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Film and the Arts

Musical Review—"Oklahoma!" Returns to Broadway


Music and lyrics by Rodgers & Hammerstein; directed by Daniel Fish

Opened April 7, 2019

Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Daunno in Oklahoma! (photo: Little Fang Photo)

That exclamation point looms large in the title of Oklahoma!, as if the creators of this misbegotten revival are protesting too much: “Trust us—we love this classic musical as much as everyone else does!” But what’s onstage suggests otherwise, as director Daniel Fish’s gimcrack deconstruction substitutes loads of gimmickry for originality. 


For starters, the house lights stay on for much of the performance, except twice when the stage goes completely black and we only hear dialogue spoken through hand-held mikes for maximum aural effect. But the dramatic impact is minimal, because the performers’ droning voices undercut Fish’s intent by making the scenes affectless. Similarly, an important moment is played out in front of cameras recording the actors in close-up, who are projected onto a wall, but the lack of sufficiently varied emoting has an unfortunate effect on the promised edginess.


The down-home vibe starts with picnic tables and folding chairs arrayed around the stage, with audience members seated in some of those chairs. (Crockpots labeled “HOT” sit on the tables, and chili and cornbread are served to audience members at intermission.) But the racks of guns so ostentatiously displayed on the theater’s walls only underscore the obvious point that the wide-open prairies—an example of which is seen in a wall projection—are also dangerous. The director also substitutes a gun for a knife in his botching of the show’s tragic finale when hero Curly’s rival Jud ends up dead.


There are good moments by Ali Stroker in a boisterous, if at times shrill, portrayal of man-chaser Ado Annie, while Will Brill wrings a few laughs out of traveling salesman Ali Hakim. But Mary Testa can’t help but camp it up as a caricature of Aunt Eller, Rebecca Naomi Jones is an unusually sullen heroine Laurey, and Damon Daunno is a pretty charmless Curly whose facility with a guitar is his best attribute. Despite the #sexyoklahoma hashtag on social media, there’s little spark between the pair; that they get together at all is more because they have to than they make a plausible case for it. 


A seven-member band of mandolin, fiddle, cello, accordion, guitars, double bass, and drums plays the classic songs in sometimes refreshingly simple arrangements. But for the most part, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s timeless tunes survive mainly on the audience’s goodwill. Finally, the Dream Ballet—made indelible by Agnes DeMille and here danced with frenzied assurance by Gabrielle Hamilton in John Heginbotham’s muddy new choreography—says less about what Oklahoma! means to us now than it appears to, something which goes for the entire production.



Circle in the Square Theater, 1633 Broadway, New York, NY

April '19 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Kid Who Would Be King 


Writer-director Joe Cornish’s follow-up to his diverting 2011 mess Attack the Block is an enjoyable but overlong young adult tale about a 12-year-old missing his absent father who’s chosen by the wizard Merlin to retrieve the sword Excalibur and amass a group of skeptical schoolmates to battle the forces of darkness led by the sorceress Morgana.




While the kids’ interactions are amusing and there are enchanting moments, the movie runs out of steam well before the overblown fight sequences that marry overloaded CGI to pretty ridiculous plotting. There’s a sparkling hi-def transfer; extras include deleted scenes and featurettes.


The Aspern Papers 

(Cohen Media)

Henry James’ stories have made bumpy transitions from page to screen, and this adaptation of his novel about a young American visiting Venice who delves into the life of a famous European poet who discovers secrets about the poet’s now-aged muse and her spinster niece—is the inauspicious debut of cowriter-director Julien Landais.




The film looks magnificent and the acting of Joely Richardson and her real-life mother Vanessa Redgrave has the necessary gravitas, but Jonathan Rhys-Myers seems uncomfortable with a flat American accent and dour countenance, and Landais’ fuzzy direction doesn’t help. It looks enticing enough on Blu; lone extra is a conversation among Landais, producer Gabriela Bacher and executive producer James Ivory.






Cleopatra Jones 

The Glass Bottom Boat 

(Warner Archive)

1973’s Cleopatra Jones is a mediocre crime drama starring Tamara Dobson as the title detective who uses unorthodox methods to track down suspects; there’s not much to it except for a weirdly funny turn by Shelley Winters as a psychotic mob boss.




