The Secret Annex at the Segal Centre – Montreal

So I had the pleasure of seeing The Secret Annex at the Segal Centre last night, and it totally blew me away. If you haven’t heard of this play before, it was written by Alix Sobler and imagines what Anne Frank’s life would have been like in 1950’s Brooklyn had she survived the war. This is a world in which her diary would have remained unpublished and her name unknown. It’s a tough topic to explore, but the play is so self-aware that the audience is constantly reminded that these events never actually happened. However, this meta-Brechtian-thing  didn’t stop me from losing myself in the story, which is always a risk.

The play was directed by Marcia Kash (yay female directors!), and I can’t wait to see what she does in the future, because this production was so gorgeous and tight. It had that whole creepy 50’s cookie cutter dollhouse kind of look, which contrasted so well with the quite dark subject matter. See, this play focuses on Anne’s obsession with her time in the annex and how she’s too stuck in the past to pay attention to the present. The transitions between scenes were so flawless and reflected that idea perfectly, with Anne staying onstage most of the time while everything moves around her. That was a standout for me.

(Short digression, but apparently Kash has directed three different productions of The Diary of Anne Frank in the span of 15 years. Wild, right? I can’t even imagine. I feel like you’d constantly be trying to one-up yourself. Anyway.)

Performances-wise, this was a stunning cast. Sara Farb, who just came back from playing Anne Frank in Stratford last season, was an absolute standout. I myself have read Anne Frank’s diary (although it’s been a while), and she manages to capture Anne’s bubbly energy and quirkiness. I feel like I recognized her from the diary. It was a weird experience, but super enjoyable.

I have to say, the play had a bit of a rocky start. I feel like it took about a third of act 1 (which ran 65 minutes) for most of the actors to really come into their characters. But once they did, I was so into it. Act 1 is definitely the weaker act; I feel like the theme of trying to escape the past didn’t really establish itself until act 2. Act 1 felt a little cliché – mostly I felt like I was watching a show about a woman struggling to choose her career (writing her memoir) over her romantic life, a trope that I’m pretty tired of personally (also, does the world really need another love triangle?). Act 1 didn’t really bring anything new to the table for me, but I understand its importance in establishing everything for act 2, which completely blew me away. So stick around at intermission, folks.

One of the things I loved about this production was the amount of detail in the design choices in so many things from lighting to props. Everything seemed to imitate the cover of Anne’s journal (a plaid pattern, reminiscent of a cage – coincidence?), but it wasn’t so obvious that I felt overwhelmed or not taken seriously by the director. It was just the perfect amount.

TL;DR: act 1 was okay; act 2 blew my mind; go see The Secret Annex. It’s running until February 21 at the Segal Centre in Montreal. The website claims that tickets start at $44, but student tickets are $24.50 and the under 30 price is $35, so they lie.

(Another digression: I’ve seen everything put on at the Segal so far this season – Funny Girl, Tribes, and now The Secret Annex – and I’ve loved everything I’ve seen. I can’t wait to see what they do next.)

Grease: LIVE and the Advent of TV Musicals

If you’re reading this, you’re probably like me and freaked out over Fox’s Grease: LIVE last Sunday. I get super excited whenever a new TV musical is produced. For those of us not living in New York City, and even more so not living in the United States, it can be really hard to find professional productions of our favourite shows. But even then, so many Americans, avid theatre enthusiasts like the rest of us, can’t afford to be exposed to these shows, either. This whole phenomenon is very close to my heart. But before I continue with this tangent, I want to particularly talk about Grease.

It was great, wasn’t it?! I mean, every single actor was totally on point in their dancing and singing, and that choreography was stunning. And honestly, can we please talk about Tommy Kail’s direction? He’s getting to be a big name around Broadway, having directed both Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights and Hamilton. Seriously, though; this was shot like a movie. It was really smooth.

The addition of the live audience was also a great choice, in my opinion. That particular element has gotten mixed feedback, but I thought it brought some of the authenticity of the theatre to the project.

I don’t really want to get into specifics, because you’ve probably heard it all before: how Aaron Tveit was as talented as ever, how Vanessa Hudgens blew us all away despite the recent death of her father, and all the other raves it’s been receiving (with good reason). But I mostly want to talk about the advent of televised musicals in general, and what they mean to us and to Broadway in general.

In case you haven’t heard, this is the fourth TV musical so far; before that, we had The Wiz Live back in December, Peter Pan the year before that, and The Sound of Music before that, all broadcasted by NBC. (NBC, if you recall, also did the TV show Smash a couple of years ago, so they are quite aware of us theatre nerds.) While NBC’s first two projects were a little underwhelming, the two most recent productions have been quite fantastic. It’s so amazing that we as an audience get to be exposed to these shows and these actors, as we so rarely get a taste of their talents normally.

When I was at BroadwayCon a few weeks ago, I actually went to a panel on the screening of musicals, which included producer Ken Davenport. He’s produced shows like Kinky Boots, The Visit, and the recent revival of Spring Awakening. He’s also the guy who made the Daddy Long Legs livestream happen last December.

