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The Music Of The Night

This post is going to be a backlog of musical theatre reviews over the past few months. I love London!

Phantom of the Opera 9/10
I first saw this as a wee kid and grew up listening to the soundtrack so it was amazing to be able to see this performed on the West End with my seat in the 3rd row, and it was every bit as dramatic as I had anticipated. The lead was played by John Owen Jones who's played the Phantom over 1400 times... insane! And what stage presence he commands! The character is obsessive and a tortured soul but I shed a little tear for him at the agonising climax. Christine Daaé was played to perfection by Portuguese Sofia Escobar and the air reverberated with the purity of her voice - except I'm disappointed to find out from Wikipedia that in all Phantom productions, the high E that Christine hits at the end of the main theme is usually prerecorded, as are the Phantom's offstage voiceovers and various instruments! I suppose it would be vocally damaging to sing that high for 8 shows a week but I can't help but feel a little cheated if it were true. Aside from that fact, she was bloody brilliant in the high notes for Think Of Me so there's no denying her talent. I was blown away by the set design (replicating the the Opera Garnier in Paris) and the costumes (especially in Masquerade) and the theatrical tricks incorporated the show are always fun.

At the 25th Anniversary celebration at the Royal Albert Hall this year, five previous Phantoms (including Anthony Warlow and John Owen Jones, both on the left) shared the stage with Sarah Brightman to sing the theme. This will probably go down as one of the greatest moments in musical theatre history:



Love Never Dies 9/10
I saw this back in May but since it's coming out in Sydney in the new year, I thought it would be worth mentioning here in a non-spoilerish way. As the sequel to Phantom of the Opera, it takes place 10 years later following most of the principal characters and is set in Coney Island, showcasing the eerie and freakish themes that are intrinsic to the Phantom. I was riveted from beginning to end, and loved all the performances by Ramin Karimloo who previously performed as the Phantom from the original - he's the only one in the mask in the aforementioned video. According to Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Australian production is better than the UK's, so don't miss it if you have the opportunity!

Chicago 6.5/10
It's amazing how seductive a simple shoulder roll or a whispered word can be. The incredibly athletic dance ensemble sighed and thrusted their loins about the stage like a single orgasm- I mean, er, organism. America Ferrera, the star of Ugly Betty, was probably a risky casting choice for Roxie Hart seeing as she has no previous dancing or singing background but her acting commitment to the character is pretty commendable, especially as a pseudo marionette puppet in They Both Reached For The Gun. However, I really, really love Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta Jones in the Rob Marshall's slick film version and found the West End show a bit underwhelming in comparison.

The Lion King 9/10
I had tears in my eyes within the two minutes, ahaha. That's how much I love animals. Or maybe it was really the joyous tribal chorus that made my heart soar - there's something so magical about traditional African song and dance. I think I connected to those moments more than the original Elton John numbers from the Disney film. The shadow, rod, hand puppets were beautiful to watch and the complexity of the stage mechanics is impressive. The only problem I had with the production is that the acting was a little clunky and the comic delivery could've been sharper, but it's definitely a lot of fun. Here's a great behind the scenes look at the West End production.

Crazy For You 9/10
Incorporating jazz songs written by Ira and George Gershwin, Crazy For You received more 5 star reviews on the West End than any other show this year. It's everything you love about MGM musical classics - tapdancing, Ziegfeld Follies, glamorous costumes, funny wisecracks, high energy ensemble dances - combined with classic tunes like I Got Rhythm and Embraceable You.

In case you're wondering what I've rated 10/10 in the past.... that would be Les Mis...

Beginners

Speaking of rollerskating, Beginners is now one of my favourite movies. I fell in love with the trailer when I first saw it a few months back (it's now out on DVD) and the feature did not disappoint. Mike Mills (who is also a graphic artist) based the film's premise on the true story of his own father coming out at age 75. French actress Mélanie Laurent describes the script as a mix of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry and I have to agree. It's whimsical, poignant, and the ragtime jazz soundtrack is lovely. Plus the dog is an absolute scene-stealer! (Trivia fun fact: Cosmo the dog was trained by the same woman who also trained other famous Jack Russell actors eg from Frasier and My Dog Skip.)

