Thursday, 18 December 2014

Cohen cabaret Chelsea Hotel cleverly captures 
the man & his music

Quick take : Leonard Cohen's musical poetry will once again astound you and steal your heart at the Firehall Theatre's fourth reprise of Chelsea Hotel. As they did a year back, six song-&-dance troupers weave a clever tapestry showing us Cohen-the-man, Cohen-the-loaner, Cohen-the-hustler. Melancholy, loss, romantic dread and love's wreckage are never far from the tip of Cohen's quill & inkwell. That's why a famous NYC hotel that's tattered and torn is the perfect backdrop for his stories put to song.

Redux : Leonard & Janis :  Vancouver's Tracey Power conceived, scripted, directed and choreographed the show as well as performs in it this year. She must be as exhausted as she is exhilarated. She pitches the story on an endlessly re-written Cohen storyline, "Chelsea Hotel #2". In it LC recalls a night of sharp drugs and limp sex with Janis Joplin.

As Cohen sings it he's enjoying some wee-biddy fellatio from JJ to the hum of streetscape chirps & sirens below. "You told me again you preferred handsome men / but for me you would make an exception / And clenching your fist for the ones like us / who are oppressed by the figures of beauty / You fixed yourself, and you said / 'Well never mind, / we are ugly but we have the music.'" Janis explained it somewhat differently in a 1969 Texas interview. She maintained Cohen "gave me nothing" the night in question. Then quickly added : "I don't know what that means. Maybe it just means (he was) on a bummer."

Power's power unclenched : Power's cabaret format features some two dozen Cohen songs in whole and in bits, intermingled and refrained again-&-again (e.g. "I am the one who loves / Changing from nothing to one.") The plotline works but is a bit wimpy : unless you like hearing all about writers who write about writers having writer's block. "Script constipation" I call it. And chitty-chat of same should be off-limits just like the bathroom kind. Still, Marshall McMahen's clever set rescues the scene : Kayvon Kelly, writer manque, emerges from a mountain of scrunched-up poetry and song lyric detritus piled high and wide. Classic Cohen, this. The sufferer championing his angst and dread. Words not only fail him but taunt and defeat him altogether. Stacks and stacks of them.

Kelly shares the stage with five other actor musicians. Three women -- Power, Rachel Aberle, and Marlene Ginader are the lost / abandoned / forsaken loves who are central to Cohen's world : Suzanne, Marianne and Jane. Along with Kelly, Benjamin Elliott and the show's musical director Steve Charles join the women in this two-hour bittersweet musical caper. Once again I was doubly amused by "I'm Your Man" that this year features Power prancing about in a bedsheet blowing a kazoo. How could I not remember the Sigmund Freud vignette : the good Dr. puffing away on one of his signature stogies during a lecture. After sucking in a good mouthful off the thing, Freud released it ever-so-slowly and lovingly from his lips. With a wee grin he proclaimed : "And it's also a cigar!"

Throughout the show the women sing songs designed by Cohen to be for men about or to the women in their lives. But these days gender is more a matter of preference, choice and public declaration. Out-of-the-womb biology is less relevant. So who sings what to whom works regardless. Analogous to the basement bathroom markers at the Firehall : one with pants, one with a skirt, and one 1/2-pant \ 1/2 skirt on each door.

The songs tell the tales : Fortunately not all of the songs in Chelsea Hotel have the same tempo and tone and melancholia of Cohen's oh-so-famous lost lover laments. Musical director Charles jazzes up LC's tunes to make them a lot less "drone-y" than he is famous for. Surprise stylings galore pop off Charles' arranger's notepad, notably the chirpily up-tempo "Closing Time". "Suzanne" countrified with cello and banjo was a treat. As last year, the layered harmonies of "Marianne" were tight tight tight. And I can never tire of "First We Take Manhattan" done in 2:2 rock double time. More whimsical and less Teutonic than Jennifer Warnes' famous cover of it with its jackboot heel-clicks echoing underneath.

Indeed, it's the cabaret collection of cover songs deconstructed from Cohen's originals that are then re-synthasized with a dizzying array of instruments : banjo, accordion, tambourine, blues harp (a.k.a. harmonica), double acoustic bass, electric bass, violin, cello, electric guitars, acoustic guitar with pick-up mic, drums, ukulele, keyboard piano and organ and if my ears didn't deceive, an off-stage mandolin plink'd once or twice for good measure. Each of the cast play a slew of these instruments in this talent jamboree of theirs.

Poor ol' Lenny, gotta love him : The leitmotif of Leonard Cohen's lyrics and poetry is always rejection, loss, hoped-for redemption. "I cannot follow you, my love / You cannot follow me. / I am the distance you put between / All of the moments that we will be" he mourns. Reminiscent of Dave Matthews' haunting song "The Space Between". Love is real, physical, metaphysical and lyrical always. "Now I am too thin and your love is too vast." Or, "Lover come back to me [repeated seven times] / Let me start again, I cried." Which of course is but the flip-side to "I know from your eyes and your smile / Tonight will be fine, will be fine, will be fine / For awhile." Or this priceless line : "I heard of a saint who loved you / He taught that the duty of lovers / Is to tarnish the Golden Rule" -- done richly and memorably by Kelly and Power. 

Indeed, LC's entire oeuvre is what I would term "universal self-indulgence". It's that universality in our common western 1st- world experiences that rescues some lyrics from a bend toward banality. 

Music highlights : To start the second act Kelly sings "Chelsea Hotel #2" with a clarity and sensitivity and poignancy and subtlety I quite frankly don't remember him achieving a year ago. He does the same at show's end with "Bird on a Wire" with its romantic opener "Like a bird on a wire / Or a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried, in my way, to be free...". Bravo!

Another of my favourite Charles arrangements was "That's No Way To Say Good-bye". The Cowboy Junkies style is spot on with string bass and banjo. Superb stuff. Many of the exchanges musically and dramatically are very touching between Kelly and Ginader as various iterations of Cohen's star-crossed lovers. 

