Tag Archives: leland stelck

Belle seated at dinner table surrounded by dancers costumed as dinner service and household objects.

Be Our Guest: Beauty and the Beast

Karen Schenk of Iconium Media captures the delightful “Be Our Guest!” Jenn Bewick as Chip, Rachel Love Haverkamp as Babette, Ruth Wong-Miller as Belle, Trevor Warden as Lumiere, and ensemble members.  

Since 2015, Foote in the Door Productions has brought eight musical theatre mainstage productions to Edmonton audiences, and I’ve seen all of them.  All of them have been previously unfamiliar to me (except for Little Women for which I knew the L.M. Alcott source novel) and I’ve appreciated the chance to discover new music and stories, from the pointed satire about 1960s office politics How To Succeed in Business…Without Really Trying, and the disturbing tragedy of Carousel, to the silliness of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the sweetness of A Little Night Music.  The current offering from this company, playing at the Westbury Theatre until November 17th, is Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

I had never seen this musical either.  And I never saw the 1991 animated version in the cinema, since at the time I was a grad student without children in my life and not a fan of the Disney retellings of fairy tales.  Also, this particular fairy tale has bothered me since I was a young new reader, unable to resist words on the page but terrified by the illustrations of a part-human, part-predatory monster.   My parents suggested a compromise – they would lock the dangerous book in the glass-fronted oak bookcase in the living room, and I could ask for it to be unlocked for me when I thought I was ready.  In the mid-1990s, though, some children I was getting to know showed me their family’s collection of the large white boxes of Disney VHS tapes, and one night I agreed to watch Beauty and the Beast with them.  And I liked it in spite of myself!  I loved the heroine – a book-loving loner! – loved the contrast between vain handsome Gaston and the more emotionally mature Beast, and was entertained by the animated objects of the Beast’s household.  But I think I only watched it the once.

So I probably had less idea what to expect than most of the opening-night audience, even the children.  There was a complicated two-level set (Leland Stelck), and a large musical ensemble filling one wing of the castle (Alyssa Paterson, musical director).  A cast of twenty-five populates a large ensemble of villagers surrounding Belle (Ruth Wong-Miller), who escapes into books and dreams of a less “provincial” life, and her inventor father Maurice (Brian Ault).  And the castle is home to the Beast (Russ Farmer) and his staff of enchanted objects (most memorably Trevor Worden’s candelabra Lumière).  Thanks to Adam Kuss’s direction and the clever design of costumes (Betty Kolodziej), lighting (Bailey Ferchoff) and set, I rarely got an extended look at the Beast’s face in good light.  This was consistent with the character’s self-loathing and shame, but it also made him as frightening as each audience member could imagine, neither unbearable nor ridiculous.

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Ruth Wong-Miller as Belle, Russ Farmer as Beast. Photo by Karen Schenk of Iconium Media.

Belle’s change of heart towards her captor is shown as happening gradually, due to his actions, her fair-mindedness, and their growing shared interests, rather than some creepy Stockholm-syndrome impulse.  Wong-Miller and Farmer both have strong voices that suit the music, and the iconic happy ending with the waltz in yellow ball-gown and brocade frock-coat is lovely.

Also of particular note are the video projections telling of encounters in the forest, almost like shadow-plays, by Jess Poole.

Next weekend’s matinees are already sold out – tickets for the remaining four performances are available through fringetheatre.ca or eventbrite.ca.

A Little Night Music

The other night, before the wildfire smoke blew in to town, I was walking in my neighbourhood in the evening about how lucky I am to be living at this latitude, with the magical long twilights as we approach the summer solstice.  The long light warm evenings feel rich with extra opportunity.  And I wondered how to share that feeling.

Last night I watched Foote in the Door’s production of A Little Night Music, a Sondheim musical based on an Ingmar Bergen movie directed by Mary-Ellen Perley.  It’s set in Sweden around 1900.  The second act takes place at a country estate, much of it outdoors.  And there are songs about that magical extended twilight, songs that describe the feelings better than I ever could, with lighting (Sarah Karpyshin) and abstract set pieces (Leland Stelck) to support them.

