Main Street Theatre presents Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (2018)

My lovely Houston friends – the same ones who rented Rent for us – took me to see the sweetest play at Main Street Theatre. Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is, of course, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. It takes place at Pemberley after Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, and Jane and Mr. Bingley, have been married a few years. Jane is pregnant; Lydia is still married (not entirely happily) to Mr. Wickham; and Mary and Kitty are still at home. The entire family is now converging on Pemberley, along with an unexpected guest or two: Mr. Darcy’s unpleasant Aunt de Bourgh has just died, and a distant cousin Arthur de Bourgh will be arriving for Christmas as well, having just inherited.

The Miss Bennet of the title here is Mary, the middle sister, whose life has begun to chafe. She loves to read, study, and practice her pianoforte. No one she knows understands her interest in a life of the mind; and while she loves traveling between the pages of books, she aches for a wider-traveled life in the real world, too. At Pemberley, amidst the giddy happinesses and dramas of her sisters, she wishes for more. And more may be in the cards for her just now, to start the new year…

Romantic? Sweet? Rather predictable? All of these things, yes, but so enjoyable. It’s clever and funny and plays at my emotions adeptly. I think it’s really saying something to tell you that while I saw each plot move, more or less, coming, I was still on the edge of my seat, because I had such sympathy for each character. What can I say. Buying into fictional plots might be a specialty of mine.

I loved every bit of this evening. The clever references to Austen’s original (including the genius line about “a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good fortune…”), the heartfelt acting, the sweetly familiar setting and simple, charming set. I believe Main Street Theatre qualifies as amateur theatre, but it was very professional. Mary’s piano playing was no small accomplishment in itself; no one broke or stumbled over a line for the whole thing; it was excellent all around. Overall, I think this production accomplished everything intended by the play (by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon). It made appropriate reference to the inspired original and made playful use of my emotions. It was at every turn sweet, and (the idea goes) ’tis the season for sweetness. Here’s to the latest Miss Bennet.


Rating: 7 books with blue covers.

movie: Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway (2008)

I first saw Rent when I was in high school. My dad and I traveled to New York City to investigate that city among a few others where we thought I might go to college. He got us tickets to see Rent at the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway. I already knew that I loved musical theatre at that time, but this production really changed something for me. It was the first time that I cried at a stage production or at any piece of art other than a book. The subject matter felt especially meaningful and timely for me, as I had friends still discovering their sexuality and coming out to their parents. It was an event that resonated. I immediately bought the soundtrack and it still makes me cry today, twenty years later.

The friends I am visiting with now expressed an interest, and so we rented this version: a live taping of the final performance of the Broadway production, after a twelve-year run. The actors are almost entirely different (every major role was filled by a different actor in this version, from the one I saw). And I guess I had really invested in the first cast; but I have to say, this one was admirably close to the original, so even someone like me was able to be open to the new. Most cast members were very close in physical details as well as in talent; I was able to settle into this production and feel at home.

It’s still everything I remember, after all these years. Musical theatre does tend toward the theatrical (go figure) expression of emotions, but for the few moments of somewhat self-conscious hand-wringing that I might skip, there is such raw power… and the singing and dancing is amazing. I still find this play to be full of all the love, drama, angst, grief, rage, and passion I found there in the first place. It made me cry, again.

As a production, too, I think it works well – that is, both as a stage production (filmed live, with audience and applause) and as a cinecast. Unlike The Wiz and more like National Theatre Live, the camera angles varied and moved around, working for perspective and providing close-ups as appropriate. I don’t recall noticing that the cinematography in itself was extraordinary (as I often do with NT Live), but it was plenty serviceable. Since the chance to see Broadway’s version of Rent has passed, I’d strongly recommend this version.

It’s interesting to think about the extent to which an experience like this is about that original experience. I was probably 16 years old (maybe 17, but I think 16) sitting in the upper rows of the Nederlander Theatre, far from the stage. The words and lyrics and music and dramatic portrayals, the singing and dancing and kissing, took me so powerfully. I’ll never forget; I’ll also never have the same experience again, but every time I hear a song from Rent or see another production (even the 2005 movie, which I remember finding a disappointment), it refers to that original experience just enough to tap into some of those emotions. Still gets me.

