Phoenix Film Festival 2019 – Special Report: Part One (Of Two)

The 19th Annual Phoenix Film Festival is almost here. Continually breaking records since its inception, last year’s festival saw over 28,000 attendees. There are hopes that this year’s festival will attract even more film enthusiasts.

The PFF is Arizona’s largest film festival. During its eleven days, it hosts nearly 300 films, holds filmmaking seminars and parties, and has been named one of The 25 Coolest Film Festivals by MovieMaker Magazine.

The festival will take place at Harkins Scottsdale 101, 7000 E. Mayo Blvd. Phoenix between April 4 – 14. The festival ticket center and the Party Pavilion are all within steps of the theatres, making the festival-going experience as easy as possible.

Among the many new films, features, documentaries, and shorts that will be shown, this year the festival will also be screening a series of retro films. This will consist of four carefully chosen Oscar-winning features of the past, plus a series of nine special screenings in what the festival is calling its 9 Under 90 feature.

In this first of two special reports on the festival’s retro films, Valley Screen & Stage takes a closer look at the 9 Under 90 series.

There’s something to be said for telling a story in a short amount of time,” explained the festival’s Executive Director, Jason Carney. “Ninety minutes is a nice, sweet spot for me when watching festival films, and you’ll see it with a majority of indie films in our competition. I thought it would be great to create a diverse mix of films from history that have hit that under-90 minute sweet spot. I’m really pleased with the variety of films we’ve put together for this group.”

To explore the full Phoenix Film Festival Schedule go to http://www.phoenixfilmfestival.com/the-films

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Duck Soup

Stars: The Four Marx Brothers

Year: 1933

Director: Leo McCarey

Rating: NR (not rated)

Genre: Classic Comedy

Length: 69 Minutes

Screening: Monday, April 8 at 2:05 pm

What It’s About:

A wealthy widow offers financial aid to the bankrupt country of Freedonia on condition that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) be made the leader. On the other hand, it’s a Marx Brothers film. Does plot really matter?

Interesting Fact:

This is the final film where the Marx Brothers numbered four. After the film’s premiere, Zeppo Marx quit. He was said to be dissatisfied with movie acting and was weary of being the butt of jokes that regarded him as the ‘unfunny’ Marx brother. It’s also the film that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini banned in Italy because he thought it was making fun of him. The Marx Brothers were said to be ecstatic at the news.

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Batkid Begins

Year: 2015

Director: Dana Nachman

Rating: PG

Genre: Documentary

Length: 87 minutes

Screening: Tuesday, April 9 at 10:20 am

What It’s About:

On November 15, 2013, one day, one city, the world came together to grant a 5-year-old leukemia patient his wish to be Batman for a day. This documentary looks at how an outpouring of spontaneous support for a child took place.

Interesting Fact:

25,000 people showed up to Make A Wish foundation’s Batkid Day. People wanting to help flew into San Francisco from all parts of the country. The police department worked overtime for free; they were only too happy to be a part of what occurred.

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Cry Baby

Stars: Johnny Depp

Year: 1990

Director: John Waters

Rating: PG-13

Genre: Comedy/Musical

Length: 85 Minutes

Screening: Tuesday, April 9 at 9:15 pm

What It’s About:

The good girl has decided she wants to be bad and falls for the bad boy with a heart of gold. But the boyfriend sets out for revenge. It’s a musical spoof on the Elvis movies and the juvenile delinquency ‘scare’ films of the fifties.

Interesting Fact:

During filming, the FBI arrived on the set to search for co-star Traci Lords. She was being investigated due to her past in porn movies. Also, there is a 91-minute version of the film. It’s the director’s cut, but the 85-minute version is the one at the festival considering the director’s cut would be one minute too long to be a part of this 9 Under 90 showcase.

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Before Sunset

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Year: 2004

Director: Richard Linklater

Rating: R

Genre: Drama/Romance

Length: 80 Minutes

Screening: Wednesday, April 10 at 10:20 am

What It’s About:

Nine years after Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) first met in 1995’s Before Sunrise, they encounter each other again on the French leg of Jesse’s book tour.

