Thursday, November 22, 2012

Theatre: Jekyll and Hyde the Musical

Jekyll and Hyde the Musical has gone through many iterations of songs, lyrics and even the names of some characters since it  first played on Broadway from 1997 through 2001.  What has remained throughout the different versions is the basic plot of the dark Gothic classic Robert Louis Stevenson novel about the well intentioned Doctor Henry Jekyll and his efforts to separate good from evil within man.  When he is refused a human subject to test his experiments on, he decides to try them on himself, resulting in the manifestation of the evil, murderous Mr. Edward Hyde.

The musical adds various plot points to flesh out the story.  Jekyll's motivation for his work is to find a way to cure his father's insanity.  He has a fiancee who was originally called Lisa but later renamed Emma for no apparent reason - the name had the same number of syllables and didn't even rhyme better in the lyrics.  Perhaps it was a more British 19th century sounding name.  Both Jekyll and Hyde are drawn to a prostitute named Lucy, leading to tragic results. The Hyde persona eventually grows too strong for Jekyll to control and starts to appear at will.  The epic battle between Jekyll and Hyde personifies the age-old theme of the conflict between good and evil.
A revival of the musical has started with a nation-wide tour, with a stop in Toronto before opening in Broadway in 2013.  I was a bit skeptical when I heard that this version starred Constantine Maroulis of American Idol fame with his trademark long stringy hair and smothering eyes, and 90s Canadian R&B artist Deborah Cox.  After seeing the show, I have to give them credit.  They both had strong singing voices, as did all of the cast.  I was very impressed by Maroulis' acting ability as he switched between the two personae. 
Based on two versions of this show that I have now seen, it seems the role of Jekyll/Hyde is all about the hair.  Jekyll's hair is tied up in a neat ponytail while Hyde lets his flow wildly all over his face.  When David Hasselhoff (of Baywatch fame) played this role in 2001, it looked at times like he had a mop on his head.  Maroulis has the benefit of being able to use his own tresses.  His transformation from Jekyll to Hyde and back again reminded me a bit of Clark Kent jumping into the phone booth to become Superman.  Maroulis whips off his Dr. Jekyll spectacles and pulls the elastic band from his ponytail to let loose the hair when he turns into Hyde.  Turning back into Jekyll goes a bit less smoothly as he struggles to get the glasses back onto his face and to rein in his hair again.

I've loved the songs from this musical since the first time I heard the first "Complete Works" concept album album from 1994.  There are soft haunting tunes, power ballads and fast paced songs with satirical, biting lyrics that comment on the two-faced duality of the upper class.  My favourite such song is called "Facade", which contains lyrics like:

"There's a face that we wear
In the cold light of day -
It's society's mask,
It's society's way,
And the truth is
That it's all a facade!"

Intricate rhyming couplets that pair words like society, propriety, sobriety, piety and notoriety, while forming quick, cohesive stanzas, remind me of the songs of Stephen Sondheim.  The song Facade is usually sung by the poor as an indictment on the rich.  In this latest revival, there is a bit of a twist.  The start of the song is sung by five grotesque figures in their underwear.  You are led to believe that these are the poor homeless people that usually sing this song.  However they are soon joined by maids and butlers who dress help dress them to reveal the distinguished Board of Directors of Dr. Jekyll's hospital.  This clever choreography highlights the message of the song.  The layers of clothing represent the veneer of respectability that the wealthy and powerful hide behind, but its all a facade.  Stripped of this clothing, as we originally see them, we get a glimpse of the true seedy, sinister nature of this group.

