Review: 'The Big Sleep' at Vertigo Theatre

Vicki Trask 

  • OnStage Calgary Critic

2016. 

Evening. 

It was warm for September; I didn’t need a coat but if I did, I would have turned it up like those 1940s detectives. 

Though I rarely get to see hard-boiled detective novels on stage, I love listening to old radio mysteries so when the opportunity arose to see a classic novel brought to life, I seized my moment. Vertigo Theatre’s production of Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” (commissioned for their 40th season and adapted for the stage by Aaron Bushkowsky) brought to life the world of 1940s L.A. in an imaginative and captive way. 
I attended their first preview performance on the evening of Saturday September 17th so admittedly there were a few distractions from the audience – directors taking notes, others talking, a light from booth – but I endeavored to lose myself in the night’s production. I think I mostly succeeded.

Overall, I left the theatre with a sense of satisfaction. This is the type of show you have to sit and pay attention to. It’s very wordy and descriptive but there’s action to accompany it so if you miss a single sassy remark, you might not understand why he’s pointing a gun at her. This is a famously complex story, everyone double-crossing everyone else, characters appearing for one scene and then dying. I had to look up the ending on my way home. The production itself was very well put together. 

The set and lighting by Scott Reid worked so well to tell the story. All the moving parts helped to create the scene without distracting or slowing the movement. The actors changing out the set kept the energy up and entertaining throughout the show. Why should you care about how the scene changes worked? Nothing halts a show quite like a bad scene change. Remember that.

Actor Graham Percy plays a hard-boiled, fast-talking, slightly crazed P.I. Phillip Marlowe who narrates his adventures and rarely leaves the stage. I found him appropriately subdued and sassy as he made his way through the maze of characters. Characters like Phillip Marlowe are masks for the audience to wear as they explore this particular world and I thought Mr. Percy did a fantastic job of giving us that perspective.
He first meets The General (portrayed by Stephen Hair who also plays the crotchety Detective Nulty) and his two daughters Vivian and Carmen (Mabelle Carvajal and Jesse Lynn Anderson respectively) who all have their reasons for bringing the Private Dick into their house of secrets and lies. 

From there, we’re introduced to Curt McKinstry’s performance as Joe Brody (and later Rusty Regan) along with his nasally dame Mona Mars (the volumptuous Katerine Fadum) who serve as the funniest pair of clichés ever to walk out of a crime novel. Well done. Of course Mona is married – because why would a happily married couple exist in 1940s crime noir? Casino owner Eddie Mars (played by Joel Cochrane) brings his own sass and brass to the show, appropriately instigating conflict and then slinking off into the night.

Overall a very talented cast who brought an engaging and elusive story to life. 

For Director Craig Hall, I have no real complaints. I found the first act to be well timed and drew me in as a hopeful audience member trying to follow the clues to the next mystery. As act two started, I became restless; the momentum of the scenes just weren’t the same. I felt like the story was moving at a slower pace than its preceding act and as a result, I lost the narration and missed vital information. 

I can only hope that as time goes on, the show continues to grow. Because it is a fantastic piece of drama to watch, I thoroughly enjoyed my time. As I told you, this is an engaging show that makes you sit forward in your seat to fully understand. As long as the senses are focused – and not distracted by someone in the corner writing notes with a flashlight – I think the audiences will have a wonderfully entertaining night of theatre. 

“The Big Sleep” runs until October 16th and if you have a chance, I suggest you head down to Vertigo theatre for their first show of the season. 

Happy 40th Anniversary.

 

Review: 'Da Kink in My Hair' at the Max Bell Theatre

Vicki Trask 

  • OnStage Calgary Critic

On Saturday September 17th, I attended the matinee performance of Da Kink in My Hair, written by Trey Anthony. I’d heard about this show before but I knew nothing about it until I saw that it was coming to Calgary. This two-act show tells the story of seven women in a Caribbean hair salon in Toronto, revealing their inner pain and heartache as the wondrous hairdresser Novelette brings forth their well-guarded secrets. 

The premise is very simple: women enter Letty’s Hair Salon looking for a new hairdo and a sense of family. When Novelette touches their hair, she can tell everything they’re keeping hidden. As she says when she welcomes the audience into her salon: “If you want to know a woman, a black woman, touch her hair…that is where we carry everything – all our hopes, our dreams, our pain.” For the next two hours, we’re transported, wholly and completely. If you take anything away from this review it’s that I was moved. 

