Saturday, July 21, 2018

Did We Need to Go Again?

After seeing Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again I immediately went home, fired up the Netflix machine and pressed play on the 2008 original, which through the lens of this sequel is a far superior and much more fun extension of the blockbuster stage musical. It does not say a lot about Here We Go Again that the original Mamma Mia! is a great movie in comparison. Some blatant plot holes can be forgiven for the sake of fun (ie, in the first movie Donna strongly implies that her mother has passed away but yet here is Cher on Sophie’s door step as her long lost grandmother) but overall the movie just kind of happens in front of you, nothing about the singing and dancing - this is a musical after all – or the storyline makes any kind of argument for this movie’s existence.

What the original movie lacked in polish it more than made up for with pure, unadulterated fun. Here We Go Again strikes a different tone. SPOILER ALERT: Since we last checked in on the island of Kalokairi Donna has passed away and Sophie has refurbished the inn in honor of her mother. The preparation for the grand reopening of the inn is told alongside flashbacks to Donna as a young woman setting out to find her destiny and meeting Sam, Bill and Harry during that fateful summer when she became pregnant with Sophie. While Sophie’s current storyline is meant to mirror Donna’s experience when first moving to the island, setting up the inn and becoming a mother, the tone of the two storylines is different enough that it often feels as though there are two different movies playing on the same reel. One is a fun romp following Donna’s adventures and the other is the sequel to Mamma Mia that continues the plot of the first movie and catches us up with what has happened to the characters in the meantime. They somehow never quite jive. 

The songs you know and love from the musical and the first movie are there but even that does not always lift the movie up. Some of the lyrics are altered to better fit the scene and, while that does lend some originality, it then meant that I couldn’t sing along (don’t worry, just in my head, I am mostly tone deaf thanks to my G'ma). Here We Go Again utilizes some ABBA songs that were not featured in the musical or the first movie and those scenes certainly felt fresher than the scenes that merely tweaked or gender-flipped the original hits. The opener "When I Kissed the Teacher" is a fun homage to the big "Dancing Queen" number in the first film. At least it is until the new "Dancing Queen" scene that is essentially the original "Dancing Queen" scene sans Meryl Streep pops up. 

There are a few bright spots in Here We Go Again. First, the powers that be have limited Pierce Brosnan’s musical numbers. Good actor, not a great singer. And the aforementioned “Dancing Queen” scene is fantastic: a big, fun musical number that strikes a perfectly upbeat summer movie tone. Lily James, as young Donna, is another bright spot. James’ energy radiates from the screen and her singing and acting are superior to some of the supporting cast. And stay until the end of the credits; it may just be a quick scene but it provides a genuine laugh. 

At the end of the day Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again needs more. More fun, more Rosie and Tonya, more sense of purpose. I love a good excuse for romping around in the sun with the sweet tunes of ABBA but the world would have been okay to stop at the first movie, or really, at the musical. As with the first movie my reaction was simply to wish I was watching the stage musical instead. A movie will never match the immediacy of live theater but the translation is even more lost on a show such as this one that relies on and is buoyed by audience reaction. If you have low expectations and a pocketbook to support paying for movies that are just so-so go ahead and take a chance on Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Otherwise wait for it to hit Redbox so that you save yourself the heartache of money lost on a movie that could have been better.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

2018 Summer Watch List

We’re getting ready to head into the dog days of summer. The solstice was last week and many parts of the country will head into a period of extreme heat and, if you’re as lucky as I am, some nasty humidity, too. Never fear, when it’s too hot to go outside, spend some quality screen time with these great shows. 

