Friday, February 18, 2011

Billy Elliot the Musical

The Toronto version of Billy Elliot the Musical was marketed as the highlight of the Mirvish 2010/11 subscription season and it does not disappoint. Four talented boys aged 12-14 share the demanding role of Billy and each needs to be a triple threat in acting, singing and dancing.

Our Billy was Marcus Pei, an American of part Chinese descent who also starred in the Chicago version of the show. It is notable that 3 of the 4 Billy's are visible minorities. It is the show's policy to have "colourblind casting", accepting any child who can fulfil the demands of the role. It was a bit jarring at first to see a Chinese looking Billy amongst his all-white family and friends, speaking with a thick cockney accent. But this is soon forgotten, especially once he "learns to dance". The role of Billy requires skills in ballet, tap, and perhaps the most challenging of all for these young protegies, trying to dance poorly at the beginning of the show.

The story of Billy Elliot is set in England in the 1980s in midst of the miners' strike during which Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher broke the unions. The show starts off with historic footage from that time, quickly establishing the backstory and mood of the miners. The first song "The Stars Look Down" make reference to a 1940s movie of the same name about the same topic. Apparently, the discord between miners and mine owners has been ongoing through the decades.

Billy is an eleven year old boy, being raised in a male dominated family after his mother dies. He stumbles into an all-girl dance class after ditching the boxing lessons that he hates and discovers that he enjoys dancing and is actually good at it. The two disjoint worlds of the miners strike and violent clashes with the police versus the innocence and joy of the children in their dance class come together in the rousing song "Solidarity".

Billy shows his dancing prowess in three main dance numbers. In the "Anger Dance", he frenetically acts out his frustration when his father refuses to allow him to audition for the Royal Ballet School. In "Dream Dance", Billy imagines himself performing a pas de deux with an older dancer, possibly a grownup version of himself. At one point, Billy is hooked to a harness and soars across the stage. Witnessing this beautiful ballet, his father finally understands Billy's passion and potential for dancing and sees the chance for him to escape from the grueling mining life. When Billy finally gets to audition for the Royal Ballet School, he dances to a song called "Electricity" where he tries to explain how he feels when he dances.

There are humorous moments including "Express Yourself", where Billy's gay friend Michael encourages him to be true to himself, resulting in the two of them dancing in women's clothing, and finally dancing with giant dresses. The sarcastic song "Merry Christmas Margaret Thatcher" disparaging the prime minister for her hard tactics towards the striking miners is accompanied by children wearing Thatcher masks and a giant Margaret Thatcher puppet.

One of the final scenes of the show depicts the miners returning to their jobs after the strike falls apart, while Billy leaves for Ballet school - one of the few to escape the fate of his home town. In a bittersweet moment, Billy says goodbye and as he walks away, only the eery glow of head lamps can be seen as the miners descend into the ground.

On the way out of the theatre, we noticed that the concession stand had an interesting item - a pair of pair of bright red short shorts similar to ones worn by Billy, but with the words "DANCER" written across the bottom. I can just imagine the look on a boy's face when he sees the souvenir that grandma brought back from the show!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Stroll down Queen St. West

One of our favourite past-times is to stroll leisuring up and down an interesting street or neighbourhood, browsing in the store windows, checking out small art galleries, and getting the occasional snack or drink. We traverse our own neighbourhood of Yonge Street from St. Clair to Bloor probably several times a month, and also enjoy Yorkville, Leslieville, Eglinton West, just to name a few.

Last week we returned to one of our favourite haunts which is Queen St West between Bathurst and Dufferin. This stretch has so far avoided becoming gentrified and infiltrated by the chains like Starbucks and The Gap that now reside east of Bathurst. For now, you can still find fun and quirkly little boutiques and restaurants with cool names like "Pho Pa" and "Done Right Inn".

On this trip, we went explicitly to see the Toronto photography exhibit at the Stephen Bulgar Gallery (1026 Queen St. W.) which featured both historic and current views of our beloved city. Some photos of note included slice of life shots including one of a crowd at the former Woodbine Race Track. The point of view is fascinating since you don't see the race, but can tell the story by the expressions and intensity of the spectators.

Another group of photos that caught my eye were by a photographer named Volker Seding who shot a series of pictures of Toronto buildings that were the unusual size of 31x20 inches. The result was a set of long and narrow images that highlighted the beauty of the buildings from a very interesting perspective which is not usually seen. I passed by this Cameron House building and wondered where he took the picture from to get that particular angle. I was also amazed to hear that he accomplished the size of the photo not through digital cropping but rather by using special film and camera techniques.

Also on display were photographs by French artist Gilbert Garcin whose black and white images feature himself, dressed in a nondescript trench coat, in whimsically staged and sometimes ridiculous looking situations. Occasionally he is joined by an equally anonymous woman (possibly his wife?). The surrealistic look and feel of the photographs remind me of French movies such as Amelie or Micmacs which have a similar tone. I was surprised to read that Garcin only took up photography after retiring at the age of 65.

Works of art in other galleries caught my eye as we continued our walk. There were the stylized celebrity paintings at the Sunny Choi Gallery (1046 Queen St. W.), highlighted by a sweetly innocent rendering of Marilyn Monroe in the window. It was refreshing to see Marilyn depicted in this way. Too bad the gallery was closed (unexplicably for a Saturday afternoon), but peeking inside you could also see images of Blondie, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and other iconic beauties.

In another gallery was a quirky painting that juxtapositioned serene Group of Seven-esque mountain scenery with one of the most archtypical symbols of commercialism and consumerism - the Golden Arches of McDonalds. The shock factor of this interesting combination is both humourous and thought provoking.

We had lunch in the Nadege Patisserie (780 Queen St. W.) which Rich had read about in Toroto Life Magazine, and somehow spotted with his eagle eye from the streetcar as we went whizzing by. The display of sandwiches and pastries were visually stunning, especially the multi-coloured macarons and artistically decorated mini cakes. We each had a hearty and flavourful bowl of chicken cauliflower chowder and shared a tomato and buffalo mozzerella sandwich followed by a chocolate almond croissant and a couple of macarons - one had orange flavoured meringue with chocolate filling, and the second was cappuccino.

There is a store called The Knit Cafe (1050 Queen St. W.) that I've often wished was in my neighbourhood. In addition to selling yarn and other knitting supplies, it offers lessons and acts as a social gathering place with events like "Stitch and Bitch" and "High Tea". What a lovely idea to gather with fellow knitters to work on our projects, have cookies and tea, share patterns and ideas. For Nuit Blanche one year, The Knit Cafe displayed knitted representations of Toronto landmarks such as the CN Tower, Honest Eds and the Gladstone Hotel.

Kol Kid(674 Queen St. W.) is a toy store which has the most amazing "designer" doll house on display in its window. It even has a name - Emerson House and is described as a 2-storied, 6 room open floor plan home with floor-to-ceiling windows, two fireplaces, sliding glass doors, solar panels, recessed LED lights. The rooms were filled with designer furnishings including a flat screen TV and Barcelona loungers.

There is a great bookstore named Type Books (883 Queen St W.) that features very interesting books on their tables. One was "Historical Tweets: The Completely Unabridged and Ridiculously Brief History of the World", with Twitter messages like "Having a hard time explaining to my wife why the maid's breasts are suddenly solid gold" from @TheTouch (King Midas).

Another was a deliciously cute little book called "Ten Little Zombies - A Love Story" that is not quite for young children. It spoofs the traditional Ten Little Indians poem, instead having ten zombies chase a boy named Kevin and his girlfriend. Cleverly they foil and kill the zombies one by one in various unique ways, depicted by graphic cartoon drawings - "Four little zombies chasing after me .. Fired up the Chainsaw, Now there are three." The surprise ending shows the power of love, and that there are worse things than becoming a zombie.

On our next visit, we need to check out one of our favourite boutiques, The Magic Pony which sells quirky and creative nicknacks and artworks. It was unfortunately closed for renovations this time. We've also been wanting to have "High Tea" at The Red Teabox but are never there at the right time. There is so much to do and see at Queen West that we've resolved to devote an entire day to it next time.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mirvish New 2011-2012 Season Announcement

Every year in February, David Mirvish previews his new subscription season with an event held at the Princess of Wales theatre, inviting all recipients of his EStage online newsletter. Each new show is presented through a videoclip, and sometimes a live performance from the show.

There are usually 6-7 shows in the subscription year, which gives David a chance to flex his artistic muscles when it comes to picking them. While most of the shows that he picks should appeal to the general public, he will often throw in one or two unconventional productions that only a small targeted audience really appreciates. In the past he's included a Korean subtitled opera, an obscure Shakespeare play where the actors were dressed as 1920s mobsters so that it was impossible to tell the King from the Jester, an unknown musical where the actors spoke with such strong Jamaican accents and slangs that they were uncomprehensible.

Last year the shows were all mainstream consisting of 5 well-known musicals and a comedy. Perhaps due to the recession, with theatre being a discretionary expense, Mirvish felt he needed to appeal to a larger audience to keep up the subscription numbers. This year he is back with his usual eclectic selections - there are 3 dramas, a comedy and 3 musicals on the playbill.

The event was hosted by the stars of the play "Four Hands Two Pianos" which is not on next season's subscription, but is being marketed as an extra show to be offered at discount to subscribers. Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt performed favourites like Chopsticks and Heart and Soul on duelling pianos before launching in on more ambitious songs to demonstrate their musical prowess. Then they went on to describe each of the upcoming shows, sometimes introducing producers, directors or actors from the show to further the promotion.

The first show is a drama called "The Railway Children" which will be shown in the new Roundhouse Theatre and includes a real train that is being transported all the way from London England. Next will be the Noel Coward comedy "Private Lives" starring Kim Cattrall of Sex in the City fame. Kim was on hand at the event to give a little star power to the presentation. The third show is the musical "Chess", with original music and lyrics written by the two male B's of ABBA, and deals with a highly political chess match between an American and a Russian. Another drama called "Blue Dragon" follows the life of a Canadian now living in Shanghai and will consist of dialogue in English, French and Mandarin with subtitles. I have a feeling I'll either love or hate this one... Each of these shows were introduced using promotional video clips.

The casts of the musicals "Mary Poppins" and "Hair" each performed a medley of numbers from their shows. Mary Poppins and Bert sang and danced to well-known songs like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and ChimChim Cheree amongst others. I spent most of their performance thinking how much I liked her dress.

The cast of Hair went pyschodelic to hits including the title song Hair and Aquarius, spinning their long locks in a frenzy. They ended the show by throwing flowers into the crowd in a show of 1960s flower power.

But the highlight of the event went to the presentation for the drama "War Horse". This acclaimed West End London drama featuring hand-spring puppets follows the adventures of a boy and his beloved horse who is sold to the army during WWI. The star of the show, a 6 foot tall puppet horse named Joey was brought out during our preview event and it was amazing to see how life-like he was, even though the puppeteers that manipulated him were clearly and purposely visible. The puppetry reminds you of the Lion King, but takes it to the next level in terms of movement, look and feel. While our usual subscription seats are at the back of the theatre, for this event I was sitting within the first 10 rows of the Orchestra and got a very good view of Joey. To fully appreciate the artistry, you need to be closer so we've decided that we need to upgrade our seats for this show. The video clip that shows the horses in battle at full gallop is too breathtaking to describe.