Monday, July 19, 2010

Jersey Boys

Thanks to some wonderful deals, my musical escapades around town haven't stopped for the summer!  Last week I was able to enjoy Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.  Yet another example of a theatre that has changed names, I remember when this place was the North York Centre for the Performing Arts.  Back in 1993 I saw Show Boat there which opened the theatre prior to starting it's Broadway run.  Until Jersey Boys arrived, Show Boat was the longest running show at 88 weeks.  Jersey Boys is now into it's second year and just announced it's closing on August 22.  Our seats were near the back in the centre orchestra section, but were really good.  It's not that large a theatre and even the back row probably had a good view.

Unlike Mamma Mia! I didn't go into this knowing all the music.  In fact all I knew of it was the snippets of "Sherry" and "O What a Night" that are played in the TV ads.  I recognized several others as the performance went on and really enjoyed it.  We had the understudies for the characters of Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi, (Grant Tilly and Matt Cassidy respectively) but I don't see how the originals could be any better.  These guys are all very talented.  Other than Frankie (Jeff Madden), they play instruments (guitar for Tommy, bass for Nick and keyboards for Bob Gaudio, played by Quinn Vanantwerp) in addition to the singing and dancing.  All their voices are great and meld very well together.

I liked how the story was told as a personal narrative with each character taking their turn at explaining how the events unfolded to bring the group, which over time when through a multitude of names, from Jersey to the big time.  Presumably, the personalities are somewhat accurate for each character:  Tommy getting into trouble with money, Frankie having family problems and even losing a daughter to drugs, Nick quitting just when things were starting to turn around, and Bob being the song writer and still honouring the business agreement he made with Frankie on a handshake.  The ending where each character described their current life (unfortunately Nick has died), was also very well done.  You think it might end on a sad note, but then they all come back to do one last song and people leave humming.

The last 3/4 I liked the best, since the beginning seemed to rush through a lot of segments of songs without much focus.  The set was effective too with an overhead catwalk adding an additional level for entrances and exits, as well as a place for the trumpet, trombone, and saxes to play during one of the hit numbers (which of course I now can't remember).  During the preface to one song, which Bob wrote specifically for Frankie, they showed how it took some serious selling to the record company and radio stations to get it played.  Through the whole segment the name of the song wasn't mentioned.  Just when  you'd expect someone to say the name the scene would switch to Bob trying to convince someone new to agree to play it.  Finally it's "play the song already", which was exactly how I felt, since they were giving this unknown piece such a big build up.  The song ended up being "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" which was well deserving of the tension.

Other songs I ended up having the "they did that?" reaction to were "Earth Angel", "Walk Like a Man", and "Working My Way Back to You".  If deals are still available, I may get a chance to see this one again before it leaves.  Only 1 month left, if you haven't been...GO!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Independence Day Celebration

Cross it off the Bucket List!  Ok, I don't actually have a hard copy Bucket List, but I managed to pull together a whirlwind trip to Washington DC to see the 30th Anniversary of the "Capitol Fourth" concert LIVE.  I've grown up watching the PBS show and have wanted to see it in person for ages.  Plus the last, and only, time I toured around Washington DC was about 8 years ago, and I wanted to go back with a new knowledge base and see the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum again.

Having gained some unexpected time-off, in 3 days I arranged accompaniment, accommodation, directions, maps of downtown and the Metro subway system, and a very rough plan.  I even found the prohibited items list for the Capitol Hill lawn (good thing since I would have taken my umbrella for shade and ended up losing it) and discovered a great piece of info...there was a dress rehearsal open to the public the night before the show!  Never one to turn down seeing what was sure to be a great concert more than once I added that to the list of things to do.  Now onto the concert.

The magnitude of things was certainly what I expected.  The Capitol Building is huge, and very impressive in any light.  Being there extra early for the real show we got to take pictures as the sun was setting and it's very pretty.

We were standing at the base of it for the dress rehearsal (the centre lawn had been opened at 3pm and filled by 5pm), and it was a good spot.  Thankfully I had remembered my binoculars, and you could see the stage and narration hut quite well, even if the performers were small.  The added bonus of attending the concert this year was not only that it was the 30th Anniversary, but also the first "Capitol Fourth" that my favourite, Jack Everly, was conducting.  He's replaced Erich Kunzel who had conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in this and the Memorial Day concert for the last 20 years.  I'm probably bias, but I think they made an excellent choice and he did a wonderful job.

