Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Parlez vous crime?

I love Scandi noir as much as anybody out there but that doesn't mean I have to lower my standards. I'm surprised, for instance, by the good will that's greeted Johan Theorin's Echoes from the Dead, considering it's completely by-the-numbers. "Another in a seemingly bottomless pool of sophisticated and effective Scandinavian crime writers"? Hardly.

The best part about the novel is its atmospheric description of an island community off the coast of Sweden, but this isn't enough to make up for the fact that the plot hinges on a contrivance: It works only because the main characters wilfully avoid sharing crucial information (which they all know the others have) as they try to solve the mystery surrounding the 20-year-old disappearance of a child. Of course if they did the normal thing and talked to each other, the book would be only about a hundred pages long.

Much better is Jo Nesbø's Nemesis. I had quite liked Nesbø's The Redbreast, which I had reviewed for Time Out New York when it came out here last year. Nemesis picks up exactly where its predecessor left off, and once again Nesbø somehow manages to make an alcoholic inspector with unorthodox crime-solving methods feel like a fresh character.

And speaking of classic Scandi cops: Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander has gotten another TV series, after the Swedish one in which he was played by Krister Henriksson. Oddly it's from the BBC and Wallander is played by Kenneth Branagh—which at least means we have a better chance of seeing it here than the other version.

Too bad American channels are as protectionist as American publishers when it comes to international crime, and open up only to English series. I've been catching up with a really fun French drama called Engrenages (on DVDs sent from the homeland) and while it doesn't hold up to The Wire—but then, nothing does—it's good watchin'. Following the British model, there's only ten episodes in a season, so one can watch the 20 Engrenages eps has so far in a relatively short amount of time.

When used to the American system, it's intriguing to see one where judges are very involved in inquiries—they drop by crime scenes for example—thus altering the triangular dynamic of cops, DAs and defense lawyers that drives most procedurals here. Another difference: The French cops are a lot more hands-on (as in, rough) with suspects than they are in American shows that aren't The Shield. But the biggest selling point of Engrenages as far as I'm concerned is the presence of two particularly compelling female characters: inspector Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and crooked lawyer Joséphine Carlsson (Audrey Fleurot).

The first season of Engrenages was shown on BBC4 under the title Spiral and it's now on British DVD; the second season is scheduled to air over there this winter. Check both out.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Just the facts, m'am

Siouxsie is an influence whose time has come, so it's not really a surprise that London's Ipso Facto sounds like Ms. Sioux on downers. Black & white aesthetics, stern haircuts, a "Louise Brooks goes to architecture school" look—hmmm, I think I'm in love. Signed to newish Mute imprint Mute Irregulars (of course), the quartet only has some singles out for now. Hopefully they also have a Google alert on themselves and will see this post pleading for a gig in New York sometime soon. Meanwhile, we'll have to do with this video for "Six and Three Quarters."

Women beware ballerinas

Now that's my kind of holiday fare: cheating, lying, conniving, and a final orgy of violence in which half the characters annihilate each other. The Red Bull Theater's production of Women Beware Women is an absolute delight, down to the death by crucifix at the end, though I think this is one of director Jesse Berger's liberties; regardless, it feels very much in the spirit of Thomas Middleton's play.

The cast is topnotch, and as the duplicitous Livia, Kathryn Meisle shows she could have been a much better Marquise de Merteuil than the woefully miscast Laura Linney in the Roundabout's revival of Dangerous Liaisons earlier this year.

Happily, it also looks as if Berger blew two thirds of his budget on the costumes, a parade of Technicolor beauties that seem pulled from the pages of a Jacobean edition of Vogue dreamed up by Edith Head. It's the kind of extravagance one does not see enough Off Broadway.

(Another positive claim for the evening: The subway trek from Brooklyn to Hell's Kitchen, where the show is appropriately staged, gave me enough time to read Carlo Lucarelli's The Damned Season in its entirety. Lucarelli's De Luca trilogy takes place in the chaos that was Italy at the end of WWII; it's hard to find a better setting for noir books, when nobody quite knew who was in power and alliances shifted daily.)

