Thursday, 8 December 2016

Poppins is peppery salty sugary seasonal stuff

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 :  Three years before her death in 1996, British producer Cameron Mackintosh (Phantom of the Opera) had to talk P.L. Travers into the rights to do a "rescue script". To rescue the characters of Mary Poppins from Walt Disney's fantasyland film version. Apprently Dick Van Dyke drove Travers to absolute distraction he was so bubble-gummy. And Julie Andrews? Not in the least the "plain, vain and incorruptible" Poppins from Travers' semi-autobiographical UK books. Uncle Walt made her as sweet and loveable as she would be again the next year in both My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music

Travers was so hostile to Disney's artistic team for MP she didn't even get an invite to the film's premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood in August of '64. Wiki rightly identifies the movie an "American musical phantasy comedy". Travers left the Grauman in tears. At age 93 she finally agreed to grant Mackintosh script access rights, but on one condition : no Americans or Disney alumnae to be involved in its makeover!

How it all got put together :  The project languished. Because Mackintosh knew there'd be no sense in trying to deny stage patrons some of the world's best known sing-along-songs such as "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" or "Chim Chim Cher-ee" or "A Spoonful of Sugar". So he just sat on it. After Travers' passing, Mackintosh engaged Julian Fellowes (later of Downton Abbey fame) to re-do the Disney book. He then rang up British duo Stiles and Drewe to play around with the original tunes plus add one or two of their own, the most notable their anthem "Anything Can Happen". [The song reflects what Jr. Banks, son Michael (Glen Gordon), says about his favourite nanny : "Mary always tells us anything is possible if we could only get out of our own way."]

In this 3rd re-mount of Poppins in three years, Director Bill Millerd knew better than to start completely afresh given the mountain of good press ACT garnered before. Fully two-thirds of the original team are back : a whole swack of the same actors, ensemble, orchestra and production crew. Throw in a few newbies and this year's Poppins once more pops a cork with bubbly joyous escapist froth just right for The Season.

Understudy in the part from the previous shows Kayla James is this year's Mary.  A few years back Harper Collins did a re-issue of the original 1934 Travers book, one of eight Travers would write over the next 50 years -- into her late 80's -- always distilling and refining her character Miss P.  In that re-issue Mackintosh wrote the introduction. "Mary Poppins," he said, "is, and always will be, unique : stern, dependable, businesslike, magical and yet eternally loveable." Ms. James proves the truth of his descriptor in each pirouette, each hand gesture, each smile and knowing look. 

What the show brings to the stage :  The 40-odd folk who comprise the acting troupe, production team and musicians are a true ensemble fantastique. And the bottom line for Poppins is as healthy & robust as it is because each of the show's individual contributors bequest way more than 100% of what they are asked to give. 

First observation of note is ACT's complete engagement of the entire Stanley stage including the north and south wings. Alison Green's set design is, once more, a mix of whimsy, function and resourcefulness blending creative scenes of home and park and London's chimney'd rooftops.

Craig Alfredson's projections -- most notably the birds and the rain and the stars -- criss-crossed Green's scrims artfully. And yet those two individual's efforts would not have worked as well as they did without Sheila White's assembly of costumes for the myriad characters the Ensemble and actors portray. A richer display of period threads -- these representing Victoria's England -- I have never seen on a Vancouver stage.

But what are costumes without talented bodies executing inventive and crackerjack stage work underneath? It is here that Choreographer Valerie Easton gives Vancouver entertainment value equal to and better than what Big City fans quite take for granted back East. Four numbers jump out with their dance precision that quite astonish : Jolly Holiday, A Spoonful of Sugar, Supercal, and Step in Time, the magical tap-dance by the chimneysweeps. My oh my such creativity both in conception and on the boards.

Acting pin-spots : Aside from Kayla James' terrific Mary turn-out as noted above, 3rd-time-around Bert by Scott Walters proves even vintage single-malt can improve with further age. His character is a charm of emotional breadth, wit, and pure comedy. The two principals are equal champions in this show.

MP veteran Bobby Callahan plays the character Robertson Ay -- butler, squire, gofetchit -- with a zing of slapstick spontaneity that stole the audience's heart. Some of the funniest slapschtick I've ever witnessed in Vancouver, quite frankly.

And no need to change what I wrote about her in 2013 : "Susan Anderson as Mrs. Brill [the Banks' housekeeper] and the Bird Woman in the park huckstering two-pence breadcrumb bags was non-pareil. The comic timing of her panic! disapproval! and sheer aghastness! at the Banks' madhouse was split-second each line, each moment. As Bird Woman her turn was pure zen."

