Saturday, August 31, 2013

Zarkana by Cirque du Soleil - All Types of Crazy

Zarkana cover art (Source: Amazon.com)
Cirque's annual music offering for 2013 is Zarkana, an attempt at a rock-opera/psychadelic/world/pop/whatever recording. There are so many things wrong with this recording and there are so many different types of crazy to be discovered.

Zarkana is poorly composed and extremely over-produced. Songs amble around with no discernible melody or development, and many that do have those elements have been extremely compromised in losing their dramatic intensity and vibrancy during the transfer from live production to this recording. Too many songs develop a fine structure then have elements added seemingly from random, from improvisations of instruments disrupting the flow to elecronica breakdowns. It's frustrating since several of their live counterparts are impeccable - here they are awkward, jarring, and nothing special. Like previous Cirque recordings that have aimed to be considered heavy rock, Zarkana's instrumentation lacks the edge and rawness that so many great rock albums have - it's too dreamy and synth heavy, and too psychedelic to be taken seriously. The concept of this recording isn't really realised, and majority of the content isn't anything interesting.

Still, it's dependable on a Cirque du Soleil record that there is always at least a handful of interesting songs. 'Zarwaq' is a unique splice of tribal chanting and percussive beats, with unfortunate interjections of synthesisers, whereas 'Asteraw' feels diluted from an array of twinkly effects and random interjections, but has a vibrant and memorable melody. The mystique of 'Rae' is ruined by a bizarre spoken word interval and omission of the stunning bugle horn, but otherwise is an entrancing amalgam of voice and piano. The jewel of the album is 'Eridanus', which has an infectious chorus, and unlike most of the record has amazing mixing with exceptional clarity. It's an excellent song and shows that Cirque du Soleil's repertoire is still expanding and conquering new genres.

The remainder of the album variates between remarkably beige ('Tourago/Guiram', 'Gienah'), to embarrassingly weird ('Tarienter/The Archer', 'Crysococca') to horrifyingly bad ('Caph', 'Jarseate'). It's a painful reminder that Cirque kicked artistic excellence out of it's view long ago and are primarily interested in settling for the average.

Seeing as Zarkana was originally conceived as a rock opera on Broadway, this is probably the one time where it would have been acceptable for a release with English lyrics. Instead, we are left with imaginary lyrics that seem to be an after-thought of a scrambled attempt to change Zarkana's image. The result is a horrible mishmash of sloppy pseudo-English vowels with no apparent rhyme or structure, sometimes with an odd English lyric thrown in. The record is sprinkled with unpronounceable and upsettingly random titles that are all kinds of crazy ('Caph', 'Crysococca', 'Zawraq').

The recording of Zarkana isn't great. The mixing and production is fairly poor, the majority of the songs are unappealing, and . There are some likeable tracks, but the majority of the album isn't worth a recommendation. Overall I'd recommend just purchasing 'Eridanus' on iTunes and giving the rest of the album a miss.

Cirque du Soleil 'Zarkana' is available from their online boutqiue and on Amazon.com. Available on physical CD and digital download. Preview the entire album for free on Cirque du Soleil's Zarkana official website.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

On An Incredibly Ordinary Sunday


(Source: Facebook)
When I heard that Victoria Opera was mounting a production of Sunday in the Park with George, I was thrilled; I didn’t know what to do with myself, but knew that I had to see it. The text is gorgeous, the music abstract and ingenious, and knowing that it was being performed by an opera company I knew it would be an opulent production. I planned the trip in September, booked the tickets in February, and booked flights to Melbourne in April. With that in mind, I believe that Victoria Opera's staging of Sunday in the Park With George is easily the most disappointing theatrical experience I've seen in my life. Months of anticipation looking forward to opening night resulted in an upsettingly ordinary and underwhelming interpretation of the text, and I watched one of my favourite musicals be clawed into mediocrity.

