Tag Archives: musical

Day seven: Rocket Sugar Improv and Dogfight

Sometimes a busy Fringe day doesn’t mean seeing lots of shows, and sometimes trying to do too many things in one day means messing up and missing the start of a show at a distant venue because of not remembering the right time or getting involved in a conversation.  I’m sorry I won’t be seeing The Real Inspector Hound after all, and I hope to catch Ask Aggie later.

Yesterday I started the day with Rocket Sugar Factory at the Telus Stage.  Improv partners Jacob Banigan and Jim Libby, based in Austria, come to Edmonton Fringe each year, and musician Jan Randall joins them and enhances their shows with playful piano and additional repartee.  The audience for the early show seemed to be full of people who had seen them before.   This year, apparently, they’re using a different improv structure in each show.  In the one I saw, they played a couple of stories, then after each they asked the audience to identify a point at which a character might have made a different decision, and then they showed an alternative ending.  One scene started with an audience member’s story about encountering a crabby lady in the grocery store.  The other started with suggestions that led to a group of teachers winning a lottery but misplacing the ticket.  One of the strengths of these two artists is the way that they will each create several characters with distinguishing body language and voice, and then the two of them will switch frequently among all those characters to keep the story moving along.   I particularly enjoyed Jim Libby’s portrayal of the perky home-ec teacher Caroline.  I also enjoyed watching the moments when one of them set up the other to do something difficult or awkward and the other did it – performing rap music, lifting the other person up, etc.

In the evening, I queued up outside Strathcona High School so that I could sit in a front-row chair for Dogfight rather than climb up the bleachers.  This was my second viewing of the Strathcona Alumni Theatre’s production of the 2012 musical by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, directed as usual by Linette Smith.  Most of the show is set one evening in 1963, in San Francisco, where a small group of  young US Marines has their last night of leave for departing for Okinawa and eventually Vietnam.  At the start, end, and intermission, there are also framing scenes showing the main character (Chris Scott as Eddie Birdlace) returning from Vietnam some years later and seeking out the girl he met that night (Emmy Kate Whitehead as Rose Fenny).

That one-line description could easily fit most conventional wartime-romance stories, but this one is different in some disturbing and refreshing ways.  Disturbing, because boy meets girl happens because of a dogfight, a competition among Marines to bring the ugliest girl to a party.  And refreshing, because the shy awkward nominally-unattractive girl Rose takes some control in the situation, calling the Marines out on their appalling behaviour in a way that makes the audience cheer, expressing anti-Vietnam-war concerns in a way appropriate to 1963, and telling him afterwards that she hadn’t been waiting for him.  I was also pleased that it avoided the period-piece tropes of having the young woman be coerced into sex and getting pregnant by a more experienced male partner.  It was clear to this modern feminist viewer that except for having been tricked into attending the dogfight, she wasn’t doing anything that she didn’t choose to do.  His contraceptive precautions were explicit, and his acknowledgement that it was new to him too won the audience over with a round of awws, while we watched Rose’s face receiving this unexpected but touching gift.

Emmy Kate Whitehead and Chris Scott both impressed me with the way they met the singing and acting demands of the lead roles.  Sydney Williams was heartbreaking as the streetwise prostitute Marcia and had a beautiful solo later as another character.  Kyle Thulien played several small roles (sergeant, drag nun, snooty waiter) and was spot-on as a sketchy lounge singer.  Gabe Richardson’s character Ralphie Boland was a nasty piece of work and Gabe added a swagger and a smirk that made me shudder.

The musical ensemble, under the direction of Matt Graham, was good, and the sound was well-balanced so that I could hear all the words.   The choreography was fun to watch and suitable to the story, especially the chair choreography (in unison, in army boots, by Scott, Richardson, Aidan Burke, Alex Aoki, Jordan Mah, Evans Kwak, and Michael Vetsch) and the impressions-of-war scene.   Jocelyn Feltham played Rose’s mother with gentle concern and no overplayed fuss.

