Bohemians of Broadway

On 18 April, Cairo Opera House opened the curtain for The Best of Broadway, a compilation of the best scenes on Broadway, which runs for a full week

Published on 21 April 2011 in Ahram Online and Al Ahram Weekly

On 18 April, the Cairo Opera House presented the audience with the first show to be called The Best of Broadway ; and the programme notes tell us that “world masters” brought it to Egypt — a reference, as it turns out, to World Masters Inc., which presented Take the Floo r at the end of 2009. Once again, this time (apart from the name of Sarwat Kaluby in small print below the crew list), there was no information regarding the company or its achievements, who runs it or where it originated, nor did the web yield any information. Currently based in Jacksonville, Florida, “Kaluby earned a Bachelor of Arts from the Cairo Art Academy in Egypt and a Master of Arts from the Kirov Ballet School in Russia,” so tells us the Jacksonville Dance Alliance. “He also holds a law degree and an additional undergraduate degree in an unrelated field, but he says dance will always be what defines and inspires him.” Active in dance circles in Jacksonville, Kaluby’s Dance Studio caters to newcomers in search for “fun and enjoyment in their social life, increased self-confidence, recreation and entertainment.”

This year the Dance Studio reached out to Groupe Bazz Inc., a company operating in Montreal, Quebec (Canada), to produce The Best of Broadway. Over the past decade, Groupe Bazz produced a number of other musical shows: Viva Casino, Piano Men, The Crooners, Simply Streisand, Swing Fever, The Legends of Rock and Roll, Divas Forever, Sounds of the Season, Women of the World and A Tribute to Paul Anka, among others… According to Richard Massicotte, Artistic Director of The Best of Broadway, “The Best of Broadway has been in the group’s repertoire for seven years during which it was continuously modified and updated. The show was performed on a variety of stages in Canada and the United States.” The group has no specific theatre, he explained. “Singers and dancers are free spirits, they gather for performances. Some of them have other jobs in parallel. Some are true bohemians.” But Bohemian spirits and day jobs will hardly help with the breathtaking shows of Broadway, governed by precision and strict professional standards. Massicotte, however, showers Kaluby with praise: “It is miraculous that Kaluby found us. This is our first visit to Egypt and hopefully we’ll be touring around the region soon.”

The Best of Broadway, as the title suggests, is a compilation of extracts and full songs taken from 25 Broadway musicals such as West Side Story, Evita, Grease, Hairspray, Cats, Hair, Mary Poppins among many others. The process of extracting itself jeopardises the theatrical and musical values carried by the complete musicals. No matter how impressive each number could be, the whole show reminds us of a mix tape or CD compilation. There is always a risk in drawing on such hugely successful and famous titles; one always needs to be careful when re-staging such gems of the genre. The Best of Broadway revives musicals starting from 1960s all the way to contemporary ones; and taking into account the fact that the show was held at Main Hall of the Cairo Opera House — a location that should aim for the highest quality of performance — the critical viewer will justifiably expect to have one of the best evenings of the year. Unfortunately this was not the case with The Best of Broadway, whether or not it came to us by way of Canada.

This revival of a strong musical needs equally strong choreography, good mise-en-scene and a team of performers who excel at acting, singing and dancing. The Best of Broadway did their best, but they struggled to cope with such demanding material. The group includes a few — not many — good singers, but neither the choreography nor the mise-en- scene managed to add to their skill, and sometimes they worked to underscore the limitations rather than the abilities of each performer. Simple choreographic solutions for larger gatherings seemed to work on many occasions, but most of the individual numbers or duets lacked detailed finishing. This cannot be blamed on the performers who are apparently singers first and then dancers. Good choreography and clever mise-en-scene can highlight the abilities of any actor without revealing his or her limitations. And of those, sadly, there were many.

Katie Julien-Martel who is an obvious professional in full control of a powerful voice was rarely involved in choreography, a fact which rescued her from compromising her true vocal talent. Her skills were showcased especially in “Somewhere” from West Side Story, “Good Morning, Baltimore” from Hairspray and “Memory” from Cats. On the other hand Yoland Sirard expressed many emotional and interesting shades of colour to “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables, cleverly compensating for a not so powerful voice. Where physical effort was being exerted, many lines slipped out of tune, something that was particularly painful in songs from Mamma Mia. Singers and dancers were accompanied by a small live band supported by recorded music. A large number of styles and an even larger variety of costume and scenography made up for flaws in the lighting, especially apparent in the Phantom of the Opera. Imperfection also surfaced in the failing sound during the duet lines in “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast, damaging the beautifully designed mise-en-scene of this specific number.

Obviously the name of Broadway attracted new faces to the Cairo Opera House and many audience members expressed their enthusiasm for the show. However we can still raise questions about its quality. The power of the music is owed to names such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Leonard Bernstein, Galt MacDermot, Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs, among many others, while the abundance of costumes is a must for a show taking the challenge of presenting the compilation of musicals. Complementing those two factors — music and costumes — with vision, mise-en- scene, well-finalised choreography and great voices is an obligation of any group taking such task on board. There is huge work behind The Best of Broadway yet all this enormous creative energy would have surfaced had the show not lacked important artistic axes characteristic of Broadway musicals. A flashy Broadway name should be supported by strong values; otherwise it would become a catchy entertainment failing to cover its many imperfections.

Kaluby’s Egyptian roots explain his repeated cooperation with the Cairo Opera House. They do not explain the Opera House’s choice of questionable artistic values. The show would have avoided harsh criticism had it been performed in another location, less demanding in quality or opening its doors to semi-professionals and amateurs. As much as Take the Floor (2009: fed on the famous Burn the Floor ) and the Rat Pack Tribute show (2010), its presence at the Opera House remains debatable; classified in one of my previous articles as “artistic fiascos,” The Best of Broadway risks falling into the same category.

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