BYE BYE BIRDIE – FUN AND FEEL GOOD NOSTALGIC MUSICAL AT LAKE CHARLES LITTLE THEATRE

 

SHORT TAKE:

Lively, charming, upbeat, family friendly musical comedy based loosely on the departure of Elvis for the Army draft at the height of his popularity.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone and everyone can and should attend this fun 1960’s retro musical.

OPENING LAKE CHARLES LITTLE THEATRE THROUGH APRIL 28, 2019 – BUY TICKETS HERE.

LONG TAKE:

1958. And at the height of the career of one of America’s most famous singing icons, during the age of the mandatory military service – he was drafted. Elvis’ fans about lost their collective minds. His manager of questionable ethics, “Colonel” Tom Parker, turned down multiple offers by multiple branches to have Mr. Presley assigned to cush duty in the entertainment special services. Not only did he not want his prize cash cow to sully his reputation as a “celebrity wimp out,” but more importantly, if Elvis had served as an entertainer, the military branches would have had FREE access to those recorded performances in perpetuity. So off to the army, as a regular Joe, Elvis went, where he served honorably and with some distinction, rising to the rank of Sergeant and qualifying as an expert marksman upon his discharge.

In 1960, a parody musical based loosely upon the personalities, if not the exact details, of Presley’s historic departure for boot camp and active duty opened on Broadway.

The story is of a financially desperate mama’s boy, Albert,  about to lose his first big singing client, Conrad Birdie, to the draft. He and his emotionally desperate girlfriend, Rose, who he has strung along for eight years, hatch a plot to turn chicken feathers into chicken salad by turning Conrad’s departure into a publicity stunt.

They choose one of the thousands of rabidly fanatic members of Birdie’s fan clubs, Kim MacAfee of small town Sweet Apple, Ohio, at random for him to bestow a last pre-induction kiss on national television. The insanely anticipated event turns Kim, her jealous boyfriend Hugo, her straight-laced overwhelmed parents, Doris and Harry, all the other fan members, and her town of Sweet Apple, not to mention the nation, on their respective ears.

And so the stage is – literally – set for the hilarious nostalgic musical comedy, Bye Bye Birdie, playing at Lake Charles Little Theatre  (from April 13 through April 28, 2019 – shows start at 7:30 with Sunday matinees starting at 2 pm).

Directed by stage veteran Randy Partin, the set is simple with scene changes accomplished with moved furniture, sign changes and backlit photos. This is to keep the focus on and leave ample room for the joyous and energetic song and dance filled plot,  choreographed by Karly Marcantel.

Albert is played with Phil Silvers-like restrained comedic panic by Cameron Scallan, singing and dancing such universally known tunes as “Put on a Happy Face” with Dick Van Dyke (who played this role both on stage and in the movie) style. Rose is Taylor Novak as the put upon brains and backbone of the company as she belts out boisterous numbers like the catchy “Spanish Rose”. Heather Foreman finds just the right comedic balance in the contradictions of the wide-eyed, naïve and budding Kim, with clear and innocent conviction, as she beautifully serenades the audience with songs like “How Lovely to be a Woman” while donning Tom-boy duds, singing “One Boy” to Hugo while swooning over Conrad, and “What Did I Ever See in Him?” These leads belt out sometimes challenging tune and patter lyrics with infectious enthusiasm.

The main supporting characters are Ashley Dickerson as interfering pushy mother Mae; Jordan Gribble, Amber Netherland and Cole Becton as Kim’s family; Antonio Dre as Conrad, and Wiliam Stanfield as Hugo.

There is a large cast and an ensemble of players who make up the groupies, bar patrons, parents, community members, news reporters and sundry other denizens of this funny and musical retro story.

The styles are poodle skirts and pompadour hair. The songs are clever and catchy. All the performers sing and dance their hearts out for this tongue-in-cheek romp.

So for some clean, musical retro fun – go see Bye Bye Birdie before this wonderful play says “Bye Bye” to Lake Charles.

