Thursday, May 27, 2010

Singing Schmuel Songs to Vetoed Productions

The Last Five Years is one of my favourite things ever written for the stage. In it, composer Jason Robert Brown shares a uniquely personal story of the 5 year relationship between him and his wife that ended in broken vows, a broken marriage and broken hearts. Standing in for their real life counterparts are the tangibly real characters of Jamie and Cathy: two of musical theatre's greatest creations in one of musical theatre's most poignant stories.

Cathy tells the story of the couple's five year relationship in reverse, beginning with her heartbreak in "I'm Still Hurting" and culminating in dramatically ironic and torturous hope in "Goodbye Until Tomorrow". Jamie tells the story chronologically from their first meeting, "Shiksa Goddess", to the day he decides on divorce in "I Could Never Rescue You".
The audience sees every event in perspective-skewed detail twice: through the eyes of the suddenly successful writer desperate to enjoy his success, and those of the struggling actress who can't seem to catch a break.We see Jamie sweetly support Cathy's dreams and her resent his. We see Cathy put her heart in Jamie's hands and him smash it to pieces. We learn that Jamie "has to be in love with someone" and Cathy just wants to be loved at all. We see him support her until he can't anymore and her try to hold on to him until he won't let her anymore. We see her drive him away and him trample all over the vows they made until there's nothing left but hurt.

There has been great debate among contemporary musical theatre lovers over who is in the wrong in the story of The Last Five Years. One of the most knowledgeable thespians I know is determined that the play is meant to be Jason Robert Brown (aka Jamie)'s apology letter to his ex wife (aka Cathy), an outright admission of guilt and an explanation of his actions. Others believe that there are only so many "Schmuel Song"s one can sing and the play frames Jamie as the hero who tried all he could to rescue a damsel who was incapable of being rescued. But I think the genius of The Last Five Years is that neither is true; Jamie and Cathy are too complicated for black and white assignments of guilt. The Last Five Years shows us a relationship so real that I see people I know in every action or inaction Jamie and Cathy take. These characters are as complicated as the human beings they were inspired by. They both hurt and are hurt, love and are loved; there's nothing simple about it.

And for every complicated character motivation in The Last Five Years there's a brilliantly composed musical number every bit as complicated in itself. From hilarious and intellectual lyrics to the hardest vocals in modern musical theatre, the libretto of The Last Five Years matches every bit of the genius of its story and characters. Absolute instrumental mastery is required to pull off the challenging orchestration and a voice that can tackle the range of one of the two roles is a rare thing. Jamie and Cathy require actors who can make an audience laugh, cry and fall in love within the space of 90 minutes. They have to sell character selfishness and hopelessness, heroics and vanity while abandoning all vanity themselves to come down to the gritty human level of these supremely flawed characters. They have to let the audience hate them and demand that they love them.

A Last Five Years director is starring down the barrel of a gun the minute they decide to produce the play. They have to find actors up to the task then teach them how to do it with poignancy. A music director has to translate Brown's impossible score with precision on all fronts without losing the emotional resonance. A director has to navigate the play's troublesome structure without distracting from its low-frills core. The Last Five Years is simply an impossible undertaking.

So when Vetoed Productions, a new student-founded theatre company in Toronto, announced the undertaking I marked it down in my calendar as an event not to be missed. The emotional maturity and professional technique required for The Last Five Years made it a longshot for a student company success but if anyone could do it it would be Bishop Strachan School girls striking out on their own with the valuable support of their teacher Brandon Allen.

The production was a mixed bag of achievements that was ultimately a surprising success.

Despite some over-directed bits (air quotes, mimed jokes and emphatic hand gestures were a bit too prevalent), the direction was innovative and well thought out. First-time director Emily Kassie navigated the logistically difficult musical with great ease. The set, a large multi-layered round structure resembling a wedding cake, was functional and worked metaphorically with its clock-inspired markings contributing to the looming theme of inevitability in the play. It allowed for interesting movement and levels, played with shadows and encouraged fluid scene transitions. The lighting was simple but well executed and exactly appropriate to the piece (the one weak point being the heavy-handed use of a red gel for "Nobody Needs To Know"). The costumes and props enhanced the piece and characters without being distracting or cumbersome. Blocking generally kept the audience engaged, allowing the songs to tell their own story without over-complication. Some directed character moments were unconventional (and, arguably, detrimental) such as the quieter take on the usually boisterous ending of "I Can Do Better Than That", the early establishment of Jamie's seedy side with an overt sex joke in "Shiksa Goddess" and a sheepish rather than proud approach to "A Part of That". But overall, it was a cleverly directed piece.

The pit band, for the most part, stumbled through Jason Robert Brown's unimaginably difficult score with proficiency. However, the string section seemed lost at times, as if the talented players had underestimated the rehearsals necessary to master Brown's songs. Music director Scott Orr kept his band on track, in time and well balanced while, not perfectly, but competently, tackling the piano part himself. At times the weaknesses in the string section (particularly violin) or a fumbled piano solo detracted from the piece, but the pit has to be commended for managing the insane score at all; there were certainly times when they added brilliant layers to the action (the cello part in "Still Hurting", in particular, was beautiful).

