Sunday, May 23, 2010

Irving Berlin: From Ragtime to Ritzes

Last week, May 15 to be exact, was another great evening of music with the National Arts Centre Orchestra as they presented their final Pops concert of the season, splendidly conducted, as usual, by Maestro Jack Everly.  The programs title appears to have changed from when it was first announced, with "Ragtime" being replaced with just "Rags".  Personally, I like the "Ragtime" since Irving Berlin's first big hit was "Alexander's Ragtime Band".  Also a wonderful movie which I watched this past week twice!

It seems quite an undertaking to boil down over 1500 songs (which is just the published number, apparently Irving Berlin wrote over 3000, talk about a prolific writer) to a two hour concert, yet Mr. Everly and his team have done a wonderful job!  Medleys abounded yet it never felt short changed with just choruses, and several songs even included some less familiar verses.  I counted 37 different songs, not including any snippets that may have been hidden between the main themes.  The show had all the classics from “White Christmas” to “Oh How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning” and even a few I hadn’t heard before.  One advantage of having so many songs to choose from is that perhaps this show can live an extended life by swapping new ones in.  For example, "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" in  the holiday medley, or "Something to Dance About" in with the other dance songs.  Maybe even "It's a Lovely Day Today" mixed with "Blue Skies"?  So many options exist!

The cast of singers was phenomenal.  Tony DeSare held his own among the other Broadway veterans, although seemed more at home during his two piano numbers.  He played both without music and I believe I detected a bit of "Rhapsody in Blue" mixed in with "I Love a Piano".  It also had a great little swinging clarinet line (I'm always listening for those!) from Mr. Sykes.   I expect Tony really shone during his post concert Cabaret.   

The "Sisters" medley was lots of fun and included "You're Just in Love" (one of my favourites from Call Me Madame with Ethel Merman and Donald O'Connor) and "You’d Be Surprised" which I hadn't heard before. Natasha Yvette Williams performed it so well!  I've been searching for a recording and haven't been able to find anything as well sung or acted as her version.   Ashley Brown (the original Mary Poppins on Broadway) has a lovely voice and looked stunning throughout the evening.  If only I lived in Indianapolis as she's doing "Ashley Brown's Broadway" with the Indianapolis Symphony next season, which is sure to have some fine music.  It was great to hear Hugh Panaro again too.  He was just as enjoyable as when he debuted with the NACO in "Guys and Dolls: In Concert".  The lively footwork and singing of James T. Lane was extremely entertaining.  The whole ensemble together had a sound that blended well.  Ashley and the men in "Heat Wave" generated a strong reaction from the audience, as did the "Easter Parade" section of the "Holiday Medley" courtesy of James's Easter bunny.

Maestro Everly was also in fine form.  It's clear he really enjoys this music and, while always fantastic to watch, if possible appeared even more animated than usual.  His knowledge of the repertoire is obviously very vast and the delivery so honest.  This was evidenced by his introduction to "Remember" where he described that Berlin gave the rights to three of his songs to his future wife in an attempt to win the favour of his eventual father-in-law.  Mr. Everly listed "Remember" and "Always" then without missing a beat admitted he couldn't recall the third one.  We never did find out what it was.  Was anyone there on Thurs. or Fri. night that could fill me in?  Additionally, his concluding thanks to the orchestra, other staff, and audience ("we couldn't do it without you, well we could but it wouldn't be nearly as much fun" :) ) was completely genuine.

The closing numbers for the first and second halves were flipped from what was listed in the program.  A wise decision, since "Irving Berlin's America" (a medley including "This is the Army, Mr. Jones", "How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning", and of course "God Bless America"), which was the original finale, really had that USA patriotic feel to it right down to the men in white and the ladies in red and blue dresses.  Granted Berlin was a strong patriot, but I appreciated leaving singing "Puttin’ on the Ritz" rather than "God Bless America", even if they did make it more inclusive by sliding a "North America" into the last refrain.
To quote a song that appeared in a few section throughout the evening and has become the show biz anthem, “The costumes (they were fabulous, especially the finale dresses which gave that elegant white tie and tails look so well), the scenery (who needs it with such a great orchestra? but there were even banners depicting various songs), the make-up (the performers all looked beautiful), the props (does a Santa hat, Easter bunny, baton or instrument count?), this show had it all.  As for “an audience that lifts you when you’re down”, with such a wonderful evening of great music and two standing ovations, I don’t know who could have left unhappy.

Thanks NACO for a great season of popular music!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Change of Pace: Mamma Mia!

It's the 10th anniversary of the North American premiere of Mamma Mia!  which occurred in Toronto, and the North American touring company is making a return visit.  Having missed the show the first time, I wasn't going to miss it again and unbeknownst to me ended up going on Opening Night.

I didn't really know what to expect given that my recent theatre/performance experience has been with the rather stoic TSO audiences, but Mamma Mia! indeed.  It's was a totally fun, electrifying show that spilled into the lobby (a group of teenagers belting out "Dancing Queen" at 11pm is an experience) and onto the street.  The audience seemed fairly young, although there were a few grandmother-ish types in the row ahead of us who mentioned they'd seen it last time it was in town.

I was unprepared for the applause that greeted the opening chords of the overture!  Throughout various numbers people started clapping along.  It was nice that people around us didn't join in the singing until the uproaring encores (although I can see how one can get that desire) but at that point I was right there joining in with the dancing (subtly), clapping and singing along.

The set was very simple yet very effective.  By flipping two curved walls they were able to create the interior and exterior of multiple areas of the taverna.  The lighting worked very well too, with spotlights highlighting the character performing a soliloquy type song while the ones being sung about were in shadow.  Plus the strobe lights in some of the dance numbers made things look appropriately hectic.  Very creatively done.  The post intermission "nightmare", complete with fog rolling into the orchestra pit, black lights, and dancing in flippers was pretty impressive too.  I wondered how "Under Attack" fit into the plot.

My main critique of the performance was the sound mixing.  At times the band overpowered the vocalists, Donna especially during the quieter moments of her solos.  Also, I expect the background vocals were not all live.  Sam who seems to have the most solo numbers I would not pick as having the best voice.  Harry was lovely to listen to and the "Our Last Summer" duet with Donna was well done.

Start of side note regarding theatre in general.
I'm not really opposed to change, but I remember when inside a theatre was a no eating/drinking zone, and I preferred it this way.  Save the candy for a movie, and the guys walking the aisles selling ice cream for baseball games.  What bothered me most though was having to smell the rum in the drink of the guy beside me through the first half and his beer through the second.  Then at the end of the show, the theatre gets left in a mess!  Is the mark-up on the food that high that it counters the extra cleaning costs?  I suppose the lack of these issues is still an advantage of the Symphony...and may it stay that way.
End side note.

The entertainment value of the performance though never lacked through all the organized chaos.  The ripped gentlemen (Sky and Harry in particular) provided plenty of eye candy and it's introduced a whole new generation to Abba's music and hopefully musical theatre overall.