Mary Poppins is one of Disney’s most successful and iconic movie musicals, featuring a number of unforgettable songs and a story that has easily withstood the test of time. It’s slightly head-scratching given this that Cameron Macintosh, famed producer of mega hits like Cats, Les Miserables and Phantom of The Opera, would want to mess with something that already works so well.
The stage adaptation of Mary Poppins is one part re-imaging and one part preserving the classic film. It’s a mix of the elements from the film we know and love, and new songs and material that has been added in to expand the film into a Broadway musical. The problem, though, is that the film didn’t really need much expanding; running close to two and a half hours, if the movie version of Mary Poppins ever had any real issue, it was that it’s a little long for younger kids.
The concept behind Portland Center Stage’s production of One Night With Janis Joplin is a good one: bring the Janis Joplin concert experience back on stage and give modern audiences a taste of what it was like to see her in concert. Unfortunately, the production, created, written and directed by Randy Johnson, is one big hot mess. Johnson has a fairly impressive resume with a number of other stage music re-experiences including Elvis The Concert, Always Patsy Cline, and Conway Twitty – The Man The Music and The Legend. Johnson also has extensive experience directing actual concerts and tours. All this experience, however, doesn’t result in a good show.
One Night With Janis Joplin suffers on a number of fronts. The first and most serious issue with the show is an absolutely horrible script. The play never can make up its mind if it’s a singular concert experience or a journey through Janis Joplin’s life. Many of the monologues that happen between or during songs are just one step up from ramblings. In the first act many of these monologues focus on “The Blues” and the other artists who influenced Joplin. Johnson seems obsessed with these influences and at times the show feels like it’s more an essay on The Blues than a show about Joplin herself. This obsession manifests itself in the creation of another character who wanders in and out of the show, ‘The Blues Singer’. This character comes on stage to represent many of the women who influenced Janis Joplin’s music. The role is voiced wonderfully by Sabrina Elayne Carten, whose rendition of classic Nina Simone, Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin songs are some of the absolute highlights of the show.
Set in France in the early 1900s, La Boutique Fantasque, or The Enchanted Toyshop, opens with a group of excited children and their parents at the doors of a shop filled with toys and dolls. While the children play, the shopkeeper tries to convince the parents to buy something, but with no luck. Two of the children, frustrated that their parents will not allow them to take any toys home, decide to hide when the shop closes so that they may continue to play. They meet Pinocchio and spend the evening being entertained with dancing by all the toys. The parents eventually return searching for their children and are extremely angry with the shopkeeper, which he then blames on his wife, Amelie. He forces her to clean up the shop. She brightens her sadness by daydreaming about happier times while she sweeps, until Pinocchio calls on the Blue Fairy to make Amelie’s dreams come true, changing her plain clothes to a shimmering gown. The shopkeeper returns to find his wife fleeing the shop with the Blue Fairy and enchanted toys. The performance concludes with the shopkeeper realizing his mistake and how much he misses her, Amelie returning to console her husband, and the two dancing together with renewed affection.
The original off-Broadway (and eventually Broadway) production of In The Heights is a much better show than what I saw at the Keller during opening night. If there was ever a show that clearly demonstrated the acoustic limitations and the issues of bringing a show on the road it was In The Heights. Set in the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York, In The Heights takes a very conventional musical structure and infuses it with an eclectic mix of latin music, culture and dance. The core of the story is a Dominican named Usnavi, raised by a surrogate grandmother in the neighborhood, who struggles to run a small, often broken-down convenience store. Usnavi is surrounded by an cast of characters all dealing with the gentrification of the neighborhood and the struggle between planting roots or sprouting wings and finding a better life somewhere else. Thematically and musically there are a lot of notes lifted from Rent, with characters at the apex of dealing with their identity. This is no accident as many of the producers also worked on Rent.
I’m always surprised when I mention the TBA (Time Based Arts) Festival to friends only to find that it isn’t really on their radar screens. It’s a real shame as the ten day festival brings to Portland such a wide range of talent and is so well produced that it’ almost inconceivable that so many people aren’t even aware that it’s going on.
This year, the festival brings back Mike Daisey one of my favorite monologists with a piece dedicated to all things Apple (both good and bad) in “The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Steve Jobs. Daisey follows in the line of great monologists like Spaulding Grey and performs a style of of monologue called extemporaneous monologue, where he tells a story based on a loose outline of notes. His work has an unique mix of the almost electric buzz of complete improvisation combined with a strong wire framework of something totally scripted.
Dance has become a huge part of popular culture. Between TV shows “Dancing With The Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance”, more people are familiar with a wide variety of dance styles than ever before. Jason Gilkison, Director and Choreographer of Burn The Floor (as well as choreographer for So You Think You Can Dance), captures the excitement of dance into a show that’s fresh off a successful run on Broadway and London’s West End.