For his part, Elliott at moments almost steals the show acting as Kayvon's muse and conscience. Aberle and Power choreograph well indeed the twin angels / devils forever teasing and taunting the show's self-absorbed cad of a protagonist. Steve Charles' singing and string-play throughout are champion. The cacophonous "Hallelujah!" at the end starts off wonderfully jarring, then resolves into its original melodious self to finish off.

Production values : Once again Power's choreography was clever, engaging and utterly in synch with the McMahen set. No corner of the homey Firehall stage was left out of the exuberant action. Designer Barbara Clayden stitched together an eclectic mix of plain-jane off-the-rack twills and Converse runners plus circus get-ups and cocktail waitress black-&-whites and funky ribbon'd hair for lover Ginader. The white-face make-up throughout on most of the cast added a neat thematic hue. Ted Roberts' lighting aided all the right moves at all the right times. Slight mic-ing sound balance problems in act one -- Ms. Power's mic particularly all but screeched. But problem solved by Act 2. 

Who gonna like : No doubt there are scores of folks who find Leonard Cohen's writing not only self-indulgent but mawkish and melodramatic. I am not one of those. Tracey Power's script produced by Donna Spencer is a true joy to watch jump into action.  Chelsea Hotel is entertainment that not only excites and thrills both eye and ear, it displays all the verve and spunk and spice of Vancouver's rising stars of the future. Move over, Boomers, the next wonderful wave of stage performers is not only at the door but right in front of you in a Must see! performance.

Particulars : Chelsea Hotel : The Songs of Leonard Cohen at the Firehall Arts Centre theatre, 280 East Cordova Street (corner of Gore), until January 3, 2015, Box Office 604.689.0926.

Production Team : Artistic Director / Producer Donna Spencer.  Creator / Director / Choreographer Tracey Power.  Musical Director and Arranger Steven Charles.  Set Designer Marshall McMahen.  Costume Designer Barbara Clayden. Lighting Designer Ted Roberts.  Sound Designer Xavier Berbudeau.  Stage Manager Jaimie Tait.  Apprentice Stage Manager Emma Hammond.  Assistant Stage Manager Jillian Perry.

Featured Actors :  Rachel Aberle.  Steve Charles.  Marlene Ginader.  Tracey Power. Ben Elliott.  Kayvon Kelly.

Appendices :  

The Vancouver connection in the Janis / Cohen story

The dubious get-on between Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen occurred shortly after Janis's final Big Brothers and the Holding Company concert here in Vancouver at the Coliseum in October, '68. The band formally dissolved at midnight. Warm-up for them that night was a newbie group called Chicago Transit Authority. Their big-band instrumentals, reminiscent of David Clayton Thomas's Blood, Sweat & Tears, excited the crowd. Soon CTA would become, simply, Chicago, after the actual bus & elevated train company CTA sued them over name copywright. Personally I enjoyed the band CTA much more than I did Big Brother : Janis was uber-pissy on a quart of Southern Comfort bourbon, a x3 or x4 margin above her normal altitude and cruising speed. I can still hear the words "Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz" : they sounded mushy, sort of like "Lorne, wonja buy me a moozhiging frien'?". It wouldn't be long before Janis' last moozhiging frien' was a needle stick in a 2nd class L.A. motel room.



Backdrop to the show's title

The Chelsea Hotel in NYC has been a famous and favourite drop-in home for artists of all sorts ever since it opened back in 1885 and was, for one brief shining moment, NYC's tallest building. Joni Mitchell's chipper & cheery "Chelsea Morning" gave the place rock start status, though its fame had earlier been marked, darkly, when poet Dylan Thomas died there on a grey November day in 1953 after bragging about the 17 or 18 or 19 whiskies he'd just finished polishing off at his favourite watering hole the White Horse Tavern up the street. 

The 250-room 12-storey Victorian gothic with iron brocade balconies gained further notoriety when punk rocker Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols allegedly stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death there in 1978. (Out on bail, Vicious himself would die in Greenwich Village of a heroin overdose just five months later. The investigation into the murder in Room 100 at The Chelsea was promptly abandoned by NYPD and never proven or solved.)

Cohen stayed at The Chelsea in the late 60's along with Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, among others, when Cohen was chasing them around The Big Smoke to absorb their genius. This was around the time the Canadian National Film Board championed the emerging Montreal persona. His metier was poetry in those days that he shared both in books and in coffee house gigs. The NFB put out a 16mm black-&-white bio-pic I used to show my senior high English students, Ladies and Gentlemen : Introducing Mr. Leonard Cohen. Clever and amusing, the flick includes Cohen bathing in a clawfoot tub at a seedy Montreal hotel while he smirks at the lens and writes the words caveat emptor on the bathroom wall as a kind of warning to viewers about all this precious fooferaw over him. But music was bursting in Cohen's breast, too, not just poetry, and NYC was where those times were a-happenin' and a-changin'. 

Best description of the hotel from Cohen's time there came from someone named Nicola L. in a 2013 Vanity Fair article by Nathaniel Rich entitled "Where The Walls Still Talk". Quoth she : "Anything could happen... It was either Janis Joplin or the big woman from the Mamas and Papas who tried to kiss me in the elevator. I can't remember which. It was a crazy time." 

"Hallelujah" out-take : 

Cohen's iconic 1984 spellbinder "Hallelujah" reportedly had some 80 (!) original verses to it. After years of slashing and re-writing, Cohen managed to bring it down to just seven. Its final two verses perhaps say all Cohen himself might, ultimately, want to conclude about his life as a writer and performer:

"There's a blaze of light in every word / It doesn't matter which you heard / The holy or the broken Hallelujah.../ I did my best...I've told the truth...And even though it all went wrong / I'll stand before The Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah."

k.d. lang's performance at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver is probably unmatchable among some 300 other covers of the song that media journals report as having been recorded, one of the more recent by Rufus Wainwright in his best-hits album "Vibrate" from last year. 

