Monday, May 30, 2011

Billy Elliot: The Musical

Toronto has had its own company of Billy Elliot: The Musical since March 1, 2011.  I took the chance to take it in Victoria Day weekend, May 22 to be exact, and it turned out to be a particularly special performance.  Just prior to curtain it was announced that the boys who play Billy are carefully selected and train for months prior to appearing.  We were in for a significant performance as it was the world premiere of the newest Billy, Ty Forhan.  (See here for an article about his thoughts on being Billy)

I had listened to the London cast recording, but purposely avoided seeing the movie or searching for a plot summary as I wanted to truly experience everything first hand.  It resulted in quite the emotional experience.

J.P Viernes

Ty Forhan
May 29 I had the opportunity to see the show again from a closer vantage point than my earlier balcony seats, although it was off to the side.  At this performance J.P. Viernes was Billy.  First off it took some more imagination to fit an Asian boy into the English family portrayed by Armand Schultz as Billy's father and, on the 29th, the blond David Light as older brother Tony.  J.P did have the accent down though.  Ty's appearance on the other hand would have fit that mix of performers beautifully.  His older brother the week before was played by Patrick Mulvey.  Acrobatics wise and perhaps for overall quality of dancing (his turns stayed impeccably centred) I'd give the edge to J.P, but at 14, compared to Ty's 12, he's had 2 more years of training.  Both had an appealing singing voice that maintained strength though the entire show.  Accounting for everything, mostly my personal preference, and maybe because it had the inherent "wow" factor of my first time, I preferred Ty as Billy and Patrick as Tony.  Although I appreciated that David seemed to lose the thick British accent on occasion as it made the dialogue easier to understand.

Now that the overall comparison is out of the way, I'll mention a few other highlights.  There will be further Billy comparisons in how they handled certain dances though, just warning you.  The choreography between the miners and police during "Solidarity" was the first moment that made me gasp as they jumped back and forth over batons.  The juxtaposition of placing the miners and police against the girls ballet class was striking, making this one of the great ensemble numbers.

Lightening the story after the heaviness of "Solidarity" is "Expressing Yourself" with Michael (a closeted "poof") and Billy.  Wearing his sister's clothes, Michael (Dillon Stevens the 22nd, and Jack Broderick the 29th) dresses up Billy in the most horrendous combination of patterned skirt, shirt, and sweater.  The idea to have them dance with a dress on a hanger as a partner works amazingly well as does the big finish with the oversized dancing dresses and even a pair of trousers joining in their big performance number.

Having accepted extra dance classes "Born to Boogie", follows the emotional letter song.  Emotional songs tend to be quiet, which doesn't help all the people who are trying to clean themselves up after sniffling through it (myself included).  The coughs and throat clearings are quite audible after these sections.  More with Ty than J.P I noticed the number of times Billy has to change shoes throughout this number.  He goes from running shoes to ballet slippers to tap shoes and back to runners for the backflip off the piano (which makes complete sense, I sure wouldn't want to land in ballet slippers or slip in taps).  I held my breath during the section with jump ropes.  Ty nailed the entire segment, jumping in with Mrs. Wilkinson, and tapping throughout never missing the rope.  Unfortunately it didn't go quite as well for J.P, but it didn't detract too much.   I image the shoe changing and starting of the jump rope sequence are sections the conductor watches very carefully and is prepared to put in a few bars repeat if needed to give Billy more time to finish.
Leaping right back into the emotionally charged aspect of fights on the picket line and how it affects Billy leads to a very rhythmic (as all tap numbers should to be) "Angry Dance".  It begins with Billy in his bedroom which becomes disconnected from the set and spins around centre stage as he throws everything out of it before climbing down and being joined by the miners with plywood boards, and the police with their plastic shields and batons.  Power is the best word to describe this as Billy throws himself around and even onto the police shields.

"Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher" is a twist on the traditional greeting to say the least :)  Interesting the word "merry" is used, since in Briton the expression is "Happy Christmas".  Billy's dad, shows he does have a soft side, and is still dealing with sorrowful emotions as well during "Deep Into the Ground".  Armand Schultz does a great acting and singing job through the entire show.  He is able to express a lot of emotion with few words.
The ballet duet to Swan Lake between Billy and his older self (Samuel Pergande who's trained with multiple ballet companies) was a highlight.  What a role for a kid!  You get to sing, dance, and fly!  I mean who could ask for anything more and they're only 12-14.  How do you follow that career wise?  Ty had a more dreamlike feel to his interpretation while J.P (and older Billy) were grinning throughout making it more about the pure joy of dancing.  Here the more refined acro aspect of J.P showed through in the cartwheels over chairs.  Initially I was thinking this was probably one of the few times a pit orchestra played Swan Lake, however being able to see the conductor on the 29th revealed it's a recording they dance to since he remained seated the whole piece.  It's unfortunate pit orchestras have been reduced to the size where they are incapable of producing the grandiose sound Swan Lake requires.

