BWW Review: Against the Grain Theatre Champions Accessibility in Their Cozy, Emotional LA BOHÈME
One of the most unique opera experiences in Toronto this year is that of a classic story brought to life in a dive bar. The Tranzac Club's unassuming entry makes it easy to miss if you aren't looking for it, but upon entering the building there's an unshakeable feeling that something special is happening within.
That special something is Against the Grain Theatre's LA BOHÈME. The company has returned to the story-and production-that got them started back in 2010, taking Puccini's beloved story of struggling artists and reimagining it for a modern audience for their ninth anniversary.
Now set in downtown Toronto and 'transladapted' by stage director and librettist Joel Ivany, audiences meet aspiring writer Rodolfo (Marcel d'Entremont) and his roommate Marcello (Clarence Frazer), an art student studying at OCAD, who are living in an overpriced, underheated laneway unit where unused work is plastered on the wall and an endless supply of clutter adorns their shelves (set design by Adriana Bogaard, who also handles costume design). The arrival of their upstairs neighbour Mimì (Jonelle Sills) results in a love-at first-sight situation between herself and Rodolfo, which in turn sets the story of these friends and lovers into motion.
This LA BOHÈME is ideal for both opera aficionados and newcomers alike; I myself was not familiar with Puccini's version, but knew the musical adaptation RENT going into it. Regardless of your knowledge of classic Italian opera, the enigmatic cast in Against the Grain's production brings a high level of expertise to the music, and the small venue only highlights their skill. d'Entremont's smooth tenor and balance between anguish and comedy makes for a fantastic Rodolfo, and his chemistry with both Frazer and Sills really cements those relationships. Sills is a sweet, immediately endearing Mimì, and her pitch-perfect soprano stays soft even when she's delivering some of the character's more powerful musical moments. Frazer's powerful baritone makes for great contrast between Marcello and each character he sings with or against.
As his on-again-off-again partner, Musetta (Danika Loren) is ever-charming, ever-dramatic, and ridiculously fun to watch. In the act two bar scene, her "Musetta's Waltz" is delivered masterfully from a musical and theatrical angle; Loren is impossible to look away from, but the asides and chatter between main characters and the chorus, scattered around the venue, does make for a realistic interpretation of a night out at a Toronto bar. The two couples also perform a touching version of the act three closing number "Goodbye, sweet awakening in the morning!" that highlights each of their strengths nicely against the single piano instrumentation (music direction by David Eliakis).
Against the Grain's LA BOHÈME makes good use of its setting to open discussions about life in Toronto, most prominently the issues tied to housing and the cost of living. While the group finds comfort in each others' company, they still lead difficult lives. Rodolfo and Marcello are constantly cold, and to them and friends Colline (Giles Tomkins) and Schaunard (Andrew Adridge) a dinner of sardines is a feast. This is funny in the moment but is still a stark reminder of how difficult it can be to live in Toronto today.
The inclusive casting of this production also reveals an unsettling perspective in Rodolfo and Mimì's relationship. With the actors being a white man and a black woman, Rodolfo's jealousy, possessiveness, and accusations of disloyalty feel especially sinister. There's also the implication of Musetta's bisexuality-which isn't crucial to the story but still adds a nice bit of additional representation, really cementing this production as a modern one.
What makes this LA BOHÈME so special is how necessary the venue is to the success of Against the Grain's interpretation; although it's been on tour across western Canada and Ontario, and is headed to Yukon next, it was made for dive bars and cramped clubs. There's something magical about taking in this small, intimate story in a small, intimate setting. The characters feel like your own friends, making their triumphs sweeter and their misery more empathetic. Regardless of your experience with opera or with LA BOHÈME, this production is a win for inclusivity and accessibility, and speaks to the truths and difficulties of life as a young adult in Toronto.
Against the Grain Theatre's LA BOHÈME runs through October 25 at The Tranzac Club, 292 Brunswick Ave, Toronto, ON.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit http://againstthegraintheatre.com/la-boheme/
Main photo courtesy of the Banff Centre