Thursday, January 31, 2013

REVIEW: Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Monday January 28


It started with Riccardo Muti cancelling because “He was subsequently diagnosed with an inguinal hernia, which requires surgical treatment as soon as possible. His doctors determined that to delay the surgery until after the scheduled tour to Asia could lead to complications.” Then they announced that Lorin Maazel will replace Muti (Taipei got Osmo Vänskä). Well, they have to bring in a well-known conductor worthy to replace Muti (or all hell will break loose), right?. So far, I was okay… then they change the programme! They kept Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D Op. 73, BUT they replaced Stravinsky’s The Fairy’s Kiss: divertimento and Busoni’s Turandot Suite, Op. 41 with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C K551, Jupiter. If I had known this, I would have chosen the second night (January 29) with Verdi, Mendelssohn and Beethoven. Trying to be positive, I thought that it was better to listen to something that CSO was more comfortable with rather than listen to them fumble through something they are not ready for.

Was it because I was disappointed with all the changes that I just can’t seem to appreciate this performance? Jupiter was Mozart’s last symphony and also his longest. Maazel, by using a slow tempo, didn’t do the music any favor. Worse is that it was a very uninteresting slow crawl. Sometimes I don’t mind the idiosyncratic pace that some conductors employ as long as they were trying to say something or even just simply trying something new, but this Mozart was just boringly standard and to certain extends plain. Some portions were so plain that my mind wandered around. And because I was seating on the first row, my immediate line of sight was the feet of the musicians… and their feet were far more interesting! My conclusion is that some of them do really need to clean their shoes and preferably polish them. Also, the trumpet player should really leave his cowboy boots in Chicago.

The Brahms improved a little, but not much. My eyes did continue to wander and this time they went to the attires of the female members of the orchestra. The word “dowdy” came to my mind. In fairness to Maazel, the problem in Brahms was not all his. The orchestra was not there. A few times, a few members of the string section overshot (not finishing together). First, I thought I was imagining it, but then when the second time it happened, my friend and I immediately looked at each other with disbelief! The piece had a promising start...there was an interesting “swing” to it, but it didn’t last sadly. Slowly it descended into measured, careful and academic performance… quite average.

The band gave two encores, Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor and the Prelude to Act III of Wagner’s Lohengrin.

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Chicago Symphony Orchestra
28 January 2013

MOZART Symphony No 41 in C, K551, Jupiter
BRAHMS Symphony No 2 in D, Op 73 29

Conductor: LORIN MAAZEL

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REVIEW: Classic Broadway with HKPhil

Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Saturday January 26

In the years that the HKPhil (or rather HKPO) has been doing Broadway concerts, this has to be the best. The music of Richard Rodgers (mostly) and Jerome Kern seat beautifully with the orchestra. In the past when the program includes music from more modern musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Hairspray and Spamalot, there was just not enough spunk and pluck to the whole feel. I also like the fact that it kept the performers to three people. For some reason, the moment there are four performers on stage, there are just too many entrances and exits, the balancing of microphones gets peculiarly off and not to mention the interactions between the singers.

The evening was about the great musical partnership known as Rodgers and Hammerstein. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were some of the most influential, innovative and successful professionals during their time. But even before they created a string of popular Broadway musicals in the 1940s and 1950s, they both had collaborated with other artists. Lorenz Hart has written lyrics to the music of Rodgers for more than two decades, while Jerome Kern has set the lyrics of Hammerstein in music before.

To bring their song into life, HKPhil has invited Lisa Vroman, Gary Mauer and William Michals. All did a wonderful job. Some of the parts I really like were how Lisa Vroman introduced the song Lonely Goatherd from The Sound of Music. The spiel was just right without sounding studied or unprepared. It came across most natural and endearing. Her rendition of the song was beautiful with just the right amount of characterization. Edelweiss, also from The Sound of Music followed and sang by William Michals. He encouraged the audience to join in and amazingly, the audience actually sounded quite good. Speaking of William Michals, I do particularly like his voice, he sang with ease be it the low notes in Ol’ Man River (Showboat) or the high notes at the end of Some Enchanted Evening (South Pacific). His Soliloquy was another highlight. Unfortunately, his CD (sold at the lobby) didn’t really bring out his artistry due to poor recording. Gary Mauer’s Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’ (Oklahoma!) showed off his lyric tenor voice handsomely. Accompanying all these wonderful singing was the artistry of HKPhil led by Gerald Steichen.

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Classic Broadway
25&26-1-2013 Fri & Sat 8PM
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall
 
PROGRAMME
 
RODGERS/HAMMERSTEIN: The King and I Overture
RODGERS/HAMMERSTEIN: It’s a Grand Night for Singing (State Fair)
KERN/HAMMERSTEIN: All the Things You Are (Very Warm for May)
KERN/HAMMERSTEIN: Make Believe (Showboat)
KERN/HAMMERSTEIN: Ol’ Man River (Showboat)
RODGERS/HART: Falling In Love With Love (The Boys From Syracuse)
RODGERS/HAMMERSTEIN: Lonely Goatherd (The Sound of Music) RODGERS/HAMMERSTEIN: Edelweiss (The Sound of Music)
RODGERS/HAMMERSTEIN: Carousel Waltz (Carousel)
RODGERS/HAMMERSTEIN: A Wonderful Guy (South Pacific)
RODGERS/HAMMERSTEIN: Some Enchanted Evening (South Pacific) RODGERS/HAMMERSTEIN: Shall We Dance (The King and I)
RODGERS/HAMMERSTEIN: Oh, What A Beautiful Morning (Oklahoma!)
RODGERS/HAMMERSTEIN: People Will Say We’re In Love (Oklahoma!)

