American Pastoral – Film Review


The film’s poster offers a landscape of a world on its side, a turbulent affair illustrated by the sight of a house on fire, the idyllic setting completely at odds with the title of the film, American Pastoral. And so it is with the world of Seymour Levov (Ewan McGregor), a former high-school athlete, a Marine, and later a Jewish businessman running a successful glove factory; a man with a seemingly happy existence derailed by the unfolding political and social events of the 1960s.

Framed in the same way as Philip Roth’s celebrated novel, the film begins present day with a 45th high school reunion attended by Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), a writer and one time classmate of Seymour’s somewhat acrimonious brother, Jerry (an unrecognizable Rupert Evans). Zuckerman was the novel’s narrator, and here we sample some of that narration in an introductory voice-over as the man reflects on his own mortality as a 62 year-old while describing high-school reunions as being that time of magic “that made time past the time present.”


Seymour, known more affectionately as Swede, has passed away. The funeral is to be the following day. Writer Zuckerman is both surprised and saddened by the news delivered by Swede’s brother, Jerry. Having left the country for most of the 1960s, the writer eagerly listens to Jerry as he brings Zuckerman up to date on the tragic events of Swede’s life, ultimately leading to the one-time high-school athlete’s death.

As it began, the film circles back to present day, back to that reunion, followed by a brief though important scene at the funeral before fade out. Even if you’ve read the book and find the film’s attempt to present a faithful adaptation of Roth’s written word as admiral, looking back on what you’ve seen (as you will once you leave the theatre) it’s likely you may consider the framing device as presented here worked better on page than it does on film. Perhaps a story presented in chronological order, told in Strathairn’s narration throughout and ending with the funeral would have made more sense. Oddly, knowing that what you’re watching is a flashback, a series of highlights relating events already occurred, there remains a sense of distance as if you’re constantly held at arm’s length, a passive observer rather than one who should be fully involved.

Swede’s story is certainly tragic. The man whom writer Zuckerman describes as “Our hero; our Kennedy,” appears to have what many would perceive as the perfect life, one he shares with a former beauty queen wife (Jennifer Connelly, never better) and a daughter, Merry, short for Meredith (Ocean James as an eight year-old and later, Dakota Fanning). Merry suffers from a debilitating stutter, one that the young girl’s speech therapist (Molly Parker) theorizes has developed as a result of a psychological problem relating to the girl’s possible feeling of inadequacy – she will never attain the standard of beauty or character that is her mother. The young girl’s heroine is Audrey Hepburn, and interestingly it’s only when she sings Moon River that the stutter stops.


But it’s the events of political unrest in the outside world, the Vietnam war, the student protests, the riots and the violent clashes of political terrorism that turn Swede’s pastoral setting on its side. As a sixteen year-old, Merry is outraged by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war. She develops radical beliefs, involves herself with out of town radical friends, and points accusatory fingers at her middle-class parents with wild and unreasonable assertions that clearly have no basis in reality, manipulated by those she now unwisely reveres.

A bomb is planted at a local post-office and an innocent is killed. Whether Merry was responsible or not is never certain, but her disappearance on the day of the event is indication enough for the authorities to invade the privacy of Swede’s home and search through Merry’s bedroom for clues of any kind of radical involvement.


Despite the film’s earnest and estimable attempt at transferring a celebrated book to the screen, one rich in both expressive style and allusions, the inevitable streamlining required when adapting a novel into a screenplay takes away the very heart of what made Roth’s novel work so well; it renders the film’s themes less effective. There is much that adds texture to the idea of one’s respectability undermined by private, subversive behavior of those you think you know but don’t, all illustrated within the book but only hinted at on screen.

Swede’s final realization that you can never fully understand the hearts and minds of others is never quite as clear. Even Roth’s novel has Swede himself acting secretly, underscoring his own veneer of respectability – the novel has him engaging in a brief, secret affair with his daughter’s speech therapist; the film has the relationship remain on a purely professional level. Plus, there’s the additional element in the book of having his daughter’s weight balloon grotesquely that the film never shows.


