A STAR IS BORN – MASTERFUL VARIATION ON AN INHERENTLY DISSONANT THEME

SPOILERS!

SHORT TAKE:

Artistic, excellent, and faithful (4th) version of a A Star is Born, a story with a destructive message.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only, let me count the ways: language (I think there is only one adjective they knew and they used it with abandon), sex outside of marriage, excessive drinking, illicit drug use, nakedness, and a bar frequented by those with drastically alternative lifestyles.

SPOILERS!!!

LONG TAKE:

There is great wisdom in 1 Corinthians 13:11:

"When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child."

A lot of movies seen in one’s teens and early twenties, seem like a good idea at the time, but do not stand up well under the scrutiny of age and experience.

One of those is Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). When it came out, it seemed like a sci fi fantasy of a man in search of his dream to confirm the existence of extra-terrestrials, who flies off, like Peter Pan, into the stars with them. In fact, the movie is about a man who abandons his wife and children to go off on a lark. Regardless of the circumstances, he is a cad of extra-ordinary proportions. Then Pretty Women (1990), which holds itself out as a modern Cinderella story, actually Disneyfies prostitution, making it look appealing with a prize at the end instead of a body and soul destroying meat grinder (pun intended). Ditto for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). It holds itself out as a musical comedy but really sets up a madam and a corrupt politician as the main protagonists. (Haven’t any of these people seen East of Eden? I suspect Kate’s cold, calculating and cruel flesh peddler is a more accurate version of a madam than Dolly Parton’s cutesy songstress Mona.) You get the idea.

The third manifestation of A Star is Born (1976), with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson seemed, in the theater, to a 17 year old, a romantic, tear jerking, self sacrificing love story. I have seen all of versions 1937, 1976, and 2018 and enough of 1954 to realize that that one is just a badly done and unrelatable Judy Garland vehicle. The names change slightly with each movie. All the men have the surname of Maine, and in this one his given name is Jackson. Gaga's character's name this time around is Ally. In truth A Star is Born – all of them – is about of a man who destroys the person he loves … twice …. because he is a self-indulgent, self-pitying, weak and arrogant coward.

Please don’t get me wrong. I loved A Star is Born when I first saw it in theaters right out of high school. And before I launch into my criticisms of the story, let me say that, on one level, I thought this 2018 Bradley Cooper auteur production the best of the litter – a magnificent bit of cinema (the plaudits for which I will get to later) ………. but of an inherently bad story.

IF I HAVE NOT MADE MYSELF CLEAR HERE YET, THERE ARE SPOLIERS AHEAD!!!

The premise presents itself about a man who is a great star (either singer or actor depending upon which decade’s movie you are talking about) with VERY bad habits, on his way down, who gives "THE FIRST BIG" shot at stardom to a promising female artist. When he realizes he cannot (or will not) cease his destructive behaviors, he kills himself, allegedly, to protect his former protégé, now wife from being held back. What is really happening is that an addicted, boorish, self-indulgent loser, who has achieved his dreams, does indeed generously provide a boost to the extremely talented woman of his dreams. BUT instead of doing the TRULY heroic act of changing his own life FOR her, drags her down. When he decides he will not cease his addictions or his self-destructive behavior, this narcissistic, self-absorbed waste of space tries very hard to destroy her again by committing suicide. In all four cases, this second act of destruction almost succeeds. In all four cases, we are left at the end of the movie wondering when, not if, it will be her turn to follow in her husband's footsteps.

A very big deal is made in the movie about saying something with your art. I must wonder what it is that this movie is trying to say: "When you hit rock bottom you should grab a shovel and dig it deeper by killing yourself?"

BUT – having said my piece on this point —–

Putting this massive flaw aside, the movie is still a masterfully done piece of art. I cannot place blame on Mr. Cooper for the ending because that IS the way it has always played out. I suppose I could blame him for expending his efforts on a story with a terrible message, but once having chosen this project he does an excellent job with its composition. This IS the way A Star is Born was written 81 years ago. (The first version was in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, both BARELY out of the silent film era.)

Kudos to Cooper’s commitment to the project. He mastered guitar playing for this role in an 18 month Blitzkrieg, including performing live at a festival, singing his own original songs, on the same stage with Kris Kristofferson, who previously played the same role for which Cooper was training – all while keeping the movie under wraps! AND Cooper is not just the star of the movie, but also was one of the adapting screenwriters, is the director, one of the producers, did all of his own playing and singing and wrote four of the movie’s songs. I admired the way Cooper approached the story. This Star’s incarnation hits all the high notes, the low notes, the musical arcs and has the same finale as all the others.

Lady Gaga, born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, I was shocked to discover, is quite a talented actress. Not a big fan before hand, I liked "Poker Face" and "Bad Romance," but was not familiar with her videos. I was jaw dropped to see her name in the trailer credits. She, more than a little, resembles a young Barbra Streisand in her manner, looks and singing talent. (She even complains about her nose.) This fits, as Bab’s manager/boyfriend at the time of Streisand's Star was Jon Peters, whose production company made Cooper's Star.

There were a few amazing surprises among the actors, not the least of which was Lady Gaga herself, as already mentioned, who did an incredible job. There is one scene in particular where in she finds herself on stage with Jackson Maine and her subtle and delicate transformation from newbie, frightened singer to confident but still terrified performer whose potential is glimpsed and then blossoms and matures throughout movie is subtle, transformative and deserves recognition. Other stand out performances include Sam Elliott as the REAL hero of the movie who stands by Jackson as long as he can as his manager, confidante, keeper, and older brother.

