Les Miserables Storms Back To Boston

March 15, 2012 - Leave a Response

They’re calling this the “New 25th Anniversary Production” of “Les Miserables” but I’ve got a better name for it; this is the FULL Les Miserables.  Not les mis, or Les Miz, or Les Mis PBS beg-a-thon edition .. no, this is the real flesh and blood, fly the flag, sing to the rafters, leave no man behind production that this epic deserves.  It is exceptional in every way.

Victor Hugo didn’t set out to write a piece that people would nibble over like tea cakes on a sunny afternoon.  “Les Miserables” is rare roast beef .. a rich French burgundy, BIG themes, BIG emotions, BIG risks.  Don’t look for subtle, ’cause subtle ain’t walking out on that stage.  This is musical theatre for people who want to let their hearts soar, and tears flow.  Surrender to the magic of this show and you will be rewarded in so many ways.

The cast of “Les Miserables” may be the finest ensemble to grace the Opera House stage in a very long time.  Top to bottom they are pitch perfect.  J. Mark McVey is a Jean Valjean for the ages.  Soulful, and world weary he carries the show on his back in the same way he carries the wounded Marius in Act II.  His voice cries for justice in “Who Am I?” and leaves you nothing short of astonished in ‘Bring Him Home.”

Not to be outdone, Andrew Varela commands the stage as Javert, the keeper of the law who relentlessly pursues Valjean, and loses his humanity.  He sings “Stars” with an almost other-worldly power. If you’ve never experienced a show-stopping moment, this is one.

Like the novel it’s based on, the musical “Les Miserables” has a lot to say.  A lot to say about justice, a lot to say about love, a lot to say about making choices .. good and bad.  At times it moves to fast.  At times it moves to slow.  At times the songs by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer all start blending into each other.  Then, out of nowhere, the classics appear.

“I Dreamed a Dream” was propelled back into the pop culture mainstream by Susan Boyle, but that doesn’t blunt its impact when Fantine makes her heartbreaking confession.  Betsy Morgan puts the emphasis on emotion and not technique and gives the song its true grandeur.

The same can be said for Chasten Harmon who plays the doomed Eponine .. “On My Own” flows beautifully, a river is not just a river.  Harmon’s phrasings can come off a little too contemporary at times, but it is a winning performance just the same.

And the win streak doesn’t stop there.  You get a masterful “Master of the House” from Richard Vida and Shawna Hamic as the loathsome Thenardier’s.  They mix the ribald with the vile expertly, and don’t sugarcoat their villainy.  They sell it without selling out.

As the lovers, Max Quinlan as Marius and Julie Benko as Cosette are endearing and believable.  The whole love at first sight thing can be a yawn in lesser hands.  These two win you over and have you pulling for them.

Finally I have to mention Jeremy Hays as the student, firebrand Enjolras.  He’s intensity just burns through every scene.  When he raises that rifle or waves that flag you believe it, man!  Oh yeah, and he has a killer voice too.

In bringing “Les Miserables” back, producer Cameron Mackintosh turned to the direction team of Laurence Connor and James Powell.  They came up with the idea of using some of Victor Hugo’s lesser known art works in the staging.  It was a brilliant idea.  The projections have a rich texture that work well with the fog and lighting effects.  Connor and Powell were also wise to include the spectacular set pieces that bring 19th century France to life.  The barricades are amazing, and you can almost smell the sweat and blood in the slums of Paris.  Add the earth tones of the peasant clothing and the shots of color in the military uniforms and you’ve got a living, breathing, society on the edge.

“Les Miserables” is only at the Opera House until April 1st.  If there’s a ticket to be had, grab it fast.  For anyone who wants to recapture the experience .. or see the show for the first time .. this is an opportunity not to be missed.


American Idiot Hits The Stage In Boston: Punk Rock Now Suitable For Framing In Your Mom’s Living Room

January 25, 2012 - Leave a Response

Wow, punk rock at the Boston Opera House.  It’s kinda like rebel cuisine at the Olive Garden!  Green Day’s “American Idiot” CD will stand the test of time, the musical based on its Bush-era screed will only be a passing curiosity.  Theatre kids will thrill to the f-bombs and guitar crunch, but anyone looking for some depth in this multi-media assault will be left sorely wanting.

So, in case you couldn’t keep up the first time around, Billie Joe Armstrong is ready to walk you through the ins and outs of his groundbreaking 2004 album.  Green Day’s mastermind realized long ago that punk rock success was an oxymoron.  Punks hate success, it’s the equivalent of selling out.  Wisely, Armstrong ignored that foolishness, and went on to write some of the hookiest, most progressive and topical rock music out there.  In the “American Idiot” CD he railed against a country consumed by new media and mixed messages.  It was presented in rock opera format, but did that make a Broadway musical version a necessary extension?  Armstrong and director Michael Mayer (who brought us the truly groundbreaking “Spring Awakening”) seem to think so.