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Saturday, 13 December 2014

Dylan Thomas a feast for noise-infested ears

Backdrop to the show : Dylan Thomas. Many who think of the Welsh poet (born one century ago at the start of the Great War) are apt to recall three factoids about him. (1) That Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minnesota adopted Thomas's forename to become Bob Dylan. (2) That Thomas died in New York City after downing some 17 whiskies at the White Horse Tavern up the street from his apartment at the Chelsea Hotel. (3) That one attending physician listed Thomas's cause of death "total abuse of the liver". It's been said before : all of this is true, and some of it might be factual.

Bob Kingdom reprises his one-man show Dylan Thomas : Return Journey in a final tour. The script was first written nearly 30 years ago. Sir Anthony Hopkins originally directed him in the role. The two of them edited & re-edited the piece over the years. Time to "return" Thomas to a picture of the man as he was in toto, not always the philandering drunk. At various times Kingdom has been quoted protesting "Any fool can drink and fall over. We're talking about a painstaking craftsman who made his poetry in the cold light of a Monday morning, not while standing at bars." Hemingway famously put it slightly differently : "Write drunk, edit sober."

How the piece works : The structure of the show is a lecture of the kind Thomas was giving across the USA during the last years and months of his life along with countless other Euros, lecturers with "pot-boiling philosophies". He accused the bulk of them suffering "with elaphantiasis of reputation -- huge trunks and tiny minds". But, like them, he certainly enjoyed himself when "the lovely money rolled luckily in". Autobio accounts of his childhood in Swansea are tangled up with full poem recitations -- notably "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" and "Death Shall Have No Dominion" and "Fern Hill".

Curiously this "quintessential Welshman" as he is known hated the Welsh tongue as did his schoolmater father, noted to be both militaristic and an atheistic whipcracker. Neither one learned to speak "the mother tongue". Thomas had equally little time for flag-waving : "Fuck Welsh nationalism!" he spat at an interviewer once. Thus to some critics he is too English to be Welsh, to others, too Welsh to be English.

Kingdom's Thomas is a storyteller, lecturer, raconteur, a poetry slammer before his time. To listen to Kingdom's lilt is to lose oneself in a remarkable persona. (Truth be known I would not be able to tell if Kingdom's accent is Welsh or Irish or Icelandic, just not Glaswegian or Cockney, of that I'm roughly 90% certain.)

Critics' cut at him : Thomas is known as a lyric poet who immerses himself in rich images. He's clearly a romantic -- intuition, imagination, spontaneity, emotion -- all these are hallmarks, not the rigorously stylized religiosity of T.S. Eliot, say. Academic R. B. Kershner notes as well : "He has been a pagan, a mystic, a humanistic agnostic; his God has been identified with Nature, Sex, Love, Process, the Life Force...". 

Clearly Thomas was an early subscriber to the worldview of psychologist Ernest Becker. Becker's concluding sentence in his 1973 epic treatise The Denial of Death is this : "The most that any of us can seem to do is to fashion something -- an object or ourselves -- and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force." How else to parse this priceless line to his dad, where he notes how people are perhaps remembered for "their frail deeds [that] might have danced in the green bay".  

Kershner asserted further that Thomas "became the wild man from the West, the Celtic bard with the magical rant" whose rhythms were foreign to straight-jacket'd Britons. But those rants were obviously just the stuff for brash Americans who wooed him as much as he wowed them.

My favourite descriptor, meanwhile, flows from the pen of the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, himself an accomplished poet. "He was undoubtedly all that he has been represented as being -- a drunkard and philanderer, compulsively incompetent and dishonest about money, a parasite on the generosity of many friends...but his entire work struggles to articulate both a sense of the appalling and rich depths of the natural world and a clear-eyed compassion for all varieties of human oddity." Would we all could be worthy of the Archbishop's final eight words of benediction for Thomas. 

When Kingdom comes : "The rich depths of the natural world" indeed!  I came away from Mr. Kingdom's performance with tears in my eyes as he ended with a moving rendition of "Fern Hill". As the show concluded, I thought (if it has not already been done by some Ph.D. monk somewhere) how an analysis of the uses of the word \ colour "green" in Thomas's poetry would be fascinating. The green of innocence, the verdant Swansea hills and seashore, the green of naivete, it's all there. 

Then the myriad words to highlight "all varieties of human oddity". He speaks of his "steaming hulk of an uncle breathing like a brass band" in the wonderful piece "The Outing" where the men pub-hop of an August Sunday to a dozen or so Welsh roadhouses where they "hollered and rollicked in the dark hole like big bad boys" as they "hymned and rumpus'd all the beautiful afternoon" in their bus "bouncing with voices and flagons". Much to the chagrin of their wives and the amusement of the town kids.

In "Lament" Thomas notes there's "time enough when the blood breathes cold", summoning "a black sheep with a crumpled horn" in one image, ending by noting "all the deadly virtues [that] plague my death". During one lecture he laments : "I fall down stairs, I frighten myself in the night, my own plump banshee." These are just rich, rich images.

Back when he was a child at Christmas, however, he would rejoice at the church bells from the "bat-black belfries [that] boomed for joy under my window" and marvel at the "aunts [who] scuttled to and fro with their tureens", particularly Aunt Hannah who toggled between tea-&-rum and parsnip wine and wound up serenading the universe from a snowbank in the garden.

And I find the finish to "Child's Christmas" surprisingly unsentimental in its capture, oh so elegantly, of an innocent day become night :

"Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-coloured snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed, I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept." 

Who gonna like : Dylan Thomas : Return Journey is in fact a journey of return. A return to words, words in the hands of a master, a master to whom the words themselves meant to him more than their Collins' or Oxford Unabridged Dictionary definitions.  How else could he come up with lines that speak of "lovers [who] lie in their beds with all their griefs in their arms...the griefs of the ages". 

Yes, it's Thomas's keen sense of language -- with all its assonance and consonance and dissonance, its numerous hard-k's, its rhythms of short snap-shot sentence fragments -- that is executed so deliciously, poignantly and memorably by Bob Kingdom. 