Gerald Steichen, conductor
Lisa Vroman, soprano
Gary Mauer, tenor
William Michals, baritone
Hong Kong Philharmonic

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

REVIEW: Antarctic Journey with HKPhil

Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Saturday January 19

What is the antonym of synergy? The closest single word (without inventing one) that I can think of is antagonism. In any case, the concept of bringing some of the newer music together within the theme of journey, polar extreme and desolation; and adding on to that, infuse the concert with projected images and narration sounded quite exciting, the reality was very different.

I blame it to programming. All three pieces (Bax’s Tintagel, Rautavaara’s Cantus Articus and Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 7) while may differ in structure and music style are arguably quite similar in the overall emotions they evoke. Grandiloquence and profound melancholia immediately came to my mind. David Atherton and the HKPhil gave a decent performance but it was not enough to lift up the weight of the antagonistic combinations of the different elements in the evening.

The centerpiece of the evening was Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 7 entitled Sinfonia Antartica. It got the multi-media treatment with montage of Herbert Ponting’s photographs of Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition. The problem with the montage was that it was interesting but it didn’t really accompany well the music. The pace, rhythm and overall mood it created doesn’t really reflect the music. One has to give credit though that at least it appeared to have some kind of a plot which matches the narrative provided by Rebecca Lee and Michael MacLeod. There was an introduction to each movement (NOT the brief quotations Vaughan Williams indicated in his original score) using selected segments from Scott’s journal. The segments were laid out in the programme while Macleod, in English, narrated half of each segment and Lee narrated the other half in Cantonese. This idea was totally gratuitous especially when Macleod spoke so plainly, almost a caricature of a Westerner trying to make himself understood amongst non-English speakers. Lee, though, unexpectedly did a wonderful job.

Me and my friends were never speechless after an HKPhil performance… it was so obvious that not a single one of us enjoyed it.
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Antarctic Journey
18&19-1-2013 Fri & Sat 8PM
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall

PROGRAMME
BAX: Tintagel
RAUTAVAARA: Cantus Arcticus
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No.7 Sinfonia Antartica (Performance with images and narration)

David Atherton, conductor
Yuki Ip, soprano
The Hong Kong Children's Choir, chorus
Rebecca Lee, narrator (Cantonese)
Michael MacLeod, narrator (English)

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Monday, January 28, 2013

REVIEW: 4th HK Int'l Chamber Music Festival Closing Gala Concert

City Hall Concert Hall, Wednesday January 23


For the closing of the 4th Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival, presented by the Premiere Performances of Hong Kong, Artistic Director Lin Cho-liang designed an evening of Russian music. None from ‘The Mighty Handful’ but instead, the audience got the ‘Russian Masters’ represented by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich.

To read my review for TIME-OUT HONG KONG, please click here.
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Closing Night Gala - Russian Masters
The 4th Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival 2013
23 Jan 2013 Wed 20:00
Concert Hall, Hong Kong City Hall

Programme
Rachmaninoff
  • I Have Grown Fond of Sorrow, Op. 8, No. 4 (Polyubila ya na pechal svoyu)
  • Sing Not to Me, Beautiful Maiden, Op. 4, No, 4 (Ne poy, krasavitsa, pri mne)
  • How Fair this Spot, Op. 21, No. 7 (Zdes khorosho)
  • In the Silence of the Secret Night, Op. 4, No, 3 (V molchan i nochi taynoy)
Renée Tatum, Wang Pei-yao

Tchaikovsky
  • No, Only One who has Known, Op. 6, No. 6 (Nyet, tol'ko tot kto znal)
Renée Tatum, Wang Pei-yao

Shostakovich: Piano Quintet, Op. 57
Denis Kozhukhin, Jerusalem Quartet

-Interval-

Tchaikovsky: Sextet "Souvenir de Florence"
Ning Feng, Michael Guttman, Toby Hoffman, Andrew Ling, Leonard Elschenbroich, Richard Bamping

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REVIEW: Cinderella by the Dutch National Ballet (Amsterdam)

Het Muziektheater / The Amsterdam Music Theatre (Amsterdam), Tuesday January 1


On to the 14th show of my 14 shows in 13 days marathon.

Since I am running REALLY late in my reviews, I will keep this very short. Christopher Wheeldon’s new ballet Cinderella is a co-production by two major companies, Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. The piece premiered in Amsterdam’s Muziektheater on 13 December, 2012, while I saw the last and emotional performance of the run. Apparently (the announcement was in Dutch), the accompanying orchestra – Holland Symfonia - is facing a budget cut and the January 1 performance will be the last of nearly two-thirds of the musicians with the orchestra.


This new Cinderella triumphed in delivering a well-told, darker but more nuanced Christmas ballet. By moving around the order of Prokofiev’s original score, Wheeldon managed to create scenes to give a more balanced story way beyond just Cinderella and her ugly stepsister. We witnessed Cinderella losing her mother, the Prince and his best friend being naughty kids, Cinderella’s father oscillating between a caring guardian and being indifferent, to the nicer stepsister falling in love with the Prince’s best friend. In fact, the narrative was so packed with details and balanced out that the emphasis almost didn’t land on Cinderella and her prince.


The success of this ballet in not on the showcase of great choreography or ballet techniques but on the theatrical and entertainment value of the production. British designer Julian Crouch contributed a lot to the magic on stage – beautiful craftsmanship, levitating chairs fantastic masks and multitude of chandeliers were just few of the many wonderful visuals provided.


