Posted in Movie Reviews, Television

July 4th Roundup

“Yankee Doodle do or die!”

Has any biopic had a more visible reason for being than 1942’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy”? This terrific movie, featuring the once-in-a-lifetime performance of James Cagney, may be one of the best World War II propaganda films Hollywood would produce.

Ostensibly the life story of George M. Cohan, Broadway songsmith, playwright, producer and actor, whose career peaked before World War I, the movie is shot through with anachronistic exhortation to “get behind the man behind the gun,” as the film’s additional lyrics to “Grand Old Flag” urge. In similar fashion, so do the additional verses of Rodgers and Hart’s “Off the Record,” from 1937’s “I’d Rather Be Right,” tweaking Hitler and Japan. Was it any wonder? “Yankee Doodle Dandy” premiered only seven months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, at a time when war production and home front restrictions were gearing up. While a Cohan biopic had been a possibility for a number of years before then, the fortuitous match of current events and flag-waving subject resulted in one of the most memorable Hollywood films of that era. Watching it today, you can easily imagine audiences in 1942 responding when Cagney, during the World War I “Over There”scene, turns to the camera and proclaims “Everybody sing!”

In true biopic fashion, there’s a lot of editing and sanitizing with respect to Cohan. While depictions of real figures in his life—Sam Harris, Fay Templeton, the other members of the Four Cohans—appear in the film, both his marital history and his anti-union bias are scrubbed (His siding with Broadway producers rather than actors in the 1919 strike that lead to the creation of Actors Equity was the real reason for his split from producing partner Sam Harris). Yet “Yankee Doodle Dandy” features that wonderful Cohan song catalog, and best of all, James Cagney.

I can think of few other stars of that era for whom the description “There’s no one else like him” is more apt. Whether as Cohan or Tom Powers in the iconic “Public Enemy,” or the psychopathic Momma’s boy Cody Jarrett in “White Heat,” there’s not a moment you can—or even want to—take your eyes off him. His boundless energy, that cocky strut, the feeling than only he and the audience are in on the joke, all stand him in excellent stead in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” More than that, you sense he enjoyed every minute shooting the film, which makes for the happiest of viewing experiences. Yet he’s not just a sunny song and dance man: the scene he plays with the memorable Walter Huston as his dying father is one of the most poignant he ever shot. Rarely has a Best Actor Oscar been more deserved than the one awarded Mr. Cagney for his performance in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Long before Turner Classic Movies I grew up with “Million Dollar Movie,” featured on one of the local New York City stations. The program would run the same film every night for an entire week, and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” would show up regularly. Even though I can probably recite all the film’s dialogue by heart, I never tire of watching it. It’s so Warner Brothers—S.Z. Sakall as Schwab, the roped-in producer of Cohan’s first hit (“I pwomise, I pwomise”); George Tobias as tin-ear producer Dietz, spending his wife’s money; Irene Manning as Fay Templeton, actually playing the piano for “Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway;” the raucous, jalopy-riding teenagers who show up on Cohan’s front lawn (“Stix Nix Hix Pix”). And there’s Cagney, tapping down those White House stairs.

Long may it wave!

P.S.: In case you’re wondering, Cagney copied his “Yankee Doodle Dandy” dancing style directly from George M. himself, as is evident in a YouTube video from the 1932 film “The Phantom President” (Warning: Cohan appears in blackface for a good portion of the clip). While Cagney’s normal style did feature some “on his toes” tap work, his dancing more closely resembled that of a typical hoofer of that era. Check out the “Shanghai Lil” number from “Footlight Parade.”

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Detecting Again: Olivia Coleman (DS Ellie Miller) and David Tennant (DI Alec Hardy), “Broadchurch”

Holidays are always the best time for binge-watching, and this July 4th is no exception. Somehow I missed that Season 3 of “Janet King” just dropped on Acorn TV, I’ve barely started the latest run of “Orange is the New Black” and I haven’t even touched “Glow” yet. Best of all, though, the latest, and unfortunately last, season of “Broadchurch” recently premiered on BBC America.

