Happy Death Day 2U – Film Review

From a purely business perspective, when a film that is said to have cost $4.8 million but grosses worldwide more than $122 million, you know there’s a sequel in the works, even if the story never required a second outing.

When Happy Death Day opened in 2017 with a cast of unknowns it came as a surprise. Who knew that a bloodless slasher flick that no one considered scary would become so popular? Yet its Groundhog Day meets Scream sensibilities turned the low-budget thriller into a hit, a big one.

The plot was simple. Its heroine, Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) was repeatedly murdered by someone in a mask. Each morning she would wake up on campus and live the same day over and over until the killer’s identity was eventually discovered, stopping her repeated murders in the process. As an added bonus, the curiously named Tree – short for Theresa – redeemed herself, changing from the mean girl on campus to the nice one. Plus, she ended up with the nice guy, Carter (Israel Broussard) who wasn’t exactly a college nerd, but close.

Those prepped with how things worked for Tree will get the film’s opening in the sequel, only this time, instead of the girl having a literal deja-vu, it’s Ryan (Phi Vu). Remember him? He was Carter’s roommate in the first film, the one that kept walking into the dorm at the wrong moment. At the beginning of Happy Death Day 2U he wakes up, goes through the motions of the day, and is stabbed by someone in a mask, only to immediately wake up again, ready to face the same conflicts and to eventually get stabbed again.

But that’s just the beginning. Before you get lulled into a false sense of your own cinematic deja-vu but with a different lead, slow down. All the events of the first film happened the day before. The film has taken off at practically the same moment where the previous one completed. When Ryan tells his roommate Carter and his girlfriend Tree what’s now happening, instead of dismissing him as a nut, they know exactly what he’s talking about. Tree and Carter take the boy seriously. In a series of lightning speed flashbacks, they explain to him (and to those in the audience who may not have seen the original) what they’ve just gone through, and do what they can to catch Ryan’s killer. But nothing is as simple as that. And here’s where it does something that the first film never did – it gets complicated.

Unlike the first film that never actually explained why Tree was reliving the same day over and over, this one does, in a manner of speaking. It appears that Ryan and his nerdy Big Bang Theory associate students in the Quantum Mechanics Lab have been working on a science project. It’s a Caractucus Potts kind of machine that at the press of the Enter button is supposed to slow down time. But instead of slowing things down it created a time loop and sucked Tree into its system in the process. And it hasn’t stopped.

Somehow – and this where trying to explain things gets murky – because of a fault with the machine at the time when the students are trying to reverse the experiment, Tree is accidentally thrust into a parallel universe – or a multi-verse – where she’s still on campus and she knows the same people, but they’re different. The killer of the first film is now one of the nice girls, her boyfriend Carter is with someone else, and her mother, who had sadly passed away in the real world, is still alive in the parallel one. Plus, there’s still a killer in a mask on the lose; a new one. And at this point, even Doctor Who might be confused.

This kind of reminds me of Back to The Future 2,” Carter tells Tree after she explains what has now happened to her. “Totally,” agrees Ryan. And he’s right, to a point. Like the sequel to the Michael J. Fox time-traveling adventure, Happy Death 2U is a mess. And the more it continues, the more it feels as though it’s about to unravel. But stick with it. Unlike Future 2, despite all the nonsense of multi-verses and role reversals and the bewilderment of occasionally trying to work out what characters are doing and why, somehow the film remains buoyant and generally keeps things fun.

Usually with horror sequels, the murder rates and the blood are jazzed up, but not with Happy Death 2U. Instead, the film actually downplays the grizzly knife attacks and amps up the two elements that worked so well in the first film – the humor and Jessica Rothe. As Tree, Rothe gave a knockout performance in the original, and here she’s equally good, still looking like Blake Lively’s talented younger sister but with more sass and energy.

