Sunday, May 21, 2017

REVIEW: West Side Story

HK Academy of Performing Arts Lyric Theatre, Friday May 19

2017 marks the 60th anniversary of West Side Story, which is arguably the ultimate dance musical since it first burst onto the Broadway stage in 1957. Coincidentally, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein, the composer of the musical. In fact, if you are here in Hong Kong, HKPhil’s West Side Story in Concert where the complete 1961 film wiil be shown with live music.


Now back to this production of West Side Story. This is my third time to be see this same production. The first was at the Macao Cultural Centre in Macau back in 2005 and another time at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in 2013. The fact that I am seeing this again in Hong Kong is a testimony of how enjoyable this production is.


Director and Choreographer Joey McKneely successfully distilled the staging for tour and it looked more akin to a ballet set 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. The one think I didn't like in both the previous time I saw this production remains the one thing I can't get over with. I still don’t understand why the director chose to have the ladies dance the America number barefooted. I can’t help but feel that it was equivalent to transposing down a song to accommodate a singer.


This production is heavily reliant on the talents on stage. Because it is a famous and familiar musical, the audience do have a very high expectation. Kevin Hack's Tony provides all the reason why Maria fell for him in less than a dance. His voice has a beautiful and even tone thoughout its range. Jenna Burns was a suitable Maria to Hack's Tony with a small but bright voice. Both were vocally and dramatically very effective. Keely Beirne delivered an outstanding portrayal of Anita with equal confidence in both singing and dancing.  The rest of the cast did very well in both dancing and singing; and they are so far the best of the three performances I have seen.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Best Reebok InstaPump Fury Colorways of All Time

In this post, I am breaking from my usual topic of performing arts to product design; and this privilege goes to Reebok InstaPump Fury. While the first Reebok Pump was launched in 1989, Reebok continued to develop it until the birth of Reebok InstaPump Fury in 1994. 


I love the InstaPump Fury because it is a product that was designed not only to marry form and function, but also injected a huge dose of FUN and FASHION into it. It is not only equipped with an out-of-the-box technology, but it also possesses a personality. Unlike the Puma Disc (which I also love, by the way), the Reebok InstaPump is more than just a replacement of the traditional shoe laces, it also comfortably custom fit the shoes to the feet. Paul Litchfield designed the original Pump, taking what was originally in an Ellesse ski boot with pumping mechanism in big brass fittings into something that is more suitable and practical for sport/casual wear. From there, Steven Smith took the big step of deconstructing the Pump and removed all the trimmings that was covering the bladder system. Suddenly, the inflated bladder becomes the exoskeleton securing the foot and providing a completely adjustable fit without any laces. But that was not enough, he also replaced the midsole with a full carbon fibre graphlite arch bridge, while the forefoot and heel sole units where equipped with Hexalite cushioning technology. But again that was not enough, the out-there colors of citron, red and black completed the whole design. The colors were there to provide the soul and personality of the shoes. As the story goes, Reebok marketing department wanted the InstaPump Fury in subdued palettes of greys and blues, but Smith went home and spray painted the prototype in grey primer, and then tossed them on the desk of the marketing department in objection/repulsion. 



Before I reveal The Best Reebok InstaPump Fury Colorways of All Time, it is important to note that these selections were not chosen for its rarity (in short, you won’t find the 1997 Chanel collab here), brand or expensiveness. The selection will not include any InstaPump Fury Road because the Road version with full sole and rubber brace across the shoe just plain damn ugly. The selection will also include the original 1994 citron, red and black version or any of the resissues. The list simply but carefully considers how designers managed to bring something new to the InstaPump Fury without sacrificing the very core value and soul of the original design which is a marriage of fun, form and function and a good balance of technology and fashion. 

10. HALLOWEEN (2016) 


Predominantly black, white or grey InstaPump Fury should not happen and they are boringly lazy. However, if you are going to design an almost all black InstaPump Fury, you better pump it up with something else. These 2016 punked-up InstaPump Fury with strategically placed studs were fierce. The language is not dissimilar to that of a studded jacket and therefore message of fun and fashion is clear. 

9. BEBOP (2016) 


From the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle “Villains Pack” in 2016 came BEBOP, a humanoid mutant warthog. The beauty of this InstaPump Fury is that for TMNT fans, one can actually see Bebop smartly distilled into a pair of shoes. The details are carefully coordinated from demin pants, red vest, purple Mohawk and a hint of hairy flesh. 

