Review: Young Frankenstein at the Kennedy Center

If Mel Brooks can make a hit Broadway musical from his 1968 movie The Producers, then he should be able to do the same with his much more popular 1974 movie Young Frankenstein, right? Just in case the idea was not a good one, to even the odds why not add your wife and the famous choreographer Susan Stroman to direct and choreograph the show as she did in The Producers?

As they say, lightning never strikes the same place twice, so the odds were always long that Young Frankenstein would do as well as the phenomenally successful musical version of The Producers. That is the case with Young Frankenstein, at least the touring version now in the Opera House at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. There are times when you wonder if it was directed by Max Bialystock, the infamous bad musical producer immortalized in The Producers rather than Susan Stroman. Okay, it’s not that bad and the truth is the musical gets better as it goes along, and it ends pretty well. Young Frankenstein though is certainly not great, and I have a hard time even giving it a passing grade. It bears the mark of a musical that was made simply because it could be made and not because there was any compelling reason to stage it.

In a way, seeing such a crass musical in the ornate setting of the Kennedy Center’s Opera House lowered my opinion of the Kennedy Center. After all, I have seen many a lavish staging of a musical or opera on this stage, perhaps most memorably a staging of Tosca by the Met back in the mid 1980s. In an exhibit as you enter the Opera House, you can see one of the exquisite gowns from that staging. However, you take your seats to watch a musical with no pretense at being high art but that is high on the things that Mel Brooks thinks is funny but which are really incredibly sophomoric. These include cute women in dresses with low bodices and high libidos and allusions to the monster’s massive sexual organs.

None of this is a surprise to those who have seen the movie. In fact, the musical really adds nothing new to the movie at all and is rife with the same gags that were in the movie. What you don’t get of course is Gene Wilder as Young Frankenstein, Madeleine Kahn as his puritanical fiancé Elizabeth, Marty Feldman as Igor, Cloris Leachman as Frau Blücher or Teri Garr as the bosomy lab assistant Inga.

Instead, you get a generally good cast working with substandard material. For example, you will find Brad Oscar (who was a regular in The Producers on Broadway) in the rather minor role of Inspector Kemp. Roger Bart plays the young Doctor Frankenstein, and comes across as more of a wisecracker than Gene Wilder’s portrayal. Most of the rest of the cast seems to be working hard to imitate the characters in the filmed version, and this includes Beth Curry as Elizabeth and Joanna Glushak as Frau Blücher. We do get some variations. Cory English as Igor does not even attempt to emulate Marty Feldman. Peter Boyle played the original monster in 1974. In this version, we get Shuler Hensley who, film critics may note, has played Frankenstein before in the 2004 film Van Helsing.

As you might expect there are strobe lights aplenty, a mad scientist’s workshop decently rendered and theatrical fog in some of the sequences. As for the music, sadly, there is really nothing memorable. Since we go to musicals mostly to hear music, the musical cannot help but disappoint.

The musical only has a few things going for it. First, Roger Bart is rather fun in the pivotal role of Young Frankenstein. Second, if you can make it to the second act you will find it is much better than the first act, but not enough to redeem it altogether. The most surprising actor in this musical is none other than Shuler Hensley. Unfortunately, the monster does not really have a chance to graduate beyond one-dimensional acting until late in the show when he becomes half civilized. Hensley does a great job, when he is finally allowed, of blending the dichotomy of the bestial monster with the emerging civilized monster. At times, he is quite a stitch. It’s just a shame that he does not get a chance to really act until near the end.

So this musical is not The Producers. Do not go to see it on the expectation that it will be anywhere near as much fun as that musical. Its story is much more pedestrian and far less interesting. In The Producers, we got some really weird and compelling characters. There is no equivalent to Leo Bloom or Max Bialystock in this musical. These characters are stereotypes. The Producers is a comedy of bad intentions gone awry. Young Frankenstein as a musical adds nothing to the material and leaves you with nothing memorable to hum on your way home. It feels tawdry in a way The Producers did not. If it had to be staged somewhere, it is better staged in a burlesque house than in a place as ornate as the Opera House at the Kennedy Center.

If you are a huge Mel Brooks fan, you may want to see the show just to say you saw it, but you will invariably be disappointed. The Producers reached very lofty heights indeed. Young Frankenstein tries to make you think that you are getting a lot more value from your two plus hours in the theater than you are actually getting.

My advice: just stay away. There has to be much better theater in the region than Young Frankenstein, and it is likely to be both better and cost less.

Two flicks and a show

For your amusement, here are a few mini-reviews of movies and shows I have seen recently.

The Men Who Stare at Goats

If you put George Clooney, Ewan McGreggor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey in the same movie will it necessarily be funny? To me this was the existential question of The Men Who Stare at Goats. Funny is as funny does, and this movie does have its funny moments. However, this is no Borat or Brüno. Its humor is far subtler. Whether you will find it humorous or not depends in large part on whether you think its premise is humorous.

Its premise is that during the 1970s the U.S. military, afraid that the Soviet Union was winning the Cold War in the new psychic operations battlefield, decided to invest some time and money of its own to create a set of New Age psychic warriors. The movie does have some loose basis in fact. Jim Channon, a Lieutenant Colonel who served in Vietnam proposed a First Earth Battalion to the Pentagon. This new force would win the hearts and minds of the enemy by using tactics like positive vibrations and sparkly eyes. In real life, this did not get much beyond a Pentagon sponsored mailing list. In the movie, George Clooney plays Lyn Cassady, the most gifted of this allegedly defunct Special Forces unit. Among his talents is that he can stare at a goat with such intensity that it will keel over dead.

