Following The Ninth: In The Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony – Film Review

(The following review is a special report regarding a showing of the documentary Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony. The film will be presented at the Phoenix Art Museum on Sunday, September 16 at noon, followed by a Q&A after the screening. The film has screened in almost every major American city, but not in Phoenix. Also note that The Phoenix Symphony Orchestra will be performing the Ninth that same weekend at Symphony Hall, complimenting the presentation of the documentary. For more regarding the film’s presentation at Phoenix Art Museum CLICK HERE. For more regarding the performances at Symphony Hall, CLICK HERE.)

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If you can’t tell the difference between The Thieving Magpie and The Hall of a the Mountain King and you have little interest in classical music, it’s almost certain that if you know anything at all about Beethoven’s 9th it was because of the movies. Whether your introduction came from excerpts on the soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange, the moment when the doors to the safe in Die Hard’s Nakatomi building finally opened, or the climactic student talent contest in Sister Act 2 where a pop/rock/rap version of Ode to Joy was performed, there’s no escaping the glorious Ninth.

As the title suggests, in the documentary Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony, director Kerry Candaele explores Ludwig Van Beethoven’s masterpiece and its effect on our lives, plus its undeniable importance on our culture. Yet the film is no exercise in learning the mechanics of the music, nor is it a lesson on understanding the inspiration that lead Beethoven to write the piece. Following the Ninth aims for something else.

After a brief word from Artistic Director of Music For Life International, George Mathew, who explains the emotional content to the opening of the Ninth’s first movement – “It enters your bloodstream, then changes who you are” – the documentary immediately begins its theme of combining the power of the music with the plight of often heartbreaking human resiliency.

The film uses four landmark events in global history as a way of pinpointing the scope and dramatic play of the work, leading up to the moment when Beethoven’s expressive, inspirational music directly correlated to those circumstances. Using archival footage, TV newsreels, and new interviews with reminiscences from those directly involved, the film takes us to China while explaining the circumstances that lead to what happened in Tienanmen Square during the student uprising; to Japan, before, during, and after the 2011 earthquake and the following tsunami; Berlin, when the wall came down and East finally met West; and Chile, where the CIA backed coup of the country lead to Pinochet’s devastating, violent leadership.

Filmed across 12 countries, Following the Ninth is an ambitious project that at times appears to incorporate more information than it can handle. With quick cuts and fast edits, one moment we’re in Chile learning how Pinochet’s crushing junta came to the country, and next we’re in China, with hardly a moment to properly take in the information from the previous story. It’s like the evening news where one story immediately follows another, then another, to the point where by the end you can’t quite remember the details of any. Big screen documentaries traditionally have the advantage over television by having both the time and a larger canvas on which it can explore its themes. Following the Ninth, with its abrupt edits and story hopping, appears to have its film-making roots in low-attention-span television, inspired from early music videos where fragmented cuts and jumps shape the picture. It’s movie-making born of an MTV generation; you can never quite contemplate one story before another is thrust before you.

Plus, there’s the danger of concentrating so much on the real-life events and keeping up with where you are or who is doing the talking that at times you may forget there’s even a connection between what you’re watching and Beethoven’s music. But it’s during the final segment once the film touches on the symphony’s fourth movement when sound and vision merge into something quite spectacular and emotionally enriching, and that’s where the documentary soars. “It (the Ninth) seems to express most completely what human beings are struggling for; what’s possible for mankind,” states Benjamin Zander, conductor for the Boston Philharmonic in Cape Town, South Africa, and it’s in this final portion of the documentary where it all comes together.

Hearing the rousing Ode to Joy played through speakers in Tienanmen Square, hearing it again as East Berliners walk across the border into West and are greeted with open arms, again with a chorus of 10,000 voices in Japan, or perhaps most emotionally effective, hearing it again when told of how women took to the streets of Chile and sang to tortured prisoners who remained behind bars is something undeniably inspirational. “It was like a shield against fear,” explains one witness who took part in the street singing. “It was an act against the military, against the dictatorship.”

