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Why West Side Story is Still On My Top Ten List

The Jets doing one of their trademark dances at Broadway Across Canada

The Jets doing one of their trademark dances at Broadway Across Canada

Broadway Across Canada wraps up its production of West Side Story this weekend. Based on the sell-out crowd at Tuesday’s opening night performance, I’d say there’s still lots of love for this 1957 classic, at least in Calgary. I’m betting a more than a few people gave and received tickets for this show for Valentine’s day, notwithstanding the fact that the tragic story of star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria (aka Romeo and Juliet) set amongst Puerto Rican and Polish American gangs in New York, is more a cautionary tale than an advertisement for romantic love.

I’ve just returned from a trip to Acadia University, where I first got involved in musical theatre with the campus theatre club, MusiCadians in the ’70′s. I remember our choreographer, Barb, was dying to do West Side Story, but we didn’t have the dancers to pull it off, so her dream never came to be, at least not then. If you’ve ever seen West Side Story you’ll know the dancing  - originally choreographed and directed by the great Jerome Robbins – is a huge part of the show, so it’s not a musical a lot of amateur companies can pull off well  - one of the reasons we don’t see it performed that often.  Although sometimes it’s a bit off-putting to see a bunch of somewhat-too-clean-cut gangsters expressing their violent energy through stylized ballet (what a male friend of mine calls a “dance-off”) it’s pretty impressive to watch.

Although I gave the musical “extra points” for choreography in my list of “A Few of My Favourite Shows“, to my mind, it’s Leonard Bernstein’s score that really drives West Side Story, with its exciting rhythms and syncopation in songs like “Something’s Coming,” “America” and “A Boy Like That/I Have A Love.”  Bernstein had already penned successful scores for On The Town, Wonderful Town and Candide, but he reached the pinnacle with West Side Story and he might have gone on to write many more great musicals, if he hadn’t left musical theatre to focus on directing the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and a successful career writing symphonic and other more “serious” (although no doubt less lucrative) musical works.

West Side Story was also the Broadway debut of a young lyricist named Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim considered himself a composer first and foremost and might have turned down the assignment if not for the encouragement of family friend and mentor, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II (talk about connections!), who said he could learn a lot from greats like Bernstein, Robbins and book-writer Arthur Laurents. Fortunately for Sondheim and the rest of the musical theatre world, he took that advice – although, as Martin Gottfield explains in his 1993 book, “Sondheim” (Enlarged and Updated), Sondheim did make the rookie mistake of letting Bernstein keep his share of the lyric writing royalties, when Bernstein offered to remove his name as co-lyricist – if only he’d known how big these songs would become, both on-stage and off!

In his 2010 book “Finishing the Hat, ” Sondheim also explains how he had been hoping to use the first F-bomb in musical theatre history in the humourous Jets song “Gee, Officer Krupke,” but his collaborators wouldn’t go for it, so they ended the song with “Krup You!” instead, which he admits probably works better anyway.  Much to his chagrin, he also had to “clean up” some of the lyrics for the popular 1961 movie version to please the studio. For example, he turned Anita’s line about looking forward to a visit from her lover Bernardo after the rumble from “He’ll come in hot and tired, so what? Don’t matter if he’s tired, as long as he’s hot” to “He’ll come in hot and tired, oh dear. Don’t matter if he’s tired , as long as he’s near.” (He considers this one of his most cringe-worthy lyrics – which says a lot, as he’s pretty critical of many of his early works).

You don’t get to hear some of Sondheim’s clever lyrics in Broadway Across Canada’s version, because it’s based the most recent Broadway revival in which some of the lyrics and dialogue are replaced with Spanish (As in “I Feel Pretty/Me Siento  Hermosa”). While it feels more authentic and adds a little spice, it loses something   – and certainly the humour – if you don’t know the original.

While some musicals written 50 years ago seem dated, West Side Story  and its universal themes of love, friendship, prejudice and revenge still works today. But the reason it will always be on my top 10 list, to paraphrase a jingle from a grocery store chain from my youth, is that “It’s mainly because of the music.”

