Thursday, November 29, 2007
Enchanted is an idea so obviously perfect for Disney that it is a wonder it took the studio as long as it did to come up with it. Uprooting the stock characters of classic Disney cartoons and tossing them into 21st Century Manhattan, Enchanted celebrates the classic films of Walt Disney, all the while recognizing that in this age of irony, those stories may no longer speak to the general audience in the way they once did. The film opens with an image of a storybook (natch!); a voice-over narration supplied by the dulcet Julie Andrews (double natch!) sets the scene for a story not unlike the myriad Grimm’s adaptations that Disney so specialized in during the 30’s and 40’s. We are introduced to our cartoon cast: a princess, a prince, a wicked witch, her stooge and a forest of adorable, chatty woodland creatures. After a brief scuffle with an ogre, our lovers sing a sweeping ballad, riding off into the sunset like Nelson Eddie and Jeanette MacDonald. Nuptial plans are interrupted when the wicked queen pushes Giselle down a magic well. The princess winds up in the sewers of New York City, presented in the flesh and blood body of Amy Adams. One by one the cast of characters comes through the portal (manhole), reeking havoc on Manhattan. The main plot involves Giselle’s relationship to a jaded New York Lawyer and single dad (Partick Dempsey) who discovers a helpless Giselle outlandishly barking for shelter at a tacky castle shaped casino billboard advertisement. Giselle is all the things he has rejected. After his wife abandoned him he no longer believes in “Happily Ever After” or "true love." About to propose to a JAP-y and business minded girlfriend (Idina Menzel, again playing the serious heavy to “Glinda the good”) he has resigned himself to a sensible and reasonable life that aspires to no fairy tale dreaming.
The fish-out-water in New York City scenario has been used ad naseum in movies ranging from Splash to Elf to Home Alone 2. What elevates Enchanted above this fray is it’s playful interaction with the audience's collective memories. Also a notch above is Amy Adams' shockingly good performance. What could have been a gratingly one-note portrayal is, in Adams' capable hands, a delightful exploration of sincerity and optimism. She even sings well; a skill best displayed in a delightful musical number sung amidst a bubbling, dancing central park, perhaps the location on earth most like a fairy tale anyway. (The memorable new songs are by Disney stalwarts Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.) Patrick Dempsey is sweet in his role as real-life (though reluctant) Prince Charming while James Marsden plays the classic cartoon equivalent, once again (following Hairspray) allowing Marsden a focused comedic turn after years of playing unsmiling stiffs.
The mythology of Disney has been deconstructed and lampooned before, primarily in the remarkably popular and deeply shallow Shrek films. Enchanted does not aspire to mock old Disney cartoons, condescendingly exposing all of their naïve conceits the way Shrek does. What the filmmakers here attempt is comic release predicated by our cynical contemporary reaction to the fairy tales that we so clung to in our collective childhoods. Since we know that we should no longer enjoy these pre-feminist, (pre-sexual, really) unrelentingly earnest stories, as Enchanted serenades us(figuratively and literally) into it’s spell we feel both pleasure and shame; the latter emanating from a recognition of how jaded we have become, anticipating ourselves incapable of the simple joys that these movies once brought us.
Despite all it’s warm hearted ambition the movie doesn’t quite have the courage of it’s convictions. In the end, Enchanted wants to have it both ways. Can fairy tales come true? Is Giselle’s wide-eyed optimism to be admired? Should we expect a fairy tale life? Or, is the complex and painful struggle of existing in the real world ultimately the more rewarding existence? The movie posits that both are true and concludes with a neat, happy ending that provides neither cause for contemplation nor thematic (as opposed to narrative) resolution. Ultimately, Enchanted is a children’s movie with a children’s moral. An conclusion that actually owned up to the complexities of adult life would undermine the frothy entertainment that Disney no doubt is striving for. Similar ideas were dealt with powerfully, and unsettlingly, in Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful 1988 musical Into The Woods, a fairy tale where heroic characters commit adultery, betray one another and even die-all after "happily ever after." Enchanted is a smash hit, and deservedly so, but the price it pays for success is the chance it had to become a lasting, meaningful work of art.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
After her smash success at City Center Encores the brassy and inimitable Patti LuPone is headed to Broadway in the role everyone says she was born to play, Mama Rose in Gypsy. It's a risky move. The last revival on Broadway starring a cast against type Bernadette Peters was hardly a smash and despite being a Broadway star LuPone's name is far less marketable for the tourist hoi polloi. Buoyed no doubt by mostly rave reviews for it's star, save a notable exception by the Times' Ben Brantley, Gypsy will grace the Great White for it's fifth incarnation the fourth of which premiered within this decade. Having seen both LuPone and Peters (but none of the other Broadway Mamas) I can assertively say that Peters gave the more memorable interpretation. LuPone sang the role with more gusto and panache then anyone since the Merm herself (in fact, LuPone's Broadway outing necessitates a new cast album-the first must-have recording since the original) but her acting in the book scenes sometimes fell flat. I felt her deadpan Mrs. Lovett, a delicious creation for that shows aesthetic, was bleeding over into her Mama. Peters wasn't wholly satisfying as Mama either, perhaps pushing the character too