Friday, April 28, 2017

"Aida" as Told by Disney Through Slow Burn Theatre

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All Hail “Aida” at Broward Center

By Skip Sheffield

Slow Burn Theatre Company brings out all the bells and all the whistles for its production of Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Aida” for its season finale, running through May 7 at Broward Center for the Arts.
The qualification of Elton John and Tim Rice is important, because “Aida” bears little resemblance to the opera of the same name by Giuseppe Verdi. This version, written by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang, was based on a children’s storybook version of the opera, which was acquired by the Walt Disney Company with the aim of creating a stage musical. In short this is a simplified story that boils down to a love story that takes a tragic turn.
The star-crossed lovers are Aida (Khalifa White), a Nubian princess who is captured and forced into slavery in Egypt, and Radames (Stephen Millet), an Egyptian army captain who is engaged to Amneris (Amy Miller Brennan), daughter of the Pharaoh (Matthew Korinko). Slow Burn director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater had to go to Orlando to find Khalifa White, who is delicately beautiful with a powerhouse soprano.

Amneris is the very definition of spoiled princess whereas Aida is naturally noble. This is a welcome return to the stage for Amy Miller Brennan, who took off time to have a daughter. While her character is not sympathetic, Brennan finds the pathos in the haughty, materialistic princess with a stunning singing voice. In fact she starts the show with “Every Story is a Love Story,” which is a capsule definition of the plot.
Every story needs a villain. In this case it is Zoser (Larry Buzzeo), who is slowly poisoning the Pharaoh for his own gain. Every chorus needs a ringer. Kendra Williams is that person, exciting with her gospel-charged voice.
Viewers may have a sense of “déjà vu” with the music, especially if they have seen “Evita” and “The Lion King,” both of which had lyrics by Rice. Elton John favors show-stopping anthems, which makes this show as much concert as play. “The Gods Love Nubia” is one such anthem. It closes both Act One and Act Two. Close-harmony duets are also big, with “Written in the Stars” sung by Radames and Aida the best of the lot.
The bells are the elaborate sets by Sean McClelland and beautiful costumes by Rick Pena. The whistles are the unseen live band directed by ever-creative Manny Schvartzman. In short “Aida” is grade-A Disney entertainment as interpreted by our own Slow Burn Theatre. Tickets are $47-$60. Call 954-462-0222 or 800-745-3000.


Monday, April 24, 2017

RE-Live the 60s in Color and Black and White in "Beehive"


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“Beehive” in Living Color at the Wick Theatre

By Skip Sheffield

Talk about a colorful show; “Beehive” is it, playing through May 14 at the Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton.
“Beehive” is more a musical revue than a full-on musical, directed by Jonathan Van Dyke. However the Wick production has so many bells and whistles, including split-second costume changes by seven enormously talented women, early 60s vintage television set pieces, video screen projections to accompany songs, and an onstage live band on a riser in the back to remind you this is live theater, not a recording.
Agent and producer Larry Gallagher created “Beehive” in the mid-1980s partly in answer to the popular male group revue, “Forever Plaid.” The show covers the decade from the innocent dawn of the 1960s to its turbulent finale amidst Vietnam War protests. The journey is enabled through popular “girl group” songs as well as emerging solo artists.
The show begins cleverly with a giant TV picture back drop with the seven stars of the show appearing in black-and-white as if on a 1960s variety show. A scrim is parted and the women appear in living color, in the first set of Technicolor costumes created by the theater’s own Kimberley Wick. You don’t have to be of a certain age to appreciate the show’s vintage hits, because they have become part of America’s soundtrack. The opening number is one of the few crafted especially for the show. Few people remember the name Shirley Ellis, but almost everyone recognizes her big hit “The Name Game.” This novelty tune serves as introduction to the seven cast members: Sarah Amengual, Amitria Fanae, Kristina Huegel, Shelley Keelor, Trisha Jeffrey, Mallory Newbrough and Leah Sessa. As the show unfolds each woman will reveal a special talent. Trisha Jeffrey is in the spotlight first, but it is with “Academy Award” that Trisha unveils her secret weapon: a thrilling gospel-powered wail that will amaze.
Kristina pays tribute to the late, great Leslie Gore with “It’s My Party” with Shelley, Leah and Mallory.
Amitria honors Motown with “Where Did Our Love Go” followed by “Come See About Me,” with Sarah and Trisha.
Adorable Leah commands the stage with “Walking in the Rain” and a cheeky “My Boyfriend’s Back.”
Shelley reveals her torch singer prowess with Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and she moves effortlessly to pop with “Then He Kissed Me.”
“Beehive Dance” is a one-off number that showcases the dancing talent of the ladies, choreographed by Angela Mordano-Taylor and the director.
In Act Two, Amitria channels Tina Turner with “River Deep Mountain High” and John Fogarty’s “Proud Mary.”
The mood turns more somber with headlines screaming the assassination of John F. Kennedy, then moves to the later 60s with Sarah’s salute to Aretha Frankin’s “Chain Of Fools” and Kristina’s tribute to Grace Slick in “Somebody to Love.”
Out of left field comes Mallory, paying tribute to tortured Janis Joplin, starting with a rafter-shaking “Cry Baby.” I am old enough to have seen Janis live once. By then her voice was ravaged. Mallory’s is not, but she shares Joplin’s passion and despair. It is a show-stopping moment.
“Beehive” has one show-stopping moment after another, finishing with Leah leading the parade with “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” backed by a crack ensemble led by Caryl Fantel. “Beehive” solves no world problems, but it lets you forget them for two hours or so.
Tickets are $75-$80. Call 561-995-2333 or go to www.thewick.org.






Thursday, April 20, 2017

Katherine Heigl Gets Her Bitch On in "Unforgettable"

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Katherine Heigl Ex-Wife From Hell in “Unforgettable”

By Skip Sheffield

Katherine Heigl is a first-class bitch. That is meant as a compliment.
Her hair bleached a ghostly white, Heigl plays Tessa Connover, the ex-wife from Hell in this movie by producer-turned director Denise Di Novi.
Tessa’s ex-husband David (Geoff Stults in perpetual stubble) has fallen for Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson) and has decided to marry her. Tessa is having none of it. Using her daughter Lily (Isabella Kai Rice) as a pretext, Tessa barges in regularly to her former home to needle and harass her successor. Then she gets really crazy.
Yes, Christina Hobson’s story goes off the deep end when Tessa breaks into David’s house and steals stuff to incriminate Julia. It is fun watching Katherine Heigl’s increasing madness. You just know Julia will finally pop and there will be an ultimate cat fight. “Unforgettable” is so over the top it becomes a comedy. Do real people act this way? Sadly, sometimes yes. Don’t ask me how I know.

Much has been written about how difficult and unlikeable actress Katherine Heigl is. That may well be true, but when she channels it into a screen role, she is a force to be reckoned with. “Unforgettable” is an unapologetically melodramatic film. It also answers the question “Whatever happened to Cheryl Ladd?” She plays Tessa’s mom.



Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Finding "The Lost City of Z" in the Heart of Darkness

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“The Lost City of Z” a Masterpiece in the Jungle

By Skip Sheffield

“The Lost City of Z” sheds light on a legendary British explorer who is otherwise little-known outside of England.
The explorer was Lt. Col. Percy Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam.
Fawcett was the very picture of intrepid, fearless explorer. In 1906 the Royal Geographic Society enlisted him to map the uncharted territory bordering Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. Fawcett responded with gusto, earning the approval of the Geographic Society and interesting the world press. In 1911, despite the fact he was happily married to Nina (Sienna Miller) and had two sons, he returned to the jungle with a new sidekick, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). In the depths of the jungle, Fawcett found shards of pottery and other clues there may have been an advanced society where “savages” now dwelled.
After volunteering for service for World War I, Fawcett returned to South America with Costin and a wealthy patron, James Murray (Angus Macfeyden). Murray proved no match for the jungle and its hardships. Fawcett sent him packing on his last surviving horse, prompting controversy back in England.
The back story of “The Lost City of Z” is as dramatic as the original. New York writer David Grann became obsessed with the story of Fawcett, who disappeared without a trace in 1925, along with his son Jack (Tom Holland). Grann tried to retrace Fawcett’s route. With additional research he had the basis for a feature he published in New Yorker magazine in 2005. He expanded it into a book in 2009.
Director James Gray caught the fever too, and proposed a shoot in the jungle using 35 mm film rather than digital. Fawcett’s route had been ruined by lumbering and development, but Gray shot in the still-pristine Colombian jungle.

At its core “The Lost City of Z” (the Brits pronounce it “Zed”) is a story about obsession. Obsession can border on madness, but it can accomplish miracles. Joseph Conrad explored such an obsession in “The Heart of Darkness,” set in Africa in 1899. “The Lost City of Z” is a “Heart of Darkness” for our time. It is a gorgeous, old-fashioned epic.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Anyone For Golf?

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“Tommy’s Honour” and the Game of Golf

By Skip Sheffield

Like golf?
If you do you may like “Tommy’s Honour,” set in the birthplace of golf, Scotland, in the 19th century.
There are two Tommys in this historical film by Jason Connery: Tom senior (Peter Mullan) and Tommy junior (Jack Lowden).
Tom Morris was one of the originators of golf, but he was reduced to being a greens keeper for the rich men who kept the game going.
Tommy junior was a golf prodigy; a natural. As a boy Tommy was proving his prowess on the golf course enough to attract the attention of Alexander Boothby (Sam Neill), the wealthy, snooty, head of the golf association. Tommy gained national attention when he won the Scottish Open of 1868 with a hole-in-one, no less. Tommy is offered a position as a professional, but his dad thinks he is getting uppity, drinking too much and hanging out with shallow society types.

“Tommy’s Honour” covers his meteoric rise to legendary figure in the game of golf, first winning the Caddies’ Open and then the British Open in 1875. In the process he won the hand of a fair lass, Meg Drinnen (Ophelia Lovibond) who would become his wife at age 23. Tommy's triumph was not without its hardships and a short-lived tragic ending. Tom senior lived on and designed 70 golf courses. Both men have become a part of Scottish folklore that happens to be true. This is their story.


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

More Crashes Explosions and Mayhem in "Fate of the Furious"

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By Skip Sheffield

Bam! Pow! Screech! Ka-boom!

That’s just about all you need to know about “Fate of the Furious.” This is chapter eight in the continuing saga of illegal street racers, starring Vin Diesel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as rival racers who are forced to work together.
Vin Diesel has been with the franchise since its beginning in 2001. He has also been producer of chapters four through eight. A unique fact about this film is that it is the first American film shot on location in Cuba in 50 years. In Chris Morgan’s sixth script, Vin Diesel’s character of Dominic “Dom” Toretto is newly-wed to his longtime girlfriend Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez). The honeymoon is interrupted when Dom is challenged to a race by a Cuban local. The race seems a mismatch. Dom is in a ramshackle 1950 Chevy versus a souped-up 1956 Ford. Ah, but Dom is resourceful. The franchise is based on amazing car stunts, each one more outrageous than the last. Dom and the CGI-enhanced car stunts never disappoint.
Dom is momentarily distracted from his racing and his honeymoon by a mysterious beautiful woman who coerces him into going in in cahoots with her. Turns out Dom has a son he never knew about, and the woman known only as Cipher (Charlize Theron) has him and his mother imprisoned.
Charlize Theron is one of the most beautiful villains in cinematic history. Her first lieutenant is a red-bearded madman known as Rhodes (Kristopher Hivju). The action shifts to Iceland, where Dom is ordered to steal a suitcase filled with codes for nuclear weapons. Production notes tell me the tech team set up the most spectacular explosion ever filmed in Iceland. I believe it.
In between there is a diversion and yet another spectacular car race on the streets of Manhattan.
Director F. Gary Gray (“Straight Out Of Compton”) has the good sense to punch up the humor in the ridiculously far-fetched script. Dom has an able foil in Luke Hobbs, played by the massive Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Jason Statham returns for a few yucks as Deckard as do Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson as members of Dom’s merry band.

These F&F yarns always end inconclusively. Producer Diesel has stated there will be two more chapters before the cars go into the garage for good. We can look forward to them in 2018 and 2019. “Fast & Furious” became Universal Pictures most successful franchise of all time by 2015. Why would they kill a good thing?


Friday, April 7, 2017

All Is Not Calm "After The Storm"

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See Real Japanese People in “After the Storm”

By Skip Sheffield

We Americans tend to think of Japanese people as orderly, conformist, polite and precise.
Japanese are fallible human beings after all. “After the Storm” captures the misadventures of one such imperfect man.
Shinoda Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is an underachiever and a screw-up. After an early book success, he still thinks he can make it as a novelist, but meanwhile he is working at a small detective agency and blowing most of his earnings on gambling. Hiroshi Abe is taller than the average Japanese man and quite good-looking. This is a two-edged sword, because he can get by on his charm but he falls short on the followup. It is interesting to note that writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda originally intended to be a novelist.
Inevitably Ryota has gotten behind in his child support payments and his ex-wife (lovely Yoko Maki) is at the end of her patience. Ryota can only be with his young son (Taiyo Yoshizawa) once a month. Despite a typhoon approaching (the storm of the title) Ryota insists on picking up his son and taking him to his elderly mother’s (Kirin Kiki) humble abode to ride out the storm.
At work Ryota’s boss (Lily Franky) is losing patience with his bright but irresponsible employee. Ryota gets an offer to write for a cheap comic magazine but he refuses, convinced he is destined for better things.
On the fateful night of the typhoon’s landing, Ryota’s ex-wife shows up at her ex mother-in-law’s place. Although she has moved on with another man, Ryota points out they will always be in each other’s life as parents to their son.

