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By Elyse Sommer
Updated April 8, 2014
(For previous edition of this page go here)
Live Sound of Music -NBC brings back made-for-tv musicals
According to Nielsen's ratings, some 18.5 million viewers tuned to NBC's live telecast of the 3-hour "Live" version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's beloved musical The Sound of Music. Clearly the powers that be at NBC weren't wrong to go up against memories of iconic Marias and Captain Von Trapps, and believe that there was an audience for a "live" TV musical despite regular revivals, the still available DVD with Julie Andrews and even sing-alongs.
Carrie Underwood had the needed new audience drawing appeal. But she's is unlikely to erase memories of the original stage Maria (Mary Martin) or Andrews, the movie Maria. Her singing isn't bad but it's hardly glorious and the last part of her name best describes the American Idol born star's acting. In fact, in a clever bit of casting, the most memorable and charismatic performance in this production was by Laura Benanti as Maria's rival, the glamorous older woman Elsa. You see Benanti, a recent high school graduate, made her Broadway stage debut in the 1998 revival when she realized the understudy's dream and took over for Rebecca Luker opposite Richard Chamberlain. Her acting and singing was impressive enough for me to see another Julie Andrews in the making (Review of 1998 production ). Now, a mature and sophisticated star who's lived up to my prediction she's made Elsa the most interesting to watch and listen to character.
Another reason that brought the home screens to life with music was Audra MacDonald as the Mother Superior. MacDonald's gorgeous voice did indeed "Climb Ev’ry Mountain" thrillingly.
As for Stephen Moyer's Captain Von Trapp, he was okay but unlikely to eclipse predecessars like Theodore Bikel and Chamberlain. Still, given that this Sound of Music was NBC's most successful evening since the last episode of Frasier in 2004 or the 2007 Golden Globe broadcast. It was also the first musical staged live for the home screen since the '50s, complete with lavish set and costume changes, live orchestra and everything timed to coordinate with the commercials.
Though I prefer my musicals live, I also yearn for more and better live for TV programming so maybe this Sound of Music will be a first step in this direction. it's a first of more and better such shows to come. half-century.
August: Osage County by Elyse Sommer -
With Tracy Letts, the play's author, writing the screenplay for the movie, deals with the stage-to-screen challenges quite effectively. The streamlined story remains essentially intact, despite some loss of nuance and character detail. The elements of the play that really matter are there and as good as ever, notably the no hold barred funeral dinner. Therefore, instead of going into a lot of detail about what it's about, here's a link Curtainup's coverage of the stage production: August: Osage County, the play .
Having the film include the expansive yet barren Oklahoma scene outside the Weston clan's home sidesteps the danger of a movie feeling too much like a filmed version of its source. The views and scenes on a seemingly endless ribbon of highway, at the local church and at the bus station make the background a motivating character rather than just a way to open things up.
Director John Wells, makes the most of a film's big advantage over a play: The close-up views of the actors' faces and set details available only to theater goers sitting in the front section of the orchestra, but to every audience member in a movie theater. That said, much as I enjoyed watching the film at last Monday's screening at the Paris Theater, nothing can quite compare to the thrill of seeing the Steppenwolf Company production at Broadway's Imperial Theatre.
The stage actors who originated the various Westons and members of their extended family were perfection. But as my second viewing of that production proved, they were not irreplacable. The new cast, with Estelle Parsons giving her interpretation of the unrelentingly appalling family matriarch, attested to this play being potent enough to be a gift not just to audiences hungry for involving, mature dramas but for a variety of actors as well.
Superb as the actors I saw on Broadway were, being well known and regarded by theater audiences doesn't translate into a box office bonanza. For a film to have a chance in the Oscar sweepstakes, it needs movie stars. Fortunately, the movie stars heading the film cast are Meryl Streep as the pill-popping, cancer stricken Violet Weston and Julia Roberts as the oldest and most contentious of the three daughters summoned to the homestead upon the disappearance of Violet's husband for whom that homestead (or, as it turns out, any place) is no longer endurable.