far into vulnerability. At times Peters appeared adrift in her songs, flailing her arms with unfocused emotion and straining for notes. But, the specificity and originality of Bernadette eventually won me over, the performances flaws being an unchangeable extension of the vary aspects of the performance that I enjoyed. There was some Schadenfreude in the theatre community towards Bernadette for missing many performances (especially early on) and for getting the part over Patti LuPone in the first place. This climaxed in the shocking win of Marisa Janet Winokour for the Tony prompting Bernadette to, rumor has it, walk out of the ceremony before it was finished. With Patti, it's all love all the time. Well, Gypsy is more than it's star and the production staged this past summer definitely needs some sprucing up before it can play the Great White Way. The sets, staging and costumes of the City Center production were redolent of summer stock and although it featured two amazing supporting actors as Lousia and Herbie (Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines respectively) other cast members did not fair as well. Worst of all was director, and bitchy queen for the ages (I think he's a musical theatre legend but, let's be honest here!), Arthur Laurents' unceremonious comments about Sam Mendes' direction of the Bernadette revival. These were particularly egregious since, from a directorial point of view, Mendes' production was far superior and polished. While Gypsy was never the kind of show prone to conceptual re-imagining (like Cabaret was), Mendes nevertheless cleaned up and made fresh this old warhorse for the 21st century. His touches were subtle but exceedingly missed this past summer. Still, I hope the show does well (it's perhaps the greatest musical ever) and garners LuPone her second Tony, which given her reception the night I saw the show, should be no problem for the diva. As for me, I am just thrilled to buy the cast album. Here is some back to back Rose...you pick your own favorite.
It's like Dreamworks dropped a Sweeney bomb. Everywhere I turn there is suddenly an ad or poster or billboard for the movie. At the movies last week in New York they has an elaborate massive cut out display of Depp holding a oversize mirror razor large enough to do your hair in it's reflection. And now, today, the internet is flooded with new info, most notably the movies elaborate, shiny new website. Dreamworks is either extremely confident or extremely scared. I have faith that the movie is going to be be a smash but I worry the mass media saturation is undermining, or will undermine, some of the shows serious themematic concerns. Of course, the work will speak for itself but I don't think people should anticipate Sweeney as being a mindless scary romp. It's not quite a popcorn movie. Underneath it's black humor and sweeping score is a very dark, nihilistic streak of anger. Here is some more to wet your whistle.
My first movie of the week was Richard Kelly's new massive pop fantasia "Southland Tales," a film famously jeered at Cannes but found a few defenders amongst some prominent American film critics, most notably my favorite critic of all, J. Hoberman in the Village Voice. The movie portends to be a dreamy, visually saturated, sinister vision of contemporary American anxiety and neurosis filtered through celebrity obsessed pop culture and infused by a political stance more than a little shade of pink. The year is 2008 in a fictional America still recoiling from 2001 a nuclear bomb attack in Texas. The country faces, with it's escalating wars in the middle east, a true oil crisis. It's essentially the America of today but with all it's features, from citizen surveillance to celebrity obsession, amplified. It all ends with a massive shining dirigible floating above the skies of all Los Angeles. Amongst it's variegated dramatis personae is Boxer Santaros, an amnesiac movie star with ties to the republican party and Krysta Now, an entrepreneurial porn star who hosts a View-like talk show with 3 other blonde babes. She also has a hit single, "Teen Horniess Is Not A Crime." A befuddled Sean William Scott plays both a LA cop and his kidnapped and drugged identical twin. The casting acts as a comment on the film itself, filled with "personalities" like The Rock and Justin Timberlake (as the Tales narrator, a wounded Iraq war veteran), the performers reflect the society Southland attempts to comment upon. Amplifying this, the entire plot of the movie is itself presented as a screenplay, written in the story by Boxer and Krysta. The problem is that, though undoubtedly richer upon later viewings, Southland Tales doesn't realize it's brilliant ambition. A modernist at heart, Kelly can't entirely release himself from the current zeitgeist of arch postmodernism. Tales is, at once, oppressively self-aware and not self-aware enough; that is to say, it is not reflexive to the point of acquiring disassociative meaning, as postmodern monarch Tarantino (a director who also uses casting for meta commentary) movies do nor as free from irony as the films of say, Kubrick and Altman, two pinnacles of modernism with ambitious social agendas. Southland Tales's tone, deliberately no doubt, shifts from hyper tele-visual bombardment to measured Lynch-ian menace but doing neither with enough skill to maintain an audiences interest. Given that the movie has a convoluted narrative with no discernible coherency, the images must alone sustain the momentum and, with a few exceptions, they do not. (A leering Justin Timberlake unsettlingly lypsynching a haunting and beautiful musical number is beyond reproach.) Even more disturbing is Kelly's own confused politics; the dissident political faction, straightforwardly named the "Neo-Marxists", is undoubtedly where Kelly's sympathies lie. They are meant to be contrasted with the Republican party and their ticket for the 2008 presidential election, wittily, if perplexingly, named Frost/Elliot. The democrats as a party are not even mentioned except