Friday, January 30, 2009
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Saturday, January 24, 2009
The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery hung its newest presidential portrait recently, and quickly found its caption in dispute. Every portrait allows 140 words, summing up the subject's presidency. The original caption included the phrase: "the attacks on September 11, 2001, that led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq . . ." A senator from Vermont was not pleased with the inference that there was a causal relationship between 9/11 and the Iraqi quagmire into which President Bush engulfed the nation. "When President Bush and Vice President Cheney misled our nation into the war in Iraq, they certainly cited the attacks on September 11, along with the equally specious claim that Iraq possessed vast arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. The notion, however, that 9/11 and Iraq were linked, or that one 'led to' the other, has been widely and authoritatively debunked." The Smithsonian agreed, and changed the wording on the caption to read, ". . . Bush found his two terms in office instead marked by a series of cataclysmic events: the attacks on September 11, 2001; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina; and a financial crisis during his last months in office." This adjustment sounds reasonable to me. Bush's tenure was indeed cataclysmic, and we will not be recovering from his presidency anytime soon.
The Obama Inauguration has stirred up a couple of brouhahas, one a lot nastier than the other. In his speech, the new president included "non-believers" in his description of the patchwork of America, and many right-wing black clergymen have protested. Though over 16 % of Americans describe themselves as "non-believers," those conservative men of God do not want these heretics included in any mention of American heritage. Of course, these are the same sort of bigots who raised a whole lot of hell, and a whole lot of money, to pass California's Prop 8, removing the marital rights of same-sex couples. Yet another example of how so many leaders of Organized Religion feel justified in trouncing the civil liberties of those who do not share their beliefs.
I wonder when it was, exactly, that Christianity became EXclusive, rather than INclusive...
I got a giggle over the revelation that classical performers Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman had pulled a Milli-Vanilli at the Obama Inauguration; they had pre-recorded their piece and were just "string sync-ing" for the cameras. (It reminded me of the production of Opus I did several years ago; we did the same thing, but never hid the fact.) The frigid weather was blamed in this case, and everyone agreed that keeping the piano in tune would have been impossible under the circumstances. But then, why the charade? Why not just pipe the pre-recorded selection through the speakers without the pretence? Or use those jumbo screens to show a video of the performers recording the piece?
Aretha Franklin certainly was not lip sync-ing, but even she admits perhaps she ought to have been. She was quoted immediately following her performance that she was very disappointed in her own work. The cold took a toll on the Queen of Soul, and she took an unfortunate breath at the very top of her rendition of "America," right between syllables: "My count-(breath)-try 'tis of thee..." Sing it aloud yourself, and you'll discover the misfortune.
On the bright side, her performance seemed to be upstaged by her hat.
(update, 2/6/09: Aretha has made a quick trip to the studio to record a "preferred version" of her inaugural song, which will soon be available as an alternative to her live take)
I wrote a while ago about Jeremy Piven bolting from his Broadway commitment to Speed-the-Plow. More of the story has now come out. The show opened in early October to good reviews, but according to the producers, Piven immediately started making noise about leaving the show before its scheduled closing in late February. The production schedule was adjusted to accommodate Piven's attendance at the Golden Globes in Los Angeles. As soon as those plans were finalized, Piven informed the producers that he would not be returning to the show after the awards. Arrangements were made for William H. Macy to replace Piven during the show's final few months. Many weeks prior to his departure to attend the Golden Globes, with no notice whatsoever, Piven bolted from Speed-the-Plow, citing a dangerous level of mercury in his system. Too much sushi between shows or something. Macy was not available to take over the part that early, so the understudy played Piven's role while the producers scrambled for a higher profile replacement. Norbert Leo Butz, a Tony-winning Broadway favorite, assumed the role, giving several performances carrying the script. But the box office dropped dramatically in the absence of the Emmy-winning Piven.
This week, the show's producers filed a grievance against Piven with Actors Equity.
The story of Piven deserting his stage commitment is probably not getting much traction in middle America (you know, those people who think Muslims, Hindus, and non-believers should not be included in a presidential speech), but it's getting lots of attention among theatre folk. Here's an hilarious parody aimed directly at Piven, to the Pal Joey tune, "Zip."
