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Canadian Summer Lovin'

Today's guest columnist is Stephen Johns.

Toronto is the third largest theatre centre in the English-speaking world. Its reputation used to be based on homegrown productions of established international hits -- in October, 1995, The Phantom of the Opera, Crazy For You, The Who's Tommy, Disney's Beauty and the Beast and Sunset Boulevard (in order of longevity) were all running simultaneously -- Toronto's current mainstream theatre scene is dominated by "sit-down" runs of touring companies.

This summer, no less than eight new productions will paint the town. Here's a theatre-by-theatre run-down of the summer that was, is and will be.

Royal Alexandra Theatre 260 King St. W.: (416) 872-1212 or 1-800-461-333

"The Royal Alex" uncomfortably seats 1,497 people, but its pedigree among Canadian theatres is unrivaled. Slated for demolition in 1963, the Royal Alex was saved when "Honest" Ed Mirvish, then a well-known bargain salesman, bought it and restored it to its former grandeur. The theatre soon began a subscription series, a tradition which has continued on to today. Among its previous occupants: Hair, Les Miserables, Crazy for You and Blood Brothers.

Rent (through July 26). The Canadian production of Rent was originally scheduled to open in Toronto in November, 1996, but a legal battle between Mirvish Productions, who won the Canadian rights, and Livent, who didn't, postponed it by a year. The delay, however, was a beneficial one; it allowed the Mirvishes time to assemble the single most incredible cast that I, for one, have ever seen in a musical. Love it or leave it, there's no denying that Rent has had a significant impact on musical theatre. I love the show, but the Canadian cast is so good it must be seen to be believed. Apart from Krysten Cummings (who left to join the London cast) and Luther Creek (who only recently left), the original leads and most of the ensemble is intact. There are no weak links here, but special kudos to Newfoundlander Chad Richardson's tortured Mark and French-Canadian comedienne Jenifer Aubrey's brilliantly comic Maureen. Rent ends its eight-month run in Toronto on July 26.

Tickets are reportedly still available, although the show has been running at 90% for its entire run. Despite having some of the most cramped seats I've ever sat in in my life, the Second Balcony has an unimpaired view and, for $25, its value can't be beat -- unless you're willing to camp out for the first two rows which, like they used to in New York, are $20 and go on sale two hours before the show on a first-come, first-served basis.

2 Pianos, 4 Hands (July 28 - Aug. 24). On July 28,2 Pianos, 4 Hands makes its long-awaited return to Toronto. "2/4" was created in 1996 at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre, an avant-garde company with a reputation of producing high-quality, experimental plays. Written and performed by Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra, -- two accomplished Canadian actors and, according to the ever-expanding chorus of critics showering the play with praise, two talented pianists —"2/4" then went on a successful Canadian tour, returned to the Tarragon for a run that sold out before it even started and, finally, transferred to Broadway. The play is currently on a North American tour; a second production is playing in Birmingham, England, and offers are coming in from all over the world.

Tickets for "2/4" are reportedly selling "very well". I had difficulty getting seats, resorting to seats underneath the Second Balcony overhang, but it was really all that was left. A limited number of $21.50 student rush seats are available in the Second Balcony for each performance -- except Wednesday matinees, when all seats up there are that cheap.

Elgin Theatre 189 Yonge St.: (416) 872-5555

The Elgin is currently dark; no immediate plans for its future have been announced. Call it a hunch, but I'd be surprised if Livent didn't re-open Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat there in the fall so it can be filmed.

Hummingbird Centre 1 Front St.: (416) 872-2262

Riverdance (through Jul. 26). "The Original International Phenomenon"'s first-ever Toronto engagement at the gargantuan, 3,223-seat Hummingbird Centre is a phenomenon in itself: the entire run was completely sold out four months in advance. So successful it was that tickets for this summer's return engagement went on sale before last year's even started. The dancing is incredible, and Bill Wheelan's score is a glorious celebration of Celtic music, but, in the end, for me, it just failed to connect.

Apart from the odd scattered singles, the rest of the run is completely sold out. If you're Irish, heartbroken about missing it a second time 'round or just plain curious, your best bet might be to book tickets now for next year's engagement, July 21 - August 1, 1999.

Pantages Theatre 244 Victoria St./163 Yonge St.: (416) 872-2222

The Phantom of the Opera (open-ended run). In 1988, Garth Drabinsky thought he was being optimistic when he predicted that the Toronto run of The Phantom of the Opera would last for three years. In 1998, the seemingly interminable run of Phantom continues, with the phenomenal Peter Karrie having once again assumed the title role. Karrie donned the mask in Toronto for three months in 1991 before assuming the role outright in May, 1994. He returned to Toronto again last September as a result of an online petition by his legions of fans. Karrie's performance alone is worth the price of admission, and the rest of the cast -- which also includes Elizabeth DeGrazia and David Rogers -- is capable at worst and excellent at best, but Livent's decision to pare down the orchestra as a cost-cutting measure has dampened the effect of Lord Lloyd-Webber's majestic score. I still love the show but the new orchestra is a major turn-off.

