Posted in Broadway Musicals, Music

The Artistry of Barbara Cook

She had the blessing of two phenomenal careers, both of which remain unparalleled.

I’ve collected Barbara Cook’s recordings for years, and started to delve into them more systematically a number of months ago after I read “Then & Now,” her almost painfully honest memoir. Following her recent passing, I returned to her catalog of work, and once again found myself astonished by her way with a song.

I have to think being Broadway’s favorite ingenue during the 1950’s and early ’60’s was excellent preparation for her second act as a solo performer. Among her many accomplishments, she created three indelible characters: Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” Marian Paroo in Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man,” and Amalia in Bock and Harnick’s “She Loves Me.” She also graced revivals of  “The King and I,” “Showboat” and “Carousel,” both as Carrie Pipperidge and later as Julie Jordan (she famously preferred the former). While her performances in all of the these shows have been captured on disk, the one I always return to is “The Music Man.” Is there a more evocative number than “Lida Rose/Will I Ever Tell You?,” Marian’s duet with the barbershop quartet? The real 1912 was, I’m sure, far removed from the theatrical River City, but listening to that number automatically transports you to a long ago summer night. It’s the way we always wished that era had been.

I was fortunate to see her live twice. The first time she performed many of the songs on her “It’s Better With a Band” album, but what remains indelible in my memory is the encore she sang—Jerome Kern’s “Long Ago and Far Away,” without a mike—just that silvery sound with no electronic enhancement whatsoever. The song just floated throughout the hall. I later heard her with the New Jersey Symphony, conducted by Wally Harper, her long-time music director, and most of the material came from her “Disney Album,” which had just been released. Was there ever a more perfect match of singer and song? The most refreshing aspect of her performance was her lack of pretense. I remember her putting on her glasses to read the sheet music during the “Disney” concert (for lyrics–she famously never learned to read music). This carried through in an interview she gave at one point on WQXR, New York’s classical music station. She was asked “How long do you warm up before a performance?” Ms. Cook replied “I don’t warm up. I just hum a few bars to see what I’ve got to work with that night.” And she was also a knowledgeable and opinionated opera fan (Is there any other kind?) whose interviews during Metropolitan Opera broadcast intermissions were a treat.

As great as her Broadway career was, she set an even higher bar as a solo/cabaret artist. What I most liked about her was the emotional level she brought to a song. Nothing drives me up the wall faster than a singer who goes dramatically over the top, pedal to the metal, when the song is not intended to carry such heavy baggage. Singers who consistently resort to that approach don’t trust the material they’re performing, which makes me not trust them. Ms. Cook, on the other hand, knew what a song was saying, and within that context illuminated the composer and lyricist’s intent. Musically she sang what fit her voice, whether it was traditionally a “man’s song” or a “woman’s song;” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her His Face,” “This Nearly Was Mine” and “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” were standards in her repertoire, and on “Marianne,” a lovely Jerry Herman number which surprisingly fit her voice like a glove, she didn’t bother to change pronouns, letting the music carry the emotion of the song. Few singers possess the art of illuminating both the music and the words simultaneously, but Ms. Cook certainly did. Listen to “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy” from her “Barbara Cook at the Met” album. She so obviously loved singing it–she relishes the phrase “corny as Kansas as August,” and leans on certain words to build to the eventual climax of the song: “fearlessly,” “loudly,” “flatly” finally, of course, “love.” Her musicianship was superb. I had no idea that Stephen Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People” had such lovely music until I heard her sing it.

She never remained static in her approach, instead revisiting a song to find more within. Case in point: Jerry Herman’s “Time Heals Everything” from his show “Mack and Mabel.” Her first recording of this number, on “Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall,” presents an almost objective approach, as if she’s trying to give herself a pep talk to overcome the present grief of loss.  A number of years later, on her “Barbara Cook’s Broadway” album, she’s sadder but just as determined to survive the pain. On this recording the song is paired in a medley with a beautiful rendition of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” in which her ability to sing legato—the smooth transition from note to note—is on full display. She could go the dramatic route—she makes her voice break twice in an even later, more pain-driven version of “Time Heals Everything” on her live “The Champion Season” recording—but it really doesn’t suit her (She manages to save that performance with a floated final note so ravishing that a “Lovely!” from a man in the audience is audible).

