Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Not So Miserables

I'm not a big fan of musicals. I don't have a default of dislike towards them, I just find that they need to be pretty special for me to like them.

I really liked the film Chicago. I had fun being in Guys and Dolls in high-school. I look forward to someday seeing each of Avenue Q and Wicked. But more often than not I just find the convention of spontaneously breaking into song to reveal ones inner thoughts or to declare one's romantic love just a little bit weird.

All that said, I frikken LOVE Les Miserables. It is hands down my favourite musical of all time. It is epic and tragic and uplifting all at the same time.

I've even been in a condensed (deliberately humourous) rap-version of it – but that is a story in its' own right.

I've seen it five times. The first four were various versions of the Canadian touring cast. The fifth was a preview of the local production opening at the Arts Club here in Vancouver in two days time.

I hoped as I waited for the show to begin that it would diverge from the staging format of the original production. Some shows are constrained by proprietary rights on the design – the essential argument being that the design is inherent to the show. Little Shop of Horrors is one of these shows. (In Little Shop's case mounting the production without using the attached designs for the man-eating plant costs extra.) I was more interested in seeing something new from the show than to see a re-mounting of practically the same show with a smaller budget.

It was apparent immediately that I was going to get something new. Before the first word was sung it was clear that the signature revolve that dominated the stage in the classic production was nowhere to be seen.

The show itself was uneven. It reached peaks of emotion similar to the more accustomed versions, but it came up short at least as many times.

To be fair, I am rather certain that the show I saw was the first time the production had been in front of a paying and objective audience.

My guess is that the cast hadn't yet come to realize that a show this big has no place for humility. It's big and can support a huge performance. Which is not to say that it wasn't effective, but it can be so much more. And once it is trusted to hold up its end of the melodrama it can bear the weight of their raw emotion.

At time's they hit it. Kieran Martin Murphy only half embodies the rich soul of Jean Valjean until the second act when he delivers one of the most awe inspiring renditions of "Bring Him Home" ever. Rejean Cournoyer also reaches for the upper limits of his role with Javert's final song. Jeffrey Victor as Marius is out-charisma-ed by Jonathan Winsby's Enjolras until after the latter's final exit and he has no chance to answer to Victor's wonderfully wrought "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." Spirit of the West front-man John Mann even fails to come out the gate strong, though gets there later. The Thenardier's as roles are saddled with the task of having their best song – by a country mile – be their first song, leaving them little place to go. Previous portrayals have answered this issue by making such a big meal of the first that the latter ones are inevitably forgotten. Mann and Nicola Lipman (in possibly the most jarring yet ultimately successful casting of the show) finish stronger than they began. Almost as if they're wilfully trying to not retread the well-worn territory of previous "Master of the House" renditions by under-playing it.

As the show went on the performances grew stronger. I continue to chalk it up to being a show that is still finding it's legs – the cast getting more confident as it goes along.

I never felt Rebecca Talbot lived in the costume shoes of Eponine – the role I once rapped (and was no more effective, just silly really) and indeed I was hardly moved by "A Little Fall of Rain" a song that always chokes me up. I was amused to see her surprised reaction to the audience's overwhelmingly positive response – a deserved (despite my quibbles) standing ovation. She didn't seem to be alone... more fuel to my theory that the cast was trying on the size of the show in front of an audience for the first time.

For the most part the child actors are solid. Joshua Ballard as Gavroche is engaging as Gavoroche, Rachael Withers as Young Eponine finds no emotional reality and merely demonstrates her judgment of her character... and thankfully is off stage in little more than one scene, Emily Machette falls between the two as Young Cosette - luckily landing far closer to the former than the latter.