8. HAWAIIAN (2010) 


The 2010 “Hawaiian” InstaPump Fury make it to the list because it is a good study of restraint. The original collection has four colorways (yellow, green, blue and black). While maintaining a singular color base in each, the designer added iconic Hawaiian prints in the same color tone. Simple but effective, the design becomes fun and whimsical without having too many colors. 

7. OLYMPIC (2012) 


In theory, putting the colors (yes, black is not exactly a color) of the Olympic rings all in one shoe sounds like a very bad idea, but this "London" InstaPump Fury (for the London Olympics in 2012) managed to be unassuming and flamboyant all at the same time. How the colors are cleverly placed contrasted and with just the right reliance on black is the genius in this design. 

6. FLASHBACK 1994 (2008) 


If Gucci comes to mind, then you are on the right track. In 2008, Japanese sneaker specialist Mita collaborated with Reebok and created the Flash Back 90s Series - a mini-collection of InstaPump Fury which incorporates aethetics from that era. The first and also the best in this series pays homage to the year 1994, the birth of InstaPump Fury and Tom Ford becoming the Creative Director of Gucci. 

5. CHINESE NEW YEAR ROOSTER (2017) 


InstaPump Fury has been coming up with CNY edition for some time, but it is the Rooster for 2017 that is the most successful. The design was unexpected and classy but still true to the animal it represents. While there is little color in this design, the luxurious feather-like texture, iridescent blue/green heel and all sorts of Chinese-inspired graphic details brings home the fun in fashion on this one. 

4. OXYGEN MARK (2014) 


2014 marked the 20th anniversary of Instapump Fury and Reebok rolled out (way too) many collaborations. Sadly, none really stood out except one; and that is the Oxygen Mask by Washington D.C. sneaker-specialist, Major. Mask cleverly play off the Pump and the bladder by relating it to air travel. On the side of the bladder, it even printed “IN THE EVENT OF AIR LOSS, PUMP UP YOUR KICKS FIRST BEFORE ASSISTING OTHERS”. And also, not to mention this was launched a year ahead of BB-8. 

3.POPSICLE (2013) 


This Sweden’s Sneakersnstuff InstaPump Fury in 2013 is so cool in many ways. This brightly colored rendition is inspired by the Swedish summer-favorite, the X-15 ice pop from 1980s. This design makes color coordinating by just simply choosing a color for each component of the Instapump Fury seems very lazy. With Popsicle, citrus colors cut across the shoes unapologetically and immediately exudes summer while bringing back fun childhood memories. 

2. JUN WATANABE’s MR. BOTTLE HEAD (2011) 


Jun Watanabe has designed several InstaPump Fury, but this 2011 release stands to be the best. Yes, it is crazy cool with the high contrast black and white polka dots bladder tamed by a calming baby blue base and then fired up with the hot pink heel. There’s all kinds of details in homage to Watanabe’s famous character. 

1. TAKATOSHI AKUTAGAWA’s MIYABI (2007) 



How does one inject elegance in InstaPump Fury, while ensuring that it maintains the original InstaPump Fury language of fun and fashion? Japanese designer Takatoshi Akutagawa did exactly that for his Miyabi Collection in 2007. Here, the traditional Japanese print was managed beautifully by its use of green tea color broken up by blocks of black. Here, Akutagawa was able to instill a loud elegance quality to it.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

REVIEW: Chan Ka-bo Countertenor Recital

Nan Lian Garden, Saturday March 4

I wanted the Baroque repertoire in the afternoon, but it was sold out; thus I ended up going to the relatively newer music of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Pärt in the evening. The recital was 1 hour in length and Chan was accompanied by Kristo Käo with his Torres guitar. The concert was set in a small hall in the classical Chinese Nan Lian Garden.


I have a very mixed feeling about the recital. I went to the recital with preconceptions of what is the suitable repertoire for countertenors and how a countertenor should sound. Needless to say, my ears are attuned to the repertoire and sound of the likes of Andreas Scholl, David Daniels, Philippe Jaroussky, Michael Chance and Bejun Mehta, all of whom I have heard live and sang early music.



