Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra
Pantages 100th Birthday Party
Sunday, June 29
Pantages Playhouse Theatre
Four stars out of five
The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra partied like it was 1914 as it celebrated Winnipeg’s grande dame of theatres, Pantages Playhouse’s 100th anniversary.
Sunday night’s vaudeville-inspired show included with the WSO’s Summer Concerts series featured a lively cast of local talent paying tribute to a century’s worth of music, drama, and dance artists that have graced the Pantages stage since the onset of the First World War. The 120-minute concert, hosted by local radio personality Ron Robinson, also featured the WSO led by Alexander Mickelthwate.
The program worked best when it stayed true to the actual sights and sounds that would have been experienced over the years. The incomparable Fred Cross, in full regalia and representing the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Winnipeg, enthralled with his patter song I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General, with every tongue-twisting syllable executed with military precision.
Not to be outdone, soprano Sarah Kirsch joined by WSO executive director/soprano Trudy Schroeder and Mickelthwate, as vocalist, morphed into Three Little Maids from The Mikado, with the bewigged maestro’s giggly lass becoming in itself one tough act to follow.
The evening also paid homage to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s 75th anniversary. The RWB performed its inaugural show at the Pantages in 1940 with an orchestral selection, Waltz, from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
Magician Chris Funk amazed with sleight-of-hand tricks worthy of Harry Houdini, who once appeared on the same stage ages ago. Tap dancer Ella Steele hoofed her way through a recording of Dave Brubeck’s Three to Get Ready, successfully navigating the tiny stage area allotted to her with syncopated grace and ease.
Winnipeg’s jazz mainstay Ron Paley conducted the world première of his Joy!, a fascinating fusion of classically inspired orchestration and extended harmonies. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles Band, led by 2nd Lt. Ryan Wehrel, ably performed Albert Edward Kelly’s Arnhem, while mezzo-soprano Victoria Marshall delivered an understated, yet still sultry Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen.
The mostly well-paced program also provided historical context with slickly produced videos chronicling the iconic stars that once basked in the theatre’s limelight. The mixed-generation crowd audibly gasped in surprise as names were called: Charlie Chaplin, Vladimir Horowitz, Sir Laurence Olivier, Jimmy Durante, Laurel and Hardy, among others, as well as Winnipeg’s very own Len Cariou.
But then there were the more modern numbers, which were jarringly contemporary in the nostalgic mix. The "Stars of Rainbow Stage" six-member vocal ensemble comprised of: Connor Coughlin, Jennifer Lyon, Doug McKeag, Lisa Bell, Colleen Furlan and Jeremy Koz performed music from Rainbow Stage’s 60th anniversary productions The Producers and A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline. After hearing the show’s fuller orchestral numbers, including: Offenbach’s Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld and Godfrey Ridout’s Music for a Young Prince: From the Caboose, pianist/conductor Andrew St. Hilaire’s sole keyboard accompaniment felt bald.
Lyon belted out All That Jazz from Chicago for all she’s worth, proving why she’s still this city’s reigning musical theatre queen. So, too, did jazz vocalist Anna-Lisa Kirby with her rendition of New York, New York, a witty acknowledgement of the WSO’s recent triumph at another great house — Carnegie Hall — this past May.
The party ended with the audience — some dressed in period costumes as suffragettes, floozies and society ladies and gents — invited to warble Happy Birthday complete with a cake and sparklers brought onstage. Happily, they did, before rising to their feet not just for the night’s performers, but the true belle of the ball, our beloved, still-going-strong Pantages Playhouse Theatre, as it embarks on its next 100 years.