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Cabaret Music: Sutton Foster @ Café Carlyle, Laura Benanti @ 54 Below

Sutton Foster
Performances through September 28, 2013
Café Carlyle
Laura Benanti
Performances through September 21, 2013
54 Below


Today’s best singing actresses aren’t only shining on the Great White Way. Sure, Laura Osnes is a delight in Cinderella and Kelli O’Hara returns this winter in the new musical of The Bridges of Madison County, but these ladies also show off their talents at closer quarters in Manhattan’s cabaret rooms.
Two of these intimate spaces are currently home to a pair of our premiere performers. Sutton Foster, Tony-winning Reno Sweeney in 2011’s Anything Goes revival, at the Café Carlyle through September 28; Laura Benanti—Tony winner for Gypsy in 2008—at 54 Below through September 21, plugging her new CD, In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention.
Sutton Foster at Cafe Carlyle (photo: Lars Klove)
During her Carlyle shows, Sutton Foster proves once again that her crystalline voice and natural stage presence make her one of our most engaging performers. During her hour-long set, Foster and piano accompanist Michael Rafter—perform 20 songs ranging from a medley of tunes she’s sung during her performing life—“Not for the Life/NYC/Astonishing” from Thoroughly Modern Millie, Annie and Little Women—to a stirringly passionate Sondheim pairing, “Anyone Can Whistle/Being Alive.”
In lovely renditions of John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and Paul Simon’s “Old Friends” (the latter a duet with her friend Megan McGinniss), and an encore of James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes,” Foster demonstrated her grace and naturalness, and even a self-mocking sense of humor with her between-songs patter. After a gentle but moving version of “Georgia on My Mind” (far from Ray Charles’ legendary take), Foster mentioned that she grew up in Georgia until, when she was 13, her family moved to Detroit. “That’s where I got my edge,” Foster quipped.
Laura Benanti's new CD, recorded at 54 Below
Quips will surely be plentiful at 54 Below this weekend, as Laura Benanti—another gorgeous voice, accompanied by glorious wit—appears to celebrate her new CD, recorded during her last stint there. The disc alternates her songs with her amusing stories, as did her performance last year at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room, which was memorable as much for her hilariously self-effacing asides as by her luminous singing.
Benanti—who describes herself as a “human lady” on her must-follow Twitter feed—explores the American Songbook with her pianist Todd Almond. On the CD, songs by Maury Yeston, Lerner and Loewe and Jerome Kern were sung beautifully, as were Joni Mitchell’s “Conversation” and Harry Chapin’s “Mr. Tanner.” Benanti also showed off her abilities on the ukulele with a self-penned “The Ukulele Song” (what else would it be called?), which combines her vibrant musical and comedic talents.
Sutton Foster
Café Carlyle
35 East 76th Street, New York, NY
Laura Benanti
54 Below
254 West 54th Street, New York, NY

"Jobs" Unveils Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs devotees are an unshakable lot, and their fixation isn't petering out any time soon -- despite the nearly two years since Apple's co-founder succumbed to his off switch. So there should be plenty of room for movies autopsying his life and brain.

In a mad rush that itself memorializes the tech genius, the first release to hit the marketplace is indie biopic Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher. And hovering in the works is Steve Jobs, which Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) is adapting for Sony from Walter Isaacson's bestselling biography.

But as Kutcher knows, things only happen when they happen. So our focus here is Jobs. At a recent press conference, the film's director, Joshua Michael Stern, relayed an anecdote from the shoot illustrating his star's command of chronology, especially regarding tech innovations:

"Ashton, who had sort of an encyclopedic knowledge of the technology of this time, would walk onto a set, and there would be a chip that was randomly on a table, and he'd pick it up and so we'd have to take if off because it wasn't going to be invented for two years...'This is not invented yet...' "

Kutcher's immersion in Jobs' universe was not as big of a stretch as you might imagine of the Two and a Half Men co-lead. Before becoming an actor and producer, he studied biochemical engineering, and he's an active investor in Internet properties through his venture fund, A-Grade Investments. Another company he co-owns, Katalyst, has him generating properties across multiple platforms.

So when Kutcher gets down to channeling Jobs, he's not just flexing his thespian chops, he's getting business tips to boot. His homage extends to the legendary Apple chief's ethos.

