Battle of the Sexes – Film Review

He was 55. She was 29. He said he was putting the show back into chauvinism. She said that dinosaurs can’t play tennis. It was the battle of the sexes, and even though the term is often used to help promote exhibition tennis matches between men and women, its most famous use refers to the nationally televised match of 1973 when ABC TV presented Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs at the Houston Astrodome.

For the majority of the audience who will see Battle of the Sexes at a theatre, this is recent history. In fact, it feels as though the whole affair wasn’t really all that long ago. Watched by 90 million people around the world, the match was viewed as a milestone for women’s tennis. For a younger generation who knows little if nothing of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and may not know how it ends, let’s be clear before any finger-pointing is done and accusations of plot-spoilers are made. If Riggs had won, there wouldn’t be a film; that’s why the match is considered a milestone for women’s tennis.

There’s a lot to tell before Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) eventually faced off on that Thursday afternoon in ‘73. In truth, knowing the end result spoils nothing. As presented, the game remains a thriller. Seeing it on TV at the time with all the media hype was exciting enough, but seeing it in the context of history and becoming aware of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans leading up to Houston is completely different. There’s something so wonderfully satisfying about that match point and watching men eat crow. You’ll be grinning from ear to ear.

As the 55 year-old champion tennis player, Steve Carell, in odd-looking wig and black-rimmed glasses, makes a remarkably accurate looking Bobby Riggs. Look at the black & white shots of scenes re-enacted in the film that appear during the end credits and you might do a double-take, wondering at first if you’re looking at either the actor or the real thing.

Riggs had a gambling issue. For the sake of his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and to keep his fragile marriage together, he attended Gamblers Anonymous. But he was continually defiant, questioning whether his problem was really a problem at all. At a meeting when he’s called upon to speak, he stands and tells everyone in the room, “You’re not here because you’re gamblers. You’re here because you’re bad gamblers.” It makes perfect sense to Bobby.

As good as Carell’s portrayal of Bobby Riggs is, the film’s focus leans more towards Emma Stone’s Billie Jean King. Again, with wig and glasses (in Stone’s case, wire-rimmed ones) the performer could never be mistaken for playing anyone else – the resemblance is plainly there – and she’s outstanding. Since leaving the Phoenix valley and her Valley Youth Theatre days for Los Angeles, the progression of Stone’s talent has repeatedly emerged with each new film, turning a corner with a weighty, dramatic heft in a supporting role for 2014’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and an acclaimed leading role while sharing headlines with Ryan Gosling in La La Land.

But with Battle of the Sexes, even with Carell’s equal billing, this is really Stone’s film. The conflicts her character is forced to confront within as she struggles with the conflicts of her sexuality is as demanding as the battles she engages on the court. Only an actor whose performance abilities have developed to this level of maturity could play that ambivalence as effectively as Stone. There’s a certain irony that an athlete who in ‘73 was the highest paid female in her sport is played by the highest paid actress in the world. And both in their late twenties. When asked if she’s a feminist, King replies, “I’m a tennis player who happens to be a woman.”

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and filmed not in the crisp, blemish-free visuals of digital but on 35mm film, Battle of the Sexes actually looks like a seventies movie, with a great seventies soundtrack used in the background to further create an atmosphere of authenticity for the period. Hearing Elton John’s Rocket Man gives things a surprising perspective as you think back to where you were when the song was released. When Riggs is watching TV, it’s the Mary Tyler Moore Show he sees on screen, and when he flicks the channel, there’s Kojack. There are also real-life TV reality clips of the time when celebrities of the day are glimpsed, giving their opinions as to who will win the match. Actor Lloyd Bridges and tennis player Chris Evert lean towards Bobby Riggs, while Ricardo Montalban, he of the corinthian leather, takes it a step further by talking of the strong male muscle and its advantage, ensuring an automatic win for Riggs.

