Dear Evan Hansen – Theatre Review: National Touring Company Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

There was an incident some years ago at songwriter Benj Pasek’s Pennsylvania high school. What happened left such an indelible impression on the student that years later it would become the basis of a Tony award-winning Broadway musical he would write, with music and lyrics by Pasek and his writing partner Justin Paul, and a book by Steven Levenson.

In the first national touring production of the stage musical Dear Evan Hansen, Ben Levi Ross, who made his Broadway debut just last year when he joined the cast of the show in New York, plays the lead, Evan Hansen. Evan is a high school senior with severe social anxiety. His father left the family years earlier. Now the boy lives with his mother, Heidi (Jessica Phillips) who works during the day as a nurse’s aide and spends her evenings at paralegal school. As a result, Evan is on his own. A lot.

Because of his anxiety, Evan has no friends. Most of his communication is through social media. When he talks, which is mostly to his struggling mother, the words come in such rapid succession, it’s as if he’s constantly in danger of tripping over his own tongue. But his mother’s therapist has suggested a way that Evan can face the day. He should write letters on his laptop to himself, ones that express his hopes and feelings of what the day ahead might bring, which is what he does. They all begin with ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ and end with ‘Sincerely, your best and dearest friend, me.’

Played against a backdrop of scenic designer David Korins’ stunningly complex computer images projecting glimpses of Instagram, email accounts, and YouTube videos, it’s as if characters are constantly navigating their way through a labyrinth of social media outlets wherever they walk. When Evan writes his daily letters you catch glimpses of his typewritten therapy all around him.

It’s the first day of his senior year and Evan frets of having to go and face other people. To make matters more intimidating, he’s broken his arm, an accident after having fallen from a tree. But his mother has an idea. He can make new friends by asking the other kids to sign the cast. No one signs. Not even the smart-aleck wise guy, Jared Kleinman (Jered Goldsmith) who only talks to Evan because the families are friends and he’s obliged to. When Evan stumbles through an explanation of how he fell from a tree and broke his arm, Jared with his usual snark replies, “What are you, like, an acorn?”

At the same time, while the musical focuses on Evan and the severity of his awkwardness, there’s another family across town that will soon be getting equal attention. They’re the wealthier Murphy family whose high school senior son, the moody, nihilistic, pot smoking Connor (Marrick Smith) whose hair is described by snarky Jared as “Very school-shooter chic” has no interest in anything or anyone.

That incident that’s going to change everything is about to happen. While at school, after signing Evan’s cast and telling him, “Now we can both pretend we have friends,” Connor snatches a copy of one of the boy’s therapeutic letters, the one that reads ‘I wish that anything I said mattered’ and kept it. Days later, Connor commits suicide. When his pockets are searched, all the grief-stricken family can find is the letter that begins Dear Evan Hansen.

What begins as the best of intentions quickly spirals out of control. Because of the letter, Connor’s parents and his young sister Zoe (Maggie McKenna) are lead to believe that Evan was Conner’s best friend and that he had poured his heart out to him. Connor even signed the boy’s cast when no one else would. They had to be friends. Rather than deflate their impression that Connor was really a loner that no one liked, Evan stumbles through lie after lie about a relationship that never was. Suddenly, Evan Hansen, the boy too awkward to make friends is now playing not only an important role at school but in both the Murphy family’s life and on social media.

This national touring production directed by Michael Greif has only recently debuted its run, beginning last month in Denver. The current lineup in performance at ASU Gammage in Tempe until Sunday, Dec 2 remains the original touring cast, and they’re simply sensational, all eight of them, including Phoenix raised Phoebe Koyabe back on home turf in the valley as Alana Beck, Evan’s classmate who is constantly on the lookout for any opportunity to boost her academic credits.

