Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bloor St Red Carpet Reopening and Exotic Car Show

After years of endless construction, the stretch on Bloor St. between Yonge and Avenue Road finally finished its upgrades and celebrated with a "red carpet event".  This Bloor-Yorkville area has been designated Toronto's "Mink Mile" because of its slew of high end retail stores including the usual suspects like Gucci, Tiffany, Chanel, Hermes, Prada (and Winners??).  This transformation project has resulted in wider streets, huge planter boxes filled with trees and flowers and benches.

While the red carpet event featured food stalls and live music, the main attraction was the Exotic Car Show.

Since I describe cars mainly in terms of their colour and visual appeal, my favourite car was this two toned 1955 Jaguar XK140.

This Rolls Royce Phantom had fold down trays in the back seats along with a James Bond-like control panel, presumably for personal temperature adjustments.

Speaking of James Bond cars, there were multiple Aston Martins on display including one that featured the sign "Shaken Not Stirred" with a large martini glass.  But I thought this light blue 1959 DB4 was more attractive.

My second favourite car of this show was this 1994 Morgan +8 Convertible.  I liked its shape and style and colour, which is pretty much all I go by when I look at a car.  It wouldn't fit my bicycle though, which is my main car buying criteria, so functionally I guess this is not for me.

Rich liked the Jaguars, especially this pale green 1960s E-Type.  I found it interesting but impractical the way the front hood is lifted.  It seems to give you a limited access to the engine, but I guess people wealthy enough to own these cars have someone else worry about that.  Rich told me the engine for this car was a V12, which I said sounded like a vegetable drink.. oh, or is that a V8?

The other fun thing at the event were a couple of body painted models that you could pose for a free photo with.  Most people other than the young kids were too embarrassed to take up the offer.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Company the Musical at Cineplex

The second live musical production to be filmed and shown at the Cineplex theatres is a special revival of Stephen Sondheim's musical Company including a star-studded cast from TV and Broadway.  As with most Sondheim works, Company does not follow the story arcs of traditional musicals.  It depicts the life of Robert, the perpetual commitment-fearing bachelor as he interacts with his 5 sets of coupled friends, each with their own issues and quirks.  The action jumps back and forth in time but returns repeatedly to the pinnacle event of his "surprise" 35th birthday party.  Each time the plot returns to this moment, he evolves as a character and learns more about what he really wants.

The set consisted mainly of five couches (one per couple) that were pushed around by ensemble actors dressed in black, as part of the choreography.  As Robert (or Bob, Bobby, Bobby Baby and several other nicknames) visits each couple, the others are pushed to the background but mostly stayed on stage and occasionally chimed in as a chorus.
The lead role of Robert is played by the omnipresent multi-talented Neil Patrick Harris, star of the hit show "How I Met Your Mother" who has sung, danced and acted his way through Glee, hosting the Tonies, and now this show.  Although his singing abilities don't quite live up to some of his Broadway belting costars, his charm, comedic timing and gentle vulnerability made his character extremely loveable despite all of Bobby's intended flaws.

Robert's married friend Peter asks at one point whether whether Robert had ever had a homoerotic experience.  This brought an ironic twitter through the audience who were well aware that that Neil Patrick Harris is openly gay.  The role reversal of Robert giving Peter homophobic glances and inching away uncomfortably only added to the humour.

Broadway legend Patti Lupone takes on the role of the bitterly aging, lecherous alcoholic Joanne, written for and made famous by Elaine Stritch. As she belted out the 11 O'Clock number "Ladies Who Lunch", great camera closeups showed the pathos and pain in her eyes.   Again I marvelled at how much I enjoy this cinematic experience of viewing a filmed live musical.

Other big names included Jon Cryer from "Two and a Half Men", Anika Noni Rose from the movie Dreamgirls, and Stephen Colbert whose character has a very funny karate scene with his wife played by Martha Plimpton from "Raising Hope".