There were two things I didn’t like about this show.  It ran overtime in both performances I saw, finishing at about 10:20pm rather than the published time of 10:00, and that is frustrating on a busy Fringe evening.  I don’t know whether a correction had been posted at the info tents, but it’s not on the Fringe website and wasn’t posted at the venue or in the program.  I will keep buying tickets ahead of time and driving down to Strathcona High School to see whatever challenging modern musical this company produces in future years, because they are good and they are local.  I would keep going even if the shows were three hours long.  But I want to know ahead of time.   I also didn’t feel comfortable with the stereotypical aboriginal character Ruth Two Bears (Olivia Aubin), shuffling and drinking stone-faced in buckskin and braids.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the portrayal in this production was toned down from earlier productions elsewhere, but it still made me wince.

Dogfight is, of course, sold out for the balance of its run.  Last year an additional performance of Rent was announced for the final weekend, but I think it was announced midweek.

Our show Sonder was not sold out the last time I checked.  We perform this afternoon (Thursday) at 4:00 pm, and Saturday at 6:45 pm.  We’re at King Edward School, an easy walk across a playground from the main Fringe grounds and in a neighbourhood with some free parking, and running time is just under an hour.

Kinky Boots!

I keep meeting interesting people at the theatre, not just in Edmonton but now on Broadway too.  Tonight I enjoyed some wonderful conversation about theatre and life and as a bonus, one of the people I’d been talking to pointed out Giorgio Armani returning to his seat after intermission.

Tonight’s show was Kinky Boots.  When the movie of the same name was new, I saw it and thought that it was pleasant, but just part of that subgenre with Full Monty and Brassed Off, where plucky English working class factory workers cope in a post-industrial world, and also bore some similarity to Billy Elliot as well as Full Monty in discussing how definitions of masculinity need to change in that world.

But I followed recommendations I’d been hearing from friends and from theatregoers I met earlier in the week here, and lined up at the TKTS same-day discounts booth this afternoon to get a ticket to the musical version of Kinky Boots, book by Harvey Fierstein and lyrics and music by Cyndi Lauper.  And I was not disappointed.  I liked the musical a lot more than I liked the movie.  The two main characters, Lola (Billy Porter) and Charlie (Andy Kelso), both grew up feeling like they’d let down their fathers in wanting to be themselves, but both ended up using the skills they learned from their fathers in finding their own destinies.  I loved how the ensemble seemed credible as factory workers, men and women of a variety of ages and body types.  An article in the Playbill pointed out that the women at the factory gradually dress in brighter colours as they spend more time with Lola, which I hadn’t picked up on.  I loved how the finale at the Milan footwear show had everyone wearing different spectacular thigh-high boots.  And I loved the glimpses into design problem-solving, with problem definition (male performers need sturdier stilettos than the ones available for women), iteration (burgundy boots with a low heel are comfortable but not acceptable to the target market), group idea generation (Charlie and Lauren mostly), and prototyping.

The set was full of moving bits shifting around to be inside the factory, outside the factory, in various pubs and the drag queen nightclub, etc.  And there was some impressive use of conveyor belts.

Kinky Boots has been running on Broadway for about a year.  It won a bunch of Tony awards last year and is about to go on tour.

Having watched costumer friends struggle to assemble enough sandals to outfit the cast of Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, I’m guessing that the footwear will be one big obstacle to eventual local productions of this show.  Maybe MTI will rent the boots along with the books and orchestra scores.  Meanwhile – see it here.  It seems to be available at TKTS most days, for 40% or 50% off the face value of the tickets.

 

 

Book of Mormon at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway

Book of Mormon was the only show I’m seeing on Broadway this trip that I’d already seen.  (I’d seen the touring production when it came to Toronto last spring.)  I loved it then and I loved it here. And I’ll definitely see the Broadway Across Canada production when it comes to Edmonton next season. The dancing was even better than I’d remembered and more of the songs had interesting choreography, even Hello! right at the start.  I was amused that the little bits of product placement in the Salt Lake City backdrop still included Tim Hortons (and I wondered whether this coffee shop chain is particularly successful in a city where lots of people don’t drink coffee).  Elder Kevin Price was Nic Rouleau, Elder Arnold Cunningham was Ben Platt, and Nabulungi was Syesha Mercado.  None of them were from the original cast but the show Playbill said that they’d all played or understudied in the roles elsewhere first.  All of them were good singers, actors, and dancers, and Nic Rouleau had a really great smile too.

