The Death of Stalin – Film Review

Director and writer Armando Ianucci’s politcal comic satire, The Death of Stalin, is probably more noteworthy for those who will not be able see the film than those who will. US audiences are limited at best, and if filmgoers in smaller markets have an interest, it’s more than likely they won’t find a theatre at the multiplex showing it; they’ll have to wait for the DVD, or stream the film once it becomes available to subscribers. But at least, in one format or another, they’ll eventually have the chance to judge things for themselves. Not so in Russia or some of its former Soviet Union member countries.

When seen at private screenings, the head of the Russian Great Fatherland Party considered the British comedy as an unfriendly act by the “British Intellectual class.” Two days before its official release, the film was withdrawn for public showing. For the record, a few theatres actually went ahead and screened the film, claiming they were unaware of a ban. A lawsuit by Russia’s culture ministry filed a lawsuit against them. Perhaps a curiosity you never had before is now piqued. If so, read on. If not, The Death of Stalin is not for you.

Despite the satirical approach, the film depicts real events with a screenplay based on a French graphic novel of the same name. In Moscow, 1953, dictator Joseph Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) was paralyzed by a cerebral hemorrhage. He suffered a massive stroke and died days later. What follows is the behind-the-scenes power struggle between the high-ranking members of the Soviet security and secret police, plus Moscow’s associate leading rulers, all vying for power, or at the very least, making sure their backsides are covered.

You have a nice long sleep, ol’ man,” whispers the head of the security forces, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) to the comatose Stalin, adding, “So many changes to come.”

Like the Keystone Cops bumping into each other with every move, the bumbling members of the Central Committee discuss, argue, and take whatever action they deem necessary to keep the country moving, including saving their own skins. Once Stalin finally dies, the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) execute witnesses while guiding Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) to take leadership, believing he could be used as a puppet in order to bring about the kind of changes the NKVD desires.

Perhaps the film’s major problem is having audiences know who all of these real-life characters are. Their personal conflicts as they attempt to either grab power or simply keep themselves alive is initially funny, but having to constantly remind yourself who’s who, and trying to work out exactly what their personal motives are, is taxing; you’re too busy trying to make sense of things.

The humor comes in the absurdity of what the committee members are trying to achieve and how they go about it. Monty Python’s Michael Palin plays Vyacheslav Molotov, once a protege of Stalin and now Foreign Minister. At the beginning of the film, he doesn’t know it, but he’s on one of Stalin’s enemy lists and will soon be executed. Once Stalin dies, the NKVD makes its own enemies list, saving Molotov’s life, yet when Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) tries to enlist Molotov’s support for the changes to come, Molotov resists. As a true believer in Stalinism (despite being aware that the dictator was about to have him disappear), the Foreign Minister opposes any changes within the party. It’s only when his wife is released from internal exile, sent there for treason by the secret police, that the minister changes his mind, though as portrayed in the film, he’s not altogether comfortable with her freedom.

There’s an improvisational style to the f-bomb laden film, much of which comes about by director Iannucci allowing the actors to speak in their English regional dialects rather than having them imitate comic Russian ones. Besides Tambor and Buscemi’s American accents, having Stalin bark orders in London’s East End cockney simply sounds funny.

Best of all, however, is Jason Issacs, perhaps more popularly known as the villainous Malfoy in the Harry Potter films. It’s practically an hour into the movie until Isaacs makes his entrance as Soviet Red Army officer, Field Marshall Georgy Zhukov, but when he does, he bursts through the doors and into the scene with the power of a whirling cyclone, injecting a fresh sense of energy into the proceedings just at the moment when the sagging and somewhat confusing narrative needs it the most. Though the actor’s background is Liverpool, Issacs delivers Zhukov’s dialog with the thick, unrelenting accent of Yorkshire, and it’s hilarious. Even British audiences, once they’ve stopped laughing, will need a moment or two of adjustment to the sound. If only he had burst through those doors sooner.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 107 Minutes    Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The King and I – Theatre Review: National Touring Production, ASU Gammage in Tempe

As most theatergoers know, cast members who begin a national tour rarely remain throughout its duration, particularly if the tour continues traveling around the country, going from city to city for a couple of years. It’s like a carousel that never stops turning, with actors climbing off while others climb on to take their turn on the ride.

