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Tarragon Theatre shaking things up with music-focused season

Oraltorio: A Theatrical Mixtape is one of three musical productions offered in Tarragon's new season.

With Canadian musical theatre on the rise, Tarragon Theatre is looking to get in on the action.

The Toronto theatre company mostly known for new comedies and dramas will have three musical productions in its 2017-18 season – an opera, a "theatrical mixtape" and a rocking take on Shakespeare.

"Our audiences need to be shaken up," artistic director Richard Rose said in advance of his programming announcement. "A number of the pieces use music in new plays."

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Mr. Shi and His Lover, a contemporary opera based on the true story of a French diplomat who fell in love with a male opera singer he believed to be a woman, will be the first off the line in November of 2017.

Written by Wong Teng Chi and Njo Kong Kie, it was a hit at the SummerWorks Festival – and will again be presented in Mandarin with English surtitles at the Tarragon.

Likewise, Oraltorio: A Theatrical Mixtape is a remount of a show that generated buzz at the Theatre Centre last spring. Created and performed by Motion and DJ L'Oqenz, it's billed as a coming-of-age story told "with beats, rhymes, poetry, song and dance."

And in early 2018, Rose will premiere his own new take on Hamlet – presented as a rock concert, with actors speaking Shakespeare's lines while improvising around a score by Thomas Ryder Payne.

Stratford Festival veteran and singer-songwriter Noah Reid will star as the melancholy Dane and actress and throat singer Tiffany Ayalik will play Ophelia. The cast of 11 will also include Tantoo Cardinal as Gertrude and Nigel Shawn Williams as Claudius.

"The rehearsal process so far has been like jamming in a garage," says Rose, who feels Hamlet will resonate interestingly in the current political climate. "As these days are evolving, it feels like the elders are making young people very angry and angsty and anxious. It might be a timely story to tell."

Improvisation will also be at the core of Undercover – Blind Date creator Rebecca Northan's latest "spontaneous theatre" creation, which will see an audience member enlisted to come up on stage as a rookie detective and help solve a crime. It officially opens the season in September of 2017 – then heads to Calgary's Vertigo Theatre.

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The rest of Tarragon's 2017-18 season, however, will be the page-to-stage scripts that the theatre is normally known for.

Two are recent hits in revival. Hannah Moscovitch's sold-out Stratford Festival debut Bunny will get its Toronto premiere, while Kat Sandler's Mustard will return after winning outstanding new play at the Dora Mavor Moore Awards last spring.

Rosa Laborde's Marine Life, a romantic comedy about microplastics and mariachi, and expat Evan Placey's Girls Like That, a play about a naked photo that goes viral, round out the bill. Laborde will direct her own play, while Esther Jun tackles Placey's work in its Canadian premiere.

Following a couple of years of programming in which Tarragon, a Toronto contemporary theatre, has fallen short on representing the diversity of contemporary Toronto, this season could be seen as a step forward.

According to Rose, that is mostly due to the way the cards fell – "sometimes we can't find pieces or the pieces are grabbed up" – but also in anticipation of changes at funding agencies that incentivize an arts organization's reflection of the diversity of its geographical community. "Obviously, the priorities within the Canada Council have changed, so we're trying to acknowledge that," Rose says.

Subscriptions and tickets will go on sale at tarragontheatre.com.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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