Friday, December 9, 2011
MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW: MEMPHIS
Pictured: Felicia Boswell, Bryan Fenkart
In terms of historic conflagrations, it’s not up there with the burning of Atlanta, but the inflaming of Memphis is still, dramatically speaking, a compelling story. In fact, the musical that’s been spun from it by playwright/lyricist Joe DiPietro and composer/lyricist David Bryan, fittingly titled MEMPHIS: THE MUSICAL, has generated a fair bit of heat.
Having picked up a brace of Tonys, including best musical last year in Broadway’s annual Bonfire of the Vanities, it’s now sparked a touring edition, which burst into flames Wednesday on the stage of Toronto Centre for the Arts, where it will play through to Christmas Eve under the aegis of Dancap Productions.
It’s an interesting tale, set in the city of title in the middle of the last century, just as a new kind of music called rock ’n’ roll was moving out of the black juke joints in which it had been born to claim the musical consciousness of a generation. Inspired by the real-life adventures of one Dewey Phillips, MEMPHIS tells the story of an affable Tennessee high school drop-out by the name of Huey (Bryan Fenkart), whose passion for what was then politely called ‘race music’ (and for one of the lovely young women who sang it) would help transform both modern music and the airwaves on which it was played.
Huey meets Felicia (played by Felicia Boswell) in the all-black club her brother (Quentin Earl Darrington) runs on Beale Street — and driven as much by the beat of the music he loves as his promise to make Felicia famous, he becomes an unlikely but likable disc jockey on Memphis’ pre-eminent mainstream radio station. The establishment, of course, dismisses the young upstart with a sneer, but Huey is soon dominating the airwaves — and after Felicia performs live on his show, romance blossoms.
But this is the American South in the mid ’50s, after all, and a burgeoning romance between a white man and a black woman is little short of incendiary, even if he is from the wrong side of the tracks and she is the epitome of polished grace. And so they find themselves trapped in a great racial divide that 60 years later, still separates much of America.
MEMPHIS: THE MUSICAL, has a lot going for it — not the least of which is a songbook of brand-new rock classics, written specifically for the show, but sounding more or less authentic to the time. Indeed, some of them, like Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night, are even worth more than a second listen, even though few of them conspire to further the story much. Then there’s the choreography of Sergio Trujillo, delivering on the promise he exhibited in Jersey Boys and Stratford’s West Side Story, creating a dazzlingly sexy showcase of funky, sophisticated movement that never seems to let up through the length of the show.
There’s some impressive vocal work too, and while Boswell’s vocal delivery feels a lot more of this era than the one in which the story is set, the work of artists like Darrington, Rhett George, Will Mann and William Parry more than compensates, with Fenkart tying it all together with a loopy, aw-shucks charm.
It all comes together for a rollicking good time, despite the fact that neither DiPietro’s book nor Christopher Ashley’s direction aims to probe too deeply into the very real and painful issues the story explores, content to skate over complex racial and emotional issues that could give the story an emotional heft to match its musical pedigree. In the end, it’s still a love story in which the man chooses the city that spurned her over the girl he loves — and that’s always going to be a tough sell, one suspects.
Thursday, December 8, 2011
FEATURE THEATRE INTERVIEW:
Sergio Trujillo's dance card filled
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Sergio Trujillo made it home for Christmas — but he couldn’t stay.
Instead, the award-winning choreographer of Jersey Boys, The Addams Family and Memphis (the Tony Award-winning musical whose Toronto Centre for the Arts opening Wednesday brought Trujillo home for an early Christmas reunion with his family) will be jetting off to Argentina next week to audition dancers for a new tango-inspired work. But he’s not complaining.
“Actually, I’m not as busy as I’ve been,” Trujillo says as he catches his breath on a whirlwind tour of Toronto media. There was a time, he explains, when he was working on both Memphis and The Addams Family simultaneously and things got a little intense.
“At that point, I was focused” he recalls, “but that’s as busy as I ever want to be. I only do things now that I can manage.” Apparently, however, he can manage a fair bit, for his dance card is still full, with plenty of new offers arriving on a regular basis. Not that choosing new projects is a problem.
“I have to still listen to my instincts,” Trujillo says. “I have to believe in that inner voice. If it’s something I can service — the material — then I’m definitely involved.” That inner voice has set an interesting course for the 48-year-old Colombian-born, Toronto-raised artist, who remembers launching his dancing career in his late teens. “The core of what I wanted to be was a dancer, but I didn’t think you could make money,” he admits.
So, he worked at his dancing at the same time he was working on a bachelor’s degree in science at the University of Toronto, where he studied to be a chiropractor. Dance ended up not only funding his education, but becoming his career as well — and though that career has taken him around the world, Toronto is still home in his heart. Part of that, of course, is the fact that his family is still here — but Toronto is a city of memories as well.
“When I started to dance — from 19 to 25,” he says with a smile. “That’s when I remember myself in Toronto. I remember this young guy with a hunger and an ambition to dance.” That ambition has continued to grow and, having transitioned from dancer to choreographer, Trujillo is now contemplating directing.
“I’ve been directing and choreographing for the last three years,” he says, “Projects that I’m still working on.” And his confidence is growing. “When I work with the great directors, like Des McAnuff, it just seems unachievable, but then I start working on something like Havana (the Frank-Wildhorn-Nilo Cruz-Jack Murphy musical that will mark his Broadway directorial debut) and it just makes so much sense.”
As for the dancing, which he left behind at the end of a hugely successful run in the Toronto-born Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance, he doesn’t miss it, for the plain and simple reason that he’s now calling the tune. “I still dance — and I still dance hard,” he says with conviction.
He smiles. “I just remind myself of where I come from. It’s been a journey that’s been full of hard work and sacrifices.”
But just look where it has brought him — and where it’s likely to take him in the future. And we’re not talking Argentina.
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Theatre renamed in honour of Ed Mirvish
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - Seems Ed Mirvish is going to have his name up in lights — yet again. At a special ceremony Tuesday, the theatre known for the past decade as the Canon Theatre was officially re-christened the Ed Mirvish Theatre by David Mirvish, the son of the late and still greatly beloved theatrical impresario and local legend.
Ed Mirvish started life, by his own reckoning, as a humble shop- keeper, best known for the sprawling Bloor St. bargain emporium known as Honest Ed's. But that all changed when he bought and restored Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1963, transforming the failing show palace into the centrepiece of a vital enterprise that blossomed into what is now known as the entertainment district. It was a purchase that would also also launch a theatrical empire that at one time included London's historic Old Vic Theatre and today includes, in addition to the newly christened Ed Mirvish Theatre and the Royal Alex as it is now known, the Princess of Wales and the Panasonic Theatres as well.
Originally christened the Pantages when it was built in 1920, the theatre at Dundas and Victoria that now bears the Mirvish name became the Imperial Theatre when the man for whom it was named — Hollywood impresario Alexander Pantages — was jailed in 1930. The Imperial it remained, until it was reclaimed from the world of multiplex cinemas by Cineplex and restored, eventually becoming the cornerstone of Garth Drabinsky's now defunct Live Ent empire, once more under the Pantages name. When the Mirvishes took over its management in 2001, the theatre's name was changed to the Canon. It became part of the Mirvish empire in 2008, following Ed's death in 2007.
In a touch that no doubt would have pleased Ed Mirvish, who was renowned for his self-professed "humbility," Tuesday's re-christening was no gala affair, but rather a public event, free to the legion of Mirvish subscribers and friends. Hosted by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, currently starring in a revival of 2 Pianos 4 Hands at the Panasonic Theatre, the ceremonies included special appearances by artists like Louise Pitre, Michael Burgess, Molly Brown, Camilla Scott and Shirley Douglas, as well as theatrical producer Paul Elliott and the Toronto Police Choir, the latter, performing a medley of showtunes from The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Evita.
And while Premier Dalton McGuinty and Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered best wishes via video links, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford showed up in person, proclaiming Dec. 6, 2011 to be Ed MIrvish Theatre Day, calling it a "true testament to the significant impact he had on Toronto." Signage has already been changed to reflect the theatre's new name.
Friday, December 2, 2011
THE WIZARD OF OZ:
THE WICKEDLY WACKY
Pictured: Ross Petty
TORONTO - Perhaps the true magic of Christmas can be found in the fact that, while the holiday rarely plays out according to the script one creates, you still find yourself having a wonderful time in the midst of the ruins. And that’s what makes Ross Petty’s annual stage panto the perfect Christmas entertainment, for while it only occasionally proves to be as good as you expect it to be, year after year it still proves to be one of the best ways to celebrate the holiday in Toronto. And happily, this year is no different.
So, while Ross Petty Productions’ THE WIZARD OF OZ: THE WICKEDLY WACKY FAMILY MUSICAL (which opened Thursday at the Elgin, where it runs through Jan. 6) owes just about as much to L. Frank Baum’s iconic story book as Rob Ford owes to Arts Vote, it still adds up to a pretty, Petty fine time, despite itself.
Adapted — and boy, is that term used loosely here — by Lorna Wright and Nicholas Hune-Brown, it starts on a promising, if clunky, note as a host of magical beings convene in coven to task the good witch Splenda (Jessica Holmes) with the protection of a young girl named Dorothy Gale (a feisty Elicia MacKenzie). Dorothy is subsequently discovered in downtown Toronto, imaginatively created by set designer David Boechler, in concert with video designers Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson. Undeterred, Splenda whisks her new ward to a magical land named Oz, short for Australia — get it?
Lame, but at least it allows the chorus to showcase accents almost as egregious as the one employed by Splenda, who sounds like she was spawned in a night of passion shared by Elmer Fudd and Barbara Walters. It all serves to get things running at a fair clip, although, this being panto, still far from smoothly — but then the wheels fall off and the whole story gets shanghaied by a group of miners who dig a hole so deep, the show could be trapped in Chile. And director Tracey Flye gets so caught up in the rescue effort, she fails to showcase some truly fine performances to maximum advantage.
On the comedic side, of course, there are plenty, not the least of which is Holmes herself, rising above ridiculous accents and Emily C. Porter’s muddy sound design. Then there’s Petty himself, as a wisecracking Wicked Witch, either passing the villainous panto torch to — or having it dragged from his long green fingers by — a bewigged and upstaging Dan Chameroy, reprising his Plumbum role for the third time. Even Eddie Glen has fun as the Wizard, aiming at Ozzy Osbourne but unleashing his inner Wynona Judd instead.
On the charm side, the music may be lacklustre, but that said, there are the sponsor ads, which still represent some of the best commercial values in town, and some fine choreography from Marc Kimelman to boot. And, from a performance perspective, it’s tough to imagine a more endearing cowardly lion than Steve Ross’, perfectly paired with Kyle Blair’s loose-limbed scarecrow, Teamed with Yvan Pedneault, cast more for his belt than his bonhomie as the Tin Man, they create a winning trio with which Flye should have conjured more.
So, in the end, it’s not perfect — and so what? It’s still a Petty panto, done the way we’ve come to love them, and while it is certain to improve in the playing, it still teaches us yet again that Christmas doesn’t have to be perfect — it just has to be Christmas.