Category Archives: Reviews

Where’s Charley?; Studio 58 (Review)

The quality of student productions can often be more miss than hit, so I was pleasantly surprised by Studio 58’s farcical musical Where’s Charley?

Adapted from Brandon Thomas’ 1892 play Charley’s Aunt, the stage musical version starring Ray Bolger (The Wizard of Oz) premiered in 1948 with a book by George Abbott (The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees) and music and lyrics by Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed in Business Without Trying).

Benjamin Elliott and Graeme McComb in Studio 58's Where's Charley? Photo by David Cooper.

Despite its pedigree, Where’s Charley? has mostly slipped into obscurity.

Set at Oxford University in Victorian era 1892, college seniors Charlie Wykeham (Benjamin Elliott) and Jack Chesney (Graeme McComb)  are awaiting Charley’s wealthy aunt Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez (Joy Castro) who will serve as the required chaperone when they have tea with their respective intended love interests, Amy Spettigue (Caitlin McCarthy) and Kitty Verdun (Amy Hall-Cummings).

His aunt does not arrive as scheduled and rather than cancel the planned date, Charley dons a costume and disguises himself as Donna Lucia.  Assorted mayhem and high jinks ensue.

The musical suffers from a slew of pointless and forgettable songs.  “The New Ashmolean Marching Society and Students’ Conservatory Band,” in the first act inexplicably trots out a student marching band which mercifully leaves as quickly as it first appeared.

Just as out of place is the bizarrely placed “Make a Miracle,” where Charley and Amy sing in counterpoint about their future; he tries to propose while she imagines what technological advances the 20th century will bring.

Fortunately, the snappy dialogue and tried-and-true physical comedy gives the actors ample room to make up for the show’s weaker points.  Though Charley could never credibly pass as a woman, his strutting drag act is a tonne of laughs.

In what is easily the highpoint of the evening, Elliott (sans dress) wins over the audience with “Once in Love with Amy,” soft shoeing and crooning with an easy charm.

Lighting design often goes unheralded, since it is mostly only noticed when something goes wrong. Here, Darren Boquist’s lighting choices are distractingly obvious and sometimes over handed.  Luckily, Pam Johnson’s set looks good in any light.  It is crisply picturesque and a vision in white, accented sparingly with bursts of red or green.

Not much more can be said about this show; it’s fun and airy but ultimately forgettable.  While a bright future on the stage for much of the cast seems assured, Where’s Charley? is likely destined to sink back into the obscurity of the history books.

Studio 58 presents Where’s Charley? until April 18, 2010, at Studio 58, Langara College, 100 West 49th Avenue. Tickets are available online or by calling 604-684-2787

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Footloose; Exit 22 (Review)

It was 30 years ago this past January that the junior and senior classes of an Oklahoman high school asked for permission to hold a prom.  The year was 1980 and in most places in America this wouldn’t have been an issue, but this was Elmore, a town that had outlawed public dancing since its founding almost a century earlier.

At the time, a local Pentecostal preacher was quoted in People magazine as saying that “no good has ever come from a dance.”  Another resident forecast a surge in teenage pregnancies, “because when boys and girls breathe in each other’s ears, that’s the next step.”

With those dire warnings about the slippery slope of dance freshly planted in my head, I sat in the audience at the Performance Arts Theatre at Capilano University, awaiting the opening bars of Exit 22’s production of Footloose.

The show begins with Chicago teen Ren McCormack (Nolan Wilson) and his mother Ethel (Emily Fraser) moving to the rural Texas town of Bomont, after Ren’s father leaves his family ‘to find himself.’  Ren has difficulty adapting to small-town life and the town has similar trouble adapting to him.  He soon discovers that Bomont, under the direction of Rev. Shaw Moore (Sean Parsons), has banned all dancing within city limits.  It’s left to Ren and his friends to try and help a town move on from a tragic past.

Footloose was adapted in 1998 as a stage musical from the 1984 film of the same name, which in turn was loosely based on the real-life events in Elmore, OK.  The musical was only a moderate success, but has taken on a healthy second life through high school and college productions.  Most recently, there were plans to make a film version of the musical starring Zac Efron, but that project appears to be dead in the water.