Despite its flaws, Following the Ninth ultimately succeeds in what it’s attempting to illustrate. Expression through music and the joy of singing is the most compelling avenue through which an emotion can travel. Director Candaele shows you why and how it was done.

Yet, finally, there’s always a remaining sense of irony that can never quite escape your thoughts as you journey through the film’s four global stories and witness its connection to Beethoven’s work. Regarded by musicologists as one of the supreme achievements in the history of music, the fact that it was written by a man who was almost totally deaf is something incomprehensible to the rest of us. As one observer states, “How tragic that the person who created this, who was one of the greatest manipulators of musical sound, was unable to hear any of it.

MPAA Rating: NR            Length: 80 Minutes

Posted in Film

Woman Walks Ahead – Film Review

Taking it’s cue from the title Dances With Wolves, director Susanna White’s Woman Walks Ahead is the Lakota Sioux tribe name given to 19th century painter and activist Caroline Weldon. It refers to Weldon’s refusal to follow Sitting Bull when walking across the open Dakota landscape together, stubbornly demanding instead that she should be able to move at her own pace, either alongside, or even ahead.

As portrayed in the new biographical drama, Caroline Weldon (Jessica Chastain) tells us during the film’s opening that there are no portraits anywhere of the Lakota tribe leader, Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes). “I intend to rectify the situation,” she states. She then packs her bags. Along with her paints, canvas and brushes, she boards a train in New York and travels across states to Dakota.

It’s while journeying alone that Weldon encounters US Army Colonel Silas Grove (Sam Rockwell) who immediately invades her privacy. With a clear, contentious attitude, he wastes no time in letting her know how he feels about her wanting to meet the man responsible for the massacre of the 7th Cavalry and the death of Lt. Col. George Custer. From Grove’s point of view, the woman from New York is nothing but an east coast liberal; an agitator with a political agenda to stir things up at a critical time of negotiations between the tribe and the US government. At a stop, Grove tells Weldon, “You get back on that train and return east today,” later adding, “Little Big Horn will be avenged, d’ya follow?”

After some initial resistance, and despite a summons from army commanding officer James McLaughlin (Ciaran Hinds) stating, “I demand you be back on that train tomorrow morning,” a meeting between the artist and the Lakota leader is eventually arranged. After some financial negotiation, Weldon agrees to pay Sitting Bull if he consents to having his portrait done. While watching the artist work from afar through binoculars, Rockwell’s Grove is surprised. “She really is a painter,” he murmurs to himself.

Read author Eileen Pollack’s book Woman Walking Ahead: In Search of Catherine Weldon and Sitting Bull, or even glance over Weldon’s page on Wikipedia, and you’ll see that even before leaving New York to paint Sitting Bull’s portrait, in reality, the woman was already a member of the politically motivated National Indian Defense Association. The film portrays her initially as an innocent with no agenda other than wanting to paint a picture. Her sympathetic attitudes towards the tribe, the film tell us, were formed once a relationship with Sitting Bull developed; it better suits a movie storytelling mode.

But in reality, on that train from New York when Col. Grove accuses the woman of being an east coast liberal and agitator, he was actually close to the truth. Knowing the difference between what we’re watching and how things really were uncomfortably changes a perspective of how you view Weldon. Plus, as history tells us, before an army sniper assassinated Sitting Bull, the Lakota Sioux tribe leader turned against Weldon. She fell out of favor. Their relationship fell apart. Weldon left for New York long before Sitting Bull’s murder. For dramatic purposes, The film paints a considerably different portrait.

In a general sense, much of what we knew, or thought we knew about the history of Native Americans came not so much from the history books or schooling but from the movies. For storytelling purposes, the heroes and villains of the west were clearly defined. And that’s how it was on the big screen for a long time. But for the past few decades, those dark days of Native injustices have come to light, particularly during the 70’s Vietnam era when films like Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue and Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man looked back and punctured previously unquestioned beliefs.

