Sunday, December 28, 2014

Into The Woods, You Go Again: A Motion Picture Review

Well, boys and girls, the highly-anticipated motion picture version of Into the Woods has FINALLY been released. Our original plan was to see The Interview on Christmas Day and wait until New Years Day to see Into the Woods, but some high-n'-mighty hackers with their eyes on terrorism changed that up a bit. *Side note: I did end up seeing The Interview on December 26. Up yours, you angry little Asian potato-bodied manbaby! Totally not worth the fuss. It's a Seth Rogen/James Franco movie for God's sake! Not some witty, biting political commentary. There's been more offensive shit on Family Guy!) If anything, it made more fun of 'Murica than North Korea.

I had my firm doubts about this movie. I was pretty nervous after 2012's half-epic-masterpiece-half-Russell-Crowe-shitstorm, Les Miserables. I thought Meryl Streep was going to just barely get through the songs like in Mamma Mia!. I thought Johnny Depp was going to pull his drunken, stoic Sweeney Todd character back out for his turn as The Wolf. I thought that Anna Kendrick would stand around like Kristen Stewart in Twilight. I feared that Hollywood might take what is arguably Stephen Sondheim's most beloved, stirring, well-known pieces and cram it into another heavy-handed, CGI-stuffed mass of auto-tuned drek with questionable casting and a "Disneyfied" sugar coating (or, more recently, a dark, gritty, sexy turn on shit we've already seen). Thankfully, my fears were unfounded, as the movie turned out to be (in my humble opinion) a devoted, carefully-handled film that stood on its own and maintained the profound and universal themes present in the stage production.

Into The Woods
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim 
Book: James Lapine
Based On: Grimm's Fairytales & Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment
Broadway Debut: 1987
Tony Nominations/Wins: 10/3 (Phantom of the Opera swept that year)

The Story:
The musical intertwines the characters and plots of several Brothers Grimm fairy tales - Little Red Riding Hood, Jack & the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel, etc. - and follows them (literally) into the woods to explore the consequences of the characters' wishes and quests. The musical is tied together by an original story involving a childless baker and his wife and their quest to begin a family, their interaction with a neighboring witch who has placed a curse on them, and their interaction with other storybook characters during their journey. The second act examines what happens after "happily ever after" and reminds us that wishes, paths, and journeys change with time and experience.

The Themes:
The tagline for this movie is "Be careful what you wish for." Though it is an integral part of the musical and probably tested best for family viewers, I think that Disney spent way too much time on focusing on the "Be careful what you wish for" theme. Wishes change as we change. We grow and want different things as we encounter new things in life. We learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others. There are no simple, happy endings because we're human and we're never finished, even if the dream is achieved or the curse is lifted. There is so much meaty subject matter that you can't focus on just one theme throughout. The show indeed covers wish fulfillment and its consequences, but it also examines growing up, parents and children, accepting responsibility, morality, and dealing with adversity. As we grow, we find that our parents don't have all the answers and are not always right. They make decisions whose consequences sometimes fall on their children. They may neglect or overprotect their children out of love, but it may result in an accidentally f*cked up child.
Witch: "What's the matter?"
Rapunzel: "Oh... nothing. You just locked me in a tower without company for fourteen years, then blinded my prince and banished me to a desert where I had little to eat and again no company...and then bore twins! Because of the way you treated me, I'll never, never be happy!"
Witch: "I was just trying to be a good mother."
We often lose sight of right and wrong when emotion intervenes. Should we surrender a young boy to a vengeful giant because she threatens violence on the rest of the kingdom (omigod! Unintentional tie-in with The Interview and the cyber-terrorists!) Should we curse those who have wronged us because it will make us feel better? Should we abandon what we wished for when it turns out differently than we expected? Our choices and actions have an effect on others. It's wise to monitor our children as well as ourselves in an effort to be better people for each other. "Careful the things you say, children will listen. Careful the things you do, children will see and learn..."

My (Small) Issues:
I'm not gonna lie. I'm judgmental. I'm a backseat critic and I don't care who knows it! I had a few issues with some factors in the film, but nothing of a "WHY THE **** DID YOU CAST RUSSELL CROWE?!?!" magnitude.

