Thursday, 19 May 2016

Billy Elliot sets a new standard for musicals
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  Good vibrations was not just a popular Beach Boys song in '66. The expression captures what excitation and arousal and romance can be had from a fling! Which is what everyone seeks to get out of a stage musical. To take us away, momentarily, from life's drib-drabbery, its daily demands and lock-step marching orders. Billy Elliot delivers it all with grace notes to spare. As if taking a leaf from the kids' summer theatre camp, you'll feel you Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance! watching this. Fun indeed to witness youngsters break free from the clutches of parents. Particularly parents beset by history leaving them behind in the time of Maggie Thatcher's skinflinty England.


How it's all put together : Seeing the Y2K movie version at Cannes -- screenplay by Lee Hall -- Elton John was smitten : "I had to be helped up the aisle, sobbing. The film had really got under my skin," he reported. It took five years to do, but EJ wrote the tunes to the show : his buddy Lee scripted both their lyrics and the show's book. Since its world premiere in London's West End in 2005, some 100 actors across the globe have portrayed the role of Billy in professional shows. Fully 41 actors played the lead during its 11-year run at the Victoria Palace Theatre where the show danced off the stage just this past month after totting up some 4,600 performances there.

What Billy brings to the stage : Set in the North England mining country of Durham -- you could flip a lump of coal and hit Edinburgh -- the time is the mid-80's. The epoch of privatization and deregulation, NAFTA free trade zones, the off-loading of government properties en masse : Reagan, Thatcher, Mulroney, VanderZalm were all of a piece in the devolution revolution. Durham miners were numb : from 1,000 pits during Churchill's "finest hour" only some 200 will remain post-Maggie. Their union was also NUM : the National Union of Mineworkers. Despite opposition from UK's Big Labour bunch, Solidarnosc! was their rallying cry. Mimic Lech's feisty docksiders in Gdansk they might, but ultimately they came away with a lot less to show for their struggles and bravura.

Dad Jackie (Warren Kimmel) and older brother Tony (Danny Balkwill) are caught up battling police and scabs when NUM takes its angry strikers to the streets. Young Billy (Nolan Fahey), motherless, fakes his way through boxing lessons at Dad's insistence. Quite by accident he stumbles across Mrs. Wilkinson (Caitriona Murphy) and her girls' ballet class right after a bit of boxing sufferance. Billy is intrigued, sticks around to try some plies and pirouettes. Dad finds out and is aghast : he prohibits any further such nonsense. Act 1 ends with Billy doing an Angry Dance of protest and frustration and rage.

As Elton put it : " The story of young Billy, a gifted working class boy with artistic ambitions seemingly beyond his reach had so many parallels to my own childhood. Like Billy, [I saw] the opportunity to express myself artistically [as] a passport to a better, more fulfilling life."

Early in Act 2 Dad sees the light. Billy's better at ballet than at boxing. He's got a future. Dad proposes to cross NUM's picket line and return to work to pay for Billy's future. NUM's strike lasts 358 days before it's crushed by its own inertia and Maggie's intransigence. Billy, a chrysalis amidst the trampled husks of the old miners, soon takes flight to the Royal Ballet School in London.

Some song-&-dance highlights : Unlike, say, Mary Poppins that interjects choreography into its storyline, in Billy Elliot ballet and choreography are the centrepiece. The storyline is stretched and manipulated to suit the EJ / Lee Hall musical numbers, e.g. Billy singing to his dead Mum [Leora Joy Perrie] and she back to him : a contorted dramatic stretch i.m.o. Or the dead-broke NUM miners spontaneously! and instantly! coughing up scant shekels -- as well as the scabs -- to fund Billy's Royal Ballet School audition in London in Act 2. Really? But these are quibbles.

Because addlepated Grandma (Barbara Pollard), meanwhile, is sheer delight. She rants against her late drunken husband but still champions the memory of dancing with him -- sort of : "He was bliss for an hour or so / And in the morning we were sober," she sings, much to the crowd's merriment.


Choreographer Valerie Easton outdoes herself with the piece "Solidarity" half-way through Act 1 that combines crisp dance routines involving the bobbies guarding the mines, the NUM strikers, and Mrs. Wilkinson's dancing class all at the same time -- 20 people braiding and dovetailing their various manoeuvres with cheek & bustle as they sing out "We're proud to be working class!" The routine, rightly, won huge audience huzzahs, no question at all my personal favourite on the night.


Billy's classmate chum Michael (Valin Shinyei) is a 12-year-old cross-dresser gay not quite out of the closet. The song "Expressing Yourself" where the boys don Michael's sister's silky threads and tap-dance with the ensemble before a slivered silver scrim was simply choice. 


A prize piece of fanciful footwork called "Born to Boogie" involving Billy, the ballet class piano man Mr. Braithwaite (Gordon Roberts) and Mrs. Wilkinson spins wildly after her admonishment to Billy : "You have to release your inner kid!"  Mr. Roberts, of some girth, almost upstages slight Billy in that one in the robustness of his "release". 


Next to "Solidarity", my personal favourite had to be Billy's closer to Act 1, the "Angry Dance" that starts in his bedroom and ends with him ricocheting off police plexiglass riot shields. Brilliant conception and execution both. 

