Friday, July 25, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman "A Most Wanted Man"

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A Grim Finale for Philip Seymour Hoffman

By Skip Sheffield

Philip Seymour Hoffman was brilliant at portraying complex, tormented characters.
Gunther Bachmann, the downtrodden anti-hero of “A Most Wanted Man,” is just such a character. Based on the John Le Carre novel, adapted for the screen by Andrew Bovel and directed by Dutch-born Anton Corbijn (“The American”), “Most Wanted Man” is a complex political thriller set in 2012 in the grimy port city of Hamburg, Germany. Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman, with German accent) is head of a covert German intelligence unit keeping an eye out for terrorists. The film begins with a battered suspect emerging from the sea, cloaked in a gray hoodie.
We learn the man is Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen-born, Muslim-raised Russian on the run. Rather than arrest the illegal alien outright, Gunther’s strategy is to observe him and see if he doesn’t lead the spies to bigger fish.
One of those large fish was Issa’s late father, who purloined a fortune from charitable donations to Muslim organizations. Gunther’s theory is that at least one of those organizations is a front for terrorist militants. Gunther further theorizes the local conduit is a respected businessman named Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homeyoun Ershadi), whose college-age son Jamal (Mehdi Dehbi) Gunther has enlisted as an inside spy in hopes of catching Abdullah in the act. Always-reliable Willem Dafoe plays a shady banker who may be in on the scheme. Observing all of the above is wry American intelligence liaison, Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright, stretching her boundaries).
Running interference on Gunther’s clandestine activities is a young, idealistic civil liberties lawyer named Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams).
Lovely McAdams is playing against type in this, one of her most ambitious roles to date.

Hoffman chain-smokes, drinks and curses his way through the role of Gunther Bachmann. By the end of the film a betrayed and defeated Gunther clearly looks unwell. This makes Hoffman’s character all the more convincing, but it is a sad reminder of an immensely talented, tragic figure who was suffering more than anyone could ever know.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy at Broward Center

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“Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy” a Visual, Sensory Overload

By Skip Sheffield

Step right up for the greatest show on Earth for a limited time through Sunday, July 27 at Broward Center for the Arts.
“Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy” is an amazing human circus of sight, sound and sensory stimulation. The show was created in Pompano Beach by Neil Goldberg and ran on Broadway to good reviews in 2008 and has since travelled all over the world.
The show is a pastiche of circus acts from Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Mongolia, Ethiopia and the USA. There is no particular plot other than a jungle motif, with props, puppets and performers costumed as animals. The show seemed to me like a modern-day Ed Sullivan variety show minus, the wooden emcee.
Instead there is an attractive woman with a strong singing voice in the unannounced role of Mother Nature. In fact none of the performers is named, which gives the show an anonymous, to whom it may concern quality. For the record there is a pair of adorable, amazing female Asian contortionists; a high-flying male-female aerial duo; a girl who twirls about a dozen Hula Hoops at once; a few jugglers, acrobats, dancers and a hunky, shirtless, long-haired guy who plays an electric violin strapped to his brawny chest. My female companion was transfixed by this blond god, and several of the other very fit beefcake specimens. For a finale there is a balance board artist who does some of the most amazing, towering tricks I have ever seen live onstage.
That is the special magic of Cirque Dreams. Everything is live (except pre-recorded music) and accidents can and do happen. If you are looking for excitement and sensory overload on a hot summer’s night, this is a show for you.

Tickets are $34.50-$74.50. Call 954-462-0222 or go to www.browardcenter.org.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A "Most Happy Fella" for Incurable Romantics

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No Barriers to Love in “Most Happy Fella”

