The Nutcracker

Toronto Ballet Theatre
Choreography: Tatiana Stepanova
Music: Pyotr Tchaikovsky
At Meridian Hall, Toronto

December 17, 20221

The thin story begins on Christmas Eve in an upper-class home, where an elderly bachelor gives a young girl, Clara, a male nutcracker doll that her younger brother accidentally breaks. Clara tries to nurse the broken doll back to life, and in falling asleep with it, she dreams of a deep wintry forest with girl snowflakes and a handsome young man who is romantically heroic in appearance and action. Her dream is essentially her dream-fantasy of herself, and the ending is a glorious finale of wish-fulfillment fantasy. This fairy-tale ballet set to Tchaikovsky has nothing much to do with Christmas, but casts a mild, beneficent spell even in a condensed version. Structurally conservative in its sequence of pantomime scene, ballroom dance, grand pas de deux, divertissement, and corps performances, it is usually performed by adults pretending (not very credibly) to be children.

Tatiana Stepanova capitalizes on her use of actual children playing roles as children, and her evident intention is to totally avoid the pressure of conscious or subconscious sexual themes that most modern productions favour. Her overall tone is stable, and her Toronto Ballet Theatre version is primarily a holiday entertainment with generally cool choreography, as opposed to hotly exciting sequences. Consequently, her production succeeds in depicting a pre-adolescent dream where envy and pain are transformed into harmony and love.

The set, costumes, and lighting are admirable in their restrained glamour, and the first part is repetitively clear with pantomime dance that eschews embellishments, staying with terre-a-terre choreography. The children corps in the Party Scene is a genuine highlight, marked by impressive pas de bourres, coupees, and fouettes, expressed convincingly in character. The second part is essentially a dance exhibition, where each dance has a beginning and end, without any sense of urgency about advancing a narrative. But there is much to admire in Mayuki Ichikawa’s Harlequin Doll, Nubia Gonzalez’s Columbine one, Haruka Kyoguchi’s Jester, and especially Ksenia Krouzkevitch’s Nutcracker, splendidly mimetic and technically adroit. The Battle Scene, when Clara wakes to find herself in the middle of a war between toy mice and toy soldiers, is less successful both in characterization and choreography, but when Clara becomes a young lady and is taken on a journey to the Land of Snow, the Ukrainian guest ballet stars Olga Posternak and Vladyslav Romashenko excel in the Snow Adagio. And the winter adagio lifts dance off the floor with stretches and plies, risings and turns.

Act 2, where Drosselmeyer escorts the prince and Clara to the Land of Sweets, where they are greeted with international dances (Spanish, Arabian, Russian, and Chinese), undeniable problems arise in terms of cultural stereotypes, but the issue is brushed aside by the colourful animation and playfulness, not to forget the sweetness of Marzipan and Candy Canes. And, of course, the grand pas de deux of the Ukrainian stars, who bring their own glamour and technique to the fore with suave fluency.

This is clearly a sweet, tender Nutcracker, almost totally devoid of dark urgency or the sinister, and it would require a  heart of stone to be disenchanted by it.



Dr. Sad
By David Bateman
309 pages, paper
University of Calgary Press

Although semi-autobiographical in content, David Bateman’s first novel should be savoured for its tone rather than the correlation between autobiographical fact and fiction. Its narrator is Stephen Andrew Davis, hence the acronym Sad, which also connotes a seasonal affective disorder.  Stephen is a middle-aged gay academic who is a poet, performance artist, and a self-admitted “footloose crossdresser” with a “bargain-hunting nature” (especially when prowling a Value Village). Bravely anti-establishment when it comes to gender codes, Stephen’s poetic and private voices have comic edge, his personality in the classroom marked by signature sarcasm and a sense of sharp parody. He is by his own admission, a person who is “extremely organized with a foundation of chaos”—and this paradoxical anomaly is a vital ingredient of his personality and character.

