The New York Musical Theatre Festival is a great place to develop that next big hit; successful shows like Next To Normal, [title of show] and Altar Boyz are all NYMF alumni.
The fest wraps up this weekend, but we were lucky enough to catch a couple of shows, including Prison Dancer: The Musical, which was workshopped a couple of years ago at SummerWorks and features local actor Jeigh Madjus in a star-making role.
The show, with music and lyrics by Romeo Candido and book by Candido and Carmen de Jesus, is inspired by the real-life story of Filipino maximum-security prisoners who, prodded by their prison warden, began marching and then dancing for exercise. Eventually their dead-on recreation of the iconic Michael Jackson music video Thriller become a YouTube sensation, with more than 50 million views.
The musical focuses on eight prisoners, including the about-to-be-executed Tondo (Albert Guerzon), the seemingly gentle and poetic soul Shakespeare (Moses Villarama) and new inmate Christian (Jose Liana), a cop-killer whose girlfriend, Cherish (Catherine Ricafort), is determined to stand by him.
But the focus is on Madjus's Lola, a petite drag queen who knows the ins and outs of the system and who can take down a hulking prisoner with a brutal kick (in wedges, no less). Lola acts as narrator, has a major crush on Shakespeare (the character) and acts as head dancer for the inmates.
It's a hugely demanding role, requiring great comic timing, empathy, vigorous physicality and some terrific pipes. Madjus, so good here in Angelwalk Theatre's production of Altar Boyz, is up to the task, oozing charisma and campy charm and delivering each note with such perfect tone, phrasing and diction that we had to wonder at times if he was lip-synching. (He wasn't.)
As it stands now, there are some fine things in the show, including a dramatic act one closer as Tondo goes to the electric chair and a typhoon is about to hit Manila. The theme of religion and forgiveness is carefully woven into the show. And choreographer Jenn Rapp's dance moves add lots of excitement.
Some of the songs, however, aren't fully integrated and often bring the action to a standstill. And the book needs tweaking; a bit more about some of the prisoners' crimes would add complexity to their situation. A feeling of claustrophobia also sets in before the end; the creators might consider setting some scenes outside the prison.
But as a subject, Prison Dancer has enormous potential. It continues at the Theater at St. Clements (423 West 46th Street) until Saturday (July 28).
We also caught Jonathan Brielle's Himself And Nora, a musical telling of the romance between literary genius James Joyce and his lover/muse, former chambermaid Nora Barnacle.
Filled with lots of wordplay and some musical motifs that draw on Joyce's Irish background, the show could easily be remounted.
There's a lot of story to pack into two hours, including the couple's first meeting, Joyce's relationship with his father and his self-imposed exile to Trieste, Paris and Zurich to escape the suffocation of Ireland in order to write about it.
But Brielle and director Michael Bush do a fine job with the material, emphasizing the lusty, libidinous nature of the couple's relationship and capturing Joyce's brilliance and egotism. It's a nice touch to have a priest (Ryerson Theatre grad Brian Sills) hovering over the action, suggesting how Joyce was haunted by the Catholic Church throughout his life.
And Matt Bogart and Jessica Burrows make a magnetic, believably smitten couple.
Kudos for Carley
Dave Carley, who's been working as playwright, mentor and teacher for the past three decades, is the recipient of this year's Maggie Bassett Award, presented by Theatre Ontario to an individual who has made "a sustained and significant contribution to the development of theatre in Ontario."
Carley's best known for his plays, including After You, Taking Liberties, Writing With Our Feet and an adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman. Nominated for a number of awards, his body of work - which includes radio drama as well as pieces for the stage - has been recognized with the Arthur Miller Playwriting Award.
His last Toronto show was Conservatives In Love, some four years ago.
Time for another production, please. Carley's a really fine writer and we should be seeing his work regularly on local stages.
Prize for Paolozza
Adam Paolozza is the winner of this year's Urjo Kareda Residency Grant at the Tarragon Theatre, given to an emerging professional theatre artist.
A graduate of Ryerson Theatre School and École International de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, Paolozza is a director, performer and co-founder of TheatreRUN. His recent works include The Double, The Pasolini Project and several works in June's Cooking Fire Theatre Festival. He also collaborates regularly with Theatre Smith-Gilmour, with whom he and Ravi Jain co-created the award-winning Spent.
The $15,000 grant will allow Paolozza to apprentice in direction and artistic direction with the Tarragon's Richard Rose while he develops his own theatre pieces; he's part of the 2012 Tarragon Playwrights Unit.
TheatreBooks journeys south
If you're a regular shopper at TheatreBooks, since 1975 the city's best source for all things theatrical and cinematic, you'll want to know that the store has moved from its St. Thomas location, where it's been for nearly two decades. (More condo development, wouldn't you know.)
The new location is 101 Spadina Avenue, north of King.
They're in good company. Playwrights Canada Press, one of their sources of books, is nearby, having just moved to 269 Richmond West. And Factory, Passe Muraille, the Royal Alex, the Princess of Wales and the TIFF Bell Lightbox are all a few blocks away.