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Film and the Arts

Broadway Musical Reviews—“Bandstand” and “Anastasia”

Bandstand
Book & lyrics by Robert Taylor & Richard Oberacher; music by Richard Oberacher
Directed & choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler
Opened April 26, 2017
 
Anastasia
Book by Terrence McNally; lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; music by Stephen Flaherty
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Opened April 24, 2017
 
Laura Osnes in Bandstand (photo: Jeremy Daniel)
I saw Bandstand in 2015 at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse as The Bandstand. Losing its definite article isn’t the only change for Broadway, as this sentimental but affecting musical about a group of bebop-playing WWII vets from Cleveland who enter a songwriting contest that takes them to Manhattan has dropped some fat and added more inventive movement courtesy of director (and Tony-winning Hamilton choreographer) Andy Blankenbuehler.
 
But its ace in the hole remains Laura Osnes, who plays Julia, widow of a soldier killed in the war who starts singing with the band after Donnie Nowitski—her husband’s closest friend in the army who was in the foxhole when he was killed—checks in on her as he promised he would.
 
Osnes is the emotional center of a show that also generously allows each of the bandsmen—scarred by the war in his own way—to work out his demons by playing the music he loves. And Blankenbuehler has ingeniously visualized those ghosts and the weight on each vet’s shoulders with astonishingly effective choreographed movements.
 
Richard Oberacher’s toe-tappingly swing-inflected music at times digs into a well of melody and emotion, notably for the mournful but exhilarating climax, “Welcome Home,” which Osnes knocks out of the park with her impassioned, nakedly soul-baring vocal performance.
 
Corey Cott is a likable piano-playing Donnie, Beth Leavel a sturdy presence as Julia’s mom (still a thankless role, unfortunately) and the actors playing the band members—Joe Carroll, Brandon James Ellis, Nate Hopkins, Geoff Packard and Joey Peroa, all playing their own instruments—give as good as they get as dramatic and musical foils.
 
But it’s up to Osnes—backed by fierce instrumental backing by the onstage sextet—to bring Bandstand home by putting us through an emotional wringer for a few glorious moments.
 
Christy Altomare in Anastasia (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Anastasia is the latest critic-proof Broadway musical. I don’t know how long it will run, but the legions of satisfied youngsters in the audience—how many parents can afford to pay Broadway prices to bring their kids to see it?—demonstrate that it’s being done right. At least for them.
 
Based on two movies—the 1956 drama for which Ingrid Bergman won the Best Actress Oscar and the 1997 animated movie with Meg Ryan, of all people, voicing the title character—the musical is a hodgepodge that never decides on a direct course but instead meanders, hoping to keep both kids and parents happy. Six songs (including the Act I climax, “Journey to the Past”) are from the 1997 version, and the rest are new, undistinguished ones from the same team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.
 
Terrence McNally’s rambling book precariously balances outright fantasy (Anastasia survived the Russian royal family’s 1917 slaughter by the Bolsheviks) and historical drama (Gleb, a Bolshevik apparatchik, tracks down Anya, a girl who purports to be Anastasia, and is caught between his duty and his attraction to her).
 
Despite the silliness, director Darko Tresnjak’s staging is filled with handsome trappings: dreamy ballet choreographed by Peggy Hickey, enticing costumes by Linda Cho, agreeable sets by Alexander Dodge and, best of all, consistently imaginative projections by Aaron Rhyne which make liberal use of HD photography to show off two of the world’s most beautiful cities, St. Petersburg/Leningrad and Paris, where the action is set. Too bad the show is longer than it needs to be: at least 20 minutes could be cut, like the lame attempts at humor, endless ballroom scenes, and appearances by the ghosts of the dead Czar’s family to haunt our heroine’s dreams.
 
As Anya, supple-voiced Christy Altomare credibly transforms from street-sweeper with amnesia to elegant princess. Derek Klena’s Dmitry, who falls for Anya, is appealingly goofy, and John Bolton’s Vlad—Dmitry’s friend—gets the most out of his comic moments. As Gleb, Ramin Karimloo looks uncertain but compensates with strong singing, and Mary Beth Peil’s regal Dowager Empress doesn’t condescend to her part or the material.
 
Overlong, not tuneful enough, too derivative: Anastasia is all that and more. But for those who just want a pretty package, it will do nicely.
 
Bandstand
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street
bandstandbroadway.com
 
Anastasia
Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street
anastasiabroadway.com

Broadway Review—Allison Janney in John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation”

Six Degrees of Separation
Written by John Guare; directed by Trip Cullman
Opened April 25, 2017
 
Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey in Six Degrees of Separation (photo: Joan Marcus)
More than a quarter-century since its premiere, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation is the rare play that has entered public consciousness in ways far exceeding the number of theatergoers who have actually seen it: anyone familiar with “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” knows the title refers to the theory that each person is connected to everyone else on the planet by no more than six people, from the most remote cave dweller to, say, Bill Gates.
 
