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Saturday, September 15, 2018

The World Goes 'Round, now at Stage West Calgary

Stage West Calgary 

The World Goes ‘Round

The Songs Of Kander & Ebb

Photos Courtesy Stage West Calgary, credit John Watson Photography

There is plenty to like about Stage West Calgary’s The World Goes 'Round, their latest foray into a musical overview of Broadway and Hollywood hits, but as things ultimately wrap up, there’s also something hard to pinpoint with respect to the overall enjoyment of the show.

I’ll be a bit more general here as I have a full review to prepare for The Calgary Herald, but there’s as much good as there is lacking in this tribute to the composing team of Kander & Ebb, the duo that gave us enduring musical theatre hits like Zorba, Chicago, Kiss Of The Spider Woman and Cabaret. 

Strong actors, soaring vocals, and a house band reinforced with horns and an upright bass just don’t seem enough to overcome whatever it is that’s missing in the end.  

It could be the addition of many songs and plays that are lesser known, or it could be the isolation of iconic performances that are stubbornly familiar from the original productions. Somehow it comes across in The World Goes ‘Round as a version of the songs for sure, but often not nearly as captivating.

You sure can’t fault the cast. Director and choreographer Tim French assembles his usual collective of talented performers, and things really do get off to a rousing start by Sarah Horsman with her powerful rendition of the title song. Each and every actor has showcase moments along the way. And each proves amply able to reach the rafters vocally when they are tasked to do so.

Not enough humour? Odd arrangements that include a barbershop quintet/Manhattan Transfer version of Cabaret? I’m hard-pressed to pinpoint any single aspect that leaves you wanting more, given the catalogue of hits that John Kander & Fred Ebb composed for Broadway and Hollywood productions. 

In some regards, the context of the storyline perhaps escalates the meanings of the songs as the original play unfolds, so maybe plucking them out of that environment dilutes the proceedings? Perhaps it’s just me?

At any rate, there is no faulting some strong performances. Troy Goldthorp shines in selections from Woman Of The Year, Chicago, and even a lengthy dance routine later in the show. Sarah Higgins is just as strong with songs from Funny Lady, Flora The Red Menace, and The Rink.

Tyler McKinnon stands tall figuratively and literally performing I Don’t Remember You from The Happy Time, and Kiss Of The Spider Woman. Sash Striga gets the closest to the familiar staging on All That Jazz from Chicago, and is part of that aforementioned dance sequence with Goldthorp.

Along the way, there’s rollerskating, a ukulele segment, and some neat staging with footlights at one point. Marquees frequently illuminate to give viewers a clue to the lesser-known musicals. On the surface, all would seem like another musical revue hit, but whatever it is that is missing, takes just enough wind out of the sails to not quite make it to that intended destination. 

More to follow in my upcoming Calgary Herald review, I’ll link here once that is live!

3.5 out off 5 stars, runs until November 11.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Stage West Calgary Presents: Red Rock Diner

Red Rock Diner

A musical highlighting the early career of Vancouver DJ Red Robinson

Stage West Calgary
June 29th - August 30th, 2018

Photos courtesy Stage West Calgary, John Watson Photography

Walking into Stage West Calgary, the immediate attention-getter is the stage set up for their latest production, Red Rock Diner. A sprightly musical showcasing the early days of rock and roll through the experiences of a young Vancouver DJ, the set for the first half doubles as a DJ booth and a Fifties soda stand. That transforms completely for the second half, but as usual you are amazed by how the creative team can be in working with their space.

Actually, there’s one scene that makes even more creative use of a Coke fridge, but I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own…

Red Rock Diner is a creative merging of the music that was exploding (especially for teens) across North America, along with the catapulting of a young DJ named Red Robinson into a wide variety of impressive accolades, including induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. He hosted Elvis Presley’s sole appearance in Canada, and made a name for himself with on-air antics that have been adopted by many others over the following decades.

If you’re in the broadcasting world, you’ll likely relate even more to this show, split evenly between Robinson plying his craft from the microphone in his studio, then MC’ing at one of the industry’s relentless public appearance events, in this case a school dance. 

