Review: AtG’s Messiah (Against The Grain Theatre)

AtGs Messiah

Exquisite choreography pair with exceptional voices in this adaptation of Messiah at Toronto’s Opera House

I am pretty sure that as soon as Handel premiered his Messiah it became a Christmas tradition. Every year there are at least a handful of companies who put it on, and this year is no exception. As I shuffled in to The Opera House, Christmas cheer was in the air for Against the Grain Theatre‘s unique adaptation the Messiah.

Against the Grain took a slightly different approach to the Messiah. Spicing it up a bit, AtG worked with choreographer Jennifer Nichols, making the singers work twice as hard. Nichols devised simple, but effective gestures for each of the movements. Even though these performers are not known for their exceptional dance skills they all embodied the choreography, bringing the story of the Messiah to life.

By using subtle movements, Nichols made the work about the characters. The gestural language that she used made the joy that these characters were expressing completely believable. During “For Unto Us a Child is Born” the chorus was gossiping and chatting away, as if there really was a little baby coming.

As someone who is more familiar with the dance scene, I was mostly watching the choreography. I wish I could comment more fully on the music, all I can say is that it was absolutely fantastic. This group of performers must be some of the city’s best opera singers and musicians. And they certainly know how to make a memorable entrance and exit. In each instance the chorus surrounded the audience while singing. On a scale of one to goosebumps, these movements rated high.

Making use of the language of dance, Nichols managed to fit in a couple of non-verbal jokes into the evening by way of Geoffrey Sirett. Sirett, the bass soloist, acted as the comic relief in the second half. He plays a hilarious sheep. In the middle of “All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray” I heard a surprisingly honest sheep bleat. At first I thought that my ears had misheard but no, there it was again, coming from Sirett, who was wandering around the stage like a lost sheep. It was great when he shuffled down to the orchestra and took over from conductor Christopher Mokrzewski.

This comic undertone was first set at the top of the show when Tenor Isaiah Bell started to strip in the middle of “Comfort Ye My People”. Though he was actually only taking off his suit jacket, bow tie, shoes, and undoing some of his shirt buttons, there were definitely a quite a few giggling women in the audience.

Speaking directly to my dance background, I really enjoyed when Nicoles brought a chorus member on stage to shadow the movements of the soloist. This created a peaceful visual cannon, while not changing or distracting from the beautiful voices of the soloist and the orchestra.

Though Against the Grain‘s Messiah was only two nights, they have won me over. I will be sure to catch their next productions.


  • Against the Grain‘s Messiah played December 14 – 15 at The Opera House (735 Queen St E.)
  • Though the production has finished their two-day run, you can find out more about Against the Grain’s upcoming season by visiting their website.

Photograph by  Darryl Block Photography.