A Christmas Carol (Childsplay 2017) – Theatre Review: Childsplay, Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe

When Victorian era author Charles Dickens arrived in Boston for his first public reading of A Christmas Carol, the line for tickets outside of his American publisher’s office was half a mile long. When he ventured further north to New York, the lines were even longer. In fact, on the night before his first NYC reading at the 2,500 seater Steinway Hall, thousands sat or slept on blankets in freezing temperatures, hoping for a $2 ticket. The next day, once all four performances were sold out, scalpers upped the price to $26. To give things perspective, considering that at the time the average pay for a New York laborer was a dollar a day, the popularity of Dickens and his work remains staggering. Think about it. In the nineteenth century, at the height of his popularity, Charles Dickens was a rock star.

Interestingly, even if the crowds loved him and the way he breathed life into his various characters, critics were not altogether impressed. With a length of almost three hours, plus a five minute intermission, Dickens, reading from his edited prompt book, grounded behind his podium, was considered monotonous. He may have loved theatre, and even occasionally performed on the stage, but despite his passion for treading the boards, reviewers considered him no actor.

On the other hand, local talent Katie McFadzen may not enjoy the fanatical following of Dickens, and you won’t find scalpers near the Childsplay box-office upping the ticket sale to thirteen times the original price, but beyond a doubt, after delighting in her solo presentation of A Christmas Carol at Friday night’s Tempe Center for the Arts opening, the last word that springs to mind would be monotonous. After ninety minutes of continuous narration and energetic movement, and with neither a prompt book nor a Dickensian podium in sight, McFadzen’s performance isn’t simply impressive, it’s a staggering accomplishment; a display of unusually great skill not often seen that’s a pleasure to watch.

To steal a little Dickens parlance, it was two years ago, to begin with. Two years ago this very month when Katie McFadzen and her director and script collaborator, Matthew Wiener presented A Christmas Carol for Arizona Theatre Company at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix. The show you’ll see in Tempe is essentially the same production, but there are differences.

The presentation at Herberger was quite unique. Both audience and performer were on stage, huddled together for a shared experience in an intimate setting. It was as if the whole of Herberger’s theatre was really Santa’s grotto, with a lighted passageway of white Christmas lights that lead you through the house and up to a temporary, makeshift black box theatre with limited space, all on the Herberger main stage to be shared by ticket holders and performer alike. Because of this intimacy, the actor could engage on a more natural level without having to project a heightened sense of theatrical reality to the back row.

The new staging in Tempe, again directed by Wiener, is considerably more traditional. This time the play is performed within a proscenium arch to an audience seated not in the four of five raised rows as before but to a large audience packing the orchestra and the theatre’s upper balcony levels. As a result, this time, McFadzen has to project with body movements and facial expressions more animated in order to be seen and heard. Yet, such is the actor’s ability to draw an audience in, intimacy remains, even in a larger setting.

As before, with just a minimum use of props consisting of an antique table and chair, a cloak and hat stand upon which a dressing gown hangs “in a suspicious manner,” plus atmospheric sound effects of bell chimes, clanging clocks, chilling winds, and the addition of swirling London fog, McFadzen struts the stage while narrating the classic Dickens tale of the old miser’s redemption, changing from character to character when required with just the slightest alteration of voice or the physical change of stance, creating the illusion that the Childsplay stage is actually populated by several characters rather than just the one. When the invited guests enter Fezziwig’s Christmas Eve party in the warehouse, as mimed by McFadzen, it’s as if you can actually see their arrival. And when the actor points and indicates where the cold roast could be found, or the mince pies, or the cake, or the beer, you can practically see it all sitting there on the table, waiting to be consumed.

When presenting the novella in this fashion with both original (though edited) narration and dialog, there’s an extra layer of authentic Dickens achieved that’s not always possible with a performing ensemble.

