Saturday, November 28, 2009

Ragtime (Neil Simon Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Any doubts that a mere decade might have been too soon to bring back this epic musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s colorful novel are dispelled within moments of this tremendous revival.

And what a brilliant, moving work is the piece itself. Its juxtaposition of the emerging sounds of the syncopated rhythms at the turn of the last century (the “New Music” described in one of the show’s stirring numbers) with the sweeping sociological changes and world-shaking historical events of the period is a masterful conceit.

Book writer Terrence McNally artfully distilled the essence of Doctorow’s work making it truly stage-worthy, while Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s richly evocative score just goes from strength to strength.

On Derek McLane’s striking three-tiered set, there’s little sense of skimping, despite advance reports that this would be a pared-down version. This feels every inch the spectacle.

Though the central characters – with their archetypal names such as Mother and Father – suggest caricature, they register as three-dimensional characters, even if the historical figures – Harry Houdini (Jonathan Hammond), Evelyn Nesbitt (Savannah Wise), Henry Ford (Aaron Galligan-Stierle) among them – are lightly sketched. The overall effect is moving indeed.

The book charts the fortunes of a 1902 New Rochelle WASP family (Mother, Father, Younger Brother, and The Boy); Harlem ragtime pianist Coalhouse and servant girl Sarah who bears his child; and Tateh, a Jewish immigrant and his daughter. To summarize briefly: Mother rescues Sarah and the abandoned baby, taking them in, while her husband is away, Coalhouse woos Sarah back, and Tateh endures countless hardships as a peddler on the Lower East Side until, incredibly, he finds fortune in the fledgling movie business. When tragedy befalls Sarah, Coalhouse becomes a hardened militant demanding justice at any cost, with a surprising ally in Younger Brother.

Along with the economy and potency of McNally’s book, one can’t too highly praise the effectiveness of the score. Flaherty’s music alternates between ragtime, period pastiche, and powerful ballads and choral numbers, while Ahrens lyrics intelligently encapsulate the wide-ranging emotions of the sprawling narrative. And though the show is rife with heavy-duty themes like bigotry, class differential, worker exploitation, and the like, pedantry is avoided.

I had remembered Coalhouse and Sarah’s “The Wheels of a Dream,” Mother’s “Back to Before” and Coalhouse’s “Make Them Hear You” as high points of the score (as indeed they are).

But this time around, I was struck by the power and beauty of others like “Journey On,” a duet for Father and Tateh, one journeying out to sea with Admiral Robert Peary on his expedition to the North Pole, and Tateh just approaching America on a ship of immigrants; and “Our Children," Mother and Tateh’s duet ruefully sung as they watch their respective son and daughter play together at the shore in Atlantic City. This is one of the great American musical theater scores, and it’s lovingly conducted here by James Moore.

The original cast was superb, and put Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald, and Marin Mazzie on the map. But you needn’t draw odious comparisons now because this cast is just dandy. Christiane Noll’s patrician and warmly empathetic manner, and limpid voice make her a worthy successor to Mazzie’s Mother. Quentin Earl Darrington is a tougher Coalhouse than Mitchell but no less affecting in the tender moments, and Stephanie Umoh makes a lovely Sarah, though (small carp) I did, at times, have some trouble understanding her lyrics.

Bobby Steggert as Younger Brother and Robert Petkoff as Tateh are outstanding, but Ron Bohmer as Father, Donna Migliaccio as Emma Goldman (the most fleshed out of the historical figures), and Christopher Cox as the prophetic Little Boy (“Warn the Duke,” he keeps repeating, in reference to the World War I igniting assassination soon to come in Sarajevo) are all fine.

Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s glorious production – she's done both direction and choreography -- began at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She directs with a sure sense of narrative and her astute blocking of the cast on the multiple levels, and the frequent use of silhouette is striking.

The passing of the tires during the big “Henry Ford” number is one of countless striking eye pictures. As is Sarah’s descending the stairs after Coalhouse’s repeated visits to New Rochelle every Sunday, surely one of the most heart-stirring moments in all of musical theater, and beautifully handled here.

Santo Loquasto’s gorgeous costumes, and Donald Holder’s striking lighting design are further pluses.

This is a moving, goose bump-guaranteed experience and simply the best musical currently on Broadway.

(Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52 Street, 212-307-4100 or

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Road (Dimension Films)

By Harry Forbes

“The Road” is an uncompromising adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s harrowing post-apocalyptic tale of a bedraggled but loving father (Viggo Mortenson) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) trying to survive by scavenging for food and shelter in a decimated world after some unspecified cataclysmic event of a decade earlier

Along their bleak way to the hoped-for warmth of the coast, the father teaches the boy what he must do to stay alive, as they encounter a road gang, some barely living creatures who are fodder for the cannibalism which is rife in this mostly dead planet, a feeble Old Man (Robert Duvall, and a Thief (Michael Kenneth Williams) who steals their belongings while the boy is sleeping, and the father is off foraging for food.

The father occasionally gives way to his baser nature – for example, not sharing food with The Old Man and harshly punishing The Thief -- but his son keeps reminding him that they have to be the “good guys,” and that they must continue to “carry the fire,” as it were, despite being bereft of everything they once had.

The allegorical Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was adapted by Joe Penhall, and directed by John Hillcoat. Those who have read the book may, in fact, better appreciate the movie which is so unrelentingly grim and difficult to sit through, though it is not without suspense.

