Thursday, 14 November 2013

Corks popping for ACT's Mary Poppins

A quick look back : Maybe it's time to admit that the 1964 Disney movie version that made Julie Andrews a star had little in the way of character dynamics for either Andrews or the indefatigable Dick Van Dyke. And it was that absence of dynamic, even more than the Disney animations, that likely caused author P. L. Travers to sob at the end of the movie's premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. In retrospect, maybe Andrews should have been given a wee bit of brimstone & treacle mouthwash to make her somewhat more nanny-ish and less the goddess-fairy that Walt had her be. 

Fast-forward to 2013 and ACT's stage-musical re-mount of the Travers stories. In this version Mary P. is less a toothy-white magical charmstress, slightly edgier -- not quite a "pitbull with lipstick" -- but closer, if only a couple of centimetres. And one can't help but think that the waspish and acerbic Travers, who died at age 96 in 1996 still not suffering fools gladly, would appreciate the changes from the movie version that she abhorred (though it made her a multi-millionaire as she received 5% of the movie's gross receipts, currently 25th all-time highest at more than $635M).

First impression : Many folks who fondly remember Disney's MP film recall its magic turns -- the legerdemain, the illusion, the trickery pulled off by Mary and Bert. Such stuff, though still there, is not the source of magic in the current ACT production. No, the magic witnessed opening night is in the fact of the hand-picked cast of actors and performers selected by Director Bill Millerd and choreographer extraordinaire Valerie Easton. As individuals and a troupe they explode off the Stanley Theatre stage with unmatchable vigour, enthusiasm and just plain fun. One elderly couple of theatre veterans remarked on their way out : "I enjoyed every single bit of this play from start to finish!"  
-and- "I honestly think this is the best stage play I've ever seen in Vancouver." For song-&-dance enthusiasts to disagree with those sentiments would be, I think, but to quibble.

Plot overview : This may sound cynical, but the script of MP is really just a long-drawn-out extension of the Harry Chapin ballad about a dad being a bad dad because he's always too busy for his family : Chapin's Cat's In The Cradle still gets air play ad nauseam on soft-favourites radio channels. Set in Victorian England, dad George Banks (Warren Kimmel) is a banker -- an overworked and stressed one at that. His wife Winifred (Caitriona Murphy) is a gentry-wannabe trying to manage the household with its two kids, maid/cook, and inept butler. As befits gentry-wannabe's, the raising of the children is outsourced to a nanny. Rather to a half-dozen of them in the past year the kids are so bratty, scheming and seemingly uncontrollable. The play opens with the most recent nanny fleeing #17 Cherry Tree Lane. The kids draw up their ideal nanny mock-ad : she must 

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

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

WYSIWYG : The current stage play is musical comedy that is a pastiche of Travers' Mary Poppins books (she wrote eight of them between the mid-30's and the late-80's), the Disney script, the original Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman songs, and an updated book by Downton Abbey's creator Julian Fellowes with new songs and additional music and lyrics by Englishmen George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Hilarious, I found, that Travers had a provision in her will that nobody who worked on the Disney film could be a part of producer Cameron Mackintosh's proposed live theatre mount (he of "Cats", "Les Miserables", "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Miss Saigon" stage-play fame). Contributors all had to be English, no Yanks allowed, thanks. Under Walt they had all conspired to sentimentalize her Mary Poppins character, sweetened her beyond recognition, and wrote a simple-minded cotton-candy version that she thought was cynical in the doing. In the introduction to a HarperCollins re-issue of the original Travers book from 1934, Mackintosh declared : "Mary Poppins is, and always will be, unique : stern, dependable, businesslike, magical and yet eternally loveable." Travers felt too much of the "stern" and "businesslike" were lost in the Disney/Sherman movie version, apparently.

Character take : Five characters, particularly, deserve individual shout-outs for their work in this production. 

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

As Bert, Scott Walters warrants an extra Bravo! or two from me because he discharged forever the memory of Mr. Van Dyke's one-dimensional face-cracking smileiferous performance in the Disney movie. Walters was wondrously engaged in his role, displaying dynamic and clever facial shifts and nuances to suit every line, every step-ball-change dance step and kick-up. 

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

As Michael Banks, Grade 6 student Graham Verchere bloody well nearly aces his performance as a Brit-kid snot with lots of love in his heart to match his mischievous and playful soul. His sustained British accent -- assuming he isn't British-born -- was astonishing. 

Grade 7 student Kassia Danielle Malmquist played Michael's sister Jane, and she, too stayed 100% in character with charm and typical 13-year-old older sister flippancy and toy-tossing snitteries. 

