Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Santaland Diaries : 75 minutes of goofy SNL  

Just when you think you might commit homicide after one too many Christmas carols -- Bob Seeger doing "Little Drummer Boy" comes to mind -- go see Santaland Diaries. It's a deliciously ironic romp through Macy's annual Santa display in New York City : all about clots of kids with runny noses and poopy diapers who line up for hours, sure. But mostly it's about their stressed-out overachieving parents who fuel the seasonal mania just for a chance for little Dagwood or their princess Priscilla to sit on Santa's knee for a photo-op.

American humour diva David Sedaris first penned Santaland Diaries based on his experiences as a 30-something working at Macy's as an elf rather than stay on pogey. On any shift he was one of 17 (e.g. Cash Register Elf, Santa Elf, Photo Elf, Vomit Corner Elf &c.) . Sedaris chose elf-name Crumpet, noting "We were allowed to choose our own names and given permission to change them according to our outlook on the snowy world." [One day, feeling "trollish", he re-branded himself as Blisters.] Performed first as a radio monologue by Sedaris at Christmas '92 on radio NPR, in 1996 New York dramatist Joe Mantello morphed it into a one-act one-man play. By 2008 it was one of the ten most popular plays performed annually, Stateside, and is now on view at the Revue Stage of ACT starring Ryan Biel in a brilliant, note-perfect performance.

Directed by John Murphy, Biel captures the madcap antics of SantaLand with an exceptional balance of irony and empathy. Sure, often the script disses stupid human tricks with withering commentary. But even though Crumpet admits "I spend the day lying to people", to truly succeed the performer of Crumpet's role must grasp how Sedaris's heart was pumping with empathy beneath his rapier-fast tongue. Take these lines by way of example : "I was told that it is an elf's lot to remain merry in the face of torment and adversity... it won't be quite as sad as standing on some street corner dressed as a french fry (passing out fast-food coupons)."

Designer Ted Roberts aids and abets Biel in his triumph with a simple set : cream coloured trapezoidal panels on wheels that are manoeuvred about to represent different viewpoints in SantaLand. A couple of outsize boxes that scoot on and off stage and are lit up to reflect kids or coffee shop furniture or other stage paraphernalia. The backlit rear screen to feature hand-drawn maps and word sequences by projectionist designer Candelario Andrade -- particularly the typewriter drop-screens clacking off the days until Christmas -- these work well on the spare Revue stage.  

This is Will Ferrell's angry dog screed meeting Monty Python's dead parrot schtick. The dialogue toggles between quotes from Macy's visitors with reflections from our wise elf. As in this bit : "Tonight I saw a woman slap and shake her sobbing daughter, yelling 'Goddamn it, Rachel, get on that man's lap and smile or I'll give you something to cry about.' / I often take photographs of crying children. Even more grotesque is taking a picture of a crying child with a false grimace. It's not a smile so much as the forced shape of a smile. Oddly, it pleases the parents. / 'Good girl, Rachel. Now let's get the hell out of here. Your mother has a headache that won't quit until you're twenty-one.' "  [Curiously -- wrongly ! -- Murphy and Biel deleted the second quote, a true comic punchline if ever were one.]

Although only 20 years old, SD seems wrested from the late 70's, after a decade of hippiedom and eco-consciousness exited stage right and the neurosis of greed infected the Boomer generation. More ! Better ! Now ! Grasp ! Acquire ! Flaunt ! all became watchwords, and North America prided itself on spoiling its kids and itself but remained awkward and unsure of its ethos. Santas needed to be black for blacks, white for whites. Gays were still in the closet, known only by their monikers such as Snowball or Crumpet. Mentally challenged were called "retarded", as in "...for a few minutes I could not begin to guess where the retarded people ended and the regular New Yorkers began. Everyone looks retarded once you set your mind to it."  So politically correct SD certainly is not. [But just maybe by projecting the word "retarded" over and over, larger and larger on the backlit screen, the offence the word inspires was neutered.]

No, it's the stage business and blocking and masterful voice manipulation for Biel, coupled with his nudge-nudge-wink-wink byplay with the audience, also the clever pin-spot effect whenever the monologue switched from Crumpet's observations to quotes from Macy's visitors -- these are what make SD work well.  Images and ideas stick : that 1/3 of SantaLand's visitors are single and middle-aged; the 40-something with his "cracked and puny voice" who visited Santa three times one day and peed on him the final visit; the woman-child in pixie clothes who visits Santa with her aging Mom and blithely skips off afterward.  

Crumpet dismisses many of the folks he meets as phonies, sounding all the world like Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye fame. But by doing so the poignancy emerges -- in the sequence of the "love festival", this particular Santa drives home the point that we need to drop our facades and slow our watches and ditch the maddening devices that virtualize our precious minutes on earth. 

 Best bits : The Santa as anagram for Satan piece. The just-cited Santa who doesn't even ask the kids what they want for Christmas but gives everyone a wee sermonette instead : "Remember that the most important thing is to try and love other people as much as they love you." And the final explosive scene on Christmas Eve when the manager loses it with a bitchy customer -- priceless ! 

Word coach gripe : The word "fucking" doesn't have to be emphasized each time it's used. The line should not be rendered "You look so fucking stupid !" rather "You look so fucking stupid!"  An early reference to Crumpet's outfit, delightfully spun together by Sydney Cavanagh.

Go see advice : Not for kids younger than 12. For "lapsed idealists" who still cleave to values and dreams they want to believe in, no cynics allowed. For drama fans who want to see their favourite A & W burger ad guy turn in just an ace performance of wit and nuance and breathless play.  


Monday, 29 October 2012

Switch off the I-Pad and go see The Unplugging

Tribalism. Ostracism. Survival. Family. These are the four pillars of Yvette Nolan's The Unplugging that finishes its run at ACT's Review Theatre this week.  The script affected me the way a typical Alice Munro short story does -- crisp; pungent; poignant with honest voices from people we would all know as neighbours.

