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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Footnotes: Dion Boucicault Via Satellite Delights



I had been curious about the series of NT Live presentations – satellite high definition feeds of plays from London’s National Theatre – but somehow missed the inaugural transmissions of “Phedre,” “The Habit of Art,” “Nation,” and “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

But I wasn’t going to let the acclaimed production of 19th century playwright Dion Boucicault’s “London Assurance,” pass by. Some may remember that the work – in a Royal Shakespeare Company production -- actually enjoyed a decent run at the Palace Theatre in the 1974/75 season with Donald Sinden, Roger Rees, and Elizabeth Spriggs.

On this occasion, Simon Russell Beale assumed Sinden’s role of Sir Harcourt Courtly, and gave a superb comic portrayal of a foppish gentleman with extravagant gestures and delicious double takes that gave new meaning to “over-the-top.”

Sir Harcourt is engaged to the (much younger) Grace (Michelle Terry), niece of his good friend, the good-natured Max (Mark Addy).

When Sir Harcourt comes to call on his intended at Max’s country house, he’s surprised to find his son Charles (Paul Ready), but through the contrivance of Charles’ inventive friend Richard Dazzle (Matt Cross), Sir Harcourt is convinced that the young man is merely a look-alike for his own son back home.

Of course, Charles falls in love with the spunky Grace himself, while Sir Harcourt takes a fancy to the cigar-chomping, hearty laughing, horsewoman Lady Gay Spanker, played with incomparable gusto by Fiona Shaw. She, in turn, has her hands full with her hilariously doddering old husband, played by Richard Briers with great panache.

Some sync problems aside, the technical quality was remarkably fine, with excellent camerawork, and enough audience shots before and after to give a satisfying you-are-there ambience.

The packed audience at BAM’s Rose Cinema laughed and applauded as if they were in the NT’s Olivier Theatre themselves.

The video began 15 minutes before official showtime with coverage of a juggling troupe just outside the South Bank theater. That grew a little tiresome. I think I’d have rather seen the actual theater crowd milling about in the lobby, but clearly this was just meant to be filler, and the BAM audience continued to converse during the juggling.

A brief interview with director Nicholas Hytner followed.

The troupe returned during the interval. And at the end of the performance, the cast came out to take their bows on the outdoor stage for the picnickers who had just watched the performance on an outdoor screen.

The production – superbly helmed by Hytner -- ended its London run on June 29, but it would be lovely if this broadcast – not to mention the others in the series – have an after-life, much as the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts do on PBS and DVD.

Photo by Catherine Ashmore: Michelle Terry (Grace Harkaway), Simon Russell Beale (Sir Harcourt Courtly)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Knight and Day (Twentieth Century Fox/Regency Enterprises)



By Harry Forbes

Tom Cruise is at his charismatic best in this engaging comic action lark.

He’s covert agent Roy Miller fighting off a succession of pursuers, including CIA agents and assorted bad guys, while he tries to protect a geeky scientist (Paul Dano) who’s come up with a bullet-sized energy source called the Zephyr.

Cameron Diaz plays June Havens, with whom he literally collides in the film’s opening scenes at a Wichita airport where she’s en route to pick up a carburetor. (Don’t ask.) On the plane, while June powders her nose, Roy dispatches all of the dozen or so nefarious passengers and the pilot, and lands the plane himself.

Though she screams a lot, June is, on the whole, remarkably nonplussed by all this. She’s now compromised by her association with him, her own life in danger, and the pair must elude peril at every turn, while June frets about attending her sister’s wedding back home.

Their adventures take them to Boston, Salzburg, Cadiz, and a tropical island. Roy and June get drugged and captured. There are car chases, an attack on a train by a professional assassin, a hair-raising motorcycle escape amidst the running of the bulls, and more

Is the enigmatic Roy good or bad? Crazy or sane? A rogue CIA agent? Is he falling for June or simply using her? Patrick O’Neill’s script keeps you guessing, but given the genre and Cruise’s charm factor – which, incidentally, is as much “acting” as Cary Grant’s effortless magnetism -- you never really seriously doubt his character’s good intentions.

