Dragons in the ACC: A Review of Dreamworks’ ‘How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular’

[all images by Gesilayefa Azorbo]

On August 8, with a burst of roaring flames sending heat all the way into the audience at the Air Canada Centre, Dreamworks introduced Toronto to the dragons of Viking lore . . . or at least the imaginations of Dreamworks writers.

Based on the 2010 animated film of the same name, How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular is a fully immersive theatre experience that brings the stories – and the beasts that populate them – to life. Set in the town of Berk, a Viking village in the third century, Dragon tells the tale of Hiccup (played by Riley Milner), a misfit youth whose father is Stoick the Vast, chief of the village, whose predator problem is less like wolves and other wildlife, and more like dragons.

Hiccup is determined to prove himself to his disapproving dragonslayer father and his perennial crush, the tough-as-nails Astrid (Gemma Nguyen), so he creates a crossbow-like device to attempt to capture a dragon. But when he inadvertently captures a mysterious Night Fury dragon, he can’t bring himself to kill it, and an unlikely friendship is formed between himself and the dragon he names Toothless.

For anyone who has seen the film, the top question is likely to be, how does one bring 14-foot dragons onto a stage? Well, let’s just say there’s a good reason they’re using the Air Canada Centre to stage this travelling production. Continue reading

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Channeling the Fab Four: An Interview with the Stars of “Backbeat: The Birth of the Beatles”

Once upon a time there were five Beatles. If you thought that was a typo, then you should go see Backbeat: The Birth of the Beatles. Set in a crucial period right on the cusp of the band’s career, Backbeat tells the story of five lads who leave their hometown of Liverpool to go to Hamburg to try and make it as musicians. Along the way love, tragedy and fate lead to consequences that impact the future of what will go on to become the biggest band in the world.

There’s an old MTV filler ad that shows an elderly Indian man in front of an old elevator, complaining about the music of the youth. In it he goes, grumpily, “Eagles, Beatles, Monkees – this is not a music channel, it’s a zoo!”

Trust me, it’s funnier when he does it.

(I couldn’t find it on YouTube.)

When I used to hear that ad, I’d never heard of the Eagles. I knew the Monkees only as this campy TV show band (it was years before I realized they were an actual, legit band) but the Beatles I knew were one of the biggest bands in the world. I hadn’t (to my knowledge) heard anything by them, but like the Rolling Stones they were ubiquitous to my pop culture landscape and were a great band, presumably.  Now, I grew up in Nairobi, Kenya and in various parts of Nigeria. Not North America, not Europe. (And yes, we’ve had MTV there for years.)

So the fact that I took it for granted that the Beatles were a great band, sight unseen, when at the time my musical diet consisted of an alphabet soup of 90s grunge rock, Afrobeat, Marilyn Manson, boy bands (Backstreet Boys, woop!), Eminem, and gangster rap, says something about the far-reaching impact of the Fab Four. In fact, I didn’t realize it at the time, but from New Edition to Backstreet Boys to most recently, One Direction, the music industry has been trying feverishly for decades to replicate the magic that was the Beatles – fresh-faced young men with style, singing talent, and a bit of mischief to balance out their squeaky clean images.

This month, Mirvish Productions is giving Beatles fans a glimpse of what they were like before Beatle-mania, before the original “British invasion” (a term coined for them and now bludgeoned to death any time a British pop act skips a stone across the ol’ pond.) In Backbeat: The Birth of the Beatles, playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre till September 2, the musical stage drama captures a moment in the history of the band when they were young, unsure, and only just coming to a sense of what they were capable of. There were also five members, not the Fab Four the world became enamoured with, and this is a key point to note, because that fifth member, Stuart Sutcliffe, is pivotal to the story behind Backbeat.

I had the chance to interview Daniel Healy, who plays a young Paul McCartney, and Dan Westwick, channelling a youthful George Harrison. Just as young and fresh-faced as the original lads, they nevertheless give the impression of grounded maturity that their characters are only just beginning to grasp in Backbeat. It might help that they are a bit older than their characters – Healy is 26, and Westwick is 24 – but the story also isn’t too far from their own experiences as young actor/musicians looking to make it in the world.  It helps of course that the story isn’t just a story, but is based on actual true events. That being said, though, they made a conscious effort, in their character portrayal, not to simply mimic the personalities they were bringing to life on the stage.

“It’s very easy to make a character a caricature, rather than actual sort of representation of this person,” says Dan Westwick.  “It’s really easy to do that, to almost do it too much.“ So rather than play the characters as they’ve become known to millions around the world. Westwick says they went back to the fact that this was just a group of young guys trying to make it as musicians.

“These guys are still young, they’re still kind of finding their feet, finding who they are. So we get to play in a time when they were kind of playing – if that makes sense. We’re trying to put things together in the earlier stage, so you can see little bits and pieces as to what they become later on, which is how everyone knows them best, really.”

Healy, chiming in, notes that the danger in that lies also in presenting what could essentially be a false representation of them.

“I think nobody knows what they were really like either,” he says. “Especially then before the cameras. You know yourself, like, when you’re in front of a camera or you’re being interviewed or something you’re not always yourself…you speak a bit more politely.”

So rather than go by what they knew of the real Paul McCartney and George Harrison, Healy and Westwick approached it like any other characters in a play.

“I just approached it like, I’m just going to play this. I’m going to get the accent, I’m going to put in a couple of movements that people recognize, and the rest of it I’m going to throw out the window and just play the story, play it like you would any character in any theatre show, any piece, you know?” Healy says.