A Little Night Music has a cast of 18.  At first I kept referring to my program to figure out who was who and how they were connected.  But later on, it just made more delightful threads of plot arcs to follow, to wonder how the cat’s-cradle of romances and affairs would untangle itself.   Commenting on the liaisons and prospects of the others, and on the nature of love in general, are a grandmother (Pauline Farmer) and granddaughter  Fredrika (Rebecca Erin Curtis, a MacEwan grad I will watch for again).

I loved the detail, consistent through the show, that star actress Desiree (Glynis Price) was surrounded by clutter and chaos – stockings and scarves draped over her furniture, enough male visitors that they cross paths in her apartment – her current lover Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Russ Farmer) and her former lover Fredrik Egerman (Morgan Smith), both sporting mustaches of importance.  Count Malcolm’s indignant wife Charlotte (Monica Roberts), a likeably sarcastic character, comes up with a unlikely scheme to defend both herself and Egerman’s young wife Anne (Ruth Wong-Miller) from Desiree’s designs on their husbands.   Anne is an astonishingly naive 18 year old.  She claims to love married life but seems oblivious to being more passionate about teasing her stepson (Allan Cabral) than about her much-older husband.   It was “amusing” (as the character often says) to watch Wong-Miller in this role, since she usually plays characters with more agency but was completely believable as the protected and petted young wife.   Desiree’s daughter Fredrika, canonically about 13, seemed to be wiser with more understanding of the world and relationships, just from listening to her grandmother’s stories of liaisons and from having toured with her mother’s acting troupes.

Monica Morgan night music

Monica Roberts, as Charlotte, and Morgan Smith, as Fredrik, in A Little Night Music. Photo by Nanc Price Photography.

There were a lot of bits in this production that had me laughing out loud – some of them were funnier to me than to other members of the audience.  The part where Fredrika’s grandmother says that she brought Fredrika home to do a better job raising her because “ Stage managers are not nannies, dear; they don’t have the talent.”  The bit where Fredrika takes Anne to watch Desiree on stage in a French comedy, the play-within-a-play a more exaggerated version of the grandmother’s liaison stories and the contemporary affairs and intrigues, and Brian Ault playing a footman or herald in a truly bizarre wig.

One of the common features of Sondheim musicals is complex music.  Daniel Belland is musical director, with an ensemble of eight other musicians.   As well as the characters named above, there are several servants, some with their own romantic plotlines, and a chorus of six, singing clever harmonies and hinting at further layers of complication (“Remember”) that we don’t get to see.

A Little Night Music is a musical for people who like musicals, a change from this company’s last production, the stage-musical version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.  It’s long but it moves along at a good pace and I was surprised when it was already time for intermission.  It’s playing at La Cité Francophone, until June 8th, with tickets through Tix on the Square.

 

 

 

How to Succeed in Show Business …

Once again, I’ve been too busy watching theatre and helping to make theatre to write about theatre.  But I want to tell you about this one (which I’m working on) in time for you to go see it.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a musical by Frank Loesser first produced in 1961, and based on the satirical book of business advice written by Shepherd Mead a decade earlier.  Whether or not you’ve seen the musical or movie or read the book, you’ve probably seen lots of copycat titles, because it’s a memorable turn of phrase.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is the latest production from local independent theatre group Foote in the Door Productions.  The company name is a tribute to Foote Theatre School at the Citadel, where company principals Ruth Wong-Miller and Russ Farmer met in a musical-theatre class.  The company began producing musicals at Fringe 2014.  How to Succeed is their second mainstage production, after She Loves Me, in November 2015.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is set in the head office of a big company in the 1960s.  The setting reminds me of Mad Men and of Bewitched, and also of some places I’ve worked in the past.  The protagonist, J Pierrepont Finch (Frank Keller, previously seen in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) has an unexpectedly-endearing mix of enthusiasm, kindness, and self-involved ambition.  From his initial hiring as a junior in the mailroom, he plays everyone he encounters to bounce upwards and upwards and … to bounce.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how this production (directed by Adam Kuss) illustrates and comments on the status of women in early-1960s office life.  “I’m no Cinderella!  I have eighty-five dollars in the bank, AND a savings bond!” declares determined and daydreamy Rosemary Pilkington (Ruth Wong-Miller) to her office-pal Smitty (Caitlin Tazzer) who wants a fairy-tale ending for Rosemary and J Pierrepont.   In one scene, men waiting for an elevator discuss projects and promotions, while the women discuss needing to reject sexual advances in the office – and that was written around 1961 (by three men, Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert).  Executive secretary Miss Jones (Carolyn Waye, who has a joy-filled solo late in the show) wields some real power, and the naive-sexy character Hedy Larue (Kathleen Cera, also the show’s costume designer) also exhibits self-determination and solidarity with other women.