As its subtitle indicates, the novel spans a month and a day, moving back and forth between Toronto (where Stephen has an apartment in a co-op building) and Vancouver, where he is a writer-in-residence who teaches creative writing in Kamloops, B.C. to university students not particularly in key with his own penchant for William Carlos Williams or indulgence in wordplay and such forms as the limerick, haiku, and other orthodox poetic forms. In Toronto, Stephen sometimes has the occasional company of a small number of disparate societal misfits, the most vivid one being Irene, who returns to the city after an ill-fated romance in Malfi with a “kind, gorgeous, generous, intelligent idiot” who “lacked the ability to put up with [her] bullshit.” Stephen and Irene enjoy hunting for Kitschy objects, Stephen believing implicitly in the iconic nature of Kitsch. A hand-decorated vase made in Japan that had belonged to his father, is an emblem of his peculiar taste and of his conflicted feeling about the vase that he loves but wishes to get rid of. Toronto is also where a serious yet absurdly comic accident occurs on Halloween, pointing up life’s accidental ironies.

In one sense, of course, the story explores the distance between queer Toronto and a small university campus. In a deeper sense, it is a journey into Stephen’s mind and psyche. Both explorations are tragicomic in tone, for Stephen (Dr Sad) is diagnosed with HIV at the campus clinic, whose counsellor provokes his satiric anger by a tactless question. Stephen’s high velocity riff is a gem of madcap parody, encompassing such things as Edvard Munch, Mary Poppins, Michelangelo, and assorted contemporary pop references, all of which comprise a tirade that ironically indicates his “gaily euphuistic way of coping.” Vancouver is where he meets Dan, also HIV poz, a wealthy man with a very troubled son. This amatory affair gives rise to hot sex scenes, the best of which is their “one-on-one sex-aquacade” in a Banff resort.

Although I don’t think that the programmed alternating shifts or transitions from Vancouver to Toronto really help the structure, the fiction is shot through with delicious satiric verve and camp humour. I also wonder if the progression from one literary draft to the next in Stephen’s practice of poetry and performance art is absolutely necessary, but, again, there is much to relish in Bateman’s queer (pun intended) sensibility, where the protagonist is frequently the target of his own deadly wit. Stephen’s sharp views on postcolonialism (especially in Canada) lend ballast to the satire, another remarkable layer in tone and characterization being his inherent melancholy (verging on melancholia). The absurdist and camp fuse into a hybrid portrait that is compellingly comic and sad. As Stephen himself notes, his own poetry and writing, his entire philosophy of life, is like “a Bee Gees lyric,” serious and comic simultaneously. Stephen sums up himself: “ultimately it was all just a song of himself, lacking in strict continuity, filled with flights of fancy mired in memory, and littered with melancholy glee.” And his signature gesture is raising a glass to trauma.


Jeff Round
293 pages, $16.99

It is one thing to be prolific; it is quite another to be prolific and accomplished. Jeff Round manages to be both as a gay novelist who specializes in the mystery genre. His latest Dan Sharp story consolidates his skills in this popular page-turner form: compelling characters, many of whom have significant back stories; credible dialogue and settings; plot machinations with ample quotients of suspenseful twists, turns, flips; a denouement (perhaps a little too expansive) that resolves matters competently; and a style marked by touches of literary grace.

Lion’s Head Revisited is the sixth in the Dan Sharp series, though it is written out of sequence from the rest. As the author’s note affirms, chronologically, it followAfter the Horses and precedes The God Game. But readers who are unfamiliar with the other titles, need not worry: the novel can stand very well on its own. One of the principal reasons is the authentic portraiture. The fiction in this case brings Private Investigator Sharp to the northern Ontario wilderness in his attempt to solve the mystery of a four-year-old autistic boy’s disappearance on a camping trip. As usual, Round creates a credible sense of place. Where in the past, he evoked the spirits of such locales as Puerto Vallarta and Key West, while also charting high and low ends of Toronto, he now explores an area whose dark caves are an emblem of his own dark past. But Toronto is hardly ignored, for the story encompasses high-end Avenue Road, an exclusive Harbourfront Condo, The Junction (with its well-tended lawns and staid brick houses), and seedier quarters of the metropolis. But it is Lion’s Head, reputedly a sanctuary of peace and respite, that looms as a sort of portentous Hitchcockian setting.

But setting is not the only distinction in the novel. Dan Sharp, the protagonist, is one of Round’s key achievements, vividly brought to fictive life, with a significant back story to boot. A recovering alcoholic with a Calvinist upbringing, a gay single dad with a university-age son, and a lover (Nick) who is both cop and recovering alcoholic, Dan sees life as a sequence of “sad souvenirs” of privation and regret. There is no cheap sentimentalization of his private relationship with Nick or of his somewhat wrinkled relationship with son Ked. Nor is there any untoward exaggeration of his role as PI. Round uses dialogue that is modulated in different keys, registers, and tones, with only occasional forays into the portentous.