Doing Les Miserables at this particular juncture puts two numbers in particular under inevitable scrutiny. The previously mentioned "Bring Him Home" – Kieran Martin Murphy out sings Jaimie Pugh in a walk. Pugh is tender and beautiful, but Murphy adds drama with fantastic dynamics. Sarah Jean Hosie doesn't fare as well against her virtual competition Susan Boyle. I suspect she may have even been psyching herself out. She knows, like everyone else does, that Boyle's "I Dreamed a Dream" instantly became one of the most viewed pieces of music on YouTube ever. The pressure to match that performance is unavoidable, and counter productive. Hosie bucks the trend of the show and tries too hard.

Excepting a few surprisingly cheap bits of lazy stagecraft the staging itself is more successful and intriguing than clunky... though on occasion it is the latter. I am surprised that Director Bill Millerd, AD of one of the largest theatre companies in the country slips into the a few hackneyed moments of staging that threaten to de-rail the show. It's as if the show runs on five gears but Millerd only has four.

I'd be curious to see the show a sixth time later in the run to see how it has matured. I expect many of my criticisms will be answered as the actors are inspired by the strength of the material to reach the heights that the show's structure can support building up to.

Damn that Puck Luck!

Whatever you do, don't make the mistake of accusing the Canucks of rolling over and dying.

And while I'm at it, let me compile a shot list of reasons the call-in radio-show crowd will be perpetuating – none of which are the reason they lost:

Bad officiating.

A no-show from Mats Sundin.

Poor coaching.

Playing defensively.

I'm not even going to get down on Luongo for looking human in the conference semi-finals.

So what did it then? I propose it was a confluence of things – let's face it, it almost always is – some of which have seeds of truth in the points listed above, but as much as anything, that elusive x-factor "puck-luck" worked against us more than in favour of us, largely by when it reared its head. The Canucks got favourable bounces and unforeseeable circumstances, but never when it counted.

Few people mention or even noticed when in game two a Canucks player lost his stick; if flew up in the air, half of the distance into the defensive end, landing... right back in its owners hands. It didn't amount to anything. I don't even recall who it was and can't find it on-line... because it never made a bit of difference.

But when it mattered most, time after time, the 'Hawks got the breaks.

Game one was a squeaker. The Canucks came out strong with three goals, and then gave up three before taking advantage of the 'Hawks aggression and getting behind their defence for a three on one game winner.

Game two the Canucks came out blazing again, and again it bit back. This time it was a disaster. Chicago's facility with the stretch-pass owned the Canucks, and even though Luongo was still making some spectacular saves he wasn't a sheet of plywood across the goal-mouth and pucks were making it in. To his credit, most of the shots that made it in were good plays on Chicago's part. If anyone was to blame, it was the skaters in front of him – but in their defence, a locked-down game was clearly not the plan. To make matters worse, two back to back bad bits of luck burned the Canucks hard. First, on the penalty-kill – which up to that point had been the Canucks stock-in-trade for months – the puck went off Willie Mitchell's stick over the glass in the defensive end. There wasn't the least bit of intention to do so on his part, it just happened that way. On the ensuing three on five Kelser broke his stick and could not get to the bench to get another, effectively giving the Hawks a five on two and a half. It's no wonder they scored, and that is where things really turned in that game. The flood gates opened and Luongo let more pucks past him than he had in the entire St. Louis series. Psychologically I propose that was a HUGE blow.

For game three coach Alain Vigneault recognized that Chicago's style of offence – specifically that stretch pass – HAD to be shut down. And for the most part, in game three it worked. It would be the last game the Canucks would win.

Game four the Canucks employed the same strategy that won them game three. And why not? Letting the Chicago offence have its' way had led to near disaster in game one, and DID lead to disaster in game two. The plan worked. For most of the game. With less than three minutes left Willie Mitchell had to make a split-second decision about where to clear the puck. He made the high-percentage choice – the one he should make on instinct when there is no time to consider. In other words, in MOST cases clearing the puck along the boards instead of up the middle is the right play for a defenseman to make. This time however there happened to be a flotilla of Blackhawks where he was clearing to... and they scored. Overtime went the Hawks' way too. And THAT was the real turning point of the series. I don't think there is any hockey literate fan who would really bother arguing otherwise.