Interesting Fact:

Look for the man and the woman who speak with Celine in the courtyard of her apartment. They’re played by Julie Delpy’s real parents, actors Albert Delpy and Marie Pillet. Shooting the film took only a total of 15 days.

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Chronicle

Stars: Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan

Year: 2012

Director: Josh Trank

Rating: PG-13

Genre: Sci-Fi/Thriller

Length: 83 Minutes

Screening: Thursday, April 11 at 12:40 pm

What It’s About:

Three high school friends gain superpowers after making an incredible discovery underground.

Interesting Fact:

The original cut was meant to be a hard R or NC-17 rated film, but there were studio concerns it would lose its audience. A scene where a body is torn apart was removed. This made way for a PG-13 cut. Please Note: This film is part of the ‘Found-Footage’ genre, shot with a jerky hand-held. Don’t sit too close to the screen.

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Stand By Me

Stars: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix

Year: 1986

Director: Rob Reiner

Rating: R

Genre: Drama/Adventure

Length: 87 Minutes

Screening: Friday, April 12 at 11:10 am

What It’s About:

After the death of a friend, a writer recounts a boyhood journey where he and 3 friends in the summer of 1959 found the body of a missing boy.

Interesting Fact:

People tend to forget that Stand By Me is based on a story by horror writer Stephen King. Look for the scene with the leeches; it actually happened to King when he was a boy. After the film was screened for the writer, director Rob Reiner noticed that King was visibly shaking at the film’s conclusion and was unable to speak. The famous author got up, left the room, then later returned. He wanted to tell the director that it was the best adaptation of his work he had ever seen.

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An American Tail

Stars: (Voice talents) Christopher Plummer, Dom De Luise

Year: 1986

Director: Don Bluth

Rating: G

Genre: Animated Family Adventure

Length: 80 Minutes

Screening: Saturday, April 13 at 9:05 am

What It’s About:

While emigrating to the United States, a young Russian mouse is separated from his family. With the help of some new found friends in the New World, he tries to relocate his loved ones.

Interesting Fact:

Instead of a new style of animation, director Don Bluth decided to return to the earlier style of Disney animation where he used to work as an animator. It gave the characters a more soft and cuddly style. And for the record, Mr. Bluth is a Phoenix valley resident. His Don Bluth Front Row Theatre where you can see live theatre productions is situated on Shea Blvd in Scottsdale.

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Fantastic Mr. Fox

Stars: (Voice talents) George Clooney, Meryl Streep

Year: 2009

Director: Wes Anderson

Rating: PG

Genre: Animated Puppets/Drama/Adventure

Length: 87 Minutes

Screening: Sunday, April 14 at 9:50 am

What It’s About:

An urbane fox cannot resist returning to his farm-raiding ways, but it causes a problem. He has to help his community survive the farmer’s retaliation.

Interesting Fact:

Director Wes Anderson wanted to use real animal hair for all the animal puppets, even though it meant that the hair would appear to ripple unnaturally in the film due to the puppeteers handling the models between frames. The rippling you see is evidently intentional.

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The Invisible Man

Stars: Claude Rains

Year: 1933

Director: James Whale

Rating: NR (not rated)

Genre: Classic Horror/Fantasy

Length: 72 Minutes

Screening: Sunday, April 14 at 12:00 pm

What It’s About:

A scientist finds a way of becoming invisible, but due to a drug he used, his mind becomes warped, making him aggressive, dangerous, and murderously insane.

Interesting Fact:

Gloria Stuart who plays Flora Cranley did not enjoy working with the film’s leading player, Claude Rains. During filming when they had scenes together, Stuart complained that her leading man kept backing her into the scenery and hampered her chances to perform. Director Whale kept the peace by reminding Rains that he had to share scenes with his leading lady, whether he liked her or not.

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Look for Part Two of our special reports on the 2019 Phoenix Film Festival next week

Posted in Special Report

The Hummingbird Project – Film Review

It has all the hallmarks of being based on a true story. There are times and dates to give perspective, location titles to let you know where you are, plus there’s attention to detail with an added sense of urgency that makes things anxious and even exciting. Yet once you know that The Hummingbird Project is really a work of fiction and none of what you’re seeing ever happened, somehow a thriller about high-frequency trading and ultra-low latency direct market access doesn’t come across as particularly compelling, no matter how well crafted writer/director Kim Nguyen’s film really is.

