Theatre in London for 2004
The "O" Show
A sell-out at the 2004 Fringe, The "O" Show is returning for one-night only at the Wolf Performance Hall. Murphy has added new material for this performance and despite the steep ticket price ($20 for this Fringe benefit) the program promises to be worth it - and it's a bargain compared to some other shows I could name.
Emotionally-draining, mesmerizing study of two men stranded on a cliff of the world's second-tallest mountain, K2. One has a broken leg, the other has to come to terms that only one of them is going to make it home alive.
Physcially and dramatically, Ray Bowen and Deighton Thomas are nothing short of terrific while John Gerry's nuts-and-bolts staging of the scenes where Bowen climbs a sheer ice cliff make K2 an instant must-see. Kevin Bice's incredible set offers one of the most startling uses of the McManus Studio Theatre. In a way, it realizes the third character in this play - the mountain itself.
The show's only flaw is Meyer's overly-philosophic dialogue which tends to bog down the action at the half-way point. But even that is not enough to prevent K2 from emerging as one of the finest offerings from Fountainhead Theatre - even though it's a skinny notch below the company's landmark production of Laramie Project.
One of the most fulfilling theatrical experiences of the year, K2 reaches heights as lofty as the mountain in portrays.
With this 45-year-old tearjerker, Theatre Soup is clearly out of step with the other offerings in The Palace Theatre's Kickstart series - but so what?
Strong, sensitive version of the award-winning William Gibson play is perhaps the troop's best offering to date. Director Justin Peter Quesnelle expertly draws out peak performances from his cast, particularily from Anne-Marie Caicco as a vibrant Annie Sullivan and young Meaghan Chenosky as an intelligent but deeply frustrated Helen Keller. Lil Malinich and Lucy Williams offer up excellent support in the thankless roles of Kate Keller and Aunt Ev, bringing a warmth and humanity to the characters that would be absent in a less focussed version.
Adam Dafoe and Sue Mei's sound design makes arresting use of music and recorded voices to set the mood of each act and in reflecting Sullivan's inner demons. John Beverly's two-tiered set designs gives Theatre Soup every opportunity to explore the larger play space of the Palace Theatre - though the audience begins to feel its watching from a gopher hole when the action moves to the set's second floor.
And just one microscopic quibble in an otherwise top-notch show - could someone please hem Jackie Stover's pants?
London audiences haven't been suffering from a lack of one-gay-person-coming-of-age-shows-with-music this year. We've enjoyed and endured shows as diverse as Frankie (good) and Coming Out (not-so-good).
However, unlike these shows the inaugural production of this season's UnderGrand Series is less a story about a 28-year-old gay man than an examination of the women who shaped his life. It's also the best show of the group I've seen this year.
Writer/performer Damien Atkins is unabashedly dynamic, whether depicting a Slavic guidance councilor or skipping across the stage to an infectious version of Georgy Girl. As for the women he depicts, they range from a drunken party girl on spring break to the character of Helen Lawson from Valley of the Dolls.
While Real Live Girl is played largely for laughs, Atkins carries off the poignant moments honourably - particularity when he belts out the much-neglected Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer torch song I Had Myself A True Love. It was a rendition that reduced this reviewer to tears.
Honestly, this is a terrifically entertaining show. You would be a fool to miss it.
The Ice Cream
Man Has Died & Water-Play ****
These two plays by Jason Rip are among the most straight-forward and unpretentious he has ever written. They are also among his finest.
While the subjects of death and child abduction are about as palatable during this season as year-old Christmas cake, both works touch on the themes of lonliness and desperation, emotions we've all felt as Decembers draws to a close. The characters of George South and Peter Mulyard (both played by Rip) are both social oddballs trying to find a family they can gather around them in times of crisis.
Raegan Boler makes an impressive directorical debut in Ice Cream Man, effectively knitting a series of black out vignettes into a genuinely moving character study. Paul Myers turns in similar fine work for Water-Play, displaying good restraint in a nightmarish situation.
Rip turns in good, low-key performances in both parts, though as an actor he still tends to hold back too much - as if afraid to over sell the material to his audience. He shouldn't have any worries with these two scripts. Their craftsmanship ends London's theatrical year in memorable style.
and the Paycock ****
Rock-solid version of one of the greatest English-language plays benefits immensely from Jeff Culbert's dedicated, intelligent direction and a parade of fine character performances from some of London's best actors.
In 1922 Ireland, Juno Boyle (Carol Robinson-Todd) struggles to keep her family together despite a charming but shiftless husband and a son who has been left a physical and emotional cripple by the Irish Rebellion. Good fortune smiles on them when they are left a small inheritance but the happiness proves short-lived.
