Thursday, 18 May 2017

Million Dollar Quartet rocks a concert of Wow!
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)

Jonas Shandel (Johnny Cash), Steven Greenfield (Jerry Lee Lewis), Kale Penny (Carl Perkins)
and Erik Fraser Gow (Elvis Presley) are the lyric crazy showboaters front-&-centre in M$Q.          
David Cooper photo.
From the footlights : M$Q starts here : a jukebox musical about Sun Records. Which was a boutique recording label owned by Sam Phillips in Memphis. Phillips had Carl Perkins as a mainstay recording artist. On December 4, 1956 Phillips had arranged to have Perkins meet another rising young talent from cotton-pickin' country, Jerry Lee Lewis. Oh yeah. And a couple other of Sun Records musicians were expected to wander by just for hellry -- Elvis Presley & Johnny Cash.

And they did. But they didn't spend the afternoon jamming all their greatest hits the way this Colin Escott & Floyd Mutrux script does. Reportedly they mostly strummed-&-hummed-&-keyboarded a bunch of folk tunes and church-inspired gospel spirituals. 

But a folk / gospel re-do of that remarkable pre-Xmas '56 afternoon wouldn't put butts in Y2K live theatre seats, Escott and Mutrux knew. So not surprisingly what M$Q brings is a night of spirited rockin' shout-outs of the Hit Parade chart-toppers that everyone who loved that epoch will hoot-&-holler-&-standing-to. 

Mid-50's rockamania is what Million Dollar Quartet is all about.
               David Cooper photo.
How it's all put together : The show kicks off with the company rousing the crowd with Perkin's iconic Blue Suede Shoes that Elvis "stole" from him and made famous in '56 : I was in Grade 6, had a pair of Buster Brown b.s.s.'s my older sisters insisted Mom buy for me -- and Yes! everyone took great delight to step on 'em. 

Next come a host of hits between explanatory monologues spliced in by Phillips (Graham Coffeng) that tie together the Sun Records' mottled story + the history of how he met & nurtured these lads one-on-one, song-by-song. Also some requisite Aw shucks! nitter-natter and wee-jealousy fits between ongoing feast of guitar, piano, bass and drum riffs the Sun Studio group puts out. 

But no question it's the cuts themselves chosen by Mutrux-&-Escott that steal the night : Folsom Prison Blues; Long Tall Sally; Great Balls of Fire; Hound Dog; Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On! -plus- Elvis's ostensible girl friend named Dyanne (Lauren Jackson) doing Peggy Lee's torch song Fever as well as pop singer Gale Storm's cover of I Hear You Knockin' to add some welcome sex appeal.

Steven Greenfield as Jerry Lee Lewis is the antic centrepiece in much of M$Q's music tribute.  
David Cooper photo.
What the show brings to the stage :  It's the selection of songs that explains the who / what / why / where / when & how of these unassuming ultra-gifted fellows fetched up in Dixie's fly-over-America. How they came to show off all the juice-&-joy-&-jam that set the rock-n-roll stage.

From Elvis's hip-swivel style to Lewis's manic gymnastic keyboarding to Cash's raw jailhouse stuff. On to Bo Diddley to Chuck Berry to Little Richard to Roy Orbison to the heartbreaking Feb. 3, 1959 Clear Lake, Iowa plane crash martyr squadron of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens and Big Bopper J. P. Richardson and 
all the "Bye, Bye Miss American Pie \ The day the music died" wannabes who've entertained us ever since.  

Suffice to remind readers of the famous Sir Paul McCartney tribute to what Sun Records brought the world : "If there had never been a Carl Perkins there would never have been the Beatles."

Not much purpose in detailing how Phillips had to sell Elvis's Sun Records contract to RCA in New York to stay afloat financially. Or how Johnny's expiring Sun contract & crescendoing hits would catapult him from humble Memphis to Columbia Records in Nashville. How crushed Sam Phillips (Graham Coffeng) was at the news. [The script tends toward tedious on this topic.] Here's a peek at what makes the show sparkle.

Production values that shine through :  At the hands of veterans, Ted Roberts' Sun Studio set with Gerald King's rock concert lighting make every square inch of the Stanley's 75-foot proscenium explode with colour and vibrancy. Add the musical staging by Valerie Easton's invariably deft and creative hand. She moves the lads up down over-&-around the set and one another -- not to mention atop their pet instruments as well. What you get are visual effects that are grabby and sure and constant.

Acting pin-spots :  The challenge for any director in staging the Escott/Mutrux book is to find actors who approximate the characters whose youthful, brash & ambitious souls they are trying to imitate in song. 

