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FRONT ROW CENTRE: Young Frankenstein will put a smile on your face
North York Mirror
By Mark Andrew Lawrence

Often it seems when some of our local theatre groups are confronted with problems that threaten to overwhelm them they manage to pull the proverbial rabbit out of a hat and come up with a winning production.
 
Case in point: Curtain Call Players were forced to make alternate arrangements for their spring show when a flood closed down Fairview Library Theatre. They were able to book The Al Green Theatre in downtown Toronto (on Spadina Avenue just south of Bloor Street West) and managed to wedge their production of Young Frankenstein into its cozy confines.
 
Mel Brooks created this musical based on his hit film comedy. It has a funny script and some tuneful songs. True to form, many of the jokes are older than Mel Brooks’ famous 2,000-year old man. The cast, under the direction of Keith O’Connell, commits to playing these weird and wacky characters, milking every joke for all of its comic worth.
 
Glen Burgess leads the way with his often amusing reactions. He sings very well and moves with agility even when being upstaged by his monster in one vaudeville-styled song and dance.
 
Ngaio Potts makes a welcome return to our musical stages with her zany take as the Doctor’s fiancée, Elizabeth. “Everybody loves to get a surprise,” she sings when she turns up unexpectedly in Transylvania. Her appearances are always welcome surprises.
 
The other inhabitants of the castle – Igor, played by Russ Underdown, and Frau Blucher, played by Meg Gibson – are also welcome contributors to the offbeat fun.
 
Lisa Ferreira brings her own kooky charm to the role of Inga, the sexy assistant to the Doctor. And Martin Kelly serves up a brief but very funny cameo as a lonely hermit. Best of all, Barry Flynn makes an impressive monster, generating howls of laughter with his performance of Irving Berlin’s Puttin’ on the Ritz.
 
The dances, staged by Jon Alexander, are energetically performed by the company who do everything they can to ensure the audience has a great time.
 
Meanwhile, take a trip downtown to see Curtain Call’s staging of Young Frankenstein. It will put a smile on your face.
 
Curtain Call Players present the Mel Brooks musical Young Frankenstein at The Al Green Theatre, 750 Spadina Ave., April 23, 24 and 25 at 8 p.m. For tickets, visit www.curtaincallplayers.com or call 416-703-6181

FRONT ROW CENTRE: Annie Spreads Sunshine On Stage Until Nov. 16
North York Mirror
ByMark Andrew Lawrence
 
The lovable redhead is back singing her familiar refrain – ‘the sun’ll come out tomorrow’ – and spreading optimism to everyone she meets.
 
Little Orphan Annie was first introduced as a comic strip by Harold Gray in 1924. The strip was still running in 1976 when composer Charles Strouse teamed with lyricist Martin Charnin and book writer Thomas Meehan to create the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical hit Annie. I am happy to report that the production by Curtain Call Players on stage at Fairview Library Theatre is thoroughly enjoyable and succeeds by following the ground plan laid out by the show’s creators
 
It helps that director Keith O’Connell has assembled a terrific cast who perform the show in a brisk staging. The major adult roles are very well cast. Martin Kelly has the look and authoritative voice to play a commanding Daddy Warbucks. He also shows a barely hidden tender side as he gradually falls in love with the little girl whose sunny spirit infuses his home.
 
As a bonus, O’Connell has restored an extra song written for the Australian production and rarely included in productions of Annie. The song, ‘Why Should I Change a Thing’, is a nice little soliloquy for Warbucks and musical theatre fans will welcome this chance to hear it sung and well sung at that.
 
Kathryn MacGregor plays the evil Miss Hannigan, matron of the orphanage on New York’s lower east side, where we first met our heroine.
 
“Do I hear happiness in here?” she snarls when she suspects the girls are up to something, and she schleps around the place not so much as a wicked stepmother, but rather a tired, overworked and dejected woman who can only dream of being on Easy Street.
 
An opportunity to team with her crooked brother (flashily played by Glen Burgess) and his dim-witted girlfriend (a delightfully dizzy Meg Gibson) sets a plot in motion that drives much of the second act. Their plan is ultimately thwarted by President Roosevelt, played with inspiring warmth by Bob Deutsch.
 
Saving the best news for last, Curtain Call has found a young lady to play the title role who is an absolute joy to watch. Megan McDowell has an amazing voice to belt out Annie’s songs. She doesn’t overdo it, knowing when to soften her singing for Annie’s other theme, the tender song ‘Maybe’.
 
From the very first scene, this performer brings the character to life and wins admiration for her professionalism, even when her canine co-star Dodo as Sandy tries to upstage her.
 
