From Stage To Screen: Missteps A’comin’

A few days ago, I wrote a rant about how movie reviewers don’t seem to like stage productions moved to the screen essentially unaltered, as happened with Rent and The Producers.

Today, I read some interesting articles related to this trend. First, according to the Daily News, neither Harvey Fierstein nor Marissa Jaret Winokur will be reprising their roles in the movie version of the musical Hairspray (which itself was based on a non-musical John Waters movie). At least they are not going with John Travolta as had been rumored, but still. The casting is still wide open, but this does mean that the Tony-winning cast will not be on the big screen. Turning to an older musical, Dreamgirls, which is finally being made into a musical, the Daily News also reported that Jamie Foxx is doing the Dreamgirls movie musical with Eddie Murphy and Beyonce. Those old enough will remember that this was Jennifer Holiday‘s breakthrough role. Others in the original cast included Obba Babatundé, Cleavant Derricks, Loretta Devine, Ben Harney, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and in the ensemble, Phylicia Ayers-Allen (now Phylicia Rashad).

What do you want to bet that these movies will get decent reviews, unlike the recent original stage musicals (which were hits) that moved to film?

[Even scarier: Jamie Foxx is doing a Miami Vice remake with Colin Farrell.]


Movie Critics vs. Theatre Critics

I was thinking whilst driving the van about the differences between movie and theatre critics, especially when it comes to musicals. This was because I couldn’t listen to my normal music; we had someone on a cell phone to Hong Kong the entire ride back. Anyway, what prompted this were the reviews I’ve been reading about the new “Producers” movie musical. Most critics don’t like it. Why?

Not the story.

Not the acting.

But because it is too much like the stage production.

Then I thought about the recent movie musical “Rent“. Again, the critics didn’t like it. Why?

Not the story.

Not the acting.

But because it is too much like the stage production.

Then I though back to the movie musical “Chicago“. The critics loved it. Why?

Not the acting.

Not the story.

Because it was a bold reimagining of the stage production.

Theatre critics look at the book. They look at the music and lyrics. They look at the acting. They accept the production for what it is: a stage show.

Movie critics seem to look at different things. They look at the cinematography. They look at how the source was adapted for the screen. They don’t want to see something that is true to the source (don’t believe me: look at how many people criticized various Harry Potter movies for being too true to the book). In particular, they don’t want stage productions captured on film to be the original: they want them to be movies. This is what gave us such travesties as Lucille Ball as Mame, Barbra Streisand as Dolly, and the mishmash that was Milos Foreman’s Hair. Musicals, yes. But not the magic that was on stage. So when a musical is captured so as to preserve that magic, it is destroyed by the critics.

The movie musical “Chicago” is good. But it is something different than the stage production; it loses the feel that the original stage production had of pointing out various styles. Similarly, the musical of “Cabaret“, although excellent, is very different than the stage production. Similarly with Sweet Charity, and numerous other successful and positively rated movie musicals.

They also forget one other thing: Most people don’t live in places that get decent touring productions of these shows… and most people can’t afford to pay the $80/ticket for decent seats for these shows if they do. So, by capturing what was the stage production, more people can see the magic that is live theatre (even if on film), at a somewhat affordable price.

Pundits are dangerous, be they political or artistical. Art is not in the mind of the critic; art is in the mind of the person that sees, hears, and experiences the art.


And speaking of artists: a moment of silence for John Spencer, who died today at the age of 58 of a heart attack. Spencer played Leo McGarry on “The West Wing”; he also played Tommy Mullaney on L.A. Law.


The Times Doesn’t Get It

As folks may know, one of the movies I’m planning to see is Rent (in fact, I hope to see it Friday). Thus, I’m skimming the reviews for it. I found the following in the review of Rent by Carina Chocano in the LA Times:

“Rent” is commodified faux bohemia on a platter, eliciting the same kind of numbing soul-sadness as children’s beauty pageants, tiny dogs in expensive boots, Mahatma Gandhi in Apple ads. It’s about art, activism and counterculture in the same way that a poster of a kitten hanging from a tree branch (“Hang in There!”) is about commitment and heroic perseverance. It represents everything the people it pretends to stand for hate. And it doesn’t even know it. Watching it feels sort of like watching “Touched by an Angel” with your grandmother and realizing that although you’re clearly looking at the same thing, you’re seeing something entirely different. It’s awkward to behold.