As the title character, twenty-year-old Ben Levi Ross is quite remarkable in a high-energy role; one of surprising physicality. In addition to his stumbling, mile-a-minute dialog that usually ends with saying “sorry” repeatedly, his body language, full of never-ending tics where his hands tug on his shirt, and his head jerks sharply from side to side, are as carefully choreographed as any dance move. When he rambles apologetically or simply tries to communicate, he appears in constant danger of doing some personal internal harm; something might snap at any moment. On this tour, the demanding role will be played by Stephen Christoper Anthony on both the Saturday matinee and the Sunday evening performances.

Special mention also to Maggie McKenna who became an overnight star in her native Australia when she made her professional debut as Muriel in the musical version of Muriel’s Wedding, based on the hit 1995 movie. McKenna plays Zoe, Connor’s younger sister and Evan’s secret longtime schoolboy crush. The role, while crucial, is not on stage enough, leading this reviewer to ponder whether the desire to see the rounded character at more intervals is due to the writer’s creation or in McKenna’s appealing interpretation. I’m suspecting both. Plus there’s not a hint of her native Aussie in her pitch-perfect American accent.

The songwriting team of Pasek and Paul, who scored high with their recent original movie soundtrack of The Greatest Showman and before that the Oscar favorite La La Land, has again created a series of memorably infectious songs that garnered a Best Original Score Tony last year and a Grammy for the original cast recording. Your attention is immediately grabbed with the musical’s opener Anybody Have a Map as Evan’s mother Heidi and Conner’s mother Cynthia (Christiane Noll) ask themselves how to connect with their sons. The first act closer, You Will Be Found sung by the ensemble, is so emotionally wrenching, don’t be surprised if you notice audience members around you wiping a tear as the house lights fade up. Dear Evan Hansen is extraordinary musical theatre.

Dear Evan Hansen continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until Sunday, December 2

Pictures Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

Posted in Theatre

The Favourite – Film Review

The story of director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is the story of Anne, Queen of England. It was during Anne’s early eighteenth-century reign that both England and Scotland were united and became Great Britain. She remained the queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland until her death in 1714. But that’s altogether a different story.

Politics and the joining of borders is not what The Favourite (English language spelling) is all about. It’s about the bitter rivalry of two women from the same family vying for the attention of a reigning monarch, each hoping to be the queen’s favorite, and each in their own way suffers as a result. One will be banished, the other will learn their place. The Favourite, in its brash, savage, and extremely fast-paced style, tells us what happened. Like Elphaba, as portrayed in this telling, these ladies are perfectly wicked.

When the film begins, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) has fallen on hard times. Because of her father’s fortune loss, Abigail is left penniless and no longer considered a member of society’s upper echelon. She’s forced to work as a servant. “I am a lady of honor,” Abigail insists, “Even if my station is not.

The employment came from her cousin, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) who reached out to the family member and gave her work as a scullery maid in Queen Anne’s household. Historians have always believed this act of kindness was not entirely due to affection for the young woman. It was more out of family embarrassment. It’s doubtful that Sarah even knew who Abigail was until the tragedy occurred. “Go back to that gouty old slattern Mrs. Meg and tell her I said to give you quarters, food, and something to do,” Sarah instructs when Abigail first arrives. “And take your flies with you,” she adds as though intentionally letting the cousin know where she stood in the pecking order, dismissing the young woman.

At the time, Sarah was a close confidant and friend to Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman), the monarch’s current favorite. But because of her frequent absences, plus their political differences – Sarah was an active member of the Whig Party whose origins lay in the opposition to absolute monarchy, while the Queen favored the Tory Party and its adherence to religion – the Duchess would occasionally fall out of favor. Cue the young Abigail to see an opportunity and slowly rise in ranks from the kitchen to the position of Queen’s handmaiden, an avenue through which the girl, with some careful planning and a lot of cunning, could become the Queen’s new favorite. As Abigail will discover, one of the more creative ways to win a Queen’s heart is through her pet rabbits.

