The Common Ground: A Musical Dissertation (Phenomenon Theatrix) 2014 Toronto Fringe Review


Musical adaptations are far from a new concept. In fact, most musicals these days are adaptations of popular movies, books or plays. The Common Ground: A Musical Dissertation, currently playing at the Toronto Fringe Festival, expands the art into new territory by putting a theatrical spin on – you guessed it – a scientific dissertation.

In this case, Ken McNeilly transformed his 400-page thesis on the struggles faced by the children of LGBT-identified parents into a musical. And it’s the show’s academic roots that both anchor it in powerful truths while restricting it from becoming the rallying cry for children of LGBT-identified parents that it could become.

The show doesn’t hide the fact that it is, at its heart, based on a thick, hard-to-digest collection of academic research. The only prop on stage is a large book that is meant to represent the thesis itself. The performers often read (or sing) from the book, especially during a song devoted to naming the many academics whose work is quoted in McNeilly’s thesis. To me, this felt like the show was constantly apologizing for its roots in academia instead of acknowledging them and letting the musical have its own identity.

I only say that because, when it’s not reminding you that it’s based on a dissertation, there’s a lot to love about The Common Ground. McNeilly picked an enlightening variety of personal testimonials from children of queer parents, and each member of the cast inhabited his/her character so convincingly that I often questioned whether they were telling their own stories.

I was particularly affected by the scene in which a straight teen (played by Ben Chiasson) opens up to his lesbian mom (convincingly and beautifully played by Suzanne McKenney) about his efforts to support his struggling gay classmates in high school.

I also have to say that the harmonies were spot-on, which made many of the show’s heartfelt musical numbers even more effective. Happily, there were more than a few times when I laughed out loud. More importantly, I was inspired to re-examine my own understanding of children with queer parents, and how little this issue has been addressed in such a frank manner.

With talented performers, heartwarming scenes, well-written songs, and a thought-provoking message, The Common Ground: A Musical Dissertation is a good musical. If it can focus more on its message and less on its original academic form, it will eventually be a great one.


The Common Ground: A Musical Dissertation plays at the Randolph Theatre (736 Bathurst St)

Show times

July 02 at 10:30 PM
July 05 at 11:00 PM
July 07 at 04:45 PM
July 09 at 08:45 PM
July 10 at 01:45 PM
July 11 at 07:30 PM
July 13 at 03:30 PM

Tickets for all mainstage productions are $10 at the door, cash only. Advance tickets are $12, and can be purchased online, by phone (416-966-1062), or from the festival box office at the Fringe Club. (Rear of Honest Ed’s, 581 Bloor St. West). Money-saving value packs are also available if you are going to at least five shows; see website for details.

LATECOMERS ARE NEVER ADMITTED TO FRINGE SHOWS. To avoid disappointment, be sure to arrive a few minutes before curtain.
Picture courtesy of the production

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