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New musical ‘Dixon Road’ is an extraordinary achievement and exaltation of Toronto’s diasporic communities

New musical ‘Dixon Road’ is an extraordinary achievement and exaltation of Toronto’s diasporic communities

New musical ‘Dixon Road’ is an extraordinary achievement and exaltation of Toronto’s diasporic communities

Book, music and lyrics by Fatuma Adar. Directed and choreographed by Ray Hogg. Until June 19 at the High Park Amphitheater, 1873 Bloor St. W. and 416-368-3110.

Many musicals are good. Some are great. But only a select few make us fall in love with the genre all over again.

Fatuma Adar’s “Dixon Road” is one of those gems. Her semi-autobiographical musical, which draws from her experience growing up in the northwestern Toronto neighborhood of Little Mogadishu, is a rhapsodic exaltation of this city’s diasporic communities.

Never before have I experienced a musical which so aptly captures the symphony of emotions that accompany the joys and struggles of the newcomer experience with such piercing honesty.

Adar’s story opens in the bustling city of Mogadishu, Somalia in the early 1990s. The well-to-do Hussein family seems to have their life together. Teenager Batoul (Germaine Konji) is about to graduate from high school. Her father Zaki (Gavin Hope), a photographer, has just been appointed as minister of culture and heritage in the Somali government. Batoul’s mother Safiya (Starr Domingue) lives a comfortable life at home.

But their world is shattered when the Somali Civil War breaks out. They flee to Toronto, where they are hosted by close friend Abdi (Michael-Lamont Lytle) and his son, Yousef (Danté Prince), in their one-bedroom apartment on Dixon Rd., in Etobicoke

It’s largely a story about dignity and privilege — how a family who had nearly everything in their native country has to start a new chapter of their lives with almost nothing.

Batoul struggles to find her identity as she straddles two contrasting cultures and countries on opposite sides of the globe. Does she pursue her dream to become a writer or fall in line with her family’s expectations of what it means to be a child of newcomers?

It’s the dichotomy of experiences between Batoul and her father that is particularly striking. While Batoul’s world opens up after she arrives in Canada, Zaki’s narrows as he faces the harsh reality of discrimination and the lack of job opportunities for newcomers like himself.

Adar’s foot-tapping score is an eclectic mix of R&B, hip-hop, Somali music and pop. It’s staggering Adar has no formal musical training and started writing the show by singing into her phone. The complex counterpoint and layered melodies that make up ensemble numbers like “Calling,” a moving musical tapestry of phone calls to Somalia, are Lin-Manuel Miranda-esque.

Director and choreographer Ray Hogg’s kinetic production at the High Park Amphitheater makes use of Brian Dudkiewicz’s bi-level set to great effect. Large wooden frames on wheels are carted around, seamlessly transforming the stage into various locations — from an airport to a courtroom or the Dixon Rd. apartment — by affixing a sign or draping over some fabric.

The ensemble cast is led by the formidable Konji, whose pipes could blow the roof off the amphitheater — if it had one. Other standouts include Shakura S’Aida, who exudes a maternal warmth as Batoul’s grandmother, and Lytle, as the pragmatic Abdi.

Like any new musical, this production of “Dixon Road” has some rough edges. While the first act moves along at a clipped pace, the second act of this 135-minute musical could use some trimming. And I was left wanting another song or scene focusing on Safiya, whose storyline feels rushed.

Nitpicks aside, Adar’s musical has a huge heart. I attended a performance with an incredibly diverse audience, including what appeared to be several families from the Somali-Canadian community who laughed at the in-jokes and gasped at the Somali references.

“Dixon Road” is proof theater can be a powerful conduit to uplift the voices in our communities. It’s a significant new work in the Canadian musical theater canon and one that will hopefully pave the way for more stories like it.


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