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"Fascinating Aida" Is Clever Satire

Written by Dillie Keane & Adèle Anderson
Directed by Frank Thompson

For over a quarter of a century, a trio of witty Brits has been amusing audiences with pointed political musical satire and a few jabs at social mores. The latest version, Fascinating Aïda – Absolutely Miraculous, in the Brits Off Broadway Festival includes some numbers that you won’t find even from hot American satirists.

Early '80s trio members Dillie Keane and Adèle Anderson are joined by new trooper Liza Pullman in a collection of clever skits that sometimes recall the classical American satirist Tom Lehrer, occasionally reach heights Lehrer never dreamed off, and sometimes, alas, descend to a vulgarity that belongs in Broadway comedy clubs.

The writers are Keane, the pianist with a dry demeanor and perpetual scowl, a founder of the group, and Anderson, who came a year later. The director is Frank Thompson, who turns the theater production into fast-paced cabaret.

At the best are satirical jabs at the financial crisis, "The Markets"; a sharp poke at celebrities, "I Just Want to Be Famous"; and a hysterically funny clever send-up of Marlene Dietrich, Lotte Lenya and German songstresses, "Lieder." These are so good, that it’s almost churlish to mention downsides.

The show starts with the delicious "I Just Want to Be Famous," including "I’m going out in a see-through dress and underwear by Prada; Got myself snapped at the latest club in a very provocative pose …And if I’m not in the papers tomorrow, next night I’ll try harder, dancing on the bar with Mickey Rourke wearing even fewer clothes. Oh, it isn’t too late, it isn’t too late, it isn’t too late to be famous."

Well, those are the slightly tacky wannabe’s. But what about the left-liberal good guys? Listen to "White’s Blues": "We vacation in Mauritius, yes, I know it’s a very long flight; But we pay our carbon offsets, so that makes it all right; Ooh, I ain’t got the blues, I’ve got those we’re helping local economies by supporting eco-tourism; Well-meaning Times-reading whites."

And "If they drill for oil in Alaska, it’s an ecological bummer; but it would be so inconvenient if I couldn’t drive my Hummer.  Ooh, I ain’t got the blues, I’ve got those actually, it balances out, ’cause the nanny’s car is tiny, socially sensitive whites."

"Lieder" is a brilliant parody, but it’s more than the words, it’s the actions of the singers who are a hoot as they perch on chairs with their legs aloft akimbo. "It doesn’t matter if you sing out of tune, so long as you’re German…. (off key) . …So if your voice sounds like it’s coming through a strainer, sing it out of sync, like Marlene, and soon you’ll be compared to Lotte Lenya… who was Austrian."

There’s a series of Elizabethan airs that lampoon politicians and other worthy targets. "Carla Bruni! Carla Bruni! She makes men feel swoony….nothing that she does could ever cause affront, even though she’s married to that Gallic runt." And "Tony Blair’s got a vital job, oh…In which to make his mark; Bringing peace to Israel oy…Just like he did in Iraq. Ululate."

Pulman has a very fine soprano, though my attention was distracted by the fact that both her costumes had necklines of the sort that threaten wardrobe malfunctions. Adèle and Dillie seemed content to direct attention to their voices and acting.

I didn’t like crude sexual numbers such as "Chastity (begins in public)"  and "Dogging,"which belong in comedy clubs or frat houses. Such audiences never heard of Carla Bruni or Tony Blair. Fascinating Aïda sometimes seems confused about who her/their audience is.

Let me end with "The Markets" because it is so right-on — I know because I’m writing about this now in my investigative journalist's life. To the tune of the Major General's Song from Gilbert and Sullivan's 1879 comic opera, The Pirates of Penzance:

"Derivatives are monetary instrument, to put it very neatly:
But unlike stocks and shares the actual value comes from something else completely;
The value of derivatives derive, you see, from value underlying
And are often used to lessen risk for speculators selling and/or buying;
Now value can be notional or market and those values never meet
In addition, only market value gets recorded on the balance sheet;
Oh, and a sell is not a sell, it’s called a put, just as a buy is called a call;
And thus anything you call, you’d better put before the prices start to fall."