Actress: I think Anna Kendrick is a very pretty, sweet, nice young lady with a lovely, pleasant singing voice and she did a fine job in the movie (I also look forward to Pitch Perfect 2). I just tdon't know if the was the absolute best choice for that role out of all the A-listers who can carry a tune. But then again, since they often flat-out refuse to cast Broadway talent, maybe she was the best person for the job...
a) The gown is lovely. But you don't need to run down the palace steps with your dress hiked up to your thighs. I get that you want to showcase your shoes. The shoes are lovely too. But again, we can see them without you hiking your dress up to your thighs. Show some modesty, for God's sake! You're a demure, young waif in a stunning gown, not Miley Cyrus at some awards show.
b) I think this falls squarely on the shoulders of the hair/makeup/costuming person: Cinderella's ponytail. Who the hell wears a ponytail to a royal ball?! You've got the dress, the shoes, the makeup...  You can't get that gussied up and leave the hair a hot mess. You just can't.
Even the Baker's Wife is sporting an updo! C'mon!!!

The Wolf's Outfit:
I can't get over how pleasantly surprised (and oddly turned on) I was by Johnny Depp's performance. I don't know why I assumed he'd play it like every character he portrays in any Tim Burton movie (weird, strung out, brooding, under the influence of some powerful uppers or downers). But boy, did he prove me wrong! He was deliciously lecherous, sleazy, and just plain horny! Now my only problem - nay, I actually loved the zoot suit - is the time period of his wolf costume. Everyone else was slumming around in an ambiguous time period of corsets and doublets and capes and leather pants. And here comes Johnny Depp slinking around like a furry Tex Avery cartoon. Again, don't get me wrong, I love it! And it's a heck of a lot more modest than the original Wolf costume.

The Lack of Broadway Veteran Cameos: 
Chita Rivera in Chicago. Colm Wilkinson & Frances Ruffelle in Les Miz. Andrea McArdle in the made-for-TV Annie. Carol Burnett in the made-for-TV Once Upon A Mattress. Where are the Broadway veteran cameos?!?!  There are a ton of little bit parts they could have thrown people into! Instead we've got Shakespeare Theatre Company alumni! That's great, but what do the musical theatre snobs get out of that? Nuthin'! We get one link to Harry Potter and Tammy Blanchard! Unacceptable! Here's my Dream Cameo Cast for you right here:
Cinderella's Mother: Kelli O'Hara
Giantess: Patti Lupone
Rapunzel's Prince: Aaron Tveit
Baker's Father: Norbert Leo Butz
Lucinda & Florinda: Sierra Boggess or Laura Osnes (I guess Tammy can stay)
Red Riding Hood's Granny: Bernadette Peters (only because Elaine Stritch is dead)
Steward: Christian Borle or Jason Alexander

Jack's Mother:
No real complaints here. I just thought she was kinda mean. I think 4 slaps upside Jack's head was about 3 too many. Also, I get that they felt the need to make her death less "bloody" than in the show, but they should have made it a tad more obvious that she was supposed to die after the scene ended. If I hadn't ever seen it, I would have thought she was just out of breath lying next to a log. Help me help you, Tom Hooper...

Cut Scenes/Songs: Most movies are 2½ hours now anyway. This movie clocked in at 2 hours & 4 minutes. I didn't think it was necessary to cut a certain character's death and the song "No More." I'm not giving the death away; you'll just have to watch the original on Netflix! But seriously, they could have had the scene be a minute and a half and we'd all have closure instead of them just inexplicably dropping off the face of the earth. I mean, they weren't TERRIBLY missed scenes in the movie, but "No More" is such a pivotal song! The more I think about it, the more upset I am that it was taken out. The baker's Father explains not only that perfect fairy tale endings don't exist in reality, but also that running away from life's curveballs and losses only make you hurt more. It's quite a disservice to the climax to take out the song/dialogue that shows how vital is is to endure and not give up. I know it's hard to keep every single song of the original production in the movie version, but the thing about Sondheim's work is that every song is simply essential to the continuation of the story or exposition of the character's identity. There is no point in a Sondheim show where the characters just "park and bark" for filler. When the movie was over, my fiancé turned to me and pointed out the exact moment where "No More" should have been and mentioned that he felt something was missing from that scene. Even someone who had no prior exposure whatsoever to Into The Woods could tell when Sondheim's presence was removed. Powerful shit, my friends. Powerful shit!

