The National Theatre of the World improvises Sondheim (Dylan Hewlett)
Audience suggestions were incorporated smartly, and scenes that looked like dead ends were salvaged and made a part of a surprisingly rich story that delivered one belly laugh after another.
—Joff Schmidt, reviewer
Improvised Sondheim delivers big laughs
One thing theatre companies participating in SondheimFest are finding is that his work is fiendishly tricky to perform. So imagine performing Sondheim...without a script.
That's the mighty task Toronto improv comedy troupe The National Theatre of the World set for themselves with their show, Impromptu Splendor, running at Winnipeg Jewish Theatre as part of SondheimFest. And on opening night, they rose to the challenge with hilarious results.
Taking a few suggestions from their audience, they appropriately titled their improvised musical Serious Windchill Factor. The ensuing story about a man trying to thaw his frozen heart offered plenty of laughs, quirky characters, and a few moments of brilliantly improvised song.
NTOW regulars Ron Pederson, Naomi Snieckus, and Matt Baram were all in fine form, but their guests nearly stole the show from them. Ashley Botting is a quick-witted comedian with a gorgeous voice. She delivered the standout musical moments, while pianist Waylen Miki's furious fingers tickled out complex and authentically Sondheimian tunes. In fact, one of the few flaws in Wednesday's show was that the cast could've picked up more on the musical suggestions he opened up for them - it sometimes felt like accompanist and singer were pulling in different directions.
That's really a quibble compared to what they did right, though. The NTOW's particular genius is in never letting a story thread drop. Audience suggestions were incorporated smartly, and scenes that looked like dead ends were salvaged and made a part of a surprisingly rich story that delivered one belly laugh after another.
I suspect Sondheim would've approved.
Impromptu Splendor runs at Winnipeg Jewish Theatre through January 27.
Sondheim murder-mystery will leave you clueless
Here's something unexpected in a festival dedicated to Stephen Sondheim - a non-musical production.
As their SondheimFest entry, Resonator Theatrical takes on the challenge of adapting The Last of Sheila, a 1973 film scripted by Sondheim and his pal, Anthony Perkins. It's a convoluted, Clue-like murder-mystery that involves a group of actors, writers and directors gathered together on the anniversary of the death of gossip columnist Sheila Greene. Their ostensible mission is to rehearse a new script, and play a scavenger-hunt style "game" devised by producer Clinton (Edwing Juarez). But really, there's a mystery surrounding the group that's no game at all.
This is a concept that could make for good, twisted fun - but here, it sinks like a lead balloon. Rob Brown's 75-minute adaptation (directed by Kimberly Hamilton) is humourless and hopelessly tangled. The fact I often had no clue what was going might be the fault of the script. It may also be because I missed key lines due to poor projection on the part of the cast - seven enthusiastic amateurs who give this their best, but can't rise above clunky material (Aaron Hughes stands out, though, bringing a welcome intensity to the writer Tom).
It's a game attempt to do something different at SondheimFest, and buried somewhere in here seems to be a clever point about acting, artifice, and the blurring of fantasy and reality. It's all too muddled, alas, to really draw us in to the The Last of Sheila.
The Last of Sheila runs at the Rudolf Rocker Cultural Centre through February 2.
"A Funny Thing Happened..." delivers on promise of "comedy tonight"
In its opening number, Stephen Sondheim's 1962 musical farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum promises "frenzy and frolic... a comedy tonight." And while it could use more polish in spots, Kiss the Giraffe's production delivers on that promise.
The first major musical for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics (with a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart), A Funny Thing... follows the Roman slave Pseudolus, as he tries to earn his freedom by winning over the simple courtesan Philia for his master Hero. While it's not Sondheim at his wittiest (or most interesting musically), mistaken identities, disguises, and a lot of good-natured clowning ensue.
Kami Desilets' production, boasting an energetic cast of 13 and a four-person live band, commits itself admirably to the sheer silliness of it all, and there's lots of fun with this show. In a bit of cross-gender casting, Chelsea Rankin takes on the central role of Pseudolus. She plays a likeable trickster, but could be broader in her performance - it's a role where it's difficult to go too far over the top.
Jean-Marc Lafond and Shawn Kowalke bring great theatricality to the roles of the courtesan merchant Lycus and the blowhard soldier Miles Gloriosus, who stands between Hero (an appropriate swooning Josh McSkimming) and Philia (played with charming simplicity by Mallory Schellenberg). They all, though, have scenes stolen from them by The Proteans - the trio of Katrina German, Chantal Leveille, and Kerri Potter, who do yeoman's work and some wonderful buffoonery in a range of roles.
There are some missteps. Phil Corrin's Hysterium is more shrill than funny, and the pacing could certainly tighten up - especially approaching the show's ending, which should be a little more frantic than it is.
But there is, as the opener predicts, a happy ending... and comedy tonight.
A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum runs at the Forrest Nickerson Theatre until Jan. 27.