And next there’s short selling and hedge funds and more. To get it, you have to be au courant enough to know what they are talking about, which admittedly is not most of the audience. But take it from me, Fascinating Aïda understands (and skewers) the financial system as well as any financial analyst.

Fascinating Aïda
59 East 59th Street
New York City
Opened December 17, 2009; closes January 3, 2010

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Photo credit: Andy Bradshaw


Visionary View of "Ragtime" America

Book by Terrence McNally
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge

Starring Quentin Earl Darrington, Jonathan Hammond, Donna Migliaccio, Michael X. Martin, Aaron Galligan-Stierle, Robert Petkoff, Savannah Wise, Mike McGowan, Eric Jordan Young

The power and sweep of Ragtime take your breath away. The mix of true history and invention yields a bittersweet story anchored in the panorama of American history.

It is the early 1900s in New Rochelle. The upper-class white family and their friends — dressed in white — cakewalk and sing of their bucolic lives in the Westchester suburbs. We learn, through Lynn Ahrens’s lyrics, that there were ladies with parasols, fellows with tennis balls, but, “There were no Negroes.” Not in New Rochelle.

Shift to Harlem, where Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Darrington) is playing ragtime for pulsating black dancers.

“And there were no immigrants.” The set by Derek McLane is a multilevel iron structure that invokes Pennsylvania Station which was completed in 1910 and was called a “civic masterpiece.”

Above, on a high walkway, a stream of new arrivals swathed in dark clothes (costumes by Santo Loquasto) and clutching bundles moves wondrously into a new world. Harry Houdini (Hammond), born the Jew Eric Weiss in Austria, drops in from the sky, upside down.

And the militant Emma Goldman (Migliaccio) denounces the capitalist exploiters, J.P. Morgan (Martin) and Henry Ford (Galligan-Stierle).

That’s just the opening of this inspiring revival of the musical by Terrence McNally, based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel.
Marcia Milgrom Dodge has directed and choreographed it with poetry, style and elegance, pulling together the strands of Doctorow’s interwoven narratives so that the pastiche makes a rich fabric of early 20th-century America.

The characters are meant as symbols, as the play mixes real people with invented ones, true events with imaginary ones. The fictional people come from three families—upper-middle class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, immigrant socialist Jews from Latvia, and Harlem blacks.  They represent American dreams: the woman who feels hemmed in by her status as a wife, an immigrant hoping for a better life, a black man seeking equality.

The sound and beat that backdrops the story is ragtime, a new music that represented new attitudes. It was a metaphor for Doctorow, who said that taking the imagery of a rag bin of threads and tatters of images and ideas, he wanted to look at the disparate, conflicting and intersecting strands of humanity that made up America at the turn of the century. It was a time when European immigration peaked, as in 1907, 1.2 million immigrants arrived at Ellis Island. Labor struggles were endemic. Racism was virulent.

The dramatic vignettes are interspersed seamlessly as the story builds to interconnect the lives of the rich whites, the blacks, the immigrants to create one fabric. The story is gripping.

The interweaving of the true and invented give the play both a personal emotion and verisimilitude, each strand strengthening the other. McNally is faithful to the story and to what Doctorow wanted to say. It is a masterful combination.

Real figures include Emma Goldman, powerfully drawn by Donna Migliaccio, as the radical union organizer speaking for the rights of workers, including the immigrants who traded bad times in Europe for misery on the Lower East Side. Her Union Square rally is broken up by violent police.

She had her work cut out for her in this time of industrialization and the assembly line. J.P. Morgan wears a top hat and fur lapel, while workers struggle to get their fair share. Doctorow’s hero Tateh (Petkoff) arrives from Latvia, but leaves the jobless Lower East Side for a mill in Lawrence, Mass. Striking workers there are attacked by thugs and cops.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, frivolity reigns. Evelyn Nesbit (played with sharp humor by Wise), the chorus-girl wife of millionaire Harry Thaw (Josh Walden), who inherited a coke and railroad fortune, finds fame in a sex scandal. Thaw kills architect Stanford White (McGowan), who had once been Nesbit’s lover.