I also figured something out which was probably obvious to everyone else who had seen the show before.  See, after I saw it in Toronto I looked at the headshots in my program book and realised the cast didn’t include any white women – but I remembered the scene with the missionaries’ mothers and fathers seeing them off at the airport, and the Mormon-history narrative with pioneer couples.  I couldn’t figure out whether some of the Black women in the cast had done those parts with wigs and I had just seen them as white, or what.  Well, this time I paid more attention – and the white men in the chorus of missionaries also play all the white women.

Again, I loved the staging and choreography of Spooky Mormon Hell Dream, for being terrifying, original, and pointedly ridiculous, all at the same time. The flamboyant / ironic choreography of the missionaries’ chorus numbers was also one of my favourite parts of the show.  Elder Cunningham’s names for Nabulungi definitely didn’t include Nanaimo Bar this time around, so that confirms my hypothesis from Toronto that the actor must have the freedom to improvise that a bit and change from show to show.

At the show I attended, there weren’t any real missionaries outside.  But as in Toronto at one of the Mirvish theatres, there were lots of souvenirs for sale, and lots of patrons who knew the show well.  And I’ll have to check my program from that production to be sure, but I think that possibly a few of the actors from the touring production that I saw might be in the Broadway cast now.  Otherwise, it’s unusual for me (with most of my theatregoing limited to Edmonton) to be seeing a good show without recognising any of the performers.  Perhaps that will change here too, since I hope this is not my last visit to Broadway.

Avenue Q off Broadway

The musical-with-puppets Avenue Q is going to be part of next year’s Citadel Theatre season. Having just seen it off-Broadway, I’m looking forward to it even more than I had been.

It reminded me of Rent ( in being about a small community of struggling young people in New York City, but not sad), of “St. Elmo’s Fire” (being about the anomie of post-graduation), and of, well, “Sesame Street” for grownups.  This was a more effective mix than you might expect if you haven’t heard of the show.  Three of the seven performers play humans, Brian a wannabe comedian (Nick Kohn), Christmas Eve a wannabe social worker (Sala Iwamatsu), and Gary Coleman yes that Gary Coleman (Danielle K. Thomas).  The other four performers operate various Muppet-like characters, while on stage in full view mimicking their alter egos’ gestures.  Darren Bluestone plays Princeton the lead, as well as Rod who bears a distinct resemblance to Bert-from-Sesame-Street.  Veronica Kuehn plays Kate Monster the other lead.  The other two puppeteers are Maggie Lakis and Jason Jacoby.

It’s a fun show, the songs are catchy, the humour is topical and sometimes pointed (“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”), and the characters’ problems are very easy to identify with.

As someone who grew up with Bert and Ernie, and then who enjoyed speculating on their slashy subtext, I particularly enjoyed the subplot of Rod and his roommate Nicky, and how the writers managed to find both a happy same-sex romantic ending and a respect for non-sexual friendship.  I couldn’t think how that story would work out, and it did.

There was one bit of audience interaction that made me wish for once that I was sitting on the aisle – especially when their pass-the-hat came up with a Metrocard.

Avenue Q is playing at New World Stages, a new-looking complex of five underground performance spaces just north of Times Square on 50th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues in New York City.  There are often discount tickets at TKTS.  And it will be playing at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton next winter.  I’ll be there for sure!

 

