Caught Billy Crystal 's last performance of his sold-out 700 Sundays at the Canon Theatre and found out why he was the toast of Broadway in 2004. Crystal sings, dances and jokes his way through three hours of material tracing his family life in a New York suburb. His relatives, especially his father and uncle, who started America's first independent jazz record company, Commodore, are fascinating. They brought him in contact with various legends -- he saw his first movie sitting on Billie Holiday's knee -- many of whom come to life thanks to Crystal's gifts as an impressionist.
Crystal stays true to his Borscht Belt roots. He still includes a few jokes of the "Take my wife, please" variety, and the show does come with a large side of schmaltz.
The show makes excellent use of his father's home movies -- everybody's favourite Oscar host appears to have been doing high shtick since he was five -- and Crystal's vocal technique is awesome. He can even imitate Holiday singing Strange Fruit.
Want an early Halloween thrill? Check out More Haunted Masters , an evening of period ghost stories that takes place in a suitably spooky house. That would be the Spadina Museum , next to Casa Loma. "The house itself is almost a character," says Jacklyn Francis , who returns to this production after performing in last year's Haunted Masters. "It's like a window into the past, and has been really useful at putting the actors into the spirit of the show. Unlike other historic homes, this one was given to the city with its original furniture."
Last year's production, also written by Gene Franklin Smith , featured four adaptations of short stories; this time around there are five new tales, drawn from Arthur Conan Doyle , J. Sheridan Le Fanu , H.G. Wells , Ambrose Bierce and Henry James .
"We're using three rooms in the attic instead of two, as well as the main staircase of the house. The audience gets to see sections of the museum that aren't usually open to the public," notes Francis, a fine Beatrice in this past summer's Dream in High Park, Much Ado About Nothing.
"It's been great for me to move from something where the audiences were huge" -- some evenings there were nearly a thousand people on the hillside -- "to this show, where an audience of 45 feels crowded because we're all packed into one small room. It's a challenge to be so close to the audience and still pull off something period and atmospheric."
Last year's show was especially strong because of the atmosphere generated by director Patrick Conner and his cast, with lighting that often relied on table lamps.
"The Victorians were fascinated with the occult and the paranormal," offers Francis, "and we always think that things are seething beneath the surface of Victorian lives. I love the idea of not playing the obvious in these tales -- which include several ghost stories, a vampire tale and even a seance -- but rather suggesting what bubbles underneath the everyday." See Previewing, in Listings.
It's always a treat to see a Dave Carley play, especially when it gets such a strong production as the Ryerson Theatre 's opening show, Walking On Water . Set over the course of decades in the town of Ashburnham, the locale of several Carley works, the piece is a whodunit, a series of character sketches, a social comedy, a municipal history lesson and an attack on racism.
Using Thornton Wilder's Our Town as inspiration, Carley spins multiple stories around the 1949 murder of Lee Kwan, chauffeur to Heck Munro, owner/editor of Ashburnham's newspaper. Though he doesn't get to do much until the second act, Daniel McPherson 's Lee is one of the strengths of the show, directed by Michael Waller . His scenes with Janick Hebert , who plays Sadie, the publisher's wife, are some of the most touching in the production. It's the women, in fact, who stand out, notably Skye Collyer as a sassy "bad girl" who enjoys life's pleasures, Lauren Ferraro as the tart wife of an inveterate gambler and Hebert as the "energetically sad" Sadie. We also liked Laura Burns 's reverend, who discovers her ability to damn reprobates, and Maya Boyd-Navazo 's full-of-life Irish police chief. Both those latter roles were originally written for men, and it's neat that in this version women hold power positions in town.
But the real star of the show is lighting designer Steven Smith , who creates a complex web that fills out the world of the play, shifting story and characters back and forth in time and space. His work is literally spot on.
C'mon, CanStage and other companies -- mount some of Carley's plays. He deserves more productions. See Continuing, in Listings.