Curtain call: Lots of excellent theatre to celebrate in 2023

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These past 12 months have seen changes, both major and minor, in the Calgary theatre scene.

There’s been some revolving doors in leadership starting with Haysam Kadri taking over as artistic director of Alberta Theatre Projects in May, six months after ATP abruptly parted ways with Rohit Chokhani, who held the position for just one year. Kadri’s appointment means The Shakespeare Company, which he guided for 11 years, is now searching for a replacement.

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There were also position changes at three local theatres as Verb Theatre’s founder Jamie Dunsdon left and became the artistic producer of Calgary’s Young Peoples’ Theatre. Taking over at Verb is Kathryn Smith, who left her position as an artistic associate at Vertigo Theatre. Katelyn Morishita has replaced Smith at Vertigo.

There were also some new developments in pricing.

For its current season, Theatre Calgary announced a program called Theatre for All which offers any seat on the main floor of the Max Bell Theatre for $39. It’s been a whopping success. TC’s opening play The Mousetrap sold 94 per cent of the budget tickets, giving The Mousetrap an overall attendance of 85 per cent. TC’s second play, Made in Italy, had an overall attendance of 92 per cent. All of the $39 tickets for TC’s A Christmas Carol were gone well before opening night, as were most of the regular-priced tickets, allowing TC to hang up many a “sold out” sign.

Vertigo Theatre set aside 27 seats for each performance in its season for $30, and Alberta Theatre Projects is offering special $30 pricing on select seats for its much anticipated February production of W.O. Mitchell’s The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon. This means the high-quality work our professional theatres produce is available for little more than the cost of a movie ticket.

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I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen more than 65 plays these past 12 months, at both professional and community theatres. I have chosen 10 to illustrate the excellence we’ve come to expect, and appreciate, from the artists working on our stages, but also from the directors, designers and playwrights who help create all that magic.

Lunchbox Theatre’s The Dark Lady with Luigi Riscaldino as William Shakespeare and Natascha Girgis as Emilia Bassano. Photo, Benjamin Laird
Lunchbox Theatre’s The Dark Lady with Luigi Riscaldino as William Shakespeare and Natascha Girgis as Emilia Bassano. Photo, Benjamin Laird Photo by Benjamin Laird Photo /jpg

THE DARK LADY – LUNCHBOX THEATRE AND THE SHAKESPEARE COMPANY: All the planets and stars aligned for this little gem. Playwright Jessica B. Hill theorizes an artistic and romantic relationship between the Elizabethan poet Emilia Bassano and William Shakespeare, that is as witty as it is passionate and literate. Madeline Blondal’s set comprised of walls made of the scripts the duo worked on, and the letters they wrote, was a stunner as were Rebecca Toon’s costumes made from discarded coats, slacks and dresses. Bronwyn Steinberg’s direction was vibrant and exciting, and the glorious Natascha Girgis and her costar Luigi Riscaldino made us believe in every emotion these two characters shared.

Theatre Calgary's Forgiveness
Griffin Cork, left, and Fionn Laird in Forgiveness at Theatre Calgary. Courtesy, Moonrider Productions jpg

FORGIVENESS – THEATRE CALGARY: Adapted for the stage by Hiro Kanagawa from Mark Sakamoto’s award-winning family memoir, Forgiveness is a kind of Romeo and Juliet story with a life-affirming message about the healing powers of tolerance and understanding. Director Stafford Arima gave us a history lesson that needs to be told but guaranteed it overflowed with heart, humanity and an abundance of creativity and theatricality. This is the kind of sprawling theatre that only Theatre Calgary has the resources to produce because it boasted a cast of more than 20 actors, and an equally impressive design team. 