Christina Hendricks from Mad Men was impressive in the comedic role of April, a not too bright flight attendent who is one of Bobby's three girlfriends.  Her wide-eyed naivete as she recounts a story about a butterfly and her use of stewardess hand gestures as she gushes over Bobby's apartment are hilarious.

One of my favourite songs is "Getting Married Today" sung by Katie Finneran in the role of Amy.  Striken with panic on her wedding day after years of living together with Paul, she sings with frantic speed lyrics like:

"I'm not well, So I'm not getting married--
You've been swell, But I'm not getting married--
Clear the hall, 'Cause I'm not getting married--
Thank you all, But I'm not getting married--
And don't tell Paul, But I'm not getting married today.."

This was juxtapositioned with a serene soprano choirist seemingly praising the joys of marriage but if you listen closely, her words say otherwise. This scene left the audience roaring with laughter.

"Bless this day,
Tragedy of life,
Husband joined to wife.
The heart sinks down and feels dead
This dreadful day."

Sondheim's genius as a lyrist is displayed in the climatic song "Being Alive" where Bobby comes to realize what it is he is missing in life.  The amazing thing is that this transition happens through two choruses of the song where he basically sing the same words but with a minor tweak and sung with a different tone, it totally changed the meaning of what he was saying.  

He starts out scoffing at relationships since all they will bring is:

"Someone to hold you too close,
Someone to hurt you too deep,
Someone to sit in your chair,
To ruin your sleep"

But midway through the song, he realizes that this exactly what he needs to feel alive and he subtly changes the words to urge and pray for:

"Somebody hold me too close,
Somebody hurt me too deep,
Somebody sit in my chair,
And ruin my sleep"

Typical to Sondheim musicals, there is no neatly wrapped up ending where magically his dream girl appears.  But there is hope since Robert has finally grown up and now knows what he wants and needs.  He can stop living vicariously through his friends and start to live for himself.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Luminato 2011

In its fifth year, Luminato is an arts festival that celebrates theatre, dance, music, visual arts, literature, fashion and more.   Scattered throughout the downtown core, many of the exhibits and events are free.

Named "Garden of Roses",  this gorgeous dress is  supposed to be inspired by the Alice in Wonderland stories.  This is not like any image of Alice that I've ever seen, not even the Tim Burton "sequel" that featured an older Alice.  Nevertheless this dress is stunning although quite see-through and even more revealing from the back.

At TIFF is an installation celebrating the work of Indian actor and film maker Raj Kapoor.  Known as the "Indian Charlie Chaplin", he was very popular in Southern Asia in the 40s and 50s.  The installation gives you a chance to act in a Raj Kapoor movie by taking a digital photo of photo of your face and superimposing it on top of Raj's, while the movie is playing.

Brookfield place always hosts a visual spectacle made so more special when displayed against the stunning ceiling of the Allen Lambert Galleria.  This year Sargasso is described as being "live architecture" that is supposed to respond and interact with its environment.   Perhaps it was not totally installed yet but while what I saw was definitely
beautiful, it did not move or react to my presence.  I'll go for another visit to see if more has been added since that first day.

The frilly patterns reminded me of a Christmas tree when I first saw it, with the coloured sensors acting as ornaments.  From the other direction, seeing what looked like white crystalline giant snowflakes flowing down from the ceiling turned the place into a winter wonderland. I almost expected Santa's sleigh to come down the rolling hills.

The most fascinating exhibit was the voyeuristic theatrical experiment called Habit, being performed at OCAD (Ontario College of Arts and Design).  A 90 minute play called "The Children of Kings" was written specifically for this show.  It is acted out in a continuous loop for 8 hours a day from 11am to 7pm.   The same dialogue is spoken through each iteration of the play, but the actors are free to improvise the staging of the scenes.  The play is about two brothers (Doug the brutish junkie drug dealer and Mitchell, a meek and depressed song writer) whose lives are impacted by the return of Viv, a childhood friend and romantic interest for both of them.

