Thursday, June 16, 2016

Theatre: A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder

A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder is the 2014 Tony Awards Best Musical winner that is based on the 1949 movie "Kind Hearts and Coronets", which is in turn based on a 1907 novel.  Both the movie and the musical follow the same basic premise–a penniless man learns that his mother was disinherited and banished from an aristocratic family for marrying a "commoner beneath her station" and that he is 9th in line to inherit a family fortune and the title of Earl. Bent on revenge for how he and his mother were treated, he decides to bump off the 8 male and female heirs that stand in his way.  In the movie, a young Sir Alec Guinness plays the roles of all the family members in line of succession.  The same tradition is followed in the musical where the same actor plays each of the 6 male and 2 female heirs.  Each relative has a distinctively outlandish look and personality and many of the killings are carried out in a goofy manner.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a satirical black comedy while A Gentlemen's Guide is played more as an upbeat, joyous romp.  It is interesting to compare the differences between the two productions to see how this shift in tone was accomplished.  First, the name of the aristocratic family was changed from the prim and upper-crust sounding D'Ascoyne to much funnier name of D'Ysquith (which sounds like "Die, Squid" when they sing).  In the same vein, the protagonist is renamed from Louis Mazzini to Monty Navarro, and is made to seem more naively roguish and sympathetic in the musical than in the movie.

Even the methods of killing seem quirkier and less aggressive in the musical than the movie.  Whereas Louis Mazzini coldly and slightly menacingly poisons, bombs and shoots his victims (one at point blank range), Monty Navarro's killings are more passive and comical and often accompanied by a hilarious song.  He allows one relative to fall to his death by not lending a hand of support, cuts a hole in ice so that another falls through while skating, causes a third to be stung to death by a swarm of bees, influences a fourth to travel to dangerous lands, allows a fifth to be squashed by a bar bell while lifting weights and a sixth to accidentally shoot herself while acting in a play.  You are so busy laughing at the way Monty's plots play out that you find yourself rooting for him despite his murderous acts.

Both productions are told in flashback and much of the comedy stems from the use of a voice-over by Louis/Monty as he calmly, wryly and often ironically describes his thoughts and the results of his machinations.  Pretending to run out to "save" one of his victims, he dryly notes "needless to say, I was too late...").  A subplot involves Louis/Monty juggling two beautiful women, his mistress Sibella who married another for money instead of marrying him for love, and Edith/Phoebe, the wife/sister of one of his victims.  Whereas in Kind Hearts and Coronets, Sibella is cold and calculating and Edith is prim and inflexible, their counterparts in the musical are giddy, goofy and much more likeable. 
A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder boasts some excellent stagecraft and set design that add to the hilarity of the musical.  Unlike Louis in the movie, Monty does not pre-plan his first murder, but rather takes advantage of the situation at hand.  Reverend Lord Ezekial D'Ysquith takes Monty up to the church parapet to see the view and loses his balance as Monty refuses to help steady him.  Background video is used to show them climbing up the steeple stairs.  When the Reverend falls, the video spirals to simulate his plunge to the ground in a fashion very similar to the video used in Les Miserables when Javert commits suicide and falls into the river.  Similarly when Asquith D'Ysquith, Jr. plummets through the ice that Monty weakened by cutting a hole into it, a video shows the ice cracking along with the appropriate sound effects.

The best staging occurs during the highlight of the second act, which is the song "I've Decided to Marry You".  While Monty is romancing the married Sibella, Phoebe shows up unexpectedly to propose marriage.  Monty quickly hides Sibella in one room while wooing Phoebe in the other and accepting her proposal.  The open set design consisting of a set of doors held up by a frame, allows us to see what is happening in both "rooms" as Monty desperately tries to keep the two women apart and Sibella strains to hear what is going on.  What ensues is a spirited song and choreography as Monty sings "One in the parlor, one in the bedroom, nothing between them but me and a wall!"  I first saw a performance of this song at the 2014 Tony Awards and it immediately piqued my interest in watching the show.

The songs for A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder have catchy tunes and witty lyrics.  My favourites include the opening numbers of the first and second acts, both sung by the chorus.  In "A Warning to the Audience", they caution that "This is a tale of revenge and retribution, so if you're smart, before we start, you'd best depart!".  Even funnier is the song "Why Are All the D'YSquiths Dying", where the mourners lament about having to attend so many funerals and end with the lines "Why are all the D'Ysquiths dying? Whoever's next, I swear I won't come back!  I'm utterly exhausted keeping track.  And most of all, I'm sick of wearing black!"
This show is so much fun that after watching it from our upper balcony seats as part of our Mirvish subscription, we decided to buy Dress Circle seats to watch it again.  When Lord Adalbert D'Ysquith sings the song "I Don't Understand The Poor", he points up to the people in the "cheap seats".  It felt nice on our second viewing, knowing that he was no longer referring to us!  We found that not only could we see better from the closer seats, but we could hear the lyrics better as well.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Contact Photography Festival 2016

Each year during the entire month of May (and into June for some exhibits), the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival is held throughout downtown Toronto, displaying photographic works in art galleries, museums, restaurants, coffee shops, stores and even on exterior walls of buildings.  One of the biggest concentration of locations hosting this event can be found along Queen and King Streets from Spadina Ave. to Gladstone Ave. and this was the area that we concentrated on while partaking in this festival.  Below are descriptions of some of the highlights of our tour.

The most interesting exhibit was called Cutlines, which is held in the currently vacated and soon-to-be-demolished Globe and Mail Press Hall.  The exhibit consists of a selection of 175 Cold War-era (1940s-1990s) photos from the Globe and Mail Archives out of a possible 750,000 print images still in storage.  Unfortunately due to the shift to technology and digital images in the declining newspaper industry, the majority of these historic gems may eventually be destroyed.  When I first saw the photos and noticed the bright orange "cropping" lines drawn on them, I initially thought that the term "cutline" referred to them.  In fact, the term actually refers to the captions or words that the photographer writes on the back of a photo, giving newspaper editors initial indication of what he was trying to capture.

