Sisters in Law – Theatre Review: The Phoenix Theatre Company, Phoenix

The book upon which writer Jonathan Shapiro based his new play is called Sisters in Law, with the subtitle How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World.

The New York Times Best Seller was written by Linda Hirshman. It’s a well-crafted, thoroughly researched, highly-detailed account of the first and second women to serve as Supreme Court justices. It’s also an easy read which comes as a surprise considering its 390-page length and how precise it is with its diligent attention to complicated details, making it fully accessible to the rest of us non-lawyers not used to legalese.

Shapiro’s play, now in performance on The Phoenix Theatre Company’s main stage for its world premiere until April 28, is not the book. That would require a lengthy documentary series, the kind Ken Burns or Nova might film as a special two or three-parter on PBS. The playwright has taken biographer Hirshman’s scrupulous work and used it as a template to bring to life in theatrical terms the relationship between two trailblazing women whose work has influenced American law and each other in ways that are ultimately immeasurable.

Retired Justice John Paul Stevens is the only person listed in Hirshman’s book as a Justice interviewed. There’s nothing to suggest the biographer spoke with any other justices, and that includes the two subjects of the play, Ginsburg and O’Connor. But she did talk to several of their clerks, and it’s from these conversations, plus the detailed accounts of facts that occurred between 1993 and 2012, that Shapiro created his dialog. Throughout the play’s 80 minute duration, no intermission, the playwright imagines how private conversations and confrontations might have been. “Nobody got here being humble,” O’Connor (Laura Wernette) tells Ginsburg (Eileen T’Kaye). “You pretend to be humble.

The strength in this newly mounted Dana Resnick directed premiere production is in the casting. Biographer Hirshman describes Sandra Day O’Connor as open-faced, cheerful and energetic, and that’s how Laura Wernette plays her. She’s smart, often sassy, and ready to give advice. Hardly a ‘robust’ voice for social change, O’Connor warns the newcomer to the court not to make differences right away, letting her know that while Ginsburg wants to bring about change fast, the men on the court don’t want change at all. “We don’t re-write the law,” she tells Ginsburg, “We apply it.” The quote that’s embroidered on a cushion in O’Conner’s office reads, ‘Often Wrong But Never In Doubt.’

In her book, Hirshman describes Ginsburg as skinny and petite, even minuscule. While shorter in stature when standing next to Wernette’s O’Connor, Eileen T’Kaye is none of those things, but there’s no mistaking who she is as soon as she enters. With her glasses and the hair pulled tightly back, T’Kaye makes a clear and vivid impression of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and not only in appearance. Knowing what we know of the Brooklyn born Associate Justice, particularly from the excellent 2018 documentary RBG (which includes an appearance from biographer Hirshman) T’Kaye fully captures the essence of Ginsburg’s matter-of-fact manner. “Some people shouldn’t have a lifetime appointment,” Ginsburg insists. “They don’t grow, they just linger.” When Ginsburg confronts O’Connor and delivers advice that comes like a monolog, O’Connor declares, “Everyone from New York talks like a psychiatrist.”

While we’re aware of Ginsburg’s Brooklyn background, the area is not often mentioned, in contrast to O’Connor who regularly references her adopted state of Arizona and Maricopa County. “Nothing is hard after running the Junior League in Phoenix,” she states. For obvious reasons, local valley audiences laugh, but Shapiro often includes several moments of good humor without the need to localize. During a private hospital room sequence where Ginsburg is recuperating from a colon cancer operation, Shapiro imagines a dream where O’Conner, in running shorts and tee-shirt, visits the recovering patient. There’s a gift of a cactus by the bedside that O’Connor sent. “It reminds me of you,” she tells Ginsburg, “Cold and prickly.” And when the woman makes her exit after another lengthy debate and testy disagreement with her Court Justice sister, Ginsburg declares aloud, “She won’t admit a mistake. Not even in a dream!