As the original actors made the three hours (plus 2 intermissions) of the Broadway production fly by, Streep and Roberts, as well as the rest of the film's ensemble, make you able to forget that the stage is probably the more natural habitat for Letts's drama (truth be told, melodrama) than the screen.
Streep, whose very name evokes visions of Oscar statuettes (she's won 3 and been nominated 17 times), can start making room on whatever shelf she keeps them on for a fourth one. She may be named Violet in this film, but there's nothing shrinking about Streeps take on her. She may be racked by pain, her beauty ravaged by cancer and substance abuse, but that pain and the regrets about her life have given an extra sharp razor's edge to her always sharp tongue. As noted in my review of the stage version, this makes for an ironic metaphor, given that it's mouth cancer Violet suffers from.
Though Streep's role is the showiest and most likely to nab the best actor Oscar, Letts considers daughter Barbara his protagonist. And Roberts makes an equally strong showing as the bitter and unhappy eldest daughter whose failing marriage and fraught relationship with her own daughter explodes during this family crisis. Forget about her Pretty Woman. No irresistible smile and glamour for her embittered, unhappy menopausal woman who is dangerously close to turning into her mother. But it's a powerhouse performance.
Standouts in the ensemble include Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch. Martindale as Violet's sister Mattie Fae comes on as warm but flighty, but her remarkable insensitivity to her prone to failure son, aptly called Little Charlie, matches her sister's unmotherly persona. It also adds another touch of melodrama to the family dynamic. Cumberbatch, who for many viewers as much of a star as Streep and Roberts (Sherlock Holmes, The Hobbitt, War Horse, Parade's End, etc.) is terrific as the awkward Charlie who's the secret boyfriend of middle daughter Ivy (a wonderfully understated Julianne Nicholson). His many fans will be pleased to hear that he even sings during one brief but memorable scene.
Chris Cooper, a consistently reliable actor, is an invaluable presence as Mattie Fae's husband and Little Charlie's loving father. The scene when he finally blows up over his wife's incomprehensible to him treatment of their son is another of the film's highlights.
Juliette Lewis captures the desperate hopefulness of third sister Karen's poor choices in men. Dermot Mulroney's Steve Heidebrecht, the much-married, lecherous smoothie who accompanies her from Florida to Oklahoma gets his just dues from the Native American Johanna Monevata who was hired by Beverly Weston to take care of Violet and the house before his departure. With the movie's move beyond the interior of the house, the weapon Johanna uses is now a shovel instead of a frying pan. The patriarch who sets this family reunion in motion, the role created by Tracy Letts' father (and taken over by John Cullum after his death), is now very ably played by Sam Shepherd.
August: Osage County, like so many plays, features three sisters and the effect of their pasts on their present and future lives. But its kinship e is less to Chekhov's Prozov sisters than Edward Albee's George and Martha and Tennessee Williams's Big Daddy and family. Like those plays and their film adaptations, this one is definitely not for anyone under sixteen. In fact, it's most likely to find its most responsive audience among those over thirty and not averse to unhappy endings.
Cast:Meryl Streep(Violet Weston),Julia Roberts (Barbara Fordham), Chris Cooper (Charlie Aiken), Margo Martindale(Mattie Fae Aiken), Benedict Cumberbatch("Little Charles" Atkins), Ewan McGregor (Bill Fordham), Sam Shepard (Beverly Weston), Juliette Lewis (Karen Weston), Abigail Breslin(Jean Fordham), Julianne Nicholson (Ivy Weston), Dermot Mulroney (Steve Heidebrecht), Misty Upham(Johnna Monevata), Will Coffey(Sheriff Deon Gilbeau).
Blue Jasmine - Woody Allen's homage to the poet of the Contemporary American theater, Tennessee Williams
Blue Jasmine is different from other Allen's films. For one thing it spends lesstime in his favorite city, New York, but takes place mostly in San Francisco. And yet it's very much an Allen film in that it rounds out a whole gallery of memorable but troubled female characters.
For anyone familiar with Streetcar Named Desire (and most people are, given the many productions and available DVDs that include the original with MarlonBrando and Vivien Leigh) this may seem like an adaptation more than an Allen original. Indeed, the film does does follow the basic story of a middle-aged beauty who's fallen on hard times and must, per one of Williams's most famous lines, "rely on the kindness of strangers." Nonetheless Blue Jasmine is a completely original enterprise that manages to evoke the characters and scenes from a classic play as well as the real life perpetrators and victims of the Bernad Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal.
