Thursday, May 08, 2008

More Musical Madness! - Fire, Wonderful Town, In The Heights, Sunday In The Park With George, Passing Strange - Musical Reviews

Fire - Canstage - St. Lawrence Centre for the Performing Arts Bluma Theatre - Toronto, ON
Written by Paul Ledoux and David Young, Directed by James MacDonald
Wonderful Town - Shaw Festival - Festival Theatre - Niagara-on-The-Lake, ON
Music Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Book Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov, Directed by Roger Hodgman
In The Heights - Richard Rogers Theatre - Broadway New York, NY
Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Book by Quiala Alegria Hudes, Directed by Thomas Kail
Sunday in the Park with George - Studio 54 - Broadway New York, NY
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book James Lapine, Directed by Sam Buntrock
Passing Strange - Belasco Theatre - Broadway New York, NY
Music and Lyrics by Stew, Book by Stew and Heidi Rodewall, Directed by Annie Dorsen

I'm playing catch up with reviews of musicals I've seen in the past 3 weeks (and I actually wrote this already and then something happened with my stupid computer and I lost half of this post so this is the rehash that I could remember), with some GREAT ones (Passing Strange, In the Heights), some admirable (Sunday in the Park with George), one where the cast and production was better than the musical (Wonderful Town) and one that I thought was overrated considering the critical and audience acclaim that was buzzing about the show (Fire).

I'll start off with the great ones first.

Passing Strange is simply AMAZING! What I thought was going to be a pretentious rock concert (pretending to be a musical) about an artist finding himself (gag me already) turned out to be a breathtaking theatrical story about a middle class black man who searches for the artist in himself and almost risks losing himself in the process. Shockingly funny, truly rocking and bluesy, and surprisingly, very musically theatrical without feeling like "musical theatre".

I've never heard of Stew but apparently he's a hip and happening musician from LA and the story is his own retelling of his early years as he discovered music and other drugs while he tries to become an artist(e), be searching it out through LA, escaping to Amsterdam and or eventually landing in Berlin. Stew narrates the show he co-wrote with Heidi Rodewall who plays in the band that sits sprawled on the four edges of the bare stage. A bare stage that brings you to places of breathtaking imagination breathtaking. Brilliant direction from Annie Dorsen, some wicked cool choreography by Karole Armitage and a set that is essentially a large light wall (from Kevin Adams, Spring Awakening) makes the simplicity of the piece even more thrilling.

Then there's the amazing cast, brilliantly led by new star Daniel Breaker as the younger Stew who conveys youthful innocence and wide-eyed optimism against the weird artiste things he encounters. He's surrounded by an impeccable supporting cast who create multiple roles of opposing varieties. De'Adre Azziza as his first love, and later a neo-hippie, then later an avant garde artist and she delivers each character with effervescence. Colman Domingo and his towering figure squeezes all the juices out of Franklyn the church choirist and later as Mr. Venus the performance artist from hell.

Chad Goodridge and Rebecca Naomi Jones are superb as fellow kids, then later as artist and academics smoking pot in Amsterdam, then as militants living coop style in Berlin.

Elsa Davis rounds out the cast as Stew's mother, and she's both commanding and gentle and her performance of a perfect middle class housewife that uses her "blackness" to her advantage, gives the show, along with Stew's wickedly self-effacing narration, the biting humour and insight needed to turn a story of essentially becoming pretentious, the relaxed and reverential mood to make this truly entertaining.

It's an astoundingly funny and emotional piece of musical theatre, and although the slightly ambiguous ending does bog the show down a bit (sometimes it can work but here, I just wanted to continue with more of Stew's life, even though I know intellectually, it's the perfect ending point), Passing Strange is another exciting step in musical theatre history.

If Passing Strange takes the template of musical theatre and spits it away, In The Heights takes the old traditional musical mold and injects it with modern touches, making an old story feel fresh and new again.

