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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Jersey Boys joins ranks of top-notch musicals at Stage West

Jersey Boys
Stage West Calgary

Photos courtesy of Stage West Calgary - John Watson Photography 

Stage West Calgary is in an enviable position as a theatre - they can present original, new productions that become so popular that they spawn sequels - especially their musical revues. 

They also present traditional, intimate versions of well-known plays that can perform just as well.

Then there are their impressive Broadway recreations on that same intimate stage- Spamalot, Dreamgirls, Chicago, and The Producers - most often rising above and beyond the best efforts in any of their other categories.

The recently opened Jersey Boys, a hit Broadway production (and eventually a movie) on the rise, struggles and successes of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons rubs shoulders with those aforementioned accomplishments - right alongside some of my favourites seen there.
Photo John Watson Photography, courtesy Stage West Calgary

It doesn’t hurt that this jukebox musical has been such a massive success, and with good reason - the stories and music are interesting, the actors are sharp, and the director has fit all those parts together to keep things as brisk as intended. There are not a whole lot of lulls to slow things down, aside from the opening bits - fairly typical of any story as exposition slowly unfolds the direction of the narrative…

I’ll have far more to say in my official Calgary Herald review, but for now, let’s touch on some highlights:

Casting - Director Liz Gilroy has assembled yet another boffo cast to bring these characters to life, and in many cases even a few more characters along the way for some of the actors. While I had not yet seen any big touring production of this show, I had seen THE Jersey Boy himself live, and I can say without hesitation that Evan Taylor Benyacar (in his Stage West debut) handles the Frankie Valli vocals effortlessly. This is crucial for the audience to buy into the illusion, and I’d say the enthusiastic response when I attended supported that buy-in.

Direction - Liz Gilroy continues to expand her catalogue of hit productions at Stage West with Jersey Boys - alongside Legally Blonde and Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat to mention just a couple.

Choreography - Phil Nero has recreated the ’60’s in every aspect of the dancing in this outing - pure authenticity.

Costumes - like the choreography, reminiscent of the era, and relevant to maintain the sincerity of the story.    

It's a big cast to give shout-outs to, but Matt Alfano (Gyp De Carlo), Niko Anastasakis (Joe Pesci), Daniel Greenberg (Nick Devito, Norm Waxman), Jonathan Gysbers (Bob Gaudio) Douglas Walker (Bob Crewe) Josh Wiles (Tommy Devito) and Tristan Hernandez (Nick Massi) are at the heart of the story as either Four Seasons members or closely related key players.
John Watson Photography, courtesy Stage West Calgary

As I say, I’ll expand on all of this in my official Calgary Herald review, but for now I have to say, Stage West keeps adding to their proud tradition of executing stellar Broadway productions, especially in the musical biography vein.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Jersey Boys runs at Stage West Calgary until Feb 3, 2019.  

(make sure you catch their special holiday offerings in the buffet, before the end of the year!)

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