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Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Tempest (The Bridge Project)



By Harry Forbes

This season’s second collaboration between BAM, The Old Vic and Neal Street Productions, again under Sam Mendes’ quite wonderful direction is, if anything, even more striking than the first, “As You Like It.”

“The Tempest,” which will now run in repertory with the other play, is less frequently performed, and rather more difficult to pull off. It was Shakespeare’s last completed play, and far more enigmatic.

It is to Mendes’ credit that his production plays with such crystalline clarity, even where the Bard was vague on motivation and specific incident.

Of course, one of the great pleasures of repertory is watching first-rate actors stretch in disparate parts. Stephan Dillane, so excellent as the world-weary Jaques, assumes the heavy-duty role of Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, banished years before from his kingdom by his evil brother Antonio (Michael Thomas). Though he might, on paper, seem too young for the role, he makes the role his own.

Prospero was, years before, set to sea with his infant daughter Miranda and, through the intercession of his good counselor Gonzalo (Alvin Epstein), and with his books of magic, which he now mastered after his years of exile on this island.

He rules the place assisted by his beloved sprite Ariel (Christian Camargo) and the base and treacherous Caliban (Ron Cephas Jones). Presumably spurred by vengeance (and a desire to give his daughter a suitable mate), Prospero contrives a shipwreck which brings Antonio; Alonso (Jonathan Lincoln Fried), the king of Naples; Alonso’s son Ferdinand (Edward Bennett); Alonso’s ambitious brother Sebastian (Richard Hansell); and their heavy-drinking butler (Thomas Sadoski); jester Trinculo (Anthony O’Donnell); and others to his shores. They have been scattered at sea, however, and not all are aware of the others’ survival.

Dillane has just the right magisterial manner, and etches a loving father and benevolent ruler. He’s particularly poignant in the play’s final moments when he abjures his magic. Famous actors of the past have given Prospero’s speeches with more grandiose poetry, but Dillane’s reading of “We are such stuff as dreams are made of” and the other famous bits still touch the heart.

Surely, there is nothing more satisfying in all of drama than Shakespeare’s scenes of forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption. “As You Like It” ends with one, but that in “The Tempest” is even more wondrous. Alonso finds the son he thought drowned, and Prospero forgives his errant brother (albeit not without a momentary hesitation), and reconciles with Alonso and those who conspired against him. Mendes stages it most beautifully here, the audience watching in rapt silence.

The American Christian Carmargo, the love-sick Orlando, is now Ariel, not the usual airy spirit, but a tall, striking presence, dressed mostly in black, but morphing into whatever Prospero calls for: one moment wearing an evening gown, the next spouting tremendous wings. He speaks the text with as much assurance as the Brits, and confirms again he’s a true classical actor.

His real-life wife Juliet Rylance plays Miranda as memorably as she did Rosalind. Her wonderment at beholding Ferdinand, the first man she’s laid eyes upon besides her father, is most delightful.

Thomas got to play both the good and bad Dukes in “As You Like It,” and he’s fine as a different sort of bad guy here.

O’Dowell (dressed by Catherine Zuber is a plaid suit) is a particular delight in his comic role, and his scenes with Sadowski are genuinely funny, not tedious as the lower-class scenes can sometimes be in Shakespeare. As they plot with Caliban (Cephas Jones who fully inhabits the bestial nature of the lustful and duplicitous creature) to overthrow Prospero. Caliban conjures a ghostly veiled image of Miranda whom he proposes Stephano will wed, one of Mendes’ clever bits of business.

Special mention must be made of veteran Alvin Epstein who, like fellow Yank Carmago, does full justice to the language, and creates a most sympathetic Gonzalo.

Mendes has brought myriad special touches to the work. When Prospero relates their past to his blindfolded daughter, Mendes has encouraged dangerously long pauses, as Prospero wrestles with his clearly painful emotions. The first encounter between Miranda and Ferdinand is deliciously staged. Later, the wedding sequence is a jewel in itself.

The backdrop of Tom Piper’s set (beautifully lit by Paul Pyant) is more or less as it was in “As You Like It,” though Prospero’s magic circle of sand is here the main playing area. At one point, Caliban emerges, miraculously, from beneath the sand.

Mark Bennett’s song settings are, as before, simply lovely. Amusingly, Sadoski enters singing the melody of the Bobby Darin hit “Beyond the Sea” paralleling Dillane’s surprising Bob Dylan turn in “As You Like It.”

Choreographer Josh Prince provides a delightful dance for that wedding sequence.

The play – one of Shakespeare’s shortest – is given without intermission. Two hours and fifteen minutes is a bit long to go without a break, but matters of thirst and bladder notwithstanding, interest never flags.

Both plays will tour Europe and Asia and open at London’s Old Vic in June.

(BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718-636-4100 or www.bam.org; through March 13)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Cop Out (Warner Bros. Pictures)



By Harry Forbes

There’s the kernel of an amusing premise here: longtime NYPD partners tracking down a valuable baseball card going up against Mexican drug dealers. And Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan must have seemed a good team on paper
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But “Cop Out” is unrelentingly vulgar (a yucky scatological discourse gets my vote as the low point), Morgan’s character annoyingly foul-mouthed, stupid and self-absorbed (even as we’re meant to view him as basically a good guy), and there’s far too much heavy-duty violence for a presumed comedy.