The events that unfold are based on fact; both Sarah and her cousin Abigail really did compete and go to damaging lengths to win the Queen’s affections. But whether they occurred in the way depicted in the film is pushing it. Director Lanthismos, whose previous works include Dogtooth and The Lobster, has in The Favourite made his most accessible mainstream film yet, but don’t be fooled into thinking that because this is a historical period piece of England’s royalty it’ll be replayed on Masterpiece Theatre anytime soon. Imagine a protégé of Ken Russell had decided to make his own costumed drama and used Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon as a visual template, then said, “Now, let’s rock ‘n roll,” you’ll be close to its style.

There are some issues.  The chapter headings that quote a line of dialog separating scenes, as in This Mud Stinks or Leave That, I Like It are hardly enticing; they add nothing. Plus the film’s stylishly designed end credits are annoyingly difficult to read.  And though the fish-eye lens is overused, with Robbie Ryan’s sumptuous cinematography, Yorgos Mavropsaridis’ sharp editing, and an equally sharp script with biting dialog full of delicious snark from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite is quite the elaborately designed thrill ride of an intelligently brazen and very adult comic-drama.

What strikes you the most, however, is not so much the film’s look or its style of present-day sensibilities in an eighteenth-century setting – there are plenty of f-bombs and worse – but the performances of the three central women, particularly Olivia Coleman (so good in TV’s Broadchurch) as the Queen.

From the film industry’s point-of-view, we’re currently in the middle of the voting season. This is where the majority of studio-considered quality material is held for release near the closing of the year in the hope of garnering enough consideration to earn a nomination for the oncoming award season. At a time when studios and movie-makers are vying for attention in the way Abigail and Sarah compete for Queen Anne’s, looking not only for a positive review but also a reviewer’s vote, The Favourite lives up to its title. Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Coleman, and the film itself already have mine.

MPAA Rating: R           Length: 119 Minutes

Posted in Film

Miracle on 34th Street – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

In 1963, when the Meredith Wilson Christmas musical first appeared, it was called Here’s Love. In fact, theatre purists still refer to the show by its original title. And if you look for the original cast album you’ll only find it only under the ‘H’ tab. But after a nineties revival in Toronto, and a second, more lavish production by the same company in 2007, the name was changed to the more popular and certainly the more recognizable Miracle on 34th Street.

Performing until December 29 in Peoria at Arizona Broadway Theatre is a new production of the rarely performed musical. For those who know the film and are basically wanting to see what they’ve already seen but with songs, the live show follows the movie’s plot with little deviation. Kris Kringle (MJJ Cashman, the perfect Santa) is hired at the last minute to be the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Santa Claus. “Smile, wave to the children, and pretend to be kind,” Macy’s Promotional Director, Doris Walker (Melissa Mitchell) instructs the new replacement.

But there’s no pretending with Kris Kringle. The first sign of how seriously the man with the real white beard takes the role is when he joins the crowds outside of Macy’s Manhattan store department and informs a toy street seller that his Prancer is standing where Blitzen should be and that Donner should have a four-point antler, not a six. The problem is, Kringle is not only a convincing Santa but also insists he’s the real thing. “I must say,” says Doris, “You’re the best one I’ve seen.

Which is why an interview with Macy’s store psychiatrist, Mr. Sawyer (Jay Roberts) ends badly. Convinced that Macy’s new employee is dangerous and should be committed, the police haul the old man away to languish in a cell until his day in court.

Fortunately, if the play’s adaptation does one thing right that the disappointing 1994 movie remake got completely wrong, the outcome in the courtroom is the same as in the original, which is exactly as it should be. But for the benefit of those new to Miracle on 34th Street and for whatever reason have never seen the classic 1947 original – really? – that’s where the synopsis ends.

Lyricist and composer Meredith Wilson wrote three musicals produced on Broadway. His most famous and easily the most accomplished remains The Music Man, a superb piece of musical theatre that never ages. But while there are some minor problems with Wilson’s book adaptation of the famous film that a little tweaking could easily fix, his score for Miracle is quite the Christmas turkey. Despite the fine voices of ABT’s cast – both its leads, Melissa Mitchell as Doris and Cody Gerszewski as retired Marine Corp officer Fred Gaily possess outstanding singing voices – nothing can help the ordinary tunes.