Among their dogged stalkers are recent Tony Award-winner (for “Fences”) Viola Davis and Peter Sarsgaard playing the Feds, and, in the Spanish sequence, Jordi Mollá as a weapons kingpin.

The clinches between Cruise and Diaz are genuinely romantic, a rarity these days, and sex doesn’t enter into it. They have a good-natured rapport throughout. The violence is of the action variety, albeit with a high body count. The stars are both adept at balancing the comic and romantic elements, and both are up to the considerable physical demands of much of the stunt work.

Director James Mangold keeps things moving with just the right light-hearted spirit.

There’s nothing profound here, and you’ll have to check your disbelief at the door, but as a fun summer movie, this tale of global espionage delivers the goods.

(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for sequences of action violence throughout, and brief strong language.)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Footnotes: Irish Revels in the Scottish Highlands?



The Scottish setting may, in theory, have seemed a bit off the mark for the Irish Repertory Theatre, but not for long.

As the centerpiece of their annual gala, the enterprising company took over the Shubert Theatre for an abridged concert reading of Lerner & Loewe’s 1947 classic, set in a magical town of the Scottish Highlands. Cuts notwithstanding, they gave a most moving performance under the guidance of Artistic Director Charlotte Moore.

With any luck, this may foretell an actual mounting, much as the company's 2003 “Finian’s Rainbow” benefit gala presentation lead to a full production at their 22nd Street home the following year.

If that should happen, let’s hope they get Melissa Errico and Jason Danieley to reprise their roles as, respectively, Fiona and Tommy, the American wanderer who falls for her. They were just ideal, “The Heather on the Hill” and “Almost Like Bein’ in Love” sounding especially sublime.

There was a classy supporting cast including Christine Ebersole as man-hungry Meg Brockie, Len Cariou as old Lundie who tells Jeff and his companion Jeff (an amusingly sardonic Don Stephenson) the legend of Brigadoon and how it comes back for one day every 100 years.

A nice-sized orchestra conducted by Mark Hartman and chorus of 50 backed up the leads. A kilted Ciarán O’Reilly, the company’s producing director, provided the sensible narration from the sidelines. Matthew Broderick and Jonathan Cake engaged in some amusing Irish versus English banter as a curtain raiser.

In Moore’s adaptation (less than 90 minutes), Meg lost her companion comic number “The Love of My Life” and there was no “From This Day On,” but what remained was lovely.

Sebastian Barry’s “White Woman Street” is the company’s current production through June 27, after which, the late Frank McCourt’s amusing revue “The Irish…and how they got that way” opens on July 14.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Peter Pan (Paper Mill Playhouse)



By Harry Forbes

Playing a boy or not, Nancy Anderson is still pretty darned cute as J.M. Barrie’s most enduring creation. And she’s second to none, not even gymnast Cathy Rigby who has made such a specialty of Peter Pan, in terms of sheer athleticism.

Apart from the especially vigorous flying, Anderson performs multiple cartwheels and handstands. She leaps up and over the set with boundless ease, and dances up a storm. She whistles, plays the fife and kettle-drum. And she gets to sing in both her clarion belt voice, and classical soprano, all the while creating an artfully convincing lad with an impish sense of fun, a merry laugh, and a tomboyish bravado.

As astute musical lovers know, Anderson is one of those performers that, if she had been born in an earlier age, would be – like this musical version’s sublime creator, Mary Martin -- one of Broadway’s superstars by now, as her versatility knows no bounds, and she’s such an instantly appealing performer. So to see her take on one of the great lady roles from Broadway’s golden age is reason enough to high-tail it to Millburn, N.J.

The frenetic production around her, though, is something of a disappointment. More or less the Rigby production in terms of sets (John Iacovelli), costumes (Shigeru Yaji), and choreography (Patti Colombo), this mounting – directed by Paper Mill Artistic Director Mark Hoebee -- seems rather calculatedly short on heart and sentiment, presumably to ensure that the kids in the audience not be bored for a second.

