[Totally, Like,] No Objections to Legally Blonde [!]

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legally blonde cast

The film version of Legally Blonde: The Musical (2007), which plays at Neptune’s Fountain Hall until May 26th, came out in 2001. I remember watching it as a seventeen year old when it came on television once, scornfully musing about how DRASTICALLY important it was for Hollywood to produce yet another teen movie about a ditzy, skinny, blonde girl and how she ends up with (surprise!) the world’s greatest guy. “Where is the movie about the brown haired girl who loves Merrily We Roll Along and writes novels and goes to graduate school and writes a novel that Oprah chooses for her book club who also happens to end up with the world’s greatest guy (but not in a way that compromises her own awesomeness and her dedication to her career and her future and her nerdiness, but that compliments it equally and with respect and brings forth a tribe of awesome nerd children with brown hair and glasses)??!!?!?” I asked (myself) as I continued to watch Elle Woods’ story unfold. Yet, upon a closer examination, Legally Blonde: The Musical actually has refreshingly strong feminist undertones. While still masquerading as a light, frothy, fun, theatrical romp (which it is all those things at their best), it also sends an inspiring message about the importance of girls rallying in support for one another, of girls privileging not only their brains, but their unique self, over their external facade and advocates for resisting the urge to judge or stereotype others based on a perception of femininity shaped for us by the media.

Elle Woods is a blonde sorority girl from Malibu whose signature color is pink. She has a Chihuahua and he not only wears pink clothes he also wears a pink pillbox hat. When her “perfect” boyfriend Warner breaks up with her after getting accepted to Harvard Law School because she is not “serious” enough Elle is devastated enough to resolve to get into Harvard Law herself to win him back. The musical’s book by Heather Hach is a faithful adaptation of the 2001 film, capturing its Sorority Girl spirit and adding a cheerleading “Greek chorus,” which insures that Elle is surrounded by girl power even in the throes of the dark, ominous halls of Harvard. Since the musical chronicles Elle’s entire first year there are times when story arcs feel a bit rushed, especially centering on Elle and Warner’s relationship. Warner feels consistently underwritten as a character, which makes it challenging for David Cotton to give him much more depth or humanity than a Ken doll. Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin’s music and lyrics capture perfectly the bubblegum pop ambiance and like, omigod, the totally psyched and like, super melodramaticerized verbosity of the characters. The songs are dangerously catchy, perfect to dance to and continually propel the action forward. Yet, the songs also explore some interesting ideas. “Positive,” for example, shows how Elle has been conditioned to compare herself with others, cat fight with girls over attention from boys, and use her sexuality as a means to steal a man away from someone else. It also explores how this behavior has been oddly skewed by our society into visions of positivity and even empowerment. “Chip on My Shoulder,” on the other hand, examines the philosophy that if one is not outraged, she is not paying attention, and suggests that being passionate and dissatisfied with the world (having a chip on one’s shoulder, as they say) instigates far more positive activism than blissful ignorance.

The Neptune Theatre production boasts of a strong cast of triple threat performers. The choreography by Chad McNamara is mesmerizing with its specificity, energy and strength. Naomi Costain’s number as Brooke, a Fitness Queen charged with murder, “Whipped Into Shape” is a highlight of the show with its synchronized skipping that made me exhausted just watching it. Nicole Power, as Serena, and Mary Antonini, as Pilar, are also continuously mesmeric to watch in the dance numbers as both give 400% every moment they are onstage and it makes them electric. Lili Connor is hilarious as Enid, one of Elle’s colorful Harvard classmates. Graham Coffeng and Konstantinos Haitas both have brief, but delightful, character moments as Dewey/Kyle and Nikos respectively. W. Joseph Matheson is a bit reminiscent of Jerry Orbach in Chicago as shark baiting Professor Callahan, simultaneously ruthless, smooth and shady. Daniel Greenberg is wonderfully charming as Emmett, the sometimes sheepish teaching assistant who teaches Elle the importance of a strong work ethic and encourages her to fall in love with being a lawyer. Janna Polzin is a firecracker as Vivienne Kensington, Warner’s Harvard girlfriend and Elle’s arch nemesis. Her biting, haughtiness never feels forced or false and when it melts, it does so with nice subtlety and subtext. Polzin does not get to sing nearly enough in this role, but when she does her powerful belt soars through Fountain Hall like a home run baseball. Liz Gilroy is joyful exuberance abound as Paulette, who has been looking for love in all the wrong places. She sings the show’s most classic “musical theatre” ballad, a beautiful and wistful heart-on-sleeve love letter to Ireland and battered dreams and it cements Paulette ardently to the audience’s heart for the rest of the show. Lindsey Frazier brings Elle Woods to life with so much fervor and panache; she is 22 year old Kelly Ripa on Speed, she is Barbie meets the Energizer Bunny. Her pop vocals rival Mariah Carey and she gives Elle a sweet vulnerability that allows her to root herself in something much richer than a stereotype from a blonde joke.

