Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.
- Title: Blackout
- Book by: Steven Gallagher
- Music and lyrics by: Anton Lipovetsky
- Directed by: Ann Hodges
- Actors: Chilina Kennedy, Synthia Yusuf, Michael De Rose and Brandon Antonio
- Company: Musical Stage Company in association with Canadian Stage
- Venue: High Park Amphitheatre
- City: Toronto
- Year: Runs to Aug. 15
Chilina Kennedy instead of Shakespeare in the park? Yes, please – at least some of the time.
During the pandemic, Canadian Stage has transformed its High Park amphitheatre from one of those outdoors shrines to the Bard you’ll find pretty much anywhere in Canada into a multipurpose, multidisciplinary performance space where you might even find a Broadway star such as Kennedy performing on a given night.
Last fall, I learned it was a perfectly fine venue for certain forms of dance and now, this summer, it has become clear it is an excellent place to hear music or watch musicals thanks to an upgraded sound system.
Blackout, a Musical Stage Company production that stars Canadian gal-made-good Kennedy and other Broadway-worthy talents, is currently showing off the possibilities of the High Park stage. It is, I should note, a “preview production” of a new musical – which suggests more work will be taking place before it has an indoors debut.
Composer/lyricist Anton Lipovetsky and book writer Steven Gallagher have crafted three half-hour mini-musicals only connected by the fact that they take place during the long blackout that hit Toronto, and briefly brought its citizens together, in 2003. The scenes move from one end of the city to the other – and from the evening to the middle of the night to the moments before dawn.
It’s difficult to write a satisfying short play, let alone a short musical, so the creators have taken on a major challenge with this unusual construction.
Cygnus, the final scene in Blackout, is the strongest in its current form – and not just because it actually takes place in a park. Lenin (Michael De Rose) is out talking to the stars after being ghosted on a date, when he is surprised by Zachary (Brandon Antonio), a runaway groom.
Lenin, strongly affected by a small-town tragedy when he was young, is desperately seeking a mate to lift him out of long-term loneliness; Zachary, a party animal, is panicked that he will be trapped by marriage.
Lipovetsky’s songs allow these two gay men to explore courtship with humour and heart, and their short encounter doesn’t force a change in them so much as pivot them each in a positive direction. Shine Again, the song that bookends the scene, is a genuinely stirring anthem delivered with gentle soulfulness by De Rose.
Gemini, the first scene in the show, concerns two women who are less a study in contrasts than in caricatures. It begins with flakey Leighton (Kennedy) showing up uninvited to the apartment of her uptight sister Eddie (Synthia Yusuf) after her subway has come to a sudden stop nearby because of the power outage.
The two had a falling out after their mother died, and Leighton has taken the blackout as a sign to reconnect.
Leighton is a real sitcom hippie, a parade of patchouli and chakra jokes that were past their best-before date in 2003 – but, incredibly, Kennedy pulls it all together into a performance that regularly had me puffing out my mask with laughter. The Shaw and Stratford Festival veteran remains a genius at broad comedy.
Yusuf, well known on Western Canadian stages, was new to me, and it’s clear she’s a talent even in this one-note character. She balanced Kennedy’s energy perfectly and navigated her way through chatty songs with aplomb.
Pandora, the second scene in Blackout, is the one most in need of work. Pandora (Yemie Sonuga) has invited strangers from the neighbourhood over for a backyard blackout party – one her husband Manny (Jonathan Winsby) has patiently gone along with for hours, but is now trying to bring to a close.
There’s an important appointment the next day Manny keeps alluding to, but it takes too long to get to the substance of the matter. The scene marches on the spot, then makes an impossible leap into pathos.
What makes Cygnus work despite the contrivances of the form is that it is specific in terms of situation and character. Zachary’s dilemma is rooted in 2003 – the year gay marriage became legal in Ontario – and his question about whether we should do things just because we can resonates in intriguing ways now.
The other scenes, by contrast, could take place any time, really, and the characters can feel stereotypical or generic, a sense that seeps into the songs as well.
Ann Hodges is credited as both director and dramaturge, and while she’s done well on the first front, extra help should perhaps be enlisted on the second. If each of Blackout’s scenes depicted a different Toronto community as distinctly as Gallagher and Lipovetsky depict the gay community, the show would have a larger chance of success.
I’m sure some of the smaller issues will naturally get cleared up with more in-person rehearsals. Every scene has altogether too many “I’m leaving”/”no, stay” exchanges that seem a legacy of Zoom workshops. Come back, stage directions – you’ve been missed!
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage.