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In a superb, don’t miss performance, stage, TV veteran, and Oscar-winning film star Christine Lahti is starring as her mentor and friend Gloria Steinem in Tony-winning playwright Emily Mann’s Gloria: A Life, an affecting, rich tapestry about one of the most inspiring and remarkable women of our time. For over five decades, Steinem has raised her voice for women’s equality.
Gloria: A Life, Off Broadway at the Daryl Roth Theatre (Park Avenue South at East 15th Street), does something only live theater can do. Act One is Steinem’s story, told by Lahti in illuminating ways, abetted by projections in a temporary configuration of posh stadium seating and a remarkable cast of seven women playing numerous female and male roles. Act Two, called a Talking Circle, invites audiences to carry the play’s themes into conversations of their own. Special guests often lead the conversation. Since her days at the University of Michigan, where Lahti received a bachelor's degree in drama, she’s been in the forefront for job/pay equality and health care for women. She’s been particularly effective as a member of NOW (National Organization for Women); a board member of ERA, which is making ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment a top priority (“especially since we didn’t succeed the first time); and a board member of Equality Now, the grassroots organization that’s trying to eradicate violence against women worldwide. She’s also gone on the road to pitch for candidates she believes in.
“Those four years at university changed my life and turned me into an advocate for women,” says Lahti.”It was the late 60s and the height of the anti-Vietnam War protests, but that wasn’t the only mitigating factor.”
When Lahti heard of the play by Mann, who adapted Having Our Say, from the best-selling memoir by Sarah and Annie Elizabeth Delany and Amy Hill Hearth, she reached out to lead producer Daryl Roth (Kinky Boots, The Normal Heart, Indecent), Tony-winning director Diane Paulus (Waitress, Pippin, Porgy and Bess), and her friend Steinem that she was interested. So were they, it turns out.
Lahti has collaborated closely with Mann and Tony-winning director Diane Paulus to make the play as relevant as possible. “I’ve never had an experience like this,” she enthuses. “Diane’s amazing, so low-ego, and open to ideas we’ve put forward. Gloria and I connect on many levels. Having her as a friend, I had a lot of offer.”
The production is the very definition of gender equality activism. The company is comprised almost entirely of women – cast, creative team, designers, staff, and producers. Featured portraying various female and males roles are Brittany K. Allen, Joanna Glushak (War Paint, A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder), Fedna Jacquet, Francesca F. McKenzie, Patrena Murray, DeLanna Studi (August: Osage County), and Liz Wisan (Other Desert Cities).
Lahti reveals her activism came about the same way it did for Steinem. “Hers came from witnessing that her mother wasn’t able to live a full life for lots of reasons. I witnessed the same thing with my mother Elizabeth. She was always second class in her marriage and not really respected. She was never able to live her full potential. That worry has been the fuel of my activism. That’s where Gloria and I connect on a very deep level. I feel the same type of fire in my belly.”
She’s quite candid about pushing her mother away “because I was afraid of becoming her. Gloria did the same. However, I was vindicated by mother’s last chapter. She became a professional artist and a pilot. I like to think she was inspired by her daughter and the feminist movement.”
But it wasn’t just her mother or Steinem’s. “In the suburb of Detroit where I grew up, it was every mother,” stated Lahti. “They had the role that was handed to them: housewives, which in itself is an honorable thing, but none were able to live to their full potential. It was the same everywhere. I was determined, like Gloria, to make sure all women matter. That’s the message that resonates throughout Gloria: A Life.”
Lahti calls herself a “dilettante activist.” “I do all I can when I’m not working, but primarily I’m an artist. While I hold activism in my heart, my advocacy is a drop in the bucket compared to how Gloria devoted her life to it. What’s wonderful about Emily’s play is I get to do both.”
She reveals a moment in her career that still embarrasses her. “I was already an activist when I auditioned for a Broadway show. It was a part I really wanted. I had already had my blood-curdling moment with a man and decided I’d never allow myself to be treated in a disrespectful way.” She went in to find the director sitting on a couch and motioning for her to sit next to him. “He was flirting and rubbing my thigh. I’m giggling and laughing, saying nothing because I wanted the job.
“When I left the office, I felt so disgusted with myself – not with him – for not speaking up. That was something that happened much too often. Before Anita Hill, there wasn’t even a word for sexual harassment. Those hearings were tough to watch, especially how all these old, white men demeaned her. That might have been the first time that it dawned on me: It’s not okay! But, recently, we lived through all that again.”
“We’re living through a pivotal moment for women’s rights,” notes Daryl Roth, “and it’s incredibly important to be telling this story at this moment in time, reminding us how far we have come, enlightening a younger generation of women of their history and legacy, and empowering us to do the work yet ahead. This extraordinary group of women is unprecedented on or Off-Broadway. We honor Gloria’s five decades of activism and breaking down barriers for women around the world. We’re so very lucky that Christine, whose life has been affected and inspired by Gloria, is our Gloria. Her physicality is uncanny. It feels like she’s channeling Gloria.
