Thursday, 19 May 2016

Billy Elliot sets a new standard for musicals
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 :  Good vibrations was not just a popular Beach Boys song in '66. The expression captures what excitation and arousal and romance can be had from a fling! Which is what everyone seeks to get out of a stage musical. To take us away, momentarily, from life's drib-drabbery, its daily demands and lock-step marching orders. Billy Elliot delivers it all with grace notes to spare. As if taking a leaf from the kids' summer theatre camp, you'll feel you Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance! watching this. Fun indeed to witness youngsters break free from the clutches of parents. Particularly parents beset by history leaving them behind in the time of Maggie Thatcher's skinflinty England.

How it's all put together : Seeing the Y2K movie version at Cannes -- screenplay by Lee Hall -- Elton John was smitten : "I had to be helped up the aisle, sobbing. The film had really got under my skin," he reported. It took five years to do, but EJ wrote the tunes to the show : his buddy Lee scripted both their lyrics and the show's book. Since its world premiere in London's West End in 2005, some 100 actors across the globe have portrayed the role of Billy in professional shows. Fully 41 actors played the lead during its 11-year run at the Victoria Palace Theatre where the show danced off the stage just this past month after totting up some 4,600 performances there.

What Billy brings to the stage : Set in the North England mining country of Durham -- you could flip a lump of coal and hit Edinburgh -- the time is the mid-80's. The epoch of privatization and deregulation, NAFTA free trade zones, the off-loading of government properties en masse : Reagan, Thatcher, Mulroney, VanderZalm were all of a piece in the devolution revolution. Durham miners were numb : from 1,000 pits during Churchill's "finest hour" only some 200 will remain post-Maggie. Their union was also NUM : the National Union of Mineworkers. Despite opposition from UK's Big Labour bunch, Solidarnosc! was their rallying cry. Mimic Lech's feisty docksiders in Gdansk they might, but ultimately they came away with a lot less to show for their struggles and bravura.

Dad Jackie (Warren Kimmel) and older brother Tony (Danny Balkwill) are caught up battling police and scabs when NUM takes its angry strikers to the streets. Young Billy (Nolan Fahey), motherless, fakes his way through boxing lessons at Dad's insistence. Quite by accident he stumbles across Mrs. Wilkinson (Caitriona Murphy) and her girls' ballet class right after a bit of boxing sufferance. Billy is intrigued, sticks around to try some plies and pirouettes. Dad finds out and is aghast : he prohibits any further such nonsense. Act 1 ends with Billy doing an Angry Dance of protest and frustration and rage.

As Elton put it : " The story of young Billy, a gifted working class boy with artistic ambitions seemingly beyond his reach had so many parallels to my own childhood. Like Billy, [I saw] the opportunity to express myself artistically [as] a passport to a better, more fulfilling life."

Early in Act 2 Dad sees the light. Billy's better at ballet than at boxing. He's got a future. Dad proposes to cross NUM's picket line and return to work to pay for Billy's future. NUM's strike lasts 358 days before it's crushed by its own inertia and Maggie's intransigence. Billy, a chrysalis amidst the trampled husks of the old miners, soon takes flight to the Royal Ballet School in London.

Some song-&-dance highlights : Unlike, say, Mary Poppins that interjects choreography into its storyline, in Billy Elliot ballet and choreography are the centrepiece. The storyline is stretched and manipulated to suit the EJ / Lee Hall musical numbers, e.g. Billy singing to his dead Mum [Leora Joy Perrie] and she back to him : a contorted dramatic stretch i.m.o. Or the dead-broke NUM miners spontaneously! and instantly! coughing up scant shekels -- as well as the scabs -- to fund Billy's Royal Ballet School audition in London in Act 2. Really? But these are quibbles.

Because addlepated Grandma (Barbara Pollard), meanwhile, is sheer delight. She rants against her late drunken husband but still champions the memory of dancing with him -- sort of : "He was bliss for an hour or so / And in the morning we were sober," she sings, much to the crowd's merriment.

