Monday, January 28, 2013

theatre review JACKIE HOFFMAN'S A CHANUKAH CAROL, Off Broadway, December 21

Jackie Hoffman might just be the funniest person currently working in the New York Theatre.  In addition to her hilarious supporting turns in the original Broadway casts of Hairspray, Xanadu and The Addams Family, Jackie has continually crafted solo comedic shows that she has performed in various venues.  Last year her one woman take off of A Christmas Carol with the simple title of Jackie Hoffman's A Chanukah Carol,  was such a hit that she brought it back for an additional series of performances.  With the tag line "All New (unless you saw it last year)" you get an idea of Jackie's type of humor.

The hour long show, co-written and directed by Michael Schiralli, starts with Jackie doing her show at Beth Temple Shalom in Queens to a very unappreciative and hostile audience.  The cranky and kvetching Hoffman assaults the audience, leaves the stage and decides to calm her nerves with some pills and a little Manischewitz wine.  Of course that toxic combination finds Jackie in a delusional state where she is visited by the infamous three Carol ghosts of past, present and future.  Can what the ghosts show Jackie help turn her from her self depreciating and self loathing ways to see how lucky she has it and see the true spirit of Chanukah?  Well with Hoffman's acid tongued humor all bets are off if she really will see the error of her ways or stay the cranky comic we all love.

With no props or sets and just two chairs, Hoffman conjures up not only various members of her family, especially memorable in several dinner scenes where there is an overabundance of food, Jewish stars Molly Picon and a spot-on imitation of an always hungry Shelly Winters as two of the ghosts but also even does a pretty good take on Patrick Stewart as the narrator of the entire show.  For those of you wondering why Stewart is included in Hoffman's crazy show, he did a very famous one man Christmas Carol on Broadway in the 90's to great acclaim, so of course it makes sense to include him. 

Jackie is so genuine in her approach to displaying what we have to believe are scenes somewhat based on her actual life that you easily identify with her and her experiences.  From being the self obsessed teen, willing to work on the Sabbath and the Jewish Holidays to become the famous person she longs be to the semi-famous comic hoping for success on Broadway, they are all traits we can identify with as we all yearn for our own chance of success even if achieving it comes at a cost.

Now, a one woman show can lose steam even at an hour, and Jackie does manage to include a few moments that don't land, including an ending that doesn't have as big of a finish as I'd hope for.  However, there are many that do.  The scene with her family where they are wondering what the exact difference between Diet Coke and Coke Zero is becomes almost as hilarious as the infamous "Who's On First" Abbott and Costello routine.  And how Jackie shoe horns in the character of Tiny Tim, reimagined as Tiny Kim, a Thai delivery boy from Pinkberry who gives Jackie a detailed analysis of her entire career was one of the many highlights of the show.

To see where Jackie is performing next check out her official website.

Jackie dons many wigs in this "review" of the show:

Jackie takes you behind the scenes of her show:

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

movie review LES MISERABLES

Les Misérables is one of those stage to screen musical adaptations that gets most things right in the transfer from live musical to celluloid experience.  As one of the most successful stage musicals, Les Misérables is a worldwide phenomenon so it seemed only natural that a film version would eventually happen.  However, the fact that it took almost thirty years since it first premiered to become a film is something that I don't think anyone expected.

Based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo, and set in the early to mid 1800's, Les Misérables tells the epic story of Jean Valjean who was jailed for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew.  His original five year sentence becomes almost twenty after he tries to escape making him a very bitter and desperate man.  However, when a bishop saves him, that act of kindness that gives him a second chance and how that event turns him into a positive force is the original tale of "paying it forward."  His redemption and how that changes him is the force behind the emotional journey of the story while the fact that he did run away to become someone else and is being hunted by a police inspector is the major driving element behind the plot.

