Rock of Ages – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

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When it comes to musical taste, it’s amazing what the passing of time can do.  Songs and a style of pop/rock that when played on the car stereo had you reaching for the dial faster than an Yngwie Malmsteen guitar lick can suddenly acquire a sense of nostalgia, even fond affection, when heard again several years later.

In the case of the head-banging, jukebox musical Rock of Ages, now playing at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria until June 19, songs that thirty years ago might have had any decent rock ‘n roll fan wondering where’s Led Zeppelin when you need them suddenly take on a different form.  After all, in the pantheon of unforgettable classic rock and roll, neither Starship’s We Built This City nor Twisted Sister’s I Wanna Rock hold honorable positions.  But, then again, they were never meant to.

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The Los Angeles Sunset Strip music scene of the mid-80’s was ablaze with the sound of backcombed hair bands like Def Leppard, Quiet Riot and Bon Jovi and it had nothing to do with taste.  It was everyone having Nothin’ But A Good Time, to quote Poison’s 1988 hit single, and that’s exactly what Rock of Ages is going for; not the classics – Stairway to Heaven; too accomplished, Layla; too good – but the good time, head-banging, bloated, studs with leather pop rock where the guys had bigger hair and wore more makeup than the aggressively slutty looking heavy-metal video chicks that backed them.

The glam, heavy metal days of the 80’s wanted nothing more for its fans than to Cum On Feel the Noize, which is why ABT’s production of Rock of Ages is so much giddy fun.  It’s full of glorious bad taste, big hair, loud guitar licks, songs you’d forgotten you ever knew, and it’s all very, very funny.  But more importantly, at ABT under Kurtis W. Overby’s lively direction and fun, hands-clenched-in-the-air choreography, plus Mark 4Man’s loud synth and heavy metal musical direction, it’s also done very well.

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Following the formula of other jukebox musicals where previously known songs not written for the Broadway stage are assembled as a musical score to pepper a thin story line, Rock of Ages has an admittedly, though intentionally, clichéd plot, and that’s all part of the fun.  It’s the same one used in Cher’s 2010 movie Burlesque where an out of town girl gets a job at a struggling L.A. nightclub/bar and becomes embroiled with a fight against developers who want to knock the bar down and make way for new buildings.  On reflection, maybe that’s why the tamer movie version of Rock of Ages changed its plot, but ABT’s stage version remains with the original.   While Burlesque actually took this old plot seriously, Rock of Ages knows that everything about it is silly and plays it that way.

What makes Rock of Ages so much, unadulterated, ‘R’ rated fun is writer Chris D’Arienzo’s book.  He hasn’t simply bridged popular 80’s songs with a plot that serves merely as a way of getting to the next big number, he makes almost every line spoken in one way or another funny.  There’s hardly a dull moment, and certainly never a serious one.  When good girl Sherrie (Laurie Elizabeth Gardner) first arrives at the Bourbon Room, where most of the action takes place, she announces with a smile, “Smells like rock… and urine.” 

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Casting is good and appropriate throughout, not just the leads but the whole supporting ensemble consisting of back-up singers and scantily-clad, heavy-metal video fantasy chicks all of whom double as walk-ons at some point or another.  But the two you’ll remember the most is Matthew Mello’s hilarious mullet-wearing narrator Lonny who breaks that fourth wall and continually shares his bad-boy thoughts with the audience, and the story’s central character, Sherrie Christian (Gardner) whose name exits just so that Night Ranger’s Sister Christian and Steve Perry’s Oh Sherrie can be used.

When passing a thought on music, Mello’s Lonny begins with, “I may be no Andrew Lloyd Sondheim, but…” plus just before the curtain falls on intermission, he points to two women down near the front of the audience and declares, “You and you. My dressing room in two minutes.”