While the humor never quite takes the overly self-consciously aware route of Scream, it still pokes fun at the horror conventions, and much is funny. But in the way that Star Trek fans often refer to something called the Star-Trek-V-Conundrum where the follow up to the adventure about rescuing the whales tried too hard to make the humor in IV work even more in the next one, Happy Death Day 2U occasionally makes the same mistake. There’s a sequence where student Danielle (Rachel Matthews, the late Michael Landon’s granddaughter) pretends she’s blind in order to distract the college dean (Steve Ziss) resulting with lots of smashed glass and a bloody nose for the dean. It’s a scene from a different film. It oversteps its reach. Those who turned up looking for scares among the thrills and finding their tolerance level already tested will probably give up at this point. But again, stick with it. Tree’s string of creatively absurd suicides meant to speed up a process of formula elimination – don’t ask – and played against Paramore’s 2017 pop/rock hit Hard Times is laugh-out-loud funny, as long as you’re attuned to sick humor.

There’s a mid-end credit sequence that’s worth staying for with a funny payoff that feels like a put-on at the expense of all those superhero movies, the kind that ends as a tease for a future chapter. Here, the brief episode would seem all the funnier if it was there just as a joke, but director Christopher Landon has already announced his intention for a third outing, meaning the tease is for real. If there’s to be a Happy Death Day 3, let’s hope it learns from the errors of 2; don’t make it messy, keep the humor but hold the slapstick. Isn’t that how Back To The Future 3 redeemed itself?

MPAA Rating: PG-13        Length: 100 Minutes

Posted in Film

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane – Theatre Review: Valley Youth Theatre, Phoenix

Once there was a china doll who was loved by a little girl.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane was adapted by Childsplay’s Artistic Director Dwayne Harford, based on the award-winning children’s novel by Kate DiCamillo. When last presented in Tempe, the play’s epic tale with a large cast of characters was played by just four adult performers. It was a remarkable piece of theatre. For this reviewer, it was 2014’s play of the year.

Five years later, that same play is currently in production across town in Phoenix at Valley Youth Theatre, playing now until February 24, but there’s a difference. This time, director Carolyn Marie Wright has taken Childsplay’s original script and restructured it. Instead of a story told by four actors playing several roles, there is now a cast of fifteen filling the stage, yet none of the creativity that went behind making four performers look like a cast of many is lost. VYT’s production, with a different set design and an overall different look, actually benefits from individual character casting.

When Edward, the china doll of the tale, is lost and feels that even the stars of a sparkling night sky are mocking him, the stage is filled with young actors holding lighted orbs as they each voice a biting line of dialog that Edward believes is directed specifically at him. And at a later time, when the narrator (here called the Traveler) revisits Edward’s misadventures and presents all at once the array of characters and the conflicts he has encountered throughout his miraculous journey, the stage becomes populated with a full cast who stand and face the audience, each one there to have their moment under a spotlight before exiting both the stage and Edward’s life.

The tale of a rabbit whose head is made of China begins in the 1930s when the doll is given to ten-year-old Abilene (Kate Williams). The rabbit’s name is Edward, and though Edward is clearly an inanimate object, we hear his thoughts. The physical presence is humorously played by Andy Wissink who stands nearby and observes, often commenting on what he hears. “Somehow I make the pinstripes work, don’t I,” he remarks with just a touch of vanity as young Abilene dresses him. But Edward’s comfortable life with the little girl who clearly loves her doll will soon end. On an ocean-going trip on the RMS Queen Mary, Edward is accidentally thrown overboard by two mischievous boys, resulting with the doll lost at the bottom of the sea.

From there, after spending 297 days on the ocean floor, the doll is hauled out of the water by a fisherman. And so Edward’s long journey of survival and self-discovery begins. Incorporating several themes of growth, loss, recovery, and even compassion, along the way the doll will become friends with several different characters, all of whom will rename the doll. Things will eventually turn full circle, but until that happens, Edward will learn his life lessons the hard way. As the old doll (Emily Jacob) on the shelf at the toy repair store tells Edward, “Every time a new person comes into our lives, we start off on a new adventure.” But perhaps the point that Edward needs to take to heart is when the wise doll adds, “If you have no intention of loving or being loved, then the whole journey is pointless.

Dori Brown’s scenic design consists of a series of raised wooden platforms of varying levels played against a screen upon which the sun rises, the sun sets, and night stars are projected. Slot a group of handrails on the upper level and the set becomes the deck of an ocean liner. Open the doors of a large wooden crate standing upright and it becomes a boxcar on a train. It’s very effective.