“In our Talking Circle, we’ve been mesmerized by the heartfelt responses of those who’re angry and frustrated with recent events in the world. Having their voices heard gives them comfort and hope that they’re not alone. Part of the power of this is learning how different the experiences have been. That makes each of our performance a living, breathing thing.”
Diane Paulus agrees. “Hearing the stories has been amazing. For some, it’s a trip down memory lane; for younger generations, an informative lesson of where we came from, and what their mothers and grandmothers went through. Emily’s play embraces the present moment, so we’re consistently updating the script to energize the production. Christine’s a supremely talented actress, activist, and friend of Gloria’s. She’s brought everything in her being to this production. Audiences, female and male, are moved.
Lahti focuses on three major periods of her life: childhood, her journey as an actress and activist, and the realities of her life as a middle-aged woman in Hollywood in True Stories from an Unreliable Eyewitness, a comical and self-deprecating essay collection. She performed aspects of it as monologues in cabarets and intimate theatres to better hone them for publication.
She was Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actress for 1984’s Swing Shift, and won a 1995 Oscar for Best Short Film, Live Action for Lieberman in Love, in which she starred and directed.
Her early years in New York, she as a waitress and did commercials before breaking into theater and TV. Off Broadway, she appeared in major roles at the Public; in the rotating cast of Culture Project’s Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s award-winning The Exonerated, a first-person narrative about wrongfully-convicted inmates; and revivals, such as Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl; and Second Stage’s revival of Jules Feiffer’s black comedy Little Murders.
Broadway roles have included Michael Weller’s bittersweet romance Loose End, Wendy Wasserstein’s acclaimed The Heidi Chronicles; and Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning black comedy God of Carnage.
She’s been equally at home onstage and on TV. “I was getting some great roles in TV, and stayed away from theater for a while. But I began to crave it after I aged out of certain TV and film roles.”
Lahti’s had recurring roles in The Blacklist, the reboot of Hawaii Five-0, and co-starred three seasons on Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit as A.D.A. Sonya Paxton, and five seasons as Dr. Kathryn Austin on Chicago Hope. She’s especially proud of her role in 2004’s short-lived [only one season], way ahead of its time Jack and Bobby, a futuristic faux documentary in which she had the scene-stealing role of the eccentric college professor and single mother of brothers Jack and Bobby McCallister and her efforts to secure one a place in the history as U.S. president. It netted her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in at TV Series/Drama.
One role that definitely shouldn’t be overlooked is her marriage in 1983 to her soul mate producer/director Thomas Schlamme (The Americans, West Wing, and Sports Night among others). Though they had shared theatrical interests, at the time Lahti says, “I was very suspect of any man. I thought all men wanted to squish me, but he turned out to be this incredible humanist. In those days, men never called themselves feminists. They were humanists. Today, you can’t get away with that! You have to identify where you stand.” One reason their marriage has been strong, Lahti points out, “is that we have work we’re passionate about and share our adventures with each other.” She described being directed by her husband in a play and episodes of Chicago Hope and Jack and Bobby as “wonderful experiences.” Either way you look at it, she says, “I really lucked out.”
For tickets and more information on Gloria: A Life, visit www.gloriatheplay.com, www.ticketmaster.com,or call (800) 745-3000.
Blu-rays of the Week
Made immediately after his 1970 breakthrough, M*A*S*H, Robert Altman’s character study of a young man who wants to fly—literally—while living in the bowels of the Houston Astrodome is one of the director’s most willfully bizarre efforts.
The enjoyably oddball cast—Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, Margaret Hamilton, Michael Murphy, and Shelley Duvall in her debut—can only provide so much color to Altman’s aggressively experimental failure, which weakly nods towards better films like 8-1/2 and The Wizard of Oz. The film has a good and grainy look on Blu-ray.
A Dry White Season
Euzhan Palcy’s 1989 drama is a blunt but insightful anti-apartheid tract, as a white South African family sheltered from the realities of the government’s racist system discovers what’s happening after its beloved gardener is put on trial. Donald Sutherland and Susan Sarandon are decent, Janet Suzman and Zakes Mokae are terrific, while Marlon Brando gives one of the most energetic performances of his late career (and an Oscar nomination) as a boisterous lawyer.
There’s a sparkling hi-def transfer; extras include a new Palcy interview; a vintage Palcy/Nelson Mandela conversation; and a 1989 Sutherland “Today Show” interview.
God Bless the Broken Road
In this draggy expansion of a popular country tune, a young widow (her soldier husband was killed in Afghanistan) finds her faith sorely tested until the arrival of a handsome stranger who befriends her daughter helps her back on the right path.
