All is revealed at Toronto’s Confidential Musical Theatre Project
It’s a hell of a thing to keep a secret from theatrefolk. Social butterflies with robust and devious imaginations, they’ll puzzle anything out. It should say a great deal that, walking into the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, I had no clue what to expect from the Confidential Musical Theatre Project: they’d kept this secret very well.
I knew the show would be a musical, with a cast who had learned their parts in isolation, but had never rehearsed as a group. Beyond that, it was anyone’s guess.
So when I entered the theatre, I was excited to see parasols — parasols which could only come from one very, very famous painting, and from one of Sondheim’s more obscure (and most celebrated) musicals: Sunday in the Park with George.
Sunday in the Park is a heavily-fictionalized account of George Surrat’s life and surroundings while painting his masterpiece, with a second act exploring the effects of artistic legacies, the fine arts as an institution, and the creative process. It’s also an excellent choice for a production of this nature: well-suited to abstract staging; plenty of solos and choral numbers (a Sondheim duet or trio without rehearsal would probably wind up sounding like a traffic jam); and simple, neat, self-contained characters: a painter, a mistress, a reviewer, and so on.
Making a virtue of necessity, the simple staging (think The Fantasticks: folding chairs, stuffed animals and a heaping dose of let’s-put-on-a-show pluck) creates room for the performances — and this is a special and peculiar cast. Seasoned career artists joined by drama teachers, community-theatre stars, and others who have the chops for professional musical theatre, but are either just outside the field (opera singers, voiceover actors, etc.) or simply couldn’t combine a full production with their day jobs. It’s a welcome reminder that this country’s performing-arts community — and this is a national project, with cast members coming from as far afield as New Brunswick and British Columbia — runs much deeper than what you see on a Mirvish stage.
Louisa Burgess Corbett (as Mother) has a marvellous stage presence, but impressed me most in the second act, when she changes into a radically different character who lingers far beyond her 6-7 lines. Carmen Gillespie and Qasim Khan somehow found remarkable chemistry in paired roles, a tall order considering they’d never been on-stage together in their lives. And while Marnie Kersten knows how to make an entrance, Richard Kwong got more laughs than anyone else, at one point stopping the show for a solid 20 seconds.
James Woods, in the title role, picks up the important subtleties: his George is gruff without becoming distasteful, and while he’s playing halfway against type, remains entirely credible and believable. He’s partnered with Blair Irwin, the female lead, whose Children & Art could very well have ended the show. Especially in the first act, George is a bit of a blank canvas himself — a detached technician — while Irwin’s Dot is the colour: not to diminish Woods’ contribution, but she’s acting for two (three?), and she flings enough comedy and pathos for the both of them.
But the most impressive performances on the stage were those of Marion Abbott and Rob Corbett, ringmasters and roustabouts — and the brains behind the whole operation. How they’ve assembled this diverse company is beyond me; how they talked them into it, even moreso. But while there were a few bumps — and give them a break, it’s essentially a stumblethrough — the quality of this production was remarkable. By embracing this stripped-down aesthetic, by keeping the energy high and the pace snappy, and by finding creative solutions to sudden problems (the hats, the fishing poles, the toy soldier…), they’ve hit virtually all their targets.
I’m not sure this is a show I’d take my grandmother to see, but I had a fantastic time, and I think anyone with a passion for musical theatre and tolerance for opening-night jitters would enjoy it, too. And hopefully you will! There are already rumours of other confidential productions in Vancouver, New York, and — if we’re lucky — later this year, right here Toronto.
- The Confidential Musical Theatre Project played the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs on July 24th, 2014.