For his directorial debut, actor Ewan McGregor has nicely captured the atmosphere of the both the idyllic country setting and the turbulent inner city life of the sixties. Martin Ruhe’s cinematography is well framed and solid, making the film nothing less than always visually gorgeous. Scottish born McGregor’s American accent never falters, neither does that of English born Rupert Evans. The scenes between McGregor’s Swede and Uzo Aduba as Vicky, a faithful and resilient black employee of Swede’s glove factory, are touching and ring of authenticity, plus Peter Riegert as Lou, Swede’s father, brings moments of welcome levity. “I’ll give you Christmas,” the Jewish patriarch states to his gentile daughter-in-law when referring to the religious upbringing of his granddaughter as if it’s a business negotiation.

It’s all quality work, but the problem is John Romano’s admittedly difficult task of adapting the book. It doesn’t deliver, and by short-changing much that added literary weight to the novel, there’s little here to suggest why it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 or how it came to be on Time Magazine’s list of all-time 100 greatest novels.

MPAA Rating:  R    Length:  108 Minutes     Overall Rating:  6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back – Film Review


To date, there are twenty Jack Reacher thriller novels on the market. That’s more than enough stories upon which to build a movie franchise, and back in 2012, when Tom Cruise first became Jack Reacher, that’s exactly what Paramount intended to happen. But the idea was scrapped, or at least, put on hold. Box-office return wasn’t quite what the studio had hoped for. Then the film hit big overseas, and the idea of a potential sequel was re-opened.

In truth, the generically titled Jack Reacher: Never Go Back isn’t really a sequel. No one ever considered From Russia With Love or Goldfinger sequels to Dr. No, they were more adventures with the same central character, and so it is with Jack Reacher; a further adventure in the life of a loner who has a talent for looking after himself really well.


In this second outing based on British author Lee Child’s book, Reacher is sitting quietly late one night in a southern state diner sipping coffee, waiting for the sheriff to arrive. With relative ease, he’s just dispatched a whole gang of men outside in the parking lot, and the sheriff won’t be pleased. It all has something to with the abuse and slavery of south-of-the-border immigrants, and somehow the sheriff is involved. “One guy took ‘em out in, like, seconds,” states an amused on-looker as the southern lawman arrives.

In the next ninety seconds, two things are going to happen,” a calm Reacher explains to the bemused sheriff in the diner once the lawman has cuffed the lone stranger. “That phone is going to ring and you’ll be wearing these handcuffs.” And, of course, that’s exactly what happens. “Who the hell are you?” asks the sheriff upon realizing he’s cornered and about to be arrested by the local police. “The guy you didn’t count on,” responds Reacher.


None of that has anything to do with movie’s plot, but for those who have never read the books or have forgotten what Jack Reacher can do, it’s a good reminder, plus it’s a fun opening. Reacher is one of those fantasy guys that other guys wish they could be – a powerful, no-nonsense force of nature, and that’s what makes such an unlikely figure so appealing. In the book, author Child describes Reacher as being 6 feet 5 inches tall, weighing somewhere between 210 to 250 pounds and having a 50 inch chest. He has a six-pack like a cobbled city street, and biceps like basketballs. In the film he’s played by Tom Cruise.

Once a former Major in the U.S. Army Military Police Corps, Reacher now is his own man. There’s no address and no way of contacting him. If he wants something, he’ll contact you. He wanders across the country, hitch-hiking, taking odd jobs when he needs to, taking breaks when he wants. Asked why he left the military, he answers, “Woke up one morning and the uniform didn’t fit.”


In Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, the loner becomes embroiled in an espionage affair relating to someone from his old military unit, someone he liked. Major Susan Turner (a suitably tough and athletic looking Cobie Smulders) has been arrested, and Jack’s instinct, judge of character, and his old M.P investigative abilities immediately kick in. Clearly something’s wrong; Major Turner was framed. Swiftly springing her from military prison moments before a hired hitman known as The Hunter (Patrick Heusinger) is about to permanently silence the major, Reacher and the woman hit the road running.

