Friday, October 19, 2012

Killing It - Bloodless and Sweeney Todd - Musical Reviews

Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare - Theatre20 at the Panasonic Theatre - Toronto, ON - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music, Lyrics and Book by Joseph Aragon
Runs until Oct. 28th 2012

Sweeney Todd - Adelphi Theatre - West End - London, UK - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler, Adapated by Christopher Bond, Directed by Jonathan Kent
Closed Sep. 22nd 2012

There's an ambitious new Canadian musical being presented by the ambitious new Canadian musical theatre company Theatre20. While it falters at times in the typical first-musical-mistakes and still needs some polish and a few revisions and edits, I found Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare to be fairly entertaining and exciting in its promise and future development.

Of course, Bloodless does resemble Sweeney Todd in both story (of mass murders) and in tone and style, and writing anything that can be compared to a Sondheim masterpiece might be a lofty goal and instigate harsh comparisons, but once I accepted the idea that another musical can exist in similar a similar fashion, I found myself quite enjoying Bloodless, and some of the amusing shenanigans when a pair of struggling men descend into immoral territory as they start selling dead bodies to a unquestioning Professor of Anatomy at the local university. Based on a true case, the men and their wives begin murdering people to fill their pockets.

The songs are catchy and varied and the strong cast (Evan Buliung and Eddie Glen as Burke and Hare) are likable, and smooth out over some of the rougher character developments. While the main characters aren't written rounded enough to feel much empathy for their predicaments, and the satire isn't quite sharp enough to make it as strong as it could be, some editing and re-writes could make this new musical its own.

Carly Street gives an excellent performance as Janet Brown, a prostitute searching for her missing friend. The role has an underwritten beginning, but Street makes us empathize with her worries, though a better integration of her story would help.

While the latest West End revival of Sweeney Todd was pretty excellent overall (though with some minor quibbles), there was one main reason it was a must see, and that reason is named Imelda Staunton. Probably best known in North America for playing Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter series, or her Oscar Best Actress nominated turn as Vera Drake, or a character actress in many many MANY films, Staunton has had a musical theatre background, and here, takes the role of Mrs. Lovett and turns in possibly one of the best performances I have EVER seen on stage. EVER. Staunton unravels before our eyes, slowly spurring and becoming mad for Sweeney Todd. Staunton is funny, delusional, and terrifying.  A truly rounded Mrs. Lovett that is absurd yet still believable.

While the rest of the cast is generally excellent, including Michael Ball as a strong Sweeney Todd, James McConville as Tobias, and Luke Brady as Anthony, Staunton's performance is at such a stratospheric level (without being over-the-top) that at times, the rest of the show fades against her. You could say it's a hazard of excellence.

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Friday, October 12, 2012

Body Language Speaks - I on the Sky and Play Without Words - Theatre Reviews

I on the Sky - DynamO Théâtre at Young People's Theatre - Toronto, ON - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written and Directed by Yves Simard
Runs until Oct. 21st 2012

Matthew Bourne's Play Without Words - New Adventure in association with National Theatre at Sadler's Wells - London, UK - ***** (out of 5 stars)
Devised by Matthew Bourne based on the Joseph Losey film The Servant, Music by Terry Davies
Ended Aug. 5th 2012

I on the Sky is a beautiful little poetic movement play by Montreal's DynamO Théâtre created for young audiences, but is so artfully done, adults could easily appreciate, and be moved emotionally. As a young girl gets lost in a storm and finds herself alone on a park bench, she watches the world around her pass by, and looks to the sky to connect to her past, to her dreams.

The cast of five manages to create a whole world in a city park, with amusing characters passing the bench, in what becomes a sort of dance piece, elevated by acrobatic elements from the circus trained cast. With a trampoline hidden between the set of benches, the action happens so smooth and lyrically all around the simple set, with a projection screen behind showing various incarnations of the sky.

