Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Long Beautiful Hair - Tangled - Movie Review

Disney's Tangled = A
Written by Dan Fogelman based on the fairy tale Rapunzel by the Brothers Grimm, Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard
Opens November 24th 2010

All I remember from the fairy tale Rapunzel is when the prince calls out "Rapunzel Rapunzel, please let down your hair", before he climbs her hair to save her from being locked up in a tower. So I'm not sure what Disney has changed, added, lightened, and rounded out the darkness in these usually grim fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, but I'm okay with the Disneyfication. Tangled is a a wonderful return to the classic fairy tale animated musicals Disney had excelled at, and while some of the morals and tendency to promote a Princess attitude can be questionable, they tell the story so well in such an entertaining fashion that I fell in love with Disney's modernized version of Rapunzel.

Don't get me wrong, it's still with the medieval town, the castle, a princess, animals as best friends, and other animated Disney goodness, and to top it off, a return of Alan Menken writing the score and music for the songs. The whole movie is like a trip to some childhood nostalgic memory of going to a Disney theme park, and as the 50th Animated Motion Picture by Disney, it's quite a hark back to the fairy tale classics they've become famous for, while a nice move forward in modern spirit and attitude, along with beautiful 3D computer animation with a hand-drawn colour palate. Add in some amazing action sequences and tons of swooping camera shots that only make this fairy tale land seem all the more reachable, and Disney has managed to balance their Princess story with a exciting and hilarious films that even the boys will love.

To shift the narrative of the trapped Princess with long golden (and magical hair), Tangled is told via a handsome and suave thief named Flynn Ryder (superbly voiced by Zachary Levi, Chuck, Less Than Perfect), who accidentally discovers the tower Mother Gothel (Broadway Tony winner Donna Murphy, in perfect creepy evil Disney mode) has entrapped the kidnapped Rapunzel, who has grown up thinking the selfish evil Mother Gothel as her own real mother.

Meanwhile, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore, in perfectly sweet and crystal voiced innocence) sings songs about spending her days in a trapped tower, looking optimistically at the small world around her with her best friend, Pascal the chameleon. The wonderful new songs from Alan Menken and Glenn Slater are tuneful, catchy, and mostly move the story along in perfect musical bliss, and if there's only one flaw, it's that there weren't enough songs to make it a full fledged musical (I could have enjoyed at least 2 more in the film). While the new songs still aren't quite on par to Alan Menken's golden years with Howard Ashman (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast), they are a nice return to the soaring Disney musical melodies of Disney's animated renaissance.

With narration by Zachary Levi's Flynn Ryder, we get some nice sarcastic streetwise humour to counter Rapunzel's naive look at the world, giving Tangled a zippy humorous feel. Add a reluctant ally in a dog-like horse named Maximus, who without any lines, still manages to convey more laughs, more character, and more depth than any Adam Sandler film, and Tangled charms its way all the way through the full length film from a story about a girl with long hair.

At times, if you really think about it, the morals in the fairy tale are sometimes questionable. While Mother Gothel is labeled as evil for keeping the magic flower for herself, somehow the Royal Family is allowed to take it for their own use for good? And in the end, it's not okay for the Princess to ask the Prince to marry him? Yet despite this, Tangled so delightfully gets the movie tone right that the antiquated morals seem only to add to the medieval theme park charm of it all.

The story stretches the story by having Rapunzel make Flynn Ryder take her on a journey to see the floating lanterns, an annual event the kingdom does in search of their lost princess. Can you see where this is going? We all do, and we all know how it's going to end, but boy does Disney make it fun along the whole way, including a set of scary looking thieves, including one who wants to be a mime! (A hilarious background character amongst a bunch of hilarious background characters).

But of course, there's a love story thrown in for good measure, and with a lovely song (in a absolutely stunning scene with the floating lanterns), it's easy to get caught up, leading to a misty eyed finale that surprisingly caught me off guard considering how funny and action packed the rest of the movie had been.

I've already seen the film twice, and to be honest, while it doesn't have the epic feeling of Beauty and the Beast, or the crispness of The Little Mermaid, Tangled will easily fit into Disney's Classics vault and I will happily watch it again, whether it's by myself, or with the next set of kids.

Vance at

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Monday, November 22, 2010

A Circle of Life - A Year with Frog and Toad - Musical Review

A Year with Frog and Toad - Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Music by Robert Reale, Book and Lyrics by Willie Reale, Based on the books by Arnold Lobel, Directed by Allen MacInnis
Runs until Dec. 30th 2010

The terrific production of the charming little Broadway musical A Year with Frog and Toad at LKTYP has had a saddened start when a few days before rehearsals, their lead Denis Simpson suddenly passed away. So perhaps in a show that takes vignettes of the odd couple friendship between Frog and Toad, from hibernation, through the warmer seasons and back into the denouement of fall and winter, that a sense of the importance of friendship and life hovers over the delightful little musical geared towards family and children of all ages.

