Sunday, January 30, 2011

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels Musical at Hart House Theatre

There is so much opportunity to watch live theatre in Toronto, ranging from the big name shows put on by Mirvish and Dancap, to slightly smaller professional companies such as SoulPepper and Canadian Stage Company, to community theatres like Etobicoke Musical Productions and Curtain Call Players.

Recently we stumbled upon the Hart House Theatre, run by the University of Toronto. They were performing the musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, based on the 1988 comedy starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin as a pair of con men in the French Riviera who prey on wealthy women looking for excitement and adventure.

Lawrence is the more experienced, debonaire con artist who pretends to be an exiled foreign prince trying to raise money for a revolution to reclaim his throne. He has the cooperation of a French police inspector named Andre who takes a cut of each scam. Freddy is a small time con who has recently arrived in town and initially looks up to Lawrence as a mentor, but eventually enters into competition with him, with the loser vowing to leave town. Their target is an American heiress named Janet and the competition is to determine which one can first get her to give them $50,000. When they later discover that Janet is not actually an heiress, they change the bet to whether or not Freddy can get her to sleep with him.

The 2005 musical version follows the plot of the movie quite faithfully, but adds some extra scenes and songs for Andre and his developing relationship with Muriel, one of Lawrence's early marks. The appropriately titled first song is a slick jazzy number that quickly establishes Lawrence's style and sophistication, and why he is so successful at his scam, since he is just
"Giving Them What They Want". The women follow with a mock tragic, but actually extremely funny lament about their encounters with the "prince". In "What Was A Woman To Do", they describe him as "Magically long of lash; Tragically short of cash". The theatrical fourth wall is broken when one of the female "ushers" joins in on the song from the audience.

Freddy's first big number is a hilarious rap/rant called "Great Big Stuff" where he rapidly rhymes off all the things he could do if he made as much money as Lawrence. He ends the song with the plea "I just want someone to love me .... for my money!!!".

Freddy's scheme to scam the money from Janet is to pretend to be a pyschosomatically traumatized war veteran who needs therapy to be cured. At one point, Freddy and Janet decide that what he actually needs is love, and they sing the purposely corny and schmaltzy duet "Love is My Legs" which mocks the traditional big ballad love song found in typical romantic musicals.

In my opinion, dramatic musicals rely heavily on the music and orchestrations to set the mood, while a good comedy's success lies primarily in its lyrics. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has witty lyrics that advance the plot and make you laugh out loud as you hear them.

Herein lies the problem with the Hart House Theatre. The acoustics were not the best so we strained to distinguish the words being sung. That many of the characters were speaking with various European accents exasperated the issue. In spite of this, the show was so much fun to watch and the leads were very strong actors with good singing voices.

It was great to see a relatively new musical playing in Toronto and again I feel blessed to live in a city that provides so many opportunities to see different shows. I recently found out that the movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is actually a remake of a 1964 David Niven/Marlon Brando/Shirley Jones movie called Bedtime Story. I found a store that rents this movie so I hope to check it out soon.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Trigger and Luma Dinner at Bell Lightbox

Went to a special members only screening of the Canadian movie Trigger at the Bell Lightbox. Molly Parker and the late Tracy Wright play the members of a rock band named Trigger, who broke up acrimoniously and now have reunited for the first time after ten years. Each has her demons, one with alcohol abuse and the other with drugs. The movie depicts their running conversation through the evening while they explore their past and current relationship with each other.

This movie seemed all the more poignant in light of the fact that Tracy Wright was dying of pancreatic cancer while making this film. Her heartfelt monologues about illness and death take on an extra meaning, and makes you wonder what she was feeling as she was delivering those lines. Her real life husband made a cameo in the movie, which was filmed in a rush (9 days over 5 weeks) and serves as a final tribute to this brave actress. Tracy Wright died several months before the movie was released.

Filmed in Toronto, the movie features some recognizable locations including the upscale restaurant Canoe, Allen Gardens Greenhouse (which was also used in Atom Egoyan's Chloe), a school in Etobicoke, and a park near the DVP. I always get a bit of nerdish pleasure in trying to spot the Toronto landmarks while watching a movie.

Following the movie, we dined at Luma and tried the Tim Burton themed Creature Comforts menu. One companion and I had the Alice in Wonderland Magic Mushroom Lasagna, while the other had the "Big Fish" meal, which was seared tuna on salad. No one was brave enough to try the Mrs Lovett's Meat Pie of the day, in case it contained the Sweeney Todd special ingredient! We ended with the Willy Wonka inspired dessert, consisting of a dark chocolate truffle cake, topped with peanut butter ice cream, caramelized bananas, candied nuts and a cocoa tuile cookie. It was as delicious as it was beautiful.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Wingfield Lost and Found

The Wingfield series of plays are about the trials and tribulations of Bay Street stockbroker Walt Wingfield, who decides to quit his job and start a hobby farm in the fictional Ontario township of Persephone. Each play is structured as a set of anecdotes told through letters from Walt which the editor of the local newspaper reads aloud. Each story starts with "Dear Ed..." and ends with "Yours sincerely, Walt".