The thing about this second Edward Zwick directed installment is there’s nothing particularly special or extraordinary about it. Like the book, it’s a competent enough, fast-paced thriller. There’s even a little detective guess work involved as Reacher and the fugitive major, aided on the road by a street-wise fifteen year-old (Danika Yarosh), attempt to piece together exactly why they’re being chased and whether there’s corruption in the Army, and if so, how deep does it go, but there’s nothing about it that feels cinematically memorable. No widescreen wow factor.


Like a page-turner reminiscent of an Alistair Maclean adventure – a quick read that once completed joins the pile of other paperbacks in the corner and is quickly forgotten as you start the next one – you’ll enjoy the various chases, well choreographed fights, last minute escapes and the gunplay, but once it’s done and you leave the theatre, there isn’t much to talk about. It’s all surprisingly routine.

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

Posted in Film

Keeping Up With The Joneses – Film Review


He’s a tall, handsome man who writes travel articles, or so he says; she’s a tall, leggy woman from Greece, or so she says, and together they make the perfect looking, married couple. Plus, they’ve just moved to a quiet, suburban neighborhood next door to the Gaffneys. It’s a place where nothing ever happens.

But something’s not right. Maybe it’s because the couple seem so overly accomplished, or maybe it’s because they paid cash for the house even though they’d never seen the place before moving in. Or maybe it’s because the whole building just blew up in an explosive ball of fire two weeks after they arrived. On reflection, the giveaway was probably the exploding house.


In the action comedy Keeping Up With The Joneses, Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot play Tim and Natalie Jones, and as nice neighbors Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher) will soon discover, the Joneses are spies. Whether they’re the good guys or the bad guys is difficult to tell – Karen finds new neighbor Tim snooping around her husband’s den in the guise of looking for the bathroom – but they’re certainly dangerous, though friendly enough when they first arrive.

Good neighbor Tim even gives the Gaffneys a glass ornament he made as a gift for their coffee table. “I blow my own glass,” he tells them. It’s a nice gesture, except that when Jeff accidentally breaks the ornament in a clumsy move, the Gaffneys find an electronic bug among the broken fragments. Karen’s suspicion that something’s not right about the perfect looking couple is confirmed. On the other hand, Jeff’s not sure what his wife is talking about.


The idea that an ordinary suburban neighborhood in a picture perfect, well manicured cul-de-sac is suddenly home to a couple of secret agents is a perfectly fine setup to a comedy. Hamm and Gadot really do look the handsome couple they’re supposed to be, and Galifianakis and Fisher work well together as the ordinary suburbanites in a neighborhood where everyone knows your name, and your business. There are even a few good early laughs as the groundwork for what’s to develop is established. At a backyard family gathering where all the neighbors group to eat barbecue and home-brewed beer – the locals call it their Junetober Fest with beer made from a place called What Ales Ya? – Tim Jones impresses the ladies with his tales of world travel while Natalie Jones impresses the guys with an effortless triple bullseye on the dart board.

There’s even a sense of mystery as secret spy Tim breaks into Jeff’s Human Resource office late one night and goes through deleted computer files, while a suspicious Karen follows the Amazonian looking Natalie around town and notices the mysterious woman slipping secret messages to an equally mysterious looking someone in a coffee shop.

But once a kill is made and good guys and bad guys with automatic weapons start shooting it out, with Jeff and Karen in the middle of the mayhem wondering what the heck is suddenly happening to them, it falls apart. Part of the problem is that while house designer Karen is smart enough to be suspicious in the first place, Jeff is a total, clueless doofus. In fact, his character is not simply stupid, he’s annoyingly stupid. And he’s not funny, and neither is the script.


While the action, the car chases, and several of the stunts are as efficient as any regular thriller, writer Michael LeSieur doesn’t appear to have a grasp of the comedy. It’s as if the idea of a couple of ordinary suburbanites stuck in the middle of an international espionage caper is enough to make the comedy work, but he never invents funny things for the bewildered couple to either do or say; they simply duck and dive and hold each other while the bullets fly. There’s no sharp dialog and no real wit, other than maybe the TV sit-com response to American children with bad teeth; “This is not Great Britain” the HR manager complains. LeSieur seems more interested in the action. Hoping that the overall concept and Jeff’s clueless stupidity will take care of the laughs is not enough.  It still needs to be funny.

