Theatre review: Tosca Cafe – this show really shines in the dancer’s world

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There are many wonderful moments within the two worlds that co-exist in the Vancouver Playhouse / Theatre Calgary presentation of Tosca Café but these come mostly from the world of the dancers who take us on a almost century’s long journey through the history of this San Francisco landmark.

Taking its inspiration from another nearly wordless blend of theatre and movement, Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling’s 1997 The Overcoat, Tosca Cafe uses a similar combination of theatre and dance using the real-life Tosca Café as its backdrop.  As each decade progresses through the café’s history, starting in 1919 when it was originally built, we are given an indicative dance and song from that particular time: a jitterbug, a free-spirited hippie dance, disco.  Interspersed with these musical decades is the music of Puccini and some beautifully executed ballet.

Layered on top of this musical and dance journey through the twentieth century is the story of the owner of the Tosca Café played by the talented Dean Paul Gibson who provides some of the best moments amongst the actors in the show’s slight narrative.  One scene in particular stands out as Gibson accompanies ex-National Ballet of Canada member Sabina Allemann in an achingly beautiful dance that brought tears.  Also among the actors on stage is Annie Purcell as the young orphan that ends up in the owner’s care.  Like Gibson, Purcell also gets a ballet duet as she plays with a paper swan while the ballerina mimics these movements in a brilliantly executed ballet sequence en pointe.  The third member of the cast, Gregory Wallace as the musician who is also welcomed into the café under criminal circumstances, doesn’t fare as well here as the other members of the acting trio and is relegated to running from the law and dancing with mops.

The comedic elements of the show are handled by veteran Vancouver performer Peter Anderson.  Anderson, who like Gibson also appeared in The Overcoat, brings his trademark physicality to a number of different roles throughout the evening.  But much like the rest of the show, Anderson’s physical comedy only works in spurts, with his wiry duet with Allemann a highlight.

It is perhaps not surprising that even without benefit of the program one can easily spot the dancers from the actors.  Allemann, Sara Hogrefe, Kyle Schaefer, Nol Simonse, Cindymarie Small and Canadian ballet legend Rex Harrington, all bring much needed drama to their dance performances and since they carry much of the show on their shoulders they need to be, and are, at the top of their games here.

A scene from the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company presentation of Tosca Cafe
A scene from the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company presentation of Tosca Cafe

Set designer Douglas W Schmidt brings the Tosca Café to life with a realistic and authentic set, even providing a few small surprises as the show marches through time.  Robert de La Rose’s costumes are authentic to the various decades and Robert Wierzell lights it all with perfection.

While a unique experiment in combining the worlds of theatre and dance, Tosca Café really shines when we are in the dancer’s world.

3 Out of 5 Stars Tosca Cafe

Created and staged by Carey Perloff and Val Caniparoli.  A Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company and Theatre Calgary presentation of an American Conservatory Theater of Sasn Francisco production.  On stage at the Vancouver Playhouse through October 29, 2011.  Visit for tickets and information.

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