This is a re-post. This was my last column for OUT TV for the time being. They are considering stopping local coverage though the Ambassador program. At the recent Ovation Awards some of the performers asked me about my reviews for these shows. So I am re-posting my last column here it was from December.
Holiday Shows Jump Start a Cynic
I am not a Christmas guy. I am tried of the pressure; I am tired of the stores trying to get me to buy stuff; I am tried of the lights and the trees, I am tired of that stupid Paul McCartney song and I am super tired of Christians saying there is a war on Christmas (save that from when you are barred from your places of worship).
As someone who goes to a lot of shows – I am tired of seeing holiday shows (Sorry zealots – not Christmas Shows – all shows produced in December are not about Christmas – just like all Canadians are not – wait for it – Christians. Yep, there are Jewish and Muslim and Hindus and well, dozens of types of people here who don’t actually celebrate Christmas. )
So in an attempt to discover what is the fuss I went to three different shows and tried to watch them through my companion’s eyes. You know in case I am the problem.
First up that ubiquitous holiday tradition – the Panto.
Phantom of the Panto by The Fraser Valley Gilbert & Sullivan Society
I am not a fan of the British Tradition of the Panto. It’s skewered fairy tales, classic jokes (“walk this way”), cross-dressing actors are likely more fun for the kids then the adults who have seen variations of the same thing over and over.
Luckily the FVG&SS gang had something clever up their sleeve – they had a super talented cast and pretty polished staging. Written by Clive Ramroop, Directed by Mike Balser, with music direction by Timothy Tucker and Choreography by Carol Sietz, together they pulled out all the stops to have some fun with The Phantom Of The Opera.
It’s not really satire or even parody, – but there is a lot of silliness as the cast of 44 community actors ham it up belting out 80’s classics and Broadway show tunes, with stops to Bollywood and of course Gangham Style.
The grandness of the Surrey Arts Centre allowed for flying drops and big set pieces. Highlights in the cast include Chelsea Rose Tucker as a rich voiced Christine, Samantha Andrews as the comic diva Firmin Full and Jacob Hildebrand as a sort of effusive narrator/ side kick Joe Bouquet DeFleur.
The brightest light was Joni Hayden-Summerton as Christine’s suitor Raoul. Her lanky body appears at times double jointed as she struts about and her phrasing and delivering jokes is quirky and original. She didn’t just re-create what has been done before in other Panto’s – she re-interpreted.
I took a young cultured Italian friend and asked him what he thought of Panto’s – he was befuddled. He had never seen anything like it – ‘they are so big in the acting’. He loved the kids as rats, thought the singing was great and enjoyed the dance troop but wondered why the male dancers were dressed for volleyball. Mostly he was confused as to what he was experiencing but he started to watch the audience and just as I was living the show through him, he started to watch the show through their eyes. “They are loving it.”
WARNING: Diversity rant.
Speaking of audience – looking around it was an eclectic mix of Caucasian, Asian and South Asian families, but once again I am watching a cast of 44 actors and all of the 11 leading parts are Caucasian. If any of those kids were looking for someone like them in this ‘community’ show – they would have to once again scour the chorus, in the background, behind the leads.
In the end though both my friend and I had a good time but both thought we should have brought some kids. Thank you Phantom Of The Panto to raising the bar in terms of production and polish.
White Christmas by The Arts Club Theatre
Until December 23rd
Speaking of Caucasians, here is White Christmas, I kid I kid. This cast of 20 features a little bit of diversity and most of the cast are killer singers and dancers.
This musical based on famous 1954 film (the first released in Vista Vision!) is a sentimental tribute to a bygone time and features some of Irving Berlin’s best songs. The Arts Club has produced it several times and I never got the fuss – so I went with a friend who’s husband did not want to see it again. My friend adores the show.
“It’s so sweet and nice.” He exclaimed. I sighed and settled in.
The story is about two hoofers who survive World War 2 to become big musical stars. They sort of fall in love with two singing ladies and the four of them try to help save the boys former General who’s Vermont Inn is about to go under due to lack of snow.
My friend loves the songs and when Todd Talbot and Monique Lund romantically perform “The Best Things Happen While You Are Dancing”, or when Sara-Jeanne Hosie powerful belts “How Deep Is the Ocean” or Jeffery Victor warmly croons “Blue Skies” I too admire the skill and talent.
