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By Elyse Sommer

Updated March 14, 2015
New: A Stage Star Studded, Modern Cymbeline

The Last Five Years - Jason Robert Brown's musical 2-hander comes to the screen Into the Woods - Disney's fairy tale magic applied to Stephen Sondheim's grimmer view of the Grimm stories
Olive Kitteredge, a potent theatrical experience on the home screen
Jersey Boys, the Movie
News for Good Wife fans

A Stage Star Studded, Modern Cymbeline
Ed Harris
Ed Harris as the drug kingpin (Photo: Lionsgate Films)
Althought Michael Almereyda's modern-day Cymbeline hits and misses with the Bard's plotline, it vamps up the romance with a star-studded cast including faces familiar to theater goers: Ethan Hawke, Ed Harris, Milla Jovovich, Dakota Johnson (Imogen), John Leguizamo and Bill Pullman. Almereyda streamlined the sprawling story to 98 minutes, grafted on much contemporary color, and a whiff of cartoon book flavor.

Instead of having a war exploding between Rome and Briton, he has replaced the political upheaval with a drug war between dirty cops and an outlaw biker gang. He has also updated the characters. The wishy-washy King Cymbeline (Harris) has morphed into a drug kingpin with an Achillles' heel for beautiful woman who will flatter his royal ego. His Queen and second wife (Jovovich) is the cross-fertilization of a modern-day diva and socialite. And the sleazy Iachimo (Hawke), cut from the same dramatic cloth as Shakespeare's Iago, becomes the bad boy here, and then some. The heroine Imogen (Johnson) is the rebel-princess daughter who marries for love and not social position. Posthumus (Penn Badgley), Cymbeline's protege and Imogen's new husband, is a skateboard dude who suddenly finds himself banished to Rome by his outraged father-in-law.

Almereyda is no stranger to updating the Bard into the present tense. His 2000 film adaptation of Hamlet no doubt seasoned him for Cymbeline. Besides executing his scenes with more finesse and polish, he is also continuing his artistic collaboration with Hawke.

While Cymbeline hardly has the gravitas of the great tragedy, it does possess the matchless heroine Imogen. Swinburne dubbed her "the woman best beloved in all the world of song and all the tide of time." And whether you agree with this homage or not, she is certainly a young woman who sticks by her man.

This new Cymbeline has retained Shakespeare's language and added a dash of Emily Dickinson's poetry to underscore the forgiveness and redemptive theme so germane to the play. The actors may not all have Shakespearean chops, but their honest and gritty delivery carries the weight and propels the action.

The poetic license taken with Shakespeare's text doesn't always work. Case in point: A gnomic dream sequence at the beginning showing Posthumus asleep and his dead father Sicilius Leonatus (Bill Pullman) in the room speaking to him. Though this is meant to foreshadow and be a touchstone for Posthumus' actual dream of his deceased kin near the film's end, it is difficult to make sense of these scenes.

What does succeed is the quarry scene where Johnson's Imogen, in the guise of Fidel, discovers the decapitated Cloten (Anton Yelchin) dressed in her husband Posthumus' clothes. Mistaking the grisly corpse for Posthumus, Imogen mourns her husband, and her emotional desolation is poignant.

Films of Cymbeline date back to 1913, but are relatively few and far between. This is the first American film recent years to shake out put this "problem play" on the big screen. And, like the March breezes accompanying its official opening, it is a breath of fresh air.

CComplete ast: Ethan Hawke (Iachimo), Ed Harris, Milla Jovovich (Queen), Dakota Johnson, and John Leguizamo (Pisanio), Penn Badgley (Posthumus), Anton Yelchin (Cloten), Spencer Treat Clark (Guiderius), Harley Ware (Arviragus), James Ransone (Philario), Bill Pullman (Sicilius Leonatus), Charly Bivona (Helen), Delroy Lindo (Belarius).
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based at the preview filming at the Walter Reade Theatre on 3/03/2015.

last 5 years
The Last Five Years
The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown's 2-person musical about a failed marriage has had a remarkable history. Though not a major hit in its off-Broadway debut it was well staged and a triumph for Sheree Renee Scott and Norbert Leo Butz . The countless professional and amateur regional productions that followed turned this into one of those little engine that could and did hit that led to a well cast, well attended return engagment in New York

What carried the day for this surprise money maker was Brown's lovely songs as well as the novelty of the story telling — the male character (a stand-in for Brown who had just come out of a toxic marriage) telling his story moving forward in time . . . his once beloved moving backwards through her journey of disillusionment . . .and just one meeting in the middle for a marriage proposal.

