December 29, 2012

Why the "Les Miz" Movie Makes Me Happy

It’s no surprise that film critics are pooh-poohing the new movie version of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s pop opera Les Misérables.  Just as it’s no surprise that people are flocking to see it (the movie took in $18 million when it opened on Christmas Day, beating out Tom Cruise, Quentin Tarantino and the elves and wizards of “The Hobbit”).  And perhaps it’s no surprise to regular readers to hear that I’m with the people on this one.

But the latter is a bit of a surprise to me. Although it ran for 16 years on Broadway, has been performed in 43 countries and seen by some 60 million people, Les Miz, as it’s come to be known, is not my favorite musical. Just between you and me, I fell asleep when I saw the original production back in the ‘80s. 

I did do better when my theatergoing buddy Bill persuaded me to see the 2006 revival. But the storyline still confused me—which revolution is the show about?  Which pining soprano is the female lead? Which cute kid was featured in the iconic poster?

Still, I was a fan of the Victor Hugo novel, which I read in 8th grade and soul locked with in the way that you can only do with a book when you are 13 years old. Hugo’s story, whose central characters are a man imprisoned for stealing bread to feed his family and a woman forced into prostitution to support her child, is a combination of agitprop and melodrama that aims directly at middlebrows like me. 

Some highbrow critics called the book sentimental when it first came out in 1862 but it was an instant bestseller across the European continent and in America too. And its popularity with the masses has never waned. Wikipedia lists some 60 movie versions, including one in 1897 by the film pioneering Lumière bothers. And the more reliable IMDB lists at least two dozen adaptations.

The Hugo novel is nearly 1,500 pages long in the Signet paperback edition and so something has always been lost in its stage and screen translations but the tale has never been clearer to me than in this new film version, directed by Tom Hooper, who gobbled up nearly all the Oscars two years ago for "The King’s Speech" and is clearly unafraid of earnest sentiment (click here to read a story on the making of the movie).

Hooper lets the viewer know from the very first scene that this movie is a musical. Indeed, most of it is sung threw, just as the stage version was. 

Much is being made of his decision to film the singing live on the set and add the full orchestrations later in the mixing (the sound guys are probably shoo-ins for Oscars). But guess what? It works. Singing has become the language of the film, as natural and emotional as spoken dialog (click here for a piece on how they got the actors up to vocal speed).

The songs—“I Dreamed A Dream,” “Who Am I,” “Do You Hear the People Sing,” “One Day More,” “On My Own,” “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” “Bring Him Home”—are, of course, familiar and they’re still stirring. Loud sniffles and muffled sobs could be heard throughout the movie theater.

Hooper’s also cast the film with the kind of big names who draw big audiences.  Hugh Jackman, plays Jean Valjean, the righteous thief who redeems himself but is pursued over two decades by the relentless Inspector Javert, played by a somewhat shaky Russell Crowe.  Although he occasionally moonlights as the lead singer in his own rock band, Crowe seems ill at ease in his numbers and lacks the chops to deliver them.

On the other hand, Jackman, who’s done award-winning work in musicals in both London and New York, sounds great and looks great too. I’m not the fan girl that my friends over at the Craptacular are but, OMG, he’s a gorgeous man.

The rest of the something-for-everyone cast includes the ever-versatile Anne Hathaway, affecting (and already an Oscar frontrunner) as the prostitute Fantine; TV’s Amanda Seyfried, spot-on as Valjean’s ward Cosette; Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter bringing comic relief as the ludicrously larcenous inkeepers the Thénardiers; and the dreamy matinee idols Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit as leaders of the student revolutionaries who set off the story’s climax (click here to read the Craptacular interview with Tveit).

Plus, there’s even a cameo by Colm Wilkinson, the original stage musical's Jean Valjean, now playing the priest who puts the thief on the right path to redemption.

They’re all good. 

The movie itself is still more a series of tableaux than a continuous narrative.  And the background scenery is awful.  It’s muddy in that way that bad CGI is when it’s trying to mask its mistakes. 

But none of this matters. 

The audience at my Upper West Side movie house was largely rapt, although a few people did sneak out before the 2 hour and 43 minutes film ended.  Among them was one mother who hurried her tiny daughter up the aisle as a desperate Fantine was about to give up her final bit of honor. 

So, let the critics carp.  There is a resonant connection between the poor and oppressed in 19th century France and those of us in the 21st century who are about to be poorer and more oppressed as our financial and political leaders keep leading us over fiscal cliffs.   

