Posted in Movie Reviews

Mummy Love

It’s Halloween again, and time for a quick post about my favorite monster movie, the 1932 version of “The Mummy” with Boris Karloff.

This scares the hell out of me from start to finish. I love the opening credits—so creaky and so typical of early sound films. The Great Pyramid and Sphinx seem to rotate on a turntable, and then we get the opening theme. When I was a kid I actually thought this was called “Theme from the Mummy”—it wasn’t until years later that I learned it was Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” And then the fun starts with leather-skinned Ardeth Bey (Boris himself, but why does the character have a Turkish name?) directing the British expedition to Ankh-es-en-Amon’s tomb, where the mummy of Imhotep is found. And then…and then…the classic scene where the young twit of an archeologist opens the forbidden casket (you fool!), retrieves the Scroll of Life and begins to translate…..

My absolute candidate for the Best Maniacal Laughter ever captured on film.

Then it’s on to the half-Egyptian Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) going into a trance, and things begin to get campy as well as scary. Zita was a Broadway actress married to John Houseman, of all people, when she made this movie, and she didn’t last long in Hollywood. But she does a great job here, and her visit with Ardeth Bey, complete with a misty voyage to the past, is the high point of the film, though I shudder to think what happens to her pet dog. The flashback is eerie for a  A screenshot from The Mummynumber of reasons: the silent footage of the Princess’s burial squad being speared to death, the Osiris statute coming to life and condemning Imhotep for attempting to revive his dead beloved, and most horrifically, the terrified look in his eyes as he’s being wrapped up, mummy-style. And let’s not forget the end of the film, when he cracks apart and molders away into dust.

Universal trashed their own creation by turning the Mummy into an instrument of revenge in a string of Grade-Z films in the 1940’s. He was animated by tanna leaves and had zero mystique in my book. It wasn’t until we got the 1999 remake with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz that Imhotep got the zing back into his bandaged step and regained the qualities that made him famous.

Happy Halloween, all!

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Posted in Broadway Musicals

“Follies”: Too Much of a Good Thing?

I saw the new Broadway production of “Follies” yesterday, and while I think the good outweighed the bad, I find myself scratching my head this morning. Granted the production has some issues, but more than that, the show itself demonstrates yet again that its stupendous score is used to paper over the shortcomings of its book.

Follies @ Marquis Theatre on Broadway

I remember the endless debate in the Sunday “Arts and Leisure” section of the New York Times when the original production opened, and I’ve loved the score ever since I bought the original Broadway cast LP on the day it was released. Dorothy Collins killed me as Sally, and the fact that you could actually hear the smile in Alexis Smith’s voice when she sang the line “That’s the sorrowful precis” knocked me over. In the years since I’ve acquired the same album on CD, along with the 1985 concert album (Barbara Cook, Lee Remick, George Hearn and Mandy Patinkin) and the two-disc Paper Mill Playhouse revival that tantalizingly includes all the songs that were cut before the show reached Broadway.

What I think is fundamentally wrong with “Follies” is that with the exception of Buddy (currently in a superlative performance by Danny Burstein), we don’t really know the main characters, nor do we learn how they got from Point A to Point B. We do know that Ben is rich and powerful and that he always wanted to be so, but when he has his breakdown at the end of the show, crying “Me…I don’t love me,” I had a hard time believing him. As Young Ben he seduced Sally but married Phyllis, and why does it matter anyway since at this point in their lives they seem interchangeable. And Phyllis is an enigma until rather late in the show when she finally busts loose with “Could I Leave You?” Until then she’s acerbic and rather remote (except, perhaps, with Buddy), and what interest we have in the character is due almost entirely to who’s playing her. What’s odd about the book is that the older version of the characters are required to illuminate their younger selves, all of whom seem to be blank slates. Dramatically speaking, it should be the other way around.

And what of Bernadette Peters as Sally, whose delusions epitomize “Follies”? No one loves BP more than I do, but she’s wrong for the role, and unfortunately this is compounded by a glaringly bad directing choice. Let’s take the former first: she doesn’t have the right vocal goods for Sally. Oddly enough, I don’t think you have to be Dorothy Collins or Barbara Cook to sing the part (though thank God they did). Donna McKechnie does fine on the Paper Mill Playhouse recording, and in my view Judith Ivey did a good job in the 2001 revival while acting the hell out of the role. What all these ladies have in common was some mileage on them and you can hear it. Bernadette Peters in her 60’s looks and sounds better than I did when I was 40. You just don’t believe she’s a depressed housewife who looks to cure her empty life by revisiting a 30-year-old passion. Instead you wonder why in the world she doesn’t dump her philandering husband and have a fling or two of her own. And I don’t know whose idea this was (probably the director’s), but to have her cry and act on the edge of a nervous breakdown throughout “Losing My Mind” was overkill. The song is exquisitely written to show all this in musical form, and to have it so graphically acted out is totally contrary to Stephen Sondheim’s style. It detracts from the climax of the song, a true cri du coeur: “I want you so/It’s like I’m losing my mind.”