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Laurie Elizabeth Gardner, who, according to the Playbill notes, has just finished playing the same role in New Hampshire, is an outstanding Sherrie.  With big hair, handsome good looks, a revealing micro-mini and perhaps the best legs on Sunset Strip, Gardner’s Sherrie may see herself as a wide-eyed innocent, fresh from the mid-west and ready to be a Hollywood actress, but deep down she has the heart of a slutty, rock chick willing to drop everything at a moment’s notice in order to have sex in the men’s bathroom with a rock star (a funny Joe Ogren as a wannabe Dee Snider, Stacy Jaxx).  Later, when making ends meet as a stripper, a movie-rep tells her he can see Sherrie as the next Molly Ringwald.  An amazed Sherrie replies, “You got that in a two-for-one lap dance?”

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Lottie Dixon’s costumes, Amanda Gran’s wig and makeup, and Geoffrey M. Eroe’s excellent set design of the cluttered Bourbon Room and its environs, lit by William C. Kirkham’s atmospheric nightclub lighting, all evoke the spirit of Broadway’s original designs.  ABT’s production of Rock of Ages delivers exactly what Poison promises, Nothin’ But A Good Time.  A second visit to see Sherrie and the gang would not be out place.

Pictures courtesy of Joe Samplin

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

Posted in Theatre

Weiner – Film Review

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When filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg began their fly-on-the-wall documentary, Weiner, the scandals revolving around former U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner were behind him.  The revealing selfies, the sext messages and whatever else he may have sent on-line that derailed his political career was now a two year-old story.  “I guess the punch-line is true,” Anthony Weiner states to the camera.  “I did a lot of things.”

By the time the film crew began their work, the 2013 New York mayoral race was already in place.  And so was Anthony Weiner.  “I hope to get a second chance to work for you,” stated an ad after he declared he would be running.  When it came to Weiner, in keeping with its all-inclusive, never-ending, pun-heavy headlines, NYC’s Daily News declared: He’s Got Some Balls!

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He’s always been a good fighter for the people,” states a female commentator, and during those early moments of the documentary, we can see that.  From the examples given, the democratic congressman was a passionate politician.  He fought hard, never backed down, was always prepared to raise his voice and give full commitment to whatever he was defending.  More often than not, the crowds were on his side.  “Everybody deserves a second chance,” chanted supporters.

But then it happens, again.  Exactly at what point things were committed is cloudy – the documentary never quite clarifies the timing – but more damaging pictures emerge, more sext messages are revealed, and Anthony Weiner’s desire for that second chance spiral wildly out of control.  “Newly revealed pictures are by far the most explosive we’ve seen,” declares a TV reporter.

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With a continuous flow of jokes on late night TV, more puns-as-headlines on the front pages of the tabloids, plus clips of Bill Maher and Jane Lynch reading those sex text messages to ‘Lisa’ on HBO, Anthony Weiner’s ascension ceased.  At a press conference with just six weeks to go in the race, we see Weiner trying to get his political message across with requests that all following questions be on-topic.  Silence from the crowd.  When someone finally asks if they can refer to something off-topic, Weiner reluctantly agrees, and the crowd suddenly becomes vocal.

How do you feel today?” asks the documentarian as he follows Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin around the kitchen.  “It’s like having a nightmare,” she replies as she goes about her business, possessing the look of someone who wished the camera would just go away.  And when the filmmaker asks something similar to Weiner, the former congressman admonishes the camera, telling the filmmaker he’s supposed to be making a fly-on-the-wall documentary and that flies-on-the-wall don’t talk.

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There may be those outside of New York whose interest in politics is virtually nil and that the Anthony Weiner scandals were never on their radar, but for those whose interest is more than just a headline, Steinberg and Kriegman’s documentary is a gripping feature, one that never loses its energy.

Determined to see the mayoral race to the end, Weiner charges full steam ahead while everything around him falls apart.  Your reaction to the man who served New York’s 9th congressional district will no doubt depend on your personal thoughts, position and beliefs.  As a Republican supporter, the film and what Anthony Weiner did is a comedian’s punch line.  As a Democrat, for someone with so much promise, he’s a major disappointment.  If you had an issue and needed a Pit Bull on your side, Anthony Weiner was your representative. “I knew instantly it was pretty bad,” Weiner tells the camera.