I am still uncertain why George Pothitos resists having his actors cheat out when they are standing parallel to the audience facing one another, especially when one has giant hair, as it makes it impossible to see both actors’ faces.

Since the film version of Legally Blonde was released in 2001 the messages that the media sends our young girls have become increasingly appalling and our society becomes increasingly misogynistic in a myriad of terrifying and subtle ways. While I still await the blockbuster about the brown haired Sondheim aficionado, Legally Blonde: The Musical is an interesting mixture of blithe silliness and feminist star power that is quite refreshing in the American musical theatre.

So, like, omigod, you guys, get your tickets, like, right now before they, like, TOTALLY sell out or whatever!

Legally Blonde: The Musical plays at Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall (1593 Argyle Street, Halifax) until May 26, 2013. Shows are Tuesday-Friday at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 4:00pm and 8:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm and 7:30pm. Tickets are $20.00-$69.00 (depending on seating). For more information please visit this website or phone 902.429.7070. 

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The Bread and Circus is Takin’ Care of Business

lindsey frazier and warren bain
There is some really funny business going on this week at the Bread and Circus that you are not going to want to miss. Funny Business, a Canadian musical written by Rachel Brittain and Daniel Falk (book) with music and lyrics by Daniel Abrahamson, came out of Sheridan College’s Musical Theatre Performance program and first wowed critics and audiences in the 2007 Toronto Fringe Festival. It went on to play for a 119 performance run at the Diesel Playhouse and now the show has been reworked and your mandatory attendance is required at the Bread and Circus to see Funny Business before it closes on Saturday February 27th at 4:00pm.
From the first few moments of its catchy, energizing, pop-y overture/remix, Funny Business promises to be a fun fest of giggles from start to finish which leaves its audience members with a belly filled with joy. When low morale threatens the Toronto branch of Chime Communications Canada, five office workers embark on a team building talent show extravaganza which threatens to tear apart the faithful, unite the cunning, raise the stakes and rock the house with music and laughter. At first glance, Funny Business is a clever satire on office politics; all the characters are familiar prototypes and the musical accentuates the absurd nature of office interactions, the inane company protocol and policies and how fine the line is between corporate competitive edge, reality television and High School gym class. What sets Funny Business apart from other musical satires is that, at its core, it is a show bursting with heart and it manages to tell a story of cooperation and comradery triumphing over rivalry and ego without becoming too sentimental, maudlin or didactic. There’s a fine, fine line and Brittain, Falk and Abrahamson nail it.
