Grab a seat or climb a tree, musical theatre is back – and in your front yard.
Musical Stage Company, Toronto’s foremost not-for-profit producer of musicals, has been touring small cabaret acts around the city as part of an initiative called Porchside Songs. Essentially, they’re private concerts available for home delivery.
On Thursday, I caught one called Love on Top – starring Beau Dixon and Vanessa Sears, Toronto Theatre Critics Award-winning performers both – on the front lawn of a house in a neighbourhood called Chaplin Estates.
I sat on a folding chair six feet down a slightly sloped driveway from a nine-person bubble centred around Jeremy Opolsky and Rhonda Zwingerman, the couple who had ordered the concert and had recently bought the house. (Zwingerman is a board member of Musical Stage Company.)
But there were a dozen or so other audience members – neighbours, invited; passersby, intrigued. The couple one house to the north came out onto their lawn with white wine, and their young son made his way up into a tree to watch.
Dixon and Sears, who co-starred in the Musical Stage Company/Obsidian Theatre co-production of Passing Strange back in 2017, play their way through 40 minutes of songs by Black artists that inspire them as Black artists: Lovely Day by Bill Withers; No Woman No Cry, which morphed into a rousing Bob Marley medley; Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You by Wilson Pickett (no offence intended to Opolsky/Zwingerman’s lawn).
I’ve seen musical-theatre performers at private houses before. Salons are quite common among producers trying to entice the well-to-do into investing in a new commercial musical – or to donate to a not-for-profit venture.
Usually, the appeal of such events is the command-performance vibe, the exclusivity and access.
Porchside Songs is a more democratic affair, taking place outside – and very helpful in getting to know new neighbours.
Two young women – one on inline skates, the other on roller skates – whizzed down the street in one direction, then circled back for another passing glimpse and listen, perhaps too shy to stop.
A man in a Mercedes was less shy; he slowed down, rolled down his window and asked what was going on, then idled for a song.
The audience was as much a part of the charm of the show as the setting sun. A husband and wife who showed up just before Sears sang the Etta James hit At Last let everyone know it was their wedding song – and I watched a tender story of their love and the passing of time on their faces as they watched.
Dixon, who plays guitar and harmonica in addition to singing, and Sears don’t tell a story in Love on Top, which is named for a 2011 Beyoncé song. The two banter a bit, but mostly leave the audience to imagine how the setlist came to be. There was an early mention that it was an “important time” to play these songs, but no elaboration on that point.
The intros cited singers but not always songwriters. At Last’s Harry Warren and Mack Gordon (who wrote it and Chattanooga Choo Choo for the 1941 film Sun Valley Serenade), for instance, went unmentioned. So did the tidbit that Beyoncé Knowles played Etta James and sang At Last in the 2008 film, Cadillac Records – and that she also performed the song at Barack Obama’s inauguration ball.
You’ll have to BYOM (bring your own musicology) to glean connections between songs.
Love on Top, the Beyoncé banger itself, was a highlight of the evening – as we got to hear Sears let really loose vocally in a way we don’t usually get to in musicals like Caroline, or Change (for which she just won a Dora). It shifts up a key four times in its final minutes, and Dixon’s enthusiastic goading of Sears in going higher and higher added some drama to the evening. (The pair also sing Higher and Higher, originally recorded by Jackie Wilson.)
The two are not necessarily an obvious musical match: Dixon’s in his forties; Sears is only five years out of Sheridan College (though that’s hard to believe as she’s already got Shaw, Stratford, Mirvish under her belt).
He often sings like he’s in a smoky bar, eyes closed, the brim of his panama hat down, feeling the emotion of a song vibrate inside of himself as sound; she acts her way through a tune, eyes wide open, making the audience feel the emotion of the lyrics.
“Who are they to judge us simply ‘cause our hair is long?” Sears sang, in What’s Going On – and I really felt the pain in Marvin Gaye’s complaint. (Compounded, perhaps, by the fact that I have not had a haircut since March.)
I had a lovely time. It’s no surprise that Porchside Songs (the other two acts on offer are Hailey Gillis and Andrew Penner; and the Asian Riffing Trio) are all sold out. A little birdie, however, tells me there will be a new block of tickets on sale next week and the initiative will be extended through September.
Porchside Songs can be booked at musicalstagecompany.com
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