Mortensen gives the fine, bravely committed performance we’ve come to expect of him, and he’s well matched by the extraordinary Kodi Smit-McPhee. Charlize Theron – who really must try to find some lighter parts – is briefly observed in flashback and the wife and mother who left them shortly after the great cataclysm, presumably to commit suicide, when she just can’t take it anymore.

Guy Pearce, who appeared in Hillcoat’s acclaimed 2006 film “The Proposition,” shows up as The Veteran late in the film, a sequence which offers a glimmer of home for the future.

All in all, this is a vivid depiction of human endurance and the love of a parent for a child, but will clearly not be for all audiences.

(Rated R by the MPAA for some violence, disturbing images and language.)

Old Dogs (Walt Disney Pictures)

By Harry Forbes

Robin Williams and John Travolta make a surprisingly effective comedy team – Williams more or less playing sensitive straight man to Travolta’s extroverted playboy – and the movie has heart, albeit a saccharine one.

But otherwise, “Old Dogs” is hampered by a formulaic (and how!) plot, and some of the most witless, wince-inducing slapstick you can imagine.

Dan (Williams) had rashly leaped into marriage seven years earlier to Vicki (Kelly Preston), right after divorcing his first wife. The second union – which lasted only one night -- was quickly annulled.

Now Dan – feeling the emptiness of his life -- has decided to send her a sentimental seven-page letter suggesting a reunion, When she agrees to see him, he’s all set to rekindle the brief romance he’s come to regret losing.

But Vicki has a surprise for him. It seems their one night of passion produced twins, and now she's off to serve a two-week jail sentence for trespassing during as part of a protest demonstration (talk about contrived!).

After some further plot contrivance, she ends up asking Dan to watch the kids, Zach (Conner Rayburn) and Emily (Travolta and Preston’s real-life daughter, Ella Bleu Travolta). Dan takes up the challenge, and convinces best friend Charlie (Travolta) to share baby-sitting duties. They’re both sports marketers anxiously trying to secure an account with a Japanese firm, and wouldn't you know, the deal is at its most critical stage within this same two week period.

The kids at one point mix up Dan and Charlie’s pills in the medicine cabinet, resulting in aberrant behavior such as Charlie upsetting a bereavement gathering to which he’s invited by Japanese translator Amanda (Lori Loughlin), and Dan having some mishaps on the golf course with his Japanese would-be clients slamming the balls into their, shall we say, sensitive areas.

When the film turns sentimental (which is reasonably often), it is somewhat affecting, despite the clichés. A scene with Dan and his daughter – him role-playing a king, she a princess – manages to be touching, thanks to Williams’ nicely low-keyed work. In fact, taken strictly on its own terms (and that’s no small feat), Williams actually delivers one of his best performances. We’ve seen him do the sad-sack shtick before, but he’s particularly good here.

Travolta has the requisite light touch for comedy, and give or take a few pounds, looks more his old self than in other roles of late. Unfortunately, David Diamond & David Weissman’s script is singularly uninspired, with character motivation never convincing. Dan being trapped in a tanning machine because Charlie’s chatting up the vapid attendant who chooses to ignore Dan’s screams for help is the first of many annoyingly illogical moments.

Besides a game Ann-Margret (still the glamorous figure of old) in the bereavement sequence, other cameo roles are taken by the late Bernie Mac as a puppeteer, Matt Dillon as a hard-nosed scout leader, Rita Wilson, Justin Long, and Amy Sedaris. Seth Green plays Dan and Charlie’s doofus assistant Craig who nearly botches the Japanese deal.

We’ll give director Walt Becker points for his handling of his cast, but his blocking of the slapstick is downright clunky.

If you’re the sort of parent that doesn’t mind some rather crude – occasionally violent – slapstick (try a car trunk door slamming down on a woman’s hand), and a borderline yucky scene is Dan taking his (till then, fatherless) son to a public men’s for the boy’s first time, and standing with him in the stall, as the boy inquires about the facts of life, the shenanigans – such as Dan, Charlie, and Craig finding themselves inside a zoo gorilla enclosure -- may satisfy the most undemanding kids.

(Rated PG by the MPAA for some mild rude humor.)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos) (Sony Pictures Classics)

By Harry Forbes

“Broken Embraces,” Pedro Almodovar’s latest brew of heated passion, cinematic homage, and twisting, multi-layered narrative, may be a few notches less involving than his other recent efforts like “Volver,” “Talk to Her,” and “Bad Education,” but even so, no one surpasses the Spanish director’s flair for and mastery of cinematic technique, nor his ability to draw extraordinary performances from his cast.

Star Penelope Cruz particularly excels as Lena, a secretary (and aspiring actress) who becomes the live-in lover of her employer, hard-nosed financier Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez) at a time when her father is dying and she’s in desperate need of money.

Later, she auditions and is cast in the latest film of screenwriter-director Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar). To keep tabs on her, Ernesto agrees to produce. Lena and Mateo fall in love, leading to a classic triangular situation.

In a film rife with themes of duplication and transformation, Cruz’s role can also be viewed in triplicate: there’s her “real” self, the decent woman caring for her family and Mateo, the calculating woman she becomes to please Ernesto, and the character in the film-within-the-film that she is shooting,. That film, “Girls and Suitcases,” is a riff on Almodovar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

The narrative flits back and forth from the early 90s to the present. At the start, Mateo is blind from an accident years before that resulted in the death of Lena. He’s now permanently taken on his pen name, previously only used for his screenplay writing, of Harry Caine. (Was Almodovar thinking of Michael Caine’s early role of Harry Palmer in “The Ipcress File,” I wonder?)

