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Music and lyrics by Rodgers & Hammerstein; directed by Daniel Fish
Opened April 7, 2019
Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Daunno in Oklahoma! (photo: Little Fang Photo)
That exclamation point looms large in the title of Oklahoma!, as if the creators of this misbegotten revival are protesting too much: “Trust us—we love this classic musical as much as everyone else does!” But what’s onstage suggests otherwise, as director Daniel Fish’s gimcrack deconstruction substitutes loads of gimmickry for originality.
For starters, the house lights stay on for much of the performance, except twice when the stage goes completely black and we only hear dialogue spoken through hand-held mikes for maximum aural effect. But the dramatic impact is minimal, because the performers’ droning voices undercut Fish’s intent by making the scenes affectless. Similarly, an important moment is played out in front of cameras recording the actors in close-up, who are projected onto a wall, but the lack of sufficiently varied emoting has an unfortunate effect on the promised edginess.
The down-home vibe starts with picnic tables and folding chairs arrayed around the stage, with audience members seated in some of those chairs. (Crockpots labeled “HOT” sit on the tables, and chili and cornbread are served to audience members at intermission.) But the racks of guns so ostentatiously displayed on the theater’s walls only underscore the obvious point that the wide-open prairies—an example of which is seen in a wall projection—are also dangerous. The director also substitutes a gun for a knife in his botching of the show’s tragic finale when hero Curly’s rival Jud ends up dead.
There are good moments by Ali Stroker in a boisterous, if at times shrill, portrayal of man-chaser Ado Annie, while Will Brill wrings a few laughs out of traveling salesman Ali Hakim. But Mary Testa can’t help but camp it up as a caricature of Aunt Eller, Rebecca Naomi Jones is an unusually sullen heroine Laurey, and Damon Daunno is a pretty charmless Curly whose facility with a guitar is his best attribute. Despite the #sexyoklahoma hashtag on social media, there’s little spark between the pair; that they get together at all is more because they have to than they make a plausible case for it.
A seven-member band of mandolin, fiddle, cello, accordion, guitars, double bass, and drums plays the classic songs in sometimes refreshingly simple arrangements. But for the most part, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s timeless tunes survive mainly on the audience’s goodwill. Finally, the Dream Ballet—made indelible by Agnes DeMille and here danced with frenzied assurance by Gabrielle Hamilton in John Heginbotham’s muddy new choreography—says less about what Oklahoma! means to us now than it appears to, something which goes for the entire production.
Circle in the Square Theater, 1633 Broadway, New York, NY
Blu-rays of the Week
The Kid Who Would Be King
Writer-director Joe Cornish’s follow-up to his diverting 2011 mess Attack the Block is an enjoyable but overlong young adult tale about a 12-year-old missing his absent father who’s chosen by the wizard Merlin to retrieve the sword Excalibur and amass a group of skeptical schoolmates to battle the forces of darkness led by the sorceress Morgana.
While the kids’ interactions are amusing and there are enchanting moments, the movie runs out of steam well before the overblown fight sequences that marry overloaded CGI to pretty ridiculous plotting. There’s a sparkling hi-def transfer; extras include deleted scenes and featurettes.
The Aspern Papers
Henry James’ stories have made bumpy transitions from page to screen, and this adaptation of his novel about a young American visiting Venice who delves into the life of a famous European poet who discovers secrets about the poet’s now-aged muse and her spinster niece—is the inauspicious debut of cowriter-director Julien Landais.
The film looks magnificent and the acting of Joely Richardson and her real-life mother Vanessa Redgrave has the necessary gravitas, but Jonathan Rhys-Myers seems uncomfortable with a flat American accent and dour countenance, and Landais’ fuzzy direction doesn’t help. It looks enticing enough on Blu; lone extra is a conversation among Landais, producer Gabriela Bacher and executive producer James Ivory.
The Glass Bottom Boat
1973’s Cleopatra Jones is a mediocre crime drama starring Tamara Dobson as the title detective who uses unorthodox methods to track down suspects; there’s not much to it except for a weirdly funny turn by Shelley Winters as a psychotic mob boss.
Similarly, Doris Day and Rod Taylor can’t overcome a leering, idiotic script in Frank Tashlin’s 1966’s would-be comedy The Glass Bottom Boat, which also wastes ace laugh-getters as Dom DeLuise, Paul Lynne and Dick Martin. Even Catalina Island off the southern California coast doesn’t look appealing. Both films have superb hi-def transfers; Boat extras comprise three vintage film-related featurettes and the 1967 Chuck Jones animated short, The Dot and the Line.
Emmanuel Chabrier’s frothy opera bouffe gets a glitzy staging at Dutch National Opera in 2014 by director Laurent Pally, who makes the crazed plot about a mad monarch looking for someone in his kingdom to execute as effervescent as Chabrier’s radiant score.