In contrast, I have a friend and fellow writer who strongly dislikes Rent. He calls it a singing telegram to AIDS. Dave’s a few years younger than me, and I believe has never seen it live. I’d like to dismiss his opinion on these counts, but think I should give him a little more credit than that. Dave’s also a gay man, and some part of me feels I should defer to his opinion as being a part of a certain demographic – the play is about the AIDS crisis and has more queer characters than cis-het ones. (Another part of me knows that my own opinion & tastes remain worthwhile here.) At any rate I find it interesting, since I respect Dave’s approach to art and we often share interests and tastes. I wonder if he had gotten to see the play live at age 16 how it would have affected him… Then again, maybe the concern is that this is too serious an issue to get all song-and-dance about. That would be a position worth considering.

Local issues aside, Rent remains an important part of my personal understanding of art and value. I’m still hooked. Keep singing.


Rating: 8 samples that won’t delay, for its value in my personal mythology.

movie: Annie (1982)

annieCaught this one on television just by accident, and it served as a good reminder – that nostalgia or sentiment can count for so much, and is entirely relative and individual in its effects.

I recently reviewed Stand by Me, which I found just so-so. I watched it to better appreciate a book (review still forthcoming) about the author’s attachment to that movie, and I found that the movie did less for me, although I could imagine how it might have felt to see it for the first time at twelve, or nine, or so. Well, perhaps for me that movie is Annie. I was born in the same year that this film was, and it’s the first musical I remember seeing, and I recall its impact well. I probably sang these songs 1,000 times, and I’m pretty sure I sang one or two (“Maybe”, “Tomorrow”) in show choir, as well. I knew every line as it was spoken.

And what’s even stranger is that I’d forgotten all about it til it came on television. I often read or do other things while Husband has the television on; but this movie brought my head up, and took me back. I hadn’t thought about it in years! but every word still echoed in my head. They’d been there all along.

This isn’t a movie review at all, is it. I’m just considering what a funny thing memory is – that we can forget we have them, but still store hours of dialog and lyrics in our heads; that associations with time and place and formative events can make us love a movie regardless of its objective worth. (And what is that, in art, anyway?) Annie didn’t get great reviews (only a score of 52% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I’m not even insulted when Roger Ebert writes, “It’s like some kind of dumb toy that doesn’t do anything or go anywhere, but it is fun to watch as it spins mindlessly around and around.” (That is one of the kinder lines in his review, actually.) Because I get that it is just the nostalgia that does it for me. (Although, to answer your wondering, Mr. Ebert, kids did like this movie. At least one did.)

More objectively, I find this movie a little saccharine, a little stiff and unrealistic in its characterizations, and a little flip about the real concerns of its Depression-era setting and treatment of children, etc. These are some of the standard criticisms, and they’re not wrong. But on the other hand, it’s relentlessly uplifting – if you’re up for that sort of thing – and the songs are undeniably catchy. Carol Burnett’s Miss Hannigan is perfectly wonderful, and she’s one of the characters I remember best. Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks gives a fine performance as well. It’s a movie not without its charms, although it is essentially sentiment, spitshine and song. But it made its impression on me. I’ve loved many musicals since, but this was the first.


Rating: 8 tap dances, from a purely subjective perspective.

movie: Les Misérables (2012)

You know the title, of course. It began as a novel by Victor Hugo in 1862, with the original (French) version coming in somewhere near 2,000 pages long: fewer in English, but no, I have not read this one. (I listened to the audiobook of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Also long.) It became a sung-through Broadway musical to great success (Wikipedia says it was the second-longest-running musical in the world), and I am now reviewing the 2012 movie, which I saw at home with Husband and Pops, courtesy of our local library.

I was pretty unfamiliar with the story: I read a quick synopsis online just before viewing. It wasn’t hard to follow, though. I’ll make it extra quick for you, since there are plenty of plot summaries out there and you may already know it, anyway. In 1815 France, Jean Valjean is finally released from a 19-year forced-labor sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister, nephew and self. He is, unsurprisingly, resentful. He violates parole and disappears, reappearing to us some years later as a good man, mayor and factory owner who cares about the people he holds power over. Inspector Javert, who knew Valjean as a prisoner, continues to seek him out, hoping to hold him responsible for the crime of skipping parole. Valjean’s continued attempts to do good do him no good. He adopts the orphaned daughter of a local citizen, and goes on the run with his newly formed family. The evil innkeeper & wife who had been fostering the girl repeatedly offer comic relief from an otherwise tragic and horrifying plot. The story’s central conflict crescendos with the Paris Uprising of 1832.

This movie is packed with stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfriend (one of the ditzes from Mean Girls), Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat), Helena Bonham Carter, and Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl). Samantha Barks plays a beautiful Éponine. The imagery is gorgeous; all the costuming, scenery, etc., and of course all those beautiful people. I found the story evocative. And the singing! Who knew Crowe, Jackman, Hathaway, et al had such voices on them? The music was rousing and emotive: it’s not hard to see why the Broadway show did so well.

Am I inspired to read ~1500 pages of English-translated Hugo? No, not just yet. But I will gladly see a stage production of this musical story. It was a great and involving time.


Rating: 8 loaves of bread.

Mount Baker Theatre presents Flashdance the Musical

I went with my parents to a local theatre to see this musical version of Flashdance. First I shall confess: I have never seen the movie. But now it’s on the list.

flashdanceThe musical started on Broadway, but I’m a little vague on its route to us. This local performance employed a New York-based company, but not the same folks who performed on Broadway, and the Broadway-associated website states the last show took place almost a year ago. It was impassioned and fun, but not perfect: the sound was surprisingly poor for a theatre that specializes in musical performances, tinny and muffled. The voice casting was probably imperfect as well; several actors were much better in some parts of their range than others. Overall, the sound quality was poor enough to effect our understanding of the songs & story, which is really unfortunate.

But when the singers hit their areas of confidence and belted it out, they were generally stellar. The dancing was great fun. (Pops reports that he remembers more street-style dancing from the movie, where he found more burlesque here, for what that’s worth.) It’s a cute story. Musical theatre necessarily involves some cheesiness, so the audience is required to make some allowances there, but I’m on board. And I really like the premise, that our protagonist is a welder by day and exotic dancer by night: I love the juxtaposition and the acknowledgment that shit, we’re all complicated beings. This one is based on a true story, you know.

Not perfect, but good enough for me. Movie next, please.


Rating: 7 high kicks.

NBC’s The Wiz Live! (2015)

I missed round one, but got to see NBC’s encore showing of the remake of The Wiz, a 1974 retelling in turn of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, set in an urban and African-American cultural context. It has been much talked about and enjoyed, and I’d heard a little bit about Shanice Williams, who plays Dorothy: she’s just 19 and has never been involved in anything this big before, which is its own underdog story. And who doesn’t love that story?

wiz

First, let me admit that I am unfamiliar with the 1974 show (though pretty familiar with the 1900 original), so I can make no comparisons there. I approached this as a happily enjoyable, entertaining remake on a well-loved classic, with a twist, and with a young new star. It was all of those things. There were some changes made for the stage – like, Toto is only present in the opening and closing scenes, in Kansas, and doesn’t make it to Oz. I guess it was too hard to get a dog’s cooperation for the whole. The journey from the house-dropping scene in Munchkinland to the Emerald City was much compressed, and I was sorry about that. The magical slippers are returned to silver, which is how L. Frank Baum wrote them, rather than Hollywood’s red. There was a new mini-storyline, wherein Dorothy is actually from Omaha, only recently living with Aunt Em after her parents’ deaths. Thus, in her searching for home she has to parse which of these places really is home, which I thought was a nice addition for depth, and which I identified with personally, too. The original story is very much about a concept of home, but even more complexly so in this rendition. I approve. Oh, and of course: the Wiz is a woman this time around! “His” false public character is still male, but the ballooned-in accident from Omaha is female. I found this a welcome twist.

Overall it was far from a flawed performance, though. There were some rough spots: imperfect synchronization of effects, the Wiz tripping on “his” robe. Though star-studded, the acting was a little uneven. I thought the Tin Man (Ne-Yo) was genius; the Lion (David Allen Grier) was a little underplayed, a little blank. The Scarecrow (Elijah Kelley) actually became a little unlikeable to me, as a character, for the first time ever. Queen Latifah as the Wiz was a great casting idea, but fell a little short: it felt like the songs she had to sing were a little below her usual register, and she didn’t get to belt out like we know she can do so well. Once she stepped out of her Wiz costume, though, and became the woman behind the mask, she hit just the right notes – in portraying her character, that is. I did appreciate Stephanie Mills as Aunt Em – and also appreciated the nod to her role as the original Dorothy in 1974. Shanice Williams herself is beyond complaint, though. I found her engaging and heartfelt, fully committed to song, dance and acting.

As a filmed stage production, I found The Wiz thoroughly disappointing, but that’s because National Theatre Live has got me so spoiled. The work NT Live does is unparalleled excellence: I actually remember myself as being at those shows, rather than in a movie theatre. The camera angle changes: it shows the whole stage (including the front edge, so we can see it’s a stage), different parts in medium-close-up, and close-up angles on individual characters. We see all the set changes (no commercials), so we get the feeling for a real, live stage show. The Wiz clearly took a very different approach. We saw no stage settings (commercial breaks!), and the angle never cut so widely as to give a feeling for the stage itself. For that matter, NT Live shows shots of the audience before and after the show and during intermission, so that I feel like I’m with that crowd in London (or wherever). It remains unclear to me whether there was an audience present for The Wiz. And if not, what a shame for the players. Filming of a stage show is clearly not NBC’s strong suit here.

Uneven performances (but some of them were stellar!), some very fine singing and a classically loveable story make for a pleasing experience, if you didn’t expect too much coming in.


Rating: 7 winged warriors.

The Old Globe presents In Your Arms

I was so lucky last week to get to accompany my Grammy to this outstanding theatre production, which is a little hard to describe, but of course I’ll try.

photo by Buck Lewis, courtesy of New York Stage and Film & Vassar's Powerhouse Theater

photo by Buck Lewis, courtesy of New York Stage and Film & Vassar’s Powerhouse Theater

In Your Arms is a dance-musical production with very little dialog. It is a series of shorts, mostly unconnected, but with a theme of romantic relationships. These vignettes range through time and geography, sometimes implied and sometimes explicit, as with “The Lover’s Jacket,” in which dates and locations (Spain in 1939 and Argentina in, I’m pretty sure, 1940) are projected against the wall. This is one of the finest and most communicative pieces of nonverbal storytelling throughout the whole, although all of them were impressively clear in their messages and emotions despite being mostly wordless. Details might be blurred, of course, but the feeling and action of each piece was perfectly plain.

The exception was Carrie Fisher’s contribution, “Lowdown Messy Shame,” which is voice-overed by Fisher as she is seated off to one side at a typewriter, composing the action we see played out across the stage. The players act out Fisher’s imaginings but also comment upon them, in a cute innovation. One review found this one overly wordy – and indeed it was almost the only spoken theatre of the evening – but I enjoyed it as much as any other, despite its differences. (“The Dance Contest” also uses some voiceover.)

As I said, these shorts had a shared theme, but remained distinct. I loved the survey over time, space and culture. And then they are tied together by opening and closing pieces featuring a singer expressing nostalgia for loves past. Here I agree with the Union-Tribune (link above) that less song would have been fine; but I think these scenes served well nonetheless to emphasize the loose links between all the pieces. Overall, this nearly-wordless hour-and-forty-five-minutes of music, dance and theatre was profoundly emotional and moving, over a wide range of topics but centered around affairs of the heart. I was deeply impressed; it’s the best thing I’ve seen in a long time.

I was further pleased by stage settings and costume. No set stands out in my memory as being particularly complex or elaborate, but each was distinct and evocative, and the transitions were smooth and easy; I love seeing a change of just one or two elements transform a stage and introduce a new setting with perfect clarity. I think that kind of subtle-but-clear set design is more impressive than elaborately complete stage dressings. A unique element here, too, was the use of shadow and projection throughout; the time-and-place cues in “The Lover’s Jacket” were projected on the screen, and shadows were a major feature in “A Wedding Dance,” while projected home movies were central to “Life Long Love.” The costumes were great fun, too, and well designed for showcasing the dance as well as helping to tell the story. I liked the protagonist’s costume in “Life Long Love” for what it emphasized and revealed, while also looking demure at the appropriate moments.

I do want to say briefly that I wasn’t sure about the racial tones in “A Wedding Dance”, which tells the story of an African couple’s immigration or… kidnapping? I don’t have enough information to be certain whether this was a well-told realistic story, or an ugly appropriation of stereotypes. Likewise “White Snake,” which tells the story of a white businessman who reads comic books and fantasizes about his Asian assistant. It was a great piece of theatre and movement, combining dance and martial arts and a lovely representation of the blurry line between fantasy and reality. But I wasn’t sure how much fun we should be having with certain stereotypes there, as well. I haven’t worked out what’s okay here, in part because of the lack of details in wordless theatre. Just something I wanted to note. On the other hand, the same-sex couple in “Artists and Models, 1929” was represented with sensitivity and realism and I found them delightful. I want to say that this was one of my favorite pieces, but gosh, I want to say that about nearly all of them.

Finally, I must note that this event took me back to San Diego’s Old Globe theatre, where I saw what I’m pretty sure was my first Shakespeare production, in 1992, when I was 10 years old. The theatre and surrounding park still felt familiar, and it was such a treat to be there again with my Grammy, thoroughly aside from the quality of the show.

If you have a chance, definitely make a point to see In Your Arms. It was a rare treat for me. There are rumors it might be Broadway-bound, so maybe a larger audience will get an opportunity at it.

Thanks, Grammy, this was so special.


Rating: 9 memories.
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