You are being redirected - hold on tight!

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Xanadu on Broadway: Singing with Tongue in Cheek

My wife and I settled in to watch a preview performance of the new musical Xanadu on Broadway at the Helen Hayes theatre. Yes you really did read that. As the first song unfurled I wasn't quite sure where they were going to take this. Dancers flouncing about in ridiculous Solid Gold-esque costumes, ELO's so cheesy it's wonderful songs and lots of emoting -- this was either going to be po-faced homage or snarky send-up. Neither option really sounded appetizing. Then Kerry Butler, who stars as Greek muse-come-to-life Kira takes center stage and sets the tone for a madcap Mad Magazine style take on musicals, the kitschy 1980 film the musical is based on, celebrity culture, gay culture, Greek mythology, and anything else that strays into writer Douglas "The Little Dog Laughed" Carter Beane's sights. Butler is a star. Even if Xanadu closes after two weeks she should be assured of a bright future on Broadway and beyond. Can she rollerskate? No problem. Sing like Olivia Newton-John (star of Xanadu the film)? Yes, and she takes it one step further by using her considerable range and comic chops to find the humor in the phrasing and breathiness of Newton-John's original performances. Did I say comic chops? Butler is sharp and funny throughout, chewing on Kira's adopted faux-Aussie accent with aplomb. Her physicality is astounding, even on roller skates. You can feel the fun she's having with this challenging and unusual part.

This isn't to slight the rest of a talented cast by any means. James Carpinello plays sweet simple artist Sonny with a touch of earnestness and a dollop of Welcome Back Kotter - era Travoltaness. He also has a rich and clear voice and his wide-eyed line readings mark him out as the shows ingenue. Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman as two scheming muses nearly steal the show. Their performance of ELO's "Evil Woman" is a major highlight.

The great Tony Roberts is always deserving of his own paragraph -- and here it is. Beane's book takes the Danny Maguire character in an edgier direction than Gene Kelly's portrayal in the film and Roberts finds all the humor and some of the pathos within. His singing is wonderfully characterful and he delivers his lines with the timing of a master. He has even more fun in his dual role as uptight Zeus, and the cast singing of Newton-John chestnut "Have You Never Been Mellow" complete with centaur and cyclops to loosen him up nearly overshadows the actual climax.

Other than the two songs I mentioned previously all of the other music is from the movie score by Newton-John Svengali John Farrar and ELO mastermind/least-famous Wilbury Jeff Lynn. For anyone who grew up in the late 70's and early 80's and had a working radio that means a great big sugary nostalgia rush from songs like "Magic", "Suddenly" and the theme song.

The plot you ask? A muse inspires a mortal to create the apogee of the arts in 1980 Venice California: a roller disco. They fall in love, which is forbidden. This is played for all the ridiculousness inherent in the premise. The only hitch is an ending that, at least in previews, doesn't quite deliver the showstopping umpph required. Some of this may be due to the intimacy of the Helen Hayes theatre, which doesn't allow for much trickery or ga ga sets. The stage is further constrained by the now in-vogue group of seats on the stage itself. While the lack of a giant unfolding Victorian house or an onstage downpour or all the other gimmickry foisted on theatre-goers over the last several years is refreshing Xanadu is by it's nature gimmicky and tacky. As much as I loved seeing the delicious Ms. Butler downstage and singing vampily as a stagehand rose from the audience with a room fan to make her blow around, a little extra spectacle could make the singing of Xanadu - the theme song to the musical of the film, just as cathartically hilarious as "Have You Never Been Mellow" is a few scenes back.

Still this is a real treat. 4 out of five disco balls

An Early Christmas Expose

TimSPC shows us that Santa is well, a real jerk. Don't tell the kids!

Monday, June 4, 2007

"Knocked Up" a Knockout

Judd "40-Year Old Virgin" Apatow's new comedy Knocked Up cements the writer/director's winning streak and shows that he is one of the most creative comic minds working in the film industry today. The not-so-secret ingredient is a solid screenplay with set beats for each scene and for the film as a whole. When improv occurs, it feeds the plot and the characters and no scene feels like it hangs out there for the sake of a pointless gag (unlike Anchorman, a film Apotow produced but did not direct.) He keeps the rom sophisticated and the com raunchy until the lines between the two mean less and less.