Don’t get me wrong, the show looks great.  A huge wall of wide-screen monitors and industrial staircases.  In fact this is truly a wide-screen production, since its three central characters occupy stages left, right and center.  Johnny’s in the middle.  Played with fury and vulnerability by Van Hughes he’s the guy we’re supposed to identify with.  Turns out, he’s the personification of what the title tune says you don’t want to be … namely, an American idiot.  To his right and left are his best buds Will (Jake Epstein) and Tunny (Scott J. Campbell), who share the same lost boy angst as Johnny.  So, in order to throw a rickety narrative on these three, Will gets locked down with his pregnant girlfriend, Johnny goes to the big city and Tunny goes to war.  And hillarity ensues!  Sorry, not really.

Basically what we get is a potty-mouthed “Glee” episode with drugs and simulated sex.  Ooooh, don’t you feel naughty?!  Too bad, because the songs are still pretty awesome.  “Jesus of Suburbia” .. “Holiday” .. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” .. plus some added material from Green Day’s follow-up to “American Idiot”, “21st Century Breakdown. ” We watch Johnny fall into the clutches of the drug-dealing “St. Jimmy” (Joshua Kobak) and fall in love, sort of, with a girl only known as “Whatsername” (Gabrielle McClinton).  Not to be snarkier than I already am but, when your lead female character doesn’t even have a proper name, it doesn’t bode well for complex character development.

One thing that does work, is a sequence designed specifically for the stage, in which Tunny is lured into joining the military.  We get a Jersey Shore-esque poser (Vince Oddo) who goes from his underwear to a military uniform accompanied by some smoking hot chorus girls in red, white and blue sequins.  Tunny (pictured above) is overwhelmed by the flash and flesh and signs on the dotted line.  It’s subtle as a train wreck and just as compelling.  More of that, please!

Since the show is only in town for a week, you have to make a quick call on whether you should scramble for tickets.  I say if you’re interested, by all means go.  The musical skills of the cast are unquestionable.  The band onstage is rock solid, with the exception of the irritating conductor intent on calling attention to himself.  Take a seat chucklehead.  It’s a great chance for people who hate the crush of rock shows to see a really good one, without getting a beer spilled down their back!

Back in the 90’s when “Dookie” was just breaking, Green Day played a show at Boston’s Hatch Shell that ended in a turf and bottle throwing melee.  Now that’s punk rock.  This show ends with a tacked on rendition of “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” .. you know, just so you leave the theatre singing a happy tune.

Nuff said.

La Cage Aux Folles in Boston: Sieber A Tour de Force

December 9, 2011 - Leave a Response

Funny thing about the return of La Cage Aux Folles to Boston .. it’s sort of billed as a vehicle for George Hamilton, when it’s truly driven by the incredible Christopher Sieber.  I know, I know Hamilton’s the name .. the tan, the celebrity, the STAR.  He’s also the least interesting thing in the show.  He’s far from a disaster, but the level of talent around him is so much greater, that he winds up fading into the background.  Hamilton’s the tasteful curtains in an otherwise eye-popping room and you don’t go to La Cage for the curtains.

What you do go to La Cage for is to see a performance like Sieber’s.  His turn as Albin, the star attraction at a Saint-Tropez drag club, is smart, sublime and endearing.  His musical gifts are nothing less than astounding, when he sings “I Am What I Am” at the end of Act One, he holds center stage, and the audience, completely in his hands.  Blown away are all the gender-bending jokes, and over-the-top costumes.  It’s just a man, alone in the spotlight, determined to live life on his own terms.

La Cage actually took wing in Boston back in 1983.  Before taking Broadway by storm it worked out the kinks at the Colonial Theatre.  The current National Tour is based at the more intimate Shubert Theatre and it’s really a terrific fit.  Director Terry Johnson wants a club-like feel, and rather than wowing you with numbers, he trusts a tight-knit corps of actors to bring the story to life.  Some brilliant set pieces by Tim Shortall .. including a giant corset .. make everything, well, pop!  The costumes by Matthew Wright are also something to behold.

Which brings us to “Les Cagelles” .. the drag queens that make La Cage the spectacle it is.  This corps of performers sing, dance, leap, dive, spin and more .. and they do it all in outrageously high heels.  Not something you see every day.  Not something that’s to everyone’s taste.  Hard to describe unless your watching it yourself .. which is why you should experience live theatre in the first place.  Choreographer Lynne Page puts these guys through their paces, and shows no mercy!