I don't get HBO, so I do not watch Piven's show Entourage, but I enjoyed him as a regular on Ellen Degeneres's sitcom a decade or so ago. But he's giving the "TV Star Turned Broadway Actor" group a bad name, if it ever had a good one (remember Kelsey Grammer's disastrous Macbeth?). Recently, Katie Holmes, Christina Applegate, and Jennifer Garner have all graced the New York boards, and have acquitted themselves well. I'm not the first person to guess Piven was unpleasantly surprised by the challenge of 8 shows a week, requiring vastly more energy and focus than a TV series. Kristen Chenoweth, one of the rare stars who moves easily from TV to stage, warned other film stars who consider hitting Broadway during their downtime that the stage will "kick your ass."
Friday, January 23, 2009
What a week it's been, for the whole country, even the world, but especially for those of us who live in DC. An amazing, historic week, which deserves to be honored any way we can. It's time for a respectful, hopeful, and most of all, dignified tribute to a new era of competence and inspiration.
The story goes that May was wandering around the studio one day when someone said, "Go over and see Irwin Allen. He needs somebody to wear a robot suit." That day, a star was born. Though May did not furnish the voice of Lost in Space's robot, he turned those accordion arms and claw hands, not to mention the bubble head, into an endearing character. After a year or so on the air, it was apparent that what was envisioned as an ensemble show had three break-out stars. Jonathan Harris's portrayal of Dr. Smith, originally a villainous saboteur whose actions caused the space travelers to veer hopelessly off-course, evolved into a masterfully comic performance. Billy Mumy, as Will Robinson, the youngest astronaut in history, provided Harris with a grounded counterweight. And Bob May's Robot (voiced by Dick Tufeld, who deserves equal credit) became the comic foil. The chemistry between the three performers was undeniable, and in its later years, the majority of episodes of Lost in Space centered around this trio.
So, with due respect for the momentous events of the week, and recognizing that monumental change is on the way for all of us, please enjoy this homage to Lost in Space:
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Star Wars: Retold (by someone who hasn't seen it) from Joe Nicolosi on Vimeo.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Mortimer was knighted in 1998, and since 2004, was a legal consultant on Boston Legal. His surviving children include actress Emily Mortimer (Point Blank).
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Remember his 1981 sci-fi flick Escape from New York? I confess I never saw the thing, but it made a significant splash, and turned the formerly clean-cut, white-bread, Disney-cultivated Kurt Russell into, well, an actor. I know it concerns a future (1997!) where the island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison. It's completely walled-in and cut off from the rest of the world.
Beginning this weekend, and lasting through Inauguration Day, DC will resemble that movie, though we hope without the marauding gangs (I wouldn't mind if Kurt shows up, though). Signs have already been posted announcing severe parking restrictions throughout the city. I mean SEVERE. As in NO PARKING ANYWHERE. 50 city blocks are being shut down to all vehicular traffic, except charter buses and limousines, natch. All the bridges leading into the city from Virginia will be off-limits to personal cars, to make enough room for buses arriving from all over the country. For up to 24 hours and more, downtown will effectively be cut off from the rest of the world. Security concerns are playing a part, but officials are claiming that it is the sheer numbers expected for the Big Day (anywhere from 1-3 million people!) that are causing such draconian measures.
Apparently, this inauguration breaks with tradition in that, for the most part, official events require reservations or tickets in advance. The only major event which is completely open to the public takes place Sunday afternoon, when a huge line-up of stars will be performing at the Lincoln Memorial. Well, the concert is open to anyone who can squeeze themselves onto the Mall. It is not being broadcast for all the world to see. HBO paid a pretty penny to lock up television rights to the event (the Obama people are getting some flack about that, as others believe it is an event of national significance and thus should be on a feed available to all networks. There is some logic to that; though HBO is sending it out for free, if you don't have cable, which about 30% of the country does not, you'll be missing it).