Sunday in the Park With George is a problematic text - it's first act is an ill-fated love story set in 19th century France, following the life of Georges Seurat over a series of Sundays where he paints to complete his masterpiece 'Une Dimanche de La Grande Jatte', a gigantic and revolutionary impressionist piece. So dedicated to his work, he neglects his lover Dot, who leaves him and travels to America. The first act is perfection - the second is not. 100 years later in the 80s, Georges' grandson, George, is a artist struggling to find inspiration and is constantly juggling the politics in 'the art of making art' with the desire to make something new. It is Sondheim's greatest and probably most autobiographical work, being inherently personal yet at the same time universally understandable to artists in this world that strive to create original work that speaks to people. The message, created through some of the most haunting melodies and profound lyrics presented on stage, is one that I value beyond words and find to be a constant source of inspiration.

George (Alexanda Lewis) and Dot (Christina O'Neill)
in Move On (Source: Victorian Opera).
The writing of the show is difficult to access however, and much of the brilliance is drawn out through interpretations of wonderful actors. This is probably why the most disappointing aspect of the production are the portrayals of the two leads. Georges and Dot require powerhouse lead vocalists with supreme chemistry to be successful – and in this interpretation of the text, they don’t. Alexander Lewis is mostly fine as Georges, but lacks the meticulous articulation and frenzy that crafts both the character's brilliance and flaws. As a result he is initially too languid, and when the text commands him to react sharply in a manner other than his usual disposition he comes across as brash and hugely undignified. His work in the second act however is hugely charismatic and very entertaining, managing to effectively convey what others usually omit in the role in the struggle of artists finding the balance between making art and living it.  The main issue with the production is the leading lady, Christina O’Neill. For someone so sorely trying to emulate Bernadette Peters, it’s regrettable that among the things O’Neill lacks is the formidable belt that the role relies on for much of its dramatic intensity. By no means is she a bad singer – she certainly has her moments in this production – but her boring phrasing and charmless characterization, under the most vapid direction, renders her the most disappointing aspect of the production and she is horribly miscast for the role. For some reason she is also the only cast member who deems it necessary to flout an American accent, although she frequently breaks it. She simply does not do justice to the role and doesn't seem to have the emotional maturity in her acting to portray this deeply complex character.

Elsewhere, the ensemble is uniformly excellent. The women in particular, comprised of Olivia Cranwell, Carrie Barr, Noni McCallum and Dimity Shepherd, have sparkling voices that glide airily over the top of score with much élan, and in the men Lyall Brooks and John Brunato boast fabulous characterization. While not as vocally strong as previous actresses who have occupied the role, Nancye Hayes is a delight and brings a considerable amount of humanity, humour and character to Georges’ mother, and when Antoinette Halloran and David Rogers-Smith as Yvonne and Jules make their entrance the quality of the production is noticeably raised.

The wonderful ensemble sing Sunday (Source: Victorian Opera).
Jim Atkins’ sound design is abysmal, being poorly conceived and failing in its live execution. Synthesizers surge at the most inappropriate moments, slivers of feedback are heard throughout, and the positioning of the mixing is lopsided. Only certain members of the company seem to use microphones, presenting an infuriatingly unbalanced mix in any choral song, however the amplification of breathing, foley, and lips being ploughed together in a passionless manner is nauseating and deeply unpleasant. There isn’t even the most basic live processing such as reverb, so on the final “Sunday” there is no haunting echo, just the sound of paper leaves clomping onto the stage, amplified eighty thousand times. As the state opera company which has its integrity built on its excellent in the area of live music, it’s embarrassingly amateur and frankly not good enough.

Anna Cordingley’s design for the production is a bit bleak at times, but some areas are a victory. The costumes are ravishing, a gorgeous amalgam of colourful pastels which look as though they have been conjured directly from impressionistic paintings. However, for a work that revolves around the discourses of aesthetics, the set is jarringly ugly. Thematically, separated into huge sections never properly covered, the huge steel cage is supposed to represent Seurat’s works, however any time a painting is used, horribly tacky lights pop up to make a boarder which obliterate the esoteric sense of Seurat's impressionistic work. On a whole it either gets in the way, or is just so barren that you don’t take notice of it.

There are so many useless moments that seem to be crammed in in an attempt to make it seem like a spectacle – in one song petals fall on the stage, remaining there for the rest of the production never to be interacted with again, not even being cleared at intermission. Another requires the audience to wear flimsy 3D glasses, and later sloppy video projections that look cheesy overlap horribly and unevenly. The pacing and tempo in the songs and the libretto in between is also far too slow, giving the piece a strange sense of flow. Audience members giggled through some of the text’s most tragic moments and hurtful lines, missed some of the most entertaining instances and noticeably were confused whether to applaud or not after each song.