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So, how is it that he derailed his career so spectacularly? And why?  It’s a question that’s never answered.   Neither is another fascinating question.  When, near the conclusion of the documentary, filmmaker Kriegman asks, “Why have you let me film this?”  Weiner has nothing to say.  He shrugs.  He really doesn’t know.

Like an accident at the side of the road, you should turn away, but can’t.  The film possesses a magnetic pull; it’s way too compelling a subject to look in the other direction.  With surprising and somewhat eye-raising access to everything that occurred behind the scenes – filmmaker Kriegman was a former aide to the congressman – Weiner is a genuinely fascinating watch.  And, sadly, it’s also very entertaining.

MPAA Rating:  R      Length:  96 Minutes     Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Alice Through The Looking Glass – Film Review

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Time is a thief and a villain,” explains Alice (Mia Wasikowska) to her mother (Lindsay Duncan) in the new Disney sequel to 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice Through The Looking Glass.  But even though the part of Time is played by a somewhat villainous Sacha Baron Cohen, the real thief of this follow-up tale is writer Linda Woolverton.  She’s stolen the title to Lewis Carroll’s second Alice novel and written her own, manic story, presumably by studio direction and design, that bares little to no resemblance to the original. And it’s all over the place.

Alice still climbs up onto the fireplace mantel and steps through the large mirror on the wall to see what might be on the other side, but her reasons for doing so are altered, plus what she finds has little to do with the world of Lewis Carroll.  There’s an initial reference to a chess board – a theme throughout the book but not the film – where the chess pieces come to life, but they’re there solely to supply the punch line to clumsy Alice’s action after she’s accidentally knocked Humpty Dumpty (John Sessions) off the table.  The king orders all of his horses and all of his men to get down there and help put Humpty back together.

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In the film, the reason why Alice climbs through that mirror tends to be the most interesting aspect of the whole affair.  Having returned from some thrilling adventures on the high seas as captain of her own sailing ship, Alice returns to London to find that her father has passed away and her mother will lose her home if Alice doesn’t sign over her ship to the man she scorned at the end of the first feature, Hamish (a suitably obsequious Leo Bill).

Determined not to hand over her vessel, Alice runs throughout the house and escapes the clutches of Hamish and his snotty, all-male board members by following her old friend Absolem the caterpillar, now a butterfly (Alan Rickman to whom the film is dedicated) into the magical mirror.  Once on the other side, she becomes embroiled in an adventure revolving around an ailing Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) who’s depressed and missing his family, and a race against time.  Having stolen a time traveling device called the Chronosphere from an imposing half-human clock, Time himself, Alice returns to Wonderland’s past in the hope of altering certain moments that will change the future, only to discover that time can never be altered without creating the most disastrous of events.  It’s all very complicated – young audience members will have no clue, guaranteed – and appears to have its story-telling inspiration not so much from Lewis Carroll but from Back to the Future Part 2, and it’s just as annoyingly manic.

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The CGI imagery is as you’d expect, imaginatively stunning – Alice flying in her craft over what appears to be the sea of time is simply remarkable – but computer imagery alone is not enough.  Audiences are no longer dazzled by CGI spectacle once it’s piled on, scene after breathless scene, without a cohesive story to engage, as is the case here.

Considering just how wonderful Carroll’s absurdly creative source material is, you have to question why director James Bobin and writer Woolverton took this overbearingly frenzied approach.  The message that, “The only thing worth doing is what we do for others,” as Alice tells Time, is certainly a worthwhile theme, but it’s a message that becomes buried under all the mayhem.