The one thing that I was not particularly keen on was the replacement of the Fairy Godmother with four ninja/kuroko style “Fates”. Not only did this substitution weaken the free-spirit character of Cinderella, the whole design style didn’t seat well with the other element… BUT this is just a minor quibble to a truly wonderful new ballet!
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Cinderella

Choreography: Christopher Wheeldon
Music: Sergej Prokofjev
Libretto: Christopher Wheeldon and Craig Lucas
Design and Costume: Julian Crouch
Lighting: Natasha Katz

World Premiere13 December 2012, Het Muziektheater Amsterdam

Orchestra: Holland Symfonia
Conductor: Ermanno Florio

2 Hours and 30 Minutes with 2 Intervals

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REVIEW: Verdi's La Traviata (Brussels)

La Monnaie/De Munt (Brussels), Monday December 31

On to the 13th show of my 14 shows in 13 days marathon. A lot has been said already about this production. Even before I went to Brussels, the La Monnaie website has already dedicated a page just to clarify the context of the production and to clarify its stand. It has also invited other directors and THE director (Andrea Breth) to react to the controversies. I have deliberately declined to read these clarifications and stands in hope to find out by myself what were the issues involved. Well, it is not difficult to guess… BUT, even before the performance started, I already knew that I was in for an interesting evening - an announcement was made that Simona Šaturová (Violetta) has lost her voice, but will stay on the stage and mime throughout with the voice of Ana Camelia Stefanescu, who will be standing at the stage left in full view of the audience.
 
During the prelude to Act One, the stage opened to an ominous container park. One of the containers opened to produce fresh delivery of trembling females struggling against traffickers, but with one exception… Violetta. She stepped out of the container with the aim of being in control. That pretty much set the theme of the whole concept of the production. Gone was the courtesan of the early 18th century; and instead we get the star whore of the gritty underworld of prostitution and drugs painted over with a veneer of glamour and chic.
 
In Act One, we get a salon with odd pieces of chrome and black leather furniture. At the back was a grand display of prostitutes in an array of lingerie with varying levels of nudity. The “guests” and the “guest relations officers” were in black except for Alfredo who was in grey. What was noticeably missing was the chorus, which was deported to the pit… a sign of a lazy director who tries to fit the opera into his concept rather than the other way around.
 
 
 
In Act Two, Scene One, we saw a loft under renovation. Nothing “controversial” here, except that I think people will find it extraordinary to see that for a moment, there was an erotic tension between Violetta and Giorgio (Scott Hendricks)… they got really close and almost kissing. This brought us to the concept that Alfredo (Sébastien Guèze) was actually a lad in love with the older and more experienced Violetta who is a contemporary to the young-ish dad of Alfredo.
 
 
In Act Two Scene Two, once again the chorus was cast away to the pit. The atmosphere was generally decadent with showcases of ladies with naked breasts, smearing wine on men, men kissing each other, a man fondling a little girl and smearing her face with “brown stuff” from a bucket… now whether what was the “brown stuff”, the director gave the audience some clues by showing the man dropping his pants and squatting over the bucket.
 
 
In Act Three, the curtain opened to Annina giving Dr. Grenvil a blowjob in a container park, apparently in exchange for him to see Violetta who is now sleeping under a pile of plastic sheets outside a selection of unused containers (why she chose to sleep outside the container was a mystery).
Overall, I am not so sure what was the fuss all about. If this was a production in Hong Kong, I can imagine the shit-storm it would have created, but this was a production in Europe where it is weird if it is not weird! For me, it was by far more head-scratching than being shocked or insulted. In fact, I just think the production was plain stupid or at most, a result of an ADHD mind.
 
 
The most irritating part of the production however was Simona Šaturová inability to mime properly. She acted out the character, but didn’t act out the singing. She made sure that the audience knows that she was not the one producing the lovely sounds. Ana Camelia Stefanescu did an ample job and tried to approximate the sentiments on stage in her voice. Both Germonts did well also in view of the concept. Sébastien Guèze was a youthful and appealing Alfredo; though is some parts, he sounded over stretched. Scott Hendricks as his father didn’t have the usual vocal weight associated with the role, but remained to be believable and pleasant to listen and watch. Adam Fischer conducted with clarity though in some instances, the orchestra had difficulty staying tight.
 
Overall, it was an interesting evening.
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La Traviata
Giuseppe Verdi
04, 07, 09, 11, 13, 15, 18, 21, 23, 27, 29 & 31 December

Creative Team:
Music direction ¦ Ádám Fischer
Director ¦ Andrea Breth
Set design ¦ Martin Zehetgruber
Costumes ¦ Moidele Bickel
Lighting ¦ Alexander Koppelmann
Dramaturgy ¦ Sergio Morabito
Chorus direction ¦ Martino Faggiani

Cast includes:
Violetta Valéry ¦ Simona Šaturová and Ana Camelia Stefanescu 
Flora Bervoix ¦ Salomé Haller
Annina ¦ Carole Wilson
Alfredo Germont ¦ Sébastien Guèze
Giorgio Germont ¦ Scott Hendricks
Gastone ¦ Dietmar Kerschbaum
Barone Douphol ¦ Till Fechner
Marchese d’Obigny ¦ Jean-Luc Ballestra
Dottor Grenvil ¦ Guillaume Antoine
Giuseppe ¦ Gijs Van der Linden
Commissionario ¦ Matthew Zadow
Domestico ¦ Kris Belligh




Orchestra ¦ La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra & Chorus

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Monday, January 21, 2013

REVIEW: West Side Story (Paris)

Théâtre du Châtelet (Paris), Saturday December 29

On to the 12th show of my 14 shows in 13 days marathon. I was immediately disappointed when I saw the staging of this West Side Story as I feel that I have seen it before and that the staging was not very original. It was until I saw the ladies singing and dancing America barefooted that I realized that there is that slight possibility that it was actually the same production that I have seen before back in 2005... in Macau! Well, it is the same production! Immediately, the comparison went right straight to the role of Tony. Once in a while, I would go to a theatre and came out thinking, “Gosh, he/she is really good!”; and I would try to find out more about that artist and wonder why he or she is not more famous. Well, in the 2005 performance of this production in Macau, I came out of the theatre amazed at the talent of a young actor by the name of Josh Young. Luckily, his CD was available at the venue and for 8 years now, the CD has been a mainstay in my iPhone and I have also purchased his second CD! Since I saw Young, he has made his Broadway debut playing Judas in the revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical and won the Theatres World Award for an Outstanding Broadway Debut Performance. What all these mean is that Liam Tobin, who played Tony in this Paris run, has a high standard to meet and most unfortunately, he came in below.
 