For folks who love life, laughter, and the lilt of language that dances on the ears, this performance of Richard Jordan Productions (UK) surely is a Can't miss! proposition.

At the Cultch Historic Theatre through December 21. In two acts, 45 minutes apiece. Visit thecultch.com or phone 604.251-1363 for more info & tickets.

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Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Mary Poppins is spit-spot fun !

Text check  : Mary Poppins was produced by ACT for its 2013 season. It has been re-mounted for the 2014 holiday season with the same principal actors and production team who thrilled the community with their collaboration a year back. As well as many of the same folks in the dance and music ensembles. Then -- as a slip of bad luck would have it -- a sprained foot has prevented my attending opening night tonight, December 10th. Thus the decision taken to repeat and update what I wrote about MP a year back. I trust what follows will provide readers both some of the play's interesting historical context and some foretaste about this year's re-mount.

Disney torments Mary's creator :  The 1964 Disney movie version that made Julie Andrews a star had little in the way of character dynamics. Neither Andrews nor the indefatigable Dick Van Dyke was three dimensional. Just celluloid (albeit charming) figurines. And it was their one-dimensional characters that perhaps caused Aussie author P. L. Travers to sob at the end of the movie's premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Or her pique at not having been invited by Disney to the movie's opening due to their numerous ego-clashes during its production. More those reasons for her tears than Disney's cartoony bits, I reckon. Andrews needed a dose of no-nonsense brimstone in her soul and more acid on her tongue to make her a proper nanny, Travers felt. Still, if Walt's goddess-fairy Andrews was unreal, the irrepressible and constant Van Dyke grinnery was downright annoying to her.

Fast-forward to ACT's stage-musical version of the Travers stories. Mary P. is no longer a toothy-white charmstress. Slightly edgier -- not quite a "pitbull with lipstick" -- but closer to "real" if only a centimetre or two. The waspish and acerbic Travers -- who died at age 96 in 1996 still not suffering fools gladly -- would likely have appreciated the changes from the movie parts that made her cringe so. (Fact is, however, Walt's celluloid characters made Travers and her estate multi-millionaires with 5% of the movie's gross receipts hers for the taking. Currently MP is 23rd on one all-time highest-USA-earnings list, having pulled in over $500M and counting. Interestingly, MP doesn't appear to crack any of the "Top 100" international movie charts.)

First impressions : Folks who fondly remember Disney's MP film recall its magic turns -- the legerdemain, the illusion, the trickery pulled off by Mary and Bert. Such stuff, though still there, is not the primary source of magic in the ACT production. No, it's in the fact of the hand-picked cast of actors and performers selected by Director Bill Millerd and choreographer extraordinaire Valerie Easton. They all explode off the Stanley Theatre stage with unmatchable vigour, enthusiasm and antics that are just plain fun. What better comments than these overheard last year from an elderly couple on their way out : "I enjoyed every single bit of this play from start to finish!" said one, while the other remarked : "I honestly think this is the best stage play I've ever seen in Vancouver." 

Story -- a quicky re-visit : Set in Victorian England instead of Travers' more familiar outback in Oz, dad George Banks (Warren Kimmel) is a banker -- an overworked and stressed-out one at that. His wife Winifred (Caitriona Murphy) is a gentry-wannabe trying to manage the household with its two kids, maid/cook and inept butler. The raising of the children is outsourced to a nanny. Rather to a half-dozen nannies in the past year. All of them have quit because the kids are so bratty, scheming and incorrigible it seems.

The play kicks off with the most recent nanny fleeing #17 Cherry Tree Lane like it's a zoo with lions and tigers on the loose. In her dust the kids draw up an "ideal nanny" newspaper advertisement. She must


Take us on outings, give us treats
Sing songs, bring sweets
Never be cross or cruel, never give us castor oil or gruel
Love us as a son and daughter.

Dad George blows a wee gasket, tears up their clever wish-list and whistles it right smartly into the fireplace. Karma clicks in. Who should appear with a Poof! but Mary Poppins (Sara-Jeanne Hosie). Dad is all aflutter. He wants precision, order, efficiency in his domain that he declares is a mad house. Mary promptly marches the kids upstairs with her customary refrain "Spit spot!" Her two-part reign with the kids begins as son Michael (Graham Verchere) notes wryly : "We best keep an eye on this one, she's tricky...!" Michael would be just young and wise enough to realize the double-entendre there.

Not from one book alone : The current stage play is a comic musical pastiche of some eight Mary Poppins books and stories Travers wrote between the mid-30's and the late-80's in addition to the Disney film script and the original Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman songs. There's an updated book by Downton Abbey's creator Julian Fellowes plus new songs and additional music and lyrics supplied by Englishmen George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

Hilarious, I found, that Travers had a provision in her will that nobody who worked on the Disney film could be a part of producer Cameron Mackintosh's proposed live theatre version (his stage pedigree including Cats, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon.) Contributors all had to be English, no Yanks allowed, thanks, Travers insisted. 

Why? Because under Walt -- b.t.w. unlike the rest of the world, Travers refused to call him by his first name -- Travers felt the Americans had all conspired to sentimentalize her cherished pet character, sweeten Mary beyond Travers' recognition. Theirs was a simple-minded cotton-candy version that she thought was cynical -- all done to make money. Her preferred Mary : In the introduction to a Harper Collins re-issue of the original Travers book from 1934 some years back, stage maven Mackintosh declared : "Mary Poppins is, and always will be, unique : stern, dependable, businesslike, magical and yet eternally loveable." Travers felt too much of the stern and businesslike traits were flat-out lost in the Disney flick. Truth-&-accuracy sacrificed for mammon.

Character take redux : Five characters who reprise their 2013 roles will no doubt attract individual shout-outs again in 2014, can't imagine otherwise. 

