Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – Film Review

It’s a moment a parent never forgets. During the first year of our son’s life, my wife and I took turns looking after him during the day. We did it in shifts. I had the morning hours, then went to work. She had the afternoon after returning home from work. We passed at the door. Clearly, I had the better deal for one simple reason: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was on PBS in the morning. For almost two years, every weekday, I got to watch Fred Rogers, Lady Aberlin, Mr. McFeely and all the puppets from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, including Trolley. But it was something that happened in that first year, before our son’s birthday, that made all the difference.

During the first twelve months, he spoke little. But one morning, there we were, watching Fred Rogers go about his business, when the kind-hearted, nurturing television personality asked his audience, “Shall I feed the fish?” My son, who up until then had hardly said a word, leaned forward in his high-chair and said to the television screen in a soft, whispery tone, “Yes.” I did a double-take. I couldn’t wait to tell my wife when she arrived home from work. We had a breakthrough. Our son had said his first complete, fully legitimate word, and he used it correctly. And it was all because of Mister Rogers. A minor anecdote, perhaps, but in our world, at the time, it meant everything.

In the new documentary from director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? sheds light on the man who must have inspired American children everywhere to not only say their first word, but to get an understanding on the complicated world around them, and he did it in his neighborly, singularly avuncular way. The show was aimed at children between the ages of 2 to 5, but everyone, everywhere was invited.

Using new interviews, archival footage, fresh animation, and TV clips of the show, Won’t You Be My Neighbor creates an endearing portrait of an ordained minister from Pennsylvania who believed that what we saw and heard on the screens was part of what we became. With that in mind, rather than preach and teach from the pulpit, Fred McFeely Rogers felt that his calling was reaching the hearts and minds of the nation’s children through positive reinforcement on television.

As the film expresses, Rogers believed that the feelings of a child were every bit as important as the feelings of an adult. “He was always trying to get a message across in every show,” actor Joe Negri (Handyman Negri) explains. Thus on June 7, 1968 in a special black and white episode of the show, after Robert F. Kennedy was killed, the glove-puppet, Daniel Striped Tiger asks Lady Aberlin (Betty Aberlin), “What does assassination mean?” “Have you heard the word a lot today?” she responded.

It’s possible that several of the clips are scenes you’ve seen before. There’s the famous moment in 1969 (recreated in 1993) when, on a hot day, Rogers is in his backyard in the neighborhood soaking his feet in a small pool of cold water. Police Officer Clemmons (Francois Clemmons) enters and is invited to join him. The officer points out that even though he’d love to soak his feet with Mister Rogers and cool down, he didn’t have a towel. “That’s okay,” said Mister Rogers, and offers up the towel resting over his right shoulder. “You can use mine.” What’s important about that moment was that Officer Clemmons was black. At a time when segregation was still rampant in some parts of the country, and repulsive images of African-American children being forcibly evicted from a whites-only swimming pool was all over the news, Fred Rogers wanted to show children that sharing water and even a towel with someone else, white or black, should never be an issue.

Perhaps the best, and maybe the one moment when audiences watching the documentary will find themselves wearing the broadest of smiles, comes with archival footage of what happened when Rogers appeared before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications. President Nixon wanted the funding for PBS cut. After two days of hearing carefully prepared testimony from various public television supporters, lawyer and politician John O. Pastore, who chaired the subcommittee, was getting impatient. Basically he’d had enough and was ready to yank all PBS funding at the first opportunity. “Alright, Rogers,” Pastore announced from the bench with a somewhat dismissive tone to his gruff voice, “You got the floor.”

Instead of reading from his prepared testimony, arguing that shows like his own on PBS were invaluable when encouraging children to grow and to become good citizens, he put the speech aside and recited the lyrics to one of his songs from the show. Pastore listened, and was moved. When Rogers concluded, without missing a beat, Pastore surprised everyone by suddenly announcing, “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”

Although they are not mentioned by name, when Fred Rogers died of cancer in 2003, at his funeral, members of the Westboro Baptist Church stood across the road holding banners proclaiming that Fred Rogers would burn in hell. With twisted logic, their reasoning was that the TV host taught that everyone was special, including gays, which for them was justification for eternal damnation. Plus, in a clip from Fox Cable News, the three morning hosts of Fox & Friends stated that Mister Rogers was evil – no joke, they actually called him “evil” – insisting that he ruined a generation of children by telling them they were special. But when he was alive, as though holding a mirror in front of those three knuckleheads, Fred Rogers had his own definition of the word. “Someone who tries to make you less than you are is the greatest evil.”