Liam Tobin is your typical tall and good-looking male lead. His voice has a beautiful tone though it tends to vary in different ranges. Unfortunately, in the evening that I attended, his voice came across as lacking in support which affected some of the top notes. Diana Becker as Maria fared better. She was vocally and dramatically effective, though her rapport with Tobin had a lot to be desired for. Yarina Marin delivered an outstanding portrayal of Anita with equal confidence in both singing and dancing. One of the negatively memorable moments in this production was America. I still don’t understand why the director chose to have the ladies dance it barefooted. It stood out in 2005 and it once again stood out in this performance. I can’t help but feel that it was equivalent to transposing down a song to accommodate a singer. In general, the rest of the cast did well and when it comes to dancing, I believe that they did a better job than the 2005 cast. In fact, I have the impression that the general emphasis of this production was more in dance rather than the singing.
 
The staging was simple and looked very much like a set for a ballet rather than a Broadway musical. Having said that, the series of the signature New York fire escapes that evoked the Upper West Side neighborhood and the cityscape projections on the screen were effective enough to plunge the audience into the setting of this famous Shakespearean story. At the end of the day, the star of this musical is the music of Leonard Bernstein, lyrics of Stephen Sondheim and most importantly the concept and choreography of Jerome Robbins. It was quite exciting to see how the dances actually advance the story, while it is nothing new these days, it must be most astonishing to see it in Broadway in 1957!
 
If I had known that it was the same production as the 2005 Macau staging, I would have chosen to see Bizet’s Carmen at the Bastille.
 
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West Side Story
 
Creative Team:
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Book: Arthur Laurents
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Originals choregraphies: Jerome Robbins
Musical supervisor & direction: Donald Chan
Direction (alternately): Ben van Tienen
Direction & Choregraphy remade by: Joey McKneely
Settings: Paul Gallis
Costumes: Renate Schmitzer
Lighting design: Peter Halbsgut
Sound: Rick Clarke

Cast includes:
Tony: Liam Tobin
Maria: Diana Becker
Anita: Yarina Marin
Riff: Drew Nellessen
Bernardo: Pepe Muños

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Friday, January 18, 2013

REVIEW: A Decade of OPERA HONG KONG



As Opera Hong Kong celebrates it 10-year anniversary, I reflect on my feeling toward this organization.

Nothing shouts cultural sophistication more than having an opera house and a resident opera company. Unfortunately, both aspects require huge and consistent financial support. What I believe Opera HK has achieved in the last decade is that it managed to find enough funding to consistently come up with an average of two operas a year. Its willingness to explore western style Chinese language opera is admirable but it still has to show the same keenness on western opera. With a vast catalog to exploit, OHK seemed far too comfortable in repeating same operas, e.g. Carmen and La Traviata. As a company, it also managed to have an education programme to not only enhance the current pool of local talents but also create awareness and interest in opera. Having said that, there is a lack of consistency in the quality of its productions; and this may be brought about by the almost "ad-hoc" nature of each production.

Actually, one of the organization's greatest successes in my humble opinion would be the organization itself. Having the vision and tenacity to create awareness and grow the art form is important to ensure that it has a role in the West Kowloon Cultural District. It has been the worry of the arts community whether there is the software to match the hardware in the future, and the community should be glad that Opera Hong Kong is actually doing something about it. The organization is far from perfect, but the past ten years should have provided it the experiences and credibility it needs to bring the organization to the next level.

On the surface OHK has provided more operas for the city to appreciate. Prior to OHK, the tendency was to have one locally produced opera by the same director every year. With OHK, we saw it slowly grew with an opera concert in 2004 to three fully-staged operas in 2012 with the participation of various directors. It is the next ten years, however, that will be most important for OHK. The learning and coping period is over; and the community would expect to see more from OHK.

Opera incorporates different performing art ensembles, e.g. orchestra, dance company and chorus. How OHK creates synergistic alliances with other performing art companies in Hong Kong would determine the organizational model and future of the company. It will also determine whether it can become a true professional opera company or continue to be a community opera organizer with an amateur chorus on the side. On orchestra alone, OHK has worked with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, Hong Kong Sinfonietta, Hong Kong Virtuosi, Macao Orchestra, Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra and Shanghai Opera House Orchestra to name a few. While this may broaden the experience of OHK and its stable of local talents, the reality is that these orchestras are not of equal ranks and it definitely showed in their performances. It may be due to scheduling and/or budget that they needed to work with different orchestras, BUT it is these kind of operational and administrative aspects that the next ten years should be able to iron out.

For my personal TOP 5 Opera Hong Kong productions, and an interview with founder and artistic director Warren Mok (by Mark Tjhung) click here and it will lead you to TIME OUT HK!

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Monday, January 14, 2013

REVIEW: William Forsythe / Trisha Brown by Paris Opera Ballet (Paris)

Palais Garnier (Paris), Friday December 28

On to the 11th show of my 14 shows in 13 days marathon. The choices were Don Quichotte or this William Forsythe/Trisha Brown program. The Paris Opera Ballet, I believe, tends to celebrate Christmas by splitting the company into two divergent programmes for their two houses (Bastille and Garnier). Personally, I would have preferred Don Quichotte, but my companion has never seen the inside of Garnier, thus this programme was chosen instead without much hesitation as I am actually quite interested to see these modern ballets that has become a classic of their own as performed by different well-known companies. In fact, when I am in Paris during this time of the year, I do tend to see an opera at the Bastille and a ballet at the Garnier.