Galifianakis is a naturally funny performer, but LeSieur’s script makes him irritating. How could someone this stupid be a Human Resource manager or married to a person as bright as Isla Fisher’s Karen? It’s a comedy, sure, but once ground rules of a certain style of expected behavior are established within the comedic framework, having a character act in the way the script makes Jeff Gaffney behave is actually jarring; he’s in a different kind of movie.

Oddly, it’s straight man Jon Hamm who entertains the most. His secret agent later reveals that he doesn’t actually like his job. He doesn’t like all the lying when working undercover, which is kind of funny when you think about it. And when an alarmed Karen asks, “You dove headfirst through a window?” Hamm makes the lame comeback, “It’s not as hard as it seems,” sound sort of amusing.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13   Length: 101 Minutes    Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Sound of Music – Theatre Review: National Touring Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe


There’s something that happens near the beginning of the new national touring production of The Sound of Music, now performing at ASU Gammage until October 23, and it immediately tells you that this is not business as usual. It’s during the first few minutes when the nuns of the Nonnberg Abbey gather for the Preludum.

There they are, standing in line, singing, and waiting for Mother Abbess (Melody Betts) to enter. They’re waiting for her to acknowledge them one by one and to give a personal blessing. But there’s a space in the line where someone should be standing. Now, at this point in the long life of the Rodgers and Hammerstein perennial favorite, it’s safe to assume that almost everyone in the house at ASU Gammage over a certain age is already familiar with the musical in one way or another, whether it’s from having seen a previous professional production, a regional theatre presentation, that live NBC special a few years back, or the movie which wasn’t just a success but a phenomenon. And because of this, everyone knows that the space in that line belongs to Maria Rainer (Kerstin Anderson), but we know that Maria has her head in the clouds up on those nearby mountains as she always does.

As Mother Abbess reaches the space where Maria should be, she stops, checks the empty space and does a double-take. And that’s the moment; that second or two of brief comedic business that tells you everything that follows in this production is going to be slightly different than what came before.


Most reviewers have had the same dilemma. When waiting for another production of a show to begin, one seen several times over the years, what can you possibly write that hasn’t already been written? Well, be prepared for a surprise.

Director Jack O’Brien has done something quite remarkable with this new revival. With new inflection and a new delivery, dialog heard spoken many times before suddenly sounds completely different, and considerably more humorous. It’s as if a new shot of theatrical adrenaline has been administered. When Maria tells Captain Von Trapp (Ben Davis) that the dress she’s wearing was one even the poor didn’t want, audiences still laugh, even though they’ve heard it spoken several times in other versions.  It’s not that it’s funny (though it was always a good line), it’s because of Kirsten Anderson’s timing and delivery. It’s fresh. And so it is with almost every other element in this hugely entertaining new production.


When Mother Abess and Maria sing My Favorite Things as a duet, there’s a genuine feel of joy in the harmonies. And that fresh sense of musical exuberance extends into all the songs. Do-Re-Mi sung in the show within five minutes of Maria meeting the seven Von Trapp children sounds ad-libbed as if the new governess has just had a great idea for some words and a tune and is making things up as she goes along. So Long, Farewell performed by the children to the ballroom guests was always cute, but with a new presentation and different but simple choreography, it’s now a charmer.

Anderson plays Maria in a way vastly different from Mary Martin’s original Maria, or even that of Julie Andrews. Here’s she’s something of a perpetually enthusiastic, loving dweeb, never frightened to stand up for herself when the need arises and always finding something to be passionate about. Within moments of meeting the children, there’s a bond established that feels completely authentic. Plus, her voice is a pleasure.


Even the captain feels as though he’s received a new lease on life. Captain von Trapp was always in danger of being portrayed as a stern plank of wood, a character that changes only somewhat once he realizes he’s fallen in love with the governess, but as played by Ben Davis, even though that sternness is initially evident, you can see the warmth of a real person emerging at an earlier moment than usually portrayed. There’s even a sense of playfulness witnessed as the captain entertains his guests at the ball. Hearing his children sing for the first time as he puts his hand to his mouth and attempts to hold back the tears has a surprising emotional kick.