Who gonna like :  To this eye, Mary Poppins stands a likelihood of becoming ACT's Christmastime ace-in-the-hole for local audiences. Many have become jaundiced about the commercialism and faux-religiosity connected with The Season. This is Singing' In The Rain style stuff, neither Santaland nor Bethlehem nor Jerusalem. The fun is seeing the mix of talents -- acting and production and music -- that make this a night out at the theatre that will grab you by the heart and make you sing your way home.

Particulars : On thru January 1st at ACT's Stanley stage, Granville @ 11th. Week-nights @ 7:30, Fridays & Saturdays 8 p.m. Run-time 120 minutes including intermission. Tickets $29 and up by phone to ACBO @ 604.687.1644 or by visiting ACT on-line @ Derived from the Walt Disney film and Cameron Mackintosh production. Based on the stories / novels of Pamela Lyndon Travers. Original music & lyrics by Richard & Robert Sherman. Book by Julian Fellowes.  Additional music & lyrics by George Stiles & Anthony Drewe.
Production team :  Director Bill Millerd.  Co-Mjusical Directors Ken Cormier & Bruce Kellett.  Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Set Designer Alison Green.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe.  Costume Designer Sheila White.  Assistant Costume Designer Connie Hosie.  Sound Designer Chris Daniels.  Projection Designer Craig Alfredson.  Magic Consultant Chris Stolz.  Stage Manager Caryn Fehr.  Assistant Stage Manager Anne Taylor.  Apprentice Stage Manager Jenny Kim.

L'orchestre : Nick Apivor Drums / Percussion.  Henry Christian Trumpet.  Ken Cormier Keyboard.  Angus Kellett Keyboard.  Bruce Kellett Keyboard.  Sue Round Cello.

Principal actors :  Kayla James (Mary Poppins).  Susan Anderson (Mrs. Brill / Bird Woman).  Glen Gordon (Michael Banks).  Elizabeth Irving (Jane Banks).  Caitriona Murphy (Winnifred Banks).  Milo Shandel (George Banks).  Scott Walters (Bert).  Katey Wright (Miss Andrew / Mrs. Corry).

Ensemble / supporting actors :  Scott Augustine (Neleus / Ensemble).  Keiran Bohay (Ensemble).  Sierra Brewerton (Annie / Ensemble).  Bobby Callahan (Robertson Ay / Sweep / Von Hussler / Ensemble).  Jarret Cody (Northbrook / Poseidon / Sweep / Ensemble).  Julio Fuentes (Ensemble).  Shannon Hanbury (Annie / Ensemble).  Nathan Kay (Policeman / Ensemble).  Anna Kuman (Katie Nanna / Ensemble).  Brianne Loop (Fanny / Ensemble).  Jennie Neumann (Miss Lark / Ensemble).  Michael Querin (Admiral Boom / Ensemble).  


Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Day Before Christmas is a chummy tale 

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 :  Why does Christmas generate such angst annoyance dyspepsia among families? For a host of reasons it sometimes seems there's a profound sense of loss in our 1st World privileged enclave here. As if Norman Rockwell not only died but took all his illusory paintings to the grave with him.

In the hands of playwrights Stacey Kaser and Alison Kelly, the best way to deal with the avoidance / avoidance syndrome lots of people suffer around The Season is a situation comedy 2016 style. In the manner of Roseanne Barr doing a remake of the Brady Bunch through today's iPad lenses. 

WYSIWYG : Kaser & Kelly have collaborated previously. Conversations With My Mother played at the Gateway two seasons back. For her part Kelly is best known locally for the Mom's the Word series. TDBC falls squarely into those camps. Situational wit based on scenes redolent of Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon stories. Reflected back through a gilded convex mirror, the kind Nana used to have over her fireplace.

Some shows start v-e-r-y slowly, then get more clippety-clop in a couple of scenes. TDBC starts off with one of the best opening scenes seen on local stages -- a quicky rollback of the set in hazed lighting from its later Christmas Eve chaos -- instantly! we're back to the relative calm of November 1st. From there the scene trudges somewhat dutifully & predictably through the next 50 minutes (and days...) of exposition until we finally get to the set-up for Act 2's various climactic antics.

Quicky plot sum-up : Mom Alex (Jennifer Clement) is a workaholic caterer who loves Christmas decoration themes for both her clients and for her family. This year's homegrown theme is, basically, Zhivago. Dad Alan (Andrew Wheeler) is an affable doofus. Their children are 17 and 14 : Brodie (Julie Leung) and Max (Daren Dyhengco). 

Dad whinges about Alex's catering workload, particularly during The Season. How can she possibly pull off her catering contracts and "do Christmas" at home too in her usual perfectionist Martha Stewart style. Fact is the rest of the family isn't so keen on all of Mom's ad hoc theme trappings anyway. 