This show is given an invigorating boost by its fantastically strong ensemble of performers who know just how to bring their stereotypical characters to life and how to infuse them with a strong dose of hilarity and humanity. Daniel Abrahamson is a hilarious mixture of Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock, Ross Gellar from Friends and Matthew Broderick as Stuart, a boss with an affable awkward slickness, who hopes to motivate his business associates into higher productivity. Abrahamson shines brightly when he is meddling in the affairs of his colleagues, although he does have a few moments of disconnection in his interactions with the pre-recorded looming voice of the omniscient CEO. Lindsey Frazier is dynamite as the fierce and bitchy Diane, a true business shark who experiences no mercy or remorse as she climbs the corporate ladder. Frazier is sharpest in her physicality, especially while dancing, which is always in hilarious contrast to Diane’s frigid personality. Warren Bain is absolutely endearing as Intern Jack (a cross between Seymour Krelborn and Dr. Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds). He sings the nerdiest love song ever written and Bain makes certain to infuse every move he makes and every line he utters with the pure essence of Jack, to marvellous effect. Rachel Brittain is adorable as the perky receptionist, Brie, with the heart of gold. Brittain has good comic timing and it is remarkable to watch such a powerful voice belt out of one so small in stature. Truly, she makes it nearly impossible not to make the Kristin Chenoweth reference. Kevin McGarry shines especially bright as Marcus, the egomaniac, in his creation of the ultimate jerk. McGarry nails every sleazy line, every charming manoeuvre, and every opportunity for hilarity to abound.
Daniel Abrahamson’s songs are captivating, clever and often self-referential which gives the musical its license to pastiche the (tendency toward) cheesiness of its own style. There are a few lines which I think could benefit from a bit more tweaking, to tighten up some rhyming and rhythmic discrepancies, but in general, these songs burst forth from the show with vigour and prowess. Standout songs include a feisty “Welcome to the Business” quartet, the sing-along closing number and a song about Toronto which could have been written by the cast of the Second City. Funny Business was collectively directed, with help from stage manager/co-book writer Daniel Falk, to striking effect. The choreography, especially in the final number, is magnificent, and the show makes creative use of technology and multimedia and boasts of a Highlight Reel which includes one of the best (staged) catfights I have ever seen that will absolutely leave you ROTFLOL.
Funny Business is the sort of Canadian musical that will leave you cheering with just as much National Pride as watching us win an Olympic medal, and in the case of Abrahamson, Brittain and Falk, the possibilities for where their joyful little show will take them are endless. Go see this show, it will make you proud to be Canadian.
Funny Business plays at the Bread and Circus Theatre (299 Augusta Avenue, Toronto) on the following schedule: Friday February 26th at 7:30pm and Saturday, February 27th at 4:00pm. For tickets please call 416.925.8898. For more information please visit: www.funnybusinessthemusical.com.

