Film: “Easter Parade”

When the schedule for the Edmonton Film Society‘s Summer 2008 was released, I was most looking forward to the opening movie: Easter Parade. Though I’ve seen the last, titular number more times than I can count, I can’t say I’ve actually ever watched the movie in its entirety.

Among the vocal older audience (as expected), it was a treat to watch Fred Astaire and Judy Garland on screen. They epitomize ease on their feet, and always make me feel like when I walk out of the theatre, I can as gracefully tap, twirl and sway in rhythm as they can. The first half especially showcased Garland’s comic talent and timing, which I had never really seen her demonstrate. One of my favorite actresses of the era, Ann Miller, glowing in her screen debut, played the “other woman” well, and I really did respect her for jumping at the opportunity to further her career.

The rest of the films in the series that runs every Monday until August 25 at the Royal Alberta Museum Theatre are just as lighthearted, fun, and the perfect way to transition into a warm summer night. And for just $5, there isn’t a better deal to be had in the city.

Teatro la Quindicina: “Revenge of the South Sea Bubble” & “What Gives?”

I was so excited for the first Teatro la Quindicina show of the season (The Exquisite Hour, back in July of 2007, was the last Teatro play on stage) a double billing of the new Revenge of the South Sea Bubble and a revamp of What Gives? While not wholly disappointing, the evening was a mixed bag.

On the website, the Revenge of the South Sea Bubble is presented to be “a captivatingly convoluted noir-ish tale of deceptions compounded by lies, and speculations masquerading as conjecture.” Unfortunately, the one-act is as vague as the description. Involving two librarians, a Marilyn Monroe-esque dancer, a waiter, and a plot that was bereft of any real amusement, it really isn’t worth discussing further. Farren Timoteo as Vasco was endearing in his hyperbolic mannerisms however, and by the end of the evening, thoroughly reminded me of both Mark Meer (in his accent delivery) and Jeff Haslam (in his physical comedy).

What Gives?, a musical comedy, thankfully made up for the first show: “a pair of inspirationally bereft Broadway tunesmiths have their world turned upside down by the unexpected arrival of a pair of Canadian chorines.” Lighthearted and funny, the dialogue really allowed the actors to shine. I particularly liked Kendra Connor’s turn as Allure Potemkin, especially her showstopper of a “Baby Legs” number (Connor has the charm of Andrea House and the sass of Leona Brausen). The staging of “The Shanghai Stir-Fry” was also fairly clever, and as with most productions that don’t take themselves too seriously, it was easy to enjoy.

A Rocky Night for His Nibs is up next in July.

MacEwan Theatre Arts: “Hot Mikado”

MacEwan Theatre Arts wrapped up their season with Hot Mikado. From the website:

“The story is based on the Gilbert and Sullivan original The Mikado. In an imaginary Japan, the town of Tittipu has tired of the Mikado’s (emperor’s) law which makes flirting the only crime punishable by death. They appoint a lowly tailor, one Ko-Ko, Lord High Executioner, since he has been condemned for flirting, and won’t execute himself or anyone else. Ko-Ko is about to marry his beautiful ward, Yum-Yum, but she is being pursued by a young man of her own age, Nanki-Poo, who is pretending to be a second-trombone player. He is actually the son and heir-apparent of the Mikado, having fled from his father’s court when accused of flirting with the elderly and formidable Katisha, who wants to marry him or have him beheaded. Will Nanki-Poo be executed? Will true love prevail?”

It’s not hard to guess the answer to that question, nor is it a huge leap to assume that the production relies too heavily of the charm on the cast to carry across a fairly trite story. In this case, as with most MacEwan productions, the cast was a mixed bag.

Corey Rogers (Nanki-Poo) and Yemie Sonuga (as Katisha) were both unfortunately unable to carry a tune. Thankfully, there were a few surprises (Adrianne Salmon and Matt Van Boeyen) to help balance out the group, but it was still a bit painful to have to sit through some pretty awful numbers.

Dickson and I were both looking forward to the appearance of Alissa Keogh, who even as a chorus Gentleman #7 in the first half of the production managed to outshine most of her castmates. The second act saw her take a turn as the Mikado, complete with a solo tap performance, which she nailed. Her ease with movement and song will be a loss to the MacEwan stage, but I am certain she will be on to bigger and better things upon graduation.