In addition to working with Dwayne Hartford’s script from Childsplay and redeveloping it for VYT, this new production also benefits from Kyle Sorrell’s music score. Originally played live with acoustic guitar and violin, here it’s used as a soundtrack to the action while creating an atmosphere that makes the telling of Edward’s journey appear as though a genuine piece of American folklore in the vein of Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan is now unveiled.

Among the show’s many strengths is the talented fifteen member cast who reenact Edward’s story. Each brings a distinct individual quality to their moment on the stage, a testimony to the high standards demanded by a VYT production. By including Edward Tulane in its 30th Anniversary season and doing it as well as it is done here, VYT doesn’t simply honor Childsplay, it illustrates how well the two groups complement each other.

And while with a cast as large as this, mentioning every performer would turn this column into a laundry list, special mention must go to the actor whose presence and professionalism are felt throughout the production. Called the Traveler, Jordan Baker is the play’s narrator, relating events as she walks among the characters and sets the scene. Like the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town who both narrates and occasionally integrates himself into the action, at times Jordan’s Traveler assumes the role of a grandmother or even a bird and becomes part of the moment. When she does, it’s as if the spirit of the character enters her body and possesses. She twists and turns her hands and arms, assumes a hunched position, and for just a moment she becomes that person. Once the moment is over, the spirit leaves and the traveler is free to straighten up and return to her normal stance and voice. With an assured presence that belies her youth – Jordan is only fifteen – and her inexperience – this is her first role with VYT – the actor is extraordinary and a genuine find.

Director Wright has crafted a production that VYT can be proud of. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane as presented at Valley Youth Theatre on North First Street is something quite wonderful.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane continues at Valley Youth Theatre in Phoenix until February 24

Pictures Courtesy of Memories by Candice

Posted in Theatre

What Men Want – Film Review

We know that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. We know that. We’re just not wired the same. So we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that director Adam Shankman’s comedy What Men Want is simply a role reversal of the Nancy Meyer’s film What Women Want. That’s a false equivalent.

Certainly, it has a similar premise. The lead character gets a knock on the head leading to the ability to hear the thoughts of the opposite sex. But when those thoughts differ considerably from gender to gender in both tone and subject, there are contrary things to learn.

In the 2001 comedy, when Mel Gibson gets his severe knock on the head and suddenly hears what the women around him are thinking, he discovers that women are just as assertive and as clever as any man. To his dismay, once the obvious comic fun of knowing what is going on in the minds of the ladies is covered, he discovers that women have the ability to outsmart and out lead a guy in almost any situation. Who knew? Not he. Being a comedy with an ultimate soft center, Gibson may eventually get another severe knock on the head (what are the odds?) to stop that sudden superpower, but at least it teaches him to be a better man. It was all about his redemption and an enlightened appreciation of the opposite sex.

In the new film it’s Taraji P. Henson’s turn to get the knock on the head, but hearing the thoughts of men isn’t quite the same. Rather than sounding clever and assertive, we’re crass and ‘R’ rated. We know that, and women already know that. With that in mind, so to speak, there’s nothing really new for Henson’s character to learn, even though, like the PG-13 rated 2001 version, the new ‘R’ rated film follows the same path as the old and is ultimately about Henson’s redemption. But the film makes the mistakes that the Gibson comedy made and misses all the opportunities that could have distinguished it into being something clever and unique rather than the standard and obvious movie it ends up being.

Henson plays Alison Davis, or Ali. She’s an ambitious go-getter sports agent in a company populated exclusively by males. She’s been up since 3 am working, her mind racing with ideas. She’s the type with aggressive energy that won’t quit. “I’m not dealing with stupid people today,” she declares, though in truth, from her perspective, she probably feels as though she deals with stupid people every day. Once her timid, gay assistant Brandon (Josh Brener) arrives at her apartment ready to start the day, with no time to spare any chit-chat, Ali snaps her fingers and exclaims, “Let’s go.” Working for her can’t be fun.

But today is special. She’s up for a promotion as a partner. But when it doesn’t come – her boss tells her she doesn’t connect well with men – Ali drowns her sorrow in some after-hours booze with girlfriends, followed by a weird concoction of tea from Haiti, given to her by an equally weird psychic (Erykah Badu). The drink makes her woozy. But when she gets bonked on the head and is knocked out, she wakes up in a hospital with the ability to hear the thoughts of men.