the naming of Clinton/Lieberman as their ticket. Clearly, Kelly does not even perceive the democratic party as a worthy opposition to the corrupt and quasi-totalitarian GOP, embodied by a piquant Natasha Richardson, costumed as an evil sorceress from a Disney cartoon, gazing into her magic mirror, which in Kelly's universe is a wall of surveillance television screens. The Neo-Marxists characters however appear as a bunch of ineffectual buffoons, running a ludicrously low-budget operation from the pot-smoke stained walls of Venice Beach apartments. It's no coincedence it's members are almost all cast from the Saturday Night Live roster. The brilliant (and possibly megalomaniacal) scientist, played by a deliciously smarmy Wallace Shawn sporting the worlds worst comb-over, even announces half-way through the film that the Neo-Marxists no nothing about Marx. Given how little these would-be revolutionaries actually seem to stand for, one is inclined to agree. Is this Kelly's rejection of all political ideology, left or right? Is Southland Tales merely nihilistic pornography, luxuriating at the sight of the world blowing itself to smithereens. America as glorious shining Hindenburg? Perhaps. (It's shocking the French didn't like it, Baudrillard would swoon). A more likely scenario is that Kelly himself was just too over-extended with ideas to articulate a coherent political thought.
Tales deals with it's ideas both directly and abstractly and the two modes of expression threaten to cancel one another out. The film is not satire, it is rarely funny or morally acute enough to qualify, but neither is it allegorical enough to be viewed as the kind of avant-garde dreamscape that filmmakers like David Lynch create, in Tales, the viewer's subconscious is not under siege. Perhaps the movie could have been rewritten as a modern day Dr. Stangelove which was itself an apocalyptic vision of a near future (circa 1963). Both films introduce a technology created to save the world but ends up destroying it (the Doomsday machine in Strangelove and Liquid Karma in Tales) and both have over-the-top German scientists promising salvation but who are actually acting out of darker motivations. The comparisons stop there. Strangelove was bitingly funny and unrelentingly realistic, however preposterous it's characters behaved. It's moral compass was unwavering and clear, however bleak. Tales is a much less stable piece of art. If Kelly's goal, or one of his goals, was to revive socialist dreams (as some of his interviews suggest) his failure is acute. The movie has little to say at all about politics, economics or foreign policy. Given that Liquid Karma is the catalyst for the end of the world, Kelly could even be accused of discouraging the search for alternate energy sources. The one political point that the film is unequivocal about is it's denunciation of the Patriot Act and the resultant increase of government surveillance. The ease with which anyone, private citizen or government official, can record and observe their own life and the lives of others provides a major theme for the film; whether it be Boxer's filming of a faked double murder gone terribly wrong, to the wall of images watched by Natasha Richardson, everything in our lives is recorded and uploaded, waiting to be used against us by the powers that be.
As a technical filmmaker Kelly is not without prowess, his use of music, mise en scene and camera motion can be breathtaking, as it is when the characters have a haunting danse macabre aboard the dirigible at the films climax. As a writer however his discipline here is underdeveloped. Donnie Darko, his previous movie, showed a real affection for it's characters and, by extension, humanity-each performance was entirely realistic and sympathetic, even Patrick Swayze's pedophilic motivational speaker. The characters in Southland Tales are either obviously fictional and stock, like Wallace Shawn's campy German Baron, or are total blank non-entities, like Boxer Santaros, whose bulging muscles and bad-ass attitude stand in not for a person but a whole type of person. He is his own action figure and has about the same amount of personality. Such gambits can work but not when the symbology and metaphors are this muddled. The more ambitious the art the more disciplined and focused the artist needs to be, lest the art morph into what Tony Kushner calls "ambitions evil twin," pretension. Ironically, as I have written this review Southland Tales has grown on me somewhat (a total inversion of my usual habit for liking things less upon reflection) though my overall response still stands. I will see the film again to better analyze it's bloated and scattershot visual and ideological barrage. Until then, I can still say that, though Southland Tales is not a success, Richard Kelly remains a necessary and unique voice amongst directors his age for he actually has something he wants to say. So much. Too much, perhaps, for one movie.
I just got back from a delightful holiday week in New York City. The city air was brisk and streets filled with tourists and locals shopping with abandon. It never feels like the holiday season here in LA; palm trees and reindeer together look like an ecological disaster. And an all too plausible one at that. Seeing the seasonal window displays, hearing the Christmas carols in stores and coffee shops, breathing in the cool, late fall air-it was all very much needed for this recent LA transplant. Plus, being there only a week, I didn't have time to get sick of it all, as I often did each December. The last few months have been so busy with simply getting settled in my new city, I was long overdue for a jolt of culture and entertainment; while in the Big Apple I gorged. As I mentioned before, the Broadway strike eliminated a lot of options for theatregoing so I mainly decided to catch up on recent movies (though I couldn't go to New York without seeing at least one show!) So here are some thoughts about the movies and plays taken in last week. Up first: Southland Tales.