Director and choreographer David Connolly brings his extensive theatre background here to Calgary for his Stage West debut, and along with him are a collective of talented, strong performers in demanding physical and vocal roles. Musical Director Konrad Pluta and his house band are invisible for the first half of the show, but stellar and flawless throughout. 

The plot, such as it is, basically serves to highlight the music that was exploding when Robinson was breaking ground early on in his career, and each performer finds a handful of songs to make as good as the originals, or better.

I’m going to have to hold back something for my official Calgary Herald review (coming soon), but a few quick highlights.

Scott Beaudin and Ben Chaisson ably deliver the music of artists like Buddy Holly and Elvis, along with a wide variety of doo-wop and other early rockers. Terrific senses of humour illicit laughs along with the hits.

Carter Easler gets extra points for his epic delivery of “Cry”, quite possibly the best musical performance I have seen in this facility.  And I have seen many...

Lee-Anne Galloway and Sarah Higgins not only match the gentlemen when it comes to performing the music, it seems often that they are both taking on even more in the dancing department (including a tap routine or two!). Watch out for their audience participation moment, a highlight in and of itself!

Ben Cookson as Red exudes warmth and charisma, relishing in the character that is Robinson, hammy jokes and all. Strong vocals, a perpetual twinkle in his eye, Cookson is the glue that keeps this all trucking along. 

 As I say, I’ll have much more in my official Herald review, but for now, if you love the early days of rock, and want to get a glimpse into some Canadian history of those iconic days, you’ll enjoy Red Rock Diner for sure.

4 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Stage West Calgary: "Legally Blonde The Musical"

Legally Blonde The Musical

Stage West Calgary

runs until June 24th...

(all photos John Watson Photography, courtesy Stage West Calgary)

When it comes to adapting Broadway musicals, Stage West often meets or exceeds expectations. Given the intimacy of their stage, that’s not always easy to imagine.

With Legally Blonde The Musical, the dinner theatre adds another winner to their smash hit repertoire, along with the likes of The Producers, Young Frankenstein, and Spamalot.

Given the confines of a stage intended more for traditional 2-4 person romantic comedy fare or character dramas, it takes the perfect combination of set design, tight choreography, and a talented cast, all of which is featured prominently in this production. Familiar faces to Stage West both on the stage and off help ensure that all those facets blend seamlessly to make this show both barrels of fun, and entirely entertaining.

All that said, I must hold back something here for the sake of my upcoming (official) Calgary Herald review. So let’s touch on highlights to whet your ticket-buying appetite:

-The play is based on the hit film starring Reese Witherspoon as  Elle Woods, a student that gets a curve ball at the exact moment she is expecting a marriage proposal. That sets off the “fish out of water” storyline as she loses her man, endeavours to win him back by getting accepted into Harvard Law School, and along the way discovers she’s not as cardboard a character as she has been written. Elle even finds her real true love along the way. It’s all predictable, but the characters and songs poke great fun at the conceptions (and/or) misconceptions of the privileged class, elevating all well over any shortcomings.

-Returning director Liz Gilroy and choreographer Phil Nero hit the jackpot with a cast that can light up a stage with some demanding song and dance routines - even rigorously skipping rope and not missing a note (hello Britney Spears???). Once again, the cast play way above their weight class with respect to a storyline visible start to finish right from the first scene.

-Musical director Konrad Pluta and his crack band are back ensconced away in the music room adjacent to the stage after a bit of time off for the recent non-musical, and a few productions where they shared the space with the performers. Repeatedly, a highlight of any evening in this space.

-Bracken Burns as Elle Woods. Simply stated, that says it all. Burns embodies the character and lifts the lines beyond the obvious. By the end of the first act, she packs more punch than Mike Tyson at the start of his unbeaten streak in the boxing ring. 

-Daniel Greenburg plays Emmett Forrest, an associate at Harvard and the friendly face that ultimately ends up even friendlier for Elle. Show after show at Stage West, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more reliable actor, and here he finds no exception to that run of successes. 