Jerry Lee Lewis (Steven Greenfield) was colloquially known as "Killer", famous for jumping all over his piano, sitting and standing on it, kicking the keys with his feet, playing them behind his back. "The motherthumpiest piano player you ever did see!" he chortles. Greenfield must have watched countless YouTube out-takes to master the act as he does. (His malignant, anarchist carrot-top hair was pure hoot to watch doing its thing trying to keep up with his gyroantics.)

As Johnny Cash -- "The Man in Black" -- Jonas Shandel evinces all the baritone/bass nuances from the range of gospel, folk, country & rock influences Cash was so good at delivering. He also convinced us, sort of, about his torn Christian soul troubling itself whether all of this irreverent shin-dig stuff was perhaps the Devil's doing. 

Elvis's uptempo style was often known as "hillbilly bop". And though EP hated the nickname of the day "Elvis the Pelvis", Erik Fraser Gow pulled off many of his moves remarkably well. (His pompadour hairpiece was less a good match.)

For his part Carl Perkins (Kale Penny) was known for his blues vamp touches. Phillips calls him the Father of Rockabilly. Loved his gabardine slacks. Kind of matched his Sun Studio stage persona at times.

From my perspective, meanwhile, Lauren Jackson as Elvis' squeeze Dyanne came close to stealing the limelight from the wildly effervescent Greenfield as Lewis and from Shandel who was "closest to the real thing" in his cut at Cash. Jackson maintained her perky, snappy, chipper personality throughout and had rich pipes to boot. Pure engaging charm in her crisp red dress atop timely petticoats six feet across.

Who gonna like : Greg Lake of the band EL&P once said "The human voice is a matter of the expression of passion in the understanding of the human condition." Synonyms for passion include such feelings as zeal, rage, craving, anger, hunger, yearning, gusto, frenzy, and zest. These are the qualities of early rock-&-roll that struck deep into our hearts and souls back then, do now. Powerful but simple stuff, not cynical in the least.

Got rhythm? Got a jones for genuine rock tunes? Want just plain fun music to cheer you and make you clap loudly and whistle and cheer? No question at all : Best bang for the buck in sheer fun, sport-&- amusement since ACT's Black-&-Gold Revue from 30 years back.

I usually don't gush-gush, but this is a Do! Not! Miss! musical stage event in Vancouver for folks who love this heart-pumping music, folks who now and then hanker for the simpler more innocent times that once were and won't likely come this way again.

N.B. Addendum : Special note must be made of Todd Biffard's turn as the show's sessional drummer. Late small-club jazz impresario Ted McCann used to aver there are two kinds of drummers in bands : those who are wood-choppers and those who finesse the skins instead. "Drummer!" was the first word I wrote on my notepad as the show opened. Without a doubt Mr. Biffard is the best I have ever seen or heard in a Vancouver stage musical. Finesse? Completely exquisitely so. A large part of my Wow! from this musical feast.

Particulars :  Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  At Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage.  On until July 9.  Run-time 90 minutes plus intermission.  Tickets & schedule information via or by phoning 604.687.1644.  Original concept & direction Floyd Mutrux.  Book by Colin Escott & Floyd Mutrux.

Production team :  Bill Millerd, Director.  Zachary Stevenson, Musical Director.  Valerie Easton, Musical Staging.  Ted Roberts, Set Designer.  Barbara Clayden, Costume Designer.  Gerald King, Lighting Designer.  Caryn Feher, Stage Manager.  Ronaye Haynes, Assistant Stage Manager.

Performers :  Mathew J. Baker (Brother Jay, based on Carl's brother Clayton, on bass).  Jonas Shandel (Johnny Cash).  Lauren Jackson (Dyanne E. Girlfriend).  Todd Biffard (W. S. 'Fluke' Holland) on drums.  Steven Greenfield (Jerry Lee Lewis).  Kale Penny (Carl Perkins).  Graham Coffeng (Sam Phillips).  Erik Fraser Gow (Elvis Presley).  


Saturday, 6 May 2017

End of the Rainbow engages our ear & heart

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)

Judy Garland's last show in London -- a meteor just months from flaming out. 
Ryan Crocker photo.
From the footlights : ACE Productions steals directly from NYT's critic Ben Brantley (April 2, 2012) to describe their Jericho Arts Centre show that tells the tale of Judy Garland's last days : " 'She had perilous bipolar energy that so often animates great performers. Touch this woman at your own risk. She burns... Every chapter of Garland's history is alive : she is foul-mouthed, flirtatious, erotic, childlike, unedited, manipulative and supremely self-conscious as she makes love and war' with her keepers."

