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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Fruitful Escapism - James and the Giant Peach - Musical Review

James and the Giant Peach - Young People's Theatre at Lorraine Kimsa Theatre - Toronto, ON - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Words and Music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Book by Timothy Allen McDonald, based on the book by Roald Dahl. Directed by Sue Miner
Runs until Jan. 4th 2015

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are one of the newest, and youngest musical writing teams to have emerged in recent years, with their enjoyable musical adaptations of A Christmas Story and the excellent Dogfight, Amidst their recent emergence was their adaptation of James and the Giant Peach, now making it’s Toronto premiere at Young People’s Theatre in a enjoyable and beautifully designed production.          

               

James and the Giant Peach is another promising showcase for Pasek and Paul’s tuneful songwriting and fit well into the Roald Dahl universe. When a newly orphaned James who is forced to live with his horrible aunts, a magical mishap makes a dying peach tree grow the most gigantic peach, filled with human sized bugs. The bugs, in the giant peach, take James on a giant adventure across the Atlantic that ends atop the Empire State Building in New York City. It’s a strange and exuberant tale full of typical Dahl’s twisted viewpoints, but the pacing in the set up seems to stall the adventures to come, leaving the actual portion with James, and the giant peach, feel slightly rushed.

While it’s important to set up James escaping from his horrible aunts, (played by Nicole Robert and Karen Wood who are deliciously awful much to our delight), the show is at its most joyous when James finally gets to interact with his new bug friends, perhaps because it gives the wonderful ensemble a chance to sing Pasek and Paul’s songs.

               

With the adorable Lana Carillo as Ladybug, Stewart Adam McKensy as Grasshopper, Saccha Dennis as Spider, Jacob MacInnis as Earthworm, Dale Miller as Centipede, and a buoyant Alessandro Constantini as James, YPT has yet again assembled a talented roster for its annual holiday season musical which is proof again that our musical theatre talent is underused in our city.

The other character in the play, the Giant Peach, gets a glorious design by Yannik Larivée in what may be the most beautiful and clever production design at YPT yet (and I adored the sets for their Cinderella, A Year with Frog and Toad, Seussical amongst others) with costumes (and puppets) to match the setting, all by Robin Fisher.


Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com


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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

To A.R. With Love - Love Letters - Play Review

Love Letters - Brooks Atkinson Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by A.R. Gurney, Directed by Gregory Mosher 

               

Who knew a theatrical show with only two actors sitting on stage, reading from binders, could be so beautifully moving and emotionally stirring? Never having seen A.R. Gurney's Love Letters, I did not realize the love letters being read were part of an overall series between two (fictional) people, from childhood, all the way thru decades of letter writing. We first encounter this child-like attempt at formal letters between a well poised boy, Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, and a rich girl, Melissa Gardner, and we hear the countless letters sent back and forth between the two as they navigate childhood, teenagedom, young love, jealousy, heartbreak, and more. The slow build of emotions and character development is wonderfully revealed through each subsequent letters, and sometimes in pauses in the lack of letters. This theatrical classic manages to tell a well-told tale of two people navigating the world as they try to make a connection, and while the plot would feel common and somewhat clichéd in a more classic telling, Gurney manages to make the story of these two people feel fresh and new.

As often with this show that requires little actor preparation, the current Broadway revival already has an impressive cast list scheduled to play Andy and Melissa including Diana Rigg, Stacy Keach, Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen (with Mia Farrow, Brian Dennehy and Carol Burnett already having been in this production). Currently, TV icons Candace Bergen and Alan Alda have taken up the seats on stage to play Melissa and Andy.

Alan Alda seems naturally perfect for the role of the well intentioned, well behaved, slightly reserved Andy and Alda's calmness has a soothing quality. In the more flaky, fascinating, misguided Melissa, Candace Bergen, while knowingly a strong and terrific actress, still surprised me in her terrific, heartbreaking, and funny performance as Melissa. With glares and the roll of the eyes, in voice inflections and perfect pauses, Bergen's Melissa is a fascinating and reeling performance all while simply reading from the script while sitting in a chair. Bergen and Alda's rapport with each other is so genuine and at ease, I'd be fascinated to see how other actors pull these performances off, which I guess is one of the enduring fascinations with this surprisingly moving and heartfelt play.

Candace Bergen and Alan Alda are scheduled to appear until Dec. 18th 2014. Diana Rigg and Stacy Keach will appear Dec. 19th to Jan 9th 2015 and will be followed by Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen.