This current tour began life in 2016 once the much heralded Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts production on Broadway closed. Now, seventeen months later, the resplendent Broadway revival, it’s fourth, has arrived at ASU Gammage in Tempe. What makes things particularly exciting for valley audiences at last evening’s March 20 opening night performance was this: it was the first time actor Elena Shaddow took to the stage as the English schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens. Her leading role in the tour has officially begun, and it started in Tempe. Looking and sounding practically perfect, with her red hair and a clipped English accent, Shaddow couldn’t help but evoke a pleasing memory of how Deborah Kerr appeared in the 1956 film, only better; unlike the famous Hollywood actress whose songs were dubbed by Marni Nixon, the clarity of Shaddow’s voice is all hers, and it’s a pleasure to hear.

Director Bartlett Sher’s production differs from earlier presentations in several ways, beginning with Michael Yeargan’s overall design and epic looking scale. Usually, at the conclusion of the overture, we’re on the deck of the small vessel ferrying Anna and her young son (Rhyees Stump) from Singapore to Bangkok. But here, we don’t simply see the ship’s deck; once the curtain rises, against a glowing red background of a striking Siamese sunset, the whole vessel appears to float on stage in its entirety, ready to dock in Bangkok’s harbor, a breathtaking theatrical sight that elicited an immediate round of opening night applause.

Plus, in addition to the inventive transitions from scene to scene, the production finally cleans up one of the musical’s glaring narrative jumps. As usually presented, the king (Jose Llana) is at one moment perfectly healthy, the next, he’s abruptly on a deathbed, with little information in between to let us know what has happened and why. Under Sher’s direction, things are made considerably clearer. There’s a moment when the king displays frustration and anger. He’s just about to lash the runaway servant Tuptim (Q Lim), but with Anna watching, he can’t go through with it. With a guttural cry of anguish, he throws the whip to the ground. But just at that moment, he reaches for his heart and falters, practically falling to the ground. It’s a simple piece of new direction, but it changes everything. How things follow from that near fatal collapse feel suddenly natural.

However, there are issues. The show has always felt overlong, while the few dramatic conflicts are surprisingly minor for a production so huge. This may account for an energy that dips in the middle of the first act. Plus, opening night mic issues interfered with the clarity of sound, though, admittedly, technical snafus, such as the occasional loss of dialog, should be easily resolved throughout its ASU Gammage presentation. More importantly, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

As with any performer cast as the king, Jose Llana has the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of an actor whose very name is synonymous with The King and I. When originally cast in 1951, the then TV director Yul Brynner was unknown – his name appeared in small letters below the show’s title while Gertrude Lawrence as Anna had her name blasted in large print above – but over the years, things changed, and you could rarely think of the King of Siam without thinking of Brynner. Llana, who played the king in the original Lincoln Center production on Broadway, has successfully broke the mold and made the character his own. With a different inflection of voice and a new, animated style of body movements, Llana’s king establishes both authority and vulnerability as a man torn between old traditions and a desire to be viewed as progressive and adaptable in a new, ever-changing world.

But while there is splendor in the visual design, and in the performances of both Shaddow and Llana whose chemistry works well, it’s the Rodgers and Hammerstein score that remains nothing short of magnificent. Interestingly, when the show was in its development, neither Gertrude Lawrence nor Yul Brynner were considered great singers. As actors they could sell their songs, but their singing range was considerably limited. As a consequence, you’ll notice that all of Anna’s songs, such as I Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting To Know You, even Shall We Dance, are pleasant, mid-range, practically sing-along numbers, specifically designed for Gertrude Lawrence’s moderate style, while the king’s major song, A Puzzlement, is sung in character complete with his heavy, conversational accent.

