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Reviews

Theater Review: 'Secrets of the Trade'

Secrets of the Trade
Written by Jonathan Tolins
Directed by Matt Shakman
Starring Amy Aquino, Bill Brochtrup, John Glover, Mark Nelson, Noah Robbins

As Martin Kerner, genius Broadway producer-director in Jonathan Tolins' Secrets of the Trade, John Glover does the kind of scenery-chewing one rarely sees any more: instead of gobbling up everything in sight, this excellent actor so carefully modulates his over-the-top performance that he remains generous to his fellow actors. There’s not one moment while Glover is onstage that he doesn’t dominate the proceedings—but there also isn’t a moment when you don’t notice any of the other actors onstage with him. That is what good, unselfish acting is all about.

Without Glover, Tolins’ likable, honest but overfamiliar comic coming-of-age story would probably fade after it’s finished faster than it does. Secrets of the Trade introduces us to a precocious 16-year-old theater lover, Andy Lippman from Port Washington, Long Island, whose literate fan letter to his Broadway idol Kerner is finally answered two years later. After going to lunch with Kerner at Café des Artistes, Andy is taken under the great man‘s wing, where he learns, through trial and error (mostly error) what it takes for a career in show business.

Tolins, as he showed in Twilight of the Golds on Broadway nearly 20 years ago, is better with quips than characterizations, so the constant zingers among this smart set of people—which includes Andy’s parents and Kerner’s assistant Bradley—proliferate for an overlong 2-1/2 hours. The one-liners do hide Tolins’ predictable set of situations, like Andy’s coming out, his mother’s frustration over her failed dancing career and Kerner’s own skeletons in the closet.

In his smartly straightforward staging, director Matt Shakman allows his actors to do the heavy lifting, and they respond with a terrific show of support for Glover. Mark Nelson and especially Amy Aquino do wonders with Andy’s underwritten mom and dad, while Bill Brochtrup is so unerringly perfect as Kerner’s all-knowing assistant Bradley that you might forget he’s giving a masterly class in underacting. As Andy, Noah Robbins, who scored as Neil Simon’s teen alter ego in Brighton Beach Memoirs, gives more of the same here, which works for the jokes but not for the believability of a character who ages from teenager to mature adult by play’s end. But it’s Glover’s Kerner who is such an indelibly theatrical creation that Secrets of the Trade seems far more substantial than it really is.

Performances through September 4, 2010
Primary Stages
59 E 59 Theater, 59 East 59th Street
primarystages.org

 

Kevin's Digital Week 31: Of Kings, Queens and Sheep

Blu-rays of the Week

Elvis on Tour
(Warners)

This documentary follows Elvis Presley during his spring 1972 tour of America, when he performed in 15 different cities in 15 days. The worship he receives from his awestruck fans is truly something to behold: though the King was in his glitzy Vegas phase, he knew how to entertain his audience, and the songs we hear throughout Robert Abel and Pierre Adidge’s film—including such Elvis standards as “Love Me Tender” and “Burning Love” as well as inspired covers of “Bridge over Troubled Water,” “Proud Mary” and “An American Trilogy”—showcase an artist still able to enthrall his audience.

The movie gives us glimpses of Elvis backstage and offstage which are interspersed with the onstage songs and patter thanks to then-hip devices like split screens (obviously borrowed from Woodstock). The Blu-ray transfer brings it all into sharp focus, and the clean-sounding uncompressed audio may return those who remember to the final glory days of a legend who would be dead a mere five years later. There are no extras; the package is housed in an attractive 40-page digibook with photos from the era.

Mother
(Magnolia)

Bong Joon-Ho’s follow-up to his overrated monster movie The Host is an excellent way to rebound: with the right material, Bong can craft an intriguingly ambivalent character study far removed from the cartoonish foolishness of The Host. Hye-ja Kim gives a tremendously controlled performance as an overbearing, domineering mother who goes too far to protect her mentally challenged son wrongly accused of murder.