The play is a three-hander set in a bitterly cold and black North winter environment due to a crash of the grid, a systemic "unplugging" that never fixes itself. In its wake two women have been outcast from their home village as loners and gripers and independent souls. Some community : one not unlike Jonestown, Guyana in the late 70's where male repression is key.

Thus the women, Elena and Bernadette, find themselves having to hustle up shelter and food miles from home in the tundra with none of life's comforting cheats as we know them -- no electricity, no stores with stocked shelves, just the odd tin of food cached in hunters' cabins. To survive even a few days they must rebirth some core survival skills their kinfolk introduced them to decades back. Snaring rabbits is big, also "catching" a moose.

Although Nolan's working title to the play was Two Old Women, in the current staging Bernadette (Bern) is obviously the younger by a decade or more than Elena, the elder. This sets Bern up nicely for some turns with 20-something Seamus ("Shame us!") when after three months he crashes the two-fer society Elena and Bern have created. Bern likes sex and is generous in sharing it. Elena mostly aches at all this dalliance and intrusion. The storyline is redolent of Charles Frazier's brilliant U.S. civil war piece Cold Mountain.

The Unplugging is obviously set in some near-future apocalypse in North America. But as our family has learned from two decades in an off-the-grid cabin in the Cariboo, voluntary simplicity loses a bit of its Walden Pond appeal when the mercury hits -40.  Of such lifestyles, Elena recalls her feisty self-reliant grandma who repeatedly ran away from the bonds of a nursing home and died in the bush : "She never really trusted the technology. Never used a bank card. Drove an ancient truck with a standard transmission. Fixed things instead of throwing them out." And fixing things in Elena's raw new world includes personalities and neuroses and social relations, starting with herself.

Director Lois Anderson honours Nolan's insights remarkably. She is spot-on in her casting of actor Margo Kane, a Cree-Saulteaux, as Elena. Kane's version is lifted from the Sophia wisdom tradition of "beingness" and inner calm but also betrays dollops of existential angst. (Playwright Nolan is herself of Algonquin and Irish stock.)

Jean Griffin as Bern is edgy and sarcastic and naive and loving all at once. Seamus teaches her that she may be a more generous soul than she gives herself credit for. While honest in her rendering of the Nolan script, Griffin needed more blocking variety and stage business to complete her role.

Anton Lipovetsky is just the right blend of innocent-&-clever, not unlike the charming Lucentio he portrayed in Bard's Shrew last summer. As the play unfolds he shows he's learned some zen-like empathy from each of these women as the three of them become, if but fleetingly, a family.

The score and soundscape behind the piece by Alison Jenkins are an inspired montage : sort of Leslie Feist meets Inuit throat singers. Drew Facey's set of sliding screens evokes midwinter blues and whites amidst stylized aspens and birch -- together they plead with the characters to find redemption in all this harshness around them. Perfect minimalist stage props encourage the process, as does Bern's ratty clump of sweaters and leggings one all but smells.

By way of context, writer Nolan advises the play was a full 10 years in the conjuring but then found a publication draft completed in just 90 days. A long gestation but a noteworthy final product : her hand is deft and clever and will produce more no doubt.

People who kvetch about so much "predictable, safe theatre" in Vancouver owe it to themselves to take in this idiosyncratic and offbeat and timely story that suits the Review stage perfectly.


Thursday, 25 October 2012

She Stoops To Conquer doesn't quite, but amuses much

Sex always sells. And that's why though it's nearly 240 years old, Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer withstands the ravages of time as comedy-cum-farce. When sexual hypocrisy is the core conceit, people giggle large. That's because sexual hypocrisy is visceral and core in all of us.

In the current ACT mounting, SSTC pops a cork fizzing good fun that only occasionally gets too cutesy for its own good such as the pee-in-the-woods piece and the hag's dance. But the script is pure cheek -- it is not meant as satire in the manner of Oscar Wilde's Earnest, just goofy harmless fun.

The plot is straightforward enough. Country squire Hardcastle, a rustic and charming old blatherer, wants his "princess" daughter Kate to marry well. He prevails on uppercrust London chum Sir Charles Marlow to have his son Chas-the-younger come "suit" Kate. Then, as now, city folks want to try out country charades, bumpkins want to play at pomp-&-circumstance.

Trouble for the squire's plans for Kate is that Junior is a stammering yammering idiot around young ladies of his own age and class. Kate is bored silly of him. But if the women are of bawdy peasant stock, earthy and flirty, well young Chuck seems to rise to the occasion with as much lech as any other frat-boy. Every local tavern has barrels of them.

Through a series of plot and character set-ups, Kate ultimately "stoops" to young Chuck's level, masquerading as a barmaid to bring out his randy self. And as in most comedies of manners, it's mistaken identities on various levels that propel both the characters and the plot along. Junior and his buddy George Hastings, thanks to prankster Lumpkin, think Squire Hardcastle's estate is just a traveler's country inn and the squire but its bourgeois proprietor. They therefore treat Hardcastle as servant and take his digs completely for granted. Fop-snobs do so with their *lessers*.

The har-har factor of such "shocking misconduct" as this in Blighty's class-driven 18th century world would have resonated mightily with Goldsmith's patrons. But even for Downton Abbey gawkers like us, it provides lots of sniggery. Of course plays such as this also need foils, sub-plots, and trick-timing to work. Goldsmith provides them all, particularly in the character of Hardcastle's squawkish wife Dorothy.

