Through The Gates (Musical Works in Concert) 2012 SummerWorks Review

Since its inception three years ago, SummerWorks’ Musical Works in Concert has provided a platform and audience for emerging musical theatre creators to showcase their works in-development.

Musical Works in Concert are the musical theatre equivalent of a staged-reading of a play; the actors sing standing behind music stands, a live band accompanies them but there are no costumes and only minimal scenery and lighting, the director (Adam Brazier) sits off to the side of the stage and reads stage directions aloud. While we’re not seeing a finished product it’s an amazing opportunity to get a peek at a new piece while it’s just starting to take form.

The one-night-only performance on Monday evening was completely sold-out, a long standby line of local musical theatre fans ensured that The Theatre Centre was packed to the rafters. The crowd was a veritable who’s who of the Toronto musical theatre community; actors, composers, musical directors, artistic directors and producers. At one point a thought crossed my mind, “If a gas leak springs in the building, it would annihilate musical theatre in Toronto.”

We were assembled for an in-concert performance of Through the Gates, a new musical about the life of Siddhārtha Gautama (Buddha) by Scott Christian and Daniel Cummings.

Siddhārtha (Evan Alexander Smith) is a prince born to King Shudodana (Sterling Jarvis). Spurred by a prophesy from the priest Asita (Julian Richings), Shudodana attempts to shield Siddhārtha from ever learning of suffering, sickness and old age. In adolescence the insatiably curious Siddhārtha becomes an increasing challenge for his chariot driver Channah (Jonathan Tan) and would-be lover Yashodara (Ma-Anne Dionisio).

I thought Buddha’s life was an interesting subject for a musical. While the story has been tackled in other forms of popular entertainment before, like the 1993 film Little Buddha starring Keanu Reeves as Siddhārtha, it’s often told in the detached, distant, matter-of-fact manner in which myths are relayed. I was really curious to see if the story could work as a musical.

With its small cast of five principle roles and the current arrangement for a five-piece band the work has the feel of an intimate chamber musical but the book and the score hint that it could be expanded for a larger staging.

I thought the light touch to the story and the pop-influenced arrangements gave the piece an almost Disney-esque quality. On the other hand, the musicalization of the story also imbues the characters with a humanity and relays emotions that don’t often come across in usual tellings of the Buddha story.

The one-act musical focuses on the first half of Siddhārtha’s life and then skips over the seminal events later in his life, including the moment where he attains enlightenment, but I guess that means there’s plenty of fodder to expand into a second act.

I’m looking forward to tracking the development of Through the Gates and seeing future staged versions of this promising work.