The review concludes:

You know what would be fun? If Columbus had turned the story inside out and made the rapacious developers and marauding executives the heroes of the story. Why not? To the victor goes the official version, etc. At least that might have rung true.

In short, the reviewer is complaining because the producer and director were true to the material, which was a stage version. Never mind that stage musicals radically reworked for movies have typically failed. Sigh. This (among many other reasons) is why I do not subscribe to the Los Angeles Times.


(meme) Suppose You Were Bunbury?

I was reading the “Roar of the Crowd” newsletter at Goldstar Events (a great place for ½ price tickets in Los Angeles). It was discussing the play “Bunbury: A Serious Play for Trivial People“, which is described as follows:

When he discovers that he is only a fictitious character in The Importance of Being Earnest, Bunbury joins forces with Rosaline, Romeo’s never-seen obsession from Romeo and Juliet. Together, they use their anonymity to infiltrate and alter classic literature, starting by accidentally giving Romeo and Juliet a happy ending. The resulting transformation of such classics as The Three Sisters, A Streetcar Named Desire, Waiting for Godot, and even Edgar Allan Poe’s THE RAVEN spawns a new sub-discipline in literary criticism and may even change the world.

This raised a question in my mind, which I’ll pose as a meme and invite you to ask in your blogs:

If you could be a fictitious character in any piece of literature, and be able to infiltrate and change the story, who would you be (and why), and what would you do or change?

I’ll give you my answer after I’ve thought about it for a while.


On The Highway… Route 57 to be Precise

This afternoon, after a morning dim sum run to Empress Pavillion in Chinatown with ixixlix, the Karate Kid, and ellipticcurve, we made our way to the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood to see the San Fernando Valley Playhouse production of Pump Boys and Dinettes. For those unfamiliar with the show, PB&D is a review-style musical written by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel, and Jim Wann. You might recognize these folks from shows such as Oil City Symphony, Radio Gals, The People Vs. Mona, and Jim’s Garage. The play is about the Highway 57 Service Station, staffed by L.M. (Martin Alexander Fox), Jackson (Casey Gensler), Jim (Jimmy Bishop), and Eddie (Joe Link), and the Double Cupp Diner, staffed by Rhetta (Catherine Battocletti) and Prudie Cupp (Tara Tucker). The story (such as it is) is about…. OK, there really is no story; the play is an opportunity for the actors to perform and interact with the audience. That they do: there is a raffle for a car deodorizer (you get your choice of the christmas tree, the tweety bird, or the pinup girl), the cast is out in audience, and the front row gets to dance. I’m surprised (and thankful) they didn’t do the hokey-pokey during intermission.

The music has a country-western feel, as one would expect from a gas station near Smyrna, GA. All of the actors were talented musicians, although some of the instruments (in particular, the piano) could have been mic-ed a bit better. They were mostly good singers; I don’t know if the weaknesses were due to poor mic-ing or weak voices. Some of the songs needed to be belted, and they weren’t. I also found the tempo on some of the faster songs to be slower than I expected, but that could have been due to being used to a recording.

As for the music: this show has some of my favorite music to listen to for toe-tapping, so it was nice to hear the songs in context (such as it is). I noticed some changes in songs; in particular, “Woolworth” was changed to “Walmart”. Times change, I guess. Most of the actors were imports (i.e., without long local resumes) from outside California; many are associated with Mainstage Artists Management out of St. Louis, and there seemed to be a lot of association with Minneapolis MN.

This evidently is the first formal year (2004 was their opening season) for the San Fernando Valley Playhouse (although I seem to recall a series last year). They must do a bunch of group sales; there was a large number of seniors in the audience. At the beginning of the show the executive director (James Blackman III) welcomed folks, asked for their input, noted he didn’t like their last show, and made it clear he was “out”. As he pointed out, you don’t see Gordon Davidson doing that. Will we be back to the SFVP? Depends on the production. The seating and view lines were great, so it is likely.

[Crossposted to cahwyguy and socal_theatre]


Through an Open Window… Silently

Tonight we saw Open Window at the Pasadena Playhouse. This was a co-production with the Deaf West Theatre Company, which should give you a lot of information about the production.