Speaking of over-the-top visual pleasures, the Sheila and I caught The Nutcracker last night. We joked beforehand that we could expect a lot of crushed velvet, polished patent leather shoes, tulle and snazzy overcoats, and we were right: The children in the audience looked incredible.

It was a repeat visit for the Sheila but, I admit somewhat reluctantly, my first New York City Ballet Nutcracker. I saw Mark Morris's The Hard Nut a few years ago, which is like seeing Airplane! before Airport 1975. Anyway I was appropriately enchanted, and even teared up a few times—most notably at the entrance of the Snowflakes—overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of it all.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Best stage moments of 2008

After the best singles and before the best albums (we'll have to wait for the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop poll for that), here are my favorite theater/opera moments of the year, in alphabetical order.

1. Adding Machine. This Expressionistic Chicago import proved that there is still life in the American musical at the end of the ’00s.

2. All My Sons. Simon McBurney's non-naturalistic approach threw off a few people, but I found it mesmerizing. This is what happens when the powers that be on Broadway entrust a play to a director who's capable of reading the material, then of translating it into a specifically theatrical language.

3. Arias with a Twist. This collaboration between Joey Arias and Basil Twist was permeated by the spirit of downtown—and by that I mean the old East Village, before it turned into New York's answer to the French Quarter. Like Adding Machine, albeit with a completely different aesthetic, this show illustrated how much you can achieve with a small budget and a large imagination.

4. Billy Elliot. The best three seconds of the year: When a miner yells out "We're on strike!" to his companions and they all happily shout back "Yay!!!" No wonder Terry Teachout's review in The Wall Street Journal was titled "Karl Marx in a tutu"—and he didn't mean that in a good way. "Feel-good socialist kitsch," Teachout huffed. Ah yes, and that's exactly what Broadway—and the nation at large, I'd venture—wants right now.

5. Blasted. Frankly, the play itself isn't all that (Sarah Kane's youthful nihilism can be overly self-conscious and deliberate) but Sarah Benson's production was as good as it could be, while I can't even fathom how Marin Ireland and Reed Birney did what they did on the stage every night for weeks on end. Incidentally, Ireland has turned into a downtown treasure over the past few years (Far Away and Beebo Brinker come to mind). The EW reviewer listed the show among the year's worst, blaming its lack of humanity. There was plenty of humanity in Blasted, except it was defiled every step of the way; guess that's not what some want at the theater.

6. Gypsy. Saw that one three times. No need to go on about Patti LuPone's performance again, so I'll just say that Laura Benanti's transformation from ugly vaudeville duckling to glamorous burlesque swan remains an erotic highlight.

7. Hair. Oh, how I hate audience participation! Especially when it involves going onstage and haplessly prancing about with the cast. And yet when that happened at the end of this thrilling production at the Delacorte, it could not have felt more à propos.

8. Opening Night. I found myself thinking about Ivo van Hove's adaptation of the Cassavetes movie a lot after seeing it, wondering in particular about some of the staging choices. With its heavy use of a simultaneous videocast, the production rewards multiple viewings, from as many different angles as possible. Alas, it didn't play BAM long enough to allow for a return visit. I hear van Hove directed a stage adaptation of Cries and Whispers in Europe this year. This is a call to BAM, Lincoln Center and St. Ann's Warehouse: please bring it here!

9. Passing Strange. Stew and Heidi Rodewald's little-musical-that-could adapted surprisingly well to the Broadway stage. A much better translation of the rock idiom to musical theater than Spring Awakening.

10. Die Soldaten. If I had to pick a single event this year, it would be this electroshock of a modernist opera, mounted by Lincoln Center Festival at the Armory. Now that we are engulfed in a recession, this divisive, outlandish production—in which the audience sat on huge moving platforms, flanked on the sides by a ginormous 110-member orchestra imported from Germany—feels like the last gasp of the freespending days. (Someone told me it would have cost the same to fly everybody who saw the show in New York to Germany!)