Also looking forward, the program included a listing of the 2008-2009 theatre season, which includes a play by none other than Stewart Lemoine, which will run from March 13-21, 2009. It seems his departure from the position of Teatro Artistic Director has allowed him the time and space to write for alternative venues like the Edmonton Opera and now MacEwan. Where will he pop up next?

Catalyst Theatre: “Frankenstein”

Frankenstein is frightfully good.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system – Frakenstein was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Theatrical in the purest sense of the word (if I can claim such a definition exists), the production demonstrates a remarkable congruence of the script, music, lighting, and design – no one element is out of place or is anything except seamless within the musical as a whole. I am almost certain this is due to the very close collaborative relationship between writer/director/composer Jonathan Christenson and production designer Bretta Gerecke. While I can’t speak to what the typical process is, I gather that it is an apt luxury for the development of a show’s design to take place alongside alterations to the script.

I do believe I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein early on in my university years, but to tell you the truth, I can’t remember much of the story. I thought this would be a disadvantage coming into this production, but was I ever wrong. The tragic tale of Victor and his fall from grace was not only accessible, but perhaps even more rich and powerful with Christenson’s interpretation supported by Gerecke’s design. The text was re-written in ABCB rhyming form, allowing for a less jarring transition to the musical segueways. This version of Frankenstein was also not without some black humor – there were more than a few moments where the audience’s hesitation at whether laughing out loud was acceptable or not was palpable (the “going to Hell in a handbasket” number was one of these instances). My only nitpick with the words chosen was a slight overuse of the term “fate” – I think Victor’s story is more meaningful with less emphasis on destiny and more on the context of his life that led to the unfortunate decisions he made. Sure, “fate” allows for many rhyming options, but it is the monosyllabic equivalent of an easy way out.

The cast was fantastic – I was impressed with Nick Green’s agility as Henry, Tracy Penner’s ethereal presence as Lucy, and Andrew Kushnir’s consistent contortion of his hands, physically manifesting Victor’s twisted internal emotions. George Szilagyi as the Creature, however, deserves to be singled out – not only was he able to sympathetically convey the heartbreaking discovery of his monstrous appearance with a near full-face mask on, but even in his moments of unforgiving revenge, there lay a resonating note of injustice and misunderstanding.

As for the design – I will admit to needing to rely on the program for confirmation that Gerecke used paper to form the backbone of the costumes. I don’t feel too bad, however, as the texture, structures, and appearance she was able to achieve with paper was unique to the point of being magical. The fact that all characters were dressed in white neutralized each of them, allowing the audience to focus more closely on facial expressions and words spoken. Moreover, I am not sure if this was deliberate, but I loved the effect of seeing bits of white material being left behind on the stage as the actors moved about – it formed a literal representation of the impression left by individuals.

Frakenstein is the best candidate I have ever seen to offer a continuous production, Broadway-style, here in Edmonton. It must be a physically and emotionally taxing run for the actors, even for the three weeks in this remount, but I do believe it is too good for locals and tourists alike to miss. It thus goes without saying that Christenson and Gerecke’s next collaboration, Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Improbable Death of Edgar Allan Poe (scheduled for early 2009), will debut with expectations never before seen in the city’s theatre community.

Edmonton Opera: “H.M.S. Pinafore”

I had heard about Edmonton Opera‘s Explorers’ Club a few years ago, but it didn’t seem economical to join until I read about their 2007/2008 lineup. The venerable Stewart Lemoine would be rewriting Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, and thus, even if I didn’t use my membership to purchase tickets for the other shows that season, it would still be worthwhile.

As the play neared, it was released that Jeff Haslam would be among the cast members. At the time, I thought his involvement was more of a token gesture; a thoughtful inclusion of a longtime Teatro associate. Little did I know that he would play a leading role, if not one that upstaged the rest of the cast all together.

While this was my first opera, it wasn’t my first experience at the opera. I had volunteered during the earlier run of Carmen, so I knew that many, if not most of the patrons dressed to the nines (yes, cocktail dresses and four-inch heels in the dead of winter). The majority of the audience was not surprisingly comprised of the older set, though I do think the Explorers’ Club is doing a fine job of trying to foster appreciation of this art form with younger professionals.