Photo by Carol Rosegg
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com


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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Let's Get Physical - Manon and Opus - Stage Reviews

Manon - National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan, Music by Jules Massenet
Runs until Nov. 16th, 2014

Opus - Circa at Canadian Stage at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Created and Performed by Yaron Lifschitz with Circa and the Debussy String Quartet
Runs until Nov. 16th, 2014. Continues on Tour.


               

With a ballet based on Abbé Prévost's Manon Lescaut, about a young woman who essentially is sold into prostitution by her older brother, and despite finding love with a young gentleman, does not find a happy ending, there is an overlying darkness inherent to the story which makes some of the more soaring and glorious music sometimes seemingly at odds with the tragic tale and the sensitive choreography. There's a brutalness in the frank movements and story of Manon's trajectory from orphan to sold prostitute, from living a high life under a rich suitor, to being sent off to destitution and prison after her boyfriend Des Grieux is found out. At times, the piece feels oddly unemotional despite the operatic levels of drama, while other moments, humour from side characters and the absurdity of the situations provide a welcome relief, and a calm before a final heartbreaking act when Manon is raped and left in shambles in a beautifully choreographed finale as Manon is so abused, her love ends up tossing her like a used rag as he tries to pull her back up to life.

The ballet itself is a gorgeous and lush novel come to life, with beautiful sets by Peter Farmer, and soaring (if sometimes slightly jarring) music by Jules Massenet, but the choreography is nicely effective in the three different acts with a mix of wonderfully delightful ensemble numbers with some shining moments for smaller characters, while Manon, her love Des Grieux, and her brother Lescaut, are given some wonderful solos and duets amongst the mix. Manon and Des Grieux's heart wrenching finale is a sad and somber reminder of how far Manon has fallen from her earlier life (in the earlier acts).

On opening night, Manon was played by Sonia Rodriguez, who, at 14 years as a Principal Dancer (and 24 years with the company), shows no signs of wearing down unless it was purposefully for that finale dance act. Rodriguez danced like an angel and flitted nicely between innocence and heartbreak whenever the piece called for, and her eventual breakdown as Manon in Act 3 is simply stunning.

               

Guillaume Côté is as always, a portrait of perfection as the handsome, genuine love interest Les Grieux. Watching Côté's control and steadiness in his body movements is always breathtaking, and especially against Rodriguez's battered Manon, is a captivating counterpoint in dramatic movement that only enhances both dancers' performances.

It was wonderful and fun to see Rex Harrington back as the old Gentlemen who first "buys" Manon (especially after surviving The Amazing Race Canada), while Tanya Howard and Jenna Savella get hilarious little moments as Courtesans, both in the spotlight and on the side. There are some wonderful choreography for the male and female ensembles but from the corps, Francesco Gabriele Frolo got plucked to play a leading role in Lescaut, Manon's brother. While there seemed to be some first night jitters (especially, while he was slated to play Lescaut, he was not originally scheduled for opening night), Frolo, who I have admired in the Corps in previous shows, establishes himself as a dazzling lead with a very bright future. In fact, there is such a strong corps that other members Jack Bertinshaw and Harrison James will also perform in leading roles on rotating performances and it's such an exciting moment for the company and makes me want to see the show again to see the future of the company make their mark in this satisfying ballet production.



                         

Opus could be categorized as a dance piece with acrobatics, or a circus set to classical music, but whatever you call it, you can call it a pretty amazing theatrical display of human physicality.

From the Brisbane company Circa, Opus reminded me of those modern ballet shorts that are part of a mixed program, except with circus and acrobatic elements as its base movements. While the world famous Cirque du Soleil has perfected the art of dressing up circus acts in a surreal setting, and Sept Dois de la Main (7 Fingers) has taken the circus act back to an urban, raw roots, Circa's Opus brings a clarity and fragility to the circus performance, stripping away most of the excess and focusing mostly on the human body and its physical nature, limits and prowess. All set to classical music, which with its initial black and white wardrobe, gives it a classy touch before breaking down societal inferences.

               

With the Circa troupe using minimal props (a hoop, a trapeze, a rope and a chair is pretty much it), their human acrobatic acts from a cast of 14 mostly utilizes themselves as they throw, balance, step on, jump on, hold, (and various other verbs!) each other in some of the most simplistic yet stunning movements and tricks I have ever seen. With a minimal stage set and precise lighting, we often see the shaking in the body, and thus the difficulty of some of these "simple" acts of body manipulation that seems to ramp up through the 80 min show. What is created is a beautifully choreographed and stunning show of the awesome power of our human bodies. Well, at least of THEIR human bodies as one of the overall sentiments I kept overhearing leaving the theatre was "I need to go to the gym". Astounding physicality in an artful setting with some mesmerizing images created live on stage, all moved in harmony with Shostakovich's Opus.