A combination of song and text introduce actress (and playwright) Trey Anthony – along with her fabulous girls – to this open, honest world.

Marion J. Caffey’s direction AND choreography are skillfully combined with Renee Clark’s musical direction from the very beginning, telling every woman’s story with just a few words. As each actress stood up and revealed their truth, I felt a connection, not necessarily to their stories but to their desire to let it all go; having that permission to be free in the safety of the theatre. Powerful emotions were evoked on that stage and I hope you’ll feel it too. 

And I hope you do get out to see this show at some point in their life; I am so grateful I spent the afternoon at the Max Bell Theatre. 

Each character had such a unique and yet familiar story to tell, I guarantee you will find a connection with the emotion brought out in their performances.

Tamara Brown plays Patsy, a Christian mother, seemingly stoic and prudish but keeping her pain hidden inside. She is the first – but not the last – to leave the salon a changed woman. Her monologue (and this story is portrayed mainly through a series of monologues) stole my breath but prepared me for the oncoming heartbreak. I was not prepared enough. 

We’re next introduced to Suzy’s story, a conflicted young mother played by Rae-Anna Matiland, a tale I never thought I would hear in 2016 but it spoke so poignantly to the times we are living in now (and even back in 2001 when the play premiered). So much has changed and yet, so little. 

Lennette Randal plays tired business woman Sherelle who falls to her knees under the pressure of being a black woman in a white man’s world. Listen to her words and tell me your heart doesn’t ache. Mine did. This was the first moment in the show when I sat forward in my seat and couldn’t take my eyes off of the woman pouring her soul onto the floor.

Miss Enid, played so warmly by Brenda Phillips, had the audience in an uproar reminding them that a woman, no matter her age, still has sass and life to give. I thank you, Brenda, for sharing your talent with us. I smiled, and laughed, and forgot the troubles of the world from the moment you stepped on the stage.

The Hollywood starlet who opens act two, played by Krystle Chance, stole my heart. A woman pursuing her dreams and fighting tooth and nail to get what she wants, while living in an environment she never expected to struggle against. I found Krystle’s performance of Sharmaine to be honest and powerful without preaching or belittling. So strong.

Allison Edwards-Crewe’s performance as Nia was, in a word, purposeful. Every word she said, every biting tone, spoke to the audience about the agony in her life, a quiet pain we didn’t see until she was in that chair. I forgot who this woman had been for all of act one and simply saw a hurting daughter, crying out for love. I was moved to walk onto that stage and hug her for the pain she’d gone through; loving the comfort that Novelette brought to her – and to all the women who walked through her door. 

Last and, oh my god, not least, was Virgilia Griffith’s performance as Stacy-Anne. The audience fell silent as she told her story and I had to look away as she spoke. I would describe my experience with Stacy-Anne as soulful and heartbreaking; I was moved to tears by her story and the power behind it. I applaud you, Virgilia, you have pierced my frozen heart with your portrayal of this lonely girl. 

I love that this cast is so diverse without being so purposefully unique. It is very much a story of women sharing their stories rather than ranting and raving about the hardships in their lives. I am happy for that and moved by the honesty in these words. 

Da Kink in My Hair runs until October 1st at the Max Bell Theatre. I sincerely hope, you can get out to see this show. If I could, I would go back again and again.

Photo: Trey Anthony (centre) and the cast of 'da Kink in my Hair, photo by Trudie Lee.

 

Review: 'Heathers' at Cappuccino Musical Theatre

Vicki Trask 

  • OnStage Calgary Critic

September 1st, 1989

Heathers the Musical presented by Cappuccino Theatre is the definition of a hit and miss show.

So what’s the damage?

Well, on Saturday June 11th 2016, I attended the cult classic at Vertigo Theatre with mixed emotions. Though I’m still fairly new to this musical, I am in desperate love with the show penned by Legally Blonde: The Musical creators Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy. The music is unforgettable, the story is timeless and shameless; how can you not fall head over heels? 

The show centers around Veronica Sawyer, a high school senior, just trying to make it to the end of the year with her best friend Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock. That is, until she meets the mysterious Jason Dean (JD for short) and ends up amongst the high school royalty of “the Heathers”. This somehow leads her to kill three of her classmates and watch her high school crumble into unexpected chaos, all underscored by catchy, and poignant music. This fantastic dark comedy has so many universal themes and translates so creatively to the stage.

Cappuccino Theatre presents Heathers The Musical starring, from left, Jamie Robinson, Eden Hildebrand, Chelsea Millard and Tanis Laatsch. Photo: CALGARY HERALD

Cappuccino Theatre presents Heathers The Musical starring, from left, Jamie Robinson, Eden Hildebrand, Chelsea Millard and Tanis Laatsch. Photo: CALGARY HERALD

However, this particular production had me a little weary. The actors playing seventeen year old high school students were…not seventeen year old high school students. While that’s not normally a major problem in a production, this show is so centered around the selfish, angsty, judgmental teenage life, I worried it wouldn’t land with audiences. 

I’ll eat a few slices of humble pie. There were some very honest and moving performances and then there were some not so convincing moments.

Our leading actress, Chelsea Millard is the perfect example of this hit and miss concept. She is a strong singer but as soon as a song or a phrase was out of her range, I could see her lose a bit of her power as Veronica. She was very stiff and it didn’t suit the words she was saying. Veronica carries a lot of the show and Chelsea wasn’t always present in the scene which killed me because when she found those little moments they were (forgive the pun): Beautiful. 

As for her leading man, I have to tip my hat to Bryan Smith. I wasn’t convinced of his Frank Abagnale Jr. (Catch Me If You Can by Front Row Centre Players back in March 2016) but his JD was chilling, terrifying, and yet still endearing. When he worships her, you feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. My compliments to Bryan Smith. 

The Heathers: Chandler (Eden Hildebrand), McNamara (Tanis Laatsch), and Duke (Jamie Robinson) are all actresses I’ve seen on stage one hundred times and these leading ladies always deliver incredible performances. I wasn’t shocked in the least to see them own the stage with every well placed heel – especially in Candy Store, not an easy number. My undying admiration goes to Tanis Laatsch. “Lifeboat” is a powerful number and she did it justice; the audience held their breath for her. 

I must say I was pleasantly surprised by Forrest Tymchuk and Johann Wentzel – playing Ram Sweeney and Kurt Kelly respectively – who brought a lot of energy and skin to their performances of the dumb and dumber jock. Those boys were always on and I admit there was always something to laugh about with these two. Congratulations.

Which brings me to Martha Dunnstock played by Mandee Marcil. This role is not large, but it’s so important and Mandee blew me away. I knew she could sing and act like nobody’s business but she was transformed as the love struck best friend who lives her days in the bully circle. Thank you, Mandee, for sharing this character with the audience. 

Of course these actors were fantastically directed by the incomparable Carl Bishop, musically directed by the ever fabulous Danielle Wahl, and choreographed by the stunningly talented Danielle Desmarais – a powerhouse team who brought this monster of a show to life, accompanied by their incredible design and production team. The set design was so clever and so well executed. I couldn’t describe it, even if I wanted to; you have to see it for yourself. 

The only thing that stunted my enjoyment of the show was the show itself. The balance between band and vocals was off, there was a stilted energy whenever dancing started, dead air during set changes kills any mood. These are things that happen on a show to show basis that can let it fall into the ranks of “potentially amazing.” Right now, I’m feeling: so very…meh. 

There were a lot of amazing things and then a lot of things that didn’t quite reach for me. This is a show that speaks to so many generations despite its very specific dating. It’s about youth: the desperation that comes with needing to walk through hell to get to graduation day; the consequences of standing up for yourself without thinking about the future. What it means to destroy instead of create when the world turns to shit. Sometimes the message can be lost in the wordy texts and big dance numbers but I expect great things from Cappuccino and they reached it in some ways but not in others.

You can still get tickets for Heathers the Musical which is running from June 4th to June 18th in the Studio at Vertigo Theatre. Who knows? It could be Beautiful.