In the Heights! Scona Theatre production at the Westbury

This year’s big musical by the Strathcona (High School) Theatre Co. is In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creation with book by Qiara Alegria Hudes, which opened on Broadway in 2008.   It was a good choice for this company and the venue (Westbury Theatre), where a huge crowd of exuberant performers and an interesting detailed set had enough space to tell the story and the risers were filled with parents, friends, and members of the local theatre community.  The Heights refers to the north Manhattan neighbourhood of Washington Heights, a mostly-Dominican neighbourhood. The set for the Scona production had two three-story brick buildings flanking some steps and an elevated walkway at the back of the stage, then a projection screen showing views of the bridge in the background.  The main floors of the buildings were small shopfronts behind metal blinds (“grates”), a beauty salon, a bodega or convenience store, a car service (dispatched taxis) and one graffiti-marked storefront that just stayed closed.  That was never mentioned, but it added to the sense of a neighbourhood in transition.  Upstairs were windows and balconies, which usually had people hanging out of them or leaning on them or looking down from them.  My first thought on looking at the set was that it reminded me of Sesame Street, because that was the only place I’d seen that kind of streetscape as a child.  (That and my brother’s Fisher-Price village.) The main characters are introduced by the young bodega owner, Usnavi (Aidan Burke), whom I thought was a particularly strong all-around performer in this show.  Usnavi’s young cousin Sonny (James Kwak) is an amusing comic foil.  The manager and employees of the beauty salon (Siobhan Galpin, Christina Nguyen, Jade Robinson), struggling owners and ambitious worker of the car service (Kirkland Doiron, either Monica Lillo or Jocelyn Feltham and Evans Kwak), and “everyone’s abuela” Claudia (Manuela Aguerrevere) all have big enough parts that we get to know their stories.  The female lead is Nina (Olivia Aubin), daughter of the car-service family, who is returning home after her first year at Stanford University. I was also impressed by the dance moves and general stage presence of the actor playing Graffiti Pete, but there were two performers platooning in the role and no sign in the theatre telling which one we were seeing.  Either Robbie Wickins or Michael Sulyma.

There were at least 65 energetic performers in the cast as well as a pit band of 14.  This meant that there was always lots to watch, although the ensemble members did not distract from the important plot points or lead character solos.   The Latin dancing in the nightclub scene was great, and the large-crowd dancing in the song “96,000”.  Jordan Mah is credited as AD/ Assistant Choreographer.  Linette Smith directed and choreographed, and the music director was Jenn McMillan. I thought this show was an ideal choice for this company, taking advantage of not only some talented young individual performers but the depth of talent and enthusiasm allowing the director to create a joyful busy community in a high-density neighbourhood.  The story was universal enough to grasp without knowing anything else about the demographics (business owners struggle in a shifting block, city utilities are unreliable in a disrespected neighbourhood, and there is a lot of pressure on the young person who has the chance to succeed outside.)

Attached are some recent photos from the real Washington Heights neighbourhood in upper Manhattan, NYC.  You can see the grates over closed stores, the convenience store, and the grey and black fire hydrants.  Don’t expect this level of background research for all my theatre reviews (especially the one set in Uganda!) but I loved having this prep for my NYC vacation and finding the connections.  And now, back to Broadway!

image image Subway to Washington Heights

HONK! if you love family musicals

The Ugly Duckling is the Hans Christian Anderson tale of a misfit chick raised by ducks and made to feel inferior for being different, who then matures into a graceful beautiful swan and is welcomed by a flock of other swans.  Stories of happy resolution and appreciation for young people who don’t fit in have always been in demand, although the expectations of the story tropes have changed even within my memory, as, for example, some modern viewers find the bullying in the 1960s television special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to be egregiously cruel, even with some happier resolutions at the end for the red-nosed reindeer, the dentist elf, the kind abominable snow monster, and other picked-on characters.

Honk! is a musical version of the story, with music by George Stiles and book and lyrics by Anthony Drewe, which debuted in England in 2003.  And I liked this version better than previous versions I’d encountered, partly because the audience and the ugly duckling (played here by Mathew Bittroff, appropriately awkward in mismatched socks and lopsided stance) could see right from the start that the mother duck (Kayla Nickel) cared about him and admired his unusually good swimming ability, and because even when he was lost, the device of overhearing a television appeal let him see that his mother still loved him and hadn’t given up.  During the performance I got wondering whether the happy ending would still have him flying off with the flock of swans, as in the original, and I was relieved to see that after he’s both discovered himself as a swan and found his duck family, he decides to stay on the lake with the ducks and with his swan sweetie Penny (Paula Humby).  It was also nice that after some initial jokes about Drake avoiding family responsibilities and not bonding with Ugly, he stays home to take care of the ducklings and the nest while his partner Ida goes searching for Ugly, and is happy to have him return.