Hugh Jackman as "Jean Valjean"
As Valjean, Hugh Jackman is giving a stellar performance, one that not only just earned him a Golden Globe but also an Oscar nomination.  Much has been written about how director Tom Hooper had the actors sing live during filming instead of lip syncing to a pre-recorded audio track.  This tactic allowed the actors to not only provide more emotions to a song based on being in the moment on set verses being in a studio weeks or even months before shooting actually began and they had a chance to become and discover their characters but also allowed them to try various takes on the songs during the filming process.  Jackman benefits greatly from this choice.  His two dramatic solos in the film, "Valjean's Soliloquy" and "Who Am I?" are so full of emotion seemingly derived from that exact moment the film was shot that I don't think he would have won that Golden Globe if the songs had been pre-recorded.

Anne Hathaway as "Fantine"
Likewise, Anne Hathaway also benefits from this filming choice.  Her "I Dreamed a Dream," arguably the best known song from the show, is delivered in one seamless take that perfectly captures the anguish of her character Fantine and the journey her character has been forced to take.  It is an extremely memorable and heart wrenching moment and I have to believe that Hathaway is the front runner for the Oscar for Supporting Actress after already winning a Golden Globe as well as numerous other awards for her performance. 

Russell Crowe is Javert, the inspector who makes it his lifelong mission to hunt Valjean down and while Hooper mentioned he cast actors who could sing instead of singers who could act, Crowe is able to hold his own against his more vocally gifted co-stars.  Sure Crowe's voice is a little on the softer and gruffer side, but I liked the way his singing was more internal and seemingly coming from an unbalanced man, which was clearly in line with the character of Javert.  While he can't hold some of the notes as long as some of the stage Valjean's have, I thought his performance was as calculated as his character is and I like it more and more that I think back on it.

Russell Crowe as "Javert"
Several of the supporting cast fair pretty good, particularly Eddie Redmayne as Marius who has a certain beauty in both his acting and singing that connect very clearly with the material.  Samantha Barks as Eponine and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras are two actors who have performed in numerous musicals in London and Broadway respectively, so their voices are the best in the film, but they both are also perfect in their parts with Barks especially touching as the girl in love with someone who doesn't love her back and who knows it.

Amanda Seyfried as "Cosette" and
Eddie Redmayne as "Marius"
Amanda Seyfried is Cosette, Fantine's daughter who Valjean adopts and who Marius loves.  And she is fine in the part, which of all of the roles has probably the least amount of good material to latch onto.  As the comic duo the Thénardiers, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen play Eponine's parents and Cosette's original caretakers who factor into many of the plot points.  While both are clearly up to the challenge of the material, and I especially liked Bonham Carter's contributions, fortunately Hooper and the other contributors have wisely cut back on some of their material that was in the stage version in order to not have the comical moments over shadow the more serious ones of the film.

Samantha Barks as "Eponine"
Colm Wilkinson who created the role of Valjean both in London and on Broadway plays the part of the Bishop whose actions are the catalyst for Valjean's journey.  It is a great touch to have Wilkinson in the film and playing this part and he expertly delivers what is needed.

William Nicholson has taken the original sung through musical and made changes to the script both alone and in consultation with the original French creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, English librettist Herbet Kretzmer as well as producer Cameron Mackintosh to fill in some of the more vague moments of the musical.  By adding in some things from the original novel, as well as moving some of the songs around, the overall effect is a tighter show with a clearer dramatic arch.   The movement of two of the big songs, Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream" and Eponine's "On My Own" to be in more dramatic moments of their character's journeys are two simple changes that made me think "Of course it makes more sense to have those songs at those points in the show."  I'm curious to see if those same changes, or at least the movement of "I Dreamed a Dream," are made for future productions of the stage version.

Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
and Isabelle Allen
The look and feel of the film is similar to what Hopper did with the tv mini series John Adams that he also directed, it has a gritty, bleak look, seemingly in tone with the time period the film is set in.  Hopper also chooses to shoot most of the solo songs in close-up with minimal cuts.  This gives a more direct, internal feel to those monologues which works very well in my opinion.  Are there some quibbles I have with the film?  Of course.  Some scenes that are shot in harsh daylight could have benefited from more moody evening lighting.  Seyfried's singing is a little thin especially around the higher notes.  The main plot point of the second half of the film, around the student's revolt and the building of the barricade is still a little unclear and I miss a few things from the stage show like the use of the ghosts during "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables."  But this film of Les Misérables is one that I will gladly revisit again and again.  Is this the greatest movie musical ever, no, but is this a story of such emotion and depth, most definitely.

While the film is still in theaters, the blu ray/DVD has just been announced with a March 19th release date.  Amazon link for the blu ray/DVD is below.

Trailer for the film:

In depth behind the scenes feature:

Monday, January 14, 2013

theatre review THE BEST OF ENEMIES, George Street Playhouse, December 16

A sudden opening in George Street Playhouse's already announced season could have had a horrible ending with an under rehearsed, quickly put together production.  However, sometimes a potentially bad situation can turn out to be good in the end as fortunately the Barrington Stage Company's recent production of The Best of Enemies was able to be remounted at George Street with most of its cast intact in a stellar production that just concluded a month long run.

Based on the best-selling book by Osha Gray Davidson, The Best of Enemies tells the true story of the relationship that develops between the African American civil rights activist Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis, a Grand Master of the KKK.  They are two people at odds, brought together in 1971 during the court ordered desegregation of the Durham, NC schools.  The Best of Enemies is a play of prejudice on both sides of an issue but also one that shows when two people are fighting for what they believe in, and are forced to face their enemy head on, they start to realize they are both very similar in the passion behind their beliefs.  Of course there is good and bad on both sides of the issue with both characters passionately backing up their beliefs.

John Bedford Lloyd and Aisha Hinds
Written by Mark St. Germain and directed by Julianne Boyd, who also directed the production at the Barrington Stage Company, the play focuses on the time when Atwater and Ellis were basically coerced by a federal mediator from the Board of Education to sit on the steering committee in order to represent the views of the community around the segregation of the schools.  On one side you have a woman speaking up for justice and equal education but also someone who has no love for those on the other side who promote white supremacy.  The old saying "keep your friends close, and your enemies closer" came to mind why the play was unfolding as both Atwater and Ellis are forced to deal directly with their opponent and in doing so end up understanding each other better.  But this is also a tale of redemption and how people can grow and ultimately change by understanding where their enemy is coming from, and in doing so, can actually forge a very unexpected friendship.  It is inspiring and gripping with all of the ugliness of the events intact and also a compelling story that makes you sit up and pay attention to real events that happened just forty years ago.

Aisha Hinds, Don Guillory and John Bedford Lloyd
The production couldn't have found two better actors to portray the two lead characters. Aisha Hinds is Atwater and John Bedford Lloyd is Ellis.  Hinds perfectly plays the struggling single mom who has no fear of men, let alone Ellis.  She is more raw and emotional than Lloyd as Ellis but also plays a character who has much more to lose.  She is also playing someone much older then she really is and also one with some physical difficulties, which she never lets slip throughout the entire play.  Hinds expertly plays the skeptical parts of the character as well as easily gets across the natural humor that can come with being placed in an uncomfortable situation.

Lloyd on the other hand has more of a journey and a harder character to play since he has to not only play a racist but one that has to not only win over Atwater but the audience with the journey his character takes.  He pulls no punches in his delivery of the racist language, hateful looks and body language of Ellis and fortunately St. Germain and Boyd aren't also afraid to be up front and direct with making sure we clearly see the danger that lurks in this hateful man.  He is frustrated and desperate to fight something that he believes will negatively impact his life and the entire nation.   However, the three have also crafted a character that we see change in front of us and start to empathize with, something that we, just like Atwater, must witness unfold before us to not only understand this man but also to help us better understand ourselves.