The music is wonderfully performed by the Debussy Quartet but when the acrobatic performers tried to interact with the on stage Quartet, it seemed to detract from the overall power of the piece. While the musicians worked well as moving set pieces at times, I found the show tended to work best when the Quartet was not part of the focus. Perhaps more or less interaction with the movement performers might have helped, but as it is currently, the few moments where the musicians and movement performers combined did not add as much as I think they were hoping for. In a way, it almost kept taking away from what could have been an emotional build up that only seemed to start when the show solely focuses on the acrobatic ensemble.

Still, it is a minor quibble that does not detract from the amazing feats of acrobatic movements from a terrific, and chiseled cast, and now makes me curious to see Circa's other shows. A welcome addition to the circus-as-theatrical world.


Photo of Manon by Aleksandar Antonijevic
Photo of Manon Act 3 by Aaron Vincent Elkaim
Photos of Opus by Justin Nicholas
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com


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Friday, October 17, 2014

Filmed Noir - Kiss & Cry and Helen Lawrence - Theatre Reviews

Kiss & Cry - Charleroi Danses at Canadian Stage at Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts - **** (out of 5 stars)
By Michèle Anne De Mey and Jaco Van Dormael
Ended Oct. 5th 2014. Continues on tour.

Helen Lawrence - Canadian Stage at Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Chris Haddock, Conceived and Directed by Stan Douglas
Runs until Nov. 2nd 2014

The first two shows in Canadian Stage's main stage season both utilize cameras on stage to film and project the live proceedings directly onto a screen, turning our live theatre experience into one of both a film experience and a live stage show. Watching them happen simultaneously is fascinating and when they dichotomy works well into the tension of the accompanying story, these new works are at its most compelling.


               

It takes a few moments to take in what's happening in Kiss & Cry, a "dance piece" by the Belgiam company that utilizes miniature sets and camera tricks on a set that looks like the control room of a live TV show, as the screen shows the results of their live performance of fingers, dancing on the tiny set pieces. Yes, fingers. With haunting narration, an old woman recounts the tales of her past loves, with the fingers of a woman clad in black, dancing and performing as the old woman, alongside her paramours, another pair of fingers from a man clad in black and hidden away from the cameras.

It's all quite odd and unique but slowly, the tales of lost love, heartbreak, passion and longing lures us into this faceless but emotionally compelling memory piece. All while we watch the cast manoeuvre and manipulate the various technical pieces on stage, with a laptop sitting centre stage editing it all live and playing on the screen above. Technically fascinating and yet strangely lyrical and eloquent and despite all the props and equipment on stage, the show feels very dreamlike.


               

In Helen Lawrence, first produced at the Arts Club in Vancouver, a scrim sits at the front of the stage with a blank blue walled stage behind it. Blue boxes sit around the stage, and several cameras on a camera track slide back and forth just within the scrim. Using instant editing, actors appear in the giant bluescreen stage as their giant faces are projected in closeup on the scrim in front of the live action, with their film image now within a CGI background. It's an interesting experiment, and with the mysterious story of Helen Lawrence and various characters just after WWII in Vancouver, it's a perfect set up for a film noir shown on screen, being created live on stage just behind the screen itself.

Watching both the live actors in action, and the resulting film noir directly projected in front of them simultaneously is quite a technical wonder, and it is even more impressive when you realize the camera angles and matching cgi backgrounds must match to make it all look believable on screen. It is live filmmaking as theatre and it's quite amazing to see.

               

Moments when you see different scenes happening live, together on the same stage, as they cut between scenes on the film are particularly thrilling, or when the film blacks out and we only see the preparation scene begin behind the scrim.