 
FRONT ROW CENTRE: Joseph and his technicolor dreamcoat back in town until Saturday
[Mark Andrew Lawrence reviews Joseph, March 2013]
 
Originally written as a short (15-minute) pop cantata, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has grown into a full-sized theatre production that has proven to be incredibly popular with community theatre groups as well as their audiences.
 
Curtain Call players staged this musical in November 2007 to great acclaim and sold-out houses. Curtain Call’s current production is not a carbon copy remount of their previous showing, but the results are just as entertaining.
 
Taken from the last part of the Book of Genesis in the Bible, it retells the story of how Jacob’s favored son Joseph is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. We follow his subsequent adventures in Egypt as he becomes advisor to Pharaoh and eventually reunites with his father and brothers.
 
The story is presented as a series of musical numbers (there are no spoken scenes) that allow composer Andrew Lloyd Webber to indulge in a wide variety of musical pastiches. This turns the piece into something of a cartoon. The result is a bit of theatrical candy floss that evaporates almost as soon as the house lights are turned up. No wonder audiences return to this show again and again.
I have seen the musical many times over the years, and when the cast performs with enthusiasm the show always works. The cast on stage at York Woods Library Theatre provides more than enough energy to keep the production afloat starting with the radiantly sunny performance of Jeff Hookings in the title role. He has a wonderful singing voice and an innocence that makes his Joseph very endearing.
 
Narrating the tale is Marissa Dingle, who navigates the sometimes rangy music with a powerful voice that happily never assaults the ears. She can belt notes to the far reaches of the auditorium, but the sound always arrives in pleasant form.
 
In the role of Pharaoh, Twaine Ward delivers an impersonation of Elvis Presley that delights the crowd without trying to milk it for extra applause.
 
These three leading players are all very well suited to their roles, but the rest of the cast is solid as well. Joseph’s brothers get a chance to shine with the country-flavored One More Angel in Heaven in the first act and with Those Canaan Days in the second half.
 
Jon Alexander provides the choreography which is executed by the ensemble with confidence.
Director Keith O’Connell serves up a seamless blending of scenery, costumes and lighting to create a pageant that whirls like confetti in the wind.
 
This production serves as a fine introduction to the pleasures of Joseph. That said, this is a show that desperately needs a rest on our local scene. Just about every community group in the area has had at least one crack at it, and while it is always enjoyable, there are other family-oriented musicals that deserve equal stage time.
 
 
FRONT ROW CENTRE: Cult favourite ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ comes to North York
[ Mark Andrew Lawrence review The Rocky Horror Show, October 2012]
 
With its curious mix of camp, horror and musical comedy, Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show has become as much a part of the Halloween season as trick or treat.
The trick with this show is to keep it lively and entertaining as the story begins to falter in the second act. Curtain Call Players meets this challenge thanks to a committed cast, which brings this collection of offbeat characters to life.
 
The star performance here is by Twaine Ward, as Dr. Frank-N-Furter – the “sweet transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania” – who plays host to a hapless couple, Brad and Janet, after their car breaks down near his dilapidated castle. Ward has a commanding presence and a rich, powerful voice that enriches the familiar songs.
 
Strong voices are also on display from Fiona Johnson as Magenta and Avra Fainer as Columbia, both performers having a great deal of fun doing this show. Playing Frank-N-Furter’s “creation” Rocky is Rob Reardon who has a wonderfully funny vacant look on his face at all times.
 
Katie Mills and Adam Holroyd play the bewildered couple who find themselves swept into the weird and wonderful world of Frank-N-Furter and his cohorts. Both performers have a wide-eyed innocence that sets up their eventual surrender to their host’s sexual advances.
 
Director Keith O’Connell does a great job of keeping the show sharp and bitingly funny, and also takes on the role of Riff Raff, leading the cast in the show’s big dance number, The Time Warp. It is to his credit that the show’s somewhat problematic second half never lags.
 
O’Brien’s score borrows much from the world of rock ’n’ roll and this allows David Wicken to cut loose with a splendid Hot Patootie in the first act. Most of the more popular songs appear in the first half, but the ladies get a chance to rock out with Touch-A-Touch-A-Touch Me at the top of the second act.
The production encourages full audience participation (a ritual that grew into a cult surrounding midnight screenings of the film version). You don’t need to bring your own supply of rice, toilet paper, candles and playing cards, as they offer kits at the door for a modest donation. Also included for the uninitiated is a script of the talkbacks and cues for when to squirt the cast (and fellow audience members) with water pistols.
 
Yes, you are expected to scream obscenities every time David Rudat as the dour narrator mentions Brad or Janet’s name. It’s all part of the silliness that has made this show such a cult favourite, and once you accept the premise and go along with it you’ll have a fun time.
 