Ann Arbor Daily Telegram reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGreggor) runs into Cassady in the country of Jordon, who he soon associates with a crazy man he interviewed back in Michigan who told him about this Special Force. Before you know it, both he and Cassady are venturing into Iraq. Cassady apparently is on special assignment. Cassady uses his dubious psychological skills to outwit a few kidnappers, but they end up lost in the desert eventually, only to discover that a psychic corps is already out there. However, this group was contracted out, like much of our War in Iraq. The movie comes complete with lots of flashbacks where we meet the corps legendary founder Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), who is clearly playing Jim Channon.

The movie is strange but just plausible enough to suspend disbelief. It’s not a bad way to spend 94 minutes in a theater. It will keep your attention as well as keep you mildly amused. Ultimately, it tries too hard to make a movie out of a premise that has little humor in it. The main reason to see the movie is to see Clooney, McGreggor, Bridges and Spacey interact on screen and do their best with this thin material. I found myself chuckling at times but this is not one of those movies where you are on the floor laughing. It is probably worth renting but is nothing overly special. It is clearly aimed at the Catch-22 crowd. I give it a modest 2.8 points on my 4-point scale.

Paper Clips (2004)

I did not know what to expect of this documentary, but since it was on my sister’s Netflix list and she liked it, I added it to mine. Whitwell, Tennessee is the unlikely location for a story about understanding the Holocaust. Two teachers were looking for a project for students at the Whitwell middle school that would help them understand the magnitude of the Holocaust. Whitwell is one of these mostly lily white towns in the middle of Appalachia, and seemingly not fertile territory for empathizing with the plight of the Jews or learning about discrimination in general.

To help the students understand the magnitude of the Holocaust, the teachers start the students on a project to collect six million paperclips, one for every Jew killed in the Holocaust. The students start writing various people and organizations looking for donations of paperclips. At first, the paperclips trickle in, and then become a torrent. Each contribution is counted and meticulously cataloged. Soon, rooms are bulging with paperclips and the press is starting to pay attention.

The students make friends with actual Holocaust victims, who come to share their story. Over several years, succeeding classes of middle schoolers continue the project. Eventually the school receives an authentic boxcar that was used to transport Jews to concentration camps. It is turned into a memorial and filled, of course, with paperclips. You can visit the mini memorial today if life takes you through Whitwell, Tennessee.

The documentary succeeds in helping students insulated from the ugliness of much of the world understand the prejudice and discrimination inflicted on different people far removed from them. They open bridges into a wider world that they would otherwise not come in contact with. If the documentary has a flaw, it is that despite its premise it is not particularly engaging. It could have done with a lot less saccharine music. Still, it is an unusual story and worthy of capturing. If I were teaching in middle school it would be required viewing by my students

I’ll leave it unrated. If you feel you need a lesson in empathy, it is worth seeing.

The Music Man at The Kennedy Center

When you go to hear a musical in concert, particularly with a pops orchestra, you should not set your expectations too high. Last Friday, we took my father (age 83) to The Kennedy Center to hear the music from the musical The Music Man performed live by the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marvin Hamlisch. The Music Man is his favorite musical. Growing up we often heard the sound track to The Music Man during our languid Sunday mornings.

What we got was a greatly abbreviated version of The Music Man, partially staged in front of the orchestra. Shirley Jones, who played Marian the Librarian in the 1962 movie, was part of the cast. At 75, Ms. Jones is way too old to play Marian, and arguably way too old to play Mrs. Paroo, Marian’s mother. Actually, Rebecca Luker who sang and performed Marian’s part is also too old to play Marian, who is supposed to be 26. (Ms. Luker is 48.) It didn’t really matter though. Luker was terrific in the part, and made me wish I had seen her perform the full musical on Broadway back in 2000. Patrick Cassidy, the son of Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy, played Professor Harold Hill. He also directed the performance. Cassidy’s performance was not particularly noteworthy, but nothing for which he should feel ashamed.

The Washington Post found little to like about the concert except for Ms. Luker. The Post misses the point. The point of the concert was for us to hear Ms. Luker, enjoy an afternoon with the NSO Pops, check out Shirley Jones (who is aging very gracefully) and have a good time during a busy holiday weekend. I certainly had no expectations that I would be seeing anything of Broadway quality, which is why it was so nice to have Ms. Luker doing such an excellent job both singing and acting in the part. It was also nice to be four rows from both performers on a blustery November afternoon. After the performance, both Shirley Jones and Patrick Cassidy shared a few intimacies with the audience. Ms. Jones was pregnant with Patrick when The Music Man was being filmed. During the final intimate scene at the footbridge, Robert Preston felt Patrick kick and exclaimed, “What was that!” Twenty years later, Patrick related that he finally got a chance to meet Robert Preston. “Without missing a beat,” he said, “Mr. Preston said, ‘We already met.’”

The real treat for me was simply to see my father dabbing his eyes during the performance. It is hard to touch someone’s heart but on this one rare occasion, I fully succeeded. I am glad I was there to enjoy these moments with the best father a son could ever want.

Review: Chess in Concert

In 1995, to celebrate its tenth anniversary, the producers of the phenomenally successful musical Les Misérables brought together an all-star international cast for a celebratory concert. The event took place at London’s Royal Albert Hall. I remember watching on PBS wholly enrapt, frustrated only by the annoying “membership week” breaks. The cast was in costume but sang from microphones on the stage. Among many notable performances were Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean and Lea Salonga as Eponine.