The famed sports journalist and broadcaster Howard Cosell is viewed in several archival clips along with some clever CGI manipulation, and it’s his commentary we hear throughout the match. While some of what he said sounded sexist (and heavily favoring the performance of Riggs) you could argue that the words of the mostly liberal minded announcer was merely a reflection of how men often spoke at the time, little realizing how they sounded. “She walks more like a male than a female,” he states, as if a more muscular strut was the sole domain of a man. Then he remarks on her attractiveness. “If she grew her hair and took off her glasses, she’d be ready for a Hollywood screen test.” You can’t help wandering with amusement how the Williams sisters would react if such comments were expressed by a broadcaster today.

But there’s no doubting the deliberate, intentional sexism of others. Bill Pullman is so authentic as the Executive Director of the Association of Tennis Professionals, Jack Kramer, that when, as a way of justifying paying women athletes eight times less than that of a male, he states that men are simply more exciting to watch than women, you almost believe it’s Pullman speaking and not his character.

Clearly, in the real world, at the time, the win and who won it was momentous – the symbolism was just as important, if not more important than the huge cash payout – but in terms of film and the telling of a story, wandering about the outcome and not wanting to know things in advance is irrelevant. It’s how the match originated and why that really counts; it’s the reaction from the press, the blatant chauvinism of the men within the sport and their sexist attitudes, the private lives of the two players and how it affected their decisions, and finally, the game itself and how the win was achieved. As King states after she turns down the initial offer, “It’s not a match, it’s a show.” But it became so much more. Battle of the Sexes is a genuine crowd-pleaser.

MPAA Rating: PG-13   Length: 121 Minutes   Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Kingsman: The Golden Circle – Film Review

Look back to the obnoxious 2015 original, Kingsman: The Secret Service, and try to recall the closing scene. After all the mayhem, the young secret agent is awarded the girl as if she was a gift for a job well done. She’s Princess Tilde of Sweden, and she’s on her hands and knees with her butt in the air, ready, willing, and waiting. It was meant to be a juvenile parody of a James Bond conclusion, except in Kingsman, it wasn’t funny. If anything, it was borderline offensive, and for the closing scene before the fade out, it left a nasty feeling as the end credits rolled.

Several reviewers remarked on it concluding that if there was any semblance of goodwill felt towards the film, then this ill-conceived, female objectification, final moment pretty much buried it. But writers Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn have not only ignored the criticism, they’ve flipped the bird to the critics. Throughout Kingsman: The Golden Circle, there’s not only repeated references and actions to orifice invasion, even musician Elton John in a lengthy guest appearance gets in on the anal sex joke by telling his rescuer with a cheeky, all-knowing grin that the agent not only gets free tickets to a concert, he also gets an after-show backdoor pass.

This new film, directed once again by co-writer Vaughn, is a cheat, and it cheats in such a way that everything that follows holds no sense of suspense or danger during anything that follows. Two characters plainly killed in front of us in the first film are resurrected for convenience in this second. Once this is done, you know that nothing to come will really mean anything. With the exception of the film’s lead, Eggsy (the mildly London Jafaican accented bruv, Taron Egerton) and his support, Merlin (Mark Strong, with the slightest hint of a Scottish brogue), every good guy character from the secret service Kingsman organization is killed in individual bomb attacks. Even the highest ranking official, Arthur (Michael Gambon) and the hugely likable Roxy (Sophie Cookson) are both blown to pieces during the story’s initial setup.

Dead? They should be. But in this Kingsman world, who knows? Considering how this sequel is quite happy to come up with nonsensical reasons and newly invented devices that resurrect a former Kingsman trainee who never made the grade, Charlie (Edward Holcroft) and Eggsy’s mentor who was previously shot at point-blank range in the head, Harry (Colin Firth), who’s to say that in the planned third outing already in development, Arthur and Roxy won’t somehow return?