Andrew Dice Clay made a perplexingly successful career as a stand-up comic by being blunt, vulgar and every –ist you can think of. When you are boycotted by Sinead O'Connor and a regular cast member, Nora Dunn, for a Saturday Night Live appearance, and then from MTV for 18 years for being too offensive, you should consider that perhaps there are some issues with your routine. In A Star is Born he is pleasantly unrecognizable as Ally's gentle and supportive father, who whimsically reminisces about how he could have been a crooner "like Frank Sinatra".

The songs are – in a word – excellent. Catchy and communicative with a readily accessible emotional core, they were all the more surprising in that four of them were written by Bradley Cooper, not heretofore known as a musician.

I was very impressed by some of Mr. Cooper’s directorial decisions. For one thing there is no soundtrack except for the songs being performed or played on the radio or jukebox. There is none of the emotional manipulation, which is almost ubiquitous in other movies’ accompanying score. Don't get me wrong, I love a good soundtrack which often enhances or forewarns the audience in a particular scene. I have often wished I personally had a soundtrack to my life so I would know in advance what was coming.

Mr. Cooper plays his scenes with no such safety net. Some of the movie even feels somewhat documentary. Not in the dry, dusty, awkward way in which we appear as unwanted guests into other people's lives, but as a welcome friend sitting across the table watching the interchange between these two friends, lovers, and musical partners who must inevitably part.

All in all, I enjoyed this incarnation of A Star is Born. I had looked forward to it with a lot of expectation and most were fulfilled. I was sorry they had cut out one particularly appealing scene from the trailer where Jackson tells Ally she is beautiful and her eyebrows rise precipitously in surprise. But in the end I was a little disappointed, but not really surprised. I had hoped against hope, knowing the story, that with this fourth variation on a theme Mr. Cooper would have found a way to make the story more uplifting. It is a faithful telling of the story, but it is unfortunate that the story itself is fatally flawed. So I do not fault Mr. Cooper for the ending.

Just as you are not likely to turn Anna Karenina into a musical comedy, it would be very difficult to alter a classic tragedy without making it unrecognizable. (Although Steve Martin did just that with Roxannecreatively found a way to forge a happy ending with Cyrano de Bergerac but still keeping the essence of the tale intact.)

I just can’t help musing that a truly noble heroic Mr. Maine would have manned up to his own weaknesses, sent his protege on her way, and done something meaningful with the rest of his life: mission work in Africa, volunteer for at-risk kids in inner cities, used his notoriety to become an example of what could happen in Scared Straight programs, done PSA's against drugs and drinking. But alas the Roxanne ending was not to be.

I'll give it this, it is not Singing in The Rain. There is no soft peddling, sanitizing or making light of the music profession. And I suspect this Star is an accurate account of the insides of the industry, where one is lucky to get a guest spot at a bar for drag queens while holding down a job as an unappreciated waiter at a local restaurant. That even if you are lucky enough to "make it," the experience is just as likely to make you an addicted, deaf, jaded wreck as it is to provide you with wealth and power and fame. Star does not paint a pretty picture. What it lacks in virtue it makes up for in honesty. If you can’t be a good example, at least be a horrible warning.

I look forward to Mr. Cooper's next project. I hope it involves some singing because he is quite good. I also look forward to seeing Lady Gaga act again. The relationship between the two was electric and portrayed with a natural chemistry. All of the elements were beautifully crafted and fit like an intricately harmonious chord. I just hope Bradley Cooper finds a more noble project to lend his considerable talents to in the future.

I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE – MUST SEE MUSICAL COMEDY FOR MARRIED COUPLES

SHORT TAKE:

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change is a very very funny musical comedy revue about dating, marriage, men, women and relationships.

WHO SHOULD GO:

For adults in general and married couples in particular. Might be an awkward first date but is positively a MUST SEE for married couples.

LONG TAKE:

I Love You, You're  Perfect, Now Change is the latest play showing at ACTS Theatre from August 3 through 12 at 7:30pm, and Sunday matinees at 3:00pm. I was privileged to get permission to attend the dress rehearsal and must say it was some of the most fun I have ever had in the theater!

A musical comedy revue of twenty skits with over 40 characters and costume changes, are played by four very gifted actors. Clay and Markie Hebert, Kelly Rowland and Casey Doucet make up the intrepid quartet who sing and act up a storm of laughs and a few bittersweet tears.

They all have AMAZING and powerhouse voices with NO INDIVIDUAL MICROPHONES! They sure don't need them. I would have sat for 90 minutes and enjoyed listening to them sing random songs out of any Broadway collection but each of the diverse vignettes is fitted with a catchy song crafted specifically for the tone of the short story it tells sung by its own unique characters. The wide story range stretches from poignant to snarky to slapstick to tender and all will make you smile as they lead you, not only from the beginning of relationships through their maturities, but guide you through every possible emotion a romantic might have.

Clay Hebert does double duty as director, aided by his assistant Ashley Mayeux. Clay was most recently in Godspell. Markie Hebert was the female lead in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Casey Doucet just won an ACTA for his Shrek in the play of the same name. Kelly Rowland is a powerful mezzo-soprano with a flare for comic timing. There is a fifth member of the troupe who is not seen but heard. Andrew Steiner delights the audience with live piano accompaniment, expertly blending these four strong voices.

