Derrick Chua’s 2017 Top 12 Fringe Picks

Beardoncé, one of the artists in this year's Fringe Festival. Photo by Tanja Tiziana

Last year, inspired by Tony Nappo’s weekly Nappoholics Anonymous, I offered twelve suggestions for shows to see at the Toronto Fringe, which apparently went pretty well. So the fine editors at Intermission are letting me at it again, and I’m highlighting a dozen shows I think are going to be pretty great at the 2017 Toronto Fringe.

Keep in mind that I have not actually seen any of these shows, so I’ve based this list (in alphabetical order) primarily on the artists involved whose work I think will be of particular interest to Intermission readers, as well as show descriptions in the program and press releases. Of course this is a wholly subjective exercise—and there’s no accounting for taste. But whether you choose to see these or others of the 160 shows on tap, I just hope you get out a lot, to support the approximately 1,200 artists taking part in this year’s Fringe who truly deserve that support.

1 – ABOUT TIME

One of Toronto Fringe’s favourite comedy duos, Templeton Philharmonic (Briana Templeton and Gwynne Phillips) were last seen by Fringe audiences at Next Stage with their award-winning Unbridled & Unstable. They return this year with a new sketch comedy revue that is apparently… well… about “time,” serving as a loosely chronological journey through the ages which explores the existential nature of time itself. Templeton and Phillips are joined on stage by guest performer Thom Stoneman to function as an occasional narrator, male presence and unexpected voice of reason, otherwise expect more of their surreal brand of comedy, tongue-in-cheek dance sequences and some fun at the expense of humanity’s foibles throughout history.

2 – BENDY SIGN TAVERN

Sex T-Rex are one of my, and Toronto Fringe’s, favourite comedy troupes. They have successfully spoofed genres such as the post-apocalypse (Wasteland), swashbuckling fantasy (Swordplay), westerns (Watch Out Wildkat!) and sci-fi (Leviathan), and now they take on… puppetry? Why not. Conor Bradbury, Julian Frid, Kaitlin Morrow, Seann Murray, and Danny Pagett take on the role of puppeteers, joined by Human Piano Man (and show composer) Elliott Loran in a puppet show—which is decidedly NOT for kids—performed at the Paddock Tavern. Think of it as a puppetronic interactive Canadian Cheers, where you can order pints from a puppet, catch the latest puppet sports on TV, and get caught up on puppet politics while eavesdropping on the bar staff falling in love, breaking up bar fights, serving rude businessmen, and breaking out into song.

3 – THE CLERGY PROJECT

A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a theatre… and it’s not the start of a joke. At least I don’t think it is. Instead, that’s apparently the true-life premise of this intriguing show from Tracey Erin Smith’s SOULO Theatre, bringing together three of Toronto’s prominent religious leaders to explore being a faith leader in 2017, and the life behind and beyond the cloak. Starring Rabbi Elyse Goldstein (City Shul), Reverend Shawn Newton (First Unitarian Congregation), and Father Daniel D. Brereton (Anglican Diocese), their stories are told with candour, humour, and compassion, and they are frank about their personal joys and struggles in faith and the navigation of societal prejudice and inflexibility.

4 – EVERYTHING THERE IS TO KNOW

There is a great team involved with this new musical written by Aaron Jensen who has performed, toured, and recorded with award-winning groups including Cadence, Countermeasure, and Retrocity. It’s directed by Dora Award–winner Lesley Ballantyne, choreographed by Susan Cuthbert, and produced by David Warrack, all long-time veterans of the Canadian musical theatre industry, with a terrific cast of Quinn Dooley, Devin Herbert, Karolina Kotus, Sara Stahmer, and Christopher Wilson. The story centres around a young girl (Dooley) who finds escape through her imagination as the world crumbles around her, both within her immediate family and on a larger global scale, and is an adventure drama, coming-of-age story and political satire all in one musical. Can’t wait to hear Jensen’s music sung by this cast.

5 – HANDS DOWN

I wouldn’t normally eagerly anticipate a play written by someone who last wrote a play in high school, but I’ll make an exception when that person is Warren P. Sonoda, who may not be familiar to the Fringe crowd, but is one of Canada’s most prolific filmmakers (Trailer Park Boys, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Coopers’ Camera) and a recent Emmy Award–nominee for PBS’s Odd Squad. So watch out for this twisted comedy about ambition, endurance, and finding out what really matters… while trying to keep your hands on a car for one hundred hours to win it. It’s well cast with Xavier de Guzman, Mathew Isen, Jane Luk, Colin Petierre, Jen Pogue, Christian Potenza, and Lauren Vandenbrook.

6 – LIPSTIQUE

The last time Mix Mix Dance Collective was at the Toronto Fringe in 2013 with Jack Your Body, and it went so well that they were invited to remount that show to great success at the 2014 Next Stage Theatre Festival. Powerhouse duo co-founder dancer/choreographers Emily Law and Ashley Perez are back to celebrate the feminine in this modern take on Canadian street dance, bringing to the stage dances such as waacking, house, and hip-hop, while exploring issues that affect women in modern-day culture. In addition to Law and Perez, the talented, diverse, and dynamic group of dancers include Jasmyn Fyffe, Kristine Flores, Sze-Yang Lam Ade, Jelani Ade Lam, and Sarah Tumaliuan.