That film’s producers have apparently had second thoughts, and I soon found out why: the stage musical itself is a complete wash.  Maybe those naysaying dance prohibitionists were onto something afterall.  It is not an exaggeration to say that it seems unlikely that there is anyone who could spin gold from the dross that is Footloose.

The dialogue is trite and patronising, and the majority of the adult characters are shallow and unlikeable.  Despite the inherent limitations of the material, the all-student cast does an admirable job of salvaging what they can.  The onstage talent is evident, even if it is repeatedly eclipsed by the abysmal script.

Jak Barradell (Altar Boyz, White Christmas) as Ren’s best friend Willard is a tumbling and dancing machine.  Brittany Scott as Willard’s love interest Rusty, belts a spirited rendition of “Let’s Hear it For The Boy.”  Other notable cast members to look out for in the future include Kathy Fitzpatrick, Allison Fligg, and Morgan Dunne.

Promising actor Sean Parsons’ (Rent) portrayal of Rev. Moore doesn’t quite ring true.  The good reverend is frustrated with his daughter Ariel’s (Megan Bayliss) rebellious ways throughout the show but for the most part does little more than shake his head disappointedly at her antics.  When he finally hits her in a moment of anger, it comes without warning and with little explanation.

Not too long after that, Ariel sports a black eye courtesy of her dropout ex-boyfriend Chuck Cranston played to a sleazy tee by Victor Hunter. Neither of these incidents receives a satisfactory resolution nor are they addressed further.

When Ariel reveals what is supposed to be a big secret to Ren, I doubt there was a single person in the audience who hadn’t already figured it out.

That is the heart of the problem with this musical: there is no dramatic tension, no surprises.  There are lots of little scenes and lots of movement, but we are given few chances and even less reason to care about the characters.  The show is also hampered by director Gillian Barber’s unfocused staging, which is quite literally all over the place.

The energetic dancing and vocals showcase a wealth of potential and the youthful cast gives it their all, but there isn’t enough talent in the world to overcome this lame duck of a show.

Exit 22 presents Footloose until Apr 3, 2010 in the Performing Arts Theatre at Capilano University, 2055 Purcell Way, North Vancouver, in the Birch Building. For more information, or to buy tickets, phone 604-990-7810 or email boxoffice@capilanou.ca.

Beyond Eden; Playhouse (Review)

In 1957, a controversial expedition including acclaimed B.C. artist Bill Reid and anthropologist Wilson Duff was sent to remove and preserve totem poles from the abandoned Haida village of Ninstints. The conflicts it generated, both externally and within, are the subject of the brand-new musical Beyond Eden.

Writer Bruce Ruddell weaves fantasy with history as he delves into the moral dilemmas faced by the expedition.  The characters have also been fictionalised; Reid is now Max Tomson (Cameron MacDuffee) and Duff is now Lewis Wilson (John Mann).

John Mann and Tom Jackson in Beyond Eden at the Vancouver Playhouse.

Wilson struggles with his desire to preserve the totem poles before they decay and are lost and his respect for the Haida beliefs and traditions.  The mixed-race Tomson is also on his own journey to recognising and reclaiming his heritage.

Mann, of Spirit of the West fame, is in fine form, vocally and dramatically.  Tom Jackson (North of 60) deftly plays the Watchman, a mystical guide intent on protecting the totem poles from Wilson’s interference.  The fallback into over-used stereotypes, which at times threatened to derail the production, is carefully tempered by the beautiful imagery.

There are some stunning visuals on display here, including a sequence of canoe lanterns floating above the heads of the audience, and luminescent totem poles given life as their projected carvings take motion.  Bretta Gerecke’s evocative set involving ramps and angled poles is flawless.

Composer Bill Henderson’s score is serviceable but mostly forgettable.  The use of traditionally-inspired Haida music by Gwaai Edenshaw, however, is seamlessly integrated and rises far above the weaker elements.