Despite its flaws, if there’s one thing Soldier Blue taught us was that scalping originated not from Native Americans but from the soldiers themselves, a technique brought over from England by the white man and introduced to America. And in the episodic Little Big Man, though it was satirical in nature, the film’s portrayal of Custer may have seemed larger than life, but is now considered to be far closer to the truth than most other portrayals. Custer’s hate for native Americans and his madcap ambitions collided by the time Little Big Horn came about. He seriously believed if he accomplished one more victory massacring the Natives, any massacre, he would earn a nomination for President of the United States. According to Little Big Man, that is a lesser known but bizarre historical fact. In other words, Custer, already known for eccentric behavior, wasn’t exactly thinking straight at Little Big Horn and was ultimately responsible for his own demise. With this in mind, the army’s blind intent on assassinating Sitting Bull in Woman Walks Ahead conveniently ignored truths in order to satisfy unwarranted, political revenge.

Though neither of those early seventies films are anywhere near the tone set by Woman Walks Ahead, there are some important issues that spring to mind. Sam Rockwell’s abhorrent Col. Grove briefly mentions how he was once responsible for opening fire and murdering defenseless Native women and children, even though they had already surrendered. It’s a scene straight out of the climax of Soldier Blue that at the time looked more like a director’s indulgence in revising history, yet Grove’s admission that he actually did that very thing underlines the murderous nature of many soldier blues who, while away from their regular lives and families, acted like savages with a blood lust against the Natives simply because they could. “If it helps,” Grove tells Weldon, “I haven’t slept well since that day.” It was horrific events such as the one Grove related that caused Weldon to become the activist she was and stand with the tribe.

Sitting Bull Portrait by Caroline Weldon

Weldon really did paint Sitting Bull’s portrait. In fact, there were four, though two are missing. “You made me look too old,” Sitting Bull remarks after Weldon unveils her work.

As cinema, Woman Walks Ahead tells its tale at a slow, deliberate pace that fully engages, due not only to the fascination of how events between Weldon, Sitting Bull, and the conflicts with the US Army later unfold, but to the performances of all, and most importantly to Mike Eley’s captivating widescreen cinematography. New Mexico doubling for Dakota looks stunning. If it wasn’t for the historical inaccuracies and the differences of motivation for its central, real-life character, fully recommending director White’s attractive looking film would be easy. But knowing Caroline Weldon’s real story and becoming aware of the differences between reality and writer Steven Knight’s screenplay takes everything down a more unexpected fictionalized path.

Enjoy the film as an accomplished and well-crafted piece of entertainment, for that’s exactly what it is. But in this case, and more than others where history is often revised in order to make the telling more condensed and streamlined, once you know Weldon’s real story then witness the film’s version of events, you may find yourself questioning the film’s overall historical value in ways you weren’t quite expecting.

MPAA Rating: R       Length: 102 Minutes

Posted in Film

Leave No Trace – Film Review

Despite having grown up in the affluent suburbs of the nation’s capital, if there’s one thing clear about director Debra Granik it’s her reverence for rural America and the people who live there, particularly for those who chose to live off the grid. In 2010’s outstanding Winter’s Bone, it was the backwoods of the Ozarks. In Leave No Trace, it’s Portland’s Forest Park.

Based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, a writer whose work often reflects the thoughts and yearnings of outsiders, those who live on the edge of society, Granik’s Leave No Trace takes the true story of a father and daughter who were found living deep within the park and creates its own character-driven narrative.

Will (Ben Foster) and his thirteen-year-old daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live illegally in the nature preserve under a makeshift shelter in isolation. They eat whatever they find, they create fire by hand, and they drink rainwater. It’s only when there’s a desperate need for something that can’t be found in the preserve that father and daughter leave their base, trek through the woods, and walk into the nearby town. With no income, Will, a veteran, sells his PTSD medication and uses whatever he makes to buy supplies.