In any case, Mateo learns of the death of Ernesto when he’s visited by the man’s sexually-troubled son, Ernesto, Jr. (Ruben Ochandiano) who hopes to make a film the father who, he believes, ruined his life.

But Mateo/Harry’s still in demand as a scriptwriter, and his principal caregivers are his former production manager Judit (Blanca Portillo), with whom he was once involved, and her son Diego (Tamar Novas) who serves as Mateo’s secretary.

Continuing with the flashback, when Ernesto suspects Lena’s infidelity, he has his son videotape her interactions with Mateo ostensibly for a “making of” documentary, but actually to capture their intimate moments, and even hires a lip-reader to decipher their offline comments.

This being melodrama on a grand scale, violence and tragedy ensue.

Though it’s less true than it once was, Penelope Cruz – in Almodovar’s hands – stretches herself even more than with other directors like Woody Allen (her Oscar-winning role in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) and Isabel Coixet (“Elegy”) to name two recent superlative performances. Almodovar seems to finds facets in her persona that show her at her mercurial best. But beyond her good work, the entire ensemble is impeccable.

Movie references abound, most particularly Roberto Rossellini’s “Journey to Italy” and there is all the stuff of movies that Almodovar clearly adores: the colors, the glamorous wardrobes, the dramatic camera angles, and the juicy elements of film noir.

(Rated R by the MPAA for sexual content, language and some drug material.)

Friday, November 20, 2009

My Wonderful Day (59E59 Theaters)

By Harry Forbes

In the wake of last season’s glorious “The Norman Conquests,” it’s especially gratifying to be presented with a brand new play by its peerless author, Alan Ayckbourn, and to find that 26 years after writing that masterful trilogy, he’s still in fine fettle.

The play – his 73rd -- is hot off the press as it were, having been directly imported to New York from Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre Company in Scarborough, England where it premiered only last month. And it’s his third play to be presented as part of the annual Brits Off Broadway festival.

“My Wonderful Day,” though not a trilogy or a two-parter like some of Ayckbourn’s other works, proves every bit as ingenious, exploring, as it does, the world of adults from the unique perspective of a child.

The child in question is Winnie, the eight-going-on-nine year old daughter of Laverne (Petra Letang), housecleaner to smarmy, self-centered TV host Kevin (Terence Booth). She’s played by the extraordinary Ayesha Antoine, who is, in fact, 28 years old. Her impersonation is so authentic that if you didn’t check your program, and see her hefty list of credits, you’d assume she was at most, 12 or 13.

Single mother Laverne brings Winnie to work as the girl professes to not feeling well. Laverne is large with child, whom she has already named Jericho Alexander Samson (“That should keep him out of trouble, shouldn’t it?” a character later wryly observes). After the birth, Laverne fantasizes about moving her family to Martinique.

In preparation, Laverne insists that she and Winnie speak nothing but French one day each week. “Oui, mamam,” dutifully answers little Winnie repeatedly.

Laverne parks Winnie on the sofa to do her homework: an essay on her “most wonderful day.” With that setup, you just know the girl will get plenty of fodder before the play is done.

When Laverne’s water breaks, Winnie is left in the care of Kevin, his kind-hearted secretary and (we learn) mistress Tiffany (Ruth Gibson), and hung-over best friend and business partner Josh (Paul Kemp).

Both Kevin and Josh assume the girl speaks no English, leading to all kinds of candid revelations in front of Winnie who takes it all in as she writes in her notebook. Eventually, Kevin’s fearsome wife Paula (Alexandra Mathie) returns home just as, wouldn’t you know, Kevin and Tiffany have retired to the bedroom upstairs.

Ayckbourn already establishes the girl as a smart, sensitive child so we understand she is far from oblivious to the extraordinary happenings around her, and thanks to Antoine’s performance – wide-eyed, slack-jawed languor – we seem to know precisely what she’s thinking, silent and uncommunicative though she is.

Ayckbourn’s brilliant conceit gives a delicious twist to a situation that, in other hands, might read as conventional farce, while his customary compassion for his characters is strongly in evidence. Prime example: the divorced Josh’s tearful outpouring of emotion about his own daughter (beautifully played by Kemp)

Much as Strindberg broke ground with long stretches of naturalistic silence, Ayckbourn pushes the envelope with a lengthy kitchen scene that has Winnie laboriously reading “The Secret Garden” to Josh who soon succumbs to snoring sleep.

The cast is uniformly superb. Mathie is particularly hilarious as the no-nonsense wife, all empathy for the child until she discovers her precious sofa has been damaged. After learning it was where Laverne’s water broke, she’s suddenly full of heartfelt apology about her “appalling temper.”

“You have seen the last of my childish, thoughtless tantrums,” she assures Winnie. With her husband upstairs with Tiffany, Ayckbourn makes sure we know that is a promise soon to be broken.

Roger Glossop’s set is a model of clever economy. With three playing areas -- left to right, a kitchen, living room, and office -- one gets the scope of the whole of Kevin’s house thanks to Mick Hughes’ clever lighting scheme.

As you’d expect, Ayckbourn has directed his play (performed without an interval) masterfully.

(Brits Off Broadway, 59E59 Theaters, 212-279-4200 or; through Dec. 13)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Pirate Radio (Focus Features)

By Harry Forbes

This paean to 1960s rock and roll -- originally titled “The Boat That Rocked” when released in a longer version in Britain earlier this year -- is a frenetic, cheerfully vulgar romp, populated by the wild and crazy crew of a renegade boat transmitting rock and roll music to Britain, when the monopolizing BBC was limiting its playing of such music to only a couple of hours each day.