And if we in the 99% want to shed a few tears and grab hold of a little uplift (both of which "Les Misérables" unabashedly provides) that’s absolutely fine with me.

December 25, 2012

Christmas Wishes


May your holidays sparkle with peace, love, happiness —and the thrill of great theater. 

In the meantime, have yourself the merriest little Christmas.

December 22, 2012

Why You Should Try to Catch "Falling"

The small Minetta Lane Theatre was less than half full when my theatergoing buddy Bill and I went to see the powerful new play Falling. The poor turnout could have been because it was the week before Christmas and people had other things to do.  Or it could have been because the play is two months into its run and with so many other shows opening since it started, the competition is just too stiff. But I suspect it’s because Falling is such an unflinching look at what it’s like to have a severely autistic child that the word of mouth has been halting.

Seeing it shook me too. But that is precisely why I want to speak up for Falling.  I can’t tell you that it’s the best play currently on the boards (it isn’t) or that you’ll have a great time (you may not) but I can say that I’ve rarely seen a work so totally honest or deeply affecting.

Unlike so many shows about autism, the child in Falling isn’t a cute tyke with a few odd habits. Josh, the central figure in the play, is a hulking 18 year-old man-child who is barely able to speak, prone to off–putting behavior like masturbating in public and menacing when flustered.

Josh’s parents Tami and Bill have devised a series of intricate rituals to get him through each day but focusing so much on Josh is alienating their other child Lisa and straining their marriage. That’s all brought into stark relief when Bill’s mother Sue arrives for her first visit in three years.

Now, anyone who knows someone with an autistic child or who has read one of the many accounts of raising one is familiar with some version of this story. But playwright Deanna Jent, the mother of an autistic child, paints her version of it with the excruciating specificity of a pointillist.  And she refuses to add the gloss of hopefulness that usually makes these tales easier to take. (Click here to read a Q&A with her).

I have friends and relatives with autistic children and I had thought myself knowledgable about and sympathetic to their situation. But I had never truly felt their anguish until watching Tami go through the conflicting emotions of what Josh’s death might mean for the rest of the family.

It would easy for Falling to turn mawkish but, under the scrupulous direction of Lori Adams, all five members of the cast give impressively unsentimental performances. 

Still, special praise has to be saved for Daniel Everidge, who manages to make Josh more than just a collection of tics. And even more must go to Julia Murney, who, even in her silent moments, makes palpable the fierce connection between mother and child.   

The producers have announced that Falling will close on Dec. 30.  It’s hard to blame them when the show is selling so few tickets.  And it’s hard to blame the theatergoers who aren’t turning out to see such a heartbreaking show during the feel-good holiday season. Still, it’s a shame because this one is worth seeing.

December 19, 2012

A Terrific Gift for Your Favorite Theater Lover

Christmas is less than a week away and so you’re no doubt already deep into your shopping list but there may be one person you haven’t gotten around to yet: you. 

Not to worry. I’ve got just the thing for you (or for some other deserving theater lover on your list). For the Victoria and Albert Museum in London has put together “Played in Britain: Modern Theatre in 100 Plays 1945 – 2010,” a terrific iPad app that chronicles the 100 most significant productions to play in London over the past 60 years, from  J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls in 1946 straight through to Laura Wade’s Posh in 2010.

No musicals are included; the play's the thing here.  But there's more than enough to satisfy most theater geeks.  The works of every major British playwright of the postwar period—Beckett, Osborne, Pinter, Orton, Bennett, Churchill, Stoppard—are included. And so are those by several American greats including Miller, Williams, Mamet and Kushner.

Each play is presented with rare captioned photos from the V&A’s theater archives, a brief essay that recaps the plot and the play’s influence and later production history, the cast list for the original production, contemporaneous reviews of that production from both The Guardian and The Telegraph, a bibliography of other major works by the playwright, and suggestions for similar works by other writers. 

But what sets this apart from the usual coffee table book is that because it's an app many of the selections are accompanied by excerpted dialog from the play and audio interviews with people associated with either the original production or a significant revival.

An online website provides even more information, including audio commentary from The Guardian’s chief theater critic Michael Billington on some of the plays that didn’t make the list.  The competition was so stiff that among the also-rans are Pinter’s The Birthday Party and Michael Frayn’s Noises Off.