Knocked Up stars Seth Rogen, a member in good standing of Apatow's informal troupe, as Ben Stone, slacker extraordinaire. He and his pot-smoking buddies don't work per se, they merely keep pushing an unlikely plan for a website that intends to chronicle in great detail when in a mainstream movie nudity occurs and whether that nudity is full or partial. He and his buddies allow Apatow to show off the kind of rapid-fire male camaraderie his films revel and excel in.

Rogen gets lucky one night with Alison Scott, an employee at E! who just made it to a coveted on-air position. Casting of Katherine Heigl as Scott is perfect. She's pretty and put together without being nasty, and she can be sweet without being a dumb-ass. She's way out of Rogen's league but you believe that they might be able to click.

As you've probably deduced from the title, that one night stand leads to a potential 9-month issue and Ben and Alison have to decide what to do and if they should try to build a relationship with each other just because Alison is in a family way.

Alison lives with her sister and brother-in-law, played to perfection by Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd. They are locked in a marriage full of tension, with two adorable kids and lots of free floating angst. Mann, the real-life Mrs. Apatow and a standout as Steve Carell's drunken pickup in 40-Year Old Virgin, nails her part. She is tough without being a shrew, and Rudd just floats around trying not to be hit by the verbal and emotional shrapnel.

If there is a weak spot its that Heigl's character is a little underdeveloped -- we never really know why she decides to keep the baby though her bitchy mother's (played with a blithe nastiness by Joanna Kerns) negative reaction ("Take care of it...") gives us a little hint. Speaking of parents, Harold Ramis is wonderful as Rogen's father, and the scenes with them sparkle with real feeling and humor.

Essentially it's the grounding in reality that allows Apatow's films to tickle us so hard, and there are several scenes here that play deadly serious, only to evolve into a laugh or vice-versa. That's a rare trick to get right and Knocked Up does it in spades, from bong hits to graphic birth. The funniest comedy of the year so far nets five out of five baby heads:

Friday, June 1, 2007

Hazy "Dreamz"

I caught American Dreamz on cable a few nights ago. This Chris "About a Boy" Weitz directed film wants badly to be a modern-day Dr. Strangelove but ends up lacking in the conviction of it's own cynicism. Still for about 45 minutes it seems like it might pull off the satire it aspires to.

The premise is that an American Idol type show, American Dreamz, is going to close out their season by having a befuddled unpopular bellicose American President (Dennis Quiad doing his best syntax-mangled Bush) come on as a guest judge. Mandy Moore plays the Tracy Flickesqe ingenue who is smart enough to play sweet, Chris Klein is her simpleminded wounded Iraq vet BF, and Hugh Grant sets the smarm meter to 10 as a Simon Cowell love-to-hate-him type judge. Did I mention the sweet middle eastern contestant (Sam Golzari) who is part of a terrorist cell but just wants to sing and dance? Or Willem Dafoe in a bald cap as a leering svengali a la Dick Cheney? All of this sounds like a trainwreck but the first half sets all of these characters up deftly and skewers ripe targets like reality TV (Moore's multiple takes of "reality" are great), the Iraq war (the President finds out there are Sunni's and Shi'a's) and fundamentalism of all stripes (Mrs. President and the Veep re-assuring the President that he is divinely blessed.)

Where Weitz goes wrong is in giving his characters story arcs with redemptive conclusions that defang the satire and suck the air out of the film. Does anyone really believe that if only President Bush (as that is clearly who the film's fictional President Staton is) read a newspaper, he'd get out from the grip of puppetmaster Cheney and turn into a Good Guy? The last act showdown between Klein's wounded-in-more-ways-than-one vet and Grant's snide MC feels contived and pointless.

The film is on firmer ground when it's presenting us with the burgeoning relationship between Grant and and fellow reptile Moore who are drawn magnetically to each others guilessness and manipulativeness, or showing us a tent in a terrorist encampment presumably in Iraq where all the Queda forces are gathered around the TV to watch the fictional reality show. Moments like those approach the level of great cold war satires like The President's Analyst and Dreamz may well become a cult classic just for taking the chances it does. As it is though, it's a mixed bag of too much Hollywood "let's give 'em someone to root for" countered by some very funny black humor.

Overall this gets three out of five Strangeloves: