Tag: Tonys

No Artificiality

A recent blog post on the organization A Work Of Heart was met with huge interest, and proved very popular across the internet. People applaud the marriage of creativity and commerce, because it doesn’t smack of the patronizing attitudes that so often dominate the conversation around aid.

Far too often there is a kind of smug arrogance over the role one may’ve played in some do-good initiative or another; one becomes more interested in our laser-pointed act of generosity to The Less Fortunate (who always, it must be said, remain nameless and faceless in their poverty) than in providing empowerment to achieve a livelihood not unlike our own. Western aid is often characterized by an agenda of righteousness, utterly lacking in awareness of history or culture. Self-empowerment, self-determination, responsibility and accountability… what’s that?

FELA! may have some answers. The mega-musical, produced by Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, revolves around the life and music of Nigerian artist Fela Kuti. While Kuti may have passed away in 1997, his work -and the show itself – underlines his political and artistic legacies for audiences, both white and black, Western and non-Western, in the 21st century. Kuti’s life revolved around politics and art, the hows and why and wherefores of the two intersecting, and the power created therein to affect real change, both in his short time on earth, and past it, for all time, for all Nigerians. Kuti’s sound is a musical smorgasbord of influences; he liberally mixed the sounds of indigenous African beats (namely Yoruba drums) with big American-sounding horns and twanging James Brown-style guitars. His work even betrays Middle Eastern influence; there’s a distinctly Klezmer mood in “Mr. Follow Follow” mixed in with the funky beats and bleating horns.
In FELA! the songs as used both as plot points and party anthems, and perhaps, both; the party becomes political, and the political becomes a party. “Water No Get Enemy”, “Expensive Shit” and “Zombie” are seamlessly interwoven throughout the piece, providing dialogue and narrative drive, along with groove and timeliness. The work may take place somewhere around 1977, but FELA! is less a period piece than it is an evocation of the power of music to empower a people and a nation. One nation under a groove, indeed.
Groove isn’t something that Toronto audiences immediately respond to in the theater, however. FELA! opened at the city’s Canon Theatre at the end of October, brought to Canada by Mirvish Productions. The show’s charismatic lead, Sahr Ngaujah immediately sensed some Canadian shyness during a recent Friday night performance, and he wasn’t pleased. The accomplished build the energy, doing call-and-responses, storming off the stage James Brown-style, and getting us on our feet to dance. Ngaujah also showed off his able improv abilities when, during one of his character’s asides chatting up the wonders of igbo (or marijuana), an eager audience member shrieked “Pass!” as he lit up what looked like a gigantic joint. Ngaujah looked up with a wicked smile, clearly delighted, and began riffing on the ups and downs of reefer-sharing. It was a warm, off-the-cuff moment that underlined the human heart beating at the center of FELA! as well as the steely resolve of its title character to play by his own rules, come hell or highwater.
As in Kuti’s life, the enemy in FELA! is the violent Nigerian government of the 1970s (and arguably, beyond that time period). On a larger scale, it attacks the endemic corruption of worldwide governments by corporate interests. The decision to have an unseen enemy, rather than actual physicalized figures, renders their evil deeds -the rape of Kuti’s “Queens”, the murder of his mother -more horrific, even as it solidifies Kuti’s defiance. Giant screens on either side of the stage portray various shots from the time and from the musician’s own life; scenes of mobs, arrests, beatings, of newspaper headlines, of shots of Kuti’s compound and The Shrine (the interior of which is the setting for the musical itself) provide a history lesson, but it’s wrapped in the pulsing sound of Afrobeat, the sonic hybrid Kuti pioneered and perfected. The production’s onstage band, including the talented Morgan Price (who does tenor sax solos) ups the energy ante, and provides able solemnity where needed. Captivating performances by the work’s female leads balance out the machismo. British actor Melanie Marshall does a stunning turn as Fela’s mother Funmilayo Kuti, her coloratura soprano soaring as she inspires her son even past the grave. L.A.-based actor Paulette Ivory is a force of nature as Sandra, Fela’s American wife. Whether she’s standing with hand on hip, head cocked, or belting out “Lover” in her strong pop-inflected voice, Ivory’s presence is, as we suspect with Sandra, one to be reckoned with.
Interestingly, Toronto critics, amidst their praise of the popular Tony Award-winning work, noted the lack of portraying Kuti’s polygamy, and the fact FELA! is lacking in physicalized bad guys – but those criticisms ignore what this work is really about: one man using his art to fight for change. The finale encapsulates the twin impulses toward art and politics that characterized Kuti’s life, combinining his untimely passing with that of other key political figures. It’s eerie -and eye-opening -to witness coffin after coffin being carried onstage and piled artfully in one corner, each coffin bearing the name of either a murdered figure (like Ken Saro-Wiwa), or a company (like Shell Oil) who must die so that The Shrine (aka Nigeria) might live. One understands more clearly the legacy Kuti left, not only for his own country, not only for his fans, but for people who are fighting for justice, dignity, empowerment, and respect.
Those issues are crystalline in their presentation, but they aren’t delivered with any didacticism or smugness. FELA! is too smart for that. Instead, the show is education via entertainment, enlightenment through electrical musical energy. The Torontonians at the Canon knew some of the songs, and could be heard (softly) singing the words or humming along. The subtext was understood, but they couldn’t help but get lost in the music. That’s the power of art, well done and well-executed. If only this marvelous Mirvish Production was playing longer than two weeks -this is precisely the kind of entertaining, electrifying, timely programming Toronto theatre needs. If you’re in the polite Canadian city, make time between now and Sunday (its closing day) to see FELA! -and make sure you shout, dance, and make noise. Not to be charitable – just because it feels so damn good.
Photo credits:
Top photo: Paulette Ivory and Sahr Ngaujah by Tristram Kenton
Middle photo: Catherine Foster, Sahr Ngaujah and Nicole de Weever ©Monique Carboni
Bottom photo: Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti and the Broadway cast of FELA! ©Monique Carboni

