PAULA’S PICKS AND PANS

THEATRE – NOW PLAYING (five start rating system)

Canadian Stage. London Road (4 ½ stars). Run don’t walk to see one of the most unusual shows in town that is soon to close. The serial killer of five prostitutes in Ipswich, England, had a flat on London Road. Verbatim playwright Alecky Blythe interviewed residents of the street to capture what they went through during the investigation, arrest and trial. These conversations were then set to music by composer Adam Cork. The resulting sung monologues/dialogues are astonishing in their reality. london_road_4The 11-member cast is unbelievable (all kinds of Stratford/Shaw types), gilded by director Jackie Maxwell and her Shaw Festival music director Reza Jacobs. The costumes and the set are terrific. I’m deducting marks for some impenetrable accents. Nonetheless, once again, CanStage scores big with a North American premiere. (Closes Feb. 9, Bluma Appel Theatre, www.canadianstage.com.)

DANCE – NOW PLAYING

KYLE ABRAHAM/ABRAHAM.IN.MOTION. THE RADIO SHOW. You only have until Saturday to catch this World Stage offering. kyle abrahamAbraham is one of New York’s brightest lights. The supple dancers execute fluid, total body choreography in this show about memory and communication. As a dancesmith, Abraham knows how to rivet the eye with movement that always catches you by surprise. No wonder he won a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation. An ambitious show in content that maybe doesn’t get quite get to where it should in substance, but the choreography rocks. (Closes Feb. 8, Fleck Dance Theatre, www.harbourfrontcentre.com.)

DANCE IMMERSION. CELEBRATING OUR MEN IN DANCE. This show, also on a short run, is part of Black History Month. Curator Vivine Scarlett has opted to program 8 male choreographers to present black men in a positive light. dance.immersionThey hail originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Nigeria, South Africa, Mozambique, and Jamaica, while two are Toronto born. The dance ranges from traditional to contemporary and presents a wide spectrum of themes. While the quality is uneven, the bill of fare is entertaining. This is an important show because it speaks to Canada’s multicultural mosaic. (Closes Feb 8, Enwave Theatre, www.harbourfrontcentre.com.)

Mirvish Productions. Heartbeat of Home. Heartbeat_of_Home__(6)This new production, from the team that brought you Riverdance two decades ago, is an immensely enjoyable, professional-looking, polished dance show where everything hangs together as smooth as silk. The music score is sensational and the band is hot. Despite some weaknesses to the look of the show, it certainly deserves a long shelf life. (Closes Mar. 2, Ed Mirvish Theatre, www.mirvish.com.) See full website review, http://wp.me/p2s1nr-zz.

 

 

 

Dance Review – Mirvish Productions/Heartbeat of Home

Heartbeat_of_Home_2What a difference 20 years makes. Heartbeat of Home, the new show from the team that brought you Riverdance two decades ago is an immensely enjoyable, professional-looking, polished dance show where everything hangs together as smooth as silk. The music score is sensational and the band it hot. It certainly deserves a long shelf life.

Now for full disclosure. I never warmed up to Riverdance with its pretentious, obscure narration, the staccato dance numbers that seemed gerrymandered together, particularly the odd inclusion of Russian folk dance, flamenco, urban tap and street dance. Every non-Irish dance section in that show seemed to be mere way stations awaiting the wall of thunder. As for those Iris dancers, especially the men, they looked like your high school class, acne included.

Cut to 2014. Heartbeat of Home is a child of Riverdance because it too showcases different dance forms – flamenco, Latin, Afro-Cuban and urban – along with Irish step dance. But there the similarity ends. Joseph O’Connor’s narrative line has cohesion – young people forced to leave their homeland for better beginnings in the first act, and a celebration of multiculturalism in the second. The various dance sequences belong to the whole cloth producing an even and logical flow.

John Carey is responsible for the always exciting Irish dance numbers, while choreographer David Bolger created the attractive contemporary-ballet-jazz sections, and the musical staging. Many of the accomplished dancers step out of their specialities from time to time to show their versatility. The second act, in particular, is impressive as most of the eye-catching numbers are fusion. Bolger and Carey have been immensely clever in merging the dance forms into an extravaganza of styles all happening at the same time. For example, Irish dancers actually do partnering.

Heartbeat_of_Home__(7)In fact, the level of dance overall is very high. Lead Irish dancers Ciara Sexton and Ryan McCaffrey are charismatic, as are Afro-Cuban dancer Teneisha Bonner and Latin dancer Curtis Angus. Flamenco dancers Rocio Montoya and Stefan Domit do rivet the eye. Vocalist Lucia Evans can fit herself into ethereal Celtic or driving urban sound, and everything in between.

As for composer Brian Byrne, his music is gorgeous, both instrumental and songs (with O’Connor’s lyrics). Of great fascination is the combination of traditional Irish instruments with Latin brass. This show gives the musicians a chance to shine and the band absolutely steals the curtain call.

There are some weaknesses. I wanted more innovative projections on the wrap-around screen. At the moment, they are very routine like sunsets and flying birds and landscapes. This show also needs a real Broadway or West End costume designer because Monica Ennis and Niamh O’Connor just don’t cut it. In a word, the costumes are cheesy, even amateurish at times – like the dream sequence where the two women sport flowy, jagged-edge, balloon outfits. Only the short dresses for the Irish dance sequences are okay, but surely something more original could have been devised. In other words, the on-the-cheap look of the show does not match the level of the dance or music.

Heartbeat_of_Home__(6)None of that really matters, however, because the dance and the music rock, and they are at the heart of Heartbeat of Home. Kudos to producer Moya Doherty and director John McColgan for advancing their craft. Just think how great the new grandchild of Riverdance will be when it gets launched in another 20 years.