Chess was another musical that appeared about the same time as Les Misérables. It ran for three years in London’s West End. However, it crashed and burned on Broadway, lasting a mere eight weeks. In trying to make it appealing to American audiences, Chess lost much of its vitality. Most Chess enthusiasts readily agree that the London version was much better than the Broadway version. For many years, its producers stubbornly refused to allow any changes to what it saw as the “official” Broadway version. Regional and community theaters started to stage the work. I saw it at a local community theater. While I found the music wonderful, the arrangement of the Broadway version was very disappointing. Over the twenty plus years since the musical was first produced, many “illegal” versions of Chess have surfaced, keeping most of the tunes but often rearranging plots and lyrics, and many favoring the London West End version.

The lyricist Tim Rice eventually decided that the musical needed a new “revised” version, which meant that it mostly needed to return to its successful roots. Last year in the same Royal Albert Hall venue where Les Misérables was staged, Chess enthusiasts watched a concert version of Chess, based on the successful London version. If you knew about it, a few months ago you could have caught it on “Great Performances” on your local PBS station.

I was blissfully unaware of this new concert version until I recently learned about it online. Naturally, I ordered the DVD and sat down this weekend to watch it. Wow! Here was the Chess I always wanted to see but had never seen staged. Even if this was just a concert version, it was delightful!

Chess is definitely not your ordinary musical. The powerhouse behind the phenomenal ABBA pop group (Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus) first scored it in the early 1980s. While not quite a rock opera like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, it is an amalgamation of rock, pop and orchestration. Like most of ABBA’s songs, the tunes in Chess are very infectious.

If you take the time to listen to a recording of the musical, you be tapping your toes, and not just to the tune of One Night in Bangkok, the only song from the musical to get any radio play. Tim Rice has written many lyrics in his long career, but he may well have reached the top of his form with Chess. You should also appreciate its complex plot. Chess is not unlike Evita (another musical with lyrics by Tim Rice) in that it is only tangentially about the game of chess, and much more about politics, intrigue, romance and revenge. In short, it is a human story wrapped up around the frame of chess. So Chess may be something of an egghead’s musical, which may explain my own fascination with it these last twenty years.

In retrospect, it is clear why Chess did not get more visibility. First, it was written during the dying days of The Cold War, and by then Cold War intrigue had lost much of its power. Nearly a quarter century later, many have no memory of it because they were born into a post-Cold War age. If Chess had been released in the mid 1970s instead of the mid 1980s, it likely would have done much better. Then there is the topic itself, the game of chess, which is too cerebral for most folks.

The musical was clearly inspired by the infamous 1972 chess championship between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky, which at that time became another way to wage Cold War between East and West. In Chess, Freddy Trumper plays an American who is very much like the late Bobby Fischer. Fischer was renown for his temperament. Trumper likes to use theatrics to both undermine his opponent as well as to draw in larger audiences so he can enrich himself. One cannot really draw a similar comparison between Spassky and the musical’s Soviet chess master Anatoly Sergievsky. Nor did Bobby Fischer happen to have a comely female second named Florence Vassey. (Florence is also his lover as well as a refugee from the 1956 Soviet Union invasion of Hungary.) Florence provides a critical female character as well as a mutual love interest that the musical needs to succeed. Doesn’t there have to be a love story somewhere in a successful musical? Poor Florence finds herself drawn toward Sergievsky, but also discovers that she can never be first in their hearts. Chess must always be their true love.

Just as Les Miserables in Concert drew top tier talent, Chess in Concert got some of the best voices in the musical theater world. Adam Pascal, who many of us know as Roger from Rent is delicious as the flawed and often odious Freddy Trumper. In case you are unfamiliar with Idina Menzel, who plays Florence, she too appeared in Rent (both in Broadway and in the movie) in the role of Joanne. Younger people will probably know Menzel better as Elphaba in the musical Wicked. Josh Groban plays the Russian Sergievsky. Groban is somewhat new to musicals in general (he is only 28) but a phenomenal and powerful singer, who in addition to being very talented is clearly handsome in a thin and swarthy way.

Unlike the concert version of Les Misérables, this concert version of Chess is partially performed. There is actually a fair amount of dancing and acting. There are also some new songs to enjoy. This updated version of Chess gives us more music and less talking, yet does it in a consistent way that improves on the original musical first staged in 1986. In addition, some of the loveliest songs of the musical, such as “Merano” are now fully restored. Some songs have been rearranged. “The Story of Chess” is at the beginning, where it should have been all along. Some lyrics have also been updated. This concert version is likely to greatly please Chess aficionados, as it certainly pleased me. In addition, the DVD gives you an intimacy into the performance impossible to get unless you have front row center seats.

If you are a fan of musical theater, and have not heard or seen Chess performed, you are doing yourself a disfavor, as it is one of the best musicals of the 1980s. Both the CD and the DVD of this concert version are available, and you may want to own both.

Review: Ragtime (The Musical)

This seems to be my weekend for patronizing the arts. It started on Friday with seeing Star Trek (on an IMAX screen) and concluded today with a hop into the District of Columbia to see the musical Ragtime at The Kennedy Center. Ragtime premiered on Broadway in 1998. My wife and I saw a touring version the following year at The National Theatre. Seeing it once and enjoying it so much was ample reason for seeing it again, but I doubted a production eleven years later could match the Broadway touring version. I was wrong. This production is better.