In The Heights is a little slice of life musical about the Latino neighbourhood in Washington Heights full of various characters all trying struggling to live their lives, but while Rent threw AIDS, poverty and drugs into the East Village, In the Heights celebrates all that's good and clean in a cleansed and cliched world. Sentimental? Definitely. Contrived? Kinda. Sanitized? Yes, but who cares when you can have so much fun with Usnavi and his crew In The Heights?!

Written by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, he's the life of the party, throwing hip hop and rap and mixing it with Latin beats and throwing it all back into the traditional musical mode. Throw in ingenious choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, some colourful characters, a couple of love stories and a struggling neighborhood banking on winning the lottery, you have a musical that might be low on actual plot (with a book that tends to meander all over the place), but is super high on spirit, and in the end, it all won me over with all the joyousness!

Miranda is terrific, Karen Olivo has pipes to spare. Robin de Jesus (Camp) is utterly lovable as Sonny, while Seth Stewart sexily rocks it as Graffiti Pete who I did wish had a bigger part, especially since he's important in the climax of the show.

Mandy Gonzalez, Christopher Jackson and Olga Merediz are wonderful and charming, giving the show a bit of the realism (though minute) back into this hopeful story.

On a side note, it was nice to see Krysta Rodriguez in the chorus, though it's an interesting step considering she took over BeBe in A Chorus Line after leaving Spring Awakening, ALL IN THE LAST YEAR. That's quite the resume! And for Hi-5 fans (um. yes, I've watched... more than I probably should) Shaun Taylor-Corbett is usually partnered with Krysta dancing around the Heights.

It's interesting to note that In The Heights felt very similar to the older Wonderful Town, now playing in repertoire at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake.

Both are stories of neighbourhoods in New York (WT in Greenwich Village) and the cast of odd and interesting characters that populate the place, but while In The Heights' meandering stories came to a resounding spirited conclusion, I felt Wonderful Town kept spinning off until it stopped when they filled the length quota. The stories, based on the book My Sister Eileen, about two Ohio sisters who move to The Big Apple in search of better careers, is like every episode of Sex and the City sanitized, brought back to the wholesomeness of yesteryear's, then crammed into 2.5 hours. It felt progressive for a traditional piece with music from Leonard Bernstein but the story got odder and odder, with the first act ending in a mambo with navy men that descent upon Greenwich Village and everything else spinning in tangents.

There is a quaint touch to try to show a glossy version of the down and urban lows of the hip artists of New York City, but it seemed to counter against the love stories where people fell in love either a) when people first see each other or b) when people were told they were in love. The music was luscious but by the end of the show, pretty indistinguishable from each other, with nary a catchy song amongst the show.

It's a cute but insignificant show that works as mildly entertaining fare, but the Shaw company works darn hard to make you love them, with a top notch cast that milks every joke, emotion and story twist to the advantage of the superbly produced show. Lisa Horner and Chilina Kennedy are perfect as the loving but very different sisters at the heart of the story, and Jeff Madden and Jay Turvey are aces as potential love interests. Thom Marriot is lumberingly sweet as neighbour Wreck.

The supporting chorus is so talented that I almost wished we could see them perform something more modern like Spring Awakening or Bare. Ken James Stewart, Justin Stadnyk (King of the Camp), Kiera Sangster, Billy Lake, Mike Nadajewski, Kawa Ada, Mark Uhre, Jacqueline Thair and Ali Momen all deserve special mention for populating New York (and the show) with such spirit that it almost made me forget that the story was a bit ridiculous.

Sunday in the Park with George is anything but ridiculous. Known as one of the more intellectual Sondheim musicals, and winning the Pulitzer Prize during its original run, the Roundabout Theatre company has brought a revival originally conceived at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre in London to the big Broadway house of Studio 54. The musical is the story of George Seurat and his inspirations while he painted his famed painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. In this production, video projections are used to convey the famed painting, using modern technology to portray the historic painting. It's an interesting juxtaposition that works on many levels, and creates a visually dazzling show.

