Thursday, October 29, 2009

Theater Review: Ragtime

Location: Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, NY, NY

Website: Official Ragtime site

Starring: Quentin Earl Darrington, Stephanie Umoh, Christiane Noll, Ron Bohmer, Robert Petkoff, Bobby Steggert

My Review: Confession: I’ve been familiar with the musical Ragtime for years, and love the show, so I was predisposed to enjoy it before even arriving at the Neil Simon Theatre for this new production. The original Broadway cast album has been on regular rotation in my music collection since becoming available in 1998 (first in my Discman, now on my iPod), and while I did miss seeing the original cast on Broadway (due to that whole pesky going to college thing), I caught a touring production several years ago that was excellent. So my main concern with this new production was whether or not it would measure up to the production that plays in my head whenever listing to the cast album. Luckily, my fears were put to rest at almost the instant the show began.

Right before the curtain lifted, my friend who attended the theater with me said, “I can’t remember the last time I saw a big musical like this.” And that’s essentially what Ragtime is: A big-ass musical. Over 40 cast members! A 20-piece orchestra in the pit! Scenery that takes up the entire stage! Grand-scale musicals like this seem to be appearing on Broadway less and less frequently, no doubt due to how expensive they are to produce, and after a number of flops over the years and the very public financial woes of the theater industry, producers seem to be playing it safe with smaller, less expensive shows with fewer bells and whistles. But when a big-ass musical is done well and touches the hearts and minds of the audience, the payoff can be huge. And that’s just what Ragtime should be looking forward to.

Based on the E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name, Ragtime takes a look at turn-of-the-century America (starting in 1906), using the stories of three very different families as its frame. There’s the white WASP-y family happily living an idyllically sheltered existence in New Rochelle, NY, a newly-arrived Jewish immigrant determined to be an American success story and make a new life for his young daughter, and the black ragtime piano player from Harlem trying to do right by the woman he loved and lost. What begins as three separate stories eventually gets tangled together, while some real historical figures observe, narrate, and occasionally participate in the narrative (including Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and Booker T. Washington). As the real characters mix with the fictional, so do real events (like the textile workers’ strike in Lawrence, MA) mingle with the imagined, creating a rich and textured look at a changing America as it rapidly approaches World War I.

With a cast this size, a multitude of stories being told, and a running time at just under three hours, there’s way too much happening in Ragtime to comment on everything, so here are some of the highlights:

While scenery is usually something I tend not to notice (which is usually a sign that it works with the show, because if it wasn’t working, it would be painfully obvious), but the Ragtime set is note-worthy because it works so extraordinarily well. The entire stage is rigged with skeletal-like metal scaffolding that has various staircases to help lead the characters to the various tiers that reach to the top of the stage. With the addition of a few props and a change of the lighting, the entire set is easily transformed into a ship, a suburban manor, a factory, a dance hall, and the Atlantic City boardwalk.

The entire cast works well together, but as with every show there are standouts. Bobby Steggert as Mother’s Younger Brother manages to straddle the line between “eager young man” and “loose cannon” so deftly that you’re never quite sure whether to root for him or be creeped out by him. Robert Petkoff as Tateh, the poor immigrant artist, goes through so many changes in the handful of scenes he appears in that it would be easy to play one too abruptly and ruin the illusion of his entire character. But Petkoff tackles the role brilliantly, and as he shifts from wide-eyed hopeful, to disillusioned and broken, to a self-made man, you believe every change and revel in his perseverance.

The main standout performances are by Quentin Earl Darrington and Stephanie Umoh as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and his love, Sarah—roles that were originated on Broadway by Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald, so to say they had big shoes to fill is a gross understatement. But everything they bring to their parts is perfect. Darrington has a confidant swagger when Coalhouse is playing his music in a dance hall, but he puts all of his pride aside to win back the woman he did wrong. Everything he does, he does with passion, and that passion can be channeled for good or evil, depending on which way the winds blow. Umoh is sweet and sassy as Sarah, a woman who is strong and determined, but still vulnerable enough to nearly destroy everything she has when her heart is broken. They both have killer voices, too, with each solo or duet they perform nearly bringing the show to a brief stand-still. The fact that Ragtime marks a Broadway debut for both of them is beyond remarkable.

Bottom Line: While big musicals are often sneered at as not being “legitimate theater” (insert your own Cats joke here), Ragtime proves that when done right, big musicals are indeed “legitimate” and very entertaining. Ragtime will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you think, and chances are you’ll leave the theater happily humming any one of its many tunes. If that’s not a “legitimate” theater experience, then I’ll happily continue to be a total theater bastard.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Quest for the Best: Halloween Candy Edition

For the most part, I’m pretty ambivalent about Halloween: On the “Holidays I Don’t Care About” scale, it falls somewhere between President’s Day and Valentine’s Day. It was fun when I was a kid and there were costume parties, cupcakes at school, and seasonal cartoons to watch, but as I grew up I watched it devolve into a day dedicated to annoying public drunkenness and an excuse for normally sane women to dress like whores. (“I’m not a nurse, I’m a slutty nurse!” Fantastic. I’m sure all the real nurses who help save lives daily appreciate that.)

But Halloween’s one redeeming factor is that it’s the one time of year when it’s perfectly acceptable to buy candy by the gross. I can go into any store and buy numerous bags—weighing more than a pound each—of assorted miniature chocolatey and sugary goodness. And no one ever has to know that I never get any trick-or-treaters, because there’s no way for them to get access to my door. So yes, you unsuspecting Target employee, all this delicious candy goodness is all for me, and if any of it survives to the end of the week, I will be amazed.

In the spirit of celebrating the one part of Halloween I still enjoy (viewings of The Nightmare Before Christmas notwithstanding), here are my favorite Halloween treats:

* Twizzlers. Now, Twizzlers are good at any time of the year, and besides popcorn are the perfect movie theater snack, but the mini-sized ones that come out for Halloween are actually better. They’re shaped differently—more tube-like—and have a different taste. I’m not entirely sure what flavor Twizzlers are meant to be in the first place (strawberry?), but the Halloween ones have a more intense flavor. Plus, they’re less chewy than regular Twizzlers, therefore less likely to do any damage to pricey dental work. I’m not sure how or why a different formula is used for Halloween Twizzlers, but they definitely taste differently, and I wish the good people at Twizzlers headquarters would use this recipe all year round.

* PayDay. PayDay is one of those candy bars I like, but I rarely have since I’m not a frequent buyer of candy bars. But once an entire bag full of mini-bars are staring me in the face, I have a moment of, “Ohmigod these things are so good and I haven’t had one in ages! I must have them!” They’re nothing more than wads of caramel rolled in salty peanuts, but they’re delicious salty-sweet goodness that I tend to only devour once a year.

* Laffy Taffy. Much like PayDay, Laffy Taffy is a candy that I tend to forget exists until Halloween rolls around. And again like PayDay, once I see that brightly colored bag that contains roughly a thousand individually wrapped pieces of the sweet, chewy candy, I must have it. Besides being mouth-watering good and far less gross than regular taffy, each pieces comes with jokes on the wrapper! Candy and comedy—does it get any better than that? For example, take this bon mot:

What would you do without your memories?

Answer: Forget!

Haha! It’s funny and it’s true. You even get some clever word play:

Why couldn’t Mozart find his teacher?

Answer: Because Mozart’s teacher was Hayden!

This stuff even appeals to the Carnegie Hall crowd! Capital.

* Reese’s Sticks. You really can’t go wrong with anything from the Reese’s family, but the Reese’s Sticks are my all-time favorite. They’re what you would get if a Kit Kat married a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and they had the world’s most perfect child: Crispy wafers stuck together with layers of Reese’s peanut butter, and the whole thing covered in chocolate. Deceptively simple, and yet I tend to go through an average of three bags of them before the Halloween season is over. And I don’t feel even the slightest bit guilty, because they’re just that good.

Happy Halloween, whores!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Movie Review: Where the Wild Things Are

Rated: PG

Website: Official Where the Wild Things Are site

Starring: Max Records, Catherine Keener, voices of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker

My Review: I’m going to take the easy—some may say “coward’s”—way out here, and say there’s really no way to review Where the Wild Things Are. As anyone who pays attention to movie reviews has seen, it’s had a very polarizing effect on people; they’re either liking it or loathing it. And after seeing it, I can see why.

I’m in the “like it” camp (“love” would be too strong a word to use as I’m still processing it), but I can easily see how it’s not going to appeal to some, and that’s OK; despite the flamewars that erupt over big movies like this, the last time I checked, it’s not required that we all have the same reactions and experiences at the movies. So in lieu of a review, here are my thoughts on who will like Where the Wild Things Are, who won’t, and my reasons for liking it:

Won’t Like It

Parents who can’t think for themselves anymore. It’s been stated again and again and again; this is a movie ABOUT children, not FOR children. And while I don’t think there’s necessarily anything inappropriate for children in the movie, there are a few scenes that may be a bit intimidating to the very young, and more than anything else, I’d guess most kids will just be bored by WTWTA. But that won’t stop some parents from taking their kids to see it, then declaring it a “bad movie” because it was too scary/slow for them to enjoy, and they’ve joined the parenting cult where all of their opinions are for “the children” and not themselves.

