Against the Grain Theatre revived their 2013 choreographed Messiah last night Harbourfront Centre. It’s quite heavily reworked from the 2013 edition and I think the changes are an improvement. The creative team of Topher Mokrzewski (Music), Joel Ivany (Stage direction) and Jenn Nichols (choreography) remains the same as does the overall “look and feel”. The soloists are supported here by a 16 strong chorus and 18 instrumentalists.
Messiah doesn’t have a linear narrative, excepting the grandest of the grand theological one, so staging it requires that the producers decide what it’s “about”. Here, we are told, it’s the individual life journeys of the soloists bound for an unknown destination. I could go on at length about that and other potential choices but I’ll leave that for a separate piece.
Here the journey is largely about casting off illusions and inhibitions (and clothes) and, while the soloists each have their individual journeys there is a sort of unifying character played brilliantly by one of the chorus tenors, Joshua Wales. There’s lots to like in the stage action. The gestural language of 2013 has been built on and good use is made of the additional space and theatrical resources of the theatre (i.e. this is a proper theatre with proper lights and so on). Once again full use is made of the aisles, which will occasionally hard on the neck, is sonically and dramatically effective.
It seemed like baritone Stephen Hegedus got far more than his fair share of the key staging moments and certainly got two of the comic highlights. Inevitably “All we like sheep” got the shuffling, baahing treatment with a very confused looking Owen McCausland trapped in a flock of shuffling and rotating sheep while Stephen shuffled, snuffled and bleated his way around the trumpets and parts adjacent. Then there was “Behold, I tell you a mystery” where he stripped down to a shiny gold body stocking before launching into “The trumpet shall sound”.
It’s tempting to go into a blow by blow but not, I think helpful, so I’ll just close this section by mentioning the almost unbearable (in a good way) “He was despised” where Owen tries to engage with each member of the chorus in turn and is serially rejected. I also think it needs to be pointed out that this is all choreographed, not acted. I wouldn’t call it dance exactly but it calls for a fluency of movement that is really impressive for people who are not primarily dancers. Everyone was good here but Joshu Wales and female solists Andrea Ludwig and Miriam Khalil were quite exceptional.
The singing was extremely good too. Stephen Hegedus was firm toned, with plenty of volume and drama. Owen McCausland sang beautifully with a rich tone and perfect diction. He could sing this role anywhere I think. Andrea Ludwig has an exquisite but less than huge voice and it was heard to good effect in the reasonably intimate space of the Harbourfront Centre. Miriam Khalil’s rich middle and lower registers were particularly effective in “I know that my redeemer liveth”. The chorus; mostly very young, produced a very different sound from a big choir. With only four on a part and lots of stage action a perfect blend was hardly to be expected but I ended up very much liking the much more spontaneous sound. The band was more than big enough for the space and the brass was really quite dramatic. It’s funny how 18 musicians in a space like Harbourfront can produce an apparently bigger, bolder sound than the TSO in the acoustic wasteland of Roy Thomson Hall. Topher’s tempi seemed on the slow side quite a lot of the time but maybe that’s a function of all the stage action?
This is a very different Messiah and one that’s come a long way since the 2013 edition. One can, and at some point I will, ask a lot of the questions about the dramatic interpretation but it’s by turns amusing and touching and the musical values are high. definitely worth seeing.
Against the Grain’s production of Handel’s Messiah can be seen at The Harbourfront Centre tonight through Saturday.
Photo credits: Darryl Block