So there you have it folks! I give this highly ambitious and enjoyable film an A- (B+ if I stew over "No More" much longer). There's a good chance I'll be seeing it again on New Years Day, so come on along and join me!

PS - Did anybody else catch the 3 seconds of A Little Night Music waltz score during the ball scene??? I may or may not have geeked out like a really excited Muppet...

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

I Dreamed A Dream Role: Top 5 Dream Roles

Hello again, loyal readers! ...both of you! It's been a while, but I'm planning a wedding here. Deal.

Anywho, I awoke this morning to find an amusing little game going on between us theatre junkies on Facebook. People list the top 5 musical theatre roles they would like to play and nominate their fellow theatre junkies to do the same. I was nominated this afternoon, but I had to think about it longer than I thought. Only #1 easily popped into my mind. I had to search through the trove of Broadway roles I knew and loved in my head to find 5 characters that I not only wanted to play, but truly could play.

I know what I am and what I am not. I am not an ingenue. I don't fit the typical Western beauty standards and I can't dance that well. Though I can sing them, I'm not Christine Daae, Eliza Dolittle, Cinderella, Laurie Williams, Fantine, Eponine, Cosette, or Millie Dilmount. When I occasionally get to climb out of the chorus pool, I land those supporting roles that often get a lot of love at the curtain call (I'm not dumping on the ensemble! They're VERY important and often have to work harder than the leads to make the them look good. I'm just bitter about my last audition. Don't mind me). Whether that's me or the character in general, I don't know. But here we go; my Top 5 Dream Roles.

1. Lady of the Lake - Spamalot 
This is, hands down, my #1 dream role. She belts like a boss and gets to be shamelessly funny. I identify with her persona pretty closely. She can play a sincere love scene, an soulful and inspirational perseverance anthem, and a resting-bitch-face diva meltdown in a span of 5 minutes. She's totally serious and totally unserious, simultaneously. Perfection.

2. Ms. Pennywise - Urinetown
What's not to love about a character who sings about the dangers of peeing? I unfortunately couldn't find a decent video of this song, but you get the idea...

3. Ruth Sherwood - Wonderful Town
What I love about Ruth is that even though its a starring role, she's obviously not a star in her career or personal life (that's her sister, Eileen). But she is able to persevere by being true to herself and lands the dream career (and man) in the end. I appreciate that she doesn't focus on being pretty or desirable, just because it comes easily to her sister. Happiness comes to her the way she is. Plus she's got some hilarious numbers!

4. The Witch - Into the Woods

I still don't see WHY Bernadette Peters could have played this role in the movie, but that's neither here nor there. The Witch tackles almost every human emotion and remains 100% endearing, even as the "villain" figure through the majority of the show. She's hardened by life and softened by motherhood. She's cynical and sassy. She gets to wear a cape.... Fuckin' Tony gold.

5. Kate - The Wild Party (Lippa)

Who wouldn't want to play a scantily-clad, 1920s coked-up prostitute and belt this number?!

And since there are WAY too many roles out there I'd like to play, here are 5 more:

6. Princess Winifred - Once Upon A Mattress
I got called back for this role, but 'twas not to be. Someday, maybe...
7. Irene Malloy - Hello, Dolly!
The songs she gets to sing. Case closed.
8. Marion Paroo - The Music Man
She gets to sing the ingenue songs, but she's not really an ingenue. She has no desire to be treated like a goddess or a princess, so she falls hard when a man with something intelligent to say treats her with respect.
9. Miss Hannigan - Annie
Seeing as small children irritate me already, I think I'd be pretty bitchin' (no pun intended) in this role! Plus I'm told I fake drunk very well.
10. Fanny Brice - Funny Girl
This one's a tall order. I think my mom does a better Jewish "accent" than I do. If this show and I ever do meet, I'll have to hire her as a vocal coach!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

All I Really Need to Know I Learned On Broadway

Ongoing unrest and racial tension in Ferguson, MO. Over two thousand reported deaths due to violence in Gaza. Ever-increasing hostility in Ukraine. ISIS acting a damn fool across the Middle East. Worldwide economic crises. Drug cartels. A major Ebola outbreak. Bees disappearing. Seal clubbing.