At first, she thinks it’s a curse. What she’s hearing from all the men around her is as descriptively vulgar as you would imagine. Plus, she hates that all the men at work seem to be getting the upper hand on everything. But when she returns to the psychic ordering the woman to stop the thoughts she’s hearing, it’s the psychic who puts things into perspective. When it comes to men getting the better of her, there’s an easy solution. “If you can read their thoughts, how they gonna do that?” the psychic asks.

From there, the film becomes a series of Ali reading men, using what she knows, and from time to time getting the upper hand against her male counterparts. In reality, once she’d trained herself to shut out certain things and focus on the information she needs, she could have really shined, but What Men Want wants to remain a situation comedy and stick to formula.

Instead of doing a Jerry Maguire and opening her own company with new clients and navigating deals with an unbelievable advantage from the beginning, which would have made a much more interesting film, she remains with the boy’s club. Through a series of repeated and obvious broad farce, she makes mistakes, loses friendships, and generally messes up. Ultimately, once she gets another severe knock on the head (really, what are the odds?) she’ll learn something about herself. Unlike Gibson’s character, for Ali there’s nothing new to learn about men – we’re dogs; let’s not kid ourselves – but at least the experience will make her a nicer and somewhat calmer person.

One mistake a critic often makes, and should always be on guard against doing, is critiquing a film for not being what he or she wants it to be while ignoring the effectiveness of what it is. Green Book is an example. In terms of its target audience, What Men Want undoubtedly succeeds. The response of the audience at the screening was overwhelmingly positive. True, screening audiences aren’t necessarily the same as regular audiences – they’re not movie buffs or students of film, they just acquired a free pass – but still, their continuous laughter remains an indication of the good word of mouth to follow.

Still, it’s a shame that director Shankman and his writers took the more obvious raunchy sit-com path rather than exploring the real possibilities of what reading a guy’s mind could do and how a woman could use that knowledge. Every generation is defined by the changing tastes and tones of the era they’re born into. They want to define things for themselves and separate from the previous. The mostly teenage audience that will see What Men Want were not around or were only just born when the eighteen-year-old Gibson comedy was released. Thus where comic vulgarity and the use of colorful expletives were absent in the first film, they’re in abundance in the new, and that’s to be expected in today’s ‘R’ rated sex comedy. But how much funnier would the film have been had the coarse and f-bomb laden language throughout was relegated only to what Henson’s character hears in the minds of men rather than what is actually spoken? And, seriously, why, just like the first film, are events contrived to eventually take the ability away?

In the end, though Ali Davis wants to use her new found power to help her rise, because of the route Shankman’s movie takes, all it’s really doing is dragging her in the opposite direction.

MPAA Rating: R     Length: 117 Minutes

Posted in Film

Cold Pursuit – Film Review

In 2014 there was a black comic thriller from Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland called Kraftidioten. Its literal translation means power idiot. Use it in a sentence and you’re calling someone a dumb son-of-a-bitch. Give it emphasis and you might as well be saying, you’re a f******g idiot.

It was a huge success on its home turf and a big one among the remaining Scandinavian countries. When shown in America with a mostly moderate following, generally by foreign movie cineastes, the title became In Order of Disappearance. But its offbeat tale of an ordinary guy getting revenge on gangsters, told with a huge dose of gallows humor, not to mention a healthy foreign market box-office, was good enough to warrant an American remake.

Following the same path as the late director George Sluizer who scored big with his 1988 atmospheric thriller from The Netherlands The Vanishing, then directed the 1993 American remake himself (though with less success; the film did its own vanishing act shortly after release), director Moland has done the same and helmed the new English language version, now called somewhat generically Cold Pursuit.

The frozen, snow laden areas of a fictional ski-town of Tyos, Norway is now Kehoe, Colorado, and the Serbian gangsters seeking their own revenge on the Norwegian locals are now Native Americans, but everything else is pretty much the same, including the irreverent humor delivered deadpan. Imagine Tarantino meets The Coen Brothers and you’ll be close. In fact, you can just imagine how the screenwriting pitch at StudioCanal went; it’ll be Pulp Fiction meets Fargo with a touch of True Romance for a climax.