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Set pieces can’t help but remind you of other films, not only the already mentioned Back to the Future Part 2, but also Disney’s own 1985 Return to Oz in an insane asylum and, heaven forbid, even Transformers when Time’s mini-metal servants group together to make one, large, threatening chase and attack metal monster.  Plus, the film breaks Carroll’s intentionally nonsensical, illogical world by giving answers to questions that no one – certainly not Lewis Carroll – would have asked, like how did Helena Bonham Carter’s evil Red Queen become so vindictive and why is her head larger than the rest of her body?  Why do this?

Two answers.  First, the studio wanted to make a sequel that looked like Tim Burton’s first but bigger while incorporating as much of top-billed Johnny Depp into the story as it could, and second, because this charmless, overly busy and unengaging film really doesn’t get Lewis Carroll at all.

 MPAA Rating:  PG    Length:  108 Minutes   Overall Rating:  4 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The 2016 Illuminate Film Festival – Sedona: Special Report, Part 1 of 2

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Even if you’re both an Arizona resident and a follower of film, there’s still a good chance you may never have heard of the Illuminate Film Festival in Sedona, and with good reason.  Listed in the Huffington Post’s prominent Top 24 Film Festivals to Revitalize Your Soul in 2016, this year marks only the third year that the festival has been in existence, yet its influence in conscious cinema is already quite remarkable.

Festival-1But exactly what is conscious cinema?  During last year’s festival I had the opportunity of talking to Illuminate’s founder and Executive Director Danette Wolpert who explained, “What we mean by Conscious Cinema is that films have the capacity to increase our own self-awareness and awareness in the world.  Our films hold human beings as sacred rather than expendable.  They encourage our audiences to ponder their existence more deeply than their daily routine.”

This year, the festival, which runs from June 1-5, will feature five world premieres, two sneak peaks and newly added focuses on family film, episodic television and web content, plus a line-up of films under the theme Social Issues, Conscious Solutions.

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Illuminate begins June 1 with a pre-festival Launch Party and free outdoor screening of the work-in-progress documentary Be More, narrated by Joaquin Phoenix.  The opening film is June 2.  Maya Angelou And Still I Rise is a portrayal of the author, poet, civil rights activist, Grammy-winner and legend, Maya Angelou, featuring interviews with James Earl Jones, Alice Walker, Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.  Filmmaker Rita Cobourn Whack will in attendance.

Illuminate 2 Is the Illumninate Film Festival unique?  “Illuminate is really one of a kind in the sense that we focus on conscious media, but we also incorporate both an exhibition component and a film industry component,” stated Danette.  “In other words, not only do we bring the cinema to the community when they would otherwise not have access to these films, but we’re also bringing the film industry to the event so that filmmakers and distributors and film financiers and film making companies can all connect in order to facilitate growth of this genre all over the world.  So, in that sense, Illuminate is unique.”

In this first of two special reports from Sedona we take a sneak peak at two of the films you can enjoy at the festival.  Both are documentaries and both are perfect illustrations of Illuminate’s theme of conscious cinema and the positivity that knowledge of these two very different subjects can bring to the viewer.

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Service posterThank You For Your Service is a fascinating, 90 minute account of war trauma and failed policies revolving around the stories of four Iraq War veterans.  Directed by Tom Donahue, who will attend the festival for a Q&A following the screening, this riveting and highly affecting documentary tells the stories of men and women returning from active duty while trying to cope with issues such as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide.  The film explains that by 2012 more U.S. troops died by suicide than were killed in combat.  As one marine states as he tries to put things in perspective, “It’s exhausting feeling you’re under attack all the time.”

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The film highlights the difficulties of the military attempting to re-enter civilian life and the seemingly insurmountable odds it’s faced with when carrying the guilt of past actions.  For example, Marine Kenny Toone talks of how events overseas violated his personal religious beliefs as he tries to come to terms with what he has done while in combat. Kenny returned with ‘Moral Injury.’  Marine Phil Straub was caught in a ferocious ambush and witnessed the chaos that ensued as he watched friends burn to death.  Three months later Phil returned home, always anxious, never sleeping, constantly on the move, plus he developed an inability to engage with friends.  Phil was diagnosed with ‘Survivor’s Guilt.’