Lindsay Pulsipher as the mom and Makenzie Moss as her daughter are quite good, while the supporting cast led by Kim Delaney, Jordin Sparks and Robin Givens is OK. But the whole thing feels like one long melodramatic sermon, mitigating the goodwill of its premise. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras include interviews and featurettes.
This turgid musical stars an over-the-hill but game Lucille Ball as the partying aunt of a young boy who becomes his guardian and manages to steer him well despite her reputation, with songs by Jerry Herman that run the gamut from the now-holiday classic “We Need a Little Christmas” to standards “Loving You” and “It’s Today.”
Robert Preston matches Lucy as her love interest, but the rest of the cast isn’t up to snuff; Gene Saks’ fuzzy direction makes its 130 minutes seem like 130 hours. The film looks fine in hi-def; lone extra is a vintage making-of featurette.
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Joan Lindsay’s classic novel about the mysterious disappearance of four young women was made into a stylish if muddled 1975 Peter Weir film; this new five-hour mini-series has all the stylishness but replaces the confusion with a haunting quality that gives the story its powerful impact.
Natalie Dormer is perfect as the school headmistress who must deal with the emotional fallout and disastrous aftermath of the (mainly) unsolved disappearance. There’s an especially good hi-def transfer; extras comprise cast and crew interviews and on-set footage
Yetis are abominable snowmen for those who don’t remember (and a cousin of Bigfoot, hence the title), and this humorous animated feature’s clever conceit—that a human is spotted by one of the yetis, who thought it was just a legend—helps paper over some interchangeable songs by Common and Zendaya.
The top-notch voice cast, including James Corden, Gina Rodriguez and Channing Tatum—also does its part to keep the movie’s good nature quotient high. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; extras include interviews, featurettes, a mini-movie and music videos.
Support the Girls
Andrew Bujalski’s usually annoying mumblecore aesthetic is kept to a minimum in this entertaining glimpse at the manager of a local T&A bar (a would-be Hooters) on her last day, dealing with personal and professional problems like acting as a surrogate mother for the young women employed as scantily-clad waitresses.
In the lead, Regina Hall gives a tremendously affecting performance that forms the film’s emotional core, and she has a great rapport with the rest of the cast, especially Haley Lu Richardson and Shayna McHayle as her closest employees. There’s a superior hi-def transfer.
The Cher Show
Book by Rick Elice; directed by Jason Moore
Opened December 3, 2018
There are two paths for a jukebox musical. The first is to attach a threadbare plot to an artist’s songs, like Mamma Mia (Abba), We Will Rock You (Queen), Escape to Margaritaville (Jimmy Buffett) or Head Over Heels (Go-Gos); the second is to make a sort of autobiography, like Beautiful (Carole King) or On Your Feet (Gloria Estefan). The Cher Show takes the second tack, with a trio of Chers (a conceit also used by Summer, another autobiographical musical) interacting, either amusingly or enervatingly, as the superstar’s bio is dramatized from her California childhood to her hitting it big with Sonny and the ‘70s and ‘70s to her musical comeback in the late 80s and 90s.
Cher’s up-and-down career—which comprised hit songs and TV shows, flop recordings and bad movies and, finally, an Oscar (for Moonstruck)—has enough soap opera, melodrama, tragedy and triumph in it to overcome the story’s familiar showbiz clichés as awkward, shy Cherilyn Sarkisian becomes a global megastar (and “goddess warrior,” her own description), overcoming problematic relationships with Svengali/first husband, Sonny Bono, and second husband/drug addict Gregg Allman. Rick Elice’s book tiptoes around personal missteps by allowing Cher a bit of self-awareness as her alter egos—young Babe, mid-career Lady and icon Star—discuss them as they happen.
The most obvious thing to note about The Cher Show is Bob Mackie’s splendid costumes. If anyone doesn’t remember them from Cher’s many TV appearances at awards shows and her own variety series with and without Sonny, they were truly spectacular: big and billowy or small and slinky, often with sequins, headdresses or other frills, Mackie’s costumes were as readily identifiable as the performer herself.
Costumes aside, The Cher Show is saved by its Star, the sensationally good Stephanie J. Block, who not only exactly copies Cher’s vocal mannerisms when speaking and singing but even looks like her, at least more than the other two—newcomer Micaela Diamond as Babe and Teal Wicks as Lady—who can both belt out the songs and act but can’t channel Cher as impressively.
Jarrod Spector (Sonny) and Matthew Hydzik (Gregg) are fine, while Michael Berresse exudes joy as Bob Mackie and tartness as director Robert Altman. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography smartly combines slavish reenactment and bright originality, while there’s a welcome tongue-in-cheek cleverness to Kevin Adams’ lighting, Christine Jones’ and Brett J. Banackis’ sets and Darrel Maloney’s projections. Director Jason Moore rounds up all this disparate visual and aural splendor into something approaching entertainment.