Special mentions…

Boeing-Boeing, for understanding that farce needs to be staged with Swiss-clock precision… Come Back, Little Sheba, for S. Epatha Merkerson's heartwrenching portrayal of a woman stuck not only in a thankless marriage, but in the thankless decade known as the 1950s… Michael Clark Company's OO and O, for their elegant embrace of the punk and classical realms… The Cripple of Inishmaan, for making me get over a longstanding distrust of Irish plays… La Damnation de Faust, for the sight of video trees wilting as the Devil walked in front of them… The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, or The Friends of Dr. Rushower, for its enchanting first act and its wonderful projections, which easily bested the ones in the more high-profile Sunday in the Park with George.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Denis Lavant dances

Denis Lavant has one of the best senses of movement of any contemporary actor I can think of.

From 1986's Mauvais Sang, we have a fantastic travelling shot set to David Bowie's "Modern Love" (starts around 1:30). The film is Lavant's second collaboration with his longtime acolyte, the director maudit Leos Carax.

Here is Lavant at the end of Claire Denis's Beau Travail, her somptuous 1999 adaptation of Billy Budd:

This third sample was shot just a few months ago. It's a kind of postscript to Carax's latest, a short film included in an omnibus titled Tokyo! (The other two segments are by Michel Gondry and Joon-ho Bong.) Lavant plays a cryptic enigma simply called Merde, who talks in an invented language called Merdogon, which sounds a bit like Magma's Kobaïan. I read somewhere the video below was shot in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in Paris.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Underground Paris

Paris in the 1970s is an object of endless fascination for me, particularly the punk, gay and clubbing factions: Le Palace, Bazooka, Mathématiques Modernes, Alain Pacadis, Jenny Bel Air—all names that set off a thousand fantasies for the provincial girl I was. That scene was in its death throes when I landed in the capital in 1982 to attend college, but the agony was still glamorous enough to project a mystical aura. A number of books by and about luminaries of that time have been published in France in the past half-decade, including a collection of Alain Pacadis's writing (he roughly was the Gallic version of Michael Musto), François Jonquet's lovely biography of Jenny Bel Air, and the reissue of NovöVision, Yves Adrien's new-wave cult classic. Music-wise, the compilation Des Jeunes Gens Modernes is absolutely essential.

For a thorough overview, however, check out a site created by a man named Bernard Bacos, who lived in that city—or perhaps I should say he lived that city—and celebrates it at Paris dans les années 70. If you don't read French, I suggest going randomly, as Bacos has unearthed a treasure trove of great photos and provides sound samples of several of the bands. And if you do read French, I guarantee hours of fascinated clicking.

Bacos starts off with the late ’60s and early ’70s, covering the "baba cool" (ie hippie) bands; check out, for instance, the page about the 30 ans d'agitation musical en France box set, complete with streams. (Here, Gilles Deleuze reads a Nietzsche poem, backed by a band called Schizo. An entire era is summoned…) But his coverage of is extensive, each section shooting out into numerous nooks and crannies. The page about Fabrice Emaer's Palace (Paris' answer to Studio 54, and newly reopened) is delicious, for instance, linking out to other classic clubs such as cold-wave temple Les Bains Douches, and the one about the punk art collective Bazooka reminded me of how brutally prescient they were. (Watch this TV doc on Bazooka.)

Bacos is straight so the gay underground doesn't get as much in-depth coverage as the hippie one, but he still has fascinating stuff about the likes of Les Gazolines, a gender-queer group that ran parallel to the radical-leftist FHAR, ie Front Homosexuel d'Action Révolutionnaire. (See Le Rose et le noir, Frédéric Martel's page-turner about the history of contemporary homosexuality in France.) It would have been hard for Bacos not to deal with Les Gazolines anyway, since its members popped up at Le Palace, wrote for Libération, etc.

One for the road: Taxi Girl's stone-cold classic single "Cherchez le garçon," from 1980. The band released only one album, 1981's sepulchral Seppuku, produced by Stranglers bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel. The lanky guitarist on the right in the video is Mirwais, who would go on to produce Madonna's Music. As for singer Daniel Darc, he of the bee-stung lips, his career was derailed by drugs but he resurfaced in 2004 with the rare superb album that also happens to be a commercial hit, Crève-coeur.

