Thursday, June 15, 2017

Sing It Out Loud!

Music exists and is created for thousands of different reasons. Some songs are written for a specific purpose, born to fill a need, while others are brought into the world from a moment of inspiration that brings forth a flood of melody and harmony. My musical taste spans genres and my list of favorite songs includes everything from The Weavers "If I Had a Hammer" to Stevie Wonder's "Uptight." When I stopped to think about the songs that might make my list of favorites I came to the realization that a few of my favorite songs are those written by fictional characters from movies and TV shows. Because writing a song in the persona of a fictional character presents a unique challenge - falling squarely into the 'written for a specific purpose' category - I thought it high time to give those songs their due. From songs about the great city of Miami to beloved tiny horses, below are some of the best.

Miami You’ve Got Style – This classic from The Golden Girls, written for a songwriting competition by Dorothy (Bea Arthur) and Rose (Betty White), is incredibly fun. Rose tickles the ivories (in the most literal sense of the word of course) and she and Dorothy harmonize about Miami’s blue sky, nightclubs and beaches. How do you not love a song whose early drafts include words that rhyme with ‘thrice’ and ‘intrauterine'? Second place? They were robbed.

Another Perfect Day – Ah, Even Stevens, a show that was ahead of its time. Even Stevens was quirky, think Arrested Development or Scrubs for tweens, and it’s actually rather astonishing that it lasted three seasons. "Another Perfect Day" was a hit for Louis (Shia LeBeouf) and best friend Twitty’s (AJ Trauth) band, The Twitty Stevens Connection. Beans (Steven Anthony Lawrence) performs the song with a hamster cage on his head, we’ll leave it at that.

Dance Rascal Dance – This song from the film Hello, My Name is Doris really rocks. Written by the very real rock star Jack Antonoff for the fictional band Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winters the song features in a crucial concert sequence. With a pulsing beat and lyrics such as "Dance like you’re on fire" it is impossible not to get swept up in its’ wake. Doris (Sally Field) rocks her neon garb and we get to rock out.

I would be remiss not to give a quick shout out to the rewrite of “O Holy Night” from the film Cedar Rapids. Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) rewrote the season classic for his employer’s Christmas party and the sweet refrain of "home, auto, life" is sung so earnestly that in spite of yourself you start to take it seriously. The reactions from Deanzie (John C. Reilly) are absolutely priceless. 

5,000 Candles in the Wind – The gold standard. This gem from Parks and Recreation is as catchy as it is absolutely ridiculous. Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt), tasked with writing a song for the memorial of Li’l Sebastian, knows he has a hit on his hands when he envisions something better than a singular candle in the wind: 5,000 candles in the wind. Some renditions feature Duke Silver (Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson moonlighting as the Duke) on sax but all renditions demonstrate Pawnee’s strange yet sweet devotion to one very special tiny horse.


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Here We Go Again!

Cashelle Butler, Betsy Padamonsky, Sarah Smith and the Company of the Mamma Mia! Farewell Tour
Mamma Mia! has been a part of my theater life almost from its' inception. I wasn’t able to see it on Broadway before it closed in 2015, but the tour has made its’ way to town several times and at every turn I was lucky enough to see it multiple times, including the three times I saw it last week. Since this is the farewell tour, I felt compelled to put down in words my appreciation for a show that celebrates joy, friendship and family. Mamma Mia! is not a complicated show, and the neon spandex and platform boots might belie the show's secret plan to change the world, but bringing joy to millions of people is exactly the way to go about it.

Mamma Mia! is built on a very simple plot: a young woman who wants to meet her dad invites her three possible fathers to her wedding. Oh, and she doesn’t tell her mother. Singing, dancing, heart and humor ensue. Woven into the story is the classic ABBA catalog of tunes. Mamma Mia! beautifully pairs heartfelt moments with songs such as “One of Us” and balances those moments with scenes like “Dancing Queen," which is pure, unadulterated fun.

This farewell tour is a non-equity tour and it feels like one. But the cast is so enthusiastic and working so hard that it is easy to forgive their inexperience. Betsy Padamonsky (Donna) shows off her strong belt on numbers such as “The Winner Takes It All” and Lizzie Markson (Sophie) is spunky on upbeat numbers such as “Honey, Honey.” And let’s not forget about the ensemble. Between the dance heavy numbers and the harmonies they provide even when not on stage, this ensemble is one of the hardest working ones around.