Once the film is done and you reflect back, it’s not so much the documentary you’ll admire, it’s the man himself. Artistically, director Neville’s documentary breaks no new ground. The interviews that praise the man with accompanying clips are as you would want, and expect. It’s the subject matter that makes Won’t You Be My Neighbor special.

As the documentary states, the universal question is this: Was Fred Rogers really like that in real life? The answer is the same as my son replied when the TV host asked his audience in ‘93 whether it was time to feed the fish.

Yes.

MPAA Rating: (Not rated)   Length: 93 Minutes   Overall rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Mary Poppins – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

When the magical nanny Mary Poppins (Renee Kathleen Koher) first arrives at the Banks household on Cherry Tree Lane, she doesn’t fly in on a strong wind blowing from the east. Like the genie in Aladdin, she appears in a sudden puff of smoke in the middle of the living room. Your first thought, other than what a neat, theatrical trick, is that the Banks family, who witness the moment, might remark upon it. After all, it’s not something you see in your home everyday. But no one does.

Instead, Miss Poppins, so named because of her habit of popping in and out of the lives of the children she’s there to look after, is immediately hired, beginning the fun adventure of guiding the troublesome children, Jane and Michael Banks, into appreciating their family and becoming less troublesome in the process. Though, of course, if you saw the wonderful 2013 movie where Emma Thompson played the prickly author of the novels, P. L. Travers, you’d know that the real reason the practically perfect nanny arrived at the upper-middle-class Edwardian London home was to save Mr. Banks.

For its 100th mainstage theatre production in Peoria, like the character herself, Mary Poppins is a practically perfect choice for Arizona Broadway Theatre to present when celebrating such an important milestone. From the beginning, the overall success of ABT has always been to know its audience and produce what a valley dinner theatre audience expects. It’s doubtful that a play from either Tennessee Williams or David Mamet will ever open on the stage at West Paradise Lane in Peoria, but something like Mary Poppins that offers song, dance, and a special kind of theatrical magic that can thrill an adult as much as a child, is exactly the kind of show that should be on its menu. Your only hope is that the theatre doesn’t mess it up. Fortunately, here, that’s not the case. Just like Mary Poppins once her job is done, ABT’s ambitious production of the famous Disney sixties musical takes flight.

Those who have never seen the stage presentation and are expecting a basic retread of the Julie Andrews film are in for a surprise. First, while much of the original score is intact, there are new songs, some written in the same vein of the Sherman Brothers style, but not quite as memorable. Plus, the characters themselves have an edge that is closer to how author Travers wrote them, rather than the likable Disney style that smoothed those rougher edges out. In fact, it was the Disneyfication of her work that made the Aussie author so upset.

When in 1993 she was approached for the approval of a new stage musical, Australian born Travers, who in her later years had moved from down under and fully embraced a more British way life, insisted that whoever worked on the redevelopment of Mary Poppins for the stage had to be English. No Americans allowed. However, she passed away three years later and never saw the completed work.

It’s difficult to say whether Travers would have approved of the end result, but it’s easier to predict how delighted most ABT audiences will be. And like that description of the flying nanny, being practically perfect can also apply to Koher’s performance as much as it does to the character. This is not necessarily the Mary Poppins of the Disney film. There’s a no-nonsense stern streak to Koher’s Poppins that is closer in spirit to the firmness of the nanny in the book than the gentler one presented in the movie. P. L. Travers objected to the casting of Julie Andrews in the film. She should have no reason to object to Koher.

The new script was written by the man behind Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, and if there’s anyone qualified to write about London life during Edwardian times, it would be Fellowes. Here, Jane and Michael Banks – played on alternate performances by either Gracie Palmer and Julianne Creed as Jane, and Wyatt Chamoff and Aaron McCaskill as Michael – tend to lean on a somewhat unlikeably snobbish side.

When meeting the Bird Woman (Chae Clearwood, whose rendition of Feed The Birds is a musical highlight; a great song, wonderfully sung) Michael considers her “a horrible old woman” and wonders why Mary Poppins would want anything to do with her. He even calls Bert (Chris McNiff) “dirty,” someone that would never get the approval of Mr. Banks. Plus, with an air of snotty superiority, Jane calls the Banks’ houseboy, Robertson Ay (Conner Morley) “insolent.” Even the likable Mrs. Banks (Beatrice Crosbie) who in the show is an ex-actress, not a suffragette, shows a superior attitude when talking of the necessity of a children’s nanny. “All the best people have nannies,” she tells her husband. Even though what she says at that moment sounds slightly elitist, Crosbie makes her character someone you warm to very quickly.