Production values that add to the show : Not to overstate the case. But to make it. The "choreography" of Ted Roberts' exquisite North England mining village set design and Marsha Sibthorpe's variegated geometric lighting effects with Alison Green's superb costuming all dance wonderfully together in a visual and textured spectacle that is pure treat throughout the night. Ken Cormier's orchestra is chipper and nuanced with these familiar-ish EJ melody strains. 

Acting pin-spots : Hands-down champs of the night would have to be -- of course -- Nolan Fahey as the shy, thrilling young ballet and dance star Billy. Also Caitriona Murphy whose in-your-face ironies and take-no-prisoner feistiness against the County Durham sexist men matched her footwork. But other favourites were David Adams as Big Davy, chief "enforcer" of the striking miners with a wonderful booming voice. Danny Balkwill as Billy's belligerent big brother proudly sporting his Che Guevara t-shirt was powerful. Good convincing widower \ teen-age Dad befuddlement & bemusement by Warren Kimmel the night through.

Kudos of course to the young ladies of the ballet class and all the other dancers, too, who charmed the bejesus out of the crowd. Not one weak link anywhere in the Ensemble chain. 


Who gonna like : Often have I ranted against Vancouver's tendency to give performers knee-jerk standing-o's even for just B or B+ performances. The standing-o on opening night for Billy Elliot was explosive and resounding and utterly deserved by the 20 cast and countless dozens of creative production back-up. Musicals are meant to deliver whimsy and warmth and feel-good vibes. Billy Elliot aces this challenge. Economic downturns always mean loss. Life is a series of losses : innocence, family, familiarity. But the themes of hope! and faith! and belief! that always emerge from the "death of the old order" are what we need to hitch our thoughts to as we face the uncertain future. Billy Elliot gives us money-back-guaranteed good fun and good value and just plain downright good theatre -- the best overall big-stage musical production I have ever witnessed by a homegrown theatre troupe in Metro Vancouver.



Particulars :  Book & lyrics by Lee Hall.  Music by Elton John.  At ACT's Stanley Theatre stage, 11th & Granville.  Run-time 150 minutes including intermission.  On through July 10th.  Schedule information & tickets via www.ArtsCentre.com or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Director Bill Millerd.  Musical Director Ken Cormier. Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Ballet Advisor Suzanne Ouellette. Set Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Alison Green.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe.  Fight Director Nicholas Harrison.  Stage Manager Caryn Fehr.  Assistant Stage Manager Ronaye Haynes.  Apprentice Stage Managers Claire Friedrich, Tessa Gunn.  (Originally directed in London by Stephen Daldry).

Performers :  David Adams (Big Davy / Ensemble).  Mat Baker (Posh Dad / Ensemble).  Danny Balkwill (Tony).  Jordyn Bennett (Margaret). Avril Brigden (Susan). Matthew Cluff (Older Billy / Ensemble). Nolan Fahey (Billy). Warren Kimmel (Dad). Kristi Low (Sharon). Julia MacLean (Tracy). Caitriona Murphy (Mrs. Wilkinson). Arta Negahban (Keely). Leora Joy Perrie (Mum / Ensemble). Nathan Piasecki (Ensemble). Barbara Pollard (Grandma). Brian Riback (Tall Boy / Ensemble). Gordon Roberts (Mr. Braithewaite / Ensemble). Taylor Dianne Robinson (Debbie). Valin Shinyei (Michael / Billy [alternate]). Kirk Smith (George / Ensemble).

The Orchestra :  Graham Boyle (Drums). Henry Christian (Trumpet). Ken Cormier (Keyboards). Sasha Niechoda (Keyboards / Keyboard Programming). Chris Startup (Reeds). Andreas Schuld (Guitars / Variax).  Original London orchestrations : Martin Koch.

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Sunday, 15 May 2016

5 @ 50 is edgy take on aging high school buds
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : When he was 52, Canadian playwright Brad Fraser decided to give his dramatic metier -- exploration of life in men's gay communities -- a sabbatical. Instead he turned his customary cut of wit and irony toward five women on the cusp of 50. Its premise is simple, he told whatsonstage.com in 2011 on the eve of its world premiere in Manchester, UK : "A group of five women, all friends since high school and on the verge of turning fifty, discover one of their number is an alcoholic. An intervention is staged, badly, and hilarity and heartbreak ensue for all involved."

How it's all put together : In 2010 Fraser Facebook'd his women friends : tell me all the dirty little secrets you've accumulated across your life in the past 30 years since the last high school bell. Promising anonymity to each vendor for their tales of woe, heartbreak and confession, Fraser got a media-dump of anecdotes from which to forge this dramatic and embroidered chronicle. The five, all shunned at the high school prom, have maintained their friendships with loyalty, frailty and edginess. These are not Carrie Bradshaw's 30-something Sex and the City sirens. At 50 they've each had a life -- or two or three -- and they look back now on the various urges, obsessions and addictions they've all been subject to.

What the show brings to the stage :  Fraser also told whatsonstage.com this : "I'm fairly testosterone driven and the earlier work shows it but I'm also gay and not at all afraid of my more feminine traits. This play allowed me to put myself into a female headspace and I was quite surprised to find how accessible it was." Indeed. The show is an extended reveal of the women's true inner feelings and fears. And quite a look-see it is, now that they've summited life's mountain and stare and stumble down its backside. These five angst-ridden galpals are thick and laden with testosterone-&-estrogen driven grievances going back years that they visit noisily and gruffly on one another even as they "celebrate" each of their birthdays. 