With all the technological impressiveness though, the story is both fascinating and problematic. The mystery follows various characters just as Helen Lawrence (Lisa Ryder) arrives into town as she tries to track down a certain Percy Wallis/Walker (Nicholas Lea) who seems to have crossed her in a different life in Los Angeles. There's are crooked cops (Greg Ellwand, Ryan Hollyman), an enterprising kingpin of the ghetto Hogan alley (Allan Louis) who may be being pushed out by his returning brother (Sterling Jarvis). There is a down-on-his-luck man (Adam Kenneth Wilson) with a beautiful German wife (Ava Jane Markus), as well as a creepy hotel manager (Hrothgar Mathews), the hotel's orphan worker (Haley McGee), a sweet prostitute (Emily Piggford) and a woman waiting for her missing husband (Crystal Balint). All the characters live amongst this noirish Vancouver as the stories intertwine with backstabbing and seduction, blackmail and violence.

It's a fun setup and the great cast have fun with the film noir speeches and cadences, but with so many characters to develop in the various plotlines, none of the story lines really have time to reach their full potential, and I wanted more about Helen Lawrence and Percy, and the great Allan Louis is so fantastic as Buddy Black, with such hints of a deeper story, especially with his relationship with (the terrific) Crystal Balint's Mary Jackson, it all seems to be cut short and rushed through so that we can get to the next plot point. The story of the unlucky Edward Banks and Ava Banks either seems too slight for such time given, or not enough for what the wonderful Adam Kenneth Wilson and Ava Jane Marcus can offer in developing a richer storyline that is hinted at, as their story gets squeezed between the corrupt cops and the fight for control of Hogan Alley.

The play is still a fun homage to the film noir genre, as it tries to squeeze all the usual suspects into a tight story. With the gimmick of the theatrical presentation as a literal background to the film noir being projected, it (physically) adds another layer to the mysteriousness of the story(ies) but the story set up might have benefitted from more time to play with and might have suited a long-form storytelling format that television has had the benefit of utilizing of late. (And considering Chris Haddock is known for the television series DaVinci's Inquest, he might have too expertly designed a story that has a better long term plan).


Photos of Helen Lawrence by David Cooper
Photo of Kiss & Cry by Maartan Vanden Abeele
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com


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Thursday, October 16, 2014

School Ties - To Kill A Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies - Theatre Reviews

To Kill A Mockingbird - Young People's Theatre - Toronto, ON - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
By Harper Lee, Dramatized by Christopher Sergel, Directed by Allen MacInnis
Runs until Nov. 2nd 2014

Lord of the Flies - A New Adventures and Re:Bourne Production at Sadler's Wells - London, UK - **** (out of 5 stars)
Based on the novel by William Golding, Music by Terry Davies, Choregraphed by Scott Ambler, Adapted and Directed by Scott Ambler and Matthew Bourne
Ended Oct. 11th 2014. Continues on Tour.


Either To Kill a Mockinbird or Lord of the Flies, if not both, were probably in your required reading in school, and have long become modern classics. New stage productions bring these classic tales to life that remind us that these controversial and dark tales still have an enduring punch. A sad reminder that despite the many years since these stories first debuted, little progress in societal behaviour have been made, as we sit watching these old stories all while things like Ferguson, still happen in this day and age.




               


Young People Theatre's To Kill A Mockingbird doesn't flourish the still-gut punching story with fancy directorial visions and presents Harper Lee's still urgent tale of injustice in a plain and matter-of-fact staging. While the lighting and vision could have added a bit more atmosphere (perhaps with a musical score and lighting that could add to the heat of the south during the summer this story ), a strong cast, lead by Jeff Miller (The Normal Heart) as Atticus Finch, is all the emotional punch required to make this classic book work on stage.

In 90 minutes, Harper Lee's story is effectively streamlined without skimping over the darker issues in this production geared for young people. The story of Tom Robinson, a Black man accused of sexual assault and his trial as seen through the eyes of his lawyers young daughter Scout Finch, is a great entry for Young People's audience, and the parralel story of the hidden neighbour Boo Radley, nicely bookends the morality tale of the ostracized in society.

Up-and-comer Caroline Toal (in a total 180 from her seductive turn in Cockfight) plays the curious and young Scout, who along with her brother Jem  (a genial Noah Spitzer) and visiting kid Dill (a spunky and luminous Tal Shulman), mischievously investigates and follows along the trial Scout and Jem's lawyer father Atticus' client Robinson (the solid Matthew G. Brown), despite the misgivings of their caretaker Calpurnia (a radiantly feisty Lisa Berry from This is War). Rounding out the terrific cast includes a horrifyingly mesmerizing turn from Jessica Moss (Was Spring) as accuser Mayella Ewell, an equally scary Hume Baugh as her father Bob Ewell, and Mark Crawford (The Normal Heart) as the prosecuting lawyer and later Boo Radley.




