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).

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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

Company

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.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Little Women

Amy (Florence Pugh), Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and Meg (Emma Watson)

Has there ever been a novel that could match the perennial quality of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”? I think there have been something like seven versions committed to film, between movie and television efforts. The latest, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is well worth your time.

While I have some issues with Gerwig’s choices, there’s no denying the film’s excellence. Let’s jump into the shallow end of the pool first. This is a visually beautiful film. Shot primarily in and near Louisa May Alcott’s home town of Concord, Massachusetts (which I call Disney World for English and History majors), Gerwig takes full advantage of the glorious New England autumn. Even better, the scenes during Laurie’s picnic at the sea shore are incredibly evocative—almost as if Winslow Homer’s “Long Branch, New Jersey” had sprung to life. Best of all, Gerwig never fails to remind us of how young these sisters and their friends are, unlike earlier filmed versions of “Little Women.” The pure magic of Jo and Laurie’s exuberant dance across a candle-lit patio at their first ball is a lovely sight indeed.

Gerwig revitalizes Alcott’s story by playing with time. Shrewdly, she opens the film with Jo’s visit, “for a friend,” to the publisher Mr. Dashwood, in hopes of seeing her short story in print. We’re then taken back seven years to the proper start of the novel on Christmas Day. The to and fro of flashforwards and flashbacks works for the most part, though at times you may have a sense of whiplash. This is particularly apparent when Gerwig alternates between Beth’s bout with scarlet fever and scenes of her on her death bed (Helpful hint: focus on the length of Jo’s hair to determine where you are in the story). Unfortunately this constant back and forth prevents some key story points from landing full force because the build-up is missing. This is particularly apparent when Jo reveals she’s sold her hair to help fund her mother’s trip to Washington to see her father. The full impact of that doesn’t quite register. Yet Gerwig’s presentation of other key elements, such as Jo’s crying over that shorn hair, couldn’t be better. I don’t think I ever really appreciated before what a mean, nasty act it was for Amy to burn Jo’s novel. Or the fright of seeing her fall through the ice, only to be rescued by Laurie’s quick thinking.

I was a bit disappointed in a couple of turns this version of “Little Women” took. I thought Gerwig didn’t quite give Jo her due with respect to her rejection of Laurie’s proposal. In the novel, Laurie is clearly the brother Jo never had, and she realizes this even before he declares his feelings for her. Further, she expresses no regret whatsoever when she learns of Amy and Laurie’s marriage (by letter, contrary to the film), though she does acknowledge to her mother that she might have changed her mind had Laurie proposed again. That business in the film of her putting this in a letter to Laurie irked me somewhat, particularly since she’s subsequently seen to be almost mourning a lost chance. I never got that sense from Louisa May’s Jo, though Gerwig, in emphasizing a rivalry between the sisters, presents it well. Finally, I wish we could have seen Laurie’s proposal to Amy as Alcott had written it, as the two of them row on the lake. Only Lord Peter Wimsey’s proposal to Harriet Vane in the novel “Gaudy Night” tops it for romance.

The casting of this film could not be better, In addition to the three actors pictured above, there’s Eliza Scanlen (Beth), Laura Dern (Marmee), Timothée Chalamet (Laurie), Chris Cooper (Mr. Laurence), Louis Garrel (a very young Friedrich Bhaer) and, most memorably, Meryl Streep as a very tart yet astute Aunt March, and Tracy Letts as Mr. Dashwood, amusingly sparring with Jo over royalties, copyright and whether a happy ending in marriage is essential to the success of her novel. Simply superb performances all around, yet Saorise Ronan as Jo will stay with you the longest. Not just because she plays Louisa May Alcott’s alter ego, but because you simply can’t take your eyes off her. This is star quality, in spades, and I look forward to where she goes next in her career.

Re-read the book, see the movie and enjoy.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for the Shortest Day of the Year

Countess Almaviva (Susanna Phillips), Susanna (Nadine Sierra) and Figaro (Luca Pisaroni) Working on Yet Another Plot

Last weekend I had the pleasure of revisiting “Le Nozze di Figaro” at the Metropolitan Opera. As originally presented in 2014, the production, set in the late 1930’s, had major echoes of Jean Renoir’s classic film, “Rules of the Game.” This was enhanced by the casting, which featured Peter Mattei as a very suave and authoritative Count Almaviva, and the excellent performance of Marlis Peterson, the definitive Lulu of her generation, who portrayed an older and far more sophisticated Susanna than usually seen in the role. The result was a dark comedy, tempered somewhat by the sweetness of Isabel Leonard’s Cherubino. But a change of singers and a bit of tweaking has now resulted in perhaps a more traditional “Figaro”—funnier, but fortunately without the slapstick that can mar a production. In the final analysis, both views of the opera work equally well.