The production was… different. There were three principal actors… who signed their entire performances. Above them and moving around them were two to three interpreters for those who could hear who spoke the parts of the actors. For the record, the production starred Kyle Colerider-Krugh, Jake Grafman, Jacueline Schultz, Erin Bennett, Chris B. Corrigan, Linda Bovd, and Shoshannah Stern. It was written by Stephen Sacks, and directed by Erin Simonson. It was a short production: four scenes, one act, no intermission, 90 minutes top.

So, what was it about. The LA Weekly described it thusly: the story concerns an incarcerated deaf youth, facing trial for patricide. Because his father had locked him in a basement for a decade, the boy never learned to sign. If a superstar linguist can teach him the connection between a subject and a predicate, he would be free from his void of thought; paradoxically, by being able to express himself, he would also be subject to imprisonment for his crime. Which is the greater prison?

The play, in reality, is about the importance of making connections to making us human. Be it the connections of words to form language, or the connections between people that make humanity. I found it strangely moving and consistently riviting.

In the program, the Pasadena Playhouse also announced the 2006 season: Diva, a comedy by Howard Michael Gould directed by David Lee; a version of As You Like It (World Premeier Adaptation) set in Southern California, Sherlock Holmes: The Final Destination (World Premiere), The Marriage Musicals: I Do! I Do and The Last Five Years in repertory; and Sister Act (World Premeier), a new musical with music by Alan Menken and Lyrics by Glenn Slater.

Next up for us is Pump Boys and Dinettes at the El Portal, after a morning dim sum run.

[Crossposted to cahwyguy and socal_theatre]


A Grand Tour

Last night, our theatre weekend started with the production of The Grand Tour at the Colony Theatre in Burbank. It was our first time at this theatre, and we’ll be back. The performance space is wonderful, and based on their production history, they have a lot of productions that we like. This was also an opportunity to meet a fellow LJ fan of theatre, shutterbug93 (the only other person on LJ to list “Pasadena Playhouse” as an interest!). We had dinner with her before the show, and our seats were together. She’s a delightful young woman, and we look forward to seeing her the next time she’s in town.

On to the show. The Grand Tour is one of Jerry Herman‘s lesser known musicals. First produced on Broadway in 1979, the production at the Colony was the first full scale profession production since then. The book was by Michael Stewart (of Barnum and I Love My Wife fame) and Mark Bramble. Mr. Bramble and Mr. Herman are still alive, and worked with the Colony on this production, revising the score slightly and reworking it for a small stage and small cast. It worked, in my opinion. In fact, last night, Mr. Herman was in the audience to see the results.

The story of The Grand Tour is based the original play Jacobowski and the Colonel. It tells the story of a Polish Jew who connects with a Polish Colonel as the Nazis are invading France in 1941. The Jew (Jacobowski) has been escaping and running all his life, but is still her. The Colonel, after picking up his lady friend, has to deliver names of members of the Polish resistance to England. Jacobowsky helps him do this, while each teaching the other something about life. A more detailed synopsis can be found here, but the scene in the convent was changed to a scene in a brothel, with a song originally removed from the show (“I Want To Live Each Night”) [recorded on the Miss Spectacular album] added.

This production starred Jason Graae as S.L. Jacobowsky, John Ganun as Col Tadeusz Beleslav Stjerbinsky, and Tami Tappan Damiano as Marianne, and featured (in multiple roles) John Racca, Cynthia Beckert, Michael Dotson, Marsha Kramer, Gordon Goodman, Robyn Cohen, and Peter Musante. It was directed by Evan Weinstein, choreographed by Peggy Hickey, with musical direction by Jeff Rizzo.

So, what did I think of this production. Contrary to the reviews on Talking Broadway or the LA Times, I really enjoyed this production. All of the triple-threat (singing, dancing, and acting) cast were wonderful. I had no trouble with John Ganun’s accent. I enjoyed the inventive staging. If the musical is to be made more cost effective and to reach more audiences, cost effective staging is a must. This permits regional theatres to keep a show alive, unlike the spectacular-laden special-effect hogs that often lumber on to the stage. This show was redone right. Most folks aren’t familiar with the music from this show. It is the typical upbeat Jerry Herman score, with many echoes of La Cage, his next work.

After the theatre, there was a short discussion with the cast and crew (Mr. Herman, alas, didn’t stay around for this discussion). This is where we learned how they reworked the show for this production, how many rehearsals there were, the potential future for this production. This was really neat!