The big numbers, those lyrical, emotional showstoppers where the vocals soar with spine-tingling power, belong to supporting characters, such as Joan Almedilla’s Lady Thiang with the beautifully emotional Something Wonderful, and Tuptim and her secret lover, Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao) with We Kiss in a Shadow and the more potent I Have Dreamed. It’s here where both their voices and the songs lift to muscular heights.

The King and I continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until Sunday, March 25

Pictures Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

Posted in Theatre

Tomb Raider – Film Review

Like the 2013 video game of the same name, director Roar Uthaug’s new action thriller Tomb Raider ignores everything that happened before and starts from the beginning. It’s a reboot, an origin adventure that, by all accounts, is relatively close to the setup of the popular game. That’s great news for gamers who look for big screen authenticity from their source material; less so for moviegoers who couldn’t care less about playing games but at the very least would like a little logic and a smattering of common sense in their storytelling.

It doesn’t start well. Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) has ignored her absent father’s wish of getting an education. Instead she works as a London courier, cycling around the city. For the reckless fun of it, she engages in a bike race fox hunt throughout the busy London streets.

A furry fake fox tail is attached to the back of her bike, while a punctured can of paint hangs from the side, and she’s off, chased by all the other cycling couriers, dangerously dodging and weaving in and around the cars, the buses, and the London taxis, leaving a trail of unwanted paint all over the roads. Naturally, it doesn’t end well. She crashes onto the hood a police car, the paint splashing over its body, and she’s arrested while her fellow courier-chasers quickly disappear into the traffic at the sight of the cops. Once bail is posted by her father’s business partner, Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas) the incident is never mentioned again, existing only for two reasons; 1) to show how carelessly rash the girl can be, and 2) the need to get some fast-paced, heavily edited action going as soon as possible. Considering the damage that could have occurred, this preposterous introduction doesn’t exactly warm you to the new Lara, nor to the tone of the film.

Lara’s father (Dominic West) has been missing for seven years. This puts Lara in a troublesome bind. She doesn’t want to acknowledge that Lord Croft is actually dead, but if she doesn’t sign the inheritance papers, the whole estate will have to be sold off. Time is ticking and forms need to be signed. Just as she’s about to put pen to paper, Lara discovers a key to her father’s office. She quickly runs out of the sizeable Croft Holdings city headquarters. Instead of signing legal documents, she solves a few puzzles, presses a couple of buttons, finds her dad’s secret notebook, watches a video message he’s left for her, and embarks on a journey across the world, intending to find her father. It’s all to do with a secret island off the coast of Japan where dad was looking to find a mythical queen, buried in a tomb. Whoever finds the tomb and opens it is said to inherit a power of life and death. It’s an elaborate retread of Raiders of the Lost Ark with puzzles.

On the positive side, Tomb Raider is considerably better than the previous films. Despite their popularity, plus the casting of Angelina Jolie, those two earlier adventures felt little more than vacuous contrivances; lots of noise, bluster and well choreographed action sequences, but void of substance, and occasionally incoherent. They both felt like the result of a factory lineup, a big screen, assembled widget. Director Uthaug is going for a more grounded approach, as though Lara is truly part of the real world, and that’s definitely a good thing. There are times during the many action sequences where it looks as though she really may not make it. The sequence where she’s hanging from the wing of a rusty old plane over a massive waterfall drop is particularly effective.

But Tomb Raider has its issues. Alicia Vikander is a good actor; make that, a great one. She was outstanding as Queen Mathilde in 2012’s drama A Royal Affair, creepy as the robot Ava in 2015’s Ex Machina, and she increased the fun factor as Gaby in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. And while she may sound like a good choice to follow in Jolie’s footsteps as the intelligent and athletic archaeologist, raiding ancient tombs while being handy with all kinds of weaponry, particularly the bow and arrow, she never fully convinces as someone who could do the things that Lara does.

Much publicity has been made of how after a lot of exercise and weight lifting, Vikander added 14 pounds to her body weight in order to buff-up, but a further 28 with broader looking shoulders might have worked better. Despite the training, she remains small-boned and slight looking, and rarely appears as though she could ever fight the bad guys with the kind of real strength the scenes require.