I'll be home, watching the pomp on television, secure in the knowledge that it is a momentous occasion, and knowing I can always claim to have been in DC during the most historic inauguration since such things were invented.
Friday, January 16, 2009
Thursday, January 15, 2009
"Be seeing you."
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
I never watched the Mickey Mouse Club, which had faded away by the time I was old enough to watch TV. So, I never heard of this lady, but as she was part of the ensemble which included Annette Funicello and Cubby (I don't know who that is, either, I just like the name: Cubby), she deserves a mention. After her childhood success, Cheryl Holdridge continued to perform on television in her young adult years, on programs such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, Leave It To Beaver, My Three Sons, and Bewitched. She died this week at the age of 64.
I do remember this guy. Jon Hager was the surviving member of the Hager Twins, a country duo who did not earn lasting fame. But I remember them clearly from the 70s. As young musicians, they snagged jobs at Disneyland, and were spotted by Buck Owens, who invited them to tour in his act. In 1969, Owens was pegged to host Hee Haw, which was sort of a country-western answer to Laugh-In. The Hagers accompanied Owens to television, and spent 19 years on the show. After its early seasons, CBS, in an attempt to become more cosmopolitan, cancelled all of its shows with a rural aura, including hits Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Hee Haw. The show continued in syndication with great success.
Though initially hired as a musical act, Hee Haw producers soon discovered the Hagers had a gift for light comedy. They were a huge hit with the female viewers, and served as a counterpoint to the Hee Haw Honeys, a group of nubile ladies in scanty country attire. As I'm writing this, I can't believe I remember so much about this show, which was truly horrendous. In retrospect, I think the Hager Brothers may have been my first celebrity crush (sorry, John-Boy), though I was too young to realize it. And really, with thinning hair and a questionable fashion sense, I have no idea today why I was attracted to these guys.
...well, okay, maybe I do know why...
Jim Hager died in May of '08, and his brother Jon never really recovered. They had spent their entire lives together, and as it's said that when one long-term spouse dies, the other follows soon, so it is with this set of twins. Jon Hager died this week at the age of 67.
Here's an actor who spent his career "in support," and admirably so. Steven Gilborn was one of those character actors who worked so often, for so long, that everyone on the street recognized him. They just never knew his name. (To my shame, neither did I, until he died.) His list of film and TV credits is too long to mention, even as he became an actor relatively late in life, after earning a doctorate in dramatic literature and teaching at various high-end universities. He had substantial success in television in the 70s, 80s, and beyond. He may be remembered as the befuddled father of Ellen, the sitcom which introduced middle America to lesbianism, Jeremy Piven, and puppies. But I remember him quite fondly from his guest stint on The Wonder Years. He played the algebra teacher who tortured young Kevin for three episodes, using rigid discipline to get the best out of the kid. At the end of the story-arc, Mr. Collins disappeared from the classroom; the students later learned he had been struggling with cancer and died. Gilborn himself succumbed to cancer at the age of 72.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Every theatre geek's gotta love this clip from SNL, but as I was giggling through it, I wondered what the heck oldsters like The Music Man and Annie were doing in the sketch. Where was Simba the Lion King? Where was Ursula the Seawitch? Where was Mary Poppins, or Beauty, or the Beast? These are all easily identifiable musical characters which would have helped Middle America enjoy this very Manhattan-centric skit. Oh, but all those characters are owned by Disney.
Remember that most infamous of Oscar broadcasts? The one where Rob Lowe serenaded Snow White? Disney claimed ownership of Snow's image, and went to court over copyright infringement. Somebody at NBC is clearly on the lookout to avoid such costly litigation. Looks like the Peacock bowed to the Mouse...
ah well, who cares. The sketch is still a hoot:
Saturday, January 10, 2009
I've been curious about the musical Grey Gardens since the great Christine Ebersole made such a splash with the original on Broadway. I've listened to the score several times, but I can now attest that the music plays better in the theatre than on record. Studio Theatre is presenting the area premiere, in a version which, out of spacial necessity, is scaled down. But the performances are terrific, particularly DC's own Jenna Sokolowski. Her Act One role of Little Edie makes almost no impression on the original cast recording, but in the theatre, the character, as played by Sokolowski, is a major presence. Score one for the home team.