The subtitle of the sequel, The Golden Circle, refers to a clumsy looking marking, painfully engraved on the bodies of the bad guys who work for murderous criminal mastermind and wealthy entrepreneur, Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), a woman who spends almost all of the film smiling and laughing, not so much with maniacal glee but with giddy delight at her villainy. Poppy is the world’s biggest drug dealer and distributor, and her plan is to infect all of her drugs her with a nasty formula that will eventually kill anyone who uses them. But there’s an antidote, and as long as the world succumbs to her demands, the fast-acting liquid will be delivered before a very painful death occurs.

Considering that with the exception of young Eggsy, in his stylish Saville Row suit, and Merlin, looking equally dapper, all the other Kingsman are now dead, the two agents join forces with their American secret service counterpart, Statesman, where due to its front as a whisky distillery, all of the Statesman agents have names reflecting drinks, including Tequila (Channing Tatum), Ginger Ale (Halle Berry), Jack Daniels (Pedro Pascal), and its boss, Champagne (Jeff Bridges).

Like the first outing, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is an f-bomb laden, over-the-top, absurdly violent action thriller that ups its ludicrous level several notches more. And at 140 minutes, it’s ridiculously long. But it could have been fun.

Those action sequences on a mountain side, the gun fights, the comical barroom brawl, and the car chases are certainly well choreographed and executed (if a little too obvious with the CGI during an opening taxi chase through the streets of London into Hyde Park). Plus, watching Elton John joining in with the climactic fight while a theatre marquee behind him reads The Bitch Is Back is funny. And here’s yet another film that seems intent on resurrecting the musical catalog of the sadly deceased John Denver. But it’s that constant, vindictive, underlining mean steak disguised as humor that messes things up. Like the newly enlisted bad guy named Angel (Tom Benedict Knight) who is ordered to drop another agent into a meat grinder, then forced to eat the hamburger made from the dead agent’s churned carcass, it all leaves a nasty taste.

And how is it that in this Kingsman world, the only TV station that anyone ever watches is Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. It’s on in every home, in the White House, and even in Scandinavia where the Swedish royal family have it broadcasting in their opulent royal living room. Evidently, no one in the world watches anything else. Considering that the film is distributed by Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox, and even the Chief of Staff in the White House (Emily Watson) is also called Fox, forget Julianne Moore’s villain; we all know who’s really going for global domination.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 140 Minutes    Overall rating: 3 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Brad’s Status – Film Review

The achievement of success in life means different things to different people. For some, it’s the happiness in what they’re doing. For others, it’s the journey, not the destination (which sounds like something a New-Age guru might say, but you get the idea). For Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) it’s having the things everyone else has that he doesn’t, but feels he should.

In the drama, Brad’s Status from writer/director/actor Mike White, Brad is going through a crisis of confidence. In the practically non-stop voice-over narration that dominates almost every scene, Brad states, “There are moments when you’re entire life’s worth is absurd, and you have nothing to show for it.”

In truth, Brad has a lot to show for it. Besides the nice house in Sacramento, the cars, a job in his own non-profit company that actually helps people, a musically talented, problem-free son about to go to college, he also has a wonderfully supportive wife (a delightfully engaging Jenna Fischer) who appears perfectly content as a school teacher. Yet Brad suffers from the sin of envy, and it’s really annoying. He constantly compares, particularly with the lives and achievements of his college buddies, and at forty-eight years-old, it’s become an obsession.

It feels like we’re running out of time,” Brad tells his wife. “We’ve plateaued.” Plus, he doesn’t do himself any favors when later tells himself, “The world hated me, and the feeling was mutual.”

Ben Stiller is good at this kind of character. We’ve seen it before in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and it’s the ability to make someone like Brad seem all too real that makes him all the more annoying. As most of us usually discover (if you’re open to self-reflection and a little personal analysis) what we imagine of others is usually wrong. In Brad’s case, when he reflects back on his college friends, four in particular, he sees each of them as high-achievers, living the life where the world isn’t a battlefield but a playground. It doesn’t help that one of his buddies, Nick (director White), is now a Hollywood producer whose home is on the current cover of Architecture Digest.