By Skip Sheffield

The rarely-performed Frank Loesser musical “Most Happy Fella” continues a limited, 12-performance run through Sunday, April 27 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach.
Ensemble singing is the strong suit of this distinctly dated 1956 show, based on the 1925 play “They Knew What They Wanted” by Sidney Howard. The show is almost like an operetta rather than modern Broadway musical, with more than 40 songs and the barest of sets, suggested by projected impressionistic paintings. The action is set in California’s Napa Valley in 1927, before the region became known as a wine hipster paradise. This is a concert version of the show, directed by former Caldwell Theatre artistic director Clive Cholerton. The large cast refers to manuscripts on music stands, but the principals have it pretty much down by heart.
Tony Esposito (Broadway veteran William Michals) is about as far from cool California hipster as you can be. A recent immigrant from Italy, Tony frets that he has no social graces and he barely speaks proper English. Now bald and in middle age Tony is lonely and longs for a wife. As a last resort, Tony puts out an awkward, hand-written request for a “mail-order bride” to a pretty young waitress he spots in San Francisco. To up his likelihood of acceptance, he leaves behind a treasured tie tack and a return address. He dubs the girl “Rosabella” for her beauty. When against odds she writes him back, Tony replies with a letter and a photo of his younger, more handsome ranch foreman, Joe (Jim Ballard).
Rosabella (Jessica Hershberg) is not her real name, but the girl we later learn is Amy is so impressed with Tony’s passion and sincerity (and Joe's photo), she shows up at his Napa Valley vineyard, suitcase in hand. You can imagine her shock and disappointment when she learns Tony is not a handsome young stud. Furthermore Tony has been injured in a truck accident and is in a wheelchair, so all he really has is the pity card.
The heart of Loesser’s script is Tony’s quixotic quest to win the heart of a true love he has lured by deception. Baritone Michals has been on this quest before as a most heartfelt Don Quixote last year in PBD’s production of “Man of La Mancha.”
Rosabella will have her own deception to add to the romantic conflict. Pretty much the rest of “Most Happy Fella” is comic business with a diverse cast of characters led by Rosabella’s friend Cleo (Dance Captain Laura Hodos), an otherwise cheerful waitress with sore feet; Ken Clement as a goofy postman; Shane R. Tanner as Herman, a Texan who inspires one of the score’s hits, “Big D” (as in Dallas), Jeni Hacker as Tony’s bitter, disapproving sister Marie, and in his PBD debut, Slow Burn Theatre executive director Matthew Korinko in several roles. The score’s biggest hit is the upbeat, stand-alone “Standing on the Corner.” The loveliest is the duet “My Heart is So Full of You.”
The songs are in a crazy mish-mash of styles and tempos, but all beautifully sung with gorgeous harmonies, backed by two onstage pianists, including musical director Howard Breitbart.
If you believe true love conquers everything, this is a show you can embrace warmly. Tickets are $40. Call 561-514-4042 or go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.



Thursday, July 17, 2014

Florida-Made "Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy" at Broward Center

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Family-friendly “Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy” at Broward Center

By Skip Sheffield

Montreal has its world-renowned Cirque du Soleil. Florida has its own ambitious Cirque Dreams, and they have spread all over the world.
Tuesday, July 22, “Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy” opens at Broward Center for the Arts for a Fort Lauderdale engagement through July 27.
“The show goes to the Kingdom of Bahrain right after Fort Lauderdale,” reveals the show’s creator and director, Neil Goldberg. “I won’t be going on that one, but we have been all over the world. I went to Russia for the first time 15 years ago. It's amazing how far we have traveled.”
“Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy” features an international cast of aerial artists, contortionists, acrobats, jugglers and musicians, all costumed in wildly colorful and imaginative costumes. The show opened on Broadway in 2008, and played the MGM Grand in Las Vegas with pop star Debbie Gibson in the lead role of Mother Nature. Although the show was created right here at Cirque Dreams headquarters in Pompano Beach, this is the first time “Jungle Dreams” has played South Florida.
“In a 21-year journey we have built a brand,” says Goldberg proudly. “You just never know where the next request will come from. Jungle Fantasy is an ideal summer family engagement, and we have a good relationship with Broward Center, so we felt this show was the perfect fit.”

Tickets are $34.50-$74.50 and may be reserved by calling 954-462-0222 or by going to www.BrowardCenter.org.

A Personal Triumph for "Gabrielle"

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“Gabrielle” Meets the Challenges of Life Itself

By Skip Sheffield

Handicapped people have the same wants, needs and hopes of what we smugly call "normal people."
“Gabrielle” is a French-Canadian film starring Gabrielle Marion-Rivard as the title character. Like her character, Gabrielle has Williams Syndrome; a genetic disorder that often slows cognitive skills while increasing sociability and musical skills.
Outgoing Gabrielle, 22, attends Les Muses du Montreal, a school for differently-abled young people. Her perfect pitch and good singing voice make her a valuable member of the school choir. The star male singer is Martin (Alexandre Landy), who is handsome and high-functioning, but has an overly-protective mother (Marie Gignac). Choir director Remi (Vincent–Guillame Otis) has landed the choir a featured spot in a public concert that stars recording artist Robert Charlebois, who plays himself.
I had never heard of Robert Charlebois. He is a major star particularly among French-Canadians. The rugged-looking Charlebois is charming and self-deprecating. “I’m just an ordinary guy,” he tells the students, which is also a lyric from one of his confessional songs.
There are three simultaneous plot threads in director Louise Archambault’s screenplay. The first is the impending concert. The second is Gabrielle’s budding love affair with Martin, and its formidable obstacles. The third is Gabrielle’s quest for independence in the absence of her sister, best friend and protector, Sophie (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin). Sophie desires to travel to India to be with her boyfriend. Gabrielle’s mother (Isabelle Vincent) considers her a burden and is unwilling to care for her. Gabrielle thinks she can rent an apartment and live on her own, but she does not fully comprehend her limitations.

