Glass – Film Review

The saga began nineteen years ago. Unbreakable, released in 2000 as the follow-up to director M. Night Shyamalan’s phenomenally successful The Sixth Sense, introduced us to mild-mannered security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a one-time college football prodigy. During the outset of the film, Dunn becomes the lone survivor in a horrendous train explosion and derailment. Walking away with no broken bones and the new-found ability to bench press 350 pounds with relative ease, plus an extrasensory power to see the crimes of others through touch, Dunn slowly realizes he’s a real-life, down-to-earth superhero. It was and remains one of the director’s best films.

Unbreakable also introduced us to Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a man with a brilliant though neurotic mind with an obsessive interest in comic books. He was born with bones so brittle that the merest touch could result in a break. He’s spent most of his life in pain. By the conclusion of Unbreakable we find that it was Price, sometimes referred to as Mr. Glass, who orchestrated the train explosion. The film concluded with Price, considering himself a comic book mastermind, becoming institutionalized while Dunn went on to become a hooded street-walking vigilante.

A third character named Kevin Crumb possessing 24 split personalities, the result of a traumatic childhood occurrence, was supposed to be in Unbreakable, but writer/director Shyamalan could never quite work him into the film’s overall narrative. He didn’t fit. So, Crumb was removed from the script and put on hold until sixteen years later. Shyamalan revisited the character in Split (2016) casting James McAvoy as the dangerously troubled teen. McAvoy gave a remarkable performance, as he does in this new outing, convincingly switching 23 personalities in an instant, culminating with a frightening 24th with superhuman strength known as The Beast, a dangerous supervillain who emerged out of Crumb like a murderous Hulk without the bulk. Crumb was never caught. The media dubbed him The Horde.

There was no hint in Split that the film was in any way the second part of a continuing story until the brief, final scene. In a coffee shop, Dunn (a surprise cameo from an uncredited Bruce Willis reprising his role from Unbreakable) is listening to a conversation while seated at the counter. A woman asks a customer a question about some guy whose bones could easily break who was once in the news because of all the people he killed. What was his name again? “Mr. Glass,” remarks Dunn.

And now, nineteen years after the story began, Shyamalan, having convinced Disney, who owned Unbreakable, and Universal, who owned Split, to join forces in order to have characters in both movies return for a conclusion, comes Glass. The result is a story that holds you for the first act, sags in the second, then falls apart with a ludicrous third.

At this point in the continuing tale, after a gripping opening revolving around Dunn’s vigilante work and his rescue of four teenage cheerleaders, kidnapped by Crumb and held in chains in an abandoned, derelict factory, all three protagonists, Dunn, Crumb, and Price find themselves locked away together in the same psychiatric home. Sarah Paulson plays Dr. Ellie Staple, a psychiatrist who introduces herself to her three patients. “My work concerns a particular type of delusion of grandeur,” she explains. “I specialize in those individuals who believe they’re superheroes.

Whether he likes it or not, director Shyamalan’s name has become synonymous with twist endings, and Glass has a few of its own during that third act. As ridiculous as the film’s central reveal turns out to be, to discuss other surprises in any detail would be a disservice to the film, though it should be noted that giving an answer to Crumb’s childhood trauma and how it relates to Dunn’s vigilante act is surprisingly effective. But the whole pop-culture comic book theories as therapy and the lengthy discussions between doctor and patients and the importance of superheroes quickly becomes eye-rolling. “I believe comics are a form of history that someone, somewhere felt or experienced,” states an earnest Mr. Glass.

The immediate weakness with the setup of having all three of Shyamalan’s characters incarcerated and under Dr. Staple’s supervision is that while McAvoy’s Crumb and Jackson’s Price are clearly where they should be, there’s nothing to suggest that Willis’ vigilante should be there with them. Newspapers may have dubbed him with a superhero moniker, The Overseer, but the man himself has never publicly expressed any special powers. He simply keeps in the shadows and on the lookout for wrongdoers and acts accordingly.

