Arts In LA

Broadcast

Follies
NT Live broadcast

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz



Part of the NTLive series, in which featured productions at the National Theatre in London are broadcast worldwide in movie theaters and auditoriums, Stephen Sondheim’s Follies receives a new mounting starring Imelda Staunton. The musical, which lost money in its original 1971–1972 run, has always been a polarizing show. It won acclaim and several Tonys, including Best Score for Sondheim and Direction for Hal Prince and Michael Bennett, yet audiences were unprepared for an evening of ruminations and broken dreams. Over the years, particularly thanks to an all-star staged reading in 1985 at Lincoln Center that was aired on PBS and released on Home Video, the show has won a cult following. This production directed by Dominic Cooke dazzles visually, but the uneven performances sap the play of its insights.
   It takes place in 1971, some 30 years after the Weisman Follies has closed its doors. The impresario gathers surviving cast members for a first and final reunion as the building is being demolished to make room for a shopping mall. The former chorus ladies reminisce and reenact their signature numbers, while the marriages of two couples who had met at the Follies in 1941 unravel. Ben (Philip Quast), a wealthy politico, treats his wife, Phyllis (Janie Dee), as superfluous. Sally (Staunton) has obsessed about Ben for 30 years and wishes she had married him instead of Buddy (Peter Forbes). The four air their frustrations and hostilities until the ghosts of the Follies transport them to “Follies,” a magical musical world where their desires and foibles play out in song. All the characters in Follies are shadowed by their past selves, and the audience gets a glimpse of the younger Sally, Buddy, Ben, and Phyllis fostering the mistakes that haunt them still.
   Sondheim’s score is still remarkable. With pastiches of major musical forms, he guides the audience though a history of early-20th-century music. “Broadway Baby,” “I’m Still Here,” and “Losing My Mind” are standards, but every song masterfully sets the scene and motivations.
   James Goldman has written very complicated characters who in the right hands can be lost souls desperate to be found and in the wrong hands can come off as putzes. Forbes, as the schlubby Buddy, finds the perfect blend of endearment and sleaze as the salesman with a girl on the side who knows his wife never loved him. Dee castrates the bullshit, particularly Ben’s, giving a brutally honest performance of a woman who gave up everything for a man who never paid attention to her and is now on the attack. Quast, who’s only seven years older than his 53-year-old character, plays him as if he were 70. His Ben is not suffering from a midlife crisis but is a crusty, obstinate sexagenarian with one foot in the grave. This lifeless portrayal leaves nothing for anyone to play off of. Staunton revs up Sally’s emotions too high. She appears so nuts that Norma Desmond would smack her upside the head and tell her to get a grip. A collection of grimaces and hyperactivity, her Sally does not relate as a human being.
   Of the supporting cast, Di Botcher is a hilarious earth mother as Hattie who belts the heck out of “Broadway Baby.” Tracie Bennett gives oomph to “I’m Still Here,” however she does bring too much Judy Garland baggage from her role in the biographic End of The Rainbow. The voice and the mannerisms reflect the inner workings of Garland’s last years. At least now audiences know how Garland might have tackled Carlotta had she lived to 1971.
   Cooke stages the piece haphazardly so that even when not warranted, the staging seems chaotic. Video director Tim Van Someren has one trick up his sleeve: a bird’s-eye view pull-back from the stage to the roof and then jump-cut to mid-shot. The first time, it seems apropos, but after the 20th time, it grates.



   Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations are lush. The wailing saxophone in “Losing My Mind” and syncopations of “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” are highlights. Bill Deamer’s choreography is inventive. “Lucy and Jesse” features a sexy and spirited jitterbug that allows Dee to erupt while “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues” is a frantic, deliriously fun burlesque routine for Forbes.
   NTLive and Fathom Event filmed productions, allowing universal audiences to witness great live theater, is a godsend. But when removed from the stage and the collaborative energy between a cast and its audience, even a production that received raves when performed may appear flat when filmed. Without being at the National Theater for a performance of Follies, this reviewer can only judge the filming, and some of the critically lauded performances, like Staunton’s, may have shaken the rafters at the National, but on the big screen they come off as erratic and unfulfilling.