Overall, the evening was a disappointment, more because of the programming rather than the performance itself. Now that I have the benefit to look back, it was not too bad, but when I was sitting in the theatre in not the most comfortable seat, the four pieces seemed to be just a series of deconstructed classical ballet pieces with mind-numbing electronic music and monotonous sound-scape! Okay, the music was not THAT bad, but when played sequentially, they became less exciting.

The evening opened with Forsythe creation for the company in 1987, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. It was a strong opening that showed so much promise until slowly Forsythe’s signature incisive language gave way to a few missteps usually associated with opening night or lack of rehearsal. But it was not an opening night; thus I can only conclude that the demand of the work in terms of the fast yet precise moves, abrupt attacks, and technical coolness were just a tad above the ability of this group.

Trisha Brown’s O Zlozony/ O Composite followed. This work for Paris Opera in 2004 had poetry set to the music of Laurie Anderson, which was a welcome divergence from the throbbing music of Thom Willems in the previous piece. However, it didn’t take long before the poetry and music became bland just like the dance. I tried so hard to like it but it was a seriously somber piece of insipid choreography that was at start exciting, but became repetitive. I am not sure why it was in fact inserted in this mostly-Forsythe programme? I suspect that it was there to make the Forsythe’s pieces look good! Dancers Melanie Hurel, Christophe Duquenne and Marc Moreau did a wonderful job though with sustained fluidity in emotions and movements.

Back to Forsythe after the interval, the second half did fare better. The juxtaposition of Woundwork 1 and Pas. / Parts made a huge difference in the appreciation of Forsythe’s language. Woundwork 1, for Paris Opera in 1999, extracted the nucleus of the language and presented it through an exploration of two confident couples (Emilie Cozette, Laetitia Pujol, Mathieu Ganio, Benjamin Pech). Then what followed was that same language expanded to a larger cast matched with the same intensity and magnitude in music in the form of Pas. / Parts (also for Paris Opera in 1999). While the execution was less clean, the choreography with its series of themes and variations showcased exactly what is expected from Paris Opera Ballet – exactitude. The music of Thom Willems saturated both pieces with the same electronic oddness. In the end, it is this last piece that saved the evening.

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Programme:

IN THE MIDDLE, SOMEWHAT ELEVATED
Thom Willems, Original score
William Forsythe, Choreography, scenography, costumes and lighting (Paris Opera, 1987)

O ZLOŽONY / O COMPOSITE
Laurie Anderson, Original score
Trisha Brown, Choreography (Paris Opera, 2004)
Vija Celmins, Scenography
Elizabeth Cannon, Costumes
Jennifer Tipton, Lighting

WOUNDWORK 1
Thom Willems, Original score
William Forsythe, Choreography, sets and lighting (Paris Opera, 1999)
Stephen Galloway, Costumes

PAS. / PARTS
Thom Willems, Original score
William Forsythe, Choreography, scenography and lighting (Paris Opera, 1999)
Stephen Galloway, Costumes

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Friday, January 11, 2013

REVIEW: "NEW" The Phantom of the Opera (Cardiff)

Wales Millenium Centre (Cardiff), Wednesday December 26


On to the 10th show of my 14 shows in 13 days marathon. You have to give it to Cameron Mackintosh when it comes to squeezing the very last drop out of a material. Back in 2007, I saw the “new” production of Miss Saigon; and this time, it was also the “new” production of The Phantom of the Opera. What these two productions have in common is that they are scaled down to either fit in smaller theatre or to make it easier for the production to tour. Needless to say, the iconic elements of the original productions such as landing helicopter or crashing chandelier were all gone to lesser effects. Mackintosh can claim “new” but definitely not “better” or “improved”.

In 1991, I saw The Phantom of the Opera at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne. In fact, if I am not wrong, it starred Anthony Warlow (Phantom) and Marina Prior (Christine). It was my first “original staging” musical; and what I meant by that is that I have seen other musicals before then, but they were all “new” production done by local theatre companies and not the “clone” of the original. I was sitting at the third row center from the front and was so shocked and thrilled when the chandelier came swooping above my head and crashing onto the stage... mind you, I didn’t know that will happen (the benefit of pre-internet/YouTube age). 22 years later, I continue to claim that was the time that made me become a fanatic of musicals! Since then, I saw the same staging done in Broadway and in Hong Kong.

The major changes in this new production are in the set and scene. Gone are the likes of huge dust covers that wrap the proscenium, the slow ascension of the chandelier at the start, the crashing of the chandelier onto the stage, the slow appearance of the candelabras during the boat journey. It packed a compact set design that showcased multiple configurations from a few complex pieces through the creative use of a revolving stage. One of the more impressive concepts was the magical protrusion and withdrawal of the steps leading down from a catwalk (elevated platform way above the theatre and not a fashion runway) to the boat… still, it was a good alternative, but not a better one.

I also detected some changes in terms of interpretation of a few songs (whether these were designed for this new production or just personal interpretation of the cast, I am not sure). One of the more obvious one is All I Ask of You. Instead of the usual rendition as romantic propositions of two lovers, it became more of a romantic squabble turn plea… and this I actually prefer as it created a bit more depth in that relationship.