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That sense of helplessness remains not only with the infantry but also with the Veteran’s Administration. “How do you help someone who comes to your office and says I’ve killed?” asks one doctor.  The V.A. reports that there are 22 suicides a day.  The actual number is probably higher.

But true to the theme of the Illuminate festival, just at the moment when you might feel that all is lost, there develops hope in the shape of unconventional therapy.  Alternative modalities or the physical treatment of a disorder in private community based programs is illustrated in Native American rituals giving both hope and even a sense of jubilation to the men and women of the military.

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Despite its sobering content, Donahue’s documentary is no dry account.  The film delivers a surprising emotional impression using still pictures, sounds and even a blank screen to highlight the emotional impact of stories told.  It’s very effective.  Plus the film is unrelenting with some staggering statistics.  Perhaps the most staggering of all is the one that concludes the documentary: While you have watched this film, a veteran has committed suicide.

 CLICK HERE for details of times, dates and screenings for Thank You For Your Service.

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Vegan: Everyday Stories is just as the title suggests – a 93 minute documentary telling everyday stories of those who, for one reason or another, have decided to become vegan; a strict vegetarian who not only shuns the world of animal food and dairy products but abstains from using animal products for clothing or any other purpose.

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Meet Renee King-Sonnen whose ambition was always to be a country singer.  Renee runs an animal sanctuary in the middle of Texas.  “Before I went Vegan, I liked chick-filet sandwiches,” Renee explained, but it was after nursing a chicken back to health that everything turned around.  Then there’s eight-year old spitfire, Genesis Butler who one day questioned the food she was eating.  Genesis wondered where the meat came from before it got to the supermarket.  Once she discovered that animals were born into suffering simply to be killed, then eaten, everything changed.  “I never want to eat this again,” she declared, pushing her final chicken nugget aside.

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Told with affection for the animals and even some occasional humor for the situation in which these everyday people have suddenly found themselves, Vegan: Everyday Stories is an entertaining look at the vegan world and the need to protect the world’s animals.

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With additional stories and commentary from celebrities such as musician Moby, entrepreneur Russell Simmons and actor Ed Begley Jr, in truth, it’s difficult to tell whether the documentary will change minds – in this case it’s one thing to witness testimony, it’s another to experience it for yourself – but at least it brings awareness to a subject many may have never considered.  As one lady turned vegan tells the camera, she once witnessed the extraordinary sight of a lamb being born only to be cooking it for the dinner table some time later.  She cried for days.

Look for a Q&A with director Glenn Scott Lacey along with cast members Renee King-Sonnen and Genesis Butler after the screening.

 CLICK HERE for details of times, dates and screenings for Vegan: Everyday Stories

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 To find out more, CLICK HERE for the 2016 Illuminate Film Festival website and HERE for the festival’s interactive schedule

Posted in Special Report

When You Wish, The Story of Walt Disney – Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

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I couldn’t see it,” begins our narrator.  “Nobody could.”

That’s the voice of Roy Disney (Andy Umberger), brother to animator, producer, dreamer, and cultural icon, Walt Disney (Joey Sorge) talking of his brother’s plans for Disneyland, or “The riskiest place on Earth,” in the new musical When You Wish, The Story of Walt Disney, now playing at Phoenix Theatre until June 12.

In the way that Dickens described the very word Christmas as having something magical about it, movie-goers often feel that same sense of love and affection when it comes to the name Disney.  It’s no longer simply a family moniker; it’s akin to the very nature of movie magic and a promise of something wonderful still to come, as long as we wish upon a twinkling star and wait just a little.  The difference Walt Disney’s creations and stories have brought to our lives – not just in America but around the world – is immeasurable.

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Certainly, that’s how it is for writer Dean McClure who created When You Wish.  The show is clearly a labor of love, one that McClure has loved and labored over for several years.  Even though the show premiered in an earlier form three years ago in California, with more work and re-write after re-write, this new version now unveiled at the Phoenix can still be called a world premiere.

As the title suggests, When You Wish tells of the early days of America’s most famous Midwestern boy who thought big with a seemingly unlimited imagination that eventually proved something we’ve always wanted to believe: dreams really do come true.  As seen through brother Roy’s eyes, the musical takes us back to the beginning when young Walt (a role shared on alternate nights by Ross Nemeth and T.J. Rossi) would draw characters on toilet paper in lieu of anything better in the house to use, much to the annoyance of the rest of the family.

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Most of the story-telling conflicts of Walt’s rise to pioneer status occur in the show’s first half, culminating with the creation of a certain famous mouse and a big solo from Walt himself.  The second half is shorter with fewer songs and only a few hurdles for Disney to overcome before reaching the opening of the California theme park that closes the show.  It’s also here where the failings of McClure’s book and the overall production are evident.

Presumably, despite an approving nod from the Disney family to tell the story, the use of sound, music and imagery from the Disney vaults were either never granted or too expensive to buy.  However, director Larry Raben’s production does creative wonders when skirting around copyright issues.  Even though we catch glimpses of Walt’s 1920’s Alice Comedies projected on a back screen, his most famous creations are here presented more as character suggestions.  Even the image of Mickey is shown as a cut-out silhouette rather than a fully fleshed character.  Plus, during what should be the show’s inspirational climax, a ballet performed by characters representing the release of everything from 1941’s Pinocchio to 1955’s Lady and the Tramp, is unsuccessful despite Lee Martino’s outstanding choreography.  Without the ability to see Walt’s imagination come to life in the way we know how these characters look and the musical themes associated with them, the production can never fully satisfy.  It’s missing the Disney magic.

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McClure’s new score is enjoyable without being particularly memorable.  Often the songs, particularly the ballads, tend to evaporate the moment they conclude, though Debby Rosenthal’s title song When You Wish is quite enchanting and nicely sets the scene.

Casting is good.   Andy Umberger’s Roy proves a solid center to the production while Joey Sorge’s Walt, despite several dialog stumbles on opening night, creates an image of Disney that audiences will easily recognize and relate.  Sydney Marie Hawes continues to fulfill early promises, moving from a supporting player in the recent Phoenix Theatre production of Evita to a leading player as Walt’s wife, Lillian.  The proposal scene where Lillian basically talks Walt into asking for her hand in marriage is particularly effective; both funny and heartwarming.  Norman Large is also a standout in several supporting roles, though while his portrayal of Eduardo the conductor gets the laughs, the broad presentation of the squeaky voiced Frenchman appears more like a character from a different show.

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Technical credits are all worthy of recognition, from Alan Ruch’s musical direction, Cari Sue Smith’s excellent period and character costumes, Almir Lejic’s sound, Michael J. Eddy’s effective lighting, to Jonathan Infante’s scene-setting videos projected over Robert Kovach’s scenic design.  But it’s Lee Martino’s imaginative and challenging choreography, ably performed by the production’s professional ensemble that gives When You Wish its overall vitality.

As theatrically presented, Disney’s professional life, while full of conflict as he tried to overcome often insurmountable odds to find funding and get his ideas off the ground, comes across as a surprisingly tame tale.

Disney was a heavy smoker, a habit that in 1966 would eventually cost him his life.  His wife Lillian shared little to no interest in the movie industry.  Concerned of kidnapping, particularly after the Lindbergh affair, Disney hid his children from the press, plus he testified before HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Committee) and named three former animators as Communist agitators.  All of these events occurred within the time frame covered by the show, but none are part of the story.