Whatever problems may exist with the book or in performance, “Follies” does not disappoint. The specialty numbers will always stop the show, and they do in this production. Jayne Houdyshell totally sells “Broadway Baby,” and Terri White is a singing and tap-dancing wonder in “Who’s That Woman.” Elaine Paige’s “I’m Still Here” is spot on, and Rosalind Elias’s operetta-style duet with her younger self, “One More Kiss,” is sweetly touching. The present version of “Buddy’s Blues” is the best and funniest I’ve ever seen, I loved the staging of “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” and the showgirls’ costumes in “Loveland” are tremendous.

Is it worth going to see? Definitely yes. There will never be a fault-free production of “Follies,” but it’s a theatrical work–it’s meant to be performed, not stored away in a box until the perfect cast comes along. It has one of the greatest Broadway scores ever written, and it’s always worth hearing people of talent take it on, whether you agree with the end result or not.

Posted in Television

Boardwalk Empire: Angela Redux

HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” returned for its second season a few weeks ago, and while I was glad to see it again, it seemed at first like it just wouldn’t take off. While we were treated to loads of exposition, the character touches that made the first season so memorable were for the most part just not there. Yes, there were great scenes: nearly every moment with Chalky White (Michael K. Williams, demonstrating once again that “The Wire”s Omar is not his only iconic role), especially his tension-filled encounter with Dunn Purnsley in the jail house.

But last night’s Episode 4, “What Does the Bee Do?” reminded us that the show’s emotional heart resides in a character we haven’t seen much of this season: Angela Darmody, Jimmy’s wife, superbly played by Aleksa Palladino.

Angela and Jimmy’s marriage came as a surprise in Episode 1–last season it was strictly common law, Angela giving birth to a son while Jimmy was in France during the Great War. It was clear these two knew little if anything about each other when he returned home, and suffice it to say, he’s got mommy issues like nobody’s business. His mother, played by Gretchen Mol, is a showgirl only 13 years his senior, having gotten pregnant as the result of being raped by the Commodore (Dabney Coleman), a key Atlantic City power player. Whenever mother and son are on screen together, there’s more than a faint wisp of incest in the air–she kisses him on the mouth, he steals jewelry for her and tells her things he’d never confide to Angela. Definitely twisted.

Angela Darmody

Angela is a complex character. She’s an artist, and while Jimmy was away with the A.E.F., she had an affair with Mary, a boardwalk photographer’s wife. We saw the relationship continue during Season 1, culminating in their attempt to run away together with Angela’s son to Paris. It fell through when Mary, leaned on by her emotionally manipulative husband, bailed out. During the first three episodes of this season, we’ve seen little of Angela, but enough to know that Jimmy is still shutting her out and relying on his mother, who’s serving as his cheerleader to take over Atlantic City.

Last night’s episode became a game changer when Angela asked Richard Harrow, Jimmy’s sharpshooter and right-hand man, to pose for her. Richard, another Great War veteran, literally lost half his face in combat and wears a mask and fake glasses to cover the damage (this type of appliance is historically accurate, by the way).

Richard Harrow

Their scenes together were by turns lovely, revealing and bittersweet. At first Richard sits stiffly while Angela sketches, but she succeeds at something that no one else has managed to do–she not only draws the man, she draws him out. Although he’s the most charismatic character on the show, Richard is also the most isolated. Yet Angela gets him talking about his twin sister from whom he’s estranged, due to his emotional trauma. And then he takes off his mask and glasses and lets Angela see him for what he is. It’s an arresting moment, and there’s a bit of a tickle in the gender reversal–here it’s the man who disrobes while the woman appraises. Jack Huston (grandson of John, nephew of Anjelica) and Aleksa Palladino played this brilliantly, and her compassionate gaze and silent reach for another sheet of paper to begin anew were so right.

Amidst all the skullduggery, bootleg booze, stealing (Margaret, it’s not smart to skim from the help, especially when they know your secrets), throat-cutting and warehouse blowing-up, Angela is different. She lives from the heart, and I fully expect her to fall in love with Richard, who’s obviously there already (As an added hint, there’s mandolin music playing on the Victrola while she draws him, reminiscent of her love scene with Mary, which was accompanied in the same fashion by Jerome Kern’s “They Wouldn’t Believe Me.” In contrast, the Victrola is silent when she and Jimmy make love). Labels don’t seem to matter to her–she loves whom she loves, regardless of gender. While there’s a strong connection with Jimmy, I don’t think she’s in love with him–she knows Mom has first claim. Three weeks ago Richard asked Jimmy “How does it feel to have everything?” I think by the end of this season, Jimmy will have lost it all.

Posted in Brain Bits, Cats, Opera, Television

October Ramblings

Products of a mellow brain on a gorgeous Sunday:

Fall is New Jersey’s most beautiful season. I never used to think about it when I was younger, but now I glory in it: the snap in the air, the change in the sun’s angle that turns daylight to gold, and the colors. The colors! Orange, magenta, yellow, brown and above all, blue, blue sky and dry clear air.