Olivia (Deborah Williams) is the classic roaring drunk who at her 50th pukes on Tricia (Veena Sood) whom she's still angry at for "stealing" the part of Ophelia in the senior year production of Hamlet. Bi-sexual Olivia's lesbian partner all these years Norma (Beatrice Zeilinger) is accused by Tricia of being drunken Olivia's "co-dependent enabler" because she doesn't confront Olivia's ethanol frenzies that occur more and more regularly. The elegant Lorene (Diane Brown) is a serial monogamist : the courts didn't hesitate to give Dad custody of her children she's not seen for years. Yoga rhapsodist Fern (Donna Yamamoto) appears to have the perfect marriage and perfect kids, but for a dozen years or more she's been pulsating twice-weekly with married neighbour Barry on his office floor.

Snappy feisty dialogue drives the piece : Early on at Olivia's party the play's leitmotif is revealed, sort of jokingly, by one of them : "We're all evil witches, that's what holds us together!" Then a bit of a stretch with this exchange : "You don't look a day over 35!" says one, to which another snipes back "Yeah...if you're looking through a dirty fishbowl." They discuss how movies used to be scary but simple. Not any more. Lots of bare bodies, including men's : "A penis is the new tits!" Norma observes. When not together partying and kvetching, the women are each provided soliloquy moments where they tot up their hurts and wounds.  "You mean you've never woken up in the middle of the night and asked what the fuck have I done with my life?" one asks. Says another : "This reminds me of a church for people who are more messed up than people who go to church...!"

Production values that highlight the action : PAL's intimate horseshoe seating design provides Director Cameron Mackenzie ample opportunity for dramatic entrances and exits by the cast. Marina Szijarto's set of scalloped lace drapes and white enamel barstools lends the show a starkness of look that makes journalist sex-groupie Trish's closing observation about drunk now-derelict Olivia just that much more poignant : "We've all said things we can't take back, like that real cunty thing who drives you crazy. But she's been there all that time, and now you kind of miss it -- the last thing I expected was a sense of loss."

Acting pin-spots :  As Olivia, Deborah Williams turns in a most compelling and forceful performance as the once and future drunk. Her scream-fits with Beatrice Zeilinger as Norma were ferocious, brutish bouts of acting excellence that anyone practiced with drunks knows intuitively was spot-on stuff. Strong delivery by everyone on stage, but Veena Sood's Tricia struck my eye and ear as particularly nuanced.

Who gonna like : One observer noted : "If life is this grim for these women at 50, god help them when they're 70!" Another questioned whether "friendships" forged 30 years back could possibly withstand so much put-down, sarcasm, and mordant sneering at one another's foibles. And yet. There is a veneer of loyalty over all of their egg-shell egos. And while Brad Fraser's script tends toward hyperbole and caricature and near-burlesque of "real people", there is nevertheless true power in these actors' performances that makes for sober serious reflection on life's cravings. Most of us have certain monkeys-on-the-back that haunt and torment us regardless of age. 5 @ 50 forces us to entertain the what and the why and the wherefore. 

Particulars :  5 @ 50 : North American premiere.  Presented by Ruby Slippers Theatre & Zee Zee Theatre. At the PAL Studio Theatre, 581 Cardero Street. Shows May 11-28th.  Company info @  ruby slippersTickets available through theatre wire.

Production team : Director Cameron Mackenzie [Artistic Director Zee Zee Theatre].  Set & Costume Designer Marina Szijarto.  Lighting Designer Kyla Gardiner.  Sound & Props Designer Sarah Mabberly.  Stage Manager Jillian Perry.  Assistant Stage Manager Alannah Korf. 

Performers : Diane Brown [Artistic Director Ruby Slippers Theatre]  (Lorene).  Veena Sood (Tricia).  Deborah Williams (Olivia).  Donna Yamamoto (Fern).  Beatrice Zeilinger (Norma).  

Addendum : From the program.  Note from the Producers :

Ruby Slippers Artistic Director Diane Brown :

It's always unique when two indy companies come together to produce something. Ruby Slippers Theatre and Zee Zee Theatre tell stories that are intimate yet expansive. Artist-driven and collaborative in spirit, our two companies are coming together to produce 5 @ 50 because this project resonates with personal and social significance. With this co-production, we are doing something revolutionary...something that rarely happens on Canada's mainstages : we are putting five women of diverse background over 40 years of age onstage. That's it. That, sadly, is revolutionary. The other two taboos we are soundly smashing are : allowing these women to actually have a midlife crisis, and to talk about it. Secondly, they get to be unattractive, bold, funny, flawed and, well, utterly human. What differentiates these women from many of their male counterparts in midlife crisis is their intimate friendship and growing awareness, which ultimately save their dignity and themselves.

Zee Zee Theatre Company Managing Artistic Director Cameron Mackenzie :

Ruby Slippers Theatre has been challenging the status quo for nearly 30 years. They were founded by a collective of women  that wanted to change the world. It saddens me that 26 years later putting five three-dimensional women over 40 on stage is still revolutionary, but that is exactly why this co-production is so critical. Zee Zee Theatre is mandated to explore the small stories in the lives of the marginalized. This is our eighth season and we are committed now more than ever to shining light into the fringes our our communities, revealing our shared humanity. Twenty-six years later the battle is not won, but companies old and new are coming together to keep the fight going.