Countertenors have entertained "newer" music before. The ones that I really enjoyed is David Daniel's album Berlioz: Les Nuits D'ete and A Quiet Thing. And despite the transition from early music to 20th century music, most of the countertenors would retain the same lyrical tone. The one thing I noticed in Chan's rendition of the "newer" music was his voice was dramatic. In fact, so dramatic and big that I think the guitar and venue was a tad too lyrical and small for him. I truly wonder how he sounded like in the afternoon repertoire of early music.

Because of his voice quality, I enjoyed his rendition of Brahms and Pärt's works more than the Schubert and Mendelssohns. Overall, the recital was an important one for me. Wanting to go to the afternoon concert was a lazy choice; and I am glad that I went to the evening one as there shouldn't be any reason why countertenors should not sing music by Schubert, Mendelssohn or Brahms. The problem was mine.

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Schubert
Ave Maria, Ständchen, Danksagung an den Bach

Pärt
Vater Unser

Mendelssohn
Altdeutschelied, Nachtlied

Brahms
Wiegenlied

and songs and guitar music of Estonian composers including Kapp, Sink, Jõeleht and Eespere

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REVIEW: Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Friday March 3

The first thing I noticed when I looked at the programme was how "recent" the works will be presented are. The oldest was created in 2012 and the latest was just created last year. Now that is very exciting! I have never seen Canada's Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal before, but definitely like what the company name evokes and was looking forward to see it.

The show opened with Mona Lisa, a work choreographed by Itzik Galili for two dancers. This high-octane pas de deux performed by Celine Cassone and Alexander Hille was a test of endurance and precision. The intertwining bodies, quick lifts and sudden drops were bordering acrobatics and were all executed with unbelievable ease to the avant-garde sound of typewriter competing with drums. This masterpiece was the highlight of the evening and everything else seemed to be a tad less special.

MONA LISA
Kosmos, choreographed by Andonis Foniadakis was a portrayal of modern urban living. While the choreographic language was modern dance, elements of other forms of dance were combined seamlessly. Set to the music of Julien Tarride, the work explored various moods from frenetic pace pushed by persistent percussions to thoughtful movements exalted by the sound of strings. The work was a cocktail of counterpoints and episodic bursts of intense motions that beautifully counterbalance each other.

KOSMOS
Opening the second half of the evening was Closer, choreographed by Benjamin Millepied and another work designed for two dancers. Set to Philip Glass' Mad Rush, I find the music was turned up way too loud that it overshadowed the lyricism of the music and the dance. Dancers Celine Cassone and Alexander Hille once again demonstrated the impeccable partnership they have, and that it goes beyond just technique, but also a partnership high in confidence and comfort.

CLOSER
Before closing the evening with O Balcao de Amor, a totally unnecessary short film about the work was shown. It was really odd. Instead of enhancing my experience of the work, the film actually dampened it. This work choreographed by Itzik Galili was a fun, funny and entertaining piece; and the documentary somehow took away the surprise factor. The choreography revolved around the music of Perez Prado; and it was pelted all over with comedic confetti and sexy silliness that showcased a different side of the company.

O BALCAO DE AMOR
Overall, it was an evening of beautiful contemporary works that provided wide-ranging sentiments and elicited deep connection with the audience.

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Monday, February 27, 2017

REVIEW: The Makropulos Case by the National Theatre Brno

Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Saturday February 25

Live performance of Janacek's operas are hard to come by. Peculiarly, I have only seen Jenufa live and saw it twice, once in Czech here in Hong Kong as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2000 by the Prague National Theatre and another time in Turkish in 2004 at the Istanbul State Opera. It is therefore that when this opportunity to see The Makropulos Case came, I made sure to go and see it.


The fluidly and meticulously designed production directed by David Radok was definitely the highlight of the evening. Rarely does one sees a production so cohesively conceptualized that the action and the set unfold so seamlessly and creatively. In particular, I love the way the office set (set design by Ondřej Nekvasil,& Zuzana Ježková) in Act 1 was visually transformed into the wings of the theatre. I also love how the main character Emilia Marty changed costumes and wigs (costume design by Zuzana Ježková) in full view and almost implying the multiple characters she embodied in her 337 years life.


Among the performers, Swedish soprano Annalena Persson as Emilia Marty was a cut above the rest. The sustained intensity in her acting and singing was charismatic and captivating. The rest of the cast, however, was very uneven. I do love Svatopluk Sem's Baron Prus however, who managed to sustain and develop his role into a complex character that effectively bridged the narrative into its final act.


