Saturday, 23 June 2018

As You Like It is a whimsical wonderfest of Beatles songs
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Shakespeare scholar A. L. Rowse declares AYLI to be "pure comedy, with a pastoral background, and a few touches of more serious intent". In the hands of Director Daryl Cloran it retains those qualities. But it jumps from the Elizabethan woodlands of Warwickshire to Vancouver and the Okanagan Valley in the 60's. Its primary conceit is that it includes 25 Beatles's songs. Says Mr. Cloran, "I have cut a lot of Shakespeare's text to make room for the songs. The Bard's story comes alive through song, as the characters find themselves in the woods where emotions can no longer be contained by words alone." 

AYLI is a tale of two sets of brothers (in each, one is squarely on the outs with their mendacious sibling), two girl cousins born the same day who love each other like twin sisters, a clown, some hippie lamb shepherds, omnipresent Billy Bard cross-dressing that kick-starts a bit of accidental homoerotica, and the end where four couples are joined in matrimony by Hymen, the god of marriage.

The troupe of As You Like It belts out "Love, Love, Love" to close the show.
Photo credit : Tim Mathewson

Who gonna like : Faithful readers will observe that this is normally the final section in a typical BLR review. But not for this show. This is truly My Oh My! theatre that Vancouver is blest to have. While the gruesome but crisply-engaged Macbeth has 25+ performances left in its run into September, AYLI with mainly all the same actors has 50 shows remaining after last night's opening. I heard one patron (avec Bard nametag) allow as how this was his 3rd trip already : the dress rehearsal + one preview before last night. No wonder.

Since BLR's launch in Spring 2012, I have had the pleasure to see more than 250 Greater Vancouver performances. With not even a soup├žon of hesitation, I say AYLI is the most imaginative and awesome big-stage musical production I have seen over these past years. 

Its creator Daryl Cloran has done an astonishing job of rendering Shakespeare 100% accessible, even to folks who don't generally prefer the Bard's oblique and often-tricky dialogue. As a prim octogenarian ordering up a tea at intermission properly noted to me, meanwhile, Cloran has captured the "pith" of the original script while blending in a rich array of Beatles' songs performed gustily and lustily by the mainstage Bard troupe. 

We both remarked how Act 1 had been just about the fastest 90 minutes of stage fun we perhaps had ever witnessed. Act smartly. Tickets will evaporate overnight I have no doubt!

How it's all put together : A key scene in the original 1598 script is a wrestling match. Cloran snatches the leitmotif of wrestling, sets it in Vancouver's 1960's popular All-Star Wrestling milieu, and the show starts its smackdown silliness instantly.

During a pre-performance "spontaneous" All-Star Wrestling re-do, Kayvon Khoshkam plays the role of ring announcer then quickly segues into leading the audience in a rousing round of "We All Live In A Yellow Submarine". Once the "pith" of Billy Bard commences we find him, fittingly, in the role of Touchstone the clown. 

Younger son of the late patriarch Rowland de Boys, Orlando (Nadeem Phillip) manages to defeat Duke Frederick's itinerant bone-crusher Charles (Austin Eckert) and meets the winsome Rosalind (Lindsey Angell) in the bargain. They both swoon. But do so to the the Fab Four's "She Loves You, Yeah Yeah Yeah" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand!" that are sung out by all on stage, backed by a 4-piece rock band with Gerald King's lighting quick-stops an exceptional add. 

As noted above, the tale is about estranged brothers and cousins and banishment of the losers. Truly it's more like escape, a Shakespeare "back to the land" motif where the stuffy values of big city parlours are scoffed at. In transit and while resettling upcountry, Rosalind masquerades as a man named Ganymede partly for safety, partly because "This is Shakespeare!" as the cast smirks teasingly elsewhere on the night. 

Harveen Sandhu as Celia / Aliena and Lindsey Angell as Rosaline masquerading as Ganymede-the-youthful-male share news about Ros's heartthrob Orlando.
Photo credit : Tim Matheson

Her beloved cuz Celia (Harveen Sandhu) joins her and adopts the name Aliena to reflect her outlaw status with Dad. Orlando heads upcountry as well when he learns that estranged older brother Oliver (Craig Erickson) wants him not just dispossessed of their father's inheritance for him, but dead, full stop.

Production values that enhance the script :  Easy to indulge in plot-spoiler mode here, more than I have already. But I shan't ruin all the suprises in store for lucky viewers. Suffice to say the following : never mind the Beatles music that was just plain trick, the hippie-dippie costumes stitched together by Carmen Alatorre were absolutely an ace throwback to the day. One could almost smell the cannabis implicitly embedded in the tie-dyes and brocades and paisleys and loud stripes and outlandish shoes the cast sported. ("If you remember the 60's you weren't there!" was a popular slogan for that time.) 

Set designer Pam Johnson's wrestlemania opening scene carried the stage for over half-an-hour, backed by scrims reflecting Vancouver's human-scale neon downtown look before the highrise horrors that shortly would take hold. Her Okanagan orchard follow-up with the upstage VW bus declaring Peace and Love and adorned with gaudy flowers was a terrific touch.