Nursery School Musical: Beauty and Brains Wrapped up in a Bagel

I wish I could scoop up all my colleagues from this past summer, with whom I taught an abundance of small children at Neptune Theatre School, and fly them to the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre so that we could all watch Fence Post Productions’ Nursery School Musical together. If you have a child, want a child, have taught a child, know a child, have met a child, or were once a child you may relate ardently to this little musical. It seems to examine all the elation and the anguish of being a parent, of being a child, and of being a teacher in one single, hilarious swoop without ever becoming didactic or heavy-handed.
I often find myself cringing when the satirical takes aim on children because I love children. If you have ever seen Finding Neverland, Johnny Depp’s portrayal of J.M. Barrie is an accurate representation of the respect and importance I place on those who have yet to grow up. I think raising and teaching children are two of the very noblest things a person can do in this world, and that both are responsibilities not to be taken lightly (or, I might add, too seriously!). It is clear that the writers of Nursery School Musical, Brett and Racheal McCaig, are parents. Here, they have written a musical that highlights the hilarity involved in the world of a preschooler. This is a world where snowsuits are as much of an enigma as Rubix Cubes, questions are more abundant than stars and penises are a recent discovery. There is also much hilarity in how some hitherto successful, reasonable, intelligent adults morph into overzealous, overactive, overprotective parents once a child is born.
The musical is rooted firmly in its strong characters and their crisp, witty dialogue and songs which poke fun at the art of raising a feminist, environmentalist, not-communist, vegan, hypoallergenic, non peanut, dairy, egg, soy, wheat, Epi-pen welding, Ivy League in training, hot yoga attending, soccer playing, lululemon branded, spiritual, equalitarian child ready to inherit the contemporary world as soon as they stop sucking their thumbs.
The performances in Nursery School Musical are what give this musical its spark of energy, sense of fun, and constant hilarity. Diana Coatsworth is meticulous in her portrayal of Monika, a mom who carries around hand sanitizer (or as my 4-6 year old students called it this summer “hanitizer”; catchy, hey?) and constantly checks the color of her son’s aura. Paul Constable is entirely loveable as Cody, a three year old knowledgeable beyond his years and with a penchant for “cock porn.” Lindsey Frazier is brilliantly oblivious as the wealthy, politically incorrect mom of a three-year-old model in training. Brett McCaig plays Andrew, a postmodern “Everydad” whose sincerity shines, and the overactive Kyle, who wears a helmet. Aaron Walpole is utter perfection as Hank, the tattooed and pierced High School dropout that dads like Andrew have nightmares about. Walpole, like the rest of the cast, rises continually beyond stereotypes, and he has a strikingly beautiful voice. Cailin Stadnyk plays Emma, the three-year-old version of Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre from William Finn’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Stadnyk has a brilliant way of isolating the movements of her body and her eyes, which creates a very off-kilter portrayal of this little girl while providing insight into how she mimics the actions of her mother and has no concept beyond the surface of the way she has been taught to behave. Stadnyk also plays Hailey, a domestic diva and late-night stripper with heaps of attitude, massive sex appeal and all-encompassing exhaustion. The star of the show is undoubtedly Kylee Evans, who plays the Nursery School teacher, Ms. Epstein. She captures brilliantly the stress and anxiety that a ticking biological clock, a room filled with three year olds and hovering insane parents often spawns. She has a magnificent, powerful voice, precise comic timing, and a voice and way of pronouncing her words that screams of spending the day reading Dr. Seuss and explaining why eating glue and painting the walls are not such shrewd ideas.
Nursery School Musical is a fun little romp of a show. Some of the songs (music by Andrew Bastianon) are not as memorable as others, but the ones that are great are fantastic. There is this fantastic dance sequence involving strollers which is electrifying (especially if you’re sitting in the front row!). The howls of laughter from the audience are continuous throughout and along with being fabulously funny; this show bursts with heart as well. I hope there are posters for this show at every Daycare Centre in the GTA because I have met every child and (almost) every parent depicted in this show, and I guarantee that Nursery School Musical is the perfect way for anyone who lives in the world of a preschooler to enjoy 80 minutes as a grownup.

On a more personal note, at each performance of Nursery School Musical there are raffle tickets sold before the show for a 50-50 prize draw, and donation envelopes in each program, which benefit ALS Canada. “Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) is a devastating neurodegenerative disease, during which those living with the disease become progressively paralyzed due to degeneration of the upper and lower motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. Eighty per cent of people with ALS die within two to five years of diagnosis – unable to breathe or swallow. According to the World Health Organization, neurodegenerative diseases are predicted to surpass cancer as the second leading cause of death in Canada by 2040. ALS has no known cure or effective treatment. For every person diagnosed with ALS a person with ALS dies.”- http://www.als.ca/. ALS is a cause that is very close to my heart because several members of my family have suffered from this awful disease. In some cases ALS is hereditary, as it appears to be in my family, and so for this reason, understandably, my family and I are avid crusaders dedicated to finding a cure for this disease. If you attend Nursery School Musical and find that you have some extra money in your pockets, I would greatly appreciate it if you would donate it to the ALS Society of Canada. Thank you.