There’s an element of Seventy-Six Trombones in the score’s John Philip Sousa inspired overture when the drums of a marching band fade up, followed by a burst of trumpets and trombones under conductor and music director Joshua Condon’s leadership. Plus, in the song She Hadda Go Back talked/sung by Gerszewski’s Fred you can hear an echo of The Music Man’s Trouble (for the record, with his aggressive and clear sounding, all-American delivery, Gerszewski would make a great Harold Hill). But nothing can save a dud like Look, Little Girl, not even Mitchell’s pleasantly sung reprise. And with several mediocre ballads unevenly placed, the score gives the impression of a show with too many mood swings.

Kara Thomson’s scenic design makes good use of a painted scene drop of Macy’s front entrance with some highly effective partial stage sets that slide on for individual scenes. Particularly impressive are the wooden courtroom and Fred’s brownstone home living room sets. Savana Leveille’s costumes of Santa, toy soldiers, mailmen, dancing toys, and an ensemble of characters dressed for December all display a nice sense of period – the show was meant to be present-day, but present-day in ‘63 was fifty-five years ago – though it would have been better to have seen the Marine’s in their dress blues as they’re supposed to be in a public setting rather than generic military.

In addition to the two romantic leads and Kringle himself, Tony Blosser impresses as store owner R.H. Macy (a character who actually passed away in 1877 – another Christmas miracle on 34th street?) while on the performance seen for this review column it was Emily Grace Anton who made a perfectly sweet Susan, the role of the child who never believed in Santa until she met Mr. Kringle. Though why the child sleeps on the living room couch rather than her bed appears somewhat strange. Susan is played on alternate nights by either Emily or Ava Newton.

Emily’s duet with Cashman’s Santa, a short reprise of Pine Cones and Hollyberries is one of the nicest musical moments in the show, along with an equally brief duet sung earlier with a little girl from Rotterdam that Santa can sing perfectly well in Dutch, natuurlijk. Though Jay Roberts’ store psychiatrist is written and performed as too much of a pantomime villain, a man who for no apparent reason delights in firing people and ruining their careers. “Get out before I throw you out!” he shouts at Santa. He’s overzealous and over-played.

For all its source material faults, which help explain why the show is rarely performed, undemanding audiences hungry for something festive with the family will probably still enjoy ABT’s James Rio directed production. With the Christmas wreaths hanging around the two lamps that flank the stage and the show’s overall colorful design, including lighted Christmas trees and seasonally decorated sets, ABT does what it can to add twinkle and make an ordinary work at least appear attractive, aided by the climactic courtroom scene that can’t fail to satisfy.

And, as is often the case at ABT, the seasonal festivities extend beyond the stage and into the theatre lobby, giving audiences not only the chance to mingle with the cast after the show in nicely displayed holiday surroundings but also plenty of photo ops to boot.

Miracle on 34th Street runs now until December 29 at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria

Pictures Courtesy of Scott Samplin

Posted in Film

Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End – Theatre Review: Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix

It’s probably true that since her passing in 1996, there’s a whole generation who have never heard of Erma Bombeck. For most of us, that’s difficult to believe. During her time as humorist and syndicated newspaper columnist from the sixties to the nineties, even if you only glanced at her writing or maybe never read it all, you still knew who Erma Bombeck was. There were so many great lines to quote.

But time marches on, and the older we get, the faster the passing of time, and the faster the changes to our culture. Reading habits have altered. Newspapers themselves are fading. In a world where the average American reader tends to look for a specific story online, coming across the work of a columnist is rare, and if it does happen, then it’s often by accident. Knowing how Erma rose to fame is a story that would not occur today; at least, not by the same route.