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When my laptop died the other week, I spent my time reading all three books of Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. While it dragged on heaps, I got pretty engrossed in it. A lot of his concepts are quite interesting - like how he has a retelling of biblical history as we know it, and how there are millions of parallel worlds filled with different creatures. I do recognise though that he's totally vilified all Christians in the books (I don't think there's a single good deed performed by someone from the church throughout the trilogy, to put it nicely) and he's scoffed at CS Lewis in the past, criticising the Chronicles of Narnia as thinly veiled "Christian propaganda" but Pullman's own atheist agenda is even more blatant in his own work, summed up in the line from The Amber Spyglass: "The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake." Also, the main goal of the good guys in the trilogy is to build a republic of heaven without bishops, priests, or churches as people in power are intent on suppressing and controlling the rest of the world in the name of God. Had I picked this up a few years ago when I was still a Christian, I would've found this a little confronting but my agnosticism has now made me impartial to his utopian vision. For every religious parable out there being taught to a person of faith, there should be a humanist/scientific counterbalance... basically, I strongly believe that all Christians should read essays and books written by atheists and agnostics. It's ridiculous that there are religious organisations out there attempting to ban Pullman's books from schools/libraries, and they apparently also tried to boycott the film adaptation The Golden Compass - it's just proving Pullman's point about churches, really.

There's a character called Mary Malone who left the church to become a scientist, and a lot of her views kind of parallel what I'm going through at the moment. Here's a non-spoilerish excerpt that resounded with me when she speaks to the two child protagonists, Will and Lyra:

"When I first saw you, in your Oxford," Lyra said, "you said one of the reasons you became a scientist was that you wouldn't have to think about good and evil. Did you think about them when you were a nun?"

"Hmm. No. But I knew what I should think: it was whatever the Church taught me to think. And when I did science, I had to think about other things altogether. So I never had to think about them for myself at all," said Mary.

"But do you now?" said Will.

"I think I have to," Mary said, trying to be accurate.

"When you stopped believing in God," he went on, "did you stop believing in good and evil?"

"No. But I stopped believing there was a power of good and a power of evil that were outside us. And I came to believe that good and evil are names for what people do, not for what they are. All we can say is that this is a good deed, because it helps someone, or that's an evil one, because it hurts them. People are too complicated to have simple labels."

"Yes," said Lyra firmly.

"Did you miss God?" asked Will.

"Yes," Mary said, "terribly. And I still do. And what I miss most is the sense of being connected to the whole of the universe. I used to feel I was connected to God like that, and because he was there, I was connected to the whole of his creation. But if he's not there, then..."

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Blood and ice is an empty crisis

It's pretty much impossible to read a CD or gig review of Feist without seeing a mention of the iPod nano commercial featuring her song 1234 (co-written by Aussie Sally Seltmann aka New Buffalo) which propelled her into global mainstream consciousness in 2007 and subsequently led her to a guest appearance on Sesame Street, counting along with Elmo and his friends. But you can tell from her exasperation in interviews that it also brought a kind of unsolicited commercial pressure. So she hid away for 2 years doing pretty much nothing musically for herself and emerged with a new album called Metals, taking a very different direction from the exuberance of her previous work in The Reminder and Let It Die. The songs in Metals are mysterious and subtly dramatic, with constant references to the wilderness. Feist collaborated with Mountain Man for the record, a trio of female hipsters who sound like a cross between Fleet Foxes and Laura Marling, and at the Palladium theatre earlier this week, they provided complex harmonies that were fierce, breathy and commanding, demonstrated with full force for the thrilling "A Commotion". Even the twee "Mushaboom" got a melancholy makeover with the verses in minor key and the infectious chorus transformed into a tribal warcry. Moments of sublime tenderness were shed on "The Circle Married The Line" (my favourite on the new album) and later the mood uplifted with the joyous handclaps of "I Feel It All". For the closing song of the encore, Feist invited couples from the audience to slowdance on stage while she crooned the ballad "Let It Die" and it was a highlight to watch two gentlemen gallantly waltzing together on the same platform that is home to the West End production of The Wizard Of Oz every other night of the week...

Here she is performing on Jools Holland:

A colloquial review of Viajante

I experienced my first tasting menu last Sunday at the Michelin-starred Viajante, situated in East London. My brother was supposed to go but pulled out due to other plans and generously paid for me be his stand-in. Before I went I looked up the website and read some reviews and honestly thought that I wouldn't enjoy Nuno Mendes' food (he interned at El Bulli). Some describe his style as innovative, creative and modern but I associate fine dining with wanky, expensive dishes in tiny, tiny portions. I always say I'd rather use that money to fund a home-cooked meal for loads of people. But similarly to my experience of Dinner by Heston, I LOVED EVERY DISH. I hope it's not an indication of my palate becoming pretentious!

