Sunday, December 30, 2012

'Les Misérables' the Movie: One Theater Geek's Opinion

Les Misérables was the first musical I ever fell in love with.
Growing up 80 miles north of New York City, trips to see Broadway shows were just a quick bus or train ride away. While in elementary school, my mother and I had taken trips to see some family-friendly fare, like Meet Me in St. Louis and Peter Pan, but when I was in 6th grade a bus trip to go see Les Misérables was arranged. I was dying to go; not because I knew anything about the production, but because I simply wanted to go see another show. But Broadway theater tickets aren't cheap (not then, not now), and my mother was concerned that I was too young to fully understand and appreciate the rather adult themes and emotions Les Misérables presents. So she did the unthinkable: She went without me.

And even though now I can see that she was right—a lot of the show probably would have been over my 10-year-old head—I can still very clearly remember the sting of this denial. But after seeing Les Misérables herself and determining I would probably enjoy the music, my mother conceded to buy me the cast album (on cassette!).

For the next year I played the crap out of that tape. I learned all the songs by heart, and my angsty pre-teen heart thought that "On My Own" was simply the best song ever composed (the fact that every boy I was crushing on at the time had the audacity to be indifferent toward me just added fuel to this fire). I eventually wore that tape out and had to purchase another one. By the time that one wore out, I had made the transition to CDs, so I bought the two-disc Original Broadway Cast (OBC) album and discovered to my delight that it had even more songs than the cassette (which was more of a "best of" compilation). I lost no time learning these "new" songs.

When I was in high school another bus trip opportunity to see Les Misérables came along, and this time I was going. I was slightly worried that all the years of anticipation would inevitably lead to disappointment, but fortunately, it was everything I had hoped it would be. The music! The singing! The many, many emotions! The spinning stage! It couldn't have been more wonderful.

I made a trip to NYC to see Les Misérables again while in college, and saw the revamped 25th anniversary touring production a couple of years ago (no more spinning stage, alas). And while I still loved the show, I could finally admit that it's not without flaws. There are so many storylines that many of them get shortchanged and feel rushed (and if you've ever seen the size of the tome the musical is based on, you know that there's already a ton of content that got left out). And some of the songs are less than stellar and/or ridiculously overwrought (I'm looking at you, "A Heart Full of Love").

When I first heard that a movie version of the musical Les Misérables was in the works, I was pretty worried. While I've been enjoying the recent resurgence of the movie musical, most of them haven't translated well to the screen. Then the first stills from the movie were released, and I thought, "Hm...that looks pretty good." Then the teaser trailer with Anne Hathaway singing "I Dreamed a Dream" in a way no one had heard before came out, and I thought, "Hm...that sounds pretty good." (I never understood how that song became a power ballad anyway; did no one ever actually listen to the lyrics?) Then I saw that extended look featurette (before watching Looper, of all movies), and I was no longer worried. Once the movie tickets were on sale, I pre-purchased to see it opening day (aka, Christmas Day).

Much like the stage production, Les Misérables the movie is not without issues. The pacing in certain places feels very off as scenes change before you've fully processed what just happened. The constant zoomed-in close-ups during the big solo songs are jarring, unnecessary, and just add to the pacing issue as they slow the movie way down. And Russell Crowe was woefully miscast as Javert. He casts a formidable presence, which is good, but his singing voice lacks anything resembling gravitas or intimidation, which is...not great. (Though this may not be entirely his fault; after over two decades of listening to the OBC album, the phenomenal Terrence Mann will probably always be the one and only Javert for me.)

But, again, much like the stage production, I still loved the movie, flaws and all. Seeing everything unfold close-up heightens the various emotional impacts, and being able to clearly see the dirty French streets and the desperation in the characters' eyes made me realize for maybe the first time just what a stone-cold bummer of a musical Les Misérables is (and yes, I know what "les misérables" translates to in English, thank you very much). The distance from the stage when in a theater audience, where the actors have to project every song to reach 1,000+ people, can make it easy to miss what exactly is being said and happening to these characters. The movie offers no such buffer, so you see, hear, and feel everything at its full capacity, making it the perfect movie to take someone who claims all musicals are silly, cheesy, happy song-and-dance fests with no substance.

