A lot is changing in Ontario theatre lately, nowhere more than in the musical theatre landscape. With commercial companies expanding both in and out of Toronto, exciting initiatives supporting the creation of new works, and a fresh generation of artists emerging, it seems that musical theatre is the next frontier for an area that has long ceded musical dominance to New York.
The Good News for Big, Flashy Pro Companies
Out of town, Drayton Entertainment is the key player with hubs in multiple cities throughout Ontario where they’re mounting big ambitious commercial work and luring top-tier talent. Their latest is Evita at the Hamilton Family Theatre in Cambridge, a demanding musical that requires truly fantastic singers who can also act (or fantastic actors who can also sing), lots of resources, and a large ensemble. Drayton’s production far outran my expectations and brought me right back to my big takeaway from the last production of theirs I saw (A Few Good Men, also in Cambridge)- what an incredible gift to the small communities of Ontario to have a company staging large scale productions so competently in a local setting. Mariah Campos’ take on Eva is harsh and brassy, balanced intriguingly by Eric Craig’s sensitive and beautifully acted Perón. Craig also stands out for his willingness to bend the score slightly, building moments to breathe into his songs despite music director Bob Foster’s otherwise mechanical interpretations. If the presence of Broadway alum Aaron Walpole in the ensemble isn’t evidence of this company’s ability to pull in talent punching far above their weight, I don’t know what is.
In town, Toronto’s biggest (and often only) commercial musical theatre presenter Mirvish continues its dominance with an excellent sit-down production of the Tudor rock musical Six currently playing into February. Promisingly, Six is not a tour but a local production, propped up by word of mouth and return visitors. The incredible cast is mostly Canadian and includes new grads making truly killer debuts. The company also has a very full slate coming up on their mainstages, including maybe the two biggest guaranteed sellers in all of musical theatre- Les Mis and Wicked– and a very impressively curated Off-Mirvish season including hits from recent seasons at Toronto’s not-for-profits plus a few promising imports from the US and East Coast.
But Mirvish’s dominance is once again not guaranteed as the latest upstart competitor starts to gain footing. Terra Bruce Productions is still underperforming in a big way when it comes to the overall quality of their work but they’re a commercial company and, though I realize this is maybe a hot take, I actually think the practical business side of the company is the most important indicator of future success and they seem to have that figured out. Unlike similar competitors in the past, Terra Bruce will soon have their own space (a huge reno of the old Regent Theatre on Mount Pleasant) so they won’t be losing money on rentals. In fact, they’ll be making money as they plan to rent the theatre to other companies when they’re not using it (at a planned 600 seats, it will fall in a blank space in the current market) and they’re putting in the money up front to prioritize practical money-making factors like easily removable seating for event rentals and a lobby bar/cafe open long hours to serve the public whether they’re going to the theatre or not (something I’ve always been shocked more companies don’t do). They’ve also got a plan and it’s not just competing with Mirvish for the biggest Broadway tours. Terra Bruce is in the creation game and their multi-hub approach allows them to capitalize on Newfoundland’s lower costs and give each show a full run out East before it moves to the competitive Toronto market. Of course, the actual work still needs work; this is an unavoidable reality and ultimately no fantastic business plan can make an arts business profitable without good art. But, just hear me out, I actually think their latest show The Wild Rovers shows promise. Not the show itself, it’s truly atrocious, but there are elements in it that made me think that the next one might not be so bad, or maybe the one after that. The real problem is the book. The direction is a little flaily, but the production is otherwise actually mostly sound. The cast is honestly great (I’d pay to hear Steve Maloney sing just about anything), they just have no real characters to play and an incoherent story to tell and are saying stupid words; that’s all. With a dated tone stolen from an old CBC show starring The Irish Rovers, a rash of hyper-specific jokes aimed exclusively at Canadian Gen X-ers, and the strangest mix of kiddie concepts and wildly crass gags, The Wild Rovers is maybe one of the worst musicals ever written. But it didn’t have to be. It’s literally just the book; that’s a one-person problem (assuming my benefit-of-the-doubt is correct and the problem isn’t coming from meddling execs; always a risk with a company like this). They don’t have the same book writer for all their upcoming projects. They’ve got a plan, they’ve got resources, they’ll eventually have a space, they seem to be able to pay the right performers- I trust they can find a writer who can bring it all together. Next time, or maybe the time after that.
The Good News for the Indie Scene
Perhaps the even better news lies with the new kids. While composer Landon Doak and his Bad Hats crew have been toiling away to pretty decent success for a few years now, there hasn’t been much other action of note in the not-for-profit musical theatre scene, which is why the appearance of Shifting Ground Collective is such exciting news. Not only is the young company producing established but under-seen work in interesting ways (their summer production of Ordinary Days with a shifting cast was a shaggy but confident charmer with return trip intrigue and a star turn from Managing Producer Colette Richardson) but they’re investing in the future as well with two new musicals in development.
One of those projects is Statistics, my favourite show from Fringe 2022 that has a ton of growth potential. The writer of that show, Shreya Jha is a prolific and wildly ambitious composer/medical student who has workshopped at least one other show this year already, in addition to continuing to develop Statistics with Shifting Ground. Though her latest, The Last Piece, still needs a lot of work on the book to bring it up to Statistics‘ level, there’s a consistency and drive to Jha’s artistic approach that makes it easy to bet on her success.
Toronto and the rest of Ontario is filled with fantastic performers so it’s reassuring to see the expansion of musical theatre at a professional level to give them as many opportunities as possible. But if this community is really going to make a mark on the legacy of musical theatre, that breakthrough is going to come with the creators and producers like Shreya Jha and Shifting Ground. I hope they keep going, I can’t wait to see what they do next.