While Culbert's direction seems intent on giving us an authentic version of Juno (the entire cast speaks with an Irish brogue and the play has a conventional box set) he refrains from genuflecting at the altar of Sean O'Casey. While the material is deceptively straightforward (a trait that defeated Alfred Hitchcock's 1930 film version) Culbert opts for a naturalistic approach that focuses our attention on the characters and the actors who play them.
Jonathan De Souza is outstanding in the one-note role of Johnny Boyle, bringing a terrified intensity to the role while doing a pretty good physical impersonation of a one-armed man. Virginia Pratten, who has pretty much cornered the market on pinched-face characterizations, turns in another memorable performance as Maisie Madigan, even while lugging a 30-pound gramophone across the stage.
Jake Levesque emerges with the best performance of the play as Joxer Daly, Captain Boyle's loquacious drinking buddy who is more interested in who is going to pay for the whiskey than being faithful to his friends. It's the actor's best comic work since his turn in the Culbert-directed Her Worship.
Dale Bell is also amusing in the central role of "Captain" Jack Boyle but he never manages to grow the character beyond that of a tale-spinning bum. As a result, his penultimate scene where he casts out his pregnant, unmarried daughter (Brigid Aiken) lacks the dramatic punch it should have.
It's a performance that underscores the only serious problem with this production. In falling in love with O'Casey's characters, cast and director have given Juno and The Paycock an incorrigible amiability that undermines the stark tragedy that is intended to drive home the message of the story - despite all the laughs along the way.
Eat Your Alphabet ****
Inventive, smart, play-within-a play is sort of a Noises Off for the intelligentsia.
Serious, pretentious playwright Max Perdiem (Jayson McDonald) locks horns with goofy, pretentious director (Serge Saika-Voivod) while battling with an amateur cast featuring a bucket-head drywall installer (Travis Bailie) a codependent bulimic (Lil Malinich) a bitter, angry divorce (Justin Peter Quesnelle) and a novice author who needs an edit job (Sookie Mei). The top-drawer cast is augmented by newcomer Rebecca Voll making an impressive debut as Shawn, a burned-out actress who is sick of playing best friend roles - since she has no friends.
Prime Jayson McDonald script goes a long way in explaining why people volunteer for alternative theatre - all the while toying with a linear plot structure that blurs the messed-up lives of the actors with the messed up dramatics of the play. Very amusing for lay audiences - but those in the know will find Eat Your Alphabet hysterical from A to Z.
And remember, your business is only as sound as the walls in your office!
Tuesdays With Morrie
A little schmaltzy at times
- particularily during a tear drenched death bed scene - but the warmth
of the two central performers and Judith Bowden's cleverly morphing set
design make this work gel. Morrie's message may be shallow at times -
but there's no lack of depth to this execution. Just sit back and enjoy
the characters - on any day of the week.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Fruits Unheard Of - outside of Murphy's meticulous lead performance - is the script's attention to the artist, rather than to her depression. Arbus is depicted as a curious, professional observer rather than as an obsessed, disturbed voyeur, particularly in a brilliant scene where she tries to quietly photograph a nervous Marguerite Oswald - the mother of the president's assassin. The juxtaposition of an innocuous, middle aged woman thrust into circus atmosphere (one of several vivid characterizations essayed by Jordon Morris) and the quiet intensity of Arbus, speaks more about the characters than any photograph.
Niki Kemeny's cluttered set initially resembles a discount kitchen cabinet store with its hodge podge of suspended doors and curtains. However, this backdrop gradually takes on the guise of a Salvador Dali painting during the play and emerges as one of the most memorable production designs I've seen at the Arts Project.
The use of sound, although effective in spots, tends to telegraph the play's themes too readily, especially with the playing of Suicide is Painless after a reference to the television series MASH. Kaila Jarmain, who co-directed with Murphy, has attached her name to her best production to date.
Fruits Unheard Of may have suffered from a measly three-night run during a frigid cold snap but I'm confident it will be remembered as one of the most vivid and arresting productions of 2004.
Wonderful Life ***1/2
And it's an entertaining show.
Offbeat and surprisingly original version of the 1946 Frank Capra classic is much lighter than you would expect. Bernard Hopkins' direction doesn't so much try to duplicate the original story as blow riffs on it - particularily during a weird production number where the cast dresses like the witches from Macbeth.