As Mr. Banks, ABT’s ever reliable Jamie Parnell – you may remember him in recent productions of Funny Girl, Oliver!, Jesus Christ Superstar, Sweet Charity, and Camelot – gives life to the more difficult role of the father who loses his job at the bank. Mr. Banks displays a temper that Walt Disney would never have allowed David Tomlinson to exhibit in the film, but given the pressure that the character finds himself under, not to mention a backstory regarding the horrific nanny who looked after him when he was an impressionable and frightened child, Parnell manages to make the head of the family the most real and eventually the most sympathetic character of all.

As for that horrific nanny, Miss Andrew – not in the Disney film but in the book – Kathleen Berger may be on stage for just a short time in the second act, but she leaves with the kind of indelible impression that is hard to forget. Entering the stage in a clap of thunder, she’s the villain from a British Christmas pantomime, the kind that has children either booing, or hissing, or hiding behind the safety of their seats.

As Bert, the comical cockney jack-of-all-trades, Chris McNiff injects great fun into a character that is hard to explain. Like the film, you never really know anything about him, where he lives, or how it is that he even knows Mary Poppins. He even exhibits a little unexplained magic of his own during the Step in Time chimney sweep rooftop dance. Those already familiar with the stage musical may be disappointed that there’s no defying gravity moment when Bert climbs the theatre’s proscenium arch and tap dances upside down, but given the size of ABT’s wide stage, the difficulty may have proved insurmountable. Still, when the chimney sweep’s feet leave the ground and he performs a series of backward flips while hanging in the air by wires, the sequence appears impressive; he’s a foot-stomping Peter Pan covered in chimney soot.

Also impressive is Glen Sears’ layered scenic design. It begins with a painted scrim of the house on Cherry Tree Lane, which rises onto the set of the Banks’ home, which later parts to reveal the children’s wide bedroom. After that, it opens up onto the gateway to the local park. It’s only when we enter the park for a Jolly Holiday that the size of ABT’s expansive stage works against the show. Even with a cast walking and dancing from stage left to stage right, the cavernous arena is hard to fill, resulting with a curiously empty look and little atmosphere. When director Clayton Phillips’ otherwise engaging ABT production moves house after its final performance in Peoria on June 30 and starts a July run at the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix, the smaller and more enclosed stage area should make all the difference.

Pictures Courtesy of Scott Samplin

Arizona Broadway Theatre’s production of Disney’s Mary Poppins continues until June 30 then moves to Herberger Theater Center from July 6 until July 22

Posted in Theatre

The Humans – Theatre Review: National Touring Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

The setup could not be simpler, and it’s one that lulls you into thinking you know the formula. Told in real time – it’s approximately 95 minutes without intermission – the national touring production of the 2016 Tony Award winning play The Humans, now playing at ASU Gammage in Tempe until June 3, revolves around the dinner table.

It’s New York at Thanksgiving. Scranton PA residents, Erik Blake (Richard Thomas) and his wife Deidre (Pamela Reed), along with older daughter Aimee (Therese Plaehn), and grandmother Fiona, more affectionately referred to as ‘Momo’ (Lauren Klein, who played the role on Broadway), a wheelchair-bound character with Alzheimer’s, have gathered at the somewhat dilapidated Manhattan apartment in the city’s Chinatown area to spend the holiday dinner with their younger daughter, Brigid (Daisy Eagan) and her live-in student boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega).

When the play opens, papa Erik is standing in silence on the landing of the apartment’s upper level. Plastic shopping bags hang from each hand, but he appears to be carrying something else, something we can’t see; the burden of an issue that refuses to quit. He seems to be in a trance. It’s only when an ominous thump through the floorboards from the apartment above breaks the silence that he snaps out of whatever it is that is dominating his thoughts. But having seen him standing there, his mind a million miles from that apartment landing, you know it’s only a matter of time before there’s a reveal.