"By proxy (Jobs) made the shareholders a lot of money, but he was never going, 'We need to make this company more profitable.' He was saying, ‘We need to make something that's even more brilliant and more beautiful and more wonderful for people's lives.’ " That the Apple chief was beholden to consumers and innovation -- and not to shareholders per se -- is a modus operandi that gets Kutcher's vote.

To viscerally understand the man, Kutcher put his own flesh on the line. This meant emulating Jobs' loping, barefoot gait to the point where the actor all but stressed his musculature. But this pales in comparison to the fruit-only diet he adopted after reading Jobs' "dietary bible": The Mucusless Diet Healing System. Going frutarian seems to have landed Kutcher in ER just prior to the shoot.

Kutcher recalled that the book by Arnold Ehret "talked about the value of grape sugar and that that was the only pure sugar that you could have in your body." He deadpanned, "I think that the guy that wrote that book was pretty misinformed.

"My insulin levels got pretty messed up and my pancreas kind of went into some crazy, I don't know -- the levels were really off and it was really painful. I didn't know what was wrong. And we figured out that my insulin levels were really off."

Despite Kutcher's bodily risks, the Jobsian world he inhabits in real life hardly portends anything nasty, brutish or short. Asked about Job's personality traits that he identifies with, he lit up:

"I love creating efficiencies...I bought a house five minutes away from my work so I didn’t have to drive through traffic. I figured out a way to organize my closet so that I can actually wake up and get dressed in the order that I like to dress and move right down a line in my closet. So I can start at one end and move to the other and by the end I’m done. I kind of have the thing set up so that I can wake up and get out of my house in about four minutes and get to work within 12 minutes from the time I wake up, so I try to do a lot and accomplish a lot in a short period of time..."

It's hard not to wonder what Jobs would've thought about the actor who immersed himself so fully in his books, videos, music, diet, walk, career and associates. As for Kutcher, he regrets never having met his real-life avatar, but he withholds criticism about the "flawed man" and his apparent disregard of others' feelings.

"One of the first things you learn as an actor is never judge your character."

"Lee Daniels' The Butler" Serves Up a History Lesson

Not since Joseph interpreted a dream of Pharaoh's shaqah has a butler been mythologized like the hero of Lee Daniels' The Butler. Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who worked for eight presidents from 1957 to 1986, takes his cue from the the true story of White House butler Eugene Allen. Yet this epic drama has its own master to serve, and both Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong pledge allegiance to educating viewers about history rather than to dramatizing one man's bio.

At a recent press conference, Daniels stressed that it's not so much "a movie" as "a movement." The subservient tradition that Cecil embodies can be summed up by what he's told on day one at Eisenhower's (Robin Williams) White House: "You see nothing. You hear nothing. You only serve." What better vehicle than a butler to escort you through the Civil Rights era, Vietnam and beyond -- and teach you to speak out for justice?

A scene from Cecil's boyhood goes some way toward explaining why he'd court safety and stability at any price. In 1926 he taunted his father (David Banner) to stand up to the white master (Alex Pettyfer) who raped his mother (Moriah Carey) by the field where they were picking cotton. His father was shot dead before Cecil's eyes.

But for that Dixieland deed, the black eight year old (Michael Rainey Jr.) would not have been brought into the plantation manse by the matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) to be schooled as a domestic and set on his path. Daniels aims squarely at the guts as he lays out lesson two: history loves irony, and it's the very intimacy of master-servant relations that can prod racial understanding and the delicate art of human transformation.

Fast-forward to a scene set in Memphis of 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) observes that the role of the black butler has been instrumental in "defying racial stereotypes." King dignifies Cecil's principled devotion with his impromptu sermon, "In many ways (domestic servants) are subversive without even knowing it." The target of his wisdom is Cecil's teen son Louis (David Oyelowo), whose rebellion against his father's servility leads him to become a Black Panther and supplies the emotional core of the film.

Another source of flint comes from Cecil's spouse, Gloria. Oprah Winfrey plays her with raw attunement to the careerless wife's own ordeal of subjugation. As Winfrey told the assembled press, "I am the daughter of a maid. And my grandmother was a maid. And her mother was a maid. And her mother was a slave. So the domestic worker in the speech that Dr. King gives to my son in the movie -- I feel validated by their courage; I feel validated by the war that the butler and his entire generation fought in their own way." Winfrey also paid tribute to the "Freedom Riders and freedom fighters, who because of evolution and growth and change decided we're not going to do that anymore," concluding that "both wars were necessary for their time."