Two principal men join Janet Gigliotti doing Judy in this Peter Quilter script directed by Claude Giroux. As the world recently witnessed with supernova singer Amy Winehouse, when a comet burns up in what began as a stratospheric arc, the results are at once breathtaking and extremely sad, too. 

Making Garland into a believable and tragic figure -- a woman trying for renasence and redemption though at 46 she was notoriously past her prime & a pill-popping drunk -- this is the wee challenge ACE Productions accepted when they bought this script. The show's events happened many moons ago. Why should we care in light of today's world?

How it's all put together :  Rainbow focuses not only on Judy but on her latest husband, a youthful Mickey Deans (Jeffrey Hoffman) who is her manager, ringmaster and enabler. Her piano accompaniest Anthony Chapman (Gordon Roberts) is Garland's sympathetic sounding board, lit.-&-fig., who tries to rescue Judy from both herself and from Deans.

The scenes toggle between London's Talk of The Town nite club where Garland's Last Stand took place in December 1968 and the hotel room where she repaired, so to speak, nightly. It is in the claustrophobic confines of that hotel room that the struggles among the characters pose the great existential question : to what extent is anyone their own creator / destroyer -vs- what contextual forces contribute fatefully and fatally to one's life course? 

What the show brings to the stage : The comparison to Amy Winehouse is on purpose. Anyone who hears, today, her cover of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" or "Tears Dry On Their Own" can't squelch the ache that such raw but chiseled beauty should have killed itself off, in her case at rock's magic death-age, 27.

"Trolley Song", "The Man That Got Away", and of course "Over The Rainbow" are all vintage Garland charts that Gigliotti riffs off with energy and grace and foreshadowing of Garland's impending implosion from an overdose just six months after the London gig.

Production values that shine : The set by director Giroux is a clever "overdub" of a junior suite at Picadilly's Circus's Ritz Hotel atop Bernard Delfont's Talk of the Town night club formerly located at Leicester Square's Hippodrome a few blocks away. The baby grand was plunked capably and entertainingly by Gordon Roberts, with nice subtle support by the duo of Matthew Simmons on bass and a delightfully understated Colin Parker on snare.

Lighting effects by Stephen Bulat were effective, though the blackouts and chiaroscuro fade-outs between night club and hotel scenes were at times unnecessarily longish.

One slightly off-key half-note. While Tiffany Bishop's threads for characters Mickey Deans and Anthony Chapman were spot-on for their roles and the times, fact is Judy Garland was famous for her outlandish and effervescent costumes to match her personality. Doing Janet Gigliotti up in a series of LBD's with scarves didn't much match memory.

Acting pin-spots : Ms. Gigliotti is a voice to be reckoned. Strong and lyrical for many of the charts she performed, she was also capable of great subtlety, finesse and nuance. Her rendition of "Come Rain or Come Shine" brought on unbidden tears. And her final short-stanza cut of "Over The Rainbow" melted hearts the room through.

The only "complaint" might be that she wasn't slurry and hicuppy and cracked-voice enough to match these final concerts by Garland (see Addendum), though her stage blocking imparted those effects well for each post-concert Ritz scene.

Aside from his charming Elton John keyboard moments, Gordon Roberts' best scene in the show had to be his plea to Garland to come away with him and become his "love" in Brighton instead of marrying Mickey Deans. The touchingness of this due to the fact that his character Anthony was the composite gay representing how popular Judy was with that entire community, particularly in California, in her day. He promised to hunt up johns for Judy at the end of the Brighton pier when she got horny.

Who gonna like : The question posed above "Why should we care in light of today's world?" is answered, simply, because this script tells a tale of compulsion and traps and pitfalls that have universal appeal. And the music of Judy Garland to boot.

The Quilter script engages because it captures the dynamic of a wizard (!) stage personality. But one, alas, borne of a life of drugs begun as a grammar school kid whose mom wanted her to make it in Hollywood with 05:00 curtain calls. Ritalin was the go-to favourite because as I remember it from college it delightfully focuses the memory and truly helps keep one awake [36 consecutive hours once for me]. But then Secanol is Ritalin's alter ego, the drug that Garland ultimately used to kill herself in June 1969 (via 10X the recommended daily dosage).

This is, to quote a friend met at today's show, "not the usual musical we are accustomed to". No. It is a drama of personal crisis and demise that touches the heart. It also features a swack of concert pieces made famous by Garland that utterly please the ear. No Cats or Mama Mia!, this is small-stage musical intimacy the will engage and embrace and, wonderfully, sadden you just long enough to demonstrate what a dramatic delight it truly is.
Particulars :  Produced at Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery Street, Vancouver. Until May 20. Tickets & schedule information 1.800.838.3006.  Online tix @ brownpapertickets.comRun-time two hours including intermission. 