Even without the link to one of the contemporary theater's most lauded and well-known plays, Blue Jasmine would be a treat for theater lovers since the cast features a number of actors with outstanding stage resumes; most notably Sally Hawkins, Bobby Canavale, Alec Baldwin, Peter Scarsgaard Michael Stuhlbarg
Sally Hawkins, who like the Australian Blanchett, speaks in a flawlessly American accent. More important, she's terrific as Ginger, the sister whose lower class life style and choice of men Jasmine disdains but whose cramped San Francisco apartment is this financially and emotionally bankrupt woman's temporary haven of last resort. Also outstanding is Bobby Canavale, one of the theater's dynamic and prominent young actors, as Ginger's current sexy but lower class boyfriend Chilli. He doesn't rape Jasmine as Stanley Kowalski does Blanche but there's plenty of hostility between them. Max Casella is well cast as one of Chilli's noisy pals, Michael Sthlbarg delightfully creepy as the dentist for whom Jasmine temporarily works to pay for the skills needed for a career more to her still deluded sense of being above the more humble jobs held by the people in her sister's world. of grandeur. This is as much a portrait of the class divide as that of a woman not just on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but in full-fledged over-the-top mode.
As the original white knight who caused Jasmine to drop out of college to become a trophy wife, Alec Baldwin embodies the slick personification of greed is good, and cheating as easy to do as knotting your expensive ties. Unlike the not very appealing Mitch who Blanche DuBois is willing to settle for, Jasmine lucks out by finding another rich and attractive man, this one played by Peter Saarsgard. The trouble is that Saarsgard's Dwight isn't a crook, but a man of honor and political ambition and only a madwoman would imagine that she wouldn't get tripped up by her false identity and pretenses. If the way this happens is a bit too contrived, so what, it's a mere quibble given the overall quality of the film.
The production designer, Santo Loquasto, who is also a preeminent stage designer, has created a rich scenic panorama. And Allen's segues between present and past are amazingly seamless.
Apparently Blue Jasmine has gathered enough praises to be one of Woody Allen's most successful ticket sellers and the film is slated for much wider than usual distribution. Don't miss it. (reviewed by Elyse Sommer, October 6, 2013)
Last Tango in Halifax
The romance begins in a timely enough manner, the two senior citizens who's teenaged potential romance was sabotaged by another girl (who became Jacobi's wife) reconnnect through the internet, meet for tea and it's love at first-second sight. Their romance is stretched over six hours (the first season, possibly future seasons to follow?) by the problems of the couple's children and grandchildren resilience. If you liked the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel you'll love this one as well. The entire cast is excellent, and I especially liked Nicola Walker and Sarah Lancashire, who play the daughters-- but for me the big draw is Jacobi. On screen or live on stage, he was and is a superb actor.
Tales of the City
At 83 Olympia Dukakis is still an imposing presence on stage. However, her always somewhat raspy voice was strained in her recent appearance at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox as that survivor of survivors, Brecht's camp follower known as Mother Courage. ( Her performance, the fifth in this role, was somewhat disappointing so it was a welcome coincidence to be able to see her in one of her most memorable roles, as the mysterious San Francisco landlord in the 1993 mini series based on Amistead Maupin's Tales of the City. The 20th Anniversary edition from Acorn Media features six episodes on 2 disks. Besides its serendipidous arrival just as the Lenox Company's revival of Mother Courage and Her Children began its run, it also tied in with another Berkshire production, this one Southern Comfort a musical about a transgender community in Georgia at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield.
Dukakis is indeed terrific. She brings nuance, warmth and charm to the mysterious Anna Madrigal. It takes a bit to get used to the way the episodes jump back and forth between the large cast of fascinating characters. Large and small screen and live theater film buffs will be enchanged by an adorable young Laura Linney as the Ohio girl who visits San Francisco and stays to experience life in Mrs. Madrigal's boarding house that's decidedly different from life in Cleveland. Fellow residents include Acorn best selling Slings and Arrow star Paul Gross, as a gorgeous, pot-smoking young womanizer. Prestigious stage actors making brief appearances include Ian McKellen and Rod Steiger.
