Summerland, a new musical by Anika Johnson, Barbara Johnston and Suzy Wilde presented by Wexford Performing Arts, shattered my expectations of what to expect from a high school student production and what to expect from a Fringe musical. This site-specific show is playing in the auditorium of Harbord Collegiate Institute and it’s quite possibly the best musical I’ve ever seen at the Toronto Fringe Festival.
The show starts off in a high school where we meet eight students who’ve been called to the principal’s office for different reasons. Instead of detention they’re assigned a weekend at an out-of-town behavioural camp and along the way their bus crashes and the octet are transported into Summerland, a magical fantasy world populated by a tribe of other escaped youth.
It’s essentially an elaborate and beautiful metaphor for the transition from childhood into adulthood and that feeling of wanting to hold on to your last vestiges of innocence.
This production of Summerland has some distinct advantages that help it stand out in the field of Fringe musicals. Firstly, it’s not the first time out for this show; it’s been workshopped and a fully produced version was mounted last year so it’s had some time to find its legs. It also has the backing of Scarborough’s Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts where most of its cast hails from.
The result is a show that’s remarkably sleek and polished on a scale that’s far more grandiose than you typically see at the Fringe. We’re talking a full set (designed by John Kraft) and elaborate costumes (designed by Rebecca Meikle and Catharine Merriam) that’d give Cirque du Soleil a run for its money.
The show also features a bigger cast than you’d find at even the most lavish Broadway musical; the stage overflows in the ensemble numbers and director Ann Merriam often places performers throughout the auditorium creating an immersive experience. The show’s big ensemble production numbers, choreographed by Honey Frid, are truly dazzling.
Summerland also soars on the strength of its music. Johnson, Johnston and Wilde’s pop-inflected songs feature pithy and poetic lyrics and are effective, affecting and often hopelessly catchy. If there were a cast album available, I’d buy it.
The young cast brims with talent, many of the leads brought an earnestness and authenticity to their performances that completely won me over and in some instances broke my heart.
The show isn’t perfect though, I think the book (the scripted dialogue between songs) still needs a little work to feel a little more natural and less clunky. The show also features a lot of characters and not all the narrative threads are equally compelling. Some streamlining of the characters and plot elements would help with the flow.
That being said, Summerland really is a monumental achievement. If you’re a fan of musicals at all I urge you to see it, It’s not just a great high-school musical or Fringe musical, it’s a great musical, full-stop.
- Summerland is playing until July 12 at the Harbord Collegiate Institute (286 Harbord St)
- Tickets are $12 in advance, $10 at the door. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by phone (416-966-1062), from the festival box office down Honest Ed’s Alley (581 Bloor West), or from the venue box office starting one hour before the peformance. Venue sales are cash-only.
- Be advised that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and latecomers are never admitted. Set your watch to CBC time, and arrive a few minutes early to avoid disappointment.
- Warnings: Fog Machine, Mature Language, Strobe Light
- July 02 at 07:30 PM
- July 03 at 07:30 PM
- July 04 at 02:00 PM
- July 04 at 07:30 PM
- July 05 at 02:00 PM
- July 08 at 07:30 PM
- July 09 at 07:30 PM
- July 10 at 07:30 PM
- July 11 at 02:00 PM
- July 11 at 07:30 PM
- July 12 at 02:00 PM
Photo provided by the company