The trial filled the tabloids, and Evelyn milks it in a vaudeville act. Mother’s Younger Brother (Bobby Steggert) falls in love with Nesbit, but then goes to the Goldman rally. Steggert is appealing as the young fellow who has compassion for the suffering workers and swaps frivolous infatuation for radical politics.

In the race strand, Doctorow’s ragtime pianist Coalhouse has fallen in love with Sarah (Stephanie Umoh),given shelter by Mother (Christiane Noll) while Father (Ron Bohmer) is away with Admiral Peary on an expedition to the North Pole. Returning from New Rochelle in his Model-T, Coalhouse is stopped by racists of the Emerald Isle fire house, who set in motion heartbreaking events that destroy his dreams. He vows revenge.

We hear the Negro leader Booker T. Washington (Young) preach non-violent forbearance and see the dénouement occurs symbolically at J.P. Morgan’s Library on Madison Avenue and 35th Street.

The story shows the tragedies that ensued during the struggle for justice. But it also points to the transformative power of the new world. Mother challenges patriarchy.

She sings, "I was content, a princess asleep and enchanted. If I had dreams, then I let you dream them for me.” Those were “the days when I let you make all my choices.” She recalls, “I was your wife. It never occurred to want more.” But, “We can never go back to before.” Now, everything is possible.

The singing is first rate, including Mother/Noll’s bell soprano, Father/Bohmer’s tenor and Booker T. Washington/Young’s excellent baritone. Migliaccio is especially strong as Emma Goldman, Darrington, rent by fury, and Umoh, driven by desperation, are a moving couple as Coalhouse and Sarah.

Stephen Flaherty’s music expertly describes the characters and the mood. There is a charming jazzy idiom of ragtime and gospel. They are interspersed with anthems, operetta-style waltzes and genteel parlor songs. The choreography is bright and memorable, mixing the styles of the different social groups till they are woven into a new 20th century fashion. This is one of the important plays of American musical theater.

Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
New York City
Opened November 15, 2009

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Kevin’s Digital Week #6

Blu-ray of the Week
The Mel Brooks Collection
Although his comedies grew increasingly spotty in their laughs over the years, at his best in the mid to late ‘70s, Mel Brooks made audience-pleasing farces combining crude belly laughs with sophisticated movie-buff humor. This deluxe boxed set houses eight Brooks-directed films and a mediocre remake of To Be or Not to Be (1983) starring Brooks and wife Anne Bancroft that was directed by Alan Johnson.

The Twelve Chairs
(1970), History of the World—Part I (1981), Spaceballs (1987) and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) alternate gutbusters with desperately unfunny segments, while the big four—Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (both 1974), Silent Movie (1976) and High Anxiety (1977)—can be watched again and again without sacrificing hilarity. Brooks was never a primarily visual director, so aside from sharper clarity, the Blu-ray transfers aren’t that much better than the original DVDs: with the stunning exception of Young Frankenstein, whose lustrous B&W photography looks so beautiful that you might find yourself admiring it at the expense of the comedy.

No matter: just watch it again. The discs are housed in an impressive coffee-table box which includes a full-color 120-page book about Brooks’ career. Extras include commentaries, interviews and deleted scenes, including six new making-of featurettes.

DVD of the Week
The Golden Age of Television
Even for a company like the Criterion Collection, which releases classic films every month, The Golden Age of Television is a big deal. This three-disc set collects eight full-length plays originally shown live on television in the ‘50s, then shown on PBS in the ‘80s with introductions and recollections from various principals.

The plays include Rod Serling’s biting drama Patterns, Paddy Chayefsky’s groundbreaking Marty, and three other hard-hitting works, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Days of Wine and Roses and Bang the Drum Slowly, the last of which stars a dynamic young actor named Paul Newman.