Monday, December 22, 2008

I'm not old, I'm just drawn that way

Last week I briefly mentioned the Roundabout's revival of Pal Joey, and an issue I had with a particular acting choice. I should qualify the statement by saying my qualm involves more than just Stockard's Channing decisions: It starts with Richard Greenberg's tweaking of the book and Joe Mantello's direction, and spreads to Stocks's interpretation of her role.

The main plot line involves the affair between the young, caddish Joey Evans and the older, much wealthier Mrs. Vera Simpson. She picks him up in the nightclub where he sings, has her way with him in her luxury pad, buys him his own boîte in exchange for delicious sexual favors (the show makes it clear that Joey has what it takes to make a woman of the world very happy indeed). This angle was played to the hilt in the Encores! revival of 1995: Patti LuPone's Vera pretty much bought herself a living, breathing sex toy. And when her unseen husband made it known she wasn't quite discreet enough, Vera dumped Joey in a carefree manner that implied that far from heartbroken, she'd soon move on to another stud.

In the current production, Vera clearly has feelings for Joey; when she ends things up, it is with a sadness that suggests this was her last hurrah—not only as a sexual woman, but as a woman, period. Of course the creative team may have thought this made more sense, considering Channing is 64 to LuPone's 46 at the time. But this strikes me as retrograde: There is something liberating—and liberated—about a musical in which a woman's main relationship is purely hedonistic. In other words, she is allowed to have sex with just the right amount of feeling, which in this particular case is very little. Alas now Vera Simpson ends up a sad sack, not a triumphant conqueror.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Total Hollywood crap

Every word, every shot, every sound in Rachel Getting Married—in which Anne Hathaway's Kym gets out of rehab long enough to almost screw up her sister Rachel's wedding—is a fraud. It's hard to think of a more dishonestly manipulative movie this year. Nothing the characters say or do makes sense, because everything they say or do only serves one purpose: to lead to a confrontation or a crisis. Jenny Lumet's hack script throws consistency and psychological realism to the wind just so the actors can get their Oscar moments, while Jonathan Demme still thinks a handheld shakycam is shorthand for raw naturalism, ie authenticity in Hollywoodspeak.

Here's a typical example of the shams the film continually sets up. At one point, several characters including Kym and her dad (Bill Irwin) are gathered around a table, figuring out the sitting arrangements for the wedding. The discussion gets tenser, as it tends to do when Kym is involved; she asks her dad to continue it in private in the kitchen, away from the others. Next thing you know, the entire brood crashes their talk. And next next thing you know, Dad gets challenged by Sidney, his future son-in-law, into a preposterous contest to see who can most efficiently fill the dishwasher. And next next next thing you know, Kym haplessly passes on to Dad a plastic plate belonging to her now-dead little brother, provoking a sorrowful reaction.

Why is the family going to the kitchen after it's been made very clear that Kym and Dad want to have a private conversation? Why is the meek Sidney suddenly Mr. Macho, taunting his father-in-law? Why is the kid's plate still mixed in with the regular plates if it's going to upset the father so much? There's only one reason: to artificially provoke the kind of volatile show-offy situation modern Hollywood mistakes for drama. Rinse, repeat ad nauseam, as Rachel Getting Married staggers from one contrivance to the next.

Perhaps the biggest fraud of all is the reason behind Kym's self-destructiveness: high on percocets when she was 16, she was responsible for the death of the aforementioned younger brother. The death of a child is the kind of unimpeachable backstory Hollywood hacks love because it creates viewer empathy for a character out of thin air. In this case, it's even cheaper than cheap because it isn't even the reason for Kym being the way she is now: the film doesn't address why she was high on percocets to begin with.

As for the wedding itself, you just want to slap everybody involved. So many trite irritants, like, Why does it have an Indian theme when neither of the families seems to have a connection to India? Watching the endless parade of musical guests felt like sitting through an entire year of Joe's Pub programming in 30 minutes. (The one moment that rings true in the movie is when the idiots constantly playing the lute and the violin are asked if they could just stop for a fricking minute.) The film would have been at least bearable if Jonathan Demme had mocked earnestly multi-culti upper-middle-class celebrations. But no.

The end of irony

Two show recommendations for the holidays: Druid Theatre's production of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Atlantic and Keen Company's production of Beasley's Christmas Party, based on a Booth Tarkington story, at the Acorn.

About Inishmaan, the TONY review isn't out yet so I'll only say that McDonagh's storytelling sense is absolutely crackling, director Garry Hynes continues to impress, and the ensemble on the Atlantic stage (mostly imported from the Galway production) is one of the finest you can see in New York right now. Special mention to Kerry Conlon, whose rambunctious Helen is often hilarious, but also quite poignant in her final scenes.

I tend to enjoy Keen shows for the same reason I enjoy Mint shows: While the big nonprofits are perfectly happy doing Hedda Gabler or The Seagull for the umpteenth time, these two scrappy companies excavate long-forgotten plays and put them up in productions ranging from honorable to topnotch. Beasley's Christmas Party fits the end of the company's mission statement, which reads "Keen Company seeks to create a culture of artists, technicians, administrators and audiences who share a desire to invigorate the theater with productions that connect us through humor, heart and hope." Beasley's has all three elements in spades. It's a small (three actors), compact (70 minutes) show, yet it wonderfully upholds the old tradition of theater as storytelling. The cynic among us would call it quaint; I'd rather call it timeless.

By the way, if you only pay attention to the byline of the Times' chief drama critic, Ben Brantley, you won't know companies such as Mint and Keen are working here, or that the downtown stage is alive and well. His top ten continues to make a preposterous amalgam between New York theater and Broadway, as if one was synonymous with the other. There are only two non-Broadway shows on his list, Blasted and Hair, and the latter is actually scheduled to transfer to Broadway in 2009.

Broadway babes

I'm getting a little excited about Sutton Foster in Shrek the Musical over at the Sunday Arts blog.

And speaking of Broadway dames, the Sheila perfectly executed one of her typically ambitious home-decorating ideas yesterday: She decided to honor two of our favorite belters on our Christmas tree, so she found various photos of Patti LuPone and Leslie Kritzer on the internet, cut them out in medallion shapes and affixed them to our silver baubles. Now our tree is adorned with several of them, in between ornaments of the Rockettes kicking their heels. We are not ashamed of our love for the musical theater here in Park Slope.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Pop Club returns

Did you miss us? The Pop Club is back for another chat about current singles on the Time Out New York site. This time around, we scrutinize new songs by M.I.A. and A.R. Rahman, Eve and Lady GaGa.

We're at the tail end of a lovely snow storm here in New York. I have the luxury to find it lovely because I'm not stuck in an airport and only have to travel a few blocks south to see The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Atlantic Theater tonight.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A little sucking action

A couple of nights ago, I went down to Sunset Park to attend the NY premiere of G.B. Jones's 13-year-in-the-making epic, The Lollipop Generation, at Light Industry. In more ways than one, it was like watching a home movie made up of vacation footage pieced together: Most of it was shot in Super 8mm and because filming was done over several years, the appearance of some of the actors changes rather visibly. But it also fulfilled the memory-triggering role of a home movie, transporting me back to the heady days of homocore, the queer-punk movement that briefly lit up the fringes in the early to mid-’90s.

I still have my Fifth Column albums, and when the time came to part with my zine collection (there's only so much space in a New York apartment), I couldn't bring myself to part with two masterpieces Jones and her star Jena von Brucker were closely involved with, J.D.s and Double Bill. I still love the way they obsessed over pop culture and rock with self-knowing rage (Double Bill was about how William Conrad is cool and William Burroughs is evil!) and the way they spat out venom at the assimilationist mainstream gay movement. Now that the gays are all rallying behind marriage (to be clear: I want all those rights but I'm perfectly fine if they're gathered under the secular umbrella of "domestic partnership" or something), this feels so…refreshing.

