Posted in Movie Reviews

Dodsworth

Walter Huston and Mary Astor in “Dodsworth”

There are certain movies I stop to watch whenever they pop up on TV, no matter how many times I’ve seen them. Pretty close to the top of my list is 1936’s “Dodsworth,” based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis. Fortunately we no longer have to wait for Turner Classic Movies to show it—the film is now available in a Blu-ray release, with image and sound both restored to pristine condition.

It’s an amazingly adult film, and not just in the context of its era. The Hays Code had been stringently enforced for two years at the time of this film’s release, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that while you watch. Certainly the subjects portrayed in “Dodsworth” weren’t routine fare post-Code: a middle-aged marriage falling apart, a married woman of a certain age openly displaying sexual interest in a man not her husband (or even her husband), a divorced woman living alone. The subtlety of the writing (by Sidney Howard, based on his stage adaptation of the novel), the acting and above all, the direction by William Wyler, make “Dodsworth” exceptional.

The participants in that twenty-year old marriage? Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston), a recently-retired auto magnate now eager to travel. His wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton), a woman who now seeks adventure, eager to break away from their “half-baked town” (Zenith, Sinclair Lewis’s created midwestern city). They’re a true study in contrasts—he’s wonderfully genuine, she styles herself as a woman younger than her age (“Nobody takes me for 32, or even 30”), though she has a newlywed daughter. As we’ll see during the course of the film, their marriage gradually disintegrates under the weight of her vanity and his growing refusal to indulge her after so many years.

We begin with the Dodsworths sailing for Europe on the then-brand new Queen Mary (The Italian Line’s Rex makes a cameo appearance later in the film). En route we see two events of consequence: Sam makes the acquaintance of Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), a very attractive divorced expatriate on her way back to Italy, and Fran, trying to be sophisticated, flirts with the English Captain Lockert (an incredibly young David Niven), who takes her at her word and attempts a seduction on their last night out. When Fran angrily rejects him, he somewhat cruelly responds, stopping just short of calling her a tease and adding “Give up starting things you’re not prepared to finish…You think you’re a woman of the world but you’re nothing of the sort” (David Niven makes a great cad). The contrast between these two encounters could not be greater. Sam and Edith share an easy camaraderie from the start—he’s totally without pretense and she’s warm and intelligent. On the other hand, it’s clear Fran is out of her depth with Lockert from the beginning, and her later “Oh, Sam!” confession to her husband makes us sense trouble ahead.

And so there is. Fran becomes entangled first with Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas), supposedly a financier and art collector, but who has “gigolo” written all over him, and later with Kurt, a titled but impoverished Austrian who’s several years her junior. Both relationships end abruptly, but not before the Dodsworths resort to separate bedrooms, followed by a separation as prelude to divorce when Fran announces her decision to accept Kurt’s marriage proposal. Her preoccupation with appearing youthful is an obsession—on more than one occasion she reminds Sam she was a child bride, and snaps at him “You’re rushing at old age and I’m not ready for that yet.” When her daughter Emily gives birth to a son, and Sam remarks “We’ll have to learn to behave ourselves since we’ll be a couple of old grandparents,” Fran looks like she’s been shot through the heart.

Alone, Sam travels to Naples where he encounters Edith Cortright again (The sequence of their near-misses in an American Express office is beautifully staged). She invites him to her villa for lunch where she proposes he move in with her rather than spend money on hotels. While she makes it clear her motives are strictly platonic, we know where this is headed. Walter Huston’s Sam Dodsworth is a very attractive man who draws the eye of more than one woman, and when he’s in Edith’s charming presence, we enjoy his enjoyment of life. Love and a desire to return to “doing,” as he foresees playing a role in aviation with Edith by his side, would seem to be the perfect ending.

But not before a huge bump in the road.

Her romance with Kurt having gone kaput, torpedoed by his Mama (Maria Ouspenskaya) in a classic confrontation, Fran drops the divorce and sends an SOS to Sam who sees no way other than to return to her and go back to America, much to Edith’s sorrow. We next see them on board ship, awaiting cast off, and it’s evident he’s not happy being there. It’s immediately apparent she’s learned nothing—she runs down Kurt and his mother, among others, and the topper is her “After all, when I look back, I don’t blame myself. . . You know, you were a good deal at fault too.” It’s this last that clinches the deal. Sam corners a steward to retrieve his bags and returns to Fran only to say “You and I can’t make a go of it any longer,” leading to her plaintive “What’s to become of me?” His rejoinder is something we’ve been waiting for throughout the film: “I don’t know. You’ll have to stop getting younger someday.” There’s a wonderful moment of suspense as to whether he can leave the ship before the gangplank is pulled up, and the last shot is movie direction at its finest—Edith’s expression as she spots Sam’s return is one of the most joyful close-ups on film.

“Dodsworth” is an exceptionally well cast movie. I’ve already sung Walter Huston’s praises, but the actors who appear with him match his artistry. You may want to yell “Grow up!” at Fran, but it’s Ruth Chatterton’s skill that makes her that way. And Mary Astor? Her Edith Cortright stands next to her portrayal of Brigid O’Shaughnessy in “The Maltese Falcon” as probably her best work. The rest of the cast is equally brilliant. Keep a lookout for Spring Byington as a Zenith friend of the Dodsworths whose key scene with Walter Huston is film acting at its finest, and don’t overlook the young and incredibly handsome John Payne as the Dodsworths’ son-in-law.

What a great movie.

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Theater

The Music Man . . .

Enticing the school board into barbershop quartet-dom (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

. . . or why some critics have rocks in their heads.

This past Saturday I had the extreme pleasure of seeing the current revival of “The Music Man” on Broadway, starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. When this show opened a few weeks ago the critics weren’t kind, to say the least. In no particular order, they carped at the number and length of the dance sequences, Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Harold Hill, Sutton Foster’s not being a soprano, the politically-corrected lyrics in our MeToo age (rest assured, though, Professor Hill is still rooting for Hester to win just one more “A”) and the plain-looking sets, among other things. Before I start telling you why they’re off the beam, I’ll give them one tiny benefit of the doubt—because of the nature of theater, they of course did not see the performance I saw, and it’s possible some directorial tweaking occurred after opening night. But by and large, as Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn would say, I think they’re a bunch of fuddy-duddies.

A bit of background: I adore “The Music Man.” It’s creator Meredith Willson’s loving tribute to his Iowa roots, and a wonderfully feel-good show in the best sense of the term. I was 10 when I first saw it, the first live adult theater I experienced. The star was Bert Parks (“Here she is, Miss America…”), and while his brash personality was a great fit for the show, “The Music Man’ works just as well in a somewhat more intimate mode. Three years ago I saw a revival at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, that gem of Victorian architecture, and though scaled to fit the house, the piece lost none of its charm. The story of a con man turned romantic hero plays so well that it will always entertain. 

While the current revival is not without fault, there is so much to enjoy. Hugh Jackman’s take on Harold Hill is somewhat different than that of Robert Preston, who created the role. There’s a welcome slyness to him at the start, and he charms us into the con without putting down the good folks of River City. He’s exceptionally warm with Mrs. Paroo and the kids he wants in the band, especially Winthrop, Marian Paroo’s tongue-tied younger brother, and his falling for Marian is remarkably genuine. Most of all, I marveled at Hugh Jackman’s energy. He dances full out in all the ensemble numbers, and it’s somewhat incredible that he can do this eight times a week (and twice on matinee days!).

Marian Paroo is a classic soprano role, originally played on Broadway by Barbara Cook, and later by Rebecca Luker, among others. I had my reservations when I learned Sutton Foster had been cast in the role, primarily because she’s known as a belter, many degrees away from Marian’s high vocal lines. As a result Ms. Foster is now singing several steps above her natural range, even though the keys of her songs have been lowered, if my ear is to be trusted. Similarly I’m fairly certain that the keys were raised for Hugh Jackman, since he’s a tenor. This may explain why the two of them don’t perform the duet portion of “Till There Was You.” However, Ms. Foster sings this song beautifully, with phrasing, tempo and emotion beyond reproach. No wonder Harold Hill is smitten.

What I most admired about her performance, though, was the sense of humor she brought to the character she played. Marian Paroo usually starts off as a bit of a pill, but not in Ms. Foster’s version. Her exchanges with her mother and with Amaryllis, her piano student, crackle, and her vamping of Charlie Cowell, the anvil salesman out to expose Harold Hill as a fake, is terrific satire. As a result, her Marian’s no ingenue, no “dewy young miss who keeps insisting” as in “The Sadder But Wiser Girl.” To the contrary—she’s definitely “a lady who knows what time it is.”

The musical highlight of the show for me has always been “Lida Rose/Will I Ever Tell You.” This revival features a fine foursome for the River City school board members turned barbershop quartet. All are in terrific voice, especially the bass. Although the tempo for “Lida Rose” was a bit brisk, the quartet’s dynamics were perfect. As I’ve noted before, this is where the show invites us to savor a warm summer night in pre-World War I America, and I would have liked to have lingered just a bit longer. On the other hand, I enjoyed the show’s new orchestrations, which some critics carped about. Jonathan Tunick, one of Broadway’s best orchestrators, composed these, and I loved the touches of ragtime he added, which after all rightly reflect the era. As another example of critics’ sometimes non-existent frame of reference, not one mentioned that this production’s backdrops of Iowa fields and small town Main Street are totally in the style of painter Grant Wood, a son of that state. They added a lot to the flavor of the production, as did the appearance of the Wells Fargo wagon. How they could miss that is beyond me.

Until “The Music Man” it had been two years since I had seen a show on Broadway. What a wonderful way to break the COVID drought. Go see it!

Posted in Music, Opera

Welcome to the 21st Century

Eurydice (Erin Morley) in the Underworld

The Metropolitan Opera has finally turned a new leaf. This season the Met is featuring not one but three contemporary operas: “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” Eurydice” and “Hamlet.” Fortunately Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, unlike his predecessor James Levine, champions new music, so we can look forward to more of the same in seasons to come.

Last Saturday I attended a performance of “Eurydice,” with music by Matthew Aucoin and libretto by Sarah Ruhl based on her play of the same title. While there have been many retellings of the Orpheus myth in literature, drama, opera and ballet, this work has a special slant—we view the story through Eurydice’s eyes, and her tie to the Underworld ultimately proves stronger than that to her husband. Although I have some reservations about the music, there’s no doubt this opera benefits greatly from an excellent production directed by Mary Zimmerman, and above all, a superlative cast of singers headed by Erin Morley in the title role, Joshua Hopkins as Orpheus, Jakob Józef Orlinski as his double, Nathan Berg as Eurydice’s father and Barry Banks as a marvelously malevolent Hades.