The "stage" is a fully functioning one storey house with working plumbing and kitchen.  The actors are free to eat, use the bathroom or rest if they can organically fit it into what is being said in the play.  At one point, I think I was watching from above while one of the actors was really peeing into the toilet, abet discretely with his back turned away from the windows.

The audience can watch the play from the ground level by peering through one of the multiple windows that expose each room, or by going up on the the higher floors and getting a birds eye view of the entire house from above.   Watching from above allows you to see the actors move from room to room but it's more difficult to hear them speak.  Watching from the ground is an entirely different experience, as you feel like a peeping tom as you eavesdrop on intensely private conversations through curtained windows and then chase the actors around the house as they freely move around through it.

It's difficult to tell which part of the play you've walked in on when you first approach the scene, and for the much of it, it seems like 3 young people just going about their daily lives.  However I stayed long enough to catch what seemed like the climatic ending where secrets are revealed and past traumas confronted.  By that point the drama is gripping and you don't realize that you are racing from window to window like a crazed stalker trying to hear the next lines in the story.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Doors Open 2011 - Arts and Letters Club

For the past few years, I've been meaning to go visit the Arts and Letters Club for Doors Open but kept running out of time.  This year I only had time to visit one location and made it my destination of choice.

Formed in 1908 as a club for gentlemen with passion for the arts, be it Literature, Architecture, Music, Painting or Stage (aka LAMPS), the Arts and Letters Club allowed them to come together to share their ideas and synergize with each other.

It included such distinguished members as the Group of Seven, Fredrick Banting, Vincent Massey, and Ed Mirvish.  Women were not allowed to join the club until 1985, much to the outrage of Anne Mirvish who picketed the club in 1975 when she was not allowed in to hear her husband give a speech.  She is now considered a valued Charter member of the club, and the current president is a woman, so times have definitely changed.

The first thing you encounter when you wander into the beautiful heritage building called St. Georges Hall is the collection of sketches of past presidents of the club, done by other club members.   While some are serious portrait sketches, others are playful and affectionate caricatures.

The lounge and bar area displays the set of annual lists of club executives, dating back to the club's inception in 1908.  Each one is a work of art created by a member of the club.  Comparing the designs of the list through the years provides an interesting retrospective of changing styles.  The earliest lists featured calligraphy while later lists reflected various art phases including Art Deco.  A few of the lists are actually small sculptures while the more recent lists are reflective of modern technology in terms of fonts and images.

The LAMPS room contains artifacts from each of the disciplines supported by the club.  My favourite painting was a portrait of past club president Napier Moore (editor of Macleans magazine), painted by J.E.Sampson.  In the background was a reproduction of Vincent Van Gogh's famous sunflowers.  The painting was signed "Van Sampson Gogh".

The Grand Hall is an expansive room with cathedral-like ceiling and windows, displaying what looks like large coats of arms.  They were created by Group of Seven member J.E.H.Macdonald in mock tribute to his colleagues.  On closer inspection, the crests included drawings of a rodent, a button, a hand doing the boy scout salute .. not your typical coat of arms symbols.  Rotating artwork from current members are displayed on the walls, judged by a jury and available for sale.  At the back of the hall is a stage where plays are frequently presented with the audience being served dinner and dessert prior to the show.

On the second floor, the library contained books, plaques and prints by and about members of the club.  Up on the mantle was a wooden propeller given by some airmen around WWI as payment for club hospitality when they didn't have any money.  A large narwhal tooth sits in the corner, a donation from Fredrick Banting's widow soon after his death. 

Fredrick Banting was a fledgling painter that mentored under the Group of Seven.  One of his paintings of Yellowknife River, NWT is displayed in the Boardroom, along with the rest of the Arts and Letter Club's permanent collection.  Only knowing him as the doctor who invented insulin, I was really impressed by how good his painting was.  It was clear that he was influenced by the Group of Seven.

Up on the third floor, the Studio holds regular sessions where a live model poses while members paint, sketch or sculpt her image.  I saw a photo that my friend took the previous year for Doors Open, and it was the same model!  She must have a permanent lock on this gig.

