Hype for a reason: AtG's La bohèmeReview
With a few sneak peeks of the show under my belt, and more than a few dear friends involved in its creation, this bit of writing about Against the Grain Theatre’s revived La bohème will hardly be the most objective thing I’ve ever published.
There’s so much that’s simple about La bohème - in its original Italian form, or à-la-AtG with its new English libretto - that it’s almost a sure success. The music is catchy and beautiful, and paring down Puccini’s orchestration to a single piano doesn’t change that - especially when played with the care and abandon of Music Director Topher Mokrzewski. The story of love, poverty, and friendship retains enough timelessness that no “concept” is needed to bring it to contemporary life.
Yet “sure success” is hyperbole, and even if it were a true guarantee of standing ovations and rave reviews, AtG’s Bohème is no passive production. Surely, the show has the ability to travel to Toronto in 2017; yet the life and magic of its present-day adaptation lie in the details. It’s the mention of Future Bistro, of BMV Books, and of Bloor West that replace the Café Momus and the Latin Quarter. It’s typewriters and power outages and “cougars” (the human kind, not the felines) that fill in the fine points of this familiar world.
To be poor in that “Bohemian” way - which can include stubborn choices of purchasing art supplies over healthy groceries - now translates to the kinds of young people who own iPhones and electric guitars, and who spend frivolously the money that does come their way. It’s another reason Bohème updates well; the practical part of you wants to shout, “if you have money for a damn bonnet, Rodolfo, you have money to eat!” It’s a similar source of frustration in Ivany’s new libretto; it’s an exasperating thing to see Marcello pull out his pricey phone to take a picture of the wastebasket fire they’ve started in lieu of paying for heating.
The thing is, it’s a true picture. Who among us hasn’t looked at our closets or desks or collection of wristwatches during those particularly thrifty months? In Puccini’s La bohème, and in Joel Ivany’s adaptation, it’s incredible how the unwise and stubborn decisions of the characters become overshadowed by the truths in the rest of the story.
Along with the design team of Adriana Bogaard (sets and costumes) and Noah Feaver (lighting), the cast is almost entirely new in this revival of the 2011 production. Owen McCausland (Rodolfo), Andrew Love (Marcello), Micah Schroeder (Schaunard), and Kenneth Kellogg (Colline) had easy chemistry as the four roommates. They’re all impressive voices, unique and honest and feeding right into the kind of person they brought to their Bohemian characters.
Kimy McLaren (Mimì) sang with warmth and heart, and she had that mix of humility and boldness that can often make Mimì a mystery. Adanya Dunn was a total riot as Musetta. Her voice was too loud, she took up too much space, and whatever game she was playing in Act II, she gave no shits about blatantly cheating. Greg Finney (Benoît/Alcindoro), gave the audience some much-needed laughs. He was a totally Canadian, totally untrustworthy landlord as Benoît, who had uncanny pacing of his own drunkenness; as Alcindoro, he was the perfect picture of a guy taking out - and putting up with - a pretty lady he paid for; he treated equally his castmates and his audience, all of whom were witness to his dirty little secrets as they came tumbling out at the bar.
There are a few moments that always kill me in La bohème. There’s the sexy “buona sera/good night” that Rodolfo says to Mimì in Act I; there’s that that part in Act IV where he tells her she’s as pretty as a sunrise, and she corrects his poetry, saying it should be “sunset”. There’s the look on Schaunard’s face when their fun and games pull a sudden 180, and he’s faced with the scene of a dying woman and a very sad friend.
All these moments got me in this version, too - they were mercifully preserved in Ivany’s translation. But the tears didn’t really come until everyone took their bows. I suppose having friends in the biz means that it gets harder to get swept away in tragic stories; when you’ve shared silly jokes with the tenor, it can be harder to see him purely as a grief-stricken Rodolfo.
They’re likely not the tears that the AtG team was going for, but seeing friends and colleagues line up to take a well-deserved bow - technically, that’s an earned emotional reaction from the audience, right?
Advance ticket purchases for AtG’s La bohème are sold out, but there are a number of rush tickets available before each show. Shows begin at 8pm at The Tranzac Club, and AtG suggests lining up as early as 7pm for these tickets. in case you wonder if it’s worth it - the show is sold out for a reason. Bravi, team.
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