Track listing

Time Out New York has just published its year-end lists and I contributed my top ten favorite songs of 2008. Scroll down the link for my tunes, which you can stream as well. When I have some time (ie, over the weekend), I'll post additional tracks here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Let down by Liza Minnelli

Liza Minnelli's show at the Palace has been hailed with a storm of overheated praise but two voices have dared to say it's not all that. One is my colleague Adam Feldman in TONY ("Most of the show is not like watching a car crash, as some have feared; it is more like watching traffic") and the other is John Lahr at The New Yorker. Lahr had more wordage at his disposal than Adam and he was able to zero in on some of the aspects that bugged me the most about the evening: Minnelli's egotistical manipulations.
"She is all chutzpah and calculation. Although she has vast amounts of energy and an overwhelming desire to please, she has, strange to say, very little sense of fun. Instead of taking you on a journey with her renditions, she continually brings you back to her, to the legend of her collapse—the divorces, the drinking, the depressions—and to her theatrical pedigree, which includes her godparents, Ira Gershwin and Kay Thompson, who more or less take care of the second act. (…) In one song, written especially for the show, Minnelli promises her audience, “I would never leave you”—a truly terrifying piece of show-biz flimflammery. In fact, what she means to say is the opposite: Please, don’t leave me."
I felt like a Grinch at the Palace considering the Sheila, sitting next to me, was enjoying herself. But there it is: I was bored out of my skull by Liza's frantic neediness, her attempts at being coy (playing her breathlessness and need to rest for a joke when in fact she was breathless and needed to rest) and her often misguided choices—you don't attempt a song as fast and loaded with rhyming puns as Comden & Green's "If You Hadn't (But You Did)" ("If I had not seen you pen sexy letters to Gwen in your own hieroglyph/If you had not left me home when you had two seats for South Pacif") when your diction and breathing aren't up to snuff.

The Sheila remarked that I'm uneasy with older women on stage, which isn't true at all—I'd gladly pay to see Marian Seldes or Angela Lansbury read the phone book. What I'm uneasy with is the misguidedness of Minnelli's show (it's way too big for her current vocal abilities), her constant reminders of where she came from (few outside of the Kennedy family have so shamelessly milked their bloodlines) and the morbid sycophancy of her fans, for whom the fact that Liza isn't keeling over on stage is enough to warrant a standing o. Fine then, I am a Grinch!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cristina forever

How could I forget? My interview with Boss Hog's Cristina Martinez is in the current issue of Time Out New York. The show itself is on Wednesday and you have tickets, right? Right?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Wild-cat watch

Poor Sheila: She's been hit by a nasty lung infection and this weekend had to miss a pair of shows starring some favorite stage dames—Shrek the Musical with Sutton Foster as Princess Fiona and Pal Joey with Stockard Channing as Vera Simpson.

I won't give my take on them until the Time Out New York reviews hit the stand, but here's one thing: How many critics will use the word "cougar" in their review of Pal Joey? Stockard is 64 and her love interest in the show is played by Matthew Risch, 27. (Risch replaced Christian Hoff, 40, in previews.) One of the reasons I love the theater is that it's a lot more hospitable to women, particularly older women, than film or television, and you frequently see couples in which the woman is older than the man even if it's not in the script; in the case of Pal Joey, however, the age difference is an integral part of the story.

I was lucky to catch the Encores! production of the show in 1995. Vera Simpson was played by Patti LuPone (then 46) and Joey Evans was played by Peter Gallagher (then 39). Clearly the dynamic between Joey and Mrs. Simpson was very different from the one in the current revival—partly because the age gap was lesser, but because of specific acting choices as well. For now I'll just say that the new take on the relationship feels less daring than the 1995 one to me.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Sweet on Hugh

Hugh Jackman is hosting the Oscars! Yay! I hope this means the producers will finally bring back the musical numbers that have been sorely missed in recent years. What better way to celebrate the infamous Snow White Debacle of 1989 than have Hugh let loose in a huge floor show? It would be the 20th anniversary, too. You cannot call yourself a lover of Tinseltown flakery if you haven't seen this magnificent disaster, which I believe was choreographed by Debbie Allen.