In the basement is a display case of stamps depicting art by or of members of the Arts and Letters Club from 1949 to 1994.  Some of the images are quite iconic including the Canada Goose in flight, a Fred Varley self portrait that I've seen in the McMichael gallery, and the Vimy Ridge scuplture that I saw a model of at the War Museum in Ottawa.

Even the restrooms show the artistic whimsy that is evident throughout the building.  The signs depicting men vs women's washrooms (of which I have a large collection of photos from locations around the world) are cartoon sketches by one of the members. 

Inside the men's room, there is a huge replica painting of the Mona Lisa overlooking the urinals, along with a poem teasingly describing the pressures of having to pee under Mona's "gauging glance".

Members gather at the Arts and Letters Club for theatre and music events, seminars and workshops on painting, photography, writing and more. It was so inspiring being in midst of all that creative talent that I seriously wished I could belong and be a part of it .. until I saw the steep membership commitment which was around $1000 per year plus $1000 initiation fee.

Instead I found a way to feel part of the club for one evening.   While visiting for Doors Open, I learned that some of the theatre events are open to the public.  I secured tickets to their next show, Edward Albee's absurdist play "The American Dream", which came with an option for a full dinner, or dessert and coffee.  So there I was sitting in the Grand Hall where so many artistic greats sat before.  The fact that I had no clue what the play was about brought me back down to earth a bit.. maybe I'm not ready to hobnob with this group just yet ...

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Memphis the Musical at Cineplex

I really like the new concept of showing filmed versions of live entertainment on the big screens at movie theatres such as Cineplex has started doing.  My first experience with this was watching Nixon the Opera, and while I reaffirmed that I am not a fan of Opera, I did appreciate the format of the presentation.

Watching the Broadway musical Memphis at the Cineplex was much more in my bailiwick since I am fervent lover of musicals and watch as many as I can.  As you can imagine, this can get very expensive so we usually get the cheapest seats, going for quantity instead of quality.  There are also so many musicals advertised on Broadway or London West End that may never come to Toronto.  This is why the Cineplex option is so perfect and hopefully will become a more frequent trend.  For the price of $20 I can have the best seat in the house just by showing up early (there was no reserved seating for this show).  The camera closeups capture facial expressions and emotions that I would not be able to see from the back of the house, while the wide angle shots help focus your attention to key points of action.

Memphis is set in the 1950s and revolves around an eccentric character named Huey Calhoun who becomes the first DJ in Memphis to play "black music" on white radio stations.  Huey falls in love with a black singer named Felicia and tries to get her on the radio.  However 1950s Memphis is not ready for an inter-racial relationship and troubles ensue.

The actor who played Huey spoke with an accented stutter-speech that reminded me of Arlo Guthrie singing "Alice's Restaurant", while Rich thought he sounded like George Bush.

The music was written by David Bryan, the keyboardist for Bon Jovi, who also worked on The Toxic Avenger.  The songs reflect the musical styles of the era first introduced by the blacks in southern USA including Rhythm and Blues, Jazz and Rock and Roll.  My favourite songs were the opening number "Underground", "Coloured Women" sung by Felicia lamenting the few opportunities available for her,  and "She's My Sister", a bluesy number sung by Felicia's brother Delray, threatening Huey against hurting his baby sister.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching this musical on screen and didn't really miss not seeing the live actors.  Although Memphis is also playing as part of the current Dancap theatre season, it would have cost over $100 for the same quality of seats that I got at the movies.

This seems like a winning proposition for everyone involved.  Cineplex has a chance to bring in a new type of audience to augment declining movie sales.  The Broadway show gets exposed to a broader audience and will probably profit even more down the line when they sell DVDs of the broadcast.  And musical lovers like me get to more musicals at a reasonable price and get to see the original cast of a Broadway or West-End show.  I would love to see Catherine Zeta Jones and Angela Landsbury in "A Little Night Music".  Next I'll be watching Stephen Sondheim's "Company".  I say, keep the musicals coming!  I'll pass on the operas.