The world is a very scary place these days, filled with very scary people. The level of evil and cruelty humankind are capable of is simply staggering. Justifying themselves by acting in the name of God, love, money, justice, loyalty, and/or mental instability, people seem to ruthlessly manipulate, torture, steal, deceive, and destroy each other and lose very little sleep. It's enough to critically jade even the most optimistic among us. Humankind is indeed capable of a laundry list of atrocities. I believe, however, that that isn't necessarily how the world has to be; because people are also capable of great good.

I believe I owe a lot of my faith in humanity to my exposure to theatre. The theatre community consists of eclectic, eccentric individuals who routinely work together for a common goal. They combine their talents to create something special to share with others. They write and sing songs, dance, entertain, inspire thoughts and emotions, educate and expose us to foreign concepts, and, most importantly, tell stories to eager audiences. They take us to other places, other times; into other people's lives, and show us a world of variety to be embraced. They are an open-minded, sympathetic, inclusive group who live to create and give things to the world. Sure, they can be wildly catty, competitive divas, but they're sure not inciting riots or firing rockets in the streets.

I'm not going to name any names, but certain groups of people in the world are fueled by pure, unadulterated hate. They don't do anything constructive except when it results in f*cking someone else over. They don't build, they don't invent, they don't improve, they don't create, they don't make or write or question or cook or paint or read or explore or try new things. They just live their entire lives believing that they are right, the other billions of people on Earth are wrong and, therefore, do not deserve to exist. They take and abuse the lives of others because they feel that all life is not important or significant. They want to annihilate anything and everything in their path. Call me mean, but as a live-and-let-live person (except during football season), I truly have no respect or patience for this mentality because I find that if you're not going to contribute to the society that the rest of the world has made, you don't get to be part of that society. Theatre helped teach me this. If you don't pull your weight during rehearsals, you don't get to be part of the show on opening night (or worse, you don't get to go to the cast party). You are accountable because you are, in part, responsible for the collective production. If you develop a reputation for bringing the collective down, you won't be invited to come back and audition again.

I notice that the "creators" of the world are rarely fueled by hatred. People who have something they love to do that can be shared with others - be it theatre, art, dance, architecture, video game design, fashion, baking, butter sculpting, writing badly-written, best-selling erotic novels, beekeeping, etc. - don't have the time or energy for hate. They don't make space in their lives for such negativity because they'd rather make than destroy. I think this is what's missing in the lives of these extremists who do nothing but harm. They wouldn't be so inclined to destroy what others have built if they knew the pride and reward of building something themselves. They don't work collectively to make something for the world to see and admire. Nothing they invest in that is worth living for and preserving. But they really should try it. It's fun!

Of course, I'm not suggesting we all hold hands and sing "Kumbaya". But when I see the incredible, amazing, inspirational things people are capable of, I wonder why some people still feel the need to be so savage with each other. I may be naïve to believe in the intrinsic good in people. But in theatre (and any other artistic field), you have no choice but to trust that all the participants are going to pull their weight for the sake of the finished project. You learn to be a stand-up human being. You depend on others and they depend on you. Every individual in the cast, crew, and audience plays a part. Even if it's a flop, even if you're on stage for all of 30 seconds and have no lines, even if it's a 3-week run in a church basement, even if it's a theatrical production or a hippie commune or the next iPhone or a major city, establishing an aggregate of humans that runs on equal parts giving and receiving is special and, in my opinion, very much worth living for.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What's It All About, Newsies?

As most of the Broadway world knows, Disney’s mega-smash theatrical production of Newsies will be closing on August 24 (but don’t worry, “Fansies”, the national tour kicks off this October). I had two initial thoughts about Newsies before seeing it: 1) Judging by the insanely loving response the show received from fans of the original movie and frequent theatregoers alike, I figured this show had more time than the barely 2½ years it ultimately got; and 2) Judging by the number performed at the Tonys, it was an all-singing-all-dancing (not that there’s anything wrong with that) overhype.  Read on and learn if I was right!