The original Broadway production opened in 1959 and closed in 1963. If the production that ran at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in midtown-Manhatten had been this 2016 touring revival with Kirstin Anderson, Ben Davis and Melody Betts, and directed with such fresh vitality by Jack O’Brien, it might have run even longer.

Pictures courtesy of Matthew Murphy

For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the ASU Gammage website

Posted in Theatre

Veronica’s Room – Theatre Review: itc iTheatre Collaborative – Kax Stage, Herberger Center


Simply put, Ira Levin’s Vernonica’s Room, now playing on the Kax Stage at the Herberger Theater Center until November 29, is a creepy mystery melodrama told in two acts. To tell you anymore is going to be a problem.

As presented by in-residence theatre company, itc iTheatre Collaborative, here’s what can be said, and it happens before the play begins. It’s 1973. There’s a young couple on their first official date at a restaurant in Boston. Susan (Makala Close) is a college student. Larry (Kyle Hartwick) is a lawyer. An elderly Irish couple, John and Maureen Mackey (Brad Bond and Alaina Beauloye), approach the couple. Evidently, Susan resembles someone they once knew; a girl called Veronica, now passed away.


Here’s where it gets tricky. The elderly couple invite the young couple back to the suburban Boston home where the Mackeys act as family caretakers. All that’s left of the family in the house is a senile woman called Cissie, and Cissie needs closure on the death of Veronica. If the young student is willing to come back to the house and pretend she’s Veronica – if only for a few moments – it would mean everything to the senile Cissie. Then the play begins, and it all takes place in Veronica’s room, the one where she passed away.

Everything above is something we learn in the first few conversational minutes when the elderly Mackays invite Susan and Larry into the old bedroom, a place where most of the furniture and artifacts are covered by cloth to stop the dust from settling. The year may be 1973 but the room appears locked in its own time-bubble, 1935. There’s even an old, wind-up, gramophone player that plays only scratchy 78 rpm recordings. The room has been that way, untouched, uninhabited, ever since Veronica died.

She does look like me at that age,” agrees Susan when shown a picture of Veronica as a little girl. It’s apparent that the student sees little harm in helping the elderly couple, but boyfriend Larry is not so sure. His lawyer instincts kick in. What if they start asking for something extra, like money, he asks. But Susan isn’t quite so suspicious. After all, the Mackays are such a nice elderly couple, and their motives appear to be nothing more than wanting to help a senile old woman, now their charge, to bring a sense of closure. Once completed, everyone can get on with their lives. It’s really just that simple. With reluctance, Larry goes downstairs to pass the time and watch TV, the Mackay’s leave the room, and Susan, now dressed in the clothes Veronica would have worn to make the illusion complete, sits and waits to meet Cissie. But at this point, there’s something we know that Susan doesn’t: she’s locked in. And that’s all that can be told.


Clearly, something’s wrong and someone’s not telling the truth; hardly a plot-spoiler, you know that going in. After all, a glance at the program before the play begins tells you that those names are not necessarily the names of the characters; at least, not their real names. The four players we meet in the first half are listed as simply the woman, the man, the girl and the young man; and that’s it. But if that’s the case and there’s deceit going on, who’s doing the conning?

The fun of that first half is once you get to the intermission after the groundwork is established, you can’t help but speculate what’s going to happen. You’ll be asking yourself all kinds of questions revolving around whether the elderly couple are really who they say they are, or if maybe Susan is up to something by pretending to be someone she’s not. Maybe that’s not even her name. And why won’t Larry the lawyer touch his young date, not even a kiss on the cheek or a hold of the arm? Does it even mean anything? Maybe. Maybe not. Here’s the thing: You’ll never guess.

Whatever you think, whatever you reason, and whatever you conclude; it won’t be the answer. What can be told is this: the outcome is shocking, your stomach will be in knots, and you’ll even question if what you’re witnessing is really happening, but that’s all you need to know.