Whether it’s true is certainly debatable—and it’s probably more true now in our incredibly shrinking world—but it works as a conceit for his play, in which several Upper East Side snobs are taken in by a charming con man who claims to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier. Based on a true story that occurred a few years earlier, Six Degrees is an acidly funny takedown of the white upper crust, and their racism, classism and homophobia. Guare accurately depicts the state of New York City circa 1990, before the crime rate started dropping and the city was safer for everyone, not only those already ensconced in their ivory towers on Park Avenue.
 
The original production, zestily staged by Jerry Zaks, starred Stockard Channing as Ouisa Kittredge, who handled Guare’s pungent, often bitchy dialogue with gleeful ease. Her bravura performance also focused the drama on a mother with three ungrateful children who sees Paul, the young black man who talks his way into her home and—for a brief moment—heart before his charade was unmasked, as a lost “son” who needs her guidance and protection.
 
Channing made Guare’s questionable narrative leap for Ouisa plausible, even touching, and in the new production—staged savvily, if at times too frantically, by Trip Cullman—Allison Janney does the same, equaling her predecessor’s effortless command of the stage. As Ouisa, Janney luxuriates in Guare’s rat-a-tat dialogue, spitting it out forcefully yet caressingly, making lines like “Rich people can do something for you even if you're not sure what it is you want them to do” and “Who said when artists dream they dream of money? I must be such an artist” even more pointedly funny than they are on the page. And with her six-foot tall frame, Janney coolly radiates the luxuriousness of Ouisa’s affluent lifestyle without losing sight of the fact that Guare’s play explores what’s buried beneath the splashy gowns and tuxedos (spiffily designed by Clint Ramos).
 
Wonderfully complementing Janney is John Benjamin Hickey as Ouisa’s husband Flan; a master of playing flustered characters hiding behind a polished veneer, Hickey is in top form, especially when he and Janney literally finish each other’s sentences in their direct addresses to the audience. Corey Hawkins brings a formidable mix of charm and menace to Paul, a role that has flummoxed other actors, notably Will Smith in Fred Schepisi’s otherwise estimable 1993 film adaptation.
 
Cullman overdirects the actors playing the spoiled college-age children of the adults Paul has fooled, a shame since the easy laughs they go after are there in the script, without the cheapness. Better are the other parents: Michael Countryman and Lisa Emery as another gullible couple and Ted Eisenberg as a credulous doctor. Paul O’Brien makes a properly gruff detective.
 
Mark Wendlend’s set is an impressionistic combination of Upper East Side elegance and downtown decay, its half-finished shapes mirroring the large two-sided Kandinsky painting hanging over the stage, which itself figures heavily in the play through its blatant symbolism. No one ever said Guare was subtle, but he gets away with it in Six Degrees of Separation.
 
Six Degrees of Separation
Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street
sixdegreesbroadway.com

Broadway Review—Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon in “The Little Foxes”

The Little Foxes
Written by Lillian Hellman; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Opened April 19, 2017
 
Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney in The Little Foxes (photo: Joan Marcus)
 
Lillian Hellman’s Southern Gothic melodrama The Little Foxes has two juicy female roles—malevolent matriarch Regina Giddens and her alcoholic sister-in-law Birdie Hubbard—so it’s not surprising that, for the current Broadway revival, stars Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon take turns performing each.
 
I saw the play with Nixon as Regina and Linney as Birdie, and I’m glad I did. Linney’s warmth and good humor serve her in good stead as the pathetic but sympathetic Birdie, a victim of the family she foolishly married into. Her husband Oscar (Darren Goldstein) constantly berates her and her sister-in-law Regina and brother-in-law Ben (Michael McKean) all but ignore her. Her relationship with her beloved niece, 17-year-old Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini), is the only honest one in the family.
 
Linney’s persuasive performance is capped by a lovely scene when Birdie downs elderberry wine while reminiscing about the old days with Regina’s sickly husband Horace (Richard Thomas) and Alexandra. While speaking, Linney laughs and laughs, seemingly both as Birdie and as a comment on the absurdity of the situation, enveloping costars Thomas and Carpanini with her good vibes and creating an utterly natural onstage moment.
 
Nixon’s sharp-edged Regina is a schemer who knows what she wants and how to get it, whether keeping Horace as sick as possible, keeping daughter Alexandra under her thumb or outsmarting her brothers Ben and Oscar when it comes to the family fortune.
 
Our lead actressesflesh out these opposing characters appositely, and Daniel Sullivan’s always incisive direction surrounds them with terrific support: Thomas’ amusedly weary Horace; Michael McKean’s smiling while backstabbing Ben; Darren Goldstein’s clueless but cruel Oscar; and Carpanini’s affecting Alex.
 
The Little Foxes plays best as an old-fashioned—but gleefully nasty—soap opera; that it provides such luxurious roles for two talented actresses might be its signal virtue.
 
The Little Foxes
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street
manhattantheatreclub.com

April '17 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 

Three Brothers

(Arrow Academy)
Francesco Rosi’s subtle, insightful exploration of the complicated relationship among a trio of siblings—one a Roman judge, one a Turin factory worker and the other a counselor in Naples—was a 1981 Foreign Film Oscar nominee, but don’t hold that against it.
 
 
 
 
As usual, Rosi’s artfully unflashy direction pays dramatic dividends, especially paired with superior acting by Philippe Noiret, Michele Placido and Vittorio Mezzogiorno as the protagonists. There’s never a false moment in this quietly powerful piece of filmmaking. The hi-def transfer looks exceedingly handsome; lone extra is an hour-long 1987 audio interview with Rosi.
 
Caltiki—The Immortal Monster
Django Prepare a Coffin
(Arrow)
Even by paltry B-movie standards, Caltiki—a 1959 monster movie about an ancient Mayan god who goes on a terrorizing rampage after being awoken by archaeologists—is cheesy stuff, and not even Arrow’s typically pristine hi-def presentation can transform it into something resembling a competently-made guilty pleasure.
 
 
 
 
In the ho-hum Django (1968), our cowboy hero comes to the aid of framed innocent men, helping them take their revenge on the corrupt politician after their land. Caltiki extras include commentaries, interviews, intros, and a full-frame presentation of the film; the lone Django extra is an interview with a spaghetti western expert.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Girl with All the Gifts 

(Lionsgate)

Yet another dystopian nightmare, this one puts a twist on the familiar zombie movie plot: children who aren’t among the undead but who still feast on human flesh are a bridge of sorts between humans and the zombies themselves, including young Melanie, our heroine.
 
 
 
 
There’s suitably intense acting by Glenn Close, Paddy Considine, Gemma Arterton and Sennia Nanua as Melanie, which helps sell the creepy but uneven movie’s more routine aspects. The film looks great on Blu-ray; the lone extra is a making-of featurette.
 
La La Land
(Summit/Lionsgate)
Derivative, trite, silly and often eye-rollingly embarrassing, Damien Chazelle’s colossally vacuous musical has dull songs, flashily empty set pieces and two lovebirds whose personal and professional travails are sketched in so perfunctorily that it’s amazing this got nearly universal love and acclaim.
 
 
 
 
That Emma Stone won Best Actress is the biggest catastrophe in Oscar history, and Ryan Gosling’s woozy appearance is a new way to sleepwalk through a movie. It looks impressive and fancifully colorful on Blu-ray; there are lots of extras (on-set featurettes and interviews) as well as a commentary by Chazelle and the film’s composer Justin Hurwitz.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Tampopo 

(Criterion)

Juzo Itami’s droll 1985 comedy began a brief but intense love affair with his movies, a bunch of endearingly silly collaborations with his wife, star actress Nobuko Miyamoto, that later included the equally lively A Taxing Woman and A Taxing Woman Returns.
 
 
 
 
But Tampopo, extolling the virtues of food and cooking long before it became de rigueur on television, is the most lasting expression of the director’s effortless brand of comic mayhem. Criterion’s hi-def transfer looks simply delicious; extras include a Miyamoto interview, Itami’s own 90-minute making-of documentary and his 1962 debut short Rubber Band Pistol.
 
The Witness for the Prosecution
(Acorn)
This latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s absorbing short story about the murder of a society matron is a solid effort, with superb acting by Kim Cattrall as the victim, Billy Howle as her boytoy/suspect, Toby Jones as his lawyer and Andrea Riseborough as the accused’s lover/alibi.
 
 
 
 
Too bad that the production design and atmosphere take precedence over Christie’s still-marvelous mystery. Unsurprisingly, the sumptuous hi-def transfer makes the film sparkle; extras include interviews with cast and creators.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
CD of the Week 
Betty Buckley—Story Songs
(Palmetto)
One of American musical theater’s true treasures, Betty Buckley made her Broadway debut in the classic 1776 and made her mark on shows like Follies, Sunset Boulevard and Grey Gardens. This two-disc set, with Buckley at her considerable vocal peak, shows how strong an interpreter she is within an intimate ensemble of piano, bass and drums. Disc one, recorded in Costa Mesa, California last year, features emotionally trenchant renditions of Stephen Schwartz’s “Chanson,” Kurt Weill’s “September Song” and Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” (where Buckley sings Gabriel’s and Kate Bush’s parts).
 
 
 
 
Disc two, from Joe’s Pub in Manhattan in 2015, features Buckley’s peerless versions of Sting’s “Practical Arrangement,” Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here,” alongside endearing stories about Howard Da Silva and Elaine Stritch, two of Buckley’s theatrical mentors.

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