One problem is apparent from the outset—Aucoin employs a large orchestra which results in a very dense sound at times. The unfortunate result is too much bombast in the first few scenes to the extent that key elements are lost in the house. It’s difficult to hear Erin Morley when she’s not above the staff, and the wonderful effect of having the countertenor sound of Orpheus’s double surround the baritone vocal lines is inaudible (It was only when I attended the encore presentation of the HD telecast that I was able to hear these singers in full during the beginning of the opera). While there are some interesting arias and set pieces along the way, especially the wedding dance and Eurydice’s scenes with Hades, it isn’t until the third act that music and libretto coalesce. The orchestration is more transparent, the music becomes more lyrical, we finally hear Orpheus’s song, Eurydice’s father says farewell to memory and most heartbreakingly, Eurydice writes a letter to Orpheus with advice to his next wife in the most touching aria of the opera. I would have liked more of this contemplative style earlier in the work.

Will Liverman as Charles in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”

A world away from “Eurydice” (literally), Terrence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which opened the Met’s current season. has received much critical acclaim and rightly so. With a libretto by Kasi Lemmons based on Charles Blow’s memoir of the same title, the work is a cohesive whole, gaining in strength throughout and culminating in an absolutely perfect third act. Along the way there’s so much to admire: the embodiment of Loneliness singing with a blues-y tinge (nothing beats a good musical pun); the gorgeous ballet music that opens the second act; yes, the show-stopping step dance routine that opens the third act; the lyrical love duet of Charles and Greta, his college girlfriend; and the culmination of Charles’s journey with the line “Mama, I’ve got something to tell you,” as he finally opens up about the molestation he suffered at the age of seven by his cousin. As with “Eurydice,” Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the opera, and the singers, Will Liverman (Charles), Walter Russell III (Char’es-Baby), Angel Blue (Destiny,/Loneliness/Greta) and Latonia Moore (Charles’s mother, Billie) could not have been better (I would gladly listen to Ms. Moore sing the phone book, but I’d much rather hear her in “Il Trovatore.” Peter Gelb, you listening?)

Brett Dean’s “Hamlet” is still to come, and we can look forward to the presentation of another Terence Blanchard opera, “Champion,” during the next Met season. The good news is that audiences are responding—several performances of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” sold out, including the one I attended, and more opera goers were in the house for “Eurydice” than at the performance of “Boris Godunov” I saw in October. Let’s hope the interest continues.

Posted in Television

Dopesick

CAUTION–SPOLIERS ABOUND

One of the best series I’ve seen in a long time is Hulu’s “Dopesick,” based on the book of the same name by Beth Macy. It explores the many aspects of the opiod crisis, specifically the creation, marketing, prescribing and effect of Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin on those who became addicted to it as well as their families, friends and communities. Fortunately Ms. Macy co-wrote the series with Danny Strong, who has gone from acting the hapless Jonathan in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to becoming an Emmy-winning writer and producer. He and Ms. Macy should dust off their respective mantles now, because more statuettes will probably be headed their way, courtesy of this show.

Just one caveat about this series: at times it will break your heart.

Shifting between the late 1990’s to the present day, “Dopesick” covers a wide spectrum,: the activities at Purdue Pharma, both at the executive and marketing levels; the practice of a physician (Michael Keaton) in a mining community in western Virginia; the eventual addiction of an injured miner (Kaitlyn Dever) and its impact on her family; and the investigations into Purdue’s activities separately conducted by a DEA deputy director (Rosario Dawson) and a pair of dogged Assistant U.S. Attorneys (Peter Sarsgaard and John Hoogenakker).

No punches are pulled with respect to Purdue or the crisis it caused; we see all the half-truths, outright lies and evasions they used to promote OxyContin, not to mention the “grants” they made to hush the opposition and the jobs they offered to those regulators who were in a position to put the brakes on this drug. Was it cynicism or shrewd marketing that caused Purdue to focus on selling to areas like Appalachia? And when their newly hired expert opines that the issue is not addiction but under-prescribing for pain so that dosages should be doubled, your jaw may well drop. All of this of course resulted in billions of dollars in Purdue’s coffers. If the face of this tragedy, Purdue President Richard Sackler (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), had had a mustache, we might have seen him twirling it. But “Dopesick” makes it very clear that Purdue had a prime enabler in its corner—the F.D.A. which consistently minimized the risks of OxyContin, bought Purdue’s line that less than 1% of the drug’s users became addicted, and in fact approved that labelling for the product in an unprecedented move.

This is a very smart show, many scenes of which will stay in memory. When Peter Sargaard’s character rallies his employees to keep digging for evidence against Purdue, you can’t help but flash back to scenes of that company’s marketing director revving up his sales force by offering trips to Bermuda to the rep who produces the highest dollar volume in sales. When Rosario Dawson’s DEA character, overcome with victory after scoring points against Purdue at a meeting, screams into a ladies’ room mirror, “I’ve got you now, motherf****ers!,” you cheer. But the down sides are many. It’s very difficult watching Michael Keaton’s character get hooked on OxyContin after being injured in a car accident, but even worse, seeing him steal drugs from his own patients. By the time he gets clean and pursues therapy, his guilt over prescribing the drug is overwhelming.

But the story that resonates the most belongs to young Betsy. Prescribed OxyContin to cope with the pain of a back injury she sustained in a mining accident, she soon becomes addicted. The worst follows in short order: she’s so stoned at work that she causes a serious accident and is fired; she loses her girlfriend; she steals her mother’s jewelry to hock it for drug money; she trades sex for drugs. Her religious parents (in tremendous performances by Mare Winningham and Ray McKinnon), who had previously thrown her out of the house for admitting she was gay, do a complete reversal by inviting her now ex-girlfriend to participate in an intervention; her strict father tearfully tells her “We just want you to get well.” Would that it were so.

There’s very little to fault in “Dopesick.” The performances are uniformly excellent, and the story merits its eight episodes. I highly recommend it.