The more poignant scenes are played much too fast. Even Peter entreating the audience to affirm their belief in fairies in order to revive the poisoned sprite Tinker Bell feels rushed.

The tuneful musical numbers (under Robert Meffe’s confident baton) – some by Mark Charlap (with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh), others by Jule Styne (and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green) -- are sometimes undercut by far too much physicality which leaves even the seemingly inexhaustible Anderson understandably breathless (though she uses all her considerable professionalism to disguise it).

The lovely Glory Crampton is a glamorous and empathetic Mrs. Darling. Douglas Sills’ Mr. Darling is fine, but oddly, he underplays Captain Hook, perhaps not wishing to copy the musical’s campy originator Cyril Ritchard. Still, he comes up with some choice line readings.

Jessica Lee Goldyn, last seen as Ivy in the Encores “On the Town,” makes a dynamic Tiger Lily, dancing superbly.

Columbo pulls out all the stops in the frenzied second act “Ugg-A-Wugg“ opener, a genuinely thrilling number, which after Anderson, is the most compelling reason to buy a ticket..

The production restores the Peter-Hook duet, “Oh, My Mysterious Lady,” cut from the Rigby version, since Anderson has the coloratura trills to do it justice.

The Darling children -- Hayley Podschun as Wendy, Jack Broderick as Michael, and Josh Pins as John – are adequate, as is John O’Creagh as Hook’s sidekick Smee

The production looks quite handsome, if occasionally spare, but the sound design lacked refinement and was occasionally distorted.

(Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, N.J., 973-376-4343 or www.papermill.org)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Footnotes: Theatre World Awards (June 8, 2010)



The ceremony that “Theatre World” founder John Willis began 66 years ago continues to be among the very nicest of all the seasonal awards. Each year, 12 newcomers to the New York stage – veteran performers though they may be in other cities or media – are honored for auspicious Big Apple debuts.

At New Stages yesterday, Peter Filichia proved again a funny, incredibly well-informed host, and highlights were many. The presenters – usually past winners themselves, and sometimes connected to the honoree, sometimes not – make speeches as heartfelt and moving as the recipient.

Thus, Michael Cristofer waxed ecstatic about Scarlett Johansson’s coming of age as a stage actress during rehearsals for “A View from the Bridge,” readjusting her already-fine if intimate portrayal to Broadway scale. Michael McKean, the afternoon’s most amusing presenter, praised co-star Jon Michael Hill from their short-lived but excellent “Superior Donuts.” Alfred Molina spoke of how much he learned from co-star Eddie Redmayne who threw back the compliment in his acceptance speech. Kate Burton, currently in rehearsal for A. R. Gurney’s “The Grand Manner,” rhapsodized over co-star Bobby Steggert who won the special Dorothy Loudon Starbaby award for both “Yank!” and “Ragtime.” Vanessa Williams, who’s been a mentor to Michael Urie on their series “Ugly Betty,” spoke of his special qualities. And on it went.

The speeches of both presenters and honorees are a vivid reminder of why we love the theater so much, and this particular award, which generally comes so early in an actor’s career, is all the more meaningful.

Among the standout musical performers, which included John Tartaglia and Loretta Ables Sayre, and all deftly accompanied by Alex Rybeck, were Alli Mauzey who reprised her very funny “Screw Loose” from the short-lived “Cry-Baby” and Jonathan Groff who delivered a show-stopping “Only in New York,” Sheryl Lee Ralph’s nightclub number from “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

“My favorite song from ‘Spring Awakening,’” quipped Filichia as he returned to the stage after the latter, a far cry from the tunes of Duncan Sheik.

The presentation was briskly directed by Barry Keating.