I convinced Mack that the Opera Talk prior to curtain was a good way to orient ourselves to the history, plotline and characters of Pinafore, so we arrived earlier enough to join a modest crowd in the Kasaa lobby. I didn’t understand all of Dr. David Cook’s jokes, but the overview of the story would be helpful to my appreciation of the show later on. Mack and I both thought that he seemed a little too keen on Jeff Haslam, however.

I don’t know Gilbert & Sullivan well enough (well, at all, really) to recognize how Lemoine “improved” the script, but in the end, Pinafore really didn’t seem like that much of a leap for him – farce is his specialty, romance his standard, and unusual settings his forte. This opera could be considered typical Lemoine…with musical interludes. I will admit that it was no small joy on being able to hear “He is an Englishman” sung live, as it was used in one of my favorite episodes of West Wing (“It’s from Penzance!” “No, it was from Pinafore!”). And Haslam? He was tailor-made for the role of flamboyant, self-centered Sir Joseph Porter, so much so that I can’t help but think that Lemoine must have specifically requested his participation, as the part was undoubtedly written with him in mind. He was hilarious in his mannerisms, delivery, and even his uproarious laughter (because no one has a cackle as distinctive as his).

As for the production itself, I had a few nitpicks. The lighting was odd throughout, bordering on distracting, actually (was the blue, spinning, simulation of the waves really necessary?). It also seemed that the costume designers should have given Ralph Rackstraw’s character some kind of distinctive piece to wear; otherwise, he too easily blended in with the rest of the ship’s crew. The symmetrical set was functional and allowed for great visuals and movement during the chorus numbers, but I couldn’t see how it was as “special” as continuously touted in the program and in the show’s introduction by Artistic Director Brian Deedrick.

As a member of the Explorers’ Club, Mack and I were able to partake in a pizza and beer reception during intermission. Getting to and from the second balcony to the basement of the Jubilee Auditorium in twenty minutes was a slight challenge though.

Opera really isn’t my area of expertise, but all I hear is how expensive it is to produce, and how ticket prices barely cover the costs (Deedrick offered the statistic that only 42% is reimbursed through ticket sales, while the rest is supported by government donations and private sponsorship). If that’s the case, isn’t it possible to offer more than three shows, given what must be a very large overhead to construct sets and costume from scratch, on top of rehearsals and expenses that I can’t even begin to know? Perhaps there isn’t enough demand (or people who can afford to see it) in Edmonton, but it just seems an extraordinary waste of resources to only offer three opportunities to see a very good local production.

I’d like to attend Falstaff in the spring (my last chance to get “cheap” tickets this year), and I do think that will be a more genuine litmus test as to whether or not I truly enjoy opera. Pinafore was a treat, there being just a slim chance that I wouldn’t find it entertaining – it was in English (making the availability of supertitles less of an issue), penned by Lemoine, featuring Haslam, and more light hearted than what I’d expect from more traditional operas. This was “opera-lite”, so after Falstaff, I will reassess my feeling about the medium then.

Haslam in H.M.S. Pinafore

MacEwan Theatre Arts: “Good News!”

After dinner, Dickson and I headed to the John L. Haar Theatre for the latest Grant MacEwan Theatre Arts production, Good News! From the website:

“At Tait College, football is the big game and star player, Tom Marlowe (Matt Van Boeyen), is a prime catch. While most students will drop everything to watch him practice, one girl seems oblivious to the football-mania – Connie Lane (Kim Bunka). An intensely studious woman, she is recruited to help when Marlowe fails an exam he needs to pass in order to play in the big game. Soon the football star and the tutor fall for each other. Inevitably though, their love can only survive if the team wins the big game.”

I had high hopes for a musical set in the roaring twenties – likely to be fun, flamboyant, and filled with flirtatious flapper fashions, I was expecting a great follow up to fall’s Little Women, which I enjoyed for the most part. While not a complete disappointment, Good News! didn’t live up to its potential.

Some of my issues with the play were unavoidable because the production ultimately must fulfill the needs of the theatre program. The cast, first of all, felt bloated – too many unnecessary coeds. Secondly (and Dickson disagrees with me), the set changes after every scene were excessive and distracting; the director attempted to pull the audience’s attention to the characters at the forefront of the stage while stagehands rolled away set pieces behind them, but to me, this created an amateur busyness that should have been avoided. Moreover, the oddly painted mishmash of a backdrop (really only utilized for the electric “stars” in the night sequences) should have been more versatile, hence eliminating the need for so many individual sets.

