Onegin

Look around
Look around
Look around
Do you see someone worth dying for?

Onegin

I just got home from a wonderful evening in downtown Edmonton.

No, not at that hockey game.

I just got home from an evening of wonder at Catalyst Theatre‘s presentation of The Vancouver Arts Club production of Onegin, an unqualified marvel of theatre.

But . . .

How was it not a full house?!

From the moment the cast walked out from the voms and mingled with the first few rows of the audience (Nadeem Phillip sat with us for a brief discussion of the Edmonton theatre scene which ended with a hasty “до свидания!”) it was clear this was going to be a warm, inviting, fourth-wall-breaking, audience participation piece.

With vodka.

But the mingling and conversation (and vodka) were just the warm up. The fortunate people who chose theatre over hockey this evening witnessed a tour-de-force of acting, singing, dancing, musicianship, lighting and costume design, and just pure theatre.

I’m embarrassed to admit I’m not up on Pushkin — or Tchaikovsky — so I really didn’t have much of an idea of what the story was going to be except Russian and so probably dark and probably not a happy ending.  But I didn’t need to know anything in advance. I just needed to sit back and enjoy the ride.

The cast is outstanding, many of them in many roles, but I found Alessandro Juliani most remarkable as the title character, the nihilistic, dark, Russian young man with more wealth than empathy who probably won’t have a happy ending.  But everyone in the cast truly shone and endlessly surprised as they each in turn stepped into the background and joined the orchestra (The Ungrateful Dead), picking up instruments and joining right in. The cast doesn’t just break the fourth wall, they break the side walls and the back wall, too.

Special mention must be made of Chris Tsujiuchi, piano and keyboard player and clearly the leader of the band, who completed his one hundredth performance of Onegin this evening.

The voices of Meg Roe (Tatyana), Lauren Jackson (Olga and others), and Caitriona Murphy (Madam Larin and others) were simply angelic while Jackson’s flamencoesque pas de deux with Juliani was more than a little devilish in a very pleasing way. Josh Epstein as Lensky was lyrically charming until he became tragically pigheaded at the end of the first act. All the darkness of Russian literature suddenly possessed this sunny young poet, and the audience just had to head to the lobby for another Black Russian.

Andrew Wheeler and Nadeem Phillip round out the cast performing a multitude of powerful and memorable “minor” characters with major impact.

I found the choreography of lighting and “theatrical fog” particularly noteworthy. Here the fog is not simply an atmospheric device unto itself, rather, it is also a canvas on which the light is projected, made solid by colour and shadow. So effective.

As I mentioned, I’m embarrassingly not up on Pushkin, but I know poetry when I hear it, and there is poetry — not just verse — in Veda Hille and Amiel Gladsone’s lyrics, poetry which, if not directly channelling Puskin, certainly does the Russian poet credit.

Edmonton’s theatre world is an embarrassment of riches; Edmonton theatre goers are amazing, generous audiences; we are very blessed on both sides of the many, many curtains we have in our city. We all benefited from this remarkable community recently when the very remarkable Hadestown had it’s run on the Shocter stage. And our community was noticed.

Tonight that remarkable theatre community was evident again: as Catalyst Theatre’s catchphrase has it, “Edmonton is our home. The world is our stage.” Tonight Vancouver Arts Club Theatre and we, the audience, were at home on our stage. Our theatrical riches keep increasing, and we don’t need to be embarrassed. We should embrace our riches proudly.

Onegin is playing on the Maclab stage at the Citadel until January 28, 2018. Fill the seats, Edmonton! You’ll be moved. You’ll marvel. You’ll maybe be a little heartbroken.

 

But you won’t be sorry.

 

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Cayley Thomas’ “Weird Love”

It was with great anticipation that I bought Edmonton singer-songwriter Cayley Thomas’ first full-length album, Weird Love.  I had been impressed with her EP Ash Mountains a few years ago, although it seemed a little scattered, like Thomas was trying on different musical costumes, all of them a little retro, and all quite fetching.  Weird Love, while still devotedly retro, is much more focused, and more than a little addictive. The album is emphatically about Love, none of it actually terribly weird love. Here there is addictive love, aged love, teen love, bitter love, broken love, depressive love and sibling love. The overall tone is upbeat, but not unbroken by serious depth and hurt and poetry.  While not perfect, “Weird Love” is eminently listenable, and pretty addictive itself.