Nina Arianda (Venus in Fur) – presented by Tovah Feldshuh
Chris Chalk (Fences) – presented by Viola Davis
Bill Heck (The Orphans' Home Cycle) – presented by Michael Cerveris
Jon Michael Hill (Superior Donuts) – presented by Michael McKean
Scarlett Johansson (A View from the Bridge) – presented by Michael Cristofer
Keira Keeley (The Glass Menagerie) – presented by Condola Rashad
Sahr Ngaujah (Fela!) – presented by Kate Burton (in turn introduced by Lionel Larner)
Eddie Redmayne (Red) – presented by Alfred Molina
Andrea Riseborough (The Pride) – presented by Robert LuPone
Heidi Schreck (Circle Mirror Transformation) – presented by her mother
Stephanie Umoh (Ragtime) – presented by Brian Stokes Mitchell
Michael Urie (The Temperamentals) – presented by Vanessa Williams

More on the Theatre World Awards can be found here:
http://www.theatreworldawards.org/about.html

-- Harry Forbes

Friday, June 4, 2010

Get Him to the Greek (Universal Pictures)




By Harry Forbes

Russell Brand’s womanizing Brit rocker Aldous Snow was a comic standout in the excellent “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” written by actor Jason Segel and directed by Nicholas Stoller. And Brand’s scenes with the idolatrous fan waiter played by Jonah Hill were particularly choice.

So Stoller has now taken Aldous and fashioned a new story, co-starring Hill, who here plays a completely different character. He’s Aaron Green, a nebbishy record company executive (Jonah Hill) sent to London to bring the dissolute star to perform an anniversary concert at Los Angeles’ Greek Theater. The results are sometimes tasteless, but on the whole, quite amusing.

Aldous’ career is particularly on the skids after the disaster of his appalling, politically incorrect if well-intentioned “African Child” music video, dubbed by nearly all as the worst thing to happen to race relations since apartheid.

Aaron is under strict orders from his boss, record honcho Sergio Roma (Sean Combs), to bring the drug-taking idol first to the “Today” show in New York (Meredith Vieira plays herself), then to the concert venue all within 72 hours, whatever it takes to do so.

Along the way, Aaron is forced to ingest large doses of drugs, act as a mule for Aldous’ heroin, get stabbed with an adrenaline needle, and become, shall we say, intimate with at least two uninhibited ladies.

As for that last indignity, Aaron believes he’s broken up with his sweet long-term girlfriend Daphne (Elizabeth Moss from “Mad Men), so sheepishly allows himself to go along with the first infidelity. (He and Daphne, a medical intern, had argued about moving from L.A. to Seattle for her to accept a position there.) But it seems Daphne only viewed their argument as a minor scrap, which throws Aaron into a guilty tailspin.

Along the way, of course, Aaron bonds with Aldous, whose romantic troubles -- pining for his ex-wife, model-singer Jackie Q. (Rose Byrne delivering a sharp performance), mother of his young son – parallel those of Aaron.

Stoller’s script spoofs celebrity, the pomposity and naive social consciousness of pop stars, the vapidity of the media, all the while humorously pitting the contradictions of an outlandish lifestyle against traditional values. For despite the sex, drugs, amoral behavior, and considerable gross-out humor, there’s a genuine humanity here, and at the end of it all, a pleasing moral center, as is true of all the Judd Apatow-produced films.

The film lags a bit during the Vegas sequence where Aldous meets up with his ne’er-do-well dad (Colm Meaney) who split from Aldous’ mom (Dinah Stabb) years earlier.

Brand and Hill are inspired comic actors, but also etch solid characterizations. Brand’s Aldous is narcissistic and wildly out of control, yet basically decent. Hill’s Aaron can be a push-over, but he projects strength of character. They work beautifully together.

In their inspired company, Combs – though he certainly throws himself wholeheartedly into the comedy – is over parted, as the street smart, industry-savvy, foul-mouthed exec who turns out to be a family man underneath it all.

(Rated R by the MPAA for strong sexual content and drug use throughout, and pervasive language.)