Champions – Do you miss the early seasons of The Mindy Project? Me too. Look no further than Champions. Former Mindy Project cast members abound in this story of a father raising his son in New York City. Oh yeah, and it’s a son he just found out existed when the mother needs to find a place for him to stay while he attends a prestigious performing arts school in the city. It’s no surprise that Champions has a similar tone and sensibility to The Mindy Project because Champions is co-created by Mindy Kaling and Charlie Grandy. Michael (J.J. Totah) is one of those precocious teenagers who often acts wiser than his fifteen years but the writing is so smart that it’s hilarious rather than obnoxious. Anders Holm (Michael's father and owner of Champions gym), Andy Favreau and Fortune Feimster round out the cast. Kaling (as Michael’s mother) pops in every now and then as well. Pump it up on Hulu.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine – It’s not very often that a major television network comes to the rescue, but we have NBC to thank for saving the life of this underrated comedy. Fox gave it the axe, Lin Manual Miranda tweeted and now we get to look forward to another season on NBC. Andy Samberg is at his most tolerable as Jake Peralta, a New York City cop at Brooklyn’s 99th precinct. Working with him are a gaggle of goofy, lovable characters portrayed with gusto and expertise by Terry Crews, Melissa Fumero, Stephanie Beatriz, Joe Lo Truglio, Chelsea Peretti and Andre Braugher. The fact that Braugher has not yet won an Emmy for his portrayal of a buttoned up captain whose idea of fun is listening to recorder music is a crime right up there with Steve Carrell not having an Emmy for The Office. Just watch it, you’ll be hooked. Have you watched a couple and remain unconvinced? Pick an episode featuring the brilliant Craig Robinson guest starring as the Pontiac Bandit, then you’ll be hooked. Solve the case on Hulu.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – After spending 15 years underground, kidnapped by Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, Kimmy (real-life Kwepie doll Ellie Kemper) has a lot to learn about life aboveground. And who better to teach her than struggling actor and roommate Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), landlord Lillian (Carol Kane) and employer/maybe-friend Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski). The dialogue is lightning fast; it is almost impossible to catch some of the jokes when they land. Titus’ nicknames for Kimmy are a prime example. He seems to drop a new one each time he addresses Kimmy but does so with such speed that he’s at the end of his speech before you catch the reference. Some of the best: Kimberlake (as in, “Get in sync”), Kimpanzee, Kimillionaire, K-PAX, Kimothy, Kim Kim Kim (Titus explains: a play on Rin Tin Tin). I blew through the most recent season without realizing that it was a shortened 6 episodes. Had I known, I would have slowed down to savor the off the wall dialogue (“Your fart just got to me, why is it so slow?”) and wacky – yet totally believable for this group – storylines. Kimmy lives aboveground on Netlix.

The Middle – This family sitcom plugged along on ABC for 9 seasons – not in a Yes, Dear way, in a hidden gem kind of way. The Middle was a 21st century Rosanne without the crassness. The Middle followed the Heck family, a constantly down on their luck crew who find a way to stick together despite their struggles. It was a pleasure to get to know the Heck family in good times (Sue won a trip to Disney World!) and in bad (it was actually Disneyland and they drove to the wrong place). With a cast led by Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn, The Middle was never showy enough or considered groundbreaking enough to compete in a Modern Family sitcom landscape. Which is a shame because it was just plain good. The last episode was the cherry on top of a nine-season sundae. As a sister whose brother moved across the country, the last couple of episodes tore me up. Get the Kleenex ready. Meet the Hecks on Hulu.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Hear the Music, See the Light

Even if you have not seen the movie Frozen you have heard “Let it Go.” The movie’s power ballad was inescapable after the release in 2013. The movie went on to make millions, win Academy Awards and, most recently, it spawned a big-budget Broadway musical. The Walt Disney Company knows a good opportunity when it sees one and, after seeing the show in New York last month, it’s hard to argue with their logic. Frozen is a faithful adaption: the magic, the music and the story are all brought to life with exquisite detail and expert performances.

The Frozen story is originally drawn from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen” and follows sisters Anna and Elsa, the latter of which has the power to create snow and ice. When Elsa becomes queen of Arendelle and accidentally turns the kingdom to an ice town (Parks and Rec anyone?) Elsa flees the kingdom and Anna sets off to find her.

The movie version of Frozen was essentially a movie musical so it comes as no surprise that the movie translates well to the stage. The show includes the music from the movie but is filled out with new material. Adding new music to a beloved story is a risk that may not pay off (ahem, Aladdin) but in the case of Frozen the new musical numbers feel like a natural fit. For example, “A Little Bit of You” and “Hygge” are fun and serve as a showcase for the talented young performers and ensemble cast. And then there is the moment for which the entire audience has been waiting. The audible gasp when the audience hears the opening strains of “Let it Go” illustrates the exact reason live theater is so important. The collective, immediate experience of a performer inspiring joy right before your eyes is impossible to replicate in any other medium.

Caissie Levy as Elsa and Patti Murin as Anna
One of the reasons Frozen is such a delight is that the theatrical effects, lighting and design literally turn the stage into bustling Arendelle – before, during and after the freeze. Creating a frozen wonderland without the use of actual snow or ice is surely no easy feat but the sounds of crunching snow, cracking ice crystals and the shimmer of icicles is inspiring. 