Playing at FAU’s Living Room Theaters, “After the Storm” offers a rare glimpse at how ordinary Japanese people live. They are not a whole lot different from you or me.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

ChallengeYour Brain in "Arcadia"

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Ponder “Arcadia” Through April 30 at Palm Beach Dramaworks

By Skip Sheffield

Playwright Tom Stoppard is one clever chap… maybe too clever for his own good.
Palm Beach Dramaworks has bravely mounted Stoppard’s Olivier Award-winning “Arcadia” through April 30 at 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. This play is complex, dense and sometimes confusing. Yet it has moments of high humor and style to burn.
It helps to have a passing knowledge of how things work in academia. A knowledge of English literature is helpful too, as is a familiarity with England’s class system that persists to this day.
“Arcadia” is set both in 1809-1812 and the present day in an English manor house, beautifully rendered by first-timer Anne Mundell. This can be a bit disorienting, because scenes change from more than two hundred years ago to present day in alternating fashion, except in the final scene when most all the characters appear together.
Costumes (Brian O’Keefe), lighting (Don Thomas) and sound (Steve Shapiro) are of paramount importance in this sensory experience. In some ways the characters are stock Brits, both in the past and the present.
In the past it is the characters of Thomasina Coverly (Caitlin Cohn) and her tutor Septimus Hodge (Ryan Zachary Ward) who are of primary interest. Thomasina at age 13 years and 10 months is both precocious and brilliant. Actress Caitlin Cohn is tiny and appears childlike, but with a resume of more than 25 productions, a membership in Actors’ Equity and Screen Actors Guild and an education at New York University, I’ll wager she is an adult very adept at playing much younger. At any rate she is totally believable as Thomasina, and she works in perfect concert with Ryan Zachary Ward, who realizes he has a prodigy on his hands.
Playing the thankless role of foolish third-rate poet Ezra Chater is Cliff Burgess, who does the fop thing well. James Andreassi is properly pompous as landscape architect Richard Noakes, whose plan to redo the gardens of stately Sidley Park from Classical to Romantic has the lady of the house, Lady Croom (Margery Lowe) in a swivet.
In the 21st century we have imperious Hannah Jarvis (Vanessa Morosco), who is undertaking a definitive history of Sidley Park, but clashes with the pompous, foppish professor Bernard Nightingale (Peter Simon Hilton), who is convinced Ezra Chater was killed in a duel by the renowned Romantic poet, Lord Byron.
In this segment we have another smart girl, Chloe (Arielle Fishman) and her even smarter brother Valentine (Britt Michael Gordon), who is undertaking an exhaustive study of the grouse population of Sidley Park. A younger brother Gus (Casey Butler) is mute.
Listening to the various dissertations and intrigues of the inhabitants of Sidley Park, I was reminded of the relatively modern “chaos theory,” which posits before any intellectual breakthrough there is a moment when the brain goes haywire. I suspect playwright Stoppard is familiar with this theory and he put it to good use in parodying the peccadilloes of Great Britain past and present.
At any rate “Arcadia” is a cerebral adventure with some sensuous delights.
Tickets are $66. Call 561-514-4042, ext. 2 or go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.




Friday, March 31, 2017

Love and Lies in "Frantz"

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“Frantz” a Lovely, Melancholy Reflection on War, Love and Death

By Skip Sheffield

Ah, the French. They have such a beautiful sense of melancholy.
“Frantz” revels in melancholia. Writer-Director Francois Ozon has set the story, adapted from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 anti-war film “Broken Lullaby,” in Germany and France in 1919, just after World War I. Anna (Paula Beer, just 21 and luminous) is a young German woman whose fiancé Frantz Hoffmeister (Anton von Lucke in flashbacks) died in the “War to end all wars.” We see Anna placing flowers on the grave of Frantz. One day a stranger shows up at the cemetery and puts his own flowers on the grave.
He is Adrien (Pierre Niney), a French veteran of the bitter war. Adrien tells Anna Frantz was his best friend before the war tore them apart. He regales her with their times together; in particular a visit to the Louvre in Paris, where Frantz admired a Manet painting with “a young man with his head thrown back.” For this brief episode the black-and-white film becomes color.
The German townspeople don’t take too kindly to Adrien. He is shunned and even spat upon. Dr. Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stotzner) refuses to treat him or even let him in his house. Anna, who has no family, lives with Dr. Hans and his wife Magda (Marie Gruber).
“Every Frenchman is my son’s murderer,” Dr. Hans fumes.
Despite the ill will, Anna is intrigued by the handsome, morose Frenchman. Soon her adopted family comes around. But all is not what it seems. Mistruths and outright lies intersect with reality. The Manet painting so admired by Frantz and Adrien is called “The Suicide.” Adrien is not the simple, poor French boy he professed to be.
Enigmatic as well as melancholy, “Frantz” is ultimately hopeful that the wounds of war can be healed. When Anna beholds the Manet painting in color at the Louvre, a young man admiring it remarks, “You like it too?”

“Yes,” Anna says. “It makes me want to live.”



Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Love Theater But Hate Shakespeare? "Something Rotten" is for You

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Brush up on Your Shakespeare with “Something Rotten”

By Skip Sheffield

“Something Rotten” is a theater geek’s delight. Maybe that’s because it was written by two self-professed theater geeks: brothers Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick, who wrote the music.
This extremely silly mock Shakespearean spoof runs through April 2 at Broward Center for the Arts. The script, written by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, could make a good trivia contest. How many references to other shows can you identify?
The Kirkpatrick brothers played their stage counterparts, Nick and Nigel Bottom, for the show’s 2015 Broadway debut. Rob McClure and Josh Grisetti, who originated the Bottom brothers in the national touring production, are featured in the Fort Lauderdale show. Adam Pascal, who originated the role of writer-genius Shakespeare, is in this production as well.
The year is 1595 in England, when Shakespeare was at his peak of creativity. The Bottom brothers are struggling in the shadow of Shakespeare, who is portrayed as a strutting rock star by Pascal, who originated the lead role of Roger Davis in the Broadway and London productions of “Rent.”
The brothers’ latest show is “Richard II,” which is completely overshadowed by Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet.” Furthermore the brothers learn Shakespeare’s next play is “Richard II.” No wonder Nick Bottom is jealous of the towering figure who is considered by many the greatest writer in the English language. This is a comedy- a farce really- so it sets up Nick to sing “God, I Hate Shakespeare.” This is a sentiment shared by many students who consider Shakespeare a pompous bore. Nick enlists the help of Nostradamus (Blake Hammond), a renowned soothsayer, to look into the future and swipe some ideas from Shakespeare. This couldn’t have been the actual Nostradamus, for he died in 1566, but who's counting?
Nick is married to Bea (Maggie Lakis), a thoroughly modern Renaissance woman. Bea dresses as a man so she can get work, since Nick isn’t much of a provider.
Nigel is not married, but he becomes entranced with Portia (Autumn Hurlbert), the daughter of strict Puritan magistrate Brother Jeremiah (Scott Cote). Cote makes comic gold out of Jeremiah’s repressed homosexual tendencies.
“Something Rotten” is a laugh a minute romp, lampooning theatrical conventions. The show’s comic pinnacle is a ridiculous “Omelet: The Musical,” complete with tap-dancing chorus line.
You don’t have to be a Shakespearean scholar to recognize one of the Bard’s most quoted maxims, “To thine own self be true.” The line is from “Hamlet,” but in this case it is the poetic inspiration of Nigel (who has a beautiful tenor voice), which prompts the show’s most endearing number. On the other side of the coin is “Make an omelet,” which is one of the craziest production numbers ever conceived in American musical theater; chockablock with pointed theatrical references.
Any show that can make a production number out of “The Black Death” has to be a flat-out farce. “Something Rotten” is as clever as it is funny, but it helps to have a passing knowledge of theater history to fully appreciate it.
Tickets are $35-$150. Call 954-462-0222 or go to www.browardcenter.org.



Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Kristen Stewart Gives All To "Personal Shopper"


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Kristen Stewart Takes Center Stage in “Personal Shopper”

By Skip Sheffield

See Kristen Stewart as you have never seen her in “Personal Shopper.”
That is known as a grabber. Kristen shows a lot of flesh in “Personal Shopper,” but otherwise this small French indie movie is a baffler.
Stewart previously worked with writer-director Olivier Assayas in “Clouds of Sils of Maria" (2014), with the incomparable Juliet Binoche.
This time Stewart takes center stage as Maureen Cartwright, the personal shopper of the title to Paris fashion model/designer Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). Kyra gives Maureen a literal blank check to buy high-fashion clothes and expensive jewelry as she flits around the globe.
Maureen prefers dressing in jeans and T-shirts. She gets around Paris on a scooter. Lately she has taken to staying overnight in Kyra’s luxurious apartment and trying on her expensive clothes.
Meanwhile there is a moldering old mansion outside Paris where Maureen and her twin brother Lewis grew up. Lewis died young in that house of a rare heart disease, which also afflicts Maureen. A young couple is considering buying the old place, but they worry it might be haunted. Among her other talents Maureen is a medium in contact with the spirit world. Evidently her spirits can text.
Yes, “Personal Shopper” is a ghost story, but it also is a murder mystery. That mystery is never solved and just left hanging.

In short “Personal Shopper” is hard to categorize. If you believe in ghosts and the afterlife, you may lend more credence to this tale. If you are a skeptic you may wonder what’s the big whoop? The one thing on which I think we can all agree is that Kristen Stewart gives her all for this role.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

"Big River" Big Show From Little Company

Photo by Jim Hall

“Big River” a Complicated, Spirited, Joyous Trip

By Skip Sheffield

As Huck Finn himself puts it, “Big River” is “complicated trouble and complete joy.”
“Big River” is a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” with music by Roger Miller and book by William Hauptman. The Slow Burn Theatre production of this 19th century tale of trials and tribulations runs through April 2 at Broward Center for the Arts.
Tampa born and bred Ricky Cona stars as irrepressible Huck Finn, who has come into a considerable sum of money after an adventure with his best friend Tom Sawyer. Huck has no mother and his “Pap” has disappeared. He is staying uneasily with the Widow Douglas (Anne Marie Olson) and her overbearingly pious spinster sister, Miss Watson (Erin Pittleman). The time is just before the Civil War in St. Petersburg, Missouri.
The role of Tom Sawyer was played by understudy Cameron Jordan opening night after an accident benched David Matthew Klein. Tom Sawyer is above Huck in social standing, and he already knows how to read and write. It is Tom Sawyer who is always cooking up complicated schemes that get the boys in trouble.
Cameron Jordan acquitted himself well on such short notice. He also played his regular roles of Ben Rogers, Hank, and a young fool from Arkansas.
Two things intervene to interrupt Huck’s “civilization.” First he learns Widow Douglas is considering selling her slave manservant Jim (Brian Maurice Kinnard) for a much-needed $800. Secondly, his crude, drunken Pap Finn (Troy J. Stanley) returns after a year’s absence and demands the $6,000 in gold Huck and Tom have put in trust with Judge Thatcher (James A. Skiba). Huck genuinely fears his father and deeply cares for Jim, so he decides to fake his death and take off on the river of the title on a raft in search of Cairo, Illinois and eventual freedom for Jim.
Roger Miller was no Cole Porter, though he won a Tony for Best Score for this show. His songs tend to the country honky-tonk. His best-known is “King of the Road.” Most of the songs serve to advance the story. Some, such as “Muddy Water” and “Waitin’ For The Light To Shine,” have an anthemic gospel quality, beautifully harmonized by the 20-member cast.
Ricky Cona has a fine tenor as Huck, but it is Brian Kinnard who really rattles the house as Jim. His distaff counterpart is Kendra Williams who plays the small role of Alice’s daughter, yet lights up the house every time with her heartfelt wailing.
Leah Sessa also has a small part but a large presence as innocent Mary Jane Wilkes, who is harassed by the lecherous “King” (Matthew Korinko) and his sidekick The Duke (Victor Souffrant in fine comic fiddle). The comic apex of these amoral con men is “The Royal Nonesuch” of complete nonsense.
With a six-piece band tucked away under the stage and muscular, athletic choreography by director Patrick Fitzwater, “Big River” is big fun that just keeps rolling along.
Tickets are $47-$60. Call 954-462-0222 or go to www.slowburntheatre.com.




Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Most Elaborate "Beauty & The Beast"

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A Supercharged Live Action “Beauty & The Beast”

By Skip Sheffield

Walt Disney has certainly gotten its money’s worth out of the tale of “Beauty and the Beast.” The original folk tale dates to 1740, but it was Disney’s 1991 animated version that really took off, with songs by Howard Ashman (lyrics) and Alan Menkin with additional songs by Tim Rice.
The 2017 live action version features songs from 1991 movie and the Broadway stage version plus new songs and a lavish setting that is purported to be the most expensive ever at $160 million.
Former child actress Emma Watson plays Belle, the Beauty of the title. We watched Emma grow up in eight Harry Potter movies, starting in 2001 when she was 11. She is now a woman of 26, but she still looks like a teenager. Contrasted with hulking Dan Stevens as the Beast she seems fragile and delicate.
Belle is a bookish girl who lives with her widower father Maurice (Kevin Kline) in a small French village. The bookish aspect of her personality is played down in this movie version, written by Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) and Evan Spiliotopulos (“Hercules”) and directed by Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”). The heroic and courageous character of Belle is played up.
This comes into play when Maurice gets lost in the woods and ends up at the Beast’s castle, where he is imprisoned. When Maurice’s horse turns up riderless in the village, Belle hops on him and gallops off to face the Beast herself.
As in the traditional tale, the Beast is really a Prince who has been cursed by a witch, who has also turned his servants into animated household objects. This is where the Disney movie really shines thanks to CGI animation that offers much greater expression than the costumed stage version. The A-list cast includes Ewen McGregor as Lumiere; Ian McKellan as Cogsworth; Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts; Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe; Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette.
Some people have been upset by the implied gay vibrations of LeFou (Josh Gad) for his best friend Gaston. It is really much ado about nothing. Gad is funny and adoring.
Luke Evans’ Gaston is a huge improvement over the cartoon and the stage show. He is much more virile and menacing in this version, which underscores the courage of Belle and the self-sacrifice of the Beast.
I wasn’t thrilled to see yet another version of this time-honored fable about the triumph of love over physical appearances, but I was pleasantly surprised. You may be too.



Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Shirley MacLaine Rides Again in "The Last Word"


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Shirley MacLaine Channels Her Bad Self in "The Last Word"

By Skip Sheffield

What a national treasure is Shirley MacLaine. It was fitting that she was honored at this year’s Oscars by one of Hollywood’s hottest women, Charlize Theron.
Shirley MacLaine turns 83 on April 24. She is no longer the hot chick who replaced Marilyn Monroe in “Irma la Douce” in 1963. MacLaine still has a certain Elfin appeal, and she uses this to best advantage to play the very unlikeable Harriet Lauler, founder of an advertising agency that once bore her name. Now she is forcibly “retired.” In truth she was thrown out of her own company because she was so unpleasant and disrespectful of everyone around her.
The hook to this story is that Harriet is such a control freak she wants final proof on the obituary that will eventually appear in the local newspaper. She storms into the paper’s newsroom and confronts Anne Sherman (Amada Seyfried), the resident obit writer. Anne is proud of her work and would never think of misrepresenting the truth. Harriet wants a whitewashing that depicts her as a wonderful person. In reality everyone hates her, including her ex-husband (Philip Baker Hall) and her only daughter (Anna Heche).

