“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.

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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: ‘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

Singing out and branching out

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Fools & Horses Coffee on Broadway, the room where it happened. 

Generally, I would describe myself as a confident person. I have no problem making speeches or talking in front of a crowd. In fact, I’m so good at public speaking that I made up the toast I gave at my dad’s wedding off the top of my head. While intoxicated. And I made people cry. But when it comes to theatre, it’s a whole different ball game.

I’m very intimidated by people who work in and are passionate about theatre. When I’m with someone who also likes theatre, I feel the need to appear cool. I’m scared to tell them that my favourite show is Les Mis, because of course it is, and I’m afraid to tell them that I know all the raps in Hamilton, because of course I do. I’m not as familiar with hip Off-Broadway shows or every Jason Robert Brown concert. I’m even more intimidated by people who work in theatre (like when I met Will Swenson at the stage door in New York – he was very tall and had big sideburns and was very nice to me. I felt like a scared baby hamster).

Last year, when I heard that there was a group in Winnipeg that met up once a month just to sing showtunes, I was immediately both excited and nervous. I don’t sing, but being in this environment would be amazing and I would be able to socialize with people with the same interests as me. On the other hand, these people actively participate in musicals. Oh sweet god.

So for the whole last year of its existence, Sing Out, Louise! was like the cool kids’ table to me. But when I was finally able to attend one of their events, my friend took my hand and made me feel welcome. She introduced me to her friends, introduced me to the creators, and found a chair for me so that I could sit with her. I sat there, enthralled with every performance, and I never once felt like an outsider.

I’m going to the next event next month. I’ve never been in a room full of people that actually notice when I drop a subtle Rent reference. And if you like musicals too, you should come. I will take your hand and invite you to sit at my table. We’ll sing songs together.

 

Review: Rainbow Stage’s Shrek the Musical

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Carson Nattrass beltin’ the ogre blues. Image courtesy ChrisD.ca.

I’ve been going to Rainbow Stage since I was six years old. My first show was Big – The Musical. In the last few years, I’ve made a point of trying to catch their entire season. When I heard that they were going to perform Shrek, my first thought was: “That is a big show.”

I’d watched the pro-shot version of the Broadway show on Netflix, and it has got to be one of the largest shows of the last decade. Not only are there plethoras of costume changes, set pieces, cast members, and special effects, but there’s also knowing that you have to fill some of the theatre scene’s biggest shoes – Shrek was originally led by Brian D’Arcy James as the titular character and Sutton Foster as Princess Fiona.

But last night, I was reminded that nobody does big better than Rainbow. (I’m gonna stop saying that word now.)

I saw Ring of Fire, the first show Rainbow produced this year, and although I had a good time, it didn’t fulfill my theatre experience. I watched a group of talented musicians perform Johnny Cash songs, but it wasn’t a show. It felt more like a bio-concert. Rainbow’s done a few of these in the previous five seasons: joining Ring of Fire is also Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story and A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline. I’m very aware that most of Winnipeg’s theatre season ticket holders are white-haired, but these bio-musicals are something I can experience by myself, listening to a CD and reading Wikipedia.

Shrek, on the other hand, gave me everything I could hope for in a theatre experience: wonderful actors, a moving story, a laugh every now and then, and performances that made me rise to my feet.

Carson Nattrass was an excellent Shrek, mainly because of his impeccable comedic timing, able to ad-lib and feel out the audience’s reactions. If a Shrek doesn’t know how to do this, the show could ultimately fall flat. The point of the show is to be able to make fun of itself, and Nattrass led by example.

Heather McGuigan was a perfect Princess Fiona, never missing a high-pitched note and never letting her male counterpart steal the spotlight when they had a scene together. The two are balanced in such a way that makes you see them as a pair from the moment they share their first scene together.

