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The fact that theatre is a local art form has never been clearer than it has been this fall – with the scenes in different Canadian cities in wildly different states of return.
Take the country’s two biggest theatre capitals as examples. In Montreal, the performing arts are almost back at a pre-pandemic level of activity due to Quebec’s subsidization of the box office for shows playing to reduced capacity. In Toronto, by contrast, many major theatre companies are waiting until the winter or even the spring to resume in-person, indoor performances.
Audience desire to get back in seats varies as wildly, too – from individual to individual. With that in mind, I’ve picked some in-person shows to look forward to this fall, but also offered online alternatives (or vice versa).
Come From Away
Mirvish Productions will get back in the business of putting up large-scale commercial shows in Toronto this fall with a touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Princess of Wales Theatre (tentative dates: November 30 - January 2).
But the true moment of triumph will come on December 7 when Come From Away and its Canadian cast returns to the Royal Alexandra Theatre for an open-ended run – and this story about finding kindness in a chaotic time more needed than ever. Long may its big jib draw!
The Broadway production of Come From Away was beautifully shot on stage and is now streaming on Apple TV+ with original Canadian cast members Petrina Bromley and Astrid Van Wieren, among those whose performances have been captured for posterity. While Hamilton’s digital debut last year was accompanied by a backlash, Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s Newfoundland-set musical seems to have started streaming at a time when its big-hearted comic sensibility is gaining in cultural capital; as one New York Times critic put it, the show is “almost impossible to hate.”
Shakespeare with a twist
Luminato Festival Toronto couldn’t take place in June this year, so it’s mounting a mini-fall edition instead. Amongst its more enticing offerings is Henry G20 (October 20 - November 11), Christine Brubaker and Constantine X. Anastasakis’s long-awaited reset of Henry V amid the G20 summit that created great tumult in Toronto in 2010.
Twice plans to mount this Shakespeare adaptation in person under the Gardiner expressway were cancelled because of COVID-19 – but now it will be available no matter what as a six-episode podcast play starring Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Henry. “Augmented reality” elements can be accessed an app while touring around the sites where clashes between police and protesters took place (or from home).
Crow’s Theatre is one of the few mid-sized theatres in Toronto reopening its doors this fall – and it plans to do so with a new take on As You Like It by Cliff Cardinal (September 22 - October 10). Details are still hazy, but it’s never not worth checking out the work of this darkly comic, controversy-courting playwright/performer (who also happens to be the son of iconic actress Tantoo Cardinal).
Hello, Dolly (Parton)
Country star Dolly Parton is a bigger cultural hero these days than ever before thanks to her role in helping to fund the development of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine.
That no doubt played a role in Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre Company’s decision to program the Canadian premiere of Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol (November 18 - January 2, Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage).
This new musical debuted in Boston in 2019, and features a script by David H Bell that reimagines Ebenezer Scrooge as the owner of a mining company town in East Tenneese in the 1930s. The mostly original score is by Parton – and it’s not the Queen of Country’s first time at that rodeo; she was nominated for a Tony Award for best original score for the Broadway musical adaptation of the film 9 to 5.
For the latest edition of its popular concert series UnCovered, Toronto’s Musical Stage Company returns to Koerner Hall – and turns to The Music of Dolly Parton. Expect inventive arrangements of country numbers by music director Reza Jacobs performed by the crème de la crème of Canadian musical theatre. You can buy ticket to see the show in person (September 30 - October 2) or, later in the fall, to access a digital version (November 24 -December 11).
Scientists take the stage
Art has taken a backseat to science in the past year and a half, but the two are not always incompatible. One of the best plays to mix them together was Copenhagen, Michael Frayn’s 1998 hit that explores the “uncertainty principle” though a meeting that took place between the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg during the Second World War. Allegra Fulton, Jesse LaVercombe and Rick Roberts star in a new production at the NAC English Theatre (November 4 - 7) directed by outgoing artistic director Jillian Keiley and featuring music by Chilly Gonzales.
The NAC went genuinely national (aka online) during COVID-19 – and it’s not going back. Copenhagen livestreams for free on November 6, part of a series of science-themed events that includes Jacob Berkowitz’s radio play Entangled, about the real-life friendship between Nobel physicist Wolfgang Pauli and pioneering psychoanalyst Carl Jung (Nov 3 - 7), a mixed-reality production called Frequencies from Nova Scotia’s Heist productions (November 5 and 6), and a theatre and physics symposium (November 6 and 7).
Rebecca Northan may be known best for improv-based creations such as Blind Date, but she sometimes puts pen to paper as well as a playwright. All I Want for Christmas, her new comedy aimed at ages 12 and up, is about a young elf’s first day on the job in Santa’s mailroom and has two runs lined up – one at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre (November 16 - December 5) and the other at Calgary’s Lunchbox Theatre (November 30 - December 19).
Bringing younger kids to the theatre will remain complicated this fall with vaccine mandates in place in many parts of the country. So, unsurprisingly, Ross Petty Productions – Toronto’s premiere purveyor of panto – is staying digital this year with a virtual musical called Alice in Winterland (December 18 and 19); the Stratford Festival’s Kimberly-Ann Truong is playing Alice – and Dan Chameroy will be back as auntie-to-all Plumbum.
Editor’s note: (Sept. 17) An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Christine Brubaker's name. This version has been updated.