As a one man show, the talented Rod Beattie plays Walt as well as all the wacky characters that interact with him. Without the use of props or costumes other than the odd hat, he flows seamlessly from character to character, each one with a distinctive voice, tone, vocabulary, mannerisms, posture and facial expressions. In addition to the newspaper editor Ed, some of the recurring characters include Walt's wife Maggie, her stuttering fool of a brother Freddie and his even more idiotic nephews Wilie and Dave. These three characters are the instigators of most of the hilarious antics in Walt's life.

The earlier plays document Walt's journey in learning to farm, marrying a neighbouring farm girl, and having a baby. Wingfield Lost and Found is the 7th play in the series and centres around the themes of climate change and global warming. I found the first story the funniest - it involved Willie and Dave trying to help round up Walt's run-away cattle, using cellphones to text their statuses. There is much spoofing of the texting lingo (e.g. ICM = "I See 'em", GGGG=Geez, FIFO=Frigging Idiot Fell Off"), made all the amusing when Freddy explains them with his stutter. Further stories talk about the long drought that is causing the crops to die, and the sudden loss of water in the family well. Walt tries to find a "water witch" to help find the path of the underwater spring to determine where to drill a hole for a new well. This concept was totally foreign to me, but it turns out that the father of the friend who we watched the play with is actually a water witch!

The Wingfield plays are always good fun, but so totally dependent upon its star that I suspect the plays would just stop being performed if he ever decided to quit. I've often wondered which of the voices most closely reflects that of actor Ron Beattie. I'm suspecting it is the Walt voice, since that seems the least caricaturish.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Goodbye and Thank You to Sgt. Ryan Russell

What a heart wrenching, yet heart warming sight it was to watch the endless sea of policemen, firefighters and EMT workers march solemnly in solidarity yesterday, in tribute to their fallen comrade Ryan Russell. Many of us held back tears as we watched from our office tower up above. I went downstairs to join the crowd on the street just in time to see the hearse go by, as bag pipes played and the officers saluted. Before that, there was an eerie silence on the street, broken only by what sounded like mournful cries from the police dogs, as if they knew what was happening.

It was nice to see the people of Toronto finally showing the support which our police force so richly deserve. After all the hype and bad press from the G20 summit, an occurrence like this puts it all into perspective. We are reminded that these men and women put their lives on the line to protect us every day. It's too late for us to show our gratitude to Ryan Russell, but hopefully we learned not to take his colleagues and compatriots for granted.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Stephen Sondheim is not for everyone. His melodies stray heavily into the minor key and occasionally include some ear piercing chords (Sweeney Todd) and some of the plotlines of his shows are quite unusual (Assassins, Into the Woods), not your standard "Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Wins Girl Back" formulatic fare. His lyrics are more complex than the typical "Rain in Spain Falls Mainly on the Plane" rhyming couplets of past musicals, and it is here where he especially excels, conveying intelligence, wit and depth. Consider a verse of the opening song "Now" from "A Little Night Music" (one of my favourite Sondheim shows). Frederick, a middle aged man is considering making romantic advances towards his new and significantly younger bride:

"Now, as the sweet imbecilities tumble so lavishly onto her lap,
Now, there are two possibilities: A, I could ravish her, B, I could nap."

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, currently playing at the Canon Theatre is a one of his earlier (1962) musicals. It is a comedy set in Roman times with a story so complicated that a flowchart might be needed to keep track of all the characters and interweaving plotlines. Described in the simpliest terms, the main plot involves the slave Pseudolus trying to win his freedom through numerous schemas and manipulations. It has all the elements of a farce including improbably, exaggerated situations, many quick entries and exits but the characters from all sides of the stage, mistaken identities, and slapstick, almost vaudevillian-like sight gags that make you roar with laughter.

This particular production originated as part of the past Stratford season and has two stars, Sean Cullen and Bruce Dow, playing the lead character of Pseudolus on alternate days. Bruce Dow was in the part on the day we saw the show, which I'm guessing would be a better choice since he is mainly a theatre performer whereas Sean Cullen is primarily a comic. Not having seen Sean Cullen, this is merely a guess. At any rate, Bruce Dow was excellent in the role and dominated the stage with his presense and spot-on comedic timing. Our only regret was not having closer seats to better see his hilarious facial expressions and guestures.

The opening number, "Comedy Tonight" was whipped up by Sondheim at the last minute when he was asked to add a song to prepare the audience for what was to come. This immediately became the most popular and well-known number of the show. Sondheim really is a genuis!

