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Ericka Leobrera, left, and Anthony Perpuse star in The Waltz.DAHLIA KATZ/Factory Theatre

  • Title: The Waltz
  • Written by: Marie Beath Badian
  • Director: Nina Lee Aquino
  • Actors: Ericka Leobrera, Anthony Perpuse
  • Company: Factory Theatre
  • City: Toronto, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to November 13, 2022

Critic’s Pick

Will a couple of second-generation Canadians fall in love at first sight?

Marie Beath Badian’s The Waltz, now having its world premiere at Toronto’s Factory Theatre, is a rarity in the world of new plays: a romantic comedy.

It’s a genre that often gets written off, on screen as much as stage, as not terribly serious. But here Badian uses the form not just to make an audience laugh and swoon, but to explore the kinds of experiences that children of immigrants have growing up in different parts of this vast land called Canada.

The Waltz is set in the early 1990s at a rustic lake house in a remote part of northern Saskatchewan.

Romeo Alvarez (Anthony Perpuse), on a cross-country drive from Toronto to Vancouver, where he is about to start classes at the University of British Columbia, has been directed there to look up and spend the night with an old friend of his mother’s named Dr. Miles.

Instead, on the porch he finds 16-year-old Bea Klassen (Ericka Leobrera) – who runs into the cabin and grabs her crossbow to confront the stranger as he approaches.

Romeo’s awkward “Hey gurl!” greeting does not disarm her – in either sense of the word – but over the course of the next 90 minutes the two young Filipino-Canadians find connection and maybe even something more in their brief encounter.

Bea and Romeo’s conversation, as he tries to decide whether to wait for Dr. Miles or hit the road, grows increasingly personal and returns regularly to aspects of being what, in the 1990s anyway, was referred to by the oxymoron “second-generation immigrant.”

While Bea has always stuck out in a small Prairie town, Romeo has felt right at home in Scarborough, blending in at his high school. The pressures (and pleasures) of assimilation are discussed on the teenager terms of fitting in versus conforming. Likewise, the two end up talking about their long-distance romances with the Philippines, and what it is to have two brown parents versus one.

Badian does a remarkable job of making all this come up naturally and, Bea’s brief initial refusal to fill in any blanks about herself aside, not feel contrived.

While the two-hander will be particularly relatable to those who have grown up with a parent or two who came to Canada from another country (and especially the Philippines, of course), anyone who grew up in the 1990s will connect on a nostalgic level to the sounds and scenes referenced in it.

Jackie Chau’s costumes are a delight: the cut-off jean shorts and Nirvana shirt sported by Bea, the now-vintage Blue Jays cap and awkward urban style of Romeo.

It was fun for me to flashback to a time when if you mentioned a band that someone else didn’t know, a phone wouldn’t immediately be pulled out to play a tune. (Maybe a book of CDs – which Romeo has among his baggage – would be flipped through.) I remembered, a tad wistfully, the power silence and stillness could have in interactions among teens, and how not immediately knowing the answer to something could lead to creative conversations instead of Googling.

While I could see The Waltz feeling flat, or slight, in the wrong hands, the strong chemistry between Leobrera and Perpuse, beautifully orchestrated by director Nina Lee Aquino, carried me away.

Badian knows how to craft jokes that are both good-natured and make you laugh; one that involved a gentle gibe at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus really cracked up the opening-night crowd.

Perpuse is particularly funny in his depiction of Romeo’s wannabe b-boy posturing. When Romeo shows some of the dance moves he’s created in his part-time job as a choreographer for debuts – a traditional Filipino coming-of-age celebration – it’s hard to imagine any teen girl’s heart not melting. (Andrea Mapili is the choreographer on the show.)

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The Waltz is set in the early 1990s at a rustic lake house in a remote part of northern Saskatchewan and explores the relationship of Bea and Romeo.DAHLIA KATZ/Supplied

The Waltz is Badian’s sequel to Prairie Nurse, her zanier, 2013 workplace comedy set in the late 1960s about two Filipinas arriving in Canada to work at a small-town Saskatchewan hospital.

Those two characters are the mothers of Bea and Romeo, but you don’t need to have seen the earlier show to enjoy this one (which is co-produced with Ontario’s Blyth Festival).

This new play seems at least as much in conversation with David French’s 1984 play Salt-Water Moon, the third in his series of influential shows about the fictional family the Mercers, the patriarch and matriarch of which were immigrants to Toronto from Newfoundland before it joined Canada. That romantic comedy, a prequel that showed the Mercer parents falling in love as teens back on the island they came from, was also “just” a conversation on a porch.

Aquino’s staging of The Waltz, too, nods at Ravi Jain’s 2016 production of Salt-Water Moon that played at Factory in 2016 (later remounted for Mirvish Productions): Romeo Alvarez enters from the same door at the back of the auditorium as Jacob Mercer did in that show.

It’s these sort of echoes that make having a long-term relationship with a theatre company such a worthwhile experience.

Aquino is no longer artistic director at Factory: She’s handed the keys over to her successor, Mel Hague, and is settling into her new job as the head of English Theatre at the National Arts Centre. But The Waltz is a nice cap to her 10 seasons or so in charge of a company that, like this sequel now on stage, moved the theatrical conversation forward on what it is to be Canadian in accessible and entertaining ways.

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