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.

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.

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.

Theatre: “The Producers”

May and I attended the opening night showing of Broadway Across Canada’s The Producers:

“Based on Mr. Brooks’ Academy Award-winning 1968 film of the same name, The Producers , the new Mel Brooks musical is the story of down-on-his-luck theatrical producer Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom , a mousy accountant. Together they hatch the ultimate scam: raise more money than you need for a sure-fire Broadway flop and pocket the difference. Their “sure-fire” theatrical fiasco? . . . None other than the musical Springtime for Hitler.”

Like watching opera from The Met broadcast at a local theatre, I viewed this as an opportunity to experience a little New York in Edmonton. Unfortunately, the Jubilee was not exactly a Broadway venue. I was quite annoyed that for a show of this caliber (and expense!), the company couldn’t get past opening night adjustments. There really was no excuse for the ill-functioning sound system that fizzled out halfway through the first act, particularly when so much of the humor in this play arises from puns and sarcastic asides.

My mental comparison was the 1968 original film, which I happened upon late last summer on Turner Classic Movies. One of the best scenes in the movie – the drunken conversation between Bialystock and Bloom following the surprising success of Springtime – wasn’t duplicated. They did, however, recreate the dancing swastika visual (minus, sadly, the pink feather boas), with the clever use of a tilted wall of mirrors. Also, I have to give them credit for the absolutely hilarious “Little Old Ladies” number, chicken Adolf’s “Hail Hitler” moment, and Jason Simon’s breathless delivery of his jailhouse reprieve. I’m normally not a fan of musicals, but the songs as a whole (absent from the original) really enhanced the plot (so perhaps the problem has been the fact that I’ve been watching C-grade musicals all my life…).

At the end of the day, I don’t regret going, but I couldn’t help but think of the 8 Varscona pay-what-you-can shows I could have attended in place of one night at The Producers.