Yes, there is a story to go with all the feathers and fishnets.  Georges, George Hamilton, is the owner of La Cage aux Folles.  He’s also, Albin’s partner and the father of a 24-year-old son who’s about to get married.  Jean-Michel, but of course, has fallen in love with Anne, the daughter of an uptight French politician.  Anne’s old man wants to meet Jean-Michel’s family, and of course much hilarity follows.  It could be an overly preachy plot-line, but everything’s handled with a light touch.  The message of being true to yourself, however, is never just tossed off.

I want to get back to Christopher Sieber one more time before wrapping this up.  He knows this show inside and out having played both Georges and Albin in different productions.  Only two of the songs in Jerry Herman’s score really matter, “I Am What I Am” and “The Best of Times” and Sieber is key to both.  He gets beyond the old school Broadway shtict that Herman’s all about (gimme a C, a bouncy C) and makes the songs touching and universal.  He also generously reaches out to bring Hamilton back into the show and out of his somewhat clueless fog.  Sieber knows what it’s like to play Georges, the not-so-straight straight man, and he knows how essential that character is to the show’s humanity.  He simply won’t let Hamilton fail, and that is the mark of a true pro.

Hamilton may have the star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but it’s Sieber who shines brightest.  See this show to see his performance.
La Cage plays through December 18th at the Shubert Theatre in Boston, tickets available online and at the box office.


Christmas Music Playlist: Favorites and Fruitcake

December 7, 2011 - Leave a Response

The window to listen to Christmas music is short, unless you happen to be WODS radio in Boston .. they roll out the holiday loop in the beginning of November .. a wee bit early kids.  Anyway, now that we’re safely in December, I’ve been listening to a wide sampling of the songs of the season.  So here’s some tunes for you to consider, or in one case, to avoid at all costs!

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Judy Garland

This song has been tinkered with quite a bit over the years since the original isn’t all tinsel and lights.  In fact there’s a darkness to the original lyrics that give the melody a haunting beauty, “Someday soon we all will be together/If the fates allow/Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” .. not exactly Deck The Halls.  But, it’s real and heartfelt and a reminder that the holiday season carries its share of challenges too.

The Friendly Beasts – Sufjan Stevens

This is a completely charming version of a 12th Century French carol.  It’s told from the perspective of the animals who were in the Bethlehem barn the night Jesus was born. Sweet, folky, and invoked with the true spirit of Christmas.  In fact the entire “Songs For Christmas” collection is a treasure trove of great stuff, and it’s rarely played on commercial radio, which is a shame.

Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – Darlene Love

Sell it Darlene, sell it!  For all you Christmas romantics this is your song.  Phil Spector may be crazy as a bedbug, but this uber-produced classic is the “Wall Of Sound”  in all its glory.  Darlene WANTS you home … hop to it.

Merry Christmas Darling – Karen Carpenter

That voice, man, that voice.  Totally unique .. deep, crystalline, heart-wrenching.  This song can be a toss off in lesser hands, but not in hers.

The Christmas Song – Nat King Cole

Cool and sophisticated.  You can almost hear the ice in the cocktail glass and smell the cloud of cigarette smoke in the studio.  I love his vocal nonchalance too .. it’s like I’m trying, but I’m not really trying.  Done to death and played to death, but I still love it.

What Child Is This – Vince Guaraldi Trio

Who’d have thought a melody that dates back to the middle ages could become a jazz standard?  “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a classic for many reasons, including Linus in the spotlight, but it’s the musical soundtrack by Guaraldi that cements its reputation.

All I Want For Christmas Is You – Mariah Carey

I am not immune from the charms of power pop.  Sincere?  Hardly. Catchy?  Absolutely.  You can’t fight this one, it just pulls you in. Make sure you serve it up with a side dish of the movie “Love Actually.”

God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman – Bright Eyes

Conor Oberst and friends bring a little Nebraska angst to the holiday party.  This, however, is a rather jaunty version of the carol, and  has a nice homemade feel.  It’s like the ornament you made in art class in 4th grade that’s become a family favorite.

Christmas Is Interesting – Jonathan Coulton

Who doesn’t like a little naughty with the nice.  This one ISN’T for the kids party!  Hilarious, vulgar, and right on the mark!

The Christmas Shoes – NewSong

Remember that fruit cake I mentioned in the title of this blog? And I’m talking about the really HORRIBLE fruit cake, the kind even the rock bottom discount stores won’t sell.  Well, here’s the musical equivalent.  SO over the top, and yet it’s played and played and played some more.  You can’t re-gift this tune, but you can certainly clear a room by including it in your mix!

So what to you think?  Agree?  Disagree?  What about your list?  Drop a comment here, or jump on the Channel 5 Facebook page and keep the conversation going.