7 – MADDIE’S KARAOKE BIRTHDAY PARTY

This is an intriguing collaboration between Byron Laviolette, best known to Fringe audiences as co-creator and director of Morro & Jasp, and songwriters Barbara Johnston and Suzy Wilde, who have collaborated on previous Fringe hits Summerland and The Fence. I can’t wait to see what they come up with for Maddie’s 25th birthday party as we wait for her to show up, with five of her best friends trying to figure out what’s going on while keeping the party’s spirits high. This intimate interactive show features a cast that includes some of the best musical theatre voices in town: Tess Barao, Kelly Holiff, Shane Hollon, Jeigh Madjus, Erica Peck, and Joseph Zita.

8 – OLIVE COPPERBOTTOM: A NEW MUSICAL

Following the international success of her Promise & Promiscuity, Penny Ashton returns to Toronto swapping Jane Austen for Charles Dickens, bringing orphaned hero Olive and a gaggle of Victorian characters to life in this new one-woman musical. Our story begins as the death of her beloved mother leaves Olive in the care of Mrs. Sourtart at the Whackthechild Home for Wayward Waifs and Strays, then twists and turns from there. You certainly don’t want to miss any opportunity to catch one of New Zealand’s great cultural exports singing, dancing, and fighting her way through the best of times and, well… the best of times.

9 – A PETER N’ CHRIS-TMAS CAROL

Perennial Fringe favourites, comedy duo Peter N’ Chris (Peter Carlone and Chris Wilson) return with a brand new sketch show which parodies the classic Dickens tale and every other Christmas movie they possibly can in an hour, so I’m expecting a bit of Home Alone, Die Hard, A Christmas Story and Frosty as well. Then not that it matters, but apparently the plot has something to do with Chris being grumpy about the holidays and its materialism, while Peter loves the holidays for that exact reason – the gift giving and the gift getting. And so it goes. If there’s such a thing as a Christmas theatre classic in July, this show has a good chance to be that thing.

10 – THE SEAT NEXT TO THE KING

This year’s Fringe New Play Contest Winner, Steven Elliott Jackson’s play, directed by Tanisha Taitt, starts in September 1964. President Johnson is in the office of the White House and the civil rights movement has made strides following the incredible March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In a public washroom of a Washington, DC park, two lives linked to two of the country’s most important figures collide, when a white man (Conor Ling) seeking a sexual encounter meets a black male stranger (Kwaku Okyere). Jackson’s play tackles issues of masculinity, racism and sexuality as two disparate human beings search for a shared connection.

11 – SHAKESPEARE’S GHOSTBUSTERS

“Pray I beseech thee, audience fair, To hear this tale of actions rare! If spirits be the problem that troubles thee most, Whom wilt thou call? The busters of ghosts!” Comedy & Fringe veterans who have appeared in various troupes and shows, The Coincidence Men (Kerry Griffin, Rob Hawke, Ralph MacLeod, Gord Oxley, Marcel St. Pierre) are joined by Tim Blair, Patrice Goodman, and Jessica Perkins, along with music director Jordan Armstrong, in presenting the cult classic as it would have been, had it been written by William Shakespeare. Eighties nostalgia and Shakespearian text—yes, they’re crossing those streams.

12 – SHE GREW FUNNY

Fresh off a stint as contributing writer on the Baroness Von Sketch Show, Writers Guild of Canada award-winner Joanne O’Sullivan (This Hour Has 22 Minutes) returns to her performing roots, directed by Dora Award–winner Chris Earle. Known for wringing wry comedy from everyday life, She Grew Funny goes deeper and darker than her past work, described as “the sometimes hard, often funny, true story of how my life changed when my daughter turned 6, the same age that my mother died.” After a decade away, I look forward to welcoming Joanne back to the stage.

And finally, if bakers can do thirteen to a dozen, I figure so can I, because I wanted to highlight one final show:

13 – TRUE NORTH MIXTAPE

I’m cheating a bit with this one, since I normally highlight solely original work, and the music being performed here is not original, but the show itself sure is. Just in time to celebrate Canada 150, this is a tribute to some of Canada’s greatest music, remixed, repurposed and reimagined to tackle issues of home, identity, love and inclusivity. Directed by Ann Merriam (Summerland, Blood Ties) and performed by a cast of over fifty members, ages thirteen and up, including a group from the inaugural year of Teen Fringe (Fringe’s performing arts bootcamp) and the Wexford Gleeks, an award-winning show choir from Wexford School for the Arts. Should be quite the show.

The Toronto Fringe Festival is on from July 5 to July 16 in venues all across the city. For tickets or more information, click here

Written By

Derrick is an entertainment lawyer and independent theatre producer. He was president of the Toronto Fringe for ten years, and holds the record for most shows seen at a single Toronto Fringe: 76.


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