And what a list of characters! There’s Jeremy, the non-verbal autistic boy, whose spontaneous drawings provide clues to solving the mystery of his disappearance; his birth-mother Sarah, an angry drug addict; Janice, bitterly estranged from her wealthy mother; her ex-husband Dennis Braithwaite, a well-coiffed, immaculately dressed investment banker; Ashley, Janice’s same-sex partner, who had an abusive father; Eli (Jeremy’s biological father); Elroy James, Eli’s threatening ex-business partner; and Horace, old strawberry farmer, bearded like a prophet and given to spouting biblical passages. The supplementary characters also function in the plot, sometimes as red herrings, sometimes as intriguing ficelles.

Everything comes together at the end, but not before one significant coup by Round: Jeremy is found safe from harm, with yet another hundred pages to unfold. The cleverness is in how the author sustains interest in the remaining plot, and with a dab literary hand. No minor achievement!


by Hannah Moscovitch
Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley
At Tarragon Theatre. Opened January 8, 2020

Matthew Edison (Jon) and Alice Snaden (Annie)
in “Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes”
photo: Joy Von Tiedemann

Jon Macklem is a 42-year old star professor and acclaimed author who has a jokey, casual style of lecturing. He is conservatively dressed, down to his jacket pocket and athletic sneakers, sits at a desk which bears his Apple computer and a cup of coffee. He believes in the erotics of pedagogy, explicitly sharing his viewpoint directly with us (breaking through the invisible fourth wall) that learning is seduction. He well knows that the faculty guidebook places an injunction against sex with students, but this doesn’t stop him from contemplating and then consummating a sexual relationship with his first-year student named Annie, a 19-year old who sits adoringly in the first row of his classes, lives near him, and makes a point of crossing his path on her way to and from classes. She also appears to like wearing red. Jon must be saturated with this colour, for it envelops him in Michael Gianfrancesco’s red set with open doorways, red flooring, and red lighting. If this is symbolic (as it surely is), it is heavily fraught.

But back to Jon. His third marriage is frayed, seemingly beyond repair, but this does not stop him from monologizing. Not a little bit. And this proves to be a radical problem. He tells rather more than he shows—or to put it more accurately, his playwright (no slouch when it comes to acclaim and awards) can’t stop herself from revelling in his long monologues. But why is he addressing us? What is the motive for his verbose unburdening? Who are the middle classes of the play’s title?

Good thing that Moscovitch has flashes of wit (especially in Jon’s monologues and sometimes, more sparingly, in Annie’s dialogue), but these burn out quickly, leaving us shifting rather uncomfortably in corn and cliché. Hasn’t the teacher-student sexual relationship theme been covered with far more penetrating drama by other playwrights (such as David Mamet, in particular)? And isn’t there much more to playwriting than simply being an echo chamber for topical journalism and issue-of-the-month controversy?

There are too many weaknesses in the script to list in a short review, but some of them are risible in the wrong way. The sexual coupling in a hotel is like a scene from a badly written novel, and the allusion to Romeo and Juliet is also laughable, given that the dialogue is anything but lyrical, romantic, or thrust towards tragedy. You can almost predict the main dramatic tropes: the breakup after the third wife’s return and the transition of Annie from awkward, shy, fumbling, infatuated teenager to a more confident young woman who gains the upper hand. And the passage of time is too abruptly managed to register with impact, although credit to Bonnie Beecher for her lighting, Laura Warren for her video design, and Michael Gianfrancesco for his costume design. Moreover, the two characters and some of the plot (or whatever passes for a plot) are hardly believable in some ways. Given the state of contemporary Canadian literary awards, I can believe that Jon wins the Order of Canada after a well-received novel about a lumberjack (an excuse for corny jokes about wood), but he lacks depth. He can be read and summarized in a few sentences as a character. Annie’s case is worse: there is simply nothing in her dialogue or speech that would suggest that she is capable of going on to a Master’s in anything other than, possibly, manipulation. So, it is just damned laughable when Jon congratulates her after reading one of her stories with a quotation from Emerson to Whitman: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Really?

