Thursday, April 28, 2016

REVIEW:Imperial Ice Stars' Swan Lake on Ice

Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Wednesday April 27

I am a big fan of the ballet Swan Lake. It was the first full-length ballet I have ever seen when I was a teenager and since then, I have seen it in various reincarnations. Whether it was Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov's classic in Mariinsky Theatre, Derek Deane's 60-swans in-the-round production for the English National Ballet, Peter Schaufuss' erotic but ill-conceived creation or Matthew Bourne's all-male-swan re-imagining, the story and Tchaikovsky's music never fail to inspire and challenge re-interpretation.

This Swan Lake however, is a totally different animal. Tony Mercer's re-interpretation of this classic for "on-ice" version struck a perfect balance of tradition and innovation. While still using mostly Tchaikovsky’s music, no longer was the role of Odette and Odile danced by one performer, but there was also a pas de trois that led to a joyous ending. This show is designed to entertain and captivate the audience. Gone was the subdued and subtle dancing. Instead, the audience got high-octane dancing, flying, jumping, twisting, lifting and spinning. As if that was not enough, there were also fire spinning and pyrotechnics.

The costumes of Albina Gabueva were colorful, traditional and appropriate for the different characters in the story. The set design was flimsy yet effective to give way to the massive ice rink. Even the ice rink itself was something to behold! Apparently, to create a performance-ready ice surface, the production would need to 36 hours. This would involve assembling the tray-base, lining it with 256 square meter of pool liner, connecting 15km of pipe-work chiller units, and then 4 tonnes of crushed ice to provide a head start! The rink is then sprayed every 15 minutes overnight and throughout the day until three inches in thickness of ice is achieved!

At the very center of this wonderful show are the amazing performers. Bogdan Berezenko' Prince Siegfried was what you expect a young prince would look and act like. He, together with Alexandr Kazakov' Benno, were the unadulterated bromance on ice. While Benno had most of the daring jumps, Siegfried got the mind-blowing lifts and partnering. Volodymyr Khodakivskyy, who played the attendant to Hungarian Princess, had amazing moments in his aerial silk sequence. Don't be surprised if you catch yourself holding your breath or inevitably blurting out "wow" and "whoaah"! Overall, it was a very enjoyable show and I would highly recommend it!

SWAN LAKE ON ICE - from April 27 to May 8.

Friday, April 15, 2016

REVIEW: The Illusionists - Direct From Broadway

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Thursday April 14

I have never been to a live magic show before. When I was in London last December and passed by Shaftesbury Theatre, I thought that I should really try to see The Illusionists playing there, then I got distracted and I believe I watched a musical instead. Since they have followed me back to Hong Kong (though apparently this batch came from Broadway), I feel that it is my fate to see the show.

Through television, I tend to associate magic shows with Las Vegas and The Illusionists didn't fail in providing the big, razzle-dazzle, bass-thumping and female-assistant-running-around elements so common to Las Vegas. Even the performers’ names were too plain for the show that they were assigned monikers like "The Manipulator", "The Eccentric", "The Enigma" or "The Alchemist". 

Overall, it was an enjoyable show; but surprisingly, I find some of the more flamboyant and glamorous acts a bit stale. It was the more quiet acts that I found more intriguing. I enjoyed Luis de Matos "The Master Magician", who was also the master of the ceremonies (I was so tempted to put ""). His acts were simple, entertaining and baffling. One particular act was that all audience members were given an envelope with 4 cards featuring 4 different Illusionists. After a series of instructions like shuffle, tear them into halves, choose one and hide it in your pocket, shuffle, exchange one with the person beside you, throw away one, keep one, throw away another one... this went on until a half was only left; and amazingly, that half was the other half of the one previously hidden in your pocket!
Another act that I enjoyed was Charlie Frye "The Eccentric". This act was peculiar because it is the one act that fit more in a vaudeville act, rather than a Las Vegas-style magic show. In fact, Frye's act would fit snugly in a Cirque du Soleil show as he seriously show skills, be it comedy or juggling. Hyun Joon Kim "The Manipulator" showed fantastic sleight-of-hand tricks that made one seriously want to stop the show and ask him to do it slower again.