Fortunately she left a considerable body of work covering the best of the American Song Book. It’s so hard to pick my favorite Barbara Cook recordings, but I’ll try. All of these are currently available:

“Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall.” Her return to performing after many years away. Although the lady tells the audience “I’m not as nervous as I thought I’d be,” you can tell she is at the start, though two songs in, she’s totally relaxed. “Carolina in the Morning,” with its peach of an arrangement, and “Wait Till You See Him” are tremendous.

“It’s Better With a Band.” Here she’s in full command of her resources, with excellent material, and her confidence as an artist is off the charts. “Them There Eyes,” her vocal/kazoo duet with tuba, the medley of Leonard Bernstein songs, especially “I Can Cook Too,”and the aforementioned “Marianne” are highlights. You can see her perform a number of songs from this album in “An Evening With Barbara Cook,” on YouTube.

“Follies.” With all due respect to Dorothy Collins, who originated the role of Sally Plummer, Ms. Cook delivers what may be the definitive version of “Losing My Mind.”

“Oscar Winners,” consisting entirely of songs with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, on which Ms. Cook sings a stunning “All the Things You Are” and “The Gentleman is a Dope.”

“The Disney Album.” “Lavender Blue” alone is worth the price of the CD, though hearing Barbara Cook in triplicate, courtesy of over-dubbing, on “When I See an Elephant Fly” is an absolute treat. I love songs from the older Disney films, and I only wish she had recorded “Never Smile at a Crocodile.”

“No One is Alone,””Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder,” “You Make Me Feel So Young,” and “Loverman.” These four recordings date from 2007 to 2012, and though she was pushing 80, she could still sustain a phrase. Her voice maintained its quality, and in fact only became warmer when she lowered the keys in which she sang. If your only acquaintance with “I’m Through With Love,” is hearing Alfalfa sing it in an old “Our Gang” short, you need to hear Ms. Cook’s version on “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder,” as well as her superlative rendition of Sondheim’s “I Wish I Could Forget You.” That last song also appears on “No One is Alone,” which features a lovely medley of “Long Before I knew You”/”I Fall in Love Too Easily,” as well as Sondheim’s “One More Kiss.””You Make Me Feel So Young,” from a live 2011 performance, has some great up-tempo numbers on which she clearly has a ball—“Frim Fram Sauce” and “Love is Good For Anything That Ails You,” plus her discourse on how difficult it is to find a good kazoo. “Loverman” contains an arresting a capella version of “House of the Rising Sun.” While her voice by then was not what it once was, what she did have was far more than most singers, and she makes it work.

One last compelling example of Barbara Cook’s way with a song: “For All We Know,” on the “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder” album (I had always thought of this as the quintessential World War II song, and was surprised to learn it had been composed in 1934). Accompanied on piano by her then-music director, Lee Musiker, Ms. Cook delivers an indelible performance. It’s easy to go over the top with this number, but she underscores the sentiment with just a touch of sorrow. She tells you volumes, not only about the woman who’s able to face such a parting while keeping it together, but also about the man she’s singing it to, who inspired such emotion.

Two minutes of heaven.

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Posted in Television

Beginning of the End

Shock and awe, particularly the former, have been the hallmark of “Game of Thrones” from the very beginning. Ned Stark’s execution, Tyrion’s regaining consciousness on the slanted perch of the Eyrie’s Sky Room, the Red Wedding, the sacrifice of Shareen…all these and so many more. And the warfare—with or without dragons. What bothered me about this season was the absence of a “Wow!” element of surprise, even with last week’s Battle With the Wights. Instead there’s been a pervasive feeling of fulfillment, as if the show runners were simply ticking items off a “To Do” list. That is, until this season’s final episode, “The Dragon and the Wolf.”

Few events have been as satisfying as Littlefinger’s demise, not even Ramsey Bolton’ s metamorphosis into doggie dinner. I literally applauded the confrontational sleight of hand Sansa managed to pull off. While I suspected Stark blood would prove thicker than water, I must admit the show runners had me second-guessing their intentions with their ambiguous build-up in the last couple of episodes. I thought Arya’s twirling the dagger and handing it off to Sansa last week was nothing short of “Kill me if you dare.” The tip-off in the final confrontation should have been the sight of Bran the Three-Eyed Raven at Sansa’s side, but Arya is such a commanding figure that all eyes were on her. Kudos to the show runners for such a delightful payoff.

It’s hard to pick Littlefinger’s worst crime: The attempt on Bran’s life? Lying about it to create eternal warfare between Starks and Lannisters? Betraying Ned Stark? Selling Sansa to the Boltons? For my money the most pathetic was dropping poor addled Lysa Arryn through the Moon Door. The one swift slash by Arya that ended his life was too good for him.