The "Mrs." schemes to have her son by an earlier marriage, said Lumpkin, marry his cousin Constance and get all her jewels by way of dowry in the bargain. Lumpkin is a dissolute prankster in love with his lumpy self, his horses, his pints, and his tavern maids -- he's got no candle to carry for her nor she him. So in an amusing parallel romantic plot, Goldsmith has Tony redeem himself by conspiring to have the horny Hastings win Con's hand -- and gems -- at Mom's expense, lit.-&-fig.

Reading the play led me to numerous dictional delights plus no end of Zounds! and Pshaws! and throat-clearing Ahems! and Egads!  Watching the play produced a somewhat different response for two reasons.

(1) Director Dean Paul Gibson advised in an ACT interview he feels the key to making Goldsmith relevant to contemporary audiences is "Pace. Pace. Pace."

(2) Most of the players tried their bloody hardest to affect some manner of Brit accent in their speech. Though no speech coach, I'd say the results were mottled to not-so-much. Horse-&-buggy dialogue that rips along at autobahn speeds in faux-accents makes discernment of speech considerably more effort than it should require, alas. Too bad, because live theatre is speech by and large.

Still, Norman Browning as Squire Hardcastle is nearly note-perfect in his indignant bafflement throughout. Chris Cochrane as Lumpkin almost steals the show in all respects : dialogue delivery; stage business with body and hands; mischievous booby of a character more brass than class and oh-so-fun. As Hastings, Jay Hindle brought his A-game to play both hitting his words and fielding just the right body language. Luc Roderique as Junior was nuanced and steady and a convincing cad throughout.  As Mom Dorothy, Leslie Jones had moments of jovial outrage but was directed too far toward farce for my liking. Jennifer Macwhinney as Kate exchanged charming repartee with Dad, but I found her not coquettish enough with Chuck : she needed better barmaid clothes and demeanour, both. Melissa Oei as Constance delivered a nice blend of proper and coy.

Kudos to the servants, one and all, who doubled not only as buffoons but as set-changers and chorus on a pop-up knock-down set by David Roberts that did the trick. Special mention to Rebekka Sorensen and her threadmeisters for costumes that were some of the best I've witnessed on any Vancouver stage over the decades.

SSTC will appeal to history buffs, students of play- and stagecraft, and to lovers of all things Brit.


Saturday, 28 July 2012

For BillyBard buffs, a brave outing in King John 

Zoom Spot : The final production of Bard on the Beach for 2012 is Shakespeare’s seldom performed King John. The reason it is seldom performed is there’s so little performance in it. It presents like a dressed-up radio play because there’s such minimal action in it. But for lovers of Shakespeare’s skill with the language and evocative speech-making, this performance will not disappoint. One of the more famous ejaculations in the play is Philip the Bastard’s call to the mayor of Angiers : “Zounds, I was never so bethumped with words.”  So if a good bethumping by BB’s magic with English is your preference – as it is mine – you will find much to recommend in this production.

Plot roadmap : Blood lusts, conspiracies, revenge and violence are never far from the tip of Billy Bard’s quill. And quite so in King John. Allegiances among royals readily give way to power plots, intrigue, and loyalty-reversals. As if in 13th century Europe the monarchs and their fellow-travelers are all playing a deadly ethics game of Nicky Nicky Nine Doors : clatter-&-chase, not sure why or why not, just do.

The play’s chief issue is successorship after the death of Richard I in France. As he fades from view, Richard the Lion Heart names the youngest Plantagenet, John, as the new king of England and all its duchies. Sister-in-law Constance is enraged. Her pubescent, pre-teen son Arthur she believes should rightfully have been chosen as “heir apparent”. Her late husband Geoffrey would have been next in line ahead of John, had he not died. Thus in her matrix of lineage rights, Geoffrey’s eldest son should earn the crown first. Constance enlists the aid of French King Philip to have Arthur installed as king to supplant John “the usurper”.

As the play opens, we learn that Richard Coeur-de-lion, otherwise childless, had a son after a horizontal furlough with Lady Faulconbridge a couple of decades back. This 20-something has already been introduced : Philip the Bastard. As the play begins he forsakes his claims as heir to that family and is knighted instead by John to be a Plantaganet officially. He joins John’s entourage bearing dad’s Christian name Richard (but never quite shakes the Philip-the-Bastard moniker). Quite inexplicably Bastard  becomes John’s consigliere for the war with France that is assured by the nasty Arthur business : Lady Constance is nothing if not tenacious.

As part of the evolving intrigue, Queen Mother Elinor likes the power game : she pushes John to promote himself against the claims of her grandson Arthur. They go to France, with troops, to challenge King Philip.

Then quite astonishingly the initial set-to with France over Arthur and the throne ends – abruptly – with a hastily-brokered marriage between the French dauphin Lewis and an English cousin, Spain’s Lady Blanch –also the customary plump dowry and conferral of rights over five provinces to Lewis, of course. France and England embrace each other, lit.-&-fig.

As with all the other Bard productions this summer, these scenes reveal a leitmotif  viz. “property”, a.k.a. “commodity”. Another of course is “power” – raw physical violent political power as well as personal power. No common moral code guides any of these folks, mostly expediency.  Bastard refers to “…tickling Commodity / Commodity, the bias of the world”.  He denounces money, land and wealth only for their not having yet visited his doorstep.  And when it comes to a choice between Rome or mammon, he’s clear that ”Bell, book and candle shall not drive me back /
When gold and silver becks me to come on.”

But the peace thru marriage is brief. Straightaway WS introduces a kind of deus ex machina sub-plot. When challenged, John makes it clear to the Pope’s emissary Cardinal Pandulph that “no Italian priest shall tithe or toll in our dominions”. Pandulph promptly excommunicates him. This bit of plotline propels the story past being a little family spat about throne successorhip among the Plantagenets.  Now there’s grounds for a holy war between Catholic France and England’s arrogant heretics. And it comes. Quickly and ferociously.