That said, Good News! itself isn’t that great of a play. There were no memorable songs, and the storyline doesn’t flow – scene transitions between character groups were jarring. Of course, it is true that great acting in some instances can save a play – here, the only notable standout was a supporting character. Dickson and I were in agreement that Alissa Keogh (our favorite in Little Women), stole the show again as the forward flapper Babe O’Day. Honorable mentions go out to Candice Fiorentino, who portrayed the mature and headstrong Professor Kenyon with a believable grace and Bunka as the ignored and very sympathetic bookworm Connie. The weakest link was Van Boeyen as the campus football star, as he didn’t have the charisma or the physical stature to carry off the role.

It was difficult to relate to the fervor surrounding college football (being the hockey mad country that we are), but the countdown to the big game did allow for the most hilarious sequence of the play – a slow-motion enactment of the game’s winning touchdown, complete with play-by-play commentary.

Good News! finished its run this weekend, but you can catch MacEwan’s last production of the season, Hot Mikado, in March.

Citadel Theatre: “Beauty and the Beast”

I’d like to think I’m a bit of a reverse snob when it comes to theatre – I overlook the Citadel in favour of community companies like Shadow and Teatro la Quindicina. Of course, the fact that I am an admitted cheapskate when it comes to ticket prices also has something to do with this, and the only reason I have even set foot in the theatre (to see A Christmas Carol), was actually because the tickets were purchased by my friends. So when Dickson invited me to see Beauty and the Beast with tickets he had bid for in a charity auction at work, I jumped at the chance to “see what I was missing.”

While waiting for the show to begin, I did a bit of local celebrity spotting. It seemed to be media night, as the Journal’s Liz Nicholls, the Sun/CBC’s Colin McLean, Global’s Lorraine Mansbridge and Edmonton Opera’s Artistic Director were all on hand (my question – did Nicholls’ mid-centre seats represent her relative review power? McLean was seated to the far left of the stage, quite the snub, in my opinion). The house was filled with a fair number of children – and after seeing the show (ignoring the expense), I could see why – it is a great way to expose young children to the spectacle and possibilities of theatre.

I loved the cartoon-tinged set, and was amazed at what they were able to do with such a small space. The costumes were impressive for the most part (the gold and silver theme was rich, eye-catching, and coupled with a reliance on yellow lighting tones, gave the scenes a necessary mystical quality about them), with my favorite of the household items being the functional wardrobe and the napkins. I had to wonder, however, about the choice to dress Belle in an oval-shaped hoop dress as opposed to a more flowing ensemble in the last half. I would have preferred a gown that moved with her and the Beast while they danced – another mainstay of fairytale romance sequences.

The songs were catchy (I wanted to run home and listen to whatever version of “Beauty and the Beast” I could get my hands on), and while I agree that the Citadel should be lauded for the incredible feat of “Be Our Guest”, I was actually most drawn to “Gaston”, if not only because I was absolutely craving a dance number by then. The Beast’s solo, “If I Can’t Love Her” was a weak way to end the first act, but plot-wise, it did make sense. And while I understand the constraints of time (especially with a children’s production), the jump to an immediate love connection in “Something There” in the opening of Act 2 was much too sudden.

The cast as a whole had excellent comic timing, but more than that, they seemed to have a great time with the play. Standouts: Kharytia Bilash as Belle (fabulous voice and spunk to boot!), John Ullyatt as a hilariously sexual Lumiere, Sean Hauk as a hyperbolized Gaston, and last but not least, the very agile and acrobatic Colin Heath as LeFou.

Beyond the ticket prices, going to a show is more than a stand alone experience for me. I really do enjoy following the theatre community in Edmonton: knowing which playwrights are up-and-coming, getting a feel for the flavour of a theatre company, and most of all, having the privilege to see the same consistent talents on stage. The majority of the Citadel’s Mainstage cast are brought in from other cities, and while I understand the need to do this, I don’t think I could ever build a “rapport” with the Citadel if the faces and names are revolving on a continuous basis.

So while I enjoyed the show, unless someone extends a free invitation to me again, I doubt I will be back at the Citadel in the near future.

