Sunday, October 23, 2011

2011 TSO Pops Season Opener

Steven Reineke
The 2011/2012 season is the 90th Anniversary of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.  They opened their season with Christopher Plummer reading Henry V, and the Pops series started on October 4 with some more big names.  Conductor Steven Reineke returned to present Hollywood Hits, with guest vocalists Jodi Benson and Hugh Panaro.

Jodi was the voice of Ariel in Disney's The Little Mermaid 26 years ago, and is still on the job.  If Barbie in Toy Story sounds anything like Ariel, it would be because Jodi was the voice of her as well.  Her only appearance in a live action movie was as the receptionist Sam in Enchanted (which incidentally featured a few other ladies who voiced Disney Princesses) She also originated the role of Polly in Crazy for You on Broadway, and was nominated for the best actress Tony award.

Hugh Panaro's major claim to fame is likely his role as the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, which he is currently reprising on Broadway.  He is one of the few (depending on where you read it, some say only) performer to have played Raoul AND the Phantom.  There is a Toronto connection as well.  He was Gaylord Revenal in the controversial production of Show Boat that opened the Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts (before the head honchoes at Livent got in legal trouble) back in 1993.

The concert opened with the 20th Century Fox fanfare, fitting to start off movie music, although the roar of Leo the MGM lion would work as well, before moving into "Hooray for Hollywood".  The vocal stars were introduced through "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails/Steppin Out" (there really is nothing quite like Irving Berlin) as a duet then were showcased in solos.  Hugh smoothly, and in classic crooner style sang his way through Porter's  "Begin the Beguine" which I just recently learned had words.  The piece doesn't have the standard 4 bar phrase format (it is actually 108 bars long rather than the standard 32 bar song form of the time) making it harder to instantly stick in your head the same way a Berlin tune will, for example.  However, I've heard it enough now that the melody has become familiar and it's one of those pieces you can always hear something new with each listen.  The line in the piece "an orchestra's playing" is always smile inducing when sung with a full orchestra on stage, and this concert was no exception.

Jodi returned for "Over the Rainbow" and I wasn't feeling all that impressed.  The light, airy but still rich Ariel voice disappeared as she switched on the belter style and it had too much vibrato on the high end for my taste.  Particularly in a song such as this.  In fact, the concert as a whole hadn't really impressed me yet.

The following two orchestra pieces changed my mind!  I've heard "The Trolley Song" as a solo (classic Judy Garland Meet Me In St. Louis of course), a small ensemble (it was in the first symphony concert I attended "Those Glorious MGM Musicals" with the NAC Orchestra), and a full chorus ("A Chorus of Hits" same orchestra), but I can't recall seeing a strictly orchestral performance before.  This one was fantastic, although with the arrangement being by Conrad Salinger there really was no doubt it wouldn't be.  There were lots of chimes, and bells, and it had the rich, lush sound he's known for.  From my seat I could see the first violin music and talk about some serious runs!  It didn't go unnoticed by Mr. Reineke either, as he quipped to the violins after the piece "enough notes in there for you?"  They didn't seem to have any problems with it though.  Continuing with classic orchestrations, the next was by Robert Russell Bennett, who worked on many Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, including The Sound of Music.  There were melodies in this arrangement not in the movie (perhaps "No Way to Stop It" from the Broadway version) and it was interrupted by audience applause during a switch into the slower "Edelweiss" and "Climb Every Mountain" section (incidentally exactly like the version in this clip, which sounds like a similar arrangement although pretty bad playing when compared to the TSO).

After that I was engaged, and was drawn in even more with Hugh's performance of "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat".  He played Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls In Concert, and it was fun to see him as Nicely Nicely Johnson.  His enthusiasm and theatrics were especially entertaining.  Jodi returned with "The Way We Were" by Marvin Hamlish, before they joined forces with Primus: The Amabile Men's Choir to conclude the first half with "Circle of Life".  The Lion King was recently re-released in 3-D and was #1 at the box office 2 weeks in a row!  Pretty impressive for a re-release. Go Disney :)

Post intermission things were restarted out west with Elmer Bernstein's "Main Title from The Magnificent Seven".  This piece was on the program in the first and only concert I saw Erich Kunzel conduct in person and so will always remind me of him.  I finally got around to watching the movie this past summer, and it's a classic, but I think made even better because of the music.  Orchestral pieces in the second half also included the theme from "the best Hitchcock movie, Hitchcock never wrote" which would be "Charade" and because a Hollywood Hits concert just isn't complete without something by John Williams, his "Raiders March" from Raiders of the Lost Ark.  There is only 1 person who has won more Academy Awards than Williams (who has over 40).  Walt Disney himself!

