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Relax, Toronto: There’s lots of live, local musical theatre here

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Avenue Q

Music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx

Book by Jeff Whitty

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Directed by Seanna Kennedy

Starring Cassie Muise and

Stephen Amon

At the Lower Ossington Theatre

in Toronto

2.5 stars

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

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Text by John Cameron Mitchell

Music and lyrics by Stephen Trask

Directed by Seth Drabinsky

and Stephen Low

Starring Seth Drabinsky

At the Drake Underground in Toronto

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3.5 stars

The Wizard of Oz, the current big-ticket item from Mirvish Productions, didn't win over a certain Toronto theatre critic I know. Fair enough. I was lukewarm on the show myself.

This fellow was more than unimpressed with Oz, however; he was depressed by it. Why? Because, he wrote, "it saddens me that – as of now – this looks like the only big-scale musical to offer an all-Toronto cast in 2013."

I hear this kind of sentiment a lot – that if David Mirvish doesn't have a full-fledged critical and box-office hit starring Canadians on his hands, then we should have a little cry about the state of the art in Toronto, perhaps shedding an extra tear or two for the incarceration of impresario Garth Drabinsky.

Well, wipe those tears away. There is, in fact, plenty of life in the city outside of Mirvish, if you're willing to broaden your horizons – even if you're interested only in commercial musical theatre starring locals.

The longest-running tuner in town at the moment is a production of Avenue Q, the 2003 Tony-winning satire of Sesame Street aimed at twentysomethings. On Jan. 18, it celebrated its one-year anniversary with its 111th performance at the 150-seat Lower Ossington Theatre (LOT).

LOT began producing small-scale productions of Broadway hits (Spring Awakening, Legally Blonde, The Rocky Horror Show) a couple of years ago, but reviewers largely kept away because the actors weren't getting paid.

That's no longer the case. LOT may not be paying anywhere near union rates, but they're at least issuing cheques to recent graduates from Toronto's musical-theatre schools. Executive director Joseph Patrick goes as far as to call his company the "number-two commercial theatre in town" now that Dancap Productions is on indefinite hiatus.

Come to think of it, Avenue Q was last in Toronto when Dancap presented a tour full of Americans in 2008. The myopic musical then, as now, didn't entirely appeal to me. Songs like I Wish I Could Go Back to College and It Sucks to Be Me, written by Jeff Marx and Book of Mormon co-creator Bobby Lopez, scream "first world problems," particularly in a big-budget production.

In a little venue with an imperfect sound system, performed by a bunch of struggling but talented actors who probably do wish they could go back to Sheridan College (or Randolph Academy), Avenue Q's exploration of quarter-life angst feels a little more honest and true.

Among the current cast, the sweet-voiced Cassie Muise is particularly impressive, switching back and forth between two Muppet-style puppets: insecure Kate Monster and bombshell Lucy the Slut.

Likewise, Stephen Amon exudes likeable naiveté operating and voicing the recent college graduate Princeton, who opens the show singing What Do You Do With a BA in English? Amon is a little unfocused, however, doubling as the gay Republican Rod, a Bert-like character who, despite living in New York, feels he should hide his sexuality rather than his political leanings.

Book writer's Jeff Whitty's jokes aren't all aging well. Christmas Eve, an angry Japanese woman who switches up her Rs and Ls, is particularly excruciating in Ann Paula Bautista's performance, which finds neither the reality nor irony in the character. The bits involving former child star Gary Coleman were always lame; now they are simply a puzzling anachronism, despite Shruti Kothari's amiable performance.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell's musical about a transgender punk rocker from East Berlin, doesn't seem any less risqué than it did when it premiered in 1998, however. The cult hit is framed as a rock concert that goes off the rails and, for its current run in Toronto, producer/star Seth Drabinsky has staged it in an actual music venue in the basement of the Drake Hotel.

Hedwig performs with her band the Angry Inch, named after what the singer was left with after a botched Communist-era sex change. In between songs, she tells her life story – one that involves the fall of walls between East and West and male and female, as well as a love affair with and betrayal by a rock star.

Composer Stephen Trask's tunes – ranging from glam to punk – are genuinely catchy and delivered with gusto here by a four-person band and backup singer. But this production's appeal is really all in Drabinsky's well-honed lead performance, which he's been touring on and off across the country for the past few years. He swings from charming to cruel, wild to wounded, while seducing and abusing his audience brilliantly.

And yes, if you're wondering, Seth is related to Garth (they're distant cousins); his Hedwig production may not be Livent, but it is lively.

Avenue Q runs until March 3 ( Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs until Jan. 27 (

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