Those expecting a silly, campy romp. There’s plenty of romping, but it’s more cerebral than just “kid having fun with crazy monster-creatures.” If it’s something lighthearted you’re after, WTWTA isn’t going to deliver that.

Those who loved the book. The book is 10 sentences long and takes a few minutes to read. The average movie is at least 90 minutes long. The only way this was ever going to be made into a movie was to have creative licenses taken, but plenty of book devotees will still be upset with the directions that were taken.

Will Like It

Those who loved the book. On the flip side, plenty of people who loved the book will also love how it’s interpreted on the screen. Max’s wolf suit is awesome, the Wild Things are absolute magic to behold, and the entire movie oozes with the wonderment and darkness that is the inside of a troubled child’s mind.

Parents with troubled and/or highly imaginative kids. I don’t have kids, but I imagine having children that are difficult to understand or relate to is one of the most frustrating parts of being a parent. WTWTA provides a look into the mind of one particular troubled child, but Max’s feelings and frustrations are the same as a lot of kids who live an angry and disturbed existence.

Adults who once were troubled and/or highly imaginative kids. In my amateur opinion, the biggest draw WTWTA has is with adults who loved the book as children because they related to Max. Many adults grew up in a haze of anger, frustration, loneliness, denial, and insecurity, and to escape all that had fantastical corners of their mind to retreat to when times were bad. WTWTA embodies all of that and shows that while you may have thought you were the “weird kid” in school, you weren’t such an outcast, after all.

Why I Liked It

I found it to be a very clever and moving creation of a book I enjoyed as a child. Visually, it’s absolutely stunning, and I love how the Wild Things at one moment seem fun and cuddly, then the next moment scary and intimidating—just like people. And while the significance of these creatures are open for interpretation, I saw them as embodying the different parts of Max’s persona that he doesn’t understand. One is rude and obnoxious for no apparent reason. Another enjoys punching holes in things. Another is easily upset and feels that no one in the group ever listens to him. And they all take great pleasure in being loud and destructive whenever the opportunity arises. These uncomfortable feelings plague everyone, kids and adults, and we all handle them differently. As adults, we’re conditioned to swallow these feelings. As a child, Max invents a fantasy world where he is king and has ultimate power over everyone, presumably to compensate for his lack of power in the real world.

WTWTA isn’t without its flaws. There’s a bizarre scene where Max is at school and his teacher is lecturing about the sun dying and the end of humanity…to a classroom of fourth-graders. This inspires a conversation later on in the Land of the Wild Things, but I never got over how out of place that moment was. I was also disappointed that Max’s mother never actually calls him a “wild thing,” as she does in the book after he misbehaves. Without this accusation, I wondered where his inspiration to create the Wild Things came from. But these are relatively small complaints for a movie that, as a whole, was crafted remarkably well.

Bottom Line: You’ll either like Where the Wild Things Are, or you won’t. A trite summary, yes, but it’s a polarizing movie. But if you take a child to it and then whine about how “bad” it was for them, I will eat you up.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Trailer Review: It’s Complicated

Opens: December 25, 2009

Website: Official It’s Complicated site

Starring: Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski

My Review: It’s Complicated is a comedy starring Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin.

What, that wasn’t enough to sell you on it? That seems to be all the studio is relying on to attract an audience, but if you insist…

In an effort to show that being over 50 doesn’t mean you have to be old and boring, these three power players are tackling the romantic comedy genre. Streep and Baldwin are Jane and Jake, a formerly married couple who split when he left her for a younger woman. But when he discovers that dating someone half his age isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, Jake starts sniffing around Jane again, who finds that she actually enjoys the role of “the other woman” a lot more than “wife.” While she’s enjoying the new-found playfulness in her illicit relationship with her ex-husband, the architect who’s working on her house (played by Martin) has also set his sights on Jane. And Jane finds him to be funny and charming, too, so who is she going to choose?

It’s pretty standard rom-com fare, but the filmmakers are obviously hoping that the three stars will bring it to an elevated level. Which they very well might; I’m not denying that Streep, Baldwin, and Martin are all extremely gifted, and funny, actors. But I am denying the studio my dollars for a movie ticket and adding this to the Netflix queue instead.

Would I Pay For It?: This is the very definition of “rental material.” But I hope it’ll be entertaining rental material.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

New Gig: It's Just Movies

I'm not going to pretend to know everything about everyone who stumbles upon this blog, but I'm going to assume one of two things is true about all visitors:
  • You enjoy reading what I write.
  • You like movies.

So if one of these things (but preferably both) is true about you, I'd like to direct your attention to, a relatively new site that's, well, uh, you see, just about movies. I'll be contributing some pieces to the site, along with some other talented (and entertainment-obsessed) writers, so stop by, bookmark it, and come back often.

Here ends my shameless self-promoting plug.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Theater Review: Judas & Me

Location: American Theatre of Actors, 314 West 54th Street, NY, NY

Website: Official NYMF site

Starring: Barbara Walsh, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Nick Blaemire, Doug Kreeger, Leslie Kritzer, Ann Harada, Nikki Snelson

My Review: My second sampling from the 2009 New York Musical Theatre Festival was Judas & Me, and the fact that it took me five days to motivate myself enough to write about it speaks volumes. While not necessarily a “bad” show, it was pretty run-of-the-mill theater, and I suspect it will remain a festival-only performance.

Judas & Me is a biblical satire that primarily focuses on the mother of Judas Iscariot, Rheba, and her blind jealously of their neighbors, Mary and her perfect son Jesus. In the opening moments, a chorus of angels arrives to tell Rheba she will birth the Messiah, then realize they’re at the wrong house when they see she’s already pregnant. But despite the angel Gabriel constantly telling her they made a mistake, the seed has already been planted in Rheba’s mind, and she spends the rest of her life pushing her son Judas to measure up to Jesus, confident that he is capable of greatness, too (think Mama Rose in Israel). Judas is fully aware of his normalcy, and is content to be an irrigation worker and one of Jesus’ disciples. But his mother’s persistent nagging and prodding eventually leads to the inevitable.

What sounds like a great premise—both a funny twist on a familiar story and a cautionary tale about overbearing parenting—is executed rather blandly in Judas & Me. The songs aren’t memorable and the truly laugh-out-loud moments are few. And the story that’s being skewed isn’t skewed enough to really become it’s own. Thinking back on the performance, I wish they had created a sort of “behind the scenes” story that would fit into the Bible story we’re already so familiar with (only the basest of Bible knowledge is required to fully comprehend Judas & Me). A structure similar to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead would have served the show better, where we would see everything from the point of view of characters we’re familiar with, but don’t know well, filling in parts of the story that haven’t already been told. What could have been a clever, high-concept satire is instead played as an uninspired spoof.

The saving grace of this mediocre show is the acting talent. Barbara Walsh is Rheba (and was Joanne in the recent Broadway revival of Company), and she carries the production as best as she can with her quick wit and snappy retorts. She personifies everything hilarious and sad about those who can’t see anything other than how much greener things are on the other side. Leslie Kritzer is very funny as Gabriel, the no-nonsense angel who performs a rousing gospel number at the close of the first act. Ann Harada (of Avenue Q fame) is underused as Rheba’s overshadowed eldest child, but she produces some genuine laughs when she is featured. Nick Blaemire and Doug Kreeger, as Judas and Jesus, perform ably in roles that aren’t fully realized beyond the stereotypes of “reluctant loner” and “golden boy.”

It probably doesn’t help the plight of Judas & Me that I saw Fat Camp first, so I inevitably compared the two in my head, and Fat Camp came away the clear winner. I realize that shows in the NYMF are works in progress and not fully-realized productions, so a certain amount of slack cutting is expected. But when the entire point of the festival is to put your best foot forward, with hopes of being picked up by producers for a longer run, Judas & Me should have spent some more time developing a more distinctive concept. As it is now, it immediately fades into the back of your memory, along with every other “good, but not remarkable” show you’ve ever seen.

Bottom Line: While there are definitely worse shows to see, I doubt the goal of Judas & Me is to be seen as “just OK.” It stays very safely in the middle of the road, not taking enough risks to be either truly funny or satirical. With some reworking, it could be less of a moderately amusing Bible retelling, and become either a hilarious sacrilegious farce or a shrewd and subtle commentary about the importance of hearing all sides to a story.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Trailer Review: Toy Story 3

Opens: June 18, 2010

Website: Official Toy Story site

Starring: Voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, John Ratzenberger

My Review: Let’s just get one thing out of the way: I am a total Pixar fangirl and have felt varying degrees of love and admiration for everything they have created so far.

Now that that’s cleared up, here’s some not-shocking news: I’m really excited to see Toy Story 3! I really liked this past summer’s release, Up, but found it to be more serious and poignant in tone (was anyone not crying after that opening montage?), so I’m looking forward to seeing something a bit more lighthearted in Pixar’s next offering. And while sequels are usually equated with lazy filmmaking and pale in comparison to the original, Pixar already proved they know how to do a sequel right with 1999’s Toy Story 2, which I actually liked a bit better than the first one. Which reminds me of another famous movie trilogy with a superior second part: The Godfather. That’s right, I just compared a cartoon to The Godfather. Let’s just hope this part three doesn’t feature an overwrought Sofia Coppola death scene…

In the third Toy Story installment, Andy is all grown up and heading off to college. So where does that leave his roomful of toys? Donated to a daycare center, which is probably the toy equivalent of Hell. After having enough abuse from the toddler crowd, Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the toys decide to band together and make an escape. Where they’re escaping to, I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.