As the director notes, no matter how lonely we all get, we can always look up to the same sky, no matter where we are. And the young girl (a serene Andréanne Joubert) yearns for her family, becomes smitten with a young man (a gentile Frédéric Nadeau), all while bullies in the park steal her sheet music, an old lady requires help sitting on the bench, and a sanitary worker dances while oblivious to the world. It's in the sequence with the young man, who keeps showing up to woo our girl on the bench, when our hearts break, as we see the reason why he's not part of the girl's actual reality, and a wind of dark realism washes over, and we understand the presence of a trio of creepy faceless people who have been haunting our girl.

10 years ago, choreographer Matthew Bourne was commissioned by the National Theatre to produce another one of his famed dance shows, and he took inspiration in the film The Servant (with a screenplay adapted by Harold Pinter). Bourne turned it into Play Without Words, and now 10 years later, the creative team and some of the original cast had reunited for a revival of this seminal dance play.

As the title suggests, Bourne turned the film into a fully danced play, without using any words, and it's a phenomenal piece of theatre, with beautiful and haunting choreography that manages to easily tell the tale of a wealthy man, his manservant, their lovers, and a jealous rival, and the sultry manipulations used between the different classes as a shift in power begins, all in the era of the British 1960's. It's a sexy psychological drama that requires the cast to show as much emotion, and convey entire passages within the subtlety of body language.

Bourne creates a genius device of casting the main characters using three dancers in each role. Not only do three dancers form a choreographic pattern when they dance together, it also allows scenes to split off into different directions as the same character does different things, giving us a very film-like montage quality, keeping the drama moving at a fast pace.

Dancing upon Lez Brotherston's beautiful set, lit in an atmospheric lighting by Paule Constable, the amazing cast evoke the 60's era with Terry Davies' jazz score. The entire production is haunting and incredibly emotionally moving and thrilling.

Photos of I on the Sky © Robert Etcheverry.
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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Vintage Hollywood Theatre - Tear the Curtain! and Chaplin the Musical - Theatre Reviews

Tear the Curtain! - The Electrics Company Theatre at Canadian Stage's Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts - Toronto, ON - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Jonathon Young and Kevin Kerr, Created with and Directed by Kim Collier
Runs until Oct. 20th 2012

Chaplin the Musical - Barrymore Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - *** (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by Christopher Curtis, Book by Thomas Meehan and Christopher Curtis, Directed and Choreographed by Warren Carlyle

The stage and screen are two very different entities. We watch and experience them differently and our brains process the two art forms differently. In Tear the Curtain!, The Electrics Company Theatre new show under Kim Collier's direction (whose last project at Canadian Stage Studies in Motion, blew me away), melds the two art forms into one show, playing with our senses as we watch a film-noir become a live stage show, and back again, and then sometimes at the same time! It's quite a jarring change at first, as our eyes and minds must adjust to the distance we follow this dark story, a mystery of sorts set in the 1930's that plays around with our perceptions of theatre and film, in a show about a theatre critic that falls into the war between movie houses and theatre houses as film was just burgeoning in the 30's as the newest craze in entertainment.

The plot to Tear the Curtain! is a confusion of mysteries a-la-film-noir-style, as a film critic Alex Braithwaite (writer Jonathon Young) falls for a femme fatale actress (a luminous Laura Mennell from TV's Alphas) and sort of steps onto a stage (or is it screen?) as two mob bosses are fighting over Vancouver's Stanley Theatre (or what will become it). Or something like that. Alex also follows a mysterious man who turns out to be Stanley Lee (James Fagan Tait), while a screwball co-worker Mavis (a delightful Dawn Petten) is smitten with Alex. There are layers upon layers of the story, with some surprising reveals and several amusing or terrifying twists, but the story tries to be so clever and twisty that it's often too confusing to take in while sitting there in a theatre, and too indecipherable at times. Maybe the point, and it gets the film-noir genre tone quite well, but sometimes it's all too much to take in.