Posted by Matt Sigl at 4:31 PM
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
In New York this week and I'm pissed off by the Boradway Stagehand strike! I am also equally shocked. I thought for sure that the strike would be settled before the lucrative holiday week. My devastation is a bit of a put-on; the only current Broadway selection that interests me is "August: Osage County." So far the season is lackluster and other shows that I want to see, like "The Ritz," are still playing. I just hope "Osage" runs through Tony time. As for this week, it looks like it's off-Broadway for me! That new play with Elizabeth Franz looks good.
Posted by Matt Sigl at 1:55 PM
The question of whether or not Tim Burton's dark and whimsical vision could support a major popcorn studio picture with blockbuster aspirations was answered,and answered forcefully, with the smash hit "Batman." Never a comic book fan and with no history directing action sequences Burton was not an obvious choice to tackle the material. Yet, in retrospect the match seems perfectly obvious. It's important to remember that, apart from the comics, the last mainstream representation of Batman for the general population was the jokey, over-the-top 1960's television series starring Adam West.
With Burton's involvement the new Batman was inevitably of a entirely different stripe. His Batman was to be a dark noir fantasy that centered around a truly conflicted hero who almost compulsivley takes on his crime fighting persona. Many purist comic book fans had reservations about casting Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne, an understandable reservation given his history in comedic roles. The choice turned out to be inspired. Keaton gives Wayne real pathos as well as an edgy, unhinged quality that is deepened by his sly sense of humor. The traditional square jawed, humorless Bruce Wayne is no where in sight (audiences would have to wait for Val Kilmer for that). Keaton's Wayne is a man who finds his alter-ego as mysterious as does the general public. He still remains the best of the actors to tackle the role. Even more perfect is Jack Nicholson as the joker. As witty as he is vicious, Nicholson nails every moment. They even name his his character Jack! Indeed, so scene-stealing is he in the role that Nicholson threatens to take over the whole movie. He even gets top billing in the credit sequence. He also made $60 million dollars for the role thanks to good contract that guaranteed him a share in the profits, probably more than Keaton and Burton combined. Kim Basinger is serviceable in the role of Vicki Vale, though the role is little more than a classic damsel in distress. She still has ten times more personality than the non-characters passing as leading women in movies like this today. (Katie Holmes and Kate Bosworth I am talking to you!)
The look of Batman, with incredible production design by Anton Furst, is a neo-expressionist fantasy filtered through the lens of realism and grunge. Highly stylized yet palpably dirty, Gotham City on film never looked this perfect again. Danny Elfman's score is one the composers most robust and grand; yet undeniably his. Burton was able to take all of his favorite elements to serve mainstream, blockbuster purposes. Batman's outrageous success and the clear connection between Burton and box office cemented the director a long and very free career as a major Hollywood player. Each Batman film since has been something of a diminishing return artistically, with Joel Schumacher practically returning the series to it's kaleidoscopic 60's camp heyday and Christopher Nolan going too far the other direction, turning Batman into a generic, though well-made, action movie. Burton's own sequel will be discussed later on this blog, but it was only this first Batman that balanced whimsy with menace and humor with seriousness. It is the greatest film inspired by a classic comic book hero and one of the most enjoyable summer blockbusters ever made. While still limited by it's somewhat silly conceits (and a man fighting crime in a Batsuit against a sociopath clown is a little silly) Batman should be remembered as a total financial and artistic triumph. Below is my favorite scene in the movie which shows Keaton and Nicholson (and for that matter, Basinger) at their best.
Friday, November 16, 2007
I am very ambivalent about Kevin Smith films. Clerks is certainly a classic but otherwise he has failed to impress me. Only in his first film did he find an aesthetic that perfectly complemented his verbose but superficially vacuous (not too mention profane) dialogue. Nonetheless I found this exceedingly endearing lecture in which Smith relates a comic story involving himself, Tim Burton and Page Six! Enjoy.
Posted by Matt Sigl at 8:22 PM
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
What comes up, must come down. Sondheim's biggest flop was the 1964 musical, "Anyone Can Whistle." It served as the last new collaboration between book writer Arthur Laurents( of "Gypsy" fame) and Stephen Sondheim and the first collaboration between Sondheim and Angela Lansbury (making her, ironically inauspicious, stage musical debut). An original story by Laurents focused on a financially depressed town and how it's corrupt mayor (Angela Lansbury) fakes a miracle-a rock that springs water- to attract tourists and rescue the town. The show received terrible reviews in it's Philadelphia out-of-town try-out. Though somewhat revised for Broadway by Arthur Laurents the changes were not enough. The show closed after nine performances.