Would I Pay For It?: Definitely. I’ll even brave a theater full of children to see a Pixar movie on the big screen. I’ll just be sure to pack my angry eyes in case they get too rowdy.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Theater Review: Brighton Beach Memoirs

Location: Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st St., NY, NY

Website: Official The Neil Simon Plays site

Starring: Noah Robbins, Laurie Metcalf, Jessica Hecht, Santino Fontana, Alexandra Socha, Dennis Boutsikaris, Gracie Bea Lawrence

My Review: Even those who aren’t theater fans are familiar with playwright Neil Simon and his multitude of “slice of life” productions, many of which have also become movies and TV shows. He’s the man who’s responsible for The Goodbye Girl, Barefoot in the Park, The Out-of-Towners, Lost in Yonkers, and The Odd Couple. This fall, two of his iconic classics—Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound—are getting back to back revivals in the same theater.

Both plays feature the Jerome family in their simple Brooklyn home, their story told through the eyes and smart mouth of Eugene. In Brighton Beach Memoirs, it’s 1937 and Eugene is 15, dreaming of playing professional baseball for the Yankees, but worrying that his Jewish heritage will get in the way of any athletic aspirations. In the first act he unfolds the events of one particularly tense night in the Jerome household, with the second act following up a week later. There’s the issue of his cousin, Nora, wanting to quit school to be a professional dancer. Then his older brother Stanley is “this close” to losing his much-needed job. His younger cousin has a chronic health problem, his widowed aunt is working herself blind and in desperate need of a new husband, and his overbearing mother can’t keep from fretting over everyone. Everyone eagerly awaits the arrival of Jack the patriarch—who’s working two jobs to make ends meet—to resolve their various family squabbles, while Eugene observes and keeps a notebook of all the details, determined to be a writer if the whole baseball thing doesn’t work out.

Brighton Beach Memoirs isn’t really a plot-driven play; it’s a relationship-driven play. There isn’t a lot of action happening on stage, so if you’re looking for a high-energy night of theater, you’re likely to be bored. But if you appreciate well-crafted moments between characters and enjoy finding the nuances in their relationships, that’s where the heart and soul of this play lies. You get to see a day in the life of this family, which could be a day in the life of anyone’s family. You get to see the happy veneer that’s painted over strained relationships, the explosions that occur when that veneer cracks, and the inevitable, dutiful love and affection that comes from family discord—something that is both painfully funny and truthful to see mirrored from your own life and onto a stage. The play may take place in 1937 Brooklyn, but the issues of the Jerome family are the issues of most families today.

This particular production of Brighton Beach Memoirs is particularly well cast. Eugene has to routinely break the fourth wall, swaying from being in the play to narrating it to the audience. The entire show lies in the actor playing that role, which seems sort of unfair in a role that requires a young actor. But Noah Robbins handles the responsibility with aplomb, easily hopping in and out of the play and expertly portraying everything about being 15; the sass, the frustration, the confusion, the dreaming, and, of course, the horniness. Laurie Metcalf is undoubtedly the most well-known cast member, and as Kate, the Jerome family matriarch, she has the loving-yet-critical Jewish mother down, which can be either hilarious or heartbreaking, depending on how she decides to turn it. Her best moments are when she shares the stage with her sister, Blanche (played by Jessica Hecht, who will always be Carol’s lesbian lover from Friends in my eyes). After years of strained sisterly love, Blanche and her two daughters move into her sister’s home following the death of Blanche’s husband, and Kate’s desire to do right by her sister contesting with her pain and anger from their childhood creates some of the best—and most tense—moments of the show.

While this production isn’t perfect—the first act plods a bit and some of the blocking makes hearing the actors difficult—it’s still a testament to the talent of Neil Simon that Brighton Beach Memoirs has aged so well. Some of the cultural references are a bit dated, but family dynamics have seen precious little change over the years, which can make you want to both laugh and cry—often at the same time.

