Saturday, August 18, 2018

Broadway Musical Review—"Gettin' the Band Back Together"

Gettin’ the Band Back Together
Book by Ken Davenport and the Grundleshotz; music & lyrics by Mark Allen
Directed by John Rando
Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, NY, NY

Kelli Barrett and Mitchell Jarvis in Gettin' the Band Back Together (photo: Joan Marcus)
Vanity projects don’t come more desperate than Gettin’ the Band Back Together, with a book co-written by Ken Davenport, one of its producers, who brags to the audience before the show begins that it was created through improv. Unsurprisingly, that mish-mash of witless, unfunny, uninteresting anecdotes and characters was stitched together into a dreary, overlong musical with pseudo-rock songs that try to (but never) approximate the hitmakers they emulate, Bon Jovi.

Bon Jovi is quite a low bar, but songwriter Mark Allen never gets over it. The story is about Mitch, a failed Wall Streeter who returns to his hometown of Sayreville, NJ (where Jon Bon Jovi came from) to find that it’s apparently stuck in a time warp, with his high school friends still living there and his high school nemesis Tygen still winning local band competitions. When Mitch finds out that Tygen owns much of Sayreville, including his mother Sharon’s house (which she has foreclosed on), he takes Tygen’s challenge to join the contest and is soon back in the garage with his buds in the band Juggernaut, playing the rock’n’roll music they love so much.

This could have been a breezy, 80-minute off-off Broadway show, but instead, at 2-1/2 hours, Band treats its non-story like the preparations for D-Day. Very little of this is amusing, much is risible, and nothing’s memorable. Worst is how the women are treated: Mitch’s mom Sharon is a MILF who has an affair with Bart, the clownish high school teacher who plays bass in Juggernaut, to Mitch’s understandable disgust. It’s played for laughs, but more obnoxious is how Dani, Mitch’s long-ago girlfriend, is treated: a single mom with a teenage daughter, she’s—get this—dating self-centered Tygen, which makes no sense but, since it gets Mitch’s goat, into the show it goes. 

The songs blend together blandly—and playing tunes by the likes of The Who, the Beatles, and Grand Funk Railroad pre-show and at intermission, and having Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry figure in the plot (he screwed Mitch’s mom many decades ago), does the show no favors—even if the slickness of John Rando’s direction, and Derek McLane’s and Ken Billington’s clever sets and lighting, ensure that it all looks like a professional production.

The energetic cast works hard, especially in two stupefyingly weird numbers that open Act II and that provide “what the hell was that?” entertainment: a rap-metal “Hava Nagila” at a Jewish wedding and a song “Second Chances,” wherein the world’s most self-pitying lounge singer bemoans his romantic misfires at the local diner.

The only ones escaping this mess unscathed are the ageless Marilu Henner as Sharon and the matchless Kelli Barrett as Dani. Barrett is a Rock of Ages alumna—she made the original off-Broadway incarnation palatable—but has since gone from flop to flop like the Doctor Zhivago musical and now this. She deserves much better. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

August '18 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
Breaking In 
Gabrielle Union makes a kick-ass heroine in this derivative but fun thriller as a mother who takes revenge on the murderous thugs who invade her dead father’s home looking for a stash of cash and take her two children hostage. A scant 88 minutes—the unrated cut is barely a minute longer—James McTeigue’s drama is nearly all twisty action, and Union throws herself into the role with intensity, whether climbing the roof or turning the tables on the thugs. The hi-def transfer is stellar; extras include an alternate opening, deleted/extended scenes, featurettes and director’s commentary.

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this Blog Post. The opinions I share are my own.
Arrow—Complete 6th Season 
(Warner Bros)
Oliver Queen, aka Arrow, now adds the even more difficult job of father to his already packed resume of mayor and superhero, which gives the series’ latest season its forward momentum. Also helping is that a group of past villains now threatens him and Star City, so he recruits several compatriots for a battle royale that highlights these 26 action-packed episodes. The hi-def transfer is immaculate; extras are four featurettes and four cross-over DCD comics episodes from other series.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties 
Director-cowriter John Cameron Mitchell pointlessly expands Neil Gaiman’s 2006 short story about a cult of extraterrestrial hotties in late ‘70s England, and hits us over the head with punk and hormonal teen angst that rarely becomes interesting or insightful. Elle Fanning is completely lost trying to make sense of her ridiculous character, and the rest of the cast doesn’t stand a chance in this bloated adaptation of a concise 18-page story. On Blu-ray, the movie looks fine; lone extra is a short making-of.

Life of the Party 
(Warner Bros)
Here’s another lazy Melissa McCarthy vehicle: she joins her daughter at Decatur U. after her husband drops her for the local realtor. Once in her dorm room, this mousy middle-aged housefrau becomes big woman on campus, seducing a bartender half her age (her ex’s new wife’s son, naturally) and living a fantasy life only possible when the star and her director husband Ben Falcone write a script accentuating easy laughs. It looks decent on Blu; extras include a gag reel, deleted scenes and featurettes.

Strike Back—Complete 5th Season 
Section 20 has recruited a fresh team of commandos to continue the undeclared but seemingly endless war on terror in the ten episodes that make up the series’ fifth season, punctuated by derring-do and triumphant breakthroughs. Although the repetitiveness of their actions and ops slows down its momentum, there’s still much there to entertain. It all looks great on Blu; extras comprise making-of featurettes.