Londoner Jonathan Wexler makes his Grand debut with a younger, more physical version of the angel Clarence. Wexler's agile ability to be part of the play's flashbacks scenes without seeming intrusive is remarkable at times. It's an athletic, assured performance that is easily the best thing in the show.
Former artistic director Kelly Handerek chews up the scenery - and delightfully so - as Mr. Potter. Handerek's depiction is more crotchety than ogerish, neatly telegraphing hope that the character just might reform during the final scene.
Stephen Gartner is fine as George Bailey, though the stripped-down version of the script doesn't give him the chance to work the emotional scenes for what they're worth. Carly Street serves up some refreshing comedy relief as Violet - and is pretty easy on the eyes when she does a bump and grind number in a Santa outfit.
The only sour points in the show are an excessive amount of raw exposition in the early scenes and one too many lousy songs. But they're small lumps of coal and unlikely to spoil the joy of unwrapping this Grand Christmas present.
Sarah's Daughters ***1/2
Joanne (Martha Zimmerman) can't get over her shuddering fear that she may have inherited a gene that may cause breast cancer before she hits 40. Fatalistic, unsentimental approach to a well-worn subject scores high points for trying to educate rather than simply wringing tears out of its audience.
Zimmerman makes the character of Joanne her own in the actor's third great performance of the year. Whatever emotion that's in Sarah's Daughters is due to her and director Rachel Holden Jones as Jeff Nisker's script is too unrelenting and clinical to generate any audience sympathy. An intelligent, uncompromising production - but this is basically a radio play making an uneasy transition to the stage.
Solid laughs and an infectious bounce from start to finish put Opening Night miles ahead of many comedies produced here in London.
Catholic School Girls
I know it suffers from an ending as abrupt as a head on collision. I know the script has an annoying habit of pulling its theological punches. I know the scenes change so quickly they give an audience whiplash. I know all of that, but that's doesn't stop Catholic School Girls from being my favourite Theatre Soup shows and one of most enjoyable live performances I've seen in this town during the past five years. I thought so when I first saw it three years ago and my verdict is still unshaken.
Casey Kurtti's lightweight but entertaining tale of four girls going through St. George's Elementary School in 1960s Yonkers was a big hit at the 2001 London Fringe Festival largely on the basis of a great poster and terrific word of mouth.
Sue Mei enjoyed one of her very best roles as the Old Testament-wielding Sister Mary Lucille. Lil Malinich, who has built a career on playing aloof (if not downright unlikable) characters, was refreshingly endearing as the self-conscious Maria Theresa Russo. Judy McCormick was hilariously dotty as the aging Sister Mary Agnes.
This second incarnation of the show only gives this trio the opportunity to improve on their original work. The newcomer to this production is Laura O'Connor who is just wonderful as Elizabeth McHugh, a sputtering little church mouse who learns to question her own faith.
Then, as now, these performances in Catholic School Girls move beyond the simple laughs of Kurtti's script to produce a play that's winsome, human and poignant. I can't think of another performance I would love see again. Jayson McDonald, who helms this incarnation solo (he co-directed the 2001 version with Malinich) takes a faster, less introspective attack on the material. While it makes for a funnier play it gives the audience less time to savour the subtleties of the characters. Given the calibre of the performances, that's a sin.
But it's just a sin of omission.
Blow Hard ***
Well-remembered writing collaboration never really lives up to its reputation, thanks to an absurdly long running time and a second act that's still in search on an ending.
Bubble-gum cartoon artists Drummond (Rod Keith) and Watkins (Jayson McDonald) exist in an alternative universe where their work is triumphed as high art by the critics and as pop culture by the fans. But their lush life comes to an end when the owner of the company dies and his bipolar daughter (Kate Kudelka) starts counting the beans and how much time she can spend with Drummond.
Blow Hard isn't so much a collaboration as two playwrights writing in tandem with other. While their dialogue and plot developments occasionally intersect, they never really gel into a whole. The result ends up collapsing its overburdened story with clever dialogue and one-too-many zany surprises, leaving a play as shapeless as a wad of chewed-over gum.
It's sharp and original at times - and Keith's homages to Bazooka Joe are terrific - but, on the whole, Blow Hard is more of a blow out.
Over the River
and Through the Woods ***
Lively, enjoyable but strictly by-the-numbers comedy about a young man trying to escape from the clutches of his loving but smothering Italian-American grand parents. Joe DiPietro's script shamelessly manipulates the audience's emotions but the quartet of endearing performances from the senior actors makes you forget you've seen this sort of thing before.
One major quibble - could we please have a moratorium on characters who break the fourth wall and talk about their feelings? I know it's easier than writing dialogue but, enough already!