Many of the scenes are short, often moving at a brisk pace from one setup to the next. Given the subject matter, the dialog can’t help but remain persuasive. But occasionally it jars. When Ginsburg is alone after O’Connor has made her exit, the Associate Justice turns to the audience and states, “They said it’s a lifetime appointment,” then clenches her fist. With a guttural sound to her voice, she grits her teeth and declares, “I’m getting every minute out of mine!” It works as an end-of-scene applause bait but feels curiously uncharacteristic.  

Plus, surprisingly, the play concludes on a sentimental note that’s not authentic. That’s not to say there wouldn’t be tears between the legal groundbreakers when looking back on achievements and saying goodbye, it’s just that the moment comes across more of a writer’s ploy to manipulate an emotion that, based on everything we’ve seen and heard, doesn’t feel would have happened; at least, not like this.

Plus, the play in its current form isn’t particularly theatrical. Even if the dialog engages, movement is at a minimum, giving the two actors little to do other than to stand near each other, walk around a chair or a desk, and talk. Close your eyes and the piece would be equally effective as an audio/radio play without a need to change. Seeing it live adds little, other than the enjoyment of watching Wernette and T’Kaye and their high-energy verbal sparring matches.

The play’s title, as with the book, is a clever one, though O’Connor and Ginsburg are hardly sisters from the same mold. One is a Republican, a rancher’s daughter, and a Christian. The other, a Democrat, a New York City woman, and a Jew. Yet both shaped the boundaries of several issues that legally helped change the lives of women while forging a friendship that, considering the circumstances and their personal differences, is quite remarkable, and that’s what Shapiro’s play is really about, even if in its current, world premiere form, it’s not yet compelling theatre.

Sisters in Law continues on The Phoenix Theatre Company’s Main Stage until April 28

Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography

Posted in Theatre

Big River – Theatre Review: Hale Centre Theatre, Gilbert

The atmospheric sound effects of croaking frogs on the Mississippi bayou aside, the first thing you’ll notice as you enter the house dangles from above.  You can’t miss them. Four large banners, hanging over Hale Centre Theatre’s forum, each perfectly angled so that no matter where you are in the auditorium’s arena-style seating, you’ll be able to read them.

The inscription declares ‘Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted. Persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished. Persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By Order Of The Author.’ It’s signed, Mark Twain. The whimsical quote is taken directly from the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In fact, as the house lights dim and patrons have finally shut off their cameras and phones, look closely as the cast enters from the aisles. For a brief moment, you’ll notice the celebrated author himself walking among them, looking up and admiring his words.

Big River is the sprawling Tony-award winning comedy musical of Twain’s classic novel, where young Huckleberry Finn (an engaging Nicholas Gunnell) and the runaway slave Jim (Robert Collins, excellent voice) take to the Mississippi River during a pre-Civil War Missouri on a raft, looking to escape to their freedom while encountering an array of characters and conflicts along the way.

Writer William Hauptman’s adaptation of the Twain novel is surprisingly faithful, incorporating most of the episodes found in the book. Huck’s encounter with his drunken father (Gary Caswell) is streamlined, plus the episode of the feud between the Grangerfords and the Sheperdsons is gone. But generally, most of the adventures remain intact, which helps explain the show’s duration. With a running time that reaches almost three hours, including a fifteen-minute intermission, you start to feel the length in the second act where the tone darkens considerably when compared to the bouncy upbeat nature of the show’s first act. Interestingly, while the production centers around the characters of Huck and Jim, the musical has the runaway slave become more of a supporting character. His seizure by the authorities galvanizes young Huck into doing what needs to be done in order to rescue him, but his absence for large chunks of that second act is noticeable, something that feels less so in Twain’s novel.

In keeping with the style of the book and its language, the story is narrated by Huck himself, so all events are related from the young boy’s point-of-view, including his interpretation of what he sees and how he hears things. With a grin and boundless energy, Gunnell’s Huck lets us know that he’s telling a story, one that began in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but concludes with Huck. “And he told the truth,” Huck informs, referring to the book’s author, adding a sly, “Mainly.”

The musical is a good one, but not a great one, as evidenced by the bloated length and events of the second act. It may have garnered seven Tonys but they came with red flags. In 1985 there were only four musicals nominated. Outside of being a dedicated Broadway follower, no one remembers the other three; Grind, Leader of the Pack, and Quilters. Things were so bad that year, the awards for Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Choreography were actually scrapped for the first time in Tony’s history. It’s not hard to assume that Big River won Best Musical due to a clear lack of competition more than anything else.