The Yellow Birds 
This earnest-to-a-fault Iraq war drama attempts to distinguish itself from other similarly-themed films about our soldiers in a remote area of the world where they are neither wanted nor respected, but its story of two platoon buddies and how one must keep his promise to the other’s mother just feels derivative and stale. Director Alexandre Moors gets good performances by Ty Sheridan and Alden Ehrenreich as the grunts and Jennifer Aniston as the grieving mom, but there’s nothing here that hasn’t already been done more affectingly. There’s a very good hi-def transfer; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

DVD of the Week 
Spiral—Complete 6th Season 
This first-rate French crime series returns for one of its most engrossing, if grisly, seasons yet: the Parisian police unit led by Capt. Laure Berthaud (recently back from maternity leave, she must balance her lack of motherly instinct with her sickly premature daughter) conducts a murder investigation involving corrupt cops, while Judge Roban and Josephine Karlsson deal with demons of their own as their professional lives demand even more. Skillfully written and directed, Spiral is riveting thanks to an explosive cast led by Caroline Proust as Laure, Philippe Duclos as Roban and a pair of extraordinarily diverse performers who also made A French Village a must-watch: Thierry Godard as Gilou (Laure’s partner turned lover) and Audrey Fleurot as Josephine.

CD of the Week
Reizenstein/Goldschmidt—Cello Concertos 
Two decades ago, a series of recordings released under the “Entartete Musik” rubric covered composers whose music was suppressed by the Nazis; the great thing about that invaluable series was its paving the way for other labels to release music by these forgotten but worthy names. This disc pairs cello concertos by Franz Reizenstein and Berthold Goldschmidt, the latter well-represented by “Entartete music” (including a recording of this concerto by Yo-Yo Ma). These performances by soloist Raphael Wallfisch and the Konzerthausorchester Berlin under conductor Nicholas Milton’s baton are filled with energy and finesse, providing glimpses of voices that were only temporarily quieted (Reizenstein died in 1968, Goldschmidt in 1996).

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Theater Review—Public Works' “Twelfth Night” Returns to Central Park

Twelfth Night
Conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah & Shaina Taub
Directed by Oskar Eustis & Kwame Kwei-Armah
Performances through August 19, 2018
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY

Nikki M. James and cast in Twelfth Night (photo: Joan Marcus)
For its sixth-year Central Park presentation, Public Works brings back its 2016 abridgment of Twelfth Night—Shakespeare’s lyrical comedy about separated twins and a cross-dressing heroine—which unfortunately drops far too much of the Bard’s most sublime poetry and replaces it with Shaina Taub’s serviceable doggerel accompanied by her pleasant if unremarkable tunes.

Taub also sings several of her songs as Feste the clown while leading a swingin’ onstage house band. As usual with Public Works, several community groups from throughout the five boroughs join the cast of professionals and amateurs for an entertaining jumble—a real mailman delivered a letter to the full-of-himself servant Malvolio (played with amusing smugness by Andrew Kober)—as Shakespeare’s isle of Illyria becomes a swirl of bright colors and sparkling costumes courtesy of set designer Rachel Hauck and costume designer Andrea Hood. 

Luckily, the dozens of onstage performers are turned into a cohesive mass by Lorin Lontarro’s clever choreography to make this a satisfying communal event. Conspicuously missing are many of Shakespeare’s offhand insights, but the foolproof clowning subplot is highlighted by the guffaw-inducing Sir Toby Belch of Shuler Hensley, who would be an asset in any Twelfth Night.  

The same goes for Nikki M. James, who returns with her winning portrayal of Viola, aka Orsino’s male servant Cesario, soon confused with her lost twin brother Sebastian. In addition to being a dynamic singer, James is also a superlative actress who deserves to show off her chops in an unabridged production of Shakespeare’s sublime comedy.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Broadway Review—Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men”

Straight White Men
Written by Young Jean Lee; directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Performances through September 9, 2018
Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, New York, NY

Stephen Payne, Josh Charles, Armie Hammer and Paul Schneider
in Straight White Men (photo: Joan Marcus)
Young Jean Lee’s first Broadway play—and the first on the Great White Way by an Asian-American woman—Straight White Men is an intermittently funny but frustratingly uneven comedy that’s as blunt and unsubtle as a ten-ton weight dropped on our toes, starting with its jokey title. For 90 minutes, a widowed elderly father and his three grown sons engage in horseplay, casually racist, sexist and homophobic comments and general un-P.C. behavior during a Christmas visit at dad’s home.

The brothers—the seemingly unambitious oldest, Matt, who has moved back home with their father, Ed; the arrogant middle one, Jake, who’s divorced from his black wife and has two young children; and the sarcastic youngest, Drew, who’s an aimless would-be writer—reenact juvenilia from their shared childhoods, making sure it annoys the others and conjures unhappy memories, along with telling NSFW jokes that show how they wear their privilege (the name they’ve given their family’s Monopoly board game) on their sleeve. That even includes Jake and Drew ganging up on their older brother for his being adrift in their eyes—if he doesn’t want to make real money, he must be a real loser, which to them is the ultimate curse word.

Despite its obvious topicality, Lee’s play tries to have it both ways, indulging in the men’s entitled but mostly harmless behavior while purporting to satirize it. Some of her dialogue is amusing and pointed, but too much of it is variations on a single theme, and these diminishing returns—even with its short running time, the play feels hopelessly extended—call to mind an SNL skit that simply doesn’t know when to end.

Blatantly underscoring the play’s façade as an epic take-down is gimmickry dreamed up by Lee and adhered to by her otherwise resourceful director Anna D. Shapiro. Before the show begins, raw, vulgar rap music—performed by the opposite of straight white men—is blasted into the auditorium, loud enough to bother the blue-haired ladies but not enough to cause consternation among those made of sterner stuff. 