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Thursday, 28 April 2016

Facing East musical challenges LGBTQ biases
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  "Musical", the word, makes one think of Cats, Fighting Chance Production's last lyrical effort that commanded repeat sold-out houses at Jericho late this winter. As follow-up, by contrast, put the following four concepts together and some cognitive dissonance will instantly clang forth : Mormonism. Gay. Suicide. Musical.

But such is the stuff of Facing East. It uses percussion, piano, cello and guitar to provide instrumental backdrop to a libretto based on 4th generation Mormon Carol Lynn Pearson's play of the same name. The title relates to the Judaeo-Christian tradition for worshippers to face east when praying : to greet the end of darkness (evil) as the sun's light heralds re-birth (salvation).

A middle-age couple are graveside at the funeral for their 24-year-old son Andrew who suicided because he is gay. Andrew's lover attends the gravesite to mourn his fallen mate. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) does not smile benignly on such couplings. When Mom and Dad circle by one last time, together they trigger through flashback how the social / personal / religious cacophony of values were being played out in Salt Lake City in the 00's of this century.

How it's all put together :  Mormon policy on homosexuality is, arguably, an offshoot of the U.S. Military's old "Don't ask, don't tell" doctrine of suppression. As in : "We know it's out there. But it's a sin. Still, God loves sinners, too. And so we love them as well -- as long as they don't interact sexually. They'll be excommunicated from LDS if they do. But if they just hang in there with God, they'll find release from what possesses their souls."

Thus not hard to see how anyone gay trying to remain a practicing Mormon would of necessity be morally conflicted to their core. Andrew (Jesse Alvarez) has sought both real and symbolic escape by suiciding in the garden outside Temple Square that surrounds the iconic Mormon Tabernacle. His lover Marcus (Matt Montgomery) absented himself from the funeral to not offend his parents Alex (Francis Boyle) and Ruth (Mandana Namazi). 

Through sung dialogue, the exclusion of gays in LDS is explored across the show's 85 minutes of solos, duets, & trios. Ruth stands by her church : better dead, son Andrew, than him solemnize his love for Marcus. Alex is not so sure : maybe LDS should be forsaken, not his son. Marcus has his own revelation : "I don't do it much but when I pray, I know God loves me and I am gay!" Unlike wretched Andrew who is not welcome in the Tabernacle choir. Relegated instead to the closet where the choir's robes are shut away.

What this show brings to the stage :  As described by musical directors Steven Greenfield and Clare Wyatt, what you will hear is not a show styled after traditional fare like Sound of Music. Instead, they say, "Facing East is effectively a musical without songs, but rather a musical (dialogic) rhapsody on the theme of love and reconciliation" that is taken from "a world of complexity and chromaticism", i.e. where all 12 white + black keys in an octave are brought into play creating a series of semi-tones that are not harmonic in the usual sense. (Though some baroquish and Sondheim-y sounds as well.)

The theme and sub-text are not overtly anti-Mormon. The dramatic tension comes from one's upbringing in a particular belief-system that dominates the local culture. And if that community is gay-averse, regardless what the abiding ethos is -- Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Zamboni -- a gay person is going to be utterly isolated and cut adrift from all their neighbours' more comfortable and secure moorings.

Ruth blames Alex for causing her to cling too tightly to Andrew as her youngest child which, she concludes, "made" Andrew gay. Alex does a popular radio show a la "Father Knows Best" entitled "One Minute Dad" where he doles out syrupy banalities and bromides about how to be a gooderer parent. [E.g. slip a note in your kid's lunch. It is to say -- gag me with a spoon had I ever got such a one -- "Do you know how proud I am of you just the way you are?"] At the start Alex confesses "I'm a picture of confusion at the end of the day" over his son's death. By show's end he realizes he's been a classic hypocrite : worrying more about writing radio pepsins for parents rather than being a true Dad to Andrew.

Ruth evinces some of the most poignant singing / lyrics of the night. She used to play cello, but can no more due to a car accident. Early a.m. she sends Alex off to work, then finishes the day late p.m. next to him in bed : "We kiss in silence, then I close the door -- and live in silence all the day... / He turns away, I click the light and sit in darkness, another perfect ending to another silent day." 

Production values that hi-lite the action : Clearly it's the mix of libretto by Mark-Eugene Garcia coupled with the composition by David Rigano that drive the dramatic tenor,  krappy pun acknowledged, of the play. The characters are in a way stock : the overly-strict mother, the somewhat aloof father adrift in his world of words, the happy-snappy siblings in whose shadow the conflicted, depressing, liberating and light world of youngest son Andrew in love with Marcus becomes "something bad that was closing in" that no one seemed to see, quite.

Producer Nathan Gardner revealed that original playwright Carol Lynn Pearson is plumping to have Facing East / a new musical have its professional debut in Salt Lake City, not, say, San Francisco where the culture would surely embrace the show's themes robustly. F.w.i.w. I agree with Pearson : as my daughter pointed out with great insight on the drive home, "Andrew was utterly isolated. He grew up in a culture that excluded him. There was no society of others like him to support his needs. And Marcus, whose family did support and embrace his lifestyle, he didn't know how to respond to Andrew's isolation."

