Panasonic Theatre


Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People ---

Following Menopause Out Loud into the Panasonic, My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, though a dozen times the better show, is drawing and pleasing the crowds for very much the same reason. It allows its audiences to rejoice collectively in the acceptance of subjects previously considered unmentionable. In the new show, the hot topic is of course gay marriage and its legalization, and we all get to feel happily enlightened. That's a good thing, by the way.

My Mother's etc., a transferred hit from the Toronto Fringe, is a musical written by David Hein and his wife, Irene Carl Sankoff. They both appear in it, Hein leading the band and apparently playing himself. This is the story, suitably adorned, of him and his own mother. When we first meet them, in 1990, mom, whose name is Claire, is a divorced Saskatchewan psychologist about to move to Ottawa; David initially stays behind with his dad, another shrink. (He blames or credits this upbringing for his having grown up to write musicals.) Claire meets her first same-sex lover and decides it's for life; she comes out to David, who's cool with it. And since theirs is the show's central relationship, the story, about a third of the way through the evening, is over; all the rest is anecdote.

To put it another way, the first three words of the title are the important ones. If you thought the remainder sounded catchpenny-cute, you were right. The Jewishness is Claire's; she embraces it late in the proceedings, too late for it to contribute anything. The Wiccan is her partner Jane, whose beliefs are depicted at greater length but in hardly more depth. The wedding takes up only a little time at the end because it isn't that kind of schmaltzy show. It's another kind of schmaltzy show.

The cast is good, with Hein a charmingly casual actor-singer-narrator and Lisa Horner's Claire smart and vulnerable, like a singing Edie Falco. They get a real glow going. Andrew Lamb's direction neatly fills the space but not the time, which of course has expanded since the Fringe. (And by many accounts, it was stretched even there.) Hein's lyrics have self-fulfilling titles like Oh! My Mom's a Lesbian! and Never Take Your Lesbian Moms to Hooters; and his countryfied music doesn't spring many surprises either.

Which makes it a marked contrast to Leslie Arden's score for The Princess and the Handmaiden, whose melodies and harmonies stimulate, beguile and delight from the very first bars.

Not for the first time, the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People offers the most grown-up musical in Toronto, without being in any way above the heads of its target audience. (This is officially rated as from 5 to 16, but the receptive house I saw it with was very much skewed to the lower end of that demographic.)

The Princess of the title is sent by her miracle-doctor mother to cure the illness of a neighbouring king; with her, not too willingly, goes the Handmaiden whom she has been patronizing and maybe exploiting for years. Halfway through the obligatory forest, the Handmaiden appropriates the Princess's clothes, horse, magic medicine and even more magical lucky charm, and rides off to impersonate her. The Princess is left to her fate, which turns out to be a kind but crippled young shepherd. The musical's source is The Goose Girl, by the Brothers Grimm; this adaptation doesn't have geese, but there is a chorus of sheep who baa in Scots accents.

Arden wrote the book as well as the score, and she moves from speech to song and back again with exemplary ease. Her lyrics, though better than most people's, are a notch below her music, and one number gets bogged down in exposition that might be better handled by dialogue. (Every one of her shows seems to contain one song that doesn't belong.)

A graver flaw is that both the Princess's high-handedness and the Handmaiden's grievances and misgivings are underwritten; they are unalterably heroine and villainess, in accordance with the ancient class-prejudices of fairyland. But the show touches the deep narrative and emotional chords that are only reachable through fairy tale, from King Lear to Into the Woods. The latter is an obvious reference for Arden, whose music has a richness and astringency that recall Sondheim without sounding derivative. She also throws in a devastating parody of the I Dreamed a Dream theatrical power-ballad; it's called This Is Your Destiny with destiny turning out to be an appropriately, and literally, cardboard Prince. Allen MacInnis's production captures all the wit and charm of the writing, and the cast is so uniformly fine that the simplest thing is just to list them: Regan Thiel (a magical Princess), Tracy Michailidis (a tart Handmaiden), Jonathan Tan (a sweet shepherd), Sharron Matthews (a crisp and disciplined Narrator), George Masswohl, Karen Wood, Susan Henley, Andrew Stelmack, Larry Manell and Julain Molnar. Arden has written a musical based on Much Ado About Nothing. It's time we saw it.

- My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding opened Nov. 7 and runs until Jan. 3, 2010. Call 416-872-1212 for tickets and information. The Princess and the Handmaiden runs through Dec. 30. Call 416-822-2222 for tickets and information.