Jingle, jingle!

Boston’s South Pacific A Bit Lost At Sea

September 28, 2011 - Leave a Response

The last time I saw a stage production of South Pacific I was in it.  That’s right at the tender age of 17 I was spraying my sideburns silver to play Capt. George Brackett (mercifully a non-singing role).  In fact for the vast majority of folks I’ll bet their first experience with this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic (outside the movie version) was either a high school or community theatre production.  So when a full blown, Broadway quality edition rolls into town you’ve gotta ask yourself a question, “Is this production going to open my eyes to the legend?”  “Will seeing an age appropriate cast playing the roles of Nellie, Emile, Cable and Bloody Mary clue me in to the nuances I may have missed in more untrained hands?”  Simply put, “Is it worth it?”

Unfortunately with this production the answer is frustratingly murky.  It’s perfectly adequate.  The cast looks right, they sing great, and the production values are top notch … plus the orchestra gives the songs a lushness that you’ll rarely find outside a professional theatre.  So why is it all just so … ordinary?

The pedigree for this South Pacific is the 2008 Lincoln Center show that went on to win a Tony Award for best revival.  In fact, it was hailed as a revelation.  This isn’t that show.  In fact for a story that takes place in the super heated, super exotic setting of the South Pacific during World War II, there’s a passion gap that’s hard to fathom.

Let’s start with Katie Reid as Nellie … corny as Kansas in August Nellie … Arkansas hick Nellie … crazy in love Nellie.  You’d think her energy would light up the room.  Instead we get slow burn Nellie … cautious Nellie … what the heck am I doing here Nellie.  She nails every note in “A Cockeyed Optimist” and “A Wonderful Guy” but it’s the melody that’s selling the song, not her character.

For all you plot summary fans, Navy nurse Nellie Forbush gets swept off her feet by mysterious plantation owner Emile de Becque in a sort of May-Dec… make that October, romance.  Marcelo Guzzo brings the full monty operatic baritone that’s become the template for the role.  He does a stirring “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine.”  He’s all big gestures and soulful eyes, but is he really that besotted with Nellie?  And if he is, why?

Even the usually welcome hijinks of the Navy Seabees feels tired.  For one thing, I’ve never seen a pastier bunch of dudes who’ve been stuck on a tropical island for months.  Was sun block even invented back then?  Christian Marriner does a decent job playing the scheming but lovable Luther Billis, but none of it gets much deeper than a McHale’s Navy episode.  “There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame” is a built in crowd pleaser, so sell it boys.  Sailor caps and fake tattoos aren’t going to cut it unless we believe how desperately errr .. lonely … you are.

One thing the show does a convincing job of is conveying the complexity of racism and prejudice.  Marine hotshot Lt. Joseph Cable, played by Abington’s own Shane Donovan, falls in love with an island girl.  Nellie finds out that Emile has two racially mixed children from his first marriage, and the chains of closed-mindedness start dragging them down.  In fact Donovan sings “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” as three African American Seabees, segregated from their white comrades, look on.  It’s a powerful moment, and the best in the show.

Then, there’s Bloody Mary.  She’s the native ying to Luther Billis’ yang.  You can’t take your eyes off of Cathy Foy-Mahi as she stalks the stage.  Her dreamy version of “Bali Ha’i” is like an exotic cocktail that leaves you weak in the knees.  But the whole bit about her setting up her daughter with Cable is just borderline creepy.  A romance that’s meant to be poignant comes off as superficial and that blunts its impact.

South Pacific is only at The Opera House through October 2nd, so you don’t have much time to make up your mind up on whether to go.  If you do, you will see a solid production, but will it be the best version of S.P. you’ll ever see?  I hope not.





West Side Story in Boston: Classic Show in Universal Language

June 16, 2011 - Leave a Response

The balcony embrace between Tony and Maria in “West Side Story” spells out everything you need to know about this touching, yet tragic love story.  Much has been made about the use of both Spanish and English in this updated version of this classic musical, but true to the show’s Shakespearean roots, it’s much ado about nothing.  Theatre people, I know you love the drama, but take a deep breath, and let me ease your minds: little is lost in this bilingual production, and much is gained.  Authenticity and a deep understanding of the groundbreaking original are the guiding forces of this new “West Side Story” … the spirit of 1957 is sharpened by the stagecraft and passion of 2011.

Let me say this first and foremost … nothing can ever eclipse the work done by the original creative team.  The stunning score by Leonard Bernstein, the street smart yet lushly romantic lyrics of a young Stephen Sondheim, the brilliant direction and choreography of Jerome Robbins, and the sharp and insightful words of Arthur Laurents.  Gentleman, I can only say that you have left a masterpiece for the ages.