This show has a good mixture of tricks. There's the mind-reading, escaping, sawing-the-body-in-half and more. The Illusionists have the ability to make a Houdini out of you, an escapist of your boredom.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Theatre Pilgrimage - 12 Shows in 4 Cities

After watching 14 shows in the United Kingdom less than 3 months ago, I am back again. This time however, apart from London (5 shows) , I also traveled to Cardiff (3 shows), Munich (1 show) and Wurzburg (3 shows). This time, the shows were also a bit more varied. Given that I have already seen most of the musical in West End, I scheduled a bit more plays this time. I saw 6 musical, 1 opera, 4 plays and 1 concert. Here's my ranking based on my enjoyment of the show: 
  1. Sunset Boulevard 
  2. Matilda 
  3. Mrs. Henderson Presents 
  4. Nell Gwynn 
  5. Only the Brave 
  6. Painkiller 
  7. Wagner-Gala 
  8. Jekyll and Hyde 
  9. Albert Herring 
  10. Hetty Feather 
  11. Miss Atomic Bomb 
  12.  A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing 
Here's my impression of the shows (in chronological order): 

St. James Theatre (London), Friday March 25

Miss Atomic Bomb came second to the last in my ranking mainly because I have such a high expectation and it failed miserably. Overall, it gave me the impression that it was trying to follow the template of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Mr. Producer, but came nowhere near; and I would attribute it to a mediocre story, pathetic dialogues, misjudged pacing and second-rate music. The cast tried their very best and I wanted so badly to like it, but the material was so high-school that there was no way to take it seriously.

Set against the backdrop of atomic bomb tests and a city controlled by mob, there was a farm girl who's in deep debt, a fashionista who was designing clothes for pigs, a young soldier who deserted the army, and a hapless hotel manager brother who desperately needs some gimmick. The peculiar collection of characters and situations seemed too bizarre that it would make a great musical comedy, but that's all it is... a peculiar collection of characters and situations that were forced to make a story. It was like a product of drug-induced team-building workshop or of the show Showstopper! The Improvised Musical.

The saddest thing about this musical is the involvement of Catherine Tate and Simon Lipkin... what a waste of great talent.

Cast: Catherine Tate, Dean John-Wilson, Florence Andrews, Simon Lipkin, Daniel Boys, Michelle Andrews, Stephane Anelli, Charles Brunton, Jessica Buckby, Cavin Cornwall, Olivia Fines, Ryan Gover, Alyn Hawke, Sion Lloyd, Suzie McAdam, Kirk Patterson, Sasi Strallen 
Author: Adam Long, Gabriel Vick & Alex Jackson-Long 
Director: Bill Deamer & Adam Long 
Producer: Tanya Link Productions 
Choreographer: Bill Deamer 

Apollo Theatre (London), Saturday March 26

For those of you who have been following my blog, you know that I am less partial to plays, BUT Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale has to be one of the most entertaining, funny and intelligent play I have ever seen (up there with Noises Off for me). 

What really made Nell Gwynn worked, apart from a very witty and funny script, was Gemma Arterton. Unlike the last time I saw her in the musical Made in Dagenham, Arterton was perfect for the role of Nell Gwynn. She was captivating, charming and credible. One of the most impressive moment in the play was when Nell was being taught how to act; and when it came to being sad, Arterton managed to immediately shed tears right then and there!

What makes a good play however is the work of the whole company and Arteton was in very very good company. Playing opposite her as King Charles II was David Sturzaker; and he was equally charming and credible in showing great affection toward Nell Gwynn. I also like Greg Haiste's Edward Kynaston (the King’s Company’s female lead) as he grew more and more outraged over the possibility of Nell taking up his place. Michele Dotrice's Nancy (Nell’s dresser) was downright funny as she maneuver her position in the different circumstances Nell was in or out. Further enhancing the play was Nigel Hess' score and Hugh Durrant's design.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Paige Carter, Michele Dotrice, Matthew Durkan, Michael Garner, Greg Haiste, George Jennings, Ellie Leah, Peter McGovern, David Rintoul, Anneika Rose, Nicholas Shaw, David Sturzaker, Jay Taylor, Sasha Waddell, Sarah Woodward 
Author: Jessica Swale 
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Designer: Hugh Durrant
Music: Nigel Hess
Lighting Designer: Nick Richings
Sound designer: Jeremy Dunn
Choreographer: Charlotte Broom

Noel Coward Theatre (London), Saturday March 26

Yes, there are nudity. But that is expected given that is the whole premise of the show. I haven't seen the movie, but have seen the trailer. For some reason, I was kind of expecting that there will be a few scenes about losing her husband, trying to find something to spend on and an incident that will trigger her buying of a theatre; but all that were absent and the musical almost immediately started on the theatre start-up. Having said that, the pacing of the narrative was in good pace and rarely did I find it sluggish.