Two cousins from New York, Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and Anton (Alexander Skarsgard) work for Eva Torres (Salma Hayek) in the Wall Street world of High-Frequency Trading, that special type of high-stakes financial marketing that deals with data and electronic trading tools – have I lost you yet?

Vincent is the aggressive hustler, the ideas guy who dreams big. Cousin Anton is the brains, the soft-spoken, humorless one who knows his equations. He’s Sheldon Cooper without the comic snark or a studio audience, and less annoying. It’s Anton who works out the logistics of how to make both he and Vincent rich. The plan – to build a straight fiber-optic cable that runs between Kansas and New Jersey. It’s to be buried way underground and to go through mountains, fields, and lakes. By doing this, information will reach its target faster than the competition. It would mean Vincent and Anton would get market trading information as much as a millisecond second before anyone else. And for the record, in case you’re wondering just how fast a millisecond really is, it’s the single flap of a hummingbird wing in flight.

The conflicts are many. First, fast-talking Vincent needs to get the financing to complete the project, hire diggers to bury the fiber, get permission from landowners to dig – the Amish prove particularly difficult – and keep his cousin happy and comfortable while the numbers genius works on the equations and creates the codes to make that extra millisecond a reality. “I’m doing everything I can to find that millisecond,” declares Anton in a rare moment of anger with his cousin. “Leave me alone!”

But if digging the earth isn’t a big enough challenge, they also have their ex-boss, Eva on their tails, and Eva is ruthless. Having left her company to go solo and follow their dreams, the manipulative and powerful woman seeks revenge. In a menacing moment like a slippery villain in a Bond movie, Eva appears out of nowhere at a spa while Anton is taking a relaxing bath. “I cared for you and you betrayed me,” she tells him while letting spa water drip from her fingers on to his bald scalp. “Now you have to pay, and I’m going to make it painful.

Eisenberg is the motormouth who talks people into doing what they don’t always want to do. It’s an angle not too removed from his role in The Social Network, though here, cousin Vincent is less objectionable and considerably more likable than Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg. When he receives bad news regarding his health and the urgent need to operate – information he withholds from Anton – he asks the doctor, “Could this be put on hold for a couple of months? I’m in the middle of something really important.

With a shaved head, a stoop, and a manner that suggests an introvert with every move, Swedish actor Skarsgard with an always convincing American accent is as far removed from his sexy vampire Eric in HBO’s True Blood as he could be. To underline his matter-of-fact, sobersided nature, when financier Bryan Taylor (Frank Schorpion) shakes his hand and tells him, “You go to Kansas now, Dorothy,” the humorless brainiac, not getting the Oz reference,  reminds the money guy that his name is actually Anton.

The conclusion to the film goes in an unexpected direction. And while there’s intrigue and a considerable amount of conflict that engages – the scenes between Eisenberg and Johan Heldenbergh as an Amish Elder who won’t cooperate are particularly good, as is a moment between Skarsgard and a waitress who asks him about his work but from a very human perspective that’s not part of his calculus – The Hummingbird Project is no easy sell.

Becoming aware that’s it’s not based on real events, even though it looks as though it might, the film loses its presence. Plus, when the subject is about a fiber-optic line that makes information move a millisecond faster than the competition, even if Nguyen’s script reflects real advances in trading technology, you can’t help but question exactly who outside of high-tech geeks, the ones who might talk about this stuff all the time. is going to want to see it.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 111 Minutes

Posted in Film

The Play That Goes Wrong – Theatre Review: National Touring Company, ASU Gammage, Tempe

Here’s a tip. Once the doors at ASU Gammage in Tempe open, don’t hang around in the lobby, go straight to your seat. Take the time to look through the program, or the Gambill. Like the 1982 Michael Frayn comedy Noises Off, there’s a program within the program of the play-within-a-play incorporating a fake cast list, fake bios, some fake ads, and a letter from the president of the Cornley University Drama Society, the team of English amateur-dramatic players who are about to present an Agatha Christie-styled mystery, The Murder at Haversham Manor. It’s like reading a section of Mad Magazine Goes to the Theatre. And for the record, there’s also a real cast list and some real bios.

Then when you’re done, look up at the set. The curtain is already raised. Take in the reproduction of an English manor, the kind that would make Professor Plum or Miss Scarlett feel right at home. Look at it and know that it’ll never look like that again. Once the play begins, much is going to fall apart, and by the conclusion, one that might impress even Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, the whole thing is going to… well, that’s for you to see.

Even before the play has officially begun, and the house lights are still on, there are things happening. Some of the (fictional) backstage staff are busy fixing things on the set that won’t quite function. The door won’t properly close, some props are not where they’re supposed to be, and the mantelpiece is broken. Plus, the (fictional) lighting and sound operator, Trevor (Brandon J. Ellis) can’t find his Duran Duran CD and asks the audience to hand it in if anyone finds it. With the help of an audience member who is asked to come up and help, the stage manager Annie (Angela Grovey) exits and leaves the audience member on stage, alone, holding up part of the set, unable to move.

Everything you need to know is in the title. The Play That Goes Wrong is about a play that goes spectacularly wrong when a troupe of some really bad English actors is given the chance the present their play in front of a larger than usual crowd.

The play’s (fictional) director, Chris Bean (Evan Alexander Smith) who also made the props, designed the costumes, manages the box-office, choreographed the fights, designed the set in addition to a couple of other backstage roles, addresses the audience and begins by explaining exactly who the Cornley University Drama Society is. Normally the players work with only a low budget that can’t quite cover all the costs of a large-scale production, which explains why some of their last plays included The Lion and The Wardrobe, the musical Cat, and James and the Peach. Sadly the peach they were using for that last production went sour during the run, so they re-titled it James, Where’s Your Peach? But for The Murder of Haversham Manor, the players have received a substantial contribution, giving the am-dram society the chance to present something considerably grander. And it goes horribly wrong.

The comedy, which in its way is a kind of distant second cousin to Noises Off, begun in London in 2012 and has been running continuously ever since. Bookings are still being taken until October of this year. The play was such a success that it already has a sequel, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, but it’s the original you’ll see this week with the national touring cast in Tempe, running now until March 24.

There’s little point in explaining plot. What happens in the play-within-a-play is so convoluted it won’t matter who killed Charles Haversham. Besides, you won’t hear much of the dialog. It’ll be drowned by the sound of the laughter that will bounce off the walls of the Gammage auditorium until the volume hurts your ears. Doors will stick, props will be misplaced, lines will be forgotten, an elevator will get stuck, and floors will collapse. And that’s just for starters. At one point, the director, who also plays the detective, turns to the audience and demands that everyone stop laughing. “What’s wrong with you people?” he cries. “Why can’t you be like this woman sitting there? She’s sat there for forty-five minutes and hasn’t laughed once!”

After having read all of the above, the one thing you need to ask yourself before going is, is this kind of comedy for you? It wasn’t for the family of four seated nearby who left their seats within twenty minutes of the play and never returned. On the other hand, it was for the young girl seated by my side who turned to her mother during the intermission and said it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen.

The Play That Goes Wrong could make you hyperventilate. Really. It could also wear you down. It’s not only the cast who get a thorough work out. Long before the somewhat lengthy, chaotic conclusion arrives where just about everything is lost and both you and the cast have no idea where things are heading, you might feel equally exhausted.

But whether it’s the wordplay, the pratfalls, or the undeniably clever design of a collapsible set, you’re going to laugh at something, and when you do it’ll be louder than you usually laugh. When that director admonishes Gammage for laughing and insists “They would never have behaved like this in Tucson,” like the audience at a pantomime, it takes everything you have not to shout back, “Oh, yes they would!”

The Play That Goes Wrong continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until March 24

Pictures Courtesy of Jeremy Daniel

Posted in Theatre

Death of a Salesman – Theatre Review: Scottsdale Desert Stages, Scottsdale

It’s amazing how potent the emotional impact of a 1949 play can be no matter how many times you’ve seen it. In a world where our technological developments advance at a breathtakingly rapid pace, certain things remain the same. When it comes to the laws of human nature, what was relevant in ‘49 can still be relevant seventy years later.