On the ninth year anniversary of working together, Jimmy Monroe (Willis) and Paul Hodges (Morgan) have been suspended for a month without pay for botching up yet another assignment. Jimmy needs the money to pay for his daughter’s (Michelle Trachtenberg) wedding, so his ex-wife’s (Francine Swift) smarmy husband (Jason Lee) won’t have to do it.

Jimmy decides to sell his extremely rare 1952 Andy Pafko card (he’s heard it can fetch up as much as $83,000), but the dealer is held up, and the thieves (stoner Dave, played by Seann David Williams, one of two masked men) abscond with the card.

It ends up in the baseball collection of vicious baseball-loving drug kingpin Poh Boy (Guillerno Diaz) whose Mercedes (and its valuable though mysterious contents) goes missing. He eventually makes a deal with the Jimmy and Paul: he’ll return the card, if they find his car.

Kevin Smith inauspiciously directs the first film he didn’t write. Robb Cullen and Mark Cullen have the dubious honor of concocting this dubious homage to the buddy cop films of the 1980s.

Morgan’s shtick is that he parrots dialogue from classic movies, and frets that his wife (Rashida Jones) is cheating on him with the next door neighbor. Willis pretty much plays it straight as a long suffering but tolerant guy who just wants to be a good dad to his loving daughter.

Scott has some mildly amusing moments with his stream-of-consciousness back seat ramblings, as first he’s taken into custody, and then they co-opt him to help retrieve th4e precious card.

Kevin Pollak and Adam Brody are OK as detectives Hunsaker and Mangold, trying to play it straight and lord their by-the-books methods over disgraced Jimmy and Paul, but by the end, get a lesson in humility. Pollak proves a far better movie star impersonator than Morgan in one pearly moment when he mimics Robert DeNiro.

The attractive Ana de la Reguera makes a generally sympathetic Mexican kidnap victim, but did anyone really think it was funny to have her character spewing non-stop (subtitled) expletives? On the other hand, Susie Essman, as a woman whose house is burgled, reprises her foul-mouthed “Curb Your Enthusiasm” routine with amusing results.

A handful of funny bits like that, and the always watchable presence of Bruce Willis, who manages to keep his dignity throughout, are the minor attractions of this otherwise dismal flick.

(Rated R by the MPAA for pervasive language including sexual references, violence and brief sexuality.)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Yank! (York Theatre Company)



By Harry Forbes

After mountings at the NYMF in 2005, Brooklyn’s Gallery Players in 2007, and several developmental stagings at the York Theatre Company, “Yank” – subtitled “A World War II Love Story” – receives its most polished production yet at York Theatre Company.

I didn’t catch it at NYMF, but the terrific Gallery version – with three of the stars of the current production, Bobby Steggert, Nancy Anderson, and Jefrey Denman, and also directed by Igor Goldin – already signaled that this was a show ready for the big time, an impression confirmed by all the subsequent stagings.

Though it still clocks in at two and a half hours, the pacing is tighter, and the production elements slicker. But the elements that made it so appealing before have not been lost.

Brothers Joseph (music) and David (book and lyrics) Zellnick have written a wonderfully accessible score – old fashioned in the best sense – and the narrative is consistently compelling. The intimacy of the York playing space is a plus, but I’ll bet it would open up just fine if it were ever to transfer to a Broadway house.

Largely inspired by Allan Berube’s “Coming Out Under Fire,” the nonfiction history of gays in the military during World War II, David Zellnick’s book concerns a bashful soldier named Stu (Steggert) and his crush on the handsome Mitch (Ivan Hernandez) who takes the bullied Stu under wing, and falls for him, despite a fiancé back home.

Their relationship is strained when the embarrassed, sexually ambivalent Mitch pulls back after a tentative kiss, and Stu is soon after recruited by “Yank” magazine reporter Artie (Denman) to become a photographer for the magazine and, in the song “Click,” offers his new assistant a primer on the ways of gay life – the Y’s, the bars -- in the ranks.

Stu hooks up again with Mitch when he and Artie finagle a profile of Stu’s former company. Trouble ensues, however, when one of the soldiers (Andrew Durand) catches the couple in a clinch.

David Zellnick’s intelligent dialogue and Goldin’s naturalistic staging give a realism to the army scenes, and despite the book’s obvious sympathies, avoids the political and overt references to today’s “don’t-ask-don’t-tell controversy.

There are echoes of Sondheim here and there, but songs like “Remembering You,” “Betty” (a paean to Grable, Rita, Lana, and the rest), “A Couple of Regular Guys” genuinely evoke the WWII era. There’s not a clinker in the bunch, and music director John Baxindine’s five-piece orchestra provides deft accompaniment.