Now The Last Five Years has been adapted for movie audiences by Brown, and directed by Richard LaGravenese. The director Brown's songs and and the show's chamber musical feel and cast two actors with genuine star power — Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan— to sing their zig-zaggy way through Cathie and Jamie's failing marriage.

Both have great voices and and charisma so no complaints there. And Brown's songs, with some minor updates to the lyrics, hold up very well. Unfortunately even the probably necessary expansion doesn't do much to make the film as effective as the stage version. In the stage version, only the story relating half of the unhappy pair was seen on stage. Having the other half of the pair silently on scene doesn't so much prevent the film from being too stage bound, but tends to make it a bit too confusing to know just where in the back and forth time line we are.

That said, the inclusion of cameos appearances by other actors will give fans of the live theater productions the fun of spotting both Sheree Renee Scott (the initial Cathie) and Betsy Wolfe (the 2013 revival's Cathie). Scott is in the audition scene and Wolfe appears as a stripper.

For more details about the songs and the plot see Curtainu's review of the (
Off-Broadway premiere and the( 2013 Off-Broadway revival. News for Good Wife fans
Mary Beth Peil
Mary Beth Peil, this time as a Russian mother-in-law
The series that's the best friend to stage actors is back. Even though Allan Cumming continues to reprise his iconic role as the MC in the wonderful
Cabaret, he's very much on scene as Eli Gold. Sarah Steele who plays is daughter also recently found time to appear on broadway in Country House. The fellow running Alicia's campaign for Stage's attorney is Stephen Pasquale. No, he doesn't sing as he did in The Bridges of Madison County , but he's mighty charismatic. As for Alicia's meddling mom-in-law, Mary Beth Peil is currently doing her meddling in a new adaptation of a 1928 Russian farce, Dying For It at the Atlantic Theater Company. This flow between home screen and live screen will continue when Chris Noth takes time out from his Governor's duties to take on Dr. Faustus at the prestigious off-Broadway Classic Stage Company. (watch for my review.

a name="Into the Woods"> Into the Woods, the Movie
by Miriam Colin

Sondheim à la Disney. An impossible marriage? Not really!

The iconic composer-lyricist's two-sided mashup of the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales has been fashioned into an entertaining, visually exciting film. Yes, it's been Disney-ized to make it more acceptable as a family entertainment but with director Rob Marshall (he also successfully transferred Chicago from stage to screen) and James Lapine doing the adapting, the Sondheimian darkness has not been ruinously over sugarcoated. There's plenty of Sondheim's scintillating score and devilishly witty lyrics to keep even musical theater purists from quibbling too much about no more "No More" and the too lite version of "No One Is Alone." Best of all, this isn't Disney in its usual cartoon mode but Disney respectfully presenting the 1987 stage musical with a large and stellar ensemble of stage luminaries.

For starters there's the witch played Meryl Streep who's as successful at every role she takes on as Disney is at producing musical fairy tales Disney is great at both musicals and fairy tales. Her witch is no exception.

But Streep is just the tip of the ensemble treats: James Corden who won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for One Man, Two Guvnors is a sure-fire Oscar contender for his touching Baker. Emily Blunt is equally impressive as his lovely but infertile wife and Simon Russell Beale as his father. And what would this cornucopia of Grimm characters be without Cinderella (a lovely Anna Kendrick) and a charming Prince (Chris Pine), Jack of the famous Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone), and Rapunzel of the golden tresses (MacKenzie Mauzy) and her rescuing prince (Billy Magnussen).

Some of the things the movie gets especially right is casting Tracey Ullman as Jack's mother and letting a real youngster, 13-year-old Lilla Crawford play a sassy Little Red Riding Hood. And yes indeed, that's Johnny Depp playing the big bad Wolf who terrorizes her and the Giant is none other than Frances de la Tour (best known to theater goers for her terrific gig in The History Boys).

Director Marshall and this versatile ensemble ably handle the Sondheim-Lapine atypical interpretation of these storybook characters. They shift comfortably from the treasure hunting style first part with its seemingly happy ending, into the more realistic world where there's no guarantee of a happily ever after life but the real traumas of our jet and cyber propelled world must be faced. And so a witch can and does lose her powers and Cinderella's Prince Charming sings "I was raised to be charming, not sincere!" Fortunately the humor and music insure that it's all more entertaining than pitch-black scary.