When things get too confusing though, there's still the visuals to take in, and they can be surprising and delightful, haunting or chilling. The whole show is pretty much stunningly beautiful and interesting. With the use of projections showing the film (done by Brian Johnson), sometimes projected onto a screen, sometimes onto the set itself (that looks like a giant foam core model) by David Roberts, the story shifts from screen to stage, back and forth, and is amazingly clever when we sometimes see the same scene from two different vantage points at the same time.

While the mindbending story is enhanced by the mindblowing melding of film projection and stagecraft, the performances from Young and Petten anchor the show and give the mystery the heart it needs. Petten particularly gives the lightness to balance out the film-noir atmosphere and story that sometimes devolves into head-scratching confusion, but the ideas, and imagery Tear the Curtain! introduces are eye opening.

Chaplin the Musical is probably an unnecessary musicalized version of Charlie Chaplin's life that, through the sheer brilliance of Rob McClure's performance as the title character, is a pleasant and enjoyable show. With tuneful but forgettable songs, and a book that tries to deepen our understanding of the famous performer by delving into his psyche, the musical has far too many slow book moments and seems to overanalyze Chaplin without really getting any true grit or depth in his life. The dark moments only seems to skim the surface, but the show works best in its buoyant moments, when the show starts recreating some of Chaplin's most famous scenes from his films, and the Hollywood drama behind the scenes. The new musical tries to have a serious side but never does it quite enough to be truly revelatory, all while spoiling the fun moments in Rob McClure's uncanny recreation of the legendary Charlie Chaplin.

The musical spends a lot of time with young Chaplin, growing up in England with his single mother (the lovely Christiane Noll) and brother (Wayne Alan Wilcox).  to being plucked to Hollywood where he quickly establishes a comedic act that seems to gain everyones attention. From trying to change his Vaudeville circuit act into something that can work on film, Chaplin learns to manipulate the new medium of film to comedic brilliance, and the show is at its most fun when we see it performed live on stage.

Though the musical feels overlong, and skims over Chaplin's tendency to romance teenage girls as just another plot point (while stretching his childhood psyche thread), things get juicy when scheming gossip columnist Hedda Hepper (a perfectly cast Jenn Colella) attempts to play dirty, using her power to get the public to turn on Chaplin, all while Chaplin tries to battle the emerging change in Hollywood to the talkies.

Chaplin The Musical is a pleasant light biographical show that works best when it's simply pure entertainment in the recreation of the best of Chaplin with McClure's wonderful starmaking performance.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Circus Circuit - Amaluna, The Beatles LOVE, Mystère, O, Zarkana - Cirque Reviews

Cirque du Soleil's Amaluna - Le Grand Chapiteau at The Port Lands - Toronto, ON - ***** (out of 5 stars)
Director of Creation: Fernand Rainville, Directed by Diane Paulus
Runs in Toronto until Nov. 7th, 2012, Begins in Vancouver on Nov. 23 2012, in Seattle on Jan. 31 2013.

Cirque du Soleil's Zarkana - Radio City Music Hall - New York City, NY - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written and Directed by Francois Girard
Opens at Aria - Las Vegas on Nov. 1st, 2012

Cirque du Soleil's The Beatles LOVE - The Mirage - Las Vegas, NV - **** (out of 5 stars)
Director of Creation: Chantal Tremblay, Writer of original show concept and Directed by Dominic Champagne

Cirque du Soleil's Mystère - Treasure Island - Las Vegas, NV - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Directed by Franco Dragone

Cirque du Soleil's O - Bellagio - Las Vegas, NV - ***** (out of 5 stars)
Directed by Franco Dragone

I've always been a fan of Cirque du Soleil since seeing my first Cirque show with Varekai, but usually I only get to see a Cirque show once a year or two. But life's been good to me this year, and I happened to get a chance to see 6 Cirque shows this year in a sort of Cirque craze marathon (out of 12 that I've seen, so half of the Cirque shows I've seen, I've seen this year!)! I got to go to Vegas a couple of times this year, and finally getting to see the much talked about OThe Beatles LOVE, the first Cirque sit down Mystère, and (reviewed here). I also finally checked out Zarkana in NYC, just before it closed to reopen soon in Vegas, joining the plethora of Cirque shows already there.

