Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Show Me The Money - As You Puppet, i think i can, Songs For A New World, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark - Theatre Reviews

As You Puppet - Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People - Toronto, ON - ***** (out of 5 stars)
Based on
As You Like It by William Shakespeare, Adapted by Jane McClelland and Mike Petersen, Directed by Ken MacDougall,
Runs until Apr. 21 2011
Review based on 1st Preview performance.

i think i can - Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Co-Created by Florence Gibson and Shawn Byfield, Directed by Conrad Alexandrowicz
Runs until May 5th 2011

Songs For a New World - Angelwalk Theatre at Studio Theatre in the Toronto Centre for the Arts - Toronto, ON - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music & Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, Directed by Andrew Lamb
Runs until Apr. 23 2011
Review based on 1st Preview performance.

Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark - Foxwood Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - ** (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by Bono and The Edge, Book by Julie Taymor and Glen Berger, Directed by Julie Taymor
Review based on 46th Preview performance (or something like that), Runs until Apr. 18th, re-starts May 23rd. Opens June 14th 2011, or so they say for now.

A delightful As You Puppet uses dollar store props, cardboard boxes, a few cloth sheets, and a cast of adorable stuffed toys to present one of the funniest, most endearing, and easily understandable Shakesperean performance meant for kids but secretly works just as well for adults. The beautiful songs of Jason Robert Brown's song cycle Songs From A New World are beautifully sung by a cast of 4 Toronto actors in a beautifully crisp staging that uses its economy and simplicity to its benefit. A youthful cast tap dance their way around the trials and tribulations of growing up in i think i can. And then there's the now infamous Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway. A $65 Million (and counting) production with some ingenious moments and truly dazzling effects that still manages to become an over-bloated bore, with an incomprehensible story and mostly forgettable songs.

LKTYP is currently remounting 2009 Fringe favorite As You Puppet (that I adored) and in the 2 years since, nothing has been lost, with Mike Petersen and Jane McClelland returning with their teddy bears and fellow stuffed animal friends to present Shakespeare's As You Like It in all it's sprawling storylines and numerous characters.

The joys in watching adorable stuffed animals sprouting Shakesperean verse is half the laugh in itself, but with enthusiastic performances from Petersen and McClelland that keep each of the many characters distinct, As You Like It has never been easier to understand (and it is not an easy play to follow. In fact, when I saw last year's terrific production at Stratford, I have to admit that I thought back to As You Puppet to keep all the characters in check, and matching each actor to the animal performance from this show!). Petersen and McClelland are so good at manipulating the characters, that AGAIN, I ended up watching only the stuffed animals as if they were truly the actors (even though the puppeteers are in full view, each voicing multiple characters and changing over the sets).

Just downstairs in LKTYP's main theatre is another remount of an award-winning dance play called i think i can, a wonderful urban tap dance show about the trials and tribulations of teens in high school. It's sort of like Bring in 'da noise, Bring in 'da funk as an after-school special. With a buoyant cast of tappers, each portraying the broad array of school "types", the mostly wordless play (save for the comical teacher, who doles out lessons about science) sometimes gets bogged down by its earnest attempts at lessons, but as soon as those feet start moving again, the show is totally moving.

The beauty in the show is the way much of the story and characters can be told through tap, with some clever and fun ways that move the story and characters along. Sometimes tap dancing tends to bore me (especially when So You Think You Can Dance has tried it, or in Cirque du Soleil's Banana Shpeel), but here, Gibson and Byfield have choreographed an exciting show that wonderfully utilizes its talented ensemble, while still using different styles of tap to define each character.

Most notable is Tosh Sutherland in the lead as Tip, a boy with limp (ingeniously shown with continuous shuffle in one leg) who manages to get in trouble because of a bully Biow (David Cox).

Tangara Jones (as Frufie) is adorably amusing as the girl with thick glasses trying to be a cheerleader, and who makes a special bond with Tip, and Sutherland and Jones' maintain their characters' traits within their dancing.

Songs For a New World is one of Jason Robert Brown's earlier works, but you can definitely tell that it's a pre-curser to his terrific later Broadway shows Parade and the underrated 13. The show doesn't really have a typical musical storyline, but is more of a collection of songs, each telling a short story, all adhering to a central idea of lives either starting anew, yearning for change, or other themes on people living in the city.

With a beautifully simple and elegant set by Lindsay Anne Black (Birnam Wood) with a lovely silhouette of a city skyline and the whisps of the clouds and winds evoked by some precisely placed wires, we ease into a delightful night of beautiful Jason Robert Brown songs with a small band of four, while Erica Peck (one of the best parts of We Will Rock You and Boys in the Photograph) and Justin Bott (who wowed me at a cabaret last year with a beat box performance of a Michael Jackson song) beautifully sing with their outstanding voices.

