Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bells, Whistles and a Beautiful Ingenue in "Phantom"

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A “Phantom” With All The Bells and Whistles and a Special Leading Lady

By Skip Sheffield

In a telephone interview Julia Udine told me “technology has advanced so much in 30 years it is more spectacular than ever.”
She was not exaggerating. “The Phantom of the Opera,” playing through Nov. 30 at Broward Center for the Performing Arts is the most eye-popping, technically ingenious “Phantom” I have ever seen. Oh, and Julia Udine is the best Christine I have ever seen. Julia, who has been on the road for a year, steps up to Broadway after the Fort Lauderdale stop. I’ll wager she will capture hearts there too. The key to the character of Christine is that you have to fall in love with her a little bit, just like the Phantom. Yes, I did.
Cooper Grodin, who plays the Phantom, is also moving on after this stop. That’s how it is with a show that has run almost 30 years in England and is still running on Broadway.
Technical effects are very important in “The Phantom,” because face it, it’s a pretty thin story that everyone knows. It's basically a variation of "Beauty and the Beast, which predates Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel. Horribly disfigured boy with genius musical talent is caged and put on display in a carnival. He manages to escape and seek refuge in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera. It is there he remains an unseen force acknowledged only by Madame Giry (Anne Kanengeiser), once his protégée.
"Phantom" has one of the most spectacular opening scenes in modern theater; set at an action of effects and furnishings of the old Paris Opera. When Lot 666 comes up, watch out!
Yes, the national touring company of "The Phantom of the Opera" does not stint on thrills and chill, gorgeous costumes, and lovely live songs well-sung. It's an old B horror movie set to music with an especially delicate and delightful ingénue. Give our regards to Broadway Julia Udine.
Tickets are $34.75 and up. Call 800-745-3000 or go to www.browardcenter.org.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Theater Bugs for "Birdman"

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Michael Keaton Soars, Plummets in "Birdman"

By Skip Sheffield

If you love live theater, New York's live theater in particular, you will love “Birdman.” It’s as simple as that.
“Birdman” is Michael Keaton’s comeback tour de force as the title character, Riggan Thomson. Riggan is an actor and a desperate man. Perhaps that is redundant, because all actors endure desperation.
Like the real-life Michael Keaton, who starred in a couple of Tim Burton's Batman movies, Riggan Thomson starred as a superhero called Birdman, named for his ridiculous black bird outfit. He earned tons of money, but in fear of being typecast forever, Thomson walked away from the series. He hasn't worked much since; hence his desperation.
In a last-ditch attempt to rescue his career and self-esteem, Thomson has mortgaged his house and emptied his bank account to book Broadway's fabled St. James Theatre and star in a play based on a Ramond Carver story called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." Could he have chosen a more awkward title?
That's just the start of Thomson's problems. Then his co-star drops out at the last minute. The divorced Thomson's girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests Riggan cast her friend Mike (Edward Norton).
Mike is an ego maniac and self-described "method actor" whose method includes not bothering to read the script.
This is Edward Norton's best comic performance ever. At times he threatens to wrestle the spotlight away from Michael Keaton.
The star remains Michael Keaton, whose many problems include a drug-addled daughter Samantha (Emma Stone) who is fresh out of rehab.
Keaton utterly debases himself in an increasingly wacky black comedy nightmare. There is nothing quite like Keaton in his tighty-whiteys, running through Times Square.
Just about anyone who has ever had the "actor's nightmare" will relate to Riggan's increasing insanity. Mexican-born director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Babel," "Biutiful") pairs high drama with low comedy, often in the same scene.
Many will find "Birdman" overblown and pretentious, but isn't that what theater is all about? If you understand that you will love this film. I sure do.

For Your Consideration: Eddie Redmayne

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Eddie Redmayne Best Actor 2014?