When the paper’s editor leans heavily on Anne to fulfill Harriet’s wishes because Harriet almost single-handedly kept the paper afloat with her advertising, Anne grits her teeth and tries to make the best of a hopeless situation. Harriet suggests enlisting the help of a disadvantaged, preferably minority youth as an “intern,” because it would make her look good. She chooses feisty Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon) at the community center. It’s not hard to guess where all this is going in Stuart Ross Fink's script. Harriet will be humbled, lessons will be learned and highjinks will ensue, including Harriet's stint as a radio disc jockey. This is not a high water mark for Shirley MacLaine, but it is fun to see her in there pitching. Any movie that makes reference to The Kinks as “the most underrated band” and closes with Ray Davies “Waterloo Sunset” can’t be all bad.


Monday, March 13, 2017

"Guys and Dolls" Never Fades

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An Exemplary Classic “Guys and Dolls” at The Wick

By Skip Sheffield

Though it is set in a specific time and place (New York City, early 1950s), “Guys and Dolls” is a timeless, evergreen musical.
The Wick Theatre has honored this classic with a bright and splashy tribute to Damon Runyon’s shady colorful Broadway characters onstage through April 9 at 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton.
Inspired by journalist Damon Runyon’s short stories of the 1930s and 1940s, “Guys and Dolls” is built around 14 wonderful songs by Frank Loesser. Abe Burrows designed a book around those songs.
The atmosphere is set by “Fugue for Tinhorns,” sung by Nicely Nicely Johnson (Shaun Rice), Benny Southstreet (Taylor Wright) and Rusty Charlie (Kevin Robert Kelly). The guys are touting various prospects in an upcoming horserace.
Most all of the characters in “Guys and Dolls” are inveterate gamblers, willing to bet on anything. But the story is really a dual romance, centering on Nathan Detroit (Wayne LeGette), instigator of the “Oldest floating crap game in New York,” and his long-suffering girlfriend, Miss Adelaide (Lauren Weinberg). Nathan and Adelaide have been engaged 14 years, but Nathan just can’t commit.
The other romance is the unlikely pairing of high-stakes gambler Sky Masterson (Timothy John Smith) and prim and proper Sarah Brown (Aaron Bower), who heads the Save-a-Soul Mission in the Bowery.
Nathan needs $1,000 to set up a craps game at the Biltmore Garage. Nathan bets Sky that needed $1,000 Sky cannot seduce Sarah Brown.
In previous versions of this show, Sky has been movie-star handsome. Timothy John Smith is not, but he is rugged and virile and he has a marvelous voice, all the better to sing the loveliest song, “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” Wayne LeGette and Lauren Weinberg are the comic foils for Sky and Sarah. Weinberg is very funny as the perpetually sniffling, lovelorn Adelaide.
The technicolor outfits worn by the men and women are the sort you would never see in ordinary life, but in this case it adds to the mythical quality of a bygone New York.
I have seen “Guys and Dolls” many times. In college my roommate played Nathan Detroit. I never tire of it. It would have been nice if director Jeffrey B. Ross could have fit a live band onstage, but the recorded music by James Olmstead is quite adequate. This is an exemplary production of what many have called the “perfect musical."
Tickets are $75-$80. Call 561-995-2333 or go to www.thewick.org.



Thursday, March 9, 2017

Two Worthy Alternatives to "Kong"

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A Couple Worthy Indies in the Shadow of “Kong”

By Skip Sheffield

“Kong” is the big tent pole movie this weekend, but there are a couple of worthy small independent films in limited release.
“The Ottoman Lieutenant” is a romance set in 1914 in the former Ottoman Empire, now Turkey. It also is a history lesson. Now I know why Armenians and Turks hate each other so much.
Hera Hilmar plays Lillie, an idealistic American girl from a good family in Philadelphia. After hearing a lecture by a doctor named Jude (Josh Harnett) who runs an American Mission Hospital in Turkey, she decides to volunteer and donate a truck that belonged to her late brother, filled with needed supplies.
“I thought I was going to change the world,” she muses. “The world changed me.”
So begins a great adventure. Getting a large truck to Turkey is no easy task. Things soon go awry. Ismail (Michael Huisman), the Ottoman Lieutenant of the title, rescues Lillie from bandits and escorts her to the hospital, where against the advice of crusty Dr. Woodruff (Ben Kingsley), Lillie dons nurse’s garb and goes to work.
Coming to a flashpoint is the conflict that became known as World War I. The Ottoman Empire was shattered and split into Turkey and Armenia. Turks tortured and murdered Armenians in one of the largest genocides of all time. When Lillie falls in love with the dashing Lieutenant from the wrong side, it sets up a volatile triangle with Dr. Jude, who has fallen hard for Lillie.
“The Ottoman Lieutenant” is an old-fashioned historical romance set in the rugged, beautiful wilderness of Turkey. The conflicts it depicts remain pertinent today.

Orthodoxy in “The Women’s Balcony”

“The Women’s Balcony” is a specialized movie set in old Jerusalem and aimed at the Jewish audience. Tikva (Orna Banai) is the feisty wife of Zion (Igal Naor), who owns a small sweets shop. According to Orthodox Jewish tradition, the women are separated from men in worship. In this case they are consigned to a balcony, which collapses during a boy’s bar mitzvah, sending the rabbi’s wife into a coma and the rabbi into a deep depression.
Stepping into the breech is the young, charismatic Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush), who takes matters in hand getting the synagogue repaired. Rabbi David is ultra-orthodox however, and he imposes his conservative beliefs up the congregation and especially its women. The rabbi doesn’t want the women in public without head covering. He puts the rebuilding of the women’s section on the back burner. The women naturally rebel and become estranged from their husbands.

I am not Jewish but I do know the problems that come with rigid restrictive beliefs of any stripe. For that I found “The Women’s Balcony” a pertinent recasting of the ancient Greek tale of Lysistrata.