December 18, 2017
 
Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee, photo courtesy NT Live

The ladies of Follies, photo courtesy NT Live
 

 

 
Broadcast Review

‘She Loves Me’…for very good reasons

Filmed broadcast of this year’s production of the 1960s musical will warm the good old wintertime.

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz


Zachary Levi and fellow cast members
Photos by Joan Marcus

BroadwayHD brought Broadway into the new millennium with its live stream of a Broadway production, She Loves Me, on June 30, 2016. That evening has been edited and presented at movie theaters through Fathom Events. The outstanding Roundabout Theatre Company revival has been blissfully preserved and brought to many unable to come to New York to see the now-closed production.
   Based on the 1940 MGM comedy The Shop Around the Corner, as well as an earlier play by Miklós László, She Loves Me tells a familiar story of two colleagues. Georg (Zachary Levi, TV’s Chuck) and Amalia (Laura Benanti, Gypsy) work together at a Hungarian perfumery and have hated each other since their first meeting. Unbeknownst to either, the two have been corresponding through a lonely-hearts club, and each is quite smitten with the other’s letters. If only they knew their “Dear Friend” was their worst enemy.
   The original production lasted only 250 performances, yet all the elements of She Loves Me are in top form. Written by the Pulitzer Prize–winning team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (Fiorello), directed by impresario Harold Prince, based on a favorite Jimmy Stewart film, starring Barbara Cook, and featuring a Tony-winning performance by Jack Cassidy, She Loves Me should have been a blockbuster. Mandelbaum’s book is filled with plenty of shows created by masters who just failed to capture magic, but all the elements of She Loves Me are at top form. The score is a classic, including a cabaret favorite “Ice Cream,” a riff on Christmas standard “Twelve Days to Christmas” and sexy tango number “A Romantic Atmosphere.” Joe Masteroff‘s book is funny and charming, and despite having two protagonists at war, both characters are loveable and never grate on the audience’s nerves. The show always smelled like a hit. Luckily, both a successful 1993 and last year’s revivals burned the flames for She Loves Me adoration.
   Both productions were directed by Scott Ellis and his admiration for the score and book are apparent. Every joyous moment leads to big smiles, as he makes the characters irresistible.

The latest cast is luminous. Benanti never fears looking silly. She’ll dance on a bed, bounce around like Tigger from Winnie the Pooh, and do anything for a fresh joke. Her soprano voice as always is pristine. Levi makes a winning Georg. His voice is strong, he acts like Peck’s bad boy when taunting Amalia, and he even manages summersaults in the title number. Jane Krakowski, always a delight, is darling as the shop worker romancing caddish Gavin Creel. She focuses on the little gestures. She taps her fingers each time she says “optometrist” to make sure she pronounces it correctly. During “Twelve Days to Christmas,” her ritual of prancing into a cloud of perfume like Giselle gets hilariously more labored as the store gets chaotic in last-minute shopping. Creel is devilish as the snide and hypersexual Kodaly.
   David Rockwell’s set is a doll house that opens up into the sparkling perfumery. Though this is not a heavy dance show, Warren Carlyle’s choreography is sprightly and sexy, particularly when Krakowski and Creel tango and at the restaurant when the patrons turn dinner into a PG-rated orgy.
   This fathom filming, directed by David Horn and edited by Gary Bradley and Laura Young, is never intrusive. The filmmakers allow the performers breathing room and don’t turn the presentation into an MTV rapid-fire horror show in which the audience cannot follow the action because of quick edits and confusing cinematography. The director trusts the production to delight audiences.
   For the glory of theater, one performance from every show should be filmed and broadcast to theaters. So many splendid performances are missing and haven’t been savored by more than several hundred a night. One hopes that this trend will expand over time and even to performances from past decades that had been filmed for posterity: Angela Lansbury in Gypsy, or John Raitt in Carousel, or even some of the notorious bombs like Grind or Taboo.

December 6, 2016
 
Middle photo: Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi
Bottom photo: Gavin Creel and Jane Krakowski
 
Editor's note: This review was revised to delete an inaccurate reference to "Not Since Carrie."
 