I also checked out Cirque's newest show Amaluna in their traditional big yellow and blue touring tent Le Grand Chapiteau when it first opened in Montreal earlier this spring (original review here). While I thought it was a nearly perfect Cirque show even as a new show in its preview stages, Cirque will often tinker with its shows until it is just right, even after Opening Night. I was curious to see if any changes were made as it travelled to Toronto.

Well, to be honest, my memory for detail isn't strong enough to determine if many changes were made to Amaluna, but I can say what was a nearly perfect show, now feels like an even tighter, more cohesive Cirque show that easily joins the best Cirque du Soleil shows (which, like Pixar films, have such a high standard, that even when they're not the best Cirque show, they are still generally better than most shows out there, and I probably tend to grade Cirque shows more harshly against each other). Amaluna has easily become one of my top 3 Cirque shows in the Montreal company's canon.

Amaluna, directed by Broadway director Diane Paulus (Hair, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess), is the first Cirque show to use a template story, Shakespeare's The Tempest with a touch of Romeo and Juliet, and is also the first Cirque show to be dominated by a female cast and band, with the show as a celebration of woman (and a cast comprised of about 70% women). From Marie Michelle Faber as the moon (who does tricks on a flying hoop WHILE singing), to Lara Jacobs the balance goddess, who even upon second viewing, is absolutely mesmerizing as she creates a giant mobile, a description that doesn't even come close to describing the intensity, the silence, and the awe the act inspires.

Prospera conjures up a storm (with an aerial act) that brings a bunch of shipwrecked sailers to this island of women, including a handsome man, Romeo, for Prospera's daughter Miranda to flirt with. Iuliia Mykhailova and Edouard Doye gives us a Miranda and Romeo romance to root for, as different circus acts add to the plot and keep the lovebirds apart, lead by Cali, Miranda's pet lizard. Other obstacles include some warrior women on low bars, the shirtless sailers on a seesaw plank, and a highwire act up in the clouds as Miranda gets flown away from her Romeo.

The story helps add a narrative cohesion to the show (also used well in OVO (my review), the only other Cirque show directed by a woman, and ) that adds an extra layer to the showmanship package Cirque is famous for. I had minor quibbles about the clowns and one dance act by a woman in white in the Montreal incarnation but they seemed to blend in far better this time around. The integration of all the characters into each act and blending into one another also helps with the flow of the show and keeps Amaluna feeling like one entity (as opposed to a series of circus acts, which Cirque is essentially is).

It's also impressive when you see the characters you're getting emotionally attached to, start performing an impressive trick, becoming the next act. Mykhailova isn't just our endearing Miranda, but does a beautiful balance and contortion act in and around a water bowl, while Doye shows us his insanely impressive abs and puts them to use as he climbs a pole (trying to rescue Miranda in the sky) with his bare hands (with no help from his feet, as he's turned to the side, or in many other angular variations).

The second viewing also gave me a better chance to notice details I had missed in my first awe-inducing viewing, thus inspiring even further awe. The ladies in the highwire act were walking the wire either on-point, or in high heels. The intensity in the production and sound design (that Globe and Mail's Nestruck first noted) that surrounds the slow-build intensity of Jacobs' balancing act. The amount and types of rotations the Chinese tumblers perform (while swinging lighted orbs). There isn't one circus act here that isn't impressive, including a juggling act that takes juggling and manipulation to another level, but Paulus and the creative team have chiseled away a beautifully smooth and sensuous show that shows the strong, yet soft side of women.

Zarkana first opened at the grand Radio City Music Hall, a beautiful venue in itself, but Zarkana creates some epic imagery, but the dark imagery at that. With giant projections of giant eyeballs, a creepy baby (called the pickled lady), and enormous snakes, it was probably a little too dark for the family-friendly audience it was hoping to attract in New York, but may fit in better in Las Vegas. While the sort of Frankenstein etches an outline for the acts, some of the acts, while impressive, seemed a little small for the giant Radio City Music Hall stage.