But it is the choreography and blocking and stage business and in-character nuances throughout that capture the imagination the most. Credit Director Cloran, of course, but huge kudos to Choreographer Jonathan Hawley Purvis as well for his blocking prowess. Taken all together, a more effective blend of Billy Bard 17th Century dialogue with Beatles-era music that followed it by some 350 years on cannot, probably, be imagined, duplicated or improved upon.

Acting pin-spots : This script is all about Rosalind and Orlando, without doubt. But Lindsey Angell's excellence in her role as mirrored by Nadeem Phillip in his would by themselves not have been enough to take the show over the top the way it did do. As the clown Touchstone, Kayvon Khoshkam was an Elton John lookalike with his outsize glasses, garish striped suit and non-stop histrionica that absolutely charmed the audience the night through.

As Touchstone the clown, Kayvon Khoshkam was pure scamp and slapstick tease, here with his earthy "country wench" (as Shakespeare described her in the script's original  Dramatis Personnae), Emma Slipp playing a randy Audrey. 
Photo credit : Tim Matheson
Simpleton shepherd Silvius by Ben Elliott and his breathless panting after Phoebe (Luisa Jojic) was constant good fun, their slapstick pratfall routine to "Like No Other Lover" a highlite. Harveen Sandhu as Celia / Aliena and Andrew Wheeler as the aging manservant Adam plus stoned-out lay preacher Martext were always fixing to watch. 

From the tortured / murderous Macbeth, Ben Carlson as the wittily ironic, melancholic Jaques in AYLI brought just the right edge to the part. His "All the world's a stage... / ... His acts being seven ages" soliloquy was commanding : subtle and poignant, neither over- nor under-stated.

Fact is my seatmate and I agreed there wasn't a weak performance anywhere ! As well as some fine strumming and singing of these old Beatle favourites spanning the band's full playlist spectrum, everything from "Help!" to "Across the Universe".

Final thoughts : As among Mamma Mia, Once and As You Like It, this is the most robust swack of musical comedy afoot at one time in Vancouver than ever before. I have no hesitation in recommending each and every one of these shows and would happily, eagerly, go see all three all over again. Each is decidedly different from the others, but quite deliciously so. If you have budget for but one, choose carefully, or maybe make your choice with random abandon. You can't go wrong either way.

Particulars : Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Artistic Director Christopher Gaze. At the BMO Mainstage, Vanier Park. Performances : 50 shows between now and the September 22nd closer. Schedule & ticket information @ bardonthebeach.orgRun-time 150 minutes including intermission. 

Production crew :  Director Daryl Cloran.  Costume Designer Carmen Alatorre.  Set Designer Pam Johnson.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Sound Designer/Musical Director Ben Elliott.  Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews.  Choreographer / Fight Director Jonathan Hawley Purvis.  Production Stage Manager Stephen Courtenay.  Assistant Stage Manager Rebeca Mulvihill. Apprentice Stage Manager Jenny Kim.  Directing Apprentice Kim Senklip Harvey. Costume Design Apprentice Emily Fraser.

Performers :  Lindsey Angell (Rosalind).  Scott Bellis (Duke Senior; Duke Frederick).  Ben Carlson (Jaques).  Sharon Crandall (Duke Frederick's Attendant; Corin).  Nicco del Rio (Second Lord; William; Jacques De Boys).  Austin Eckert (Charles the Wrestler; Amiens).  Ben Elliott (Silvius).  Craig Erickson (Oliver De Boys).  Jeff Gladstone (Le Beau; First LordHymen).  Louisa Jojic (Phoebe).  Kayvon Khoshkam (Touchstone). Nadeem Phillip (Orlando De Boys).  Harveen Sandhu (Celia).  Emma Slipp (Audrey).  Andrew Wheeler (Adam; Sir Oliver Martext). 


Thursday, 21 June 2018

Once will charm your sox off with its Irish lilt 
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Once is a musical charmer set in Dublin that is based on a 2007 low-budget indie-flik of the same name written and directed by John Carney. Musicians Glen Hansard (Irish) and Marketa Irglova (Czech) did both the tunes and lyrics, their ballad "Falling Slowly" winning an Academy Award for best song.

But unlike themselves, a real-life couple, the show's protagonists don't fall in love and live happily ever after as in most rom-coms. Their reach for one another as lovers finally exceeds -- or more accurately, evades -- their grasp. But not before they've made some very sexy music together.  (Sidebar : Their script names are neutral, just “Guy” and “Girl”. Slightly off-putting “universal pretentious” i.m.o., but no matter.)
Gili Roskies and Adrian Glynn McMorran charm their instruments, each other, and the audience the night through with a string of touching ballads. 
Photo credit : Emily Cooper
Guy (Adrian Glynn McMorran) is a down-on-his luck busker in Dublin. Girl (Gili Roskies) is an immigrant Czech pianist who is eager, serious and earnest to make her mark musically. She along with a passle of friends makes that happen, but other loves in G-&-G’s lives, off-island, spook them still. So in Enda Walsh's book for the show, each of these two wind up as "the one that got away".
How it's all put together : Some cultures produce a striking and remarkably high percentage of artists in their midst. Think Coast Salish carvers here, or Celtic musicians both on Canada’s eastern seaboard and on the Irish rock out in the Atlantic. To drive the latter point home, the show's twelve actors all play not only their own characters but each is a performing musician as well who fill the seats and jam together in the down-to-earth pub set. (It is a "working pub" to boot -- audience are invited up pre-show and can buy a beer while mingling and dancing with the troupe.)