An interesting marketing gimmick features a walk-on by a prominent member of London's Italian community at each performance. Opening night it was the turn of Anne Marie DeCicco - who broke character and waved at the audience. No Brickenden for you, my lass.
Pal Joey ***
Okay version of this standard-filled musical makes a marvellous recovery after being burned out of its original venue - the Palace Theatre. Despite the crackerbox confines of the stage at Beal High School director Jim Doucette does a magnificent job of staging the sprawling proceedings without making them look overly-framed. However, it's also clear he wasn't working with the best talents in the first place.
Julia Webb is the finest thing in the show with her cooly powerful performance of Verna Prentiss-Simpson. Her showstopping rendition of the show's signature tune, "Bewitched" telegraphs a smoldering sexuality which - unlike most of the other musical numbers - justified its encore. Kim Spriet's act two striptease to "Zip" was a highlight both musically and physically. Dean Greer is fine as the anti-hero Joey Evans but he isn't one half the bastard he should be.
Between Brooklynese accents and Igor Saika-Voivod's tuneful but overpowering orchestra, the rest of the cast struggles to be heard - particularily Joshua Priess' impossibly soft-voiced rendition of "The Flower Garden of My Heart." Meanwhile, the large-scale musical numbers choregraphed by Richelle Brown clunk along something out of a 1929 talkie.
London Musical Theatre has also chosen to staged the defanged rewrite of the original script. The result conveys all the sleeziness of Larry Hart's lyrics but with none of the bite.
Sincere but synthetic treatment of the 1930s jazz scene is really just an excuse for Denise Pelley to sing a clutch of evergreens. As long as she's putting over numbers like Fine Brown Frame everything is dandy. Off mike Pelley has to cope with playwright Jacquie Gauthier's soggy dramatics and clunky dialogue which wouldn't pass muster in a 1940s B film. To her credit, Pelley gives her most endearing acting performance to date, but the script works against her all the way.
Jazzabelle alternates between wall to wall music and wall to wall clichés which director Louise Fagan wisely whips by at a fast pace so the audience doesn't notice. The result is a totally engaging and entertaining musical, provided you don't care what happens between the songs.
Roscoe's Ghost ***
Playwright Jason Rip is fine in the lead, though he doesn't really convey why Arbuckle was so popular with audiences - other than that people like funny fat men. Mike Van Holst clearly has too much on his plate portraying everyone from William Randolph Hearst to Buster Keaton. However, Laura Morland continues to sharpen her acting teeth as the doomed Virginia Rappe, bringing both a sad vulnerability and a 1920's vivaciousness to the story.
While most of Roscoe's Ghost flickers in black and white, only Morland offers up a flesh and blood character in full colour.
As You Like It ***
Fine-looking but curiously sluggish production isn't as good as the vibrant UWO version from two years ago (even though actor Don Reid plays the same role in both shows!) Director Peter Van Wart appears to be going for wry chuckles instead of straight-out belly laughs. While the attack might endear him to Shakespear fans it drains the fun for those of us who are still struggling with the language - and don't tell me that type of audience doesn't exist!
The setting of the play is conveniently within earshot of Big Ben and aims for performances that are out of a 1910 thriller. As Rough, the police inspector who cracks the case, John Turner overacts to the nth degree, all the time making noises like he's digesting a heavy supper. It's a good comic performance but the actor's non-stop mugging is a bit much after a while.
Laura Morland turns in a well-modulate performance as Mrs. Manningham, the target of her husband's mental cruelty. Morland, better known for comic and character parts, looks more like Lizzie Borden than a tortured Victorian heroine, but it's clear she's going for the audience's jugular, making many of us jump when she goes after her husband with a straight razor.
David Wasse looks and sounds good, but is unable to make the part of Mr. Manningham anything deeper than a mustache-twirling villian. As slutty Nancy, Lori Fellner offers up an eyeful in an trashy evening gown and makes sparks fly in her brief triste with Wasse, but her cockney accent is straight out of a high school production of My Fair Lady.
Strangley, Anne Busby, in a refreshing low-key performance as the dedicated maid Elizabeth, emerges with the best work in the production.
Here on the Flight Path
Lesser Norm Foster comedy is given a pleasant if overproduced treatment as director Peter Busby expands this two-hander to six actors and extends Dan Costello's ambitious set design to the limits of the Palace Theatre stage. The result amplifies the flaws in Foster's script which is revealed as less an examination of the maturing nature of relationships than a string of one-liners more worthy of a television sitcom - and just what does that airport local have to do with things?
