Category Archives: Television

Grease; Broadway Across Canada (Review)

I feel it’s best for all of us if we forget the television travesty that was Grease: You’re the One That I Want.  So, I offer my sincerest apologies for bringing it up once again.  For those of you lucky enough to have missed it, the 2007 reality show had young actors and actresses competing to portray the lead roles of Danny Zuko and Sandy Dumbrowski in the Broadway revival of Grease. The entire endeavour was a creative sellout and the eventual production, featuring winners Max Crumm and Laura Osnes, was largely panned by most major Broadway critics.

Brad Lawson, Marc Winski, Patrick Cragin, Patrick Joyce, and Matt Nolan perform “Greased Lightnin'.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

Upon learning that the touring role of Danny Zuko was being played by Matt Nolan, a finalist from that show which shall-no-longer-be-named, I didn’t harbour much hope for the success of this show.  So, I was pleasantly surprised by his performance on the opening night of Grease at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

For most Grease fans, Danny Zuko will forever be indelibly tied with John Travolta’s film portrayal and everyone who has played Danny since must endure the inevitable comparisons.  Matt Nolan embodied the too-cool-for-school attitude of the character without trying to mimic Travolta’s mannerisms.  Nolan was extremely likable; an overgrown kid not entirely sure of himself.

The same can’t be said of Alyssa Herrera’s Sandy.  Herrera suffered from a severe lack of stage presence and she struggled to stand out from the chorus.

The secondary roles of the T-Birds and Pink Ladies were all played adequately, though none of them really delivered anything special.

Though touring shows aren’t expected to measure up to Broadway standards when it comes to sets and costumes, this production really fell short of the mark.  Some of the sets looked like hastily-painted cardboard backdrops, while the costumes in the opening looked similarly cheap.

I was a bit underwhelmed by the whole thing, until some of the bigger dance numbers. Joyce Chittick’s choreography was slickly executed and helped lift the show from its inauspicious beginning.

This current production also incorporates some of the more popular songs from the movie that weren’t originally part of the stage version including “Grease (Is the Word)” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”

Some of the grittiness and more mature bits have either been glossed over or removed entirely.  In the song “Greased Lightning”, lyrics have been changed from “the chicks will cream” to “the chicks will scream” and “pussy wagon” is now “draggin’ wagon.”  Rizzo’s second-act pregnancy scare is brushed off as no big deal.  Though, in fairness, it can be hard to remember that these twenty-something actors are all supposed to be playing teenagers.

But, no one has ever accused Grease of trying to be serious theatre.  On opening night, the theatre was laden with patrons of all ages, many of whom were avid fans of the movie.  At several junctures throughout the show, I could hear audience members singing along with their favourite songs.  The appeal of Grease isn’t in its barebones plot; it’s in the nostalgia and the catchy songs.  And on that count, Grease more than delivers.

Grease, presented by Broadway Across Canada, runs until October 31, 2010, at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, 600 block Hamilton St, Vancouver. Tickets are available online or by calling 604-280-4444.

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Passing Strange; PBS (Upcoming Show)

Spike Lee’s documentary film of the musical Passing Strange makes its national debut on PBS, this Wednesday, January 13, 2010.   Lee’s 135-minute documentary records some of the show’s final performances before it closed in 2008.

Passing Strange features a Tony Award-winning book by Stew, lyrics by Stew, and music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald.

The film stars original cast members Stew, Rodewald, de’Adre Aziza, Daniel Breaker, Eisa Davis, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge and Rebecca Naomi Jones.

Locally there will be multiple airings, so set your PVRS.  It plays at 6 pm and then repeats at 11:30 pm on Shaw 87 and also at 9 pm on Shaw 27.  Check your local listings.

Remembering Pushing Daisies

A moment of silence, please, for the late and lamented television series Pushing Daisies.  The second and final season of the ABC forensic fairy tale was released to DVD last month, and I for one am already missing it.  While not a musical in the strictest sense (or even any other sense), it did borrow some of its conventions from the musical genre.

pushing daisies

In the most obvious sense, Pushing Daisies did so by casting a veritable parade of Broadway stars as both series regulars and as one-off guest stars.

Tony-winner Jim Dale (Barnum, Candide), was the voice of the always-heard but never-seen narrator.  Stage veterans Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene (Little Shop of Horrors) played sisters Lily and Vivian Charles.  Raúl Esparza (Company, Taboo), Christopher Sieber (Spamalot, Shrek), and Wilson Cruz (Rent) also made appearances, among others.