Game five Vigneault stuck to the plan. It had worked in game three and had for all practical purposes worked in game four – except for those last few crucial minutes. He felt he had more to be scared of the 'Hawks shooting game, and that seems like a reasonable assumption. Once again it nearly works. But twice more puck-luck fucks us late in the game. Arguably Kelser's botched clearing attempt was bad luck giving Bfuglien a momentum changing goal. If someone wants to declare that Kelser failed on that play, I won't stop them. He was mid-check and clearing one-handed. Even if he failed, he was making the play under duress. But then... on the penalty-kill again, Mitchell (Notice how often he is associated with the bad puck luck? Hmmm... perhaps we should be looking harder at Mitchell, but I don't hear him being offered the horns much.) breaks his stick... and Chicago gets the go-ahead. And then to add insult to injury... that is very nearly a pun – with Luongo out of net for the extra attacker in the final two minutes and the assault on Khabibulin mounted, Kelser and Salo trip over each other allowing Havlat an empty net goal. He was probably half-embarrassed to put it in the net, but how could he not?

With the series on the line, Vigneault was put in a bad position. He had to change the game plan again. He had to abandon the strategy that had worked in game three and had worked in games four and five – except for crucial moments where fate had different plans – BECAUSE despite being effective for 90% of the game, that 10% where it didn't cost us the game... twice. He was forced to go back to the strategy that had nearly lost us one game and lost us a second BADLY.

Game six... was insane. A five – seven outcome for the Hawks doesn't tell the tale. The whole game was back and forth and even in the dying minutes two goals behind it still felt like the Canucks might come back. Not much puck luck giving the Canucks the gears in this game. The team just isn't the right team to beat Chicago at their own game. Vigneault accurately said this himself a week ago in mid-series. We made a good show of it, but in the wash the Canucks played better defensive games against Chicago than the run and gun games.

Before game six started, Ami, one of the friends I watched with asked me to predict what was going to be the game story. I said "Knowing that if we don't win that it's the last game of his career, Sundin will play like we've never seen him play." I'd argue that he did. He scored what in almost any other game would have been the game winner but it was soon answered, and he was regularly in the play. For the playoffs, Mats Sundin was third to the Sedins in both scoring and goals. Mats Sundin was NOT the problem on this team.

Bad officiating? Alain Vigneault has the class to not bitch about iffy-calls. He knows they all equal out over time. Canucks fans can suck it up and do the same. I doubt that there was a single call in this series that the refs heard back from Toronto about after the fact.

Bad coaching – Vigneault did what he had to do and made the right choices. They just don't always work out. If anything, he should have stuck to his guns and kept with the defensive game for game six. The previous two losses under that system were mostly due to unfortunate circumstances. But I can't say I blame him for changing. If he stuck to the plan and lost he'd put his job in jeopardy. Making the change, win or lose, he'd made a proactive choice. Alain will still be our coach next year.

Defensive play? – The Canucks won one and lost two for each style of play; offensive and defensive. I don't like to count empty-net goals – they skew the stats away from the real game story. In any case, take the games the Canucks played defensively and the games they played offensively and compare them. All goals counted, the Hawks out-scored the Canucks 7-6 in defensive games; and 16-13 in offensive games. Take away empty net goals and its 6-6 in defensive games and 16-12 in offensive games. Though I don't have the figure in front of me, I am confident that if the amount of time the Canucks held the lead in those games were compared, the difference would be even more apparent. Now... which way came closer to winning?

Anyhow... there's always next year!

Keep Vigneault. Re-sign the Sedins. Give Mitchell a good shake. Hope Kelser plays more like his best than his mediocre self. Give Sundin a heart-felt handshake, thank him for the effort, and buy him a watch. Think hard about the futures of Salo and Demitra... they too may be put out to stud, but not with a hint of shame. Then acquire a few really promising free agents and show Luongo that this is a team he's going to want to keep fighting alongside of after next season... you know, the season where we win the Cup.