Monday, August 20, 2012

Turning a Page at MusicFest 2012

I've blogged before about music--especially of the classical variety--being a rather big lacuna in my live performance spectrum. But this year Richard insisted we make an effort to see some of the offerings at MusicFest Vancouver, which just concluded its 10 day run this past Sunday.

I'm glad we did, for two reasons. First, because the concerts we went to--the Gryphon Trio performing the Czech Masters (Dvorák and Smetana) at Christ Church Cathedral Friday morning, and Philippe Cassard and François Chaplin in a four hands tribute (on one and then two pianos) to Debussy at the Vancouver Playhouse on Saturday evening--were both excellent. And, second, because I've discovered what has to be among the most nerve-wracking of supernumerary stage jobs: being a page turner for the piano score. In addition to the ability to sight read music, of course, one must be an at once discreet and alert presence on stage, expertly timing when to stand up and begin one's reach, making sure to grab only one corner of one page at a time, and, most importantly, being able to distinguish between a performer's subtle sign (usually a nod of the head) to turn and what just might be an aspect of his or her exuberant playing of the music.

I am pleased to say that at both concerts all three page turners acquitted themselves with aplomb. And, indeed, my eyes were often as riveted on them as on the performers. Not listed on the program, as per proper form, I trust these unsung individuals get other forms of kudos--including from the accomplished professionals they are serving.

Speaking of turning a page with aplomb, at Saturday's concert Morna Edmundson, in her curtain speech, noted that the passing of the torch from MusicFest Vancouver's outgoing Artistic Director, George Lavarock, to its current AD, Matthew Baird, has been absolutely seamless over this past year. I look forward to what Baird and his team have planned for next year.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Olympic Hangovers

Given that this blog was set up in part as a local anticipatory response to the 2010 Winter Olympics here in Vancouver, you would think I’d have something to say about the most recent Summer spectacle that has just concluded in London. Especially now that the postmortems have begun: on the pre-Games embarrassments for the host country (the line-ups at Heathrow, the security concerns and costs) that slowly gave way to collective national pride as the weather cleared and their athletes started racking up the medals; on the potential post-Games legacy for East London, and for Mayor Boris Johnson, who many are already touting to replace David Cameron as ruler of the Conservative Party (especially now that Cameron’s coalition with the Lib Dems seems to have collapsed); on the rote American jingoism and frustrating time delays of NBC’s television coverage; on the IOC’s continued corporate fascism in monitoring everything from British citizens’ infringements of the official Olympic brand to what messages athletes could or could not tweet; and, as is usually the case here in Canada, on our failure once again to ascend the heights of the medal podium in several events that were supposed to be a lock.

Let the public bloodletting begin!

In fact, I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to avoid, as much as possible, anything to do with the Olympics (which is easier said than done, believe me—even for someone who doesn’t have cable and was squiring around visiting relatives to local tourist destinations). I maintain that the entire enterprise is a colossal waste of money, a media spectacle whose excesses seem grotesque when set alongside the corresponding diminution of coverage for real crises like the civil war in Syria, and a largely pre-determined sporting contest whose outcomes seem designed only to maintain the divide between moneyed Western nations and the entire global South (though we’ll see if that changes somewhat when the Games move to Rio in 2016).

What I wrote about the Olympics in my book World Stages, Local Audiences two years ago (in a chapter comparing the Beijing and Vancouver showcases) still seems the most apt performative response. At the Olympics, I suggested, “tribal nationalisms join forces with late capitalism, neo-liberal individualism, cultural tourism, gender binarism, the modern security state, and local weather patterns to produce a two-week media showcase of drug and judging scandals, political grand-standing, corporate sponsorships, regional boosterism, heart-tugging human interest stories, spectacular opening and closing production numbers and, very occasionally, sublime moments of athletic excellence” (18-19).

Plus ça change à Londre.


Saturday, August 11, 2012

Talking Turkey

It's a measure of my immense admiration for her work that Jan Derbyshire was able to lure me, on what was one of the most spectacular days we've had so far this summer, to a Saturday matinee performance of her newest play, Turkey in the Woods, on at the Roundhouse Community Centre through this Wednesday. Programmed as part of Vancouver's fifth annual Queer Arts Festival, in a co-production with Screaming Weenie Productions (through whom the play received an early development reading two years ago), the play focuses on Hale (in a drily mordant turn by the playwright herself), a manic-depressive recovering alcoholic lesbian. Did I mention it's a romantic comedy?

As the play opens, Hale has abandoned her long-suffering lover, Peach (Morgan Brayton), in Vancouver in order to join her mother (Suzie Payne) and her sister Lilah (Cherise Clarke) in the wilds of Alberta for a Thanksgiving weekend reunion meant to lay the ghosts of family dysfunction that have long haunted Hale to rest. However, those ghosts turn out to be as numerous as Ma’s compensatory white lies and as hearty as sister Lilah's liver (she, like everyone else in the family--including a father and brother we hear about but do not see--drinks to excess, though in her case she might actually have a legitimate reason in the degenerative spinal disease she may or may not be suffering from). As this description so far suggests, the first half of Turkey pushes the limits of family psychodrama to some absurd extremes, and Derbyshire is fearless in testing her audience's identification with her characters by a) burdening them with multiple neuroses, and b) making none of them terribly likeable. It's a credit to all of the performers that they give their all to the material, making these three women's simultaneous desire to connect and inability to overlook the obstacles to that connection seem absolutely real, no matter the surreality of their circumstances--including building a picnic table amidst the backdrop of hunters stalking wild turkeys for dinner (which seems as apt a metaphor as any for the unfinished business of self-discovery at the heart of this play).