Another piece of effective staging is the use of dividing screens that projected the image of each of the Board of Directors.  As Hyde stalks and kills each of them, the screen with their image is illuminated as a counter for the murders.  The contraption used to inject the secret formula into Jekyll that converts him to Hyde, seems right out of a D-rated mad scientist movie.  Finally an interesting use of video and flashing lights allowed Jekyll and Hyde to have the big climatic confrontation with each towards the end of the show.  The large portrait of Dr Jekyll's father which had been displayed throughout the show as a reminder of his motivation, suddenly morphed into a menacing Mr. Hyde.  It was quite tense and exciting, but the music was too loud and Hyde's voice was distorted too much,  making it was difficult to hear the powerful lyrics from the fight.  This staging was more effective than the corny setup in the David Hasselholf production where he used half his face to represent Jekyll and the other to represent Hyde.  To switch between them, he would turn from left to right while the lighting on his face brightened for Jekyll and dimmed for Hyde.

Deborah Cox, in the role of the kind-hearted prostitute Lucy, looked much older than the rosy-cheeked Linda Eder, who played it in the previous version that I saw.  This is not a bad thing since the look fit better with the role of a worn and weathered lady-of-the-night who has been beaten down by a hard life.  I was very happy that this version of the musical brought back Lucy's song called "Bring On The Men" since it was my second favourite song of the original concept album.

Overall, I really enjoyed this production of Jekyll and Hyde, the Musical.  I hope it does well on Broadway.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

McMichael Gallery - Tom Thomson & Group of Seven, Double Take Portraits, Queen Elizabeth II Photos

The McMichael Art Gallery has always been known for its mandate to promote and present the work of The Group of Seven as well as Tom Thomson, who can almost be considered an honorary member. While the blockbuster exhibit called Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven received rave reviews as it toured Europe, one has to wonder whether this show would fare as well at the McMichael, where visitors are already familiar with this group's painting styles and themes. These Canadian landscapes may seem fresh and exciting to Europeans, but they are iconic images that most Canadians would find regularly imprinted on everything from mugs, to calendars to placemats.

We have already experienced many examples the art of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson from the permanent collections of the McMichael Gallery, Art Gallery of Ontario and National Gallery of Ottawa. This dilutes the impact of seeing them together in one exhibition, despite the presence of new works from private collections that have not previously been publicly displayed.  Having said that, I found the Tom Thomson piece called "The Pointers", which is owned by University of Toronto, Hart House, to be particularly breathtaking, with its rainbow of autumn colours reflected in the leaves, sky and water.  It is one of the few paintings that include human forms, which provided an extra interest for me.

It seems to be the consensus amongst art critics that Tom Thomson's paintings were a cut above the rest and served as a prototype for the Group of Seven. In viewing so many works from all these artists in such close proximity, we easily concurred with this assessment.  We compared Thomson's iconic Jack Pine and West Wind paintings to the similarly themed September Gale by Arthur Lismer or Stormy Weather by Fred Varley. The Thomson pieces have an extra vibrancy that seems to be achieved with very simple, effortless brush strokes, and yet are complex images that capture the raw, natural beauty of the Canadian wilderness.  The others are also appealing but seemed more forced, and feel like imitations in comparison.

After a while, the art started to look very similar in this large exhibition, since the same scenery and themes were repeated by each artist.  The two that stood out were Lawren Harris' ethereal mountain and iceberg paintings, and A.Y. Jackson's early paintings of rural Quebec.

The exhibit called "Double Take: Portraits of Intriguing Canadians" sheds a new light on famous Canadian personalities by revealing an interesting but little known fact about them.  While David Suzuki is renowned in his role as environmentalist, we learned that when he was young, he and his family, all 2nd and 3rd generation Canadians, were placed in a Japanese internment camp during WWII.  Glenn Gould used to hum along when he played the piano, making it difficult for him to record his records. Jacques Plante, known for inventing the hockey mask, enjoyed knitting.  Jean Chrétien, shown giving a boy scout salute was ironically kicked out of the boy scouts for being unruly.

Photos of Queen Elizabeth II in her youth, during her coronation and as a young mother were on display as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebration.  Photographer Cecil Beaton had previously photographed the Queen Mother and was commissioned to capture Elizabeth's image as well.  Especially touching were the beautiful but candid shots of the queen giving a piggyback ride to young Princes Charles and cradling baby Prince Andrew.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Bloodless / La Cage Aux Folles / Sister Act

There is certainly no shortage of live theatre in Toronto, especially in the fall season.  With our Mirvish subscription plus the extra shows that they offer, we've been watching a myriad of shows in rapid succession.