The delightful Nancy Anderson has an impressive showcase, playing a range of roles in Tricia Barsamian’s colorful period duds. In spot-on 1940s style, she sings the Zellnicks’ catchy pastiche numbers, the jivey “Saddest Gal What Am,” the soulful “Blue Twilight,” and the Jeanette MacDonald-inspired “The Bright Beyond,” among them. In all of these, as well as her turn as a butch army officer sympathetic to the guys, she delivers savvy characterizations.

If there was one plus about the premature closing of “Ragtime” it was freeing up Steggert to return to his pivotal role. Just as brilliant as he was in “Ragtime” playing the radicalized Younger Brother, he inhabits Stu with honesty and truth. As in previous incarnations of the show, he really owns this part, playing with an understated naturalism that is most engaging.

Steggert is also the show’s narrator, a present-day San Franciscan who finds Stu’s war journal in a junk shop, and morphs into the Stu character.

Hernandez has just the right looks and easy masculinity for the handsome Mitch whose unease with his sexuality seems in sharper focus than in the Gallery mounting.

Denman nails the smooth-talking Artie, and provides the lively choreography, including a dream ballet for Mitch and Stu, danced by Denis Lambert and Joseph Medeiros respectively. A couple of nifty, full-out tap numbers gives the show variety and lightens the tone at just the right moments.

The others in the company: Durand, Tally Sessions, David Perlman, and Christopher Ruth. Todd Faulkner, Zak Edwards, and Medeiros as swishy guys in the secretarial pool who call themselves Scarlett, Melanie, and India are all marvelously versatile, with some impressive doubling of roles.

Designer Ray Klausen’s sliding panel set -- cannily lit by Ken Lapham -- effectively conveys the scene shifts.

The show got a rousing hand from York subscribers at a recent Saturday matinee, affirming that the show’s appeal is broader than its specialized subject matter might suggest.

“Yank!” is bound to have a life beyond its limited season here, but you'd do well to catch this beauty of a show now.

(The York Theatre Company at St. Peter’s, 619 Lexington Avenue, 212-935-5820 or www.yorktheatre.org; through March 21)

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Ghost Writer (Summit Entertainment)



By Harry Forbes

It’s been five years since Roman Polanski’s last film (“Oliver Twist”), but the director has lost not a jot of his talent for creating a deliciously ominous sense of foreboding, as this absorbing political thriller demonstrates. If the story – adapted by Polanski and Robert Harris from the latter’s novel, "The Ghost" -- doesn’t quite provide the slam-bam payoff one would expect at the end of its two-plus hours, this still ranks as a superior thriller.

Ewan McGregor plays the titular unnamed writer who agrees to polish up the autobiography of former British prime minister Adam Lang (convincingly played by Pierce Brosnan) after his predecessor, a long time colleague of Lang, drowns during a ferry crossing between the mainland and a Martha’s Vineyard-like island off the eastern seaboard. (The film was actually shot mostly in Germany.)

The mercurial Lang, it soon develops, may have had a hand at turning over suspected Pakistani Al Qaeda terrorists to the CIA for torture, and Lang’s former Foreign Affairs Secretary (Robert Pugh) is helping build a case against him as a war criminal. Suddenly, these allegations are all over the media.

The writer has a mere month to finish his task, but he stays at a nearby hotel to maintain his objectivity. When, however, a glowering stranger (David Rintoul) in the hotel bar aggressively inquires about Lang’s whereabouts, and the writer returns to his room to find it in disarray, Lang’s personal assistant (and, it would appear, mistress), Amelia (Kim Cattrall, quite different than her Samantha role on “Sex & the City”) informs the writer he’d better remain on the premises of Lang’s secluded house.

Once ensconced, he gets to know Lang’s wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), a politically savvy lady with (surprise) a resemblance to Cherie Blair, who shares her confidences with him, and eventually finagles her way into his bed.

As more questions are raised about Lang, his background, his true political convictions and so on, the writer finds his curiosity mounting despite his earlier assertion that, after all, he’s not an investigative reporter.

The always reliable McGregor holds everything together, much as he did “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” playing a sort of everyman pulled into extraordinary events. He’s on screen almost every minute – a sympathetic, likable presence -- and we watch what happens through his eyes.

Williams is top notch as the tart wife. Smaller roles are well taken by Tom Wilkinson as Lang’s Cambridge crony who clearly knows more than he’s letting on. The scene between him and McGregor is one of the tensest in the film, along with the cat-and-mouse car sequence that follows.

Other roles are smartly taken by Timothy Hutton as Lang’s DC lawyer, John Bernthal as the writer’s agent, and 93-year-old Eli Wallach as an “old man” who sheds some expository light on the death of the ghost’s predecessor. (You won’t be surprised to learn it was neither an accident nor suicide.)

As is typical of the genre, the McGregor character does sometimes venture into some dangerous predicaments that have you wondering why he’d take the risk, so some suspension of disbelief is required.

But Polanski’s assured style helps in that regard. The aforementioned car sequence, and late in the film, the passing of a crucial note through a crowd are but two of many brilliantly executed sequences, and he maintains a pervasive sense of gloom and isolation at the Lang compound. The weather is unremittingly bleak or stormy.

The reliable Alexandre Desplat’s moody score adds to the paranoid ambiance.