In director Casey Stangl’s one-woman, single act play Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, presented by Arizona Theatre Company and playing now until December 2 at Herberger Theater Center, writers Margaret Engel and Allison Engel explore the world of a mother and housewife who by the end of her career had written for more than 4,000 newspaper columns and published 15 bestsellers. But despite ATC’s high standard of production, it’s not much of a play.

Beginning appropriately with the sound of a typewriter gently tapping its keys, Jeanne Paulsen as Erma enters Jo Winiarski’s nicely detailed set of a modestly designed living room and kitchen and immediately engages the audience. She introduces herself with a brief overview of her formative years during wartime, then dives headfirst into the trials and tribulations of being a mother, a wife, and a housewife. What a concept, she declares. “A woman married to a house.”

Writing a column was what I could do,” Erma tells us after vacuuming the carpet and letting us know that when using the cleaner on a floor littered with children’s toys, “It often works best when you pick up the army men first.”

Like Erma’s column, the script is full of observational wit, culled from the writer’s work. “God bless television,” she states. “Our kids wouldn’t eat anything they hadn’t seen dance on TV.” And on the subject of food: “Why take pride in cooking when they don’t take pride in eating?” And as for household equipment, there’s the smoke alarm that, “…Told the family when dinner was ready.” The play’s title comes from the Newsday Newspaper Syndicate title given to her work, At Wit’s End.

Paulsen is clearly a great actor, something that’s evident not so much when she’s talking directly to the house but in those moments that require theatrical business like answering the phone when she learns of an offer to write, or when she successfully suspends our disbelief and talks to her unseen children at the dinner table. “Don’t worry about that tooth,” she says as she arranges breakfast. “It’s going to come out sooner or later.”

Despite the humor, the play becomes more interesting in those all too brief moments where something of a more serious nature is tackled, such as the reading of a letter from a woman serving life for killing her own child, or the look of surprise on Erma’s face when attending a Betty Friedan lecture and hearing the feminist activist talk on the subject of housewife columnists, stating, “There’s something about this writing that reminds me of Uncle Tom.”

But there’s not a lot of gravitas to the mildly entertaining thin material. With a running time of only sixty minutes, there’s a feeling you’re already getting up to leave before you’ve settled. Erma’s time as a frequent guest on TV talk shows are never covered, nor is her time as a television writer. And, unless I missed the reference, it’s never mentioned that on the immense success of her columns, her books, and her TV work, the modest housewife from Ohio bought an estate here in Phoenix and moved her family locally to Paradise Valley.

If you were a reader of her columns, know her books, heard her as a regular guest on Arthur Godfrey’s Radio Show, and watched her decade-long work on ABC’s Good Morning America it’s doubtful you’ll leave the theatre having learned anything new that you didn’t already know about Erma Bombeck. In fact, you’ll probably know more than the play relates.  There’s good information to be found in a small exhibit in the theatre’s lobby consisting of newspaper clippings, early magazine covers, and black and white pictures of the time.  Frankly, they add more weight to Erma’s background than the play itself. But if you’re part of that generation who went in knowing nothing about the columnist, it’s doubtful you’ll leave with an inspiration to find out more.

Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End is playing now until December 2 at Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix

Pictures Courtesy of Tim Fuller

Posted in Theatre

Elf the Musical – Theatre Review: Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

Despite its mixed reviews, when the Broadway seasonal hit Elf The Musical opened at London’s Dominion Theatre in 2015, incredibly it became the fastest selling show in the theatre’s eighty-nine-year history.

Because of the country’s issues and its divisive political turmoil, a new Christmas musical with no messages to deliver, just a heap of seasonal good cheer, was precisely the kind of diversion the country needed. It was the right show at the right time. Which helps explain the packed house on opening night at Phoenix Theatre and the early rise of healthy ticket sales. Forget this Thursday’s turkey dinner. It’s Elf the Musical one week earlier than Thanksgiving that’s officially kicked off the valley’s Christmas season.