Director Sarah Garton Stanley does what she can to provide a sense of rhythm, and her two actors do their best under the circumstances. On opening night, there was consolation after much verbosity (which Matthew Edison handled competently) and precious little credibility or depth (which defeated Alice Snaden, despite her earnestness).

The opening night reception offered varieties of pizza and some hummus. Middle class enough.


By Matt Murray
Directed and Choreographed by Tracey Flye
A Ross Petty Production at the Winter Garden Theatre,
December 6, 2019-January 4, 2020.

Blow the trumpets, bang the drums, Ross Petty has mounted a 24th Panto in Toronto, though he no longer wears tights or makeup as villains he loved to overplay on stage. As we all know, his annual Pantomime turns the genre inside-out with supreme audacity and colour. It is always in time for Christmas, a gift that has kept on giving for decades. And his latest gambit with parody is a jewel of a young person’s musical, staged in the jewel-box of the Winter Garden, whose leafy overhang is, of course, the right sort of coincidental décor for this year’s musical that targets our funny bones.

Petty has recruited some of the most beloved talents for a show that takes a British super-hero back to the future from the 12th century. Sherwood Forest has magically morphed from Sherway Gardens, and Robin Hood not only believes in wealth distribution but in spreading knowledge and wisdom across all shires. There’s a Maid Marion who is as deft with bow and arrow as she is sweet, swift, and superfine in overpowering Robin with wit. She’s evidently a medieval feminist who stands in direct opposition to a villainess—the dastardly Sheriffe of Naughtyham, glittering with costume gems and gems of insult, threat, and wickedness. She’s looking forward to a coronation under a blue crescent moon, and if this sounds like a music cue, you’re absolutely right, because this dame is a villainous with the “mostest.” Her consultant, assistant, and all-round factotum is simply named Marvin, but he’s a real match for her in their frequent bouts of mutually perverse wit. Robin’s merry band of forest rogues is led by a Friar Tuck who has the empathy of a psychotherapist. And then there’s a handsome contemporary youth, anxious about his grades in high school history, transformed into a medieval hero under the aegis of the original. A single history textbook serves like a holy grail in a plot that is the quest of several centuries. Of course, this 12th century, as pulled into various fantastical shapes in a Ross Petty pantomime, is crazily inside-out, as broadly goofy with plot invention and characterization as it is with puns and other wordplay, sometimes camp, sometimes a send-up of theatre itself.

The show is gorgeously designed by Cory Sincennes (set), Michael Gianfrancesco (costumes), Cameron Davis (projections), and Kimberly Purtell (lighting), and the music director (Joseph Tritt) deserves a hand, as do his music arranger and orchestrator (Bob Foster), music coordinator (Levon Ichkhanian), and the musicians. The song soundtrack is filled with rap, pop ballads, rock, and a dash of country and western (especially when Robin (Lawrence Libor) masquerades as Chip Calhoun with a twang). The cast is energetic, to say the least, starting off and ending with an acrobatic ensemble song and dance piece, and each star of the show has a glittering show-off number. And does each one ever show off, with moxie and brio—especially A.J. Bridel (Marion); Robert Markus (Lil’ Red), last season’s hit Evan Hansen; Eddie Glen (Marvin) in his 17th triple-threat season; Michael de Rose (Sugarbum) who is sugary camp with more than a sly soupcon of acid; Daniel Williston (Friar); and Sara-Jeanne Hosie (Sheriffe) who is naughty and hammy in the right doses.

The familiar Petty formula is intact: the smart commercial breaks promoting some of the key sponsors, and the much anticipated, comically consummated kiddie participation sequence. So, Panto lovers can start panting breathlessly as they rush to the Winter Garden to have their funny bones targeted with finesse and plenty of colour.  


Garebian on Shakespeare: Colours to the Chameleon


Colours to the Chameleon: Canadian Actors on Shakespeare by Keith Garebian (Guernica 2019)

It should be apparent by now that Keith Garebian is one of our foremost authorities on theatre. But not just an authority—he is someone who passionately loves theatre. This book then comes as a great gift to one of the most intangible of the arts: acting. Ripe with insights that say this is how it’s done from some of the country’s finest actors, it’s almost a crash course in acting Shakespeare.

     Garebian knows Canada is often looked on as a poor cousin when compared to the celebrated riches of, say, England or the US. But not poor in talent, as he points out again and again. A long-time fan of actor William Hutt, whom he has compared favourably to Laurence Olivier, Garebian makes clear with scathing acerbity that it is Canada’s paucity of love for our own, from both critics and audiences, that is most often lacking.

