I’m almost a little mad at Mixtape Projects.
The promotional materials for their newest show, Killing Time: A Game Show Musical, give little away. A musical, a murder, a mystery. Ta-da. The bare details, setting the stage for a pretty straightforward, albeit whimsical musical experience, right?
Nothing could have prepared me for the side-splitting, tear-streaming, guffaw-inducing hilarity that unfolded on stage before me on preview night. And it wasn’t just funny: this murder mystery show about a game show was tight. The stunning cast of eight hit every note, every punchline, every exaggerated pose and expression with a commitment and conviction that would have felt right at home on a Broadway stage.
The character choices made throughout this show were absolutely delicious. From the second production assistant Todd — played by an exquisite Ben Yoganathan — stepped onto the stage, it was obvious that the actors and directors had done their work. Weary, overworked, and with an effortless voice that would make Ben Platt cry, Yoganathan sets the pace and tone for the rest of the show, and despite his character’s relatively quiet demeanour, he delivers a powerful and energetic performance that is never overshone by his larger-than life castmates.
Whoever cast Killing Time: A Game Show Musical deserves a substantial raise. Every actor felt perfectly suited to their character, both vocally and with regards to their performance. Musicals as a genre tend to be heightened, performative; somehow, each of the performers manages to find naturalism in characters who might be better described as caricatures.
Nick Dolan was slimily captivating as game show host and superstar fragrance promoter Sloane Sherman, in an unhinged yet captivating performance that I can only describe as a modern-day King George á-la-Jonathan-Groff. Madelaine Hodges finds the perfect balance between presentation and naturalism as the overly dramatic showgirl Alexa, mugging and posing as if her life depends on without losing her character’s inner needs. Like Yoganathan, Kendra Cordick finds the funny in a proverbial “straight-man” role as producer-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown Wendy, keeping the energy alive despite having a more reserved character. Kole Durnford’s bumbling and shorts-clad Lieutenant Gregory Green is just wild enough to send the audience into tears of laughter without distracting from the scenes; he is the perfect contrast to Holly Scott-Black’s film-noir style Detective Madeleine Murphy, who feels wrenched out an entirely different musical in the best way possible.
Claudia Adamo and Steven Hao play game show contestants Emma and Shaun, two over-the-top but utterly convincing weirdos with their own reasons for being on the show: these two in particular nail every single joke, committing fiercely to their characters without reservations or care for an audience that can barely breathe from laughter. The contrast between the two characters is delightfully vast, and Adamo’s focused intensity throughout the show emphasises Hao’s innocent charm rather than overpowering him.
Despite that long list of delightful performances, this is a show that does not simply rest on the work of its actors. Again: this show is TIGHT. Margot Greve’s choreography is timed perfectly with the music, and the actors hit every beat without exception, a particularly impressive accomplishment considering Greve is also the show’s director and book writer. Ben Kopp’s music is nothing short of brilliant lunacy, with off-the-wall lyrics and an eclectic style that manage to meld together perfectly into a cohesive show. Despite the fast pace and often faster lyrics that comprise the 80-min show, the performers keep up with ease, a testament to the rehearsal process and casting for the show. Greve and Kopp make a dynamic duo, and are definitely voices to watch in Toronto’s theatre scene.
The stage of the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse feels almost too small for a production of this calibre. The benefit of the intimate space is that it allowed the audience to catch every micro-expression and minute gesture, and really appreciate the character choices. At times, fluctuating sound levels and powerful voices were overwhelming in the tiny theatre, especially when combined with the enthusiastic band tucked in front of the stage.
The design of the show transports the audience straight to the set of a 1980s game show, complete with an eye-catching turquoise and orangey-pink colour palette. Alessia Urbani’s costumes are lovely, coordinated without being overly-matching and perfectly calibrated to individual performers and their characters. The simple set, designed by Theo Belc, effectively creates a game show environment without overwhelming the stage. Set pieces are seamlessly moved on and off stage without distracting from the action — a testament to the thought and care that went into crafting the show.
And the gags — the gags! Nothing is overplayed: a recurring joke where props are thrown to the performers from off stage hit just enough times to be memorable without becoming old. Durnford’s ever-shortening shorts shrink to the very brink of decency in one of the best gags of the night. Hao is Shaun and Shaun is, well… just Shaun. It’s a bit that never gets tired and grows funnier with each recurrence.
For the preview performance, two of the performers wore masks for the audience’s safety (this was the only performance where that was necessary, every other show will proceed as normal). To my surprise, it didn’t detract from the performance at all. In fact, the masks worked for those characters: both Hao and Yoganathan were able to translate a mild inconvenience into an incredibly appropriate character choice. Both performers were able to communicate clearly through their masks, both with their facial expressions and vocal prowess (Yoganathan’s voice gave me goosebumps on multiple occasions), and what some performers might have considered a potentially show-ruining circumstance had little to no negative impact.
The successes of Killing Time: A Game Show Musical are threefold: astounding, solid direction and production, effective design elements that heighten the action without distracting, and thoroughly committed performances that bring the whole thing to life. Sure, there were a few questionable choices: a mysterious man in an incredibly revealing blue morphsuit (who I believe is Durnford in another costume that toes the line of decency) received one of the biggest laughs of the night in the opening number and then never returned to the stage. Similarly, the show opens with Yoganathan sternly instructing the audience on how to use the applause sign overhead. The choice to use the audience as a live studio audience works perfectly at the beginning and end of the show, but seems to be forgotten throughout the rest of it. Both moments earned a laugh at the preview performance, but they could have been used more consistently throughout the piece to justify those choices.
But nothing short of a complete malfunction could have derailed the train of laughter that permeated the night. Killing Time: A Game Show Musical was one of the most enjoyable shows I’ve seen in years, and I can’t wait to see what this young group cooks up next.
Killing Time: A Game Show Musical runs at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse until May 8th, with nightly performances starting at 8 pm. To purchase tickets, visit the Mixtape Projects eventbrite page.