Choreographer Valerie Easton outdoes herself with the piece "Solidarity" half-way through Act 1 that combines crisp dance routines involving the bobbies guarding the mines, the NUM strikers, and Mrs. Wilkinson's dancing class all at the same time -- 20 people braiding and dovetailing their various manoeuvres with cheek & bustle as they sing out "We're proud to be working class!" The routine, rightly, won huge audience huzzahs, no question at all my personal favourite on the night.

Billy's classmate chum Michael (Valin Shinyei) is a 12-year-old cross-dresser gay not quite out of the closet. The song "Expressing Yourself" where the boys don Michael's sister's silky threads and tap-dance with the ensemble before a slivered silver scrim was simply choice. 

A prize piece of fanciful footwork called "Born to Boogie" involving Billy, the ballet class piano man Mr. Braithwaite (Gordon Roberts) and Mrs. Wilkinson spins wildly after her admonishment to Billy : "You have to release your inner kid!"  Mr. Roberts, of some girth, almost upstages slight Billy in that one in the robustness of his "release". 

Next to "Solidarity", my personal favourite had to be Billy's closer to Act 1, the "Angry Dance" that starts in his bedroom and ends with him ricocheting off police plexiglass riot shields. Brilliant conception and execution both. 

Production values that add to the show : Not to overstate the case. But to make it. The "choreography" of Ted Roberts' exquisite North England mining village set design and Marsha Sibthorpe's variegated geometric lighting effects with Alison Green's superb costuming all dance wonderfully together in a visual and textured spectacle that is pure treat throughout the night. Ken Cormier's orchestra is chipper and nuanced with these familiar-ish EJ melody strains. 

Acting pin-spots : Hands-down champs of the night would have to be -- of course -- Nolan Fahey as the shy, thrilling young ballet and dance star Billy. Also Caitriona Murphy whose in-your-face ironies and take-no-prisoner feistiness against the County Durham sexist men matched her footwork. But other favourites were David Adams as Big Davy, chief "enforcer" of the striking miners with a wonderful booming voice. Danny Balkwill as Billy's belligerent big brother proudly sporting his Che Guevara t-shirt was powerful. Good convincing widower \ teen-age Dad befuddlement & bemusement by Warren Kimmel the night through.

Kudos of course to the young ladies of the ballet class and all the other dancers, too, who charmed the bejesus out of the crowd. Not one weak link anywhere in the Ensemble chain. 

Who gonna like : Often have I ranted against Vancouver's tendency to give performers knee-jerk standing-o's even for just B or B+ performances. The standing-o on opening night for Billy Elliot was explosive and resounding and utterly deserved by the 20 cast and countless dozens of creative production back-up. Musicals are meant to deliver whimsy and warmth and feel-good vibes. Billy Elliot aces this challenge. Economic downturns always mean loss. Life is a series of losses : innocence, family, familiarity. But the themes of hope! and faith! and belief! that always emerge from the "death of the old order" are what we need to hitch our thoughts to as we face the uncertain future. Billy Elliot gives us money-back-guaranteed good fun and good value and just plain downright good theatre -- the best overall big-stage musical production I have ever witnessed by a homegrown theatre troupe in Metro Vancouver.

Particulars :  Book & lyrics by Lee Hall.  Music by Elton John.  At ACT's Stanley Theatre stage, 11th & Granville.  Run-time 150 minutes including intermission.  On through July 10th.  Schedule information & tickets via or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Director Bill Millerd.  Musical Director Ken Cormier. Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Ballet Advisor Suzanne Ouellette. Set Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Alison Green.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe.  Fight Director Nicholas Harrison.  Stage Manager Caryn Fehr.  Assistant Stage Manager Ronaye Haynes.  Apprentice Stage Managers Claire Friedrich, Tessa Gunn.  (Originally directed in London by Stephen Daldry).