The name Michael Gabon above a title makes it a must see for any theater enthusiasts. And so, even if you're not one to regularly dip into the seemingly bottomless well of mystery series, you'll want to have a look at the series based on author George Simenon's Inspector Maigret novels. Gambon came aboard for the second round of the series that's available from Acorn Media.
Forget about lots of action and technological wizardly. This is Paris and its outlying villages with Maigret and his small, loyal staff solving murders using psychological and leisurely deliberation. The stories are awash in the atmosphere of long-ago Paris and rural French villages.
Gambon, with droll charm and great flair blends Maigret's intuitive detection style with a sympathetic and very Gallic sensibility.
In April 2012 the wonderful site of the Royal Naval College on the River Thames which now houses the University of Greenwich and Trinity College of Music was turned into Paris for the riots of 1832. One of the sparks for the riot was the death of the Napoleonic General Lamarque, long time an opponent of the restoration of the French monarchy, and these huge funeral carts were ready on site for the filming of Lamarque's funeral procession. The sculptural mock up of a large (78 feet high) elephant had been placed in the Place de la Bastille and it had been intended to cast it in bronze. This elephant, which features in Hugo's novel as a hiding place for the street urchin Gavroche, formed a part of the set and next to it was created the barricade built by the rioters.
So a January weekend saw the opening in Britain of the eagerly anticipated film of the musical. The opening scene on stage is of prisoners breaking up rocks as Jean Valjean laments that his identity is a number, "24601". In the film the opening is a computer generated scene of a prison galleon ship wreck with convicts pulling on ropes and Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is ordered by Javert (Russell Crowe) to lift the broken flagpole with the tricoleur. When the casting was first announced, as Crowe is the thicker set of the men, it was assumed that he would play Valjean with Jackman as the taller thinner inspector but people had forgotten how built Jackman is and that his singing voice earned him the lead as Curly in the National Theatre's production of Oklahoma! way back in 1998.
But the real delight for me was spotting English stage actors in the smaller roles. In the Mayor's factory in Toulon, years later where Valjean is a successful businessman, Kate Fleetwood (Patrick Stewart's Lady Macbeth) is magnificent as Fantine's Nemesis, Factory Woman Number 1. Fleetwood bullies Fantine and then with mock humility manipulates the foreman (Michael Jibson, no stranger himself to the London theatre stage) into sacking Fantine. As Fantine hits rock bottom, and Anne Hathaway gives a heart breaking performance, her last client who gets her arrested is the fop Bamatabois, Bertie Carvel, the lead, Headmistress Miss Trunchbull, in another Royal Shakespeare Company successful musical Matilda. Trevor Nunn and the Royal Shakespeare Company first staged this version of Boublil and Schönburg's musical in 1985 after the French version had failed to take off.
Some of the original actors have been offered a part in the movie and theatre buffs will be thrilled to spot Colm Wilkinson, the original Valjean, as the kindly bishop. Daniel Evans now Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres plays a pimp and Hannah Waddingham, a former Spamalot Lady of the Lake and Christine in Phantom, is Factory Woman number 2 for the first rendition of "At The End of the Day". Two other British actors who I've never seen live on stage, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter play the comic innkeepers Monsieur and Madame Thenardier and, as their daughter Eponine, Samantha Barks who was a runner up in a BBC talent contest to find the Nancy for a revival of Oliver. The Eponines are always dark haired girls with wide set eyes and square faces, I wonder why? I do need to read Hugo's novel someday! Frances Ruffelle is the other actor from the original cast. She played Eponine as a child in 1985 and in 2013 takes the role Whore 1.
Patrick Godfrey as Gillnormand and Richard Corderey as the Duc de Raguse are veterans of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Linzi Hately, John Dankworth and Cleo Laines daughter Jacqui Dankworth have small roles. Even the Gavroche, Daniel Huddlestone is a veteran of the West End stage having played Gavroche in the theatre having launched his acting career as "Nipper" in Rupert Goold's Oliver! in 2009.