Especially fascinating about this exhibit was the illustration of manual photo-processing techniques that we have since taken for granted in our post-Photoshop world.  This included the physical markings on the images to indicate desired cropping, the highlighting or outlining of various parts of the photo to make them pop (see the creases and collar of the man's suit jacket), and a technique called "rubylith" which uses a type of masking film to transform part of the image into an reddish-orange colour.

Some photos used airbrushing techniques to eliminate unwanted portions of a photo.  In keeping with the Globe and Mail's policy of not printing "sensationalized" images, the 1948 photo of gunned-down robber was requested to be cropped and airbrushed to remove his body and only show the safe that he was trying to crack.  You can see the line drawn on the image and the word "Out" written on it.  Another photo looked like "white-out" or "liquid paper" was applied to obscure whatever was in the background, behind the group of people in the foreground.  One photography technique which we learned from this display was to ask the subject to point at something, in order to put them at ease and allow the pose to appear more natural.

In addition to the print photos displayed in the glass cases, there were also digitized images broadcast on the walls of the old building.  Shot after shot appeared, providing a glimpse into Toronto's recent past.  Following our tour of the Globe and Mail Press Archives, we headed towards 401 Richmond, a complex that contains multiple art galleries, several of them participating in the Contact Photography Exhibit.

The Red Head Gallery had a fascinating exhibit by Gabrielle de Montmollin called "We Shall See What We Shall See" which depicts Canadian images in "lenticular" style by layering 3 photos on top of each other so that the image shifts and transforms as you move across it and view it from left to right.  The majority of the photos deal with Jian Ghomeshi and his court trial.  An image of Ghomeshi in a suit entering the courthouse morphs into a fashion photo of a man choking a woman.  The image of "Big Ears Teddy" morphs into the words "Big Ears Teddy should not see this".

Another gallery had an exhibit called "Jane at Home" which might have been on display in conjunction with the "Jane's Walks" weekend since it was a museum of photos and artifacts in tribute of journalist, author and activist Jane Jacobs.  In addition to photos of her in her Toronto home and with her children and grandchildren, we saw a recreation of her study and writing desk, as well as personal items such as her iconic glasses and a "hearing horn", the sight of which mostly caused people to speak louder as opposed to actually amplifying the voices.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Theatre: Reframed

Basing a live musical on a famous painting is not a new concept.  The most famous example of this is Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, inspired by the 1884 pointillism painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" by George Seurat, depicting Parisians out for a weekend stroll.  Sondheim's musical allows these characters to come to life and interact with Seurat so that we can find out their back-stories.

The Acting Up Stage Company is a Canadian theatre group dedicated to performing contemporary musicals and developing and producing original, new musicals.  We have watched and thoroughly enjoyed many of their excellent productions in the past, including Wild Party, John and Jen, Craigslist: Do You Want What I Have Got, Parade, Ride the Cyclone, and Tick, Tick Boom. A second mandate for this group is to train, mentor, support and promote Canadian musical theatre writers via a teaching program called "NoteWorthy" which pairs up lyricists and composers to create mini 10-20 minute musicals as teaching exercises.  A popular assignment for the NoteWorthy group involves picking an image out of a book of paintings and using that image as the inspiration for the musical.

Extrapolating on this idea and taking it to the next level, the artistic director Mitchell Marcus negotiated a partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) whereby three teams of writers and composers would each create a 20-minute musical based on one of the paintings found in the Richard Barry Fudger Memorial Gallery, where the artworks are hung side by side from floor to ceiling in "Paris-salon" style.  Furthermore, the resultant shows would be performed right in the gallery, with the paintings of choice as a backdrop.  And so, the unique presentation called "Reframed" was brought to life.

The three paintings selected were "The Marchesa Casati" by Welsh painter Augustus John (1919), The Young Botanist by Canadian painter Paul Peel (1891), and He is Coming by Dutch painter Otto Willem Albertus Roelofs (late 19th Century).   The audience sat in several rows of folding chairs arranged in a semi-circle on the floor of the Fudger Gallery.  The same three actors, Eliza-Jane Scott, Tim Funnell and Kaylee Harwood, performed in all three musicals and it was interesting to watch each of them playing very different roles in quick succession.  The three musicals were performed with minimal sets, props or costumes and the actors spoke and sang their lines with scripts in their hands, so that it felt like we were watching a technical run-through rather than a full performance.  The musical accompaniment was provided by a three-piece orchestra consisting of a piano, cello and woodwinds.

Because the musicals were performed in a small space not meant for such activity (with poor sight-lines for all but those sitting in the front rows, poor acoustics and limited lighting options), the audience was provided with libretto of the three shows so that we could follow along with the dialogue and the singing.  Despite the fact that the actors had to glance at their scripts occasionally and missed a line or stage direction once in a while, they were obviously very talented and the informal presentation added to the charm of the intimate setting.

The first musical was called "La Casati" (Music/Lyrics by Bryce Kulak Book/Lyrics by Erin Shields).  It is based on Augustus John's provocative portrait of Marchesa Luisa Casati, the vain, flamboyant and extravagant Italian heiress who is portrayed with flaming red hair and large piercing eyes that defiantly stare straight ahead, as opposed to the typical demure portraits of women of that time.  At one point, Luisa owned the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, which was subsequently bought by Peggy Guggenheim and is now home to the latter's famous art museum.   Known for her wild hairstyles, outrageous clothing and love of exotic pets, Luisa, who was also John's lover, frivolously spent all of her fortune and died penniless in London.