Hugh did a fantastic job hosting the Tonys, but then Tony is a lot looser than Oscar when it comes to swishing. "Dancing makes studio executives really, really nervous…" Omigod, I just adore him!!!

Taking it to the web

Staff, artists and fans of a particularly embattled NYC institution have launched a new website, I Am City Opera. Check it out: It's a wonderful grassroots effort tocounter all the bad karma that's been swirling around the place in the past few months—and I freely admit I got a little choked up.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rating the rating

The best part of A.O. Scott's review of Wendy and Lucy in today's Times isn't technically part of the review. It's the note about the rating tagged at the end, and it reads like this:

“Wendy and Lucy” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has some swearing, a little drug use and a brief implication of violence, but no nudity, sex or murder. The rating seems to reflect, above all, an impulse to protect children from learning that people are lonely and that life can be hard.


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Their Hit Parade

Sunday night I caught a show that reminded me of why I live in New York. Oh I know, there are many good reasons to live here, but once in a while you see something that's so demented, so unpredictable, so plain fun that it just nails you to your seat. And on Sunday, it was the beta-testing of Our Hit Parade, a new revue orchestrated by the brain trust of Kenny Mellman, Bridget Everett and Neal Medlyn at the Zipper, with the goal of making it a monthly event in ’09.

The concept is deadly simple and deadly great: A bunch of downtown performers go through the Top Ten hits of the moment. Actually, they took some liberties because Amy Winehouse's "Valerie" and Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" are a little old by now, and I'm pretty sure Riskay's "Smell Yo Dick" didn't make it to the Top 1,000. But whatevs: the general idea is sound, and the execution was nothing short of awesome.

Let's get the dud—yes, there was only one, which is a pretty amazing batting average by any standard—out of the way first. Jonny "the Gay Pimp" McGovern's rewrite of Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" bombed. Changing the lyrics is cheating, and if you're going to do it anyway, you'd better be funny—and the Gay Pimp just wasn't. Next!

It's hard to beat Everett for sheer audacity. Everytime I think "Oh no she won't," she just does. Is there anything this woman is afraid to do to a song and to an audience? Off went the clothes, because it's so much more comfortable to sing in a bra and thong, especially when you're going on and on about coming home at 5am and sniffing something funky (see ref. to Riskay above). And especially when you're doing it while thrusting your crotch in the face of a guy sitting in the front row. At another point, Everett orchestrated a giveaway in which audience members won CDs by eating candy up from her tongue and then from her self-described cooch.

It's worth mentioning that a few minutes earlier, said candy had been strung together to form a jolly penis pouch for Neal Medlyn, his stage attire for his performance of Miley Cyrus's "Wake Up America." I guess that's what the fearless candy-eaters were smelling, as Riskay would say. Medlyn is so comfortable being nude—or just wearing candy—on stage that he looks weird in a suit.

My shortcomings in the dancing department (even, sadly, chair-dancing) were glaringly obvious during the Varsity Interpretive Dance Squad's genius take on Estelle's "American Boy." They drilled the entire crowd through the interpretive routine we would do during the chorus and while it was pretty basic, I have no muscle memory and could not remember the sequence—being distracted by the VIDS' own moves on stage didn't help either. With my pathetic exception, however, the entire audience rose to the challenge.

Another highlight was Molly Pope's saucy cover of "I Kissed a Girl." The deceivingly demure-looking Pope has real pipes (check out the videos on her site) but she also knows how to interpret a song. She completely reinvented the meaning behind Katy Perry's words without changing them (note to Gay Pimp: that's how it's done), turning an exploitative ditty into a carefree, sexy awakening.

It may have been freezing cold outside, but at the Zipper, we were all basking in the warmth of entertainment magic.

Welcome to the Pop Club

I'd been waiting to do a singles panel for a long time and the time has finally come.