When the smoke finally clears, young Arthur has died from suicide; thinking he had already been killed by John, his mother Constance earlier suicides too, a nice morbid Freudian touch; Queen Mummy Elinor has also joined the worms and ashes; King John seeks sanctuary from the monks whose wealth he’s plundered, is poisoned, and succumbs to corrupted guts; a peace is brokered with France and Rome so John’s son Prince Henry assumes the throne with England safely back in the Vatican habit.

What works, what not-so-much :  To the latter first. As a stage play, all of this is like today’s social media outputs – words chasing words chasing words without much connection to anything *real*.  No swordfights, no bodies litter the stage, no Banquo ghosts : fundamentally we are asked to like King John for its dialogue and abstractions about kingly and papal power and the conflicts that family ties bring when status and prestige and the perqs of privilege are involved. Personally I found the extensive verbal jousting extremely engaging to listen to. But it helped having read the script twice before seeing it acted out.

Mefears the play would have been quite dubious an enjoyment had it been performed on the Bard mainstage. Kudos to the company for choosing instead the intimate studio stage venue which is “¾ round”, the audience forming a horseshoe around the actors' floor.

Not much set to speak of except a scaffolding at the north end of the stage, but projection designer Jamie Nesbitt’s screens with various pen-&-ink scenes shot onto them showing ships in the English Channel, troops amassing, and garden leaves dancing in the wind were a stroke.  To match his excellence in Macbeth, sound designer Murray Price created evocative fronds of folk music featuring rich cellos and violins accompanied by medieval thumps to great advantage.

Good rich clothing ensembles for the nobles by costume designer Barbara Clayden, and solid no-nonsense fighting gear for the knights, good monks, good thugs.

Script & acting kudos :  BB’s best lines are produced for Bastard and Constance, I say. Bastard’s asides to the audience marking the hypocrisies of the various characters in the play, himself included, are deliciously wrought off the pen. Aslam Husain fought hard to give them their weight and due, but he needed more timbre in his voice. He did hit the irony bits nicely, much to the crowd's delight.  Constance by Amber Lewis had choice speeches advancing son Arthur’s cause so vainly.  She did so passionately, viscerally, peremptorily, particularly the speech to Salisbury (Ashley Wright, who had once again the best enunciation and voice projection).  Lewis’s pre-suicide speech lamenting the loss of Arthur literally brought tears to my eyes that lasted some time after the words quit my ears.

As John, Scott Bellis had the toughest assignment by far because of his near omnipresence on stage. Most of the night his excellent actor skills were, however,  compromised for me by his odd tendency to want to Shout! his dialogue, even on his death throne when his insides were being wretched up. (Constance and Bastard are also infected by shout-a-philia, but to lesser degree.) John’s speech blaming Hubert for plotting Arthur’s apparent death instead of his kingly self was, however, brilliant in delivery.

On the audiometer, by comparison, Todd Thomson showed wonderful voice modulation in both his roles : as Hubert, chamberlain to King John, and as mayor of Angiers when he addressed the kings’ assemblages from the parapet. Hubert’s exchange with Arthur (gamely done by Lucas Gustafson) was poignant, but not nearly so much as Hubert finding Arthur’s crumpled body on the rocks. For the second time in the evening tears welled up hot in my eyes.

Given the studio stage venue, Dean Paul Gibson’s direction and blocking of cast were capable, interesting, and betimes very imaginative – as in the “circle dance” motif of the two kings just before King Philip (Neil Maffin) chose the Pope + war over his separate peace with John so recently won. Deft work by Maffin throughout.

The best scene of the night by far was Arthur’s suicide off the scaffolding into the arms of the nobles who then tossed and flipped him, gently, to the voice-over of Arthur’s last words as he tumbled gently in their hands down to earth.  Just terrific theatre !  And including the rest of the noble entourage downstage to witness this action was inspired and touching, particularly Constance’s final glance at her boy.

 [P.S.  I mentioned to my wife that Patti Allan (Queen Elinor) once again – as she did as Miss Quickly in Wives – has mastered stage business in the studio environment : sheer unmitigated delight to watch the way she moves, even when in a minor role.]

King John is not everyone’s cup of wine nor blood due to its deficiencies as stage drama. But for WS aficionados it is a must see because it so seldom is. That’s reason enough to go witness a company that delivers well the faulty product BillyB  gave them to work with, but one with some bits of dialogue as good as anything he produced in his more popular and profound scripts.


Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Rave on, oh boy, no doubt about it !

Zoom Spot : Zippety-do-dah rockabilly tunes, all catchy and jived-up with Harlem beats at the edges – these are the joyz of Buddy Holly’s music. As it was in ’59, so it is again in ‘012.  Listening to Holly’s music is like taking a ride in a moonshiner’s Hemi with Wolfman Jack barking on the AM and girls yielding to paroxysms of glee while rockin’ in the back seat.

This 3rd-consecutive-year run of the show with the hokey do-over title Buddy : The Buddy Holly Story is bustagut fun that finds folks finger-popping their way out the exits onto Granville Street. The grinning and good cheer are thanks largely to Zachary Stevenson who once again aces the role of Buddy and commands centre stage with just the right mix of twang and swagger. And like the promo shots suggest, he blows a real mean guitar, too.

Backdrop : Buddy has been around since 1989 and has been seen by some 20 million people world-wide, with remounts almost every year in the UK. It’s what the theatre-trade calls a “jukebox musical” – a couple dozen songs by the artist done almost as a concert – with some sketchy dialogue thrown in to make it seem like *drama*.