The Tracks

The album opens with a driving drum and bass soon joined by guitar and synth and finally by Thomas in an crisply aetherial haunting love song filled with marvellously fresh and strong imagery called “Clementine”. I’m still trying to figure out the end of the song. Somehow it seems like the band just isn’t sure of how to wind it all up musically, and I can’t help feeling a little let down after such a ripping performance.

“What If/I Wish”, with drug references and fortune tellers upstairs and dreams revisits psychedelia and time slips away. A bit of a Midnight Cowgirl vibe happening here.

The third track, “Sure is Nice”, sure is! Another love song, this one is everything good about the Poppy Family, GoGos, The Association.  This is a joyous, a little bubble-gummy, summer time single with hit potential. While “Clementine” has a greater lyrical depth, “Sure is Nice” is so catchy! But, again, a bit of wandering at the fade, but somehow with a late sixties feel, which is a positive.

In my notes while listening to the title track “Weird Love”, I began simply with “Wow!” “Weird Love” is love growing old and bitter, but yet more than a little sweet. The insight this young woman brings to a slowly evolving experience she’s not had time to have is quite remarkable. Again the retro feel in the arrangement. I was thinking for some reason of moments of Bowie circa 1969, “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud”, “Letter to Hermione”, etc.

After a jolly, wistful little do-da-dum piece called “Chirp Chirp”, it’s summer of about ’62 on the way to a beach party with “Hey You”. Professions of eternal love. Grease is the word, it’s a good word when Thomas is crooning “. . . till the end of time.”  And then, a “Commercial Break” — elevator music with a wink.

“I’ve Lost My Mind” is a twist: Juju era Siouxie and the Banshees with  a really fine vocalist.  Real-world depression pressed into a Goth depressive mold.

When you’re still in love but they’ve fallen out of love with you and into love with someone else . . .

“Heart in Two” deals with an all too real thing that could be horrible as a song but Thomas does this torchy blues thing that comes out sounding like an old standard you can almost remember hearing before, but you haven’t.

It’s love again in the ominously titled “Lines”, love of an obsessive unhealthiness, addiction, “Cocaine on Tuesday” and the repeated “Where do we go from here” and “Hope you don’t take it too far.” The closing crescendo and harshly cut off tone-that-goes-on-forever is a tremendous lead-in to . . .

“Alan Alexander”,an almost wordless paean, an ode, an elegy, a threnody, a celebration, and just perhaps, a letting go.

For some years I’ve been saying that Cayley Thomas is a person to watch, at first in Edmonton’s theatre scene, but later mostly for her music and voice.  With Weird Love I hope and expect that she’ll be opening more ears to her music, and more doors for her career.

Weird Love by Cayley Thomas is available for download and on cd and vinyl at Bandcamp.

 

Exploring “Ash Mountains” with Cayley Thomas

Cayley Thomas  first came to my notice a little over a year ago with a small gesture she made while playing Calphurnia in Freewill Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  At the time I suggested she was an actor to watch carefully.

I may have been wrong.

After spending a few days listening to her newly released EP Ash Mountains, I think maybe Thomas is a young singer/songwriter worth listening to carefully.

Did anyone ever buy Broken English because they were struck by Marianne Faithfull’s turn as Ophelia?  Well, to be honest, I bought Ash Mountains just because of Thomas’ performances at Freewill.  I figured if I didn’t enjoy it, I’d at least be supporting a local artist’s work – always a worthwhile little effort.

First I paid a token amount to download the five songs from Bandcamp  and gave them a quick listen.  They didn’t grab me too tightly at first distracted and interrupted listen, but the ethereal, kinda hippy, bluesy introspective pieces didn’t chase me away.  When the CD dropped a few days later, I shelled out the same amount to get a copy of the very nicely packaged little product.  I was charmed immediately by the little bonus: a hand lettered thank you heart!

image

This kind of personal touch makes supporting local developing artists worth the cost and more, even if the product isn’t always polished or remarkable.