The production is maddeningly beige. Owing to its excellent writing and exquisite score it can’t be considered a failure, but instead it is unremarkable for the lackluster directing, underwhelming leads and frustrating design.

Tickets for Victoria Opera's Sunday in the Park With George are $39 - $150, and is showing at Arts Centre Melbourne's Playhouse Theatre until July 27th. Duration of approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes, including a 20 minute intermission. Book by visiting ACM's website.



The most interesting event of the evening was when I called up my friend to cry to during the interval, and Geoffery Rush was standing in front of me and accidentally (?) blew some smoke in my face. He’s such a badass!!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Pokemon Live! by Temple Theatre Company


Pokémon Live! is Temple Theatre Company's debut production, and it's awesome just how this unsavoury and crusty execution managed to entertain the audience. I couldn't control my excitement for seeing the show - I grew up with the songs, I knew all the characters and the storyline, and I understood all the intertexual humour. And because of all those reasons, I was willing to forgive almost every disastrous aspect of the show and appreciate it in its horrifying glory.

Ash (Adwan Dickson) and his friends Misty (Rhiannon Moushall) and Brock (Thomas Pitiris) are on their latest adventure, which is to win the new Diamond Badge from a new gym leader. Unknown to them, the Diamond Badge is a ruse concocted by Giovanni (Zane Weber) and his minions Team Rocket (John Vizcay-Wilson, Xanthe Jones, Phoebe Ballard). Team Rocket have captured Ash's mum Delia (Georgina Purdie) and Professor Oak (Patrick Aiken), and plan on capturing Pikachu (Elizabeth Witt) so that the new super Pokémon MechaMew2 can learn all the known battle moves, and allow Giovanni to take over the world.
Pitiris as Brock, Dickson as Ash and
Moushall as Misty (Source: Facebook).

For a show that was conceived as a multi-million dollar spectacle, the production value is seriously lacking and in some areas hilariously bad. The music, lyrics and book are puerile and banal while the directing is shambolic, however with material like this, it's very difficult to not make that entertaining - the fact that the team admitted they set out of make something that veered on 'so bad it's good' certainly prevails as a victory. My friend next to me's mouth hung open in sheer horror while I wailed with laughter. There are backouts that have no function, in some instances where NOTHING on stage even changes and the audience are just left in the dark listening to random instrumental reprises. There are pointless dance breakdowns where the story doesn't progress and there is no insight given to character. The lighting rarely does anything emotive and seem to serve as a homage to schizophrenia, and the sound is poorly mixed, usually being too soft but occasionally achingly loud.

All of those elements fed directly into the enjoyment of piece and to top it off there are several great aspects of the production too - the actual performers made the most of their ridiculous material and were clearly having a fantastic time, and the cast was sprinkled with veterans of Brisbane musical theatre with all being apt singers and several members pretty good dancers. Comedic timing was excellent and scenes flavoured with random elements, such as entering on scooters or 'falling' into holes, were glorious. It felt like, seeing as the show was noted suitable for audience under 15, there could have been more tounge-in-cheek comments, and the fact that Pikachu was scantily dressed set itself up for some jokes that just never happened. Regardless, references to the games were fantastic - stepping into the eyesight of trainers, the music, but in particular the voice over at the start is one of the most ingenious introductions and executions of house etiquette I've ever heard. Certain songs were just stellar - 'Misty's Song' was hilariously inappropriate, 'PokéRap' a brilliant opener, and the ridiculously flamboyant 'Double Trouble' were glorious.

I'm amused that I enjoyed Pokémon Live! for the same reasons I didn't enjoy Next to NormalPokémon Live! is probably one of the stupidest things I've ever seen, but Temple Theatre Company has completely embraced this puerile work and transformed it into a glorious trainwreck which was hilarious and completely enthralling for 90 minutes. Hopefully this ambition has paid off and the troupe can now afford some real props, costumes and material to perform. But for what it was - wow. My childhood came to life, albeit a little more sexy than what it was.