Conflict is supplied by a humorless government minister, here named Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), determined to shut it down. In reality, the adversary of the pirate radio stations was a Labour party politician named Tony Benn. Jack Davenport plays Dormandy’s unfortunately named assistant Twatt, under strict orders to find a legal loophole to end the boat’s transmissions.

Vessels like the actual Radio Caroline – anchored beyond the U.K.’s official territorial waters – filled that gap left by the Beeb, building huge audiences. Some youngsters would surreptitiously listen to their transistor radios underneath their pillows, like the little boy in one of the film’s early scenes.

Richard Curtis -- writer of “Notting Hill,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Love Actually,” and director of the last named -- has assembled a colorfully eclectic cast to play the disparate characters: Bill Nighy as Quentin, the ship’s urbane, permissive captain; Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rhys Ifans as the ship’s principal star sparring deejays; Nick Frost as tubby Lothario Dave; Chris O’Dowd as lovelorn Simon who’s enamored of fickle Elenore (January Jones as a 60’s bird quite different from her role on “Mad Men”); and with Tom Brooke, Rhys Darby, Ralph Brown and Ike Hamilton as the other colorful on-air personalities. Amidst this all-male environment, there’s Katherine Parkinson as lesbian cook Felicity

Quentin’s teenaged godson Carl (Tom Sturridge) is sent by his mother (Emma Thompson) to stay on the Radio Rock boat after he is expelled from school for smoking (tobacco and pot), and amid the anarchic atmosphere of sex, weed, and alcohol onboard, comes of age, and maybe even finds the father he never knew. He falls for the pretty Marianne (Talulah Riley), brought on board by the thoughtful Quentin, to help the lad lose his virginity. (Matters don’t go quite as planned, however.)

The camaraderie of the ship’s crew is fitfully endearing but there’s not so much a strong narrative as a series of wacky vignettes, some amusing, others less so, and there are dullish stretches. The cast is beyond reproach, though, and indeed, the deejay characters look as if they’ve been spinning discs all their lives.

When, towards the end, the ship springs a leak and the movie morphs into a mini-“Poseidon Adventure,” you find yourself more involved.

Curtis – who also wrote the script – claims inspiration from both “M*A*S*H” and “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” and that gives you the idea: the informality of the former, the raunchiness of the latter.

In the end, it’s the soundtrack -- one long wallow in 60’s rock (the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, etc.) -- that leaves the most vivid impression rather than most of the ho-hum shenanigans on board.

(Rated R by the MPAA for language, and some sexual content including brief nudity.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Messenger (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

By Harry Forbes

Let it be said right at the start that you won’t see three finer performances than those delivered by Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, and Samantha Morton in Oren Moverman’s superb and heart-wrenching “The Messenger.”

Foster plays Iraq war vet Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery who has come back from service with honors, but in his remaining months of service is given the grim task of joining Captain Tony Stone (Harrelson) in breaking the news of war casualties – killed, missing, or captured -- to family members. Still emotionally fragile from his war experience, he must join the tough-talking, seemingly stoic senior official on the grim mission.

The rules are rigid. Speak only to family members. If no one’s home, leave. Don’t park near the house, as neighbors will guess the truth. No touching of the next of kin.

Eventually, the men become friends, and beneath his bravado, hard-drinking and womanizing, Stone reveals he’s as vulnerable as Montgomery.

Morton plays young mother Olivia Pitterson to whom they deliver the news while she’s hanging a man’s clothes in the backyard. (They assume she’s already taken up with someone new.) She disarms them by showing empathy for their grim task. “I know this can’t be easy for you,” she says empathetically.

We’ve already observed several instances of the two men doing their sad duty, each tougher than the last. A mother and common-law wife are hysterical. A distraught father (played beautifully by Steve Buscemi) becomes physically and mentally abusive.

Heedless of the injunction about becoming emotionally involved, Montgomery falls for Olivia, and returns later to help her with chores. Their relationship remains platonic, despite mutual yearning.

Perhaps the most extraordinary scene in the film is a lengthy kitchen episode where Montgomery takes Olivia home, ostensibly to consummate their feelings, and she simply cannot bring herself to take that step. The lengthy sequence was filmed in one take, their playing almost unbearably poignant.

Throughout the film, Foster, Harrelson, and Morton inhabit their characters so truthfully, you never get a sense of “acting.”

Israeli-born Moverman, who also co-wrote the script with Alessandro Camon, must be credited for the veracity of those performances and of the film as a whole.

Foster made a striking impression as Claire’s boyfriend in “Six Feet Under,” and later stole “3:10 to Yuma” from Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, but this part should really put him on the map for his sensitive portrayal. Harrelson, who has admirably managed his post-“Cheers” career with varied roles and integrity, is the essence of a dyed-in-the-wool military man, masterfully conveying the inner hurt.

There’s a commendable anti-war subtext throughout, while still remaining patriotic. At one point, Stone opines that all funerals should be shown on TV to drive home the reality of war. Olivia berates the army recruiters in a shopping mall aggressively targeting a young man.

The subject matter may be downbeat, but the film’s artistry and terrific performances make it a completely absorbing and uplifting experience. It is one of the very best films of the year.

(Rated R by the MPAA for language and some sexual content/nudity.)

The Understudy (Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Playwright Theresa Rebeck’s amusing trifle – for that’s really all it is – concerns a struggling, sarcastically embittered actor named Harry (Justin Kirk) rehearsing a fictional Franz Kafka rediscovery with B-level action film performer Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) for whom Harry’s the standby.

