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Digital Week 23: Global Hits

Blu-ray of the Week
Saving Private Ryan

Steven Spielberg won his second Best Director Oscar for this World War II epic, which alternates between hard-hitting, tautly exciting battle sequences and the usual Spielbergian sentimentality. With Janusz Kaminski's brilliantly desaturated color photography and Michael Kahn's usual razor-sharp editing, Spielberg concocts a brutal opening montage of the carnage that the Allied soldiers landing on Normandy's beaches on D-Day were subjected to by German fire. But after this much-lauded prologue — which has little to do with the movie’s plot — Saving Private Ryan hunkers down to become a standard-issue soldier's story. 

 Despite its conventionality—so many visuals are straight out of Full Metal Jacket that the probable reason Stanley Kubrick didn't raise an eyebrow was because he and Spielberg were friends and it was an homage — Saving Private Ryan is saved by its utter conviction that Mom and apple pie are American ideals worth fighting for. There have been many deserved accolades for Spielberg and star Tom Hanks popularizing the “Greatest Generation” moniker that culminated in a long-overdue WWII memorial in Washington, DC.

And now we have the Blu-ray release, in which the movie's documentary-style technique looks more realistic than ever, with perfect amounts of grain. Unfortunately, the disc’s initial release was marred by an audio defect: the corrected version has a yellow UPC label to distinguish it. Special features include a Spielberg introduction, several featurettes, and Shooting War, about combat photographers, hosted by Hanks. 

DVD of the Week
La Pasión según San Marcos


Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov has done what very few contemporary classical composers have been able to: he’s written a work that’s gotten the musical community excited, and looks to have a life beyond what most new works receive. La Pasion segun San Marcus / The Passion of Saint Mark has earned plaudits for encompassing classical music and Latin American and indigenous Cuban music, along with the unique sights, sounds and accents of Latin street life.


The DVD of Pasion, recorded in Holland in 2008, makes the best possible case for the work. Conducting is one of its biggest advocates, Robert Spano, who led the New York premiere in 2002; a stellar singing cast—both soloists and chorus members—and superb orchestral playing alleviate concerns about stylistic clashes throughout the work: this Pasion definitely stirs the soul. In addition to the DVD, two CDs of the entire work, played and recorded in the studio, are included, but the studio version lacks the live performance’s passionate intensity.


CD of the Week

The Essential Carole King



Singer-composer Carole King’s dazzling career is now five decades old, and this two-CD set is a nice overview, especially in light of her current “Troubador” tour with James Taylor (who appears on one of the tracks collected here, a wonderful duet from a 1971 Carnegie Hall concert, a medley of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow/Some Kind of Wonderful/Up on the Roof”).


Disc one, “The Singer,” begins with King’s first chart hit in 1962, “It Might As Well Rain Until September,” and ends with undistinguished duets with the likes of BabyfaceCeline and Dion. In between is the bread and butter of King’s career until now: four smashes from her classic 1971 album Tapestry, “I Feel the Earth Move,” “So Far Away,” “It's Too Late” and “You've Got a Friend.” Her early-70s streak continued with Top 10 hits “Sweet Seasons,” “Jazzman” and “Nightingale,” and if her popularity tailed off after that, there are arty compensations, like the two tracks from 1975’s Really Rosie co-written with children's author Maurice Sendak: “Really Rosie” and “Pierre.”


Disc two, “The Songwriter,” features hits she penned with partner Gerry Goffin, beginning with The Shirelles' number-one cover of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (1960). Other Number Ones followed: Bobby Vee's “Take Good Care of My Baby” (1961) and Little Eva's “The Locomotion” (1962; also became another number-one smash a decade later by Grand Funk Railroad). Then there are “One Fine Day” by the Chiffons, “Just Once in My Life” by the Righteous Brothers, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” by the Monkees and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin. For good measure, a more recent cover of “Hey Girl” by Billy Joel is thrown in.

Opera Review: A Lulu of a "Lulu"

LuluMarlis Petersen

Composed by Alban Berg

Conducted by Fabio Luisi
Directed by John Dexter

Starring Marlis Petersen, Anne Sofie von Otter, Gary Lehman, Michael Schade, Bradley Garvin, James Morris 

She made a memorable Met debut in an otherwise middling Hamlet as Ophelia, but it’s in the title role of Alban Berg’s Lulu that German soprano Marlis Petersen shows that she belongs in opera’s big leagues, a true superstar in the making.