We've felt many times before that we often enjoy the smaller musicals more than the big productions.  Such was the case when we watched Bloodless - The Trial of Burke and Hare at the Panasonic Theatre, and La Cage Aux Folles at the Royal Alexandra Theatre within two days.

Bloodless is a dark musical, originally shown as part of the Winnipeg Fringe Festival.  It is based on the true story of 19th century Scottish serial killers William Burke and William Hare. They killed 14 people during the years of 1827-28 and sold the cadavers to the Robert Knox School of Anatomy to be used for dissection and research.  Cadavers were scarce and valuable in those days, resulting in the trade of grave robbery.  However Burke and Hare felt that having to dig up bodies was too much work and preferred to source them through murder instead.  Their first body came relatively innocently when an elderly lodger at Hare's boarding home died without paying the rent. Making a tidy sum from selling his body, when another lodger fell ill they decided to help him along.  The song they sing as they debate this plan ("The Bugger is Better Off Dead") oozes with macabre dark humour.

Joined by their common-law wives, Burke and Hare became more brazen and careless with their murders as they enjoyed the monetary rewards of their crimes.  The musical focused on one of the murders in particular - that of local prostitute Mary Paterson and the quest of her friend Janet Brown to prove that Burke and Hare killed her.  Eventually their crimes caught up with them and they were arrested along with their wives.  Lacking enough physical evidence, Hare was given immunity to testify against Burke.  Burke was found guilty and hanged.  Ironically, his body was donated to the Edinburgh University for dissection and still remains on display at their Anatomical Museum.

We really enjoyed this musical, finding the story to be compelling and the songs to be witty,  with the lyrics conveying the complex story well.  While the staging was dark and sparse, it fit the tone of the musical.  One particularly clever and humorous staging was created for a dissection scene where organs were removed from the body in mason jars.  Some people have compared this musical to Sweeney Todd, mostly because of the subject matter.  From the perspective of melody and songs, especially the opening number, I found it to remind me more of the musical Jekyll and Hyde, which we will be seeing soon!

In comparison, we did not care as much for La Cage Aux Folles, especially with what felt like stunt-casting of George Hamilton in the role of Georges.  Hamilton is not a Broadway trained actor or singer and it shows in his performance.  In playing the gay owner of a cabaret whose son from a one night stand is getting married, it felt like he was all gleaming white teeth and tan with not much substance.  On the other hand, Christopher Sieber who plays Albin, Georges' drag queen lover, has a wonderful voice and was the best thing in the show.  His big number "I Am What I Am" was heartbreaking and brought the house down.  Too bad the rest of the show could not follow suit.

This musical was full of forced campiness but lacked heart.  Various subplots with minor characters playing a cafe owner, his wife, and a nightclub owner added nothing to the story and just slowed it down.  We've found other productions of this show and even the Robin Williams movie version "The Bird Cage" to be much more enjoyable.

 Our faith in the big production musical was restored after seeing Sister Act.  This show was funny, full of spirit, with great singing performances and a feel good story that made you want to stand up and cheer.  It flushed out all the plot lines from the Whoopi Goldberg movie with great songs that really captured the essence of each character.  The actress who played Delores, the lounge singer who hides in a convent after witnessing a murder, does not have the zaniness of Goldberg, but her voice is terrific.  The songs sung by an exasperated Mother Superior, and the comic relief provided by the three thugs sent out to look for Delores were especially funny, as was the Barry White styling of Monsignor O'Hara as he got into the groove of the nuns' new act.

Free ROM Day - 2012

Once a year, members of the AGO are offered a free day at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).  We had a great time looking some of the smaller exhibits, but did not want to pay the extra fee to get into the special Dinosaur exhibit.  From the second floor, we did get an excellent view of one of the prehistoric beasts positioned in the central atrium.