Bong’s visual mastery is much in evidence: there are many shots and sequences that initially seem merely beautiful or glibly clever but which reverberate after the film ends, particularly in the stunning Blu-ray transfer. If there’s a glitch, it’s Bong’s script: his visual ideas are much more credibly thought through than his philosophical or psychological ones. A multitude of extras include a 90-minute making-of documentary, deleted scenes and interviews with Bong and his cast.

DVDs of the Week
Sweetgrass
(Cinema Guild)

The simply amazing footage in this documentary of Montana sheep herders over a period of three years makes any quibbling about what might be considered a “mundane” subject moot. Directors Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor have artists’ keen eyes for both the details and the big picture as they follow the herders from the fields in this expanse of Big Sky country to the barns where their sheep are sheared. There are many astonishing moments recorded of sheep being born and fed milk, while the men who have done this work for generations are shown without condescension.

If you get a chance to see this on a big screen, by all means do so. Otherwise, the DVD of Sweetgrass will be a more than acceptable substitute, thanks to a superb digital transfer and enticing extras that include a directors’ commentary and 30 minutes of additional scenes.

Towards Zero
(KimStim)

Films from Agatha Christie whodunits are hit-or-miss, with director Pascal Thomas’ attempt more miss than hit. Moved from the British coast to Brittany, the essential murder mystery remains intact. Thomas’ brisk direction helps it move along effectively, but the lead-up to the killing is bungled by broad acting and unsurprising revelations.

The uneven acting includes glamorous Laura Smet chewing the scenery; an almost catatonic Chiara Mastroianni; the always delightful (and 90-ish) Danielle Darrieux, a true grand dame of French cinema; and Francois Morel as an ingratiating inspector. The lovely Brittany locations remain the best reason for moving Christie’s indestructible story south of the English Channel. There are no extras.

CDs of the Week
Philip Glass: Orphée
(Orange Mountain Music)

The 1993 opera Orphée was the first of three Philip Glass based on French writer-director Jean Cocteau films (Beauty and the Beast and Les Enfants Terribles followed). I was at its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and was unimpressed by Glass’s setting Cocteau's screenplay to those ubiquitous stuttering arpeggios. The Portland Opera Company CD doesn't change my first impression, but at least we’re spared any redundant visuals (watching Cocteau's classic film is already a dreamlike experience by itself).

Anne Manson conducts persuasively and a stellar cast headlined by Philip Cutlip (Orphée), Georgia Jarman (Eurydice) and Lisa Saffer (La Princesse) does what it can with Glass's melodically and dramatically deficient score. Glass's setting of the French language pales in comparison with the great French song and opera composers—Berlioz, Faure, Chausson, Debussy, among others. There are two booklets (one for each act, with libretto in French and English) with cast and production photos.

Handel: Berenice
(Virgin)

Another long Handel opera about a fantastical ancient world—Alexandria in 80 BC is the setting for this drama about a queen who must choose between two men, one of whom loves her sister—Berenice also can test the patience of listeners who must sit through so many repetitious arias. (It might be my limitation, but I find such baroque conventions tedious.)

Still, with Handel vet Alan Curtis—who has already conducted six other Handel opera recordings on Virgin Classics—on the podium, and the magical voices of sopranos Klara Ek and Ingela Bohlin, mezzo Romina Basso and countertenor Franco Fagioli at the ready, even the most curmudgeonly listener will find himself transported back two millennia to a miraculously romantic Egypt.

Live Review: Chapin Sisters at the Living Room

The Chapin Sisters
Monday,
August 2, 2010
the
Living Room 
154 Ludlow St.

New York City

An LA-based duo (sometimes a trio), Lilly and Abigail Chapin have spent the spring and summer touring with pop group She and Him. The Chapin Sisters are about to go on tour again, so this recent one-hour performance/stop-off in their native New York at the Living Room was a nice treat for fans.

Abigail and Lilly took the stage at 7 pm dressed in beautiful long gowns. The set began with "Don't Love You", a song emblematic of their lyrical sense of humor somewhat hidden in sweet vintage, folksy melodies.

Both sisters are capable instrumentalists, but often appear with accompanying musicians, and play with their arrangements accordingly. After delivering a few songs by themselves, they were joined on stage by  drummer Jesse Lee and Richard Giddens on bass to play some of their newer tunes. Having seen the sisters perform before, I enjoyed hearing them shake up some tempos with percussion and bass.  

"Let Me Go" was performed with a bit of extra swing in tempo, but the  was not missing any of its bluesy undertones or the feminine sweetness in the verse.

The sisters' voices are haunting (at times even eerie), especially if you are able to hear them live. Although their latest EP Oh Hear The Wind Blow is enjoyable, there is nothing comparable to seeing them in person. The performance was consistently transportational. The Living Room's air conditioning was broken and the room sweltering. Despite this, I actually got chills.  

With no disrespect to their training, I am now convinced that harmony must be genetic, as the two Chapin sirens mold powerful soundscapes from floors to rafters as if born to sing together. Some of their singing was enough to make the heart jump.

One of the fan favorites from their usual repertoire is a sultry cover of Britney Spears's "Toxic." Dripping with sex, the girls own the song in ways that the original could not hope to achieve. They also did a lovely cover of the surprisingly depressing folk song "Your Long Journey" by Doc Watson.

Their vocal dichotomy was especially stirring in new songs such as "Palm Tree" and "Roses in Winter," where Abigail's soft, whisper-like singing hung gossamer over her sister Lilly's warmth and smokiness.

The set was enjoyable, but far too short. When things were over, it felt like I was suddenly re-deposited back in an overly warm room with ineffectual fans. For one hour, the audience had been treated to a unique, folk-inspired vintage sound. The sisters' chillingly beautiful voices delivered lyrics with lighthearted and relatable humor, drawing cheerful faces from the Living Room patrons.They are certainly worth checking out, especially if you can catch them live, where they really shine.

The Chapin sisters will continue to be busy for the forseeable future. In the first week of August, they will perform with their father and award-winning folk musician Tom Chapin in Nova Scotia  (August 5th, 6th, and 7th).

Without taking much of a rest, the sisters begin their United States tour on August 25 in Salt Lake City, UT. In addition to their season packed full of tour dates, expect their second record, Two, to land September 14, 2010.

More information can be found at thechapinsisters.com or on myspace music site at: myspace.com/thechapinsisters
 

Kevin’s Digital Week 30: A Riot of Colors

Blu-rays of the Week

Black Narcissus
(Criterion)
The Red Shoes
(Criterion)
Michael Powell
and Emeric Pressburger — who teamed up for several of the most memorable movies of the 1940s (I Know Where I'm Going, A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) — reached their career peaks with 1947's Black Narcissus and 1948's The Red Shoes, two of the most ravishing color films ever made, thanks to the incomparable Jack Cardiff's cinematography. Black Narcissus, which takes place in a Himalayan convent, is the subtlest of horror films, while the ballet-set The Red Shoes is a glorious portrait of artists working together.

Criterion's new Blu-ray releases come from a recent restoration, and the results are so spectacular that you may find yourself freeze-framing constantly during each film to savor the results. That's fine; works of art like these two films deserve to be studied over and over. Of the new extras (the rest come from the original Criterion releases), the best is French director Bertrand Tavernier's insightful comments about Powell's style on the Black Narcissus disc and an interview with Powell's widow, Thelma Schoonmaker, on the Red Shoes disc.  

DVDs of the Week

The Art of the Steal
(IFC)
Director Don Argott’s documentary about how the Barnes Foundation—which owns arguably the world’s greatest collection of post-Impressionist and modern-art paintings—has been torn down systematically since the death of its founder, Albert Barnes, in 1951, is an impressive cultural detective yarn with heroes and villains galore. What could have been a dry, academic exercise about art experts and politicians fighting over a collection worth billions becomes in Argott’s sensitive hands an intelligent exploration of the complex clashes between art and commerce, politicians and their constituents, foundations and trusts, and the law and what’s right.