Describing Jacob Marley’s transparent body and planting the image of how Scrooge, looking through his dead partner’s apparel, could see the two waistcoat buttons on Marley’s coat behind (including the absence of his bowels) is a detail rarely created for the mind outside of either reading the book or heard in a classic BBC radio adaptation. Nor do we usually get to savor the moments when the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge out under an inky black sky, replete with twinkling stars, to witness human souls toasting Christmas alone in a lighthouse or on the deck of an ocean-going vessel, yet they’re all here, outlined in McFadzen’s telling. They’re moments that add to the richness of the story not always presented in other productions. And during Scrooge’s change of heart when it’s explained that how, with the giddy spirit of someone drunk on joy, he finds that everything he sees could yield him pleasure, that authentic Dickens phrasing and the feeling it creates is so heartwarmingly wonderful, you’ll wish it was something we could all experience on a daily basis, Christmas or not.

Look for the expression tour-de-force. Its literal translation means a ‘feat of strength.’ Its definition is an occurrence demonstrating brilliance or a mastery in a field. It may well describe Dickens as a writer, but, as evidenced in New York, not a performer. That honor belongs to Katie McFadzen. The words may be Dickens, but the voice and delivery is Katie’s. As Tiny Tim might have observed, Merry Christmas, and God bless Childsplay for bringing Matthew Wiener’s original ATC production back to the valley and including it in its Christmas repertory along with Go, Dog, Go at Tempe Center for the Arts. Seeing it once again is, indeed, a seasonal gift.

A Christmas Carol with Katie McFadzen continues until December 24 at Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe.

Posted in Theatre

Wonder Wheel – Film Review

It arrives like an annual event. Once a year, a new Woody Allen directed film emerges, one where the production was shot under a cloud of secrecy, where the actors talk in terms of having received the script in the mail but with only their pages in the envelope, and little is publicly discussed until the project is fully formed. Expectations always run high. It is, after all, another Woody Allen movie.

Depending on personal taste and preferences, some are great. Hannah and Her Sisters. A wonderful film. So, too, was Mighty Aphrodite. Crimes and Misdemeanors, another. Then there are the disappointments. Shadows and Fog, for instance. September, definitely. And even though it’s developed a popularity throughout the years, Zelig never quite got off the ground.

And then there’s everything in between; projects that began with promise, then at their conclusion left you with a feeling of, well, nothing particularly special. Look at the resume. You can see for yourself.

The drama Wonder Wheel has a new category. It’s better than that middling level that plagues the majority, but it can’t quite achieve the greatness you’re hoping for, even if there are moments when you feel it’s about to get there. It’s an almost, but not quite.

Beginning as all Woody Allen films do, with credits in white letters against a black background, backed musically by a long forgotten classic recording (here it’s an upbeat, jaunty version of Coney Island Washboard with the gentle, harmonic voices of The Mills Brothers) Wonder Wheel opens with a surprisingly spectacular shot of a crowded beach. It’s Coney Island sometime in the fifties, a place of cheap thrills and great hot dogs. “Once a luminous jewel,” our narrator, Justin Timberlake, tells us, “But relentlessly seedier as the tides roll in and out.”

Timberlake plays Mickey, a lifeguard on Bay 7. He dreams of being a writer of truly great plays, hoping to impress everyone one day by writing a profound masterpiece, but he’s not quite there. His summer job pays the bills before the fall when he’ll return to college and study for his Masters in European drama. He relishes melodrama and narrates the events of Wonder Wheel as though he’s formulating a script, relating what happened during this one particular summer in the fifties by the famous amusement park. Thus, when Juno Temple arrives looking lost and a little unsure of her surroundings by the huge Ferris wheel, Mickey announces, as if giving direction, “Enter Carolina.

Carolina is on the run. She married a mobster who got rich by cementing the feet of other guys, but now she’s left him, fearing for her life, aware that she’s a marked woman, one who’s in desperate need of a place to hide before her husband’s goons get to her. “I know where the bodies are buried,” she will later state. So she turns to Coney Island because that’s where her father lives and works, and he’s all she’s got.