Frazzled stage manager Roxanne (Julie White), is on hand to make sure they stay on script while she supervises the lighting and set change cues. She was once engaged to Harry, but he jilted her a couple of weeks before their planned wedding. Already stressed by the stoned set technician Laura consistently missing her cues, she is further unhinged by his return and still evidently carries a torch.

Jake is, in turn, the understudy to the production’s leading man, a bigger film star called Bruce. At one point, the no-nonsense Roxanne puts Harry in his place by clarifying the pecking order: the unseen Bruce is Richard III, Jake is Henry V, and Harry a mere spear carrier.

Realistically speaking, though, would Jake, as the co-star, really be understudying Bruce? That’s just one aspect of several that strain credulity, such as Jake at first mistaking Harry for an intruder. And then, when learning that Harry’s the understudy, complaining it should be someone of greater stature. Why would that be?

Harry, for his part, gets much mileage out of mocking Jake’s big moment in the latter's high-grossing film, crouching in action-hero crouching mode, and growling, “Get in the truck!”

“The Understudy” premiered in July of 2008 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Rebeck cleverly makes connections between a Kafkaesque world and the similarly illogical nature of show biz, with existential elements providing humorous fodder, along with jibes at Hollywood stars and show business. For instance, a casting agent has told Harry he didn’t exist. Harry and Jake ponder the “meaning” of the prop bananas which they chow down while Roxanne is out of sight.

I didn’t find this quite as uproariously funny as those sitting around me, but there are laughs aplenty, many courtesy of White who is a riot, compulsively playing with her hair, bitching as she storms up and down the aisles of the theater.

The men are terrific, too: likable Gosselaar as the strutting (but sensitive and actually insecure) film actor who clearly relishes his big chance to do High Art on Broadway and enthusing about Kafka, and Kirk – who sets the mood with his manic opening monologue – playing his sardonic role to a tee.

Alexander Dodge’s set – various Kafka-inspired backdrops weaving in and out at all the wrong moments – adds visual amusement.

Scott Ellis directs the funny bits expertly and brings out Rebeck’s underlying poignancy, which ultimately seems to give the play more substance.

(Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th St., 212-719-1300 or www.; through January 3)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Finian’s Rainbow (St. James Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

When it was first hinted that Encores’ sparkling presentation of the 1947 Burton Lane-Yip Harburg musical might make a Broadway transfer, some cynical souls confidently predicted it would never happen. For all the show’s charm in its semi-staged concert version, it was perhaps just too old-fashioned for a regular run that would appeal to mainstream audiences, especially in the current economy.

But here it is, more or less intact, and audiences – if “my” audience and Variety’s reports of a box office spike are any indication -- are loving it. The full-sized orchestra -- led feelingly by Rob Berman -- is now in the pit, unlike Encores previous transfers “Chicago,” “Wonderful Town,” and “Gypsy.” With the orchestra out of sight, John Lee Beatty’s set (atmospherically lit by Ken Billington) allows for much greater mobility. And, of course, there are no scripts in hand.

Some who only know the show from its well-loved songs “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” and “Look to the Rainbow” are actually surprised by the show's rural Southern setting, and its book (by Harburg and Fred Saidy) which deals so forthrightly with matters of class and race.

Finian, a charming Irish rogue, lands in the fictitious state of Missitucky with his daughter Sharon. Hot on their heels is Og, a leprechaun who’s after the crock of gold Finian has “borrowed” with a notion of burying it and having it grow as does (he assumes) the gold at Fort Knox. Father and daughter befriend farmer Woody and his mute sister Susan – and the black and white tobacco sharecroppers – helping them keep their land from the bigoted Senator Rawkins.

It is indeed still quite astonishing that such a mainstream musical would reflect Harburg’s socialist leanings to the extent it does. But the troublesome (to some) plot element of the racist Senator’s (David Schramm) transformation into a black man, which gives him a lesson in tolerance, is here neatly solved by having the part double-cast to avoid any suggestion of blackface.

Matters of political correctness – real or imagined -- aside, it’s a joy to hear the score – with its great standards like “Old Devil Moon” “If This Isn’t Love,” and “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love” so authentically presented. The Irish Repertory Theatre’s small-scale revival in 2006 – with the delightfully cast Melissa Errico, Malcolm Gets, and Jonathan Freeman – was a charmer, but this full-scale mounting is the real deal.

Striking red-head Kate Baldwin makes a beautifully poised, especially rich-voiced heroine. Cheyenne Jackson confirms his status as one today’s most satisfying leading men. Despite a slightly contemporary-sounding projection – occasionally true of Baldwin, too -- he has shown he can take on the classic roles (like Joe in Encores' “Damn Yankees”) with aplomb. Here, he and Baldwin really click. Alina Faye takes dancing honors as the mute (till the ending) Susan the Silent, Woody’s sister.

Newcomers Chuck Cooper (as the black Senator Rawkins) and Christopher Fitzgerald as leprechaun Og, have winningly replaced (the also excellent) Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Jeremy Bobb at Encores.

Terri White (a carryover from the Irish rep production) reprises her sensational rendition of the jazzy “Necessity” garnering, by far, the biggest hand of the first act, while Cooper’s “The Begat” (sung with Bernard Dotson, James Stovall, and Devin Richards) carries the second act honors.