The 800 square foot Jericho Arts Centre stage was plenty big for this show. Set designers Tim Driscoll and [FCP artistic director] Ryan Mooney created a series of mini-sets to represent a swack of sites : the McCormick family kitchen; Andrew's bedroom and cello rehearsal space; dad Alex's radio booth; upcountry cabin; graveyard; Marcus's crash-pad; local coffee house.  Lighting designer Nicole Weismiller used mostly spots to focus on the individual actors as they performed their solos, but also well-aimed floods when the folks grouped. 

As for the orchestrations, oh this is quite the music to be treated to. An absolute sucker for the melancholic strains of the cello, I found the arrangements & orchestrations of same by Adam Wright plus Daniel Klintworth grabbed my ear all night long thanks to the excellence of Alex Hauka on that heavenly instrument. But strong well-tempered performances by all!

Acting pin-spots : Daughter's take was Andrew was "best". She empathized with his utter isolation in Salt Lake City's culture. She "hated" Mom Ruth. I challenged whether that might be because of compelling acting. She thought maybe so. Both Dad Alex and Marcus gave terrific voice to their also-lonely, isolated selves, we agreed. In a word, fine capable performances by each and all even if trying to keep in pitch with the chromatic stylings was surely a challenge.

Who gonna like :  Harper / Trumpster / Calgarian Cruz-er troglodytes will happily give this a miss. Why waste insight and sensitivity on folks whose moral scar-tissue would resist the slightest balm from a script that preaches reconciliation over gay exclusion. [Though, trite to observe, they potentially could learn the most from it.] 

Theatre fans who want a challenging and compelling evening of music "rhapsody" whose strains are quite unlike normal stage musical fare to underscore the show's themes will delight in the complexities. This is a play destined for boutique stages across the land. LGBTQ issues are evermore complex : the "one step at a time" leitmotif of this show says it all [if, I might add, however, stated just ever-so-slightly too often].  

In all, Congratulations! deserved for further proof that creative! imaginative! challenging! theatre is in good hands in Fighting Chance Productions. The next generation of pro's out there are demanding all of us stretch our usual comfy boundaries. No question they are doing so with limitless zest & vigour & passion. 

Particulars :  Presented by Fighting Chance Productions in association with Nathan Gardner & Danny Brooke. At the Jericho Arts Centre. Through May14th. Show and season info @ Fighting Chance Productions

Production team : Director Ryan Mooney.  Producer Nathan Gardner.  Associate Producer Danny Brooke. Music Directors Steven Greenfield & Clare Wyatt.  Stage Manager Ziggy Shutz.  Lighting Designer Nicole Weismiller.  Set Designer Tim Driscoll & Ryan Mooney.  Orchestrations Daniel Klintworth & Adam Wright.

Orchestra : Conductor / Piano Clare Wyatt.  Cello Alex Hauka.  Guitar Adrian Sowa.  Percussion Jamison Ko. 

Performers :  Jesse Alvarez (Andrew).  Francis Boyle (Alex).  Matt Montgomery (Marcus).  Mandana Namazi (Ruth).  

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Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Don't Dress for Dinner is French 60's silliness
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  Written in 1962 when he was 39, Frenchman Marc Cimoletti's Boeing-Boeing was set in Paris at the time of Mad Men : lots of juiced-up romances by jet-setting young fellows and gals fooling around with each other. And somehow all this political incorrectness was still able to hit just the right funny bone when resurrected on Broadway in 2008 and here in Vancouver by ACT in 2013.

Written in 1987 when he was 64, question arises about Don't Dress for Dinner, can Cimoletti resurrect his schtick of stupide de vivre from those earlier mashed-up times? Especially when you eliminate the sexy stewardesses. And transpose the glamorous Paris skyline to the French countryside with converted farm outbuildings whose bedrooms are called The Cow Shed and The Piggery. Make the main character Bernard a wearying married guy not a feisty bachelor. Assign him a bimbette model as mistress. And also! put buddy Robert into an affair with Bernard's wife. 

Farce is as farce does, and the Gateway Theatre production of Don't Dress for Dinner has plenty of zing! and zip! and madcap nonsense. Whether all the breathless chasing about is equal in compelling silliness to its predecessor Boeing-Boeing will depend, no doubt, on how your DNA accepts such a force-field. 

How it's all put together :  Bernard (Todd Thomson) rubs his hands with glee. Wife Jacqueline (Alison Dean) is trekking off for visit with her mom. That means he can invite his lover Suzanne (Krista Colosimo) out for a dirty week-end. For cover and alibi when Jacqueline returns home, he also invites long-time buddy and Best Man at their wedding Robert (Kirk Smith). [The same randy characters we met in Boeing-Boeing : despite the 27-year hiatus between Cimoletti's two Bernard-&-Robert scripts, Don't Dress is meant to be Boeing's follow-up.] 

To liven up the week-end, meanwhile, why not bring in some catered food for l'affaire by a Cordon Bleu caterer Suzette (Tess Degenstein). Thanks to an intercepted phone call, Jacqueline learns that Robert is coming. Instantly she feigns that l'mama has taken ill and so she'll be staying home after all. Jacqueline, recall, is Robert's mistress : she tiddles at the chance to blow sweet nothings into his ear when Bernard isn't looking.