Here was my cut at it a year back :

"As Mary, Sara-Jeanne Hosie is probably as close to perfection as possible. Her set jaw, her disapproving scowl when the kids or parents (!) misbehave are counterbalanced by her whimsy when it's time to fun -- terrific comic turns each one. Her singing voice is melodic and even powerful at times, though the mezzo soprano range suits her more than the upper-octive soprano stuff. Marvelously crisp execution of Director Millerd's scene blocking and Easton's dance footwork, too. Mesmerizing to watch from moment-one to moment-end.

As Bert, Scott Walters warrants an extra Bravo! or two because he discharges forever the memory of Dick Van Dyke's always-smiley performance in the Disney movie. Walters wondrously engages his role, displaying dynamic and clever facial shifts and nuances to suit every line, every dance step and kick-up.

Susan Anderson as Mrs. Brill and the Bird Woman in the park huckstering two-pence breadcrumb bags was non-pareil. The comic timing of her panic! disapproval! and sheer aghastness! at the Banks' "mad house" was split-second each line, each moment. As Bird Woman her turn was a pure moment of zen.

As Michael Banks, (now-Grade 7) student Graham Verchere bloody well nearly aces his performance as a Brit-kid-snot with lots of love in his heart to match his mischievous and playful soul. His sustained British accent -- assuming he isn't British-born -- was astonishing.

(Now-Grade 8) student Kassia Danielle Malmquist stayed 100% in character with charm and typical older-teen-sister flippancy and toy-tossing snitteries."

Character take, Part 2 : It was impossible a year back to review this play without extending Huzzah's! to all the actors and performers for their contributions. Mom Winifred by Caitriona Murphy was wholly convincing as a bemused and slightly estranged wife. Katey Wright as the replacement nanny -- Dad's childhood nanny "The Holy Terror" Miss Andrew -- betrayed robust dislikability. Warren Kimmel struck terror in viewers' hearts when he exploded. His "conversion" to huggy-dad was perhaps too quick to convince, but that's a script problem, not Kimmel's as actor. The 2013 song-&-dance ensemble to a person were step-perfect from my Row 2 perspective then. Many of them are back on the boards for this year's re-make.

Production values : Choreographer Valerie Easton is the well-known Artistic Director of Royal City Musical Theatre. She is to this viewer's eye simply brilliant! each and every time I see her work. Her staging of "Step In Time" in 2013 had all the chimneysweeps in taps and everyone gamboling at breakneck speed across the entire proscenium at the Stanley. I said then I'd go to the show a second time for that number alone. Same with the familiar "Supercalifragilistic..." dance number, "Jolly Holiday", oh hell's bells, every one of them.

Costume Designer Sheila White's togs for everyone were rich, even when they were the streetrags of the 'sweeps. Better costumes for the period would not be imaginable. The colour interjections in the park dance scene were a clever touch.

Set Designer Alison Green's sets all worked great both visually and "choreographically". With its two storeys, the Banks' home played effectively by exploiting both levels. The sight gag of Mary pulling a coat-tree rack, a floor lamp and a wall mirror out of her kit-bag upon arrival was a crowd-pleaser. For their part, the drop-screens for the park scenes were cleverly wrought and painted. Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe's shadowy birds and raindrops flashing about quite merrily were an added visual treat.

Who gonna like : As big-stage song-&-dance entertainment with wonderful music from the Bruce Kellett orchestra behind again this year, Mary Poppins is delightful finger-snappin' and heart-strings-pulling stuff tailor-made for our Pineapple Express late-fall monsoons. A wee dose of sentimentality about the goodness that swells in people's hearts is okay already. On occasion. When done just right. For choreography, visuals and delightful tunes in a package, Mary Poppins is a Go! for sure.


Particulars : Until January 4, 2015 at ACT's Granville Street mainstage Stanley Theatre. Hit up artsclub.com for showtimes, tickets and available seats.

The show : A musical based on the stories of P. J. Travers and the Walt Disney film. Original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. Stage-play book by Julian Fellowes. New songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Co-creator Cameron Mackintosh.

Production team : Director Bill Millerd.  Musical Director \ Keyboard Bruce Kellett.  Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Set Designer Alison Green.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe. Costume Designer Sheila White.  Sound Designer Andy Horka. Original Sound Designer Andrew Tugwell.  Projection Designer Craig Alfredson.  Magic Consultant Chris Stolz.  Stage Manager Caryn Fehr.  Assistant Stage Manager Anne Taylor.  Apprentice Stage Manager Michelle Harrison.  Assistant to the Choreographer Robert Allan.

Featured actors : Sara-Jeanne Hosie, Mary Poppins.  Susan Anderson, Mrs. Brill \ Bird Woman.  Warren Kimmel, George Banks.  Kassia Danielle Malmquist, Jane Banks.  Caitriona Murphy, Winifred Banks.  Graham Verchere, Michael Banks. Scott Walker, Bert.  Katey Wright, Miss Andrew \ Mrs. Corry.

Supported by : Robert Allan, Poseiden \ Ensemble.  Scott Augustine, Neleus \ Ensemble.  Darren Burkett, Sweep \ Ensemble.  Bobby Callahan, Sweep \ Von Hussler  Ensemble. Kayla James, Annie \ Ensemble.  Alissa Keogh, Sweep \ Ensemble.  Anna Kuman, Katie Nanna \ Ensemble.  Brianne Loop, Fanny \ Ensemble.  Jennifer Neumann, Miss Lark \ Ensemble. Michael Querin, Admiral Boom \ Ensemble.  Shane Snow, Robertson Ay \ Ensemble.  Daniel James White, Policeman \ Ensemble. 

The Orchestra : Ken Cormier, Keyboard. Graham Boyle, Percussion. Henry Christian, Trumpet. Angus Kellett, Keyboard. Sue Round, Cello.

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Sunday, 7 December 2014

Kids & parents giggle galore at Cinderella antics

Background panto uptake : For the uninitiated, British pantomimes (or panto's in short) have nothing to do with the likes of Marcel Marceau playing dumb and using only hand gestures and facial expressions as his art. Not like the buskers one sees in San Francisco BART stations looking for all the world like statuesque harlequins or military generals or royalty. Until, unexpectedly, they twitch at you and you jump! and then toss them two-bits for the fun of it.