Posted in Television

TV Times Three

Kate Winslet, John Douglas Thompson and Evan Peters: “Mare of Easttown”

Television in whatever form, be it broadcast, cable or streaming, has never been better. The choices are endless—even if you plopped yourself down in front of a screen and glued your eyelids open 24/7, it would be impossible to keep up with every worthwhile show that’s available.

Within the last month I caught three excellent series, two of which pair up nicely in terms of genre. “American Crime” and “Mare of Easttown” are mystery/fictional crime shows, while “Hacks” is a prime example of dark comedy. All make for excellent viewing.

“American Crime” lasted for three seasons when it originally aired on ABC. I had seen the second season when it was first televised, and caught up with the remaining seasons after Netflix sounded the alarm that the show would depart at the end of May. Each season of “American Crime” focuses on a different scenario (in sequence: drug dealing/murder, sex crime/revenge porn and immigrant abuse/murder) while examining the disparate treatment of people who are touched by the criminal justice system, whether suspect or victim, and their families and friends. Issues of race, class, gender and immigrant status are thoughtfully explored. Four key actors appear in different roles throughout the show—Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Regina King and Lili Taylor, all giving excellent performances throughout, as do guest stars such as Cherry Jones and Dallas Roberts. The writing is consistently illuminating without being preachy, and it’s a shame “American Crime” didn’t enjoy a longer life. Hopefully it will be picked up by another streaming service soon.

I particularly enjoyed “Mare of Easttown” for a number of reasons (and yes, I thought the “Murdur Durdur” parody on SNL was hysterical). In addition to strong performances by all concerned, I thought the pacing was just right. The story didn’t linger—I didn’t feel a sense of attenuation even with several blind alley theories of the crime, not to mention Mare’s idiocy in stealing heroin from the evidence locker to plant on the mother of her grandchild. Whatever plot holes existed—and there were several—the shocking fifth episode alone was worth the price of an HBO subscription. And it goes without saying that several of the actors may need to dust off the mantle for the Emmys which should come their way. In addition to Kate Winslet, Jean Smart (more about her below) and Evan Peters, I was pretty much bowled over by Julianne Nicholson. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen her in, whether “E.R” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Boardwalk Empire,” or “Masters of Sex,” even as far back as “The Love Letter.” The uniform praise she’s now receiving for her performance in “Mare of Easttown” is both well deserved and long overdue.

Mulling it over: Hannah Einbinder (Ava) and Jean Smart (Deborah) in “Hacks”

Is there anything Jean Smart can’t do? Going from Kate Winslet’s mom in “Mare of Easttown” to comedian Deborah Vance in “Hacks” might seem a stretch, but she does it with ease. If you enjoyed the late lamented “GLOW,” you should grab onto “Hacks” at your earliest convenience.

This is a very smart (no pun intended) show. Deborah Vance, long time, old style comedian who’s on the verge of finally wearing out her welcome in Las Vegas, is in need of fresh material and an approach that’s consonant with today’s humor. Her beleaguered agent sends her another one of his clients, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a comedy writer who’s become otherwise unemployable due to a single indiscreet tweet. That these two are miles apart in age, outlook, economic status and above all, frame of reference, is the engine that drives this show.

You may find the first couple of episodes a bit trying, since Deborah is so acerbic and in fact mean to Ava. But these are not without charm—the laughs fly as they furiously shoot one-line barbs at each other, and we learn that Ava can give as good as she gets. Midway through the season, “Hacks” seems to really hit its stride. Deborah and Ava begin to grow a mutual regard, and their romantic interactions with others aren’t diversions but instead necessarily tell us so much more about their characters: Deborah’s on again, off again relationship with Marty (Christopher McDonald), the owner of the hotel where she performs, and Ava’s meet-up with a handsome stranger at the hotel in which she’s staying, as well as her evident inability to shake loose from a former girlfriend.

Speaking of Emmys, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if “Hacks” corners the market in the comedy division. Hannah Einbinder, who in fact is a stand-up comedian (and Larraine Newman’s daughter) seems to grow as an actor throughout the series. She and Ava seem to mature at the same time. And I can’t say enough about Jean Smart. She makes Deborah a complex character whom you want to know more, not less, about, especially in the last two episodes of the series. Her reaction when she thinks Ava has betrayed her trust is one of the most memorable scenes of the show. Rather than displaying anger, she seems to fold into herself. Her confrontation of Ava in the next episode is extraordinary, both in writing and performance. Kudos, ladies.

We’re left with a particularly juicy cliffhanger at the end of the final episode. Since “Hacks” has been renewed for another season, we’ll just have to wait to see if Ava dodges disaster once again. In the meantime, enjoy Season 1 on HBO Max. It’s so good I may watch it again.

Posted in Movie Reviews

A Quiet Hero…and a Flapper

Kent Smith, Maureen O’Hara and Charles Laughton, “This Land is Mine”

Turner Classic Movies’ annual extravaganza, the recently concluded “31 Days of Oscar” was a departure from presentations of years past. This time the films were shown in alphabetical order, not grouped by Oscar category, and I enjoyed the jumble. Two films in particular were welcome surprises—the wartime “This Land is Mine,” and 1928’s “Our Dancing Daughters.” They couldn’t be more different, but both leave an indelible impression.

“This Land is Mine” (1943) is unlike any other American World War II film I’ve ever seen. Directed by the French exile, Jean Renoir, who evidently contributed to the script by Dudley Nichols, it’s set in an unnamed country (read “France”) recently occupied by German troops. What makes this film unusual is that its main subject isn’t fighting in the streets or sabotage, but rather the nature of collaboration and the various motivations behind it.

