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Broadway Musical Review—Revival of “Once on This Island”

Once on This Island
Book & lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; music by Stephen Flaherty
Choreographed by Camille A. Brown; directed by Michael Arden
Opened December 3, 2017
Hailey Kilgore in Once on This Island (photo: Joan Marcus)
Set on an unnamed Haiti, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s musicalOnce on an Island premiered in 1990, its initial run introducing LaChanze to New York. For the show’s first Broadway revival—a cleverly-conceived production in the round, complete with sand, rain and a pond—there’s another impressive actress making her debut: Oregon teenager Hailey Kilgore.
Kilgore is Ti Moune, orphaned in a raging storm as a youngster and taken in by the loving Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian on an isle bitterly divided between dark-skinned natives and lighter-skinned French descendants, the grand hommes. One day, Ti Moune sees a car crash involving Daniel, teenage grand homme; she nurses him back to health, begging the local gods—Papa Ge, Asaka, Agwe, Erzulie—to take her rather than him, imaging that he has fallen for her as she has him, despite sundry obstacles: his family, his fiancée and their class differences, for starters.
This beguiling fable has a homespun wisdom that’s greater than the sum of its parts, as Flaherty’s merely serviceable book and lyrics are married to Flaherty’s tuneful but derivative songs. The folk tale’s plot—filled as it is with unabashed sentiment, teenage romance and a celebration of the circle of life, so to speak—alternates between cloyingly and happily beneficent.
Michael Arden’s inventive staging begins before the musical proper: bare-footed actors mill around the sandbox set, mingling with audience members near the stage as they go about their everyday business like feeding the animals. Camille A. Brown's resourceful choreography allows spacious movement within the relatively cramped space of Dane Laffrey’s spry set, which seems to sprout new expanses wherever one looks (a trailer truck, a fallen telephone pole, even parts of theater seats are brought into delightfully ramshackle service). Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s ingenious lighting and Clint Ramos’s canny costumes complete the fully-formed world we are willingly whisked into for 90 mostly blissful minutes.
There’s commanding vocal work from Phillip Boykin as Tonton Julian and Kenita R. Miller as Mama Euralie, and Isaac Powell’s poised Daniel and Kilgore’s enchanting Ti Moune make a charming pair of not-quite lovers. Best of all, the gods comprise a quartet of ultra-talented belters: Merle Dandridge, Quentin Earl Darrington, Alex Newell and the always winning Lea Salonga, whose clear-as-crystal soprano rings out even amid so many astonishingly strong voices on this island.
Once on This Island
Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 West 50th Street, New York, NY

December '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Death Laid an Egg

(Cult Epics)

Giulio Questi’s wacky 1968 giallo is a product of its time: nodding toward Godard’s masterpiece Weekend (released in ‘67), Questi’s potent critique of a dehumanized industrial society is masked by a tricked-out tale of murder around a poultry plant owned by a philandering husband and his wife. 




In the leads, Jean-Louis Trintignant (husband), Gina Lollobrigida (wife) and Ewa Aulin (mistress) make a stunning trio; there are moments of visual overkill, but it’s stylish and enjoyably loony. There’s a quite impressive hi-def transfer.


Heat and Dust

(Cohen Film Collection)

This 1983 Merchant-Ivory adaptation of screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s novel tracks parallel East-West culture clashes, as an Englishwoman, Anne, travels to India to discover the fate of her great aunt Olivia, who in the 1920s had an affair with a local ruler (Hindi film star Shashi Kapoor, who died last week). Although labored in its shuttling back and forth, there are compensations, notably Julie Christie as Anne and Greta Scacchi as Olivia, both splendid performances of intelligence and—especially Scacchi—sensuality. 




The hi-def transfer is excellent; there’s also a commentary and a second disc of bonus features: new interviews with Scacchi, Ivory, Jhabvala, composer Richard Robbins, actor Nickolas Grace and producer Israel Merchant; new Q&A with actor Madhur Jaffrey; and Merchant-Ivory’s hour-long 1975 film Autobiography of a Princess.


Pelléas et Mélisande 

(BelAir Classiques)

Claude Debussy’s tragic romance is one of opera’s towering masterpieces, its three hours alternately bracing and disturbing. This 2016 Malmo (Sweden) production is nicely staged by director Benjamin Lazar, with Debussy’s magnificent score being beautifully handled by conductor Maxime Pascal and the Malmo Opera Orchestra. 