Aside from the veritable parade of Broadway veterans, the polychromatic sets were fantastical and always imaginative.  Any one of the storybook sets could have been taken straight from the sketch pad of the theatre world’s top production designers.

In the vein of the modern musical, Pushing Daisies occasionally used songs to develop characters.  Waitress Olive Snook, as played by the incomparable Tony-winning Kristin Chenoweth, (You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown, Wicked) did so the most frequently.  While pining over her unrequited love Ned, Olive crooned “Hopelessly Devoted to You” (Grease) after- hours in a pie shop.  The night cleaner, Manuel, danced back-to-back with her as he polished the floor, completely unaware of his role in the melodramatic musical number.

But one of the best moments took place during a road trip, when Chenoweth and Ellen Greene sang a beautiful cover of “Birdhouse in Your Soul.”  The Daisies’ version is virtually unrecognisable from the original by alternative rock group They Might Be Giants.  The musical interlude only lasts about 30 seconds before being cut off by an ornery and bedazzled-eye-patch-wearing Swoosie Kurtz.  The full version of the song can be found, however, on iTunes.

To see the whole collection of Chenoweth’s musical-moments on Pushing Daisies, click here for the full YouTube medley.  Better yet, pick up the DVD set and watch the entire series to your heart’s content.  As the new season of television debuts to great fanfare this month, I’ll be wiping away a not-so-silent tear in memory of the often-heartbreaking and always-beautiful Pushing Daisies.

Impresario Drabinsky Sentenced to Seven Years; Out on Bail Pending Appeal

Former Livent head honcho Garth Drabinsky was finally sentenced today to seven years in jail after being convicted of fraud and forgery last March.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, Drabinsky has been alternatively sainted and damned by various circles of Canadian theatre society.

Former Livent Executive Garth Drabinsky

Former Livent Executive Garth Drabinsky.

Some Canadian media and bloggers had scoffed at the notion put forward by Drabinsky’s legal team that he should receive house arrest and perhaps lecture at universities as a form of community service.

Even after his name had been dragged through the mud for over a decade, Drabinsky was able to drum up some glowing character references from no less than Martha Henry, Christopher Plummer and E.L. Doctorow.

The criminal conviction will now likely be followed by multiple civil suits, so Drabinksy’s days in courts are far from over.  It probably also puts the final nail in the CBC reality show Triple Sensation which Drabinsky executive produced.

UPDATED, Thursday August 6, 2009 : Don’t expect Drabinsky and his co-convicted Myron Gottlieb to spend time behind bars anytime soon.  After spending the morning in a courthouse jail cell, they were released on bail by the afternoon, pending appeals of their convictions and sentences. The appeals could take as long as a year.

CBC’s Triple Sensation: Finale

Before the finale of CBC’s Triple Sensation, it seems a foregone conclusion that Leah Cogan will be crowned the winner.  As much as I’d like to lay claim to being prescient, all credit goes to the formulaic editing of the show that pretty much told the audience who was going to win back in week three.

There were some good performances out of the top six, and all the focus really was on the talent.  The personal interviews were kept to a bare minimum, and each finalist sang, danced and acted separately.

Excluding the personal stories and the offstage likeability of the performers made the show an entirely different creature.  It also helped me come to a more-or-less final conclusion as to my relative indifference to Leah Cogan.  She is most definitely a triple threat, but she isn’t suited for reality television.  With all of the personal distractions swept aside, she shone brightly in all three of her solo performances.

triple sensation1

Newfoundland’s Liam Tobin was the runner up and he completely won over the panel.  Tobin is all charm and smiles and his acting and singing weren’t too bad either.  He is definitely leading man material.

Cayley Thomas did a competent version of “A Quiet Thing” from Flora the Red Menace.  It wasn’t bad but it didn’t really stand out, especially in the face of such strong competition.

I was surprised that Kaitlyn Semple wasn’t in the top three.  Her “Cabaret” was sexy and confident, but not good enough apparently for the judges.

I really enjoyed David Light’s “Sara Lee” from Kander & Ebb’s And The World Goes Round.  He was funny in a way that we haven’t seen before and it made for a nice change of pace.

Hailey Gillis infused herself into “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret and you could feel her strength and determination.  I was a little put out by the judges’ comments that she wasn’t playing a character; she was just singing it as herself.  There was some truth to it though, but I still thought it was a personal high performance for her.

As I already predicted, Leah Cogan of Embrun, Ontario was declared the winner of the $150,000 scholarship and the Triple Sensation title.  And I’d say that she definitely earned it.  Whatever it is that you need to be a star, Cogan has it it spades.