While Jenufa may be the more popular Janacek opera, I actually think that The Makropulos Case is the better one. I do love the idea of a seductress who has broken hearts for over 300 years and suddenly has to come to terms with the fading magical elixir that granted her youthfulness.Musically, this was represented in a series of different motifs and ideas to shows the troublesome and disturbing nature of the main character Emilia Marty/Elina Makropulos. It was only at the end, when Makropulos' secret is revealed, does the music develop the rich lyrical sound.


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Production Team:
Conductor - Marko Ivanović
Director - David Radok
Set Design - Ondřej Nekvasil, Zuzana Ježková
Costume Design - Zuzana Ježková
Lighting Design - Petr Kozumplík
Chorus Master - Josef Pancik

Cast:
Emilia Marty - Annalena Persson
Albert Gregor - Aleš Briscein
Vítek - Petr Levíček
Kristina - Eva Štěrbová
Jaroslav Prus - Svatopluk Sem
Dr Kolenatý - František Ďuriač
Janek - Peter Račko

With Orchestra and Chorus of the Janáček Opera of the National Theatre Brno

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Thursday, February 23, 2017

REVIEW: Mixed Bill by Bayerisches Staatsballett II

HKAPA Lyric Theatre, Wednesday February 22

I have mixed feeling for last night's mixed bill from Bayerisches Staatsballett II (Bavarian State Ballet II). The Bayerisches Staatsballett II is a training ground for young dancers; and the first three pieces were designed to showcase their skills.

Allegro Brillante by choreographer George Balanchine and music by Tchaikovsky was well executed with skilled dancing, precise timing, and breadth of movements. Francesco Leone excelled in this piece with elegance in every gesture, even down to his fingers.

ALLEGRO BRILLANTE

Jardi Tancat by choreographer Nacho Duato was for me the highlight of the evening. The skills of the dancers were befitting of the style and complexity of this modern ballet. It was a beautiful raw and haunting piece that defies the youthful energy of the company.

JARDI TANCAT

3 Preludes by choreographer Richard Siegal and music by George Gershwin could have been my favorite, but the timing was not precise to bring off this rhythmically complex dance. The dancers looked under-rehearsed.

3 PRELUDES

The Triadic Ballet by choreographer Oskar Schlemmer / Gerhard Bohner (1977) based on Oskar Schlemmer’s choreography, music Hans-Joachim Hespos and costume design by Oskar Schlemmer was for me the worst. This "ballet" should not be part of the repertoire of the company, especially for a company that trains dancers. I can't imagine any aspiring dancer who dream to be able to dance in this ballet... if there's one, he/she should not be a dancer at all. This work is about costume design PERIOD. Anything else was just "production" to showcase the costumes

THE TRIADIC BALLET
THE TRIADIC BALLET

THE TRIADIC BALLET

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Saturday, December 10, 2016

REVIEW: Wicked

HKAPA Lyric Theatre, Friday December 9

Last night, Wicked premiered in Hong Kong 13 years after it opened in Broadway. For me, it joins an elite group of musicals that I have seen repeatedly onstage - The Phantom of the Opera (New York, London, Cardiff, Melbourne and Hong Kong); Miss Saigon (New York, London, Melbourne and Hong Kong); Les Miserables (New York, Melbourne, Manila, Hong Kong); and now, Wicked (New York, Manila and Hong Kong). While initial response to Phantom and Saigon was good, Les Miz and Wicked share the rare notoriety of having opened to mixed reviews but still managed to become massive successes! It just shows that not even the most experienced and respected critics can always get them right; and that the general audience and their words-of-mouth are what really count!


Last night's performance was spectacular. While Eugene Lee's set may not be as massive as the Broadway version, it still managed to impress. Susan Hilferty's costume was definitely a highlight, they never stop to amaze me in their creativity, sophistication and cohesiveness.


As to the performers, they made me realize how ingrained is the image of a tall Elphaba (Idina Menzel in New York and Jemma Rix in Manila) and a short Glinda (Kristin Chenoweth in New York and Suzie Mathers in Manila) in my mind that seeing Jacqueline Hughes (Elphaba) and Carly Anderson (Glinda) about the same height bothered me irrationally! Hughes definitely has the vocal chop to meet her demanding role. Her big anthem Defying Gravity finished the first act to great effect. Anderson was very effective but I did wish that her enunciation was a bit clearer. Whether it was the sounds or her diction, I was not sure.


