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Theatre & Performance Fall theatre preview: New leaders make their mark on Canadian stages

Canadian theatre has been undergoing unprecedented change behind the scenes, coast to coast, over the past few years. It’s hard to name a major regional theatre company that hasn’t recently hired a new artistic director – or is about to do so.

This fall, many audiences will get their first chance to see how that will affect what happens on stage.

In September, new leaders launching their first seasons include Ashlie Corcoran at Vancouver’s Arts Club (the biggest theatre in Western Canada), Stafford Arima at Theatre Calgary, Eda Holmes at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre and Jeremy Webb at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre (the biggest theatre in Atlantic Canada).

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You could also add to that list Alan Dilworth, interim artistic director of Soulpepper, Toronto’s biggest not-for-profit theatre, whose first (although possibly only) season is already up and running.

No surprise: Most of the hottest tickets this fall are at institutions headed by these fresh leaders seeking to make their mark. Here are 11 shows – five brand-new musicals and six plays – that promise to get theatre-goers talking.


Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life

The Musical Stage Company

Toronto: Starting Sept. 13

Last fall, the Musical Stage Company began a three-year commitment to producing the work of up-and-coming composer/lyricist Britta Johnson with Life After – a gorgeous meditation on grief that extended its run, racked up six Dora Mavor Moore Awards and caught the eye of American producers. (Its next stop is the Old Globe in San Diego, Calif., next year.)

This September, the partnership continues with Dr. Silver – an immersive musical experience Johnson has co-created with her also-talented sister, Anika Johnson, that will be directed by Outside the March’s Mitchell Cushman. Staged all around the Heliconian Club in Yorkville, it promises a “sung-through, psychedelic dissolution into the transcendental power of music.”

Ain’t Too Proud

Mirvish Productions

Toronto: Oct. 11 to Nov. 17

Not another jukebox musical, you say. But this one about Motown icons the Temptations (My Girl, Just My Imagination, Papa Was a Rolling Stone), and aimed at Broadway, stands out owing to a stellar creative team.

Des McAnuff, former artistic director of the Stratford Festival, has reteamed with his Jersey Boys collaborator, Toronto-raised choreographer Sergio Trujillo – and the book is by Dominique Morisseau, an American playwright from Detroit with major critical cred whose cycle of plays about her hometown keep racking up prizes.


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Canadian Opera Company

Toronto: Oct. 13 to 27

It’s billed as an opera, not a musical – but composer Rufus Wainwright’s long-anticipated show about a Roman emperor devastated when his lover drowns in the Nile should have crossover appeal. Theatre fans will be equally enticed by the fact that Siminovitch Prize-winning playwright Daniel MacIvor has written the libretto and the production is helmed by that on-and-off genius Peter Hinton, former National Arts Centre English Theatre artistic director.

Mary and Max: A New Musical

Theatre Calgary

Calgary: Oct. 16 to Nov. 10

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Stafford Arima, the repatriated Canadian who now runs Theatre Calgary, has directed new musicals on the West End and Broadway – and now he’s bringing some of his projects to premiere at his new home in Alberta. Composer Bobby Cronin and writer Crystal Skillman’s Mary and Max is based on an unlikely source: An Australian stop-motion film about an epistolary friendship between a 10-year-old girl in Melbourne and a 44-year-old man with Asperger’s syndrome in New York. Broadway boldface names in the American/Canadian cast include Lauren Elder, Anthony Galde and Nick Adams – and Arima directs with an all-Canadian team of designers.


Neptune Theatre in co-production with Eastern Front Theatre

Halifax: Oct. 23 to Nov. 11

Jeremy Webb, the local smartly snapped up to run Neptune, is using his first-season capital to premiere a new musical about a group of homosexual prisoners interred in a Second World War Nazi concentration camp. If that sounds like impossible subject matter for a Canadian musical, so did 9/11 just a few years ago – and look where Come from Away is now. Kamp has a book by Jamie Bradley and music and lyrics by Garry Williams.


Honour Beat

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Theatre Calgary

Calgary: Sept. 4 to 29

Theatre Calgary’s on this list twice – a sign of the strong impression new AD Arima is already making. He’s given the honour of opening his first season not to a new American musical, but to this brand-new family drama by locally based Indigenous playwright Tara Beagan.

Beagan’s long been a writer to watch – and this four-hander about sisters facing off over their mother’s deathbed promises both laughter and tears. Directed by Gemini Award-winner Michelle Thrush, the cast includes Monique Mojica, Tracey Nepinak and PJ Prudat (recently of the Shaw Festival).

The Children

Canadian Stage and Centaur Theatre

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Toronto: Sept. 25 to Oct. 21; Montreal: Nov. 6 to 25

Escaped Alone

Soulpepper in co-production with Necessary Angel

Toronto: Oct. 28 to Nov. 25

I’m lumping these two together because British playwrights seem really captivated by the apocalypse right now.

The Children by Lucy Kirkwood (NSFW, Chimerica) follows scientists living “a seemingly quiet life in the aftermath of a devastating catastrophe at a nearby nuclear-power station” – until an unexpected visitor shows up. Centaur Theatre’s new leader Eda Holmes directs the great Fiona Reid and fellow veterans Geordie Johnson and Laurie Paton.

Meanwhile, Soulpepper returns to greatest-living-British-playwright contender Caryl Churchill with this recent play that critic Susannah Clapp called “a light-on-its-feet, elliptical view of apocalypse” in her five-star review for The Observer. Director Jennifer Tarver directs and theatre icon Clare Coulter, who was extraordinary in a Toronto production of Churchill’s Far Away, leads a cast of veteran actresses.


Arts Club and Citadel Theatre

Vancouver: Oct. 18 to Nov. 18; Edmonton: Jan. 12 to Feb. 3

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s 2015 drama about factory workers and their families shows the rise of opioids and anti-immigrant rhetoric mirroring the decline of industry in one Pennsylvania community. A year after it premiered, Donald Trump was elected president and the play was called prescient. Valerie Planche directs its Canadian debut in Vancouver as part of Ashlie Corcoran’s first Arts Club season – before it moves to Edmonton in the new year.

The Assembly/L’Assemblée

Porte Parole

Toronto: Oct. 25 to Nov. 3; Montreal: Nov. 10 to Dec. 2

How about a Canadian take on Trump times? Acclaimed documentary theatre-maker Annabel Soutar (Seeds, The Watershed) jumps right into the thick of it with this bilingual serialized project that is “an attempt to put the broken and polarized pieces of 21st-century political discourse back together again in the theatre.” Soutar and actors Alex Ivanovici and Brett Watson began by interviewing Make America Great Again types during the presidential primaries – and have since been holding round tables with Canadians from different backgrounds and political leanings. The first chapter premieres at Crow’s Theatre in Toronto under the direction of Chris Abraham, then moves to Espace Go in Montreal, which stages both English and French versions.


Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre

Winnipeg: Oct. 31 to Nov. 17

I loved Qui Nyugen’s play about how his Vietnamese parents escaped to the United States after the fall of Saigon when I saw it in San Francisco last winter. A timely refugee story told in a quirky, entertaining and ultimately touching way, complete with kung fu and hip hop.

Simu Liu, who plays Jung on CBC’s Kim’s Convenience, stars opposite local Stephanie Sy in this Canadian premiere – with Robert Ross Parker, a New York-based long-time collaborator of Nyugen’s, directing. Co-produced with Toronto’s fu-GEN and Hope and Hell Theatre Co, surely a tour will follow if Winnipeg goes well.

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