The moonshot of Buddy’s career – some 20 blockbuster hits in just three years – rocketed a 19-year-old from Lubbock, TX to fame before crashing at 22 in a lowly single-engine commuter plane onto an Iowa cornfield. An iconic accident : happened during a snowstorm in the wee small hours following a Ground Hog’s Day concert in the Surf Ballroom with Ritchie Valens, J.P. (The Big Bopper) Richardson and Dion-&-The Belmonts. In Buddy, that last Ground Hog’s Day of his is lived over-&-over-&-over-&-over in apotheosis of this nerdy cowpoke – he who trademarked the legendary black-frame goggles that Roy Orbison later sported too (BH’s last pair was recovered from the plane wreck and is on display at the Clear Lake museum).

The story-line is “accurate” in fact if not altogether “true” in nuance or gestalt. From a failed contract with Decca where he refused to sing the corny Roy Rogers stuff of the day, Holly moved on to Norman Petty’s Clovis, New Mexico studio where Petty and his wife Vi – homemaker but also mean celesta player –  helped Buddy and the Crickets mount their stuff their way. Petty not just produced them but co-wrote such smash songs as “Oh Boy” and “Rave On”.  But Petty was eponymous when acting as the band’s manager, pinching royalties every chance.

So after an accidental gig of shows at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre for “Negro” performers, Buddy adopted New York as home base and split from his Lubbock chums the Crix. And right out of West Side Story, he wooed Puerto Rican Maria Elena Santiago – a studio receptionist he’d met briefly that day – doing so with a firecracker 5-hour restaurant and dancehall 1st date. They married a scant two months later.

Maria Elena traveled with Buddy nearly everywhere on tour after that, except that fateful night in Iowa because she was newly pregnant and sicky. On the 50th anniversary of his death she still expressed guilt : “If I had been there he never would have got on that plane.”

Despite Maria Elena being his constant traveling companion, rumours persist that Buddy was capable of dalliance. There’s talk of a backstage tryst with Little Richard and his girlfriend Lee Angel, she of the 50 circumference around the shoulder blades. In a November 1, 2010 interview in GQ magazine, however, Angel faced the tryst story anew. Li’lR had chortled smugly to Charles White for his 1984 authorized biography that Buddy allegedly “…went to the stage still fastening himself up, I’ll never forget that, he came and he went…”.  Retorted a still-indignant Lee to GQ 26 years later : “When I read it, I discovered I’d had far more fun in my life than I myself knew about….I knew Buddy, but I didn’t know I knew Buddy that well.”

Production 2012 : So whether we’re getting an altogether antiseptic version of Charles Hardin Holley or not, fact is the Alan Janes script gives us a charming gosh darn gee whiz man-boy in geeky glasses who’s mostly there to mesmerize us. His copyrighted glottal stops and lyric hiccups zap out the new innocent clich├ęs of the 50’s like these from Ready Teddy that were blasphemy to Lubbock’s redneck radio crowd : 

Well I’m ready, set, go man go,
I got a girl that I love so,
I’m ready, ready teddy to rock and roll.

Well the flat top cats and the dungaree dolls
Are headed for the gym to the sock hop ball,
The joint is really jumping,
The cats are going wild,
The music really sends me,
I dig that crazy style.

Those were the innocent days, when the likes of Elvis and the Everly’s and Dion and Roy were the single largest threat to Canada’s vaunted peace, order and good government. South of 49 these transistor superstars were proof positive the American “pursuit of happiness” commandment would rule for years to come in the-land-of-silk-&-money. This despite the quiet and unheralded start to the 20-year VietNam war in 1955 when BH was just 19. No, the protest days and Woodstock were still far away when I started listening to Buddy et al in Grade 8 while swooning over Mouseketeer Annette Funicello.

But let us back to the future. As Buddy, Zach Stevenson reprises his roles from the past two years in this Bill Millerd-directed piece. As in the past two years, Stevenson bounces and split-jumps and crescendos his slaps of the Fender Stratocaster (or facsimile) in a way doubtless double the kinetic energy that Buddy managed back in the day when his focus was more on the tunes, less on the number of butts in the seats.

If Buddy Holly’s message was simple rockabilly joy in ’59, Zach Stevenson’s Bryan Adams-ish version of Holly is just right 50+ years later. If you never heard one note of rock-&-roll before seeing this – say you were held captive from birth by leprechauns – you’d come away an instant baptiste to all the rock hallelujah running rampant on the Stanley stage. No better cure for the angst brought on by the repeated pop of gunfire we’ve heard this summer – revel instead at the rat-a-tat-tat of snare drums pulsing to a back-up band with shouting sax, trombone and trumpet – brassy dress-up for what were brash tunes during Buddy-time.

Stevenson is given terrific support by the Crickets, bass player Joe (Jeremy Holmes) who all but steals the limelight when spinning his stand-up fiddle in his white sox; Jerry (Scott Carmichael) on the skins; Tommy (Jeff Bryant) on the lead 6-string who all back Buddy up on “That’ll Be The Day”, “Peggy Sue”, “Maybe Baby” and more.

Sasha Niechoda once more gets his team to rip every note off the charts as music director.  The Surf Ballroom (in flat corn country…) and its Winter Dance Party pull our heartstrings maybe a minute or two too long, but still and all Michael Antonakas nails the Ritchie Valens sound though he satirizes his personna. And for his part Kieran Martin Murphy as TBB does a better cover of “Chantilly Lace” again this year than JPR did originally i.m.o.

Valerie Easton’s blocking and choreography make you think the Wurlitzer has been hit by a manic prairie breeze, particularly Stevenson’s Elvis-meets-Garth Brooks signature stage-wide shuffles to-&-fro and all the kicks, but also the stereophonic stage action of the back-up singers particularly in Act 2.

Special mention is due to Tom Pickett as the Apollo MC who was sheer hoot, while Clear Lake MC Alec Willows worked us the Winter Dance Party crowd into shape like a Barrett-Jackson car auction pro.