The "show stopping" number opening night was quite likely "Electricity", Billy's big solo number.  It's no wonder they alternate between 4 or 5 Billy's, it's such a full role!  The disembodied voices at the audition add an extra "scary factor" to how auditions would be.  Again Ty and J.P seemed to approach this differently, well the beginning part anyway.  Ty started out with an angry feeling, he spit out the words in reply to the "how does it feel when you dance?" question.  This makes sense to me, it had an honesty of "you've just repremanded me, are being sugary sweet in asking the question, and now you want me to explain something I don't understand".  Alternatively J.P emphasized the "I don't really know" aspect without the same element of frustration and anger.  Both boy's dancing was extremely impressive.

Spoiler Alert!
The ending when Billy is getting ready to leave for the Royal Ballet school with the entire town behind him, even though the strike is over and the minors have lost everything, is the second major tear jurking moment.  Particularly at the second viewing, I noticed that when Billy and his dad are packing the suitcase, his dad is teaching him how to fold the clothes.  Something small, simple, and otherwise insignificant that adds a whole other dimension to the layers of feelings.  He totally loves his son, and really is supportive of his dancing.  The minors singing while descending into the mine with the clattering of the cage stirs all kinds of thoughts I won't go into but it's a good thing they bring everyone back for a more upbeat finale or people would be leaving in tears.

That concludes the performance aspect comments.  In other notes, I continue to find the sets in productions I've seen recently so versatile.  Here with the extra piece for Billy's room removed, his house becomes the community centre, and an extra side segment with a mirror and closet creates Michael's room.  With everything moved out and a brick wall at the back the stage becomes the streets, or with a black background it's a mine entrance.  A fancy curtain and bare stage create the theatre for the Royal Ballet auditions.  Of particular interest was the complete reversal of a fence that let the audience change sides from the miners shouting at those crossing the picket line, to the scabs doing the crossing, without leaving their seats.  I was surprised at the amount of swearing, especially in a show children will see.  It is about miners after all, not fishermen, but evidently bad language transcends occupation.

I'm not sure I'd second the advertisement quote of "if you only see one musical this summer, make sure it's Billy Elliot" with as much enthusiasm as they do, but not knowing of any other high quality musicals on the current calender, it is definitely work checking out.  And if you're at all prone to tears, remember the tissues!

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Night at the Cotton Club

May 17 the Toronto Symphony travelled back in time with a concert that was the pastiche of the 1920's and 30's when swing was king and the Cotton Club was the place to be.   Guest conductor Jeff Tyzik led guest artists Byron Stripling, Carmen Bradford, and Ted Louis Levy along with an interesting orchestra combination in A Night at the Cotton Club.

Dave Young
The Toronto Symphony itself was pared down to a smattering of strings taking up the left side of the stage with the basses on a raised platform at the back.  I'd say this isn't a location the basses are accustomed to given the very careful way they climbed the 4 or so steps with their expensive instruments.  A grand piano was placed centre stage and the right side was filled with a big band consisting of two French horns, a tuba (played by TSO regular Mark Tetreault I believe), several trombones, trumpets, and a full front row of saxes, with one alto player doubling a clarinet.  The lead trumpeter was fantastic although I can't recall his name.  John Johnson was the sax/clarinetist and Dave Young the plucking jazz bassist by the drum set who never stopped!  I expect the remainder were from the jazz world as well.

John Johnson
With this set up it was fascinating to see the dichotomy between the jazz and classical worlds.  More noticeable at the beginning of the evening, the jazz side moved with the music, tapped feet, nodded heads, and swayed bodies.  In contrast the classical side was more subdued in their movements.  There's a different kind of sway and a less pronounced joy in the genre.  And feet tapping?  Why that seems to be a no no, at least in any concert with classical repertoire.  By the end of the evening though, several violinists were tapping their feet and some more smiling faces emerged.  I don't doubt the TSO musicans have great respect for other styles of music and performers as there was often enthusiastic bow waving for soloists, it just takes them some time to get into it.  Indeed by the time Byron Stripling was calling for audience participation in a "Cotton Club Medley" the orchestra joined in singing the "highdee highdee highdee ho's" with more conviction than I've seen before.  Ted Levy mentioned how they were clapping with their feet in rehearsal and had them join in the dancing from their chairs.
The guest artists were all extremely talented and had great camaraderie amongst themselves.  I got the impression Byron and Carmen had worked together before and their vocals blended well.  Carmen was actually the last singer hired by Count Basie himself, and was a favourite of Ella Fitzgerald.  Her rendition of "Stormy Weather", popularized by another Cotton Club-er, Lena Horne, was particularly moving.