Bottom Line: There are times when the first act of Brighton Beach Memoirs drags along, but it’s laying all the groundwork for the more explosive second act, which is a great reward for your patience. The nimble cast brings the Jerome family to life, making them feel like an actual family, and one that you quite possibly know (or are a part of). Broadway Bound, which revisits the Jeromes 12 years later, begins playing in mid-November and utilizes the same cast (with a new actor playing an adult Eugene). Hopefully I’ll be able to see it and find out if the baseball career works out for him. My educated guess? Probably not.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Top 5 Movie Musicals I’ll Never Admit to Liking

I love musicals, both the stage and movie varieties. And while musicals in general have a polarizing effect on people (you either love them or hate them), even those who do like musicals have a few that they are embarrassed to admit they actually enjoy. While there are some movie musicals that are universally recognized as quality films (West Side Story, The Wizard of Oz, Chicago), there are many more that fall into the “guilty pleasure” category for various reasons, like personal embarrassment or for being…let’s just say “less than quality” (Bye Bye Birdie, Paint Your Wagon, Grease 2). Here are my top 5 movie musicals I’ll never admit to liking:

5. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999) – Yes, this musical is primarily geared toward children, so a certain amount of silliness is expected in any production of Joseph… But the 1999 straight-to-video version takes things to a whole new level of ridiculousness. For starters, it stars Donny Osmond, which should say enough. The fact that he’s shirtless for most of the show says the rest. The whole production is cheesy and campy and absolutely ludicrous. It’s also a lot of fun. The songs are bouncy and catchy, the acting is so over-the-top, and the scenery is straight from a Sunday School production of the show. I imagine the producers didn’t intend for it to be quite as hilarious as it is, but what they don’t know can’t hurt them, and heaven knows it entertains me.

4. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) – Most of the movie musicals that came out of the 1950s and ‘60s dialed the campiness to 11. But Seven Brides… isn’t just goofy, it’s insulting! A burly guy who lives in an isolated mountain cabin with his wild brothers goes into town with the sole purpose of finding a wife to come take care of them all. So he finds her, but neglects to mention she’ll be more of a house slave than anything else, then drops her in their mess of a house to fend for herself. Luckily she turns out to be a pretty tough broad, who can more than hold her own among a bunch of rough guys with limited social skills, eventually whipping them into shape and taking them into town to find brides of their own. It’s almost shameful to enjoy this musical, so whenever it’s on I have to turn off my 21st century feminist switch and take it at face value. Plus there’s the amazing barn-raising dance number, with the brothers performing like Olympic athletes and wearing color-coordinated outfits. How else would we keep track of which bride goes with which brother?

3. The Sound of Music (1965) – Quite possibly the cheesiest movie that features Nazis. Well, besides “The Producers,” but that was meant to be a comedy, which I’m 99.9% certain The Sound of Music was not. There are so many laughable elements in The Sound of Music: Julie Andrews whirling on a mountaintop, the Von Trapp children singing good-night to party guests, the “evil” baroness (and her eyebrows), the marionette number that comes out of nowhere, Christopher Plummer singing…I could go on and on. But somehow it all works, and I love it, and whenever it comes on TV and no-one is around, I watch it and sing along with all the songs, which I know by heart. Yes, that includes the puppet show song.

2. The Music Man (1962) – Ah, The Music Man…it contains a ridiculous premise and what is generally acknowledged as one of the worst show tunes ever written (“Shipoopi”). Oh, and an incredibly young Ron Howard lisps, dances, and sings poorly throughout the movie. But thanks to the charisma of Robert Preston, the voice of Shirley Jones, and their chemistry together, what could easily be a disaster of a musical (see the 2003 TV version starring Matthew Broderick) turns into an endearing and highly entertaining experience. But I still fast forward through the “Shipoopi” number. It’s truly that awful.

1. Funny Girl (1968) – My mother is, was, and will always be a Barbra Streisand fan. And I do, have, and will always enjoy being the occasional thorn in my mother’s side. Funny Girl is one of her favorite movies, so naturally that meant I had to grow up mocking it; doing poor impressions of Streisand’s voice, laughing at Omar Sharif’s lack of singing talent, and generally declaring it to be a bad movie. Which of course it’s not. Streisand is at her best in the role of Fanny Brice, the songs are beautiful, the story both funny and touching, and oh god, the costumes! But it is true that Sharif can’t sing, so there!

So there they are; the top 5 movie musicals I would never admit to liking, as it could possibly destroy my street cred as an educated musicals fan if this information got out. Not to mention my mother’s smug satisfaction at learning I don’t now, nor never have, think that Barbra Streisand is “the suck,” as I’ve so often claimed. So I’ll just continue to keep this information to myself and pray that none of my fellow musical geeks learn my shameful secret.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Theater Review: Fat Camp

Location: The Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, NY, NY

Website: Official NYMF site

Starring: Randy Blair, Ryah Nixon, Cale Krise, Larry Owens, Carly Jibson, Sarah Saltzberg, Clarke Thorell

My Review: The New York Musical Theatre Festival is currently underway, so you have limited time to check out dozens of new shows hoping to get noticed and offered bigger opportunities, be it some constructive advice from theater veterans, a run in a Broadway theater, or something in between. The festival has been compared to the Sundance Film Festival, and for good reason; both festivals give relatively unknown artists a chance to showcase their talents to a wide array of people that they would be unable to afford on their own. And much like at Sundance, the NYMF is a mixed bag; some performances show that there is incredible talent out there that just needs a break, while others show that there are good reasons why many artists remain unnoticed. Luckily for the plucky and highly entertaining musical Fat Camp, it falls solidly into the first group.