The basic plot goes like this: Albert Lory (Charles Laughton) is a momma’s boy school teacher with a secret crush on fellow teacher Louise Martin (Maureen O’Hara). Unbeknownst to all, her brother Paul (Kent Smith) is a resistance fighter whose success at sabotage causes serious damage to materiel intended for German troops. What develops out of this situation is a comprehensive take on how the occupied town either copes or collaborates with the Nazis. The principal of Lory’s school, aghast at the directive to tear out democratic content from his student’s books, nevertheless complies, maintaining that the thoughts espoused will still live in the minds of teachers. Others are more openly collaborative. The mayor wishes to do all he can to see his town survive (and no doubt himself to remain in power), but he still enjoys accompanying the commandant of the occupying troops in what appears to be a victory procession.

But the most interesting character, presented in arguably the best performance of the film, is George Lambert (George Sanders), Louise’s fiancé and the local rail transportation supervisor. Initially he makes no bones about his politics. In conversation with the commandant, Major von Keller (Walter Slezak, playing the Hateful Nazi to the hilt), he reveals he’s just as fascist as this officer. But upon reporting his future brother-in-law Paul as a saboteur, he has second thoughts. His confrontation with Paul is the highlight of the film: his agonized “yes” when Paul asks him if he was the one who turned him in, and the terse exchange that follows: “Why did you do it, Paul?” “Why did you do it, George?” “Don’t look at me like that.” “You’re looking at yourself, George.” Although he (temporarily) helps Paul escape, George himself can’t escape Major von Keller’s pressure to continue to inform, and he shoots himself. In a case of “wrong place at the wrong time” Albert Lory is found at the scene and stands trial for murder.

It’s to Renoir’s credit that what we have already seen makes Lory’s long heroic courtroom speech in his defense a bit superfluous, at least in certain respects. Renoir has already shown us the various attitudes of those in the occupied town, and Lory simply makes express what had previously been inferred or at least more subtly conveyed. Renoir’s point of view toward these characters is something you don’t usually see in American films of that era. Although not sympathetic to collaborators for obvious reasons, he takes pains to differentiate the various “whys.” While not exactly stating that there are gray areas, he’s definitely a bit removed from the standard black and white views of most World War II films.

“This Land is Mine” won an Oscar for Best Sound, no doubt for the incredibly scary Allied bombing raid which we witness holed up in a shelter with Lory, Louise and their pupils. Two other thoughts linger after viewing the film. First, George Sanders’ performance proving he could indeed act. He was always great at playing cads, only surpassed by Zachary Scott in “Mildred Pierce,” but his George Lambert displays far more complexity. And then the indelible last shot of the film, as Lory, accompanied by his Nazi captors, jauntily strides off, presumably to meet a firing squad, hands in his pockets. A hero at last.

“This Land is Mine” will continue to be available until May 28th on the Turner Classic Movie website (subscription required).

● ● ● ● ●

Light years away from “This Land is Mine” is “Our Dancing Daughters,” the 1928 film that made Joan Crawford a star. And for good reason—she plays a seemingly wild child who’s really a good girl at heart, while her rival, played by Anita Page, is coached by her mother to act the waif in order to marry rich (for shame!).

“Our Dancing Daughters” is a movie I had read about but never seen before now. At the time of its filming the studios were still converting to sound. As a result this movie is without spoken dialogue though it features a music soundtrack with occasional sound effects. Nevertheless the vo-de-o-do never stops. Can Joan Crawford ever Charleston! The clothes, decor and make-up are high Art Deco, and the men (Johnny Make Brown, Nils Asther and Edward Nugent) are incredibly handsome. It’s fun to see the attitudes and styles of the Roaring 20’s on full display, hip flasks included. Interestingly the mothers in the film wear the same short skirts and fringe as their dancing daughters, albeit a bit more modestly, and it’s somewhat startling to see just how short the girls’ hair styles really were.

Joan Crawford’s huge eyes stand her in good stead in this film, and her performance paid off with MGM. Nevertheless I think Anita Page is prettier and has the more interesting role. But MGM evidently felt Crawford was the better bet, and despite Anita Page’s starring role in 1929’s “Broadway Melody,” still a very enjoyable film, her career stalled.

“Our Dancing Daughters” was nominated for Best Writing and Best Cinematography. It will continue to be available to subscribers on the Turner Classic Movie website through May 20th.

Posted in Music

Master Singer

The Metropolitan Opera’s online pay-per-view series, “Met Stars Live in Concert,” has been a boon during COVID-19 times. This past Saturday it was Joyce DiDonato’s turn, live from the Jahrhunderthalle in Bochum, Germany. I’ve been a fan of hers for years, and aside from her artistry, I appreciate her advocacy for arts education and especially her generosity in streaming an impromptu performance of Werther excerpts with Piotr Beczala from her living room during the early days of the pandemic shutdown. I had been looking forward to seeing the two of them perform this opera at the Met at the end of March, but hearing them in fabulous voice via streaming went a long way toward curing the disappointment of missing what would have been perfect casting.

So let’s turn to Saturday’s event. In all honesty I may run out of superlatives before the end of this blog post.

Accompanied by Carrie-Ann Matheson, pianist, a wonderfully sensitive musical partner, and members of Il Pomo D’Oro, a baroque ensemble with whom she frequently appears, Ms. DiDonato’s performance was less of a recital than a dramatic presentation. Focusing on themes of loss, joy in nature and love, the three sections of the program, titled “I Dream a World,”proved that the intelligence displayed in the selection of music amply matched the brilliance of performance.