-Every cast member brings their A-game to the table for this outing, but a couple in particular stand out. Patrick R. Brown transitioned directly from his role as Dr Watson in the show that just ended a run here, and he commands every inch of the stage as the inevitable villain in these proceedings. Daphne Moens literally steals the show with her powerhouse performances as Paulette, the salon owner hard done by circumstances  - until her “delivery man” comes along.

Tons of laughs, outstanding musical numbers, and a cast that you’ll root for right to the very end - Legally Blonde The Musical showcases creative talents doing what they all do best…

I'll link to my Calgary Herald review when that goes live....

5 out of 5 stars. 

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Ken Ludwig's "Baskerville A Sherlock Holmes Mystery" takes up residence at Stage West Calgary!

Ken Ludwig's "Baskerville A Sherlock Holmes Mystery"

Stage West Calgary

until April 15, 2018

Photo by John Watson, courtesy Stage West Calgary

The Guinness world record holder for “Most Portrayed Movie Character” arrives for his onstage treatment at Stage West Calgary, in “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville A Sherlock Holmes Mystery”.

Along with Holmes is his friend and biographer Dr. Watson, to assist in solving the prerequisite murder that inevitably propels them ahead with the audience, as everyone tries to solve said murder along with the assorted cast of characters embroiled in the proceedings.

In this case, the cast employs a technique similar to that of another adaptation, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, where a handful of actors play multiple characters. Here, Holmes and Watson remain in character throughout, but the balance of roles are portrayed by three actors.

Given the massive popularity Holmes enjoys currently just with portrayals from Robert Downey Jr and Benedict Cumberbatch alone, the production is sure to keep the chairs full through the entire run. After all creator Ken Ludwig has a proven track record of success with comedies, Lend Me A Tenor, Crazy For You, and Fox On The Fairway among them. 

Director Mark Bellamy similarly has a track record of success, not the least with a smash production at Stage West of the aforementioned 39 Steps.

And, if you happen to like the mixed bag of zany humour offered in films like Airplane, Young Frankenstein, or the likes of Monty Python, you are sure to appreciate the sight gags and absurdity of the proceedings. My only complaint is the reliance on all those elements - while none are actually trademarked, Baskerville tends to come off as a sum of assorted parts, rather than an original clever comedy of the beloved fictional hero.

As always here in this space, I need to hold back for my official Calgary Herald review, but given the identity crisis of the script/book, the cast still produces plenty of laughter and intrigue to make the show a fun evening out. 

Breathtaking quick changes, over-the-top accents, and sight gags abound, and the two main actors are stoic straight men for the shenanigans of the other actors as they fuel the comedy along with the mystery.

Photo by John Watson, courtesy Stage West Calgary

Patrick Brown plays Dr Watson, across from David Leyshon’s Holmes (both are familiar faces for Stage West audiences). Braden Griffiths, Andrew MacDonald-Smith and Esther Purves-Smith leap through virtual hoops at rapid speed to breathe life into a variety of supporting cast members, taking advantage of sight gags and exceptional visual stage devices for their laughs. I laughed out loud at the appearance of a rabbit, but I won’t give away why that particular prank is so effective…

Beyond the cast and direction, the set is outstanding. JP Thibodeau’s fluid set pieces and haunting moon background create everything from the moors and on to Victorian gates, hotels and living rooms. 

The costumes and lighting also lend themselves to recreating the era intended, and the authenticity of a Holmes adventure. 

Baskerville runs until April 15, 2018 - I’ll link back when my Herald review is live!

3.5 out of 5 stars    

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Stage West Brings Backs The '90's!

Stage West Calgary 
"Pure '90's"
Until Feb 4, 2018

"Pure '90s"

(Runs to February 4, 2018) 

Here's the thing. Of all the varied theatrical offerings that have contributed to the ongoing success of Stage West Calgary, nothing seems to succeed quite like their musical revues. 