Character take, Part 2 : It's impossible, really, to review this play without extending Huzzah's to all the actors and performers for their contributions. Mom Winifred by Caitriona Murphy was wholly convincing as a bemused and slightly estranged wife. Katey Wright pulls off replacement-nanny -- Dad's childhood nanny Miss Andrew ("The Holy Terror") -- with robust dislikability. Warren Kimmel as the "Harry Chapin dad" struck terror in my heart when he exploded. Well done indeed. (His "conversion" to huggy-dad -- like the lightning that struck Saul on the road to Damascus -- was perhaps too quick to convince, but that's a script problem, not Kimmel's.) Then there's the twelve performers in the song-&-dance Ensemble. To a person they were just step-perfect from my up-close-&-personal perspective in Row 2.

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

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

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

Who gonna like : I mentioned to my seat-neighbour that personally I tend to prefer the kinds of scripts most recently reviewed by BLR, the more intimate stuff of Venus In Fur, Armstrong's War, Relatively Speaking. But, I confessed, as big-stage song-&-dance entertainment with wonderful music from the Bruce Kellett orchestra behind, this Mary Poppins is finger-snappin' and heart-strings-pulling stuff tailor-made for the winter holiday season. It's the one time of year that a wee dose of sentimentality about "the goodness that lurks in people's troubled hearts" is okay already. For choreography, visuals and delightful tunes in a package, this one's a Go! for sure. 


Thursday, 7 November 2013

Relatively Speaking still a hoot some 50 years on

Forget p.c. Forget western society's grudging baby-steps toward gender equality in the past few decades. Drop yourself back into the ethos between the time of Mad Men and the "Swinging 60's". Then hie yourself to Western Gold Theatre's production of Relatively Speaking being staged at the PAL stage on Cardero to hear yourself LYFAO. Because that's what the ingenious 1965 script by England's comic master Alan Ayckbourn, written when he was just 27, demands of viewers even 50 years on.

Plot overview :  Two young lovers, Ginny and Greg, have been canoodling in Ginny's flat in London since they met a month earlier at a party. Ginny has claimed Greg's virginity, and he's utterly schmitten. He proposes to her, albeit off-handedly, on the spot. She says she needs to go visit Mom and Dad in the country to warm them up to the prospect of a son-in-law. The morning has already witnessed a few mysterious phone calls, a pair of oversize men's slippers under Ginny's bed, myriad bouquets of flowers and boxes of chocolates littering the place. All of this has Greg suspicious that the more worldly and sexperienced Ginny is still attached to another lover, but ultimately Greg clings to his naif persona. This is *love*. I believe in it. I'm going with it.  So, unbeknownst to Ginny, he also trains it out to her "parents'" place in Buckinghamshire to seek their blessing of the impending nuptials. He arrives there ahead of her. Here's where the fun starts :  it's immediately apparent to the audience this is really the country home of Ginny's older lover, her ex-boss, and his adultered wife. With Greg understandably thinking they are her parents -- has his true love Ginny not told him this repeatedly? -- the ensuing comic possibilities are thus rampant and rife. 

The play occurs over two acts, four scenes, in two hours. Act 1 is a long-ish and slightly tedious exposition of Ginny and Greg's blossoming romance aimed, now, at marriage though they've only known each other some four weeks. By way of contrast, in Scene 2, we meet the "parents" taking sun in their garden with "Dad" Philip grousing about an inferiour marmalade "Mom" Sylvia has bought and wishing for jam instead. Shortly, no doubt projecting some guilt over his own extra-marital dalliance, he accuses his wife of having a not-so-clandestine affair. When Greg arrives and engages the affable Sylvia in chit-chat, thinking her his mother-in-law to be, Philip is convinced Greg is Sylvia's lover. Soon Ginny arrives. Her purpose is to cut Philip off for good once-&-for-all. Stop with the flowers and the chocolates and the phone calls. When she finds, alors!, that Greg is also there helping the phony "Mom" prepare lunch, well, the stage is set lit.-&-fig. for a jolly merry romp. And it is !

Act 2 becomes a silly but wondrously clever caper of lies, tightly-crafted miscues, confusion and panic all borne of various levels of mistaken identity that dodge-&-swerve past one another. It's comedy-lite with no subtext messaging or serious intent whatever -- a wordplay game being played strictly for the fun of it. I was reminded instantly of that old hippie quip about people who talk at cross-purposes : "I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm afraid what you heard is not what I meant."
(N.B. See post-script summary comments by playwright Ayckbourn below on the how/why RS script came to be.)

First impressions and character-take :  It was apparent there were two audiences in the same PAL room at the same time watching this revival : Group 1 who for years have known and treasured Ayckbourn's comic jibes at middle class marital anxieties and hypocricies, and Group 2 who somehow haven't. Group 1 types like myself enjoyed the show for sentimental reasons if for no other. Newbies to Ayckbourn, like my buddy, could not resist these stereotypical Brits caught with their knickers, and their mores, at half-mast. Lots of gigglery from both groups.