He also loves the humour – the high-strung stage manager (Daniel Pitout) “It’s a pig-sty with an actual pig” – the crusty old custodian humorously played by Mark Weatherly and when our hero’s dress in drag to perform “Sisters”.
There are big production numbers with tap dancing and singing and so many songs the show almost clocks in at three hours.
Sure the script is thin, most of the drama comes from misunderstandings that could easily be cleared up if they would just talk – none of this “well, if you don’t know I am certainly not going to tell you” stuff. And sure, some of the choices were odd like a weird projection of a Hawaiian (?) beach with a tree that disappears part way through as if the song was longer than the footage
Trying to relax and seeing it through his eyes – I got caught up in the sentiment and the sincerity – giggled at the little girl (Jada McKenzie-Moore) mimicking the brassy Martha Watson (Susan Anderson) and visited tears with as the General (Allan Gray) thanks his troops for saving his inn.
So it was a fun Christmasy time out – mostly because of my companion though. But that is something – when I saw the show four years ago I left at intermission.
Fiddler On the Roof by Gateway Theatre
Until December 31st
Wow!! As soon as that Fiddler started and the orchestra played the opening notes of “Tradition” a wave of warm and excited feelings flooded me. Although not really a Christmas tradition – it’s about the Jewish village of Anatevka in 1905 Tsarist Russia – this is one of the finest crafted musicals. They don’t make them like this anymore.
Book by Joseph Stein (based on the story Tevye The Milkman by Sholem Aleichem) Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock – it so skillfully constructed it is revelatory.
What modern musicals would not only think to write a song based on the parents perspective of a wedding – not the more obvious bride and groom’s – but also give one verse to the bride’s younger sister and her love to advance the plot as in “Sunrise, Sunset”? What modern musical would give the entire emotional and expository weight of a character motivation in song “Far From The Home I Love” and what modern musical would think to weave in the threat from our antagonists into a enthusiastic bar celebration by having them dance joyously “To Life”?. There is a reason it ran for years on Broadway. It’s really good because is it is complex and surprising.
This is a pro/am community production meaning there are 5 Equity members and the rest of the 30 member cast are up and comers with varying degrees of experience and skills.
Fantastically the Gateway not only found some of the best ‘am’s’ and ‘pro’s’, it is also a complied a diverse and tuneful cast – all masterfully directed by Chris McGregor.
Warmly performed, Mr. McGregor does not allow his actors to get overly sentimental. When the sisters (Ranae Miller, Kat Palmer and Maddy Kriese) sing “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” they give a measured and truthful rendition hitting both the teasing and the scared qualities perfectly.
Mr. McGregor also encourages bold comic choices when the script requires but keeps it grounded in reality. The gruff Golde played with heart by Patti Allan and the brassy Yenta played with skeptical wisdom by Barbara Pollard are fully portrayed but in the hands of the pro’s it can be expected. But is when Teyve’s makes up a dream to get out an arranged marriage deal does the directors handling of comedy and drama shine. Sue Newman as the ghostly Grandma Tzeitel is shrill but passionate and when Sharon Crandal as Fruma Sarah swoops in atop of a 12 foot rolling tower she is scary, funny and again brilliantly justified.
Speaking of Teyve – David Adams does an astounding job in a very demanding part. He has to sing a boatload of songs and carries the entire story. He is loving, passionate and accommodating but he is also cruelly cold when Teyve is pushed too far. It is a commanding performance.
Sure there are a few missteps – the women crying during the rabbi’s speech at the wedding reception is over the top and phony, as if they are in a farce. More disappointing is when the Russian soldiers invade the reception. This part of the musical is written to pack an emotional wallop but instead the soldiers don’t cause that much grief – some stuff isn’t even knocked over, certainly the gorgeous lantern arrangement by set designer Drew Facey is not disturbed. They puffed up their chests knocked over some chairs and then left.
Here it appears the director erred on the side of not wanting to upset the audience. This underestimates their ability to enjoy the peaks and valleys in good story telling. To see the light, we need the dark, the bleaker the better because that makes the good stuff shinier. Remember Bambi’s mother got shot at the beginning.
I went with my friend who is a musical theatre practitioner of considerable ability. She thought the show was very well done. The chorography by Dawn Ewen was organic and joyous.
It is just a powerfully written musical passionately performed. It is about family, perseverance, standing your ground, compromise and celebrating.
Of the three – this musical capture Christmas for me. Ironic, huh?
David C. Jones
West Coast Ambassador