Monthly Archives: November 2018

Deaths and lives, a hundred years ago.

On the Remembrance Day weekend, I saw Raes Calvert and Sean Harris Oliver’s First World War play Redpatch at the Citadel.  And tonight I saw Hannah Moskovitch’s What A Young Wife Ought To Know at Theatre Network.  Both of them showed me the human consequences of historical facts that I’d already known in a more abstract sense, and I left wondering more about the unspoken hardships in my own grandparents’ lives.

Redpatch is the story of a young First Nations man (Calvert) from the west coast who enlists and is sent to fight in France.  The rest of the ensemble (Jennifer Daigle, Taran Kootenhayoo, Joel D Montgrand, Chelsea Rose, Odessa Shuquaya) play his fellow soldiers, but also his grandmother, childhood best friend, a Raven, a killer whale, etc, as the story of their war is interrupted by the older story of two boys sneaking out of school to take a canoe out on the ocean.   One of my favourite bits is where the two boys talk while drifting in a canoe, swaying gently so that I almost felt like the canoe was actually on the water.  The violence of war is presented in a stylized way, with quarterstaves used as Ross rifles and bayonets, very little actual contact, and no blood, but lighting (Brad Trenaman) and sound (James Coomber) to convey the nightmare horror of trench warfare and No-Mans-Land night raids without being so overwhelming that the text was lost.  I found this very effective.

What a Young Wife Ought To Know, directed by Marianne Copithorne, previewed tonight at the Roxy on Gateway, and plays until December 2nd.  It is set in the 1920s, among working-class Irish immigrants of the Ottawa area.  I found it heartbreaking and sweet, embarrassing and upsetting and sexy and laugh-out-loud funny, by turns.  Merran Carr-Wiggin plays the young wife of the title, starting from a teenager with no understanding of sex getting some reluctant explanations from her bolder older sister Alma (Bobbi Goddard).  We see her awkward romance with hotel stablehand Jonny (Cole Humeny), their love and pride as new parents, and then their gradual realization that expressing their love for each other physically can’t be separated from risking her life and health in childbirth, and needing to raise more children in an already-impoverished situation.  There are no easy answers – Carr-Wiggin’s Sophie tells the audience about some of the unsatisfactory options and staged scenes show us some of the others.  The direction and performances felt very compassionate to me.  The young husband weeps with frustration, not just wanting to share intimacy with his wife but wishing for more children to love, not quite grasping how awful more pregnancies would be from her perspective.   I appreciated that the plot was more nuanced than a typical mid-century narrative showing unmarried women suffering deadly consequences for their own desire or being victimized by men – one can see some similar narrative in Alma’s arc, but Sophie’s and Jonny’s story is a more complicated one that I had not really thought about much before.   I was reminded a bit of Moskovitch’s The Kaufman Kabaret, part of the U of A Studio Theatre season in 2016, but this is a much smaller-scale examination of similar issues, and I preferred it.

The set and costume design, by Tessa Stamp, conveyed the modest circumstances of the characters.  The two-story backdrop might have represented both the hotel and the tenement apartment, and a sliding door hinted at stables behind.   I will be thinking about it for a while.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

The Broadway Across Canada series of touring musicals makes a stop this week at the Jubilee Auditorium with Beautiful:  The Carole King Musical.

It can be described as a jukebox musical, a script written to showcase music that’s already familiar to the audience.  But it’s not like Back To The 80s: A Most Excellent Musical Adventure, a flimsy framework of time-travelling stoners reminiscing about a decade of popular music while musicians appear in a series of dramatic costumes as tribute to the varied original performers of the era, or even like Mamma Mia, an amusing fictional premise wrapped around ABBA songs that were never intended to tell one coherent story.  Instead, the songs in this production are used to advance the true story of the songwriters, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil, and Barry Mann (Sarah Bockel, Dylan S Wallach, Alison Whitehurst, and Jacob Heimer).  And it’s just a lovely modest story (book by Douglas McGrath, directed by Marc Bruni), watching Carole go from a 16 year old college student living with her mother (Suzanne Grodner) who hopes to sell one of her compositions to a music publisher (James Clow) to a successful composer collaborating with her husband on many hit songs, and then to a self-assured woman making her own way and singing her own songs.

The story starts in 1958 and ends in 1971, and it shows how things changed over that time for women, in the workplace, in music, and in marriage.  “Girls don’t write music, they teach it”, Carole’s mother tells her.  The costumes were great, gradual subtle changes in hairstyle and everyday clothing for Carole, plaid pleated skirt to loose A-line skirt to blouse and trousers, and fabulous performance outfits for the various singers and groups performing the songs.

