Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Ride the Cyclone to beyond the grave

                                                                                                     Photos by Tim Matheson
Elliott Loran as Ricky Potts in Ride the Cyclone
Since the teenage characters in Atomic Vaudeville's now well-travelled Ride the Cyclone are dead the moment we meet them, the issue of character development doesn't figure much in this very witty reflection on that tiny question, "What is the meaning of an individual life?"
   The structure of Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell's musical is boxy, somewhat like the standard performance of a bebop tune — ensemble support for soloists who bask in the spotlight for a time, one after the other. Everybody plays, but there's only one star at a time at centre stage.
   Another limitation of the musical's premise is that the effect of drawing portraits of each of the individual dead ones, stitched together with the very funny material Richmond gives to Karnak, the all-seeing, all-knowing hirsute stage manager of the essentially grim proceedings, creates a somewhat static dramatic effect. Static but still very funny, like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe crossed with an old Twilight Zone episode.
   Interactions among the characters is limited; the thrust is personal biography. The energy comes from the music and the lyrics, which one expects from any musical, of course, but narrative glue that normally engages an audience in the characters' lives isn't sticky enough in Ride the Cyclone.
   Rielle Braid, left, and Kelly Hudson play Ocean
Rosenberg and Constance Blackwood
in Ride the Cyclone
   Each of the six kids killed on the Cyclone roller coaster in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, has a more or less compelling story, and the young performers in the production do a professional job of transmitting those stories through the tunes and staging they're given. The vehicle they're working with offers a manageable frame in which to display their developing theatrical chops, and none seems out of place on the Maclab stage.
   Some of them are very good singers; none of them is asked to tear up the dance floor. A couple of them have some real presence on stage.
   After the Cyclone goes flying off the rails at the Uranium City amusement park, the six young people arrive on the other side, where Karnak, a hirsute mechanical fortune-teller greets them. Karnak, voiced by Carey Wass, is a sardonic game-show host, offering the freshly dead contestants a second chance at life.      And here's were the premise generates only tenuous dramatic tension. Although the winner of the prize will be the teen everyone agrees deserves a rebirth, there's very little interaction among the contending ghosts, and the game show conceit never really acts as a pivot for the action, such as it is.
   Rielle Braid's character, Ocean Rosenberg, an overachieving girl who feels her superior qualities entitle her to Karak's gift, establishes herself as the least likable member of the group, but none of the other characters show much interest in vying for the singular opportunity Karnak offers.
   Like I said, each character sings in a box; each has unrealized potential they'd like to have fulfilled before their lives were cut short, but except for Ocean, performed with just the right amount of youthful arrogance by Braid, none of them really does their number like it could be their last. Ocean's character is also the only one that could said to develop over the course of the evening.
   None of these reservations about the musical itself are meant to suggest that there aren't some excellent performances in this production. Braid has a strong Broadway belt, and does have material that she uses to make the musical feel like it's going somewhere.
   Noel Gruber, the only gay guy in Uranium City, is exceptional fantasizing himself a beautiful Parisian prostitute, dressed in tacky showgirl inducements. Ricky Potts (Elliott Loran) comes alive after he's dead. In Uranium City, he was trapped in a seriously disabled body, but his imagination was irrepressible. In the afterlife, he's liberated, and Loran conjures a boy who is really ready to live again.
  Kelly Hudson's Constance is perhaps the most sympathetic character in Ride the Cyclone because she is the most pathetic. Overweight and unambitious, she would have lived out her life working at her family's store in dead-end Uranium City if she hadn't be splattered by the roller coaster accident. Hudson is not the strongest singer in the cast, but she does build a character that seems the most small-town genuine of the bunch.
   Jane Doe (Sarah Jane Pelzer) haunts the show. She was on the ride when it derailed and crashed, but no one seems to know her. It hasn't helped that she was decapitated in the accident.
   Pelzer has classical voice training, and it's always nice to hear a legit vocal sound in a Broadway-type musical. Her style adds to the weirdness of her role in the beyond-the-grave proceedings.
   The video sequences, especially the scene capturing the unrequited love of Mischa Bachinsky (Jameson Matthew Parker), a Ukrainian immigrant longing for the girl he left behind, are very imaginatively integrated into the production.