It’s all a fantasy, sure, and the less critical may go with the flow while intentionally ignoring the obvious in order to enjoy things. But when grappling with the villainous Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), the slightness of Vikander’s lean, toned arms never look as though she could really hold him in any kind of neck-hold and keep him there. In 2012’s thriller Haywire, casting mixed martial arts fighter, Gina Carano as the lead was perhaps the first time in a film where a female action hero actually looked as though she could do the kind of damage the character does. True, she was never a great actor, but at least her appearance was convincing. Vikander may look like the Lara Craft of the redesigned video game, and maybe that’s exactly how the gamers want their heroine to appear, but to expect the rest of us to buy someone who looks so lean and diminutive to be kicking butt and winning really is a fantasy.

There’s also the cliff-side climbing sequence on that Japanese island when Lara is looking for a cave entrance. During the night, there’s an exhaustive climb with a sheer drop required for her to get up there to the top. Yet in the morning, she leaves that entrance for a stretch and to face the morning sun and appears to be squatting by the beach. Evidently, that cave entrance somehow lowered itself to almost ground level during the night.

And finally, the puzzles, the essence of the video game. In order to enter the tomb of the deadly mythical queen, Lara turns a sequence of oversized dials that, when solved, removes the protective seal blocking the entrance. Once that entrance is opened and the pieces of the seal crumble, everyone can enter, only to be faced with another series of deadly traps in all the passages. But, as we soon discover, those deadly traps were never intended to keep explorers out, they were built to keep people in.

But here’s the problem. The power of that buried ancient queen is supposed to be so deadly, the intention of the designers behind those complicated traps was always to protect the world from the secret, and for the tomb never to be found. Well, if that’s the case, why did they design a puzzle to be solved at the tomb’s entrance in the first place? Why didn’t those ancient engineers simply plug the whole thing up and make the tomb permanently impenetrable? At the very least, that would have given Lara a bigger and more challenging conflict to solve. The answer, of course, is if they did make it impenetrable, there wouldn’t be a film.

MPAA Rating: PG-13    Length: 118 Minutes   Overall rating: 5 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

7 Days in Entebbe – Film Review

It’s possible that your first reaction when hearing there was a new film telling the story of Operation Entebbe was, really? Followed by, why? There were already 3 movies that covered the real-life story of the 1976 counter-terrorist-hostage-rescue operation, so, why another?

True, 2 of the previous films weren’t particularly good. Though released theatrically overseas, both Victory at Entebbe (1976) and Raid on Entebbe (1977) were TV movies. Worse, Victory at Entebbe was shot on videotape then transferred to film. It may have had an all-star cast, including Elizabeth Taylor and Kirk Douglas, but its dull, TV soap-opera look made a plodding script appear even worse. Raid on Entebbe, with Charles Bronson and Peter Finch in his final film, was a considerable improvement. For one thing, it was shot on film (it won an Emmy for cinematography), plus the tension and its buildup to the actual rescue were surprisingly effective. But when viewed theatrically, it suffered from the simple fact that it still looked like a television movie.

The third film, Operation Thunderbolt (1977), was an Israeli production made because of how inaccurate the previous two films were considered to be. Though enjoyed by Israeli audiences, most others around the world have never seen the film. In 1978, it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film.

Much of what occurred in 1976, when two Palestinian and two German terrorists hijacked Air France Flight 139 on its way from Tel Aviv to Paris, was classified. The world read of the audacious raid and subsequent rescue of the plane’s hostages, but many of the details were missing. Then in 2016, a book with lengthy title of Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission History by Saul David was published. It meticulously recreated the nail-biting events of those seven days, unveiling much that was once unknown, filling the voids with declassified intel. With all this new information now available, a retelling was inevitable. Entebbe, retitled here in the US as 7 Days in Entebbe, is a British production that recreates the whole affair, and it’s mind-numbingly dull.