Stepping into the role of Frog is LKTYP Artistic Director and Director of the show Allen MacInnis, but while he may usually be in charge of things behind the scenes off-stage, he gives a warm and wonderful performance on stage. His calm and loving charm is a perfect foil for the more frantic Toad, played with kid-like delight by Louise Pitre (Love, Loss, and What I Wore, Toxic Avengers Musical, Mamma Mia). It's fun to see the radiant Pitre play a mischievous creature with childlike wonderment, and her pairing with MacInnis manages to keep a professional quality to their performances while doing childish antics

While the musical follows random vignettes from Frog and Toad's life within the span of a year (all in about the span of the 70ish min. show), with no actual plot arch, the prevailing lessons of love and friendship are nicely overlaid and highlighted with the one minor plot thread that continues through the show. There are moments that do tend to stretch out too long and things begin to start feeling like a year, especially to the restless little ones, but soon enough we're onto another season with new adventures with Frog and Toad. The songs are cute and tuneful, if perhaps slightly forgettable, but as sung by this terrific cast of 5, the family-oriented show is pleasant and cozy.

Cara Hunter, Jennifer Villaverde and Kevin Dennis round out the cast as birds (below) and Turtle, Mole and Snail (respectively) and all are hilariously wonderful especially as their non-bird roles. Particularly Kevin Dennis' Snail who gets the catchiest (and most repeated) song, and who nails the hilarity of a Snail who delivers the mail, in the most winning and adorable reprised segment of the show.

The wonderful costumes by Robin Fisher aren't overly done and cleverly uses everyday clothing items and yet easily evoke the animals they are trying to portray. Fisher's sets and props are simple but effective and add a nostalgic and dare I say it, Disney charm (and I don't mean that in a bad corporate way).

I'm still a little surprised A Year with Frog and Toad, such a cute but small little show, ran on Broadway (albeit it didn't last very long) but I believe the original Broadway version was a longer 2 act version which must have been trimmed for in this LKTYP version. Which I think is a good length for all.

Vance at

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Oh What A Lovely The Great War - VideoCabaret: The Great War - Play Review

The Great War - VideoCabaret at The Cameron House - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written and Directed by Michael Hollingsworth

War is such a funny subject. Looking back at history, we look with our modern day eyes at the absurdities in all the horrors of war, the decisions that are made, and the lives we use as pawns, and only detachment to the idea of the actual cruelty of war can let us go on as wars continue on in the world we live in.

VideoCabaret, the theatre company currently set up in the intimate backroom theatre at The Cameron House, revives The Great War, their hyper satirical farce about World War 1 (and subtitled "The History of the Village of the Small Huts: 1914-1918"), part of their critically acclaimed History Plays series.

The idea of putting such a dark subject in such an over-the-top manner is not new, but is always highly effective. The Great War reminded me a lot of the musical Oh! What A Lovely War (recently put on by Soulpepper but only the National Theatre revival in London from 1998 at the Roundhouse really managed to balance the absurdity of war within a circus act work) with the similar cleverness in all the juxtapositions between the subject matter and the theatrical presentation.

A game cast, an amazing lighting design by Andy Moro, hilariously cartoonish sets (by Andy Moro and Jim Paxton) and props (by Brad Harley), and wonderful costumes by Astrid Janson and Sarah Armstrong, somehow manage to convey all the battles of war, the politicians back in Canada playing war games, and the women left behind, on the small stage in quick scene changes required by Hollingsworth's play.

The play tends to quickly cut from one scene to the next, with pitch black scene changes to make the quick scene changes. The vignettes follow several soldiers from their lives back home in Canada, and then into the war. The quick intercuts sometimes hold back the true emotional pull to immerse oneself into the stories, especially at the star, as they tended to rely completely on the satirical nature of the presentation. But while I thought there could have been a few more punchlines in the first act, the stories really begin to culminate in the 2nd act as the show gets to throw the darkest elements after the humourous highs it suckered us with.

The terrific cast of 7 manage to portray dozens of characters, but some particular standouts are Mac Fyfe (especially as Robert Adams), Anand Rajaram, Dylan Roberts and Kerry Ann Doherty. Greg Campbell made a particularly amusing Robert Borden.

While the choppiness of the play is both its flaw and asset as an entertaining way to show the history of Canada's involvement in WWI, the production and design is simply marvelous and clever. The over-the-top cast (and I say that as a good thing) make the history lesson an easily understandable and amusing (or horrifying) show and special kudos to the stage manager and backstage folks for keeping the hectic show (many times in pitch black) constantly in motion!

Vance at

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Tuesday, November 02, 2010

A Whole New World - Venice - Musical Review

Venice - Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City, Los Angeles - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music by Matt Sax, Lyrics by Matt Sax and Eric Rosen, Book and Directed by Eric Rosen, Choreography by John Carrafa and Tanisha Scott
Until Nov. 14th 2010

There are times when using adjectives like fresh and explosive to describe a new musical just screams that it's trying too hard to be different, which is not necessarily better. And half the time, the musical is not even that different and is still 5 steps behind what is out in the popular mainstream culture. So walking into Venice, never having heard a thing about it except that it describes itself as "An Explosive New Musical", made me fear for an ambitious new musical that fails to deliver anything actually new. I had read somewhere that Venice was essentially a retelling of Othello, and it used rap and hip-hop, but while In The Heights also infused Hip-Hop (into what was a pretty traditional musical, forming a Hip-Hop/Rap lite version palatable for musical theatre), Venice is probably the first musical that I have seen that actually injects true Hip-Hop and Rap into the format making it an exciting advancement option in musical theatre's future.