   Special mention must go to the rat-faced band. Stage designer Treen Stubel has the live musicians playing in the dark in what looks like a midway-game booth. The players wear rat masks with red-glowing beady eyes. The effect is otherworldly befitting this contemporary metaphysical musical.
   Ride the Cyclone is very cleverly written and is performed with youthful enthusiasm by a solid cast. It doesn't have the narrative fluidity of Next to Normal or Spring Awakening, which have played in town recently, but scene to scene, Ride the Cyclone does much more than just stay on the rails.
Ride the Cyclone is at the Citadel's MacLab Theatre until March 10.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Water music, near and far

   The Edmonton Symphony performed an eclectic program Friday evening, including a new 25-minute piece by its composer-in-residence Robert Rival entitled Symphony No. 2 "Water". They'll repeat the program Saturday night.
    The orchestra opened with Britten's Four Sea Interludes, collected from the composer's opera Peter Grimes. The small orchestra does "Moonlight" and "Dawn" with refinement and sensitivity, and "Sunday Morning" had the requisite urgency; the brass, woodwinds and timpani conjured the Storm effects, but the strings are always at a disadvantage when the music wants to make a grander, even menacing impression.
   Besides the world premiere of the Rival, the stars of the evening were a couple of violinists from Victoria, Nikki Chooi and his younger brother Timothy. Each had his moment to show off his virtuosity, Timothy with Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo capriccioso and Nikki with Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen, but in the Bach Concerto for Two Violins in D minor that followed the Britten, the young musicians displayed a taut, engaging talent for strong ensemble playing. The piece has no true primo and secundo violin structure. The two violinists and the orchestra in the two outer movements, especially, make music as an ensemble, and they made music with a real sense of together, under the direction of ESO music director Bill Eddins.
   In the slow middle movement the brothers showed they're more than pyrotechnicians, something they definitely demonstrated in the Saint-Saëns and the Saraste.
   Nikki plays a Stradivarius and Timothy a Del Gesu, borrowed from the Canada Council instrument bank, and in the slow movement of the Bach, the audience was treated to violin sound of the highest order. In an after-concert interview, Nikki characterized his instrument as the brighter-sounding, the more delicate of the two, but in the Bach, the effect was undifferentiated sweetness and light.
Robert Rival
   Rival's second symphony is vividly programmatic. The first movement shifts interestingly through a variety of moods; the notion of structure is secondary to the musical ideas that lead the piece to its quiet fade away. In between, Rival creates brief moments of stormy emotion, gentle passages of unanxious longing and short periods of dark, harsher brass and woodwind writing. None of the transitions feel forced; his strength is musical narrative.
The first and third movements also feature snippets of folk themes, the last one in a distinctly Celtic vein.
   The Second Movement suggested to me the caves of ice in Coleridge's Kubla Khan, casting a cool, remote glare on the world. In the middle of the movement Rival has written a small string quartet section where the rest of the orchestra withdraws into the background, mostly in silence. The overall mood of the movement is a blend of prayfulness and gratitude, perhaps. It finishes with subdued viola writing, subdued but not sad.
   The last movement is full of cheerful energy, a pastoral, a dancing day. The harp and horn figure prominently. Muted trumpet and snare together create an optimistic feel, and the echoic effects buzzing about the orchestra conjure images of happy, unself-conscious nature. Short stentorian brass and agitated strings episodes never really presage a descent into anything truly wild and dangerous. Overall, the water theme of the symphony never touches the monstrous aspects of the liquid medium. The last movement finishes with a kind of fanfare for a symphonic conclusion, upbeat and emphatically symphonic.
   Rival is a contemporary composer, in a line of other ESO composers-in-residence like Allan Gilliland and John Estacio, who resist antagonizing experiments in untested musical theories, preferring styles that audiences like to listen to, not music that imposes its experimental aesthetics on them.
   The audience on Friday saluted Rival for his considerate musical inclinations. Throughout the evening, the audience had no qualms about applauding individual movements, a healthy sign that classical music concerts can be occasions for spontaneous expressions of appreciation.