Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Cast Of Maria Severa
Cast Of Maria Severa

Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.
~Maya Angelou, Gather Together in My Name

Two prostitutes, one Brazilian, the other Portuguese, a conflicted, handsome bullfighter, a portly people's priest, politically compromised by an uber-sized control freak of an aristocratic mother, sexy, suggestive music, a brief but nasty knife fight! Mix them all together, and you have the world premiere of Maria Severa, based upon Lisbon's chanteuse from its sordid, seamy side, credited with establishing a new genre of plaintiff music, which inspired Shaw's Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli to compose an original score and compelling musical of the same name, but let me allow them (via the wonderfully detailed program notes) to explain how it happened.

"February 2005, we were on vacation in Portugal. On the way to Lisbon we read a city travel guide and came across a brief description of the life of Maria Severa and fado, the passionate "Portuguese blues" which she introduced to the world...we realized we may have found the seeds of a musical. In Lisbon, we visited some fado clubs and instantly became hooked. Fado was being sung in the streets, in smoky corner bars, in high-class establishments and all of it was riveting. The Museum of Fado provided more historical background. We were inspired to begin writing.

"Little is known about the life of Maria Severa; it's agreed that she is the mother of fado and that she had a scandalous relationship with a Count who was a famous bullfighter. The initial sensation of fado was Portugal's first taste of slumming; rich people flocked to the turn of the century fado taverns in the same way that people of Manhattan flocked to the nightclubs of Harlem in the 1920s. We've been true to the known outlines of Maria's life, but the rest of our story is a labour of loving fabrication, inspired by our research of the period and the neighbourhoods where fado was born.

"Between February and September 2005, we hammered out a first draft and most of the songs which appear in the final version of Maria Severa. We enlisted Shaw company members to participate in an informal reading... Jackie Maxwell attended the reading and wanted to develop the piece. Since then, there have been numerous workshops, with many talented actors, stage managers, designers and musicians contributing to the process. Throughout, Jackie has been a constant: always supportive, but also always challenging us to tell the story as best we can. Thanks to Jackie, and to everyone who has been a part of the development of this piece; thanks also to Arnalia Rodrigues, the greatest recorded fado singer and to Mariza, her spiritual daughter, whose recordings inspired many nights of writing."

Julie Martell as Maria by Michael Cooper Jacqueline Thair Jay Turvey Jeff Irving as Carlos by Emily Cooper Jenny L. Wright as Mama by Emily Cooper Julie Martell as Maria and Jeff Irving as Carlos Julie Martell as Maria and Sharry Flett as Constanca by Emily Cooper Julie Martell

The Shaw's Court House Theatre is the ideal intimate setting for Maria Severa, a crimson set by Judith Bowden, minimalist yet functional and the cast, perfect, the women because of their better roles, cast a shade brighter than the men. Maria's role is played and passionately well by Julie Martell who slowly builds to an eruption of artistic passion; Saccha Dennis is wonderful as Jasmine, her zestful friend, Jenny Wright, Mama, an over-the-top matriarch, so deliriously madcap that she gets away with her excess, Jacqueline Thair, inhibited yet palpably anxious to break free and steel-willed Sharry Flett who excels in the role of Constanca, an industrial power plant of an aristocratic mother who ultimately does anything and takes on anyone to prevail.

Mark Uhre as Armando and Julie Martell as Maria by Michael Cooper Mark Uhre as Armando by Emily Cooper Neil Barclay as Father Manuel, Saccha Dennis as Jasmine and Julie Martell as Maria by Emily Cooper Paul Sportelli Saccha Dennis Saccha Dennis as Jasmine by Emily Cooper Sharry Flett as Constanca and Jacqueline Thair as Clara by Emily Cooper

Mark Uhre adeptly plays Armando, the male lead, a confident bullfighter who captures then breaks Maria's heart; Jonathan Gould plays Fernando, his alcoholic and inconsequential brother and Neil Barclay superbly nails down the role of Father Manuel, a priest saddled with plebeian and sensual tastes.

Overall, the singing is inspired, but nothing lingers as with the gut-wrenching songs of Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison, so at the end, I really don't know if I experienced true fado. Nevertheless, we all know precisely where it's headed, the painful realm of tragedy, and with some trimming and shaping, particularly of the long second act, this musical can star at Shaw. Bravo to talented Messrs. Turvey and Sportelli as well as director Maxwell for launching this intriguing vessel at Shaw.

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