The score by Roger Miller, remembered best for his 60’s hits King of the Road, England Swings, and Dang Me, is inspired from the country styles of the period, incorporating bluegrass and gospel, all sung here at Hale by outstanding voices, but it’s hardly memorable. Repeated listening to the original cast recording may develop favorites, but it’s doubtful that most patrons hearing the score for the first time will leave the theatre humming any of the tunes, as bouncy and as harmonic as several of them are.

Director Tim Dietlein has his cast constantly on the move, including the motorized raft, making expert use of Hale’s arena staging so that at almost every moment in a scene, no matter where you’re sitting, you’ll have the characters facing you. When Huck narrates, the director has Gunnell turning and leaping around the forum with an energy that’s quite infectious, drawing all four sides of the house into his tale at the same time. And whenever someone enters in a stationary position, as with Judge Thatcher (Joey Morrison) seated behind a desk in his office, the character glides on from an aisle and remains there, viewable from all sides of the house, his back to no one.

The same good use of space is employed by Cambrian James’ choreography where, even with a large ensemble filling most areas, energetic dancers circle so that every member can be seen at some point on the floor.

Scene transitions are also smooth and constantly flow without pause. At the conclusion of the cheerful sing-a-long ditty Arkansas sung by Nick Williams, as both the sight and sound of his character slowly fade from the aisle, the funeral scene with a somber ensemble has already assembled and is in motion with How Blest We Are. It’s akin to the effect of a movie dissolve, and it’s very effective.

It should also be noted that in keeping with Hale Centre Theatre’s policy of keeping its entertainment family friendly, as with other Hale productions, some of the dialog from the original Broadway show reflecting Twain’s authentic use of period language is toned down, noticeable even in the songs. Pap Finn’s rant on the Guv’ment has words eliminated, rendering what was already a ‘PG’ production down to a ‘G.’ Twain’s novel has always suffered the threats of having sections censored by those who overlook the story’s literary value in order not to offend, particularly in the classroom, but as literary scholar Thomas Wortham asked, censoring elements of the language doesn’t challenge children to ask ‘Why would a child like Huck use such reprehensible language?’ Even a Disney production is not quite this clean.

On the other hand, you can’t argue with a successful formula. Hale’s recent production of Singin’ In The Rain played to capacity throughout its run, while Big River looks to be on target with a similar box-office outcome. Just don’t expect to be seeing other Tony award winners such as Rent, Spring Awakening or anything by David Mamet performed at the Gilbert theatre anytime soon.

Promotional Pictures Courtesy of Dave Dietlein of Hale Theatre

Big River continues at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert until May 11

Posted in Theatre

Wicked – Theatre Review: 2019 National Touring Company Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

Ever read the Gregory Maguire novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West as published in 1995? If you saw the Broadway musical then bought a copy in the hope of reliving on the page what you enjoyed on the stage, it’s possible you were surprised. They’re not the same. And it’s a difficult read. Rewarding, certainly if you’re an avid reader. It was a New York Times bestseller. But it’s not going to be what you remember as the untold true story of the Witches of Oz. It’s the other untold true story.

As with all Broadway musicals, the show went through a lot of development. First, it was a screenplay, but that didn’t pan out. Then it was approached as a musical for Broadway, which seemed a better idea. And as producer Marc Platt added each new element – Winnie Holzman for the book, Stephen Schwartz for music and lyrics, Joe Mantello to direct – new things came to be. In early drafts, Glinda hardly showed in the first act, but through a couple of years of rewrites, tryouts, songs written, songs removed, more rewrites and tryouts, plus the involvement of Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel during all the performance development stages, the show took on a life of its own. As writer Holzman said when quoted in the behind-the-scenes book, Wicked: The Grimmerie, “Suddenly, it was all about the friendship between Glinda and Elphaba.

Since the show’s premiere in 2003, first in San Francisco then on Broadway, the show has made all kinds of theatrical history. At a time when new New York productions were often revivals or jukebox musicals, Wicked was something of a rarity; a brand new original musical. In the way that the development of the show took on a life of its own from the Maguire novel, so has the production itself. Wicked is so undeniably popular (which in this case should be pronounced pop-pew-ooo-lar) that sixteen years after its opening, the Joe Mantello production has become virtually critic-proof.

This current national tour, known as the Munchkinland Tour, is back at ASU Gammage in Tempe. The show has visited the valley five times. The last was in 2015 and it remained at Gammage for a six-week run. The current production will be in town until May 5. It would be fair to say that a great deal of the valley audience will have seen the show before and know exactly what to expect. So, here’s the question: How do you review a production you’ve already reviewed several times? Plus, considering this is the same Joe Mantello directed show that started with a reading in 2000, opened on Broadway in 2003 and began its first national tour in 2005, what can possibly be different? The answer’s easy. Not a lot.

Glinda’s comedy appears broader with each new visit, and this time around there seems to be a lot more of that atmospheric dry ice fog effect billowing across the stage, then disappearing down into the orchestra pit. For those who can actually see the conductor, amusingly it often appears as though he’s in his own magical cloud that swirls around him as he waves his baton like Harry Potter might wave his wand. But other than some different faces in the cast, that’s about it. And that’s just how the opening night audience liked it.

The spectacle that has become Wicked has turned the show into a virtual rock concert, where audience reaction is every bit as entertaining as the show itself. The buzz of excitement as audience members take their seats and gaze at the now familiar pre-show curtain with a design of the Land of Oz as interpreted by J.R. Tolkien is practically palpable. Then, once the lights dim on the proscenium framework that looks as though it’s built from large clockwork cogs, complete with an oversized metallic puppet dragon with the glaring red eyes perched at the top overlooking everything and everyone, the audience doesn’t just cheer, it roars. And it roars some more.

We’re also at the point where the mere appearance of a character receives applause, regardless who the performer might be. When Erin Mackey as Glinda glides in on her floating bubble and announces “It’s good to see me, isn’t it?” the line not only gets a laugh but also a louder than normal cheer as if a friend had revisited and was quoting herself. And when Mariand Torres as Elphaba first bursts on stage in a flurry, from the ecstatic reception she receives by merely showing up, you’d think Streisand had suddenly made an unannounced guest appearance in the middle of a performance. These people are truly loved.

But that applause isn’t reserved just for the fictional characters. Torres’ powerful rendition of The Wizard and I brings the house down, and it’s only the third song in the show. When Mackey begins, “Whenever I see someone / Less fortunate than I…” the applause of recognition for Popular has already begun. And Defying Gravity has become a phenomenon in and of itself. Not only is the packed crowd making a noise when Torres begins with, “Something has changed within me… ‘ the response at the moment when the green witch suddenly rises and takes flight center stage, declaring to the guards, “It’s not her you want – it’s meee!” things have already reached fever pitch. By the time the song reaches its grand climax with Elphaba’s grandstanding rebel yell and those trumpets sustaining that one long note until the dramatic blackout concluding Act One, you’d swear the plaster on the Gammage ceiling was about to crack. The cast has to feel like rock stars.

Even on this fifth time around, there’s no sign of aging. The show remains slick, the costumes and set design are as eye-catching as they ever were, and the cast with new faces are just as the audience wants to see. Wicked has become the epitome of a musical theatre crowd-pleaser. And to give the show’s success some perspective, consider the following; in an industry where almost 80 percent of Broadway shows rarely earn back their investment, and those that do recoup those production costs can take up to three years to reach that level, in just 14 months, Wicked earned back its $14 million investment. That was in 2004. It hasn’t stopped playing to packed houses. In London where the show seems to have found a permanent home at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, bookings are well into 2020.

And when you go to see the show at Gammage anytime in the next four weeks, look for the name Beka Burnham in the cast. It doesn’t tell you in the program notes, but Beka is a valley native, born and raised in Apache Junction. The first time she saw the musical was when the initial tour came to Gammage at a time when she was busy performing at local community theatres. Beka was with the tour the last time it came to town in 2015, and she’s back with the company for this presentation. Look for her in the energetic ensemble, though at some point in the next few weeks you might catch her as a principal player; Beka is also the understudy for both Glinda and Nessarose.