The current run of “Figaro” that just ended (it’s due to return with a different cast in February) had two key elements: the Figaro of Luca Pisaroni and Susanna Phillips’ Countess. After several runs as the Count, it was a pleasure to see Pisaroni in what I think is his more natural role. He’s Figaro to the life–the face, the expressions and the physicality all serve the essence of the character. Ms. Phillips, though with a lighter voice than I expected, was dramatically perfect. Her beautifully sung “Dove sono” limned the character’s emotions in all their complexity, which she describes in detail in an Aria Code podcast that may be the best in that series (What? You’re not listening? Tune in for some great insights). It seemed only Adam Plachetka’s Count fell short of the dramatic mark. There was unrelenting bluster, to the extent that I just didn’t believe him when he sang “Contessa perdono.”

In case you can’t guess, “Le Nozze di Figaro” is one of the my favorite operas, and it was a special treat to see this with such a good audience. They enjoyed themselves immensely, aided in no small measure by some wonderfully contemporary titles. A “Figaro” performance should at its end make you glad to be alive, and this one certainly did. “Corriam tutti!”

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“The Irishman,” now available on Netflix, is the summation of Martin Scorsese’s career. In short (as opposed to its length), I liked it. In its most basic sense, it’s an absorbing account of how to lose one’s soul by increments, though I doubt Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) would put it that way. In this regard, perhaps the most illuminating scene in the film is Frank’s conversation with Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci), during which they discuss Frank’s experiences in World War II. He registers virtually no emotion as he describes how he followed (unspoken) orders to massacre captured Italian soldiers rather than take them prisoner. Although Buffalino doesn’t even flinch, it’s Frank’s lack of affect that’s the most chilling aspect of the story.

It goes without saying that the casting of this film is superb. Award nominations have been raining down on De Niro as well as Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, but it’s Joe Pesci’s incredibly subtle performance that stayed with me the longest. I also enjoyed how Scorsese, a former executive producer of “Boardwalk Empire,” sprinkled “The Irishman” with actors from that show: Bobby Cannavale (Skinny Razor), Jack Huston (Bobby Kennedy), Aleksa Palladino (Mary Sheeran), among others, not to mention a spectacular turn by Stephen Graham as Tony Provenzano. Mr. Graham, who was a magnetic Al Capone in “Boardwalk Empire,” seems to have inherited the chameleon-like manner of the late Bob Hoskins.

Much as I enjoyed “The Irishman,” I do have one quibble: I wasn’t sold on the de-aging effects used on De Niro, Pacino and Pesci at the start of the film. De Niro, in particular, looked positively glacéed as the younger Frank Sheeran. As difficult as the casting might have been, younger actors playing these roles would have been more effective.

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Midge and Susie Toasting the Shy Baldwin Tour

The third season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” premiered on Amazon Prime like gangbusters, complete with a USO show and a (backstage) string of dick jokes. It was especially gratifying to see Midge tour with Shy Baldwin, adapting to new types of audiences and coping with the stress of being on the road (By the way, it was no surprise that Shy turned out to be gay, since the character was so obviously modeled on Johnny Mathis). I particularly enjoyed the episode in which Midge and Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) spend an evening together, first on-camera for the pseudo-Playboy Mansion TV show, then dancing at a jazz club. The end of their Las Vegas encounter, when “Will they or won’t they?” infused the air, was beautifully played by Rachel Brosnahan and Mr. Kirby (I think she made the right decision to decline his unspoken invitation).

Nevertheless there were ups and downs. The best part of “Mrs. Maisel,” at least this season, was any scene with Susie Myerson (a terrific Alex Borstein), who always seems to get the best writing on the show. I had to hit my remote’s “Pause” so I could howl for two minutes straight at her line to the potential producers about their Donner Party musical; ditto for her reaction to the vocal effects via telephone of Sophie and Gavin Hawk’s coupling. Susie also had the more interesting plots—the Sophie Lennon debacle, her gambling issues and those intriguing exchanges with Reggie, Shy Baldwin’s manager (an excellent Sterling K. Brown), keeper of secrets and bad cop to his boss’ good cop. That was an exceptionally heavy anvil he dropped at the end of the last episode, when, after he fired Midge, to his own distaste, he turned to Susie with “Someday you’ll have to do this.” Given the dynamic between Midge and Susie (tits up!), you really hope not.

On the down side, much as I love Tony Shalhoub, I could have easily seen less of Midge’s parents as well as her former in-laws. Nevertheless, there were still a few rewards: Joel and his father betting on who would faint at the bris; Midge’s conversation with Moishe about buying back her apartment, in which they approach each other for the first time on equal terms as he reveals Joel was an idiot to dump her; and most of all, her confrontation with her mother over the latter’s meddling. Their shouting match revealed they may have more in common than they think, despite mama’s distaste for Midge’s comedy.