But before returning to Disney music though we stopped in Kander and Ebb territory with pieces from Cabaret.  Hugh is amazing!  He continued to show his versatility by putting on this fantastic accent and announcing in "Wilkommen" style that "Roy Thomson Hall is bee-u-tiful, the TSO is bee-u-tiful, the conductor is bee-u-tiful", which got Steven laughing.  In another Judy Garland link, only this time via her daughter, Jodi channeled Liza Minelli for "Cabaret" wearing a pretty stunning red dress.

Combining again they sang a subdued and sweet rendition of "Moon River".
"Moon River" (
Having Ariel in person (wearing a fitting mermaid style blue gown), required of course that "Part of Your World" be sung, although Jodi seemed genuinely happy to do it, saying it's a song she loves and doesn't get tired of performing.  She even noticed a young girl with a Sebastian (the crab from The Little Mermaid) toy in the audience and commented how sweet it was.  I was interested in whether this would be a movie sounding performance or the more grown up Jodi we'd been seeing throughout the evening.  It ended up being a bit of both, beginning with the Ariel innocence but growing up as the song progressed.  This song was also the source of the most humour for the night and almost started late.  After the introductory chatting between Steven and Jodi, he turned around, cued the orchestra, and his baton went flying into the viola section!!  The orchestra, true professionals they are, kept right on playing as Jodi started laughing, and someone in the viola section passed his baton back.  Jodi made the comment "that's life theatre" and Steven said "it happens" which sent Jodi and the audience into another set of giggles.   Amazingly she refocused just in time for her entrance.

The "it happens" moment ( as above)
Not to be outdone in the signature song department, Hugh, tieless and looking dashing in a black shirt and jacket (alas I can find no picture from this song), walked out to the opening chords of "The Phantom of the Opera" which segued into "The Music of the Night" (link is to his performance on a CBS news show).  I've heard (not all in person) several Phantom's: (Michael Crawford, Colm Wilkinson, Gerald Butler, Ted Keegan, and whoever performed the 4 times I saw the Toronto production), but none had the smooth voice, suave character, versatility in acting, precise diction, pure power, vocal range or dynamics as Hugh Panaro!  It was absolutely stunning and concluded with an almost immediate and incredibly well deserved full house standing ovation!  I haven't seen that happen mid concert at any that I've attended so far, and I expect it's even more rare at one classified as Pops.  There are not enough positive adjectives to describe how awesome it was.  If I make my first trip New York while he's still playing The Phantom, that WILL be the Broadway musical I go see!

4th dress similar to this
The evening could have ended there, although I'm not sure the audience would have let go without a solo encore, but there was still the real finale to the evening, "You Can't Stop the Beat" from Hairspray.  Dressed in her fourth gown of the evening, this one a pastel tie die pattern, Jodi was committed to the dancing.  Hugh was a bit more standoff-ish, but by the second encore ("Mamma Mia" then "Dancing Queen") they were trying out some synchronized disco moves.

With a beginning to the season like this, I can't wait for the next Pops event!  In case any TSO decision makers ever happen to find this, bring Hugh Panaro back ASAP!  I vote for Rags to Ritzes: A Tribute to Irving Berlin :)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Chess: The Musical

Who would have thought a musical about a board game would be good?  I first discovered Chess: The Musical because of a piece from this concert, and found a recording of a concert version from 2008 starring Idina Menzel and Josh Groban.  I didn't read the plot synopsis first and it took a few listens to figure out who was who, but I loved the score.  At first listen it wasn't hard to hear some of the same type sounds as in Mamma Mia! (Chess is composed by ABBA composers Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus with lyrics by Tim Rice), but after a while it tends to take on its own character and the "everyone ends up happy" ending from Mamma Mia! disappears to the much more somber one of Chess.  Anyhow, when it was coming to Toronto after touring the UK and before a possible transfer to London's West End, it was on my "go see" list right away.