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Sweeny Todd
Cassie Doane and JP Thibodeau star as the merry murderers in StoryBook Theatre’s concert version of Sweeney Todd. jpg

SWEENEY TODD THE CONCERT VERSION – STORYBOOK THEATRE: In just six years, StoryBook Theatre’s annual fundraiser, The Top Secret Musical, has become one of the season’s hottest tickets. It sold out in record time this year so a second, not-so-secret performance, had to be added, and it, too, sold out. These shows have raised more than $60,000 for StoryBook’s Ellie Timms Project which gives scholarships to students who could otherwise not afford to take theatre classes. That in itself is remarkable, but it was this year’s production of Sweeney Todd, which featured J.P. Thibodeau and Cassie Doane as the merry murderers of Victorian London, Katie McMillian and Ryan Maschke as the young lovers and a supporting cast of 30 of Calgary’s finest singers, that made this a true highlight of 2023.

Theatre Calgary Made in Italy
Farren Timoteo tells the story of his extended family in the Theatre Calgary production of Made in Italy. Courtesy, Trudie Lee

MADE IN ITALY – THEATRE CALGARY AND ALBERTA THEATRE PROJECTS: Here’s an evening of theatre that practically defines the term tour de force. Edmonton actor, director, singer and playwright Farren Timoteo’s semi-autobiographical account of his father’s youth in Jasper in the 1970s, and his rebellion against his father’s immigrant values, sparkled with wit, humour and humanity. It is carefully constructed and staged to showcase Timoteo’s skills as an opera singer, a clown, a deft playwright, and a dramatic actor. It was so much fun, and so heartwarming, that even with a running time of more than two hours, it left its audiences wanting more.

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Trip to Bountiful
Judith Buchan and Rebbekah Ogden in Rosebud Theatre’s Trip to Bountiful. jpeg

THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL – ROSEBUD THEATRE: Horton Foote’s 70-year-old drama of a Texas family in crisis had bountiful life breathed into it by Rosebud’s artistic director Morris Ertman who directed, as well as designed the set, for this charming, wistful play. Ertman’s wizardry was on display in his highly functional design which allowed the action of the play to flow seamlessly from an apartment in Houston to a bus station, a sheriff’s office and finally to a field in the derelict town of Bountiful. Ertman also coaxed entirely natural performances from Judith Buchan, Nathan Schmidt, Heather Pattengale, Rebbekah Ogden, Caleb Gordon and Christopher Allan. Thanks to the consistent quality of Rosebud Theatre’s shows, this little Prairie hamlet has become a top tourist attraction, and deservedly so.

Ride the Cyclone
Brown Cow Collective with its production of Ride the Cyclone, a musical about a choir stuck in the afterlife given a chance to sing its way back to Earth. jpeg

RIDE THE CYCLONE – BROWN COW COLLECTIVE: The multi-talented Ryan Maschke created Brown Cow to allow aspiring young actors in Calgary to showcase their abilities, and there was a great deal of talent on display in this Canadian musical about a group of small-town choir singers who are stranded in the afterlife when a circus ride crashes. The group converted one of the barns on the DM Maschke Farms just outside Olds into a warehouse supposedly holding the crumpled remains of the Cyclone. The actors, including Renu Matthew, Alex Flynn Belanger, Tiffany Thomas, Maddison Arnason, Robbin Murray, Daniel Baker, Aisha Kueh, Brooke Steiber and Anna Dalgleish, sang, danced and acted their hearts out as if they really were trying to save their souls.

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Murder on the Orient Express
The cast of Vertigo Theatre’s Murder on the Orient Express which has become the company’s all-time box office champ. Photo by Tim Nguyen Photo by Tim Nguyen Co. /Tim Nguyen Co.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS – VERTIGO THEATRE: This is the kind of world-class technical production that has become synonymous with Vertigo Theatre. Scott Reid’s magnificent sets and projections allowed the action of the play to go from a hotel bar in Istanbul to the train station, and then into both a dining car and several sleeping cars on the Orient Express. April Viczko’s period costumes were sumptuous, giving the play a truly regal look. Another of Vertigo’s strengths is showcasing the best of local talent, and that was certainly the case with this train ride that featured Haysam Kadri as super sleuth Hercule Poirot. With so much talent on display in every department, it’s no wonder Murder on the Orient Express quickly, and deservedly, became Vertigo’s all-time box office champ.