Decent seats are available for most performances. Service at the box office is slow, but at least it eliminates the $5 Ticketmaster handling fee. The best seats in the house are in row A (eighth row) of the Orchestra. For value, try rows M or N of the Mezzanine -- at $57.50, the cheapest seats in the house.

Ford Centre for the Performing Arts 5400 Yonge St.: (416) 872 - 2222

Fosse: A Celebration of Song and Dance (through Aug. 31). After the runaway critical acclaim of Kiss of the Spider Woman, Show Boat and Ragtime, Livent has at least four new musicals in its ever-growing canon, including Parade, which opens this fall at NYC's Lincoln Center, and Fosse: A Celebration of Song and Dance, which is currently in previews at the Ford Centre's 1,800-seat Apotex Theatre. Directed by Richard Maltby, Jr. and co-choreographed by Chet Walker and Ann (Chicago) Reinking. Gwen Verdon, the ex-Mrs. Fosse, serves as Artistic Supervisor.

Tickets for Fosse are, reportedly, selling slowly, despite Livent's omnipresent marketing campaign. The Ford Centre is a jewel-of-a-theatre, with every seat in the house offering an unimpaired view of the stage. For those on a budget, Livent is offering all remaining seats two hours before the performance at $25 each, available on a first-come, first-served basis from the box office.

Broadway at the Centre. After Fosse moves on to Los Angeles, Boston and finally New York, Livent's first-ever subscription series -- of sorts -- will begin at the Ford Centre; among the shows on offer are Annie, Smokey Joe's Cafe, Barrymore (which had its world premiere at the Stratford Festival in 1996) and Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk. Tickets go on sale later in July.

Princess of Wales Theatre 300 King St. W.: (416) 872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333

After housing the record-breaking run of Miss Saigon and a break-even production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, the Princess of Wales Theatre began housing "sit-down" runs of road shows, including (among others) Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story and Chicago.

Cats, the musical which first heralded Toronto's arrival onto the theatre scene, keeps coming back. Apparently, there's still commercial life left in the old feline. The show's sixth (I believe) Toronto engagement, this time hosted by Mirvish Productions, almost sold out before it began.

Needfire (Jun. 12 - Jul. 12). I was convinced that Needfire was simply another shameless attempt to cash in on the runaway success of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. I didn't see it, but most of the reviews I read were glowing. This was Riverdance from a Canadian perspective, an exploration of Celtic culture's roots in Canada with some of Canada's most respected Celtic artists -- including singer John McDermott -- taking part. A tour is in the works, and grosses for the Toronto run were, reportedly, respectable.

Les Miserables (through Jan. 3/99). The arrival of the U.S. Third National Tour of Les Miserables might have been a media event when it first started touring, in 1988, but, ten years and over 110 cities later, Les Mis is as comfortable as an old shoe. St. Paul, MN has hosted the show seven times, and even Duluth, MN -- a city of 92,000 -- has got into the act, with a one-week run in 1994 and a scheduled return engagement in 2000. However, Les Mis' return to Toronto (its first since 1992) is The Theatre Event of 1998, because Colm Wilkinson, whose portrayal of Jean Valjean in the original London and Broadway casts of Les Mis skyrocketed him to international superstardom, is returning to the role for the first time since leaving the New York production.

Fans from all over the world will be converging on Toronto to see his performance. Already an established star in London, New York and his native Ireland, Wilkinson carved out his own niche in Toronto when he created the title role in the insanely successful Canadian production of The Phantom of the Opera. Originally scheduled to leave after the first six months of the run, Wilkinson fell in love with Toronto and starred in Phantom for four-and-half years. Since leaving for good in 1994, Wilkinson's projects have included singing the role of Valjean in the famous 10th Anniversary Concert of Les Mis at the Royal Albert Hall. So far, audiences have responded -- and then some. The run was recently extended through November 29 (and will, reportedly, be extended again through January 3) and Mirvish Productions has announced the advance as $6-million -- a staggering feat for a touring production. After its Toronto run, the Third National Tour of Les Mis will, once again, be touring. Wilkinson meanwhile, will give his Jean Valjean its swan song in his native Dublin.

Tickets are becoming scarce commodities. Your best bet is to go early in the week, because tickets for weekend shows are extremely difficult to come by. The POW has no real bad seats. Tickets for Les Mis are expensive, but the Dress Circle and Balcony side seats are $20 for all shows except Fridays and Saturdays. Otherwise, if you're on a budget, your only real bet is the Balcony, which isn't ideal but isn't bad, either.

After Les Miserables leaves in January, Cameron Mackintosh's acclaimed revival of Oliver! will have its North American premiere at the Princess of Wales, as part of the Royal Alexandra Subscription Series. The Lion King is rumoured to be opening there by the end of 1999.

For now, that's Steve, just TALKIN' BROADWAY, EH?

(You can e-mail Steve with your comments to:

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