When the play first opened in 1973 it was a present day setting. In 2016, the play, like Veronica’s bedroom itself, is a period piece and needs to remain so. If what happens within the plot occurred today, you wouldn’t altogether buy it. With surveillance cameras everywhere, cell phones, texting, and everyone documenting their lives every step of the way on Facebook, taking pictures of their meal at a restaurant as if we really want to see what other people are eating, taking instant snaps of friends and dates and publishing them within seconds, not to mention GPS tracking and the fact that we tend to behave in a more confrontational way if ever threatened, especially young people, what happens probably wouldn’t happen. But in 1973 it could.

Director Charles St. Clair does a nice job of creating a chilling atmosphere, not always easy in live theatre. A suspension of disbelief is simplified on film, but in theatre, you’re there with the actors; that attempt by the performers to make you willingly suspend all critical faculties is more difficult to achieve, yet here, with the sound of those old 78s playing quietly in the background, echoing like musical ghosts of a long, lost past, something creepy-crawly is established. You’re reminded of what Jack Nicholson heard as he wandered the halls and rooms of the Overlook in The Shining.

The intimacy of the Kax Stage is both a plus and a minus. Seated within a few feet of Christopher Haines’ efficiently atmospheric set can often feel as though you’re right there, trapped in the room. But at the same time there’s a drawback. This closeness can often break the illusion that you’re not watching characters but actors; you can more easily observe the join of an obvious gray wig, the makeup, or a fake mustache, even the unintended hesitation of an actor’s line. Knowing from the headshots in the program that the elderly couple are played by those younger, you start to consider whether the characters within the play are mysteriously pretending to be old or is it simply a case of seeing behind the theatrical curtain because of the close proximity. In truth, it’s an extra layer of guess work as you try to figure out what will happen in Act Two.


In a play like Veronica’s Room, whether you’re happy with the reveals, the twists, the turns and the outcome, will all be down to you. A reviewer can inform on technical aspects and the professionalism of an overall presentation – or its lack of – but could not, and should not, predict whether it will work for you. That’s personal taste. You may love the shocks, or you may be annoyed that it doesn’t quite work in the way you were hoping. The important thing is this: With smart and efficient direction, itc iTheatre Collaborative succeed in what it sets to achieve. There’s something definitely rotten going on in the state of Massachusetts, and spines will be tingled. Say no more.

Pictures courtesy of itc iTheatre Collaborative

For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the itc iTheatre Collaborative website

Posted in Theatre

Funny Girl – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria


Because of the work, the script re-writes, the cast changes and the backstage shenanigans that seemed to last for an eternity before it eventually opened, setting a precise date for the official beginning of the musical Funny Girl is not easy. The Broadway opening was 1964, though because of the out of town tryouts, the lengthy postponements, plus the songs that were cut, then re-instated or re-shaped, some theatre historians list it as 1963.

It doesn’t matter. The important thing is, once it opened, the biographical plot very loosely based on the vaudeville singer/comedian and later, Broadway star Fanny Brice and her tempestuous relationship with professional gambler Nick Arnstein catapulted Barbra Streisand to national fame. When she belted I’m The Greatest Star it may have begun Fanny’s story, but it was really about Streisand, and with good reason; for more than five decades she has remained the greatest. Her thirty-fifth studio album Encore was released in August this year and went straight to number one in Billboard’s charts. Remarkable.


It may seem somewhat unfair to point this out when reviewing a new, regional production of the Jule Styne/Bob Merrill musical, but as with Robert Preston in The Music Man, Yul Brynner in The King and I, and even Topol in Fiddler on the Roof, there are certain roles in certain musicals where a performer is so closely associated with the character, it’s difficult not to have those originals spring to mind; in fact, it’s impossible. And so it is with Streisand and Fanny Brice.

Beginning Arizona Broadway Theatre’s 2016-2017 season, it’s 12th, is Funny Girl running now until November 13, and your first thought should be, what a breath of fresh air. The complaint that it’s just a handful of well-known musicals that continue to circulate among the valley’s theatres on a regular basis is immediately dispelled with this splashy, colorful, show biz oriented, season opener. It’s been years since a professional production of Funny Girl came to town and it couldn’t be more welcomed. Surprisingly, talking to some mainstream audience members, there are those who forget that the famous movie was based on a show, while others had no idea it was ever a Broadway production in the first place.