Nearly a dozen instruments are brought into play, lit.-&-fig., including violins, banjo, mandolin, cello, Peruvian drum box [cajon], accordian, uke, tinwhistle, clarinet and piano and a couple more. One conjures a scene where talented performers spill over in their enthusiasm to share pints and tunes and dreams and disappointments all. What one pundit called "the third place" : a social focal point that is almost as central to their lives as their home and where they work. 
Rousing tunes from night after night jamming in an Irish pub is the fun of this show. 
Photo credit : Emily Cooper
The story is simple : Girl talks Bank Manager (Caitriona Murphy) between BM's bouts on cello and violin to front the money for Guy to do a demo album. Girl's Czech friends band together to make it happen and along the way perform stunning music singly, duet, in trio and a cappella as a chorus. 
Production values that enhance the show : This is a “Where do you begin…?” proposition. Three values primarily drive the sense experience that is Once : longtime Arts Club set designer Ted Roberts obviously pulled out all the stops for Director Bill Millerd’s swan song as artistic director of ACT. Having not yet made it to Eire — despite two futile tries and $1,200 in cancellation fees in four months — I can’t vouch for the verisimilitude of the interior of an Irish pub. But having been a life-long saloon aficionado world-wide, I have to speculate that Roberts’ visually grabby set and lighting are outright religious in their mimic as relics of real-time Irish 3rd places.
Alison Jenkins, John Murphy, Gili Roskies and Sarah Donald all throw their talents at this clever and engaging evening's tale of heart-&-soul. 
Photo credit : Emily Cooper
Then there’s the team of Steven Charles as musical director, Ace Martens as sound designer, and Scott Augustine as choreographer : absolutely World Cup pedigree in every note, every crescendo and pianissimo, every jig & reel by the cast. Kirsten McGhie’s costumes are funky and unpretentious just as they should be for this emigre entourage (Marlene Ginader’s Reza with black hot-pants and torn stocking the most perfect of all) .

The music, the dramatic arc, the pull of it all : The show has been called “bittersweet” by more than one critic, and indeed the closing line of the show’s headliner hit “Falling Slowly” suggests that : “I played the card too late / And now you’re gone” Guy sings, ostensibly written back when about his girlfriend. But really, everybody knows, a tear shed about real-time Girl who he’s leaving behind to try once more with Ex in NYC.

When Girl and Guy sing in duet, one can’t help but make comparisons with what i.m.o. is the only aspect of the t.v. soap opera “Nashville” that really resonated —that of the on/off love as sung between the characters Gunner Scott and Scarlett O’Connor. As with them, McMorran’s multiple octaves and Roskies’ sweet but insistent harmonies compel the ears and snatch the heart.

This is, as said before and always will be, a very simple story of life in a new land — “I’m always serious,” says Girl, “I’m Czech”. Of a crew of Girl’s homies who share a flat and are trying desperately to scrabble their way to blend in to the local scene but stay unique, too. Of how blind the eye can be to love — however fleeting and futile it may happen — even over just a handful of days. 

Acting pin-spots The team of McMorran and Roskies is, as suggested above, utterly dynamic and delightful as they circle and dance about both their record-demo deal and their nascent romance. Smitten they are, as is the audience -- from Moment 1 to Guy's last lingering minor key lament -- all night long sharing their stories. 

Of the supporting crew, three particularly stand out though each and every is a core support and convincing. As the music store owner Billy, Chris Cochrane is ever and always a robust and chummy presence. Marlene Ginader’s Reza — reminiscent of her chops in Chelsea Hotel — is a force of nature to be reckoned with : her fiddle playing is wholly in-the-groove while her Czech accent and tough-girl demeanour are consistent fun. Long-drink-of-water Alexander Nicoll as Svec is not only a multi-talented musician, his Me-Czech-learn-Irish schtick were both worth the price of admission.

Who gonna like There is a quaint innocence about Once that not only charms but magnetizes. Anyone who’s been an immigrant — a stranger in a strange land — will relate viscerally, intuitively. Obviously to like the pulse of Irish music and not be tone deaf to its nuances will boost one’s enthusiasm for this simple musical heartfelt tale. 

No question. As a summer evening’s divertissement from all the usual goings-on of visiting family and friends and endless BBQ’s and then tripping about chasing one’s own vacation adventures, this is a fun holiday night snatched out of Ireland right here on Granville Island that simply should not to be missed.

Particulars : Produced by Arts Club Theatre at its Granville Island stage. On until July 29, 2018. Tickets & schedule information by phone at 604.687.1644 or Run-time two hours, including intermission.