When it premiered on Broadway, Ragtime received mixed reviews, won a host of Tony awards, survived 834 performances, and finally closed in early 2000. People tend to either like Ragtime or loathe it. I am in the former category and consider it a great musical with a compelling progressive theme. In fact, it is one of my favorite musicals. It remains something of a one hit wonder for composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens. I liked Ragtime so much I bought the CD to their subsequent musical, Seussical, which was a dreadful disappointment. Ragtime though is filled with mostly glorious music and delightful lyrics. Moreover its story (which is based on the 1975 book by E.L. Doctorow) is compelling, if at times a bit preachy. If, like me, you liked the musical Les Miserables, you should see Ragtime too.

Ragtime illuminates the early 20th century for newer generations by introducing prominent historical characters of the time like Booker T. Washington, Andrew Carnegie and Emma Goldman. It throws us into the vexing social issues of the time including immigration, poverty and the rise of labor unions. Mostly the story revolves around a family in New Rochelle, New York who go by titles (“Father”, “Mother”, “Younger Brother” and the like) rather than names. It is a musical about the clash of cultures and the slow dance cultures must make to get to know each other. While the blacks were freed, segregation and injustice was still an unfortunate fact for African Americans. Colehouse Walker though becomes something of a black success story by playing this seductive new music called ragtime in Harlem honkytonks. Despite the strict segregation of the time, through a series of events their lives intersect. This begins improbably when Mother discovers that a local washwoman gave birth to a son but buried it in their garden. Yeah, this is pretty unlikely, particularly when the infant is found alive, but it does make for an interesting story, particularly when it forces Mother to stop being a stereotype and confront the messiness of human life for the first time.

If you have not seen the musical, there is plenty to enjoy, but I think you will find this special staging available in The Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center especially luminous. A few scenes were apparently trimmed but none that mattered while the staging itself underwent a radical facelift. In this staging, we have a stage with three levels rather than many sets continuously going on and off stage. The Kennedy Center reputedly spent a hefty $4.5 million to stage the musical yet often went with props as metaphors. Colehouse Walker’s piano is an acrylic shell, and the Model-T that figured so prominently on Broadway is just a frame with suggestive tires.

What it lacks in lavish staging this production makes up with exquisite singers, many of who also happen to be first class actors. Back in 1999, I was wowed by the troupe that came through. This cast easily beats the original touring company in both singing and acting. The only thing that worked better in the Broadway version was the giant swing that careened periodically across the stage whenever Evelyn Nesbit was on stage. In this production, we see her parodying her testimony at the “Trial of the Century” in a Vaudeville show. She sits on one scale of justice while bags of money weigh down the other scale.

Both Father and Mother look a lot younger than they were in the touring version and have better voices. Mother, played by Christiane Noll, did a great job. I particularly enjoyed her chemistry with Tateh (played by Manoel Felciano) during their lovely song “Our Children”. She also stood out in her soliloquy song (and in my opinion the best song of the musical) “Back to Before”. I was wiping away tears after she finished that song. The principal part in the show belongs to Colehouse Walker Junior, played by Quentin Earl Darrington. Darrington, like Noll, proves he has just the right ability to combine powerful singing with first class acting, although he does seem a bit old for the part. My vote though for most outstanding performance during the show is to Jennlee Shallow, who plays the pivot part of Sarah, the woman who carried Colehouse Walker’s son. Her face is amazingly expressive, positively radiant when in the presence of Colehouse, and yet sinks to the blackest of despairs during her signature song “Your Daddy’s Son”.

Given the musical’s budget it is not surprising that there are no bad actors in this staging. Bobby Steggert feels visceral in the part of Younger Brother. I liked the Broadway Emma Goldman a bit better than Donna Migliaccio’s performance. However, in this staging Emma is mostly found in the rafters rather than on the stage, which makes it harder to establish her presence. The orchestration was top notch but not overpowering.

While I did not see the show on Broadway, the touring version I did see has to have been comparable to it. Consequently, I have to think that The Kennedy Center produced a show at least as good, if not better, than which appeared on Broadway. If you are a fan of the musical, this staging should not be missed. Unfortunately, this production closes May 17th.

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Review: Les Miserables at Signature Theater

Can one see the musical Les Miserables too many times? Perhaps. Les Miserables remains my favorite musical weaving some of the best tunes, lyrics, stories and characters into a three-hour musical that is almost impossible to dislike. If you do not find yourself crying at least once during the show, you are either Dick Cheney or have ice water in your veins.

I plunged into my fourth Les Miserables experience today for an important reason. While I had seen it three times before, I was so far up in the rafters that I felt like I was missing something. Since it was being restaged at Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia, this meant that I could finally see an intimate staging of the musical. In fact, I was able to garner front row seats for today’s matinee. My wife and I were on Left Stage, seats 1 and 3.

This was our first time to Signature Theater. It is not exactly the Kennedy Center Opera House, which is an advantage. We were one of what could be no more than two hundred fifty people in the small black box theater. Pretty much any seat you choose is going to feel intimate, but with front row seats and my feet comfortable resting under the stage, intimate theater took on a whole new experience. We were within spitting distance but really any seat on the lower level is technically within spitting distance. I frequently had actors within touching distance and even singing in my face. Wow!

In fact, on a smaller stage, there is no way to render the full Broadway theatrical version. It is just as well because while the staging was innovative twenty years ago, it had gotten somewhat dated. Rest assured though that the poor look as threadbare and as miserable in this production as they did in the original production.

I also had to wonder if the quality would suffer on a smaller stage. It is expensive to stage even on a small stage, as it requires a large ensemble and orchestra. Even with $75 tickets, I had to wonder if they could cover expenses, since the theater is new and doubtless, all the actors were earning union wages. Thankfully, the quality did not suffer at all. In fact, smaller stagings like Signature’s may be the best way to get the Les Miserables experience. For Les Mis is a powerful human story. No matter how well it is done, it loses something unless you are close enough to see the acting as well as hear the music. At Signature, you cannot help but get both.

