Friday, June 22, 2012

Friday Dance Party: Meryl At The Palace

It's been close to four years since the Friday Dance Party first appeared in these pages, and I astonish myself that I have yet to celebrate the finest actress of our time with her own party. 

I will fix that today, on the occasion of Meryl Streep's 63rd birthday. (SIXTY THIRD???? You gotta be kidding me.)  Our Meryl has delivered more than a few musical items over the years, but she is certainly not known as a musical star. She is, though, considered the most accomplished actress in the English language, and I second that emotion.
Streep has the ability to take a seemingly one-note character, and bring tremendous depth, as here, in The Devil Wears Prada.
Streep has been popping up on media outlets a bit this week, to celebrate a birthday not her own. 
This week, Streep and Kevin Kline read Romeo and Juliet,
as a fundraiser for their alma mater, NY Shakespeare Festival.

The Delacorte Theatre in Central Park turns 50 years old this week, and as it has been home to the New York Shakespeare Festival all that time, famous alumni have been interviewed to mark the event.  Meryl has appeared in a handful of plays there over the years, and in fact made a splashing debut right out of Yale with a season which included Henry V, Measure for Measure, and a year later, Taming of the Shrew.
As Isabella in Measure for Measure,
with Lenny Baker and her partner at
the time, John Cazale. They were
together until his death from cancer.

Joe Papp was no fool, and our gal was never asked to play Witch #3 or Cleopatra's handmaiden.  She was given leading roles right off the bat.  Well, if you were Joe Papp, wouldn't you have done the same?
As Mother Courage

To her credit, Meryl has returned to the stage on occasion, especially in recent years;  she headed a starry cast in The Cherry Orchard a few years ago, and parts of her performance as Mother Courage, opposite Kevin Kline, are preserved in the documentary Theatre of War.  But everyone considers her a film star, having delivered dozens of unforgettable screen performances.  Her first feature film was Julia, in which she played a 3-minute scene opposite Jane Fonda. 
This brief moment in Julia made Hollywood take notice. She even makes Jane Fonda look good.
(I am not a fan of Jane Fonda's work, though she isn't half bad in Julia, I have to admit.) Anyway, nobody knew who Meryl Streep was at the time, but a year later, she had an Oscar nomination (for The Deerhunter) and an Emmy award (for Holocaust.) 

In Kramer vs. Kramer, she beat
co-star Jane Alexander to win her
first Oscar.
Our Meryl was on her way, and soon won her first Oscar for one of the title characters in Kramer vs. KramerIt was her performance playing eenie, meenie, miney, moe in Sophie's Choice which solidified her reputation as a phenomenal actress.  I've only seen the film once, but portions of her work are indelibly imprinted on my memory. 
A Cry in the Dark gave birth to a
catch phrase:
"A dingo took my baby!"

She won the Oscar, of course, and proceeded to deliver a series of leading performances which were all award worthy.  During this period of about 5-8 years, though, her continually stellar work received somewhat of a backlash, at least among unknowledgeable cretins.  Her film roles during this period often (though certainly not always) required her mastering an accent of some kind, and for a little while, there were those who rolled their eyes whenever Streep's name was mentioned.  They thought, incorrectly, that her work was always dependent on an accent.  Truly, she is gifted when it comes to accent work, beginning with Sophie's Choice, where she delivered a Polish accent in both English and German. 
Streep had unmistakable, highly
sexual chemistry with Kurt Russell
in Silkwood. And her rendition of
Amazing Grace is truly haunting.

We also heard her mastery of such dialects as British (The French Lieutenant's Woman), Dutch (Out of Africa), Australian (A Cry in the Dark), Italian (Bridges of Madison County), and American Southern (Silkwood).  By recreating vocal inflection, timbre, and rhythm, she convinced us she was Julia Child and Margaret Thatcher, two women whose own voices we know very well.

Streep continues to deliver top-notch performances in all genres with all kinds of accents, or lack thereof. 
An atrocious attempt to turn Roseanne
Barr into a film actress failed. Streep
is the only thing watchable in She-Devil.

Today's clip features an accent of sorts, if there is such a thing as a "smartly precocious little girl" accent.  As I mentioned, Meryl has a bit of experience with musical projects, and has sung convincingly in Postcards From the Edge, A Prairie Home Companion, and Mamma Mia (Streep was even good in that last piece of dreck, which now holds the distinction of having made more money, world-wide, than any other movie musical in history. Ick.) 
Another example of Meryl's early work
can be seen in this video.
Streep's work in comedy is sometimes overlooked, but she is a skilled comedic actress. In Death Becomes Her, she was paired with Goldie Hawn.
Very early in her career, Joe Papp put our gal in the title role of a new musical called Alice At The Palace.  The concept here seemed a good one:  to turn the Alice in Wonderland books into a Music Hall presentation.  The result is abysmal, in my opinion.  I've dragged myself through the entire DVD of this thing; the fact that PBS filmed it mystifies me.  Papp made a huge error in assigning this project to composer Elizabeth Swados, and don't get me started on her
After the success of this unlikely hit, Swados
has delivered a string of unlikeable musicals.
Alice at the Palace is no exception.

I saw her Broadway productions of Runaways (which I wrote about here) and Doonesbury (which I wrote about here), and came to the conclusion long ago that her music is atonal, rhythmically inept, and pretty much unbearable.  You can't wait to see the clip now, can you?

You'll recognize the scene, which appears in any and all Alice adaptations.  It's the Tea Party Scene, and to help get through the number, enjoy Meryl's smooth work, and that of her cohorts. 

The Mad Hatter is being played by Richard Cox, whom you probably won't recognize, but you will surely recognize the gent playing the March Hare.  It's Mark Linn-Baker, who would go on to sitcom fame in Perfect Strangers.  And if you don't recognize the short guy playing the Dormouse, well, I wish you would.  It's the fabulous Michael Jeter, who is sadly gone now but who got his own Dance Party here, which I insist you visit.

Finally, here's this week's Dance Party, starring the incomparable Meryl Streep, before anybody knew who she was.  Happy Birthday!