Production team :  Director Bill Millerd.  Musical Director Stephen Charles.  Choreographer Scott Augustine.  Set and Lighting Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Kirsten McGhie.  Sound Designer Ace Martens. erald King.  Stage Manager Caryn Fehr. Assistant Stage Manager Ronaye Haynes. Apprentice Stage Manager Alannah Korf.

Performers :  Chris Cochran (Billy, playing guitar, penny whistle, clarinet, cajon, melodian, tambourine, drums).  Sarah Donald (Ex-girlfriend playing violin, cajon).  Vera Frederickson (Ivanka, Girl's daughter).  Marlene Ginader (Reza playing violin, cajon).  Erik Gow (Eamon / Emcee playing piano, guitar, banjo, cajon).  Alison Jenkins  (Baruska, playing accordian, piano, percussion, penny whistle).  Adrian Glynn McMorran (Guy, playing guitar). Caitriona Murphy (Bank Manager playing cello, violin, guitar).  John Murphy (Da, playing mandolin).  Alexander Nicoll (Svec, playing mandolini, banjo, cajon, drum kit, ukelele, guitar).  Scott Perrie (Andrej, playing bass, guitar).  Gili Roskies (Girl, playing piano).  


Monday, 18 June 2018

Macbeth is well-cut treachery, gore & mayhem
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Interpretations of Macbeth are as many as there are directors and performers to do the piece. The 2018 Bard show is by Chris Abraham in his local debut. (His regular day job is Artistic Director of Toronto's Crow's Theatre). While he confesses to "radical re-workings" of other Shakespeare scripts previously, this one he "wants to strip down to its muscular core...anchored in a very visceral approach to the language and staging...something like the conditions [its] first audiences might have."

Most critics focus on Macbeth as a greedily ambitious and prideful anti-hero for whom it's all about power. They link his murderous rampages either to his temptress wife and/or to fate as represented by Hecate and the three weird sisters. Director Abraham hints he may be thus inclined, too. This tumultuous tag-team comprises "two of the most terrifying and devastating tragic figures imagined by times chillingly amoral and at others superhumanly sublime in their suffering," he declares.

Lady Macbeth (Moya O'Connell) surveys the results of screwing one's courage to the sticking point on the face of husband Macbeth (Ben Carlson) .
Photo credit : David Cooper
There's another possibility, of course. As raised by Shakespeare himself in Act 5 Sc. 3 : mental illness. Just before her suicide, her husband describes her as beset by "the written troubles of the brain" and "perilous stuff that weighs upon the heart". Macbeth's doctor responds as if by rote reflecting society's attitudes over the years toward mental illness : "Therein the patient must minister to himself," he proclaims.

How it's all put together : The moral ambiguity on the cusp between Elizabethan and Jacobean times at the turn of the 17th century is caught by the witches a mere 12 lines into the piece, which -- to be unabashedly trite -- also aptly describes life in DC four centuries hence: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair / Hover through the fog and filthy air."

Interesting the obvious disconnect between this 1606 script and the day-to-day Christian schisms between Catholic Scotland -vs- Anglican England.  Eye of newt and tongue of dog are a far cry from bread and wine as the sacraments of Christ's body and blood after all. It is said wretched Puritanism resurrected demonology practices and rituals. And indeed the setting and plot appear to be ripped straight out of pagan druid times and traditions and climes.

The rough-cut wood-hewn functional two-tier set with virtually no stage furniture -- other than, briefly, an empty cradle belonging to the dead baby Lady Macbeth mourns -- allows the audience to focus fully on the dialogue and the insidious self-absorption of the grasping and desperate Macbeths.

What the Bard reveals to viewers right up-front : This imagining by Director Abraham is all about the script and the actors. Any doubt that this alleged anti-hero really is just plain old-fashion villainy writ large is betrayed -- I humbly submit -- only 190 lines into the piece when Macbeth soliloquies this aside : 

"Why do I yield to that suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair / And make my seated heart knock at my ribs / Against the use of nature? Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings / My thought, whose murder (sic) yet is but fantastical / Shakes so my single state of man / That function is smother'd in surmise / And nothing is but what is not."  

A more compelling bit of foreshadowing up-close-&-personal probably exists nowhere else in drama or literature.

Some say Macbeth grows "increasingly mad". Maybe not. Maybe consummately mad from moment one. Only more dedicated as time passes to his crescendoing paranoid evil, not unlike a certain Austrian corporal named Adolf. Has moments of doubt, needs some cajoling and badgering and threats from the good wife to steal a t.v. cliche. 

Speaking of "lady" Macbeth -- whether in mourning for a dead infant or no -- mere moments after the warrior's "horrible imaginings" of murder and mayhem she offers up how "The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements. Come you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here / And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full / Of direst cruelty."