And there’s more.  Beginning in January, the V&A is offering a 10-week course that further explores its greatest hits list.  That costs about $400, airfare and accommodations not included. So the app itself is a relative bargain at just $11.95.  Click here to find out more about all of it.

Getting a jump start on the holidays, I downloaded the app a couple of days ago and going through it has made me as giddy as, well, a kid on Christmas morning.

December 15, 2012

"Emotional Creature" Celebrates Girl Power

Eve Ensler hit the theatrical equivalent of the Mega Millions lottery with The Vagina Monologues, her collection of solo pieces in which women talk about the full spectrum of the feminine experience, ranging from the pleasures of orgasms and becoming a mother to the horrors of rape and genital mutilation.  But she’s unlikely to score as big a hit with her latest work, Emotional Creature, which covers some of that same territory but this time from the perspective of adolescent girls.

For starters, the title of the new show, which is playing at The Pershing Square Signature Theater through Jan.13, is nowhere near as brazen as that of its older sibling.  And the same thing holds true when, as is unavoidable, the shows are held up against one another. 

That doesn’t mean that some of the stories adapted from Ensler’s book “I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World” aren’t compelling (click here to read an interview with Ensler). Only totally atrophied hearts could be unmoved by the despair of a teenaged prostitute in Bulgaria or the anguish of a young sex slave in the Congo.

Other segments of the show deal with anorexia, coming out and even making Barbie dolls in a Chinese factory.  But because Emotional Creature is about—and presumably aimed at—tweens and teens, these tales are juxtaposed alongside others about wanting to fit in with the cool crowd at school and accepting the way one looks.The overall effect is sometimes jolting and tends to trivialize the more serious issues.  

Same goes for the peppy girl-power anthems that are sprinkled throughout the piece and sound as though they’ve been lifted from the “Free to Be You and Me” songbook. 

But now I worry that I’m making the show sound far worse than it is.   

What saves Emotional Creature is that Ensler and director Jo Bonney have put together a six-member cast that is multi-ethnic but uniformly talented. Each young woman is given several moments to shine and all six of them glow. Still, I can’t help singling out Joaquina Kalukango, who is shattering as the Congolese sex slave.

Bonney's staging is also engaging and incorporates references to Facebook, Instagram and other smartphone technology.  And despite the sad stories that are told, the 90-minute show ends on a high note as the young women celebrate the potential of women in the 21st century.

So ignore my grumpiness. This may be just the ticket if you’re looking for some holiday entertainment for a sophisticated girl who feels she’s outgrown Annie or Mary Poppins.  And, apparently, you don’t have to be 15 or under to appreciate the show’s empowerment message. The two women sitting in front of me looked to be at least three times that age but at the show's end, they stood and pumped their fists in the air.

December 12, 2012

"The Twenty-Seventh Man" is a Bore

Who would have thunk it?  After years of being dissed, theater has become the place where all the cool kids want to hang out.  A pileup of Hollywood actors— Jake Gyllenhaal, Katie Holmes, Scarlett Johansson and even Tom Hanks—have signed up to do plays in New York this season. And just yesterday it was announced that Shia LaBeouf is teaming up with Alec Baldwin to make his Broadway debut in the upcoming revival of Orphans.

High-profile folks in other genres are getting into the act too. TV host Kathie Lee Gifford wrote the book, lyrics and even some of the music for the short-lived musical Scandalous (so short a life that I didn’t even get a chance to write my review before it closed, although I would have just agreed with the other naysayers). Meanwhile, pop stars Cyndi Lauper and Sheryl Crow have shows coming in this spring.

But, for my money, the coolest of the newcomers is the literary writer Nathan Englander, who has adapted one of his own short stories for his first theatrical outing, The Twenty-Seventh Man, which is ending up its run at The Public Theater on Sunday.  

I had read Englander’s most recent collection of short stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” and had been so enchanted by it that I bought tickets for The Twenty-Seventh Man as soon as they went on sale.

What I, and everyone connected with the production, forgot is that what works on the page doesn’t always work on the stage. Englander is a master storyteller and his stories, all dealing with aspects of Jewish life, are both funny and philosophical.  But Englander is a novice playwright who has yet to master the basic concept that you can’t just tell, you have to show. The result is that The Twenty-Seventh Man is static and pedantic.

The original story was inspired by a real-life incident in which a few months before his death in 1953, Josef Stalin ordered the arrests of some of Russia’s most celebrated Jewish poets, novelists, journalists and playwrights.  In Englander’s retelling of the tale, three of the famous writers are put into the same cell. 