The orchestra was excellent but at times was so loud it overpowered the actors. As with any production, some actors did better in their roles than others. Overall, any fan of Les Miserables will appreciate the quality of the performances. While some of the actors (like Tom Zemon, who had played his role on Broadway) are nationally known, most of the actors were more regionally known. Thankfully, the Washington area is blessed with hundreds of excellent actors. I doubt that anyone who saw the production on Broadway will feel cheated by this staging.

One thing was clear from this show: it was uniformly well acted as well as sung. (In my mind, this is the key difference between musicals and operas.) Many of those performing in their roles were the best I have seen in the part. Here is a rundown of some of the major actors and how I felt they did:

  • Christopher Bloch (Thenardier) – A. Absolutely the best Thenardier I have seen in the role. His performance is not to be missed.
  • Rachel Boyd (Young Cosette) – A. Her role was short (she only gets to sing one song) but she was a heartbreaking cutie with big doe-like eyes and a real stage presence. You wanted to leap on the stage and hug her.
  • Andrew Call (Marius) – B. Competent in the role but his performance is not particularly noteworthy.
  • Felicia Curry (Eponine) – A. An African American Eponine took some getting used to but Ms. Curry shines in the part. Her voice is not quite as lovely as others who have sung the part (Lea Salonga would be hard to beat) but her acting is to be savored. Mmm.
  • Sherri Edelen (Madame Thenardier). A. A worthy contender with anyone on Broadway who played the part.
  • Tracy Lynn Olivera (Fantine). B. I personally was delighted to see a plus size woman in the role of Fantine. Usually she is played as someone who is disheveled but impossibly model-like. For the first time, I found the stage image of Fantine matched my mental image.
  • Jordi Parry (Gavroche). C. Meaning no disrespect, but he is a boy after all.
  • Chris Sizemore (Enjoras). B. Typically Enjoras is cast a bit taller and more handsome, so in a way it was nice to see Enjoras looking a bit more down to earth.
  • Greg Stone (Valjean). B. The whole story of course evolves around Jean Valjean, so his role is crucial. Nothing wrong with Stone’s performance but nothing exceptional either. He reminded me a bit of a young Liam Neeson.
  • Stephanie Walters (Cosette). A. Usually Cosette comes across as a mere star-struck wallflower. Not this time. Walters provides real depth to her role. For a change she was not overshined by Eponine. Watch the way she lunges for the gate while she waits for Marius. Lovely.
  • Tom Zemon (Javert). B. My wife had a higher opinion of Zemon’s acting than I did. He was suitably grave and chisel-faced, which seems to be a prerequisite for the part. I was hoping in his death scene to see more anguish from his decision kill himself than I did.
  • The rest of the cast in general. A. They were bubbling over with enthusiasm. It helps to have a largely fresh cast for whom this is all new material. It makes a difference.

Expect a few songs to be tightened up and a few scenes changed a bit, but this is all for the better. The show has been extended through February 22nd, so if you are a fan of the musical and live in the Washington area, I recommend getting tickets. You will not be disappointed. I think you will find that the Signature Theater crew breathed new life into this amazing but somewhat overplayed musical.

Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

As regular readers know, I am definitely not the sort who likes bloody and gross movies. That was one reason I avoided seeing Sweeney Todd in the theater, despite its rave reviews. Somehow all that blood didn’t seem in the holiday spirit. Sometimes though you have to grit your teeth (or in my case, fuzz my eyes during the worst parts) and watch a movie that otherwise obviously has plenty of merit. With renowned actor Johnny Depp playing the role of Sweeney Todd, plus a host of first rate familiar and not so familiar actors (including Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin and Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli), it was a movie unlikely to disappoint. It also helped that my 18-year-old daughter Rosie was a big fan of both Depp and the movie and had recently purchased the DVD.

Also providing impetus to view the movie was the reputation of its director: Tim Burton. Burton and Depp are quite a duo. It seems that Burton wants to cast Depp into all of his movies. Their relationship is now at least eighteen years old, when Burton first cast Depp in his breakout role of Edward Scissorhands. I correctly suspected I would need more than a few Rolaids to make it through Sweeney Todd.

Some of the violence is definitely cartoonish while others were too explicit for either my taste or my stomach. Fortunately, this is the kind of movie where you have a good idea when someone is about to die, since they have to be sitting in Sweeney Todd’s barbershop chair. Todd’s shop is conveniently located on the floor above Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie shop where she markets third class meat pies. I suspect you already know the gist of the plot. There is no point in filling up those pies with meat from dead cats when the psycho barber upstairs can provide a convenient fresh set of corpses, all for ready butchering.

The story of the demon barber of Fleet Street goes back to 1846 when this gruesome story was first published in serial form. It was likely written by the English author James Malcolm Rymer. Most Americans learned of Sweeney Todd from its musical adoption. Stephen Sondheim composed the lyrics and music to the highly successful Broadway musical, where it first arrived in 1979. Tim Burton’s task was to translate this successful and often performed musical to the big screen.

While I have yet to see Sweeney Todd in the theater, I can confidently say that I would be more comfortable with the musical on stage. On the stage, any depicted violence would be much less realistic and I would be much further removed from the action. Of course, in a movie the camera gives you an intimacy you cannot get in a theater. When necessary, which is too often for my tastes, Tim Burton is quite willing to let you see the gore first hand. This includes graphic shots of corpses in oversized meat grinders. The movie definitely deserved its R rating. There is no way I would have let any child of mine sees this movie until they were an adult, despite its obvious artistic merits.

