Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Simple Ladies - Legally Blonde and Miss Saigon - Musical Reviews

Legally Blonde - National Tour at Princess of Wales Theatre - Toronto, ON - *** (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin, Book by Heather Hach, Directed and Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell
In Toronto until Aug. 8th 2010

Miss Saigon - Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts - Toronto, ON - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Lyrics by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr., Book by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, Directed and Choreographed by Barry Ivan
Runs until Aug. 1st 2010

2 large shows with scaled down productions are currently camped out in Toronto. While the National Tour of Legally Blonde is making its Toronto stop with scaled down touring sets, it can get away with chintzy sets far more than Miss Saigon, a regional production Dancap is presenting in association with Pittsburgh CLO, a mega musical that has large sets built into the story. I mean, it's gotta have a freaking helicopter for goodness sakes.

While Miss Saigon was always a favorite musical of mine, partially because it was the first one I saw live on stage, and partly because of the Asian storyline (hey, we Asians gotta take what we can get), revisits to the show have usually fallen below memory standards.

Meanwhile, Legally Blonde surprised my initial dour expectations and did everything in its pink-filled heart to win me over and it did in a sugar-coated diabetes inducing cotton candy show. While it's still a bubble-headed musical, it's a fun and frothy bubble-headed musical.

Now the tour is in town and while the sets have been scaled down immensely with some re-staging (and new lyrics) to accommodate the simpler (but sometimes clever) sets, it doesn't diminish the bubbly fun of the show. With a lovable story (based on the film based on a book) of the seemingly dumb blonde that manages to conquer her way through Harvard Law School (in a misplaced chase for love), and some catchy songs, a terrific cast makes up for the missing David Rockwell pink grandeur (especially the opening Greek house). Granted, the show relies on its cast and bubbly spirit so as the show says, the rest of it is just decoration, so Legally Blonde the musical mostly gets away with less.

I will say the orchestrations sounded quite canned as well, with a smaller orchestra than the show had on Broadway, and while O'Keefe and Benjamin's score isn't quite Sondheim, it still deserves better.

D.B. Bonds makes for a wonderfully gawky Emmett and has a beautiful singing voice.

Natalie Joy Johnson (who was the original Enid in the Broadway cast) is perfectly hysterical and loving as Paulette.

Michael Rupert, reprising the role he originated on Broadway, definitely reminds us why Broadway is still the ultimate goal, as his strong voice and deliciously conniving lawyer commands the emptier touring stage.

Colleen Sexton plays Brooke Wyndham with a lot more wit and snap then I remembered.

Meanwhile, I've heard great things of the touring lead Becky Gulsvig (pictured in all the above photos) but she was out the night I went and we had understudy Ashley Moniz, who thankfully, was absolutely fantastic with a beautiful voice and a perfectly believable blonde bounce to the role without ever making it annoying.

Meanwhile, over at the Four Seasons, the first musical is playing in the newest Toronto theatre usually reserved for ballets and opera, and while people had their reservations, I think it can work fine. Fine if they put the huge megamusicals in there. And Miss Saigon is from the era of mega musicals. It's big, sweeping, bombastic, and has a helicopter land on stage. So it requires a big, bombastic production to match the simple, but tunefully gorgeous songs and the large operatic story.

So what's currently on stage at the Four Seasons doesn't quite match up to the musicals ambitions in scale, but while the technical aspects of the show falter, the singing luckily does not, with huge voices to make up for the pitiful sets.

Ma-Anne Dionisio reprises the lead role of Kim, 17 years after she made her debut as the original Canadian cast, and looks maybe about 15 months older than she did the last time I saw her on stage. Her voice however sounds even richer than before and her acting performance is wonderfully moving and powerful.

While Dionisio's chemistry with Aaron Ramey's Chris isn't quite at the sparks they should be (and really, from Ring 5, can you really tell anyways?), their duets sound beautiful with Ramey's strong tenor giving the songs the strength i've rarely heard from them. While Ramey's performance is sometimes lumbering, it's not like the Chris role is really etched out that well, and is more of a device against Kim's more fascinating story.

Devin Ilaw's Thuy (I forgot the role even existed) has a beautiful voice that doesn't quite match the menacing nature the role is supposed to give.

Josh Tower's beautiful voice hits all the lower registers, but sadly doesn't carry through the large theatre quite as well due to poor sound design. With a smaller orchestra and some unsatisfactory sound design, any song that isn't sung by the ensemble feels lost and hollow in the large hall.

Kevin Gray reprises his role as the Engineer, the role he originated in the original Canadian company alongside Ma-Anne Dionisio 17 years ago, and the time, like his co-star, has simply given him even more power and depth to the role.

Gray manages to eek out "The American Dream" without the Cadillac in a clever new number that revolves around an RKO Theatre and dancing Gingers and Fred Astaires and probably the one re-imagined number that full works and improves on the original production, and the one spot where the choreography is actually noticeable.

As for the rest of the show, it just looks budgeted, although the infamous helicopter scene is still quite impressive and works well the way it's done (although a bit more smoke from the smoke machine would have helped with the illusion). The chintzy sets would have been helped by clever lighting but instead, the entire production is simply overlit, showing the seams and all. The best parts of Miss Saigon has always been the cheesy songs and overdramatic nature of it all, but while the strong cast of singers keep this production afloat, it's not aided by the down scaled sets in the extra large venue, nor the smaller orchestra and ensemble.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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