Watching these old kinescopes (the audio and visual quality is substandard, but since that’s all that survives of these live performances, we should be grateful for what we have) is an evocative experience, especially when watching such splendid performers as Rod Steiger, Richard Kiley, Ed Begley, Jack Palance, Kim Hunter, Piper Laurie and Cliff Robertson play meaty roles in dramatic plays that would never be shown on TV today. Extras include commentaries by directors John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann, Ralph Nelson and Daniel Petrie, and cast and crew interviews.

"Up in the Air" Soars

Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kirn
Starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, J.K. Simmons, Sam Elliott, Danny McBride, Zach Galifianakis

Jason Reitman's bitterly funny Up in the Air, adapted from the novel by Walter Kirn, rests on the shoulders of George Clooney, who lends his considerable charisma to the charming but loathsome "termination facilitator" Ryan Bingham, who shatters lives with an air of practiced camaraderie then hops the next plane out of town.

Bingham is the organization man par excellence, a sleek, rootless corporate fast-gun whose life is built on freedom from excess baggage. Bingham loves the anonymity of airport hotels and the promise of gates and jetways, the restless movement and the comfort of crowds. All the material things he needs fit into one rolling suitcase; his emotional ties...  well, he's pared them all away: His parents are dead, he's never been married or had children, politely ignores his sisters and their families and keeps his love life strictly utilitarian. His ideal woman is fellow traveler Alex "Think of Me as You with a Vagina" Goran (Farmiga), whose idea of commitment is scheduling the next smoking-hot rendezvous in an anonymous airport hotel. Bingham's holy grail is the 10 million frequent-flyer miles that will elevate him to super-deluxe, elite passenger status.

When Bingham isn't firing shell-shocked workers with polished platitudes — "Everyone who's ever changed the world or founded an empire has sat where you're sitting," he purrs, deflecting fears of penury and humiliation with the assurance that the one-size-fits-all severance packet contains all the information the newly unemployed need to make lemonade from lemons — he?s polishing the motivational shtick he hopes will make him rich and famous. "How much does your life weigh," his rap begins, as he hefts a metaphorically freighted backpack. Friends, family, homes and keepsakes, Bingham says, are the deadwood that keep us from achieving our full potential. Empty the backpack of your life and the possibilities are endless.

Bingham's rude awakening comes in the form of fresh-faced go-getter Natalie Keener (Kendrick), who's convinced his boss (Bateman) that the future of firing is teleconferencing. Goodbye travel expenses, per diems and hotel bills; Bingham and his fellow high-flying hatchet men can park their suitcases and work out of the home office in Denver. Of course, for all her pluck and book smarts, Keener lacks field experience — she's never sat across a table from someone whose years of acquired experience, loyalty and hard work have just evaporated in te face of restructuring, right-sizing or outsourcing. Which is why Bingham is assigned to spend his last footloose and fancy-free days teaching her the ropes.

Reitman's gift is that he can turn bitter, unpalatable material into mainstream movies fodder without stripping away the bite; Thank You For Smoking (2005) and Juno (2007) could be tougher, but they could also be feel-good Hollywood pablum or indie darlings that play a handful of markets and vanish into the home-entertainment morass. Up in the Air is hugely entertaining: Clooney, Farmiga and Kendrick, a relative newcomer whose precocious resume includes a Tony Award nomination at age 12, have the kind of sparkling chemistry that makes narrative twists go down like caviar chased with perfectly dry champagne.

But there's an underlying weight, and it's more than fortuitous timing — if you can use the word "fortuitous" in connection with Up in the Air's opening in the middle of a major economic meltdown that's left almost 25,000,000 Americans un- or under-employed. Reitman's decision to cast real, recently unemployed people as a Greek chorus gives the film a poignant weight. Their improvised scenes seethe with emotionally stunning shock, fear, despair and anger that cuts through reality-TV induced cynicism and cuts right to the bone.

For more by Maitland McDonagh:

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