Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Found in '15

In this day and age, there are seemingly endless forms of entertainment competing for our attention in a multitude of constantly evolving mediums. Because I am part Luddite, I find most of the newer mediums abhorrent. I’ve never tweeted, don’t visit Instagram (that’s probably not the proper verb), and I haven’t logged onto Facebook in seven or eight months. Instead, I gravitate to classic forms of entertainment: books, music, movies, television and theater. I canceled cable last summer so my consumption of new television has drastically decreased, and I’ll take a Gilmore Girls marathon over most of the new shows out there. I can count on one hand the number of movies I saw in 2015. $7 for a matinee? In Des Moines? I’m not made of money. So movies and TV are out, but I discovered some fantastic books, music and theater this year. They were not necessarily created or published in 2015, but I found them this year and if you haven’t found them yet then I beg you to put them on your list for 2016.

As the saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover. But let’s be honest, sometimes that’s all we have to go on. I don’t have time to stand in the stacks reading the first fifty pages to decide whether to read the book or not. Cover art not withstanding, I discovered a lot of great books this year.  And as different as they are, these novels have one thing in common: superb writing. Each author has their own distinct style, but all write in such a way that there is never a wasted word.
Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle pulls you forward to a point when the end of the world is near. Told with humor, heart and just the right number of fornicating mutant grasshoppers, the book sparked my interest in Smith’s other books and, with only a couple of exceptions, I have devoured them. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel also deals with the end of life as we know it. Yes, there is a theme here; I’ve found apocalyptic fiction fascinating since my ninth grade Alas, Babylon assignment. Mandel’s flowing prose belies the complications contained in the multiple plotlines. Finally, I’ll Give You the Sun, Jandy Nelson’s coming of age tale about two inseparable twins who grow apart and must find their way back to each other, is equal parts heartbreaking and life affirming. Nelson’s imagery is so rich that the characters and their surroundings seem to spring forth from the pages right before your eyes. Read them all, you won’t be disappointed.

There is not enough praise in the world to heap upon Josh Ritter. I have been a fan of everything he does for many years now, and cannot implore you enough to seek out his music. A true storyteller, Ritter’s lyrics are a mouthful in the best way possible. His fantastic new album, Sermon on the Rocks, came out in October. The style is not what we’ve come to expect from Ritter; Sermon on the Rocks is looser and rowdier than some of his previous work, but that style lends itself perfectly to the rollicking, pulsing feel of the songs. Luckily, Ritter's telltale wit and turns of phrase remain front and center. One of the standouts is “Getting Ready to Get Down,” a thumping anthem about a girl sent to Bible school only to learn “a little bit about every little thing they ever hoped you'd never figure out/Eve ate the apple cause the apple was sweet/What kinda God would ever keep a girl from getting what she needs?” Brilliant. Ritter’s live shows are epic - you’ve never seen someone enjoying himself so thoroughly - and he’s hitting the road this winter so check him out in a city near you. One complaint: no stops near Des Moines. Come back to Iowa Josh!

Last, but certainly not least, theater. Where else but in a theater do you get to see a story come to life before your eyes? Different than TV or movies, the story unfolds thanks to performers who are standing, singing or dancing right in front of you, taking you to another time and place. And nobody gets a second take. The performers have to be on. That kind of immediacy is impossible to replicate. This year I saw several shows that were new to me. One of the highlights was Kinky Boots, a show whose feisty music and positive message are impossible to resist. The Bridges of Madison County, a show I went into with rock-bottom expectations, snuck up on me and won me over with breathtakingly beautiful music and lyrics. And in the not new to me category, I was lucky enough to see Wicked for the 29th-32nd time. Wicked will always be my #1 and I am thrillified each and every time I see it. It’s live theater, people. Get on board.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Love is Always Better

Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky
When The Bridges of Madison County opened on Broadway in 2014 it played a disappointing 137 performances. Despite critical acclaim, the show did not catch on with audiences. Luckily, the powers that be have given it another life on the road and, even luckier for me, when the show launched its’ national tour last week it was right in my backyard at the Des Moines Civic Center. When I set out to write this post, I told myself I would avoid gushing. But since these posts are written mostly for my own enjoyment (there are not a whole lot of eyes on them - Google gives me the numbers, thank you Google), why not gush? 

