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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!


First Impressions: Audioengine A5 by sadd3j

So it’s been a long time coming but I finally made the jump to replace the Klipsch Promedia 4.1s that I bought sometime between 2000-2002, paying somewhere in the ballpark of $600 at the time and having to go to an actual audio store. Staying true to that vein, pretty much the only store in the GTA which carries Audioengine is Computer Systems Centre. I actually found the brand and these speakers a few months ago but the price (CAD$349 at Canada Computers, $359 at CSC) and not wanting to trek down to CSC to try them out deterred me.

Well now that I work near CSC and in light of recent employment events, I decided to indulge a little bit. Due to streetcar traffic I ended up walking there (15 minute walk) and it was absolutely frigid. Once I got there, I plugged my iPhone in and tried out a few choice tunes including and not limited to: Sound of Silence, Coachella, Your Latest Trick and Sultans of Swing. The speakers were placed a little high in the store and the environment in general wasn’t ideal for critical listening. I have to admit I wasn’t really wowed on first listen. I could tell they were on par with the Klipsch, but didn’t sound any better. After a good 25 minutes of listening, I was satisfied and so picked them up. Partially persuaded by the long trek there in the cold.

An hour later when I got home, I began the unbox!

The ugliest box ever. Straight out of China.

Guest unboxer!

Nicely bagged and wrapped. They’re actually upside down in this photo. A felt layer on the bottom of each speaker to help with isolation and reduce vibrations etc.

Ta da! Can’t judge a speaker by it’s box; it’s a very solid, nicely finished speaker in a satin black.

The first thing I noticed is that they’re too big for my desk and because they’re so deep, you’re definitely in front of the ideal soundstage, but it’s tolerable. I can’t point them in too much due to my weird desk, so I may look into finally replacing what was supposed to be a temporary table top.

I’ve been playing a variety of music through it over the course of the evening, from Broadway soundtracks to Erin Bode to Starfield to Keith Jarrett. It sounds far better now than in the store.. I’m also listening at a more reasonable level and that may have something to do with it. These speakers are *extremely* musical. They don’t have the same oomph of the Klipsch but that was typically wanted in games and movies and not so much in music. I can finally agree with the other reviews I’ve read and say that the A5s pack more than enough bass for music.

One thing that happens often with a 2.1 computer system is that when you listen at extremely low levels (late night) there’s an obvious separation between the (typically) 3-4″ satellites and the subwoofer. One advantage for the A5s is that even at low levels, the bass is still present and mixes smoothly. I’ve not tried pushing them too loud since it’s late, but at comfortable volumes for near-field listening, the A5s are really outstanding and very full sounding.

I was deciding between the M-Audio BX5a’s and these and while I still haven’t listened to the BX5a’s, I definitely don’t regret picking up the A5’s. Reviews/comparisons for the BX5a say that it’s extremely light on bass and much less forgiving (as they should be, being monitors) and so including the cost of a sub, getting the BX5a’s would cost far more than a pair of A5s. I did listen to a pair of AV40s that JV lent to me and while they were pretty adequate for near-field use, they just didn’t do it for me.

Anyhow.. to end my rambling, very happy with the purchase (as non gadgety as speakers are) and now it’s only a matter of them lasting as long as the Klipsch did! Will try games and movies soon.


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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It’s here! by sadd3j

Full review to come.

Thanks to my beauteyful wifey for the awesome Christmas present.

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Candide – Seattle, June 9, 2010 by YFA


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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