What is most noticeable for me was the lyrics of Don Black; they fit like gloves to the music of George Fenton & Simon Chamberlain, which caters mostly to the period of the story. Tracie Bennett's formidable Laura doesn't have the charm of Judi Dench, but who does? Still, Bennett managed to give us a different but still equally effective Laura. Ian Bartholomew’s Vivian was equally effective but somehow less memorable. Emma Williams played Maureen, who was hired to make tea at the Windmill theatre and ended up as its nude centrepiece, with a a great balance of self-doubt and confidence. This, together with featuring an older woman who run the show, was almost a showcase of feminism. The evening also featured Jamie Foreman’s Arthur, the a cockney emcee, who provided some kind of a break between the scenes.

Overall, I really enjoyed this show and would recommend it.
Cast: Tracie Bennett, Ian Bartholomew, Emma Williams 
Director: Terry Johnson 
Music by: George Fenton & Simon Chamberlain 
Lyrics by: Don Black 
Book by: Terry Johnson

Cambridge Theatre (London), Sunday March 27

This is the second time I watched this magnificent show. See my review of the first time I saw it here

What really stood out this time around was Emily-May Stephenson's Matilda. She was like an adult trapped in a child's body, who is full of great wisdom and confidence. Also, while watching the show, I can't help but be amazed at how sophisticated this musical is in all levels and how equally enjoyable it is for both kids and adults.

Cast: Emily-May Stephenson, Craige Els, Michael Begley, Olly Dobson, Miria Parvin, Rebecca Thornhill, Sherlene Whyte, Fabian Aloise, Robbie Boyle, John Brannoch, Olivier Brooks, Jonathan Cordin, Demi Goodman, Elliot Harper, Will Hawksworth, Kate Kendrick, Rachel Moran, Tom Muggeridge, Charlotte Scott, Matthew Serafini, Biancha Szynal, Laura Tyrer 
Author: Dennis Kelly, based on the Roald Dahl book 
Director: Matthew Warchus 
Music by: Tim Minchin 
Lyrics by: Tim Minchin 
Book by: Dennis Kelly 
Producer: Royal Shakespeare Company 
Choreographer: Peter Darling 
Costume: Rob Howell 
Lighting Designer: Hugh Vanstone 
Sound: Simon Baker

Garrick Theatre (London), Monday March 28

I went to see this play because it just seemed crazy to miss to miss an opportunity to see Kenneth Branagh live in a play. In The Painkiller, Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon reprise their roles in Francis Veber’s classic French farce. Adapted and directed by Sean Foley, The Painkiller tells the story of two men in adjoining hotel rooms with an adjoining door. One of them is a killer, while the other one wants to die. How convenient... but not at all. 

Kenneth Branagh didn't disappoint at all and Rob Brydon was very funny also. The play was fast and short and without intermission, which is how I like a farce to be. Having said that, the highlight here is really the company. I am not particularly warm to the play itself which I think lacks a bit of sophistication and I just came out of it thinking that it was a silly play.
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Rob Brydon, Mark Hadfield, Claudie Blakley, Marcus Fraser, Alex Macqueen 
Author: Francis Veber 
Adapted by: Sean Foley 
Director: Sean Foley 
Producer: Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company

Wales Millennium Centre (Cardiff), Wednesday March 30

I went into this play without knowing much about it. I didn't know that it was an adaptation of a book... in this case, an award-winning book. Unfortunately, I came out not really appreciating it. In fact, it is the least one of the 12 shows that I enjoyed. Without knowing that it was an adaptation, I question the choice of using the solo-performance format as it made understanding the narrative very difficult. 

The language of the play was intense and episodic, the acting was subtle and maybe too subtle to make the delineation of the roles clear. Overall, I can't help but feel that it was devised to showcase the actor's skill rather than the story.
Cast: Aoife Duffin
Writer: Eimear McBride (adapted by Annie Ryan) 
Director: Annie Ryan 
Reviewer: Jaclyn Martin

New Theatre (Cardiff), Friday April 1

This is a show of great contradictions. I really like how it was staged, and acted out, but I don't care much about the story. The story was definitely targeted toward kids, but unlike Matilda, while the story of Hetty is as complicated, it remained two dimensional. 