In all, Stevenson-&-Company’s stage show compensates 100% and more for the lack of emotional engagement from the script storyline that was ‘purposeful’, sure, but dragged the show a bit. But still, that’s how jukebox musicals work.  Rave On! you shall if you take this in.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Fast chatter, fast stage action with Merry Wives

Quick Plot Summary :

Down on his luck Sir John Falstaff [SJF] proposes to seduce two married women, Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page, in order to bilk them of their husbands’ money. The women learn of his duplicity and conspire to expose and humiliate him. Mr. Ford gets a tip his wife will see SJF, so he masquerades as “Mr. Brook” in order to reveal her suspected infidelity. SJF is tricked three times while trying to consummate his seduction, and both the plotting and execution of the tricks drive this comedy to near-farce. The secondary plot involves Mrs. Page’s daughter Anne whom three men pursue to marry -- the awkward Slender, a crazy French Dr. Caius, and her true love Fenton. When the hijinks conclude, it’s another case of all’s well that ends well for Billy Bard’s characters.
All I can say is "Huzzahs, kudos and high-fives to a rollicking night of fun by the whole cast !" In the nearly full house July 15th we who attended were compelled to LOAO repeatedly and consistently.

Director Johnna Wright picked strong performers in nearly every role, but most notably the three who carry the comic weight of the play : Patti Allan as Mistress Quickly nearly stole the show on her own; Ashley Wright as Sir John Falstaff was a jolly nimble elephant-in-the-living room and enunciator par excellence; Amber Lewis as Mistress Alice Ford sustained her role delightfully in this “giddy wives of Vancouver” send-up.

But they were also aided and abetted by righteous turns from Daryl King who geeked the role of Slender wonderfully well; Allan Morgan as Shallow-in-Shriner’s gear; and Anousha Alamian as a South Asian oh-my-goodness-my-golly Sir Hugh Evans.

Fact is the premise of Merry Wives being transported across four centuries is a harder sell than Billy Bard’s ex-knight context in 17th century Blighty. And riskier still when the audience is asked to believe the modern Falstaff’s primary lodgings are in a country western pub (remember it’s set in Windsor, ON during Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s first year in office). But then Langley, BC has long had an odd knee-slap aw shucks personna as well, and Luxton on Vancouver Island near Victoria has its rodeo, so why not imagine some kai-yai element ahoof in Windsor, ON too?

In her Director’s Notes, Wright admits about the music and set : “…It might be better to just go ahead and confess to a secret, long-standing love affair with 1960’s country music.”  Truth will out. Meanwhile musical Director Benjamin Elliott’s arrangements are equal to the program note boast : “The production’s music is a soundscape of modest melodies and country textures, evoking the feeling of a simpler time gone by when all you needed was three chords and an open heart.” Yo pard to that.

No pretense whatever at any sort of traditional treatment, the theatre-in-the-round setting and manic antics of the players telegraphed a vaudeville / slapstick shout-out to the crowd from moment one. Cymbal rattles and thrums on the snare drum were right out of silent movies. Numerous nudge-nudge wink-wink comments to the audience by the actors brought the crowd right into the action.

As well, costume designer Drew Facey gets some of the credit for the constant feel-good spirit on stage along with the cast : the faux-madras red-yellow-green pants on Slender; Simple (played by Elliott) sporting turquoise shirt, check jacket, turquoise shoes; the red/blue stripe suit (perfectly too-short and too tight) on David Marr as Doctor Caius, avec white-rim sunglasses; Falstaff’s check pants, blue vest, and cheap-suit size 56 pale blue tuxedo jacket over white shoes were just ace : would you buy a used come-on from this bloated goof ?

Always my favourite, when an audience forms a horseshoe around the stage, the resulting immediacy of involvement by patrons challenges actors to use their bodies in 360-degree mode so as to not have their backs at the crowd except occasionally. This Director Wright accomplished marvelously well : the stage business and blocking of the characters was superb, particularly that of Miss Quickly and Falstaff. For her part Lewis could have been named “Fingers Ford” for all the hand-jive action she did left right front centre back, also her great on-going giggles when plotting Falstaff’s next comeuppance.

As Frank Ford / Mr. Brooke, Scott Bellis turned in an animated series of rage attacks when being jealous husband. His hipster character Brooke with beat-generation beret, black t-neck and medallion and sideways-v finger-slides didn’t work for me quite so much. On that plane, Lewis’s finger action won hands down.

Kayla Deorksen as Miss Anne Page showed much comic awareness around BillyB’s script for her, while Aslam Husein as Fenton, her husband-to-be, was not quite as robust and macho as I expected from that part : he played it straight -- more a Fonzi sans irony -- than either a James Dean or Brando. As Mistress Meg Page, Katey Wright was game and a good foil for the more dominant character Ford; her hubby George (Neil Maffin) was steady and smiley throughout, a nice phlegmatic contrast to the eruptious Ford.

Pam Johnson’s pub set had fun touches : the familiar red terry-cloth covers on the 24-inch round beer tables anyone 60 or more remembers; the cuckold’s horns adorning the balcony; the beer stubby bottles like Uncle Ben Ginter used to make; the scalloped high-back naugehyde chair used to such comic effect in the opening scene.

Other antics to giggle over : Miss Quickly’s and Shallow’s frug / twist / do-the-monkey dance sequence; Falstaff’s “Baby, Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me” dance with the good-natured matron from the audience; Ford, drunk, singing out “Your Cheatin’ Heart” in Act I and “Sometimes It’s Hard To Be a Woman / Stand By Your Man” in Act II.

Wee quibbles : The Patsy Cline fringe outfits on Ford and Page for the final “open mic” number were a bit on the “much” side. Though they worked all-in-all, didn’t crinolines and fedoras go out about the time John Diefenbaker took office?  The Falstaff fish : corny 50's sitcom bit that sux for cheap laughs. It should go. Dialogue / accents : Todd Thomson’s Clint Eastwoody drawl for Host worked 50% of the time; Dr. Caius’s Frenglish was occasionally hard to decipher.