Company president J.B. Biggley is played by Russ Farmer (recently seen in Chess and in She Loves Me).  Farmer, a management consultant, gives a disturbingly-convincing portrayal of an executive who is not as competent as he thinks he is, stuck with a lazy sassy nephew Bud (Rory Turner).

The organization chart of this company is filled in by a strong ensemble (Trish van Doornum, Trevor J, Melanie Lafleur, Gerald Mason, Natasha Mason, Mike McDevitt, Levy Poppins, Emily Smith, Morgan Smith), creating recognizable and entertaining characters and providing the audience with delightful singing and dancing and snappy dialogue.  Choreography was done by Adam Kuss, and live music is provided by an ensemble of 8 led by music director Daniel Belland on piano.

Ruth Wong-Miller took time in a busy tech week to answer a few questions about the show and company, starting with how they find the musicals they produce:  “I am a huge musical theatre nerd. I’ve been obsessed with shows since I was a young girl, when I listened to Les Miz and Phantom on cassette (yes I’m that old). My sister and I used to watch all of the old classic movie musicals and see every show that came to town – it’s hard to stump me on musical theatre trivia!”  On people who have led and supported Foote in the Door so far:”We have had so many wonderful supporters including Adam Kuss who has been involved in our fringe show each year as a director (2014) and choreographer (2015 and 2016). I’d also like to name Barbara Mah as well; she directed our first mainstage She Loves Me last fall and she’s been a great resource for our company.  On this show we have an amazing group, from the cast, production team, and orchestra. The talent level is super impressive, the commitment is incredible and it feels like such a warm family.”

And what’s next for Foote in the Door?  “Carousel (May 2017) is a complete 180 from How to Succeed. It is a dramatic musical with some serious subject matter backed up with some seriously lush and classic music by the legends: Rodgers and Hammerstein! Performers will experience the opportunity to work with an amazing production team including Mary-Ellen Perley as Director, Stuart Sladden as Music Director and Sterling winner Ainsley Hillyard doing choreography. Audiences will enjoy it just as much as How to Succeed as they will travel with the characters on their journeys of romance and self discovery-and there are beautiful songs such as “You’ll Never Walk Alone!”

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying opens tonight in the main auditorium at Faculté St-Jean, 8406 91 Street (rue Marie-Anne Gaboury).   Tickets for future shows are available through tix on the square, but not for same-day/weekend shows.  Cash tickets will be available at the door  for tonight’s show, $25 adult, $21 student/senior.  Show time is 7:30.  On Sunday Nov 13th there’s a matinee at 2 pm, and the run continues Wednesday Nov 16th through Saturday Nov 19th.  There will be snacks and drinks for sale, including the obligatory red licorice.  In tribute to one of the songs in the show, there may also be Coffee Crisp.  If you’re coming tonight (Remembrance Day) the campus might look closed, but we will definitely be there!

 

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Co-workers advising Rosemary on her romance: Natasha Mason, Emily Smith, Ruth Wong-Miller as Rosemary, Trish Van Doornum, Caitlin Tazzer, Melanie Lafleur (Nanc Price Photography)