The exhibit that was most exciting for me was called Carnival: From Emancipation to Celebration.  The Caribbean Carnival celebrates the abolition of slavery in British colonies in 1833.  It involves festivals and parades with elaborate, colourful costumes and masquerades (Mas) that tell a story. Some of Brian MacFarlene's Mas designs are on display in the main lobby.  His red and black Sheol or underworld costume reflects the colours of the Trinidad and Tobago flag while the skulls depict lost souls of the dead.  The Mad Cow is a traditional character meant as comic relief by butting its head and causing a commotion.  The black and white Time costume represents the journey from birth to death.  Like the Mad Cow, the Dragon character dances wildly and tries to frighten the crowds.

Upstairs, more of MacFarlene's Mas sketches are presented as well as video and photo images of Carnival in the Caribbean and Toronto's own Caribana parade.

In the Asian galleries, the exhibit Small Things, Special Skills highlights unusual artistry in Chinese works.  Detailed, nuanced images are drawn on fans and scrolls using parts of the hand including the finger, nail and palm.  Having played a drawing game on my IPAD and only managing crude stick figures, I know first hand how difficult this can be!

Many of the scrolls reference the three Chinese gods of Good Fortune, Wealth and Longevity (phonetically pronounced as Fuk Luk Sau).  One scroll displays the image of a tree but the trunk and branches actually form the chinese character for Sau.  Another scroll  called "God of Longevity with Deer and Bat" exemplifies micro calligraphy. If you look closely enough at this drawing, you will see that the outlines of the images are actually formed by tiny writings of the Chinese symbols  Fuk, Luk, and Sau over and over.  There were also examples of intricate carvings in ivory and other materials.

As a tribute for the bicentennial of the War of 1812, Tod Ainslie's black and white photos of historically significant sites from the war are on display.  Tod built his three pinhole cameras to simulate 19th century daguerrotype photography so that the pictures have an antique feel.  Each camera supports different focal lengths and one hexagonal camera has 6 pinholes that can produce 6 consecutive images for a 360 degree photo effect.

Up in the Costumes and Textile gallery, an exhibit called Big looks at important moments in fabric or fashion history.  Christian Dior's red, black and grey gown took 500 hours to create and used over 166 metres of various fabrics, including lots of silk.  Yves Saint Laurent took a modern spin on a traditional Asian beaded dress.  One non-descript brown dress was made from wood bark.

Friday, November 09, 2012

AGO: Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera, Evan Penny

Frida & Diego, Passion, Politics and Painting, the latest blockbuster exhibit at the AGO, displays the works of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera together.  Because their art is so different in styles, this is usually not the case. We were surprised to find it to be sparse in curatorial insight relative to other shows that we have seen.  There were no audio guides offered and not much printed or video information accompanying the art or even on the large plaques denoting each section.  Perhaps the thought was that the art should speak for itself.   Luckily we had prepared for the show by first watching the biographical movie Frida, which gave us the personal background we needed to understand the motivations that drove these two extremely talented yet diverse artists.  There were also many photographs on display that documented their lives together and apart.

According to his own words, Rivera painted "for the people".  His art reflected his politics and provided social commentary life in Mexico.  Over 21 years older that Kahlo, he was already an established and respected artist when they first met.  Many of his paintings depicted female workers in the fields, often carrying calla lilies that were prevalent in his country.  He was also known for his large scaled murals that were commissioned both around Mexico and in the USA.  His work called "En El Arsenal" shows political activists, including Frida Kahlo,  preparing for the Mexican revolution by  handing out rifles, and the founder of the Cuban communist society accepting ammunition.  He painted a series of frescos called "Detroit Industry" on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Frida Khalo's paintings were much more personal, mainly self-portraits reflecting upon important and often traumatic events in her trouble-filled life.  A near fatal bus crash when she was 18 left her in pain for her entire life and subjected her to numerous operations.  Kahlo started painting during this period and documented the life lasting impacts of this accident in many works.  Her emotions regarding her multiple miscarriages were graphically portrayed, as well as her rage and pain over Diego's incessant womanizing.  The final straw that led to a separation and divorce came when she caught Rivera having sex with her own sister.  This resulted in a painting capturing how she cut off her long flowing locks and wore men's clothing in an act of rebellion and reflected her emancipation from Diego.  One of her most famous works called "Two Fridas", depicting two images of herself sitting in European and Mexican dress, reflects her ongoing identity crisis regarding her mixed heritage.  Her Father was a German Jew while her mother was indigenous Mexican-Spanish. In the painting a blood-line passes between the two images connecting at their exposed hearts.

