Toronto’s fringe benefits

Fest boasts four high-profile prod'ns in U.S.

TORONTO — Ever since “Urinetown” made it to Broadway, people have been aware of the role the New York Fringe Festival can play in helping a show get started.

But four different high-profile American productions this past fall seem to indicate the Toronto Fringe may prove to be an even more fertile breeding ground.

Founded in 1989, the Toronto Fringe offered 134 shows last season in 22 venues for 12 days playing to an estimated 45,000 people. Over the years, it has been the impetus for further Canadian productions of its more successful shows. Until recently, however, the magic hasn’t extended across the border.

That all seems to have changed during the past few months, with a quartet of shows crossing the border with the kind of ease NAFTA seemed created for.

Leading the pack is “The Drowsy Chaperone,” currently enjoying a critically acclaimed run at the Ahmanson Theater in L.A., with a Broadway transfer likely either this season or next.

The affectionate look at 1920s musicals was written by Bob Martin, Don McKellar, Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison. It was first seen in Toronto in July 1999, where it became an instant smash. It was remounted at an alternative venue, the Theatre Passe Muraille, that December and given a new full-scale production as part of the Mirvish subscription season in June 2001.

That was when it came to the attention of producer Roy Miller, who fell in love with it and vowed to take it to Broadway. He had to wait until fall 2004, when a staging at the Festival of New Musicals created sufficient buzz to bring Michael Ritchie, newly appointed artistic director of the Center Theater Group, and Tony Award-winning producer Kevin McCollum (“Avenue Q”) into the fan club.

Together, they brought it to L.A., with Broadway clearly in their sights.

There were similar hopes for “Da Kink in My Hair,” Trey Anthony’s liberating look at the lives of black Toronto women as seen through the prism of a beauty salon. It began at the Toronto Fringe in 2001, was remounted at Theatre Passe Muraille in 2003 and, once again, brought by the Mirvishes to their subscription season, playing the 2,000-seat Princess of Wales Theater for a record-breaking run.

American director Marion J. Caffey saw it in Toronto and brought it down to the San Diego Repertory Theater in September, keeping some of the original cast and restaging it himself. Reviews and audience response were decent, but no future plans have been announced.

The 2001 Fringe hit “J.O.B.: The Hip-Hop Musical,” written and performed by a pair of Montrealers named Jerome Sable and Eli Batalion, has been expanded and revived in Toronto three times since its first performance.

Under the title “J.O.B.: The Hip-Hopera,” it just concluded a successful six-week run at Hollywood’s Stella Adler Theater, with more touring dates in the works.

And finally, Charlie Ross’s “One-Man Star Wars Trilogy,” originally seen at the 2002 Toronto Fringe, wraps up its announced five-month run at the Lambs Theater in New York Dec. 31, before embarking on an extensive North American tour.

Derrick Chua, independent producer and president of the Toronto Fringe board, says, “This kind of activity has definitely helped the Fringe, and the caliber of applicants has increased dramatically in the past few years because they realize there’s tremendous potential here. It can definitely be a stepping stone to something bigger.”

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