By Douglas McGrath
Directed by Marc Bruni
A David Mirvish Production at the Ed Mirvish Theatre
July 5-September 3, 2017

Chilina Kennedy as Carole King  (photo by Joan Marcus)

Glancing at all the song titles in the house program (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling,” “It’s Too Late,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” etc.) causes you to believe that this is going to be yet another formulaic jukebox musical masquerading as a musical biography, and you wonder if it could ever top Jersey Boys in this regard. Well, you would be right in some ways, and dead wrong in others. For one thing, the subject is a woman, not a male singing group; for another, she marks the start of a new era in the pop music world (the so-called Brill Building era of records aimed at youth); and for a third, her hit songs are legendary, with more than 400 of her compositions recorded by over 1,000 artists, resulting in 100 hit singles and six Grammys. Top this, Frankie Valli, if you could!

There are other reasons why Beautiful is not just another Jersey Boys in sum total. Des McAnuff used enough showbiz Vaseline to turn a paper-thin libretto into a hit Broadway show but audiences got only the barest hint of biography about the Four Seasons. Here, Marc Bruni’s dazzling production (with colourful scenic design by Derek McLane, era-defining costumes by Alejo Vietti, mood-appropriate lighting by Peter Maczorowski, and absolutely pointed choreography by Josh Prince) offers far more quality than Jersey Boys did. McAnuff’s show was slick enough for its content; Beautiful’s slickness is married to greater matter and craft. Douglas McGrath’s libretto has a witty gloss applied to what is thicker paper. Sure, it is easy to make bullet point details in his Carole King story. The libretto begins in her teenage years in a Brooklyn household dominated by her mother, a playwright manqué with a strong bias against show biz, who wants young Carole to become a teacher. The story shows how the girl always had a gift for composition, and the sequences showing her in the act of creation also establish her as her very own conductor who knows exactly what tone, register, tempo, and musical instrumentation is required for a particular lyric. McGrath’s book encompasses King’s eager romance with young, handsome Gerry Goffin, a chemist turned lyricist well above the usual cut of pop songwriters, their doomed marriage (because of his adulteries and neurotic mood swings), their collaboration and friendly competition with the song-writing team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and the swift evolution of King’s awesome success, starting with the records produced by savvy Don Kirshner. It ends, as do most bio-musicals these days, with a triumphant concert (this one is at Carnegie Hall).

But throughout the fluff and predictable plot points, McGrath’s wit flashes forth, sometimes in Carole King’s feminist self-confidence after a very naïve but endearing innocence, sometimes in Kirshner’s acid realism, and usually, thankfully, in the almost throwaway satire by Mann and Weil, a sort of jukebox Comden and Green. When brilliant Chilina Kennedy observes: “I have the right amount of body. It’s just not arranged well,” she underscores King’s sweet ordinariness and gauche innocence. When Erika Olson’s sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued Cynthia Weil hears the unfurling catalogue of questions in “Who Put the Bomp,” she is quick to comment: “It’s certainly inquisitive.” And, most witty of all, is Ben Frankenhauser’s Barry Mann, the one responsible for that catalogue that goes: “Who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp/who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong.” But if this lyric of his is on automatic inanity, Mann has other moments of neurotic wit that verge on Woody Allen’s mode of humour, as when he says with a straight face: “If I’m going to be miserable, I might as well have sex to go with it.”