So let’s turn our attention to the show at hand.  What we have at the Colonial Theatre is one of the strongest “West Side Story” casts you will ever see.  Are they perfect … hardly.  Surprisingly, it’s some of the imperfections that add to the authenticity.  Tony is played by Kyle Harris, he’s got an impressive vocal range … he also has an oddly goofy expression on his face for much of the show.  Tony, a goof?  Impossible, you say?  Not really.  Tony blindly throws himself into a culture-busting relationship at a time when his entire world is terrified by changing times.  He’s an innocent, a romantic, and a goof.  He could also use a little stage direction (tour director David Saint was in the house on Wednesday night) … Harris pretty much just stands in one place when he sings to signature numbers, “Something’s Coming” and “Maria.”  Hey, Mr. Saint, this isn’t “West Side Story” in concert!  Let the man move!

Maria is played by Ali Ewoldt in an endearing and energetic performance.  This is a high strung, and determined Maria.  She can grab you with her vulnerability, and dazzle you with the power of her voice.  She’s terrific on “Tonight” and heartbreakingly beautiful on “One Hand, One Heart.”  She’s also a fine complement to Harris’ Tony.  If Tony is a bit of a goof, you could argue that Maria is more than a bit clueless.  It’s as a couple that the two of them become a unifying force.  They really do complete each other, making their ultimate fate that much more poignant.

That wasn’t a spoiler, was it?  You’ve all read Romeo and Juliet right?  Just checkin’ … I’m not sure if the Bard is still covered on the MCAS!

Anyway, in case you haven’t been paying attention, in this production the Sharks .. the Puerto Rican gang, and their girls, speak Spanish.  Not all the time, but enough to make a definite impression.  That means songs like “America” and “I Feel Pretty” are largely sung in Spanish.  Significant sections of dialog are in Spanish too.  Do you feel a bit left out at times?  A bit.  But isn’t that the point!  It’s that fear of differences that fuels the tragedy in “West Side Story.”  If this was the first production of the show it would be a problem, but I’m betting about 98% of the audience knows the show by heart.  If you don’t, listen to the soundtrack or original cast recording a few times before coming.  I enjoyed the word play and I don’t speak Spanish.  I felt I knew the Sharks better because they were speaking their own language.

That said, I want to give special props to German Santiago as Bernardo and Michelle Aravena as Anita.  Truth be told this is Anita’s show.  Aravena is just sensational.  Singing, dancing, heck just standing there, you can’t take your eyes off her.  She’s costumed mostly in purple, but it’s not the eye-catching color that draws you to her.  It’s her intensity and passion.  Maria may be the heart of the show, but Anita is the soul.  Aravena is the most interesting thing on the stage whenever she graces it.

One thing that has changed little from the original is the choreography of Jerome Robbins.  Smart move.  The dancing is as fresh today as it was in 1957.  And this cast can dance.  The dudes in the Jets are about as menacing as a litter of Golden Retriever puppies, but when they launch themselves into the air who cares!  Joseph Simeone does his best to make Riff a punk, but he’s just too damn cute in that vest of his.  The Jet girls on the other hand are smokin’!  Kristen Paulicelli, Kirstin Tucker, and Jessica Swesey absolutely rip it up in the dance numbers.  They are women among boys!

The only sequence in the show that I felt fell flat was the Act II staging of “Somewhere.”  It turned into a weak dream ballet that looked like it was staged by the cast of “Lost.”  The stage was bare, the actors wore bright white and beige … all that was missing was a Dharma Intiative logo!  Also, having tomboy, gang wannabe, Anybodys sing the main verse was a poor decision.  Alexandra Frohlinger has a lovely voice, but this is Tony and Maria’s plea for a better world.  I didn’t like it being taken away from them.

It is, in the end, a brave and winning production.  It takes courage and vision to tinker with a classic and in this case most of the decisions pay off.  If this is your first “West Side Story”, throw your arms around it, and feel those well earned tears roll down your cheeks.

This wasn’t even close to my first … and I still felt that way.

“West Side Story” plays at the Colonial Theatre through July 9, 2011.  Tickets are available at the box office or through broadwayacrossamerica.com

Going To Bat For Sucker Punch

March 29, 2011 - Leave a Response

The movie “Sucker Punch” is a pop culture talisman that, by it’s very nature, sends viewers on a  personal rather than universal trip.  It’s a mash up .. chaotic by design.  In choosing to make a movie packed with influences ranging from video games to anime, to steam punk, to Kurosawa ..  director Zack Snyder wisely opted out of the pitfalls of a nerdcore focus group, and went ahead and made his own movie. Perhaps that’s why a hefty slice of the audience that “Sucker Punch” seeks to court is in a full blown, dyspeptic snit over the final results.