But their existence is discovered. In a moment of unintended negligence, Tom is spotted, then reported. It’s not long before park rangers start searching the grounds. While playing a game of chess together, a noise from the distance breaks the silence of their backwoods existence. Will pauses his play and listens. It’s the sound of an approaching dog. “This is not a drill,” he tells his daughter. The two suddenly leap to action and make an urgent, hasty retreat. But it’s not long before both father and daughter are found.

The intent of a concerned social worker (Dana Millican) is obvious. While some audiences may find sympathy in the plight of Will and his rejection of civilization, there’s no denying the need of something safer and more stable for Tom, his teenage daughter. When tested on her reading and writing abilities, something her father has taught, the social worker is surprised to discover that Tom actually reads considerably higher than her grade level. It’s impressive, but more is required, like attending school full time. “School is about social skills, too,” the worker adds.

Curiously, with an emphasis on character more than plot, there’s a not a great deal we learn regarding Will’s background. We know his wife has passed away, and there’s a reference to his time spent in the military, but that’s it. What made him eventually reject society, take his daughter and disappear is never explored. The film focuses more on the contrasts and needs of this unconventional family unit. Will’s inability to conform to social norms is always evident. When given both a job and a temporary home, instead of sleeping in the comfort of the bedroom, Will and Tom rest outside under the stars in the back yard. “We’re gonna make the best of it,” he states. But, as we soon discover, he has little intention of remaining.

Tom, on the other hand, appears willing to accept what a new life might bring, including certain material things denied her while isolated. When suggesting it might be a good idea to each have a phone, Will is appalled. “We’re wearing their clothes, eating their food, doing their work. We’ve adapted!” he insists.

The film’s strengths are considerable, particularly with the casting. Both Ben Foster and New Zealand newcomer Thomasin McKenzie convince as father and daughter. Mckenzie is thoroughly engaging as the young girl, while Foster successfully shuns the baggage of previous downbeat portrayals and surprisingly makes his Will someone to root for. His concern and protective nature for Tom, though misguided, is to be admired. But with a running time of 108 minutes, what initially intrigues finally loses its hold.

Unlike Winter’s Bone with its mounting sense of mystery, Leave No Trace has no such arc to its telling; there’s no perceivable hook to keep you engaged other than a concern for what the future may bring to these two likable people. When Will wakes Tom in her room at the house and whispers, “Pack your things. Don’t take anything you don’t need,” there’s a sense that maybe the film has begun to head in a different direction, but returning back to the woods is only the beginning of the third act, not the film’s climax. While there’s undeniable respect for Tom’s desire to be completely off the grid, at the fade out, this nuanced, slow-burn eventually feels too long in order to tell its tale.

MPAA Rating: PG    Length: 108 Minutes    Overall rating: 7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

School of Rock The Musical – Theatre Review: National Touring Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

How is it, some may ask, that a Broadway musical so American in its setting, humor, and style would come from such British theatrical stock? Those who follow theatre may already know, but many who turn up for School of Rock The Musical based solely on how much they enjoyed the 2003 movie of the same name may be in for a surprise. Once they flip through the program, they’ll find that the show is an Andrew Lloyd Webber production.

It was Sir Andrew’s wife, Madeleine, better known as Baroness Lloyd Webber, who, after a six year chase, finally secured the rights to the show in 2012. Sir Andrew then wrote the new score plus the show’s orchestrations, while the book was handed to Julian Fellowes, also known as Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, the man most famous for creating and writing TV’s ode to England’s privileged culture and the staff who serve it, Downton Abbey. On reflection, it seems such an unlikely marriage of talents that members of Britain’s parliamentary House of Lords should be the ones to tell an American tale of a pretend substitute teacher who regularly gets the Led out and turns fifth grade prep school students into rock ‘n rollers, but that’s how it was done.

For the record, while the national touring production of School of Rock The Musical may be in town for the first time since it began the tour last year, the show actually played earlier at Glendale’s Spotlight Youth Theatre. In an unusual, though interesting step, the rights to the show for youth productions around the country opened before the musical had its Broadway premiere, and Spotlight took advantage.