There are also some valiant efforts to incorporate basic character development to add some humanity to the history, but these fall way short of their goal.  The subplots involving Wilson’s attempts to reconnect with his son and wife are meandering at best and come off as insincere.  Jennifer Lines’ performance as Wilson’s wife is well-executed, but the character, as written, is superfluous and adds little to the production.

The musical is steeped heavily with both ambition and gravitas, which mostly serve it well.  As a historical narrative, it hits the mark; as a musical, it’s lacking.  Though the script and score could do with a major renovation, overall Beyond Eden is visually and thematically haunting.

The Vancouver Playhouse and Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad in co-production with Theatre Calgary present Beyond Eden from January 16 – February 6, 2010 at the Vancouver Playhouse, Hamilton and Dunsmuir.  Tickets are available online or by phone at 604-873-3311.

Forbidden Broadway; Fighting Chance (Review)

Forbidden Broadway has spent more than 25 years in New York satirising the best and the worst of the Great White Way.  Fighting Chance Productions’ decision to bring a version of the popular revue to Vancouver is a curious one.

The Off-Broadway musical revue made its debut way back in 1982 and has been rewritten over the years to make room for the inclusion of newer shows.  Some of the parodies have held up better than others and I was eager to see which would be included in this incarnation and whether they would find a receptive audience here.

Aaron Lau, Cathy Wilmot and David Nicks in Forbidden Broadway.

Satire like this, demands some familiarity with the source material, and the more familiarity, the better. I needn’t have worried; the night I attended, the intimate PAL Theatre was heavily laden with local musical-theatre buffs in high spirits.  As a whole, they caught pretty much every musical reference thrown their way.

And there were a lot for them to catch.  Everything from Rent, to Les Misérables, to Hairspray.  The strongest audience reactions came for the send-ups of shows that have been seen locally recently.

The cast of five (plus a guest appearance, by the company’s artistic director) do a respectable job with some of the more difficult material.  Kudos to Andrea Bailey, Natalee Fera, Aaron Lau, David Nicks and Cathy Wilmot.  Serviceable impressions of Broadway icons can be a tall order, but they mostly deliver.

“Defying Subtlety” poked cleverly at both Wicked and Idina Menzel.  Cathy Wilmot’s lipstick-smeared Carol Channing was a humourous tribute to the legend’s longtime role as Dolly Levi.  Wilmot also does a larger-than-life Ethel Merman mocking the current trend of over-micing performers.

Also on the mark were good-natured jabs at Liza Minnelli, Bob Fosse and Stephen Sondheim, respectively.  “Into the Words” skillfully incorporated elements of Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, and Into the Woods.

Considerably less-successful were parodies of Fiddler on the Roof, Cats and Barbra Streisand.  The weaker material dragged down the show’s pacing.   As well, at least one of the singers had difficulty projecting to the back of the venue.

Forbidden Broadway won’t be to everyone’s liking, but musical-theatre followers will welcome the chance to make light of some of their idols, if only for a night.

Fighting Chance Productions presents Forbidden Broadway from January 6 – 16, 2010 at the PAL Theatre, 581 Cardero St.  Tickets are available online or by calling 604-684-2787.

Thoroughly Modern Millie; Gateway (Review)

Running different productions of the same musical within a relatively short period of time inevitably invites comparisons, for better or for worse.  Having seen the TUTS production of Millie half a dozen times this past summer, I’m familiar with both the strengths and the weaknesses of the book and score.  I had such high hopes for Gateway Theatre’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. On paper it shows so much promise, but ultimately falls short.

The cast of Gateway's Thoroughly Modern Millie.

There is a lot to like about this production.  Choreographer Kennith Overbey has charged the dance numbers with an intense energy that truly carries the show.  The freneticism of the love-wearied office pool as they tap out their frustrations in “Forget About the Boy,” was almost enough to make me forget some of the other flaws in this show.

Overbey makes excellent use of the incredibly strong male and female choruses.  Among the standouts are Georgia Swinton, Damon Jang, Dimitrios Stephanoy, Meagan Ekelund and Doran Satanove.  There is more than a hint of sex appeal in the alcohol-infused “The Nutty Cracker Suite,” which in less capable hands could have easily been boring and hackneyed.  That same rawness is also welcomely present in the male chorus in “Long as I’m Here with You.”