Then non-binary performance artists Kate Bornstein and Ty Dafoe (playing Persons in Charge 1 and 2) come onstage for a tongue-in-cheek introduction to what unfolds in front of the audience for the next hour and a half. After they leave—and they return periodically to assist the actors during scene changes—we see a working-class living room set (imaginatively dressed by designer Todd Rosenthal) framed by a…well, large picture frame, with the play’s title on an engraved plaque at the bottom as if our characters are behind glass in a museum.

It’s too bad that Lee never reconciles all the contradictions, contrivances and concerns that jostle one another, instead leaving them to fend for themselves. The machinations in the script are partially redeemed by the actors, who adroitly turn these cardboard cutouts into real people. Josh Charles (Jake), Armie Hammer (Drew)—who makes a smashing New York stage debut, by the way—Paul Schneider (Matt) and Stephen Payne (Ed) earn laughs alongside their thoughtful portrayals that go beyond what Lee provides in her provocative but protracted play. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

August '18 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Remaking a forgettable 1987 Goldie Hawn-Kurt Russell vehicle in 2018 might seem a non-starter, but someone thought pairing Mom’s Anna Faris and Mexican star Eugenio Derbez as, respectively, the working-class stiff and ultra-rich douche who fall in love after the latter gets amnesia and the former pretends she’s his wife would be comedic gold. It isn’t. Faris is always amusing and Derbez is game, but the one-note premise is stretched out even beyond the original’s slender means, and various subplots only extend the running time, further watering down the comedy. The film looks fine on Blu; extras include a commentary and three featurettes.

Le comte ory 
(BelAir Classiques)
Rossini’s last comic opera, Le comte ory (1824), has been given a boisterous 2015 production in Malmo, Sweden, with a top-notch cast, orchestra and chorus providing much enjoyment despite Linda Mallik’s over-the-top staging. In Verdi’s 1841 grand opera Nabucco, the chorus is the star, and in this 2017 Verona, Italy production, the Arena di Verona chorus lives up to that billing. Arnaud Bernard’s directing and costumes and Alessandro Camera’s sets are also impressive. Both discs have excellent hi-def video and audio.

Dark Crimes 
Jim Carrey sleepwalks through another serious role in this sordid and relentlessly derivative detective drama set in Eastern Europe about a gruesome killing that may be related to a writer’s latest novel, which describes a similar crime. With a bearded, sullen look, Carrey tries but remains impassively dour, and he’s outclassed at every turn by Marton Csokas as the writer and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the writer’s former lover. Director Alexandros Avranas makes everything twisted and ugly, which gets old really fast. The greyness is impeccably rendered in hi-def; the lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Lou Andreas-Salomé—The Audacity to Be Free 
(Cinema Libre)
This engrossing biopic about one of the most formidable female intellectuals of late 19th century Europe—who counted among her admirers Friedrich Nietzsche and Rainer Maria Rilke—is propelled by a full-bodied performance by Katharina Lorenz as Andreas-Salomé in her prime (three other fine actresses play her at other times in her life). Director Cordula Kablitz-Post might lean too much on the great men surrounding her protagonist but still keeps the heroine front and center throughout this fascinating true story. There’s a quite good hi-def transfer; extras comprise a director commentary and interview.

After their beloved mother dies, four siblings must fend for themselves in the family home which seems to be haunted by a ghost in the attic—whose malevolence leads to a would-be heart-pounding finale. Sergio G. Sanchez has written and directed a haunted-house movie with a few suspenseful jolts, but it all leads up to a protracted “surprise” that even diehard genre fans won’t buy. At least it looks pristine on Blu-ray; extras are extended/deleted scenes and two featurettes.

CD of the Week
Khachaturian—Piano Concertos 
Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) is best known for his engaging ballet scores Spartacus and Gayane (the latter featured in Kubrick’s 2001), so it shouldn’t surprise anybody that this disc of his D-flat major Piano Concerto and Concerto-Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra is filled with exquisite melodies spun out one after the other. The attractive playing is by the Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie, led by conductor Daniel Raiskin; piano soloist Stepan Simonian performs with extreme delicacy but can also bring the bombast when he needs to. 

Friday, August 3, 2018

Off-Broadway Review—“The Originalist” at 59E59 Theaters

The Originalist
Written by John Strand; directed by Molly Smith
Performances through August 19, 2018
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

Edward Gero and Tracy Ifeachor in The Originalist (photo: Joan Marcus)
I never thought I’d be pining for the halcyon days of kinder, gentler Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. But John Strand’s The Originalist—a creaky, at times compelling two-hander about the fiercely conservative Scalia and a fiercely liberal law clerk he hires to spar with—does just that, showing us that the United States, though deeply divided for decades, at one time had civility, honor and respect even among those who vehemently disagreed.

Strand’s Scalia is a brilliant legal mind with a sarcastic, superior—even haughty—attitude, and who enjoys, as he sees it, putting liberals in their rightful place with his analysis of how the Constitution’s framers saw the law. Scalia decides to hire Kerry (called Cat) as his law clerk for the 2012-13 term—she’s his opposite in every way: liberal, lesbian and black. 

Their literal sparring matches—at times, Scalia mentions boxing—form the core of the play, which moves along quickly if familiarly as opposites attract with a grudging respect despite their political divide. When Scalia has a chance to kill gay marriage, Cat even helps prepare his dissent, along with another clerk, the conservative, straight—and very white—Brad.

Strand writes clever dialogue that allows his antagonists to go at it like bitchy Edward Albee characters. Of course this leaves little room for nuance in the writing, and Tracy Ifeachor’s Cat suffers for it. She’s shrill and unlikable, the fault more of the author than the actress. 