So perhaps we should not over-analyze or complexify the obvious. This play is Shakespeare doing a horror-movie in the flesh and real-time. Which quite frankly makes it less the kind of dramatic exercise that Chris Abraham wants from us -- "Macbeth is a play that asks its audience to forge a unbique bond with its protagonists" -- than just plain outright shocking terror with a few psycho-drama moments thrown in. Like Banquo's ghost appearances at dinner and LadyM's "out damn spot" crash just before she suicides.

Production values that enhance the script : On opening night, it being Father's Day, my 25-year-old daughter accompanied me. She was wow'd by the consistency and polish of the actors' performances overall. No upstaging by any one character, no weak cast members at all. By the richness and genuineness of Christine Reimer's costumes, particulary for Banquo (Craig Erickson) and Macduff (Andrew Wheeler). 

By Owen Belton's tympany-thick and pounding soundscape plus its purposely atonal bagpipe skirls and screeches offset by friendlier bird trills and cricket chirps. By the excellence and realism of the fight sequences choreographed by Jonathan Hawley Purvis. By Gerald King's clever lighting and the incessant hazer fog accompanying the lights'  nuanced changes. I couldn't agree more.

Acting pin-spots : Arguably Director Abraham has commanded a production whose protagonists are maybe not Macbeth (Ben Carlson) and LadyM (Moya O'Connell) quite as much as it is a showcase for the Weird Sisters with whom I did indeed form a "unique bond". Kate Besworth as Witch 2 was shriekishly compelling, her voice and stage manner a mirror of her fright hair. But Emma Slipp as Chief Witch and Harveen Sandhu as the third voice in this menacing trio were no mere shadows or also-rans. The crowd jumped to its feet for them all at curtain. Their performances were utterly magnetizing.

But take nothing away in the least from Mr. Carlson and Ms. O'Connell. Each of their iconic soliloquies as they faced their certain fates at play's end were stunning. The 20-second pause between the announcement of Mrs. Macbeth's suicide and the start of her husband's "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" lament was brilliant. His rendering of those fate-filled lines of raw unabashed existential agony was perhaps the most unnerving delivery I have ever witnessed either on stage or film. Never has the word "idiot" struck harder.

Who gonna like : This is hard-core Shakespeare. Despite the infamous drunken Porter scene by Kayvon Khoshkam for a moment's wee diversion, there are no giggles to be had here. Evil is as evil does. We choose our persona, we command our life performances. 

Unless, of course, we are certifiably mentally unbalanced. Which I suggest these murderers may in fact just be, all the centuries of psychoanalysis and decrypting of their motives and ambition and greed and self-doubt to the contrary notwithstanding. That may make them more understandable but not particularly pitiable even when our better angels are asked to ramp up the empathy radar.

Folks looking for vehement and unremitting earnestness from their Macbeth "favourites" will find the 2018 Bard version of the show utterly exhilarating, embracing and breathtaking.

Particulars : Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Artistic Director Christopher Gaze. At the BMO Mainstage, Vanier Park. Performances : 28 shows between now and the September 13th closer. Schedule & ticket information @ Run-time 150 minutes including intermission. 

Production crew :  Director Chris Abraham. Costume Designer Christine Reimer.  Set Designer Pam Johnson.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Sound Designer/Composer Owen Belton. Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews. Fight Director Jonathan Hawley Purvis. Associate Fight Director Jacqueline Loewen.  Production Stage Manager Stephen Courtenay.  Assistant Stage Manager Rebeca Mulvihill. Apprentice Stage Manager Jenny Kim.  Directing Apprentice Marie Farsi. Costume Design Apprentice Alaia Hamer.

Performers :  Lindsey Angell (Lady Macduff).  Scott Bellis (Duncan ; Doctor).  Kate Besworth (Witch 2; Fleance).  Ben Carlson (Macbeth).  Nicco del Rio (Macduff's son).  Austin Eckert (Ross).  Ben Elliott (Lennox).  Craig Erickson (Banquo).  Jeff Gladstone (Malcolm).  Kayvon Khoshkam (Sergeant; Porter; Seyton).  Moya O'Connell (Lady Macbeth).  Nadeem Phillip (Donalbain).  Harveen Sandhu (Witch #3).  Emma Slipp (Head Witch).  Andrew Wheeler (Macduff). 


Thursday, 17 May 2018

Mamma Mia! is yet another Valerie Easton marvel !
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : The expression "jukebox musical" didn't originate with the show Mamma Mia! but well it might have. Usually a stage musical wrested from Hit Parade charts involves a storyline that weaves a singer or group's tunes into the plot. In the case of Mamma Mia!, meanwhile, the storyline is but loosely and almost off-handedly sewn into see-through cloth. 

In truth it's primarily a concert of the ABBA tunes that escaped from Sweden in the mid-70's and infected the world joyously. ABBA would dominate not only the radiowaves but every karaoke bar from here to Timbuktu for almost ten years.

No question "Knowing Me, Knowing You", "Waterloo", "SOS" and "Dancin' Queen" are earworms not even a sluice of RoundUp could ever extinguish. If, that is, you grew up on those tunes. If you didn't, you might find the songs catchy, but the Catherine Johnson book written to stitch ABBA's pop hits into a musical won't likely make it to the top of your list of shows with the best dramatic arc. Still, no matter. Not in the least.

