Monday, January 16, 2017

A Faithful "West Side Story" at Wick Theatre

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A Faithful Re-Staging Of “West Side Story” at The Wick Theatre

By Skip Sheffield

There’s a place for us… somewhere a place for us.
That place is The Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. The show is the American Musical Theater classic, “West Side Story.”
Many years in the making, “West Side Story” finally made its Broadway debut in 1961. It was an inspired collaboration among playwright Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein and young lyricist Stephen Sondheim in his Broadway debut. The simple idea was adapting Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to then-contemporary New York City at a peak in gang warfare. Pulling it all together was legendary director Hal Prince, with help from choreographer Jerome Robbins. The show has proved to be an evergreen perennial in revivals through the years all over the world.
Wick Theatre has pulled out the stops in the casting of WSS, with a cast of 29 shoehorned onto its stage. Playing the Romeo and Juliet lead roles of Tony and Maria are Thaddeus Pearson and Mary Joanna Grisso.
Though she looks like an ingénue, Grisso is a seasoned professional with more than 550 performances of the role of Maria alone. Grisso is the tiniest Maria I have ever seen. I’m guessing she couldn’t be more than 5-foot tall. Pearson on the other hand is a strapping lad of 6-3 or 6-4. The physical contrast of the characters underscores Maria’s vulnerability; caught between forces over which she has no control.
On the other hand is Maria’s older sister Anita, played with fire and sass by Sydney Mei Ruf-Wong. Ruf-Wong is a wonderful dancer, and she brings out the joyous sensuality of Anita.
Dance is of paramount importance to WSS. The sight of all these kids flying through the air is a spectacular sight.
WSS is a romance, but it is also a tragedy. Like the original Romeo and Juliet, the warring factions draw blood and deaths result. In this case it’s the Caucasian American Jets trying to hold on to their turf against the newcomer Puerto Rican immigrant Sharks. The Sharks’ boss guy is fiery Bernardo, older brother of Maria, played with smoldering passion by Pasqualino Bel Tempo. Tony is supposed to alpha dog of the rival jets, but his bravado has been cooled by a steady job at Doc’s (Howard Elfman) soda shop. Once he spies Maria at a dance, everything else (literally) falls away. The heavy lifting falls to Riff (Jeff Smith), who wants to whip the Sharks once and for all. Adults trying to maintain the peace are Officer Krumpke (Michael Cartwright) and Lt. Shrank (Cliff Burgess), who is not exactly neutral.
The futility of petty violence, cruel words and war is every bit as valid today as it was 400 years ago. Will we ever learn? So far, no.
WSS is best played as a period piece. An updated version several years ago was less successful. With Wick Theatre’s show, co-directed and choreographed by Charles South and Ryan VanDerBoom, you get the Real McCoy; a faithful re-staging of the 1961 original. Once again The Wick gives us something to make us proud of being in Boca Raton.
Tickets are $75 and $80. Call 561-995-2333 or go to www.thewick.org.




Friday, January 13, 2017

Ben Affleck a Tough Guy with Soft Heart in Live By Night

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Wild Old Florida in “Live By Night”

By Skip Sheffield

Welcome to the Ben Affleck show. Ben Affleck directs, stars and adapted Dennis Lahane’s novel “Live By Night” for the screen.
Affleck is Joe Coughlin, a good Irish boy gone bad in 1920s Boston. Joe is the youngest son of esteemed Boston police Chief Thomas Coughlin, played by Brendan Gleeson.
Something snapped in Joe when he was “fighting Huns” in 1917 in World War I.
“I will never take orders again,” Joe says in voiceover. “I came out an outlaw.”
Joe may be an outlaw in the lawless Boston of 1927, but he is a dapper one. He is one of the lieutenants of Irish-American mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). Joe plays with fire by launching an affair with Albert White’s townie girlfriend, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller).
You play with fire and you get burned. It comes as no surprise Albert White learns Joe has cuckolded him. White’s goons beat Joe within an inch of his life. Then after a botched bank job and a wild car chase with three cops killed, Joe is wounded, arrested, and thanks to his dad’s influence given a lenient three-year stretch in prison, which ironically saves him from White’s goons. When he is released he decides to go to the other side by signing up with rival Italian mobster Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Maso likes Joe, and decides to send him on a mission to Tampa, Florida to straighten out the bootlegging business.
So begins a chapter two for Joe and the viewer. It’s fun to see an imagined view of Florida, and director Affleck makes the most of it. Joe gains an ally and sidekick, Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina) and a beautiful new Cuban girlfriend, Graciela (Zoe Saldana). Graciela and her brother Estenban Suarez (singing star Miguel) smuggle Cuban rum into Florida. Soon Joe becomes the rum king of Ybor City with the implicit permission of Police Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper). He stands up to despicable KKK leader RD Pruitt (Matthew Maher). Things come unraveled when the chief’s lovely daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) goes off to Hollywood to become a star and becomes a junkie and prostitute instead. As so often happens in these cases, when Loretta goes through rehabilitation she emerges a crusader against sin, booze and godlessness.