Jim Norton’s performance as rascally Finian grounds the whole and, to the extent possible, avoids stereotype. The adapters – David Ives at Encores, and Arthur Perlman here – have given his primarily non-singing character all the vocal bits that Fred Astaire did in the surprisingly faithful 1968 film version from Francis Ford Coppola (with Petula Clark, Tommy Steele, and beautiful Ray Heindorf orchestrations), lines that were originally Sharon’s.

Toni-Leslie James’ costumes nostalgically evoke the 1940’s, and she really goes to town with the outlandish outfits -- finery ordered from a Sears & Roebuck-like catalog -- in the satiric second-act opener, “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich.”

More so than other vintage musicals that we’ve seen in revival – the Rodgers & Hammerstein shows, “Show Boat,” “Guys & Dolls” – this one gives you the palpable feel of its original era, not a bad thing. Warren Carlyle’s direction and choreography seem satisfyingly true to the spirit, old-school in the best sense.

As you might expect in a show involving leprechauns, supernatural wishes, spells, and like, there’s also a copious use of magic tricks expanded since Encores, courtesy of consultant Matthew Holtzclaw. But make no mistake; this is a show that needs no wizardry. It's musical comedy at its most truthfully heartfelt and sublime.

(St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, or 212-239-6200)

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats (Overture Films)

By Harry Forbes

If the film had nothing else, its above-the-title stars – Ewan McGregor, George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey, among them – would make the film worth seeing.

But, especially for those who enjoy the wacky military shenanigans of, say, “Catch-22” or “Dr. Strangelove,” this is a quirky and quite amusing satire. It is based on the rather incredible revelations that in the 60s, 70s and 80s, the U.S. Army had experimented with paranormal methods such as mind reading, predicting the future, teleporting, and becoming invisible.

It’s 2003, and McGregor (with a good American accent) plays Ann Arbor, MI, reporter Bob Wilton; Despondent over the infidelity of his wife and breakup of his marriage, he heads to the Mideast to reclaim his manhood.

In Kuwait, he runs into army man Lyn Cassady (Clooney) whom, coincidentally, he had once, while covering a story, heard was involved in incredible military research to replace conventional warfare with myriad psychic methods instead.

Bob convinces Lyn to take him along on his mission to Iraq where they have a series of adventures, including crashing their vehicle, being captured by an Al Qaeda-like terrorist group, and getting lost in the desert.

Along the way, Lyn tells Bob his back-story as a legendary Special Forces figure in the top-secret unit of “warrior monks.” And of the program’s founder Bill Django (Bridges), a Vietnam vet, who brought all kinds of New Age methodology into this unit: healing, martial arts, ESP, and so on. “Be all you can be” was their motto. All of this is related in entertaining flashbacks.

Lyn himself did have extraordinary powers. He could discern an item in a closed file drawer, predict the future, and even kill hamsters and goats by simply staring at them.

“More of this is true than you would believe” impishly declares one of the film’s opening titles. Though the characters in it are fictitious, Peter Straughan’s script was adapted from Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book of the same name which told the history of the actual First Earth Battalion, inspiration for the film’s “New Earth Army,” self-proclaimed Jedi Warriors. Lyn is apparently an amalgam of several characters in the book.

Anyhow, Lyn and Bob eventually find the aging Django in a training camp run by Lyn’s nemesis, renegade psychic Larry Hooper (Spacey), who had always been jealous of Lyn’s extra-sensory prowess. He had testified against him after a debacle in Django’s unit, once even bestowing on Lyn the dread “death touch” (a tap on the shoulder). He now commands a personal militia of “super soldiers.”

This is essentially a combination buddy-road flick, and Clooney and McGregor play beautifully off each other. McGregor, who narrates, is the very appealing straight man, Clooney the very funny sidekick, confirming – as he did in “Burn After Reading” – what a good comedian he can be. Lyn’s actually a sensitive soul, though clearly not playing with a full deck. But Clooney and McGregor also manage to create real people, both damaged – in different ways -- by their pasts.

It's directed by Clooney’s “Good Night and Good Luck” co-writer/producer Grant Heslov with the sort of sensibility you might expect from the Coen Brothers.

(Rated R by the MPAA for language, some drug content and brief nudity.)

The Box (Warner Bros. Pictures)

By Harry Forbes

“The Box” is a frustrating film in that it starts so promisingly with a good visual look, compelling paranoiac mood, and intriguing premise.

It’s 1976, and the place Richmond, Virginia. The titular object is dropped off in the early morning hours at the front door of the Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) Lewis on Christmas morning. The family is asleep, but Norma wearily trundles down the stairs, opens the door and takes the box in. It contains a strange looking object: a red button under a glass dome. There’s a note from one Arlington Steward, stating that he’ll come to call at 5 p.m. that day.

Arthur’s a NASA engineer. Norma’s a high school English teacher who teaches her class Sartre. She also walks with a limp. Her injury is the result of medical malpractice. A smirking student asks her if they can see her foot, and she dutifully removes her stockings.

At the appointed hour, Steward shows up. It’s Frank Langella with a terrible burn on his face, having been struck by lightning. He explains that he holds the key to the object delivered that morning. If she uses it to open the dome, and push the button, someone they don’t know will die. But they will be rewarded with one million in cash.

She and Arthur are in a quandary. He’s just been denied promotion to astronaut; she’s been told that their son’s (Sam Oz Stone) tuition will not be covered by her school any longer. And she’s hoping to have reconstructive surgery on her foot. In other words, they need money. “It’s just a box,” she reasons with Arthur. Well, of course, she pushes the button, an irreversible action she and Arthur will regret.