Recreating the anti-segregation campaigns that student activists mounted down South in the 60s gave Daniels and his cast some battle fright of their own. As the filmmaker recounted, "We were shooting that bus scene where... black men were hung from that bridge... And I yell, 'Action!' And I'm in the bus with these actors, these kids. And from nowhere come the Nazis and the KKK and the cursing and the spitting and the shaking of the bus. And I yell, 'Cut!' And they can't hear me. And they continue on. And David (Oyelowo) and Yaya (DaCosta, who plays Louis's girlfriend) and we were looking at each other like, 'What the hell?' For that millisecond I understood what it was like to be them -- not just the black kids that were there, but the white kids that were there who were willing to risk their lives for freedom. They were heroes."

From Monsters Ball and The Woodsman to Shadowboxer and Precious, little in Daniels' filmmography prepares you for The Butler besides his invitation to ponder unsavory situations from the perspective of individuals who are caught up in them.  

Liev Schreiber, who plays Lyndon B. Johnson, mused, "That's how we really come to understand history personally: (through) our own relationship to political change and how these things evolve in our lives." He continued, "Being so close to the center of the political universe in the White House, this man had this unique perspective on what should be a very political universe, and what we find out is that it's actually a very intimate and a personal one."

"Blue Jasmine" Blossoms with Cate Blanchett

The first utterances you hear in Woody Allen's new picture, Blue Jasmine, come from a manic First Class passenger who blabs on and on about herself. That passenger is title character Jasmine, whose marriage to Madoff avatar Hal (Alec Baldwin) is now as finished as her 1% coffers, and who's going nowhere fast.

She's also played by Cate Blanchett, which helps explain why we not only put up with her snobbish affectations, we can't get enough. Jasmine only becomes more riveting as she descends on her sister Ginger's (Sally Hawkins) shabby San Francisco apartment, where she hopes against hope to ascend back to the lifestyle she led as a Manhattan socialite.

A pitch-perfect blend of comedy and drama, Blue Jasmine is essential viewing for Allen fans. But Shoah historians may also be intrigued. To what extent was Jasmine complicit in Hal's luxury-affording crimes? How much responsibility did she bear for ruining Ginger and brother-in-law Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) financially when she brought them into Hal's schemes? Is turning a blind eye -- or denial -- the same as not knowing? 

At a recent press conference, Blanchett compared her character that royal bungler from Greek tragedy, Oedipus. "(He) Cate Blanchett Photo by Brad Balfourmarries his mother, for Godssake!," razzed the 44-year-old Oscar winner. "But it's a tragedy, because he does it unwittingly." To the contrary, she noted, Jasmine is "the unwitting agent of her own downfall in some way."

Flashing back to Jasmine's genteel past and forward to her swampy present, the drama evokes no less a fragile soul than Blanche Dubois. Allen drew from A Streetcar Named Desire down to the Gallic posings of "Jasmine"-cum Blanche, a moniker she'd upgraded from "Jeanette." Having played Tennessee Williams' poupée of self-delusion (to stout acclaim at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), Blanchett wondered aloud, "Is Blanche a compulsive liar, or is the world just set out to stamp out the poetry in her soul?" She mused that there might be "something intensely dysfunctional about the world in which [Blanche] finds herself," astutely shifting the probe to the culture that breeds such fantasists. Allen's update vests Ginger with fantasies of her own that prevent her from registering her sister's more inconvenient shortcomings. "Everyone has issues and everyone is deluding themselves to some degree."  

Enacting Jasmine, "warts and all," gave Blanchett a lot to drink in. "She's on a cocktail of various different things. Is she on Xanax? When has she not had a drink? But in the end it's the internal cocktail that was really interesting to play. She's so riddled with guilt and rage and fear." 

A more productive strain of fear fueled the shoot itself. Blanchett spoke twinklingly about Allen's genius, though she conceded that the god of timing and mood could also be a harsh god. "The audience has already left the theater" vied with "That was awful" as the director's less fondly remembered remarks.   

With Blue Jasmine, the 77-year-old auteur dispells any frets about his acuity that To Rome with Love may have touched off, and offers a fable for our time that's as philosophical as Crimes & Misdemeanors, as white-knuckle-inducing as Match Point and as compulsively watchable as (Oscar-winning) Midnight in Paris.


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