Things begin well. Told in chapters from Day One to Day Seven, the film wastes little time in establishing the hijack. German terrorists (Rosamund Pike and Daniel Bruhl) board Flight 139 during a stopover in Athens, Greece. Along with two Palestinian gunmen, the hijackers take control, demanding a ransom of $5 million dollars for the plane and the release of 53 Palestinian militants. Naturally, Israel repeats its stance of never negotiating with terrorists. So far, so good.

After refueling in Benghazi, the plane was then diverted to an abandoned section of Entebbe airport in Uganda, where it remained. The country’s leader, the monstrous dictator Idi Amin Dada (Nonso Anozie) even greets the hostages with smiles and open arms. “You’re in good hands,” he assures them as the kidnapped passengers, most of whom are from Israel, are herded into a disused part of the airport, away from the bustling main section.

But it’s not long before the film’s pacing problems emerge. The debates among the members of the Israeli government are initially compelling. Watching Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) spar with Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) is particularly insightful. “You want to invade Uganda?” asks the PM. “We give it back when we leave,” Peres responds. But what you think should be a tension-filled series of events, ultimately leading day by day to a nerve-racking, explosive, edge-of-your-seat conclusion, turns into a plod.

Perhaps part of the problem is seeing the majority of the story told through the participation of the two German terrorists. They may consider themselves Freedom Fighters, yet their methods of hijacking, kidnapping, and their threatening behavior, are terrorist acts. During those 7 days as events continue, both appear to question their role in the hijacking and where their sympathies lie. When the Jewish passengers are separated from the others, Bruhl’s character, Wilifried Bose, declares to his Palestinian cohorts, “I didn’t agree to this. I’m not a Nazi.”

Plus, Rosamund Pike’s Brigitte Kuhlmann carries a practically unreadable blank stare throughout the entire film. A scene where she wanders across the airport at night in a daze and enters the busy terminal on the other side is virtually unexplainable. She calls a friend long-distance on a payphone and leaves a lengthy message, except that the phone is out of order. Yet even when told the receiver isn’t working, she completes the message. It’s as if an extra from The Walking Dead had wandered on the set and brought the film to a grinding halt.

One important detail that was declassified since the making of the seventies movies was the outcome to the fate of Israeli-British passenger Dora Bloch. As played by Sylvia Sydney in Raid on Entebbe, Dora was taken ill and moved to a hospital in Kampala before the rescue operation. At the end credits, we learned that an official from the British Consulate visited Dora in the hospital and found that she was recovering from her illness. But when he returned to visit her again, her bed was empty. She simply vanished. We now know that her body was later discovered buried in a sugar plantation near Uganda’s capital. Idi Ami, furious and humiliated that all the passengers were rescued from right under his nose, ordered her execution. It’s a sad yet fascinating footnote to what was an unsolved part of the story.  7 Days in Entebbe doesn’t even mention it, and to its shame, Dora Bloch’s character is a virtual no show in the film.

But worst of all is the film’s constant nod to the rehearsals back in Israel of a performance piece by the Batsheva Dance Company. One of the dancers is the girlfriend to an Israeli commando on the mission to rescue the passengers in Entebbe, yet this hardly justifies the dance company’s inclusion and the continual juxtaposition between the tension building rescue operation and the experimental stage . When the dance is presented to a live audience, the performance takes place during the actual rescue. The camera appears to linger longer on the dancers than it does on the rescue. Maybe it was intended as a moment of artful inspiration, comparing the action of the dancers to the audacious operation, giving everything a thoughtful, contrasting effect. It’s the worst payoff to any thriller seen in years. I guarantee, no matter what director Jose Padhilla was intending, this is not what an audience is looking for in a disaster crime thriller. They’re looking for the unflagging excitement of a Paul Greengrass movie where the story is told in action; instead, they’re watching grass grow.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13  Length:  106 Minutes    Overall Rating: 2 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Gidion’s Knot – Theatre Review: TCA Theatre and Stray Cat Theatre, Tempe

There’s nothing easy for an elementary school teacher when teaching 5th grade. For the students, it’s a time of transition. They roll their eyes when told to do something; they’re not always interested in explaining things, particularly when they’re not entirely sure why they think what they think; and they pick sides as they group together in cliques while circling around those they don’t particularly like. After teaching this age-group for a number of years, it’s not unusual for a teacher to request a transfer to a younger level.

