Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region   , ,

Harvey Fierstein’s landmark drama Torch Song Trilogy shocked many when it premiered in 1982. Now, almost 35 years later, this autobiographical tale is primarily seen as a portrait of the lead character’s rocky journey towards a stable family life and some type of resolution of his relationship with his mother.

Simply put, the TotoToo Theatre production, directed by Sarah Hearn, is powerful and moving. The play — actually three one-act plays depicting three different stages in drag queen Arnold’s life — belies its immense length both because of the quality of the performances and the well-maintained rhythm throughout.

There are appropriately ugly moments, such as the simulated sex in the dimly lit back room. There are many gentle connections, between lovers and between parents and children. There are flashes of humour, anger, sorrow and yearning. This is a rounded picture of a life by the man who also wrote the books for the stage musicals La Cage Aux Folles and Kinky Boots.

In the key role of Arnold, Sam Dietrich delivers a nuanced and moving portrait, developing from almost a stock picture of the drag queen stage persona through dealing with love, loss, survival and fatherhood.

Had he also been the torch singer, he would have added one more dimension to a fine performance. As presented, Tracy Gagnon fills this view of Arnold’s professional life with beautiful sung and excellently timed numbers.

The chemistry between Arnold and his on-again-off-again-bisexual lover Ed (Kurt Shantz) ensures that their encounters are convincing whether they are tender or build into anger. Shantz is equally believable in his emotional connection to Laurel, the woman he marries (a strong, if a little too sugary portrayal by Joey McDougall).

As Arnold’s mother, Cathy Nobleman (a powerful performance tough not always capturing the cadences of the typical Jewish mother) battles through the explosive confrontation with her son, loving him deeply because he is her child, and desperately unhappy that he is gay and always telling her every detail of the life she would prefer not hear about and finds so hard to accept.

Completing the strong cast are Ryan Van Buskirk in a fun-filled performance as Arnold’s foster son and William Verreault Milner in a nervy and unnecessarily loud-voiced performance as Arnold’s other lover, Alan.

Torch Song Trilogy won Tony Awards as best drama and best actor (Fierstein starred as his alter ego, Arnold) in 1982. It remains a major piece of theatre and the TotoToo production is a not-to-be-missed theatrical event.

Torch Song Trilogy continues at the University of Ottawa’s Academic Hall to September 17.


Director: Sarah Hearn
Stage Manager: Josh Kemp
Sets: Sally McIntyre
Costumes: Glynis Ellens
Lighting: Barry Sims
Sound: Justin Ladelpha

Sam Dietrich: Arnold Beckoff
Tracy Gagnon: Lady Blues
Joey McDougall: Laurel
William Verrault Milner: Alan
Cathy Nobleman: Ma Beckoff
Kurt Shantz: Ed
Ryan Van Buskirk: David