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While facts in the musical are intact, like Disney’s own family-oriented story-telling approach, the show has the feel of a wish-fulfillment fantasy that omits many of the more interesting darker elements, concentrating only on the achievements of work.  In an edited form with another re-write, plus permission from the Disney organization to use its imagery and musical themes, When You Wish could be the kind of show seen at the world wide Disney parks.  The way it tells Disney’s story, things may be uncomplicated but they fall right in line with the organization’s positive style.  After all, in the early sixties, Walt took a stern, strict and borderline unpleasant magical nanny and redesigned her as upbeat, attractive and altogether agreeable while keeping the theme of the original stories intact.  Why not present Walt’s life in much the same way?  It’s not Broadway, not in its present form, but with modifications it could be perfect for a special, permanent theatrical exhibit at Disneyland to be enjoyed after a fun family day in the Magic Kingdom.

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For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the official Phoenix Theatre website.

 

Posted in Theatre

The Nice Guys – Film Review

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It’s 1977 in Los Angeles, California.  Smoky and the Bandit posters are plastered across billboards on Hollywood Boulevard; September by Earth, Wind & Fire plays on FM; and porn star Misty Mountains (Mirielle Telio) is the centerfold in an adult magazine found under dad’s bed.  It’s also the place where two inept private detectives are hired to find out who killed the same Miss Mountains once her car is, presumably, forced off the road.

In Shane Black’s violent action buddy comedy The Nice Guys, where the buddies aren’t exactly the best of friends, bully-for-hire Jackson Healy (an alarmingly overweight Russell Crowe) and ham-fisted Private Detective Holland March (a lean and clownish Ryan Gosling) reluctantly team to solve the puzzle of a missing girl called Amelia (Margaret Qualley) and why her disappearance is somehow connected to the death of that porn star.

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Even though the sour-faced Healy appears to be the straight guy to March’s doofus P.I., both are pretty stupid.  In an introductory voice-over, Crowe’s Healy states that, “Marriage is buying a house for someone you hate,” while Gosling’s March reinforces his continual bad luck with the words You Will Never be Happy tattooed on his hand.  When Healy needs the truth from his plucky daughter Holly (Australia’s Angourie Rice who centers the film) and asks, “Am I a bad Person?” she responds without hesitation, “Yes.”

The mystery plot revolves around the making of a Hollywood skin-flick and its connection to the Big Three car manufacturers in Detroit.  For some reason, whoever is connected to the making of that adult movie – the director, the centerfold and anyone performing in it – is murdered. Even the young projectionist is beaten to a pulp and left for dead in a back alley dumpster.  Healy and March, never ones to turn down a paycheck, are thrust in the middle of the convoluted puzzle and have to kick, shoot and bludgeon their way out of trouble while trying to piece together what it is they’ve been hired to solve; though in truth, the real detective with the logical mind and the clever demeanor turns out to be Healy’s high-school daughter, Holly.

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In keeping with director Black’s aggressive, brass knuckle-fisted humor, originating as a writer with Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, then as writer/director with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and Iron Man 3, The Nice Guys incorporates that bloody, bone-snapping nastiness with several, genuine laughs.  Gosling’s physical humor as he carefully tries to smash a window with dire results then later attempts to hold a conversation with Crowe in a public bathroom while seated on a commode, holding a gun and fumbling with a magazine over his lap with his pants around his ankles is laugh-out-loud funny.

Plus, that sense of period is visually striking, beginning with the Warner Bros. 70’s movie logo that reflected off the widescreen and bathed audiences in red, followed by the look of a toxic, smog-covered, L.A. landscape decorating the city backdrop while the two dimwits drive around town passing movie billboards of the day, including Jaws 2 which wasn’t actually released until a year later during the summer of ’78.

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But there’s a point where the humor and the violence don’t always mix, and while the unfolding mystery keeps you hooked enough to want to know how it all ends, the bone-snapping, blood drenched brutality and sadism becomes more painfully cruel than funny while the idiocy of the two leads goes only so far.  Gosling’s physical humor is fine but the character’s stupidity fast becomes an annoying eye-roller.  Plus, it doesn’t help that Russell Crowe, while appearing appropriately intimidating when snapping arms, is not naturally funny.

 MPAA Rating:  R    Length:  116 Minutes     Overall Rating:  6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film