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Paul Nolan as Jesus in "Jesus Christ Superstar" (David Hou/Stratford Shakespeare Festival)
Paul Nolan as Jesus in "Jesus Christ Superstar" (David Hou/Stratford Shakespeare Festival)

Year in review

The year on stage: box office records, funding fiascos Add to ...

What's past is prologue: Looking back over the past 12 months in Canadian theatre, it feels like we're at the beginning of a story rather than the end of one. Here are the big theatrical cliffhangers as the curtain closes on 2011.

Will the Stratford Shakespeare Festival have a hit on Broadway?

Artistic director Des McAnuff's production of Jesus Christ Superstar was the smash hit of the year, winning over its crowds, critics and creators Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The entire Canadian cast (minus, alas, Brent Carver's pained Pontius Pilate) is now down in southern California spreading the good word at the La Jolla Playhouse.

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It remains to be seen, however, if production quality will lead to commercial success on the Great White Way in March, when the show will be resurrected amid other Jesus musicals ( Godspell) and Lloyd Webber shows ( Phantom of the Opera and Evita).

Is the Canadian appetite for musical theatre insatiable?

From coast to coast, musicals made headlines this year – whether it was actor Jay Brazeau's backstage stroke at Hairspray in Vancouver (followed by his triumphant return to the role of Edna Turnblad); the unlikely smoked-meat song-and-dance of Schwartz’s: the Musical in Montreal; or the overdue face-lift of the 46-year-old Anne of Green Gables in Charlottetown by director Marcia Kash.

Despite uneasy economic times, box-office records were broken. Molly Smith's take on My Fair Lady in Niagara-on-the-Lake became the best-selling show in the Shaw Festival's 50-year history this summer, while Dayna Tekatch's revival of Oliver! drew the biggest crowds ever at the National Arts Centre English Theatre in Ottawa.

What exactly is in the water in Victoria?

Victoria's Atomic Vaudeville gave the country a homegrown hit in Ride the Cyclone, Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell's hilarious and haunting musical about an undead high-school choir, which toured through Vancouver and Whitehorse before becoming a hot ticket in Toronto.

Also this year, Victoria-based playwright Joan MacLeod ( Another Home Invasion, The Shape of a Girl) picked up a well-deserved $100,000 Siminovitch Prize in November. Maybe she can donate some of it to the dozen small theatre and dance groups in her city facing financial difficulties this holiday season due to the B.C. government's decision to eliminate gaming grants to them.

Will Canadian Heritage come to its senses about SummerWorks?

In a year in which shows born at SummerWorks won the Governor General's Award (Erin Shields' If We Were Birds) and Toronto Theatre Critics Award ( The Middle Place), the Toronto indie theatre festival also inexplicably lost the financial support of the feds’ Heritage department after years of funding.

Did it have to do with the Prime Minister's concern over another SummerWorks production, Homegrown, Catherine Frid's play about an attempted terrorist that appeared the previous year? Over 70 theatre companies across the country held readings of the controversial play to protest the decision and make up missing funds for SummerWorks – but that kind of deus ex machina can't happen every year.

Will playwright Wajdi Mouawad let l'Affaire Cantat drop?

Politics and theatre collided in the spring as well, when it was announced that French rock star Bertrand Cantat – who spent four years in jail after being convicted in Lithuania for “murder with indirect intent” – would be in the chorus of Des Femmes, a trio of Greek tragedies directed by Mouawad for Théâtre du Nouveau Monde and the NAC.

The firestorm fizzled out when it became apparent that Cantat, who has been performing the role around Europe, could not legally enter Canada – but Mouawad has promised to attract attention to his absence when his show finally hits Montreal and Ottawa stages in the spring.

Will Cirque du Soleil ever have a bad year?

By Cirque standards, the recent news that Viva Elvis! in Las Vegas will close in 2012 was a shock. None of the the Quebec-based circus company’s extravaganzas in Sin City have ever closed.

Still, Cirque will be ringing out the year in good cheer. By the time it landed in Las Vegas, another Cirque show, the spectacle Michael Jackson: The Immortal Tour, was pulling in just under $2-million a night – making it the highest-grossing concert tour on the continent.

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