Turn On The Dark

A documentary aired on television earlier tonight about the legendary Chrysler Building here in New York. It brought to mind the incredible sets of Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark. Apparently the famous landmark features prominently in the musical’s scenic design, by George Tsypin.

The troubled (and hopefully now, not-so-troubled) production opened tonight at the Foxwoods Theater. I’ve been following the show’s developments for a while, and was one of its biggest boosters, until actor Christopher Tierney suffered a serious injury last December. Then I just got worried. Then frustrated. Then angry. I followed, with some horror, the drama involving director / co-creator Julie Taymor being forced out by the show’s producers, in March. Things seemed very ugly and uncertain for a while, and it’s something of a miracle the show is finally opening tonight. I’m happy for everyone, though until I see it, I’m going to withhold judgment, and good or bad ideas. Still, I remain very curious.
Lastnight I somewhat quenched that curiosity, and joined a few hundred curious other folk to hear two of Spider Man’s producers, who are also its composers (and, oh yeah, mega-mondo big-ass rock stars), spoke in a public forum about the show, its problems, its challenges and its potential. The 92nd Street Y buzzed with energy as the 8pm start time came and went. The intimate auditorium brimmed with either super-excited super-U2-ers, or Broadway fans curious about what the Irish pair might have to say as newcomers to the Great White Way. Author Salman Rushdie was also present, along with a smattering of New York intellgentsia and longtime Y supporters, who sat in thoughtful silence, even as a small but annoying smattering of gushing female mondo-fans over-clapped and giggled at every little rock star face. (Note to self: next time there’s an empty seat beside Mr. Rushdie, take it.)
Interviewer Jordan Roth, President of Jujamcyn Theaters (the company behind shows like the award-winning The Book Of Mormon and Jersey Boys) and host of Broadway Talks at 92nd Street Y, asked the two about the attraction of the live stage. Edge rightly pointed out that “(U2) found its feet on a live stage”, while Bono noted that “there’s a thing happening in culture at the moment, where the live arts seem more important than the recording.” He continued:

It’s that inexplicable thing when you get a great performer and great material, and it can only happen in a live context. We were intrigued by it, and we’d seen some great shows like Les Miz and some of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows. We saw the chance to do something where we could take advantage of what we were playing around with in rock ‘n roll, and if it was the right project, it might be something we’d want to do.