School of Rock The Musical, which continues in performance at ASU Gammage in Tempe until Sunday, June 19, follows the overall plot of Mike White’s original screenplay but ups the rock ‘n roll quota, suggests an eventual romance between the slovenly lead and the uptight prep school principal, and concentrates more on the kids in the class and their relationships with their parents. And it’s a genuine, unadulterated, crowd-pleaser. Like Rosalie Mullins (Lexie Dorsett Sharp), the principal at the Horace Green Prep School who lets her hair down at the sound of Stevie Nicks on the jukebox, it’s as if Lloyd Webber has done the same, let it all hang out and shaken aside the memories of several flops that have plagued the latter days of his otherwise outstanding career. He’s having fun. At one early point during a brief classroom audition process, one of the students begins a few lines from Lloyd Webber’s Memories from Cats. The song is quickly shut down, making what was seen in the movie version even funnier in the show. In keeping with the musical’s humor, Lloyd Webber just punctured his own reputation.

The impresario of musical theatre himself is used in the show. Listen closely at the recording at the beginning and you’ll hear Sir Andrew let you know emphatically that all the kids you’re about to see really do play their own instruments. If the performance you attend at Gammage was anything like opening night, there’ll be a roar of approval from the audience as loud as the applause following the songs.

The plot is really a thin-based story not far removed from the old fashioned let’s-put-on-a-show tale where fraudulent substitute teacher, Dewey (Merritt David Janes) discovers that his fifth grade class can play musical instruments. Sensing a way of winning a rock ‘n roll contest, Dewey has his class swap their classical instruments for electronic ones, teaches them how to rock, ignores the school curriculum, hands out Jimi Hendrix CDs as homework, and has the students rehearsing all day for the contest.

When Dewey starts the audition process and has his class substitute marching cymbals for rock ‘n roll drums, cellos for guitars, and piano for the organ, complete with backup singers and a classroom band manager who’s in charge “of the whole damn thing!” both the music and the comedy reach giddying heights of delight that should have you beaming and applauding after each mini solo. The sight of prep school uniformed ten year-olds holding instruments almost bigger than they are is in itself funny, but once that drummer emerges from behind his drums and suddenly knocks out a killer solo, followed by a pulsating electronic bass and two backup singers bursting into Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wildside chorus, you’ll be hooked. The whole thing is so infectious, and infectiously funny, you’ll find yourself not only caught up in the plot’s overall silliness, you’ll probably home in on a well-defined favorite character.

Throughout the tour, the lead role of Dewey is billed as being played by Rob Colletti. On Tempe’s opening night, the role was played by Merritt David Janes, billed in the program not as an understudy but curiously as playing Dewey at certain performances. Evidently, opening night in Tempe was one of those certain performances. The character was originally developed on the screen for Jack Black. No matter who you’ll see playing the role and bringing something of themselves to the microphone, eventually it’s Black you’ll see in the movements and Black you’ll hear in the dialog, and that’s perfectly fine. No one needs to bring their own interpretation to the character when the characteristics are already so well defined. Plus, the way the part is written in the musical, Dewey may be the show’s lead but it’s a lead that never oversteps the mark and hogs the spotlight away from the kids. While the film acted as a vehicle for its star, the musical is an equal opportunity spotlight hogger; everyone gets their moment front and center. Theodora Silverman with her dead-pan, rock ‘n roll face, is irresistible as Katie, the cellist turn bass player.

The show is also extremely funny. When young Summer, the classroom brain (Iara Nemirovsky) tries to sing during the audition process, Dewey stops her from damaging eardrums any further and declares at full volume, “I don’t know what that was, but I never want to hear that again!” When talking rock ‘n roll musical influences and one child declares that for him it’s Barbra Streisand, Dewey responds with a guttural, “What? Nooooooo!” And when the principal makes an impromptu classroom visit and interrupts a rock rehearsal, Dewey, always prepared, immediately breaks into a lecture on Einstein’s relativity equation, the one where E equals MC… er, double.