Like the cops in Death Wish who wanted to stop Charles Bronson taking the law into his own hands, the authorities want to put an end to Dunn’s do-it-yourself vigilante tactics. As far as his strength and the power of touch to view a person’s crimes go, that’s under wraps, never talked of. In reality, after his surprise capture, a simple interview by the police would have revealed nothing other than they were dealing with a perfectly coherent, sane man who just happened to want to help in the capture of criminals. He would have probably got a sentence for interfering with the law and messing with due process, then later released under supervision with a stern warning to keep out of police business.

But considering this is a Shyamalan project and no detail, no matter how initially insignificant it seems, is a wasted moment, a massive red flag on Dunn’s incarceration at a mental facility is immediately flown. The fact that Paulson’s self-satisfied psychiatrist is lumping the man with the insane makes you suspicious of the doctor’s motives. Plus, if Dunn’s son Joseph (a returning Spencer Treat Clark, now grown) is carefully scanning the police and continually warning his dad via a radio earpiece of their whereabouts, how come there’s suddenly a whole army of armed forces, led by the psychiatrist, waiting outside of that derelict factory ready to grab both Dunn and Crumb’s ‘Beast’ the moment they emerge? Where did they come from and how did they know when to be at the abandoned building?

Another bothersome question arises with the psychiatrist’s inventive technique of keeping control of Crumb’s different personality traits. Flashing lights installed in Crumb’s cell forces the man’s several personalities to instantly alter if one becomes more threatening and needs to go. Like a TV remote when changing channels, a flash of light creates a different personality to surface. When was this method discovered and at what point did the doctor and her team know it would work? Like Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary in Close Encounters, you’re crying, “Who are you people?” When you eventually get the answer, you’re not buying it for a second.

MPAA Rating: PG-13     Length: 110 Minutes

Posted in Film

Destroyer – Film Review

There’s a good chance you won’t recognize her. Not at first. With a nose that looks as though it was once broken and didn’t properly heal, her sunken eyes, dark and cloudy, and her freckled skin, pale, unhealthy, Nicole Kidman is LAPD detective Erin Bell, a burnout; a shell of her former self.

In director Karyn Kusama’s unrelenting mystery thriller Destroyer, detective Bell stumbles out of her car and drags her weary self as if hauling anchor towards the scene of a crime. There’s a dead body, a male, lying face down by the side of a river. Bell crouches to take a closer look. The detectives already on sight have no ID on the victim, though the three black tattooed dots on the back of his neck suggests something gang related. There are also $100 dollar bills covered in purple dye scattered around, presumably what’s left of a bank robbery that went wrong.

The cops remind Bell she has no jurisdiction at the crime scene and that she should just go home. Get some rest. But the woman’s not listening. She doesn’t care. She stands up, walks by them, gives the cops the finger, then drags herself back to her car.

Clearly, Bell is on a mission. Having just received a package on her desk back at the station that contains a purple-dyed $100 bill, similar to the ones seen by that body by the river, Bell knows what’s going on. “Silas is back,” she growls in a low, gravel pit of a worn out voice. Who Silas is and why he’s back is the center of the film. We don’t know why Bell is going rogue or why she’s working with a such a determined, single focus at the cost of everything else around her, but we will.

Destroyer is a story told on two levels running parallel. One takes place present-day with Bell doing whatever is needed, whatever it takes to find out where this Silas (a truly menacing Toby Kebbell) is. The other is told in a series of flashbacks, events that took place sixteen years ago when she and her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) worked undercover, infiltrating a dangerous California gang. Like the pieces of a puzzle, with each scene something new is discovered, things that slowly reveal what happened back then, what went wrong with the assignment, and what it was that made detective Erin Bell the cynical, depressed, and disillusioned wreck she became.