I pondered this as I sat through the nearly-90 minute Q&A session, which was equal parts frustration (far too much uncritical fan worship) and fascination (body language indicating extreme nervousness for at least one of the composers), peppered with plenty of charm, sarcasm, and humor. The interview was a mix of casual and formal, focusing on U2’s creative output, and its connection with the experience of writing and producing on Broadway. Inane questions about “who do you think the next Gandhi will be?” aside (a fan question submitted earlier), it was, for the most part, an interesting mix of honesty, humor, and humility, offering a rare insight into the harried journey of composition and creativity from two very, very famous men.

Walking out of the Y at the talk’s end, I reflected on the power of live arts, and of theater especially. Sunday night saw my Twitter stream fill with people’s reactions and observations on the Tony Awards, which were unfolding in real-time. People were virtual fist-pumping, guffawing, loudly declaiming -it was a drama in and of itself -as they found a community of like-minded, live-loving souls whose whole existence seemed focused on the sheer pleasure of watching live people do rather ordinary things extraordinarily well. In the wired up world of the 21st century, there’s something awfully reassuring and simply good about going to the theater; there’s a certain kind of bond created, however unspoken, between audience and cast and crew -it’s a symbiotic relationship involving trust, tech, timbre, and sometimes even tap-dancing. MP3s, iPads, and fancy mobiles with a millions apps can’t compete -and shouldn’t. To see this kind of passion replicated on Twitter for the Tonys was an interesting experience; it’s the same phenomenon as during the Oscars, or any other awards show, or any other big event, for that matter. There’s a community -but it isn’t the same as live theater. Being part of a group of living, breathing, sweating human beings in the dark, watching other living, breathing, sweating human beings lit up and performing before you is a uniquely delicious experience, one that speaks to our common humanity and desire for shared, live experience.
Saturday night I was able to finally able to partake in this shared experience. I attended my first piece of theater since moving to New York, which felt like somewhat of a momentous occasion, even if I went in with mixed feelings about Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. I completely overlooked that awkwardness in favour of the opportunity to see -no, experience -real live people onstage, playing. Playing roles, and beautifully, simply, playing. (As it turns out, David Leveaux’s production was so excellent, I’m now a confirmed Arcadia fan.) This is something I think the composers of Spider Man inherently understand; they have, for wont of a better word, been playing, literally and figuratively, onstage now for thirty-plus years. Transferring that energetic faith and exuberant zeitgeist for live performance into a real, concrete thing that serves the difficult, choosy twins of narrative and character is always an uphill struggle, especially if you’re used to composing within the fiercely competitive, pressure-cooker world of Broadway.
Lastnight, Bono admitted that the show still has “10%” left to improve on, and won’t close that gap for at least another two months. “In the end, The Edge and I have got good manners, we’re fun… but we are motherf***ckers,” he noted. There was steel in the singer’s husky voice, a characteristically Dublin-esque stare-down in his no-nonsense expression, devoid of usual charm, but with a bald, toothsome authenticity that made the comment -and its delivery -deeply affecting and entirely believable. That simple, blunt acknowledgement captured the sexy, succulent siren’s call of play and creativity, and her fraught relationship with the ugly, gargoyle-like nose-to-the-grindstone practicality that could only (and must only) be Lady Siren’s lifelong mate. What results is frequently personal, but when you’re in the performing arts, it winds up being writ large, up for debate, criticism, hounding, and eternal judgment. Such is the fate of such a union, of such a scary, scintillating, and in many ways, artistically necessary undertaking. A near-alchemical mix of faith and hard work sometimes open doors to new worlds -and sometimes not.
In the end, the mantra is simple: Work hard. Play hard. Live hard. That is theater’s call to all of us, however we may choose to weave our webs.
Photo credits:

Spider Man: Turn The Dark Off Photo © Jacob Cohl.
Bono / The Edge set Photo © Richard Perry / The New York Times.
92nd Street Y stage photo from my Flickr photostream.

Eternal Factory

Toronto’s Factory Theatre announced their 41st season today, with works by puppeteer Ronnie Burkett, playwrights Anusree Roy and Adam Pettle, and the Factory’s Ken Gass featured as part of the program.


Also included is the incredible Eternal Hydra by Anton Piatigorsky. I loved this Crow’s Theatre piece when it premiered in Toronto last spring. As the video piece I hosted and co-produced (for Lucid Media) demonstrates, Piatigorsky’s play is challenging, but it doesn’t abandon emotional interaction entirely, either. Rather, it nicely balances the head and the heart within a fascinating, Borges-esque piece of existential drama that touches on questions of creativity, authenticity, and identity. Eternal Hydra won a bevy of Dora Awards (Toronto’s equivalent to the Tonys) back in June, and for those who didn’t get the chance to see it at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre last year… well, get thee to Factory. It’s going to be a great season.

