About Me

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Toronto, Ontario, Canada
A long-time Toronto-area Actor and Singer, Jeff Madden is now focusing on Teaching acting and singing in the GTA. Jeff starred as "Frankie Valli" in both the Toronto and Australian productions of JERSEY BOYS, winning the DORA award for outstanding performance in a musical by a male actor. Jeff is busy back at school, getting his MEd at U of T's OISE.

Monday, February 4, 2013

An Australian Superbowl

An Australian Superbowl

The most-watched televised event in America has now come and gone. Taking part in the Superbowl festivities in Australia has been an interesting experience, to say the least.

Working in Melbourne (I'm playing Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys Australia here until March 24) and craving a bit of North American culture – such as it is – I spent the better part of a week rallying the troops to join me for a Superbowl party. At first only a few friends were keen, and a tiny gathering at my place looked imminent. But as game day approached and others started getting interested, it was clear that we’d be best served by moving the party to a nearby drinking establishment. Watching the big game on a big screen, with big sound and a big crowd would be the attraction – even if we couldn’t enjoy the American commercials.

Australians love sports. Athletics are a huge part of their culture, indeed their identity. This should be a shock to no one. Aussies routinely do well in the Summer Olympics and are known world-wide for their Rugby and Cricket playing public. But it appears that American sports are on the upswing here, too. Surprisingly, many of my colleagues know the names of players and teams in the NFL, NBA and MLB, if not so much the NHL. I didn’t think I’d be having daily discussions about the Toronto Raptors here in Melbourne, but I do.
But the Superbowl is no footy game – this is AMERICAN football, and game time is 10am on a Monday. How much of a real interest would there be here? Well, it turns out, quite a lot.

A week before the game, I called three downtown sports bars and each was completely booked out, with entrance fees and standing room only available. I felt fortunate to find a fourth that had room for our group of 12. Aside from us theatre practitioners who have the day off, the bar soon filled up with an interesting crowd. Some walked in wearing NFL jerseys, some in shirts and ties. Some called in sick, some booked the day off specifically to watch the game, and some appeared, well, to put it politely, unlikely to have a job whatsoever.

Oh, Australians love beer, too. And as game time approached, even though it was not yet 11am, buckets of Bud became the standard centerpiece on our tables. Um, I’m pretty sure the “it’s 5 O’clock somewhere” thing started here in Australia.

 But for the locals, this outing wasn’t purely an excuse to drink. During the breaks in the action, I was often asked about specific rules, position names and player, as they wanting a better understanding of American football. The three forms of Aussie Rules football were referenced as a comparison, with more than a couple half-tongue-in-cheek comments about how real men don’t need to wear helmets and pads. There’s always that part of the Aussies, too. Makes me smile.

Most of the bar patrons were surprisingly fans of the San Francisco 49ers. Maybe it’s because flights from Australia to North America usually land in Los Angeles, meaning Aussies feel comfortable with California. Maybe it’s because the 49ers are perennial winners and are 6-0 in Superbowls. Personally, I was rooting for the Ravens, who I figured to win in a very close game. (Aren’t I smart?!?!?)

Aside from the outcome of the game, some patrons were equally interested in the innumerable betting options, even tracking via their phones how the odds changed throughout the game. One friend bet (wisely) on Boldin scoring the 1st touchdown of the game, at 10-1 odds. Another bloke bet $5 (unwisely) that Beyonce would trip during her halftime show. This particular guy was also completely loaded by Halftime, but … whatever. It takes all kinds, you know?

(Editor’s note: We interrupt this sports and culture piece to bring you an Arts review.)

Speaking of Beyonce, I was stoked that three of my favorite female vocalists would do their thing on this year’s broadcast. In the Pregame ceremony, Jennifer Hudson was unbelievable, effortlessly wailing overtop of those sweet children from Sandy Hook, CT during America the Beautiful. Beautiful it was.

Unfortunately, Alicia Keys disappointed in her rendition of the National Anthem. I give her credit for playing the piano while singing, but why does she choose to sing every song a tone too high? Her upper notes always sound on the brink – because of this, some are thrilling, but most make me afraid that her larynx might pop out of her neck. Alicia, just drop the key a bit and sing your heart out. You know? We’ll still love you. (Note in the picture below how Alicia is reaching for a note juuuuust out of reach…)

In the 15-minute Halftime show, Beyonce did her thang, and did it very well, proving that she’s still the Superbowl Champ of female Pop Stars. Great looks, great voice, great moves, good songs, interesting production - she’s the total package, amiright?