The Bridges of Madison County is brilliant. Even though I knew of the acclaim and Tony Awards the show had received, the title has been reduced to ‘Meryl Streep has an affair with Clint Eastwood,’ and that burden was difficult to shake, at least until the moment the show began. And while the plot does indeed revolve around an extramarital affair between a farmer’s wife and a photographer, the show is about so much more: the choices we face, the chances we take and the weight of the consequences. The strong book, music and cast make this show stand alone in a Broadway landscape riddled with copycats.

Set in Iowa in 1965, The Bridges of Madison County tells the story of Francesca Johnson, an Italian immigrant who came to the United States after World War II, and Robert Kincaid, a National Geographic photographer on assignment in Winterset, Iowa, to capture the famous covered bridges.  Their worlds unexpectedly collide as Francesca’s husband and kids head off to the fair and Robert approaches Francesca for directions to one of the bridges. The story could have easily veered towards pure treacle, but Marsha Norman’s book is nicely balanced with moments of quiet emotion and dry humor. 

What sets The Bridges of Madison County apart is the lush, layered and nuanced music from Jason Robert Brown, who received two well-deserved Tony Awards for the score and orchestrations. Brown has impeccably blended several musical styles: Americana, twangy bluegrass and soaring operatic passages. That may seem disjointed, but in Brown’s capable hands each style blends flawlessly with the story and the scenes in which they play out. Brown has infused each song with the emotions of the characters. “One Second and a Million Miles,” beats and pulses in time with Robert and Francesca’s rapidly entwining hearts. In addition to the emotion, the imagery in the lyrics paints a picture so rich that the audience finds themselves transported across the globe and back in time. A verse from “It All Fades Away" is a prime example, "There was something in a desert. There was some place wild and green, and a child in a village I passed through. There are places that I’ve traveled, and so many things I’ve seen, and it all fades away but you.” “It All Fades Away” is the show-stopping ballad, and how fantastic that instead of belonging to the female lead (in typical Broadway fashion) here it is belted by the male lead. It is impossible not to fall for the melodic strains of the guitar, piano and mandolin. It would be easy to expound on each and every song, but it will be to your benefit to discover the beauty for yourself.

Samonsky and Stanley
The entire cast of The Bridges of Madison County is superb. Mary Callanan and David Hess, the nosy neighbors, deliver the well-timed humor with their comedic timing and each has a strong set of pipes that they display during a couple of fantastic solo opportunities. Rounding out the core ensemble, Cullen R. Titmas, Dave Thomas Brown and Caitlin Houlahan as Francesca’s husband, son and daughter are also very strong. Elizabeth Stanley (Francesca) and Andrew Samonsky (Robert) carry the weight of the show on their shoulders and do not disappoint. Their rich, clear voices never reveal the complexity or difficulty of the music and they bring the songs to life with distinctive expression and tone. You can see the conflict in their eyes and feel the trepidation in their voice. Neither Robert nor Francesca had any expectation that a simple request for directions would go beyond just that and from the flicker of unexpected connection to the freedom of giving in, Samonsky and Stanley expertly portray the emotional journey. 

Frames, photographs and the stories that they tell is a theme woven throughout The Bridges of Madison County. The theme plays in obvious forms, such as the lyrics of “The World Inside a Frame” or “It All Fades Away,” which packs a unique emotional punch with the haunting images of fading photographs, but even the set expands on the theme. The Roseman bridge is simply presented as three framing beams and other interior and exterior sets are always partial, lacking walls and other structure. Practical for a touring show? Sure. But giving the audience only part of the whole emphasizes that no one other than Robert and Francesca will ever truly know or understand their story.

And if launching the national tour was not enough, Des Moines had the privilege of hosting Jason Robert Brown himself, who conducted the orchestra at each performance last week. What an amazing treat to watch the creator of the show bring it to life for new eyes. Alas, The Bridges of Madison County has moved on, out to LA. But it is set to swing back to the Midwest next spring, and you can bet I’m already making plans. To paraphrase Brown’s lyrics: The Bridges of Madison County surrounds you, it connects you and it simply won't let go.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Jolly Good

You are likely unfamiliar with The Great British Baking Show, but you should make a point to seek it out. Following a group of amateur UK bakers competing to be named the best, TGBBS is unlike any other food-based competition show on the telly. Read: ridiculously charming and awesome.