Playing the role made famous by Stellan Skarsgard is Liam Neeson. He’s Nelson Coxman, a snowplower who describes the duties of his job as one who simply keeps a strip of civilization open for people. In other words, he clears the road in order for tourists to get to their ski resort. Coxman lives a contented though hardworking life with his wife Grace (Laura Dern) and his son Kyle (Micheal Richardson, Neeson’s real-life son). But when Kyle is found dead from a heroin overdose, the Coxman’s lives are torn apart. “We didn’t know our son,” cries Grace, accepting the pathologist’s report. But Nelson’s not buying it. “He wasn’t a druggie,” he insists.

Just at the moment when all feels lost and Nelson is about to take his own life, he suddenly comes across a piece of information that changes everything. As suspected (and as we already knew having previously witnessed the kidnapping by a bunch of gangsters), Kyle was murdered; an innocent party to a drug deal gone wrong. Fueled by new-found adrenaline born of anger and an unrelenting desire for revenge, not to mention a really powerful right arm, the Colorado snowplower, the man who had earlier received Kehoe’s Citizen of the Year award, follows a lead. It takes him to a ne’er do well called Speedo, who, after a Coxman less-than-subtle styled interrogation, gives the citizen of the year another lead, then promptly ‘disappears.’

It’s a pattern that continues. Coxman gets another name, beats him to a pulp, gets a further lead, then has the man ‘disappear.’ He wraps the bodies in chicken wire then throws them into the frigid running rivers of Colorado. The holes in the wire allow the fish to eat them.

As the body count climbs and a turf war between rival Colorado gangs spirals out of control with the snowplower lost somewhere in the middle, like the 2014 Norwegian original, the death of each character is given an obituary; the screen goes black followed by the listing of the victim’s name, his gangster moniker, and a corresponding religious cross, as in Steve Miller ‘Speedo’ or Jeff Christenson ‘Santa.’ “What’s with all the nicknames?” asks Coxman while seeking advice from his now-retired ‘connected’ brother (William Forsythe). “It’s a gangster thing,” the brother informs, while explaining that his own nickname ‘Wing Man’ was something he took from Top Gun.

The humor throughout is delivered deadpan and often as bleak as the snowy landscape. When Forsythe’s Wing Man asks his brother where he learned the trick about getting rid of bodies in chicken wire for the fish to eat, Coxman replies, “Read it in a crime novel.” During a taxi ride, a hitman called ‘The Eskimo’ (Arnold Pinnock) can’t stand hearing Tammy Wynette on the radio and tells the driver to change it to anything else, “Except Kanye.” There’s even a lengthy Pulp Fiction inspired story told by one gangster to another while waiting in a car involving a motel, a chambermaid, and a suspiciously placed twenty dollar bill. In fact, almost every character has a quirk about them in one way or another, but as amusing as much of it is, it can also become too self-referential for its own good. When a young boy, the son of the film’s principal gangster, is kidnapped by Neeson’s Coxman, instead of fearing the snowplower, he snuggles into him before sleep and asks, “Do you know the Stockholm Syndrome?

There are also several unresolved setups. Among them, Emmy Rossum plays a uniformed detective who always appears to be on the verge of cracking the mystery of the disappearing gangsters, but it goes nowhere. And after the initial opening, Laura Dern’s grieving mother Grace is never seen again. She’s not even mentioned. You have to assume there was a marital split after the murder of the son, but there’s nothing said or done to indicate exactly what occurred. Like those bodies in the freezing river, she just disappears. There are even questions left at the fade out. There’s a black comic payoff to a previous moment that occurs during the final few seconds, but it’s not funny enough to close the film without audiences wondering, wait, is that it?

Maybe the deadpan humor was funnier when spoken in a foreign language and read in subtitles. Perhaps the slow pacing of the film simply came across better in a Scandinavian setting. But in doing his best to keep intact for American audiences what worked for Norwegians and keeping true to the spirit of the original, director Moland’s delivered a loss in translation.