Grand Rapids Press
Byron's trumpet skills are stupendous and he flipped between singing and playing so effortlessly.  He even joined the big band section "sitting in" for one of the numbers as he said he'd never had the opportunity to play with strings before.  While this can't be the case given the other symphony orchestras he's guested with, it was a nice touch.

Ted Levy added humourous showmanship to the evening with his flamboyant tap dancing, singing, and joking around with Byron as they "instructed" each other in the art of having flow and how to perform jazz.  Ted did a tap dance segment from his chair which instantly made me think of the fabulous Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor "Sitting Dance".

The evening really had the feel of being in the type of place I imagine the Cotton Club was.  There could have been a bit less of "thanks for being here at the Cotton Club" which began each guests initial speaking segment, but by the end everyone was having a good time and if tsoundcheck tickets had of been posted for the next evenings show, I probably would have gone again!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Another Taste of France

The afternoon of May 1 the Toronto Symphony dove into another program featuring the music of French composers titled French Romance.  Guest conductor for the concert was a first timer with the TSO, Guillermo Figueroa, and returning after her debut in 2009 was guest violinist Caroline Goulding.  I would welcome the opportunity to see them both again.

Maestro Figueroa gave background to each of the pieces and composers, and conducted the entire concert without a score!  Some of the background tidbits included:
- The best Spanish music was written by the French until the Spanish composers caught up
- France didn't have the history of famous composers that the Germans or Austrians did with Berlioz being the first famous French composer.
- Debussy was the first impressionist and wrote music that was light and airy.  He didn't particularly like Wagner's style whereas Chausson did like him and merged some of the Wagner chromaticism with the French style.
- The chromatics at the start of "Poeme" are reminisent of Tristan and Isolde. I haven't heard it, so I'll take his word on that.
- Alas Chausson liked to ride his bicycle and took a tumble one day, hitting his head and proceeded to die at 44 years of age.

The concert opened with "Le crosaire Overture" by Hector Berlioz, followed by "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" by Claude Debussy.  This definitely had a light airy feel to it with lovely solos by the principal flute, and lots of harp as well.

TSO website
Ernest Chausson's "Poeme for Violin and Orchestra" featured Caroline Goulding playing a 1720 Stradivarius in her first of 2 pieces.  Apparently this is an important piece in the violinist repertoire.  The chromatic sounds were soothing, and having just had the lightness of Prelude, I was getting drowsy.  Closing my eyes and just letting the music wash over, I could have drifted off to sleep.  To borrow a line from Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery, at times the violin seemed to be crying.  Caroline looks younger than her program picture, and is apparently still a teenager attending Curtis, but what a skilled violinist.  She sparkled both in her flowing red dress, and in her playing.

The conclusion of the first half woke me up again with Berlioz's "Rakoczy March" from The Damnation of Faust.  It's a recycling of a Hungarian Dance Berlioz had previously written, and hence was loved for in Hungary.  In the opera he had Faust end up in Hungary just so he could include the march.

Bizet's Carmen is always a crowd pleaser and it was again as the orchestra opened the second half with "Suite No. 1 from Carmen".  Love those castanets!  There were no piano parts in the concert, but principal keyboardist was making the triangle sing from the percussion side of the stage.  It was fun to watch the bassoons in part IV: Les dragons d'Alcala.  They have the best facial expressions when making leaps or short articulations.  There were nice oboe, flute, and clarinet solos throughout.  I hadn't seen the young lady clarinetist before but I wish I had her tone quality!  The conductor acknowledged the oboe and flute players at the end, but alas, not the clarinet.

Caroline returned for "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" (linked performance by legendary Itzhak Perlman) by Camille Saint-Saens and blew me away.  I'd say others in the audience were as well, as she received a standing ovation when she finished.  The concertmaster seemed to be right with her at times when he wasn't playing.  He's probably been in her position and looked like he was silently supporting her.  I was surprised to actually recognize parts of the piece, but it's awesome.  Lively, sharp and in complete contrast to the flowing Chausson.
The rousing finish to the afternoon came with another Saint-Saens piece, "Bacchanale" from Samson and Delilah.    The timpanist got a work out with the big wacks at the end.  As the story in the opera goes this portion takes place in the temple of Dagon and his followers perform this exotic and frantic dance.  I think Maestro Figueros was referring to this piece, although I expect it applies equally to Carmen, when he said that you had to have a ballet in the opera, especially in Paris.  The male patrons who gave alot of money, showed up just for the third act so they could watch the ballerinas.  No ballet, no patrons, no money.

A different twist on France than the TSO's previous version, with some awe inspiring talent.  Great job!