Nursery School Musical plays until October 3rd, 2009 at the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre. 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto. Tuesday-Saturday at 8pm. Wednesday Mommy Matinee at 2pm (with stroller parking available and “babes in arms” admitted free of charge). Tickets are $27.80 (plus tax) and may be purchased at the Canadian Stage Company Box Offices (26 Berkeley and 27 Front Street E) or by telephone at 416-368-3110 or at www.nurseryschoolmusical.ca

Statler’s Falls In Love With Michael Hughes

On Wednesday March 4th, 2009 at Statler’s Piano Lounge Jenni Burke introduced Michael Hughes and his Cabaret How Long Has This Been Going On by saying, “to know him is to love him,” and that night, as soon as he started to sing his first song, I watched an entire packed room instantly fall in love with him.
Everything about Michael Hughes is dreamy.
Hughes is one of Toronto most promising young performers. It is so apparent to anyone who has the pleasure of seeing him perform that he is on the cusp of something gigantic. Early in the evening he sang “What Do I Need With Love” from Thoroughly Modern Millie, and it was a rendition that blew Gavin Creel’s out of the water. His voice is unbelievably beautiful and he infuses each song with such richness and texture.
His first guest was Lindsey Frazier, with whom he sang “Somethin’ Stupid (Like I Love You),” which was particularly tender and suited both their voices nicely. Hughes’ entire performance harkened back to the heyday of such singers as Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, while still having the momentum and gusto to root him firmly in the contemporary.
There are some musical theatre songs that are so iconic that they can become limp with overuse and turn to mashed potato in the brain. For me, “Maria” from West Side Story is one such song. Or, at least it was until I heard Michael Hughes’ rendition. I have never heard that song sung so gorgeously, so passionately and so full of life. It was entirely original and so poignant. In a week I am going to see West Side Story on Broadway and I will bet that the “Maria” I hear there won’t hold a candle to the one sung on Wednesday at Statler’s. He left the entire audience breathless. I have never heard Statler’s Piano Lounge so quiet. Everyone sat completely enchanted by him and fixed on his amazing, warm smile.
Hughes’ second guest was the incomparable Sara Farb, and watching the two of them sing together was a fusing of talent and skill. It was truly a privilege to watch their combined power resonate throughout the room. They sang “I Don’t Do Sadness/ Blue Wind” from Spring Awakening, which attested clearly to the fact that we have true musical theatre stars here in Toronto and that there is no need for us to import talent from the United States or anywhere else. I always look forward to having visiting artists come to Toronto (or to anywhere in Canada) and I think we are lucky to have National Touring Companies (like that of Spring Awakening) coming in to perform for us, but I do not think that this should occur at the expense of our indigenous artists. We need to create more musical theatre in Toronto and invest in the futures of those like Hughes and Farb who overflow with potential and capability. Producing musicals that showcase the talents of many different performers, singing in harmony with one another, working together and learning from each other somewhere in Toronto, should not be a pipedream. Farb and Hughes also performed an outstanding rendition of “Falling Slowly” from the film Once. Kapow.
Michael Hughes recently released his debut self-titled album and it is currently available on iTunes. I have been listening to it incessantly. It is one of the best CDs I have ever heard, and I am constantly astonished that such a gorgeous, sophisticated, soulful voice belongs to someone so young and who hasn’t yet been launched to superstardom. He sang four songs from his album with his amazing band (Andy Ballantyne (Saxophone), Steve Lucas (Bass) and Alan Poaps (Piano)) and they must be heard to be believed. He has an especially gorgeous rendition of “Singing in the Rain,” and also sang “Kissing A Fool,” and the lovely “Until Dawn,” which was written especially for him by Poaps and Shawn Daudlin. The last song, however, “Where Did I Go Wrong” proved the ultimate showstopper. His voice moves from a dreamy, smooth baritone to the sweetest, purest falsetto that soars and blankets the entire room and everyone in it, utterly seamlessly. It’s magical. It’s spellbinding. I’m sure every single person who attended the Statler’s show left completely in love with Michael Hughes.

I strongly urge you to download Michael Hughes on iTunes. Right now. You won’t be disappointed. Also, if you would like another chance to see him perform live, you should come to Sing Out, Louise on Monday, March 9th, 2009 at 8pm. It is a fundraiser for Buddies In Bad Times Theatre Company. Tickets are $25.00 and Michael Hughes is one of twelve of Canada’s biggest musical theatre stars who will be performing. It is an event not to be missed! Call 416 975-8555 for tickets for visit Buddies In Bad Times’ box office at 12 Alexander Street, Toronto, Ontario.