Production team : Director Claude Giroux.  Musical Director Gordon Roberts.  Stage Manager Nico Dicecco.  Set Designer Claude Giroux.  Costume Designer Tiffany Bishop.  Lighting / Sound Designer Stephen Bulat.  Set Construction Michael Smith, John Hutchinson, Mike Lord, Peter Dunsford.  Scenic Painter Athena Ivison.  Technical Director Stephen Bulat.  Lighting Operator Nico Dicecco.  Props Janice Howell. Photography Ryan Crocker.  Poster & Graphic Design Andrew Johnstone. Publicity Maryanne Renzetti.

Performers : Janet Gigliotti (Judy Garland).  Jeffrey Hoffman (Mickey Deans).  Gordon Roberts (Anthony Chapman).  Matthew Simmons (Porter/Interviewer/ASM).  Colin Parker (Drummer).

Musicians :  Gordon Roberts (Piano).  Matthew Simmons (Bass).  Colin Parker (Drums).

Addendum :y
December, 1968 reviews in London press
[media sources not named]

By James Green

Judy Garland's London cabaret debut last night at the Talk of the Town was part happening, part experience, and all nostalgia.

Predictably the nervy and restless Miss Garland, so slim and boyish at 46 she might have been Peter Pan, turned in a raw emotion-packed powerhouse performance.

Here and there the voice cracked noticably and the notes were ragged. She herself said before sitting cross-legged on the stage and singing Over the Rainbow "I may croak a bit."

She did. But its's the 12,480th time she's sung it and it still gets homage.
There was standing room only before she came out, and a mood of instant hysteria among an audience determined to clap itself silly. 

It applauded the overture.Gave a big hand for the curtains. A few bars of the wedding march and it would have weeped.

Soon-to-be-wed Miss Garland finally appeared in a bronze Beau Brummell trouser suit alive with sequins and gold beads.

She straightaway threw her heart to the mob - Ginger Rogers, Zsa Zsa Gabour, Danny La Rue and Johnny Ray among them - while belting out "I belong to London".

An hour later she left to a rave reception with the reminder "A Londoner I'll always be." It was kisses and squeals, schmaltz and worship, sugar and syrup.

"We love you Judy," cried the faithful, "And I love you," came the response.

It was that kind of night. She sang 12 of the songs that make her Judy Garland and treated it as a private party.

She pretended not to remember or care what came next and laughed at herself with lines like: "I haven't learned a new song since Covered Wagon.Not since andy Hardy met Deanna Durbin. Now what do we do?"

Plus a show stopping: "I've been through a lot. People ask 'Is she going to appear? Is she dead?' Well I'm here and you couldn't keep me away."

She has personality-plus, and if the voice has taken a beating she can wake up the town with songs like Just in Time, Rock-a-bye, The Trolley Song and You Made Me Love You.

Judy still has punch. She has the star quality, magnetism and confidence to bend the rules and indulge herself with an undisciplined take it or leave it act.

They took it - and shouted for more. Like it or not her standard dabbling in emotions and nerve ends, she is what the business is about.

She may no longer be the little girl crying for the rainbow...the voice may waver and the notes come business may eat it's young...but the formerFrances Ethel Gumm retains most of the magic given her by the wizard of Oz.

Yes Judy Garland is alive and well and queening it in London.

Judy's Great Artistry Triumphs

By Andy Gray

Singers with artistry have a great advantage - when their voices starts to go their artistry remains. Hat's off to the greatest singing artist of them all - Judy Garland, who can still hit the big note to end "Rockabye" and bring the house down.

It was excitement all the way at the Talk Of The Town on Monday, what with a legal battle raging to see if it would be a one-night stand or a 5-week season for her (it's a season and a hooray for de Judge). But after the Talk orchestra, under Burt Rhodes baton had played for quite a while and no Judy appeared one wondered if she was going to.

(She even cracked later : "Something extrordinary for me...not only have I appeared, but I am singing a new song." This was all about having a whale of a time at night and to hell with the morning).

She did make an entrance eventually in the sparkling, bejewelled organy suit, looking slimmer than I ever have seen her with a leprechaun haircut and green scarf round her neck.

For one hour she alternately bowed in thanks for the great reception she got, sang with concentration and dithered about between numbers asking Bert what came next and overdoing the 'relaxed' bit. But we all loved her. Her "I belong to London" was a bit goo-ey, but we believed her, and standards like "Man that got away", "Trolley Song", "Chicago" and "Over the Rainbow" were all socko hits.