Despite it's total commercial failure, many of the songs have entered the popular Sondheim repertoire. The emotional ambiguity that would help define him as a composer is first evident in "Whistle's" classic tunes. Though it was cut from the final production, "They're Won't Be Trumpets" has become an exciting cabaret and concert staple. Of the songs in the show, "Everybody Says Don't" and, most of all, "Anyone Can Whistle" itself are pure classics. The lyrics to the shows titular number are amongst the the most personal ever written by Sondheim. "What's hard come simple/What's natural comes hard./Maybe you could show me/how to let go/lower my guard/Learn to be free./Maybe if you Whistle/Whistle for me."
I, in fact, have never seen the show live and, along with many Sondheim fans I suspect, think of the show as the most mysterious entry in his oeuvre. The musical received some redemption when it was revived for a Carnegie Hall concert in 1995 starring Bernadette Peters and Scott Bakula. Still, "Whistle" is almost never performed today and, at the time, threatened to label the composer/lyricist Sondheim a one-hit wonder. No one could have foreseen what was coming next.
Here is a random clip of Cleo Laine singing "Anyone Can Whistle." I recommend Bernadette Peters's definitive rendition in her Sondheim etc. Carnegie Hall concert; sadly it was no where to be found online.
Monday, November 12, 2007
I made my way over to the Blank Theatre Company last week to catch the always wonderful Alice Ripley heading a cast of Broadway notables in a revival of Michael John LaChiusa's little known musical "Little Fish." I missed the show in it's short run at the Second Stage theatre in New York, so I was more than happy to have been able to have caught it here, and with such a talented cast. Sadly, despite the best efforts of the performers, the show that surrounds them is a bit of a shambles. LaChiusa has always been a mixed bag for me but his "Wild Party" was, by any measure, one of the greatest new musicals of the last 20 years. After watching that show, I am always willing to sample anything in his oeuvre. Always ambitious, irrepressibly erratic; Michael John LaChiusa fashioned the book, music and lyrics to "Little Fish" himself and the lack of collaborating influence is all too apparent. 'Little Fish" has been compared to Sondheim's landmark 1970 classic "Company" as both shows deal with a contemporary (for their time) New York that while buzzing and over-stimulating allows (causes?) a central character (Charlotte here, Bobby there) to suffer an urban variety of existential isolation and personal malaise. Both shows follow the long path to self-actualization and emotional release. But where "Company" was tightly, if creatively, constructed, "Little Fish" is as indecisive in tone as it's central character. The songs in "Company" brilliantly counterpointed the scenes, commenting on the action and characters with witty, arched lyrics that bristled with irony and venom. "Little Fish" has a score that, while more integrated in the action, more often than not disappoints. Emotional melodies are brushed upon but never realized and the songs blend in and out of one another. No doubt this is Mr. LaChiusa's intended effect, but, when the music and lyrics themselves are so uninspiring, such fluid musicality makes for auditory monotony. The score as a whole is mostly forgettable. Even Ripley's cathartic eleven o'clock number, a song where she finally breaks through the passivity she has long endured, leaves me cold. Intimations of "Being Alive" are none-too-subtle, but not only is the song itself a far less moving melody, as a dramatic denouement it feels far less earned. Though written in the present day, there is very little contemporary about the world these characters inhabit, save the central emotional catalyst of Charlotte quitting smoking (a new trend in New York to be sure!) Indeed, making "Little Fish" a period piece would be an easy task given that there isn't a cellphone, computer, ipod or blackberry in sight. This is New York in the 21st century?