This episode also proved to be Old Home Week in the reunions leading up to the Big Confab: Tyrion and Bronn, Bronn and Podrick, Brienne and Jamie of course, but Brienne and the Hound was one for the ages. I half expected Brienne to sing that wonderful line from the Leonard Bernstein musical, “Candide”: “You were dead you know.” It was wonderful to see the Hound smile like a proud papa over Brienne’s testimony to Arya’s duelling prowess. I only hope his threatened fight to the death with Brother Mountain, sure to be a highlight of next season, finds him the victor.

If nothing else, “The Dragon and the Wolf” proved how many events in this saga were the result of lies and evasions. Littlefinger’s plotting put so much in motion, but on it goes: Jon needs to know that his real name is Aegon Targaeryan (normally I’d say “Too late, he’s already bedded his aunt,” but incest is coin of the realm on GoT), Sam needs to be told he’s really Lord Tarly and should be in a command position. By the way, it seems to me that Bran’s Three-Eyed Raven radar needs fine-tuning if he didn’t see that Rhaegar Targaryan and Lianna Stark were secretly married. Is it possible that the maester’s diary Sam read was just a fantastical allegory? Maester-time could get pretty dull, I would imagine, and spicing things up with tall tales could be great entertainment. And speaking of wrong-number prophecies, I fully expect the first big “Wow!” of next season to be the reveal that Danaerys is pregnant. The show runners love to bookend, and this twist would be the perfect companion to both Cersei/Jamie and Rhaegar/Lianna. Though I have to say the moral might be a little odd: “See, incest can be good”?

Two other developments did surprise me (no, not Jon and Danaerys—if you didn’t sense bedtime was on the horizon, you need a new show). I never expected Jamie to leave Cersei under any circumstances, particularly now that she’s pregnant. It’s true that he’s always tried to uphold honor, but still, given all he’s done on her behalf in the past, his riding North to presumably join up with his brother was a huge surprise.

As was the destruction of the Wall, which proved to be a fitting end to this season. How is it the dragon Viserion can still spew fire after he’s been frozen? And what’s the Night King’s secret command to get him to do so? It sure isn’t “Dracarys!” I only hope Tormund survived the debacle, just so we can see him with Brienne once more.

Another long lonely winter without “Game of Thrones” awaits. Only six more episodes to savor.

Posted in Television

Gendry Redux

“By George, she’s got it!”

I’m surprised the “Game of Thrones” showrunners haven’t stuck it on a billboard by now.

In case you were busy, unconscious or otherwise occupied during GoT’s Episode 5, “Eastwatch,” Gilly’s perusal of a musty text at the Citadel revealed that Rhaegar Targaeryan was both divorced and immediately thereafter married on the same day in a secret ceremony in Dorne. And who do you think the (un)lucky lady he took to the altar was? Could it—no, it couldn’t be!—Lyanna Stark?!?! Well, duh. Those signals have been blaring for months, and this latest felt like being hit over the head by a 2 x 4. If true, Jon’s not really a Stark bastard, but the rightful and legitimate Targaeryan heir. And if any doubt at all remains, notice how he made friends with Drogon. Awwww, cute puppy! So, Danaerys—who has to bend the knee?

This penultimate season keeps chuddering along with relatively few surprises to date. Notice how quickly both news and people travel these days–this show seems to be on speed dial. It used to take Jorah Mormont half a season to travel from Point A to Point B, and here he is, from Citadel to Dragonstone in the blink of an eye. Fortunately things are kept lively by choice one-liners from our favorite quipsters. Tyrion to Jorah: “Nobody glowers quite like you–not even Grey Worm.” And Tormund remains in rare form. When he’s not lusting after Brienne, he’s getting straight to the heart of things, as witness his attempt to clarify Jon’s mission to north of the Wall: “How many queens are there now?…And you need to convince the one with the dragons, or the one who fucks her brother?”

Speaking of which, Cersei is once again with child, cooking up more Lannister devil-spawn. Jamie may be a proud papa, but I’m not so sure he’s looking forward to being paraded about in public as Cersei’s incestuous brother. He’s got the smarts to realize that even a queen may not be able to get away with this one.

Other developments that bear watching: As the result of yet another dragon barbeque, Sam, no longer an apprentice maester, is the new Lord Tarly though he doesn’t know it yet. I suspect the bookworm will eventually turn warrior. And with the return of Gendry, we now have a Baratheon in the mix who wields a hatchet like nobody’s business. If he keeps a list like Arya does, I would imagine Cersei and Melisandre are Items 1 and 1A on that document.