 As for the game itself, I found it totally engaging. In the 1st half, the newest elite quarterback Joe Flacco skillfully led the Ravens on offence, and as they are wont to do on defence, they forced San Francisco into some turnovers. The Ravens raced out to a big 21-6 Halftime lead, leaving many fans in our bar stunned. Their surprise turned to pure shock on the opening play of the 2nd half, as the Ravens ran the kickoff all the way back for a 108-yard touchdown, which tied an all-time NFL record for the longest kickoff return. At 28-6, it was looking like a blowout.

Then came another shock – the power went out at the Superdome. A Superbowl-first 34-minute Power-Outage delay while annoying, was not a distraction and was tolerated well by everyone. More time for beer and wings, amiright?!?!? I mused half-jokingly that the power outage was due to Beyonce’s energetic Halftime show. All stunning to look at, but holy crap – a whole lot of power (and dough!) went into those extras. For example, did you see that massive video screen that rose out of the stage?

 Did you see that reflective LCD floor?

How about those numerous burst of fire?

 Hey Superdome, “If you like it then you shoulda put a backup generator on it…“ (I know – it doesn’t scan very well, but I still like it.)

But I digress. Um, yeah. Back to the Macho stuff. 

When play resumed, the 2nd half went according to the pregame script, as the 49ers came roaring back, led by their heavily tattooed Quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Most fans in our bar leapt to their feet every time the exciting Kaepernick took off for a running play, and yelled in amazement as he drilled one of his fastballs into the arms of a waiting teammate.

 He is a thrilling athlete to watch, but in his first Superbowl, Kaepernick made a few costly mistakes. The interception he threw in the 1st half was an awful and costly throw, but equally glaring was his decision to call a timeout in the 3rd Quarter down 28-6, on a 1st and 10 near midfield. Even if he was confused at the play call, taking the snap and running a basic play – heck, even taking a knee – would have been much more preferable to losing a timeout. 
While his 4th quarter 20-yard TD run was thrilling to watch, once again he was unable to deal with the pressure of the moment. On the next play, the potential game-tying 2-point conversion attempt, he was unable to read the Ravens blitz and quickly threw the ball away, keeping the Ravens ahead 31-29, a lead which they would not give up. And sure enough, down five points and with no timeouts left, Kaepernick could only watch as the Ravens ran out the clock, preventing the 49ers from getting one last good chance to win the game.

I’m not blaming Kaepernick for the loss – indeed, if a couple passes had not slipped through his receiver’s fingers, or a couple non-penalty calls were made in their favour, he may well have been the Superbowl MVP. But this is Sports – and what makes it so endlessly compelling for me. On any given day, anything can and will happen, and usually things don’t end up happening the way the experts predict. In the end, the Ravens played well enough to win, and although they buckled in the 2nd half, they would not break, holding on to record the upset victory, 34-31. It was a very exciting and interesting game, and a good time was had by all. Even Joe Flacco went home happy, too.

The Aussie mates are good blokes. They love hanging out together, the love just about any sporting endeavor, they love to drink a few pints, they love to place a bet, and are genuinely interested in learning more of the finer points of American sports. They will even down some good ol’ American chicken wings and bottles of Budweiser every once in a while. My next job is to convert them all to Blue Jays fans, which shouldn’t be too hard. With the new and improved Jays line up and Spring Training just around the corner, I don’t think it will be a problem.

Ah, there’s nothing like heading home the bar in the early afternoon on wobbly legs, after hours of good times. Such is life in Melbourne, Australia.

Friday, February 1, 2013

My Argument With the Cricket Gods

My Argument with the Cricket Gods 

As a Canadian, it’s not surprising that don’t know much about the sport of Cricket. However, I’d hazard a guess that I know more about this legendary sport than 95% of Canadians. I’ve actually played nearly a dozen games myself – legit, competitive games. Granted, the games were mostly against other actors, but, hey, we practiced every week and competed hard. I even won Man of the Match in one of the games, he said, patting himself on the back…

But I find myself here in Australia again, and therefore, I’m inundated with Cricket – think Hockey Night in Canada, 12 months a year instead of just six. It’s everywhere, on TV, in the news, even on the Beach. And Aussies are as passionate about this sport as we are about our beloved pucks on ice. Hell, this year, we had a ‘Secret Santa’ at work and my surprise gift was a Cricket set, complete with bat, balls and even a wicket and bales. We even use it indoors before the show, in our dressing room corridor – yes, Hallway Cricket is apparently a thing.