The ten-piece orchestra is at the top of its game and brings the jazzy score to life, with what seems like minimal effort.  Musical theatre companies around town should take note: cutting back on the size of pit orchestras and live accompaniment can exact a heavy toll on your show.  That richness of sound can’t be replicated by other means.

Lauren Bowler (The Producers, Arts Club) is a strong actress and singer, but doesn’t come off as terribly likeable in the title role of Millie Dillmount.  Her characterisation played like it was from a more serious show, not the one she was in.

Diana Kaarina (Thoroughly Modern Millie, TUTS) was reliably consistent in the role of Miss Dorothy, a role she honed in the US national tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie.  I found myself wishing that Kaarina had been cast as Millie here, a role she completely owned at TUTS this summer.

Denis Simpson plays wealthy socialite and songstress Muzzy Van Hossmere in what appears to be incredibly bad whiteface.  I was hoping for something special in Simpson’s two musical performances “Only in New York” and “Long as I’m Here with You,” and I was still waiting when the final curtain fell.  The fault doesn’t lie with Simpson, but with the uninspired staging consisting of simply facing the audience head-on with limited movement and singing, à la high school.

I’ve seen Simpson dance and sing enough times to know that this wasn’t a case of a director staging around a performer’s weak spots.  Whatever the reasoning behind this creative decision, the poor direction in these numbers pulled down the show’s energy.

The same barebones approach to staging also hurt the comedic number “They Don’t Know.” As the villainous Mrs. Meers, Irene Karas’ accent careered perilously close to the edge and her dragon lady was missing some needed bluster.

Mat Baker’s vocals and dancing were well-suited to the role of Jimmy Smith, but was otherwise bland and not particularly charismatic.  On the other hand, Gaelan Beatty was perfectly charming as the somewhat pompous Trevor Graydon.

Jen Darbellay’s costumes are colourful and eye-catching, though a bit more variety would have been welcome.  The scale of Drew Facey’s set properly conveys the height of the New York cityscape without dwarfing the actors.

All of the technical elements are there, but the show lacks heart.  It should be full of humour and fun, but the quick pace of this staging seems to gloss over many of the best lines and scenes.  That being said, the energetic choreography, top-notch orchestra, and strong chorus alone make Thoroughly Modern Millie worth the price of admission.

Gateway Theatre presents Thoroughly Modern Millie until January 3, 2010 at the Gateway Theatre, 6500 Gilbert Road, Richmond.  Tickets are available online or by phone at 604-270-1812.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; Playhouse (Review)

By whatever name you may call them, grifters, scam artists, confidence men; they’re a familiar staple of the theatre.  Think of Pirelli in Sweeney Todd, Rooster in Annie, or Harold Hill in The Music ManDirty Rotten Scoundrels follows this great tradition with an artful and comedic tribute to the art of the con.  Lawrence Jameson, a successful high-end conman, competes with two-bit scammer Freddy Benson to see who can be the first to bilk a target out of $50,000, with the loser leaving town.   The result is a ridiculous suite of harebrained and madcap schemes that translate perfectly onto the musical stage.

Josh Epstein, Elena Juatco and ensemble in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Vancouver Playhouse.

David Yazbek’s music and lyrics (The Full Monty) are fun and catchy and flow seamlessly with Jeffrey Lane’s book. The often crude and vulgar humour contrasts well with the upbeat score.  “Great Big Stuff” has Freddy longing for all the modern trappings of success including mink tracksuits and hummers in his Hummer.

Andrew Wheeler’s Lawrence Jameson is narcissistically confident and plays well off of his co-star Josh Epstein (The Producers, Arts Club).  Epstein, as Freddy Benson, is full of energy and has talent to spare but hasn’t completely made the role his own.  Too often, the character seems underdeveloped.