Teen rocker friends Rose (Cathy Wilmot), left, and Tanya (Irene Karas Loeper), right, try to cheer up disconsolate mom Stephanie Roth (Donna Sheridan) who wants to wave 20-year-old out-of-wedlock daughter Sophie off marrying so early in life.     
Photo credit : David Cooper
How it's all put together : Of Broadway's opening at the Winter Garden in 2001, Clive Barnes exulted that the show "flies as tuneful as a lark and as smart as a cuckoo". The story starts a couple decades back. An American saloon singer named Donna Sheridan (Stephanie Roth) works on the Greek mainland but is having a ball making whoopee with young US and Oz and UK vacationers on a small off-shore island. She gets preggers by one of them : entree daughter Sophie (Michelle Bardach).

Feisty and independent, Donna stays on her hide-away island and opens up a taverna. She raises Sophie as a single mom after her holidaying hook-ups go home. The inevitable settle-down of families and careers await them when they sober up. 

Twenty years hence Sophie has met the dashing young Sky (Stuart Barkley), and they are eager to marry. But Sophie wants the dad she's never met to walk her down the aisle. After a sneak into Mom's diary out of a musty desk drawer, she learns of three men mom dated serially back in the Summer of '79. Posing as Donna, Sophie writes each of the erstwhile paramours and invites them to come to her wedding -- certain she'd figure out which one was her DNA match.

That's about the limit of the cuckoo's smarts here. The rest is just plain fun with a wacky coincidental Billy Bard-like surprise climax where all's well that ends well.

Fun, sport & amusement as well as the usual hot-&-horny girl-chase pursuits are what these men are all about on stag nite on a remote Greek island.
Photo credit : David Cooper
What the show bring to the stage : The story squeezes itself into the original ABBA tunes much like the fat lady squeezes herself into a corset to belt out her breathless arias. There's mama / daughter snits plus reconciliation; historical ex-lover grudges and ambiguities; an old femme rock trio gang called Donna's Dynamos who can still whoop it up musically; and, finally, a 3-song encore so the audience can bust its pipes in a karaoke singalong in whatever key you want that's stand-up hand-clappy fun.

Production values that enhance the show : There is not one aspect of this show that didn't delight 100%. Probably most compelling, as the pictures show, were Alison Green's costumes. From beachwear to tourist togs to outrageous! 70's disco outfits, MM! delights the eye every second. David Roberts, as usual, fashions a clever but simple set on sleds that slide effortlessly between Donna's taverna cafe and her guest rooms, all of it just right glaring Greek white with blue accents. Lighting isolation of individuals and duets and whole scenes by Robert Sondergaard made the Stanley's 90-foot proscenium an up-close-&-personal space the night long. 

Then there's the music. Ken Cormier's orchestra, familiar names all, were once again more than fully equal to their task. Shout-outs due to Andreas Schuld on guitars : his take on "What's The Name of the Game?" surely is a distant cousin, musically, of J.C. Superstar favourite : "I Don't Know How To Love Him". Martin Fisk underscored the ensemble throughout with supple-wristed drumming and percussion of first order.

Performance pin-spots : Of the 20 singer / actor / dancers on stage, this was as craftily-selected and hand-picked an ensemble by Director and Choreographer Valerie Easton as could be imagined or hoped-for. She took the talent she wanted and obviously worked them to death executing her dance routines, her blocking, her meticulously-timed stage business and facial jibes. Vancouver is so fortunate to have her NYC Broadway-level imagination and adroitness and ingenuity to marvel at and immerse ourselves in. 

Four songs particularly jumped out at me in Row 2 : the first "Dancing' Queen" sequence in the upstairs room; "Voulez-Vous", "Under Attack" and "Does Your Mother Know" -- these last three totally unknown to me before tonight. These are dance routines to knock your sox off.

The stag-party gang (picture #2 above) doing their diving flippers dance bit was hi-octane Valerie Easton superbly executed by the troupe. Shannon Hanbury as Ali and her wedding bridesmaid partner Jennifer Lynch as Lisa were full-on full-in in their dance routines, as was Cathy Wilmot as the coquettish ex-Dynamo Rosie -- a cross between Rosie the Riveter and Roseanne Barr. Oh what fun from all. 

Voices. My goodness. Stephanie Roth, Welcome! to Vancouver. As Donna this is a voice and a nuance and an engagement to be reckoned with. Her "Winner Takes All" duet with Michael Torontow was pure delight, as was his alt-ballad version of "Knowing Me, Knowing You" sung with Michelle Bardach as Sophie.

Not a weak or marginal contributor anywhere. Kudos! to the entire crew for their note-perfect verve and snap. 

 Sugary rock 70's Swede-style is what's on display in yet another Valerie Easton crisply staged & blocked & choreographed concert of ABBA tunes set on a Greek Isle where perpetual unemployment and national bankruptcy woes give way to whimsy and fun. 
Photo credit : David Cooper
Who gonna like : This show is vintage Arts Club Theatre summer fare and a wholly fitting exit-stage-right for outgoing Artistic Director Bill Millerd. Above, the word "joyous" was used to describe ABBA's grab on tunes and beat and charm and fun back in the 70's. 