Similarly, Doris Day and Rod Taylor can’t overcome a leering, idiotic script in Frank Tashlin’s 1966’s would-be comedy The Glass Bottom Boat, which also wastes ace laugh-getters as Dom DeLuise, Paul Lynne and Dick Martin. Even Catalina Island off the southern California coast doesn’t look appealing. Both films have superb hi-def transfers; Boat extras comprise three vintage film-related featurettes and the 1967 Chuck Jones animated short, The Dot and the Line.







Emmanuel Chabrier’s frothy opera bouffe gets a glitzy staging at Dutch National Opera in 2014 by director Laurent Pally, who makes the crazed plot about a mad monarch looking for someone in his kingdom to execute as effervescent as Chabrier’s radiant score.




The music is played with panache by The Hague’s resident orchestra under conductor Patrick Fournillier, while vocal standouts are Christophe Montagne as the king and Stephanie d’Oustrac as the princess. Hi-def video and audio are ideal.


Project Blue Book—Complete 1st Season 


This sci-fi series featuring the investigations of UFO detective J. Allen Hynek begins when his career does, studying curious cases of paranormal activity in the ‘50s and ‘60s while he’s with the U.S. Air Force. Despite such a taut subject, the series never catches fire as it balances its investigatory aspects with its hero’s mundane domestic matters.




The man who did so much to further the legitimacy of UFOs (he even had a cameo in Steven Spielberg’s classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind) deserves a more substantive vehicle: even Aiden Gillen’s portrayal of Hynek seems unnecessarily subdued. The hi-def transfer is excellent.





Victoria—Complete 3rd Season 

(PBS Masterpiece)

In this absorbing historical drama’s third season, the young queen shows her experience and mettle in a fraught year—1848—that sees upheaval throughout Europe.




The riveting Jenna Coleman easily carries the weight of the drama, and she’s ably complemented by such actors as Laurence Fox, Kate Fleetwood, Alex Jennings and Tom Hughes, her beloved Albert, who collapses on the floor in season’s final moments. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras include interviews and featurettes.


DVDs of the Week

Cam Girl 

(Omnibus/Film Movement)

In a drama not sordid enough to be a guilty pleasure but not deep enough to be taken seriously, four young women unable to find decent work start a website and make money off desperate men willing to pay for online pleasure.




Mirca Viola directs unsubtly, which is too bad because despite the exploitative subject, the actresses are capable of providing substance to what could be merely male fantasies: Alessia Piovan, Sveva Alviti, Ilaria Capponi and especially Antonia Liskova as the brains behind the outfit deserve better.






(First Run)

New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan worked in government for decades—eventually retiring and giving his senate seat over to Hillary Clinton—and died at age 76 in 2003, so it’s something of a miracle that directors Joseph Dorman and Toby Perl Freilich are able to touch on so much of his eventful career in this absorbing documentary portrait.




Moynihan was a complicated man, at times on the wrong side of issues, notably race—as such evenhanded commentators as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton discuss—but he could also forge compromises to keep the country moving forward, something we are sorely in need of right now.


CD of the Week 

Zimmermann—Violin Concerto 


Uncompromising modernist composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann, who committed suicide in 1970 at age 52, was best known for his hard-to-perform opera Die Soldaten, which requires massive orchestral, vocal and staging forces. Zimmermann made his mark in many genres, as this excellent new disc attests.




Dazzling soloist Leila Josefowicz easily dispatches the murderous Violin Concerto, in which Zimmermann’s unlikely penchant for jazz rhythms sneak in; the vocal symphony from Die Soldaten is a mesmerizing piece of music, alternately biting and brooding. Conductor Hannu Lintu, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and vocal soloists do justice to some fiercely difficult music.

Broadway Musical Review—“Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations”

Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations

Book by Dominique Morrisseau; songs from the Motown catalog; directed by Des McAnuff

Opened March 21, 2019


The cast of Ain't Too Proud... (photo: Matthew Murphy)

Jukebox musicals are proliferating so quickly on Broadway that it’s hard to keep up. It’s also difficult to decide how to rate them: because the songs are already good? Or the show incorporates the music well? Or the overall design doesn’t insult one’s intelligence? Well, it may have its faults—especially playwright Dominique Morrisseau’s by-the-numbers book—but Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, is a qualified success.