Despite their tumultuous relationship and many affairs on both sides, Diego was the love of Frida's life and vice versa.  They reunited after one year of divorce and stayed together until Frida's early death at 47.  Many of Frida's paintings include an image of Diego, often around her forehead to show that he was always on her mind.

My favourite part of the exhibit was found at the end where a display of whimsical, vibrant sculptures were presented.  The theatre group Shadowland had been commissioned to create papier-mâché Judas figures reflecting a Mexican tradition held during Catholic Holy Week.  The Judases are meant to represent all sources of evil, from the devil to military dictatorships. Puppets of Frida and Diego portrayed as Catrina skeletons are a means of honouring loved ones during the annual Day of the Dead festival.  An work-in-progress display was under construction that would eventually hold ceramic sculptures interpreting Mexican legends and traditions.

After viewing the Frida and Diego exhibit, we went up to the Contemporary section on the 5th floor to see Evan Penny's incredibly life-like, yet warped sculptures of human heads and torsos.  We first encountered Penny's work when one of his sculptures (Stretch #1) was displayed in the gallery when the AGO reopened after its renovations.  It was amazing to see the the details of every pore, wrinkle and facial hair on the skin.  This time around, Stretch #1 is joined by 30 other sculptures in a larger exhibit that gave insight into Penny's process and body of work.

Penny would start from a rough pencil sketch of his source figure, and then use Photoshop to morph, stretch or skew it to the desired proportions.  He then sculpts using modeling clay and covers it with a rubber mould that peels off to be the base of the sculpture.  On top of the mould is applied layers of silicone, which gives the figure its hyper-realistic qualities, using techniques that Penny learned while working with Gordon Smith's FXSmith company (of X-Men fame). The eyes are separately created including painting of the eyeballs and carefully adding veins.  Facial hair is added by individually punching strands of human or animal hair into the silicone.  Penny created self-portrait sculptures based on a photo from his youth as well as projections of what he would look like in his later years

Unlike Stretch #1 which is clearly distorted, a series of sculptures are shown that appear to be fully 3-dimensional and proportional when looking at them straight on.  But viewing them from the side reveals their flattened nature.  Penny has a few works that show the back of the head and torso.  When you approach it and try to look around, you realize that there is no face attached.  Penny created a sculpture of his friend Libby Faux and then made another version called L.Faux CMYK.  This second piece superimposes three coloured (blue, yellow, red) versions of the same image in a skewed manner that simulates a blurry photograph that was taken with insufficient light.  Looking at it, your eyes keep trying to merge the images back together into a single solid form.

 Using a special camera that captures a single photo over an extended period of time, he took photos of his friend having a conversation.  Using this for inspiration, he created sculptures of the results.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

TIFF - Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style

Joining in on the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the James Bond film franchise, TIFF is hosting the exhibition Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style. The entrance to the show is shaped like the iconic spiral rifle barrel that Bond is often shown in during the movie opening credits. I wonder how many people have been tempted to pause and strike the "James Bond pose" as they walk through. Off to the side, TV screens simultaneously play all the opening credit scenes from the various Bond movies.  Inside, 007 props, costumes, video clips and other memorabilia abound.

The first room features a collage of photographs of all the various actors who have played James Bond.  A glass case contains various fake passports, a wallet containing credit cards, a lighter, a flask and a few handguns.  It was interesting seeing the guns up close since they were looked like cheesy plastic imitations.   

