This year's edition of the Next Stage Theatre Festival, a winter spinoff of the Toronto Fringe, offers audiences an opportunity to catch up with two musicals that were runaway Fringe hits last summer: Living With Henry and The Tiki Bikini Beach Paradise Party A-Go-Go.
Do these shows still seem like hot properties from the cold distance of January?
Christopher Wilson's Living With Henry is a sensitive exploration of the complex realities of living and loving while HIV positive today – in Canada, anyway, where it is no longer a death sentence, but a chronic illness.
Ryan Kelly, a stringy, sad-eyed actor who most recently impressed in Studio 180's revival of the angry 1980s AIDS drama The Normal Heart, takes on the lead role of Michael, a sweet guy who pays "the price of being nice."
In Wilson's loosely structured show, Michael first falls for Mathew (John Edwards), an HIV-positive partier whose only symptoms are anger and denial. Later, the ethical quandaries reverse as Michael ends up infected and courting HIV-negative Peter (Jay Davis).
In the scenes between the songs, Wilson effectively probes the emotions and tough questions that Michael grapples with: Is it wrong to break up with a guy because he's HIV positive? When should you disclose? How on earth do you talk about all this to your mother? (Mary Kelly is particularly strong as Michael's mom, supportive and scared out of her mind.)
In addition to Michael, his lovers and family, Living with Henry features an unusual extra character: an anthropomorphic virus, played by a muscled, shaved-head and tattooed David Silvestri. Yes, a big, mean, singing and dancing HIV named Henry. This is a fairly audacious conceit, but Wilson never really settles on a clear function for Henry – and so his role shifts confusingly from antagonist to friend to narrator.
There are a couple of clever musical numbers – a tango in a bathhouse, for instance, that's like a raunchy riff on Hernando's Hideway – but Wilson's songs are generally less effective at exploring the material than the dialogue. "There was a time, I saw the world as children do," Michael sings, setting the tone at the start. The music continues to be sentimental and the lyrics vague or clichéd – there are lessons to be learned, while characters must figure out how to let go and continue to dream.
Living with Henry certainly ends provocatively with Michael turning to his virus to sing: "It's you who helped me to grow." There's a powerful story here, but I'm not sure Wilson's hit on the right well to tell it.
And yet, Living With Henry has artistic ambitions and something to say; The Tiki Bikini Beach Paradise Party A-Go-Go does not.
Which is not to say that it pretends to in any way: Tiki is a parody of beach-party movies of the 1960s, as well as – why not? – South Pacific, Gilligan's Island and Scooby-Doo.
Written, directed and choreographed by Allison Beula, an instructor at Toronto's Randolph Academy, the unapologetically silly show's cast is mainly comprised of shirtless and bikini-clad young graduates of that Toronto musical-theatre school.
Sarah Kuzio and Thomas Duplessie star as Freddie and Jeanette, who plan one last big party before the end of summer. The only problem: The bully Big Tuna (Evan Dowling) controls the stretch of beach with the best waves.
The script's main recurring joke is that "woody," once slang for a surfboard, has now become slang for an erection – which gives you a fair idea of the tone of the show, which exists entirely in air quotes.
Jeffery Straker has composed a few new tongue-in-cheek songs, but for me the musical's appeal comes in its resurrection of songs from actual beachsploitation movies with titles like Pajama Party and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. (To stuff a wild bikini, you must find a woman with measurements of 36-22-36, which, the Internet tells me, were those of Annette Funicello.)
Many of these tunes are from the mostly forgotten songwriting team of Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner, but there are also two penned by the Sherman Brothers, who are currently represented in Toronto on an entirely different scale by the Mary Poppins musical. Particularly catchy from their songbook is Hawaiiannette (Hawaiian Love Talk), in which a girl is wooed by a boy who can only say: "Ah-ah-wah-ee-eh, Ah-ah-wah-ee-eh." Ridiculous and mildly culturally insensitive, it's as impossible to get out of your head as Chim Chim Cher-ee or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – ticket buyers beware.
The dance numbers in The Tiki Bikini Beach Paradise Party A-Go-Go are energetic; the singing and acting varies in quality and audibility, but my favourite performance came from Amelia Sirianni's muumuu-clad Widget. It's not difficult to see why Fringe audiences enjoyed this show; personally, however, I've had my fill of ironic, jukebox meta-musicals.
Next Stage Theatre Festival
- At Factory Theatre in Toronto
The Next Stage Theatre Festival continues in Toronto until Jan. 15 ( fringetoronto.com ).