Much has been made about director Tom Hooper's decision to have the actors sing live while being filmed, rather than relying on pre-recorded tracks, and while it's not a revolutionary tactic for musicals in general, it is for movie musicals, and it really works. It doesn't sound as polished as pre-recorded tracks would, but if any musical would benefit from raw, live singing, Les Misérables is it.

Russell Crowe aside, the rest of the cast is excellent. Hugh Jackman successfully transforms himself throughout the various stages of Jean Valjean's life, Anne Hathaway knocks it out of the park, Eddie Redmayne finally made me understand why he's considered one of the hot young actors, and Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are the perfect choices for the comic relief Thénardiers. I was especially impressed with Aaron Tveit—who I have never heard of before, and according to IMDB is from my hometown!—as Enjolras, the leader of the student rebels, a role that is often pushed aside on the stage, but is made impossible to ignore by Tveit.

Luckily, cinematic perfection isn't a requirement to making great, effective movies. Les Misérables is a powerhouse of a musical on the stage, and it still holds its own on the screen. Now if Tom Hooper would like to take a stab at translating Miss Saigon into a movie, my inner teenage theater geek will simply be beside herself with glee. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Quest for the Best: Best Buns Bread Company

Location: 4010 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA

Website: Official Best Buns site

Price: $3 per cupcake

Atmosphere: Small, bustling bakery. There's limited seating in the front window, but with all the activity going on at the registers, it's best to get your treats to go.

My Review: After exploring the various cupcake options in New York City, now that I've relocated to the DC Metro area, I decided to see what sort of cupcakes there were to have here. My first stop was to the well-reviewed Best Buns Bread Company.

Located in the cute Shirlington Village--which is essentially a restaurant row with a few small shops (and a theater)--Best Buns is your quintessential bakery. You can pick up a whole loaf of bread in any number of flavors, a danish and a cup of coffee in the morning, a soup and sandwich combo for lunch, and a cookie or a cupcake whenever. Despite the allure of their sticky buns and monkey bread, I was on a mission to try out their cupcakes (during this initial trip, anyway).
Best Buns' cupcakes are huge--roughly the size of a baseball I'd say, if I knew anything about sports. Well, they're bigger than a golf ball, but smaller than a basketball, which I know for certain! At $3 a pop, they had better be a generous size. I picked up a half dozen variety of flavors to bring to a birthday party, but managed to get at least a taste of each one.

My initial reaction to the basic vanilla and chocolate-based cupcakes were that they were good, but not really remarkable. The peanut butter frosting on the Chocolate Peanut Butter was tasty--not too much like straight peanut butter, but not too much like straight frosting--but the chocolate cake reminded me of the relatively decent cake you can get out of a box mix. And while I have no real issue with the good people at Duncan Hines, or the memories of grade school birthday parties their cakes evoke, I expect something a bit more special and unique from a professional bakery.

I had the same response to the Vanilla cupcake--good, but kind of generic--but the vanilla buttercream frosting was smooth and creamy and not cloyingly sweet. The Toffee and Coconut cupcakes had the same basic chocolate cake base with tasty frostings and toppers. The Chocolate Ganache could have used a slightly softer ganache frosting, and I would have loved some kind of filling. Though I may just be longing for the Chocolate Ganache cupcake from Eleni's in NYC (with its buttercream filling), which is probably my favorite cupcake of all time.

The true star at Best Buns is it's Carrot Cake cupcake. The cake is moist and filled with real chunks of carrot, coconut, and walnuts. And the best part of all--no raisins! Raisins are the scourge of the earth and shouldn't be put in anything, especially something as divine as carrot cake. The cream cheese frosting on the carrot cake was really well-balanced with just the right blend of sugary sweetness and cream cheese tang.