For a breather, she coaxed Danny La Rue on-stage and he plugged his chart-maker, "On Mother Kelley's Doorstep," with Judy joining in. The tune has stayed with me ever since, along with the memory that Judy is a great artist and we're so happy paid us all a call.

Judy: Still on the way to Oz

By Ray Connolly

Last night Judy Garland appeared at the Talk Of the Town - and if I pay scant attention to her trembling uncontrolled vibrato, and flat, cracked notes it is because her appeal to the audience last night did not rely on singing ability. Her voice is not the world's greatest, but this hardly detracts from a remarkable performance. To have mentioned it at all seems rather an unkind irrelevancy.

Last night her audience (the biggest I've ever seen at the Talk of The Town) was ecstatic. She didn't need to be able to sing, and in fact, she didn't overwork on that particular score. It was enough that she could scamble through that remarkably melodic bunch of songs with which she is associated - The Man That Got Away, Rock-a-Bye, You Made Me Love You, etc.

And yet I must admit she is truly a riveting entertainer. Now 47 she is still Dorothy on the way to Oz: still the little girl packed with spirit and fighting her way against some enormous odds: still an explosive compound of pathos, self mockery, guts and comedy. She bawls, she totters, she does a mocking little tap dance, and she struts and marches - all arched back and flaying arms like some very grand principal boy in her sequined Pearly Queen trouser suit.

"They tell me I'm a legend." she quips , and it is not for us to question how or why she should have attracted such a reputation. She has, and it is only in this context that it is now useful to regard her.

During a remarkable performance of flying kisses and jokes for her stageside enthusiasts, she dragged Danny La Rue up to give us a song ("I know it's my night - but I'm tired"), used her M.D; Burt Rhodes, as a straight man for her frequent and lengthy comic asides, and generally gave an impression of complete disorientation.

To say that she played to her gallery would be to do her constant rapport with her army of devotees less than justice, and to complain that much of her bewteen songs dialogue was indistinct and confusing would be to miss the point of her appeal. It is precisely this gloriously defiant pathos which is the character of her charisma.

The climax of the ritual was , of course, Somewhere Over The Rainbow, which she sang quietly sitting cross-legged on the floor under a single shaft of spotlight.

It always was a great song.....

Danny La Rue makes an unexpected stage appearance!

By John Denison

Ray Connolly's thoroughly on-target appreciation of Judy Garland's extraordinary talent [December 31] should be required reading for everyone who thinks they know what show business is all about.

I remember Hollywood's Roger Edens (who guided Judy through her biggest movie successess as her musical arranger) saying that really only three stars could create such magic with an audience in this centuary. In his opinion they were Al Jolson, Ethel Merman and Miss Garland.

THe opening Monday proved to so many of us that he was probably right- this girl is still something to marvel at.

To Danny La Rue must surely go full marks for his handling of an unexpected on-stage appearance - something which could have easily mis-fired and particularly under the circumstances which would have defeated many a "professional".


Thursday, 4 May 2017

Joni's classic discs spin fun in Circle Game

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)

The cast claps & strums & rocks Joni Mitchell's stuff with full-on pizazz.  Emily Cooper photo.
L-R Kimmy Choi, Sara Vickruck, Rowen Kahn, Scott Perrie, David Z. Cohen, Adriana Ravalli.
From the footlights :  My favourite moment of Joni Mitchell is the wild, zany lyrical laugh she chortles forth at the end of her original recording of the iconic "Big Yellow Taxi". Since first hearing it in 1970, I've always thought she was warning listeners : never ever take yourself too seriously. Whether you're lamenting a relationship that's crashed-&-burned or farmers using DDT or the countless miles of blacktar macadam that pave paradise everywhere, always stay centred, keep calm & carry on, never lose your laugh lest you lose your grip.

Indeed, it seemed almost as if Joni was challenging us from the get-go of her professional career to always re-imagine ourselves and our messages. Check ourselves from the moment we thrust our heartfelt p.o.v.'s on an unsuspecting universe. Such seems, too, to have been a kernel of the thought behind co-creators Andrew Cohen and Anna Kuman for their unique show Circle Game : Re-imagining the Music of Joni Mitchell that opened tonight and runs at the Firehall through May 20.

Six musicians, 18 instruments, 28 Mitchell songs, over 100 minutes of millennial out-takes on Mitchell's singular music and lyrics : pray tell what does a cigarette-smoking flower child of the 60's with her acoustic guitar and odd free-form chord-licks have to tell contemporary audiences raised on hip-hop / electro-pop and Facebook.

