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Billy Elliot – Seattle, March 31, 2011 by YFA

Billy Elliot

I went to see the touring production of Billy Elliot at the Paramount last night with a certain level of expectation. For one, Billy Elliot is the 2009 Tony Award winner for Best Musical (total of 10 Tony Awards). Two, music is by Elton John. Three, it is highly recommended by my fellow musical-watcher here in Seattle (you know who). So I went in expecting awesomeness.

The backdrop of the story is the 1984 coal miner’s strike in UK, which is not something I’m horribly familiar with – although I’m somewhat familiar with Margaret Thatcher and her governing policies. In that sense, the theme of class warfare lightly woven through the musical is interesting to me. On the other hand, since the musical is set in Northern England, the accent is quite extreme – I never realized there’s the British accent and then there’s the British accent before, to a point that in the musical the British made fun of each other’s accents (I guess it is not too absurd – Americans make fun of each other’s accents too).

The main plot of the story deals with a young teenager (Billy) who strives to be a ballet dancer. So naturally there’s a lot of dancing involved in this musical – a LOT of dancing, from ballet to tap dancing. The choreography is definitely the best and most notable part of the musical. The individual dancing sequences by Billy as well as the bigger ensemble song and dance are equally entertaining and enjoyable. In fact the dancing is so physically demanding and injury prone, this touring company features 4 “Billy’s” that rotate throughout the week. (So chances are if you go and rewatch the show, you’ll get a different Billy. Oh and one of them is Asian, though I didn’t get him). Outside of the choreography, the set design is quite elaborate and creative as well.

However, the strength of the dance is also its weakness I feel like. The musical is so dance centric that I feel like the dance numbers drive the plot and character development rather than the music (it is a musical and not a “dancical” after all). Oftentimes the characters express their emotions through the dance rather than music. The music is above average but nothing super outstanding, and there weren’t a lot of songs either (I think ~14 songs across both acts). The actors were definitely cast for their dance abilities rather than the vocal skills, and especially for the numbers where they sing and dance at the same time (admittedly a challenging feat) the vocal weakness really shows. The plot is also pretty straightforward and for whatever reason, not something I associate well with and hence I didn’t find it super emotional.

All in all, not a bad musical, just not my cup of tea I guess. 3.5 TP rolls for me:

P.S. There should be a current production of this playing in Toronto’s Canon Theatre right now.
P.P.S I think “Next to Normal” definitely made 5 star for me – a few of its songs were stuck in my head on my recent travels – hallmark of a good musical!

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Next to Normal – Seattle, Mar 2, 2011 by YFA

Next to Normal

I walked into this musical with high expectations, and it surprisingly did not disappoint. Some background – Next to Normal deals with the subject of the effect bipolar disorder has on one’s family, so it is definitely a heavier subject matter. It won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2009 Tony Awards for Best Original Score, Best Orchestration and Best Lead Actress – making it one of the rare few to get both Pulitzer and Tony awards. To set the bar for comparison, Rent was the last musical to get this achievement. Did I also mention, Michael Greif, who directed Rent, also directed this musical? The composers (music, lyrics and book) actually came from Issaquah, WA, which is one of the suburbs of Seattle – so there was definitely a lot of excitement when Next to Normal made it big out east on Broadway (it did lose Best Musical in 2009 to Billy Elliot, which I’ll be catching in April).

I don’t want to give away the plot in case you do catch it (and I strongly recommend you do, the US tour ends in Toronto in June 2011), the plot is straightforward and easy to understand, so please do NOT pre-study this musical as it will ruin the surprises and affect the overall experience.

The stage design is reminiscent of Rent (definitely has the fingerprints of Michael Greif’s direction) – the orchestra is all on stage, and intriguingly they are split up on the left side and right side. Stylistically it is not rock like Rent, but it is not traditional classical like Wicked either… in fact, if I were to describe the orchestration, I’d say it is like… worship team style :| It basically consists of a 4 piece band (keys, drums, a/e-guitar, bass) and some strings (think 1 violin, and the bassist switches to cello/double bass at times). So the instrumentation is very much broken down (which seems to be the modern thing to do as it keeps production costs low) but it does not take away from the musical at all. The stage is divided into 3 levels, much like a house with the walls taken out, which reminds me of August: Osage County. I commented before the show started that this setup is more common for plays than in musicals, because they can do scene transitions easily by moving the spotlight between levels while the other floors are getting setup, but this is less of an issue for scene changes as they can tide it over with a song. To my surprise, Next to Normal uses the multi-floor setup brilliantly to do a lot of parallel movement across levels, notably “Why Stay?/A Promise” when the daughter/boyfriend and husband/wife sings the same song across different levels and expands on two different relationships at the same time.

I generally liked Act 2 more than Act 1 (though fellow musical goers disagree on this one) because Act 2 has the hallmarks of what any amazing musical should have – it reprises a LOT of musical themes from Act 1, and brings them back with different meaning because of the plot (much like Wicked’s “I’m not that girl”). The musical structure is very tight as there are a lot of overlapping vocal parts, but not to an extent that it gets confusing as to what is going on. I was a little concerned as to whether they would drag out the ending, but I think looking back the musical ended at the right spot as it built up to the grand finale necessary to close off a musical.

The musical also contains a few references and allusions – the ones I caught were quotes from Catcher in the Rye, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music.