Elena Juatco plays the accident-prone American Soap Queen, Christine Colgate, the unwitting mark in Freddy and Lawrence’s unscrupulous bet.  Juatco is best known for making it into the top six of the second season of Canadian Idol and has since transitioned her talents to the theatre.  Her singing voice is sweet and tender but at times its thinness threatened to give way.  Ultimately it didn’t matter, as Juatco is consummately charming and radiates likeability from her first appearance to her final bow.

Gabrielle Jones, last year’s titular Drowsy Chaperone, commands attention as world-traveler Muriel Eubanks, one of Jameson’s earlier victims.  Jones is a treat as always and shines in a side story involving David Marr (The Drowsy Chaperone, Playhouse) as Andre, one of Jameson’s accomplices.  Marr’s deadpan delivery hits the mark every time.

Nathalie Marrable co-choreographs with director Max Reimer and together they’ve done a good job making full use of the talented cast; though at several junctures the staging seemed confused and unfocused.

Director Reimer can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that his follow-up to last year’s smash success The Drowsy Chaperone is a hit.  Reimer deserves considerable credit for injecting some much-needed life into the Vancouver Playhouse’s annual musical theatre productions, after a run of somewhat lacklustre shows in the years previous to his tenure.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is an uproariously-funny down-and-dirty outing packed with laughs and enough charm and talent to win over even the toughest of critics.

The Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company presents Dirty Rotten Scoundrels until December 27, 2009 at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre, Hamilton and Dunsmuir.  Tickets are available online or by phone at 604-873-3311.

White Christmas: The Musical; Arts Club (Review)

While I’m a sucker for Disney musicals, after four straight years of Beauty and the Beast as the annual Christmas musical at the Arts Club, it was time for a change.  This year’s holiday production at the Stanley is White Christmas, the 2004 nostalgia-laden stage adaptation of the 1954 Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye film.

The show’s book, by David Ives and Paul Blake, although only five years old, doesn’t stray too far from the original, nor does it attempt to insert any sort of modern sensibilities.  If you’re searching for any overarching larger themes or social messages here, don’t bother.  White Christmas is a throwback to a simpler time when pretty much any problem could be solved by simply mounting a Broadway-style revue.  Is war getting you down? Facing foreclosure and financial ruin?  Put on a show!

Monique Lund and Sara-Jeanne Hosie in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas: The Musical. Photo by David Cooper.

In this instance, retired army buddies turned musical stars Phil Davis and Bob Wallace, played by Todd Talbot (Annie, TUTS) and Jeffrey Victor (Les Misérables, Arts Club), decide to help out their former commanding officer General Waverly.  Waverly, as played by Réjean Cournoyer (Les Misérables, Arts Club), has sunk all of his money into a Vermont inn and is about to lose his shirt due to unseasonably warm weather and a lack of snow to placate the tourists.

Arts Club veterans Monique Lund (Beauty and the Beast, Arts Club) and Sara-Jeanne Hosie (Les Misérables, Arts Club) are sister act Judy and Betty Haynes who join forces, professionally and romantically, with song-and-dance duo Davis and Wallace.

Talbot and Victor have better onstage chemistry together than they do with Lund and Hosie respectively, which is perhaps a more unintentionally faithful following of the buddy-musical film genre than intended.

After playing Mrs. Potts for the past four Christmases in Beauty and the Beast, Susan Anderson easily breaks into her new role as busybody Martha Watson.  Anderson takes the opportunity to show off her vocal and dance skills in “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” and exceeds all expectations, in what should be a supporting role.

In an already markedly strong chorus, Jak Barradell, Jeremy Lowe and Laura McNaught stand out from the pack with their energy and charisma.

This show’s strength comes shining through in the big group dance numbers including “Let Yourself Go” and “I Love a Piano.”  Valerie Easton’s choreography is a loving tribute to the old movie musicals that have long since fallen out of fashion, where dancers once hoofed and tapped energetically for the cameras, broad smiles not wavering for a single beat.

White Christmas is as warm and familiar as an old friend and seems destined to become another Arts Club holiday tradition.

Arts Club Theatre Company presents Irving Berlin’s White Christmas: The Musical until December 27, 2009 at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, 2750 Granville St.  Tickets are available online or by phone at 604-687-1644.