"Something aesthetic,
Something frenetic,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

Old situations,
New complications,
Nothing portentous or polite;
Tragedy tomorrow,
Comedy tonight!"

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Tim Burton Exhibit at Bell Lightbox

My first impression while viewing the Tim Burton exhibit at Bell Lightbox was that he must have been one strange kid, akin to the Addams Family. Right from the start, he seemed fascinated with monsters, creatures, blood, gore and the macabre. His drawing styles and subjects have not changed that significantly over the years. One would assume that Halloween must be his favourite day of the year, and indeed he does celebrate it with a series of drawings, mostly showing monsters dressing up to be more like regular humans. One wonders whether he feels more affinity with the monsters or the humans.

The exhibit acts as a retrospective of Burton's career with sketches, sculptures and memorabilia from his many films. Some items of note included Sweeney Todd's razor blades, Edward Scissorhands costume and topiary, Catwoman outfit, Batman masks, The Peguin's baby carriage, Ed Wood's angora sweater, and the Pumpkin Scarecrow from Sleepy Hollow.

Models of his animated characters were on display including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride and Nightmare Before Christmas. Only Tim Burton could make Santa Claus look creepy!

While it was interesting seeing the artifacts from his famous movies, what I found even more so was to see his work as a young man. An entire section was devoted to his early years growing up in Burbank, California. Displayed was his "Crush Litter" slogan which won him an anti-litter competition in his teens, his first attempt at a children's book called "The Giant Zlig" and many early sketches and drawings, including his studies of Men, Women, and Couples.

A reoccurring theme in much of his work involves the outcast or misunderstood misfit, be it poor Edward with his scissors as hands, Stainboy, Tragic Toys for Girls and Boys, Sweeney Todd, Ed Wood .. the list goes on and on.

One of the first animated shorts that he wrote and directed (but did not animate) was called Victor Malloy. Playing on a continuous loop at the start of the exhibit, the film perfectly reflected my imagination of what Tim Burton's childhood could have been like. The film is about a 7-year old who thinks he is Vincent Price and spends his time alone in the dark performing experiments and reading Edgar Allan Poe. Some how he actually Vincent Price himself to narrate the film, which must have been a great thrill for him.

There were cartoons with funny captions where he played on common sayings but added his own bizzare, yet humourous twists. Imagine the caption "Mental Floss" with a creature pulling floss through his head out either sides of his ears, or "Holding hands" where two monstrous lovers with multiple tentacles are holding onto decapitated hands, or this cartoon of "Seeing Eye Dogs".

Tim Burton even wrote poetry in his early days, which further highlighted his strange sense of humour. Titles included as "My Girlfriend Is a Statue", and my personal favourite, "Robot Boy" for which he also made drawings and sculptures. The poem describes Mr. and Mrs. Smith, who start to realize there is something with their new "baby"...

"You see, there still is some question
about the child's gender,
but we think that its father
is a microwave blender."
...

"And Robot Boy grew
to be a young man.
Though he was often mistaken
for a garbage can."

The exhibit, which had an enormously successful run at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, does a good job at showcasing the talent, creativity and accomplishments of Tim Burton.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Bell Lightbox - Lawrence of Arabia

The Bell Lightbox has been showing all the films which it named as Essential Cinema Top 100 films of all time.

Number 22 is the Academy Award winning movie Lawrence of Arabia, depicting British army officer Thomas Elliot Lawrence's efforts to lead an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks during World War II.

Lawrence of Arabia is one of those epic movies that needs to be watched on a large screen. Shown in it's original 70mm print, the movie featured breathtaking cinematography, including prolonged shots showing both the beauty and isolation of the desert. From a sociological point of view, it is interesting to see how 50 years ago movie audiences could appreciate shots that lasted for minutes, compared to the quick jump-cut action of today's features. Peter O'Toole, in his first major film role looks alot like the real T.E. Lawrence (as shown on Wikipedia).

The movie was over 3.5 hours long and was shown with a brief intermission half way through, to provide a bathroom and refreshment break. This was good thinking, since the theatres at the Bell Lightbox are designed to maximize audience capacity, with unusually narrow seats and no centre aisle. Each row contained about 40-50 seats and it would have caused quite the disturbance to try to get out of the theatre if you were trapped in the middle of one of these rows.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

AGO - Maharaja Exhibit

The Art Gallery of Ontario is hoping that their new exhibit Maharajah: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts will be the next blockbuster to follow the great success of their King Tut exhibit from last year. An article I read in the Globe and Mail indicated that the AGO needed big showstoppers in order to make a profit. I had my doubts about how successful they would be when I read this, since it will be difficult to find continuously find shows with as much universal appeal as Tut seemed to generate. My visit to the AGO on December 30, which coincidentally was the exact same date the previous year that I went to see King Tut, seemed to prove that fact. Last year, timed tickets were required for Tut and when we arrived, there were lineups and huge crowds waiting to get in. Despite having the timed tickets, it was so packed that we had a hard time getting near the artifacts. This year for Maharajah, the lack of lineups and crowds were sadly and immediately apparent. Even the offer of allowing free entry to any visitor 25 and under (an attempt to introduce younger audiences to the AGO?) has not seemed to help.