According to the stage directions of the libretto, the musical starts with the elderly La Casati "sitting on a throne in her crumbling Venetian Palace surrounded by two cheetahs, a gray hound, a parrot and a boa constrictor".  Obviously much of this was left to the imagination.  Augustus John arrives to beg her to stop her excessive spending and they reminisce about the old days when they first met.  John sings of her "eyes, drowning in pools of kohl" and as he describes her, the third actress enters playing the young Luisa and asks that he immortalizes her through portraiture.  John agrees but demands that she forego all her usual masks and costumes so that he can paint the real her–"I don't jewelry, I don't want paint ... you've got to let it show .. inside those eyes".  Eventually the scene fades back to the present where La Casati is left alone with her portraits, which she will have to sell to pay off her debts.

The second musical called "The Preposterous Posthumous Predicament of Paulie Peel" (Music/Lyrics by Kevin Wong, Book by Julie Tepperman) is inspired by the painting "The Young Botanist" by Canadian artist Paul Peel, who tragically died of a lung infection at age 31, just a year after he painted this whimsical portrait of an innocent young boy (possibly his son?) looking with fascination at a frog.  The musical imagines how the boy and his mother (named Paulie and Pauline for the musical) might be be coping with Paul's untimely death, and is the most poignant of the three short plays.  The scene opens with Paulie spotting and chasing a frog in the ravine behind his house, then quickly switches to Paul Peel's funeral where we learn through flashbacks that he and Paulie shared a love for Biology.  We find out that Paulie believes his father has been reincarnated as the frog that he captured and it is this belief that helps him come to terms with Paul's death and to bond and reconnect with his grieving mother.  Pauline sings a heart-wrenching song called "What Do I Do Now" and converses with the frog/Paul who, in between croaks of "Ribbit", advises Paulie and Pauline to listen to each other.  This short musical was so touching that there were audible sniffles and signs of weepiness throughout the audience–not bad for a 20 minute segment.

The third musical titled He Is Coming, the same as the painting, (Music/Lyrics by Britta Johnson, Book by Sara Farb) was the least effective, probably because the least amount of background information was known about the painting or the painter.  Accordingly, there was not the same point of reference as with the other two and the plot was based mostly on the title of the painting as opposed to the subject matter.  In the musical, Irene, a 92-year-old artist is waiting to be evicted from her apartment.  While she waits, she reminisces and her past portraits of friends and family come to life and talk to her.  There is Charlotte, a glamorous young movie star, 50-year-old Marvin who thinks his portrait makes him look mean, Janet, who was painted nude, and finally Irene's husband Bill who she dances with.

All three plays felt a bit like light opera, in the vein as Stephen Sondheim's latter work "Passions" or Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Aspects of Love" and each had a sombre, wistful air.  The actors ran around the room and weaved in and out of the audience throughout each of the musicals.  This was a really unique, enjoyable experience in a cool setting and the three actors did a really good job with these original works. Yet, I think the concept of basing a mini musical on a painting would work just as well if not better on an actual stage where we could see and hear properly.  I would love it if Acting Up Stage tried this again, and maybe tackled some more recent art movements like Pop Art (Andy Warhol, Roy Litchenstein, etc.) and maybe some happier subject matters.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Theatre: Chiamerica

It may seem strange that an event as horrific, shocking and impactful as the Tiananmen Square Massacre should be more well-known around the world than it is within Mainland China where the incident occurred, but this is exactly the case.  Such is the power of censorship and propaganda control within China that many of the younger generation have never heard of the massacre and do not believe that it actually happened.  My husband Rich experienced this first-hand when he casually asked a younger co-worker who had recently emigrated from China what she thought about what happened in Tiananmen Square.  She was perplexed and had no idea what he was talking about!

These are the details that are commonly understood to be true within the Western world: Triggered by the death of deposed Communist Party General Secretary and liberal-reform advocate Hu Yaobang in April 1989, a student-led protest gained support with the general population across China, swelling to 1 million people at its peak.  Although Tiananmen Square has become the symbolic "ground zero" of the protest, additional pockets of uprising  sprang up on other  streets of Beijing and even in surrounding towns and villages.The protesters demanded freedom of speech, freedom of the press, government accountability, and workers' rights.  The situation came to a head in Tiananmen Square on June 3-5, 1989 when the hard-line government ordered the People's Liberation Army to suppress the crowds through military force including the use of assault rifles and tanks.

Although the Chinese Government claimed that there were little to no casualties actually in Tiananmen Square, varying reports assert that between hundreds to thousands of unarmed citizens were killed there during the massacre.  These casualty estimates may be strongly disputed by the Government, but what is undeniable is the existence of bullet holes that pierced the People's Statue that stands prominently in Tiananmen Square, and which still can be seen today.  We saw them up-close when we visited Beijing in 2009, and also were quite aware of the plain-clothed undercover police that patrolled the area.

On June 5, 1989, after the protests had been quashed and the crowds dispersed, a line of tanks slowly rolled out of Tiananmen Square.  An unidentified man holding plastic bags in each hand boldly strolled out in front of the lead tank, blocking its path and bringing the entire procession to a halt.  Showing unexpected restraint, the lead tank tried to drive around the man, rather than mowing him down.  But the man, who came to be known as the "Tank Man", shifted left and right to continue to block the vehicles.  At one point, he even climbed on top of the lead tank and spoke to the driver through the hatch, before resuming his position in front of the tanks.  Finally a group of people pulled Tank Man away.  Whether these people were friends trying to hide him or authorities wanting to arrest him is undetermined.  To this day, his identity and fate is unknown, but the legacy of his brave act of peaceful civil disobedience has been forever immortalized via iconic photographs and news videos that were seen around the world.

Inspired by the famous image, British playwright Lucy Kirkwood wrote the play "Chiamerica" that prophesizes about what might have happened to Tank Man.  The term "Chimerica", a portmanteau amalgamating China and America, was coined by British historian Niall Ferguson, referring to the co-dependent relationship between the two super powers.

