The Second City launched its new Toronto home at One York Street last week with what felt like the biggest party the city’s performing arts scene has seen since March 2020.
It was a pleasure to be there to watch the first-ever sketch and improv sets on this condo-housed complex’s new stages. The invited overflow audience was as enthusiastic as you’d expect a group of well-wishers fuelled by an open bar (with a neon sign reading “Yes And”) to be.
The Mainstage Theatre was broken in by the current mainstage cast: Phatt Al, Andy Assaf, Andy Hull, Nkasi Ogbonnah, Hannah Spear and Jillian Welsh. They performed a short revue made up of recent and archive sketches.
The company line at Second City is that their comedians create their shows with their audiences – and I found it fascinating to watch this process in action as these performers worked out how to pitch old punchlines in their new bespoke 244-seat home as they went along.
The theatre I immediately fell in love with, however, is the new second stage called Theatre ‘73, which is just a little bit more intimate at 170 seats and honours the Old Fire Hall on Lombard St. in its look.
Comedian Kris Siddiqi hosted a hilarious inaugural improv session there that occasionally veered into Second City roast territory. Fellow mainstage alums Marty Adams, Brandon Hackett, Sarah Hillier, Paloma Nunez and Kristen Rasmussen were all on the top of their game.
Comedy so often takes place in cramped, airless spaces – and so it was unusual and highly enjoyable to be able to chat with comedians, both local and visiting from the sister company in Chicago, in Second City’s spacious and airy bar and restaurant area, which features floor-to-ceiling windows facing Lake Ontario.
The vibe seemed upbeat among the Toronto jokester set. After all, with the extra space to fill Second City is employing more sketch and improv artists than they used to over the holidays. (The schedule of shows this month includes Home Sweet New Home, a transitional mainstage show mixing together archive sketches and ones from the last revue seen at Comedy Bar Danforth, plus the seasonal shows Jingle Bell Ruckus, The Second City Guide to Surviving the Holidays and The Improv Holiday Brunch.)
In general, I got the impression that the comedy scene was recovering well from the early days of the pandemic, when the situation seemed dire and a number of small stand-up or sketch-oriented bars closed and Bad Dog Theatre Company, a 40-plus-year Toronto institution, had to leave its venue on Bloor St.
Now, Bad Dog is a great example of how things have bounced back in a new and, in some ways, expanded way. Alia Ceniza Rasul, the not-for-profit company’s new artistic managing director, told me it is using the opportunity of being venue-free to bring comedy to different communities in different contexts all over Toronto.
Right now, for instance, Bad Dog has opened a temporary Winter Wonderland Comedy Theatre in Parkdale for December (at what’s usually the Assembly Theatre at 1479 Queen Street West), with half a dozen shows on rotation there.
That’s in keeping with the increasing number of stand-up or improv nights popping up in all sorts of bars and restaurants around town – as well as new dedicated venues such as the second Comedy Bar on the Danforth and Nothing Fancy in Kensington Market – which are feeding an eager-to-laugh audience that appears to have grown, perhaps owing to all the Netflix comedy specials that kept people’s spirits up at home in recent years.
“If you go to the Bloordale neighbourhood, you’ll find a comedy show within every block,” Rasul says. “The pandemic forced everyone to think a little more innovatively about how to perform comedy. I think that’s translating to people being a bit more scrappy.”
Speaking of comedy off the beaten path... Entrances and Exits: Home For the Holidays, an improvised holiday special from indie theatre company Howland Company, is on at Tarragon Theatre from Dec. 9 to 18. The show features a mix of theatre and comedy performers including a bunch of the Second City crowd such as Paloma Nunez, Brandon Hackett, Liz Johnston and, on select nights, Colin Mochrie.
Openings this week across the country - Siminovitch-ish edition
- La fureur de ce que je pense, the acclaimed adaptation of Nelly Arcan’s writings by the freshly minted $100,000 Siminovitch Prize winner Marie Brassard, is on at Le Diamant in Quebec City from Dec. 8 to 10.
- Little Women, a stage adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott novel by American playwright Kate Hamill, opens at Theatre Calgary on Dec. 7 and runs to December 31. Director Jenna Rodgers’s production includes Siminovitch Prize winner Tara Beagan as Marmee March.
- The Man that Got Away, at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times from Dec. 9 to 18, sees performer Martin Julien explore through cabaret “his queer upbringing as the child of a lesbian mother and gay father in mid-20th-century Toronto.” Peter Hinton-Davis, one of the country’s finest directors to never win a Siminovitch, is at the helm.
More holiday shows opening this week - east to west...
- The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, a Pride and Prejudice spin-off by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, opens at the Fredericton Playhouse on Dec. 8 for a four-show run and then tours around the province courtesy of Theatre New Brunswick.
- A Hamilton Holiday, on from Dec. 7 to 24 at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton, is a new variety show created by artistic director Mary Francis Moore with a “Hamilton-Proud cast of performers” that includes Nicole Joy-Fraser (The Rez Sisters, Stratford Festival) and Emily Lukasik (The Shaw Festival)
- Me Love BINGO!: BEST IN SNOW, at the Arts Club in Vancouver through Jan. 1, sounds like a lark. Hosted by drag-clad host Kyle Loven, it’s described as “part game night, part Pee-wee’s Playhouse, part Hallmark movie.”
What the Globe and Mail is reviewing this week
Peter’s Last Flight, which is to be the last holiday family musical/pantomime from producer Ross Petty, opens to media on Thursday night (and runs to Jan. 7). The Globe and Mail spoke with Petty about his swan song last week.
‘da Kink in My Hair, Trey Anthony’s hit show set in a West Indian hair salon in Toronto, is at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts from Dec. 6 to 23 in a 20th anniversary production co-produced by TO Live and Soulpepper. The Globe and Mail recently interviewed director Weyni Mengesha and several members of the cast about the show. I’ll be there to review it on Friday.