John Cummings (David Bogaert, who acts like he just walked into an old west saloon) is a newly-minted bachelor who goes through a trio relationships with the women who live next door to his apartment. The opening sequence with the prostitute Fay (Shelley Dougherty) is just a long, leering joke while the second with talentless ingénue Angel (a nicely effervescent performance from novice actor Michelle Fukes) runs out of laughs at the half way point. Only the final sequence involving fellow divorce Gwen (Catherine Magee in an disarming deadpan character) delivers a satisfactory chemistry between the two leads.
All told, Here on the Flightpath maintains a pretty mundane holding pattern until that final approach.
Sitting through Sometime, Never is like trying to carry on a conversation in your grandparents' overheated living room after a heavy dinner. You get so drousy with the mundane talk you just stop caring what people are saying and resort to spouting cliches instead of dialogue.
War bride Norah (Laura Morland) returns home to England because her demobbed soldier husband back in London, Ontario is too busy drinking away the horrors of World War II. Meanwhile, sister Sheilagh (Lindsay Franscisco) threatens to ruin everyone's life by running around with a married man while sister Ivy (Ruth Korchuk) denies her love of a young sailor because she thinks it's more important to stay home and look after her ailing mother (Chris Wellwood).
Norah Harding's flat, unengaging script completely defeats its cast and director. When a workhorse actor like Morland can't make it work, you know something is horribly wrong. Only Bill Meaden and April Chappell are able to make anything of the characters of busybody Aunt Girle and henpecked Uncle Harry - but even they are miles away from their best work at LCP, thanks to the non-stop string of homilies they're forced to mouth.
If you must share
your time with a bunch of sappy British stereotypes, rent Noel Coward's
This Happy Breed instead - at least it clocks in under two hours.
Exit the Body **
Some sort of medal should be struck for the cast and crew of LCP's latest offering, a "comical mystery" with pathetic amounts of both ingredients.
However, director Serge Saiko-Voivod is determined to wring laughs out of this clinker and wisely trims the action from three to two acts by inserting a funny, original skit with Don Fleckser. Those three minutes where the actor struggles through a rendition of "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" has more humour in it than Exit the Body has in its entire running time.
Johnny Bobesich transcends his material as a Confederate con man, turning every word of his trite dialogue into a hilarious stand-up routine. Catherine Magee is wonderfully wry as a Brooklyn secretary who deadpans her way through the play's more hilarious moments. The script makes that easy for her. Lisa Hudson offers up a nifty Judy Canova impersonation that manages to be amusing but never grating. In fact, the entire cast extracted the maximum amount of chuckles from Thursday's night's preview audience.
Congratulations, folks. The playwright should kiss your feet.
My Way **
Bonnie Deakin's bland set - which looks a Las Vegas version of Stonehenge - is undeniably well served by Louise Guinard's seamless lighting design but with little more than muzak at its core, My Way turns Guinard's work into a magic lantern show that illustrates each song title with banal repetition.
My Way is a disappointment for someone looking for good musical theatre and a travesty for anyone who loves the legacy of Sinatra.
Tapestry: The Music of
Carole King **
This pedestrian review of Carole King songs from the cheerful folks at DIVA makes you realize just how good their previous productions were.
The cast is in fine voice (particularily Rick Kish in Up on the Roof and his duets with Melodie Lumley on So Far Away and Home Again) and the accompaniment by Rebecca Lubos, John Kenny and Bryan Malito is first rate. But the premise of this show is nothing more than six people singing King songs end to end with little or no concern for pacing, choreography or audience patience. The result sounds like your CD player when the shuffle function goes haywire - assuming you could hear the lyrics under the poor acoustics of Colborne Church.
Tapestry is redeemed somewhat by a energized second act that cuts back on a forced frivolity that smothered the opening numbers like a sit com laugh track. Unfortunately, by that point I was so put off by Jim Doucette's attempt to get me to dance the Locomotion that I didn't care.
Father's Touch - A Reading
Intensely sincere adaptation of Donald D'Haene's successful novel about the author's appalling childhood with a disturbed, manipulative father. Years later, he and his family come to legal and pyschological terms with the scars left by years of sexual and emotional abuse.
Searing stuff, but co-producer Lesleigh Turner and director Louise Fagan have allowed D'Haene to become too close to the creative gestation of Father's Touch. The result is an overly detailed, unfocused and unrelenting draft that's less likely to make audiences aware of the plight of abused families than just make them glad they weren't members of the D'Haene household. We'll see what a second rewrite does...
For a reading, Jordon Morris delivered an uncanny impersonation of D'Haene.