West Side Story runs until tomorrow (Sunday). Tickets are still available at  http://calgary.broadway.com/

And the envelope please #4 … The Second Annual Calgary Musical Theatre Bloggers Awards (“The Lynnies”)

I am so far behind on my summer blogging I was going to take a pass on my self-proclaimed Calgary Musical Theatre Bloggers Awards (“The Lynnies”) this year, but since I announced when I launched them last year that this would be an annual award, I hate to give up so soon. Plus, it’s a fun way to honour the many musicals I enjoyed this past season, before the Fall season gets going. Unfortunately, I missed a bunch, including Spamalot, which did well at the CAT awards, and The God That Comes, that did well at the Bettys.

“The Lynnies” cover a broad range of categories which relate to the complete customer experience, not just the quality of the performance – both as a blogger and as coordinator of the Calgary Musicals+ Meetup Group which goes to most of these shows and more. I’ve kept some of the categories from last year, dropped some (mostly the “fun” categories where the winners are virtually a shoe-in (best and worst seats and websites, worst price-gouging, etc.)) and added a few more that I thought deserved mentioning.

So without further ado, we’re going to skip the nominations altogether and proceed with the first annual “Lynnies” (drumroll please).

Categories Continued from Last Year

Shows I Was Tempted to See Twice if I Weren’t So Busy  - Or Cheap

Ghostbusted by Jubilations Dinner Theatre. Jukebox musicals based on popular songs aren’t normally my thing, but this one was a blast!

Hairspray by Storybook Theatre. I super production, full of energy. I just wished they’d had a dance floor!

The Last 5 Years by Storybook Theatre. In fact I did see this twice, because I liked it so much the first time around with JP Thibodeau and Madeleine Suddaby, and wanted to see in again with Sarah Irwin and Brandon Wood. I enjoyed it almost as much the second time.

Best Musical That Nobody Saw

The Last 5 Years by Storybook Theatre. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that nobody saw this – in fact one of the nights I went the entire cast from Front Row Centre’s Legally Blonde was there. But due to the fact that this show ran during the June flood, and is pretty much unknown outside musical theatre circles, they had more quiet nights than they deserved, considering the quality of the production.

Actor/Actress Who’s So Good I’d See Anything They’re In

JP Thibodeau (If I Weren’t With You, The Last 5 Years, Uptown Country Girls). OK, I lied. I would have gone to see Uptown Country Girls, just because JP was in it, but never quite made it, although I did send a number of other people (Sorry, JP :( )

Best Customer Service

Jubilations Dinner Theatre box office – once again, went out of their way to help my group and provide a credit when one of our members ran into difficulties

New Categories This Year

Best Supporting Actress

Katelyn Morishita as Paulette Bonafonte in Front Row Centre’s Legally BlondeGreat acting and singing. Hope to see her in bigger roles in future.

Biggest Loss

The disappearance of Summerstock, a troupe featuring high school students who until last year performed an annual summer musical outdoors at Olympic Plaza. The one consolation is that a number of those who appeared in their production of Legally Blonde, also performed in Front Row Centre’s version this winter.

Best New Venue

Beddington Community Arts Centre. Storybook’s new theatre is a nice, flexible space, with great acoustics. Most importantly, it’s not as far as you’d think. That’s a good thing, since now that Front Row Centre is moving there, those of us who love musicals will be spending a lot more time up there.

Best interview

Hawksley Workman, composer/performer - The God That Comes (ATP). How can you top the quote “life is made immeasurably better by wine and rock ‘n roll” ?

Honourable mention: Max Reimer, director - Chicago, Stage West

Best Musical at the Calgary Fringe Festival

Nashville Hurricane by Chase Padgett (a follow-up to his popular 6 Guitarswhich he also did as an encore performance)

Honourable Mentions: Fat Sex! Steve Larkin’s body … of poems and songs! and More Power to Your Knitting, Nell! by Melanie Gall

Sexiest Show

Stage West’s Chicago  (as if there would be any competition!) 

Feel free to share your thoughts or additional “fun” categories (best or worst) based on your musical theatre experiences this past season.

 

Fringe Review: Fat Sex! – Steve Larkin’s body… of poems and songs!

hLJhvNl6s85WRkscJOGwLwU11aj3QDd1-bWq6d86VhU,UkgWeyreJ_oAm-aTdjmBy3LnH2ikDHajDpgDP-xf5BI[1]I don’t know how I missed Fat Sex! – Steve Larkin’s body … of poems and songs! in my list of plays with music at the 2013 Fringe Festival (I think it probably was the promotional poster and the location, which made me think it was going to be a drag show), but as luck would have it, I arrived on the grounds late tonight, so having missed the 6PM show on my agenda, I headed over to Lolita’s Lounge to catch Steve’s show and am glad I did.