Don Guillory is the mediator Bill Riddick and he is presented as a black man who is cocky but intelligent, which rubs both Atwater and Ellis the wrong way.  But he knows that both of these community "leaders" are people who are strong in their beliefs and he realizes the best way to make progress is to bring Atwater and Ellis together so they can realize how alike they really are.  Guillory is all smug and passionate as well about his beliefs and how his idea ultimately makes things better but well directed by Boyd to not overpower the two leads.  Susan Wands is Ellis' long suffering wife Mary and is just as sympathetic in her portrayal as the other characters.  She is presented as racist as well, but one who more quickly understands the shortcomings of her views when confronted with a personal issue.

The play is presented in linear fashion and in doing so makes the audience better understand why someone like Ellis believes the things he does and why Atwater is so passionate as well.  I was even pleasantly shocked that I cared so much for Ellis as much as I did which can be attributed as much to St. Germain's writing as the performance from Lloyd and the direction from Boyd.  And the reason I cared so much for him is that he was presented as a real person, one who believed certain things but when forced to meet his "enemy" head on starts to doubt his believes, his upbringing and the people around him.  He changes, but so does Atwater, who is also presented just as passionately and real as Ellis.  In doing so St. Germain has created a cathartic experience for the audience to take the journey with these two characters.  Knowing that these two people were real, and that the unlikely events of the play actually happened takes the whole play to an even higher level.  That is why this is a play that I believe will have a very healthy life in regional theatres as it is a small play with a small cast but with a big message that makes you believe in the power that people can change for the better.

Highlights from the George Street Production:

Thursday, January 3, 2013

concert review BOSTON POPS, NJPAC, December 2 & NJSO with ANN HAMPTON CALLAWAY, State Theatre December 16

Ann Hampton Callaway
Christmas concerts with symphony orchestras are a holiday staple in every city around the world.  Fortunately in New Jersey this holiday season we were treated to two enjoyable concerts, the first one featuring The Boston Pops at their holiday concert tour stop at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and our second concert was with our own New Jersey Symphony Orchestra with their special guest Ann Hampton Callaway at the State Theatre in New Brunswick.  And while The Boston Pops are more well known then the NJSO, it was actually the NJSO concert that was more enjoyable and more memorable.

Now don't get me wrong, the Boston Pops are a great orchestra and under the direction of Keith Lockhart they always provide an engaging, joyous holiday show.  But I thought the set list was somewhat tired and even with the addition of the vocal ensemble Five by Design who joined the Pops on several songs and gave them a fun 50's feel as well as having Meredith Vieira read "Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus" accompanied by the Pops, the whole concert just seemed a little flat.

The NJSO concert, led by guest conductor John Morris Russell from the Cincinnati Pops, featured a varied set list that included many surprises.  Ann Hampton Callaway was the special guest and she provided a warm and personal touch to the many holiday classics she sang- some with the entire orchestra, and a few with a trio.  The highlights for me included Ann's take on "My Favorite Things" as well as "Carol of the Bells," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Winter Wonderland."  

Ann also performed some of her original songs as well including "Christmas Lullaby" that Barbra Streisand recorded and a hilarious one she wrote on the spot after taking lyric suggestions from the audience.  Ann knows how to connect with an audience which added a nice sense of humor as well as a personal connection to the evening.
What I also enjoyed so much about the concert was the orchestral pieces that weren't exactly traditional holiday fare, yet had a holiday connection, like Rimsky-Korsakov's "Dance of the Tumblers," Bizet's Farandole Suite from L'Arlesienne and a lovely pairing of "Winter" from Vivaldi's Four Seasons and "Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah" that they title "A Winter Miracle."   This pairing was a simply fantastic arrangement that merged the two songs seamlessly into an even greater piece of music.

The Masterwork Chorus provided a lovely rich choral sound to several songs including Handel's "Messiah," and "Deck the Halls"   Ann joined them on the Handel piece as well as led them with a moving performance to John William's "Somewhere in My Memory."  The concert ended with an emotionally uplifting "Go Tell It On the Mountain" that featured a rousing take on the gospel classic by the orchestra, Callaway and the Chorus.