The main plot of the play follows fictional photojournalist Joe Schofield as he captures the photo of Tank Man in 1989.  On a return business trip to Beijing 20 years later, he gets a tip from his old friend and contact Zhang Lin that Tank Man might be alive and living in New York City.  Trying to recapture some of the former glory from his most triumphant achievement, Joe single-mindedly pursues clues and leads in his search for Tank Man, crossing ethical and moral boundaries and hurting innocent people along the way.

Chimerica has a fascinating premise that is unfortunately bogged down by too many themes and story-lines, too many scene changes and too many characters, with a cast of 12 actors, some playing multiple roles.  The first act itself is 1.5 hours long and the entire play runs 3 hours and 10 minutes including intermission.  In addition to the mystery of who and where is Tank Man, there are many other sub-plots to follow and keep track of.

Zhang Lin is haunted by memories of his fiancee Liuli who was killed during the Tiananmen Square Massacre and blogs about his trauma.  In a beautiful piece of staging, flashbacks depict the relationship of the young and innocent lovers Zhang Lin and Liuli, dressed in white in the foreground, while old Zhang Lin types on his computer in the background.  In Lin's visions of Liuli after she is killed, she is dressed in bright red to symbolize blood and death.  His feelings of resentment towards the Chinese Government are further stoked by the smog-pollution related death of his 59-year-old landlady.  Zhang Lin's rebellious actions lead to his arrest and torture and impact his poor put-upon brother Zhang Wei who is deemed guilty by association.

Joe carries on an affair with British market researcher Tess, who specializes in teaching North American companies how to market to China, but loses her when his Tank Man obsession takes priority over their relationship.  Playwright Kirkwood uses Tess' character to sheds light on the dichotomy between East and West, highlighting their differences in terms of social, political, economical and cultural characteristics and the importance of recognizing and respecting Chinese culture when trying to market to them.  It also explores the rise of the East as a growing economic power and the impact on Western economies.

The frequent and quick scene changes in Chiamerica jump both in locale (between various spots in New York vs scenes in Beijing) and time (from the present in 2012 to flashbacks of 1989).  The innovative set and staging help to keep the audience oriented as to where and when the scene occurs.  The set consists of a floor-to-ceiling rotating wall that spins around to reveal the different scenes, usually with the set of New York locations on one side of the wall and those of Beijing on the other.  Occasionally, when Joe and Zhang Lin are speaking to each other on their phones, both sides of the wall are visible at the same time.  Each time the wall spins around, a video projection of the location and date helps keep the audience keep track of where and when the next scene takes place.  Video is also used to project news reels and other images on the wall, and is used very effectively to portray text from Zhang Lin's protest blogs that he types on his computer.  The final reveal that re-enacts the actions of Tank Man, merging live action with photographic imagery, is also superbly done.  One of the most satisfying and poignant plot points occurs at the end of the play, when it is revealed what Tank Man carried in his plastic bags.

Almost as interesting as the play itself was the Question and Answer period or Talkback session that occurred in the Lobby afterwards, which was attended by five of the supporting cast members (none of the leads took part).  We learned that a lengthy speech given by Tess was added to provide a more balanced portrayal of East versus West.  For most of the play, Chimerica does not pull any punches when commenting on China's dismal track record with regards to human rights, censorship, torture, disregard for the environment, greed and corruption.  In the added monologue, Tess argues that China is not that different than the United States who are guilty of many of the same sins.

We also learned that most of the Asian actors did not speak Mandarin, despite it being prominently featured in the play.  Instead they had a Mandarin coach who helped them learn the words phonetically.  Several of the Chinese actors speak Cantonese, which has very different pronunciation than Mandarin, while one actress is Filipino and the lead actor who played Zhang Lin is Korean.

An uncomfortably awkward but enlightening question came from a theatre student who, based on her accent, must have just recently arrived from China.  She was extremely emotional and outraged at what she perceived as Western propaganda that smeared the good reputation of her homeland and demanded repeatedly to be given proof of violence and torture that was portrayed.  This seemed like yet another example of how effective China's propaganda machine is, when an entire generation of Chinese youth have no knowledge of China's history of human rights violations, past or present.  It is one thing to read about this phenomenon, but quite another to witness it first-hand.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Theatre: If/Then

From Robert Frost's iconic poem "The Road Not Taken", to movies like "Sliding Doors" and "Run Lola Run", and now the musical "If/Then", the concept of a critical decision or chance event impacting the course of one's life has been thoroughly explored.  If/Then is written by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, the pair behind the 2009 Tony award winning musical Next to Normal.

If/Then follows the two possible paths of recently divorced Elizabeth who moves back to New York to start over after a disastrous 10-year marriage.  She meets two friends in the park who have different plans for how she can spend her day. This one decision of who to go with will impact the rest of her life.

Free-spirited, lesbian kindergarten teacher Kate wants her to stay in the park to look for love and thinks she should go by the name "Liz".  On this path, Liz does not answer her cell phone when it rings and misses out on an offer of her dream job, but instead meets and marries military man Josh and has two children with him. 

Community organizer and activist Lucas, an old friend from college who knew Elizabeth as "Beth", wants her to go with him to attend a protest rally and start making professional connections.  On this path, Lucas encourages Liz to answer her phone, which launches her career as deputy urban planner for the city.  By leaving the park, Beth misses out on meeting Josh.

Like the movie "Sliding Doors", If/Then uses the dramatic conceit of interweaving scenes that switch back and forth between the life led by Liz versus the one led by Beth.  The opening song "What If" perfectly sets up the two possible paths–"Two different roads, and how each one bends ... You lose all the choices you don't get to make ... You wonder about all the turns you don't take".
The main differentiation between Liz and Beth is that Liz wears glasses while Beth does not.  Although it sometimes feels like we are watching Clark Kent transform into Superman and back again as we watch Elizabeth remove and put on her glasses between scenes, the clear visual cue allows us to easily tell which "character" is currently in play.