According to his press release, Steve “is one of the most prominent figures in UK spoken word, a broadcaster, a regular on the Canadian fringe circuit, a university lecturer in poetry and creative writing, the founder and president of Hammer & Tongue the UK’s premier poetry slam organisation, as well as a popular singer/song writer and comic personality. His work has been broadcast to millions of people through the BBC World Service.  In 2010 he was nominated for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry.” 

Fat Sex!… Steve Larkin’s body… of poems and songs! showcases some of the highlights of Larkin’s career as a performance poet, humorist and songster and is his first appearance at the Calgary Fringe Festival. I wouldn’t have thought of myself as a big performance poet fan, but I found Steve’s performance thoroughly engaging from the opening where he addressed the entire audience as “Ian” to the closing song which he wrote to dance on the graves of his as of yet unborn children. There were two other songs – one about apes and their lack of desire to be like us (inspired, in a manner of speaking, by the Jungle Book) and another about a bipolar alcoholic clown.

But it was really his banter with the audience and his poetry that got to me – a mixture of comedy, politics and environmentalism with hilarious facial expressions and movement. He was a pleasure to watch and listen to – whether the subject matter was light, or heavy – and there was plenty of each. The highlight of the show was, indeed, the title poem, described by the Edmonton Journal as “a furiously escalating punk satire of the double women’s magazine obsessions (sex and fat).” You can see a video of the poem here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VzpLeO_iE_w 

As an added bonus, I was able to enjoy the show over a snack and a couple of glasses of red wine at Lolita’s Lounge, one of only two Fringe venues where you can do that. (If you read my Beethoven Rolls Over  review, you’ll see there’s a pattern here…). After that it was up the hill to the ArtPoint Gallery for The Show Must Go On, and back to the DaDe Art & Design Lab for Chase Padgett’s 6 Guitars both of which I also loved. Another perfect night at the Calgary Fringe Festival. What a great line-up this year!

Fat Sex! – Steve Larkin’s body … of poems and songs! has two more shows @ Lolita’s Lounge: Thursday at 8:30PM and Friday at 6:30PM. Tickets are $15. The show is rated Age 16+ and runs 55 minutes. For more information and tickets, go to www.calgaryfringe.ca.

Fringe Review: Nashville Hurricane (and a hint of 6 Guitars)

Q4BKyE9B-iJWd3QRXZN0jk97cLzm50ZSyFS76jfa7RkChase Padgett’s newest show, Nashville Hurricane, opened Friday night to a nearlyfull house at the Calgary Fringe Festival – something that’s pretty amazing by Fringe standards, which usually depend on word-of-mouth and reviews to bring in the crowds, especially on the opening long weekend. Much of that credit goes to the success Chase had with his previous sell-out show from 2 years ago, 6 Guitars. (He was here last year with The Bro Show, which was also popular but not quite as critically acclaimed, and did one performance of 6 Guitars at the end of the Fringe). It probably didn’t hurt that 6 Guitars was also the best-selling show at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival this year.

Nashville Hurricane is a return to the Chase Padgett “brand” in which he plays multiple characters telling stories against a musical backdrop and is co-written with and directed by Jay Hopkins. It is the story of Henry – a shy, geeky, technical and musical genius born of a one-night-stand to a trailer park woman of dubious motherly qualities. After reluctantly appearing in a talent show to help his mother pay the rent, he is “discovered” and pushed to stardom by the unscrupulous, fast-talking “Smoky Joe” and then just as suddenly, he mysteriously abandons fame and fortune for life as the roadie of a blues man (a return appearance of Tyrone from 6 Guitars).

Chase tells the story in a non-linear fashion from the perspective of all four characters and his performance is nothing short of mesmerizing as he weaves from one to the next, forward and backward in time. Compared to his earlier shows, Nashville Hurricane is definitely more theatrical with a lot more narrative. There are lots of laughs and some poignant moments in this show and Chase’s sense of comedic timing is brilliant. Probably the only disappointment is that there is not much of his virtuoso guitar playing, although the two featured songs (“Amazing Grace” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”), are, in Chase’s own words, “doozies”.