Because, oh, the songs.  I didn’t really know, before this, how many of the pop songs in the background of my childhood were written by Carole King or by the other writers of 1650 Broadway, but I think I recognized all of them but one or two.   In those days, it seems that most pop singers didn’t write their own material, but were matched up with songs by the music publishers/recording studios.  The talented ensemble for this production had actors portraying The Drifters, The Shirelles, Little Eva, The Righteous Brothers, and so on, singing the songs written by Carole King and her colleagues.  In one scene, the lead singer of The Shirelles complains to Carole about the arrangement of the song she’s written for them being too “country” in style for Black singers who are trying for crossover appeal.  The young composer acknowledges the problem and offers to reorchestrate to give them a more elegant orchestral sound.    The performing ensembles were great, but what I liked even better was the scenes where the composers and lyricists sing the songs as themselves while trying them out in offices or at home, with hesitancy and passion and what sounded like awkward ordinary voices.  And as in the recent Citadel production Once, when they sing it makes sense that they’re singing.

My favourite songs in this production were the ones I was most familiar with beforehand, I think.  “It Might As Well Rain Until September”, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and especially “You’ve Got a Friend”.

The set (Derek McLane) shifted between scenes with smoothly sliding furniture and walls to create offices, a busy studio building, apartments, and a nightclub.  Walls and backdrops with interesting textural details reminded me of a Trevor Schmidt style.

I left feeling happy and uplifted, with the sense that the story had been significant enough to justify the wonderful music and general production value.   Carole King, as portrayed in this production, was a kind, humble, hardworking and compassionate person.  I felt glad that she’d persisted through the challenges in her life to find artistic satisfaction and appreciation.  And in an interview I heard this afternoon on CBC RadioActive, the performer Sarah Bockel said that she had met the real Carole King and she was just as gracious in person as the woman in the story.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is playing at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium until Sunday November 11th.  Tickets are at Ticketmaster.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but oh so good …

The original Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was a 1988 movie with Steve Martin and Michael Caine.  I can’t remember if I ever saw it, or if I just saw the trailer in a theatre and got a general sense of it – a goofy story of con artists trying to beat each other at their shared game.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is also a musical, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek, who seems to have a career of making unlikely movie comedies into musicals that one would never expect, such as Full Monty and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Plain Jane did this one last spring but I didn’t write about it) The musical is currently being performed by the local company Foote in the Door Productions.

I didn’t really remember anything about the plot or characters of the movie when I went to see it opening night, and I decided not to listen to the soundtrack ahead of time.  It was a lot of fun this way. I could immediately pick out the character tropes (Russ Farmer as the sophisticated English con artist and Trevor J as the uncouth American one, Melanie Lafleur as a rich gullible visitor to the Mediterranean resort and Zack Siezmagraff as a crooked French police officer who reminded me of Captain Renault in Casablanca.   But the plot had a lot of twists I didn’t anticipate, and both the storyline and the general character ridiculousness had me giggling a lot.   I asked director Carolyn Waye beforehand what she’d most enjoyed about working on this production.  She said that they had all laughed a lot during rehearsals, and she couldn’t wait to watch an audience enjoy the bits they’d already had so much fun with.

I was so caught up watching the interplay of the two con artists with their various marks and allies, along with some delightful dance interludes (highlighting Megan Beaupre, Julia Stanski, Tim Lo, and Andrew Kwan) that it took me a while to realize that I hadn’t yet seen the other Foote in the Door principal, Ruth Wong-Miller.  She appears later, as Christine Colgate, the American Soap Queen.  Both scammers see Christine as an ideal target, so they decide to compete for her money, the loser to leave town.

The songs had very clever lyrics and enough changes of genre to be interesting, especially Shannon Hunt’s “Oklahoma” and the cheesy rock ballad “Love is my Legs”.  Matt Graham was musical director of a nine-piece ensemble, visible behind sets of French doors and acknowledged occasionally by the script when characters called for changes of atmosphere, but never overpowering the singers.

This show is a lot of fun.  The two hours flew by for me, and the endings were surprising and satisfying.  Foote in the Door has tackled some more serious material (Carousel) and more complex drama (Company) – but I think it’s equally impressive that they pulled off this heist of a tall tale without a hitch.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is playing at L’Unitheatre until November 10th.  Tickets are available through Tix on the Square

scoundrels

Trevor J, Ruth Wong-Miller, Russ Farmer, Melanie Lafleur, and Zack Siezmagraff. Photo by Nanc Price.

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