Miss Saigon – A Moving Production from Curtain Call Players
[Mark Andrew Lawrence reviews Miss Saigon, April 4, 2012]
 
In the great theatrical tradition that “the show must go on” no only did Curtain Call Players manage to install the sets, lights and sound equipment for MISS SAIGON in the church, they also had to adjust the staging to fit on what is essentially a church altar. Thanks to their determined efforts and the commitment of a strong cast, the popular musical drama by Claude Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil is given a moving performance.

Based on the Puccini opera Madama Butterfly, MISS SAIGON resets the story against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. The geisha Cio-Cio San becomes a bargirl named Kim, and Lieutenant Pinkerton is now an American GI named Chris.

For Curtain Call’s production the role of Kim is played by a remarkable singer, Chaliz La Madrid. Not only does she sing the complex score with assurance, she also adds a number of subtle touches to her performance to underscore the dramatic journey her character must follow. There is barely a dry eye in the house by the end of the show.

As Chris, Russell Underdown pours out a powerful voice matched with a richly detailed portrayal of this conflicted and passionate soldier.  Richard Kwong delivers a charismatic performance as the sleazy Engineer who manipulates Kim for his own advantage. He makes his second act production number “The American Dream” every bit the showstopper it is intended to be.

With three very strong performers handling the leading roles, it effectively raises the bar for the supporting players and happily they all rise to the occasion giving solid performances. Notable standouts include Glen Burgess as Chris’s friend John; Emily Klatt as Chris’s American wife Ellen, and Jason Nunez as Kim’s rejected suitor, Thuy.

Music director Michel Grieco has carefully coached the cast to give them the confidence needed to sing this enormously complex score. Keith O’Connell has staged the piece to focus on the central relationships making us care very deeply for the people in this story.

The technical demands of moving a huge and complicated production to an unfamiliar performance space has created some real challenges for Curtain Call Players. The first performance was marred by a few sound problems but the cast stayed focused on telling the story, and the opening night audience rewarded them with a well-deserved standing ovation.

Hairspray takes hold at Fairview Library Theatre
[Mark Andrew Lawrence reviews Hairspray, November 9, 2011]

A vigorous and well-presented production of the Tony-Award winning musical comedy Hairspray opened last week to one of the loudest and longest ovations I have ever witnessed at Fairview Library Theatre.
 
The crowd wasn’t just cheering the final curtain call. Many individual songs and performances were greeted with the same ecstatic response, notably Andria Lewis as Motormouth Maybelle, who received a rare mid-show standing ovation at the conclusion of her big song, I Know Where I’ve Been.
 
That kind of excitement infuses this entire production from the moment Natalie McGowan as Tracy Turnblad launches into the opening number Good Morning Baltimore. Here is a performer with a thorough understanding of the character, and McGowan communicates every bit of Tracy’s boundless enthusiasm as she fights for integration on an all-white TV dance show in the early 1960s.
 
As Link Larkin, the boy of her dreams, Isaac Harold delivers a performance of unabashed sincerity, while gyrating enthusiastically to the catchy period-flavoured tunes by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
 
The musical Hairspray is based on a campy film comedy by John Waters. The stage version tones down the camp aspect, and director Keith O’Connell keeps the entire cast in check, focused on the narrative. The company responds to his concept, making for a believably realistic story.
 
This is not to suggest that the cast isn’t having fun with their characters. Megan Flynn is a constant delight as Tracy’s simple-minded best pal, Penny. Bil Antoniou has a field day in the drag role Edna, Tracy’s oversized and overbearing mother. And Michael Harvey offers an amusing portrait of Tracy’s novelty-selling dad.
 
For balance, Mary Bowden is downright nasty as Tracy’s nemesis, Amber Von Tussle, and playing Amber’s monstrous mother – determined to see her daughter win at all costs – Ngaio Potts steals just about every scene in which she appears.
 
In a show that deals with the fight for integration in 1960s Baltimore, it is refreshing that the performers playing Tracy’s friends Seaweed and Little Inez, do not play into stereotype. Instead both Kevin Vidal and Masini McDermott create three-dimensional characters.
 
They also execute Janet Flynn’s challenging dances with panache. In fact, the entire cast brings energy and precision to the show’s many dance numbers.
 
Music director Keith Bohlender and a nine-piece band provide outstanding orchestral support, though occasionally at the opening night performance, the sound mix made it difficult to hear some of the lines. This will likely be corrected after a few public performances.
 
It is always great when the performers on stage are having such a good time that those watching can’t help but get swept up in the fun, and that is exactly what happens in this tightly paced production of Hairspray, making it a joy from start to finish.
 
Hairspray continues at Fairview Library Theatre, 35 Fairview Mall Dr., until Saturday, Nov. 12. For tickets, visit www.curtaincallplayers.com or call 416-703-6181.