Given the time frame of the show, I would expect to see Midge on The Ed Sullivan Show next season (“Mrs. Maisel” has already been renewed). And I really hope we haven’t seen the last of Benjamin (a terrific Zachary Levi). His scene with Midge in the last episode, when they finally discuss her dumping him, was a highlight of the season. Somehow the writers have to find a way to keep him around—he’s a necessary counterbalance to the craziness.

Santa just rode by on a fire truck as I was finishing this post. May all of you enjoy whatever holiday you celebrate, and best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Motherless Brooklyn

Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) on the job

Who would have thought Robert Moses, “Master Builder of New York,” would have ended up as the villain in a classically-styled film noir?

To be sure, he now sports the name Moses Randolph, but there’s no mistaking the ambition, the lack of civic accountability and the desire to destroy blue-collar neighborhoods which he alone deems to be irremediable slums. His stature is only enhanced by the actor who plays him—a blustering and bloviating Alec Baldwin, whom I suspect will receive an Oscar nomination because it’s that kind of role and that level of performance. But I doubt he’ll be alone—Edward Norton, who directed, wrote the script based on Jonathan Lethem’s novel and plays the Tourette syndrome-afflicted hero, Lionel Essrog, is sure to join him.

Set in 1957, “Motherless Brooklyn” is an urban tale of corruption, kickbacks and murder. So many factors make watching it so enjoyable, not the least of which are the superb art direction (more about that in a moment) and the seemingly endless way all these great actors keep popping up. Who’s that under the fedora and behind those jowls? Bruce Willis as Frank Minna, head of a detective agency/car service. And his employees? In addition to Edward Norton, there’s Bobby Cannavale, as Tony Vermonte, acting tough and dallying with the boss’s wife (a very droll Leslie Mann), and Dallas Roberts, as Danny Fantl, wimping it out. And the guy behind the bushy beard? Willem Dafoe as Paul, the disillusioned dreamer. Let’s not forget Cherry Jones as municipal rabble rouser Gabby Horowitz, and—who else?—Michael Kenneth Williams as Trumpet Man playing in a Harlem jazz joint.

But the film stands squarely on the shoulders of Edward Norton as Lionel Essrog, dubbed “Motherless Brooklyn” by Frank Minna who rescued him from an orphanage in that borough (Some sly symbolism and foreshadowing at work here: The essrog or etrog, a citrus fruit, signifies “heart” in kabbalistic terms, and as used in the Jewish holiday of Sukkot represents those who know Torah and do good deeds). I love Norton’s look in this film—his face is now somewhat worn, with pouchy eyes and something loose about the chin. He wears a fedora well, and as a Tourette’s sufferer, his verbal tics are a cascade of rhymes and associations, and at times a mirror of his subconscious. When he blurts out “Kiss her face all night long” in front of an amused but sympathetic Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), you can only smile. Perhaps in compensation for his neurological problems, Lionel has been gifted with an eidetic memory which serves him particularly well as he seeks to solve his boss’s murder and take on Moses Randolph. Their ultimate showdown is one of the most satisfying in recent memory.

The urban grittiness in “Motherless Brooklyn,” seems to be a character in itself. This is classic film noir, albeit in color, and so accurate in its depiction of 1957 New York City I thought I had been transported back to my childhood (One minor quibble: There’s no mistaking the on-screen presence of at least two 1959-model cars—their tail fins are so sharp they could spear fish). In addition to neighborhood scenes, there’s a marvelous recreation of the old Penn Station, and a borough hall meeting-turned protest that’s the most realistic depiction of outraged citizenry vs. stubborn bureaucracy I’ve seen on film in a very long time. But what ultimately struck me about this movie is its high level of energy which, despite its length, never flags, a tribute to Edward Norton’s expertise again, this time as director.

Treat yourself—go see it.

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Theater

Oklahoma!

Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Curley (Damon Daunno)

The overture’s missing. Ditto the chorus.

The first act ends not with a dream ballet, but with Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones) singing a stunning one chorus reprise of “Out of My Dreams,” a capella. The ballet opens the second act. It’s a solo dance—Dream Laurey, Curley and Jud, not to mention the dance hall girls of Ali Hakim’s dirty postcards, are nowhere to be found.

Two key scenes are played in total darkness.

