The interesting thing about Elton John's current Red Piano Tour (coming to Toronto in September) is that it has all the elements of a bio-musical in genesis. The show, augmented by biographical film footage of John and his crew (featuring Pee Wee Herman and others) making the scene in their younger days, features anecdotal material from John himself and choreographed numbers (on video) set to a number of songs. In this framing, a song like "Daniel", for example, becomes a poignant lament to a young man who goes off to war and doesn't come back, and so on.
The reason this is of such interest (to me anyway) is that John's own songbook (written with long time lyricist Bernie Taupin) surely remains his strongest composition work. While Lion King benefited more from the contribution of Julie Taymor's direction and production design - along with much needed interpolation of indigenous African music - and Aida fell to the level of what looked to be speedily produced hack work - John remains a powerful composer when he delivers the material that we know him for best. Surely the success of compilation musicals over the past decade has not been lost on him and one couldn't help but to sense that the 4,183 folks who gathered nightly at Caesar's Palace (in the theatre built for Celine Dion) might be seeing a work in progress. And before one makes too harsh a judgement in the gamble that is musical theatre, there is also John's score for Billy Elliot the musical (based on the film) now in previews and is set to open in London on May 11th
Further down the strip at the Paris, the West End hit We Will Rock You is playing to sold out crowds. This juke-box musical based on the music and lyrics of Queen was originally scheduled to play the Mirvish subscription season this year but was cancelled. I hope that it can be rescheduled some day because it has a clever book (by Ben Elton who also wrote Tonight's the Night based on the music of Rod Stewart) that weaves together the inspirational, life affirming music of Freddie Mercury into a challenge against a dystopic, authoritarian future that has outlawed rock and roll (picture the John Ashcrofts of the world in total control). Don't worry though, a group of pomo punkers (led by Jason Wooten and Aspen Miller as Galileo and Scaramouche respectively) align with an old hippie named "Pop" (played with appropriate wasted crankiness by Douglas Crawford) to save the world while recapturing the memories of innumerable rock lyrics along with a sacred artefact thought to be lost forever - Elvis' guitar.
But it remains for Cirque du Soleil to teach us what the future of art is capable of and what can be accomplished when skilled artists, performers and technicians are given the material resources they need to go out and create. "Magnificent" only just begins to describe the achievement of these performers who, twenty years ago, began as buskers on the streets of Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec. These four productions are the biggest attractions in town and are as much theatre as they are circus. They play as permanent installations in theatres built specifically for each show.
Of the four, I saw three: Zumanity, O and KA, all of them quite unique and developed with thematic dynamics and musical accompaniment that has become the Cirque trademark. Zumanity is Cirque working blue - which is fair enough given the venue is sin city. There is a saying "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" and that is certainly true of this show. Not for everyone's taste, it does fulfill its niche with great panache and an appropriate disclaimer built right into the opening which features a group of Puritans trying to close the show down and exhort those of us in the audience to go home immediately.
O is the aqua-acrobatics tapestry that weaves surrealism and romance like a Magritte painting. Written and directed by Franco Dragone, it is at once gentle and anarchic - hot ice and cold fire that has attracted 5 million theatre goers since it opened in October, 1998.
But leave it to the genius of Robert Lepage's production of K_ to top his substantial body of previous work with a piece that is beyond words in its visual beauty, technical artistry and epic story telling technique. It is, in fact, quite literally beyond words except for a brief, recorded narration that opens the show.
Picture if you can Hidden Dragon, Crouching Tiger meets The Tempest on stage and you might begin to encompass it. K_, although a darker tale than O, is an odyssey of war and peace, love and hate, life and death - played out against a spectacular background of air and sea voyages, under water rescue, glistening beaches filled with live creatures which then transforms itself into an ice covered mountain. It is breathtakingly beautiful and quite seamless in its execution.
Endnote: about a half hour drive outside of Las Vegas going toward Red Rock Canyon is Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, a compound once owned by Howard Hughes and now a public park area. When I was touring with the New Shakespeare Company of San Francisco in the 1970s, the Junior League of LV rolled the dice on an idea. They wanted to start up a summer program at the Park that would allow Las Vegas residents the opportunity to soak up some culture and recreation. We played the Park for three weeks during which time, I'm proud to say, I never once set foot on the strip. It was very gratifying to see that Theatre Under The Stars is celebrating its 30th anniversary season this summer and regularly draws an audience of over 40,000 patrons. And it's only ten bucks a ticket.
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