SHAZAM – ADORABLE SUPER HERO FROM THE POV OF A KID

SHORT TAKE:

Adorable view of the super hero world from the POV of its most ardent demographic – the barely pubescent teenaged boy.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid teens and up because of “boy” language with a large helping of the English word for “merde” and a couple of crass throwaway lines. All totaled this movie is only 30 seconds of cuts away from a G rating.

LONG TAKE:

In age swapping movies like Big or 13 Going on 30 or the most recent Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, wherein you briefly meet the characters then spend the bulk of the movie with the doppleganger(s), by the denouement, when the original versions re-emerge, it’s a let down because you miss the avatar with whom you have explored the character arc.

Not with Shazam.

Director David F Sandberg wisely chose a different structure and the writer, Henry Gayden did a very good job of neatly bouncing back and forth between the two, so you never lose attachment to either. Shazam feels like a buddy movie wherein the buddies are the same person.

I have often maintained that men have an easy time accessing their inner child and Shazam makes my point in spades.

Zachary Levi (voiced Finn for Tangled and a cross between Peter Pan and Robin Hood as Fandral in the last two Thor movies) brilliantly channels his inner pubescent in Shazam, endowing his Shazam with all the sheer joy and wonder of a youth just discovering powers he didn’t know were possible (apt and clever analogy for maturation anyone?), but recognizing that this super hero is still just an inexperienced kid.

A lot of movies featuring kids have really cringy moments, either from bad acting or bad writing from people who, apparently, have no kids and don’t remember what it is like to be a kid. Star War: Phantom Menace, A Wrinkle in Time, and After Earth all come to mind.

Not in Shazam.

Asher Angel is great as the foster kid who is the surprised recipient of these gifts. I have two sons past this age now as well as a brother, husband and a torrent of boys who have graced our house as friends of all six of our kids, and Angel is, on the screen, as Billy Batson.…… a kid. No posturing, no trying to play older than he is, just a young teen who plays a young teen. And he does it beautifully: funny, intelligent, wide-eyed one minute and pretending to be worldly-wise the next.

Jack Dylan Grazer is his best friend Freddie Freeman and, while echoing his obnoxious character from It, does a splendid job of being … an obnoxious kid.

Together Grazer and Angel…and Levi and Grazer are kids who do thoughtless, selfless, stupid, heroic, sly, blunt, brave and courageous things – often within minutes of each other.

The three of them have great chemistry together and are a lot of fun to watch.

Billy’s foster siblings: Faithe Herman as Darla, Grace Fulton as Mary, Ian Chen as Eugene, Jovan Armand as Pedro, do great jobs as well in the supporting cast of kids, and each are given their moment to shine.

The adults like Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews’ foster couple who care for the kids are treated with respect and shown as good role models and caring people.

Then, of course, there is Dr. Sivana, the bad guy, played by Mark Strong (both Kingsmen movies and Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes), who hams up his super villain with a horde of evil minion gargoyles,  creating a sense of menace but with just enough camp to take the edge off and prevent the movie, despite some cartoon-horrifying scenes, from going down the Dark Knight path. Solid actor that he is, Strong confidently takes Dr. Sivana to the edge of that envelope without ever ruining the good time for the audience during his haunted house-like scenes. This is, after all, a mostly teen-intentioned super hero movie.

From the Superman theme, to Rocky‘s “Eye of the Tiger” and Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” the songs interlaced with the soundtrack work to create an upbeat mood and place.

The style is a combination of realistic with comic book colorful and no holds are pulled in recognizing how ridiculous his costume at first appears (can’t resist this quote – the first night Batson transforms, talking to Freddie: “Super powers!? Dude, I can’t even figure out how to pee in this thing!”)

As I alluded to above, Shazam can easily be seen as an allegory for a youth, who is just coming to terms with the demands of adulthood, newly encountering “powers” for which he must assume responsibility, and battling – wait for it – the Seven Deadly Sins represented by one of each of the gargoyles!

It is hard to believe that Wonder Woman and Shazam! are in the same universe, so vastly different are their tones. Be that as it may, along with Wonder Woman, D.C. FINALLY now has another big success in the super hero genre. So, as Gomer Pyle might have exclaimed: SHAZAM! (couldn’t resist that either).