              


Now Lord of the Flies, the tale of boys trapped on an island who must learn to survive and live as their own society but sadly devolves into treacherous madness and violence, is not exactly the first story that you would think of as something to be translated into a ballet, but that's what Matthew Bourne and his New Adventures company has done. To spectacular, if sometimes inconsistent results.

Originally commissioned to create a dance piece for boys as a community project in Galway, Bourne approached the Golding estate, lead by William Golding's daughter Judy, who agreed to the piece. What has transpired is a professional piece that combines a professional cast of dancers with local amateur boys, some who have never danced before, in each tour stop that, and the mix of the professional and raw movements are a perfect match for the story of school boys who devolve into their inner wild demons.

With some retooling for the dance stage, the story has been reset into a theatre, and with that, some clever changes (like salvaging for food, the boys end up eating ice cream cups and crisps), as they are trapped in the isolating space as some sort of riot seems to be going on in the outside world. As the school boys first appear, they are lead in synchronizing choreography. Well behaved boys following the rules society has set. As the isolation and power plays devolve, we get incredible choreography with boys trying to out power each other, that eventually ends up in wild and loose movements and in dance duels, allowing for the rarity of seeing male dancers together in struggles of strength and control.

Transferring the story into a theatre doesn't always work, and is most glaring when the pig shows up (where would a live pig appear in a theatre?) but while some of the story details require one to gloss over the re-imagining of William Golding's classic island tale, the raw emotions, and easily identified struggles of the boys are still effecting and powerful.

Sam Plant's Piggy, our central nerd, is exceptionally wonderful and moving as the bullied and the true hero of the story. Danny Reubens is thrillingly disturbing as master troublemaker Jack, and Layton Williams has some beautiful solo moments as Simon. Dan Wright, Sam Archer, Jack Hazelton, Ross Carpenter and Philip King round out the excellent older kids while the younger cast are just as stunning.



Photo of To Kill A Mockingbird by Jill Ward
Photo of Lord of the Flies by Helen Maybanks
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com


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Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Sounds from Beyond Broadway - Holler If Ya Hear Me - Musical Review

Holler If Ya Hear Me - Palace Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Lyrics by Tupac Shakur, Book by Todd Kreidler, Directed by Kenny Leon, Choreographed by Wayne Cilento

               

Yes, there is a musical on Broadway that features the words, eloquence and anger of Tupac Shakur, the rising rap star who was just breaking into the mainstream before his young life was tragically shattered when he was murdered at the young age of 25. His music and words were full of anger from his view of the streets and the hoods he came from and while his song of hope, "California Love" probably became his most famous song played on Top 40 radio, Tupac Shakur spoke most of the frustrations of living amongst the violence and trap that Black America has been put in. And he spoke from his own view, with his own voice, and it created a devoted following.

Holler If Ya Hear Me, the new Broadway musical uses Tupac's deeply personal songs but tells an original tale of various characters living in the same violent and hopeless streets where nonsensical gang wars rule the day, and people live in fear, or retaliatory anger. Todd Kreidler's book spreads Tupac's word into various voices, mainly concerning a now-freed con John (an amazing Saul Williams, a noted poet) who returns to the streets and tries to stay out of trouble by getting a job at the local mechanics shop owned by the one White man in the cast Griffy (an endearing Ben Thompson, American Idiot). Unfortunately John's girl Corine (a divine Saycon Sengbloh, Fela, Hair) has moved on in during his 10-year imprisonment and is now with John's old friend Vertus (a terrific Christopher Jackson, In the Heights). The plot machinations gets moving pretty soon though when Vertus' brother Benny gets killed before we even register who Benny quite is, and then plots of revenge, pride and rising up are placed as steadily as a rap beat.

Unfortunately, while Tupac's songs have potential to be effective storytelling material in a musical, the cliched plot, and the multiple character plot lines give very little characterization and time to get deeper into each person, and thus the songs, which could have been more effective to deepen the emotions, fail to deliver any real resonance that may further the story.

                 
















When the songs fully come to life, like in "Holler If Ya Hear Me", or the respite-from-anger "California Love", they are a burst of energetic brilliance that shows the potential in the show, and the potential to create some real emotional connections. The stirring moments offer a glimpse of what might have been, but this would have benefited from a tryout Off-Broadway or out-of-town and another edit at the book.