Death of a Salesman, the tragic story of Willy Loman, is one that relates to most adults; at some point in our lives, if only for a short while, we’ve all been a Willy Loman. The need to hope and dream when times are rough can dominate our thoughts. But it’s that ability to distinguish between a hope and a reality that can keep a person grounded. For Willy, he’s lost that ability, if he ever had it. He’s lived a life dreaming in epic proportions, fueled by the promises of the American dream, but his abilities and the results of years on the road as a traveling salesman have never caught up with those visions of opportunity and material success. As a consequence, he kids himself. All the time.

Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre’s new production of Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Death of a Salesman is now playing until April 14 in its smaller Actor’s Café venue. And while the intimacy of the theatre has to be acknowledged, considering what director Virginia Olivieri and her cast are up against in such a restrictive setting, they do a remarkable job. Despite the cast’s inability to fully take command of the stage with any real sense of flexibility, such is the power of the play, and this production in particular, that the company can still deliver a powerful emotional punch. Considering what they’re up against, they all do astonishing work.

The new Actor’s Café is where a Harkins Movie Theatre used to be. It’s the one that housed the smallest screen. As a result, while the width of the stage is something a creative director can work with, the issue is depth. The place was never built for a live performance. All that was previously required was a screen and enough room behind the canvas to house large speakers. The limitations of what can be achieved are immediately apparent with the set.

All the elements are there – stage left is the kitchen, stage right Willy and Linda’s bedroom that will later double as a hotel room, upstage against the wall on a raised platform is the boy’s bedroom, and center is the living room – but what’s missing are the towering shapes of the tall apartment buildings that dwarf all around Willy’s home, looking as though they’re leaning in on his small house. When Willy (Walt Pedano) peers through the kitchen window and declares, “You’ve gotta break your neck to see a star in this yard,” it’s only clear what he’s talking about if you already know what he’s referring to.

Still, necessity is the mother of all invention, and like all community theatre where you work with what you’re given, including those who audition, director Olivieri makes good creative use of everything available. There are no scrims to help the sudden hallucinatory appearances of Willy’s thoughts. With Stacey Walston’s effective lighting design to help change time and place, when Willy reflects back on events of the past, those rose-colored images of his memory are often re-enacted in front of the stage, before the first row of seats. Willy literally steps down to be a part of them as he talks with his sons Biff (Matthew Fields Winter) and Happy (Mo Simpson), or his neighbors Bernard (Steve Rowe), and Bernard’s father, Charley (Al Benneian). And when the mystical figure of the authoritative Uncle Ben (J. Kevin Tallent) walks on, he’s dressed in white, reminiscent of a Yankee Colonel Sanders, an image that immediately separates him from everyone else.

As the outcome of the story is in the title, the effectiveness of any production of Arthur Miller’s drama is not so much the conclusion but how well the cast handles the emotional ups and downs – mostly downs – of the journey to get there. Willy’s loyal wife Linda is played with grace and convincing empathy by Donna Kaufman, exemplified by her final speech at the graveside when she begins by telling Willy she can’t cry – his absence is as though he’s on another trip – yet within a few sentences more, she’s sobbing, then uncontrollably so. If that moment doesn’t work, the play fails. Kaufman’s Linda makes it work.

Walt Pedano was a good Ricky Roma in Desert Stages’ previous production of Glengarry Glen Ross. Here as Willy Loman, he’s better. Pedano’s Willy lies to himself and to his family, but they’re the kind of lies that he wants to believe. It’s as if by saying they’re true, they become so. And it’s this relentless self-deception that ultimately makes Willy self-destructive. When a person’s worth is determined by unattainable material success, it can ruin. Like the success that is beyond Willy’s grasp, so is the dream; he’ll never reach it. Pedano succeeds in making us believe that the Willy Loman we see is truly unstable and self-deluding.