Perhaps the one single biggest disappointment I had was from the more experienced actor Kim Ismay who played Madame Morrible. She definitely gave me the feeling that she was bored and was just doing her performance as part of a routine. An example would be when Elphaba confronted the Wizard and announced that she wanted nothing to do with his plan, Ismay procedurally acted shocked and looked offstage as if Elphaba has already ran off when in fact Elphaba was just about to!

In totality, Wicked is a great story told in the most beautiful way. Stephen Schwartz's music and lyrics provided just the right dramatic language and color to communicate this unusual narrative in charting how Elphaba came to be “wicked"; and the parallel journey of Glinda the "good". I heard that the production will be in Manila in 2017. Will I go and see it again? I just might.

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Thursday, September 15, 2016

REVIEW: Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense

HKAPA Drama Theatre, Wednesday September 14

My introduction to the works of P.G. Wodehouse came in the form of the musical By Jeeves by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn. Later on, I had the chance to see the comedy series Jeeves and Wooster that starred Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in YouTube. A genial but ditzy gentleman with an improbably intelligent and efficient valet seems to resonate well as an antidote to my Disneyesque childhood.


Last December in London, I had the dilemma of having to choose between this play, Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense or Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwyn. Nell Gwyn won but I am so glad that Jeeves & Wooster have come to Hong Kong. Winner of Best New Comedy at London’s 2014 Olivier Awards, Jeeves & Wooster was pure silliness that managed to keep what Robert McCrum identified as Wodehouse’s combination of "high farce with the inverted poetry of his mature comic style". Indeed do not expect the play to have any depth of meaning; but instead, it is filled with Wodehouse’s dry metaphors such as to be reminded that one of the characters had "the sort of eye that could open an oyster at 60 paces".

Matthew Carter (Wooster) and Joseph Chance (Jeeves)
The premise of the play was that Wooster, played by Matthew Carter with winning toothiness, is recounting what happened in Totleigh Towers, when he was tasked to steal a cow-shaped silver jug. The problem was that Wooster has only two actors to play all the other characters! This led to a continuous parody of theatrical mishaps and madcaps, with sound effect gags, and quick set and costume changes. Robert Goodale, the other half of Goodale Brothers who adapted and wrote this comedy, played fellow valet Seppings. With physical bravura, Seppings switched from the daunting Aunt Dahlia to the imposing Roderick Spode, who came fortified with a Hitlerian moustache. In the style of Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps and Ben-Hur, the play got to a point when the number of actors required onstage exceeded the number of actual actors available. The boil-over came when the imperturbable Jeeves, played by Joseph Chance, was obligated to simultaneously play an overbearing old bully, Sir Watkyn Bassett, and the unmistakably womanly Stiffy Byng. Having said that, I feel that the pace of the play was a tad slow; and I can’t help but feel that there can be a bit more chemistry between the actors.

While the play was utter nonsense, it was nonsense at its hilarious best. The audience chuckled constantly. It was the perfect mid-week cure to my busy week.

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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.


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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): 

MISS ATOMIC BOMB
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.
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CAST &CREATIVES 

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 


NELL GWYNN
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.
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CAST &CREATIVES 

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


MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS
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.
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CAST & CREATIVES
Cast: Tracie Bennett, Ian Bartholomew, Emma Williams 
Director: Terry Johnson 
Music by: George Fenton & Simon Chamberlain 
Lyrics by: Don Black 
Book by: Terry Johnson

MATILDA
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.



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CAST & CREATIVES 
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


THE PAINKILLER
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.
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CAST & CREATIVES 
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


A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING
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.
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CAST & CREATIVES
Cast: Aoife Duffin
Writer: Eimear McBride (adapted by Annie Ryan) 
Director: Annie Ryan 
Reviewer: Jaclyn Martin


HETTY FEATHER
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.
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CAST & CREATIVES
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


ONLY THE BRAVE
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.
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CAST & CREATIVES
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


SUNSET BOULEVARD
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!
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CAST & CREATIVES 
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


ALBERT HERRING by the BAYERISCHE STAATSOPER
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?


WAGNER-GALA
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!
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Programme:
Ouvertüre zu Rienzi 
Fliedermonolog aus Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg 
Vorspiel und Isoldes Liebestod aus Tristan und Isolde 
Gralserzählung aus Lohengrin 
-Pause- 
Erster Aufzug aus Die Walküre 


JEKYLL & HYDE
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.
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CAST & CREATIVE 
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




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