Argott crams a wealth of information, insight and analysis into 105 minutes—it’s obvious that he sides with those trying to preserve Barnes’ wishes and legacy, but allows the other side its story, however selfishly (but profitably) motivated. While it’s unfortunate that IFC didn’t include any supplements—additional interviews, updates, director commentary—Argott’s film is persuasively argued enough to stand on its own.

The Most Dangerous Man in America

(First Run)
For their study of how Daniel Ellsberg became Nixon’s Public Enemy No. 1 after leaking the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, directors Judith Erlich and Rick Goldsmith have made a standard talking-heads documentary dressed up by canny use of archival material such as photographs, video footage and priceless snippets from the Nixon tapes, particularly when the president laments (in his view) Ellsberg’s treason and the press aiding and abetting it. (And we thought that this kind of White House paranoia and name-calling began after September 11!) The filmmakers’ ace in the hole is Ellsberg himself, who narrates the film. The filmmakers also interview his wife Patricia, former Rand colleagues and journalists; even Nixon administration honcho John Dean chimes in.

Why so many documentaries now show re-enactments of pivotal events (i.e., when Ellsberg and his children are nearly busted by L.A. police while copying classified materials) is mystifying; shoehorned in here, they threaten to drag the film down to the level of a melodramatic History Channel program. However, The Most Dangerous Man in America is a movie that all Americans should see: its hero is the real definition of patriotism. Extras include interviews with Woody Harrelson and Naomi Klein, and audio highlights from the Nixon rapes.


CDs of the Week

Billy Squier: Don’t Say No — 30th Anniversary Edition
(Shout Factory)
Rocker Squier may have made better albums — Emotions in Motion, Signs of Life — but Don't Say No was both his breakout record and his biggest-seller, so it's a no-brainer that this 1981 recording gets the “special” treatment ahead of his later albums. (Actually, it's only the 29th anniversary, but why quibble?) Any record that opens with the 1-2-3 punch of “In the Dark,” “The Stroke” and “My Kinda Lover” is destined for cock-rock greatness; throw in “Lonely Is the Night,” “Too Daze Gone,” and “Whaddya Want from Me,” and you've got a guitar record for the ages.

Squier has since been unfairly lumped into the “crappy 80s music” bin, but at his best, he combined energy, irresistible hooks and a versatile verbal facility into a hard-rocking package that has unfortunately gone completely out of fashion. Shout Factory's re-issue amps up Mack & Billy's original spacious production, and tacks on live cuts of “My Kinda Lover” and “The Stroke” from two 2009 concerts.

Leoncavallo: I Medici
(Deutsche Grammophon)  
That he's only known for his tragic first opera, I Pagliacci, makes Italian composer Ruggero Leoncavallo a one-hit wonder. But this splendid, first-ever recording of Leoncavallo's second opera, I Medici, gives us a chance to hear a more obscure work in the signature verismo style which he helped make famous, this time attached to the gruesome true story of the Pazzi Conspiracy, an assassination plot against the Medicis, rulers of Tuscany in the 15th century, which claimed the life of Giuliano, brother of co-ruler Lorenzo (who was merely wounded).

Leoncavallo's libretto is filled with melodramatic excess, particularly in the tragically romantic subplots that include adultery and an illegitimate child. But his music is sufficiently dramatic to keep us interested until the bloody end, in which the legacy of the Medicis is cemented with a promise from Lorenzo to his dying brother. Alberto Veronesi conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of Florence's Maggio Musicale in an authoritative reading, along with an arresting cast of singers led by Placido Domingo (Giuliano), Carlos Alvarez (Lorenzo), Eric Owens (conspirator Monteseco) and Daniela Dessi (Giuliano's beloved, Simonetta).

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