A cult leader’s funeral is the setting for a new musical by Toronto’s Anika and Britta Johnson
There’s definitely an air of mystery around Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life; a new, immersively-staged musical taking over Heliconian Hall in the heart of Yorkville. The casual theatre-goer would be forgiven if they had no clue what Dr. Silver was about from the show’s deliberately sparse website which only hints that it centres on the funeral of a charismatic nouveau-spiritual leader and doesn’t really provide much more detail than that.
The draw here is the massive pool of talent behind the show. It’s a co-production of two of Toronto’s most-lauded theatre companies at the moment: the Musical Stage Company (Life After, Fun Home, Onegin) and Outside the March (Jerusalem, Vitals, Terminus).
Dr. Silver features book, music, and lyrics by sisters Anika and Britta Johnson—the writing duo behind the massive immersive musical Brantwood and Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang—and features a cast of seasoned local musical theatre artists with multiple Mirvish, Stratford and Broadway credits on their resumes performing alongside an ensemble comprised of the always charming Edge of the Sky Young Company from Wexford Collegiate.
The show is stacked with talent so going in, my expectations were very high and in most-respects my heightened expectations were met. All of the individual components; the writing, production design, and performances, that make up Dr. Silver are undeniably excellent.
I’m consistently impressed by Anika and Britta Johnson’s sophisticated writing. They eschew hummable, catchy tunes in favour of character-driven recitative set to complex melodies often underscored by a pop beat. This is prime, mature musical theatre writing with echoes of Sondheim.
Director Mitchell Cushman is known for his inventive, immersive staging and for this show the Outside the March design team painstakingly transforms the church-like Heliconian Hall into a gathering place for a cult ritual. In effect, we the audience members become the congregants of a bizarre religious ceremony.
Cushman spends a lot of time and effort sending up the trappings of a typical cult: as soon as we arrive we’re invited to take part in arcane rituals, given books of recitations, branded with symbols, and early on in the show we’re prompted to literally drink the cult’s Kool-Aid.
But because of the grandiose trappings of the immersive staging, it took me a while after the show started in earnest for me to get my bearings and realize that I wasn’t really watching a satirical, cautionary tale about conformity in the absence of critical thought but rather an intimate family drama which lies at the heart of Dr. Silver.
I saw a lot of parallels between this show and Britta Johnson’s recent work Life After; both feature a family coming to terms with the death of a father and the complex family dynamics that arise in the wake of that emotional shock.
The narrative of Dr. Silver circles around the titular doctor’s family; wife Caroline (Donna Garner), daughters Vera and Harmony (Kira Guloien and Rielle Braid) and close family friend Timothy (Bruce Dow), as they not only have to deal with the leader’s death and the challenge of carrying out his final wishes for his congregation but also grapple with the mystery behind the disappearance of estranged son, Gordon (Peter Deiwick).
There are some interesting family dynamics at play. However, despite the consistently strong performances, the show can’t quite make the relationships between the characters or the mystery of the disappearance of the son land with the gravity that they need to have a real impact.
I think the outlandish setting and large amount of emphasis placed on illustrating the history and workings of the cult affect the tone of the show to the point where it dulls the emotional core of the piece and it didn’t really resonate emotionally with me in the way Life After did.
Regardless, the excellent writing, high-calibre performances and the ambitious work on the production design make Dr. Silver well worth seeing.
- Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life is playing at Heliconian Hall (35 Hazelton Avenue) through October 14, 2018
- Shows run Monday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m., and Sunday at 7:00 p.m. No performances on September 20 and 25, or on October 2 and 8.
- Tickets $29.00 to $65.00
- Tickets are available online at drsilverto.ca.
- If the performance isn’t sold out, there will be tickets for sale at the Box Office before the show starts. However, advance ticket purchase is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment.
Photo of Kira Guloien, Bruce Dow, Donna Garner and the Edge of the Sky Young Company by Dahlia Katz.