But despite the mechanics of the plot, it’s the music and who’s doing the playing that will have you enjoying School of Rock The Musical the most. During the climactic contest where Dewey’s talented fifth-graders don their costumes and play their instruments – where the frantic keyboard playing brings the house down and the pint-sized guitarist breaks into Chuck Berry’s duck walk, plus some Van Halen screaming guitar-solo knee slides – you may notice, as audiences did on opening night, members of the orchestra stand alongside the show’s conductor at the foot of the stage, clapping and cheering on those young musicians before them. When even members of the show can be seen actively encouraging and applauding fellow performers, it’s clear, School of Rock is a funny, loud, raucous show that can be enjoyed by everyone; parents, kids, the touring company’s orchestra, even some prominent Right Honorable Members of Britain’s House of Lords.  And no matter the outcome of the climactic Battle of the Bands, it’s the musical that wins you over; no contest.

Pictures Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

School of Rock The Musical National Touring Production continues at ASU Gammage, Tempe until June 24

Posted in Theatre

Annie – Theatre Review: Valley Youth Theatre at Herberger Center Theater, Phoenix

When something works, and works as well as it does here, the temptation to return is unavoidable. Besides, there’s a difference when you’re the Valley Youth Theatre and you’re returning to Annie. Each new presentation of the show brings a whole new generation of both cast members and audiences alike who have never before seen the musical. Perhaps some have never even heard of it.

Since October of 1997, the VYT production of the Broadway musical Annie has played not at its smaller venue on North First Street but several blocks away at the Herberger Theater Center, downtown. Until this past weekend VYT had presented it three times. Now, with its 41st Herberger Center production, after a seven year absence, Annie returns for the fourth time, both to close the current 2017-18 season and to give many of its young cast the thrill and the opportunity of appearing on the stage at the city’s most reputable live-theatre.

Backed by a robust sounding twenty-one piece orchestra under the direction of Mark Fearey, with impressive scenery and props provided by Vance Entertainment, LLC, from the moment the curtain rises on yet another late night at the New York Municipal Orphanage for little girls, that sense of theatrical professionalism for both sight and sound is immediately established.

And it’s that sense of expertise that often comes as a surprise to many audience members who are perhaps seeing their son or daughter in a VYT production for the first time. To pass the audition is one thing, but to suddenly see young family members dancing and singing on stage with their talented peers in a manner exhibiting never before seen discipline and previously untapped abilities is altogether something else. Plus, as is often the case when VYT moves camp for a large-scale production across town, while the majority of the performers are made up of age-appropriate actors, some of the key adult roles are played by adults, and it makes all the difference.

As written in the program notes, back in ‘97 when director Bobb Cooper was putting together his first production of Annie, no one auditioned for the role of billionaire Daddy Warbucks. With time short and decisions needed to be made, Bobb shaved that famous coif and played the role himself. Plus, as a balance, his wife, VYT’s costume designer, Karol Cooper, was cast as the villainous Miss Hannigan. With the new 2018 production, this will make the fourth time the husband and wife team have played in Annie, and the first time this column has had a chance to write about them. But it should be said, reviewing the Coopers not as producers but as performers feels undeniably odd.

As the orphanage matron, a woman adverse to all things little, especially little girls, but loves knocking back a bottle of whiskey, Miss Hannigan is a role tailor-made for broad comedy; traditionally, the broader the better. Karol’s approach is somewhat different. She doesn’t possess quite the aggressive projection of a loathsome, depression-era Ethel Merman stuck in a never-ending job looking after little girls. With a half empty bottle of something alcoholic hidden in her pocket and her fists clenched, ready to duke it out with anyone smaller than herself, Karol’s Miss Hannigan is played more like the latter days of a comical Ruth Gordon at her most cantankerous, one suffering from a perpetual hangover. It’s effective without being overplayed.