Just when you think they've presented something entirely unsurpassable, a new collection of beloved songs arrives, and the audience is swept back in time along with the entire cast and crew for even greater entertainment heights.

The latest, presented for media last night, is right up there with some of their best work. Sure, there are a few chinks in the armour (those may get worked out after a few more performances - or not...), but it is hard to quibble when the high points are so high you feel like you are listening to the actual artists, not a cast of talented actors and actresses.

Taking an overview of an entire decade is tough, given the vast amount of releases in any given week, let alone 520 of them.

That said, co-creators Timothy French (also the choreographer and director), and Howard Pechet have truly mined a wide sampling of tastes, trends and hits that emerged from that time. Personally, I had veered heavily into country music back then, and they've got lots of that on offer

. Canadian bands were exploding here at home, and on the world stage - nicely sampled along the way.

Of course, hip hop and rap were showcasing a wide variety of artists, along with R & B influences and the last gasps of disco. As a mobile DJ through the entire 90's, I played almost every one of the songs in this show more times than I could even begin to count. 

Plus, you won't even be disappointed if you enjoyed the novelty songs of the era, a few of those are included here!

As usual, I have to hold back from sharing too much here, as I have to put together my official Calgary Herald review, but just a few high points, more to be touched on in the Herald review:

* Andrew McGillivray has developed a lucrative sideline showcase as MC of these musical affairs - quick-witted, vastly talented in mimicking the eccentricities of the characters written, and when allowed to get in on the singing fun, one of the best onstage.

* The Girls Rule! Never mind Beyonce's modern-day declaration, this cast of women offered up the highest of the high points at last night's show. As the cast is somewhat enormous, it was hard to pick out who played each role, but k.d. lang was almost like hearing the real deal, as was Shania Twain. The Spice Girls, The Fugees, Celine Dion, among others - bang on the money! 

Kudos to Michelle Bardach, Adriana Crivici, Sarah Horsman, Madelyn Kriese,  Antonette Rudder and Victoria Scully for outstanding work on many of their covers.

*The Guys Did Fine Too - true team effort, the gentlemen all had plenty of opportunities to aim for the bleachers, and plenty of performances sailed up into the stands along the way.  Personal peaks for me were the bits featuring songs from Snow, The Barenaked Ladies, R.E.M. and the clear crowdpleaser Black or White (Michael Jackson). 

Hey, I better slow down here or I won't have anything left to write about in The Herald - quick shout out though to the guys - Gaelan Beatty, Dean Deffett, Jeremy Carver-James, Calvin Laveck, Jesse Weafer, and Jacob Woike.

Konrad Pluta and his house band excelled as always.

More hits than misses, plenty of laughs and a great seasonal menu (Nov 19 - Jan 1) - literally something for everyone!

4.5 out of 5 stars

Calgary Herald review live now online!

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Stage West Calgary offers glimpses into relationships with latest musical

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change
 Stage West Calgary

Photo courtesy of Stage West Calgary - credit: John Watson

In addition to being the latest Stage West Calgary new season opener, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change also marks the enduring venue’s 200th production, a landmark by any standard. 

The hit off-Broadway musical takes the audience through a variety of relationship vignettes, and gives back to the community here on top of that with $1.00 from every ticket sold donated to the Canadian Cancer Society. 

The musical comedy explores every aspect and age of relationships - from dating and navigating the etiquette of being a couple, and on into managing your online dating profile as your years are advancing. One of the most poignant moments comes in Act 2, with "Shouldn't I Be Less In Love With You”, as a husband muses over how he still feels about his long-time partner.

In between, the pace moves forward with four actors playing a wide variety of roles, each allowed showcases for their considerable vocal abilities. Director Phil Nero has assembled a compelling cast in Daniel Greenberg, Kyla Musselman, Andrew Scanlon, and Cailin Stadnyk. Given often marginal material to work with, they each take turns belting their songs way up into the rafters, three of them of them for the first time in this space. Greenburg returns in his second play from book and lyric writer Joe DiPietro.

