Nestruck on Theatre: With Narnia and Alice, Bad Hats lead a boom in original holiday family musicals

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Julia Pulo and the Ensemble of the Narnia Workshop Production at Theatre SheridanKris Yue/Handout

As the performing arts continue recovering from the pandemic, I certainly don’t begrudge any theatre company choosing to put on a well-known Broadway musical to maximize its box-office take over the holidays, when folks are eager to see shows with their families.

But I always, of course, prefer to see both Canadian commercial and not-for-profit producers using this period to produce original work at a time when there’s a built-in audience to see it.

Bad Hats, a creative Toronto theatre collective, has had a particularly impressive track record producing musicals for multigenerational audiences in Decembers past. Yes, their fare is based on public-domain intellectual property – but ambitious original scores and artful adaptations lift the shows above your average pantomime.

This year, Bad Hats is premiering a musical called Narnia, based on the C.S. Lewis fantasy series, at Winnipeg’s Manitoba Theatre for Young People (Dec. 1 to 23), even as its Dora-winning adaptation of Alice in Wonderland is back at Soulpepper in Toronto for a second consecutive season (Dec 12 to 31).

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Fiona SauderAleksandar Antonijevic/Handout

I e-mailed questions about these shows to Bad Hats’ busy chief adapter Fiona Sauder, who directed Narnia (with songs by Landon Doak) before hopping on a plane to join rehearsals as an actor in Alice (with songs by Doak and Victor Pokinko).

Narnia is a musical adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, but also draws on some of the other C.S. Lewis books in that series. Does this mean a singing and dancing Reepicheep the Mouse?

We’ve reimagined some of the parameters of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to create a narrative centred around a found family and the remarkable professor who brings them together. Our adaptation celebrates the teachers, mentors and friends in our lives who open doors to magical thinking, curiosity and truth. We’ve borrowed characters, language and notions from the larger Chronicles canon and, without giving too much away, I’ll just say – yes, Reepicheep makes a hell of an appearance.

I’ve heard Narnia referred to as kind of a third in a Bad Hats trilogy – the first two being your Dora-winning shows Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. Does that mean you’ve run out of things to sing about growing up at this point and are moving on?

Hardly! There are plenty more things to sing, and so many stories to tell. Narnia felt like a natural third in a series that explored different ages of life, but as far as the Bad Hats musical canon, we’re just getting started.

Severn Thompson directed Peter Pan, Sue Miner directed Alice and now you’re taking the reins in that department for Narnia. Can we expect a similar aesthetic to those previous shows, which had a devised theatre/collective creation vibe not always seen in musicals?

You’re right to say there is a collective creation vibe to our work, with much of the plays’ worlds being built in tandem with the ensemble and the Bad Hats creative core. I write with a very clear picture of the staging and aesthetic elements of a show, so a lot of the physical language of Alice and Peter was built in collaboration with the directors. In short, yes, you can expect a similar minimalist, high physicality aesthetic.

Bad Hats has become a real mainstay of holiday programming especially here in Toronto. Was it always your plan to create shows to fill that hole?

Not at all. It’s something that developed over time as we learned about our audiences: the kind of programming they’re drawn to, and when they can make time to see it. Sure, the holidays are convenient for drawing a crowd but they also suit our work particularly well as it’s designed to be a family outing, a co-viewing experience across generations. We often describe it as Pixar, but theatre.

At the same time, does Bad Hats feel pigeonholed at all? There’s no reason Narnia or Alice needs to particularly be on in December.

I think the only pigeonholing we feel, if ever, is that our work is only for children. In reality, it’s inspired by children: their worldview, their ability to imagine, their curiosity. The shows are meant to offer childrens’ ambitious, hopeful, tenacious outlook on the world and serve it up to the adults. We want to remind the audiences that everyone is a child – has the ability to dream, to play, to reimagine their world – at any age.

As I understand it, C.S. Lewis’s books are in the public domain in Canada but not in the United States or the U.K. Did that give you pause in creating Narnia, in terms of the limitations for where the show can play in the future (until 2038 anyway)?

It’s certainly something we considered, but any hesitation was put aside once we became enamoured with the books and how we wanted to craft an adaptation. With all of our work, we write the stories and messages that we, as creators, need to hear. And though the potential for our work to play outside of Canada is top of mind as we look toward our next projects, in this case, we just really wanted to write this show. Think of how incredible the 2038 draft will be!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Chris, Mrs. – and other original musicals across Canada this December

Toronto: Producer Ross Petty said farewell to his long-standing pantomime biz last season, but that doesn’t mean that large-scale original musicals won’t be found at the Elgin and Winter Garden this year.

