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.