Most food-based competition shows feature strict time limits, restricted ingredients, outrageous obstacles (cooking with no utensils, Top Chef?) and contestants that are often out for blood. TGBBS is the complete opposite. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a hearty episode of Top Chef wherein every other word out of the chefs’ mouths is left to the imagination thanks to constant bleeping. However, it is enthralling to watch a group of people participating not with the goal of knocking out other contestants in order to ensure their ultimate glory, but rather to perform their best simply for the sake of being able to hold their head up high when it’s all said and done. Bakers, who convene in a pristine tent that appears to be smack in the middle of a beautiful English garden, are given the opportunity to practice their bakes ahead of the weekend’s round and an ample, if not quite luxurious, amount of time to complete the bake. Oh, and no insane surprises.

Hosts Mel and Sue are delightfully quirky; their witty encouragement and good-natured ribbing strikes just the right tone. Judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood (yes, those are their names) offer a perfect balance of praise and constructive criticism. Constructive is a keyword here; Paul and Mary do not judge by tearing the contestants down. Rather, they deliver criticism by simply pointing out the flaws in the bake and then they move on. That is not to say Mary and Paul are not tough, you can tell by the bakers’ reactions to praise from Paul that it is hugely satisfying when he affirms their efforts by complimenting the excellence of the bake.

A genuine group of folks, wouldn't you say?
What I love most about TGBBS is the fact that all those involved seem to genuinely wish the best for all the bakers. The bakers are happy for one another when the designation of Star Baker is granted and, in turn, are saddened when a fellow competitor must leave the tent. And Mel, Sue, Paul and Mary are thrilled when a baker who has had a difficult round bounces back with a successful bake. 

Quite a concept: presenting people being kind to one another. It’s not typical, but maybe it should be. The visuals of the scrumptious bakes are the icing on the cake. Jolly good indeed.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Space Race

Barren. Dusty. Red. What’s not to love? Mars has long held a special orbit in the solar system of my life. It began in elementary school when our class was tasked with developing a travel brochure for one of the (at that time) nine planets, and I jumped at the chance to convince imaginary travelers to visit the Martian planet. Day trips to Phobos and Deimos were involved, quite sophisticated for a nine year old. Then came Rocketman, the sidesplitting (again, at that time) movie starring Harland Williams that boasted one of the funniest fart scenes in my young pop culture life. Search YouTube for proof.

Recently viewing The Martian reignited my fascination with our neighboring planet. The Martian, based on the novel by Andy Weir, might fall short of perfect but it is a lot of fun. Matt Damon is very strong as botanist/astronaut Mark Watney, presumed dead after a Martian storm and left behind by his crew. Utilizing his scientific aptitude to figure out how to grow crops, maintain appropriate levels of water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide and, oh yeah, communicate with Earth to let someone know he’s alive, Damon balances the alternating emotions that come along with devastating solitude and the raw desire for survival. And despite the fact that The Martian’s supporting actors, playing his crewmates and NASA officials, seem to have collectively decided to play it monotone and dry, it is impossible not to root for them and for Watney to figure out how to solve each seemingly insurmountable problem. Weir's novel, by nature of format, contains significantly greater detail around the science of Watney's survival and I prefer the book ending to the movie ending, but I will let that lie so as not to spoil anything here. The book and movie are both worthy of a recommendation.

After seeing The Martian, I was driven to rewatch its' space disaster film cousins Apollo 13 and Gravity. After spending the night lamenting the demise of Tang, it became abundantly clear why these types of scenarios make great fodder for film. The lens through which most of us view these films is fantasy as most of us will never experience space travel. Sorry SpaceX, I’m just not counting on it any time soon. But because of humanity’s trips to orbit, to the moon, and the fact that there are astronauts living on the International Space Station, there is enough foundation in reality that the key element to these films is entirely relatable: that despite best laid plans, we can find ourselves losing control. But despite those odds, it is possible to overcome them. Be it a solitary effort a la Gravity or a team effort in the vein of Apollo 13, these triumphs are affirming in the best way. We are reminded that when pushed beyond our limit not only can we come out the other side, but we can come out stronger. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Beautiful Room in a Beautiful House

Simultaneously watching the third season of House of Cards and the second season of The West Wing is a jarring study in contrast. The magnificence that is Netflix has brought forth this comparison. In years past, one would have had to have a cable subscription and change channels on an old timey remote control in order to create this kind of dichotomy. Not so anymore. And while on the surface these shows have a similar premise, each follows a president and White House staff as they navigate the travails of presidential politics, they are strikingly dissimilar. The shows do share one argument: being president requires that you must strike a classic pose: fists on the desk in the Oval Office, contemplating the important decision of the hour.
An open fisted variation on the pose

House of Cards presents a bleak view of the United States government. President Underwood is a proudly despicable individual whose top priority is gaining and keeping power. And he surrounds himself with staff that is as unsympathetically robotic and unfeeling as the next. In this world, the only way to get what you want (and don’t mistake that for what the country needs) is to literally lie, cheat, steal and kill. I must say, I do wonder if the reason the worldview on House of Cards is so bleak is because it is literally dark and grey at the White House. Can we get some lights or some brighter colors in the White House? I have to turn on the spotlights when I watch just to make out which grey silhouette is on the screen at any given time.