As for the performers, Earl Carpenter as the Phantom gave a decent performance. His Phantom was dramatically more effective than vocally. Likewise with Katie Hall. Simon Bailey’s Raoul was vocally strong but not exactly a very sympathetic character. Overall, the performers were good, but not great. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music remained wonderful and between the old and new production… only choose new if you can’t get old.
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The Phantom of the Opera
UK Tour - With a brilliant new design by Paul Brown, costumes by the much missed Maria Björnson, a new staging by Laurence Connor, and with new choreography by Scott Ambler

Creative Team:
Composer - Andrew Lloyd Webber
Producer - Cameron Mackintosh
Producer - The Really Useful Theatre Company
Lyrics - Charles Hart
Book & Additional Lyrics - Richard Stilgoe
Orchestrations - David Cullen
Director - Laurence Connor
Choreographer - Scott Ambler
Scenic Designer - Paul Brown
Costume Designer - Maria Björnson
Lighting Designer - Paule Constable
Sound Designer - Mick Potter
Costume Co-Ordinator for the late Maria Björnson - Christine Rowland
Projection Designer - Nina Dunn
Musical Supervisor - John Rigby
Matthew Bourne - Production Overseen by
Associate Director - Adrian Sarple
Associate Choreographer - Pia Driver
Associate Sound Designer - Paul Gatehouse
Illusionist - Paul Kieve
Wig Creator - Angela Cobbin

Cast includes:
Earl Carpenter – The Phantom
Katie Hall – Christine Daae
Simon Bailey - Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny
Angela M. Caesar - Carlotta Giudicelli
Andy Hockley - Monsieur Firmin
Simon Green - Monsieur André
Elizabeth Marsh - Madame Giry
Vincent Pirillo - Ubaldo Piangi
Hannah Cadec – Meg Giry
The Ballet Chorus of the Opera Populaire
  • Caroline Crawley
  • Rachael Crocker
  • Cindy Corrine
  • Ciunfrini Sophie Hartley
  • Jamie McDonald
  • Emma Roberts-Simms
Swing
  • Alistair Barron
  • Michael Diana
  • Lisel Dowsett
  • Hannah Grace
  • Siani Owen
  • James Pullum
Ensemble
  • Rosie Bell
  • James Bisp
  • Olivia Brereton
  • Greg Castiglioni
  • Leigh Rhianon Coggins
  • A C Garcia
  • Sam Harrison
  • Kirk Jameson
  • Sarah Joyce
  • Henry Grant Kerswell
  • Lee Ormsby
  • David Phipps-Davis
  • Claire Platt
  • Ben Sleep
  • Richard Woodford

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

REVIEW: Sleeping Beauty (Cardiff)

New Theatre (Cardiff), Monday December 24

On to the 9th show of my 14 shows in 13 days marathon. This is neither a Tchaikovsky ballet nor a musical adaptation of the Disney version. This is a pantomime. For my non-British readers, a pantomime is… hmmm… okay, to be very honest, this is my first pantomime. Being a resident here in Hong Kong, which used to be a colony of the British Empire, there is a pantomime tradition here. Having said that, I have avoided it like a plague due to the way it is usually described, “It’s a children show with a lot of adult jokes that only the adults will understand. Also, there will be a lot of cross-dressing and audience participation…” Okay… now I understand where the British eccentricity came from. This time though, I was in a marathon. Beside, I was staying with my British family and they all wanted to go to a pantomime… so why not.
 
Looking at the advertisement, it proudly declares that it features Joe Pasquale as Muddles, Ceri Dupree as Queen Passionella and Lucy Evans as Princess Beauty. Well, I have no idea who the hell they are! When I asked my British family members, I am not surprised that they also didn’t recognize these people. But that’s the point! Why the hell do they still want to see it! Looking at the advertisement, it also proudly declares that it is “with amazing 3D special effects”. I thought that is kind of witty given that it will be live theatre, of course everything is “3D”! Well, before I entered the theatre in New Theatre in Cardiff (it was new in 1906), I was provided with 3D glasses, why? Because in two different segments when the characters where traveling (such as looking for Princess Beauty), the production indeed showed films with 3D effects and in it, the audience encounters all sorts of scary creatures such as bats, spiders, snake… get the idea?
 
What was lacking in sophistication was compensated in the how it was staged and the professionalism of the performers. They were not the best in the industry, but they did a more-than-decent job. The jokes were corny, not even when delivered by Joe Pasquale. The costumes were beautiful though, especially the ones of Queen Passionella who insisted that everyone should reply “faaaaaaaaaabulous” every time he/she ask “how do I look?” The one thing that really surprised me was that the audience were very well-trained. They definitely know the drill… when to shout "she's behind you!" or reply "Oh, yes it is!" and "Oh, no it isn't!" They also boldly boo the villain and coyly "awwwww" any sad or sweet situation.
 
After the show, I specifically ask my “sophisticated” British friend Mark (who only prefers opera and shun musicals) whether he liked it or not; and he replied, “that’s the best pantomime I have ever seen!” When I ask when was the last time he saw one, he replied, “oh, a loooooong time ago, but I used to see it every year when I was a kid!” This is my theory; the traditional and sentimental value of pantomime definitely plays a huge part in the enjoyment of this art form. OH, YES IT IS!

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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

REVIEW: Shrek (London)

Theatre Royal Drury Lane (London), Sunday December 23

On to the 8th show of my 14 shows in 13 days marathon. Now this is a very tricky one. I have been wanting to see this musical because I love the movie (I still have to read the book that the movie is based on) and also the cast recording of it. The last time I was in London, I deliberately missed it thinking that it will be a long-running one thus I will catch it the next time in London. Well, this was the next time and for sure, I can no longer postpone my viewing of it as it will close in February 2013 to give way to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory musical.