Although anxious about their fate, the men also find a perverse comfort in their inclusion in the roundup, which they see as confirmation of their literary reputations until a young unknown is thrown in with them. For the next 90 minutes the four men debate art, fame and loyalty. 

This is all stuff that usually fascinates me but, as presented in The Twenty-Seventh Man, I couldn’t have cared less about their thoughts on these subjects or even about what would happen to them.   

It didn’t have to be that way.  Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy tells a similar tale—Jews are rounded up, debate their place in the larger society while they await their fate, are interrogated and judged—but The Actors Company Theatre revival that I saw three years ago was riveting (click here to read my review).

The casts in both productions were accomplished—Daniel Oreskes, Ron Rifkin and Chip Zien play the veteran writers in The Twenty-Seventh Man, with Noah Robbins as the young unknown and Byron Jennings as their interrogator—and the productions were similarly somber in tone and look (muted lights, drab-colored costumes).   

The difference is that Miller had written about 20 plays before Incident at Vichy and he knew the grammar of the stage well enough that he could find the dramatic tension and emotional resonance in a group of men just sitting on a bench and bickering with one another. 

Englander is a gifted writer too. He told the Jewish Forward that Lincoln Center has already commissioned him to adapt another of his stories for the stage (click here to read that interview).  And so perhaps, if he keeps at it, he, too, will one day create a play as compelling as Miller’s. Which would be really cool. But, alas, this production is tepid at best.  

December 8, 2012

Tales of Two Christmas Stories

Some people, like my sister Joanne, revel in the holiday season and in all the holiday-themed shows that come with it. Other people, like me, bah humbug our way through both.  Which is why I always invite Joanne to go with me to any show that has Christmas in its title or parts that call for cast members to dress like elves.

It’s also why this post may reflect more of my sister’s sentiments than mine about A Christmas Story The Musical, currently playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, and A Civil War Christmas, which just opened down at New York Theatre Workshop.

Despite my chronic Grinchitis, I had been looking forward to both shows. A Christmas Story marks the Broadway debut of the up-and-coming musical team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose show Dogfight impressed me when it played at Second Stage Theatre last summer (click here to read my review).  Meanwhile, A Civil War Christmas is written by Paula Vogel, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive I’ve already nominated for the Mount Rushmore of great American plays (click here to read my review of the recent revival of that).

The good news is that both are smartly produced, nicely performed and entertaining in a one-size-fits-all kind of way that makes them perfect fare for the entire family, even those out-of-town Cousin Rogers whom you hardly know anymore but who always seem to show up for the holidays.

The bah humbug news is that, as Christmas shows usually do, A Christmas Story and A Civil War Christmas wear the morals of their tales conspicuously on their lapels. 

Both plots are thin, unspooling in only loosely connected scenes.  And there’s not much subtlety in either show. Their goal is to provoke a smile or to tug at the heartstrings.  

But none of that mattered to my sister who thoroughly enjoyed both. And here's why:

A Christmas Story is based on the memoirist Jean Shepherd’s tale about a Midwestern kid in the 1940s who desperately wants a BB gun for Christmas. Shepherd’s story was made into a now-classic holiday movie, which, it will come as no surprise, I’ve never seen.  But Joanne has and she says the musical (Joseph Robinette did the book) is faithful to the movie—only better. 

If that’s so, the credit has to be spread around.  Pasek and Paul get points for putting together a sprightly score that is faithful to the traditional Broadway sound and chocked full of Christmas anthems (click here to read a piece about them). But the spot at the top of the list should go to director John Rando and choreographer Warren Carlyle who have filled the show with one terrific production number after another.

And the cast is equally deserving of praise. Two kids share the lead role of Ralphie, the boy who wants the BB gun. Joanne and I saw Johnny Rabe, whose unaffected stage presence belies his young years. He didn't miss a beat when the chaps he wears in one fantasy sequence suffered a wardrobe malfunction that caused them to fall during our performance.

 But all the kids are great, particularly Jeremy Shinder, who plays Ralphie’s roly-poly best friend, and Luke Spring, a little scene-stealer who does the best tap number I’ve seen since the last time Savion Glover was onstage. 

The adults are fine too, especially John Bolton, who brings a loose-limbed goofiness to Ralphie’s eccentric dad (click here to read a Q&A with him).

A Civil War Christmas is, as you might expect, a quieter show.  But it’s filled with music too.  Nearly half of its two and a half hours is given over to the singing of Civil War ballads and Christmas carols.