Not so thinly veiled allusions to George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Halliburton abound along with predictable conspiracy theories. Indeed, Harris – a former political journalist – knew Blair well, though the writer denies any political agenda.

Plot holes, character motivation, political subtext and Polanski’s current legal entanglements aside, this is an enjoyably old-fashioned suspense film in the Alfred Hitchcock manner, and a late-career high point for the filmmaker.

(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for language, brief nudity/sexuality, some violence and a drug reference.)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Valentine’s Day (New Line Cinema)



By Harry Forbes

Last year’s Valentine’s Day ensemble cast charmer, “He’s Just Not That into You” was something of a surprise hit.

The present film is very much cut from the same cloth, but though the list of stars is even lengthier here, and the multi-strand plot of folks both in and out of love tries hard to be funny and ultimately touching, it falls rather short of the other film; and this despite the input of “He’s Just Not That into You” scriptwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein.

Still, I can’t say there isn’t some fun in watching the cast go through its paces. First, there’s Ashston Kutcher who, in the first scene, proposes to his career-centered bedmate Jessica Alba. His best friend (strictly platonic) is played by Jennifer Garner who’s having an affair with doctor Patrick Dempsey.

Kutcher is a florist – working with sidekick George Lopez – so his character becomes, more or less, the linchpin of all the others.

Jamie Foxx is a sportscaster assigned by producer Kathy Bates, much against his will, to come up with a soft Valentine’s Day story, when he really hopes to cover football star Eric Danes’ impending press conference. The latter’s team has lost in the playoffs, and speculation is rife that the quarterback will retire.

Danes’ character is represented by tough agent Queen Latifah and frazzled Valentine’s Day-hating publicist Jessica Biel.

Latifah’s assistant Anne Hathaway moonlights as a phone sex worker, unbeknownst to newish boyfriend Topher Grace, a sweet guy from Muncie, Ind. Hathaway’s antics here are thuddingly unfunny, and the premise distasteful despite the script painting her character as a hard-working gal who simply needs the money.

On the more youthful end of the scale, high schoolers Emma Roberts (Robinson’s babysitter) and Carter Jenkins are foiled in their plan to lose their virginity during lunch hour. And, in the least satisfying plot strand, cheerleader Taylor Swift (the singer, in a less-than-auspicious acting debut) and track star Taylor Lautner are interviewed by a local TV station about the joys of young love.

Furthest down in age range is 10-year-old Bryce Robinson who, throughout the film, harbors a secret Valentine’s Day crush. The long-term marriage of his grandparents Shirley MacLaine and Hector Elizondo is jeopardized when the former fesses up to a long-ago affair. (Their subsequent make-up takes place at an outdoor screening of MacLaine’s actual 1958 film, “Hot Spell,” as her character here is supposed to be a former actress.)

And lastly, Bradley Cooper chats up Army Captain Julia Roberts on a lengthy flight. (Cooper, some may recall, was Roberts’ co-star in their joint Broadway debut, “Three Days of Rain.”) Roberts is en route to an important rendezvous, and Cooper wonders at the identity of the person she’s going to meet.

Kutcher has the most screen time, and he’s a likable presence, while most of the others do the best they can with the material at hand.

Garry Marshall directs these couplings proficiently enough, and Katherine Fugate’s script is not without its occasional charms, but this is pleasant entertainment at best, better on sentiment than laughs.

Everything’s tied up neatly at the end. Not all of the developments are predictable, but the characters you care most about do indeed get their final clinch. As a Valentine’s Day date movie, this passes muster, but only just.

(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for some sexual material and brief partial nudity)

The Wolfman (Universal Studios)



By Harry Forbes

Benicio Del Toro takes up Lon Chaney Jr.’s mantle in this often hokey but sporadically effective remake of the 1941 original written by Curt Siodmak.

Faithful in spirit if not quite to the letter, director Joe Johnston’s version is that anomaly: an old-fashioned horror film, albeit with more gory bits (generally seen in quickly edited shots) than you’d have seen in Universal Studios’ glory days as the horror film studio.

Now picturesquely set in a murky 1891 Blackmoor (rather than 1940s Wales), beautiful Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) has written to Lawrence Talbot (Benecio Del Toro) imploring him to aid the search when her fiancée (his brother) goes missing

Talbot is a Shakespearean actor (of all things!), as we see in a short, but tantalizing theatrical sequence where, perhaps mercifully, we don’t actually get to hear Del Toro recite the Bard.

He dutifully returns to the family home, run by his autocratic, derelict and sinister father Sir John (Anthony Hopkins), who rules his dilapidated roost with a mysterious Indian servant Singh (Art Malik) and a growling dog. Lawrence is scarcely in the door, however, when the brother’s mangled body is found.

Rumors spread about a fearsome wolf like creature that comes out when the moon is full. The old fortune teller (a heavily made-up Geraldine Chaplin in Maria Ouspenskaya’s old role) seems to know all about the curse of the werewolf. “Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright…” the old legend goes.