Bruni’s show biz skill comes to the fore in the production numbers that begin in a studio with the original composers scratching out their drafts, which burst into vivid life by professional groups such as The Drifters, The Shirelles, The Righteous Brothers, et cetera, although Neil Sedaka  gets sent up a few times by John Michael Dias, who does triple duty, playing L.A. record producer Lou Adler as well as a member of The Righteous Brothers. Although the transitions are formulaic, they cleverly make connections between genesis and incarnation, as they follow the grain and temper of a passing era, and mark the growth of their title character’s confidence and skill. But this virtue would not have the weight it does without Chilina Kennedy, a most gifted singer/actress, whom Broadway has embraced as one of its own, and whom Canadians can applaud on her much-anticipated return home. The greatest West Side Story Maria and Jesus Christ Superstar Mary Magdalene, a wonderfully poignant Evita, and an expressively comic Philia in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Kennedy has achieved well-deserved stardom. She shows no ego as a performer, or only what is dictated by a script, and her acting is beyond reproach—unlike that of her counterpart, fellow Canadian, tall, handsome Liam Tobin whose singing as Goffin is stentorian and whose acting is in need of a straitjacket. Her Carole King is initially a shy, insecure, and self-effacing teenager, Jewish in a lowkey, casual way, and has music in every bone and fibre of her being. Truth to tell, Kennedy probably sings better than King, but a tad short on throatiness, though overflowing with genuine feeling for a lyric and yearning for meaning in the tumult of life. Like all great singer performers, she knows just how to phrase a lyric so that it vibrates in memory. Kennedy can turn an intimate, soul-unburdening lyric into a genuine cri de Coeur, so her portrayal has emotional depth and truth. As the musical charts the passage of time and incident, her costumes and wigs change, and so does her innate emotional weather. She’s just great—and nostalgia for the great Carole King has nothing to do with it.



Created by Normand Latourelle.
Directed and Choreographed by Wayne Fowkes.
A Cavalia Production at 5399 Rose Cherry Place,
Mississauga. Till July 23, 2017


The VIP Gold Experience is probably the best way to get full enjoyment of this horse and circus extravaganza. What looks expensive on paper turns out to be reasonably affordable, given the perks that come with it. Rose Cherry Place was hitherto a well-kept secret to me because though I have lived in Mississauga for over 30 years, I did not realize how accessible the site is for all who live in the suburbs and Toronto. The location is close to the Hershey Centre, and there is a huge outdoor parking lot, where the parking fee of $15 is less than what Torontonians pay for the privilege of convenient parking in the entertainment district around the Royal Alex, Roy Thomson Hall, and the Princess of Wales. And you can book online. Just show your parking receipt when you enter and exit, and you can enjoy a long, pleasant experience under the big white tops that are truly a magnificent example of engineering and technical prowess. You simply park, and cross the street to the VIP Rendez-vous site outside the first tent.



You are greeted by a host or hostess, given a colour-coded beribboned identity card to wear around your neck, a complimentary full-colour souvenir program ($20 value), and then line up for the 6.30 pm entrance to the gourmet buffet and open bar tent that can seat over 400 guests at tables or banquettes. This tent also has merchandise boutiques (a large plush stuffed horse toy is the most popular buy) and art gallery exhibits of horses rendered in various media to while away the ample 90-minute dining period—not that you need to rush things. An open bar, staffed by young bartenders (mine was most congenial Hannah), serves up your choice of beverage. Wine-lovers may select from Jackson Triggs Pinot Grigio and Cabernet Sauvignon or may settle on a cool, effervescent Cooks Brut (a sparkling Californian). Beer guzzlers can decide on a selection ranging from Molson Canadian, and Coors Light to Steam Whistle. Or if you wish to be daring and mix your drinks, you can do so. For those who wish to be alcohol-free there are assorted pops, orange juice, and bottled water. Coffee and tea are also available but from a different bar in the tent. The good thing about the service is that it is all by young Mississaugans, one of whom (who looked barely into his adolescence) served kids and their parents at a special kids’ corner, where popcorn in bags could be buttered, pizza slices served on paper plates, or where hamburgers could be all dressed on heated buns.


The buffet is not really gourmet quality, but it suffices nicely, with an ample selection of salads (including kale, red lentil, pasta, Israeli couscous, and stuffed vine leaves), smoked salmon platters, top sirloin, curried chicken, king-sized shrimp, and cheese trays with fruit. Dessert is served after the sixty-minute first act that begins around 8 pm. An array of sliced cheesecakes, pies, fancy cookies, chocolate cakes, fruit, and cheeses are guaranteed to add to your avoirdupois.