From this point on, the plot – adapted from Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button,” and already adapted for a “Twilight Zone” episode in the 1980’s – gets more and more puzzling, even as the moral implications of the story become obvious: our living in a push-button society, our responsibility to our family and the world at large, the consequences of our actions, and so forth.

But even accepting the conventions of the genre, serious suspension of disbelief is called for. Without being overly literal, why would someone open their door in the middle of the night and bring in a bomb-like box? Why would Norma meekly show her injured foot to an insolent student? Why would she allow the mysterious Steward into her home, even when he’s played by Langella at his most suavely urbane? Why are so many of their friends and neighbors acting mysteriously creepy? Why all the nosebleeds? Why are Norma and Arthur not surprised when they’re chased by silent mobs through the long corridors of a library? Why don’t they ever ask each other what’s going on?

It’s a credit to Richard Kelly’s direction that you want to go with the flow, and accept logic-defying points. But as Kelly’s script, intelligent in many ways, is so complicated that you really can’t figure out motivation, you begin to lose interest. Everyone in the town acts creepy from the get-go, it’s hard to feel a sense of growing menace.

Diaz gives a nice, low-keyed performance with a slight Southern accent, and looks lovely. Marsden does good work as the husband.

Many of the effects are striking, most especially a bit of supernatural transporting involving a large body of water (I’ll say no more), and the handsome sets and entire physical production look expensive.

It’s never exactly dull, but it’s not consistently gripping either. There’s way too much business about NASA that never really pays off, except to underscore that in that year of the Mars Viking Mission, extra-terrestrial forces might be at work.

The ambiguity of some of the plot elements and overall premise will be intriguing to some, puzzling or even preposterous to others, especially as portentous themes of salvation and damnation come to the fore. Much as I admire the lead performances and Kelly’s attempt to really say something important here, I’m afraid I lean towards the latter.

(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images.)

“Precious: Based On The Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire” (Lionsgate)

By Harry Forbes

Claireece “Precious” Jones, an overweight 16-year-old African-American girl (played by 24-year-old Gabourey Sidibe) is the unlikely heroine of this extremely gritty but ultimately uplifting film. She lives with her indolent and abusive mother Mary (Mo’Nique in a role most assuredly not played for laughs) in Harlem.

Geoffrey Fletcher wrote the screenplay based on former teacher-turned-poet Sapphire’s first novel “Push,” which was published in 1996. Set in 1987, Precious has been repeatedly raped by her father, and has already borne one child, afflicted with Down Syndrome, and has another on the way.

Through the intercession of a math teacher at school, she’s transferred to an alternative literacy school, Each One Teach One, where she comes under the pre-GED tutelage of Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who we come to learn is a lesbian, and finds another ally in a kindly welfare worker (an excellent, no-nonsense Mariah Carey).

Narrated by Precious, who at the narrative’s start, is functionally illiterate, the bleak story is periodically relieved by brief fantasy sequences where we get a glimpse of the better life the girl imagines for herself: dancing at the Apollo, modeling, attending a red carpet event. At one point, she projects herself and her mother into (of all things) Sophia Loren’s “Two Women,” which is running on television while she and Mary are eating dinner.

But there are also several deeply disturbing sequences involving her mother’s physical (and even sexual) abuse, the most horrific sequence occurring after Precious returns from the hospital after giving birth to her second child.

But what makes the story special is despite all that happens to Precious (and believe me, there’s more nasty business than what I’ve outlined above), she holds out hope for the future.

The film, as directed by Lee Daniels, avoids overt sentimentality. Even the tough girls at Each One Teach One are a hard-boiled bunch, and don’t all go gooey and maudlin when Precious goes through some hard times, but you feel their concern.

The performances are all top notch. Sidibe plays the part to a tee, impassive on the surface, but even when we’re not hearing her first-person narration, allowing us to somehow intuit her thoughts, and conveying a strong inner resilience. Mo’Nique fearlessly limns the manipulative, unsympathetic mother, while Patton, Carey, and Lenny Kravitz as a sympathetic male nurse who comes to care for Precious, unshowy work too.

Both Sidibe and Mo’Nique have moments of emotional catharsis, the former in the classroom when she finally reveals her self-loathing, and Mo’Nique when she opens up to the welfare worker about her daughter’s sexual abuse and the raging depth of her jealousy, a brilliant monologue that may just win her nominations, come awards time.

Despite the film’s admirable qualities, and the endorsement of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry (who enthusiastically came on board after seeing the film as executive producers), this will most assuredly not be everyone’s cup of tea. The language is strong, and the grim thematic material (at times way over the top) is obviously rough, but those who choose to see it, may find this 2009 Sundance Film Festival winner a redemptive and moving tale about learning to love yourself.

(Rated R by the MPAA for child abuse including sexual assault, and pervasive language.)

A Christmas Carol (Disney)

By Harry Forbes

Those who regard Alastair Sim’s “A Christmas Carol” (originally “Scrooge” in the U.K.) as the greatest version of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella – and doesn’t everyone? – may have to relinquish at least partial pride of place to this new version from Robert Zemeckis starring Jim Carrey (yes, Jim Carrey) as the old skinflint.

Mind you, the version under discussion here is animated, and it utilizes the performance capture technique well remembered from Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express,” the animated characters often resembling the actors voicing them, but as with that Tom Hanks film, the results are strikingly realistic. So we can allow the Sim version its standing as the best live version.

What is especially pleasurable about this latest version is the script’s fidelity to the Charles Dickens’ 1843 text. Zemeckis wrote the screenplay and he’s used the animation techniques to craft a superbly visual experience, while keeping the basic story grounded in reality.