But, you know what?  Ash Mountains is pretty darn polished and really, I’m starting to think it’s a pretty remarkable début.

Here are my rough Notes from first dedicated listen:

“Guilty”

It’s a narrative of concrete images ending in ambiguity. “I found you bloody on the ground” is sung with a wonderful subtle tear in Thomas’ voice.

“Hideway”

Opens with an audible little smile.
Mellow inactivity with stripped down sound and then a jump to activity hiding away with guitar (Curtis Ross) going a lot fuzzy and epicly 70s.  Thomas has the power in her voice to hold her own against the little wall of sound. And then a quiet bit of “nothing to do but rest”
Standout.

Oh, look. There’s a video now!

“Bandit”

Hippy-folk, spaghetti western.  But it’s a metaphor, an allegory “Bank of human hearts” — what did she do after she was robbed of her man?
Torchy western — the Cayley Thomas Gang of  Human-Heart-Bank robbers.  But there’s a vulnerability in Cayley’s voice.  I can’t help thinking of “These Boots” — Nancy Sinatra — but fresh.  And a better singer. By a mile. And astronomically better words.  And probably better dancing on the video.

“Shipwreck”

An expressionistic collection of nautical images creating a metaphor of doomed relationships.  The music, however, continues a sort of western movie soundtrack vibe, sort of Spanish/Mexican/Crusaders/horsemen riding in the fading light.  But I also somehow am reminded of Brecht and Weill’s “Seeräuber Jenny”, not because of any specific details but  in the expressionistic use of maritime imagery as that metaphor of doomed relationships.

“Blue Summer”

A good old relaxed torchy song, blues, but not really feeling too blue about things.  A great farewell closing piece.

Now some thoughts after multiple listens:

It’s like the goal is melancholy, but happiness somehow always shines through in Thomas’ voice.  She’s having such a good time making music, it’s hard not to get caught up in the joy yourself, no matter the justification for the blues.

On a negative note, sometimes the rythm section (Todd Andrews on Bass and Ily Barnes drumming) feels a pit ponderous — I’m listing to “Bandit” just now.  Don’t get me wrong — it’s not the playing skill but rather the arrangement that bothered me. On “Shipwreck”, however,  the section drives you along.  “Shipwreck” just feels brilliant and I don’t want it to stop!  And on “Blue Summer” the bass and drums are a warm, pleasant heart-beat.

“Hideaway” is a marvelous construction, perhaps the standout of the collection.  Its quiet, restful opening exposition of the lovely, peaceful moment that must be preserved is quite literally hidden away by the majority of the song, a melodically shouted vow that she will “hide you away” and a wall of fuzz guitar. And then, the simple, quite close: “Sunday/Sunday morning with you/we got nothing to do/but rest”.  Marvelously economical musical poetry!

I had a lot of trouble placing Ash Mountains initially.  I thought of Dream Academy’s self conscious 60s sound, but it didn’t really fit except in its moodiness, and I thought of Holly Cole, and I thought of the Blues in general and I thought of movie soundtracks and I thought of The Three Penny Opera.  I even thought of “These Boots” for goodness sake!  But I think I have to come back to a little note I made when first listening to the jump from “Bandit” to “Shipwreck”:  “Cayley’s exploring”.

I think, in the end, Ash Mountains must be seen as Thomas’ exploration of the space of her voice, her writing, and her influences.  She’s leapt out of the nest and, in my opinion, although she falters once or twice, she’s done a bit of soaring on this first flight.  Again I’ll say, Cayley Thomas is an artist to watch.  Goodness knows what she’ll do next!

I’m not sure why I feel I need to make this full disclosure, but . . .

I have never met or spoken to Cayley Thomas or any of her band or production team.  Above are the genuine, honest thoughts of some regular guy who’s seen Cayley Thomas acting on stage precisely twice and listened to her EP countless times now.