Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Coveted Crown

The Actor's Shakespeare Project's Coveted Crown begins and ends each piece of the puzzle with a song. The fabulous Bobbie Steinbach, armed with a tambourine and the acoustic backup of the humming ensemble, tells us everything we need to know going into the prologue (excerpts from Richard II, starring the sometimes affected/sometimes effective Marya Lowry).
Steinbach serves as our guide of sorts through the action of Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and the epilogue from Henry V. The epic double-header can be a chore at times but the capable company and innovative sense of place made for an ultimately pretty fantastic set of productions.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"Everything is RENT"

I spent my Thursday night in a packed house. And I don't mean I sat in the 99-seat student theatre with people on either side, I mean I got to the 500-seat auditorium an hour early and had to fight for my prime vantage point. The production played to a competitively sold-out crowd for 3 straight shows, and it's not hard to figure out why. BU on Broadway did RENT this past weekend. RENT!. Arguably the most popular musical of the past 20 years, especially with the college demographic. It's not the most musically sophisticated show, nor is it very cleverly plotted, but RENT is one of the most emotionally evocative things there is to see and that's what OB really got across this weekend.

The whole production was a mixed bag of good and bad, and while I can't resist my need to nitpick the bad, it's important to remember that the good was great. Like the show itself, this production suffered under issues of technique at times, but it's emotional truths made none of that matter. When I left the theatre the only thing in my mind was that triumphant finale mantra of "no day but today" and the enveloping rock beats laid down by the capable pit (led by the always-genius Jonathan Brenner). The only reason I remember how badly the sound board was run, how over-choreographed it was at times or how clunky the blackout/set-changes were is that I took notes for this review.

Despite all its flaws, this was still RENT, 2 hours worth spending, no matter what. However, the clout of the show name comes with some extra hurdles for the cast, none bigger than the shadow of the original actors. RENTheads do love the show relatively unconditionally, but they also know the original performances inside and out. Such a personal piece is intrinsically tied to the people who it was created on, (especially since Jonathan Larson, the composer, died before opening night and therefore never worked with a second cast). There will never be a "One Song Glory" that won't be compared to the definitive performances given by Adam Pascal, the original Roger. No Mark will ever escape the shadow of Anthony Rapp and the gigantic shoes of Broadway's power couple Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs will always be hard for any Maureen or Benny to walk in. That's to say nothing of the legacies of Jesse L Martin and Wilson Jermaine Heredia, the incomparable performers who first gave life to Collins and Angel, the most elusively wonderful characters in the show in my opinion. The weight of RENT's history is heavy on any new cast, especially one made up of students who grew up with those very voices in their headphones. But OB's  cast gave it everything they had, with varying degrees of success.

Rachel Hawkes had the toughest time. Her Mimi was red-hot in the arms of Rylan Vachon's emotional Roger, but fizzled a bit when left on her own. Aesthetically she worked, but was hit-or-miss when it came to her grittier blocking and though Hawkes sold the character for the most part, she was vocally outmatched by the role. 

Actually, that full belting chorus was brilliant, or mostly brilliant, or always brilliant but sometimes misused. Basically, they nailed "La Vie Boheme", and "Seasons of Love" was beautiful (kudos to brilliant soloist Nicole Sorice on this one). But there's a reason "Life Support" and "Will I" aren't written with full chorus, it's too much. Poor little Gordon is singing his sweet poignant solo and then, instead of a soft chorus of 8 voices, he's greeted with a thundering surge of 20 powerhouses "supporting" him. I, frankly, would have been scared and found another support group.

But sometimes, powerhouse was exactly what this production ordered, and Maureen and Joanne, naturally, obliged. Abigail Smith was a bit of an over-actor as Joanne but her vocals were through the roof so she gets a bit of a free pass. On the other hand, evermore-ingenue Sarah Jill Bashein was so much better theatrically and vocally as Maureen than I've ever seen her be. The friend sitting next to me (very picky about her Maureen) literally leaned over after "Over the Moon" and whispered "thank god" Bashein was so good. The tiny, smiley pro seemed set free in the much more daring role. She embraced the raunchy, showy, narcissistic fun of the character with great verve and hollered after her high notes with the audacity of someone singing when no one could hear. "Take Me or Leave Me" was truly a song for starved ears.

Also wonderful was Alex Warren's Benny. Oftentimes the throwaway character of the show, OB's Benny was actually one of my favourites. Warren proved a beautiful singer and an empathetic performer, aptly turning the sometimes villainous Benny into someone I always wanted on the stage.

As for that final couple, my make-it-or-break-it favourite characters, they made it just fine. Bernardo Vargas was a beautiful Angel: sweet and endearing and cute as a button. Perhaps slightly lower heels would have allowed him more comfortable movement (they were seriously high!) but Vargas brought the group's heart to life with great clarity. But it was freshman Carl Welch who truly won my love (though it's not as if Collins doesn't do that no matter what). An impressive vocalist, Welch understandably worked with a slightly adapted score, modifying some of Jesse L Martin's superhuman notes, but he still shone as a standout singer. Warm, fun and charming-as-hell, Welch maneuvered the tricky line of playing an extraordinarily intelligent character as sublimely down to earth, well, extraordinarily.

With intelligent direction by Chris Behmke, perfect lighting design, great costumes, an excellent Brenner-headed pit and fun choreography from Leni Zneimer ("Contact", especially, was very good), RENT overcame anything and everything weighing it down and ultimately touched the whole packed house the way RENT is meant to.

*This article has been edited to exclude a positive mention of a performer who wishes to not appear on the website.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Camelot of Yore

The Stratford Festival has announced even more great casting. In addition to the awesome that is Roberta Maxwell returning to the festival to play The Duchess of York in Richard III, the most exciting news comes from Camelot of all places.

The 1997 production of Camelot was one of the first things I ever saw at the festival and to this day holds a special place in my heart. Today it was announced that Dan Chameroy will be returning to the production, this time in the role of Sir Dinadan. That '97 Camelot was when I first fell in love with Chameroy (who's been a favourite ever since), it was his festival debut, he played Lancelot. To see him back on the festival stage in the same show will be a nostalgic thrill.

That '97 production also marked the beginning of my great affection for Michael Therriault. A favourite of mine for years now, Therriault played Mordred way back then and I still remember his blue hair in perfect detail. This season, the role will be tackled by Mike Nadajewski, a company member who's been a highlight of the musical company for 2 seasons now (and made a lovely turn as Amiens in this season's As You Like It).

Promising, wonderful, nostalgic news indeed.

A Streetcar Named Whatever

Clunky direction and unattainable goals quickly became the central problems of BU Stage Troupe's recent production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It's an epic piece, not in the classical sense of scope but in the sense of how famous, how challenging, how iconic the work is. It's a little beyond college students. This group did find some moments of truth, but overall, they got a little lost in the intense text.

Elise Roth's Stella perfectly embodied how I felt about this production. She was good at times, forced at others, but mostly she was unoffensive. She didn't inspire frustration, but her biggest fault was that she didn't inspire much of anything at all.

Travis Cherry's Mitch was a similar phenomenon. He was cute I guess, but he wasn't a lot more than that, a bit of a caricature really.

Like Mitch, Stanley (Mat Leonard) suffered from a mumbling problem. But he also had a bumbling problem. His walk was stiff and strange and he tore around the small set as if he didn't fit (which could have been metaphorically valuable if it had looked more purposeful). I'm not saying he was bad, I liked him better than most of his cast mates, but ultimately there was one big problem with this Stanley, I could see through him. Leonard, despite his hulk-ish appearance, is clearly a bit of a marshmallow. He broke into a goofy smile when curtain call was slightly flubbed and his strongest scene was Stanley's tenderest moment. Leonard may be physically capable of the sort of violence that characterizes Stanley but he reads as someone who wouldn't hurt a fly. Unfortunately, that doesn't really work here.

I really enjoyed Sarah Ann Adams as Eunice, a tragically small part. But it was ultimately Blanche's story. Rebecca Savoy put forth tremendous effort in the role but ultimately fell short. Her Blanche became more accent than character and though she had moments of poignancy, she generally didn't do much with the groundbreaking character.

Mike Carollo's formulaic direction and constant interruptions by drawn-out set changes made for infuriating pacing. The set was nice, the brickwork on the front was particularly meticulous, but little things like the ever-falling Chinese lantern, the strange lobster mold hanging by the door and the terrible fake pregnancy belly were distracting. The fragility of the set in general combined with Leonard's dangerous strength put the audience more on edge than the troubling story itself.

Streetcar is hard. I think that was most of the problem. It takes astronomical skill and work to mount it effectively. Unfortunately, the cast and crew behind Stage Troupe's production wasn't quite up to the task, resulting in a generally unoffensive but uninspiring experience.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Jumping Wholeheartedly down the "Rabbit Hole"

The director's note for BU Stage Troupe's recent production of Rabbit Hole by David Linsay-Abaire was simple and true. Directors Chris Hamilton and Agatha Babbitt wanted the audience to know that what they were about to watch was not a tragedy. Rather it was a glimpse into the lives of a family who'd suffered a tragedy. It was too complicated for a genre label, too funny, too true, too ever-changing, too human. It was this distinction that made this production truly great. Their goal was to tell a story, not make us cry, thus they managed to do both.

In the enormously challenging and mature play, the highlight was, without a doubt, Madeleine DiBiasi in the central role of grieving mother Becca. Under Hamilton and Babbitt's insightful direction, DiBiasi left her 21-year-old self behind and disappeared into her heartrending role. Her more dramatic moments were tackled well but it was the everyday ins and outs of the performance that really inspired. It wasn't the way she cried, it was the way she looked as though Becca was fighting with every fiber of her being to not cry. DiBiasi's performance really lived in the small smiles Becca mustered when she remembered her son, how she rolled her eyes at her kookily predictable sister's antics, the relatable way she didn't know where to put her hands when she was uncomfortable. She had great timing, charm and empathy, but most of all, DiBiasi brought a necessary subtlety to the role, unafraid to play the human mundanity between Becca's big moments.

The other highlight in the cast was Dan Stevens as Jason, the guilt-ridden teenager who's careless driving resulted in the death of Becca's son Danny. For most of the audience, it was moments after Stevens appeared that they began to cry. His earnest and awkward recitation of a letter he wrote to the grieving parents was unbelievable. It was a moment that sucked the audience in so completely that I didn't snap out of it until the girl I was sitting next to leaned over and proclaimed "he was amazing".

The rest of the cast, Vishaal Reddy (Howie), Lauren Kolodkin (Izzy) and Allie Romano (Nat), each had good moments and bad. It was overall much more difficult to see them as anything other than actors trying really hard. They played the moments rather than the characters and the result was a lack of consistency that just didn't stand up to the nuanced performances of their co-stars.

Ultimately, Stage Troupe's Rabbit Hole was a revelation of a play. My first exposure to the remarkable text, I found it inspiring, affecting and remarkably truthful. With Hamilton and Babbitt's direction and the tremendous efforts of DiBiasi, Rabbit Hole is not a production I am likely to forget any time soon.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Totalitarianism, Surrealism and the Woman Who Made Them Not Matter

Photo by Andrew Eccles
I wish I had gotten this review out earlier for many reasons. Of course it would have been nice if the show was still running and maybe some of you reading this could decide to go see it on my recommendation; it's also a lot easier to write with the show freshly in mind. But mostly, I wish I'd gotten this review out sooner because I think the spotlight needed to land much brighter and much sooner on the production's leading lady.

Most reviews of Stratford's As You Like It were pretty favourable. Critics generally applauded director Des McAnuff's bright and bold interpretation, cheered for heavy hitters like Ben Carlson (Touchstone), Brent Carver (Jaques) and Lucy Peacock (Audrey) in supporting roles and were taken away by the show's wonderful music (Justin Ellington/Michael Roth).

Photo by David Hou
Indeed these aspects were incredibly noteworthy. Carlson's Touchstone was a wonderfully pompous study of perfect comedic timing; Carver's unsure Jaques was a unique creature pitch perfectly uncomfortable in his own skin; Peacock's Audrey was adorably simple and grinningly fun.

The music was indeed a highlight (the winning "It was a Lover and his Lass" has been stuck in my head as triumphant moment of theatrical giddiness ever since) and McAnuff's interesting juxtaposed settings of the totalitarian court (ruled by Tom Rooney's proto-Hitler Duke Frederick) and the surrealist forest of Arden (ruled by Rooney's warm Duke Senior and populated by human trees and deer-headed pipe-smokers) gave the play a new kick. Designer Debra Hanson created a visual feast of colour and metaphor, making As You Like It the prettiest play Stratford may have ever done as well as one of the most visually meaningful.

Photo by David Hou
Rooney, Mike Shara (Oliver), Ian Lake (Silvius), Dalal Badr (Phebe), Dan Chameroy (William/Charles) and Brian Tree (Adam) round out the spectacular ensemble with truly excellent turns. Lake, in particular, is a wonderfully mopey and earnest Silvius while Rooney proves once again why he's one of my all-time favourite Stratford performers in his dual role as the Dukes.

