Friday, August 21, 2015

CNE 2015

It must have been over 10 years since we last went to the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), so we decided it was time for a return visit.  We took advantage of the opening day $8 admission fee special, saving $10 off the regular $18 admission.  Taking the subway to Union Station in order to catch the Harbourfront 509 streetcar to the Exhibition Loop, we were thrilled to finally ride on one of the sleek, new, ultra-modern  Toronto streetcars.  The interior of these vehicles look and feel very much like our new subway trains, with the red and blue seats, the airy, open, walk-through compartments and the strong air-conditioning that was so welcome on a hot day. The multiple entrances are all outfitted to support the Presto card.

Since we don't really like going on rollercoasters or other amusement park rides, the main attractions for us at the CNE are the live shows, special displays and exhibitions, and of course, the wacky food offerings that are highly anticipated each year.

Part of the fun of eating at "the Ex" is to stuff yourselves with highly caloric, cholesterol-inducing junk food, to the verge of being sick, without actually crossing that line.  Our strategy was to space out our consumption, interspersing eating sessions in between show times in order to give our stomachs time to recover.  We started out by eating the deep-fried poutine balls, which consisted of breaded balls of mashed potatoes stuffed with cheese curds and then slathered with Bavarian style gravy and more cheese curds.  We followed up with the deep fried rice pudding balls, served with a custard dipping sauce.   Later on, we continued with the "Coffee and Donuts" flavoured milk shake, and thinly cut deep-fried potato wedges (just short of being as crispy and crunchy as potato chips) covered with sour cream and chive flavoured seasoning.  We waited a bit too long and missed out on the bacon-wrapped grilled cheese sandwich before they ran out of stock.  This might have been just as well, since eating that on top of everything else might have pushed us over the edge.  At least we had the good sense to bring our own bottled water instead of drinking sugar-filled pop.  Good thing we only attempt this unholy binge once every decade!

There were such entertaining shows to choose from that it was difficult trying to squeeze in as many as possible.  I did work out a rather aggressive schedule that had us running between buildings to catch one show after another.  But the whole plan fell apart right off the start.  We showed up minutes before the start of the first SuperDogs show and found out that in order to secure a seat, we would have to arrive at least 15-30 minutes earlier.  Quickly rescheduling on the fly, we dropped a few shows that we were less interested in and left more time between the remaining ones.  We managed to catch the first 20 minutes of the amazing Chinese acrobats before rushing back for another attempt to watch the next performance of the SuperDogs.

This time we got there far in advance and secured one of the best seats towards the front of the stage, right in the centre of all the action.  The group of dogs ranged in sizes and breeds, but they were all really fast and adept at navigating through obstacle courses.  A few times though, a couple of dogs veered from the course and tried to make a break for it, causing their owners/trainers to race after them.  The dogs each navigated individually through an obstacle course that included running through plastic tunnels, around barrels, and jumping both lengthwise and vertically over various gates, barriers and other obstacles, and later raced each other in pairs through a second course.  They showed their dexterity by weaving at full speed between tightly spaced poles in what the announcer described as "dancing".  Several dogs were brought out to display their specialized talents including playing Frisbee and finding hidden items.  The dogs were really fun to watch but what we found particularly amusing was all the advertising and product placement involved in the show, which was sponsored by President's Choice.  Dog food, grooming products and plush toys were hawked throughout the show–"You too can have a super dog if you feed your pet President's Choice dog food!"

Next we secured a spot in front of the Extreme Pogo demonstration, but after waiting over 15 minutes past the show's start time without any sight of the performers, we gave up and decided to move on.  Just as we departed, relinquishing our prime sight lines, we heard them announce that the show would start in another 5 minutes.  By then, it was too late and we could not get close enough to watch it–how disappointing!  Instead we went to the Lumberjack show to watch demonstrations and competitions with chain saws, hand saws and axes.  Finally we watched a Parkour demonstration, which involves athletic individuals running, jumping, and climbing on and over obstacles in an urban environment including fences, boxes, scaffolding, and building walls, stairs, windows and rooftops.