Due to the enormous popularity of the 2003 big screen version, which, like Ralphie and his beloved BB gun in A Christmas Story, has become a perennial movie favorite, audiences will naturally notice differences. There’s no Papa Elf telling the story. On stage, it’s the big guy himself, Santa (Gene Ganssle) who enters stage-right in his corner man cave, ready to greet the audience. After a problem with the remote control and his Tivo, plus a reminder for audiences to turn off all cell phones and unwrap that hard candy (he crumples the noisy wrapping while humming Do You heart What I Hear?) Santa proceeds to tell the tale of Buddy the Elf, who was clearly no elf at all.

The musical’s story arc is much the same as the film. As an orphaned child on his hands and knees, Buddy made the mistake of crawling unnoticed into Santa’s sack of gifts. He was whisked off, back to the North Pole, which is where Santa discovered the child, but by then it was too late to take the boy back. Instead, Santa and Mrs. Claus (Amie Bjorklund) raise the child, but not as their own – as an elf, which was fine when Buddy and the Christmas elves were pretty much the same sizes, but after thirty years of living deliriously happy in Christmastown, being six-foot-plus can appear somewhat suspicious when the average height for an elf is less than half that size.

Not that Buddy (Toby Yatso) notices. It’s only when he overhears a remark stating that he’s human and not an elf when everything changes for him. “I’m an orphan!” Buddy declares. “Just like Annie.” His mother, Santa informs, passed away, but there is a father. The only problem – horror upon horrors – is that Buddy’s father is on the naughty list. He doesn’t believe in Santa Claus! So Buddy, in full oversized elf costume, heads south, floats from the North Pole on an iceberg, reaches land, and walks his way to Manhattan, determined to find his dad and be the son the New York businessman never knew he had.

Another difference from the adaptation of film to stage is the character of Buddy’s father. Walter Hobbs (Chris Erikson) may still have the same publishing problems of failing to come up with a children’s Christmas bestseller in time for the holidays, but he’s not as mean-spirited as James Caan played him. Hobbs is now a little softer around the edges making him far more palatable. And ultimately it’s Erikson’s warm performance that makes the character easier to like. He’s not so much work-obsessed, he’s simply overworked and fears he may lose his job, which distracts him at Christmas from his wife (a perfectly wonderful Debby Rosenthal) and his son (played on alternate performances by either Corban Adams, Kylan Chatt, or William Richardson). Buddy’s arrival at his downtown office telling him he was sent by Santa only complicates things further.

Instead of a modern pop/rock score, Elf the Musical is pure Broadway with a fine, seasonally tuneful sounding score from Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin. For the record, the theatre’s program lists the opening introductory number as Christmastown that was part of the original lineup, while the Phoenix Theatre production uses Buddy’s Broadway revival replacement, Happy All The Time.He’s freaky happy,” adds Santa.

Writers Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin have done well adapting the screenplay to stage, incorporating the story’s family-friendly silliness with some occasional laughs for the grownups. Rosenthal’s mom has a heart to heart with her son regarding Buddy stating that when a child believes in Santa, that’s fine, but when he’s thirty, “That’s profoundly disturbing.” But later when she gets to meet the real Santa, she suddenly goes weak-kneed like a fan backstage at a Take That concert and tells the big guy, “I really liked you in Miracle on 34th Street.”

Director D. Scott Withers, who played the part of Hobbs in both the 2015 and 2016 national touring productions, keeps the show tightly reigned with an outstanding cast of valley talent. In addition to Erikson, Rosenthal, and Ganssle, Jenny Hintze charms as Buddy’s love interest, Jovie, while Anne Lise Koyabe steals her scenes as Hobb’s secretary Deb. The woman finds no end of amusement when discovering that the tall guy in the elf costume is actually her boss’ son.