The musical follows the film closely. And because it is a musical, it was also able to give more back story of the characters and heightened the role of Lord Farquaad. In isolation, the different elements of the musical seemed to be not bad… in fact, quite good. Interestingly though, I just can’t understand why I came out of Drury Lane feeling flat. At first, I thought I was just “theatre-ed-out”… but when I went back to relive the show by listening to the cast recording, I realized that while the music (by Jeanine Tesori) is good, they didn’t seem to build-up the musical. The songs just floated happily throughout and only somehow climaxed with a 1966 song I’m a Believer.

The highlight of the musical is the production itself directed by Jason Moore and Rob Ashford which was hugely supported by the set and costume design of Tim Hatley. Imagine translating all those fairy tale characters onto stage! While the tricks were nothing new – growing nose of Pinocchio, vertically-challenged Lord Farquaad, giant dragon on stage in the style of Chinese dragon dance, exploding bird, flying dragon over the heads of the audience – the magnitude of both details and extent was awe-inspiring.

Performance-wise, Carley Stenson’s Fiona was a finely balanced character who is feisty yet charming and was one of the best performances in the show. Dean Chisnall’s Shrek was endearing and believable. Neil McDemott’s Lord Farquaad was amazingly dynamic though I wish he can be even more flamboyant. Richard Blackwood as the manic and dry donkey was neither manic nor dry enough… in fact, flatter than a gingerbread.

Overall, it was a very well designed production with a lot of happy tunes. It is a very good way to introduce kids to the magic of live theatre.
_____
Shrek

Creative Team:
David Lindsay-Abaire - Book & Lyrics
Jeanine Tesori - Music
Jason Moore - Director
Rob Ashford - Director
Josh Prince - Choreography
Tim Hatley Set & Costume Design
Hugh Vanstone Lighting Designer
Dreamworks Theatrical - Producer
Neal Street Productions - Producer
William Steig - Author Of The Book 'Shrek'

Cast includes:
Dean Chisnall as Shrek
Richard Blackwood as Donkey
Neil McDermott as Lord Farquaad
Carley Stenson as Princess Fiona
Landi Oshinowo as Dragon, Ugly Duckling
Jonathan Stewart as Dragon Puppeteer, Pinocchio
Jaynie Awcock as Standby Dwarf, Standby Young Shrek
Emily Carey as Dwarf, Understudy Young Fiona, Young Shrek
Jon Scott Clark as Dragon Puppeteer, Peter Pan
Ste Clough as Dragon Puppeteer, Pig (Sticks), Understudy Lord Farquaad
Ricardo Coke-Thomas as Understudy Donkey, White Rabbit
Blaise Colangelo as Teen Fiona, Tweedle Dum
Lucie Downer as Baby Bear, Blind Mouse Oliver Eyre as Knight, Papa Ogre, Pig (Bricks), Thelonius, Understudy Shrek
Alice Fearn as Gingy, Sugar Plum Fairy, Understudy Princess Fiona
Lucy Maria Gill as Blind Mouse, Humpty Dumpty
Clare Halse as Tweedle Dee
Bradley Jaden as Dragon Puppeteer, Papa Bear, Understudy Shrek
Aaron Lee Lambert as Knight, Pig (Sticks), Understudy Donkey, Walter
Marc Leslie as Knight, Mad Hatter
Alastair Natkiel as Bishop, Captain Of The Guard, Understudy Lord Farquaad, Wolf
Joseph Prouse as Guard, King Harold, Knight, Pied Piper
Ashley J Russell as Mama Bear, Mama Ogre
Lucy Tapp as Queen Lillian, Understudy Princess Fiona, Wicked Witch
Karli Vale as Blind Mouse, Bluebird, Fairy Godmother
Imogen Gurney as Young Fiona
Orla Gildea as Standby Dwarf, Standby Young Shrek
Skye Meade as Dwarf, Understudy Young Fiona, Young Shrek
Megan Manly as Young Fiona
Paris Price as Dwarf, Understudy Young Fiona, Young Shrek
Hannah Gurling as Young Fiona
Stephanie Bron as Dance Captain, Puppet Captain, Swing (Snow Queen)
Patrick George as Swing (Wooden Soldier)
Alexandra Grierson as Swing (Golden Goose)
Rosanna Hyland as Swing (Little Red Riding Hood), Understudy Princess Fiona
Grant Murphy as Dance Captain, Puppet Captain, Swing (Gnome)
Damien Poole as Swing (Jack and the Beanstalk)
Lee William-Davis as Swing (Wizard)
Kerry Winter as Swing, Understudy Dragon

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REVIEW: Seussical (London)

The Arts Theatre (London), Sunday December 23

On to the 7th show of my 14 shows in 13 days marathon. Like Viva Forever! Seussical was the only available show during this time slot, which was a Sunday morning. Needless to say, there is a reason for it and that is because it was meant for kids. In their words, it is the “Theatre for Young Audiences Version”. Unlike Viva Forever! though, I am actually quite curious about this musical because first, it is a Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty musical (same team that brought us the award-winning musicals like Once On This Island and Ragtime); and second, I have heard the cast recordings and they are actually not bad at all.
 
I do have a few apprehensions though. I knew there will be a lot of kids and I am not sure whether my friend Matthew (who I have invited to join me) will appreciate that! Also, how does an adult review a show meant for kids? I have reviewed Potted Potter before. When I wrote, “it was not a show of sophisticated wit or intelligent satire,” I got feedbacks like “Of course it’s a children’s show. It’s a children’s book series” and “what did you expect Shakespeare?” Yes, it WAS a show meant for kids, BUT it advertised and claimed that “it is perfect for ages six to Dumbledore (who is very old indeed)”; thus I reviewed it from a Dumbledore perspective! So what does one do when there was no such claim? Well, my perspective is that somebody has to buy the tickets and bring the kids there right? And that will most probably be responsible adults with a certain love for live theatre… sounds like me!
 