And the songs? Happily, there’s only a sprinkling of the awful, overdramatic sub-Meatloaf comeback tunes like the eardrum-hurting (and auto-tune starter) “Believe” and “If I Could Turn Back Time,” while there are lots of Sonny & Cher hits (“I Got You Babe” and “The Beat Goes On”) and early solo smashes (“Half Breed,” “Dark Lady”—weirdly resurrected as a sing-off between Sonny and Gregg—and “Gypsies Tramps and Thieves”).
Not surprisingly, like its leading lady The Cher Show careens all over the place, but its target audience won’t care in the slightest.
Neil Simon Theater, 250 West 52nd Street, New York, NY
This big-budget Russian armageddon flick by Fyodor Bondarchuk—son of renowned director Sergei Bondarchuk (who made the classic 7-hour War and Peace in 1966—is a supremely silly adventure, but it has a pretty good subject (are the arriving aliens malevolent or benevolent?) and a terrific young actress, Irina Starshenbaum, as a credible everywoman who falls in love with one of them.
Lots of CGI effects battle for supremacy with less interesting sequences involving blocs of survivors and their competing allegiances, but Bondarchuk keeps things moving briskly for 135 minutes. The hi-def image is spectacular; extras are several featurettes.
Boston Red Sox—2018 World Series Collector’s Edition
After the Boston Red Sox won 108 games in the regular season, then ran like a buzz saw through the Yankees and Astros—the latter looking to repeat as champs—in the AL playoffs, lots of skeptics thought they’d be beaten by the Dodgers in the World Series. But aside from that instant-classic 18-inning game which the Dodgers pulled out, the Sox had no problem winning it all for the fourth time since 2004.
This comprehensive eight-disc set contains all five WS games, the Division Series-winning game vs. New York and the ALCS-winning game against Houston. Hi-def video looks superb, and audio includes options for TV announcers, home and away radio and Spanish-language. The one-disc Blu-ray includes the official 2018 World Series film, and extras comprising regular and post-season highlights and footage from the Boston victory parade.
Nelly Arcan was an elegant Quebec escort who wrote four revealing books, including one published after she committed suicide in 2009.
In Anne Émond’s film that dramatizes with some grittiness and eroticism Nelly’s perpetually high-flying life in and out of many beds, Mylene MacKay gives a phenomenally authentic and ultimately touching performance of a self-destructive woman whose demise is unsurprising but harrowing nonetheless. The film has a top-notch hi-def transfer.
In this latest addition to The Conjuring franchise, an evil spirit scares the bejesus out of a novitiate and a priest who are investigating the surprising suicide of another young nun in a rural church in Romania. The laziness involved—standard-issue bumps in the night and feeble, well-worn scare tactics—is too bad considering there’s a decent cast (Demian Bichir, Taissa Farmiga) and a wonderfully photogenic setting for the conceit to work.
But director Corin Hardy just shrugs and does the minimum amount possible. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras include deleted scenes, featurettes and interviews.
Westworld—Complete 2nd Season
(Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this blog post. The opinions I share are my own.)
Skillfully directed and acted, what Westworld lacks is a reason for going on and on as long as it does. What began as a diverting 1973 sci-fi flick (and an equally entertaining 1976 sequel) has been transmogrified into a convoluted and ultimately confused attempt at Significance.
While it’s always great seeing the likes of Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood in the prime of their careers—with a bonus nod to Sela Ward, who steals episode 9—the combination of self-satisfied writing, a portentous and overdone musical score and the feeling that the creators don’t really know where they’re heading combine for a self-defeating, enervating experience. The series looks tremendous in hi-def; extras are featurettes and interviews.
CDs of the Week
Leonard Bernstein—Fancy Free, Anniversaries for Orchestra; CBS Music, A Bernstein Birthday Bouquet
These two new discs were released on the tail end of the centenary of Bernstein’s birth, as the musical polymath has been feted around the world. Both CDs are conducted by Marin Alsop, a protégée of the conductor-composer-teacher-writer-raconteur, and feature world premiere recordings of some of his more obscure works. The first disc, along with the frothy overtures to Candide and Wonderful Town, includes the brilliant ballet Fancy Free and the first recording of the orchestrated versions of his pungent piano pieces, Anniversaries.
The second disc, alongside bits from West Side Story and On the Town, features a suite from his failed Broadway musical about the presidency, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the rarely-heard CBS Music and the delightful Bernstein Birthday Bouquet, where eight composers wrote tongue-in-cheek tributes for Lenny’s 70th birthday in 1988.
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