The highlight of the show however is the simplicity and creativity injected to portray the different scenes. Also, the cast was strong and even; and show immense skills in voice and physicality. In particular, Phoebe Thomas as Hetty was a delight to see, wild yet charming; and full of infectious energy that communicated joy, excitement and sadness with ease and clarity. At the end of the day however, it is still just a children show.
Cast: Phoebe Thomas, Matt Costain, Sarah Goddard, Nik Howden, Mark Kane, Nikki Warwick, Seams Carey, Luke Potter
Director: Sally Cookson
Adaptor: Emma Reeves from Jacqueline Wilson's book
Composer: Benju Bower
Designer: Katie Sykes
Lighting: Aideen Malone
Sound: Leigh Davies

Wales Millennium Centre (Cardiff), Saturday April 2

It was the first musical to be produced by the Wales Millennium Centre and I wanted so badly for it to be good. Created by writer Rachel Wagstaff and composer Matthew Brind, Only The Brave recounts the stories of real people, whose bravery and character were tested to the limit by circumstance surrounding the Normandy landings.

Overall, the musical was a moving work, but at its current form, I am afraid that we might not see it in West End. Mind you, it was not a disaster and I truly believe that with a few minor key changes, I actually can see it transferring to West End. Most imortantly, I would have preferred that it be presented in a "real-life story" format where the audience are conditioned at the very beginning... or even on its promotional materials. By doing so, people can be more receptive of the story premises and focus on the narrative. Visually, some of the renditions of slides and video looked too amateurish if not cartoonish - it doesn't communicate a distinct visual style.

Overall however, I sincerely like it. The music and lyrics were touching and effective (I'm not sure with the song about tea though) and the set design was simple but versatile enough to set context with clarity and purpose. I would see it again.
Cast: Emilie Fleming, David Thaxton, Caroline Sheen, Neil McDermott, Moyo Akanda, David Albury, Thomas Aldridge, Max Bowden, Rebecca Craven, Helen Hobson, Steffan Lloyd-Evans, Graham Macduff, Nikki Mae, Karl Borough, Gwydion Rhys
Written by: Rachel Wagstaff
Music by: Matthew Brind

London Coliseum (London), Monday April 4

All the other shows were just incidental. The real reason why I am back in UK is because of Glenn Close. I didn't see her in the original production. In fact, I have only seen staged Sunset Boulevard once and it was at the Marriott Theater in Chicago in 2004. It was the first regional production of Sunset Boulevard and was the first and only regional production to be licensed by the Really Useful Group (RUG) for the next six years after 2004. Needless to say, I was not sure what to expect. Seriously, Close is 69 years old! While I am sure her acting will be fabulous, my biggest concern was her singing. Anyway, I thought success or failure, I wanted to witness it!

Semi-staged, Sunset Boulevard was amazing! The narrative was clear and I actually felt like I was in a show and not in a concert. The only thing I am not sure of is the floating mannequin... yes, I get it, it was suppose to imply the dead body of Joe Gillis (Norma Desmond's lover), but it was distracting. As for Glenn Close, she was stunningly good!!! I have never ever seen an audience more eager to give a show a standing ovation!!! The rest of the cast was equally good.

There's not much more to say that the press haven't said. For me, this is the best one in all the 12 shows I have seen. Even better was that everybody was there to take their bow, including Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Chris Hampton!
Cast: Glenn Close, Michael Xavier, Siobhan Dillon, Fred Johanson, Julian Forsyth, Mark Goldthorp, Fenton Gray, Haydn Oakley, James Paterson 
Director: Lonny Price 
Music by: Andrew Lloyd Webber 
Lyrics by: Don Black & Christopher Hamilton 
Book by: Don Black & Christopher Hamilton 
Producer: English National Opera & GradeLinnit Company

Cuvilliés Theatre (Munich), Tuesday April 5

Since my final destination was Wurzburg, I found out that flying into Munich and traveling by train to Wurzburg was the most convenient and practical one. Upon finding this out, I casually checked whether there will be any opera on; and to my surprise, there's Albert Herring and better yet, it will be at the Cuvilliés Theatre - a theatre that I haven't been too since all of the operas I've seen in Munich was always staged at the National Theatre. 