Chase hails from Florida and is currently living in Los Angeles. Up until 2010, when 6 Guitars gook the Orlando Fringe Festival by storm, Chase did a variety of work in theatre and music, including stints at Florida theme parks (he is from Orlando, after all). He says Nashville Hurricane is an extreme version of his own musical journey. “I first picked up the guitar at the age of 16, having gotten bored with the trumpet,” he said. “I played for hours and hours, teaching myself to play by ear, just like Henry. This led me to studying music at University of Central Florida and taking improv classes, which I just loved. That, in turn, led me to write 6 Guitars.”

yadpkCm4mWamYtFNKNt3A-DhaHQ1N_Xg_v4-quvhEmc“6 Guitars changed my life, “ he said. “I’m now kind of a professional hobo, spending summers in Canada, and focusing on touring at bring-your-own venue opportunities and the North American Fringe circuit.” He says he’s learned so much about every aspect of the theatre business as a result of his Fringe experience, since you have to do everything yourself – from performing to administration to technical production to marketing. “I can recommend it to any young performer who isn’t afraid to be flexible, persevere, and just plain figure it out,” he says. “I call it an “on-your-feet” apprenticeship”.

Chase also really appreciates the camaraderie that comes from performers who do the circuit, who are a constant source of inspiration and encouragement. “I’ve also learned never to take the audience for granted, because you just never know with the Fringe,” says Chase, “One night you may have two people and the next night you may have a full house. I am always filled with a sense of gratitude when people show up and like my show. If I am ever wildly successful  – as I hope to be some day – I will have my Fringe Festival audiences to thank for that.”

Both performances on Friday and Saturday night have gotten standing ovations and positive critical reviews. You can add my voice to those that insist that Nashville Hurricane should be on everyone’s “must-see” list at the Calgary Fringe Festival this year. Chase says he may extend the show in future by adding more music, something I think his (music-loving) fans will welcome.

Nashville Hurricane plays at the DaDe Art & Design Lab at 7:15 or 9:15 PM every night until August 10th, with the exception of Wednesday August 7th).   You’ll really want to consider getting tickets online for this one, as the show is sure to be popular. They hold back a percentage of tickets for purchase on site the day of the show, but go early in the day if you don’t want to miss out.

For those, like me, who have yet to see 6 Guitars, Chase will be doing a one night only performance on Tuesday August 6 at the DaDe Art Lounge at 9:15PM. On-line ticket sales are already closed, so you’ll need to go early to get a chance of same-day tickets on-site.

For more information and tickets on both shows, go to Calgary Fringe Festival. You may also be interested in checking out Chase’s 6 Guitars website.

If you miss him here, or can’t get enough, Chase is also performing Nashville Hurricane at the Edmonton Fringe Festival next week and he’s doing 6 Guitars in Vancouver after that. Then he’ll be back in Calgary playing guitar and keyboard with Orlando’s SAK Comedy Lab at the Calgary Improv Festival.

Fringe Review: Beethoven Rolls Over

2KzsFv7cughUdzguD9Z1p6IuBiJxojHhSa9cN-JSO6wI kicked off the 2013 Calgary Fringe Festival in style with a lovely dinner, a couple of glasses of $5 Sangria and some terrific guitar music, courtesy of Vancouver’s   “global guitarist” Colin Godbout who premiered his one man musical, Beethoven Rolls Over at Jacqueline Suzanne’s Bistro on Friday night. This is a return to Calgary for Colin, who impressed audiences at last year’s Fringe with his 2 to Django in the same venue.

The show is more music/cabaret than theatre and is divided into four themes: Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved (a reflection on Beethoven’s love for a woman he only referred to by that name), Romantic and Heroic Beethoven (in which Mozart and Goethe feature prominently), Afrocentric and Feminist Beethoven (who’d have guessed?), and Joni (Mitchell)’s Ludwig. “Joni Mitchell considers Beethoven one of her heroes”, explains Colin, “and has been described by friends as Beethoven in drag”.