Head over to the TONY blog for the debut of the Pop Club, in which I discuss new tunes with fellow scribes Jimmy Draper and Kurt B. Reighley. That Google Talk thingie sure is fun…

Friday, December 05, 2008

Opening Night at BAM

There's only two performances left of Opening Night at the BAM Harvey, so get rolling: This is a must-see if you like smart theater.

I went because Ivo van Hove is one of my two or three favorite directors at this point, not because I'm a particularly big fan of the source material, John Cassavetes's 1977 movie of the same name. I'd rented it a couple of years ago when going through a Gena Rowlands phase and was bored out of my mind—quite an achievement because on paper the film is right up my alley, ie, it's about a theater actress and a struggling show. I'm starting to think Cassavetes's tic-laden oeuvre may be one of the most overrated in the history of film; he's certainly a director who's created a thousand monsters (his influence on the worst aspects of modern French cinema cannot be understated), though admittedly he can hardly be blamed for that.

Anyway, not having liked the movie, I quite enjoyed this Dutch-language stage version, particularly the ending, which I found incredibly affecting.

Van Hove's main conceptual device is the use of a live video feed, so you watch some of the action on a large screen. When there was a scene between two characters, for instance, you could watch it in HD closeup (and those shots were often formally superb) or you could watch the live actors on stage. Following the advice of my colleague Helen Shaw, I deliberately focused on the stage rather than the screen, though I have to admit it was hard not to lapse—clearly part of a taunting game Van Hove played with the audience. (References to the Wooster Group have been bandied around but they're off-base to me. Just because someone uses video on stage doesn't mean they can be compared to the Wooster Group; the means and intents are very different here.) Opening Night is so formally and conceptually rich that I don't have the time to go into details here; for what it's worth, I highly recommend experiencing it for yourself.

Other than Van Hove's command of the theatrical space, you need to go to BAM to see his troupe. As we know from his collaborations with our own Elizabeth Marvel, the man gets unbelievable performances out of his actors. He makes them go from zero to 60 in a single scene, and in a hybrid style that's halfway between naturalistic and stylized. Special mention to Elsie de Brauw in the Rowlands part. It's always incredibly exciting to discover a true stage animal, an actor with such a vibrant presence that your eyes are on her even when she's not doing or saying anything. Of course it's a discovery for us here since De Brauw is well known in the Netherlands. To think of all the extraordinary stage actors we never get to see in New York…

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Lena Philipsson again and again

I realize that not only have I been slacking on the posting front, but I'm doing two (almost) in a row about Lena Philipsson. Deal with it: we're lucky to live in Lena's world.

The news this time is that yesterday the Dilettante's Special Stockholm Correspondent actually saw Lena + Orup (as it is billed), and he even snapped some photos. I'm putting up my favorite: Lena sang "Det gör ont" in a nurse's uniform that somehow involved a micro-skirt (hot pants on the backup singers). Oh I just love her so much!

Apparently there were several costume changes, a karaoke segment involving two Japanese men (genius!), and Lena and Orup even signed CDs afterwards. According to the DSSC, the evening was "a curious mix of power pop, rockabilly, state-of-the-art schlager, acoustic ballads and karaoke. But it worked!"

And where was I while all this fabulousness was unfolding? At a little cutting-edge pageant called White Christmas—or rather Irving Berlin's White Christmas on Broadway. It actually was a pleasant surprise, which sometimes happens when you go in with very low expectations. As far as seasonal shows go, this one is pretty fun. First, you always have Irving Berlin tunes to fall back on. Second, the cast is made up of amiable pros who may lack that extra little something that sets the star apart from the journeyman, but they seemed to have fun—and that goes a long way with me. Third: Susan Mansur, the kind of scenery-chewing comic second banana I adore. Fourth: lots of tapping. Randy Skinner isn't the most creative choreographer, but he sure loves those ensemble numbers with hoofers going at it full force, and I happily respond to them in a Pavlovian manner.

Proposition 8, the Musical

It had to happen: Marc Shaiman, of Hairspray's fame, has put together a three-minute musical about Proposition 8. It's got a starry cast, references to sodomy and shrimp cocktails, and jaunty tunes. I don't ask for much more from musicals.