The West Wing, on the other hand, is illustrative of a government where those in it at least have the goal of affecting positive change for someone other than themselves. The characters, though they are often hardheaded, still have a human bone in their body that an audience can identify with. The West Wing’s offices are more brightly lit so that probably explains the different direction of this show. In the interest of full disclosure, I am only on the second season, so perhaps President Bartlet is soon to push a reporter into the path of an oncoming subway, but so far The West Wing is generally a less terrifying version of the White House. 

Of course, these shows were born in different times. When The West Wing premiered in 1999, the United States was in a pre-September 11th, pre-recession state of relative calm. The world has spun a few times on its’ axis since then. For that reason, these shows were bound to have differences. But I still find it fascinating that two shows that have the same basic premise can be so completely different. 

And yet, I am obsessed with both. Not sure what that says about me.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Kick Up Your Heels

It is difficult to explain what makes the musical Kinky Boots so much fun. The story follows a man who inherits his father’s shoe factory and, in a last ditch effort to save the business, changes production from sensible men’s shoes to that of high heeled shoes designed for drag queens.  Woven within it is a message of tolerance and acceptance that is unfortunately still very relevant. That description may not sound like the makings of a hit musical, but in this case the show’s six Tony Awards, including the one for Best Musical, don’t lie. The songs are fantastic, the book is nicely balanced, and the cast will leave you wanting more.

Cyndi Lauper’s original songs place the show somewhere between a traditional and a jukebox musical. Lauper struck a nice balance between catchy songs that can stand alone while not jeopardizing structure or chopping up the show with song breaks that bring the story to a halt. “The History of Wrong Guys” has a retro pop vibe while “Not My Father’s Son” is a gentle serenade to dreams, expectations and the internal battles that erupt when those dreams don’t align with reality. Kinky Boots features one of the most fun finales seen on stage in quite some time. The final number, “Raise You Up/Just Be” is an anthem to self-acceptance that is so upbeat and positive that, on this night, it brought the audience to their feet, clapping and dancing with joy.

Harvey Fierstein, a Broadway veteran both as an actor and book writer, turned in another hit. In adapting the film of the same name for the stage, Fierstein has once again proven that he is much more than Robin Williams' gay brother in Mrs. Doubtfire, he is a Broadway tour de force with a knack for bringing humanity to all manner of characters. Rife with one-liners that keep the tone from veering into preachy territory, Fierstein expertly handled the juxtaposition of teaching tolerance in a shoe factory with a drag queen as educator.

Photo: Matthew Murphy
The current national tour cast is absolutely spectacular. At the performance I attended, the cast included Darius Harper (Lola), Steven Booth (Charlie) and Lindsay Nicole Chambers (Lauren). Booth was charming and likable as Charlie, a man who has not yet found his way in life. Chambers, who gets to deliver some of the funniest lines in the show, displayed excellent comedic timing and a strong voice. And as Lola, a man seemingly more confident than Charlie but who identifies with the relationship Charlie had with his father, Harper embodied the role so well that it’s hard to imagine any other actor in the role. In his portrayal, Harper did not cross the line that would have been easy to cross, that is, to turn Lola into a caricature. Harper imbues Lola with a spirit that will ring true to audiences of all kinds.

I saw the show a few weeks ago and it has stuck with me, so much so that I was compelled to implore you to see the show if you get a chance. I make no guarantees, but if you like upbeat, positive storylines mixed with catchy tunes then Kinky Boots will suit you like a well-fitting pair of heels.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Best TV Shows Start With the Letter 'P'

On the surface, Parenthood and Parks and Recreation may not appear to have a lot in common. After all, Parenthood is a family drama and Parks is a workplace comedy. But when the labels are stripped away, Parenthood and Parks are remarkably similar. Both have skillfully handled developing large casts of characters and they value what is becoming a rarity: human connection.