But that liability lets Edward Gero’s gregarious Scalia soar. It’s easy to see why ultra-liberal Ruth Ginsberg was his best friend even beyond their affinity for opera. (Director Molly Smith’s slick production includes excerpts from operas by Verdi, Strauss and Mozart, along with other classical works that show off Scalia’s erudite side.) Gero sidesteps caricature even while enacting a larger-than-life figure that owes far more to Scalia the myth rather than the reality. 

But even Gero can’t fix the play’s ignominious end, when—after their professional relationship ends—the former adversaries meet again at the gun range where Scalia took Cat against her will. But now the formerly embarrassingly bad shooter has become a decent markswoman, and Scalia is pleased. Such leaden dramatic irony makes for a tidy wrap-up, but also shows that The Originalist is as flawed as its lead character’s infamous jurisprudence.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

July '18 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 
Billy Budd 
(Warner Archive)
Peter Ustinov directed and stars as the honest Captain Vere in this straightforwardly dramatic 1962 adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic novella set on a British warship circa 1797. With strong work by Robert Ryan as the dastardly Claggart and (in his film debut) Terence Stamp as the naïve and idealistic Billy, Ustinov paints a pointed portrait of good (and innocence) vs. evil. On Blu-ray, the B&W Cinemascope photography looks splendid; the lone extra is an informative audio commentary by Stamp and director Steven Soderbergh.

Keeping Faith 
(RLJ Entertainment)
A wife and mother who is just returning to her law office following the birth of her third child, Faith Howells must now deal with the unspeakable: her beloved husband vanishes one day on his way to the office, forcing her to raise her kids alone, start searching for him and—most importantly—fend off the suspicions of locals. This colorful Welsh-set series takes its sweet time to get going, but its slow-burn dramatics work in its favor, as does Eve Myles’ ingratiating performance as Faith. Extras comprise a 45-minute on-set featurette and character intros.

Der Meistersinger von Nurnberg 
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Richard Wagner’s colossal comedy runs 4-1/2 hours when staged (plus lengthy intermissions), but in the right hands it is an hilarious and heartwarming work that many consider the master’s greatest. Last summer at the Wagnerian shrine of Bayreuth, Germany, Philippe Jordan conducted the orchestra and chorus in an illuminating reading of the marvelous score, and the veteran cast—Michael Volle, Johannes Martin Kranzle, Klaus Florian Vogt and Anne Schwanewilms—responds with a marvelous collective vocal performance. Too bad that director Barrie Kosky’s gimmicky production lowers the bar quite a bit; but luckily, with such pros onstage and in the pit, the visuals are enervating without being destructive. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.

DVDs of the Week
The Great Game 
(Icarus Films)
Intrigue is the name of the game in Nicolas Pariser’s initially diverting but quickly wearying espionage drama, in which a formerly leftist writer is hired by a right-wing politician to help discredit the prime minister and a far-left faction—and, naturally, help elevate the conservative to head of state. Despite a strong cast—Melvil Poupaud, Clemence Poesy, Sophie Cattani, and the great Andre Dussolier—Pariser never achieves the sophistication and elegance of the best French films that effortlessly mix the political and the personal.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s earnest drama is set in Los Angeles in 1992, before and during the riots that ensued when white cops were acquitted of the beating of Rodney King (which was captured on video). Although Halle Berry, Daniel Craig and newcomers Lamar Johnson and Rachel Hilson give crackerjack portrayals of local residents caught up in a fatally out of control spiral, Ergüven—unlike her remarkable previous film, Mustang—never settles on a coherent way to dramatize these events, instead relying on hackneyed melodrama to show how violence destroys ordinary lives.

Love after Love 
(IFC Films)
Director and co-writer Russell Harbaugh’s pretentious and diffuse melodrama fails its potentially emotionally powerful material about a family that starts to disintegrate after the death of its strong-willed patriarch. His wife and two sons find themselves floundering amid their own difficulties sustaining relationships within and without the family itself, but Harbaugh is content to create a sub-Woody Allen drama vibe instead of making us invest our feelings in these people. A game cast led by Andie McDowell and Chris O’Dowd is set adrift, and a final shot of cremation is enervating to the nth degree. Lone extra is a short, Rolling on the Floor Laughing.

CD of the Week 
MacMillan—String Quartets 
Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan’s three string quartets are spread out at approximate decade intervals: his first came at age 29 in 1988 (revised 1991), the second ten years later and the third nine years after that. The two-movement first quartet, Visions of a November Spring, alternates between stillness and outright frenzy; the second, Why is this night different?—referring to the first night of Passover seder—moves between ecstasy and despair; and the accomplished third quartet proves the composer’s musical maturity, including his creative use of silence. The Royal String Quartet plays with immense passion, which is what such remarkably self-contained works demand.

Weekend in the Berkshires—The Clark, The Mount, Barrington Stage Company & Tanglewood

Clark Art Institute
Williamstown, Massachusetts

The Mount
Lenox, Massachusetts

The Royal Family of Broadway
The Cake
Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Massachusetts

On the Town
Tanglewood, Lenox, Massachusetts

There’s no better summer jaunt than western Massachusetts’ bucolic Berkshires, especially since it’s just three or so hours from Manhattan. It’s easy to cram a lot into a whirlwind weekend: music at Tanglewood, new musical and play at the Barrington Stage Company, tour of novelist Edith Wharton’s century-old mansion, The Mount, and a visit to the world-renowned and—since our last visit—beautifully expanded Clark Art Institute.