Like many Sondheim shows, it's so intricate lyrically and musically that I usually never appreciate his stuff the first time around, and since I've never actually seen or really heard the music since I was a kid (so I don't count it), I can say I appreciate the music but I didn't love most of it. While the first act is usually seen as the stronger of the two, I was a bit confused and uninterested in the whole proceedings when we go back to 1884 where we see George Seurat and his muse Dot struggle with their relationship as he completes his masterpiece. The other characters in his painting comes to life, each telling a bit of their own story, and struggles of artistic creation, composition and comprimises are explored. I think.

The second act, which pushes forward 100 years to 1984, where a young artist also named George struggles with his own art as he discovers he may be a descendent of Seurat himself, is usually known as the problematic one, but I loved it as I identified with the struggling Georges trying to proceed with his artistic vision and his place in the (artistic) world.

Musically, both acts end in "Sunday", a song that is both breathtaking and stunning with all the characters coming from the painting to sing together and while I may have been confused by parts of the book, it was worth the slower pacing for those endings.

Daniel Evans as both George's was fantastic and Jenna Russell (who I saw in Guys and Dolls in the West End co-starring Jane Krakowski and Ewan McGregor) was darling and surprisingly buoyant and funny.

The projections lighted upon a simple white set with a few doors and a sliding stage beautifully creates art that comes to life. I wasn't that impressed at first (since much of it was already used in Macbeth as well), but while it was well used, the projections reached the best cheeky/dazzling display in "Chromolome #7" and thereafter. It was visually inspiring on an inspired set for a musical about inspiration.

What wasn't inspiring was Fire, a revival of a 1985 Canadian musical that was inspired by the real life story of unlikely brothers Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart.

I wrote a longer spiel about this but I'm not inspired to try to repeat it again (after I lost the entire section due to technically difficulties) but while critics and audiences seemed to mostly love this piece, I felt less than thrilled on the overdrawn out musical that was more play with musical. The story seemed fascinating, with brothers raised by an evangelical preacher, with one leading a religious existence and finding fame and fortune in preaching to the masses, while the other brother goes onto lead a life of rock and roll in each brothers search for morality, all while both fall in love with the same woman.

It didn't help that Ted Dykstra (so good in 2 Pianos, 4 Hands) played the supposedly bad boy rock star like a sulky teenager while Rick Roberts hyped up preacher wore out his welcome as the preaching went on and on (much to the fault of the writers). The musical only came alive during original church choral songs or when Dykstra's character Cale sang Jerry Lee Lewis songs (jukebox musical styled).

The one lone saviour to the show was Nicole Underlay as Molly, the woman caught in between the brothers love, and she essentially holds the only moral centre with a sweet and real performance of a woman that tries to save herself from the damage the brothers cause onto each other.

I'm wondering if it's because I've seen more than the typical Toronto audience with truly inspiring and dazzling works (like In The Heights, Passing Strange and Spring Awakening) that I didn't take to Fire as much as some, but I felt it was half baked and pretty tedious and didn't think it was worth all the fuss. I could see that it had a lot of potential with such a fascinating story, but it was overdramatized and underwhelming in both its direction and its emotional impact.

In the end, I think Passing Strange is a better musical than In the Heights but I would like to see both again, and I think I love In the Heights more.

Wonderful Town is really a 3 star musical with a 4 star performance/production by the Shaw.

I'd like to see Sunday in the Park with George again to better understand the show and for the final song.

Meanwhile, Fire has already closed for CanStage which is not a great comeback for the struggling theatre company that once produced great musicals.

Fire - Canstage - St. Lawrence Centre for the Performing Arts Bluma Theatre - Toronto, ON - *1/2 (1.5 stars out of 5)

Wonderful Town - Shaw Festival - Festival Theatre - Niagara-n-The-Lake, ON - ***1/2 (3.5 stars out of 5)

In The Heights - Richard Rogers Theatre - Broadway New York, NY - ****1/2 (4.5 stars out of 5)

Sunday in the Park with George - Studio 54 - Broadway New York, NY - **** (4 stars out of 5)

Passing Strange - Belasco Theatre - Broadway New York, NY - ****1/2 (4.5 stars out of 5)

No comments: