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Film and the Arts

New Musical Revivals—“The Golden Apple” at Encores!; Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures” at Classic Stage Company

The Golden Apple
Music by Jerome Moross; written by John Latouche; directed by Michael Berresse
Performances May 10-14, 2017
 
Pacific Overtures

Book by John Weidman; music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim 
Directed and designed by John Doyle
Performances through June 18, 2017

Ryan Silverman and Mikaela Bennett in The Golden Apple (photo: Joan Marcus)

The Golden Apple is the kind of musical Encores! was made for: an almost forgotten show that ran off-Broadway in 1954, then transferred to Broadway—the first musical ever to do so—only to close after a few months. Now, for all of us who’ve never seen or heard it in the ensuing 60-plus years, it’s back for a few performances.

 
Most noteworthy is Jerome Moross’s beguiling, sung-through score, closer in spirit to operetta (and opera) than your garden-variety Broadway musical. The infectious and witty songs are in a variety of styles within the Moross’s distinctly Americana vernacular; John Latouche’s accompanying lyrics run the gamut from solid to stolid, with clever and welcome tongue-in-cheek rhymes. But Latouche takes the heroic Greek myths of The Odyssey and The Iliad and, by transplanting them to the year 1898 during the Spanish-American War in the fictional town of Angel’s Roost in Washington State, makes them utterly ridiculous.
 
Luckily, the story’s silliness doesn’t derail the show:  Michael Berresse’s adroit staging—the usual Encores! mix of concert and full production—features Allen Moyer’s droll sets, William Ivey Long’s sassy costumes, and Joshua Bergasse’s lively choreography for the many dance sequences. Moross’s songs are given full-voiced loveliness by newcomer Mikaela Bennett, as Penelope; she belies her inexperience—this is the Juilliard student’s first professional production—with a powerful but not show-offy voice and a scary heaping of stage confidence. 
 
Lindsay Mendez, an amusing Helen, steals scenes right and left while giving a beautiful rendition of the show’s solo standout, “Lazy Afternoon.” Ryan Silverman’s robust Ulysses joins Bennett’s Penelope for Moross’s romantic duets, “It’s the Going Home Together” and the finale “We’ve Just Begun.” The non-singing Barton Cowperthwaite dances up a storm as Paris, a hot-air balloon traveling salesman who kidnaps Helen.
 
Rob Berman and his Encores! orchestra give Moross’s charming music the best possible platform, but an inane plot and large cast make The Golden Apple a doubtful Broadway revival any time soon.
 
Geroge Takei (center) in Pacific Overtures (photo: Joan Marcus)
Pacific Overtures was made for Broadway: its huge cast and expansive storyline about the opening of Japan (starting with the 1853 landing of American Commodore Matthew Perry) need a big stage to house Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s problematic but thought-provoking show exploring the fallout of the West’s introducing the East to “progress.”
 
Unfortunately, John Doyle—who tinkers with everything he touches, usually Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, Company, Passion) and opera (his disastrous Peter Grimes at the Met)—has downsized Pacific Overtures in its staging and its music, which reduces it to a highlights performance with tantalizing bits of pointed commentary strewn throughout its intermissionless 85 minutes. 
 
Doyle’s spare but evocative visuals—the stage splits through the audience like an unfurling scroll—are complemented by his suggestive blocking, as the ten performers mimic stylized Japanese movements. But why Doyle has cut several songs—including those that make a strong case for the show’s musical supremacy among Sondheim aficionados—and instead kept a more obvious satirical rant like “Please Hello,” in which stereotypically arrogant Western representatives convince the Japanese to bow to their cultural superiority, is puzzling.
 
In a generally fine cast, George Takei’s stately presence as The Reciter stands out. Too bad Doyle’s unfocused production reduces a provocative piece of theater—with a punning title (taken directly from Commodore Perry) that speaks volumes about its intentions—to a stale deconstruction mistaking poverty for intimacy. One awaits Doyle’s next move with increased trepidation.


The Golden Apple
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY
nycitycenter.org

Pacific Overtures
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY
classicstage.org

May '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Kiju Yoshida—Love + Anarchism

(Arrow Academy)
One of the unsung luminaries of the Japanese New Wave, director Kiju Yoshida has made relatively few films, his reputation hinging on the three features in this must-have boxed set: his magnum opus, 1969’s epic Eros + Massacre, presented in its 165-minute release version and the stunningly original 215-minute director’s cut; and his subsequent features, 1970’s Heroic Purgatory and 1973’s Coup d’Etat.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Yoshida’s political trilogy (simultaneously hip and historical, free-form and rigidly structured) are screaming to be discovered anew thanks to flawless hi-def transfers that bring to life his ingenious B&W compositions, along with contextualizing extras: intros by scholar David Desser and Yoshida, commentaries by Desser and a 30-minute featurette about Eros featuring Yoshida.
 
Brain Damage
(Arrow)
Frank Henenlotter’s grubby 1988 gorefest introduces a brain-eating parasite named Edgar who finds a willing young idiot to do his murderous bidding: this is the kind of tongue-in-cheek horror flick where a young woman, ready to perform fellatio on our hero, instead ends up with Edgar in her mouth, and he burrows through her mouth to suck out her brain.
 
 
 
 
There’s definitely an audience for this type of low-budget schlock, but credit must be given to Edgar creator Gabe Bartalos, who comes up with a crafty little monster. It looks good and grainy on Blu; extras include interviews, featurettes and a commentary.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Serial Mom 

(Shout/Scream Factory)

John Waters’ silly 1994 satire has grown in relevance since then, as Kathleen Turner’s murderous middle-class mom who gets off in a sensational trial remains one of her best, most deadpan creations.
 
 
 
 
Although the movie keeps beating the same dead horse for 95 minutes, the collection of misfits in Waters’ cast—Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake and Matthew Lillard as Turner’s family, Patty Hearst as a juror and Mink Stole as a bitchy accuser—makes it a fun watch. The hi-def transfer is solid; extras include two commentaries (one by Waters and Turner and one by Waters solo), featurettes and a conversation with Waters, Turner and Stole.
 
Things to Come
(Sundance Selects)
After an auspicious career start (All Is Forgiven, The Father of My Children and Goodbye First Love), French director Mia Hansen-Løve has regressed with her shallow 2014 feature Eden and her latest, with a somnambulistic Isabelle Huppert as a philosophy professor with a long-term marriage, two teenage children and a psychosomatic mother who suddenly finds herself unmoored; as she says: “I got divorced, my children have moved out, and my mom died. I’m free.”
 
 
 
 
Instead of an insightful look at a woman beginning a new life, Hansen-Løve makes a meandering soap opera that not even the redoubtable Huppert can save. The director’s unerring eye and beautifully composed shots look ravishing on Blu-ray, at least.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
CD of the Week 

Mahler Third Symphony—Budapest Festival Orchestra

(Channel Classics)

It takes a village to perform Mahler’s monumental Third Symphony—if not as many as his Eighth (the aptly, and only slightly exaggeratedly, titled “Symphony of a Thousand”)—thanks to a large orchestra, two choirs, alto soloist and a conductor who can marshal all of those forces into a cohesive whole that plays some of Mahler’s most sublimely emotional music.

 

 

 

 

And that’s what conductor Ivan Fischer does with his Budapest Festival Orchestra, Cantemus Children’s Choir, Chorus of the Bayerischer Rundfunk and singer Gerhild Romberger, all of whom perform brilliantly in this magnificent 95-minute journey through one of Mahler’s most momentous compositions.

Broadway Review—Paula Vogel’s Play “Indecent”

Indecent
Written by Paula Vogel; directed by Rebecca Taichman
Opened April 18, 2017
 
The cast of Indecent (photo: Carol Rosegg)
When two women kissed on a Broadway stage in 1923 in Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, it caused a scandal. The show was shut down, something that didn’t happen during many European stagings since the Polish-Jewish playwright Asch wrote it in 1907. But the unique prudishness of the United States—even in a culturally rich and ethnically diverse city like New York—demonstrated that intolerance rears its ugly in many ways.
 
Paula Vogel’s play Indecent follows the complicated and haunting history of God of Vengeance, from its first reading in a Warsaw, Poland, literary salon to its being enacted one act at a time in the Lodz Ghetto by performers who don’t know if they’ll get to perform the last act before the Nazis round up everyone. An acting troupe is introduced, and the performers are seen onstage and off, their personal lives intertwined with the fictional but very real characters they play in Vengeance. Pivotal scenes are reenacted from various productions of the play, giving a real sense of not only its historical importance, but also its enduring dramatic interest.
 