 
Broadcast Review

The Audience

NT Live

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz


Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II

In a move that should be more widespread for the sake of our culture, the National Theater Live, through Fathom Events, broadcasts original-cast productions taped before live audiences, airing them in movie theaters around the world. Widening exposure to great performances for people who may never have the opportunity to see acting talents like Benedict Cumberbatch, Johnny Lee Miller, Helen Mirren, and James Corden in live theater, is a godsend. However, seeing a filmed play has its limitations, even an esteemed play like Peter Morgan’s The Audience starring Helen Mirren. A performance that may have dazzled theater audiences doesn’t always translate to the filmed medium.
   Expanding beyond the relationship between Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth II explored in Morgan’s film The Queen, The Audience focuses on Queen Elizabeth‘s dealings with most of the other 11 prime ministers she worked with from 1953 (Winston Churchill) to 2016 (David Cameron). As a courtesy, once each week, the sovereign meets privately with the current PM to catch up on the week’s activities. Morgan’s play presupposes what conversations Queen Elizabeth partook with the 11 men and one woman who held the elected post and constitutionally outranked her. The Broadway version included a scene with Blair; however the original London production, filmed here, excludes him. Morgan’s play may be a feast for anglophiles; but, for those not up on all the machinations of 20th- and 21st-century UK history, scenes may confuse them. Because the movie audience do not receive playbills, chyrons on screen of dates and name of the prime minister in each scene would have been helpful. Though a keen observer will eventually catch on, viewers may overthink these details when they should be listening to the dialogue.
   Morgan intercuts the sequences between Elizabeth and her PMs with imagined conversations she has with three younger versions of herself. Because Elizabeth was once a scared girl, unprepared to be heir presumptive, these scenes are touching and draw the audience toward the protagonist. Because Morgan is fictionalizing unrecorded historical moments, the audience must have pure faith that his imagination fits the facts. Some of the dialogue and moments, like Elizabeth nodding off mid-conversation, do not ring true.

Shockingly, however, the biggest issue here is Mirren’s performance. Because she played the role for four months at the Gielgud Theatre in the West End before this particular performance was taped, her voice modulations and facial expressions were formed for those in the back rows. Her stage performance does not modulate for the camera zoomed up close. She repeatedly mugs for the camera. She also trips over her lines several times. Her Elizabeth appears inconsistent from scene to scene, not like a woman maturing but like multiple personalities. In one scene, she seems to be channeling Nancy Kulp’s butch Miss Jane Hathaway from The Beverly Hillbillies.
   The rest of the cast is excellent, particularly Richard McCabe, as her favored PM, Harold Wilson, whose small-town sensibilities and compassion make him a darling character. Though overshadowed by Meryl Streep’s definitive performance in Iron Lady, Haydn Gwynne is hilarious as the supercilious Margaret Thatcher, who treats the queen like a naughty little child. Maya Gerber, Bebe Cave, and Nell Williams are rambunctious but heartfelt as the younger versions of Mirren’s character.
   Because of the nature of filming, this broadcast lacks the spark of live theater felt between an actor and the audience. It’s also dangerous when the filming director chooses the angle and the specific character the audiences should focus on. For example, the play emphasizes the ingenuity of changing Mirren‘s costumes and aging or regressing her in plain sight. The broadcast even has a segment during the intermission spotlighting the magic of these changes. However, in one transition, before Elizabeth clashes with Thatcher, her costume change, though onstage, is not on camera.

Filmed performances—including The Audience and other NTLive programs Frankenstein, Hamlet, and One Man, Two Guvnors, are gateways to expose youth and other audiences to theater in its prime. Hopefully, after viewing one of the screenings, people will journey to their local theaters, or Broadway, or the West End, to witness that magic of the live stage. Though the NTLive shows are a great introduction, there is nothing more thrilling than the symbiotic relationship between an actor and its audience.