While Beethoven’s music (often with other’s lyrics, including some of Colin’s own) is the glue that holds the show together, there’s also some of Colin’s trademark blues, jazz, and flamenco thrown in for good measure.  Much of the music will be familiar to people with only a passing knowledge of the classics. I can assure you that hearing Colin play Beethoven’s “Flatted” Fifth on the guitar is quite the treat. Although some people might find the instrument an odd choice for such music, Colin says Beethoven himself played the guitar (considering it a mini-orchestra) and wrote music for mandolin.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Colin – or rather, he sat down at our table while he warmed up on the guitar  - before the show. He was more than a little nervous, since he hadn’t performed this show in public before. (He’s doing the Fringe circuit this year with three different shows).   “I actually wrote Beethoven Rolls Over with this venue in mind,” he said. “Jacqueline Suzanne’s has a kind of “Orient Express” feel to it, and I find Calgary audiences are quite sophisticated, so that allows me to explore musical concepts that don’t work elsewhere.”

Colin studied music, theology and metaphysics in university and that cerebral intelligence comes across in his programme, his speech and the short monologues throughout the performance. Much of what he said was over my head, and I could not do justice to it by attempting to capture it here, but it was fascinating to listen to his explanations about the meaning behind different chords and musical patterns and the parallels between Beethoven and Chuck Berry, for example. Even so, Colin’s playing speaks for itself and you can enjoy his performance for its own sake, even if you aren’t a philosopher or academic.

The Friday audience got an added bonus when Colin finished earlier than expected, resulting in him having to do some quick improvising, throwing in a Joni Mitchell medley he’d used in his Winnipeg show and some poetry by Milton that rounded off the programme nicely. I’m sure the show will continue to evolve as he settles into it over the course of the week, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if every audience sees and hears something a little different. And isn’t that what the Fringe is all about?

Beethoven Rolls Over plays from 7PM to 8PM every night of the Fringe Festival at Jacqueline Suzanne’s Bistro, plus he is doing an extra performance after the Fringe on Sunday August 11. Tickets are $12, and you should consider buying online in advance to ensure you get a spot as it’s a small space and likely to be popular. If you want to go early and have dinner, make a reservation at the restaurant in advance. If you miss Colin here or want to see more of him, you can catch him at the Edmonton Fringe Festival next week, where he is doing another  show called Canuck Quixote.

For more information on Colin go to his website.

Go to Calgary Fringe Festival for tickets and more information on the festival.

[I know I said I wasn't going to do any Fringe reviews this year, but since I didn't get my articles posted beforehand, I figure I might as well write reviews of the two shows I saw on Friday night - Beethoven Rolls Over and Nashville Hurricane (spoiler alert- LOVED IT!) - and then I'll get the rest of my previews up over the course of the next few days. I'm taking a couple of days off and will be back seeing more shows on Monday!]

If You Do Nothing Else in the Next 5 Days, See The Last 5 Years @ Storybook Theatre

Madeleine Suddaby and JP Thibodeau in The Last 5 Years. Photo courtesy of Storybook Theatre

Madeleine Suddaby and JP Thibodeau in The Last 5 Years.
Photo courtesy of Storybook Theatre

I’m not doing reviews anymore but I didn’t have time to preview The Last 5 Years and just saw it last weekend. I have to say it’s the best musical I’ve seen all season - chalk up another one for Storybook Theatre, who impressed Calgary with last year’s production of Avenue Q as part of their (adult) Novel series – and impressed me with their most recent production of Hairspray (my previous best show of the season). The performances of Madeleine Suddaby (who already won a coveted “Lynnie” award last year for being so good I would see anything she’s in) and JP Thibodeau (who might well be added to this year’s list) were outstanding, as was the live on-stage band under the baton of Susan Lexa.

In fact I liked the show so much I was inspired to support their annual fundraiser and offer to match donations Storybook Theatre gets up to the end of their run on Saturday (see below) AND I’m taking the Calgary Musicals+ Meetup Group again on Friday to check out the alternate pair in the lead roles (Sarah Irwin and Brandon Wood). I’m told my sympathies might change this time. I’ll be curious to find out.

I’m too busy to write up much of an article this week, so I’m just reproducing the listing I have in the Meetup Group site below. So far the critics are unanimous on this one – go see it!

Novel Productions in partnership with StoryBook Theatre Society present THE LAST 5 YEARS  – a fundraising event for 2013/14 programming

by Jason Robert Brown
directed by Mark Bellamy
musical direction by Susan Lexa

Only two more shows – Friday and Saturday this week!