I want to love this game, I really do. I love the gentlemanly Sportsmanship, I love the tea break, I love that they don’t wear gloves in the field. I love the throwing, the running, the hitting. But, there are so many oddities and quirks in this game, some of which I find lovable, others less so. One of the biggest things keeping me from loving Cricket: it seems the goal is not necessarily to score more runs than your opponent, but rather, to not get out. Put another way, it places those two offensive strategies as equally desirable.

Case in point – late last year, the third Test match of a series between Australia and South Africa was being played in Adelaide, Australia. I happened to be there, doing an eight-week run of Jersey Boys at a theatre just a short walk from the Cricket ground. That particular Test match went to a 5th and final day, and, falling on a Monday (the traditionally dark day for theatres) a bunch of us rocked up to the beautiful Adelaide Oval to catch the action. Australia had built a huge lead on Day 4 – so huge that they decided to stop scoring runs and give up their offensive innings, so they would have enough time left (a day and a half) to get the South Africans out and secure their big win.

However, the rules dictate that as long as all your batsmen don’t get out, the Test match is called a Draw – regardless of how many runs you are trailing by. South Africa knew what they had to do, and, do it they did. I sat there along with 10,000 others for eight hours – that’s eight freaking hours, people – watching the South Africans block ball after ball, chip one here and one there for a single run, and make virtually no attempt to make up the difference in the score. Sure, I give them credit for not getting stumped or caught out, but seriously? C’mon, Cricket Gods – this is ridiculous.

Ever see a boxer with his hands covering his face getting pummeled in the corner win the match on points? Of course not. Ever seen a gymnast or figure skater attempting zero jumps or spins, and win the competition just because they stayed on their feet? Of course not. I can’t think of any other sport where it’s encouraged to not try your hardest. This bothers me, you know?

Cricket is an old sport, and has some interesting quirks owing to the fact that it has been around for over 400 years. The game was declared the National Sport of England in the early 1700s. By the mid 1800s Cricket was being played all over the world, including the 1st North American Test match in 1844 between Canada and the US.

Because Sports has to adapt with the times, Cricket has taken a good long look at its epic history, and realized that it’s dated. Who the heck can follow a five-day long game these days? And so, although the Cricket Gods have kept the old-fashioned Test Match game intact, they have developed different (shorter) ways to play the game, in an attempt to increase its popularity with world-wide sports fans, who, thanks to technology, the internet, twitter and the like, now have endless entertainment options and the attention spans of gnats. But the changes didn't go far enough.

The 5-day long Test matches are still considered to be the best test of cricket. But since the 1960s, there are ODI’s – 50-over maximum One-day matches, guaranteed to have a result. And more recently, in the last decade they have introduced an even shorter version of the game – the 20-20 Cricket match. Each side gets only 20 Overs to score as many runs as possible, and there is always a winner, no matter what. This type of cricket takes about 3 hours to play, putting it on par with what MLB puts out there as a product.

Three different forms of the same sport. That in itself is interesting. But I am still disheartened – no, annoyed - by the fact that teams are happy to play a match for five full days when there’s a good possibility of it ending in a Draw (a Tie!), regardless of how many runs were scored. Huh?

There’s only one way to play Baseball. Granted, Baseball stadia are of differing size, although the important distances between the pitching rubber and home plate, and between the bases are always the same. And if it’s tied after 9-innings, you play sudden-death extra innings. There are no ties. In football, The NFL, CFL and College/University games all have slightly different rules, but each game is the same length and has an outcome. Ties are extremely rare and considered merely annoying at best.

Except for the size of the rink being larger internationally, hockey all over the world is the same. Although there used to be many ties in a season, Shoot-outs were instituted a few years ago to ensure each NHL game has an outcome. Regardless of what you think of using the equivalent of a home-run hitting contest to decide which hockey team is better, never again will we see those annoying tie NHL games, replete with teams literally not trying to win in order to preserve the precious 1-point for the tie.