This version of the story has an obvious villain outside of the sibling/community bullying: a Cat, played with feline grace and predatory instincts by David Johnston of The 11 O’Clock Number and Two One-Way Tickets’ The Full Monty.  A young audience member behind me was complaining with satisfaction at intermission that he or she Didn’t Like That Cat.   I found the analogy with human would-be predators equally disturbing.  The way that the Cat concentrated on the youth who was distanced from his family and discouraged him from checking in with his mother was very similar to the grooming and luring behaviour of a child molester portrayed by Jake Tkaczyk in his original piece Play Date at Red Deer College a few weeks ago.

Johnston’s feline mannerisms were readily identifiable and very funny, particularly the way he shot his claws and caressed his astonishing facial hair.  Elisa Benzer as Turkey, and Will Mitchell as Drake and Bulldog were also particularly impressive in capturing the essence of their characters’ species in posture and movement.

In the musical, once Ugly has been separated from his family and farmyard community by the Cat and after he escapes the cat, he spends a long time searching for home and encountering various other characters – a military formation of migratory geese, a couple of domesticated pets, a bullfrog and his chorus, and a mother and daughter swan – before being found by his mother and discovered to have molted into a recognizable swan.  This gave the story more structure, and also provided opportunities for some funny characters, puns, and song/dance numbers.   Most of the cast played two or three parts.  The duckling siblings were Laena Anderson, Rachel Kent, and Lindsay Phillips, in yellow bows and shirts.  Nicole English shifted posture, demeanour, and a few costume details to distinguish between Maureen (a moorhen friend of the mother duck), Lowbutt (a domesticated chicken), and Mother Swan.

The music for the show was provided by Erik Mortimer on keyboard.  (The small child behind me commented after intermission “He’s really good!”)  The songs were pleasant and catchy and the choreography fun to watch and suitable to the characters and species.  I had trouble discerning the words in one or two of the early songs, which was irritating because the words I could make out were very clever, and I’m not sure whether the problem was tempo or balance with the keyboard.  I particularly enjoyed Kayla Nickel’s singing voice.  I think the last thing I saw her in was MacEwan’s Spring Awakening, although I may have seen her in something since.

HONK is a production of Grindstone Theatre, the people who do The 11 O’Clock Number.  It’s playing at the PCL Studio space at the Arts Barns until April 26th.  Tickets are at Tix on the Square or at the door.

Mary Poppins

The first of P.L. Travers’ books about Mary Poppins was published in 1934, and I read some of the books as a child, taking them out from a particular old library branch that my father used to like.  The Walt Disney movie came out in 1965, so I know I didn’t see it then, but I probably saw it at a drive-in theatre in one of the early re-releases, and I think I’ve also seen it as an adult but not recently.   I don’t know which I encountered first, but I don’t remember being bothered by any inconsistencies in the treatments.

I saw an early preview performance of the Citadel Theatre / Theatre Calgary production of the Broadway musical Mary Poppins last week.  Blythe Wilson was in the title role with an appropriate combination of dignity and warmth, and Michael Shamata was the director.  It was a fun large-cast show with a lot of music and with fun things to watch (dancing, kite-flying, various stage-effect magics, and enchanting sets capturing the house and neighbourhood in Edwardian London), so I think it would be a better family outing than Christmas Carol, which is a little scary.  Young performers Zasha Rabie and Jack Forestier were poised and convincing in the roles of Mary Poppins’ charges Jane and Michael Banks.  Kate Ryan and Vincent Gale were the Banks adults whom Mary Poppins also helps to find more balanced happier lives.  Kendra Connor, a local actor who has been a favourite of mine in shows such as Fiorello!, Strike! The Musical, Nutcracker Unhinged, and The Minor Keys, was very funny in several small parts.

Because I’m preoccupied these days with learning the work of stage management, working as ASM on the upcoming Walterdale Theatre production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, (opens April 2nd, tickets here) I was completely in awe watching the smooth movement of complicated multi-level set pieces, some on a revolve.  Mary Poppins’ dignified descents and ascensions by umbrella had her in a completely upright immobile posture, which also impressed me.  In the early preview I saw, I think I saw one small delay probably due to a slow costume change and one wobble in the stage-magic, but they did not distract me from enjoying the show.

The underlying messages about valuing family life and personal happiness are just as timely today as when the books were written, and the story made me happy.

Mary Poppins continues to play at the Citadel until April 20th, but I hear that some performances are selling out.