Today is a day of board gaming, after which we toddle off to Pasadena to see Open Window at the Pasadena Playhouse. Sunday is Pump Boys and Dinettes at the El Portal. Expect to see reviews of both.

[Crossposted to cahwyguy and socal_theatre]


I’m Reviewing the Situation…

Today, we went to see the Cabrillo Music Theatre production of Oliver!, the 1965 Lionel Bart musical, as reworked in the 1990s. The cast included Hap Lawrence as Fagin, Fiama Fricano as Nancy, Stephen Bishop as Bill Sykes, Eric Austin Young as Oliver, Seth Zibalese as Artful Dodger, and Stephen Reynolds as Mr. Bumble. The production was directed by David Ralphe, choreographed by Cheryl Baxter, and produced by Kevin Traxler.

I’m interested in any production of Oliver! Perhaps it is because I’m concerned about any portrayal of a character named Fagin (as my last name is similar, Faigin). Recently, I saw the Roman Polanski production of Oliver Twist (which I highly recommend), and I’ve very familiar with both the book and the movie musical version of Oliver. So how does this version compare?

Book-wise, Bart had to simplify the story. There is no description of Oliver’s travels to London, no breakin at the Brownlow household, and much of the relationship subplot between Brownlow and Oliver is gone (although the relationship is preserved, unlike in the Polanski version). Fagin’s Jewish nature is toned down from the book (although not as sympathetic as in the Polanski film). There are distinct differences from the movie musical version, especially in atmosphere and feeling. The method of death of both Sykes and Nancy is distinctly different (which isn’t a surprise given the nature of stage).

Production-wise, how was it. First and foremost, Fricano excelled as Nancy. She had the voice, she had the presence, she had the attitude, she had the build (although the costumer didn’t show it off to the best effect). She nailed all of her songs (she has a number of the strongest songs in the play). Fricano, a UCLA and CSUN graduate, has had a number of significant roles, including playing Fanny Brice and Ethel Merman in the recent “The Melody Lingers On” at the El Portal.

But what about Fagin, you ask. Fagin, played by Hap Lawrence, was OK. There was absolutely no Jewish nature to his portrayal: he seemed to be a tall, lanky, scraggly fellow of indeterminate religion. Judge that as you will. He also played the role straight, unless many of the stage Fagins (Clive Reville (broadway, films), Ron Moody (broadway, film), or Jonathan Pryce (broadway, film), all of whom tended to ham and play up the role. Although the main character in the piece, Lawrence’s Fagin stayed in the background. I saw Lawrence previously in Only a Kingdom at the Pasadena Playhouse, but he was also in movies such as Inherit the Wind with George C Scott and Jack Lemmon, and TV programs such as Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer (as Lincoln) and in my favorite Moonlighting episode, Atomic Shakespeare, in the scene with Colm Meany. Most importantly, he was the “candy man” in the M&M commercials of the 1980s.

Bill Sykes was also played very strongly, which for a small role takes talent. He was played by Stephen Bishop, who last starred in the CMT vehicle Annie Get Your Gun (at least that’s what his bio says, but my review seems to note differently). He also played Gaston in numerous Beauty and the Beast versions.

Eric Austin Young, a local fifth grader, played Oliver. He is a regular for CMT, and has had leading roles such as JoJo in Suessical. I didn’t find him that strong; he didn’t give off the right pathos for me.

Lastly, a word about theatre attendees. We had a whole family with a number of little ones sitting in front of us (we have 2nd row balcony). There were kids bouncing on seats, leaning forward and back, and mom or dad were constantly taking one or the other ones in and out, in the middle of musical numbers. Bad form. If you are going to take your kids to the theatre, they need to know professional theatre decorum. If they are not ready for that, take them to an amateur production until they learn it. We moved back one row at intermission, and it helped some.

Next on the theatre calendar: our big theatre weekend. Next Friday night, we are meeting shutterbug93 for dinner, and then walking up to the Colony Theatre to see The Grand Tour. The next night we go to the Pasadena Playhouse to see Open Window. The following day, Sunday, we go to the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood to see Pump Boys and Dinettes. Closer on the horizon, however, is Mitzvah Day at Temple Beth Hillel tomorrow.

[crossposted to cahwyguy and socal_theatre]