 

Review: 'Catch Me If You Can' presented by Front Row Centre Players

Vicki Trask

OnStage Calgary Critic

~~~~~~

CALGARY, ALBERTA - I rarely leave the Beddington Heights Community Arts Centre in a foul mood because the companies who share that space are so well known for producing award-winning entertainment; but this show was an incredible example of what genuine talent can produce from a volunteer-run organization.

Catch Me If You Can presented by Front Row Centre Players opened Friday March 25th 2016 to a sold out audience. This musical tells the story of Frank Abagnale Jr.and his journey as a con man, stealing millions of dollars, playing a pilot, doctor, and lawyer all before he turns 21. On the way, he lands in the path of FBI Agent Carl Hanratty who makes it his mission to catch Frank by whatever means necessary. The two take off on a cat and mouse chase around the country, creating a musical extravaganza based on the hit movie.

Before the lights even go down, we are introduced to the world of teased hair, bright colours, and short skirts thanks to the incredible makeup design by Allie Higgins-Pompu, hair design by Cat Bentley, and costume design by Sandy Forbes. I could talk for hours, breaking down each individual costume from each scene, ranting about their beauty but I’ll keep it short. These costumes are gorgeous. They complimented the girls’ figures in a classical sexy form; no one looked trashy or stood out because their costume was ill-fitting. And the boys were the epitome of bond-esque dapper style. I was so impressed by the costumes, their function in quick changes, the colours, the clean cuts on all the actors. I applaud you, Sandy. 

Of course she had a fabulous cast to work with on this show. Starting with the amazing ensemble of six insanely talented females who danced their way into the hearts of every audience member after one number. It was evident from the first scene that all six of them are individually talented dancers – which admittedly became more evident when there was a mismatched hand or head out of place. Shout out to Nicole Heide for her strong flexibility and inner thigh muscles, and Lindsey Patterson for her endless levels of sass that drew my eye whenever she came on stage. Work it girls! It helped that the six male ensemble members who followed them around were equally as talented and just as sexy. Christine Mooney (choreography) got some incredible dancers to work with. 

Our two leading men, Bryan Smith as Frank Abagnale Jr. and Mike Sornberger as Carl Hanratty, carried their weight in this two-and-a-half hour performance. Bryan is charming as ever, playing teenage Frank in his con man ways. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, I will tell you all you need to know: this is a very difficult role to play. It’s vocally challenging, it’s exhausting to barely leave the stage, and you have to make the audience root for a deviant criminal. Bryan Smith pulls it off, creating a persona that draws the eye of every audience member with his killer smile and devil may care attitude. My only criticism is that I didn’t believe that he was a kid with a family, and a desire for home and love. I found him lacking a vulnerability that especially showed when he belted those high notes and lost a lot of his physical and facial expression. 

And then there’s Mike. I have yet to see a disappointing performance from Mike Sornberger. From his role as Frederick Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein to Willy Wonka in Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, this man is a fantastic comedic actor. He sunk so well into the role of Carl Hanratty, I laughed and clutched my heart in sympathy with every note. Although I could see him starting to lose steam throughout his big number “Don’t Break the Rules” he never lost his character or his focus. I am always in awe of this man’s physical command of every character he takes on. 

Murray Melnychuk as Frank Abignale Sr. was the ideal choice for creating a compassionate, loveable, but tragic father figure for our lead character. Murray’s performance – although quiet – was heartbreaking. His stage wife, played by Judy Dunsmuir, was a perfect French femme fatale foil for Frank’s father (oh, that felt good). But in all honesty, I loved Judy’s performance, oozing charm and creating sympathy and disbelief in her wake. 

The Strongs, Brenda, Roger, and Carol –played by Jenna Fraser, her father Bruce Fraser, and Jill Howell-Fellows respectively – were individually hilariously captivating and together, they were a delight to watch. I was awed by Bruce Fraser’s performance. I knew he was an incredible singer and actor but I was floored by the many roles that he took on outside of Roger Strong. He really was the everyman for this show. 

Jenna Fraser is not only a phenomenal dancer but her emotional command of Brenda’s character slayed me. I got chills and was moved to tears just listening to her sing “Fly, Fly Away”. If anything, go to hear Jenna sing. 