Obviously The Blank is an amazingly ambitious company; producing challenging and exciting musicals with top-notch casts in a theatre space that would make most high school students balk. Though a charming small house, producing musicals in such a tiny forum is a serious challenge to even the most gifted director. Sadly with "Little Fish" the director, Kirsten Sanderson, seems a bit out to sea. Designed as the inside of the YMCA pool (an important plot point in the show), the set nonetheless over-stresses a metaphor best left discerned by the viewer without the aid of such visual cues; especially when they are as visually static as this. Scenery inspired by the city that gives the story it's grounding in reality would have been more fitting. Sanderson also fails to emphasize the thematic through-lines available to her; the relationship between Charlotte and her two best friends should be put front and center from the moment the curtain rises. Only at the end of the show did I realize how important these relationships were to the musicals over-arching raison d'aitre. As staged and acted here, and given her total passivity and rather pathetic demeanor (not too mention a frumpy, unflattering costume) it's hard to imagine why Charlotte is friends with either of these two sharply dressed, supercilious, bourgeois clowns; one, a gorgeous Upper East Side type with a "Sex and the City" aura and the other, an affected young gay art critic with a habit for disastrous and abusive love affairs. Broadway's Chad Kimball ("Lennon," "Into the Woods") sings the latter role beautifully but remains a too cold and aloof presence; one suspects he might just be using the weak willed Charlotte for his own narcissistic psychological satisfaction. Seeing that he sings Charlotte the titular number (a metaphor that, by the way, never quite takes off), a lovely ballad about friendship sung after a emotional confrontation between the two, this is probably not the effect LaChiusa had in mind for the character. No doubt in the original production the helplessly likable Jesse Tyler Ferguson tempered the characters hard-edge; here, depsite his sonorous voice and committment to his characterization, one never quite warms to Mr.Kimball; though one has to give him credit for trying. As for Alice Ripley, an actress best in (though underused for) more broadly comic roles (like her delicious Janet in "The Rocky Horror Show") the character always remains one step away from her grasp. Charlotte remains a cipher, albeit a beautifully sung one. Though Charlotte is ostensibly a writer for the New Yorker, she hardly seems or behaves like any sort of success. Vocally there is little to complain about. Sounding and looking somewhat like a young Betty Buckley, Ripley's voice has never sounded more unique, something I hadn't realized about this singer before. (Indeed news that this production of Little Fish is to be recorded must please LaChiusa fans everywhere; a better recording cast would be hard to put together.) Though she dominates every scene, sounds terrific and almost never leaves the stage, Ripley's natural charisma is nonetheless held at bay by the writing of this non-character. Only Broadway stalwart Gregory Jbara, playing a drunken Lothario, fully realizes his character; in a hilarious highlight, Charlotte flashes back to an unfortunate night when her boss at a neighborhood newspaper made uproariously obvious sexual advances over a far more than two Maritni lunch. The scene is the the shows most broadly comic but, in Jbara's honest performance, a real vulnerability and sadness is equally present amongst the drunken shenanigans. It's also a moment in which LaChiusa's intergration of book, music and score works to full effect.
Ultimately why LaChiusa chose to write "Little Fish" is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps he wanted to pen a post-9/11 homage to the city he calls home, but if so, his New York is shockingly unrecognizable. Perhaps after writing a show full of pastiche like "The Wild Party" he wanted to try his hat at a contemporary mileu (reversing Sondheim's trajectory of "Company" and "Follies"). Perhaps he was commissioned by Second Stage. The only question of importance is whether it not the show plays like it needed to be written and on that account the answer is somewhat more definitive. "Little Fish" is a frustrating show that, while moment-to-moment provides satisfying entertainment, in the end, adds up to little. Only time will tell if the author has another "Wild Party" in him or more "Little Fishes." For the sake of the future of musical theatre, Mr. Lachiusa being one of it's most exciting trailblazers, let's hope for more of the former.
After the commercial, if not critical, success of "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" Tim Burton's next choice of project was a ghoulish comedy that would, for the first time, introduce audiences to the menagerie of illustrative and macabre Burton-ania that has come to be his trademark. The film, of course, is "Beetlejuice"; Burton's most successfully comic feature. The movie seems so tied to Burton's sensibility that it's hard to imagine that it's witty screenplay was written by someone else. Two someones in fact: Michael McDowelll and Warren Skaaren.
Beetlejuice is the story about two ghosts (A game Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) who unsuccessfully attempt to haunt the interlopers living at their former house. Finding their efforts at Poltergeisting feeble, they call upon the services of the titular character, a professional "bio-exorcist" who also happens to be a wise-cracking jack-ass. While the story was a ghostly flight-of-fancy (and about as scary as Blithe Spirit) it was the eye-popping visuals and delicious production design that made the film a hit. The casting of a utterly committed and fearless Michael Keaton also proved invaluable. He plays Beetlejuice as a hedonistic redneck car salesman of the hereafter; Randle McMurphy possessed by a demon. The other supporting cast, particularly the hilarious Catherine O'Hara and Jeffrey Jones, do their part to keep the proceedings as light-hearted as a graveyard comedy can be. But it was the one-of a kind imagery that cemented Tim Burton as a unique voice in cinema. It's all here, for the first time in a motion picture: the Gorey-like Gothic lines, the turn-of-the-century carnival-esque aesthetic and sideshow bew-ha-ha, the fascination with miniatures and doll houses. And then there is the virtual parade of grostequerie: all misshapen faces and comically deformed features. It's a ghoulish gallery of nightmarish creatures that nevertheless delight more than they terrorize. In the future Burton would use his visual calling cards to different effects, but in "Bettlejuice," laughter is the order of the day. The sight of ludicrously pretentious and unpleasant modern sculptures (as only Burton could imagine them) attacking their maker is riff on Modern Art worthy of a New Yorker cartoon.