Le Cirque de la Nuit
Le Cirque de la Nuit and Jupiter Theatre’s The Time Machinist with Noah Weigel and the Ensemble. Courtesy, Jaime Vedres Photography Photo by Jaime Vedres Photography /Photo: Jaime Vedres

THE TIME MACHINIST – JUPITER THEATRE AND LE CIRQUE DE LA NUIT: We’ve come to expect innovation and experimentation from Jupiter’s artistic director Andrew G. Cooper, and he didn’t disappoint in his collaboration with the Calgary-based circus company led by Noah Weigel. Taking a page from H.G. Wells, they concocted a story of a time machine that inadvertently allows everything from cavemen and dinosaurs to historical characters such as Marie Antoinette, Charlie Chaplin, and Ramses the Great to pop in for a visit. Fortunately, they’re all skilled acrobats so they dazzled with their routines. There were clowns, a great ringmaster in Bryan Smith, some sexy dance moves courtesy of Ryan Maschke and Ethan Vasquez-Taylor, and great vocals from Deanne Matley, ensuring it was like a three-ring circus.

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Stage West
Stage West’s Step By Step with Jesse Weafer, Luke Opdahl, Eric Dahlinger, Jason Lemmon, Adam Sergison. Courtesy, Sean Ellis jpg

STEP BY STEP – STAGE WEST: Concert-style tribute shows have become Stage West’s bread-and-butter, and for good reason. They’re pure nostalgia whether they are focusing on a particular decade of music, or more specific genres like The British Invasion, Hollywood Hits, The California Sound, One Hit Wonders or, as in this particular case, the evolution of the greatest boy bands from The Beatles to One Direction. Because these shows are so slick, it’s easy to miss just how much talent goes into creating them from the concepts themselves to the costumes, wigs and dance moves that instantly connect with audiences. Stage West’s resident musical director Konrad Pluta makes sure each number is a zinger, and the triple-threat artists who perform the material are always carefully selected for their vocal diversity, tireless energy and infectious charisma.

Ministry of Grace
Quelemia Sparrow in Tara Beagan?s The Ministry of Grace. Photo by Alanna Bluebird jpg

THE MINISTRY OF GRACE – MAKING TREATY 7: Tara Beagan worked magic, both as a playwright and a director, with her powerful drama about a corrupt evangelist and highly spiritual young Indigenous woman. It’s a battle royal between Brother Cain and Grace because she is everything he pretends and longs to be. Beagan doesn’t just skewer the abuse of religion, but also the residential school system in Canada, but her play never seems like a lecture because it is so layered with honest humanity. As a director, Beagan coaxed exceptional performances from the play’s antagonists, Quelemia Sparrow and Stafford Perry, as well as their co-stars Bernard Starlight and Lara Schmitz. Andy Moro’s set was a stunner as was Chantal Vitalis’ sound design and original music. This is a production that should be touring Canada because it is both important and entertaining.

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A Christmas Carol
Scrooge and Tiny Tim pose in Theatre Calgary’s production of the seasonal classic A Christmas Carol. Jim Wells/Postmedia Jim Wells/Postmedia

In a look back at 2023, It would be remiss not to mention Theatre Calgary’s A Christmas Carol and Forte Musical Theatre Guild’s Naughty but Nice. Because A Christmas Carol is in its 35th year, and Naughty but Nice in its 10th, it’s easy to take their achievements and successes for granted, and that would be woefully wrong. So much local talent goes into producing these two holiday shows, and not just from the actors they showcase. Stafford Arima’s direction of Carol, and JP Thibodeau’s for Naughty are world-class inventive, as are Scott Reid’s Christmas Carol sets, and Thibodeau’s for Naughty. This latest Carol script comes from local playwright, actor and director Geoffrey Simon Brown, and Naughty is the well-nurtured brainchild of Joe Slabe, Calgary’s own Stephen Sondheim. Thankfully, they are appreciated. Audiences nightly give them the standing ovations, and standing-room-only attendances they deserve, so I just want to add my gratitude and praise.

Naughty But Nice!
Forte Musical Theatre Guild’s production of Naughty… but Nice: Xmas! Courtesy, Tim Nguyen Photo by Tim Nguyen Co. /Tim Nguyen Co.

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