The group’s story is told through the eyes (and narration) of Otis Williams, the band’s leader, as we see him growing up in hardscrabble Detroit and how music became his sole salvation (along with so many other young men). Ain’t Too Proud plots a familiar trajectory—local popularity, then discovery by Motown impresario Clive Davis, followed by popular success, personal animosities, breakdowns, breakups, tragedies, reunions, and a final legacy—but it still motors along entertainingly.


It works for several reasons. Sergio Trujillo’s often ingenious choreography takes the archetypal Temptations stage moves from their TV and concert appearances and multiplies them winningly throughout the show. Des McAnuff’s direction, snappy and slick without becoming superficial, keeps it all moving briskly whenever well-worn tropes rear their heads. And the tunes themselves are a virtual compendium of the best of Motown, from the group’s number-one singles like “My Girl” and “Just My Imagination” to darker—but still hugely popular—hits like “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” the latter a highlight of the show with its pointed commentary on an era swirling around Vietnam and other societal ills.


The first-rate cast sings with freshness and a keen respect for the originals yet makes these soul standards their very own. Derrick Baskin’s Otis is a perfectly brooding narrator; other standouts are the troubled but charismatic David Ruffin of Ephraim Sykes and Eddie Kendricks of Jeremy Pope. Ain’t Too Proud is a jukebox musical no one would be embarrassed to attend.


Ain’t Too Proud

Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street, New York, NY

An Evening of Choir & Music with the Budapest Festival Orchestra

Photo by Jennifer Taylor
A superb season at Carnegie Hall continued magnificently with two concerts on consecutive evenings—beginning on Friday, April 5th—given by the superlative musicians of the Budapest Festival Orchestra—one of the finest contemporary ensembles—under the brilliant direction of Iván Fischer, one of the greatest working conductors.
The first program, devoted to music by Béla Bartók, opened exhilaratingly with a mesmerizing account of the extraordinary Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, one of three works the composer wrote for the stage. The conductor then announced that the next portion of the evening would pay tribute to Bartók’s contributions to music education, involving pieces that he composed for students to play. He invited a high school group from eastern Hungary, the exquisite Cantemus Choir, with the lovely girls in traditional dress, to perform a cappella selections from Twenty-Seven Two- and Three-Part Choruses, directed by Dénes Szabó. After this, Fischer led the orchestra—“pretending” to be a high school ensemble—in support of the singers in the five choruses for which Bartók later provided accompaniment in 1937, as well as the two arrangements for small orchestra he completed in 1942. It was especially exciting to have a chance to hear this glorious music live given that it presents a less familiar dimension of the composer’s repertoire—here traditional folk music is expressed in an idiom influenced by Italian Renaissance polyphony.
The second half of the program featured a thrilling rendition of the late masterpiece, the Concerto for Orchestra, in probably the best version I have yet heard in the concert hall. The first movement was effectively unsettling while the second was abundant in wit, and the Elegia was haunted if enigmatic. The ingenious Intermezzo was thoroughly bewitching while the delirious finale was notable for its unusually accelerated tempo. An ovation of unbridled enthusiasm was rewarded with an enjoyable encore, a traditional folk tune called “Banchida”, a forecast of the following evening’s concert, the first half of which was devoted to Bartók’s ethnomusicological inspirations.
That program opened with three instrumentalists—István Kádár on violin, András Szabó on viola, and Zsolt Fejérvári on bass—performing the music that served as the basis for Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances in a form that may have been similar to how the composer originally encountered it. The entire ensemble then enchantingly played Bartók’s beautifully scored version.
The same trio as before then accompanied the celebrated Hungarian folksinger Márta Sebestyén as she performed the songs that the composer orchestrated for his gorgeous Hungarian Peasant Songs, which the whole ensemble then executed ravishingly. Fischer and the programmers are again to be applauded for affording us the opportunity to appreciate these works in a live presentation, as they are seldom heard in the concert hall. Sebestyén then returned to the stage to perform an encore, supported by the trio of instrumentalists.
The concert concluded arrestingly with a powerful realization of Bartók’s mysterious operatic masterwork, Bluebeard’s Castle, featuring two outstanding singers: mezzo-soprano Ildikó Komlósi and basso Krisztián Cser. I look forward to the next local appearance of these marvelous artists.

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