I loved it.  Yeah, you heard me, I loved it.  Not in the “that was the greatest movie I’ve ever seen” way .. “Sucker Punch” is far from that .. I loved it in the “thank you for sticking to your guns” way.  In “300” and “Watchmen” Snyder was working from some of the holy scrolls of geekdom.  He delivered solid interpretations of those works, but I was curious about what would happen when he stopped working with another writer’s narrative net.  Put me down as impressed.

So let’s deal with the less enthralled for a bit.  “Sucker Punch” leaves itself wide open for wholesale abuse .. I gotta believe that’s where the title comes from.  The story focuses on Babydoll, a young woman sent to mental institution by her evil, and murderous step father.  Inside a facility that’s equal parts “One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest” and “Arkham Asylum” from the Batman comics, Baby Doll takes us on a tour of her tortured inner-psyche through amazing video game inspired action sequences. That her path to empowerment also leads us through a minefield of sex, violence, and enough politically incorrect behavior to spawn its own cable channel .. only raises the stakes for Snyder and the audience as well.

Is it okay to like a movie with young women in skimpy or provocative costumes?

Is it okay to like a movie that glamorizes the use of weapons of violence?

Is it okay to like a movie that recklessly mixes genres, time periods, fashion, music, architecture, and culture?

Is it okay to like a movie that presents gross stereotypes of both men and women?

Is it okay to like a movie that clumsily tries to tell a story of heroic self-reliance, while wading hip deep into a morass of howling cliche?

Is it possible for movie to be joyless and uplifting at the same time?

These are the kind of questions that “Sucker Punch” raises.  It makes me extra dubious of critics who have dismissed it out of hand .. there is just too much to talk about here.

The performances by the cast are also worth a healthy discussion.  Emily Browning is a pouting, haunted, angel of death as Babydoll. Yeah, she’s the one in the sailor girl outfit .. but she’s carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. She has all the lethal moves of the fiercest ninja warrior .. a skill set driven by purpose and rage.  There is no joy here, just a tortured soul .. and Browning wears her broken heart on her tattered sleeve.

Jena Malone is the other stand out in the cast as Rocket.  Big heart, uncrushable dreams .. as real as anyone could be in this unreal world.  Abbie Cornish, does well as Sweetpea, the soulful, but practical older sister of the girls trapped in the asylum.

Of course handing out any compliments to the actresses puts you back on the hot seat.  The characters are rather skimpy .. as are their costumes .. so what’s really drawing you in?

Sorry, but it’s everything.  You’ll just have to deal.

I guess my message to the fanboys and girls out there is “stop hating on this movie because YOU didn’t get to make it.”  Get over the fact that Snyder got to run wild in YOUR pop culture playground. Look beyond the “Sucker Punch” in your head, and give credit to the one that made it to screen.

I’m feeling very uncool loving this movie .. and I’m really okay with that.

Hair in Boston: From Banned To Beloved

March 24, 2011 - Leave a Response

It wasn’t like this the first time around.  Back in 1970 the rock musical “Hair” got the banned in Boston treatment .. obscenity charges, desecration of the flag allegations .. not pretty .. in fact pretty angry.  Youth culture in revolt, the establishment fighting back .. but did anyone take the time to watch the show?

Four decades later “Hair” is in a much better place .. the Colonial Theatre, which was pretty much custom made for Diane Paulus’ wonderful revival of a show that weaves its way into your heart.  I’m just not sure how a production that was born in a cauldron of turbulent change, now feels like a long lost quilt, pulled from the hope chest in the attic.

But here it is, “Hair” 2011 .. same characters, same insanely catchy songs, same bell bottoms and halter tops, same story line as thin as Donald Trump’s comb-over.  Except now, instead of feeling like we’re being handed a free love manifesto, we’re simply allowed to transport to a time where a new reality was being planted in a nation at war with itself.  Labels were finally being torn off: sex, color, creed, orientation were no longer barriers to happiness and fulfillment.  No matter who you were, you could be part of the tribe.  What’s clearer now, than the naiveté then, is the complications and failings of too many drugs and too little responsibility.

Yeah, I know … too heavy.  So here’s the fun stuff.  “Hair” is blessed with a dream cast of charismatic performers.  Right from the start, hippie ringleader Berger (Steel Burkhardt) is in your grill … with a tasseled loin cloth no less.  He’s loud, he’s rude, and he’s ready and willing to tear it up.  Then comes the spacey Woof (Matt DeAngelis) .. earth mamma Jeanie (Kacie Sheik) .. righteous Dionne (Phyre Hawkins) .. afro-licious Hud (Darius Nichols) .. soulful Claude (Paris Remillard) and sultry Sheila (Caren Lyn Tackett).  They all throw themselves into songs that against all odds have become pop music classics. “Aquarius” .. “Hair” .. “Easy to be Hard” .. “Good Morning Starshine” .. “Let the Sun Shine In.”  Whatever magical circumstance brought “Hair” creators Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot together back in 1967, created a work of enduring charm, and surprising durability.