We spoke to Jason Gilkison about the impact of dance moving into the popular culture, the challenges of putting together a huge dance production, and his experience with Pasha and Anya from So You Think You Can Dance.
As a musical, The Lion King doesn’t measure up to a lot of its contemporaries. Outside its three signature songs “Circle of Life“, “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight“, the music of The Lion King is pretty clunky, uninspired and sometimes even awkward. Oddly enough, the music of The Lion King really isn’t the star of the show. Many of the musical numbers act as connective tissue between grand scenes awash in color, movement, dance and puppetry. It’s this wondrous magic and not the music which makes The Lion King the grand spectacle that it is.
Following fairly closely to the film, The Lion King Musical tells the story of the ‘circle of life’ of one lion cub from infancy through adulthood including his life challenges and adventures. The story is a fairly dark one where characters are often put into peril. One of the most important things to know about The Lion King Musical may be that is NOT really good viewing material for younger children. At least half of the show contains content that would be very challenging for kids under the age of 7 and some of the scenes are downright graphic. One scene depicts a fairly graphic death onstage, something far more intense than in the animated version.
Chaim Potok’s The Chosen is among several productions this season at Portland Center Stage that are based on a book or had previously been produced as a movie. It’s an almost unavoidable reality for theatrical companies to pack their slate with plays that people are somehow familiar with in some way.
Another unfortunate reality of modern theater is that the money available for productions has shrunken. Portland Center Stage’s artistic director Chris Coleman has embraced this fact and in many of his productions this season has worked with negative space and actor’s narrative or pantomime to fill the stage. This tactic worked extremely well for Ragtime and Snow Falling on Cedars but fails miserably with The Chosen.
I admit, I have never seen CATS, so with this being my first time, I had very high expectations. Considering it has been performed for 27 years over five continents and 26 countries, and it won seven Tony Awards in 1983 including Best Musical, I expected to be dazzled by a theater experience of a lifetime. While the musical performances from the Broadway Across America traveling cast are impressive, I did not love the show. I’m hard-pressed to say I even liked the show. I went as far as to ask friends and family afterward if I am crazy and everyone else actually loves CATS, but every single person I asked felt the same way – silly premise, lacking in substance, an 80s over-the-top production.
To say there is a story is bordering on ridiculous, and the lyrics to many of the songs are just as ludicrous. I found myself saying, both at intermission and after the show, that I just don’t get it. What is the appeal? Nothing really happens, and there is no character development so we have no one to really care about. The only thing I liked was the first performance of the well-known song “Memory”, mainly because it was the first scene to actually have any substance, and the actress singing has a beautiful voice. After about 30 minutes I tried to just focus on the music. The traveling company slightly redeems itself with outstanding vocals from every member of the cast.
If you happen to be a fan of CATS, this Broadway Across America Portland show closes Sunday, March 28, and tickets start at $23.50. I sat in the orchestra ($63.25) and the view was excellent, even if the show wasn’t.
It’s refreshing, from time to time, to treat yourself to a night of entertainment that is simply fun and lighthearted. This is what you can expect from Legally Blonde The Musical. The 2001 film starring Reese Witherspoon has been adapted for the stage, infused with music and dance, and is touring February 16-21 here in Portland as part of the Broadway Across America series.
The premise is simple: college sorority president and blonde bombshell Elle Woods has everything going for her – perfect clothes, perfect friends, perfect boyfriend/future husband Warner Huntington III, until said boyfriend heads to Harvard Law and dumps Elle for someone more “serious”, Vivienne Kensington. Determined to get her man, Elle manages to get herself into Harvard and sets a plan into action to get Warner back. It never occurs to her that she could fail, that no one will take her seriously, or that she might fall for someone else.
The role of Elle Woods is played, for the majority of the Portland run, by Becky Gulsvig. She keeps up with the high energy demands of the role and has a striking resemblance to Reese Witherspoon. For those of you planning to see the show later in the run, I would shoot for one of the performances on February 20 and 21 to see Portland native and Tigard High grad Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone in the role of Elle. I wish I could have seen a show with her to see some local talent.
Most of the rest of the cast are what you would expect from a traveling show. The vocals vary, some performances are stronger than others, and they double and triple up on actors playing multiple roles (not my favorite). When it comes down to it, however, this is a musical based on a fairly silly romantic comedy, so you have to keep that in mind and just enjoy the spectacle. The show does have some very funny and cute moments, like the first time Elle’s chihuahua, Bruiser, runs on stage and delivers “lines”, the marching band and cheerleaders at Elle’s admissions interview at Harvard, the “Take It Like a Man” number during which Elle’s law school friend, Emmett Forrest (played by D.B. Bonds) changes clothes on stage behind a tiny changing room door, and the courtroom scene with the entire ensemble singing “Is He Gay or European”.
An upbeat, spirited production, and dizzying number of pink costumes, Legally Blonde The Musical is entertainment that lets you just turn off your brain and enjoy.