VIP Gold ticket-holders get choice centre aisle seats in a 125-foot tent that seats a couple of thousand in the manner of a Big Top. All the tents are hand washed by a team of 10 climbers. The White Big Top spans 58,000 square feet, with the stage area covering 17,500 square feet, and includes a technical grid that weighs 70 tons. A 250-ton crane is needed during the first installation and such an installation can take several days. Moving the show from city to city requires 120 vehicles. There is a pleasurable warm-up quiz projected on the filmy front curtain, in which you learn that there are 65 horses of various breeds (including Appaloosa, Hanoverian, Holsteiner, French Saddle, Lusitano, Percheron, etc) in the show, with 16 stallions, 49 geldings, but no mares for obvious reasons. Stallions are more difficult to train that geldings or mares because they have a fighting side that can sometimes take precedence over their playful sides. It takes between 2-6 years to train the horses, their average ages being 9, with the oldest being 14 and the youngest 6. The expert riders (numbering 57 and drawn, like the horses, from various parts of the globe, though based in Quebec) train the horses, and the animals take an appreciable amount of time to be prepared for the show and to be cooled down after their performances. One of the highlights of the VIP experience is the backstage tour of the arena and the stables, where you visit the warm-up ring (mind the dung), climb the steep rise that brings several exotically costumed riders into view during one of the many spectacular sequences.






Michel Hamel and the late Georges Levesque were responsible for the costumes of riders and horses. The costumes and accessories are of faux fur, linen, leather, cotton, and silk in vibrant colours, decorated with ornaments ranging from gold sequins to turquoise stones and metallic ribbons. No fewer

than 365 costumes are used during a performance, and there are many duplicates, even some triplicates because the wear and tear can be extensive under the hot top lights and the rigours of performance.

The actual show (in two acts) runs two hours, beginning with a wonderfully tender pastoral scene in which a single Arabian steed enters tranquilly to graze, followed in turn by other horses. From the very outset, the décor (enhanced by expertly harmonized videography from 7 projectors on a giant backdrop the size of three cinema screens) and lighting (by Alain Lortie) create a marvellous environment, with changeable geography of woods, plain, mountain, snowy peaks, and waterfalls by video projection from 7 projectors on a giant backdrop the size of three large cinema screens. The seasons change, and video yields to reality where, most climactically, a shallow lake created before our eyes by concealed pumps that flood the sandy soil with 40 thousand gallons. The sequences are spectacular in their tonal and performance ranges, ranging from cool, synchronized bareback riding by females atop two horses, a village fete involving hurdles and athletic male blade runners out-leaping the horses, equine nomads, lots of trick or stunt riding, and a romantic carousel number with beautiful carved white horses and gymnasts performing on rotating metal poles. There are, however, sequences that, despite their evident excellence in music, dance, and gymnastics, don’t quite fit the equestrian theme. One, for example involves splendid males from Guinea, who execute amazing backflips, leaps, and somersaults at amazing speeds. Their drumming, singing, dancing, and gymnastics culminate in an anti-war message, which is admirable but which seems beside the unifying point of the show. Other such sequences are really circus acts on high Roman rings or on long, flowing cloth harnesses (the Angels sequence)—all excellent in themselves but not quite fitting Odysseo.

But overall, this is a minor complaint and every show needs some special distraction or embellishment to allow time for scene changes, and the show never drags—one reason being the music (there are five musicians) and solo singing. The music conspires perfectly with the videography, lighting, costuming, and horses to effect the sense of a dreamy ode to man and horse. What an enviable distinction for Mississauga to have this acclaimed touring production in its very midst. The VIP experience multiplies the pleasure.







By Brian Friel
Directed by Krista Jackson
At the Royal George. Till October 15, 2007

Fiona Byrne (Kate) front; back (L-R): Claire Jullien (Agnes), Sarena Parmar (Christina), and Tara Rosling (Maggie) in “Dancing at Lughnasa” (photo: David Cooper)