Temple Theatre Company's Pokemon Live! played at Brisbane Arts Theatre from April 23rd - April 27th.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Oscar Theatre Company's Next to Normal [*]

Next to Normal artwork (Source: Facebook). 
Oscar Theatre Company effectively brings Off-Broadway to Brisbane. When they announced in May last year that they were bringing Next to Normal to QPAC for its Queensland Premier, a lot of people were really excited for it. There's a lot of things I don't actually like about the text itself - the content of the text is sincere but its delivery in the storyline comes across as a bit pandering, and the score isn't great. But beyond all of that, Oscar's Next to Normal is a fairly good vision of the original text, with a good cast that only narrowly miss the punch of the roles.

Next to Normal is about a dysfunctional family where the mother, Diane Goodman (Alice Barbery), is suffering from an intense strand of schizophrenia which causes her to imagine her dead son Gabrielle Goodman (Matt Crowley) is still alive. Her husband (Chris Kellet) desperately tries to save their family by taking her to various doctors, hoping that a newly recommended Dr. Madden (James Gauci) holds the answer they're looking for. Meanwhile, her brilliant but neglected daughter Natalie (Siobhan Kranz) begins a self-destructive relationship with loveable stoner Henry (Tom Oliver) to distract her from her family's unusual situation.

While the cast are fair at acting and have good voices, only a few of them are exceptional in their roles. For the most part the punch is a bit lacking due to their vocal demands - Alice Barbery and Chris Kellet are great but both lack the power and energy to hit the powerhouse mark that their roles provide, and although they're both fine most of the time they often waft into using their head voices and the score looses a lot of drive and its blistering ferocity. They are better actors than singers, although the reverse can be said for Matt Crowley, who is fine in the role vocal wise but occasionally looks frigid and sort of kills the momentum at crucial moments by looking a little ridiculous so immobile. James Gauci is excellent for his combined total of 20 minutes on stage, but Tom Oliver and Siobhan Kranz are easily the standouts. Oliver becomes the most adorable character on stage, and the only thing that really detracts from Kranz's interpretation is how insufferable her character is - it's not edgy saying 'fuck' anymore, it's just irritating (and sometimes laughable). Their final scene was the only moment in the entire piece that really moved me.

I hadn't heard the score of the show before viewing it because I'm not a fan of rock musicals - while Next to Normal isn't an exception, it's still reasonably interesting. Tom Kitt's score is loud and toe-tapping but the drums come across as kitschy in a vain attempt to be edgy, and the small ensemble usually doesn't manage to have enough variation (also, apparently the violinist didn't tune their instrument before beginning the show either). I can remember one song, Super Boy and the Invisible Girl, because my friend yodelled it in the car last week. Some of Brian Yorkey's lyrics are a bit insipid, although there are a few gems and occasionally the dialogue is quite profound, which would probably are enough to warrant it's Pulitzer win. The story didn't really speak to me, and how the whole subject was handled felt a bit pandering, trying to be relevant and edgy but failing by introducing an optimistic ending which cheapened the whole experience.
The Goodman Family (Crowley, Barbery, Kellet and Kranz)
(Source: Facebook).

Timothy Wallace's set is frustrating since while it has an interesting concept its execution is a bit clumsy and much of what happens on the upper level is lost on the lower audience and the only view is of disembodied heads moving around (though I anticipate it would look better from the balcony). There is no exact definition of space either, with characters entering the house from about eighty thousand different entrances. The Cremorne Theatre is ideal for its intimacy but the small space seemed restrictive for creating and maintaing an authentic dramatic universe. The sound design was fine, some characters a little to quiet in some scenes but nothing much to complain about. As usual, Jason Glenwright's solid lighting compliments the action perfectly, occasionally being more emotive than any other aspect on stage.

A lot of people have blubbered about how they cried multiple times during Oscar Theatre Company's Next to Normal, and although I can appreciate why they love the show it's just not my thing. There is a lot to admire in this very ambitious staging of Next to Normal but absence of energy combined with my dislike of the score rendered the show a bit unremarkable for me. What is remarkable is the effort from the cast that really give it their best and only a few narrowly don't deliver. If you're a fan of the score and the show, then the majority of my criticism is irrelevant - it's an enjoyable evening and musical passionates and even casual fans will enjoy seeing this piece presented for the first time in Queensland.