By Skip Sheffield

Ladies and gentlemen the envelope please. For your consideration, Eddie Redmayne as Best Actor 2014 Academy Awards.
Just as Rosamund Pike had her star turn in “Gone Girl,” fellow Brit Redmayne has his in “The Theory of Everything” as mathematist-physicist-philosopher Stephen Hawking.
Most of us know Hawking as the brilliant guy in a wheelchair who devised the “black hole” theory of the universe. Since 1985 Hawking has been unable to speak with his own voice due to the debilitating effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
The story begins in Cambridge, U.K. in 1963 in this screenplay by Anthony McCarten, adopted from Jane Hawking's book "Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen" and directed by James Marsh ("Shadow Down").
Jane Hawking must have been some kind of saint. In this story she is played by angelic Felicity Jones.
More than anything "Theory of Everything" is a love story. Stephen Hawking was diagnosed while still a student and given the grim prognosis of just two years to live. Although he was still physically mobile, Stephen was fully aware that his walking days were numbered, as would be his speaking days.
Jane was fully aware too, yet she pledged to stand by her man even when he could not stand himself. Hawking's brain remained unaffected by the disease, as was his male sexual apparatus. We meet Robert (Tom Prior), Lucy (Sophie Perry) and Timothy Hawking (Finlay Wright-Stephens) as children and teenagers.
Though "Theory of Everything" is an inspirational story of the indomitable human spirit, it is never sappy or sentimental. Indeed at times it is quite funny. Hawking had and still has a great ironic sense of humor. It is even more ironic the Stephen and Jane both moved on to new partners, yet remain best friends.
I think this is the best movie about overcoming major disability since "My Left Foot" back in 1989. That film won Daniel Day-Lewis the Oscar for his portrayal of Christy Brown, whose entire body except for his left foot was paralyzed. It was with that left foot that Brown wrote his story.
Stephen Hawking is relatively able-bodied by comparison. He just turned 70, defying all the naysayers. Here's hoping he continues his productive life for years to come.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Victoria Lauzun is Piaf

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By Skip Sheffield

Women are at the forefront of two new plays that opened this week in Delray Beach.
“Piaf” is a dramatization of the life of French torch singer Edith Piaf. This play with music runs through Dec. 14 at Delray Square Performing Arts, 4809 W. Atlantic Ave. at Military Trail.
There is a romantic, idealized view of the tragic chanteuse, and Edith Piaf certainly fits that description.
The best thing about “Piaf,” a 1978 Tony Award-winning play by Pam Gems, is its star, Victoria Lauzin. Ms. Lauzun embodies the soul of the “little sparrow,” who was born in 1915 and died of liver disease in 1963 at age 47. This comes as no surprise, considering Piaf’s reckless lifestyle. Piaf was the embodiment of “live fast, die young.”
“Every damn fool thing you do in this life you pay for,” were her famous last words. Yet “Piaf” is not a downer. It is more a salute to an indomitable spirit, known by her signature song “La Vie en Rose.”
While that rosy song is what is most people associate with Edith Piaf, my favorite is "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" (No, I Regret Nothing). No, me neither.
Playing Edith's best gal pal and confidante Toine is Courtney Poston, familiar to patrons of Boca Raton's Slow Burn Theatre Company.
Like Edith, Toine is a woman of "easy virtue" in a demi-monde of seedy characters.
Providing super-human musical support is pianist Phil Hinton, who is obscured onstage behind a panel. Musical Director Hinton is at least as important as the characters. I think he should be front, if not center, but that decision is up to director Gary Waldman, who also plays Leplee and a doctor and contributed English lyrics to the French songs.
With the exception of Victoria Anderson as famed cabaret singer Josephine Baker, the rest of the cast is young and a bit uneven. But hey it's live theater in a converted movie fourplex, and if Edith Piaf is your thing, this is well worth a look.
Tickets are $37.50 ($30 group). Call 561-880-0319 or go to www.delraysquarearts.com.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Mother and Daughter Argue "The How and the Why"

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A Mother and Daughter Argue "The How and the Why"

By Skip Sheffield

Can we talk?
There is woman talk aplenty in Sarah Treem's “The How and Why,” playing through Nov. 30 at Arts Garage Theatre, 180 NW First St., Delray Beach.
“How & Why” is a daughter-mother dialogue between Rachel (Elizabeth Price), a girl given up for adoption in her infancy, and Zelda (Laura Turnbull), her blood mother who never married Rachel’s father and is now a big-deal professor of biology in Cambridge, Mass. Rachel is a graduate student in the same field, and as such is a kind of rival to her mother.
It's a good thing director Margaret Ledford cast Laura Turnbull as the mother, because the character is so unsympathetic, in the hands of a lesser actress we might just have seen her as a selfish shrew. Turner finds the pain in the character and discovers justification for Zelda's behavior.
By the same token Rachel is no model daughter. She is angry, resentful and accusatory, but there is a reason for all of it. Newcomer Elizabeth Price, an adjunct theater professor at Florida Atlantic University, finds redeeming qualities in the prideful, sorrowful Rachel.
There is a lot of technical biological stuff in Sarah Treem's script, mostly involving a woman's reproduction system. A key question is why do female humans menstruate when only a handful of species do the same thing? Theories abound.
Luckily I brought my youngest daughter and her best girlfriend to see the show. This is a play intended for women and enlightened males. However, the conflict between mother and child is universal. Feelings are bound to get hurt as we grow up and become independent. This play says to me we should appreciate our parents while we can, regardless of our relationship or lack thereof.
Tickets are $30 and $35, with $10 student rush available at show time. Call 561-450-6357 or go to www.artsgarage.org.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"Rosewater" a Disconcerting True Tale