This is a hilarious send up on the loneliness and difficulties of dating, the challenges of marriage, the tragedy of divorce, and the optimism that it is never too late to find love. With twenty musical vignettes presented for your approval, there is something for everyone involved in the marriage adventure. 

Kelly Rowland and Casey Doucet portray an ecclectic collection of characters who are, at turns: hilariously ridiculous, heartwrenching, and adorable.

Clay and Markie Hebert also have a wide variety of personalities to perform, but the scenes where Clay and Markie play man and wife are especially charming as they are married in real life with three little boys. So, for them, this play isn't an observation but a strange kind of out-of-body experience, as they humorously have an opportunity to re-emerse themselves in the excitement, pratfalls, heartbreak, frustrations, and soul fulfilling contentment that highlights the different stages of dating, and varied relationships, with the hope of culminating in the lifetime marital committment.

Make your plans quickly as you'll likely want to see this gem more than once and it only runs through August 12. Get your tickets at ACTS THEATRE

MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN – A GUILTY PLEASURE

SHORT TAKE:

Simultaneously a sequel/prequel to the first movie as Sophia and we, the audience, find out the details, in flashback, of how Donna got into her self-inflicted predicament.

WHO SHOULD GO:

If you're a mature adult – sure. Go! Enjoy! But don't take the kids. I really wouldn't, personally, want to explain to my child why Donna didn't know which OF THREE MEN was her daughter's father.

LONG TAKE:

 

You're going to need a scorecard to keep track of this one.

As much as everyone praised the first Mama Mia, let's face it – the story lionizes a promiscuous, irresponsible woman whose only real virtue – granted it is considerable – is that she did not, even for a moment, consider murdering her baby. This one details how she met the three men who became candidates for father. I'm ashamed of myself – but I loved it.

Imagine a two hour music video of ABBA's greatest hits performed by Academy Award winning actors, James Bond, an Avengers regular, a rock and roll icon, and an Untouchable. Don't hurt yourself thinking too hard … all you have to do is go see Mama Mia! Here We Go Again.

Mamma Mia Numero Uno was a movie, based on a play, created out of wholecloth from the songs of ABBA, a Swedish pop band with hits like "Dancing Queen" (Yes – ABBA is the guilty party), active from 1972-1982. Much like The Who's Tommy, the story Mamma Mia was cobbled together from tying together the threads of the band's hit songs, themes and lyrics. The FIRST Mama Mia tale is told of Donna who gave birth to a daughter and raised her alone, on a Greek Island, while running a villa. Sophie, the daughter, now a grown women and preparing to marry, wants her father to walk her down the aisle. She finds her mother's diary and discovers there are THREE candidates. Without telling Donna, her mother, Sophie sends invitations to all three men, signing her mother's name. If it sounds like a Mozart Opera Buffa, you'd be right. And despite my better judgment I really enjoyed the first installment.

After all, Pierce "the BEST Bond" Brosnan, Stellan "crazy Avengers scientist" Skarsgard, and Colin "Kingsman, King's Speech and Importance of Being Ernest" Firth are the three men. The music is ALL ABBA, ALL the time. AND   Meryl (can play pretty much anything) Streep plays Donna, the indecisive lady … correction … woman in question. The singing was terrific, the dancing joyous, the colors bright. It's a feel good movie —– until you consider the foundational premise of the first movie is that of a woman who has three men —- THREE MEN —- in such a short span of time that she does not know who the father is. I mean – come ON – she would have had to…within merely a couple of days, HOURS! – with THREE different guys – and she only MET two of them the SAME FREAKING DAY she became .. friendly! There are professional ladies of indeterminate virtue who are more discerning than that. ARGH! Penny on The Big Bang Theory wasn't THAT slutty.

BUT – if you can put the main character's immorality aside, the original Mamma Mia IS a lot of nonsensical fun as songs are belted out, romances are rekindled, laughs are had and there's a marriage at the end – though not the one we started out with, as the daughter wanders off to start the whole series of mistakes over again. (frustrated *sigh*). Really!?

HERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD!!! I TRIED TO DO THIS WITHOUT SPOILERS BUT IT WAS POINTLESS, SO ——- SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!!

Which brings us to the sequel Mama Mia: Here We Go Again! Donna is dead – to begin with (apologies to Dickens). Little Miss Sophie has FINALLY gotten around to getting married … and is now pregnant. Donna has been dead for a year and EVERYONE converges back to the island to sing all the hit songs ABBA wrote which did NOT appear in Mamma Mia! number one, WITH the addition of Cher AND Andy "Untouchables" Garcia. The set up is patently unfair. To paraphrase Marlon Brando's Godfather Corleone, it is an offer I just can not refuse. More equitable to ask me to evaluate, objectively, an ice cream Sunday with Hershey's syrup, sprinkles, whipped cream AND mini M&Ms on it. I do not see how I could possibly NOT like it.

If nothing else, this movie carries some serious casting pedigree. Because half the movie is flashbacks, most of the major characters are played by two people each – the younger and the current. So let me help you out:

Pierce Brosnan plays Sam, the second of the three and the one who Donna eventually marries in the first Mamma Mia! Brosnan, along with being more Bond than even Sean Connery, has a varied resume including the lead in the very popular 1980's TV dramedy Remington Steele, reworked the Steve McQueen part in the latest Thomas Crown Affair and was the target of Robin Williams' foil in the blockbuster comedy hit Mrs Doubtfire. The character of Sam, as a young man, is portrayed by Jeremy Irvine – which is REALLY odd because Jeremy Irvine ALSO played a younger version of another member of the Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again cast, Colin Firth. Irvine was the 20 year old Firth in the World War II drama The Railway Man. I do not know why they did not choose Irvine to portray Firth in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, but they did not.