I have to confess I had my hands over my eyes during the Arya/Littlefinger mutual spying scenes. It’s my fervent hope that her time as “No One” will tip Arya off that he’s manufacturing the basis of a split between her and Sansa, leading not necessarily to Arya’s death but more likely, to her banishment from Winterfell. Trouble is already outpacing Littlefinger. Arya has always had Sansa’s number, even when the two were children. Arya rightly senses that Sansa wants that crown as Queen of the North—“You don’t want to, but you’re thinking it right now.” Despite their history, my money’s on the Stark girls to prove that blood is thicker than water, with Littlefinger as the loser (And if the girls don’t come through, I suspect Bran the Three-Eyed Raven will).

So we end with two major events pending: a confrontation between Jon’s ragtag army of Tormund, Ser Jorah, the Hound and the Dondarrian boys with the Army of the Dead, and a sit-down between Danaerys and Cersei. The suspense is building.

Posted in Baseball, Television

Home At Last

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

What riches in this week’s “Game of Thrones” episode, “The Spoils of War:” Arya back in Winterfell! Theon washed up (in more ways than one) on Dragonstone! Bran knowing Arya’s list without even peeking! Historic cave hieroglyphics! Dragons incinerating an entire Lannister army! Jamie dunked!

Arya’s long-awaited return to Winterfell is one of the Top Ten highlights of the entire show. Her verbal sparring with the sentries was delicious, though her uncertainty as to who was currently wearing the title of “Lady Stark” underscored a bit of vulnerability (I suppose as a non-head of House she’s merely “Lady Arya”). Her sad gaze around the castle courtyard spoke volumes—see what happens when Greyjoys and Boltons don’t bother with upkeep? Her reunion with Sansa was chock full of treasures. When Sansa, referring to Jon, remarked, “When he sees you, his heart will probably stop,” did you yell at your screen “It already did”? However, there was a superb moment of ambiguity that followed Arya’s reference to her list. At first blush she’s a deadly serious adult thirsting to kill her remaining enemies. Sansa’s reaction is pure shock, then riotous laughter. Does she see this as a joke, or is she taken aback by the gravity of her sister’s intentions? Or both? At the sound of Sansa’s laughter, Arya suddenly smiles, a truly rare reaction from her, as we see her instantly revert from experienced killer to cute younger sister. Kudos to Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner for realizing the subtleties of this scene.

This could only be topped, and it was, by Arya’s training session with Brienne. Remember Catelyn’s smile when she first met Brienne back in Season Two? You knew exactly what she was thinking: “This is my daughter in ten years,” though she had no way of knowing it wouldn’t take quite that long. The Brienne/Arya sparring match was made even more impressive (and amusing) by the fact that Gwendoline Christie is about a foot and a half taller than Maisie Williams, though the latter can definitely twirl a sword like nobody’s business. A mutual appreciation society is born. And aside from their fighting prowess, the ladies obviously share the same view of Littlefinger. If looks could kill, their mutual glare at him would have made him an undertaker’s delight. By the way, that dagger Bran gave to Arya? He might as well have instructed her: “Go, sis, and plant it in Littlefinger’s chest.” I doubt Lord Baelish is long for this world.

One by one the loose ends are being tied up. When Theon came ashore at Dragonstone, I expected Jon to kill him in short order for selling out brother Robb. I would have thought Theon’s leaping rescue of Sansa did nothing more than square Greyjoy debt vis-a-vis House Stark, not created a Stark I.O.U. However, Jon evidently has his own bookkeeping system and thinks otherwise. And speaking of what is owed, Bran’s send-off of Meera Reed was awfully harsh. I’m glad she read him the roll call: the deaths of her brother Jojen, Hodor and his own direwolf Summer in his service, not to mention the numerous times she risked her own life to save his hide. I know the Three-Eyed Raven is taking over Bran’s consciousness, but that’s no excuse for treating her without a breath of empathy.

Catching up on Lannister business, they continued to pay their debts…with the money of other Houses. Given the extensive pillage at Highgarden of both gold and grain, it appears there wasn’t even a Tyrell second cousin once removed left to fight back—Lady Olenna was evidently the last of her House. While we’re on the subject of Lannisters, does anyone really think Cersei’s going to go through with a marriage to Euron Greyjoy, war trophies or no? They may make it to the Sept, but you can bet her apothecaries are already whipping up a wedding night special.