Paul Nolan's Orlando is simply a matter of taste. For me, his musical theatre roots shone perhaps a little too brightly, the scrappy Orlando reading as a tad delicate or goofy. My fellow My Theatre writer Tessa, on the other hand, found him irresistibly charming. The issue of Cara Ricketts, however, is not up for debate. For the second time this season, Ricketts brings little depth and an obnoxiously light cadence to her ingenue role. While this may be forgivable in the somewhat shallow role of Perdita (The Winter's Tale), such treatment of Celia is criminal. My favourite ingenue in the canon, Celia is uniquely funny and complicated. Her protective instincts, inferiority complex and fierce loyalty should not, must not be met with simplicity of portrayal. Alas, they were.

But ultimately, not much of this mattered.
Photo by David Hou
Not the tree-people, the crazy smoking dear, the giant apple or heart replica suspended from the ceiling or the fact that Adam was inexplicably killed off from the usually happy-go-lucky play. The craziness, the highpoints, the lowpoints, the most established actors in the company, the wonderfully inventive musical style- it's nothing without the leading lady. As You Like It is, at least in my view, the only Shakespeare play with a true heroine. Rosalind doesn't have a male counterpart to overshadow her like Beatrice does (Much Ado About Nothing) and, unlike Viola (Twelfth Night), she commands most of the story herself, instead of being swept along into the action already unfolding. Rosalind moves plot unlike any other of Shakespeare's women, she speaks the most lines in the play, enjoys the most stage time and sets her own tone. The play and the audience (much like Celia) are sad when Rosalind is and happy when she cheers up. It's Rosalind's story. Thus, Stratford's 2010 production is Andrea Runge's play. And boy does she run with it.
Photo by David Hou
A standout last season as Cecily in a brimmingly smart Importance of Being Earnest, Runge is my favourite young actress on the Stratford scene. Beautiful, engaging, emotive and clever as hell, Runge brings a perfect irresistible quality to her roles, enticing us to follow her into the story.

The world of Stratford's As You Like It is a generally beautiful one filled with the occasional over-reaching pitfall. It's populated by characters and performances as handsomely endearing as Mike Shara, as pitch-perfect as Ben Carlson and as formulaically annoying as Cara Ricketts. This maze of craziness (complete with changing seasons, rousing choruses and countless visual metaphors) is a fascinating place to spend 3 hours, but without Andrea Runge to lead us through it, we'd be lost just a few steps in.

Liking and Loathing "Kiss Me Kate"

Photo by Andrew Eccles
Here's the thing: the backstage aspects of The Stratford Shakespeare Festival's production of Kiss Me Kate (you know, the parts where the actors are playing actors, not the parts where the actors are playing actors playing some of Shakespeare's broadest characters) made for a cute, light and altogether not all bad musical. That stuff, the character moments in the well-crafted costumes and the clever, subtle staging, was all pretty good. Not groundbreaking or transcendent in any way, but engaging and entertaining and entirely worth the price of admission.

The dancing was sublime, the chorus incredibly capable (especially Kyle Golemba, a standout of the ensemble year in and year out). The leads were pretty good too. Unlike in Evita, here Chilina Kennedy slides easily into her role as ingenue Lois Lane. This was Kennedy's effortless part of the season (comparatively speaking), and that effortlessness showed, her natural charm and airiness shining through (in both good and bad but ultimately appropriate ways). Her rendition of "Always True to You in My Fashion" was perfect. Juan Chioran and Monique Lund anchored the cast well as lead actors Fred and Lilli ("So in Love" was particularly lovely) and Steve Ross and Cliff Saunders were at least mildly amusing as the shticky gangsters.
Photo by David Hou
"Too Darn Hot", as sung by the unbelievable Josh Young, was easily and predictably the show stopper. The best vocals in the piece, it also sported the most impressive choreography from Tracey Flye, perfectly showing off the brilliant dance ensemble.

Unfortunately, the onstage crap (the play-within-the-play Taming of the Shrew stuff) was so broad, so annoying, so flat-out idiotic that the whole thing undermined itself and I left the theatre miserable. Nothing is quite so depressing as squandered potential and Kiss Me Kate at its best showed off the incredible potential of this cast, while at its worst it showed how unworthy it was of their talents. There's always one, at least one production a year at Stratford that is panderingly broad and I simply hate. This year, for at least a couple scenes, the company of Kiss Me Kate had me thinking that maybe it wouldn't be them.