Wicked continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until May 5

To read a special Q&A with local talent Beka Burnham conducted in 2015, CLICK HERE

For more regarding time, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the ASU Gammge website.

Posted in Film

Shazam! – Film Review

From a fantasy universe of ridiculous overkill, doesn’t it seem as though every other new movie release comes from either Marvel or D.C. Comics? And with another Avengers adventure looming on the horizon, there’s just no stopping them. In the way that supervillains attempt to dominate everything around them, it appears that, at the very least, they’ve successfully taken over the multiplexes.

It’s worth noting that in the case of the latest crime-fighting guy-in-tights saga, Shazam! has come full circle. In 1941, the character was the first superhero to be adapted from the comics to the big screen, though back then, as any self-respecting fan will tell you, he had a different name. Then he was Captain Marvel. But due to some legal business, the Marvel moniker changed hands. Once the dust of copyright infringement settled, Marvel Comics owned Captain Marvel, while D.C. Comics marketed their character by the name of the wizard who hands over his power to young Billy Batson, Shazam.

As the new Shazam! is an origin movie, there’s plot, and it’s a fun one in a fantasy Boys Own way. When he was only four, Billy Batson wandered away in a crowd from his young, single mother. He spent the next ten years growing up as a foster child, running from family after family while continuously looking for his real mom, who he never found. At least, not so far. Now fourteen and living in Philadelphia, Billy (Asher Angel) is once again picked up by child services and placed in yet another foster home, only this time things might be different.

With five instant foster siblings and two incredibly understanding and comforting foster parents, the Vasquez household appears to be just the place in which Billy could finally settle. Maybe. Mom even has a bumper sticker on her car that reads: I’m a foster mom. What’s your superpower? In fact, it’s so much fun to be with mom and dad Vasquez (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews) that when oldest foster sister Mary (Grace Fulton) receives an acceptance to go away to college, she’s not sure she wants to leave the comfort of a loving home.

But while trying to adjust to a new family life, something happens to Billy. While riding the subway, he’s magically zipped away to a spiritual universe called the Rock of Eternity where a grand old wizard resides. The ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) has spent centuries looking for a replacement, someone pure of heart and worthy of the gift of multiple superpowers, like flying, incredible strength, impervious to bullets and pointy things, and the ability to zap stuff with bolts of lightning from the fingertip. “Lay your hands on my staff,” orders the wizard. “Gross,” responds the boy.

In order to instantly change into an adult superhero complete with muscles, a well-coiffed short back and sides hair cut that never moves, and a costume with cape and a cheesy bolt of bright lightning on his expanded chest, all Billy has to do is say the magic word, Shazam! and the mantle of power is finally passed on. It’s not that Billy is really all that pure of heart, it’s just that by this point, the old wizard is ready to pass the powers on asap so that he can finally get some rest. “You’re all I got,” he tells the boy.

What works so well in Shazam! is how funny it is. Writer Henry Gayden’s script not only stays close to the original comic book source material – even the foster family siblings eventually get in on the superhero act – but it also leans heavily on the lively playfulness of a young teenager’s fantasy of what it must be like to be a fully fledged superhero and to be able to do all of those super-duper things. Broadway Tony-Award winner Zachary Levi plays the adult costumed Billy with the continuous wide-eyed look of a kid who can’t believe what’s happened to him. When his disabled foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) asks the new Shazam what superpowers does he possess, Billy responds, “Superpowers? I don’t even know how to pee in this thing.”

But the rules of being a superhero insist there’s always a supervillain to mess things up. In Shazam! the villain is Dr. Sivana, a character who in an introductory backstory was once chosen as a boy to be a potential Shazam himself, but failed the test. Sivana has spent the rest of his life trying to find a way to get back to the Rock of Eternity and claim the evil power of the seven deadly sins, which he eventually does. His evil, uncomplicated plan is not only to unleash havoc across the world but to claim Shazam’s power and add it to his own.