There is one catch though... the only seats that I can find for me and my friend were the last two seats and they were the cheapest and worst seats. They were in the box closest to the stage at the highest level. In short, I have to lean forward to see only the front bit of the stage. In any case, I thought that even if I can't see the stage, I can still listen to the music given that I have never ever heard it live.

Well, I left during the interval. The heat inside the theatre, together with the uncomfortable seats were just not the most conducive condition to appreciate the opera. All I can think of was... it sounds like an endless stream of recitatives and how come the orchestral line sounded more interesting the vocal lines?

Congress Centrum (Wurzburg), Wednesday April 6

This is a last minute purchase. I thought I should really rest my eyes and ears... and bum from theatres, but I just can't resist it. To be perfectly honest, part of my resistance to buying tickets to this concert in advance was that I was not so sure of what to expect from a regional orchestra like Philharmonisches Orchester Wurzburg. Well, the orchestra under the direction of Maestro Enrico Calesso was very good even in the not most ideal venue such as the Congress Centrum Wurzburg (which is more of a plenary hall rather than a concert hall).

The highlight of the evening though was tenor Klaus Florian Vogt. Vogt has a rather preternatural voice, it has the distinct sweetness and brightness of a Rossini tenor but also with the volume to cut through a Wagnerian orchestra. The most awe-inspiring and almost disturbing, is the fact that Vogt sang with ease. Needless to say, I can't believe that I haven't heard of him... so I did some research only to find out that actually I have his CD. So what happened? Well, in this live concert, one can clearly appreciate his tone together with its volume; and it is that combination that makes him magnificent. Unlike his CD, all I hear is a tenor voice that I tend to associate with Rossini or Mozart. The significance of his voice was most apparent in the second half of the gala (Act 1 of Die Walkure) where he sang Sigmund across Karen Lieber's Sieglinde and Gunther Groissbock's Hunding. Here, suddenly, we get a Siegmund who sounded young and naive, rather than virile and forceful, and the result was thrilling!
Ouvertüre zu Rienzi 
Fliedermonolog aus Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg 
Vorspiel und Isoldes Liebestod aus Tristan und Isolde 
Gralserzählung aus Lohengrin 
Erster Aufzug aus Die Walküre 

Mainfranken Theater Wurzburg (Wurzburg), Friday April 8

This musical was sung in German and I am fine with that. I saw the original cast before in Broadway and I am familiar with the music and story thus I was able to appreciate this even though it is in German. 

This production in Wurzburg started out really strong. The staging was simple with a rotating stage and hydraulic elevations within the rotating stage. The repetitious and tiring use of this mechanism however had become a burden. 

In the original Broadway production, one of the strongest effect it had was when Jekyll and Hyde did the duet in the number Confrontation. In this number, both Jekyll and Hyde took turn in singing and visually, the audience got to see quick transformation of the actor from Jekyll to Hyde and vice versa. The effect was simple but extremely effective and memorable, the actor would portray Jekyll by facing left and looking up, while portraying Hyde by facing right and hunching down. The quick transformation was further aided through the simple use of hair - half tied up (Jekyll) and half loose (Hyde). In this Wurzburg production however, while I appreciate that they tried something different, the effect was not as good.

Another devise that this production have overused was the display of mirror. While the reflection on huge panels of reflective materials can be effective if you are seated in the stalls, its effect from the balcony was totally lost because all one can sea is the reflection of the brightly lit conductor. The singing was generally good, but nothing to shout about.
Cast: Polina Artsis , Kenneth Beal, Bryan Boyce , Herbert Brand , Ivan Dantschev, Monika Eckhoff, Daniel Fiolka , Tobias Germeshausen , Anja Gutgesell , David Hieronimi , Milatin Ivanov, Armin Kahl , Sonja Koppelhuber , Deuk-Young Lee , Barbara Scholler , Paul Henrik Schulte, Taiyu Uchiyama , Anneka Ulmer
Music by Frank Wildhorn, a 
Book by Leslie Bricusse 
Lyrics by Wildhorn, Bricusse and Cuden
Originally conceived for the stage by: Frank Wildhorn and Steve Cuden 
Orchestrator: Kim Scharnberg 
Arrangements by: Jason Howland 
German by: Susanne Dengler and Eberhard StorzConducted by Sebastian Beckedorf Director: Ivan Alboresi 
Stage design: Bernd Franke 
Costumes design: Götz Lancelot Fischer 
Choir director: Michael Clark 
Dramaturgy: Christoph Blitt

Labels: , ,