With that famous coif shaved once again, Bobb Cooper’s Daddy Warbucks seems friendly from the outset. It should take a little while before little orphan Annie breaks through the gruffness of his take-no-prisoners, billionaire demeanor, but when it’s Bobb under the baldness, that demeanor seems to break down considerably faster; his Warbucks is likable the moment he walks on. There’s a stiffness to his movement that has him characteristically walking without the use of his arms, something that also carries into the dancing. Watching Bobb move, particular when paired with Annie (Mia McFarland), is like watching your favorite, clumsy celebrity trying his best each week to get the votes on Dancing With The Stars, the one that everyone warms to but knows he’s unlikely to make it. Yet seeing both Bobb and Karol Cooper under these circumstance, in costume while singing and dancing among the same children they help to nurture and encourage the appreciation of theatre, has an unexpected, endearing quality to it.

But in a youth production, the emphasis should be on the youth, and this VYT production of Annie scores big with its talented, youthful ensemble. Mia McFarland’s Annie is terrific. She’s just as you would want from a live presentation of the little girl hoping to find her long-lost parents; strong, energetic, playfully funny, and a voice with a power that can easily be heard by everyone in the back row of the upper balcony without amplification.

Special mentions also to Isabella Conner who gets things just right as the scheming and somewhat dimwitted girlfriend, Lily St. Regis; Brandon Brown, equally good as the convict ne’er-do-well brother, Rooster, and particularly Olivia Smith who brings a keen sense of propriety and maturity to her role as the good-natured, faithful secretary, Grace.

The feisty orphan girls, with their aggressive delivery, dance moves, athletic back flips, and harmonious singing voices, hit the bullseye with both It’s A Hard-Knock Life in the first half and You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile in the second. With Nathalie Velasquez’s energetic choreography and Feary’s musical direction, as with all the ensemble production numbers, including We’d Like To Thank You (Herbert Hoover) and A New Deal for Christmas, you can feel a mounting sense of excitement from the audience that has it wanting to leap to its feet long before the song is over. It’s surprising just how large this cast truly is, something you may only realize at the end when everyone is finally on stage together to take that final bow.

Having not seen the previous VYT Annie productions, it’s difficult to make a comparison. But being aware that, other than the two adult roles of the Coopers, every other cast member is new, and VYT has a reputation of trying new things, even with shows performed successfully before, it feels safe to say what you’ll see this time around at Herberger is not what was previously seen.  Probably better. And if it’s inspired a new generation of potential VYT actors (those suddenly enamored with the effectiveness of just how good live theatre has the ability to transport them to wherever they need to go) to hand in their resumes to director Bobb Cooper for future consideration, then the job is truly done.

Pictures Courtesy of Laura Durant of Durant Photography

Annie by Valley Youth Theatre Continues at Herberger Theater Center until July 1

Posted in Theatre

Tag – Film Review

If the idea of a film about a group of guys who drop everything, their careers, their families, their whole lives, and play of an obsessive game of tag for one month, every year, sounds like a lame-brained idea for a comedy – we’re talking the whole film – then you may be right; except for one thing. Tag is inspired by a true story.

In the real-world, a small group of friends use tag as a way of keeping in touch with each other. Eleven months of the year is spent planning how the surprise attacks will occur, then a month is spent acting out those often less than smooth moves as they chase each other, ready to commit an unexpected tag no matter where it takes them. There’s no prize to be claimed, no money at the end of the four weeks, just the satisfaction of knowing that one in the group will end up being ‘It’ and will hold that dishonor until things starts all over again the following year.

The unusual affair was brought to the world’s attention by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Five years ago, Russell Adams wrote an article reporting on how a group of men had played a game of Tag for 23 years. Writer Mark Stellen has taken that article and, along with co-writer Rob McKittrick, created a story loosely based on what he read. There’s a scene in the film where one of the characters is tagged at his father’s funeral while grieving. That really happened. That’s how committed these guys are.

The premise of the film is the same as the real thing. In 1983, five young school friends started chasing each other playing Tag. As Hoagie (Ed Helms) states in a voice-over, “You think you’re gonna be buddies forever.” And it’s true, most school friends really believe that. In reality, most drift apart. But not these guys. As a way of remaining friends once high-school was over, the tightly-knit five devised the game where throughout the merry month of May, playing Tag will always bring them together again, even though each live in a different part of the country. And it’s become an obsession.

They chase each other everywhere, through shops and stores, shopping malls, parking lots, up and down apartment buildings, through other people’s apartments, breaking doors, smashing through windows, causing all kinds of disasters to other people’s property, and yet rarely getting hurt or facing the consequences of damages done. When pothead and total waste of space, Randy (Jake Johnson) tries to escape the chase with Hoagie in pursuit, he crashes through a strangers’ home, smashes through their window, swings across a balcony, lands on someone else’s window a/c unit, which breaks and has him careening down, smashing onto a car, then finally to the ground. He’s a real-life Wil E Coyote; no matter how dangerous the stunt, somehow he gets up and continues to chase or be chased.

But the plot in first-time film director Jeff Tomsic’s movie thickens. One of the five, Jerry (Jeremy Renner) holds the title of having never been ‘It.’ Somehow, he’s managed to evade the touch, but that could change. Jerry is about to get married. It’s May and the hunt is on. Of course, why the character would ever make himself that vulnerable and agree to a May wedding would probably be your first question, but the writers have contrived an answer. Jerry’s fiancee, Leslie (Susan Rollins) is continuing the long standing tradition where all the women in the family marry in May. So, regardless of her husband-to-be’s madcap game with his buddies, a May wedding it is. Once the other four knows where he’ll be, they drop everything, and just as they always do, they group together, head north, and ready for the pounce.

So that it’s not a totally dominated male cast, Hoagies’ wife, Anna (Isla Fisher) comes along for the chase, and she’s just as crazy as the guys, perhaps even crazier. “God, I wish I had my gun here,” she states prior to the outdoor wedding ceremony. “So many good birds to shoot.”

Plus, there’s the attractive Wall Street Journal reporter, Rebecca (Annabelle Wallis) in the Russell Adams role. She’s initially there to interview successful businessman Bob (Jon Hamm) at his office, but once he interrupts the meeting to suddenly take off and join his tag-obsessed buddies, sensing a potential new story, Rebecca follows, observes, reports, and even becomes part of the game. And finally, there’s Cheryl (Rashida Jones) who knew the guys back at school. She’s at the wedding, brought in by Jerry to distract the high-school friends and maybe slow them down. It’s a character and a plot-line that goes nowhere, but at the very least, among all the slapstick and often painful looking shenanigans of the boy-men around her as they continue to play their child’s game, it’s always good to see the talented Miss Jones, even if in this case she’s given nothing to do. “Is she the Yoko?” asks the WSJ reporter. “I don’t get the reference,” responds the clueless Kevin (Hannibal Buress).

The chasing and all the running around starts to grow wearisome once you realize that the film is going to do nothing more than what the title promises. At a running time of 100 minutes, you may find yourself checking your watch more often than the norm. Even though the friends sign an agreement stating that during the actual wedding, no game-playing will happen, if you’ve seen the trailer, you already know that that’s a rule soon to be broken. It’s odd that at a time when studios at critic screenings are practically ordering reviewers not give away spoilers or surprises, limiting what can be discussed, in Tag it’s something they do themselves. Perhaps the one moment in the film where you’re supposed to be wondering whether one the four friends will attempt to tag Jerry while he’s taking his vows, all suspense is gone; the marketing department showed it in the trailer.

One thing in the film’s favor. Seeing home-movie clips of the real thing with the real people at the end of the film, including a glance at The Wall Street Journal article that reported it, somehow in a strange way validates the theme. It doesn’t make the film any better, but at least it gives it perspective. These blockheads really do this.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 100 Minutes    Overall Rating:  4 (out of 10)

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