I was somewhat surprised that Ms. DiDonato began with back-to-back farewell arias from Monteverdi and Berlioz operas. Usually a recital leads off with something upbeat, but these selections, especially Didon’s final scene from Les Troyens, rested entirely at the mournful end of the spectrum. However, her uncommonly bright sound certainly displayed the piece in its best light. These arias were an excellent prelude to what followed: “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”), the last song in Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder cycle, one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard. That Joyce, in her hushed delivery, did it justice is an understatement.

A lovely a capella rendition of the traditional “Oh Shenandoah” opened the next portion of the program. I especially enjoyed her insertion of a musical turn in the last chorus, highly reminiscent of Irish folk music (If I remember Robert McNeil’s “The Story of English” correctly, this is accurate, given the origins of the Appalachian settlers).  The DiDonato touch was wonderfully in evidence for “Dopo notte atra e funesta,” a showstopper of an aria from Handel’s Ariodante in which she was accompanied by members of Il Pomo D’Oro. Prior to this recital I had heard her sing this aria on disk and in a live concert performance of the opera, yet each time the set of vocal embellishments was more complex. And it was so much fun to see her and the instrumentalists bopping along to the syncopation of the music.

The last section of the program opened with the world premiere of a new work, Kenyatta Hughes’ “I Dream a World,” with text by Langston Hughes (no relation), which gave its title to this recital. I enjoyed the reflective nature of the music—it underscored the powerful language and emotion of the poem to a fine degree. But it was what followed that turned out to be my favorite part of the program: a pairing of “Voi che sapete” from Le Nozze di Figaro and that evocative Edith Piaf chanson, “La vie en rose.” Joyce DiDonato is one of those singers whose pleasure in performing is so evident that she easily carries the audience along with her. You could sense her enjoyment in portraying Cherubino’s befuddlement in the Mozart aria, which she made sound incredibly fresh, as well as indulging in a more sophisticated mode with the French song. It was a welcome surprise that she programmed the latter—it was great to hear her display some jazz chops. Following a heartfelt pitch to her audience to write their elected officials to urge more funding for arts education, Ms. DiDonato then wrapped up with the haunting “Canción al árbol del olvido” by Alberto Ginastera and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the musical Carousel. So to sum up: Works in five languages spanning five centuries performed by an artist at the peak of her career. It never gets better than this. Thank you, Joyce, and brava!

This performance will be available on demand at metopera.org through September 25. Enjoy.

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Opera, Theater

Corona Interlude

Bottom (Hammed Animashaun), Oberon (Oliver Chris) and Titania (Gwendoline Christie) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Production image: Manuel Harlan for the Bridge Theatre).

God bless the internet.

Weathering the lockdowns of COVID-19 may have robbed us of in-person live performance, but there is so much to see and hear online. The availability of free opera from a variety of sources has been amazing, from the Metropolitan Opera to Salzburg to the Vienna State Opera. I particularly enjoyed Vienna’s production of “Ariadne auf Naxos” featuring a very young Lise Davidsen as Ariadne and the wonderful Zerbinetta of Erin Morley. But what made it special was a particular feature that was so obvious, but which I had never seen done before. In this production which, judging by the costumes in the Prologue, appeared to be set in the early 1920’s, the Composer, sung by the excellent mezzo Rachel Frenkel, was on-stage throughout the opera proper. It makes a great deal of sense—it is the Composer’s opera after all, and while he had nothing to sing or speak, his attentiveness in “cueing” the singers was amusingly apt. The high point came when he “accompanied” Zerbinetta at the piano during her big aria. While the actual music came from the orchestra pit, Ms. Frenkel was so accurate in her keyboard locations throughout this long piece that I’d have to think she’s a pretty skilled pianist offstage. And the ending of the opera, which saw Zerbinetta and the Composer together as the earthly counterpart to Ariadne and Bacchus, was sweet indeed.

I had been thinking I wasn’t the Janacek fan I used to be until I recently saw the San Francisco Opera production of “The Makropoulos Affair.” When I last attended a Met performance a couple of years ago I longed for the opportunity to see the opera in HD. Since the springboard of the plot is a law suit involving an estate, it’s a very “talky” work that demands subtle acting that’s not always visible from the Family Circle. The SFO production certainly delivered with a uniformly excellent cast. While Karita Matilla, as the 337 year-old heroine, was a bit more Norma Desmond-ish than I would have liked, you couldn’t have asked for more musically. Bravi tutti!

Theater is thriving on the internet, and I have enough stockpiled links to performances to keep me busy for the next five decades. Some were especially enlightening—a regional production of “Fun Home” that proved this work loses its necessary intensity when performed on a proscenium stage instead of in the round as I saw it on Broadway, and a British production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” which I particularly enjoyed. I had never seen this musical before though I own three different cast recordings, and it was especially gratifying to finally experience the intended dramatic settings of the songs.

Of course the big event of this COVID-19 interlude was the premiere of the taped performance of “Hamilton” on Disney Plus featuring the show’s original cast. This was my second time around for “Hamilton”—I was fortunate to have seen it live on Broadway about 18 months ago by way of a win in the show’s perpetual ticket lottery. That performance’s strengths differed somewhat from the taped version—I had the benefit of a tall, handsome Hamilton who somewhat outshone the shorter, slighter, balding actor who played Burr, and while the electric give and take between audience and actors is a given in live theater, in “Hamilton” it was off the charts (Yes, the line “Immigrants, we get the job done” brought down the house). However, all bets were off at the juncture of “The Room Where It Happened” when Burr tore into that number like nobody’s business, making it the best performed part of the show. I missed that level of excitement in the taped version as well as a more consistent view of the full stage in order to see how inventively the chorus is used. Nevertheless this was more than compensated for by the superb performances of the original cast, especially that of Leslie Odom, Jr. as Burr. He had me with his melting version of “Dear Theodosia,” and it was easy to see why he, along with Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler and Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson won Tony Awards.