In playwright Johnna Adams’ wrenching classroom drama, Gidion’s Knot, as presented in a co-production at Tempe Center for the Arts between TCA Theatre and Stray Cat Theatre, Heather Clark (Alison Campbell) has been a teacher for just two years. She wasn’t always a teacher. For a while she pursued a career in advertising, but changed direction and went for a teacher’s degree. Now she teaches a classroom full of 5th graders at a public school in a Chicago suburb. After the events that are about to unfold, even though it’s only been a couple of years at the 5th grade level, it would not be a surprise if Miss Clark requested a move anytime soon.

4th grade isn’t necessarily easier; there will always be challenges, but they’re challenges of a different nature. A teacher can see the kind of character a child is beginning to form, due either to peer pressure or the support or conflicts of home life. By the end of the school year, there’s a lot for the 4th grade teacher to tell the 5th grade educator. But no teacher would want to be faced with the kind of challenge Heather Clark is about to face. And, once events are witnessed, there’s no teacher who could safely say how they would respond, either. It’s a confrontation that needs to be experienced before anyone who teaches at any level can safely say how they would react.

The setting is Heather Clark’s empty elementary school classroom where, curiously, the theatrical placing of the chairs face away from the chalk board. Presumably, students have to crank their necks during lectures. (And for the record, present day schools across the country use only white boards for markers due to regulations regarding asthma in the classroom). From the muffled sound of the bell ringing outside, and the hustle and bustle of noise coming from the hallway, school is now out. It’s two-thirty in the afternoon, and room 418 is done for the day. At least, that’s what Miss Clark believes. Seated alone behind her desk, she’s clearly upset. She gets up. She paces the room. She catches her breath, trying to stop herself from breaking into tears while declaring “God, God,” repeatedly to herself. Then the classroom door opens. Enter Corryn Fell (Shari Watts).

Corryn is there for a parent-teacher conference, though she says not quite sure if she’s in the right room. Miss Clark, believing all appointments were now done, directs the woman along the hallway to the office for guidance, but even though Corryn leaves, she soon returns. “Two-thirty, April 5th, room 418, Miss Clark,” the mother insists. She’s in the right room.

You forgot,” Corryn tells the teacher. But the young Miss Clark has forgotten nothing for reasons that will soon become apparent. “It never occurred to me you’d keep the appointment,” the teacher states.

Under Tracy Liz Miller’s taut direction, and told in real-time with a running length of seventy-five minutes, no intermission, Gidion’s Knot is an adversarial drama of a meeting that was arranged before a tragedy occurred. Within minutes we’ll learn that eleven year-old Gidion, a student in Miss Clark’s classroom, killed himself after being given a five-day school suspension. As with most 5th graders who have yet to process information and are not entirely sure why they think what they think, Gidion, either because of humiliation, rejection, or perhaps for some other reason, reacted to something that resulted with a permanent solution to a temporary problem. “I came here with a simple question,” the mother tells the teacher. “What the hell happened?”

Like a murder mystery where the detective slowly peels back the layers of evidence, sifting through information, discarding the red herrings, focusing on the truths, until all is finally revealed, Gidion’s Knot unveils the events of the previous few days in small, conversational nuggets, slowly forming an overall picture. Blame is not entirely obvious, though you’ll certainly walk away with an opinion.

Alison Campbell’s Miss Clark is exactly how you would see an elementary school teacher. The actor convinces in both appearance and behavior as she defends her actions and reluctantly shares information she clearly doesn’t want to face, and shouldn’t have to; at least, not without others present in the room. If, like a 5th grader, there are sides to take, your early reaction is to sympathize with Miss Clark, particularly when Shari Watts’ Corryn enters the classroom on the attack, practically a bully, and full of snark. When the teacher tells the parent of the two hundred and twenty student sympathy cards she’ll receive, in a comic though sarcastic southern belle accent, the mother responds, “My, my, where will I put them?