Performers :  David Adams (Big Davy / Ensemble).  Mat Baker (Posh Dad / Ensemble).  Danny Balkwill (Tony).  Jordyn Bennett (Margaret). Avril Brigden (Susan). Matthew Cluff (Older Billy / Ensemble). Nolan Fahey (Billy). Warren Kimmel (Dad). Kristi Low (Sharon). Julia MacLean (Tracy). Caitriona Murphy (Mrs. Wilkinson). Arta Negahban (Keely). Leora Joy Perrie (Mum / Ensemble). Nathan Piasecki (Ensemble). Barbara Pollard (Grandma). Brian Riback (Tall Boy / Ensemble). Gordon Roberts (Mr. Braithewaite / Ensemble). Taylor Dianne Robinson (Debbie). Valin Shinyei (Michael / Billy [alternate]). Kirk Smith (George / Ensemble).

The Orchestra :  Graham Boyle (Drums). Henry Christian (Trumpet). Ken Cormier (Keyboards). Sasha Niechoda (Keyboards / Keyboard Programming). Chris Startup (Reeds). Andreas Schuld (Guitars / Variax).  Original London orchestrations : Martin Koch.


Sunday, 15 May 2016

5 @ 50 is edgy take on aging high school buds
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 : When he was 52, Canadian playwright Brad Fraser decided to give his dramatic metier -- exploration of life in men's gay communities -- a sabbatical. Instead he turned his customary cut of wit and irony toward five women on the cusp of 50. Its premise is simple, he told in 2011 on the eve of its world premiere in Manchester, UK : "A group of five women, all friends since high school and on the verge of turning fifty, discover one of their number is an alcoholic. An intervention is staged, badly, and hilarity and heartbreak ensue for all involved."

How it's all put together : In 2010 Fraser Facebook'd his women friends : tell me all the dirty little secrets you've accumulated across your life in the past 30 years since the last high school bell. Promising anonymity to each vendor for their tales of woe, heartbreak and confession, Fraser got a media-dump of anecdotes from which to forge this dramatic and embroidered chronicle. The five, all shunned at the high school prom, have maintained their friendships with loyalty, frailty and edginess. These are not Carrie Bradshaw's 30-something Sex and the City sirens. At 50 they've each had a life -- or two or three -- and they look back now on the various urges, obsessions and addictions they've all been subject to.

What the show brings to the stage :  Fraser also told this : "I'm fairly testosterone driven and the earlier work shows it but I'm also gay and not at all afraid of my more feminine traits. This play allowed me to put myself into a female headspace and I was quite surprised to find how accessible it was." Indeed. The show is an extended reveal of the women's true inner feelings and fears. And quite a look-see it is, now that they've summited life's mountain and stare and stumble down its backside. These five angst-ridden galpals are thick and laden with testosterone-&-estrogen driven grievances going back years that they visit noisily and gruffly on one another even as they "celebrate" each of their birthdays. 

Olivia (Deborah Williams) is the classic roaring drunk who at her 50th pukes on Tricia (Veena Sood) whom she's still angry at for "stealing" the part of Ophelia in the senior year production of Hamlet. Bi-sexual Olivia's lesbian partner all these years Norma (Beatrice Zeilinger) is accused by Tricia of being drunken Olivia's "co-dependent enabler" because she doesn't confront Olivia's ethanol frenzies that occur more and more regularly. The elegant Lorene (Diane Brown) is a serial monogamist : the courts didn't hesitate to give Dad custody of her children she's not seen for years. Yoga rhapsodist Fern (Donna Yamamoto) appears to have the perfect marriage and perfect kids, but for a dozen years or more she's been pulsating twice-weekly with married neighbour Barry on his office floor.

Snappy feisty dialogue drives the piece : Early on at Olivia's party the play's leitmotif is revealed, sort of jokingly, by one of them : "We're all evil witches, that's what holds us together!" Then a bit of a stretch with this exchange : "You don't look a day over 35!" says one, to which another snipes back "Yeah...if you're looking through a dirty fishbowl." They discuss how movies used to be scary but simple. Not any more. Lots of bare bodies, including men's : "A penis is the new tits!" Norma observes. When not together partying and kvetching, the women are each provided soliloquy moments where they tot up their hurts and wounds.  "You mean you've never woken up in the middle of the night and asked what the fuck have I done with my life?" one asks. Says another : "This reminds me of a church for people who are more messed up than people who go to church...!"