There are things we can piece together before they occur. It’s not that writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi have made anything predictable – as we’ll discover, there are moments that intentionally throw our guesswork completely off course – it’s just that certain assumptions can be made from logic. Her partner Chris has no part of anything happening in the present-day sequences leading us to anticipate that at some point in those flashbacks we’ll see what was his fate. Those dollar bills with the purple dye we saw at the film’s opening have to be part of a robbery scene, one it’s safe to guess we’ll eventually witness. Plus, Bell is having problems with her teenage daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) who just happens to be sixteen. Whatever happened to Bell back then continues to live with the detective today. In some way, her troublesome daughter has to be a constant reminder of an event that went wrong. Finding this Silas isn’t going to be a simple act of revenge, for Bell it’ll be a form of exorcism.

Though most of the film is a grim, slow-burn drama with Bell following lead after lead as she gets closer to finding Silas, there are unexpected moments of explosive action, including an exceptionally tense and well directed present-day gun battle between the police and some bank robbers. Tatiana Maslany, best known for the multiple roles she played in BBC America’s Orphan Black, is terrific as Petra, a gang member Bell recalls from her undercover work sixteen years ago. It’s when Bell is tailing Petra with the intention of questioning her, hoping for a lead, that the detective suddenly finds she’s witness to a bank robbery and needs immediate backup.

Eventually, the film will circle back to that opening scene with the dead body by the river, and when it happens, the final piece of the puzzle slots into place. But instead of feeling satisfied, you’re suddenly left with the notion you’ve been tricked. There’s a tease in the narrative and its timeline that’s not quite as clever as the film wants you to believe it is. Neither is the film as profound as the intensely slow conclusion with the building Theodore Shapiro score wants to suggest.

It’s clear that Destroyer is a showcase for the talented Nicole Kidman. It’s the kind of performance that can’t help remind you of Charlize Theron when she all but disappeared into Aileen Wuornos in the 2004 drama Monster. But unlike Theron, here Kidman never quite persuades. She’s fine in the sixteen-year-old flashbacks but not in the present-day sequences as the burnout with the low growl. She’s acting but she doesn’t convince. She’s miscast.

MPAA rating: NR      Length: 123 Minutes

Posted in Film

The Music Man – Theatre Review: Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix

A tradition continues. After an exemplary production of Fiddler on the Roof in 2017 followed by an audacious but successfully re-imagined Man of La Mancha for 2018, Arizona Theatre Company proceeds with its recent new direction of including at least one classic Broadway musical in its season’s lineup. This year it’s the gloriously old-fashioned piece of fourth of July Americana, Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man.

Like the recent revival of Hello, Dolly! which opened on the same night across town at ASU Gammage, there’s no attempt to re-imagine a proven classic with modern-day relevancy or uncover hidden nuggets that might relate to a new generation of musical theatre-goers raised on Rent, Fun Home, and an array of pop/rock jukebox musicals. Director David Ivers clearly knows there’s little to find under the bold, brassy arrangements of blaring trumpets and those seventy-six trombones, and there’s no point in looking. Instead, he keeps things chugging on the rock island line in the way it was always designed, and that’s as it should be.

Of course, that’s not to say the production doesn’t have its issues. It does, but by not reinventing the musical theatre wheel, after years of sitting through countless mediocre and often sub-standard productions, there’s a keen sense of satisfaction that automatically kicks in when finally getting to see a full-on professional version of The Music Man with great voices, good dancing, on-the-mark timing, and an accomplished lead that helps you temporarily forget that you won’t be seeing Robert Preston.

Writer/composer Meredith Wilson based the show on his background of what it was like growing up in Iowa. Mason City became River City. Plus it was his years as a flute and piccolo player with John Phillip Sousa that inspired the show’s marching band theme. It was Wilson’s only Broadway success. The Unsinkable Molly Brown may have worked as a star vehicle for Debbie Reynolds but most of the score was a dud, plus his Here’s Love, later retitled as the musical version of Miracle on 34th Street, was a flat-out Christmas turkey. His fourth and final attempt at Broadway was 1491, a musical of the voyage of Christopher Columbus. It played on the west coast, then sank and never made it east. But with The Music Man he struck musical theatre gold.