The important things in Friel’s memory play about five repressed Mundy sisters, their brother, and the narrator, Michael, who happens to be the son of the youngest sister are a radio, atmosphere, a sense of unfulfillment, and dance. Friel is, perhaps, the most Chekhovian of modern Irish playwrights, and, as in Chekhov, his atmosphere and subtext can say more than his dialogue. But atmosphere is sorely lacking in Krista Jackson’s blighted production. In what must be the worst set design in her distinguished career, Sue LePage gives no palpable sense of Donegal, near the village of Ballybeg. Her design is tacky and in one of the ugliest shades of olive verging on grey: a badly wrinkled backcloth outline of what are meant to be a hillside or, perhaps, rolling fields, with two large ill-shaped columns to mask the wings; and the interior of a kitchen forced, as it were, to one side. The components seem lumpy, ungainly, and far from poetic. They do not evoke a tender, wistful atmosphere; they stifle it. The erratic radio (nicknamed Marconi) is present, either filling the air with 30s dance music (the setting is early August 1936, an important detail for a period preceding world disorder) or sputtering into frustrating silence. But dance, where the sisters allow their bodies to show both gaiety and despair, makes itself felt only in one uninhibited sequence in the small kitchen, where the sisters (especially the customarily earnest Kate and the tart-tongued Maggie) cut loose in a fashion suited to celebrating the festival of Lugh, pagan god of harvests. There is another dance sequence, involving the youngest sister, Christina, and her suitor, handsome Welsh travelling salesman, Gerry Evans, who fathers their son, Michael, the narrator, who relives moments of the past, enacting himself as a child. But Kristopher Bowman is miscast as this dreamy character, for he doesn’t sound Welsh and is clunky in dance and, therefore, quite unable to unite body to soul. Ironically, it is Christina who outshines him in dance.

Patrick Galligan does well as Michael, but because of the small size of the Royal George playing area and the squashed nature of the set, he is often forced offstage instead of being allowed to observe quietly from the sidelines as his sisters and Father Jack (his troubled uncle who has returned after a quarter century’s missionary work in an African leper colony) play out their inner and outer frustrations about economic and sexual deprivation. The Mundy sisters live virtually as if cloistered from men, politics, and sex. As in Chekhov, the characters are comic but sad, sometimes simultaneously, and the women in the cast are fine (apart from some inconsistency in accent): Sarena Parmar has a sweet face and manner as Christina, but her vocal range is small and much of her performance seems to be on one note, though an affecting one; Tara Rosling stamps Maggie, the household cigarette-puffing drudge, as the most inwardly uninhibited, but with a gently witty, imaginative side when she poses riddles for young Michael; Claire Jullien is quiet, archly conservative, self-mortifying Agnes, occupied with her knitting and condemning anything even vaguely “pagan”; Diana Donnelly earns sympathy as Rose, simple minded but proud of her legs; and Fiona Byrne is splendid as schoolteacher Kate who bursts free magnificently from her pent-up puritanism. Alas, the big hole in the acting (apart from Bowman’s awkward Gerry) is caused by Peter Millard as Father Jack—which happens to be the best written role, tinged with drama and with mystery in some of its dark corners. Jack has lost much of his personal identity and memory, but in Millard’s colourless performance, he has also lost his Irish accent and any sense of dreamy unfulfillment.


By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Tim Carroll
At the Court House Theatre. Till October 7, 2017

Neil Barclay (Emperor) at centre, with ensemble in “Androcles and the Lion” (photo: David Cooper)

Aesop’s famous fable tells of a good-hearted run-away slave named Androcles who pulls out a thorn from a suffering lion’s paw, thereby earning a life-saving reward later when he is fed to the same lion by the Romans. There are numerous versions of the tale, with several radical changes. Shaw makes Androcles a tailor with Christian beliefs so that the playwright can then take issue with the subject of false Christians, though with a blend of the serious and the farcical. Tim Carroll’s professes “love and respect for the material, but with a complete absence of reverence.” But his production’s irreverence is counter-productive because although Shaw’s play is a mishmash of romantic comedy, social and religious satire, political commentary, children’s pantomime, and vaudevillian slapstick, it is not a trivial play for trivial people. It does not patronize its subject; in fact, it is an antidote to popular religious melodrama and Christian fairy tales. His Androcles is a silly man but a holy one, lacking, of course, Lavinia’s more sophisticated faith. In a 100-page preface that far exceeded the length of his script, Shaw warned that the play was not a comedy, but rather contained “matter for the most mature wisdom to ponder.”