Tennis is interesting in that each tournament varies the playing surface and the length of match – they play on grass, clay, and hardcourt. Some tournaments employ a best of three sets while others employ a best of five sets format. But each match is scored the same way, and I guarantee you that the player who doesn’t hit the ball back over the net will lose. Ever heard of a tie in Tennis?

But that’s not the only unique element that sets Cricket apart. Even the balls are different, depending on the style of game being played. A White ball is used in the shorter 20-20 cricket and 1-day ODIs, while a Red ball is used for the longer Test cricket matches. Although they are said to be identically made, the White balls tend to ‘swing’ (curve) more and deteriorate faster than their red counterparts. Having held and thrown both, I can definitely say that they do not feel or react the same. Just picture the Jays using a different ball at the Rogers Centre, and the league being OK with that.

Another strange element to Cricket – but this one I strongly favour, however - leaves Baseball in the dust. Curiously, the 400 year-old sport of Cricket has embraced technology. Every single close play is reviewable. They review whether or not a bowled ball nicks the bat. They review whether a runner crosses the crease line before the bales are hit. They review whether a batted ball touches the boundary for four runs or goes over it for six. And, yes, I love this. It’s 2013 people; I believe that since we have the technology at our fingertips, it should be utilized to determine the fairest result. Baseball has got to get on with it.

Want another quirk – this one of the annoying variety? This past Monday night I had the pleasure of attending my first 20-20 match live, this time at the hallowed MCG – Melbourne’s Cricket Ground (pictured below). Sri Lanka batted first, pounding out 161 runs during their 20 overs. Australia was batting in the 10th over when suddenly the skies opened up, causing a rain delay. It rained for no more than 10 minutes, during which time the ‘pitch’ (where the balls are bowled and the batsmen run) was covered by a tarp. Once the rain stopped, the tarp was removed, and yet it took almost 30 more minutes before the game re-commenced. Annoying, to be sure, but not nearly as confounding as what came next.

Instead of Australia finishing their last 10 overs trying to chase down Sri Lanka’s total of 161, the Gods of Cricket decreed that the game was being shortened to 15 Overs, and magically, the Sri Lankan total was shrunk down to 122. (This was not their total after 15 overs, by the way). “Um, sorry buddy, all those 4s and 6s you hit in the last few overs – we’re taking them back - they never happened. You understand, right? It’s Cricket.”

Apparently, back in the 1990s two English statisticians named Duckworth and Lewis devised the aptly titled Duckworth-Lewis method of creating a totally bogus, non-real way of rescoring a match – and the Cricket Gods thought it was a great idea. It’s routinely criticized because it produces results that are often “counter-intuitive” but, that’s being a bit polite - they often make no logical sense. Imagine if you will the final round of the 2013 Masters is being played. Tiger birdies three of the last four holes to move to -6 for the tournament just before a thunderstorm passes through. Mickelson is sitting at -1 on the 8th hole at the time. When the rain stops, the Golf Gods say – “Tiger, we’ve decided that Phil only has to play 4 more holes, and if he gets to -3, he wins the tournament. Oh, and we’re taking back those birdies, and readjusting your score. Hope that’s ok. Oh, and you’ll make less money too.”

It seems so strange to me that a sport that has embraced video replay technology - to ensure the fairest results - can allow major international matches to be decided by what amounts to a ‘reality’ seemingly devised by a child’s imaginary playtime.

It turned out that, with this new (completely made-up) total to chase, Australia had no choice but to go for it. (This being a 20-20 game, there was no way to block their way to a Draw.) They suddenly started trying really hard to score runs, and what do you know? They actually scored 59 runs in their last five overs, doubling their rate from their 1st 10 overs, and only needed a Four on their last ball to win. They didn’t get it. But their increased effort and risk-taking created an incredibly entertaining finish to what was a strange night at the Cricket. Exciting, yes, but not real. Gives a new meaning to Fantasy sports, doesn’t it?

Why did it take 40 minutes to get the game restarted? Why did they change the length and score of the game? Why don’t they finish the games, regardless of how long they go into the night? If it gets too late, why don’t they reschedule them for the next available day? What about the player’s statistics? So many questions for the Cricket Gods. So many reasons to stay on the fence about Cricket. I want to love it, but… I guess I’m just not that religious.Yet.