In short, the movie, like its corpses, is a bloody well done, providing you can avoid retching. The movie is perfectly cast, led of course by the phenomenal Depp, but ably assisted by Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett. You will not need Smell-o-vision to smell the stench of London in the mid 19th century. Burton nails the time with uncanny authenticity, which is enhanced by the ever present London chimneys bellowing black smoke, which are seen out the grimy windows of Sweeney Todd’s barber shop. With the omnipresent rats, roaches and blood running in the sewers you feel the need to disinfect yourself when the movie is over. Of course, part of the magic of Sweeney Todd is how it mixes touches of macabre humor in its music and lyrics. Only there is nothing really to laugh over in the sick and diseased world around Fleet Street in London.

Sweeney Todd is a pseudonym for a barber who was pressed into being sailor. In the process, he lost his wife and daughter at the whim of an evil judge, spent fifteen years at sea and then finally made it back to London to wreak his revenge. Depp portrays Todd as a man obsessed with lashing out, not just at those who inflicted this injustice upon him but at all sorts of people in London he feels would be better dead than alive. Despite the measured attempts at a macabre humor throughout, Sweeney Todd is really a sick tragedy. As rendered by Burton, Sweeney Todd takes on Shakespearean dimensions. One can imagine William Shakespeare wistfully wishing he had the opportunity to write something as spectacular as the tragic tale of Sweeney Todd. Having seen many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, including likely his bloodiest, Richard III, Sweeney Todd still somehow seems bloodier.

In short, aided by Sondheim’s original interpretation, Burton does an outstanding job of bringing this story to the screen. Part of the problem is that he does too good a job. In fact, this is such a good movie that I really would like to see it again. The problem is I think I am too squeamish. So instead, I will wait to see it in on stage, and enjoy listening to the music from this wonderful musical. I am grateful for having seen this film once, and I will probably rue my own squeamishness that I cannot find the stomach to enjoy it a few more times.

In my humble opinion, this was a far worthier candidate for Best Picture than what actually won, No Country for Old Men. I really think it is a landmark film of some type. It is one of the few films I have ever rated at 3.5 or above.

I give Sweeney Todd 3.5 out of 4 stars.

Review: My Fair Lady

Going to see a revival of any Broadway musical is a gamble. A musical revival is a lot like a movie sequel. It rarely lives up to the original. I have seen Les Miserables three times over fifteen years and each tour was a step down from the last tour. Each incarnation becomes just a little more shopworn. Some musicals like Cats have been on so many tours that someone should shoot it to put it out of its misery.

It has been fifty years since My Fair Lady first appeared on Broadway. I was a baby in a bassinet when it first came out. My Fair Lady is one of these landmark musicals and excruciatingly hard to do right. For one thing, Rex Harrison epitomized the role of Professor Henry Higgins, both on stage and in the movie. In 1965, he won Best Actor for the role. The film itself also won Best Picture. Consequently, any revival of the musical must be treated with asbestos gloves. The chances are you are more likely to screw it up than satisfy.

Cameron Mackintosh though took the risk with this national tour. His risk was mitigated in part by getting many of the same cast that performed it so successfully on London’s West End back in 2001. My Fair Lady rolled into Washington, DC last month. My wife, daughter and I caught one of its last performances Saturday night before it moved on.

Good news to residents of Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Newark, Los Angeles, Toronto, Costa Mesa (California) and Tempe (Arizona). This tour of My Fair Lady feels as fresh as it was fifty years ago. While obviously I never saw it on Broadway, it fares nearly as well as the 1964 movie. Since it got a good review, I felt lucky to get tickets to it at all, and had to select from one of the later performances. Dig deep into your wallet and buy your tickets now. Any fan of musicals who has the opportunity to see this tour and misses it has only himself to blame. It may not role into Tempe, Arizona until June 17th, but if I lived out there I’d still try to get my tickets now.

Its success depends in part on faithfully sticking with well-known material. Christopher Cazenove, who plays Professor Henry Higgins, borrows more than a little from the late Rex Harrison’s portrayal. Considering what an odd and cantankerous professor Henry Higgins is, he would be hard to reinvent, and that he does not is perhaps just as well. Most of the characters studiously replicate the characters that preceded them in its original production. Walter Charles, as Colonel Hugh Pickering, looks like he could have been plucked from Wilfrid Hyde-White’s portrayal on the screen.

There are some exceptions. Unquestionably, the most fun part to play in the musical is the part of Eliza’s lowbrow alcoholic father, Alfred P. Doolittle, acted in this production by Tim Jerome. Jerome brings an enormous amount of energy to his supporting part and practically carries the whole cast off with him. This is one reason why it is so surprising that the rest of the production works so well. He could easily overshadow the rest of the actors and yet he does not. Lisa O’Hare delights as Eliza Doolittle, yet she gives her role a subtly different energy than Audrey Hepburn did in the movie. Except for being significantly wider in girth than Rex Harrison was, Cazenove slips into Higgins’ role with consummate familiarity.

As you might expect, complementing the ensemble is glorious dancing, magnificent staging and a wonderful energy from the cast. The only off-note of the evening was that the horns from the orchestra tended to make the higher registers from the performers hard to hear. That may have been due in part to the acoustics of the Kennedy Center Opera House or an overenthusiastic trumpeter. I was also somewhat annoyed by patrons arriving late, which made it hard to enjoy the first ten minutes of the show.

Thankfully, I can check My Fair Lady off the list of first class musicals that I have seen staged and thoroughly enjoyed. I realize that we were fortunate to get such a fine touring version. I must remember to keep my expectations more modest for the next musical that comes into town.