Tuesday, March 7, 2017

A Big, Not So Bad "Kong"

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“Kong” a 328-Foot Good Guy

By Skip Sheffield

“Kong” has a lot in common with the original black-and-white “King Kong” from 1933. It has the mysterious island. It has the intrepid, somewhat clueless explorers and bone-headed soldiers who think bombs and bullets are a solution. It has the giant ape called Kong, who develops a crush on a pretty girl.
Since this is 2021, with CGI in full bloom, “Kong” has a lot more visually. You could call it monsters a-poppin’.
The story, written by Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein, begins with a prologue set in 1944 on a mysterious South Pacific Island Two planes crash land; one American and one Japanese. The pilots survive and immediately begin fighting. The fight is cut short by a giant ape’s paw. Kong doesn’t like fighting on his island.
The years fast-forward to 1973. It is a time of protest against the Vietnam War. Scientists Bill Randa (John Goodman), Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) and San (Tian Jing) convince the military to authorize an expedition to an uncharted South Pacific island which is perpetually encircled by clouds and violent storms. Many ships and planes have gone missing in the vicinity of the island.
The mission is led by a military escort, Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and a professional tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). Along for the ride is a skittish bureaucrat, Victor Nieves (John Ortiz) and a professional photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson, in the requisite Fay Wray pretty girl role).
The new Kong is the largest yet, standing 328-foot tall. He is the most powerful too, which comes in handy on Skull Island, which is inhabited by all manner of slavering, razor-toothed beasties, as well as Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), an Army flyer who has been stranded on the island since 1944. Reilly’s cheerful demeanor contrasts comically with Jackson’s increasingly mad Colonel, bent on destroying Kong. No one does mad better than Jackson.
Ah, monsters are always misunderstood. Kong is really the good guy, protecting the island’s inhabitants against the CGI beasties. And of course there is his unrequited love for Mason Weaver, whose life he saves. Academy Award-winner Brie Larson is no shrinking damsel-in-distress. She is tough and she is sexy, and she is not afraid of a 328-foot ape.

Like the 1976 King Kong revival, “Kong” was shot on Hawaii amidst its rugged, stunning scenery. Like all Kongs before it, this beauty and beast fable doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it is action-packed and eye-popping fun. Maybe that is enough.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Misfits at a Wedding Reception

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Anna Kendrick in the Siberia of “Table 19”

By Skip Sheffield

Is there anything sadder than being stag at a wedding reception?
That is the plight of Anna Kendrick in the very funny wedding comedy “Table 19,” directed by Jeffry Blitz (Rocket Science") and written by Jay and Mark Duplass ("Transparent").
Kendrick is a woman of many talents and she shows off most of them as Eloise McGarry, a woman who was supposed to be Maid of Honor with Best Man Teddy Miller (Wyatt Russell) only to be dumped at the last minute by Teddy, who has found a new babe to take Eloise’s place in the wedding procession.
Instead of skulking away in defeat, Eloise defiantly accepts the invitation to the very expensive and elaborate wedding on an island. After all, the bride, Francie Miller, is Eloise’s oldest friend.
The table numbers descend in relation to the importance of the guests, starting at No. 1 for the bride and groom. Table 19 is at the bottom, for “random guests.” So instead of being at Table 3 with Teddy, Eloise is grouped with strangers, and an odd lot it is. There is Bina Kepp (Lisa Kudrow) and her husband Jerry (Craig Robinson), who have only a distant relationship with the bride. Renzo Eckberg (Tony Revolori) is a young pipsqueak dominated by the mother, who thinks his prospects of picking up an actual girl are better at a wedding reception than the junior prom.
The person with the closest relationship with the bride is Jo Flanagan (Ruth Squibb), who was once her nanny. Oddest of all is Walter Thimple (British actor Stephen Merchant) who is a nephew of the groom’s father, who despises him. Merchant is a tall, gangling man with thick glasses who plays to great comic effect. As dinner approaches the characters drop their facades amidst many pratfalls and faux pas.
Equally at home with comedy and drama, Kendrick plays both sides as woebegone Eloise. It is rewarding to see her given the lead in a major motion picture. She deserves it.

As a veteran of countless weddings, mostly as a musician, I have seen just about every setup plot gag in real life, but I still laughed. I think you will too.


Basketball Puts Israel "On The Map"

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Pictured: Tal Brody after the victory.

Sports Diplomacy in “On The Map”

By Skip Sheffield
You don’t have to like basketball to like “On The Map.” This documentary by Dani Menkin tells the background story of the stunning victory of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 1977 European Championship.
To say Maccabi Tel Aviv was an underdog is a vast understatement. Israel did not have a viable basketball team until war hero Moshe Dayan invited an American player named Tal Brody to come from Trenton, NJ, to whip Israel’s underpowered team into some kind of shape to face the fearsome teams from Italy, Spain and the Soviet Union. Brody had played for the American team in Israel and became inspired enough to forego a career with the NBA.
Who knew Moshe Dayan was a basketball nut? Brody was not the only American recruited for the team. Not all of them were Jewish. Aulcey Perry was an extremely tall, thin and talented black man from tough Newark, NJ. When he was cut by the New York Knicks in 1974 and got an offer from Brody to come on over, he said “any job I would have said yes to.”
There are background snippets and grainy footage to set the stage; first Israel’s fierce battle for independence in 1948 and then the 1967 six-day war; the horrendous 1972 Olympic massacre in Munich; the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1976 highjacking of an Air France flight from Tel Aviv which was resolved by the daring raid on Entebbe. Russia did not have diplomatic relations so its CSKA team had to play Israel on neutral ground in Belgium.
Providing an American perspective is basketball great Bill Walton, who was once a teammate of Tal Brody. We see the 1977 team reassembled and dressed in their colors to watch their great triumph. They are now in their 60s and 70s but still filled with youthful spirit.

“We are on the map” Tal Brody exalted after their victory. It was a double entendre. Israel had secured its place on the world map after many attempts to exterminate it, and now it had a champion basketball team no one could deny.


Friday, February 24, 2017

Finding Oneself On Cape Cod

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A Lovely, Melancholy “Year By The Sea”

By Skip Sheffield

Divorce is painful and difficult no matter how civil the partners are. I know only too well.
“Year By The Sea” is a lovely and melancholy movie about a marriage on the rocks after 30 years. It is based on a New York Times best-seller by Joan Anderson and it stars Karen Allen in a welcome return to the big screen.
Karen is Joan, long married to Robin (Michael Cristofer), a self-centered businessman who is suddenly transferred from Nyack, New York to Wichita, Kansas. The couple’s younger son has just gotten married. Joan figures she has put in her dutiful time as wife and mother. She has aspirations to be a writer. On a whim after seeing a promotional brochure for Cape Cod, she decides to rent a cabin and “find herself.”
The cabin is comically accessible only by rowboat. Cape Cod is one of my favorite areas of the USA, so the scenery brought back pleasant memories. Once there Joan strikes up a friendship with another Joan (Celia Imrie), married to a famous writer who is close to death. The two Joans bond, and Karen Allen’s character becomes intrigued with a sexy, married fisherman (Yannick Bisson). There are side plot devices. “Year By The Sea” is definitely a “chick flick,” but it is instructional for men too.

“Are we ever really complete?” Joan wonders. The answer is probably no, but if you go searching for yourself, Cape Cod is a good place to look.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

An Enigmatic "Great Wall"

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A Head-Scratching Monster Movie

By Skip Sheffield

“The Great Wall” is a real head-scratcher of a movie. Is it supposed to be an historical drama? Is it a really low-key comedy? Or how about a full-out monster movie?
There are plenty of pre-historic-looking CGI monsters swarming about and Matt Damon plays William, the dragon-slayer.
Perhaps something was lost in the translation. This is the first English language film for Chinese director Yimou Zhang (“House of Flying Daggers”). Also it is in 3-D format, which puts me at a disadvantage. I am blind in my left eye. In order to appreciate 3-D one must have full binocular vision. I have never had that. When I put on the silly 3-D glasses the image becomes clearer, but not perfect. There are ghost images that can only be realized by a fully-sighted viewer.
The plot, such as it is, involves William and his sidekick Tovar (Chilean actor Pedro Pascal) searching for “black powder,” which is another name for gunpowder. The duo gets imprisoned within the Great Wall just in time for an invasion by the CGI reptiles. The time is about 1,000 years ago, and black powder was a mysterious new invention. William’s main weapon is a bow and arrow, and of course he is a deadly shot. William enlists the help of Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) who happens to be an attractive young woman. Willem Dafoe plays a character named Ballad, whose purpose I never quite understood.