In his mind, his other friends are doing great, too. Craig (Michael Sheen) is an author, a constant TV guest, and a White House adviser. Billy (Jemaine Clement) sold his company at forty, made a fortune off the sale, and is now retired, living on a sun-drenched island, sharing his days with two, dread-dead gorgeous women who constantly clamor all over him. And Jason (Luke Wilson) is rich, has the perfect family, and jet-sets the world in his private plane. At least, that’s how Brad’s envious imagination perceives them. “It must be nice to always have the seas part for you,” Brad comments.

All of this is a backdrop to an East Coast trip that Brad is taking with his son, Troy (Austin Abrams). Even though we never see the proof, Brad is a potential musical prodigy – old videos of Troy as a pre-teen show him playing the piano – and there’s a chance he might get into Harvard. But even here, Brad’s constant interior whining works against him. Rather than be proud of what his son might achieve if accepted into Cambridge, Brad asks himself, “What if Troy’s wins made me feel even more a failure?”

The irony is that the most sense and real-life insight will come from a younger generation. When Brad meets one of Troy’s friends already studying at Harvard, Ananya (Shazi Raja) she is forced to listen to a full evening of Brad’s whines of personal failure, and she’s not impressed. Rather than compare achievements with peers, Ananya talks of those overseas from her cultural heritage, pointing out on a more global scale that there are people she knows who can’t always find two meals a day to eat. Brad, of course, can’t see that far, internally dismissing her words as if that sort of thing doesn’t really apply to his lot in life, when it clearly does; it applies to all of us. Even Brad’s seventeen year-old son has a better grasp. “Are you having some kind of nervous breakdown, or something?” Troy asks.

Billed as a drama/comedy, the film has its moments of mild humor. Much of those moments come from Brad who, always in danger of over-analyzing, says the wrong thing at the wrong time, getting himself deeper in trouble. It’s not quite the Ricky Gervais theater-of-embarrassment, but it’s always awkward. In Brad’s Status it’s the serious nature of feelings and events that take center stage, not the humor. When observing the attractive Ananya at that bar over an evening of drinks, his inner voice speaks of the grief he feels for the women he would never love, or the lives he would never live. That’s about the time when you want to throw something at the screen.

Just when you think there’s possibly more story to tell, the film ends all too abruptly. After a brief though effective pearl of wisdom from young Troy, there’s a suggestion of light on the horizon for Brad; maybe there’s finally an altering of perspective. But if that’s how the film wants us to think, it doesn’t convince.

If there’s one thing clear from White’s sharply observed script it’s that Brad is actually one of many among us, suffering from that same sense of career or personal failure, with a resentment of others who appear to be doing much better. At only forty-eight, his journey still has a long way to go, yet he’s unable to find or even recognize the happiness. As Ananya states, “Trust me. I promise you, you have enough.” But Brad can’t hear. In reality, this envy and sense of failure is too ingrained in his system. It would take a lot more than being moved to tears at a recital, or either a conversation with a young Harvard student or a passing remark of truth from his son to remove the negative commentary and habits of that internal voice. Ultimately, Brad’s real status is just sad.

MPAA rating: R    Length: 101 Minutes    Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Kiss – Theatre Review: Stray Cat Theatre, Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe

There’s an unusual dilemma that both audiences and reviewers are faced with at the conclusion of Stray Cat Theatre’s new season opener for 2017-18, Kiss by Guillermo Calderón.  What can you say about a play where almost anything mentioned becomes a plot-spoiler? And if that’s the case, which it is, how do you explore its successes and failures as a play, or its achievements as a regional production without giving things away?

The answer, of course, is you don’t. You can’t. You can talk of the setup and its themes, and you can break off into discussions regarding whether we truly have the capacity to understand or see the culture of another without having personally experienced it. But to reveal what happens in each of the three very different acts, and to address how the second changes everything you thought you saw in the first is to do everyone who has yet to attend director Ron May’s uncomfortable thought-provoker a genuine disservice.

With a running time of approximately 80 minutes without intermission, there’s a moment of adjustment required for Kiss once the four initial characters involved enter Aaron Sheckler’s tidy though sterile living-room set design. For some, that moment may be lengthy. For others, there may never be a full adjustment, particularly if the thought that what you’re watching isn’t necessarily a tongue-in-cheek introduction but the style of the whole 80 minutes.

Here’s what can be said, and it should help make sense of that first act. In Syria, as with a large section of countries of the Middle East and across North Africa, one of the most popular and celebrated forms of television entertainment is the Mosalsalat, a name given to a series of Arabic television soap-operas, presented in a style less than that of an American daytime soap, such as The Guiding Light or As The World Turns, but more in the overly dramatic, limited-run serial drama of a telenovela, or telenova, as originally produced in Latin America. And if you still can’t quite picture the form, think of SNL’s parody, The Californians.

When those four characters, Bana (Samantha Hanna), Youssif (Evan Ohbayashi), Hadeel (Neda Tavassoli), and Ahmed (Connor Wanless) roam around the stage, professing their love, their jealousies, and their desires for each other, all presented in a comical, overly melodramatic and intentionally hammy form, they’re in a Mosalsalat, underlined by Peter Bish’s well-timed stabs of music and sound effects.

When there’s nothing more than a knock at the door, a character will turn to the audience with a look of shock, backed by a stab of music over the speakers used in old time thirties and forties American radio dramas, when the name of the killer was finally revealed. If a character confesses his love and proposes, the sound of strings rise; when he’s rejected, those strings bottom out. Those audio effects are not only essential, they’re like an omnipresent fifth character, supporting the action and facial expressions of actors in performance.

The first off-stage sound we hear is that of a toilet flushing, which, for whatever reason, seems automatically funny, especially when it’s proceeded by what sounds like an air-freshener in use, followed by a running joke of characters entering the living room and remarking on the smell. What this has to do with anything, or where it fits into the plot, won’t make sense, but you’ll laugh, all the same.  And you’ll get it later.

It’s not easy for an actor to appear intentionally awful and to keep it up for a lengthy period, but what may sound like a back-handed compliment is purposely meant; it is awful, and they do it well.

But then everything alters in a way you won’t expect, and it’s not only a game-changer, you’ll shift uncomfortably in your seat, at a complete loss, wondering where things might be heading once actors Hayla Stewart and Gina Grey are suddenly introduced. It’s not simply a case of having the rug pulled from under you, it’s as if that rug was covering a massive black hole, and once pulled, down you go, lost in your own madly careening thoughts of what is really going on as you discover why the play within the play was set in a living room, and what the real definition of the play’s title actually means.

That adage that you can never really know a person, even those closest to you, unless you step out of your own shoes and try to see things from their perspective, is not only true, it’s essential in understanding what message Kiss is trying to tell. As with the tag line you’ll see online accompanying Stray Cat’s promotion of Guillermo Calderón’s play, the Mosalsalat in the opening act is truly lost in translation, but to accuse those actors and it’s translator of ignorantly misinterpreting the culture of another is way too easy an accusation. The answer as to whether we can truly understand the inner workings and design of another culture, as if with some study we can be part of that culture ourselves, is, no. Not unless you’re fully ingrained, having lived as a native for years, and even then your education may not be complete.

As an immigrant from across the pond who grew up on American films, theatre, and music, and was educated on American literature, it wasn’t until actually immigrating and becoming immersed in a day-to-day stateside culture that anything resembling a true understanding of the American mind-set and its cultural habits came to be. And even then, as someone who spoke the same language, it took at least a further ten years to fully comprehend why an American thinks and believes what he or she does. And even now, some thirty-five years later, that education is hardly complete. To assume that any of us can fully understand a foreign speaking culture with a religious or habitual mind-set so different in so many ways from our own can’t be done. If author Calderon’s Kiss is telling us anything, that’s the message. But it’s essential we go all out and try, or mistakes, like the play’s opening act, will be always made, followed by disasters of unimaginable proportions, and an ignorance that can eventually do nothing but harm.

Playwright Calderón has said that he doesn’t think about entertainment when he writes; he thinks how to create an argument. In this, with Kiss, he has clearly succeeded, as, indeed, has Ron May’s production, one that, though discomfiting, once again sticks firmly to SCT’s desire to always present a provocative theatrical experience. The opening act feels too long, and the final act may bemuse somewhat, but the theme essential to the play’s understanding, which hits with the power of a deadly lightning bolt in the middle act, comes across both loud and clear, and is necessary. If western minds are ever to learn how to walk a mile in the shoes of someone else and begin to understand what it is to alter a perspective and comprehend cultural differences, then here’s where you start, with Kiss at Stray Cat Theatre.

Kiss performs at Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe until September 30

Pictures courtesy of John Groseclose

Posted in Theatre

mother! – Film Review

In director Darren Aronofsky’s psychological horror/drama, mother! (lower caps stylishly intentional), the first thing you’ll see is a woman’s face on fire.

The skin is peeling back from the intense heat, yet instead of writhing in the agony that would come with every nerve in your system, ablaze with unimaginable pain, she stares directly at the camera. A single tear falls from her right eye. Clearly from the offset, the image you’re watching has nothing to do with reality, and once that tone of horrific fantasy is quickly established, you should realize that everything that follows will have nothing to do with the real world, either.

The setting is a large, remote country home, seemingly planted in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by unkempt grass. Beyond that, trees; the film never ventures further. A young, newly married wife, credited as simply Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) is engaged in a long-term project of fixing up the house. As with the Phoenix, she’s making it rise from the ashes of a fire, presumably the one we saw in that opening shot.

Mother’s husband, credited as Him (Javier Bardem), is a writer, a poet, though he appears to have writer’s block and is struggling to find the inspiration that will eventually force him to put pen to paper. Instead, the husband preoccupies himself with other things in the house, doing anything he can to pass the time other than being creative.

At this point, even before the chaotic action that is about to be unleashed within the walls of this beautiful home occur, you can’t help but wonder what everything means, and what or who do the characters represent. It’s a film loaded with questions that need to be asked. When mother places her hands against the walls of a room in need of repair, she feels, then listens. Through her fingertips she can feel the pulse of a life; she hears the beat of a heart, and already you sense that the house is never meant to be considered a home in any literal sense; it’s Mother’s whole world, there is nothing beyond it, and like our universe, it’s alive. Plus, when Mother feels pain or an ache within her body, the house itself seems to be affected with unnatural creaks and groans.

But if the house is the world, and Mother is perhaps a symbol of a nurturing Mother Earth, rebuilding her home with love and a passion to restore it once again to its former glory, who exactly is Him? Those clues come early, confirmed by things said and done later. He’s a considerably older man, one who has earlier basked in the glory of an artist’s fame and enjoyed the love that his followers had previously heaped upon him as though he was a deity, but at this point it appears that Mother Earth is really the one doing all the work.

Yet, before anyone thinks that plot points are already being given away, there is nothing to suggest that what is concluded above is necessarily correct. Everything in mother! is open to interpretation, and how you see things may be entirely different, making the themes and symbols of the film and your viewing experience separate from the person sitting next to you.

Mother and Him are soon set upon by unexpected visitors, encouraged to enter the house and remain indefinitely by Him but unwelcome by Mother. Michelle Pfeiffer is credited as Woman while Ed Harris is billed as simply Man. And if those allusions to Genesis of a couple entering Mother’s Garden of Eden aren’t clear, then the sudden arrival of Domhall Gleeson as Oldest Son and his real-life brother, Brian Gleeson as Younger Brother, plus the violent whirlwind events of what Oldest Son does to Younger Brother, will make it so. Like Eve and that certain tree in the middle of Eden, Pfeiffer’s Woman is told not to go in to the private writing room of Him, but she does, and so does Man, and disaster follows.