Once it opened on Broadway in ‘57 it was an instant smash. The story of the salesman trying to sell boy band instruments and uniforms to small-town America with the intention of skedaddling with the money before a single note was ever played was considered an overnight success. But as most students of theatre know, there were several years of tryouts when the book was written then re-written (thirty-two drafts), songs performed then removed (forty songs originally written; twenty-two cut), cast changes made, and the issue of not being able to find a marquee-value lead.

Bing Crosby said no. Ray Bolger was unavailable, and no one else quite captured what the producers were looking for. But when Robert Preston auditioned and talked his way through Ya Got Trouble, the pieces suddenly fell into place. The problem, of course, is that with his aggressively energized performance and that distinctive voice, Preston didn’t lose himself in the part, the part became Preston, something that has always been a problem for anyone who dares follow in his footsteps short of doing a direct impersonation.

Now playing at Herberger Theater Center until January 27, ATC’s The Music Man has framed the theatre’s main stage with what appears like the painted wooden walls of a large barn with a memorial plaque at the center above reading Iowa Est. 1846. By peerng in the frame, everything that follows feels as if you’re watching an Iowan barnyard production. The stage is initially sparse except for a single piano at its center. Then once the brassy overture concludes and the show begins, the stage fills with color and light as the piano is removed and the traveling salesmen enter riding the steam train as it crosses the state line into River City, Iowa. Their song Rock Island, telling of how they no longer give credit, is spoken to the clickety-clack pace of the train, Broadway’s late fifties precursor to rap, perhaps.

Among the salesmen is huckster Professor Harold Hill (Bill English) who becomes intrigued by the talk of the stubborn residents of River City. Sensing a challenge and a new market of green, small-town locals, he jumps train, ready to create a need to solve an imagined problem. He whips the citizens up into a lather and gets them to sign for a boy’s band in order to save themselves from the terrible trouble they’re in, “Indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community.Ya Got Trouble is one of the truly great moments of American musical theatre history. It’s not easy to perform. When done poorly, which it often is, the whole show fails. Bill English pulls it off admirably. With his fast-paced, slick charm, and a clear spoken voice to boot, you’re convinced that when this con-artist dances, the piper really will pay him.

However, a problem with the source material is that the show doesn’t end well. It never did, but the situation is made worse in this production by what feels like a rushed conclusion. (Warning: If you’ve truly never seen this sixty-three-year-old show before – Plot-spoiler. Skip to the next paragraph.) Before the town is ready to tar and feather the con-man, they force him to conduct. The hilarity of hearing a whole uniformed marching band unable to play a lick of music should sound hilarious, but instead of giving the moment time to breath and allowing us to savor its awfulness, director Ivers immediately has his cast of town folk loudly crying the praises of what they think they hear the moment the instruments play. “That’s my Barney!” cries a doting mother. The show doesn’t then fade, it just stops.

But up until then, there is good musical theatre to enjoy. The score and those great songs aside, another successful factor of The Music Man is how funny it is. The character’s names alone can’t help but raise a smile. Monikers like Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Leslie Alexander), Ethel Toffelmier (Kara Mikula), Winthrop Paroo (Nathaniel Wiley) and the mayor’s daughter Zaneeta (Carly Grossman) all populate the residents of River City making outsider Harold Hill’s real name of Gregory sound downright ordinary.

Plus, there’s Wilson’s ‘G’ rated use of dialog, full of descriptive middle-America cornball that when spoken has its own peculiar rhythm. Professor Hill is described as a “Bang-beat, bell-ringing, big haul, great go-neck-or-nothing, rip-roaring, every-time-a-bull’s-eye salesman.” The River City locals are “Neck-bowed Hawkeyes,” and when the huckster tells Marion the librarian (Manna Nichols) he’ll disturb the peace of the library by dropping a bag of marbles, he warns her he’s carrying “Six steelies, eight aggies, a dozen peewees, and one big glassie with an American flag in the middle.”

Perhaps the strangest and one of the most genuinely gonzo interpretations of a Music Man character I’ve ever seen is Danny Scheie’s performance of River City’s Mayor Shinn. What he does with the role and the pronunciation of the English language is hard to describe. “Don’t counter-dict me,” he tells teenager Tommy Djilas (Kyle Coffman) when the boy tries to defend himself. When Scheie speaks it’s as if he’s attempting a language he’s never quite mastered; words have to be squeezed out of him. It’s bizarre, but beyond a doubt, it has to be the funniest rendering of a Mayor Shinn ever.

The Music Man continues at Herberger Theater Center until January 27

Posted in Theatre

Stan & Ollie – Film Review

There’s a wonderful 1965 documentary called Laurel and Hardy’s Laughing 20’s. Director Robert Youngson pieced together several clips of classic comedy shorts made during Hollywood’s golden silent era with an accompanying narration. Though the film incorporated the work of several famous stars of the time, the documentary was principally the early work of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and it’s here where audiences are treated to the first official pairing of Laurel and Hardy in a Hal Roach comedy, a 1927 short called Putting Pants on Phillip. If you can find a copy of the documentary, keep it and treasure it.

In the new gentle biopic Stan & Ollie from director Jon S. Baird, the film begins with a title telling us that ten years later after that initial pairing, the comedy duo consisting of the short, slim Englishman and the taller, rotund American were loved around the world by millions. Stan Laurel from Lancashire played the childlike, somewhat clumsy character, while Oliver Hardy from Georgia played the pompous and usually exasperated best friend.

After opening with a lengthy, five minute tracking shot of the duo in costume walking through the studio grounds, talking of their ex-wives, money owed, Oliver’s recent proposal to a future Mrs. Hardy, and Stan’s insistence he’ll find another woman he doesn’t like and just buy her a house, the two reach the set of their 1937 comedy Way Out West. Movie buffs should salivate at the sight of seeing the behind-the-scenes machinations of those famous Hal Roach studios of Culver City as Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) casually stroll through the lot, gently laughing at each other’s comments and saying hi to whoever passes by.

It’s only when they reach the set that the tone changes. Hal Roach (Danny Huston) is having issues with Stan’s financial insistence and the comic actor’s desire for independence from the studio. The conversation between producer and actor becomes heated while Oliver looks on. But they’re professionals and there’s a film to be made. Cue the charming dance sequence in front of Mickey Finn’s wild west saloon as the Avalon Boys play At The Ball, That’s All.

From there the film jumps sixteen years later. A lot has happened during that time; contract disputes, a professional separation, Stan signing with 20th Century Fox while Oliver remained under contract with Hal Roach at MGM, plus both are now re-married. They’ve re-teamed, and by 1953 it was time for a tour of Gt. Britain.

They didn’t know it but their trek across Britain, arranged by famous British theatrical impresario Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) would be their farewell tour. Oliver’s ill health would catch up to him during the final leg of the journey. At his wife’s insistence, he would retire. But not before one last dance on stage in front of an adoring crowd. At the ball, that’s all.

The tour didn’t start well. Stan, who wrote the material and did as much of the duo’s managing as he could, was trying to arrange the financing of a Laurel and Hardy full-length feature he’d conceived about Robin Hood. The tour of music halls across the country was to help them keep their appearances going and to remind audiences that Laurel and Hardy were still a team. But both the tour and getting the English studio financing was a struggle. Plus, Delfont’s other comedic client, Norman Wisdom, was taking all the larger theatre venues, leaving only the less prestigious and smaller variety halls to Stan and Ollie.

I thought you retired,” says a young female desk clerk at their low-run Newcastle hotel, a line they would hear repeatedly as they moved from town to town. “We’re getting older but not done yet,” Oliver would cordially reply.

Audiences and venues are small at the beginning, but once the affable though slick talking Delfont convinces the team to make personal appearances at supermarket openings and become judges at seaside beauty pageants, giving them extra exposure with both TV and newspaper coverage, audiences increase. The turnabout comes after a new sketch Stan had written regarding a double-door routine at a train station, an act we see meticulously recreated to perfection by Coogan and Reilly. “Magical,” Delfont tells them with genuine admiration in the dressing room after the show, letting them know that those small audiences were turning into packed houses. The two-thousand seater Lyceum Theatre in London’s West End just off the Strand now beckoned.