Mamma Mia! will surely live to dance again. I am hopeful that after the tour shutters the powers that be will start the revival conversation. The world needs more joy! Even if we have to wait for many years, at least we can remember fondly the nights when we were all dancing queens.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Welcome Back to Their Little Corner of the World

Since November 8th, as if sensing the seismic shift in the space-time continuum, my TV has utterly refused to tune into anything other than Gilmore Girls. Thus it is that I find myself prying my eyes away from Netflix during my fourth viewing of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. My obsession with the original series may elicit guffaws, but you will find no shame here. I will proudly regale you with favorite scenes, episodes ("Raincoats and Recipes!") and characters (Babette!).  Revivals can go horribly wrong and, given the way the original series ended (sans Palladino), the expectations for A Year in the Life were monumentally high. Creators/producers Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino did not disappoint. A Year in the Life is a love letter to fans built on the relationships, the banter, sly nods to the original series (Banks. They like collars.) and pitch perfect performances.

The heart of the original series lies in the relationships between the core characters and A Year in the Life nicely adapts those relationships to account for the passage of time, the affect of distance and the loss of a patriarch. Some relationships see resolution years in the making, namely Lorelai and Luke, while others, even those seemingly settled in the original series, end with a question mark rather than a period (Jess had some serious thoughts going through his head as he was gazing through that window). The biggest factor in the mix is the death of patriarch Richard (actor Edward Herrmann died in 2014). Richard’s death weighs heavily on Emily, Lorelai and Rory who must come to terms not only with his loss but also with its’ effect on their relationship with each other. Emily and Lorelai  whose relationship has long been complicated by years of hurt and disappointment, find common ground coping with the loss and then lose it as quickly as it was found. Rory, living a vagabond existence, feels more lost than ever and she and Lorelai find themselves disagreeing on the next chapter of her life.

If there is one reason A Year in the Life does not crackle with the same synchronicity as the original series it is because of the maturation of the relationship between Lorelai and Rory. As naturally happens with age, distance and time, Lorelai and Rory are quite literally not as physically close and the spark that came from Lorelai and Rory sharing nearly every scene in the original series is lost. The Palladinos have done a commendable job keeping the unique ‘friend first, mother/daughter second’ relationship alive while also accounting for a natural maturation.

Without Lorelai and Rory attached at the hip, the tone of A Year in the Life feels a bit muted but there are still plenty of the blink and you’ll miss them lines for which ASP and DP are known. The early kitchen scene in "Winter" lets Luke get in on the fun and kicks off A Year in the Life with a familiar exchange: Luke lobbies for healthy food while Lorelai and Rory beg for tater tots. And Lane, expressing mock disappointment at Zack's recent promotion (tie required) admits to Rory, “I tell him he looks like a young Leonard Cohen but really he just looks like his dad.” One of the standouts is the scene on the eve of the wedding that begins between Jess and Luke and morphs into an exchange between Jess, Luke, Kirk, Lorelai and Rory. It overflows with the kind of energy and rat-a-tat dialogue that only exists in Stars Hollow.

A Year in the Life perfectly sews up the patchwork quilt made up of the people who inhabited the Gilmore Girls world. There are pop-ins and updates from almost all of the old gang. From Paris (Liza Weil) and Lane (Keiko Agena) to Michel (Yanic Truesdale) and Sookie (Melissa McCarthy), the characters have grown but remain true to their original sensibility. Paris operates a top of the line surrogacy clinic, Lane runs Kim's Antiques, Michel is ready to take on new challenges at the Dragonfly and Sookie works for Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. As for the charming and eccentric residents of Stars Hollow, there are plenty of familiar faces. Taylor (Michael Winters), Stars Hollow’s master and overseer, is still in charge, Gypsy (Rose Abdoo) is still busy fixing cars and Kirk (Sean Gunn) turns any harebrained idea into a job, I would have thrown my vote in for more Babette (Sally Struthers) and a bit less Kirk; her one-liners (“Tevye move over there’s a new Jew in town!”) are preferable to Kirk’s thickheaded storylines, but beggars can’t be choosers. Overall, there is a satisfying sense that the characters’ lives have been moving along nicely and we just happen to be checking in on them ten years later.

Of course, strong dialogue, well-rounded characters and emotional depth will fall flat without great execution and, thank goodness, the actors are up to the task. Alexis Bledel’s Rory seems a bit tentative at times, especially in the opening episode, but gains her footing. Scott Patterson expertly revives Luke as the curmudgeon with a heart of gold. Kelly Bishop is force to be reckoned with. In the aftermath of Richard’s death, she imbues Emily with strength, vulnerability and, at the conclusion, a renewed sense of self. That said, A Year in the Life is Lauren Graham’s show. ASP and DP grant her superior material and she absolutely shines. Lorelai's grief, anger, pain, sarcasm, self-reflection and happiness are effortless in her capable hands. A quiet, soul-searching scene on a California hilltop relies only on Graham’s facial expressions to convey the literal and figurative journey Lorelai has taken and the realization she is finally able to reach.

A Year in the Life is not without faults. Some diversions are entirely too lengthy or should not exist at all. The best part about the Stars Hollow musical is the end and the excursion with the Life and Death Brigade is completely unnecessary. There is also an oddly excessive amount of day drinking among the Gilmore girls that feels misplaced. But perhaps most distressing is Rory’s flailing storyline. At the outset, and for much too long, her main objective is tracking down a lucky outfit and getting better cell reception. Weak. And without a steady source of income how is she funding her weekly trips back and forth to London? That is never made clear. At one point in "Spring," after Rory‘s one night stand with a guy in a wookie costume, Lorelai finally says to her, “What’s going on here. This isn’t you.” Amen. Rory’s storyline gains a bit of focus as the year progresses and perhaps the lack of focus was intentional, a way to underscore the crossroads at which Rory finds herself, but it came across as disjointed and void of the qualities that made Rory a likable character in the original series.

Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino faced a very difficult task: balancing what was beloved about the original series and updating both the tone and the relationships to account for the nearly ten year time leap. Will we see more of the Gilmore girls in the future? Who knows? The door was certainly left ajar. Maybe one day we will be lucky enough to be granted another opportunity to visit their little corner of the world.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Something Incredible!

After seeing The Book of Mormon for the 6th time this past week, I was compelled to write a brief commentary because I was reminded just how much I appreciate the quality of the show.

The Book of Mormon made a name for itself with its’ biting, profanity-laden examination of the Mormon religion. But what you learn when you peel back the layers is that it’s actually a good old-fashioned piece of musical theater that just happens to be wrapped in filthy packaging.

Stripped of the profanity and potentially offensive subject matter the show is ridiculously well done. The Book of Mormon is well paced, the orchestrations are complex and layered; the set design and scene changes are well thought out; the choreography is energetic and fun (tap dancing!) and the story has a heart of gold. Not to mention that the cast is always second to none. Last week my eyes were literally drawn to Ryan Bondy (Elder Price) – give that guy the Broadway lead! – and every cast I’ve seen handled the music, lyrics and choreography with an ease that belies the degree of difficulty.

So thank you Book of Mormon, for reminding me why I love musical theater.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Hello, World



Rarely does a film come along that is as thoughtful, charming and affecting as Hello, My Name is Doris. Directed by Michael Showalter and written by Showalter and Laura Terruso, Doris stars Sally Field as the titular character, a woman whose unexpected infatuation with a younger colleague (Max Greenfield) breaks her free from the life she had come to accept as the only life she deserved. Doris could have easily veered into parody – the eccentric older woman falls for a man half her age – but thanks to the authenticity in the writing and performances, Doris is as heartbreaking as it is uplifting.

We meet Doris at her mother’s funeral – a mother for whom Doris sacrificed her life to care for – as her brother and sister-in-law (Stephen Root and Wendi McLendon-Covey, always welcome but underutilized here) attempt to convince her to part not only with the numerous relics left behind in the home shared with her mother but also with the home itself. While the hoarding storyline is a bit clunky it does drive home the basis for Doris’ peculiarities: she is utterly and completely stuck in time. While Doris’ age may qualify her as a mature adult, when Doris put her life on hold to care for her mother her maturation halted.

So it comes as a surprise to Doris herself when she meets and falls hard for her colleague John, a recently hired art director, who happens to be a few decades her junior. Even more surprisingly, and against her better judgment, she sets out to win him over. She gets some assistance in Facebook stalking from her best friend’s (Tyne Daly) granddaughter (Isabella Acres) and suddenly Doris finds herself thrust into John’s world – never more perfectly illustrated than when Doris, outfitted in choice neon attire, attends a concert by the fictional but fantastic band Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winters. Doris and John’s journey, if at times a bit predictable, is kept afloat with relatable events in the storyline and the smart, genuine dialogue that is expertly delivered by the leads.

Field is magnetic in the title role. Doris is a mix of complex despair and fervent optimism. Field’s portrayal of Doris’ array of emotions and steadily increasing bravery is brilliant. She brings intricate emotion into each scene, sometimes with as little as a look in her eye or a subtle change in her facial expression. And Greenfield, playing a less neurotic, sweeter version of his New Girl character, is harmless and compassionate without being dopey (I’m looking at you Keanu Reeves in Something’s Gotta Give).