We opted for the 6-course option and weren't given a menu because surprise is meant to be a key element in the experience, but we were given a brief verbal description of each dish by the waiters. Half the time I didn't understand what they were saying because I was unfamiliar with some of the vocab but all I know is that it was all very delicious. I had to do a bit of research on the web afterwards to compile the info for these captions, otherwise all I'd be saying is YUMMM and NYGGHH.

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Amuse bouches: Crab croquette and Thai explosion II
You could put anything in a croquette and I will love it - such is my affection for anything deep fried with a crumb coating. The inside of this wasn't filled with pieces of crab like I was expecting but an oozy centre of crab-flavoured goop. The Thai Explosion was like a mini sandwich of toasted bread with chicken skin, filled with shredded confit chicken, coconut milk, chillies and coriander.

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A couple of weeks ago, the Barbican was showing an exhibition called Watch Me Move: The Animation Show that featured the history of animation since the dawn of moving pictures. It was wonderful - I got to watch cartoons all day! I was reminded of the awesomeness of such features like Creature Comforts, Toy Story, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (incredibly there's a sequel in the works) and the golden age of Hanna-Barbera cartoons... but I most enjoyed watching the really old animations from the silent film era. They were hilarious, charming, surreal and surprising!

The early version of Felix The Cat:


The Fleischer Brothers (famous for Betty Boop and Popeye) seemed to like having a playful interaction between the drawing and the artist, cleverly compositing the animation with live-action:

Loop pedal prodigy

She's only 17 years old. D:

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Stalking Oliver Jeffers

Two of my all time favourite illustrators/artists in the same fortnight! Not only that, I met Oliver Jeffers twice because I forgot to ask him to draw me a rhinocorn the first time round. And he remembered my face! :D Both times he was giving a presentation about his creative process. He's best known for his picture books like Lost and Found and The Incredible Book Eating Boy which I fell in love with for the collages of old books covers and papers. I'm a huge fan of his handwriting, and also his paintings & random doodles which steer away from the children's demographic. (I find this one particularly hilarious.)

Some things he talked about:
- He's from Belfast, Ireland but is now based in New York. He lived in Sydney for two years and the concept for his first book How To Catch A Star was actually inspired by a time when he was at the fish markets in Pyrmont and saw a reflection of a star on the water.
- Picture books are a domain associated with children but he mentioned that an equal number of adults have embraced his work. Like the Shaun Tan events I went to, it was wonderful to see that the room was packed with grown ups who gush fervently about illustrations.
- What you leave out in the image is often as powerful as what you leave in. Just because you're capable of doing something doesn't mean that you should - he called this the Mariah Carey syndrome, referring to how she's fond of putting her 8 octave range in all her songs but it's not always effective. Some of the watercolour images in his books are quite minimalist and this was a deliberate move to give it a geographical ambiguity. He said kids in Malaysia and Brazil read these books thinking it was set in their own countries.
- He only got introduced to Photoshop fairly recently and has been using it to create seamless illustrations for his more recent books. I got very excited when he showed the many layers of paint splodges, basic drawn shapes and scanned paper textures that went into a double spread from Stuck, because it's a very similar method of how I like to work - using the computer to compile marks on paper to build an aesthetic that seems organic. I do it mostly because I'm not skilled enough to get the complete drawing right on the first go but for Oliver it's more to do with experimentation with colours and it also gives him the flexibility to play around with different compositions.

Here's a short video on him talking about his works and sporting a rather fine moustache.
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Kevin Spacey and director Sam Mendes have reunited since American Beauty (1999) to collaborate for Richard III at the Old Vic Theatre, which I got to see last week for a bargain £12 (hooray for being under 25)! I'm not usually one for tragedies, especially when the language is as abstruse as Shakespeare's but I made sure that I familiarised myself with the play thoroughly before I went so that I could appreciate it better. Why did I not know about Sparknotes during high school??! Could have saved me a world of pain! Anyway, the basic gist is that Richard III kills a bunch of people to secure the throne but it's actually quite a complex plot - and added to that, there are three guys called Edward and two Elizabeths. Confuzzling. I was worried that I'd get overwhelmed by all the doom and gloom (it runs over 3 hours and Richard executes 12 people) but it was actually really funny. In this modern day re-imagining where the characters wear suits instead of regalia, this production was practically a satiric portrait of the falseness of politicians. There's an especially hilarious scene where Richard tries to appeal to the citizens for his claim to power by pretending to be a devout Christian and strategically plants two clergymen next to him. It's amazing how relevant Shakespeare is after 400+ years.