Initially to set up each character's path, entire songs are allocated to either to the Liz story-line ("It's a Sign:, "You Never Know") or the Beth story-line ("Map of New York", "Ain't No Man Manhattan").  But once the characters, their motivations and social or business interactions are firmly established, they would occasionally switch between the two plots even in the middle of a song.  This actually first happens at the end of "Ain't No Man Manhattan" when Beth turns into Liz and all the peripheral characters suddenly become part of Liz's domain.  In the poignant yet humorous and salaciously named song "What the F**k?", Liz starts singing about whether or not she should take the next step and sleep with Josh, but part way through the song, the scene changes and it becomes about Beth lamenting about her impulsive decision in sleeping with best friend Lucas.  But by the end of the lengthy scene, we have reverted back to Liz and it is Josh that is under the covers in bed with her–Thank goodness Liz sleeps with her glasses on! ;)  Similarly, the plot-laden song "Surprise" includes scenes from a surprise 39th birthday party for both Liz and Beth.

The staging for If/Then includes an overhead walkway which is raised and lowered above the stage as required.  This was not an issue when the action actually happened on the walkway, like in the Surprise party scene. But on more than one occasion, the walkway was left in a half-lowered position and yet the action happened at the back of the stage behind the catwalk.  Those of us who were sitting in the upper balcony had our views of the actors obstructed by the walkway, which did not seem to add anything to the set by being lowered.  This just felt like bad staging that did not take the patrons in the "cheap seats" into consideration.

 The role of Elizabeth was created for Idina Menzel who was then replaced by Jackie Burns for the National Tour.  Burns looks quite a bit like Menzel, at least from a distance and she definitely had the same booming voice.  In fact, all the cast had very strong voices, so much so that the microphones to amplify them were turned up a bit too loud, making it difficult to hear the words for some of the songs.

Because If/Then received mixed reviews on Broadway, I had fairly low expectations prior to watching the show, but was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it much more than anticipated. Although I did find many of the songs to be fairly generic, there were a few memorable (if not hummable) stand-outs, which is all any musical can hope for.   My favourite songs include "It's a Sign", "What the F**k", and the brilliant song "I Hate You" where Liz changes emotions with every line–"I hate you, I love you, Don't Leave Me".

Friday, April 08, 2016

Theatre: Jitters

* Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Jitters is the latest Soulpepper remounting of the 3-act comedy written in 1977 by late Canadian playwright David French.  It is inspired by his own nervous experiences early on in his career when his plays were performed at the Tarragon Theatre.  Using the "play within a play" structure, Jitters follows a theatre group as it deals with an escalating slew of issues during the rehearsals and preview performances of a small Canadian production of the fictional play "The Care and Treatment of Roses".

The director George attempts to keep some semblance of decorum while soothing and finessing his temperamental cast which includes: Jessica, an aging diva on the downswing of her career and looking for a much needed hit, Patrick, a mature actor too afraid to explore opportunities outside of the Canadian theatre scene where he is known and respected, Phil, a finickity, insecure elderly actor who cannot remember his lines, and Tom, an up-and-coming young actor.  Also in the mix is the nervous, morose playwright Robert who is highly protective of keeping the written integrity of his second play intact, and Nick, the overly-controlling stage manager who is only heard as a voice in the first act.  Rounding out the cast are two female assistants, Peggy and Susi who don't seem to add too much to the plot, other than being the object of desire from various male characters.   The character of Tom also was not as well developed as the main protagonists in this play and could have been assigned a few more funny plot points.

 * Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The first act of Jitters starts with an onstage dress rehearsal of "The Care and Treatment of Roses".  We are forewarned of the troubles to follow when the play begins in darkness, the lights come on for a few seconds to reveal an empty set, and then the lights go off again and the audience sits nervously in the dark again for a few more seconds.  When the lights finally come on again the second time, the cast is now on stage in midst of rehearsing a scene.  It is immediately clear from the decor of the furnishings and wall paper, as well as the wardrobe of both the actors and the characters they portray (including bell-bottom pants, bright colours, wide collars and wild patterns), that Jitters is rooted firmly in the 70s.  It felt like we were watching an episode of the TV sitcom "That 70s Show".

The interactions between Jessica and Patrick quickly establishes the animosity between them, which acts as an ongoing source of conflict throughout the play.  Sensibilities might have been different back in the 70s, but when it is revealed that in order to annoy Jessica, Patrick has been phoning her at 3am, then phoning her neighbour after she took her phone off the hook, and finally sending a pizza delivery, it felt more like stalking than pranking and I found it more creepy than funny.

The main humour from this first act stems from Phil's incessant complaints about his character's wardrobe (pants too tight, shoes squeak, toupee looks like a dead rat), as well as his inability to remember his lines or cues, which in theatre terms is called "to dry".  His lapses and the other cast members' futile attempts to cover up through ad-libbing become more and more hilarious each time they run through the same scene.  There is also the repeated gag of director George trying to encourage his actors by asking playwright Robert to compliment them, which Robert awkwardly avoids doing by taking slow sips of his coffee.

The second act literally rotates the set to reveal the actors' shared dressing room  that is reminiscent of the one at the Tarragon Theatre.  It is less than an hour before the start of one of the preview shows, where the troupe hope that the famous theatre critic Feldmen will be in the audience to review their performances.  Panic sets in as curtain time approaches but both Phil and Tom are missing. A flustered Phil finally arrives sporting a black eye and a tale of woe but there is still the issue of the missing Tom.  Robert is coerced into replacing Tom and much of the humour of the second act stems from his reluctance to do so.  More and more disasters pile up until the second act closes in a state of mayhem.

The third act reveals the cast back on the original set on the day after the preview performance.  They are reading a review from a critic from the Toronto Star, which had positive comments for everyone except Jessica.  After amping up the comedy and frantic action in the first two acts, the third act felt rather flat, a bit anti-climatic and not very funny by comparison.  In fact, overall, Jitters was not as funny as I thought it would be and definitely not as funny as a very similar British play that was performed around the same time–Noises Off by Michael Frayn, which we watched at Stratford in 2004.  The structures of the two plays are remarkably similar with each one's first act representing a dress rehearsal of a play and second act depicting backstage antics before or during the play. 