As a thriller, the film plods; as a comedy, it labors. Good black comedy should give belly laughs. Here it never rises above a smile (unless you see the film with a friend or you’re in a crowd, then, like all in a group mentality, you’ll laugh a little louder than you normally would if alone). Hearing The Pretenders’ Christmas song 2000 Miles on the soundtrack as Coxman tosses the body of a gangster called ‘Santa’ into the river is kind of funny, but not that much. Ultimately, Cold Pursuit is a farce played in slo-mo. It could use a shot of that new-found adrenaline Liam Neeson’s character suddenly discovered.

MPAA Rating: R     Length: 118 Minutes

Posted in Film

An American in Paris – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

With the exception of a conductor, there’s no other role in theatre whose work relies solely on the performance of others – the director. Movies are different. Unless there’s studio interference, film remains a director’s medium. But not theatre. The director can guide the structure, coax a performance, and block the moves, but once that curtain rises, the actors take over. A film director can make an actor look good. In theatre, an actor can make the director look good.

So how can you judge? Ordinarily, you can’t. When a reviewer writes of seeing ‘brilliant’ direction, beware. But when the director is also the choreographer, the game changes. With Arizona Broadway Theatre’s new production of An American in Paris, now playing in Peoria until March 1, the director is also the choreographer. While praise or criticism can still fall to others, ultimately it’s the director/choreographer that rules. In a case where much of the show is interpreted through dance as it is here, specifically ballet, the success of the piece rests squarely on the shoulders of the one in charge. In this case, it’s Kurtis Overby.

When the show first opened on Broadway in 2014 it was clear that An American in Paris the musical play was not so much based on the 1951 MGM movie, it was inspired by it. It had the same title and the story arc of three men in Paris in love with the same woman remained the central focus, but much was restructured. In fact, writer Craig Lucas took the film’s screenplay and re-worked the whole thing from the beginning.

Instead of taking place in the early fifties, which was present-day when the film was released, here things begin the moment France is liberated from Nazi Germany. At the opening, swastikas hang from above. As the show’s narrator, pianist Adam Hochberg (Michael O’Brien in the role made famous by Oscar Levant) tells us, France may now no longer be under foreign occupation, but after four years, it takes time for a country to get back on its feet. Nothing changes overnight. Parisians are still suffering, there are still bread lines, and collaborators are shown little mercy by the crowds.

Rather than return home, American G.I. with a talent for sketching and painting, Jerry Mulligan (Andrew Ruggieri in the Gene Kelly role) decides to remain in Paris while the city rebuilds itself. Once he sets up residence, he befriends both pianist Adam, another American, plus the son of two wealthy Parisian industrialists, Henri Baurel (Michael Brennan). His parents have a past they would rather not discuss. The characters of Monsieur and Madame Baurel (respectively, Christopher Cody Cooley and Carolyn McPhee) were never in the film; their roles were created specifically for the show.

In the middle is Lise (Rebecca Shulla in the Leslie Caron role) though interestingly, the show’s creators changed her last name from Bouvier to Dassin. Lise is both an aspiring ballerina and the subject of the three young men’s affections. The conflicts plus a sense of mystery revolve around who will eventually win Lise’s heart – as if that was ever in doubt – and the murky connections between Lise and her upbringing with the Baurels. And to make matters more complicated for Jerry, there’s the involvement of American philanthropist Milo Davenport (Beatrice Crosbie) whose interest in the American G.I. may be more than just his ability as an artist.

The George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin songs are sublime; all well staged and extremely well sung. Memorable hits of the day include I Got Rhythm which comes shortly after the three men first meet each other and a friendship bonds. I’ve Got Beginners’ Luck is sung by Jerry expressing his good fortune at having met Lise, and S’Wonderful sung by Jerry, Henri, and Adam unaware they’re singing about the same woman.

Curiously, MGM execs wanted the ballet sequence dropped believing audiences wouldn’t respond favorably. They were right to a degree. Despite winning four academy awards, audiences didn’t take to the film in the way they did other popular MGM musicals of the day, even if younger film historians who weren’t around when the film was released tend to revise movie history with a more favorable look. Reviewers thought it too fancy and overblown. After all, not everyone takes to ballet, even if they’re a fan of dance. Yet in the way the film ultimately became a prestige picture for the studio, the same can be said for this handsome ABT production. Once it completes its dinner theatre run in Peoria, the show moves further south and opens March 8 until 24 at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix. While the ballet in the film with its backdrop designed in the styles of Renoir, van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec may have felt to some (not me) as too florid, in the musical play, it’s the production’s reason-to-be. Which circles us back to director/choreographer Kurtis Overby.