But without a doubt what I’ve most enjoyed during live performance exile was the National Theatre’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” directed by Nicholas Hytner. This was an immersive, anything-goes presentation with aerial stunts, the former Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) as Titania and a quartet of lovers in which the girls seemed more interested in each other than in their interchangeable boyfriends. However, the neatest trick of this production was flipping Oberon’s and Titania’s lines so that he, not she, falls in love with the donkey-fied Bottom. It was so divinely silly, and Hammad Animashaun, braying nicely as Bottom, and especially Oliver Chris as the besotted Oberon, were simply superb. But above all, a special nod goes to whomever came up with the idea of using Beyoncé’s “Love On Top” as “their” song—he or she deserves both a bonus and a raise. Simply wonderful.

Stay safe everyone. Till next time.

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Theater

Company

The new production of “Company,” now in previews on Broadway, asks a fundamental question: Can Bobby legitimately become Bobbie? (She can, since the role is now played by Katrina Lenk). Can the show work with a female protagonist? After seeing a performance last night, I have to say “Sometimes.” Like its leading character, Director Marianne Elliott’s production doesn’t necessarily have the bad things, but it doesn’t consistently have the good things either.

At first blush, seeing a female Bobbie isn’t that much of a stretch. However, the main problem with this version is that the premise of the show, which premiered in 1970, is passé. I mean, does anyone really care anymore if someone is married or not, except perhaps for your mother? Fifty years ago marriage was viewed as an essential step in life. Not so now, and not for several decades. And despite some astute updating—Paul and Amy are now Paul and Jamie, a gay couple—other scenes, retained from the original, are quite dated, especially the pot-smoking vignette. Hello: It’s now legal in how many states? Seeing upper middle class folks get stoned doesn’t quite have the daring effect it had 50 years ago.

Equally troublesome is the sense that the dynamic of the relationship between Bobbie and her married friends, with the possible exception of Paul and Jamie, is wrong. Bobbie seems to rely more on the male half of the couples, but a single woman, particularly someone in her 30’s, would be more apt to have initially made friends with and be closer to the women (I speak from my long experience as a single woman). In fact the “Company” women, with the exception of Joanne, seem somewhat marginalized here. It felt somewhat jarring to hear Bobbie ask Harry “Are you ever sorry you got married?” That was a natural question for a male Bobby to ask his buddy, but it’s odd hearing it from a female protagonist, notwithstanding the fact that Christopher Sieber who plays Harry, is a big huggable teddy bear. You’d think she’d ask Sarah, his wife. But the central problem with Bobbie, as it is with Bobby, is that the character is an observer. Katrina Lenk projects intelligence and humor, which help, but the character remains something of a cipher.

There’s no doubt this production works best when the focus is on Stephen Sondheim’s terrific score which has been newly re-orchestrated. It’s a bit more mellow now, and occasionally jazz-inflected—less piercing perhaps than the original. It’s played by a multi-piece orchestra (strings included) that sits above the stage and is revealed toward the end of the opening number. There are some wonderful musical surprises along the way: “You Can Drive a Person Crazy,” now sung by Bobbie’s three boyfriends who have been re-harmonized not to sound like the Andrews Sisters anymore, but like The Four Freshmen, minus one. And Bobby Conte Thornton, who plays P.J., gives fine voice to “Another Hundred People.” This is all topped off by some exceptionally clever staging, especially for “Side by Side by Side” and “Getting Married Today,” complete with levitating wedding cake, which has to be seen to be believed (and got the biggest laughs in the show).

As expected, “The Ladies Who Lunch” remains the most striking moment in “Company,” especially now when it’s sung by a woman to a woman. Joanne’s outburst finally made dramatic sense to me—she’s speaking not only of herself but of what Bobbie may become. It’s wonderfully performed by Patti LuPone who sings it cleanly without a hint of camp or eccentricity. What laughs she gets are not the result of shtik, but are native to the lyrics. It’s an excellent performance (By the way, it’s Ms. LuPone who delivers the pre-show directive to the audience to shut down all cellphones. You never saw a mass of people snap to so quickly in your life). 

On balance this production of “Company” remains worth seeing. It opens on March 22, Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday. Enjoy.

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Music, Opera

Confluence

Mabel (Alexandra Socha, seated) Just Came in the Room

This past week I had the happy experience of seeing a performance from each of my current arts subscriptions, one every other day. The result? Two near misses, but ending with one smashing hit.

First up on Friday night was Jerry Herman’s “Mack and Mabel,” as presented by the Encores! series, which revisits musicals that initially flopped (rightly or wrongly) or which haven’t been revived in quite some time. Originally Encores! presented these shows in concert form, but now they’re given fully staged productions with the actors down front and the orchestra at the back of the stage.

Although “Mack and Mabel” ran for only 66 performances in 1974, it’s been kept alive in the years since via a very fine original cast album featuring Robert Preston as Mack Sennett and Bernadette Peters as Mabel Normand. The show’s flop status has been primarily blamed on the book, which in truth is unavoidably depressing, given that Mabel, reputedly a drug user (though not proven), died of tuberculosis at the age of 38. There are other problems, too, namely major departures from reality, such as showing Fatty Arbuckle making movies with Sennett at a time when he was in actuality standing trial for murder, and fingering William Desmond Taylor as Mabel Normand’s drug supplier, which is patently false.

