In a surprise announcement on Friday, the Ontario government eliminated capacity limits on theatres and music venues – and, consequently, sent producers of live events scrambling to figure out what to do about imminent shows and concerts.
The good news for fans of Eric McCormack, the Canadian star best known for his work on the sitcom Will and Grace, is that there are now more tickets on sale for the concert production of a Stephen Sondheim musical he is starring in next weekend in Toronto
Follies in Concert, a star-studded gala fundraiser for Koerner Hall presented by the Royal Conservatory of Music, has just two performances scheduled – one on Oct. 16, the other on Oct. 17. Both had been completely sold out long ago at the previous government-mandated capacity of 50 per cent.
“It is exciting to think we have the potential to fill theatres again,” says McCormack, who will be juggling rehearsals for Follies with shooting season three of the Global TV thriller series Departure this week.
McCormack is playing the role of Buddy in this concert presentation of the 1971 Sondheim musical about a group of performers from a Ziegfeld Follies-esque troupe reuniting in a soon-to-be-demolished Broadway theatre. It had originally been scheduled to be produced in 2020 in celebration of the great composer/lyricist Sondheim’s 90th birthday, but was postponed because of the pandemic.
“It’s a bit ironic the show is about people returning to a theatre – and all of the feeling and emotions that come with that,” McCormack says. “It’s now an even more joyous choice than it would have been a year ago.”
Buddy, Phyllis, Sally and Ben – the four main characters in the musical – are played by, respectively, McCormack, Cynthia Dale, Ma-Anne Dionisio and Marcus Nance, all well-known for their work in musicals at the Stratford Festival and Mirvish Productions.
Gabriel Antonacci, Tess Benger, Kimberly-Ann Truong and Andrew Broderick, rising stars all of them, are playing the younger versions of these characters.
The supporting cast, meanwhile, is chock full of legends and icons such as Lorraine Foreman, a 92-year-old veteran of Stratford, Broadway and the West End; gospel and jazz icon Jackie Richardson; and even the great tenor Ben Heppner.
While Follies is billed as “in concert,” director Richard Ouzounian (who I spent many years sitting in audiences with when he was The Toronto Star’s theatre critic) says the 20-person cast is already mostly “off book” and they won’t be standing behind music stands. Instead, they’ll be performing in front of a 24-piece on-stage orchestra and there will be at least four choreographed numbers. McCormack has even worked out something special in terms of stage business for his big number Buddy’s Blues. (It involves sock puppets!)
In the past decade or so, McCormack has returned to the Stratford Festival to perform The Fantasticks in concert, acted in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man on Broadway and starred in a production of Glengarry Glen Ross in Vancouver.
But the last time he was on stage in Toronto, his hometown, was a long time ago. He thinks it might have been in a Canadian musical called The Dreamland, written by Raymond Storey and John Roby, all the way back in 1991.
“Being on stage the other day with the Follies company was really strange,” he says, after having only performed in plays on Zoom for the past year and a half. “It’s like riding a bicycle – but it’s an old rusty bicycle.”
While more tickets are on now on sale, Follies In Concert won’t be selling to 100-per-cent capacity at Koerner Hall – the plan at the moment is to keep one empty seat between (fully vaccinated, masked) parties.
It takes time for venues to make the logistical changes to go to full capacity – never mind, to sell tickets.
As far as I can tell, the first major theatrical event to perform to a complete capacity, sold-out audience in Toronto will be Night Of The Living Drag, a Halloween-theme touring show featuring well-known RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants including Violet Chachki, Alyssa Edwards and Aquaria.
It takes place on Saturday at the 3,172-seat Meridian Hall – the venue formerly known as the Sony Centre, owned by the City of Toronto and operated by TO Live – and tickets are already gone. The clever producer was selling to 100 per cent already, and planned to split the show into two performances if limits were not lifted, according to TO Live media relations manager Grant Ramsay.
How are theatres in other parts of Ontario responding to the change? At the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., shows continued at 50-per-cent capacity last weekend even though the government had lifted the limits.
“We finished on Sunday with the summer shows and were not able to implement changes to the house maps in one day,” executive director Tim Jennings wrote in an e-mail Tuesday morning. “Rebuilding the house maps takes a few weeks. Hoping to have everything in place for the holiday shows soon.”
Meanwhile, the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, Ont., announced on Twitter that it would be staying at 50 per cent for the rest of its 2021 season, which runs to the end of November. “This safety plan was a commitment that I made to our audience & to change mid-season would be a rejection of that commitment,” managing artistic director Brett Christopher said in a statement.
Quebec theatre companies also went to 100-per-cent capacity last weekend – and most theatres in that province took full advantage right away. But, unlike in Ontario, they had a week and a half to prepare for changes, and audiences there have been back inside theatres at reduced capacity since March.
Two theatre and performance festivals open in hybrid online/in-person form in Toronto this week.
- CAMINOS, a biennial festival of theatre from the Americas presented by Aluna Theatre in partnership with Native Earth Performing Arts and Factory Theatre, runs to Oct. 24. Among the titles that grabbed my eye is A Redacted Communist Manifesto for Children by Bruce Gibbons Fell, an award-winning playwright from Chile who self-describes as “almost almost almost a Canadian citizen.”
- Luminato runs from Oct. 13 to 17. I highlighted Henry G20, an audio play with augmented reality elements, in my fall theatre preview.
(I promise a less Ontario-centric newsletter next week.)
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