The honor of playing Mr. Firth as a younger version this time went to Hugh Skinner, "suitor" as it so happens, number one, as a … pity romance. Skinner is notable for playing one of the barricade boys in Les Mis. Colin Firth meanwhile is ONLY the man who won the Best Actor Oscar for his stunning performance as King George VI in The King's Speech, not to mention stealing every scene he is in, in The Kingsmen semi-parody spy movies, Mr. Darcy in the EXTREMELY long BBC version of Pride and Prejudice AND one of the leads in the wonderful send up of The Importance of Being Ernest.

Then Skellan Skarsgard's youthful doppleganger is played by Josh Dylan who, aside from a small part in Allied, is fairly new to the acting scene. He is "date" number three. Along with being one of the Avenger scientist side kicks, Mr. Skarsgard has also been Bootstrap Bill in the Pirates franchise, a baddie in the Branagh Cinderella opposite Ms. James, and a friend of Firth's Eric in The Railway Man.

Lily James (Branagh's Cinderella) is the early incarnation of Meryl Streep's Donna. Meryl Streep is an icon of the acting business. Chamelon-like she has done everything from the Holocaust survivor tragedy of Sophie's Choice to the wildly eccentric comedy, undead evil heroine in Death Becomes Her. She can sing, dance, and like Dustin Hoffman does not shy from looking really ugly, if necessary for a role. And I bet I know something even the most ardent Streep fan does not. Guys and Dolls, the famous romantic comedy musical about a Salvation Army leader, Sarah Brown, who goes toe to toe with a gangster, Sky Masterton, was based – before Damon Runyon took credit – WAAAY back on a 1929 musical play by Bertolt Brecht called Happy End. A 1977 production at the Chelsea Theater in North Carolina featured Meryl Streep in the role of Sister Lilian, the original name for Sarah and Bill Cracker, who later morphed into Sky, was performed by none other than Back to the Future's Christopher Lloyd. Just in case it comes up in a trivia game……..

Christine Baranski (Leonard Hofstadter's blunt and intimidating, emotionally unpresent mother in The Big Bang Theory) is the older version of Tanya and Jessica Keenan Wynn the younger Tanya.

Ms. Wynn needs a special shout out right here. If her last two names Keenan Wynn, ring a bell, it is because she is the fifth in a generation of actors and the granddaughter of THE Keenan Wynn. Keenan Wynn's rich and varied 44 year acting span included everything from the early 1960's TV show The Untouchables to Stanley Kubrick's  Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb to The Twilight Zone and Disney movies. And if that's not enough, Ms. Jessica's GREAT-grandfather was Ed Wynn, who you might just recognize from  Twilight Zones and as Uncle Arthur in the ORIGINAL Mary Poppins.

Harry Potter's Mrs. Weasley aka Julie Waters shares the character of Rosie with Alexa Davies.

Meryl Streep reduces Donna's part to a supporting role. This is the first sequel Streep has ever agreed to, so ANY appearance in this movie is of note. She comes on, near the end, in one of the most touching scenes you can conjure. (See below for my list of favorite moments.)

. Amanda Seyfried (Les Mis) plays Sophie, the girl with THREE Dads, and Sky, played by Dominic Cooper (Howard Stark in Captain America), is her husband.

Andy Garcia, who I will always remember for his acrobatic, athletic and amazing save on the steps of a Chicago staircase in The Untouchables, plays Fernando, the manager of the inn Sophie now owns. Garcia is actually a musician in his own right, a bongo and guitar player who gratefully and openly thanks America in general and Miami in particular for all the blessings bestowed on his Cuban-origin family, at the Cuban music festivals in which he plays and sings. And if you know anything about ABBA music (which you must if you want to see this movie) then his name alone give you a MASSIVE hint for his presence in this movie.

And then there's Cher who plays Grandma Ruby. At 72 years old she continues to have a powerhouse voice. Her roughly 53 year musical career started in the 1970's as the Cher part of Sonny and… which produced the hit Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour when I was a kid (note the song that haunts Bill Murray's Phil Conners in Groundhog Day is "I Got You Babe" – their break out hit). She moved on to the quirky rom com Moonstruck with Nicholas Cage and the heartbreaking Mask to the suspenseful whistleblowing Silkwood also with Meryl Streep. Her hit songs include: "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves", "The Way of Love", "If I Could Turn Back Time", "Half-Breed", "Believe", "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot me Down)", "The Beat Goes On", many of which she performed with Sonny Bono.

And now that we know WHO we are dealing with in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the premise is quite simple. Sophie and widowed Dad are restoring Donna's villa into a premiere hotel. Switching back and forth in time, we also follow along as Donna the Younger sleeps her way to and through the Greek Island, eventually getting pregnant with Sophia and decides to stay.