Review: Spamalot

This is a hard review to write for a Monty Python fan. We saw here in Las Vegas Sunday night Spamalot, the musical sort of wrapped around Monty Python’s phenomenally successful 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yet I was underwhelmed.

Here is the problem with Spamalot: you have seen most of it before. Moreover, what you have not seen is not always that humorous. Rather than feel like a Monty Python production, it feels like an Eric Idle production, which it is. Now there is nothing wrong with Eric Idle’s sense of humor, it is just that his humor is just one of the spectrums that made the Monty Python shows and movies funny. Lacking the other creative voices, Spamalot feels very strained.

If you enjoyed the movie, and who among us has not, you will probably enjoy the reenactments of many of the classic scenes from the movie. On the other hand, if you have seen the movie repeatedly, and can recite every line in the Knights Who Say Ne sketch by heart then seeing it on stage feels very anticlimactic. Except for the voice of God played by John Cleese, there is not a single member of Monty Python in the entire production. So what you get are comedic actors trying to act like the comedy troupe. They often come close. But just as Californian sparkling wine is not quite French champagne, while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it is still imitation, and it tends to fall somewhat flat.

In some ways, what is new in the show is faithful to Monty Python. The plot is pretty incoherent and rambling. Some of the new songs are cute including “The Song That Goes Like This” and “The Diva’s Lament”. There are a few surprises that should not be, including Sir Lancelot who is exposed as a gay queen. There are a few modest improvements. “He’s Not Dead Yet” number adds new life and humor to the bring out your dead scene.

Still, something about this experience felt fundamentally false. It was close imitation Monty Python, but not Monty Python itself. It just made me wistful for the real thing. Its short running length (just over ninety minutes, with no intermission) made it feel needlessly hurried.

Mel Brooks took his 1968 movie The Producers and turned it into a phenomenally successful musical that just recently closed on Broadway. Ironically, the musical of The Producers is also playing in Las Vegas. Having seen the musical version of The Producers, both on stage and the subsequent movie, I can say that Mel made an even better product than the original source material. That is not the case here. This production does not come even close to being as funny or inventive as its source material. Rather than adding value to the original package, it unfortunately subtracts value.

My assessment is that unless you are only a part time Monty Python fan or want to see famous scenes from the movie reenacted, just stay away. This musical will doubtless keep the remaining members of the Monty Python troupe from spending their last days impoverished. If you are feeling nostalgic, it might leave you with a pleasant buzz. I suspect it will leave you feeling more let down than entertained.

The comic energy that was Monty Python has long gone. It is best to accept it and move on. Enjoy the movies and classic shows on DVD. They were authentic. Spamalot feels like a dressed up imitation of the real thing. If in Vegas and you have a choice between Spamalot and The Producers, see The Producers instead. Even if it is only 70% as good as it was on Broadway, it would still be far fresher and more entertaining than Spamalot.

Review: The Producers (Movie, Musical Version)

I have a queer fascination for Mel Brook’s classic 1968 movie The Producers. It has been at least 25 years since I first saw it. I like the movie in part because it was so audacious, particularly for the year it came out. Some years back I tried to explain its appeal to my daughter. Born in 1989, from her perspective World War II might as well be The Civil War. Just what was it about a musical of Adolph Hitler that would be so shocking? Well, there was the horrific matter of the millions of Jews and other minorities he murdered. My fascination for it inspired us to go up to New York City in 2003 to see the show on Broadway.

A musical of the movie (it is about a Broadway musical designed to be a flop, so its producers could abscond with two million dollars) turned out to be even funnier than the movie. Mel Brooks, the creative comic genius behind both versions, outdid himself with the Broadway musical. Fortunately, Mel (now 81) is still very much among the living. As in the original movie, and in at least some shows on Broadway, and definitely in the movie musical version, Mel shows up for a cameo in the famous “Springtime for Hitler” number.

Over the weekend, we finally got around to seeing the movie of the musical The Producers. It stars its original Broadway attractions, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Having seen it on Broadway (but with different stars), I was curious if the movie could measure up.

As I mentioned in my review of the movie Rent transitioning a musical from the stage to film is a devilishly difficult chore, easy to screw up and hard to get right. Musicals are designed for the stage, not the wide screen. The movie Rent succeeded in part because it featured many of its stars from the original Broadway Cast. With Lane and Broderick, who have performed the roles of the washed up Broadway producer Max Bialystock and the shy accountant Leo Bloom literally hundreds of times on Broadway, the odds were that I would enjoy the movie.

I did very much enjoy the movie. However, after seeing it on Broadway I was sometimes dissatisfied with the choices made by director Susan Stroman in transitioning it to film. For the die-hard The Producers fans, the DVD does include the cut scenes in the bonus section. I feel removing these scenes really detracted from the movie. I would have preferred an uncut version that is more faithful to the stage.

Gratefully, most of the time Stroman gets the transition right. Lane is something of a serial Broadway actor. He inhabits the character of Max Bialystock with nearly, but not quite Zero Mostel’s sliminess. Broderick is looking a bit old for the part of Leo Bloom. Broderick tried hard to channel Gene Wilder, who played the original Leo Bloom, but gets only a B grade. Granted, Gene Wilder is a tough act to follow. I have yet to see an actor perform a manic role with more conviction than Gene.