Shaw’s moral passion was always sincere, but Tim Carroll’s production appears to give the lie to this fact. Though he has proved to be a truly innovative director with a fresh perspective (as in his admirable productions of Saint Joan this season and a gender-bending Twelfth Night in 2012 at the Globe in England) Carroll overindulges his interest in interactive theatre—where actors engage with an audience before the play proper begins—and this device now becomes a cliché. Oh, what fun to see Neil Barclay or Patrick Galligan or Patty Jamieson or Michael Therriault, for example, chatting and joking with audience members, only to don the smattering of a costume and pretend to be a Shavian character the next moment. Trouble is the switch from chitchat to role-playing is unconvincing. Everything is treated as a mischievous romp—a sort of romper room Shaw for children of most ages. Four audience members are selected at random by an emcee (a different actor each performance) to toss colour-coded balls on a whim at a character, with each colour representing a different action prompting the actor who receives it to tell a personal story or sing a song, etc. But this arbitrary intrusion is just that: an intrusion that gets in the way of the narrative and of Shaw’s didactic purpose by erasing the distinction between the actor as person and the actor as character.

The overt symbolism (with four Christian converts representing various aspects of faith) is treated as a joke, though Julia Course makes an appealing, smart Lavinia, and Kyle Blair an eloquent Captain. Jeff Irving overdoes the hunky muscular machismo of Ferrovius, but he is amusing, as is Michael Therriault as the moral opportunist Spintho, though with, perhaps, a shade less conviction in his zealotry. Elsewhere, there is a fine, caricatural performance by Jenny L. Wright as Megaera, Androcles’s nagging wife, and an excellent Emperor by resonant Neil Barclay. But after all the irritating, maddening jocularity and an embarrassing lion played by an audience member who would be over-parted in the role even in “Pyramus and Thisby,” it is difficult to get the full measure of Shaw’s sharp message about propaganda (especially religious) as a tool of suppression. I am not advocating a pulpit-thumping Shaw; I am merely condemning a sloppy exercise that is often an intolerable aesthetic persecution.


Like all award shows, the annual Doras are a case of artists congratulating themselves, and of organizations celebrating their sponsored arts. Like most award shows, too, the Doras are largely an insider-job, with shoptalk and inside jokes the order of the day. No one at TAPA seems to know, however, how to fix the numerous intrinsic problems associated with both the awards themselves and the show. Each year, the judges’ choices for nominees is controversial, with startling omissions from the final lists. Each year, the longueurs grow longer, presenting mighty challenges to an audience member’s tolerance for lame monologues (usually by hosts who can’t resist talking about themselves), inarticulate winners, incessant partisan yelps or screams (overwhelming the announcement of nominees), and the sheer lack of broadcast-worthy dance and song numbers, or scenes excerpted from contending shows. At the Elgin Theatre, this year was no exception.

Host Raoul Bhaneja loves jazz and blues, and he can play a fairly mean harmonica with his band The Big Time, that supplied good music for much of the evening. But Bhaneja’s anecdotes lacked pungency and fell a little flat, as did many of the presenters, especially the ones who were largely inaudible. The evening wore on and on, with masses of the audience walking out and re-entering for much-needed bathroom or bar breaks, and the partisan factions grew in their assaults on the ear and patience. As usual, there were plenty of surprises—as can always be expected when subjective taste comes into play—but there were times when incredulity was the only plausible reaction to some of the winners.

For me, before I decided that my ears, mind, and gluteus maximus could take no more of an evening that seemed to labour on about twice as long as the Oscars and with only a tenth of real entertainment, highlights included the well-deserved standing ovation for Jackie Richardson (the Big Mama of blues, and a genuine sweetie), emotional tributes to the late Jon Kaplan, Ngozi Paul’s genuine shock and elation at having won for Outstanding New Play (The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely) that progressed from a breathless “Thank you so much, everybody!” to her foot-stamping howling realization that there was a real cash award along with the Dora trophy. I loved Maev Beaty’s acceptance speech (Outstanding Female Performance for The Last Wife), in which she catalogued various “useful” people for thanks, culminating in her husband, and cheered the awards to Come From Away, clearly the best Canadian musical of all time. But the most ironically poignant moment for me was Nora McLellan’s acceptance speech. A surprise winner for John (Outstanding Female Performance in Independent Theatre), she put her finger on the meaningless of theatre awards when the winning of one never guarantees future work. She joins a long list of multiple-Dora winners who are too long between jobs. Something, I hope but somehow doubt, that TAPA administrators were considering while celebrating with pizza, dips, hot dogs, French fries, doughnuts, salads, and Haagen-Dazs ice cream at the post-Dora party.