No question, this is “You can’t go wrong!” Shakespeare. Even before seeing it I recommended to folks that Merry Wives will doubtless be the most “accessible” performance for cross-generation audiences at BotB this summer. My wife put it this way : “If only my high school English teacher had introduced me to Shakespeare this way, through fun music I know, I probably would be more open to other works by him.”  Gaze further on that sentiment, Bard, is what I’d recommend.


Thursday, 12 July 2012

Boyz like guzzling tequila

Did Altar Boyz live up or down to my expectations (see Preview below).
In a word, yes. And mostly “up”. From numerous sources : first-&-foremost
choreographer Sara-Jeanne Hosie’s  intricate, evocative and cheesy moves
for her five charges on the just-right Ted Roberts concert set; the Boyz
themselves – a (pun-intended) perfect pitch cast; and the Sheila White

The only “down” is utterly minor for this Bill Millerd-directed bit of
candy floss : the Kevin Del Aguila Jesus-script. Not many teens or
20-somethings in the house will probably understand reference to
“Episcopalian thugs” or even the word “genuflect” nevermind the ironic
devil exorcism rite of the song “Get The Hell Out”. But satire is its own
salvation sometimes.

In that vein (vain?), the best single song of the show from tunesmiths
Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker was “The Epiphany” (another
god-word), as swooned by Geoff Stevens (Mark) toward his would-be lover
Matthew. Clearly a coming out song, it dresses up and parades
like one emerging from a life as a closet Catholic instead :

I am a Catholic
Yes I am!
Long live the Vatican
God doesn't make mistakes and he made me
Let out what you've trapped inside
Come on and show your Catholic pride

19-year-old daughter said the “point” of the script, if truly there was one, was a bit lost on her. But she said her college buddies, at least the few who grew up with religion, might enjoy the jibes at how their faith is practiced, i.e. form conquers substance and ritual rules where personal choice is discouraged.

But for now forget that. The song-&-dance routines were tight and tuneful and terrific fun to watch in their own right, script be damned.

The style is not out of date at all, really – just 90’s Backstreet Boys’ stuff, this version with churchy riffs. It’s a sound that current Brit groups One Direction and The Wanted are resurrecting to convert the minds and hearts of young millennials now in grammar school.

Daughter and dad agreed that Jeremy Crittenden as Matthew produced probably the strongest overall sustained performance, but Stevens as the uber-gay Mark was a close second along with Jak Barradell as Luke the break-dancer bustin’ moves left-right-&-center. Then there’s Brandyn Eddy doing an ironic and engaging turn as Abraham – he reminds his Xian buddies the Guy nailed to the cross behind the altar was himself a Jew. And not to forget Michael Culp as the tumescent Latino Juan who hip-thrusts constantly, even tries to hump a thurible (look that one up oh ye non-catholics...!).

No question all the ebullient performance here is aimed at girly-guy metros of all gender who get their giggles from tequila gushing right outta the gun  -- no sips of an ethereal anejo like XQ Gran Reserve for this crowd, no sirree. Pure Las Vegas, in other words, soon to reach cult status like Rocky Horror or Xanadu. 

The varied costumes from jock bohunk to mod-office to fairydust pastels were perfect by designer Sheila White, as well as the signature white reprise outfits.  

But most striking of all was the acrobatic and deliberately over-the-top burlesque of boy band hand-jive and fancy footwork routines by Sara-Jeanne Hosie. Sheer delite !

Fun, silly, satirical Jesus-lyrics in boy-band mode.  Sound like you ?  This’ll surely be a summer-pleaser for you if that’s the case. And all in the space of 90 minutes of straight gaity!


Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Jesus-fun & snazzy tunes = Altar Boyz

Song-&-dance sells swell! Why else would Arts Club produce four consecutive musical comedies in as many months ? Number three is a re-mount of its popular 2009 hit Altar Boyz @ the ACT Review stage on G.I. that opens July 5th.
The show features a Christian boy band with singers Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan (and Abraham, a token Jew). Possibly tough for me on two counts. 

I used to call the Backstreet Boys the “Barf Street Boys”. The boyband 'N Sync I called “I’m Sick”. Both in respect of their tunes. As for the evangelical bent, I've always had lots of time for – still do! – but have lost any communion with in recent years for reasons that are countable in denominations. Not a story to bore you with any further.
Here's the conceit of Altar Boyz : the lads have come to New York City on a final “conversion” tour called Raise the Praise. Central to their show is a technogizmo called the Sony Sensor DX-12 that counts down the remaining souls in the audience (you) who are as yet unsaved to Christ. Zero is the number they’re gunning for by show’s end, of course. (That Muslims and Sikhs might not relate is not the point. Because this isn’t about p.c. It's about butts in the seats in summer from the target audience, primarily Anglo. Which on the $$$ barometer for a non-profit theatre company in a recession is quite defensible, too.)

The blurbs promise lots of personal revelations; the customary metro-sexual schticks; a dozen solo and harmonized songs by the five “bro”; a big wink at the Jesus-messages; plus all the choreography, dance and clever patter that typically go with this kind of stuff-&-nonsense. Many have called the production “more concert than play”, which I take less as criticism than as advice to theatre fans.

So, a few skepticisms front-&-centre. Fact is, however, the show ran for years in New York. It was a crowd favourite both there and when it played in Vancouver in 2009 :  overall, the majority of reviewers were borderline rapturous.

For me, we shall see. Whether I’m “baptized” by Director Bill Millerd’s 2012 Boyz or not I’ll know on opening night July 11th, my review to come on the 15th.