Maybe it’s Streisand’s considerable shadow that makes reviving Funny Girl and casting the right performer as Fanny Brice such a challenge. Indeed, when ABT’s Liz Fallon first enters and utters those immortal opening words, “Hello, Gorgeous,” with that sound and that inflection, it’s still Streisand you hear, but how can you not? There’s no other way of saying them. But once that’s done and out of the way, you can relax. What follows is no Miss S imitation. Liz crafts her Fanny Brice her own way; she’s an unstoppable spitfire, a powerhouse force of comedic energy that will knock you aside if you dare to get in her way. If any previous performer springs to mind when watching Liz Fallon deliver her wisecracks, those asides, and that schtick, it’s Sophie Tucker, and that’s perfectly fine. Hearing faint echoes of the performer known as The Last of the Red Hot Mamas in Liz’s delivery only adds to the authentic feel that we’re watching a performer with real, vaudeville roots.

But despite the obvious talent – that triple threat of dancer, singer and actor – there’s something else that actually works against her, particularly in the eyes of a purist. Ordinarily, in any other musical it would be a plus, but Funny Girl is about Fanny Brice. When a running theme throughout the show is about the disadvantage of being an entertainer trying to succeed but doing it with less than ordinary looks, it’s odd to see it played by someone so theatrically attractive. When lyrics sing of “When a girl isn’t pretty…” or “The groom was prettier than the bride…” it doesn’t really make sense. Neither does the sequence where Ziegfeld (a suitably authoritative T.V. Reeves) insists that Fanny perform the Follies production number His Love Makes Me Beautiful. Fanny changes the whole thing into a comic routine and enters as a pregnant bride in order to distract audiences from her face to her stomach. But as with trying to nail a precise date of the show’s ‘63/’64 origin, perhaps in the end it doesn’t really matter. There may be nothing ethnic about her, but ABT’s Liz is so much fun, it’s easy to pretend you don’t notice and go with the flow, though it’s possible that those new to Funny Girl may wonder what all those other characters are referring to all the time.


Like Liz’s Miss Brice, the first half of the show is a whirlwind, but Isobel Lennart’s book, despite constant re-writes, has always suffered from a short second half with uneven rhythms and just a small handful of songs. As Fanny’s relationship with her husband is in danger of falling apart, so, too, is the show, but once again, by sheer force of energy, Liz propels it towards her big finish and keeps you glued, aided by a strong performance from Jamie Parnell as Nick Arnstein, an actor whose speaking voice matches the depth and strength of his singing. Watching Parnell’s Arnstein (the character’s real name was actually Julius Wilford Arnstein – Nick was one of several aliases) you’re reminded how miscast Omar Shariff was in the film. Plus, it’s good to hear Fanny and Nick’s duet I Want To Be Seen With You Tonight again after it was cut from the film.

Well cast throughout, even the large ensemble is peppered with solid support in smaller roles from seasoned professionals, notably Gerri Weagraff as mama Mrs. Brice, Phil Sloves hoofing it nicely as Eddie Ryan, the always reliable Tim Shawver as Tom Keeney, a welcome return to ABT’s stage from the much missed Carolyn McPhee as the Irish accented Mrs. O’Malley, and a delightfully comic performance from a vocally unrecognizable Johanna Carlisle, plus a whole host of accomplished male and female ensemble players, with some doubling required in small but important characters from local valley talent, Tony Blosser.


Technical credits for an overall handsome looking production are high from Lizzie Hatfield’s music direction, Lottie Dixon’s glittering costumes, Amanda Gran’s countless wigs, to Dan Efros’ lighting. Director Clayton Phillips with choreographer Kurtis W. Overby use the wide ABT stage to good effect, never allowing the cast to appear dwarfed by either the space or Jim Hunter’s effective sets. Good transitions from scene to scene, too.

And when enjoying your meal before the show (never forget that ABT is a dinner theatre) you should try the featured drink special Second Hand Rose. No idea how it was conceived, but you have to admit, it’s just as much fun to ask your server for one as it is to drink it.


Pictures courtesy of Scott Samplin

For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the ABT website.

Posted in Theatre