July 22, 2016
 

 

 
Broadcast Review

 
Miss Saigon
Fathom Events Broadcast

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz



The cast of Miss Saigon in “The American Dream”

On Sept. 22, 2014, the international hit musical Miss Saigon reached an epoch. It had opened at London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane 25 years before, to become a phenomenon on the West End, on Broadway, and throughout the world. Producer Cameron Mackintosh in conjunction with Universal Pictures filmed the event, and while the filming raises artistic concerns, they captured an arresting evening: the fully staged production of the West End Revival starring a soaring Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer and a luminous Eva Noblezada as the tragic Kim.
   Based on Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, Miss Saigon follows the star-crossed lovers Kim, a virginal bar dancer, and Chris (Alistair Brammer), an American GI Marine, as Saigon crumbles around them in 1975. As the Americans retreat, Chris is forced to abandon Kim and return home. Kim must survive in the newly communist country, poor and hounded by an officer from her past. Her only comforts are her dreams of reuniting with her young soldier and sharing the present he once gave her.
   Following their blockbuster Les Misérables, composers Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg followed up with this epic modern opera of lush melodies and heightened anthems. ‘‘I’d Give My Life For You,” “I Still Believe,” and “Dju Vui Vai” are some of the most heartfelt songs of the 20th century, comparable to Rodgers’s and Kern’s best. They are counterbalanced by the Engineer’s “If You Want to Die in Bed,” “What a Waste,” and “The American Dream,” twisty tunes dripping with satire. Much of the translated lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. rely too heavily on strained metaphors and weak rhymes, but there’s truth and anguish in the songs.

The revival, which is captured on this film, stirs the pot of emotions. The cast is exemplary. Briones excels at the impossible job of keeping The Engineer both vile and captivating. He sells our heroine to prostitution, pulls a knife on her, sells her out to a monster, and uses her continuously, yet the audience is fascinated by him. Both the slithering snake and the sniping mongoose, The Engineer in Briones’s hands is magnetic. Noblezada’s voice conveys hope and agony, turning Kim into a quintessential heroine. Brammer is weighed down with a thankless role, as Chris is rarely a character worth investing in, but Brammer has a quality voice. Of the supporting cast, Rachelle Ann Go stands out with the heartbreaking “Movie in My Mind.” Kwang-Ho Hong adds ambitious layers to the usually one-noted villain Thuy; his vocal and facial intensity reveals a shattered ego, one that discovers that no matter how much power he seizes, he never can have what he wishes. The ensemble sounds commanding in group numbers like “The Morning of the Dragon” and “Bui Doi.”
   Director Laurence Connor creates a multimedia experience with projections, a cinematic set by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley, and claustrophobic lighting designed by Bruno Poet, where the light hits the bamboo giving the illusion of prison bars in the muck of the destitute Vietnamese villages. As this is the 25th anniversary, the film treats the audience to original stars Jonathan Pryce (The Engineer), Lea Salonga (Kim), and Simon Bowman (Chris) singing their original songs, sometimes in conjunction with the revival stars.
After such a heavy evening, the original actors bring levity by goofing around, swapping co-stars, and teasing their replacements.


Unfortunately, the evening’s only issues are the filming itself. Directed by Brett Sullivan, the camera relies too often on close-ups and fast MTV edits, so that the viewers’ eyes barely have time to absorb the action. The opening number, “The Heat Is On,” suffers most from this. The camera needs to push out and give the viewers a chance to get their bearing. Sullivan also over-utilized superimpositions with a main character singing in focus and other action on the stage overlaid on top of them. Sometimes the effect is successful, such as in “The Fall of Saigon” where the cast appears to be hundreds desperately scurrying around, as the iconic helicopter descends. Most unsatisfying, the cinematographer constantly decapitates heads when protagonists sang. Brammer spends half of “Why, God, Why” without a scalp. Why, God, why indeed.
   Technical issues aside, the capturing of Miss Saigon’s 25th Anniversary show will expose a popular show to audiences across the world who would normally be introduced to Chris, Kim, and the Engineer in the theater basement of a church or a rec room with only a piano to guide the singers. More talent-filled musicals should be available to the public. The musical is America’s amazing contribution to the theater, and too many brilliant performances have been lost forever.


September 25, 2016
 
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