It was the best of shows, it was the worst of shows.
Well not quite. But this week while watching Uncovered: Notes from the Heart, a new streamed offering from Toronto’s ambitious Musical Stage Company, I realized how different a theatre-from-home experience can be depending on how you’ve set up your home theatre.
Uncovered is an annual concert that, usually, takes place at Toronto’s Koerner Hall and features well-known musical-theatre and cabaret artists performing songs by popular artists in creative arrangements by Reza Jacobs. This year, the event has pivoted to an online version that will stream digitally until Dec. 6; it remains a ticketed affair you have to tune into at specific times.
This isn’t just a cabaret captured on film – it’s more high concept than that.
A host of top Canadian performers from Sara Farb (recently seen on Broadway in the Harry Potter plays) to Bruce Dow (soon to be seen in Diana, a new musical about the Princess of Wales on Netflix) to Jackie Richardson (the gospel, blues and jazz legend who needs no parenthetical) to first recorded songs by Jann Arden and R.E.M. and Billy Joel in a studio.
Then, they went to various outdoor locations, mostly around Toronto, and took part in the filming of videos directed by Victoria Barber that were layered over those recordings.
It’s is a pay-per-view music-video countdown, in short.
Here’s how it went for me: Tuning in at my appointed hour, I first tapped “access to online event” in an e-mail on my phone. That took me to the livestream, which I then screen-mirrored to my Apple TV, which is connected to an aging widescreen television in my living room.
Viewing and listening in this manner, I was not initially won over by Uncovered. The first video featured Andrew Penner, a member of the bands Harrow Fair and Sunparlour Players and frequent theatre crosser-over, affecting a hopeful attitude as he lip-synched Peace Train by Cat Stevens while wandering around the Toronto Railway Museum.
This 1972 song’s forward-looking attitude (“Now, I’ve been smiling lately / Thinkin' about the good things to come”) was at odds with a location steeped in nostalgia, and the already annoying naiveté of Stevens’s lyrics grated even more than usual given what I know about the colourfully corrupt and colonial railway history of Canada.
Later on, the visual aspect of Uncovered similarly undercut my appreciation of Soulpepper regular Hailey Gillis’s recorded rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which was full of unexpected vocal turns and evinced a visceral vulnerability. Filmed on Toronto’s Centre Island, this segment was full of clichéd imagery rarely seen outside of a karaoke bar: Gillis walking barefoot on a beach, scribbling in a notebook, sending a Chinese lantern into the sky, and dropping a coin off a pier for good luck (into Lake Ontario?).
The appeal of cabaret as an art form, which watching Uncovered clarified for me, is that it is about a performer and the individual way she tells a story through music and lyrics in real time; even the most creative of visual concepts (and less clunky cuts) would get in the way.
Reinforcing this, the most successful video in the one-hour presentation was one that simply showed Richardson, in all emotive glory, singing her heart out on Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind in the studio. Sure, it looked like most of the FACTOR-funded adult-contemporary videos I happened upon on MuchMoreMusic in the late 1990s – but I suddenly understood the merits of that particular aesthetic.
Now here’s the twist: Halfway through Richardson’s number, my television and phone disconnected from one another – and I decided to switch to streaming the rest of Uncovered on my laptop and listening through a high-quality pair of headphones.
Suddenly, I was experiencing the stream entirely differently. The sound, instead of being just okay, was now rich and layered – and I could hear all the creative curlicues in the arrangements and the subtlest of harmonies. Additionally, the moving images looked more like they were in their proper habitat – and, by virtue of being smaller, encouraged me to savour the sound first.
Later that evening, I rewound to revisit some of the videos I had not fully enjoyed earlier. The thick wall of sound of Peace Train now hit me like a runaway locomotive – and while the visuals for Hallelujah still weren’t my cup of Cohen, they had less of the washed-out look that made me scribble down “karaoke” on my own notepad.
The fact that Jacobs and his band (Justin Gray on bass and guitar; Jamie Drake on percussion) get billing way above Barber and editor Fred Yurichuk in the program indicate where Musical Stage Company’s creative priorities clearly were.
But I must also acknowledge that I’ve now learned that tuning into a digital performance is a bit like showing up for the tech run of a theatre production that is also opening night – and discovering that you are the sound and lighting designer.
Uncovered is, ultimately, an inspired way for this theatre company to connect with its audience and supporters in a challenging time – and I’m very much in admiration of any independent company going out on a limb right now to fulfill its mandate in new ways.