This is the much-anticipated follow-up show to the 2012 hit Avenue Q. Novel Productions is an offshoot of the StoryBook Theatre family used to fundraise for annual programming and is a more “adult” production than their usual children’s fare.

Jason Robert Brown’s contemporary musical The Last Five Years tells the emotionally powerful story of two twenty-something New Yorkers who dive head first into a marriage fueled by the optimism that comes with finding “the one.”  But in a city where professional and personal passions collide and only the strongest relationships survive, navigating the waters of love and matrimony can sometimes prove too much. Funny, honest and intimate, with an exuberantly romantic score, The Last Five Years takes a bold look at one young couple’s hope that love endures the test of time.

Tickets are $32. Arrange your own tickets and tell others where you’re sitting or we can meet at the door (availability still good).

Here is a sneak peek https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10152929521185192

For more info or tickets see http://storybooktheatre.org/l5y

And here’s the link to my fundraising challenge – from Storybook’s Facebook Page:

StoryBook is thrilled to announce that calgarymusicals.com in support of our fundraising effort with the Last 5 Years has issued a challenge to all our supporters. For all the donations made beyond tickets sales by our patrons they will match the amount, dollar for dollar to a maximum of $5000 (one for each year of the show) until the show closes next Saturday.

So please MAKE A DONATION TO STORYBOOK TODAY!!!
https://tickets.storybooktheatre.org/TheatreManager/159/online

Calgary Musical Theatre – Best of Fall 2012

It was a fairly light Fall on the Calgary musical theatre scene this year, with only nine musicals  - maybe that’s not all that light, since it works out to more than two a month, but it feels light after last spring and summer. I include in this number Verb Theatre’s Noise, which by the sounds of it (pun intended) might or might not be considered a musical. That was the only one I missed. On the whole,  it was a bit of a lackluster start to the 2012-2013 season, in my opinion. There were plenty of good and great productions – in fact, really not a dud in the lot – but not too many musicals that piqued my interest or blew me away.

Christianne Noll (Broadway Rocks!)

Christianne Noll (Broadway Rocks!)

My favourite show of the Fall wasn’t really a musical at all, but a concert called Broadway Rocks!in which current and recent Broadway stars (nobody I’d heard of) teamed up with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra to give a very energetic and entertaining performance of Broadway show tunes. This show was so much better than I expected that I was sufficiently inspired to take in Colm Wilkinson’s one night performance (Broadway, Christmas and Beyond) in December – good, but too much “beyond” and not enough “Broadway” for my taste – and to take the Calgary Musicals+ Meetup Group to see the CPO’s Ballroom with a Twist: The Dance Extravaganza in January. Along with the Sing-Along Messiah I attended in December (I just found the score I’d packed away with all my Christmas decorations but fortunately my sister Susan bought a copy so we could follow along, however feebly), that makes four trips to the Jack Singer in less than two months – more than I’ve been in the last ten years, I’m sure.

Next to NormalOf the musicals, the ones that have stuck with me were Theatre Calgary’s season opener, Next To Normala rock musical about a woman struggling with bipolar disorder and the impact it has on her family – and a brave choice by TC – GHOST BUSTED (CAL)and Jubilation Dinner Theatre’s Ghostbusted, a spoof on the popular 1980′s film which I saw in November (still playing). I suppose this just shows what happens when a Gemini goes to the theatre  - so many productions, so many different tastes (or at least two) ;).

I didn’t see May and Joe at Rosebud, but I’m going to have faith in my co-blogger Will (and many others) who raved about it. If it’s that good, no doubt I’ll get another chance to see it in Calgary some day, like some of Rosebud’s other original hits.

Looking forward to a fuller and more inspiring rest of the season starting in January. Check out the 2012-2013 Schedule tab for upcoming shows. Most of them are there, and I’ll be refreshing it over the holidays.

Rosebud Theatre's May and Joe

Rosebud Theatre’s May and Joe

Review: … ok, maybe a little whimper for Two Hit Wonders

Sunny

For my final review of 2012, I’m catching up on a show I attended back in November – Stage West’s production of Two Hit Wonders. This revue by Howard Pechet (also the executive producer) and Timothy French (also the director and choreographer) is a “follow-up” to a show they co-created a few years ago called One Hit Wonders. Like Stage West’s Summer in the Citywhich I saw this spring, it’s essentially a concert, with virtually non-stop singing and dancing interspersed with explanatory notes on what you are about to hear.