I was terrifically let down when I learned that “Broadchurch” will shortly end. However, after watching the first episode of the new season, I think I know where the show is headed. “Broadchurch” at its best is about the impact of crime—on the family and friends of the victim, on the community and on the police who investigate. This was starkly portrayed in the first season of the show which focused on the murder of 11 year-old Danny Latimer. The second season, while rich in character portrayal, meandered in plot. However, “Broadchurch” seems to be back at full throttle in its current episodes. Even after three years the repercussions of young Danny’s murder are still being felt, and a new crime threatens the community. Stunning in its detail, this episode walks us through the police and hospital response to a rape—the compassion and support offered to the victim and the painstaking efforts to obtain, catalog and preserve evidence of the crime. The tone of this sequence couldn’t be more fitting. Needless to say, we’re far beyond what “Law and Order: SVU” can depict.

On a happier note, I’m delighted to see the return of my favorite bickering (un)married couple, the detective partners Ellie Miller and Alec Hardy. The lapse of three years hasn’t spoiled their style or their differences. There’s added value this time around—it’s eye-opening to see Ellie having to instantly change gears from ace detective to exasperated single mother called to a meeting at school to discuss her 15 year-old son’s suspension for dealing porn. And it’s odd to see loner Alec Hardy parenting his teenage daughter. But unlike other shows, “Broadchurch” has a way of using issues outside crime and police work to illuminate rather than distract.

Looking forward to the next seven episodes.

Posted in Television

Compare and Contrast

A Sip of Noir: Grace Billets (Amy Aquino) and Harry Bosch (Titus Welliver)

Now that the networks are in Rerun Hell, the only way to keep one’s sanity is to head for the Stream. I recently caught up with two favorite online series which in their new seasons have significantly diverged in fortune. One, by deepening the complexity of its characters, continues to engage. The other, now seemingly with its best days behind it, is clearly on a downward slide.

WARNING–SPOILERS ABOUND

“Bosch,” based on the series of novels by Michael Connelly, continues its impressive way on Amazon. Now in its third season, the show reveals new, and not necessarily pleasant, shades of Detective Harry Bosch’s character. The seeming solution to the murder of his prostitute mother, a crime which served as a running thread in the first two seasons of the show, begins to unravel, and his clashes with the L.A.P.D. and District Attorney hierarchies have become more explosive. Harry Bosch, superbly played by Titus Welliver, is no longer the pristine upholder of justice, if he ever was. In his pursuit of a suspected serial killer, he’s definitely of “The Means Justify the Ends” school, a side of him we never before suspected. And we’re not alone—his longtime partner J[erry] Edgar (a terrific Jamie Hector), shaken by the shadiness of Bosch’s actions, ends the current season by telling him “I’m not sure I can work with you anymore.”

Yet the Good Bosch is still there for us to enjoy. He cares—about his partner, his superior officer and peers and most of all, his teen-aged daughter Maddie, now living with him and itching to follow dear old dad in his cop’s footsteps. And his concern for ex-wife Eleanor, Maddie’s mom, remains despite her remarriage. He has a habit of reaching outside his family circle, as we see his protective interest in the young street hustler who stumbles upon the murder of a Marine veteran with whom Bosch shares a similar service record.

Usually I like the detective/mystery genre to move along at a decent clip, but “Bosch” is worth taking the time to savor for a variety of reasons—the writing, the actors, but best of all, the characters. It’s fun spending time with these people: Bosch and J. Edgar, their detective cohorts, refered to as Crate (Gregory Scott Cummins) and Barrel (Troy Evans), Sgt. Mankiewicz  (Scott Klace), and their boss, Lt. Grace Billets (Amy Aquino). Any show with Lance Reddick would automatically get points from me, but here he has a role to sink his teeth into: the wonderfully named Irvin Irving, newly made Acting Chief of Police, still carrying the guilt of his detective son’s death and the end of his marriage. I even enjoy watching the power-hungry District Attorney O’Shea (Steven Culp) who will forever be at loggerheads with Bosch. If this show were a baseball team, I’d say it had a very deep bench.

But this series’ biggest asset will always be Titus Welliver as Bosch. With his gray hair. laser blue eyes and wardrobe to accentuate both, he’s definitely easy to spend thirteen hours a season with. He’s somewhat reminiscent of Bogart in his prime, and his assurance, both as an actor and as the character, sells the show. Interestingly enough, I recently caught Welliver on a very old episode of “Law and Order: SVU,” and in his younger version he wasn’t half as impressive. Some of us need that extra mileage to blossom.