Berg's grim but glorious-sounding 12-tone opera is based on Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays about an amoral woman whose wiles entice men (and women) to their deaths, only to meet her demise at the hands of Jack the Ripper in Victorian London. Done infrequently at the Met, Lulu is one of the few “must-see” 20th century operas to be regularly performed, so seeing John Dexter’s elegant 30-year-old production is always a treat. Fabio Luisi’s supple conducting coaxes all of the varied musicality out of Berg’s rugged score, reaching its apogee in the brilliantly orchestrated interludes that nod toward the composer’s gorgeous Violin Concerto.


Although stars appear in pivotal supporting roles (Anne Sofie von Otter as Princess Geschwitz, James Morris as both Dr. Schön and, in the final scene, Lulu’s killer), it’s Petersen, traversing Berg’s sadistically difficult vocal writing with apparent ease, who makes this a lulu of a Lulu. A tall, handsome woman whose great legs become a pivotal point of this production—of course our Lulu must be irresistible!—Petersen also has impeccable singing and acting chops, letting the audience follow this atonal anti-heroine to the depths of hell in a tragically inevitable climax  to Berg’s musically and dramatically exhilarating four-hour journey. I’m sure most Lulu lovers would gladly follow Petersen again and again.



Metropolitan Opera

Lincoln Center

New York, NY

Performances on May 8, 12, 15, 2010

Theater Review: Adopting "The Kid"

The KidThe Kid

Book by Michael Zam
Lyrics by Jack Lechner
Music by Andy Monroe
Based on the book by Dan Savage
Musical staging by Josh Prince
Directed by Scott Elliott

Starring Kevin Anthony, Zachary Berger, Susan Blackwell, Jane Brockman, Jill Eikenberry, Jeannine Frumess, Ann Harada, Tyler Maynard, Brooke Sunny Moriber, Justin Patterson, Christopher Sieber, Lucas Steele, Michael Wartella

If you don't know who Dan Savage is before seeing The Kid, you will just moments into this hilarious, humane musical about Dan and his lover Terry’s attempt to adopt a baby. Savage is author of the savagely funny column, “Savage Love,” giving profane answers to no-holds-barred queries about sexual proclivities still considered taboo.

These people earnestly seeking advice about their peccadilloes in the opening number, “I’m Asking You,” drop us right into Dan’s lap, so to speak.

Expertly directed by Scott Elliott, The Kid makes no bones about being a conventional musical about an unconventional couple. After demonstrating that Dan—portrayed by the impressively laid-back Christopher Sieber, as subtle and low-key as he was boisterously over-the-top in Shrek and Spamalot—deals with questions outside the usual purview of Ann Landers or Dear Abby, the play spends the rest of its pleasantly heart-tugging two-and-a-half hours following a quintessentially American gay couple wanting to settle down, live in suburbia and raise a family.


For some viewers, that might signal some kind of retreat. But the creators of The Kid are too smart not to know that the best musicals have a heart: we wouldn't enjoy watching the hippies in Hair or the drag queens in La cage aux Folles if we didn't care about what happens to them. And so it is with The Kid, which doesn't have the need for a foul-mouthed Dan spouting off against hypocritical right-wing politicians or gently beating up readers who admit to eternally screwed-up relationships.

Instead, with Dan narrating their story, he and Terry are shown in a broader context, like any other prospective parents who worry about how to handle a newborn or wonder if they’ll make any lasting impression on their child.


To that end, The Kid introduces Dan's relationship with his open-minded mother, played by the supremely gifted and always appealing Jill Eikenberry. Mom first comes onstage to banter with her son and assure those in the audience who might not identify with or understand Dan's lifestyle that she'll explain things that need explaining, like “tea bagging” (which is not, however, explained). Eikenberry has a sweetly casual charm that puts the audience at ease. Though she has a disappointingly brief scene in Act I, she compensates with her Act II scene-stealing, topped by the heartfelt “I Knew,” the show's standout song.

The Kid, which is based on Savage's 1999 memoir, boasts a smartly amusing book by Michael Zam, whose zesty comic pacing makes Jack Lechner’s hit-and-miss lyrics and Andy Munroe’s serviceable music sound better than they are. Although Lechner hits lyrical bulls-eyes on the biting “They Hate Us” and haunting ballad “Spare Changin’,” Munroe's music glides reassuringly throughout. Yet only in the satirical “Gore Vidal” and reassuring “I Knew” do words and music transcend their otherwise professional competence. 