The first thing that strikes you about the play is the set. That landing where dad stood is actually the ground floor, the entrance into the apartment. Brigid and Richard have rented what they could afford, a run-down basement cement-block apartment lit by bare, white ceiling bulbs where the above level is the way in and the lower level, connected by a spiral staircase, is the live-in section, the dining room and the kitchen. The only window looking out is a restricted view of an alley that residents of the building, and presumably others, use as a place to stub their cigarettes, though Brigid likes to refer to it as an interior courtyard. Dad is not so impressed. “I think if you moved to PA, your quality of life would shoot up,” he states.

The conversation before and during the meal is a series of fast-moving family quips and sly critiques that constantly amuse. In fact, most of Stephen Karam’s script is angled heavily towards comedy with several laugh-out-loud, easily relatable observances that pop up and go off like mini firecrackers. “There’s no toilet paper!” a voice declares from the bathroom. And when mom emerges, she remarks, “Your bathroom doesn’t have a window,” as if a crime in the apartment planning had been committed. “I’m just saying,” she adds.

Over the course of the dinner we get to know each of the appealing family members and what life has done, and continues to do to them. With a premise such as this, you tend to home in on whatever character for whom you feel the most empathy, the one whose feelings and emotions are easier to understand from your own point of view. Older daughter Aimee is a lawyer, suffering from both colitis and a relationship breakup. Under normal circumstances, her condition, both physical and emotional, would be enough for some to feel they’d reached rock bottom, but Aimee’s humor and overall likable persona, due to both Karam’s writing and Plaehn’s performance in equal measure, continually buoys her character and stops Aimee from sinking and becoming lost in a morass of self pity.

Particularly heartbreaking is a piece written by Momo and read at the dinner table to the family. Alzheimer’s is a horrific disease; it’s the secret experienced by many but one for which we’re unprepared. Before the disease accelerated and Momo was able to reflect, she writes, “It’s strange becoming someone I don’t know.” The relatable horror is that many in the audience will be aware of what dementia is doing in their own homes, but rarely discuss. For the Blakes, if Alzheimer’s is hereditary, then it’s something extra to be concerned about.

But ultimately, it’s Thomas’ portrayal as dad that anchors the proceedings. Themes of regret, missed opportunities, employment, money, and the guilt of letting family members down because of a damage done that can never be repaired, are all incorporated into Erik’s character, and are all revealed in small doses as the dinner continues. He’s haunted by the thought that he could have been in the Twin Towers on 9/11. He was in New York that day, but the observation deck wouldn’t be open until 9:30, so he bought coffee and donuts at a place a block or two away to pass the time.

But it’s the theme of money for this lower-middle class character that continues to raise its ugly head. “It never ends,” dad remarks, referring to the ever-continuing list of monthly payments that rob him and Diedre of ever being able to save. “Mortgage, car payments, internet. Our dishwasher just gave out.” The comment may come as a mere conversational passing remark, but when it’s a theme that continually surfaces, you know there’s a major problem troubling the man, and it won’t quit. “Whatever gifts God has given us, in the end, no matter who you are, everything you have, goes.”

There’s an overwhelming guilt that Erik carries. He talks of dreams that plague him, and now it appears that thoughts from those dreams are spilling into the real world. And it’s here where the ambiguity of the play’s final minutes may divide.

In the way that Momo’s horrific dementia is making her disappear into herself, there’s an enveloping darkness that’s creeping into Erik’s life, suggested by an almost curious supernatural force that causes pots and pans down in the kitchen to suddenly fall to the floor, light bulbs to extinguish, and a door that slowly shuts, seemingly on its own accord. Eventually we’ll discover what it was Erik was thinking in that opening moment on the landing, and, like his mother’s disease, there’ll be no cure. But there’s a suggestion of love that always surfaces among the family, where any tragedy is overcome when the Blakes help each other, and it’s that unspoken feeling of hope, no matter how slim, that leaves the theatre with you. As the title suggests, they’re only humans, after all.

The National Touring production of The Humans continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until June 3

Pictures Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes

Posted in Theatre

Big Fish – Theatre Review: Hale Centre Theatre, Gilbert

Depending on your outlook and the way you see the world, the Broadway musical Big Fish with Andrew Lippa’s pleasantly hummable score, now playing at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert until June 30, can be about several things. On the surface, it’s about an Alabama farm boy who wanted to see the world, if, by the definition of the word ‘world’ you mean neighboring, southern states. It could also be a fairy tale about a man who tells life-affirming fairy tales. Or, more realistically, it could be about a traveling salesman, neglectful as a husband and a father who made stuff up when he finally returned home. “You weren’t there,” complains son to dad. “You were never there.”