But despite the two outstanding performances, Gidion’s Knot is not an easy play to like. Among the many reveals, one will be the reading of an essay written by the boy, it’s contents lurid, immoral, and, for one so young, jaw-droppingly shocking. “This is not a product of my classroom,” the teacher insists as if lobbing the ball of blame back into the mother’s court. Yet what comes completely unexpected is the mother’s reaction to it.

While there’s a certain level of understanding that would lead us to believe why Corryn would respond to the essay in the way that she does (there are truths and career paths previously revealed that would be an injustice if mentioned in this review) it doesn’t altogether help us sympathize with her, even though a mother grieving for her dead child and angered because of unanswered questions would normally warrant automatic sympathy. If anything, her response is almost as upsetting as the essay itself. You may even find yourself questioning whether the author and those who helped her develop the play know what it’s like to even raise or be around a child. Yet, as with the David Mamet rule of writing where the important thing of all is to have the audience always wanting to know what happens next, you may not want to look, and you may not be enjoying what you’re seeing or hearing, but you can’t turn away.

Gidion’s Knot continues at Tempe Center for the Arts until March 24

Pictures Courtesy of John Groseclose

Posted in Theatre

Million Dollar Quartet – Theatre Review: Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

It really happened, and there are recordings to prove it.

In what used to be an auto parts store, now converted into a recording studio at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, four early rock and roll stars, now legends, met together at Sun Studios for different reasons, and jammed. They were dubbed the Million Dollar Quarter, and what happened that afternoon on December 4, 1956 is exactly what you’ll see re-enacted at Phoenix Theatre’s mainstage until April 15. If you’re a rock ‘n roll fan, you’ll have the time of your life. And even if you only have a passing interest, it will still be one of the most fun nights at the theatre you’ll get to experience. Strap yourselves in; under Scott Weinstein’s Phoenix Theatre directorial debut, Million Dollar Quartet is a musical theatre thrill ride.

It was supposed to be a recording session for the man who would be known as ‘The King of Rockabilly,’ Carl Perkins. He was already a name, but after Blue Suede Shoes there was a lull in the career, and he needed a follow up. Helping out that afternoon was a young up-and-comer, later to be known as ‘The Killer,’ rock and roll’s first great wild man, Jerry Lee Lewis. At the time, Jerry Lee was unknown, but there was something about him that recording impresario, Sam Phillips could see. The unpredictably volatile twenty-one year old was there to help out that afternoon.

Then the deep, bass-baritoned voiced Johnny Cash dropped by. He had already recorded with Phillips, and his career was in full swing. After seeing Perkins recording with Jerry Lee, Cash picked up a guitar and joined in. Finally, Elvis Presley dropped by, accompanied by his then girlfriend, and joined the other three behind the mics. There were several people in attendance at the studios who witnessed the events. One was a newspaper man who dubbed the four as the Million Dollar Quartet. There’s been some doubt as to whether Johnny Cash stuck around to sing, but Cash himself has said he was definitely there, and it’s his voice you’ll hear on those recordings.

And that’s the setup. As written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, Million Dollar Quartet is a ninety-five minute, plus intermission, jukebox musical that dramatizes the events of that afternoon, as told by Sam Phillips (a wavy coiffed Kyle Sorrell in full Tennessee accent). “On December fourth, 1956, one man brought Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley to play together for the first and only time,” states Phillips. “That man was me, Sam Phillips. The place was Sun Records. And that night, we made rock ‘n roll history.”

If you saw either the 2010 Broadway production, or the National US tour when it came to the valley at ASU Gammage in 2012, you’ll notice a difference. It’s the kind of difference that has nothing to do with either book or performance. In fact, there’s little change to the musical when it comes to presentation; this is a top-notch production. It’s all to do with intimacy.