“And I think that’s why Backbeat stands out from any other Beatles musical or anything that’s come before it, it’s because it’s not a tribute act. It really is a great story with real characters that people can connect with as well, not just, ‘Oh, Paul’s doing his little head movement there and George is doing his little skip and John’s standing with his legs wide apart’, and all that stuff, and those things are all in there, but they’re not the driving force behind what’s going on.”

The driving plot is in fact not so much about the music as it is about love. Specifically, the relationship between Stuart Sutcliffe, John Lennon, and Astrid Kirchherr, a young photography student who falls in love with Sutcliffe, and whose presence acts as a catalyst for the dramatic turns of events to follow. Continue reading

True Rock n’ Roll Feeling Present at ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ Opening Night

Photo by Gesilayefa Azorbo

You know those hypothetical questions that go, if you could spend an evening with five famous people in history, who would you choose? It’s usually some combination of celebrities, musicians and religious figures, and of course, hardly anyone ever gets to meet them (usually because they’re long gone to the dinner party in the sky).

However, on Thursday night at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, it felt eerily like an answer to that question as the Man in Black, the King of Rock and Roll, the Father of Rockabilly and the writer of the famous (infamous?) “Great Balls of Fire” appeared in the flesh, on-stage, for a once in a lifetime jam session known as the Million Dollar Quartet.

Of course, I’m talking about Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis…and unfortunately they weren’t really in the flesh (otherwise Dancap Productions would have to patent that time machine technology…) Instead it was the opening night of the stage production of Million Dollar Quartet, which opened Thursday, July 12 for a three-week run. But the spirits of the music greats were well and truly present as the actors on stage channelled the founding fathers of rock and roll during a pivotal time in each of their careers.

It’s 1956, and Sun Records founder Sam Phillips (Christopher Ryan Grant) has introduced the world to both Johnny Cash(Derek Keeling) and Elvis Presley (Eddie Clendening), and  he is about to unleash the piano-chair kicking, keyboard-pounding Jerry Lee Lewis (Martin Kaye) on an unsuspecting public. The hit “Folsom Prison Blues” has begun to make Cash a household name, and Elvis Presley’s performance of “Blue Suede Shoes” on the Ed Sullivan show has rocketed him to stardom…to the frustration of the song’s original writer, Carl Perkins (Lee Ferris).

Perkins, who is also on Sam Phillips’ Sun Records label, is working hard to make another hit, because his success with “Blue Suede Shoes” has been usurped by Elvis to the point that he is being accused of “covering Elvis”. At a jam session with Perkins and his band, Sam Phillips informs him that he’s invited Johnny Cash over to the studio to get him to sign a contract extension, now that the bigger labels are circling like musical sharks hungry for blood(y good music). Elvis is also in town, and he hasn’t been to the studio since he went to RCA – Sam Phillips sold his contract to them in a moment of financial desperation the year before – and so he comes by the studio as well, with his then-girlfriend Dyanne. What results is an impromptu jam session between four of the most iconic musicians of the time and what is often hailed as one of the greatest rock n’ roll jam sessions of all time. Continue reading

“Dance…dance…”: A review of Wim Wenders’ documentary tribute ‘Pina’

Pina Courtesy of Berlinale 2011 (all copyright belongs to the owners of the image.)

Pina Bausch was an extraordinary woman, and Wim Wenders is determined to show the world just how much so. In his latest film, Pina (2011), the director known for 1987’s Wings of Desire, and Buena Vista Social Club (1999) interweaves archival rehearsal footage, filmed dance sequences, narrated voiceovers and long, contemplative shots of sensuously expressive movement all filmed in ground-breaking 3D, to tell the story of a woman who had a perceptible impact on everyone whom she encountered, through the art and poetry of experimental dance theatre.

In this tribute (nominated for this year’s Oscars in the documentary category, but beaten out by underdog football doc Undefeated), the German-born choreographer is remembered by the ensemble of her dance company, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, and by all who knew her, as someone who used dance to examine the depths of the soul, hers and others. Through her art, she stripped away the layers of personality in order to reveal the raw truth beneath. Continue reading

A “Hair”-raising Spectacle as Vietnam-era Musical Comes to the Royal Alex

The Hair National Tour © Joan Marcus

Exuberant. Controversial. Political. Flamboyant. Joyful. Everything you’ve heard about Hair is true.

From the opening song, “Aquarius,” led by the powerful vocals of Dionne (Phyre Hawkins), the show explodes with energy. The Tribe bursts on the scene singing and dancing down the aisles from the back of the theatre, swinging off the ladders and platforms on the stage in celebration of love, life, and the freedom to be individual. Each irrepressible, infectious song melts seamlessly into the next, and the Tribal Love really rocks the auditorium.

But just in case you haven’t seen it, here’s the synopsis. It’s 1967. The Vietnam War rages overseas and on TV screens. In New York, a group of free-spirited friends calling themselves the Tribe resist the war and all it stands for with love, peace, and flower-power. The charismatic and free-lovin’ Berger (Steel Burkhardt) stands as the de facto leader of the group, who also rejects prevailing societal views (and regulations) regarding race, sexuality, and drugs.

But then Claude (Paris Remillard), whose parents highly disapprove of his hippie lifestyle, receives his draft card in the mail. What follows is a tug-of-war: should he burn his draft card as his friends are doing and continue to protest the ongoing war, or should he join up and allow the army to “make a man out of you,” as his parents want, and do his parents proud? Continue reading