"Beetlejuice" was my favorite film growing up as child. Not only did I dress up as Beetlejuice for Halloween in 1988 (at the ripe old age of 6) but I had memorized most of Michael Keaton's dialogue as well. Most importantly, even at such a young age, I had recognized that the director of the movie was a special talent, one with a unique insight into my (and a lot of other people's) imagination. Some would describe "Beetlejuice" as a black comedy, but this is inaccurate. A true black comedy is one where the comedy is a venner on a subject matter which is actually very serious and bleak. A spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, as it were. Not so here. "Beetlejuice" is a coventional comedy plot that uses a macabre sensibility to breathe new life into a potentialy tired storyline. As such, Beetlejuice is probably not a great film; it has little to say about anything other than it's own internal silliness. Some satirical ribbing of bourgeois city slickers aside, the film is mostly a prolonged excuse for visual wit and wizardry. Winona Ryder's character Lydia, however, hints at developments to come. As a dark, moody, "strange and unusual," adolescent, Lydia is the only one with power to see the ghosts that populate her home. She is this movie's stand-in for Burton, the outsider with a dark demeanor who nevertheless is gifted by her very alienation and otherness. Though not plumbed for depth here, it is the first appearance of a motif which runs through all of Burton's best films and reaches it apotheosis in Edward Scissorhands.
The scene for the ages is a glorious comic dinner party in which the guests find themselves possessed by none other than voice of Harry Belafonte. Indeed the movie opens with a musical hint at the hilarity to come; though what "Day-O" was doing at the beginning of the film must have seemed utterly perplexing until this, now legendary, comic scene:
After already making his mark in musical theatre history with the lyrics to "West Side Story" and "Gypsy," 31 year old Stephen Sondheim was finally given the chance to write his music as well as lyrics. The show was the 1962 Broadway musical farce "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Based on the comedy of Roman dramatist Seneca, "Forum" is perhaps the funniest musical comedy in the pantheon of musical comedies. The wild farce, about a clownish slave (Pseudolus, originally played by Zero Mostel) who schemes to free himself by enabling his young master to marry the (already betrothed) virginal courtesan of his dreams, is an uproarious, door-slamming, tightly constructed potpourri of classical farce, catchy music and borscht belt humor. Unlike most of Sondheim's shows, the success of Forum is primarily attributable to it's book writers: Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (of M*A*S*H, the televison show, fame). Sondheim's music is, formally speaking, unessential to the plot of "Forum," as most of the songs allow for character development and comic flights of fancy, not story. Plot motion is left to the delicately constructed book. Still Sondheim's score is a total delight; the music is bouncy, romantic and unencumbered by pretension. His lyrics deepen the comedy of the goings-on and, in one brilliant instance, give the show it's comic highlight.
The lovers duet in Act I is a charming song called "Lovely" in which the virginal courtesan explains to her would-be suitor that her only asset is her beauty. Who cares that "isn't it a shame/ I can neither sew nor cook/nor read or write my name." Near the shows climax, through elaborate plot machinations, the slave Hysterium has been convinced by Pseudolus to don drag and stand in for the young virgin (don't ask!). Convinced he looks like a fool, Hysterium threatens to withdraw from the plot. To reassure him, Pseudolus serenades the nervous slave with his own reprise of "Lovely." Hysterium buys it hook, line and sinker; the number ends in a hilarious duet between both men intoning Hysterium's "loveliness." Here is Sondheim using a musical reprise to make a dramatic (in the structural sense) moment come alive. A new song would not have been nearly as effective in the moment, and, in retrospect, the original version was a mere set-up to the delicious punch line (almost an hour and a half later in the evening.) Though "Forum" is hardly the best example of Sondheim's musical legacy (the music is rarely sung outside the show) it nevertheless allowed a score by Sondheim to enter the musical theatre canon. "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" has become one of the greatest gems in the history of musical comedy and premiered at the zenith of the genres golden age, near the same time as shows like "Hello, Dolly!", "Bye Bye Birdie", and "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."
Forum won a slew of Tony's at the 1963 Awards including Best Book, Best Actor, and Best Musical. Unbelievably, Sondheim was not even nominated for his delightful score. To add insult to injury no winner that night, not even Sondheim's greatest artistic collaborator Hal Prince (the shows producer) mentioned Sondheim in their acceptance speeches. I am sure that's a wound that never quite heals.
The show has been successfully revived twice on Broadway, each time garnering a Tony for it's star (Phil Silvers and Nathan Lane respectively). It is consistently revived in stock and amateur theatre and was even filmed (somewhat unsuccessfully) by Richard Lester in the 60's. As a example of well-constructed, mid-century musical comedy "A Funny Thing Happend on the Way to the Forum" has few peers. Below is Zero Mostel hamming his way through the famous opening number "Comedy Tonight!"