But the glory is in the main performers: Marc Mauillon’s vivid Pelléas and—best of all—Jenny Daviet’s languid, meltingly lovely-voiced Mélisande. The hi-def video and audio are topnotch.


The Tale of Tsar Saltan


Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s fantastical opera is rarely seen on European or American stages, so who better than St. Petersburg’s own Mariinsky Opera to present such a boldly imaginative production? 




As always, Valery Gergiev persuasively leads his orchestra in music that they all feel in their bones, the usual array of Russian singers belts out convincingly, and the sets and costumes are bright and dazzling. The only caveat is that, since this is on film instead of hi-def video, the visuals don’t pop as they should.














DVDs of the Week 

Karl Marx City

(Film Movement)

Petra Epperlein (with co-director Michael Tucker) returned to the former East Germany to discover the truth behind her father’s 1999 suicide by hanging: was he—as he was accused of being—a spy for the Stasi, the formidable East German security force that terrified thousands of ordinary citizens on a daily basis during the Cold War? 




Epperlein has no illusions about what she finds, which she shares with her devastated mother and twin brothers, while the rest of this agonizing documentary comprises illuminating interviews with various archivists, former Stasi members and regular people that shed a necessary light on how dictatorships can thrive.


Maurizio Cattelan—Be Right Back

(Film Movement)

Maurizio Cattelan is an art world prankster without the social or political cachet of Banksy, but since he’s courted cognoscenti for decades he’s become one of the most reliable names in the business, and Maura Axelrod’s diverting documentary portrait shows him off as a sort-of raconteur par excellence




Whether he’s a real artist is another matter: despite the experts, that he gets a Guggenheim retrospective that garners critical raves and lines around the block says more about the state of our current culture than about his clever but minor works.


Off-Broadway Review—“Downtown Race Riot” with Chloe Sevigny

Downtown Race Riot

Written by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld; directed by Scott Elliott

Performances through December 23, 2017


Chloe Sevigny and David Levi in Downtown Race Riot (photo: Monique Carboni)

In Downtown Race Riot, Seth Zvi Rosenfeld turns cartoons into real characters: with a huge assist from a talented cast and director, of course. But to what end? Nearly two hours of watching a drug-addled mom, her equally damaged children and her son’s friends and acquaintances meander through their mundane existence—culminating with a violent brawl—bring the audience no insight or point.


Mary, a 39-year-old single mom, lives in a West Village railroad apartment with two children by different men: 21-year-old Joyce and 18-year-old Jimmy, known as PNut. Mary has trouble keeping clean, collects disability checks and has a lawyer on the way to discuss suing the city for giving PNut asthma by his eating paint chips when he was younger (which he never did). PNut and his best friend, a Haitian black named Marcel, aka Massive, plan to go to Washington Square Park for an upcoming fight between neighborhood toughs and minority interlopers from other parts of the city. Joyce, though nominally a lesbian, seduces Massive when she comes home, in part to get back at her brother and especially her mom, who she feels cares more for PNut than Joyce.


Rosenfeld draws sympathetic but realistic portraits of his play’s inhabitants, even the “tough” Jay 114 and Jimmy-Sick, or Mary’s coke-snorting lawyer Bob, all of whom initially seem like refugees from Mean Streets or The Sopranos, but are humanized by the writing and acting. Still, the play and these people don’t go anywhere unsurprising: they are fated to remain behind, thanks to class or race, which isn’t an earth-shattering revelation.


Derek McLane’s tremendous set of Mary’s shabby apartment is arrestingly lit by Yael Lubetzky. Scott Elliott’s fluid direction allows the supremely confident performers to play off one another convincingly, whether Cristian Demeo and Daniel Sovich’s amusing would-be wise guys, Moise Morancy’s charming Massive, Josh Pais’s overanxious Bob, Sadie Scott’s tantalizingly ambivalent Joyce, or David Levi’s flailing PNut.


Chloe Sevigny’s Mary is scarily authentic, whether in her pathetic attempts to hide her drug habit—even when she slinks off to her bed, where she holds forth to PNut, Joyce and Massive—or while slinking around in shorts and a halter top (perfectly ugly ‘70s costuming by Clint Ramos) to entice Bob. It’s a marvelously physical performance that makes her character and the play she’s in seem substantial.