Combining a complex dark tale with the energy, angst, and anger that the Rap style tends to inhabit, Venice manages to spin a fresh (there, I said it) look at one of Shakespeare's famous plays. With Matt Sax's clever and informative lyrics (as well as his own performance as the Clown MC that narrates the entire show), and Eric Rosen's efficient direction, using beautiful projection designs (by Jason H. Thompson) overlayed onto Meghan Raham's allusionary set, we're taken to some alter reality where the city of Venice has fallen after a lengthy war, and when a renewal of hope has begun as a new leader, named after the city itself, Venice Monroe (a wonderful Javier Muñoz), is crowned. Then there's Venice's Iagoesque half-brother Markos (an astounding Rodrick Covington), whose wife Emilia Monroe (from a beautiful performance by Victoria Platt) was former servant to Willow Turner (a lovely Andrea Goss), the exiled daughter of the assassinated leader who is just returning to Venice with the newly appointed (and naive) General Michael Victor (a charming Erich Bergen).

Since I actually haven't ever read or seen Othello, the plot got a little complicated, not aided by the fact that Rapping by nature is fast and furious with the words, so I found myself concentrating hard trying to listen to all the lyrics and figure out the plot twists and turns. Sax and Rosen cleverly reiterate the major plot points in several methods, sometimes with a CNN-like reporter, other times with the Clown MC himself, and other times in different types of speech patterns. Considering the density of the story and the musical styles used, it was overall, fairly easy to understand and Rosen's direction keeps things pretty clear with the small cast.

The darkness of the material though makes the musical by nature difficult to love, but Sax and Rosen keeps the show pulsating with heavy beats and a nice dramatic flow. The songs bound from hip-hop narrations to a quiet lovely melody, from a gangsta-rapped angry tirade (in a mesmerizing performance by Rodrick Covington, from Steppenwolf's The Brother/Sister Plays) and it brings Venice the musical right up to current popular music styles. With the exceptional cast bringing the emotional core to this very "hip" musical, I found myself won over just as the tragic twists in the story emerged in the climax of the musical.

There are moments that still feel reaching and the poetic nature sometimes still feels a little grade-schoolish (particularly to the simple, but catchy "The Wind Cried Willow"), and at times Matt Sax's rapping intros feels light and "musical theatre", especially compared the intensity of the rest of the show, but the overall effects of the entire show is powerful and strong enough to overcome some of the smaller quibbles I have with the show, and I found myself truly enjoying and admiring the show itself, and not just it's attempt at changing the sound of musical theatre.

The performances were almost uniformly excellent, and Rosen manages to direct the small cast to feel like a far larger one. Javier Muñoz (above) sounded amazing (and far better than when I saw him as Usanvi in In the Heights) and mixed a perfect balance of commanding intelligence and dumb naivety. Matt Sax has such a terrific natural presence on stage, and is our perfect guise into this new world vision of "Venice".

In addition to great performances by Goss, Covington, Platt and Bergen, there's an amazing performance by Angela Wildflower Polk (above centre) as Hailey Daisy, a sort of Lil Kim in this otherworld, an idol figure who gets suckered and used by the conniving Markos.

Uzo Aduba sings beautifully as Anna Monroe, mother to Venice and Markos, and the only slight criticism I have is for J.D. Goldblatt's (above) Theodore Westbrook, a jealous but weak fool, but is played a bit too 2-dimensionally.

John Carrafa and Tanisha Scott's choreography is slightly uneven, with some terrifically clever movements while other sections feel naive as compared to the music, but the strong music and visual design of the show (including David Weiner's lighting design) manages to overcome the lesser details to create a pretty striking identity for the show.

There was a time when musical theatre produced radio mainstream hit songs, but then over the years, musical theatre's pace could not, or would not keep up with the pace of mainstream popular music. I've been questioning but optimistically thinking that musical theatre could invite a whole new array of language skills by adopting to the current beats and stylings of pop music, and then comes Venice proving a show can modernize the musical stylings without dumbing down the story. It won't be for everyone, as this is no South Pacific, and I noticed some missing seniors in the second act of the show, and of those who stayed, some audience members still seemed baffled at the end, but a good majority, as with myself, leapt up in applause to this very fresh, and explosive new musical that brings musical theatre into a whole new world.

Matt Sax and Eric Rosen have enhanced a powerful storyline with the built-in emotional intensity of the musical genre's of today, and created a deeply compelling, extremely moving, often funny, and always thrilling, theatrical experience.

Vance at

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