The first thing that I noticed when the show started was that it uses a pre-recorded accompaniment. Unfortunately, it was also not a good one. Then came the Cat (in the hat); and his prosthetic muzzle piece was so shockingly bad and disgusting that I feel that the show will be better off without it! In any case, the rest of the costume design was so simple and stylized. All Horton the Elephant had was a grey puff vest and a grey fur-lined motoring hat (hat that has two pieces of flap that comes down the side to cover the ears). Same went with the rest of the cast… the Mazie La Bird had a bouquet of feathers behind her red gown, while the Wickersham Brothers who were supposed to be monkeys had just a jacket with some furs attached to it. The simplicity might have caused a bit of confusion as to what are the characters were supposed to be, though I had a suspicion that the kids were not as confused.
 
The strength of this show was the energy and enthusiasm of the performers. This, together with the highly amplified sound though was a bit too much at some point. Some of the highlight performances came from David Hunter’s Horton the Elephant who was beautifully innocent and kind without looking like he was mentally-challenged. Also, Jessica Parker’s Mayzie La Bird was spot-on. The rest of the cast turned in an effervescent performance that held the attention of the kids.
 
Overall, it is not your typical high-quality West End show. The production was colourful but cheap looking, yet the story was told lucidly. I like it, but will not want to see THIS production again… having said that, the kids around me seemed to enjoy it immensely.
_____
Seussical
Arts Theatre, West End
From: Tuesday, 4th December 2012
To: Sunday, 6 January 2013

Creative Team:
Lynn Ahrens (Lyrics)
Stephen Flaherty (Music)
David Hutchinson (Producer)
Phillip Rowntree (for Sell a Door Theatre Company) (Producer)

Cast includes:
David Hunter (Horton the Elephant)
Kirsty Marie Ayers (Gertrude McFuzz)
Jessica Parker (Mazie La Bird)
Clark Devlin (Jojo)
Natalie Green (Sour Kangaroo)
Joe Morrow (The Cat in the Hat)
Philip Scutt (Joe McCourt)
Mathew Waters (Wickersham Brothers)
Amy Punter (Bird Girl)
Tanya Shields (Bird Girl)
Jennifer Low (Bird Girl)

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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

REVIEW: Kiss Me, Kate (London)

Old Vic Theatre (London), Saturday December 22

On to the 6th show of my 14 shows in 13 days marathon. Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate has to be the one show I am most familiar with (amongst the ones in my marathon) because it is the oldest and because I was once in an amateur production of it. I first saw this on stage in October 4 2000 in the form of the award-winning 1999 Broadway Revival. This revival production was the most nominated show during its season and it managed to win the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, Best Performance of a Leading Actor in a Musical (Brian Stokes Mitchell, though I saw his understudy instead Michael X. Martin), Best Direction of a Musical (Michael Blakemore), Best Orchestrations (Don Sebesky) and Best Costume Design (Martin Pakledinaz)... AND with musical direction by Paul Gemignani and Marin Mazzie playing Lilli Vanessi/Katherine... no way can this 2012 London Revival directed by no other than Trevor Nunn beat it! Well, it didn't... it almost did... but it didn't and yet, I would still recommend it!
 
Like the 1999 Broadway Revival, while the story and the musical numbers are pretty kept in place, much of the changes were in the arrangement and orchestration. With this, the 2012 London Revival went a bit overboard in some numbers to not better effects. Kiss Me, Kate is a great musical and is actually fine as it is, but I also understand the temptation to invigorate it with a more contemporary feel. While the arrangement and orchestration of the Broadway revival came across as a more slick and jazz up version, I can't help but feel that the London revival (Musical Supervision & Musical Direction by Gareth Valentine / Orchestration by Chris Egan) felt unnecessarily "complicated".
 
The one thing that stood out in this London revival is the different sizes and shapes of the members of the chorus, yet they danced quite well. While it is most admirable to go beyond the usual slim and fit body type, I still have to get used to that kind of aesthetics.
 
Among the leads, Hannah Waddingham's Lilli Vanessi/Katherine was a cut above the rest. She packed equal amounts of vocal, comic and charm power. While not as elegant as Marin Mazzie, Waddingham came across as more approachable and more in line with the language of the musical comedy. As for the rest of the cast, while they were good, they were not great. In comparison to the Broadway revival, Nunn's production seemed to be lacking of exuberance and warmth. Between the two leads (Hannah Waddingham and Alex Bourne), there was a lack of rapport and allure. Holly Dale Spencer and Adam Garcia, as the second couple Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun had better chemistry with Spencer turning in a more well-rounded performance. As for the comic duo (David Burt and Clive Rowe), they were a tad wooden until they sparked into life with the funny number Brush Up Your Shakespeare.

_____
Kiss Me, Kate
20 November 2012 – 2 March 2013
Old Vic Theatre

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter

Creative Team:
Director – Trevor Nunn
Choreography – Stephen Mear
Designer – Robert Jones
Dance Arrangements, Musical Supervisor & Musical Director – Gareth Valentine
Lighting – Tim Mitchell
Orchestrator – Chris Egan
Sound – Paul Groothuis
Casting – Pippa Ailion

Cast includes:
Michelle Bishop
Alex Bourne
Kevin Brewis
Wendy Mae Brown
David Burt
Christopher Dickins
Adam Garcia
Paul Grunert
Mark Heenehan
Shaun Henson
Samuel Holmes
Richard Jones
Carolyn Maitland
Jo Morris
Jason Pennycooke
Tanya Robb
Clive Rowe
Warren Sollars
Holly Dale Spencer
Flik Swan
Kate Tydman
Hannah Waddingham
TimWalton.

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