For the record, Soulpepper’s haul in awards totalled 5; Mirvish nabbed 3; and Tapestry Opera scored 5 wins.




By William Shakespeare
Directed by Scott Wentworth
At the Festival Theatre. Till October 21, 2017

Antoine Yared (Romeo) and Sara Farb (Juliet) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

While neither torrid nor especially poetic or really tragic, Scott Wentworth’s eminently watchable version is hot and swift, with scenes following one another without pause. The story unfolds with a sense of urgency, with the characters’ sense and rashness taking precedence over mellifluous sound and careful calculation. As the star-crossed young lovers, Sara Farb and Antoine Yared are neither larger nor smaller than life, and they seem to act spontaneously and impetuously, like real teenagers in real situations. Not for them the beauty of rhapsodic sonnets or measured metre. They moan with yearning, groan with suffering, wear their hearts on their sleeves. Before expanding its colours, Christina Poddubiuk’s design sets them and others in a world that is dramatic and portentous, with dark robed figures of the Chorus (Sarah Dodd) and the Widows who hold illuminated models of the globe—prefiguring death. Juan Chioran is an imposing, eloquent Escalus, who ordains a law that could lead to tragedy. The brawls and bawdy are casually risky, with sexual puns underlined but not over-extended. A female passerby in the street gets accidentally wounded by a rash rapier in the midst of warring rival gangs. Romeo’s catalogue of oxymorons makes a strong point about the dangers of love, and he is much given to wearing his aching heart on his sleeve and collapsing with nerves aflame. The Nurse (a superbly earthy, pragmatic, empathetic Seana McKenna) enjoys her own casual talk of nipples, pregnancy, and suckling babes. Juliet is in obvious conflict with her parents, especially the hot-tempered Capulet of Randy Hughson, whose paternal violence puts her independence and rebellion in mortal danger. Evan Buliung’s Mercutio (the best I have seen to date) is light-footed and light-hearted (full of jests and mocking wit, especially about love), but when he is fatally wounded by Zlatomir Moldovanski’s smouldering Tybalt, he assumes a bitterly ironic gravity.

Jamie Mac (Benvolio) and Evan Buliung (Mercutio) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

It is a production aimed squarely at the younger generations of playgoers, and it works generally well within this framework. Young love, first real love (not the chaste ardour of Romeo for Rosaline) goes through its paces with quick abandon. Romeo startles Juliet in the balcony scene; Juliet yells out impatiently and stridently at her Nurse, and Friar Lawrence (Wayne Best at his Shakespearean best) discovers the extent of teenage ardour and abrupt transitions of feeling. Word music is scanted in favour of passion and harsh truth. Grief grows to hysterical proportion, especially with Marion Adler’s lament as Lady Capulet for the murder of kinsman Tybalt, but some other bigger moments shrink, as in Juliet’s potion speech (because of Farb’s narrow vocal range) and the bungled incidents at the end. And Wentworth adds more wrinkles than he should to the general style by some inexplicable and badly judged directorial touches, such as the Apothecary’s wearing a sharp-beaked bird mask or the appearance of the bloodied ghosts of the slain in a gothic moment that seems to have been wrongly imported from Macbeth. But this production does not obscure the play’s structure built on conflicting oppositions—not simply of poetry and prose or light and darkness, older generation and younger, but of youth and age misleading each other deeper into a failure of self-knowledge.


By Stew and Heidi Rodewald
A Luminato Presentation at the Spiegeltent,
David Pecaut Square, Toronto. June 15-18.

