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Mira Sucharov


by Mira Sucharov, August 16, 2011


[This article first appeared in the  Ottawa Jewish Bulletin]


On a recent family trip to London, my husband and I took our kids to see their first big-budget, West End musical. Planning in advance, we offered the kids a choice of age-appropriate fair: Lion King or Wicked. Wicked was their choice, and off we went on the subway from our friends’ home in North London to the theatre district. The play was mesmerizing, the intermission confection was sticky and sweet, and the lobby, bathed in thematic green light was charming, atmospheric, and great for photos.


The plot is very nuanced, so nuanced that I needed my 7 year old to fill in some gaps for me. It was a powerful meditation on friendship, perception and the nature of evil. The vocals were fabulous and the costumes were dazzling. After a long show, we people watched in the train station before squeezing onto the rush hour northbound tube.


Along with their Broadway counterparts, West End musicals are second to none. But some of my most powerful memories of experiencing stage musicals was in a much simpler venue: attending the productions of our local high school -- Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate -- when I was growing up in Winnipeg.


Going with my mom to see JWC’s Guys and Dolls in 1980 gave me a taste for Damon Runyon’s New York; The songs of Oliver! brought me closer to Charles Dickens’ social justice concerns and gave me an appreciation for the 1968 film, one I passed onto my kids weeks before mucking about on the Thames.


But when I was ten, and saw Joseph Wolinsky’s production of West Side Story, I was positively transformed. Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents and Robbins became the stuff of my artistic fantasies.


I recall my thrill at camp a few months later, when I looked around the chadar ochel and spotted Tony, Chino, Baby John and Diesel, now moonlighting as counsellors. My friend Ara and I spent much of our free time that session perfecting song and dance numbers from the show. “Chino” helped choreograph our “America” number, and “Diesel” painstakingly scribbled the lyrics to “Gee, Officer Krupke” for us. As it happened, I would end up performing “America” years later, as Rosalia in my own high school production of the show in Vancouver. Being onstage in a full auditorium was humbling and thrilling, but not the same as dancing across the freshly-cut grass of the Manitoba prairie minutes before shabbat.


I treasured the keepsake theatre programs, tacking them to my bedroom walls. I learned the songs, and memorized the cast lists. Last spring I found myself in Winnipeg again, visiting friends. I met someone at a gathering; taking a trip down memory lane, she happened to mention that she had starred as Maria in that storied 1982 Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate production of West Side Story. Strange, I mused, I don’t recall that. I turned away, and seconds later stopped in my tracks. “Wait a minute, weren’t there two actors playing Mariah that year?” I asked. “I must have seen it on the alternating night.” Turned out I was right. My musical universe was restored.


When we get the chance, my husband and I try to take our kids to experience local community musical productions in Ottawa. At four, my daughter sat through the entirety of a neighbourhood production of Sound of Music, featuring some friends from our chavurah. My kids were charmed by Merivale High School’s Once Upon a Mattress, co-starring their cousin and a youth leader from our shul. They were intrigued to see their own dad doing Shakespearean sword fighting and starring as the murder victim in a local mystery in The Glebe. And my son might remember hearing “Tradition!” when he was in utero and I was singing and dancing in our neighbourhood production of Fiddler on the Roof.


My kids will always remember Wicked as their first professional stage musical. But nothing can replace that first local high school production, watching a stage where dreams and community come together in perfect harmony.


I hear West Side Story is coming to the National Arts Centre this year, as is Oliver! Maybe I’ll dig up my old Betamax videos of those high school productions before taking my kids to see the professionals again. After all, they should be reminded what a bunch of local teens singing, dancing and acting their hearts out can do to a willing audience. It helps insert us straight into the dynamic tradition that is the inspiring and infectious form of the hallowed stage musical. That is the magic of theatre.

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