Downtown Race Riot

The New Group @ Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

December '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Dolores Claiborne

Doc Hollywood

(Warner Archive)

1995’s Dolores Claiborne, based on Stephen King’s novel and starring Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh as a mother and daughter with disturbingly dark skeletons, was directed by Taylor Hackford with stylish ostentation, which fits the strangely compelling material.



1991’s Doc Hollywood, an amiable fish-out-of-water comedy, has a prime starring role for Michael J. Fox as a fresh-faced doctor who finds himself stuck in a small southern town, and who meets a charming young woman (Julie Warner, a delightful actress who unfortunately didn’t do much else in her career). Both films have first-rate hi-def transfers; Dolores includes a Hackford commentary.


Bat Pussy

(AGFA/Something Weird)

As if the title wasn’t enough of a clue, this supposedly infamous but mainly forgotten attempt at a porn flick from the classic early ‘70s era riffs on one of our favorite superheroes, but its ineptitude is about all it has going for it.



It’s as if Ed Wood tried to make an X-rated film: that no one knows who made it and who’s in it adds a miniscule modicum of mystery that surrounds this curio. Extras are a commentary and bonus movie, 1971’s Robot Love Slaves.















(Blue Underground)

With a title like that, you’d expect a chintzy B movie, and although that’s basically what it is, director Bob Clark provides unsettling creepiness to this queasy tale of a soldier apparently killed in Vietnam who returns home and slowly becomes a zombie.



Of course, it’s a metaphor for how soldiers were treated both in country and at home; what’s surprising is how effectively it works, even with committed but spotty acting. There’s an acceptable hi-def transfer; extras include commentaries, interviews and featurette.



Satan’s Cheerleaders


1976’s torpid horror flick Ruby came out the same year as Carrie; that both star Piper Laurie as the loony mother of a disturbed teenage girl is their main similarity. Unlike Carrie’s slick schlockiness, Curtis Harrington’s film is hackneyed, haphazard, and B-movie all the way. 



Satan’s Cheerleaders, Greydon Clark’s 1977 tease flick, also has little to recommend it, even for viewers on the lookout for T&A amid its typical scares. Amateurish performances, even from sleepwalking Yvonne DeCarlo and John Carradine, don’t help. Both films have decent hi-def transfers; Ruby extras include commentaries and interviews, and Cheerleaders extras comprise commentaries.














DVDs of the Week 

Happy Hour


I’d never seen anything by Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, so to come cold to his five-hour, seventeen-minute opus about a quartet of 30ish women friends dealing with their quotidian lives is at first off-putting, then—very slowly—entrancing.



Hamaguchi allows his film, and its characters, to breathe, and if there are certain static longueurs—one sequence at an author’s reading could be excised—there’s also an appreciation and understanding of life in all its ordinariness: and extraordinariness. The superlative acting matches the creator’s humanism.


Exhibition On Screen: Michelangelo Love and Death

(Seventh Art)

In presenting the several decade-long career of one of the Renaissance’s—and history’s—greatest masters, this 90-minute documentary overview hits all the expected beats (sculpture, architecture, poetry, Sistine Chapel ceiling) as it combines expert discussion with close-up views of the works that give occasional insight into his method and madness.



As always with Exhibition On Screen, there’s a caveat: releasing this only on DVD, not Blu-ray, is a mistake, since these precious artistic treasures should be seen solely in hi-def.














CD of the Week 

Blackmore’s Night—Winter Carols

(Minstrel Hall)

Guitarist extraordinaire Ritchie Blackmore teams with his wife, singer/recorder player Candice Night, for an enjoyable journey through music of the holiday season. Don’t expect Rainbow Does Christmas, however: in these folky-cum-Renaissance Faire arrangements, Blackmore’s tasty acoustic playing beautifully complements Night’s lovely vocals on evergreen titles such as “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” “I Saw Three Ships” and “We Three Kings.”



First released in 2006, this re-release include three songs not included on the original; a second disc (from a 2013 re-issue) has several tunes recorded live, along with various versions—including one in German—of Night singing a Yuletide original, “Christmas Eve.”

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