Her father is Humpty (Jim Belushi), a carousel operator who lives with his waitress wife, Ginny (Kate Winslet) in an apartment above the park’s shooting gallery. It used to house a freak show, but now it’s a place to live where the view through the window is the ever revolving wonder wheel of the film’s title. It’s all he can afford. Humpty is livid to see his daughter. “I told you never to set foot in my home again,” he tells her, but Carolina has nowhere else to hide. “I didn’t want to come here, but I don’t have a choice.

The film may begin with Carolina, but Wonder Wheel is really Ginny’s story. Once an actress whose career never flourished, Ginny now works serving clams to summer visitors. With migraines and an aversion to the constant noise of her surroundings, she is falling apart. Ginny is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “Why does he hit you?” asks her son from her first marriage, Richie (Jack Gore), referring to his step-dad. “When he gets drunk he hits everybody,” Ginny replies.

Ginny is having an affair with Mickey the lifeguard, and it’s the one thing in her life that seems to be working. But when Humpty’s daughter-on-the-run turns up and things between Carolina and the lifeguard develop, Ginny may soon unravel.

With cinematography by Vittorio Storaro, Wonder Wheel is a handsome looking production, rich with vibrant colors decorating virtually every frame. The rides of Coney island appear freshly painted and candy colored, the skies above, a deep blue, and at night, neon reds bathe Ginny and Humpty’s bedroom until the park finally closes for the night. Director Allen uses this cinematic palette not only for decoration but to help indicate moods and emotions.

At night, under the boardwalk, when Ginny tells Mickey what love was like with her first husband, her face and hair are coated in the reds and yellows reflected from the lighted bulbs of the amusement park rides. But when she talks of meeting Humpty where she learned what love is not, the colors drain to a natural look, until Mickey tells her, “You have so much to give and no one to give it to,” then kisses her. Those golden-hued, reflective colors slowly, temporarily return.

And there are other visual, directorial flourishes Allen uses to sign-post a moment. When Carolina first arrives, hoping for a new future, it’s with the Wonder Wheel in all its promising glory behind her. Later, when she and Ginny are having a confessional and Ginny learns that the young woman has been with her lifeguard, they walk by a side-show in the park called Spill The Milk. And when two gangsters arrive in search of their mob boss’s runaway wife, the hoods park their car by the Cyclone as if indicating the potential storm they may soon unleash if and when they find her.

All four leads are exceptionally well cast, but they’re ultimately let down by a script that never quite takes off. Allen directs conversations – here characters talk and talk as if reenacting scenes direct from a play – but he doesn’t direct action. He tells too much without showing. As a result, the film’s rhythm never reaches top gear; it’s stuck in third. Ultimately, what is visually an attractive looking production with four good performances and a wonderful sense of period is stuck in a hundred minutes of mediocre story telling.

MPAA Rating: PG-13    Length: 101 Minutes     Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Shape of Water – Film Review

Explaining the category under which Guillermo del Toro’s film The Shape of Water falls isn’t easy. A fantasy/drama. A cold-war sci-fi. A romantic horror. Even a fairy tale. In a way, it’s a combination of all. As Richard Jenkins’ voice over tells us, the film is also, “A tale of love and loss, and the monster who tried to destroy it all.” Explaining things isn’t easy.

It’s Baltimore in the early 60’s, probably ‘62. Black and white television in both the homes and in the shop store windows offers glimpses of JFK and Mr. Ed, though when some children ask their mother whether they can watch Bonanza, she tells them it’s much too violent.

Elisa Esposito (a career high for Sally Hawkins) works as a cleaner at an Aerospace Research Center. She loves films, especially musicals, which is convenient because her apartment is above a movie theatre. She delights being in the company of her gay commercial artist neighbor, Giles (a hugely likable Richard Jenkins). Together they watch scenes from old Hollywood films, particularly ones with Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda, and Shirley Temple tap dancing with Mr. Bojangles. Elisa is mute, the result of a childhood accident that has left scars on the side of her neck, but she can hear perfectly well. On her way to work one morning she hears the click of her heels on the wooden floorboards. She takes a minute to do a little Mr. Bojangles inspired tap.

The research center where Elisa cleans becomes the home to a new, secret ‘asset.’ She and her best friend at work, a highly verbose Zelda (Octavia Spencer, never better) who more than makes up for Elisa’s silence, observe something that is whisked into a private sector under suspicious circumstances by the intimidating Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon, a threatening presence that never lets up). With curiosity getting the better of her, Elisa sneaks in to the private facility where this ‘asset’ is currently kept. She then discovers the secret.

The ‘asset’ is in fact an amphibious humanoid, a creature from the black lagoons of the South American jungles, who, we learn, is considered by the Amazonian locals as a god. The Amphibious Man (Doug Jones) is cruelly tested for America’s advancement in the space race, brutally abused by Strickland with continual beatings from his black baton. Strickland calls it his Alabama Howdy Doody. “It’s an animal,” he declares of the uncooperative creature. “Just keeping it tame.”

After frequent late night visits from Elisa, who secretly brings the creature hard boiled eggs to eat and plays it music from her Benny Goodman album collection on a small, portable record player, the cleaner and her amphibious man develop a relationship that will eventually turn into a romance. Once it’s learned that Strickland will soon terminate the research and eventually kill the creature rather than return it back to its watery home, Elisa, along with co-worker Zelda and good neighbor Giles, help the amphibious man escape. It hides in Elisa’s apartment, taking refuge in her bathtub until the time comes to release him back to the sea. There’s more, but that’s where the thriller aspect comes in.

Director del Toro has said that the inspiration for his film came from memories of the 1954 monster movie, Creature from The Black Lagoon (which his Amphibious Man resembles) and his childhood fantasy of watching actress Julia Adams mate with the creature. In The Shape of Water, del Toro finally makes it so. Fantasy fulfilled. Though despite the lush, swooning, romantic quality of the director’s approach, and the touching reasons for having the lonely mute Elisa fall for the creature, there’s a chance not all audiences are going to take to watching the woman disrobe in the bathroom before joining it in the tub where the shower curtain is pulled back for privacy.

Despite the all-encompassing feel of a sensuous beauty and a romantic heart that wraps itself around the film, if, by now, you’ve already had trouble buying the premise, the film can’t help but seem simply odd. When Elisa fantasizes of being in a black and white Hollywood musical, dancing on a set with a shiny black floor that would work for Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell in Broadway Melody of 1940, the partner twirling her is not an Astaire wannabe in top hat and tails but the creature. What’s in danger of looking look like a comical skit is here treated as a dreamy, romantic interlude between a girl and her literal fish-out-of-water.

There’s already an Oscar buzz surrounding del Toro’s romantic fantasy drama, with a momentum that continues to build. It won the Golden Lion best film award at the 74th Venice International Film Festival, and has earned praise in many critical quarters, particularly for Hawkins’ performance, which comes as no surprise. Sally Hawkins is an extraordinary performer (January 2018 will see her return to American screens as the engaging mother in Paddington 2) and certainly here the praise for her performance as the mute is earned, but when it comes to the film and its lush, tender, swooning romance, I’m clearly in the minority when thinking director del Torro has nothing but water on the brain.

Despite the film’s luxuriant, dark cinematography, the atmospheric production design of the early sixties, and the performances of all principle players, the affair never convinced. As witnessed at the Venice Film Festival, many seem to willingly accept the premise and fully embrace, without question, the idea of a lonely woman having sex and falling in love with the scaly fish man from a black lagoon. But others, like Elisa’s bathroom when she seals the cracks with towels and allows the faucets to overflow, may find the whole thing waterlogged.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 119 Minutes    Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Darkest Hour – Film Review

From the dark, somber, black and white news footage opening, where German soldiers parade, and row upon row of their threatening fire-power is displayed, a feeling of suppression under a crushing Nazi jackboot is quickly established. What sounds like dull claps of thunder in the distance are really bombs dropping all over Europe, signaling the invasion of continental European countries. Poland fell to Germany, then Belgium, then the Netherlands, then France.

But the British Isles across the channel was yet to be touched. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, best known for his ‘Peace for our time’ declaration made after the famous signing of the Munich Agreement, found himself out of favor with the country. Once Poland fell to the Nazis, his leadership was seen as weak. Clearly, there would be no peace, as Chamberlain had promised. And even though the United Kingdom was ill prepared to enter another deadly conflict, it was left with no choice but to declare war on Germany. Chamberlain led the country for a further eight months, but there was little confidence in his wartime abilities. As the titles tell us, Chamberlain was out as PM. A hunt for a new leader began.

It helps to know a little of that background before walking in to director Joe Wright’s British war drama, Darkest Hour. There’s a whole generation of moviegoers, maybe more, who knew nothing of Christopher Nolan’s recent Dunkirk before seeing that emotional account of British soldiers stranded and surrounded on the beaches of France. But unlike Dunkirk, where the you-are there approach took audiences into the middle of the deadly chaos absent of facts and figures, Darkest Hour is altogether different. Knowing something of the difference between Chamberlain and Churchill helps. Think of the film as a detailed companion piece to Nolan’s visceral presentation. When in Nolan’s film, a soldier asks a sailor, “What took you so long?” the answer comes in Wright’s Darkest Hour.

But Dunkirk, known as Operation Dynamo, is merely the backdrop to Wright’s drama. Darkest Hour is really about Winston Churchill, long before his knighthood. Audiences may be forgiven for initially thinking that what they’re about to see is the full story of Churchill’s wartime years. Instead, like the recent Brian Cox portrayal called simply Churchill, where the influential politician was seen during only the latter days of his wartime leadership, Darkest Hour explores his first, turbulent month. It begins with his becoming the new PM on May 10, 1940, up until his galvanizing ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech made weeks later to the House of Commons on June 4.

Despite his being named the Greatest Briton of All Time in a controversial 2002 BBC Television poll (Richard lll was listed alongside actor/singer Michael Crawford and John Lennon) many forget, or perhaps never knew, that in his day, Churchill was never that popular. His fellow politicians thought him an annoying crank, and once the war was over, he was voted out of office. But during those war years he was exactly what the nation needed. With his two-fingered ‘V for Victory’ sign, and that ever-present cigar, he personified the symbol of the unstoppable force of the aggressive British Bulldog. Hitler may have considered Chamberlain a push-over, but Churchill was a different breed of politician. As Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is forced to admit to a less than enthusiastic King George (Ben Mendelsohn) once Churchill is chosen PM, “At least he was right about Hitler.” But the king is no fan. “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day,” he responds.

Gary Oldman’s characterization of Churchill is different from that of Cox, and it’s quite remarkable. Unlike Cox, whose face was always evident – it was his hunch and that Churchill inflection that did the work – Oldman disappears under a mound of prosthetics and makeup. You can see in the eyes that it’s Oldman in there somewhere, and occasionally there’s a sound in his voice that gives things away, but the illusion that we’re witnessing the real man walking the hallways of Parliament is always evident. And it isn’t just the convincing makeup alone that does the trick. By incorporating Churchill’s rhythm of speech, the distinctive inflection that turned words upwards, plus his overall bodily stance and demeanor, this could well rank as Oldman’s personal finest hour.

For a moment, after a call from the king when Churchill says to his wife, Clementine (a pitch-perfect Kristin Scott Thomas), “I believe I’ve just received a royal rap on the knuckles,” it’s as you’d imagine Churchill would have said it. And later, when he’s trying to address his war cabinet and continually berated by Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), Oldman’s explosive delivery of “Stop interrupting me when I’m interrupting you,” is a Churchillian gesture so convincing, it’s as if the man himself had suddenly occupied the screen.

As written by Anthony McCarten, Darkest Hour is really theatre on film. Imagine a mostly darkened stage with nothing but a well designed system of lights and basic props to indicate a change of setting or location and you’ll see that the events and their delivery have a theatrical template in their telling. Director Wright even uses a surrounding darkness to indicate Churchill’s increasing isolation, first in an elevator as it rises from the bottom of the screen to the top with nothing around it, next in a small, private room that seems to hang, motionless in the middle of the screen, and later when a door closes on Churchill and all that can be seen of the man is his face, framed in the door’s small window looking out, surrounded by an inky blackness.

Plus, that undeniable form of theatre continues in a later scene when Churchill rides the underground for one stop to Westminster. There he gets to talk to regular Londoners regarding their feelings about the war effort. The conversation of the passengers responding to Churchill’s questions doesn’t ring true in the way the film wants you to accept it. It’s a scene that would work perfectly fine on the heightened reality of stage, but the theatrical nature of the dialog renders it false when viewed on a cinematic naturalism of the screen. You can hear the moments that will inspire his oncoming speech, made all the more obvious when he asks if London could ever fall to the occupation of Nazis. A young girl stands and declares with passion, “Never!” You may question revising history in this manner and presenting it as though it really happened, but given his theatrical background, it’s not altogether surprising that director Wright would use this approach.

Then there’s the climactic speech, the moment the film has been heading towards all along. Years before the military told him to get out of the way and do what he does best, be a figurehead and inspire the nation while the leaders of the Allied forces got on with it, Churchill was the bulldog in control. With Operation Dynamo now behind him, and the idea of Mussolini acting as a mediator for peace between Britain and Germany rejected – “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” he declares – Churchill dictated his speech to his secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), then delivered it with a soaring, inspirational passion to the politicians in the House of Commons. It’s a speech that many, including yours truly, can never hear enough. “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall NEVER surrender.

In truth, he may not have been the Greatest Briton of all Time as voted by viewers of BBC TV, many of whom were not around during Churchill’s period and voted on a romanticized reputation rather than knowledge, but as an orator in the Houses of Parliament, his use of words and his positive effect on civilian morale at a time when it was needed the most is unequaled. In Darkest Hour, the speech sounds as inspirational as it ever did, and here it’s Oldman that makes it so.

MPAA Rating:  NR   Length:  125 Minutes    Overall rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

A Christmas Carol (2017) – Theatre Review: Hale Centre Theatre, Gilbert

One of the most pleasant surprises of valley theatre last year was discovering Hale Centre Theatre’s totally delightful production of A Christmas Carol. In truth, calling a show that was in its fourteenth year a new discovery is pushing things – Hale Centre’s production has run every December in Gilbert since 2003 – but after having ventured further afield beyond Phoenix and its nearby theatrical environs, a visit to Hale in Gilbert and its annual production of the Dickens classic proved to be a highlight of the year. It was one of those unexpected treats so impressive that wanting to see it again as soon as possible was mandatory.

If unfamiliar with Hale Theatre’s annual tradition, here’s what’s important. A Christmas Carol is in performance from now until December 23, Monday through Saturdays (no Sunday presentations), with single performances on Mondays and Tuesdays, two on Wednesdays through Fridays, and four on Saturdays, starting as early as 11am. If you count individual presentations until the show closes in three weeks, you’d be exhausted just thinking about it. For this reason, as with previous years, there are two alternating ensembles with two leading players fulfilling the dates; the Green Cast with Mark Kleinman as Scrooge, and the Red Cast with Cory McCloskey as the miser. Productions appear the same but with the obvious exception of seeing different faces in different roles.

Last year’s review covered the Green Cast with Mark Kleinman. This weekend saw the alternating Red Cast with Cory McCloskey, and as hoped, the production is every bit as pleasing and as heart-warming as seen last year. Director David Hale Dietlein, who clearly has a love for the story, has directed every production since its inception. Whether the presentation today is the same as it was since the beginning is hard to say – you have to assume that trial and error played a large part in how things developed – but the end result works spectacularly well.

As written before, there’s a genuine feel of Dickens’ presence throughout Dietlin’s production, particularly in the second half when things become dark and those from London’s underbelly emerge, stealing bed sheets and curtains from the miser’s deathbed for pennies. In many productions seen across the country over the years, those moments with Old Joe (Raymond Barcelo) are often omitted, but it’s their inclusion in Hale’s production that further enhances the Dickensian tone and completes the spirit of the story that the author had always intended.