Noises Off fully embraced the concept of farce, with the typical opening and closing of doors, mistaken identities, scantily clad ingenues, romantic couplings and full-on slapstick that required pinpoint timing and induced non-stop roars of laughter.  While Jitters has a few elements of slapstick and some very funny moments, it is not structured as a farce. Instead, it is a delightful play that insightfully portrays what it is like to put on a show in a small Canadian theatre.  As such, its humour only inspired tepid chuckles throughout the play.  One of the funniest interactions in Noises Off involved the frantic interactions backstage during a performance, with the rest of the cast trying to keep their alcoholic cast mate from consuming a bottle of liquor.  Jitters also has an alcoholic plot point but it was almost played more for pathos than for laughs.  It was interesting to hear during the Q&A session after the show that Jitters was almost picked up for a run on Broadway, but it was upstaged by Noises Off, which was selected instead.

I always like when the staging of a play incorporates the entire theatre and Jitters does this well, taking full advantage of the layout of the Baillie Theatre.  In the opening act, the director George emerges on the balcony level (where we were sitting), calling down directions to his actors.  This seems to be the stereotypical setup repeated in most "show within a show" plays and movies, including All That Jazz and A Chorus Line.  Throughout the three acts, the actors enter and exit the scenes, sometimes walking right off the stage and down the aisles.  In one scene where Susi is prompting Phil's lines, she sits right in the audience.  The use of the entire theatre is especially effective for this type of play, since it further blurs the lines between the play Jitter and the inner play "The Care and Treatment of Roses" and allows the audience to feel like we are part of the action. 

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Grease Live

Since I love anything related to musicals and show tunes, it was with wary anticipation that I prepared to watch the third attempt at a new form of musical presentation–the live stage performance filmed and broadcast real-time to television audiences nation-wide.  The first attempt at this format was with The Sound of Music starring former American Idol winner and country star Carrie Underwood.  While her singing was fine, Underwood's acting abilities left much to be desired.  So much for stunt-casting to take advantage of popular celebrities to attract viewing interest.  A similar fate awaited the much panned (pun intended) live performance of Peter Pan starring Alison Williams from the TV show Girls as Peter, and Christopher Walken (who can't seem to sing or dance) as Captain Hook.  I cringed while watching stilted and wooden acting in the Sound of Music Live, and actually fell asleep while watching Peter Pan Live.  I'm not sure which was worse?  IMDB reviewers weighed in on this, giving the former a 5.8/10 rating and the latter an even lower 5.1 rating.

Hoping that the "third time's a charm", we sat down to watch Grease Live, which is based on a combination of the 1971 Broadway musical and the iconic 1978 film starring Olivia Newton John and John Travolta.  Danny Zuko, leader of the high school gang the T-Birds has a summer fling with Sandy Olsson which ends when she has to return to her home town.  Instead she ends up transferring to his school, where he is torn between his affection for her and his need to maintain his cool reputation in front of the T-Birds (Kenickie, Doody, Sonny and Roger) and their female counterparts, the Pink Ladies (Frenchy, Marty, Jan), led by the tough-as-nails Rizzo.  I have not watched the Broadway musical before, but I have viewed the movie version many times and even owned the LP recording and later on, the CD.  So especially in the beginning before I got used to the new cast, I could not help but compare Grease Live to my fond memories of Grease the movie.

Right off the bat, I had issues with the look of  Aaron Tveit in the role of Danny Zuko.  He looked more like my memory of Kenickie as played by Jeff Conway than of dark, sauve John Travolta.  It took me a while to get used to Tveit in his role, as well as the dark-haired Carlos PenaVega who actually played Kenickie in the live musical.  In long shots or quick dance scenes when they were moving around a lot, I kept getting them mixed up.  In fact, it was difficult figuring out who was who for most of the individual T-Birds and Pink Ladies since they looked so different from the movie.

The exceptions were the roles of Sandy played by blond singer, actress and former Dancing with the Stars cast member Julianne Hough, Rizzo played by Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical fame, and Frenchy, played by Canadian "Call Me Maybe" singer Carly Rae Jepsen.  Due to hair, makeup and wardrobe more than facial resemblances, the look of these three seemed to be carbon copies of their counterparts from the film.

The casting directors of Grease Live must have anticipated the #OscarSoWhite controversy when they cast the roles in this musical, since there were no shortage of visible minorities.  This included the roles of Blanche, the administrative assistant to the Principal, the gym instructor Coach Calhoun, Pink Lady Marty, T-Bird member Doddy, and even the "Teen Angel" who advises Frenchy to give high school another try, played by 80s R&B group Boyz II Men.

In a sentimental casting coup, two original actors from the movie were given cameo roles in this musical.  Didi Conn was the original Frenchy but now plays the role of the waitress Vi from the burger joint.  A new role was written for Barry Pearl who played T-Bird member Doody in the movie.  In the musical, he is a producer scouting out schools to determine which one will be chosen for the nationally televised dance.  In another throw-back-to-the-past moment, the auto mechanics teacher Mrs. Murdock is played by Eve Plumb, who was Jan Brady on the Brady Bunch.

After a while, I got used to the new cast and settled in to enjoy the show.  Unfortunately, I still could not help but compare each musical number to the one performed in the movie. Vanessa Hudgens did a fabulous job in her role of Rizzo, showing just the right amount of hidden vulnerability and hurt under that tough exterior.  She nailed her two big solo numbers–"Look At Me, I'm Sandra Dee" and "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" (my favourite Grease song).  Her gutsy live performance was all the more impressive once we learned that her beloved father had just died of cancer the day before. Former Dancing with the Stars cast member Julianne Hough also did well, showing off her vocal skills in the power ballad "Hopelessly Devoted to You".