Mark Strong, who by all accounts is one of the nicest guys in the business, has made a film career of playing really bad guys. He does it so well. His Sivana is single-minded and, frankly, annoyingly boorish. And in a serious miscalculation of tone, director David F. Sandberg illustrates Sivana’s murderously nasty ways by having the character enter a boardroom meeting at his father’s company high rise. Accompanied by those seven deadly sins – oversized snarling CGI monsters with teeth, tentacles and a taste for biting the heads off of humans – Sivana barges in and throws his older brother out of the window to his death, then allows his accompanying monsters to devour everyone else around the boardroom table, including his father (John Glover). It’s a humorless, graphically horrifying sequence that actually looks like a scene from a different movie, the kind that at one time might have earned an ‘R.’ Parents looking for a fun family adventure, as the film’s marketing suggests, should take note.

But if you can get past that unnecessary sequence (cut it and it wouldn’t spoil a moment of the narrative) what you’re left with is a witty and highly engaging comedy thriller for teenagers and adolescents that works in its own universe without the need to reference other superhero characters (though it does in one crowd-pleasing joke). Plus, all the scenes regarding being a foster child and living in a foster family environment are positive and should be commended. And like most Marvel and D.C. Comic films suggesting more Shazam! to come, there are not one but two post-credit sequences to see, as long as you’re willing to sit through roughly ten minutes of names you’ll never remember scrolling up the screen.

Curiously, the film takes place at Christmas, but at no point do any of the characters acknowledge the season or even wish anyone a Merry Christmas. It’s just there, in the background. The film’s climax (which like all movie superhero battles goes on for way too long) has Shazam and his siblings fighting the bad guy and his monsters in a Christmas theme park which is systemically destroyed. Even the introductory backstory of Sivana as a boy takes place during the snowy holidays leading you to wonder if the film was always intended to be a yuletide release that was eventually delayed until April. Like Die Hard, sometime in the future, once the film is available on Blu-ray or streaming for the home market and the advertisers insert some sparkly tinsel and a little snow onto a new poster, no doubt someone will regard it as their favorite Christmas movie of all time.

MPAA Rating: PG-13       Length: 130 Minutes

Posted in Film

Frost/Nixon – Theatre Review: iTheatre Collaborative, Herberger Theatre Center’s Kax Stage, Phoenix

Always innovative in both choice and presentation, for the final production of its 2018-19 series, iTheatre Collaborative opened this past weekend with Peter Morgan’s historical drama Frost/Nixon, now playing at Herberger Theater Center’s Kax Stage until April 13.

The Richard Nixon television interviews conducted by English TV personality David Frost were a series of broadcasts recorded in 1977. Because of technical transmitter issues that interfered with the California Coast Guard navigational relay system, the interviews were filmed not at Nixon’s own San Clemente home but at a long-time Nixon supporter’s seaside residence in Monarch Bay, California. The interviews took more than four weeks to record. For both men, they couldn’t have come at a better time.

For Frost, his American talk show was previously canceled and there was no work in England. While presenting a show on Australian TV, the media personality saw an opportunity that he considered could re-boot a temporarily declining career. He wanted to interview Richard Nixon. For Nixon, the disgraced ex-president was fast becoming short of money to the point where doctor’s and lawyer’s bills were not being met. His agent, the famous Hollywood deal-maker Swifty Lazaar, had negotiated a deal for Nixon to write a book. When Frost approached Lazaar with the idea for a series of TV interviews, the experienced agent saw this as a means of not only promoting book sales but as a way of substantially boosting his client’s income. Frost/Nixon is a behind-the-scenes look at how the deal was worked and what happened when the two men finally sat down in front of the cameras and talked.

The cast of Frost/Nixon in rehearsal

Playing real-life characters is a particular kind of challenge for any actor, especially when the voices and mannerisms of that personality are so well known and often imitated. From his well-tailored appearance to the intonation and inflection of a low-toned voice, Christopher Haines does a tremendous job of embodying Richard Nixon, capturing the spirit in the way that most of us remember the man. Like all good performances, Haines doesn’t impersonate, he represents, and he does it well.