     His fierce defense of Canadian Shakespeare performance is in equal parts refreshing and galvanizing, as he takes us on an exploratory journey into the hearts and thinking processes of eleven actors who rank as “great” in this country. Using his own insatiable curiosity as a starting point, Garebian intimately dissects both the personalities and intuition of such renowned actors as Nancy Palk, an acclaimed Lady Macbeth among others, who discusses getting inside a role and “being able to let go” while trying to resist the urge to direct herself when she does not feel a kinship with her director.

     Similarly with Juan Chioran, a “singing actor” who deftly discusses vocal range in technical terms, delineating the three registers that produce the voice while addressing the question of musicality in Shakespeare’s texts. And so too with Lucy Peacock, whose way of handling Shakespeare’s lines is second to none, and entirely unforgettable once you’ve heard it. With Garebian guiding, she discusses candidly her almost preternatural ability to make Shakespeare’s heightened language sound natural.

     Garebian also gives chase to such hot topics as women’s roles in Shakespeare and the handling of a character’s misogyny by male actors, as well as the relative lack of female directors compared with their male counterparts. For that reason and others, this book loudly proclaims Shakespeare’s continuing relevance some four hundred years after his death.

     Garebian makes clear why the bard is not an artifact, but a vital part of theatre today. However we may dress his plays in modern garb or incorporate technological innovations in the sets, Garebian reminds us, it is Shakespeare’s texts that cannot be overestimated. Equally, any “politicizing” that attempts to reduce or relegate him to various outlooks or ethnicities denies what he is about: universality.

     The book’s many insights into the characters and plays will be at once startling and revelatory to anyone who is a lover of drama, of poetry, or even a student of human nature when it comes to both what is spoken and what is left unspoken. Whether you are an actor, director, reader, theatre-goer or other, this book will reignite your passion for the bard, if indeed you ever lost it.


Directed by Carl Hunter. 1h.32 min. Color. Release date: October 4, 2019 (Limited)

Part fictionalized semi-documentary, part art film, Carl Hunter’s quirky film (screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who adapted it from his own short story) is a chore to sit through. The adverbs in the title apply to jacket buttons, with the top of three used sometimes, the middle one always, and the third never in a sartorially conscious world of fine fashion. The story’s central character, Alan, is a retired tailor, with a button-down, poker-faced manner, a person of finicky elegance and linguistic expertise—a Scrabble specialist, whose facility with words doesn’t compensate for his dysfunction as a father, grandfather, and lover. Bill Nighy plays him with perfect pitch, but he may be a little too perfect in this eccentric film where tedium is mistaken for intriguing mystery and where landscape and emblems can hardly compensate for plot.

The opening shot in the film is a medium-long one of Peter standing, back to camera, on a relatively deserted beach. He holds an umbrella, though it isn’t clear whether it is to protect him from rain or whether the umbrella is just a prop. He receives a telephone call from his married son Peter (Sam Riley) who, as it is revealed, writes jingles and paints business signage. Peter has his own son by wife Sue (Alice Lowe), and his own paternal problems, but the over-arching problem is his passive-aggressive relationship with his own father, a man who is desperately trying to find his missing 19-year old son, Michael, who had stormed out of the house over a game of Scrabble. In the course of his stressful quest, Alan encounters an anguished couple (Jenny Agutter and Tim McInnerny) who are looking for their own missing son and who also play Scrabble—the excuse for what may the best darkly comic scene in the film, underscored by emotional pain, especially on the part of Agutter’s Margaret—and an online genius with word games whom Peter thinks could be his missing son. The film’s poster claims: “Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words.” True enough, but Scrabble (the original title for the film was “Triple Word Score”) is just the occasion or jumping-off point for a plot that hardly develops.

Shot with a clever use of restrained colour by Richard Stoddard (there are a few scenes where green comes to the fore), and accompanied by a jaunty soundtrack by Edwyn Collins and Sean Read, the film has a few show-off visual tricks but too much stasis in terms of its rhythm and tempo. The deadpan acting is also muted, though correct, but although there is palpable wit in the writing (I relished Nighy’s fondness for the “elegant precision” of a font on a labelling machine, as well as his decrying of Canada’s ban on Marmite), there simply isn’t enough forward momentum or suspense.  Possibly intended to be a thinking man’s film, this one shows a lot of forethought but isn’t much of a film. It would make a better short story, but come to think of it, that’s how it came into being in the first place.