As a director coaxing performances, not all his actors persuade. O’Brien’s narration is delivered on an inexpressive one-note (though he shines during a later scene when tempers rise, plus his singing is excellent). As the American of the title, while Andrew Ruggieri’s singing and dancing are outstanding, no sparks fly between his character and Rebecca Shulla’s engaging Lise; he’s going through the motions of a man in love with a woman, just as the script requires, but there’s no real sense of romance. Only Carolyn McPhee as Mme. Baurel convinces. Though the character is on stage for a lesser amount of time, when she speaks, her delivery is always authentic. But as a choreographer, Overby excels, and it’s here where the real success of the production rests.

Much of what happens is interpreted by dance. There’s confusion during the opening. With no scene-setting backscreen projection or animation to let us know that once those swastikas are torn down they’re replaced by France’s own flag, or that Jerry is standing before the Arc de Triomphe and allied planes fly overhead (he’s looking at a large, blank screen; we hear the noise of something that makes him glance up with a huge smile but unless you already know the show, you might not know what it is that captures his attention) it’s not initially clear what the dance is implying. But once a female French collaborator with a swastika armband and cropped hair enters and is dragged off by the mob, things fall into place. Like those planes we can’t see but hear, from there the show takes flight.

Overby’s choreography performed by the fluid movement of a good ensemble creates a dreamlike effect that the average Broadway musical rarely achieves or even attempts, probably for the same reason those MGM execs wanted the ballet cut from their movie. It’s not what you expect in musical theatre, and certainly not in a regional musical theatre. Occasionally you’ll enjoy a production where the real star of the show is the one you never see, the guy behind the scenes calling the shots. With ABT’s An American in Paris, the star you don’t see but is deserving of the applause is director/choreographer Kurtis Overby.

ABT’s An American in Paris runs until March 1 in Peoria then moves to Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix, performing from March 8 until March 24

Pictures Courtesy of Scott Samplin

Posted in Theatre

Aladdin, the Musical – Theatre Review; National Touring Company, ASU Gammage, Tempe

Maybe it was a happy accident. Maybe not. Following the success of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, the most recent Broadway musical to be adapted from a Disney animated feature is Aladdin, though its inspiration appears to come not so much from the film but from that cherished style of British musical comedy theatre, the pantomime, or panto as it’s more affectionately called.

Largely unknown in America though occasionally referenced in this column, the panto has nothing to do with those French mime artists in white makeup pretending to be trapped inside an invisible box. It’s a beloved stylized form of theatre that emerges every Christmas season in towns, seaside resorts, and cities all over Britain.

Fairy tales, principally Cinderella, Peter Pan, Babes in the Wood, and Aladdin are presented for the family in shows consisting of songs, slapstick comedy, puns, gags, sometimes topical, sometimes naughty in the tradition of a Benny Hill double-entendre, and nowadays often starring a known personality capitalizing on his or her TV soap opera career. American performers such as Henry Winkler, David Hasselhoff, and even Pamela Anderson have flown overseas at Christmas to appear as leads in a pantomime. No joke, Winkler’s Fonz as Captain Hook is said to be a classic.

And one more thing. Audiences are encouraged to shout and respond to events on the stage. Villains are booed, heroes are cheered, and when a character is looking for someone who’s in hiding and asks the boys and girls in the audience if they’ve seen the missing person, they shout in unison, “He’s behind you!” And if a villain disagrees with a statement and says, “Oh, no it’s not,” everyone on cue without prompting shouts back, “Oh, yes it is!” Take my word, it’s glorious fun.

