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Chilina Kennedy attends the Broadway opening night of Escape to Margaritaville at the Marquis Theatre on March 15 in New York.

Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP

Canadian Broadway star Chilina Kennedy is returning home to start a theatre company devoted to new and reimagined musicals in Toronto.

Eclipse Theatre Company, or ETC for short, officially launches on Tuesday – with the announcement of an inaugural 2019 lineup that will include a concert staging of the Tony-winning musical Kiss of the Spider Woman in the city’s old Don Jail, and a full production of a new song cycle written and composed by Kennedy titled Call It Love.

“I wanted to help foster new Canadian work and I felt it was important to reinvest in theatre that already existed in new and innovative ways,” says Kennedy, who has been quietly working on building the company over the past two years.

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ETC will be run by three Canadian artists. Kennedy, a former Shaw and Stratford Festival star who has been playing the title role in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on Broadway (and in a summer run in Toronto) since 2015, holds the title of artistic producer in the company; director Evan Tsitsias, founder of Directors Lab North and currently a resident artist at Theatre Under the Stars in Texas, is the artistic director; and Sara-Jeanne Hosie, a veteran musical-theatre performer who also has a business degree, is executive director.

Supporting this core trio will be a group of ETC associate artists that includes director Esther Jun, composer Jonathan Monro, and well-known performers such as Evan Buliung, Jake Epstein, Alexis Gordon and Nora McLellan.

In March of 2019, ETC’s first public event will be a five-performance run of Kiss of the Spider Woman, which had its world premiere in Toronto produced by Garth Drabinsky’s Livent in 1992, at the Don Jail directed by Tsitsias. The decision to run the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical – itself set in a jail – in a former Toronto correctional facility that fully closed in 2013 is part of what the company calls its interest in “site-responsive” productions.

(There’s an added resonance in the choice of site, too – as the show’s original producer, Drabinsky, would later serve a sentence in prison after being found guilty of fraud and forgery.)

Then, in September of 2019, ETC will stage a full, five-actor production of Call It Love – which draws on songs from Kennedy’s 2015 solo album, What You Find in a Bottle. The show is currently being developed in New York with Canadian artists.

“It’s fun that a lot of Canadians are moving back and forth between New York,” says Kennedy, who plans to continue to be based in the Big Apple and build connections between its musical-theatre scene and Toronto’s. “I’m meeting all these producers who love Canadian work and Canadians.”

Cast and creative for ETC’s inaugural season will be announced down the line.

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In future years, Kennedy hopes ETC’s programming will follow a similar pattern: A revival of an older musical in a site-responsive production; and the premiere of a new musical work. The company will also be involved in educational and development work such as the Lab, “which brings together emerging, mid-level and established music theatre creators to exchange ideas, techniques and methodologies.”

What Eclipse doesn’t want to do is over-promise – which is why they’re starting with just five performances of Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Back in 2011, Kennedy was one of the founding artists of a different Toronto musical-theatre company called Theatre 20 that tried to do too much, too soon.

Launched with great fanfare as a kind of Soulpepper for musicals, that starry company kicked off by premiering a new Canadian musical in a three-week run at the 700-seat the Panasonic Theatre (now the CAA Theatre) in Toronto – a costly flop that it never fully recovered from. A couple of years later, Theatre 20’s artistic director Adam Brazier left to run the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, and the company slowly fizzled out.

“What we’re trying not to do is come on the scene and say: We’re going to do this and this and it’s going to be massive and huge,” Hosie says. “People have done that: If you built it too quickly, you sink.”

But Kennedy says there are many projects already in the ETC pipeline that she’s excited about and the idea is to regularly develop new musicals to production. “We can’t reveal too much – we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” she says.

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ETC is, in fact, not only attempt to learn from the lessons of Theatre 20, but is built on the bones of the earlier musical theatre company. Kennedy’s initial idea two years ago was to try and save it, but instead decided to help it wind down and pay off its debts to various artists. ETC has the same charitable status number as Theatre 20, but is otherwise an entirely new company with distinct mandate, vision and board of directors, the company said in an e-mail.

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