At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, August 20-29, 2019

Named after the illustrious ballerina Adeline Genee, the Genee is one of the most prestigious ballet competitions in the world that attracts the most technically accomplished young dancers (ages 15-19) trained in the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus at the Intermediate and Advanced levels. This year, the competition marked a number of firsts: the first time the competition returned to Canada since 2008; the first time that a Canadian choreographer (Montreal-based Gioconda Barbuto) specially devised two variations (one for females; one for males) that received their world premiere in Toronto; the first time that Karen Kain joined a distinguished panel of judges (Dame Monica Mason, Mikko Nissenin, and Magdalena Popa) to select the final medallists and winners of special awards. Another distinction was the awarding of the Queen’s Coronation Medal to Karen Kain, who is certainly no stranger to awards and distinctions. Kain now adds her name to a roster of fellow Coronation medallists that includes Dame Ninette de Valois, Glen Tetley, Dame Monica Mason, and Rudolf Nureyev.

As RAD has approximately 14,000 members in 84 countries, there is no dearth of talent or competitors. This year the Genee drew candidates from 13 different countries, and immersed these competitors in an intensive week’s training, culminating in 14 remarkable dancers (only 2 males, however) vying for Gold, Silver, and Bronze, as well as two special awards. As usual, the point of the competition (hosted in a different city every year) is not simply awards, but the championing of teaching and self-development that can lead to the dancers’ professional advancements. Dance teachers of the winners also get to have their own achievements recognized, and this is all to the good of world dance. And so as there would be no lingering charge of “nanny” and overly British standards, the young dancers had to perform three brief dances: one of the special variations devised by Gioconda Barbuto, a classical piece from a pre-set selection of choices (choreographed by either Kenneth MacMillan or Frederick Ashton), and a contemporary piece of their own preference. Their musical accompanists were Dobrochna Zubek, Wen Yang Ho, and Jonathan Still, who lent perfect support to the dancers without ever drawing attention away from either the music or  the choreography.

2019 Finalists (photo: Michael Slobodian)

Consequently, variety eventually triumphed over repetition, with international styles of choreography in the finals from Australia, Brazil, England, the USA, Wales, Canada, Japan, and Malaysia. And even the opening variations devised by Barbuto allowed for an exhibition of remarkable modulations and signature stamps by the young dancers who demonstrated their flair and brio with glissades, pirouettes, arabesques, epaulements, and a final stunning use of a rear high leg slowly crossing the arched body and descending to the floor, coming to rest in a superb display of foot tendu. In the classical repertoire (Petipa-dominant), there were revelations of strong angularities, attitude, controlled charm in ballonne and batterie, ease in petit and grand allegro and connecting steps. The best dancers made technique subservient to expressiveness that was propelled by a strong inner core and an innate sense of musicality. But the most dynamic and thrilling portions of the finals were the dancers’ own choices from a modern repertoire, where the only two males shone triumphantly: tall, slim Darrion Sellman of the U.S. demonstrating perfect line and technique (as he had consistently in the classical and compulsory pieces) in a piece that he also co-choreographed, and Julian Wen-Sheng Gan of Malaysia showing his virtuoso ease, strength, gymnastic muscularity, and dramatic expressiveness that was an unvarnished pleasure to watch. No wonder these two were declared Gold (Male) and Silver (Male) Medallists, with Gan also winning the Margot Fonteyn Audience Award, possibly by a huge margin. Not to be outdone by their male counterparts, Mia Zanardo of Australia, her compatriot Paloma Hendry-Hudson, and Jessica Templeton of the U.K. were Gold, Silver, and Bronze Medallists with clean lines and near-perfect technique.

Harrison James and Calley Skalnik in “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” (photo: Michael Slobodian)

Besides the fun of watching the announcer of the awards in his red kinky boots, audience pleasure was multiplied by Ashton Parker of South Africa (winner of the Choreography Award) who performed an exciting, highly dramatic solo as Frida Kahlo to the music of Elliott Goldenthal who had composed the Oscar-winning score for Julie Taymor’s acclaimed film. This pleasure was compounded by the short, physically demanding piece by William Forsythe (The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude) performed by the National Ballet of Canada’s Hannah Galway, Chelsey Meiss, Calley Skalnik, Naoya Ebe, and Harrison James, whose movements (in diverse configurations) had the rigor, rapidity, and ease that one associates with classical and neo-classical forms of Petipa and Balanchine, while making the extremely difficult choreography look fluently precise.