Not knowing this, of course, Bernard is in a panic that his own philandering will surely be found out. Bernard demands that buddy Robert name Suzanne as his girl friend when she arrives. Robert's not happy but gets snookered into the charade even though it means he is two-timing his real girlfriend (Bernard's wife) Jacqueline. Karma and comedy demand that it is the caterer Suzette who arrives at Bernard's first. Robert gets befused & confuddled by the similarity of names and promptly introduces Suzette (Suzy) as his girl friend, not Suzanne. And so when Suzanne arrives shortly thereafter, the fun begins in earnest!

What the show brings to the stage :  Farce is stupid antics writ large. It can be really stupid like Mall Cop. Or it can be ironic stupid like Fawlty Towers. Or it can be somewhere between like the Don't Dress script : not completely pratfall goofy, but some of that. Not all clever ironic dictional delights like John Cleese's Basil Fawlty, but plenty of that here, too. The key in all these examples is that none of this is to be taken as even a smidgeon believable or serious.

Given the former cowshed as his bedroom, when he's badgered into claiming "Suzy" as his lover, not Bernard's, he whimpers : "It's not so much a mess as a dirty great pile of farmyard poo-poo!"

Early on, Robert tries to console Jacquline who's found evidence of Bernard's infidelity. Robert's splainin' is completely reminiscent of the Abbott & Costello classic routine "Who's on first" : "We can't blame Bernie for having a lover who was pretending to be my lover so you wouldn't know she was his lover, while all the time I was your lover pretending to be her lover so that he wouldn't know you had a lover. Especially when his real lover was all the time pretending to be -- to be..." "Pretending to be what?" Jacqueline presses. "I've lost track of all the lovers..." Robert confesses. As does the audience. Self-included. But details in farce are never the point. 

In Don't Dress, the Big Fun of the night is watching Suzette take on ever-changing roles, each time demanding first 200 francs, later 400, for every one of the masquerades she's asked to pull off. And watching Robert, particularly, go into dizzying verbal flight trying to stay one word, one gag, one plot-twist ahead of the rest of the room.

Production values that highlight the action : Jung-Hye Kim's converted funky French farmhouse to Conde Nast vaulted-ceiling digs to die for sets the stage, literally, for the night's action. And the period square squat bright orange armchairs and chesterfield with bauhaus coffee & end-tables were all a mere 100% Yes!

Equal kudos to Costume Designer Cindy Wiebe for each actor's period threads, from suits and cocktail dresses to jammies. The "strip" of Suzette's Cordon Bleu caterer uniform to slinky l.b.d. onesy was terrific.

Between them Directors Corcoran and Cant do a fine job of blocking the characters and giving them tons of gesticular stage business to play with. The physical comedy bits worked, mostly, though the rough-&-tumble stuff when Suzette's husband George arrived was on the "much" side, no question. Too, the resolution \ denouement phase of Act 2 was overly long, a script problem requiring scissors. One other question, with respect : why but two actors feigning French accents (with greater and lesser success), Suzette & George. From all or none would have been my call.

Acting pin-spots : This show to this reviewer results in a toss-up between Kirk Smith as Robert and Tess Degenstein as Suzette for laugh-grabs. Degenstein was coy, peasant-y sexless and then sexy grande in her l.b.d. doing an utterly drunken tango with Smith whose askew tie and half-out shirt were priceless touches. Smith gave Robert a range of wincing mincing flabbergastery that was stunning.

Todd Thomson was choice as the franticly discombobulated Bernard ever ad-libbing roles and rules and rationales to purposely confuse who was doing what to whom and why.

Who gonna like : Mostly junior and senior retirees in the crowd last night who giggled and chortled and outright guffawed from Moment 1 in the show. My normal dramatic preferences are (a) for serious sardonic Mamet theatre, generally, and (b) in contemporary comedy for such verbal spinnery as the Monty Python troupe perfected. Thus I imagined I would come away from Don't Dress with a warmth of enthusiasm that was decidedly less than luke. 

Not so. Not so indeed! These actors, each and all, tore into Robin Hawdon's translation of the Cimoletti original with unchecked verve and gusto and imagination and enthusiasm. I found myself laughing louder, longer and spasmodically with the rest of the crowd both to my surprise and to my utter delight! 

Particulars : Produced by Gateway Theatre in co-production with Thousand Islands Theatre [Gananoque, ON] and Western Canada Theatre [Kamloops]. Written by Marc Camoletti. Translated & Adapted by Robin Hawdon. At Gateway Theatre MainStage. Through April 23rd. Schedules & ticket information at Gatewaytheatre.com/ or by phoning 604.270.1812.

Production crew : Original Director Ashlie Corcoran. Revival Director Heather Cant.  Set Designer Jung-Hye Kim.  Costume Designer Cindy Wiebe.  Lighting Designer Oz Weaver.  Sound Designer Doug Perry.  Technical Designer Patsy Tomkins.  Stage Manager Nicola Benedickson.  Assistant Stage Manager Angela Beaulieu.

Performer :  Krista Colosimo (Suzanne).  Tess Degenstein (Suzette).  Alison Deon (Jacqueline).  Beau Dixon (George).  Kirk Smith (Robert).  Todd Thomson (Bernard). 