The one song that was a bit of a disappointment for me was the iconic "Greased Lightning" where the T-Birds fantasize about turning Kenickie's old junker car into a gleaming, "systematic, hydromatic, ultramatic" speed machine that could be used in a drag race against a rival gang.  In the movie version, Travolta's Danny Zuko was sexy and sensual, channeling Elvis Presley with his gyrating hips and crotch-grabbing.  Tveit's performance in the live musical was energetic enough but lacked the erotic, raw animal-magnetism that Travolta's exuded.  Maybe it was because he has such long arms, but the kung-fu like moves that Tveit was making while standing on the car reminded me of a chicken flapping its wings.

The musical's version of Greased Lightning provided many examples of a new verb that I just learned - to bowdlerize.  Named after Dr. T. Bowdler who decided to publish an edition of Shakespeare without any sexual references or double-entendres, to bowdlerize means to edit out the offensive parts of something to the point of making it bland.  If you compare the original lyrics of Greased Lightning to those performed on prime-time television, you can see that the latter has been bowdlerized to death!  In describing the sexual magnetism of the car, the words "The chicks will cream" have been changed to "The chicks will scream".  Provocative references to "getting off my rocks", "she's a real pussy wagon" and "You know that ain't no shit, we'll be getting lots of tit" have all been replaced with more PG13 lyrics. Similarly, at the end of the Sandra Dee song, instead of the line "Fongool, I'm Sandra Dee" which invokes an Italian vulgarity, Rizzo sings "Be Cool, I'm Sandra Dee".

One interaction from the movie, which I thought was really important for authenticity and staying true to character, is missing from Grease Live.  It is the moment during the penultimate song "You're the One that I Want" where Olivia Newton John's re-imaged Sandy struts out confidently in her skin-tight outfit and red heels while John Travolta's Danny goes crazy in reaction.  For a split second, she reveals a look of insecurity and uncertainty of what she should do next.  Marty tells her to toss the cigarette hanging from her mouth and stub it out with her shoe, which she does.  That momentary lapse reveals that Sandy is still the sweet innocent girl behind all that makeup and bravado and gives depth and honesty to her character.  In Grease Live, Julianne Hough's Sandy immediately goes into full vamp and never breaks stride. Maybe this was another attempt to bowdlerize in order to not show Sandy smoking?  Still, the intent of the scene could have been introduced in some other way.  For me, that sweet missing moment from the movie was a major omission

In an exciting added dimension that did not exist for the Sound of Music or Peter Pan Live, Grease Live was actually performed in front of a live audience who acted as extras during crowd scenes (at pep rallys, the school gymnasium, out on the school grounds, and the big dance).  In one of the gymnasium scenes, one of the members of the audience was Vanessa Hudgens' real-life boyfriend Austin Butler, there to give her moral support. On top of that, the scenes were performed across several sound stages and the actors had to either run between them, or be driven by tour carts.  Just before the commercial breaks, we were often shown the cast moving from stage to stage, running by hoards of cheering audience members.

Two musical numbers featured in the original Broadway musical were new to me.  The first song was "Freddy My Love" sung by Marty during the Pink Ladies' slumber party with Sandy, as a love song to her boyfriend who was in the Marines.  As part of the performance, Marty morphs into a lounge performer at a USO Show and performs in front of an audience containing real servicemen in uniform.  This was all done live as she does a quick change from the slumber party nightgown to a red slinky evening gown and back again–an impressive display of staging and choreography.  The second number was "These Magic Changes" sung by Doody strumming a guitar as he strolls through the Burger Joint, and then through the gymnasium during a montage of Danny trying out for different sports teams in order to impress Sandy.  Both songs, which were also on the Grease movie soundtrack, sounded appropriately of the 50s era and fit in nicely with the rest of the music.

A new song "All I Need Is An Angel", written for Carly Rae Jepsen's Frenchy to sing in Grease Live, sounded too much like a modern pop song and did not fit in with the overall vibe of the show at all.  Listening to her sing it, I was taken out of the story and no longer saw the character Frenchy.  Rather, it felt like I was watching one of Jepsen's music videos.  I got the same feeling when former Jonas Brothers boy band member Joe Jonas took the stage with his new group DNCE to act as the band for the dance.  Even though he was singing oldies, it was hard to get over the fact that this was Joe Jonas.  I think the choice of an older band, like Boyz II Men who played Teen Angel would have worked better and felt less anachronistic.

Grease Live does not match my memories of the movie, but judging it solely on its own merit, I think they did a pretty good job.  The show was entertaining and energetic, and for the most part, the musical numbers were well sung and danced.  The reviewers on IMDB obviously agree since it is currently sitting with a 7.8 rating–a great improvement on the first two attempts at live musicals.  This hopefully bodes well for more of these performances in the future.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Theatre: Cinderella and Peter Pan Pantomine

This Christmas season, we watched two musicals based on traditional fairy tales and classic children stories that were each given a modern, feminist spin with a message of gender equality. This has been an ongoing trend for new fairy tales (Brave, Frozen) and revivals of old ones.  To quote our new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the reason is "because it's 2015".  The 1957 Rodgers and Hammerstein television version of Cinderella has been updated so that Cinderella saves Prince Topher, by helping him find his purpose in life, as much as he saves her from her wretched existence.  In the annual Ross Petty pantomime Peter Pan in Wonderland which is a mashup of the Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland stories, Wendy gets Peter to agree that she should be allowed to be the heroine in their adventures occasionally.