Written by Max Lewkowicz & Valerie Thomas.
Directed by Max Lewkowicz. A USA. Color/b/w. 125 min.

Opened at the Ted Rogers Cinema, Bloor Street, Toronto, August 23, 2019

Marc Chagall’s surrealistic painting of a fiddler balanced over rooftops was the inspiration for the title and scenography of the Broadway musical. And, so, this fascinating documentary of the genesis and evolution of Fiddler on the Roof opens with a wide aerial shot of the Manhattan sky, with only the faintest undertones of what could be a musical vamp. You may be put in mind of the opening of the cinematic version of West Side Story, and no wonder, because both stage musicals were directed by Jerome Robbins, that cruel genius who was hell to work with, but with usually a heavenly artistic end-product. But the roving camera comes to rest over the figure of old Sheldon Harnick (lyricist) playing the musical’s title theme on his fiddle while sitting on a balcony over the city. And then the camera catches an actor making his way from the guts of a subway to the stage door where he will don the peasant costume of Tevye, Sholem Aleichem’s immortal dairyman, and step onto a stage in yet another remarkable reincarnation of the musical.

Jerome Robbins, Choreographer
Photo Credit: Philippe Halsman Magnum Photos
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films

Ever since its Broadway debut on September 22, 1964, Fiddler on the Roof has left its hostile critics far behind, setting records that far exceed its intrinsic limitations as a musical. Walter Kerr who was not wholly a fan (in fact he dubbed it a “near miss”), was correct in some of his criticisms of the show, but he altogether missed the components that made this musical indisputably great. On palpable evidence, this musical (which ran for over 9 years on Broadway, winning 9 Tony Awards) is staged daily somewhere in the world, from middle schools in inner cities to high schools in rural America, and from grand state theaters in Japan and Vienna to Johannesburg and Mexico City; “L’Chaim” (“To Life”) is the only father-and-son-in-law song in the Broadway canon, just as “If I Were a Rich Man” is (as Lin-Manuel Miranda claims) without rival in that canon as a song of universal appeal.

But what gives this musical its special cachet is that people around the world, who speak whatever language, are all connected to this story. But what is the story about? Something that Jerome Robbins, the original director/choreographer of the show, pondered daily, until his artistic collaborators (producer Hal Prince, librettist Joseph Stein, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and composer Jerry Bock) called out with some exasperation their collective response: “Tradition!” The word becoming the title of an upbeat song-and-dance near the top of the show, though Robbins avoided staging it till almost the last minute, and then did so in a miraculous 30 minutes!

To be accurate, while tradition is certainly one of the major unifying themes, it is not the only catalytic ones, and certainly would not have much impact without the sense of an ethnic and religious community struggling in its shtetl life during Tsarist oppression and pogroms that threatened to fracture that community while forcing it into mass exodus and exile. Focussing on three time periods—1905, 1964, and today—the documentary has a broad canvas but dispenses with a single narrator, relying instead on what its publicity material calls “a tapestry of interviews.” Who could possibly complain, when the interviewees include the likes of Joel Grey (who directed the 2018 hit Yiddish version with Steven Skybell as Tevye), Bartlett Sher (who directed one of the five or six most recent Broadway versions), Fran Leibowitiz (tart and direct), Hal Prince (wise and succinct), Michael Bernardi (who literally performed Tevye in his own father Herschel’s stage boots), Jessica Hecht (an unforgettable Golde), Alisa Solomon (author of a wonderful cultural history of the show), Nathan Englander (who provides wise insight into the sinister business of arranged marriages), Stephen Sondheim (who knows a thing or two about musicals), Amanda Vaill (biographer of Robbins), Jan Lisa Huttner (author of Tevye’s Daughters: No Laughing Matter), Harvey Fierstein (an improbable yet moving Tevye), Itzhak Perlman (who is moved to tears just recalling the “Sabbath Prayer” from the show), Josh Mostel (son of the irrepressible, unpredictable Zero, who was anything but a zero as Tevye), Topol (the Israeli actor who played Tevye on stage in London and in Norman Jewison’s movie version, a film of some gravitas, directed by a goy), Harnick, Bock, Marc Aronson (son of the great designer Boris), and others too numerous to mention here.

