Book by Terrence McNally, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, based on the novel by Manuel Puig, directed by Evan Tsitsias, choreography by Sara-Jeanne Hosie. Until March 10 at the Don Jail, 550 Gerrard St. E. Eclipsetheatre.ca.
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Starting with the nitty-gritty: this is a review of a show you’re not going to be able to see unless you already have tickets. This new production of the famed prison-set musical is running for seven performances only and is sold out.
Its popularity is doubtless due to the combined interest of the unusual setting — it’s staged in the rotunda of the former Don Jail with seating for only 80-100 spectators; the appeal of the material, which won seven 1993 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Book, and Score; and the profile of the upstart outfit that’s producing it — Eclipse Theatre Company, founded by experienced theatre professionals Sara-Jeanne Hosie and Evan Tsitsias and the musical-theatre star Chilina Kennedy. They launched Eclipse last year to incubate new musicals and stage existing ones, adding to the burgeoning of musical theatre in Toronto and Canada that also includes the expansion of Musical Stage Company and the global success of Come from Away.
As the company’s first effort, it’s a mixed bag. John Kander’s score is thrilling, beautifully played by a six-person band under Chris Barillaro’s musical direction. The lead performers — Kawa Ada, Tracy Michailidis, and Jonathan Winsby — are great musical talents and sing their roles expertly.
It’s also a reminder of the improbable brilliance of repurposing Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel about the dialogue between two Argentinian cellmates during the Dirty War as a musical (it’s also been made into a film and a play). Molina (Ada) is a gay department store window dresser picked up for soliciting a minor and harassed in prison for his sexuality; Valentin (Winsby) is a Marxist revolutionary involved in a plot to overthrow the government. To keep himself on the rails, Molina fantasizes about beloved B-movies featuring the imagined diva Aurora (Michailidis). Where the brilliance comes in is that these imaginings become musical numbers, their florid excess offsetting the violence and deprivation of prison life.
This is where the conceptual wobbliness of Eclipse’s version — billed a staged concert production — comes in. The choice of the Don Jail as venue was driven by its resonance with the material but the physical realities of the site don’t fully serve the enterprise (production design is by Nick Blais). An initial tour through the old corridors and cells lends some scary atmosphere: cast members wander amongst the spectators and we can hear shrieks elsewhere in the building. The rotunda staging area provides a very limited playing space with some distracting obstacles: the refurbished jail is now partly an art gallery, so that Ada and Winsby play their cell-bound scenes between two modernist sculptures. Adding incongruity, the cell furniture is a number of shiny contemporary chairs on and around which director Tsitsias has awkwardly blocked the action.
Some scenes are played out on two balconies running around the rotunda; the band sits off to the side on the first level. Tsitsias puts this to good use in action involving the prison Warden (Alejandro Ampudia), who lords over the prisoners below. The cast features a 13-member ensemble (all but one musical theatre students at Sheridan College) who play prisoners, lurking on the balconies, something that initially adds to the atmosphere but becomes a distraction. The male chorus members also become backup dancers in the fantasy numbers, and while they’ve clearly got terrific skill and training, their capacity to deliver Hosie’s ambitious choreography suffers from the lack of space. The female chorus members have punishingly little to do, one of several aspects of the material and production that feel dated in terms of representation of gendered and sexual identities.
A rationale for fully staging the musical numbers is that they’re at the heart of the show, but it could conversely be argued that a scaled-back approach would contribute to the celebration-of-the-imagination theme and dovetail better with the design approach. That’s in essence what happens in the second-act opening number “Russian Movie/Good Times” in which Valentin gets on board with Molina’s storytelling and Michailidis camps it up delightfully as a Russian film heroine (“summon my troika!”). The audience is drawn into the imaginative act and the performers’ energy is compellingly focused, unlike some of the bigger numbers in which the exuberant staging, the limited space, and the sombre environment clash.
The central performances and relationships have strength but also feel like they are still coming into focus. Ada is fully emotionally switched on in the role made famous in by Brent Carver (who played it in the 1992 Toronto world premiere as well as in the West End and on Broadway, where he won a Tony). Ada has a delicate, regal quality of movement and speech which makes sense up to a point: maintaining his decorum and rising above the prison brutality is one of Molina’s survival mechanisms. But it’s hard for the audience to read what the character is experiencing internally as the Warden pressures him to inform on Valentin, with whom he is falling in love.