Greg Lutz as David Frost is less successful, though part of the issue may be due to Peter Morgan’s portrayal of the man. The writer never quite captured the reality of what the TV personality was like. In the original production (as with the film) actor Michael Sheen injected his own style that echoed the famous media host well enough to overcome writer Morgan’s flaws. Valley performer Lutz has the unenviable task of trying to do the same, but it doesn’t quite work. Frost never followed things he said with a laugh, as the actor constantly does here. The announcer’s satirical quips were spoken straight. With a clipped accent that veers somewhere between American and faux English – ‘Wimbledon’ becomes ‘Wimbletin’ – this Frost nervously chuckles after everything he says like a guest at a cocktail party making small talk.

Christopher Haines as Richard Nixon in rehearsal

Unlike most previous productions in Kax’s black box theatre, the house has been redesigned to accommodate a Thrust Stage setting. Audience seating is three-sided so that the downstage action can be viewed from different angles, depending upon where you chose to sit. The television segments, the Atlantic plane ride, and an unexpected late-night phone call are all played out on a raised platform upstage. It’s an interesting approach for a play that is not generally presented this way. But the execution isn’t as good as the idea. For long periods, lengthy scenes performed upstage with nothing happening on the central forum creates the illusion of too much empty space. It actually distances audiences from the play rather than achieving a sense of intimacy, which, I suspect, is the exact opposite of what the production was going for.

Instead of characters constantly on the move or angled so that they can be seen at most times by all three sides, director Rosemary Close occasionally has two actors in a 50-50 position where they block each other out. It feels clumsy, resulting with audience members on the opposing sides unable to see the faces of either character. Worse, during the all-important climactic interview, two players viewing the recording remain seated on the downstage portion of the forum causing some in the first row the need to lean aside throughout the segment, cranking necks while trying to see.

Peter Morgan’s script is a good example of how a writer can take a real-life event and re-mold it so that it works dramatically, even if it’s not entirely true. The build-up to the television recordings creates such an atmosphere of an exciting edge-of-your-seat drama that by the time the two men finally meet in front of the camera it’s as though two fighters had entered the ring, ready to spare. As is often the case, real-life doesn’t always lend itself to theatrical drama. It’s a writer’s job to take dramatic license and create the conflicts.

That late night call from an intoxicated Nixon to Frost in his hotel room never happened, but dramatically it works. Nixon was said to often make such calls after drinking and not remember them in the morning. Taking this notion of ‘What if…?’ Morgan creates an imagined occurrence and asks, ‘What if Nixon called Frost and went on a strange rant?’ “I will come at you with everything I’ve got,” his character warns Frost over the phone. This builds the tension for the final round, prepping audiences to expect sparks to fly, plus it gives Frost’s character that extra shot of adrenaline at a time when theatrically he really needs it.

Presentation issues aside, iTheatre Collaborative’s final production of the season still grabs attention. With a running time of 105 minutes with no intermission, the play effectively holds you right up until that moment when Nixon declared “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” You know it’s coming, but such is the force of the moment, delivered with power by Haines, that when it occurs, you momentarily hold your breath. It’s a payoff that Morgan’s use of dramatic license has been leading to, and it doesn’t disappoint when it comes.

Frost/Nixon continues at Herberger Theater Center’s Kax Stage until April 13

Posted in Theatre

Dumbo – Film Review

The story of Dumbo is so ingrained into the culture of our childhood fantasy that any attempt to do a remake can’t help but provoke a series of questions. Upon hearing that Disney and director Tim Burton were going to make a live-action version of the 1941 animated classic, who among us didn’t ask, are new songs going to be added? Will the animals speak? Who’s going to voice Timothy Mouse? And exactly how are the Jim Crows going to be handled?

There are certain things you need to know before going in. It helps, in case you’ve already formed a few expectations. First, it’s not a musical. Composer Danny Elfman has incorporated several recognizable themes into his score. A few bars of Casey Junior play as the circus train races through Florida. Pink Elephants on Parade is heard during an act under the big tent, and Sharon Rooney as Miss Atlantis strums Baby Mine at night around a campfire, but that’s it.