Director Anthony F. Ingram made just-right picks in all categories. In the end the show-stealer had to be wife Sheila Carter played wonderfully deadpan by Anna Hagan. She is the steady loyal country wife who welcomes complete strangers to her garden and treats them to lunch and sherry. In executing the role without an iota of falseness or exaggeration about her character, she is the perfect foil for all the eager animation of the others around her. Her A-ha! moment at the end, and the final hint to hubby she in fact may have a paramour after all, was sheer fun. 

As husband Philip, Terence Kelly masters a range of facial contortions that delight every moment as they champion each of life's emotions -- mad, sad, glad -- sometimes serially, sometimes atop one another. Prime-time performance for sure.

Stacie Steadman plays Ginny, and she too provides just the right range of conflicting emotions : from coy coquette to mischievous deviant to genuine lover, current and ex- both. 

Fiance Greg is played brilliantly throughout by Jay Hindle. His is the best-written of Ayckbourn's character dialogue in this piece i.m.o. -- all eagerness and wonder and happy puppy -- think Odie, here, of Garfield comic strip fame. 

As an ensemble, the WGT troupe clicks delightfully. 

This viewer was, meanwhile, a bit bemused by the mix of accents coming at me : hard-working Brit white collar efforts from Ginny and Greg; quasi-Brit from Philip; Canuck from Sylvia. That's more niggle than outright natter at director Ingram's varied stage instructions to the cast, however : fact is to my untrained ear Hindle and Steadman project bloody good accents that ring true. They bring out Ayckbourn's ever-so-English milieux (quite properly -- I can't imagine this piece being written by a North American).  

The key to Ayckbourn's word-trickery b.t.w. is its grammar scheme -- viz. the lowly pronoun. By ever-avoiding names attached to the "he", "she", "his" and "her" reference points in the dialogue, confusion can only reign, which Ayckbourn does masterfully. In day-to-day conversation I regularly scold folks I yak with : "Hold on a second, I've lost the antecedent to your pronoun. Who the heck are we talking about here -- your daughter or your dog...?"

Production values :  Set designer Glenn MacDonald creates a clever two-fer set anchored in brickwork. From 60's studio flat strung through by clotheslines adorned with towels, shirts and sheets; tables and chairs enshrouded with blankets; Stones, The Who and Moody Blues posters plastered on the walls; ersatz pine 3-drawer dresser; and, best of all, the roll-away bed ! oh gawd spare me such memories. 

Pull all that montage and mish-mash away and the set morphs into a tasteful country garden whose brick is adorned with iron grillwork planters and a classic Greek peeing boy-statue that Philip uses to clean his paws with. For her part, costume designer Sydney Cavanagh puts all the right clothes on all the right characters -- the frumpish country Carters nicely counterbalanced by the more au courant togs of Ginny and Greg. The soundscape backdrop of a Tubular Bells-like version of the Beatles' You Say Good-bye and I Say Hello was spot-on.

Who gonna like : The wait until Act 2 for the magic of Alan Ayckbourn's verbal sleight-of-hand to fully engage the viewer is well worth it. Folks weary of t.v. sit-com schlock and formula contemporary comedy who love language and all its myriad possibilities for meaning will delight in both AA's quick-tempo script and WGT's interpretation. "Stuck" people protesting "the ethos between the time of Mad Men and the 'Swinging 60's'", well, maybe they should just stay at home & give this one a miss.

P.S. See the following notes about the script from various sources.

> Reason for the play : While working as a sketch writer for Ronnie Barker (of The Two Ronnies fame), Ayckbourn, then 27, was asked by Scarborough Theatre artistic director Stephen Joseph for a play "...which would make people laugh when their seaside summer holidays were spoiled by the rain and they came into the theatre to get dry before trudging back to their landladies."

> Structure of the play : Stephen Joseph also assured Ayckbourn "...there's absolutely no harm whatsoever, whatever you think of the state of the theatre and playwriting in general, to try and write a 'well-made' play [a la Noel Coward]; that is, a play, that, in general terms, is fairly actor-proof, well-constructed and works..." 

> Playwright's cut at his own script and its conceit : "Relatively Speaking is a little machine of a play. Character plays a fairly secondary role in it -- everybody's too busy trying to find out what's going on and 'character' doesn't have a chance... Plays like RS are continually knotting and unknotting. There's never a moment when somebody isn't discovering or about to discover something."

> Creating the play : "The devious plot was the result of sheer frenzy and the dialogue of tearing haste. In just over a week the play was written, aided by my wife's blue pencil, her constant suggestions and her cups of coffee."

An adrenalin buzz it surely is, readers, once the momentum swings into action in Act 2. Fun fun fun writ large. Until Dec. 1st. With 2 p.m. Sat-Sun matinees, too.