Tom Hooper, director of The King's Speech has concentrated on camera close up so the main difference in the experience of the film is this; seeing the emotion on the faces of the singers and the context is allowed to interfere with the vocal delivery and so gives a more realistic impression than the volume and delivery required to fill the theatre, be it the Barbican, The Palace or The Queen's. Carrying Marius, Eddie Redmayne through the Parisian sewers doesn't make the impact in the film that it does on stage with clever lighting and projection, and I had the impression that quite a lot has been cut from the ballroom scene, which is just a vehicle for the social climbing Thenardiers who like turds will rise. Eddie Redmayne has the facial angst of the student protester left behind in "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables" and graces the London stage regularly, last having been seen as Richard II at the Donmar Warehouse. The original Marius was Michael Ball
I was less sure about the aesthetic of computer generated Mansard roofs onto Sir Christopher Wren's Royal Hospital Greenwich, now called the Old Royal Naval College, to imitate the Parisian skyline but it was fun recognising some of the less well known shots of the Greenwich architecture. The original inspiration for the Royal Hospital, a home for retired and infirm sailors was the French initiative, Les Invalides, in Paris.
Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway thoroughly deserve the acting awards already bestowed. Russell Crowe is less of a powerful singer but a menacing presence as Inspector Javert in this story which was said to have inspired the series and film, The Fugitive. We see Javert in the Painted Hall before quelling the student revolution. Ironically the paintings on the ceiling in the Painted Hall are allegorical propaganda against the English Navy's traditional enemy, the French.
I've lost count but I think I've probably seen the West End theatre production of Les Miserables six or seven times and I also saw and reviewed the slimmed down 25th anniversary production at the Barbican in 2010. I'd happily see it again! And the film . . . I think I'd notice other people who have crept into the cast. I've a long way to go to catch up with Sally Frith the Gloucestershire woman reported this week as having seen Les Miserables 957 times since her first trip in 1988.
Footnote: A few days after the film crew moved out in April 2012, the Queen was due to reopen the Cutty Sark, Greenwich's old tea clipper, which was restored after a fire destroyed much of it in 2006. As the film crew moved out the Naval College lawns which had been covered with barricades, marching soldiers and straw and mud were brown and yellow. As the Queen was due to ride through the Naval College grounds a decision was taken to spray paint the grass. Apparently everywhere the Queen goes, it always smells of fresh paint. But whoever chose the shade didn't get grass green but blue green so that areas looked turquoise. Straight out of Alice in Wonderland.
News for Downton Abbey Fans-2/24 update . The season ended with lots of the lavish scenes that the show excels in: Ditzy Rose's presentation, her debutante ball with a surprise visit from the Prince of Wales, grateful for the family's cover up of his affair with Rose's friend. That cover-up plays like one of those old caper movies about some charismatic jewel thieves. The Dowager Countess got a chance to to recharge her feud with Cora's rich but too outspoken American mother. And Cora's brother whose Teapot Dome scandal involvement forced Lord Grantham to travel to America, is also on hand with hints that he may end up in a relatonship with the daughter of the pennyless Lord who fails in his attempt to win over the rich American Widow w"nna's rapist continues, and Edith had her baby girl in Switzerland but is having second thoughts on giving her to a Swiss couple. It turns out the paper she signed made her the missing lover's heir and that his disappearance involved "brown shirts" -- indicating that the Nazi peril will be further explored, and that Edith's little girl will be part of Downton Abbey-- but on the periphery, as the adopted daughter of, you guessed it, the man in charge of the pigs. My prediction is that the show will continue into the second world war period with a few fast forwards.
