Forget about the shows, for a minute. Soulpepper, a highly, and rightly, decorated Toronto theater company in residence this month at the Signature Theatre on West 42nd Street, is offering the best freebie since Hamilton‘s Ham4Ham al fresco pre-show went the way of the $500 premium ticket.
Each evening after the scheduled performances, the Soulpepper Cabaret gets underway in the Signature’s inviting café. Members of the 20-year-old company and some invited guests spend the next 90 minutes or so performing jazz standards and their own material. You might hear company co-founder and artistic director Albert Schultz proving his saloon-singer mettle with Johnny Mercer’s “One for My Baby (and One more for the Road)” or company members Miranda Mulholland and Andrew Penner, who perform together under the rubric Harrow Fair, she on fiddle and he on guitar and percussion. The drinks are strong, the musical selection eclectic and the vibe is great.
I’ve seen three of Soulpepper’s offerings and one concert, none like the others and none like anything else on offer in the city this summer. New York can turn a cold eye to visiting theater companies – maybe it’s coals to Newcastle or a xenophobia we don’t care to cop to. But this season has seen a change and guess what? Blame Canada for the niceness epidemic that’s descended on Times Square.
First came the good citizens of a Newfoundland town no one ever heard of, spreading the gospel of generosity, openness and grace on Broadway with Come From Away, which continues to sell out the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
A few blocks west, at the Signature complex (designed by Canadian superstar architect Frank Gehry, btw), Soulpepper moved into the three theaters at the beginning of the month and will be there through July 29. Schultz told me that the repertoire had been decided by the company, and that the choices favored shows you couldn’t find anywhere else. No reason to bring their versions of Angels In America or Glengarry Glen Ross; we’ve been there, done that.
Good plan, as it turns out. Kim’s Convenience, by Ins Choi, is a sharply drawn comedy in the vein of works by Steve Tesich (Division Street) and Tracy Letts (Superior Donuts) that navigate the complicated familial and social terrain of immigrant families in the inexorable ebbing of first generation into second. Kim’s Convenience is a corner variety store in Toronto ruled by Appa (ingratiatingly cantankerous Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), a Korean Archie Bunker with brains along with the chip on his shoulder. In opposition is his daughter Janet (a very affecting Rosie Simon) who has little compunction about nibbling and sometimes biting the hands that feed her.
Choi takes the conventions of immigrant-family sitcoms and deftly inverts them with a few hairpin plot twists, suffusing the 90-minute play with unexpected feeling. Not surprisingly, the show caught the attention of the CBC; one consequence is that the cast had to return to Toronto early to begin filming season 2 of the hit TV adaptation.
However plenty of opportunities remain to see Spoon River and Of Human Bondage, or any of a half-dozen other offerings.
Soulpepper commissioned Vern Thiessen’s adaptation of Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham’s novel about one man’s self-negating obsession with a) his club foot and b) a Bad Girl, as he limps his Dickensian way through medical school and poverty to a novel ending. It’s the stuff of melodrama, to be sure, and catnip to players (Leslie Howard and Bette Davis, 1934; Paul Henreid and Eleanor Parker, 1946; Laurence Harvey and Kim Novak, 1964).
Thiessen and Schultz, as director, wisely steer clear of brooding moodiness and go instead for a more stylized representation of Maugham’s tale. Nearly all the novel’s back story is dropped; the show opens with Philip (Gregory Prest in an assured, understated performance) as a medical student smitten with Michelle Monteith’s snappy, seen-it-all waitress Mildred. Philip’s past as an art student in Paris is neatly represented by the frames in his student hovel that are filled with live models representing his lost art, not to mention his lost heart.
The approach makes delicate work of a dark tale with echoes of social commentary that recall The Elephant Man, though Of Human Bondage stands very much on its own merits.
And then there’s Spoon River, as familiar to American public school students as The Raven, The Last of the Mohicans and O Captain! My Captain! as literary nourishment force-fed during high school and typically drained of all meaning, not to mention pleasure in the reading. Kansan Edgar Lee Masters was a lawyer (and sometime partner of Abraham Lincoln) whose 219 free-verse epitaphs on the gravestones of a fictional town’s citizenry were published in 1915 and have been edited, chopped, sung, whispered and otherwise declaimed in various iterations since then.
Schultz and Soulpepper’s gifted music director Mike Ross have reduced the number and reinvented the collection as a mash-up of tone poem and folk opera. The musical idioms range from gospel to country & western, blues to ballad, torch song to floor stomper. Although there’s almost no interaction among the singing corpses, a portrait – complex, rich and varied as life – does emerge.
Credit for this goes not only to the ingenious staging (we enter through a mortuary, welcomed reverentially by actors in funereal garb) but to an exceptionally talented roster of actors, at once united and varied. That’s perhaps the most salient element on display in this Soulpepper bonanza: a unity of purpose and commitment from artists who have grown together (many through the company’s unique academy). They exude integrity uncommon in our theaters, whether commercial or nonprofit – where it’s not only the houses that are four-walled, but the artists working in them.