The wonderfully game cast, which includes the commanding presence of Tonya Pinkins as Vertus' mother, Mrs. Weston, inject as much energy as they can into this dark and angry piece, and when there is choreography (by Wayne Cilento), it keeps the staging interesting from the plodding book, but alas, the overall structure and vague characters and motives are not enough to make this musical be heard properly.


Photos by Joan Marcus
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com


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Friday, June 06, 2014

Uni(que)sex - Casa Valentina and Queer Bathroom Stories - Play Reviews

Casa Valentina - Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel Friedman Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Harvey Fierstein, Directed by Joe Mantello
Runs until June 29th, 2014

Queer Bathroom Stories - Buddies in Bad Times Theatre - Toronto, ON - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Sheila Cavanagh, Directed by Megan Watson
Runs until June 15th, 2014


Sexuality is far more fluid and if we seem to be a bit better at understanding that, the fluidity of gender identity is an even more misunderstood aspect of humans, and two new plays attempt to explore how we identify genders from within ourselves and from society.

               

Casa Valentina, the new play by Harvey Fierstein, who has had great success in several drag comedies (Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage Aux Folles, Kinky Boots) brings things back to a calmer, more introspective play about a group of straight-identified men who love to dress up as women. In 1962. Even today we don't quite understand that notion as a society and would assume that the men are just gay men who have not realized, or wanted to come out. But back then, in the Catskills, a married couple opened up a resort hidden away from the prying eyes of the world where these men could, at least momentarily while on vacation, be who they truly wanted to be, in a dress.

               

It's a fascinating look into a world we tend to mesh with the trans, gay or drag community, and maybe there is some intermixing (as a dramatic plot point interludes) but Fierstein embraces these men, and the woman who loves them (in a heartbreaking performance by Tony-nominated Mare Winningham (Philomena)) that the play is fascinating and fresh when he lets the characters slowly reveal themselves in their natural and most comfortable surroundings, letting them interact at their true core.

               

The cast is first rate, with layered performances by Nick Westrate (Unnatural Acts), Tom McGowan (Frasier), John Collum (The Scottsboro Boys), Gabriel Ebert (Matilda), Patrick Page (Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark), Larry Pine (Moonrise Kingdom) and Reed Birney (also Tony nominated for this performance).

Unfortunately, Fierstein also tries to set up a dramatic plotline to ante up the stakes, with financial troubles forcing a possibility this refuge may end up closing forever. The machinations to get the plot going bog down the spirit of the play, and distract from an otherwise fascinating character study (and entertaining ensemble). With so much to already explore with the issues at hand, the plotting device only clouds up the most fascinating ideas in the play.


In Queer Bathroom Stories, a series of vignettes written by Sheila Cavanagh based on real-life incidences and interviews about stories that take place in and around the public lavatory, the opposite problem of the play keeps the show from its potential best.

               

While there are plenty of funny moments, most of the humour derive from the final punchlines from a response that ends up being lighter than its weighty set up. The play, while hints and mentions many fascinating aspects about queer and gender identity culture that is cleverly revealed through the simple act of choosing which gendered bathroom to go into while in a public space, the tone tends to stay serious and dark, and the stories tend to be short and abrupt, sometimes down to a couple of lines per story. Each one individually is interesting and revealing, but put them together as a whole, and it never quite amounts to as much as a play as a whole.

               

While plays like The Vagina Monologues and Love, Loss, and What I Wore have successfully tied together short stories (with a female empowerment slant), the varying tones and styles, from humorous to serious, and the variation of short quips to longer, more in depth stories. Queer Bathroom Stories has a nice baseline to work with and with some finessing and editing, can possibly become a great night at the theatre, as some of the vignettes are fascinating but seem to end before it truly gets into the dramatic part of its core.

Great direction by Megan Watson keeps each bathroom story flowing from one to the next, keeping what can be a static style of theatre, into something that feels theatrical. Hallie Burt and Chi Ryan Spain don't always hit on every story but when they truly connect with a particular story, it can be powerful and dramatic. Tyson James is quite haunting from the first moment and never lets up, revealing strengths and vulnerabilities between each character in each story, that often jump from one to another in lighting speed.