Even the large ensemble, many of whom play dual roles, shine with familiar and welcome faces, including among others Alyssa Chiarello, Laurie Trygg, Eddie Maldonado, Matravius Avent, and Amie Bjorklund, who makes such a perfect looking Mrs. Claus that the casting agent at Radio City Music Hall might do well to make a phone call.

But at its center is Toby Yatso, a performer of an inexhaustible drive. With his tall, lanky, lean appearance, he’s Jiffy the Broomstick Man (look him up) in Christmas green and curly-toed boots with a performance so high in energy his light shines brighter than the tree at Rockefeller Center. If there were audience members who entered thinking only Will Ferrell could ever be Buddy the Elf, within seconds of Yatso bouncing on, the SNL comedian has already faded from memory. Will who?

When Buddy takes a Salvation Army worker’s bells, instead of them simply ringing, he makes them play Carol of the Bells as if performed by a full hall of professional bell ringers. For a moment it seems like something supernatural has just happened. If he can do that, are there other magical powers in his possession that could help solve his father’s problems? The answer, of course, is no. It’s just some funny stage business. And dad’s deadline of having to come up with a new Christmas bestseller by midnight, Christmas Eve is odd when you consider the 24th is the actual end of the season’s shopping season. But Elf the Musical is so full of candy-coated, tinsel-covered goodwill that it’s easy to overlook some of the story’s shortcomings and just go with the yuletide flow.

The show runs now until December 30. See it this week and you’ll get an early start to the season. See it in the middle of its run and it’ll be a welcome relief from the bustle of Christmas shopping. Or see it in the last few days during the Christmas week and it’ll bring all the warmth and the good cheer of the holiday. Like that production that broke records in London’s West End and continued to run past it’s Christmas due date, once again it’s Elf the Musical at Phoenix Theatre that truly is the right show at the right time.

Elf the Musical is performing now until December 30 at Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography

Posted in Theatre

Ralph Breaks the Internet – Film Review

Because of the industry’s ever vigilant watch to find the next movie franchise, it was inevitable that after the popularity of Disney’s Wreck-It-Ralph there would be a sequel. This time, the one-time villain, now a lovable lug, Ralph (voiced by the equally lovable John C. Reilly) extends his adventures from the confines of the video arcade and ventures into the wide, wide world of boundless creative possibilities for both the writers and the animators – the Internet. And that’s exactly what happens. Well, at least for the film’s first two acts.

It’s six years since Ralph and the racer with the slightest of technical glitches, Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman with the candy-coated cutesy-pie voice) became the best of buddies. Once the doors close on Litwak’s Family Fun Center & Arcade, and Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill) has switched off for the night, Ralph and Vanellope spend their evenings hanging out, playing trivia, and having fun with burping contests, waiting for the sun to rise the next morning when the arcade will open once again.

It’s a life that suits Ralph perfectly fine. He’s hanging out with his best buddy at night and wrecking buildings in his game during the day. But Vanellope is different. Aware that she and Ralph are just a series of ones and zeros, she gets restless and ponders her existence, questioning the meaning of her digital life, wondering if there’s something else out there that could make things that little more, well, exciting. It’s just at that moment when arcade owner Mr. Litwak arrives back at his business for another day of work and plugs in something brand new. Wi-Fi. “Wiffy?” asks Ralph, confused. “Or is that Wyfee?”

Because of a missing part in Vanellope’s Sugar Rush video racing game, a part that is no longer manufactured but can be found on eBay, Ralph and his racing buddy take matters into their own hands. From within, they’ll find eBay for themselves, get the missing part, and have it mailed to the Arcade. After a dazzling speed-of-light ride through the Wi-Fi connecting cable, Ralph and Vanellope stumble into the modem, which from their point-of-view on the inside looks like the most high-tech, elaborately designed shopping mall interior ever. But it’s when they walk through the doors and step outside into the ever-expanding metropolis that is the Internet with its buildings representing familiar names such as Snapchat, Amazon, IMDB, and YouTube they begin to realize the enormity of what they’re up against. “Guess we’ll know where to go if we need a pair of goggles,” states Ralph as he passes the Google building.

