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Musical Stage Company's new musical Blackout begins performances this week at an outdoor amphitheatre in High Park.DAHLIA KATZ/Handout

With a critical mass of Canadian theatre companies returning to live performances this month, perhaps this newsletter can now turn to a question of slightly less importance: When should the country’s theatre critics get back to work?

Many plays and musical productions opening right now have been rehearsed under highly unusual circumstances – outdoors, at the mercy of the weather and frequently updated provincial protocols that had a significant impact on staging from week to week. (You can read more about that in my recent feature on the wild rehearsal processes of the first two plays opening at the Stratford Festival this season).

Additionally, some theatre productions are selling out before they even open because of reduced audience capacity. The temptation, I imagine, is for producers to leave the critics out of the reopening for the moment.

After all, theatre’s return still feels like a gift – and the obstacles that theatre artists have had to overcome to get things back up and running are readily apparent. Or to put it another way: Haven’t actors and playwrights suffered enough in the last 16 or so months?

Blackout, a brand-new musical from Toronto’s Musical Stage Company, beginning performances this week at an outdoor amphitheatre in High Park, is one production that has been wrestling with the question of what to do about reviews for the past month.

Steven Gallagher and Anton Lipovetsky’s highly anticipated show, which has a three-pronged plot, set during the Toronto blackout of 2003, is running as part of Canadian Stage’s Dream in High Park programming from July 23 to August 15. Chilina Kennedy, the Shaw-turned-Stratford-turned-Broadway star, is part of a cast that is stacked with well-known musical-theatre performers. Half the 250 tickets available per show are selling for $50 in advance, the other at pay-what-you-wish prices 48 hours before each performance.

I’d describe this as the first major production in Toronto in a year and a half – Musical Stage Company has, however, decided to bill the run as a “preview production” since they are planning to mount a full indoors one in the future.

In June, I was told that meant the company was requesting no reviews of the production. Over the weekend, however, I received an update: With audience capacity at each performance raised from 150 to 250, artistic and managing director Mitchell Marcus and the creative team decided that they would indeed be comfortable with reviewers attending as of August 2. They will, however, request that reviewers note that what they saw was still an “in development production.”

I’m happy to hear that Musical Stage Company is now including critics in their comeback – and I certainly won’t mind noting the reality that the production is still in development.

The question of when a live show truly “opens” or has its “world premiere” has actually always been a complex one. Big musicals headed for New York will often have what they call an “out-of-town tryout” (or two or three) in a smaller North American city first. And almost all new theatrical productions have what are called “preview” performances in front of audiences where the kinks are worked out before critics are invited to weigh in.

Indeed, I’ve already seen (and not reviewed) an early version of Blackout that played at The Globe and Mail building’s event centre in 2019.

The pandemic has only made the fact that theatre is actually a process rather than a product clearer than ever. Now is an opportunity, actually, for critics to figure out to acknowledge that in reviews even as they remain honest in their responses.

I’m back at full tilt reviewing live, in-person productions this week for the first time in ages. On Thursday, I’ll be seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Stratford Festival. Then, over the weekend, I will be heading to the Shaw Festival to catch the first three shows of the season there: The Devil’s Disciple, Flush and Charley’s Aunt.

Look for my reviews of those over the course of the next week.

Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan gets up and running this week in Saskatoon with a new production of Macbeth that opens July 23. Joshua Beaudry and Kristi Friday play the Macbeths in a production directed by departing artistic producer Will Brooks that will be the first proper one in the company’s new permanent amphitheatre.

For something less Shakespearean outdoors in the ‘Toon, Sum Theatre’s latest park production is called The Other Side of the River. The rock opera based on a story by Yvette Nolan and devised by the theatre company’s ensemble with music by Amanda Trapp is heading into its last two weeks of performances.

I spoke too soon when I said that Charlottetown was going to be Anne of Green Gables-free this summer.

The Together at Last Festival, which opened a few days ago for an eight-week run at the Delta Prince Edward by Mariott, will in fact be presenting a revue called Anne Mixtape, featuring songs from both Anne of Green Gables: The Musical and Anne and Gilbert: The Musical.

It’s a creation of musical-theatre writers Suzy Wilde, Barbara Johnston and Anika Johnson, who also happen to portray Posh, Ginger and Sporty in Wannabe: A Spice Girls Tribute – which they’ve brought to PEI for the summer as well. (Jenna Marie Holmes and Claire Byrne join them this summer as Baby and Scary, respectively).

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