No, by way of redux from the preceding BLR review, here's what's up in this type of play : "The British tradition of pantomime is family entertainment designed for the Christmas / New Year's season. It's a blend of music, dance, slapstick, robust audience participation -- cheering the heroes, booing the villains -- sing-along, local political satire, unfunny puns in extremis, and cross-dressing actors (always key to the revelry). All of this is based ever-so-loosely on a fairy tale or a mix of fairy tales just to give the show a hook and the kids down front some familiar stuff to relate to." 


And "up" it is, whimsically so, at The Cultch's Commercial Drive venue the York Theatre where the troupe Theatre Replacement teams with Cultch to present its second annual "East Van Panto". As a 10-year Trout Lake resident a couple decades back, how could I not relate instantly to an EastVan-based Cinderella story that is set in a typical Fraser Street house : another quaint A-pitch knock-down shack like my old one. A story whose script is laced with endless quips about latte shops, sushi joints and yoga classes along The Drive. One that celebrates the district's countless funk'd up characters and alleyways and buildings besides. What's not to amuse from all this? And the show does, in spades. Just ask the kids. Or their parents.

Show takes off Moment #1 : Vancouver favourite music maven Veda Hille, the show's "Musical Director and Orchestra", kicks everything off hilariously with her synthesized piano and sung-out cell-phone / photo warnings in her opening "Hurrah!" to the audience. Quickly we meet The Slipper Ladies in ballerina tights mincing across the footlights with Studio 58's Sean Sonier in full baritone leading comrades Alexandra Wever and Bailey Soleil Creed in some kick-step. What the littlun's might have thought of such a sight who knows, but us big-kids cheered mightily. A show "letting it all hang out" was sure to follow, and did.

Cinderella was played capably for sure by Donna Soares, but her EastVan posse of chums and protectors could not help themselves stealing her thunder. Particularly Josh Drebit as Feral Cat and James Long as Rat who riffed off each other wonderfully throughout. They were aided and abetted by Dawn Patten as The Crow, all of whose ancestors were regular Trout Lake visitors in my time there. 

But reason alone to go see this silliness is Allan Zinyk in two principal roles -- Ella's evil stepmom and Ronald Grump (a Donald Trump knock-off) -- as well as his hilarious cameo as uber-environmentalist David Suzuki.

As Grump, Zinyk channeled Steve Van Zandt of The Sopranos fame (and long-time Springsteen guitarist) absolutely wonderfully. "The Donald's" hair he swirled around was a classic bit. Perhaps writer Charles Demers tried over-hard to make double entendre jokes about Grump's first of many, uh, balls, but that would be faint criticism indeed. 

The balance of Demers' script clicked off well -- a clever jogger's clip of one-liner's and sight gags. As Prince Grumpy, cross-dressed Dawn Petten had great fun chasing Cinder Ella and dissing step-sisters Drebit and Long. Long's fairy godmother (in an outrageous B.C. Ferries boat get-up) was a goofy gag that nevertheless worked. 

The jokes pile on top of one another. The whole show is set "in the shadow of Bob Rennie", Vancouver's hyper condo-marketer. A late arrival prompts the comment "You took longer to get here than a correction in the real estate market!" References to long-dead east-side nite club venues like The Town Pump and Luv Affair are made, also a campy bit of Kinder Morgan pipeline choreography featuring Ms. Patten in a Christie Clark hardhat. (The whole house Boo'd! mightily at the pipeline people, of course, particularly when CC noted, ditzily : "Pipeline spills happen only in the movies, and the news..."). Always hip-east-of-Main Street lines abound. Some shots cross over to the West Side, as in "It's difficult to find a well-dressed person in this town -- even the mayor wears Crocs!" 

Production values galore : Director Amiel Gladstone succeeds in getting both the pro's and the amateurs to shake their booty together well-in-step with Choreographer Tracey Power's fancy footwork. Set Designer Pam Johnson managed to hook up with EastVan painter Laura Zerebeski as her Scenic Illustrator. Zerebeski describes her jaw-dropping & brilliant visuals thus : 

"I am (an) expressionist painter with a surrealist edge. I paint urban landscapes and personify buildings so they look like the people that live in them. As an avid runner and cyclist, I want to portray what you feel when you move through a scene. The vivid colours and implied instability create a whimsical and cheerful view...when the ordinary becomes absolutely beautiful due to whatever effects of light or season or one's own mood."

N.B. Most notable : her stage-wide screen of a back alley depicting a '75 orange VW Westphalia camper blocked up on a plastic dairy carton box collecting moss on its off-kilter pop-up roof. That graphic could have been taken from our 19th Avenue back yard back in the day. We retired just such a relic in just that colour to ferment just so after years of our beloved "BOB" [bright orange bus] carting us and our bikes up and down Cascadia's shoreline.

Remarkable, too, were Marina Szijarto's costumes : funky, campy, silly, snappy and visually grabby. They complemented Zerebeski's lavish set paintings wonderfully. 

Previously mentioned musical director Veda Hille blended some delightful recall moments into the Demers script with snatches from Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" to "Making It Work" and "Too Bad" from local faves the late Doug Bennett and his Slugs to "Dancing With Myself" by Billy Idol and "Nothing Compares 2 U" by Sinead O'Connor, also Rihanna's continual reprise of "Umbrella" ["ella, ella, ella, ella"] among others. Hille's work is never to be missed. 

Who gonna like : The York Theatre retro-fit for live stage is a marvel. Better leg-room and soda pop holders you'll find nowhere. It's intimate and cozy and perfect for Grump to throw out gold-covered chocolates (Warning : "May or may not contain nuts!") all the way up into the balcony. Anyone who ever ventures East of Main to go get their Italiano fromage or extra virgin olive oil or grab some spaghetti at local icon Nick's next door to The York or slurp a muggajava at Joe's up the street or relish a prego sandwich with some Euro soccer @ PCOV will surely relate to this decidedly East Van Panto. But even Point Grey privileged types like Mayor Greg or Lululemon's Chip Wilson will find lots to laugh about and cheer and boo and clap at here. Fun fun fun! for all.