Prohibition to the dismay of its promoters caused the exact opposite of its desired effect. It made bootlegging and criminal activity flourish. Nowhere was that more apparent than in Florida, which was wide open to all manner of illicit activity. All things come to an end. The end of Prohibition came when Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933. There is a spectacular gun battle near the end of “Live By Night,” and then the story tapers down to a melancholy end. While this is by no means a masterwork, it is good to look at, and it is of particular interest to students of Florida history. File it under noble effort.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

Phoebe Legere: a Woman Burning With Talent

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Multi-Talented Phoebe Legere at Arts Garage Jan. 14

By Skip Sheffield

Phoebe Legere is a woman of many talents. She plays seven instruments, including classical piano. She sings with an impressive range in a variety of styles. She is a published Juilliard-trained composer. She is an accomplished poet, filmmaker and painter. She is very funny, and sexy too. Phoebe Legere performs her “Heart of Love” tour at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14 at Arts Garage. 94 N.E. Second Ave., Delray Beach. She also performs Jan. 12 at Luna Star Café, 775 N. 125th Street, Miami.
Phoebe is no stranger to South Florida. She regularly visits here to perform and to engage in her latest passion: golf.
“I have been to South Florida many, many times,” she said by telephone from New York City. “I make my living playing piano. It is usually at private clubs and restaurants. I know thousands of songs. It will be nice to put on a real show at Arts Garage.”
In addition to her musical show, Phoebe will be mounting a show of her original art, which will be available for sale to benefit her Foundation for New American Art (4NAA), which brings art and music to underserved children in low-income communities. Phoebe will be arriving in style in her “Visionary Van,” in which she is driving across the country. Phoebe had recorded 15 albums of music since making her debut on Epic Records in 1986 at age 16. She has never achieved mass popularity, but she was nominated for a 2001 Pulitzer Prize in music.
“I’m looking forward to doing a real show with my own songs and paintings,” she declares. “Men don’t like to see strong women painters or musicians. My show will be quite different from what I play in country clubs. I won’t sugar coat. I’ve drawn a fine line in the sand.”
Tickets are $30-$45. Call 561-450-6357 or go to www.artsgarage.org. For more information go to www.phoebelegere.org.



Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Find Inspiration in "Hidden Figures"

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Need Inspiration? Look to “Hidden Figures”

By Skip Sheffield

“Hidden Figures” is a play on words. The three main characters are math geniuses hidden away in the Langley, Virginia headquarters of NASA in the year 1961. They are the hidden figures behind the technical breakthrough that enabled John Glenn (Glen Powell) to become the first American astronaut to orbit the globe.
The screenplay, co-written by director Theodore Malfi (“St. Vincent”) is based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, who dramatized a true story.
There is another reason the figures remained hidden. They were African American women in a Virginia that was still under strict segregation.
The women are Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). We see the women as little girls, amazing their teachers and fellow students with their prowess with abstract figures and complicated mathematical equations. Then we see them as grown women, going to another day’s work at NASA when their car breaks down. A cop comes by prepared to hassle them, but when he learns who they work for, he provides a police escort.
The women are forced to endure indignities at NASA, including separate restrooms and separate dining room. The colored restrooms were in a separate building some distance away. When Katherine Johnson’s supervisor, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) asked about her mysterious absences from the work place, she explained the restroom situation.
Al Harrison had a reputation as a tyrant, but he bristled at the injustices black employees were forced to suffer. On the spot he ordered the desegregation of all NASA facilities, despite the fact the order was breaking Virginia law.

There are many more indignities and injustices the women endured, but they prevailed and succeeded despite all obstacles, not the least of which was being working moms. Stay until the end of the film and you’ll see the real-life “Hidden Figures.” It is truly inspiring.



Scorsese Takes a Different Road to "Silence"

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“Silence” a Dramatic Departure for Martin Scorsese

By Skip Sheffield

“Silence” is like nothing Martin Scorsese has made before. Writer-director Scorsese, a master poet of the mean streets of New York, tackles an epic historical drama, set in 17th century Japan. Scorsese, with co-writer Jay Cocks (“Gangs of New York”), adopted Shusaku Endo’s novel of faith, suffering and sacrifice.
Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play Portuguese Catholic missionaries Rodrigues and Garrpe in the year 1633. The Japanese had been brutally persecuting, torturing and executing Christians. The Japanese are our friends now, but we forget the brutality and cruelty they are capable of. Remember Pearl Harbor?
Despite dire warnings, Rodrigues and Garrpe are smuggled into Japan under cover of fog and darkness. In addition to providing support and comfort to the remaining Christians, who have been driven into hiding, the priests are also in search of their onetime mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has disappeared. With raggedy Kichijiro (Yosuko Kubozuka) as their guide, the men seek out Christians hiding in caves, woods and abandoned buildings. Eventually word gets back to the Inquisitor (Israel Ogata), a onetime Samurai turned merciless despot. It will not turn out well.

The scenery in “Silence” is stunning, but it is contrasted with images of horror and brutality. It is an ultimate test of faith for the priests, mirroring the suffering and humiliation of Jesus prior to his crucifixion. This is by far Andrew Garfield’s most challenging role to date, and he gives it his all. There are two key twists in a film almost three hours long. It may rattle staunch Christians. The sad truth of the matter is that Christians are still being persecuted and even dying for their faith, but in other parts of the world. Twenty-five years in development, “Silence” is a bittersweet memoir of Scorsese’s Catholic upbringing.


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Annette Bening Head "20th Century Women"

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Annette Bening as 20th Century Woman

By Skip Sheffield

What to do when mom is a free spirit and the younger people are conservative and confused?
That is the basic quandary of “20th Century Women.” Annette Bening plays Dorthea, the senior member of the gang. The setting is Santa Barbara, CA 1979. Dorthea has bought a 1905 Victorian fixer-upper. How a 55-year-old single mom could afford this huge house in pricey Santa Barbara is a question we dare not ask. It does provide a groovy, offbeat setting, and it provides a reason for three other characters; Dorthea’s hunky resident handyman William (Billy Crudup), and upstairs tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a young cervical cancer survivor and photographer who frets about ever becoming a mother.
Then there is Dorthea’s 14-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), who is facing the typical challenges of adolescence. Jamie has a crush on sexy neighbor Julie (Elle Fanning), who unwittingly (or maybe intentionally) torments him by sneaking into his bedroom at night to snuggle with him, but no sex allowed.
Jamie is the alter ego of writer-director Mike Mills (“Beginnings”), who has a few issues of his own to work out.
Not a whole lot happens in this rambling reminiscence. Dorthea’s Ford Galaxie catches on fire spontaneously. The fire is extinguished and Dorthea invites the fire chief for dinner. She gets a VW beetle, which is way cuter than a Galaxie.
Abbie gets the hots for much-older William and he succumbs. Though she continues to try to date, Dorthea doesn’t really have the hots for anyone. She’s just trying to fit in with changing times and provide as good a life as she can for her son.
Annette Bening is bravely bereft of makeup, and though lined and wrinkled, still beautiful.

Mills captures a time when we all wondered where we were going. It was the era between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. We all know how that went. As we face even more uncertainly, it is comforting to think we will slog through, come what may.

Portman Portrait of "Jackie" as Heroine

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Natalie Portman as a Heroic “Jackie”

By Skip Sheffield

Natalie Portman does not look much like Jackie Kennedy. But put her in a form-fitting pink outfit with matching pink pillbox hat and have her reproduce Jackie’s breathy, posh Bouvier accent and you begin to accept Portman as the iconic, courageous First Lady and widow of John F. Kennedy.
Screenwriter Noah Oppenheim sets “Jackie” just before and after the fateful Dallas cavalcade of Nov. 22, 1963 when a sniper with a rifle shot President Kennedy in the head in his open Lincoln Continental convertible. Chilean director Pablo Larrain is quite graphic in his depiction of the blood and brains aspect of JFK’s assassination. That pretty pink outfit is covered with blood and so is Jackie as she tries to hold back the profuse bleeding (and brain fragments) from JFK’s skull.
Natalie Portman isn’t the only one who does not resemble the character played. Peter Sarsgaard looks nothing like Bobby Kennedy. In fact I puzzled for a while wondering if he was supposed to be JFK’s younger brother.
“Jackie” is not a mirror reflection of historic events but an approximation of how the characters felt in time of crisis. Portman depicts Jackie as a strong, determined, sophisticated woman who doesn’t buckle under pressure. In a flashback we see her lead a televised tour of the White House in 1962 and explaining her vision of restoring the presidential residence.
There are other familiar names (but not faces) of era figures. John Carroll Lynch is Lyndon Johnson, who assumed the presidency and Beth Grant is his socialite wife, Lady Bird. Georgie Glen is matriarch Rose Kennedy and Julie Judd is Bobby’s wife, Ethel Kennedy. John Hurt represents Jackie’s devout side as The Priest and Billy Crudup ties things together as The Journalist, interviewing Jackie.
One thing I learned from this movie was that Jackie was a chain smoker. Maybe that helped her keep that imperially slim figure.

None of us will ever know the complete truth of the JFK assassination or how Jackie Kennedy really felt. Natalie paints a portrait of a delicate, resolute heroine, and that is fine with me.