Paulus, who’s also Artistic Director of Boston’s A.R.T., wisely didn’t try to blow us away with stage craft in this one.  The tribe performs in front of a simple wooden scaffolding that supports a solid rock combo, and allows for some vertical movement.  Most of the time the cast is coming right at the audience .. into the seats .. up the aisles.  You’re not just watching the show … you’re in it!  The sixties era clothes are absolutely spot on.  The mish- mash of vests and ponchos and personalized denim (hats and beads off to costume designer Michael McDonald) .. they all fit the actors like a second skin .. and that’s before we get to see their first skin!

Yes, kids, the nude scene is in there.  Perfectly done too.  Natural, real, and without shame.  The cast is so adorable that seeing them naked is about as shocking as seeing your kids at bath time.  It’s important for the authenticity of the show to drop all pretensions … even while others are being perpetuated.

Watching this story that revolves around war, intolerance, and society in turmoil feels remarkably fresh and timely.  Current events also give “Hair”  a real gravitas. This is no nostalgia piece. This “Hair” is full, and substantial.  You feel it in the voices of the cast.  You experience it in the poignant and heartbreaking image of Claude lying  in his military uniform under gently falling snow.  You celebrate it in the ringing chorus of “Let the Sun Shine In.”

“Hair” is a bittersweet celebration .. and one not to be missed.

“Hair” has a three week run at the Colonial Theatre, through April 10.

Mary Poppins in Boston: Supernanny Brought Back To Earth

February 19, 2011 - Leave a Response

Mary Poppins would give it to you straight, and so will I.  The musical that bares the iconic nanny’s name falls short of her practically perfect standards.  It’s absolutely acceptable … but coming from such fabled source material, that’s clearly a letdown.

Standards.  That’s what Mary Poppins is all about.  Doing it right … not just doing it.  Disney took a niche piece of children’s literature and turned it into a movie classic.  P.L. Travers, the crusty creator of Poppins, didn’t much care for the Hollywood version (and that’s putting it mildly).  Producer Cameron Mackintosh decided to look at Mary Poppins with fresh eyes before bringing the story to the stage.  Seems like the right approach too … take the best of the books and the movie, and add some updated ingredients.  Unfortunately the new dish doesn’t quite come together.

Most, but not all the songs written by Richard and Robert Sherman for the movie are included in the musical.  They are tweaked by a new songwriting team (George Stiles and Anthony Drewe) who also add some originals.  Does the mash-up work?  Well, put it this way, if this were a tag-team wrestling event then the Sherman Brothers have just tossed their challengers out of the ring!  “Chim Chim Cher-ee” .. “A Spoonful of Sugar” .. “Feed The Birds” .. “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” .. “Step in Time” stomp all over the new entries.  Nearly 50 years after they were written they’re the freshest thing in the show.

This is the National Tour of “Mary Poppins” and the cast is filled with solid performers.  Steffanie Leigh certainly has the look and mannerisms of the title character down pat.  She’s all buttoned up and ready to take on the dysfunctional Banks family.  Leigh has a clean, and powerful singing voice, and a good sense of comic timing.  She’s all bottled up though, almost robotic at times.  Yes, yes I know she’s a magical person and all that, but I wanted to feel like there was blood pumping through her veins … not anti-freeze.  She’s game to take on the bratty Banks kids, but there’s no real warmth on display.  It makes their transformation less enjoyable … it’s expected not earned.

Nicolas Dromard is Bert .. part-time artist, chimney sweep, and wanna-be Poppins boyfriend.  He’s certainly seems to be having more fun than anyone else on stage.  It’s the little touches … a wink to the audience, an ad lib with a cast member, the joy of selling a production number.  Listen, Leigh and Dromard will not make you forget Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, but at their best they do boost each other.  They’re always better together than on their own.

Now, just about all the action in “Mary Poppins” is built around the trials and tribulations of the Banks family.  So, you’ve got the job-centric dad, the clueless mom, and the neglected kids.  Yeah, check please!  I don’t care how good an actor you are, playing a badly written character is a no win situation.  You guessed it, there are no winners here.

So, what does work?  Well, there’s one truly, terrific production number in “Step In Time.”  Chimney sweeps dancing on the rooftops of London, with Mary and the kids cutting in to boot.  Heck, even Bert gets a wall climbing bit … thankfully there are no “Spider Man” moments here!