While the commonly known version of the Cinderella story is the 1697 one by French author Charles Perrault, who introduced the elements of the fairy godmother, pumpkin coach, glass slippers and the midnight curfew, the tale originated centuries before and has been retold for centuries after.  Variations of the basic story of the persecuted heroine finding her savior can be found across cultures, with different names for the main character and slight variations in some of the plot points.  We saw an example of how universal the tale is when we visited the Bata Shoe Museum and perused their semi-permanent exhibit titled "All About Shoes: Footwear Through the Ages".   Part of this exhibit is devoted to versions of the Cinderella footwear from various times and cultures.  There was the French glass slipper, Dutch blue and white porcelain slippers, Korean straw sandals and gilded leather shoes from ancient Egypt.

The 2008 Broadway revision of Cinderella follows the main storyline of the French 1697 version, but updates it with a series of modern twists.  In this retelling, Cinderella is still beautiful and caring but also much more spunky and intelligent, while Prince Topher is still charming, but a bit naive and clueless as to the workings of the world and his place in it.  Topher is unduly influenced by an evil advisor who tricks him into approving oppressive laws against his people.

Cinderella first meets the prince when he is passing by her cottage and she kindly offers him a drink of water without realizing who he is. Their next two meetings are at the royal balls but when she flees after the second soiree, she intentionally leaves one of her shoes to help him locate her, as opposed to accidentally doing so in the traditional narrations.  And when he finally finds her and declares his love but is unsure what to do next, she prompts "Oh, well is marriage still on the table?".

The other major deviation from the traditional plot is regarding the depiction of Cinderella's step-family.  While there is still a wicked step-mother, only one of the stepsisters (Charlotte) is wicked, while the other one (Gabrielle) is meek but compassionate towards Cinderella.  Gabrielle is secretly in love with Jean-Michel, a revolutionary who advocates for the plight of the people.  Cinderella eventually counsels Prince Topher to listen to Jean-Michel and to address the injustices being heaped upon his subjects.  So Cinderella and Topher unite more as equals who each enrich the other's life and together, they will make their kingdom a better place for their people.

Although the story has been modernized for this musical, the tunes are still from the late fifties.  Most of the songs from the original Rodgers and Hammerstein production have been retained (including "My Own Little Corner", "It's Possible", "Ten Minutes Ago", "Stepsisters Lament" and "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?") and additional songs were added by raiding the Rodgers and Hammerstein oeuvre and picking up obscure songs ("Me, Who Am I?", "There's Music In Me") whose lyrics could be fit into the story.  Accordingly, the music sounds dated and contains too many soprano solos for my taste.

The best attributes of this Broadway show are gorgeous dresses and the amazing on-stage metamorphosis of both Cinderella and the Fairy godmother from rags to splendor.  With a quick twirl and motions faster than the eye can see, their clothes seem to magically transform before us.  It took several slow-motion viewings of this performance from the 2013 Tony Awards before it became apparent what was happening.  Designer William Ivey Long won the Tony award winning for best costume design for this feat and the other luminous costumes worn by the entire cast.

Ross Petty's annual Christmas pantomime merges together the characters and stories from Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland to create Peter Pan in Wonderland.  Popularized in England in the 19th Century, pantomime is a family-oriented form of musical comedy based on a well-known fairy tale or children's story, featuring singing, dancing, slapstick comedy, cross-gendered actors and audience participation.  The crowd is encouraged to cheer rousingly for the heroes and "Boo!!!" lustily each time the villain steps on stage, engaging in call and response interactions when the villain taunts "Oh no it isn't/he didn't/..." with replies of "Oh yes it is/he did/...".

The action begins when Captain Hook tricks Wendy into traversing to Wonderland where he wants to steal the fairy dust in her locket to open a Pandora's Box-like trunk owned by the Queen of Hearts.  Peter Pan and Tinkerbum (Tinkerbell was busy) follow along to Wonderland to try and save Wendy.  The flightless Tinkerbum is played in traditional grotesque drag by Stratford Theatre cast member Dan Chameroy. Once in Wonderland, the Peter Pan and Tinkerbum are aided by Alice, the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter, who call themselves the "Guardians of Wonderland".  Before they can save Wendy and stop Hook and his sidekick Smee, they first have to deal with the Queen of Hearts and her posse of playing cards, as well as Hook's goofy minions.

While the main plot, characters, colourful costumes and sets are geared toward the kids, many of the songs and most of the jokes are aimed at entertaining the adults in the audience.  Currently popular songs are featured including Taylor Swift's Bad Blood, Bruno Mars' Uptown Funk, Meghan Trainor's Dear Future Husband and Rachel Platten's Fight Song.  Many of the jokes, including some real groaners, reference local topics and current events such as Jose Bautista's bat flip, Donald Trump's hair, and Stephen Harper's downfall (Hook was his life coach before becoming a pirate).  When Wendy falls down the rabbit hole, images flash by including the falling silhouette from Mad Men.  Pan is compared to Justin Bieber in terms of never growing up.

This year's production is extra special since it is the last time that Petty will act in the annual show.  After 20 years of playing the main villain in the pantomimes, Ross Petty has decided to step back and focus on producing the events.  Doing both has become exhausting for the 69-year-old actor and he feels it is much more important for him to concentrate on keeping the shows financially viable.  He does this by courting corporate sponsors and unabashedly referring to them in the show, either via product placement, or even video-based commercial interludes where the show stops and the ads are played.  This year's sponsors include Hilton Hotel, Sick Kids Hospital, and Toronto Star who is heavily promoting its new online Star Touch application.  Each of the ads include one or more characters from the pantomime.  The Billy Bishop Airport's sponsorship led to its new underground tunnel being featured in a major plot development for the show.  Main sponsor CIBC received both a video commercial about Tinkerbum finally getting to "fly" by using the CIBC Adventura credit card, as well as recognition for providing the gifts for the three lucky little children who were invited on stage to be part of the show.

Peter Pan in Wonderland was not as funny and the plot was not as cohesive and entertaining as the pantomime that we saw two years ago, based on The Little Mermaid.  But Peter Pan in Wonderland and Cinderella were still both fun events to attend during the Holiday season, and the children in the audiences certainly enjoyed themselves.