By Dennis Kucherawy
In less than a fortnight, some of Canada’s most talented “Rebel Rebels” will unleash a thrilling tribute to rock ‘n’ roll legends David Bowie and Queen (Freddie Mercury) in celebration of the 10th anniversary of Acting Up Stage Company’s “Uncovered” concert series.
It takes place Nov. 1st to 3rd at Toronto’s Koerner Hall in the TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning, aka the Royal Conservatory of Music, 273 Bloor St. W. Show time is 8 p.m.
Directed by Mitchell Marcus, “Uncovered/Queen and Bowie” features an all-star cast of our country’s greatest musical performers who have performed in theatres from Broadway and London’s West End to the Stratford Festival, Shaw and throughout Canada.
Led by Tony Award-winner Brent Carver, Stratford show-stopper Sara Farb and Divine Brown the distinguished company consists of Divine Brown, Kelly Holiff, Robert Markus, Melissa O’Neil, and Andrew Penner along with newcomers Jahlen Barnes and Arinea Hermans.
“Uncovered” is Acting Up’s concert series dedicated to reimagining the musical catalogues of pop stars.
Check out Divine Brown’s “Somebody to Love.”
The show will feature, as it does every year, celebrated music director Reza Jacobs’ arrangements, theatrical as well as new and reimagined, and orchestrations performed by a quintet.
Song & Script chatted with Reza and Mitchell Marcus, Acting Up’s artistic director via e-mail:
1. First question is an obvious one – Why Queen & Bowie this year and why combine their music on one program? (Of course, “Under Pressure” is their collaboration…)
We had Queen & Bowie on the shortlist for this year for a long time.
We were leaning heavily towards this program. Then, David Bowie passed away (this past January) and it seemed like the obvious decision to honour his amazing artistry.
While their worlds didn’t intersect outside of “Under Pressure”, they were both influential figures in Glam rock around the same time. Both Bowie and Mercury exhibited a fierce and performative individuality, playing with sexuality, dress, gender norms, etc. Arguably either could hold their own UnCovered. But as with Billy Joel and Elton John, there can be great musical variety in the exploration of two artists with similar backgrounds who each have a unique sound musically.
2. On your website, you say “Freddie Mercury and David Bowie each transformed the music landscape with their brilliant songwriting and fierce individuality.” How about their performances and, in the case of Bowie, constant reinvention of his image – Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke etc.?
Their performances and – in the case of Bowie – his ‘characters’ were incredible. In terms of UnCovered, our focus is firmly on the music and I think audiences will find it interesting to examine the songs themselves rather than the visual theatricality that both Bowie and Mercury brought to their live performances.
3. For Reza: What can we expect this year from your arrangements? What did Freddie and Bowie have in common as musicians?
Our orchestra this year is piano, violin, cello, bass and percussion. The arrangements are all unique. They depend on the story within the lyric.
In terms of the original arrangements, Bowie is more contemplative and unusual whereas Queen is/was often upbeat and peppy. But as you dig into the lyrics, you find a great deal of variety in both of their catalogues.
4. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is one of Queen’s best known songs … a great sing-a-long party tune, Who is singing it in your concert and what can we expect without giving too much away? An audience singalong, lol?
Without giving anything away, let’s say we are looking at “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a series of smaller songs instead of the single epic tune.
5. Will there be any songs from Bowie’s last album “Black Star”… perhaps the song “Lazarus”?
There won’t be. It felt too soon. It is such a personal album – a planned finale to his life. We opted to focus on the classics instead.
6. Let’s talk about the cast, it’s impressive – Broadway vets Brent and and Melissa O’Neil from “Les Miz” in NYC plus the others from Stratford, Charlottetown, etc. Why did you choose them and what do they bring to these particular songs? Any there “Uncovered” returning talents besides Kelly, Sara and Brent?
Our first-time artists this year are the incredible Andrew Penner (Sunparlour Players, Soulpepper) and Divine Brown (Juno Award-winner). Plus, we are delighted to welcome back Brent Carver (2nd UnCovered), Sara Farb (10th UnCovered), Melissa O’Neil (2nd UnCovered), Robert Markus (2nd UnCovered) and Kelly Holiff (7th UnCovered). And of course, we are thrilled to introduce and include our Banks Prize winners Jahlen Barnes and Arinea Hermans.
Our UnCovered concerts are deceptively complex.
Koerner Hall is a stunning space but the pristine acoustics demand flawless singers. Creating satisfying pop performances require a certain kind of vocal type. Finding narratives and emotional journeys within songs that weren’t written for that purpose requires a real love of text analysis and the ability to unpack deep connection to the material. And then – to top it all off – we need to put together a show that feels diverse, playful, fun and occasionally emotionally shattering.
As we’ve fine-tuned the recipe, we’ve discovered that the most effective balance for an UnCovered cast includes a mix of repeat performers who really understand the process and objective, coupled with an infusion of new talent (or talent that hasn’t been seen in a few years) to keep things fresh.
7. For Reza: As you write the arrangements and rehearse them, what are you discovering in the music of Queen and Bowie?
David Bowie’s music is so complex and interesting. Working on a song like “Life On Mars” you realize what an incredible composer Bowie was, a real artist.
With the Queen music, spending time digging into them shows how beautiful and diverse the writing was. Many of their orchestrations were (intentionally) overblown as 1970s rock. When you go back to the simple melodies you see how nuanced and beautiful the writing was.
8. For Mitchell and Reza: Any special thoughts about this, your 10th anniversary “Uncovered” concert. Would you say you’ve come a long way in the decade? If yes, please describe what you’ve learned and how audiences have reacted over the years. Have the concerts attracted new audiences to Acting Up and other musical productions?
It’s been an amazing 10 years! UnCovered started as a one-night fundraiser and a chance to play with some Beatles songs at the now defunct Diesel Playhouse. A decade later, it’s a signature three-night event, and a core part of the Acting Up Stage program.
Over the years, we’ve fine-tuned our creative process immensely. We (Reza and Mitchell) now have a shorthand between us and collaborate really beautifully with each other and the singers to find the narrative/character within the song that then informs everything. In the old days, we sometimes created arrangements that were different for the sake of being different. Over time, that process has evolved to rigorously building arrangements based on arc and intention.
UnCovered attracts the widest audiences of any Acting Up Stage Company program. Undoubtedly it has become a signature calling card and a great way to meet new patrons who we hope also check out some of our other musical productions.
9. How about special memories? One of mine is the Billy Joel/Elton John concert in which Jackie Richardson sang that wonderfully imaginative medley of “New York State of Mind”/Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind.” The night I was there, in mid-song people were screaming “Jackie” and a few gave her a mid-song standing ovation. Is my memory accurate? I just remember I was blown away, as I usually am by her performances.
There are so many magic moments from UnCovered over the years. If we had to pick one, it was Bruce Dow singing “Both Sides Now” during our Joni Mitchell & Leonard Cohen concert. It was electrifying and one of the most moving moments in the history of Acting Up Stage. The audience leapt to their feet with tears in their eyes. It was pretty special.
10. Anything else you and Reza would like to share? I know Divine Brown is singing “Somebody to Love” and Melissa is singing “You’re My Best Friend” Any news about additional songs and who is performing them.
We are going to hold off sharing for now! Still some things in flux so we don’t want to say anything too concrete.
For tickets and more information, please visit
Call 416-438-5559 / 1-866-447-7849.
This story was originally posted on Song and Script.