These are only a few of the many differences in the Tony-winning revival of “Oklahoma!” at the Circle in the Square Theater in New York, probably the most controversial show now running on Broadway. Battles over this production’s merits have been raging in on-line forums for months; critics have either loved it or hated it. I saw it on Friday night, and while a lot of the show made me grin with delight, I nevertheless appreciated those aspects of the production that failed to make me do so. Director Daniel Fish’s vision is never less than thoughtful, and the choices he’s made that result in Rodgers and Hammerstein purists screaming “Betrayal!” in fact grow organically out of the text. Perhaps what disturbs people the most is that he’s divorced the show from the times that gave birth to it. “Oklahoma!” premiered during the World War II year of 1943, when unstinting American optimism was essential. In the years since we’ve come to realize our history as a nation wasn’t as squeaky-clean as those of that era believed.

Daniel Fish’s production is an intimate one. The show is presented in the round, more accurately in a rectangular playing area lined with picnic tables (chili and corn bread are served at intermission). The cast is pared down to speaking roles only and all act as chorus. You’d think the musical aspects of the show would suffer, but never fear. When the cast sings the title song, those soaring choral lines are neatly covered by eleven actors, including four women, sopranos all, who absolutely fly. The songs are performed country & western style, and accompanied by a seven-person band, consisting of accordion/snare (conductor), violin, cello, string bass, banjo, steel guitar/mandolin/electric guitar and an additional electric guitar, supplemented at times by Curley (Damon Daunno) on acoustic guitar. 

If you think there’s no way to shoehorn Richard Rodgers into country & western mode, guess again. It all works, but with one exception—“People Will Say We’re in Love,” which sort of goes clunk though it’s easy to understand why. One of the best aspects of this production is the refreshing youth of its principal actors. As a result Laurey’s initial brattiness and Curley’s near-adolescent boasting make perfect sense. Their solo numbers, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” “Many a New Day” and “Out of My Dreams” reflect their youth, but the lyrics of “People Will Say We’re in Love” struck me as a bit too sophisticated for this Curley and Laurey. After all the energetic country & western twang we’d been hearing, this song’s music comes across as staid ’40’s pop. This is a reversion to your parents’ “Oklahoma!,” and it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb, especially after all the musical fun we’ve been having.

This is at times a dramatically raw production. Its take on Jud is interesting—though Laurey calls him a “growly man,” Parick Vaill, who plays him, is tall and rather poetic-looking (and has a terrific singing voice).  What makes him frightening is neither his physique nor his manner but rather his obsession with Laurey. When Curley confronts him in his smokehouse lair, the lights in the theater go dark, further putting the audience on edge. Critics have protested that this is too much for such a sunny work, but is it really? Think about it: Curley basically urges Jud to commit suicide, casting the funeral that would follow as a celebration of his character. Director Daniel Fish suggests that Curley and Jud are two sides of the same coin, and he may be right. Curley is universally liked, but nobody likes Jud, a fact made obvious in the scene where Laurey’s picnic hamper is put up for auction at the social. There’s a strong sense that the men Aunt Eller urges to bid don’t do so to help Curley win the girl, but are instead doing it because they hate Jud., the eternal outsider. 

Ado Annie (Ali Stroker) gets her big “Oklahoma hello” from Will Parker (James Davis)

The last 15 minutes of the show are a roller coaster. Curley and Laurey’s wedding scene of course features “Oklahoma!,” performed as joyfully as you remember it, the audience clapping along, only to end abruptly when Jud shows up. The gun he presents to Curley as a wedding gift is fired when Jud rushes toward Curley and Laurey, whose faces and wedding clothes are spattered with blood. In contrast to other productions as well as the “Oklahoma!” film, the on-the-spot trial which follows is played not for laughs, but in all seriousness. The actors’ delivery slows to a crawl with pauses between each line. The audience is completely silent (though I was becoming irritated at how much this scene was being stretched out). When Cord Elam, the US Marshall, protests the absence of legal formality, Aunt Eller’s responding threat to him for interfering is deadly serious; while the tension is eventually broken, it doesn’t go away. At the conclusion of the show, when the cast reprises “Oklahoma!,” Cord approaches Laurie, looming over her, as if to say “This is your fault” (Does he think she led Jud on?) She joins in the song, but angrily, with full awareness that her future with Curley has been literally and irrevocably stained (This was the version of the song that was performed at the Tony Awards, which made viewers ask “Why is she so pissed off?”). It’s not a happy ending, but I think a valid one, given what we’ve seen, and a logical conclusion to that trial scene.

The performances are uniformly excellent. I especially enjoyed Will Brill, sharply funny as Ali Hakim, and was intrigued by Patrick Vaill’s Jud. But most of all, Ali Stroker as Ado Annie simply exceeds expectations. What a voice! That Tony she won was deserved tenfold.

This is a show that requires open minds. I strongly urge you to see it and make up your own.