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Saturday, 16 April 2016

Fiddler strikes a merry sad chord in 2016
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Royal City Musical Theatre's remount of Fiddler on the Roof after a 16-year breather can't help but take on added poignance, significantly so. In 2000 when last performed by RCMT, 9/11 was still 18 months in the future. The occidental 1st-world knew precious little of the religion of Islam, not to mention Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden and would not even be able to conjure the utterly misnamed "Arab Spring" and its offshoot ISIL that has produced a worldwide diaspora of millions from the Middle East.

In 1964 when the original Jerome Robbins production of Fiddler hit Broadway, it was a time still three years ahead of the Six Day War in Israel. The show's energy, enthusiasm, and empathy for pre-WWI Tsarist Russian agrarian Jews suffering a pogrom from their village Anatevka fairly leapt off the boards of the Imperial Theatre thanks to its tuneful music and its choreography. But importantly, too, were its nods at that epoch's brave new world just emerging S. of 49 : VietNam, Betty Friedan's call-out of The Feminine Mystique, MLK and the Civil Rights Movement. 

Fiddler brought a wise dairy farmer Reb Tevye with all his ironies through his repeated "On the one hand \ On the other hand" soliloquies to God and the audience that ultimately would charm some 3,242 folks out of relatively few shekels -- around $10 in '64 -- during its original 8-year continuous run on Broadway. The state of Israel was but 16 years young, the Holocaust not even two decades dead. Fiddler gave Jews a sense of renewed community, identity, fidelity as a people.

How it's all put together : Locally RCMT's remount 16 years along under the ever-clever eye and hand of director [RCMT Artistic Director] Valerie Easton is just plain fun. Today was an afternoon's delight of delicious dance, song sequences and a tale all families can relate to : how we need to bend lest we break in the face of our children's and our world's changing social commands and cultural habits. In the words of the band Semisonic in their instant classic "Closing Time" : "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." Given current events, its closing scene is an absolute heart-break that found my eyes wet indeed. 

All the usual suspects are trotted out to engage and amuse and beguile us once again as they did in the 1971 film adaptation starring Chaim Topol as Tevye : Tevye (Warren Kimmel). Golde (Jennifer Poole). The marrying daughters Tzeitel (Natasha Zacher), Hodel (Jenika Schofield) and Chava (Julia Ullrich). And of course the mischievous matchmaker Yente (Sylvia Zaradic).


Papa thinks he runs the show. He decides, with Yente's help, who his girls will marry. He thinks. Oh. How. Silly. They decide. They have succumbed to some notion called love. Pshaw and p-spit on the ground, Tevye responds, not on my watch he asserts repeatedly, vehemently, fruitlessly. 

Yes. "Tradition". Only in quotes because it's the opening number. But also its usual meaning -- the rusted, dented phenomenon that's equally embraced and laughed at and ignored generation after generation. The precision movements this troupe of 31 performers manage -- the youngest but in Grade 3 -- is of signal importance, an eminent feature throughout. In "Tradition", the show's breathtaking opener, that's 62 arms, 62 hands and 62 legs that have to do heavenly finger-points and angled Russian-peasanty side-steps called in dance parlance the "grapevine" -- all in crisp and crafty unison as they criss-cross and set the stage, literally, for the night. The fancy footwork could not have been performed more compellingly anywhere than RCMT presented people with this afternoon.

The plot is quite simple : it depicts 1905 day-to-day life in the village shtetl of Anatevka as Tevye's family and the townsfolk scurry about doing daily chores. Tevye's horse pulls up lame so he has to lug his milk cart about by hand (which of course spares the director a huge prop & character complication). The rest of it is the horny young men falling for the charming teen-age daughters and they them, the town gossiping gleefully, a wedding celebration,  a drunken outing at the pub, and then the fated pogrom. 


Come the Tsar's pogrom edict, the village break-up will send Tevye and Golde plus their two youngest daughters to America to camp out with Uncle Avram -- lucky them -- while two other daughters and their husbands head west to Poland (the 3rd in exile with her pre-Bolshevik agitator husband in Siberia).

What this show brings to the stage : Community. Among families. Among generations of families. Fiddler is a favourite in Japan. A Japanese journalist in America to interview for the current Broadway re-mount of the show broke into tears as she turned on her recorder : "We love this play because it tells the story of Japan," she insisted. Who would have thought? Or what about today's Syrian migrants. Perhaps equally for them? And ironic, too, given Vlad Putin's contribution to their flight paths.

But endless comparison with current events aside, what this show brings to the stage is a reminder what altogether smart and quick-witted contributions play when linked symbiotically : lyrics (Sheldon Harnick, now 91 and a central player in producing the current NYC re-mount), music (Jerry Bock) and book [storyline] (Joseph Stein).


Borrowing from my favourite theologian Marcus Borg, I would characterize the experience in 2016 as "Falling in love with Fiddler again for the first time." As both my wife and I did unreservedly & unhesitatingly. 


Production values that hi-lite the production : What strikes the eye from the get-go are Brian Ball's stage-wagons that flip 360-degrees and slide about effortlessly. Exterior peasant bungalow to interior kitchen \ larder. Village tailor shop to town pub. 


Costume Designer Christina Sinosich had a delirious! go of it patching together all the fin de siecle Russian peasant wear, the Jewish wedding togs, the contrasting gentile townspeople costuming and the gendarmerie uni's. 