Happily, the production itself is top-notch. Lucas Steele's deftly-acted Terry is a perfectly handsome foil for Sieber's Dan, proving once again that opposites attract. Josh Prince stages the musical numbers with comic dexterity; the songs kicking off each act, “I’m Asking You” and “We’re Asking You?” are tongue-in-cheek mirrors of each other, musically and visually. The throwaway dance tune “Seize the Day” is nimbly choreographed for maximum effect, with the excellent cast moved around so mischievously that it belies the small stage—upon which Derek McLane’s spiffy set and Jeff Scher’s animated projections work handily.


The Kid threatens to become sentimental mush as the men fret over their unborn adoptee, whose mother is homeless, alcoholic teenager Melissa (played with bruising naturalness by Jeannine Frumess); the no-good father Bacchus (a lacerating Kevin Wartella) unexpectedly returns to make trouble. But whenever it’s ready to plunge into a sappy abyss, The Kid--aided by its creators' refreshing refusal to overdose on cynicism—easily wins us over.


The Kid

The New Group

410 West 42nd Street

New York, NY


Performances began April 16, 2010



Houston Has a Problem in "Enron"

EnronNorbert Leo Butz in Enron [pic: Joan Marcus]
Written by Lucy Prebble
Directed by Rupert Goold
Starring Norbert Leo Butz, Gregory Itzin, Marin Mazzie, Stephen Kunken

Morality play, cautionary tale, acidic satire: Enron is all of these and more. Lucy Prebble’s audacious play attempts to encompass the whole story of the energy giant's precipitous fall to earth with a thud.

Taking on the Bush years' first big bankruptcy disaster, Enron shows how it came about: from a combination of hubris, naiveté, arrogance and a uniquely American optimism, a belief that nothing bad can happen long as one doesn’t think it will. That’s essentially how Prebble paints Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, a Machiavellian character who truly believed (or pretended to) that what occurred under his watch—essentially a financial house of cards that Wall Street loved until its eventual collapse, making the stock worthless and ending the company’s improbable run as “the most innovative company in America”—was legal, ethical and good for shareholders, employees, and himself.

Prebble also shows Skilling at home with his young daughter, and we see that even family members are treated like employees and fellow executives: as props to prop himself up as their savior. Norbert Leo Butz shrewdly plays Skilling as a skillful juggler, parts innocence and nastiness, with a fervor underlying it all that makes us think—if only momentarily—that he wasn’t disingenuous about what he did, even when dressed in prison oranges to deliver the play’s final words about America’s love affair with money.

Alongside Butz, Gregory Itzin makes chairman Ken Lay a believably (and notoriously) devil-may-care figurehead, while Marin Mazzie (who looks dazzling in a succession of form-fitting dresses) registers strongly as Claudia, a composite of several Enron female execs.

Enron, the play, failed on Broadway even faster than the original corporation went under: it closes just over a week after opening, a huge flop by any standard. But there are mitigating circumstances. First, the play's title should have been anything but Enron, a buzzword that conjures up another era and dates it immediately, with most people—wrongly, of course—assuming that it concerns long-forgotten events. The current volatile stock market puts the lie to the “lack of relevance” claim, and what happens onstage is still being played out in company board rooms.

Too bad for those who stayed away: those who came saw a spectacularly entertaining piece of theater, staged with rip-snorting cleverness by Rupert Goold, furthering the Brechtian distancing devices already in Prebble's script, and introducing forceful, deliriously theatrical imagery to provokes visceral reactions in its audience.

The play's first image, three life-size blind mice standing in for Enron’s board members, return later. When Enron’s financial whiz, Andy Fastow (played by a brilliantly crazed Stephen Kunken), creates a scheme that he calls “raptors” to hide the company’s enormous losses from Wall Street, men wearing dinosaur heads similar to flesh-eating monsters of Jurassic Park slither around the stage, gobbling all the debt-laden cash Enron's drowning in. Sure, it’s an obvious metaphor, but it comes to humorously absurdist life onstage, perfectly capturing such tumultuous times.

Sure, Goold sometimes goes too far: a lengthy sequence about the rolling California electricity blackouts steered by Enron fills the stage with green light sabre-wielding traders, a la Star Wars, and comes off as amateur night at the cantina. Yet mainly, Goold's elaborately-done sound and light show (with several jokey musical interludes) proves that overkill is not too much when dealing with such a legendary—and still reverberating—flame-out that began this century in a dire direction that has appallingly continued.

Broadhurst Theater
235 West 44th Street
New York, NY

Closed May 9, 2010

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