In short the story takes place at the World Chess Championships in Merano, Italy and Bangkok, Thailand one year apart.  The Russian (Anatoly Sergievsky) and The American (Freddie Trumper) compete, not just at chess, but for the Hungarian, and originally Freddie's second, Florence Vassy.  With behind the scenes scheming by Anatoly's compatriot Molokov, and the journalist Walter de Courcy, Anatoly's wife Svetlana arrives adding to the complications.  The Arbiter acts as a sort of narrator.

Character positioning in "Deal (No Deal)"
The best way to classify the set is "multi media" as newspaper headlines, names (possibly of former world chess champions?), and the journalist Walter's (played by James Graeme) reports appear on the backdrop.  The raised centre stage platform is completely LED lights lending itself to anything imaginable and providing a cue to different locations.  The hotel rooms had full white floors, the Arbiter's solo was funky flashing arrows in red, and a central aisle was created for the arrival of Svetlana.  It was put to best use when divided into squares for "Deal (No Deal)" which involves a series of duets between the major players (Molokov and Florence, Florence and Anatoly, Anatoly and Svetlana, Molokov and Walter, Walter and Freddie, link is to the concert version without the squares).  Each stood in a square and, depending who they were having a conversation with, they would move to the one that was lit.  It was incredibly simple, yet very effective.

Musicians as chess pieces during Molokov and Walter's duet
"Difficult and Dangerous Times" (
As for players, well London casts seem to be something special.  The musicians were completely integrated into the play, playing instruments while walking around, sitting at the side, even lying haphazardly across the stage.  No hiding in a pit, they represented chess pieces.   As the song "The Story of Chess" says "King, and queen and rook.  And bishop, knight and pawn...", each was there.  The knights even had horses tails.  The Black Bishop played clarinet and saxophone, there were a few types of accordions, pawns mostly played strings (it was odd to see cellos playing standing up).  The flute player (pawn I think) had one section where she lay down and stood back up again, all while playing.  It was kind of funny to see the bass and cello players with their instruments lying on top of them as they played, granted most of that was strumming or pizzicato, but still completely not what they must be used to and as a result quite intriguing to watch.

And the voices...Wow!  At times Shona White who played Florence sounded like Idina, but what stamina.  The character is on stage almost the entire time, and the majority of the action is through song, this isn't a straight dialogue rich musical.  I particularly liked her "Mountain Duet"(concert version again; Duet starts ~ 8:43) with  Tam Mutu as Anatoly.  He didn't have Josh Groban's distinctiveness but an incredible voice with perhaps even more nuance to it.  There was some overacting at the end of "Endgame" where he breaks down and the sobs seemed a bit forced, but other than that he exuded Russian character and completely sold the part.  His rendition of "Anthem" to close Act 1 was poignant.

Svetlana and Anatoly
Svetlana was performed by Rebecca Lock and from the first note of her singing "Someone Else's Story" (starting ~ 10:19) when she arrives in the second act, it was heavenly.  Her voice was so clear with a sweetness missing from the character of Florence, it instantly drew you in.  The different vocal styles complemented each other in the ironic Florence/Svetlana duet "I Know Him So Well" where they sing about how well they know Anatoly yet both have reached completely opposite conclusions about what he needs.

The Arbiter (
Then of course there is the trumpet playing Arbiter, always walking with slow purpose, somewhat ominously, anywhere he goes, using his instrument for dramatic effect as well as playing.  David Erik sported the shirtless, floor length leather jacket with style and ease, showing off a defined if not completely ripped 6-pack.  "One Night in Bangkok" has the cast in their skivvies, some showing more than one might want to see.

James Fox as Freddie, the egomaniac American, was easy to develop disdain for.  However, when he broke out the guitar and accompanied himself in "Pity the Child" you suddenly were given a different glimpse of the character.  Acted out, it's so much easier to feel understanding and sorry for him, than from just a recording.

Freddie and Florence in "Commie Newspapers"
Apparently Chess has had a rocky history of stage productions, so I highly recommend catching this one before it disappears across the Atlantic again.  Even without the stereotypical happy ending, it leaves one with an admiration for the performer and the knowledge that because Florence is a strong character she won't be down for long and will get back in the game, of life, if not chess.