Review: Uncovered: Stevie Wonder and Prince (Musical Stage Company)

Now a hotly anticipated annual event in Toronto, The Musical Stage Company‘s musical tribute sits squarely at the intersection of theatrical production and concert, improving both. This year’s iteration, Uncovered: Stevie Wonder & Prince, celebrating the music of both artists, was an absolute delight.

In this show, actors play the artists being covered – this year Sarah Afful as Stevie Wonder and Chy Ryan Spain as Prince. An amount of selected narrative is applied to the mostly-musical experience, stringing together direct quotes, that give a glimpse into the experiences and feelings of each musician, though nothing like a history or memoir. And in between and among, top-calibre musicians interpret the hits of Stevie Wonder and Prince in idioms ranging from quite faithful, to fairly inventive.

Uncovered falls for me into the category of performance experiences that feel enchanted. It’s a combination of risk – Music Director and arranger Reza Jacobs takes liberties, they pay off but are risks nonetheless – and seeing great talents pick up and make what they can of other great talents. If you’ve seen Mark Rylance perform Shakespeare, you know just what I mean. I sat in the audience watching Jackie Richardson perform For Once In My Life and I felt like a teenager confronted with a wildly arousing scenario out of nowhere, sweaty and delighted and overwhelmed.

A particular magic of these arrangements is the way they highlight a facet of the song that isn’t necessarily otherwise foregrounded. Aimee Bessada gave Part-Time Lover a seductiveness I’d never heard in it before, and Thom Allison turned in a Manic Monday of hopeful, wistful energy. If I had a complaint about the evening, it was Cary Shield, whose acoustic renditions sometimes felt more like Jonathan Coulton-style parody than interpretation. Jully Black was tremendous, with such a richness of expression, and I enjoyed my first time hearing Lydia Persaud.

Between songs, the actors playing Wonder and Prince shaped well-chosen vignettes, giving some insight into the character and personality of each and rounding out the evening. Both Spain and Afful found the delicate balance of invoking the characters they were playing, without resorting to mimicry.

Uncovered is a popular Toronto evening, and it’s easy to see why. The wattage of talent, the inventive spirit of the performers and the tenderness Jacobs brings to the musical arrangements as he takes the work of giants in-hand are an unbeatable combination, and this year’s catalogues are especially inspiring.