Among the themes of friends and family, Ralph Breaks the Internet can also be viewed as a cautionary tale. Like the child who unwittingly stacks up mom and dad’s credit card because he’s not entirely sure what he’s doing when pressing that Enter button, Ralph and Vanellope haven’t a clue when they get to eBay. Making bids and throwing out numbers is so much fun; the higher the number, the more fun it is. It’s only when they’re told that the thousands they’ve just bid represent dollars that their merriment quickly dissolves. Now they’ve got to find the money, a task that takes them from one misadventure on a website to another as they stumble over an endless array of get-rich-quick schemes and various other scams that can regularly pop-up while exploring the web.

Vanellope discovers the game Slaughter Race, an adult-only version of her Sugar Rush, lead by speed racer Shank (voiced by Gal Gadot) and she’s smitten. When Ralph points out that while the violent racing game might initially be exciting for Vanellope, it’s not normal. “I want this to be my normal,” the pint-size heroine declares. It’s as if she’s found what she’s looking for. And even Ralph has to admit, “The attention to detail is pretty amazing.”

But the most creative of all the sites the pair encounter along the way is when they fall into Oh My Disney, a sequence that spoofs heavily on a studio’s own product. At first, you can’t help but wonder if the organization has dangerously pushed the envelope on self-promotion with its entryway tabs that lead to all things Star Wars and Marvel a little too far. But once Vanellope hides from some pursuing Storm Troopers and hangs out with royalty among all the Disney princesses, the episode completely wins you over. Beloved characters such as Belle, Ariel, Anna, and Elsa fuss around the new Disney princess from the video arcade, all voiced by the original performers, Paige O’Hara, Jodi Benson, Kristen Bell, and Idina Menzel, and all asking questions in rapid succession, wanting to know Vanellope’s story and whether it reflects their own. “Do you have magic hair?” asks Rapunzel, “Do animals talk to you?” asks Cinderella, “Were you kidnapped or enslaved?” asks Belle. “Are you guys okay?” asks an overwhelmed Vanellope. “Should I call the police?”

While relaxing out of costume and lounging in pants and sweatshirts – Ariel’s top reads Thingamy-Bobs while Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora reads Nap Queen – they advise Vanellope on how to clear her mind by staring at water, just as Moana did, and a song will come. Even though the film is not technically a musical, Vanellope stares at a puddle in the street, hoping for inspiration, and suddenly bursts into A Place Called Slaughter Race, a hilarious take on any Disney princess soul-searching song, with lyrics “…Was that a metaphor/Hey, there’s a dollar store/Look, I’m rhyming!” The whole sequence leaves you giddy with delight.

There’s also a somber moment of surprising reality when Ralph accidentally walks into a website’s Comments Section and reads just how soul destroying those negative comments from internet trolls can be. But it’s in that final act when things falter.

True to the film’s title, Ralph really does break the internet by accidentally releasing a virus from the ominous dark web. And it’s here where you feel the film’s 114-minute length as the character does whatever he can to save the day. It goes on too long. Way too long. Plus, in on an odd way, without divulging plot-spoilers, what occurs feels uncomfortable. As a result, what began so strong with eye-popping creativity and invention, plus some very big laughs, suddenly stumbles. Because of this, ultimately the film wears out its welcome.

Knowing how the industry works, if box-office returns on the sequel match what happened with the original, which it probably will, Disney will no doubt pave the way to keep the franchise alive with a third. But unlike the Toy Story series that, to date, has never missed a step (there’s a fourth on the horizon) Wreck-it-Ralph has faltered. For the time being, before they start plans for another sequel, maybe the studio should pause before rushing back to the digital drawing board and heed the advice printed on Elsa’s sweatshirt, the one that reads, Just Let It Go.

MPAA Rating: PG      Length: 114 Minutes

Posted in Film