Music: Alan Menken
Lyrics: Jack Feldman
Book: Harvey Fierstein
Broadway Debut: March 29, 2012
Tony Nominations/Wins: 8/2
Based On: 1992 cult film Newsies, which was based on the 1899 Newsboys Strike

Upon hearing of the show’s imminent closing, my mom said, “Amy, we’re going to see this before it closes!” So we rode on up to the Big Apple, said “Hi” to the Naked Cowboy, had a disgusting amount of deliciousness at Southern Hospitality BBQ in Hell’s Kitchen (apparently that’s Justin Timberlake’s place), unsuccessfully tried to find some homeless people, and finally sat down to an evening of singing, dancing teenagers in their late 20s and early 30s doing insane pirouettes and flips… and maybe a story somewhere.

The Story:
This high-energy tale based on the Newsboys Strike of 1899 centers on New York teen, Jack Kelly, and a band of fellow orphaned Newsies who sell “papes” to the city of New York. New York World publisher, Joseph Pulitzer increases the cost of the newspapers to the Newsies by ten cents per hundred to outperform his competitors. The Newsies, led by Jack, go on strike and organize a union (of sorts) to demand the former price be reinstated. Fledgling reporter Katherine scoops up the story as well as Jack’s heart (ew). The newsies stage a protest, which is broken up by the police and strikebreakers. Discouraged, Jack wishes to flee the worries and strife of New York for sunny Santa Fe. But Katherine’s story makes the front page of the New York Sun and the Newsies vow to continue the strike. Despite revelations that Jack has a criminal record and Katherine is actually Pulitzer’s daughter (*Gasp!* Wait, WHAT?!), their romance blooms. Using an old printing press of Pulitzer’s, the newsies print their own newspaper, exposing Pulitzer’s price hike to the city, as well as the abuses conducted in the city’s Refuge (juvie). Governor Theodore Roosevelt reads their paper and puts the kibosh on Pulitzer and the Refuge. Pullitzer offers a compromise to buy back every “pape” the Newsies don’t sell; the strike is over! Jack is about to leave for Santa Fe, but has a change of heart (ew) and stays a Newsie. There is much rejoicing.

The Reaction:
My initial assumption that Newsies is an overhyped piece of Broadway entertainment turned out to be pretty true. The dancing was spectacular and the creative use of sets was impressive. However, I found the subject matter (or lack thereof) to be quite a missed opportunity. The movie had some pretty dark moments, emphasizing the risks these kids took to stand up for their rights. They organized amongst themselves to show that they would not be abused by the man. There were dangers and consequences to what they did, as well as a rippling influence that expanded to and affected all child workers in the city. I found the show didn’t touch on any of that as well as they could have.  Most of the time was spent on Jack either bantering with Katherine, or wishing he could run away to Santa Fe… and gratuitous dancing. They had the chance to tinker a decent movie into a compelling, anti-authoritarian, little-guy-wins, David vs. Goliath journey that could have focused on child labor/treatment at the turn of the 20th century, newspaper magnate corruption, class warfare, and/or the importance of family and friendship. Heck, how about a girl reporter! But they merely scraped each of these surfaces and stuck primarily to dancing. Pity…

During the early development of Fiddler on the Roof, choreographer Jerome Robbins constantly asked the creative team (composer, Jerry Bock & lyricist, Sheldon Harnick), "What is the show about?" After several suggestions alluding to the show's plot, one of them stated, "...It's about tradition." Robbins replied, "THAT'S what it's about — and now we have to tell the audience." I think someone should have asked Newsies' creative team what their show was about.

As for my other initial assumption the Newsies should have run longer, I also believe I was right. Since this was not the hard-hitting world changer I dreamed of, it is perfect for dance fans, movie die-hards, and excellent tourist fodder. It is a light, bright, energetic piece that keeps you interested. So they've at least got that going for them. As Chicago has shown for years, crazy dancing and weak plots sell! 