Unlike the stage musical which ran almost 3 hours, the movie clocks in at a trim 2 hours and 4 minutes.

Editor's Note: For a less starry but unique live revival of the show by the inventive the Fiasco Theater Company is playing at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre through March 22nd. I'll be reviewing it when it opens officially. For an idea of what to expect, see our New Jersey critic's review of the 2013 Mc Carter Theatre Center Production .

Olive Kitteredge, a potent theatrical experience on the home screen
I wouldn't recommend binge-watching the HBO adaptation of Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteredge. It's so good that it deserves to be savored slowly, an episode at a time. With a cast including live theater favorites like Frances McDormand, Zoe Kazan and Peter Gallagher Jr., this is an ideal way to enjoy a high quality theatrical experience without leaving home.

What makes it such truly essential watching is the quality of the source content, character and place linked stories about the lives of the residents of a Maine coastal town, stories in which Olive and her husband Henry at times play only peripheral roles. The overall excellence of the four one-hour installments also owes much to the brilliant way tele-playwright Jane Anderson and director Lisa Cholodenko have transferred the thirteen stories of Strout's this modern human comedy has been transferred from page to screen by .

With Frances McDormand playing the caustic, tough to love but even tougher to not ultimately sympathize with title character, this is one of the most memorable performances — stage or screen — I've seen all year. Masterfully subtle and complex as McDormand portrait of the depressed, repressed and yearning for connection retired math teacher is, there are other richly expressive performances. Chief among these comes from Richard Jenkins as Olive's more sunny-natured husband Henry.

Even the actors making only occasional appearances make strong impressions; for example, Zoe Kazan as a young widow who works in Henry's pharmacy, and Peter Mullan as a teacher with whom a less uptight and proper woman than Olive would have had a passionate fling. Devin Druid and John Gallagher, Jr. are also affecting as Olive's teen-aged and adult son.

The overarching darkness shadowing Olive's life and the flashes of her inherent kindness, are beautifully established in a poignant scene between her and a similarly haunted former student (Cory Michael Smith). There are other often humorous glimpses throughout of the Olive beneath the sourpuss who greets any complaints from others with an impatient "Oh, for God's sake." She's most touching as her 30 year marriage ends with Henry's slow death from a stroke and as a tragic ending turns bittersweet courtesy of a delightful cameo from Bill Murray. Thanks to terrific make-up and camera work, McDormand, is a most convincing 74-year-old even though she's only 57.

As Olive Kitteridge is set in the fictional coastal town of Crosby, Maine, so Elizabeth Strout's first and most recent books, Amy & Isabelle and The Burgess Boys, are set in another fictional Maine town: Shirley Falls, Maine. Olive Kitteredge, evoked memories of Sherwood Anderson's long-ago ground breaking Winesburg, Ohio but also the theater world's much lauded Annie Baker. Strout, like Baker, keeps returning to the small town New England of her youth. Interestingly, Baker's favorite town is Shirley, Vermont.

Olive Kitteredge puts the kibosh on talk about stage actors wasting their talents on TV series. Good acting and good stories are powerful no matter where seen.
Jersey Boys the Movie by Elyse Sommer
Clint Eastwood adaptation of the super successful juke box musical Jersey Boys has been eagerly awaited, and has now opened to mixed reviews. While it's likely to do okay at movie theaters, it's also likely to have a very positive ripple effect at the August Wilson Theater box office where the show is in its tenth year . To bear me out on this, I met some neighbors in the elevator the other night who saw the movie recently and all said that they now really wanted to see the live show or what one fellow referred to as "the real thing."

Since the film is written by its original original book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice team, the Eastwood film certainly can't be faulted for ignoring the source show. If I had to sum up its pluses and minuses side in a single sentence: Less Broadway pizazz offset by greater emotional depth.

Ultimately, the movie proves that this genre of musical's long life and adaptability from stage to screen or screen to stage is as dependent on a good book as a hot catalogue. Perhaps Holler If Ya Hear me , the latest variation of the jukebox genre to arrive on Broadway would have been better served by being true to Tupac Shakur's story than trying to fictionalize it to give it more universal audience appeal

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