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Review: TAKE THE MOMENT at Winter Garden

Cynthia Dale takes on Sondheim in this collection of winning autobiographical moments.

Review: TAKE THE MOMENT at Winter Garden

Taking on Sondheim is a daunting task, particularly in the year following the musical theatre giant's passing. It's an even more daunting task to mold his works to fit and frame one's own life story. Cynthia Dale, Canadian TV star of shows such as Street Legal, encourages us to TAKE THE MOMENT at her latest show at the Winter Garden, directed by Richard Ouzonian. Dale's winning voice and a thoughtful script distinguish this deeply personal show from simply a series of musical theatre covers.

Ably assisted by two pianists (David Terriault and Benjamin Kersey) a glittery black dress, and a blank stage, Dale takes us from the half-remembered scandals of her ancestors to a loving but turbulent stage family home. Later, her focus shifts briefly to career, from childhood forays onto TV sets and theatre auditions to the vagaries of the business on an aging actress. She uses Sondheim's catalogue as loosely connective tissue to illustrate and highlight her experiences.

Rather than the more traditional structure of presenting a memory then pausing to sing a full, semi-related song, Dale weaves snippets of Sondheim's work through her recollections, thirty seconds here, a minute there. She only occasionally stops to include a full song, giving those added power and emotion. It's an effective and refreshing technique, making the evening feel more like a cohesive story than an excuse for a cabaret.

Dale juxtaposes themes, some with typical presentation (a father's love represented through Sweeney Todd's "Not While I'm Around" or "No One Is Alone" from Into the Woods; a stage mother singing Gypsy's "Rose's Turn") and some more unusual (her father's death inspires Assassins' "Something Just Broke"). Instead of anything resembling the story of a young woman trapped in a store from childhood, she turns "I Remember" from Evening Primrose into a sorrowful reflection on her mother's struggle with dementia. She even incorporates a clever mashup or two, for example, swinging back and forth from "There's a Parade in Town" from Anyone Can Whistle to "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music to represent the varied emotions inherent in being a performer.

It's in the unusual treatment of songs where the magic really happens; while the more closely-related songs sometimes suffer from feeling appropriated, the ones completely freed from their original connotations feel new and exciting. Sometimes, a different delivery is all it takes; for example, "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from Gypsy is captivating as a lullaby.

Dale's script is filled with enchanting turns of phrase and poetic language. She speaks about not knowing the brain or heart had "right angles," or refers to the "emotional tinnitus" of a 24-hour news cycle and pandemic. Her descriptions of family members and their relationships are quite beautiful. The only downside to the language is that, while she speaks precisely and eloquently, the poetic and reminiscent aspect of the script leads to long stretches in a dreamy, detached delivery that makes it harder to connect with the performer.

When Dale breaks that delivery pattern to deliver a joke or sardonic aside, she makes eye contact and we can really see the fire in her eyes and personality. It's an effective technique, one I longed to see more of. For example, a scene where she describes the chaos of laying her father's ashes to rest strikes just the right delightful note of macabre humour and emotional catharsis. As well, her exploration of the moment that led her back to a love of theatre was electric; the performance came alive with her experience of coming back to life.

As a performer, Dale occasionally appeared a little (charmingly) nervous, but came into full confidence while singing and dancing. Her bright, appealing voice carries a range of songs well. A lithe dance number near the end was rousing; Dale is a graceful and talented dancer, and this talent could have been displayed more fully throughout.

Sondheim is a tall mountain to scale, but Dale shows that it's worth the climb. Her unique show, as the master put it, makes a hat where there never was a hat.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

From This Author - Ilana Lucas

Ilana Lucas is an English professor at Toronto’s Centennial College. She holds a BA in English and Theatre from Princeton University, and an MFA in Dramaturgy and Script Development from Columbia... (read more about this author)

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Review: TAKE THE MOMENT at Winter GardenReview: TAKE THE MOMENT at Winter Garden
June 25, 2022

Taking on Sondheim is a daunting task. It’s an even more daunting task to mold his works to fit and frame one’s own life story. Cynthia Dale encourages us to TAKE THE MOMENT at her show at the Winter Garden. Dale’s winning voice and a thoughtful script distinguish this deeply personal show from simply a series of musical theatre covers.