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"Rosewater" a Cautionary Tale for Our Time

By Skip Sheffield

The first time I met Gael Garcia Bernal I thought this kid is going places.
That was 13 years ago, when Bernal co-starred with Diego Luna in the sexy Mexican comedy “Y Tu Mama Tambien.” Bernal went on to star in such important movies as “Motorcycle Diaries,” “The Science of Sleep” and “Babel.”
Now Bernal has the role of his 35-year-old life as Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari in “Rosewater,” a truth-based movie written and directed by Jon Stewart. If Mexican-born Bernal is not already the biggest young Latin-American star, he will be after American audiences see this gripping film.
Maziar Bahari was born and raised in Tehran, but he was a Canadian citizen based in London when Newsweek magazine hired him to cover the hotly-contested 2009 presidential election. The incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was a hard-line militant Islamic. His challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, was a more liberal, democratic candidate.
Bahari left his pregnant wife (Claire Foy) behind in London and took up residence in his old bedroom at his mother’s (Shoreh Aghdashloo) house.
In a comical scene, Bahari engages Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), whom he first sees driving a taxi, as his driver. When Davood shows up on his tiny motorcycle, Bahari had no choice but to hop on back. It also was a good vantage point for Bahari to wield his video camera.
One of the first places Davood showed Bahari was a secret rooftop forest of forbidden satellite dishes that enabled young students and dissidents to keep in touch with what was going on in the free world.
When the incumbent president was re-elected in a landslide, students and dissidents took to the streets in a spontaneous demonstration. With his camera running, Bahari caught Islamic police firing on the unarmed students. The volatile video was smuggled out of the country and Bahari filed his story for Newsweek. Not long after that the police came knocking at dawn on June 21, 2009. They said “Get dressed,” put Bahari in handcuffs and led him away to the notorious Evin Prison.
The balance of the film is largely the daily interrogation of Bahari, who was blindfolded much of the time. While Bahari was roughed up from time to time, the real torture was the psychological warfare carried out good cop (Nassir Faris) bad cop (Haluk Bilginer) style. It is no wonder Bahari broke down after implicit threats to his mother, wife and unborn daughter. Yet even under the greatest duress Bahari show a sense of humor by concocting ever more ridiculous conspiracy stories until he buckled and "confessed" in a videotaped statement.
The ordeal went on for 118 days, but it is never really over as long as a totalitarian government tramples the rights of people. As I write this, journalist Jason Rezalan has been languishing in the same Evin Prison for more than 100 without being charged with any specific crime.
Jon Stewart has done a service to freedom-lovers everywhere by bringing this drama to light and to Gael Garcia Bernal in particular for giving him such a powerful vehicle to demonstrate his talent.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Nicole Kidman, Damsel-in-Distress

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Nicole Kidman in Distress Again

By Skip Sheffield

Nicole Kidman makes one fine damsel-in-distress. Who can forget her performance in the extremely weird “Eyes Wide Shut?”
Ms. Kidman is in peril once again as an amnesiac wife in the mystery-thriller “Before I Go To Sleep.” Some terrible brain trauma happened to Christine Lucas (Kidman), a British housewife who wakes up each morning with a blank slate. She can’t remember who she is, what she does, where she has been or even if Ben (Colin Firth), the man who cares for her, is really her husband.
If we weren’t treated to extreme close-ups of Kidman’s pretty face and beautiful blue eyes there wouldn’t be much reason to watch “Before I Go To Sleep,” which is directed and adapted for the screen by Rowan Joffe (“The American”) from the 2011 first novel by S. J. Watson.
Amnesia is a flimsy but ever-popular premise for a mystery-thriller. It is easy to shoot holes in the credibility of the plot, but it is fun to watch Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth emoting up a storm. Then there is Mark Strong as Christine’s psychiatrist. Is he a good guy or bad? Does he have ulterior motives?
British novelist Watson has a certain amount of medical training, which enables him to make Christine’s convenient amnesia more believable. Still, there are many “Oh, come on” moments and a “What the..” ending. Yet any movie that quotes A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” word-for-word gains points in my book.