Parenthood follows Zeek and Camille Braverman’s four grown children, all of whom now have children of their own. Adam, the eldest, is raising a headstrong teenage daughter and a son diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Eldest daughter Sarah, still struggling to find her place in the world after a failed marriage, swallows her pride and moves back in with her parents. Younger son Crosby, the likable goofball, is forced to grow up when he learns of a five-year old son he did not know he had. Youngest child Julia is coming to grips with the fact that having the career she wants and being the kind of mother she wants may not be as easy as she once thought. In addition to the four siblings, all of the secondary characters are given a life all their own. Zeek and Camille hit a rough patch after decades of marriage; the siblings’ children grow, change and move on. While those subjects may read like typical television fare, all of the characters are so uniquely formed that Parenthood successfully steers clear of stereotypical storylines and instead skillfully and honestly reflects the ups and downs of family life.

Parks and Recreation follows an equally large group. Leslie and Ron are the sun in the Parks universe, but all of the characters that orbit around them are just as important to the makeup of the show. Among them: Leslie’s self-professed Geek husband Ben, brooding April and lovable lug Andy, ‘treat yo self’ proponents Tom and Donna, and office punching bag Jerry/Gerry/Larry/Terry.  And let’s not forget characters come and gone: Mr. Positivity Chris Traeger and kind-hearted goofball Ann Perkins, Leslie’s best friend in the world.  And whether it is Andy navigating adulthood from shoe shine boy to kid’s singing sensation Johnny Karate or Tom’s grasping for greatness through Snake Juice, Entertainment 720 and Tom’s Bistro, all of the characters navigate life in a way that is unique to each of them as individuals while still being easy to identify with.

It is a credit to the creators, writers, and the rest of the crew on these amazing shows that the characters have not been reduced to stereotypes and that portraying the frustrations, anxieties and joys of life was not avoided. Too often, characters on television become diluted versions of their early selves, but not so in the world of Parenthood and Parks. Each character, and their reactions to life’s curveballs, pulses with an energy that is all their own and that did not diminish after many seasons on air.

Perfect gift: The gang made a gingerbread Parks Dept for Leslie
Parenthood and Parks also share a core value: the importance of connection. One of the foundations on which Parks is built is the notion that a group of people can care for one another, that not every group (especially those portrayed in pop culture) is ripe with false niceties, backstabbing and animosity. They may have strange ways of expressing their feelings and it does not mean they will always agree with one another, but the tie that binds cannot be broken. Ron, in general, is not open to new people or ideas but when he shows Ann how to perform simple home repairs, during a Halloween party no less, he reveals that not only does he trust that she is capable, he is also surreptitiously teaching her valuable skills. When Donna and Tom attempt to cheer up a heartbroken Ben by inviting him to partake in their “treat yo’ self” day of luxury and overspending, we see that underneath their too cool exterior they are kind, caring individuals. But the true heart of Parks beats in the relationship between Leslie and Ron. They are opposites that don’t necessarily attract. Ron and Leslie recognize each other’s value and that they are better people because of their relationship. The examples of he unique quality of their friendship are numerous, but the most recent episode “Leslie and Ron” was an incredible summation. The beginning of the episode begins with Leslie and Ron nearly boiling over with hatred for one another (for a reason not yet known by the audience) until their friends lock them in the parks department office with the hope they will resolve their differences. Their reaction to forced togetherness, from both of them trying to trick Terry to unlock the door, to Leslie covering Ron with Post-Its in an effort to coax him to talk and their eventual reconciliation was hilarious, heartfelt and carried out with perfect tone.

In a culture that rewards self-sustainment and relies on social media channels that, in actuality, often results in a lifestyle that is the opposite of social, Parenthood champions the fact that family can be our greatest lifeline. When Crosby is frightened by his lack of connection with his newborn daughter, he turns to his brother Adam for reassurance. And when Sarah’s son, Drew, is shaken by his girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy he goes first to his sister and then to his mom for support. Parenthood truly soars in the scenes that feature just the four adult siblings doing what all of us with siblings can relate to: talking about kids, about work and about our parents. Their conversations are at times tense and confrontational and others are filled with joy. 

When Parenthood and Parks and Recreation sign off, on January 29th and February 24th respectively, they will leave behind a hole in the television landscape. Where will one turn to find smart, funny, realistic characters that demonstrate the value of human connection?