Bottom Line: Best Buns' cupcakes are a bit pricey at $3 each, but they are generously large. Their vanilla and chocolate cakes are relatively generic for a professional bakery, but the carrot cake is worth a repeat visit. I'll probably pair it with a sticky bun or some monkey bread, rather than other cupcakes, next time. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Theater Review: Peter and the Starcatcher

Location: Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, NY, NY

Website: Official Peter and the Starcatcher site

Starring: Christian Borle, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Adam Chanler-Berat, Kevn Del Aguila, Rick Holmes, Arnie Burton

My Review: Fun fact: Peter Pan was one of the first Broadway musicals I ever saw roughly 20 years ago (and it starred Cathy Rigby, who is currently playing the role again in a new national tour, which I suppose speaks more to what incredible shape she's in rather than proving that I am not getting old). It was never one of my favorite shows, but it always held a special place in my heart for being one of my earlier introductions to the wonderful world of live theater. So I was excited to check out this new Peter Pan theatrical experience, Peter and the Starcatcher.

Based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, Peter and the Starcatcher is the unauthorized origin story of Peter Pan. Father and daughter team Lord Aster and Molly are on a sea voyage with a trunk that is mysteriously referred to as "the Queen's treasure" (the Queen in this case being Victoria). Through a series of events, Lord Aster and Molly wind up on separate ships, one of which has the actual treasure trunk and the other equipped with a decoy. While taking an ill-advised tour of her ship, Molly stumbles upon a group of orphans who have been sold into slavery, one of which is a nervous, shy boy who has no name and simply goes by "Boy." Meanwhile, the flamboyant, yet feared, pirate Black Stache hears about the treasure and overtakes Lord Aster's ship with his band of followers, determined to steal the treasure for himself.

Unfortunately, the treasure is with Molly on her ship and isn't the gold and jewels the pirates have envisioned; it's a trunk full of "starstuff" that Molly and her father as starcatchers have collected. These magical remains of shooting stars hold great power and anyone who comes into contact with some of it will be turned into whatever they desire most. Since such magic would be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands, Lord Aster is planning to destroy it once they reach their destination: The volcano Mt. Jalapeño. Once Black Stache and his pirates destroy Molly's ship in an effort to get the treasure, the whole lot of them wind up on a desert island where Molly and the orphans scramble to protect the treasure while the pirates follow in hot pursuit.

While an enjoyable evening at the theater, I was surprised by how unexciting Peter and the Starcatcher was. Whether or not you're a fan of the original Peter Pan tale, I don't think anyone would ever accuse it of being dull. But the story of how Boy became Peter Pan left a lot to be desired. Part of the problem may be what a small part he plays. Molly is a far more central character and Black Stache steals the show from everyone whenever he appears. Boy is barely even a substantial character until the second Act when he is temporarily separated from the rest of his party. And when he is treated like an actual character, he's not a very interesting one.

Played by Adam Chanler-Berat, Boy is incredibly whiny and weak-willed, and while this is meant to be an origins story, it's hard to imagine how this sad, nervous boy has any potential to turn into the spirited, adventure-seeking Peter Pan. Celia Keenan-Bolger as Molly (whose put-upon childlike British accent goes from charming to grating in about three minutes) is far more interesting and exciting, though while the implication is that her influence rubs off on Boy, we never actually see that happen. We're just meant to assume that when Boy and Molly inevitably part ways, he'll grow to be more like her.

The true star of the show is Christian Borle as pirate captain Black Stache (a pre-hook Captain Hook). Borle has recently gained some more mainstream fame from the TV show Smash, but his roots are in the theater and he really gets to show what he does best in this role. He plays Black Stache as an over-the-top diva, but with an edge of instability, so he's unnerving enough to not be seen as a total joke. A master at physical comedy, Borle jumps, stomps, flails, and flops about the stage, energetically throwing himself into every ridiculous ploy Black Stache devises in order to steal the treasure.