The only thing that took me out of the story was the microphone problems that seem to plague Rainbow Stage at every show I attend. Sometimes, I chalk it up to being there early in the run (like missing cues when I saw the preview of Les Mis last season). But this was the sixth (seventh?) performance of Shrek, and there were still mics too loud and young Shrek’s mic wasn’t turned on at all for his first (and longest) appearance at the beginning of the show. The mixing will always be an issue, thanks to its amphitheatre atmosphere, but it’s no excuse for why cues can’t be followed. It was so noticeable that audience members began chatting about it during the show.

When a movie (or book or other source) is made into a musical, I have to ask myself whether it was necessary to transfer it onto the stage. When Shrek was made fifteen years ago, the creators must have thought that a movie was the best medium for this story. Did it need to be lengthened and transformed into what it is now?

Ultimately, I wasn’t able to answer that question. I remember seeing Shrek in the theatre, but there were children there that night that may have been experiencing that story for the first time. People there who weren’t expecting the Donkey = ass jokes, and who don’t quote “you cut me real deep, Shrek” on a regular basis. Whether it was necessary or not might be irrelevant, because this show works. The magic of the story is perfect on stage, and the production values weren’t dimmed at all from the Great White Way. Rainbow Stage is certainly living up to their new mantra, “definitely Broadway, uniquely Winnipeg.”

Shrek the Musical runs at Rainbow Stage in Kildonan Park until August 31. You can get tickets at RainbowStage.ca.

Rating: 4.5/5

Review: Manitoba Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro

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Manitoba Opera presented The Marriage of Figaro on November 21, 24, and 27. Image courtesy the WFP.

I went to the opera for the first time ever last week! Please enjoy my review that I also wrote as  a part of my journalism class.

As the self-proclaimed queen of musical theatre that I am, having travelled hundreds of miles by bus to see my favourite shows in New York, it feels shameful to admit that I had never been to the opera before. After I heard that one of Manitoba Opera’s productions this season would be The Marriage of Figaro, the overture of which I played in high school band, I decided that this would be the year. On Friday, November 27, the day of the final performance, I walked into the Centennial Concert Hall and prepared myself for a new experience.

The company, led by Gordon Bintner as Figaro and Andriana Chuchman as Susanna, his fiancée, were outstanding in Mozart’s opera. I quickly learned that one of the differences between musicals and operas is that the actors in opera do not wear microphones, which makes the feat of projecting their voices all the more impressive. Though they belted with all their might, there was the occasional time where the sound from the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra won out, most notably during the times when the bass singers hit the low notes.

The Marriage of Figaro was first performed in 1786 and is commonly performed, last by Manitoba Opera in 2006. Although the comedy and music of the show remains timeless, it was difficult to suspend my disbelief for three and a half hours when the plot revolves around fear of non-consensual sex. The show begins with Figaro and Susanna planning out their bedroom for once they get married. Susanna tells Figaro that she’s afraid their room is too close to Count Almaviva’s, who is attracted to, and that one night, when Figaro is working, the Count will enter the room and have his way with her. Figaro brushes this off and tells his future wife that she’s being silly. Perhaps the show is simply dated, but I think it’s time for an update.

The set featured revolving frosted glass mirrors, one on each corner of the stage. Throughout the four acts, these mirrors served as cornerstones of the production as each actor entered and exited through them. A few other simple set pieces, like dressers and shrubbery, completed the simple scenery.

Those who are wary of opera, fear not: there are English subtitles projected on a screen above the stage. They are, however, only projected at certain times, which left me lost. Why is Figaro throwing lemons offstage? I wish I had subtitles to explain that to me.

Though it was The Marriage of Figaro, I left singing the song of Susanna. Chuchman, who has performed with the Metropolitan Opera, was the final performer to take her place during curtain call, and she earned it. The soprano’s arias rung perfectly throughout the hall and she carried the show on her back throughout four acts. To paraphrase the late Howard Ashman, we always cheer for the heroine to get what she desires.

Although the story is dated, the brilliant all-Canadian cast believed in the characters and refused to compromise acting for belting the Italian libretto. Even from my second balcony seat, I was easily able to see facial expressions and actions.

Manitoba Opera is presenting Of Mice and Men, based on Steinbeck’s classic novella, on April 23, 26, and 27, 2016.