Vogel says she wrote the play to honor her dying brother's wish that the children in their family be taught more about American history. She was further inspired by the horrors of Hurricane Katrina to write a play that deals head-on with race. She spent two years researching this piece. (Click here to read an interview with her.)

The result is a series of scenes on Christmas Eve 1864 that makes stops at the frontlines of battle where soldiers on both sides yearn to be with loved ones, the homes of free blacks in the Georgetown section of Washington cautiously hopeful about the approaching full end of slavery, the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth is plotting to kill the president, a hospital where Walt Whitman is tending patients and the White House, where the First Lady is eager to install one of the newly-fashionable Christmas trees.

Tina Landau has directed this historical pageant in story theater fashion. The actors narrate the story and take on multiple roles without paying attention to age, gender, race or, in one case, the species of the character they’re assuming.

Alas, the talent on display is also something of a mixed bag.  Among the goodies is little Sumaya Bouhbal, who seems to have recently lost her front baby teeth but more than holds her own with the adults in the cast. 

It was also hard to look away from Bob Stillman who might give Daniel Day-Lewis a run for his money in an Abe Lincoln-look-alike contest. And Alice Ripley brings the manic intensity she honed in her Tony-winning performance as the bipolar mother in Next to Normal to the character of the similarly troubled Mary Lincoln.

I found it all to be a bit sketchy but Joanne was enchanted by A Civil War Christmas. She was further delighted to discover that Vogel was sitting just a few seats away from us. You might not get that big a treat if you go but seeing either of these shows will probably fill you with the holiday spirit, even if you're not big on that kind of thing. 

December 5, 2012

"Mies Julie" Mixes Class, Race and Politics

There may be some people who get off on watching actors simulate sex onstage but watching people pretend to get it on under the glare of a spotlight usually makes me squirmy. And yet, I was riveted by the fierce sexual encounters in Yael Farber's Mies Julie, which is ending a short run has been extended at St. Ann’s Warehouse this weekend through Dec.16.

As you’ve probably surmised from the title, the play is a riff on August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, the 1888 drama about the erotic power play between an aristocratic woman and one of her father’s servants. But in Mies Julie, which originated at The Baxter Theatre Center at the University of Cape Town, the young woman is the daughter of an Afrikaner farmer and the servant is a black man who aspires to the better life promised by post-apartheid South Africa.

The mixing of class issues with race issues is explosive in every sense of the word. Which is a big contrast to the encounter between Sienna Miller and Jonny Lee Miller in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s tepid revival of the original back in 2009 (click here to read my review of that).

I couldn’t imagine wanting to see another Miss Julie after that one but Mies Julie was such a big hit when it played the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer that I bought tickets the moment I saw that it was being brought in as the inaugural production at St. Ann’s handsome new home (click here to read about the new space).

The new warehouse space on Jay Street looks much like the old one on Water Street, only sleeker and the bathrooms are great. Staffers were handing out celebratory champagne in the lobby before the Sunday matinee that K and I saw. But I found the play intoxicating in its own right.

That’s due in part to the change of setting and all the political and emotional connotations that come with thoughts about the new South Africa. We want to believe that life there is better for everyone now that two decades have passed since Nelson Mandela’s release and the emergence of black majority rule. But we know that’s far from the truth.

So does Farber, who both wrote and directed Mies Julie and openly exploits those contradictions. The third person in Strindberg’s play is the family’s cook who is also the manservant’s fiancée. But Farber has turned the cook into a mother figure who raised both her own son and her employer's white daughter

Farber has also added a fourth character: a spirit of the Xhosa people whose history of mistreatment still haunts South Africa—and the actions onstage. The symbolism is sometimes a bit much. As is the moody soundscape, played live by two white musicians—the brothers Daniel and Matthew Pencer, who have collaborated with Farber in the past.

And yet there are the fully committed (not to mention courageous) performances from Hilda Cronje as Julie and Bongile Mantsai as the servant John. Their nakedness extends way beyond the bared nipples and buttocks that are revealed during Farber's choreography of copulation.  

And Farber and her cast work hard to avoid the usual clichés about sex and race. They make both Julie and John equal parts aggressor and victim. The power position in their relationship, and in their couplings, changes constantly.

These encounters between these two souls trapped by circumstances beyond their control are sometimes violent, sometimes sensual and unrelentingly sad. There were, indeed, moments when I wanted to look away. But I couldn’t.