The current season of “Bosch” ended with some tantalizing teasers. There’s still the issue of who really killed Harry’s mother, and of greater concern, who in the police hierarchy covered for him. And ex-wife Eleanor, a former FBI agent who supposedly quit the Bureau to become a professional card player, seems to be working undercover for them on an assignment yet to be revealed. Perhaps best of all, Veronica Allen’s murder trial resulted in a hung jury. Hopefully this means we’ll see Bosch vs. Allen, Round 2, next season—Jeri Ryan makes a great Shady Lady (Blonde Division), and the powers that be have got to bring her back.

If you’re not watching “Bosch,” you should be.

The Ever-Plotting Underwoods: Claire (Robin Wright) and Frank (Kevin Spacey)

I wish the fifth season of “House of Cards,” recently dropped on Netflix, merited equal praise, but unfortunately it does not. The show suffers from a number of issues, not all of which are curable. One is inherent in the nature of the story, as was evident in its British television source: it’s always more fun to see devilish characters on the way up rather than working hard to maintain power. And with the current real-life goings-on in Washington, events and personalities which may have proved entertaining in seasons past no longer seem so.

While Robin Wright as Claire Underwood continues to intrigue in all senses of the word, I’ve grown tired of her television husband. Kevin Spacey seems to have completely emptied his actor’s bag of tricks on the role of Frank Underwood quite some time ago, and there’s nothing fresh about his portrayal. The fact that he has sex with men? That chime was rung back in Seasons 1 and 2. More importantly, unlike Ian Richardson, his British counterpart, he has little if any charm to compensate for the skullduggery, which made for very heavy sledding throughout the most recent season.

“House of Cards” has always been somewhat over the top, but the events of Season 5 make the show look like it just dived off the Empire State Building. I had reservations last season when Claire managed to get herself nominated as her husband’s running mate, but seeing it play out has only demonstrated that having a show rely on a twist so far removed from reality is not a recipe for success. And speaking of derailments: The murder of Tom Yates? Pushing Cathy Durant down the White House stairs and into a coma? The unraveling of Presidential Candidate Will Conway? To what purpose? I’ll really miss these actors—Paul Sparks, Jayne Atkinson and Joel Kinnaman, respectively—and I hope the show runners at least try to rein in some of the show’s outrageousness by replacing them with equally high-caliber actors. Every time Reed Birney, as the discarded Vice President Donald Blythe, appeared on screen, the audience received a lesson in subtlety, not to mention a breath of “good guy” air. Hopefully the addition of Campbell Scott and Patricia Clarkson will help, though her character is absolutely baffling up to this point (Is she just working for Premier Petrov, or is she playing all ends against the middle?).

C’mon guys–you should be doing better.

Posted in Television

The Keepers

The latest “must see” from Netflix, the seven-episode documentary, “The Keepers,” is a compelling exercise in storytelling. It begins with one narrative, namely the investigation of a 48 year-old murder, but quickly veers to another in order to shine a light on even older crimes: an extensive pattern of sexual abuse covered up by a powerful archdiocese. While the subject matter is absorbing, it’s the manner of the telling that keeps the viewer coming back. Director Ryan White is a master at revealing information only a bit at a time. It makes for such tantalizing viewing that you’ll literally find yourself leaning forward for more clues, more witnesses, more facts.

It’s unfortunate that we don’t get enough to satisfy; this parceling out of information leads to mixed results. While a definitive answer as to who killed Sister Cathy Cesnik is not forthcoming, at least at this time, the actions of the Archdiocese of Baltimore in covering up years of sexual abuse of minors by a particular priest are without question.

“The Keepers” begins by studying the abduction of Sister Cathy, formerly a teacher at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, in the fall of 1969. At the time of her disappearance she and a fellow nun were living in an apartment away from their convent and teaching at a public high school in an experiment sanctioned by the Church to promote closer contact with the community. On the night of November 7, 1969, Sister Cathy left her apartment to run several errands, including a stop at a local shopping center; she never returned although her car was later found parked haphazardly in the driveway of her apartment complex. Two months later her body was found in an isolated area several miles away. Her skull had been crushed.

