Artistic director Albert Schultz began planning Soulpepper's sesquicentennial offering two years ago — to open a month-long run of homegrown productions in New York City, starting Canada Day, to show one of the world's most sophisticated theatre audiences what Canadians can do.
But Schultz couldn't have planned the way audiences at Manhattan's Pershing Square Signature Center responded to productions like Kim's Convenience, Of Human Bondage, and this week's latest glowing review from the New York Times of Spoon River, a musical comedy in which all the characters sing from beyond the grave.
"Ben Brantley is the most influential theatre critic in the world," said Schultz from his New York apartment, where he's been living since rehearsals started shortly before Canada Day.
"I just found out that a major artistic director from the UK is flying in to see two of our shows because he read the review in the Times. It's so gratifying — a corrective to the belief that Canadians can't make it to the top."
Brantley, who calls the production of Spoon River an "all-souls hootenanny," says that "like another Canadian import, the Broadway hit Come From Away, Spoon River exudes a good-natured earnestness that stays shy of cloying piety."
Brantley singles out the singing of Hailey Gillis, for her "shimmering voice" and concludes, "I'm pretty sure that was Ms. Gillis I spotted in a coffin on my way to my seat. (The theater's entry hall has been done up as a funeral parlor.) Clearly, dead people of such talent cannot be expected to stay down indefinitely."
There've been well over 100 reviews of various productions in Soulpepper on 42nd Street, says Schultz, from radio and TV outlets to two New York Times Critic's Picks, most of them raves. Theatre professionals are also excited about the shows, says Schultz.
"Serious New York theatre people are coming up to us and saying, 'You must come back' and 'We need this'."
The key, says Schultz, is what he calls Soulpepper's "old-style" repertory theatre — in which 65 performers, many working together for years in overlapping productions, develop a finely-honed sense of teamwork.
That "company model." as it's known, goes back to Shakespeare's time, says Schultz.
"Every actor had 15 plays in their head at any one time and they would act all the roles, and they were also musicians who could do swordfights."
Schultz compares it to building a World Series baseball team. "It starts on the first day," Schultz said. "A World Series team that's played together a whole season understand each other's rhythms. But if you have a bunch of players who haven't played together before, they're going to lose even if they're the best in the world."
In New York, says Schultz, the company model has been replaced by a more commercial one, where a producer brings together great actors, "but they're meeting for the first time and they have four weeks to rehearse, sometimes interrupted by movie schedules.
"Theatre is the most collaborative of the arts," said Schultz, which he says shines through in Soulpepper's New York productions. "I've been having interesting conversations with arts leaders who are noticing the quality."
There's a time for everything. The success earlier this year of Come From Away, including a Tony for Best Director, gave Soulpepper "a wonderful breeze" in New York.
But even more important, says Schultz, and part of his reason for opening in New York on Canada Day, was to tell Canadians something about themselves. "It's part of our Presbyterian nature not to be puffed up. But this is part of the maturing of the country. Let's grow up in terms of how we see ourselves."
Soulpepper on 42nd Street continues in New York until July 29t, while a full slate of plays continues at Toronto's Young Centre through August.