Zero Mostel in Fiddler On The Roof, Broadway, 1964
Photo Credit: Friedman-Abeles, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films

Another rich fund of material is in the archival material made available for the documentary: such things as silent film clips of European versions of Sholem Aleichem stories, a recording of Aleichem reading one of his tales, original tapes of Harnick and Bock while composing the score, television clips of Mostel and Dick Cavett and of Topol dancing with Danny Kaye, footage of a Hasidic wedding with wild dancing (a source for Robbins’s staging of the famous Bottle Dance), and numerous clips from various productions of the musical around the globe, including scenes from versions in England, Holland, Japan, on Broadway, and sizeable ones from Canada’s Stratford Festival’s memorable production with Scott Wentworth as an unforgettable Tevye. A viewer gets to see various approaches to the leading roles of Tevye, Golde, and the daughters, although, understandably, there is not enough footage for definitive comparisons.

Of course, the challenge inherent in such rich material is a question of shape or form, and I am happy to report that the documentary meets this challenge with triumphant chutzpah. The one defect, for me, is the overuse of Tess Martin’s colour animation sequences, many of which are simply unnecessary and which do not match any of the archival clips in relevance or depth. However, the many interviews propel the documentary into a multiple cultural and historical landscapes, beginning with the failed Russian Revolution of 1905 (when Jews, as usual, became the targets of oppression and intended annihilation), moving into past the halfway mark of the 20th century in America, where the U.S. was beset with immense violent political and social upheaval, and then into contemporary times where rancid right-wing movements are roiling huge areas of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the U.S., and where decent traditional moral values have been egregiously shoved aside in favour of brutal repression and racism. The documentary doesn’t miss its opportunities to draw illuminating parallels between, for instance, the mass immigration to the US through Ellis Island in 1905 and the current plight of refugees and immigrants trying to look for a better life somewhere in the world. Another parallel is between the struggle of Jews in Anatevka to make a life of security and community and the struggle of blacks in the U.S. for civil rights. A third (and an even more interesting one for me) is the parallel between the nefarious old Jewish custom of arranged marriage (Sholem Aleichem detested matchmakers) and contemporary women’s movements. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a real-life heroine, is not mentioned (though Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem are), but her protest against having a man’s foot on her neck is as powerful and as relevant a metaphor as any poet’s today, especially in the U.S. with a notorious misogynistic, sexually predatorial president at the helm of an utterly immoral, inept government—one that would rewrite the Constitution, if given half the chance, and one  that is at war with everything decent about human rights.

Fiddler on The Roof, Broadway 2016
Photo Credit: Fiddler Broadway Company, LLC.
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films

Relevance is always a component of great art, and on this score alone, Fiddler on the Roof is great by virtue of its links to ongoing conflicts over human rights and various types of abuse. It is also great because many of its themes have an undeniable universality, as has already been noted. No wonder that a Japanese producer considered the musical to be thoroughly Japanese or that black and Hispanic school students staged the show with due respect or that even a group in Bangkok felt deep connections with this American “miracle of miracles.” Tevye, it should be repeated, stops talking to God after a beloved daughter becomes an apostate and leaves her homeland, but Tevye keeps talking to audiences around the world, Jewish and gentile, and rightly earns their warm, universal applause for his persistence and fundamental decency. His daughters (reduced to 5 for the musical, though they are 7 in Aleichem’s original tales) make a deep connection with modern young women because they strive for feminine empowerment. And though present-day Anatevka in the Ukraine is a ghost-town for the most part, the very image of an enforced mass exodus reverberates in modern consciousness after the realities of refugee crises the world over. After he has danced with a rabbi from Anatevka, actor Michael Bernardi sums up the musical as a story of displaced people who, despite being annihilated, are left as a palpable memory. Even a ghost is a memory, so memory can never be quite annihilated. A dark truth but an inescapable one, even in a Broadway musical. And you certainly don’t have to be Jewish to connect with this truth.

(A delightful prelude to the screening on opening day was a 15-minute performance of three songs from the show by young baritone-tenor Shayne Stolz, who deserves to be in a new incarnation of the musical.)