Indecent is stimulating without being particularly illuminating, despite an early image of ashes spilling out of the characters’ clothing powerfully evoking what happens to concentration camp victims. But even if it’s admittedly manipulative, Vogel and her sensitive director Rebecca Taichman make effective use of Brechtian stage devices that allow the non-linear narrative to flow more interestingly than it might have otherwise.
 
The klezmer-like music performed onstage is nicely integrated into the drama, with the versatile instrumentalists joining in on the action at times (the ingenious choreography is by David Dorfman). The outstanding performers, all of whom play multiple roles, are led by the winning actress Katarina Link, whose intimate scenes with Adina Verson—not only in their censored onstage kiss but their warm offstage relationship—are the linchpin of the plays God of Vengeance and Indecent.
 
Indecent
Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street
indecentbroadway.com

May '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

I Am Not Your Negro

(Magnolia)
Remember This House, a book James Baldwin never finished, survives in manuscript form and is a personal reminiscence of three civil rights leaders who were murdered: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
 
 
 
 
 
Director Raoul Peck’s powerful documentary—nominated for an Oscar this past year—makes intelligent use of Baldwin’s own words (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) to make the persuasive case that Baldwin’s views on racism in America have never been more relevant. The film looks splendid on Blu; extras are two Peck interviews (one of them an hour long) and Jackson interview.
 
Animal Kingdom—Complete 1st Season
(Warner Bros)
Based on the gritty 2010 Australian film that garnered an Oscar nomination for Jacki Weaver as the matriarch of a petty crime family, this new series moves the action to the heart of southern California, a more uneasy fit than in the Outback.
 
 
 
 
 
Still, Ellen Barkin is fun as lead villainess Janine “Smurf” Cody, who keeps her four sons under control, and the series goes off on interesting tangents after a prolonged set-up over the first few episodes. The hi-def image is excellent; extras include deleted scenes and six featurettes.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Detour 

We Are X

(Magnet)
In Detour, a straitlaced young man goes on a drinking bender and finds himself “befriended” by a crazed redneck and his stripper girlfriend; too bad that this derivative road-trip drama is not nearly as interesting as writer-director Christopher Smith thinks. 
 
 
 
 
 
We Are X is NOT a documentary about the legendary L.A. punk band but instead a fascinating look at the popular Japanese rock outfit that’s been led for decades by Yoshiki, an intense and conflicted artist. Both films have exemplary hi-def transfers; extras are deleted scenes, featurettes, interviews, and (on We Are X) live performances and a fan video.
 
A Dog’s Purpose
(Universal)
Based on W. Bruce Cameron’s best-selling novel, this sanctimoniously sappy drama about a reincarnated dog’s various lives with various owners—good, bad and indifferent—is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser that makes no bones about rubbing our noses in its canine cuteness and tear-inducing melodrama.
 
 
 
 
 
Adorable dogs notwithstanding, director Lasse Hallstrom has come a long way (down) from his breakthrough classic, My Life as a Dog, for which he got Oscar nominations for writing and directing way back in 1988. The film has a natural look on Blu; extras include deleted scenes, outtakes and two featurettes.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Rounders 

Spencer’s Mountain

(Warner Archive)
Henry Fonda, in a long career, made several forgettable movies. Like these two: 1964’s The Rounders teams Fonda and Glenn Ford in a frivolous western about a couple of aging cowboys dealing with a bucking bronco.
 
 
 
 
 
1963’s Spencer’s Mountain—a predecessor to The Waltons—finds Fonda playing a father of nine in this sweetly unassuming if too saccharine family drama. Both films have luminous hi-def transfers; Spencer extras are vintage featurette and vintage Fonda interviews.
 
The Wheeler Dealers
From Hell It Came
(Warner Archive)

1963’s The Wheeler Dealers is a harmless and rather pointless Arthur Hiller romantic comedy with an amusing James Garner as a typical Texas millionaire and glamorous Lee Remick as a hard-edged New York gal who falls for him.

 

 

 

 

 

1957’s From Hell It Came has one of the most absurd monsters ever—half-man, half-tree—terrorizing whoever crosses its path. It’s so bad that it might be worth a look just for its extreme lousiness, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. The hi-def transfers are excellent.

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