But it was the hearts of the piece, Jamie and Cathy who ultimately determined my opinion of the production.

Julien Cyr, as Jamie, started off really weak.
The part seemed out of his vocal and acting range, his performance laboured. As he struggled through Jamie's demanding first 2 songs "Shiksa Goddess" and "Moving Too Fast", he seemed outmatched; some phrases even had to be sung out of octave or speak-sung. However, once he reached Jamie's third number, the all-important "Schmuel Song", Cyr hit his stride. From there he held on and did a decent enough job through to the end, with a couple weak points throughout. Cyr struggled to balance Jamie's sincere sweetness with his darker side, often times missing the mark on both. But when he was on he was on, charming the audience fully with an endearingly goofy and honest "Schmuel Song" and tugging at heartstrings in the mournful "If I Didn't Believe in You" (in my opinion the two linchpin songs of Jamie's character). The production's low point, "Nobody Needs to Know", was a disappointment not entirely Cyr's fault with lights, direction, pit, vocals and acting all under-performing on Jamie's important last plea for understanding. He sounded spectacular on the occasional note that sat right in his comfort zone (the "na na na na"s in "Schmuel Song" and "hold on"s in "Nobody Needs to Know" stuck out as strong) but ultimately proved no match for the role (which, let me emphasize again, is one of the toughest ever written, hardly ever played completely effectively). In general, though he managed alright, Cyr seemed less comfortable in his role than his costar.

On the other end of the spectrum, one of Toronto's best young performers, Kate Ryan, outdid all the high expectations I had for her. Greatly matured since her early days in Toronto Youth Theatre (Lucky Stiff, Robin Hood), Ryan's
brilliant voice has only gotten stronger and her acting has improved immensely. She was brilliant throughout the entire piece, belting out notes her small frame would never have suggested she could hit. Her acting and character sense shone right alongside her one-of-a-kind voice as she tackled Cathy's funny numbers ("Summer in Ohio", "I Can Do Better Than That"), tragic songs ("I'm Still Hurting", "See I'm Smiling") and every complex note in between. Heartbreaking acting in the small moments (especially the show-starting "I'm Still Hurting") easily made up for the occasional over-the-top performance (a pitfall of her earlier work). Ryan nailed the all-important "See I'm Smiling" crescendo and landed every note with precision, technique, character and strength, even when her blocking had her sitting and eating chips during one of the toughest songs in the show ("I Can Do Better Than That"). Unafraid of surrendering vain perfection to character poignancy, Ryan’s performance was an achievement character-wise as well as musically, a rarity among vocalists of her caliber.

Ultimately, the challenge of mounting
The Last Five Years at all should earn Vetoed Productions (just now completing their first season in existence) some serious theatre cred. The fact that it was as well-executed as it was only serves to warn the Toronto theatre community of what's coming: a tribe of some VERY determined students who show no signs of ever backing down from a challenge.

The Last Five Years
' final performances are Saturday May 29th at 2pm and 8pm at The Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Different Kind of Theatre

In Defense of Faires as Theatre
I just can’t wait for Faire Season
by Jim Melo

For those of us who worship Hugh Laurie for his portrayal of Dr. Gregory House, I’m sure no one even considered for a second missing last week's episode. For those of you who don’t, I’ll explain.

Last week (not this past Monday, but the Monday before. I’ve been swamped with work) Dr. House treated a Renaissance Faire actor for a slew of problems, eventually diagnosing him with Anabolic Steroid use accelerated by being poisoned with Hemlock. When I saw the episode, I couldn't believe it. Two of my great loves, Dr. House (hey, don’t judge) and Ren Faires brought together at last! Then it occurred to me: most people either don’t go to Faires or don’t respect them in the slightest.

Fine, I thought, people just suck. While that’s probably true (people DO suck), there’s also a lot of people who just don’t know what a Faire is all about. In fact, there’s plenty of theater people who don’t even realize that Ren Faires are as much legitimate theater as any production of Shakespeare.

What most people think about Renaissance Faires is that they’re populated entirely by geeks and/or nerds, or people who are just too insane for everyday life and prefer playing dress up. Well, I’m sure that’s true for some people (personally, I’m both a geek AND insane), but most of the actors at Faires are extremely professional performers. In fact, I myself once acted in a Renaissance Faire, The Connecticut Renaissance Faire to be precise. The people that I met doing the Faire were all phenomenally talented actors, many of whom had been or still were active in regular theater productions.

Faires themselves are really just extended runs of shows that happen in various stages throughout the day. The actors rehearse for months, learn blocking, lines, and choreography of all kinds, and by the time the show goes up, it’s a highly polished, professional production. In fact, the only real difference between Ren Faires and regular Theater is the effect that they’re trying to create. In Theater, the effect that is being created is that there is a story unfolding in front of you, and you get to sit and watch it. With Ren Faires, there is a story unfolding around you, and you get to walk through it, look at it from different angles, and be a part of it.

For me, Faire season in the north east is the highlight of my year. My season usually starts in June with the Silver Kingdom Renaissance Festival, has a brief jaunt over to King Richard’s Faire sometime during September, and ends with the Connecticut Renaissance Faire in October. Of course, that season changes all the time depending on whether or not I’m acting in a Faire (I am this year), and the fact that the Connecticut Faire is now holding two festivals, one in the spring and one in autumn (I’m going to both).

I’ve been going to Faires ever since my family took me to one in middle school and said “Jim, I think we found your people.” I usually go with a group of my friends, anywhere between two people and ten, depending on how many we managed to rope into coming with us. Faires are a great way to get out, enjoy the weather on a beautiful day, dress up in funny clothes, and get to be someone that you aren’t for a while. And hell, it’s always great to step outside your comfort zone every once in a while, so why not do it somewhere where not only is it perfectly alright to carry a sword around, but where you feel slightly under-dressed without one?

For more information about the Faires I mentioned above, feel free to check out these links:
Silver Kingdom Renaissance Festival-
A Festival running two weeks in the middle of June.

The Connecticut Renaissance Faire-
A Faire which runs two festivals, one in May and one in October

King Richard’s Faire-
A large Faire running August through October

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Fantasy of The Queens

by Tessa Cernik

I must first admit that it took me a few days to gather my thoughts about Alumnae Theatre's production of The Queens by Normand Chaurette, translated by Linda Gaboriau. Upon my return to Toronto after a year of participating in the Halifax theatre scene, I was very excited to get the opportunity to start my summer of great Torontonian theatre with the Alumnae Theatre Company. Yet I was admittedly a bit thrown by their production; which I see now is exactly the intention of this play.

As I walked very speedily (I was running a tad late) towards the theatre (a beautifully converted firehall on Berkeley Street) I was a bit apprehensive: I have never read Richard III (the Shakespeare play The Queens expounds upon) and I am not overly familiar with the War of the Roses of 15th century Britain. I was afraid the play would be lost on me because of my lack of historical knowledge of the period. Yet the production, I quickly learned, is not about history. Yes, all the characters are historical figures and the underlying conflict is accurate, but the play, I found, is much more of a fantastical exploration of the human relationship to power than a historically accurate depiction of events. Mat Howard puts it beautifully in his director's note: "This is not Richard III - the Queens lurk in Shakespeare's margins, but are not the same characters...Just as Shakespeare spun his elaborate fiction from history, Chaurette weaves his play from the threads of story Shakespeare left untended, creating a play that is utterly new and compelling."

And how compelling it was! As the lights dim, the audience is hit with the power and tension of Rick Jones's original score, sung by the three Chorus members (Danielle Capretti, Kat Lai and Kat Letwin), who were accompanied by a synthesized brass quartet. As a person who has studied Medieval and Renaissance music, I was shocked by the dissonance and unsettling feeling the music evoked; quite a departure from the feeling of traditional music of the period. But as the play began, I saw how necessary it was for Jones to compose a score with the same intensity and menace as Chaurette's words. The Chorus sang Jones's intricate and difficult harmonies beautifully, adding an invaluble element to the production. Heather Schibli's costumes coupled with Jen Rovinelli's makeup, hair and millinery design were stunning, which again added to the incredible production value of the show.

However, it was the acting that was most compelling for me as an audience member. As a stage manager, I am well aware of how little recognition the behind-the-scenes crew receives from an audience when compared to the amount of work and dedication they have put into a show. But without a good crew holding the technical aspects of a show together, action on stage cannot be affective for an audience. Thus I commend director Mat Howard, producer/assistant director Catherine Driscoll, assistant producer Christine Leung, stage manager Lynda Yearwood and all other members of the production team for enabling me to become so engrossed by the words and emotions of the actors.

The Queens boasts an impressive ensemble cast, composed of women ranging in age and experience but all brilliantly capable in their ability to present their characters. It was obvious in their on-stage interactions that these women have formed a strong bond as a cast, for which I congratulate them, as the evident respect for each other added a lot to the integrity of the show. The high degree of dimension in each character was also evident, especially in Meghan McNicol's portrayal of Anne Warwick and Janice Tate's Cecily, Duchess of York. Both women had exemplary expression and energy that permeated the audience. I was absolutely stunned by McNicol's beautifully delivered openning monologue, which presented the perfect mixture of young naivete and cruel ambition, as well as set the tone of the play and a high level of expectation for the rest of the performance. Nonnie Griffin delivered well placed comic relief and palpable emotional turmoil as Queen Margaret and Elaine Lindo gained my utmost sympathy for her Queen Elizabeth. Jessica Moss, a fellow King's Theatrical Society member, was both nervous energy and exploding passion as Isabel Warwick and when Patricia Hammond as the mute Anne Dexter spoke for the first time in act two, I was stunned by her ability to convey such raw, true human emotion.

When I left the threatre, I truly did not know if I had liked The Queens. It was not until I sat down to write this article did my feelings come to a head: I loved this play. And the fact that I have been thinking about it for two days straight proves to me that the play itself and the production put on by Alumnae Theatre are both fantastically compelling. Howard writes that "The Queens asks us to suspend our disbelief and trust in the magic of the theatre", and the Alumnae Theatre Company's production helped me to do just that.