The music is played with panache by The Hague’s resident orchestra under conductor Patrick Fournillier, while vocal standouts are Christophe Montagne as the king and Stephanie d’Oustrac as the princess. Hi-def video and audio are ideal.
Project Blue Book—Complete 1st Season
This sci-fi series featuring the investigations of UFO detective J. Allen Hynek begins when his career does, studying curious cases of paranormal activity in the ‘50s and ‘60s while he’s with the U.S. Air Force. Despite such a taut subject, the series never catches fire as it balances its investigatory aspects with its hero’s mundane domestic matters.
The man who did so much to further the legitimacy of UFOs (he even had a cameo in Steven Spielberg’s classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind) deserves a more substantive vehicle: even Aiden Gillen’s portrayal of Hynek seems unnecessarily subdued. The hi-def transfer is excellent.
Victoria—Complete 3rd Season
In this absorbing historical drama’s third season, the young queen shows her experience and mettle in a fraught year—1848—that sees upheaval throughout Europe.
The riveting Jenna Coleman easily carries the weight of the drama, and she’s ably complemented by such actors as Laurence Fox, Kate Fleetwood, Alex Jennings and Tom Hughes, her beloved Albert, who collapses on the floor in season’s final moments. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras include interviews and featurettes.
DVDs of the Week
In a drama not sordid enough to be a guilty pleasure but not deep enough to be taken seriously, four young women unable to find decent work start a website and make money off desperate men willing to pay for online pleasure.
Mirca Viola directs unsubtly, which is too bad because despite the exploitative subject, the actresses are capable of providing substance to what could be merely male fantasies: Alessia Piovan, Sveva Alviti, Ilaria Capponi and especially Antonia Liskova as the brains behind the outfit deserve better.
New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan worked in government for decades—eventually retiring and giving his senate seat over to Hillary Clinton—and died at age 76 in 2003, so it’s something of a miracle that directors Joseph Dorman and Toby Perl Freilich are able to touch on so much of his eventful career in this absorbing documentary portrait.
Moynihan was a complicated man, at times on the wrong side of issues, notably race—as such evenhanded commentators as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton discuss—but he could also forge compromises to keep the country moving forward, something we are sorely in need of right now.
CD of the Week
Uncompromising modernist composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann, who committed suicide in 1970 at age 52, was best known for his hard-to-perform opera Die Soldaten, which requires massive orchestral, vocal and staging forces. Zimmermann made his mark in many genres, as this excellent new disc attests.
Dazzling soloist Leila Josefowicz easily dispatches the murderous Violin Concerto, in which Zimmermann’s unlikely penchant for jazz rhythms sneak in; the vocal symphony from Die Soldaten is a mesmerizing piece of music, alternately biting and brooding. Conductor Hannu Lintu, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and vocal soloists do justice to some fiercely difficult music.
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations
Book by Dominique Morrisseau; songs from the Motown catalog; directed by Des McAnuff
Opened March 21, 2019
Jukebox musicals are proliferating so quickly on Broadway that it’s hard to keep up. It’s also difficult to decide how to rate them: because the songs are already good? Or the show incorporates the music well? Or the overall design doesn’t insult one’s intelligence? Well, it may have its faults—especially playwright Dominique Morrisseau’s by-the-numbers book—but Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, is a qualified success.
The group’s story is told through the eyes (and narration) of Otis Williams, the band’s leader, as we see him growing up in hardscrabble Detroit and how music became his sole salvation (along with so many other young men). Ain’t Too Proud plots a familiar trajectory—local popularity, then discovery by Motown impresario Clive Davis, followed by popular success, personal animosities, breakdowns, breakups, tragedies, reunions, and a final legacy—but it still motors along entertainingly.
It works for several reasons. Sergio Trujillo’s often ingenious choreography takes the archetypal Temptations stage moves from their TV and concert appearances and multiplies them winningly throughout the show. Des McAnuff’s direction, snappy and slick without becoming superficial, keeps it all moving briskly whenever well-worn tropes rear their heads. And the tunes themselves are a virtual compendium of the best of Motown, from the group’s number-one singles like “My Girl” and “Just My Imagination” to darker—but still hugely popular—hits like “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” the latter a highlight of the show with its pointed commentary on an era swirling around Vietnam and other societal ills.
The first-rate cast sings with freshness and a keen respect for the originals yet makes these soul standards their very own. Derrick Baskin’s Otis is a perfectly brooding narrator; other standouts are the troubled but charismatic David Ruffin of Ephraim Sykes and Eddie Kendricks of Jeremy Pope. Ain’t Too Proud is a jukebox musical no one would be embarrassed to attend.
Ain’t Too Proud
Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street, New York, NY
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