Second, animals don’t speak. Other than Dumbo’s oversized ears and that cute, cuddly smile with the appealing eyes, that’s as far as any anthropomorphism goes. Which also takes care of the crows, who are all missing in action. And Dumbo’s closest friend of the original film, Timothy Mouse, is not a character. There is a glimpse of a white mouse in a teeny-tiny red Master of Ceremonies uniform playing with a couple of other mice in a cage, but, again, that’s it.

The term re-imagined has always felt like an unnecessary fanciful industry term invented for anyone who, for whatever reason, would rather not use remake. But with Dumbo, that’s exactly what has happened. The writers have taken the 1941 story and completely re-imagined it. Even though the animated classic was always about a baby elephant who could fly, the actual flying never occurred until the final act of a 63-minute film. In fact, the mouse and those crows only discovered Dumbo’s ability in the final few minutes before fade out. From there, the animal’s life changed, fame and fortune were his, and he lived happily ever after, with the crows wishing they’d snagged his autograph before he left with the circus for another town. In the new version, the elephant’s ability to fly occurs almost immediately, and that’s where his trouble starts.

After Mrs. Jumbo gives birth and those ears are immediately on display, circus owner and ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is not exactly thrilled. “I’ve already got fake freaks,” he declares. “The last thing I need is a real one.”

But news of a baby elephant that flies in the circus soon spreads. Enter Mr. V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a ruthless entrepreneur who hands an economic lifeline to Medici’s failing circus. He’s willing to ship the whole traveling enterprise, lock, stock, and barrel, including all the acts and the staff, to a permanent new home in his colorful theme park called Dreamland – it’s like a turn-of-the-last-century Disneyland as designed by Jules Verne – and make them and Dumbo the focus of attention in his Coliseum. Medici sells and goes into partnership. But when dealing with a man like Vandevere there’s always a caveat, as Medici, Dumbo, and all the circus folk will soon discover.

Parallels with Keaton’s Vandevere and DeVito’s Medici could be drawn with those who run the movie industry itself and how the business of show biz has changed. DeVito’s rambunctious circus ringmaster may be demanding – he’s a low rent Cecil B. DeMille – but he knows how to put on a show. Keaton’s entrepreneur is the new generation of industry bean counters; the money guy who when he sees an entertainment opportunity doesn’t think so much in terms of how to present it but how to exploit it.

Much of the film centers on the humans rather than the animals, which is a shame considering that the real-life characterizations aren’t particularly interesting. The two circus children who befriend Dumbo and look after him are pleasant in the spunky, Disney-kid mode, and their father who has just returned from WW1, played by Colin Farrell, along with Danny DeVito as the owner of the struggling circus help ground the film with somewhat rounded personalities, but everyone else, including Micheal Keaton and Eva Green, appear to be there as little more than service to the plot. There’s little to Keaton’s Vandevere other than to fake sincerity to get what he wants, then to be mean when he gets it.

Eva Green as the Parisian trapeze artist Collette doesn’t fare much better. Collette works with Vandevere and gives an early impression that she might be as conniving as her boss, but that’s not the case. “I’m one of the many gems he uses to shine the light back on him,” she explains in a revealing moment. Had there been an obvious, old-fashioned movie romance with Farrell’s war vet, maybe an extra layer to events could have developed, but as things remain, the character doesn’t really do anything, and we never get to know her, though admittedly, when she performs in the spotlight under the big top, there is a certain majesty to her act that becomes eminently appealing.

But despite these drawbacks, the film still succeeds in spite of itself. The flying sequences are great and the action, thrilling. Not wanting to use the obvious when talking about a Disney feature – how can you not? – there really is something magical happening when seeing the baby elephant gliding under the circus tent while enjoying the reaction shots of characters below looking up in wonder. Plus, heartstrings are definitely tugged when Dumbo is separated from his mother.

As for the conclusion, it’s as far removed from the original as it could get, but for animal lovers who want what is only right, it’s hugely satisfying, if unexpected.  How odd to think that in the end, the most human character of all in a live-action remake remains the one that’s still animated, albeit generated from computer imagery.

MPAA Rating: PG      Length: 112 Minutes

Posted in Film