In an introductory voice-over, the play even includes the 1843 Dickens preface where the author hopes his story pleasantly haunts our homes. Though, the newly invented naming of one of the Cratchit children as Doug Cratchit (unnamed in the book) may cause a Dickens purist to laugh. The name, of Scottish origin, was a girl’s name in the North of England at the time, and never used for boys in the south until the more recent, turn of the last century. The thieves of Fagin’s den would have had a grand ol’ time if they knew there was a boy in their midst named Doug.

If you’ve seen previous Hale Centre productions of A Christmas Carol, there’s not a lot to tell that you don’t already know. From memory of last year’s presentation, director Dietlin has kept most things as before, indicating that the show, now in its fifteenth year, has found its practically perfect footing and requires no further tinkering. Presumably, there’s little change in Mark Kleinman’s excellent Green Cast performance as Ebenezer Scrooge, but this year this column turns to Fox 10’s ebullient morning personality, Cory McCloskey as the Red Cast’s Scrooge, and he’s first-class. When McCloskey’s Scrooge declares, “I’ll retire to Bedlam,” you believe him. For the record, at the time, the expression ‘Bedlam’ was a corrupted contraction of the word Bethlehem, a famous London hospital for the insane. In 1843, when you retired to Bedlam, you were living the remaining years of your life in a madhouse.

Virtually unrecognizable under make-up and a graying, long-haired wig, McCloskey snarls, scowls, and glowers his way through Christmas Eve, until the work of the three spirits is complete and the man’s redemption is fully realized. His giddy delight of being given a second chance is our giddy delight, one that will make your smile broaden all the more upon realizing that once Bob Cratchit (an appropriately warm and likable Miles David Romney) turns up late for work the day after celebrating a modest Christmas Day, his salary will be raised.

Using all the theatre-in-the-round tricks that it can – ominous swirling smoke, ghostly projections, a mirror ball reflecting seemingly magical lights, falling snow, chiming bell sound effects, a haunting image of a large, ticking clock marking Scrooge’s passing of time, and the acapella voices of Dickens’ carolers singing in the aisles – writer Ted Lehman’s faithful adaptation of the Dickens novella ensures that what you’re seeing and hearing is as close to the work of the Victorian author as is possible without it developing into a dry, literal account. And as before, look closely at the framed picture above the fireplace in Scrooge’s bedroom; it’s a portrait of Charles Dickens overseeing the proceedings. Knowing the author’s love of live theatre, I’m sure the look on his face is one of great approval.

Pictures Courtesy of Nick Woodward-Shaw

A Christmas Carol continues at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert until Saturday, December 23

Posted in Theatre

The Bodyguard The Musical – Theatre Review: National Touring Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

Word of warning. If you arrive at the last minute to find your seat in the vast ASU Gammage auditorium for The Bodyguard The Musical, prepare to be startled. Without warning or even a voice-over introductory announcement, the show suddenly begins, and it begins with an unexpected boom, a gun shot, so shocking, you may need to steady yourself. And once you take your hand off your heart and shakily re-adjust yourself as you finally sit, there follows a couple more gun shots.

The Bodyguard, now performing at Gammage in Tempe until Sunday, December 3, is a stage musical version of the popular 1992 Kevin Costner, Whitney Houston film of the same name, though ‘popular’ should be qualified. The soundtrack went into the stratosphere, but the film itself earned considerably less plaudits than you might recall. Reviews were mixed to negative, and though 2 of the songs from the score were nominated for an Oscar, the awards leaned more heavily towards the Golden Raspberries, including a nomination for Worst Picture. But despite its listing as one of The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made, audiences flocked, as regional audiences are doing to the stage version, and probably for the same reason: to hear those songs.

Though it never opened on Broadway, after a longer than expected run in London where it was developed, The Bodyguard The Musical has toured the U.S. since last year. That heart-stopping opening boom heralded its Tempe opening, and what has surprisingly thrilled packed houses across the country will presumably do the same for valley audiences each night this week until its close on Sunday.