Mary also gets to do a little flying, but at rather curious times … wouldn’t you think that flying would be a great way to make an entrance?!  Of course you would … too bad you’re not directing!

Now to the big question … is it worth taking the kids?  Yes, by all means.  The costumes, sets and special effects are dazzling.  There’s one really awful number with a bunch of life-size toys, that also happen to be rather angry, but it passes quickly enough.  I wish the big new message number of the show had a little more to offer than “Anything Can Happen.”  There’s plenty of cartoony characters, like a mean old nanny .. a crabby cook .. and a bumbling butler, to keep things light.  In fact I think kids will have a lot more fun with this than adults, but that’s not a compliment.

“Mary Poppins” looks right, but doesn’t feel right.  It needed some true inspiration to make it more than a live-action movie experience.  Could no one think of a better way to execute “Supercali….” than turning it into a “Y-M-C-A” knock-off?  Nostalgia is a tricky thing.  This show could have been a lasting memory, instead it’s a passing fancy.

“Poppins” Set To Fly Into Boston

February 10, 2011 - Leave a Response

Cameron Mackintosh, the creative force behind the musical “Mary Poppins”, tells an illuminating story of meeting with P.L. Travers, the quirky and combative author of the “Poppins” tales.  It was 1993, and Travers was still sharp as a tack at age 93 … he asked her about the creation of her famous character.  Travers answered elusively, saying only that “Mary just arrived.”  A practically perfect response, wouldn’t you say?

In some ways you could say the same thing about musical theatre.  How did this odd, often nonsensical way of telling a story ever get such a hold on so many of us?  Clearly not everyone is susceptible to its charms, (hey, big props to Fox for running a new episode of “Glee” after the Super Bowl … were they going for irony?), but to those of us who embrace it, it’s sometimes hard to explain why.  It just happens.

So, back to “Poppins.”  This show presents a raft of opportunities and pitfalls.  Introducing a new generation to live theatre is  the biggest plus.  The show’s run at the Opera House in Boston will cover the February school vacation week.  The material is smart and snappy, and get ready for some spectacular stage craft.  I’ve got my issues with Disney productions, but their lavish spending is not one of them.  Any kid interested in storytelling of this kind will be thoroughly captivated by a production of this quality.

Adults could be a slightly tougher sell.  Nostalgia will be a major factor.  The 1964 movie treatment has a huge following to this day.  The mix of live action, animation, and insanely catchy songs (more on the Sherman Brothers in a moment) has never been matched … it didn’t matter that Travers was less than thrilled with the results, audiences ate it up, and went back for seconds.  Much like L. Frank Baum’s “Wizard of Oz”, “Mary Poppins” exploded in popularity with the release of the film version.  Maybe it wasn’t the “Poppins” Travers wanted to see, but it made her a very rich lady.

The risk (and hopefully the reward) of the stage “Poppins” is that it is NOT a note for note translation of the movie.   Mackintosh brought in British writer Julian Fellowes to take a fresh look at Travers’ storylines and come up with some new variations on the theme.  Do not underestimate the talents of Mr. Fellowes, he’s just had a smashing success with “Downtown Abbey” on PBS, and he won a Best Screenplay Oscar for the film “Gosford Park” in 2001.

A couple of years back we saw the dangers of a slavish screen-to-stage production when ‘Dirty Dancing” came to town.  Reworked into a genuine musical it could have succeeded … instead we got a line by line reading that nearly crushed the whole enterprise.  Sure, some people would love a popsicle stick production of that story, but for me it was a disappointment, and a missed opportunity.

Now, to the Sherman Brothers (“Poppins” fanatics you may want to grab a glass of cool water) … not every tune from the movie is in the musical.  Yes, I heard the gasp.  Relax.  Most still are, and others have been updated by a new song writing team, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.  The Stiles/Drewe duo have also added new songs to the mix.  I applaud this decision as long as the new material can match the whimsy and catchiness of the Sherman Brothers tunes.  Richard and Robert Sherman understand the evolution of any piece of pop culture better than most.  They had to help convince P.L. Travers to let go of her work so it could be adapted.  Now, they’re doing the same.

I’m looking forward to taking an umbrella ride with this new “Poppins.”  I’ve seen enough musical theatre to know better than to judge before taking in a full production.  I’ll be there for the Press Opening on Friday, February 18th and will post my review the next day.  I’m hoping a “Spoonful Of Sugar” will not be necessary.

“Mary Poppins” will be at the Boston Opera House from February 17 – March 20.  If you’re already sure you want to go, get your tickets now, because this show could sell out quick.  There’s a link to the Broadway Across America website below.