The extensive investigation which is the focus of “The Keepers” was conducted by Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, two of Cathy Cesnik’s former students, whose results, we come to learn, are far more informative that those previously obtained by law enforcement. It’s the old story of too many cooks stirring the broth: both the City of Baltimore and Baltimore County apparently had jurisdiction, though the sharing of information left a great deal to be desired. That the ball was dropped on more than one occasion becomes glaringly obvious during an interview with a county detective in charge of the still-open crime file. His shock and embarrassment in discovering that a key bit of evidence—an unopened letter Cathy wrote to her sister postmarked the day after her disappearance—was never turned over by the city police to the county, and in fact remains missing altogether, is painful to see.

But “The Keepers” ultimately spends less time on Sister Cathy’s murder than on the behavior of the priest who is strongly hinted to have been involved. Father Joseph Maskell, the chaplain at Archbishop Keough High School at the time Sister Cathy taught there, was a textbook sexual abuser who methodically identified and preyed upon the most vulnerable students in order to secure their silence, whether by religious coercion, physical threats or both. However, not all kept quiet; at least one girl confided in Sister Cathy, who assured her that “This will stop.” Whether her knowledge led to a confrontation which culminated in her murder remains a mystery, though it’s obvious the Baltimore Archdiocese knew of Maskell’s behavior. In a pattern so well detailed in the film “Spotlight”, the powers that be hopscotched Maskell from parish to parish over the years, and in fact sent him to the Institute for Living in Hartford for six months to get him out of the reach of irate parents. He was eventually named as a co-defendant in an action brought by two Keough abuse survivors in 1994, and later fled to Ireland; he died in 2001. While he was interviewed by law enforcement during the initial investigation of Sister Cathy’s murder, nothing came of it.

Which brings me to an irritating flaw in “The Keepers”—hints are frequently dropped, but follow-up is sometimes lacking. While Father Maskell may have had motive, did he have opportunity? There’s no discussion of his whereabouts on the night Sister Cathy disappeared, though “The Keepers” may or may not prove that he knew where her body was dumped (While I believe Jane Doe’s account of the abuse she suffered, I don’t buy her story about Maskell’s showing her the body). There’s also the matter of Gerry Koob, a former priest who had an extraordinarily close relationship with Sister Cathy; whether their attachment went beyond the platonic is another question that maddeningly remains unanswered, even though Koob is interviewed extensively throughout “The Keepers.” Law enforcement evidently thought there was both smoke and fire, and in fact treated him as a suspect. They had some questions regarding Koob’s whereabouts on the night of Sister Cathy’s disappearance, since the friend he claims was with him had a somewhat different story. After all these years, the friend can not be located, even by the intrepid team of Gemma and Abbie. Equally frustrating is the fact that Sister Russell, Cathy’s roommate, having left the order and married, died a few years ago; she consistently refused to discuss Cathy, the crime or even her years as a nun during the intervening decades. Again, there are implications that threats may have been made, but there’s nothing concrete.

In its fixation on Father Maskell and to a lesser degree, two other suspects who are questionable at best, “The Keepers” omits or downplays some key information. Not until the final episode do we learn there was an eyewitness who saw Sister Cathy on the night of her disappearance being driven in her own car by an unidentified man as she struggled to exit the vehicle. This is mentioned in one sentence and dropped. While “The Keepers” does examine the abduction and murder of 20 year-old Joyce Malecki, which occurred four days after Sister Cathy’s disappearance, there’s no mention of the two 16 year old girls who were also abducted from Baltimore area shopping centers in separate incidents in 1970 and 1971. Coincidence or connection? Equally telling is the condition in which Sister Cathy’s body was found: her skirt was hiked up and she was nude from the waist up, which is more than suggestive of a sex crime. Yet there’s no discussion of this, let alone a confirmation or denial of the presence of semen or any evidence of rape. However, one question has been answered, only days before “The Keepers” became available for viewing. Maskell’s DNA, obtained after exhumation of his body, is not a match for that recovered from a cigarette butt left at Sister Cathy’s crime scene.

Even with its flaws and particularly in light of recent developments, “The Keepers” cries out for at least one more episode. You listening, Netflix?