Other parts in the movie soared while others hardly took off. Uma Thurmond was not quite right as the buxom and shapely Swede “Ulla”. Like Broderick, the 35-year-old actress looked at bit old for her part. On the other hand, Will Ferrell as the Nazi playwright of “Springtime for Hitler” is inspired. He should have performed it on Broadway. In playing the psychotic Franz Liebkind he finally graduates to the A comic actor list. Gary Beach reprises his Broadway role as the gay eccentric director Roger DeBris. He has lost none of his talent. The whole scene in the DeBris house may be the best part of the movie. It is funnier than it was on Broadway. I especially liked the parody of The Village People done at the end of the scene.

The sets of course are larger and more grandiose than on Broadway. The little old ladies, which Max uses as his source of financing (many of whom are performed by men), are no less funny than on stage.

Overall, there is little to complain about. The laughs come through a bit easier in the theater where there are hundreds laughing along with you. As a translation from stage to movie, it succeeds at about 85% of the time, which is much better than most. So I am confident that you will enjoy this rendering whether you have seen the version on stage or not.

Alas, soon it will be impossible to see it on the stage. The Broadway show, which premiered in 2001, is in its final weeks. So if you have not seen it staged you will likely have to content yourself with this movie version. It is nearly as enjoyable as seeing it on stage, but not quite. Thank goodness though it was brought to film. Otherwise, the staged version would be revived a few times, they probably forgotten. The musical deserves to be immortalized, and now it has been.

The movie gets a 3.2 on my 4.0 scale.

Review: Rent (The Movie)

Translating a musical to film is a devilishly hard business. Most directors are wise to steer clear of the endeavor. In fact, it is such a hard business that I can only think of a handful of musical films that fully succeeded in making the transition. Two that immediately come to mind are of course West Side Story (1961) and Chicago (2002), for which both deservedly won Oscars for Best Picture. The difficulty comes from translating works that were designed to be performed on a stage into a film where people are singing yet do not look, well, goofy.

I saw the musical Rent on stage when it appeared here in Washington D.C. in the late 1990s. My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the fact that all the performers were wearing microphones and there was the distraction of a band on one side of the stage. Even then as a young forty-something I was feeling a bit too old for it. Christopher Columbus directed the movie version that was released last year. Given the saccharine way he directed the first two Harry Potter movies, I felt no compelling reason to see it on the screen. However, my daughter owns the DVD so I slipped it in our player last night.

The movie Rent is a tough sell to American audiences. It is full of the kinds of characters guaranteed to raise the hair of members of the American Family Association. If you are easily offended, it will offend you. It is rife with immature, twenty something characters who swear, smoke, drink, shoot up, engage in promiscuous sex and move from one toxic relationship to another. They frequently prefer their own gender, or swing both ways. In fact, most of the characters are HIV positive, and many have come down with AIDS. Of course, in both the musical and the film, they are hardly apologetic for their extreme counterculture behavior; in fact, they have the audacity to celebrate it in all its largely dysfunctional glory.

Perhaps this contributed to the movie’s less than stellar box office sales. Outside of Austin, it would just not sell in Texas. However, if you enjoy the musical genre, you should watch the film.

The film is well cast and directed. It fully captures the gritty reality of Manhattan’s more distressed neighborhoods. In neighborhoods where forty years earlier the Jets were fighting with the Sharks, we now find an inglorious little Bohemia. Naturally, this is not coincidental. The author Jonathan Larson deliberately tried to write a modern day version of Puccini’s opera La Boheme. Rent is hardly the first movie to draw inspiration from this opera. Another recent example is Baz Lurhmann’s amazing 2001 movie Moulin Rouge!

The cast consists of people who generally have not starred prominently on film before. Anthony Rapp, who plays the pivotal role of the documentary filmmaker Mark Cohen in the movie, also played the character when Rent first appeared Off Broadway. In fact, he looks a bit old for the part. However he seems to have mastered the role of Mark, who is an against the mainstream, sensitive (but pissed off) estranged Jewish liberal. The best actors as you might expect play the pivotal rolls of the transvestite Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) and Tom Collins (Jesse Martin). The joy Tom Collins feels for his love Angel is quite palpable on the screen. The heat between Roger (Adam Pascal) and Mimi (Rosario Dawson) is not quite as intense nor as understandable. Maureen (Idina Menzel) and Joanne (Tracie Thoms) spend more screen time estranged than being sweet to each other. I was somewhat disappointed in Idina Menzel as Maureen. She did not quite have the same frenetic, over the top style of the actress we saw in the staged version of the musical. Indeed, you spent the first third of the musical waiting for Maureen’s dramatic appearance. In the film, Columbus unwisely chose to put her in a flashback before she appears at her performance.

In general, the choreography is excellent, and the direction is very good. With many musicals, you are aware the music is lip-synched. Here it is impossible to tell. I noticed little snips removed from the staged version as well as padded dialog and extra scenes that you would expect translating a musical to film. You know of course that dozens of takes were needed for each scene, but like the music, it flows seamlessly. It is impossible to tell.

With a few exceptions, each character is a mountain of anger and hurt. They are often obnoxious and bullheaded, as early twenty something young adults frequently are. Each could profit from many sessions with mental help therapists. Instead, because they are largely broke, they become their own support group. Nonetheless, it is hard not to care about them as they careen from one young adult crisis to the next. Even if drag queens disgust you, you would not be a human if you did not shed a tear at Angel’s passing.

Christopher Columbus has partially redeemed himself in my eyes. I now forgive him for the first two Harry Potter movies. Maybe movie musicals are a niche where he can demonstrate special competence. Rent may not reach the lofty heights of West Side Story or Chicago, but it deserved much better than the tepid response at the box office. Take a chance and “Rent” it.

3.3 on my 4.0 scale.