As I said, everybody's good, but the second act is pretty much swiped by Barbara Broughton as Big Edie. She's clearly having a ball. The cast is headed by the great Barbara Walsh in the Ebersole role(s). Walsh is another of those well-respected Broadway performers who would probably have graduated to national stardom in a different generation. Because that kind of thing does not happen nowadays, her fame is restricted to the theatre community. I had heard her name for years, and finally saw her in the video of the Company revival (you know, the one where everybody carried around a trombone). In that one, I was suitably impressed by her work as Joanne, a role which, for a lot of people, cannot be played effectively by anyone except its originator, Elaine Stritch. But Walsh made the role her own, and, at least for me, was able to put her own stamp on the show's most famous song, Ladies Who Lunch. Here in Grey Gardens, she is doing a bang-up job, but I got the feeling that, the afternoon I was there, she was disturbed by something, or in a bad mood, or...something. Just a feeling that she had not jumped headfirst into her dual roles that day, that she was not having any fun. Ah well, whatever the problem was, the show was a good one, and director Serge Seiden did a terrific job fitting a large scale musical on his small stage.
Across the river on Arena Stage's temporary stage, there's another gal in need of some therapy. Next to Normal had a production in New York a while back, and the authors have been tinkering. This version is riveting; I don't know when I've admired a new musical so thoroughly. It's a simple story of a family dealing with grief, sort of Rabbit Hole, 15 Years Later, With Music. These writers really sucked me in, and the rest of the crowd too, so when the "reveal" happened, there were audible gasps in the audience. The performers sang the heck out of the score, which was pretty relentless, reflecting the tortured feelings of these characters. I am no judge of music, but I can report that the lyrics are clear and clean and rip at your heart. I attended a noon matinee, so the house was not at all full, and as I have noticed often with noon matinees, the star was absent. Alice Ripley, who was a standout in the Company which the Kennedy Center produced several years ago, has been playing the central role of the mother, but, as I said, she was out the day I caught the show. The understudy was absolutely fine, but I have a hunch there might have been an extra sparkle had Ripley been there. No matter, the show is extremely well cast, mostly with hold-overs from the Off-Broadway production. Aaron Tveit stands out as the teen-age son, darting up and down the three story set while belting out the rock-tinged numbers. He effectively oversees a lot of the action, and is a terrific "observer." (He looks pretty good in those boxers, too.) But the heroic performance is being given by J. Robert Spencer as the Dad. He is playing the least flamboyant character in the piece, so had the harder time of it. But his "recognition" scene with his son is so powerfully played, so powerfully sung, that I lost it. I admit I had been crying well before that moment, but at that instant, well, just shoot me now. Fathers and Sons and all that. The show, as I said, is pretty relentless, but is handled with a lot of dark humor which makes the piece very enjoyable. This endeavor deserves to have a future life. Any show that can make a musical number out of electro-shock therapy is a keeper in my book.
(update: 2/24/09: Next to Normal has announced a Broadway production, including the entire Arena Stage cast, to open April 15 at the Booth)
Friday, January 9, 2009
This week was Elvis’s birthday, the perfect time to celebrate The King with a clip from one of his swivel-hipped performances. But not here. I wrote last week of my desire “to dance” this year, and Presley never inspired me to do so. But a goofy little musical called “Hairspray” did, and still does. The show closed on Broadway this week after a hefty run (see entry below), and I cannot listen to this big finale without wanting to get up and twist. The above montage celebrates the film version, which seems to be a pretty fair translation of the show (I’ve never seen it live, but Edna Turnblat is now on My List...one day...)
You can’t stop the beat.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Nobody really wants to see White Christmas anytime other than during the holidays, do they? I wouldn't think so (though the show has been making the rounds in the regions for several years, and not always at Christmas). I've written a bit about my love of the film, but I wouldn't mind seeing the stage version; I may yet get my chance, as the show's box office overcame lukewarm reviews to become a bona fide hit. I imagine it will be making return visits to New York in upcoming years. Another seasonal show closed this month, an entertainment centered around some Russian clowns. The show, Slava's Snowshow, had a successful run off-Broadway last year, and made the leap uptown this year. I read almost nothing about this piece, so who knows if it will be back.