JRB's songs in this song cycle are like that "I Want" high point song in a typical musical, so hearing Erica Peck finally using her tremendous voice on songs worthy of her efforts is truly joyous. She's matched with Justin Bott, whose smooth vocals are a perfect fit to the great soaring melodies Brown has written.

Denise Oucharek has an equally lovely voice, but she especially excels in adding a comedic touch to her roles. With only one song to define each "character's" story, Oucharek hilariously gives a full plot within her single song journeys.

Stewart Adam McKensy rounds out the small cast of four, and when he's matched perfectly with a song, he's quite wonderful.

It's a testament to Brown's music and Andrew Lamb's (My Mother's Lesbian Jewish-Wiccan Wedding) that a show of such simplicity can be so thrilling and exciting. I left with a beaming smile on my face, and I only wished the show were longer so that I could hear Peck and Bott sing some more.

In another show with puppetry, director Julie Taymor pulls the strings on the poor hard working cast who are thrown around the Foxwood Theatre to present Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, which is as bad as you have heard.

At this point, everyone has heard how bad the current state of Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark is under Julie Taymor's direction and I'm basically beating a dead spider here. While I saw it before an ending was fully implemented during an "early" preview (back in mid January, right after what was supposed to be it's 2nd opening date), and with the show about to close for some major (let's hope) re-working from a new creative team, it's still amazing that so many creative minds and so much money can be spent to produce a show that is THIS boring (that people are still flocking to, with receipts over $1Million a week in sales).

Don't get me wrong, I actually believe a musical about Spider-Man can actually work, but this isn't it, and Taymor's attempt to meld in an artistic element into the Spider-Man lore fails miserably while ruining the solid base the comic book hands them.

There are brilliant moments on stage, but it's the moments in between that should tie it all together that stumps Taymor, Berger, Bono and The Edge. It doesn't help that the music and songs from half of U2 are decent at best. I'm not exactly a huge U2 fan to begin with, but Bono and The Edge don't seem to understand the intricacies in writing for a musical, and the only songs that seem to work are songs sung by one character or the duets, usually yearning at something. But the ensemble songs border on ridiculous, including an entire song about shoes (which is in the SECOND act).

At this point, there's already word that The Geek Chorus who narrate?/create?/not really sure what the f#$k they're there for/frame the story? will be cut (because they were basically annoying (save for Gideon Glick (Spring Awakening), the only likable Geek), tedious, and who bogged down the show and had no real point), and the new character Arachne (that Julie Taymor pulled from Greek mythology and inserted it into the Spider-Man story because... well... Arachne (T.V. Carpio) is a Spider and a female, and apparently represents Taymor as an artistic myth dropped into the middle of a super-hero action show.

The first act is essentially the first Spider-Man movie sped up so that we can get the Green Goblin (Patrick Page), and the second act is essentially entirely incomprehensible (and rumoured to soon to be almost entirely cut).

The action sequences are pretty dazzling and I did enjoy the fight sequences strung above the audience, and I don't mind if the show embraces its spectacle status, but it doesn't actually do it quite enough. The show tries to be both artful and action packed, which Cirque Du Soleil excels at, but being tied to a super-hero storyline, Taymor seems confused.

Reeve Carney has an ease and earthy low-key stage presence and is wonderfully likable as Peter Parker (with the rest of the Broadway male dance ensemble taking turns under Spider-Man's guise to be strung up on hire-wires) but he still gets lost within the gigantic show that surrounds him. Jennifer Damiano (Next to Normal, Spring Awakening) who showed so much potential in previous shows, is completely forgettable in an underwritten part (with no sense of plot thread logic).

The sets are truly stunning with an incredible pop-up book motif, but the costumes seem to vary from bold comic style to intricately detailed over-produced garish monstrosities that seem totally incongruous to the rest of the artistic style.

Anyways, at this point, it'll (hopefully) be a brand new show come June (when it's supposed to open (so the producers say) finally) but I thought much of what we saw in January was unsalvageable unless much of the book and songs are scrapped and re-written, and while the new creative team doesn't spell much confidence, I really can't it possibly getting any worse.

It's amazing how little $65Million can buy, yet it's amazing what .01% of that budget can create. All you need is some good songs (by Jason Robert Brown), a few stuffed toys and a Shakespeare template, or some youthful tap dancers, to create a wonderfully enjoyable and memorable show.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

More After the Jump...