Gerald King's lighting design was particularly effective, isolating Tevye with pin-spots for his interior monologues and ironic chats with Chum God. Red pick-up for the ghost of Fruma-Sarah (Erin Palm) as she was hoist on cables above the townsfolk worked great.

In the end, however, what the exiting show-goer remarks and exults endlessly about is Valerie Easton's direction and unmistakable choreographic footprint on this show. The tavern scene of the two generations kibitzing and challenging and jousting with one another. Or Zach Wolfman's Perchik first introducing Hodel to social dancing from Kiev, then to the balance of the bunch at the wedding. Enough! of the traditional mano-a-mano stuff by men trying to out-macho one another (fun though it is to watch regardless). Then there's the bottle dance with wine bottles perched atop the men's fedoras. Priceless accomplishment against gravity, not one bit of dropsy, while the boys did Russian kazachok kick-out steps slo-mo. Just one more reason to go to live theatre rather than do Hollywood 2-D off the tube.


But also the songs under RCMT founder James Bryson's ever-so-capable musical direction. The faves : "Tradition". "If I Were A Rich Man". "Sunrise, Sunset". "Do You Love Me?" [which clearly owes its pedigree to Lerner & Lowe's "I Remember It Well" most famously performed by Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold in the show Gigi]. And because she's been outcast for marrying a gentile Russian, Hodel's "Far From The Home I Love" is a particularly touching lament. 


Big voices abound : Kimmel and Poole first and foremost. The sisters' pipes too. And not an off-key note from the men, either. Add Zaradic's priceless monologues of yada-yada vocephilia and the moments of aural delight in this show tot up beyond count. 

(N.B. The memory of an earlier talent contest performance in Seattle of "Far From The Home I Love" inspired Director Easton to dedicate the show to her effervescent actress / songstress / dancer daughter Amy who was claimed, tragically, at but age 32 last year by leukaemia. Her time thrilling Vancouver playgoers was before BLR was launched, so I regrettably did not have the pleasure of seeing her perform. As a father of two generations -- pushing 50 the first, nearing 25 the second -- I ache at this news. Godspeed! to you Valerie and family.)

Who gonna like : My first excursion on the boards was in a high school rendition of Annie Get Your Gun in 1962. I've been a sucker for musicals ever since. Big-stage productions like this one that fill every nook-&-cranny of the Massey Theatre stage are still a thrill, as was the diminutive Jericho Theatre stage ebullience of Cats seen earlier this year or the even diminutive-er production of Bonnie & Clyde The Musical at Commercial Drive's Havana stage last month. 


Said it before, will say it again : Valerie Easton has an utterly unwavering eye and ear and touch for cadence, rhythm, choreographic interplay and timing whether she's doing incidental dance routines as part of a show or whole productions. 

You like big-stage music song-&-dance? Only through next Saturday to queue up and get mesmerized by this thrilling piece of work by all involved. This is entertainment writ large!

Particulars : Book by Joseph Stein. Music by Jerry Bock.  Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick.  Original New York Stage Director & Choreographer Jerome Robbins.  Original production by Hal Prince.  Based on original stories in Yiddish [1895 - 1905] by Sholem Aleichem.  At Massey Theatre, 8th Avenue @ 8th Street, New Westminster.  Run-time 175 minutes including intermission.  On until April 23rd.  Schedule information & tickets via RCMT  or by phoning 604.521.5050.

Production team :  Direction & Choreography Valerie Easton.  Musical Direction James Bryson.  Producer Chelsea Carlson.  Technical Director & Head Carpenter Don Parman.  Set Designer Brian Ball.  Costume Designer / Costumer Christina Sinosich.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Sound Designer Tim Lang.  Designer, Specialty Costume Pieces & Masks Patrice Godin.  Associate Producer Allen Dominguez. Stage Manager Ingrid Turk.  Assistant Stage Manager Samantha Paras.  Assistant Stage Manager Gerri Torres.  Assistant Stage Manager Ronda Yuen. Rehearsal Pianist Patrick Ray. Cultural Consultant Naomi Taussig. 

Principal performers :  Jonathan Bruce (Lazar Wolf).  Maia Hoile (Shpritze).  Warren Kimmel (Tevye). Arta Negahpai (Bielke).  Kerry O'Donovan (Motel). Jennifer Poole (Golde). Fenika Schofel (Hodel).  William Tippery (Fyedka).  Julia Ullrich (Chava).  Zach Wolfman (Perchick).  Natasha Zacher (Tzeitel).  Sylvia Zaradic (Yente).

Ensemble performers : Colleen Byberg.  Rachael Carlson.  Emma Ciprian.  John Cousins.  Lucas Crandall.  Darian Grant.  Tiffany Hambrook.  Jacquollyne Keath.  Kyle Oliver.  Erin Palm.  Matt Ramer.  Owen Scott.  Peter Stainton.  Michael Stusiak.  Tosh Sutherland.  Adam Turpin.  Jacob Wolstencroft.  Kaitlin Yott.  

Orchestra :  Katie Stewart. Kevin McDonnell. Jennifer Vance. Steve Prestage. Marni Johnson. Malcom Francis. Tom Walker. Peter Serravalle. Steve Torok. Paul Chan. Eva Ying. Mary Grace del Rosario. Lia Wolfe. Janice Webster. Ross Halliday. Monica Sumulong. Kevin Woo. Andrea Flello. Kerry Fraser. Patrick Ray.  



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