Shot in 16mm, giving the widescreen image an effective, filmic grainy look, all the events of mother! are seen entirely from Mother’s point of view. Either the camera is focused in hand-held, even occasionally suffocating close-ups of Jennifer Lawrence as she moves around the rooms and the hallways, or they’re over the shoulder shots. If not fully seen on screen, her presence is felt in every frame. As with almost every performance this young actor embarks upon, she’s fully committed, and she’s excellent. Thus, whatever emotions Mother feels as her world is invaded, at first by Harris’ Man and Pfeiffer’s Woman, then eventually by throngs of people from every walk of life, then we are lead to feel the same.

Those feelings incorporate everything from basic annoyance, then frustration, to fear, infuriation, repulsion, and eventually extreme anger. Knowing that every negative feeling you can imagine was always the director’s intent, the fury you feel turns not just towards the events that unfold in the final act, incorporating a home invasion with moments of startling violence and ugliness beyond anything you would want to see, but to the film itself.

With symbolism representing nothing that really underlines any kind of hope in any way for the human condition, director Aronofsky has made something quite objectionable. Like the character of Him that suddenly finds inspiration to finally write, Aronofsky has said that the idea of the film came to him quickly. He wrote it in a rushed five days. The end result is a surface level telling of all the madness in the world tearing the house, and Mother Earth, apart, yet it has no reason to be. There’s nothing underneath with lessons of any kind to be learned. Once it’s done and the end credits roll, backed by a haunted version of the Skeeter Davis sixties pop hit The End of the World, the real question you should really be asking is why is this a story you would ever want to tell?

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 115 Minutes   Overall Rating: 3 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Gypsy – Theatre Review: Theater Works, Peoria

With the change of summer into fall almost upon us, this weekend saw the opening production from the new MasterWorks Season 2017-18 at Theater Works in Peoria. Gypsy began on the large though surprisingly intimate Theater Works main stage just as it did back in 1959, with the glorious blast of trumpets bouncing off the walls of a packed house from the wonderfully old-fashioned Overture, heralding the arrival of what is often considered to be the greatest of all Broadway musicals.

Though not all of those original ‘59 reviews were positive, the overwhelming love and affection that New York audiences felt for its powerhouse leading lady, Ethel Merman, ensured an honor of historic Broadway importance that even now continues to build. Casting Rosalind Russell over Merman in the 1962 film version has to be among the dumbest decisions ever to have come out of Hollywood.

As for the show’s reputation as being the greatest, that’s something that never came about until 1973. American reviewers who flew overseas to the opening of the London premiere with Angela Lansbury gushed at some of the production changes made from the ‘59 original, including the addition of the lighted catwalk that brings Rose out into the audience, something that never occurred with Merman (but is nicely included in this Theater Works production). The quotes you usually read about the musical’s greatness from those famous New York critics, such as Clive Barnes and Frank Rich, are from what they saw in the London production. Lansbury brought that same production back to tour America, where it finally opened as a revival on Broadway in ‘74, thus finally solidifying that reputation of greatness that is regularly repeated today.

And great it is. But while this new Rusty Ferracane directed production in Peoria had its small share of technical flaws during the opening weekend Sunday matinee performance, the overall impression you’re left with as you leave the theatre is that Theater Works has truly delivered. And more than anything, it’s the cast that makes it so.

It may be fifty-eight years since the show first appeared, but like the magnificent sound of that overture, there’s a timeless quality to Gypsy that can never grow old. If there’s one thing Broadway loves it’s a story about itself, and so do theatre-goers. Tales of showbiz have always been a leading factor in musicals, and Gypsy manages to incorporate almost all of them, particularly because much of what you see is true. Certainly, events witnessed in the telling of Gypsy never happened in quite the way the show presents, but the characters are real, and the events as written in the script from Arthur Laurents represent a reality that came from the 1957 memoir of the real Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque entertainer; the woman who originally put the tease in striptease when her strap accidentally slipped off her shoulder and drove the mostly male audience wild; a move she continued to repeat and perfect as her burlesque theatre reputation grew.