Tickets for Oscar Theatre Company's Next to Normal are $39 - $58, and is showing at QPAC's Cremorne Theatre until May 4th. Duration of approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, including a 20 minute intermission. Book by visiting QPAC's website.

Monday, April 15, 2013

CAN CELLOS BE GUITARS!?! @ Room 60.

I had the pleasure of playing at Room 60 last week. Tick that off the bucket list.

At the Roost Launch last October a violinist jumped on staged and improvised some wretched jazz for about 10 minutes. I was absolutely awed at how bizarre it was, and vowed that when I returned from overseas I would perform on the stage in some capacity. I found a new love for the cello and, with a lot of inspiration and modelling from Jorane, devised a 25 minute set which would involve me simultaneously playing cello and singing.
My favourite shot that Chris did.

There was a bit of preparation to be put into the event. I went about recording several demos - mostly they were covers by artists like Leonard Cohen, Lady Gaga and Sarah Slean, but I also wrote a few original works. Once I felt reasonably happy with the results, I contacted Room 60 and got in touch with Leila Cosgrove. Leila organises all the music and was intrigued by the idea, and was very enthusiastic. I was asked to send through a bio and a promo shot, so I got my friend Christopher King to shoot some shots in an abandoned house and in a large green field. The bio was more difficult, because I have no credentials when it comes to music. I ended up blubbering something about how I was a 'sound designer' and wanted to experiment with jazz. That's another thing - people ask me what genre I play and I have no idea what to say to them. Once sent through, Leila confirmed I would be playing at 7pm on April 11th. Phew!

So once I had a date locked in, over a few months I learnt the basics of the cello again and learnt some of my favourite songs which I thought the cello could pull off on its own. It's interesting that people are so amazed by the concept of singing while playing, since cello isn't that different to guitar. It certainly has a deeper, richer timbre, and it's unusual to play with the bow - but it's also possible to strum the strings as if it were a guitar, which is a staple in most of my arrangements. It's restrictive, since I feel there's only so much you can do with it. It's not possible to play beautiful melodies while you're on your own, and much of the accompaniment sounds too sporadic and empty if there isn't always a lot of noise coming out of it. But it's relatively unheard of in Brisbane, and people seemed to like the idea enough.

I ended up playing six songs that were all covers - four pieces by Jorane (Musique Pour Gabrielle, Stay, Red Mountains and The Cave) plus one by Lady Gaga (Paparazzi) and Lior (This Old Love). I had written a few songs myself, but I felt that it would be more fun to play covers that people knew, and also it would be useful to gauge how feasible it would be to do something along the lines of it again. Predictably, Paparazzi and This Old Love were the favourites, The Cave and Pour Gabrielle were a bit too bizarre for people, but Stay and Red Mountains were lovely. I think the key is to play simple pieces (in English), and not to take it too seriously. Paparazzi got a lot of laughs, and during Stay the barmaid kept on opening the door to the fridge, so there was some cute comedic timing while I waited for it to shut.
The only shot of the night - courtesy of Ellen.

The response was staggering for me. So many people said things like 'I loved it and can't wait for the next one' or 'I'll be there for the next one', which makes me wonder what the future of me playing is. I have a lot of French pieces I want to sing, but I think the language barrier would restrict people's enjoyment. There are also a lot of gorgeous songs I want to play which require looping and layers, which I don't know how to do live. And many more would need more people other than me, and I hate depending on other people. That, and I'm doing this for fun - NOT for my career. So what's the point . . . hmm . . . ?

The best part of the evening for me was the wonderful turn-out of the audience. People who I had met with over the years, people I am and had worked with, family, friends and future friends were all there - that really meant a lot to me. It was very humbling that people had taken the time out of their evenings to come down for such a short event, and it made me feel so warm and fuzzy :] . I think the premise, length and venue were perfect, and the atmosphere and people there couldn't have been much better. It reminded me how much I loved singing and performing - maybe I'll try it again some time.