That brings this season to a bittersweet end.  It seems unlikely that there will be a third season anytime soon.  This second season was already shot and finished last fall, but the airing was delayed until now.  With Executive Producer and marquee panel judge Garth Drabinsky already convicted of fraud in criminal court last spring, the future of Triple Sensation does not look bright.  Drabinksy’s sentencing has been delayed multiple times, but is currently scheduled to be handed down on August 5th.

Week 5: Workshop Presentation

Week 4: Master Class (part 2)

Week 3: Master Class

Week 2: Vancouver Auditions

Week 1: Eastern Auditions

CBC’s Triple Sensation: Workshop Presentation

This week is the fifth in a series of six Triple Sensation episodes, and my attention is waning.  I’m really ready for this show to be over.   There are eight finalists left to compete before the judging panel.  Wylmari Myburgh, Tess Benger and Vancouver’s own Andrew Cohen and Alyssa Brizzi have already been eliminated over the past two episodes.

After the required recap, the episode starts off with the group song and dance number “They’re Playing My Song.”  David Light goes before the panel performing “Why God Why?” (Miss Saigon).  The judges largely pan his performance.

triple sensation2

Liam Tobin who sings “Maria” (West Side Story) has both the voice and the fresh-faced matinee idol good-looks of a leading man.  The judges are equally divided as to his musical talent.

Kaitlyn Semple’s “I Wish I Were in Love Again” (Babes in Arms) seemed to be over her head.

Hailey Gillis’ “I Had Myself A True Love” was a great piece of musical theatre and she immediately went up in my estimation.  The judges seem on the surface to agree with me.

Cayley Thomas’ “I Feel Pretty” (West Side Story) was strong and full of confidence.

Jen Shaw sings “That’ll Show Him” (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and is thoroughly trashed by the judges for not catching the subtext of the song.

Glen Mills and Leah Cogan received good reviews for their joint acting scene from A Doll’s House.

Mill’s version of “The Apple Tree [Forbidden Fruit]” (The Apple Tree) was not as universally liked, though I still find him to be a strong performer.

Cogan’s “I Have Confidence” (The Sound of Music) was praised by the judges as has been their custom.

After another group number from The Wild Party and the judging begins.  I thought perhaps that my ears had deceived me when I heard some criticism of can-do-no-wrong Leah Cogan.

In the end it was Glen Mills and Jen Shaw who were eliminated.  I’m a little disappointed to seem them both go.  Mills has had some passionate vocal performances and Shaw’s energy on stage is something special.  But the judges have spoken.

Next week will include guest appearances from Jason Alexander, Albert Schultz and composer John Kander. The winner and runners-up are revealed in the final episode next week of on Triple Sensation, Monday July 27th on CBC.

Previously on Triple Sensation:

Week 4: Master Class (part 2)

Week 3: Master Class

Week 2: Vancouver Auditions

Week 1: Eastern Auditions

CBC’s Triple Sensation: Master Class (Part 2)

Vancouver’s last contender on CBC’s Triple Sensation, Alyssa Brizzi, was sent packing last night along with Toronto’s Tess Benger.

The inherent transparency of reality television frustrates me in countless ways.  I resent the casting of real-life people as stereotypical characters.  I dislike how editing shapes our opinions of who we should be rooting for.  But mostly, I don’t like the way producers feel the need to telegraph which contestants are likely to go home in a particular episode.

triple sensation3

In last night’s episode of Triple Sensation, it becomes readily apparent within the first 15 minutes that the two most likely candidates for elimination are Alyssa Brizzi and Tess Benger.  Benger has been heavily featured in the series so far, but has not really received any rave reviews from the judges and instructors.   That suggests that the producers found her personality to be a good source of material for reality television and are milking her presence for screen time for as long as she is around.  But it doesn’t bode well for her chances at winning the competition.

The same issues that I had last week with the acclaim showered on Leah Cogan are still very much at play. Her talent is not in question; she seems to excel with all of the guest instructors.  And to her credit, I found myself liking her rendition of “I Won’t Mind.”  But I still don’t why she’s consistently at the top of the class.  Maybe, it’s as I said last week, something extra she has in person that is lost on film.  Maybe, I’m biased.  Or maybe I’ve been suckered by the show’s editing to fall for our plucky-but-doomed heroine, Tess Benger.

The men in the competition all appear to be relatively safe, for the moment.  Glen Mills, Liam Tobin and David Light are all extremely likeable in different ways and relate well to the guest instructors.

Two more finalists face elimination on Triple Sensation next week in part five of six, Mondays on CBC, through July 27th