Photos of Casa Valentina by Matthew Murphy
Photos of Queer Bathroom Stories by Dahlia Katz
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com


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Thursday, June 05, 2014

The Shoe Must Go On! - Cinderella - Ballet and Musical Reviews

Cinderella - National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Choreographed by James Kudelka, Music by Sergei Prokofiev
Runs until June 15th 2014

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella - Broadway Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics and Original Book by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, New Book by Douglas Carter Beane, Directed by Mark Brokaw, Choreographed by Josh Rhodes


We never seem to tire of the classic tale of the poor girl Cinderella, tormented by her wicked stepmother and two stepsisters, who, thanks to her fairy godmother, manages to meet and fall in love with the Prince. Of course, at midnight, the magic disappears and Cinderella must leave the ball, but not before leaving behind her glass slipper (or in the ballet's case, her sparkly pointe shoe). A ruse to get the Prince to search for his love, before a humble Cinderella slips into the shoe that fits perfectly. Plotholes and feminism be damned, but it's a well worn tale that we still seem to clamour for.

               

The National Ballet of Canada revisits the classic tale that I adored back in 2008, and this time around, I adored it even more. While the tale itself isn't revolutionary, James Kudelka's choreography still feels fresh and new, within this very classic story. It's a lovely and amusing ballet and Cinderella, especially with it's grande ball at the centre of its story as a grand excuse for some glorious dancing from the entire company, with beautiful costumes that billow as the dancers partner up and dance around in this fantasy dream.

                        

Kudelka adds a world wide search by the Prince in his search for the woman who fits the shoe, which adds a fun element for the Prince and his Officers, with additional roles for the women representing his potential princesses from each locale he searches.

               

Add in some physical comedy in the wicked Stepmother and Stepsisters, played to joyous sneering delight by Alejandra Perez-Gomez as the Stepmother, and Tanya Howard and Rebekah Rimsay (repeating her deliciously hilarious role from 2008) as the Stepsisters (above), and this Cinderella keeps things light between the dreamy romance, anchored by the swoonworthy team of Sonia Rodriguez in the title role and Guillaume Côté as the handsome Prince.

               

Wonderful dancing and characterizations by the rest of the company, and this time, a new standout to note was Trygve Cumpston, one of the Officers, joining the corps that has many dancers to watch for in the future.


The new Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella on Broadway (now running over a year), based on their TV movie special score , with a revised book by Douglas Carter Beane, manages to modernize the old-fashioned tale and adds a nice girl-power twist, and adds some dimension to the Prince's plight. While I saw the wonderful original cast (with Laura Osnes in the title role and Santino Fontana as the Prince), the current cast boasts pop star (and former Canadian Idol contestant) Carly Rae Jepsen as Cinderella, with TV star Fran Drescher as the Wicked-Stepmother. The rest of the cast includes original (and very funny) Ann Harada as one of the wicked stepsisters (and a sweet Stepahnie Gibson as the other stepsister who isn't as evil as we initially think), and Victoria Clark as the fairy godmother, but while I adored this production the first time around, with it's clever modernization of the story (adding a political element, a misunderstood "evil" stepsister, and a Prince with more depth than this story usually allows for), the beautiful originating music, and the gorgeous Tony winning costumes by William Ivey Long, the big question currently is: How are Carly Rae Jepsen and Fran Drescher.

               

Fran Drescher plays Fran Drescher as the evil-Stepmother, here called Madame, which is perfect for the role of the evil-stepmother. It's not really a stretch but you can delight at Ms. Drescher having a delight on stage, spitting out her lines with relish.

               

Carly Rae Jepsen, with her lower and raspier natural singing voice, sounds very different than the more classic and smooth voice of Laura Osnes, but Jepsen is surprisingly strong and her voice sounds beautiful singing R&H's songs. She's also wonderfully loving and winning in the role, which admittedly, isn't the most difficult role to act out, but Jepsen more than acquits herself and manages to turn in a very strong stage performance.

I also managed to see the understudy as the Prince but to my delight, it was Cody Williams, who was a revelatory delight in Arena Stage's Oklahoma!, and again here, was perfectly wonderful as the pondering Prince.


Photo of Cinderella Ballet - Rebekah Rimsay and Tanya Howard by Aleksandar Antonijevic
Photos of Cinderella Ballet - All others - by Cylla von Tiedemann
Photo of Cinderella on Broadway by Carol Rosegg 

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com


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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Survival of the Fittest - The Killer - Play Review

The Killer - Theatre for a New Audience - Brooklyn, NY - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Eugène Ionesco, Newly Translated by Michael Feingold, Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Runs until June 29th 2014

                     

Famed actor Michael Shannon (Grace, Revolutionary Road, Man of Steel, Boardwalk Empire) is known for his intensity in his roles, usually playing the nemesis. Here in Ionesco's The Killer, he's oddly not playing the title character, and instead, Shannon plays Berenger, the hapless everyman hero who accidentally happens upon a utopian town called Radiant City after taking the wrong bus. He's in awe of the beautiful houses, the never-ending blue skies, the beautiful flowers that receive rain from underneath. Everything seems perfect except for the fact that a serial killer has been murdering everyone and the authorities have simply given up catching him and let the killer continue along his ways.