Apples are a natural this time of year, but be careful if you buy them pre-bagged by store personnel. The labels they apply are not always accurate, even in stores that advertise themselves as the doyennes of all that’s fresh. When I recently bought a store-packed bag of what I thought were Macouns, I got a nasty surprise—Macintosh, as I found out when I bit into the first one. I like tart, but Macs can sometimes make my eyes cross.

Were mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and Claire Danes separated at birth?

Claire

Speaking of Claire Danes, I finally caught the first episode of “Homeland” last night, and this one’s a keeper. I never particularly cared for her before, but if Episode One is any indication, she’s going to be turning in an Emmy-winning performance. Her character, a CIA operative who pops anti-psychotics, is beyond obsessed. Damien Lewis, the target of her drive to find the truth, is appropriately cast as the man of mystery. I would hate to sit across a poker table from him–he gives away nothing. The central plot–has this heroic Marine sergeant been turned by Al Qaeda or not?–intrigues, and is an excellent building-block. Who are his contacts? Are there—gasp!—turncoats in the highest levels of Homeland Security? There’s an added bonus: Morena Baccarin, having returned from “Firefly” and “V” sci-fi land, has her own secrets as Damien’s wife. She’s such a changeling–I first saw her in “V,” and when I started watching “Firefly” on DVD, I couldn’t believe it was the same actress. Ditto for “Homeland”: I thought she looked familiar, but didn’t recognize her until she smiled, revealing that distinctive lip curl. And wonder of wonders, “Homeland” may have finally provided Mandy Patinkin with a role I can tolerate him in.

Gregory

Adopting an adult cat is an endless opportunity for discovery. My boy Gregory was 4 when I adopted him from the Monmouth County SPCA earlier this year, and it’s been a trip. His first quirk? A total fetish for anything that crinkles, especially cellophane. He used to climb up my legs to get to the goodies when I unwrapped a peppermint, but since he weighs a good 16 pounds, we put a stop to that, pronto. Soon after I found out he was an ace volleyball player: crumple up any piece of paper—used Post-It, losing lottery ticket, drug store receipt—toss it in the air, and up he goes, catching the ball with his two front paws, and spiking it to the floor. And aside from being such a handsome devil (and a total mushball), he’s become the resident go-to guy for my other cats. He soothes Miss Teddi when she gets upset, and wrestles with Roger as the mood takes either of them. Just a terrific addition to the family.

I like Halloween, but since when has this become such a major holiday? When I was a kid, it was for kids—now the merchandise and decor is out in the stores at the end of August and adults—who should know better—have basically co-opted the day and the festivities leading up to it from their own kids. What truly irks me, though, is that no one seems to care about Thanksgiving any more. It’s been reduced to a minor blip on the road from Halloween to Christmas. Well, guess what: Thanksgiving is, was and always will be my favorite holiday. Don’t get me wrong—I love pumpkins, witches, skeletons and all that, but it really doesn’t satisfy me. So go Team Pilgrim!

Posted in Broadway Musicals

Obsessed with Musicals

I love Broadway musicals. And I love people who love Broadway musicals, which is why I’m sending Seth Rudetsky a valentine.

Seth Rudetsky is, among many other things, a musician, coach, performer and composer with his own cabaret and radio shows. He also has a plethora of videos and podcasts on youtube and Playbill in which he obsesses over and/or deconstructs various performers, songs and scenes from Broadway musicals. These are frequently hilarious, but they’re also incredibly instructive. His musicianship is phenomenal, and his consistent ability to make you go “Wow, I never thought of that before,” even with respect to musicals you’ve listened to hundreds of times, is outstanding. I love that he’s “obsessed,” because God knows I’ve worn out my share of vinyl just to hear those special moments from shows one more time.

I’ve only started delving into this archive, but so far my favorite video is his recent session with Carolee Carmello. I’ve enjoyed her work as far back as AMC’s “Remember WENN,” and her performance as Lucille Frank in “Parade” was one for the ages (I’ll be discussing “Parade,” a show in my Top Five Musicals, very soon). This video is a crack-up: I love her panic and self-deprecating laugh when she can’t pick up the point at which Seth begins “The Winner Takes It All,” even though she sang it literally hundreds of times in “Mamma Mia!” (The “Oh, my uterus!” is a reference to an earlier video he did with Nancy Opel, Patti LuPone’s understudy in “Evita,” who resorted to emergency subtext during a very funny stage mishap.) Can Ms. Carmello nail it or what?

Even though I’ve yet to see her on stage, Lauren Kennedy’s video with Seth is another hoot. Her story about Mike Nichols is an eye opener, but her ability to belt a high note after drinking wine and her subsequent “screw you” look at her co-star had me rolling on the floor.

And don’t miss his take on the “Turkey Lurkey” number from the original production of “Promises, Promises.”

Keep going, Seth–you’re a treasure.