Particulars : Until December 28. Check tickets.thecultch.com for showtimes and seating at The York venue, 639 Commercial Drive.

Production Team :  Playwright : Charles Demers. Director & Dramaturge : Amiel Gladstone. Producer, Theatre Replacement : Peter Boychuk. Musical Director & Orchestra : Veda Hille. Sound Designer : Kris Boyd. Choreographer : Tracey Power. Sets & Props Designer : Pam Johnson. Scenic Illustrator : Laura Zerebeski. Costume Designer : Marina Szijarto. Lighting Designer: Adrian Muir.  Stage Manager : Jan Hodgson. 

The actors : Josh Drebit. James Long. Dawn Petten. Donna Soares. Allan Zinyk. Bailey Soleil Creed. Sean Sonier. Alexandra Wever. Feliz Ardal. Uki and Fumiko Enns. Naomi Fota. Olive Knowles. Anders Hille Kellam. Eleanor Mishna-Chauve. Nora and Hazel Pontin. 


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Saturday, 6 December 2014

White Rock panto Babes cures screen-itis

Backdrop and tell-all :  Some 35 years back I made my last formal appearances on stage. In a White Rock Players Club production of the music of Loerner & Lowe called On The Street Where You Live. Followed a couple years later with a stand-in stint as Man Friday in that year's pantomime production of Robinson Crusoe. 

Seeing the Club's 70th Anniversary Year panto mount of Babes In The Wood tonight brought back a host of memories starting with the uggghhh! of stage fright. Memorizing lines to deliver them with even a wince of dramatic believability is tough work. And then there's the choreography : I never could execute that bloody step-ball-change dance step they asked for. Add some songs to the mix that you're expected to belt out nearly on-key and without gibbling the lyrics and all the pieces are there : a full-fledged farrago of fall-on-your-face embarrassment in front of family and friends and complete strangers who'll never forget you. That's what stage fright is all about. And quite well-deserved, no question.

Why put yourself through all that potential misery you ask. Because there's a something about community theatre performances that are so genuine and real and homey and familiar and friendly and just plain fun, that's why.

Panto's particular pull : The British tradition of pantomime is family entertainment designed for the Christmas / New Year's season. It's a blend of music, dance, slapstick, robust audience participation -- cheering the heroes, booing the villains -- sing-along, local political satire, unfunny puns in extremis, and cross-dressing actors (always key to the revelry). All of this is based ever-so-loosely on a fairy tale or a mix of fairy tales just to give the show a hook and the kids down front some familiar stuff to relate to. 

On amateur stages, like the WRPC, panto's are also designed to encourage community participation across the board. And though White Rock and the Semiahmoo Peninsula are anything but a sleepy little community any longer, the feel of community is still alive and well and 100% a joy to behold at the 218-seat WRPC stage on Johnston Road in this year's Babes show.

A big part of WRPC panto's over the years has been the age-spread of the actors -- this year probably some 35 years between the youngest hoofers (Bo Peep's sheep are of grammar school age) and the leads, Mother Hubbard and her (his) nemesis the Demon. And all the ages in between from middle-schoolers to teens to young adults to moms-&-dads with families. Some two dozen of them.

Add in the production volunteers -- nineteen (19!) chief designers and coaches, twelve painters, seven props people, seven set builders -- and it's the 12 days of Christmas with a partridge in a pear tree to boot. Literally. Producer Fred Partridge. He not only had to run one of the follow-spots on opening night due to illness but served chocolate-coated cookies at Intermission while a lively local jazz ensemble entertained in the lobby. A scene straight out of a Stuart Maclean Vinyl Cafe piece or John Irving's novel In One Person for sure.

Production values : Babes is the perfect antidote to too much Netflix, too much Breaking Bad, too much screen-time of all sorts. The goal of rescuing the babes in the woods from torture and death at the hands of the Demon is accomplished, as noted, with a whole bunch of cheers and boos and bad jokes and songs. Lead Mother Hubbard was engagingly and robustly grabbed hold of by Brit ex-pat Bryce Mills. White Rock will not be his last whistle stop on stage for sure. His counterpart, Hunter Golden as Demon, has a great basso profundo he exploits with menace. Mackenzie Claus as Jill displays a strong and tuneful mezzo voice worth hearing again no question. None of their noteworthy efforts would have been pulled off with nearly the shine were it not for pianist Shelley Eckstein whose tenacity through months of rehearsals and the show's 22-show run is a marvel. Delightful town hall vaudeville plinks. Only the cigar smoke and ice cube clinks are missing.

Highest kudos of all have to go, however, to Set Design & Decoration chief Andrea Olund for a colourful & snappy arrangement of nursery rhyme buildings, perches and outcroppings, even a mini replica of the Semiahmoo First Nation legendary white rock down on the beach that gives the town its name. Equal huzzahs for Costume designer Pat McClean. Together the visual impact of their cleverness are central to making Babes a feel-good-all-over local show. Add to those highlights the fact that Director Lisa Pavilionis and Choreographer Michelle Reid wring every drop of sweat imaginable out of their troupe of 22 eager actors. True village virtues are on display here, no question.

Who gonna like : So grab the kids -- even the grumpy teens -- rev up Gramps's cane and Granny's shawl and hustle on down to the WRPC.  Babes is full-on family entertainment that falls into your lap and leaves you clapping cheerily. Take in a pre-show walk on the pier amidst the Festivus lights coupled with a bite at one of White Rock's countless waterfront restaurants while you're at it. Just do it! the ad says, because you can't go wrong for this kind of Christmas cheer. What you might have thought were lost and bygone days of innocent fun are still there for you just around the corner. 

Until December 27th. Phone 604.536.7535 for further particulars and tickets.