Let’s start from the top…literally. Williamstown, only minutes from the Vermont border, is home to Williams College and boasts the Clark Art Institute, whose original white marble building houses one of the best small-museum collections in the country, including one of the largest number of Renoirs outside of France.

The Clark’s expansion four years ago brought about the modern and sleek Clark Center, which features lots of new exhibition space. Currently, through September are two French-related exhibits. The Art of Iron brings a few dozen pieces of exquisitely wrought ironworks from the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles in Rouen. Seeing them out of the context of the Musée’s gothic church housing the collection was initially jarring (we visited it in Rouen in 2009), but the works are so marvelously detailed that they keep their luster in their new digs.

Berthe Morisot's The Sisters at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown
Even more impressive is Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900, which not only brought out the usual suspects like Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot (whose The Sisters is a stunning portrait), but also other European and American painters who worked with acute sensitivity on subject matter ranging from mothers and children to history and landscapes. 

If the Clark is a must-see Berkshires attraction, so is the grounds and house encompassing The Mount in Lenox, especially on a warm summer day when one can stroll the lovely manicured gardens as well as tour the mansion which Wharton and her husband called home for the first decade of the 1900s. (That their marriage ended badly and Edith lived most of the rest of her life in Paris doesn’t take away from the place’s genuine serenity.) 

Edith Wharton's The Mount in Lenox (photo: Kevin Filipski)
During a Sunday-only Backstairs Tour, visitors experience the house as it was while the Whartons lived there: interpreters portray people in their employ like the cook, butler and Edith’s own governess and lifelong confidant, who each provide enlightening accounts of what it was like to work for the Mount’s most famous residents.

Pittsfield—about halfway between Lenox and Williamstown—is home to the Barrington Stage Company. While there, we caught two shows at the company’s two stages: the new musical The Royal Family of Broadway by veteran composer William Finn, and a topical new play by This Is Us producer Bekah Brunstetter, The Cake.

The cast of Barrington Stage Company's The Royal Family of Broadway (photo: Daniel Rader)
An overly frenetic attempt at an old-fashioned entertainment, The Royal Family of Broadway (based on George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1927 play The Royal Family) is certainly entertaining, even if its “fun” quotient peters out before its two-hour running time ends. Finn’s songs are tuneful if spotty, John Rando’s direction and Joshua Bergasse’s choreography consist of as much onstage busyness onstage as simultaneously possible, and the cast—led by Harriet Harris’s hilarious theatrical matriarch, Laura Michelle Kelly’s lovely-voiced daughter and the indefatigable Will Swenson’s scene-stealing Barrymore-esque son—gives the show enough fuel to soldier on while spending its time down in the dumps of easy jokes and cackling pastiche.

Debra Jo Rapp (left) in Barrington Stage Company's The Cake (photo: Carolyn Brown)
The Cake is set in North Carolina, where an ultra-religious baker who’s a whiz at cakes wrestles with the dilemma of baking the wedding cake for her late best friend’s beloved daughter, who is marrying a black, liberal, foul-mouthed atheist woman from Brooklyn. Brunstetter’s play is as blunt as it sounds, with an occasional nugget of insight to go along with funny lines and a final cop-out. Serious and deep it’s not, but The Cake—helped by an hilarious lead performance by Debra Jo Rupp—may make a dent with audiences that something more reasoned and subtle would not. 

Barrington Stage Company’s summer season includes an August run of West Side Story, de rigeur for the Leonard Bernstein Centennial year. Tanglewood—that glorious Lenox outdoor venue—is also hosting its own series of Bernstein-related events; after all, he taught and performed there for half a century. The culminating event, an August 25 gala concert featuring singers Susan Graham, Audra MacDonald, Isabel Leonard and Nadine Sierra in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, will be broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances December 28.)

The sailors of Tanglewood's On the Town (photo: Hilary Scott)
We caught a wonderful concert version of Bernstein’s first stage work, the still-delightful 1944 musical On the Town, crammed with hummable tunes, amusing if sometimes dated dialogue and book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Kathleen Marshall’s zesty direction and choreography did wonders on the Shed’s smallish stage space, Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops swung deliciously in Bernstein’s classic songs, and the cast was unbeatable. The three sailors (Brandon Victor Dixon, Christian Dante White and Andy Karl) were a delight; Andrea Martin was funny as soon as she stepped onstage; Georgina Pazcoguin, a remarkably agile dancer and performer, was a highlight of the last Broadway production; Marc Kudisch perfectly juggled even the most cringeworthy bits; and Laura Osnes never sounded lovelier as Claire, especially in her signature duet, “Carried Away,” with the equally charming Karl.

It was a very special night of singing, dancing and Bernstein in the Berkshires.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

July '18 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
Ready Player One 
(Warner Bros)
Ernest Cline’s novel about a near-future of virtual-reality domination—especially in the OASIS, which is primarily channeling 1980s pop culture—has been brought to the screen with glee by Steven Spielberg, who may be the only director able to visualize such a pop utopia gone wild, except that the movies he directed or produced during that era (ET, Poltergeist, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Goonies, Roger Rabbit) are so pervasive that not including any of them is a black mark on the film. The main problem is that there’s a distance between the protagonists’ avatars and viewers; but this is still fun to watch, especially the bizarre but brilliant sequence featuring Kubrick’s The Shining. The film looks great on Blu; a thorough two-hour making-of documentary is the lone featurette.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean 
(Warner Archive)
John Huston’s 1972 revisionist western stars Paul Newman as an outlaw who cleans up a small Texas town and becomes the law there for decades, making a comfortable home for himself even as Wild West violence and basic lawlessness continue. As usual with Huston (who also has a cameo), this is a colorful and twisty tale, told with tongue firmly in cheek. Newman is fine as always, then-newcomer Victoria Principal is a real find, and the scenic locations look fantastic on Blu-ray.