Kevin Spacey is truly a marvel. Look at how awesome he looks in the picture! His character is meant to be quite crippled in his deformity (hunched back, leg in a brace, wonky arm) and Spacey can still make him look as cool as a snarling rock star. When I was reading the play, I thought that there perhaps could be a danger of Richard appearing one-dimensional as it seemed like he was just evil for the sake of being evil, but Spacey conveyed a great complexity of emotions in his character development. And at the end when he finally met his demise, a rope came down from the ceiling that got tied around his feet. There was an audible gasp as we in the audience thought in horror "Do they dare??" and yep, sure enough, the Oscar-winning Kevin Spacey was dangling high in the air, upside down for at least 5 minutes. It was terrifying and amazing.

Also, there were some spectacular drum scenes in the climactic parts of the play that escalated the tension and suspense like crazy. At one point, the stage was completely filled with actors pounding away thunderously at their own drums. I was hearing that beat even when I went to sleep that night.

How wonderful when theatre productions can stir up such emotions!

Stalking Shaun Tan

Shaun Tan has been one of my artistic heroes since I read The Red Tree when I was about 15. I've seen him at events before but yesterday was the first time I got to meet him, at a book signing in Foyles. I was approaching the front entrance of the bookstore when I saw a small man in front of me entering first and before my brain had registered who it was, he turned to glance back at me for a second and my heart actually leapt. And by the time I got to talk to him at the signing booth, I was totally nervous but I managed to have a coherent conversation, asking him if he was familiar with printmaking since I noticed he did a few scratchboards in Tales Of Outer Suburbia. He said he loves the medium and experimented with etchings and aquatints in his early years but doesn't have a big enough studio for it. I also asked what he thought about stage adaptations of his books (Red Leap Theatre did a brilliant production of The Arrival last year) and he said he actually doesn't like it if they adapt his books too faithfully - he'd rather that they spin their own creativity and interpretation into it.

A few hours later, I saw him again at an event in Piccadilly, in conversation with Paul Gravett who is apparently someone significant in comic-book-land. Somewhat surprisingly, I was practically the youngest person there - everyone was much older. Shaun had a slideshow of his illustrations, going through his short story Eric and explaining the hilarious real life experiences behind it (it was based on a Finnish houseguest). He also showed some of his drawings as a kid and contemplated that children tend to draw thoughts rather than accurate representations, and it's very difficult as an adult to cognitively draw with that childlike imagination. A while back, I watched him elaborate more on this topic on this wonderful video presentation and there he says that he often gets asked "At what age did you start drawing?" Shaun points out that in our infancy, drawing is an automatic urge and it's almost an issue of "What point do you stop drawing?" when self-consciousness kicks in.

I've now realised that even though I am known for my 'artistic' tendencies, there's a lot holding me back because of this self-consciousness. One example is my fear of portraying human faces because it's something I traditionally haven't been good at, so I avoid it like the bubonic plague. But I've always been a big believer in non-artistic people having the potential to become great at drawing skills if they practiced regularly, so I've resolved to practice drawing faces everyday. I've bought a Shaun Tan sketchbook signed by the man himself, so hopefully that's motivation enough! Maybe at some point I'll attempt to open up my imagination more and start drawing my own fantastical creatures and scenarios. The other week, I visited an exhibition of Shaun's sketches and works and some of these humble pencil drawings have a hefty pricetag of over £4000. Even gigclée (inkjet) prints of his images were selling for £350! And to think that he almost didn't become an illustrator because he didn't think he could make a career out of it. Oh Shaun.

On a vaguely related note, I read this interesting article about the story behind the mural in Newtown and was pretty inspired by what one of the artists had to say as I felt that it applied to my current state of unemployment:

(Andrew Aiken) received a 12-year sentence and ended up serving eight, from 1997 to 2005. He studied Spanish and French, did around 500 paintings and got in good physical shape. “At first I felt like the walls were going to crush my soul,” he says. “After a while, I realised there’s incredible freedom in being locked in an eight-by-ten room. It’s just you and your mind and your hands. You either use the time or lose it. It can strengthen or destroy you. I just set my mind on seeing the blessing of having that time.”

Edit: OMG I just found out that my other favourite illustrator Oliver Jeffers is also going to be talking about his work in Waterstones next week! AAAAH I LOVE LONDON!!!!

An unfreakingbelievable lunch.

I detest pretentious food at exorbitant prices... which is why I used to roll my eyes at everyone who's raved on about their experience at The Fat Duck in Bray with its wanky sounding menu at £180 per head. But as I watched more of Heston Blumenthal's various shows (there's a plethora out there), I couldn't help but be totally fascinated by his crazy approach to cooking - truly, he is the Willy Wonka of gastronomy. Learned scholars and distinguished guests were reduced to behaving like gleeful little kids in every episode of Heston's Feasts and even though I don't like his mad scientist methods with his treatment of ingredients, I really admire the way he wants food to be evocative and fun.