Despite the Disney label and the use of animation, the story has not been sweetened in the slightest. This is as dark and frightening a version as has been done. The Christmas present sequence, for instance, ends on a disturbing note as the Ghost – his jollity visibly draining -- reveals two feral children – Ignorance and Want – under his cloak. And The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come sequence ends bleakly with Scrooge pulled down to a waiting coffin. But though there were plenty of children at a recent press screening, I don’t think any of them had to be carried screaming from the auditorium,

Carrey plays the early scenes of Scrooge as uncompromisingly as anyone, with a harshness to match his exaggeratedly sharp nose and pointed chin.

Zemeckis has made the story admirably fresh. These may well be the images one remembers ever after: Scrooge quivering in front of his fireplace before his visitations, Marley’s heavy chains and cashboxes, young Scrooge weeping in his lonely classroom, the Cratchits’ meager Christmas gathering, and so on. It seems there is less of Tiny Tim, but that is in keeping with the Zemeckis’ overall ramping down the cuteness.

The voice work is extraordinary. Carrey plays Scrooge at all ages as well as the ghosts of Christmas Past (a child like figure with a candle-like head aflame) and Present, a laughing Falstaffian giant. (The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a silent specter).

But Gary Oldham is equally impressive, voicing not only Bob Cratchit but Tiny Tim and Marley’s Ghost. Robin Wright Penn is Scrooge’s fiancée Belle who breaks off the engagement when she observes him making an idol of money, as well his young sister Fan who dies young. Colin Firth is his unflappable nephew Fred. Cary Elwes is the fiddler at jolly Fezziwig’s big bash; Dick Wilkins, Scrooge’s office mate; and a businessman rebuffed by Scrooge when he’s soliciting contributions to the poor.

Alan Silvestri’s atmospheric musical score is powerful, augmented by traditional carols, beautifully rendered.

Zemeckis departs from realism for several flights of animated fancy, such as Mrs. Fezziwig spinning around like an airborne whirling dervish during a ball scene. And Scrooge flying through the air as the Ghosts take him on their journeys. There’s a too long chase sequence involving a black coach and two eerie black steeds.

The creative team which includes production designer Doug Chiang, director of cinematography Robert Presley, film editor Jeremiah O’Driscoll, and visual effects supervisor George Murphy has done superb work

“A Christmas Carol” is being shown in IMAX and 3D, and I must say this is one of the most effective uses of 3D I’ve ever seen. Without being hokey, the process makes the brilliant recreations of 19th Century London come satisfyingly to life.

Zemeckis and crew have done gloriously right by Dickens.

(The film has been rated PG by the MPAA Ratings Board for scary sequences and images.)

Monday, November 2, 2009

“The Judy Garland Show: Volume Two” (Infinity Entertainment Group)

By Harry Forbes

Here’s the second release in a planned 13-volume reissue of Judy Garland’s CBS-TV television show (1963-1964), each disc containing two episodes from the series.

The series has already been on DVD, courtesy of Pioneer Artists several years ago, and the packaging and content are somewhat different. Pioneer’s packaging was preferable in some respects, and had much more thorough tracking; one for each song.

Infinity only gives us a few track marks, and they frustratingly indicate the segment though not the name of the guest star or the actual song title. Quality-wise, Infinity’s version look superb, perhaps not enough for fans who own the Pioneer issues to re-buy the entire series, but certainly warmly recommended to everyone else.

The shows on “Volume Two” include her classic pairing with Barbra Streisand, which aired 10/6/63, when Streisand was at the pre-“Funny Girl” start of her career, the Smothers Brothers (whose own show would eventually find success – and controversy – in Garland’s time-slot a few years after CBS canceled her series), and a cameo by Ethel Merman. Streisand was so good, the appearance lead to her landing her own contract with CBS for a series of acclaimed specials.

Garland’s two medleys with Streisand have become classics, one a brilliant melding of Garland’s “Get Happy” and Streisand’s early hit, “Happy Days are Here Again,” the other an intricate love song medley. In both, Garland’s admiration for the rising young star is palpable.

The other, which originally aired 3/1/64, reunites her with MGM colleague Jane Powell who, we’re reminded twice, replaced Garland in “Royal Wedding” when Garland’s health problems interfered, and her Yellow Brick Road co-star, Ray Bolger, who had played the Scarecrow. The latter joins her for her regular “tea” segment, and they reminisce touchingly about “The Wizard of Oz.” And most interestingly, they’re joined by Powell for “The Jitterbug,” a number cut from the movie.

We also get to hear Jane Powell’s rather syrupy take on Barbara Cook’s “Dear Friend” from the musical “She Loves Me.” Show tunes predominate, and Garland herself opens with “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” from “Bye Bye Birdie” and later sings “Some People” from “Gypsy.”

Not all the comedy material and patter between songs is top notch – series regular Jerry Van Dyke’s lip-synching of MGM leading men is a particular low point -- but on the whole, quality is high, and make one sorely miss the variety show genre today. Garland is in excellent voice on both episodes, though she does occasionally exhibit the nervous mannerisms that are said to have alienated viewers at the time.

The Powell-Bolger show is quite different in content than the Pioneer version, which included her solo renditions of “Hello, Bluebird,” “If Love Were All,” and “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart,” actually taped at another time. These presumably will show up on Infinity’s release of the Bobby Darin episode of 12/29/63, where they eventually landed.

Next up from Infinity is Garland’s well-loved Christmas show.