Dusty props and tears of joy: returning to live theatre ‘feels fantastic’ for local artists

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When John Gray stepped onto the stage of the Royal Alexandra Theatre in early November, he discovered props sitting on a table, covered in a thin layer of dust.

“It was like a time capsule,” said Gray, the production stage manager for the Toronto company of “Come From Away.”

Everything in the theatre was left in place after the performance of March 13, 2020, after which COVID-19 restrictions forced the shutdown of theatres and other public spaces. The props were exactly where the actors had laid them down at the end of that performance.

Now, 19 months later, indoor musical theatre is finally coming back to Toronto and the GTA, and behind-the-scenes professionals such as Gray are brushing off the dust, checking the equipment, and adapting systems to assure safety and peace of mind for theatre companies and audiences alike.

The comeback “feels fantastic,” said Gray. “Emailing the cast, starting to give them information: they are so excited and so primed … They will need to calm down because some of them, they will not be able to sustain this level of vibrating energy every day.”

The Toronto company of “Come From Away” is going back to the basics of rehearsal this month, reading the script together around a table before getting on their feet with resident director Dayna Tekatch and Tony Award-winning original director Christopher Ashley, who will visit from New York.

There are three new cast members joining the company: Kyle Brown will play the roles of Bob and others, and Jeremy Carver-James and Sarah Nairne are understudies, bringing the total understudies to eight. Gray called these additions “COVID insurance”: the show can’t take any risks with performers who are feeling unwell or waiting on COVID-19 test results.

Four other productions of “Come From Away” have already reopened worldwide: on Broadway, in London, England, in Australia and on an American tour.

“It’s wonderful to see the hundreds of people that work on every single company returning to work and being supported by the theatre communities around the world,” said David Hein, co-creator of the show.

“Come from Away” is not the only Newfoundland-set musical to open in Toronto this month. “No Change in the Weather” will play at the CAA Theatre beginning Friday following a short run in St. John’s and a multi-year development process. It will be the first fully staged production with live actors in any theatre owned by Mirvish Productions since the pandemic started.

The creative force behind the show is Bob Hallett, a St. John’s native and founding member of the band Great Big Sea.

In recent years Hallett has turned his energies to musical theatre — he’s a music consultant on “Come From Away” — and paired with philanthropist Walter Schroeder to bring “No Change in the Weather” to life.

The jukebox musical features 22 songs whose unifying factor “is that they talk about life in Newfoundland,” said Hallett. Some of the songs are well known, such as “Sonny’s Dream” by Ron Hynes, and some “have rarely been heard off the island.”

The farcical plot is set at a wake, a prefuneral gathering that is “very important in Newfoundland … Secrets are revealed and scores are settled,” Hallett said.

An earlier version of the show played briefly in Toronto in 2019, and the pandemic provided a chance for further creative development.

His show is different from “Come From Away,” Hallett said, in that the focus is squarely on Newfoundland people while “Come From Away” is about the passengers of planes forced to land in Gander in the wake of Sept. 11, as well as residents of Gander and surrounding areas.

“No Change in the Weather” is “more raw, more unguarded, and the humour has all the sharpness and edge and crazy that Newfoundlanders among themselves bring to the table,” said Hallett.

The Shaw Festival is also in the process of putting a successful musical back onstage. “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn,” which it first produced in 2019, has returned for a second seasonal run.

Director Kate Hennig described the joy and gratitude at being back at work on the production, particularly since loosened restrictions meant cast members could take their masks off during rehearsals.

“I almost wept,” said Hennig. “I was like, I can hear your voice and I can see your face.”

As with “Come from Away,” Shaw has added two new cast members to the company as swings: understudies who learn multiple roles.

The show includes many beloved musical numbers from the Berlin songbook including “Cheek to Cheek” and “White Christmas.”

An emotional moment in rehearsal came during the “sitzprobe,” when the orchestra and performers play and sing the show together for the first time. It was in the Festival Theatre instead of a rehearsal hall as usual, with the brass section in the orchestra pit and the keyboard players in another room connected by video camera for maximum artist safety.

“Members of our company were crying … hearing live music is something we’ve all missed,” said Hennig.

Shaw is selling tickets to “Holiday Inn” and its other seasonal show, “A Christmas Carol,” at up to about 96 per cent capacity, said executive director Tim Jennings, blocking off the first rows in each theatre to keep a distance between performers and audiences.

The shows are selling well: “I’m very optimistic,” said Jennings. “The audiences started buying very quickly the second that the 100 per cent capacity announcement was made.”

Hallett reports brisk sales for “No Change in the Weather” as well. “We’re really pleased to see our faith is being rewarded and that audiences are coming back to the theatre,” he said.

“Come from Away” begins at the Royal Alexandra Theatre Dec. 15 and “No Change in the Weather” is at the CAA Theatre Nov. 19 to 27. See mirvish.com for tickets or call 1-800-461-3333. “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” and “A Christmas Carol” run at the Shaw Festival through Dec. 23. See shawfest.com or call 1-800-511-7429.

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