Splice (Warner Bros. Pictures)




By Harry Forbes

Hollywood has shown us time and again that it’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature, as Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley), genetic researchers for a pharmaceutical company N.E.R.D. learn here when they secretly mix animal and human DNA, and come up with a strange female creature they attempt to raise on their own.

An earlier experiment resulting in more rudimentary blob-like creatures named “Fred” and “Ginger” gives their financially-strapped company hope that the synthesized protein which they hope to mine is within their grasp. Clive and Elsa are ordered to ditch the research, and move immediately into the production phase, prompting them to continue their hybrid experiment in secrecy.

Dren (that’s “nerd” backwards) quickly morphs from infant to child (Abigail Chu) then to nubile young woman (Delphine Chanéac), with spindly, elongated legs, amphibious paws, and on occasion, wings. She’s alternately unruly and sweetly docile.

Brody and Polley are appealing, first-rate actors, so their presence alone raises the bar of this familiar story. Furthermore, the script (co-written by director Vincenzo Natali, along with Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor) gives a novel twist to this intriguing tale of genetic engineering, including some very kinky elements as the story progresses. The morality of what Clive and Elsa have wrought becomes alarmingly apparent.

Generally, “Splice” is absorbing entertainment, though suspension of disbelief is, clearly, essential. But there are some head scratching changes in motivation particularly from Polley’s character who, after being the soul of maternal protectiveness, turns on Dren quite shockingly, a rather curious turnabout for her character.

Special effects are excellent, particularly the infant creature executed with some fascinating CGI effects. The maturing Dren is an effective combination of computer effects and live action.

Natali directs the murky tale with effective atmosphere. (It was produced by Guillermo del Toro and, in fact, parts of the movie recall some of the fanciful elements of “Pan’s Labyrinth.”)

As noted, Brody and Polley give totally committed, plausible performances, until the script throws them some curves late in the game, and the story veers off to its wild tangents.

(Rated R by the MPAA for disturbing elements including strong sexuality, nudity, sci-fi violence and language.)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

DVD Review: The Judy Garland Show: Volumes 3 and 4 (Infinity Entertainment Group)



By Harry Forbes

Judy Garland would surely be pleased that her CBS television series (1963-64) – the cancellation of which, after a losing ratings battle with NBC’s “Bonanza,” mightily distressed her – is now enjoying its second DVD issue, looking as sharp and clear as if it were done yesterday, apart from being shot in black-and-white.

Volume 3 is of particular current interest in that one of its two episodes is the show she did with the late Lena Horne, along with Terry-Thomas. That show is paired with the Tony Bennett/Dick Shawn episode.

Garland herself looks great in both episodes, trim, stylishly attired and with a becoming coif. As was sometimes the case, though, she a bit less on top of her game than her lustrous co-stars, singing strongly but muffing lyrics, and looking occasionally at sea in the medleys.

Still, she delivers a heartfelt version of Noel Coward’s “If Love Were All” at the opening, and a really sensational “Stormy Weather” on the Bennett show, while in between, pairing surprisingly well with comedian Shawn for “My Buddy.” Her “Day In, Day Out” duet with Horne shows her in fine voice, though Horne trumps her in the extended medley of each performing the other’s hits.

Horne actually looks rather fierce throughout the hour, but seems to enjoy the reunion with her former MGM colleague. Though racial mores of the time discouraged interracial contact between performers of the opposite sex – Petula Clark’s mere touching of Harry Belafonte’s arm a few years later caused a firestorm – but Horne and Garland embrace frequently here with no repercussions.

Noel Coward’s “Mad Dogs and Englishman” (with Thomas) doesn’t quite come off, largely due to Garland’s tentative contribution, but elsewhere, she gets to recount her oft-told but very funny anecdote about the betrayal of a British journalist.

For Garland watchers, Vol. 4 shows the lady closest to peak, confident form. She teams with Broadway legend Ethel Merman in the first show and their duets show both ladies on equal footing.