                    

Being an Ionesco play, it is dark, and darkly funny. The absurdity is all veiled political commentary and the absurdity of human's nature, and our willingness to accept a followers position. The Killer is presented in three vastly different acts, with this production, directed by Darko Tresnjak (A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder), following Ionesco's many stage directions and sound effects to great effect, using a mostly bare stage to evoke the utopian world that gets dispelled by a mysterious menacing killer.

                    

When we follow Berenger back to his apartment (in the only literal set) in the depressing real world, we meet Edward, a friend who the audience can easily see is the Grim Reaper, there to seduce Berenger to his world. Against the madness of a busy world (and some hilarious lines spat out by a cleaner played by the always reliable Kristin Nielsen (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike). When Berenger ultimately meets the Killer in the third act, the two opposing figures creep towards each other on two separate turntables that slowly spins them together until the ultimate match up. Berenger offers up a rant to save himself in what turns into the slowest chase scene ever, staged with incredibly creepy sound effects and in such slow and precise physical movements, that while the build up should work to build up an air of suspense, it instead deflates itself with too much atmosphere and not enough substance in this final act to sustain the act.

                    

While the play loses steam in the final act, Michael Shannon, an unlikely everyman hero, is wonderfully intense but in an unusually hopeful way, and we easily root for his Berenger, who returns into 3 other of Ionesco's plays, and the first two acts breeze by in its mix of satirical absurdity and the intense allusions it manages to create. Robert Stanton as perfectly dry as The Architect of Radiant City, while Paul Sparks is derangedly creepy and yet amusing as Edward.

Ionesco's The Killer is not the easiest play to sit through, and it has an abundance of ideas, particularly pointed in today's world of cell phones and NSA that seem particularly forward thinking for a play written and produced in the late 1950s, but when it mostly works, with a commanding lead in Shannon, it can be quite absorbing and chillingly humorous.


Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com


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Tuesday, May 06, 2014

A Whole New World - Sultans of the Street - Play Review

Sultans of the Street - Young People's Theatre - Toronto, ON - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Anusree Roy, Directed by Nina Lee Aquino 
Runs until May 15th, 2014 

                         

Sultans of the Street first presents a colourful world of the streets of India before slowly revealing pieces of information that show the dark side lying underneath all the floating coloured sheets (in a beautiful and versatile set by Camelia Koo). When two brothers (Ali Momen and Colin Doyle) skip school to fly kites, they encounter siblings (Mina James and Richard Lee) dressed up in costumes, begging on the street. The brothers are intrigued but discover the siblings giving the money they've "earned" to th
eir "Aunty" (Zorana Sadiq) before Aunty catches the brothers in a lie and blackmails them to work for her.

The new play does not shy away from a controversial subject into a world I know little about (and I imagine the intended audience sitting here in Toronto isn't that knowledgable about either), and presents the street life of exploited children in a matter-of-fact way. While the machinations of the plot tend to bog down the dramatic flow of the overall play, there's a lot of chilling information being introduced for us to take in before we get the true verity of the situation.

Did I mention this is theatre for young people? Ultimately, there's a hopefulness to the play as things get worse for the brothers, who try to convince the siblings that their way-of-life under Aunty's exploitation isn't their only option.

There's a boldness to Roy presenting the dark hard facts in such a plain, this-is-the-way-it-is way, and with some beautiful sweet moments between the siblings under the stars (and the shelter of umbrellas), where death and their sad situation are just accepted, gives the whole situation a heartening reality check. The story does not soften things or talk down to the intended young audience, but it is quite an eye-opener for adults alike.

Nina Lee Aquino keeps things balanced with some amusing double casting with Sadiq playing multiple roles as the adults who pass these street kids, all in silly costumes, and Momen and Doyle have a nice brotherly rapport that highlights the imbalance of power within the brothers (that eventually leads to their troubles) while also showcasing the protective love they hold. James and Lee’s moments under the umbrellas are sweet and moving.

While the pacing and careful reveals tended to slow down the drama and over-spelled things out, there’s also something to be said for presenting such a difficult subject matter without moral judgement.


Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com


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