How it's all put together : Mitchell's "Circle Game" ["We're captive on the carousel of time"] was and will always be a popular theme among Boomers. Who of us hasn't swooned over F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby that ends "And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Or ached to balladeer Harry Chapin's "All my life's a circle" plaintive lament. Or, like Jennifer Anniston, shed a tear over Sara Bareille's passionate version of "Both Sides Now" sung at the 2017 Oscars in memoriam to Prince, Carrie Fisher, Mary Tyler Moore et al who recently passed on and left Hollywood the poorer for it. (By comparison, Canadian opera soprano Measha Brueggergosman's version of "Both Sides Now" at Joni's 70th birthday bash was done in full-on diva-warble style -- Yipes! -- my ears-&-nerves have yet to fully recover...).

The intent then of Re-Imagining, according to its creators, is to try to wrest from Mitchell's music and her lyrics a way to cycle back 70's themes -- eco-angst, feminist-&-personal liberation, love-&-loss, the joys of village and the magnetism of community -- in a way that contemporary audiences can relate to. (Context : Mitchell's website reminds how she and Phil Ochs and James Taylor all performed at a 1970 Pacific Coliseum benefit by the Don't Make A Wave Committee that raised $17,000 for the fledgling protest group Greenpeace.)

Huge social concerns back in the day to Mitchell's generation, many of these issues were pushed aside as Boomers became co-opted by the pursuit of personal wealth, family, security. (Even the infamous 1960's street theatre anarchist Yippie Jerry Rubin donned a tailored suit, became an early Apple investor and was a millionaire by 1980.)

Shades of Red Rock Diner were part of this "re-imagining" of Joni Mitchell's folky songs.  Emily Cooper photo.
Meanwhile the "pussy power" protest march in Washington, DC and elsewhere after the inauguration of USA's Apprentice President is a sign of renewed, if belated, political interest by progressives emerging from the Millennial ranks. The imminent end of peak oil and the rise of Elon Musk household power packs -- for everyone by 2030 he claims -- is another hopeful sign that certain themes Mitchell championed 50 years back are again au courant.

And thus the hook of her music. In a 1994 Mojo interview Mitchell observed without false modesty or irony : "What I realize now is that songs like 'Circle Game' and 'Big Yellow Taxi' have almost become nursery rhymes, they've become part of the culture." Quite so.

What the show brings to the stage : Firehall's supplied photos reveal once more how "every picture tells a story". In design Circle Game is a cabaret show / garage band / college theatre buddies jam session. There is no true dramatic narrative thread or arc or plot, rather a series of musical snippets and stanzas and whole songs mostly from Mitchell's early oeuvre that are stitched together to please eye & ear & mind. Fully two hours of visual and audial juice that endear and excite.

The first three numbers, interleafed, were "Free Man In Paris", "Help Me" and "Both Sides Now", all of which reflect the ever-recurrent Mitchell themes of personal freedom -vs- commitment -vs- life's illusions / heartbreaks. (Is there a better lyric on the subject of freedom than the feisty young independent soul who finds himself "unfettered and alive"? I think not.)

Production values that shine : The set decor, from personal experience, might easily have been culled from the "Kalamazoo '68" school of design. Functional hanging-spots for the show's myriad instruments, overstuffed armchairs and piano furniture aligning the 30-foot deep, 65-foot proscenium. Perpendicular performance platforms mid-stage, strings of Xmas lights, even the requisite faux-Victorian / Tiffany glass lampshade so popular back in the day. Underneath a swack of Persian-cum-paisley throw rugs higgledy-piggledy cast about just like I remember them. Set designer Carolyn Rapanos must have consulted countless family photograph albums to create such verisimilitude.

Considerable imagination by lighting designer Ian Schimpf to re-create ("re-imagine") what the 60's-70's youthful digs and garage hang-outs would produce by way of rheostat controls. Longtime Arts Club sound designer Geoff Hollingshead brings his rock experiences from staging Buddy : The Buddy Holly Story into effective use in Circle Game, no question. The mixes of electric and acoustic and electrified acoustic pick-up guitar were choice.

Performers Sara Vickruck, Adriana Ravalli  & Kimmy Choi belt out a rock song together.   Emily Cooper photo.
Acting pin-spots :  Particular numbers stand out. Ravalli and Cohen's duet of "Case of You" with a guitar perched horizontally across their knees almost made me forget Dianna Krall's signature version from her album Live in Paris. Their snuggly smooch at song's end seemed more real than stagey. 

Scott Perrie's lengthy moody version of "Free Man in Paris" to start Act 2 was by itself reason to go see this show. The duet mix of "The River" with "Both Sides Now" -- reminiscent of Israel Kamakawiwo-ole's blend of "Over The Rainbow" with "It's A Wonderful World" -- was transcendent. 