Lawrence is determined to track down his brother’s killer, but one moonlit night, when the creature is unaccountably running amok in the gypsy camp, he himself gets bitten. Sure enough, it’s not long before he's transformed into a hairy beast, courtesy of ace special effects man creature effects designer Rick Baker.
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But even before this metamorphosis, the frightened and vengeful townspeople, lead by Scotland Yard’s Inspector Aberline (Hugh Weaving) – based, incidentally, on the real inspector who investigated the Jack the Ripper murders -- seem inclined to suspect Lawrence, for no more cogent reasons than he’s the stranger, and if he can play parts like Hamlet, who’s to say he can’t assume more, uh, lupine roles.

Everyone seems to know Lawrence spent a year in a mental asylum as a child after seeing his mother brutally murdered (huh?), after which he was sent to America, presumably losing his English accent, thespian or not, in the process.

At one point, the gypsy woman tells Gwen that a wolfman can only be redeemed by someone who loves him, and you just know Gwen will put that into practice.

At one point, Lawrence ends up back in the asylum, leading to one of the more entertaining sequences in the story. Anthony Sher is the smarmy doctor Dr. Hoenneger who is convinced that his patient is sadly delusional, and he’s lecturing his colleagues in the medical theater, while Lawrence is tied up behind him, the latter begins to transform, much to the horror of the assembled.

I can’t tell much more of the plot without spoiling what little actual suspense there is, but suffice to say, fans of the original film will find several points of deviation from the story as they remember it, though Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self’s script retains many of the character names and basic arc of the original screenplay.

Thrills, such as they are, come mostly in sudden quick-cut jolts of violence, and though the film doesn’t exactly wallow in gore, there’s plenty of blood, severed heads, and the like. There do seem to be some continuity problems, perhaps the result of skittish last-minute editing.

The film has atmosphere, and Danny Elfman’s appropriately pounding score sets the tone.

Hopkins chews the scenery shamelessly, but it’s that kind of role. Matters of accent aside, Del Toro has the right tortured manner for the role. And even in these dubious surroundings, Blunt manages a respectable performance, not far removed from the one she gave in “The Young Victoria.”

And with classy supporting players like Weaving, Sher, Chaplin, and David Schofield as a constable, the production as a whole – dark but lush -- is more than decent, even if more suggestive of the Hammer horror films of the 1950s than the Universal prototypes to which it purports to pay homage.

(Rated R by the MPAA for bloody horror violence and gore.)

Friday, February 5, 2010

Liza’s At the Palace (MPI Home Video)



By Harry Forbes

Liza Minnelli’s 2009 engagement at New York’s fabled Palace Theatre, coming after a European tryout, was justly acclaimed as one of the all-time great showbiz comebacks.

A mere year earlier – in a summer concert at Brooklyn’s Asser Levy Seaside Park – she barely had the energy to stand throughout her performance, and here she was on Broadway carrying off a two-hour plus evening of almost two dozen songs and commanding the stage with something not far removed from her trademark dynamism.

Critics outdid themselves for superlatives and she justly won Tony and Drama Desk awards for her performance.

That act has been faithfully and beautifully directed for video by Matthew Diamond, and produced in typical classy fashion by JoAnn Young, veteran of some of PBS’s finest musical moments (with Jim Arntz and Sven Nebelung) . Though the venue was the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, you’d scarcely know the difference. The songs, patter and electricity are precisely the same. Musical values are high, courtesy of her music director, singer-pianist Billy Stritch.

The video was presented last December on public television stations in a greatly abridged version, but this DVD release gives you the full show.

Minnelli’s performance is, if anything, enhanced by all the loving close-ups, and though the face is slightly fuller now, she looks terrific. The camera’s proximity underscores the subtlety of her acting throughout, especially several character songs like her extraordinary reading of Charles Aznavour’s “What Makes a Man a Man?”

The evening was anchored by two nostalgic centerpieces: a tribute to her mother Judy Garland, and another to her godmother, vocalist and MGM arranger and coach Kay Thompson, the latter the raison d’etre for the show.

Goosebump moment number one had Minnelli recreating her mom’s salute to the great entertainers who performed before her at the Palace: Nora Bayes, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, and Eva Tanguay. Later, she movingly sang her mother’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as an encore. Both these moments are treasurable, as Minnelli has been fairly rigorous about not touching her mother’s material.

The second act was anchored by her tribute to Thompson. Backed by four talented singers – Jim Caruso, Johnny Rodgers, Cortes Alexander, and Tiger Martina -- she recreates Thompson’s groundbreaking club act from the 1940s, with the choreography recreated by Ron Lewis mainly from stills as there is no extant footage.

Minnelli has been fortunate that so many of her stage performances have been preserved on film. From the Emmy-winning “Liza with a Z” to the specials she made for HBO to her DVD concert with mentor Aznavour, the quality has been extraordinarily high over the decades.

On purely vocal terms, this latest can’t quite be said to be on a par with those earlier shows. After her serious bout with viral encephalitis in 2000, the voice now does not always do what she wants it to do, and her “s’s” occasionally come out distractingly with an “sh” sound. (The tongue-twisting “If You Hadn’t, But You Did” is particularly problematic in that regard, even with the DVD’s crystalline digital sound.)