Pechet and French play a little fast and loose with the definition, including artists who had two number one hits on the Billboard charts, who reached the top ten or top forty twice, or who had two hits of a specific genre. They also include some songs that were hits by two different artists. The songs are categorized by group, like “60′s Groovy Wonders” (e.g. “Game of Love” and “Groovy Kind of Love” by Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders), “Novelty Songs”  (Ray Stevens gets two nods here for “Gitarzan” and “The Streak”) and “Disco Wonders” (e.g. “I Will Survive” and “Never Can Say Goodbye” by Gloria Gaynor). The disco and the 80′s section were my favourites, even though I’m more a child of the 70′s – once again, proving to me that I don’t hate 80′s music as much as I thought I did when I wrote my review for Rock of Ages back in October.

As followers of my blog - including Stage West – know, this type of show isn’t normally my thing, and I wasn’t particularly won over by this one. In fact, I could almost have just stolen my Summer In The City review and copied it here. The song selections were good and the ten-person cast was strong across the board (no particular stand-outs for me), as was the band, under the direction of first keyboard player/music arranger Konrad Pluta. Certainly the singing and dancing (and of course, the food :) ) were up to Stage West’s usually high standards. Nevertheless, by the middle of Act II, I was feeling kind of bored and ready to pack it in. Also, I was kind of disappointed that in most cases they only played one of the two hits referred to, which made for more variety, I suppose, but for me, kind of missed the point.

If you’re a Stage West fan, and like shows that are more song than story, you’ll probably like this as much as any other. If not, save your pennies for a “real musical” like Chicago, which Stage West is doing in the New Year.

Two Hit Wonders runs Tuesdays through Sundays until Feb 3. Ticket prices range from $69 to $99 ($59 for Seniors 65+ on Wednesdays only) – plus they are having a 2-for-1 Boxing Day Special. For more information, go to Stage West.

Reviews: From Aladdin to White Christmas – ending 2012 with a bang, not a whimper


AladdinPoster

Well, I finished off 2012 with a bang, not a whimper, with four shows in two days on Friday and Saturday – I don’t think I’ve done a blitz like that other than the Fringe Festival . Two of these, Conni Massing’s Oh, Christmas Tree at Lunchbox Theatre, and Theatre Calgary’s  annual production of A Christmas Carol (by Charles Dickens, of course), wouldn’t be called musicals, unless you count the carolling (and you could, if you were so inclined). These were terrific shows and I’d recommend them both – apparently so have others, as the latter is sold out and the former is getting there.

One of the two musicals I saw was Storybook Theatre’s production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas at their new theatre in Beddington. That sounds really far, but it was only a 15 minute drive from my place in the inner city – no more than it takes to get to their former space at Currie Barracks (or the Epcor Centre, if you consider taking time for parking). That show just finished yesterday, so I’m not doing a full-fledged review here. I will be adjudicating it for Calgary-Acts, so I can get my judging needs met that way :). Suffice to say, that it was a great performance by all leads and chorus with lots of great singing and dancing, and the set and staging were top-notch. I don’t think White Christmas will go on my list of favourite musicals of all time (my tastes in music are a little more contemporary), and I had some quibbles with sound and smoke (!), but it was a pleasant enough show, and well done. It sold out fairly early in the run as well.

I had a free night on Friday and wanted to celebrate my last day of work before the holidays, so I squeezed in a visit to the Pumphouse to see Morpheus Theatre’s Aladdin, a pantomime, by Damian Trasler, David Lovesy, Steve Clark and John Dowell. I have to thank Derek, one of the followers of this blog, for directing me to this one. I thought a pantomime was a show without words and music (and definitely not my thing), so didn’t consider it on my original programme. What I didn’t know is that pantomime or “panto” as it’s colloquially called, is a long-standing British Christmas tradition for all ages, kind of like a vaudeville show, with corny jokes, several songs (either popular songs or familiar tunes with new lyrics) and lots of audience participation. For obvious reasons, it’s popular with community theatre companies like Morpheus, which is also known for its annual Gilbert and Sullivan operetta in the spring (2013′s show is the Gondoliers). I believe this is the only one done in Calgary. The young kids in particular enjoyed being able to boo the villain AbanaZER (Steve Hansen Smythe) and cheer on the hero, Aladdin (Alicia Pagnotta) of magic lamp fame. And yes, there were lots of Brits in the audience with grandchildren in tow.