Watching their live stage act, their discussions on future sketches, and Oliver’s amusement and praise at his partner’s ideas, Stan & Ollie says a lot about what it takes to be funny, aided by two thoroughly engaging performances from both Coogan and Reilly. Steven Coogan’s Stan is no caricature. Through body and hand movements coupled with facial expressions, Coogan fully embraces the heart of what made Mr. Laurel so thoroughly likable, down to the man’s accent that retained it’s Englishness while occasionally veering into American. The real Stan Laurel left England for America in 1912, arriving on the same ship that brought Charlie Chaplin to the States.

John C Reilly’s Oliver Hardy is quite astonishing. In the same way that Vice’s Christian Bale disappears into Dick Cheney, so does Reilly as Mr. Hardy. And again, like Coogan’s Stan, this is no caricature, nor is it a performance that relies on makeup alone. It would be hard to imagine another present-day film talent who could convincingly play the role and make you occasionally forget that you’re not watching the real thing, as Reilly does here.

There’s delight to be had when watching the duo sing The Trail of the Lonesome Pine at the Lyceum, and sadness when watching Stan stare at a poster promoting the new Abbot and Costello flick, realizing that the time for Laurel and Hardy as movie headliners had now passed. And in a rare but heated moment when old wounds of their previous professional separation resurface, they say things they didn’t mean. “I loved us,” said Stan. “You loved Laurel and Hardy,” responds Ollie, “But you never loved me.

But it wasn’t true. They did love each other, and audiences loved them, as shown during the surprising moment when their boat taking them to Ireland is greeted with flag-waving, cheering crowds standing on the docks, eagerly waiting for their arrival and to let them know just how much Laurel and Hardy meant to them. Stan Laurel is on record as saying that he and Oliver Hardy looked at each other that day and cried.

As the narrator at the conclusion of the Laurel and Hardy’s Laughing 20’s documentary states, we’ll never see their like again. But at least, because of this enjoyably modest comedy/drama from director Baird, through some endearingly crafted recreations from Coogan and Reilly, we get the pleasure of enjoying them for just a little longer.

MPAA Rating: PG      Length: 98 Minutes

Posted in Film

Hello, Dolly! – Theatre Review: National Touring Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

Followers of comedy musical theatre must surely be in heaven. This week sees the opening of not one but two professional, high-production value comedy musicals in the valley, both from the same era, both with a nostalgic turn-of-the-last-century setting and both from the showbiz school of they-don’t-write-’em-like-that-anymore musicals.

The second production we’ll get to later in the week. The first is the Broadway behemoth Hello, Dolly!, the musical that literally begs its leading lady to promise she’ll never go away again. And she never has. Since winning 10 Tony Awards after the show’s 1964 opening, Hello, Dolly! has endured revival after revival, along with countless dinner and community theatre productions, not only across the country but also around the world.

Originally designed as a star vehicle for Ethel Merman (who turned it down, but eventually played the lead some six years later in 1970), the widowed Dolly Levi quickly became the signature theatrical role of Carol Channing’s career. Casting powerhouse Bette Midler as the bold, brassy, meddling matchmaker in the 2017 revival was inspired.

Now comes the national touring production to ASU Gammage in Tempe, performing until January 13, treating audiences with Broadway veteran Betty Buckley as Dolly, bringing with her a surprisingly different sense of pathos to the role. That unique style and sound that was Carol Channing’s and the confidently aggressive nature of both Ethel Merman and Bette Midler all worked exactly right for different reasons when playing the New Yorker with a business card for every occasion, but Buckley is a better actor. Her performance as Norma Desmond on both the London and Broadway stage was a knockout, and here as Dolly Levi she brings a similar level of vulnerability, even loneliness to the role not often seen, while retaining all the over-the-top glamour that makes Hello, Dolly! so continually popular.