(Warner Bros)
Dwyane Johnson plays a primatologist whose beloved albino gorilla George—an ultra-intelligent creature who communicates by sign language—becomes rabid when he becomes infected by a pathogen that fell from a satellite lab orbiting the earth. Soon, George and his boss find themselves in a battle against a hugely mutated crocodile and wolf intent on laying waste to Chicago. It’s moviemaking at its most mindless—even the mutated monsters are little fun—and it’s especially unfortunate that early, amusing scenes of bonding between The Rock and the ape are dropped so quickly for special effects nonsense. It all looks watchable enough on Blu-ray; extras include featurettes, deleted scenes and a gag reel.

Super Troopers 2 
In this vapid (and belated) sequel to the already dopey comedy about a moronic Vermont police officers, they now have to deal with Canadians, which makes for even more ridiculously unfunny comedy. Several performers who should know better—including “Wonder Woman” Lynda Carter and the great Irish actor Brian Cox, who at least seem to be having fun—return to ham it up mightily in the service of a lost comedic cause. Emerging unscathed from this mess is Emmanuelle Chriqui as a charming Canadian cultural attaché. The Blu-ray looks good; extras include deleted scenes, interviews and on-set featurette.

DVDs of the Week 
In Harmony
After an equestrian movie stuntman is left paralyzed in an on-set accident, his insurance company fights his claim, but the adjuster they assigned—despite being happily married with children—begins falling for him. In director Denis Dercourt’s intimate character study, Cecile de France and Albert Dupontel make a believable pair of damaged individuals who find common cause in their unlikely relationship. 

(First Run)
Five intersecting stories of Moroccans who cannot reconcile their liberal lifestyle with the country’s stifling conservatism are chronicled by writer-director Nabil Ayouch’s absorbing melodrama, a forceful if strident study of how freedoms is curtailed by repression. An excellent cast—including Maryam Touzani as a free-spirited woman in an abusive relationship and Abdelilah Rachid as a young gay man whose idol is Freddie Mercury—brings to the forefront the individuals affected by such reactionary ugliness.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

July '18 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood 
One of the Criterion Collection’s best recent boxed sets is this six-disc journey through the groundbreaking films made by director Josef von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s, including such classics as Blonde Venus and Shanghai Express. Dietrich’s persona—aloof but endlessly fascinating—was cemented through these pictures, and von Sternberg provided the most elegant vehicles for her talent. The new hi-def transfers of these 80-plus-year-old B&W films are nothing short of astonishing; many extras include new and archival featurettes and interviews.

A Ciambra 
(Sundance Selects)
Jonas Carpignano’s second feature, set amid Roma families in southern Italy, is an arresting, quasi-documentary look at a teenage boy whose close-knit family is shaken up when dad and older brother are taken in by the police. Our young protagonist discovers that being head of the household is not as easy as it looks. With a non-professional cast (including several members of the same family), there’s a certain roughness in parts, but the authenticity of these people and their home are delicately wrought. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras include a 50-minute making-of documentary; Cannes featurette; deleted scenes; and Carpignano’s original A Ciambra short.

Don Giovanni 
(Deutsche Grammophon)
This star-studded 2011 production of the Mozart classic—with Peter Mattei as the Don, Bryn Terfel as his servant Leporello, and veterans Barbara Frittoli and Anna Netrebko and young Anna Prohaska as the women in his life—is complemented by Daniel Barenboim conducting the La Scala orchestra for three hours of operatic bliss. Director Robert Carsen smartly keeps his powerhouse cast front and center; first-rate hi-def video and audio completes the picture.

Endeavour—Complete 5th Season 
(Masterpiece Mystery)
Wherein recently promoted Endeavour Morse, his worldlier partner Thursday and new recruit Fancy solve more crimes, including murder in a movie house and the theft of a valuable Fabergé egg. The six self-contained episodes make up several hours of sheer entertainment, made most palatable by the performances of Shaun Evans, Roger Allam and newcomer Lewis Peek, all of whom enjoying good chemistry. The British countryside looks great on Blu.

DVDs of the Week 
Rosario Dawson is a knockout as the title character, a male fantasy of a damaged single mom: a former stripper, hooker and addict who turns grown men into putty and a young man, barely older than her son, into a reasonable facsimile of an adult. William Macy directs Will Aldis’s threadbare script with over-insistent whimsy, which turns rom-com material into leaden melodrama; the rest of the cast—Nick Robinson, Felicity Huffman, Macy himself, Kathy Bates, and William Fichtner—has its moments but too much of Krystal is cringeworthy as it attempts being sentimental and offbeat simultaneously, like Macy’s Showtime series Shameless.

Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In—Complete 5th Season 
This latest release collects all 24 episodes from the penultimate 1971-72 season of the comedy-variety show hosted by Dick Rowan and Dan Martin, the perfect ringmasters for a loony stew of goofy jokes and skits, with musical interludes and political satire making appearances as well. The first episode features the only time then “world’s biggest sex symbol” Raquel Welch came on the show; there’s also the usual motley crew of regulars (Ruth Buzzi, Richard Dawson, Gary Owens, Lily Tomlin) and other guest stars like Hugh Hefner, Gene Hackman, Carroll O’Connor and Rita Hayworth that help celebrate a milestone like the series’ 100th episode. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

Off-Broadway Review—Tracy Letts’ “Mary Page Marlowe”

Mary Page Marlowe
Written by Tracy Letts; directed by Lila Neugebauer
Performances through August 12, 2018
Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

Tatiana Maslany (right) in Mary Page Marlowe (photo: Joan Marcus)

Tracy Letts, one of most consistent playwrights, has tripped up with his latest, Mary Page Marlowe. One woman’s life in 11 scenes dramatized in non-chronological order, the play seems a riposte against his own epic study of dysfunction, August: Osage County, which for three hours brilliantly wallowed in the worst family members do to one another. Linking Osage and Mary Page is the central character’s predilection for alcohol, a cause of Mary Page’s difficulties in a life lived in the margins.