Given the limitations of its forum, with good support from the cast, particularly Matthew Fields Winter as Biff, Olivieri’s Death of a Salesman is clearly the most accomplished production Desert Stages has presented in its new Actor’s Café location since the company moved there. But like Willy Loman’s wishful thinking, you can’t help but imagine how more effective the whole affair could have been had it the opportunity to open on the larger main stage theatre next door. If there was a Desert Stages presentation that would artistically benefit from such a transition, it’s this one.

Death of a Salesman continues at Scottsdale Desert Stages’ Actor’s Café until April 14

Pictures Courtesy of Wade Moran

Posted in Film

Mamma Mia! – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

According to the book, Mamma Mia! How Can I Resist You? when the creators were developing the show, they were adamant about how it should look. Scenery was not to slide on from either side of the stage; there were to be no backdrops lowered from above to suggest a new scene-setting location; and it wasn’t to be like traditional Broadway faire where a whole new environment was established once characters entered a bedroom or the action took place in a separate area. It was to remain sparse, a basic exterior of a Greek island taverna that could be slightly angled from time to time to suggest a change of scenery. And it was all to be bathed in whites and Mediterranean blue. In other words, it wasn’t to look like a musical.

There were even instructions on the choreography and how songs would be presented. There were to be no showy Broadway moves, no jazzy hands, and no precision in the dancing. It was to appear like a free-for-all, where characters did their own thing – organized but not chorus-line skillful. The creators considered it a play with music with the emphasis on story; the music, secondary. Plus, artists were not to break that fourth wall and sing directly to the crowds. Of course, they should be positioned where they could be seen, yes, but they were not to acknowledge they were performing in front of anyone. They were either singing to themselves as if lost in musical thought, or to each other. And because of its island setting and writer Catherine Johnson’s Shakespearean plot construction, it was to appear as a place where you could stage The Tempest without making changes. And it worked. When the show opened in 1999, a London newspaper reviewer declared the show ‘A WINNER!’ in huge block letters, a design that soon became the principal advertising blurb across many of the posters.

Naturally, Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria, a place where its very tag reads Arizona’s Leader in Musical Theatre, was having none of that. If any place knows what its audience wants and what it takes to make an entertaining crowd-pleaser, it’s ABT. The best way to consider the dinner theatre’s new production of the Abba jukebox musical Mamma Mia! now playing until April 20, is to consider this Clayton Phillips directed production as re-imagined. Douglas Clarke’s new scenic design recreates the island’s taverna with a large courtyard viewed through oval openings. It’s flanked by stone granite whitewashed walls where the doors and windows presumably lead to all kinds of separate rooms and cellars, plus on a back screen you can see a mostly clear blue sky – there are a few puffy clouds hanging around for good measure up there – while the iridescent blue of the Aegean literally and effectively glitters on the water’s surface.

When the setting changes from the exterior to the interior, new additions to the set slide in from either side. And in order to create a whole new environment, the walls and windows of a bedroom are lowered from above. It might not do for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but at a pinch, the Greek version of Kiss Me, Kate might be workable.

The script itself isn’t changed, but some of the characterizations are altered. A clear and pleasant voiced Alexandra Carter plays young Sophie, the girl with the sun-kissed golden hair who is about to marry her island boyfriend Sky (Nicholas Kuhn). This could well be the first time Sophie is portrayed sporting a couple of arm tattoos. Sophie has always wanted to know who her father was – she was raised on the Greek island by a single parent, her mother Donna (Kaitlin Lawrence, equally sun-kissed with golden blonde locks, courtesy of Amanda Gran’s wigs). Upon discovering her mother’s diary and secretly reading about of all of mom’s past indiscretions, Sophie has her potential dad narrowed down to three men, all of whom she invites to the wedding.

The three are Harry (Brian Ashton Miller), Bill (Andy Myers), and Sam (Matthew J. Taylor) and all three turn up at the same time. As written, and usually performed, the conflicts are twofold; which one is Sophie’s father – “The sperm donor has a name,” says Sophie – and which one might rekindle that unfulfilled relationship of the past with the still single momma Donna. The father part is something to be discovered, but which of the guys will end up with Sophie’s mom is hardly a guessing game when it’s clear in this production who the suitor will be from the moment all three men make their entrance.

Bill, the world traveler in shorts, is a big, burly guy with a big, burly beard. If he ever really appealed to Donna in his youth, from his appearance and those hairy legs, that time has passed. So it has to be down to the other two. Normally you’d be kept guessing. For the record, there’s a reveal near the end that humorously points out Harry’s sexual orientation, and it’s supposed to come as a surprise. But at this point, it’s hardly a plot-spoiler to say that it won’t be Harry as Donna’s suitor considering that in this ABT production, Clayton Phillips has directed Brian Ashton Miller in his ABT debut to play the part broadly gay. Purists of Mamma Mia! might not be happy, not to mention how Colin Firth who played Harry in the film might feel about this interpretation, but in line with everything else re-imagined, the majority of ABT patrons won’t care. By playing the character this way, the role earns the production extra laughs where none used to be. When Harry states to the other two guys, “Donna knew my wild side,” all that can run through your mind is, I seriously doubt it.

When Bjorn and Benny of Abba wrote those lyrics – impressively in a second language – they were to be sung mostly by Agnetha and Frida. As a consequence, the guys had to write in character. Look at those lyrics. There’s no ambiguity. They often tell a story from a specific character’s point-of-view, which makes them ideal to be used in a musical that’s not simply a revue. Music director Mark 4man and his band hold a solid, tight rein over the music arrangements, while the cast all do fine work with those indestructible pop/rock songs. There’s not a Pierce Brosnan among them. Sounding particularly good is Super Trouper, sung by Lawrence and her two immensely likable girlfriends, Tanya (Jessica Medoff) and Rosie (Chae Clearwood).

Kurtis Overby’s choreography – it’s vigorous movements are organized, precise, and definitely chorus-line skillful – may not include those jazzy hands but its origins are clearly Broadway. And when characters sing, they often turn to the audience and perform directly to us, ignoring the rules of being in a play with music while presenting the numbers as if in a variety show. But again, like Harry’s broad portrayal, the audience for whom this production is designed won’t care. ABT’s energetic Mamma Mia! sparkles as brightly as the glittering sunlight on that Aegean sea surface.

It may not be the show that the creators during the nineties envisioned, but like that London newspaper blurb used across the poster, when it comes to knowing unquestioningly what pleases an ABT crowd, this Mamma Mia! is every bit ‘A WINNER!’ as the original show was, though admittedly for some very different reasons.

Mamma Mia! continues at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria until April 20

Pictures Courtesy of Scott Samplin

Posted in Theatre

I Am My Own Wife – Theatre Review: BLK BOX PHX, The Phoenix Theater Company’s Judith Hardes Theatre, Phoenix

Our memories all have shape and form. When we think back on a memory, we change its shape. We all do it. It’s called False Memory Syndrome. If we reflect back on something repeatedly, it’s not the original memory we recall, it’s how it appeared to us the last time we thought of it. Its shape continues to change. Often, it can get to the point where we’ve changed its shape and form so much that what began as truth has, over a long period, morphed into something else, even though we’re convinced that what we’re seeing in our mind’s eye is exactly how it happened.

It’s a fascinating dilemma. And it’s this very issue that comes unexpectedly at the heart of I Am My Own Wife, now playing at The Phoenix Theatre Company’s Judith Hardes Theatre until March 16, presented by the newly emerging Blk Box Phx company – reality or perceived reality.

I Am My Own Wife is a one-man Pulitzer prize-winning play by Doug Wright recalling the memories of the founder of the Gründerzeit Museum in Berlin-Mahlsdorf, transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Charlotte was born Lothar Berfelde. As a boy, Lothar beat his abusive Nazi father to death and spent four years of detention as a juvenile. Following his release from prison, the boy found work as a used-goods dealer and felt considerably more comfortable when dressed as a woman. He adopted the name Charlotte and changed his last name to von Mahlsdorf, based on the Berlin suburb in which he was born. Going forward, in keeping with Charlotte’s wishes, he will now be referred to as ‘she.’

