Monday, March 14, 2011

#73 - Live Theater

I love live theater, but I have to admit that without this goal I would never have made the time to see 10 performances in 200 days. I guess the lesson from this goal is that I need to make this activity more of a priority in my life ... and I will since I have 3 shows scheduled to see in the next month!

The first four performances I saw while I was in London last fall. I've already shared my thoughts on seeing Wicked. The second show was Love Never Dies ... an Andrew Lloyd Webber sequel to Phantom of the Opera set 10 years later at Coney Island. Waiting for the curtain at this performance was one of the times that I felt most keenly alone in London ... there was a couple having an animated discussion next to me involving the program notes, comparisons to other shows they'd seen, etc. and I had to restrain myself from leaping into the conversation. Alas, a different group seated by me spoiled the climatic title song with a ill-timed giggle fit (bad enough that other audience members were turning around to glare). However, the truly amazing part of this show was the visual effects. When Coney Island comes to life from Madame Giry's memories at the beginning, I was awed. I'm still not sure how the technical aspects of making the steeplechase horses appear in the smoke worked. Definitely a show with a large budget (well-used) for visual effects.

Next, I went to We Will Rock You. This musical based on Queen songs was a random choice on my part based on available tickets that particular night. It was definitely fun; however, I have the feeling that I missed many of the jokes because I don't know much about Queen and didn't get the British political references. This performance suffered for me by being compared to three other fabulous shows within just a few days ... timing is everything, and I'm sure it would have captured me more if I had seen it on its own.

The final London show was The Lion King. I had been told by more than one person that I NEEDED to see this show. I went in a bit dubious about the description of puppet costumes and came out a total convert. I had the good luck to sit in an aisle seat and looking back over my shoulder to see the elephant approaching me literally sent chills down my spine. I thought the most beautiful moment was at the end of the intermission with all of the birds swooping through the house; it was hard to decide where to look. I even stopped to look at the merchandise on the way out ... I'm glad they weren't selling any of the flying birds because I definitely would have ended up trying to fit one in my suitcase on the way home. A great use of the house space, you felt like a part of the savanna where the action takes place rather than looking through a window to it. Another technical aspect I noticed with this show was the great lighting ... subtle changes that brought the colors of night and day to the open spaces of Africa. I was also impressed by the character actors who brought to life Simba's friends ... how do you convince people that you're a meerkat or a warthog?

The next group of shows were a gift from my friends Nina and Peter for cat sitting - tickets to this year's UMD theater season. I think I owe them about three more months of cat duty for this! If you live in northeastern Minnesota and like theater, I would suggest attending one of these shows as they are a great entertainment value. If you see several shows over a period of years, it's also fun to watch the actors mature and gain range in their individual skills.

The first of this group was South Pacific. I had never seen either the stage or screen version of this musical despite many opportunities that somehow went awry. I was impressed by the vocal skills of the cast - particularly the two leads. Another highlight of this show was how much everyone on stage seemed to be having a good time ... it's hard to point to what actually conveys this feeling, but the shows that have it always seem to have an extra sparkle. A glaring drawback that would seem minor but kept pulling my attention from the action ... non-period footwear for the ladies, especially the gladiator sandals worn by Nellie, or styles not appropriate to the setting like ballet slippers on the beach ... the hairstyles were spot-on, but the shoes ... yikes!

The second show was Richard III. This was THE show I wanted to see out of the season, and the actor who played Richard did a fabulous job! I really get all of those references now that I've been reading in books over the years, and he made the villain both repulsive yet understandable. The setting was not traditional; after reading the program notes, I understood it, but it involved much seemingly pointless moving of set pieces. The rest of the cast seemed content to let Richard have the spotlight ... not many memorable moments from anyone else.

Blithe Spirit is the most recent of these shows. This was another piece I had wanted to see at some point. I felt that the best performance in this piece came from the actress playing Elvira; however, my companions (who had seen other performances) didn't agree. The set design seemed a bit awkward ... all the action was downstage (mostly centered) and often the actors were lugging the furniture around so the blocking would stay there.

Amidst the UMD performances, I saw a local community theater production of Church Basement Ladies. I had read the book that this show is based on a few years ago, so it was interesting to see how a series of essays was turned into a storyline. It's always fun to see people you know on the stage, and this show had a great ensemble cast. Plus, the set looked very close to the church kitchen I remember from my youth -- only the chest freezer was different.

The last two performances I saw were of two different companies doing the same show - All Shook Up. I had given tickets for a performance at the Chanhassen Dinner Theater as a Christmas gift to my sister Janet; you can read about that here. This show had the glitz that comes from a long run on one stage. It had great set pieces and lots of humor plus longer dance numbers and more ensemble cast. However, all of the characters were exactly that ... characters or perhaps caricatures... only the older actors gave any sort of depth to the roles. I was also bothered that the male lead never seemed willing to make eye contact with the audience ... not just the ignoring the "fourth wall" but actively seeming to shut out the crowd.

The other performance was the current national tour group at the Reif Center in Grand Rapids. This group had that sparkle I referred to earlier where everyone up there is just having a great time. Plus, the characters all seemed human underneath; I even felt sympathy for the snooty Miss Sondra after despising her (in a good way) in the other performance. I missed the sets from the previous performance, but later heard that there were some difficulties with the touring company's normal set so they were running at a bare minimum that night. I loved the costuming touch early in the first act where all of the girl's blah dresses switch to color. However, the best part of this show for me (and many others in the audience there) was seeing the lead role of Chad played by an actor that we've watched grow up. Brian Kess was still in school when I moved to here, and he was a standout then ... he more than stands out now, he knows how to rock the auditorium and take the audience with him! Check out Brian's site here to see some of the other things he's done.

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