Posted in Music, Opera

Lingering in the Glow

Party Like It’s 1911: Elina Garança (Octavian) and Renée Fleming (The Marschallin)

If you think the customer is always right, you might have believed the audience members who booed the production team of the new Robert Carsen “Der Rosenkavalier” that premiered at the Metropolitan Opera several weeks ago. But you would have been dead wrong. I saw it last Friday, and it’s a breath of fresh air.

Carsen has tossed aside the powdered wigs and knee breeches and set the opera in the year of its premiere, 1911. His take on this Richard Strauss-Hugo von Hofmannsthal masterpiece is a marvel of detail, so much so that I plan to attend the Live in HD telecast in two weeks just to catch some business I might have missed. It’s spot-on to see the egotistical Italian tenor (a terrific Matthew Polenzani) present the Marschallin with a 78 rpm recording of his latest hit, which he proceeds to autograph for her with a flourish. And in an uproarious Act III, how can anyone be surprised that the band showing up to serenade Ochs and Mariandel is clearly Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters from “Some Like It Hot,” complete with sax and bass. (I know that’s the 1920’s, but if Strauss can write an 18th century opera replete with three-quarter time though the waltz wouldn’t be invented until decades later, anachronism becomes the norm). I could go on, but I don’t want to give away all the incidentals that make this production such fun.

As sharply observed as this production is, it wouldn’t have the impact it enjoys without its cast. Much publicity has surrounded Renée Fleming’s final appearances as the Marschallin, and while I can’t say that her voice retains all the luster it once possessed, dramatically speaking she’s grown enormously in the role. Years ago I saw one of her first Marschallins at the Met, and she seemed somewhat intimidated by the part. In Carsen’s production she easily achieves what all good Marschallins must—she holds the audience throughout the levée, her monologue and the following scene with Octavian, and captures the bittersweet ending of Act I perfectly. Yet her final exit in Act III, on the arm of the Feldmarschall’s “brave orderly,” after a not-quite covert glance or two, reminds us that Octavian wasn’t her first lover, and certainly won’t be her last.

(A propos of absolutely nothing, what do Marschallins do when they’re off-stage during Act II and the first half of Act III? Play cards with the stage hands? Take a snooze? Maybe Ms. Fleming will spill the beans during the HD telecast intermission).

Elina Garança is a phenomenal Octavian. She certainly makes a gorgeous guy and her voice is lovely, but the uniqueness of her portrayal rests on her vivid embodiment of the 17 year-old boy he’s supposed to be. The petulance and impetuosity are there, but her Octavian is slightly more deferential to his lover than most, and his departure at the end of Act I is done not so much out of anger as of befuddled sorrow. Garança hints at his growing knowledge that his affair with a married woman really can’t go anywhere, yet she still manages to convince us that his love for Sophie is not just a matter of falling for the first pretty face he sees. She plays the comedy very well—her “Victor/Victoria” in Act III (the trick of a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman) is flawless.

Waltzing Away Act II: Ochs (Günther Groissböck) and Annina (Helene Schneiderman)

Because Baron Ochs is usually played as a fat fool, you tend to forget that Strauss and von Hoffmannsthal had something else in mind. Günther Groissböck portrays him as the 35-year old bachelor he was conceived to be, and it’s wonderfully refreshing to see a young, attractive bass in the role. This Ochs may be an idiot over Mariandel, but he’s no fool. His harping on “die Marschallin…Octavian…Mariandel” in Act III poses a real threat, and it’s only when the Marschallin doesn’t flinch that he gives in to her insistence that he depart the field.

Unfortunately the performance I saw was missing the excellent Sophie of Erin Morley, but she’s due to return shortly and will be on hand for the live telecast on May 13 that will also feature Ms. Fleming’s last ever Marschallin as well as Ms. Garança’s final Octavian (she’s headed for the more dramatic flair of Amneris, Santuzza and Dalila).

The score and libretto of “Der Rosenkavalier” are among the finest in the literature. But Robert Carsen’s production also reminds us what superb theater this work can (and should) always be. Bravo!