Much has been made about Field and Greenfield playing opposite as a prospective couple whose age difference is wider than that normally depicted in the media. After all, age is just a number until someone dares to reflect such age on screen.  But it’s important to understand that while the film centers on Doris’ lust for John that’s not at all what the film is about. Doris’ gambit to win over John is merely the lens through which Doris begins to see a larger world outside of her childhood home. Hello, My Name is Doris is a deceptively captivating glimpse at a woman coming of age at a time when age more often restricts than sets free. Watch out world, here comes Doris.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

How to Make a Better Movie

Buried deep inside How to Be Single there just may be a good, or at least watchable, movie. But, as is, this movie is a clunky mess. How to Be Single lacks focus and suffers from an all around lack of energy.

The problems emerge from the get go and never disappear. Perhaps the biggest flaw is that it is never clear which character we, the unsuspecting audience, are supposed to care about. The fact that Dakota Johnson’s Alice narrates the film leads one to believe she is the anchor. A heavy, iron anchor that shows little emotion or character development and drags the movie down to the darkest depths of the cinematic ocean. And just when you think we’re focusing on Alice and we’ll see some kind of plot trajectory, the film pivots. There are disjointed jumps to several other characters, including Alice’s sister Meg (Leslie Mann) and Lucy (Alison Brie), a character who garners nearly an equal amount of screen time as Alice despite the fact that the two characters have no tangible connection apart from frequenting the same bar. Flitting about are various suitors who seem to be significant but are then tossed aside just as quickly as they emerged.

The bright spot in this mess is Rebel Wilson’s Robin. Wilson is in familiar territory, that of comic sidekick, but she slays as she has in similar roles in better (and worse) films. How to Be Single’s Wilson-less stretches are fraught with a palpable lack of energy. A movie about Robin and her escapades, while it may not have been able to reach for the faux-touching territory How to Be Single aspires to, would have undoubtedly been a better movie.

Ultimately, Alice’s self-discovery - that it is actually ok to be single - is unconvincing. The film culminates with Alice’s voiceover expounding on the virtues of independence. Hardly convincing given that Alice spent the entire movie in various stages of dating, hooking up and pining for her ex. 

So how do you make a better movie? Watch How to Be Single and then do the opposite.


Saturday, January 30, 2016

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Probably not. Music is inextricably tied to our individual experience. And, because of that, we interpret and connect with songs for different reasons, and hearing them again months or years later has the power to transport us back in time. Is it any wonder music has been shown to unlock memories in Alzheimer’s patients? Just a bit of melody jolts us back to where we were when we heard them for the first time or obsessively listened to them on repeat. Here is where I end up when I listen to some of my favorite music:

Around the Campfire, Peter, Paul & Mary – A very specific memory. During some last minute – and unnecessary - cramming in the lecture hall ahead of my Zoology 100 final, I very distinctly realized, “I am easily the only person in this room whose pump it up music is PP&M. And I might be the only college student in the country, world, or universe whose pump it up music is PP&M.” That thought assumed the existence of intelligent life in another galaxy, which seemed right after all I head learned about zoology.

Closer, Josh Groban – Just the opening strains of “Remember When it Rained” and I am back on Iowa State's campus under the magnificent but fleeting magnolia trees headed to Geology 100 (Rocks for Jocks – killed it). Spend an
hour learning about plate tectonics and then fire up the iPod – remember the click wheel! -  for the walk back across campus.

Tapestry, Carole King – I’m studying at my campus issued desk, reading page after page of history and political science, highlighting so much of the text to make it a useless exercise, rewarding myself with a piece of candy after successfully conquering a page or two. Study breaks are conveniently built in because singing along to “Where You Lead” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” is required.

The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, Josh Ritter – A different desk, this one at my first grown up
job, completing applications faster and more accurately than my cohorts (I am not boasting here, I was insanely overqualified for the job). And please note that I use the term ‘grown up’ loosely since the adults I worked with were more akin to insufferable teenagers than grown ups. NPR had posted Ritter’s live show and, on a whim, I decided to give it a listen. Who knew that decision would change the course of my musical edification and make me a lifelong fan?

Wicked, Original Broadway Cast Recording – This one takes me back to…well, anywhere and everywhere after 2009. It’s easily my most listened album. I’ve often told people that in my car we only listen to Wicked. People may think I say it in jest, but when ‘One Short Day’ bursts from the speakers they realize the truth in my statement.

The power of music. It heals, it changes, it uplifts and acts as our personal Delorean. Of course, our sense of smell is similarly powerful. Unfortunately for me my most prominent scent memory, courtesy of Meyer’s hand soap, transports me to the oh so pleasant period immediately following a painful boil lancing when I was prescribed antibiotics to kill the rest of the infection that Sir Lancelot did not slice off of my person with sword and dagger. Okay, it was likely a small scalpel, but the pain was unlike anything I had felt up to that point in my life. Every dose of the antibiotic brought my freshly washed hands to my nose and inextricably tied soap to boil. On that note, play me a tune any day.