Following the same path as the movie, pop diva Rachel Marron (Deborah Cox) is being stalked. “Prepare, my queen, I’m coming,” concludes a threatening letter from a crazed fan. Rachel’s team hires former Secret Service Agent, Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) to be her bodyguard, but Rachel is less then happy with Frank’s restrictive demands. “I can eat where the hell I want, whenever the hell I want!” she exclaims. It’s not until he rescues her from a literal stage attack and carries her off in his arms that the relationship becomes complicated and a love affair begins.

Technically first-class and slick with continually moving frames on an elaborate set that slide on and off and up and down, the show, while loud, boisterous, and dazzling in its showbiz glitz, can’t overcome the issue that plagued the film. The wafer-thin plot doesn’t really work. Rachel, the world famous superstar, and Frank, a cautious and considerably restrained ordinary-guy bodyguard, never really seem as though they would ever be together.

The book, adapted from the screenplay, bolsters the role of Rachel’s sister Nikki (Jasmin Richardson). It creates an added layer of conflict by having the sibling fall romantically for Frank at the same time as her more famous sister, but it feels like nothing more than a story-telling device developed to fill a void, something to give the simplicity of the overall plot a little more weight. But why Nikki would fall for such a guarded plank of wood and what he does to deserve Nikki’s attention is never evident.

As with the film, there’s nothing particularly intriguing about Frank, and there’s certainly nothing to convince that a Beyoncé-like superstar, or a Whitney Houston for that matter, would fall for whatever charms she evidently sees in him. The only reason movie audiences went along with it was because Frank was played by Kevin Costner at the height of his career. The character may only be an every-day, low-key protector, but it was portrayed by an actor carrying the weight of a star. Audiences didn’t see a singer and a bodyguard together, they looked beyond the characters and saw two big screen superstars holding each other, and that made a cinematic romance easier to accept. The stage is a different forum.

Deborah Cox is quite superb as Rachel – as a singer/performer she knocks every song right out of the house – and Judson Mills does exactly what the part of Frank requires – he’s solid, no nonsense, and an authoritative presence – but he’s not a superstar. By playing Frank exactly as the character demands, the flimsiness of the piece only underlines the story’s limitation. Other than Frank doing his job, there’s simply nothing here that indicates the groundwork that would lead to an attraction or the making of a real love affair. Holding a vulnerable woman in the arms of a bodyguard might be a great image for a poster or a moment in a music video, but to suggest that love has suddenly blossomed, particularly after knowing how much Rachel resented everything about Frank’s presence, is pushing it.

But while the dramatic events never feel fully realized, or even interesting, the songs and how they’re performed are what makes The Bodyguard tick. Of course, even here, your appreciation is restricted to how much of a fan you are of the sizable Whitney Houston catalog of songs, but there’s no denying the power of their punch, particularly when they’re sung so well by both Cox and Richardson. None really lend themselves to good theatre, and when Richardson as sister Nikki reprises Saving All My Love For You suggesting she’s just fallen for Frank, the moment comes across as story-telling clumsiness. But when performed as set pieces for a show within a show, as with Queen of the Night complete with backing dancers, neon lights, and Las Vegas style theatrical fire-bombs with smoke cannons and glitter, audiences should be thrilled, or, at least, satisfied.

And it’s the music with which they leave the theatre. Old vaudevillian comedians used a trick when they knew their act was going south; they’d end with a song. No matter how bad the skit, audiences would always applaud and were left with the feeling of having been entertained. The Bodyguard does something similar with its Mamma Mia moment after the final bows. Once all is done, the cast return for an exuberant performance of Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody. It’s a crowd-pleaser, designed to have you on your feet, singing, dancing, and clapping. Even if you found the show itself lacking, you leave with the sound of the song still bouncing in your head, and, like that audience applauding the old-time comedian, a sense of satisfaction. After all, in the end, isn’t that what you came for? Though intrestingly, you can’t help wonder how different the show’s score might have been had the film’s original diva starred on the screen.  When Lawrence Kasdan first wrote the script, the part of Rachel was meant for Diana Ross.

Pictures Courtesy of Joan Marcus

The Bodyguard performs at ASU Gammage in Tempe until Sunday, December 3

Posted in Theatre