The show’s farcical plot of a chaotic day in the life of the matchmaker hired to find a wife for Yonkers’ most famous half a millionaire is usually attributed to Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, but it goes back further. It began with an 1835 John Oxenford English farce called A Day Well Spent, which was developed into an Austrian farce in 1842 called He’ll Have Himself a Good Time, then later turned into a 1938 American comedy by Wilder titled The Merchant of Yonkers. Wilder then rewrote his own work in 1955 and titled it The Matchmaker, bringing us back to Hello, Dolly! Yet Dolly! was not the show’s original name. Among the many song cuts and early cast changes made to the production during its out-of-town tryouts, the show’s original title was the wordy Dolly, A Damned Exasperating Woman. It is thought that the re-titling was made when producer David Merrick heard Louis Armstrong’s take on the Hello, Dolly! song from the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant scene. In commercial terms, perhaps one of the best decisions ever.

This 2017 Jerry Zaks directed revival doesn’t update the show to better reflect a more cynical or relatable 2019 attitude, instead, it goes back to the production’s musical comedy vaudeville roots and enlarges upon them. Presented on the Gammage stage within its own marquee-style lighted proscenium arch, complete with plush variety/musical hall curtains, this Hello, Dolly! takes the vaudeville theme of stringing a series of high-energy, broadly performed, farcical sketches, often against painted backdrops, each culminating with a song in the tradition of an old fashioned variety show, but holding them together to make one common story. It all ends in the What’s Up, Doc tradition of screwball comedy where the ensemble line up in a courtroom ready to face the judge (Timothy Shew) and answer for the farcical shenanigans that occurred throughout the day.

Like the Victorian music hall acts of England and the Burlesque comedians of Broadway, there’s a point where each of the leads does their shtick directly to the audience, acknowledging we’re there. When Dolly makes her initial entrance, she’s pointing directly at us and sharing her thoughts; when love-struck Cornelius Hackl (Nic Rouleau) defends himself before the judge, he turns to the audience looking for support “no matter where you’re sitting” as he points to those in the upper balcony; at the beginning of Act Two, Horace Vandergelder (Lewis J. Stadlen) performs Penny in My Pocket in front of those plush music hall curtains like a comedic vaudevillian veteran of the last century.

Jerry Herman’s score, one of his earliest, is considered his most memorable, which it is, and there’s a good reason. You remember it because the principal melody of each tune is repeated over and over. In fact, the numbers don’t really have a chorus in the traditional sense; the whole catchy song is the chorus.

By the end of Put On Your Sunday Clothes, Before The Parade Passes By, and the title tune Hello, Dolly! because of their repetition and the ensuring encore, you’ll already know the words without having to think about them. Each reverberates in your head like an earworm long after the number has finally completed. But they’re sung with such exuberance backed by Larry Hochman’s outstanding orchestrations and performed by Warren Carlyle’s ceaselessly energetic and often humorous choreography – great use of the semi-circular runway that juts out on the stage within the stage – they’re all thoroughly seductive.

Complete with Santo Loquasto’s detailed sets – Vendergelder’s is all shelves and artifacts like a second-hand store stuffed with knickknacks that’s fun to explore – and the pastel-colored late 19th to early 20th century costume designs of the ensemble, out of all the revivals and the star-making vehicles, this Hello, Dolly! is the one that will be hard to beat.

Pictures Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes

Hello, Dolly! Continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until Sunday, January 13

Posted in Theatre

Welcome To Marwen – Film Review

Eighteen years ago, a man named Mark Hogancamp was attacked and severely beaten within an inch of his life. He had been drinking. While at the bar he naively passed a remark about his cross-dressing habits. Five men were nearby and heard him. Once outside, they beat Mark so brutally, the man remained in a coma for nine days. When he finally awoke, Mark was left with little memory of his previous life. The men had beaten all recollections out of him. They had stolen his life. He left the hospital thirty-one days later, discharged with brain damage.

Once back on his feet, Mark had a vague memory of having been somewhat artistic. By all reports, he used to draw. But not much else came to mind. Because of an inability to pay for therapy, Mark created his own form of therapeutic help. He filled the void in his mind with fantasy. He did this by building a fictional town in World War II Belgium, populated by dolls. Each doll represented either himself or those he had met since leaving the hospital. His attackers were represented by German Nazis. The town was called Marwencol, a combination of three names important to him; Mark, Wendy, and Colleen.