They bring out the Wheel of Death, but there's also a single ball bouncer/juggler. Both impressive acts, but only one fills the enormous frame of Radio City's stage. It's only until near the end, do the final two acts seem mindblowing, when the flying trapeze, and a banquine (think super cheerleading gymnastics) acts actually inspire gasps. Still, the simpler acts are quite beautiful, including a sand painting act (!?!) and a handbalancing act, but it's hard to admire the chiseled muscle on the handbalancer when you're sitting in such a large venue.

The flying trapeze comes about when a giant spider web envelops the stage (looking like what Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark probably wanted to be), and truly utilizes the height and space of the venue, but the thematic elements of the show seem like a hodgepodge of horror house ideas. Still, when those trapeze artists are flying through the air, or the banquine performers are flipping over and on top of each other in multiple unison, it's hard to begrudge the show when there is such cool stuff on stage.

The Beatles LOVE is the first show to utilize existing music (since Cirque is usually famous for it's own scores), in a collaborative tribute to The Beatles, using new versions of the band's famous songs specifically created for the show. The joys of The Beatles music comes to life visually in what becomes more of a dance theatre piece than a typical Cirque show. The story of The Beatles, from children during the war, is sketchily outlined with their music, and movement and circus acrobatics help enhance their music, as opposed to music and a theme tying together different circus acts. Every song now becomes a beautiful image, with silhouettes of The Beatles appearing on screens every once in a while, and it becomes Cirque du Soleil's visual poetic ode to one of the most famed bands ever.

In a specially designed theatre at The Mirage, the 360 in-the-round (sort of) stage is filled with so many dancers and acrobatics that it's often difficult to know where to focus on, with many little moments are happening everywhere on stage at the same time. The show is at its best when there is a particular focus, like in the telephone booth scene (a jumping/trampoline act), or at the fair with the roller skaters, in the most Cirque-like moments.

Mystère, the first Cirque du Soleil show to set up shop in Las Vegas, is the most traditional Cirque tent show of the Las Vegas bunch since it was created when they only had touring tent shows. Even the theatre at Treasure Island resembles the seating of a tent show. The theme and story of the show goes back to those mystical outline of an idea that is an excuse to thread each circus act together, and it feels like old-school Cirque which isn't necessarily a bad thing. BUT, being in Las Vegas, and knowing about some of the newer, more gimmicky shows, one tends to have larger expectations.

Still, Mystère has some astonishing acts, like the trapeze artists, trampoline act or two muscled men with a hand to hand routine (essentially holding one another in various poses of balance). The show is classic Cirque at its core and no less wonderous.

Then, I finally got to see the famed O at Bellagio, or the "water" Cirque. And does it ever live up to the hype. Created by Dragone (who worked on many of the early quintessential Cirque shows, including Mystère), the show's famous stage is a giant pool that can seal up quickly with a hard surface and disappear just as fast. Thus acts take place on the stage, in the water, and many times both. The images are strange and haunting, with a glorious deep stage, carousel horses, a torn body, that continues in that mystical, lyrical atmospheric and undecipherable story Cirque is usually known for, and it works beautifully with the astonishing physical acts that matches the impressive technology of the stage.

From aerial hoops that dip into the water, to actual high dives into the pool, to contortion acts done upon floating icebergs on the ocean, to Russian swings that swing the performers into the water, O uses the water to its advantage and creates some stunning tricks, and countless gasp inducing moments. There is a beautiful lyrical fluidity for a show about water, and its nicely balanced with a fire act, creating tension in the surreal setting.

Even the clowns, two poor soles lost on a floating house in the floods, have a sadness (yet are actually truly funny) that sinks in with the rest of the elegant show. O is filled to the brim with astounding act after astounding acts, and is easily one of my favorite Cirque shows, if not THE favorite. It was actually O inducing.

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