Of course no matter how good the music, the book and the design, it all falls flat if the actors tasked with bringing the story to life are not up to the task. Caissie Levy has the weight of “Let it Go” on her shoulders but you would not know it to look at her. Her Elsa navigates the arc from fear to confidence to contentment with poise. On top of that, Levy’s voice is impeccable, smooth and strong; she belts the high notes without belying any of the difficulty inherent in that task. And while Elsa has the biggest moment of the show, it is actually Anna who has more stage time, so it is perfect that Patti Murin is tailor-made for the role. Murin imbues Anna with a bubbly brightness and the head and heart of a modern princess. Jelani Alladin and Greg Hildreth, as Kristoff and Olaf, have great comedic timing, always appreciated in a show where the meat of the story is not rooted in comedy, and the ensemble is made up of a talented group of singers and dancers.

Does Frozen break any new ground? No. But it doesn’t need to. Frozen is perfect for families with young children but will also appeal to the kid in all of us. A national tour has already been announced so very soon audiences across the country will be able to take a trip to Arendelle.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Same Old World

Disney’s movie musical renaissance produced some of the biggest hits in Disney movie history.
Aladdin, released in 1992, was one of them. Closely following the success of the films came a rebirth on stage. Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King both hit the stage in the 90’s but Aladdin did not get the musical treatment until 2011. The stage adaptation is decent if not amazing but it has seen success thanks to one thing: Genie.

The musical version of Aladdin does not mess with success. Other than cutting out some non-human characters the stage adaptation stays very true to the movie. I cannot be the only one dismayed to learn that the magic carpet is now merely a prop (I was so obsessed with the notion of flying that as a kid I wrote a magic carpet themed book. I also had a plush Raja so…). Aladdin is the story of the titular character, a “street rat” orphan who, after he awakens a genie, is granted three wishes. In hopes of winning the heart of Princess Jasmine, Aladdin uses one of his wishes to become a prince. 

The story is simple enough but some the magical elements surrounding Genie lend themselves to a little theater magic. When Genie comes up from below the stage and Aladdin and Jasmine fly on the magic carpet the audience is in awe, but overall the set design lacked the spark of some other Disney stage musicals. Nothing in Aladdin even comes close to feeling as unique or breathtaking as The Lion King. 
Major Attaway as Genie

The vibe of the show gives the impression that all of the creative juices went into one thing: Genie. The result of that is spectacular. Genie is a quick-witted, fast-talking ball of energy. Anything other than a superb performance would sink the show. Luckily, Major Attaway was born for this role. His voice is strong, his comedic timing is spot on and his stage presence is magnetic. Attaway had the audience in the palm of his hands.

In comparison to the bright spot that is Attaway in the role of Genie the rest of the show underwhelmed. The classic, hummable songs are there but the addition of dance breaks and new songs did not contribute anything of note. They seemed to be filler, a way to avoid complaints about the cost of the ticket versus the length of the show. Telly Leung as Aladdin and Arielle Jacobs as Jasmine are acceptable if not groundbreaking. Jonathan Freeman, who provided the voice for Jafar in the movie, does a good job as the villain and Don Darryl Rivera as a human Iago gets some laughs.

Aladdin is certainly acceptable family-friendly entertainment. There is a place for that. But inside the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street it should and could be so much more. A whole new world it is not.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Roofs Scrape the Sky

I had mixed expectations last week before heading to New York City for the first time. The city has a certain reputation, that of a good place to visit for a short time knowing that you'll soon return to a quieter, greener, less pungent reality. But I was traveling with two people who had been before and had fallen hard for its' bright lights. I was ready for anything!

The best surprises:
  • The Subway - Cleaner than imagined. A couple of the stations we visited were gross and I certainly would never use a public restroom in any subway station but overall the subways were decent.
  • The People – All of the people we interacted with were polite and cordial. Either they are naturally great people or their hospitality training was top notch (if I’m honest we almost exclusively interacted with individuals in the service industry).
  • The Smell – The smell was better than expected. Jokes are often bandied about that seem to indicate that the city smells exclusively of garbage (it is everywhere) and urine (in reality we only witnessed one instance of public urination) and that did not seem to be the case.

No surprise:
  • The People – People are everywhere. We spent most of our time in heavy tourist traffic areas and literally the sea of people never subsides. Crossing the street is like going into battle: a wave of people on opposite sides of the street colliding in the middle. Be nimble, be quick or risk being swept back to your side. 
  • The Noise – It is always noisy. The honking, sirens and other traffic sounds that you hear carefully edited in film and TV is an understatement. Why honk at someone ahead of you who is stopped to allow pedestrians to cross the street? No answer? Yeah, me neither.
  • The Advertising – Every space is a space for an advertisement. It may be a large LED or a small sign in the subway, don’t waste space. Manahattan cannot grow out, only up, so use the space you have to get the people (there are just a few million of them hanging around) to buy your wares.

To paraphrase Daddy Warbucks: it’s big, it’s loud, it’s tough, but no other town in the whole forty eight can compare. The High Line was great, Kellogg’s NYC was a great place for this proclaimed cereal lover to relax and get away from the crowd (did I mention the sea of people?) and when I go back I will devote more than a couple of hours to The Metroplitan Museum of Art. It crowds, it cramps but it's still the champ. Why not, it's NYC.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Don't Leave This Band Behind

Just a damn good band. That’s how I would succinctly describe The Steel Wheels, a folk bluegrass band from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I had a chance to catch a recent gig at Knuckleheads in Kansas City – and no, I do not live anywhere near Kansas City, that’s how good they are – and was reminded of how satisfying it is to see a good band perform live.  But five words does not a blog post make so allow me to expand a bit.

The Steel Wheels are Trent Wagler, Eric Brubaker, Brian Dickel and Jay Lapp, all tremendously talented instrumentalists and vocalists. Brubaker effortlessly showcases the the full potential of the fiddle, an instrument made for high-speed riffs. Dickel and Lapp are equally strong on upright bass and mandolin, respectively. Quick pause for the mandolin: a beautiful instrument that deserves more spotlight than it gets. Wagler writes a lot of their music and also serves as a vocalist and picks on banjo and guitar. His songwriting is impeccable and features beautifully constructed lyrics that tell a story while simultaneously leaving room for the music - the instruments and their vocal harmonies - to shine.

As with most authentic musicians The Steel Wheels are better live. It’s a challenge to capture the energy of performing for a live audience in a quiet recording studio. The immediacy is lost so the loose, go-with-the-flow quality cannot be duplicated. Other than Josh Ritter’s ear-to-ear grin, the Wheels are at the top of the list of performers who personify pure appreciation and joy on stage. And just like Ritter, I have more fun watching the show because of how much fun they are having up there. Every song they performed during their set at Knuckleheads was a standout – they don’t really have a weak song in their repertoire – but my favorites were "Go Up to that Mountain," a fun, fast paced tome and "End of the World Again," a beautiful, calm melody.

The Steel Wheels have a few albums out and tour pretty regularly so the opportunity is at hand for you to listen to their music and see them live. The Steel Wheels are in a group with some of my beloved musicians such as Josh Ritter and Socks in the Frying Pan: if more people knew who they were their popularity would soar. Their talent is through the roof, their songs are beautifully crafted and their pure enjoyment in doing what they do is unmatched.

Friday, April 6, 2018

All the Feels

Damn you, Hulu, sucking up all my free time with your endless trove of television. Just when I was nearing the completion of watching the entire Top Chef series  again (Again? Yes, again.) I pop into the menu one evening and find that Everwood is now streaming. I clicked play on the pilot episode faster than Padma can say “Pack your knives and go.”

Everwood did not get the airtime it deserved but in its’ four seasons it accomplished more than most series do in eight. When it originally aired from 2002-2006 it was a perfect gender-flipped counterpart to another much beloved CW series, Gilmore Girls, but with more friction in the parent/child relationship.

Everwood is the story of Dr. Andy Brown (Treat Williams), a world-renowned neurosurgeon who, after the death of his wife, moves his teenage son (Gregory Smith) and young daughter (Vivien Cardone) to Everwood, Colorado, a gorgeous, and, sadly, fictional small town. To say that the relationship between historically distant father Andy and son Ephram is tumultuous is an understatement. Williams and Smith are great sparring partners and their moments of understanding and reconciliation are all the more gratifying because of the authenticity of their vitriol.

As Everwood follows the family on their journey to rebuild their lives it addresses challenging topics ranging from marijuana legalization to abortion. Upon second viewing some of the story lines feel a bit heavy handed with morality tales but I can forgive it that flaw. Everwood is smart, witty and beautifully written and acted. And, yes, that is Chris Pratt before he was Chris Pratt.