But the sheer jubilance that pervades the movie is irresistible. All practicality and common sense aside, this movie has the charm of every enthusiastic "Put on a Show" musical from Shirley Temple to White Christmas. I feel like Tevya. On the one hand the movie revolves around the behavior of a young flighty woman who treats sex like a sport or party favor BUT once pregnant she devotes her life to her child. There are raunchy jokes and throw away lines but nothing is seen or even acted out. A lot of sexually reckless behavior is considered acceptable but both babies – infant Donna and Donna's infant – are baptized in a (presumably Eastern Orthodox since it is Greece) Catholic church before an altar with a crucifix by a cassocked priest, celebrated by the entire town, as a ghostly Donna sings her blessing. The plot is threadbare and ridiculous but the song and dance numbers are completely charming and whimsical. It is obvious that the storyline is awkwardly cobbled together from the songs and the songs crowbarred into the action but are reworked in creative and appropriate ways as lullabies and nostalgic poetry. Donna was absurdly promiscuous but eventually married, as did her daughter. And as Sophia, herself, points out: "At least this time we know who the baby's father is." That's progress. Sky at first contemplates abandoning his marriage for a lucrative job, but quickly comes to his senses and goes back to his wife to fulfill the promises he made to her and assure her there would never be anything more important to him than his wife and child.

MY FAVORITE MOMENTS:

I Have a Dream sung by Amanda Seyfried as she and her Dad walk through the newly restored hotel as we cut back and forth in flashbacks to Lily James' Donna during her first impulsive trespassing tour of the originally ramshackle estate.

Brosnan speak/singing a snippet of S.O.S. as he mourns his deceased wife, Donna, especially considering that he really did lose his first wife, Cassandra Harris.

Sophie singing a duet of My Love My Life with her ghostly/imagined mother, Donna, in the church just before Sophie's baby's baptism. Sophie recognizes in song that Donna would have wanted Sophie to accept her mother's death, knowing the joy and contentment motherhood had brought Donna, and that her mother, Donna, could rest in peace knowing she had raised her daughter well and left a legacy of love.

As to my FAVORITE favorite moments – I went for a matinee but would have paid a LOT more just to see the scenes where Bond, King George, Selvig, Leonard's mother and Mrs. Weasley sing and dance to Supertrooper and Dancing Queen – SO worth the price of admission all by themselves.

Ultimately – despite its flaws it has an undeniable, albeit nostalgic, palpable charm.

TEXAS SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL – ASTONISHING ACCOMPLISHMENT AND WELL WORTH THE TRIP TO CHARMING KILGORE, TEXAS

In Kenneth Branagh's brilliant comedy A Midwinter's Tale, about a disparate group of actors trying to put on Hamlet during the Christmas season in a very short period of time, Joe Harper pep talks to his discouraged cast: "In Shakespeare's theater, a six week season would have produced 35 performances of 17 different plays including, at times, four world premieres."

Well, theTexas Shakespeare Festival, outdoes even the Bard in their 33rd season, managing the Herculean task of 47 performances of six plays in a scant four and one-half weeks, plus accomodating a guest company from China who does a 7th one-night-only show.

Graciously hosted by Raymond Caldwell, the Founder and Artistic Director, and John Dodd, the Managing Director, the TSF company started June 28 and closes July 29. They give nine performances each of two different Shakespearean plays, and three other classics, plus seven showings of a new children's show. This year they did a 1920's musical version of Shakespeare's romantic comedy Love's Labour's Lost about a King and three of his friends who forswear women for 3 years just before political circumstances require they meet with the lovely princess of France and her three equally lovely attendants. They also did the rarely seen Shakespeare play King John, covering this seminally incompetent and often cruel king in the best possible light Shakespeare could muster. The other classics were Moliere's Tartuffe, a comedy exposing the hazards of entertaining hypocricy, and, the musical version of the old classic serio-comic The Rain Maker, about a man who comes to a drought stricken town promising to change the weather, only to change the dynamics of the townspeople instead. They also did four performances of The Belle of Amherst about Emily Dickenson and 7 showings of the children's play The Lovely Stepsister.

While only the four major plays are left and then only this weekend, it is worth noting that the TSF is well worth the distance you might have to travel to get to this small, friendly, spotlessly clean, theater-geared and devoted Texas town. The food in the restaurants is varied and great, the hotels comfortable, plentiful and inexpensive. If you want to combine a theater vacation with an outdoorsy flavor you can also rent a cabin in nearby Tyler. The theater, itself, has stadium seating where there is no bad view.

The crew and staff at the Ann Dean Turk Center, where the festival resides, are extremely accomodating, resourceful, and very attentive to all the patrons' needs. Ice cream, snacks and coffee are available before the show and during intermission. The gift shop is small, quaint and stuffed with wonderful, high-quality memorabilia at reasonable prices. Blankets are provided for the more easily chilled visitors as the powerful air conditioning keeps the Texas summer heat forcefully at bay.

Along with the plays, the festival also features: live orchestral music, a talent showcase of the actors' musical and varied gifts, backstage tours, "open change-overs" where a docent explains the balletic process as the crew can transform the entire set from from a small country town to an 18th century parlor in under 90 minutes, panel discussions and more.

And if you want to audition – COME ONE COME ALL – as they make the rounds starting in the not too distant future, constantly looking forward to always making the next season better than the one before. You can come audition in person, catch the scouts as they tour the country or submit a video and resume. Get the details from their website: Texas Shakespeare Festival auditions.

I was privileged to be granted an interview with Briana (Bri) Thomas who played: a singing Jaquenetta in Love's Labour's Lost, Mariane, the put upon daughter of the foolish Orgon in Tartuffe, and the delightfully perky gal Snookie in 110 in the Shade. Her parents and grandparents came to celebrate and encourage her as she made her exciting and talented debut with the TSF. The beautiful and delightful Ms. Thomas graciously agreed to allow me to record our talk. Please enjoy the videos below.