Next to Normal also has a few memorable, catchy numbers that I can hum to as I exit the theater. The only downside is because the subject matter is so serious, the songs are hardly reusable in everyday life (unlike Rent’s “Seasons of Love” or Wicked’s “Defying Gravity”) – thought I suspect if I were to let the experience settle and if I study the soundtrack more, I’ll find good use of their songs. This is the tiny ding to the musical for me – hopefully one that will get fixed over time :) . For this reason I’d rate this musical a 4.9, if that’s at all possible… but for all practical purposes it is a 5-star musical for me, joining in the ranks of Rent and Wicked (finally!)

One parting note – instead of getting Alice Ripley (the Tony winning lead actress) I got the understudy Pearl Sun, which could have been a blessing in disguise. Checking out youtube clips, Alice Ripley definitely is a stronger actor, but apparently she has been suffering from vocal issues on this tour and can get quite pitchy and raspy, as reported by other reviewers. The understudy (or standby for this role) did a great job with the vocals – although being Asian, there’s that advantage of looking younger than your age which worked against her in this case as it made her role as a mom less convincing for me.

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Candide – Seattle, June 9, 2010 by YFA

Candide

This is the second Leonard Bernstein musical in my season subscription because it is Seattle Celebrates Bernstein festival right now. Candide was originally composed as an operetta and is based on a novel by Voltaire, but is produced as a musical today. The original opera quality surprisingly shows – I didn’t think the difference between an opera vs a musical is that noticeable. I think partly this is because the music is more symphonic than “pop” musical sounding. Like all old musicals, this one is particularly lengthy and runs just over 3 hours.

The plot for this musical was very weak – I felt it was trying to be so many things that it ended up being nothing. Thematically it was trying to be comical yet philosophical (regarding the meaning of life and the pursuit of happiness). In the end the plot became more and more absurd as dead characters just kept reviving.

The singing was impressive – there was a soprano aria (“Glitter and be Gay”) that is super high (hits a Eb6 three times, with numerous C6, and Db6 – for comparison purposes, the high note in Phantom is a E6). There were a lot more chorale numbers than normal (which made it felt more operatic). I was OK with the style of music (it felt more classical than what you normally hear at musicals), but people around me were talking during intermission and they didn’t seem to like it. No songs really stood out either – maybe because it is more classical operatic than pop song styled.

The acting was decent and the set changes were interesting, but the more important elements (music and plot) wasn’t to my taste, so I didn’t like it too much. I think there’s nothing wrong with the music, but it was just the wrong setting for a musical. I think I would enjoy the same music if I was at the symphony, but not so much at a musical.

That’s 2 not so favourable musicals in a row :( . 2.5 TP rolls for me again:

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Fiddler on the Roof – Seattle, May 26, 2010 by YFA

I’m going to watch another musical tonight and I suddenly realized I didn’t write a review for the last musical I watched :) .
Fiddler on the Roof with Harvey Fierstein
A little background on the musical if you haven’t heard of it: Fiddler held the record for the longest-running Broadway musical for almost 10 years until Grease surpassed its run. It was nominated for ten Tony Awards (1965), winning nine, including Best Musical, score, book, direction and choreography.

I didn’t do my pre-study for this musical as I was rather busy planning for my Yellowstone trip, and was slightly surprised to again see Jerome Robbins as the choreographer – this makes the 4th musical in a row that I saw with him as the choreographer (South Pacific, On the Town, Anna and the King, Fiddler on the Roof). Granted, he is an amazing choreographer – and that really shows in the large dance numbers in this musical.

Being another old musical, it was quite long (just over 3 hours I think, with intermission). The plot was set in 1905 in Russia and talks about the lives of Russian Jews, so culturally and musically I did not connect. (It makes me wonder if non-Asians have the same problem when they watch more Oriental plays like Anna and the King). The only song I knew from Fiddler was “Sunrise, Sunset”, which to my surprise was a wedding song for the play :| (it is in a minor key).

The house was more packed than I expected and so I guess the play itself is rather popular – either that or people are present to see Harvey Fierstein, who is a very lively actor. The production was solid, but I did not enjoy it as much as some other musicals – just not my taste I guess.

2.5 TP rolls for me:

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Tell Me on a Sunday – Seattle, May 5, 2010 by YFA

Tell me on a Sunday

Went to see ALW’s Tell me on a Sunday last night. Strictly speaking, “Tell Me on a Sunday” is a song cycle and not so much a musical – there was barely any acting involved. It primarily is an English girl singing about her experiences in New York, and so it was 1 singer + 1 pianist/conductor + 1 violin, viola, cello. The entire thing was quite short – lasted around 75 minutes with no intermission, and consists of 4 scenes, with 4-5 songs per scene.

I think this piece was written in the early ’80s by ALW and it has all his classical music goodness. (I heard Phantom 2: Love Never Dies is bizarre and not that great). The music is superb with a lot of revolving themes. With one actor portraying one role, the acting is quite limited, and at times it was bizarre because she sings to an imaginary person on stage (e.g. she may open a door and invite her boyfriend in and start singing to him – but nobody actually comes in through the door). For once I think this was a “story driven” plot that had minimal character development (usually in plays and musicals, I complain about too much character development and not enough plot movement), and on the other end of this spectrum it felt rather strange (in the last scene the girl sings “What have I become?” and it didn’t touch me at all since I didn’t know who she was in the first place). Otherwise for a small production (only filled 4 rows of around 12 people each on a Wed night) it was perfect.

I went home and wiki-ed it to find out that this song cycle apparently is the “song” part (act 1) of ALW’s work “Song and Dance”. One more checkmark on ALW quest! I rate “Tell Me on a Sunday”:

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