That last summary may sound a lot less savory for a bright, colorful, and hugely inventive comedy musical, but in truth, Edward Bloom (Chad Campbell) was an awful parent, one who was aware of his negligence. When he finally returned home between bouts of traveling sales he would tell stories of his adventures, ones full of magical, colorful characters where he, Edward Bloom, was the center of the tale. That may be fine for a wild-eyed child who misses his father and thrilled upon dad’s eventual return, but as an adult, Will Bloom (Nicholas Gunnell) is no longer buying it.

During the opening sequence, young Will is about to marry. It’s the pre-wedding ceremony, the night before the actual service, but, as seen from dad’s humorous sense of skewed logic, he doesn’t get the idea of a rehearsal dinner. “People been eating dinners all their lives,” he announces. “Why the practice?

While skipping rocks on a nearby river, something the two used to do when Will was a boy, the now grown young man has one request of his father. During the wedding, Edward is not to make a speech or tell any of his fanciful stories. “No stories, no jokes, no anecdotes,” his son insists. Dad agrees, but once at the celebration, he can’t help himself. Much to the annoyance of Will (and to us because you know it’s exactly what he’s not supposed to do), Edward takes the microphone, makes a speech, one that he even acknowledges he’s breaking a promise, and reveals a secret that was never his to reveal.

Author Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel – full title: Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions – is a great read, one where the imagery of a fruitful imagination leaps like one of those Alabama flying fish off the page. Tim Burton’s 2003 film version, where Edward’s exaggerated stories were fully enacted, spelled things out and did all the imaginary work for us. The live musical falls somewhere in-between. The stories, the fanciful events, and their characters come alive, but by default because of being a live-stage production, the imagination and a sense of having to automatically suspend a disbelief makes the musical the best forum for author Wallace’s tale.

Plus, with this local valley presentation, that imaginative approach in Hale Centre Theatre’s production is forced to take one creative step further. Adapting a show, any show, for theatre-in-the-round creates a set of challenges not ordinarily faced when presenting a production on a more traditional proscenium arch staging. Of course, a major benefit is not having to work on painted flats while creating and moving scenery, but the challenge is how to successfully transport an audience into the world it’s presenting when clearly what you’re watching is artificial, one that you can practically reach out and touch if seated in the front row.

As repeatedly proven, particularly with its annual A Christmas Carol production, Hale has successfully cornered the market on elevating audience’s minds out of the round and into the centre of the story. In The Drowsy Chaperone, while seated surrounding the action, Hale audiences were placed right in the middle of the lead character’s mind, as if we were walking among those imaginary characters with him and sharing his fantasy, an effect that simply can’t be achieved on a traditional stage. With Big Fish performed in the round, director and choreographer Cambrian James achieves the same effect; the audience becomes an all-observing, silent character in the show. When players enact their moments and sing their songs in the aisles around us as well as before us, those flights of fanciful events where giants, werewolves, and mermaids emerge from the shadows of Edward’s mind all seem to walk not just before us, but among and around us.

Of course, it helps when the ensemble is as well cast with voices as good as they are here – Edward may be a braggart, but Chad Campbell makes him thoroughly likable throughout – plus everything from Mary Atkinson’s costumes to Tim Dietlein’s atmospheric lighting design all add to a first-class, musical production. But it’s James’s direction and inventive staging that makes the show come alive. During the scene in the park where father and son throw ball, the surrounding area is constantly on the move as roller skaters, joggers, moms with baby buggies pass by, all while a young girl sits by the side, writing observances, or maybe poems in a note pad. It’s as if we’re all there, seated on a park bench, observing life in a public park on a typical summer’s day, eavesdropping on a conversation between Edward and son. That same sense of creative magic that puts us right in the middle of Edward’s mind occurs later when cowboys and saloon gals climb out of the western movie showing on TV and suddenly fill the bedroom.

If the message of Big Fish is that if you can reinvent yourself by being anyone you want to be, or you can have anything you truly desire just by revising stories of your past and creating new, imaginative ones – the show begins and ends with the song Be A Hero which basically teaches just that – then the meaning behind the musical fails, but if you take to heart the moment when Karl the Giant (Kasey Ray) tells Edward that real knowledge is to know the length of your ignorance, then a valuable lesson is learned.