Fat Camp is a story about, well, fat camp. A group of teenagers in various stages of chubbiness head to Camp Overton (some voluntarily, others not so much) for a summer of sensible eating and routine exercise. Leading the pack is Robert, who doesn’t really care about his weight, but figures a summer at camp is better than a summer spent working at the Sunglass Hut with his hypercritical father. He immediately clashes with camp counselor Mike with his typical teen “you can’t make me” attitude, which makes him a star in the eyes of his fellow campers. Resident nice-but-shy girl Taylor is drawn to Robert’s dynamic personality, and when her sassy (and very loud) friend Daphne informs her that while boys may not notice them in the real world, “in here, we’re bangin’!”, she decides to take a chance and lets Robert know how she feels. Which all works out nicely, until counselor Mike (who’s still annoyed) throws a wrench into everyone’s enjoyable summer with a ploy that involves the aid of an obnoxious former fat kid camper, the world’s most awkward spying mission, and a neighboring cheerleading camp.

What struck me the most about Fat Camp was that while it was very funny, it also had a lot of heart. It would have been easy to let the show just become an endless string of fat jokes that we’ve all heard before, but instead it tells an actual story about a group of kids who happen to be overweight. They still deal with the same issues as every other teenager; annoying parents, unrequited crushes, bullies, longing to belong somewhere, and growing up enough to realize that it’s not all about them. Yes, there is a subplot about a candy smuggling operation, but since when has jonesing for candy only been a fat kid thing?

Randy Blair as Robert is the clear star of the show (as well as the writer) and plays the role of a teen overindulging in sudden popularity perfectly. As one of his posse members, Cale Krise is Anshel, who has to suffer the indignation of not only being fat, but also being as superdork (Star Wars references abound when Anshel is around and his mother actually follows him to camp to work in the cafeteria). But when he finds himself as a part of a group for the first time ever, his hilarious nerdy bliss is palpable to the audience. Ryah Nixon and Carly Jibson are Taylor and Daphne, who start as frenemies—smiling and laughing together, while each secretly declares the other one to be fatter than her—develop an actual friendship throughout the show, proving how important it is to always have someone who has your back. Another standout is Josh Segarra as Brent, a former fattie who is now all bulging biceps and defined abs who continues to attend Camp Overton (apparently for the sole purpose of torturing the new campers). Segarra relishes the role of playing an over-the-top teenage asshole, who—if you can bear to look back at high school—isn’t really that over-the-top after all.

The musical numbers are all well done, and while I don’t think the soundtrack will ever be a classic in showtune libraries, they serve the production well. Most of the music is very upbeat and catchy, and there are several high-energy dance numbers (the cast may be bigger than most other casts, but they can still move just as well). There really aren’t any standout tunes to bring mention to, as most are played more for laughs than poignancy, but while watching the show they fit flawlessly and work to both convey the characters’ feelings and move the plot along.

My only complaint about Fat Camp—and it’s a small one—is that Ryah Nixon, as camp sweetheart Taylor, is in no way fat. Yes, she’s meant to lose weight throughout the course of the show, but if that’s the route they want to stick with, they need to pad her up more at the beginning. From the first scene I was wondering why she was at Camp Overton as she’s merely a regular-sized girl with curves and breasts. And as a lifetime, card-carrying member of that particular group, I would never have shipped her off to fat camp.

Bottom Line: Fat Camp reminded me of The 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee, another excellent low-budget musical about a group of young misfits, who managed to work its way up to a Broadway theater. And if Spelling Bee found an audience, so can Fat Camp; it’s fun, it’s silly, it’s touching, and it’s a story anyone can relate to (even if weight isn’t your particular problem area). So catch it while you can during the festival, and hope that someone is smart enough to notice this band of misfits and give them a shot. They’re so much bigger than this festival (pun totally intended).

Friday, October 2, 2009

Movie Review: Whip It

Rated: PG-13

Website: Official Whip It site

Starring: Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Drew Barrymore, Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Alia Shawkat

My Review: Using my brilliant powers of being able to see into the future, I predict that the most common criticism of Whip It will be that it’s just another “misfit teen finding her place” movie. And to that I say, “True,” and “So what?” If you break every movie down to its most base elements, you can see that the same basic stories are constantly revisited; love is hard, heavy is the head that wears the crown, brilliance is often seen as madness, being a teenager sucks, etc. But as long as new movies continue to tell these base stories in original and inventive ways, as Whip It does, I don’t see the problem.