But to me the biggest problem with the show is that Mack Sennett is a very unpleasant character, “I Won’t Send Roses” notwithstanding. It’s obvious that in its original production, the creators, including Michael Stewart who wrote the book, and Gower Champion, who directed it (the same team that brought “Hello, Dolly” to life), relied heavily on Robert Preston’s natural warmth and charm to fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, Douglas Sills, who played Mack in the Encores! presentation, failed to exhibit these traits. He alternately blustered and threw away his lines to the extent that if I caught 40% of what he was saying, it was a lot (and based on what I’ve read online, I wasn’t the only one with this complaint). Mabel’s role is better written, and she gets three terrific numbers: “Look What Happened to Mabel,” “Wherever He Ain’t,” and “Time Heals Everything,” which is even more devastating in the context of the show than I had imagined.

In order for “Mack and Mabel” to succeed, we need to be able to see what she sees in him, and unfortunately the view was of a bully who took her for granted until it was too late. It was eye-opening to see the cast perform “When Mabel Comes in the Room,” and to realize what had been missing from the show up until this point—charm and plain old love. It was a treat to see Mabel do a ballroom turn with each of the crew welcoming her back to the studio, and I wish there had been more of it.

Alexandra Socha was an excellent Mabel, but Lilli Cooper, as Lottie Ames, Sennett’s other leading lady in the role originated by Lisa Kirk, was an absolute knockout. Director/Choreographer Josh Rhodes did a terrific job recreating Sennett’s Bathing Beauties and Keystone Kops, but top marks have to go to Music Director Rob Berman and the Encores! Orchestra for their fabulous performance of the restored orchestrations. Their artistry makes me look forward to the next musical in the series, a true rarity, Kurt Weill’s “Love Life.”

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On Sunday I attended a performance of Beethoven’s Symphonies 6 and 7 by John Eliot Gardiner and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, part of Carnegie Hall’s celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday. This orchestra performs on original instruments, which presented both pluses and minuses. On the one hand, hearing the strings play with taut bows made for a lovely sonority. Woodwinds were brighter sounding than their modern counterparts, if occasionally hooty, and it was amusing to see a contrabassoon, tall as a chimney, unwound to its full sixteen feet, as well as the length of the uncoiled trumpets.

While the first two movements of each of the symphonies were beautifully rendered, expecially the second movement of the Seventh, Gardiner’s tempos for the scherzos and final movements were far too fast, despite his claim of historical accuracy. Quite honestly I felt sorry for the principal horn who simply could not get her lip around the runs of the third movement of the Pastoral at the speed set by Gardiner (If I’m not mistaken, the principal clarinet also missed a couple of notes). As a former violinist and bassoonist, I have to ask: If the tempo is so fast that the musicians can’t articulate the notes, what good is it?

 

Agrippina (Joyce DiDonato) and Nero (Kate Lindsey): “Your Mother’s Got This”

The absolute winner in this sequence was Tuesday night’s performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s “Agrippina,” which the Met notes is the oldest work (1709) this house has ever performed, though you’d never know it from David McVicar’s incredibly clever production. Handel wrote it when he was 24, and while he’s far from the mature composer of “Ariodante” and “Alcina,” there are fascinating glimpses of what’s to come: Agrippina’s first big aria with its dizzying runs and oboe duet, Ottone’s lament, which closes the first half of this new production, in a string setting that seems to suspend time, and an “at the end of my tether” string-accompanied recitative for Agrippina in the second half that points the way to so many future developments in opera.

Despite the libretto, this is a modern dress production that seems to take its cue from the political skullduggery of “House of Cards,” British and American versions both. The opera covers Agrippina’s machinations resulting in her son Nero’s succeeding Claudius as Emperor (and we all know how well that turned out). Although it’s the same ground covered by the book and TV show “I Claudius,” the scheming is never boring, considering that mezzo Joyce DiDonato is onstage as Agrippina, having the time of her life. I can’t remember when I last saw an opera where all the singers were so consistently excellent, all the way down to baritone Duncan Rock and countertenor Nicholas Tamagna, who play Agrippina’s unfortunate pawns.

Although countertenor Iestyn Davies as the put-upon Ottone and bass Matthew Rose as the not-too-bright Claudius are wonderful, this production is definitely Ladies’ Day. There’s not one moment of boredom, whether it’s Joyce DiDonato, shimmying across the stage while thinking up her latest scheme, or soprano Brenda Rae as Poppea, who proves smarter than Agrippina but who’s funniest when drunk in the bar scene that begins the second half, or Kate Lindsey, mistress of physical comedy, as that bad boy Nero, who’s probably the most fun to watch. She’s got that spoiled teenager thing down so well you half expect Joyce DiDonato to bring her stage son up short with “Ya rotten kid, ya.” In addition to the pouts, Ms. Lindsey illustrates Nero’s whiny petulance by singing certain phrases in straight tone, and it’s a marvel to hear her alternate between this and her normally rich mezzo.

Conductor Harry Bicket does his usual fine work with baroque opera here. There’s also a special guest appearance by the superb Bradley Brookshire who serves as the cocktail pianist harpsichordist during the bar scene. And while we’re on that subject, kudos to choreographer Andrew George for his clever work, not only with the dancing bar patrons, but also with the soldiers, whether marching or gyrating to the strains of Handel.

“Agrippina” will be shown in movie theaters on Saturday, February 29, as part of the Met’s Live in HD series. Don’t miss it.