 

So wherever you are coming from, it is worth the trip to attend the TEXAS SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL – and if not this year, clear your calendars to attend the 34th season starting in June 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

GODSPELL – EVANGELICAL FLASH MOB ON STAGE AT LAKE CHARLES LITTLE THEATRE!!

SHORT TAKE:

Lake Charles Little Theatre closes out this season with Godspell, the musical of vignettes from the New Testament, which is performed like a theatrical troupe flash mob.

WHO SHOULD GO:

EVERYONE!!!

LONG TAKE:

Have you ever seen a flash mob? They’re all over Youtube. A bunch of people, appearing to be from all walks of life, converge on a public area: an airport lobby, a playground, a mall – and someone starts to play an instrument or sing a song or dance. Then, one by one, others in their group, camoflaged as passersby, join in with voice or a flute or guitar or in tap shoes and before you know it, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of people singing the "Ode to Joy" or Christmas Carols or tap dancing their hearts out, or like in the faux flash mob with actors from  The Greatest Showman, act out medleys from a Broadway show.

I am always pleased and delighted to watch these coordinated groups who, of a single mind, have the nerve and verve to perform for total strangers. And judging by the smiles, the photographs, and the applause from the suddenly blessed impromptu audience, I am not alone.

While I have never seen one in person, I would travel a considerable distance to be either a participant or an audience member, but by the very nature of the "show," most beneficiaries of these live exhibitions do not know about them ahead of time.

Musicals, like La La Land, have employed this concept since…well, since the advent of the musical. Random strangers all suddenly are inspired to break into song and  hoof coordinated complex dance routines. It's a wonderfully infectious and entertaining trope.

Now, imagine you are minding your own business at an empty baseball field – throwing a ball with your son, having a picnic, walking the family dog.  Suddenly a group of Catechism teachers from various eccumenical branches,  dressed for all walks of life, happen to converge and, inspired, cobble together a series of seemingly impromptu mini-plays, acting out stories and parables from the New Testament – from Jesus' baptism by St. John the Baptist through to Jesus' death. This is Godspell as the actors at Lake Charles Little Theatre truly personify the admonition from Matthew 18:20 that: "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Godspell, literally from the Anglo-Saxon meaning "Good Story," refers, obviously, to the Gospel or Good News of the New Testament. The show is written as though the characters arrive together by chance unprepared and without anything but the clothes they wear, whatever happens to be lying around on the baseball field, a fervour for the Lord, and a desire to preach and teach the Gospel, enacting "on-the-spot" demonstrations of lessons from the Bible.

The show begins with the chant: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord," and features songs you will find very familiar from your high school years, if you are over forty, and might have heard your parents play or on an elevator somewhere, if you are younger. But THIS is the way you SHOULD hear these songs – live and on stage, sung by people, some of whom I know personally, who are of great faith and mean every word they sing and say.

Unlike the play Jesus Christ Superstar or movies like The Passion, where individual actors step into roles and assume the mantle of that character for the duration of the story, in Godspell the actors are NOT supposed to BE that person, but are only vehicles for the communication of the Gospel message. Ordinary people going about their daily business are inspired to teach the Word. Therefore, there is no disrespect intended when Apostles are dressed in running shorts, or for ballet practice, or in a leather jacket or lab coat, because that is how they are supposed to have showed up for this "come as you are" exercise in missionary work. The actors, thereby, communicate an additional underlying message, that EVERYONE – young, old, whatever gender, whatever your gifts, are all called to evangelize. That when the moment calls to speak up for your faith, you are not to let formality stand in the way, but just jump right in and strike while you have a receptive audience. 

And there is no "gender agenda," but only a "necessity of convenience agenda" when a group of ladies ham it up with fake beards as Pharisees or a young lady responds as Peter – there are simply not enough men in the available cast. (MORAL TO THIS PART OF THE STORY – You guys in Lake Charles – MAN UP AND AUDITION!!!)

Clay Hebert, a staple in both local independent films and community, high school and college theater for over three decades, speaks on behalf of Jesus in an Astros shirt. Unsurprisingly, he has the command of both the stage and the Gospel message. I've known Clay since he had hair and have always been impressed by him as a brilliant example of the RIVER of talent that flows through our city. Kirsten Bush, Heather Partin, Zoe LeBeau and Joseph Comeaux are very familiar figures on our Lake Charles stages. And the rest of the performers shine as well: Clay Corley, Rebecca Harris, Virginia-Kate Jessen, Theresa Hay Needham, Taylor Novak-Tyler, Liz Rentrop Trahan, and Jaylin Williams all round out a cast which embodies a wide variety of roles: from the fallen woman Jesus saves from stoning, to the wealthy merchant who will not live to enjoy their earthly treaures, to the rich man who ignores Lazarus; from Caiaphas, to a temptress Devil, to the ungrateful servant, and those healed by Jesus. All the stories these delightful actors tell will be well known and beloved to even a casual student of the Bible. It is a joy to see these stories play out and hear the  beautiful singing. These very familiar songs, which can grow stale over time with indifferent repetition, come alive with the energy of immediate re-enactment that this talented troupe brings to the stage.

Greg Stratton, with a resume longer than my arm, gifted actor and director, corrals all this enthusiasm into the Godspell that we enjoyed, masterfully inspiring his cast, bringing out the best of their vocal and acting talents, making the challenge of directing so many performers constantly on stage look effortless. I have had the privilege of watching Greg direct up close and his creativity, love for the theatre and respect for his performers comes through clearly. Greg has an enormous repertorie, wearing the hats on and off the stage in comedies and dramas alike.  