Two more limited run shows are closing this month. Liza Minnelli returned to Broadway and wowed the critics with her stamina, her drive, and her attendance (like most of her career, she missed a few performances on doctor's orders, but graciously added shows to make up for it). I saw Liza at Radio City many years ago; she was on her decline at that point, and shouted the songs. This year, though, she seems to have made it work for her.
The All My Sons revival was also a financial success, and the stage debut of Mrs. Tom Cruise may have had a little something to do with that. Katie Holmes got mixed reviews, from what I read, but she was surrounded by real pros, and I've heard from folks who saw the play that it was terrific. I have a lot of respect for TV actors who return to the stage (John Lithgow, also in the show, is one of them), but I have absolutely no respect for producers who hire TV names for marquee value, without regard for their ability to actually deliver a performance. Ms. Holmes had never been on a stage before. I wonder what's next: Tori Spelling as Hedda Gabler?
The other straight play which is closing this month is Boeing-Boeing, a revival of a 60s flop which has been running for about a year. I would have loved to see this one, as the original cast included Christine Baranski, Bradley Whitford, and a Brit who is apparently a comic genius, Mark Rylance. A national tour is in the works, according to their website. I read an interview with one of the producers of the show, and was reminded that, in the old days, plays were really only meant to last a season, then tour a season, then disappear. Broadway economics eventually put a stop to that, and now a show has to run and run and run to turn a profit. Anyway, doesn't this show look fun?
Spring Awakening, 2007's Tony winner for Best Musical, definitely seems to be a victim of the economy. It received very good press, and though I've never heard the score, I certainly heard ABOUT the score, from the guys in the dressing room at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre. When I was there during the summer of '07, all of them were enamored of this show about youth and sexual tension. I doubt I'll ever see this piece, as I have it on good authority that people in my generation just don't get it.
Another musical about youth and sexual tension bit the dust this week. This umpteenth revival of Grease was a little unusual, as the leading players were chosen on a Reality TV Competition. Apparently they were pretty good, but did we really need yet another revival of that warhorse? When we have yet to see a revival of A Little Night Music? I was in a summer stock production of Grease back in the 80s (in fact, I earned my Equity card playing Teen Angel), so I can state without hesitation that the show is more fun to be in than to watch. (Off the top of my head, I think Godspell and The Lion in Winter also fall into that category. Lots of fun to perform, not so much fun to attend.)
And while we're talking about winners of Reality Show Competition, it's worth noting that American Idol's most famous loser, Clay Aiken, returned to Spamalot for its final performances. I have enjoyed listening to the score of this long-running hit, but was never a Monty Python fanatic, so never took the time or money to see the national tours as they rumbled through DC. This show may just have run out of steam, rather than being an economic victim, as it's been running since 2004.
The longest running show to be closing this month is Hairspray, which won lots of Tonys back in 2003, and topped 2600 performances before closing last week. Original stars Harvey Fierstein and Marisa Jaret Winokur returned to close the show, and composer Marc Shaiman clearly blamed the economic downturn for the show's demise. "It's not like the show was ailing," he complained, "it's like putting a dog to sleep, not because he's sick, but because you can't afford the dog food." Still, the show had a phenomenal run, and clocks in as the 19th longest running show in Broadway history. It's actually a tribute to the piece that it continued to run several years after the film version was released.
The biggest budgeted Broadway Musical to be closing is Young Frankenstein (excuse me, I mean The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein, the actual title. He has no ego, has he?) The New York Times ran a piece as soon as this show posted its closing notice, regarding the fact that the Broadway community will not be sorry to see this monster go. The hubris of charging 400 bucks a ticket may have caught up with the producers, and the Times review was very very poor. Still, the show hung on for a year, and I'm sorry that its star, Roger Bart, did not receive better notices. He may be one of those actors who are just better "in support."