When Doug Wright, already a successful playwright, came across the idea of writing a play about the life of Charlotte, her survival as a transvestite during both the Nazi regime then the rise and the fall of the communists, he decided upon a setup. Based on his recorded interviews, the play would be a one-man presentation. In recounting her story to Wright, whoever played Charlotte would also give voice to more than thirty plus other characters, including the writer himself. The production begins with the author wanting to write a play and asking for Charlotte’s permission. Having agreed, the author travels to Germany and records a series of interviews where Charlotte recounts her life. As the author tells a friend back in America, “She doesn’t just run a museum, she is one.

Despite the show’s initially daunting length for a one-man play – approximately 70 minutes for the first act, a fifteen-minute intermission, then a 55-minute second act – I Am My Own Wife immediately holds your attention. Once the intermission arrives, it’s hard to believe that more than an hour has already passed. This is due to two things: the events of Charlotte’s life, which are nothing less than engrossing, and the engagement of actor Seth Tucker as Charlotte.

Dressed in designer Cari Sue Smith’s black dress and white pearls, no feminine makeup, Tucker draws us in, almost seductively so, as the transvestite who has so much to say and says it softly, slowly, deliberately, and often with an engaging smile. Supported by Daniel Davisson’s atmospheric changes in light and Peter Bish’s sound design of air-bombers, scratched music recordings, and the noises of a dank, dark prison cell among others, with a convincing accent, Charlotte relates her days prior to the war as a youth. She incorporates images of life with the rise of the Nazis, air raids over Germany, the moment she killed her father, the deal she signed with the Stasi to inform on friends and family, the fall of the Berlin wall, and her museum of everyday artifacts.

It’s difficult to say exactly how many different characters are incorporated into the telling – several of them have only a brief moment of show with just a line or two of dialog – but with a change of accents and posture, Tucker seamlessly and successfully inhabits everyone who becomes a part of the story. In addition to Charlotte’s German dialect, Tucker tackles French, Indian, British and Japanese dialects, plus different American accents, ranging from Californian, Texan, and even, if I’m not mistaken, Brooklyn. When portraying the author Doug Wright you suspect there’s no attempt at an impersonation, the voice that the actor uses is presumably his own, though the most amusing of all the accents employed is the one of an American translator whose German is straight from downtown Dallas.

Backed by an effective though not overly busy set design of Charlotte’s museum by Tiana Torrilhon – it’s a series of shelves upon which you’ll see all kinds of artifacts, including Victrolas and gramophones – Tucker casts a spell that is quite extraordinary, guided by the direction of Elaine “E.E.” Moe.

However, even though Wright’s play may have won the prestigious Pulitzer in 2001 for drama, it’s not without a fundamental flaw. By injecting himself as a character into the story, you can’t help the feeling that as a dramatist perhaps he’s overstepped the mark. It’s one thing when he’s simply the interviewer asking questions. That works fine. But when he becomes an important part of the narrative with his comments, his observations, and his own plot-line conflicts as to whether what he’s hearing is the truth, that’s something else. In 2016, there was a re-imagined version of the play where four actors were used, including one who played the role of the writer. Perhaps that worked more effectively – it received praise from the author – but somehow as a one-man play as originally written and presented, which is what we have here, you can’t help struggle with a nagging feeling that maybe Mr. Wright has gone into areas of some unwelcomed self-indulgence.

The notion that what we’re hearing may be Charlotte’s embellishments comes into question when the official files of her time as an informant are revealed to conflict with her own accounts. The question then, of course, is if her recollections of that period are not exactly how things really were, how accurate is everything else? Plus, the heroism of being an uncompromising, true-to-herself transvestite during her time with the Nazis and later with the Communists is made less effective when you know she informed on friends and family, something that helps explain her continual survival. But maybe by having author Wright’s decision to include everything, including her own story-telling flaws, a certain kind of ‘truth’ emerges, one born of the results of a False Memory Syndrome. It’s still a remarkable tale.

If anything, I Am My Own Wife tells of the need to record the narrative of all of our lives. We may not have endured the conflicts that Charlotte von Mahlsdorf experienced, but like the everyday artifacts collected for her Berlin museum, we all have our everyday stories to tell, and they need to be on record. And it needs to be done before we lose the shape and form of our memories altogether.

I Am My Own Wife continues at The Phoenix Theatre Company’s Judith Hardes Theatre until March 17

Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison

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