Production values that highlight the action : PAL's intimate horseshoe seating design provides Director Cameron Mackenzie ample opportunity for dramatic entrances and exits by the cast. Marina Szijarto's set of scalloped lace drapes and white enamel barstools lends the show a starkness of look that makes journalist sex-groupie Trish's closing observation about drunk now-derelict Olivia just that much more poignant : "We've all said things we can't take back, like that real cunty thing who drives you crazy. But she's been there all that time, and now you kind of miss it -- the last thing I expected was a sense of loss."

Acting pin-spots :  As Olivia, Deborah Williams turns in a most compelling and forceful performance as the once and future drunk. Her scream-fits with Beatrice Zeilinger as Norma were ferocious, brutish bouts of acting excellence that anyone practiced with drunks knows intuitively was spot-on stuff. Strong delivery by everyone on stage, but Veena Sood's Tricia struck my eye and ear as particularly nuanced.

Who gonna like : One observer noted : "If life is this grim for these women at 50, god help them when they're 70!" Another questioned whether "friendships" forged 30 years back could possibly withstand so much put-down, sarcasm, and mordant sneering at one another's foibles. And yet. There is a veneer of loyalty over all of their egg-shell egos. And while Brad Fraser's script tends toward hyperbole and caricature and near-burlesque of "real people", there is nevertheless true power in these actors' performances that makes for sober serious reflection on life's cravings. Most of us have certain monkeys-on-the-back that haunt and torment us regardless of age. 5 @ 50 forces us to entertain the what and the why and the wherefore. 

Particulars :  5 @ 50 : North American premiere.  Presented by Ruby Slippers Theatre & Zee Zee Theatre. At the PAL Studio Theatre, 581 Cardero Street. Shows May 11-28th.  Company info @  ruby slippersTickets available through theatre wire.

Production team : Director Cameron Mackenzie [Artistic Director Zee Zee Theatre].  Set & Costume Designer Marina Szijarto.  Lighting Designer Kyla Gardiner.  Sound & Props Designer Sarah Mabberly.  Stage Manager Jillian Perry.  Assistant Stage Manager Alannah Korf. 

Performers : Diane Brown [Artistic Director Ruby Slippers Theatre]  (Lorene).  Veena Sood (Tricia).  Deborah Williams (Olivia).  Donna Yamamoto (Fern).  Beatrice Zeilinger (Norma).  

Addendum : From the program.  Note from the Producers :

Ruby Slippers Artistic Director Diane Brown :

It's always unique when two indy companies come together to produce something. Ruby Slippers Theatre and Zee Zee Theatre tell stories that are intimate yet expansive. Artist-driven and collaborative in spirit, our two companies are coming together to produce 5 @ 50 because this project resonates with personal and social significance. With this co-production, we are doing something revolutionary...something that rarely happens on Canada's mainstages : we are putting five women of diverse background over 40 years of age onstage. That's it. That, sadly, is revolutionary. The other two taboos we are soundly smashing are : allowing these women to actually have a midlife crisis, and to talk about it. Secondly, they get to be unattractive, bold, funny, flawed and, well, utterly human. What differentiates these women from many of their male counterparts in midlife crisis is their intimate friendship and growing awareness, which ultimately save their dignity and themselves.

Zee Zee Theatre Company Managing Artistic Director Cameron Mackenzie :

Ruby Slippers Theatre has been challenging the status quo for nearly 30 years. They were founded by a collective of women  that wanted to change the world. It saddens me that 26 years later putting five three-dimensional women over 40 on stage is still revolutionary, but that is exactly why this co-production is so critical. Zee Zee Theatre is mandated to explore the small stories in the lives of the marginalized. This is our eighth season and we are committed now more than ever to shining light into the fringes our our communities, revealing our shared humanity. Twenty-six years later the battle is not won, but companies old and new are coming together to keep the fight going.