Bottom Line: A play that doesn't really gain any steam until Act II, Peter and the Starcatcher is an origins story that has a lot of potential, but makes too many assumptions about where things will go from where its story ends and Peter Pan begins. Yes, Boy does learn to crow by the end, but no one really believes it. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Theater Review: Once

Location: Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, NY, NY

Website: Official Once website 

Starring: Steve Kazee, Cristin Milioti, David Abeles, Will Connolly, Elizabeth A. Davis, David Patrick Kelly, Anne L. Nathan, Andy Taylor

My Review: I’m not a romantic person by nature (understatement of the year), but something about Once just gets to me. I’ve seen the 2006 movie dozens of times and get emotional over it at every viewing, like I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen at every moment. Now Once has been translated into a stage musical that, after a successful run Off-Broadway, has made its way to a Broadway theater, and I have a whole new entertainment experience to get all teary-eyed about.

Set in Ireland and based on the small independent movie of the same name (and Academy Award winner for Best Song), Once tells the story of a brokenhearted Irish street musician (known simply as Guy) who meets a Czech girl (known as, yup, Girl). Guy’s been recently dumped by a woman who fled to New York with someone else, and reacts by pouring all his anger and pain into his music. Girl sees him performing and informs him that if he plays those songs for his lost love, he’ll win her back. Girl is also a musician herself and comes up with the idea that with Guy on guitar and lead vocals, her on piano singing backup, and a few additional musicians, they could record a demo tape that he could take on his trip to New York to get his music career off the ground. So they set out to make this dream a reality, and attempt to push aside those pesky feelings that they’re starting to develop for each other in the process. 

Being so familiar with the source material, it’s impossible for me to talk about Once the stage musical without comparing it to Once the movie. So I’m not even going to try. While I didn’t find the stage musical to be quite as charming and touching as the movie, it was still an excellent night at the theater. While I was expecting some tweaks and changes from the movie, one of the most jarring edits were those made to the Girl character. In the movie she’s supportive and determined, but without being pushy or abrasive; in the stage musical, she’s pushy to the point that the show becomes more her story than Guy’s. In the beginning she basically berates Guy to play his music for her and demands that he go to New York to win back his ex, despite his initial lack of desire to do either of those things. It also doesn’t help that Cristin Milioti barks her various orders at him with a very thickly laid on European accent (if it’s anything close to a Czech accent, I couldn’t say, but it sounds nothing like the Girl in the movie, who is played by Czech musician Markéta Irglová).

The beloved folksy rockish songs of the movie are present and still as emotionally resonant as ever. The cast doubles as the orchestra, playing their instruments out on the open stage for each musical number, and even entertain the audience with some rollicking Irish tunes before the curtain goes up (metaphorically, since there actually isn’t any curtain). In an effort to expand the stage musical from the 85-minute long movie, some additional songs are added (penned by the original movie composers Glen Hansard and Irglová), and while they were enjoyable at the time, I’m hard-pressed to remember much about them now.

In another attempt to expand the show to Broadway musical length, minor characters are given more to do. Instead of merely allowing Guy and Girl to use his showroom pianos, the music shop owner actively engages with them and becomes part of their demo recording band. As does the bank manager who grants them a loan to pay for the recording session. Girl now also has a group of Czech roommates who are primarily used for comic effect as they are learning to speak English from a torrid Irish soap opera. While these character additions aren’t detrimental to the story, I wish they had remained in the background so as not to periodically steal focus from Guy and Girl, who are the heart and soul of the whole operation (even if it meant having a short show and forfeiting the need for an intermission).

Bottom Line: While it occasionally dips into the well of overly simplified bon mots (there’s some nonsense about “never leaving unfinished love behind” that gets bandied about), Once is still a charming tale told with fantastic music about that rare and magical occurrence of genuine human connection. Just maybe make Girl a bit less of an emotional bulldozer going forward.