Review: Off Broadway On Stage (Angelwalk Theatre)

Angelwalk Theatre presents Off Broadway On Stage at the Toronto Centre for the Arts Studio Theatre through December 11, 2011.

When Angelwalk Theatre, announced that it would open its third season with a revue of off-Broadway songs, I admit I chuckled a bit at their modest sensibility. Angelwalk is a relatively new Toronto theatre company that focuses on producing intimate, small- and mid-scale musical theatre productions.

Tackling a revue of Broadway numbers would be really ambitious. Broadway implies big-budget, flashy, smoke and lights, big orchestra, performers rising out of trap doors in the stage, and over-the-top production numbers. Off-Broadway suggests something a little more low-key and maybe something a little more off the beaten path; a perfect fit for a company like Angelwalk.

I brought my friend Rudy with me to the show and since he’s not a hardcore theatre geek like me he stared blankly when I told him we’d be seeing a bunch of songs from off-Broadway shows. I’d guess that there are probably a lot people outside the theatre community who aren’t familiar with the term “off-Broadway”.

For those of you unfamiliar with the idiosyncratic naming conventions of the professional theatre scene in New York, the terms “Broadway” and “Off-Broadway” aren’t based in geography; in fact of the 40 professional theatres designated as Broadway houses only four have an actual street address on Broadway.

The designation comes from a cryptic set of rules and union contracts but the general rule is that Broadway houses are theatres with over 500 seats located in the Broadway theatre district around Times Square. Off-Broadway houses have 100-499 seats and are scattered throughout Manhattan. Theatres with 99 seats or less are generally referred to as Off-off-Broadway.

Further complicating the matter, many shows known as “Broadway” shows like Hair, A Chorus Line, Rent and Spring Awakening initially started off from a more modest off-Broadway run before transferring to the Great White Way. But there are also shows that have made a name for themselves purely off-Broadway; The Fantasticks, Altar Boyz, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, and I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, to name a few.

It’s these types of shows that are the bread-and-butter for Angelwalk and the focus of this revue. The production is sparse, there’s only a basic set, few costumes and minimal props, utilitarian musical staging and modest musical accompaniment provided by Musical director Anthony Bastianon on piano along with a violinist and cellist.

Stripped bare of all the usual trappings and excesses of musical theatre, the show relies entirely on the talents of six emerging Toronto musical theatre artists; David Hohl, Will Lamond, Mike “Nug” Nahrgang, Natasha Negovanlis, Clara Scott, and Jennifer Walls. While the young cast is talented and put in a valiant effort, the show didn’t quite take off for me the way I hoped it would.

The songs on offer are a real mixed-bag with big brassy belty numbers, passionate duets, beautiful ballads and tongue-in-cheek ditties from a variety of shows ranging from The Last Five Years, Songs for a New World, and The Fantasticks to Avenue Q, and, successful Canadian off-Broadway show, Evil Dead: The Musical.

The problem for me is, even as a self-professed theatre geek, I’m only familiar with a handful of the songs featured in the show and I just didn’t think some of the numbers really worked as stand-alone songs outside of their original shows.

What was missing for me was the context, the performers don’t set up their songs, so we’re left wondering about the show the song originates from as well as the character who sings the song and their state of mind. Without this contextual information I found it hard to connect to the performance and I was spending the first couple minutes of each song trying to sort out these details in my head rather than simply enjoying the performance.

I also would have liked to see the cast members connecting with the audience more, only Nug Nahrgang is given the chance to briefly address the audience directly a few times in the show, I thought it went a long way in establishing the performer-audience relationship and only wish the rest of the cast was given similar opportunities.

Still, it’s great to have a chance to watch and listen to local up-and-coming musical theatre artists and, as Mr. Nahrgang says in one of his shpeels, Off Broadway On Stage is something different, an affordable alternative to the big, expensive commercial theatre shows, just like the off-Broadway shows it pays tribute to.

Details:

  • Off Broadway On Stage is playing at the Toronto Centre for the Arts Studio Theatre (5040 Yonge Street) through December 11, 2011
  • Shows run Wednesday to Saturday at 8:00PM and Sunday at 2:00PM
  • Tickets $25 to $35
  • Tickets are available by phone 416.872.1111 , in person at the box office or visit www.angelwalk.ca

Photo credit:

  • Will Lamond, Mike Nug Nahrgang, Jennifer Walls, Natasha Negovanlis, Clara Scott, David Hohl – Photo by Vincent Perri

One thought on “Review: Off Broadway On Stage (Angelwalk Theatre)”

  1. Good point about adding context to these type of performances. Still the energy was wonderful and even at times magical for the audience. I came with a few friends and we enjoyed ourselves immensely! Clara Scott’s rendition of Jason Robert Brown’s A Summer in Ohio was truly terrific – as best as I’ve seen in NY.
    WE need more of this in Toronto.

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