Grant MacEwan Theatre Arts: “Little Women”

After dinner, the three of us proceeded to John L. Haar Theatre for Grant MacEwan’s production of Little Women. From the website:

“Set in New England during the Civil War, Little Women follows the adventures of four sisters – Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy March – as they grow up. After their father leaves for battle and under their mother’s guidance, the girls must rely on each other for strength in the face of tragedies both large and small. The story will captivate audiences of all ages while telling of the sisters’ progress into womanhood with the added strains of the romance, illness, the pressures of marriage and the outside world.”

The success of this musical wholly depended on a charismatic and talented Jo, and here, the casting was pitch-perfect. Alissa Keogh had a believable headstrong, tomboyish charm, and vocal abilities that put her stage mates to shame. I mean the following as nothing but a compliment: her voice is made for the wholesome songs of the Disney canon, and I have no doubt she has a bright future ahead of her.

As for the rest of the cast, the choice of Yemie Sonuga of African descent was an inspired choice for Marmee (with the backdrop of the American Civil War), but it was a shame that her acting was uneven and forced. Jaclyn Nestman as Beth and Kristy Neufeld as Meg were quite good in their roles, however, and Matthew Van Boeyen did his best to play with dignity a man at least thirty years his senior.

As for the rest of the production, I have an admitted difficulty avoiding obvious comparisons with other adaptations, and in this case, it would be with the 1994 Winona Ryder film. While the play’s Amy was able to redeem herself, and win over the audience (unlike in the movie), I sorely wished for the impossible appearance of a young Christian Bale to reprise his role as Laurie. As in the movie, I still find Jo’s “hasty” marriage to Professor Bhaer an unbelievable, unsatisfying ending. Though Jo’s happiness in finding a connection with someone literary, who challenged her and supported her work as an author is understandable, I can’t believe this happy ending would come so quickly.

For a student production, Little Women was quite good, and it was a treat to watch Alissa Keogh perform, undoubtedly a star in the making.

Film: “High School Musical 2”

The long-awaited sequel to High School Musical premiered on Friday to tweens armed with VCRs, parents enjoying the wave of non-threatening, family-friendly entertainment, fans of Zac Efron (Dickson), and those curious to see if the film could possibly live up to the expectation and hype (me). It failed to deliver.

Despite being nearly two hours long (thus having ample time to redeem itself and/or improve along the way), the movie played too much like a poor excuse to capitalize on success. There were one or two catchy songs, but for the most part, the numbers were overdone and melodramatic (see Efron’s solo on the putting green), appearing unnecessary and draining whatever earnestness was gained through the acting. The vocals were also terrible, overly synthesized to the point where some of the singers sounded identical. I’m being harsh – harsher because of the grand expectations created in the wake of the original, but ultimately, I was disappointed that this was the final product. I doubt I will shell out cash to watch the third installment in the theatres.

On another note, I figured the late August release date was timed to coincide with a movie that tracked the summer holidays of the musically-inclined bunch, but after seeing the insane merchandising push by Disney, I now know otherwise. Besides the very-marketable back-to-school items, the over one hundred licensed products include video games, pillows, and dolls. I couldn’t resist taking a picture of a shoe I saw in Payless recently, if not only because only the wearer of the flip-flops would know their devotion to High School Musical.

For those who want to step on Troy and Gabriella

Film: “Hairspray”

After not being able to find good seats to our first choice, Ratatouille (sob), Dickson and I ended up ducking into Hairspray on Sunday afternoon.

Based on the Tony-award-winning musical, I remember being drawn to the film simply because of its Broadway connection. Of course, nothing beats a live stage performance, but as screen musicals go, Hairspray is as upbeat and fun as they come.

I had no idea racism and overcoming segregation were such an integral part of the plot, but it worked really well alongside Tracy’s struggle to be recognized for her talent in the face of her larger frame. As a whole, the movie was very well acted, but I especially admired the work of the delightfully wicked Michelle Pfeiffer, and believably genuine newcomer Nikki Blonsky. John Travolta in drag as Tracy’s mother took some getting used to, and I may have to agree with critics that said Travolta in this role was stunt-casted; his presence seemed to subvert all of the sincerity Blonsky was exhibiting. Lastly, the choice of Zac Efron for the part of teen pin-up Link Larkin was an easy way to inflate audiences with the High School Musical-mad set (though I’m not just referring to tweens – it seems Dickson has quite the man-crush on Efron).

Hairspray isn’t a must-see, but if you’re looking for a movie that will leave you with a smile on your face, this is it.