The show may be called Gypsy, but the focus is really on Rose, the brazenly self-deluded mother of all show biz mothers. As played by veteran Kelli James, whose professional background is well documented in the Theater Works playbill, the complex nature of Rose’s monstrous actions are high-lighted in ways that don’t always fully emerge in a typical regional production.

For many past mammas, there tends to be a one-note, in-your-face Merman approach; aim high and keep hitting. While the character has a drive and a delusional determination that will never quit – get out of her way or she’ll run you down – there are lows among the many highs in James’ performance that brings out a surprising sense of empathy for what she’s doing to herself. She is a monster – her children are pushed into a life they don’t always want; there’s no education, and Rose continually lied about their age to keep a mediocre vaudeville act on the road simply because it was the life mamma wanted for herself – but James brings moments to the insufferable character where you actually feel sorry for her, and that’s a considerable achievement. Whether it’s due to James bringing her own interpretation to the table or a case of an actor responding well to Ferracane’s emotive direction and fleshing out exactly what he wanted is difficult to say, but the end result is quite outstanding, and both deserve the applause.

Gypsy may have a large cast, and those actors busily doubling in various roles throughout are all effective (especially the three ladies of You Gotta Get A Gimmick, Tracy Burns, Jacqui Notorio, and hilarious scene-stealer Tina Khalil and her trumpet) but it’s really an intimate musical with three leads and one vital support.

Naturally, the spotlight falls on Rose – the grandstanding nature of the character all but ensures the focus – but there’s also the much put upon father figure to the girls, Herbie (Scott Hyder who should be congratulated for delivering a sympathetic performance that feels natural, making Herbie seem all too real), Louise, the title character Gypsy (Amanda Glenn, with perhaps the most difficult role considering she has to convincingly downplay any sense of real theatrical talent throughout most of the show) and the support of Louise’s sister, June (the perpetually goldilocked Kathlynn Rodin, who by mere appearance convincingly illustrates how, as a young woman, had she had not bolted from her clinging mother’s grasp before intermission, would have eventually grown from Baby June into a frightening Baby Jane). Special mention also to Allie Angus and Olivia La Porte, both highly effective in their brief appearances as the younger versions of June and Louise.

With music by Jules Styne and those superb lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Gypsy was always recognized for its outstanding score consisting of numbers that have now become standards, including Everything’s Coming Up Roses, Let Me Entertain You, Together (Wherever We Go) and the emotionally climactic Rose’s Turn, but the standouts are Rose’s opener Some People, which is simply a great theatrical song, and the tuneful lament of Louise and June, If Momma Was Married, sung as a waltz with wonderful harmonies.

There’s power in that final number, Rose’s Turn, when Rose sings to an imagined audience seen only in her crazed mind, seated around the catwalk, and it’s a terrific moment brought to life by James’ passionate portrayal. But the true heart of what Gypsy is really about comes just before the intermission.

After the traveling act has all but grounded, and Louise may finally have a chance to settle and go to school where she should be, Rose selfishly and recklessly conceives of a new idea for an act. She reveals it with a feverish Everything’s Coming Up Roses. While an audience’s attention may center on James’ knockout rendition, the real drama is occurring behind her. As Rose continues to sing, and brings the house down in the process, Louise runs into Herbie’s arms for support. All they can do is look on in shock, realizing that Rose is never going to let their nightmare end. That’s where you should look, behind Rose. The moment is horrifying, but when it’s done well, it’s great theatre, and in this Theater Works production, it’s done really well.

It has to be noted that certain sound and mic issues plagued much of the first half during the Sunday matinee performance, continued into the second, and extended beyond simply cracks, sound drops, or the picking up of rustling of clothing. There was often the imbalance of volume between characters where one character might sound natural while the other in the same scene sounded far too amplified. Technical aspects in a live performance can admittedly be a frustrating issue, and a difficult job for the technician to overcome while a performance is in motion, but noises as distracting as these need to be addressed before another performance, which I’m confidant will be the case.

Pictures courtesy of John Groseclose and Josiah Duka

Gypsy runs at Theater Works in Peoria until September 24

Posted in Theatre