Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Leave it to Soulpepper to inspire both guilt and surprise. When the lights came up at the Baillie Theatre at the end of Soulpepper’s Taking the A-Train Downtown Manhattan–the Melting Pot, my husband turned to me and asked, “Why didn’t we bring the children? They would’ve loved this!”
Luckily, as part of the Soulpepper Concert Series, this show is one of several. So there will be a “next time.” Each show, which Slaight Family Director of Music Mike Ross refers to as “concert theatre,” revolves around a specific geography, era or artist. If it sounds a bit like a history lesson, well . . . it is. And it’s remarkable. Soulpepper’s Concert Theatre is carefully constructed to tell the tale of a particular place and time by establishing the milieu through photography and narration, then populating that milieu with a company who provides a dizzying range of authentic vocal and instrumental music and dance performance. The reimagined interpretation, Mr. Ross points out, is what distinguishes these concert theatres: “You’re going to hear music that you know, as if for the first time, performed by Toronto’s great performing artists, inside a vital new context.”
So where did this notion of “concert theatre” originate? “We were interested in the idea of providing context around a musical performance,” explains Mr Ross. “That’s what musical theatre is, at its essence: musical narrative encasing a song. We wanted to see if we could provide that outside of a traditional narrative form.” He further clarifies that “when a theatre company is producing a music series, you’re filtering all of your decisions through a machine that thinks about story and design, and so you end up with a hybrid of concert and theatre.”
The contexts themselves are also quite novel. The concert theatre currently running is The Voyager Golden Records, inspired by the contents of the Voyager Golden Records, which are still in space aboard the Voyager Spacecraft. The Canadian Pacific Railway, set to open on June 16, is based (of course) on the Canadian Pacific Railway which connects eastern and western Canada. The second of the four-part New-York themed concert series Taking the A-Train Uptown Manhattan–Harlem opens in late August. With such atypical themes and a predetermined length of 90-minutes, what is left out of a concert is as vital a choice as what is included. So how is this choice made? “We start with the writing,” Mr. Ross explains, “and we make sure that we are clear about what story we want to tell. We let that determine the song list, and how that song list can support the story.” The writer, music director and director work in a vacuum in the early stages, he elaborates. As they approach performances, they come together and “feed off” of each other. Once the songs are decided, Mr. Ross has the “lucky job” of determining the best possible people to interpret them.”And they usually come from both the Soulpepper Company and the larger Toronto performing arts community,” he adds.
The end result is exquisite: tight, compelling, surprising and intricately crafted. Who could have predicted a concert themed around the settling of Downtown Manhattan could include a dance-off between Irish step dancing and tapping and a stirring version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that evoked the grief of a Manhattan still healing from the 9/11 terror attacks? We regretted leaving our children at home as much due to the uniqueness of the concert-theatre experience as the high calibre of the performances. And not only does Mr. Ross decide who will perform which song; most of the musical arrangements are his.
If we can judge by his dynamic musical performance (at various times playing piano, guitar or trumpet, and singing) and his energetic interaction with his fellow artists during the concerts, he’s deeply skilled – and is having a lot of fun. When I ask if there’s anything artistic that he can’t do, he admits to “dance shortcomings,” which he says keep him humble: “I find it’s always the thing that reminds me how it can be hard to learn something new – like when I’m trying to teach music, it makes me a more patient teacher.” While professing the intention to learn to dance some day, a puckish sense of humour winks out when he cites a compensatory talent: “I can burp really loudly. Any time I want.”
I offered Mr. Ross the last word, and without a moment’s hesitation, he served up “Milkshake.” Was it thirst, or that sense of humour again? Take it instead as a metaphor for the rich, textured, flavourful and refreshing experience that awaits you at the Soulpepper Concert Series this summer.
News You Can Use
What: Soulpepper Concert Series
Who: Audiences of all ages
Where: Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Distillery Historic District, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON, M5A 3C4
For Information and Tickets: Soulpepper.ca or 416.866.8666
© 2016 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya