What to watch as a new season of Canadian theatre approaches
As the country's theatre companies tackle everything from personal tragedy to rock 'n' roll, a spell of potential hits is ahead
As the temperature starts to cool, Canadian theatre is about to heat up – as a new theatrical season begins across the country.
After an explosion of sesquicentennial projects tackling ambitious Canadian themes and big national stories, the country's theatre companies seem to be either returning to personal or abstract stories – to auteurism and absurdism – or are looking to take the audience beyond the border and, in the case of two big musicals, into and out of Hell.
Here are eight new productions that have caught my eye – plus a trio of returning hits.
In the wake of the massive success of Come From Away on Broadway (cumulative gross to date in New York: $32.5-million U.S.), there's a real wind in the sails of Canadian musical theatre.
In Toronto, major buzz surrounds emerging auteur Britta Johnson – who can write music, lyrics and dialogue. The recently re-branded The Musical Stage Company has committed to producing her work for the next three years – and first off the line is an intimate show called Life After about a 16-year-old named Alice (Ellen Denny) grappling with the sudden death of her father, a superstar self-help guru. Robert McQueen's production stars heavy-hitters Dan Chameroy (Matilda) and Rielle Braid (Ride the Cyclone) – and opens the season at the Canadian Stage (Sept. 23-Oct. 22).
The Hockey Sweater
The Segal Centre in Montreal has become a prime location for developing new musicals under artistic and executive director Lisa Rubin – and this fall, the big premiere is The Hockey Sweater (Oct. 19-Nov. 12), based on Roch Carrier's beloved story about the mistaken delivery of a Toronto Maple Leafs merchandise to a boy in small-town Quebec in 1946. It has an impressive team behind it – Donna Feore, the Stratford Festival's reliable hit-maker, as director; music by Jonathan Monro, who always seems on the verge of breaking big; and a book by veteran playwright by Emil Sher.
The Citadel Theatre in Edmonton is showing international ambition under its new artistic director Daryl Cloran. For his first season, he's invited American director Rachel Chavkin – recently Tony-nominated for her innovative work on Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 – to visit and grow a new musical with an American/Canadian cast that she hopes will be her next immersive Broadway hit. Hadestown (Nov. 11-Dec. 3), a take on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth with a folk and jazz score by Anais Mitchell, features a song called Why We Build The Wall that Mitchell wrote a decade ago but, obviously, has gained new resonance.
Bat Out of Hell: The Musical
At first blush, Bat Out of Hell might seems as if yet another jukebox musical – but, in fact, composer Jim Steinman originally intended some of the songs he wrote for the 1977 Meat Loaf album of the same name for a futuristic stage adaptation of Peter Pan that never made it out of workshop.
Fast-forward 40 years, this new musical comes to Toronto from London with songs from both the classic album and its 1993 sequel and a story that sounds like a cross between J.M. Barrie and We Will Rock You: A forever-young rebel in a post-cataclysmic city in love and battling a tyrannical ruler. Say what you will, its run has already extended three weeks at the Ed Mirvish Theatre (Oct. 14-Dec. 24).
The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?
Last fall, the theatre world lost one of its biggest names in playwright Edward Albee. A year on, Soulpepper begins to re-assess the American absurdist's work with his second-most famous title to end with a question mark (Nov. 1-Nov. 18). Director Alan Dilworth is in charge of this 2002 Tony winner, while the Toronto theatre's artistic director Albert Schultz make a welcome return to the stage in the lead role of Martin, an architect who falls in love with Sylvia. Spoiler alert: She's the goat.
The death of Albee and, this year, Sam Shepard would be harder to take were the current crop of American playwrights not so impressive. Canada's beginning to catch on to nouveau naturalists Annie Baker (whose The Aliens is in Toronto and Edmonton this fall) and Stephen Karam (whose The Humans will be everywhere this winter), but another name worth paying attention to is the neo-Shavian Lucas Hnath. His cheeky Ibsen sequel A Doll's House, Part 2 was a runner-up at the Tony Awards in the spring – and this fall, The Christians, an earlier play of ideas about religion, has smartly been snapped up by Pacific Theatre in Vancouver (Sept. 15-Oct. 7) and the Rosebud Theatre near Drumheller, Alta., (Sept. 22-Oct. 28).
The Consent Event
As the Jian Ghomeshi and Steven Galloway affairs have fallen out the news, Nightwood Theatre has programmed two plays by young, female playwrights that aim to go beyond the headlines to dig deeper into the question of consent and power that both raised. Based on interviews with Crown officials, university professors as well as lovers and friends, Ellie Moon's Asking for It (Oct. 6-Oct. 21) grapples explicitly with the Ghomeshi scandal – and, at a reading last year, was dubbed "a sly, intelligent piece of documentary theatre" by The Globe and Mail's Simon Houpt. Lo (or Dear Mr Wells), meanwhile, takes a more classic dramatic route – with up-and-coming playwright Rose Napoli dramatizing a complicated relationship between a male teacher and a female student (Oct. 25-Nov. 11). Both are presented in co-productions with Toronto's Crow's Theatre.
Le Wild West Show de Gabriel Dumont
Canada's sesquicentennial has already seen major revivals of epic takes on the story of Métis leader Louis Riel penned by white, English-Canadian creators – Harry Somers and Mavor Moore's opera; Michael Hollingsworth's history plays – but here's a brand-new work that tackles similar territory from a cross-country collective of Indigenous and French-Canadian theatre artists. It begin where those shows end – with fellow Métis resister Dumont seeking refuge in the United States after Riel's execution, where he would join Buffalo Bill's travelling West West show. Big names like Franco-Ontarian playwright Jean-Marc Dalpé, Algonquin playwright Yvette Nolan and Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams are all involved in this play that will premiere at the Théâtre français at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa (Oct. 17-21), before visiting Theâtre d'Aujourd'hui in Montreal (Oct. 31-Nov. 18) – and then going west in the new year to the Cercle Molière in Winnipeg and La Troupe du Jour in Saskatoon.
These are all new plays – or new productions – and only time will tell if if the artists involved pull them off. If you're looking for a sure bet, here are three:
Factory Theatre's superlative 2016 production of David French's Newfoundland love story Salt-Water Moon is remounted in Toronto as part of the off-Mirvish season (Oct. 12-29) before Why Not Theatre tours it to Calgary, Winnipeg and Richmond, B.C., early in the new year.
In British Columbia, the Arts Club takes Onegin, its hit production of Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille's lively musical adaptation of the Hamlet of Russian literature, on the road starting with Victoria in October – even as a second production hits the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
And, in Newfoundland and Labrador, the NAC launches a tour of its own funny production of Andy Jones' localized adaptation of Tartuffe to the Arts and Culture Centre starting in St. John's on Sept. 28.