And the trio cut of "Big Yellow Taxi" with all the harmonized atonal riffs to make it 2017-y was the 3rd major hi-lite of the night for me. The talent of this troupe was simply stupendous for the most part. 

For their parts directors & creators Andrew Cohen and Anna Kuman are utterly synergistic in their creativity. Cohen's brilliance deconstructing and reconstructing Mitchell's musical lines was matched every step of the way, lit.& fig., by Kuman's blocking and choreography and stage business. While a couple of numbers struck my ear as longish, by and large this was seldom-witnessed dramatic inspiration. Mostly in how a-sequential the music was -- how un-hitched & re-hitched & repeated & hinted-at & revived contrapuntally Mitchell's music and lyrics became over the night. 

Who gonna like : As noted up top, Mitchell has produced "music to my ears" (Sorry!) for nigh unto 50 years. While maybe not a Leonard Cohen versifier, she brings her painter's eye to her musician's ear and the results are often just stunning. The skill of Andrew Cohen to pick her music apart verse-by-verse and song-by-song and stitch it all back together in a whole new whimsical tapestry is to marvel at. 

The talent on display at Firehall's production, many of them in the early stages of their professional careers, will no doubt add you to the standing-o squad that surrounded me last night. Hard to surmise, but I would bet a person who'd never heard a lick of Joni Mitchell's music-&-lyrics who caught this show would thrill at what they see. 

Rich, creative, extremely nuanced and robustly "re-imagined" stuff that sings sweetly of age-old themes and anxieties and hopes. I'd go again in a heartbeat.

Particulars : Co-creators, conspirators, directors (and spouses) : Andrew Cohen & Anna Kuman.  Produced by the Firehall Arts Centre.  At the FAC, Gore @ Cordova.  On until May 20th.  Run-time 90 minutes including intermission.  Tickets and schedule info  @ FAC website or FACBO 604.689.0926.

Production team : Directors Andrew Cohen & Anna Kuman.  Musical Director & Arranger Andrew Cohen.  Set Designer Carolyn Rapanos.  Costume Designer Jessie Van Rijn.  Lighting Designer Ian Schimpf.  Sound Designer Geoff Hollingshead. 

Performers / musicians :  Kimmy Choi.  David Z. Cohen (Yes! Andrew's younger bro.)  Rowen Kahn.  Scott Perrie.  Adriana Ravalli.  Sara Vickruck. 

Addendum : Joni Mitchell's name became "new news" four years back when she turned 70. Radio stations from Zeballos to East Sidealia played her stuff plus the myriad covers other singers & groups have performed over the years. (The JM website notes there have been 403 individual covers of "Big Yellow Taxi", for example.)

These idiosyncratic nuances about Joni Mitchell emerged around that time : that she met her birth daughter for the first time, age 32, in 1997 after Joni had given her up for adoption in 1965 named "Kelly Dale Anderson" -- since reunion her name has changed to Kilauren Gibb; that @ 70 Joni still smoked cigarettes (the chief subject matter of  a UK Daily Independent news article back in 2007, believe that or not); that in April 2015 Joni suffered a brain aneurism in L.A. and could not talk. [She attended Elton John's 70th six weeks ago, arriving in a wheelchair but quite able to walk & smile & communicate.]


Thursday, 27 April 2017

 Piano Teacher = grief + release thru music
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)

Trying to find a re-connect with piano prowess is not easy when struck dumb by grief.
David Cooper photo of Megan Leitch as Erin.
From the footlights : Some say there are but two emotions, love & fear. Others claim three fundamental moods rule us : mad, sad, glad. But that at any moment we choose which one. Grief is "sad", for sure. And clearly it has elements of both love and fear that inform it. But the extent to which we can choose our way out of grief -- or not -- lies at the heart of The Piano Teacher by Dorothy Dittrich now playing at ACT's 1st Ave. stage.

Director Yvette Nolan describes the show thus : "Dorothy's characters grapple with loss and grief, as we all do. They wonder why, and then they stumble forward, they catch each other when one threatens to tumble. And through it all they are buoyed by, yearning for, uplifted by, art. The piano, music, the very act of creation, is the antidote to grief, the answer to and the expression of loss."

Bartleby, meanwhile, reminds us how Robert Frost's 1915 poetry collection North of Boston is analogous, its poems "concerned with human tragedies and fears, his reaction to the complexities of life, and his ultimate acceptance of his burdens". Chapter 9 is where the famous Frost observation is made, twice-over : "The only way out is through."