Because of Phoenix Theatre’s mainstage area, the ability to feel close to what you’re watching, even from the back row, plus the clarity of sound, even when the volume is turned up to eleven, there’s the kind of personal involvement that can’t be felt when seated in a larger auditorium. When Phillips introduced himself on the tour, it was a declaration, a projection, something that needed to be heard by everyone in a packed house of over three thousand. Here, when Sorrell as Phillips enters from the aisle, climbs the stage, and turns to us, his introduction is less an announcement, it’s information he’s sharing. And like everything that follows, it’s as if we’re there, right there in the studio alongside those legends. When they’re singing into the mics, they’re not so much making a recording, they’re singing directly to us, for us, as though we’re invited guests. As soon as the famous foursome burst into the introductory Blue Suede Shoes, the smile you’ll feel on your face will be bright enough to light up the house, and it’ll remain there for ninety-five more minutes until Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On is done and Elvis has left the building. “I didn’t want to just play the tunes,” Phillips confides, referring to his time on the radio, “I wanted to record them.”

The style of the show is quickly established. Once Blue Suede Shoes is completed, the cast exit, only to individually re-enter to begin the session. There’s a verse of a famous song, followed by either a theatrical freeze or an entrance mimed in slow-motion as Phillips turns to us and tells us how he first met them, with an anecdote to follow “Flog me a lick,” he tells Perkins in a flashback.

There’s an arc of story, there to create a little conflict among the songs. Phillips has drafted a new, three year contract he’s about to offer Johnny Cash (Bill Scott Sheets), but he’s unaware that Cash has already signed a deal with Columbia Records. Cash is trying to find the right moment to tell the impresario that he’ll be leaving Sun Records, but it’s not going to be easy. There’s also the resentment felt by Perkins when watching TV’s The Perry Como Show as guest singer Elvis Presley (Kavan Hashemian) performs Blue Suede Shoes. Now, when people hear Perkins sing his own song, they think he’s covering a Presley hit.

But there’s also a lot of good humor throughout. When Presley’s girlfriend, here called Dyanne (Alyssa Chiarello, whose slinky, sexy version of Little Willie John’s Fever stops the show) is introduced to an aggressively flirtatious Jerry Lee Lewis (a powerhouse Chris Lash), she remarks, “You’re kinda bashful, ain’t ya.” For the record, Presley’s mystery girlfriend was named Dyanne for the show, simply because at the time of writing it, no one quite knew who she was. She was later tracked down when in her seventies and found to be one-time Vegas dancer, Marilyn Evans.

Occasionally there’s a groaner in the humor. When Johnny Cash enters and is asked where he’s been lately, he answers, “I’ve been everywhere, man.” And when Elvis talks of his annoyance of having to play support to comedian Shecky Greene at a Las Vegas nightclub to the wrong kind of audience and booed off the stage every night, he declares, “I swear, I’ll never play Vegas again.

But it’s the songs and how they’re performed that matter. Backed by Jay Perkins on bass and Alex Crossland on drums (under Alan Ruch’s musical supervision) and performed in an outstanding angled recording studio set by scenic designer Douglas Clarke, complete with Christmas lights ready for the oncoming December holiday, to call the score ‘timeless’ is nothing short of lazy journalism. There’s something more far-reaching about songs like Who Do You Love, Long Tall Sally, Great Balls of Fire, or Brown Eyed Handsome Man (originally written by Chuck Berry as Brown Skinned Handsome Man, but forced to change for potential radio play). With supremely catchy hooks, an energy rarely before heard, and the simplicity of arrangements – a bass, drums, lead guitar, and if Jerry Lee was included, a piano played as though fingers were hammers – those were songs meant to be sung, not so much in a recording studio, but live, in performance. The passing of time changes nothing.  They are and always will be thrilling. And once the play itself is done, don’t think of leaving. There’s an encore.

But when you go, check the foundations of Phoenix Theatre and tread carefully as you take your seat, just in case. It’s more than likely that the cast brought the house down the night before, and they’ll be doing it again when you’re in attendance, as they will night after night until April 15. As the introductory voice-over informs us when the house lights begin to dim, there ain’t no fakin’, these boys are really playin’.

Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography

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