Let The Light In

Romantic, insightful, deeply felt, and lovingly performed -what else can I say about the Toronto production of Light In The Piazza? Oh yeah: it inspired me to cook a slat of rigatoni al forno the following day. Bene? You bet.

Light In The Piazza started out life as a novella by Elizabeth Spencer. It became a weepie 1962 film starring Olivia de Havilland, Yvette Mimieux, George Hamilton and Rossano Brazzi. The musical version premiered in 2005 at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center, where it ran for over a year and received a boatload of awards: two Outer Critics Awards, five Drama Desks, and six Tonys. Not too shabby.

However, I approached the musical with some caution, mindful of the fact that I have a marked distaste for the maudlin. I figured, a story involving disability, love, and parental (dis)approval can’t end well, nor can it provide insight into matters of the heart -or culture. Turns out my fears were utterly unfounded. Toronto’s Acting Up Stage Company has done a wonderful job of rendering Adam Guettel’s work (book by Craig Lucas) with simple, quiet elegance, while keeping the necessary passion firmly in place.

The two main characters are the Clara (Jacquelyn French), a 26-year-old with the mental capacity of a child, and her hyper-protective mother, Margaret Johnson (Patty Jamieson), who are American tourists abroad. They’re not the tackily-dressed, loudly-garbed, photo-snapping types, either. Director Robert McQueen has kept the original time period in place, with classy vintage costuming reflecting a more retrained time. Margaret and her daughter’s upper class outfits (designed by Alex Amini) -dresses, hats, scarves, all in muted, soft colour -nicely contrast with the Italian natives’ vivid, stylish costuming, but, importantly, neither the garb nor the overall direction ever reduces anyone to a stereotype.

Seeing the production avoid easy stereotyping was a relief, because despite Corriere Canadese being one of the show’s sponsors, I still feared a tacky Luigi (the moustachioed chef from The Simpsons) caricature. But I needn’t have worried; McQueen draws out some wonderful performances, using Guettel’s intrinsically knowing score as a guide. Several scenes and numbers delivered or sung entirely in Italian, with the pitch and intensity of each mirrored in movement and delivery. Florence -presented less Frances Mayes-esque and more E.M. Forster-ish (at least contextually) -is where the mother-daughter pair meet Fabrizio (Jeff Lillico), who is immediately drawn to Clara. Lillico, so memorable in productions at both Soulpepper and Stratford, is wonderful as the smitten young man who barely understands his own passions and yet knowingly understands (and accepts) Clara. Stage veteran Juan Choiran is wonderfully charming as his father, Signor Naccarelli. The scenes between he and the beguiling Jamieson, whether awkwardly exchanging pleasantries or sharing a short, tender kiss, are very poignant, revealing the piece’s subtext about missed opportunities and new ones. French and Lillico also share a lovely chemistry that is at once passionate and gentle; their silent exchanged glances and carefully-considered silences reveal two actors who deeply understand the awkward, wild wonder of young love.

Equally as impressive is Guettel’s score, masterfully lead by Jonathan Monro. While one might expect loud, treacly declamations of love-you-forever-ness, we instead get insightful psychological sketches. The music takes elements of other modern musical contemporaries (notably Sondheim) to weave a sonorous, elegant tapestry of sounds that is beautifully rendered by the quintet, who are kept in the half-light behind a white scrim that is set in labyrinthine slats across the wide stage of the Berkeley Street Theatre. This elegant, economical design (by set and lighting designer Phillip Silver) is a perfect canvas on which to paint the story of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, men and women, parents and children. The Light In The Piazza is about so much more than the obvious “love overcomes all” superficiality its premise might imply; it’s about love, to be sure, but it’s also about opening yourself to possibility, even (especially) when it’s risky. I heard a line in a rap tune recently, that “you maximize potential when you take risks” and though this is the furthest thing you could get from rap, the message -and magic -remain the same. Step into the light, the piazza whispers, come into the light. You might be surprised what you see -and who sees you.

The Light In The Piazza runs through February 21st at the Berkeley Street Theatre.
Photographs by Joanna McDermott.

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