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It was a double-header weekend for me. Yesterday I attended a concert performance of Handel’s “Ariodante” at Carnegie Hall that was simulcast on Medici TV. The entire opera will be viewable on the Carnegie Hall website for the next 90 days, and if you’d like to hear what perfection sounds like, cue the webcast at 1:10:30 for Joyce DiDonato’s “Scherza infida,” accompanied by Harry Bicket and The English Concert. Time stands still.

Posted in Television

Line of Duty Revisited

The Backbone of AC-12: Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compson) and DS Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure)

In answer to the question, “What’s the best cop show on TV today?” the only possible response for me is the British series “Line of Duty.” If you haven’t done so already, head over to Acorn TV, where you can stream the first two seasons; the third is available on DVD and the fourth just started airing in the U.K. (And if you come here to spoil, I will rain curses upon your head).

The primary focus of “Line of Duty” is the work of a police anti-corruption unit. Each season features a different investigatory target, a so-called “bent cop.” While I’ve previously written about Keeley Hawes’ tremendous performance as Lindsay Denton in the show’s second season, it was only recently that I had the opportunity to binge on what I had missed. Watching Seasons One and Three back to back, I was amazed yet again at the quality of what I was viewing.

Jed Mercurio, the creator and author of the show, is a master of both plot and character development. As an example, take the introduction of Steve Arnott (Martin Compson), soon to become a key player in AC-12. At our first encounter he’s the head of a counter-terrorist squad, about to lead a raid on a suspected nest. To his shock he finds the wrong house invaded and an innocent man shot dead with his baby in his arms. Though his superior literally dictates to all officers involved the cover story they must follow, Arnott refuses to toe the party line and is cut from the squad. Impressed by his resolve in the face of pending career suicide, Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) recruits him for AC-12, where he joins undercover specialist Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure).

Mr. Mercutio not only writes well, he writes smart. Not one of his characters is without ambiguity, not the least of whom are the suspected bent cops. Season One’s DCI Tony Gates (Lennie James) seems at first blush to be a perfect role model with a phenomenally high clearance rate; he’s the recipient of an Officer of the Year award. (The fact that two other awarded cops later come to less than desirable ends makes you wonder about the future of Kate Fleming, who will similarly be honored at the end of Season 3). We soon learn that this great leader and the epitome of professionalism is sinking into a pit of moral quicksand not entirely of his own making.

Conversely, your first encounter in Season 3 with Sgt. Daniel Waldron (Daniel Mays), an Authorised Firearms Officer, is certain to raise your hackles from the start. Our introduction consists of seeing him cold-bloodedly kill a suspect who’s already surrendered, and pressure his squad to fabricate evidence to corroborate his cover story. His arrogance and self-righteousness during a subsequent interview with AC-12 are difficult to take, and this is only a warm-up for what’s to come. While it may be hard to believe, you’ll later come to have a certain measure of sympathy for this man, despite the despicable acts he commits. The same level of detail features in the depiction of the show’s regulars. Our upstanding men and women of AC-12 are not without flaw. Steve’s behavior toward Lindsay in Season Two, playing on her loneliness and insecurity in an effort to discover whether she’s crooked or not, makes for uncomfortable viewing (and indeed blows up in his face in Season Three). And Kate’s relationship with DS “Dot” Cotton? Is her flirting with him part of the job (and if so–yikes!)? If not, where are your brains, girl?

“Line of Duty” is unique in its lengthy interrogation scenes as AC-12 confronts a suspect. This is not just a plot “gotcha”—it’s a superb showcase for the actors, especially Adrian Dunbar, who as Hastings leads the interrogations. He’s the master of minimalism: a slightly lifted eyebrow or that small quirk at the corner of his mouth is all it takes to signal that he’s just not buying what the suspect is attempting to sell. Equally impressive are the plot twists and turns, which for some reason you can’t always see coming yet never seem far-fetched. Everything seems to grow organically out of the action we see in the first episode of each season.

To be sure “Line of Duty” has some lapses. I doubt an AC unit would be permitted to interrogate a member of its own squad. And you’d think by now the police grapevine would be buzzing about Kate’s undercover activity. But who cares when a show is this good?

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Theater

Still Rolling Along

Then and Now: Lonny Price (Charley), Ann Morrison (Mary) and Jim Walton (Frank)

What do you do after you’ve achieved your life’s dream at age 20?

“Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” a wonderful documentary available on Netflix, asks and answers this question, among many other classic queries. Although the ostensible subject of the film is the legendary Stephen Sondheim-Hal Prince musical, “Merrily We Roll Along,” equally known for being a legendary flop at its 1981 premiere, it rewards us as much by its insights into life’s paths as it does by its examination of the creative process.

Based on a George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play of the same title, “Merrily” famously mirrors its source material by telling its story in reverse. Each succeeding scene takes place earlier in time so that we can see where and how Franklin Shepard, a successful songwriter turned movie producer, hashed up his life—more precisely, how he left the path of personal fulfillment and promise and lost the love and goodwill of his wife and two closest friends along the way. It should come as no surprise that adultery, divorce, cynicism and chasing the almighty dollar, not to mention the sacrifice of youthful ideals, factor heavily into the equation. By now this plot may seem old hat, but Sondheim blessed it with one of his finest scores, which includes “Good Thing Going,” “Not a Day Goes By” and “Old Friends.” Although the original production lasted only 16 performances, the show has grown enormously in reputation through numerous revisions and revivals. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m a “Merrily” junkie—I own three different cast albums of the show, and wouldn’t part with any of them.

How could a Sondheim-Prince musical flop after a string of shows like “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” and “Sweeney Todd”?”Best Worst Thing” tells us why through footage shot during the rehearsal process by ABC, which began but later abandoned its documentary of the creation of this Broadway show. Ultimately two directorial choices proved problematic. Hal Prince opted to present “Merrily” on a more or less bare stage with costuming consisting of t-shirts and sweatshirts bearing character names and designations (“Mary,” “Best Friend,” “Unemployed Actor”). The effect was to make the setting of the show look like a high school gymnasium, which amplified Prince’s even worse decision: casting very young actors (late teens into early 20’s) to play the characters throughout the piece, even as their middle-aged selves (Remember, we’re going backwards). With very few exceptions, they just didn’t have the acting chops to bring it off, which “Best Worst Thing” makes painfully obvious. At one point in the film we see Sondheim telling Prince he needs more time to write and revise a number of songs, that because kids are telling the story, he needs to “write simpler.” Yet he never completely succeeded in “writing backwards” by toning down the sophistication of his lyrics or modifying the very adult point of view of his work. This is totally evident when we see the original leads, now in their 40’s, playing these roles in footage from a 2002 reunion concert. What appears as a tremendous disconnect in 1981, to hear Sondheim’s razor-sharp, adult-insightful lyrics coming out of kids’ mouths, seems tailor-made as sung by the same people 20 years later. Life’s mileage will do that.

Being cast in a Sondheim-Prince musical in 1981 was a dream come true for all of the young actors in the “Merrily” company. All of those interviewed in the documentary had grown up on original cast albums, and for years had harbored visions of appearing on Broadway. It’s obvious that to a certain degree these people still feel the devastation that ensued when the show took a critical beating and abruptly closed.

We see to what extent their lives came to deviate from their youthful plans. Lonny Price, the original Charley, eventually turned to theatrical directing, and in fact directed “Best Worst Thing.” Others stayed in the business, though several supporting players, like Tonya Pinkens, Liz Callaway and, most prominently, Jason Alexander, eventually enjoyed the greatest post-“Merrily” success. Several, like Abby Pogrebin, later a “60 Minutes” producer and author, went on to entirely different careers. Suffering a monumental setback at age 20 was horrendous, but at least they all had youth and resilience on their side.

“Poignant” is the word most frequently encountered in reviews of “The Best Worst Thing,” and there’s no better reason for the usage of that word than the sight of Lonny Price watching the ABC documentary footage of his 22 year-old self. Referring to his imminent Broadway debut, young Lonny says “Even if I never do anything else, I will have had this,” which reduces older Lonny to tears. It’s not hard to read the adult’s thoughts: how little the young man knew, how much more Price went on to accomplish, what more there is in store in life and career.

Age will do that.

Posted in Television

Black Mirror

Probably the last light moment in
Probably the last light moment in “Playtest”

One of the most difficult television shows to describe is “Black Mirror,” a British import that’s become a Netflix favorite. It’s not because of twist endings—not every episode takes an O. Henry turn. It’s the total experience: the almost sterile look of the show, its stark imagery and its take-no-prisoners attitude. “Black Mirror” is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.