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Thursday, 4 December 2014

Get bent at A Twisted Christmas Carol

Quicky overview : A night of rollicking spontaneous goofiness awaits you with ACT's A Twisted Christmas Carol at its cozy Revue Stage. Based notionally on the Charles Dickens 1843 classic novella, the goofiness comes from the fact that improv is the centrepiece of the action. The thread of pre-scripted dialogue seems largely incidental but can't be because thirteen [13!] writers are credited in the program for producing it.

Improv-vet from Vancouver's Rock Paper Scissors comedy troupe David C. Jones came up with the idea for the improv "twist" back in the 90's. After years being workshop'd, the show opened at the Jericho Arts Centre in '98. The current production is an updated reprise from ACT's 2005 G.I. stage production now performed, appropriately enough, in the room previously home to the Vancouver Theatre Sports League. In the words of Director John Murphy, what happens in Twisted is "...we've taken a sacred novel about a sacred time with a serious message and we've sillified it."

Plot refresher : Scrooge is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad employer. And slightly worse a human being just generally. He harasses and dragoons his clerk Bob Cratchit. Cratchit's disabled son Tiny Tim is just more regrettable London detritus. Soon, however, Christmas ghosts appear to him and warn him he courts eternal damnation unless he does a full-psyche re-boot. He sees the light. Generosity, joy, scotch and Big Eats all 'round in the end.

Fact is Charles Dickens' original text is as much excuse for the show as purpose. "Let's give seasoned improv performers free rein" is the idea. And because it's Winterfest, we'll hook it to Dickens' ever-popular Christmas story of Scrooge and his conversion, as if Saul got side-tracked to Bethlehem instead of Damascus.  

What the actors do : What the actors do most is collapse the "fourth wall" between audience and stage. Interaction with folks in the seats is what spikes the evening's fun. Shout-outs are requested and drive subsequent dialogue.  

What is Scrooge's business, his day job, we were asked. What is  Tiny Tim's benign malady du jour ? What famous personage is the first Christmas ghost? On opening night the challenges put to the troupe by my seatmates were these : Scrooge doesn't run a counting house, he runs a gymnast club for Olympic trainees. Tiny Tim suffers ADD. Julius Caesar is the first ghost.

There's a clever Laugh-In style backdrop of opening windows and sitting places and Scrooge's bed and a kitchen incinerator-oven all arranged to resemble a giant advent calendar (for which the original designers won a Jessie). As for the stage action, there but for the period costumes and thread of Dickensian narration, one would think it a typical Theatre Sports night at, say, a Macmillan Bloedel annual general meeting from yesteryear. 

Front row volunteers are asked to provide character ideas : Jaimie suggests nephew Freddie's wife is a hippo with an eating disorder. Catherine, an admin assistant for a uranium firm, went on a Gastown date to the Cork & Fig : this tidbit provides Scrooge's first-date improv scenario. Wendy tells Mrs. Cratchit she wants no part of  Christmas goose but favours giant yams instead, and the on-stage dinner bits go from there. A young Jacob Marley is snatched from the front-row (ACT's Les Miserables actor Jonathan Wimsby by chance...?) : he gets hauled on stage to do some Irish jigging. 

The fun of it all is how the cast runs and plays with each of these characters and their thematic riffs throughout the play. Another part of the fun is that these antics change each night. [In 2008 during one show Scrooge was a chicken plucker. Tiny Tim's malady was diarrhea. Yams were broccoli. You get the idea.] No two nights are supposed to be the same, though I've got a hunch the gymnast and Julius Caesar schticks will likely repeat. 

Production values : Anyone who loves improv can't help but marvel at the work of this group. Reviving her role as Mrs. Cratchit once more, Diana Frances bares her improv chops marvelously throughout, particularly with front-row-Wendy and in the end doing her "verbal charades" with Scrooge (Gary Jones). Jones' comic timing a la Artie Johnson was terrific. His quick and zesty restating of the improv ideas thrown at him delighted and amazed. As narrator Dickens, Kirk Smith had some great double-take Rick Mercer moments. Jeff Gladstone tittered his way throughout. His Tiny Tim ADD antics and lines were gleeful both to see and to hear. For this viewer, however, it was long-time improv-er Bill Pozzobon as Bob Cratchit and Great Caesar's Ghost whose timing and imagination and spitfire dialogue quite frankly stole the show i.m.o. Simply marvelous!

Director John Murphy (a former ACT Scrooge himself) primed his cast perfectly. Costume designer Tyler Tone did an exceptional job throwing period-piece duds on each of the cast, as well as their comic outfits. Spot-lighting by Ted Roberts added to the circus atmosphere, but one technical glitch people sputtered over : the hazer producing London fog nigh unto smoked us all out in the Revue's tight quarters. 

Who gonna like :  This production is sheer fun from start to finish. As mentioned above, its connection to the Festivus Season is largely incidental. But its connection to the funny bone is visceral. If mall shopping and endless t.v. ads for junque are getting you down, Twisted is the perfect pick-me-up to turn you around with its dizzying wit and ditzy characters.

Particulars :  To December 27th at ACT's Revue Stage, Granville Island. Check http://artsclub.com for various nightly & matinee showtimes.

Script : Based on the novella by Charles Dickens and an idea by David C. Jones. Contributing contemporary writers Tammy Bentz. Toby Berner. Ian Boothby. Chris Casillan. Joe Davies. Diana Frances. Nicholas Harrison. Sharon Heath. Christopher Hughes. David C. Jones. Scott Owen. Michelle Porter. Karen Rose.

Production team :  Director John Murphy. Set Designer Joao Carlos d'Almeida. Set Designer II Michelle Porter. Set Designer III David C. Jones. Costume Designer Tyler Tone. Lighting Designer Ted Roberts. Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs. Apprentice Stage Manager I Ashley Noyes. Apprentice Stage Manager II Jenny Kim. 

Featured actors :  Diana Frances. Jeff Gladstone. Gary Jones. Kirk Smith. Bill Pozzobon.


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