Stew in “Notes of a Native Song”

Two geniuses—a literary and a musical one—form a potent combination in what is subtitled “an irreverent homage to the original black-punk-novelist the late James Baldwin.” Baldwin, of course, is the literary genius, while Stew is the musical one. But this is not a linear documentary about Tony Award-winning Stew’s homage to trail-blazing polemicist, essayist, and novelist Baldwin. It is what Stew casually calls “a somewhat intimate relationship” over 80 minutes of performance time. The relationship is actually threefold: Stew’s with Baldwin; Stew’s with his audience; literature with music. And it rocks with high-energy amplitude (perhaps over-amplified for the size of the cozy Spiegeltent) in a thrilling interplay of music (with four musicians supporting Stew), video (by Stew and Joan Grossman), lighting (by K.J. Hardy) and spoken word—or to put it another way, a blast of psychedelic soul, pop rock, and twisted jazz, with Stew’s casual throwaway humour, stinging satire, and gritty speaking and singing voice, backed up by his band called somewhat ironically The Negro Problem. Ironic because of the other (notorious) “N” word implied in the name, and because the band has some non-black musicians, who are hardly anybody’s problem, except those who are imprisoned by their own colour and ignorance.

“I’m so fuckin’ tired of James Baldwin,” sighs 55-year old Stew in his dark glasses, hat, cravat, and rumpled suit. He feels there is too great a disparity between Baldwin’s alluring literary elegance, certainty, and clarity and his own “shit.” Although both men were expatriates in Europe at different times, of course, and both have been celebrated for artistic genius, Stew feels swallowed by the void left by Baldwin. His song cycle (in which Baldwin is conceptualized as a blues singer, and occasionally in an imagined film scenario) is really a trip into Baldwin country (where there is no zip code, and which is not simply Harlem, Compton, Paris, or Istanbul). So, it is definitely not a documentary play; it has “no well-kept plot to grow.” It riffs without apology, omits some important Baldwin titles, hardly quotes from its primary literary sources, and yet is a full-size, full-volume tribute channelled through Stew’s musical investigation and experimental reactions.

Sometimes the lighting is aggressively white or blue (bathing the audience along with the band) but it never overwhelms the piece. Baldwin never comes across as a saint or flawless literary militant. He is presented as a dissenting black brother who was not racially contracted to every black man’s work—certainly not to Richard Wright’s. Wright and his 20-year old impoverished African-American Bigger Thomas in Native Son (a landmark black novel in 1940), are taken down by both Baldwin and, therefore, indirectly by Stew, for not showing what is really human about black boys. But Stew makes a baffling comment on Baldwin in the process, charging that Baldwin “made a butler out of his rage.” Hard to reconcile the phrase and image with the reality of Baldwin’s vehement eloquence, his gravitas, and bold courage in the context of American society of his time. As a recent film documentary shows, Baldwin was nobody’s negro. There is sometimes a sense that Stew is straining for strikingly “cool” imagery, as when he represents Baldwin as “a prose slinger with six-gun grammar” in a literary journal.

Nevertheless, Stew’s offhand, throwaway satiric (often self-satiric) wit pays dividends in other ways. Baldwin was correct: racism was much bigger than Bigger Thomas. Stew connects the theme to the sensationally outrageous murder in Florida of hoody wearing teenager Trayvon Martin by self-styled vigilante, psychically damaged, mentally infirm George Zimmerman. A case, contends Stew in a powerful song, of Black meeting Brown, where Black stayed Black but where Brown turned White. Stew explores issues of colour, race, love, power, and sexuality in the conviction that lyric and music are as potent as any militant speech. His final two numbers in the song cycle bring this truth home. “Florida,” once home to Stepin Fetchit and Ben Vereen, is a bitterly satiric song with a double edge because it builds up only to undercut the raddled state for its “hanging chads and lynching boys.” This is followed by “Sonny’s Blues,” with its exhortation “Let the music kill the poison.” Perhaps an anti-climax in terms of power but it rounds out this highly personal, provocative exploration in song of Baldwin’s lasting influence on the American conscience. Notes of a Native Song is a great successor to Stew’s ground-breaking, award-winning musical Passing Strange. It deserves a longer run. Will no Toronto producer bring it back for a wider audience?