Tag: musical theatre

Stormy Pacific

For all its sheen, there’s something awfully disquieting about South Pacific. The beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, about the shenanigans of a group of U.S. army men stationed in the south seas, features some super-famous tunes (including “Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair”, and “Some Enchanted Evening”), but some genuinely uncomfortable moments that, in the Bartlett Sher-directed version currently back in Toronto after last summer’s run, don’t get smoothed over, but underlined. I love this. Few things are more annoying than a musical production that isn’t conscious of its own dated attitudes or troubling subtexts. Sher doesn’t want cute, shiny, and lovable; he’s more interested in difficult, ugly, and awkward. Those dark places are where the humanity of the piece reside, silent, lurking, and treacherous.

The Tony Award-winning production (running at the Toronto Centre For The Arts through April 10th) features top-notch performances and choreography, but it’s in the show’s design, and particularly, its direction, where one really notices the troubling underbelly lurking within James Michener’s tales. The alarmingly leanings of earnest Lieutenant Joseph Cable (Aaron Ramey) for the young native Liat (Sumie Maeda) gives the gorgeous “Younger Than Springtime” a much darker undertone. Her ambitious mother, Bloody Mary (Jodi Kimura), lurks around the two young lovers after their first initial tryst, singing “Happy Talk” as more of a desperate sales pitch than a romantic lullaby, stalking and wildly gesturing at the stunned Cable and pushing her pie-eyed daughter toward him: “If you don’t have a dream / you got to have a dream! / How you gonna make a dream come true?” But whose dream is it? And how much compromise does it take to make that dream a reality? What’s the price? Sher’s production doesn’t provide any easy answers.

Equally, the dark undercurrent of racism that snakes through Sher’s production gives it an edge against the saccharine moments, that, once they occur, seem at once beautifully poetic and confusingly florid; the powerful ballad “You’ve Got To Be Taught” is delivered as two black airmen stand on one side of the stage, and two white cohorts on the other. It isn’t hard to recall the words of transplanted Frenchman Emile De Becque (David Pittsinger) talking about why he left France -the ostensible reason he gives is “freedom” -but the fact he has no problem having a black servant becomes all the more troubling. Suddenly he and his nurse love-interest Nellie Forbush don’t seem so different after all. Their “Some Enchanted Evening” ballad is indeed, enchanting, but you can’t quite forget that they’re working through the same difficult issues around race, hypocrisy, and Western privilege.

By the musical’s end, love conquers all, though we sense a long road ahead for the couple. Playing a role as complicated -and as fraught with historical baggage -as Nellie isn’t a walk in the park, even with that beautiful, catchy music. American soprano Carmen Cusack captures the frustrations, fears, and outright confusion of a women at an emotional crossroads: trust a man her logical mind says “no” to, or trust her heart, which says just the opposite.

Carmen and I recently exchanged ideas about the challenges of playing Nellie, of singing Rodgers and Hammerstein with opera singers, and what South Pacific might tell a newer generation.


What’s the biggest challenge to playing Nellie?

The challenge with Nellie is going through her emotional ride every night without exhausting myself too much. She laughs, sings, dances and cries, she is tormented at various points and to genuinely give that to an audience, my body has to endure her journey. So keeping myself strong and healthy to maintain 8 shows a week is the main goal.

How much did past interpretations of the role affect your own (or did they)? It must be challenging, knowing so many people are walking in with an image of Mitzi Gaynor in their heads.

I can’t say that any particular interpretation of Nellie affected mine. I looked at the script and saw a woman that I could relate to on certain levels and then just watched a bunch of old 1940s films and came up with something that worked for me. Although, I will say that Mary Martin’s spunky, sort of tom-boy feel was inspirational.

Your leading men in this touring show (David Pittsinger and Jason Howard) come from operatic backgrounds. Does that change the way you approach the music, vocally? How much has your own style and approach influenced them?

The music is written so well that there really aren’t any adjustments vocally to be made. The songs come into the scenes and are a perfect flow of the conversation. Rodgers and Hammerstein certainly knew what they were doing. I am lucky to have had several years of opera training behind me so I can blend with my operatic costars. As for my style influencing them…. you’d have to ask them.

One of the hardest things about playing Nellie is the accent -it must be dangerously easy to fall into Hee-Haw rhythms. How conscious are you about this when you’re onstage?

I don’t really think too much about that. As soon as the wig and costume goes on the accent comes. I just try to keep it subtle.

The music from this is so famous and so beloved; how hard is it to stay in character onstage, and not totally swept up by that music?

Not hard at all! It’s the music that helps put me into character and places me on that tropical paradise and keeps me there for those three hours. It’s an awesome ride!

South Pacific has a timeless, and yet timely quality to it. What sorts of things do you think it says to a 21st century audience, one that hasn’t lived through civil rights or World War Two?

How much we’ve learned and yet how much there still is to learn.

Photo credits:
Top photo, David Pittsinger as Emile de Becque and Carmen Cusack as Ensign Nellie Forbush. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Middle photo Carmen Cusack as Ensign Nellie Forbush. Photo by Peter Coombs.
Bottom photo Carmen Cusack as Ensign Nellie Forbush and the Nurses of South Pacific. Photo by Peter Coombs.

Sparkle, With An Edge

I’m not the biggest fan of movie-to-anything adaptations. It’s unfair, but productions tend to become laden with so many expectations and comparisons so as to sink the show before a note is sung. Lord Of The Rings is a case in point: the 2006-2007 musical suffered in comparison to Peter Jackson‘s epic film series of the early aughties. No matter how silly, small-minded, and un-visionary it may be, people who’ve seen a movie are going to come to its theatrical counterpart expecting to see some kind of approximation. How excellent then, that the musical version of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert does so well in that regard, and, in the process, carves out its own totally-fabulous niche.