This was the first time a New York musical was filmed and streamed online for free – ever. It was very well done and felt so intimate considering it was such a momentous occasion. Especially since it’s a smaller show Off-Broadway with only two cast members and a simple set, it worked really well. Davenport claims he wants to stream more shows like these in the future.

Most surprising was that this show was streamed during its run. This is extremely risky, considering that it might decrease ticket sales, since they were worried people wouldn’t want to see it live after having watched it on their laptops (this can go back to what I’ve said about bootlegs in the past). They did a survey of all those who tuned in after the broadcast, and they came up with some really cool results, which you can read here.

This all ties in to BroadwayHD, a Netflix-esque service that allows paying customers to stream Broadway shows that have come and gone. It started up in April 2014. From what I’ve heard so far, the available shows are somewhat limited, but its creators (also at the BroadwayCon panel) are working hard to continue adding shows to the service. It’s mostly plays as of right now, but it does have a couple of musicals, such as Gypsy, Jekyll and Hyde, and the 2010 Tony Award-winning Memphis. I definitely intend to check this out as soon as I can.

There are so many ways to watch live musicals from the comfort of your own home nowadays, and I think this is both a fascinating and important phenomenon in making theatre accessible to more audiences. From TV musicals to livestreams to BroadwayHD, the Broadway world just keeps getting bigger and better, allowing for more people to be exposed to live theatre.

Pig Girl at Centaur Theatre in Montreal

Hey all! If you’re in the Montreal, Quebec area, you should definitely check out Colleen Murphy’s play Pig Girl, playing at the Centaur Theatre February 3 to 6. I managed to nag a ticket for opening night in order to write a review for The Concordian, aka the Concordia University newspaper. This post will be a bit of an extension of that review.

So, first and foremost: the plot. Pig Girl aims to put a face to the missing and murdered indigenous women, a major issue in Canada right now. It’s so easy to think of these women as nothing more than a statistic, but we have to remember that we’re talking about actual people, here. So, the play features Dying Girl, a young indigenous woman, kidnapped and murdered by Killer, and her Sister who attempts to prompt Police Officer to pursue the investigation.

It’s a tough story to watch, but it’s so important.

The cast is truly fantastic. The women especially – Reneltta Arluk (Dying Woman) and Julie Tamiko Manning (Sister) – are spectacular. Both actors brought me to tears many times throughout the show. They are so sincere and so generous in their performances. They just give and give and give to the audience. Graham Cuthbertson plays the Killer, a tough role to take on in the first place – but amazingly enough, he only joined the cast six days prior to opening night! The previous actor had to leave unexpectedly due to illness, but let me tell you, Cuthbertson does an amazing job in the role. I mean, how do you immerse yourself that much into such a terrifying character in such a short amount of time?

I have to say, I was a bit perplexed by Micheline Chevrier’s staging. It’s certainly very ambitious, for many reasons: she has all four characters standing in a straight line, each standing in a small rectangle of dirt. They interact with each other, yes, but they’re always facing the audience, which makes the play very intimate. Chevrier admits right away that in this choice, she breaks one of the first rules of theatre: never make a straight line onstage. But here’s the thing: the play is around 90 minutes long, and for the entirety of that 90 minutes… they don’t move. I mean, they roll around a bit in the dirt they stand in – it’s very visceral – but otherwise there’s very little movement. Not a great way to keep the audience engaged.

Another reason why this staging is particularly daring, is because, as an audience member pointed out after the show during the talkback (these talkbacks take place after every show), these four characters are all placed on the same level – killer and killed. It’s tough to watch. Is it too soon to look at this issue from such an objective point of view? Chevrier’s answer was that she wanted to show that not one voice is more important than another. It’s a good point to make, but it’s also tough to swallow when discussing such an important issue.

I also had a bit of an issue with the text itself, in that it was very repetitive. The plot mostly involves a slow unveiling of each character as we get to know them separately, but it’s very slow. Many of the arguments repeat themselves several times. It makes sense with this kind of political/activist theatre that the point it’s making should be very clear, but I’m sure there are better ways to convey it than by repeating it this often.

I realize I’m criticizing a lot of this play, but I’m a very critical person and am quick to point out flaws in productions. This is truly an amazing, heart-wrenching play, and I do recommend it. If you aren’t convinced yet, you should know that Imago Theatre, the company putting it on, has adopted a pay-what-you-can policy, meaning you pick up a ticket before the performance for free (you have to arrive early, though), and you only pay afterwards. There’s no minimum. If you do want to reserve a ticket in advance, general admission is $15, and it’s $10 for students/seniors/artists/Centaur Subscribers. They want to make theatre, and especially this story, more accessible, which is super important to me personally, so go support them! It’s a great company with a great objective, and you’ll be seeing a truly fantastic show with some of Montreal’s best actors. You have until February 6th to catch it!