This is really too bad since the Maharajah exhibit includes some spectacular pieces that are really worth seeing. The highlight is the beautiful saffron-coloured Rolls Royce nicknamed "The Star of India" which originally belonged to a Maharaja of Rajkot in 1934. Since then it has changed hands several times and has been ridden in by the British royalty. Recently it has been repurchased by the original Maharaja family and will be returning home to India after the exhibit.

Also of note is a stunning Fort Coach Company 1915 silver carriage with painted engravings of birds and flowers, carvings of bull dogs and ducks, and the Maharaja's coat of arms.

My personal favourites were the Art Deco furniture including a lovely library chair that had built in lights and ashtray on the arm, and a magnificent desk with built in lamp, desktop pen set, attached metal waste basket. Rich liked the Reverso watches where the watch-face could be flipped around so that cricket players could protect them from being scratched while playing their sport... we wondered why they just didn't take off the watches?

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Theatre: Parade - Musical at Berkeley Theatre Upstairs

What better thing to do on New Year's Eve than watch a musical based on the true story about the lynching of a man falsely accused of murder? If you love musicals as much as I do, then this is actually the perfect way to ring in the new year!

We watched the musical Parade, which depicts the sensationalized murder trial of a Jewish factory superintendent in 1913 Atlanta Georgia. Originally a northerner from New York who moved to the U.S. south after his marriage, Leo Frank is railroaded in a kangaroo court for the murder of 13 year old Mary Phagan who worked in his factory. Spurred on by prejudices against both his Jewish heritage and his northern roots, the southern jury convicted him based on flimsy circumstantial evidence. This included false witness testimony that was coerced by a politically motivated district attorney who was anxious to wrap up the case. Upon later appeals, Leo's death penalty was changed to life in prision pending a retrial. Tragically before this could happen Leo was kidnapped from his jail and lynched.

The songs ranged from patriotic anthems to emotional ballads to sassy rhythm and blues melodies. Most of the songs advanced the story with their lyrics, including the testimonies at the trial. For me, this is what a good musical is all about - where exposition is provided through song and verse. My favourite songs included "Factory Girls", a haunting song where Mary's coworkers falsely accused Leo of making inappropriate advances towards them, juxtapositioned against "Come to My Office", a fantasy of song describing the girls' imaginations of what a lecherous Leo said to them.

The star of the show, playing Leo Frank, was Michael Therriault who was featured in several Mirvish productions such as Gollum in Lord of the Rings and Leo Bloom in The Producers. His acting was perfect in the role of a nervous, uptight little man whose demeanor helped draw suspicion to him. All the performers had good singing voices, but the best was that of Daren A. Herbert, who played the black janitor who was probably the real culprit of the crime. His song "That's What He Said" which accuses Leo of the crime was powerful, taunting and dramatic.

As described in a pre-show talk, this version of the musical had been abbreviated from its original 3 hour(!) length, cutting out some scenes and characters. Although it made the show duration more manageable, to me it seemed that some of the plotlines felt rushed including the developing relationship between Leo and his wife. Because of this, their love songs lacked the emotional resonance that could have been felt had there been more time to establish these characters.

Parade is playing at the Upstairs Berkeley Street Theatre, which is an intimate little theatre with only 6 rows and about 150 seats. We sat in the front row which put us at floor level, at times about 3 feet away from the action. Sitting so close provides excellent sightlines, which is important for someone of my height, but also leaves very little to the imagination. I was often distracted by the wide open mouths of the singers, the sweat on their brows and spit emitting as they spoke. It also gave a clear view of the actress playing Leo's "young" wife Lucille, whose wrinkles betrayed the inappropriate casting of the role. A 4-man band playing the musical score resided on the right side of the stage, making it hard for the people sitting directly in front of the band to hear the singing. Luckily our seats were well away from the band so we avoided these issues. Given the tiny size of the theatre compared to the large cast of 15 actors (originally 38 in the Broadway production), the sparse sets and imaginative staging of the scenes very effectively conveyed the different locations of the story.

The programme was very interesting, providing the historical facts of this case, photos of the real Leo Frank and Mary Phagan, and a timeline of events. Of particular note was that in 1982, a former office boy of the factory provided an affidavat claiming he saw the janitor carrying Mary's body and in 1986, the Georgia state granted Leo Frank a posthumous pardon.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable show for me but then I like most musicals, so take what I say with a grain of salt. However Rich liked it too, so that counts for something.