I couldn’t get through this review without mentioning the absolutely incredible band, led by musical director Danielle Wahl. They were so alive with energy and kept the show moving forward with their catchy tunes, and crazy rhythms. 

Rhythms exploited by first time choreographer Christine Mooney to create visually stunning, perfectly stylized routines. I think she did a wonderful job of utilizing the space and her dancers, featuring her performers’ strengths amidst grand and energetic group numbers. 

Also making his official debut is director Jeff Diodati who created the magically world we get to live in – and I didn’t want to leave it. He led the charge followed by Assistant Director Jamie Eastgaard-Ross and a team of Stage Managers, Running Crew, and other volunteers who keep the show running every night. Through every set change, misfired gun, and quick changing actor, these guys work their magic. Thank you.

I applaud the designers of this show – especially Rich Davis and James Ravenhill for their set design (functional, classy, and larger than life) – although there were a lot of lighting and sound issues that I will attribute to opening night technical difficulties and assume they’ll be fixed. This dream team created a visual delight for everyone to enjoy.

Overall, this show was stunning. I don’t know what I expected but it wasn’t this lively, charming, spectacle of a musical in all its slightly self-aware, comedic glory. I highly recommend you get your tickets now at tickets.frontrowcentre.ca

Catch Me If You Can runs from March 25th to April 9th at the Beddington Heights Community Arts Centre in NW Calgary. 

Review: "Summer on Fire" at Scorpio Theatre

Vicki Trask

On Friday February 19th, I suddenly decided that I was going to the closing weekend of Summer on Fire with Scorpio  Theatre. I am so glad I did.

Performed in a small, personal theatre space, this show tells the story of six people sharing a vacation house in the summer of 2008. The players: a conservative right-wing reporter for FOX news, his gay assistant, his exuberant ex-wife and her new obnoxious liberal boyfriend, and a soon-to-be famous singer with her loudmouthed lesbian partner. Together they get into crazy, politically and emotionally driven hijinks that left the audience rolling with laughter.

The set was used so well; a stylish functioning kitchen, living room and hallway that my colleague described as "hipster". Very well designed. Although I found it amusing that ushers encouraged the audience to sit as far stage right as they could since some rather pivotal plot points were blocked by the narrow hallway design. I applaud Dale Fea's use of the space. The Joyce Doolittle is not a large theatre (seating about 65) but she somehow managed to fit in an entire summer home - one very well decorated and semi-functional. I want to live in that house. With the exception of that glass coffee table. I say: learn to be deliberate with your use of clinking glass or don't use a glass coffee table. Especially if you're going to be doing that many set changes in the quiet and the dark.

Now.

I've only seen a handful of shows from this company and in this space but I've continuously left feeling entertained and satisfied in the past due in a large part to the incredible acting talent working with Scorpio. The cast, which consisted of: Carolyn Ruether, Jerry Callaghan,
Wendy Froberg, Mira Maschmeyer,
Adam Jamieson, Jacob Lesiuk were well chosen for their roles. That's one thing I can say about the entire cast. Everyone up on stage made perfect sense and looked well together. Our protagonist, played by Carolyn Ruether, was phenomenal. Insecure and unsure of her own feelings, I was taken in by the blonde singer/songwriter. Her girlfriend, on the other hand, left me wanting more. It was hard for me to tell whether it was the stereotyped writing or the stagnant energy coming off of the actress but Miss Maschmeyer's performance felt more like she was reading from her script compared to the rest of the cast - especially considering her character is written as the abrasive, loudmouthed lesbian lover. I would prefer a few flubbed lines over a monotone performance.

I was very impressed by director Aaron Conrad. A lot of the material covered in this script was...vulgar. And crude. And sensitive. But boy, did I laugh despite myself. And I felt that I had permission to laugh at the truly offensive content without having to think about it.

That was probably my favourite part of the show. Not the props I wanted to steal, or the male nudity, or the excellent use of lightning and vibrating thunder, it was enjoying a night of shocking humor that only gets funnier with time.

Imagine looking back at the world in 2008 at the end of the American election and the height of social revolution. Remember the choices you made and the dinner table conversations you avoided with your overly conservative family members. Imagine seeing all of that displayed on stage for a 2 hour laugh riot. Absolutely entertaining.

Summer of Love is now closed. The next show from Scorpio Theatre is Love Song opening on May 27th.