Thursday, 28 June 2012

Unanimous standing-o for Xanadu

Snapshot : A full-house unanimous standing ovation, even in clap-happy Vancouver, is not altogether typical. That is what the crowd on opening night June 27th felt it owed the cast and crew and the various coaches who made Xanadu such a fun nite out for them.

Compared to the 1980 cult film disaster it was based on, to say the stage play Xanadu is “gay” says it all : “carefree, joyous, bright & sunny” as well as reference to the clever creator who wrote the score’s book, Douglas Carter Beane, and to a goodly chunk of the costuming and choreography.

ACT’s version directed by Dean Paul Gibson is 80’s sentiment wrapped in tinsel, silk and spandex and reflected, metaphorically at least, in a giant disco mirror-ball.  If you like Olivia Newton-John songs, Jeff Lynne’s ELO rock and John Farrar’s lyrics such as found in “Evil Woman”, then this show is your kind of nostalgic plouffe.

Storyline : As unlikely as it gets. In 1980 nine muses, daughters of Zeus, descend from Mount Olympus to Venice Beach, CA. Head muse Clio leads them to help a struggling chalk artist realize his dream of opening a roller disco. To masque her ethereal self, Clio puts on roller skates and leg warmers and calls herself Kira. Two of Clio’s siblings, the “ugly sisters” Melpomene and Calliope, conspire to have Clio fall in love with Sonny, the chalk artist. Of course Clio will be banished from the Mount by Zeus if she does, don’t you know. Says Melpomene of their scheme : “Let us not giggle. Let us cackle.” Responds Calliope: “Cackling and hiding, listen to us. This is like children’s theater for 40 year old gay people.”

"Magic curtain" under a proscenium arch that separates actors from audience? Not on your life. This is all about ham and slapstick and goosing the crowd into joining the antics on stage. Beane's book is rife with nudge-nudge, wink-wink one-liners designed to jump past the apron and plop directly into viewers' laps.

Campy ? Kitschy ? Did I say gay ? Reviewers can’t seem to decide whether they line up with the New Yorker’s Hilton Als who calls it a “lavish and sublime confection”. Or whether they’re more on-side with the New York Post’s Clive Barnes who in a review titled “Xanadon’t” called it a “juke box musical (whose) music is not awful, simply nostalgic-generic”.  Then, after that oh-so-faint praise, damns the show mercilessly: the music he said “is the only goodish news of an absolutely ghastly show” – talking about the Beane script, not the acting on stage.

Production values : My 19-year-old daughter and I came away as if from "a pleasant dining experience" -- satisfied, surely, maybe not sated. I asked her three questions as she drove us home. (1) Strongest asset. “The music,” she said, meaning songs, lyrics, actors’ singing, and band accompaniment all.  (2) Weakest feature. “The lighting,” she said, opining that Gerald King, a 24-year veteran with ACT, was simply not on top of his game for this show. (3) Would you go again if you had to pay for your seat with your own money ? [This is almost a metaphysical question to the average 19-year-old.] “Absolutely!” she said ne’er missing a beat.

For me the three strongest assets are Lisa Stevens’ choreography and stage business for the actors, far and away the most prominent strength of the show i.m.o.  Nevermind the fancy footwork – the arm gesticulations throughout were a dance in their own right and a delight. No question I would go again just to enjoy the choreography.

Second, the acting of five people in not-quite-random order : Bonnie Panych as Calliope channels Nicola Cavendish, a comic scheming wench of eye-watering laughability throughout. Gaelen Beatty as Sonny Malone, in his debut role with ACT : as thick as  bartender Woody Boyd from Cheers but who roller skates to beat the band and sings with gusto. Vincent Tong in all his guises, but particularly his turn as “Young Danny” Maguire when he puts on a tour de force show of dance that he and Stevens designed.  Cailin Stadnyk as Euterpe, who was exceptionally engaged and electric in her execution of support roles. J. Cameron Barnett as Terpsicore-in-drag throughout – the most wink-wink actor on the stage. As the centaur his equus pawing of turf was splendid. 

Third, tie between the great roller derby set by Kevin McAllister, also Andrew Tugwell's sound design, in which the band did not drown out the singers or vice-versa. Kudos to designers, producers, performers all. 

Oh, and a fourth. The costumes by Rebekka Sorensen were terrific, except for the decidedly not-1980 high school jock jackets in the final scene. Those are from the 50's-60's Happy Days epoch, not the ON-J and ELO 1980's.

Not-quite-so-much factors :

Acting. As Clio/Kira, Marlie Collins makes her Vancouver theatre debut, and she is mostly a delight. Good strong singing if a bit “pitchy” on the higher notes. Charming and sexy with Sonny at all times. Her roller skating, however, reminded me of me on either skis or ice skates : awkward and iffy, which was a bit distracting. I was tense expecting “Call the medics!” at any moment, but clearly I empathize.

Lighting. Scriptman Beane had a whole scene in Act I involving Maguire (Simon Webb – solid throughout) and Malone admiring the Xanadu sign over the new disco ballroom and how folks would see it from blocks away. Alas, the sign remained unlit and dead to the eye. A real Hmnn?! moment.  Also during the disco scene to wrap the show : the couple-dozen disco balls descended and exploded in sparkles far too late for much impact at all. The stars should have fallen on Alabama first, not last. Pity.

Choreography. Final scene needed all the actors all sporting roller skates immediately on the stage as Kira explodes leading the delirious “Xanadu” final number. Too little, too late, too bad.

Parting shot : Two from one family went. A 19-year-old just returned from a NYC theatre course with Langara College who had seen some 8-9 plays and opined : “As good as anything I saw there !” And her dad some five decades older who attended this show with a bit of healthy skepticism around the "how" and "why" of this goofy plotline as stage play. But who left quite agreeing with Christopher Isherwood of the New York Times – this is a show both “indefensible and irresistible”.