 An early (his first actually) musical from the creator of All Shook Up (music for that production supplied by Elvis Presley songs), DiPietro’s I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change became the second-longest running Off Broadway musical after its debut in 1996.

L-R: Daniel Greenberg, Kyla Musselman, Cailin Stadnyk, Andrew Scanlon. Photo courtesy Stage West Calgary, credit: John Watson

I’ll have my official Calgary Herald review to link to sometime next week, so I’ll hold back on details for that feature. However - some highlights:

  • The aforementioned  "Shouldn't I Be Less In Love With You?”. In an era of televised Bachelors and Bachelorettes, it’s refreshing to see a relationship of substance reflected, rather than shallow personalities’ rhinestone shimmer and scripted “reality” drama. It's a brief scene, but a powerful song and performance.
  • Tear Jerk”, and “Satisfaction Guaranteed” - despite reviews indicating hilarity, the belly-laughs are a bit sparse. There are a couple of great scenes though, and both of these vignettes elicited healthy laughs from the audience. “Scared Straight (To The Altar)” also provided plenty of creative humour.
  • Relevance to all ages, given the wide arc of overview in each age group - from young singles to young parents, and on into handling flirting again after losing your spouse. If you hadn’t considered some of your options, there are plenty of suggestions in this production!

OK, more to follow from my Herald review (link here when that is live) - for now, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change is a night of talented actors and singers, along with something that should jump out for you regardless of where you fall in the dating or relationship spectrum. 

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Runs until November 12 at Stage West Calgary  

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Musical Whodunit Spoof Dances On The Creative Ceiling

Murder For Two
Stage West Theatre

John Wascavage, Bradon Lambert - photos courtesy Stage West Calgary, John Watson

Your dinner theatre experience may never be the same again…

Stage West Calgary’s presentation of the musical comedy Murder For Two takes the popular venue into territory that vaults past anything you could possibly imagine - trumping even their guaranteed house-packing musical revues and Broadway production mountings.

Murder For Two is a champagne theatre experience that is right at home in this facility, yet offering a new plateau for the audiences fortunate enough to roll the dice on a feature they may have never heard of before. Tough call, as name recognition often rules the pocketbook when venturing out for an evening.

If you do attend, be prepared for manic mayhem possibly unlike anything you’ve ever seen before on any stage - two actors, multiple roles, and a musical whodunit that tests the limits of how many lines an actor could possibly memorize without being an actual teleprompter. 

In the case of the two actors last night, Brandon Lambert (Marcus, the budding detective) and John Wascavage (everyone else), despite having a runaway rollercoaster of dialogue and lyrics between them each were flawless and I think at times even tried to outdo each other. 

Add in both sharing piano duties (often at the same time!), and you still don’t come close to having any idea how anyone could pull off their assigned tasks without at least hitting a snafu once somewhere along the way. 

Photos courtesy Stage West Calgary, John Watson 

As I have to hold back a few comments for my upcoming Calgary Herald review, I’ll offer up a wee summary here - and of course I’ll post a link to the official review when that is live online.

Murder For Two sets about to showcase a hopeful detective yearning within small-town policeman Marcus Moscowicz (Lambert) hoping to attain his career ambitions by solving the murder of great American novelist Arthur Whitney at a surprise birthday party. 

Photos courtesy of Stage West Calgary, John Watson

His suspects are many, yet each one bears an uncanny resemblance to actor Wascavage - your only clue that he is a variety of distinct personalities are rotating accents and affectations - each one incrementally (and hilariously) over the top.

 While the early going is slow and a bit confusing, once you’re in on the gag, both actors showcase skill sets and talents that propel the entire proceedings on to what might be the conclusion, but there are some plot twists thrown in to suggest otherwise.

As important as each actor is, the talents of director J. Scott Lapp and choreographer Wendy Seyb contribute amply to make what seems impossible seamless and satisfying.

This is theatre at a creative high, exceeding any expectations. 

Murder For Two runs until September 3 at Stage West Calgary

5 out of 5 Stars

NOTE: Calgary Herald review is now live!