miss Saigon – her Broadway debut. Denée Benton is also killing it playing opposite two male powerhouses – Josh Groban and Lucas Steele in Great Comet. For supposedly playing a naïve ingenue, Denée’s performance is powerful as hell.

Featured Actor in a Musical
Gavin Creel, Hello, Dolly!
Mike Faist, Dear Evan Hansen
Andrew Rannells, Falsettos
Lucas Steele, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Brandon Uranowitz, Falsettos

Will win: Gavin Creel or Andrew Rannells
Upset: Lucas Steele


I’m the most unsure about this category, so I’ll let the two formerly-nominated Elder Prices (with their third and second nominations, respectively) battle it out. I genuinely want this whole category to win a five-way Tony. I’m giving Andrew Rannells the edge because I think the Tony voters want to give Falsettos SOMETHING.

Featured Actress in a Musical
Kate Baldwin, Hello, Dolly!
Stephanie J. Block, Falsettos
Rachel Bay Jones, Dear Evan Hansen
Jen Colella, Come From Away
Mary Beth Peil, Anastasia

Will win: Rachel Bay Jones
Upset: Jenn Colella

Jenn Colella’s been making the press rounds with the Come From Away cast and been performing “Me and the Sky” on every talk show, which might garner up some votes. But is her performance big enough to triumph RBJ’s heartbreaking, phenomenal, truly supportive role?

The creative categories are even harder to choose, and the play categories are even harder still (because I haven’t seen any of them and I don’t pay as much attention to plays as I do musicals). But let’s get real – the real winner on Tony night is me.