In these desultory scenes, her mismatched parents (cheating father, drinking mother) squabble, she confides in college friends that she refuses her beau’s marriage proposal, she gets married, has two kids and affairs, gets a divorce, gets remarried twice, gets jail time for a DUI, etc. 

Letts’ decision to present rearranged scenes from a life feels uncomfortably contrived as a way to give significance to something that is anything but. Unsurprisingly, each scene is intelligently written, concise and pointed; the telling opening—when 40-year-old Mary Page (an impressively harried Susan Pourfar) tells her children, 15-year-old Wendy and 12-year-old Louis, why she and their father are divorcing—is a lovely look at ordinary people that has humor, pathos and insight. Other scenes might be questionably included—do we need to see her adulterous dad and put-upon mom argue while their 10-month-old cries in the next room?—but they are sharply observed, showing Letts’ ability to empathize and show life’s essential absurdity without any condescension. 

Along with the excellent Pourfar, five other actresses play Mary Page. Standing out are Kellie Overbey, putting an empathetic point on the 50-year-old’s discussing her impending prison term with her second husband, and Blair Brown, sublimely portraying an older, maybe wiser heroine. Best of all is Tatiana Maslany, whose Mary Page at ages 27 and 36 provides moments of remarkable acuity and beautiful subtlety: her amusing back and forth with a shrink about her adultery is followed by a hotel tryst with her boss that for once allows her to be a formidable woman and a sexual being; these scenes hint at the tougher, more incisive play that might have been.

Despite Letts’ bravura writing of individual moments, it finally adds up to little as we are no further along to understanding or sympathizing with this woman at the end as we were 90 minutes earler: a few more scenes would fill out missing links in her relationships and sense of self-worth. Director Lila Neugebauer’s sensitive staging helps, to a point: the final coup of all Mary Pages on the upper level of Laura Jellinek’s cleverly two-tiered set watching the final scene underlines what’s missing: a life lived to its fullest, which these snapshots do not add up to.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Off-Broadway Musical Review—“On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever 
Music by Burton Lane; book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Adapted and directed by Charlotte Moore 
Performances through September 6, 2018
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, New York, NY

Stephen Bogardus and Melissa Errico in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (photo: Carol Rosegg)

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever has had a troubled history since its 1965 Broadway premiere. The convoluted musical about clairvoyance and reincarnation was only marginally successful in its initial run, garnering Tony nods for stars Barbara Harris and John Cullum; Vincente Minnelli’s infamous 1970 movie version, with Barbra Streisand, Yves Montand and Jack Nicholson (in a role expressly written for the film), came next, followed by the flop 2011 Broadway revival, for which Alan Jay Lerner’s book was so thoroughly re-written as to be completely—as opposed to mostly—nonsensical. (It also wasted Harry Connick Jr. and a newcomer named Jessie Mueller.)

Now there’s Charlotte Moore’s paring-down at the Irish Rep: a cast of four dozen is down to 11, and an orchestra of 31 is now a mere five. But problems remain, all still wedded to the material; it seems impossible to satisfyingly weld together the show’s parallel plots of contemporary New Yawker Daisy and her hypnosis by psychiatrist Mark, and Daisy’s possible previous life as an 18th century free spirit named Melinda, whom Marc falls for.

Maybe back in the swinging ‘60s, things like ESP and time-travel relationships would have had more currency (the whole show seems to have been conjured with the help of hallucinogenics), but today they just seem risible. Daisy is rightfully upset by Mark’s affection for a woman from the recesses of Daisy’s mind; but it’s Mark who declares in frustration (!): “What a masterpiece of perversity a woman is…Oh, God! Why did you not make women first, when you were fresh?”

Such sexism might be excused by the 50 years that separate us from when it was written, but infelicities are legion, and even Moore’s deft concision ends up hurting—Warren, Daisy’s boyfriend, has been dropped, which trims the running time and cuts a subplot but also sets Daisy further adrift, allowing Mark’s infatuation with Melinda to take center stage.

Melissa Errico is a delightful Daisy, with a shimmeringly lovely voice, but she unaccountably remains a cipher throughout what’s supposedly her own story. Stephen Bogardus makes a respectable Mark, but the two leads rarely connect intimately, which is fatal for a bizarre tale that’s already being told at some remove.

Moore resourcefully uses projected artworks on the back walls (projection design by Ryan Belock) to give a sense of Manhattan and London locales, and the small-ensemble arrangements give the songs a pleasant cabaret-style quality. But Lane’s songs, tuneful as they are, are not his best (only “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here” approaches being a standard), and coupled with Lerner’s serviceable but often pedestrian lyrics, the show is a mess of epic proportions, even when downsized and trimmed, sensibly but, ultimately, ineffectually.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

July '18 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
The Virgin Spring 
Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1960 chamber film is a stark drama based on a medieval folk tale about a young woman whose rape-murder prompts a fresh-water spring to appear where she was killed. Somber and brutal, but in Bergman’s masterly hands, it’s also an intelligent and perceptive look at guilt and revenge, with the usual forceful acting by such superlative Swedes as Max von Sydow, Gunnel Lindblom and Birgitta Pettersson. The new Criterion hi-def transfer makes Sven Nykvist’s B&W photography even more transfixing; extras are a commentary, Ang Lee intro, 2005 interviews with Lindblom and Pettersson and a 1975 Bergman audio interview.