2/16 update The next to the last installment. Too many threads to juggle through-- but rest assured, none will last long enough for you to get bored. But with Julian Fellowes juggling so many balls it's unlikely that he'll tie up all the loose ends next week. What we do know is that Shirley McLane will be coming back. What we hope for: that the the relationships between Baxter and Mosely, Branson and the town schoolteacher, the widowed Lord Merton and Isobel Crawley will blossom. Lady Mary seems to enjoy having all those suitors too much to bite the bullet and marry one of them. And finally there's the bombshell we've all been waiting for: Will Bates avenge Anna? Clearly, Zoe Barnes of Netflix's House of Cards isn't the only one to get pushed into the arms of the Grim Reaper. My prediction: Bates will get away with it, at least in terms of being arrested and sent to jail. But Julian Fellowes will punish him by having him lose Anna. Speaking of losing things, I also wouldn't be surprised if Edith had a miscarriage to makes it unnecessary for her to go to Switzerland — not a bad place since according to the Dowager Countess the only thing it lacs is conversation.
With handsome, loving and smart Matthew killed off at the end of last season and O'Brien, the Mrs. Danvers of the series deserting Lady Grantham for a new and more adventurous job in India, the season gets off to a rather dull 2-hour start. Too many boring and unnecessary sub-plots and characters (an old vaudeville friend of Carson's, the rather silly Lady Rose, the new-old lady's maid for Lady Grantham). The grief-stricken Lady Mary only abandons that glassy, more dead-than-alive stare towards the end, and Lord Grantham is prodded into doing the right thing by his tell-it-like-it is mom, the dowager countess who's still the play's most reliably entertaining character.
The continually changing times are foreshadowed by the arrival in the kitchen of an automatic mixing machine and Lady Edith on the verge of finalizing her affair with her married publisher-- alas, courtesy of his opting to move to Germany where divorcing an institutionalized mate is permitted. Maybe script writer Julian Fellowes needed all this as a setup for this new season-- and maybe not really changing anything is exactly what the ever increasing audience of this amazingly audience pulling franchise wants. With Sybil and Matthew putting an end to the series' two happy marriages, we're left with Anna and Bates, who prove once again that happily marrieds tend to be repetitiously boring (ditto for Lady Grantham and her well-meaning but pompous and Lord who still hasn't accepted his lack of managerial skills). With Mary back among the living and ready to save Downton from going down by learning about things like crop rotation, here's hoping things will pick up. But don't count on any in-depth character changers. The gowns are gorgeous as ever!!
The Good Wife.
The show's Eli Gold is also back on stage. He's shed his suit and tie and gone back to the bare chest and suspenders of the Emcee in Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. It's the role that turned him into a star. Review of that after the offical opening.
April 14 Like the rest of you Good Wife fans I've been too shocked and saddened by the latest turn of events-- from a practical point of view, having Will killed was brilliantly done and rekindled the spark that the show lacked for a while. The episode following the big, jump out of the seat event was also extremely well handled. It actually had me choked up for a bit. Since Josh Charles is a seasoned stage actor, I'm sure he'll have plenty of offers. Maybe will come up with a play that could star Charles and Dan Stevens, another prematurely killed romantic lead from another hit TV series, Downton Abbey..
News too about Allan Cumming (His Ely Gold had to relay the sad news to Alicia and then deal with the effect of Will's death on the Governor. The Scottish born actor was a Broadway newcomer when he riveted audiences as the Emcee of Kander and Ebb's musical Cabaret. Several decades have passed but I think it's a safe bet that this older Emcee will bring the original sizzle as well as something new to this musical with its ever potent story and music. Watch for my review later this month.
January 7, 2014 Update: Will and Alicia are now bitter enemies in and out of court. Diane, her judge dreams dashed, is back with Will and company-- and yes she's married. The guests with notable stage credentials continue to appear and make this the best employment opportunity for New York based Stage actors
Finally, since you're going to have to wait until Fall to see Alicia's move to aw firm works out and how being the First Lady of the State plays out, here's a British 3-parter about another political wife's finding herself faced with her mate's bad behavior. It's called The Politician's Wife and British stage actress Juliet Davidson is brilliant as the disillusioned wife. Here's a link to the DVD from Acorn Media:
Downton Abbey is back with star players either killed off (Dan Stevens who wanted to pursue other acting opportunities), Lady Grantham's nasty Lady's Maid flown to India to serve a new Lady.
Once This little engine that could turn into a huge stage hit has earned back its investment and continues on Broadway with a replacement cast, as well as crossing the pond to London. To read my review of the production go here. Back to Index of Topics