Predictably there is a final battle royal between William and all those CGI monsters. Guess who wins? I’m done with my head-scratching. See “The Great Wall” if you’d like. Visually it is very impressive.



Thursday, February 9, 2017

Am I Missing Something Here?

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Someone Out There Likes “Fifty Shades Darker”

By Skip Sheffield

Who are the people who are so enamored of E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades” potboilers?
Evidently they are not friends of mine. I asked several lady friends and they all begged off to an advance screening of “Fifty Shades Darker.”
So I went alone and sat with the wife of a popular movie critic. By way of small talk, I told her I once was so exasperated with my first wife I turned her over on my lap and spanked her bottom. I added she seemed to like it.
“I understand why she is an ex-wife,” my friend commented dryly.
So I don’t understand the whole S&M thing, but this sequel to “Fifty Shades of Grey” does not have as much of the sado-masochism fetish.
That’s just as well, but without it, the story, written by Niall Leonard, husband of original novelist E.L. James, is rather dull.
Dakota Johnson, outfitted in a mousy brown wig with short bangs, returns as Anastasia Steele, the virginal conquest of billionaire Christian Grey, played by the returning Jamie Dornan in an eternally rainy Seattle. How Grey became a billionaire at age 27, or what he actually does is never explained. The focus is on his relationship with Anastasia, usually called Anna, and their kinky pastimes. We get to see a lot of Dakota Johnson’s lithe body.
The plot, such as it is, is that Grey wants Anna back. He wants her enough to buy six of the large photographs she has mounted at an art exhibition.
Dakota Johnson is an attractive young woman, but my mind wandered to her silly wig, and her bright red lipstick that never got smudged no matter how fervently she made out.
Kim Basinger plays a new character, Elena Lincoln, who was a former lover and business partner of Grey. Marcia Gay Harden plays the thankless role of Christian Grey’s mom.

It doesn’t take a soothsayer to guess Elena Lincoln will be returning in yet another sequel. It remains to be seen if there are enough E.L. James fanatics to support another installment.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Journey Into The Past at Florida Renaissance Festival

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25th Anniversary Florida Renaissance Festival at Quiet Waters Park

By Skip Sheffield

The Renaissance Era began in Italy in the 14th century and spread throughout Europe through the 17th century. The Florida Renaissance Festival is considerably newer. It celebrates its landmark 25th anniversary on seven weekends from Feb.11 to March 26 at Quiet Waters Park, 401 S. Powerline Road, Deerfield Beach.
The Ren-Fest began as an idea in the head of Bobby Rodriguez, owner of a talent agency and a working musician himself. Rodriguez proposed his festival in 1990 but it did not come to life until 1992 in Snyder Park near Fort Lauderdale International Airport. The event ran just one weekend and attracted 3,000 enthusiasts. In 1997 the event moved to the larger Topeekeegee Yugnee Park in Hollywood. It remained there for four years before moving to the even larger Quiet Waters Park. Rodriquez recruits acts from all over the country.
“Who knew?,” Rodriguez said recently. “I am totally blessed. I work all year ‘round to put together the festival. It is very labor-intensive. We try to raise the bar every year.”
There are several new acts this year. Debracey Productions presents jousting exhibitions with four fully-armored horsemen. “The Pirates of the Colombian Caribbean” is a new aerial high-wire thrill show. The Roving Blades play and sing Celtic and maritime tunes. “The Greatest Pirate Story Never Told” is an audience interaction show. Empty Hats are street performers of Celtic influence. The Tortuga Twins is a returning act of four comic performers. Carolina Celli perform down-home fiddle tunes, ballads and Celtic tunes.
“I have to go through all sorts of red tape to pull this off,” Rodriguez admits. “It’s actually easier to put on a show in New York of Chicago. But it’s worth it. It’s like an arts festival. The audience can be engaged as much or little as it wants. It’s pure escape from the 21st century.”
Tickets are $21 adults and $9 children 6-11. Children under 5 are free. Group discounts are offered. Call 954-776-1642 or go to www.ren-fest.com.



Saturday, February 4, 2017

Words Hurt in "Collected Stories"

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Emotional Fireworks From “Collected Stories”

By Skip Sheffield

The premise of Palm Beach Dramaworks’ “Collected Stories” seemed rather thin. The two-character Donald Margulies play continues through March 5 at 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach.
A veteran writer and teacher holds court with a younger woman who idolizes her. Ruth Steiner (Anne-Marie Cusson) is past her prime of creativity, and coaches younger writers such as Lisa Morrison (Keira Keeley) on the mechanics of creative writing. The high point of her career was a brief fling with the self-destructive poet, Delmore Schwartz. In the course of a little over two hours with intermission, these characters will in essence trade places. Lisa will publish a poem and later a novel to great acclaim. Ruth, in failing health, will charge Lisa of intellectual theft, although it is she who encouraged Lisa to spread her creative wings.
Nothing is off-limits in creative writing. Everything in a writer’s life is fair game. Sometimes the subjects are embarrassing, hurtful or humiliating. That two female characters can hold the viewer’s attention for more than two hours is a tribute to both the writer’s skill and the actresses’ expertise.
For someone who has made a career with words, “Collected Stories” by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies is essential. To be truly creative and unique, a writer must be ruthless. Casualties will result. The emotional fireworks that ignite in Act Two, after a time period of six years, are a satisfying denouement to an unspoken rivalry. Guest director Paul Stancato has judiciously placed hipster 1950s-1960s jazz to enhance the mood. The actresses need no enhancement. They make it real. If you have a creative endeavor moldering in some drawer, this may be the very spark to do something with it. Life is short but art is long.
Tickets are $66. Call 561-514-4042 or go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.



Thursday, February 2, 2017

Leave Disbelief Behind for "The Space Between Us"

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“The Space Between Us” Requires Disbelief

By Skip Sheffield

“The Space Between Us” calls for a lot of suspension of disbelief to buy into its far-out premise. It is set in some unspecified time in the future. A space shuttle takes off with a mission to colonize the planet Mars. One of the astronauts is a woman who discovers she is pregnant. Don’t they check for such things pre-takeoff? The unfortunate woman dies in childbirth, but her son survives to be the first human born on Mars. We flash forward 16 years and Gardner Elliot (British actor Asa Butterfield) has struck up an internet friendship with a feisty girl named Tulsa (another Brit, Britt Robertson) in Colorado. How this is possible, don’t ask. It is necessary to set up the romantic plot of boy from outer space in love with Earth girl. Both Butterfield and Robertson have unconventional beauty. Tall Butterfield has magnetic blue eyes. Tiny Robertson has tough girl charm. How else could she kick over a 1960s vintage Triumph motorcycle with ease?
Supporting players are Carla Gugino, Gary Oldman and BD Wong as NASA handlers of Gardner Elliot. It seems the Earth’s gravitational pull is too much for Gardner’s heart to withstand. So the NASA people chase him around while he is with Triumph girl, who by the way has an amazing talent for stealing vehicles.

So hey, the scenery is pretty and so are the principals. Rocket science this is not. Escapist entertainment it is.




Monday, January 30, 2017

Close, But No Cigar for De Niro's "Comedian"

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De Niro Attempts The Funny in “The Comedian”

By Skip Sheffield

Robert De Niro can do just about anything. He is the main attraction and the main character of “The Comedian.”
De Niro plays Jackie Burke, an over-the-hill insult comic along the lines of Don Rickles. Jackie is trying to get his mojo back, but he is reduced to playing retirement homes, whose clients only want him to play his character of Eddie, which gained him fame on television. Jackie Burke is sick of playing Eddie. He is so sick he attacks an audience member who heckles him. Jackie is rewarded with 30 days in the Nassau County, NY jail.
When he is released Jackie has to do community service at a soup kitchen. There he meets a fellow ex-con Harmony (Leslie Mann), who is young enough to be his daughter, if not granddaughter. To the credit of Mann and De Niro, they make this unlikely relationship somehow feasible. Call it an old man’s dream.
The biggest problem with “The Comedian” is it is not very funny. Danny DeVito does yeoman service as Jackie’s younger brother, and Pattie Lupone as his nagging wife. Another thing that does not ring true is that neither De Niro, DeVito nor Lupone are Jewish as per their characters. If I were Jewish I might take offense. Harvey Keitel as Harmony’s sleazy Florida real estate dad I believe.
There are some fun cameos from Cloris Leachman as a terminally elderly performer and Billy Crystal, Charles Grodin, Gilbert Gottfried and Brett Mann playing themselves.

Robert De Niro put heart and soul into this project, misdirected by Taylor Hackford (“A Officer and a Gentleman”). De Niro gets points for trying, but t’ain’t funny McGee. De Niro was much better as the pathetic comic Rupert Pupkin back in 1982 in "The King Of Comedy."

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Love Dogs? This One's For You

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For The Love Of Dog

By Skip Sheffield

What is “A Dog’s Purpose?”
The short answer is unconditional love. Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom used W. Bruce Cameron’s screenplay of his 2010 novel to mount a tribute to canines and their human friends.
There is not just one dog in the story. It starts with a Red Retriever who escapes from a dog pound, and is rescued by a woman named Hannah (Britt Robertson). Hannah has a brother named Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) who becomes very attached to the dog he names Bailey.
Dogs don’t live as long as humans. In time Bailey segues into different times and breeds as Buddy, Tino and Ellie. Josh Gad provides the various dog voices. The one constant is Ethan, who grows up to be Dennis Quaid. Hannah becomes Peggy Lipton, in a welcome return to the silver screen.
“A Dog’s Purpose” is aimed squarely at dog lovers. Ironically the movie has been protested by PETA because of a scene in which one of the dogs, a German Shepherd, jumps into a raging river.
My father hated dogs; therefore we never had one of our own. It was not until I was married with children that a dog came into my life. I consider myself better for the experience.

“A Dog’s Purpose” is sentimental, corny and clichéd, but it is filled with love. A dog’s purpose is to “Be Here Now.” That is good advice to humans of any age.


Monday, January 23, 2017

A "Titanic" Musical Based on Disaster

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A Night to Remember “Titanic”

By Skip Sheffield

A musical based on one of the worst maritime disasters of all time?
Yes, such is “Titanic: The Musical,” running through Feb. 5 in the Amaturo Theatre of Broward Center.
Slow Burn Theatre artistic director and choreographer Patrick Fitzwater likes to mount shows you don’t see everywhere. “Titanic” certainly fits that description. Like the luxury passenger ship for which it is named, “Titanic” is unlikely to become a staple of summer stock or community theater. For one thing the cast is huge, with a cast of 20; some of them doubling parts. The musical score is complicated, with songs providing exposition of a many-faceted story of various social classes. The music is not hit-worthy. No “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” or “Some Enchanted Evening” here. Instead we have “How Did They Build The Titanic,” “The Largest Object,” “I Must Get on that Ship” and “Wake Up, Wake Up.” There are some nice love songs with “I Give You My Hand,” with Caroline (Alexa Baray) and Charles (Justen Fox-Hall) and “I Have Danced” with Alice (Leah Marie Sessa) and Edgar (James A. Skibar), but most are just serviceable. The closest thing to an anthem is “In Every Age,” which opens and makes a grand finale.
With so many characters, it is hard to focus on individuals. Ismay (Andrew Rodriguez-Triana) is the clear villain as the White Star executive who insisted the Captain (David Hyman) push the R.M.S. Titanic to its limits while taking a time-saving but riskier course to the north. If there is a hero, it’s young Barrett (Landon Summers), who remains stiff upper lip along with Andrews (Matthew Korinko), who go down with the ship. A special notice should go to first-class passengers Ida and Isador Strauss (Ann Marie Olson and Troy J. Stanley), who sing the most moving ballad of all, “Still.”
“Titanic” is a mixed bag. Slow Burn is admirable for attempting such an ambitious project, but unless you are a Titanic fanatic (and there are many), it can be a long slow journey to disaster. Many people loved the 1997 James Cameron movie “Titanic,” which focused on two lovers played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. My favorite remains “A Night To Remember;” a black-and-white 1958 British movie I saw as a boy. I’ll never forget the sight of the band continuing to play as the ship went down. The musicians, as well as the Captain, the bellboys and most of third class went down with the ship. Now that was drama.
Tickets are $47-$60. Call 800-745-3000 or 954-462-0222 or go to www.browardcenter.org.



Thursday, January 19, 2017

Bill Boggs Live in Boca Raton

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Bill Boggs Live at Boca Black Box Theater Jan. 25

By Skip Sheffield

Attention New Yorkers: Bill Boggs, who was part of your life from 1975 to 1987 on “Midday Live” on WNEW Channel 5, will be appearing for one night only at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 25 at the Boca Black Box Theater, 8221 W. Glades Road, Boca Raton.
“Talk Show Confidential” is the name of the show. Boggs dishes the goods on the hundreds; nay thousands of celebrities he has interviewed live on television.
“I’m doing this show for fun,” said Boggs with his lady friend Jean Rothschild, who is part of the show. “I’m thinking this might be good for the condo communities down here.”
A native of Philadelphia, Boggs got his start in radio at the end of the “golden era.” His first TV talk show was “Southern Exposure” in 1972, High Point, North Carolina. Boggs discovered he had an affinity for connecting with people, great and small. The greats include Frank Sinatra Arnold Schwarzenegger, David Bowie, Martha Stewart, the Pope and Philippe Petit, the morning after he walked a tight rope between the World Trade Center towers.
“It’s almost a one-man play,” Boggs explains. “I deal with the crazy things that happened in my career.”
Boggs, who is an officer of the famed Friars Club in New York City, has a small part in the Robert De Niro movie “The Comedians” coming out Feb. 3.
“I’ve been in several movies just being myself,” he says. “De Niro plays an insult comic. I have only a couple of lines, but they are important. Cloris Leachman plays a woman who has a heart attack, and I am a first responder.”
Tickets for the Bill Boggs appearance are $30 and $40. Call 561-483-9036 or go to www.billboggs.com.




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 Beltempo. 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.