There were also interesting exhibitions and demonstrations in the various buildings.  In the Arts and Crafts Building, we visited the "Big Bang Theory International Art Exhibit".  In addition to artistic representations of the main characters from the hit TV show (Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, Howard, Penny, Amy and Bernadette), there were also some props including a reproduction of the elevator that is always out of service (a running gag on the sitcom). A plaque provides both written and pictorial explanations for the rules of "Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock" which the guys play on the show–an unorthodox spin on the traditional "Rock, Paper, Scissors" game.

The art exhibit featured renderings inspired by the beloved characters, created by artists from around the world.  Heading into its ninth season, The Big Bang Theory is still soaring in popularity, with its four male leads holding the top four spots in the list of highest paid actors on television.

An excellent Sherlock Holmes exhibit was on display at the Enercare Centre, featuring drawings, posters and books of various Sherlock Holmes stories as well as props from Sherlock Holmes movies and TV shows.  We saw Irene Adler's gown, Holmes' cape and deerstalker cap, living room furniture and violin.  There were life-sized cutouts of the British TV series version of Holmes and Watson starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.

There were also more whimsical renderings of Holmes and Watson including a scene made out of Lego, plush dolls (with striking likenesses to Cumberbatch and Freeman), a Sherlock Holmes of the Living Dead zombie doll and various cartoon representations such as Holmes and Watson as rabbits.  Included in the books on display was a copy of "Sherlock Holmes for Dummies".

An exhibit promoting the future opening of the Theatre Museum of Canada had costumes on display from various recent theatre productions.  Scattered throughout the various buildings were entrants for a sandcastle competition.  The Better Living Building is now home to the farm animals including horses, pigs, rabbits, cows and chickens.  We stopped by several times at the butter sculpture exhibit but it was obvious that this was going to be a multi-day operation since the sculpture was just barely taking shape by the end of the day.

While we don't like going on rides, it was still fun to walk through the Midway and feel the excitement in the air.  We did try our hand at a few of the carnival games, setting a $10-20 budget for this activity so that we didn't get carried away with trying to win a kewpie doll.  Be it whack-a-mole or shooting balls or water at targets, we just weren't very adept at these games.  When Rich lost in a race against a 4-year-old, we knew it was time to call it a day.

We wrapped up our day at the CNE by watching the free concert at the Bandshell.  The opening act was "The Abrams" featuring brothers John and James and their bluegrass band.  The brother who played the fiddle brought down the house with his energetic performance.  The feature act was the 1970s rock band "America", known for songs like Horse With No Name, Ventura Highway, Tin Man and You Can Do Magic.  The two surviving band members, Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell were front and centre, singing all of their hits to a packed audience.

So we had a full and entertaining day at the Ex, but we both agreed that this experience was good enough to carry us through another 10 years before we would want to go again.  We probably need that long to recover from all the crap that we ate!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Theatre: Kinky Boots and Newsies

Mirvish Productions has been doing an excellent job in securing recent Tony nominated musicals in their annual subscription series.  For the upcoming 2015/2016 season, we look forward to watching 2014 Best Musical winner "A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder", 2013 Best Musical runner-up "Matilda", and 2013 musical "If/Then", for which Idina Menzel was nominated as best lead actress.  We have just finished attending the shows for the 2014/2015 season and were thrilled by the excellent productions of 2013 Best Musical winner "Kinky Boots" and 2012 runner-up "Newsies".  Both of these theatre productions were adapted from movies, with acclaimed actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein creating the book in each case.  This makes for interesting comparisons between the live shows and their cinematic sources. 