Maybe it’s because the splashy work is made up of fun 70s and 80s tunes. Maybe it’s the fact the nature of the work (moving between the exquisiteness of intentional artifice and serious themes) lends itself to the visual. Maybe it’s strong direction, acting, choreography, and design. Or maybe it’s a combination of the all of the above. Seriously, this show’s a winner in all its glittery, glammy glory; it’s fun, fabulous, and stuffed with real feelings. I can’t think of a better way to light up a dark Toronto winter than to scamper down King Street, platform heels and all, to see it in all its disco-ball, swirling-bus glory. It’s really that good.

Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert: The Musical made its North American debut Tuesday night in Toronto. It carries high hopes on its sparkly platform shoes -or make that shoe, which sits aloft the bus (“Priscilla”) which the characters travel in across Australia. The story adheres closely to the 1994 film, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, loud costumes, lewd language, and lots –lots -of buff, sexy men. Mitzi (also known as “Tick”), the hyper Felicia, and the classy transexual Bernadette travel across the country to play a casino in Alice Springs. It’s there Mitzi/Tick reunites with his long-lost wife and the son he’s never met. The musical version has added a few sparkling elements, including three angel-like figures who pop down from the top of the stage and belt out 70s and 80s pop numbers with aplomb, like sparkly muses floating above the performers’ heads. The show’s music is entirely made up of pop-radio favorites, including predictable (if dancey) hits like Madonna’s “Material Girl”, Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”, and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”. As if to emphasize the glam, there’s a huge sparkly shoe, and disco ball, that go into the audience, along with a few pounds of confetti and plenty of risque costumes (yes, bare-bum-exposing), all of which make the show feel less of a theatre piece than a Pride party in the Princess of Wales Theatre. In staid, conservative-theatre-loving Toronto, that can only be a good thing.

Will Swenson gives a tender, touching performance as a man trying to reconcile various aspects of his past and present with his ever-fluid identities -as father, performer, and gay man; his duet with son Benjamin (Luke Mannikus) was genuinely throat-lump inducing, even with the amusing pseudo-Elvis impersonations. “You Were Always On My Mind” feels both camp and touching at once -and it’s rare the two can co-exist peacefully in any cultural moment, let alone in a musical where camp is considered de rigeur. As the catty Felicia, performer Nick Adams ups the camp ante to 100, ferociously throwing out one-line bon mots and dancing like his life depends on it. He proves himself both a huge comic relief and a deeply magnetic stage presence.

Anger, abs, and tears aside, I found Tony Sheldon’s performance as the elder stateswoman of the troupe most moving; he didn’t have the bitter bite of Terence Stamp‘s filmic counterpart (see? comparisons are inevitable!) but instead conveyed a remarkable combination of dignity, warmth, and longing. Having played Bernadette over one thousand times onstage, and with a lengthy list of theatre credits (including performing in works by Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Stephen Sondheim), Sheldon brings a refreshing sense of balance, toning down the campy, outlandish qualities of the show. An older man playing a tranny, toning things down? True. More than anyone, Sheldon clearly conveys the sense of outsider-ness the troupe face in the wider world. Hiding behind big sunglasses, long, blonde hair, and louche outfits a la Lauren Bacall, there’s a remarkable sense of sadness combined with faint vestiges of hope. Sheldon shares a nice chemistry with Canadian actor C. David Johnson (as a kind mechanic), and conveys confident poise, particularly when coming to the defence of Felicia after he’s been beaten up in the tough town of Coober Pedy. Bernadette’s response to a rough cowboy’s rude demand is perfectly executed, and superbly delivered. Ouch.

While it would be easy for the performers to fall back on Thomson’s eye-popping design, but thanks to Phillips’ instinctual direction and the strong chemistry between the three leads, that thankfully doesn’t happen. But it must be said: the set is a magnificent thing to behold, as is that sparkly bus of the title. Designer Thomson borrows liberally from the rock and roll world in his use of LED screens and colour. It was interesting, in watching the show, to see just how much the music-and-theatre worlds collide Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical. Remnants of past tours involving artists as diverse of Parliament Funkadelic, Madonna, David Bowie, and even U2 were discernible in the set, lighting, and costume design. There is a definite element of rock-pop concert to the proceedings here, adding a party-like atmosphere, and keeping nicely in-step with Mirvish’s other big production, Rock of Ages, which is currently playing down the street.

With gorgeous visuals, jaw-dropping costumes, genuinely joyful performances, energetic choreography, and peppy musical arrangements, one is nudged into the realms of beautiful fantasy here, even as we’re pushed out of that fantasy and shown a much uglier side. The decision to not flinch away from hatred is brave. Showing the nasty lettering that gets spray-painted on the side of Priscilla following a performance the gals give in another small town they travel through allows for a vital bitter edge amidst the sugar. Likewise, keeping the salty language of the film version shows tremendous respect to the source, as well as to the essential nature of the characters being portrayed. Like the movie, the work examines the ugliness of homophobia without dwelling on it. By the end, the definition of ‘family’ -in all its complications and challenges -has been stretched and moulded into something much deeper and wider than any of the characters could’ve imagined at the start. If you’re in Toronto, take your feather boa’d self to the Princess of Wales for some solid, first-rate theatre; if you’re not in Toronto, well… get in that bus. Just remember to bring your dancing shoes.

Photo credits:

Top Photo: Company: Foreground (l to r) Will Swenson, Tony Sheldon, Nick Adams in the North American premiere production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical Photo by Joan Marcus.

Middle Photo: Will Swenson and Luke Mannikus in the North American premiere production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical Photo by Joan Marcus.

Bottom Photo: Tony Sheldon as Bernadette by Tristram Kenton.

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