This time of year, the cabin fever index starts to click upward as the walls start to close inward, and all the while, the brain is advocating an escape outward.
Sunny climes beckon, but are often too far, or require too much baggage. If time is at a premium -- we're talking weekend getaway here -- people in Western New York can get some travel therapy in a couple hours by heading north instead, to Toronto and the warmth of wonderful live theater -- accented by a change of outside scenery.
Canada's largest city may not be Manhattan, but it's an able stand-in when a craving hits for a bit of Broadway. In just the short month of February, several blockbusters will be lighting up the city's stages. Some highlights:
*Tony Award-winning actor Christopher Plummer is performing at the Elgin Theatre on Yonge Street in "Barrymore" -- the show that won him his Tony.
*"Billy Elliot: The Musical," which took home 10 Tonys itself, opened last week, up the street from Plummer at the Canon Theatre.
*And a couple blocks away on Queen Street, the Canadian Opera Company is presenting a fairy-tale version of Mozart's last and most playful opera, "The Magic Flute," in rotation with John Adams' modern "Nixon in China."
*Also, opening this week, "The Secret Garden," a musical version of the classic children's book, at the Royal Alexandra Theatre on King Street.
*Near the Distillery District, the Young Centre for the Performing Arts has several shows in progress: David Mamet's "Oleanna," playing through March, plus "The Fantasticks" (holder of the world's longest-running musical title for its original New York run), which opens this week. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" begins Feb. 17. All are presented by the Soulpepper theater company.
And the Lincoln Centre Theatre's touring company of "South Pacific" sets sail Feb. 15 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. (The center, built in 1993, is farther up Yonge Street, away from the downtown action, but easily reachable on the subway's Yonge-University line, North York Centre Station.)
The Canadian Walk of Fame was started in 1998, with stars embedded in the sidewalks of King Street's Theater District. Among those honored in its very first year, along with Bobby Orr and John Candy, among others, was legendary actor Christopher Plummer.
Born in Toronto and raised in Montreal, the great-grandson of a former prime minister, he made his name on stages elsewhere, particularly London and New York, and in films as different as "The Sound of Music" -- his biggest -- and "The Last Station," for which he received an Oscar nomination as best actor as the dying Leo Tolstoy.
This winter he has returned to the Toronto stage in "Barrymore," a one-man show with a frisky flair, where the only thing icy is what's clinking in his cocktail glass. Though he is 81 now, Plummer still seems perfect for the part of the 59-year-old former matinee idol John Barrymore. He originated the role in 1996 at the Stratford Festival and a year later took it to Broadway, where, besides his Tony for best actor, he also won the Edwin Booth, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards.
Fifteen years later, he may be even better -- perhaps feeling some of those nostalgic twinges John Barrymore expresses himself.
Happily, although the play is set three months before Barrymore's death in 1942, this fellow is facing his fate not just with defiance and regret, but also with quite a lot of humor.
Plummer is delicious as the dapper "Jack," full of brio, booze and savoir-faire. The confidence is on fulsome display in Act II, when Barrymore appears in his "Richard III" regalia -- including Ethel Barrymore's tights worn with a daringly short doublet.
The premise is that John Barrymore, having squandered his reputation and ruined his health with drink, is trying for a comeback, and presenting a little sampling of his former glory to a theater audience of potential backers.
Written by William Luce, who also wrote "The Belle of Amherst," this is more cheeky send-off than hoary homage. Plummer enters reciting a racy limerick -- and turns back to the verse whenever his "Richard" lines, or "Hamlet" or whatever else Shakespearean, start to desert him.
But when he is in full Shakespearean voice, what a treat. Plummer does both bard and Barrymore with a richness that makes it clear why we should care about all of them, the actor who died young, and the one who survived his date with debauchery to play him these many years later.
Almost as good: Plummer doing brief turns as Jack's sister Ethel and brother Lionel, whose voice he nails, on some of Jack's many digressions from the script.
He has the most fun, though sparring with his off-stage prompter, Frank (John Plumpis), who is not always there with the reassurance he seeks: "I don't look middle-aged, do I?" he calls to the wings, when feeling a pang of insecurity. "Not anymore!," Frank chirps back.
In a lesser actor's hands, the one-liners could win out: "Divorces cost more than marriages, but damn it, they're worth it!" or "Staggering is a sign of strength ... only the weak have to be carried home!"
Plummer and the audiences have fun with the jokes, but the real joy in this show is seeing one great actor playing another one, flawed and failed though he may have been, with such a genuine affection you forget it's all pretend.
It is worth attending a production of the Canadian Opera Company just to sit in the grand theater of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts and feel the music surround you, even if you don't understand it.
This month is a good one for novices and opera aficionados, with a light and accessible version of "The Magic Flute," sung in German with English surtitles, and "Nixon in China," sung in Nixon's native English, still with surtitles just in case.
Opening night of the "Flute" saw a packed house with an all-ages audience in an appreciative mood. This version, directed by Diane Paulus and designed by Myung Hee Cho, has a "Sleeping Beauty"-like quality, with backing singers in Bavarian garb, our hero Tamnio (Michael Schade this night; Frederic Antoun others) in blue and his princess Pamina (Isabel Bayrakdarian and Simone Osborne share the role) in pink.
Cho dresses the ladies in waiting for the Queen of the Night in studded black leather or vinyl, with black-rimmed glasses that give them the look of capable dominatrixes.
Rodion Pogossov gives the show its pizzazz as Papageno, and Aline Kutan is terrific as the Queen of the Night, grabbing the audience by the ears with her powerful arias.
Paulus sets the opera as a play within a play, and the interlocking shrubbery sets provide an innovative habitat for Cho's menagerie of "Lion King"-like animals. ("The Lion King" also returns to Toronto, at the Princess of Wales Theatre, in April.)
The COC Orchestra could have taken the night all on its own, under Music Director Johannes Debus, and earned its ovation.
"Nixon in China" opened Feb. 5 with Robert Orth singing the role of Richard Nixon and Maria Kanyova as Pat. Adrian Thompson sings Chairman Mao, Chen-Ye Yuan takes on Chou En-lai and Henry Kissinger is sung by Thomas Hammons. James Robinson directs the production; the orchestra is conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado.
The Four Seasons Centre sits atop the Osgoode station of the Yonge-University subway line, with a direct entrance into the building from the underground.
Deals and packages abound for Toronto theater trips, some including transportation from Buffalo, others linked to hotel stays. For instance, the Delta Chelsea (www.deltahotels.com; search for Toronto) partners with several attractions including the Young Centre, for discounts to people who show their hotel key.
The Hyatt Regency Toronto, near the King Street theaters, has a "third night free" offer available through March, and the Metropolitan Hotel on Chestnut Street (within walking distance of several theaters, the Eaton Centre mall and the Art Gallery of Toronto, has discounts for many winter stays.