A revamped fairy tale and a corny Cornish musical: this week in Toronto theatre

Any improv artist knows you don’t need a lot of people to help populate a stage with memorable characters. Imagination, skill and clarity suffice. That’s something director and improv-trained Second City alumna Aurora Browne (Baroness von Sketch) showcases in Young People’s Theatre’s delightful and clever production of Snow White (Rating: NNNN). 

Working with Greg Banks’s witty adaptation, Browne makes the familiar fairy tale come to vivid, relevant life as a story told by two actors. I saw JD Leslie and YPT’s new artistic director (and also ace improviser) Herbie Barnes, but there’s another pairing of Amanda Cordner (Sort Of) and improv titan Ken Hall (The Umbrella Academy) that I’m sure is just as winning.

The two performers initially express doubts that they can tell the story without others, but soon they proceed, and their 85-minute recreation is guaranteed to make you discover the story anew.

For one thing, gone is the cringey statement that the eponymous character has “skin as white as snow” – in Banks’s script, she has a “heart as pure as snow.” And gone is the Disneyfied take on Snow White’s seven friends and helpers; they’re identified not by names in this version but by number, and you barely hear the word “dwarves.” Instead, in one of many show-stopping scenes, Barnes and Browne distinguish each man by voice, attitude and staging. (At one point I felt like the show resembled a “Harold” improv exercise.)

What makes Snow White even more thrilling is that the performers aren’t even stuck in their assigned roles. Leslie and Barnes both get to play the evil (and hilariously vain) stepmother, the woodsman and the mirror; for a couple of moments Barnes even plays the title character. They do all of this without resorting to lazy caricature or gender stereotyping, allowing audiences of all ages to learn that acting is about play and imagination.  

The design team helps a lot in the storytelling. Brandon Kleiman’s set is dominated by a forest of trees that transforms in Siobhán Sleath‘s lighting – it’s especially evocative when daylight turns to dusk and night. Sleath’s use of a rectangle of light to suggest a glass coffin is brilliant. Emily Porter’s sound design, meanwhile, works on an almost subconscious level; in one magical moment the woodsman is tasked with ripping out Snow White’s organs to prove her death to her stepmother, and the sound of a thumping, beating heart expresses both his (and our) anxiety.

The pacing slackens a bit in the show’s second half – no wonder kids at my performance got restless. But overall this is a fun, insightful and enchanting take on a classic. Perfect holiday fare. 

Snow White runs at Young People’s Theatre (165 Front East) until January 7. See info here.

Fisherman’s Friends 

Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical (Rating: NNN), the unlikely export from the UK, includes all the ingredients for a heartwarming show: stirring music; a novel setting; and a real-life story of underdogs defying the odds and winning over the world with the above-mentioned music. But at two-and-a-half hours, it slightly overstays its welcome. 

In the Cornish village of Platt, a fish-out-of-water obnoxious former record executive named Danny (Jason Langley) stumbles upon a group of fishermen who have been hauling their catch and singing sea shanties for decades. He’s convinced they could be the next big thing, and so tries to get his former boss, Leah (Fia Houston-Hamilton), to listen to them. Meanwhile, he’s pissed off Olwyn (Parisa Shahmir), the daughter of one of the fishermen and – wouldn’t you know it? – a frustrated singer/songwriter herself. So convincing her and the men to record a demo will be a challenge. 

The characters lack depth, and much of Amanda Whittington’s book is too on-the-nose. The performances at times feel like the actors are trying overly hard to be gritty and down-to-earth. But there’s a refreshingly frank and salty air to the dialogue. And the songs, among them the familiar (What Shall We Do With The) Drunken Sailor and Blow The Man Down, are rousing, characterful and sometimes moving. They are the best reason to see this show.

Fisherman’s Friends continues at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (260 King West) until January 15. See info here.

The Birds 

A few years ago, Bygone Theatre presented The Rear Window, an intriguing take on a Cornell Woolrich short story and the Alfred Hitchcock film classic that was made from it. Now the company is presenting a less successful take on The Birds (Rating: NN), based both on Daphne DuMaurier’s story and the subsequent Hitchcock thriller. 

Rather than attempt to replicate Hitchcock’s horrific vision of flocks of birds mysteriously attacking a small port side town, adapter and director Emily Dix has used the story to explore paranoia and suspicion during a fraught time.

The setting, at least based on the fashions and the cottage’s furniture, looks to be in the late 50s or early 60s, and newlywed Daphne Daniels (Anna Douglas) has arrived at her family’s cottage with her brother David (Alex Clay) for a restful weekend. The two are avoiding talking about something that recently made David leave college, but soon, thanks to the appearances by handyman Hank (Chad Allen), neighbour Annie (Keira Publicover) and Daphne’s ex, Mitch (Oliver Georgiou), the young man’s full backstory will soon be revealed. And things will not be restful. 

Meanwhile, there are reports – both in town and on the radio – of attacks by random birds. 

In her program notes, Dix suggests she was inspired both by the divisions wrought by the Trump era and the chaos caused by living with COVID. Some of that emerges from this production, especially in the way characters avoid discussing things like mental illness and sexuality.

But Dix could certainly go a lot further. She seems less concerned with her themes and characters than with revealing Easter eggs. The dialogue feels stilted, and the actors seem to be performing in different styles. Not only that, but there’s a wonky sense of place and time; no sooner does someone borrow an egg for a cake than she appears with that cake ready made. The power is cut, lanterns are lit and then a few seconds later some light appears.

Were these inconsistencies intended? I’m not sure. But they distract from an already verbose and repetitive script and production.

The Birds continues at Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle) until December 10. See info here.

@glennsumi

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