And that sentiment precisely is what is echoed by playwright Dittrich in her script. She observes that grief "is one of life's most difficult passages and one that is not easily shared". In my life no question : an emotional continuum that is completely idiosyncratic, grief. "The notion of experiencing and moving through even the most difficult of feelings, rather than trying to conquer or overcome or suppress, interested me as both a writer and a musician. Something about flow and moving through a feeling stuck me as distinctly musical," Dittrich notes.

Sometimes "playing" requires someone else to plunk the keys while you just hold on for dear life.
David Cooper photo.
What the show brings to the stage : Some folks enjoy a surfeit of joie de vivre. Others suffer a malaise I have termed mal de vivre -- melancholy, the blues, a vague but persistent angst.

Two of this play's three characters are stuck, in their own way, in the latter category. The bereaved and grieving widow / mother Erin (Megan Leitch) is openly in the grip of her pain-&-loss : she doesn't even crack a smile until 10 minutes into Act 2 of this 90-minute show. Her instructor [life coach, guru, piano-bench therapist] Elaine (Caitriona Murphy) is also emotionally crippled a wee bit despite her liberating effect on Erin. Carpenter cum boyfriend Tom (Kamyar Pazandeh), meanwhile, is front-&-centre in the joie camp and offers the show the slight snigger of comic relief it sorely needs.

My seat mate for the performance was a young friend of the family, a millennial chap who'd never been to a live theatre performance before tonight. He was smitten by how weighty and chewy the play's subject matter is, its focus on deep churning festering emotions that impact us all throughout our life's various journeys.

Production values that shine : Set designer David Roberts comes in for particular mention and kudos right up front. This is the first time the ACT 1st Ave. stage has been arranged "runway" style. The set runs E/W the length of the room with the audience in banks of seats facing opposite each other on both the north and south sides of the stage. 

Mr. Roberts' set is spare and minimalist and representative, anchored mid-stage by the baby grand piano that is the centrepiece of the plot, lit.-&-fig. The accompanying pix say just about all. Except for the barely visible strings -- 20 of them -- that descend from ceiling to floor in the set's living room area. They are arranged syncopatically to represent the random threads and strings, piano and otherwise, that intersect the play's characters and their musical lives.

Runway staging, like the more common theatre-in-the round or alley-style arrangements, runs the risk of characters having their backs to a large swack of the audience too often. Not under the wand and eminently capable hand of director Yvette Nolan, however.  The efforts of all three cast to pivot and swivel themselves to share their persona with the entire room are admirable. 

Talking through pain is can be the only way out of it as Erin discovers with Tom's help.
David Cooper photo.

Acting pin-spots : My seat mate joined me in remarking on the particularly nuanced performance of Caitriona Murphy as the arthritic piano teacher Elaine who pines for the performer life she left behind when the stiffening in her joints set in at a young age. She observes, repeatedly, that Canadian jazz great Oscar Peterson gnarled with arthritis his whole career. Still, she fights back in her own way, describing both musical and human dramatics  : "We live in patterns, consciously or unconsciously. And we are always creating new patterns," she says, "new stories, new rituals that give us new shape and form : how would we ever hold ourselves together if we didn't?"

When she finally gets Erin to join her in a duet arrangement of Aaron Copland's "Saturday Night Waltz" from his iconic piece Rodeo, she declares : "I can't imagine better proof of God than music -- the invisible, the ephemeral...". 

Long have I said how music transcends mere language : e.g. would Glenn Gould's performances of Bach's Goldberg Variations be superior if he were a fluent conversationalist in German? Not likely. His trademark grunts and snorts while recording say more than any half-hearted mimic of Joel Gray's Guten Abend, meine Damen und Herren! ever could. 

Who gonna like : Faithful readers of BLR know how fond this reviewer is of intimate small-space black-box theatre. The staging of The Piano Teacher physically as well as its casting and its blocking and the actors' crisp execution of their roles all contribute to a rich evening theatrically and thematically. The nearly-full-house opening night gave the group a gusty and heartfelt standing-o. Nice! Not knee-jerk I felt.

Particulars :  Produced by The Arts Club as its 11th Silver Commission. Performed at the BMO Theatre Centre, 1st Avenue at Columbia.  On until May 14, 2017.  Run-time two hours including one Intermission.  Tickets & schedule information via phone at 604.687.1644 or by visiting Arts Club.

Production crew :  Director Yvette Nolan.  Dramaturg Rachel Ditor.  Set Designer David Roberts.  Costume Designer Jenifer Darbellay.  Lighting Designer Kyla Gardiner.  Sound Designer Patrick Pennefather.  Stage Manager Alison Spearin.  Apprentice Stage Manager Sandra Drag.

Performers : Megan Leitch (Erin).  Caitriona Murphy (Elaine).  Kamyar Pazandeh (Tom).