Based on a true story, the 2005 British movie Kinky Boots revolves around Charlie Price, who inherits a failing Northampton shoe company from his father and saves it from bankruptcy by converting the factory from creating high-quality men's shoes to the niche market of producing "kinky boots" for drag queens.  He gets the idea after meeting the drag queen Lola (a.k.a Simon), who becomes his business partner and footwear designer in the endeavour.  Much of the movie is dedicated to the typical "fish out of water" subplot as Lola/Simon struggles to gain tolerance and acceptance in the small town.  The traditional romantic subplot also exists, with Charlie originally engaged to Nicola,  the "wrong woman", but eventually falling for Lauren, his supportive employee.  However while the romantic comedy trope of "Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl Back" is followed, the "Girl" in this sequence is actually Lola. 

Fierstein made very few changes when converting the Kinky Boots movie to a Broadway musical.  Both stories start by introducing young Charlie and young Simon in a foreshadowing of their ultimate destinies, and then follow more or less the same plot line.  Other than the reduced role of original girlfriend Nicola in the musical, as well as a change in the impetus that causes the "Boy Loses Girl" scenario, the biggest difference was the resolution of the conflict between Lola and Don, a bigoted factory employee who takes pleasure in harassing Lola.  Tired of Don's antics, Lola challenges him to a pair of dares to prove who is the "better man".  Lola will do whatever Don proposes and then Don will do the same.  In the movie, Don challenges Lola to an arm wrestling competition, which was filmed with many close-ups on the two opponents' faces.  The musical changes the challenge to a boxing match, which is much more theatrical and easier for the audience to see the results from afar.  Some of Lola's most memorable lines from the movie are also spoken verbatim in the musical, including "Ladies, Gentlemen, and those who have yet to make up their minds..." and "2 and 1/2 feet of irresistible tubular red sex".

While the movie is not a musical, there are musical elements every time Lola performs at her club and also in the final Milan catwalk show where the kinky boots are unveiled.  Some perfect songs were selected including "Whatever Lola Wants" from the 1955 musical Damn Yankees, James Brown's "This is a Man's World" and "These Boots Are Made For Walking", the Nancy Sinatra hit.

For Kinky Boots the musical, the music and lyrics for the songs are composed by pop star Cyndi Lauper, who turns some of the dialogue from the movie into song lyrics such as "The most beautiful thing in the world ... is a shoe".  In the movie, Lola makes the assertion that "What a woman secretly desires is a man who is fundamentally a woman..", which Lauper turns into the song "What a Woman Wants".  Given that this is her first attempt at writing for a musical, Lauper does a fairly good job, especially on Lola's songs such as "Land of Lola", "The Sex is In the Heel" and the aforementioned "What A Woman Wants", which are all sassy and sexy to reflect her personality.   Lauper also wrote a humorous song "History of Wrong Guys" for Lauren, a heartfelt duet "Not My Father's Son" for Lola/Simon and Charlie, and a peppy, celebratory song "Everybody Says Yeah" as a show-stopper to end the first act.  For some reason thought, we found it a bit difficult to hear the lyrics of some of the songs, even when only one character was singing at a time. 

The staging, dance numbers and bright, flamboyant costumes all add to the fun of this joyous musical.  The best choreography involves the use of movable conveyor belts that were pushed around and danced upon, the boxing scene, and the catwalk scene at the end of the show.  Kinky Boots the Musical is a lot of fun to watch and makes for an enjoyable night out.

The 1992 Disney movie musical Newsies also deals with a true story–the newsboys strike of 1899 to protest against compensation policies of Joseph Pulitzer and Randolph Hearst, the two major newspaper tycoons of the time. A young Christian Bale stars as the fictional character Jack Kelly, a charming scoundrel who teams up with fellow newsboy Dave and his little brother Les in order to sell more papers.  When Pulitzer and Hearst raise the cost of the papers that the newsies are required to buy before they can sell them, Jack leads the newsies into strike action, using the more eloquent Dave as his mouthpiece. Reporter Bryan Denton is sympathetic to their cause and publishes an opinion piece in support of the newsies.