My one complaint (besides the somewhat clunky and overly static blocking of director James Fagan Tait) is that, at present, the play’s structure feels a bit too skewed toward the biological family trio. We hear about Peach very early in the play, but we do not meet her physically until the last third of the 90 minute one-act, when she arrives, deus-ex-machina-like (in spike-healed boots, no less), to rescue Hale from the morass into which she has further enmeshed herself. But not before she forces Hale to reinvent herself (and the play) on the spot, casting off her abject self as a daughter and sister weighted down by the past and stepping boldly into her present role as romantic partner. It’s a tall order, but Brayton makes the most of what in less experienced playwriting hands might have been just a walk-on part. Trust me when I say that it’s not, and that the dramatic payoff is well worth the wait.

Which is where the kiss comes in, a kiss Derbyshire had talked about in press for the piece, and which absolutely delivers on her goal to serve up some girl-on-girl heat that would melt even your grandmother’s knees.


Thursday, August 9, 2012

Due Praise

My niece, Erika, who is visiting from Ontario, and who will be attending a performing arts high school starting this September, has pretty sophisticated musical theatre tastes. But she's also a teenager who, while disdaining the Justin Biebers of this world, nevertheless has her boy band fixations--One Direction, from the UK, apparently being her current obsession. So after last week's visit to TUTS to see The Music Man, we decided an appropriate bookend on an overcast last day in the city would be to catch a matinee of Altar Boyz, which is back playing at the Arts Club Revue Stage on Granville Island after a successful production in 2009 directed by Bill Millerd.

A 90-minute confection of pop-style songs packaged around the premise of four good Catholic boys and one honorary Jew rocking it out on a cross-country tour in praise of the man upstairs, the work actually treads the line between irony and sincerity surprisingly well. There are lots of knowing jokes (though none, interestingly, about groping priests), and what suspense there is in terms of plot hinges in part around whether or not Mark (Geoff Stevens), who is closeted, will reveal his love for the band's de facto leader, Matthew (Jeremy Crittenden). Instead, in the disco-tinged power ballad "Epiphany" (which contains musical allusions to Helen Ready and Effie from Dreamgirls, among others), he comes out as a loud and proud Catholic. It's a very funny moment, but in a way that doesn't condescend to different kinds of believers (be it in God or in Gloria Gaynor) in the audience.

And while I can't say that any of the tunes by the composing team of Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker (the book is by Kevin Del Aguila) have stuck in my head, the high octane performances by the entire cast--including fleet-footed Jak Barradell (and his abs) as Luke, the charismatic Michael Culp (and his pecs) as the orphaned Mexican Juan, and beat-box Brandyn  Eddy (and his yarmulke) as Abraham--were uniformly impressive. Both Erika and I agreed afterwards that, as musicals go, we still preferred a classic like The Music Man. But as audience members yesterday at Altar Boyz, we also had heaps of fun.


Friday, August 3, 2012

Music Man at TUTS

Last night was our annual pilgrimage to Theatre Under the Stars in Stanley Park, something of an extra special outing this year not just because the weather cooperated, but also because we were introducing my sister and niece (visiting from Ontario) to Vancouver's venerable open-air institution. We chose The Music Man rather than The Titanic, because Richard and I have a special fondness for the Robert Preston/Shirley Jones film. And also because it's a meta-musical, the huckster Harold Hill literally striking a chord with the residents of River City, Iowa, despite knowing nothing about music himself.

What is so striking about writer/composer/lyricist Meredith Wilson's first Broadway outing (he also is the brains behind The Unsinkable Molly Brown, in addition to writing classical symphonies and composing numerous film scores) is how varied is the mix of musical styles and idioms, many of them seemingly antithetical to the musical theatre genre itself. For example, he builds much of the narrative around recitative and counterpoint and "in the round" orchestrations--which must be incredibly demanding to sing. Then, too, there are multiple moments of barbershop crooning from the quartet formed by Harold of the bickering school board men. It's both a bold and ego-busting mood for a composer, especially in a musical about forming a marching band, to leave off with all of the instruments in the pit and give things over entirely to a cappella harmonies for significant stretches at a time. Happily, in all cases the company was in excellent form and up to the tasks set for them.

And, to be sure, all of these seemingly "non-musical" elements are offset by the big production numbers, including "Seventy-Six Trombones," and of course the classic "(Ya Got) Trouble." As with that number, so too with the entire musical: its success depends, like his character's proposed swindle of River City's residents, on the charisma of the actor in the lead role of Harold Hill. Robert Preston's film version is, in most respects, unsurpassable. But LA and Toronto veteran Daren Herbert comes close. On stage for almost every number, Herbert's Hill is as effortless in his dulcet tones and nimble steps as he is in the guile behind each. It is a credit to Herbert that we not only believe in him in the role, but also in Hill's crazy scheme--first to dupe River City, then to seduce its uptight and on-to-him librarian, Marion. Samantha Currie provides fine support in the latter role. As does the entire cast, especially the many child actors.

As with past TUTS offerings, the evening did not disappoint.