 

SAM AND ELVIS: EXCELLENT PRO-LIFE INDIE ABOUT A TEEN, HER AUNT AND A STUFFED DOG *

SHORT TAKE:

Well made indie film about the relationship between a foster teen, her eccentric aunt, and a pro-life message.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older teens and up for some mild cussing but mostly for the conversation and plot topics of family violence and teen sexuality.

LONG TAKE:

Who would have thought you could make a charming (mostly) family friendly comedy about a dead dog, an abused foster child, and her eccentric aunt. Well writer-director Jeffrey Ault manages to do just that in the movie Sam and Elvis. Based on Susan Price Monnot’s play titled Dead Dogs Don’t Fart, the story is about a bright but defensive and hostile orphaned foster teenager named Samantha played by Marcela Griebler placed in the care of her Aunt Olina played by Sally Daykin who in turn lives alone with her taxidermied dog Elvis.

This little indie film starts off a bit clunky as Olina expresses her doubts to Elvis, avoids an incessantly ringing phone and eats the random junk food she finds about her cluttered home. However, it finds its footing quickly once the aunt and her ward are brought together and bounce their strong personalities against each other.

The acting demands occasionally become significant but newcomer Griebler holds her own. Rounding out the cast are Pete Penuel as Larry, Olina’s platonic friend and Sara Hood as Rebecca, the well-intentioned and overly sincere but somewhat inept social worker who serves as occasional comic relief.

Ault uses simple and natural settings and clothes that likely came out of the actors own wardrobes. This is to the plus, as the focus is correctly placed on the relationships involved. The other production values like cinematography, sound and the background music are sterling and perfectly meet the mood of this small gem filmed almost entirely within Olina’s house.

People speak their minds in Sam and Elvis. No polite pussy footing around impolite or bad behavior. No tip toeing around differences of opinion. And in this there is a large plus in the negative.

What I mean by that is – despite circumstances which emerge in the plot, which I won’t divulge but you can easily guess, at no time does anyone consider abortion as an option for anyone. At no time is it suggested that an unborn baby is merely a “fetus” or some other euphemism for unborn child, which circumlocution liberals and pro-death dealers fling around like a shield to disguise the holocaust level murders they champion. A baby is called a baby regardless of whether it is in or out of a womb. And that is a breath of fresh air.

There is a bit of mild cussing sprinkled throughout and the topics of domestic abuse and teen sexuality make Sam and Elvis inappropriate for younger teens. But the powerful message of familial bonds and respect for life shine forward making Sam and Elvis a definitely should-see film.

* AND IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN THIS MOVIE PLEASE CHECK OUT UNPLANNED – THE STORY OF ABBY JOHNSON, THE FORMER ABORTION ACTIVIST AND DIRECTOR OF THE PLANNED PARENTHOOD FACILITY IN BRYAN, TEXAS, WHO CONVERTED TO THE PRO-LIFE MOVEMENT IN ONE EPIPHANAL MOMENT.

MARY POPPINS RETURNS: PLOT AND CHARACTERS HUGELY FLAWED BUT…. EMILY BLUNT IS SUPERCALI….OH YOU KNOW THE REST

SHORT TAKE:

Emily Blunt knocks it out of the ball park in an otherwise flawed descendant of the original and timeless classic: Mary Poppins.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older kids with the presence of their parents to explain some rather egregious character flaws and plot points. AND be advised of some questionable lyrics during a “Dance Hall” scene; but they go by so fast I do not think most children will have any idea what they are saying, though they are easy enough to find online.

LONG TAKE:

Nothing can replace Mary Poppins. But one might have hoped a successor would have met Mr. Disney’s approval. Unfortunately, Mary Poppins Returns falls short of that expectation.

On the PLUS side, Blunt is amazing. Taking on a roll as iconic as Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins takes real guts . Doing it well takes real talent. But Blunt soars with the part – “up to the highest heights!” managing the same panache which Andrews brought. Blunt adds a certain individuality but without losing any of the impish charm and magnetic self confidence, optimism, and demeanor of wisdom that exuded from every pore of the 1964 Mary Poppins character. The prim, stern and no nonsense exterior hiding the old soul and the big, soft, kind and wise heart within is all there as you might remember her.  Blunt sings, dances, comports herself with the personality, body language and all the expressions of her sister Mary Poppins from 1964 but still manages to make it her own iteration.