Unlike Kinky Boots, Harvey Fierstein makes significant changes to characters and the flow of the plot in order to adapt Newsies for the theatre.  Keeping the basic premise, he eliminates superfluous characters such as Dave and Les' father, mother, and sister Sarah (the love interest of Jack in the movie) and transforms older male reporter Bryan Denton into spunky young female reporter Katherine Plummer (the new love interest for the musical), who is hiding the fact that she is also Joseph Pulitzer's daughter.  While Sarah was portrayed as the passive damsel in distress that required rescuing by Jack, the character of Katherine better reflects the modern-day female role.  She is intelligent, witty, brave, independent and often it is her good ideas that help Jack and the strike to victory.  The interactions between Katherine and Jack also align better to the typical romantic comedy plot line and expands the story beyond the David and Goliath struggle.

The music for the movie is composed by Alan Menken, who has been nominated for numerous Academy Awards, winning the Best Original Song Oscar for Disney cartoons Little Mermaid and Aladdin.  The movie soundtrack boasted some memorable songs with catchy tunes and lyrics including the group numbers "Carrying the Banner" and "King of New York", and the rousing, anthemic songs "The World Will Know", "Seize the Day" and "Once And For All" that rally the boys to strike.  These wonderful songs are kept for the musical, although some of the lyrics are modified to match the changes to the story, or expanded to make the songs more substantial.  The greatest changes are made to the power ballad "Santa Fe"–Jack's escape song where he dreams of leaving the New York rat race for the open country of New Mexico.  In the movie, Jack sings it after meeting Dave and Les' family and it is a lament for his own lack of family.  Since the entire sequence of meeting the family is eliminated from the musical, the song is moved to become the opening number that Jack sings to his best friend, the gimpy Crutchie, and the entire first half of the song is rewritten to remove references to the family or Jack's lack of one.

In both the movie and the musical, the highlights involve the large group dance numbers, which is not surprising since the movie's director Kenny Ortega is also a renowned choreographer.  Both versions of Newsies involve many styles of dancing including ballet, jazz, tap, and acrobatic cartwheels, flips and slips.  For the song "Seize the Day", the music and dance style have a distinct Irish Celtic flavour to them.  One interesting adaptation from movie to musical occurs in the dance sequence for "King of New York".  In the movie, one of the newsies simulates a ballet spin by holding onto the slow-moving blades of a ceiling fan while standing on a table.  The equivalent of this in the musical involves a breathtaking, extended pirouette while spinning on a piece of newspaper.

Considering that this is a touring road show, the musical Newsies has some very impressive staging including the use of large, mobile metal grid structures with fire-escape stairs attached to them. The multi-leveled sections are used for scurrying up and down during chase scenes and accentuates the number of newsies on hand during the group numbers.  The use of video adds much clarity and drama to the production, allowing you to better visualize what is happening on the stage.  When Jack sketches a picture of Katherine while trying to woo her, the representation of his portrait is slowly revealed on a large screen in the background, so that you feel like you are looking over his shoulder and watching him draw.   When Katherine is struggling with what to write for her big news article on the newsies strike, the words that she types is shown on the screen, as is the final resulting article.  The headlines of the daily news are broadcasted in large bold letters, and when a photo is taken of the newsies after a victorious protest, that image is displayed after the poof of the camera flash bulb.

The only scene in which the Newsies musical failed to capture the excitement of the movie is unfortunately the climatic finale, where Jack and Katherine's printing of their own newsletter has inspired child labourers across New York to come join them in a massive rally.  While the musical obviously could not add the thousands of extra live bodies like the movie did, they could at least have used video and audio effects to simulate the crowds and generate the necessary exhilarated buzz.  Instead, we had a small group of boys standing behind a gate in the upper right hand corner of the stage, making not much noise at all, and Jack is verbally describing to Pulitizer (and to the audience), the enormous number of children that supposedly had gathered.

Both Kinky Boots and Newsies are feel-good musicals about the little guy triumphing over adversity and both leave you tapping your toes and smiling on the way out of the theatre.  But while I don't remember most of the songs from Kinky Boots, it is the infectious songs from Newsies that I am still humming and singing along to several weeks afterwards.