Funny things happen in rehearsal and with professionals I guess it's no exception.  First Gladys Knight and Darius Rucker weren't there, so they had stand-ins who lip-synced to the songs they were going to sing.  The Darius Rucker guy (seen in photo) was really quite entertaining and the stand-in fiddle player was very energetic in his air fiddle playing.  Jimmy Smits hosted, and after introducing the people who weren't there tongue-in-cheek, he was especially sincere with the introductions of David Archuleta, Lang Lang and Reba McEntire since they actually were performing.  Lang Lang's intro included some background on one of the pieces that didn't make the final concert.  At the rehearsal his first piece was "the theme from a movie starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour called Somewhere in Time.  Also known as Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Variation 18" [my paraphrase].  After stumbling over "Rachmaninov" and having the audience say it with him, Jimmy said he'd just refer to it as "the theme from Somewhere in Time" which is what he did the next day.  During the end of the rehearsal with the orchestra playing the "1812 Overture" and a few other marches, they showed fireworks from previous years on the large screen, but they had the real cannon fire!

July 4 was hot, full sun, with not a cloud in the sky, and we arrived just as they opened the security line at about 2:45pm.  The concert started at 8pm, so yes a long afternoon waiting.  However, it really didn't seem that long.  When we arrived the real Darius Rucker was practicing, there were always people milling around on stage, and watching the lawn fill in, as well as the people who picked spots on the Capitol Building steps (the poor people, the steps were in full sun and they had 5 hours to wait!), eliminated the bore factor.  Plus I had the fun of constructing my own lean-to for shade using chairs, a sheet, and clothes pins.  The fence we sat in front of helped immensely.  What do you think?  Do I get my Girl Scout badge? :)   Hehe, interestingly enough the book I was reading is visible in this photo.  A biography of Irving Berlin, one of America's great songwriters who's "God Bless America" has probably been in this concert for all 30 years.

The real concert was worth the wait.  It started with David Archuleta singing "The Star Spangled Banner", then Gladys Knight did her set of songs, followed by a taped history segment with NSO background music, and the real Darius Rucker in the mid-lawn stage.  Watching what actually happens on the stage preparation wise that you never see on TV was really neat.  There's all the instrument additions and removals (the drum set for the back-up bands and the grand piano for example), plus the orchestra and chorus relaxing.  Well not exactly relaxing, but the chorus got to sit, and the Maestro removed his jacket at every opportunity, it must have been brutally hot up there.  The orchestra was featured in the overture to the musical "George M" which included Cohan songs such as "Yankee Doodle Dandy", "Mary's a Grand Old Name" and "Grand Old Flag".  It was a crowd pleaser, as was Lang Lang's performance of Horowitz's "Variations on the Stars and Stripes".  Really there was nothing to say after him but WOW, even the orchestra was applauding.  There was a nice tribute to Erich Kunzel by John Schneider singing "When the Saints Go Marching In" and the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps played the "Washington Post March".  This was by the fountain of the Capitol Building which was hidden behind walls of people so we couldn't see it except on the large screens, but they sounded good.

Reba McEntire played two of her popular songs, then was awarded the National Artistic Achievement Award.  Patriotism took over as she sang "God Bless America" and the fireworks started.  Unfortunately trees were in our way since we were on the side of the centre lawn.  People had started leaving as soon as she was given the award and I wondered why, the concert wasn't over and they'd sat there all afternoon!  Turns out they were going around to the other side of the trees to get a good view of the Washington Monument since the fireworks originated behind it.  With the emptying out of people though I was able to move up closer and watch the orchestra during the "1812 Overture" and the two marches they played at the very end which is when the following picture was taken.  One I think was a much longer version of the "Washington Post March" the Marines had done.  The musicians use clothes pins to attach the music to the stand so it doesn't blow away.  I don't there there was enough of a breeze to cause that, but better to be safe than sorry!

The fireworks were pretty amazing, they just never stopped!  The display certainly goes much longer than you get to see on TV, and you never get to hear the full orchestra at the end either, they usually cut the broadcast off shortly after the "1812 Overture".

The concert and just July 4 in Washington DC was a great thing to be able to experience.  I've now done the Canadian and American capital bashes.  They are very different, but both fun.  I didn't hear an official crowd estimate for this July 4, but previously I'd heard something like 500,000 people attend.  Everyone we chatted with was friendly, and it really is fun to sing along to the US National Anthem and God Bless America, and the other patriotic songs that are great pieces of music, but are rarely heard (and understandably so) north of the 49th parallel.  But for one day, I got to be an honorary American!