On Broadway, the Susan Stroman production closed after only three months. Audiences dropped sooner than expected and backers cut their losses. But Big Fish has found its audience in regional productions around the country, which, with a score as tuneful as this and writer John August’s script as funny as it is, makes this Hale Centre Theatre musical production more entertaining than the novel (personal choice) and far more satisfying than the Tim Burton film.

Big Fish continues at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert until June 30

Pictures Courtesy of Nick Woodward-Shaw

Posted in Theatre

Gunmetal Blues – Theatre Review: A/C Theatre Company, Hardes Theatre @ Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

The first time the late night band of the Red Eye Lounge played its Gunmetal Blues was in May, 1991. It was at Phoenix Theatre in Phoenix under the direction of Michael Barnard, though at the time it was called Phoenix Little Theatre. That was 27 years ago.

Circling back to where it began, Gunmetal Blues, the gumshoe, small-scale musical disguised as a late night lounge act, currently plays at Hardes Theater @ Phoenix Theatre until June 3, this time directed with a keen eye for the genre by Tim Shawver. It’s A/C Theatre Company’s concluding production of the season, a thoroughly entertaining evening of stylized musical theatre, a murder mystery presented with shadows, silhouettes, and shards of dusty lights beaming down through half open shutters, the kind of story possessing that delicious Chandleresque dialog where a narrator tells you that the truth “… is something you couldn’t see ‘till you finally saw too much.

With a cast of two males, one female, and a four-piece band that actually sounds better and more accomplished than most small nightclub bands you might find playing in an airport hotel lounge, Gunmetal Blues takes us down those back alleys of an unnamed city, one full of smoky bars and mysteries that lie sleeping until prodded and eventually exposed. As private detective Sam Galahad (David Dickinson) tells us, it all begins with an important man named Adrian Wasp committing suicide.

At least, that’s what the newspaper headline says in huge letters, but maybe there’s something more foul afoot. Maybe it was murder, and if it was murder, then who committed the crime, and why? Was it a blonde called Carol Indigo, or maybe another blonde called Laura Vesper? Or maybe it was Princess, the all-observing bag lady who might know more than she’s willing to tell. Then again, it could have been Jenny, but Jenny has vanished and needs to be found. As Sam observes once shown a picture of the woman he needs to locate, “She had a mouth that would have Shakespeare thumbing through a thesaurus.”

Steve Hilderbrand plays the Red Eye Lounge all observing piano player, a one-man, jazz inclined Greek Chorus called Buddy Toupee who not only comments on the action while filling in the blanks of what the detective might be thinking, but also narrates the plot. A talented piano player and singer in his own right, at the switch of a hat and a comical change of accent, Hilderbrand morphs from the lounge act into a series of engaging characters Sam will meet along the way while investigating the mystery of Jenny’s whereabouts, including an Irish cop (of course he’s Irish) and a threatening thug.

With a trenchcoat and a slightly cocked hat shading his eyes, Dickinson’s whiskey-soaked private-eye, Sam Galahad is really Sam Spade with accompanying songs. And in a piece like Gunmetal Blues, that’s exactly as he should be. Plus, in the true tradition of someone Dashiell Hammett might write about, even though the character is unflinching and has an unsentimental style of detachment while looking for clues, he remains funny. While suffering from a hangover with his head buried in his hands, a saxophone solo from the band causes Sam to flinch and glance across the set to the musician with a disapproving glare. And when describing the looks of one of the several blondes he meets throughout the case, he states, “Forget about ships. This face could launch a thousand rockets.” By playing him straight, Dickinson makes his detective a character that doesn’t know how funny he is.

And as all the blondes of varying hair lengths, Kim Richard makes the right kind of tantalizing impression that works so well. She’s the seductive dame that Sam met ten years earlier, the one he can’t forget, and with good reason. She’s also Carol, and she’s Laura. And as the bag lady, Princess, she has perhaps the best, and more surprisingly, the most moving song of the score, I’m The One That Got Away, made even better by the strength of Richard’s clear vocal delivery.

Writer Scott Wentworth’s humorous dialog is also complimented by Marion Adler’s equally amusing lyrics (backed by Craig Bohmler’s appropriately atmospheric jazzy score) where Adler makes ‘man enough’ somehow rhyme with classical composer Rachmaninoff, and Sam’s detective is described as being “the hat in the rear-view mirror.” Particularly funny is Buddy’s musical hawking of his live night club recordings, the one not available in stores, where audiences can call in and make a purchase; Visa and Mastercard accepted. The joke is taken one step further when Sam makes a call, is put on hold, and hears the same recorded pitch moments later while hanging on line.