La Campana Sommersa/The Sunken Bell 
Italian master Ottorino Respighi composed his dramatically diffuse but musically succulent opera in 1927, and like his other stage works, it’s rarely performed; happily, this 2016 Cagliari (Italy) production lets us reevaluate the stageworthiness of one of his most beautiful scores. Conducted by Donato Denzetti, who superbly leads the Cagliari Theater orchestra and chorus, this bizarre, surreal work has exemplary lead performances and attractive colors in the music and Pier Francisco Maestrini’s staging. The hi-def audio and video are excellent.

Lucio Silia 
(BelAir Classiques)
One of Mozart’s earliest operas to keep a tenuous hold in the repertoire is this tragic historical drama set during the Roman Empire. In his elegant 2017 Madrid production, director Claus Guth keeps things moving with studied elegance, which helps the musty plot keep its hold on viewers. Conductor Ivor Bolton impressively leads the Teatro Real orchestra and chorus, and the top-notch performers are led by Patricia Petibon, a fiery soprano who sings eloquently and acts with sheer verve. The hi-def video and audio are also impressive.

(Warner Archive)
Gordon Parks Jr.’s 1972 blaxploitation classic is definitely of its era, set in a rundown Harlem where a drug dealer looks for one last score so he can retire. Despite (because of?) its un-P.C. rawness, it works handily, thanks to Ron O’Neal in the lead and Sheila Frazier as his faithful girlfriend. On the soundtrack is Curtis Mayfield’s classic soul—Mayfield and his band even have a scintillating club performance cameo. A grainy period look dominates on Blu-ray; extras are a commentary, interviews and retrospective making-of documentary.

Titus Andronicus 
(Opus Arte)
Often considered Shakespeare’s worst play, this early effort has more eyes-look-away gore and gruesome imagery than his other works combined; still, it usually provides a visceral jolt in the theater, as Blanche McIntyre’s 2017 modern-dress production from the Royal Shakespeare Company shows. The lopping off of limbs, tongues and heads and the cannibalistic pies remain, but the modern dress contrasts jarringly with such brutal goings-on. Of the actors, Hannah Morrish keeps her dignity as the unfortunate Lavinia and David Troughton makes a stentorian Titus, but the juiciest parts—evil queen Tamora and even more evil moor Aaron—are played indifferently by Nia Gwynne and Stefan Adegbola. The Blu-ray has solid hi-def video and audio; extras are McIntyre’s commentary, cast and crew interviews.

Tommy Shaw—Sing for the Day 
(Eagle Rock)
The Styx guitarist and singer performed with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra in Cleveland in 2016 and the infectiousness is there in the kids’ smiles as they play instruments and sing backup to Shaw and his acoustic (and occasional electric) guitar. Shaw, at age 63, is in fantastically good voice: he hits all the notes on Styx staples “Fooling Yourself,” “Boat on the River,” “Sing for the Day,” “Man in the Wilderness” and “Renegade,” and he even throws in non-Styx tunes like “Girls with Guns” and “High Enough.” Both hi-def audio and video are first-rate; lone extra is audio of four additional songs.

Tristan und Isolde 
(Unitel/C Major)
This 1981 concert of Richard Wagner’s mournfully romantic opera has Leonard Bernstein (this release commemorates the 100th anniversary of his birth) leading the Bayerischen Rundfunks orchestra and chorus in a gripping performance. If Peter Hoffman’s Tristan lacks depth and weight, Hildegard Behrens’ Isolde is the real deal, saving her most powerful singing for the finale (which is when we want it). It’s not perfect, but it’s typical of Bernstein’s impassioned performances, when he is sweating bullets by the end. The hi-def video and audio are acceptable enough, considering the aged source material.

2 Weeks in Another Town 
(Warner Archive)
Another Hollywood behind-the-scenes exposé from director Vincente Minnelli and star Kirk Douglas (following 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful), this 1962 drama moves the action to Rome for an intermittently absorbing exploration of backstabbing on and off the set. Kirk Douglas does well as the has-been star intent on making a comeback, and then-ingenue Daliah Lavi is a delight as the young actress he falls for, but veterans like Cyd Cherisse, Edward G. Robinson and James Gregory aren’t given a chance to do much with their hollow characters. The widescreen hi-def transfer looks sumptuous.

DVDs of the Week 
Cezanne: Portraits of a Life 
(Seventh Art Productions)
Narrated by Brian Cox, this informative and visually stunning overview of Cezanne’s life and art—with particular emphasis on the Cezanne Portraits exhibition that closes this weekend at Washington’s National Gallery of Art—is a solid appreciation of one of the 20th century’s most important (and still misunderstood) artists. As always with these Exhibition on Screen entries, the visuals are entrancing—and disappointing: the back cover touts this as being shot in 4K, but that this is only available on DVD defeats the purpose of shooting it in ultra hi-def.

Ismael’s Ghosts 
The latest from French director Arnaud Desplechin—whose films are so crammed with detail, incident, characterization and location that they resemble cinematic versions of long novels—centers on a director making a film about his estranged (and politically shady) brother, and brilliantly and effortlessly moves along separate but equally absorbing paths, both real and fake. The intrigue is especially delicious served up by a formidable cast headed by Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg—who gives what may be her best screen performance as our hero’s current love. It’s just too bad that such a rich, rewarding and rewatchable film is only available on DVD. Isn’t it 2018?