A chronology of author Ian Fleming's life revealed some interesting tidbits.  He based the names of some of his most infamous villains on school mates from Eton, such as Tom Blofeld or George Scaramanga.  Fleming wanted a nondescript name for his hero and chose James Bond after the author of the book "Birds of the West Indies".  Bond does not like drinking tea or Windsor knot ties, mirroring Fleming's own distastes.  Fleming based the gambling scene from Casino Royale on a personal experience during the war.  He was in a casino and decided to try to relieve some Germans of their money as a way to help out the war effort.  Unfortunately he was wiped out instead, but the idea made it into the Casino Royale book where James Bond fared much better.

One entire room is devoted to "golden" artifacts from various movies. Lying on a rotating bed is a mannequin in a bikini bottom painted all in gold, replicating the death of Jill Masterson from Goldfinger.  Also from this movie are Oddjob's steel rimmed hat (which was accidentally given away to a fan and had to be bought back at auction for 62,000 pounds), the only remaining "gold" ingot which Connery had autographed, Auric Goldfinger's suit jacket, Pussy Galore's waist coat, and the gold record from Shirley Bassey's hit song of the same name.  The highlight of this room was Scaramanga's golden gun from The Man With The Golden Gun.  It comprised of a cigarette lighter as the firing chamber, a cigarette case as the grip, a pen shaft for the barrel and a cufflink for the trigger - all in gold, of course.  The golden bullet distinctly has 007 engraved on it.

The room filled with replicas of Q's gadgets and weapons is quite fun.  Included were the Omega Sea Master watch with built in laser, various briefcases that hide a sharp blade or plastic explosives shaped as toothpaste or an alarm clock, a pack of cigarettes that is a detonator for a bomb, and the Lotus car that turns into a submarine.  In each case, a video clip is shown from the movie that the weapon is used in.

Costumes or artifacts from many of the villains were on display.  There was a ceramic painted bust of Hervê Villechaize as NickNack from The Man With The Golden Gun, TeeHee's iron claw arm from Live And Let Die, the maid costume and hidden shoe blade of Rosa Klebb in To Russia With Love, the hooded robes of MayDay from A License To Kill, or the different stages of plastic surgery that Blofeld goes through in Diamonds Are Forever.

Bond girls are also represented. Jinx's orange bikini from Die Another Day, worn by Haley Berry was hung side by side with Ursula Andress' iconic white bikini that she wore as Honey Ryder in Dr. No.  Andress was a voluptuous bombshell in her day and the scene where she emerged from the water wearing that white bikini is seared in the brain of every middle-aged man who was a teenager at the time.  But in comparison, Berry's bikini top was noticeably the fuller one.  Also interesting was comparing Sean Connery's relatively modest shorts-like swim trunks with Daniel Craig's much skimpier, crotch-hugging ones. Other costumes and props included those worn and used by Solitaire in Live and Let Die, Tomorrow Never Dies character Wai Lin's leather suit and Verity's outfit and sword from Diamonds Are Forever. 

A large section is devoted to the tuxedos, evening gowns and jewelry used in the now expected casino scenes.  The various tuxedos worn by the various James Bonds did not have much variation (other than the Scottish kilt outfit for George Lazenby in His Majesty's Secret Service).  On the other hand, the dresses created for the Bond girls were stunning and unique, ranging in material, colour and decoration.  Some were shimmery, others lacy but all were sexy and revealing.

The final part of the exhibition highlighted the different foreign, exotic locations that the movies have been set in.  James Bond has traveled around the world to places including Japan, San Monique, the Udaipur Jungle, Afghanistan, Saint Petersburgh, Cairo, Venice, and even to a space station in the movie Moonraker.

This was a very comprehensive retrospective of the James Bond canon.  The only thing that would have made it complete would have been the presence of an Aston Martin DB5.  We had to settle for a little gold toy model.