Chris, Mrs. – an original show by the wife-and-husband team of Katie Kerr (director, book writer, lyricist) and Matt Stodolak (composer, music director) – tells a Hallmark-style story about a widowed father whose three kids writer a letter to Santa asking for help in averting a potential new stepmother disaster. It’s on at the Winter Garden through Dec. 31

The production features a cast of 17 onstage (with another four actors on the payroll as alternates or swings), headed by elite talent such as Liam Tobin (a regular on the North American Broadway tour circuit) and Stratford/Shaw Festival/Mirvish vets Danielle Wade, Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane, AJ Bridel and Andrew Broderick.

Chris, Mrs. started as a pandemic project for Kerr and Stodolak, whose own meet-cute was working together in Christmas musicals at regional theatres two seasons in a row. It almost pivoted to a film, but it’s now having its world premiere in a production with a budget that Kerr says is on par with past Petty shows. (Those would sometimes cost $2-million to mount.)

“We’re really happy about where ticket sales are,” says Kerr, who says she expects her investors to recoup their investment over the course of this inaugural run.

Commercial producers are few and far between in Toronto, and more are always needed, so I wish this self-producing couple a merry Chris, Mrs. and a happy new year – where we’ll hopefully see more from them.

Vancouver: Theatre Replacement’s East Van Panto – Globe columnist Marsha Lederman’s favourite live holiday tradition – is back again this year at Vancouver’s the Cultch with a new riff on Beauty and the Beast (to Jan 7). The creative team is high-calibre top to bottom: Jivesh Parasram and Christine Quintana wrote the script, Veda Hille’s in charge of the music and Anita Rochon is the director.

Edmonton: Last year, the Citadel Theatre premiered a family musical called Almost a Full Moon, based on Hawksley Workman’s Christmas album of the same name with a book by Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman (full disclosure: reader, I married her). This year, Workman is back in town to sing some of his holiday songs (Dec. 7 to 10) with actors who starred in the show last year: Chariz Faulmino, Luc Tellier and the extremely adorable Amanda Mella Rodriguez.

Ottawa: Prison Dancer, another new musical birthed at the Citadel, created by Romeo Candido and Carmen De Jesus, is at the National Arts Centre under the direction of new English Theatre artistic director Nina Lee Aquino. The show, which I have not been able to see but has a lot of buzz, is inspired by prisoners in the Philippines who went viral dancing to Thriller. It’s tagged as “family programming” and “holidays” on the NAC site, but also with “mature themes” and “strong language,” so decide for yourself whether to bring kids before it closes Dec. 2.

Hamilton: Theatre Aquarius, revivified under artistic director Mary Francis Moore, recently launched a National Centre for New Musicals, picking up some of the systemic slack left behind after Sheridan College shuttered a similar crucial program. This December, the theatre company premieres Pollyanna: The Musical, about the positive-thinking young protagonist of Eleanor H. Porter’s novels first played on screen 100 years ago by Mary Pickford. It has a book and lyrics by Steven Gallagher, music by Linda Barnett, is directed by Robert McQueen and runs Dec. 6 to 23. (By the way, did you hear that Maggie: The Musical, which premiered at Aquarius last season, has a coming American debut in August at the well-known Goodspeed in Connecticut?)

Port Hope, Ont: I’m skipping over most panto here, but Jack: A Beanstalk Panto at the Cameco Capitol Arts Centre distinguishes itself by having both “naughty” and “nice” versions being performed until Dec. 23 – and by the fact that Rebecca Northan, she of outside-the-box hits Blind Date and Goblin:Macbeth, is the director and writer.

Montreal: Boy Falls from the Sky, Jake Epstein’s delectable solo musical about the dark side of life on Broadway, concludes a tour at the Segal Centre (to Dec. 10), another theatre company indispensable to the Canadian musical theatre scene.

St John’s: White Rooster Productions is putting on Song Seekers: The Greenleaf & Mansfield Story (Dec. 7 to 9), about a schoolteacher and musicologist who helped preserve Newfoundland folk songs 100 years ago. It stars and was co-written by Petrina Bromley – heart and soul of the original cast of Come From Away – and is at the Majestic, a downtown venue renovated and reopened by the musical theatre company known as Terra Bruce Productions.

This week in theatre

– Ashtar Theatre, a Palestinian theatre company that offers training for young people, has asked theatre companies around the world to organize readings of The Gaza Monologues – a play it created in 2010 – timed to Nov. 29, the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Theatre Passe Muraille is hosting one in Toronto and Rumble Theatre, PTC and Theatre Conspiracy are hosting another in Vancouver. In lieu of royalties, Ashtar is asking for companies to donate to support its work delivering “psycho-social interventions for children, youth and adults using theatre and art as a medium for trauma release” in the West Bank.

– That Theatre Company, newly created by actor and cookie entrepreneur Craig Pike (yes, the one behind Craig’s Cookies), is mounting both parts of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America in association with Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto. Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, directed by Pike and featuring a cast that includes Christine Horne and Jim Mezon, run in rep until Dec. 17. I’ll be there Tuesday and Wednesday to review.