In truth, there’s a tendency to get lost in the plot, particularly in the second half where the intentionally convoluted circumstances of Sam’s investigations and the various characters he meets begin to pile, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. What works so well is the engaging journey, along with the production’s style, its terrific humor, the performances of the three players, and the overall design of a world full of double-dealers and hard-nosed detectives. “Trouble is my middle name,” states Sam. “It used to be Tall, Dark, and Handsome,” he adds, “But I changed it.” Gunmetal Blues is seriously stylish, musical fun.

A/C Theatre Company’s production of Gunmetal Blues continues at Hardes Theatre @ Phoenix Theatre until June 3

Pictures Courtesy of Durant Photography

Posted in Theatre

First Reformed – Film Review

In the new drama First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader, Ethan Hawke is extremely good as Ernst Toller, a small-town priest who was once a military chaplain.

Toller carries a major sense of guilt. Following a family pattern, he encouraged his son to join the military. His son was sent to Iraq where he was killed within six months. Now, with failing health and alone, Toller is a priest to a Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York that is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. His congregation is small and dwindling, overshadowed by the much larger, nearby Abundant Life Church run by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, better known as comedian Cedric The Entertainer, and also good), where its sound equipment is state of the art and its congregation, 5,000 plus.

Then there’s Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and her disturbed husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Mary wants Reverend Toller to speak with Michael. Listen to him, counsel him. Mary and Michael are expecting, but Michael’s fear, his all-encompassing paranoia, is that, environmentally, the world is no longer a place to raise a child. Pollution, waste, rivers of floating trash, all add to Michael’s sense of hopelessness for the future. Toller listens, and is even sympathetic, but cannot save him. In a moment of shocking surprise, Michael takes his life. Though it’s not immediately evident, this sacrificial act will eventually inspire Toller’s own preparation for an act of violence, one that doesn’t fully convince, yet comes not altogether unexpected considering the style of the project, and who wrote and directed the film.

As with Schrader’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Ethan Hawke’s Toller narrates throughout. With Bickle, it was a self-reflective, internal conversation where the character explored his thoughts and feelings, commented on the events of the day, and found justification for a horrendously violent act. In First Reformed, Toller writes in a diary where his self-reflection is a twelve-month experiment in committing his thoughts to paper rather than random commentary, but the end result of a voice-over narration sounds the same.

When writing about oneself, you should show no mercy,” Toller writes, adding that from the point of view of a priest, “Writing in the diary is a form of prayer.” But the more he writes, the more he questions himself, at one point asking about his twelve month writing commitment. “Can I keep up an exercise that long?” he writes, eventually concluding that, “This journal brings me no peace. Self pity, nothing more.”

Alexander Dynan’s cinematography is shot with a confining screen ratio of 1:37, which is practically a square, the kind of shape that would fit snugly into all four corners of an early TV screen, but no longer stretches out to a current, widescreen monitor. It’s not easy to say why. You can look for reasons and come up with suggestions indicating the narrowing of Toller’s restrictive world, or maybe his confining point-of-view, or that life around him is closing in. The reason behind the shape is never clear. Looking for one reminds of the exercise the late film critic Roger Ebert used to do with an audience when discussing a particular movie: pause the film, discuss motives, and even if there was never one there, find it. But whatever the reason, the end result looks eye-catching as Schrader directs the camera to remain theatrically static in rooms, churches, and offices, while characters walk in and out of the frame.

While exploring themes of mental illness, the effects of climate change, the dangers of denial, the corruption of finance, even martyrdom, there remains a sense of Schrader nuttiness, as seen in a floating fantasy sequence where Toller and Seyfriend’s Mary glide over changing images of the world, beginning with the beauty of the cosmos above, the planets oceans and its crashing waves below, then the sight of burnt vehicle tires, piles of trash, floating plastic garbage, and a burning planet.

Plus, First Reformed ends with a climax reminiscent of how The Sopranos closed – it doesn’t so much conclude as simply stops with an abrupt cut to a black screen. It’s one of those, “Now, wait a minute…” moments. It may work for some, particularly for those who love to break off into discussion groups and, like those Ebert audience participation evenings, find a reason for the edit, even if it’s not the one Schrader intended, but it also ensures that the film, as moving and as exceptionally well-performed as it is, will not be venturing far from its art-house audience.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 108 Minutes    Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)

 

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