This show is the brainchild of Charlie Brooker who cites “The Twilight Zone” as his primary inspiration. Yes, both are anthology series—there’s a different cast and director for each episode, though Brooker has written nearly all 13 episodes made available to date. Several of these reiterate some familiar TZ themes, such as replication of the dearly departed (“Be Right Back”) and humanization of the enemy in wartime (“Men Against Fire”). But “Black Mirror” twists the knife. The replica becomes too attentive. A soldier wants to remove the implanted technology that makes him see monsters, not people. One of the series’ best, “White Bear,” is also classic TZ in its story of a woman hunted in some dystopian future, though it’s far more brutal in both depiction and resolution than the earlier series ever could be.

It’s not just that television is no longer bound by the censorship of networks. Our mindset has been hardened by technology, and Brooker plays with this brilliantly. That infamous first episode, “The National Anthem,” with all of England glued to its televisions (Yes, the one with the prime minister and the pig which unfortunately you will never be able to un-see). The poor souls who cycle for a living in “15 Million Merits,” fighting boredom by fixating on the most idiotic video drivel (Brooker’s little nose thumb at us?). A corporation that lets you turn a mini-clone of yourself into a virtual house servant (“White Christmas”). And most strikingly, the married couple of “The Entire History of You,” who make love while reliving their hottest sexual encounters, courtesy of implanted “grains,” or chips. Those greyed-over eyes, enraptured by internally viewed video, will haunt you for days. Rod Serling made the “Twilight Zone” stories seem like they could happen in anyone’s home town. You pray “Black Mirror” never pays a visit to yours.

Not every episode will land for you, and a few, especially “Hated in the Nation,” are too long. However, the acting is uniformly excellent. It’s fun seeing familiar actors playing against type. Jerome Flynn, the wise-cracking Bronn on “Game of Thrones,” makes a terrific at-his-wit’s-end victim in “Shut Up and Dance.” Faye Marsay, the same series’ murderous Waif and enemy of Arya Stark, is a shrewd, tech-savvy detective in “Hated in the Nation,” and her cynical superior officer is none other than Kelly Macdonald, lately Margaret, Nucky Johnson’s discarded wife, on “Boardwalk Empire.” But some actors play variations on what they’re best known for, and it’s a welcome experience: Jon Hamm is an even darker version of “Mad Men’s” Don Draper in “White Christmas,” and Michael Kelly is only slightly less sinister as a psychiatrist in “Men of Fire” than he is as a political operative in “House of Cards.”

“San Junipero”

Ranking “Black Mirror” episodes seems to be a favorite online sport. Everyone’s mileage varies greatly, but here are my picks for the best:

“White Bear.” Difficult to discuss without giving it away. It’s freaky, it’s brutal, it’s brilliant, and it can spark conversation for days.

“Playtest.” Hoping to earn the money needed to return home, an American stranded in London picks up a gig as a test subject for a leading, though mysterious, game creator. But to participate he must consent to the implantation of a chip in his head that will discern his worst fears. To his surprise he has more than he thought.

“San Junipero.” This has consistently shown up on “Best Episodes of 2016” lists for good reason, yet it’s surprisingly controversial. Of all things, the bickering is over whether there’s a happy ending or not. This episode is the most un-“Black Mirror” in terms of energy and tone, and it’s definitely the sweetest. “Heaven is a place on earth” indeed.

“Nosedive,” an absolute gem of an episode that unlike the rest has a number of laugh-out-loud moments (Charlie Brooker wrote the story, but the script is by Rashida Jones and Mike Schur). In a world where everyone electronically rates every individual they encounter, a young woman struggles to raise her status in order to enjoy the things in life open to only the most pleasing. Bryce Dallas Howard delivers an incredible performance, and the episode’s end is sheer perfection.

There are six more “Black Mirror” episodes waiting in the wings for 2017. Let’s hope Netflix commissions even more so we can continue to savor the products of Charlie Brooker’s imagination. There should be an endless stream of stories he can tell. As he himself has said: “[“Black Mirror” is] all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy. And if there’s one thing we know about mankind, it’s this: we’re usually clumsy.”