Venturing away from her familiar repertoire, Garland sings a simple version of “Shenandoah” arrestingly shot as she stands next to a barrel in a Western setting, and does a full-out dance number with guest Peter Gennaro. The closing “Trunk” segment has her doing a well-sung “Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow” and a stirring “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” recorded in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

The other episode on Vol. 4 pairs the star with Vic Damone and Chita Rivera. Garland and Damone do an extended “West Side Story” medley, both in excellent voice, albeit prerecorded. Garland’s lip-syncing is not at her best here, but it barely mars the whole. She and Rivera – sporting a not terribly becoming beehive hairdo – sing “I Believe in You” to Louis Nye. Rivera dances in a so-so production number built around “I Got Plenty of Nothin.’”

Garland really shines in a particularly vibrant “By Myself” and concludes with firm-voiced versions of “Better Luck Next Time” from “Easter Parade” and her medley of “Almost Like Being in Love” and “This Can’t Be Love,” done even better than at her famous Carnegie Hall concert.

As noted, the print quality on these Infinity issues is superb, but it’s a pity that the indexing isn’t anywhere near as comprehensive, in terms of number of chapter stops, or informed as the previous issue on Pioneer. Tony Bennett’s rendering of the classic tune “True Blue Lou” comes up on the menu as “True Blue Moon.” The multi-song “West Side Story” medley is simply titled “Maria.” And the aforementioned knockout version of “Stormy Weather” is awkwardly dubbed “Don’t Know Why There’s No Sun Up in the Sky.”

(The Judy Garland Show: Vol. 3 & 4; Infinity Entertainment Group; suggested retail: $19.98 each.)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Passion Play (Epic Theatre Ensemble)



By Harry Forbes

It’s closing on Friday, so you’ll have to hurry, but the Epic Theatre Ensemble‘s production of Sarah Ruhl’s epic trilogy about the mounting of the biblical Passion Play in, respectively, anti-Catholic Elizabethan England, Nazi-era Bavaria (in Oberammergau) where the play’s inherent anti-Semitism fed the existing climate, and 1960’s Spearfish South Dakota – and the intersection of art, religion, and politics -- is one of the major events of the season.

After productions at the Yale Repertory Theatre and the Goodman Theatre, this is the first mounting in New York, and it’s superbly staged by Mark Wing-Davey.

There’s no denying that at three and one half hours plus, the three-act play does feel its length, but theatergoers will be rewarded with imaginative stagecraft, a superlative cast, and an absorbing narrative. (During intermission, bagels and little thimbles of wine (or grape juice) are freely distributed.

Ruhl is currently a Tony contender for her excellent “In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play” and this work – begun 12 years ago – is reflective of the same imagination, humor, and poetry. Though the work is loaded with historical, political and sociological material, the story is grounded in the lives of the actors and crew in the various companies putting on the play.

Though their biblical parts remain more or less the same in each era – Hale Appleman is Jesus and Dominic Fumusa is Pilate in each act, for instance – the characters playing them are different. Thus, Fumusa and Appleman are rivals for the Mary actress (Kate Turnbull) in the first and third acts, and clandestine gay lovers in the second.

The ensemble cast is uniformly fine, but kudos especially to Fumusa, Appleman, Turnball, Polly Noonan as the Village Idiot, and Nicole Wiesner as a second Mary, and T. Ryder Smith for his bravura turns as Queen Elizabeth, Adolf Hitler and Ronald Reagan. But Keith Reddin, Brendan Averett, Daniel Pearce, Alex Podulke, Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. are all outstanding in multiple roles.

There are a couple of especially powerful scenes, as when a young Jewish woman (Noonan) pleads not to be taken off to (presumably) a concentration camp in the second act, and when a Vietnam vet (Fumusa) recalls his harrowing war experiences.

Allen Moyer and Warren Karp panoramic setting, as lighted by David Weiner makes ingenious use of the long playing area. The periodic motif of a procession of giant translucent fish – that most powerful of early Christian symbols – traversing the stage is most striking.

Music is most effectively employed too, some of it by David Van Tieghem.

(The Irondale Center, 85 South Oxford Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn, www.epictheatreensemble.org)