A triumphant ‘Da Kink, final Ross Petty panto and moving memoir: this week in Toronto theatre

Fashions come and go, but human truths are timeless. That’s one of the many takeaways from Trey Anthony‘s ‘Da Kink In My Hair (Rating: NNNNN), which vibrates with energy, life, music and theatricality in a triumphant new 20th anniversary production of the Canadian classic co-produced by Soulpepper and TO Live.

Even if you’ve seen Anthony’s play about the lives of half a dozen Black women in a hair salon in Toronto’s Little Jamaica, you’ll want to take another look. Director Weyni Mengesha – who helmed the original show at the Fringe and several of its remounts – has staged it magnificently so it fills up the large Bluma Appel Theatre.

A high-energy, dialogue-less prologue helps establish a sense of the neighbourhood’s evolution – kudos to choreographer Jaz “Fairy J” Simone for the moves and Joanna Yu for her colourful, characterful set. And there are so many musical interludes (bravo to music director and composer Corey Butler) that the show could easily be called a play with music. It’s to Mengesha’s credit that none of these musical moments feels like padding; they’re essential, especially when you’ve got powerhouse Alana Bridgewater as the show’s lead vocalist.

It’s become a cliché to talk about the ritualistic nature of theatre, or to say that a certain work of art can be healing and cathartic. But judging from the emotional response from the audience at the performance I attended earlier this week – talking back, laughing, cheering, crying and in some cases moaning – all of those things apply to ‘Da Kink.

And many of the themes in the show – shadism, violence against Black men and boys, taboos around sexuality and aging – have only become more urgent and discussed over the past two decades.

At the heart of the show is Novelette (Ordena Stephens-Thompson, star of the spinoff series), who’s been styling hair for more than 20 years and can tell a woman’s story simply by touching her hair. It’s no wonder women are drawn to her salon; she radiates empathy and understanding, even if she has to bump you from your appointment to give preference to someone who’s more in need of a wash, cut and guidance.

Much of the production’s joy comes from the easy banter between Novelette and her customers. But the real power of the show comes when the women, hair touched and teased, individually get out of the salon chair and tell their stories about everything from lost sons and dead mothers to sexual awakenings and discoveries. (At my performance, Miranda Edwards, who plays Sherelle, had lost her voice, so her story about the pressures of corporate life was cut from the show.)

Satori Shakoor brings down the house with her raucous and life-affirming monologue about an older woman’s long-dormant lust for life. Shakura Dickson is warm and charismatic as a hometown-girl-turned-movie-star who wants to live openly as queer woman. And Olunike Adeliyi, one of NOW’s rising screen stars a few years ago, evokes a lifetime of ambivalent feelings for her recently-deceased mother who judged people on how dark or light their skin was.

But the emotional centre of the play remains the story of Stacey-Anne (d’bi.young anitafrika), an exuberant young Jamaican girl who is terrified of upsetting her mother’s abusive new boyfriend, who is helping the family financially. The way anitafrika presents Stacey-Anne’s story – their body language alone speaks volumes – and the generous ensemble scene afterwards, in which the actor takes ownership and delivers an empowering rap – is revelatory.

As is this remarkable revival.

‘Da Kink In My Hair continues at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front East) until December 23. See info here.

Peter’s Final Flight: The PAN-Tastical Family Musical!

Near the end of Peter’s Final Flight (Rating: NNNN), star and producer Ross Petty – who plays Captain Hook to lusty, vigorous boos – sings a decent version of Paul Anka’s My Way. It’s a fitting final song marking 25 years of pantos at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre. These are shows that have entertained several generations of theatregoers. For them – for us – the holidays won’t be the same without a Ross Petty panto.

Thankfully, he goes out on a high note with this energetic meta spin on J.M. Barrie’s tale that finds actor Peter (Alex Wierzbicki) teamed up with co-star Erika (Stephanie Sy) and helped by perennial fave Plumbum (Dan Chameroy) to find the heart of Neverland before Hook’s wife Helga (Sara-Jeanne Hosie) and her sidekick Smee (Eddie Glen) get there.

Panto scripts are never the primary draw for these shows, and this year’s book, by Matt Murray, is fine but unremarkable. The meta business isn’t very satisfactorily dealt with, and there are also references to the Jolly Roger that don’t go anywhere special. But lively songs and dance numbers (choreographed by director Tracey Flye) entertain, as do some very funny jokes about everything from Elon Musk and the Greenbelt to the lack of available children’s cough syrup. One of the funniest gags comes when Petty’s Hook, sneering at the audience, says we all looked better on Zoom.

The pleasure of a Petty panto, at least for grown-up audience members, is seeing talented performers having fun. And this show, in association with Crow’s, delivers, whether it’s getting to see the Dora Award-winning Chameroy perform a ribbon dance to Eye Of The Tiger, witnessing Glen’s ageless Smee nail some treacherously high notes in a rendition of Oh Sherrie or admiring Hosie’s Valkyrie-outfitted villain Helga (costumes are by Ming Wong) snarl through her bitchy bons mots.

With luck, an enterprising commercial producer will take up where Petty leaves off in 2023. In the meantime, a book celebrating more than 25 years of family musicals is on sale in the lobby or at rosspetty.com.

Peter’s Final Flight! runs at the Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge) until January 7. See info here.

The Man That Got Away (A Special Appearance)

There have been many brilliant interpretations of the Harold Arlen/Ira Gershwin song The Man That Got Away before, including Judy Garland’s version for the film A Star Is Born, in which the song premiered. But none, not even Garland’s, has the layers of autobiographical meaning that Martin Julien‘s does when he belts it out at the end of his ambitious autobiographical show The Man That Got Away (A Special Appearance) (Rating: NNN).

The show is Julien’s attempt to come to terms with his parents, a gay man and a lesbian, who weren’t out to each other – let alone themselves – when they married and had him. Julien uses various techniques to help compile his story. The boldest includes having performer Tat Austrie play the ghost of Garland herself, a figure his father Leo was obsessed with, with Ben Page on keyboards and occasionally playing other characters. Another technique is to play back audio excerpts from an extended conversation Julien had with his mother before she died, the actor lip-synching her words as if they’re part of his own life, which they are.

And we get lots of memories: of Leo’s time at Casey House AIDS hospice, where he was one of the first residents; of decades of phone calls to his mother, where Julien would first have to talk to his mother’s partner; of an AIDS memorial ceremony in 1988. We even get footage from a feature film Julien co-starred in as a kid, in which another child – who went on to work several times at Buddies in Bad Times herself – taunted his character with a gay putdown. And one of the most poignant moments comes when Julien reads a letter he wrote to his father near the end of his life.

The effect of all of this is a little disorienting and overwhelming. It’s also unclear what significance the ghost of Garland has/had in Julien and his father’s lives. Is she a figure to prod Leo on, rather like Humphrey Bogart in Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam? Is she the angel of death? Or is she simply a figure that represents generations of closeted (and eventually out) queer people’s lives? Whatever the case, Austrie – poised, focused and present – delivers a powerhouse performance. And Page is equally versatile and talented.

Director Peter Hinton-Davis has created a loose, open production that feels suggestive without being reductive. Sean Mulcahy‘s set, Bonnie Beecher‘s lighting, HAUI‘s video design and Wayne Hawthorne‘s sound design help evoke different eras and sensibilities, all while upending the idea of an autobiographical cabaret show.

While Julien had some issues staying on top of his material on the show’s opening night – his delivery was often just a touch tentative – he’s dealing with rich, layered and obviously personal material that, over time and perhaps more development, could settle into a fascinating, unique show.

The Man That Got Away continues at Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander) until December 18. See info here.


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