Heartbeat of Home, (choreography by David Bolger and John Carey), Mirvish Productions, Ed Mirvish Theatre, Jan. 21 to Mar. 2, 2014, www.mirvish.com.)

 

 

Theatre Review – The Wizard of Oz (Mirvish)

The new Andrew Lloyd Webber production of the much beloved film The Wizard of Oz is, in a word, pleasant.

The staging and décor stay pretty much to the original movie, and maybe that’s the problem. I remember a Wizard production of many years ago that played at the Elgin, which was really imaginative. For example, in the poppy field scene, luscious, seductive chorines were the poppies. This production is very routine by comparison.

The show does have several things going for it. The Canadian cast is strong. It’s nice to see Cedric Smith back on stage as the Professor/Wizard. Lisa Horner does a great job as the Wicked Witch. The three farm hands/Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow, Mike Jackson, Lee MacDougall and Jamie McKnight respectively, are all talented guys. Charlotte Moore as Auntie Em and Larry Mannell as Uncle Henry are always good, no matter what. Robin Evan Willis is a gorgeous Glinda, and Toto is adorable. Danielle Wade as Dorothy (who was chosen by a television audience is not charismatic as she could be, but does, in a word, give a pleasant performance.

The best thing about the show is the additional songs by Webber and Tim Rice, which fall mainly in the Kansas scenes. Rice is clever, and is still the best lyricist that Webber ever worked with. They have also written an anthem that is destined to become a classic. “Already Home” boasts a beautiful melody and stirring words. Any chanteuse/chanteur is going to want to latch on to that one. It’s also nice that Herbert Stothart’s original background score has been incorporated into the show to go with the Arlen/Harburg original songs.

Out of fairness, I should mention that the mostly geriatric matinee audience seemed to enjoy the show muchly. I’m just disappointed that the production wasn’t more innovative.

The Wizard of Oz, original songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, additional songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, (starring Danielle Wade, Cedric Smith, Lisa Horner, Mike Jackson, Lee MacDougall, Jamie McKnight, Robin Evan Willis, Larry Mannell and Charlotte Moore, directed by Jeremy Sams), Mirvish Productions, Ed Mirvish Theatre, Dec. 20 to Jun. 2, 2012

Theatre Review – Mirvish Productions/Backbeat: The Birth of the Beatles

Be prepared. This show is loud, but then it is about rock ‘n’ roll. Backbeat: The Birth of the Beatles is the 2010 stage adaptation of a 1994 movie that details the legendary group’s early years between 1960 and 1963. Iain Softley, one of the movie’s writers, has penned the book of the musical with Stephen Jeffreys. This show will presumably move on to Broadway. How it will play there is anyone’s guess.

You might ask why the Beatles’ early years are interesting? For one thing, Stuart Sutcliffe (Nick Blood) played bass guitar. He was John Lennon’s (Andrew Knott) closest friend and much of the story revolves around their relationship and Sutcliffe’s early death from a brain haemorrhage in 1962. Also integral to the story is Sutcliffe’s affair with German photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Isabella Calthorpe) who became his fiancé and influenced him to put down his guitar and pick up a paintbrush once again. The Sutcliffe, Kirchherr, Lennon triangle is at the heart of the show. And then there is self-important drummer Pete Best (Oliver Bennett) who was unceremoniously fired from the group in 1962 and replaced by Ringo Starr (Adam Sopp). Best’s relationship with his fellows is an intriguing secondary theme. Paul McCartney (Daniel Healy) and George Harrison (Daniel Westwick) are basically musical window dressing.

The audience has to cope with Liverpool accents, and your ear does get used to the north of England words, except for Knott as Lennon who remains impenetrable throughout. That aside, those gruelling shows in various Hamburg clubs helped the Beatles form their sound, both as covers for the music of others, and writing their own songs. In 1960, they were nobodies. By 1963, Brian Epstein is their manager and George Martin is their record producer. In short, Beatlemania is sweeping the world.

The musicianship is fantastic. All the music is live, including the incidental score by Paul Stacey which is performed by members of the ensemble. People of a certain age are going to know ever word of every lyric. Even if you don’t know the songs like “Love Me Do” and “Please Love Me”, you have to be swept up by the sheer energy and brio of the Beatles’ clones. The encore, a never ending slew of Beatles’ hits, is an upbeat dance party. The audience literally twists and shouts at their seats. Everyone will leave the theatre infused by the vibrant music of those early years.

Music aside, there are problems. The set design by Andrew D. Edwards and Christopher Oram is awkward. There is a narrow upper steel gallery, and a lower box that holds the band that moves from rear stage to the front as necessary. The scaffold construction doesn’t leave enough room for anything else, so the acting bits are either squashed to the side or up above. Director David Leveaux repeats himself. At lower class Hamburg clubs, we have the noisy drunks and slutty girls. At upper class Hamburg clubs, we have the stylized Marlene Dietrich wannabes of either gender. There are projections on the back wall to help set the scene, but they are grainy and indistinct. The acting also seems muted, but then the characters are poorly developed. The show lacks passion.

On the other hand, the Beatles are all about the music and that is generously provided by Backbeat. Music trumps staging and substance. If you want depth, rent the movie.

Backbeat: The Birth of the Beatles, Mirvish Productions, written by Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys, incidental music by Paul Stacey, (starring Nick Blood, Isabella Calthorpe, Andrew Knott, Oliver Bennett, Daniel Healy and Daniel Westwick, directed by David Leveaux), Royal Alexandra Theatre, Jul. 21 to Sept. 2, 2012)