Thursday, May 13, 2010

Rewind and Replay - The Last Five Years, Rock of Ages & Wicked - Musical Re-Reviews

The Last Five Years - Studio Theatre at Toronto Centre for the Arts - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Music, Lyrics and Book by Jason Robert Brown, Directed by Jen Shuber
Runs until May 23rd 2010

Rock of Ages - Royal Alexandra Theatre - Toronto, ON - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Book by Chris D'Arienzo, Directed by Kristin Hanggi, Choreographed by Kelly Devine
Review based on an early preview

Wicked - Capitol Theatre - Sydney, Australia - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Book by Winnie Holzman based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, Directed by Joe Mantello, Musical Staging by Wayne Cilento

I've just re-seen three musicals, one fave, one I originally hated, and one... well, Rock of Ages. There's a new production of theatre fave The Last Five Years running in Toronto. The musical is a clever intimate little show by Jason Robert Brown, a young musical composer who is becoming known for smart musicals. Then there's the giant behemoth of Wicked, a musical that I hated the first time I saw it, and yet, have now seen three times, with my last viewing in Sydney, Australia to check out the Australian cast. Meanwhile, I got to see the Canadian premiere of Rock of Ages, and while the show is still exactly what it is, the Canadian cast is pretty terrific.

The Last Five Years, presented by small upstart Angelwalk Theatre in their second production (after a successful Altar Boyz as their first), is a small little musical by Jason Robert Brown (Parade, 13) that was originally presented Off-Broadway, and has had at least 2 productions in Toronto (I saw the last one at the old tiny Bread & Circus). It's a musical known to musical theatre fans, but probably less known to the general public, but with such a haunting score, clever premise, and some humour parts to the story, it's an easily accessible "smart" musical that everyone will understand and "get".

With an interesting set by Melanie McNeil, this latest production directed by Jen Shuber makes some interesting choices, some that don't necessarily work, but some that give the two character musical some more defining chemistry. The musical is (SPOILER ALERT) about the 5 year relationship between the Jewish Jamie, and "Shiksa Goddess" Catherine. The twist is that the show is told forwards through the eyes of Jamie, and backwards through the eyes of Catherine. Usually all the songs are sung only by one of the characters in their own timeline (except the middle song when the timelines converge into a beautiful duet) but Shuber has Jamie and Cathy appear in some of their partner's songs that give a clarity to the relationship though may have defied the musical intentions.

The musical direction is beautifully rendered by Aaron Eyre (who also worked on the Bread & Circus version) with a small 6 piece orchestra which gives Jason Robert Brown's luscious music its full due. Adrienne Merrell's (Boys in the Photograph) Catherine has a wonderfully strong voice and a lovely effervescence. If anything, Merrell may seem too lovely and perfect, giving the couple's problems more of a one sided feel. Eric Craig (Edges) doesn't quite hit the high notes required for Jamie's songs but his middle and low tones are lovely and he avoids going into Jewish caricature.

While the production is imperfect, the strong points outweigh the little quibbles and the glorious music is still the star of the show, with a fascinating story that looks into the making and breaking of a young relationship from all angles. The show is so intricately constructed that some of the directorial or acting choices that may seem inconsistent at first, are actually explained in the differing timelines once it's all pieced together.

On the flip side of the musical theatre spectrum, we have the Canadian premiere of the surprise Broadway hit Rock of Ages (Broadway production review here). I mean, the show is exactly what it is, an excuse to pull together 80's-rock songs into a fun, if intellectually deficient musical with lowbrow humour and jokes based on gay, sexist, and german stereotypes. But, boy does the show do it well in a crowd-pleasing performance in all its fist pumping silliness.

And Mirvish must be loving the casting, continuing it's little family of self-produced stars. We Will Rock You lead Yvan Pedneault now takes the lead here while the Maria plucked from the CBC reality show to star in The Sound of Music, Elicia MacKenzie, now throws away her nun frock and a few other layers of clothing here as Sherrie, the girl quotient in the love story (or whatever weak story there is).

Yvan Pedneault stlll has his heavy Quebecois French accent (here explained in a nice throwaway line) and he's still a pretty bland actor but then he sings and all is forgiven. He was the sole saviour to the far worse musical We Will Rock You and his rock voice is still simply astounding.

Elicia MacKenzie, who was a wonderful buoyant Maria, does a nice 180 as Sherrie and surprisingly sings the cheesy 80's "RAWK" songs with power and gives her scenes enough heart to actually make us care just a little bit.

The show sort of lives or dies via the narrator Lonny, here played by Canadian Idol loser Aaron Walpole (above with Keeley) who does a pretty great job trying to hold the poo poo humour and breaking the meta-theatre fourth wall all together into what is supposedly the book of the show. It's not like Walpole is given much to work with, but he's charming and sings fantastically, and has more theatre presence than Idol would have led you to believe. Walpole is paired with theatre vet David W. Keeley (True Love Lies, Original Toronto/Broadway cast of Mamma Mia) as Dennis, the hippie owner of the bar set to be sold to evil German developers and Keeley gives yet another solid performance.

Victor A. Young (above left) and a hilarious Cody Scott Lancaster (above right) play the evil German developers while Josephine Rose Roberts (above centre) does a superb job as the hippie protestor.

Peter Deiwick does a great job as the misogynistic rock star Stacee Jaxx (and a great improvement over the Broadway original).

It's a terrific Canadian cast that mostly improves on the original Broadway cast in both singing and humour, and it makes the inane show actually kind of fun to watch.

I've seen Wicked three times now, hating it the first, then enjoying it quite well the second time when I had a better cast (including Stephanie J. Block and Annaleigh Ashford). So of course, I go see it a third time while I was in Sydney recently (plus you know, I won the Wicked Lotto so why not?).

To be honest, I mainly went to see it for Rob Mills (Australian Idol) as Fiyero (though he will end his run June 6th) because I basically followed his post Idol career and loved the few hit singles he had (Every Single Day, Ms. Vanity) and Mills didn't disappoint, with the most bouncy and charming Fiyero of the three I had seen.

And while Stephanie J. Block showed me how wonderful the role of Elphaba can be, Jemma Rix was superb in the Australian production. Rix was apparently the understudy that eventually got the lead role after audiences favoured her over the original, and I can see why.

Lucy Durack's Galinda nicely balances the bubbleheadedness required and the selfish spoiled brat without losing the innocent charm. Durack has a wonderful voice and great comedic timing.

While I still find the ensemble numbers a bit ridiculous, the Australian cast was superb and gave my once-hated musical a grand charm that makes this megalith musical entertainingly amusing.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com


Keira Andrews said...

Thanks for the RoA review. I saw it in NYC last fall and was quite underwhelmed after hearing how wonderful it was from many people. But I do love both Elicia and Yvan (so glad he's not trying to hide the Quebecois accent, as I'm sure he would not be good at it and his accent is adorable) and was thinking I'd give the Canadian production a shot.

Madame Guillotine said...

Thanks for the honest reviews :). I have to say that I really enjoy the Toronto cast for ROA though. Broadway always gets the big recognition and funds, but I think Mirvish has greatly surpassed the Broadway original this time. And I'll keep your Wicked review in mind if I check out Mirvish's production this fall.

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