For example, Blunt adopted a fun vocal pattern reminiscent of Andrews’ prim, proper, posh and practically perfect in every way Poppins accent but tweaked it with her own unique style, describing her choice as a combination of Rosalind Russell’s patter in His Girl Friday and Princess Margaret. It is an unusual combination but I thought it worked really well for the evocation of the worthy successor to the Poppins throne.

I love Blunt’s take on Mary Poppins (could you tell?). And I’m not alone. No less an authoritative personage than Julie Andrews weighs in and was apparently quite pleased with Blunt’s performance. So impressed was she with her young successor to the umbrella that when offered a cameo Andrews graciously declined saying she did not want to distract from “Emily’s show”.

SPOILERS!!

As Jane and Michael are grown, this updates the setting from turn of the century to a time just before World War II. Lin-Manuel Miranda is Jack, the faithful and ever-present chimney sweep who sings, dances and escorts Mary and the children around London. Meryl Streep is Topsy, Mary’s cousin with strange house problems. The colors are vibrant, the singing strong and done by the actors, not subbed. These are all to the good.

SPOILERS!!!

The premise of Mary Poppins Returns, however, is ridiculous. And I’m not talking about the idea that a nanny can fly on a kite, or that her cousin’s entire house turns upside down every other Wednesday, or that there is an entire ocean through which they can swim and breathe and sing and play in, in the bathtub, or that they can enter the painting on a ceramic bowl in the children’s room. That is all the stuff of Mary Poppins and well within her universe.

The problems I have are with the “real” world in the movie. This Mary Poppins is dark: Michael’s wife is dead, he is about to lose the family home, the bank they relied on is corrupt, Mary Poppins goes “native” at a dance hall, one of the children is kidnapped by animated animals with a frightening (for small children) chase including fire and falls and overturned carriages, and the weather is often threatening.

The characters have massive flaws which should not be there. For example, the movie begins with Jack riding about town singing Underneath the Lovely London Sky on his bicycle, then…steals an apple. What kind of example is that supposed to teach children in a supposedly child-friendly movie? Much criticism has been flung at Dyke’s British accent but one of the reasons Disney hired the famous hoofer in the original for Bert was his compatible world-view of the entertainment business. Both were concerned about the sliding descent of values being reflected in movies even then. I do not think Mr. Disney would have thought much of the first impression of  Returns chimney sweep.

In the original Mary Poppins, Michael is, according to Mary Poppins, “extremely stubborn and suspicious”. He is full of mischief and outspoken. In Mary Poppins Returns we find the same Michael (Ben Whishaw – voice of Paddington Bear in Paddington and the adorably geeky new Q in Skyfall) has grown up to be a pathetic loser who can’t seem to hold down a full-time job or get over the death of his wife, even to support his three children played by Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson. Michael’s sister Jane as a child was “Inclined to giggle. Doesn’t put things away”. She is a little shy and somewhat prim always trying to keep her brother in check. Now, as an adult (Emily Mortimer – The Kid),  she has, anachronistically, become an outspoken, pants-wearing labor organizer at a time when women maintained a far more genteel decorum.

Furthermore, it stretches credulity more than a talking parrot to believe that Mr. George Banks, Jane and Michael’s father, (David Tomlinson) who we met as a very savvy, responsible and thrifty investment banker, has died leaving both the children with no financial security whatsoever aside from ownership of the family home,  apparently without instilling in them any world-wise life advice whatsoever, without being sure they are very aware of the bank shares or…other assets the family has (revealed later). WHY would he keep this a secret?! As a result of both his incompetence and ignorance, barely-employed-artist Michael is on the verge of bankruptcy with a budgetary plan which includes having his wife and children scrounge just to obtain old bread for the table. I was actually insulted by the idea that the pater familia Mr. Banks of the original story would have raised his children so poorly.

In the original Mary Poppins George Banks is reminded that he is engaged at the bank to provide FOR his family, not instead of engaging WITH his family.  This did not mean he threw out all concepts of responsibility.