This isn’t quite the Disney version of this fable, although the story will be familiar to young and old alike. Its first recorded performance was in London in 1788, but it’s not dated – there are lots of contemporary references to keep it fresh and funny, and even a great rap song by Princess Jasmine (Maria Fernandez) and her assistant So-Shi (not Sushi!), played by Erica Ho. Curiously, it’s set in China, not Arabia, and centres around the Widow Twankey (a cross-dressing David Young) who runs a Peking (Beijing) laundry and is the mother of Aladdin and his not-so-bright, insecure brother Wishee-Washee (Ryan Patterson). This should give you a bit of an idea of the kind of humour you might expect here.

The cast, directed by Jane Phillips Taylor (musical direction by Graham Wrightson and choreography by Terry Wood) was fine on all fronts – singing, dancing and acting – although without mikes, it was sometimes hard to hear the singers. I enjoyed all the leads, especially veterans Dorie Wrightson (Slave of the Ring) and Gary Silberg (Genie of the Lamp). Special mention must be given to young Matthew Baxter as Mini-Wishee, who was adorable and did a fine job keeping up with the grownups on the dance steps.

All in all, not high art, but a thoroughly silly and engaging evening.

Aladdin, A Pantomime is playing at the Pumphouse Theatre until Dec 22. Tickets are $20 regular, $15 for seniors and students. For more information go to Morpheus Theatre. If you’re looking for someone to go with, The Calgary Musicals+ Meetup Group is going on Thursday December 20.

Review: Broadway Rocks! Heats up the Jack Singer on a Cold Winter’s Night

  

I spent a thoroughly entertaining evening at the Jack Singer concert hall last night, at Broadway Rocks!  – an evening of show tunes with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (under the baton of guest conductor, Steven Reineke), The Calgary Men’s Chorus, and four stars from the Broadway stage: Christiane Noll (Jeckyll and Hyde, Chaplin), Capathia Jenkins (Newsies, The Civil War, Godspell), Hugh Panaro (Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera), and Darius de Haas (Rent, Kiss of the Spiderwoman). It was a high-energy performance of selected songs from contemporary musicals from Jesus Christ Superstar to the upcoming What’s Love Got to Do With It? that brought lots of hoots and hollers and standing ovations from the audience, including me and my companion from the Calgary Musicals+ Meetup Group.

For me, Noll really stole the show, with stellar vocals, moves and humour (not to mention the dresses) on such numbers as “Good Morning, Baltimore” (Hairspray), and “Phantom of the Opera”. (OK, not so much humour in that one, but she really kicked ass on those high notes). I enjoyed Noll’s performance so much I bought her CD, “My Personal Property,” which she autographed after the show. Jenkins was also a captivating performer and vocalist, leading rousing “shake your bootie” renditions of “Proud Mary” and “I Will Survive.”  Neither of these are from Broadway shows, but they’re obviously a couple of her mainstays.

The boys really couldn’t hold a candle to these two fine ladies, expect for Panaro’s big finale, the Phantom’s “Music of the Night”, which brought down the house.  I wondered if he’d been saving himself all night. De Haas on the other hand, had a lot of trouble getting any of his upper range out. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was ill. Otherwise, although engaging, it appears he may have lost his voice and doesn’t have the chops to do this kind of work (anymore), unfortunately. 

There is only one more performance of Broadway Rocks! and that’s tonight at 8PM at the Epcor Centre. Tickets range from $40 to $90. For more information and tickets go to Broadway Rocks! 

SPECIAL NOTE RE PARKING: Go early if you want to find parking nearby, especially underground. With the weather and all the shows going on at the Epcor right now, many of the lots were full from people going to shows at 7:30PM and there were line-ups at the rest. If you don’t mind a little walk and parking outdoors, the big municipal parking lot to the south of City Hall always has lots of room and it’s only $2. Or better yet, take the C-train.

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