But her professionalism and artistry remain undiminished, and have, if anything, increased with time. She knows how to interpret a lyric for maximum effect, and incredibly, she can still belt “Cabaret” and “New York, New York” with much of her former power. And the autobiographical patter between numbers has been carefully crafted and is unfailingly interesting.

She’s frequently winded after her more energetic numbers, but humorously mocks her diminished energy level, eschewing her former Jolsonesque down-on-one-knee delivery of “Mammy.”

The DVD comes with a two-page essay by her close friend, singer Michael Feinstein, and the disc has an especially treasurable bonus in a lengthy, intimate conversation between Lewis and Minnelli about the genesis of the show, which provides insight into Minnelli’s keen intelligence and determination.

They don’t make them like that anymore, and this video captures a great entertainer at her mature peak.

(Liza’s At the Palace, MPI Home Video, Suggested Retail Price: $24.98; also available on Blu-Ray)

From Paris with Love (Lionsgate/EuropaCorp)



By Harry Forbes

This is a fast moving, not unexciting, but exceedingly violent thriller about CIA operatives attempting to foil a terrorist plot in the City of Light.

James Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an aide to the U.S. ambassador to France (Richard Durden) has been moonlighting as a junior CIA operative, but hopes for bigger things. He gets more than he bargained for when he’s finally assigned to work with a maverick agent Charlie Wax (John Travolta) against assorted baddies.

Directed by Pierre Morel, who helmed the box office smash “Taken,” this is another adrenaline-pounding thriller, though this time, though much less effective than the more viscerally appealing father-seeking-kidnapped-daughter storyline of its predecessor.

The first half of the movie has Reese and Wax facing off against Asian drug dealers (there’s a big shoot-em-up in a Chinese restaurant, for starters), the second against terrorists intent on bombing a top-level international conference, overseen by Reese’s ambassador boss. Apparently, the drug money finances the terrorist.

Kasnia Smutniak plays Reese’s pretty girlfriend who turns out to play a more important part than mere window dressing. Their engagement dinner is disrupted when Reese gets the fateful call to meet the just-arrived Wax at the airport where the wildly unconventional agent has already caused a fuss at customs.

To say that Wax is a trigger-happy lunatic is an understatement. But Travolta – bald, foul-mouthed, sporting a goatee and an earring -- does have fun with the sort of role that might be more of a natural for Bruce Willis.

The Irish Meyers – with an impressively authentic American accent -- and Travolta have a surprisingly enjoyable rapport, something akin to that of Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg in “Zombieland,” the outrageous older mentor and the less experienced, gun-shy sidekick.

But this script (by Adi Hasak, from a story by producer Luc Besson) isn’t nearly as witty as that one. There’s a mildly amusing visual gag involving Reese having to carry around a huge vase of cocaine, in the midst of all the shooting. But more wacky banter between the two leads in what is essentially a classic buddy setup, and less mindless mayhem – which here becomes awfully tiresome -- would have been welcome.

(Rated R by the MPAA for strong bloody violence throughout, pervasive language and brief sexuality.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mickey Rooney: The Long & Short of it (Infinity Entertainment Group)



By Harry Forbes

Despite his diminutive height (5’ 3”), make no mistake: Mickey Rooney was a major Hollywood star with over 200 films to his credit. From 1939-1941, he was actually number one at the box office. And he’s still performing today. So he is certainly deserving of a comprehensive boxed set. Unfortunately, this isn’t it.

Most of the memorable films he’s known for from his MGM period (including the series of musicals with Judy Garland) have been released by Warner Home Video.

What we have here is a rather peculiar amalgam of some disparate titles, all in public domain. The packaging and the attendant press material don’t even tell us what’s in this six-DVD box, and little wonder: the titles would mean absolutely nothing to most people.

And yet given the purview of most of the source material, print quality is not too bad on some of them. And for Rooney enthusiasts, the set may be worthwhile acquisition, as these titles may not turn up elsewhere. And Rooney is such a pro that even in these lesser effort, his natural quality shines through, and this set certainly charts his progression from precocious tyke to incredibly talented youngster and teenager, and finally, solid character actor.

The most worthy titles are probably David O. Selznick’s production of “Little Lord Fauntleroy” (1936) and his acclaimed performance in “The Comedian,” a Golden Age of TV era “Playhouse 90” production. Several pegs down from those titles are “Hoosier Schoolboy” (1937); “Love Finds Andy Hardy” (1946), the penultimate film in the Hardy series and a failure; “The Big Wheel” (1949); “Quicksand” (1950); “My Outlaw Brother” (1951) in which “Variety” labeled him “woefully miscast”; “Mooch Goes to Hollywood” (1971); “The Manipulator” (1971); and “Find the Lady” (1976), a Canadian film.

Other titles in the set include “Officer Thirteen" (1932); "The Big Chance" (1933); "The Lost Jungle" (1934); and "Little Pal (The Healer)" (1935). He only had minor roles in most of these. There are three of his early shorts from his Mickey Maguire period, and some other short film and television sequences, including one episode from his series “Hey, Mulligan,” and a priceless encounter with Jayne Mansfield on an awards show.