In addition, there is no universe in which Mary Poppins would have taken the three Banks children to a dance hall where she would dress and sing like an extra from a PG version of Chicago and perform a song featuring lyrics about how it is tough to tell whether a naked woman is rich or not, and about a wooden naked woman who sprouted seedling when “Mr. Hickory took root despite her bark”. Are we making light of a cleverly worded analogy for a forced sexual encounter? In a children’s movie? These are not lyrics I really would want my young children repeating.

In the original Mary Poppins the bank managers are honest men of integrity who genuinely want to help the Banks’ family children learn thrift and economics. In Returns Colon Firth is a corrupt bank administrator, Wilkins, who probably should be twirling a handle bar mustache like Snidely Whiplash rather than sporting a pencil-thin one. His business model consists of bending rules to rob customers out of their homes, including the Banks’. Unless you are a card carrying Socialist or completely ignorant of banking practices, you would know that banks make their money on INTEREST paid by people who borrow from a bank, NOT from keeping a stable of foreclosed houses. Most of the time banks LOSE money on foreclosures. And in some places they are not allowed to sell the home for more than the value of the mortgage. So HOW, as Wilkins claims, they have doubled profits foreclosing on their customers’ homes is a financial improbability verging on the ludicrous and just plain old STUPID.

While the singing is excellent, the songs themselves get redundant. In the original 1964 Mary Poppins, each of the cheerful songs had a specific identity. Chim Chim Cheree did not have the same feel or rhythm as Let’s Go Fly a Kite which was distinctly different from Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. However, in Mary Poppins Returns the Trip a Little Light Fantastic feels the same as Turning Turtle which is hard to recall differently from Nowhere to go But Up. They are cute but I do not suspect many left the theater humming them. Lovely London Town was very nice and The Place Where the Lost Things Go was touching, but again, nothing to write home about.

And while Mary Poppins was almost officious she was never condescending or cruel. But in Mary Poppins Returns the leeries (chimney sweeps)  risk their lives to climb the outside of Big Ben to push the clock hands back – which technically is cheating and potentially creating problems for other people – in order to buy Michael and Jane enough time to get to the bank before midnight with their bank shares. But when even Jack can not make the last leg of the trip up, Mary Poppins simply floats up with her umbrella to efficiently push the hands back 5 minutes making us all wonder why on EARTH she didn’t do that to begin with, making the leeries courageous and very dangerous attempt pointless.

The movie has no character arc. The Banks family members learn nothing except where the family inheritance is.

BIG SPOILER!!!

There is a delightful cameo and a tie-in to the first movie that resolves the money problem which I won’t reveal until the end of this review so if you want to be surprised don’t read any more. I will say the small part alone was worth the price of admission. But this cameo-ex-machina, like Mary’s float up to Big Ben, makes what the Banks family endured just cruel. The resolution is revealed in a charming surprise near the end, which presumably Mary Poppins knew about, which, again, makes all the trials the family endures pointless and cruel.

In addition, there is a point by point reinventing of pretty much every scene in the original. I am all for a homage or two, but Light Fantastic was just a rehash of Chim Chim Cheree. Travel to the Royal Daulton Bowl was even drawn in the style of the jump into the chalk drawing from the original, with the only creative aspect being lyrics inappropriate for little ears. Topsy was a reimagined Uncle Albert with both scenes ending up on the ceiling. In both movies the main plot point takes place at the bank late at night. And although I am delighted for the casting of the balloon lady as Dame Angela Lansbury, she was just another form of Bird Lady from the first movie.

Overall I enjoyed the movie despite all this but do not think I could recommend it for small impressionable children. It would likely be OK for older kids who would understand the flaws in the plot and characters when explained to them by parents. Blunt’s performance is amazing and the cameo revealed in the following photos was my favorite part of the movie.

BEYOND HERE BE A BIG SPOILER!!

SPOILER!!!

Yes, that IS Dick Van Dyke, Bert from the first movie and at 91 years old did HIS OWN DESK TOP DANCE!!!

But how HE fixes the Banks’ financial woes is a spoiler even I won’t tell. You’ll just have to watch at LEAST the last 10 minutes of the movie as no one can tell this story better than Dick Van Dyke.