Add into the mix a Christmas Eve wedding Brodie is bridesmaid for. An old high school heartthrob now a Hollywood star named Reid. Some YouTube shenanigans capturing Alex's catered rap party for and with Reid. Brother Keith estranged from his wife Susan who FaceTimes ad nauseam from Disneyland. He and his daughters will miss all the Zhivago prettery, too. More Alex fret over loss-of-tradition and stress about changing landscapes. Son Max, meanwhile, who after an innocent invite from her Muslim parents, schemes to spend Christmas with his new girlfriend Raji at Whistler. Lie about this and sneak off despite Mom's vehement prohibition? Whatever. Oh. And then there's Clifford, the new dog Dad has rescued : 70 pounds of puppy always at full gallop. 

Themes and values that drive the show : As the above suggests, this is lite fare that nevertheless pokes at serious family issues in today's world. Work life -vs- home life. Communication dodges and misfires. Just precisely where does the truth lie? Loyalties split between friends and family. The weight of traditions -vs- the urges to just let now happen regardless of the calendar nagging at us about The Season.

The fact it is two female playwrights who put the script together is of note. Because whether it's a Mars / Venus dichotomy or just a patriarchal hangover, reality is most men don't bake shortbread, let alone fruit cake. Buy the bird, mastermind the stuffing or even do the gravy. Decide on and decorate the house from the endless boxes of seasonal tackle and chattels that are shunt off to the attic, mercifully, for the other 11 months of the year. A mom's revenge on "Christmas cheer" is pretty well what The Day Before Christmas is all about.

Production & acting pin-spots : A sustained and consistent turn by ACT veteran  Jennifer Clement, no question. She was utterly convincing as the conflicted and demanding and loving and preoccupied Mom. As husband Alan, Andrew Wheeler was engaging in his naive charm. When post-YouTube he flipped into righteous rage mode as the script demanded, the abruptness and seeming finality of his ultimatum came as a surprise. Leung and Dyhengco for their parts were convincing in their sister/brother hissy-fits and teenager Whatever... attitudes. 

Director Chelsea Haberlin provided her team with canny and adept blocking on the stage with its 3-side horseshoe seating. Good staging of the chaos and tumult the unseen Clifford brought to the scene. Once again Drew Facey demonstrates his remarkable talents conceiving and executing dramatic sets (see Brothel #9 November 20 review). A very classy suburban executive home brought to life here. Itai Erdal's lighting sequences were slick & witty, while Matthew MacDonald-Bain's soundscape -- particularly the snare drum / string bass sequence as dramatic tension built -- was compelling. 

Who gonna like : A lot of energy and talent were put into this script by writers Kaser and Kelly. Issues : too much Act I exposition.  Too many coincidences to fuel the plot line. Too much Keith on FaceTime. But as heard from a number of folks at show's end, the Act 2 energy and pointedness and pace made the evening's Christmas biography realistic in spades. Fact is there is no "perfect Christmas". Alex maintains "Spontaneity has to be planned!" Others couldn't disagree more.

I recall the redoubtable Oprah Winfrey addressing the issue of family at Christmastime. One trenchant observation struck me that I now recycle :

"Before you meet your relatives this season, take a few moments to sit quietly and acknowledge what you wish they were like. Then prepare to accept them even if they behave as they have always done in the past. At best you may be surprised to find that they actually are changing, that some of your wishes have come true. At worst you'll feel regrettably detached from your kinfolk as you watch them play out their usual psychoses."

The Kaser/Kelly/Haberlin team serves up a chummy, familiar and at times edgy version of The Season. There is much to relate to here and have a lot of fun with -- as well as much to reflect upon around expectations -- no question. Because without expectations there'd be no Santa Claus.
Particulars :  A new play developed by the Arts Club Theatre Company. Written by Stacey Kaser & Alison Kelly.  On stage at the BMO Theatre Centre, 162 West 1st Avenue. On thru December 24.,  Schedules & tickets by phone @ 604.687.1644 or via  Run-time 2 hours 15 minutes including one intermission.

Production crew :  Director Chelsea Haberlin.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Costume Designer Carmen Alatorre.  Lighting Designer Itai Erdal.  Sound Designer Matthew MacDonald-Bain.  Projection Designer Joel Grinke.  Dramaturg Rachel Ditor.  Stage Manager Angela Beaulieu.  Assistant Stage Manager Yvonne Yip.

Performers :  Jennifer Clement (Alex).  Daren Dyhengco (Max).  Jay Hindle (Keith).  Nicholas Lea (Reid).  Julie Leung (Brodie).  Curtis Tweedie (Dirk).  Andrew Wheeler (Alan).