“Gabrielle,” which won a Canadian Screen Awards for Best Motion Picture and Best Actress, should be of special interest for those who deal with and care for the mentally challenged. It also throws out a challenge to the fully cognizant to be more compassionate and understanding of those of lesser ability. It is an inspiring achievement for the real-life disabled actors of Les Muses de Montreal and especially their star, Gabrielle Marion-Rivard.

Zach Braff Goes Deep With "Wish I Was Here"

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Zach Braff A Long Way From "Garden State"

Zach Braff was come a long way from “Garden State.” “Wish I Was Here” is his deepest, most profound effort to date as writer-director-star. For one thing he is 10 years older than when his debut effort came out in 2004. He is a lot more famous thanks to his role in “Scrubs.” He is now dealing with adult issues: marriage, parenthood, career choices, religious faith, failing parents and more.
I found much to admire in “Wish I Was Here,” which was written by Zach and his brother Adam Braff. Yet there is a certain amount of controversy surrounding the film, mostly from the fact Braff raised over $3 million of his $6 million budget through a Kickstarter campaign. Some feel he took advantage of his fans. There is a certain anti-Zach Braff faction too. Some people just don’t like him or how he looks or how he thinks. I am not one of those people. I admire that Braff has achieved such success without movie-star good looks. I admire that he tries to say something of substance.
“Wish I Was Here” begins largely as a flat-out comedy. Braff is Aiden Bloom, a struggling Los Angeles actor who hasn’t had a paying gig since a dandruff commercial some time ago. His poor wife Sarah (adorable Kate Hudson) struggles to pay the bills at a dreary clerical job, where she is harassed by a chauvinist pig co-worker.
Their 12-year-old daughter Grace (Joey King) is coping with the onset of puberty, while 6-year-old Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) wonders why he can’t have more expensive cool things.
Aiden’s brother Noah (Josh Gad) is a misanthrope and virtual hermit who lives in a junky trailer with a million-dollar view of Santa Monica surf. Father Saul Bloom (the great Mandy Patinkin) is a difficult man with a dark secret: his cancer is terminal and he can no longer foot the bills for Hebrew school.
These impending crises will tax Aiden and Sarah to their emotional limits as the film turns darker in its act two. Playing small but strategic roles are Ashley Greene as Noah’s attractive neighbor and Comic Con fan Janine and Jim Parsons (“Big Bang Theory) as a fellow struggling actor who does Aiden a big favor.
“Wish I Was Here” is basically about doing the right thing for one another. For that I think Zach Braff did the right thing in making this movie.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Bernstein Revisited in Manalapan

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Clockwise from top left: Clay Cartland, Mark Galsky, Lindsey Johr and Leah Sessa.

“Bernstein Lite” at Manalapan’s Plaza Theatre

By Skip Sheffield

Sheer talent overcomes many obstacles. The three-member cast of “Bernstein on Broadway” is overflowing with talent. The show plays through July 29 at the Plaza Theatre, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan.
Leonard Bernstein is the composer honored in the musical revue “Bernstein on Broadway.” Singing his songs are Clay Cartland, Lindsey Johr and Leah Sessa.
The obstacles were mostly of the technical variety in the preview performance we saw: missed cues, faulty lighting, less than perfect sound amplification and a skimpy set. Nevertheless the talent of these three young performers, backed by Mark Galsky on piano, is undeniable.
The musicals represented include “West Side Story,” which stands head and shoulders above anything else Bernstein (1918-1990) ever did, paired with Stephen Sondheim. Other selections are from the modestly successful “Peter Pan,” “Candide,” “Wonderful Town” and “On The Town.”
“This is our own version of Bernstein on Broadway,” explained musical director Mark Galsky. “It is unique. You won’t find another like it.”
Director Amy London is not simply presenting a parade of greatest hits. After an overture arranged by Galsky, there are rarities and novelties along with such standards as “Tonight” and “Something’s Coming.” There is also a fair amount of humor and horseplay. The main prankster is Clay Cartland, whose sense of humor and comic timing is as good as his fine tenor voice.
Leah Sessa is an excellent actress with a powerful, wide-ranging belt voice. Lindsey Johr is an operatic soprano who shows her stuff on the notoriously difficult “Glitter and Be Gay” from “Candide.”
In all there are around 30 songs performed in two 45-minute sets. For every silly “Why oh why oh why-o did I ever leave Ohio?” or the downright dumb “Pass the Football” from “Wonderful Town,” there is a heart-tugging “One Hand, One Heart,” with the ladies poignantly recreating the bittersweet Maria-Anita duet.
Leonard Bernstein was a very complicated man. His orchestral and operatic work is even more complex than anything presented here. Think of this as “Bernstein Lite,” and enjoy bright and breezy summer performances by three fresh-faced, irresistible talents.
Tickets are $38. Call 561-588-1820 or go to www.ThePlazaTheatre.net.