What really took me by surprise was the audience. I have only heard a Broadway crowd flip out like this once: when Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel made their respective entrances in Wicked (I gotta admit, I myself may or not have made a mess in my pants when I saw them). However, there was no star power at this performance. In fact, I found the female lead’s voice considerably weak for Broadway caliber (she had mad dancing skills, but her singing? “Meh” at best). Yet the house practically shook at the end of almost every song. Sure, the dancing was great. But I was watching very closely and I didn’t see Justin Bieber or Elvis in the building, so I say cool your jets, people. This isn’t A Chorus Line. But then again, they were giving the love like it was going out of style. Maybe they saw something I didn’t.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Grease: Hopelessly Devoted To Selling Out For Social Acceptance

I doubt I will be met with much argument when I state that teenagers are strange creatures. These half-child-half-adult beings are each a sea of new hormones, budding with new body parts and functions. It’s a wild environment til their bodies and priorities (relatively) balance themselves out. And on top of all that, there’s romance. Teenagers start trying out intimate relationships at what I deem the dumbest possible time. They are generally at the most immature, emotionally insecure, and financially unstable points in their lives. Yet they see, to clumsily pursue this activity above all others during these formative years with both guns blazing. The only sure thing they’ve got working for them is their innate sexual combustibility. On that note…

Who doesn’t love a bunch of singing, dancing teenagers in their late 20s and early 30s, facing the trials and tribulations of high school, summer love, make out cars, pregnancy scares, and whatever the “Hand Jive” is? Today, we’re going to talk about the original “High School Musical,” Grease. I’m gonna stick primarily with the film version, as I’m assuming that’s the one most folks are familiar with. If you care to challenge me on that, then you can go and write your own witty, well-informed blog!

Music, Lyrics, & Book: Jim Jacobs & Warren Casey
Broadway Debut: 1972 (1978 Film)
Tony Nominations/Wins: 7/0
Grease is a doo-woppin’, Bad-Boy-meets-Goody-Goody-Girl story of love, cliques, cars, high school dances, and friendship, featuring true role models for today’s insecure teenagers. The movie is a beloved classic (one of the few movie musicals [along with Chicago] that might actually be better than the stage version!) that chronicles teenage tomfoolery and irresponsibility, inspiring Halloween costumes and drag queens alike. I myself have been an avid fan of the movie since the tender age of 9 (it was edited for TV, so I didn’t see the too-hot-for TV version until way later). I loved seeing the Mexican standoff between the greasers, the cheerleaders, the jocks, the nerds, and the square adults played out before me. My 9 year-old self couldn’t wait to get to high school and hang out with the cool kids (silly me. I was below nerd status for those 4 years). However, as I got older and saw the film in my post-teen years, I became rather disturbed by the musical’s ending. Just as Danny is about to discard his T-Bird membership and (unsuccessfully) go jock to pursue Sandy, she appears – smoking (literally and figuratively) – in leather pants, enough teased hair and makeup to choke a horse, and a badassattitude change. She changes her whole game and morphs from a wholesome, Sandra Dee-esque All-American into the ultimate 1950s sex kitten in one afternoon.

I’ve become very disappointed in Sandy. Instead of consenting that her man (and his buddies) is too shallow to accept her for what she is, she decides to change everything about herself to impress him. I call shenanigans, Sandy! You were once a young lady of principles who stayed true to herself. Sure, you were so sugary-sweet and innocent, you were giving us diabetes. But if you’re gonna make a change, how ‘bout a gradual, mature change that’s for the better instead of adopting an entirely different persona (which you once opposed) just to make your man happy? And may I point out that this transition happened on the Very. Last. Day. of high school? You do realize that you’ll probably have one more “Summer Lovin’” summer between you before you go your separate ways, right? Be it college, career, prison, etc., I’ve got a sneaking suspicion it’s not gonna work out. I know it was more common for high school sweethearts to make it back then, but if you’ve gone from Sandra Dee to Sandra D. Minatrix (see what I did there?) in one day just so your man will like you again, I honestly doubt the endurance of your future together. Sorry ‘bout ya, but I think you need a Teen Angel’s advice more than Frenchy does at this point.