Yee-haw! Aside from a couple of shots of vaccine, UnCovered: The Music of Dolly Parton was just what the doctor ordered at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Parton, the country icon (who also happened to donate money to help develop one of those vaccines), may be the only person, place or thing everyone can get behind in our increasingly divided times; she’s eluded all the algorithms. As Fran Lebowitz recently put it, “People who hate each other love Dolly Parton.”
The latest edition of Musical Stage Company’s long-running UnCovered concert series, which sees theatrical performers tackle ambitious arrangements of popular songs, returned live and in-person at Toronto’s Koerner Hall this past weekend in the form of an unapologetic Parton party.
It featured a healthy mix of cross-over hits (9 to 5, Islands in the Stream) and full-on country (Joshua, My Tennessee Mountain Home) delivered in a range of styles by a fine collection of crooners that included Jully Black, Beau Dixon, Sarah Farb, Hailey Gillis and Andrew Penner.
It was Kelly Holiff, however, the musical-theatre artist on the bill I was least familiar with, who stole the show with her heroic and heartfelt rendition of Here I Am that kept getting bigger and bigger like Parton’s wigs in the 1980s. I’ll be getting tickets to the digital version (which “runs” online Nov. 24 to Dec. 11) just to hear it again – assuming it didn’t make all the video cameras trying to record it explode with its intensity.
Black, the R&B singer who made a memorable musical-theatre debut in Caroline, or Change right before the pandemic hit, impressed again here with a paranoid cover of Jolene that featured backup from Gillis and Holiff. The arrangement, which like all the others is by Reza Jacobs, swirled around her like a fever dream.
Dixon and Penner were like two peas in a pod entertainingly growling and yelping their way through Mule Skinner Blues – one of only two songs on the bill that Parton covered rather than wrote.
The short but satisfying evening was interspersed with nuggets of Parton’s wit and wisdom. The performers were all having a ball on stage – no doubt helped by Fiona Sauder’s playful, simple staging.
The only misstep: Having Black sing I Will Always Love You in too close an arrangement to that of the famous Whitney Houston cover, one of the best-selling singles of all time. (The opening a cappella section was even interrupted by quotes from Parton about how she was overwhelmed when she first heard Houston’s version on the radio.) That set up an impossible compare-and-contrast moment – something that UnCovered otherwise artfully avoids by letting singers be as singular as Dolly always has been.
Another show I mentioned in my fall preview reopened Crow’s Theatre in Toronto last week: Cliff Cardinal’s “radical reimagining” of As You Like It. I listed the production under the heading “Shakespeare with a twist,” and it certainly turned out to have a big twist – one the opening-night audience members and critics were implored at the end of the evening not to reveal.
If you’re a fan of the Indigenous playwright and performer’s challenging and mischievous work, his penchant for seducing spectators and then pulling the rug out from under them over and over, you won’t be disappointed.
If you feel rugs really tie a room together, on the other hand, caveat emptor. I can’t write much more without spoilers, so I’m holding off on doing so for now at least.
An update on COVID-19 restrictions in Quebec: As of Friday, theatres in Quebec will be back operating at full capacity for vaccinated audiences, with masks required while seated.
I wrote about attending my first show in Montreal since the pandemic last week – and, to be honest, the upcoming loosened restrictions seem safer and more sensible than the about-to-expire restrictions that require a seat to be left empty between parties but no masks while seated.
I’m sure the rest of the country will eventually move toward where Quebec is, which is similar to Broadway’s current state. The only question is: When?
Opening this week:
- Serving Elizabeth, Marcia Johnson’s clever new play inspired by the Netflix series The Crown and who and what it leaves out of history, opens in a new production at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, Ont., on Oct. 7 and runs to Oct. 30; Marcel Stewart directs and Johnson is in the cast herself. (I recently reviewed a Stratford Festival production of the play.)
- Wakey, Wakey, a tragicomedy by the American playwright Will Eno, is getting a production at Pacific Theatre in Vancouver until Oct. 23. Ben Brantley, the long-time New York Times critic who retired from that role during the pandemic, made it a critic’s pick when it played off-Broadway in 2017. I have never seen the show but, after initially resisting Eno’s work, have come to love his idiosyncratic style of playwriting and wish I could teleport over to the West Coast to check out this production starring Craig Erickson and Agnes Tong.
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