Earlier this year, he opened a new restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental in London called Dinner, which is a particularly confusing name if you dine at lunchtime, which I got the opportunity to do today. £28 for a three course set menu was something I could not pass up, and my fellow foodie friend Matt opted for the more expensive a la carte which I'm grateful for because it meant that I could try the infamous meat fruit dish. Since I can't seem to find enough positive adjectives to describe my affection for every dish that was put in front of me, I'll leave it to Matt for the words and I'll supply the pictures.

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Meat Fruit (c.1500): Mandarin gel, Chicken Liver Parfait & Grilled Bread
I remember watching Masterchef contestants struggle with making this deceptive little thing in Season 2. Meat fruit is the signature dish at Dinner and it's totally mindboggling how realistic it looks, but underneath that dimpled mandarin gel is the creamiest, lightest, richest pâté. Ingenius and insanity.

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A little art therapy

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Pandora's Box of Self-loathing

I miss my dog so, so much.

Te-oo banches o voylets trod into the mad.

When I'm not feeling morose about my underachieving life, I stop to think about how thankful I am to the people around me who make sure I don't have to worry so much about things like money and security... and other privileges that I can't afford. I sometimes cry out of gratefulness/guilt because I feel so undeserving. Anyway, sometimes it occurs to me that I may come across as boastful when I blog about the things I've seen and the places I've been to but I don't mean to be. I guess for me it's a personal record of living a life that I never dreamed of being able to experience.

So… um, I went on an unplanned trip to Venice on the weekend because a friend's travelling partner pulled out last minute. I almost said no, but… long story short, I went. The Venice Biennale (the equivalent of the Olympics in the contemporary art world) happened to be on and it's actually quite similar to our Sydney Biennale, only double, perhaps triple, in size. Much of contemporary art baffles me (you could cut the pretentiousness in the air with a knife!) but nevertheless I enjoyed exploring the different pavilions and environments housing the works. My favourite would probably have to be a work by an American artist called Sharon Hayes called 'An Ear To The Sounds Of Our History', which is made up of 110 LP covers featuring famous political speeches. I don't know whether she simply found existing record covers or designed them herself but I love the concept of taking these powerful moments of spoken word and translating it into graphic design compositions that is stylistically associated with music.

I also got to see the play Pygmalion this week (hooray for cheap student standbys!) starring Rupert Everett and the beautiful Kara Thointon who apparently is famous from Eastenders and also for winning Strictly Come Dancing. Rupes looks a bit haggard these days and his Henry Higgins seemed a lot moodier and more sinister than Rex Harrison's in the musical film version of My Fair Lady. I think the songs in the film really lightened the mood and downplayed Henry Higgins' misogynistic attitudes towards women (and arrogance in general) but the lack of music in the theatre production of Pygmalion highlighted the fact that Henry Higgins is really quite a dick, albeit a charming, debonair one at that. I really enjoyed the chemistry between him and his mother though, as she chides him unabashedly. And Kara's version of Eliza Doolittle was so spot on - her Cockney accent and vivacious spirit was like a mirror to Audrey Hepburn's portrayal in the film. What I was disappointed with though was the fact that the audience doesn't see quite enough of the transformation process of Eliza. In My Fair Lady, there are those enjoyable scenes where we see her struggle with and eventually master her speaking exercises ('The Rain In Spain') and also at the ball where she deceives the rival phonetics expert into thinking she is of royal blood. Since the latter is such an important moment of the plot, it was surprising that it was only referred to in passing in Pygmalion instead of being acted out.

However, it was interesting to see that they both had different endings... apparently Bernard Shaw never wanted Henry and Eliza to be romantically involved as the ending in the musical film suggests. Despite My Fair Lady being one of my favourite movies of all time, my feminist side is indignant at the thought of Eliza relinquishing her newfound independence to go back fetching slippers for HH. In Pygmalion, Eliza ends up marrying her admiring suitor Freddy with the intention of supporting him as he has no money of his own.

Carey Mulligan is reportedly set to play Eliza Doolittle in a new film adaptation, hooray!!

Panoramarama!

I finally got around to looking up a tutorial on how to stitch a panorama together. Turns out it's dead easy. I've shot a handful of locations in the past couple of years with panos in mind but now I wish I had been more diligent with the technique - all those wasted opportunities! Oh well, better late than never, right?

The photo's too wide to fit here so I've put it under a cut.
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