To re-live such whimsy in 2018 when, politically, there's a shadow over the world's sun many days is refreshing and rejuvenating and reassuring : you can't escape the feel-good vibe and rush and sex-appeal of this show. Don't even try. Just go! Three months until final curtain but tickets won't last long I have no doubt.

Particulars : Original Theatrical Production (1998) : Music and lyrics by ABBA front-men Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, assisted on some songs by Stig Anderson. Book by Catherine Johnson. Produced by Arts Club Theatre at its Stanley stage, Granville at 11th. On until August 12, 2018. Tickets & schedule information by phone at 604.687.1644 or Run-time two-and-a-half hours, including intermission.

Production teamDirector & Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Musical Director Ken Cormier.  Associate Musical Director Sasha Niechoda. Set Designer David Roberts.  Costume Designer Alison Green.  Lighting Designer Robert Sondergaard.  Sound Designer Bradley Danyluk.  Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Assistant Stage Manager April Starr Land.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tanya Schwaerzle.

Orchestra :  Ken Cormier (Director; Keyboard).  Sasha Niechoda (Keyboards).  MIchael Creber (Keyboards).  Angus Kellett (Keyboards).  Andreas Schuld (Guitars). Martin Fisk (Drums, Percussion).

Performers :  Paul Almeida (Pepper).  Michelle Bardach (Sophie Sheridan).  Stuart Barkley (Sky).  Oliverrt Castillo (Eddie).  Shannon Hanbury (Ali).  Jay Hindle (Harry Bright).  Warren Kimmel (Bill Austin).  Irene Karas Loeper (Tanya).  Jennifer Lynch (Lisa).  Stephanie Roth (Donna Sheridan).  Michael Torontow (Sam Carmichael).  Cathy Wilmot (Rose). 

Ensemble :  Sierra Brewerton.  Jarret Cody.  David Cohen.  Frankie Cottrell.  Maria Fernandes.  Julio Fuentes.  Brianne Loops.  Emily Machete.


Saturday, 21 April 2018

Me and You is a sisterly tale spanning seven decades 
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Two sisters. Seventy years. Twenty masques. Eighty minutes. That's what's at play in Melody Anderson's original script Me and You. Sisters Liz (Patti Allan) and Lou (Lois Anderson) are classics of family types. One's bookish, organized and orderly, a biologist who planned her marriage and children and her life as if straight out of a lab workbook. The other is an abstract painter, got preggers spontaneously at art school, leads a life of whimsy and creative flow describing her seemingly erratic footsteps through this world.

How it's all put together : Playwright Melody Anderson cut her theatre teeth making masques (the spelling I prefer). These are big numbers : more than 3,000 masques for 50 productions and counting. Her skills are part of theatre costuming college classes across North America. She's composing a book on it all to help apprentices learn her craft. Earlier this decade she turned her talents to playwriting as a way to extend her theatric reach.

The result now on show is a two-hander featuring elder sister Liz and four-year-younger sister Lou from elementary school days to their post-retirement final days.

The kids Liz and Lou hamming it up with their bulbous cheeks and cheekiness.
Photo credit : David Cooper
We watch them as chunks of years skip by starting in the 50's : mock atom bomb hide-under-your-desk drills; teaching each other to dance; Lou meets tampons for the first time; hair dyeing gone amuck; boyfriends; the moon landing; babies; rebellious teen kids; 9/11; Dad splits from Mom; history repeats itself on this front-- and so it goes as Vonnegut told us repeatedly it would.

Classic riffs with Liz the elder who of course must wag her finger and forever set younger sister straight. But Lou is no pushover, she can give as well as take : "I didn't 'traipse' through Europe," she protests, "I 'traveled'. I saw the Mona fukken Lisa!" True to form she names her out-of-wedlock love child Serenity. When after standing on her head Liz finally manages to get preggers by hubby Wayne, another biologist, theirs will be named Anne Agatha. "She'll hate you for life!" Lou warns her. Liz promptly flips back some Dr. Spock-isms at her.

Fresnels on the show production values : Once more the versatility of the 1st Avenue stage is realized. Bleacher seating faces an acting space some 40 feet across. Angled walls reach upstage : their panels feature a geometry of countless dozens of drawer handles.  But not attached to drawers alone : to a bed; to doors; to a biffy; to clothes wardrobes -- they also serve as climbing rungs for variety-blocking -- while boxes pop up from the stage floor and clothes betimes drop down from above.

Sister Liz heads off to college in the 60's while younger Lou, nudging toward hippiedom as an artist, both welcomes getting sis's room but knows she's also going to miss having her mentor / tormentor around, too.Photo credit : Daivd Cooper
The music soundscape is richly-wrought electro-pop whose tunes match the various epochs on view -- they change with each of the masques the sisters sport as they age. Engagingly, almost spookily, each new masque emerges out of backlit sepulchres that extend from both walls. Nice effect indeed !