Currently playing at ASU Gammage in Tempe until February 17 is the national touring production of Disney’s Aladdin, the musical, and if there’s any show that resembles an American version of a panto, it’s this. Characters constantly play or address the audience, jokes are present-day topical, there’s slapstick, already established songs, magic tricks, performances are broad, and when Princess Jasmine (a thoroughly delightful Lissa deGuzman) stands her ground as a female – “What’s wrong with a woman running the kingdom?” she asks – the audience roar and applaud with just as much vigor as they would a spectacular production number. Plus, the moment the princess insisted she can’t fall in love with just any Tom, Dick, or Hassim who comes her way, someone seated nearby shouted, “You go, girl!”

The tone of panto is established from the outset when the genie (on opening night played by Michael James Scott, but shared by three other performers on subsequent nights throughout its Tempe run) greets the audience declaring that the middle-eastern city of Agrabah has “More glitz and glamour than any other fictional city,” adding, “Even the poor people look fabulous.” And once he’s introduced the setting and the principal characters, he leaves the stage, ready to re-appear later to play his role in the story. “Try not to miss me too much,” he says as he exits.

There are noticeable differences from the film. Unlike Julie Taymor’s animal creations for The Lion King, Aladdin does away with them altogether. Gone is Jasmine’s tiger, replaced by three sassy ladies-in-waiting; there’s no monkey Abu for Aladdin, he’s replaced by three street wise-cracking guys (who were supposed to be in the movie, but cut and replaced by Abu – now they’re back again), while the villain’s snarky parrot Iago is replaced by a rotund human sidekick of the same name. When the evil grand vizier (Jonathan Weir; rich, dark speaking voice) and Iago (Jay Paranada) exchange evil words played out like a comedic double-act at the foot of the stage in front of a painted screen, they’re Abbot and Costello doing panto shtick; Lou Costello as Iago; Bud Abbot as straight man Jafar. “You’re so Machiavellian,” Iago tells Jafar, adding, “Whoever he is.

Songs that were cut from the film are added, along with some new ones, though it’s the genie’s spectacular Friend Like Me in the first act, with its glitter, theatrical magic, sparkling sets and costumes, and even A Chorus Line styled tap dance, that stops the show. Other songs prove less memorable, though the second act gives us the FM friendly hit A Whole New World; yet even here it’s not the song that draws your focus, it’s Aladdin (Clinton Greenspan) and Jasmine floating around on a magic carpet against a sparkling Disney night sky, complete with shooting stars and a full moon that gets your attention. Rather than hearing the song you’ll be spending most of the time wondering how the scene was done and how come you can’t see the strings.

Among the smoke and light effects – there’s even a Vegas-styled body-disappearing-in-a-box magic trick – there’s the humor. Aladdin is a non-stop, fast-paced gag fest. When the boy asks the genie if he’s from the lamp, the genie replies, “No, I’m from Wakanda!” When one of Aladdin’s colleagues tries to read an announcement from an unrolled parchment and is interrupted, he states, “Do you mind. I’m on a scroll.” There’s even a Tony and Maria moment when Aladdin and Jasmine first meet in the market place as though it was the dance at the gym. Perhaps the height of panto humor comes after Aladdin, pretending to be a prince, makes a grand entrance with his big Act Two production number Prince Ali, then enters the palace and introduces himself. “Yes,” says a sardonic Jafar, “We heard the song.

The production initially sparked controversy when the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee complained of Disney not hiring actors of Middle Eastern descent instead of the colorblind approach that was employed. In the right show, while cultural casting and the subject of ethnicity in the theatre should be adhered to, this is not that show. Because of its glitz, its glamour, its magic, and its broad, silly humor, more than the other live adaptations of a Disney animated feature, this is really a holiday production for the kids. Kids-at-heart adults should enjoy, but Aladdin is really a party on stage for the young. Streamers are fired into the audience, and when the genie first emerges from the smoke of the magic lamp, he doesn’t acknowledge Aladdin, he turns to the audience with open arms and announces, “Hello everybody!

When Jafar enters, you may find yourself suppressing the urge to either hiss or cry, “Boo!” And when the genie discovers he was tricked by Aladdin into giving a freebie magic wish and declares aloud, “Oh, no he didn’t!” don’t be surprised if some children nearby shout, “Oh, yes he did!” Aladdin is the most expensive and spectacular looking pantomime you’ll see without it officially being called a panto.

Disney’s Aladdin continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until February 17

Pictures Courtesy of Deen van Meer

Posted in Theatre