(The Long & Short of it, Infinity Entertainment Group, Suggested Retail Price: $39.98)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Victor Herbert 150th Birthday Celebration (The Little Orchestra Society)



By Harry Forbes

Given composer Victor Herbert’s unaccountably shameful neglect, it was heartening to hear a packed audience at Alice Tully Hall on Monday night singing along lustily to such chestnuts as “Sweethearts,” “In Old New York,” and “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.”

The occasion was the 150th birthday of the Irish-born Herbert, an event that kicked off with a proclamation from the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting officially declaring Victor Herbert Day.

The concert that followed was a glorious overview of an extraordinarily prolific and versatile composer, whose output encompassed classical orchestral works, opera, and a staggering number of operettas and musicals.

Dino Anagnost, music director of the The Little Orchestra Society, has been a faithful champion of Herbert’s music. In addition to regular seasonal performances of Herbert’s “Babes in Toyland” for children, he has resurrected some of Herbert’s most popular operetta titles every couple of years in semi-staged concert form at Alice Tully Hall, including at least one rarity, “Cyrano,” an unauthorized adaptation of “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

A trio from “Cyrano” was, in fact, one of three lesser known numbers performed Monday evening, which mixed orchestral selections with vocals by six soloists, including sopranos Julia Kogan and Korliss Uecker, mezzo Abigail Nims, tenor John Pickles, baritone Joshua Jeremiah, and bass-baritone Eric Downs.

The other rarities were numbers from “The Wizard of the Nile” and “The Idol’s Eye” respectively, sung drolly by Downs. Otherwise, the program was, more or less, Victor Herbert’s Greatest Hits with evergreens like “Thine Alone” and “The Italian Street Song.”

Anagnost conducted with grand style and ebullient flair, offering historical background between numbers, that task shared with the evening’s host, Broadway’s Kate Baldwin, who, towards the concert’s end, sang a sultry version of Herbert’s most durable pop hit, “Indian Summer,” arranged by orchestrator Jonathan Tunick.

Otherwise, the program used Herbert’s own glorious arrangements. Unlike most Broadway composers, then and now, Herbert wrote his own. His expertise in that area was further demonstrated by the inclusion of several rich orchestral pieces, including his “Festival March” “Cuban Serenade,” “Royal Sec,” and “Violoncello Concerto No. 2 in E minor.”

Only two movements of the last named were done, but they gave the flavor of the piece, with Matt Haimovitz providing the spectacular cello playing. Indeed, most of the numbers were performed in slightly truncated form, which was arguably forgivable, on this occasion, given the large number of selections.

Eric Downs and Joshua Jeremiah vied for baritone honors, the latter especially impressive in two numbers from “Mlle. Modiste.” John Pickle lent his pleasing tenor to “I’m Falling in Love with Someone,” and joined the others for “In Old New York.” (Was it necessary to substitute “girls” for “queens” in the familiar lyric “the queens you’ll meet on any street in old New York”?)

Abigail Nims was a standout with “’Neath the Southern Moon,” and Herbert’s most famous “Kiss” songs, “A Kiss in the Dark” and “Kiss Me Again.” Uecker got a big ovation for “To the Land of My Own Romance” while Kogan delivered spirited versions of her two big character numbers.

The vocal high point, though, was a magnificent “Live for Today” from “Naughty Marietta,” sung by all the soloists and the evening’s sturdy chorale group, the Metropolitan Singers/The Greek Choral Society.

When the orchestral sound was at its most effulgent, lyrics were sometimes covered, and some moderate miking would have been welcome, but that’s a small carp.

There is, of course, so much more to Herbert than the once-famous titles on display here. The late conductor John McGlinn’s sadly aborted project of urtext recordings (and performing editions) of Herbert & Jerome Kern’s scores would perhaps have brought these marvelous pieces back to the limelight in a major way.

As it is, this celebratory concert -- coming as it did amidst the Light Opera of New York’s Victor Herbert season at the Players – gave hope that the works of our greatest operetta composer may yet endure.

(Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, Little Orchestra Society, 212-971-9500 or www.littleorchestra.org)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Time Stands Still (Manhattan Theatre Club)


By Harry Forbes

Donald Margulies’ latest work, “Time Stands Still,” is sharply and wittily written, exploring not only the domestic relationships of its two central couples, but also the myriad gradations of involvement and detachment in a troubled world.

Sarah (Laura Linney) is a newsmagazine photojournalist just returned to the States after being crippled and scarred in a roadside bomb in Iraq. She’s being cared for by her longtime companion, reporter James (Brian d’Arcy James) who had returned to their Brooklyn home a few weeks before Sarah’s injury after he suffered a mental breakdown there.

He now hopes they can marry and live a more conventional life away from roadside bombs and other dangers. He’s decided he’ll be happier writing an article about the cathartic effects of horror films.

Despite their nine years together, and James’ tender care of Sarah in aftermath of Sarah’s injury, there’s a chink in their relationship. It seems Sarah had a romantic involvement with her local “fixer” (i.e. translator) who was killed in the explosion. Still, James is content to forget the affair, and carry on.