Burton's first full length motion picture was as a director for comic persona Pee-Wee Herman(Paul Rubens), the star of a popular stage act called "The Pee-Wee Show" and later the popular Saturday morning television show "Pee-Wee's Playhouse." (How people ever thought that Pee-Wee was a character for children I'll never know.) Though critically lambasted upon it's initial release, "Adventure" has gone on to be something of a cult classic; Burton's involvement with the project has made many look back at the film anew. Though the movie lacks the director's signature mise en scene, it nevertheless exudes a idiosyncratic visual style and offbeat sensibility that is a good fit for both director and star. Hint's of Burton's genius are glimpsed sporadically and make the film worth watching again. Of course, Paul Reubens is hilarious and deeply committed to the lunacy of his adenoidal, man-child character. Reason enough to watch the film right there. Perhaps, most importantly, it was the first collaboration between Burton and composer Danny Elfman. Elfman's eerily childish timbre would be a perfect fit for a director's who's movies are grown-up realizations of (somewhat twisted) childhood fantasies. Perhaps "Adventure's" best scene is Pee-Wee's encounter with mysterious Truck Driver "Large Marge." For your viewing pleasure....
Friday, November 9, 2007
Well, it had to happen; didn't it? After the unprecedented commercial and critical success of "The Producers," Mel Brooks' follow up Broadway project was inevitably bound to suffer a backlash. How could "Young Frankenstein" hope to measure up to that legendary Broadway smash? However, few could have anticipated just how negative Ben Brantley would be in his New York Times review.
His diss (uncharacteristic of Mr.Brantley) on Megan Mullaly's weight is John Simon worthy. I am most upset by the lackluster reception to my secret lover Roger Bart. I have been championing this actor since I saw (and fell in love) with him in the tour of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," starring (yikes!) Ralph Macchio. After seeing Bart in "Fully Committed" off-Broadway (twice!) I officially labeled myself a full on Bart-head! He was also the only actor in the movie version of "The Producers" (which I still defend as far better than people give it credit for.)who adapted his performance for the camera with total success. I cringe to admit, however, that I agree with Brantley's view of Bart as Leo Bloom; he just looked a little lost. (Though having been around Matthew Broderick's performance as much as he had couldn't have been helpful for developing his own character!)
I was "The Producers" biggest defender. The greatest night I have ever had in a theatre was the first preview of "The Producers" in New York, March 2001. I have seen the show on Broadway no less than 7 times and regard it as one of the Great White Way's greatest and most important shows. "The Producers" revived the "comedy" in "musical comedy" and cemented cinema as the go-to breeding ground for Broadway adaptation. As a movie, "The Producers" was always begging to be a Broadway musical, given it's musical centered plot and Broadway setting."Young Frankenstein," the movie, garnered it's humor as a pastiche/spoof of Universal Studios Horror Depression-era horror FILMS. Brooks' commitment to it's cinematic style and vintage mise en Scene is what makes the low-brow Jewish humor all the more potent. As a brassy Broadway musical, "Young Frankenstein" was not begging to be made. The investment in the show is nonetheless huge. Can the producers salvage this critical whipping boy? Only time will tell. In the meantime...here is some Mel Brook's Frankenstein brillance to be remembered and enjoyed.
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
Daniel Day-Lewis looks and sounds incredible (as always) in the trailer for "There will be Blood," the new movie by Paul Thomas Anderson based on Upton Sinclair's novel "Oil!" Where did he come up with his unique vocal cadence and tone for the movie? I couldn't figure it out, but I knew it was something specific. Then it hit me. Listen for yourself and tell me if I'm crazy!
I went to the new Murakami art exhibit at the Geffen museum last night and was utterly impressed. The speaker at the cocktail reception likened Murakami to a Japanese Andy Warhol and after spending a good hour amongst his works, I am inclined to agree. Subverting the hyper-active, relentlessly bright and cherry style of contemporary Anime and Manga, Murakami both celebrates the style, and mocks it's relentless cheer and lack of depth-both metaphorical and literal. My favorite piece was called "super-nova" which referenced Japanese culture's fascination with the mushroom (Super Mario Bros anyone?) and, more disturbingly, the long shadow of the Hiroshima mushroom cloud. The show is currently in Los Angeles but is touring to Brooklyn and then to Spain. I highly recommend you check it out if you are at all a fan of pop art.
On December 21 audiences across America are going to be blown away by long-awaited, much discussed Tim Burton film of the legendary Stephen Sondheim musical "Sweeney Todd." Bobofag has had the good fortune to catch the film in a preview screening, organized for marketing purposes. You can read all about that screening here The movie also got a rave over at Ain't It Cool News. Sure, Harry Knowles writes at a Junior High level, he nevertheless gave a review that I very much agree with. It's a spectacular movie. If there is justice in the world the film will get a best picture nod, and (finally) a nod for director Tim Burton, who has never been nominated in the category before. Johnny Depp should be a shoo-in for a nomination as well. He rose to the challenge here. And what a challenge! He had to play his most serious, emotionally volatile character ever (deep, emotionally raw performances have never been Depp's strongsuit) all the while singing one of the most vocally demanding roles in the American musical theatre. It's about time they honor this man, one of America's most gifted and versatile performers. You can read all about the movies Oscar chances here.
In anticipation of the movie I will, over the next month and a half, provide a retrospective on both the careers of Tim Burton and Stephen Sondheim. Hopefully, by the time the movie arrives in theatres you'll just pop with excitement.