Bored to death in Bodeen, TX, and disinterested in the beauty pageants her mother pushes her into, Bliss (Ellen Page) is the perfect example of a teenager who desperately needs to find her own niche in the world. She’s a bit shy and awkward, and dresses sort of weird, but after a trip to a roller derby bout in big city Austin, things start to click into place. Determined, she dusts off her old Barbie skates and gets herself back into skating shape, ultimately landing a spot on the team and being rechristened as “Babe Ruthless.” Which of course has to be hidden from her mother, who would never approve, let alone understand. And while Bliss is loving her new derby family and the feeling of finally belonging somewhere, there’s a veteran derby girl who has no intention of letting a young upstart steal her glory on the track. And her new passion creates strain on her relationship with her best friend. And then there’s the inevitably fallout when her mother discovers that “I’m taking an SAT class” really means “I’m in the roller derby, kicking ass and taking names.”

So yes, this story has been done before. But here’s where Whip It gets it right:

  • Setting the story in the world of roller derby. Sports and the arts are the primary areas where teens in movies find their passion, but the roller derby is a very underrepresented activity (both in movies and real life). I didn’t even know the sport still existed until a few years ago! While it’s not as violent as it once was (it’s definitely a sport now, rather than a bloody free-for-all), it’s still a highly competitive and risky game. Derby girls need to be tough, fearless, skilled, quick on their feet, and as Bliss’s derby name says, ruthless. So if you get nothing else out of this movie, you’ll at least walk away knowing a bit more about a sport that many people aren’t even aware of.

  • Not falling into traditional teen angst traps. Of course a coming-of-age story is going to have some good old-fashioned angsty teen drama in it, but Whip It does a nice job of showing just enough so that you get the idea of how Bliss is feeling, without beating you over the head with it.

  • Showing that women care about more than men, weddings, and babies. While most will label Whip It as a “chick flick” (I wouldn’t), they have to at least concede it’s not the same type of chick flick we always see. It seems like every female-centric movie that’s released has to do with finding a man, planning the “perfect” wedding, or agonizing over having a baby/being a parent. And while there’s nothing wrong with these things, there is a bit more to life for most women. We have hobbies, interests, and passions that are all our own and have nothing to do with what filmmakers seem to think traditional women want. Sure, there’s a guy that Bliss thinks is oh-so cute, but he takes a backseat to her pursuit of her derby dreams.

  • Accurately portraying a female friendship. All too often in movies a close female friendship eventually dissolves into petty cattiness, all in the name of comedy. But it’s not funny. Or true to life. Bliss’s true-blue buddy is Pash (played by Alia Shawkat, who will be 40 and still known as “Maeby, from Arrested Development”), and the portrayal of their friendship is pretty spot-on. They’re loyal to each other, but they have disagreements. They support each other, but they don’t always understand the other’s motives. They laugh and act goofy together, but they’re sassy and mocking, too. A true friend is someone who will hold back your hair when you drunkenly hurl, tell you when you’re being a selfish bitch, and not allow justified hurt feelings to turn into a catfight. Why so few filmmakers find that middle ground between “precocious as hell” and “battle in the Thunderdome” when it comes to female friendships, I’ll never know, but Whip It finally shows that a friendship between two women isn’t all that different from a friendship between two men.

Drew Barrymore makes her directorial debut in Whip It (and costars as a hilarious derby girl who never passes up a good fight), and she’s off to a great start in this new career move. The scenes at the actual derby are the highlights of the movie, as you move from feeling like an audience member to one of the skaters on the track and back again. But the quieter, everyday moments also stick with you due to how genuinely they’re set up. At times the pacing feels a bit off; Bliss’s new love interest isn’t a huge part of the movie, but when he does show up he tends to slow the pace down enough to make you want to cry, “Get back to the derby!” And some of the shots are a bit too cliché, even for a teen movie like this (Bliss is feeling pensive and thoughtful as she stares into space, got it). But these are minor flaws in an otherwise very enjoyable movie. I look forward to whatever Barrymore has coming next; maybe something in the world of female boxing that’s less depressing than Million Dollar Baby. She’s already shown she knows how to throw (and take) a punch.

Bottom Line: Whip It revisits some familiar territory, but has plenty of new stuff to offer. It’s refreshing to see a movie about female empowerment that actually features empowered females from all walks of life. I was lucky enough to attend an advanced screening where Drew Barrymore showed up at the end to talk about her directorial debut. She obviously loved the source material, her castmates, the hard work she poured into the movie, and the message behind it all. If more filmmakers cared this much about what they create, maybe we could finally do away with the (sadly, true) stereotype that teen movies and “chick flicks” suck.