Sarah’s editor and former flame Richard (Eric Bogosian) shows up with his half-his-age girlfriend Mandy (Alicia Silverstone), an event planner. The naïve young woman is appalled at the misery in the world and Sarah’s seeming detachment to the horrors she captures through her lens. These are moments, Sarah explains, when “time stands still.” Mandy likens her to a documentarian that allows cruel nature to run its course in the wild, doing nothing to interfere.

Richard and Mandy are becoming exemplars of the domestic tranquility that has become increasingly appealing to James.

Smoothly directed by Daniel Sullivan for Manhattan Theatre Club, the four stars couldn’t be better in delineating their interesting and varied characters.

Laura Linney’s Sarah, toughened by her experience, and leery of family life, in view of her fractious relationship with her (never seen) father; James, his character strong and loving, even as he seeks retreat by immersing himself in horror flicks on his new flat screen TV; Silverstone, most appealing as the lightweight addition to the close-knit group and showing more mettle than first assumed; and Bogosian, a straight-shooter, supportive of his friends, and at mid-life, genially getting in step with his new relationship.

In lively, naturalistic dialogue, Margulies explores his themes in several thought-provoking confrontations. Can knowing about the horrors of the world – either through photos, articles, or theatrical re-enactments -- really effect change? What is the role of journalists in the world's hotspots? Are they merely building their careers on other people’s misery?

Margulies doesn’t provide pat answers, but he gives us plenty to chew on and this blue-chip cast is a pleasure to watch.

John Lee Beatty’s loft setting looks like the real McCoy, as expertly lit by Peter Kaczorowski, and Rita Ryack’s costumes are as impeccable as all the other elements of this fine production.

(Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, 212-239-6200)

Monday, February 1, 2010

A View from the Bridge (Cort Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Hecht give outstanding performances in Arthur Miller’s modern Greek tragedy, originally written in one-act, later expanded to two.

Set in Brooklyn’s Italian-American Red Hook, dock worker Eddie Carbone (Schreiber) and his wife Beatrice (Hecht) have raised his orphaned niece Catherine (Johansson), who’s blossomed into a nubile young woman.

Eddie’s protectiveness of the guilelessly affectionate girl has morphed into an unnatural attachment, and he objects when she proudly announces she’s been chosen out of all the students in her secretarial school to start an actual office job.

Matters are further complicated when Beatrice’s Italian cousins Marco (Corey Stall) and blond Rodolpho (Morgan Spector) arrive illegally to stay with them, and Catherine and Rodolpho fall in love.

Eddie becomes predictably jealous of the attachment and convinces himself that “something ain’t right” about Rodolpho, implying that the young man is simply desperate for citizenship, and that his amiable manner and sweet tenor voice are signs of homosexuality. He confides all this to the lawyer Alfieri (Michael Cristofer), who also serves as the play’s narrator, a one-man Greek chorus, who urges Eddie to dispel those suspicions.

The stage is set for tragedy.

Miller’s text and the performances so strong, that the production is never less than compelling, but Gregory Mosher’s direction seems curiously muted. I recall the Tony-winning 1997 revival with Anthony LaPaglia, Allison Janney and the late Brittany Murphy -- as more satisfying overall.

To this production’s credit, Schreiber and Johansson’s entrances are so understated that the audience barely identifies them as the stars of the evening, and unusual for even the most serious plays on Broadway, the mood isn’t spoiled by applause.

Cristofer’s portentous narration is, at least, intelligently delivered, but I can’t help feeling that some musical underscoring during his monologues might strengthen Miller’s tedious conceit, while still avoiding anything that smacks of melodrama as Mosher seems determined to do.

John Lee Beatty’s scenic design – the façade of the Red Hook tenements swinging around to reveal the Carbone’s cramped apartment – is appropriately forbidding. Ditto Peter Kaczorowski’s shadowed lighting design.

Schreiber is totally immersed in his working class manner, heavy Brooklyn accent and all, even if he lacks the Italianate quality that past interpreters – Anthony LePaglia, Tony LoBianco, Raf Vallone in Sidney Lumet’s movie version (and where, incidentally is that excellent film?) – brought to the role. (On the other hand, we should remember the original Eddie was Van Heflin.)

Though Eddie can easily seem the villain of the piece, and his demand for “respect” in his own home rather ludicrous, given events as they unfold, Schreiber strives mightily to limn a well-intentioned man in the throes of a jealous passion beyond his control.

Johansson proves completely comfortable on stage, and fits in unobtrusively as a part of the ensemble, while affecting a convincing Brooklyn accent too.

Hecht – so touching in the late, lamented “Brighton Beach Memoirs” revival – etches another memorable portrayal here of a neglected wife, loving her niece, but understanding that her inattentive husband is in the throes of an unhealthy obsession.

Spector – who replaced Santino Fontana (like Hecht, so outstanding in “Brighton Beach Memoirs”) when the latter suffered a concussion during previews – performs capably, while Stall – the welfare of whose character's family back in Sicily depends mightily on his earnings on the docks – has several powerful moments when that livelihood is imperiled.

Though I would have preferred a somewhat flashier approach overall, this is, without question, a powerful revival of one of Miller’s most grippingly entertaining plays.

(Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)