Acting pin spots : Playwright / masquer Melody Anderson's script is excellently cast by Director Mindy Parfitt. As a boy who grew up with three older sisters -- and whose wife has a sister five years her senior who lives in our town -- I can vouch for the accuracy of the taunts & teases & zingers & put-downs & regrets & sweet-sweetnesses Patti Allan and Lois Anderson flip and flick back-&-forth across the years. 

Can also vouch for the deliberate silences, like Lou's bitterness after she nurse-maided Mom for years. Then of course Mom died before Liz managed to get herself back to the homestead for a final visit. The inevitable spat over who had rights to Mom's precious ruby-&-emerald ring. A contretemps about Mom's ashes that Lou kept in her artist's paint can closet. "Mom would have happily spent eternity in the garbage dump if it meant you and me got along," Lou scolds Liz when the silent freeze finally starts to thaw a number of years later.

Who gonna like : This is touching comic drama. Mindy Parfitt's blocking of this talented twosome is deft and sure. They angle in on every bit of the stage as their actions befit the various ages they're displaying. Their talk-over snipes when each projects selfishness on the part of the other are pricelessly precise. 

Single kids can learn, enjoyably, some of the dynamics that having the siblings they never did can bring about. As can brother-sister twosome families : the relationships girls in a family have are different than theirs, gotta be no question in that respect if my life experience is any measure. 

The prominent word in all of this, again, is "charm". Worthy looks, worthy emotions, a genuinely worthy wander out for an evening of expressive and touching live theatre.

Particulars :  Script by Melody Anderson. Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  At the BMO 1st Avenue Stage.  Run-time 1 hour, 20 minutes -no- intermission.  On until May 6, 2018.  Schedules and ticket information @ or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production crew :  Melody Anderson, Playwright -&- Masque Maven.  Mindy Parfitt, Director.  Amir Ofek, Set Designer.  Barbara Clayden, Costume Designer. Conor Moore, Lighting Designer.  Owen Belton, Sound Designer.  Cande Anrade, Animation.  Angela Beaulieu, Stage Manager.  Koh McRadu, Apprentice Stage Manager.

Performers :  Patti Allan (Liz).  Lois Anderson (Lou). 

Addendum #1 :  Director's notes by Mindy Parfitt : [from the program]

I come from a big family, six kids altogether. Of my siblings, my sisters hold a special status. I have two : one nine years my senior and the other 10 years my junior. They shape who I am as much as who I am not, and there is a depth and complexity among us that undoubtedly makes me a better person.

All three of us call Vancouver home. In fact I even share a house with my older sister. But life is busy, so I look forward to our annual tradition : the three of us get together at our family's old cabin on Gambier, we drink G&T's on the porch, and play three-way racing-demons until our fingers bleed. It's heady stuff -- a direct link to childhood, and an important reminder that their love and loyalty allow me to get beyond myself.

Lest I mislead you, let me be clear : we are competitive and can be mean. We can agitate and annoy each other (and they hate that I always win at racing-demons). But ultimately, I love having an older sister I look up to and whose opinion matters, and I love being an older sister, being the one to extend a hand.

So, I dedicate this to my two incredible sisters. Without you, I would not be me. 

Thank you.

Addendum #2 : Playwright's notes by Melody Anderson : [from the program]

I remember, as a child, thinking that if I concentrated carefully enough while looking at myself in the mirror, I might be able to catch a specific moment when I changed and became older. I also remember staring (probably unnervingly) at my grandmother and struggling to make sense of the face that she was once an infant.

Perhaps it was this fascination with the aging process that drew me to mask-making. Throughout my career I've often mused about the idea of seeing a character age on stage over the course of an entire lifetime.

When I shifted my creative focus to writing, I decided to try my hand at exploring this idea. Since a sibling relationship spans a lifetime, I thought : why not write a series of vignettes about two sisters, each vignette a snapshot of their push-pull attempts at connection as they grow older together?

I se the early vignettes in the 1950's because I was interested in examining the cultural shifts that have happened during my own lifetime, especially with regard to attitudes toward women.

Aside from the historical/cultural backdrop and stylistic elements, though, I wanted Me and You to simply be a story about the relationship of two sisters -- a celebration of their ordinary and yet uniquely remarkable lives.

Addendum #3 : That I saw the show on the 2nd anniversary to-the-day of my own sister Anne's too-soon death a couple years after her retirement, no question that for me the coincidental timing made this afternoon just that much more poignant. 

Until her passing, Annie was BLR's most loyal & vigorous & vehement & immediate critic and editor (she a former text-editor for Ortho how-to-books.) I would post a review at 02:30, and when I dragged myself up at 10:00 later that morning, hers would be the first response on-line.

One time particularly I remember I had used the literary expression "bitch goddess". Lots of silence ensued from my feminist sibling -- she a year my senior -- at minimum a two-month vacuum after I stubbornly refused to change that reference. 

Annie, from one of your three younger brothers -- the one you grew up with, to you who most directly helped grow me up -- this review is dedicated with all the everlasting love and gratitude only you could possibly know.