A theatrical master magician who, like Prospero in The Tempest, is able to make his audience weep or laugh, Greg manages to do both in this funny, joyful, and emotional modern re-presentation of Bible stories.

So go see Godspell at Lake Charles Little Theatre as soon as you can – the run is only through April 29th – and be uplifted as only a live retelling of the Bible can be where two or more are gathered in His name.

AND I APOLOGIZE FOR THE PAUCITY OF PHOTOS FROM THE SHOW – MY ACCESS TO PICTURES WAS VERY LIMITED. IF ANYONE FROM THE CAST WOULD LIKE TO CONTRIBUTE PHOTOS FROM THE PRODUCTION PLEASE SEND THEM TO MY E-MAIL AT: KBARRILLEA@SUDDENLINK.NET AND I WOULD BE DELIGHTED TO ADD THEM TO THIS BLOG IF AT ALL POSSIBLE.

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THE GREATEST SHOWMAN – ENCHANTING MUSICAL BASED ON THE SPIRIT OF P.T. BARNUM

SHORT TAKE: Captivating, beautiful, family friendly musical loosely based on the life of P.T. Barnum's early business life and the people on the fringes of society he turned into a family.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT: EVERYONE!!!!!

LONG TAKE:

Donald O’Conner said: "Always leave them wanting more." And in the tradition of PT Barnum, about whom this movie was made – The Greatest Showman does just that.

Half way through the very first opening number I wanted to see it all again. Every scene, every song was a marvel – as compelling, exciting, absorbing and mesmerizing as the Barnum and Bailey Circus shows which enthralled millions of people for 146 years.

PT Barnum is best known as the inventor of the traveling circus, the King of Humbugs, the displayer of the human oddity, the man who said "There’s a sucker born every minute" EVEN THOUGH there is no evidence proving that he actually did say it! In fact, Barnum was also a philanthropist, the founder of Bridgeport Hospital, promoter of gas lighting, improved water systems, abolitionist, and pro-life/anti-contraception advocate.

However, the movie The Greatest Showman is not about his altruistic activities. The movie The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman is VERY VERY loosely based upon the life, enterprises, fortunes, failures and inspiration of PT Barnum as showman.

PT Barnum also once said: "A human soul, that God has created and Christ died for, is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit."

It is from the core of this latter philosophy that this screenplay was born. The Greatest Showman is more what PT Barnum represented than about the exact details of the man’s life. The Greatest Showman is about joy, life, family, turning chicken feathers into chicken salad, about never giving up, and overcoming internal as well as external handicaps, and rising above failure and rejection. It is also about embracing with gusto the challenges that God has bequeathed upon every individual soul – be it physical deformity, an unusual height, albinism, being a Siamese Twin, or whether the challenges come from being born into poverty and disadvantage. This story is about learning what is truly important in one’s life and what defines your home and your family.

Barnum’s biography as interpreted by screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, directed by Michael Gracey, and choreographed by Ashley Wallen, starts as the son of an impoverished tailor. Barnum is bright, ambitious, hard working and imaginative. Barnum joins the railroad, takes clerical positions, tries to bring his innovative ideas to his employers and eventually earns enough to support a family. He marries his childhood sweetheart and lifelong friend Charity (Michelle "Oz the Great and Powerful" Williams), against her family’s wishes. They live a modest life but Barnum wants more. When the company he works for goes bankrupt he carves out a unique niche in entertainment singlehandedly with people who have largely been ostracized by society – not for anything they have done but for the physical attributes with which they were born.

In the troupe are Lettie (Keata Settle) the bearded lady and lead female singer in the circus, and General Tom Thumb (whose name in real life was Charles Stratton who was actually 2 feet 10 inches tall) played by the 4 foot 2 inch Sam Humphreys with effects that convincingly makes him fit into the smaller shoes of the original General Thumb.

Theater actor Eric Anderson has a small but rather adorable part as Mr. O'Malley, a skilled pickpocket Barnum meets while on the receiving end of O'Malley trade, who Barnum refashions into a magician and then his box office manager. Far too little is made of this charming character and he just kind of disappears after the first half of the movie in a regrettable editing decision by the film makers.

Barnum's gift is taking the weaknesses and apparent handicaps in others and turning them into strengths. He takes people who hide because of their birth defects and turns them into proud headliners for all the world to see. He takes a petty thief and puts him in charge of his money. He takes a drunken society playwright and convinces him to become the junior partner in an enterprise that will make him a societal outcast but a far happier and more fulfilled man. He takes isolated people and forms them into a family. Barnum understands people and cares about them deeply. This is his gift. But Barnum must learn that not all handicaps are visible and is eventually forced to confront his own prideful self inflicted deformities.

And the story is told with brilliant colorful musical numbers which light up and leap from the screen in the only way that really counts – not via 3D but through panache and vibrant beautiful melodies performed with style and absolutely irresistible enthusiasm.

Hugh Jackman as PT Barnum and Michelle Williams his wife Charity, sing with joyful abandon and dance with infectious charm, gravity defying skill, and tremendous energy. Zac Efron plays Phillip Carlyle, an unhappy swell with a flair for story telling who Barnum entices into his troupe. Efron has grown well beyond his High School Musical days into an accomplished actor and hoofer, and proves he can keep up with even the indefatiguable Jackman. Zendaya performs as the trapese artist Anne with whom Efron’s Phillip falls in love. Efron and Zendaya do all their own flying dancing swinging stunts in an incredible scene where they dance a love song as athletic as the barn raising in 7 Brides for 7 Brothers and as graceful as Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in — well, anything! Most of it is performed flying through the air on rigging and without nets (though interviews revealed they were, thankfully, harnessed for safety).

I can’t say enough good things about this movie. It’s uplifting, beautiful to watch, wonderful to listen to, with brilliant editing that meshes music to dance and slow motion effects used with admirable and effective restraint.

Honestly the only complaint I have is that there was not enough of it. It was too short. You know how some movies – a lot now a days frankly – would benefit from some serious chopping – the Hobbit trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and Pearl Harbor all come to mind. But rarely do you come across a movie which you wish was LONGER.

The progress of Barnum’s jump from childhood to adulthood was blinked over and I would not have minded more of his progress from urchin to self supporting adult. Same for Barnum’s initial success as a "circus" owner to wealthy entrepreneur. Easily 5 or 6 more songs and another hour would have been more than welcome. There could have been more of Mr. O'Malley and included backstories on some of the other performers who are mostly seen in the group dances. And there were even a couple of my favorite lines from the trailer which were cut. It is almost as though the relative newbie director Gracey did not have the courage of his convictions. But he needn’t have worried. What is there is brilliant and entrancing.

I loved this movie not just for the performances by Jackman, Zendaya and Efron which were amazing – blending the acting with the singing and dancing seamlessly as only accomplished confident hoofers can. I also loved the morality tale played out in Barnum’s life as he is forced to reconsider what are those things that make his life worthwhile.

This is an uplifting delightful movie for the entire family. And although I would have loved for it to be another hour long, they employed Mr. O’Connor’s sage words and left us wanting more. I think I’ll just go see it again …. and take everyone I know.

PT Barnum also once said: "The noblest art is that of making others happy." The film makers of this movie about his life I believe are noble souls indeed.

NOT YOUR MOM’S FREAKY FRIDAY – THIS IS A FABULOUS PLAY!!!

In 1976 Disney came out with a really dumb movie called Freaky Friday starring Barbara Harris and a VERY young Jodie Foster about a mother and daughter who get their wish to be each other for a day. It’s the old – careful what you wish for. The daughter thinks her mom has it easy because she has all the control. The mom thinks the daughter’s position is a toddle because all she has to do all day is go to school, come home and snack. Both are, of course, wrong. But the story, as presented, is silly and superficial, trite and leans heavily on all the cliched generation gap misunderstandings. They didn’t do any better with the Shelley Long version in 1995 or the Jamie Lee Curtis version in 2003.
 
So when my husband bought tickets to go see the new musical version I had to laugh. Why not? On vacation, let’s be brainless. By intermission my husband and I turned to each other almost simultaneously and said “Our kids have GOT to see this!!!” The music is catchy with clever lyrics, the script is funny and fast paced. The acting in the one we saw with Heidi Blickenstaff as mother Katherine and Emma Hunton as daughter Ellie were absolutely brilliant and totally believable. The singing was stunning and powerful but nuanced with “attitude” and comic timing. And most importantly it has a really good PLOT! I guarantee you will see yourself somewhere in this play – as the parent, as the child, as the sibling – older or younger – or as all at some point in your life. To see yourself as others see you. Prepare to laugh – a LOT – but bring some kleenex too.
 
Instead of a throw away one-note gimmick, the tale here is of a widowed mom, Katherine, on the eve of remarriage trying to hold together her fledgling catering company and her fragile family – still traumatized and battered by the untimely death of the father 6 years before. (AGAIN underlining the importance of the DAD!!!) The father leaves his wife and daughter each a “magic” hourglass, as though knowing this day would come. And at the apex of the stresses from the wedding preparation, a journalist about to do a story on the mom’s business, the daughter’s crush on Adam, the popular guy in class, and a simple conflict in scheduling – well, they get their respective wishes. Fleshing out the cast is: an adorable 10 year old little brother, Fletcher, who is looking forward to having a Dad again; Mike, the deeply patient and understanding fiance; Katherine’s underappreciated assistant; Katherine’s oblivious parents; a timely parent-teacher meeting; some teenaged angst; a class cutting up frogs in biology class and….a treasure hunt. And yes all these elements work together like gears in a clock to make a funny, warm, insightful, catchy, brilliant little musical. I think this the best thing Disney has done in years.
 
While focusing mostly on the mother and daughter, the supporting cast is not forgotten. Each gets a moment to shine. And the ensemble group is utilized to the full as well. There are some moments in the play which would have done Mozart proud – as at times there are upwards of 6 people singing in the same song about their different agendas or perspectives – and it all makes sense (think the ensemble song “Tonight” in West Side Story or the Act II and IV octet finales in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro).
 
The songs each have a personality of their own as well – from the cocky “I Got This” where Katherine and Ellie assume pretending to be each other will be a breeze, to the lyrical heartbreaking “After All of This and Everything” which Ellie, in Katherine’s body sings to a sleeping Fletcher, to the bitterly funny “Parents Lie”, and the just plain old cute “Women and Sandwiches” which Adam sings to Fletcher in an attempt to explain the fascination women have for him and will one day have for Fletcher.
 
If you want to get a preview of Freaky Friday you can hear the songs on Youtube.
The play opened October 4, 2016 in Arlington, VA and we were blessed with being able to see the original cast leads in Houston. This play will, no doubt, make the rounds around the country – or be filmed at some point. But don’t let the previous original versions put you off. This is a truly “magical” play.
FIND and go see this play SOMEWHERE!!!!!!