Unable to draw any longer, Mark took photographs instead. It was the pictures of his miniature town and its plastic occupants that caught the attention of another photographer, David Naugle. From there, Mark’s work was chronicled in a Brooklyn arts and culture magazine and became the basis of a 2010 documentary, Marwencol.

That’s the real story.

Welcome to Marwen is director Robert Zemeckis’ dramatization of Mark’s tale, and its setup keeps close to the facts. But being a Zemeckis production and co-written by him with Caroline Thompson (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands) Welcome to Marwen centers heavily on some very clever fantasy elements; the dolls of that Belgium town are Mark Hogancamp’s world. To him (and, as a result, to us) they are all very real.

Opening in black and white, we’re flying the skies above somewhere over Belgium. It’s the second world war, and Captain Hogie is under attack. At first glance, all seems real. Then very quickly, a second glance tells you there’s something artificial about the whole thing, even though the air blasts look and sound real, and those flames on the plane’s wing are definitely authentic. Then the plane crashes. Captain Hogie unbuckles himself and jumps out of the cockpit before the whole things blows. And it’s then that you see what he really is. A doll, an Action Man G.I. Joe-like figure that has leapt from the imagination of its maker Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) and found itself in the middle of a death-defying adventure. “Three years,” Hogancamp murmurs to himself as he picks the doll up. “Time flies when you’re having fun, right, Hogie?”

The film gives us glimpses of what happened to the man through a series of newspaper clippings that Hogancamp keeps in a scrapbook. Headlines like ‘Assault Victim Leaves Hospital,’ and ‘Victim In Critical Condition’ litter the pages. Later, a bartender will fill in some of the details when telling a customer that “Five of them jumped him.” With a nod of his head to the outside, he adds, “Right there in the middle of the road.”

The areas you expect to work in a Zemeckis movie are striking. The fantasy sequences that transform from the real world into CGI animation then back again are impressive. The fictional town where Captain Hogie lives is protected by a group of machine gun-wielding female dolls that strut around in stilettos, a style that won’t be invented until 1954, but in Hogancamp’s therapeutic town of Marwen, anything goes, including his fetish for high heels.

Hogancamp doesn’t see his interest in collecting and often wearing high heels as a fetish. As he openly explains to his new neighbor Nicol (a pleasant Leslie Mann) when revealing his collection consisting of 287 pairs of women’s shoes, “They connect me to the essence of dames,” adding, “And I love dames.”

Plus, there’s a great use of music. One of the elements of his beating that Hogancamp can vaguely remember is the music on the jukebox at the bar. So, when the man checks the pictures he’s taken of the new redhead doll named after his neighbor, The Flamingos’ I Only Have Eyes For You plays in his head. And while developing a crush on Nicol and taking a series of shots of Hogie falling in love with the redhead, the opening bars of Joni Mitchell’s Help Me begins. The best and most fun of all is the moment when all of Hogancamp’s gun-toting women strut in unison, their heels clicking on the pavement adding extra percussion to Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love.

But the individual elements fail to add up to a satisfying whole. What seems like a promising and threatening subplot concerning a stalking boyfriend (Matt O’Leary) to Leslie Mann’s neighborly Nicol goes nowhere in the real world, even though it inspires Hogancamp to cast him as a Nazi Lieutenant in his fantasy. And the film’s biggest conflict, a will-he/won’t-he go to court to witness the sentencing of those five wretches who beat him, fades without a dramatically satisfying conclusion. It doesn’t give the payoff you’re looking for.

Steve Carrell’s affecting portrayal is of a man who carries the look of someone so desperately wanting to be loved while looking for answers to questions revolving around his missing memory. But the film falls short on its story. Dramatically, what we see doesn’t feel enough. At the fade out you’re asking, And?

MPAA rating: PG-13           Length: 116 Minutes

Posted in Film