The end of the episode was worth waiting for. A full twelve minutes of screen time, from first rumble of dragon thunder to a sinking Jamie, Dany’s unleashing her dragons for a Lannister army stir-fry proved to be one of GoT’s epic battles. There was even a blink-and-you-missed-it guest appearance by GoT fan and Mets pitcher, Noah Syndergaard, who at 6’6″ made the perfect Lannister spearchucker (Celebrity has its perks). Nevertheless, it was slightly ridiculous to see everything surrounding Jamie go up in flames while he remained untouched. I was hoping to see Bronn incinerated—his constant kvetching about being awarded a castle has become tiresome—though upon repeat viewing this did not seem to happen. A pity.

Although the next episode seems to be North-centric, here’s hoping we learn Jamie’s fate in short order, not to mention that of poor Drogon (can he still fly?), the cured and presumably homeward bound Ser Jorah Mormont and the still missing in action Gendry (Remember him? Robert Baratheon’s bastard). And when oh when will Dany give up her obsession with knee-bending and rule the school as co-equals with Jon?

Only three more episodes in this season.

Ride ’em, Dragon Girl!
Posted in Television

Endgame

Don’t Fight, Kids–You’re Family!

 

There’s a scent of inevitability in the “Game of Thrones” air, isn’t there? The longed-for meeting of Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow. Yet another Stark family reunion. One more harbinger of the end: “Epigramish” seems to have displaced the Common Tongue as the main language on this show, not always for the better.

Cersei may have settled a ton of Lannister business in last night’s episode, “The Queen’s Justice,” but the GoT audience knows that such relief is usually transitory at best. Whipping up a batch of Dorne Killer Lip Balm, Cersei’s favorite apothecary provided the means for his boss’ squaring accounts with Ellaria Sand. In an excruciating scene, Cersei gets her revenge for the murder of daughter Myrcella by not only assuring a slow, painful death for Ellaria’s daughter, but forcing her mother to witness it and live with her rotting corpse, all the while chained to a dungeon wall. The Sand Snakes were not among my favorites, but that’s somewhat beyond the pale, even for Cersei. While GoT periodically tries to remind us that Cersei’s one redeeming feature is her love for her children, it’s hard to keep that in mind in the face of how she spends the rest of her waking hours.

On the bright side, the Targaryen/Snow confab was really a master class in the subtleties of diplomacy, as conducted by Tyrion and Ser Davos. How both strived to keep the dialogue going in the face of mutual refusals by their leaders to acknowledge the other’s sovereignty made for instructive viewing (Washington, take note). At least good intentions were displayed on both sides: Dany apologized for her mad father’s burning Jon’s grandfather and uncle to death, and he acknowledged Ned Stark’s breaking faith with the centuries-old alliance between the Houses Stark and Targaryan. Their interests are similar to the extent that both want Cersei’s head on a spike, but who gets to rule the schoolyard Seven Kingdoms?

At least both houses came away with something they wanted, unlike Varys, who received a very unwelcome prophesy from Melisandre. Evidently dying in Dragonstone is not what he envisioned—for the first time in ages, he looked afraid. On the other hand, Littlefinger not only remained in character, he somewhat upped the ante. The man loves to speak in riddles, but the advice (?) he gave to Sansa was so obscure, I still need a translation. Speaking of Sansa and riddles, I loved the expression on her face when she walked away from her conversation with Bran, the Three-Eyed Raven: It screamed “My brother is a weirdo!” Ah, siblings.

I’m going to miss Diana Rigg’s presence on this show. What a tough old bird Olenna Tyrell was, and how right she’ll be about Cersei’s eventually being the death of Jamie. Cersei may be queen, but it’s not a good idea to have your waiting woman catch you in the sack with your brother. That kind of behavior usually has a tendency to make you vulnerable to wannabes, no? (Hello, Euron Greyjoy!) Olenna’s pre-death conversation with Jamie was a refreshingly civilized bookend to Cersei’s dispatch of Ellaria Sand. One thing about Jamie—unlike his sister, honor means a great deal to him (See “Edmure Tully, Defeat of”). However, Olenna’s needling confession about Joffrey’s murder confused me. Didn’t she have a collaborator in Tywin Lannister? I’m surprised she didn’t skewer Cersei further by dropping that bit of information.

So…Will Dany’s dragons carry the day and destroy Euron Greyjoy’s fleet? Will the newly-cured Jorah Mormont arrive in time to help? Will Theon ever stop being a wimp?

Only five episodes left in the season.

I Hope Not!
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 that 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.